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The Tao of Geist

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Good Talk, Dad: The Birds and the Bees... and other conversations we forgot to have -- from Bill Geist and Willie Geist -- is a fun read that will prompt good talk.

The zeitgeist of Bill Geist ("CBS Sunday Morning") and Willie Geist (MSNBC's "Morning Joe" and NBC's "Today") is smile-making. There is playfulness and harmony in their point-counterpoint reminiscences and riffs about fatherhood, sonhood, and boyhoods.

There are, as one might expect, ruminations about "the sex talk" (why it never took place and why that was just fine: father's fear of contradiction and son's embarrassment) about summer camps that should not have happened (but which yield you-can't-make-that-up stories); about fishing (hoping fish are stupid enough to be lured by psychedelic plastic); about golf (with the Geists announcing to each other, in hushed sports-broadcaster tones, their approach to the tournament-determining final hole); drinking that was never really overdone; about studying that was never overdone; and about sports, bonding through informed spectating and nurtured allegiances, which can never be overdone.

By way of comparison, there is disharmony, discord, dysfunction in Paul Haggis's new film (Third Person) that make for head-scratching and disaffection.

There's tragic inattention of several characters to the needs of their children; as a result, those characters become childless. Those parents were distracted by their sexual and occupational needs. At crucial moments, their attentions were not focused on the requisites of parenting. Lots of loss. Lots of unhappiness.

At a Q&A following a recent screening of the film, Haggis, the acclaimed writer and director (Academy Awards for Crash -- best original screenplay and best picture), spoke of his "need" (he used the word) to write about things in his life that had troubled him, and may trouble him still. The film's "confessions" are conveyed through plot twists involving somewhat twisted characters.

Happily, Bill Geist and Willie Geist are very appealing real-life characters whose recollections are humorous and psychologically satisfying. At a Q&A, the men of Geist were asked for keys to successful parenting. Bill, who writes that there was no such thing as "parenting style" (let alone "tiger moms" or "helicopter moms") when he was growing up, explained that even as a "free-range" parent (as opposed to a "hog-tying" parent) he always found a way to be at his kids' games and activities; found ways to helpfully laugh at his and their bumps in the road. He went on to explain that as a reporter he acquired a broad view of what's important, and what isn't. That sense of priorities has been passed on to Willie, whose vignettes about child discipline (NY police precinct style) and "daddy weekend" follies ("where are the leotards?") confirm the legacy.

Among the many things that stay with Willie are the notes of encouragement his father left for him: "full handwritten pages -- about school, about basketball... about life.... and some short messages of pride and love scribbled on the offertory card in church."

Like Haggis, the Geists felt the need to write about some of their indignities, humiliations, disappointments. The difference -- a huge difference: there's nothing mysterious or puzzling or unexplained; there is, throughout, a gentle sense of fun and most authentic good feeling; and a love that will not make anyone uncomfortable.

Plus, every so often, there are tributes -- genuine (not superficial talk-show phoneyisms) for the moms and wives in their lives.

Willie's mom (Bill's wife of 44 years) is credited with being a great and patient driver-ed teacher. The classroom: a 1984 Jeep CJ-7, whose manual transmission had not been enhanced with power-steering. Recalling Halloween 1980, she is celebrated for sewing from scratch "a full kick-ass Chewbacca costume" for Willie, with "authentic Wookiee fur." She is further celebrated for countenancing an early-1990s trip to an urban neighborhood where Willie was able to acquire Hip-Hop attire and accoutrements (a four-finger ring emblazoned with dollar signs). She is also celebrated for arranging for Willie's ear-piercing and keeping secret that the high-school football team captain had undergone the procedure at a ladies' hair and nail salon).

Willie's wife is celebrated for her tolerance and adaptability -- given Willie's schedule and his free-range parenting style.

There are serious disclosures in Good Talk, Dad -- from Bill about his year in Vietnam as a combat photographer and his despair about the war's tolls; and his 20-plus year struggle with Parkinson's and his disinclination to make it public. But those "mysteries" are explained, straightforwardly.

Paul Haggis' "Third Person" is a mystery that is never fully resolved -- even geographically. That's what Haggis wants -- it's challenging. But it's not especially satisfying.

Through first-person and second-person "talks," the Tao of Geist is most satisfying.