explorations of mindful fatherhood


One of My Biggest Fears

20130531-070751.jpgMy dad has issues. For a three year stint, he didn’t talk to me, for unknown reasons. I tried reaching out the olive branch on several occasions, through letters and email, but these attempts were met with absolute silence. It wasn’t until a pending trip to Chicago, that he responded to an email of mine. His response was pretty much, “What’s the problem. You know I’m not a good conversationalist.”

This is what scares me….neither am I.

When it comes down to it, my fear is that this legacy of emotional and communicative disconnect is going to bleed into my relationship with my own son.

My dad has his own set of problems. Born in the 1940’s and shipped to Viet Nam in his 20’s, I always knew my dad as the guy who “doesn’t like to talk about things.” This was the family narrative. You didn’t ask my dad about his life. The war was off limits. Discussions about his parents, especially his father, were out of bounds because his dad was institutionalized after a bout of incapacitating meningitis. Talk about his extended family was out of the question because he just hated the bastards. Aside from that, his only real interests seemed to be hunting and electronics, leaving few common interests between him and me (or most people).

“Alexithymic” is probably also a good way of describing my dad. It’s a word I picked up in grad school, which characterizes a person who is neither able to name his/her emotions or describe them in words. My dad and I have never had a single conversation about his feelings, nor has he ever offered up a description of them. In spite of his divorce, the death of his mother, his own cancer, none of these things enlivened a single visible emotion or mention of his feelings.

These two issues make it nearly impossible for me to talk with my dad, outside of topics such as the weather, traffic, or consumer electronics. We’ve never had the ability to talk. There were times in my life when my father and I just did more things together, and therefore spent more with one another. And yet, we weren’t necessarily close. So, as an adult man, separated from my father by half the country, there’s no way of connecting. We don’t live close enough to do things together, and conversations fall short, so our relationship languishes.

And so, each time I sit across from my son at the breakfast table in silence, or drive home with him in a quiet car, I project 20 years into a future in which we have nothing to say to one another. No bond.

There are times when conversations with my son really fall flat. My son is a relatively quiet kid. I’ve spent time with kids who provide a running narration or their thoughts or actions. Kids that are always talking. Or for some kids, once their interest is peaked, they can talk a mile a minute. This isn’t my son. He’s shy most of the time, and even when someone inquires about something he knows well, he gets self-conscious, or hesitant, preventing him from share what he knows. This is true whether it’s a stranger at a cash register, or even his parents at home.

Somehow, my wife has a magic with him, and they can have the longest conversations. I find that when I try, I’m pulling teeth. I get feedback that it’s my style. Sometimes I come across like an interviewer when having a discussion. I can pelt a person with endless questions. For my son, that doesn’t work, and he turns into a deer in headlights. I’ve tried easing up, and inquiring or opening up conversations in an inquisitive, non-threatening way. And yet I find these conversations still falter.

These scenarios bring up two things for me: anger and fear. The anger is directed at my own father. When I find myself stuck in conversation, I can’t help but think part of the reason is that I never got good modeling as a kid. If my dad was a bit more skilled, or for that matter, simply tried just a little bit harder, I might have some vocabulary for father-son dialogue. I feel robbed of some kind of formative experience that would have taught me the skills for connecting with my own son.

The second feeling is the fear I mentioned: that fear that in a few years or decades, my son and I won’t know what to say to one another. He’ll live far away and I won’t have any way of building in-roads with him, his family, or his life. Perhaps it’s a bit catastrophic, but nonetheless, it’s where my mind goes. I so desperately want a better relationship with my son, but when face-to-face, I sometimes feel incapacitated.

I substitute with time, activity, interest. When he’s around, I try to do things with him, or take an interest in the things he likes. For now, I think this works. But as he emerges into his teenage years and doesn’t want to spend time with me, or when he goes off to college, what am I to do? It’s something that I constantly grapple with, and need to keep facing head-on, before the years slip away.



Big Thanks #2: Versatile Blogger Award


As I mentioned in a post from March(!), I have been delinquent to my blogging community over the past few months, as I’ve neglected offering thanks where thanks is due. Therefore, I’ve composed this “Big Thanks” series of posts to express my gratitude for the awards bestowed upon me by my fellow bloggers (and to share the love).  I find it important to honor the spirit of these award with a post, and by sharing the good fortune with other bloggers whose words deserve to be discovered.

This next award is the Versatile Blogger Award, and was bestowed upon me eons ago by The Reporter and the Girl and Rafferty’s Rules.  Both are excellent blogs, and I encourage my readers to check them out if they haven’t already.   

Now, I have to share 7 things about myself, and select 15 new nominees.  I am a little overwhelmed by the 15 thing, so I’m paring it down to 10.  First, here’s the sharing part:

  1. I am a happily married father of one.  Yes, just one. Don’t ask me if he’s my “only.”
  2. I should exercise more.
  3. I’ve been on a wheat-free diet for two months now.  Tough, but good.
  4. I actually enjoy mowing my lawn.
  5. I am (secretly?) addicted to my iPad.
  6. I am working on being less irritable.
  7. I’m focused on short story writing now.

And my five nominees are:

  1. un.daunt.ed dad.dy
  2. Things My Children Said
  3. Sirak98
  4. Hickersonia
  5. The Dorky Daddy
  6. Daddy Drinks
  7. dadlibbing
  8. Jeff Kilman
  9. jhubner73
  10. Sometimes I Sleep

I hope you can check out these blogs. They each serve up inspiration, or laughter, or thoughtfulness.   I appreciate them all for putting their words on the screen and sharing with us all.  Thanks and best wishes.

Versatile blogger award, blog awards, nomination, acceptance speech, thank yous, the reporter and the girl awards, interracial blog awards


Deep Breaths

I'm gonna freak out on you like Roger Clarvin at the Welshly Arms.

I’m gonna freak out on you like Roger Clarvin at the Welshly Arms.

….pursed-lipped, red-faced deep breaths is more like it.

It seems my son is in some sort of weird testing phase at the moment, and I find myself taking lots of deep breaths to re-organize.  These breaths help me take a second to respond rather than react, but he makes it incredibly difficult at times.

The two things that really get under my skin are when he takes one more shot at whatever he’s been told to stop and when he talks back.  For example, he has a habit of pulling on my arm when walking next to me. Not the cute tug of days of yore, but a “let’s hang my 50 lb frame from dad’s arm and see if it doesn’t come out of its socket” sort of way.  I have back issues, so lots of off-balance, twisting force will screw it up.  So we’re walking through the grocery store and he starts swinging like a monkey.

“My back, buddy. Please don’t do that or you’ll hurt me.”

One final tug…

….deep breath.

I feel like Will Ferrell’s SNL character, the lecherous professor in the hot tub who’s loquacious and gushy until his wife climbs onto him and his back seizes.  I want to snap in that moment and yell at my son in my best Roger Clarvin voice, “Ah, my back!  Get the hell off me!” That’s what that breath’s for. So I don’t snap and yell at my son in the middle to the produce aisle like some maniac.

The second thing that really gets under my skin is when he talks back. I’ll ask him to put away his shoes.  I’ll ask once.  Then again, and again, and again, without any semblance of a response.

“Man, did you hear me?  I asked you like a million times.”

“No you didn’t.  You asked me like five times.”

….even deeper breath.  The shoes might have gone whipping across the room if it weren’t for that breath.

He’s a good kid overall, and I think he’s just at that age when he’s testing the waters.  Just double-checking to see where the lines are drawn.  That doesn’t mean I just let him do it.  It doesn’t mean there are no consequences.  But what I don’t want to do is just react and yell.  My parents both had short fuses in their own ways.  If we went too far as kids, we’d get this Bruce-Banner-turned-Hulk reaction from our mom and suffer a long tirade.  Dad would just blow up and blow out, hauling off to his room or out to the backyard, all the while mutter or yelling.  I don’t want to do either of these things.

The breaths give me pause to regroup.  In the vegetable aisle I can go down on one knee, grab both my son’s shoulders and explain to him in a forceful voice that he’s going to hurt me if he keeps hanging. I let him know that I won’t hold his hand if he’s going to keep swinging from mine. Addressing the issue instead of freaking out.  The breath helps me explain that reminding him five times to put away his shoes is too many, and then order him to put them away immediately.  Addressing the issue instead of humming a shoe (for the record: I’ve never hummed a shoe, no matter how badly I’ve wanted to).

Thank god for these breaths.  If it weren’t for them, I’d be growing out my beard and getting my hot-tub speedo ready.


My Son, The Lonely Buddhist

8131655646_c300b23a8d_zThe other day in the car, my son lamented to my wife,

“I’m a lonely Buddhist.”

She asked him more about it. He told her that most all of the kids at school are Christian or Jewish.  He pointed out that we don’t live around any other Buddhists, and that there are no Buddhist kids in his school, which makes him sad.

It was like the other day, when we were driving his friend home from an archery lesson, and the kid was describing the seder meal at Passover to my son.  The kid said something to the effect of, “If we lived in ancient Egypt, the Egyptians would have given kids like you and me a hard time, because they didn’t like Christians and Jews.”  The kid rambled on for a while, and my son shot me a look in the rear view mirror as if to say, “Can you believe this guy? Help me out here.”

“It sounds like your friend thinks you’re a Christian, buddy,” I said to my son during a lull in the conversation.  “Do you want to talk to him about that?”

“I’m Buddhist,” he told his friend.

“”Is that a type of Christian?” his friend asked.  My son went on to describe the Buddha, and explained to his friend that he goes to a Zen center.  The friend listened, dumbstruck, absorbing the notion that there were more than just Jews and Christians in the world.  By the time my son was done with his short explanation, we were at the kids house.

After the kid got out of the car, I told my son what a good job he’d done.  I was really proud of him, and happy about the way everything played out.  If people make assumptions about my son, many times I’ll step in and answer for him.  This time, I thought it was important for him to correct the assumption.  He just seemed to need permission or help starting that conversation.  I was so proud that he was able to say something.

My son has come home from school in the past, proclaiming that he voiced his difference.  He’s asserted in class that in addition to Christmas, Hanukkah, and Kwanzaa,  Buddha’s Birthday is celebrated in December.  For show and tell even brought in the cedar stick used to start meditation time.  The teacher eats it up.  Kids haven’t been so helpful.  One of his shittier classmates leaned over to him once and said, “God doesn’t like people who don’t believe in him.”  We had many discussions at home about that kid and his remark.

I grew up a Catholic White kid in a mostly Catholic, nearly all Christian, suburb of Chicago.  My Irish and Eastern European heritage seemed no different than that of anyone else in my nearly all-White suburb.  Let me put it this way: my mind was blown when I was 10 years-old, and my friend disclosed that he was Lutheran. Lutheran?  What the hell was that?  I was so sheltered, I didn’t quite comprehend that not everyone affirmed the Pope or believed in transubstantiation.

I had it so easy blending in with everyone else, to the point that my belief systems were a match with those around me.  We were seemingly the same, inside and out, spirit to pigmentation.  But my son faces a very different life.  He’s one of the only non-White kids in an 98% White community, and he’s Buddhist to boot.  Not only do people not look like him, but he even has to explain his spiritual practice to a friend who has zero concept of what he’s talking about.

But at least he does it.  For all the timidity that he shows on a daily basis, there’s still something inside that incites him to speak up about his Buddhism.  He’s told friends, explained things to his teacher, and even woven it into his artwork at school.  It’s obviously very important to him, and he makes his voice heard, even if in small ways.  When I was a kid, if people made presumptions about me, I would just swallow it.  I’d shut up and go about my day. There was something in me that was too afraid of confusing or offending others.  This fear persisted, even though I didn’t even have much to speak up about.  I looked the same as everyone else, had the same religion as everyone else.

And yet here he is, my son, looking different and believing different things, and he’s found his voice.  I couldn’t be prouder of my Lonely Buddhist.


Title of Man of the House: Claimed Then Lost

A few weeks ago, I was in our basement when I smelled it.  It was this stinking rotting smell.  At first I imagined that one of the dogs sneaked downstairs to leave us a present.  I checked the floor and my shoes, but found nothing.  With that hypothesis off the table, I knew what it had to be.  Mice.

When the inspector walked through our new house a year ago, mice traps betray the fact that the house had a pre-existing rodent problem.  But we fell in love with the house anyway, in spite of the nagging voice in my head that told me I had a battle on my hands.  Within the first few weeks of moving in, I pulled down the basement’s drop-down ceiling, only to be rained upon by thousands of tiny mice droppings.  Disgusting.  I went out and bought a heavy-duty mask, goggles, and gloves, and started bagging up stained ceiling tiles and nest-laden fiberglass insulation.  The neighbors probably thought a serial killer had moved in, as they watched me in my hazmat gear, hauling black trash bags out of the bulkhead in the middle to the night.

Since then we’ve had exterminators set traps and I’ve plugged up exterior holes, but we still hear scratching in the walls from time to time.  So, when I caught a whiff of that smell in the basement the other week, I shouldn’t have been surprise when I found a tiny decomposing body in one of the former owner’s old snap traps in the rafters under the basement stairs.  Gross.  I went upstairs to let me wife know.

“Time to be the man of the house!” I announced reluctantly, searching for a cardboard box.  I stepped up.  Got the thing into the box and pitched it. Cha-ching: Man of the House.

Frequently I take care of some really gross jobs.  Things that I’m somehow “in charge of” include vomit (cat, dog and child), pests, sewage leaks, and toilet replacement/repair, just to name a few.  At these times, my wife and I will joke about me manning-up to take care of things.  Mind you, however, that I have very flexible gender role identity.   I mean, come on, I studied feminist ethics in grad school and spent a short stint as a cosmetologist in San Diego…I’m not what you call a man’s man.  So the whole “Man of the House” thing is really our family joke on stereotypes.  Regardless, there’s still a joy in claiming it.

Then came the incident last week.

We adopted a new cat from the local SPCA, who’s been acclimating to our home very well.  He’s a beautiful, strong male cat who instantly felt at ease, and will even cozy up around our dogs.  The only issue is that he wakes up at 4am with a wild hair up his ass, running all over the place, pouncing on objects and dashing up and down stairs.

Amid his early morning nonsense the other day, I heard the unmistakable squeak of a mouse.  Damn it.  I shot straight up in bed, and saw the cat on the floor, tracking a darting brown blob on the floor.  I woke my wife up right away.

“He’s got a mouse!” I exclaimed, as she awoke, while I remained pinned on the bed.  There’s something about a scurrying mouse that gives me the creeps.  A dead one?  Okay, I can handle that, but once things start moving and crawling, I get the creeps.  My wife was the first one out of bed, with a cup in hand to catch the thing.  Only after my wife had safely tucked the thing away was I okay to bring it outside and toss it into the woods.  Man of the House title?  Definitely lost.

It was kind of embarrassing.  I like to think of myself as unflappable, especially if there’s a job to be done that affects my family’s safety and security.  A mouse in the house is hardly a threat to our safety, but it’s a sort of an incursion into our home, and so it brings out my need to step up and take care of business.  I was even worse the following day, when that darn cat found another mouse (how infested is our house?) and chased it under the sofa.  Only my son and I were home, so I had to do a lot of internal coaching (“Not a big deal, dude. You’ve got this,”).  It was one thing to show my vulnerability on this issue around my wife, but for some reason, I was just couldn’t let my son see me shy away.

We got down on hands and knees and looked under the couch.  His jacket on the floor obscured our view, so I crept to the other side of the sofa and lifted the jacket.  The mouse raced toward me.  I let out this odd yelp that I caught mid-escape. It started as this high-pitched squeal, but midway through shifted a few octaves lower to a more manly exclamation.  I think I even ended with a, “Damn!” or something equally tough sounding.  I was embarrassed as hell.

I think vulnerability around kids is tricky.  I don’t want my son to think of his father as stoic or unemotional.  So, when it comes to love, affection, and tenderness, I find it easy to express all those feelings.  I tend to hide my anxiety from my son, because I think it’s important that he feels protected and safe.  I tend to be an anxious person.  So, I try to put on a good face when interacting with the world in my son’s presence.  With this mouse thing, it took everything I had in me to keep it together.

I guess it’s okay for him to know that everyone has something that gets under their skin and makes them squirm.  It’s just that when you’re the only one in the house, the role of parent (more so than Man of the House) wins out, and you do what you need to do….even if while doing so you let out a childish squeal.