Thursday, February 20, 2014

Somehow I'll Make A Man Out Of You: Fathers & Sons, Traditions & Legacy

On June 10th 2014, it was supposed to hit the fan. That was when my wife was due to give birth to our second child – my son. My then 4-year old daughter was ecstatic; as was my wife (the poor woman had no idea what she was in for though…).

I, on the other hand, was terrified.

Being faced with even the prospect of taking responsibility for making a man out of my son literally kept me up nights. My father wasn’t around at all when I was growing up and, other than my grandfather and great-grandfather, the majority of my male role models were my mom’s gay friends. I think I turned out just fine, clinging to what I could glean from the older men in my life. But these men built character the old fashion way – literally. Conversely, I grew up a relatively normal middle-class kid during the 80’s. There were definitely some bumps along the way, but my mother did a great job raising my brother and me, basically alone.

I wasn’t raised on a farm with siblings numbering in the double digits. Nor did I teach myself to read before eventually moving to the big city, to battle racism and segregation just to provide a decent living for a family, as my great-grandfather had. And I’m not a Navy officer with a fondness for jazz who became a college Literature professor, like the grandfather I grew up with. I don’t even have the sort of character forged from bitterness and pain that my maternal grandfather had, which was based on separation and loneliness from an early age, and eventually led to jail time for a crime he didn’t commit. I’ve had it easy compared to these men.

What wisdom do I have to impart?

I learned how to be a man from my mom. It is not my intention to discredit the great job she did in raising me to be the man I am today. But, to be completely honest, I don’t want to be the guy in the Volkswagen commercial, laughably trying to teach his son how to throw a baseball. I’ve given my daughter the gift of Godzilla and Spider-Man (of which I am insanely proud) and I look forward to sharing these things with my son as well.

It was five years ago that we found out we were having a girl and, to my own surprise, I was elated. Up until that point, I had feared the possibility of raising a girl who would eventually grow to loathe me. But the sonogram technician said “it’s a girl” and I started grinning like an idiot.

Now I realize that the joy I felt then was relief. “Thank GAWD I won’t have a son who will actually be looking to me as a model on which to base his own life!” Not to diminish the effect I will undoubtedly have on my daughter’s adulthood but, as a woman, she is going to look to my wife for inspiration on how to live her life. All I can do is hope that I provide enough of an example of how a man should treat her, for her to be able to choose a man who will make her happy.

As I am typing this, my son is 8 months old and a relatively happy child, though a bit of a malcontent at times. We don’t have the instant connection I seemed to share with my daughter, but that’s okay. We’re getting to know each other and it is going well. I still fear for the mess I may eventually make of his childhood, but I am also reminded that I had similar fears about my daughter. I had no idea what to do with a girl, but I resolved to just do the best I could and things turned out pretty well. My son also deserves nothing less than the best I have to offer and he’ll get it.

And even if I never am able to teach the boy how to throw a baseball, he will:

  • Know how to tie a bow tie
  • Experience the unbridled joy that is Comic Con
  • Appreciate Shakespearean language
  • Understand how to properly organize his book shelf - separated by genre, alphabetized by title, of course 

My son will know all these things and a myriad others that I am uniquely qualified to teach him. But most of all, I will pass on to him what I have found to be a corner stone of happiness and success – just be yourself.

Yeah, I think I can do that…

Saturday, October 5, 2013

On "Small Small Thing": When It Comes to Humanity, Violence Against One Is Violence Against All

Humans are streaming into the movie theater, alive with hope and agitation, looking forward to the next selection of short and full-features films at First Glance. They are unaware of what just transpired on the now dark screen before us.

I am convulsing involuntarily from the inside out, sobbing, and gasping for breath. The young man next to me finds himself in a hot seat. He extends his arm in a kind gesture, but I don't want it. I don't need it. I say: "No, thank you."

A friend wants to go out for a walk and take me a long. "For a breath of fresh air," she says. If I applied reason to this situation, I would go with her. But it isn't reason I am looking for. It is not a chance for normalcy I am after.

I want to extend this feeling of desperation, give it a chance to ooze into the clavicles of my soul, let it take residence, so that I wouldn't forget it. So that I would not forget how fortunate I am. So that I would remember what true desperation looks like.

"Small Small Thing" invades, shatters, and lingers on. Indefinitely.

It is a documentary film about Olivia Zinnah, a little girl in Liberia, who having been raped at the age of 7, suffers from debilitating injuries. She lives ill and voiceless in the Bush, the Liberian jungle, intestinal matter seeping into her vagina, and falling on her school chair. In the eyes of her community, she is befouled. Her family believe her to be the victim of witchcraft.

This goes on for two years.

Until her mother brings her to JFK Hospital in Monrovia, Liberia. After doctors find out the cause and extent of her injuries, and treatment is agreed upon, the surgery is botched.

There is brutality to this story.

There are no scenes of violence from a purely technical perspective. But once the narrative expands its parameters to encompass the larger socio-economic and cultural context of Liberia, we witness the aftermath of the violence of two consecutive civil wars, which, it could be argued, is a continued violence. "Small Small Thing" inches its way into prison holds, local bars, slums, and tombstones turned homes, to uncover the inescapable reality behind the terrible act of violence against a child. Or, as it turns out, the majority of girls in Liberia.

There is a brutal honesty to this film, which smears itself onto you, then digs deeper, unsatisfied with its fresh impact. No, it isn't going to leave you there. It is going to push you to the precipice of a Nietzschean abyss. You know, the kind which might gaze into you, if you stared at it long enough."Battle not with monsters, lest ye become a monster," my mind echoes the philosopher's words. It is an appropriate allusion.

Watching "Small Small Thing" is another reminder that so much of our fortune, of our humanity, is conditioned upon mere sets of haphazard circumstances, such as where and when you were born, who are your parents are , and who were your childhood friends. We believe in the idea of the self-made human, forgetting that so much of our makeup is completely beyond our control.

In a country ravaged by civil war, endemic poverty and malnutrition, life for most Liberians becomes a beastly struggle for survival.

Humanity burns on a stake.

Lofty notions like human rights, personal security, and gender equality morph into unattainable chimeras.

Yet, even here, where pain is a secret handshake, a shield that nearly everyone shares, Olivia Zinnah had a dream of being a doctor, of helping others in need. Her eyes brilliant with hope and sadness, her smile timid, but enchanting. She makes you want to believe that the impossible can turn probable.

There is hope to this story.

I close my eyes, and I see a woman standing on a tombstone - she was in the film as well - shrouded in the dark green of overgrown vegetation, singing a gospel song. Everything I'd come to know about her - her existential battle, her hunger and isolation, decision to end her pregnancy at the risk of losing her own life - it gains a higher meaning, a purpose, if you will. It serves to connect us through the invisible web of humanity. We're all more alike than we think. A small, small thing to consider.

Olivia Zinnah passed away on December 20th, 2012, from long-term systemic complications.

Find out more about "Small Small Thing" at:
From the Huffington Post: "A Big Task for a "Small Small Thing."

Friday, September 20, 2013

Music Does It: About Love and Sustenance

In a crowd of approximately 19,000 other sweltering, like-minded humans, most of them behind me, I am dazed and enthralled by half-naked Adam Levine swaying within my grasp, a mere arm-stretch away. There's a tiny zit on the lower left region of his abdomen, and a few red spots on his back. When he gazes to his right, the stage lights illuminate his irises, so I can see the bright, cool green of his eyes. It is a rarity to see a human so close to being perfectly proportionate and symmetric as he. Yet, this is not what attracts me to him. Or so I tell myself.

This, for me, is about being close to someone inspired, unafraid to be exactly as he is - goofy, nerdy, unapologetic, staggeringly talented, astute,  purposefully self-deprecating, with a slightly aloof exterior, but a burning heart. Someone whose being is utterly permeated by movement and rhythm. I am hoping some of it will rub off on me.

I blow a kiss to Adam-man and he notices, half-smiles, raises his forearm, points, and prances in my direction, ... while still singing.

I bounce up and down like a 15-year-old, forgetting the weight of time, excess-poundage, mundane quandaries, mental struggles, and the slithering omnipotent water dragon whom my family and I were trying to elude in my dreams last night.

Infused with lightness of heart, happiness-bound, I will claim it all boldly, unabashedly, because like other parents, I strive to unravel the walls of the daily grind stagnating my being. I am intent on staying connected to myself in, and outside, the company of my children. And what my Self needs in order to be at peace and persevere, is all-consuming music.

When you are nursing a young child, or two, or three, into full-fledged humans, you just might get lost in them. Some parents give themselves over not only abundantly, but happily. However, for the lot I know, as the children and years pile up, so does the crushing feeling that you don't know how to be away from them. It starts with sleep-deprivation, and ends with being unable to listen to the pulsating, telling rhythm of the heart. Your own, that is.

No, this is not about Adam Levine, but about what sustains me, about how I get to breathe through the difficult moments, the ones that put me on the precipice of bad parenting on an absurdly dependable schedule.

My saving grace is music. Whenever I remember to put it on at the onset of the day, and every time, and as soon as we cross over our home's threshold, children start to beam, our feet dance, faces grimace playfully, and our hearts flutter. Tears of relief, and joy spill over my eyelids. With face wet, sticky with salt, I feel cleansed and full of hope again, despite poor literal and metaphorical sustenance. Life is good, when I know I have just had a near escape with my auspicious drill sergeant Self. "Hi, mama!" my husband rolls in on a sweet melodic voice. And just like that, I feel, for a lasting, singular moment, complete.

Music does it. It propels me to the love I already have in my heart, and nearby, at arm's length. As far as mental sustenance goes, can you think of a better kind?

Monday, September 9, 2013

This Is Not Just a Story: You Could Be a Pioneer

We get to be surprised in life. For me, a most recent surprise came this summer, when I had an impromptu heart-to-heart with an old friend, whilst riding a flying dolphin on the Bratislava-Vienna route. Her parenting story is proof, that even the most together-person you might know is bound to make mistakes along the way. While those are a given, the big question is: how do we move forward and let our pitfalls empower us, rather than let them chip away at us, eventually threatening our ability to be good parents? 

My friend is a mother of two little girls. Ultimately, she wants to be a good role model for her children. She works hard at it, but sometimes the stakes pile up against you. This is an open letter to her, and to those amongst you, with whom it might resonate. 

This is not just a story I read in a book, or see in a film. It is you, my childhood friend, who possesses this tale of sorrow and anguish, uncertainty and trepidation. You live in fear, haunted by doubt and disappointment, all the while raising two young children, living in the home of your partner and his parents, working for the family business in a land freshly foreign, day in, day out. Isolated and misunderstood. Striving to survive, to keep your children's world unharmed, and intact.

Two months before your first child was born your then-husband told you to pack your bags and leave. You were 7-months pregnant with his child, and he told you to go! I can't imagine how you nursed the wounds this must have wrecked on you. Come to think of it, you had no time to fall apart and break in misery, let alone heal properly. Instead, you gathered fortitude and pulled resilience from all corners of your being to re-establish your independence. You and your baby - you built a life together, out of love, for love. It is just as Elif Safak muses in her novel Love: "Broken hearts harbor immense treasures."

But could you do it all over again? Do you have to do it all over again?

You know why I'm asking.

Two years ago, filled with hope, you took your baby and decided to start anew AGAIN: a different land, new fiancé, and soon thereafter a second child.

You are a daring one.

There is no great reward without a great risk.

So you jumped in the deep end.

And now you're drowning.

Highly-educated, career-bound, dynamic, charming, beautiful and driven, you are now in a society of people who expect you to serve your fiancé, abandon your friends, resign from being a decision-maker in your life and the life of your children. "They can barely read," you tell me of your fiancé's parents,"but they are warm, good people." They love and care for their two granddaughters.

You wonder, do they care about YOU? Or do they care about a specific version of you? Does he still believe that your most attractive quality is your independence? Or does he try to maneuver around it, stifle, annihilate it?

You tell me he forbids you from talking to your second child in your native tongue, for in his mind his daughter is Greek. You can't take her to visit your parents, even though they are a mere four-hour car ride away.

You are not at peace.

You are in a constant battle.

With him.

With those closest to him.

With yourself.

With what you think your life should be.

With what it actually is.

With your ex-husband.

With his parents.

With one country's judicial system.

Then, another.

It is exhausting, unnerving, despairing.

"I have conceded to the notion that she is not so much my daughter, as she is theirs," you breathe unto the world around you. "They tell me they could raise her on their own." I catch this with eyes wide-open, nigh-believing. Is it possible that you dare give up on your relationship with her? A mother forsaking her child? It is forbidden, this thought. Unfathomable.

But what if this line of thinking is not a sign of weakness before a hostile set of circumstances, but is rather powered by the brain's proclivity to exercise agility in the name of survival? Yes, how else could I explain a loving, capable, even fierce mother considering relinquishing her relationship with her baby. Backed against a wall, you must find a way to rationalize your fears, impending decisions, in order to make it all bearable, livable.

Of all species, we are the most adaptable ones, even to our own detriment. We might believe a situation favorable when we're in the midst of it, only to find out it had actually done us disservice, when looked upon retrospectively. Our (human) ability to *deal* with most types of climate, social, economical, political, familial, living, and kind of conditions such as they might be, while necessary, can occasionally prove short-sighted, plainly damaging in the long-term.

I can't believe the things you tell me. I can't wrap my head around them. How did you get here? You tell me that if you took the two kids and brought them back home, you'd feel like a failure. You tell me that if I returned back home with my two kids, and a failed marriage, you would think of me as a failure. I'm confused. What do they matter -- these types of general, ultra-committal generalizations of somebody's path in life? Aren't our lives ever-unfolding processes - actual living, occasionally evolving, oftentimes devolving living organisms. What is the standard you hold yourself up against? Does it raise you, or does it bring you down?

What has come to sustain you in this chaos of a madness? How will you find the answers you are looking for?

It starts with you, my darling.

I wish you would stop looking for someone or something to blame. Including yourself. I wish you would stop listening to others' complaints and self-serving opinions. Even your own. For some people, they say, it is important to find something to help ground them. I don't think that this is the case for you. If anything, you get so preoccupied with reality, and making the best of it, and as soon as possible, that it prevents you from seeing yourself and those around you, for who they are. Slow the sprint down to a jog. Allow yourself to think for yourself.

This time -- take your time. Soak everything in. Dissect it. Swim in it. Divulge it. Remind yourself that the work will never be done. You, your relationships, your children, and your life are an unfinished masterpiece. Pondered from the right angle, your vulnerabilities can empower you all. You could set the tone. Not by ordering around, nor by submitting, but by listening, sometimes compromising. Yet never giving up.

You could be a pioneer. 

Think about it, my dear. 

How do you counsel and empower a friend, whose life has become quite entangled in a number of missteps? Where do you start? Where and how does she/he begin to instill positive change? 

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

With Great Power: Werner Herzog's Look at Texting-While-Driving

The team here at Wild Angel Films is not jumping to make a PSA, but if we were, we know what it would address. And we’ve discovered that legendary documentarian Werner Herzog – the last filmmaker you would expect to make one himself – is like-minded. The message must be stated, loudly and clearly: DON’T TEXT WHILE DRIVING. So Herzog has been directing several short videos for a public awareness campaign from AT&T. And he has now expanded that series of videos into a 35-minute film. It’s not light material. It is painful, and painfully necessary viewing. I have seen several PSA’s on the subject, and they mean very little next to this devastating piece of work. We are up close and personal with the lives shattered by this modern phenomenon, and the lives that are now only memory.

Werner Herzog, director of "From One Second To The Next"
The film is linked at the bottom of this piece. If you are a parent, save it for the end of the night, once all are tucked away. It might not be easy to face your loved ones after this. So why watch it at all? Because even if your child isn’t driving a car today, he will be tomorrow. And when tomorrow comes, the number of accidents from texting on the road will be even more horrific. Research shows that between 30 and 43% of teenagers actually text while driving,1 2 and that is the cause of 1.6 million deaths every year (and 11 teen deaths everyday).2 In-your-face awareness is all we can do, because the percentage of teen accidents that result from texting climbs by up to 4% annually.2

So…why is this a reality for our teenagers? Herzog’s film follows the aftermath of 4 separate incidents. For two of them, we never meet and hardly hear about the driver, an unidentified teenager. We are left to wonder – were these young teens too shaken up to be interviewed? What are their lives like now, and what about their generation makes it so easy to bring about this unintended pain and loss?

This writer remembers, back when texting was still somewhat nascent (and was not yet outlawed in 37 states), hearing a thunderous crash on the other side of the fence at a friend’s house. After climbing the fence I found a car on its side, atop a few small trees that absorbed the crash, so that the large tree just feet away didn’t have to. I pulled out of the car a fresh young driver, miraculously unscathed. She had been texting on the windy road, right here in Mount Kisco, NY. It didn’t help that she was a little tipsy also. The car was totaled (it’s pictured below), but that’s just a car. Replaceable. I have not been in touch with her since, but I hope that she is immensely grateful. I hope she doesn’t feel, simply, that she got away with it. Because she didn’t.

Aftermath of texting-while-driving accident here in Mount Kisco, NY

Herzog’s film serves to give us a window into shattered lives; he doesn’t attempt to explore the roots of the problem (perhaps he’s saving material for a larger film). But I feel I must make a minor attempt myself. I have never once texted while driving, but I have had Siri do it for me. No longer. Research out of the University of Utah confirmed that when texting/emailing/web-surfing is embedded into the car functionality through dictation, it’s still a major distraction. Even when hands are on the wheel and eyes are on the road.3 So why does Apple think it’s necessary to bring Siri into cars? And why have I (and you?) been tempted to send texts from the road? I remember when I was considering getting an iPhone, someone encouraged me by saying, “it’s not just about keeping up with the latest, it’s really about being more productive.” Absolutely. But in moderation. Maybe that’s the missing element. Just because we can do so much, we feel that we should. And we are not setting necessary limits on these rapidly expanding capabilities.

And in turn, we are not setting limits for our kids. One more statistic, perhaps the scariest of them all: 77% of teens have admitted to watching their parents text and drive. I was asking, before, what is wrong with the generation of our teenagers, but now the finger has been pointed in the opposite direction. Of course they’re going to text on the road if we’re doing it ourselves, or having the machines do it for us. We teach them impatience and chaos, instead of focus and calm. It’s like we’re telling young Peter Parker, “With great power, comes great urgency. So text as fast as you can!” (check out 2nd video below for example of this…) The children bound for success are those who will appreciate technology as an added advantage, instead of making it a distraction and a hindrance to safety. Right now it’s our job to teach them the difference.

The kids will get it. With a little proper guidance, they’ll find the moderation and responsibility themselves. Next to Herzog’s film below, you’ll find a short video about an experiment in Belgium, where teenagers were asked to text as a part of their road test. I think it will be clear from their reactions that texting-while-driving is not exactly in their nature.

More links:

- Additional texting-while-driving stats

- Mobile app to send auto-reply text when driving over 25mph: AT&T Drive Mode


1 Alexander, Anson (July 5, 2012). Texting and Driving Statistics 2012 [Infographic]. Retrieved August 8, 2013.

2 Lohmann, Raychelle Cassada (September 18, 2012). Texting and Driving: A Deadly Decision. Psychology Today. Retrieved August 8, 2013.

3 "AAA Study Finds Hands-Free Tech Dangerously Distracting." All Things Considered NPR, Washington, D.C. 12 June, 2013.

We Do What We Can: Re-Learning Parental Humility

Walking the bustling streets of a Black Sea resort, irritation and boredom pervade my innards. I can't shake them, not even when I watch the boys' steps gain in their characteristically happy bounce. They're dancing to the music of this town's vacation smiles, party-mindedness, poorly masked money-obsessiveness. We levitate from one habitually enticing attraction to another. They are the embodiment of beguiling sirens, the nemeses of reason. In practice, they are jungle-themed larger-than-life bouncers, bungee-rope-equipped trampolines, giant slaloms, parasailing, even jet packs promising yet another kind of flight above water. We are little fish swallowed by a whale of a creature: the beach resort.

I trudge along despondent at the thought that every choice on this path has already been made for me. I need only surrender to the inevitable. And watch the kids' minds get taken over by precisely the type of activity that irks me the most: the getting of stuff. Whatever happened to the concept of window-shopping? Why can't we, as a family, take a respite from the daily pressures of consumerism. This is a plausible case of escapism on my part. The kind I wish were contagious, the kind to propel me to something I have not seen before, the kind to instill a lusted-after freedom, even at the most trite of destinations.

Amid the noise, and en mass frivolity, I get exactly what I need. A dose of reality, a prelude to humility. It comes in the shape of a toddler. He half-lies, half-sits with arms hanging peaceably on his sides, 'most touching the ground beneath, as he slumbers on at the outlines of a wood shop. Soft, amber light envelopes his angelic vestige. It beguiles and beckons me. Then, quickly, I panic. Why is this child sleeping out here, on the floor, exposed, and vulnerable to this place and its forest of moving long-legged characters?

My glance shifts in direction of the shop. Five feet in, a man in his early 40s sits on a stool, surrounded by wood-carved boxes, family name plates, and other tokens from the land of indulgence. He appears haggard. He gazes downwards, engrossed in the carving out of his latest creation. From time to time, he steals somber glances toward the street, the child. This must be the father. But where is the mom?

At the deep end of the shop, a woman speaks seated on yet another stool. Soft-spoken, polite, with impressive command of the English language, she discusses an order with an international bunch of customers. The toddler in the front has her soft curls, high-set cheekbones.

I wonder why they brought him here? And is this decision part of their everyday? I am tempted to judge, to complain, even to tell them what to do.

Then, it occurs to me. In a land, where babysitting duty is taken over exclusively by grandmas, in their absence, parents need make due whichever way they can. And if the family's livelihood depends on their being out at night in the hustle of a large resort, then this is what they shall do. Toddler in hand, or sleeping in front of shop.

Bred from want and impasse, this decision still comes from a place of love and caring. The details of the scene were a testament to that. Starting from the noise-insulating headphones on the sides of his face, to the positioning of his make-shift bed, away from the bright light, and not quite in the sea of strangers yet, and most importantly, the sometimes scolding, always watchful eyes of his father. As passersby stopped near his most precious display, his vigilance reminded me of a wolf en garde of his pup. A tale replicated in a variety of forms and shapes.

Across distances, across species, across cultures, we each do what we can for our children.

Your turn now! Do you catch yourself judging other parents? What is your most recent encounter with parental humility?