literarture

On Killing the Mockingbird

Atticus Finch is my hero. To Kill A Mockingbird is my all-time favorite book. Like many before and after me, it was one of the rites of passage of high school English. And like some, it was because of that book that I knew I wanted to be an English teacher. The casting of the Academy-award winning film is probably the best book-to-screen adaptation that I have ever seen. Gregory Peck IS Atticus Finch. He (Finch/Peck) is the consummate father, citizen, and lawyer the literary and film world has ever known…

…I can never be Atticus Finch–I don’t think anyone can. But maybe I can channel his presence through my persona, my alter ego: Dadicus Grinch. I want to be the kind of man he was, yet I find I am a bundle of contradictions: a friendly curmudgeon, an open-minded critic, a pessimistic optimist, an angry peacemaker… I have the best intentions, but I will always have my demons. Here’s a chance to put some of them to rest.  –excerpted from my first blog post,                         August 18, 2012

So, here we are, on the literary cusp of a sad day for Finch fans. I’ve spent the last week reading reviews, interviews, and the first chapter of Go Set a Watchman, Harper Lee’s prequel/postquel to TKAM. And like the rest of the world, I was saddened and dismayed to learn that Atticus Finch advocated segregation. The headlines screamed: Atticus Finch was a bigot. “No!” I cried. “Not Atticus!”

Yet, after having some time to reflect, I must admit, I am a bit relieved. Atticus Finch is a literary hero, but he has turned into a paragon, a demigod. Decade after decade, he remained the ultimate father and citizen. And therein lies the problem. He was PERFECT. He lacked any flaws. Sure, one could admire him, and aspire to be like him, but, in the end, his persona was unattainable–even for Atticus himself. This does not sit well with the world: We like our heroes without flaw, beyond reproach. We seem to forget that heroes are human, and, therefore, fallible.

I am disheartened to learn that Atticus was not whole in his support for African Americans, but I am even more dismayed by society’s need to bring this book to the fore. The elusive and reclusive Harper Lee spent the better part of her life shielding it from public view. For more than half a century, Ms. Lee was content to let To Kill A Mockingbird remain her solitary novel. Speculation has even arisen as to Lee’s current mental and physical state. Thus, for me, the question remains: Was this really her intent? Why would a very private, humble woman finally agree to publish a work that will reshape her entire legacy?

Lee’s perplexing decision reminds me of the mockingbird referenced in her classic.

As Scout recalls:

“Atticus said to Jem one day, ‘I’d rather you shoot at tin cans in the back yard, but I know you’ll go after birds. Shoot all the blue jays you want, if you can hit ’em, but remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.’

That was the only time I ever heard Atticus say it was a sin to do something, and I asked Miss Maudie about it.

‘Your father’s right,’ she said. ‘Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corncribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird'”(90).

I can’t help but think of Harper Lee’s voice as the mockingbird in question. For most of her adult life, her solitary novel served to6320407696_c23c605e65_n create music for generations of readers to enjoy. By breathing life into a young Scout and her father, Miss Lee sang her heart out for us.

Yet, we live in a world of insatiable appetites, one where greed trumps integrity, and our desire to know everything denies one’s request for privacy. In so doing, we have killed the mockingbird Lee tried to protect for over 50 years.

Sure, there is a chance that Lee knows exactly what she is doing. That by bringing Watchman to light, she is finally giving a complete, well-rounded perspective of the character. As many of you know, he was modeled after her father. Perhaps Lee wanted to pin down the wings that we have given St. Atticus, and make him more believable, fully developed–a truer reflection of a noble, but flawed, Southern white man of his time.

Now, you may be wondering if I plan on reading the book. I do. Yet, I will do so with a heavier heart. I am already mourning the loss of the man I have thought of often as I parent; the man I aspired to be. Truth is, like many, my sense of indulgence will get the better of me. Unfortunately, I am a product of my environment. I am human.

It turns out Atticus was, too.

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Valentine for Ernest Mann

Although Valentine’s Day is not one of my favorite holidays (find out why here), this piece by Naomi Shihab Nye is one of my favorite poems. I would like to share it with you because I think it speaks to us no matter where we fall on the relationship spectrum. Please take a moment to read it–you will never look at skunks the same way again.

Valentine for Ernest Mann

You can’t order a poem like you order a taco.
Walk up to the counter, say, “I’ll take two”
and expect it to be handed back to you
on a shiny plate.

Still, I like your spirit.
Anyone who says, “Here’s my address,
write me a poem,” deserves something in reply.
So I’ll tell you a secret instead:
poems hide. In the bottoms of our shoes,
they are sleeping. They are the shadows
drifting across our ceilings the moment
before we wake up. What we have to do
is live in a way that lets us find them.

Once I knew a man who gave his wife
two skunks for a valentine.
He couldn’t understand why she was crying.
“I thought they had such beautiful eyes.”
And he was serious. He was a serious man
who lived in a serious way. Nothing was ugly
just because the world said so. He really
liked those skunks. So, he re-invented them
as valentines and they became beautiful.
At least, to him. And the poems that had been hiding
in the eyes of skunks for centuries
crawled out and curled up at his feet.

Maybe if we re-invent whatever our lives give us
we find poems. Check your garage, the odd sock
in your drawer, the person you almost like, but not quite.
And let me know.

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A Midwinter Night’s Dream

This winter is certainly starting to wear thin on our nerves. As the East Coast battles its latest storm and the aftermath, cabin fever is running amok at our house. We’ve had more snow days than school days since forever, and the novelty of sledding and snowball fights has grown tired.

This is starting to become our winter of discontent.

If you’re a literary sort, you may notice that the title of this post and the reference above allude to works from the great master, William Shakespeare. I seem to be in a Shakespeare sort of mind. Indeed, this winter is one of history (the worst power outage in Pennsylvania history); comedy (the boys and I building our first igloo in the yard); and tragedy (trees and power lines falling around us like Armageddon).

But the reason Shakespeare is present in this post may surprise you. It’s not because I’ve curled up with one of the Bard’s classic plays by the fire, it’s because of LEGOs. Yes, LEGOs.

If you have kids and you don’t live under a rock (or you didn’t live under one until the latest ice storm), then you are aware that The LEGO Movie photo (38)comes out today. Yes, dear reader, by the time you see this post, we may have already seen this epic film. I am genuinely excited. My boys are LEGO freaks. Plus, the film is getting great reviews and stars all the people I’d like to hang out with if I were famous–Chris Pratt, Elizabeth Banks, and a few of the great Wills of our time: Will Ferrell, Will Arnett and Will Forte. And one of the characters in the film is the greatest Will of all time.

LEGOs abound in my house. I step on them when I enter my sons’ rooms. I put them in various bins and boxes whenever I come upon discarded pieces. I’ve created shelves and cleared bookcases so my boys’ creations would last–they don’t. And all of these aspects drive me crazy.

But the one thing I love about LEGOs is how they captivate the imagination. My photo (40)boys can play with them for hours. And they create and recreate various scenes with the thousands of pieces that litter our house. So, it’s not uncommon for me to come upon various tableaus of LEGO figures everywhere I turn: the dining room table, the kitchen counter, the bathroom sink, and every floor space imaginable–none on the damn shelves I put up for display, though!

Here is a LEGO scene created by my seven-year-old this morning that sits behind me on the kitchen counter while I type:

photo (39)

And it is these types of things that I have come to love–and expect–as a parent. My boys create all over the house. They build. They destroy. They imagine. And I bear witness to it all. Pre-kids, this would have driven me crazy. I would have viewed it as clutter and crap. But little by little my defenses have been whittled down. Now, it’s like pop-up pop culture surrounds me.

And sometimes, worlds collide. When LEGO announced the latest minifigure series in honor of the movie, the boys were ecstatic. And I had to laugh, because I became excited that Shakespeare was part of the lineup.

“If one of you gets Shakespeare, can I have it?”

“Why?”

“Because I’m an English teacher!” NOTE: I do know I should have said “may” in my question above, but we don’t talk like that all the time:) “Shakespeare is the greatest writer of all time,” I continued.

I proceeded to describe Shakespeare to the boys. Then, I was like a kid when they opened the wrappers for their minifigures. And lo and behold, Hayden DID get Shakespeare and I now get to watch Will in action as he makes his way around the house.

Like this little scenario I came upon the other night:

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It’s Will riding on the hood of a fire truck with a mermaid behind him. It’s sounds like the premise of a bad joke. But it is simply one of the many bizarre, wonderful creations of my boys thanks to LEGOs.  When I came upon it, I laughed out loud. Here was one of my idols, a man who intimidated me as a teacher for years, in a rather absurd scenario. It’s as if Will is riding around on his imagination thinking up one of his many fantastical stories–The Tempest, perhaps?

And then it dawned on me–that’s just the way Shakespeare would have wanted it. As he would say: “Thephoto (41) play’s the thing.” And LEGOs have taught my sons how to play, how to create, how to dream. And I hate that this post sounds like a cheesy ad for LEGO, but they have been integral to my sons’ childhood–and a huge deficit to  our bank account.

But as I sit with the doldrums of winter, and we all try to weather these storms, it is my sons’ LEGO scenes, and the iconic characters they employ, that help remind me that all of this is part of a bigger story. The plot of Life continues to be surprising and challenging; random and riveting.

I’m reminded of my son Owen’s words the other night as we prepared to sleep in front of the fireplace due to no electricity: “It’s an adventure!” he shouted enthusiastically. And it is. All of it.

I think Shakespeare would agree.

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I Know Why the Jaybird Sings

It’s one of the first signs of warm weather where we live. The jaybirds dance on our lawn. Naked, as the saying goes. And by jaybirds, you know I really mean my sons, right? Well, they do. They love to dance “naked as jaybirds.” It happened yesterday, earlier than usual, but the weather was an unseasonably high 86 degrees and that meant water fights.

I am out front doing some yard work–I seem to manage fifteen minute intervals of weeding and whacking these days. And there I am, trimming back some shrubs, when the boys sneak up and attack me with their water pistols. I scream with genuine surprise then delight, and they are pleased with their subterfuge. At this point, they are wearing bathing suits. I give them my usual five-minute warning, this time regarding homework: “Homework in five minutes!” “Okay.”

As they gallop back to the hose, I can’t help but smile. I am thrilled that they took it upon themselves to come out and enjoy the beautiful sun. I left them inside with the babysitter (the television) because I REALLY photo (27)need to trim these shrubs. Watching them at the hose, I become nostalgic. Yes, a form of nostalgia I feel now as a parent that makes me sad for the fleeting memory while I am witnessing it. The kind that makes me thankful to be experiencing this event, but already sad knowing it will be over too soon. The moment quickly fades into a memory on my lawn, to be joined by the previous memories of sprinklers, and slip-n-slides, and kiddy pools of seasons past. I think about how sweet and innocent this time in their life still is, and how just a hose, some water guns, a bucket (and an unsuspecting dad) are all they need to thrill them.

While I continue in the garden, they squeal with laughter, as the cold spray of water shocks their lanky bodies. When I finish, the boys are a bit miffed that I do not want to get soaking wet. “But we wanted to attack you some more.” “Sorry, we have to do homework.” “Can you at least dump this bucket on us?”Owen asks. “Sure!” I say. What a consolation. “But I’ll only do it if you turn around. It’s more fun if you don’t see it coming.” Both boys sit in the driveway with their backs to me, and I proceed to drench them with a five gallon bucket of ice-cold water. This time, they scream with surprise then delight. “Okay, now homework!”

The boys dutifully listen to me. They strip out of their bathing suits, grab their towels and then their book bags. They settle down at the table on our patio and begin their homework–naked! I am taken aback by this and can’t find the words to tell them to dress. It’s as if they do their homework naked every night. They sit sans clothes through reading, spelling and math. I even serve them drinks and snacks. And once again, here I am confronting a situation as a parent that I did not see coming:  At what point does it become not cute or okay for my boys to be running around “naked as a couple of jaybirds”?

photo (17)Naked babies are adorable, naked toddlers are funny, but a naked first and second grader? Weird? Awkward? Unfortunately, they are growing up so fast, but in many ways they are so similar to the boys they were 1,2,3 years ago. Yesterday was the first time I was thinking, “this can’t continue much longer, right?” Yet, what I loved about the entire event was how comfortable the boys were with their natural state. It is a goal of mine for them to be proud and aware of their bodies. I know it is, in  part, my rebuttal to my Catholic roots, in which at my sons’ ages I was already obsessing about the different types of sin (mortal or venial), and where I remember being told to get my hand out of my pants because it was “dirty.”  Well, that set me back a couple of decades. And please don’t misunderstand, I’m not trying to raise little nudist or run a commune. But I love that there is a sense of innocence and acceptance that my sons convey in these situations.

After homework, they begin to chase each other around the backyard. “Okay. Enough. Go inside and get clothes on.” Their two full moons run past me as they giggle their way into the house. A few minutes later, they are at the kitchen counter. Baseball season has started, which means dinner at 5. As I make their meals, Owen says, “Dad, I learned how to write H, E, and L in cursive. So, guess what word I can spell–in cursive!?” “Owen!” I say, acting shocked. “Yep, I can spell the H word in cursive now.” “Well, did you?” I ask. “NO! But I could.” “He accidentally said it twice today,” pipes in his younger brother, Hayden. “You said it yesterday, too.” he continues. “It’s not an accident if you keep saying it,” I tell him. “I’m sorry, but I think I really love curse words,” he confesses. ME, TOO! I think, but I say, “Curse words make you look dumb. There’s always a better word to use than a curse word.” But these words will never make you feel as good as a bleeping curse word will! I think. Boy, this has turned in to quite a day. Doing homework naked. Cursing at the kitchen counter. Should I let them try a beer with dinner?

The moments come often. They are reminders that their innocence is a fleeting phenomenon. Have you been on a playground lately? If so, then you’ve probably heard some six-year-old  singing about sexy ladies a la Gangam Style, or one of Kesha’s latest ditties about playing with your junk. And my sons are right there singing along to some of these choruses. Yet, I am amazed that they don’t know more! I am relieved that they’re only spelling Hell (in cursive). And I want to continue to be a part of the conversation. Not as their friend, but as their father. If I can at least help them understand why something is offensive, then maybe they will think twice before saying or doing it.

Baseball practice is hot. The fields are dusty with dry dirt, and all the boys want to kick it up like it’s their job. On the way home, I inform Owen and Hayden that they have to get a quick shower. They hate showers. We’re lucky if they get one every other night. The whining starts. Hayden begins to cry. “Look, you’re dirty. You smell. You have to get a shower,” I holler to them in the back seat. More protests. As I pull into the driveway, I notice the hose still out from their afternoon frolic. “Fine. You can get a shower OR I can hose you off.” “Hose! Hose!” they insist. They jump out of the car, put their baseball equipment away, and strip down. Dammit, I wasn’t thinking about the fact that they would be naked out here, again. And now many neighbors are home from work and enjoying the spring night. What the hell is wrong with me?

I turn the hose on. The boys are tired. The water is cold. It does not have the same thrill it did this afternoon. In fact, it seems torturous. I regret it the moment the water slaps their skin. I feel stupid. Embarrassed. Pam comes outside and sees this display. The boys are yelling for their towels. I put the hose down, and fetch the ones still drying on the fence from earlier today. We quickly wrap them in the cottony warmth. They head inside. “Honey,” Pam says, “they can’t be naked like that. You know…” “I know,” I say. “I know.” And now I do.

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

The poet Maya Angelou once said, “A bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song.” Clearly, I do not have all the answers when it comes to the conundrums that parenting puts upon us. And now, I head into this new season more aware that my jaybirds are becoming fully fledged. But I think of their laughter, their squeals of delight while playing around the yard, and I can’t seem to silence the song just yet. Their nakedness is part of that freedom, that joy.  They are still singing the song of childhood, and I want that chorus to last for a few more years. But I can promise you one thing–no more hose baths at night.

A dad has to start somewhere.

Lord of the Fleas

LOTF cover

And now for a dramatic reading of Lord of the Flies, that classic psychological study by William Golding, as seen through the eyes of my six-year-old:

Hayden picks up a copy of Lord of the Flies that he finds in my car while we are driving to swim lessons.

Hayden: Oh look, Lord of the Fleas.

Me: It’s Flies.

Hayden: Lord of the Flies. Here, I’ll read page 106. (He begins to make up words while pretending to read the print). And the boys came and farted on the Lord of the Flies. And then they watched as farts came out of the flies butts. Then all the boys said, “Ewwww. That’s gross!” Then the fleas–I mean flies–and the boys all started farting at the same time.

Me: (Rolling my eyes while driving–and laughing on the inside.)

I apologize for another post about farts, but the boys are in full swing with their fart jokes and potty words. And I can be as gross as they come, but the constant barrage of fart/pee/penis/butt/burp references is becoming a bit maddening. And speaking of maddening, I had to laugh at Hayden’s dramatic reading of the book, because he proved a theory that Golding was positing when he wrote this classic novel: all boys are freaking crazy; they are one plane crash away from a descent into madness.

I recently finished teaching Lord of the Flies (LOTF) to my ninth graders. The book is so captivating and eerily believable. I read the book (ish) in high school–I bet I read mainly the Cliffs Notes back then. But I did honestly read it in my twenties, then I taught it to juniors my first year of teaching high school. I was only 24 and I know I did not do the provocative themes justice. This year, we added it to the curriculum, and I became immersed in the island and its inhabitants. I shared with my students how different I felt teaching this book now that I am fortysomething and have young boys of my own.

In the month that I prepared for, and then taught, the book, I watched the behavior of boys through a different lens. I noticed how, in many ways, boys are so primitive in their need to be physical, to compete, to gain your attention, and, ultimately, your respect. As a teacher, I have the privilege of witnessing gawky freshmen boys grow  into confident, aware young men. And with my own boys, I see their constant battle of wills and wits. And whether they live as survivors on an island or siblings in the suburbs, boys everywhere are gross! They smell, they have sick senses of humor, and laugh at the most inane shit.

I had started to put the book behind me, having just finished it in time for spring break, when Hayden’s little literary serenade made me examine its impact on me again. We just happened to be on our way to swimming class, where last week I had an epiphany while reading the book. As I sat in the steamy pool area, I watched my boys begin to swim with the instructor. I brought my LOTF with me to re-read for the coming day. For the next few minutes, I was transported from the steamy discomfort of the Y, to an island in the Pacific, where a group of privileged boys were in a frenzied state, feasting on the succulent pork from their fresh kill. It was the crucial scene where Simon–sweet, innocent, Simon– runs on to the beach to tell the boys that “the Beast” is really just a dead parachutist. In the mayhem and confusion, some boys believe he is the Beast–although some knew he was not–they KNEW! He is pushed into the circle and brutally, fatally attacked. Too late, his fellow schoolmates realize it was one of their own that they have murdered.

As I come to the gruesome end of this chapter, I find I am distracted by another group of boys– the ones at the other end of the pool–the group of boys that includes my two sons. They are being loud. They are splashing a great deal. And they are hitting each other “playfully.” The instructor ( a mild-mannered man in his early twenties) has no control of this rowdy bunch of “Littluns” and is in the middle of the pool assisting the only girl in the class. I pick up my book and make my way down to the other end. I am glad to see that my sons appear to be merely bystanders in all this, but my anger with the boys in the novel is seeping through as I look at this lot. “Boys are crazy,” I think. “All boys. Crazy!” I watch as one of the swimmers taunts the weakest one in the pool. “He would be Roger,” I say to myself. I see another boy screaming song lyrics at the group while making violent waves in the water, “Baby you’re a firework!” he hollers. “And he would be Ralph,” I think. Two boys begin to hit each other with their kick boards. “And there are Jack and Piggy.” Owen, my eight year old, looks back at me, aware that I am watching and sensing that I am not comfortable with how his class is being conducted. He smiles at me, sitting on the edge waiting for the teacher. “And who would you be, Owen?” My eyes pass over to Hayden, the more volatile of my two sons. “And what about you, Hayden?” I wonder. “Would you be leaders or followers? Would you remain good or cross the line into evil? Would you be victims or perpetrators.” I shudder at these thoughts.

Lord-of-the-Flies-lord-of-the-flies-527556_400_300

I share this incident with my students the following day. “That bunch would not have made it until the end of the week if they were stuck in that pool arena with no adults.” They laugh nervously, and then they become somewhat reflective. Throughout the teaching of this book, we’ve talked at length about human nature and what human beings are capable of. Sadly, I share news articles with them–articles that I simply came across from the daily paper. No need to look very far to read what humans can do to one another. The first is about a boy in our area who was beaten by two others in the school yard and died the day after his twelfth birthday. Next, I reference the atrocity of a European woman gang raped in India while on holiday with her husband. This serves as a  parallel to the killing of the sow by the boys, a performance that is likened to a gang rape by the diction Golding uses in the scene. I tell the students how infuriated such atrocities makes me. I reiterate how literature acts as a mirror for society. And I remind them that, yes, there is evil in this world, but there is also good. We can be agents of good. And ultimately, our challenges will probably not manifest themselves on a deserted island in the middle of nowhere, but in our neighborhoods, our school yards, our streets, and yes, even the steamy poolsides of the local YMCA.

Thankfully, I remain hopeful. I believe that humankind is inherently good. And I realize that we all are all things: good AND evil, leaders AND followers, victims AND perpetrators. It is my goal as a father to teach my boys to lead when necessary, but not be afraid to follow the right kind of person;  to stand up for the Piggys of this world who are victims of cruelty; to seek enlightenment like Simon who communed with nature on the island and realized there was a higher power in all of this; and to keep the fire burning on the shore, to never give up hope or the belief in their fellow man. If they can gain all of this, I can put up with all of the fart jokes they can muster.