Monday, July 25, 2011

Lies My Father Told Me

Parents and dictators frequently create myths to justify their authority. Similar methods that belie vastly different motives. The tin-horn, in his military finery and listing to port under the weight of self-awarded medals, concocts fantastic tales of glory hoping to bamboozle the unfortunate masses into accepting his overblown opinion of himself.

Parents have a more modest purpose. They rely on myths to convince themselves of their fitness for the job.

The parental duty, after all, is to teach the young to face the cruel, uncaring world with courage and elan. A daunting task for those who have stumbled through life, botching up most of what they have tried and regretting all the things they have not.

Hopelessly lost themselves, many parents lack the requisite confidence to be intrepid guides for their children. Confidence is best fostered by success, but when success proves elusive a good dose of malarkey helps. Hence, the prevalence of parental myths.

The myths serve to assure parents of the superiority of their generation over all others. To see oneself as sitting at the very apex of evolution is a heady experience; one which doubt and timidity cannot survive. It is this attitude that emboldens parents to rise to the challenge of firm, decisive child-rearing.

Few people are foolish enough to attribute this preeminence solely to genetic good fortune. That could be too easily refuted. Most parents claim it took a unique combination of natural and man-made forces to lift this one generation so far above the evolutionary mean.

Winter weather and rigorous academic standards were my explanations. The Siberian ferocity of winters many decades ago built character in a way impossible to match with the positively balmy winters of my children's youth. And strong, disciplined minds were nurtured by the stringent requirements and demanding curriculum that were the heart of the exacting education received before academic standards became famous as an oxymoron.

Convinced that I had survived the sternest tests of man and nature, I scoffed at all challenges. The prospect of parenthood did not faze me. So great was my confidence, I never noticed the omens of the great reckoning that swirled about me.

Those more attuned to modern culture might have seen the dangers that lurked daily on the back of the first section of USA Today: the full-page weather report. I failed to appreciate the threat it posed to our nation's cherished family values. The idea just seemed silly to me.

Suddenly the weather report was liberated. All the tradition constraints on meteorological excess evaporated. In print and on the air, "Variably cloudy with a chance of flurries, the high today around 35 and a low tonight near 27," didn't make it anymore.

And the actual forecast was nearly lost as the weather report became a compilation of obscure climatic data. The most exalted facts being the record high and low temperatures for each date. The significance of this information was never revealed. We were not any warmer because they told us that it had plummeted to minus-17 in 1983 (when Russell, my son, was 7), nor any less comfortable when informed that it had soared to 63 "way back" in 1959 (when I was 11). Trivial or not, these records were force fed to a public already sated with weather minutiae.

The pattern for the record temperatures was easily discerned. All the record low temperatures for November through March, except for a few which have stood since the 19th Century, were set during the years of Russell's youth. The record highs for the same months, strangely enough, were all set when I was a whippersnapper.

My myth provided scant protection from his barrage. Worse yet, I was unarmed in the face of the fusillade. I could not deny the relationship of severe weather to strong character. The concept is central to the national psyche. No one believes Abraham Lincoln would have amounted to much if he had spent his youth lazing around some Florida beach instead of huddled by the hearth in a drafty log cabin while a blizzard raged outside.

A public attack on the weathermen for their shoddy research and inaccurate record keeping was also out of the question. The weather forecasters get their predictions right less often than tabloid psychics, but their avuncular, self-effacing manner has made them favorites of a public that values reassurance more than truth. To speak against them would have made me an object of scorn and would have added yet another burden for my weakened self-image to bear.

I grappled with this predicament for months before the way out became clear. Obviously the schools of my generation must have been much tougher than even I remembered them. So difficult, in fact, that the academic experience was sufficient to offset any character weakness that the benign winters of that period might have induced.

This worked well when Russ was in the second grade, and I hoped it would carry me right through until retirement. But it only lasted until he wanted help with sixth-grade spelling.

"Quiz me," Russ said, and he handed me a list of words.

"I don't need that," I protested. "Just spell the words and I'll tell you if you're right."


"That's pretty good, but you left out the second 'R,'" I said. Why, I wondered, would anyone force the young to learn to spell the name of that piddling pool of water surrounded by banana republics? In my day, we aspired to cruise the Caribbean, not to spell it."

"What's the next word?" I asked.


Russ was taken aback by the skeptical smile I used to mask my ignorance. Eyebrows arched and lips silently forming the letters, Russ ran through the spelling twice.

"I was right," he said, not bothering to hide his exasperation.

"I know you're right. I'm just teasing."

Russ went on to spell "Appalachia," "rendezvous," and 15 other words I couldn't spell. By the time he was done, my myth was shattered and made quite a mess on the living room floor. I asked him to get the broom and clean it up because I wasn't sure how to spell vacuum cleaner.

As he dumped the last few shards into the wastepaper basket, I sought refuge in a new myth. A myth so simple that neither fact nor logic could refute it.

"Why do I have to clean up your mess?" he asked.

"Because I'm your father and I know what's best for you," I said smugly.

This piece originally appeared in The Plain Dealer Magazine of April 9, 1990.

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