If I couldn’t shield my son from the world, at least I could try to explain it.

By P.H.I.Berroll

The plan is to hang out with my son, helping him with his second-grade homework, before picking up his brother at an after-school program. We find a neighborhood diner – small, clean and as one would expect for a mid-weekday afternoon, almost empty. We sit in a booth, unpack his work materials, negotiate what he can eat (either chicken fingers or French fries, not both), and begin.

I’m so involved with him that at first I pay no attention to any of the noises in the background: clanking dishes, shouts from the kitchen, traffic rumbling on the street. But then another sound emerges, sharp, insistent, almost demanding to be heard.

“…talk about ‘bringing democracy.’ What [expletive]. They’ve never had a democracy in a thousand years. They need a dictator, that’s all they understand.”

It’s the table behind us. The manager has left the cash register for a few minutes to chat with a friend, though “chat” is not the operative word here. Nor is “dialogue.”

“And that [expletive] Obama, he’s so concerned about their feelings. Because he lived in Indonesia, he thinks like them. The hell with their feelings. They don’t like it, tough [expletive].”

The manager says something in response, but it’s not clear; his voice is too soft, his Greek accent too thick. In any event, he’s barely able to complete a sentence before his companion jumps back in.

“We don’t need their [expletive] oil. We’ve got enough oil underground to last more than two hundred years, did you know that? But we can’t touch it because” – he shifts to a falsetto register – ‘Oh, you’ll hurt the environment.’ What [expletive, expletive].”

My son has been doing his best to concentrate on his word-study exercise, though he has shot a few surreptitious glances over his shoulder. Now he leans toward me.

“Daddy,” he whispers, “that man said the ________ word,” referring to it by its first letter.

“I know. Just focus on your work.”

In terms of his vocabulary, I am not concerned about my son’s innocence. He’s heard the word numerous times. His year-and-a-half-older brother has become quite fond of it, and repeats it – only at home, thankfully – whenever he feels like getting a rise out of his parents.

But I want to protect him, not from the man’s politics – though I disagree with everything he’s saying – but his worldview. Bleak, nihilistic, Manichean;I’ve met his type before, usually at night and after a few drinks.  The message never varies. Big fish eat little fish, money talks, nothing will every change. Optimism and idealism are for fools and suckers.

“…blames the rich for everything. Hey, you got your winners, and you got your losers. That’s how it is. Stop whining.”

He finally leaves when the cashier tires of his rants and goes back to work. I wonder: How did he get to this point? I understand the lure of cynicism, especially for middle-aged (like myself) and older men. Age and painful experience teach us to be hard-headed realists, to accept that the world often works in ways we don’t like.  But realism is not the same thing as sour, ugly misanthropy.

I feel like covering my son’s ears, or at least explaining to him why this fellow is not to be believed. I want to protect him from contracting the man’s disease.

I know – it’s futile to think I can shield him from everything noxious and destructive in the world. It’s even counterproductive, like those antibacterial soaps that kill so many germs they leave children more vulnerable to infection. Exposure to a little dirt, a bit of ugliness, is not a bad thing; it can ultimately leave them tougher, more resilient.

We all know this; as men, we’re supposed to know this, yes, even we modern, sensitive dads. We still feel that primal impulse to impart the message that life is not always gentle or pretty. It’s a tough world, son. Right. But a hopeless world?

At bedtime, in their darkened room, my son gives his brother a full report.

“And he said something about Indonesia… Daddy, you remember what he said?” The mother of one of his best friends is Indonesian.

“I’m not sure,” I lie.

He mentions seeing the man pass a cop as he left the diner. “Why didn’t the policeman arrest him?”

I explain, in as kid-friendly a manner as possible, the First Amendment.

“You mean you can even say the ________ word?”

I explain, as best I can, the current norms about inappropriate language. “Does that make sense?”

“Yeah,” they say, sounding satisfied if not entirely convinced.

We say our goodnights, and I leave the room. For a moment, I contemplate what they might encounter in the next day, or year. I’m already thinking how I can make sense of it for them.