explorations of mindful fatherhood

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Sick for the Holidays

kleenexFirst it was my wife in the week leading up to the winter break with a cough and fatigue, fever and an aching body.  Then it was my son over the weekend prior to the holiday, his flu spilling over into Christmas Eve with lingering symptoms for Christmas.  Now it’s me in the days after Christmas leading up to the New Year.  I find that as I get older, illness impairs my mind even moreso than my body.  It throws me into an existential free-fall, and here’s why.

I work for a school, so am lucky enough to have every school break off: a couple of weeks off in the summer, winter break, February break, April break, and all the holidays in between.  The rest of the year I work long hours, often out of the house by 6am and back by 5pm, with very stressful days, considering the type of intensive work I do.  I sink into a routine of very exhausting work weeks, with recuperation time on the weekends.  Because of this pattern, I tend to live each weekday with the motto, “There’s always the weekend.”  I may be a wreck on weeknights, silently consuming my dinner or falling asleep at storytime, but I convince myself that I can make up for it on the weekends.  I’ll be clear-headed and Saturday and Sunday will only be about family.

Then the weekend comes.  There’s typically grass to be cut, or weeds to be pulled, or mice to be chased out of the basement.  There’s a garage to be cleaned, or a fence to be mended, or a Home Depot run to be made.  I know these things have to be done and, in a way, doing them is part of how I take care of the family.  So they tend to take priority on weekend mornings.  “If I can just get this done, then I can relax with my wife and son.”  I start the task and it either runs late or my son is invited to the neighbor’s house in the intervening hours and is out of the house by the time I’m done.

“There’s always the vacation break,” becomes my new motto.  If I can just make it to the break, then we’ll really have a good time.  We’ll have several days of uninterrupted family fun time.  Then something else happens to screw it all up.  This time, it happened to be family illness.

Colds and flus as a kid, even as a young adult, were a welcomed break from my routine.  As a kid, there was always someone to take care of me.  I’d get to stay home, watch TV, pop in a movie, eat popsicles and drink ginger ale.  Honestly, in my 20’s, it wasn’t much different.  Colds and flus were a nice wake up call.  They caused me to put down the books, the papers, and the work for a few days and just take care of myself.

Then my 30’s came, and wife and child.  Colds and flus aren’t so much fun anymore.  With my tendency to constantly push back quality time to weekends and then to vacation breaks, every second of down-time now feels precious.  So when I find myself sick for a holiday break, I go into full-blow existential-crisis-mode.  Lying shivering under the covers in sweat-soaked pjs, the following sequence of thoughts/questions arise in my mind:

“If I can’t spend quality time with my family now, then when will I ever spend time with them?”

“If I were more conscious of moment-to-moment existence, then I wouldn’t wait for these breaks.”

“If I push quality time off, it’s only because I’m lazy.”

“If I’m lazy, the years are going to speed by, and before I know it, my son will be off to college.”

“My son’s going to leave for college thinking his father is lazy and distracted.”

“I am going to die with a lot of regret about my son, my wife, and my life.”

“I’m going to die.”

Plus there’s the fever-induced dreams of dead parents, lost items, and flesh-eating zombies.  It’s a pretty shitty sequence of events, but now they hit me each time I’m sick.  No more fun and lounging like when I was younger, only physical/mental/existential crisis.

But thank goodness for sickness.  It’s no wonder Siddhartha encountered a sick man on his jouney outside the palace walls.  I’m encountering a sick man outside my palace of procrastination, and that man is me.  Luckily I can step back and realize that my illness is just another lesson for me to absorb.  In my early 30’s, I’d get sick like this and become despondent.  I’d think to myself, “Well, that break was blown to shit.  I hope the next one is better.”  This time, I’m trying to use every ounce of my energy to wake up.  I can still play a wicked game of Bey Blades while hanging off the side of the couch. I can still look over at my son’s giggling face as he chuckles and snorts as the sloth from Ice Age gets slapped upside the head.  I can be here for my son and wife, even when I’m sick.  If I can do it now, then I can do it when I’m healthy.  I’m thankful for being sick, and hope to stop taking for granted the precious time I still have with my family.


Speak Up My Buddhist Son!

Christmas_Jizo-500x666We happen to practice Buddhism in our family.  We’re members of a local Zen center and my son even attends the kids’ dharma programming there.  However, we don’t really go around advertising it. For much of my life I’ve been uncomfortable with American (White) Buddhists who parade their Buddhism like some enlightened badge of honor. I’ve met too many creepy men who use Buddhism to fabricate an aura of spiritual sophistication around themselves.  And so, we’re a fairly quiet Buddhist family.  Many people don’t know about my family’s leanings, and that’s the way I like it.  We “just do it” as they’d say in Zen.

Our approach leads our son to be quiet as well.  Unfortunately, this causes Buddhism to feel somewhat compartmentalized or disjointed from the rest of his life.  Plus, there are no real examples for him in his wider community or within media to understand his practice.  Instead, we as parents have to point out any scraps of Buddhism that have been incorporated into wider American culture.  We’ve convinced him that all Jedi are Zen monks, and that Sensei Wu from Ninjago is a Buddhist.

When our son began attending school, there were a few religious exchanges that confused him.  Especially in Kindergarten when two girls were berating this little boy about Jesus.  Then, in 1st grade the little evangelist sitting next to him whispered that God is mean to people who don’t believe in him.  Of course, not all Christian children are as in-your-face as these kids.  I use these examples because in both cases our son had no retort or response, perhaps due to how separate Buddhism is from the rest of his life.  In fact, for a while there in Kindergarten our son asserted that he believed in Jesus, not Buddha.  My wife and I responded that he could believe whatever he liked so long as he was good to other people.  Jesus was in his heart for a few weeks, and then he dropped it.  I’m convinced he thought those two girls would beat him up if he hadn’t converted.

The winter holidays have been interesting this year, because his public school is doing more to acknowledge Christmas, Chanukah, and Kwanzaa.  In our line of Buddhism, there are three major celebrations of the year, with Buddha’s Enlightenment Day falling in early December.  So this year when my son has come home from school talking about the three winter holidays, my wife always adds, “And don’t forget about Buddha’s Enlightenment!”  It sort of started as a joke, but it gave us the opportunity to talk about lots of hidden holidays that aren’t typically acknowledged in America because few people in this country celebrate them.  It was a nice way of talking about difference and dominant culture without getting too lofty with a 6-year-old.

Then Christmas day was upon us.  We also celebrate Christmas in our house, and so there’s a tree and lots of presents from parents, family, and of course, Santa Claus.  Our son eagerly handed us a present that he’d made in school especially for us.  It was a thin four by four-inch square wrapped in tissue.  My wife opened it to reveal a ceramic tile decorated in marker.  A coaster perhaps?  It had an interesting design in the middle, from which radiated four multicolored lines, each connected to a separate corner of the tile.  One corner had a decorated tree, another a burning menorah, the third a mat with a cup and corn, and the fourth a tiny golden statue.  My wife was a little confused at first, but I understood right away: Christmas, Chanukah, Kwanzaa, and Buddha’s Enlightenment.

I was so proud of him.  Not that he’s making a political statement by adding Buddhism to the winter trinity or that he’s educating the kids and teachers of his school, but that he’s speaking up.  So many times he’ll shy away from asserting things in school because he wants to be a “good kid”.   He wants to fit in.  In this case he was asserting something important to him during the holidays, which was wonderful to see.  I’ve realized that my own hang-ups about American Buddhism might only get in the way of his own spiritual understanding and development.  I should make sure that my son has a voice for his beliefs, no matter what form they take.

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Easy Bake Ovens for All!

Easy-Bake-oven2With Santa prepping to deliver millions of toys to good boys and girls tonight, I thought I’d take a moment to consider McKenna Pope and her quest for a gender-neutral Easy Bake Oven.  McKenna Pope is an eighth grade student who composed and advertised a petition to Hasbro that garnered more than 44,000 signatures on Change.org’s website.  According to McKenna, her 4-year-old brother loves to bake, but Hasbro’s Easy Bake Ovens are pink and purple, which leads him to believe that they are only for girls.  She feels this is unfair to boys with an interest in the culinary arts. Many male celebrity chefs rallied around her cause. Hasbro eventually invited McKenna to their headquarters in Pawtucket, RI, and unveiled a new gender-neutral version of the oven in black and silver.

McKenna’s youtube post received comments ranging from whole-hearted support to enraged anti-gay sentiments. One point of contention between McKenna’s respondents was whether Hasbro and other companies should shift their marketing approach toward more gender-neutral marketing or if parents should look past the gendered colors of pink and purple and, by doing so, embrace pink products for boys.  I’d like to think that both approaches are valid and both should have some momentum thrown behind them by this Easy Bake Oven movement.

Looking back on my previous posts, I’ve obviously a proponent of interests that could be considered hyper-male: Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Legos, Ninjago, and zombies to name a few.  Of course all of these things can (and are) loved by girls (awesome girls), but if we’re speaking in generalities, I’d have to say they’re pretty boy-biased.  Yet in many ways, my family tries to practice flexibility with gender roles.  While I hold those interests, I’m not much of a sports fan, and I cut my son’s hair because I used to be a cosmetologist.  My wife is very athletic and could probably kick my ass.  My son, for all his love of Star Wars and Ninjago, has also taken ballet and is a My Little Pony fan (more on that later).

I believe one of the easiest ways of practicing mindless parenting, or being an undead dad, is going with the flow of conventionality and refusing to question and evaluate one’s own stereotypes.  I know many people, some of whom are in my family, who do things because “that’s just the way things are,” or “boys like X and girls like Y”.  I’ve had nephews who have been clad in Chicago Bears paraphernalia before they could hold their heads up straight, and the same for nieces with princess gear.  I think it’s fine for boys to like football and girls to play princess, but it’s the automaticity that I have a hard time with.  These kids haven’t had a chance to express their own interests before their children were molded in a certain direction.

To be mindful as a parent means understanding your own biases and intents and making conscious decisions about them.

MyLittlePony_splash_2048x1536_ENThis point being established, I too have found myself uneasy with certain of my son’s interests, based completely on my own biases. About a month and a half ago, we were at the house of family  friends. Our son has grown up with their little girl.  The two were playing with her My Little Ponies (MLPs), and my son fell in love.  He was fascinated with brushing the ponies’ manes and tails. I thought this was just a fleeting interest, but in the days that followed, he kept asking for one.  Eventually, we visited Target, and we looked for the MLP aisle.  I knew the MLPs would be in the pink-clad aisles, along with the Barbies and other “girly” things; the aisles that my son never gravitated toward in the store.  Part of me thought (hoped?) that when he saw the aisle he’d probably abandon the interest, but that wasn’t the case.  My son wasn’t deterred and searched diligently for an Apple Jack pony.

What was my deal?  I always supported his interests regardless of how gendered they were, but couldn’t get behind this one.  I think there’s a part of me that remembers my sisters playing with My Little Ponies, and back then I was a hardcore GI Joe kid with strong anti-MLP sentiments.  Perhaps I was just riding that wave of childhood rejection.  Also, my son’s gender-flexible or gender-neutral interests up until that point had not been ultra-commerical.  This was the first commercial, super-pink interest he’d had.  I’ve always had a problem with uber-gendered marketing, and maybe that was the reason for my discomfort.  Regardless, by showing any sort of rejection of his gender-unconvenional interest, I could have sent the wrong message: for him to like things that girls like, or things that are pink and purple, was wrong.

This is why I like McKenna Pope’s plea.  Boys and girls can like the same things, whether they’re toy ovens, plastic ponies, or metal cars.  I do think that companies aggressively market to one gender and therefore squeeze out the opposite sex to the point of it appearing problematic for boys to show any interest in these hyper-feminine products and vice versa.  Moving toward marketing that is more gender-neurtral might prompt more boys to consider Easy Bake Ovens or more girls to pick up lightsabers.  But on the family front, we as parents have to look at our own biases so that we’re mindful of why and how we push our own interests on our children.

I’ll conclude by writing this: I don’t think that mindful parenting equals gender-neutral parenting.  I can respect parents with strong conviction about maintaining conventional stereotypes so long as they have explored why they find these gender roles helpful and think about how they want to encourage them in their children.  Mindful parenting means exploring one’s beliefs and consciously enacting them.

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There’s Nothin’ Like a Little Apocalypse…

15180605-mayan-calendar-backgroundWell it’s here, December 21st, 2012, the prophesied Mayan end-of-the-world, and I feel thankful.

First of all, allow me to establish the fact that there’s a whole lot crazy in my family, reaching back generations.  Therefore, certain family members back home are really taking this whole Mayan thing seriously.  My mom bought a canoe and a handgun, in case the world comes crumbling down and Chicago is submerged.  This same 70-year-old woman even bought diapers and formula because, as she reminds me, “You never know when you’ll find a baby.”

I can’t make too much fun of her though.  I must admit that a part of my reason for refusing my employer-offered/quasi-mandated flu shot was because the Mayan apocalypse was right around the corner.  Come on!  I mean, who’s going to accept a government-issued vaccination just two weeks before the prophesied end-of-the-world?  Haven’t you seen I Am Legend, people?

But seriously, this week before the fated date has been hellish for me and for many other people.  In the wake of Sandy Hook Elementary School, the school system in which I work has suffered several risk-management meeting, visits by officials, police details, and tender nerves.  High schools in the area have been placed on lock-down or evacuated due to multiple bomb threats. Everyone has been on edge, including me.  I’ve been awakened around 3am each morning by my own anxieties, and find myself going into work long hours just to keep myself busy.

In light of the Mayan prophesy I have to ask: Is this the kind of final week I’d want for myself?  I’ve been working 11-hour days, meaning I’m out of the house about 12 hours of the day.  I’ve put more stock and attention in my work life than my home life.  I’ve been running myself ragged without spending much time with my son, who should be the real focus of my attention after Connecticut’s tragedy.

One moment this week really made me slow down and appreciate all I have, and realize how fragile and fleeting it all is.  I had to attend a work holiday party, and so I came home just after 9pm.

“He’d like to say goodnight, if you can pop upstairs,” my wife greeted me.  I tiptoed up, and found my son awake, but on the verge of drifting off.

“Hi Daddy,” he said in an etherial voice, remaining snuggly bundled in his comforter.  I sat on the edge of his bed and cupped his adorable face in my hands.  We simply gazed into each other’s eyes.  He had that look that I see so rarely in my 6-year-old.  Most parents probably know it.  It’s that drunken love face.  When he was younger, especially when he was an infant, he used to do it all the time.  It’s that stare they give you when they’re about to drift off, in which they just can’t look away from you eyes.  In most cases, they stare in the same way a drunk friend might look at you as his or her inhibitions completely break down.  Sort of an, “I love you man!” kind of a look.

My son stared at me with those drunken, infatuated eyes, and I did the same.  We joked back and forth about who knows what, and he laughed an inebriated chortle.  We stayed like that for a good 10 minutes, staring at each other and cracking lame puns until I kissed his forehead and said goodnight. Walking downstairs I realized that I don’t see that stare much anymore.  As a first grader, he’s so alert and vibrant, even when we’re saying goodnight, that his frenetic energy can sometimes get in the way of a serene end of the day.  He’s becoming such a big boy that I don’t see that etherial stare or hear that quiet laughter as much as I used to.  And I know there will come a day when he won’t want me cupping his cheeks or kissing his forehead.

That’s why I’m thankful today’s apocalypse.  It causes me to think of worst-case-scenarios.  What if disaster strikes?  What if I don’t have much more time on this earth?  What do I need to do to protect my family, to keep them safe?  These are good questions. They help me become more mindful.  They help me see what’s right in front of me and what I should cherish every day, not just on days of impending doom.

Thank you Mayans.  Perhaps this is the dawn of a new age.


PG-13 Woes

pg-13There comes a time in every geek dad’s life when he needs to ask himself a very important question: “Is my child old enough to watch Star Wars?”

My wife and I have been very careful about the type of media our son consumes.  Especially when he was a toddler, we committed ourselves to avoiding any form of commercial consumption by our son.  We also made sure he wasn’t exposed to violence prematurely.  That made for a very PBS-oriented upbringing.  Blues Clues, Thomas the Tank Engine, Dinosaur Train, Curious George, and an occasional Barney episode filled our screen whenever our son was allowed TV time.  Then we graduated to movies and watched most of the Pixars, a lot of Miyazaki, and some Disneys.

Then came that critical question.

In Kindergarten, several of the boys were obsessed with Star Wars.  Midway through the school year, my son knew the names Yoda, Darth Vader, and Han Solo, without having seen even a snippet of Star Wars.  Soon he started to ask for it.  By March of that year, he was asking for it a lot, and so my wife and I put Episode I on our Netflix queue.  We re-watched, but this time from a 5-year-old’s perspective.  We tried to figure out if it was okay for his little brain, but there was no simple answer.  It’s hard to put aside your love for a movie to truly glean whether it’s actually “good” for your Kindergartener.  Up until then, our 5-year-old hadn’t seen a single movie or television show with a gun in it.  He hadn’t watched people physically fight or die in anything.  On the continuum of media violence, this was certainly many steps up from PBS.

But this is the bind: when you love Star Wars and other childhood favorites as much my wife and I, it’s hard to make an objective decision about taking that next Star Wars step.  “It’s not that bad,” we rationalized.  “It’s not as though they’re shooting guns. It’s only blasters and lightsabers.”  “Plus,” I added, “it’s an epic battle of good versus evil. It’s like a greek tragedy.  We’re actually educating him about myth, archetypes, and human nature!”

Hayden_Christensen_in_Star_Wars-_Episode_III_-_Revenge_of_the_Sith_Wallpaper_1_1280Sounds good, right? We thought so too.  We let him watch it.  We also let him watch Episode II (like the next day).  And then, the big question of Episode III arose.  It’s a terribly slippery slope.  Do you let a 5-year-old watch a PG-13 movie?  I mean, he’d seen the first two.  How could we deprive him of the 3rd?  Plus, as children of the 70s, my wife and I were dying to show him Episodes IV, V, and VI.  I mean, that’s the heart of the story!  I hang my head and admit that we let him watch it.  I’m both proud of it (my son has since seen every Star Wars), and ashamed (my 5-year-old watched a guy get his limbs cut off and then burst into flames).

This whole debate is being conjured up again as The Hobbit hits theaters with its damned PG-13 rating.  While my son hasn’t seen any of the Lord of the Rings, we’ve been waiting on tenterhooks to show him.  However, because of the sheer brutality in many of the scenes (somehow death by sword of steel seems worse than by saber of light), we’ve saved these movies for later.  But as The Hobbit hits theaters, we relive the same debate: “Wouldn’t it be cool to watch it with him?” versus “But it’s just too much.”

hobbit_an_unexpected_journeyAnd so, geeky parents across the country are probably embroiled in the same debate.  When we as parents have no emotional connection to a film, we’re more likely to gain a clear picture of that movie’s violence and, therefore, better able to assess whether we should expose our children to it.  But, if we’re fans of the movie, or if it resonates with the child within us, we’re more prone to jump the gun and sit down with our kids to watch.

So, what’s a good age for The Hobbit’s PG-13 rating?  8-years-old?  Please tell me it is; I couldn’t hold off much longer than that.

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What Every Parent in America Will Do

121214084351-36-newtown-1214-obama-c1-mainYesterday, a terrible tragedy struck Newtown, CT and the nation.  I cannot begin to understand fully the grief and loss suffered by those parents, loved ones, and community members, but my heart and my thoughts go out to them.

Initially I was in shock, hearing the news as I drove home early from the school where I work.  The words on the radio couldn’t quite penetrate.  The thought that a shooting could occur at an elementary school not unlike the many that I visit for work, was unfathomable.

But for me as a father, I was woken from my shock by the President’s statements later that afternoon.

Typically, the sentiments expressed by government officials and police during these times of tragedy are thoughtful and well-rehearsed, but rarely are they heart-felt.  The President spoke not only as Commander-In-Chief, but also as a father, as a parent.  He spoke from a place of loss that most all parents can understand.  When I think about the possibility of losing my own 1st grader, I tend to think about how the world would be stripped of a beautiful presence, and how my son would be robbed of every beautiful moment that I imagine for him.  In the President’s words:

“They had their entire lives ahead of them: birthdays, graduations, weddings, kids of their own.”

It’s common to hear spokespeople address great loss of potential when a child dies, but rarely do they speak of the indelible pictures conjured in the minds of parents regarding their own children’s futures.  This is why the President’s address was so powerful for me.  He spoke about what I as a parent imagine when I contemplate the possible loss of my son.  How, in many ways, my son is owed a beautiful life because he brings so much joy to mine, and the thought that this future could be stripped away from him is unthinkable.

I was also touched by the President allowing himself to experience emotion and heartbreak on a public stage.  It’s often that parents, especially fathers, must separate their public persona from their private one.  I find I need to do this myself on a daily basis.  As I deal with the stresses, traumas and heartbreak of those I work with, their stories typically resonate with me. Yet, because I am a professional in that moment and not a father, I hold back.  Many times this is necessary for the type of work that I do, but it certainly leaves me feeling disjointed emotionally.  I think for me there is a true fear of allowing my emotions and my role as a father to seep into my work life.  I think it takes true emotional strength and clarity of purpose to allow oneself to integrate the roles of fatherhood and work in a meaningful and thoughtful way, and I believe that is what the President showed the nation yesterday.

In the words of President Obama, “This evening Michelle and I will do what I know every parent in America will do, which is hug our children a little tighter, and we’ll tell them that we love them. And we’ll remind each other how deeply we love one another.”

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Television-Induced Narcolepsy (Fatherhood-Onset)

I did it again.

Mellow Tonin'

Mellow Tonin’

A few days back, my son’s grandmother sent him this big pre-holiday package, complete with Christmas stocking, books, and a DVD of the original Merry Christmas Charlie Brown.  The DVD sat on the coffee table for a few days, especially with the busy weekend we just had.  Sunday night rolled around, the sun was down damn early and we ate an early dinner.”Let’s have a movie night!” my wife suggested.

I lit a fire in the fireplace while my son took every ice cream flavor out of the fridge.  Soon, we were all making sundaes in the kitchen and then settling into the living room for some Charlie Brown.

I was lucid for the first 10 minutes, no problem.  Then I felt my body sinking into the cushions and my eye lids getting heavy.

“Keep it together,” I thought to myself.  I shifted in my seat, lifting my head off the cushions.  No use.  Seconds later my eyes were closing.  “I’m still here,” I thought, “I’m still watching.” My wife and son were in front of me on the floor, so maybe they wouldn’t notice if I drifted off a bit.

I opened my eyes to my wife’s disapproving glare.  She shook her head nearly imperceptibly before returning her gaze to Snoopy’s dance.

“Damn it!” I cursed in my head.  Partly at her, but mostly to myself.  How could I let this happen again?  And with a Christmas movie!  Yet in spite of the internal berating, my eyes closed several times again during the 20 minute show.

I don’t know if other fathers experience this sort of hypnotic trance with the TV, but it has only happened to me since becoming a father.  I would never fall asleep in front of the TV, with the exception of some very late night movie marathons.  I grew up with a dad who would lie on the floor to watch a movie with us kids.  He’d be in the same posture every time: legs straight out in front of him crossed at the ankles, head propped up against the foot of the couch with a pillow, and fingers interlaced over his chest.  He looked as though we’d laid him out for a wake.  The kids would be giddy with excitement to watch something.  Part of the excitement, at least for me, was sharing an experience with my dad; him getting to see the cool new show we’d found or the movie we’d been waiting to see on video.  Inevitably, my dad would be asleep a half-hour in.  I hated it.  I couldn’t understand why he’d fall asleep during something I thought was so funny or exciting.  We’d harass the hell out of him, but he’d always stay asleep.

Now I’m that guy.  That undead dad, asleep (or worse…snoring) on the couch while my son and wife are trying to share a nice, mellow night with me.  I waffle between despising this sleeping lump I’ve become and feeling entitled to a bit of slack.  That’s the terrible conflict I feel when my heavy lids lift to reveal my wife’s disapproving face.  Part of me wants to plead, “Sorry, sorry, I know, I’m a bastard!”  The other part wants to say, “Do you know the kind of day I’ve had? Cut me some slack here!”

But ultimately, it’s my fault.  I wake up early to take care of myself: I write, I work out, I meditate.  I do all these things early in the morning before I go to work. Then I have a grueling 10-hour day commuting and working, and come home completely depleted.  And here’s the rub: when my son eventually goes to sleep and my shows pop up on the DVR, I’m usually awake and spry to watch and comment.  I think there’s a part of my brain that sees a kid’s show (especially one right after dinner), and it flips some switch telling me it’s okay to lose it.  It’s okay to let down my guard because this “isn’t really for me.”

The show might be for my son, but the experience is for both of us, for all of us, as a family.  We’re sharing a moment together, and I can’t let my brain lull me into some undead state simply because it’s Charlie Brown’s face up there and not Rick Grimes’.