Life is a Sandwich

SandwichGenBy Gregory Keer

If you ask my wife, I am forever trying to catch up with her. When we walk the dog together, she’s booking down the road like a New Yorker trying to catch a cab while I mosey behind like a movie cowboy after a giant breakfast. Speaking of eating, my children constantly complain of how deliberate I consume dinner. I eat the way a worm might chew on a peanut butter sandwich.

Yet, when it came to starting a family, I was not alone in my slowness. While I was taking a circuitous career path through various writing and teaching gigs, my wife was also wending her way through graduate school. Neither of us was ready to have kids in such uncertainty, particularly because we were making only enough money to get by.

By the time our first child entered the world, Wendy and I were into our 30s, a decade older than our parents were when they began having kids. But we had jobs, just enough money to buy a small house, and a surrounding family populated by our son’s grandparents, several great-grandparents, aunts, uncles, and plenty of friends. We had love and support and a constantly growing wave of positivity that built as Wendy and I developed meaningful careers while we grew our family with only rare cloudy days to darken a bounty of sunshine. Life ambled at a pace that felt just right.

As I hit the late-40s of my charmed existence, the speed of existence revved up. My father came down with a virulent strain of cancer and was gone within five months. It happened so fast, I’m not sure I had enough time to draw a full breath. Now, I feel as if it was merely yesterday that he was with us. I still imagine life with him around to applaud his grandchildren’s accomplishments and just to talk about baseball on a Sunday.

Within a year of my father’s passing, my father-in-law’s health began to deteriorate due to Lewy body dementia and Parkinson’s disease. Sheldon was always a rock of a guy, a man of few words, but enduring support of his family. Worse for me has been watching my wife struggle to help him, her mom, and her sisters cope with the kind of extra care he needs to merely live out his days in ever-dimming light.

I write all of this to gain perspective on being in what is commonly called a “sandwich,” of being some kind of mystery meat between the slice of life that is raising children and the slice that is caring for aging parents. Sure, I saw a number of our friends scrambling to pick up kids from carpool and aid them with their college applications while helping parents stricken by everything from illness to financial woes. But that wasn’t supposed to happen in my family. We were meant to get our children through university, first jobs, and maybe even marriage before our parents started to fade. We had plans for our parents to coach us through a few more trials with the kids and regaling us with the wisdom of experience so that we could just enjoy the highlights of success.

Instead, we are dealing with pediatricians and geriatricians, nurturing our children’s wills while reading our parents’ wills, cheering at soccer games and hoping our remaining parents will still be able to recall our names.

Clearly, living in the sandwich is no picnic, but — it is vital to turn the sandwich into a feast of thanksgiving. We really have so much to be grateful for in that we have had parents in our lives who have loved us, taught us, and guided us so that we can bring up our own kids. We must be thankful that these parents have cherished and rejoiced in their grandchildren, and that these grandchildren have been lucky enough to be spoiled and schooled by their grandparents for every year they have had with them.

We must also appreciate that we still have a gaggle of grandmothers, and one great-grandmother, who are full of life despite the losses they have undergone or are undergoing. These women constantly remind us that the road provides plenty of detours yet strength and a focus on love keeps us all on a path of good surprises.

This Thanksgiving will be nothing like I would have imagined. It will not have all the people we would have wanted to be there and the conversation might be more about medical procedures than report cards. However, it will be a table around which sit vibrant living people and wondrous spirits who help us slow down to savor the time we have with each other.

© 2016 Gregory Keer. All rights reserved.

 

Posted in Aging, Columns by Family Man, Grandparents, Holidays | Leave a comment

Adolescent Fears Strike Out

HalloweenSpiderBy Gregory Keer

During my tenure as a dad, I’ve weathered enough horrors to rival anything the architects of Halloween could imagine. The middle-of-the night variety of nightmares has been enough to keep my heart racing just recalling it. Nothing rattles you like being startled by a wife who says, “Go check on the baby, I don’t think he’s breathing” or having a five-year-old exhaling on your sleeping face like an ax-murderer before announcing, “Can I cuddle with you guys?” Then, there have been the screeching cats I’ve stepped on while stumbling for 3am baby bottles and the Exorcist-style upchuck projecting from otherwise angelic children at the stroke of midnight.

As I’ve grown as a parent, my boys’ travails have given me frights that chilled me to the bone. The first time I couldn’t get a return phone call or text from my eldest when he drove to a friends’ house sent images of mayhem and destruction I wouldn’t wish on anyone’s imagination. When my middle son’s face was mauled by a dog, I thought I was somehow the monster for not having been there to prevent it.

For all my horrors, they pale in comparison to the ones my children have endured themselves, especially because they lack the life experience to know how they will get through challenges that range from social pressure to emotional catastrophe. While they know they have my wife and me to support them, their quest for independence has often pushed us away. In most cases, it is best to let them suffer scares alone, since they have to develop inner resources, but heaven knows it pains me to see them in pain.

Recently, my youngest child started middle school. As our third, he has been “the baby,” the one we’ve trusted to stay young and carefree. However, sixth grade has changed that forever. He’s forsaken the hairstyles that kept his cotton-ball hair wild in favor of a close-cropped, edgier look so no one will tease him for appearing too young. Although that makes me sad since those curls had been part of his identity since he was born, Ari’s leap into the shark-infested waters of adolescent fashion has gone further.

One weekend, he and I weeded out shirts he no longer would wear. With conviction, he stuffed a bag full of too-small clothes and anything with superheroes or seemingly playful graphics.

“Wait, you won’t wear Spider-Man anymore?” I asked, thinking the Marvel hero had to be cool enough for sixth grade.

“No, Dad. I don’t like Spider-Man, anymore.”

I nodded and continued packing with him, yet stopped again when he tossed a tee with a Minecraft parody on it that I bought him just a few months ago. Had he changed his taste that quickly?

“This shirt is funny,” I insisted. “And Minecraft is for grown-ups, too.”

Ari grimaced, suddenly looking older than I am. “There are these bullies in the bathrooms who make fun of you if you wear childish clothes.”

Hearing this, my blood boiled.

“What? Do they threaten you?”

“No, Dad – don’t worry about it.”

“I do worry. Has anyone hurt you? Or your friends?”

“No. I just don’t go in the bathroom during nutrition or lunch.”

Visions of Mark Wahlberg taking revenge on teen punks flashed in my mind.

“That’s not right. I think I should let the school know.”

At this point, Ari looked at me with a mix of wisdom and steely resolve that he must have acquired overnight.

“It’s OK. I know how to handle this. I just can’t wear these kind of t-shirts.”

Something on my face clearly affected Ari as he held the shirt in his fist. He softened, and put it back in his drawer.

“I’ll wear it on weekends.”

It’s been a couple of weeks since that talk, but not a day has gone by without my thinking about what might be going on in the school bathroom or halls. What would I do if my child did get beaten up or merely intimidated into running away to hide? How does he really feel inside? Does he feel inferior to these jerks? What can I do to boost his pride and bravery?

The truth is that these are my fears, my visions of what middle-school horror is. On Ari’s part, he seems more interested in talking on the phone with his new “squad” (the word he uses) of friends and making sure his teachers see him working hard. I’ve asked him a couple of times about the bullies and he tells me to stop asking him about it.  So I’ve stopped inquiring, even though I still fret over might happen.

What seems to matter is that my youngest boy, much as my older two who seemed to have more influence than I do, has taken ownership of at least some of his fears. I have to let him conquer the demons on his own, barring a raising of the stakes, of course. In this way, he gets to be the hero who defeats the villains and monsters that might plague him.

As for me, I’m sure to have plenty of other nightmares, mostly the result of my own over-heated imagination. And while I miss some of the frights associated with having to be the savior for little kids, I take a bit of pride that my children both want to and are capable of feeling their own way through the dark.

Posted in Adolescence, Child Development, Columns by Family Man, Education, Halloween, Holidays | Leave a comment

Schooling Boys About Girls

By Gregory Keer

respectThroughout my schooling, it wasn’t English or History that stumped me. It was girls. There was my second-grade test in flirting that ended with a classmate bashing me over the head with her very fashionable purse. This was followed by years of cluelessness that led to a high-school dating career marred by an uncanny ability to misread social cues, resulting in one common response: “I just like you as a friend.”

As evidenced by my improbably long-running success with the woman who agreed to marry me, I guess I figured a few things out. But the road to my wife was full of misunderstanding and miscommunication that could have been helped by better education than that provided by my Beavis- and Butthead-like friends, the macho stereotypes on TV, or the ultra-suave characters on the big screen. I was indeed blessed with parents who taught me the value of respect toward the opposite sex, but they gave me precious few insights into the intricacies of socializing with the ladies. And even in the heightened hormone hell of high school, teachers and administrators had precious little to say about gender issues save for the basic anatomical information in Health class.

Being a parent in today’s world presents some very stark reasons why raising a boy requires a lot more focus and intentionality than the methods of previous generations. The subject of male interaction with females is one of particular concern as evidenced by ugly and aggressive actions by young men towards women on college campuses, among other places, but the fact that it happens in college means that something is missing in the education – both formal and informal — of our boys. Somewhere along the line, a percentage of our young males has opted for instinctive displays of physical dominance instead of rationalized communication in order to get what they want from women. And there is support for this physical behavior by a number of parents and other people who should know better.

While disturbing behavior by boys in college requires a worthy and in-depth discussion, one path of contemplation is about what we parents might do to instill the deepest thinking and reinforce the healthiest behavior in our guys early on. As a father of three dudes who are quite distinct from one another, I have learned as much from them as I have taught them about sex, growing into manhood, and how to treat girls in social and more intimate situations. I’ve discussed these topics with them in a variety of situations, with varying degrees of success.

Recently, my wife and I talked to our youngest son, age 11, who was part of an elementary-school guy clique that saw girls as alien creatures who had no business on the fellas’ planet. On occasion, we’d ask Ari if he ever chatted with girls, and he’d say that one was bossy or another was nice. Our goal was to make sure that he was being polite, even if females were not part of his inner circle.

Beyond his boy band, Ari has benefited from a different perspective, as he is close with a girl he’s grown up with. They were at overnight camp together this past summer and the counselors told us that other kids had been making fun of them for being boyfriend and girlfriend. So, we asked our boy about it.

“I don’t remember anyone making fun of us,” he said, with a hint of a white lie.

“How would it make you feel if someone did give you a hard time about it?” my wife asked.

“I wouldn’t care. She’s my best friend.”

For Ari, his view of girls changes with the situation, but he has made it clear that friendship is friendship, no matter the gender. Friendship, and the equality that comes with it, is the root of what we encourage Ari to continue, especially with the coming storm of adolescence. While there is nothing wrong with the instincts that many boys have about girls being different from them in various ways, problems emerge when boys see girls as something less than them — when they view girls as inferior athletes, lesser students, or more fragile than guys are. Our boys need us, as parents, to educate them about all the goals girls can kick, the math problems they can solve, and the emotional ups and downs they can endure. More than that, our boys require us to help them see that their own weaknesses can be strengthened by healthy interactions with girls rather than activities in which boys try to dominate their counterparts.

Some may think these points of education are obvious or out-of-date, given the progress our society has made in gender equality. But this is where it’s important to bring back the issue of what has been happening on college campuses and beyond. There remains a lingering, sometimes intense current of male disrespect toward females that shows up in even the most seemingly progressive places. We have seen it in the case of the Stanford swimmer who attacked an unconscious girl after a party, and the mindless coddling of that attacker in terms of his light sentence. We have seen it in the professional athletes who have injured (or worse) their spouses, then received little consequence. In one case, a baseball player who had abused his wife received an ovation after returning to the field. Absolutely, we should allow that aggressors can make amends, but what does it say to our children, particularly to our boys, when we applaud athletes while not talking with our kids about the mistakes these men made as human beings?

As parents, must discuss the tough stuff, sparing details for our youngest children, but at least broaching the big issues of fair treatment of girls and women. We should also ask our children to help girls who are being poorly treated, as the young man did who interrupted the sexual assault by the dumpster, resulting in the swimmer’s arrest. We must tell our boys to be watchful and active if male friends act improperly, and to never be afraid to break the bro code if they know something to be wrong.

Perhaps most important is the role modeling we adults do. In our relationships with women, be they in partnerships, friendships or casual acquaintances, we have to show our boys we respect women physically, verbally, psychologically and professionally. We have to illustrate how we talk things out and resolve conflicts with adult women and encourage our daughters and friends’ daughters in pursuits that are equal those of boys.

We should also actively involve ourselves in what our schools address with our children regarding all kinds of boy-girl topics. We need to ask about the programs schools are delivering, offer any concerns we might have about the programs, and discuss the topics with our children before and after they learn about them.

Among the other resources we can use are older children, be they our own kids or those of close friends. Ari is fortunate to have two older brothers, one who is starting high school and one who is beginning college. Both boys have been on the receiving end of parental talks about what they could do better and what they did right in their interactions with girls. They have also experienced a range of peers, from the most exemplary to some who have behaved questionably around the opposite sex. As a result, they have shown their little brother how to be friends with girls and how to act around girlfriends. They are the role models Ari has most closely watched, which emphasizes why we had to address issues early in our parenting career.

I am still teaching my boys about the keys to respecting the opposite sex. Frankly, I will keep talking to them about it because there are powerful forces out there that push guys to react to their basest instincts. Good guys can make mistakes, but with emotional honesty, lots of talking and ample role modeling, we can help our sons be the honorable counterparts to all the great daughters out there. That’s education with more value than any diploma can provide.

© 2016 Gregory Keer. All rights reserved.

Posted in Adolescence, Blog, Boys to Men, Columns by Family Man, Education, Family Communication, Friendship, Gender, Morals, Protecting Children, School, Teens, Tweens, Values | Leave a comment

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 | 3 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