The Glint of Light
“Truth can be distorted, limited, irrelevant, meaningless. Truth can be false.”
A s the Fluela Hotel’s New Year’s Eve gala celebration began to swing—I mostly avoided it, though near midnight did catch the Swiss bandleader’s tuneless rendition of Kool and the Gang’s ubiquitous anthem; feel free to sing along: “Celebration
[sic] time/Come on!”—Brooklyn, buried in snow, six hours behind, beckoned, and I considered the year, the years, to come.
What do I want for SchoolLess and SmallerMan in the future? I answer without hesitation: I want them to be happy. I like this answer: it feels both intellectually and emotionally right, what I should and do feel. If only it were so simple. Wanting, hoping, expectation, it’s all a long way from having; there’s luck (good and bad) involved, probabilities, and unforeseen circumstances. I’ve read Freud and Daniel Gilbert and Shakespeare—I’m 43 years old!—I understand that the pursuit of happiness may be futile.
We adjust our expectations as we age. I no longer expect to play second base for the Red Sox. I have not maintained a romantic interest in Bo Derek. (Nicole Krauss is another story–just kidding, honey.)
Of our children, we expect too little or too much, nobody ever gets the balance just right. My sense is that Skeptic and I have erred high, but you might want to check with SchoolLess and SmallerMan, perhaps in some thirty years, when they’ll be as old as—and, I hope, wiser than—I am now.
I intend to be open to most, if not all, possible paths my boys may take in life. I expect SchoolLess and SmallerMan to go to college. Music conservatory, Hampshire a good fit, small pond or big, California here I come, I’ll offer my two cents, but I’m not married to any particular school. Nor are there particular careers that I would steer them toward or away from, though I might point out that I know a lot of unhappy lawyers and that the academic schedule has its advantages. Gay or straight, coupled or otherwise, parent or childless, rich or poor, near or far, I will do my best to be disappointed only to the extent that they are.
I want my boys to be confident and directed but not exceedingly so, to develop their own vision of a future, not in a vacuum but in the context of their world: family and friends; peers and teachers; novels and dreams; ideas, the news, the beautiful, and the damned. And, always, to beware the expectations imposed by others: you live them, you own them.
SchoolLess set a goal of reading twelve books by Christmas but fell short. Was setting a quantitative goal a mistake? Should the quantity have been more attainable? More flexible? Is it better to set and meet reasonable goals? Or is it better to set, but perhaps not meet, ambitious ones? I don’t know.
In Catch-22, Yossarian’s commanding officers are ever increasing the number of bombing missions required for discharge. He will never get where he wants to be. We live in a world in which rather than increasing efficiency transit authorities manipulate route schedules (if only Mussolini had thought of that) and, magically, what was late yesterday is now right on time! “People are crazy,” my Nana Ruth used to say, “except for you and me.” She would pause, and then, straight-faced, add, “And I’m not so sure about you.”
In college, during one of my at-loose-ends holiday visits home, I thumbed across an article in Parade Magazine offering tips for dealing with family-induced holiday stress. The piece of advice that stuck with me—it made me laugh out loud—went something like this: “Adjust your expectations.” In other words, the dynamics are static. The onus is on you to be more creative about how you understand the facts on the ground. As my father-in-law likes to say, his end-of-discussion-time-for-a-drink line: “It is what it is.” That’s a damn taut tautology, but “shit happens”—another Grandpa Steve favorite—and so I say, que sera, sera .
Nana Ruth’s version of all this: “It could always be worse.”
As a non-skier, this recent family vacation was not my cup of tea. Despite some measure of vicarious pleasure in the delight of Skeptic and the boys—enthusiastic skiers all—I am relieved that it’s over, though feeling a gnawing sadness. Perhaps it’s because I did not accomplish what I hoped to while here—didn’t read enough, didn’t write enough—but mostly it has to do with feeling that my boys, in particular SchoolLess, did not have enough fun. He is not fully comfortable with the hedonistic life style—ski, spa, eat, drink, sleep—can’t fully embrace or rationalize it; but he is so free and joyful on the slopes, and savors the company of his cousins. Then, blink, it’s over, and he’s back to the real world: “school,” instruments, routine.
I am saddened by my son’s sadness, concerned about his self-doubt, but heartened by his self-awareness. His life is a harmonious melody but there’s a slightly dissonant undertone of mysterious origin.
I felt judged, at various times during the week, by my wife and in-laws—for not skiing, for not wearing a coat and tie to dinner, for my unwillingness to feign happiness, for being an overly attached parent, for the home schooling. To what extent were these judgments about me and my issues, and to what extent were they about them and theirs?
To be fair, it’s not as if I was not judging them, as, according to Skeptic, my dour demeanor made all too clear.
I did get a kick out of observing my numerous nieces and nephews, most of them older than my boys (the oldest, a fan of this blog, is 23). They are good kids, there’s much to emulate, but there are cautionary tales to be told. The next generation has been blessed—some more, some less—with financial resources, emotional stability, innate intelligence, and educational opportunity, but there are certain differences, nature and nurture, choices that I hope will lead my boys to a different and better place.
I want more for my boys. I want more wonder, more reflection, more nuance. I want less “I know the answer” and more “here’s a better question.” I want less “what can others do for me” and more “what can I do.” I want them to see more than others see.
And, yes, I understand that in asserting some sort of superiority—not that I’m the only one—I may be setting myself up for a humbling.
We live in a self-congratulatory society, drunk on a toxic cocktail of praise and blame, and so it should come as no surprise when folks stumble blindly into the wall, the morass, the abyss. As somebody who will never run for public office, I can safely say, when it comes to cultural hegemony, public policy, or parenting: chickens come home to roost. Isn’t acknowledging that what responsibility is all about? Disassociating from our failures is dissociating from our true selves, something that never plays well in the long run (see: Freud, Gilbert, Shakespeare; and also: all the holy books, and the myths as well).
If my boys want to join the mainstream—and it’s not exactly as if I haven’t—I’m fine with that, as long as they know they’ve made a conscious choice, one with expected and unexpected consequences.
My Chomsky-esque (Skeptic’s simultaneously complimentary and pejorative characterization of my dissident soul) aversion to accepting truth at face value is something that I hope rubs off on my boys. Truth can be distorted, limited, irrelevant, meaningless. Truth can be false.
Chekhov once wrote, in a letter to his brother (the translation may be overly aphoristic), “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” Too often all that kids are taught—by parents, by peers, by teachers, by culture—is that “the moon is shining.” And it surely is. But I also want SchoolLess and SmallerMan to see—I’m doing my best to show it to them—“the glint of light on broken glass.”
We must, absolutely, change our expectations. What is, is; what will be, will be; but we must resolve, between is and will be, to fight for the future we desire. The moon is the truth but it’s not the whole truth.
I want and expect my boys to seek the whole truth, if that’s not asking too much.
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