As a new parent, I try not to judge other parents.
I'd jump in front of a speeding bus for my 9-month-old, of course, but I also have rock-solid credentials as the kind of dad who's got a good chance of getting, in the parlance of daycare-land, hotlined. I like to throw my son up in the air, way up there, which you're not supposed to do, and I'm from the "ah, come on, he's warm enough" school of baby dressing. My kid's tender melon has clunked against the tile kitchen and hardwood family room floors more times than I care to remember, all of them because I wasn't paying close enough attention to his early attempts at uprightness. I pick him up and say, "You're all right" as he screams.
I can't pretend to know what I'm doing here, and I sure can't say much about the experience of people whose children are older than mine and who are dealing with phases and situations I've only seen from a kid's-eye view.
But to the parents who let their kids anywhere near Michael Jackson's Neverland ranch, I can't help saying, in the most understanding and nonjudgmental way: What the hell were you thinking? What kind of morons are you, to let your kid anywhere near that guy, anywhere near that place?
And I say that having no idea if Michael Jackson is innocent or guilty. Jackson surrendered to Santa Barbara County sheriff's deputies Thursday and posted $3 million bond. He'll be arraigned Jan. 9, and his attorney, the omnipresent Mark Geragos, says Jackson denies allegations that he repeatedly molested a 12-year-old boy. It doesn't matter to me, though. Jackson is innocent until proven guilty in a court of law, but that doesn't mean he's innocent until proven guilty with my kid.
How can any parent, grandparent, aunt, uncle, cousin or mildly concerned neighbor bring a young boy to the remote property of a known whack-job and suspected molester of young boys? Is it just mindless celebrity worship? Are there really people who value proximity to a celebrity that much that they'd put their children at risk to get it?
Is it something else? Bragging rights? "My kid got to go to Neverland and hang out like a big shot -- how about yours?" Gee, mine was stuck at home, not being molested by a freak who thinks he's Peter Pan. What losers we must be.
I understand that adolescent and preadolescent kids can be a handful. I know that if Junior somehow swings an invite up to the ranch -- because he's a cancer patient in the right hospital, or because he plays soccer with some distant relative of the Gloved One, or however it happens -- telling him he can't go is launching a war that might never end. If he's anything like I was, anything like every kid I've ever known was and is, he'll beg and plead and cajole until all hope is lost, and then he'll bitch and moan and hate you over it. Maybe forever.
There's just no way you can convince the kid that you know what's best for him. (I'm using the male pronoun here because that seems to be Jackson's predilection, though if I had a daughter I wouldn't let her anywhere near him either.) I can remember scoffing at my parents' attempts to protect me from things far more benign than a potential child molester. I'd roll my eyes and think they were ridiculous. I'm a little more sympathetic to some of their efforts now that I see the world through grown-up eyes, now that I know that bad things do happen, kids do get hurt, everything doesn't always turn out OK. By the time the kid you've denied a ticket to Neverland realizes those things, he might have polished his hatred for you into a cold, hard, unbreakable thing.
Too bad. If my kid's going to spend years talking to a shrink, I'd rather he talk about how his daddy never let him have any fun than about the time he was molested by a pop star who'd divorced himself from reality.
A decade ago Jackson was accused of molesting a visitor to his ranch. No criminal charges were filed because his accuser refused to testify -- after Jackson paid him $15 million to drop a civil suit. California law was changed in response to prevent that scenario from repeating. Prosecutors at the time said that photos of Jackson's genitals matched descriptions that boys who had visited Neverland had provided. Last year in an interview that was part of a television documentary, Jackson said he invited boys for sleepovers and slept in the same bed with them, and he saw nothing wrong with that.
OK! Good enough for me. The allegations might all be, as Jackson said Thursday, "a big lie," but even without them there's enough unstable, inappropriate and downright creepy behavior that if I have anything to say about it no kid I know is getting any closer to Michael Jackson than the play button of a CD player, if there are even any kids still interested in Michael Jackson CDs.
This is a man who also said, in that same TV documentary last year, that he's had no plastic surgery other than a little nose work to aid his breathing. Credibility is not exactly his strong suit.
If a guy knocks on my door and says he does handyman work and do I need anything done, I'm not letting him in until I check him out, call his references, do everything I can to assure myself that this guy's OK. He's probably all right, but I have a kid in the house, and you just never know.
But there are hundreds, maybe thousands of parents who shipped their kids off to Neverland, to the private compound of a man whom most of the Western world suspects is a child molester. That's endangering children. Michael Jackson was photographed in handcuffs Thursday. He shouldn't be the only one.