Free Play Gone

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Some 48 years ago, my parents (perhaps over a glass of wine and a scotch), decided to move the family to Aquidneck Island — where I was raised, not far from the ocean, in a neighborhood of shabbily constructed raised ranches — where on warm summer days, squinty-eyed kids staggered zombie-like from their garages or front doors, pop-tarted, sugar-smacked, and ready to roll.

We played ball (whiffle, base, foot, basket and stick) in our backyards or in the street — we rode bikes everywhere, we red rovered red rovered, and kicked the can against a near perfect backdrop of New England sunsets and warm summer breezes, to a generous and harmonious soundtrack of crickets, peepers, and nightingales.

We hunted salamanders in the woods and flash-lighted our way to collecting night crawlers for fishing expeditions at the town reservoir, to which we walked unattended by adults, poles over our shoulders, sun warm on our backs, our conversations held together with lite laughter and kinship.

The entire summer we hardly interacted with Mom or Dad except at dinner time, which was had around the dining room table without exception.

And so it was on Aquidneck Island I stayed, met my wife, raised 2 good boys and 4 dogs — the latest, a pocket sized pit bull, full of spittle and spunk, who envelops me in rhythmic doggy snores as I write this piece.

What strikes me most on this stroll down memory lane is the magnitude of change in parenting over a single generation. Our generation, handicapped by socioeconomic conditions requiring two working parents, and a feeling of fear and mistrust (largely unwarranted), the flames of which were fanned by continuous exposure to 24-hour cable news, which made us believe we could never leave our kids alone, that they had to be within earshot or eye sight 24 hours a day, less someone steal them away forever — and so it was by these phenomena, that free play, that priceless gift and ever-important ingredient in child development, was killed.

Gone are the days when kids gathered at a park or in someone’s back yard to organize on their own and “get a game going” — sadly, this has been replaced by regularly scheduled league games on sun-splashed well-manicured fields with perfectly chalked sidelines and clipboard-carrying, whistle-blowing, score book-keeping adults shouting out instructions while pacing in front of tight-jawed fathers in sunglasses and bermuda shorts (newspapers tucked firmly under their arms), whilst antsy, floppy-hatted moms in folding chairs with cup holders, try to capture every moment of play on their iPads or cell phones.

I think we’ve forgotten the value of free play on uneven surfaces where the end zones were marked by a rock and a tree, and the sidelines were guesstimated according to natural or not so natural boundaries and, most importantly, where kids worked out the teams and the rules and addressed issues that arose without “expert” interference by adults.

As my children walk into adulthood, I wonder about the absence of free play and the implications of an overly-scheduled, overly-structured, and, quite frankly, overly-parented childhood.

Cecile the Lion, the American Dentist, and Instagram

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Let’s talk about trophy hunting.

I want to hear from the people who think it’s “OK” to kill animals purely for its sport. If you are such a person, I’d love to hear why you think it’s OK and what you enjoy about the experience. What do you get out of it? I’m not talking about a head – or a tusk – or a pelt – I mean, what do you get out of it emotionally?

I’m not being a sarcastic left-wing dick — I’m actually curious.

When I see a lion, an elephant, a leopard, or a rhino, my first thought isn’t, “man would I love to kill that thing .”To be honest, I can’t imagine ever thinking that way. But there are people out there who shell out serious coin to star in their own wildlife snuff film — and I just don’t get it.

Not being raised in a hunting culture, the thought of killing a living creature purely for the thrill of it — then posting pictures of the kill on social media — disturbs me at an elemental level. When I see these pictures flash across my TV, or when I see them online in stories about hunting — I experience a rush of anger, dismay, and befuddlement.

I know the person standing over that dead lion, elephant, leopard, or rhino is human like me. But the “common humanity” that would typically connect me to these people gets obliterated when I see these photographs. Suddenly, the person in that picture is not like me at all. On a purely human level, my connection to them evaporates.

Besides barbarism disguised as bravado, what I mostly see in these pictures of grinning humans standing over beautiful dead animals, is ego and entitlement. If I had to caption the image, I would surely use those two words. Moreover, the pictures exude an ideological view of man’s dominion over all creatures – you get a real sense that these people believe the purpose of the lion, the elephant, the leopard, and the rhino is to satisfy an evolutionary hardwired human desire to hunt and kill – a bloodlust.

I don’t see in these pictures our “higher” human qualities; decency and kindness; empathy and appreciation; respect and civility. And though I don’t know any of the people in these pictures, I immediately see them as lacking these higher human qualities. This can be dangerous because once that happens, it becomes easy to treat these people as less than human, leading to a social-media-mob-justice that we are witnessing in the Cecil the lion case.

My hope is that over time, we humans become a little less human and a little more humane – that more of us evolve towards the higher human qualities, where we finally put an end to the practice of trophy hunting.

American Sniper and Michael Moore

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I like Michael Moore. I like his movies. I share many of his views. Though I don’t know him personally, from what I have seen of him on television, he likes to argue – – he is a bit of a provocateur and I think he enjoys being the stick in the eye of conservatives. A few weeks ago, he riled-up a lot of those conservatives with some comments about snipers being cowards.

Michael is not dumb. I’m sure he is aware of the tactical value of snipers. In addition to being highly skilled marksman (as highlighted in the movie American Sniper) snipers use their abilities to sneak behind enemy lines to provide command with information about the enemy’s size, strength, and location. The information they provide and the actions they perform can save lives. If you’re a soldier heading into a hot zone, you want good snipers on your side — And by most accounts, Chris Kyle was one of the very best.

Michael Moore relies more on the definition of “snipe” than the tactical role of a sniper to try and strengthen his argument that snipers are cowards.

Here is the definition of the word snipe:

a shot, usually from a hidden position.

to shoot at individuals as opportunity offers from a concealed or distant position.

to attack a person or a person’s work with petulant or snide criticism, especially anonymously or from a safe distance.

And here are Michael Moore’s comments about snipers:

‘I think most Americans don’t think snipers are heroes’

“My uncle was killed by sniper in WW2. We were taught snipers were cowards. Will shoot u in the back. Snipers aren’t heroes. And invaders are worse.”

That last sentence – – – “And invaders are worse” – is most telling.

I suppose if you look at the definition of snipe, then sniping can be seen as a cowardly act. The sniper is almost always protected (by distance) from retaliation. His enemy is almost always unaware of his presence, there is rarely any direct confrontation with the enemy – there is no dodging machine gun fire to rescue a fallen comrade – no being overwhelmingly outnumbered while holding off an advancing enemy — and no ultimate sacrifice by jumping on the proverbial grenade to save your buddies – – all of which we (in the traditional sense) consider “heroic”.

Clearly Michael Moore’s remarks about snipers and the movie American Sniper are by proxy a commentary on the Iraq war itself – I think he felt compelled to speak out because of all the fanfare that the movie is receiving – he is likely appalled and disgusted at the possibility that people who see this movie will forget that the invasion of Iraq was, at best, a horrible mistake, and at worse a criminal act (. . .And invaders are worse.”).

As expected, his remarks set off a predictable response on social media – those on the right lambasting him as a Hollywood-elitist-scumbag (while canonizing Chris Kyle as the ultimate Patriot) and those on the left criticizing the movie as propaganda and some even attacking Chris Kyle’s character.

There is a scene in American Sniper where an adult woman hands a grenade to a child so that it can be used against an advancing American Convoy – – In Chris Kyle’s book, there was no child –  the film makes this Iraqi woman more evil and inhumane by having her send a child to his death. Simplistic caricatures that dehumanize Iraqis as savages in the movie probably rubbed Mr. Moore the wrong way – not because he loves Iraqis, but because he feels such portrayals obfuscate the bigger picture of the Iraq conflict – of which he has very strong views.

In my eyes, all the hubbub from Michael Moore’s comments highlights the differences between liberals and conservatives when it comes to how they view the Iraq war.

Many on the right can overlook the complexities and ambiguities of everything that led up to the Iraq war. To many of them, Chris Kyle is a hero simply because he is an American Soldier at war – end of story.

Those on the left tend take a more nuanced comprehensive view of the war – – and therefore have trouble disentangling Chris Kyle the soldier, from the misguided decisions that put him in Iraq. Those on the left get angry when they see a movie like American Sniper that disregards the bigger and the messier questions about how we ended up in Iraq in the first place.

To me, anyone who volunteers to serve deserves our gratitude and respect. I can understand how Michael Moore’s comments might be interpreted as disrespectful to American servicemen. And although I agree with his views on the war – criticizing snipers as a way of reminding us that invading Iraq was a huge mistake feels a bit strained – even to a lefty like me.

The boulevard of the unsuspecting

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A mentally disturbed and delusional kid – spurned by others – sitting behind the wheel of a BMW – firing a legally purchased 9 mm semi-automatic pistol into a crowded café and deli – killing and maiming – just as he promised.

On any given day in America, any one of us can get cast for the role of the unintended victim in the twisted wreckage of someone else’s tragic life– like we are all just a trigger finger away from a becoming a profile on CNN’s website.

The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun – is a good guy with a gun, except that almost never ever happens – even though Americans are armed to the teeth – we still wake up (on average) to a mass murder every two weeks – and in most of these cases, the only thing that stops the bad guy with a gun, is that very same bad guy, when after killing a slew of people, he decides to eat a bullet.

Unfortunately, many American’s are as delusional as some of these shooters – as they continue to tell themselves that more guns make for a safer society, when the data tells us the exact opposite is true.

We are immersed a culture that glorifies violence, where too many believe that violence and aggression are the solution to problems – we have inadequate and often ineffective mental healthcare and way too many people who should not have access to guns – –  have access to guns.

I am sick and fucking tired of the NRA denying the role guns play in mass murder – there is clearly a gun component to this problem – but any time anyone even mentions, considers, whispers that maybe we should look at gun regulation along with other components of the problem, the NRA ratchets up a campaign of lies and fear.

We need to wake up.

Time, it goes

 

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How many times have we heard the question or uttered the phrase

Where has the time gone?

In almost all cases, it’s a hackneyed expression, of little meaning to anyone living amid the whirring now – where time is like air and noise filling the gaps between atoms. But, to those living in the here-and-now, time is an ever-present, unconsciously tapped resource.

That said, the expression “Where has the time gone?” becomes “unhackneyed” to a parent whose child is preparing to leave home for the first time. As your child takes flight from the protective, loving, and caring environment that they worked so hard to provide, the question “where has the time gone?” seems as concrete a question as “Where are my keys?” or “Has anyone seen my wallet?” 

As that day of departure approaches, I find myself whispering that phrase in pre-dawn seclusion, puffy-eyed in front of the bathroom mirror – I feel the words knocking around the inside of my skull late at night as I lay wide-eyed in darkness.

WHERE HAS THE TIME GONE?

As parents, we know where it went.

It went to the thousands of moments that (over time) formed the connective plasm between you and your child.

As parents we immersed ourselves in the fecundity of time – we became part of it – and it became part of us – we used it as needed, for whatever circumstance we faced – on a daily, hourly, or minute-by-minute basis – from the big life-lessons to the little league games – we took the time to sooth our kids through the transitory aches and pains of skinned knees and bruised egos. 

Like Sherpa, we packed time away, along with knowledge, life experience, and love to help our kids crisscross the complex landscape of a wounded soul — to scale the jagged edges of a broken heart or to seek respite from the deep sorrow of loss. A sorrow that we will wallow in when our kids leave.

Who will be our Sherpa?

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As the day of flight draws near, time becomes a sacred commodity – I wish I could cast a spell on it – to thicken it – to slow it down – I want desperately to corral it, stockpile it, and optimize its use.

But no matter my desire to control time, it marches on steadfastly and unapologetically. To our son, who is getting ready to leave, time stretches out before him like a shimmering ocean of opportunity – a totally different perspective on time.

I’m learning the most satisfying use of time these days is simply enjoying it – to savor it – even the most transient of moments.

An evening ago, I watched my son back out of the driveway. A waning late afternoon sun reflected off the dogwood and pine, giving birth to a speckled blanket of light on the lawn. From his car, the melodic sound of Henley’s “Boys of Summer” became one with the cool summer breeze. He looked good – comfortable in his skin – he was on his way to pick up his girlfriend. This was a moment in time that 2 years ago, I would not have given a second thought to – but now I let it wash over me, and I settle peacefully in its glow.

Lady Viking, Lion Heart

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Let’s walk it back a bit.

Let’s rewind 2 ½ half years – to the summer before her sophomore year.

Now, let’s jettison to the RI Girls High School summer league for that year; the league that my niece Josie Chaves had worked so hard to get ready for.

The summer league where she would finally make her debut as a high school basketball player after being sidelined her freshman year by a torn ACL.

When Josie tore her ACL before the start of her freshman season, she was understandably devastated. But what stood out in my mind was the number of people who were devastated for her. The reason that so many ached for Josie, was because they knew what basketball meant to her.

The art of the game
You can teach anyone the game of basketball; how to dribble, shoot, pass, and play defense. These are the mechanics of the game – the things that one can improve upon through practice and hard-work.  Josie Chaves was a quick-study in the mechanics of the game – but what sets a good athlete apart from an exceptional one, are the intangibles – the things you cannot teach – and Josie had all the intangibles.

From early-on, Josie demonstrated a fierce joy of the game that sometimes bewildered coaches and teammates alike.  She worked tirelessly at basketball– not because others demanded it, but because she loved the game – truly loved it.  And you could see that love of game every time she stepped on the court – you could see it in her eyes – in her step – in the way she attacked a defense and ran an offense.  Such a love of game is a rarity in someone so young – and when you mix ingredients of skill, love of game, and a competitive spirit – what you see on the court is artistry and passion. You don’t have to be a fan of basketball to appreciate artistry and passion – artistry and passion transcend sport.  I think this is why so many people fell in love with Josie’s game – her passion always shined through.

The ACL tear in her freshman year disrupted what so many had been waiting to watch – that ACL tear interrupted a narrative – a narrative that so many in the community had become part of. That ACL tear ended the only chance Josie had to play with her older sister, who was a senior when Josie was a freshman.  And now, the summer before her sophomore year, she was ready move on from this disruption – she was ready to get on with her dream of playing basketball for the Vikings of Rogers High School.

And then it happened again.

I remember getting the call from my sister – I remember the despondent crying of my niece in the background.

I remember driving to CCRI to pick up my sister and Josie to drive them to Newport Hospital.

I remember keeping one hand on the steering wheel, and reaching back with the other to hold the hand of my brokenhearted niece.

I remember the unending sobs – the pained expression and streaking tears on my sister’s face as we both listened to Josie say that she could not go through all of this again – that she would never be the same – she would never reach her full potential.

And most of all, I remember how hollow my words sounded as I told Josie she would be OK.

That car was so full of sorrow – we were drowning in it.

I remember sitting in the ER.

I remember the anger setting in – the thought of another season lost to the audible pop and sharp pain in her knee– all of the expectations that had been building since her days of playing at the HUT recreation  center, where strangers would marvel at her tenacity and skill. Back then we knew we were watching something special – and now, for a second time, a devastating knee injury was preventing Josie from realizing her dream – from completing her story.

The road back
And so, it began all over again – another surgery – another missed season – another long and painful rehabilitation. And during that year I watched in wonder as Josie kept positive – kept working hard – Unable to play, she helped coach the Thompson Junior HS team with her father and mother.  And when she was finally cleared to begin workouts, she began the long and arduous road back.

In her junior year, she led a talented group of players to an undefeated regular season and a number 1 seed in the playoffs.  I attended a lot of the games that year – and though Josie was wonderful – at times I saw a weariness born from the weight of expectations and the realization that time was running out.

That season ended with a painful loss in the quarterfinals.  I remember towards the end of that quarterfinal game, Josie looked up into the crowd at her mom – and for the first time ever, I saw an expression in her eyes that I had never seen before – Doubt.

Between her Junior and senior season, Josie kept working on her game – kept exercising those legs – she played in the summer league that year and you could see that she was fully back – she shed the bulky knee brace she wore her junior year and with that came a confidence that was both graceful and reassuring.

The 2013 / 14 Lady Vikings were a talented group, led offensively by three seniors (Josie, Brianne Morgerra, and Elizabeth Jackson) who had played together since middle school.  They were supported defensively by senior Marlen Oliva and Junior Sarah Morris and they had the proverbial spark off the bench in Quiara “Boogie” Brooks.

But make no mistake – the straw that stirred the drink was Josie Chaves – and every team knew it.  Josie had a target on her back the entire season – she was often double teamed and sometimes triple teamed. Opposing coaches would  throw a multitude of junk defenses at Rogers in an attempt to slow her down, or prevent her from getting  her teammates involved – Opposing players tried to get in her head, they bumped her –  knocked her down  – but every time she bounced up – more energetic – never retaliating – always moving forward – with no doubt in her eyes – EVER.

These Lady Vikings were a special team that seemed to have destiny in their corner.  There was a team chemistry that I did not see the year before.  Josie never hesitated to drive and kick the ball out to Elizabeth Jackson – and all season long, Jackson knocked down shots – many of them at critical moments in the game. The inside outside game of Josie and Brianne Morgerra was often unstoppable and a thing to behold.

Despite all of this, you could sense that the fans were always waiting for that other shoe to drop – always an uncomfortable feeling that permeated the stands – that something bad might happen – that perhaps the pressure would get too great and this team would collapse in the playoffs.

The Playoffs
The lady Vikings battled through the playoffs – winning two pressure-packed games – a quarterfinal match against East Greenwich (when Jackson caught fire) and a very exciting semifinal game against a talented Coventry team.  There were times during both of those games when Rogers fell behind. In fact, they were behind late in the Coventry game. Last year’s team might have folded in such a situation – but this team really was different. They never panicked –  they believed in each other – they trusted each other.

In the championship game, Rogers was matched against the number one seeded Saint Rays.  Like Rogers, Saint Rays had finished the season undefeated.  I remember watching Saint Rays warming up before the game. This was an extremely confident team – you could see it in their body language – the way they ran their layup drill – loose and self-assured – they showed no doubt at all.

Saint Rays came out on fire – hitting two deep threes in the opening moments of the game.  I looked around at the nervous faces. Not the faces of the Rogers players – but of the community of fans at the Ryan center – the fans that had been following this team for 4 years – many of them without kids on the team – fans that loved this group of girls – loved their story and wanted so much for this team to finally win that elusive championship. Those 2 quick 3 pointers sent a sharp feeling of dread throughout the crowd of Roger’s fans. But then Elizabeth Jackson hit a three – Brianne made strong move to the basket and was fouled – and Josie simply took over.  On the offensive end she had the ball in her hands the entire game – she controlled the pace – picked apart a much vaunted Saint Rays defense with precision passing – hit a couple of very deep threes and defensively she shut down Saint Ray’s best offensive player. Josie finished with 22 points, 5 rebounds, 5 assists and 7 steals and was named the tournament MVP.

As the clock was winding down – Coach Frank Brow had pulled all of his starters except for Josie – she had the ball in her hands and was told to toss it out of bounds so that that coach could take her off the floor– If you know Josie, this was no easy task– but she did it and coach Brow met her as she came of the court:

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And then the Hug. Redemption. Joy:

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It has been several weeks since that championship game – but whenever I see this picture I still smile and cry.

To me it is the perfect image – to a perfect ending – of a perfect story.

Life and the high jump

This is me waiting – watching – anticipating.
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I am waiting for my son.
I am watching him prepare.
I am anticipating his jump.

The anguished expression is born from knowing he can make the jump – and knowing he might just as easily miss it – so really, it’s an expression born of not knowing – Not knowing in that brief span of time – as he begins his measured approach – increases his speed towards the bar – right up to that instant when he explodes off the ground – whether he is going to succeed or fail.

For the high jump, the task at hand is literally directly in front of you – you cannot rely on teammates to pick up the slack if you are having an off day – it is just you and that bar.

For the parent that is waiting, watching, and anticipating – the time feels especially compressed and pressurized. If there were a lump of coal in my stomach, by the time it takes my son to complete a single jump, I would have a well-formed diamond in my upper intestine.

In the grand scheme of things – when viewed against a world where kids my son’s age are blowing themselves up, or fighting for their country, or struggling to just get through a day – these moments border on absolute meaninglessness – but for those few seconds leading up to his jump – there is nothing more important in my world than my son getting over that bar. Nothing else matters – all activity around me gets blurred out and is pushed to the periphery. I exalt in his victories and suffer in his losses.

For my son’s first and final year of indoor track – these moments of anguished anticipation were almost always followed by elation – but there were a handful of times – including yesterday’s state meet – where the anguished anticipation was followed by an almost overwhelming disappointment and sadness – and you Jacob Reilly, handled every victory with humility and every defeat with grace – I could not be prouder.

You still have challenges in your high school jumping career – regionals and nationals just around the corner – and then your final season of outdoor track and field – and maybe even a collegiate career. And though you will surely learn a lot more about technique, conditioning, and training, it seems to me that you’ve already learned the most important lesson of sport.

Dad

Dear Mr. President

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Dear President Obama:

Over the last several weeks I’ve tried to remain above the political fray with regard to the crisis in Syria.

I could care less about the back-and-forth commentary from pundits regarding the red line comment, or whether or not the decision to go to congress was a good move or a bad move politically.

I am writing as a father of two boys ages 15 and 17, as a proud citizen of the United States, and a staunch supporter of you and your administration.

Why your supporters are hesitant to agree with you that America must act

Let’s face it, after the debacle of the Iraq war, Americans are skeptics when it comes to intelligence reports as evidence for why America must act. The terribly misguided decision to go into Iraq, the fact that the citizens of this country were persuaded with bogus and fabricated evidence to invade that country, and to see that country today – still being torn apart by sectarian violence – created a huge trust deficit and a feeling that regardless of our intentions in Syria, the outcome will not be in our best interest.

When even the most visceral of evidence fails to sway opinion, there is an underlying problem

Yesterday CNN posted horrific video accounts of the chemical attack on Syrian citizens. As I watched people (many of them children) writhing, twitching, frothing from the mouth, the CNN commentator said over and over again that although experts have said the video clearly shows a chemical attack occurred, there is nothing in the video itself that indicates the Assad regime perpetrated the attack. 

Before supporting US intervention in a Syrian Civil war, most Americans would need incontrovertible evidence as to which side launched the chemical attack. According to news reports, such evidence is being presented behind closed doors to members of Congress – but the case against the regime (with regard to the chemical attack) has not been made to the citizens of this country. Perhaps you Mr. President will make the case when you address the country on Tuesday night.

Another issue that makes even your most ardent supporters hesitate to back a strike against Syria is the nature of the players involved in this conflict. Ideally such distinctions should not matter when children are being gassed in their sleep – but when we also see numerous video accounts of rebel forces brutally executing regime supporters and soldiers, we cannot help but question the humanity (or rather the lack of it) on both sides of this fight.  I understand that America wants to protect the innocent and most vulnerable, but can we do so while not at the same time helping the more extremist elements of the rebel forces?

Regardless of how much the regime and rebel forces hate one another – I cannot help but think they both hate America more. And I have to think that when Assad falls (as all despots do) the forces that rise up in his place will not be friends or allies of this country (regardless of what we decide to do in response to the chemical attacks).

It’s not only about the purpose as you state it, but also how others will interpret our actions

You and Secretary Kerry have been vocal that a strike against the regime is not about taking sides in the ongoing conflict – That any action we take is for the express purpose of punishing the regime and degrading their capability to launch another chemical attack.

You stress that American soldier’s will not set foot on Syrian soil. The argument – that this strike does not constitute a war in the traditional sense – may work on some Americans, but I doubt this distinction makes a difference to Syria and their allies.  I suspect that when missiles are raining down on Syria, they will clearly see this as an act of war and I assume they will act accordingly. Are we prepared to deal with this? Are we prepared to show restraint when Syria, or Iran launch counterattacks? Can you promise that America will not get drawn into a deeper conflict when these counterattacks occur?  How can anyone make such a promise when we do not know what Syria’s reaction will be?

Right now I would not support a strike against Syria. And although initially I thought the resolution would be passed by congress, I no longer think this is the case. If the resolution does not pass, I hope you do not take it upon yourself to launch these attacks.

Also, I am not convinced that having all of this play out through congressional hearings and debates is a sign of weakness – quite the opposite; I think it shows the strength of our democratic system of government.

If we have incontrovertible evidence that Assad was responsible for the attack, let’s build the case against him, present the evidence to the world court and charge him with war crimes. I think this approach, though restrained in comparison to a cruise missile attack, demonstrates a different kind of strength that would garner international support.

We are a war-weary nation, and let’s face it, the nations of the world are weary of us. I truly believe our standing in the world would rise if we hold off on attacking Syria while perusing aggressively the legal case against Assad.

While pursuing the legal case against Assad, the eyes of the world would be on this despot – and if he dares to use chemical weapons during this time, I believe the international community would not be so hesitant to punish him.

Dogs and Grief

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We are a dog family.

I had dogs growing up as a kid. My wife and I got our first dog soon after buying our first house. His name was Wayne, but we changed it to Kane because his name was WAYNE.

Your first dog is the dog by which all other dogs are measured, and Kane set the bar high. We adopted him from the Robert Potter League for Animals in Middletown, RI, where Meg and I worked before starting dating.

Kane was a full-grown shepherd mix, about a year old when we adopted him. I remember approaching him in his cage – he cowered slightly and turned his head quickly towards my hand as I tried to clip the leash to his collar. Clearly, he could have bitten me if he wanted, but his intention was to inform, not injure – a way of stating we are not well-enough acquainted for you to approach so casually and clip a leash on me. His eyes seemed to say, “I’ve seen friends of mine leave on a leash and never come back.”

For some people, Kane’s reaction would have been a deal-breaker – an excuse to walk away or visit the friendly Beagle-mix two cages down. But I was not willing to give up on Kane. So I backed up slowly and sat down at the opposite corner of the cage, and Kane and I regarded one another like potential enemies who might one day become best friends – a future to be determined in the next few minutes.

I maintained an un-threatening posture, relaxed, head down, making eye contact only occasionally. Kane seemed a skeptic but open to negotiation. Finally, after several minutes of détente, I patted my hand gently on the cold concrete floor, gesturing for Kane to make the journey across the cell. He wagged his tail slightly – one of those “rattler” wags, where just the first few inches of the tail moves rapidly back and forth, while rest remains dormant and unsure. Then, Kane stood, lowered his head somewhat submissively, and approached slow and steady, the wag finding its way through the rest of his tail. 

He regarded me in a friendly manner when he sat, dissipated skepticism replaced with trust and hope.

This time when I went to put the leash on, Kane lowered his head and gently leaned in – and that was it. The deal was sealed. I knew that instant that Kane would be coming home with me.

Of all the dogs we have had, Kane was the most loyal. We would let him out the front door, and he would just sit or lie down on the steps – if he ever wanted to run off, he never let on. So for about 2 years, it was just Meg, Me, and Kane. We took him to Colt state park for long walks, to many-a high school baseball fields to play fetch – he bonded quickly and totally to us.

Even though he was our first, Kane knew (instinctively it seem to me) that when baby number one arrived, he would be relegated to a lower rung on the ladder, and he accepted his demotion with grace – if such a thing is possible for a dog.

He was a constant companion to Jake and Liam growing up. When our boys ventured across the street, Kane would always tag along, trotting slowly behind them, setting up watch on a corner of the neighbor’s lot – he would never intrude on the kickball or whiffle ball or basketball or football or Pokémon card trading activities. Instead, he would just stay close and observe – with an air of guardianship and responsibility.

At around 12 years of age, Kane began suffering from congestive heart failure. I remember driving him to Ocean State Veterinary Clinic several times that year, where a vet would work a needle into Kane’s chest to draw fluid from his lungs. It was miraculous how well he would respond – giving us several more months of friendship and companionship before falling ill again. We were told by the vet that this procedure would work only for so long that eventually scar tissue would form and prevent them from drawing fluid. Futility and the inevitable snuggled up to one another. We knew we were running out of time with Kane. We knew we would have to put him down. When that time came, I was 42, old enough to have experienced some loss in life – loved ones, a parent, relatives, friends, and colleagues.

The longer you stick around in life, the better acquainted you get with death. Each time death pays a visit to someone you know, you gain a little more perspective until eventually, begrudgingly, you accept that death is part of the equation. 

I’ve never felt more bereft with grief than when we had to put Kane down. I always described it as “Profound Grief” (capital P capital G) – grief that knocks you down, wrecks you, and just leaves you in a heap for some time.

We’ve had to part with two other dogs since Kane – and the grief was no less – not one scintilla. But, unfortunately, when it comes to death and dogs, the death equation does not hold up. The experience did not prepare me or soften the blow. It was still like being hit in the heart with a hammer.

So why does the family dog’s death hurt so much? What is it about our relationships with our dogs that makes their death so poignantly and consistently painful?

I think it has to do with the dynamics – the one-sidedness of the relationship. This is not to say that we don’t love our dogs – we do – but they love us more (or at least that is what registers in our brains), and they love us “regardless” – regardless of our faults, foibles, and frailties.

Over that 10 to 12 year span, we experience (over and over and over again) unconditional love and non-judgmental friendship, which (let’s face it) is so unlike the relationships we have with the people in our lives (even the ones we love the most – especially the ones we love the most).

Every one of our experiences (the good, bad, and indifferent) is processed and stored as memories. Our brain never sleeps – so all of this processing and storing is going on 24 7. This means that every single time you were greeted by your dog, tail wagging, eyes smiling, regardless of how shitty your day was, regardless of whether you ignore him or not, all those “I’m so happy to see you” moments are stored. And when it comes time to put our dogs down, the packaging containing every one of those experiences unravels, the memories spill out, and we are forced to face the loss of the one relationship in our lives that seemed pure to us.

How could this not wreck you?

Son pierced, dad OK, mom a little concerned

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The first request was for a small pair of sterling silver studs. After my wife and I discussed it, she took him to Providence Place mall – he picked out a pair that had a brushed metal look. They pierced the lobe and put them in. 

Done.

Honestly, they were so small they were barely noticeable.

Three weeks later, on a Saturday afternoon came the second request. It went something like this:

“Dad, can I get a new pair of earrings?” 

“What’s wrong with the ones that you have?

“Nothing. I just want another pair.”

OK, I guess. Nothing too drastic, OK?

“Thanks, Dad. Can I borrow a few bucks?”

And then off he went – this time on his own – to a small smoke shop on Broadway. 

About an hour later, he walked through the door, sporting a pair of silver hoops and a pleased look on his face. Still understated but definitely more noticeable than the silver studs.

At the time of this writing, there have been no requests for additional piercings, but I can say with a high degree of confidence that he wants more. I know this because he spoke so spiritedly about the ear-wear and one design specifically. I listened as Jake described an elaborate gauge earring that burrowed through the soft tissue of the lobe, hugged the back of the ear, shiny, scaly, and serpentine-like before punching its way through the cartilage of the upper ear. “It was pretty cool” – “Ah-ha,” I said, one eye on him, the other over his shoulder where I saw his mom, lips pursed, head shaking sharp and short left to right.

The earring thing is a relatively new development with our 17-year-old. Until recently, the only time the subject of earrings came up was in hushed tones around the kitchen table about what to get mom for mother’s day or her birthday or for Christmas. I remember the proud smiles he and his younger brother would share when mom opened her lovely froggy or dragonfly or starfish earrings. 

Those were simpler times when earrings were just jewelry. Now I’m forced to think about earrings through the dark and edgy prism of teenage self-discovery.

I’m not too worried about this latest development, to be perfectly truthful. I see it as a relatively common and benign step towards self-expression – It’s all good, in my view. 

My wife, on the other hand, is a little more hesitant. She worries about the potential snowball effect – might ear piercing be a gateway to nipple rings and a torso of tattoos? Might we wake up one morning to a Dennis Rodman situation across our kitchen table? Although I doubt this will happen, we have an obligation to our son to put some healthy boundaries in place – mainly because teenagers can’t see life beyond the front door.

I don’t want my son setting off metal detectors at the airport or having to explain to an angry and hard-of-hearing beachcomber why his MineLab Excalibur II keeps beeping whenever he approaches Jake’s blanket.

So, a few guidelines:

  • A face should always have fewer safety pins than a cloth diaper. Better yet, no safety pins are allowed.
  • For every piercing under consideration, your child must ask himself whether or not the same piercing would look OK on mom or dad. If the answer is no, he should not proceed – Jake, you won’t be a teenager forever.
  • Always consider how your face will look when you remove the piercings – if you envision a crater-filled landscape created courtesy of a madman with a hole puncher and staple gun – then think about scaling back a bit.

I suppose that’s it for now, Jake.

Please keep these guidelines in mind next time you venture out. By the way, I like the hoops – they suit you.

🙂