Very Smart Writing on Teens

There should be a literary award for the author who writes most intelligently about teens. The person who best rejects mindless stereotypes and embraces their humanity. My nomination for this year, Rachel Cusk, author of a New York Times Magazine essay titled, “The Mother of all Problems: On Raising Teenagers“.

My favorite paragraphs:

But now my daughter’s friends encounter me in the kitchen, in the hall, with barely a word of greeting. They are silent; they look shiftily to the side. They move on fast, up to my daughter’s room, where the sound of talking and shrieking and giggling resumes the instant the door is closed. Quickly they forget I am there; when occasionally they emerge for reinforcements and supplies, they talk in front of me as though I am invisible. Invisibility has at least the advantage of enabling eavesdropping: I listen to them talk, gleaning knowledge of their world. They talk with striking frequency about adults, about the people they now encounter in shops and on buses, the people who serve them in cafes or sell them things. They talk, less mystified, about their teachers. They talk about their grandparents and aunts and uncles. They talk about their fathers, usually with an experimental air of equality, as if they were trying on a pair of shoes that were slightly too big for them. But most of all they talk about their mothers. Their mothers are known as “she.” When I first heard about “she,” I was slightly puzzled by her status, which was somewhere between servant and family pet. “She” came in for a lot of contempt, most of it for acts of servitude and attention that she didn’t appear to realize were unwanted, like a spurned lover continuing to send flowers when the recipient’s affections have moved elsewhere. She’s such a doormat, one of them says. When I forget something I need for school, I just text her and she comes all the way across town with it. She’s so — pathetic. I don’t know what Dad even sees in her. Why doesn’t she get a job or something?

The talk of these girls brings on a distinct queasiness. I think of the many women I know who agonized over work when their children were small, who curtailed and compromised and very often gave up their careers, sometimes in the belief that it was morally correct and sometimes out of sheer exhaustion. Dad, meanwhile, is revered for his importance in the world. I hear them discuss, with what I am guessing is a degree of exaggeration, their fathers’ careers and contacts and the global impact of the work they do; unlike “she,” their fathers are hardworking, clever, successful, cool. They describe them as if they’d only just met them; they describe them as if they’d discovered them, despite the conspiracy to keep these amazing creatures hidden.

When the girls go home, they leave a scene of devastation behind them. The kitchen is strewn with dirty plates and half-eaten food and empty wrappers; the bathroom is a swamp of wet towels, capsized bottles, crumpled tissues smeared with makeup. The smell of nail varnish upstairs is so strong it could knock out a horse. I tidy up, slowly. I open the windows.

Six months later, my younger daughter, I notice, has changed. She has refined her group of friends. There are fewer of them, and the ones that remain are more serious, more distinct. They go to art galleries and lectures together; on Saturdays they take long walks across London, visiting new areas. My daughter has become politicized: At dinner, she talks about feminism, politics, ethics. My older daughter has already made this transition, and so the two of them join forces, setting the world to rights. When they argue now, it is about the French head-scarf ban in schools or the morality of communism. Sometimes it’s like having dinner on the set of “Crossfire.” I become aware of their verbal dexterity, their information, the speed of their thought processes. Sometimes I interject, and more often than not am shot down. This, in my own teenage years, would not have been tolerated, yet I find it easy to tolerate. They’re like a pair of terriers with a stick: they’ve got their teeth into the world and its ways. Their energy, their passion, their ferocity — I regard these as the proper attributes of youth. Yet inevitably the argument overheats; one of them storms away from the table in tears, and I have to go and talk her into coming back.

Strange as it may seem, they are still children, still having to operate bodies and minds that are like new, complex pieces of machinery. And indeed, at meal’s end, it is I who rises and clears the plates, just as I always have. It would be far too easy to gibe at the skin-depth of their feminism. Besides, I don’t see that anything has fundamentally changed in the contract between me and them. For the first time, I am glad of the flaws in our family life, though at times I have suffered bitterly over them, seeing in other people’s impeccable domestic lives a vision of stability and happiness I have absolutely failed to attain. But in this new territory, we perhaps have less to lose: no image is being defiled, no standard of perfection compromised. The traditional complaint about teenagers — that they treat the place like a hotel — has no purchase on me. In fact, I quite like the idea. A hotel is a place where you can come and go autonomously and with dignity; a place where you will not be subjected to criticism, blame or guilt; a place where you can drop your towel on the floor without fear of reprisal, but where, hopefully, over time, you become aware of the person whose job it is to pick it up and instead leave it folded neatly on a chair.

The Greatest Living Christian Apologist

Tampa to Charlotte. 6B is reading a book about how Christians can pick apart scientists’ arguments and successfully evangelize the masses.

My age, fighting Father Time with the help of a toupee. I can’t help but think how different our lives have probably been. We make small talk, and then in a temporary lapse of sanity I say, “Good book?” And he was off to the races.

He was surprised I knew what apologetics was and quickly informed me that he was supposed to be in First Class with his 83 year old dad who is the “World’s Greatest Living Christian Apologist”. Damn, I didn’t know that was a competition. Where, I wondered, could I find the complete rankings. I have close friends in the ministry, are they in the Top 20 I wondered? And how do the competing apologists keep track of total souls saved? Do you self-report and just trust your competitors aren’t inflating their numbers?

He didn’t know what to make of me. “Are there many other people like you in your church?” In other words. You’re one of those social justice whack jobs I’ve read about. I’ll pray for you.

There was some disappointment that I didn’t know his dad, but hell, he didn’t know mine, and mine was the World’s Greatest Wearer of Plaid Pants. Apparently, his dad built two seminaries and they travel the world debating atheists and others about Christianity. My dad was far too smart to ever hire me.

A Dallas Seminarian who believes in biblical inerrancy, he lectured me about the three different kinds of Christian apologetics and shared some of his strategies for convincing others to think just like him.

I told him about my Nigerian friend who was the most fervent Christian I had ever met and that if he was born 100 miles north of where he was he probably would’ve been an influential Muslim Iman. And that very, very few Christian parents in North America introduce their children to different faith traditions. That when it comes to one’s faith, the time, place, and family in which you’re born is probably even more influential than the Holy Spirit.

But turns out, he’s the exception. He’s talks with his 6, 8, and 10 year old (“started my family much later”) about other faiths all the time and encourages them to ask questions. And I’m SURE if one of them commits to a different faith in the future he’ll be completely understanding.

Lord, please temper my cynicism and grant 6B some humility.

[Remember, eavesdropping is perfectly okay. You just have to expect and accept returns of serve. “I noticed what you were reading,” 6B said with furrowed brow. The Ethicist essay in the New York Times Magazine titled, “Do You Tell a Friend That His Daughter is Having Sex?” Bahahaha!

I Miss My Mom

My mom passed away yesterday. The world seems less kind as a result. Here’s a draft of the obit. Co-authored with my daughter.

Carol J. Byrnes (11.17.30 – 3.15.15)

Carol J. Byrnes liked few things more than the sun. So it was fitting she fell asleep in the sun in Tampa Florida, and didn’t wake up.

Born in Glendive, Montana, Carol enriched the lives of four children, eight grandchildren, two great grandchildren, and extended family and friends.

Carol grew up poor in Eastern Montana, but instead of complaining about life’s challenges, she overcame them with gutty resilience.

Caring and non-judgmental, Carol never forgot her roots. She had an active social conscience and was continually making friends with people different than herself. She liked fancy things, but not fancy people. She enjoyed giving time and money to Tampa’s Women’s Centre.

Carol was kind, warm, affectionate, and fun. She loved fashion magazines and the Los Angeles Lakers. This past December her conversation was peppered with frustrated commentary about Kobe’s lack of playing time, despite his injuries.

Although Carol never felt smart because she mistakenly thought intelligence required formal academic degrees, in truth, she was whip smart. In her teens, she knew that Donald Joseph, her beloved husband of 47 years, was destined for success and they made a great team. She was people- and common-sense smart, and curious about a lot of things including the nickel defense. She embraced grand jury service because she found the legal issues so fascinating. A brilliant speller, an excellent secretary, and a lover of newspapers, she was reading right up to her final sundrenched nap.

We grieve her loss, but honor her memory whenever we treat people with dignity and are generous with our time and money.

Sentence to Ponder

Governor Cuomo version:

In the light of such widespread skepticism about over-reliance on test results—and such widespread consensus about the detrimental effects engendered by teaching to the test—the governor’s doubling down on state test results to assess teachers’ effectiveness seems a questionable calculation.

Why You’ll Buy an iWatch

Because lots of other people will. Might be in two months, years, or decades, but you’ll succumb to the spell Jonathan Ive’s team has cast on our culture.

The early reviewers say what’s most remarkable about the iWatch is they hardly ever take their iPhones out of their pockets anymore. So if having to regularly remove your phone from your pocket is wreaking havoc on your life, you’re in luck. Nevermind that you’ll have to charge it overnight and shouldn’t swim with it. There are less expensive ways to improve your social standing, but not many faster ones.

I recently read a long New Yorker story on Apple’s design guru, Jonathan Ive. I was amazed to learn that Apple employs three people whose only job is to find and hire the best designers in the world. They typically hire one person a year. Also mind boggling, one part of the soon-to-be-opened new Apple headquarters in Mountain View, CA is a $5b “walled garden”. If it wasn’t the New Yorker, I would assume that’s a typo. Five thousand million dollars on plants?

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about two things—a different form of design, residential architecture, and Marie Kondo’s fame. Kondo is the best selling author of “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing.” Kondo says you should only have things in your home that “spark joy”.

What about whole houses, a residential architecture, that sparks joy?! Very, very few homes in my corner of the country spark joy, probably because architects are focused much more narrowly on profit margins. Instead of asking, does this spark joy, they ask, how much will it cost to build per square foot and what can we reasonably expect to sell it for.

The end result of this calculus is terribly uninteresting neighborhood after terribly uninteresting neighborhood. It’s not the designers’ and builders’ fault, it’s ours for settling for uninspiring designs.

What will it take for us to challenge residential architects to design and build homes that spark joy, and dare I dream, neighborhoods that enrich people’s spirits for centuries to come? Neighborhoods filled with small to medium-sized, eclectic, energy efficient homes? Neighborhoods where art and sound economics co-exist? It will take a new resolve to stop settling for mindless designs.

There are small design and build firms out there doing beautiful work, like this one, but until buyers insist on joy, don’t expect them to scale-up their impressive work anytime soon.

When You Are Adopted. . .

says Aaron Levi, Wilt Chamberlain’s 50 year old son, “rejection is woven into your DNA.”

My family’s version of Manifest Destiny concluded on December 31st, 1973 when we arrived, via a car caravan from Ohio, at a West LA hotel. Immediately after checking in, my demented older brothers decided we had to finish our journey by driving the last few miles to the Pacific Ocean. And then become one with the ocean on probably the coldest day of the year. Running from the Pacific Coast Highway to the water, we looked north towards Pacific Palisades and saw our first SoCal celeb, Wilt the Stilt, playing beach volleyball.

At that exact moment, you could count on one hand the number of people who knew Wilt had a 9 year old son named Aaron, living in Oregon, with his adopted family, the Levi’s. Read or watch the whole moving story here.

The story is interesting on several levels. For instance, Ben Carson, long shot Republican candidate for President, is popular among social conservatives. Carson is certain homosexuality is a choice. Ben, please read paragraph six of Pomerantz’s story and then explain how Aaron Levi decided to be gay before he was 9. Maybe Carson will reason Levi asked for Mary Poppins because he didn’t have a strong father figure. Complete bullshit.

On NPR recently, I listened to a segment on why we doubt scientific findings. One guest explained how some people’s identities and worldviews determine how they interpret scientific findings. For example, individuals who reject evolution and climate change don’t do so based on objective considerations of evidence, they do so because accepting those findings would require too fundamental a change in identity and worldview.

I couldn’t help but think of that when reading how Chamberlain’s remaining sibs have refused to meet Levi. Why the flat-out rejection? Because meeting him would require them to rethink what they believe to be true about their deceased brother. His sanitized image is an integral part of their self image. Put differently, Levi doesn’t fit into their worldview.

Levi deserves a lot better. The Chamberlains should follow the lead of one of my elderly relatives who was shocked recently when he was contacted by his deceased sibling’s secret daughter, now Aaron Levi’s exact age. They met, shared histories, and now she’s a cherished member of the family.

It’s not that hard if you put adoptees’ needs to know their history before your need to maintain a fictitious public image.

Postscript—Time will probably tell, but what’s the over-under on Levi’s half brothers and sisters?