Games without frontiers

Jul 6, 2011 at 5:00 am

My son’s little brother is learning to talk. It is one of the dearest joys of my life that I am friendly with my ex and her wonderful new family. As I occasionally work with clients in family court, I hurt for the number of people who have “less than perfect” arrangements with the co-parents of their children. Pleasantly navigating the challenge of raising children with former lovers or spouses seems to be beyond the imagination of the average human animal.

My pet name for my ex used to be “The Beast.” It was because she started wearing one of my old T-shirts. I had bought it at King’s Island when I was a teenager. It was too small for me, and it looked good on her, and it was funny because I acted like it was her name on it instead of the name of a rollercoaster with sharp claws. And it was a little truer than anyone might have suspected, because I was totally scared of her! (Ha ha!)

Things have changed a lot since then. I’m still scared of her, but now she has a good relationship and two more sons, so being a pain in my ass is lower on her list of priorities … most of the time. She might even engage her sense of humor when she reads this and not hold it against me. (I hope!) And as a peripheral member of her new family, I’ve been able to visit with the babies on a fairly regular basis. The older one has been a jolly kid, all smiles. He started walking just a little while ago, and now he’s starting to talk.

He’s very good at saying “uh oh!” and “bye bye.” And it is clear that he understands more than he can say. He kind of says “car,” but he says it with a Boston accent, dropping the “R.” Most endearing, though, is a word he seems to have made up himself; referring to the fact that something (a car, perhaps) is broken, he says, “b’ca.” Sometimes he gets upset when something is b’ca. He will walk over to one of us with two pieces of a toy in his little hands and say, “b’ca!” Sometimes it’s a simple matter to put pieces back together. Other times, we might have to redirect his attention toward something else. It can be a dicey situation.

Being part of the “village” engaged in raising a child is an extraordinary experience. Having watched and participated in my own son’s development, I recognize the milestones and breakthroughs in the circumstances and behaviors of other children, and I started, years ago, to see adults differently, as well, kind of like the multi-dimensional aliens in Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse Five,” displaying their experiences, past, present and future, in simple gestures, behaviors and ordinary moments of truth. Most commonly, I started to see the child within my closer friends and associates, sometimes hiding, sometimes painfully demonstrative, but always a reflection of the community and environment that nurtured them.

I thought of this process as I watched Terrence Malick’s latest movie, “The Tree of Life.” For the most part an episodic presentation of a boy’s life the 1950s, the film works as a sifting of memories, real and imagined, as far back as the beginning of the universe. The boy is shown as an adult (played by Sean Penn), apparently struggling with his place in the modern world. The drama and tension of the film is drawn from a troubled relationship with his father (played in the flashbacks by Brad Pitt).

One of the first speeches (the “dialogue” is often no more than a poetic idea delivered in voiceover while “remembered” images flash by) explains a dichotomy between “Nature” and “Grace.” Ultimately (uh, spoiler alert?), it is suggested that “Grace” would lead us to be loving and forgiving, whereas “Nature,” the course of those who strive to achieve and succeed, leads to frustration and misery. I guess that’s my interpretation; it’s an “art” film, after all. Your experience may be completely different. The older lady sitting down the aisle from me thought it was total bullshit, and she wanted everybody in earshot to know, starting shortly after the movie began and offering damning commentary throughout. As a showcase for Malick’s unique style of image-based storytelling, I found it enigmatic and curiously moving.

Dedicated to the memory of Charles “Doug” Norman, an awfully good guy, taken too soon.