Thursday, November 23, 2006


I just finished Brooklyn Follies by Paul Auster. It was a very enjoyable read, only took me four days. And it was a happy book, truly a rare thing in literature.

Monday night I was part of a wonderful dinner with the children. I didn’t realize how great it was until it was almost over and I also realized how common those types of meals are for us. Long and leisurely, with lively, interesting conversation. We don’t have them every night, and maybe not even every week, but I’d say at least once every two weeks we have a well-prepared three course meal where the whole family sits around talking contentedly for at least an hour. It’s a wonderful thing, and rarely planned. The type of experience I know I shouldn’t take for granted. Some moments in life I need to savor. And I do, I do.

The only thing different about this particular meal was that my wife was not there. She has been out of the country for nearly six weeks taking care of her father as he lays dying. He has been in bad shape for a long time now, going in and out of comas. He has improved a little since she has been there though he will never fully recover, or even communicate. She said she saw them turn him over and the bed sores were so terrible her knees buckled and she almost fell. It appears that he will not die before she returns, which is unfortunate. She had expected him to die early in the six weeks. She thought she would both make the funeral arrangements and attend it, but such will not be the case. It’s very hot there and rains pretty much every day. She is not having a good time.

It’s odd that we haven’t missed her that much. I was traumatized when she left and spent the first few days drinking heavily in my room, letting the kids fend for themselves. But that got old fast and we settled back into our normal rhythm. I cook a well-balanced dinner pretty much every night and we have our leisurely meals. It’s not that we don’t like her, we do, but for some reason we don’t get upset when one of us is away. I guess that represents emotional security. We do care about each other. I was only bothered at first because I would have to pay the bills and manage the kids’ schedules. Not that I mind, but these are important things and I am just not good at them. But I’ve done okay. As long as she doesn’t extend her stay, our credit will probably not be ruined. And the kids have done fine. Aged seven and 14, they’re pretty much self-maintaining these days. They do their homework without prodding and get themselves ready for school.

I have been blessed with a great family, a fact which bothers those who know me from childhood no end. Given my behavior as a child, the fact that my children are abnormally well behaved is proof that there is no God. Many predicted that some day I would learn what it was like to put up with a brat like me. And in a perfect universe, that would have been my just desserts. But it is not a perfect world.

Last year in the United States, about 1.6 million children and teenagers — 280,000 of them under age 10 — were given at least two psychiatric drugs in combination, according to an analysis performed by Medco Health Solutions at the request of The New York Times. More than 500,000 were prescribed at least three psychiatric drugs. More than 160,000 got at least four medications together, the analysis found.

That, according to an article in this morning’s New York Times.
Fate Riske, 3, of Fond du Lac, Wis., takes two antipsychotics and a sleeping medicine to control what her mother, Elizabeth Klein-Riske, said were hours-long tantrums, a desire to watch the same movies repeatedly and an insistence on eating the meat, cheese and bread in her sandwiches separately.

That information just makes me sick. What child doesn’t want to watch the same movies repeatedly? What child doesn’t play with food? I don’t know about the tantrums. My educated guess from the information available would be “bad parenting,” but whatever the child was trying to communicate, it shouldn’t have been translated as “give me drugs, and lots of them.”

I have no doubt whatsoever that if I were growing up today, they would have put me on meds. I threw tantrums for as long as it was necessary to get what I wanted. I wouldn’t eat a sandwich without cutting off the crust! And I could give another hundred examples of genuine bad behavior. Stimulants, anti-depressants, anti-pyschotics, anti-convulsives -- I’m sure the would have thrown the pharmacy at me.

And I’m equally sure of the results. Just like the poor kids in the article, I would have been docile for awhile, then exhibited weird behavior when my body and brain got used to the dosages, then totally flipped out if they stopped the meds.
Joanne Johnson of Hillsborough, N.J., described a psychiatrist’s effort to wean her 17-year-old son, Brad, off of all five of his psychiatric medicines as “the biggest mistake of our lives.”

Brad, then 13, became suicidal and was hospitalized for weeks, Ms. Johnson said.

“He went into the hospital on five drugs and came out on five different ones, but he was unstable,” she said. “It took a little over two years to find the right match again.”

Brad is now taking lithium, an antipsychotic, an anticonvulsant, an antidepressant, a stimulant and a sleeping pill.

“He’ll probably be on these for the rest of his life,” Ms. Johnson said.

Of course I didn’t need a quack doctor to prescribe me all that crap. It was the seventies and I was, as they say, self-medicated as a teenager. At one time or another, I took all those classes of drugs. Various amphetamines, Valium, Quaaludes, Nembutal, Tuanol, I forget the name of the anti-convulsant that was popular, and everything else we could find in our parents’ medicine cabinets. All that along with weed and alcohol. I didn’t go over the cliff like so many others, but I could see the chasm. So I know from where I speak.

The conscious reason we (I had a lot of friends) drank and took drugs was because it was fun, but I now see that there were underlying psychological problems. Some of our parents were divorced, others alcoholic, many prescription drug-addled from some combination of diet pills and tranquilizers, all dysfunctional in one or many ways. Everyone was at least spanked and yelled at. Some beaten more severely. And we lived in a small town hell-hole with lots of small people in it. School was not challenging, to put it mildly.

Fortunately, I came out of all that okay. I never became a drug addict or an alcoholic. I went on to college and eventually became part of a healthy family. But that outcome was hardly assured. I could very easily have fucked up my life. A lot of people I know did. And nowadays, as the Times article illustrates, there are plenty of doctors who get paid lots of money to fuck up kids’ lives. I’m sure that if I been diagnosed as mentally ill at a young age and put on a drug regime like the poor kids described in the Times article, I’d be dead or a mess now. Most likely dead.

So of course when I had kids of my own I did not want them to go through any of that. I examined my own life, did quite a bit of research on brain development, and my wife and I came up with our own plan. First, and this should be obvious to everybody, we never hit them and tried very hard not to yell at them or humiliate them in any way. When they were babies, the kids got whatever they wanted. When they were hungry they were fed, when they wanted to be held, they were held, when they wanted attention, they got it, when they cried, they got sympathy. And on the flip side, if they weren’t hungry, they didn’t have to eat and if they weren’t sleepy, they didn’t have to go to bed. When they were babies, there was never any contention between us.

Then when the kids were very young and could understand words and reason, we had a few simple rules for which there were no exceptions. The most important rule was that, regarding things such as toys or candy, whining or crying would not get them what they wanted. Not once. Not ever. We did not get angry when they whined or cried. We did not yell at them or try to humiliate them in any way, much less hit them. In fact, we were sympathetic to their feelings, but we never, ever, rewarded whining or crying for material things. And for that, we were rewarded with children who did not whine and rarely cried.

And we educated them, I think fairly well, for whatever level they were at. We were never the neurotic super parents, but we spent a lot of time with the kids and talked to them a lot. That, it seems, is a better predictor of educational success than getting bent out of shape with the latest educational gadgets and tutoring. We’ve also lived in places with a lot of culture, things to do, and great natural beauty. I think place matters as well, at least if you use it. I’m sure it helps.

Up to this point at least, and I’m knocking wood, all this has worked very well. The kids are happy. They are nice. They do very well in school and, more importantly. love it, They have good friends who are happy as well. My daughter is fifteen and has never smoked, drank, or taken drugs. I don’t doubt that she will be exposed to sex, weed and alcohol in the next few years, but all signs point to her being able to make intelligent decisions. We’ll see, but at least she’s been happy till now. Not every 15-year-old can say that.

I don’t know if it’s some kind of genetic luck or our enlightened parenting, but I suspect it’s quite a bit more of the latter. My niece is an unfortunate example. She is at least as smart and talented as my daughter and has a lot of the same genes. But her parents divorced when she was six years old and to punish her mother, her father refused to see or speak to the child for many years. My sister remarried well and my niece grew up with all the material things a child could ever hope for. But they are not enlightened parents and the girl is horribly unhappy. She does poorly in school, fights constantly with her parents. Recently she began cutting her arms. She has been put on drug cocktails like the poor kids in the article and she keeps getting worse. She’s started drinking and smoking pot. Her boyfriend’s four years older than her. I have tried to help. I tell her these things can pass, that she has to get out of that town and go to college. That’s what I did. It was hard, but you can do it. Yes, uncle Chuck, she says in Eddie Haskell mode. That’s exactly what I’ll do. But more likely it will be Meth. Or pregnancy. Or both. I am helpless. It sucks.

Be that as it may, in a few hours we will have Thanksgiving dinner, my two children and I. My daughter has done some research and has a plan for preparing the turkey and dressing. My young son will set the table. We will have a nice long meal together, talk and enjoy each other’s company. Of this I am confident.

The future? Who knows? Global warming, a puff of Meth, car crashes, war, or crime. Life is fragile and so much can go wrong. As parents, we lose a little more control every day. Soon they will be on their own. But no matter what happens in the future, I am thankful for all that has come before. And I am thankful for today.

I hope you are too. Happy Thanksgiving.