Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Easy and Hard

You try to make something easier, only to discover you’ve made something else harder.  As we say in the military, a plan never survives contact with the enemy.  Another related saying goes something like this:  if you want to make God laugh, tell him your plan.  Neither of those fully represent the point I’ll try to make, but they come close.  Stephanie and I went through a variety of phases relative to having children over the years of our marriage.  Honestly, we began with very little interest in seeing our family grow.  As years passed, and probably as we matured as a couple, our views on parenting softened a bit.  This trend continued as more time passed, fueled not only by our own relationship, but also by several practical things.  Primarily it revolved around my advancement in my career and the associated increases in pay.  As we grew more financially comfortable, our comfort level with becoming parents increased.  It was reinforced by a second influence: several of our friends who had kids and lived the life of parents openly and honestly in front of us.  Eventually we found ourselves actively planning to have a child, as middle-aged folks.

The migrant lifestyle.  One thing we discussed early in our marriage that weighed positively in our plan to wait to have kids was mobility relative to my job.  The plan was that we would have a child at a time that would allow me to retire from the military around the time he entered grade school.  So far, so good--Paul was born shortly before I hit my 21st year of military service, so technically I’m already retirement eligible.  Not that I wouldn’t continue to work, but Steph and I agree that we’d prefer to raise Paul without having to move every two to three years.  Don’t misunderstand though, especially any other military dads reading this.  I absolutely love my career.  In fact I was born into and grew up in a military family that’s spanned more than three generations.  Our desire isn’t one based on a dislike of a the military life or its migrant lifestyle.  For Steph and I it’s more about reducing instability, and moving every two to three years is something we can control.  I’d be less than honest if I didn’t also factor in the impact of temporary duty and deployments in addition to the regular moves.  Opposing this, however, is that I have enjoyed very real benefits that were the direct result of a childhood of chronic moving.  I’m sure for every disadvantage, there’s an equivalent advantage associated with seeing and living in places all over the country and world.  If I retire from the military sooner rather than later, my son won’t share those same benefits.  In the end though, Steph and I are favoring the advantages associated with being less migrant.

Local community.  This would also allow us to settle into a community and establish the associated long-term relationships, especially with the teachers who we’ll entrust to help us educate our son.  Don’t get me wrong; military children tend to do very well academically for a number of reasons.  I suspect in part, this because education is important to military professionals, but even more, because truly global experiences matter and those kids carry that cultural and academically diverse set of experiences right into the classroom.  Socially, it’s not that we don’t have long-term and significant relationships with many of our military friends--we definitely do--but they’re as mobile as we are and most of us won’t settle in the same place once we’re done with our military careers.  Honestly, I hope I can form the same level of intimate and immediate trust with my neighbors once I retire as I have with many of even my most recent acquaintances in the military.  Think about this--every time I move, I instantly have a group of people around me that I would hand my car and house keys to, trust to receive the shipment of all my earthly possessions, and can trust with my wife and son without hesitation.  Amazing since often times I’ve never met many of these people before arriving at my duty station.  I don’t ever want to diminish just how unique and wonderful that kind of community is.
And so here we are, according to “the plan,” within a few years my wife and I should step away from the military life and settle down somewhere a little more permanent.  Two very real things drive me toward what has become an imminent and heavy decision: I’m not getting younger, and I hate spending time away from my son.  The risk of having to spend months or even years away from my son is almost unthinkable.
One thing I’ve learned you can’t anticipate as a first-time dad: the emotional bond that exists between a father and his son.  For my entire adult life I’ve been a career servant of the State.  Now I’m a dad; I’m actually somebody’s dad!  I would give my life for my country and more specifically its citizens and our way of life.  I would also give my life for my wife and son for reasons that another husband and dad would understand, but I think it can be summed up by saying family isn’t the same as country.  And so there’s the tension.  The conflict for my time isn’t binary though.  As mentioned before, I have to work to pay the bills, and to be honest, even if I were independently wealthy, I’d still have to work at something.  All dads can probably identify with the struggle, but I think this struggle is different for a dad depending on where he is in his own life: depending on how old he is.

When I was younger, certainly when I was truly a young man, I remember living the adventure of the military life: working hard, lots of trips, deployments, etc.  I didn’t have kids but many of my colleagues did.  We trained and traveled a lot.  When we were away from home the discussions eventually came around to the things that mattered to us back home; for those of us who had them that meant our wives and kids.  (No offense ladies, but for the first five years of my career, I served in a unit that didn’t have females in combat positions.)  But we were young, and young men are bullet proof and fuller of the stuff that makes us men--energy, testosterone, zeal, idealism, etc.  The body and the brain were young.  (Now, in contrast I feel I have a 20-something year old brain but it’s living in a 46 year old body.)  Those of us who were married loved our wives; those who had kids loved their kids, and we didn’t like being away.  They were our stability and pivot points, but we were young and professional.  We went off to do our jobs.  The travel and work was exciting, at times dangerous, and while it was difficult to be away from home, somehow the adventures also had an equal pull.  For many of us, when we were home we thought about the excitement of being away, and while we were away, our attention turned back to home.
Now something has changed and I think it’s the result of growing older.  I’m not a fan of those guys who always need to tell the bigger story, always trying to one-up their buddy’s adventure or pain, and I’m not doing that here.  But based on my experiences and watching my friends over the years, there’s something different about being a first-time father later, rather than earlier in life.  I can’t prove it, but I think it’s easier for a young man to to balance the family when it comes to the tension between being home and being away from home.  I’m not saying marriage and parenting is easy for a young husband or father, but I think it’s somehow easier when contrasted with his middle-aged colleagues.  Even if I’m wrong and I’m the only one this is true for, I couldn’t have foreseen or understood the difficulty of spending time away from my son.  It’s hard when we men have to spend time away from our wives--if this isn’t the case for you, we probably need to have another conversation--but our wives are adults.  As hard as that is, I think it’s harder to spend time away from our kids--it certainly is for me.  Our kids aren’t adults and don’t understand the reasons for the separation. 

I suppose writing this is therapeutic.  In some sense, I’m certainly writing for myself, to help gel these thoughts and issues in my own mind.  Doing it in a blog though also lets me put a little piece of fatherhood on my sleeve for everyone else to see.  I thought the plan was good and would minimize certain difficulties: money, mobility, etc.  What I couldn’t anticipate is just how difficult it is to look at my small, young son through eyes that are more than 40 years his senior.  I’m convinced it’s a much different and more difficult view than it would have been through those same eyes when they were half as old.  Am I done with my time in the military?  No.  Am I closer to the end than the beginning?  Definitely, and my son has become the primary influence in the decision about when to bring this adventure to a close and begin the next, less migrant one.
Hopefully my words encourage other middle-aged dads and can inform the young men who follow and find themselves wrestling with some of these same thoughts and decisions.  Finally, maybe a few wives and even kids can be encouraged to know your men wrestle with these kinds of things.  We are men, with all the associated confusing, irritating and cool baggage it brings for those around us.  For many of us, the crusty exterior is there for all the right reasons:  to some extent, it’s the way we’re wired; but also we may need it to fuel the things we need to do at work.  Fortunately or not, those two realms within our lives aren’t binary and can’t just be switched on and off.  Regardless of the appearance on the outside though, these things still rage within us as husbands and fathers. 
It’s great to be a dad!

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Book Review: The Compleat Gentleman

The Compleat Gentleman: The Modern Man’s Guide to Chivalry (Revised and Updated) by Brad Miner (Richard Vigilante Books, 2009)

In this wonderful book, Brad Miner rolls an incredible volume of history and research into a single reference about chivalry, then applies it to modern times and modern manhood.  The book generally has an academic tone to it, but not in a way that’s distracting.  In fact, for what is essentially a combination of history and what today would be called “self-help,” the book is definitely readable and held my attention throughout.
Miner works us through the picture of the compleat gentleman by discussing the medieval knight (often used to typify gentlemanly behavior), then examining three persons as models or types:  the warrior, the lover and the monk.  He also distills the essence of the gentleman into a single Latin concept: sprezzatura, which he thoroughly examines throughout the book due to its rich, deep and complex meaning.  On the surface though, it simply means nonchalance; Miner says that to today it would mean “cool.”  Toward the end of the book, he summarizes his work by saying, “if ‘honor’ is properly the one word that epitomizes the character of a gentleman, then ‘sprezzatura’ is the last work about the gentleman’s ‘conduct of life.’”  He goes on to say, “There are two ways to look at a fellow’s sprezzatura.  On the one hand, it means discretion, or, more grandly, prudence; on the other hand it means restraint, which may even be concealment.”
As you read, Miner will weave these concepts together with others, including the role of historic stoicism, and leave you walking away challenged and encouraged that no matter who you are or where you think of yourself relative to gentlemanly conduct, you’ll can make more of yourself.
At the end of the book, Miner quotes Rudyard Kipling’s poem “IF” (available through The Kipling Society at http://www.kipling.org.uk) as his closing and as “the best short summary of the compleat gentleman’s profession.”  If you’re not familiar with Kipling or this poem:

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;

If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or, being lied about, don't deal in lies,
Or, being hated, don't give way to hating,
And yet don't look too good, nor talk too wise:

If you can dream – and not make dreams your master;

If you can think – and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you've spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to broken,
And stoop and build 'em up with worn-out tools:

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,

And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: "Hold on!"

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,

Or walk with kings – nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds' worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it,
And – which is more – you'll be a Man my son!



Finally, a note for those who might mind, the author clearly writes from a Catholic perspective and defines himself as a classic liberal.  Even so, he’s never in your face with either and the points about being a gentleman don’t conditionally rest on either.  No matter what your religious or political persuasion, the book is informative and useful.
The Compleat Gentleman is definitely worth the time to read.  If you have an interest in the history of gentleman and chivalry, the book is a great anchor point for additional research, with plenty of references and a healthy selected bibliography.  I recommend this book to any man whether he’s a father or not, think it would make a great gift at the appropriate time for any young man, and will definitely be on my son’s reading list.
It’s great to be a dad!

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

A Day of Firsts

Steph and I love that here in Germany, kids start kindergarten when they’re three: with an actual curriculum and structure to the time.  Monday, the 15th of November was a day of firsts in our household:  one big and one just noteworthy and funny.  The big event was that Paul started kindergarten and he loves it.  We were eager to have him start at a local (German) private school and we finally came up on the list.  The school is awesome.  It’s small and balances the number of international students with German students.  Besides the obvious social skill development he’ll get, one of the things we want for him is immersion in the local language and culture as much as possible.  Last week, running up to our American holiday Thanksgiving, the school asked Paul if he wanted to draw a picture of something he’s thankful for.  He said he wanted to draw a motorcycle.  I’m not sure why he picked a motorcycle, but I’m okay with it--neither Steph nor I are anti-motorcycle folks and it seems these are one of a number of things that tend to capture the imagination of young boys (at least our boy), along with space ships, airplanes and robots.  From his very first day of school, Paul can’t wait to get there and when we pick him up, he’s all talk about what he and his friends did that day.  He loves going and we’re happy he’s having such a great experience with the beginning of a lifetime of learning.

The other first?  Well, I recently converted Paul’s toddler bed to what he calls his “big boy bed.”  It’s still a toddler bed, but I took the low rail off the front so that his entry and exit isn’t constrained.  Neither is he when he tosses in bed at night.  We went a week or two without incident, then early Monday morning (the day Paul started school), we heard the thud:  the distinct sound of his small frame hitting the floor.  It went like this:  thud...about five seconds...crying.  He was fine other than the tumble surprised him and woke him up.  Steph and I were already on our way to his room during the short interlude between the thud and the crying.  The funny thing about it was when we stepped into his room, he was laying on his bed.  We asked him what happened, not completely sure since he wasn’t on the floor.  He told us he hit his head.  At that point I wasn’t sure if he fell out of bed or not.  We asked him where he hit it and he said, “on the floooooor.”  It warmed and broke my heart at the same time.  Falling out of bed is one of those rights of passage.  Apparently when he hit the floor, he used some superpower to leap back into bed in the two or three seconds before we were in his room--the boy is fast!  It made me think, though, that he thought he did something wrong.  A little love and snuggling later, he was back asleep.  I left for work a short time later and he slept just fine until Steph woke him for that big, first day of school!
It’s great to be a dad!

Friday, November 26, 2010

Thanksgiving 2010

Thanksgiving is an awesome holiday.  I definitely appreciate its origins, tracking back to the early American settlers and their thankfulness to God for what he provided.  I also appreciate the holiday has broadened to something much more than remembering their thanks, or being thankful for the same things they were.

This Thanksgiving, these are the things I’m most thankful for:
  1. My wife and son.  They’re happy and healthy, and keep me the same.  There aren’t words to capture the privilege and honor it is for me to be a husband and father to these two, the most special people in the world.
  2. My parents:  all of them.  First for my mom & dad (who aren’t together any longer), and their spouses.  I love and respect them all!  Second for my wife’s parents who, for as long as I’ve known them as an adult, have treated me like their own son.  (It’s a long story, but my parents and Steph’s parents have known each other since Steph and I were larvae.  This marriage just might have been arranged...)
  3. My sisters:  all four of them.  Two of them are married and their husbands are like brothers to me.  One is single (HA!  I don’t have to share you, Sissy!), and one is no longer with us.  (I love and miss you, Galyn.)
  4. My grandparents, who will never know just how much they helped make me the man I am.
  5. Jess and Will.  Jess, you’re like a daughter to us, and always will be.  You married a great guy and we’re so happy to see your family growing!
  6. My ability to work and provide for my family, and to make enough to be able  share what we have with others--financially and materially.
  7. My country and the privilege of serving her.  I get as frustrated as anyone else over some of the things we do as a nation, but I’ve traveled the world and remain unashamedly thankful and proud to be an American.  Related, I’m humbled and honored to serve among and alongside my military colleagues.  I am lucky enough to have spent nearly two and a half decades serving with and standing among some true and amazing heroes.
  8. My job, that pays me to live in places for years at at time, with my family that other families save for a lifetime just to visit for a few weeks.  And many others only dream of such travel and never make it.
  9. For the last couple years, living as a friend, peacefully in a country that my country used to be at war with.  Germany is fantastic beyond words.  The land and climate are amazing and the people are some of the best I’ve met anywhere in the world.  My German friends are dear to me and I’m humbled to be counted a friend by some of them.
  10. Imagination: mine, my wife’s, and my sons.  I love seeing my son’s mind racing so fast and in so many directions--unconstrained to the best of our ability.  My parents allowed, and even fueled, my imagination and I’m doing my best to pass that kind of freedom on to my son.
  11. My friends, some tied to my career and others who aren’t, who are always with us thanks to modern technology.  You all are a huge part of what keeps me and my family going strong and doing the things we do.
It’s great to be a dad!

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Imagination

One of the things I love most about being a dad so far is watching my son’s imagination develop.  I try to encourage it.  The results at times have sprung out of the blue when some crazy, cool new demonstration of imagination just appears.  The other night Steph and I were eating pizza for dinner and decided to sit in the living room instead of at the table to catch a show we rarely get to see.  Suddenly Paul starts humming music from the Star Wars movie “Return of the Jedi.”  The tune was from the scene when the Imperial Dreadnought “Executor,” crippled by a rebel Y-Wing, crashes into the unfinished second Death Star.  We looked up and his slice of pizza had become the Dreadnought and his plate was the Death Star.  But this wasn’t our imagination interpreting what he was doing; we asked him and he told us, “it’s crashing into the Death Star!”  Thankfully the camera was handy.

Steph and I clearly started and continue to encourage his fondness of Star Wars (and all things SciFi), but this was the first time we saw him apply is imagination in this way.
Traditional Blocks
A year or so ago we also bought Paul a basic set of building blocks.  You know the ones: a simple variety of colors and basic shapes: cubes, rectangles, wedges, cylinders, and planks.  Usually small buildings or garages emerge so he can drive his toy cars and trucks around them.  Then one day he built a tower--one that we didn’t have to pretend looked like one.  Paul even took a couple toy men and put them on and around it.  They were mediaeval knights standing guard to defend the tower from attack.  It was a good, strong tower, built on the stone cliffs of...the coffee table.  Of course, no tower is complete without a dragon, and as you can see Paul was happy to play the role.

The tower withstood relentless attacks for what must have been an appropriately long time in Paul’s mind, and then its walls fell.  I suspect the cool thing for any boy who gets to be the dragon is that he gets to destroy the tower when his imagination drives him on to another adventure.  Certainly that’s better and much more fun than the alternative--Steph or I getting tired of having it in the middle of everything and putting it away for him.
LEGOs
Paul has a growing collection of LEGOs; a childhood staple for kids since prehistoric times.  His consist of an assortment of basic building blocks, and some of the Star Wars kits (of course).  While the Star Wars kits don’t usually lend themselves to a lot of creative building at this point, he’s always playing out scenes from the movies as well as new scenes from his own imagination.  Every now and then, the custom parts do lend themselves to something entirely not Star Wars related.  The basic building blocks, however, offer his young mind a clean slate.  Like kids everywhere, if he can imagine it, he can try to build it.  The first time he did this with any real accuracy and success was when he built himself a tiny camera, complete with viewfinder and a button to push to take the picture.
Paul is also a fan of Dr. Who.  If you’re familiar with the show, you know there are episodes we don’t let him watch, but he’s seen many of them and regularly asks to see more.  What sticks with him from these shows are the Doctor’s Tardis, and the Daleks, and the LEGOs help fuel the imagination here just like a dinner plate and pizza did for Star Wars.  From LEGOs, Paul has built a pretty amazing Tardis or two!
Everything in the house is potentially useful and we try to encourage him to see things differently than what their obvious purpose is.  As I was drafting this, Paul came in and told me, “I did it!  All the robots have matching heads!”  I followed him into the hallway to find out what he was talking about.  Who could have known that an empty case of beer bottles set by the door to go back to the getr√§nkemarkt were actually a bunch of robots.  He had taken the time to swing all the stoppers back up to the top of the bottles, turn them upside down and set them on top of the bottles.  They’re robots, and why not?

What’s next?
Of course, we’ll keep expanding the LEGO collection by increasing the size of the basic pieces.  This Christmas we’re going to introduce him to another imagination fueling toy:  a basic set of Lincoln Logs.  Who knows where these will take him, and take us through his active imagination.  I can’t wait for the ride!
It’s great to be a dad!

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Book Review: Fathers and Sons

Fathers and Sons: 11 Great Writers Talk about Their Dads, Their Boys, and What It Means to Be a Man (Esquire Books (Hearst))

This is a short and wonderful book of essays about fathers and sons, edited by David Katz.  As a father and son, the collection brought me through moments of laughter and sorrow, excited identification with the contributors, and occasional dread.  Not every essay resonated with me, but I think it’s a testimony to the good work Mr. Katz did in representing a breadth of views and experiences on the topic.  The final essay is a daughter’s view of her dad; I’m glad it was included.  I recommend this book to the fathers out there, or if you have a father or son in you life.  In other words, it’s worth the time to read regardless of who you are.  It’s certainly a good read for anyone who has interest in parenting, fatherhood and the associated first-person perspectives of the father-son relationship.
Swing by your favorite bookstore, local or on-line and grab a copy.  Toss it in your briefcase or put it beside your bed for a few minutes of reading each night.  I think it’s a worthwhile addition to your bookshelves.
It’s great to be a dad!

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

RESTREPO: Movie Review

There are a number of movies I intend to watch with my son as he grows older, to reinforce a variety of life’s lessons.  Some are general while others specifically focus on being a man.  I recently saw National Geographic’s documentary film RESTREPO.  It’s now on my list of films to watch with my son, and it’s a film I highly recommend to you, especially if you’re not in the military.

The film follows a platoon from U.S. Army’s 173rd Airborne Brigade while deployed to an outpost in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley, Kunar Province, Afghanistan from 2007 to 2008.  The name of the outpost and title of the film come from the platoon’s fallen medic PFC Juan Restrepo. 

(Outpost (“OP”) Restrepo. Korengal Valley, Kunar Province, Afghanistan. 2008. A film still from the documentary RESTREPO by Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger. Image © Outpost Films)
The film is not political, nor does it take a stand on the U.S. military or military service in general.  The purpose appears to be to give a raw human view of this kind of combat deployment, including the associated highs and lows.  The experience is visually stunning, intimate and very human as you see a one-year combat deployment digested into 90 minutes.  It’s very well done.
From the film’s website, its directors Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger state:  “The war in Afghanistan has become highly politicized, but soldiers rarely take part in that discussion. Our intention was to capture the experience of combat, boredom and fear through the eyes of the soldiers themselves. Their lives were our lives: we did not sit down with their families, we did not interview Afghans, we did not explore geopolitical debates. Soldiers are living and fighting and dying at remote outposts in Afghanistan in conditions that few Americans back home can imagine. Their experiences are important to understand, regardless of one's political beliefs. Beliefs are a way to avoid looking at reality. This is reality.”

(RESTREPO filmmakers Sebastian Junger (l.) and Tim Hetherington (r.) at Outpost Restrepo. Korengal Valley, Afghanistan, Kunar Province. 2007. Photograph © Tim Hetherington)
What about your kids?  You know your kids better than anyone, but my recommendation is not to take children under 17 to see this.  While the movie isn’t necessarily gory, it is a war movie.  It’s not a depiction; it’s a documentary, and it’s violent.  The violence, however, occurs in an appropriate context (it’s not violence captured on film simply for the purpose of sensational violence) and the film is very respectful of the soldiers and families involved.  What will make the movie difficult for kids, especially young ones, is viewing the movie without an appropriate understanding of the broader real-world context of the war in Afghanistan, or the decisions that led us to the war--again, not really a part of what the movie attempts to address.
For older or more mature kids, it may be a great teaching tool to help them know and understand any number of broader things:  courage, duty, service to country and friends, loyalty, bravery, decision-making, the practical impact of political decisions, as well as other attributes that we parents hope to see instilled in our kids as they mature into adults.  Overall, I recommend parents see the movie first, then decide if it’s the kind of film your kids should see.
For more information and to see the trailer, visit the film’s website (http://restrepothemovie.com) and National Geographic’s “The Making of Restrepo” (http://movies.nationalgeographic.com/movies/restrepo/junger-hetherington)
I highly recommend you see this movie no matter what your political views, your views of the military, or the war in Afghanistan.  It’s an amazing snapshot of what one facet of modern ground warfare looks like: dramatically different than that of previous wars up to and including the war to liberate Iraq.  More importantly, it’s also an amazing chronicle of the bonds that form between men, in this case men who became friends as they trained together and later fought side by side.
It’s great to be a dad!

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

A Prayer For My Son

I’m a career military man.  Although that fact isn’t supreme, it’s definitely one of the few things that serves to define me.  As I’ve spent my entire adult life in the military as a professional, I’ve appropriately spent the better part of that adult life studying my profession.  This study includes the lives and work of other military men, their leadership qualities and how they exercised that leadership during their careers.  As a result, my education has caused me to cross the historic path of General Douglas MacArthur.  Recently I found myself looking at his work again, and was reminded that my first contact with some of General MacArthur’s work was in my childhood.

At some point, I presume during his military career, General Douglas MacArthur penned a prayer for his son, Arthur.  His family made this prayer public when he died in 1964, the same year I was born.  I don’t know when my father bought a copy of it, but for as long as I can remember a small, plain, framed version hung on my bedroom wall.  When the time came for me to head out on my own, it went with me.  Here is the prayer General MacArthur penned for his son:
Build me a son, O Lord,
who will be strong enough to know when he is weak,
brave enough to face himself when he is afraid,
Build me a son,
whose wishes will not take the place of deeds...
Lead him, I pray, not in the path of ease and comfort,
but under the stress and spur of difficulties and challenges.
Let him learn to stand in the storm;
let him learn compassion for those who fall.
Build me a son,
whose heart is clear, whose goals will be high
a son who will master himself before he seeks to master others;
who will reach into the future, yet never forget the past.
And after all these things are his, add, I pray,
enough of a sense of humor
so that he may always be serious
yet never take himself too seriously...
Then, I, his father will dare to whisper,
"I have not lived in vain."
This powerful statement was also attributed to General MacArthur:
“By profession I am a soldier and take pride in that fact,” MacArthur said. “But I am prouder – infinitely prouder – to be a father. A soldier destroys in order to build, the father only builds, never destroys. The one has the potentiality of death; the other embodies creation and life. And while the hordes of death are mighty, the battalions of life are mightier still. It is my hope that my son, when I am gone, will remember me not from the battlefield but in the home, repeating with him our simple daily prayer, Our Father Who Art in Heaven…” (See Cheryl Davis’ Art Blog at http://bymyart.wordpress.com/2008/07/12/macarthur-on-being-a-soldier-and-a-father/)
My Prayer For Paul
Not to simply mimic him out of some odd professional courtesy, I also pray for my son.  I think Douglas MacArthur (the man and father) set a good and respectable example.  When I’m home I pray daily with Paul, at a minimum at least once when Stephanie and I put him to bed.  My prayer is formed by my faith and my experience of fatherhood, from the time we knew Stephanie had conceived, through the pregnancy, Paul’s birth, and then the years that have followed.  It reflects my admittedly reformed and orthodox faith and flows from the heart.  Here is what I pray nightly with Paul, and for him even when I’m not home:
Lord God,
Thank You for the gift of my son,
and for the privilege of being his parents.
I pray You guard and guide Paul tonight.
Teach him to know You and love You
through us and the church,
and to know how much You love him.
I also pray he always knows how much we love him,
not just through our words, but also our deeds.
Give Stephanie and I the wisdom to raise him well
and in a manner pleasing to You.
If it’s Your will,
preserve us through the night
so we can wake tomorrow to see each other again,
either here or by Your side.
The prayer is generally constant but isn’t formulaic.  These aren’t the specific words, memorized and recited precisely, although I generally cover this same ground every night.  Perhaps in a later posting, for those who are interested, I’ll walk through the prayer to explain how and why I’ve settled on the words in it.

As for that small, framed copy of General MacArthur’s prayer for his son, it now hangs on my son’s bedroom wall, just as it did on mine when I was a child.
I know some of you who read this may not be Christians, or even religious or spiritual.  I understand, but this is a glimpse into what makes me tick, as a man, a husband, and as a father.  And for what it’s worth, at risk of unintentionally offending someone out there, it’s my prayer that all of us who are or will be dads one day, that we’re genuinely good and faithful dads.  Not because we say or think we are, but because when it’s all said and done, others around us, including our kids say we were.  Even with all our flaws.  This fatherhood gig is huge, complicated, thrilling, scary at times, and frankly just plain amazing.
It’s great to be a dad!


(The photo of General MacArthur is in the pubic domain.  See http://www.history.navy.mil/photos/images/ac00001/ac02413.jpg)

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Reflections (Part 2)

Last week I told you the story of the birth of my son.  Just typing that story out last week and reliving it in my mind brought joyful tears to my eyes again.  Although that wasn’t why I wrote it, I was flattered to hear from many of you who told me what I wrote resonated with you and apparently the stock went up on several brands of tissues.  As promised, here’s the rest of the story of my reflection on my wonderful wife and the birth of my son.  The emphasis changes a little here, from my amazing wife to the beginning of my own development as a first-time father.

Paul’s Pitstop Along the Canal
I mentioned my wife labored for 51 hours before Paul was finally delivered by C-section.  As you recall, he was breach, then on the day we were to originally have the C-section, he flipped over and was properly oriented for a normal delivery.  And then there was the marathon.  After Paul was born and we were all resting quietly in the Labor and Delivery Ward (L&D from now on), our doctor came to us to explain what caused the lack of progress.  It seems that Paul had turned his head to the side at about the time he started progressing down the birth canal.  As a result, the shape of his head didn’t line up with companion shape of the birth canal and he simply stopped.  No amount of labor was going to change it, especially since Steph’s body was properly trying to move him along, creating enough pressure that Paul’s head just wasn’t going to turn back.  In times past this could have (would have?) resulted in the death of both mother and child, but thanks to God, modern medicine, the wonderful skills of the medical professionals that took care of us, I enjoy the company of my beautiful wife and son today.

I learned a bunch of cool stuff as Steph rested and recovered, and began bonding with my infant son.  Steph “held” him for nine months and now it was finally my turn.  I was nervous but eager to learn.  He had his first bath and I learned how to change his diaper and swaddle him.  The Super Bowl was on with the volume down and Steph fed Paul his first meal outside the womb watching the game.  (I can’t make this up!)  At about halftime, Steph fell asleep and Paul and I sat with my new son in my arms, watched the game, and bonded.  And every now an then, I found myself weeping just for a moment.  It wasn’t for any specific reason.  I think it was that intangible and very real bonding--father’s and son’s hearts were touching.  It was, and remains, one of the best experiences of my life, sitting in the quiet and warmth of that room next to my sleeping wife who had just done something truly heroic, and holding my hours-old son.

An Angry Dad
The next morning everyone was doing fine and the process began to do some final testing in order to discharge mother and son.  We were excited, tired and happy to think about taking our son home for the first time.  But there was this little thing called jaundice we had to deal with first.  He didn’t look jaundiced, so this came as a surprise when, as we were being discharged from L&D, we were taken upstairs by someone from another department.  It was the first we’d heard that this was the plan rather than going to our car and heading home.  And now I was angry in addition to being tired.
The change from pleasure with the L&D crew to thorough disgust for the “professionals” in the new ward was dramatic, none of whom could competently or authoritatively explain to me why we were even there other than to say, “your son has jaundice; his bilirubin levels are on the edge of high, and this will prevent a problem from developing.”  It made sense, but we couldn’t get a doctor to see us until I threatened to take my family and leave the hospital.  An orderly actually told me I couldn’t do that.  I didn’t mention to him that I could have snapped him like a twig and instead maintained my composure and told him he needed to rethink what he had just said.  We weren’t under arrest and no one could even confirm we were the right people who were supposed to be there.  I told him if a medical doctor didn’t come explain to us why we were in this new ward within two hours, in an adult manner, we would be leaving.  We had signed formal discharge papers in L&D and had not been formally readmitted to any part of the hospital.  As far as I was concerned, this was all a mistake reinforced by lack of any interaction with a physician or appropriate staff.  I wanted to see test results and have them explained to me like an adult.  I also wanted to know clearly and concisely what the “treatment” would do to remedy the alleged problem and how long it would take.  For those of you who are familiar, you know the treatment for an infant with elevated bilirubin levels isn’t cosmic and really doesn’t require a lot of explanation--it involves baking the boy under some incubator lights (technically called phototherapy, accomplished with lights or a photo-optic blanket) in a controlled manner.  Having a medical background I was actually familiar with the treatment, but didn’t like that no one with any authority or medical competence seemed to want to explain it to my wife and I.  I was literally packing our bags up again, when a doctor showed up.  I politely and professionally let him have it.  With the doctor’s apologies appearing genuine, along with his sufficient explanations for why we were there and for how long, we ended up staying through the next night to let Paul bake and went home the next day.
Don’t Look Into The Light:  Shaping a Father’s Heart
The real story is actually about the time that passed with Paul under those lights, especially through that night, and the thoughts and feelings that continued to emerge as a brand new, first-time father.  My wife was exhausted and I was beyond tired.  The hospital didn’t have a photo-optic blanket, so Paul was laying helpless in an open-sided incubator with ridiculously designed little goggles on to keep the lights from causing damage to his eyes.  For those of you who are parents, you know about infants--they have no motor control and so I worried about him knocking the goggles off and ending up with eye damage.  Designed as they were, they seemed to come off his head when he simply thought about moving.  And so I intended to sit up all night hoping to let Steph sleep as much as possible.  She was actually doing well and thankfully was able to sit up with Paul for part of the night, giving me about three hours of sleep.  But it wasn’t very good sleep and I was entirely consumed with this little son of mine and that my wife now had to stay awake even longer.  All Paul had known was nine months of comfort in the womb, then suddenly he’s on the bright, noisy and cold outside but in the protective arms of Steph and I, and before that dust could settle he has something awkward on his face and no real contact with either of us other than the sound of our voices and fairly regular adjustments to the goggles.
I still don’t know how a heart can be full of joy and thoroughly broken at the same time, but mine was.  What’s really beyond my ability to explain is although I couldn’t have loved my new son any more than I already did, every moment that passed as I sat awake with him my love grew.  My heart was full, but somehow it kept getting fuller.  A better picture of this is that my love for my son was growing deeper and stronger with every minute that passed.  I know this would have happened even without the frustrating side trip to the incubator, but this little bit of additional frustration and adversity simply highlighted it for me.
Homeward Bound
The next day, and two very tired parents later, we took our son home.  Everything was exciting and scary.  Was the car seat in right?  Was he warm enough back there?  Would his little head flop over too far and hinder his breathing?  Would we know since the car seat faces to the rear for safety?  I can’t stare at him the whole time; what if we get into an accident?  Somehow we made it home.  Since then, like all parents, we’ve received perfect support and great advice from a variety of folks within our circle of friends and family.  I think we’ve managed to do OK as parents so far.  It’s wonderful to have the experience of others to lean on, and to learn that you really can do this parenting thing--a subset of this marriage thing--without an instruction manual.  By the way, that last statement doesn’t mean you can’t raise a child without both parents.  Life is messy and things happen--at a minimum the “Ds” haunt many of us:  deployments (or long business trips), divorce, death.  There’s other stuff too, but to keep this truthful, after my own experiences these last three and a half years, it seems to me solo parenting isn’t the default or preferred situation.  It takes two of us to make those little, wonderful kids, and it seems two should bring them up.  When that can’t happen, I hope that same circle of family and friends is there to stand along side the parent flying solo.  
Honoring our Women
My wife Stephanie is amazing and she’s also a hero to me, on that same very short list I have with just a few other people on it, including my dad and both grandfathers.  Ladies, every one of you stands on a pedestal in my world, for many reasons.  In the absence of other reasons though, you still hold that special place for that most wonderful and miraculous thing you can do--bare children.

Men, if we don’t honor our women--all women, but especially our wives--then we’re not really men.  The word “honor” gets used a lot in certain circles, but I’m not sure many of us really understand what it means practically.  Not that I agree with every premise behind his statements, consider this amazing conversation between Robert MacGregor and his son in a scene from the 1995 movie Rob Roy:
Son:  Father, will the MacGregors ever be kings again?
Rob Roy:  All men with honor are kings, but not all kings have honor.
Son:  What is honor?
Rob Roy:  Honor is what no man can give you, and no man can take away.  Honor is a man’s gift to himself.
Son:  Do women have it?
Rob Roy:  Women have the heart of honor, and we cherish and protect it in them.  And you must never mistreat a woman, nor malign a man, or stand by and see another do so.
Son:  How do you know if you have it?
Rob Roy:  Never worry in the getting of it.  It grows in you and speaks to you.  All you need do is listen.
Men, all our circumstances are different whether we’re single, married, or fathers.  But we can’t afford to mess this up.  We live in the world and others see us:  other men, sons, women, and daughters.  Never be an ass; just be an honorable man.  
Single men, it’s OK to be the man that women want you to be and that younger men can genuinely look up to.  Be a real man of strength and honor--mentally and physically.  Don’t let yourself fuel the caricature that men are full of rudeness and too much testosterone.  Don’t go to the other extreme either though and be that ugly model of overdone pasta with no idea who you are or what you stand for, and who doesn’t know where to find his spine or what testosterone is.  If you’re a husband, you have a wife to love and cherish.  If you’re a father, you have sons and daughters to raise.  For those of you with sons, join me in my hope that we raise our sons well.  We are men.  If you’d prefer not to be, like last week, feel free to send me your Man Card; I’ll quietly and discretely dispose of it for you and we’ll never speak of this again.
It’s great to be a dad!

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Reflections



I recently picked a book up while browsing at a local bookstore.  Fathers and Sons: 11 Great Writers Talk About Their Dads, Their Boys, and What It Means To Be A Man is a collection of essays written by fathers, sons, and one daughter.  Only part way through the first essay in the first section of the book, entitled “The Beginning”, I found myself fighting indoor allergies, sweaty eyeballs, um, alright--tears.  Awkward to say the least, as I was sitting in a bookstore sipping coffee.  It was an unexpected reaction to an essay written by someone I don’t even know.  I can't say it brought back memories because what went through my head hadn’t been forgotten, but the essay did result in fragmented memories coming back together that hadn't been that way since the birth of my son almost three and a half years ago.

I haven't appropriately honored my wife for bringing my son into this wonderful world in this forum; it's overdue and the time has come.  I also haven't talked about those first hours in the hospital after Paul was born and the initial thoughts that went through my head a brand new dad--not so much the lofty philosophical thoughts (because frankly, there weren't any), but rather my initial caveman reaction to going from being a father who's son is still on the inside to being a father with a son in my arms.  So i'll write these thoughts and reflections down because I need to for myself, but hopefully those of you who read this will carry something away as well.  Dads, especially you first-time dads, assuming my experience isn't unique, maybe you'll find you're not alone; there are other men standing around you--standing with you in the fraternity that is fatherhood.  Moms, if you have a husband who doesn't like or want to talk about his fist contact with fatherhood, maybe this will give you some glimpse into your man's inner workings.
Labor
Our pregnancy was pretty much a standard one.  Steph dealt with gestational diabetes and pregnancy-related hypertension, but that's not uncommon and it wasn't ever a real issue.  Good advise from the doctors, discipline on Steph’s part, and things went smoothly.  Late in the game though, Paul did a summersault and ended up breach.  No big deal again.  As the day approached our doctor talked us through the procedure to turn him around just prior to delivery.  If it worked, a normal delivery would follow; if it didn't he'd still arrive courtesy of a C-section.  The day arrived and we checked into the hospital, armed with all our knowledge and no experience, ready to bring our child into the world.  Check in, get "comfortable," a sonogram to confirm the position of the child, rotate as required, and deliver--ready, set, go!  We came in with the C-section scheduled and mentally prepared for the surgery.  One quick sonogram later we learned that our child decided to have mercy on Steph; as she slept the night prior, he reoriented himself and was pointy end down.  The doctor told us we had an option: go ahead with the C-section as scheduled, or start down the path of a normal delivery.  Either was fine, but due to Paul's position, the natural path would take a little more time than usual to allow him to move the rest of the way down the birth canal and into contact with the cervix.  Having nothing else to do and a preference not to have surgery, we opted for a normal labor.  A little extra time, plus another 14 or so hours (what we were told was the average length of labor for a first child in the U.S.) and we' have a baby on the outside.  We were nervous but ready.
About that whole 14 hour thing...the next 51 hours were the fastest and longest hours of my life.  You read it right, I said fifty-one hours.  Hours.  Nothing really went wrong, but everything took a long time or even longer.  Let me back up; nothing went wrong in this modern world, but Steph and Paul may not have survived the birth in times past.  Paul simply wasn't  moving down the birth canal like he should.  He came down a little, then stopped and decided to take a break, think about coming out later, who knows.  Steph started having some major league contractions somewhere along the way, but not near the end.  Paul just wasn’t ready.  She was a superstar and powered through it like it was business as usual and she had done it many times before.  I don't and can't understand how this is possible other that to believe what I've heard others say: you ladies are made to do this.  And for the record, it's not only mysterious to us men; I think it's miraculous.  I was there and watched my wife do something she had never done before--give birth to my son, after doing something else she had never done before--carry another human inside her body for nine months while that little guy grew from a microscopic size to almost seven pounds.  I get the science behind it all but when I hear scientists talk about it all I hear is Charlie Brown's teacher talking.  When you look only at the biological and chemical science of pregnancy and birth, you miss the absolute majesty of it all.  There just aren't adequate words in human language to capture what happens.  And our wives some how contain this in their bodies naturally!
My wife literally wore the doctor and her staff out.  Around the 49th hour our doctor came in, did some of that poking around doctor stuff and said, "OK, if that baby isn't on the outside in an hour, we're going to go ahead and do the C-section".  We hadn't asked about this or even really discussed it between us since opting for labor, but when she said it Steph and I were absolutely agreeable and ready.  Exactly one hour later, our doctor retuned, did some more doctorly poking around, said some scholarly things about things with Latin names, and everything shifted to the surgery.
We Have A Son!
Another hour passed and Paul arrived.  I was in scrubs and sitting at Steph’s head.  The room was cool, and Steph was all bundled up (from where I sat), wrapped in sheets and blue towels, interestingly, looking a lot like Paul would just a few hours later after the nurses swaddled him.
The c-section was relatively fast after so many hours of labor.  Steph was a champion.  We exchanged small but important words, mostly exchanges of “I love you” and “how are you doing?”  She seemed very calm and I was nervous.  At one point she told me she felt like she couldn’t breath very well.  I glanced up at the monitor and anesthesiologist; things looked fine and he comforted her immediately by assuring her it was a common feeling due to the anesthesia, but that she was breathing fine and her oxygen levels were good.  Steph seemed OK and I had to trust him.  Very shortly after, our doctor said, “OK dad, I’m ready to deliver the baby, do you want to stand up and see?”  I winked at Steph and stood just in time to see my son enter the world.  His back was to me as the doctor gently and smoothly lifted him up with her hands under his arms.  Just a few seconds later and I heard his voice for the first time as he began to cry.  My heart leapt for joy and broke at the same time.  Nothing was wrong; everything was right and good.  And I had just witnessed the most amazing thing in my entire life:  the birth of my firstborn son; and my amazing wife who instantly became a hero in my eyes.
I’ve seen some amazing things through the 47 years of my life.  I’ve traveled to all but one continent on this earth, been to some of the wealthiest and poorest nations, worked as an EMT and firefighter, and served in combat along side my brothers and sisters in arms.  I have never seen anything that rivals what my wife did.  I didn’t do it; she did.  She bore my son, kept him safe, nourished him by God’s grace, then made herself completely vulnerable by placing herself at the mercy of everyone except herself as she lay helpless on her back on a table--entrusting herself entirely into the hands of people she really didn’t know.  And our son was born.

Like Alec Wilkinson wrote in the third essay in Fathers and Sons, I began to cry.  Just like him, I didn’t anticipate it.  In fact, I didn’t even think about my possible reaction to my son’s birth in advance.  Here’s what Alec said, “I did not expect to cry when my son was born--it seemed a silly and conventional and trivial thing to do, weep for joy, like a figure in an advertisement--but I did, quite suddenly and without warning, as if it were a reflex.”  I was blown away and I shed tears: not bawling, not even sobbing, but I quietly and lovingly wept in absolute awe of my wife.  Although it wasn’t the case before Paul was born, at that moment it became inconceivable to me that anyone can view human life as anything but miraculous: whether you’re a creationist, evolutionist, a noneoftheaboveist or a nothingatallist.  You get my point:  life is a miracle and my wife and son are the proof.  Ladies, you rock.  Moms, you’re something even more special.  You have facilitated miracles.
Men who are dads, if you don’t respect this about your wives, you should probably just turn in your man cards now, if you can find it.  If you think I’m right and can’t tell your wives what you think, or the other men in your lives, I fraternally encourage you to grow a pair or send your card to me and I’ll discretely dispose of it for you.  (We’ll never speak of this again.)  If you’re one of those other men and would presume to mock a fellow man who happens to be a dad and tells you something like this, turn your card in too, and use some form of express mail.  Finally, if you’re a single man or husband with no kids, I humbly ask you to just accept and respect what I’m telling you.  If and when your turn comes; let me know if you think I missed the mark on this.  By the way, unless you were born in a lab courtesy of a test tube, if you have the privilege of still having your dad around, consider finding the right time to ask him (or any other dad you respect) for his thoughts.  Be prepared to learn something (or to confiscate his man card).  I know you’ll do the right thing.
The first few nights after Paul was born were ordinary in one context, but extraordinary in another.  The extraordinary aspects I’m referring to are my own reactions to some very common things that happen with many an average newborn.  Nothing about the events of those next few short days and hours surprised me, but my reactions stunned me.  If you’re interested, please be patient and I’ll write more about this story soon.
It’s great to be a dad!