undeaddad

explorations of mindful fatherhood


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The Gift of Bravery

spotlightI recently had a birthday. A big one. My wife planned an amazing weekend of meals, shows, and events, and I really felt loved. One of the most surprising gifts of all, however, was seeing my son up on stage, being the gutsiest kid I know.

On the Friday night of my birthday weekend, my wife put us in the car and we drove off to a destination unbeknownst to me. I love surprises, so for most of the way I was baffled about where we were going. Then I saw this red brick building where my family had attended an improv show the year prior.

I guessed our destination, and my heart sank a little. I remembered liking the show and the troupe of performers, but I hate, hate, hate being on stage and having attention thrust my way. The mere possibility of the public eye staring me down sent a wave of anxiety through me. My wife, astute as she is, picked up on my hesitation and was disappointed that she might have made the wrong choice. I tried to explain that I liked the show, but after a long work week, the last thing I wanted was to become part of the entertainment.

We settled in and the show began. One of the performers pulled a paper from a cup: the slips of paper audience members were asked to write their names on as they walked in. Whom did they pick, you ask? That’s right, me. My wife and son stared at me in disbelief and we all burst out laughing.

I won’t go into the details of my time on stage, but suffice it to say I exuded awkwardness, self-consciousness, and a lack of talent, all the qualities that I love to display to a crowd of strangers.

Later in the night, however, when the performers were looking for volunteers for a spelling bee portion of the act, my 8-year-old son offered himself up as a volunteer. I was shocked, seeing him accept the invitation and jump up on stage with a group of adults. No other kids had volunteered that night, and my son was the youngest of any of the performers.

The cast took turns spelling single letters of difficult words in rounds, or making up absurd sentences with them. My guy was up there holding his own, understanding the jokes enough to keep them going. He beamed with excitement, and when the entire cast high-fived him at the end of his performance, he trotted back to his seat with his chest puffed up.

That was perhaps the best birthday gift of the weekend.

The trickiest aspect of raising kids is that we see ourselves in them. Sometimes we see the things about ourselves we like, such as strong shoulders or a caring disposition, but other times we see the things about ourselves that we wish we could shrug off like shyness or a short temper. The characteristic I sometime see that I’ve passed down to my son is my own timidity. Growing up, I was the shy polite one who didn’t stick his neck out and didn’t draw attention to himself. It meant that I got by, but I only just got by. I didn’t put myself out there, I didn’t take risks. It has taken me so many decades to become gutsier, to speak my mind, and to stand up for myself. When I see shyness in my son, I imagine the years he could spend in the shadows of others, a cute wallflower.

But life is surprising, and on this particular birthday, my son proved me wrong. While I cowered in the shadows, he proudly stood up and cast a spotlight on himself. My son’s going to create the next few decades of his own life, and they won’t look like my early years. So I can stop overlaying my experience, fears and misfortune onto him. The kid’s got guts, and they’ll take him far.


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Impromptu Sex Ed

associated-press-sex-ed-picI suppose most sex ed discussions between parent and child are impromptu, but perhaps I had a fantasy that mine would be more thought out. A “let’s sit down son” sort of thing. But a recent discussion in the car certainly caught my wife and me off guard.

We were going for groceries with our 8-year-old son, and started talking about our choice to have one child. We were asking our son what it would have been like for him to have siblings.

“How are babies made?” he eventually asked.

Silence from the front seat.

“Well,” my wife attempted, “a woman has half a seed and a man has half a seed, and when they come together they make a baby.”

“Where does the seed come from?”

“The man’s seeds are in his private parts and the woman’s seeds are in her private parts,” she replied.

“They come from your penis?”

“No, they come out of your testicles.”

He groaned in the back seat.

“What?” we asked in unison.

“Ahrg, you’re makin’ my balls hurt.”

“They don’t come directly out of the man’s testicles, they come out through his penis,” my wife had the wherewithal to understand the groan.

Silence and consternation from the back seat.

“So how does the man give his seeds to the woman? Does he pee them out in the toilet, pick them up with his hand, and give them to her?”

Raucous laughter from the front seat, slowly dying off into silent hesitation.

“No, the man puts his penis in the woman’s vagina.” I attempted, my wife’s head whipping my way. I shrugged and grimaced.

After a few moments, my wife added, “Yes, this is what happens between moms and dads. But different parents choose to tell their kids different things about making babies, so don’t go talking to your friends about it, okay?  It’s up to parents to have this discussion with their kids. We trust you to know these things now because you’re responsible, but maybe other 3rd graders aren’t ready to hear that yet.”

“Okay, yeah,” from the back. Ponderous silence.

My wife and I debriefed alone afterwards, again bursting with laughter. “I didn’t think we were going there,” my wife said. Neither had I, but how else do you respond to such pointed questions without either blowing off the question or making up stories? We agreed it made sense that he knew, even if it was a bit shocking to all involved. And I admired my wife through it all. She knew enough to think about the big picture. To know that there are other kids in the world, and that these kids talk to one another. The last thing we need is our son becoming the sex-educator of the 3rd grade.

I honestly can’t remember a sex discussion with my own parents. I have no sense of how I absorbed that knowledge except through a sordid patchwork of inferences from peers and popular culture. I’m glad my son is comfortable enough to ask, and that we trust him enough to let him know. And we’ll always have the funny story (likely to be retold at his wedding reception) with the 8-year-old quote, “you’re makin’ my balls hurt.”

Now if I could only get the image of a man scooping his seed from a toilet out of my head.


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Get Out of My Way, I’m Trying to Get to Diagon Alley!

20141229_073410After months of saving and anticipation, our family was lucky enough to visit Orlando this holiday for a trip to Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade! This was a trip that dad was looking forward to perhaps more than anyone.

Last winter, I had been searching for new jobs options and had some interviews. I told myself and my wife prior to one very pivotal second interview that if I didn’t get this (dream) job and found myself in the same crap job in the summer, then we were all taking a trip to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios as my consolation prize. As the title of this post suggests, I did not get the job and, unfortunately, my current job ramped up to a flurry over this past summer, so much so that I couldn’t even take a vacation as planned in June. So we postponed everything until December.

Needless to say, I had a lot invested emotionally in this trip. First, it felt like something I was owed. If I had to languish in my demanding and thankless job, then I was damn well going to get a fun vacation out of it. And “fun” was the key word. Although we could have saved up for the Caribbean or an overseas locale, I needed somewhere that would serve up simple, unadulterated fun, and only Harry Potter would do the trick. Secondly, if I was driving my family out (yes, driving, 20+ long hours from New England), then it had better be good. I felt like it wasn’t only me who was “owed” a good vacation, it was my entire family, and I had been the guiding force for devising this trip: scheduling the vacation package, booking the hotels, even coming up with an itinerary. And so felt that the responsibility of providing a fun time rested upon my shoulders.

I was smart enough to get a package that included early admission to the park, which felt a little crazy at first, arriving at the park in the pitch-black of 6:30am, but was well worth it. Early admissions folks got herded forward to the Wizarding World locations before the gates opened, giving us full access to the best parts of Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade before the throngs. It was upon our very first entry through that brick wall that I realized we had done it, and damn was it worth it. As completed Potter nerds, my wife, son, and I reveled in every nook and cranny of Potterdom. Seeing it for the first time, and getting into the attraction without hassle caused me to drop my shoulders and relax into the experience.

20141229_153751And then the craziness happened. Surprisingly the Sunday after Christmas, the crowds were not that bad. We were reasonably well prepared for the amount of people we’d be seeing, but the next two days were shoulder-to-shoulder crowded. I particularly remember our second day of early admission (heading to Hogsmeade this time), and feeling the stress as folks rushed past one another, causing me to instinctively move faster and usher my family along. It was almost as though my body reacted uncontrollably to the pace of others. On one of our return visits to Diagon Alley, the crowd was so bustling, it was difficult to move anywhere without knocking into others. I recall how someone would cut me off or bump into me (“Asshole”), but the next minute I’d be cutting someone off or accidentally bumping into them (“Who’s the asshole now?”). I wasn’t intending on being opportunistic, is was just that the shear number of people made it difficult to navigate the crowd and time my movements.

What helped were these little “a-ha” moments when I could see my body and mind responding to the throng of people, whether speeding up to match the pace of the crowd or nearly crashing into some unsuspecting park attendee because I was simply trying to move forward. I wanted a good experience for my family. I wanted to make the trip worth all the trouble and “get mine.” When, in fact, everyone there held the same desire for their families. Folks had come from all over the world, investing hundreds if not thousands of dollars to give their children and families this experience, and we were all working off that same adrenaline and need to take care of our own.

20141229_154936 (2)When I realized this, I was able to take things in stride. This realization made it much more tolerable when someone bumped into me or seemingly cut me off. In the chaos of excitement, anticipation, and humanity, everyone wanted a good experience. They wanted to show their families a good time. This was the motivation that bonded me with them in some way, and I realized (in that very Buddhist-y way) that working solely for the betterment of our own rather than for the good of everyone truly is the root of much of the strife in the world. Sure, I still wanted a good experience for my family, but getting caught up in the competitive spirit would have only caused my trip to suffer. When I was able to see that we all wanted the same thing and reminded myself that we’d get our turn, everything fell into place, and we had a great time. Or, perhaps it wasn’t some great realization. Perhaps Harry Potter simply cast his spell on me.

I wholeheartedly recommend the experience to all my fellow Harry Potter fans. Universal has done an amazing job. And I fully recommend visiting Orlando Informer, which is an invaluable on-line resource of planning your trip to the Wizarding World!


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Finding Out Your Friend is an Absent Parent

part2-1 (2)“Where’s Ted?” my wife asked one of the moms at a soccer game this summer.

Ted is the father of my son’s best friend. The friend with whom my son shares a 3rd grade class, a soccer team, and (previously) a fencing class, and so we see this kid and his family a lot. Over time, our families began inviting each other over for get-togethers, and a family friendship started to form. However, aside from the family functions, Ted was nowhere to be found while his harried wife toted their three kids to every imaginable after-school activity. “Where’s Ted?” became a mantra of sorts when we’d see the family.

Although both parents worked, Ted didn’t appear to take any interest in his kids, whether for mundane practices or bigger school events. One weekend Ted’s wife asked if my wife and I could bring their boy home from a game because she had to buzz off to some other kids’ event. We agreed, and when we finally pulled up to the kid’s house, Ted answered the door in his slippers and thanked us for dropping off his son. Where the hell were you, Ted, when your kid had a soccer game 7 blocks away?!? My perception of Ted took a nose-dive.

Over the years I’ve found that when I became a husband and a parent, my friendship standards shifted so that I evaluate others’ viability as a friend not only on their personalities, likes, and interests, but also on their attitudes toward marriage and parenting roles.

Throughout my 20’s, I judged whether a friendship would work based on how that person treated me and our mutual friends. First of all, did we click? If so, then could you be counted on? Were you reliable? Did you care about the same people and causes I cared about?  These questions about friendship all centered around how that person treated me and our mutual friends.

When I got married, my focus began to shift. Dedicating my life to making my wife happy and building a life for us became the most important thing to me, and so I wanted to connect with others who had similar investments in their relationships. Are you dedicated to your wife or partner? Do you work hard in your relationships? Do you work to find balance in your responsibilities as a couple (i.e., do you cook, dude, or do the laundry, or clean the bathrooms)? 

As the years went by and kids enter the picture, my focus shifted again. Being a candidate for friendship didn’t only mean how well we clicked and how well you treated your wife or significant other, it became about how well you treated your kids, your family. Are you an involved dad? Do you accept parenting responsibilities? Do you dedicate time with your child(ren) and honor their pursuits?

In this way, finding friends has become a multi-layered process. In retrospect, finding friends that I clicked with in my early 20s was pretty easy. Are you a cool guy?  Great, then let’s hang out.  Now I find that there are many more factors involved in figuring out whether a guy is “like me” and someone I can trust and invest in as a friend. It becomes a bit exhausting, and I find that it’s hard to do.

Here’s an example. I had a good friend several years back who was making some tough decisions. He was married with an infant, and he had decided to make a career change based on his principals (he wanted to do more socially-conscious union work) and by changing jobs he sunk his family’s income below the poverty line. Once in his new job, the family qualified for section 8 housing, which they pursued. After the move, he started donating his time to a political campaign (though his union work) that led him to canvass for votes several states away from home for weeks on end, leaving his wife at home to care for their toddler.

If I had known this guy when he was single, I’d probably have admired him. He was dedicated to social justice and willing to make difficult, moral-based decisions even if they resulted in personal loss. But because of where we were in our lives, his actions caused me to look at him through a different lens. I could understand feeling conflicted with his job, but I couldn’t understand threatening the well-being of your family based on principals alone. I also couldn’t stomach the fact that he opted to spend weeks away from his young daughter to volunteer his time. At the time, our family was close with his wife as well, so we heard directly from her how his decisions negatively impacted the family, which put me in a further bind. Eventually, the friendship ended abruptly, in many regards because of my change of attitude toward him.

The trickiest part of all this is that I didn’t feel as though I had the right to address the things about him that impacted our friendship. His decisions about his career, his family, and his child had nothing to do with me, and I knew I’d overstep my bounds by addressing his decisions. At the same time, these decisions were diminishing my respect for him and eroding our friendship.

So this is now where things stand with Ted, and yet I don’t know the guy enough to say, “So, you don’t spend much time with your kids, huh?” To do so would sound judgmental and presumptuous. It’s not my business how he decides to spend his time, but it certainly affects how I see him and whether I’d choose to pursue a friendship with him. This relationship, the entire family relationship, is slowly eroding because of value difference. As someone who already struggles with friends, these examples underscore just how tricky these relationships can get.

And yet, as I review my history of attitudes towards friends, I realize that no matter what stage of life, my priority has always been focused on how the other person treats the people in his life. How does he treat me, our mutual friends, his wife or partner, or his kids?  Perhaps children are simply the most salient relationships in which to see whether someone cares about others. The job of a dad is so well-defined for me that it’s the easiest means to see whether someone is focused on the most important relationships in their lives.

To me, that is a true test of friendship.

 


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Struggles of a Buddhist Dad

894-Buddha-and-MangaWhen I was shopping around for a local Buddhist community, I sat down with the abbot and monk of a local Zen center for an interview.

“I’m a father, with a wife and son, and I don’t have much time that isn’t already dedicated to my work or family,” I explained to him. “What do I do about my practice and making time to come to the Zen center?”

“Your family is your priority and your practice,” he responded immediately, with great confidence. He went on to explain that being a father is the situation I am in, and that dictates how I use my time. I should dedicate myself to my family, he explained, and by fully engaging in every action with them, I am practicing Zen.

That did it for me. Up until that time, I had been half-halfheartedly searching for a Buddhist community, but had little faith in the process. I had been biased against American Buddhists for most of my life. I had met too many old White male Buddhists who were more interested in wearing beads and touting their belief system than being engaged and compassionate with those around them. But I’d come to a point in my life where I had to admit to Buddhism’s hold on me, and I wanted to give up my trepidation and stereotypes, and find what might be out there for me. The abbot’s response caught my attention, and I’ve been part of the community ever since.

But this has been the problem: even after I found a faith to embrace, the integration of my family life was a challenge. Most American Buddhist communities are very individualistic in their practice traditions. Most communities offer meditation, retreats, and interviews for the individual practitioner. They may also hold talks, community meals, or discussion groups but, for the most part, these events cater to the individual practitioners in the community. And who are these individual practitioners?  Typically, they are the people who have time to go, by themselves, to a center or temple for meditation. In my journeys, this typically translates to young adults (folks in their early 20’s) or retirees, who have the time to dedicate to individualized practice.

So what about people my age? What about folks with kids? Where are the families?

From my experience, parents can’t make the time to go. Who will watch there kids? Plus it feels rather self-indulgent to go sit in meditation, when there’s a family dinner you’re missing or a soccer practice that the kids need to get to.

But is this what a faith community is supposed to be about? Faith communities are composed of two essential elements: faith and community. Ever religion has its believe system, comprised of world-view, ethics, story tradition, practices, etc. But in order for it to be a religion, it must have a community: that group of people who come together around a particular belief system. Most of these communities culminate naturally around a church, synagogue, or mosque, where there’s an expectation that the family commune regularly with other families of that faith. In some cases everyone in the family comes together for a service or practice, or kids head out for religious education or activity while the parents worship or practice. Regardless, most faith communities are inclusive and embrace families and family life. But few American Buddhist communities feel this way.

As for me, I’d much rather say, “Let’s get in the car and all go to church!” than “Have fun at dinner while dad goes off to sit quietly for an hour.” This was the impetus for me to start a kids group at my local Zen center. I knew that if I wanted a community of Buddhist families, I might just have to help create one. So my wife and I were instrumental in getting a children’s group off the ground. It’s had its ups and downs, but for a while it was quite special, and gave the kids and families an opportunity to come together to learn about mindfulness, meditation, and Buddhism.

But four years later, the two elements never connected up: faith and community. Here’s what I mean. We overlaid our kids group onto a functioning Zen community, comprised mostly of the practitioners I mentioned above, young adults and retirees. In some ways, they enjoyed having kids around, but they didn’t know what to do with us. Although our group grew, it grew on the periphery. The second issue was that the parents coming for the kids programming weren’t really part of the Zen center community. They were interested in mindfulness classes for their kids, but they weren’t necessarily Buddhist or practitioners. Plus, most didn’t have the time or interest in connecting with the rest of the community because, although it’s fun to come to a kids class, they don’t have additional time to practice with the broader community. Therefore, we grew this community of kids and families, but it was segmented from the rest of the faith tradition.

At this point, the family community is transient. If you’re coming for a mindfulness “class” it’s much different from, say, going to church. The “class” mentality doesn’t keep parents dedicated to the group. Therefore, folks come and go, and there isn’t a consistent group attending. There isn’t much connection to the rest of the center. Everything feels disjointed.

My wife has more recently been going to a Unitarian Universalist church for services, and I’ve been coming along. UU’s are experts at children’s religious education. It’s a hallmark of the faith community, and I find it to be inclusive, respectful of difference, and amazingly varied across the lifespan. When I see this, I feel an emptiness in my heart. This emptiness comes from my strong desire to force something that isn’t easy. It comes from this a desire to be a part of a Zen faith community that also honors, engages, and loves families and kids. But this isn’t the case within most Zen centers. Even if there is a recognition of the importance of family, there is no outlet to foster and care for parents and kids.

I’m trying to come to peace with where things are for me now. I realize that forcing a community based on my own desire isn’t very Buddhist, isn’t very “Zen”. All my disappointment and grief are a product of that desire, and of seeing what I “can’t have” from the UU community in my own Zen center. I find that I need to remind myself of the teaching I received was from my initial interview with that abbot. My family is my priority and my practice. As an Zen practitioner, I engage fully with the situation I am faced with, whether it’s sitting down for a meal with my family, going to a kids group at the Zen center, or listening to a sermon at the Unitarian church. It will be a process letting go of my grief for the community that never was, but that grief is what holds me back from fully engaging, fully seeing the glory or the community I have right in front of me: my own family.

 


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Don’t Be Like Me, Son

geeksSoccer season is wrapping up for my son, which is a bitter-sweet conclusion to the Fall. With the end of the season, my wife and I get to reclaim our Monday nights, Friday nights, and Saturday mornings, but my son is left without his team and his new favorite sport. I will truly miss seeing my son out there are on the field. His gusto, resilience, and comradery remind me of all the ways he’s not like me, which is a good thing.

As a kid, I was super anxious. I was the good, quiet kid in the back of the class who kept his head down and did his work. I was the kid who was respectful around adults and shy with peers. I was also the kid who was terrified of group sports, because I was awkward, uncoordinated, and un-athletic. During PE or recess, I would shy away from group games and sports for fear that I would mess up and evoke the jeers and disappointment of kids in my class. To combat this scenario, I’d do two things: I’d stay away from competitive games and sports as much as possible, and I’d become self-deprecating among my peers.

When captains were picking teams among a huddle of elementary school boys, I’f be the first to say, “Uh oh, I hope you don’t get me on your team!” or “Okay, I’ll just move to the back so you get a better view of the good players.” or (when I was one of the last few kids) “Looks like you’re down to the worst of the worst.” Basically, I was a 10-year-old Richard Lewis.

In this way, I beat the other kids to the punch, protecting myself from insults because no one insulted me as well as I did. But I also self-segregated myself from other kids. I distinguished myself as the kid no one wanted on his team, and so I never really tried. If I was bad, then why fight against it? So I never tried my hardest. I never fought past the awkwardness to gain any skill.

Apples don’t fall far from the tree, and so my son is like me in many ways. He struggles with coordination and rhythm. He can’t quite move his body as fluidly and nimbly as some other kids his age. He’s also quite shy. He’s very quiet around adults and is slow to meet friends. When I see these traits in him, I feel badly, because he has inherited traits from me that hindered me as a kid. So when I see him shying away from social interactions, or struggling with sports, I feel sorry for him, and wish I hadn’t yoked him with these weighty obstacles.

I think many parents struggle with the challenging traits they see in their kids, especially those the recognize (consciously or unconsciously) as arising from their own genes. They trigger in us all the memories of how we suffered as kids or they ways in which we were hindered or held back because of who we were. Parents want the best for their kids, and so this realization of a parents’ less-optimal traits are sometimes a guiding force for how we attempt to shape our children.

For me, I always push my son to interact with others and have a voice in the world. I prod him to go up and ask adults questions, like librarians, waitresses, or cashiers. I coach him about how to respond to adults if they ask him questions, so he isn’t a nodding mute when confronted with an adult inquiry. I encourage him to make friends or approach other kids. I know I do these things because I was a shy kid who never took social risks and never had much of a voice. I don’t want my son to grow up like that, because I experienced it as so limiting.

Sports were different though. I never pushed him to do them, because I was always terrified of them. For myself, I felt as though they’d be a set-up for ridicule because of my awkwardness. I think that in many ways, perhaps unconsciously, I de-emphasize sports with my son, because I see myself in him, and want to protect him from any rejection.

But my son is not me. When soccer season came around, I was astounded that he wanted to try. He was (perhaps luckily) put on a team that my wife and I dubbed the Bad News Bears, because they were a troop of rag-tag kids on a loosing streak. Their abilities ranged from not-so-good to okay, and so there were very few superstars on the team. I was thankful because I didn’t want any cocky athletic kids making fun of my son.

My son was off to a rough start. He fumbled around with the ball at his feet and shied away from the action. When the kids charged for the ball, he would defer to his teammates and take a supportive role, never taking the lead. When he did get the ball, he’d quickly give it up or pass it to someone else. When I projected my 8-year-old self into his shoes, I knew I’d do the same, but I’d take it to a different level. I would have given up. I would have complained to my parents that I didn’t want to go, or I would completely opt out of receiving the ball for fear of how badly I’d do.

But not my son. Throughout the season, he stuck to it. He practiced and practiced. He gave his all during formal practices, only to go home and ask me to kick the ball around with him. He loved goal keeping and would ask me to shoot balls his way while he defended them from hitting our fence. As games progressed, he’d get gutsier and charge in with the other kids. He scored one of the team’s few goals during the season! He started asking the coach if he could be goalie, and even asked his mom and me to buy him goalie gloves. By the end of the season, he looked like a different player, still with a lot to learn, but a kid who wasn’t afraid to get in there, make mistakes, and push through the struggles.

A childless male friend recently asked me what’s the best part of being a parent. With this soccer season fresh in my mind, I responded that it’s seeing your child surprise you. It’s seeing aspects of you in your child, but realizing that in spite of being an amalgam of you and your partner’s genes, your child is a unique human being who can always surprise you.


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Taking One for the Team: Or, How I Got Talked into Being Unikitty for Halloween

My kick-ass Unikitty mask

My kick-ass Unikitty mask

Being a dad means taking on rough jobs, whether it’s unclogging toilets, cleaning vomit, or dressing like a big pink LEGO kitten for Halloween.

My son had a tricky time deciding what to be for Halloween this year, but finally landed on Emmett, the construction working main character of the LEGO Movie. In spite of the show’s popularity, we couldn’t find a single costume manufactured to look like any of the LEGO Movie characters. During our pursuit of a construction vest and Piece of Resistance, my family joked about us all dressing like characters from the movie. Immediately, my son said my wife should be Wyldstyle, the DJ-named master builder. My wife turned around and insisted that I be Unikitty.  Not Batman, not Vitruvius, not even President Business. Unikitty.

For those unfamiliar with the movie, Unikitty is a pink, block-headed kitten that lives in land of rainbows and lollipops, and meets every challenge with syrupy sweetness while tamping down her seething rage.

emmet At first I insisted there was no way in hell I was being Unikitty, but my wife and son were adamant that it would be the best possible costume. They thought it would be hilarious, and I’m a sucker for making the laugh. I also knew it would likely be one of the last years that my son would tolerate his parents dressing up for trick-or-treating, let alone dressing with a family theme. I’m sure that in the years to come, he’ll scoff at any suggestion that we dress up with him, and I’m sure as a middle schooler he’d drop dead from embarrassment if we aligned our costumes with his. So, I sucked it up and I did it: I became Unikitty.

As a dad, I think it’s my job to do whatever it takes to make my family happy. Sometimes that means accomplishing very practical tasks, like holding a job and making money so that we can have the comfort of food, home, and heating. Or, it might take the form of family activities, like apple picking, visits to the pumpkin patch, or trips to the amusement park. But other times it’s making a complete fool of myself to get a laugh.

WyldstyleI’m not a natural at putting myself in uncomfortable, semi-humiliating situations for a good laugh. My wife is naturally funny, irreverent, and goofy, and has such a knack for making herself the butt of a joke for a good laugh. She’s always ready with a crazy face, story, song, or dance. I usually have to be prodded to be the clown. Most of the time she has to spur on my goofiness, whether it’s making me do a weird dance, hiking my my pants up under my armpits, or giving me a wedgie that rips my boxers by pulling them over my head (yes, this has happened). Plus, there’s usually the double-embarrassment of photographing or videotaping the incident.  I may feel self-conscious or ridiculous, but I’m so glad she encourages it. These times of goofiness are some of the most fun we have as a family, and are the times when we fall out of our chairs laughing, nearly peeing ourselves. Isn’t that what family’s about?

UnikittyI’m actually a bit uncomfortable dressing up as a big pink box-headed kitten for Halloween. Especially since I have to see other fathers who wouldn’t be caught dead in a costume like mine. I kind of feel like a nervous kid who risks a daring costume or piece of clothing and fears that his friends are going to make fun of him. But screw that. My family wants me to be Unikitty.  They think it’ll be hillarious, and that’s all that matters. So, for this Halloween, I’m happy to take one for the team, and strut around the neighborhood in second-hand ladies pink pajamas with a box over my head. I’m Unikitty, and I’m proud.

 


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Dear Soccer Dad, Do you want your son to hate you?

kicking-and-screaming“Isaiah, move up! Move up!”

“Isaiah, what kind of a kick was that?”

“Isaiah, why you giving up, bud?”

These shouts ring from the sidelines a few feet away from me on a brisk October Saturday morning. I’m there to watch my son in the town’s U9 soccer league, and I’m loving being a newly christened soccer dad. There’s something great about having a new home team and it being your son’s. But what’s up with this dude down the line?

There are all sorts of soccer dad’s, as I’m beginning to learn. Surprisingly, the most popular version is the absent soccer dad, judging by the lack of men on the sidelines (but that’s fodder for another post). There are also the quiet watchers, the cheerers and, apparently, the beraters. I’m surprised to learn that I’m a cheerer, and a very vocal one. Like, verging-on-annoying-cheerer.

As a kid, I was always a quiet sports spectator. Sure, I would cheer and clap when a point was made or a ball was saved, but I never shouted words of encouragement or cheered for specific players. I was somewhat sports illiterate growing up, and so I think the prospect of shouting encouragement or advice felt overzealous or even hypocritical.

But now I see these 8-year-olds running their hearts out on the field and I want them to know we’re cheering for them. Although I’m historically bad about remembering kids names, I’ve been pretty good at learning most of the team members’ first name at this point in the season. I shout words of encouragement for each of them as they receive the ball, I praise their defense and passing, and I cheer when a ball is saved and (less frequently…we’re on a losing streak) when a goal is scored. Each time, I try to call the player by name.

I explain all this to convey that I understand this desire to be vocal on the sidelines. I’m not there to be a passive observer, but Isaiah’s dad takes active support to a new level, by becoming coach, ref, judge, and asshole. He’s the guy who’s there before every practice, running the ball with his son and giving him lots of pointers. He sits through practice and yells advice, peppered with lots of frustrated commentary. Game days are by far the worst. He shouts to his kid about where to be on the field (even when counter to the coach’s strategy). He yells at him to move faster or stop giving up. He berates him for slowing down, giving up the ball, or allowing a pass.

It’s hard sitting on the sidelines near this guy, hearing all this. My imaginary monologue to him goes something like this:

“Do you want your son to grow up hating you? Because that’s what you’re doing. Only two things can come out of this. Either he grows up hating and rejecting his dad who always gave him a hard time, or he grows up always trying to please you, while at the same time feeling like he’s never good enough. In the second scenario, he’s likely to treat his own kids to a life of insults because it’s his only model for how to be engaged as a dad. Pull back a bit dude. It’s great that you’re here, but let the coach coach, and chill out a bit.”

I can’t, however, imagine a scenario in which I have the balls big enough to confront this guy with my diatribe. But these same sentiments run though my mind each time I hear him. I don’t see anyone else (aside from my wife) holding the discomfort of hearing this guy’s comments, but I can’t imagine other parents find it unproblematic. Plus, the coach is always on the opposite side of the field from the spectators, and so a lot of it happens off the coach’s radar. Perhaps the most skilled and emotionally cognizant coach would be able to finesse a conversation with all parents about etiquette and the proper show of support.

But what do I do? As the season goes along and I become more invested in my son’s team and its players, what do I do with my discomfort and pity for this kid who’s given such a hard time by his dad. For now, when I see him set up his chair on the sidelines, I’ll set up mine a few dozen feet away. I’ll focus on the game and try to drown out his words, but that poor kid will hear them for the rest of his life.


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Karma Police

kismet10cSometimes I have no fun at all, and sometimes it’s my own damn fault.

Random groups of children and parents set the stage for some of my most frustrating experiences. For instance, this April vacation, my son and I had some alone time and planned a day around robots. A local museum was hosting free guided tour of its robotics exhibit for kids and families. The issue was that it was free and first-come-first-served to only 25 participants, which was a set-up for all sorts of anxiety.

My son and I made a day out of it. After taking the train early and having breakfast, we charged through the rain and stood outside of the still-closed museum under an awning. Eventually making it inside, we had to wait until 30 minutes prior to the tour to receive a free ticket. We scoped out the reception desk, and at exactly 10:30, they started giving tickets away. Someone’s dad cut in front of a line that included me and women with strollers. I was mildly annoyed, but got my tickets and we waited.

When the tour started, they cordoned off the entire wing, so that only tour participants could take part. We felt very special. The tour started well, with the curator giving the kids stickies to put on the exhibits they found most interesting and most scary. I noted that the tour seemed small, with only about 20 people. Finally, about 10 minutes late, another family of five, a mom and her 2 pre-teen girls and 2 teenage boys showed up. Her kids started on the periphery of the group, while she found a bench all to herself, staring at her cell phone.  It took about 5 minutes for her girls to stray from the group and wander the deserted hall, and after about 10 minutes her boys followed suit, until the entire family was doing their own thing and mom was staring at her phone.

I kept glaring at them. I kept thinking about how disrespectful it was to the tour guide. I kept thinking about all the other families in the museum who had the opportunity of a private tour stripped from them by these people who weren’t taking advantage of it.

About 30 minutes into the tour, that family left the exhibit, never to return. I was left up on my moral high horse, alone with my frustrations.

The issue with being up there on my moral high horse was that I wasn’t down in the tour with my son. It was hard for me to put away my anger and instead focus on the fun that was happening right in front of me. This happens to me a lot, especially around children and their parents. Inevitably there’s somebody that’s out of control or at least troublesome: the kid who runs around, or disturbs the group, or makes fun of the exhibits, or barrels over other kids. But that’s not the unnerving part; after all, they’re just kids. In most cases, these kids are chaperoned by parents who aren’t doing anything. They sit back on their phones, or appear oblivious, or throw their hands up with a “whatcha gonna do” face. This is the thing that drives me bonkers.

“We live in a society, people!” my inner George Costanza screams. The only way to enjoy the fruits of society is by sharing them. When parents don’t teach their kids to share space, time, and resources, then kids become self-serving, domineering adults. And so standing in that tour group, my mind wanders to the future; to these kids growing up and populating a world where my son has to share the highway with them as they swerve through traffic, or stand in line while they cut in front for their morning coffee, or work in an office where they steal his ideas and pawn them off as their own. I think of a million different scenarios about how the world is (and will) become a worse place because kids aren’t taught about how to respect others.

It all sounds very good as a write it. In fact, there’s a part of me that wants to stop there. End of post. People suck.

But what I’m really trying to convey is the way I feel obligated to be the morality/karma police in these situations. Looking around the tour group, there were obviously children who were participating, and their parents appeared just as engaged. Even the curator seemed to be ignoring the wandering family and going about her business, touring the group. Why was I the one steaming? Why did I feel as though I had to hold the weight of other people’s decisions?

I think that is the hardest part for me. I don’t want to lose that part of me that discerns behaviors that I don’t want to cultivate in my son. I also don’t want to be so fixated on that discernment that it takes over my mind and disallows me from enjoying the moment in spite of others. I’m sure the other parents in the group noticed this wandering family. I’m sure some of them even made judgements about their behavior. But somehow, they were able to live and let live, or perhaps even forgive and forget. For me, it never feels easy.

 


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Bruce Lee is Dead: A Fish Burial

150_5092Coming home from a grueling day of work this past week, I found my wife sitting at the kitchen table with my son standing at her side. They stared at me, tears welling up in my son’s eyes.

“Bruce Lee is dead,” my wife said. My son burst out crying and nuzzled his face into my wife’s neck.

Bruce Lee was one of the four Koi fish we keep in our small backyard pond. The pond has been there since we moved in two years ago, but only last May did we buy four 5-inch long koi to fill the pond and, by the end of the summer, each was at least a foot long. Bruce Lee was named for his impressive golden scales with black trim, reminiscent of his name-sake’s iconic jumpsuit from the movie Game of Death.

Bruce Lee had been sick for a few weeks, and I made several efforts to help him, but his scales were inflamed and he lost his equilibrium at times. I was really torn up about him being sick, trying whatever I could to help a situation that might have been inevitable. I felt a great deal of responsibility to make it better.

But that day when I came home to find the fished had died, I wasn’t anguished by the news. In fact, it was a relief. I knew the ordeal was over, the pain that he might have felt was done. In fact, my only sympathies were for my son, who was devastated.  He was the one to find him dead, which was heart-breaking for him. I wanted to comfort him.

But instead of sitting with his sadness, I jumped into fix-it mode. I knew I had to get the fish out of the pond and into the ground before the sun went down. Right after dinner, I rushed my son outside so we could dig a hole and net our dead friend.

While waiting for my wife before the burial, my son wrote a letter to the fish. He asked me to contribute every other line, in a sort of joint eulogy. We wrote that we’d miss him, that the other fish would miss him, that we hoped he was happy in the big pond in the sky. After writing his final words, my son sank his 7-year-old face into my neck and burst into tears. I was surprised at how much this affected him, and had to take stock in the situation.

Bruce LeeI have this tendency to compartmentalize sad feelings in order to get the job done. If something shocking or saddening happens, I somehow feel that it’s my duty to trudge forward. In these situations, it sometimes helps that I put aside my feelings so that things get done. For instance, there was a time when my son spews vomit all over the bed in the middle of the night, coating every fabric-covered surface in yuck. While my wife helps our son to the bathroom, I had the gross job of cleaning up. Or when the basement toilet backs up and spits sewage all over the floor, I’m the one cleaning up. When things are gross or shocking, I put away my feelings, put on my “man-hat”, and git-r-done. In these very practical situations, it works. Vomit and feces don’t pick up themselves.

But this same compartmentalization can happen when there’s loss, and the job needs to be done to pick things up and move along. I have learned the hard way that this is not the way to deal with grief. When there has been loss or great sadness, there are times when I cordon off my feelings and move forward. There’s a part of me that feels like this is just how I take care of others. I want to help get them to a better place. I want to show them hope. But in doing so, I can overlook the grief and the anguish, as though they don’t exist. My approach can leave others feeling unsupported and overlooked. Granted, sometimes there needs to be a pragmatic voice within a family when things are gloomy, but to charge forward solely in a utilitarian mode only denies others their sadness.

Charging forward also denies my own sadness. When I put my grief to the side in order to make things better, I don’t sit with the sadness of it all and end up feeling wrecked in the end, while my loved ones feel overlooked.

All of this came back as I sat at the kitchen table with my son, composing a fish eulogy. I had to take a breath, and sit with the sadness of a boy who had bought, named, and nurtured a 5-inch baby fish into a 14-inch glory. He was heartbroken, and I couldn’t go too fast. I had to sit with the sadness of it all. I had toforget the waning sunlight and the hardened ground and think about this small boy who had just confronted death face-to-face. Sure there was a job to be done, but that job was right in front of me: hugging my son and accepting his tears.