Jonah: Archer, can I borrow your black socks?
Archer: If… [thinks] …you give me a compliment.
Jonah: You have excellent socks.
Jonah: Archer, can I borrow your black socks?
Archer: If… [thinks] …you give me a compliment.
Jonah: You have excellent socks.
When the planets literally aligned for his first appearance, thirteen years ago today, Andrea and I hoped to make him smart, confident, hard-working, and respectful (despite having to guess at how one achieves that). We never dared to imagine we’d get funny, honest, handsome, inquisitive, thoughtful, athletic, resourceful, kind, generous, friendly, responsible, dependable, creative, and mature into the bargain, but that’s what we got.
We take some of the credit for laying the foundation, but most of that good stuff is all you, Jonah. We’re long past being merely proud of you. It is a privilege to know you.
I sat down to write a bullet list of talking points that I wanted to be sure to cover, but it came out in essay form instead. It’s reproduced below. Note the careful omission of judgmental and heteronormative language. If the values expressed are similar to yours, please feel free to repurpose this for your own parental porn talk.
There are good things about porn, bad things about porn, and in-between things about porn. It’s important to know about all of them before you get too involved with it.
First, the obvious. Porn can be fun. It’s exciting, it’s arousing, it’s a sort of “preview of coming attractions” before your actual sex life begins. It can help you learn about what sexual things you like and what things you don’t at a time when experimenting with other people is not possible (or at least not a good idea). It can answer some of your questions about sex, ones that maybe you’re too embarrassed to ask, or ones you simply didn’t think of. Being interested in porn is normal and OK. I’d be more concerned about a 13-year-old boy who wasn’t.
Now the not so obvious. Most porn is very different from real-life sex. In porn, the men and women have perfect bodies, are easily excited, and are always up for anything. They do not worry about pregnancy or about sexually transmitted diseases. This is a fantasy. You should not expect real sex to be just like porn any more than you’d expect real archaeology to be like Raiders of the Lost Ark. In real life, bodies aren’t perfect, people aren’t always in the mood, and sometimes you or your partner will say “ow” or “stop” or “no, I don’t want to do that.” I don’t mean that real-life sex isn’t amazing – it often is. It’s also sometimes just OK, and sometimes it’s even bad, like everything else in real life.
There is a serious problem that exists among some people who look at porn: they can develop unrealistic expectations about sex and about their partners. When things aren’t just like what they learned in porn, they get disappointed and disinterested. This can really interfere with their intimate relationships and mess up their lives. This doesn’t mean that you should accept a partner who disappoints you. The point of dating is to find someone with whom you’re compatible, who is into the same things (sexually and otherwise) and whom you find exciting. It’s OK to want a little fantasy in your sex life. But if all you know is porn, you risk closing yourself off to the wider, richer world of real-life sex.
Beyond that, there are worse problems. One is the problem of porn addiction, which is a real thing to be feared. You can become addicted to anything that gives you pleasure. It’s a biochemical change in the brain, which is what makes it so difficult to reverse. (You can read more about it here.) This is why we say that things should be enjoyed “in moderation.”
How can you tell the difference between innocent enjoyment on the one hand, and problematic addiction on the other? It’s actually pretty easy. When it starts interfering with other parts of your life, it’s an addiction. You may act towards other people in ways you wouldn’t normally choose to. You may skip activities in which you would normally participate. You might perform poorly on schoolwork or other tasks that you could usually do well. You definitely want to avoid getting addicted, because once you have an addiction, breaking it is very, very hard. To avoid addiction, exercise control over when you look at porn. Don’t let it exercise control over you. To reverse addiction, you first have to be able to acknowledge it exists, which can be hard all by itself. (A good rule of thumb: if you ever find yourself insisting, to yourself or others, that you don’t have a problem, that’s a sign that you probably do.) Seek help from someone, and get yourself involved in one or more different activities to divert your brain’s attention from what it’s craving.
Another serious problem is that, although there’s plenty of porn out there depicting joyful and even loving sex between consenting partners, there is also unfortunately a lot of the opposite: porn that is humiliating to someone, or degrading, or even violent. Porn with one or more of the people clearly not enjoying themselves. Sometimes it’s just an act, but much more often the people in this kind of porn are trapped in a life that’s little better than slavery, and the people producing this kind of porn are genuinely evil. Stay away from this stuff. Not only does looking at it encourage the scum that makes it; the bad vibes can take you to a dark place, messing up your head and your future sex life.
Some porn is actually illegal – illegal to make, and even illegal to look at, and people go to jail for it all the time. This does not apply to most normal porn featuring consenting adult men and women, but even that exists in a grey area where very many people disapprove of it, sending the police and the courts after them at every opportunity. (A great movie about this, which is also a true story, is The People vs. Larry Flynt.) As a result, the whole porn world is sort of semi-legal, and that invites certain kinds of scam artists. Beware of identifying yourself in any way to any porn site. If you are invited to chat, ignore it. Don’t answer survey questions. If you are offered a free signup to some new site, ignore it. Definitely do not respond to requests for photos or video of yourself or others. Disable “browser cookies” if possible. I can show you how. And do not download files; they are almost guaranteed to turn your computer into part of a criminal botnet under the control of Russian gangsters!
The point of all this is not to scare you or to be a killjoy. It’s only that if you’re not aware of this stuff and you’re not careful, it’s all too easy to land on content you’re better off avoiding, or to mess yourself up in a variety of ways. Forewarned is forearmed.
The most important thing is to remember that you can talk to me about any of this any time you like. If you have questions, if you see anything that bothers or worries you, if you have anything you want to express, I’m here. I promise never to embarrass you and to keep everything just between us. Don’t forget, I was a 13-year-old boy once too, and I was also every age you’re going to be for the next few decades. There’s bound to be some info in my head that you’d find helpful, and even when there isn’t, sometimes all you need is someone who’ll listen.
Chanukah begins later this week. Yesterday Andrea and I realized that we don’t know where our Chanukah menorah is. This has happened a few times over the years, and on a couple of those occasions we simply went and bought a new one. Sooner or later of course the old one always turned up, with the result that we now have a small collection of menorahs. We suspected that our menorahs were in a box in our recently rearranged storage space, but the prospects for getting there and searching through the boxes before Chanukah begins were nil. So we decided to task the kids with building one out of Lego or something.
That was in the afternoon. Soon after that conversation we all went out for dinner. When we returned, not yet having given the kids their menorah-making assignment, we discovered the doors of the kitchen pantry were open, and the contents of one shelf spilled out, as if someone had been rummaging through it in a hurry. But no one had. Standing upright on the floor, in the center of the spilled shelf contents, was our menorah.
For someone who doesn’t exist, God sure does want me to light Chanukah candles.
When I was a kid
I had a great dad
He set an example
When I was mad, glad, or sad
Two of my own kids I had
Now thanks to him
I’m not doing too bad
A few days ago, as Archer and I were driving somewhere in the car, he asked me this question clear out of the blue: If you could live forever, what would you want to accomplish?
I have seldom heard a more profound question, and I told him so. After a moment’s thought, the answer that popped into my head — and from then until now, the only real answer that has occurred to me — was, “Help people use the Earth more responsibly.”
I do my part: I recycle, I drive a fuel-economical car, I vote in favor of open-space measures, I turn off lights, and so on. But that’s armchair environmentalism. Archer’s question, and my surprising reply, makes me think maybe it’s time to start doing more. I don’t expect to live forever, but I do hope my descendants will. Shouldn’t I act as if that’s the same thing?
My kids know the truth about Santa Claus. Do you?
It happened on my birthday, of all days, a year ago. The boys were seven-and-a-half and nine-and-a-half. For a few months prior, whenever Santa Claus came up in conversation, whichever boy was speaking would cast me or my wife a sidelong glance and say pointedly, “a.k.a. Mom and Dad!” and the conversation would continue without further comment. So the bubble had already burst, they just lacked official confirmation — which notably they didn’t explicitly seek until we were sitting all together in the living room, getting ready to watch my birthday movie selection. When they did, I asked if they really wanted to know the truth. Archer, who is younger, just barely did, in my judgment. Jonah was burning for it.
So I opened the Wikipedia page about the real St. Nicholas and talked about him for a bit, and how he became renowned as a gift-giver. He was an ordinary man, so of course he died; but the gift-giving idea lived on.
Today, around Christmas every year, the spirit of St. Nicholas takes hold of parents everywhere. So although there’s no guy with a magical sleigh, and other parts of the story certainly are made up, still, in a very real way — and I told them this is honestly exactly what I believe — there is a Santa Claus, and Santa Claus is the idea of giving, and he/it really does travel around the whole world in a single night! He just needs us parents to do his work for him. You’ve heard of Santa’s elves? We’re it.
The boys seemed pretty happy with this explanation. Jonah, for his part, was happy merely to have Santa Claus officially debunked. I repeated my point about the reality of Santa Claus, and Archer said, “I half-believe you and I half-believe Jonah.” “Making up your own mind. I love that,” I told him.
Soon after that we let the boys see Batman Begins, despite some concerns about age-appropriateness. There’s the scene where Bruce Wayne decides he has to have a costumed alter ego:
“As a man, I’m flesh and blood. I can be ignored. I can be destroyed. But as a symbol? As a symbol I can be incorruptible. I can be everlasting.” The point being that if Bruce Wayne is ever injured or killed (or grows too old, which is the premise of Batman Beyond), someone else can don the suit and take over as Batman. In a way this is exactly what happened with St. Nicholas — the Bruce Wayne of gift-giving. Now that was a Santa explanation the kids could relate to.
Ten years ago, Jonah was born, and I went from non-dad to dad.
A couple of years later, he singled out this toy from his ever-expanding collection and named it “Other Daddy.”
Last night I showed him that toy and reminded him that he once called it “Other Daddy.” He laughed at how adorable that was. Which was, itself, adorable.
Now imagine tiny moments like that, a few times every day, for 3,653 days in a row. And that’s just the tiny moments.
In my life I have been a computer genius, a film nerd, a published author, a private pilot, a serial entrepreneur, and a well-loved son, brother, and husband. They’ve all been great. Being a dad beats them all put together.
Tonight I finished a project I’ve been working on for years: reading all of the Harry Potter stories to my family, all seven volumes, all 4,167 pages. Correction: I read almost all of them. Jonah took over for one chapter a little while ago when my voice was too hoarse, like Sam to my Frodo.
I am so, so happy that I prohibited the boys from seeing any of the movies before reading the books; and I feel so, so sorry for anyone who’s only ever seen the movies and thinks they know the stories. Naturally there are a lot of great scenes and there is a lot of rich detail that never made it into the movies, but that is true with any novel adapted for the screen. Also as with any adaptation, some of the changes made by the filmmakers were improvements on those unavoidable parts of the books that were not great or rich.
But the films do worse than leave out scenes and detail — they get key characters wrong. (Or at least, numbers 1 through 6 do. None of us has yet seen parts 7a or 7b.) The film Dumbledore may be a powerful wizard, but he has none of the book Dumbledore’s warmth, deep wisdom, or mischief. And Harry Potter may stir himself to heroic action on film when the need arises, but there is no sense of the fierceness of purpose to which he is so often roused in the books.
I’m sure countless Harry Potter fan sites have debated these things endlessly so I won’t belabor them, but I can’t let it go before giving one example to illustrate my complaint. Spoilers ahead.
Halloween, 1998: I take a weekend trip to San Diego with my girlfriend, Andrea, and a few other friends. Money’s tight, in part because I haven’t drawn a salary from my struggling startup company for over two years, but that’s OK: our friends, most of whom are graduate students, are all broke too, so we crash in the living room of a couple we’ve come to see. We visit the San Diego Zoo, where I meet and feed a baby giraffe. My friend Paul captures the event (and much else from the weekend) on an amazing new device: an SLR camera body that has been partially hollowed out and fitted with a digital sensor and a small LCD display on the back (since the prism is gone and the viewfinder no longer works). It’s borrowed from the university where he works, which custom-built it for about ten thousand dollars. He shares the resulting digital photos with the rest of us by putting them on his department’s web server, but only temporarily because they take up so much disk space that he has to delete them after a few weeks.
1.25 decades later: Andrea is now my wife. We visit San Diego again. Thanks in part to income from my startup company, we have the means to stay in a hotel, and not only to visit the San Diego Zoo but to spring for their Safari Park’s “Roar and Snore” overnight camping experience. For his part, Paul is now an Academy-Award-winning computer-graphics researcher. Digital cameras on a par with his custom-built experimental rig from 1998 can now be had for around a hundred bucks and are so ubiquitous that they’ve all but killed the consumer film business. Disk space, likewise, is cheap enough that the company I work for has made a lucrative business out of giving away essentially unlimited amounts of it for free. I meet and feed not one giraffe, but two…
…and two amazing people who didn’t even exist 1.25 decades ago feed some giraffes too.