• Fatherhood

    Tips for Divorced Dads

    A couple of my friends like to throw dinner parties and invite single people who do not know each other. At one of these a few months ago, I performed my normal maneuver of grabbing a beer and finding a safe orbit on the periphery of several groups so I could listen in on a few conversations at once, but commit to none.

    One group was skimming the surface, talking business. After a minute or two, I began circling a second cluster that was discussing the hazards of travel to Mexico. My sights began to wander over to a man and a woman in the corner. The guy was talking passionately and shaking his head in a forlorn way that I recognized. The woman struck an empathetic pose. I strained to tune into their frequency, taking tiny steps in their direction.

    He was recently divorced. He missed his kids. More than anything, he feared another man replacing him in what used to be his household. The pain was palpable, as if a leg had recently been severed in an accident.
    When I wandered onto their radar, they only gave me momentary clearance. But I lingered anyway and he continued cautiously. He was going to miss the little moments at the breakfast table, he wasn’t going to meet his daughter’s dates. His position would ultimately shrink to being an asterisk on his children’s résumés.

    “It won’t be that way, unless you give up,” I said during a pause. “I felt that way years ago, but it has turned out to be just the opposite.” They looked at me quizzically.

    When children are toddlers, parenting is all about being in the household to see the first steps, to hear the first words, to comfort them when they fall. But when children grow into teen-agers, they become focused on getting out:. Parenting at this stage is all about saying “no,” about wrapping fences around teenagers’ quests for freedom. The children are caught in a battle between their friends, who want them to go somewhere new and exciting, and their parents – who aren’t sure they want their child to go anywhere with some of these friends.

    To the teen-agers, their parents and stepparents have become wardens. Amidst all this pressure, what the teen-agers need most is something the “wardens” cannot provide: perspective on their situation.
    Here is what I think a noncustodial parent or a family friend or a big brother or sister can do to help the teen-agers in their lives:

    • Ask questions about how the parents-versus-friends battle is going.
    • Listen without giving advice or solutions.
    • Offer positive theories about why you think others said or did something.
    • Promise confidentiality about sensitive subjects for which they might be punished if they told their parents.
    • Underreact when you hear about the bad stuff. This will reassure them that it is okay to talk more.
    • Tell stories about how you or your friends went through similar stuff. Don’t sugarcoat it.
    • Say, “It must be really frustrating,” more times than your think humanly possible.
    • Remind them their job is to get to the other side. They are almost there.

    Over time, if you’ve consistently stayed in the teen-agers’ orbit – even during the times you weren’t sure you were making a difference – they will learn to trust you and call you as the really bad stuff is happening. And you could be closer to your kids than if you did live in the same household.

    I’m not sure the guy at the party believed me. But I think he wanted to.

  • Fatherhood

    Men Behaving Badly – A Divorce Book for Men

    Every few weeks, I tear a three- or four-paragraph story out of the daily newspaper and toss it in a box in my closet. The stories have datelines from towns all over America, each having its own tragic ending. Inevitably, it involves police surrounding somebody who recently broke up with a spouse or significant other and who, a few months later, gotten frustrated beyond control and decided to take the whole matter into their own hands.

    The sad incidents usually involve a gun or a knife. They occurs at either the victim’s place of work or, worse yet, at home in front of their kids. It rarely ends well. I’ve been reading the paper all my life, but I don’t ever remember seeing a story in which the person who has gone mad and performs these crimes of jealous rage on their own family is anything other than a man.

    If I ever take a break from the newspaper business, I hope to gather all these yellowed clippings and write a book or organize seminars for men who don’t know how to separate well. Then I would host groups where men would discuss – hold on here, I know this sounds revolutionary – our feelings. Men are not always comfortable doing that. It’s really not in our nature: our heritage is as hunters and gatherers, not as nurturers. Our modern childhood sport and games and adult career goals are all about winning, achieving, conquering, taking – and, yes, possessing. We don’t spend any time teaching or encouraging our boys and men about the proper way to lose. About admitting failure, apologizing, accepting our just punishment for our own misdeeds. We haven’t explained to men what to do when something that we think once belonged to us is now somebody else’s. Nevermind trying to make us understand that it never “belonged” to us in the first place.

    Not that I’m any great example. I’ve done my share of stupid things. I’ve just had the good fortune of never doing anything stupid enough to generate a news story. And I spent a good amount of time exploring the separation process. And now, thanks to friends, family and to God, I have learned my lessons and been healed.

    The problem occurs when men don’t understand that there even is a process. Women generally do. They retreat, cloister themselves, grieve, get depressed, angry and seek support in other women. Men usually don’t allow themselves to ever enter the grieving process. They just stuff those strange things called emotions. They just pass by grieving, avoid depression and go right to anger. The anger takes over and gets mixed up with those other emotions and men don’t know how to deal with it. So they drink too much or begin to date with a frenzy or they overindulge in work. Eventually, the distractions don’t work anymore and the anger returns and this time it’s not controllable.

    That’s when men do stupid things. They begin to focus on the person who made them feel these emotions in the first place. They stalk, they threaten, they go into jealous rages. The men behave badly. And when they do this in front of their children, the very precious creatures they’ve helped to create, the very ones that are looking to their parents or step-parents for modeling on how to act when things go wrong, then their bad actions become bad examples and poison the psyche of another generation.

    So that’s how it happens, or so I think. Hope to break the cycle? Understand that the men don’t understand and step in to help earlier in the process. Encourage them to read or talk about it. Tell them what the process is like and that they will come out on the other side intact. And pray that their loved ones do to.

  • Atlanta,  Family,  Fatherhood

    Signs of the Times

    As children grow up, a parent tries to introduce them to all kinds of life’s experiences. You also try to plant in their minds a series of visual and emotional moments, which they can recall and replay in those times when you cannot be with them.

    A parent takes his children fishing or camping or perhaps takes them on trips to see other cities or countries. And when that parent is a father, he takes his children to sporting events.

    In Atlanta, we’ve been graced with lots of opportunities to see great sporting events, from championship college football teams, to NCAA basketball tournaments to one of the greatest events in the world, the Olympics. But in America, where sports are often elevated to a spiritual domain, the highest church of all would have to be to take your kids to a World Series baseball game.

    A few years ago, when the Braves were in their second World Series against Toronto, I was negotiating a business deal. When my contact at this corporation mentioned that she could throw in two field-level tickets to the Seventh Game, the deal was done. In the high church of World Series, the Seventh Game is akin to going to a Sunday service with the Pope.

    I discussed the logistics with my daughter and secured her blessing on allowing me to take my son to The Game. You can imagine my heartbreak when the Braves lost the series in the sixth game, voiding the tickets I had so excitedly held.

    A few years later, when the Braves were opening the World Series on a Saturday night against the Yankees, I decided to be a little more proactive. I took both of my kids down to the stadium, determined to beg, borrow or scalp tickets to get in. My son was happy to give it a shot. My daughter was willing to try to get in the game, but she was humiliated when I presented her with what I thought was a clever, full-proof scheme.


    I showed her three simple signs I made on my computer and told her we were each to hold one in sequence. My daughter’s read, “Never been,” my son’s sign read, “Wanna go,” and mine was a simple plea: “Need three.” I positioned my kids near one of the entrance ramps to the stadium and we stood for nearly an hour and a half. Crowds of people pointed at us, laughed at us and consoled my daughter, who covered her face in embarrassment while reluctantly holding the sign aloft under my orders. We stuck around even after the game started, hoping something would loosen up by the second inning, it was all for naught We never even attracted the attention of a TV camera.

    We finally decided to go where we knew there would be hundreds of Braves fans who didn’t have tickets, either. We grabbed a cab and headed to the Varsity on North Avenue where we got front-row seats in one of the TV rooms. Munching on delicious Varsity fare, we had a great time and took a cab home satisfied that we, and the Braves, did our best.

    Recently I read about major league baseball raising its World Series ticket prices to astronomical heights, far out of the range of a bottom-feeder like me. So this year, should the Braves go all the way, I’ll probably prepare a new sign for my home or office: “Gone Fishin’.”

  • Fatherhood

    Love Lessons

    Five years ago this month, a Fulton County Superior Court judge I never met signed a document hurriedly thrust before him and, with a stroke of his pen, dissolved my marriage. It was a relationship that had consumed half my life. I’m only now getting my bearings back.

    Since then, I’ve watched other friends and relatives marry and divorce. I’ve witnessed the “blending,” of any number of combinations of family units. My children’s friends talk of ex-step-brothers or previous step-parents. They witness all sorts of creative couple alternatives.

    I’ve always thought it ironic that society prepares us least for the two most important roles we will ever play: that of parent and that of partner.

    If I were asked to teach a college course on the realities of those two life paths, I would include the following lessons about relationships with a partner and with kids that I’ve learned the hard way:

    What you see is what you get. A friend of mine likes to comment that people don’t change that much over a lifetime, they just become more and more like themselves. Entering into relationships thinking others will change is fatal. Learning to accept others just as they are is vital.

    Expect to be disappointed. At some point in your relationships, you will be greatly disappointed. Probably hurt in a way you never thought possible. It hurts a lot less if you anticipate it. The chances of your relationships with your partners or your kids surviving the injury greatly increase if you prepare ahead of time a coupon entitling them to at least one “free forgiving.” We all make stupid mistakes at some point. There was only one person who was perfect and He begged the rest of us to learn to forgive.

    Just get through the bad times. A couple of times each decade, people enter what author Gail Sheehy called a “passage.” Passage means a way through to the other side. Let them get there on their own. If you think your partner or kids are all of a sudden acting crazy, focus on something else. Take long walks. Increase your exercise regimen. Join a class or a support group. At some point, they will return to the path. It may take months or even years, but the wait will be worth it.

    Give up control. You cannot control anyone except yourself – and that is enough of a challenge. Let your partner or your kids (above age 14) do what they have to do to learn their own lessons. Trying to prevent others from pursuing their own friends or hobbies or bad habits will only make the pursuit seem more enticing. Let them go. Try to control them and they will quickly forget why they loved you in the first place.

    Silence is golden, listening is divine. So much of the bad stuff that goes on in today’s households is the result of not paying attention. We don’t listen but want others to listen to us! They won’t – until you’ve demonstrated that you really understand them. Then, they will signal you when they are ready to listen to you. Usually by asking for your opinion. Until then, they are not ready. Be patient.

    One of my favorite lines about life or relationships is from “A Song for Life,” by singer Rodney Crowell: “I’ve learned how to listen to a sound like the sun going down.” If you can do that, you’ll be the best parent or best partner you can be – until you mess up. And that leads to the final lesson I’m still learning five years later:

    Forgive yourself, learn the lessons and move on.

  • Family,  Fatherhood

    Shirts Off My Back

    A few weeks ago, my daughter brought a friend home for the weekend. They’re both 14, the age when friends – and what they think of you – are more important than anything else in the world.

    I don’t get to see my daughter and son enough: every other weekend, a few weeks scattered across traditional vacation times, including summer, Christmas, Thanksgiving and spring holidays. We’ve been divorced for nearly five years now. At first, I saw my kids on Wednesday nights, at school plays, soccer games, midweek birthdays and the like. But when their mother remarried and moved to Charlotte about the time I published my first issue of Atlanta 30306, our paths parted more than we had expected. Had these newspapers not taken off so quickly, I might have taken off for Charlotte myself, to be nearer to them. But life had a different script.

    When Sally called to say she wanted to bring a friend from Charlotte, I was conflicted. It meant I wouldn’t spend as much time alone with her, but when I did see her, she wouldn’t be pining away to be somewhere else, such as with a friend. As it turned out, we had fun driving around to the “cool” parts of Atlanta, trying to rent the cool videos, watching the cool TV shows and listening to the cool radio songs. Cool is the driving factor with kids that age and what exactly is cool is constantly up for redefinition, based on a set of ever-shifting criteria. What is cool one weekend my not be in the least two weeks later.

    I’m like a lot of guys in that I usually hate shopping, but I’ve learned to enjoy it with Sally. It gives me a chance to share in a project with her and I get a little peek into her 14-year-old lifestyle. That age was not a great one for me. I remember adolescence as full of awkwardness, rebellion and feeling distant from everything and everyone except my closest friends. I was so happy to emerge from that valley when I turned 17. And I worry about Sally as she faces the same sorts of demons. Today’s school hallways are more intense, the battle between good and evil much more apparent. So shopping is a neutral ground, a place where we talk about gathering resources to face the demons.

    Sally’s friend had lost her own father to death at an early age. She seemed to appreciate my presence in Sally’s life. Somewhere on the road between the retro T shirt racks in Little Five Points, Virginia-Highland and Buckhead, Sally and her friend asked if I had any old T shirts from previous decades. I told them I had an old box of shirts up in my attic that I hadn’t seen for years. When we got home, they asked that I get down the box.

    The top few shirts were from running events or various newspaper promotions from the 1980s. Some of these shirts made it into the girls’ take-home pile. Others went back into the box. A few layers down, they uncovered a 1983 shirt promoting the child development center she attended when she was a baby. That shirt was given a top grade. So was one with a running baked potato. Shirts promoting football or basketball teams went back in the box.

    Here they were looking for fashion finds, and I found was reminiscing about landmark events in my life. History as told by T shirts. Digging deeper, she found a 1975 beach T shirt given to me by her mother when we first started dating in college. It was pink and it was deemed cool.

    At the bottom of the box were two striped shirts from 1970, screen printed with the name of Georgetown Prep, tbe boarding school I attended when I was 14. Immediately I was flooded with memories of those years. How I felt so displaced in a cold dorm room in the faceless suburbs of Washington, D.C. As Sally looked over the shirts with a skeptical eye, her friend encouraged her to take those shirts to school. They made it into Sally’s suitcase.

    Now, when I think about Sally wandering the hills and valleys of her own adolescense – and my own frustration at being two states away from her – I take some comfort in knowing that a piece of me is snuggled tight against her, acting as a shield of sorts against the threats to life I can only imagine.

  • Atlanta,  Family,  Fatherhood,  Life Stories

    Falcons Fever

    My father did a very cruel thing to me when I was at the very young, impressionable age of 10. He bought season tickets to the inaugural season of the Atlanta Falcons. Ever since, I’ve struggled with – and at times conquered – a malady that is one of the most debilitating known to men: Falcon Fever.

    You see, the Atlanta in which I grew up was far different from the one we live in now. In 1966, young men of my age were divided into two groups: those that played football and those that didn’t. On fall afternoons, if my buddies weren’t at football practice, we would be at the Garden Hills field playing tackle football – without pads or helmets. (This all came to a stop when Mark Murray made a shoestring tackle on Mike Egan, slamming him to the cold, hard, uncultivated ground and breaking Mike’s collar bone. After that, we were restricted to touch football. At least when our parents were watching.)

    Around Thanksgiving, spontaneous fights would break out on the brutal asphalt and rock schoolyard at Christ the King when a Georgia Bulldog fan would insult the higher intelligence of a classmate wearing a Georgia Tech Yellow Jacket jacket.

    Add to this mix, as the NFL did so mercilessly, a concept called a professional football team. One named for the whole town. My buddies and I were all joined in one great anxious game: waiting for the day when we would have our own real professional football team. Most of us are still waiting.

    My dad took me to every home game. For a kid my age, the Falcons became high religion. I read every sports article in every newspaper or magazine I could find. I watched every television show, listened to every radio report, wore Falcon jerseys, put pennies in a Falcon penny bank and did homework in Falcon notebooks.

    In fact, I was so into the Falcons, that if they won their game, I would be in a high-flying good mood all week. If they lost, I was somber and depressed. I guess you can say I had a very depressing childhood.
    When I was away at school, I subscribed to the Atlanta newspapers so I could keep up with the latest bad news. When I was on vacation with my family where the Falcons’ game was not televised, I’d disappear into with a radio to search up and down the dial for any semblance of a static-laden report on the latest debacle.

    Then one day, I was given a video cassette recorder for my birthday. My life suddenly changed. I became a free man. I discovered there was a whole other day on fall weekends call Sunday. Instead of tuning in to the Falcons pre-pre-game television reports, I merely programmed my VCR to tape the games. I promised myself I would only watch them if the Falcons won. I never had to watch another game.

    On Labor Day weekend of this year, I had a relapse. I again fell victim to my childhood disease. I gathered my 11-year-old son and his buddy from Charlotte to watch another historic moment: the Falcons versus the new Charlotte NFL team in the debut of the Carolina Panthers’ new stadium. High drama. A great Southern rivalry being born. A passing along of father-son values.

    A few minutes into the game, after the Panthers had scored easily a couple of times, my son looked up.

    “Can Jeff and I go play on the Internet now?” he asked.

    “Sure,” I said, smiling in my knowledge that at least this is one family malady that isn’t hereditary.

  • Fatherhood

    The Detritus of Divorce

    Every couple of weeks, I meet a friend named Mike in the back corner of a Bojangle’s restaurant in Greenville, S.C. I don’t know his last name, but I recognized him the first time I met him. I knew him all too well.

    He and I are on the same schedule. Like migrating birds on a biweekly season, we instinctively jump in our cars, drive up Interstate 85, take the curve on Exit 45 and pull into our adjacent concrete nests along Highway 25 and wait for our kids to dash in from the north.

    We were both married a long time. Things went well. Then, suddenly, they didn’t. Our partners left to find new direction in life. That direction turned out to be north. North to new marriages, new houses and new challenges. Stunned, we agreed to what was left: a legal state of limbo called visitation.

    As a defense technique, men talk on the surface. If we lock in on sports, weather, business or sex, we can kill a couple of hours without effort. Our mouths run on automatic pilot. Our minds can retreat to other places. But if a man is in pain and he sees another in the same circumstance, we can cut to the core immediately.

    Mike’s first words to me were: “It’s hard, isn’t it?” He was sitting in his car with his three kids. I was there with my two. We were meeting our ex-wives halfway to exchange our precious cargo.

    “I’ve tried dating,” Mike said. “I dated one woman for more than a year. Then one night she walked out. I haven’t seen her since. What is it with women?” he asked. “How do you make them happy? I don’t know anymore.”

    He talked about his depression, attempts to cope, the lack of answers. We found we’re both confused about marriage. Neither wants to stare that pain of divorce in the face again. It can be deadly. We barely survived it once.

    Yet others move on, marry again and again and don’t seem to look back. Mike and I aren’t so lucky. We try, but find ourselves returning to analyze what a friend called “the detritus of divorce.”

    When my married friends talk of problems, I urge them to work through them. That’s the challenge. Quitting is too easy. And too difficult.

    Mike and I stood there in the parking lot, watching as our kids drove off into the dark and windy Carolina night. Back to new stepfathers we don’t know, to blended families we’re not a part of, to schoolteachers we’ll never meet and soccer games we’ll never see.

    We shook our heads, then shook hands. “Hang in there,” I said. “See you in two weeks,” he said. Somehow, just knowing there’s a buddy carrying the same burdens makes them a little lighter.

    Then we got in our cars and drove south along the lonely highway home, tears in our eyes and holes in our hearts.

  • Family,  Fatherhood,  Life Stories,  Media

    Heading Toward the 19th Hole

    When my brothers called to propose a round of golf last month, I didn’t hesitate to say yes. I don’t get to play all that often; maybe five times a year, if I’m lucky. This day would be special. For the first time, I’d play with part of my inheritance: my Dad’s clubs. On his favorite course.

    A few years ago, I turned down two invitations to play golf with Dad and my two brothers. I suppose I was too busy with work concerns. Now, a year after Dad’s death, I reflect on those lost opportunities with some regret.

    There are other times—some bad, mostly good—that I associate with golf. I remember my last game with Dad. We finished the day looking out over the course with our feet resting on the dashboard of the cart. I told him I hoped to retire early, maybe about age 55. He said he and his friends had the same goal once.

    “When did you change your mind?” I asked.

    “When we all turned 54,” he said, smiling.

    At a family funeral when I was in college, I met a distant relative, novelist Walker Percy. He invited me out to see the “western South,” and we played golf near his Covington, La., home. He then helped me land an interview and my first job at a Mississippi paper. Years later, when I read Walker was dying, I kept reminding myself to write him a note of thanks. Regrettably, I never did.

    I’ll never forget the early Saturday morning in South Carolina when my friend Mike Egan and I were looking for my lost ball on a par three. We then traced a dark trail in the dewy surface of the green. It led straight to my ball—in the hole. In one.

    Once, when I was in marketing The Charlotte Observer, I helped arrange an evening with Lewis Grizzard to benefit a local charity. While he was in town, I assumed the role of the paper’s goodwill ambassador and Lewis’ chauffeur. He asked if I could arrange a tee time at a local course.

    When we were on the fourth hole, it began to sleet rather heavily. Lewis and I were having fun and were anxious to press on, but his manager, Tony, was tiring of angling puts around piles of ice. We retired to the clubhouse for some Irish coffees.

    Lewis had another request. He asked if I knew anyone who could get him on the course at Peachtree. I told him I’d call next time I was in Atlanta—if it wasn’t sleeting. I never called.

    I suppose golf is like life in some ways. If you choose to play, you’re bound to land in the rough or the sand trap or the water once in a while. Sometimes, everything goes straight down the fairway. One thing is guaranteed: you will finish the round one way or another.

    On this occasion with my brothers, I had some good shots and some bad ones. I was proud to play with the clubs that Dad passed on to me. And, at least I didn’t let another opportunity to spend time with my friends or family slip away.

    As my brothers and I walked away from the 18th green, a youngster was on the practice tee, preparing for his trip to the first tee and his walk around the hills and valleys and traps of the course beyond.

    – October 1995 column