September 4, 2006

When What We Love And Who We Love Are At Odds

Whatever his animal conservation and awareness accomplishments, Steve Irwin's clownlike persona and the unfathomably unpredictable circumstances of his death make him a poor posterboy for discussing the issue of whether to continue extreme behavior after you have a kid.

[And no matter how experienced he was or how many precautions he took, there is no way anyone can convince me that it was anything but exploitative and irresponsible to put on a show about feeding a crocodile while dangling his kid alongside the chicken.] But none of that lessens the tragedy of a family--with two small children--losing their father so early in their lives.

For me, croc feeding joined skydiving and most of jaywalking, even, on my personal list of Things I Could Conceivably Rationalize Before The Kid, But That I Now Feel Too Burdened With Responsibility To Stay Alive To Take Up. That list is going to be different for everyone, and none is or should be the Dad In The Plastic Bubble, but I really wonder where and how you negotiate the line between yourself and your family.

People have taken me to task for the tone of my Irwin post, fine. But Andy's one-line link to the news had a tagline that's haunted me all day: "died doing what he loved." It's a statement, rationale, explanation that's meant, I guess, to help make sense of an otherwise senseless, random event.

I wanted to type 'accident,' but the whole point is that it's not referring to some banal everyday activity like crossing the street or a sudden illness like stage 2 pancreatic cancer, or even something stupidly avoidable like standing under a tree in a lightning storm. Beyond the basics, though, we regularly put ourselves at varying degrees of risk doing "what we love" whether that's our jobs, our hobbies, our compulsions, or our passions. And when that risk-reward calculation goes south, it's not just we who pay the price, it's our families.

Reading Irwin's story, I immediately flashed back to May 18 a Thursday night, when I got ambushed in my car by an NPR commentator's tribute to extreme skiing pioneer Doug Coombs. Coombs and one of his brightest protege's were killed in April while skiing a series of 50-degree couloirs in the most dangerous part of the extreme skiing mecca of La Grave, in the French Alps.

The commentator, Alex Markels, like many, many people who knew or skied with Coombs, was in awe of him and had near-endless stories of formative experiences to tell. [This Coombs tribute from the Denver Post is similar, only longer.]

It was a heartfelt tribute to a sorely missed friend who clearly touched many lives and "died doing what he loved," but right at the end, Markels mentioned that now someone else will have to teach Coombs' 2-year-old son how to ski, because his dad can't.

Well, I promptly lost it and had to pull over. I'm a lameass skier and getting worse with every winter I miss, but teaching my kid to ski is on the shortshortlist of things I've always envisioned when I became a dad. As I sat there, though, I felt ambushed: was it obvious only to me that no amount of praise from friends or customers was going to offset the absence of his father in that kid's life?

But what can you do? Coombs' entire life, it seemed, was death-defying skiing. His wife is an extreme skier, too. He runs extreme skiing tours and makes extreme skiing documentaries. Can anyone really expect him to stop being who he is just because a kid comes along? No one can answer that for anyone but himself, and that's my whole dilemma.

I'm lucky, I guess, because the things I love don't cause me to face death or injury too often. Or at all. But even so, I feel there is so much more at stake now, including the well-being of someone who cannot possibly understand, much less accede to, the concept of risk, that there are now whole worlds of things I just won't do because of what some outcome may do to my kid's life. Most of the time, I'm totally cool with that; hell, most of the time, I don't even notice. But then something like this happens to remind me what sacrifices I face, and--and well, it's like wrestling a big ol' croc. I reckon. And I guess it makes me ramble.

30 Comments

I consciously take fewer risks with my own life because I don't want someone else raising my kids. It's one of many ways that I am less selfish because it's not just about me anymore.

I'll bet Steve Irwin did change his outlook over the years, adding more precautions to his stunts out of concern for how an injury would affect not just him and his children but also the 500 employees of his various enterprises. It's tragic that all the safety planning in the world wouldn't have prevented his death.

"having a baby changes everything"

Like, for example, crying when you hear about some dorky Australian guy being speared in the chest by a stingray. Seriously, though, it does make you examine your priorities. But it also seems like Irwin spent his childhood hangin' with the wildlife, too, so it makes some sense that he would just go on about his business.

Still very, very sad, though.

He wasn't just doing what he loved because he loved to do it... he was also doing it as a part of his career that put bread on the table for his family.

When soldiers who are parents go off to war in Iraq, do we condemn them for putting their family's livelyhood at risk by exposing themselves to death or dismemberment? No, we endure odes to their heroic sacrifice and give their kids a cardboard cutout...

Both Irwin and parent-soldiers have chosen dangerous careers not only in spite of their family obligations, but, in part, because of them. When these people die, I think its best to simply mourn thier passing, not condemn them for it.

[first, the whole POINT I tried to make was to not condemn someone, but to come clean that this troubles me BECAUSE it's a question I find myself asking myself. As for soldiers, cops, firefighters, the question remains the same, just with other factors in the mix: how do you balance or sacrifice things like passion, duty, honor, ambition, helping other people, and your responsibilities to a kid? -ed.]

I hated Steve because he was annoying (really hated), but this was an accident that could have happened to any scuba diver.

[exactly, that's part of the "poor posterboy" problem, because it's not like the thought of giving up scuba diving would cross many/any parent's mind. -ed.]

Somelike Erwin or Coombs, whose entire life and livlihood depended on their risky behavior, can be excused, I think, from continuing such behavior after becoming a parent. My ire is directed at journalists who continue to cover war-torn areas after having kids. They can make their living writing about other areas of life. Not only are they risking their lives but they are away from their families for months on end, by choice. Again, it may work for them, but as you mentioned, everyone has their own list of things they would not do and that is on mine.

Excellent post, by the way.

[wow, hadn't thought of that, and it's slicing it pretty thin, but a very interesting point. And one which opens up a whole other set of issues: choosing careers or other activities that keep you away from your family. While his soul is another story, no one's life is at risk from being an investment banker, but it's a job with 100hr+ workweeks, easy. Not a lot of T, much less QT left for anything/one else. -ed.]

Great piece.

Parenthood can affect (effect?) great changes in one, but the balance between the needs of the self and needs of the child are ever-changing.

The joys of the double black diamond run aren't even close to the joys of watching my child learn. But that's me.

Everyone complains about Steve and Baby Bob. But his wife let him wiggle her newborn in front of a croc. Of course she also let him name their daughter after a dog. Do they not have a version of CPS is Australia?
Being a daredevil is not like being a soldier. The armed forces is often a way out of poverty. Steve Irwin could have stopped taping his awful show and ran his zoo. His family wouldn't have starved.

Greg, you raise interesting questions (one that some people have decided is a criticism).. great post.

Excellent post - it is the struggle that many of us who admired Mr. Irwin's work have had to struggle with all the issues you laid out so well.

He went out on a limb, but such was his life from early on. The life his parents showed him (except for the baby with the croc feeding part...)

The Patriarch's comment about journalists is spot on. I was saddened at the death of Daniel Pearl, but I was furious, absolutely furious at the stupid chance he took when he knew that his child was only weeks away from joining him in this life. He had a responsibility and he shirked it.

Steve Irwin took chances, but this was an accident, a terribly sad accident.

thing is, with strong personalities like steve and doug, that they became such strong personalities (or characters), because of a reason. they were ment to do what they did. and they realized that. and loved/lived doing it.

everybody who has such a gift knows how hard it is to change.

its sad for the kids right now, but believe me, they will be prood of dad one day - when they realize what he did for their world.

steve was one of those few who changed our-- my-- or at least some worlds. and the world needs those characters. the world aint working with guys who only get pissed cos someone was'nt perfect.

stop the fucking whining and re-read the last sentence.

[you do some re-reading yourself. the only ones who seem pissed around here are the Irwin fans who don't like hearing their clown being called a clown. A clown who named his daughter after his dog. -ed.]

At least wartime journalists and even Steve Irwin can claim that their work is important because it will teach the masses. Children of public servants have to learn that their parents belong to others in a way, too.

Extreme sportsmen are hard for me to understand even when they don't have little kiddos at home to come back to. How many of these guys have had to be rescued at great cost (monetary and physical) to the general public, who really don't get much out of it aside from "wow, that looked rad!" Mountain climbers and extreme snowsports folk who fork over tens of thousands of dollars to be the first one to do something new... really, it doesn't seem much different to me than the new Jackass movie coming up...

Of course, I suck at skiing and snowboarding, so perhaps I am just being vindictive.

I find it upsetting that many of you are dismissing the death of this "dorky stupid guy" who was in fact, a man passionate about what he did, and an amazing conservationist. His personality, grating as it may have been, brought heaps of attention to wildlife and the need to preserve it. This dorky stupid guy was still someone's husband, someone's father, someone's brother, someone's friend. I can understand anger towards his choices, but just because they didn't make sense, or are not what YOU would choose, do not trivialize them. God forbid anyone EVER dismisses one of your friends or family members as a stupid accountant, an annoying insurance rep, a dorky admin assistant. And the comment about how Steve's accident could have happened to any scuba diver? Profound...very profound.

[sheesh, almost every croc fan comment has included 1) an angry rebuttal to imagined criticism that wasn't there in the first place, and 2) a vindictive wish on the worthless life of whoever made the imaginary criticism. Full credit to Irwin for developing a passionate, if homogenous, fan base, at least. -ed.]

Well, Greg, I'm in the same boat as you. Not being an extreme-anything, but more of an every-day guy and now father, I wonder about people like this. I don't get it, but I don't get a lot of things. At least he did die "doing what he loved". And I admire him for that.

His kid and wife will probably miss him, but I don't feel any more sorrow for them than I would a smoker-who-died-from-lung-cancer's family. Everyone takes risks and some are more calculated than others.

Oh, I quit smoking after the boy was born. But smoking wasn't how I made my living.

Came here by way of blurbomat. I posted about Steve Irwin's passing this morning, and what it triggered for me. I am taken with the all discussion his death has sparked. He drove me absolutely crazy, but I was very much moved by the news myself.

He really embodied the principle of "follow your bliss", an idea that is is both alarming and alluring to most of us, and one that becomes even more complicated when we have our small people to consider.

k.

A) Not a croc fan.
B) Not angry.
C) Weird that you think there is a vindictive wish against others when it clearly states "God forbid it should happen to you." Meaning, really hope it doesn't. Something to think about, that's all.

Maybe read the comments twice before posting cutesy patronizing editorial observations.

[uh huh. thanks. -ed.]

I understand your point and I agree that feeding the crocidile with his son in his arms was not a responsible or particularly bright thing to do.

Here's the but.

Because he did what he did, millions of kids got to see animals in a whole new way. I was a fan of his, because I respected and appreciated what he was doing. It breaks my heart for his family that he died so young, because certainly his children will miss him terribly and suffer in his absence.

But when they are older my guess is that they will be very proud of their dad and very glad that he was who he was.

Anyway, I just went on a rant on my site about people popping in out of nowhere and leaving rude comments- that isn't my intent here. I think that when I have children I certainly won't be jumping out of airplanes. But I can't say that I'd never put myself in danger- if someone were in trouble or needed help- if it was something I felt I needed to do. I think sometimes you just do what you think is right, and sometimes it doesn't work out the way you'd hoped.

Amazing perspective. Very thought inspiring.

That isveary inspiring

Maybe before you decide what a risky job is, you should find that actual odds of dying doing a given activity.
http://www.nsc.org/lrs/statinfo/odds.htm

[another good point, though I would bet the risks of getting struck by lightning are different for a regular shmo and a stormchaser, for example. And who knows, maybe the extreme skiing culture/community's built an elaborate support system into it to deal with risk, the way the firefighter culture has, I don't know. The whole issue is inevitably colored by our own subjectivity as we try to relate experiences like these to our own lives. And that subjectivity is often at odds with the macro-level statistical probability tables.-ed.]

Excellent and eloquent post, partly because it calls our attention to an important inquiry in an age when it is dramatically apparent that you can't even be sure of returning home at the end of a hard day at the office.

How will your children remember you?

How your children remember you has a lot to do with how they know you, and how they know you has a lot to do with how you integrate the different worlds you inhabit in the course of a day and bring that home. His children certainly didn't know Irwin long, but I suspect they will come to believe they knew him well.

It is also interesting that his life - and death - created such a visual public record. His children's experience of that life and death will be dramatically different from, say, the child whose father died overseas in WWII and only has some faded B&W memories, or even the child of a writer.

It will be interesting to see what effect death has on the first generation to grow to adulthood with household video.

BTW: age of a parent is another dimension of risk taking, from the standpoint of when your child(ren) becomes fatherless (or parentless, as children do become eventually: those of us who are not yet orphans will most likely live to eventually see that day).

Risking your life to help make the world a better place for your children is not the same as a parent risking their life for kicks. We are dependent on the environment for life, so if we care about the welfare of our children and coming generations, we much try to protect the health of the environment.

If I went by certain "parental values," I wouldn't bother driving, since, geez, there are so many drunk drivers out there! Why fly, when the plane could come down at any moment? Heck, why bother eating? Haven't you heard? It can kill you.

It's easy to criticize (famous) people. The hard part is looking at oneself and finding the true reason one is critical of others. One will usually find a certain lack of happiness with one's own life.

BTW, if you'd seen the video (as I just did for the first time on Monday), Mr. Irwin wasn't "dangling his kid alongside the chicken." Just so you know...for future use.

[I give up. Some kind of reality distortion field has clearly descended on this post. -ed. ]

I agree with your essay on staying alive for your children. While I am saddened by Steve Irwins death, it could probably have been avoided with a little caution (why didn't he swim just a bit to the side of the creature instead of directly over it?). With his knowledge of wildlife he surely knew what a stingray could do when he took the actions that he did just a few days ago. I have always thought Mr Irwin took a LOT of chances with wild, dangerous, poisionous animals and that some day he would take one chance too many. That day/chance caught up to him in the reef off Australia. Now, I am sad to say, his wife and children have to continue on witout his presence.

Perhaps Steve Irwin did do a lot of work to help people love and enjoy animals, but if I put myself in the place of his children, to be completely honest, I would _hate_ the animals that took my father away from me...

Which is another issue all together.

Speaking as a widowed mother who has had to raise her 12 yr old daughter alone since she was 7. Thank you! I can't tell you the countless times that both my daughter and I have missed my husband. From the big things like the annual Daddy-Daughter dance. To the everyday like helping her with her Math and Science homework that I struggle with. I get very angry when I see fathers risking themselves for their own thrills, as I daily see what the cost is when they are gone,

My father died when I was not yet 5 years old, he wasn't there for any important event in my life. My mother was so emotionally scared she never remarried and even stopped dating compleatly within 10 years due to depression. Although his death was not unexpected to her it was to me and I have had to deal with that along with the dim-witted comments of people ever since.

My father-in-law once pointedly proclaimed I had never been disappointed by my father; my responce that my father's death when I was so young ment that I knew nothing but a lfetime of disappointments. The old B*****D promptly shut up & crawled off to hide with his buddy Johnny Walker.

I later found out that his father had died when he was 21 after a lifetime of 'disappointing' him, & helped set the pattern for another generation with him disappointing his son, my husband; a real 'it's-just-the-way-life-is' mentality.

My husband took too many of our good years to grow out of that old drunk's bad 'fathering' [in partnership with his mother's bad 'mothering']it's scared our lives deeply and the effects are now irriversible, no one has that much of a life to waste on some living but 'unpresent' parents.

Steve Irwin's death and the way he treated his infant child said it all before his own father spoke up & said he & Steve 'were not so much father and son; we was 'mates'.'
A real freighted responce anyone who thinks they can be 'mates' with their kids produces parents with the idea they can use their children as marketing & leveraging tools.
Steve Irwin knew he'd done something very wrong in the eyes of at least the North Americans when he agreed to talk to Matt Lauer on the Today Show. Irwin publicly stated that 'Crocs do not jump up like sharks" watch the footage of that stunt, on the ground using it's tail as counter balance the 'croc' rears at least 3 feet off the ground while Irwin looks away at the child in his arms. All I could think of at that moment was that old 70's song about a one armed swamp dweller named "Amos Moses" who's daddy had used him for aligator bait.
Note too that Irwin's wife, mother of the child held in such danger the woman who supposedly labored hours for and gave birth to that child just a month befor is directly behind that ninny half hidden by the 3' steel fence. If Irwin Had Been knocked to the ground by that reptile,... well babies that small hit the ground head first because that is the heavyest part of them. Need I say more? Gravity works folks.

Be present in your childrens lives make sure that no matter how or when you die your children never question your love for them and their mother.

Luckily my father gave me his name, his tiny amount of money but especially his time & attention.
No greater gifts can any father leave his children no matter what the circumstances or timing of his death.

Good lord, I want a motorcycle so bad. Thanks for the post...it (along with the obituary section) helps me stay out of the er/morgue. My three little kids thank you too.

After reading many of the coments made by other readers I am still left with the realization that too many people live in bubbles of their own.

I commute over 20 miles on a freeway to and from work every day that has accidents reported on it more often than I feel comfortable with, but I must go to work to make money to support my family. I have three children now 21/23/25. One has served his country as a Marine and seen combat in Iraq and experienced first hand how children are used in combat and killed because of it. One of them is going into the business world and will be traveling many times on our wonderful airlines that are often under question regarding safety. The last one travels on a bicycle to and from work and has to deal with the danger of everyday traffic due to cars that don't pay attention or care about people on bikes.

The point I am trying to make is that every day and every aspect of life brings dangers and chances that your child or yourself will not return home at the end of a day. The best a parent can do is teach your children about the dangers, and hope they take heed to your warnings. Don't MAKE them because they will do the opposite just to spite you (you learn that with years of raising them).

In these days and times of drugs, wars, and uncaring people I can understand why younger people are considering NOT having children. It's not a perfect world and it can change "In a New York Minute" (by the Eagles).

[thanks, maybe the most any of us can really hope to do is just make these kinds of decisions with our children in mind. -ed.]

Here's the thing though. What did Irwin teach his son, what else will his son and family take away from his work? While I don't think that dangling the child by a croc was right, I do think doing what you love is just as important for a child to witness as is being safe for them. As a parent I want my child to grow up safe yes, but I also want him to grow up and be a happy individual, which involves doing what he loves. If I don't set that example for him , how will he learn that? How will he learn to chase his dreams if all I teach him to do is get the safe, boring job that I don't really enjoy or care about? How will he learn that there's more to life than just getting by and that true happiness lies in pursuing those dreams?

I have a friend who's wife won't let him make art, which is his dream, because she thinks it takes too much time away from the family. So he works at a book publisher and never gets to do what he enjoys, what is he teaching his son about happiness as an adult. No wonder kids never want to grow up. Yes there are parental responsibilities, but there are other responsibilities to teach your child to enjoy life and go after his or her dreams.

[good points, but I can just as easily imagine--or hear myself making--the selfish version of that argument, rationalizing doing what *I* want under the unassailable "I'm doing it for you, honey" banner. I don't think there are any "right" answers here, btw, certainly none that we can figure out for other people. Hell, it's hard enough being honest and frank with ourselves about our motivations. And though I really--no, really--don't want this thread to be "about" Irwin or his example, particularly because it's too loaded, and his death was too freaky and unusual to be very relevant to most people's lives (i.e., mine, let's face it), to his credit, Irwin was working in a family business, alongside his parents, which happened to be a zoo. The irony, of course, is that his kids won't have the same oppty. -ed.]

We've all done stupid things in our lives that, in retrospect, we probably wouldn't do again. But, to not have done something and regretted not doing it, is not how I want to live my life either.

My son took my mother sky diving on her 70th birthday. I didn't go, not because I thought that I shouldn't, but because it scared the crap out of me. But I applauded her for wanting to do something and did it.

A stingray barb to the chest is so far out there on the "won't happen in anyones lifetime" scale that it happening defies any odds.

I'll miss him and his stupid shows.

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