Friday, 17 November 2017

Chris Rock and I Part Ways Over a Bully

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I just saw Chris Rock in concert. It was a great night with some very funny pointed stuff. While I'm a fan of Rock's, I can't speak definitely on the history of his material though one routine about keeping your daughter off the pole being the mark of a good father is a great bit about parenting  delivered in a very funny, obscene way. I found some of his material (particularly about men v. women and relationships) rehashed and, since his bitter divorce and custody battle, more therapeutic ranting than comedy. But  the audience generally lapped it up.

He had this new bit about bullies though that I keep thinking about. Essentially he has put his daughters into private school and when he went to the orientation he heard how the school was proud of its no tolerance of bullies policy. His response was nearly to pull his daughters out of school - they needed bullies to make them tough and ready for the real world where bullies even get elected president. I get it. It was a joke. And kinda funny. But it got me thinking, which is the mark of a good comedy show in my book.

I agree with Rock that we do our kids no favours by shielding them from the real world (the irony of him making this assertion in the context of putting his kids into private school seemed not to occur to him or was at least unacknowledged). But the idea of just throwing them into that situation without support seems wrongheaded. Especially given something I just have gone through.

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My boys play hockey. Two of them now at a (low) competitive level. Recently my second announced that he wanted to try out for the Select hockey team (a team selected from your local hockey club that plays against other club's teams). Honestly, I wasn't keen on the time and monetary commitment this would entail. I told him he'd have to practice more (I thought this would end it - he takes after me, lazy) Fine, he said.  Huh. I told him the only time that worked for me was at 7:00 am on Fridays before school. No problem, he said. I was flummoxed but impressed. Hard-ass.

He worked hard, improved immensely, even being named his house league's team Most Improved Player. Still I wasn't sure he would make the Select team - they were very good, very competitive and a closed shop. Then, a miracle - the entire Select team left to start up a new higher level competitive team elsewhere. So my son tried out and (like every other kid who showed up) he made the team. More importantly, his good friend who lives two blocks away also made the team. Therefore I had a built-in carpool. Which is critical.

"With three boys, I don't care how important something is to them - if there's no carpool it's not happening."
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It's been a happy experience, he's getting a lot of hockey, he gets some cool team swag to strut around in and he has achieved a goal of his through hard work, persistence and a fair amount of luck. The team is actually winning many games, which was an open question given the draft process. There is another kid on this team who lives close to us who needed regular rides to games and practices. He has a single mum and they don't have a car. I can't even imagine trying to swing competitive hockey in that situation so, while I wasn't ecstatic about having to do more driving out of my way, there really was no question about we other two families stepping up and bringing him into the car pool.

Over the last few months I've got to know this kid a little and he seemed super happy to have made the team. He scored his first goal recently. But he started missing practices. And then just the other day I heard from my co-driver that he was thinking of quitting the team. Why would he do that? It turns out that some dirt bags on the team have been bullying him when there were no adults around, awarding him the 'worst player of the game' etc. True, this kid isn't an amazing player but everyone made the team because NO ONE ELSE SHOWED UP. But most of the kids on this team are very well-off, entitled, all go to the same private school and summer camp and this kid doesn't fall into any of those categories - to the degree that, instead of being driven to practices in a luxury cross-over, he often takes the bus. And I mentioned: single mum, reduced circumstances etc. In other words - soft target.

I lost my mind.

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Then commenced some questionable parenting on my part. I cross-examined my son on what was going on. I got the usual dazed look, shrugged shoulder and non-committal grunt most direct questions elicit. But this time I would not accept it. Within moments I had the whole sordid story. Yes, the kid had been bullied by, surprise surprise, one of the entitled in-group. Surely we've seen enough John Hughes movies by now to know the dynamic. My son didn't participate (thank god!) but he didn't stand up for this kid either. I berated him at that moment - how many damn anti-bullying/empathy-building sessions has he had to sit through at school (at times it seems like they have one of these a week) and he does nothing? He was a tearful wreck by the time I finished with him. Then - remorse.

Clearly, though he had sat through these consciousness-raising sessions, they don't help kids with how hard it is to actually stand up and speak up against this sort of bullshit. All it does is impose another obligation on kids. And one most adults fail at, in my experience. Poor kid was just trying to fit into a new team himself and here I was expecting him to take on the whole in-group power structure like some  pint sized Norma Rae. I apologized and I told him I expected him to stand up for this kid and to support him but told him he should find the right way for him to do that. I gave him some ideas. Some were even appopriate and didn't involve swearing.

Now what I needed to do was show him how to stand up to bullies. I emailed the mom and told her we would support her and her kid and outlined what we would do. I contacted one of the team managers, whom I know to be a good man and father, and told him the story. But I heard nothing from the mom. I worried that I had overstepped and maybe she didn't appreciate my butting in. I still felt it needed to be addressed, if only to make sure my son was on a team that was worth being on.

The next day we were all notified that, after the game, there would be a team meeting with all parents and kids. Still nothing from the mom. I fretted. Close to game time she and her son still hadn't arrived - then they rushed in with only a few minutes before game time but didn't have the entrance fee. I paid for them. All I got was a brusque thank you and they rushed off to the changeroom.
I was hurt and felt I'd blundered in and made things worse.
Then I started feeling irritated. Was she actually angry at me? And  no real thank you or acknowledgement that I had tried to do the right thing? Why did I bother with this crap? And I overheard some other parents complaining about having to go to this meeting, "Why do the parents have to get involved? Let the kids sort this out." Now I was really in a bad mood.

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After the game (we won!), the meeting was held and it was handled exceptionally well. No one was centred out but it was made very clear that any more nonsense of this sort would result in real and immediate consequences - less ice time to suspensions to expulsion. Everyone seemed to feel positive (me included) about the meeting and my son definitely seemed glad it had been handled without him. We were joking around when the bullied boy's mom came up to me.

It turns out she hadn't known who I was until she saw me with my son. Ego-check. She thanked me. She was very grateful. She clearly had been at her wit's end and felt alone and unsure what to do. She felt optimistic about the future. I'm sure that there will still be hiccups but I feel we turned a corner. Funny enough, my son, when asked by my wife about the meeting, shrugged and said of course everyone was being on their best behaviour because they knew what the meeting was about - little cynic. But he did say that everyone was pretty keen on playing hockey so, if for no other reason, they'd probably behave. I'm totally OK with that - I'm not expecting these kids to actually get empathetic.

Later that night we got a heartfelt email from the boy's mom - and got a real sense of how they had been struggling, thinking the situation was impossible and ready to give up but that knowing  people were there to help them made a huge difference. Her son is now happy and is eager to play. In her words, we "saved her and saved the dreams of a child". Perhaps overblown but she really meant it. I'm a cynical fellow (no kidding) but this obviously got to me. *sniff

Kids learn how to handle bullies not by preventing bullying (because you really can't) or by throwing them into the mix and letting them sort it out on their own (because they lack the skills to do that effectively) but by modelling behaviour that shows them that sometimes taking a stand and speaking out you can change things in a practical way. And that letting people know they are not alone is huge.

In that vein, I replied to the mom's email that we were all happy to help and reminded her that -
as the old African saying goes, "It takes a village to raise a hockey player."

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Monday, 30 October 2017

Son Little Music Review in Quip Magazine.

I was really looking forward to seeing what Son Little would do with his new album. His first full length self-titled release established him as someone looking to rework the blues and R&B canon in a new way (or to travel some forgotten byways). That album was  spectral, spooky, and a little freaky. It called to mind Screaming Jay Hawkins or Andre Williams. It really grew on me. So, I was looking forward to how he would push things forward on this new outing. Initially, however, I felt let down. [MORE]

Thursday, 21 September 2017


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Syndrome almost falls prey to that classic villain weakness - Monologuing - a critical weakness of fathers, as well.

There are many reasons to watch The Incredibles - not the least among them the hilarious and doomed Syndrome. Syndrome almost falls for that old hero trick - monologuing. You're familiar with it, I'm sure: the villain has the hero right where he wants him - tied to a log in a lumber mill, suspended over a pool of mutated electric eels, or his private parts coated with honey and him staked out on a bulldog anthill in Australia etc. - but the hero plays on the vanity, insecurity or grievances of the villain to get him to start talking at length. Meanwhile, the hero extricates himself or waits until rescued by his sidekick.

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Flip the switch already. Monologuing will be your downfall.

Why? Why? Why do villains continue to fall for this? (Some might make sly comments how we can see in real time how cartoonish ego-maniacal bullies, even after achieving world domination, can't keep their big mouths shut. They just love to hear themselves talk. Some might, not me.) I can't speak for villains as I never graduated from the academy - I dropped out to go to law school instead - but I can speak for fathers to say it is an almost irresistible urge to monologue when you have your child as a captive audience.

I was talking with my good friend about this. He was tutoring a kid with a successful, ambitious, well-spoken father. The conversation among the three of them about how the son could thrive was totally hi-jacked by the dad going on at length about something in-my-day something grit something stick-with-it-ness something ambition. Bored, my friend's attention and eyes wandered to the son in question and saw the light in his eyes flicker and die as he went to his safe place. He realized with sick horror that,"Oh my god, that's me. I do that with my kids." And he resolved to change his ways. By the way, this is a real friend, not just me talking about myself. Although, I'm guilty of this as well.

Your kids, at least your boys, have a very limited amount of time and attention available to you. When delivering a message or advice or instructions, think of it as if you're leaving a voice mail message. If you go on too long you get cut off before you even get to your point. If you want to communicate something to your kid, take a moment, think about what you really want to say. Cut that in half. And then in half again. Can you say it in one pithy sentence? Maybe an enigmatic faux-zen koan? Like:

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Keep it short, like Yoda

Try to be quotable, or at least memorable, for godssake.

This is especially applicable to teens. Your ranting is likely as ineffective with your younger kids but the teens will actively demonstrate their disengagement and eye-roll right over you.

Lately I'm taking a hostage-extraction approach:

1) Consider best entry;
2) Plan exit strategy ahead of time;
3) Quickly enter, perform mission (in this case advice delivery);
4) Exit immediately,:and
5) Stick to the mission!

Whatever you do, don't try and have the last word. Don't fall for it. I've seen too many good men lost that way.

Thursday, 31 August 2017

Putting the Pop into Pop Music review in Quip Magazine

Just to let you know I am still writing, just nothing for Pop Culture lately. Soon though, I've been storing up a bunch of stories from spending the summer with the boys.

In the meantime, below is a music review I recently wrote in Quip Magazine.

Beast Epic by Iron and Wine

“Beast Epic”, the latest by Iron & Wine, is a smooth summer listen

Beast Epic, the sixth album by Iron & Wine, marks a self-described revisiting of the past. How so? First, it’s put out by Sub Pop, his first record label, and, secondly, in terms of sound. Recording everything live and employing minimal overdubbing gives the album a warm and intimate sound.
What does it sound like?


Monday, 15 May 2017


Recently I have been asked why I haven’t posted on Pop Culture in such a long time. There are lots of reasons, lack of time being the consistently underlying one. As a father of three boys, scrambling to pick up work, often working three different jobs and - with various home and community responsibilities on top of attempting to bootstrap creative projects of my own – I have no time. But that’s a lie.

The real reason, I have confessed in moments of vulnerability (often after a beer or three), was that I felt like a fraud writing about parenting since, recently, I have felt like a failure who doesn’t have any clue what he is doing.

“But that is what is so great about it!” people have consistently replied. “It’s awesome to see you don’t know what you’re doing. None of us do. And it’s funny.”

I have chosen to take that comment in a positive manner and so below follows another example of how I stumble through parenting.


I used to get lied to for a living. Or that’s how I described my former job to people at parties. As a prosecutor, I would be dealing with people who were lying to me all day long. I did get some pleasure from breaking down the lies people were telling me and then holding them responsible. But I got tired of it. The court system is adversarial, with people not at their best. It warps you – I started doubting what anyone said to me. I was skeptical of any story told me. So it’s Monday, huh? We’ll see about that.

So I quit. To become a stay at home parent.

I’m sure you see the irony.

Currently, my three boys are 14, nearly 12 and almost 10. And they lie to my face every day.

While I’ve improved my situation in that I now love the people I’m dealing with, the downsides are that I don’t get paid and I can’t put them in jail. And the relentless attempts to deceive me over the smallest issue are exhausting.

“Have you put away your laundry?”



“Pretty much.”

“So, that means ‘no’. Get going.”

I have read that insisting on honesty from your children only results in them becoming better liars. I’m not sure what the alternative is, tell them, “Go ahead lie to me at will with no consequences”? Also, I’m ok with them being better liars. It’s a life skill and we all know that you need to be able to lie well at points in your life. Whole ethics courses have revolved around this.

So, I know they will lie to me. I know that nothing I do will stop it. But, by the same token, I totally lose my mind when I catch them lying to me. And if there is anything I hate more than being lied to, it’s being lied to incompetently. It’s damned insulting. Remember, I used to do that professionally.

So, when my nearly 12 year old comes home on Monday to tell me that the Tuesday night Spring concert, in which he plays viola, has been postponed because the music teacher will be away, I don’t challenge him immediately but it seems… weird – I have heard nothing from the school. Tuesday morning I call the school and the secretary she tells me no, it’s still going ahead. I hang up the phone and prepare my cross-exam.

Not surprisingly, under a withering inquisition, he coughs up that yes, he made it up, lied to me, because he didn’t want to go and that he sucks at viola and he’ll be terrible and embarrassed. Tears follow. I am gob-smacked – what was the plan here? Did he think I wouldn’t find out? What a terrible, terrible lie. Frankly, embarrassing.

If he was so worried about his performance why didn’t he actually practice? And he wants to just quit? Not show up on the day of the show? He has made a commitment to the group and he will honour it. He needs to learn he has to face challenges and sometimes he won’t come out looking so good. He created this situation and he will see it though. It is the mature, responsible thing to do.

“Well, then, I don’t want to do the mature, responsible thing.”

 Part of me wanted to laugh, part or me wanted to shake him like a dust mop.

“You’re going to anyway. I’m not going to let you be that guy. I care about you too much to let you do that.”

“But why, why do I have to do this?”

So, I pause for a moment. Do I tell him the truth? 

I opt for the truth.

“Because, otherwise, your life will be shit.”

His eyes widen.

“If you don’t try things that are hard or continue with something when it gets difficult or persist in putting yourself out there after you fail and fail and fail again – you will unlikely ever do anything worthwhile or satisfying or discover what makes you happy and feel alive. You might decide at the end that something isn’t for you but you can’t stop until you give it a real shot and take it to a natural end point.”

And then I told him another couple of truths:
  1. Most of these concerts are pretty bad and expectations are low. Very low;
  2. Parents are only watching their own kids anyway;
  3. In life people don’t pay that much attention to you, they’re concerned about themselves and so, if you put on a big smile and go into things looking confident, you’ll fool most of them;
  4. Someday, not for a long while maybe, you’ll be glad you finished this properly; and
  5. I won’t give up on you or let you give up on yourself and, if you go up there and try your best, I’ll respect you because I know how hard it is.
He went, not willingly or with grace but he went. And he did fine. I’m pretty sure he was faking a couple of the numbers, but, I couldn’t tell and neither could anyone else.
Hopefully he learned:
  1. The stuff I told him was true and it wasn’t nearly as bad as he feared; and
  2. To tell me a better damned lie next time.