Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Ably Raising Cain

Today in Cleveland the world stopped at around 1 p.m. when word spread that a student had begun shooting at Success Tech High School on Lakeside Avenue. Three students and two teachers were injured, and it's been determined that the gunman, a 14 year old boy who had been suspended from the school days before, turned the gun on himself. The other five victims were all treated and released or in stable condition last I heard. The young gunman, Asa Coon, had been in trouble before; just last night police responded to a domestic violence call at his home, where officers were told the boy assaulted his mother.

Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson and Cleveland Municipal School District Eugene Sanders, who's only been on the job about 18 months, have already been fielding comments from the media and angry parents about security. In fact Superintendent Sanders was quoted that they'll be talking to parents about security. But what they need to be talking about is what goes on inside the head of the adolescent American male.

Like so many of these young "trenchcoat mafia" (per Son of Mando) kids who wreak sudden and bloody violence on their peers and teachers before turning the gun on themselves, Asa Coon is dead, and we can't ask him why he did what he did. We can only guess that he was an unhappy kid, that somewhere in his troubled life he was left alone too much, schlepped around, felt abandoned, didn't fit in. Some reports are saying that he felt bullied and had a host of emotional problems, having been hospitalized last year for suicidal tendencies, and at one point was placed on home detention for his aggressive behavior. For sure, he was deeply angry. He was armed with two .38 caliber weapons and a duffel bag full of ammunition and knives. He had apparently threatened his schoolmates days earlier, hinting, "I got something for you all."

I've been reading a book called Raising Cain: The Emotional Life of Boys by Dan Kindlon. It's straightforward, powerful, enormously helpful, and sometimes heart wrenching. Our society has really managed to completely screw up almost everything for our children, and the pressures we place on boys and young men on into adulthood is particularly pathetic. I'm learning things in this book that I wish I had known during my marriage, or when my father was alive, or in conversations past I had with my brothers.

I'm not proud of the fact that I've contributed to our nations staggering divorce rate. But my children are fortunate that the custodial arrangement allows them the opportunity to spend time with their father on an almost equal basis. It may be that more mothers want full custody, but it seems by and large that the standard is still to side with the mother and award her full or primary custody. In a lot of cases, that may truly be for the best, but even I question the degree to which separating a child from his father is necessarily in his best interests. A male child who has no relationship with his biological father and no opportunity to reconcile and build one is a boy who is likely to grow up with a lot of deep pain and confusion. And sometimes he passes it on to others, either through his own failed relationships, or in extreme cases taking his own life after hurting or killing others.

I worry about my son, because we live in a community in which it is really not ok to be different. Our little town is predictable and well-pruned. For a lot of folks the biggest priority of the week is getting the grass cut and moving on down through the to-do list. Maybe that's all they can handle since they are so busy living vicariously through their children again and cloistering themselves with home entertainment systems. But it's a very limited place. And if you're the slightest bit different, it's a conservative and judgemental place.

When I'm hanging out with Son of Mando, he poses opening statements like he did just a week or two ago: "We're alone in the universe, or we're not alone. Either way, it's overwhelming." A few years ago he asked in all serious what my sister and I might do with a 600 foot robot. He is a force to be reckoned with, an intellect to be honored, and a sense of humor to be cherished. He has a huge heart and a capacity to connect with all kinds of people of all ages. He is a great gift. I just hope that the mediocrity and indifference that surrounds us doesn't kill him or drive him insane, or worst of all, make him decide it would be easier to be just like everybody else.

We all could do a better job of paying attention to, honoring, and helping to grow the people our sons are becoming. But overall as a society we're better at falling into gender roles that seem comfortable and unchallenging even if they are destructive, labeling and processing problems than raising good people who can make sound decisions. Better at boosting security to keep the bad kids out than finding a way to help the kids before they are lost.

I may not hit every item on my check list, have the neatest dining room table, or be the most up to date in the latest trends of online banking, but I'm as vigilant as I can be in celebrating and nurting the emotional inner life of my children. Their ability to stay strong and know who they really are in the face of absurdity and adversity may be all they have at times, so it's an investment worth making. If someone had made that investment in Asa Coon, in the boys at Columbine, and in the young man at Virginia Tech, we might never have known their names.

While at IBMA I had the good fortune to tell one son of a Bluegrass legend how very different, in a good way, his voice is. There was no sound all weekend the likes of Randy Waller, son of the original Country Gentleman's lead man Charlie Waller. Randy's beautiful tenor is one of the most distinctive voices in any genre today, with an honest balladeer ring to it. I wish I could share it here, but I will share instead a song Randy did with his new Gentlemen, here recorded by the original Gents led by Charlie. The story goes that the Country Gentleman had a chance to be on a late night TV show and turned it down, and the gig went to another folk act instead. If they had accepted and done this tune, Matterhorn, the Folk Scare might have been the Bluegrass Blitzkrieg instead. It's a tune that likewise shows how distinctive and ahead of their time the Country Gentlemen were themselves. Different.

Sometimes raising sons feels like climbing the Matterhorn. But we all have to do our best to make it to the top so that kids stop failing, giving up, or killing each other and themselves and instead start heading toward the future that's meant for them, even if it's something we don't understand, like what to do with a 600 foot robot. Me, I'd give it a banjo and see what happens.



At October 11, 2007 9:35 AM, Blogger DrDon said...

I think it is amazing how these events are perceived, or not. You start out your post saying that at 1pm in Cleveland, the world stopped. I understand the hyperbole and use it often in my own posts. But here's the thing; I work in downtown Cleveland and I had no idea this even happened until I received a tengentially related voicemail from Myboringbest and then saw the story on the news at 6pm.

I work about three blocks West and four blocks South of where this happened and I didn't know about it for 5 hours. Not that I should have. The point is, this didn't affect my day at all. And, with all due respect to the families, after I found out about it, it still didn't affect my day at all.

I have come to the conclusion that this is just what people do. Most days, everything is fine. Some days, a kid or adult goes nuts and kills a bunch of people. Oh well. Life goes on. This is just what happens with humans. Could it be fixed? Maybe. But it would require the type of infringement on our "freedom" and a measure of self-control and responsibility that Americans just seem disinterested in. So, you'll hear a lot of bitching and moanin, see hand wringing and silly stuffed bear tributes, and witness useless calls for action by community "leaders" but nothing will change because people don't want to change.

People who are doing a shitty job raising their kids have no interest in doing a better job raising their kids. And we as a society do not penalize them for it. These are the facts and they are not changing so neither will the predictable, if not necessary, outcomes.

At October 11, 2007 9:37 AM, Blogger DrDon said...

Forgive my typos

At October 11, 2007 11:01 AM, Anonymous Leota of Denison said...

"...but I'm as vigilant as I can be in celebrating and nurturing the emotional inner life of my children"

Dearest MandoMama,

How well you put it. My list of disclaimers before the "but" above is very very very long. But celebration & nurturance! That I can do.

In fellowship on bringing up our boys,
Leota of Denison

At October 11, 2007 12:00 PM, Blogger Mando Mama said...

Doc, to a certain extent, you are right. Human nature being what it is, selfishness of man and all, these events will continue to unfold over and over for many reasons. Kids may have deep emotional problems that parents overlook intentionally or unintentionally. Our networks of public systems should be better connected so that this particular offending student had been better positioned to receive care and education. In fact, almost ten years ago, I worked for an agency in Cleveland that had seen through a project specifically to ensure that Cleveland Public School Kids had access to social and health services. But our politicization of records and the sensitivity around confidentiality make it almost impossible for these things to not fall through the cracks. Meanwhile most folks wouldn't know what to do, even if they had it in them to try.

And even in the best families, something can still go wrong. I know one single mother who's ex habitually ignores her on issues of serious concern about her kids. The dad appears to be an involved father but when it comes down to dealing with the mother, he just can't stomach it. If she has a good idea, it goes unacknowledged until he finds a way to introduce it as though it were his own idea. He's completely nuts, but he looks normal from the outside. So many kids are caught in the middle of situations like that where the parents are more concerned about winning some battle waged in their heads than what's really going on with their kids' lives. It's sad.

Leonine Leota! I appreciate your warm encouragement, but you are the expert here. In the world of boy-raisin', I only have one of them, and he's leading his sister by about six years. You've got two delightful and terribly smart younguns. It's a joy to be in cahoots with you on bringing up the next generation. Aren't we due for a sabbatical beverage soon?

At October 11, 2007 3:50 PM, Blogger DrDon said...

Mando - See, your own example is exactly what I mean. You say "Even in the best of families..." and then go on to describe a family that is certainly not the best of families.

I worked in therapy with adolescents for about 5 years. In that time, I maybe saw 3 kids out of hundreds that I would say might make a case for being born bad. They appeared to have everything set up right in life but continued to misbehave and cause problems.

Aside from this minute fraction of the kids, the vast majority had behavior problems because they had shitty parents. Parents who never should have been parents. Parents who abused, or let others abuse, the kids. Parents who were divorced and so interested in finding the next person to screw that they dumped their kids off on anyone and everyone so they could go out. I could go on and on.

On "Rover's Morning Glory" on the radio this morning, they had the Thursday morning hookup where they bring in a single woman and get her a date. The 27 year old they had in this morning has a 5 year old boy. Among other things, she wants a guy who can drink beers on Sunday while watching football. This led them to ask how often she drinks. She said she goes out every Wednesday with friends from work. Of course, she also goes out Friday and Saturday. And she said she now drinks Sunday afternoons because of football season. So, this 27 year old with a 5 year old son is drinking 4 days a week. Grandma watches the kid while she goes out.

This woman should have had an abortion when she was 21. She clearly is not ready to be a mother. Her kid is watched by grandma 3 nights a week. Not so that the mom can make extra money or take college classes or do something to better their situation. No, it's so this "mom" can go out with her friends, drink, and still act like a single 20-something girl with no responsibility. Only she does has responsibility. She brought a child into the world. Unfortunately, like so many of these shitty parents, that just doesn't matter. A kid is just like a dog to them. It's not going to get in there way of having fun and living their life.

And you have a whole generation of shitty grandparents who are more than willing to keep letting their adult children behave like adolescents while indulging them by raising their grandkids. It's absolutely disgraceful.

So no, I have no faith in any of this getting better. We're paying for the selfishness you speak of. And I'm not going to shed a single tear over dead children as long as I live in a nation that acts like they care but won't change a damn thing to really make a difference.

At October 11, 2007 3:54 PM, Blogger Mando Mama said...

Did anyone listen to Matterhorn? Just checking. The new Gents don't have it on their first album, and I'm pining.

Anyway, Doc, I should say that I probably paid more attention to the events that unfolded than the average Jo for a few reasons. I was actually waiting on an order in the deli in our building when the news broke in with the story. My boss and I are both concerned about the state of things in Cleveland because our job is bringing talent in and keeping talent here.

Of course the primary reason I continued to follow the story is that I have kids and I am therefore morbidly fascinated by the parental choices of other people. I have a very, very easy time putting my kids first, but I know not everyone is built that way. It's just a simple choice for me. I love getting away and having fun with grownups but my kids always come first, period. Thank god I have a job I love and employers who embrace and support my parenting philosophy. Not everyone is as fortunate as I am and I wish society did a better job of helping families stay in tune with each other so that kids who are in real trouble, like this kid clearly was with some baseline emotional disorders, can actually get help.

America is pathetic in so many ways. So I just concentrate on people, supporting change in small increments, touching lives one at a time, whether inside or outside my family. You never know whether you might be the tipping point, like the retarded guy who lives on your street and has kind of adopted you.

I'm thinking apple pie.

At October 11, 2007 9:41 PM, Blogger Mando Mama said...

Hello again,
Don, when I put my other comment out there I hadn't seen the story about the THursday Morning Hookup. That's just damn sad.

I was just exchanging emails with my sister about one thing our mother never explained to us. That is that she never remarried, not likely because she couldn't find someone, but because she didn't need a grown child in the house. Sometimes when I hear things like that woman with the five year old, I think, there's a person with no inner life at all, no sense of who she is, no wholeness, an empty void that she expects someone else to fill. She will never, ever be able to live alone, let alone enjoy it. And here she is responsible for the nurturing of a helpless kid. That kid is going to grow up with more than a few abandonment issues. And shame on that woman's mother indeed for catering to her behavior.

Yet I also agree with what concerned citizen said in a comment on my previous post. People do not by and large cultivate any consciousness beyond their own immediate gratification. The 27 year old woman is a perfect example. But I don't have to "approve" it with my silence. At the same time, I know there's nothing I can do to change or solve some problems, even the choices other people make that affect my kids. In a way, that's not my karma, it belongs to my kids and whoever they are working things out with. It isn't easy, and if my kids are in real danger, you can bet I'll do more than raise a little consciousness. But overall, the best I can do is help them believe in themselves, love them as freely as possible, and hope they're smart enough to smell trouble and stay the hell away from it if I'm not around to help them.

At least you were in a position to do the only thing possible: help those kids. I am not the future. My next lay is not the future. Kids are the future. If I can keep my kids' consciousness high, they will continue to see right through the bullshit around them, and will help others question too.

Which means I should not only have a copy of my FBI file sent up, but have my brakes checked on a regular basis. And dusted for prints, probably.

At October 12, 2007 8:49 AM, Blogger DrDon said...

Mando - All good points. But you are the future, inasmuch as you are the one raising children. People always say kids are the future and that may be true but then that also means that the future depends on the present. Parents have to do a good job now for the future to turn out the way we'd like. We can just raise kids in a crappy manner and hope that they 'figure it out' someday.

Still, I guess lately I've just been tired of being all nice and supportive in talking about these issues. That gets us nowhere. I used to see women in therapy who were battered and the husband would get probation and a $150 fine. I mean, do we care about women's well-being or not? If we think breaking a woman's ribs is wrong, we can't just fine a guy $150 for doing it.

The fact is we're just incredibly hypocritical. We kids matter but we don't protect them from awful parents. We say we're worried about the environment but the government won't mandate higher fuel efficiency and people still buy SUVs. People are just full of crap. I don't really care about that. It is what is is. But I'm just tired of seeing and hearing the faux concern about all these issues.

At October 12, 2007 10:36 AM, Blogger Mando Mama said...

I always remind folks that it strikes me as odd that you have to have a license to drive a car, but you don't need one to have a kid.
Yesterday there was a story about a kid in PA who was being homeschooled for the past 18 months. The cache of weapons this kid had amassed, evidently with the help of his mother, is just staggering.

I agree with your point also about faux concern. I feel fortunate to be surrounded mostly by folks who are actively doing something. They save their greywater for watering, compost (and until I get my composter up I donate my scraps), recycle, and drive in a manner that conserves gas. We cut down on trips and use resuable grocery bags. We batch our laundry and dishwasher loads to be as full as possible. We turn out lights. We've switched mostly to organic milk or rice milk to cut down on the hormone crap we ingest. A few folks I know use the time honored-air dry for their laundry, which is more than I can handle at least in winter! So my perspective is skewed because most of my close friends are acting. They're also good conscious parents who spend time with their children and also are teaching them the right stuff about sustainable choices. So, I am spoiled, I will admit it. While it's true that many more folks are all talk and no walk, I'm also convinced that there will be some who decide to change a few of their habits because of something I or my friends shared.

And now, I'm ready for pie -- with a nice tall glass of Horizon 1%.


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