On courage, parenting, and Sergio de la Pava’s ‘Lost Empress.’

On courage, parenting, and Sergio de la Pava’s ‘Lost Empress.’

Sometimes the challenges that life throws our way will be over quickly.  Succeed or fail, we know that a finite quantity of bravery is expected of us.

lostempressIn Sergio de la Pava’s Lost Empress, a football owner addresses her players before the last game of their season.

“I once had someone reduce the film of a game to just those seconds when the ball is actually alive and in play. You know what the result was? Eleven minutes.

A three-and-a-half-hour football game reduces to eleven minutes that actually decide who wins or loses. Are you going to sit there, knowing all the work we’ve put into this season, the bloodshed, the bones snapped, and tell me that you can’t bind yourself to your brothers and collectively outperform another group of men for just eleven minutes?”

Eleven minutes during which they’ll either win or lose – except that by now everybody knows that modern football destroys players’ brains. The consequences will linger long afterward. The team’s quarterback acknowledges as much before the game:

“I don’t care if I’m drooling in a corner in ten years as long as that [championship] ring’s on my finger as I do it.  It’s all I think about.” 

Like Socrates lifting poison to his lips, the quarterback knows that he is choosing to end his life: This is not about his body; it’s more fundamental, his mind. Medically, he should not participate in even more more play of football.  But he has the courage to face it.  It’s only eleven minutes, after all.  Or three-and-a-half hours.  Still, only a single game’s worth of pain and suffering to attain glory. 

In the fourth quarter’s waning moments, Harris, the quarterback, makes one final play:

Taking the ball in just his right hand he brings it back and throws it as hard as he can, screaming in agony as he does since it feels as if his arm’s just been detached from its socket.

The millisecond the ball is released a Cowboy defender launches himself forward helmet-first into Harris’s face mask.  The face mask gives way on impact and the defender’s helmet goes right through into Harris’s face to shatter his nose, bounce his brain off his skull, and resect substantial parts of his lips.

The referee jogs towards the goal line to make the call that will immediately decide the winner as there is no instant replay.  After a seeming eternity he raises both hands and signals touchdown and a Pork victory of 23 – 22.

Harris is unconscious on the ground, it’s not that he will never remember this, it’s more that he never experienced it in the first place.

Interwoven with the quarterback’s story of willful self-destruction is another version of courage.  An impoverished parent whose life seems to be in shambles resolves that she will pour herself into raising her kid right, no matter what it takes.

she’d pinpointed this one thing, a sure path to meaning.  There’s a spiral that has to stop.  A person formed by shit parents becomes a shit person and by extension another shit parent who forms a shit person until you just end up with shit everywhere.  A life spent accomplishing only one thing can maybe be justified if that one thing is significant enough.

She could therefore literally decide that the sole purpose of her breathing was terminating that spiral currently pulling [her son] Donnie towards its diminishing circles.


She could do that, in essence forfeit her life.  But it would take a strange kind of courage. This wouldn’t be a stint in the can, it would be a life sentence.

To succeed, she’ll need to be brave for more than three-and-a-half hours.  Good parenting is exhausting.  In the first few years, my spouse and I felt that each night at bedtime we were struggling to toss our bedraggled bodies over the finish line – and then we’d have to wake up and do it again.

Oh my.

Eleven minutes for glory?  A committed parent is looking at approximately twenty years, no cheering fans, and no assurance, ever, that you’re even doing it right.  A parent needs to be brave in the sense that David Foster Wallace described in The Pale King.

The_Pale_King‘By which,’ he said, ‘I mean true heroism, not heroism as you might know it from films or the tales of childhood.  You are now nearly at childhood’s end; you are ready for the truth’s weight, to bear it. 

The truth is that the heroism of your childhood entertainments was not true valor.  It was theater.  The grand gesture, the moment of choice, the mortal danger, the external foe, the climactic battle whose outcome resolves all–all designed to appear heroic, to excite and gratify an audience.  An audience.’ 

He made a gesture I can’t describe: ‘Gentlemen, welcome to the world of reality–there is no audience.  No one to applaud, to admire.  No one to see you.  Do you understand?  Here is the truth–actual heroism receives no ovation, entertains no one.  No one queues up to see it.  No one is interested.’ 

He paused again and smiled in a way that was not one bit self-mocking.  ‘True heroism is you, alone, in a designated work space.  True heroism is minutes, hours, weeks, year upon year of the quiet, precise, judicious exercise of probity and care–with no one there to see or cheer.  This is the world.  Just you and the job, at your desk.’

Wallace fully expected to have an audience for his words, but even then, bravery was needed during the lonely years spent composing – indeed, the tragedy here is that Wallace’s courage abandoned him just as he wrote this passage.

A parent, too, has a very limited audience.  Usually the only people watching are the children being parented, and, given the way our brains work, children will inevitably forget most of the moments that you share.  But you’re creating the emotional pallet that will color the rest of their lives.

Lots of parenting feels like drudgery, and it takes concentration to do right, and it matters.

image (4)According to Dorothy Dinnerstein in The Mermaid and the Minotaur, a human parent thus seems, of all [animals], the one least fitted to live in a world narrower than the one she sees around her.  And yet, for reasons inherent in [our] evolutionary history, she has been the one most fated to do so.  Her young are born less mature than those of related mammals; they require more physical care for a relatively longer time; they have much more to learn before they can function without adult supervision. 

Or there’s Michael Chabon, in Pops, describing the burdens he knowingly undertook when he and his spouse decided to raise children.

image“Put it this way, Michael,” the great man said, and then he sketched out the brutal logic: Writing was a practice.  The more you wrote, the better a writer you became, and the more books you produced.  Excellence plus productivity, that was the formula for sustained success, and time was the coefficient of both.  Children, the great man said, were notorious thieves of time. 

And yet.  Even if this unnamed great writer were correct – which seems highly dubious, since most writers need to live in order to escape self-absorption – Chabon probably made the right choice.  If our species is going to persist, we’ll need another generation.  If our species is going to thrive, we’ll need children who were raised well.  We’ll need people to bravely accept all that parenting entails. 

I’d like to think that my own courage hasn’t failed my children yet.  Luckily, it’s reinvigorated when they smile.

On parenting and belated “thank you”s.

With N, one week old.

After we finished eating dinner, K and I were talking about our parenting strategy. Specifically, that she feels pleased with the way we’re doing it. Personally, I expressed no such pride: one negative consequence of thinking about stuff all the time is that I fail to notice my surroundings. Unless, of course, my surroundings are actively demanding attention, as in this quote from Jenny Offill‘s “Department of Speculation”:

And that phrase–“sleeping like a baby.” Some blonde said it blithely on the subway the other day. I wanted to lie down next to her and scream for five hours in her ear.

Not that parenting is usually like that. Usually the only major difficulty is how syrupy it can be: I try to invent good stories to tell but it can be hard since my audience and I don’t really speak the same language (as in, I speak English. My audience of one can occasionally make hand signs that seem to convey semantic meaning. Like, she can make the sign for “fish,” but in her hands [actually “hand,” singular] it might mean “mobile.” But it’s not as though I can make the protagonist of every story a fish. Or a mobile.), so sometimes I give up and we spend a large block of time just handing a bar of rose-scented soap back and forth to one another while I think.

In some ways that reminds me of a passage from Dorothy Dinnerstein‘s “The Mermaid and The Minotaur,” a charming little book that’s perhaps best exemplified by this disclaimer she included in the beginning:

To reiterate, then: it is not my aim here to help spell out what is intolerable in our gender arrangements. Other writers have for some time been handling that task very well indeed. I shall assume that the reader has assimilated the gist of what they have been saying; I have nothing to add to it.  My aim is to help clarify the reasons why people go on consenting to such arrangements.

Which to me evokes glorious imagery: to set the scene, close your eyes and imagine any film that includes a scene with people arguing around a boardroom table. Maybe there should be some computers, and a projector putting data up onto a screen. Got it? Okay, now our protagonist enters the frame, singlehandedly overturns the table, and says, “Enough! I’ve decided all of this is resolved! From here we will discuss only the details of my position.”

Spraypainting, legally, with my own father.
Spraypainting, legally, with my own father.

Which, yeah, sounds arrogant and brash, but I’m sure most people can think of numerous ideas from either side of the political spectrum that they’d like to see resolved that way. Like a high school principal who calls you into her office and instead of asking, “Did you spraypaint graffiti on the side of the school?” asks, “Why did you spraypaint graffiti on the side of the school?” Which, yes, was asked of me. Even though high school me lacked dreadlocks and facial hair. As far as I knew, I looked like a good kid. And I had not, in fact, done any spraypainting.

But let’s get back to Dinnerstein’s quote, shall we?

Thus if what we mean by “human nature” is the Homo sapiens physique, and the “fundamental pattern . . . [of] social organization” which apparently prevailed when that physique first took shape, then human nature involves the females in a strange bind: Like the male, she is equipped with a large brain, competent hands, and upright posture. She belongs to an intelligent, playful, exploratory species, inhabiting an expanding environment which it makes for itself and then adapts to. She is the only female, so far as we know, capable of thinking up and bringing about a world wider than the one she sees around her (and her subversive tendency to keep trying to use this capacity is recorded, resentfully, in Eve and Pandora myths). She thus seems, of all females, the one least fitted to live in a world narrower than the one she sees around her. And yet, for reasons inherent in her evolutionary history, she has been, of all females, the one most fated to do so. Her young are born less mature than those of related mammals; they require more physical care for a relatively longer time; they have much more to learn before they can function without adult supervision.


The point being that it’s hard for an imaginative creature to have its life circumscribed.  And the pseudo-active nature of parenting can obliterate pure flights of imagination.  I’d previously assumed that the idle moments might evoke imprisonment from Albert Camus’s “The Stranger”:

And the more I thought about it, the more I dug out of my memory things I had overlooked or forgotten.  I realized then that a man who had lived only one day could easily live for a hundred years in prison.  He would have enough memories to keep him from being bored.

Except that actively playing, actively handing that bar of soap back and forth and announcing, “Yes, you have the bar of scented soap.  But, ah, ah, it still isn’t food,” for minutes on end really cuts down on the ability to reminisce.  Maybe it wouldn’t for everyone; maybe I’m just especially bad at remembering, or especially bad at handling soap, and so one of those two tasks (or both) requires more effort on my part than it does for other people.

Not that parenting is that bad.  Like, it makes me happy.  I think it makes most people happy.  It’s just strange that it does.  Because so many of the individual pieces, especially with a child this age (i.e. pre-language), seem to be un-fun.  So why would a baby’s smile bring so much joy?  Maybe I should follow up my toxoplasma essay with another on parasitic mind control.

Anyway, the essay I wanted to write actually didn’t involve typing out a bunch of depressing quotes.  It was to say that, after K and I talked about parenting, I decided that maybe Dinnerstein would be proud of the way we’re trying to arrange our lives.  N has about twelve hours awake each day — I’m primary parent for seven of them, K for five.  And Dinnerstein wrote powerfully about the ways that exclusively maternal childrearing was harming our world, so I said, “I’m going to send her an email!  Tell her thanks for the book, and let her know we’re trying our best!”

I sat down at the computer to look up her email address.  But apparently she is no longer alive.  So now I have to write out a letter longhand and mail it to her grave… awful lot of trouble just to say “thanks.”  But sometime people deserve a bit of gratitude.