To Kill a Mockingbird

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.


Goodnight, Sweet Boy!

“I want to be the man my dog thinks I am.” –Author Unknown

puppyWe lost our sweet yellow Lab this week. Rufus Atticus  passed away on Tuesday, February 12th. He did go gently into that good night, licking a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup while the doctor gave him the injection. It happened, like so many things in our lives, unexpectedly, without warning. This time a week ago he was frolicking in the snow at his favorite spot: thenature preserve at the end of our street. And then his leg broke–just broke.  He gave a piercing cry that I have never heard from him. As he rested for the remainder of the weekend, we were cautiously optimistic. But the visit to the vet confirmed the worst. A malignant bone tumor. Of course there was the option of amputating the leg and giving him chemo, but that would only buy him a few months, which did not seem fair to him and was something I didn’t want the boys, or us, to endure. So, really, there was only one option–to put him to sleep.

After his diagnosis, I held it together while in the vet’s office, but once outside, the tears erupted. As I watched him hobble to the car, I couldn’t believe our time together was dwindling. Pam came home from work once I told her, and we cried together, with Rufus lying in his bed looking at us with the same lovable face–a face that blended wisdom, love, admiration, excitement, joy and sadness. This was his forever face. He was our first born, our starter baby. We bought him a year into our marriage, the pre-children acquisition to determine how we would parent together. And we certainly did learn a lot about each other by raising Rufus, about shared responsibility and  teaching him how to behave, about the fact that it’s up to both of us to pick up poop and walk him, and that whoever lets him out the other must let him back in…

When I think back on the past ten and a half years with this dog, I realize that I spent the most time with him in our family. I must have taken him on thousands of walks. Thousands! I walkedrufgrad him practically every day of his life. When he was young, these were long runs through hill and dale. As he aged, they became meandering trots through the woods. This became my daily routine, my ritual, my identity. In the neighborhood, it was common for neighbors to see me making my usual rounds. At the preserve, I was familiar with all the other dogs–I was known as Rufus’ dad (It’s a funny thing about pets–we all seem to know their names, but not their owner’s.) Rufus and I could be found in the open space at least five days (or nights) a week. But now I am dogless. Now, I don’t feel I can walk back there alone. Now, I feel like I will be viewed as a creeper lurking in the woods. How sad is that?

ruf22My sadness over this loss was at first surprising, but then completely understandable. I was losing my boy, my companion, my best friend. Sure, I had dogs growing up, but we never cared for them the way a dog needs to be cared for. We simply argued whose turn it was to let him out the back door and whose turn it was to let him in. But Rufus was my only dog as a grown man. And I did grow so much in his lifetime. Not only as his owner, but as a husband, then a father, and a man…Rufus was present through all of this. And his name! Rufus Atticus. This name was my first homage to my hero, Atticus Finch. Before Dadicus Grinch was ever a thought in my mind, there was this loyal creature who embodied so many of the good things about this world, much like my literary hero.

I spent most of Rufus’ last day on Earth on the floor. I wanted to be with him, to sit and reflect on all he was to us. At times, I wailed. I was filled with the typical regrets: I fell asleep on Friday putting Owen to bed and never gave you a walk; we’ll never go swimming in the bay again; you’ll never chase another squirrel out of our yard. Like all those in grief, I even embraced the things that drove me crazy about him–I wanted to hear his annoying bark when someone came to the door; I wanted to be covered in his fur that I was constantly bitching about vacuuming up every other day.

When we told the boys, they were obviously upset. We had practiced what we would say, but it made no difference. The words we rehearsed escaped us, and our raw emotions spewed forth. “Rufus is in pain and needs to go to heaven.” I think they were more taken aback by our crying then the news of his dying. “You guys look like your eyes are bleeding when you cry,” said Hayden. “Yeah, and it looks like your head is going to explode!” said Owen. “Well, what do you think you look like when you cry?” I asked. In hindsight, I’m glad they saw me cry. I’m glad they saw me sitting there with the dog on his bed crying for him, for me, for all of us. This is a part of life, and they will remember it forever. I want them to know there is no shame in crying, there is nothing wrong with being sad when someone you love is hurting. Because when a loved one hurts, you hurt, too.

313166_10150368796097036_1404978185_nRufus spent his final day as he did most other days–eagerly awaiting the next piece of food to come his way. However, on this day he did not need to wait long. Every time Pam turned the corner, she had a treat for him. From cheese to cantaloupe, from popcorn to pork tenderloin. This dog ate everything his heart desired. When we took him to the vet, the decadence continued with biscuits and chocolate–a dog’s forbidden fruit. He ate more pieces of chocolate than some kids on Halloween. Such pleasures helped to mask the grief we were all feeling, helped to hush the constant cries of pain he made when trying to walk on three legs.

After the vet gave him a sedative, he began to settle down on a soft blanket. We lied there with him on the floor and tried to quiet our sobs. The nurses kept the chocolate coming, which he lapped up with his soft tongue. A sweet older woman said, “This is how I want to go out. Surrounded by people who love me, being fed chocolate.” As the doctor waited to administer the medicine that would end his life, I began to talk about what a wonderful dog he has been. “From the moment we got you, Rufus, you were our sweet boy.” I then remembered the story I often told about picking him up from a breeder in Maryland. During times of sadness, I attempt to use humor to soften the pain. Not surprisingly, this can backfire. It can make things awkward. I seem to have a knack for making things worse by adding my weirdness to the mix. Such was the case when I launched into this tale.

“The family where we bought Rufus was very religious,” I began. “You’re not going to tell this story now, are you Michael?” said Pam. “Sure, why not.” The female doctor and two female assistants looked unfazed. “Yeah, this family had religious plaques and crucifixes around their farm. And the couple had three sweet children. The man said, ‘Well, there are two puppies left. You can have your pick. And if you want to see the bitch, she’s up in the pen.’ Well, it took everything Pam and I had not to burst out laughing like two high school kids. As I drove us home to Pennsylvania, with Rufus on Pam’s lap, I said to her, ‘Honey, wouldn’t it have been funny if when he asked us to see the bitch in the pen I said ‘See the bitch? I just drove with her in the car for three hours!'” We laughed at this, but then both agreed that the breeder and his wife would NOT have thought it was funny. Neither did the vet or her assistants, who all gave me a look that said “We’ll chalk it up to your grief, but that story makes you look like a real asshole.” I certainly felt like one. But as I petted my pup for the last time, I didn’t care what anyone else in the room thought about me, because my dog thought I was one hell of a guy. He said so everyday as he laid at my feet, as he greeted me at the door, as he plopped his pull toy in my lap while I read the paper, as he stood for our nightly walk as soon as I descended the stairs from putting the boys to bed.

Thank you, Rufus. For believing me to be the man I continue to try to be. Goodnight, sweet boy.


These Shoes Hurt My Feet

“Atticus was right. One time he said you never really know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk around in them.”    — Scout Finch, To Kill A Mockingbird

These words, that Scout recalls on the front porch of Boo Radley’s house, embody a theme that has gotten me to this point in my life: understanding another’s point of view.

I never realized how much I resented my father until I had a son.  At the age of thirty-five, my wife and I were blessed with a little, breathing miracle.  Along with all of the tenderness and frustration that accompanies a newborn, I found myself becoming resentful of my own childhood.  I am a part of a generation where more and more men and women view parenting as a mutually shared experience.  Yet, as I held my boy, as I rocked him to sleep, as I changed his diaper, or fed him at 3 a.m., there was a thought forever scratching in the back of my mind:  Did my dad do this?  Did he hold me? Did he sing to me?  Did he dream with me and for me?  The answer devolved over time from sure to probably, to maybe, to no. Even now, 7 years later, as I am on my thousandth super hero bedtime story, I cannot recall my dad ever putting me to bed, or lying with me and reading a book, or telling me a story before sending me off to sleep.

When I became a father, I felt myself stepping in to the shoes of my own father, who had been dead a decade already. As I tried to adjust to my new role, I couldn’t believe how bad I was at it, how little patience I had.   And with every negative parenting experience I had, a little voice inside my head would say, “You are just like him. So quick to anger. So easily annoyed. You’re going to screw this up, too.” Such thoughts would only fuel my anger more! I needed to get a hold of this anger. Thankfully, through much therapy and patience (from my wife and myself), I find I am in a much better place seven and a half years into this parenting thing. Make no mistake, I make lots of mistakes! But I am more aware, more present in my understanding of my triggers and my fears.

I bring this sense of awareness with me everyday.  I do it by employing this very technique that is discussed at length in TKAM: I try to step into another person’s shoes. I often think of Atticus when I have to explain something difficult to my boys, like how there is evil in the world, or how life is unfair, or how someone feels when you make fun of them…However, I have also been able to use this approach with others in my life, be it my new mail man who seems to hate his job and can’t even muster up a wave, or my wife who is grappling with all of the pressures of working full-time in corporate America. I have even been able to employ this method with my own father. I do not hate him, I never did. I just could never understand him and why he did the things he did. But now, as I continue to grow as a person, and a father, I try to “climb in to his skin” by thinking, “What was my dad’s childhood like? Who was there for him? Who hurt him so badly that he closed himself off from the world?” By seeing things the way he perhaps did, I have broadened my perspective. In a way, as I keep chasing Atticus Finch, I must continually reconcile with my conflicted feelings for my own dad.  As much as I’d like to swing on the front porch of the Finch residence, emotionally, I identify more with the Radley’s across the street.

I continue to try on many pairs of shoes; and I highly recommend it. Yet, just as I would never continue to wear a pair that constantly hurt my feet, I refuse to be beholden to a pair that tried to be passed on to me from my own father. Those shoes hurt my feet way too much.

Atticus Finch is my hero

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.

Throughout my life, Atticus Finch has been a touchstone. I reread TKAM while on a train travelling through Europe in college and my esteem for the book was affirmed. I watched the film multiple times with family, friends, and then students, and I continued to be engrossed every time. My wife and I had our first date at a showing of the film in Philadelphia, where Gregory Peck spoke afterwards, and the man who played Tom Robinson (Brock Peters) surprised Peck and the audience onstage. I marveled at the ease of their friendship. I felt privileged to hear them share stories about their mutual friend, the elusive Ms. Lee. That film talk will always be one of my fondest memories (and the fact that that first date became a lifetime certainly rivals it).

My admiration for Atticus Finch continued in the early years of our marriage, when I lobbied hard for any future sons to be named Atticus. My wife gave a resounding “NO!” How about the middle name? My wife: “NO!” How about the dog’s first name? “NO!” I had to settle for it being our yellow lab’s middle name: Rufus Atticus. It certainly gives him an air of distinction. And now, with two sons of my own, I am reminded of Atticus Finch almost daily. He was such a tremendous father, his temperament so even, his tone assured, his knowledge vast, his integrity unwavering. I can never be him. I’d be a fool to even try to match his character. But a man can aspire, and aspire I do. Yet, there are many times I am reminded of just how unlike Atticus I really am: when I lose my temper, when I shout at my boys, when I say something passive aggressive, or huff and puff my way through a chore…

Beyond my own shortcomings, Atticus Finch serves as a lifetime reminder for me as to just how lacking my own father was. My dad tried to be a good man, but he was so broken–so closed off emotionally, so angry. The fact that he had seven children and spent most of his time holed up in his bedroom seemed to emphasize just how shut down he was–my own Boo Radley.  So, when I got married, I knew I wanted to have a small family, and I knew I wanted to raise them in a way that I was not raised; in a style that emphasized open love and dialogue. In a way that my children would know why I was doing certain things, or reacting in a certain way. I want a house where love and honor and respect triumph. And as I grapple with this fantasy, and attempt to make it, in-part, a reality, I often think of my hero:  my surrogate, literary father, Atticus. I begin this blog in the hopes of reconciling all of the thoughts and ideas that I hold from my experiences in a large, Irish Catholic dysfunctional family, and how those experiences are resurfacing and wreaking havoc, or being laid to rest, as I create my own (hopefully, much more functional) family.

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 contradictons: 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.

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