Thursday, May 24, 2012

Bissinger's 'Father's Day' Book: Raw, Honest & Page-Turning

* Cross-posted on Mommy Tracked *

Buzz Bissinger doesn't care what you think about his parenting. Honestly. He doesn't. That's what makes his new memoir, Father's Day: A Journey into the Mind & Heart of My Extraordinary Son compellingly different from other parenting books.

Bissinger's candor about his failings and how he responded poorly to his son Zach's "serious intellectual deficits" are bracingly real. He's not trying to impress readers with how empathetic he was or what a fabulous, patient father he can be. He's laying all the ugly stuff out there. He isn't concerned if you judge him because he's already done a number on himself as far as condemnatory judgment is concerned.

Bissinger, the author of the widely acclaimed Friday Night Lights, has three sons, adult twins Gerry and Zach, and the college-aged Caleb. However, Father's Day is focused on Zach, specifically on the cross-country trip Bissinger took with Zach in the summer of 2007 in an attempt to get to know Zach who -- despite the fact that he has child-like comprehensive skills, counts on his fingers and doesn't understand much of what he reads -- still remains emotionally and intellectually out of reach to his father as much as Bissinger wished it were otherwise.

There was a three-minute gap between the birth of Bissinger's son Gerry and his son Zach, born three-and-a-half months premature in 1983 and weighing little more than two pounds apiece. Gerry, who was born first, had stronger lungs than his twin brother Zach and, as Bissinger said, the three minutes between Gerry and Zach's births made all the difference in whether Zach's brain got the oxygen it required. It didn't. Zach was hospitalized for his first seven and a half months on the planet.

The legacy of Zach's birth is something which continues to rattle and anger Bissinger, and had -- prior to the road trip with Zach, which he recorded so he could quote their conversations verbatim -- caused Bissinger to mentally check out to some degree when he was with Zach. "It is the most terrible pain of my life," he said. "As much as I try to engage Zach, figure out how to make the flower germinate because there is a seed, I also run. I run out of guilt. I run because he was robbed and I feel I was robbed. I run because of my shame. I am not proud to feel or say this. But I think these things, not all the time, but too many times, which only increases the cycle of my shame. This is my child. How can I look at him this way?"

The book -- which is sprinkled with anecdotes about Bissinger's relationship with his parents and his own career highs and lows, as well as Bissinger's admission that he has anxiety, depression and "mild bipolarity" -- reads like the script for a buddy road trip movie, as Bissinger drove them to an eclectic assortment of places to which he and Zach had connections and Bissinger frequently lost his cool when he foolishly didn't listen to Zach's suggestions on which roads to take because Zach not only has an unbelievable memory but is something of a human GPS.

Motivated to take this odyssey by fond recollections of road trips with his father, Bissinger tried to capture lightning in a bottle and reconstruct those precious father-son moments with Zach. But Bissinger's attempts to connect frequently left him feeling frustrated. For example, what he thought would be the crowning moment of the trip, a night in Las Vegas, fell apart because Zach was overcome and disinterested. Bissinger was angry and disappointed with his son at first, then he turned the fury on himself. It was a Cirque de Soleil show when Bissinger realized that what he'd thought would be one of the best nights of his son's life was crumbling. "Tears fill my eyes, as I face the fact that, all night long, I have done nothing but push my son beyond all limits of what is reasonable and right," he said. ". . . Everything I have learned from and about him on the trip cannot eradicate that so much will always be overwhelming and incomprehensible to him."

Among the hardest parts to read were those where Bissinger tried to speak candidly with Zach about his disabilities, a subject which Bissinger hadn't really thoroughly discussed with Zach in an attempt to protect him. The scene where they returned to a school where Zach had been treated abysmally -- yet Zach didn't realize he'd been treated badly -- was particularly agonizing for Bissinger because it brought him back to a time and place in his life when he felt unable to adequately help his child.

"There is no rose-colored ending to any of this," Bissinger wrote unflinchingly. "There is no pretty little package with a tidy bow. [Zach] will never drive a car. He will never marry. He will never have children. I still fear for his future . . . He is not the child I wanted. But he is no longer a child anyway. He is a man, the most fearless I have ever known, friendly, funny, freaky, unfathomable, forgiving, fantastic, restoring the faith of a father in all that can be."

The portrait Bissinger painted, of lugging along with them the heavy iron chains of his paternal guilt, a bag full of family photos and haunting memories, did eventually offer a glimmer of, not hope necessarily, but poignancy in the end. At the conclusion of the trip when his son Gerry joined the duo, Bissinger found himself moved by his sons' camaraderie in spite of how differently their lives turned out. "Three minutes does define a life, but never in the way I had always imagined," he said. "So many times I never thought I would get there. But we are a family, all different, sometimes divided, sometimes in pain, but unconquerable."

Image credit: Amazon.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Quick Hits: Remember the Cleats, 'League of Their Own,' Dad-Centric Book & Summer Camp

Cleat Check

Note to self: Ask the kids if they have their cleats and other sports equipment BEFORE driving a half-hour to a game.

It isn't all that fun to race home in order to pick up the forgotten item(s) and then be hounded by panicked cell phone calls and texts as you're making your way back to the field and hoping you don't get a speeding ticket.

A League of Their Own

My campaign to cultivate feminists in my household continued as I showed the kids the movie A League of Their Own, about the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, the first professional women's baseball league started during World War II.

Love this movie. Makes me cry every time.

The Girl said she found it "inspiring," particularly because, as she said, "If they could do that back then [become respected athletes despite naysayers], girls can do it now."

Read Father's Day

I just finished the new book by Buzz Bissinger, author of Friday Night Lights, called Father's Day, about a cross-country road trip he took with one of his adult sons who had suffered brain damage during a traumatic, extremely premature birth. And while I'll write a longer piece about the book later, suffice is to say that it's heart-rending, poignant and a total page-turner.

Summer Camps

For the first time, the three kids have actually said they want to go to a day camp or an activity this summer. They usually want nothing to do with these sorts of things so when they first mentioned it, I did nothing about it. Zip. Nada. Just nodded and continued on with what I was doing.

Only they haven't stopped inquiring. They, apparently, do want to go to something. Is it too late to sign them up for anything? Is this like trying to start and finish your Christmas shopping on December 24?

Image credit: IMDB.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Played Hooky on Mother's Day. And It Was Divine.

We played hooky on Mother's Day, my pal Gayle and I.

We left six kids with their fathers to attend to their various sporting and other sundry activities while we, the moms, went to Fenway Park to see the Boston Red Sox demolish the Cleveland Indians in absolutely ideal baseball weather.

We enjoyed a fresh brew beforehand at the Boston Beer Works (I partook of some Fenway Pale Ale), compared tales of our Mother's Day morns where we both were treated to homemade breakfasts (mine included homemade waffles with cinnamon apple syrup, fresh strawberries and a big, honkin' mug of hot coffee) along with homemade cards and gifts. (I wore one of my new Red Sox T-shirts to the game.)

We sat through the entire baseball game without hearing anyone whine about anything. (I did receive a couple of panicked texts pleading for me to intervene in a dispute one of my offspring had with The Spouse, but I opted to remain above the fray.)

We only shelled out dough for food and drink when we wanted something.

We only visited the restroom when we needed to do so.

After the glorious ball game (the Sox were triumphant, 12-1), those in attendance were invited to take a jaunt on the field (alas, on the perimeter of field, not on the grass). Gayle and I, Sox fans since we were but small children, got to peer into the dugouts, pose next to the Pesky pole, touch the Green Monster (making note of the white and red marks the baseballs left behind when they hit it) and try in vain to see through the narrow opening in the infamous wall. (Pics to come later.)

When we both rejoined our families later that evening, we were both thoroughly content having not rushed nor scurried about trying to appease one small person or another. We didn't witness any parental temper tantrums on the sidelines of a youth sports game. It was a perfect day off from the daily routines of child-rearing, one I didn't realize I needed as badly as I apparently did.

We played hooky on Mother's Day. And we loved it.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

How Worried Should We Be About Soccer Players & Concussions? Should Heading in Soccer Be Banned?

Are they trying to panic us, these experts who are telling us that girls who play soccer rank second behind boys who play football when it comes to the number of concussions they sustain? Brian Williams' primetime news show Rock Center ran two long segments on NBC the other night asserting that girls with long, thin necks are especially susceptible to concussions on the soccer field. They even go as far to label concussions a "crisis" in girls' soccer.

"The number of girls suffering concussions in soccer accounts for the second largest amount of all concussions reported by young athletes, according to the American Journal of Sports Medicine," NBC reported. "Football tops the list."

They quoted the director of sports medicine at a Massachusetts hospital, neurosurgeon Dr. Bob Cantu as saying:

"What's happening in this country is an epidemic of concussions, number one, and the realization that many of these individuals are going to go on to post-concussion syndrome, which can alter their ability to function at a high level for the rest of their lives."

So what does this mean for our soccer playing daughters, and our sons for that matter? For my 13-year-old daughter who idolizes Abby Wambach and Mia Hamm? We know that participating in sports is extremely beneficial for girls, so what are sports parents supposed to do with this scary information?

Dr. Cantu recommends banning heading in soccer for athletes 14 and younger. I'm very cool with that. (I cringe every time a kids' head makes contact with a soccer ball.) He also suggests that if girls have "very long, thin necks" they should go through a "neck strengthening program if they're playing a collision sport." Say what now? What's a neck strengthening program? Shouldn't youth soccer leagues be made aware of these things and implement them, maybe get pediatricians on board?

I've already informed my two soccer resident players, much to their horror, that I don't want them heading the soccer ball any more. (My son went bananas and said my irrational dictate would be responsible for him getting kicked off his recreational soccer team, something echoed by a female soccer player in the NBC interview). Other than banning heading and promoting neck strengthening exercises, about which I'm still unclear, what else are we supposed to do?

The NBC reporter Kate Snow and the Rock Center host Brian Williams have had or do have children who play soccer and didn't have many suggestions except for parents to be on the look out for symptoms of concussions. "We're not down on soccer," Snow said. ". . . If something looks wrong . . . take the kid out of the game, wait it out. It's better to be safe than sorry."

Here's the link to the Centers for Disease Control page on concussions, including the symptoms for which parents of youth athletes are supposed to look.

This Cover Doesn't Promote Breastfeeding. It Exploits it.

*Cross-posted from Notes from the Asylum.*


What the heck is up with that "Are you MOM enough?" headline? And, for that matter, what would possess Time Magazine's editors to pair such a shamelessly Mommy Wars-baiting kind of question with an intentionally salacious (not maternal, not nurturing) image of a nearly 4-year-old boy, who's identified by name, standing on a chair with his mouth on his slender, tank top attired twentysomething mother's exposed breast?

This cover is not about provoking a rationale discussion or even a lively debate about the pros and cons of attachment parenting or extended breastfeeding, two subjects certainly worthy of intellectual dissection. The cover isn't, as the editors claim, simply promoting the lead story inside the magazine which profiles America's leading attachment parenting advocate, who happens to be a seventysomething pediatrician. It's about titillation. Yeah, I said that.

Once you get past the cover, the magazine's lead story is entitled, "The Man Who Remade Motherhood." The accompanying articles (available for Time subscribers and on sale tomorrow on newsstands) are about Dr. Bill Sears and his attachment parenting philosophy which includes the promotion of extended breastfeeding through at least the first year of a baby's life and beyond, co-sleeping with the baby, not letting a baby "cry it out" and wearing the baby around in a baby sling. Other articles include a woman's tale of extended breastfeeding and a token analysis of attachment parenting and comparing its tenets to what science has discerned by studying its practice. Again, I think that these are important subjects to assess, particularly when it comes to tension between attachment parenting and the ability of women to work outside the home.

However that cover does a disservice to breastfeeding and flouts what breastfeeding advocates repeatedly say about it: It's not sexual and we need to get beyond seeing breasts as sexual objects and recognize that they're purposeful, functional parts of the female anatomy after a woman has a baby.

I'm a very low-key breastfeeding advocate, having nursed my babies for a long time, and think women should be able to do it wherever and whenever they and/or their babies need to. But this cover isn't about all of that. It's about newsstand sales. The magazine's editors should be embarrassed by their craven exploitation of this woman and her son, whose friends will be able to Google this image of him, at almost 4, suckling his mother's breast. Did anybody think about the impact of this photo on the kid?

Image credit: Time Magazine.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Preparing My Daughter to Take on the World

I sat down with my 13-year-old daughter the other day with the intent of revolutionizing her, or, at the very least, stoking embers of the fire which I hope will eventually energize her to take on the world.

We watched the documentary Miss Representation together. I've written about this film before and, even upon my second viewing, found that it remains a powerful indictment of the media of which I am a part. Miss Representation chronicles the long lasting impact of media sexism on our young women -- in coverage of women in politics, the denigration of women as sex objects, the sidelining of women's stories in news, sports and entertainment, and the media's emphasis on pleasing and catering to the male viewer/reader/consumer even though women watch more TV, go to more films and have control over 70+ percent of U.S. consumer spending.

The documentary presents statistic after wearying statistic which, when taken as a whole, paint a dire picture about the paucity of women in politics, the silence of women's voices in the halls of leadership (politics, business, media) and the lack of multi-faceted, intelligent, non-sex object protagonists in films and TV shows.

For every Hillary Clinton, Sarah Palin, Nancy Pelosi and Condoleezza Rice, there are thousands of media talking heads and bloggers who want to make hay by tearing them down based on how they look and what they wear. You need to search no further for a relevant example of this than to the current internet hubbub over the fact that our Secretary of State dared to go out in public wearing no makeup except for lipstick. I blogged about the insanity here.

For every popular portrayal of an authentic, flawed, realistic woman on the screen (The Good Wife, Grey's Anatomy, Nurse Jackie), the number of shallow depictions of women, particularly those which reduce women to body parts or as subservient to men, vastly outnumber the complex ones, by epic proportions.

But I didn't want watching this documentary to be a downer for my daughter. And it wasn't. It got her angry. It got her motivated to do something about this, to not fall prey to the messages with which she's bombarded about how she should look and dress, what she should want and how she should act.

She was already well on her way to speaking out against this. When assigned to write a persuasive essay recently, she chose to write about how women's sports should receive more attention and coverage in the media after pointing out to me that the women's collegiate basketball tournament games didn't receive a fraction of the coverage the men's hoop tournament received. (She's a hoopster and wanted to read about her role models, just like her brothers could.) Additionally, when she looked up scores and info in the newspapers, she found that the games for female college athletes were listed well inside the papers (if at all) and were designated as being part of the "women's" NCAA hoop tournament versus how the men's scores were presented, as part of the generic "NCAA basketball tournament," you know, the "regular" and only real tournament because it was the male one to which everyone is referring when they ask, "Did you fill out your brackets?" The tournament for women hoop players didn't get that kind of publicity. The women's tournament is an also-ran, insignificant by comparison, and wow, did that tick my daughter off.

We'd both rather see the likes of this -- an online profile of fantastic soccer superstar Abby Wambach who is smart, talented, hardworking and fearless -- than insulting attempts to try to yield web traffic with headlines like, "PHOTOS: Dakota's Very, Very Low-Rise Jeans" (about actress Dakota Fanning's pants) or "Inside Octomom's Adult Film Shoot," both stories which were found on a prominent mainstream news site today.

Image credits: Amazon and espnW

Thursday, May 3, 2012

What Real Mothers Look Like

Stop what you're doing.


Go to YouTube and watch BirthMarkings, a short film by documentary filmmaker Margaret Lazarus that's currently being featured on the online International Museum of Women's exhibit entitled, "Mama: Motherhood Around the Globe."

It's a 20-minute video comprised of women talking about the scars, loose skin and extra bulk that was left behind on their bodies after they gave birth. The video is remarkable in that it's incredibly simple yet its message is deafening.

As you hear women talk about what they've felt and experienced during and after childbirth -- from hating their postpartum bodies, fearing that they'll never be seen as sexually attractive and worrying that they don't think they look good, to accepting their new shape as badges of maternal honor and reminders of their happiness that they'd been able to experience pregnancy -- you see only their bare midriffs, their arms and hands and hips. These are images we're not typically shown in art, on television, in photography, in films, in media, not in our Photoshopped world. We don't often see the authentic post-pregnancy bodies of other women unless we happen to be in the medical profession. The only one I see is my own in the mirror. (Two of my three kids were twins, so believe me, I know of what I speak.)

Interspersed with these compelling and refreshingly honest images, we see images of nature that resemble the physical maternal transformation, the streaked sands of the beach once the tide has receded, twisted regal tree trunks, vibrant streams piercing rocky terrain. They're beautiful in nature, no doubt that most would agree on that, but we're sent the message that to see something similar and just as natural on actual women is shameful, embarrassing and ugly.

Women who struggle with loose post-pregnancy abdominal skin and stretch marks have not been sent the message that the way our bodies look is normal and that many people bear the permanent marks of pregnancy while a few emerge relatively unscathed. Many, myself included, feel as though the way our abdomens appear must be some kind of aberration or else why wouldn't we have seen others like ours?

It only makes matters worse that the media are saturated with countless images of celebrity mothers whose only job is to "bounce back into shape" after having a baby. (If they don't, God help them as the tabloids and snarky web sites hound them mercilessly.) However these are women who have personal trainers, nannies, nutritionists, personal chefs, housekeepers and, most importantly, plastic surgeons at their disposal. This isn't the life experience of the average American mother who's just trying to get through the day.

Where there is enormous pressure on celebrity moms to return to their sexy pre-baby state -- even if a surgeon's knife is required -- it's kind of masochistically unrealistic for us to compare our bodies to theirs. Honestly, I don't live Jennifer Lopez's kind of life but when I see images and videos of her, a woman who's my age and who also has twins, I admit that it doesn't make me feel so great, particularly when she flashes her taut abs on the beach. Even if I went bananas with crunches and diets, my stretch marks and loose skin would remain, unless I had surgery, which doesn't interest me.

The question that Lazarus' short video asks is why would women consider surgery to eliminate the physical reminders that our bodies once housed and nurtured children? Is it because we don't see other women who have stomachs like ours? Because we've been trained by society and the media to feel badly about what happens to our bodies after childbirth?

The answers to those questions are definitely as provocative as the questions.