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Friday, June 15, 2007

Me on Wall Street

Check out my Father's Day essay in the Wall Street Journal. It involves, among other things: snakes, homemade cannons, and deadly spiders.

posted by Woodlief | link | (21) comments

Thursday, June 14, 2007

A Face Made for Radio

Those of you brave enough to bear my decidedly unsexy voice can tune in to this program on Blog Talk Radio, Friday at noon EST, where I'll be mercilessly grilled by the lovely Fausta. Actually, I hear she's quite nice, but there is a call-in number, which means that one of you louts could give me a hard time if you're so inclined.

posted by Woodlief | link | (1) comments

Every Boy Needs a Joe

My friend and publisher Adam Bellow has this lovely essay at Canada's National Post. Go read it, and then you'll understand what I mean when I say that every boy needs a Joe, and that it's the Joes who are the real fathers of the world.

Addendum: Not long after posting, I came across this hilarious essay by a law professor and father about the inherent legal-mindedness of children. So here you go, no extra charge.

posted by Woodlief | link | (3) comments

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Growing Pains

Eli woke up crying last night, growing pains in his legs. I remember those pains, and my mother giving me two chalky St. Joseph's aspirin, the ones with orange flavoring. There's something about being cared for by your parent in the middle of the night that almost makes the hurt worth it. So I gave him medicine, and rubbed his legs, and told him a story that my grandmother used to tell me at bedtime, about a little mountain boy who liked to chop wood, but who got careless (this being a grandmother's story, and perhaps more to the point, one of my grandmother's stories) and chopped into his own foot, nearly taking off a toe. But, through hard work and determination, he not only recovered from his injury, he entered the wood-chopping contest in the state fair and won first place, despite being the smallest competitor.

"Does he have muscles like me?" Eli asked, yawning, the pain disappearing in a cherry Tylenol haze.

"Yes. Big muscles for a little fellow."

"Did you ever chop wood?"

"Yes." I showed him a scar from cutting wood. He showed me a recent ouch. I curled up next to him on his bed, and we whispered to each other about little boy things, until his eyelids began to flutter. I put my face down on his pillow, and breathed in his smells of soap and toothpaste and the slobber dried into his beloved blankey. I thought about how one day too soon for me, and not soon enough for him, this will be over. He will lie on a bed with his own child and tell him about the little woodcutting boy, and I will be Grandpa, who visits sometimes and barks at the television news and always has chewing gum or candy to share.

I remember holding Eli once, or perhaps it was Caleb, or Isaac, or maybe this realization has happened with each of them, and the Wife coming up and helping me hold and hug him. I remember the smile on his face, eyes closed, a look of bliss. "I have no knowledge of what this must be like," I told my wife. Neither does she. We have never been held by a mother and father at the same time, both loving us and loving each other. It is an alien gift that we give our children, yet we sense its power in the peacefulness that comes over them.

The only thing better than feeling that embrace, I imagine, is giving it to my children, and knowing that they will never hold their own children and marvel, without experience, at what that feeling must be like.

This is part of the discovery, as I've written about our family, here and in the pamphlet (and have you ordered your copy yet?) and in pages that perhaps one day someone will read — that it is possible to build a foundation on razed ground. Perhaps it even makes us more careful, knowing how easily a home can crumble. Each brick matters very much to us. We have a generational vision, not only of how far we can get our children along a path free of neuroses and fear and insecurity, but how far they in turn will take their children. I think you have to have that vision as a parent — am I laying the foundation for my children and their children to live full, meaningful lives, or am I just feeding them the seed corn, set as I am on my own comfort and temporary success?

These are the things I thought about as Eli drifted off to sleep. They wonder sometimes, I think, why I watch them, why I search their faces. That's one thing I'll be happy for them never to know, that endless question: Am I getting it right?

posted by Woodlief | link | (4) comments

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

A Different Kind of Father's Day Gift

Rick Hilton needs a swift kick in the ass. That's my opinion on the never-ending Paris Hilton spectacle. And while we're at the butt-kicking, we can line up any number of successful businessmen, movie stars, and sports heroes who have neglected the fundamental duty of fathers, which is to train up our children in the way they should go. We could turn it into an annual Father's Day weekend tradition: the 24-hour Tail Stomp, open season on every bad father. I think it would be cathartic. And before someone else claims him, I've got dibs on Alec Baldwin.

It's interesting that we celebrate the success of men at business, sports, entertainment, war, and politics, but rarely at the thing which matters more than those often-ephemeral feats, the raising up of confident, competent, moral, courageous children to carry on a free and prosperous civilization. Not to wrestle with this great calling every day of our lives, fathers, is to fail at manhood itself.

I'm not saying that we are failures if our children don't end up perfect. But we are failures if they emerge without a moral compass, and genuine self-confidence (which should not be confused with arrogance, which is often a sign of insecurity), and some fundamental ability to earn a living. Hence Rick Hilton's need for a kick in the rear-end, at least from my very limited vantage-point, because his daughter seems to lack all three. Insofar as she earns a living, it's Donald Trump-style, off the outrageousness of her own conduct. That's not value-creation, it's a freak show.

In the last days of his life, as Teddy Roosevelt collaborated with editor Joseph Bishop on a bound volume of his letters to his children, he said, "I would rather have this book published than anything that has ever been written about me." These letters don't contain much in the way of TR's exploits on the battlefield, or his political victories. Instead they tell his children about a curious lizard he caught in Cuba, or explain how proud he is that they have learned to ride their horses better, or admonish them not to let sports get in the way of what's important. They are letters that reflect his love of and hopes for his children. Being a good father, he recognized that this was his most important legacy, his family.

I've met a great many men over the years who have been so seduced by the lure of business success that they neglect their children. I can't describe for you the remorse that I've heard in some of their voices, as they sit in their beautiful, empty homes, and say that they wish they could do it over, and be fathers to their children. But there is no doing it over; there is only right now, the choices you make today — and each choice constrains what choices will be available to us tomorrow. Can Rick Hilton spend time with his daughter now, and convince her that she is truly lovely, that she needn't whore herself out to the men and the lights and the cameras? That work should have been done years ago. But, he does have that thriving real estate business, and several palatial homes. He's what we call successful.

Perhaps we need to redefine that word. The worst part is that Hilton probably told himself, as do so many of us, that he was doing it for his family, the twelve-hour days and endless travel and weekend work. Beyond some basic necessities, however, what our children need most is us, the very thing we so often deny them.

I find that more and more, when I hear or read about a successful man, I say to myself: Yes, but what kind of father is he? It's worth asking, don't you think? Don't be surprised if you end up unable to find someone to vote for next fall, however, or if your favorite actors and sports stars lose some of their luster. But that's how it should be, I think. Maybe men will stop sacrificing our children on the altar of success when we reintroduce shame as a public concept.

Goodness knows, I don't get it right. I've lost count of the number of evenings I've put my head on my pillow in shame, wishing I could rewind the day, and take back a moment when I barked at one of my boys, or ignored them when I should have been listening. But I wonder if it even crosses the minds of many successful men that they are failing as fathers, and therefore, as men. I want to believe that this in itself makes a difference, the conscious striving. Weak and foolish as we are, maybe we can still succeed as fathers if we will just put forth the effort. Maybe that's all our sons and daughters really need from us, the unspoken love that comes with that striving.

So, fathers, are you striving?

posted by Woodlief | link | (9) comments

Monday, June 11, 2007

My Words in Print

The current issue of WORLD magazine carries my latest essay, "What They Teach Us." If you aren't a subscriber, a) why aren't you?; and b) you can pick it up wherever thoughtful news magazines are sold. Or you can get an online subscription.

My first short story, "The Grace I Know," meanwhile, is available in the summer issue (Issue 4) of Ruminate, a literary journal rooted in the Christian faith. If you'd like to support good writing, you should subscribe. If, on the other hand, you simply want a souvenir of this landmark event (my first fiction in print), you can order Issue 4. But the subscription is, if you're thinking pennies per quality word, a far better deal. Here's the first paragraph from the story:

Grace comes for me in the loneliest part of the night, the way she used to do. Her steady tap on the door pulls me from sleep, and there she stands in the dim light of the hallway, wearing her cotton nightgown embroidered with purple flowers. Her stare is fixed on the place where my head emerges from the darkness of our bedroom, as if her eyes can divine the black. I know what she wants before she raises her arms. She was always my little spool of thread, spilling out of her bed and down the hall to bump against my door, to wait until I cradled her and rewound the invisible string between her door and mine, returning her to rest.

Aren't you intrigued? So go subscribe already.

And in case you've forgotten, there's also this. So stop complaining about having nothing good to read at the beach this summer.

posted by Woodlief | link | (1) comments

Shoot-Out at the Cap Gun Corral

This weekend I introduced my sons to the wonderful magic of the cap gun. I carefully threaded the pink rolls into two of their silver cowboy guns while they stood watching in awe, and then did my best impression of Clint Eastwood in "The Outlaw Josey Wales." POP. POP. POP.

I looked over at the boys, expecting to see admiration on their faces. Caleb was frowning, and as the reverberation of the cap guns waned I could hear him yelling that the guns were too loud. Eli had managed to fold his arms over his head in some sort of standing fetal position. Isaac was red-faced and crying. It's the special moments like these that you treasure.

As if my Worst Father of the Year award wasn't already secure, I argued with them that the caps weren't all that loud. Every time I waved one of the cowboy guns to help make my point, Isaac wailed, thinking I was going to shoot it again. I finally set the guns on the ground, carefully, feeling very much like a criminal, and Caleb the police negotiator. "Dad, they're too loud. Put them down Dad. Don't shoot them again." These are the moments, as well, that our children recall to their therapists years later. He devalued our feelings, Doc. Let me tell you about the time he made us all wet ourselves while he played with our cowboy guns...

I picked up Isaac, who alternated between crying and fussing at me. They were all fussing at me. I am a bad, bad father.

But, being boys, they held a meeting the next day, and came to me as a delegation to explain that they wanted to shoot the "dynamites." The older two volunteered to leave Isaac in the house, an idea he didn't like at all. Then it occurred to me to put my heavy-duty ear muffs on him, the ones that I wear when I'm shooting the big guns, or when their mother is in her last weeks of pregnancy and snoring like an asthmatic freight train.

So outside we went with our cap guns, Isaac wearing massive head gear that left him completely unable to hear us, so that his brothers had to make hand motions to communicate. We had an old-fashioned gun battle in the front yard, the boys holding the guns far away from themselves and wincing as they fired, and me rattling off rounds like Doc Holliday, none of which ever seemed to hit, although the boys insisted that every shot they fired got me. I can only imagine what our snooty neighbors thought of this spectacle. Have I mentioned that we are our neighborhood's rednecks?

Not all the caps fired, and so I separated them from their spent rolls and placed them on the strike points of Eli's little double-barrel cowboy shotgun. Then it was me on the street-sweeper, ducking behind trees, trying to get little scraps of paper to stay in place so I could defend myself against those silver-gun wielding sheriffs, neither of whom have any qualms about sneaking up behind a man and shooting him in the back. It was a regular slaughter, which made for a good Sunday afternoon.

The nice thing about being a father of boys is that I can relive the best parts of boyhood, or maybe enjoy them for the first time. My sons give me new eyes with which to see things. This is what the man who was healed said, isn't it — I was blind, but now I see. Our children can heal us, I think, if we will but see the world as they see it. We can only afford to do so for a few moments at a time, or perhaps that is simply what we tell ourselves, but those moments are like salve on a wounded soul, at least for me.

posted by Woodlief | link | (2) comments