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A JOY ALL ITS OWN

The principal pleasure that parenthood provides is that it allows us as adults to examine those, shall we say, unsavory aspects of ourselves in another human being. These aspects, possibly because they are unsavory, may otherwise go unnoticed or even be indulged in as part of the cherished self-image that almost anybody with a "healthy" ego can be said to possess. 

You might think it's cute to be messy, or ditzy, or clumsy, but when a person who is not you fails to cap the toothpaste or leaves his dirty underwear in the bathroom sink, or is always slamming doors or breaking dishes, or smacks her gum or slurs her words when she drinks too much - those traits which, when exhibited by your person, you feel only add to your charm, suddenly become quite a chore when exemplified by another. 

But if that person is your own flesh and blood, an extension of you, an "evolution of your soul," as my own mother was wont to put it, then you may be less likely to react to these and other faux pas with hostility or impatience. You still don't accept the unsavory trait: break a glass yourself and the sound it makes isn't too terrible, but watch another person break it and whether that person shares your genes or is a total stranger makes no difference, the ringing in your ears really stings. And so having kids, and tolerating their quirks, and disciplining them and guiding them through life, compels us to deal with those aspects of ourselves which we'd otherwise ignore or even coddle, and makes you a better person. Which is good, since you probably think that self-improvement is the purpose of life, and in a way I'd agree.

I don't have any children, but I do have brothers. And my dear brother Justin, God rest him, was, if anything, a challenge. Justin was stubborn, contradictory and contentious. His unvarnished opinions, which he'd lavish on all persons who dared come within earshot, were as accurate as they were scathing and even cruel. While my mother slaved in the kitchen to prepare several-course meals for her family, Justin would throw a Hungry Man platter into the microwave and sullenly scarf it down in his bedroom in front of the portable TV, leaving his loved ones to sulk at the dinner table in silence, each of his forgotten family members left to wonder, "Is it me?" 

Justin was generous, but only with my father's money, which he'd sneak into my parents' bedroom whenever the urge seized him, which was often, to rifle through and filch a few rumpled notes. Justin's bedroom was like a nightclub after an all-night rave. The carpet, which Justin as a pack-a-day cigarette smoker used as a sort of walk-in ashtray, was stained into a sort of leopard print. He'd drink so much malt liquor and get so sloshed that by the evening's end half of each sip would wind up on the floor, adding to the feline's dirty spots. Justin was a walking bodily-function, his eructations spewing from his mouth with impressive ardor and complementing the profanities he favored in daily speech. His antics were not confined to the home, for my brother was also a terror on the highway. In the 6 years the boy had a license, my father had bought him as many cars. Not out of favoritism, but only because Justin had totaled the first five. As my father once put it, whenever you drove with Justin, even if he was traveling below the speed limit, you always felt unsafe. 

Often when I would drive my brother someplace - if not to the auto mechanic to retrieve his dinged up vehicle, then probably to the video arcade - if he thought the vehicle ahead of us was moving too slowly, he'd reach over my shoulder and honk my horn! When he'd drive with my father, the two would fight tooth and nail over which radio station would be allowed to grace the vehicle with sound. My dad favored country music or talk radio, and Justin cared only for K-NAC, which played heavy metal and is now defunct.

Once, after being treated recklessly by a girl he was sweet on, Justin barricaded himself in his bedroom and held a bowie knife to his throat, don't ask me where he got the serrated weapon from. My poor father, who viewed it as merely the latest attention-seeking gesture in his juvenile delinquent son's drama-filled life, yelled from his perch in his recliner, "Let him do it!" He was, understandably, fed up. To a degree, we all were. In reference to his audacious arm tattoo, of a joker giving you the finger, I once asked my brother what possessed him to desecrate his flesh in such a shocking fashion. Justin looked me dead in the eye, and after clearing his throat and hocking a thick loogie a hair's breadth from where I stood on the sidewalk, calmly riposted, "Because I want to!" At the time I was a foot taller and far more muscular than my diminutive sibling, but nevertheless was stunned into a sheepish silence. What can possibly be added to that?

I could go on and on about Justin's many quirks and idiosyncracies, which were challenging to say the least. His dastardly deeds could easily fill up volumes of books, which if I ever get around to writing, I'd file under the genre of horror. But my brother also had many endearing traits, and in the twenty years since he passed away I glimpse each day at least one of the ways he left his indelible mark in my life. He loved renting movies, and the TV was always on in our house, with Justin seated inches from the screen, legs spread, feet on the console and, with increasing frequency as he got older, his penis in his hand. As a teenager I'd drift in and out of the living room between homework assignments to catch a scene or two of whatever was Justin's predilection for the day, and many of the movies I still enjoy - Goonies, Revenge of the Nerds, Real Genius, so many others - were initially my brother's picks. From him I also borrowed my taste in music. Justin also introduced me to marijuana, and would smoke me under the table every chance he got, which at one point in my college years became every single day. And he had the most beautiful eyes, and could be gentle as a dove when the urged seized him, never often enough.

Now I grew up treating my parents like God, simply because I was told to do so by priest and Sunday school teacher alike. Isn't honoring your mother and father one of the Commandments? Mom and Dad could do no wrong in my eyes. If they had any faults, I was not wise to them. Justin was. He'd take my mother to task on everything. If she attempted to assert her authority as his elder, he'd say in his great, stentorious voice, "You're not the boss, Dad's the boss!" Of course Justin didn't treat my father like the boss at all, stealing his money and wrestling with him over the radio - but it effectively put my mother in her place. Not to be outdone, her retaliation was to brand her son "the recessive gene." Touche!

When I came into my own as a free-thinking adult - after college, since before then like all coeds I had been trained to sit and listen to my elders then adopt their views as my own and reproduce these on tests - I saw that many of the traits my parents battled against in Justin, they actually possessed themselves. They had shades of these same unsavory characteristics, not full-blown versions, since nobody could hold a candle to Justin when it came to being uncensored. My father can be argumentative and obstinate. My mother, unreasonable and set in her ways. When she was dying of cancer, try as I might to get her to eat a certain food by saying it was good for her, if Mom didn't like the taste, then just as Justin had once disdained her pasta, the vegetables I had lovingly prepared for her would go to waste.  And I have come to realize that, in their associations with their middle child, my parents had been forced to confront an aspect of themselves they may otherwise have chosen to ignore, and to deal with what they saw.  Which can only lead to "the evolution of your soul," if it doesn't kill you first.

Justin held a mirror to everybody who came across his path. Often you didn't like what stared back at you. Often it was my brother who bore the brunt of your displeasure, which is why he was the frequent target of bullies. But you emerged from your time with Justin awakened and aware, a bit more tolerant of others and wise to your own ways.

I've often wondered whether my disinclination to sire a child hasn't stemmed from the fear that if I did, I'd wind up with a Justin of my own! Fortunately for the self-help lovers, you don't need children to perfect yourself. If you adopt an objective opinion of your own person, viewing yourself as a separate individual entirely, then even the spinster can iron out the kinks in her personality. Hell, doing so may even make a married woman out of an old crone, and maybe even a father of me. For having a family who cares and challenges stands among terrestrial fulfillments a joy all its own.

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