Thursday, December 11, 2008


When I was a circuit-riding minister, I stayed in people’s homes when the temps went as low as they are predicted to go this weekend, which is to say, below zero. It was always a bit of an adventure as I rarely stayed in the same home twice -- they sort of passed me around. Hard to know whether it was because I was a burden or a gift. Maybe a mixture.

One of the most interesting stays was with a single father who had two little girls. The mother had left to find herself -- this was at the height of militant feminism. The father was valiant and resourceful, a college professor, but these girls (four and six) were a match for him. “I hope you don’t mind eating scrambled eggs with parmesan cheese on them,” he said. “That’s all the girls will eat.” Actually, I thought it was an excellent breakfast! He said the hardest thing for him was hair: all those little barrettes and funny springy things that wandered all over the house, plus needing to observe something he had never considered before as a category: “other girls’ hair.”

On the morning I was there, discovered sleeping on the fold-out couch in the living room, it was clear I was a major novelty so I knew there hadn’t been a series of visiting females. I upset the usual routine so much that the girls raced all over the house in what my family used to call “bare scuddies,” resisting their father’s pleas to get dressed for day care and school. My policy in other people’s houses was strictly non-interventionist, but I did wonder what game or song I could summon up to help order. Nothing came to mind, but papa finally prevailed.

Then there was the engineer who was raising the pre-teen daughter of a close friend of his former girl friend who had promised to keep the girl until her mother came back -- except she never came back. And then the girl friend left. I realize now that in the Seventies it was the women who were enjoying the mid-life crises. With great tact and propriety this man simply finished raising the girl, never mentioning the cost or complaining about her or turning her over to authorities.

In this morning’s Tribune there were two items that sort of related to this subject of fathers. One was “Pardon My Planet” which cracked a joke about a “stay-at-home dad” who had to stay home because he was wearing an electronic ankle monitor imposed by a judge. The joke was softened by making the “child” into a small dog. But I suspect the situation is sometimes a reality with real kids.

The other item was in Dear Abby: a man entering an intimate relationship with a woman he hoped to marry and very worried about his scars, which were left on his body when he was a child by an abusive, torturing father. He was afraid that in the course of explaining the scars, he would raise doubts in the mind of his sweetheart about what sort of father he would be. Would she wonder whether he would also turn out to be abusive? Would he need to explain the devastating depression that sometimes gnawed at him and would she think that disqualified him as a father?

Abby gave the same advice as she generally does: a prospective partner who cannot accept a person with scars and conditions is not the right partner for that person -- it’s the opposite of disqualifying this guy, but rather asks whether his sweetie was qualified. After all, kids are never perfect either. A parent whose standards are too high might disqualify his or her own children -- judgment that could trigger abuse. (Has this woman responded to this man because she is a potential abuser?) And of course she recommended professional counseling, which in my opinion is a legal punt. I mean, sometimes your own wise aunt is a bigger help than some twit who can administer paper-and-pencil tests of dubious value.

This great skepticism about males who parent seems to come in part from news stories elsewhere in today’s paper: reports of children captured and kept as slaves, starved and chained, forced into various services. Today’s story was about a young man kept by a small group of both sexes. The most evil recent case was probably the man who kept his daughter in the dark in the basement for her entire life, which included fourteen pregnancies imposed by him. Not all of them were "successful" because of her understandable poor health. There was no mention of where the full-term babies went. This mother, who never raised any of the babies herself, had no health care at all: she must have been one tough woman.

It’s hard to know whether the media is simply featuring sensational stories to flog readership, or whether these cases are increasing, or what the underlying social forces might be. But in my opinion it’s beyond time to start the wave of opposition by breaking up assumptions, one of which is the ideal of the isolated nuclear family, run by a patriarch who assumes he has righteous ownership of everyone else and who rages against any intervention as a violation of his rights.

Which brings me to Tim Barrus, who had one of those fathers but did NOT turn out to be like that father in spite of the major scars on his body. Tim raised his daughter among a shifting group of art-focused people something like the Cinematheque “guerilla school” he runs today. You could accuse him of being stuck in the San Francisco Seventies. The thing is that it worked, so why discard it?

I was not there. I have not interviewed anyone. But since Tim’s group included some fine photographers, I’ve seen photos of his daughter as a little girl and photos are hard to fake. (I’ve also seen photos of her as an adult with her own daughter.) She is clearly a happy and confident child, who knows she will be heard and knows the community will reach out to protect her. There’s an ease in her posture, serenity in her face.

It looks to me as though Tim was able to escape the patterns of his fast-moving, preoccupied grandfather and his obsessed and abusive father by moving into community. This is what I would say to that man who wrote to Dear Abby: find a healthy community and let it enfold you. As Don Browning’s ethical ideas suggest, the moral pattern of two heterosexual individuals, one dominant over the other, producing children as though they were possessions, marrying sequentially as a way of collecting gifts, has gone bankrupt. The forces of commodification and sexualization have been fanned by the media into a conflagration. Dear Abby and Miss Manners agree on this.

Browning and his cohort suggest that legal protections and obligations move to the relationship between parent and child -- one doesn’t get a marriage certificate, one enters a covenanted program of parenting. It might be hard to monitor or regulate, but so is marriage.

I don’t think regulation or even participating community is the complete answer. What we really need are persuasive images of successful single parents, especially fathers. Whether or not they can manage little girl hair is not quite the point. Whether or not they have open, patient hearts even for cranky kids is more like the main thing.

If you want a religious point of view, I think this is part of that shift from Abramic Old Testament domination to Jesus’ New Testament advice to “suffer the little children.” It doesn’t say, “let the little children suffer,” even if they are starving in Somalia or North Vietnam.

When Terry Tempest Williams was called before the Mormon elders to defend herself against charges that she was heretically defying the authorities by fighting pollution and habitat destruction, she said that God is embedded in creation, and that the survival of the creatures is dependent on protection by the mothers. A good biologist like hereself could have pointed out that in some species -- perhaps including humans -- a protective mother can be male, single. The elders accepted her defense.

We hear the voice of Tim Barrus:

I am always either coming to or leaving San Francisco.

Kree was three. She hadn't spilled her milk once on the train across the country.

There was no way for me to get Kree and our bags (I have since pared the owning of stuff down considerably) from the Transbay Terminal over to the cab waiting for us by myself. The three-year-old could carry her red purse. The one with Irene in it.

I had to sit Kree and Irene on the pile of luggage and head toward the cab with as much as I could carry. The cab driver returned with me and helped me carry the rest.

Kree and Irene (still in the purse) were the luggage guards.

I know this sucks. Tell me about it. But when you are a single parent, this shit happens to you all the time and you cope.

I was never all that comfortable about taking Kree (who was very verbal) into the male bathrooms downtown. She had this tendency to question men about whether or not they had a penis. But letting a three-year-old into female bathrooms by herself was not good either. You are thinking because of safety.

Maybe that.

But having been there (Macy's) and having done that, the real problem was Kree's fascination with sinks and paper towel dispensers.

I had to go in there. Or Macy's was going to run out of paper towels.

On the way to our new apartment at 22nd Street and Delores in the Mission, Kree and Irene (who refused to emerge from the purse) engaged in a dialogue.

About how people leave you sitting with the luggage.


A sword.

I do not often write about Kree's mother. Because her struggles are her struggles. We had failed at parenting an adopted, handicapped child. It tore us apart and it tore us up.

It was time to take Kree and go. I feared for Kree's mother. She was disintegrating. But my choices were simple. The three-year-old or the adult. I could not hold both together. It was way bigger than I was.

San Francisco was a godsend.

There were laws. You couldn't discriminate against us if you were renting. There was immediate health care for kids and no one asked for money (every dime I had went to get us a place).

Kids cost a lot. Jesus.

Our building was filled with gay men. Kree was the only child who lived there. You could say that about her existence in general.

One night, there was a fire. I had to grab Kree and run. It was dark and smokey in the hall.

The drag queens in the building -- in full drag -- were manning the fire extinguishers and battling the flames. Kree never batted an eye. It was how things were supposed to be.

Golden Gate Park was an oasis. Kids everywhere. Shakespeare in the park. Roller skates.

Kree and Irene blossomed. Irene even came out of the purse at times.

I liked Irene. She was a welcomed presence in our house. An imaginary figure worth a million bucks. She was real to me, too.

We were always at the library. Kree won awards there and taught herself how to read. She had checked out more books than any other child in the system. The librarians in the Castro library loved her. Most of them were screaming queens and they made books fun.

Irene loved the library, too, and sometimes Kree would read to Irene (who stayed in the purse).

I found a Montessori school where kids learned at their own rate -- it was all self-directed; which is how I handle Cinematheque today.

As Kree became friends with other children, Irene sort of faded from reality. I missed her. She never complained. She had gone bald from tub time. If you can't find the people you need, or the people you need to be, create them. I give Irene credit for being there for my daughter when Kree really needed her which was during rush hour at the Transbay terminal on top of a pile of luggage.

-- Tim Barrus

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