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Morality Police/Enlightened Man

Juliette and I took Eva to the post office today during my lunch break to apply for her passport. She'll be accompanying Juliette and Jason on their trip to Canada later this summer, but that's really neither here nor there.

Afterwards the three of us had lunch together. At one point during the meal, I looked over and saw a young woman wearing a pair of shorts that was by no means the shortest pair I'd seen this month, but still fairly short. This isn't unusual, times being what they are and today being a sunny day in San Diego.

I turned to Eva and asked, "Are you going to wear short shorts when you get older?" Eva didn't dignify the question with a response, and continued stuffing Cheerios into her mouth. (One at a time! With a proper pincer grip and everything!) I had to admit that it was a fairly dumb question; after all, this is San Diego and that's what the kids are doing these days.

And of course it isn't just "these days." I was flipping through a slideshow at Time's LightBox this evening and I couldn't help but notice that the shorts in 1983 were pretty short, too. (And not just the girls' shorts.)

I also read today's article at NYT's Lens blog, about Iranian girls and youth culture and Westernization and oppression and morality police. And these images and the story that goes along with them, it outrages me. The thought that some group of men goes around Tehran, ordering women to cover their hair or detaining them if their clothes are deemed too provocative just incenses me. As it also outrages me when I hear people claim that it's about protecting women, or that this sort of modesty is empowering--because how can it be empowering not to have the choice?

And yet... And yet... I'm also increasingly appalled at the hypersexualization of young women. I don't want my daughter to go out wearing shorts that leave her butt cheeks hanging out the bottom. I don't want her to look like that.

It's not because I'm a prude. (Well, maybe a little bit.) It's not because I don't want her to have sex. It's not because I have a problem with sexuality or even promiscuity (for people who are mature enough to understand and deal with the consequences, positive and negative.) It's because I don't want her to define herself by this one narrow view of what men want. I don't want her to engage in that kind of attention-seeking--or, at least, if she must seek attention I don't want it to be only that kind of attention. And I know that there must surely be women who dress scantily for reasons other than attracting sexual partners, who don't define their worth by their image but I feel--rightly or wrongly--that many (most?) are dressing that way because of this ridiculous standard of beauty and worth that is mostly about male attention. And this is especially true of young girls. And I don't want that for my girl.

And yet... And yet... I do want her to feel beautiful. (Maybe because I never have.) And I want to tell her she's beautiful and not have to feel guilty about it. I want her to be confident in her appearance, not confined by it.

And I have to admit that I am, ultimately, a hypocrite. Because what are the most common compliments I offer her mother? I tell her she looks nice, or that her clothes look nice, or that she's beautiful, or desirable. And, yes, I do tell her other nice things, too, but not as often, if I'm being honest. When I do this, what kind of self-image am I setting up for my daughter? Does it even matter that these are compliments my wife wants to hear?

At the end of it all, what does it mean to be a good father to a daughter, a good husband to a wife, a good man? What is it that makes me different from the morality police? How can I raise a daughter who is strong in her character and secure in her sexuality, who is not beholden to the male gaze? And is it even my place to be deciding how she ought to be?

I wish I had the answers to these questions, but I don't. I hope that some day I will, or at least that I don't mess things up too badly.

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Edit:

Just after I posted this, a female Facebook friend of mine posted a link to a YouTube video described as the "BEST Pole Dance Ever." And, watching it, the dance was impressive both for its aesthetics and its athleticism. The performer clearly has training in contemporary dance and it was perhaps the least overtly sexual pole dance I've ever seen. But I just don't know what to make of the whole pole-dance phenomenon. Is this empowering women by giving them a way to reclaim their sexuality on their own terms, or is it really just a way of getting women to participate in their own exploitation?

It's just too much for me. I don't know if I'll ever know what to think about it all.

First Day in a New Class

"Daddy, I don't want to be in Ms. Marjan's class today."

I looked down at Jason. "What? You like Ms. Marjan. And all your friends have already moved up to her class. You're going to have so much fun being in the same class with them again."

"No, I'm not," he insisted sullenly.

I adjusted my grip on Eva's carseat/baby carrier--it was her second day at daycare, but my first day bringing her--and looked down at Jason, trying to be sympathetic but firm. "I'm sorry, buddy," I said, "But it's time for you to be in her class now. You've been getting all ready for this, and now it's time."

He didn't respond, just held my hand as we kept walking.

We were running a bit late this morning, so by the time we got to his new classroom--separated from his old "room" by just a short partition running across the space--the rest of the kids were already sitting down in their circle and the teacher was handing out little cards to each of them. We hurried to get his blanket, stuffed animal, and sweater into his cubby and then I led him over to the group.

"OK, buddy, can I have a hug?" I asked, kneeling beside him. He didn't say anything, just wrapped his little arms around my neck and buried his face into my shoulder. He didn't wail or cry out, the way he usually does when he's upset. He just hugged me tightly and sniffled a little.

I pulled away from him gently. "Look at me buddy." He lifted his teary eyes to meet mine, and I could see that he was trying to hold it together. "Jay, you're going to have a really good day. All your friends are here to play with you, and it's going to be lots of fun. You're a big boy, and you can do this."

His face screwed all up and his voice broke as he threw his arms around me again. "Daddy, I don't want you to go."

I looked down to my side where Eva was sleeping in her carrier. Jason has been a wonderful big brother, and I can see that he genuinely loves his sister. But it's hard on him, too, dealing with change over the past few months. Just last night he got out of bed an hour after I tucked him in, saying that he didn't like being all by himself in his room. I know it's because Eva sleeps in a cradle by our bed, and try as we might to explain that she needs to be in our room because she's a baby, and that she'll be moving into her own room soon, he can't grasp yet that different people have different needs. He just knows that everyone--even the dog--sleeps in Mommy and Daddy's room, except him.

All of that flashed through my mind as I knelt there holding him, and my heart just about broke. I want so much to show him that I love him just as much as I always have, and just as much as his sister. I take time to play with him, and give him as much affection as he'll let me. But right at that moment it didn't feel like I'd done enough.

A few moments passed, then the teacher called Jason over to help her. He wiped his eyes with the back of his hand and went over, and she shooed me away, mouthing "Have a nice day!" behind his head.

As it happened, Juliette stayed home sick today, so I was the one to pick the kids up after work. When I arrived, he was out in the yard, running around and playing happily with his little friends. He ran over as soon as he saw me, smiling.

I crouched down to look him in the eyes and smiled. "Jay Jay, can I tell you something?" I asked.

"What?"

"I love you very much, and I missed you a lot today," I said. "I thought about you all day."

He hugged me. "Me too, Daddy."

It Forgets You

This morning I stood in front of the house I grew up in, for the first time in seven years. It was different, and the same. Like me, I suppose.

I was surprised at how small it looked--how small the whole neighborhood looked, actually. And how graceless the lines were, how rough the walls. I didn't step onto the property, just stood on the gravel outside the driveway and looked in. The air smelled of oak and earth and river plants and cold, just the way I remembered. Familiar, but foreign now.

Everything about the old neighborhood was like that. The doghouse next door had the same names on it, though the people had moved away--and, come to think of it, those dogs are probably long since dead. The little stone mailbox down the street was gone and across from where it had stood someone had put up a mansion--with columns! But just past that was the thicket of cactus where my brother and I had hid and rained down with squirt guns on our friends. The big chalk shelf we used to swim next to was still there, but the river didn't cover it anymore. The same, but different.

Standing there looking at the house my parents sold seven years ago, I knew, finally, that I could never live in that town again. I've carried little bits and pieces of the place with me for all this time, leaves that I could press between the pages of my memory, or maybe old, worn photos that I could keep in my wallet and thumb the edges of every now and again. But I spent too long away; now these old photos are all I have, and coming back, they're all I can see. You can't build a new life around the ghosts of your old one.

I don't know exactly how long I stood there, my breath steaming in the cold of the morning, looking at that old house. Eventually, a man on a motorcycle rode up and parked in the driveway. "Hi there," he said, smiling.

"Morning," I replied. He tucked his helmet under his arm and pulled the keys out of the ignition. I blurted out, "I used to live here." I immediately felt pathetic, but continued on anyway. "Almost fifteen years ago now."

We chatted for a few minutes. I found out he'd been renting the place for four months. He was very polite; friendly, even. I felt awkward for interrupting his morning and quickly bid him good day.

I took a turn by my mom's old shop--empty now--and my old school. I took a moment to visit the tree we planted at my afterschool program to remember a friend who had died. I took a picture of it, then reached out and touched it's cool, rough bark. Some kids were playing at the playground next door while their moms complained about the school's plans to remove the sandboxes and replace them with wood chips. I'm not sure if they noticed me standing there, nor what they would have seen if they did. A strange man caressing a tree, I guess.

We like to think that when something or some place leaves its mark on us, it, too, retains some imprint from us. But it doesn't really work that way. You may not forget it, but eventually it forgets you.

I Wonder If My Brain Can Be Considered a Markov Chain

Apropos of nothing, the line "Jazz to Moonbase 2! A ginormous, weird-looking planet just showed up in the suburbs of Cybertron!" popped into my head this morning as I was shaving. For those of you under the age of 30, that is a line from the 1986 animated Transformers: The Movie, which I probably saw twenty times or more when I was in elementary school.

Thinking about that line, it occurred to me to wonder whether it might not be a little racist that Jazz's voice sounds black. And I wasn't sure whether the voice actor was black or not, and I didn't know if it would make it more racist or less if he were white. (It turns out that Jazz was voiced by Scatman Crothers, who was black, and who died shortly after the movie was released.)

But then, really, why did Jazz even have an accent? Why did Perceptor sound English? And, come to think of it, Shockwave and Starscream sounded vaguely English as well? What's up with that? All of them are robots from another planet. Why should any of them have regional accents?

That led me to think about Optimus Prime's voice, which made me wonder if Peter Cullen might not just have the best voice of all time. I could listen to that man read the phone book. I still get taken back to the excitement and amazement of childhood when I hear him say lines like "One shall stand, one shall fall, Megatron," or the "From days of long ago..." monologue from the opening of Voltron.

Thinking about voltron made me remember that live-action Voltron short that the AV Club linked back in October. I can't imagine that a movie like that could ever get made, or made well, but man, if it ever did I would watch the hell out of it.

I wondered, though, how a movie like that would go. Would King Zarkon really be the main antagonist? Because, really, Zarkon was a pretty ineffective villain. He pretty much had one go-to move--sending a Ro-Beast out to go destroy Voltron--and it always failed. Looking back, it's kind of baffling that he wasn't overthrown and someone more competent put in his place.

But, of course, none of the bad guy leaders in 80's cartoons really made much sense. Cobra Commander was supposed to be the leader of an international terrorist organization and he was a whiny loser. Even Destro, who wasn't as much of an out-and-out wiener, still made no sense as the head of a huge multinational corporation.

At this point I came back to myself enough to realize that I had spent nearly fifteen minutes pondering the minutia of some rather silly, extremely childish, and completely out-of-date pop culture items, and I had to marvel at just where my brain will go when I leave it unattended. But by then I was just about done with my shower and I had to start paying attention to real life again.

Just so you know, I am aware of the irony that this, of all things, would be the next thing I post after a rant about not being taken seriously as a mature adult. Maybe it's for the best that Juliette is the one to get the respect as a grown-up, after all.

Our Christmas Table

This Christmas, for the first time, Juliette and I hosted her family at our house for the holiday. Her parents came, as well as her younger brother and sister and new brother-in-law. Things were a bit hectic leading up to it, as we were planning our first ever Christmas dinner, but in the end it all came off without a hitch and a good time (and good meal) was had by all.

Looking around the table as we sat for Christmas dinner, I was struck by just how many kinds of people were represented in that small group. There were eight of us together that night, and in that eight were included a toddler and a 78-year-old, a college student, and a pair of newlyweds. There were Caucasians, Japanese, and a black man. There were Canadians, a Brazilian, and Americans from both coasts. There were at least two different Christian denominations represented, plus a Jewish man, an atheist, and at least one agnostic. Conservatives, moderates, liberals, and the politically indifferent were all there.

And the most amazing thing to me is that despite all of our differences, we all get along. We have our disagreements, true--we even had a little political discussion during the meal. But even when we argue, we listen to what each other have to say, actually weigh the merits of the other's points, and treat one another with respect.

In my more optimistic moments, I believe that we as a species are capable of being more and better than the shrill, angry voices that seem to be dominating political and social discourse right now. It's not always easy to keep a level tone and a reasonable perspective, but seeing a group like the one we had for the holiday makes me know it can be done. If I could have just one wish for the new year, it would be that more people could see it--and live it--as well.

My Latest at Life As A Human: Every Picture Tells a Story

"Every Picture Tells a Story":

Over the past six months or so I’ve been reconnecting with my love of photography. It’s been an exhilarating time, learning different techniques, practicing composition, and shooting, shooting, shooting. In order to develop my own style, one of the things I’ve been doing is to study the work of past and current masters, and what I’ve come to realize is that the images that resonate the most strongly with me are those that tell a story. With that in mind, I’d like to tell you the story of one of my recent photos.

My Latest at Life As A Human: The Short, Short, Short Skirt

"The Short, Short, Short Skirt":

One of the neighborhood councils here in San Diego has been putting on free outdoor concerts this summer, and my wife and I have found them to be a great way to spend a Sunday afternoon. We were at one of those concerts this weekend, having a picnic supper with some friends and their kids while we listened to the music, when out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a girl walking by in a ridiculously short skirt.

Where Did the Magic Go?

No, no, I'm not talking about me and Juliette. We're doing just great. No, the question in the title has to do with my career.

The HR manager at my office brought her son in with her on Friday. That's not a particularly unusual situation--lots of my coworkers bring in their kids for a few hours at a time when other childcare is scarce. What made this time different was that the day before, this mom had stopped by my friend T's desk and asked if he wouldn't mind showing her son around the lab or something. Her son, she explained, is fascinated with science and technology, and wants to be an engineer when he grows up. T, being the nice guy that he is, said it would be no problem.

Friday morning rolled around as it always does, and when T showed up to the office he brought with him an assortment of odds and ends that he'd brought from home. It turned out that rather than just show the kid what we do, T stayed up late rigging up some simple but cool electricity demonstrations. When the boy got there, T showed him how to make an electromagnet out of a battery and a coil of wire, then proceeded to make a simple DC motor out of a battery, a small screw, a short length of wire, and a small permanent magnet. And if that weren't enough, T's pièce de résistance was a working speaker, made out of a Dixie cup, a length of thread, a magnet, and a coil of wire--he demonstrated how it worked by plugging it into the headphone jack of his computer.

Watching the two of them, I couldn't tell who was enjoying it more, T or the kid. As you might expect, the kid watched raptly and was quite impressed, but what I really noticed was the sheer joy in T's voice as he explained it all.

I used to get excited like that about things like electricity. When I was in the 8th grade, my friend Lee and I built a working telegraph out of some spare parts from our science class, for no other reason than that we thought it would be cool. And it was. Later on, in high school, Lee and I taught ourselves how to solder, and tinkered with basic circuits just for fun. The summer before our senior year we taught ourselves how to program, and stayed up late into the night just talking about code.

Where did all that passion go? I mean, I still have a lot of passion, but none of it seems to be left for my chosen field: engineering. I'm grateful to have a steady job and I like the people I work with. I try to do well in my work, and I'd even say I succeed. But somehow it's just not exciting or even particularly interesting anymore.

When I stop and think about it, though, perhaps it's just that the shine has worn off the job and not the field as a whole. Maybe I've just channeled those same impulses in a different direction. After all, tinkering with photos isn't really so different from tinkering with circuits, when you get right down to it.

I'll say this, too: watching T show off his little homemade creations to that boy really makes me look forward to when I can share that kind of thing with Jason. I just hope that by the time he's old enough to understand it, he's still interested enough in me to listen.

The Good Times Are Over!

I've known this day would come for a while now. My mom has been pestering me about our family tendency toward high cholesterol for years now, but it's never quite made it onto the list of my real concerns. After all, it's not like I was gorging myself on deep-fried or packaged foods, the ones you're always hearing derided on the news. True, I eat fast food a couple of times a month, but it hardly seemed like a regular occurrence, especially compared to the junk-laden diet the "average" American purportedly has. I eat my vegetables, and, heck, I've even been going to the gym semi-regularly.

I probably ought to explain a bit. About six months ago I found out that my primary care doctor was moving to Chicago, which necessitated me finding a new one. I already knew who it would be, since one of the covering doctors I'd seen at the same clinic had struck me as pretty good. I dragged my feet about setting up the new patient appointment, though, which meant I didn't actually get around to meeting the new guy until last week.

We ran through all the normal questions--family medical history (diabetes, cancer, high cholesterol), current problems or medications (none), diet and exercise (OK), weight (could stand to lose some more), and so on. Nothing surprising, and, as always, the vitals and physical were fine. He asked me to stop for a blood draw on the way for metabolic and lipid screening, as well as a vitamin D screening since I mentioned I spend most of my time indoors.

"If anything comes up in your labs I'll call you tomorrow, otherwise you'll get the results in the mail in a week or so," he said.

Tomorrow came and went without a phone call, so I assumed the labs had come back fine, just like always. That turned out to be a little premature, though, as the phone rang on my way out the door Friday morning.

"Turns out you do have a vitamin D deficiency," the doctor said after the initial pleasantries. "I sent a prescription for a loading dose of vitamin D to your pharmacy, so you can start that today or tomorrow." I let my breath out, a little surprised at the tension I'd felt when I heard the doctor's voice greeting me. Vitamin deficiency; I can deal with that.

"Everything else looks fine," he continued. "Liver looks good, HDL cholesterol and lipids are good, LDL is a little borderline but not too high. Sugars are good. Go fill the vitamin D prescription and when the report comes I'll include instructions for the supplements you'll take after you're done with that."

And that was that, I figured. Take a big vitamin dose for a few weeks, some supplements after that, and try to get outside more. Not so bad.

The report showed up in yesterday's mail, and just like the doctor said, there was a vitamin D deficiency and my LDL cholesterol was a little into the "borderline" range. And then there was the recommendation below the table:

"We'd like your LDL to get below 130, preferably below 100. Avoid red meats, eggs, and deep-fried or fast foods. We'd also like to maintain your lipid level in the current range. Avoid desserts and creamy foods."

And just like that, the good times were over.

I told Juliette. "Avoid red meat, desserts, and creamy foods?" she said. "Yikes. Avoid things that taste good, I guess."

I always knew I'd get the "change your diet" note from a doctor eventually, but I figured I had at least until I was 40. Images of thick rib-eye steaks and greasy french fries immediately started dancing in my head, taunting me.

"Well," I said, "I guess this is a good thing, really. Now that it's coming from a doctor, maybe we'll actually have the motivation to stick to a good diet." Juliette agreed. And as we talked about it, the number of changes we'd have to make would be pretty minimal. A little less beef, a little more lean poultry. We already eat a lot of vegetables and don't use a lot of dairy when we cook--in fact, it's pretty common for us to have one or two completely vegetarian meals a week. Nor do any of our normal recipes call for more than a tablespoon of oil. We'll just start skipping desserts again and try to be a little smarter about when and where we eat out. No big deal.

Still, I'd be lying if I said this wasn't weighing on me at all. As much as I love food, it's going to be hard to make even the little changes we talked about. I'll just have to keep reminding myself why I'm doing it.

Ultimately, This Is a Post About Poop

I went into this with the best of intentions.

I remember watching an episode of Six Feet Under with Juliette once, in which one of the characters responds to his brother's morning greeting with a detailed description of his baby daughter's feces. Not in complaint, mind you, or for gross-out value. No, no, this guy was proud of his daughter's poop. This poop was an accomplishment. The best, most interesting poop ever. This is what new (-ish) parents do to their siblings over morning coffee, I guess. Talk about poop.

"Oh God," I said to Juliette with a roll of my eyes. "Is that going to be me some day?"

"If you don't want to be that way, then just don't be that way," she replied.

"I'm not going to be that guy. Please don't let me be that guy."

People, I am that guy.

This morning after breakfast, I was in the middle of composing an email when Jason walked back into the kitchen, his mother having just finished dressing him.

"Owie!" he yelled. I looked over, and he was bent over and holding his crotch.

"Does your penis hurt?" I asked.

"Yeah," he replied. This is not unexpected. He complains about his penis a lot. He also laughs about it a lot. Let's just admit it: the kid likes to talk about his penis. I would normally dismiss this with a kind word and a hug, but it dawns on me that the little step he's doing looks a lot like a pee-pee dance.

"Do you have to go pee pee?" I asked. "Do you want to sit on the potty?"

"Yeah!" he whined back, and ran for the bathroom.

We've been doing this for several weeks now. Jason claims to have to pee, we take him to the bathroom and let him sit on the potty, shortly after which--nothing having happened down below--he declares "All done!" and then wants to go play in the living room. I might have expected this time to play out the same way, but there was a certain, shall we say, urgency to his body language that made me think this might be the time.

It took some coaxing. He was ready to give up early again. I convinced him to sit a little longer, to let the pee out. That's what I actually said to him. "Let the pee pee out, Jason. Push." I honestly never thought I would say those words to anybody. I mean, I guess if you'd asked me, I might have shrugged and said "Yeah, I guess," but it just never crossed my mind. Some day I will be telling someone, in all earnestness, to let the pee pee out.

A little grunting and a look of concentration came and passed. "I did it!" Jason declared.

"Really?" I asked, not quite sure if I believed him. (Jason's idea of truth is a little flexible, you see.)

"Yeah!" he said.

"OK then," I said. "Now stand up, and we'll look and see what you... Whoa, that's not pee pee!" Staring me back at me from the little basin my son just stood up from is a little pile of poop.

And here's the thing: it didn't even occur to me to be grossed out. Quite the contrary; I cheered. "Yay Jason!" I shouted. "You pooped in the potty! What a big boy! I'm so proud of you! Yay!"

If you had asked me five years ago if I would ever be elated to witness someone defecating, I would have wrinkled my nose. Sure, I understood that you have to make a big deal out of successes when you're potty training a child, you have to act like you're excited about it. But surely that's all it would be: a show of positive emotion, masking the underlying truth that I had just had to watch another human take a dump.

Nope. I really was as excited as I sounded. So excited, in fact, that I had to tell you all about it.

Yep, I'm definitely that guy now.

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