I’m in a meeting with Royal Family KIDS’ National Directors from around the world: Ghana, Namibia, Poland, Chile, Argentina, South Africa, the UK, Australia. All work with children of trauma.
The stories I’m hearing of neglect, abuse, and abandonment. Orphans living in Lord Of The Flies institutions with teen ringleaders bartering young girls like chattel to get drugs.
In some countries, there are no child protective services to keep the children safe. Refugee children living in tents. Children walking hundreds of miles with parents trying to seek asylum in safe countries. Four-year-olds wandering the streets.
But in the midst of hearing these realities, my mind drifts back to my own home.
Mostly what I’m thinking about are the millions children of privilege, “protected” by parents believing them too good to fail, stressing external success at all costs, shielding them from the painful realities of the real world. The facade of the “top university.”
Making sure their children stay away from “problem” children whose poverty or lack of education or broken home or blue-collar parents won’t lead them upwardly toward “success.”
Making sure their children spend more time on teams or with tutors or with coaches or in safe church youth groups — “safety,” versus the danger of a holistic life. Worse, the parents who will at all costs give their hight schoolers free reign to alcohol as long as they secure their desirable university.
Keeping them away from the poor kids. The neglected, abused, abandoned.
I once had a choice to send my own children to the local public school where 70% of the children were English learners from south of the border. Poor kids. The other choice was protecting them through homeschooling, or the local private school with all the children of rich white families.
I went to an expert for advice: A professor friend from UCLA who was on a panel of the UC Board of Regents, dealing with undergraduate education in the UC system. He was educated at the most elite private schools in France and did his Ph.D. at Oxford.
“Send them to the PUBLIC school. The diversity and dissonance and culture and language and the diverse sociological and economic standing will educate them far more than anything else.”
We obeyed; we tried the public school.
For one whole month.
Then I chickened out.
In any case, off they went to private and charter schools.
It could have been because I liked the status of sending them to the “better” schools, if I’m honest.
I was guilty, too. I wanted everything to be certain. Especially the well-being of my children. I want to “protect them,” too.
But I’m realizing that what we think is best, often isn’t. The brokenness of humanity and close proximity to pain and grief is perhaps the greatest education of all.
Richness has a poverty about it, poverty a certain sense of wealth.
Elliot is my youngest son. He is 17. He is a senior in high school. He doesn’t use Instagram and Snapchat and Facebook. He doesn’t watch television or movies or stuff on Netflix and YouTube.
Last year I had to take his phone away. He went without it for months. When I gave it back at the start of the school term, he said okay, but only if I restrict it for only calls and texting.
Elliot has told me a few times that he looks at “all these students” during school. “They are always on their phones. That’s all they do. They are not experiencing the world around them.”
“Dad, I think giving electronics to children, even teens, is bad for them.”
Elliot is an earlier riser; he’s up every morning, often at 4 or 5. He usually goes to bed at 8 or 9 at the latest. He often says, with a grin, “Dad, there’s nothing better than a really good night’s sleep.”
He never takes his phone into his bedroom. He leaves it in the kitchen. He says that texting is a distraction from studying or reading or spending time talking to friends and family, face-to-face.
Elliot doesn’t want a car. He rides his bike 3 miles to school every morning, often in the dark. After school, he rides his bike to the boathouse for rowing practice. At 6:30, it’s dark again, and he rides home.
He works at the boathouse on the weekends. He gets to work and back home on his bike.
Elliot says he prefers riding his bike because he doesn’t want to pollute the planet. He says riding a bike is better exercise. He says the experience of riding a bike is better than driving a car because you’re “so much closer to nature.”
Oh, and he doesn’t eat sugar. No soda. No candy. No junk food. He eats a very balanced diet. He works out 6 days a week. He is very committed to his health.
My other children are normal. They all use Instagram and Snapchat and Facebook on their iPhones. They all watch television and movies and stuff on Netflix and YouTube. They drive cars and stay up late and eat junk food.
Gina and I are normal. We use Instagram and Snapchat and Facebook on our iPhones. We watch television and movies and stuff on Netflix and YouTube. We drive cars and go to bed late and eat junk food.
Part of me thinks Elliot’s devotion is admirable. Staying away from screens, getting plenty of sleep, staying away from junk food, good exercise — aren’t those good things?
Sometimes, a part of me thinks his devotion is extreme.
But I never think my devotion to my social media is admirable. I never think my watching television and movies and stuff on Netflix and YouTube is worthy of praise. I never get feelings of pride that I went to bed too late or gouged on junk food.
Sometimes I wish I was more “extreme” like Elliot.
This post isn’t about my campaign. But in a way, it might be.
A little while ago, my son, Elliot, asked me about my ancestors. I shared a some of my memories with him. Then I decided to scribble some of what I remember in the form of a letter because memories become fixed when they are written down…
You have a very rich history with respect to your ancestors. I assume all people think that of their own families, but it’s just a fact of yours. Your ancestors, on both sides, have worked very hard to overcome very significant obstacles. On my side, I refer mostly to Nonna’s family, who I want to write about today.
After WWII most Europe, including Italy, was in total ruins. Think about that for a minute. Entire cities and towns were essentially leveled. Businesses had closed. Millions had died. My grandparents — my Nonna and Nonno — were dirt poor. They had nothing, like so many others. I remember going to their town in Umbria, Stroncone. Nonna told me that the German soldiers told them to flee to the hills if they wanted to live. Nonno would steal chickens to feed his family.
With grit and determination, they immigrated to America. That probably doesn’t sound like too big of a deal. But it involved unbelievable financial cost. And also it was scary — leaving your home, friends and many relatives for a completely foreign land. It was so expensive that half of the family moved there first (my Nonna and two of my uncles) so they could earn money in America. Then my Nonno came with Nonna and my other uncle. I don’t know if you remember the video that Uncle Tim made, but we have footage of Nonna getting off the plane when she was 12 and running to see her mother and brothers who she hadn’t seen in two years.
Some of their extended family came with them. Millions from Europe, in fact, fled. I remember Nonna saying that, at one point, they lived in a tiny two bedroom house with one bathroom. There was their family of 6, and another family of 5. Imagine.
It’s hard to describe how amazing my grandparents were. I just don’t know what to write. My Nonno was the most exuberant, happy, emotional in a healthy way, hardworking man. He was humble and the epitome of a “real man.” He laughed a lot. He used to rub his stubble on our face when we were little. It hurt but in that giggly kind of way. His garden in the front and back was just remarkable. He was a carpenter. Apparently, he fought in WWI as a young man in North Africa. They lived in Whittier, which is just about 30 minutes northwest of Costa Mesa. He worked in downtown Los Angeles. I remember him going to work and coming home because we spent a lot of time there when I was very young. Grandpa and Nonna owned a hair salon in Whittier so they would drop us off there.
My Nonna used to make this drink with milk, sugar, and egg. I remember the sugar sticking to the egg and it tasted like candy. (This is all sounding so old like it happened 100 years ago!) I have vague memories of her hiding my baby bottle. They were trying to get me to finally drink out of a real cup, or glass. She put it on a top cabinet shelf in her kitchen (which I still so remember). I saw it one day when she was putting dishes away. I looked up and cried and begged her for it. She said in her very broken English, “You can’t have it, there’s a snake inside it.” I would ask again from time to time and she kept saying the snake was still in there.
I don’t know if there’s a human being that’s shaped me as much as my Nonna. She was the most selfless individual I have ever met or even read of. All she did, almost quite literally, was care for others. All she did was work around the house and garden. Nonna used to yell at her, telling her to sit down during dinner because she would serve and clean while everyone else was eating. My Nonna would get so mad at Nonna. Eventually, she’d sit down but she would sit on the corner of the chair and reluctantly eat as if she was being punished. She didn’t know how to receive; she was all giving. She cared for animals as much as she cared for people. She would always dump out the water of our dogs, goats, horses, chickens, etc. and refill with clean water. She always wore a dress and usually an apron.
In retrospect, I’m certain this wasn’t completely healthy: self-care is vital. But I’m just telling you what she was like and that there was something about this kind of work ethic and selflessness that I find full of virtue.
When I was 18 I worked as a waiter. No cell phones in those days. My manager came to me and said I had an important phone call. I don’t remember who it was actually, but they told me my Nonna was in the hospital and I needed to go there immediately. Grandpa and Nonna were in Mexico on vacation. I got to the hospital and Nonna was unconscious. They said they could perform a surgery but the chances were high that she would have brain damage.
I told them I had to go talk to my Nonno. I drove to his house. He had this recliner chair that he would always sit in and watch TV. He lay in the chair, hugging an 8” x 10” photo of his lifelong soul mate. He was hysterical, crying “Oh God, Oh God, no, please, no.” Over and over and over.
I tried to console him. I asked him if he wanted to the doctors to perform the surgery. He couldn’t answer, he just kept holding the picture and crying. (I’m crying as I write this.)
I had to make the decision on what to do. They had been married for over 50 years.
I drove back to the hospital and told them, “no surgery.”
She died a few hours later. Then Nonna and Grandpa and family arrived and we all grieved and soon had her funeral.
(As an aside, we don’t know if she had Alzheimers or hardening of the arteries or both. But a few years before she died her mind started to slip. She forgot how to speak English. She’d steal things and hide them. She’d get really angry with us. It was really sad and in ways resembles what started happening to Nonna in the year before her stroke.)
Nonno eventually met another lady a few years later at his church (they were, of course, Roman Catholics). Her name was Jenny. She was Italian. They got married and were together for I think around 20 years until she died. She was a very nice lady, but not like my Nonna.
Nonno’s health eventually started to fade in his early 90’s. This was weird because he was such an incredibly strong man. I remember he had the strongest hands. I don’t know if he had an ounce of fat on him. Anyway, Nonna eventually took him in. When he was dying we were all around him.
I remember being in the bedroom with my sisters and Nonna watching him fade so vividly, though, for some reason, it seems more sad and real today in certain respects than it did then. I think Bree remembers the funeral and the memorial which, as the Catholics do, was open casket.
When we are younger — at least for me — we don’t care as much about stuff like grandparents, family, ancestors, etc. But even in writing this I can say for certain that nothing matters more to me than my family.
Maybe I will write soon about Grandpa and his family but I have to go now. But one more thing. Grandpa always talks about “La Familia” and how “It’s all about family.”
I took my morning run today at 5:30. I was tired. It was cold. On this particular morning, I thought true thoughts.
I thought of my two legs — I have two legs. I thought of my children — I have children. I thought of their health — they have health. I thought of my wife — one of the most decent people I’ve ever known. I thought of my warm home —I have a warm home. I thought of my incredible friends — I have incredible friends.
I thought of my mother and father and three sisters — I have a mother and father and three sisters. I thought of my three brothers in law — I have three brothers in law. All good men.
I thought of my faith — I’m grateful for my faith. I thought of my car — I have a car. The A/C works. The brakes work. So does the radio and the and the generator and the battery and the alternator and the rear window defroster. It gets great gas mileage.
I thought of my ten fingers and ten toes — I have ten fingers and ten toes. I looked down and thought of my New Balance 993′s—I have New Balance 993′s. Two pairs, in fact, one gray, one black.
I thought of my books — I cherish my books. I thought of my trials — trials turn to gold. I thought of my freedom — I am nobody’s slave. I thought of those living under oppression — I am not oppressed. I thought of my education — I am grateful for opportunities to learn and grow.
As long as I have breath, I will always learn and grow.
I panted in the cold air as I ascended a daunting hill. There are many hills in this life. I thought of my will and my strength and my faith to get over hills.
The sun broke through these dark clouds and I saw radiant beams of sun. Then I thought of my eyesight — I can see.
I had no pain in my body. No pain in my body. I had no pain in my body.
I thought of my family again — they are healthy and funny and grounded and happy. I thought about later posting a picture we took a while ago.
Our lungs work. Our hearts work. Our minds work.
I am loved. I am accepted. I contribute to the wellbeing of others. My friends mean the world to me. And they care for me. My family means the world to me. And they care for me.
Life is full of good things and difficult things. But every time we focus on the good things, we become grateful.
It’s kind of like that thing Lincon said, “We can complain because rose bushes have thorns, or rejoice because thorn bushes have roses.”
(this post was adapted from a previous post that you can see here)
I went to my daughter’s old high school last night for a piano recital. Orange County School of the Arts. Actually, my in-laws donated their pristine Steinway to their piano conservatory and they had a special ceremony. Bree was in the piano conservatory so being back there was weird.
Bree — from 7th through 12th grades. Can’t tell you how many of those recitals I went to in those 6 glorious years. So being there last night was like I said, weird.
I cried a bit during the performances but nobody saw it. I was just sitting there thinking about how Bree’s about to graduate from college in five weeks. I thought about all those recitals and Edison and Elliot being there. Poof. Life has moved on.
Poof. Life has moved on.
I remembered when she played Prokofiev. I think I still have that video somewhere on YouTube and if I do I’m going to post it below.
That piece. My God.
Those long concerts. Two young boys. I think Bree was a sophomore in that video. So she was 15. Edison would have been 12. Elliot 9. We were strict; no electronics. How did we get those two boys to sit there and listen to Chopin and List and Rachmaninov for two hours over and over and again and again?
Anyway, I was teary last night. And it’s always hard to disguise crying in public. Even if you’re watching a movie and it’s dark. Once you need to wipe a tear away and your hand makes it’s move toward your face, it feels like everyone is going to see you then realize what’s happening.
I wonder why crying is a social taboo. Laughing isn’t but crying is.
A few weeks ago after a yoga class, a lady started crying. At the end of each class, everyone lies in savasana. And people can leave when they want, you have to leave quietly.
Well, I’m laying there because I always lay/meditate for at least 10 minutes after class. And about two minutes in, I heard this soft sobbing. You could tell she was trying to hold it in. But man, it was really deep. Something bad had happened. Anyone could tell she was grieving. It went on and on.
When I finally got up the lady was on her knees gathering herself. She was around 30 or 40. I had the feeling of wanting to go up to her and say, “Are you okay?” — but that would have been weird.
If she had been laughing, people would have been annoyed or thought she was a freak. But she was sobbing and you just felt sorry for her.
Anyway, before the piano recital, there was this special pre-event where they presented a plaque to Gina’s parents over champagne and two of the students played a special duet on the donated Steinway. You don’t hear many piano duets because few composers wrote duets.
I posted it in my Instagram story.
Memories are weird things. I’m there happy and sad, simultaneously, thinking of that other life when the kids were younger.
I remember C.S. Lewis talking about memories. How they are not things in the past. They, by definition, are in the present. So those days of piano recitals and younger children are not gone, they are still present, in my memories. I like like Lewis’s perspective, but I’m still sad the kids are older.
I’m listening to Lemonade by Beyoncé. I don’t know why she named the album Lemonade.
It always takes a while to get used to a new album. In the world of black music that I’ve started listening to in the past few years, I prefer Chance and Kayne. But still going to give this one a chance because I’ve only listened to it twice. There’s this song called All Night that I’m kind of liking.
I prefer male vocalists over female vocalists. Is that okay to say? Is it sexist?
What would it be like to be famous like Beyoncé? Ever wonder about stuff like that?
I wonder if these celebs are happier. I’ve thought about happiness a lot lately.
In a previous life, I worked closely with these Christian leaders named John and Eleanor Mumford. They had two sons. James and Marcus. Super cool family. Spent lots of time with them when we lived in London. Anyway, Marcus was a pre-teen when we lived there.
Right now he’s touring with U2 leading a band called Mumford and Sons.
Weird. He became a celeb. I wonder if Marcus is happy. I haven’t talked to him in years. But he strikes me as a generally happy kind of guy. He says f**k a lot now. But he can afford to. I often wonder what his parents, being leaders in the church, think of that.
I never know how transparent I should be. On one hand, I think people today are just way too fake, on the other, nobody wants to hear about all your problems.
People say they like Donald Trump because he speaks his mind. But he doesn’t. If he did he’d be swearing all the time in public. But he doesn’t do that because he’s political no matter how nonpolitical he tries to say he is.
Where’s the balance in being vulnerable?
John Mellancamp: I know there’s a balance, I see it when I swing past.
When I freewrite from public places, like now, I type I look at all the people and then I wonder about them. Their joys and their problems. You could never tell by expressions what’s really going on.
I’ve been sitting here for around 30 minutes. Swear this lady has read every word of the paper. I just keep watching her. She doesn’t get distracted for even a second. It’s like she’s starved. She’s devouring the whole Los Angeles Times before my eyes.
I think electronics might be making people stupider. Especially kids and teens. Adults too but especially kids and teens.
Back to music. I still can’t believe that Michael Jackson and Witney Houston and Prince and David Bowie and George Michaels and Robin Williams are dead. I only put Robin Williams in there because I can’t stand to think of doing without another role as those he played in Good Will Hunting and Dead Poets Society and Patch Adams.
He seemed to have a certain depth to his acting when he played in serious roles.
But they are not gone. The movies are still here. So are all those songs. And all those memories.
A note on “Freewriting.”
Every Friday, I set my timer on my iPhone for 15 or 20 minutes. Then I start writing. I don’t stop. I write whatever pops into my mind. Some people call it stream of consciousness. After 15 minutes, I go back and quickly correct all the blatant typos and make a few edits. Then I publish it on Paulosophia.
I started freewriting in the early 1990’s because I had read this short article called “Freewriting.” I was a horrible writer back then, with the most severe writers’ block. The article said you have to write WITHOUT STOPPING. For a fixed period of time. Even if you have to write the same word over and over again. Over time, you get better, and more confident.
Writing becomes as easy as talking.
I can’t count how many freewriting exercises I’ve done over the years. Thousands for sure. I still do them almost daily.