Real Men Say, “ Ask Your Mother”

Real Men Say, “ Ask Your Mother”

 

I was having one of those moments the other night with my son.  We were watching a Yankee game on Friday night.  He was draped across my lap like a warm comforter.  “Dad,” he asked.  I waited like a proud father for his profound question – – perhaps about the meaning of life or whether we can do more to stop global warming.  “what’s Playgirl magazine ?“

 

“What” I asked lurching up in my chair and vaulting him across the settee.  “This kid in my class says he models for Playgirl magazine.”  I hesitated. The air was thick with pregnant anticipation.  While I was pretty sure no sixth grader in Saxe was doing extra curricular model work for Larry Flynt Enterprises, I decided to hedge my bets.  It was the end of a long week.  I was tired. “Better ask your mother….”  

 

Like adroit wingbacks in a rugby match, husbands have for generations been skirting their duty to answer the tough questions for fear of losing their status as “the popular” parent.  Moms get the grunt work – – the bitching, the cajoling, the punishments, the consequences – – they are the wardens of domesticity.  Dads often act like the Red Cross coming in and meeting with the prisoners, asking how they are doing and if they need anything.  They inadvertently undermine policy and morale.  Dads get home later in the evening during “the witching hour” and are appalled by the suggestion that they should help after the hard day they have endured at the office or having to share a three seater on the Metro North.  They are thinking, “where are the slippers, pipe and shaken martini ?” 

 

As I was speaking to a friend on the phone the other evening,  I could hear some yelling in the background.  I could just make out a high pitched teenaged voice…” Dad ….was fine but …ruin everything….life.  You…….my life…. prevent …….going out….night”

I asked my friend what the commotion was all about.  “ I told my daughter it was ok to go to town tomorrow before I checked with the boss.  I think I stepped in it.  She’s in arguing with her Mom”.   He realized too late, there is zero upside to saying “yes” to anything.  My theory is this need to make domestic decisions without consultation stems from being in control all day at the office and wanting to bring that control home at night.  “I have a lot of people reporting to me at work” complains one executive.  “ but the way they react to my judgment at home, it’s as if they are amazed that I can find the office or get dressed each morning”.

 

Dad’s want rapid popularity and the kind of loyalty you get when you give someone a bonus at work.  This explains agreeing to a sleep over, unaware or not paying attention to the fact that the boy has had two consecutive sleepovers, fell asleep in his mashed potatoes at dinner and was grounded less than two hours ago for going on to the computer using his sister’s email address.  It could all have been avoided by just saying, “ better ask your mother “.  Instead, Mom will override this uninformed intrusion, resulting in an irrational child and Mom being pegged as the bad guy.  Dad’s response?  “ What’d I do ?” 

 

It is the same, day in and day out, each house a region overtaken by juvenile Taliban and Al Kidda – – irrational adolescent militants  who believe in a theology of sugar, electronics and lack of accountability.  Martial law seems to work best in these regions of dissent and the absence of authority creates chaos.

 

It has always been this way.  On the battlefield of life, my Mom was the master sergeant and my father, the clueless second lieutenant right out of West Point.  It was my mother who knew how to talk to the troops.  She understood what they worried about and had a sixth sense about any slight change in behavior.  If a kid was too quiet at dinner, something was weighing on them.  She could lull anyone into a confession where you would share your deepest fears.

 

Doctor Ruth, as we called her, was the female incarnation of Sherlock Holmes, Miss Marple and Mrs. Freud – Sigmund’s mother.  The Case of Wetted Wood is a Turpin holiday favorite recounted every year as we relive the adventures and interventions of Dr Ruth.  In this particularly confounding case, the feminine sleuth could not locate the wafting odor of ammonia emanating from one of her young son’s bedrooms. The mystery was further complicated when aged shag rugs were removed in each boy’s room to be replaced with wooden floors.  A rotted hole in the wood was discovered behind a bedroom door.  The workers deduced that a leak from the adjacent bathroom shower was the culprit.  Dr Ruth was not convinced. 

 

Something was not right.  The occupant of the room seemed too cooperative that week and very circumspect.  Upon interrogation, the suspect cracked and confessed that for the last six months he had been urinating behind the door because he was too scared to walk to the toilet at night.  This explained the ammonia smell, the rotten wood and the constant presence of the housecat in the boy’s room at night.  Dr Ruth saved the family thousands of dollars and even went so far as to protect the identity of child – – the penalty for such an egregious act would have entailed more lashes than a conscripted sailor on a British Man Of War.

 

The difference between the 60’s Dad and today’s dad is that the upper case “D’s” felt no social or personal obligation to be helpful.  They were the hunters.  Everything else as far as they were concerned was gathering. They did not even disguise the fact that they were less engaged and basked in a sort of clueless nirvana on domestic issues.  They abdicated everything and were informed on a need to know basis by their spouses.  Today’s father is expected to participate more but it’s my theory that some out there secretly long for the era of less accountability and resist the siren’s call of equal duty.  This breeds a passive aggressive behavior that is exhibited in eye rolls, partial listening, martyred sighs and incomplete grocery store runs.  In the end, gents, we must grudgingly accept it is a new day.  When it comes to movie and sports trivia, go ahead and blurt out the answer because you know it. But on all other things personal or domestic, it is the ultimate sign of self awareness to offer one pat response: “better ask your mother”.

 

 

The End of The Myth

Cover of "Shane"
Cover of Shane

 

The End of the Myth

“A gun is a tool, Marion, no better or no worse than any other tool, an axe, a shovel or anything. A gun is as good or as bad as the man using it. Remember that.” – Alan Ladd,  “Shane”

Most of us have seen a western.  The influences of western mythology and its romantic qualities are inexorably bound to American society.  The ideals and the ethics embodied in the western myth have been celebrated through the western film genre.  The post WWII generation spent countless hours in dark theatres immersed in the epic moment of the west – – a moment which existed in a time when our virgin continent beckoned settlers to farm its lush valleys and conquer its high mountains.  It meant the possibility of creating a new life where no social or economic impediments could keep a good person from realizing their dream.  In this epic moment, the settler stood face to face with the forces of nature and overcame all obstacles to realize their manifest destiny.  There were clear heroes and villains.  Perhaps most memorable was the western hero who was the embodiment of all the virtues in society.  Actors such as John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, Gary Cooper, Randolph Scott and Alan Ladd became larger than life manifestations of all that was true and right in America.  In these classic westerns, directors like John Ford, George Stevens and Howard Hawks manipulated the myth creating romantic distractions and a deep longing for simpler times.

George Stevens’, “Shane”, is perhaps the quintessential classic western film.  Set in the pristine yet dramatically menacing Teton Valley, Shane appears like a savior in a saddle, a lone, almost supernatural figure in buckskin descending into a valley to defend honest homesteaders against a corrupt rancher.  Befriended by the Starrett family, Shane is seen through the eyes of young Joey Starrett who idolizes the mysterious visitor. Shane temporarily removes his buckskins and tries to become part of the community.  However, Shane is at his core, a gunfighter and cannot shake his violent past.  In the end, he straps on his guns and resolves the homesteaders’ conflicts but now, having unleashed his violence, he must once again ride on to inevitable isolation.  As Shane rides away from the valley, young Joey Starrett is heard yelling, “ Shane, come back.  Shane “.  And not unlike Shane, the classic western soon found itself unable to live among a changing society.

Film is reflexive.  It serves as a mirror on our communities and points of view.  As the 50’s became the 60’s, a new Western began to emerge – – a western that questioned the myth and in some ways implied that the myth was corrupt.  Directors began to view the West as a period of time where settlers corrupted a sort of the garden of Eden.  The men and women that were depicted as blameless, endearing, strong and brave were transformed into ambiguous characters who eventually corrupted the Garden they sought to tame.  The new western offered less romantic, grittier realism and heroes that were more morally and personally ambiguous.

John Ford was perhaps the most successful of all classic western directors.  His films – -“Stagecoach”, “The Three Godfathers”, “Fort Apache” and “My Darling Clementine”, all set among the red rock cathedrals of Monument Valley, depicted a west as wild as the dust devils and chaparral winds that buffeted the crude homesteads and forts that sat at the edge of civilization.  After WWII, Ford returned with a darker vision of the west in movies “The Searchers” and “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence”.  New directors, Martin Ritt, Arthur Penn, Robert Altman and Sam Peckinpaugh painted a west where blood, violence, realism – – all signature symptoms of encroaching civilization , overtook our heroes and revealed deeply ambivalent fissures in their character and their value to a changing world.

“McCabe and Mrs Miller”, “Little Big Man”, “Lonely Are The Brave”, “Will Penny” and “The Wild Bunch” became radical disjunctions from the classic western.  They were a new genre of film – – the contemporary western.  In Penn’s “Little Big Man”, native Americans were referred to as The People and its revisionist and satirical deconstruction of the epic moment left us with a bitter taste for the epic west.  In these movies, sinners were as responsible for the founding of society as saints.  Heroes died, they cheated in fights, they shot people in the back, they swore, slept with prostitutes and often made the wrong decision. Like all of us, they were flawed humans.  This dovetailed with a pessimistic view of society and echoed a deep longing for a mythic west that perhaps never existed but in the minds of dime novelists and on the canvases of the great Western artists Albert Bierstadt, Thomas Moran, Charles Russell and Frederick Remington.

In the 1970’s, we returned to the epic moment but it was no longer in the corrupted garden of Eden of America, it was instead in outer space.  “Star Wars” recreated the epic moment of good and evil clashing a virgin wonderland where anything was possible. There was the Force and the Dark Side.  Siths and Jedis were yesterday’s gunfighters fighting on the behalf of a society in which they were unable to live among.  Space became the final frontier as the iron horse has now stretched coast to coast and in doing so, brought a corrupt civilization to every corner of the mythic west.  The epic moment was gone and with it an ideal as elusive as a snowflake.  A few modern day westerns briefly caught our imaginations – – Clint Eastwood, Kevin Costner and Robert Duval have done their best to keep the myth alive but in the end, it has died. Lawrence Kasden, director of “Silverado” was quoted as saying “nearly every western over the last 10 years has failed, except for ‘Dances With Wolves’.”   The modern western began to depict modern society as hypocritical, sterile, scared and vulnerable.  Society corrupted Eden.  “Doing for yourself” was replaced by “getting what you can while you can”.

America needs westerns now more than ever.  We need to be reminded of a time when heroes were celebrated and heroism took many shapes – – the courage to reinvent oneself, courage to stand up for what was right, courage to fight corrupting influences, courage to live a life defined by a firm set of morals and beliefs.  Maybe the epic moment of the west never really existed but it appeals so deeply to us because each of us secretly longs for a more innocent time.  So why is it that the western film is no longer commercially viable?  Perhaps we have gotten to the point where our own cynicism precludes us from believing in all its possibilities. Or perhaps even worse, we can no longer even recognize it when we see it. 

The Power Of One

The Power of One ?

“A society should be ultimately judged by how it treats the least fortunate among them.” Anon.

In the movie, “City Slickers”, Jack Palance ( Curly) and Billy Crystal ( Mitch) are alone trying to find a stray calf.  Mitch has gone on this cattle drive trying to fill the void that has left him feeling so empty in middle age.  Curly sagely confirms to Mitch that the secret of life is indeed “one thing” and proceeds to hold up a finger.  As Mitch begs the grizzled cowboy to share his secret to happiness, Curly smiles and tells Mitch, “it’s up to you to find out what that one thing is”.

We all have certain friends whose disgusting altruism and innate sense of service to others puts us all to shame.  As you get older you realize that life isn’t really about you, it’s about everyone else.  If a person is lucky, they discover that by losing themselves in the service of others, they may end up finding themselves and liking what they find.  These people become the convergence of good intentions and genuine action. As they refine these skills, they develop finely tuned eyes and ears that recognize every day the little opportunities to leave the world a better place.  They have discovered their “one thing”.

I am pretty certain from watching children and adults that selfishness is a learned trait.  I seem to have developed a healthy dose of self absorption from an early age.  It has always been my natural default position to look out for old number one first.  If I were to deconstruct situations where I was caught doing the right thing, I might discover a subtle self interest in each gesture, perhaps the need for praise, recognition, friendship, acceptance or forgiveness.  The concept of actually giving unconditionally seems a very unnatural act.  I mean what’s the point of doing something nice unless there is some sort of recognition? A parade would be nice….My close friend, Lloyd constantly referred to me as a massive work in progress and would always tell me that the ultimate act of selflessness was to give anonymously.  “If you give and someone finds out, it doesn’t count.  Try to do three nice things a day and not have anyone discover that you did them”. It just did not make sense that one would work so hard to do anything and not receive some sort of compensation.

My apprenticeship to joining the human race escalated in 1995 when I was introduced to a woman named Dianne Easton, Executive Director of a non profit program called Leadership San Francisco ( LSF).  LSF brought together 24 for profit and 24 non profit executives for one year.  LSF would meet once a month for all day sessions that were planned and coordinated by the delegates themselves.  You attended an initial retreat where you chose the topics for the year. The issues were intentionally challenging: homelessness, education, health care, crime, AIDS, domestic violence, economic growth etc.  Each team of four worked closely throughout the year with their partners to plan their one day event.  The city and county of San Francisco opened its doors to the teams offering use of facilities, access to public officials and enabled special “homework assignments“ for attendees.  The program served to educate members to issues that challenged the city as well as facilitated the critical public/private partnerships that were essential to bring lasting solutions to difficult problems.  My most challenging homework assignment included a six hour ride along from midnight until 6am with the SFPD in the Tenderloin district.  I saw first hand how law enforcement had to deal with issues around drug addiction, prostitution, property crime and domestic violence.  It was a bit like the TV show “Cops” with me as the guy running behind the police as they worked the streets.  There were sessions designed to shock, educate and motivate people to action.

In the AIDS/HIV day, I witnessed how a single woman, Ruth Brinker, started Project Open Hand – – making meals in the basement of an Episcopal church and delivering them to AIDS/HIV and critically ill shut-ins and seniors who could not care for themselves.  The program just celebrated its 20th year and serves thousands throughout the city and country.  I spent part of the Homeless day at shelters and at Glide Memorial church, meeting the dynamic Reverend Cecil Williams who built a fortress to combat poverty, crime and hopelessness – – a church that turns away no person and that understands that unconditional love can change lives and warm the corners of a cold, indifferent city.

What we all learned and witnessed over that year opened our eyes to the inequity and imbalance that exists in a society that has the means to provide for so many but does not seem to be able to often reach the most at risk.  We learned that those seeking shelter often need to be present when shelters open their doors for beds and in needing to be present, find it hard to hold the jobs they might need to break their cycle of homelessness.  Social services were not integrated and those in need with mental and physical conditions were often caught in between the seams of an overwhelmed system.   We learned how difficult it is for a convicted felon to truly assimilate back into society.  We saw the ravages of drug addiction and domestic violence.  We also witnessed incredible acts of personal sacrifice and courage as individuals dedicated their lives to helping others and advocated for those who were too weak, disabled or incapable of speaking for themselves.

With each session, I found it increasingly hard to hide behind my age old rationalizations about giving to non profits and community based organizations.  On the contrary, I met people who could take a few dollars and like biblical messiahs, feed masses with a few loaves of bread.  I felt my my radius of responsibility that had once only extended to my family and my small suburban town change and broaden to a city, county, state and global community.  It changed my life and now, instead of looking away, I now noticed the crushing need that existed right underneath my nose.  A friend who ran a health center serving the Latino community told me that Mother Teresa once told someone who came to Calcutta that they did not need to come half way around the world to serve those in need.  “Grow where you are planted” was all she said to the altruistic pilgrim.

When I think of LSF and the relationship I developed with incredible leaders of non profits and social services, I realize these people helped me discover my “one thing “.     In the end, every human being longs to find that source of inspiration – – a calling larger than themselves that gives their life a sense of meaning and purpose.

So, what’s your “one thing “?