Sunday, July 26, 2009

Illusions of Control

I like to be in control. I rarely am, mind you; but I like to feel like I've got things taken care of. Don't get me wrong. I'm not a control freak. It's not essential to me that I be in charge of every event, call all the shots when involved in a group activity, or even be the main planner of a family outing. In fact, after a week of running my business, paying bills, playing with the kids, dealing with unforeseen problems, and managing finances, I'm more than happy to have a seat, drink a beer, talk to a buddy, and let someone else be the boss.

When I speak of the need to control, I'm speaking more of the everyday things most dads are concerned about. As fathers, we tend to carry a great deal of pressure on our shoulders. Our minds are always occupied with something of importance. Moms, without question, are under the gun too. But their concerns are often different. Moms tend to worry about whether or not the kids are eating right, did they finish their homework, is the house clean enough to avoid investigation by the CDC, and will there actually be enough time to hit the drive-thru at Chic-Fil-A so as to provide life-sustaining sustenance for the children somewhere between swim lessons and gymnastics.

As a dad, my concerns tend to lie elsewhere. I'm not overly concerned about the kids' menu. I love my kids, of course, and I care about their health. But I also feel like God made frozen dinners for a reason. I'm not a label reader. If it's on the store shelf, I figure the FDA must have given it the go ahead. I suppose I shouldn't be too quick to trust my children's well-being to the same government that gave us toys with lead-based paint from China, mad-cow disease, and poisoned peanut butter, but heck, nobody's perfect.

I'm more occupied with questions like How are we going to get all the bills paid? Am I saving enough money? How can I invest more wisely? What if my business doesn't generate enough income this month? Are we making the right decisions regarding the kids' educations? Will my daughter grow up to be president or a pole dancer? These are the worries that can so easily dog a father. We shouldn't let them weigh on us, but they often do. We love our families, we want to feel like we are being providers. We want to know that we are taking care of our wife (even if she works and makes more money than us). We want to know that we are giving our kids everything they need. In short, we strive to provide security. We long to be a shield between our family and the pitfalls of a difficult and insecure world. Even if the walls are cracking and appear that they could crumble at any time, we don't want our little ones to have a clue. We just want them to be kids. We want them to run, play, pretend, and learn to argue over who got to the swing first without anybody kicking anyone else, hitting someone, or throwing a toy, a stick, or the neighbor's wiener dog (sorry, Paul).

The irony is that, if we allow our hearts and minds to be burdened by all the insecurities that the present and/or future hold, we fathers can find ourselves failing the very people we long to take care of. If we aren't careful, financial concerns, family worries, stresses at work, etc. can occupy our thoughts, steal our attention, and conquer our emotions. Our kids don't really care how much money we make or whether or not we got a promotion, they just want our full attention for a game of baseball in the backyard or a pillow fight before bed. Our children don't need to know how tight the bills are (unless you have a teenager with a cell phone), they just need dad to laugh with them, tickle them, pray with them, and read them a bedtime story.

Of all the challenges we face as fathers, one of the toughest is successfully disengaging our thoughts from the concerns we have so that the expressions on our faces, the tones of our voices, and the sincerity in our words communicate to our children that there is nothing more important to dad than them. Kids don't need designer clothes, the latest video game, or the biggest house. They just need to feel like when dad is with them that he's REALLY with them--not thinking about a big deal at work or mathematically trying to work out payment plans in his head as he mindlessly pushes his three-year-old on a swing.

Even when times are good, we dads can let worries intrude. If you have enough money this month, you worry about next month. If the kids are healthy today, you worry about how they'll be tomorrow. If your savings are growing and investments are doing well, you worry about what could happen to the stock market, real estate, the banks. If positive things are happening at work, you occasionally think about what would happen if you lost your job. The worries are always there for the taking. There's always a load to pick up and carry. And, as much as we don't want to, we often can't resist grabbing a few sacks and throwing them on our backs (backs that were meant for more important things, like piggy-back rides).

So what do we do? How do we continue to take seriously the role we have as fathers and caretakers of our families, without succumbing to the anxiety, stress, and ill-temperament that often accompany life's challenges? I think that we must recognize two very important things. First, we have to realize that, many times, CONTROL IS AN ILLUSION. Certainly, we control some things. We control our decisions. We control how we choose to respond to situations and circumstances. We choose our priorities, how we treat people, what behaviors we choose to engage in, whether or not to be men of integrity, and whether or not to put our faith in God or our own efforts and abilities. The problem is, we often make the mistake of spending much of our energy worrying about things we can't control while neglecting the things that we can. We worry about whether or not we have enough money, but even the best laid financial plans are ultimately at the mercy of the economy, an employer, the stock market, the price of real estate, and a government that changes tax laws and regulations at the whim of whatever political constituency is yielding the most clout during a given election year. We worry about our kids, but beyond our best efforts to love them, teach them, and meet their needs, their health and ultimate well-being will be out of our hands (just ask a parent who's had to watch their daughter cry over a broken heart, seen their son devastated by the news that he didn't make the team, or--God forbid--endured the heartache of watching their little boy or girl battle a life-threatening illness).

Most of the time, even when we feel like we are in control, it's a lie. Even when we feel like we are on solid ground financially, our family is healthy and happy, and the stars are aligned in our favor, we are still skating on a thin sheet of ice. Jobs are lost in a day. Stock markets crash. Real estate markets plummet. Businesses fail despite our best efforts. One visit to the doctor can yield news that totally changes your life. Trying to control everything is like trying to chase bubbles with my kids in the backyard. You run as fast as you can to get there, only to find that when you try to grab it, the bubble pops, leaving nothing in your hand. To keep "chasing bubbles" is to set yourself up for a life of stress and worry. You will never actually have the things you are fighting for. Even when you feel like you've got it, some circumstance will arise to blow the illusion out of the water and bring you back to the reality that certain things are simply beyond your realm of control.

Second, I think we have to recognize the boundary between being responsible and being in control. As I said, there are some things we can control. We can control our actions. We can control our responses to the things that happen in our life. BEING RESPONSIBLE is about recognizing what we can control and doing what we need to. I can't control what the economy will do. I can be responsible and live within my means, save what I can, make the best investments and decisions I can based on solid advice and reasoning. I can't control all the decisions my kids will make. I can be responsible and spend time with them, mentor them, love them unconditionally, and be the person I long for them to be. I can't control how my wife treats me, talks to me, sees me. I can control how I treat her, talk to her, and whether or not I will put her needs before my own. The big difference between striving to be responsible and grasping for control? Being responsible is about decisions. Being in control is about outcomes. We have to accept it, dads: We can't control outcomes; we only control our own decisions that we hope will result in certain outcomes.

The answer, then, is to figure out what we realistically can control, then do the responsible thing. Many times, things will go well. Sometimes, disasters and tragedies will arise despite our best responsible efforts. But that is where understanding the distinction between responsibility and control becomes so important. The man (or woman) who sees the boundary and respects it, can still find the peace that comes with knowing they did their part. They acted with integrity. They used the knowledge and means at their disposal and did what any reasonable, caring person would have done. Perhaps that's the key to finding the peace we long for as human beings. It's like the old prayer: "God, give me the courage to change the things I can, the faith to accept the things I can't, and the wisdom to know the difference." Let go of the illusion. Embrace the fact that there are things in your life that you simply can't control. Be responsible, but let go. Know that it is enough to do your part, and enjoy the freedom that comes with surrendering to life's "uncontrollables." Refuse to shoulder the burden of outcomes you can't predetermine. Drop that sack of worry and anxiety and free up your weary back. There's a little one right beside you who's been waiting patiently for that piggy-back ride.

Just a Heads Up! There will be no new Dadlosophy next week. Look for my next post on Monday, August 10, by 10am. -- Kindred

Sunday, July 19, 2009

I Want My Daddy Rights!

A couple of months ago, President Barack Obama authorized the release of formerly classified information. It revealed methods used by U.S. interrogators to question suspected terrorists held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Members of Obama's administration, certain leaders in Congress, and many members of the media and public have described some of the actions used by these interrogators as torture. Included in this list of "atrocities" are methods such as sleep deprivation (not allowing suspected terrorists to get a good night's rest), constant exposure to loud noises, relentless questioning without breaks, and a denial of freedoms critics claim violate prisoners' constitutional rights. As I listened to the president and others condemn the use of such "un-American" methods, the ugly reality suddenly hit me: My children are guilty of torture! Sound ridiculous? Not really. Let's break it down according to the Obama administration's standard:

1. Sleep Deprivation:
Of my three kids, only my oldest can read. Yet, somehow, all three collaborated to write the book on sleep deprivation. When you have young children, you live your entire life in a haze of exhaustion. Sleep becomes almost as rare as an intelligent political opinion out of Hollywood. There’s always a diaper to change, a nose to wipe, a catastrophe to attend to, or a spill to clean up. You get the older kids naked for bath time, then, as soon as you turn your back to attend to the baby, they disappear out the bathroom door. You stop what you’re doing and chase them into the bedroom, only to be greeted by the sight of tiny butts and testicles flopping about in a pile of your previously clean laundry. Then there are meal times, story times, prayer times…all good stuff, but stuff that takes energy. Parental naps are experienced slightly less often than sitings of the Loch Ness Monster. Meanwhile, nighttime slumbers are usually interrupted by a screaming infant, a three-year-old's nightmare, a six-year-old's "need" for a cup of water, or a little Howard climbing into bed and wedging him or herself between Mom and Dad. Even if you're not initially awakened by the tiny intruder, you inevitably open your eyes around three in the morning to find your child's sleeping body lying perpendicular to yours. He or she takes up the whole mattress except for the foot and a half they've left for you and your spouse along the very edges of the bed. Unable to turn over without falling off or crushing the child, you lie there on one side, attempting to steal a few more Zs while trying to keep your teetering body from falling to the toy and cracker infested floor below. Then, after finally reaching a place of deep sleep, you're awakened moments later by rambunctious little people who are shaking you and chanting, "We want waffles! We want waffles!..."

Just like the prisoners at Guantanamo, you find yourself worn down by the lack of sleep. The only difference is that suspected terrorists can, at least, give up information that will bring an end to the suffering. With small kids, there’s nothing you can do. I’m more than ready to tell them anything they want to know, but the horrible reality is that they don’t want anything except more of my time and energy. They just keep wanting, needing, demanding. They don't care that Daddy is just one more sleepless night away from running down the street naked and yelling at the top of his lungs "I’m Batman!"

2. Loud Noises:
Likewise, the Obama faithful have stated that pumping loud music and other sounds into suspected terrorists' cells to help obtain information is also "torture." If this is true, then, once again, I must turn in my own kids. I especially feel compelled to turn them in given that I'm clearly the one they are torturing. You think its cruel to crank up a little Aerosmith or AC/DC? Try driving six hours in a minivan while your six-year-old continually hits repeat on the Hannah Montana CD. Talk about being ready to spill your guts. Now I know why spies carry cyanide capsules in case they're ever captured. Or how about the joy of driving around town while some mysterious, noise-making toy lost in the dark corners of your vehicle plays "Pop Goes the Weasel" every time you turn left. Then there's the singing Elmo your two-year-old can't get enough of, the sound metal spoons make when pounded against a table, and the Little Musicians drumset the kids' sadistic uncle gave them in an effort to get even with you for all the times you bugged him as a kid. And those are just the artificially produced noises. We haven't even discussed the cries, whines, screams, tantrums, and continual shouts of "Mine! Mine! Mine!" that consistently ring through my cell (oops, I mean house).

Obama calls cranked up rock music torture. I call it escaping for a few hours in my car. If the government really wants to prevent another terrorist attack, all they need to do is give a group of two-year-olds some silverware, a hard surface, a few singing toys, and a play area in one of their interrogation rooms. Trust me, if their prisoner isn't giving up the details to some planned attack within twenty minutes, he doesn't know anything.

3. Relentless Questioning:
Finally, there is the issue of relentless questioning. Once again, certain leaders and citizens seem very concerned about the way suspected terrorists are questioned. Many are worried that continual questions for hours on end without proper rest or a break could cause psychological damage. Well, let me put all doubts to rest and assure you that it most assuredly causes psychological damage! I know this because--you guessed it--I am a victim. As a parent, you are constantly hit with a barrage of questions, only a handful of which you have any idea how to answer. "Daddy, what are you doing?... Why are you doing that?... Can I have a cookie for breakfast?... Why can't I have a cookie for breakfast?... Daddy, who makes cookies?... How come they don't make any cookies for breakfast?... Daddy, can I have some milk?... Daddy, can I have some more milk?... Daddy, how come you said a bad word when you spilled the milk?... Daddy, how can Big Bird talk?... Can he fly?... Why do boys have penises?... Does Big Bird have a penis?... Daddy, are we almost there?... Are we almost there now?... How about now?... How about now?... How about now?..." After a few hours of such questioning, your brain has been turned to mush. Your ability to think or engage in rational thought has been totally depleted. Once able to discuss and analyze situations, you're reduced to a babbling, drooling, and thoroughly confused shell of the man you once were. Now, phrases like, "Because I said so," and "Go ask your mother," are the only intelligible words you can utter. Are such methods too cruel for Gitmo? Obama thinks so. All I know is, I've been subjected to such interrogations for years and I've never plotted to blow up anything.

The evidence is irrefutable. I rest my case. On behalf of fathers (and mothers) everywhere, I hereby call on the federal government to provide relief! Clearly, under the Obama administration's definition of torture, we, as American parents, have had our civil rights trampled on. How can it be said that we have freedom of speech when we can't hear what we're saying above the screams, yells, and chaos within our own homes. Who can claim that we have been given due process when little people within our own families have taken simple freedoms from us like sleeping when we want, working when we want, or going out for a quiet dinner when we want? And don't even get me started on the whole "cruel and unusual punishment" thing. What have we done to deserve facing the odor of our diaper-wearing toddlers first thing in the morning (a.k.a. the gas chamber) or the torture of trying to install car seats on a ninety degree day? I believe I speak for all fathers when I say: WE WANT OUR DADDY RIGHTS! If people suspected of plotting to kill innocent civilians are entitled to sleep, consideration, and a number of other creature comforts, then, certainly, millions of law-abiding parents must be.

So the next time you hear Nancy Pelosi or some other so-called "leader" or political pinhead crying a river over the "violation of rights" at Gitmo, take a moment to think about it. We, after all, are fathers and mothers. We endure sleep deprivation, noise, questions, and sacrifice our freedoms for the people that we love more than anything in the world. Torture? I think not. So give me a break, Mr. President. I only hope that our current government's willingness to protect the "rights" of the people who would hurt my children doesn't interfere with my rights and responsibilities to protect them.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

The Daddy Baton

This past Fourth of July, I pulled a brave, if not insane, move. I voluntarily took all three kids on a six-hour road trip to visit my parents in North Carolina. Meanwhile, my wife, Meredith, stayed behind to take a few days to herself and get some projects done around the house. Fortunately, Meredith did help us pack. In fact, I believe she set a new world's record for speed loading a minivan. Carrying bag after bag from the house to our vehicle, she looked like a DVD on fast forward. The last time a woman in Atlanta loaded up her family's belongings that quickly, a general by the name of Sherman was right behind her yelling, "Burn it!" When the kids and I finally departed, we looked back to see Meredith waving from the open front door of our house, her face beaming with a look of jubilant liberation not seen since the fall of the Berlin Wall. As we headed over the crest of the hill, I'm pretty sure I heard KC and the Sunshine Band's "That's the Way (uh huh, uh huh), I Like It (uh huh, uh huh)" cranking from the CD player inside our house.

The trip had all the little challenges one would expect. There were the occasional arguments over who had what toy first, who got the bag with the most pretzels in it, and so on. William pounded me with the same question--"Are we there yet"--at least a thousand times as we made our way up the interstate and along back roads. And, of course, there was the joy of bathroom stops. Trying to help a three-year-old go potty in a public restroom while attempting to keep a two-year-old from sticking his hands in places even bacteria won't go is quite an undertaking. It's a lot like trying to block out for a rebound in basketball. You find yourself shifting from side-to-side with your back to the smaller child--your body being the only thing between him and a toilet that hasn't been cleaned since Clinton was president. Simultaneously, you try to help the older child pee in something made for a six-foot adult. The younger child tries to counter your every move, toddling back and forth, looking for an opening to the commode he's determined to investigate. All the while, you try to lift your other little man the extra inch he needs so that his pee will actually fly over the side of the toilet rather than hitting the edge and splattering all over the three of you. And if all that didn't create a tranquil enough atmosphere, a trucker named J.R. is in the adjoining stall, releasing odors that make you wonder if, perhaps, you haven't just located Saddam Hussein's missing weapons of mass destruction.

Despite the bathroom wars, occasional whining, and the challenges of keeping three little ones corralled at a fast food restaurant, the trip actually went very well. Emerson, William, and Carson were well-behaved (typical kids, but well-behaved). My brother and sister were both visiting with their families, which meant that my parents had all three kids and all six grandchildren under one roof at the same time. We went hiking, inner-tubed on the river, rode four-wheelers, roasted marshmallows, and watched fireworks on the Fourth of July. All in all, it was a fun week.

While I was there, my dad gave me something interesting. It was a typed copy of originally hand-written journal entries recorded by his father in 1944. My grandfather wrote about his time in the army during World War II. He described much of the training he underwent as "hell." He wrote about how glad he was to see his wife and kids on leave. He described his time in England, just before D-day. Finally, he wrote about landing at Omaha Beach and the horrors he witnessed in combat as he and his brothers in arms fought their way through France. In a time I've only read about, under conditions I can't begin to imagine, my grandfather wrote:

"We were in enemy territory... we were pushing them (the Germans) back slowly all the time... they were taking awfully bad losses with horrible sights that we could see along the way. Sights too horrible to mention. Some were French civilians who were unable to leave their homes and towns in time... killed in the wreckage... It was an awful sight which I hope I never have to experience again... For several nights after I couldn't sleep, for I was still seeing those sights and fighting those horrible battles in my dreams. No one will ever be able to understand just how it is or how a fella feels... for it is too horrible to be understood... There were some terrible sights. My sympathy is with each and everyone on the front lines, for if they are on the front with any infantry division they are catching plenty of hell."

I never knew my grandfather; he died before my parents were even married. But as I sat quietly on my parent's couch late one night after everyone was in bed, reading these words, it made me think about what kind of man my grandfather must have been. What did the world look like to him and the other fathers of his generation? I cannot imagine what it must have been like to live through the things he saw in WWII. I have no idea how such an experience affects a person. I can't begin to appreciate the sacrifices my grandfather made. Not only did many of his generation cross oceans to fight wars on foreign soil, but prior to that they struggled through the Great Depression to feed, clothe, and house their families. They fought for their country, yes. But more than that, they fought for their families. It was, no doubt, my father and his siblings for whom my grandfather valiantly marched into battle. It was, I'm sure, my grandmother's face he saw during those rare times when the fighting ceased and he had a moment to remember why he was going through "hell." For all the times my grandfather wrote about the horrors and hardships of war, I've not seen where he wrote anything about regretting his decision to go. I guess that was because of what and who he was defending.

My father also gave me a box of old family photos he'd set aside for me. Many of them pictured me as a small child or my father as a young man. These, too, made me think. I thought about my own father and how much I'm growing to appreciate the challenges and concerns that, no doubt, dogged him from time to time as he worked and struggled (along with my mother) to provide our family with a loving and secure home. Now that I'm a dad, I can understand and appreciate all the things he did for us much more than I once did.

It's funny, when you're a little child (about the age of my kids) your dad is your hero for things that he's really not. You think he's invincible. You think he can beat up any other guy in the world. You think he's superhuman. As you get older, you come to realize that this simply isn't the case. But when you grow up, your dad becomes your hero again--only this time, it's for the things he really is: a man who provided, spent time with you, shielded you from all the stresses he and your mom must have felt concerning money, job, health issues, and so on. As a father, yourself, you finally understand how hard it is to make your kids feel completely safe in a turbulent, unpredictable, and insecure world. A dad may not be strong enough to beat up every other guy around, but it takes an incredible amount of strength to spend time playing and laughing in the backyard with your children when, all the while, you're not sure how you're going to pay all of next month's bills.

Reading my grandfather's journal and looking at those photos made me think about time. I realized, if only for a few moments, how fast time flies. There was a time when my grandfather was a young man in the army. There was a time when my dad was just a young father trying to figure out how to take care of three small children. There was a time when all I cared about was playing Spiderman in my parents' backyard. It seems like just yesterday I was sharing a room with my older brother in our little house in Kernersville, North Carolina, riding my bike to school in Wilmington, or keeping a watchful eye to make sure that no one bothered my little sister on her first day of junior high school. Now I'm the young dad (or, at least, relatively young). I'm the one trying to make sure my kids feel safe, secure, and loved no matter what happens in life. Just like my grandfather and father no doubt did, I occasionally have my moments after the kids are in bed or when it's just Meredith and I when I feel like the world is caving in on me. I need my times to think, pray, run my hands through my hair, and just try to deal with the pressures of life. But overall, life is good. Moving too fast, perhaps, but good.

And so, the daddy baton is passed from generation to generation. The circumstances may be different. For my grandfather, it was a depression, a war, and the rise of a new world order that included nuclear weapons, the cold war, and the US as a world power. For my father, it was the social turbulence of the sixties and seventies, the nation's loss of trust in a government that bungled Vietnam, and the feelings of disappointment following Watergate. But whatever the external differences, the challenges of fatherhood remain fairly consistent. We, as dads, see ourselves as the protectors of our families. We seek to shield and take care of our little ones. Regardless of how insecure and afraid we might sometimes feel, we are bound and determined to make sure our kids feel safe and secure. And, just like my grandfather, we'll walk through "hell" to do it.

So here's to all the fathers, past and present, who have cared enough to lay down their lives (often in quiet, unnoticed ways) to protect, defend, and shelter their children. Brave and usually unsung heroes, we dads gladly sacrifice whatever is necessary for the benefit of our families. We're content with the fact that our sons and daughters don their walls with pictures of sports heroes and favorite stars rather than pics of their "old man." We even accept the fact that after all the games of football and catch in the backyard, it's the words "Hi, Mom" that they'll mouth into the television camera after they score the winning touchdown or the final goal. We don't do all that we do for our kids for accolades; we do it because we love our little ones more than life itself.

I guess what I'm saying is, "Thank you, Pappy." I never knew you, but the sacrifices you made for my dad were ultimately for me and my kids as well. And thanks, Pop, for all the little things (and the big ones) you did and continue to do for me. I'm sure that when I was little there were occasionally tough times, but I didn't know it because I was too busy having fun, feeling loved, and believing that all was right with my little world. And now it's my turn. God-willing, I'll never have to fight in a war like my grandfather. But, just like my dad, I hope and pray that I stand ready to do whatever it takes to provide my kids with everything they need emotionally as well as materially. My hope is that, one day, my kids and grand kids will look back on old pictures or read my old journals and feel the same sense of gratitude and responsibility that I feel. But for now, I hope they just have a blast riding their bikes, sharing a room, or playing Spiderman in the backyard.