Mass Love in the Wake of Mass Tragedy

By Gregory Keer

In the wake of the horrific mass shooting in Orlando on Sunday, June 12, what heartens me are the persistent waves of love pouring out from all over the country and the world. I believe more than ever that love far outweighs the hate in this world, and that it is something we must show and teach our children now more than ever. I also believe that gun-control action is vital, and that we must address the loopholes in our laws in the name of expanding the safety that I hope we all agree is the goal. However, what I also want to emphasize is a greater consciousness toward connecting with each other on a daily basis, not just after tragedy strikes. We have to notice and care about the pain and anger in others, then be relentless in getting help for those who show it. I am not naive enough to think that we can head all killers off before they pick up a weapon, but I do think that we should do more than tolerate each other. Everyday acts of kindness can be drops of water that might eventually fill up oceans of support to keep more people afloat in an often arid world of disconnection. We don’t have to kiss and hug everyone we meet, but we can be kind, provide eye contact, say hello. This blog, which I struggle to find time to use in this crazy, busy life, is one tool of connection for me. Maybe it will reach someone new today. I hope it reminds any reader that I am, many of us are, wanting to make things a little bit better.

Posted in Blog, Morals, Social Action, Values | Leave a comment

Letter of Recommendation

By Gregory Keer

HSGradDear Benjamin,

I am writing to spill my guts about your high school graduation and the beginning of your new journey at college. You know much of what I’m about to say, but try to hold your usual criticism of my logic – one of the many things I thought I would not miss, but will.

To say I’m not ready for you to go would be untrue. I’m ready mostly because you are ready. It’s been 18 years of taking you to school, coaching you for sports, figuring out what you’ll eat for dinner, counseling you when friends let you down, and losing my cool when you make errors in judgment. I’ve been there to clean up your throw-up and taken you to medical appointments for everything from broken bones to acne. I’ve watched you sing at the top of your lungs, become too embarrassed to say hello to a relative, then make a speech to an entire student body.

I know you are prepared to handle many of life’s challenges. You can handle an interview without us in the room, maintain a checking account (you even bought me dinner with your first debit-card transaction), and explain molecular biology with enthusiasm.

You worked your tail off to build a rounded high school portfolio with challenging courses, community service, leadership, and athletic accomplishment (which you did begrudgingly, but one day will appreciate). In a college-application process that is absurdly grueling and unpredictable, you wrote soul-searching essays by the dozen, not without struggle, but with the honesty and clarity of a young man who knows who he is, and worries little about who others expect him to be.

Why wouldn’t I be proud to see you capable of flying on your own? It has been our job to get you out there, and that is what we’ve done – though with a lot of trial and error.

Part of me hates to see you leave because I like you. I like your laugh, which has been low and easy since you were a baby. I like your random hugs. I like your condescending tone when you say, “I will, Dad,” when I ask you to take out the trash or call a grandparent or eat lunch. I like your mop of hair, of which I am very jealous because, as you enjoy reminding me by tapping my bald spot, I am follicly challenged. I like the space you fill in our home, our days, our hearts.

Your departure will create a void, yet I am thrilled to see you go off on one of the adventures I have dreamed of for you. You are our first-born child. All of these emotions and experiences about culmination are new to us, and they sometimes feel like a giant load of laundry we just can’t carry to the washer without losing a few articles along the way. Only it’s not clothing articles we’re shedding, it’s tears.

Yes, you are your own man, Benjamin. You’ve weathered my suggestions, critiques, and harangues with the patience of a saint, and filtered the words to select what works for you. Sometimes I’ve bridled at your independence, but in my most rational state of mind, I’m so proud of your development that I get a little tingly. Sorry if that sounds weird, but indulge your old man a bit longer.

You have been an excellent role model for your younger brothers. You are respectful of us, careful with money, and an engaged student. Your siblings follow suit and have learned more from the way you do things than from anything we have taught them. Yes, you have sometimes been impatient and annoyed with them, but what sticks out in their minds are the times you drove them to activities, picked up their favorite box of cereal, and read with them and kissed them good-night.

As your grade-level dean at school for the past two years, I’ve been able to see your growth few from a vantage point few parents get to enjoy. I’ve run many class meetings for you and your class. I’ve embarrassed you plenty, though always out of love, which you’ve endured graciously. In one of the meetings, at a recent school event, we held a traditional “yarn ceremony” for the seniors. Sitting in a circle, each student said a few words about what they were grateful for before passing a large spool of green yarn to someone special to them. One of your friends called you out and explained how you were there for him during a particularly difficult period. As meaningful as it was for you, it was even more so for me. I saw the impact of your generous spirit, something you’ve shown for others since you were in daycare.

Your ability to connect has allowed you to maintain friendships since preschool and make new friends almost at will. By your own admission, you are no social butterfly, but you are easy to talk to and listen better than anyone I know. I’ve been privileged to see this in many situations, not the least of which is your relationship with Lili. Your attentiveness, fairness, and loveliness with each other go far beyond your years.

Society marks success for teenagers for all kinds of achievements, but seldom commends them for compassion and caring that likely matters most in the long term.

These qualities shone through at the talent show for your school retreat. To humor your sentimental dad, you agreed to come on stage at the end of my annual Tigger song performance. On cue, you walked up, dressed as Eeyore, to the applause of scores of people who know you to be shy but always a good sport. I told the audience you had been the inspiration for my singing a few bars of the little ditty that became my theme song years ago, and that the inspiration would continue even with you moving on from high school.

I hugged you tightly and you hugged back, burying your face in my neck. As tall and accomplished as you are, the gesture reassured me that you will always be my cuddly son. It’s a moment I will get to replay forever.

Love,

Dad

 

© 2016 Gregory Keer. All rights reserved.

Posted in Adolescence, Blog, Child Development, Columns by Family Man, Education, Graduation, School, Teens, Values | 2 Comments

Purple Pain

By Gregory Keer

PrinceIn 2011, I published the following piece about taking my sons to a Prince concert. I don’t get a lot right in my typical daily parenting, but this is one I nailed. Forcing my kids to see a musician who has meant so very much to me in my sense of the musically possible and the downright moving was one of my better calls. When he died, both my elder sons texted me the news as Prince’s concert and his work had become a shared experience. Man, I will miss the Purple One. Long may his music live. Long will his music live.

As a 14-year veteran of Father’s Day, it’s time to admit I am frequently as immature as my children. I throw tantrums about things like my sons’ inability to acknowledge my voice until I raise it and the fact that I still can’t get through a night without a child waking me for water or (after climbing into our bed) “accidentally” kicking me in the groin. Yet, nothing sets me off as much as accusations of unhipness. Here’s a text exchange between my thirteen year old and me: Me: We’re seeing Prince tonight. The $25 seats are too hard to pass up! Benjamin: ??? I dnt really wnt 2 Me: He is a legend and amazing in concert. Benjamin: blehhh nooo Frankly, I had already anticipated this reaction, along with my son’s top reasons for refusing to see the artist formerly known as The Artist Formerly Known as Prince:

  1. Prince is 53 years old.
  2. Most of his big hits charted during the 1980s, a decade my son imagines featured men wearing powdered wigs.
  3. Pursuant to the last point, Prince looks kind of like a girl. Male music stars should not put on eyeliner or prance around in high heels. Rather they must show their colors in tattoos and sort-of wear pants (but not around their waists).
  4. Prince plays too many types of music to be that good at any one of them.
  5. He is one of Dad’s favorite artists and thus must be shunned because, as an adolescent, Benjamin fears identifying with the very human being he is most trying to distinguish himself from.

Given my understanding of these points, I should have showed patience with my eldest son. Better yet, I should have been content with the feedback from my nine year old, who cheered when I announced I was taking him to his first genuine rock concert. After all, Jacob is the one who asks me questions about music-star backgrounds, recognizes classic tunes within the first few notes, and joins me in singing Daddy’s favorite songs in the car.

But I could not leave well enough alone. In the hours before leaving for the show, I argued with Benjamin about why he had to go. Over time, our exchanges escalated:

(Mild contention) Benjamin: I don’t like Prince’s songs.

Me: You’ve listened to a few seconds of two songs.

Benjamin: That was enough.

(Medium disagreement) Me: Prince will be remembered long after your foul-mouthed rap stars are gone.

Benjamin: I don’t have to like everything you like. And you don’t know anything about rap.

Me: Actually, I was listening to rap when it was invented.

Benjamin: Rap has gotten so much better since a hundred years ago.

(Full-on yelling) Benjamin: I just don’t want to go! I’ll be bored!

Me: You have to go! I paid for your ticket!

Benjamin: Fine! I will go, but just because I would feel guilty the whole night if I didn’t!

At the concert, it was a mixed bag to have Benjamin with us. We got there at 7pm and were upgraded (that night of the tour was not sold out yet) from the upper-deck to a dozen rows from the floor. “These are the best seats we’ve ever sat in,” Benjamin said as he eyed the nearby stage, shaped in Prince’s glyph symbol.

After a prolonged lead-in, the Purple One made his dramatic entrance, which had Jacob and me standing in ovation with a crowd of people of all ages. The man behind “1999” and “Kiss,” was then every bit as entertaining as I imagined. His voice soared, his guitar wailed, and his backing musicians rocked. Benjamin refused to stand much during the dancing everyone else engaged in, but I did catch him occasionally looking transfixed by a brilliant musician who transcends time.

With the performance starting so late, I had to pull myself — and my energized middle son — away early from a show that went on past 1am. As I drove home with my boys asleep and my ears ringing from “Let’s Go Crazy” and “Housequake,” I wondered if Benjamin had a better time than he expected.

Then I stopped the internal debate to prove my hipness. It really didn’t matter. This night was more about wanting to share music I loved with my kids. It was a gift to myself. One day, Benjamin might appreciate that his dad took him to see a legend in concert. But on this night, I was just happy to have my sons standing with me in the “Purple Rain.”

Posted in Adolescence, Columns by Family Man, Father's Day, Music | 3 Comments

Spinning the Presidential Election for Kids

GoodElectionImageBy Gregory Keer

Name calling, whining, blaming. If our children do anything of these things, we call them out and explain why these practices are bad. If we see our kids repeat the practices, we give them consequences to increase the likelihood they will choose a positive path.

Yet, our politicians do this negative stuff all the time. And we let them do it. Sure, we might wag our finger at them, but we do not give our politicians consequences for acting like ill-behaved toddlers. In fact, many people support it via trash-talking (sometimes racist and sexist) posts in newspaper comment sections and on call-radio programs.

Some psychological analysis would explain this as being our need to simplify our voting choices in the face of the intense complexity of domestic and international issues. We do not have time or the desire to wade through all the particulars of whether our candidates have solid ideas or track records, so we react to the most basic, gut-level feelings. We think, “He seems like he’s sure of himself or she seems tough enough,” so we go with that. This is why candidates speak to each other, and us, like we are less intelligent than we are.

However, we are smarter and more caring than that. We need to be for ourselves and for our kids. America’s young people look to us, first, not to politicians. As the primary election circus rolls through our country with the behavior of a rock band that trashes hotel rooms, we parents have the opportunity to filter what our politicians are doing and saying, and teach our children well in the harsh light.

One of the first lessons we can explain is about being nice. We ask our children to play nice, talk politely, and act with gratitude. Then they see politicians knock each other down for all kinds of reasons, some of them worth discussing, but not worth ripping each other apart by calling each other liars, cheats, and weaklings. Rather than completely shield children from the melee, manage the media your child consumes by reading news articles and sitting with them through TV reports, maybe even review recent debate footage on the Internet. Pause in your reading or viewing to explain not just what is being said by the candidates, but the way they are saying it. When your child reacts to something negative done by a candidate, explain that this what people do when they are just trying to win a game and are willing to be mean to weaken their opponent and make themselves look better by comparison. Adults do this mostly when they have little better to say. That is where the real weakness is.

Point out when you think a candidate is taking the high road to be kind or at least considerate. Help your child notice that this is when the politician is feeling more certain that his or her point is strong. The fact is that no one – child or adult – acts poorly when they are feeling confident. Guide your son or daughter to the positive statements. You can even keep track of the number of negative and positive comments in a news piece or debate and see which candidate ends up with the most high-level points.

Often, politicians knock each other down without substantiated cause. The expectation is that the voting public will not check the facts. You can select a few points from each of the candidates and fact-check them through unbiased sources on the Internet. One source is Politifact.com, a joint venture by the Tampa Bay Times and Congressional Quarterly. Doing this with your child will help them see who the real truth-tellers are.

For looking at debates and the like, it’s also important to notice which candidates listen to their opponents and those who talk over them or ignore their questions. This is the kind of rude behavior we want our kids to avoid and to expect their leaders to refrain from. Arguing is not bad as it can lead to understanding more than one’s own perspective. The problem is not being able to argue civilly and respectfully.

To give our kids a better idea of the playing field being considered, aid them with reading and seeing the perspectives of as many of the players as possible. Most candidates want to shrink the amount of information, so it is incumbent on us parents to fill in the blanks so that our children can learn how to fairly assess the situation rather than relying on others to do it for them.

All of this is lot of work, but there are few better occasions to teach our children that the reason we want them to be nicer, more fair, and accountable human beings is to feel better about themselves when all the other idiots are knocking each other down. We must educate our kids about the childish and unfair behavior in the world, too, so they can know there is plenty of weakness in the world, yet it’s possible to rise above it and be rewarded for it.

While it’s easy to call all politicians scumbags, it is important to note something I learned from a political speech writer my high school students and I recently interviewed for a debate class. When asked if all elected officials were like those seen on a TV series like House of Cards, the speech writer replied that the vast majority of politicians, of all backgrounds and beliefs, were in office to do some good.

As such, we do not want our children to distrust politics, but instead be active participants in the process of discerning who the best person for the job is. In so doing, not only do we prepare them to take care of the future, but perhaps they help us make our own in-depth voting decisions

© 2016 Gregory Keer. All rights reserved.

Posted in Blog, Columns by Family Man, Family Communication, Politics | Leave a comment

Be the Light

luke-yodaBy Gregory Keer

When the trailer for the new Star Wars movie came out, my eldest son was appalled that I waited two weeks to see it. Lucky for me, waiting allowed time for parodies to be created, and for my son to sit with me to share a few guffaws based on our common adoration of that galaxy far, far away.

Since my own childhood, Star Wars has had a way of influencing parent-child relationships. My personal love affair with Star Wars began when I was 11, as I took the stage, playing a dashing and devilish Darth Vader in what is now an immortal classic, A Star Wars Chanukah. It was a fitting part to play, since I was dealing with my own dark side as I sorted through the emotions of my parents’ break up.

My devotion to Lucas’ space mythology took a deeper turn when I saw The Empire Strikes Back. In the throes of adolescence, I had far less time with my father than I wanted. While I didn’t exactly have the paternal issues of Luke Skywalker – my dad was more prone to shaking my hand as opposed to lasering it off – I did feel a Force-like bond to a diminutive green man with a voice like Sesame Street’s Grover. For me, Yoda was the father figure I wanted, the kind of person to teach, challenge, and guide me to live well.

For a kid who lived in his head most of the time, nothing offered clarity better than the line: “Do. Or do not. There is no try.” So, I tried, with disappointing results.

At age 14, I was a middling student, a benchwarmer for the JV basketball team, a debater who approached each tournament with gremlins fighting in my stomach, and a romantic who had so little confidence in talking to girls that I wrote out scripts before I called anyone:

“Hello, Debbie, this is (rustling papers) Gregg Keer.” – “How are you?” – “You don’t remember me?” — “We (voice cracking) danced to “Freak Out?”

Yes, I certainly felt like a freak – and a geek – and I desperately wanted a Yoda. I talked to educators, a couple of whom were patient and wise guides like my English teacher Mr. West and my Western Civ instructor, Dr. Kleinz. I read magazine articles about famous actors who doled out life advice, like Paul Newman, or athletes like Magic Johnson. Everyone had something I could learn from, but it was all fleeting. The teachers at my school moved on to new students and celebrities weren’t exactly a phone call away.

One person was always a phone call away. He was even available for Tuesday carpool and Friday after-school deli lunches. He didn’t talk a whole lot, but he was there. Always there.

It was hard for me to let go of my anger and disappointment at my father’s departure from our nuclear family. I had little perspective of what was really going on with him. I was a self-centered teenager who wanted a mentor, and I thought it could not possibly be the quiet, steady man who helped conceive me.

Over the decades, my father was always present, available to listen more than give advice, though he offered life tips in simple and direct ways whenever it was needed. He practiced medicine in similarly understated manner, getting to know the parents and children as human beings with rich lives worth knowing about more than just patients who needed a stitch or a pill. His consistently ready and willing approach to everyone showed me the way, not with flash or fire but with long-lasting illumination.

When it came time for me to focus on a career in teaching, after years of trying to find myself in the make-or-break world of screenwriting, I slowly discovered the secret well-spring my father had long demonstrated. In teaching, I did not have to razzle-dazzle anyone. What I needed to do was be a rock-solid source of information and encouragement.

Many students, I found, wanted more than just a fly-by-night educator who would churn them through a year’s worth of lessons and then say goodbye. They sought a mentor who would learn what made them tick and give them a knowing nudge in the right direction for years to come. I’ve seen it in the senior high school students who ask me for assistance in choosing colleges, and I’ve experienced it with university undergraduates who request my critiques of their essays and short films. For me, having their trust in my wisdom has been immeasurably validating.

I never get tired of hearing from my students. Being a consistently guiding light, much in the way my father was for me, means so much in a world that often isolates and abandons its young people. It is a yearning that rings true in ageless science fiction characters, but is loudest in reality. Our children need mentors of all kinds, not just schoolteachers, but patient parents, coaches, karate instructors, ballet directors, family friends, employers. We adults must shed our own self-doubts, our internal and external complications, and stay committed to guiding our children. As Yoda once said, “In a dark place we find ourselves, and a little more knowledge lights our way.”

© 2015 Gregory Keer. All rights reserved.

Posted in Adolescence, Columns by Family Man, Divorced Dads, Education | Leave a comment

Jacob Doing Work

IMG_3894Dear Jacob,

When you were born, your eyes opened wide like window shades snapping up to let daylight in. Your big brown peepers compelled everyone’s attention as if to say, “That was a long 40 weeks. Now, let’s get to work.”

You’ve been working ever since. A whirlwind of cerebral, emotional, and physical activity, you are the most productive human being I know. You do everything with a fire that propels you to seize every moment with the gusto of a swashbuckling pirate. “Yar, mateys, if we keep sailing west, we can get the day’s third chest of gold booty before sunset!”

For a father who sometimes barely musters the energy level of a base sloth, this has been a challenge. From babyhood to elementary school, you kept me awake nights wailing for attention when you lost your pacifier, itself likely exhausted from overwork. You made me chase after you as you scooped up curious items from the ground – cigarette butts, coins, tree droppings – before I could snatch them from your mouth. You had me read books to you way past my bedtime and rush out to the store for more art supplies to feed your bottomless drive to draw enough pictures to wallpaper our house.

And then there were the questions. “Why is it hot? What is the name of that tree? Why did you say that bad word?”

Often, I’d fret from exhaustion. “I don’t think I can answer another question about how old everyone he’s ever met is,” I’d say. “And how many times do I have to say no to another hermit crab, hamster, or beta fish?”

You even asked for another dog, not long after that crazy hound mistook your face for a steak. Nothing could deter your quest to grab more from life, despite the obstacles thrown at you.

Mom and I have spent many nights, catching our breath from the Jacob Keer Experience. However, our exhaustion has frequently turned to laughter and amazement at how much you accomplished each day. You may have drained our batteries by sundown, but our joy in raising such a vibrant boy has recharged us for sunup.

To bask a little more in your radiance, I coached you in basketball and soccer. Corralling you for drills wasn’t easy, yet it seemed to pay off. Eventually, your athletic smarts and strength outgrew me and you became the darting demon you are on the soccer pitch. I can’t tell you the pride I felt that day last year when – after years of developing your skills through practice in the backyard and at the park – you placed a penalty kick into the upper corner of the net to secure the championship for your team.

You and I have always shared a love for music. You do my heart good when you sing classic U2, Van Morrison, Prince, and Three Dog Night songs that you’ve somehow memorized in just a couple of listens. You make me beam with pride with performances on the ukulele and guitar. And you floor me with the kind of relentless attention to detail you give in writing lyrics to a song you’re mimicking or creating from scratch.

Sometimes, a lot of times, we fight about getting out of the house, doing chores, being polite to your brothers, or whatever else fathers and sons battle over. I feel awful when I lose my temper and wonder why you don’t acknowledge that I struggle, too, to find ways to communicate the right things in the right way. And then you’ll do something like make me a Father’s Day breakfast Wolfgang Puck would be jealous of or write a suspenseful story to put The Hunger Games to shame. These accomplishments teach me that you are listening, you are learning from me and Mom. You’re just listening and learning so fast, there’s no time to sit and just say, “Wow, look at what’s happening here.”

Well, I am doing just that, Jacob. I’m saying a huge “Wow” about all that’s been happening and continues to happen with everything you do. Everything you are.

You are impressive not just because of what you achieve, but how you achieve it. You work so very hard. Even when you throw your hands in the air in frustration, teetering on giving up on an essay or planning a social adventure with a dozen friends, you gather yourself and get back to the task at hand.

You worked hard, once again, to prepare for the momentous rite of passage that is your bar mitzvah. Everyone gets to experience the fruits of your labor. As for me, I may be the slowest moving guy in the family, but my love and pride keep pace with you, Jacob. May you always love the process and the work it takes to live a life you have filled to the top since the moment you were born.

Love,

Dad

Posted in Adolescence, Child Development, Columns by Family Man, Perspective, Teens | 1 Comment

Math Mayhem

SchoolhouseRockMathIn third grade, I was a multiplication whiz. I had memorized most of the times tables with the help of Schoolhouse Rock’s clever cartoons such as “Three is the Magic Number” and “Naughty Number Nine.” I was driven by the candy rewards my teacher promised with each recitation of the correct sums.

From multiplication, I went to the world of percentages, particularly as they applied to baseball statistics. I huddled over box scores each morning with my cereal and could recite batting averages at random with my buddies as we compared baseball cards.

It all went downhill from there. By the time I reached middle school, I was a tangled mess of a mathematician. Algebra proved to be my biggest downfall. You know, the very basis of all advanced arithmetic.

In my first year of high school, I would sit with Mrs. Goldberg, a kindly, infinitely patient educator, and go through algebraic equations again and again. Almost every time we completed a problem, she’d stop to say, “Now, does that make sense?”

I’d sit there, sometimes more worried about disappointing her than myself, and reply, “No.”

She’d exhale slowly and ask, “What don’t you understand?”

My response: “Everything.”

The poor woman once snapped a pencil in two before collecting herself to try another approach.

Despite the extra help from teachers, tutors, my father – for whom math came quite easily and my struggles were a confounding mystery– I became a math disaster. My confidence was so shaken that, even if an occasional ray of light shone through in practice, I’d manage to muck things up on a test. I couldn’t so much as look at an equation or say the word “math” without feeling queasy. When I was placed in a remedial math class in 10th grade, my humiliation was complete. I felt like numerical dunce.

Try as I might to keep from transferring my issues to my children, some of this pain has reared its ugly head in my kids. Thankfully, my middle son has emerged from earlier struggles through a work ethic that makes mine pale in comparison. However, my eldest and youngest boys have been through the arithmetic ringer.

This past year, Benjamin (16) labored through a second semester of Algebra 2, nailing all of his homework assignments, yet suffering on his exams. Each time, he would go into the test feeling he knew the material, then, in the heat of the assessment, he would get stuck on a problem or two, puzzle them through backward and forwards, and invariably run out of time. His confidence dropped further with each test so much that he doubted his ability to do well even before he started. His math teacher gave him extra instruction, the department chair helped him during office hours, and we found a great peer tutor to aid with the final exam prep.

In the end, Benjamin passed the class, but not without feeling that math was a dark labyrinth that offered little daylight. This troubled me because I hated seeing my son slip down a slope of declining faith in his abilities and, worse, because I could offer no help other than commiseration.

For my nine-year-old, it’s hard to tell whether his math problems stemmed from the dislike of the challenge or from the challenge being too great for his developing brain. Just getting Ari to sit down to do calculations was like pulling on the leash of a dog that doesn’t want to go outside. When I did get Ari to approach a set of problems, he’d frequently get so tied up in knots that we splashed around countless puddles of tears (both his and mine).

From attempting to boost Benjamin’s confidence before tests to hand-holding Ari while he scribbled out answers, nothing helped pave my kids’ way to mathematical success.

I realize, after a summer of reflection, that my sons’ struggles are not necessarily mine. My genetics might have something to do with their math block, but it doesn’t mean I can be the one to fix it. In fact, the more I tried to fix it, the more I interfered in their individual process of getting out of the mess. All I saw was their pain and my need to alleviate it. As a result, we all finished the year feeling unsettled about the situation.

As the new school year begins, I intend to follow a different approach. My children’s battle with math is not a chance for me to rectify all that went wrong in my own number conundrums. Instead, I will be supportive from afar and let the fresh year, with different teachers, lead the way to hopefully a better experience for my kids. If they do struggle, so be it. I know of at least one person who made it to his 40s only being good at memorizing baseball stats.

© 2014 Gregory Keer. All rights reserved.

Posted in Columns by Family Man, Education, Perspective | Leave a comment

Words for My Father

By Gregory Keer

DadwBenjToday would have been my father’s 75th birthday. We had been planning to celebrate it for months and months prior to this date, July 12, 2014. Cancer had other plans, and it took him away from us on February 9 of this year, following a diagnosis less than four months earlier.

After my dad’s death, I took a hiatus from this Web site, partly in keeping with the advice he often gave me to try to slow down a bit more to gather in the details of life. But, on this day when it’s so very hard to be without him, I want to recognize the meaning he had for me in some fashion that feels right. Below is a version of the eulogy I gave at Dad’s funeral. It was surreal to be speaking about him in past tense when I said the words in front of the hundreds who came out to honor him that day. It still doesn’t feel quite real — and yet it is. Grieving is a long process, but remembering is forever, especially when it involves a man such as my father.

***

There are many reasons why I write. A number of them are because of my father. Dad, the man of science, was also a man of poetry. He wrote of moments and emotions in loving phrases to his luminous wife Franny and he etched in ink words of praise and vivid observation to all his children. He even wrote a children’s story about “Rollo,” a ball who learned to keep moving if he wanted to enjoy the world around him.

At times, I struggled to talk to my dad. There was the divorce, which took him away from daily opportunities to converse and he was needed by tens of thousands of patients over a 45-year career. Sometimes, I felt I couldn’t get enough of him. I certainly couldn’t get enough of him on the phone. My sister Kim can attest to my father’s dislike of the phone — often exhausted by work calls, Dad treated the receiver like it was one of Maxwell Smart’s shoe communicators that had come in contact with a pile of dog poop.

One of my motivations to write was to find ways to stop time, particularly in the hyperspace of adolescence, and tell my dad how much I loved him, how much I needed his words of validation. In my pre-teen and teen years, I wrote cards to him, with painstakingly chosen messages. It helped, especially since he wrote back cards to me, with sentences that never failed to reduce me to tears because they shone with such love and attention to the details of my concerns.

It was partly through my father’s writings that I was assured he was always thinking of me, crafting ways to guide me, even when he wasn’t talking out loud. They also showed me how much my dad preferred action over words. Dad was a doer, and the relationship we had over 47 years was less about chit chat or parental lecturing and more about playing basketball together, going to baseball games, and taking trips. So many trips to places like Chicago to see the grandparents, Philadelphia for father-son time, the Sierras for moments of hilarity with the Sussmans, Yosemite for one of many KJ adventures, Palm Desert with all the grandchildren, and Paris for a grown-up vacation with Franny – who, together with Dad, taught me so very much about love and partnership that I was able to find the most remarkable woman in Wendy. My God, there were so many vacations that he made happen so he could enjoy his loved ones without distractions.

Certainly, there were distractions, as there are in any life led in service to a community, that wedged between my dad and my efforts to get more words and attention from him. Often, when we were out at a supermarket together or a ballgame, he’d get approached by a patient who wanted to say hello to their favorite doctor. He was a bit of a celebrity, my dad, and I was known for 30-plus years as Dr. Keer’s son. It was a great coup for me one day when Dad called me up to tell me a student of mine came into the office and asked him, “Aren’t you Mr. Keer’s father?” Finally, I had turned the tables on him. And no one was prouder of it than Dad.

I wanted this speech to be funnier – Dad had such a great appreciation for humor  — as he showed me through the tapes of Johnny Carson clips with legendary comedians, the afternoons of watching Mel Brooks movies, and his own goofiness and willingness to be poked fun at for his follicle-y challenged head, his bird-like legs, and his woefully underprivileged sense of rhythm.

But, I’m not feeling easily humored right now. I’m just beginning to miss him. I’m floating in the fog of all the subtle ways he enhanced my life through little gestures and a consistency of presence that I often took for granted. For a father of such carefully selected words and a son who never seems to shut up, we had one particular trip that was emblematic of our entire journey together. It was a weekend stay in San Francisco two years ago to see the Dodgers play the Giants, to eat great food since we both like that kind of thing, and to just — be — together. Not talking so much, just being.

He was really good at just being.

So, Dad, thank you for being with me. Thank you for being with all of us.

Posted in Aging, Columns by Family Man, Death, Grandparents, Helping Kids Understand Loss, Marriage, Perspective, Values | 1 Comment

Family Man Recommends: Quick Picks for January 2014

Reviewed by Gregory Keer

The beginning of the year in family music offers a trickle of reviewable discs (lots more starting next month), but there are a couple of nifty educational children’s music albums worth an earful. The first is by the “First Lady of Children’s Music,” Ella Jenkins, whose latest release if 123s and ABCs.

The other pick for this month is by actress-singer-songwriter Helen Slater (you might recall her from City Slickers and Supergirl). Slater, who once played Supergirl on the big screen, sings and tells stories about some of the heroes from mythology on Myths of Ancient Greece.

Posted in Children's Music Reviews, Family Man Recommends, Family Music, Family Music Reviews | Leave a comment

Great Expectations

By Gregory Keer

great_expectationsI always think I’m going to enjoy the holidays more than I do. I imagine the days off as time that will allow me to reduce my stress, live in the moment, and enjoy family and friends. Oh, those carefree hours to play basketball in the yard with the kids, go to a few movies together, laugh, eat and share stories around the holiday table.

Yeah. Right.

Instead, stress seems to escalate — mostly because of all these hopes. My kids don’t like playing basketball (not with me, and certainly not together). My adolescent boys see all the good movies with their friends. And meals are spent with Wendy and me running around serving people, asking the kids not to talk over each other, and usually ending with someone crying or yelling or pouting.

Often, that someone is me.

Whereas most people like to reference A Christmas Carol around the holidays, I relate more, at least in terms of the title, to Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations. I set my bar impossibly high, imagining all my thirst for the joys of family life will be quenched in a mere two-week period.

This year, I aim to change all that. I’m planning to clear up all my holiday problems in one fell swoop. A lot to expect? Perhaps. So, let me rephrase — I’m going to make the winter festival season a little better by lowering my expectations.

First, I need more me-time. One of my mistakes as a parent, especially during the holidays, is believing that I have to be engaged with the children at every possible moment. When they were little, I needed to be guiding them and playing with them. Now, they don’t want to spend that much time with me, not because they don’t love me, but because they are individuating and hanging out with people who are helping define them beyond my reach. And, to a large degree, that’s the way it should be.

So, instead of licking my wounds about being irrelevant, I need to take more private hours to read one of those neglected novels, sleep in or take naps, and go to the good movies with my wife or even by my lonesome if no one will go to the cineplex with me. These are gifts I will give to myself, but they will also teach my sons that we are all better people to our loved ones when we are first good to ourselves.

Second, I need to play sports differently. So what if my kids don’t like basketball and won’t play sports together as I always envisioned they would? I’ll hit the field or court with them separately for whatever sport they wish — even if it’s just for 10 minutes each, one time each over the entire course of the two weeks. When they say they’re done playing, I’ll stop and consider the session a success. Usually, I run into problems because I nag them to play a little longer so I can teach them a few things. I have this grand idea they will learn a couple of tips from the old man. Not during these holidays, not this time. The point will just be to have fun.

Third, I will not try to turn meals into some version of The Waltons’ holiday dinners with everyone politely sitting ‘round the table, delighting in their togetherness. My children don’t even know who The Waltons were, which may be part of the problem. In fact, I kind of hate The Waltons now because they corrupted my sense of what holiday meals are supposed to be. Instead, I will allow our dinners to be as chaotic as my kids want since that’s my family’s way. In my house, the kids eat turkey stuffing with their fingers, my younger ones jump up from the table at random to sing Bruno Mars tunes, and my eldest goes on philosophical political rants with his unsuspecting grandparents. I will just sit back and enjoy the always-delicious food, restraining myself from trying to control the situation, and realizing that I’m lucky enough to have family to share the mayhem.

Honestly, I’m not entirely sure this will work out, but I have to try. After 15 years of expecting my holidays to be as perfect as the ending to It’s a Wonderful Life, it’s time to prepare a bit more for the unexpected and just bask in it.

It may be that, upon stepping back from my role as a wannabe winter-season patriarch, my kids will take up the reigns and drive the sleigh of fun and togetherness activities. Perhaps they’ll look at me and say, “Dad, we love how hard you work at family holidays so we’re going to reward you with family basketball and a dinner of toasts to the greatness of you and mom.”

But that’s a hope, not an expectation.

Posted in Columns by Family Man, Holidays, Perspective, Work-Family Balance | 1 Comment