I was about eight when I found out I was probably gay. My neighbor from across the street, Rod Hedges, came over and saw a Helen Reddy album on my turntable.
“What is this gay stuff?” he said as he read the list of songs. “I Am Woman?”
He was almost doubled over with laughter. Mortified, I tried to recover.
“Shut up” I grabbed the cover. “That’s just one of the songs. Look here, there’s Delta Dawn and That Ain’t No Way to Treat a Lady.”
I slowed down a little.
“…and I Don’t Know How to Love…” my voice trailed off without saying “Him.”
“Man I think you must be a fag” Rod declared.
I had never heard the word before so I decided to ask my mom.
She hesitated a bit.
“Rod doesn’t know what he’s talking about. It doesn’t mean anything bad. People sometimes use it as a way to describe having to do something they don’t want to do. Like ‘I have to do chores all day today. What a fag’.’”
“Well that’s a good word to know” I said. “I can use that.”
My mom could see the future.
“No! Don’t. Only people from Britain should use it.”
Even better. Not only was I going to introduce my friends to a new word, it was pretty much a foreign language.
A few days later our third grade P. E. teacher told us we were going to play four square. I looked over at Ricky Meador and rolled my eyes.
“What a fag” I said.
Apparently my teacher wasn’t familiar with the British definition.
Upon learning it is a sexual orientation, I concluded that I am not, in fact, gay. Not that I did much to dispel the rumor.
My dad owned an interior design firm and my frequent means of transportation was one of his work vans with “Tom Hoch Interior Designs” scripted on the doors. Too small for sports, I joined our theater department, The Queen’s Players. (You can’t make this shit up). I spent many a weekend night driving that van, the remnants of my base makeup still visible, listening to songs like Total Eclipse of the Heart by Bonnie Tyler. Needless to say, I didn’t have many passengers.
I’m married with three kids, and the vicissitudes of life have roughened my outer shell, so I’m not mistaken for being gay any more (except when I use words like “vicissitude”).
I’d like to tell you that my own experience makes me less likely to assign labels to other people. Not true. I can size you up and brand you in about the amount of time it took you to read this sentence. I do it all the time. I suspect you do too.
We take the most complex organisms in the universe-people-and make them one dimensional. Homeless people are lazy. Black people are scary. Men who tear up at family reunion videos are weenies. (Hey, I had something in my eye). Gay people are sinners. Muslims are terrorists. Soldiers are bloodthirsty. The mailman is creepy.
As a lawyer, it is a strategy I employ professionally. If I can make a jury believe you are defined by a single act, I win. Politicians do it. Businesses do it. Religions do it. Families do it. Couples do it.
We even do it to ourselves. We label ourselves conservative or liberal or Christian or atheist; superior, inferior, wretched, perfect. No matter the belief or the brand, labels limit us. They narrow our point of view. They deprive us of the lush gift of a diverse and beautiful humanity.
What a fag.
Sorry but I’m afraid so. The “50 Rules” guy is back.
When my son was born my Dad, a man of very few words, told me: “Your kids are an investment. Whatever you invest in them, they will pay you back in spades.”
I’m not a psychologist, or therapist or counselor. But I grew up watching the Brady Bunch and Leave it to Beaver so I’m as qualified as anyone to give advice on parenting.
I’ve also (almost) raised three kids and, in the process, made as many mistakes as one could imagine.
There are a million different ways to parent. And a million ways to be a good parent. These are just a few of the rules that have worked for me and for people I respect over the years. Feel free to read them all or just skip to number 34.
I’d love to know what you would add.
1. Take the time.
The paradox of parenting is that it is the easiest thing you’ll ever do and it’s the hardest. For the same reason. All it requires is your time.
2. Be present.
You are not spending time with your kids if you push them on the swing set with one hand and yammer on your cell phone with the other.
3. Trust yourself.
There’s not really a right way or wrong way. Don’t compare yourself to other parents. If you give a damn and show up, you’re already 99% of the way there.
4. Don’t compare your kid to other kids.
Percentiles don’t mean shit. If your kid is different, celebrate that difference. Don’t conform it.
5. Ease up.
Because you’re going to screw up. Over and over.
6. Shut up.
You’ll be amazed at what you will learn from/about your kids if you just listen.
7. But don’t ever tell your kids to shut up.
8. Remember the two “C’s.”
After love, the greatest gift you can give your child is confidence. The next is curiosity.
I know a Dad who has this single rule for every interaction with his kids. Each time he sees them he greets them with a smile. What a simple, beautiful gift.
10. Read to your kids.
11. But don’t always be the bedtime story teller.
Sometimes be the bedtime story listener.
12. Your children are not here to make you happy/fulfilled.
They are not here to entertain you, or make you rich (believe me), or save the world, or compensate for your shitty childhood.
13. Work puzzles.
These will develop critical thinking skills. At a young age a child’s brain is very elastic. Load them up with foreign languages, books, projects etc.
14. Teach them how to be alone.
Turn off the TV, the phone, the computer. Meditate, read, think.
Find a cause and get involved.
16. Against the rest of the world, you are on the same team. Be a good teammate.
17. Learn the football hold. Lay a crying baby with her stomach against your forearm like you’re holding a football. Another move that works is to hold your baby upright with his back against your chest/ stomach and do slow deep knee bends.
18. Don’t google every malady that you fear.
19. Get away.
It is natural to feel isolated and alone when you are a new parent. Force yourself to get out of the house and be around other adults.
20. Don’t do your kid’s homework.
21. Surround your kids with good role models.
I can’t tell you exactly where to find good role models for your child but I would generally advise you to stay away from strip clubs, banks and other high crime areas like Congress.
22. Play music.
Some babies listen to Mozart, some listen to Mick Jagger. (But no child should have to listen to Selena Gomez.)
23. Your kids will do what you do.
If you don’t want your kids to act a certain way, don’t act that way.
24. Make important decisions when you are rested.
This is usually in the morning before fatigue and ego depletion set in.
25. Guilt is an unsuitable motivator.
I grew up Catholic so I know this firsthand.
26. Trust teachers to do their job.
The majority of them will. And they will do it quite well.
27. Don’t assume the worst.
I can’t count the number of times I flew off the handle before being armed with all of the facts about a situation.
28. Don’t assume the best.
A bunch of the ninth graders were caught in the park with alcohol but your kid was the only one not drinking. Yeah right.
29. Encourage gratefulness.
Kids first view the world through your lens. Are you aware of all of the wonder and beauty that surrounds you every single day? Are you making your kids aware? This was previously known as counting one’s blessings.
30. Widen the boundaries as kids get older.
31. Garbage in. Garbage out.
Scientists have recently discovered a link between listening to Nickelback and homelessness.
32. If you’re not the coach, don’t be the coach.
What works for your seven year old will not work for your 17 year old.
34. Don’t have too many rules.
This seems a tad hypocritical coming from a guy who is giving you 50 rules. But “be kind” and “be honest” are probably enough.
35. Make them compete.
So what if they get beat? Life is going to frequently kick their ass. Might as well get used to it…and learn to fight back.
36. Choose your words carefully.
I once read that the emotional footprint from our childhood transcends all of our years. The words you choose make a big difference.
37. Teach them to eat right and exercise.
Start these habits young and make them part of a normal lifestyle.
38. Don’t ignore the possible link between biology and behavior.
If your child is misbehaving and you can’t figure out why, there may be a link beyond the normal. This could turn out to be something as simple as eyesight or diet or something else that has an easy fix.
39. After your kids reach a certain age, it’s really none of your business.
40. Have a life of your own.
Show your kids that they are not the single source of your fulfillment. Have other interests, other occupations. Share these experiences with them. That is, unless you are a crook or a hooker.
41. Be consistent.
Have concise and clearly defined expectations.
42. Don’t upstage your child.
Don’t answer for them. Don’t “one-up” them.
43. Go outside.
Breathe. Play. Travel.
44. Remove a screaming baby/child from a public place.
How can parents not already know this?
45. Don’t be afraid to admit when you’re wrong or when you’ve made a mistake.
46. Give your kids a spiritual example.
Help them search for something bigger than themselves. Introduce them to a large loving community that adopts a common set of values and beliefs.
47. Do not gossip with or about kids.
48. Don’t give an ultimatum unless you’re prepared to follow through with it.
I told my son that if he didn’t clean his room I would sell his X-box. This didn’t work out too well, primarily because I really enjoyed playing X-box.
49. Teach your kids to be happy for other people.
Life is not a zero sum game. Someone else’s success, happiness or good fortune does not diminish yours. So stop with the petty jealousy. Be happy for others.
50. Have fun.
It really is a wonderful adventure.
We don’t really get to pick the cultural icons for our generation. They are chosen by our vapid collective. This is why we have to endure the imbecilic bullshit of the Kardashians and the omnipresent smugness of George Clooney. But once in awhile we get it right. Once in a generation there’s a Philip Seymour Hoffman.
I was drawn to Hoffman because in many of his films he bears a striking resemblance to my younger brother. I’ve been a fan since he appeared as Lester Bangs in Almost Famous. I typically choose a movie based on the story, not the actors, unless Hoffman is in it. If you’ve never seen The Savages, please do. There’s a scene in the movie where Hoffman sits down to a plate of eggs prepared by his girlfriend. Her simple kindness overwhelms him and he just begins to weep. It’s sublime.
His death is a greater loss than most will recognize. He played the losers, the outcasts, the drag queens, the morally ambiguous. We usually want a tidier star. We want Tom Cruise to save the world. We want David Beckham to take off his shirt. We want a happy ending.
It’s impossible to know the demons Hoffman battled. I pray I never have to suffer the pain of drug addiction. I’m not about to lecture those in its grip about free will and selfishness and hurtful choices. I just don’t know.
Is there a lesson in his death? I’m not sure. If there are any to be gleaned from his life it’s this: accept-even love-those who live on the periphery, who fight in the shadows, who are marginalized. Don’t fear your differences, your quirks, your fuckedupedness.
The only part we get to play is our self. Unfortunately, there’s no director, no script, no awards. As Philip Seymour Hoffman discovered, sometimes it’s the hardest role we’ll ever have.
If you don’t regard the list that follows as my most farcical exercise in hypocrisy, I’m afraid you don’t know me very well. I wrote 50 Rules for Sons and 50 Rules for Daughters with a sense of well-earned confidence. When it comes to marriage, not quite so much.
Marriage is a tough bitch. And it’s certainly not for everyone. As a lawyer I have handled a few divorces. Thank goodness there is such an alternative for people trapped in horrible circumstances.
But if you’re inclined to weather sickness and health, richer and poorer, bring a short memory and a long sense of humor. You’re gonna need it.
1. Burn your blueprint.
Rid yourself of whatever fantasies you harbor about the bliss of married life. They’re not helping. There is no script, so don’t be disappointed when your fairytale gets hijacked.
Didn’t Jesus say something about forgiving someone not just seven times but seventy times seven? That would be 490 times….which should last you through your first 6 months. Jesus underestimated because, remember, he wasn’t married.
3. And Forget.
If you forgive but don’t forget, did you really forgive? I know people who claim to have forgiven but still use every available opportunity to bring it up. And if you don’t want to forgive, forgetting works just as well.
4. Be a good teammate.
Life can come at you hard. One of the nice things about marriage is being able to have someone else in the bunker when you’re getting shelled.
If you still have the same desires, opinions and beliefs at age 50 that you did at age 25, that’s your own damn fault. You will not, and should not, be the same person you were then.
6. And adapt.
Even if you stagnate, the person you married will change. Don’t fight it. Embrace it, learn from it, be thankful for it.
7. Find your faith.
There is great comfort in believing in something or someone beyond our crude human existence. Explore this belief. Take this journey together.
8. Travel together.
Travel forces couples to rely on one another in unpredictable ways. It will also broaden your worldview and the way you value your relationship.
9. Travel separately.
I want to go to Australia and you want to go to Maine? Cool. Take lots of pics. See you in a week.
10. Develop your own interests.
It seems counter-intuitive, but you will enhance your marriage when you pursue your separate interests.
11. Cultivate a wide, diverse circle of friends.
One of the greatest joys of living is meeting new people. And many of the people you meet will likely make you appreciate your mate even more.
12. Don’t keep score.
I know a couple who keeps track of the number of times each partner completes a household chore. Don’t do this. It’s exhausting. And childish.
You owe it to each other to be in the best physical health possible. The mental side effects from exercise will also be beneficial.
14. Practice self-awareness.
Take frequent looks in the mirror. Reflect on who you are and the contributions you are making to your relationship. Are you being judgmental? Unfair? Harsh? Hypercritical? Defensive?
15. Admit that you’re wrong (even, on occasion, when you aren’t).
This is both the easiest and hardest thing to do on this list. But this simple gesture will pay immeasurable dividends; it will help you grow and it’s just the right thing to do.
16. Celebrate accomplishments big and small.
Whether it’s a promotion at work or the police officer let you off with just a warning, find every occasion possible to toast your good fortune.
17. Surprise one another.
Fill up her car. Let him sleep alone in the bed once in a while. Buy some bacon.
18. It’s the good little things.
Holding the door, suggesting a movie night, paying attention. The reward for these is greater than the sum of the parts.
19. And it’s the bad little things.
Cracking your knuckles, spitting, clearing your throat, picking your nose, chewing ice. These are death by a thousand cuts to your marriage.
20. Cultivate your finer qualities.
When do you ever have an opportunity to really work on qualities that make you a better person? In marriage you can do it every single day. Qualities like patience, loyalty, compassion, trust.
21. The bathroom is private.
If you think it’s quaint to brush your teeth while I use the toilet, you’ll change your mind about that eventually. Trust me.
22. Talk about sex (but not just right before, during or right after).
Sex is an important part of any marriage. But for some reason couples don’t want to discuss it unless they are in the throes of passion. Don’t make sex a taboo subject.
23. Encourage each other.
We all have insecurities. Your marriage is one place where you should be completely free to reveal these and your spouse should help you overcome them.
24. It’s okay to have secrets.
Even George Bailey slipped Violet Bick a $20 bill every now and then.
25. Avoid subtext.
This is a cowardly way to communicate. If you have something to say, say it. Don’t hint about it.
26. Put it down.
The toilet seat. Her cell phone. The beat.
27. Pick it up.
Your dirty sock. Your used tissue. The pace.
28. Don’t over-romanticize past (or future) relationships.
You weren’t that great and she isn’t that hot.
29. Never use the “s” word.
Don’t call each other “stupid.” That’s just stu…. not wise.
30. Offer solutions, not criticism.
Anyone can criticize. A good teammate (See Rule 4) will offer a way out.
To escape or to expand. Either way, it helps.
32. You are equals.
It doesn’t matter which one of you makes the most money. It doesn’t matter which one of you has the better collection of vinyl by REO Speedwagon. It doesn’t matter which one of you has the best nickname. It doesn’t even matter which one of you has the coolest food allergy.
33. Compliment each other.
Sincerely and often.
34. Respect each other’s friends.
You know your wife’s loud mouthed, insane friend Cathy who thinks you have weak bullshit and can’t believe you married her bff? See 35 below.
35. Know when to keep your mouth shut.
No list would be complete without the “Do these jeans make my butt look big?” lesson.
36. Indulge each other’s passions.
Scrapbooking doesn’t count.
37. Lose your arbitrary moral code.
This list alone proves that I am the king of the double standard. When I want to spend money on a new set of golf clubs, it’s a good investment. When my wife wants to spend money on new kitchen countertops, she’s a profligate. It’s not exactly fair.
38. Respect space and time.
Have we not evolved as a species or watched enough Dr. Phil to realize our mate does not want to answer the question “How was your day?” the minute he/she walks in the door?
39. Take pride in your appearance.
Your marriage license doesn’t give you a free pass to always wear sweat pants and T-shirts.
40. Maintain good hygiene.
Could your big toenail puncture a snow tire? Could your breath peel wallpaper? Take care of that, please. I don’t want to have to tell you again.
41. Ask before you throw it away.
Don’t touch that broken, ceramic, animated cactus tequila shot glass holder. I’m serious.
42. Invite his/her family.
At least once. Thankfully, this may be all you need.
43. Speaking of family, everyone gets a Holiday card and a birth announcement.
Even his creepy Uncle Bart and her psycho cousin Lisa.
44. Don’t be petty.
So I forgot to stop at the store to get your prescription. Did you have to throw away my ceramic cactus shot glass holder?
45. Be self-sufficient.
Learn to do your own laundry. Know how to cook a meal; how to navigate the grocery store; how to make an online purchase; how to turn off the water to the house; how to erect a nerf basketball hoop; how to unclog a toilet.
46. Everything is fair game for a joke.
This is far too important to place at 46. This should be at the heart of everything you do. I have not found a single thing that I have been unable to eventually laugh about. If you know this from the beginning it makes things a lot more fun.
47. Have good manners.
Don’t yell. Open the door. Help carry the groceries. Cover your cough. Hold your gas.
48. Be responsible with money.
No one lives on love. You need money. If you earned it, you will almost certainly respect it. If you didn’t earn it, you must respect it even more.
50. Adapting beats abandoning.
There will be moments when you want to quit, walk out, give up. You can do that. But you will probably be doing so without giving due consideration to the new life that awaits you. Will you be better off in six months? 10 years?
So there they are. I’d love to see what you would like to add.
With two of my kids away at college and my third about to get her driver’s license, I guess they thought I needed to jostle my newfound solitude with some substitute chaos.
They were wrong. Truth be told, I’ve been kind of enjoying the quiet. I’m also very busy at work and taking on several new projects.
So a dog? No thanks.
I do like dogs. I grew up with a bulldog named Toby. He was a slobbering, smelly, glorious mass of ugly. One evening he was running across our front yard when he collapsed. My dad rushed him to the vet but it was too late. I was heartbroken.
We spent much of this month-long Christmas break discussing the advantages and disadvantages of owning a dog. The kids were enthusiastic and focused on the positive. They were so certain it was a fait accompli that they even began discussing names.
About three weeks into the break I hiked over seven peaks of dirty clothes on the way to an empty refrigerator. I was the only one awake so I started to imagine my routine with a dog. Later that evening I broke the bad news to everyone.
“Guys I really appreciate the gesture but I just don’t believe I am ready for a dog.”
They were disappointed.
“Why not?” they asked.
“It will be so much fun” said Sophie.
“You need another companion. Someone who can take our place when we’re gone” offered Stephen.
While I’m sure he was referring to the “loyal, playful companion” aspect of pet ownership and parent child dynamics, the only image I was able to conjure was the “eats everything in sight, makes strange noises, sheds and keeps irregular hours” version of both.
My mind was made up. I was through with rearing creatures of any kind. I just didn’t want the expense, the time commitment, the worry.
We were still talking about it as the kids loaded their cars to head back to college.
“Are you sure you don’t want to give it a try?” they would implore.
“I’m sure” I replied.
After they drove away, I went inside and settled into my couch-all alone. Then I made a list of books I want to read. I turned on the football game. I read the New York Times. I went to my office. As the evening came around I reveled in the quiet. It sure was quiet. So, so quiet.
As for the dog? We’re picking her up this week.
I love the Grinch. After all, I’m a lawyer. I don’t love him because of the heartwarming way he teaches us all the true meaning of Christmas. In fact I turn off the last 5 minutes of the show, just around the time he has gathered his booty and starts to make his way back up the mountain.
I love him because of his ruthlessness. I imagine the Whos are probably way behind on their house payment or sitting around collecting welfare checks. The evidence is everywhere. They live in a ring of houses, surrounded by beautiful mountains with no visible means of economic support. No factories, no office buildings. Yet somehow they are able to give their kids gar ginkers AND tar tinkers for Christmas. Yeah right.
It has probably had a deleterious effect on my kids. One Christmas when my son was about 7 years old, he and I joined a group from our church to go caroling to the “shut-ins”. He kept calling them the “shut-ups” and when we sang “We Wish You A Merry Christmas” his version went:
“Now bring us some friggin’ pudding, now bring us some friggin’ pudding, now bring us some friggin’ pudding and BRING SOME RIGHT NOW!!!”
The last four words were sung with a particularly disturbing gusto.
The only Christmas spirit I usually allow myself is to daydream about golden days of legal yore. A time when one could troll the ancient yuletide carol. I imagine what it would be like to represent eight maids a milking against the ten lords a leaping for equal pay and benefits. I’d give my left chestnut to have been the lawyer for one of the three wise men, the one with the gold.
Then my legal assistant threw a curve ball. She suggested our office sponsor a family through the Christmas Connection. I frequently tune her out so she mistook my grunt and nod for acquiescence. Then she called to make arrangements. They were out of families. Thank goodness. At least we tried. She started to hang up when she heard footsteps approach the lady on the other end of the line. “Oh wait”, the lady said. “Here’s a new one.”
This family’s house burned to the ground the day before Thanksgiving. Now they have an extended family of 19 living in a 3 bedroom apartment. And one of them delivered a baby on Thanksgiving Day. The list they prepared had one request: Everything.
“Of course” I muttered to my cynical self. But this seemed like a rather audacious request even by the lowly standards of the greediest welfare frauds. While I busily prepared collection letters, my employees contacted the family and went shopping. They threw themselves into the project with enthusiasm and selflessness. They bought food, blankets, baby clothes, diapers, wipes, toys, even a Christmas tree. On Tuesday they went to drop off the gifts. All I had to do was write the check.
When they returned, my staff told me that this family misstated what they needed when they said “everything.” They needed anything. The newborn did not have a crib. She has been sleeping in a broken car seat. When the grandmother saw a sack of bath towels she clutched one to her chest and started to bawl. A towel.
“So they weren’t drinking beer they bought with my tax dollar?”
“And they weren’t wearing fancy jerseys and dressed up like a baller?”
“Did they try to hide their iPhones and pretend they didn’t holler?” I asked in my best Dr. Seuss verse.
No. None of that. They just cried. And smiled. And thanked everyone. And retreated to their corner of the world where they will rely on faith-and each other- to make it through.
But I don’t want you to think it’s all sugar plum fairies and candy canes over here. Next week I’m meeting with a Who about an injury she suffered from a defective jing tingler. And the Grinch is coming by to see me. His insurance company dropped him because of an enlarged heart. I’ve heard that can be a hazardous condition.
Americans love lists. In fact, according to a recent article in The New Yorker, we refuse to read anything that is not in list form.
Paragraphs are just too burdensome.
I like lists. They’re quick and easy. I even have a few ideas for lists that I would like to see. So here is my list of, um, lists. Feel free to add your own.
1. 10 Ways in Which the Lord Could Work a Little Less Mysteriously.
2. Best 10 5 2 Decisions I’ve Made Based on a Gut Feeling.
3. 25 Things on Which I Have a Strong Opinion Without Being Fully Armed of the Facts.
4. 12 Traits of Middle Child Syndrome (but only if you have time because I don’t want to bother you. Is that okay?).
5. 10 Stupidest Things I’ve Ever Said in a Home Depot.
6. 999 Ways that Money Can Buy Happiness.
7. 76 Things That Have Gone Around But Have Not Yet Come Around.
8. Top 9 Alternate Endings to Football Games or Arguments with my Legal Assistant.
9. 13 Rules Suggestions Stupid Ideas for a Happyier Marriage.
10. 67 Things About Which My Wife Need Not Consult Me.
11. 5 Sexiest Haircuts for a 50 Year Old Man.
12. 6 Coolest Button Down Shirts I Own That My Wife Ignorantly Believes Look Identical. (This one would have pictures).
13. 7 Highly Inappropriate Things I Contemplate During Church.
14. 34 Words That Can Have the Same Effect as Cuss Words but Technically Aren’t. (i.e. fustercluck).
15. 23 27 Girls Who Would Now Most Likely Regret Ever Turning Me Down for a Date in College.
16. 7 Instances Where Karma Has Failed to be Enough of a Bitch.
17. 12 Things I Will Attempt to Purchase With Bitcoin in 2014.