Apparently Not a Parent

Somebody Else’s Life

I found out in the most brutal way possible. I was in the endocrinologist’s clinic. The doctor mentioned in an aside, “You know, of course, that you’re sterile?” At that point in my life, I was appalled. Of course I wanted to raise a family, with perhaps two offspring. But it was apparently not to be. I had one major adjustment surviving brain surgery a couple years earlier, but now I had another major adjustment in the offing. No kids. No normal family life.

Upon hearing this several acquaintances (they could never really be my friends) would pipe in with, “You can always adopt!” If I adopted a child, it would be mine only by an act of will stretching decades into the future … to care for someone who, biologically, had nothing in common with me. Okay, so I am not Mother Teresa. I make no claims to sainthood.

I made the adjustment. The women I went out with just assumed that I was telling an untruth when I told them I was sterile, so I went along with it until I went to my doctor who tested me and certified that, yes, indeed, I was shooting only blanks.

Now, in my seventies, I look back on my life and am happy that I did not have to raise any children. My one long-term relationship has been with Martine, a woman who did not ever want to have children. I don’t think I would have been a good father, and as Francis Bacon wrote, “He that hath wife and children hath given hostages to fortune; for they are impediments to great enterprises, either of virtue or mischief.”

Not that I have ever had any great enterprises….

Vlad’s Girls

Vladimir Putin’s Daughters: Mariya Putina and Katerina Tikhonova

Although it is well known that Vladimir Putin is divorced and seeing a gymnast named Alina Kabaeva, he has had two daughters by his ex-wife Lyudmila, a former airline stewardess. The girls were born in 1985 and 1986 respectively and are now in their thirties.

Both girls went to school under assumed names and were carefully shielded from the spotlight. Because both are wealthy, after the invasion of Ukraine, they were sanctioned by the U.S. and its allies. It is suspected that Putin has showered the girls with large amounts of rubles, making them suspect as oligarchs in their own right.

You can read up on them and see pictures at this highly entertaining website.

Two Generations

Me with My Niece’s Oldest Son, Ollie

While many of my family members cavorted in the pool at a rental house in Indio, I sat reading James Boswell’s Boswell in Holland, 1763-1764. I had had a vicious siege of blepharitis that lasted for the better part of a year, so I was not about to subject my eyes to pool chemicals.

As I was eating my sister-in-law’s excellent orzo salad with olives, orange bell peppers, and feta cheese, my niece Hilary’s son Oliver came and sat down next to me. He had matured considerably since the time when, while rough-housing, he kicked me in the head. (Fortunately he was barefoot at the time.) Since that time, I have resolved never to rough-house with children. I could get hurt. Or worse, I can turn into my father and deliver an angry swat.

When my brother proposed I look after three children while their parents went elsewhere, I answered “No effing way!” Some people are not meant to be parents: I am one of that number. But then he knew, and he was only jesting with me.

Acton Bell

The Three Brontë Sisters from Left to Right: Anne, Emily, and Charlotte

No family anywhere had three such eminent novelists, though they wrote at a time when women novelists were looked down upon. Consequently, they published under the names of Acton Bell (Anne), Ellis Bell (Emily), and Currer Bell (Charlotte).

I have read and enjoyed the work of the two elder sisters, but until this week I had never read anything by Anne Brontë. I was delighted to find that she was as competent a writer as her sisters and perhaps a bit more modern in her outlook. Her novel Agnes Grey tells the story of a young governess dealing with the spoiled children of the well-to-do.

When one of her former charges (Rosalie) denigrates her eminent husband in front of a footman, she shows Agnes exactly what she thinks of servants:

Oh, no matter! I never care about the footmen; they’re mere automatons: it’s nothing to them what their superiors say or do; they won’t dare to repeat it; and as to what they think—if they presume to think at all—of course, nobody cares for that. It would be a pretty thing indeed, it we were to be tongue-tied by our servants!

Four Images of Anne Brontë Drawn by Her Brother Branwell

Rosalie is nothing, however, compared to the little monsters of her first experience as a governess:

My task of instruction and surveillance, instead of becoming easier as my charges and I got better accustomed to each other, became more arduous as their characters unfolded. The name of governess, I soon found, was a mere mockery as applied to me: my pupils had no more notion of obedience than a wild, unbroken colt. The habitual fear of their father’s peevish temper, and the dread of the punishments he was wont to inflict when irritated, kept them generally within bounds in his immediate presence. The girls, too, had some fear of their mother’s anger; and the boy might occasionally be bribed to do as she bid him by the hope of reward; but I had no rewards to offer; and as for punishments, I was given to understand, the parents reserved that privilege to themselves; and yet they expected me to keep my pupils in order. Other children might be guided by the fear of anger and the desire of approbation; but neither the one nor the other had any effect upon these.

This is quite different from the angelic Victorian children depicted in most novels, especially in those of Charles Dickens. So I was quite pleased to see that the youngest Brontë has some sand in her, and she was an excellent writer to boot—as good as her older siblings.


I Was Fated Never to Be a Parent

So much of my life has been affected by a brain tumor that I had roughly between the ages of ten and twenty-one. Because the tumor—a chromophobe adenoma—controlled my sex hormones, I was potent, but quite sterile. I did not discover until some ten years ago that it was theoretically possible for me to have children’ but by then I was sixty-five years old, and I was in a relationship with Martine, who did not want to bear children for reasons of her own. (In fact, she made me get tested to verify that I could not impregnate her.) So I just resolved to accept my childlessness without complaint.

My friends and acquaintances would always use the same four-word phrase, telling me, “You could always adopt.” I have friends who have done this, but it is not always an easy road. My answer to this suggestion sometimes turned people off: “I don’t want to be responsible for other people’s mistakes.” When I said that to one cute co-worker named Alexis, she hung up on me in exasperation.

I know that raising a child is a long term commitment; but I also know myself, that I would not necessarily be willing to make the sacrifice if the child were not of my blood. If that makes me a bad person, then I must reluctantly admit that I am a terrible person. Better that, sometimes, than making my life and that of my partner possibly a living hell. Sure, the reward can be great, but I have seen cases where it wasn’t.

There was another factor: At times I have a savage temper like my father did. Since I was childless for so many years, I am sometimes not patient with the behavior of children who misbehave. I suspect I might behave as my father did—by swatting the child. In these times, that is considered child abuse.


Why No Children?

Southern California Schoolgirls

Yesterday, as I was sitting in an armchair in the literature department of the L.A. Central Library when a group of Mexican school children—all holding hands—trooped by with their teacher. For a moment, I had a good feeling about the future. Los Angeles has thousands of attractive school children of all races, ethnicities, and creeds. That is one of the things that makes me love my town. As Kurt Vonnegut wrote in Cat’s Cradle:

Nice, nice, very nice
So many people in the same device.

So then why do I have no children? It all goes back to my childhood during which, for a period of ten years, I had a pituitary brain tumor without knowing it. When I graduated from college in 1966, I looked like an eleven-year-old, as my growth hormone, along with all my other hormones, was not functioning. As you may recall, the pituitary gland, which lies midway between the ears and under the brain, is the master gland. All my other glands were fine, except that they were not given any orders from the pituitary to produce any hormones, so they didn’t, at all.

It was not until I was well into my sixties that my endocrinologist said, “You know, you can now have children if you want.” I had lived my entire adult life with the sure knowledge that I could not have children, and I live with my girlfriend, who most certainly does not want to bear or raise children. For some forty plus years, that worked out fine for me. Dr. Sladek’s offhand comment just reminded me how old I was.

Please allow me to cringe as the following five words make their appearance: “But you can always adopt!” I have never been interested in adopting, though some of my friends have gone in for this with mostly good results. What I wanted, though, were children that were my true biological descendants. At times, I have been abrupt with people who suggested this, answering them, “I am not interested in raising other people’s mistakes.”

That is an awful thing to say, I know. But I feel that adoption was never for me.

So do I not like kids? Far from it. I have accustomed myself to thinking of myself as the last of my line. Those were just the cards I was dealt in this life.


Messing with Mother Nature

Chinese Mass Wedding

Chinese Mass Wedding

China is worried. The all-powerful Communist Party has messed with Mother Nature once too often. For many years, they banned having more than one child per family. That led, not surprisingly, to an excess of male newborns over female newborns. (Accidents sometimes happened to infant girls, when it was boys who were desired.)

Although the Party has eased up on its child restrictions, there are two serious consequences:

  1. The number of marriages is dropping, possibly because many young men cannot find a sufficient number of marriage-age women to wed. I also remember reading stories about suicides of male factory workers because they had no hope of being able to raise a family.
  2. A disconcerting 500,000 elderly have wandered off—most of them suffering from dementia—partly because there are not enough children to bear the burden of their support.

China has been in this type of situation before. One of the decrees during the Great Leap Forward period (1958-1962) was that the “Four Pests” were to be eradicated. The pests in question were rats, flies, mosquitoes, and sparrows. One effect of killing massive numbers of sparrows was that the ecological balance was upset as crops were eaten by insects that were kept under control by the birds.

Maybe having too much power over men and animals is dangerous in the long run.


The Wonderful Wizard of … Mo?

Oz Was Just One of L. Frank Baum’s Invented Worlds

Oz Was Just One of L. Frank Baum’s Invented Worlds

If great stories constitute one of the riches of the earth, then America has nothing to be ashamed of. We may not have the Brothers Grimm, we might not have Hans Christian Anderson, we might not have Boccaccio—but we do have L. (short for Lyman) Frank Baum. He gave us not only The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900) but sixteen sequels! (And they’re all pretty good!)

Then there are the other invented worlds, such as the one represented by The Surprising Adventures of the Magical Monarch of Mo and His People (1900), written the same year he created Oz. That’s only the beginning, for Baum’s fertile mind was busily at work for the last nineteen years of his life, and did not rest until he populated his fairylands with hundreds of characters and situations that not only amaze children, but not a few adults as well. Like me, for instance.

Now with the advent of e-books, it is possible to get virtually all of Baum’s work for free, or for pennies. You can try Kindle, or even Gutenberg.Com, which also contains the original illustrations. If you need cheering up, try one of his lesser-known books, which contain a wealth of treasures.


What Do We Have to Offer Them?

ISIS Fighters

ISIS Fighters

By “them,” I mean disaffected teenagers of Sunni Muslim backgrounds. By “we,” I mean Western democracies such as the United States, Britain, and France. Let’s face it, Islamic immigrants are looking for a better life. Many of them find it; but many wind up as dysfunctional families in which the kids want to nullify their parents’ decision to emigrate. These teens are prime candidates for ISIS, and many are trying to make the long trip to Syria—whether they are of Syrian extraction or not—and join up with the violent forces that are wreaking such damage in the Middle East.

In the end, all we have to offer them is a bullet—perhaps the sooner the better.

I am not saying that we should forbid Muslims to enter America: It’s just that we as a society have to be prepared to accept a certain amount of undesirable blowback. Once an American kid has decided to fight in a conflict as a combatant in an organization that our country has designated as terrorist, then he possibility of a good outcome declines to near zero. This is a particular problem in Britain because so many immigrants there hail from Commonwealth countries such as Pakistan that are rigidly fundamentalist. With France, the Islamic population is predominantly North African and therefore less likely to identify with Arab goals.

What can we do? I think that intervening to prevent kids from traveling to Iraq and Syria is a good start, but difficult, especially since there are no direct flights. A teenager could fly to Europe and then enter the combat zone by flying to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, or some other intermediate Arabic destination, and only then crossing the border by land.

Human nature being what it is, we cannot prevent immigrant families from becoming dysfunctional. And, let’s face it, we have troubles enough with our non-Muslim children joining gangs, taking drugs, and committing heinous felonies.


The Joys of Friendship

Mona and Wilder

Mona and Wilder

This evening, I got together with old friend Mona, with whom I used to work more than ten years ago. At the time, her little son Wilder was still an infant. No more, it seems. (It must be those Wheaties.)

Although my friends and I are all growing older, it is good to see their children thriving.

Because I lack a pituitary gland, I could never have children of my own. (And no, I was never very positive in my replies to people who said I could “just adopt,” as if all I had to do was put in a deposit at the neighborhood baby store.) So I take particular pleasure in seeing the children of my friends.

Martine was unable to join us, because her back was hurting her; so she was lying flat on her back wearing a brace when I returned from the Marina after seeing Mona.