Tae Kwon Do or Tae Kwon Don’t, either way you’ll regret it.

Last night the boys had Tae Kwon Do testing. They’re now the proud owners of a green belt with a blue stripe. Although their master during the belt ceremony reminded all the kids not to focus on the belt but on the discipline and hard work of learning their techniques, let’s be serious, the very existence of the belt ceremony suggests to the kids that the literal earning of their stripes is a big deal.
I tried to reinforce the master’s message, but I’m pretty sure I sounded like a moralistic scold and a hypocrite – the kids are astute enough to know I have always prized the destination over the journeydespite ample evidence that the contrary rule is the right one.
As a family we don’t historically “do” much. I mean, we do stuff; we’ve done things – But we’re not “doers.” The kids and I have a running joke that my martial art is called Tae Kwon Don’t. Even when we do a thing, we like to take a long breath afterwards and have some down time to reflect upon the doing. Not rush headlong into doing the next thing. This was always true for me and Nina as a couple and remained so when we had kids. Although the having of kids is a pretty big “doing” unto itself, our style of child-rearing was not the type-A hustle and bustle sort. We tended to keep our kids’ schedules as we did our own – with a maximum amount of blank spaces for down time and recovery.
The thirst for down time was equally shared in my marriage. It’s maybe even one of the key values that allowed Nina and I to be a good match. Bailing on a night out to stay home and order Chinese takeout was a leitmotif of our love language. Our ratio of made social plans to fully executed social plans was either dramatically uninspiring or incredibly successful, depending on which end of the I à E Myers-Briggs spectrum you fall.

I wish I could say single-parenting the boys has made me learn to savor the joys of a more socially active/committed lifestyle. I don’t think that’s quite true. If anything, I crave the ability to lie down and stare at the ceiling more than ever. Not having a second pair of hands to help with dinner, or a partner to respond to the umpteenth request from the kids for a new app sometimes feels like it’s eroding my soul. 
  
On the other hand, there’s no question losing Nina forced me to make some strides. I am now the keeper of our family calendar, which would have been laughable only a few short years ago. As our link to friends and family, I maintain ties to people I used to only communicate with at holidays (or when Nina made plans with them and we didn’t bail and order takeout). It’s more than just maintenance, too. In the past year I have made more decisions than I can count, whether it was the addition and remodeling of our house, the kids’ enrollment in schools or after-school activities, vacations, meal planning or, perhaps most importantly, where to order takeout.
Of course, I’m only doing what all single parents do, and I’m not doing it as well as many of them. But I do think when people talk about resilience this is the kind of adjustment we ought to have in mind. It’s not the “I get knocked down, but I picked myself up again” or “try, try again” mantras that matter so much as the continual acceptance that your days will be filled with small challenges you would likely avoid if circumstances were different or someone else would do it for you. 
Last weekend marked 20 months since Nina died. It’s taken all of my resilience over that time to keep meeting the challenges of everyday life. But it doesn’t help any of our resiliency that we live in a time of actual, real-world chaos. My twitter feed alone in the morning makes me want to crawl back in bed, irrespective of any innate desire to do so (which was already very strong, admittedly). Events like the Tree of Life, the double homicidein Kentucky, Parkland, and the now-too-numerous-to-name state sanctionedmurders of unarmed people of color really, truly require us to go into the world armed with some serious resilience. But these are the stuff of everyday life. 
That’s part of why I decided to push through my normal instinct for added down time and attend last night’s event at the temple. I felt extra proud because the circumstances were begging me to give up and go home. The temple was mobbed with people. We had to drive several blocks into the surrounding residential neighborhood to find a parking spot. I was still on crutches from knee surgery. The kids hadn’t eaten dinner. There were so many fantastic excuses not to go.
But instead of not doing, this time we did. I hobbled my way up to a friend who helped me skip the half-mile long (no exaggeration) line and get a seat (leveraging my knee surgery for all it’s worth is the new market inefficiency). I’m not looking for a pat on the back here. I only did what thousands of other Greenborenos were doing – including many elderly and permanently disabled folks. And for the record we left early because the two diabetics in our party couldn’t wait any longer for dinner, and also I fed the kids at MacDonald’s, just to temper the self-panegyric.
I didn’t go to the temple because I fight for truth and justice. I’m pretty comfortable in my armchair liberalism, despite lacking an actual armchair (maybe when I have terminal cancer that quest can be my NYTcolumn? What I lack in talent I make up for in lack of originality.). While I believe individual attendance at these events matters, my presence or absence didn’t strike any major blows for democracy.
I’m not even sure I went to temple to work on my personal resilience. The real motivation was the same underlying my drive as a parent and a widower generally: concern for my kids, fear, and confusion. The truth is that I have NO IDEA how to parent two boys on my own, let alone how to parent through the Tree of Life massacre, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, or the President of the United States sending the military to ourSouthern border as a race baiting political stunt
I’m afraid I expose my kids to too many bad influences already, but I also want them to experience things and learn to discern for themselves, which makes me kind of a knee jerk censorship parent. I make poor Freddy submit the names of every band before he listens, but allow him access to heavy metal; I have clamped down on violent TV shows and video games, but I occasionally take them to a movie they’re scarcely old enough to understand because I believe it’s valuable or special. The truth is, like most parents, I don’t know or understand most of the content they consume. And that’s just the make-believe stuff. How much of the actual news do nine and eleven year old kids need? One artifact of our gun-crazed culture is that there are plenty of resources to help guide parents through communicating about upsetting events, but of course it depends on the kid and the context. 
When I was a kid I wanted it all uncensored and that’s what my guys want, too. But I also never lived through a time when white nationalists were running the country. There may have been just as many people of color murdered during my childhood, but the deaths weren’t captured on video and available on YouTube. I remember when Bud Dwyer shot himself during a live press conference. It was sensational and TV stations issued strong warnings about the content before airing anything about the suicide. Today I’m sure it would still be news, but it wouldn’t stand out. 
Tot Shabbat = my favorite activity I’ve ever done in a synagogue or temple.
Just look at that adorable cartoon challah and torah.
Now imagine tiny Jews signing silly songs about Judaica. Adorable, I’m telling you.  
The temple isn’t exactly our primary niche. We used to attend Tot Shabbat pretty regularly with the kids before Nina got sick. But Nina wasn’t Jewish and, if you need to practice to be good at it, I’m maybe the worst Jew ever. During the event the rabbi asked all the non-Jews in attendance to stand and Benny started to get up until I gave him a “yes, you are Jewish” look (we practice it during the secret world-domination cabals, held monthly in New York and Hollywood). I didn’t bother with the “you’re not quite Jewish because your mother wasn’t Jewish and the State of Israel wouldn’t immediately recognize your claim to citizenship without a proper conversion” look because I save that for the High Holidays.
The Jewish community does have a special resonance for me/us. We keep one toe in the Jew pool, as it were. And I’ve tried to explain to the kids a million times why we’re still Jewish even if we aren’t religious and I’m not even sure I understand it fully myself. But there is a cultural, ethnic, and historical weight to being Jewish. It’s as inescapable as it is hard to define. If you run from your Jewish heritage, well, that’s a pretty well-trodden and problematic path; but if you embrace it, what does that mean? Judaism must be the only religion in the world with millions of self-identifying members who are avowed atheists. 
I’ve grown to loathe most things about sports, especially the NFL in recent years,
but the Steelers nailed this one, even if just on a graphic design level. 
But we didn’t go to temple last night just because we’re Jewish. I felt by going to the event, by letting the kids see that people do find ways to respond, to come together, no matter how sad the circumstances, and that we can find ways as a family to join them, maybe there’s an implicit message of resilience and hope in the face of fear and despair. I don’t know. I hope that just by doing I’ll somehow be imparting something and maybe that’s wrongheaded or lazy. But I honestly have no idea how to instill the kinds of resilience my kids are going to need, whether that’s the ability to overcome losing their mom or the emotional stamina to withstand the rapaciously toxic news cycle of the Trump era.
I don’t know how to carry things myself, let alone teach two other people how to carry them. For some reason Terrance Hayes’ lines from his haunting, masterful recent collection of sonnets keeps resurfacing for me: “The names alive are like the names in graves” and “For a long time / The numbers were balanced. The number alive equal to the number in graves.” Maybe it’s always awful at some level. The world never stops killing us and maybe no particular era has any claim to a more terrible spectacle of death than any other. We just have to keep saying the names out loud, together, for as long as we can.
If anyone has any other brilliant ideas, I’m so massively open to suggestions.

One thought on “Tae Kwon Do or Tae Kwon Don’t, either way you’ll regret it.

  1. None of us have any idea what to do. Raising aware, empathetic children — who are not perpetually terrified — is a constant challenge in this nightmarish age of Trump. I aim for balance but I don't know if I'm doing it right either.

    Like

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