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.


The Only One: Bi-Racial in the Burbs

White_picket_fenceLike many families I know, ours recently committed urban flight.  We left the big city for the wide lawns and picket fences of the suburbs.  Like many young couples, my wife and I spent most of our adult lives in cities.  East Coast, West Coast, Rocky Mountain, and Midwest, we’ve lived all over.  With the birth of our son, we initially decided to stick it out in the city where everything was close and convenient.  We could walk to the grocery store, meet up with friends, pop by the coffee shop, and stroll to the park.  We had the best of both worlds: family life and city living.

Then Kindergarten hit.

Concerned about the reputation of our urban public schools, we put our son’s name in the hat for charter school drawings.  We even looked into some private options.  But neither the celestial nor financial stars aligned for us, and his Kindergarten year was spent in public school.  We were lucky enough to live in the catchment area for one of the “best” urban schools in the district, but it turned out to be a really rough year for our little guy.  He would report lots of yelling by teachers, kids getting choked on the playground, and students peeing themselves without the teacher noticing.  We tried our best as parents to volunteer and be active, but this was a challenge as well.

After that critical K-year, we were at a crossroads and decided to sell our house in the city and move to a neighboring suburb, renown for its high-performing schools.  This community is fairly affluent, but we were lucky enough to find a tiny home right on the edge of a developement of mini-mansions.  Our house looks as though one of the garages from the big homes was violently ripped away during a coastal hurricane and blown onto our lot.  Let’s just say that the SUVs down the block have more elbow room than we do.

This was a huge decision, not only because we were giving up our urban identity, but because we are a bi-racial family.  For us, leaving the city not only meant leaving its conveniences but also its color.  Ours wasn’t the most diverse or integrated of the East Coast cities, but at least there was a language of diversity.  There were enough people of color, international college kids, and diversity of sexual orientation and SES (among other diversities) that put us a bit more at ease.

Our suburb is 96.4% White.  So much so, that at nearly every community function or family outing , my wife and I play the tragic game of “The Only One,” in which we scan the crowd to see if she’s the only person of color in the crowd.  The vast majority of the time she is.  Now in our 8th month at the new house, the realization of aloneness is really sinking in for my wife.  So is the fear of constructing a life of racial isolation for our son.  This is the struggle we’re dealing with now.

I am White.  If I had married another White person, I likely would not see the world in the same way I do now.  I probably would have taken a lot more for granted.  My wife often laments that “White people can live anywhere.”  By this she means that a White person or a White family can move to just about any city or town in the US and find an area of safe harbor; an area where the majority of people look like them.  Therefore, race is hardly ever a deciding factor when a White person wrestles with the limitations of where they can comfortably live.  This isn’t the same for people/families of color.

If I hadn’t married into the family I did, I wouldn’t realize this struggle.  I’d likely regard it from an intellectual level: I’d know that it’s probably hard for a non-White person to live in mostly-White suburbs.  But it wouldn’t necessarily affect me and where I can live.  This struggle has now become my struggle.  I’m not saying that I feel the differences as viscerally as my wife or son.  I’m not saying that I can’t hide behind my White face.  I can still sit in a coffee shop by myself, and my Whiteness dissolves into the sea of other faces.  What I’m saying is that the concern and vigilance about the type of world I’m presenting to my child becomes more prominent in my mind.  I have become more mindful about the real limitations of his community and the trade-offs that families often make to preserve their children’s educations.

It’s a constant struggle to understand our place in this community, and it’s that struggle that keeps me mindful of my family, our surroundings, and my son’s perception of himself in the world.