I have found what I was looking for, Bono.

April 14, 2019

I have climbed the highest mountains

Whenever friends or family would come to my little Georgia town, we’d force them to climb its namesake, Stone Mountain. It’s the largest exposed piece of granite in the world and offers a pretty spectacular view of countless pine trees from its nearly 1700 foot summit. On a clear day, you can see Atlanta, which calls itself the “city too busy to hate” in an effort to claim a full agenda gets white people off the hook. We took everyone up that mountain, even my grandparents. There was something spiritual about rising above the tree line, while seeing the graffiti of lovers from the 18th century etched into the rock.

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As a kid I didn’t understand the historical significance of the mountain, which features the largest Confederate memorial carved right into its face. On Thanksgiving night, 1915, a group of hooded white men, including two elderly members of the original Ku Klux Klan, climbed the mountain, raised the Confederate flag, opened a Bible, and, for the first time, burned a 16-foot cross. The modern KKK was born on my mountain. The century of murder and terror it waged against Americans had its inglorious beginning on Stone Mountain. The land beneath it was owned by a Klansman and they still return to its summit, like a white supremacist Mecca.

Walking in the footsteps of those first Klansmen would lead the way towards a lifetime of studying hate and trying to understand organized racism. This included time spent undercover in the white supremacist movement. I’ve seen crosses set alight by men in robes and it made the blood freeze in my veins. This long career has been dedicated to trying to undue what those men started on my mountain in 1915. It’s taken me around the world and brought me to what I had been looking for all along, the antidote to hate.

I have kissed honey lips

Most of my life I have been untethered. I felt like I was floating from one 4 minute music video to another. Even when I was “in love,” I had a few toes out the door, ready for the next song cycle to carry me where it might. There were some epic romances, followed by a divine right to the blues and red red wine. My passport was full but I wasn’t going anywhere, locked in a Möbius strip.

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For much of that life fully lived, the music of U2 provided a soundtrack of freedom. The summer of 1986 I ended up back in Dublin (after working in Copenhagen for a few weeks). U2 was recording their soon-to-be revered Joshua Tree album. I was meeting with Bono as he wanted me to help him compile a release of unsigned American rock bands for their vanity label, Mother Records. (The compilation never was finished but he loved the tape of my roommate’s band, drivin’ ’n’ cryin’ and they were soon signed to U2’s label, Island Records. “Randy, I am a drivin’ ’n’ cryin’ fan,” he said, grabbing my shoulders.) The summer of ’86, I told him way too much about my challenging love life. Part of that summer had been spent with Sinead O’Connor in London, watching her shave her head for the first time. Part of my heart was back in the states with my girlfriend who was leaving me for a life in Paris. I was 22 and had no idea how love was supposed to work.

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He told me the new album would have more love songs and be less political in its themes. The band was exploring more colors from its sonic palette. The following spring, I was driving in Los Angeles when I first heard the final product on KNAC radio; “Where the Streets Have No Name,” soaring as I drove across Mulholland Drive on top of the Hollywood Hills. The world opened up below me. The definitive musical statement of the 1980s had been made and it reflected everything I was at that moment, searching, running to stand still.

You broke the bonds, you loosened chains

My work studying racism and finding an audience in the ancient world of the university earned me the top rank as a tenured full professor at Hogwarts. I had leveraged my position, pushing the faculty to strike against the swollen trolls of the administration to build a university the cared more about easing student debt than the ever-expanding supply of overpaid deans. (If you didn’t know, Hogwarts has more troll deans than you can shake a wand at.)

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All that fell silent when she walked into the room. All the colors bled into one. Angel or devil, I couldn’t tell. I tried to put her out of my mind and went back to my lectures about how romantic love was a “social construction of reality,” a lie that we believe because we’ve been brainwashed by sappy songs and rom coms. I was still in my Möbius loop. “Maybe I should try online dating,” I thought. I tried to avoid looking at her. I worried it would be like B’rer Rabbit and the tar baby. One look and I would be stuck.

After the class was over, I ran into her in a bar. She bought me a shot of tequila and asked if I’d like to go out sometime. “I don’t date students,” I said, feeling the floor slipping out from under me. She bought me another shot. I heard Bono singing, “I can’t live with or without you.” Our friendship became more than that. I saw in her the end of the loop. She knew everything about me. All my flaws and the way out. Why had I been paying a therapist all those years? I saw in her the future mother of my children. We would not be only two people for very long. I saw in her the person who’s dreams I wanted to spend the rest of my life supporting. “I’m with her!” Soon we were married and the parents of a miraculous child who was conceived in a moment of brilliant foresight. “Let’s make a baby!”

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The trolls at Hogwarts used this love of loves as a cudgel to silence a trouble maker. (It seems on-line wizard training is much cheaper than tenured full professors, leaving more money to hire more troll deans.) I was dragged in before the council of witches, their mouths dripping with the anticipation of scoring points for the queen troll. They treated our love as some grand violation. They wanted to destroy my lifetime of work against hate. Perhaps I should have fought harder, but I was in love with my wife and new baby and seeing the monsters that profited behind the hallowed halls of Hogwarts disgusted me. I was forced resign my position and left to create something new, away from their sickness. I let go of the hand if the devil and was free.

Felt the healing in the fingertips

I should have felt like a freefall, loosing the security of a salaried tenured position and the benefits that came with it. (It was easy to not go to the dentist when you have full dental.) Thanks, Obamacare! I became a hustler, selling assets, picking up random gigs here and there. She carried the cross as I stayed home with the baby. I’d hold my little girl and chant, “Everything’s gonna be alright. Everything’s gonna be alright,” hoping the words would be a magical incantation, bringing the answer in a mighty flash of financial stability. “Vengeance is mine!” I would say, as I put some money, any money into my savings account.

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Instead, a strange healing happened as my world, once so big, was shrunk down to three people. It was a bizarre love triangle, like we were our own holy trinity. Not really us versus them, because we’ve had so many amazing people on our side. Us and them (and we think about the trolls less every day). There is a burning sun in our home that has melted us like glass into one perfectly clear entity. It might look like a blob to the outside world, but we are three voices in harmony, and, too each of us, it sounds like it’s coming the tongues of angels.

Being bounced out of my university security gave me back the hunger of my youth. I published a novel and proposed a reality TV show and found my way into cable news commentary. Each experiment was latched to hope that this would open a door that I could take my family through. My wife had her own ascendency, through her art and academic paths. She now grades her students’ exams as I write about our seemingly endless war on racism, from Stone Mountain to Trump. We are recreating the world in our image.

In the middle of all that I found what I was looking for. Hearing our daughter sing in the bathtub. Watching my wife see how her presence can help heal the great divide. Being asked to bring my experience to table after table. I had to lose it all to gain it all. I was of the world and now I am of we three, in this world. All the pieces fit. Like a teenage rock band that’s ready to take the world by storm (as U2 was in its infancy), our vision is unclouded.

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When Bono wrote the words to “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” he was still childless. He didn’t become a parent until 1989. I’m guessing he would have written a different song if he had been a dad the summer of 1986. Maybe I’ll ask him someday. (He’s about as accessible as the Pope these days.) That song seemed woven into my cellular membrane in those days. Now that I’ve found it, nurturing it is what drives my bass drum beat. Only to be with you. Only to be with you.

Postscript: A lot of us have lived that song. Have you finally found it? Or are you still running? In this unhappy time, let’s share our answers. Post it, tweet it, Instagram it, shout it from the top of the Hollywood Hills. #Ihavefoundwhatimlookingfor

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Raising Honest Children in the Age of Trump

January 25, 2019

As a first-time parent it’s been quite the trip watching my daughter’s cognitive development. I started charting it here on this blog but, at almost four-and-a-half, it’s just accelerated to a rate that seems impossible to chart. Last week she appropriately used air quotes and I felt like I had completed my job as a sarcastic father. She’s on her own. I’m quite confident I could drop her off at a faculty cocktail party and she’d be fine. She recently told me, “We don’t say that we hate Donald Trump. We say we don’t like him very much.” Touché, Cozy. Touché.

Which is why part of this stage of development has a troubling facet. Lying. Nothing too big, but she’ll say she washed her hands after going potty and they are perfectly dry. (A tell-tale sign.) Or I’ll ask if she’s picked up her toys and she’ll say yes and I’ll point out all her toys on the floor and she’ll proclaim, “I was just kidding!”

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I’m well aware this is normal for a little kid but biography occurs in the context of history and at the moment the free world is being led by one of the biggest liars in history. The challenge of raising a good child in the era of the bad president will surely be the stuff of many child psychology books to come. How can we bring our children up as decent honest people in the shadow of one of the most loathsome, dishonest, and buffoonish bullies to ever wrap himself in a flag? Even MAGA hat wearing parents must have to tell their kids, “Now just because the president does/says that doesn’t mean you can.” (Although there are probably a few MAGA dads that have said, “Grab ‘em by the pussy, son.”)

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The lies of Donald J. Trump are too voluminous to count. He just makes stuff up on the spot because it sounds good. Just ask him how much his useless vanity wall will cost. It’s something we’ve all done occasionally. We’ve inflated details in a story or thrown out numbers we weren’t 100% sure were accurate. “Yeah, 75 percent of people who vote Republican have never eaten sushi.” Sounds right. But Trump does it every single day. Fact checkers have died of fatigue.

Which makes it harder to convey the importance of truth-telling to our children. In this post-factual world full of massive whoppers (“Global warming is a Chinese hoax!”), fibs and white lies seem almost cute. Truth is a sliding scale. Stephen Colbert coined the term “truthiness” in 2005, but to raise a child in a daily onslaught of “alternative facts” seems impossible. There’s an “If you can’t beat ‘em join ‘em”” devil on my shoulder that wants to tell my daughter, “Kid, lie your ass off if it gets you what you want. Every one else probably is doing it.”

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Trump is the absolute worst role model for anyone, especially children. He’s a spoiled rich kid who throws tantrums when he doesn’t get what he wants. He lies pathologically. He bullies relentlessly. And he lives on buckets of KFC and gallons of Diet Coke. I saw him when I was in DC last month in the back of his limo heading towards the White House. I swear he had an Egg McMuffin hanging from his gullet. I haven’t heard what he’s done with Michelle Obama’s vegetable garden but I’m willing to bet that when he’s dragged off the property by the FBI, the CSI team will be digging it up. 

The good news is outside his weird cult of MAGA loyalists, Trump is the perfect boogyman. If I catch Cozy in a lie, I whip out the Donald. “Cozy, you told me you turned off the TV and you didn’t. You know who lies like that? Donald Trump.” The look of horror on her face. It’s also good at dinner time. “You want ice cream for dinner? Do you want to look like Donald Trump?” She races for the carrots. There was a boy who pushed her in her pre-school. I told her to tell him to stop acting like Donald Trump. It shut that shit down.

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I have to wonder about this generation of youth growing up under the specter of the Orange Menace. Whether or not those MAGA hat wearing prep school pricks from Covington Catholic were harassing a Native American elder, they were at a rally to end reproductive choice for women and girls in America (and caught on camera making jokes about rape, and harassing girls, and appearing in blackface at an earlier basketball game). The white parents couldn’t defend them fast enough. (The lead prick’s mother blaming the whole thing on “black Muslims.”) Is this the fate of Generation Z? Or are they the kids from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School taking to the streets to end gun violence? I’ll send Cozy off with them.

Obviously,  Trump’s otherwise occupied parents never told him the story of The Little Boy Who Cried Wolf, but we tell it in our house. We might have a president than believes science is a hoax, journalism is “fake news,” and math is whatever numbers happen to fall out you mouth, but here the ideals of the Enlightenment still matter and this kid will value the truth. “Don’t be like Trump, kids!”

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2018 in Review – Grow up and see the world

December 31, 2018

It’s a universal truth – time passes more quickly as you get older. The span from 1970 to 1978 seemed to be a millennia when I was a kid. The jump from 2010 to 2018 was just a minute. And it doesn’t seem much has changed in those years (other than the fact we had a sane intelligent grown-up in the White House). The #1 song the first week of 2010 was Ke$ha’s “TiK ToK.” Think about the change of music from the beginning of 1960 to the end of 1968 – Marty Robbins’ “El Paso” to Marvin Gaye’s “I Heard it Through the Grapevine.” What was new in 2018?

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It’s hard to sum up a block of 365 days. When I think of every stupid thing Donald Trump has done in 2018, I also think of Black Panther, the March for Our Lives, and the massive blue wave that brought the grown-ups back to Congress in November. It seemed like this would be the year that Mueller brought down Baby Trump, but let the man take his time and do it right. There are currently 17 (known) investigations related to Trump. There have been numerous indictments, guilty pleas, and prison sentences so far in this “witch hunt.” Trump is the guy who famously said, “I surround myself with the best people. I know the best people.” 2019 will be fun.

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The madness of King Donald aside, 2018 on the home-front has been an exciting year that has seen my feet stepping on to more airplanes than ever. My work on extremism has taken me all over the world, including a UN workshop in Abu Dhabi, UAE, as well as scholarly meetings in Oslo, Norway and Washington DC. There were a few presentations in NYC, one in Chicago, and a ten-day community leader exchange to the UK to study countering violent extremism programs. My participation in DC on a congressional panel on hate groups was covered live on C-SPAN. And I did dozens of local presentations and trainings. Andrea came with me for the Oslo (via London) trip and I had a blast bringing Cozy with me on one of the New York trips. (That girl can now hail a cab.) So many highlights.

Every time I left the USA, people wanted to understand what’s happened to America? How could we let something like Donald Trump happen? I had to remind them that all countries have problems with isolationist nationalist demagogues. We just happened to end up with one who was a TV star. This also weighed heavily when Andrea and Cozy went to Mexico this year and we had to have multiple plans in case the racist Trump immigration policy (You don’t hear about any Canadians being deported) separated mother and child at the border.

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On a personal level, the search for full time work continues. But I seemed to be working a lot, regardless. I clocked in a full year of teaching at Portland Community College with some of the most amazing and dedicated students I’ve ever had in my almost 30 years of teaching. I conducted numerous diversity trainings and led workshops for teachers. This year saw the birth of Randy Blazak Consulting LLC, to facilitate the work I do on criminal cases and consulting projects for the city. And of course, there were the weekly educational bus tours with the Fair Housing Council of Oregon. The best part was the fact that Andrea began her teaching work at Portland State and we could grade papers together.

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I don’t know how to summarize a year. It seems like we started the year with a government shutdown and here we are again. I do know that Cozy went from 3 to 4, and that’s a light year in child development. She started the year ballet dancing in the living room and she’s ending 2018 by teaching us how to hula dance. My favorite new thing has been Andrea and my YouTube channel, Vinyl Fetish, where you can find us (often after too many drinks) discussing records. 2018 whizzed by like a whir of images; Finding Andrea in a record store in Oslo, Cozy heading off to see a Broadway musical (Frozen), me seeing Donald Trump in the back of his presidential limo, tweeting as he pulled into the White House. I have a feeling 2019 will be much more real, especially after the Democrats set up shop in the House.

I didn’t keep up my furious blogging schedule in 2019, but I did get some good pieces out (along with a piece for Huffington Post). Of the 43 articles on a wide variety of topics, my piece on Brett Kavanaugh and bro culture was the most popular post, followed by my Handmaid’s Tale-inspired “America is Becoming a Dystopian Nightmare: What Do We Do Now???” There will be plenty to write about in 2019 as Trump’s house of cards caves in, Cozy turns 5, Andrea and I settle into our roles as teachers, and patriarchy tries to desperately hold on to its violent reign of terror.

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Let me revisit one of my favorite moments of 2018, meeting Gloria Steinem at a event I was speaking at in Manhattan. I asked her how she was explaining the whole Trump thing. She said, very clearly, that the moment a women is most at risk of being murdered by her abuser is when she is finally breaking free of him. We won’t be murdered. Let’s break free in 2019.

 

2018 WTW Posts

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Let’s End Duality: Make America Grey Again (January 4, 2018)

In Defense of the Classroom (January 12, 2018)

Our White Supremacist President (January 16, 2018)

Gender – Nature vs. Nurture 7: Baby – Toddler – Girl (January 25, 2018)

Confronting Ableism by “Looking” in the Mirror (February 5, 2018)

On becoming the working poor or How I robbed Peter to pay Paul (February 9, 2018)

The Vinyl Fetish Club is here for your sexy music needs (February 14, 2018)

America is eating its young. Maybe it’s time to get the hell out. (February 15, 2018)

Generation Z will turn this gunship around (February 23, 2018)

My Conversation with Gloria Steinem (March 2, 2018)

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Masculinity Isn’t Toxic. Toxic Masculinity Is (March 9, 2018)

Dad Love: An Open Letter to Non-Breeders (March 19, 2018)

What Do We Give the World? (March 29, 2018)

Jukebox Hero 3: Right Here, Right Now Watching the World Wake Up (April 5, 2018)

Dropping F Bombs and White Privilege (April 12, 2018)

Talking About Gender and Violence in the Middle East (April 19, 2018)

Incels: Just the latest chapter in the war on women (April 26, 2018)

Jukebox Hero 4: I’m Wide Awake – U2 (Part 2) (April 29, 2018)

Get out of your country! (May 15, 2018)

Entering the Phallic Phase: Psychoanalytic Feminists, Help! (May 24, 2018)

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Guest Essay: The Status of Women by Andi Barrios (May 31, 2018)

Thinking about Racial Reparations (June 10, 2018)

Watching America die, I sent a Statue of Liberty to Donald Trump (June 20, 2018)

America is Becoming a Dystopian Nightmare: What Do We Do Now??? (June 28, 2018)

We’re all intersectional (just some more than others) (July 6, 2018)

Witnessing the end of the American Century from the former British Empire (July 14, 2018)

Imagining a Time After Nations (July 20, 2018)

What I’ve Learned about Countering Violent Extremism (is the opposite of what I’ve been told to believe) (August 3, 2018)

What Do We Do About the Nazis After Charlottesville? (August 11, 2018)

My best friend is 4 (August 17, 2018)

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Can I be a feminist, too? (August 24, 2018)

She ain’t heavy, she’s my daughter: Trying to understand child abuse (August 31, 2018)

Are you “friends” with a Russian bot? Taking a stand against idiocracy (September 13, 2018)

Stop saying racists are bad people (September 21, 2018)

Brett Kavanaugh and Bro Culture: Let’s Look in the Mirror (September 28, 2018)

Columbus Day: Celebrating child rapists (October 7, 2018)

Taking Manhattan with a 4-year old (October 23, 2018)

President Trump is not smart enough not to throw America into a civil war (October 29, 2018)

At which mass shooting will your loved ones be killed? (November 8, 2018)

I’ve been given a small space, against the wall (November 19, 2018)

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Stone Mountain is a rock with a lot of racial baggage: Finding solutions (November 22, 2018)

“I just had to let it go…” On Parenting and Mortality (December 8, 2018)

Dad’s Top 10 Favorite New LPs of 2018 (December 20, 2018)

2018 in Review – Grow up and see the world (December 31, 2018)

 

 

“I just had to let it go…” On Parenting and Mortality

December 8, 2018

December 8th is always a rough day, marking another year without John Lennon in the world. A 78-year-old Lennon would be pretty cool but he will never be more than 40, the age he was when he was shot by a “New York gunman” who happened to be from the Georgia town next to mine. That moment is forever frozen, just like December 7th is for another generation. I remember making a vow on December 9, 1980 that I would never laugh again as a silent protest against the insanity of taking this sage out of the world.

I did laugh again, a lot. And tried to keep the messages of the forever-young Beatle in the front of my head. This blog is inspired by him and named after his song I heard on 96 Rock that morning the moment I realized that he was actually dead. For the billions on earth born after the night he died in the back of police car on its way to Manhattan’s Roosevelt Hospital (that includes my wife and daughter), the ghost of John Lennon is omnipresent. Just ask Cozy to sing a few lines of “I am the Walrus.”

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What attracted me to John Lennon as teenager was his wisdom, born of pain. I would read every interview with him I could get my hands on and dissected song lyrics for glimpses of directions for my own confused life. His final album, Double Fantasy, released three weeks before his murder, was full of useful tidbits. I didn’t immediately connect with it because it was the songs of a 40-year-old bouncing off 16-year-old ear drums (although I did love the weird new wavey Yoko songs that were closer to the B-52’s than the Beatles).

Now that I’m a father, I understand the wisdom, and ultimate heartbreak, of that 1980 album. Cozy is now the age John’s son, Sean, was when he started recording the tracks for Double Fantasy. This includes the song for Sean, “Beautiful Boy.” In it John is filled with the deep optimism that comes with parenthood. “Every day in every way, it’s getting better and better.” And the pure thrill of seeing the world through your child’s eyes. “I can hardly wait to see you come of age. But I guess we’ll both just have to be patient ‘cause it’s a long way to go.” Three weeks after the world first heard that song Sean would have his father stollen from him.

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I’ve met Sean a few times and I always want to just give him a hug. His memories of his father are from the perspective of a pre-schooler. There was never a Father John teaching him an E chord on the guitar or nervously explaining the difference between (all you need is) love and sex. His John Lennon is the one shared with the rest of humanity. While it’s the natural order that parents die before their children, it shouldn’t happen that quickly.

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The day just has me reflecting on how I really want to stick around as long as possible to give Cozy the maximum guidance, protection, and exposure to my sick living-room dance routines. As an older parent, I might not make her 30th birthday party and hope I can be there for her college graduation. (The good/bad news is that Blazaks tend to live a long time.) I have to make this time matter because I might not be around to clean up any messes later. When I think about serious risks to me (I have been known to jump out planes and mouth off in biker bars), now the thoughts immediately go to my daughter. I don’t that Nazi to kill me, not because it will hurt, because who will explain to Cozy the dangers of mall jazz and boys who think they are all that? I mean, seriously.

The tragic end of John Lennon reminds me of how we are all here such a short time and do not control when our exit date might be. The rumor was that John was planning a tour in 1981 and I would have been in the front row. It didn’t happen but he made the absolute most of his 40 years. Each stage was focused on making his world a bit better, whether opposing a war or just making bread. That’s the best thing you can give your child, no matter how long you last in this world.

However far we travel

Wherever we may roam

The center of the circle

Will always be our home

Yeah, yeah, yeah 

I’ve been given a small space, against the wall

November 19, 2018

There’s only so much space in our queen-sized bed and as our daughter gets bigger, the little queen annexes more territory. Cozy’s history as a co-sleeper has not yet ended. She started life swaddled in a cradle next to our bed and then Baby C just moved into the bed. But then it was off to the crib and a room of one’s own. Then she did a stint on the couch in her room and finally her own bed. Bedtime for Miss Bonzo with a few books read, the lava lamp on, and the dreaded Mickey Mouse Fun House CD on play. Good night, sweet child of mine.

But there’s a plot a foot. Do we have our marital bed back? Is there the hope of the return of mornings rolling in the sheets? Can I have a chance to stretch out like Abe Lincoln as the sun rises on the new day? Nope. She’s back in our bed. Like a thief in the night, she creeps back in (with a posse of stuffed animals), often waking me up by putting her hand over my morning breath. We never hear her enter. We never feel her climb under the covers. She’s just there. It’s kinda creepy. Cute but creepy. I reach out to sleepily put my arms around my wife and there’s a 4-year-old in her place.

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Because Cozy has moved past the princess problem by just assuming her role as queen, she demands the majority of space in the bed. Which means I wake up each morning pushed up against the wall. That’s my space. When I bought this house in 1999 it seemed so huge, too much space for one guy. Now I have a little space against a wall. “Up against the wall, Daddy, I’m trying to sleep.” The ladies rule this house. I have a drawer and this space against the wall and that’s just fine.

I tried to talk to Cozy about the situation and that she was a big girl now who should wake up every morning in her own bed. She then said, “I want you to understand how much I love you. That’s why I climb into bed with you every night.” What could I say to that? The truth is that the rare night that she stays in her own bed, I wake up in a panic. Where is she?  Did she leave home in the middle of the night? Oh, she’s just asleep her bed. I love seeing her beatific face first thing in the morning, even it is from my tiny space, smushed up against the wall.

There’s a lot of mixed information out there about co-sleeping. It makes sense that older kids who co-sleep probably are less self-reliant and may develop attachment issues. And parents need time away from even the most cuddly child. But what about the kids who creep in at 5 am? I don’t have the heart to ban her from her late night epic journey across the hall. Would that lower or increase her anxiety level? I feel like we might be front-landing issues for her therapy sessions later this century.

But for now, I’ll just be crammed against the wall. Let the queen have her way.

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Taking Manhattan with a 4-year old

Oct. 23, 2018

My first experience in New York City was the summer of 1982. I was 18 and my dad and I were driving to Kennedy Airport from Stone Mountain, Georgia. I was heading off to go to school in London and we made it a leg of the journey. That first glimpse of the Manhattan skyline, with the looming World Trade Center towers and the Statue of Liberty floating in the foreground, injected me with an energy. So much bigger than the biggest thing I had ever seen. And somewhere in there was Lou Reed singing, “Take a walk on the wild side.” I would soon return to explore every corner.

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I’ve probably been to NYC fifty times since, but never like this trip. I was booked to speak at a forum on extremism in mid-town Manhattan and we thought, why not bring the kid? She had just spent a week in Mexico with Andrea and was fine traveling with one parent. Why not the Big Apple? I’ve been traveling so much this year without her I thought it would be fun to bring her along. So I called a travel agent and got her booked on my flight and we started planning what New York City with a 4-year-old and a 54-year-old would look like. No Russian bars. Can you tell me tell me how to get to Sesame Street?

Cozy is great on planes. She’s been flying since she was a baby. But navigating JFK airport was a challenge. I forgot how huge it was and she was tired of walking before we were anywhere near Baggage Claim. I should have taken that as a sign of things to come. Our first night was at an AirBnB up in Spanish Harlem and she fell asleep on the subway ride across Queens and Brooklyn. Once in checked in she was more excited by her bunkbed than the city streets outside. What to see first?

We took the 6 Train down to Grand Central Station and rode a pedicab to Times Square. Her eyes exploded. It’s a pretty overwhelming site for any first-timer, more lights, more people, more out-of-shape Spidermans than the kid could imagine. (And she’s been to Mexico City.) Fortunately, there were no drunk Elmos to contend with. We stopped in the Disney Store that I remember was a dildo store in the mid-1980s. I wanted to tell the kids working there but it seemed inappropriate. 

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Then we caught a train down to the East Village where I had a meeting with an old friend and his colleague who are turning a novel of mine into a stage musical. But first we happened into a diner on Broadway that just happened to be called Cozy Soup ‘n’ Burgers. “When I grow up, I’m gonna be a chef here!” said Cozy, munching on her grilled cheese sandwich. The kid seemed to immediately take to the city, bouncing with its energy, as I had in 1982. I wondered what it would have been like if I had gotten that faculty job at CUNY and this was our life.

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She slept through a noisy night in Harlem. That’s a lot in one day for a 50-month-old. The next morning we moved into our hotel in midtown and started another day of adventure that included going to the Met to where we had a date with Picasso, a trip to the Central Park Zoo, where she saw her favorite animal, the impressive snow leopard, and then dinner in Greenwich Village with some of friends who had kids who were super NYC-savy. Seeing Cozy run around Washington Square with her squad while nobody tried to sell me pot made me reflect at how much New York had changed since the Lou Reed days.

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Day 3 we had breakfast in bed and then headed downtown to hop the Staten Island Ferry for a gander at the Statue of Liberty. She wasn’t prepared for the cold wind off the water as we wandered around Wall Street and tried to compete with a huge crowd of Chinese tourists for a picture with the Fearless Girl statue in front to the Charging Bull at the U.S. Stock Exchange. I don’t know if the tourists understood its significance but Cozy got it. Later, during my keynote, an old friend whisked Cozy off for a matinee of Frozen: The Musical on Broadway and a trip to the M&M Store (apparently her highlight of the entire trip). We topped the day off with a trip to the top of Rockefeller Center and an ice cream sundae from room service.

Our last day we had breakfast with feminist scholar Michael Kimmel at Veselka in the East Village, picking up an order of pierogis to take home to Andrea. Soon we were in a cab for LaGuardia and beginning our journey home.

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I had so much fear about bringing a 4-year-old to the big city, but Cozy was amazing. She mastered riding the subway (including the Lexington line during rush hour). She also loved catching cabs, no booster seat needed, and always had a good conversation with the driver. “Do you like kitties?”  When I go to NYC I just like to walk most places, but after a day Cozy reminded me that her feet were smaller than mine and that I should carry her, “because it’s good exercise.” After a few blocks she’d ask, “Do you feel stronger, Daddy?” Sort of, not really.

Manhattan has evolved so much since I started coming to hang out in the 1980s. Did I ever tell you about the time I accidentally bought heroin in Alphabet City? I was hanging out with the Portuguese boyfriend of a college friend of mine when he saw somebody he knew. “Man, I don’t want to talk to that guy because I owe him money. Would you give him this $20 from me?” I handed the guy his 20 and ended up with a small white packet in my hand. Not cool. But I’m sure there’s a Starbucks on that corner now and we can be all romantic about the drug infested days of the Lower East Side. New York is now a city of families, and it’s not just the Disney-fied Times Square. As a parent, it’s nice to see so many kids inhabit the city and I can still cherish my memories of barfing in the toilet at CBGBs on the Bowery. I’m glad Cozy got this version, because she could see herself in the city.

John Lennon ended up in New York City in 1971 because it was the center of the world. He became a father and househusband here and died on its streets. NYC might not be the center of the world anymore, (Nǐ hǎo, Beijing), but the Big Apple still feels like the place to be. Even though much of it’s twentieth century character has been gentrified into oblivion (I mean, a Target in the East Village?), much of it is still iconic and I could see Cozy soak it up like a Sponge Bob costume in the Hudson River. She gobbled up Denino’s pizza on MacDougal and asked if we could spit on Trump Tower on Park Avenue and threw a mean right arm up to hail a cab. She’s 4 and has been to one more Broadway musical than I have. It’s already her kinda town.

Manhattan is life. It is the culmination of American grit and diversity. It is the world on one island. I’m glad my kid has begun her New York story.

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She ain’t heavy, she’s my daughter: Trying to understand child abuse

August 31, 2018

I’ve told this story a thousand times. There was never a greater moment of clarity in my life than the moment I first heard my unborn daughter’s heartbeat. We were at Alma Midwifery and the whooshing sound came over the little speaker. It was as if the whooshing zoomed in to surround me and in that moment it was clear that it was no longer about me. My sole purpose in that life was to protect the heartbeat and the person that was growing around it. I was now primarily a vehicle for her success in the world. I don’t know if it was a moment of pure love or a genetic mandate to make sure my chromosomes made to the next generation intact, but it nearly knocked me off my feet.

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We were blessed to have a happy, healthy baby who is now a very smart and loving 4-year-old. I still find myself watching her sleep at night or spending time looking in the rearview mirror at her while she processes the world that passes outside the Prius window. The urge to protect her is even greater now that she has some independence. I worry that she will walk in front of a car backing out of a driveway, or get hurt at pre-school, or be grabbed off a playground in the moment that I look away. She’s about to spend a week in Mexico with my wife so you can imagine where my mind will go. I’m ready to step into full Liam Neeson mode at the drop of hat.

I mention all this because I am trying to understand the reality that parents routinely abuse their children; physically, sexually, psychologically and emotionally. It’s just the hardest thing for me to understand, because I feel like every single strand of DNA inside me is telling me to protect my child from harm. There is no question I would trade my life for hers. Not even a nano-second of hesitation. Cozy is needed in this world a lot more than I am. (But you’re gonna get both of us for a long time.) I’m not some perfect parent, devoid of ethical flaws. What makes me different from them? According to a 2015 report, over 7 million children are identified as abuse victims by Child Protective Services each year. Over a third (37%) of American children are reported to Child Protective Services by their 18th birthday.  37%! That’s insane and heartbreaking and completely unacceptable.

I don’t get it, but as a sociologist and criminologist it’s my job to get it. My work often involves me building some empathy for some pretty horrible characters, including school shooters, Neo-Nazis, and serial killers. It’s not always easy and some bad actors challenge the assumption that all people are redeemable. (This is not a piece about university administrators.) As a parent, it’s easier to explain away a sociopathic serial killer than it is someone who would sexually abuse their own child (especially knowing that many serial killers were sexually abused by their own parents). Fortunately, social scientists are doing this research in a heroic attempt to break the cycle.

And “cycle” is the key word. Many abusers are acting out their own experience of abuse on their children. Others where brought up in cultures and subcultures of violence where the belief was that if you spare the rod, you spoil the child. (“He that spareth his rod hateth his son: but he that loveth him chasteneth him betimes.” – Proverbs 13:24) Some are alcoholic or drug addicted and take out their chaotic mental state on the nearest target. Some are misogynists and attack “their” women and children to prove their masculinity. Some suffer from accutmental illness while others simply can’t handle feelings of powerlessness in a complex world. Explanations can be very broad, including the lack of social support for the economically stressed trying to raise children in this downwardly mobile economy.

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All those give us insight to the abuser. But it’s just not enough. I’ve been pretty economically stressed these last three years, not working full time and not sure when I would be, but I never thought to take it out on my small child. I could get the drunkest I’ve ever been and I have to think hurting her would never arise as a possibility. I could be in the throes of deep depression and her protection would still be paramount. I had a good friend who killed herself because she believed, in her depressive state, that she was protecting her daughter. There’s just something deep inside both of Cozy’s parents that would just STOP anything before she was hurt. What is that thing? It can’t be biological if over a third of kids (that we know about) are being abused. I was whipped a few times as a kid (The Belt!), but I don’t feel mindlessly compelled to repeat that behavior. They can’t all be so mentally ill that they don’t know what they are doing. It’s gotta be more complicated than a screw loose. Then there is the whole wide spectrum of psychological abuse, and abuse by step-parents and mom’s boyfriends and on and on. It seems massive. Like the untold story of America is what we do to our children.

Maybe it is because I didn’t become a parent until I turned 50. By then I had a lot of time to both want a child and think about what kind of parent I wanted to be. There are plenty of “unwanted” children in the world and many are born to parents who are so damaged that they are completely unprepared for the awesome and life changing responsibility of ferrying a baby into adulthood. But why didn’t hearing that baby’s heartbeat help push them in the right direction? Am I being overly judgmental?

I don’t live a bubble. I see it all around me. Adults with stories of childhood abuse and a few parents who definitely should not be raising kids until they have worked their own shit out. Violence in our society is what we sociologists call normative. We use it to express ourselves and “solve problems.” We used to think children were just little adults so why not knock them around for talking back, right? But nobody believes that anymore, unless you live in an FDLS cult in Utah. Kids are supposed to get a pass from our culture of violence. What is it? This question perplexes me to no end. I feel like if we could figure it out, as a species, we could truly evolve.

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