explorations of mindful fatherhood


Who’s That Freak in the Tree?

Dad, come on down.

Dad, come on down.

As I write this, there’s a public works guy about 50 feet behind me, thinking this exact thought, “Who’s that freak in the tree?”

Last summer, when we moved to the burbs, I had the ingenious idea to build a tree house with my son. In my mind, it was meant to be a time to bond, a time to create a memory for my son that he’d pass down to his own children.  It didn’t happen that way.   My post from last year explored the whole debacle, and how my son couldn’t have cared less about the tree house in plan, construction, or product.  It turned out I was just forcing “fun” down my son’s throat.

So here we are, a year later.  In fact, this is probably very close to the time of year last summer when we bolted that first brace into the towering evergreen at the edge of our yard.  And now the house sits dormant.  Except for those rare early mornings when some creepy middle aged man can be spotted up there, doing god knows what.

That guy is me.

That’s because when you have a tree house in your backyard, which you spent a collective 100 hours building, you need to do something with it.  The thought came to me when one of my friends visited us for brunch last Fall.  He climbed up into the tree house, and exclaimed, “This is amazing. You should come up here sometime to meditate.”

I laughed.  That was hilarious.  I’m a grown-ass man.  Like I’d actually climb up there in the morning to meditate.  And yet a few weeks later I found myself grabbing my cushion and headed up into the tree.  I was completely self-conscious.  The tree house has windows on all sides, built almost like a look-out, from which you can see around on every side.  So, even sitting on the floor, I could be seen from down below.  To make matters worse, the tree’s set on the edge of our property, some 10 feet from the side of the road.  Any passersby can look straight up into the tree from the road below.

But, I bit the bullet and I sat up in the tree that breezy Fall morning, and it was great.  The calm of the outdoors, the birds singing in the trees, the sun glinting through the leaves.

Then the cops showed up.

I couldn’t help but notice that just minutes before I was set to end my sitting, there were blue and red flashing lights bouncing off the bare wooden studs surrounding me.  I froze.  I turned my head ever so slowly toward the street and spotted an officer emerging from his car, heading toward the guy he’d just pulled over.  Whew!  They weren’t here for the freak in the tree.  But at that point I knew they probably hadn’t even seen me. So, how the hell was I going to get out of there?  I silenced my timer, which was set to go off with a bell, and literally crawled out of the tree house on my belly, slunk down the steps, and ran back into the house.

My first messy visit up into the tree wasn’t my last, and I spent many more mornings up there. But up until now, I’d only used it for meditation.  This morning, I knew that to get any writing done, I’d have to sneak out of the house before anyone woke up.  But, without a dollar in my pocket, I wanted to avoid the coffee shops.  So, I got the idea to grab my laptop and head into the tree.

I’m up here now, and I’m quite enjoying it.  In spite of the public works guy leering behind me.  Plus, I’m getting used to it.  I nonchalantly sauntered up here just like I was heading to my front patio.  I’m even perched up on a chair, so that the dozen cars and handful of joggers that have passed by have definitely spotted me.  But at this point I don’t mind.  The question is, how much longer can I do this?

For me, I don’t quite mind being the weird guy down the block, up in the tree.  I think it has something to do with how stodgy this suburb is.  There’s some deranged pride I take in being the guy up the tree.  But, I have a family to think about, and a son’s reputation to uphold.  For now, I’m sure it’s fine.  My son’s only in first grade.  But as the elementary years progress and he enters middle school, the last thing the poor kid needs is to be known as the boy whose creepy dad is up in the tree house every weekend.

For now, I’ll just go with it.  I guess if I built this tree house based on my fantasy of what a kid wants, there must be some part of me that really wanted a tree house for myself.  So, now I have it, and I might as well make use of it.  At least until the cops show up again.


My Little Trickster

DDDI love it when I my son’s talents are uncovered, especially when he masters a skill that’s far beyond me.  For example, he’s an excellent light saber fighter, a great dancer, and now he’s a skillful trickster.  And I’m so proud.

Here’s the story.  We were out of coffee the other morning.  For some godawful reason, my son was awake at 5:45 am, and when he came downstairs, I asked if he wanted to go to Dunkin’ Donuts with me.  He jumped at the chance and we hopped in the car.  I picked up a bag of coffee beans and asked if he’d like a hot chocolate.  We made our purchases, got home, and popped in Chamber of Secrets for the umpteenth time.  He was in seventh heaven.  I got dressed for work, and just before I was about to leave, I saw him sitting on the sofa sipping from his white DD cup as though it were a piping hot coffee.

“Oh my god,” I said.  “You’ve got to tell mom that I bought you a coffee this morning.  She’ll totally flip out.  It’ll be perfect.”  He got this huge grin on his face and nodded profusely.  I hugged and kissed him goodbye, and crossed my fingers.

On the way to work I was thinking about our joke, knowing that if it were me trying to pull it off, I’d fail miserably.  I simply can’t sustain a lie for the purposes of tricking someone.  I’m not talking about willful deceit or manipulating someone with stories.  That would be terrible.  No, I’m simply talking about one’s ability to pull off a joke successfully.  I can’t do it.  Even if it’s a “there’s something on your shirt” or “your shoes are untied” gag.  I’m just horrid at it.  I strain under the untruth of it all, until my lips crack into a smile or I physically have to turn away from the person.

On the car ride to work, I was thinking about all this, and hoping that my son is as good as my wife at being tricky.  There’s a famous story that my wife fully convinced one of my friends that she and I met at the Mitchell Brothers strip club in San Francisco while she was “working”.  She’d actually convinced the guy of her story to the point that he admitted frequenting the place, and wondered what room she worked in!  She was able to sustain the ruse for a good 15 minutes.  I was around the corner, listening to it all play out, just dying.  But I couldn’t even be in the same room because I would have ruined the joke.  She eventually disabused him of the story (we met in a computer lab), and my intense anxiety fell away.

Anyways, later that morning with the coffee, my wife called me and recounted the whole story about how she’d come down from the bedroom, and my son announced that I’d bought him a coffee.  My wife gasped, and pushed him for the truth.  “Are you serious, because if he did, your dad’s in a lot of trouble.”  And yet, he stuck to the story!  Yes, he replied, it was a coffee.  According to her, she had to press him several times, threatening to call me right then and there, because I’d be in trouble.  (For my Breaking Bad fans, she said she’d actually thought for a second that I was pulling a Walt and this was my version of Walt Jr.’s Mustang.)  He finally broke into a smile and confessed it was hot chocolate.

When she recounted this story I was so proud, actually jumping up and down in my office.  I was beaming.  I couldn’t believe that he kept his composure even under the pressure.

And yet, I was somewhat caught off guard by how elated I felt.  It took a bit of reflection, but here’s what I figured out.  I am a very anxious person, and as I explore my own anxieties, I realize that deep down there’s a fear of “getting in trouble”.  Even though I’m nearing 40, there’s a young child in me afraid of being reprimanded for the littlest things.  This somewhat ridiculous fear makes life hard for me at times.  For instance, it prevents me from confronting authority figures such as my boss.  It also stops me from speaking up against a group of people at times.  It all stems back to this fear: that I’ll say or do something that I’ll be in trouble for.  I’m really struggling with this part of myself, and would like to overcome it.  I believe this is the same fear that prevents me from pulling off the most harmless of pranks.  There’s a piece of me that’s scared of being in trouble.

This is why I’m proud of my son.  There’s nothing wrong with joking around with your mom.  Especially if she’s a prankster herself.  I think it takes a certain confidence, a certain centering in one’s own knowledge of the truth that allows a person to pull off a joke with grace.  This might sound crazy to some people, but I think my son’s ability to pull off a joke like the one about the DD coffee shows me that he’s grounded enough in himself to be able to pull the wool over someone’s eyes. I’m not condoning lying for lying’s sake.  I don’t want my son to become some manipulative, pathological miscreant.  I just want him to know where the truth lies and be rooted in himself, and free of the fear that I sometimes hold.  By virtue of him being able to pull off our gag with a straight face, I know that he doesn’t have this overwhelming anxiety inside.  He can put any nervous feeling away and play a trick, and see it as harmless.  In some odd way, that was what was consoling for me about the whole thing.  My son possesses a confidence in himself and in his own knowledge of the truth, to the point that he can suspend the truth temporarily in order to play a simple joke.  I just love that kid.



As effective in an argument as Ron Wesley with a broken wand.

As effective in an argument as Ron Wesley with a broken wand.

It all boils down to this: Ron Weasley did NOT enter the Forbidden Forest in the first Harry Potter book when Harry and Hermione served detention with Hagrid.

Let me explain.

My wife and I have an ongoing joke that when there’s a factual dispute in the house, and our recollections on a topic differ, she’s correct 99% of the time.  Whether it has to do with directions, someone’s name, or a piece of movie trivia, she tends to be correct…always.  At least that’s what she says.  If I had to admit it, I’d say she’s right.  In my family, if there’s a factual dispute and it turns out one person is correct, the winner points at him or herself with their thumbs and intones, “ding!” as though we’re on some perpetual game show.  Let’s just say that I get to “ding” very infrequently.

I bring this up because my son has jumped on this train wholeheartedly. With most things, he tends to side with his mother.  Usually it’s around things such as tastes or preferences.  Dad likes goat cheese, mom hates it. Ergo, my son hates it.  Mom loves vanilla ice cream, dad thinks it’s boring. What’s our son’s favorite ice cream?  Vanilla.  It’s gone so far that when a new type of food is introduced, I’ll ask my wife to withhold her assessment, and get my son to weigh in.  He might say that yes, he likes Twizzlers.  Then I’ll agree that Twizzlers are great, but my wife will say she hates them.  My son will pause and then say, “On second thought…”

Now that he’s watching more movies and TVshows with us, my son’s begun chiming in more on media-related disputes.  It’s not surprising that he jumps into my wife’s camp at nearly every turn.  It makes sense. He likes liking what my wife does, so why not agree with her on other things too.  I think he’s also playing the odds.  How could you blame him?  I mean, he’s been around enough to see who gets the most “dings”, so why not play for that team?

So we’ve been plowing through the Harry Potter books.  We tried when my son was about 4, but at the time, his limited attention span for reading long books got in the way.  We held off on any of the movies, wanting him to be able to read/listen to the books first.  About 4 months ago we started reading the books, and following up with a movie any time we complete a book.

At one point we were reading the Chamber of Secrets and got to the part in which Ron mentions that he’s never been in the Forbidden Forest.  My son sits up and asserts that Ron had been in the forest in the first book.  My wife agreed.  They insisted that Ron went in with Hagrid and Fang for detention.  I said that was just the movie, and that Ron was injured with something in the infirmary.  I was hazy on the details, so couldn’t assert a good story.  They balked.  There goes dad again, all turned around.  The synergy of their mutual agreement magnified their assertion.  “No, he TOTALLY went into the forest.  JK messed up on this one.”

I kept reading aloud and ignored them.  Even when I think I’m right about things, there’s always this voice inside that says, “…but probably not.  You know your record.”  I forgot about it.  A few days later my son was watching the Sorcerer’s Stone again, and there’s Ron in the forest.  “See Dad, see!” my son called. “Yep,” my wife agreed.  I fetched the book and found it.  Ron had been bitten by Norbert and was in the infirmary when Hermione, Harry, Malfoy, and Neville were caught and sent to detention.  The movie changed the scene. Ha ha! “Ding!”

Here’s the funny thing about this little family narrative about dad being wrong 99% of the time: I don’t mind it.  I grew up as the oldest child of four, and with that came the bravado and smugness of being the eldest.  I was always older, taller, smarter…and always right.  It’s not a good situation for practicing humility.  So, for much of my life, I think I’ve walked around thinking that I’m right about most things.  (Having two narcissistic parents only inflated those feelings.)

But I’ve found that one of marriage’s major lessons is humility.  That you’re not always right, and better yet, you shouldn’t always be right.  It’s taught me to slow my roll when I think I’m beyond reproach.  Even though I like to ham it up and give my wife a hard time when I think I’m right, I know that I’m just playing a game.  I know that I’m not always right, and it helps me to hear the other person’s argument a bit clearer.  Now my son gets to see me being wrong, and that’s okay.  I want him to see that I can be wrong and bow out gracefully.  I think it’s an important practice in humility and admitting that we can’t always be right.

And yet, in those 1% of times when when I am right, I can bask in the glory of it and “ding” with flourish.