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THE DAD FILES: Smile For the Camera

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Jack (foreground) smiles for the camera.

In the run-up to having twins, I spent about half my time thinking about the adventure my wife and I were starting. I spent the rest worrying.
I bear the great misfortune, and blessing, of hyper-vigilance.
The upside is that when something goes wrong, I am rarely caught entirely unaware. By the time anything goes wrong I’ve usually figured out all the painful possibilities. The downside, which occurs more frequently, is that I worry about events that haven’t happened yet and, usually, won’t.       Meditation, which I learned while writing Fringe-ology, helped tremendously. But watching my wife’s belly swell with our twins overwhelmed me to the point that focusing on my breath, or observing my thoughts and letting them pass away, often proved impossible.

In the weeks and months before the children were born, I worried that they might have some birth defect. My wife and I were both around 40 years old, increasing the chances something would go wrong. I feared becoming responsible for a baby that might never grow to be responsible for itself, and worried that my anxiety somehow reflected a small heart, a diminished capacity for fatherhood.

I also spent a lot of time worrying about the changes in my own life. I love my work, writing and reporting, and feared giving up my ability to drop everything and get on a train or plane to go conduct interviews. I’ve always held that being a journalist is a rare privilege, and the thought of giving up some of the adventures the job provides scared me. These thoughts, too, suggested that I might not be cut out for this—that having kids might turn out to be the biggest mistake of my life.

I’ve been reflecting on this period of time a lot lately because Lisa and I were fortunate enough to have two healthy boys, fraternal twins we named Jack and Eli. They turned two years old at the end of July, and their vocabularies seem to expand every week.

Most of their speech is primitive. “Daddy—milk,” means “Give me milk.”
But recently, I learned just how much they understand beyond what they can say.

Because the boys are fraternal twins, they do display strikingly different personalities. Eli, for instance, is pretty much oblivious to cameras. From the beginning, however, Jack stopped whatever he was doing as soon as he saw us pull out our smart phones. The result is that a lot of wonderful moments escape into memory. The time Jack walked with one of my shoes on one foot and one of my wife’s slippers on the other? Gone forever. The time he sat on the couch with his stuffed monkey encircled in one arm and a toy car balanced on his head. That’s gone, too.

For parents, these are the every day joys we want to capture on film, to look at—and cry—after our sons leave for college. But Jack prevented us from taking so many pictures that I took to referring to the sweetest things our children do as “Bigfoot sightings.”

Whatever pictures we did get were too blurry to discern, as Jack waved his little hands furiously in front of his face.

“No picture!” he shouted. “No picture!”

Finally, I was so frustrated enough to try something radical: I talked to him about it.

One morning, as I sat with my sons and ate some eggs I’d fried up for the three of us, I started the conversation.

“Jack,” I said. “Do you know how you always stop mom and dad from taking pictures?”

“Yes,” he said, still chewing.

“Do you know why mom and dad want to take pictures of you and Eli?”

“Yesssss!” he said again.

“I’m not sure you do,” I said.

I paused for a moment and checked to see that both boys were listening.
“Mom and dad take pictures,” I continued, “because we love you and Eli so much. And we think you’re so cute that we want to be able to look at as many pictures of you as we can, forever. Some day you’ll ask to see them, too, so we want them for you and for us because we love you that much.”

“Yessss,” Jack said.

“So Jack,” I said, “will you please let us take pictures of you now?”

“Yesss,” he said again.

Intellectually, I wasn’t sure if the conversation worked. He is on the early side of two, after all. But emotionally, in what passed between my gaze and his, I felt a shared understanding click into place. I leaned over and sealed the deal with a kiss I planted on top of his head. Then I kissed Eli. A few minutes later, I started taking pictures. For the first time ever, Jack looked right into the camera and smiled.

A few days later, Lisa told me the conversation really worked. She showed me a bunch of pictures she shot in which, she said, Jack “cheesed for the camera”—smiling as broadly as he could.

This talk with Jack taught me a lot. Our boys are two now. They are past infancy. They understand a lot of what we’re saying, and as parents we need to respect that.

That talk also filled with me with that sense of satisfaction so peculiar to parenthood—when a small, private victory fills me with an almost otherworldly sense of accomplishment. This particular little expression of love and understanding showed me how far I’ve traveled in a very short time.

Before Eli and Jack were born, I worried mostly about escaping them—about finding time to carry on my career, about finding some way to bear up under the weight of caring for them till they’d grown. Two years later, I no longer worry about getting away. The time apart comes when it’s necessary. And when I am out of town, I feel a small ache. I wish I could reach out and touch them, could see them and confirm their happiness. I still worry. But now I worry about deepening our relationship, about making sure they know I bear the responsibility of their care gladly. I can see the toddlers they are, the infants they were and the adults they’ll become. And I worry about preserving our memories.

Troubled Man

John Mellencamp has quietly set about building a later period career that eclipses his early work. I haven’t had the chance to listen to his new album yet but the single is arresting—his voice haggard and worn, the lyrics conjuring a mythically bleak, malevolent figure, “I won’t do anything but hurt you if I can.”
Such sobering material isn’t normally what we put on repeat. Yet “Troubled Man” has such depth to it that there seems little choice but play it again and again, trying to sort through the various levels of mourning, beauty and acceptance Mellencamp—a painter—has layered into the song.

The Misery Parade

DrKermitGosnellKermit Gosnell won’t ever go away. A longtime Philadelphia abortion provider, Gosnell was convicted in 2013 of inducing the live birth of three viable babies—past the legal gestational age for abortion—and killing them in his West Philadelphia medical office.

The details of the case against Gosnell, reported in the most blood-soaked fashion in a thick Grand Jury report, hardly even matter at this stage. What counts are the images left behind. Here in Pennsylvania, the Republican Party is currently trying to tie Gosnell to Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tom Wolf. Never mind that Wolf, who I profiled for Philadelphia Magazine, is pro choice but bears no direct links to any aspect of the case. Opponents mailed out fliers with pictures of Wolf and Gosnell, asking: “Will Pro-abortion Tom Wolf take us back?”

This morning, an Associated Press report on the flier doesn’t mention that prosecutors had enough evidence to charge Gosnell with seven murders. Instead, the article quotes from the Grand Jury report, where prosecutors estimated that he killed “hundreds” of babies by inducing their live birth and snipping their necks with scissors.

I understand how the distinction between the initial report, the charges and the actual convictions seems unimportant now. The images raised at Gosnell’s trial, of large, healthy looking babies, past 24 weeks gestation, with gashes in their necks from his surgical scissors, were that powerful. Few convicts, of any kind, commit crimes so horrifying that television news reporters advise parents to usher children from the room before commencing. Gosnell chased kids from the room for months as his case wound through the courts. Besides, for a man to stab three newborns suggests he’d be willing to stab hundreds more. And maybe he did.

I attended Gosnell’s trial and remain the only reporter to have interviewed him after his conviction. He called me from prison, more nights than not, for many weeks. Even from jail, he conveyed such an elevated sense of himself that it was easy to see how he started playing God. He criticized the prosecutors, his own defense attorney and the judicial system. He portrayed himself as a victim of the culture wars. What became clear to me is that, long before he was arrested, he declared war, too. He believed so ardently in abortion rights that he ignored the law prohibiting abortion after 24 weeks whenever he thought it necessary. He also casually mistreated the women in his care, making neglect a part of his business model. Most notoriously, he instructed unlicensed staff to dispense strong doses of narcotics and anesthetics to his abortion patients. At trial, he was convicted of involuntary manslaughter in the death of one woman, Karnamaya Mongar, who was killed by the drugs administered during her abortion. Her daughter testified in court, and maintained her dignity even as she cried and cried and cried.

I wrote an e-single about Gosnell, in 2013, and usually I’d have re-read it once or twice by now. The crazy-making nature of writing long, nonfiction pieces is that we can always torture ourselves by looking back at past work to see what we’d do differently today. But thus far, I just can’t bring myself to pick that story up again. The Gosnell trial was a parade of human misery, and in some respects it doesn’t really seem to be over.

His name is now a touchstone in the culture wars, and I’d expect his story to be recycled in various ways for a long, long time. But more importantly, the images projected at trial just don’t fade.

The Jamiroquai Conundrum

I ran across this item last week and wanted to share. I confess. In the mid-90s, I happily watched whenever a Jamiroquai video appeared on MTV. The music station still played music in those days, and Jamiroquai seemed built to rule the medium—thin and scruffy as any vagabond, and born to dance like, well, like no one was watching. And that was sort of the rub right there. I lived alone in those days, and always had the creeping sense that somehow Jamiroquai’s spacey disco thrum was a guilty pleasure—not to be taken seriously as any sort of advance for funk or anything else. Would I have watched Jamiroquai just as happily if one of my friends was over? I suspect I might have watched the video and my friend at the same time, to see if they were entertained or succumbing to the same heebie jeebies ‘ole Jay Kay gave me.

So, with all that as background, I was stunned to find, after all of these years, others struggle with the same feelings around Jamiroquai. The Guardian ran this piece, in which the writer wonders “Why does nobody reference Jamiroquai?” and quotes Pharrell Williams—a guy at the tippy top of the game—admitting he digs that Jay Kay space funk, too, but feels like he shouldn’t cop to those feelings.

Well, to hell with it. “Canned Heat” features more dancing, but the above, “Virtual Insanity” still sounds, 17 years later, like a hit—and a fine set-up for a Friday.

 

“Born Lazy”

Rep. Paul Ryan really stepped in it today, and probably did so deliberately.

s-PAUL-RYAN-WORKOUT-large640“We have got this tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular, of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning the value and the culture of work, and so there is a real culture problem here that has to be dealt with,” he said on Bill Bennett’s “Morning In America.” radio show.

Think Progress has a recording here.

Ryan even upped the ante by name-checking Charles Murray, a social scientist who has suggested that poverty shall be forever with us because, well, “a lot of people are born lazy.”

This is an old Republican meme, which I find particularly scandalous. I’ve covered a lot of stories in the poorest neighborhoods of Philadelphia, one of the poorest cities in America; and when I travel to these communities on a weekday I consistently find a world that would undoubtedly surprise Paul Ryan and Charles Murray, too. For one thing, a lot of people are out, working. I also find that most of the people who are home or out in the street are happy to talk to me, often about wanting a job. I’ve sat and talked to many young men about the vast difficulty of landing employment. Many of these men face problems getting hired for a variety of reasons—from no high school diploma, to criminal records, to the lack of established businesses nearby. Simply put, there are lots and lots of inner city men out there papering the city with job applications without getting a call back. And even writing all of this feels silly. Because I am amazed that there are people, let alone elected leaders, who don’t understand all this already.

We could talk about a lot of issues that contribute to this crisis. There are exceptions but most of this city’s public schools are notoriously bad. Poor kids face sanctions for drug use that well-off kids, who I’ve watched stroll through North Philly for heroin, simply don’t. But there is another, deeper issue here, which I’ve written about in a couple of places in the past: Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

The same problem that afflicts so many of our war veterans runs rampant through our neighborhoods. And it’s one more reason these communities struggle. You can read about that here.

UPDATE: Beep! Beep! Beep! Ryan is backing off these comments.

DadFiles: Breastfeeding Benefits Overstated

Though there are men who’ve tried (for real), I declined to breastfeed my children. My wife, however, refused to be stopped. I look back at what she EandJ13April2Copyaccomplished, in terms of pushing past pain and the burden on her time, with unyielding admiration. Most women with twins fail to breastfeed past six months. Lisa went for a year. She read the research and believed breastfeeding would better our childrens’ lives, forever. So did I. But I also deferred the decision to her, advising her when I thought she should bag it and supporting her every time she thought different.

Over the years, breastfeeding has been linked to a host of long-term benefits: improved body mass index (BMI); lower rates of asthma, obesity, allergies, illness and hyperactivity; and greater parental attachment. The only thing breastfeeding doesn’t seem to do is cure cancer. That said, breastfeeding may reduce the risk of developing breast cancer. So there’s that.

         The problem was that breastfeeding was hard. Our twins, like most multiples, were born one month early, rendering them weak and making breastfeeding a greater challenge. Plus, they were tongue-tied.

My wife also developed two separate cases of mastitis, a breastfeeding-related infection. She grew feverish, shivering and slurring her speech. The episodes frightened me out of my mind. But now the boys are 19 months old, happy and healthy, and a bombshell of a study just dropped.

         Assistant professor of sociology Cynthia Colen, at The Ohio State University, looked at data involving 8,237 children, 7,319 siblings and 1,773 “discordant” sibling pairs. The “discordant” kids category is the important one: These children hailed from 665 surveyed families in which at least one child was breast-fed, while at least one other child was bottle-fed. The children who were differently fed in the same family represented about 25 percent of the siblings in the data.

         Colen looked at health outcomes for these children, at ages four through 14, and found no statistically significant advantages to breastfeeding whatsoever. (In fact, breastfed children were more likely to have asthma.) The study’s conclusion is that the previous literature, extolling the long-term health benefits of breastfeeding on children, was mythical—an illusion brought on by other factors: “Many previous studies suffer from selection bias,” Cohen said in a statement announcing the paper. “They either do not or cannot statistically control for factors such as race, age, family income, mother’s employment – things we know that can affect both breast-feeding and health outcomes. Moms with more resources, with higher levels of education and higher levels of income, and more flexibility in their daily schedules are more likely to breast-feed their children and do so for longer periods of time.”  

         I expect a lot of people who pushed themselves to breastfeed, despite any obstacle, reacted to this study with frustration. But my advice is not to overreact.  

         Even the study author says that breastfeeding has clear health benefits for newborns. The advantages for the mother are also untouched by this new study.

         Our babies stayed surprisingly healthy, even during the period of time when breastfeeding was hard for them and they struggled to put on weight. Given that my wife and I catch whatever colds they get, I can only imagine how devastating a simple cough and stuffy nose might have been for all of us during those first six- or seven months, when the boys still woke up to eat at 10 p.m., 1 a.m. and 4 a.m.

         We also need to wait, as we always do, where science is concerned, to see if this data proves to be as authoritative as it seems. I have no doubt there are a dozen or more researchers out there who’ve built their careers and reputations on studies that demonstrate the long-term health benefits of breastfeeding. Chances are, they will go rooting through the data themselves, looking for some flaw, or construct some new study of their own to test these latest findings. This may not sound like science in its ideal form, but I am of the opinion that science is among the many things that rarely proceeds according to its ideals. And in this sense, a healthy dose of “punctured ego” can actually help to vet and validate new science.

         If the results do hold up, I wonder if there isn’t a valuable lesson here in how quick we are to accept a finding as “scientific.” For a decade or more, the medical profession and media inundated us with “data”, and urged new moms to breastfeed despite any obstacle they might encounter because the “gift” of breastfeeding a child would last a lifetime.

And now?

It looks as if the much of the medical profession and science media has been caught out attributing long-term beneficial health effects to the wrong cause. Perhaps breastfeeding, in this instance, was also a good way for all of us to increase our humility.

 

Books and Babies

EliandJFloorThe last few years of my life are easily my most productive. I wrote and published Fringe-ology, rejoined the staff of Philadelphia Magazine and received a pile of City and Regional Magazine Award nominations, including writer of the year. I also published two e-singles in 2013. Obsessed: The Compulsions and Creations of Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz came out in late summer (in conjunction with Philadelphia), followed by Gosnell’s Babies: Inside the Mind of America’s Most Notorious Abortion Doctor (Discover). I continued to promote Fringe-ology, when the opportunity presented itself, including an appearance on the Joe Rogan Experience. And of course, my wife and I also had two babies—fraternal twin boys named Jack and Eli. A good friend told me they are my best work and I don’t disagree. Parents always believe their own children are the greatest. Now I know they’re all wrong because mine are. (You’d be shocked by how many parents take jokes like this seriously.) The little critters are pictured above, with Eli on the left and Jack to the right.

The future is more unpredictable than ever. On a large scale, I’m concerned about this country’s economy and the planet’s climate. But on a micro-scale I am looking forward to the future with more excitement and confidence. I recently asked my editor at Philadelphia Magazine to shift me to a “writer at large” position, allowing me to pursue more outside projects, and I’m sifting through those now. As long as the water doesn’t rise above our heads, the coming years should bring more books, e-singles, articles and some surprises. 

The only aspect of my career I feel bad about is this blog, which I’ve neglected. But no more. I am giving myself more freedom than ever in terms of what I’ll be posting here. I called this blog The Generalist for a reason, and in the coming weeks, months and years I’ll write on an increasingly wide range of topics—from books and writing to fatherhood, science, the paranormal, football, music and whatever else comes up.

Thanks for watching this space.

 

My Street

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The hype surrounding this morning’s snowfall in Philadelphia proved more powerful than the storm itself. But I did get this lovely view along my street this morning. Incredibly, the 10-12 inches called for earlier in the week’s forecasts proved about four times too emphatic. The final snowfall ran just over three inches and was, by 5 p.m., mostly gone.

Whee!

summer_karly_swingThe boys are big enough now, at one year old, to take out on the town. So the other day, me and Lisa took Eli and Jack to a nearby park, on Washington Avenue, with a bouncy, fall-safe surface and swings that include back support for toddlers.

Lisa has a thing for swings. Throughout our dating and married life, when the opportunity presents itself, she insists on clambering into a swing for me to push her. So the swings were our destination, Lisa pushing Eli, me pushing Jack. I am starting to think I show promise at this dad thing. I am goofy, gentle, goofy, affectionate, goofy, patient and goofy. But my wife is a brilliant mom, and the boys can hardly look at her without smiling. So, while I stood there just pushing Jack she talked and got the boys babbling back. “Whee!” she said as she pushed Eli, and before long Eli started calling, in little gusts of breath, “Wheee!”

He smiled contentedly as he reclined in the swing, repeating “whee,” which now stands up there with “Da-Da” and “ma” as the third word he has ever spoken. And I had to stop myself from crying.

Overall, before the boys were even born, I considered myself pretty lucky in life: I am healthy, I love my job, my wife is my best friend, and I’ve generally felt like, since I turned 30, life got a little better with every passing year. But, prior to the boys, the pleasures of life were largely familiar to me. To be clear, eating a delicious pizza is very different than, say, reading a great book, but they can be measured on the same scale, say, from 1 to 10. When Eli said “whee,” that first time, I started to cry because I was overwhelmed. I’d never felt this much joy, in so concentrated a fashion, and merely by observing someone else in a happy moment. And to put this feeling in perspective, I needed an entirely new scale, a new unit of measurement.

We took a long walk the next day, to get ice cream. I pushed the boys in their stroller, fast fast fast, and though no one else had used the word Eli started to call, unbidden, “Whee! Whee!”

Maybe an hour later, after ice cream and the trip back home, he sat on his butt, playing idly with a pair of rubber blocks, and called, smiling, “Wheee! Whee!”

Just days shy of his first birthday, Eli had learned to apply the third word in his vocabulary not just to the rush of motion he felt on a swing or in a stroller but to moments of happiness. And he was not afraid to use it.

I cried twice that second day, without holding back. And I wasn’t just crying over my son’s happiness. I was crying because I was experiencing something important. Because I was learning that, when we are as unencumbered as a one year old—before we are self-conscious enough to stifle our feelings, before we are buried in responsibilities so deep that we spend most of our time thinking about what’s next as opposed to right now—the pure unfiltered experience of “whee!” is available to us.

I cried because in this little exclamation my son made that experience available to me again. With the little gusts of his breath, he blew all my shit away—my bloated self-importance, my concern with my next appointment, my preoccupation with tomorrow—so that I felt free; so that every time he uttered this one word I simply felt—without any concern, or care, at all.

Valentine’s Day

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The New Musical Express just published a boffo write up on how David Bowie’s new video, for “Valentine’s Day,” takes on Charlton Heston and the NRA. I thought there were a couple of odd poses in this video…