Time Zones

“Is Austin ahead of us or behind us,” my daughter Shayla asked.

Hm. “Ahead I think. They get 7 o’clock two hours before we get 7 o’clock.”

“No, that’s not ahead.”

“Oh.” I didn’t know what to say to that.

We’ve been disoriented all over the space time continuum lately. We had three Spring Breaks in the family: University, Shayla’s school, Jaden’s school. We took one of them and went to Austin, where I grew up, to let the kids hang out with their grandparents.

barton_main_springGoing back to my hometown is a time warp anyway, but going with my own kids, for the first time, was something else. I took them swimming in Austin’s gorgeous Barton Springs pool, and being in the water with them, which always transports me to my own childhood, was like wading and splashing between 1970 and today. It lives on in memories, and it’s wild to see what’s exactly the same, like the springs. But much of what made up my actual childhood is gone or crumbling. So many buildings and landmarks, all that polyester, my mom. The house I grew up in, now a struggling part of town, seems sunken and ill-cared for. My dad and stepmom live in a neighborhood that was blank, rolling countryside when I was a kid. I can never quite tell where or when I am there.

Yet what a delight to show the kids where I grew up and give them so much grandma and grandpa time. Shayla’s not particularly interested in the past, her laser focus on what’s coming next, but Jaden, not even 4, is destined to be the family historian. He loved seeing the house I grew up in, loves looking at old photos of when I was a kid. He ate up the stories and the tours.

So here we are back in Berkeley, Shayla returned to school, Jaden on break, so I’m in a different time warp. Today we were on the time zone of moms and kids around town, a parallel world away from work, at the tot playground, out for lunch. We picked Shayla up early, after the school day, skipping her after school program. The little park next to the school was full of kids whose parents pick them up at 2:10 every day, a whole different reality from Shayla’s working parent friends. For several hours the kids played in the grass, in the little creek. It was relaxed, the day was perfect. Is this what I should be giving her instead of all the after school program that lets me do my job?

I realize there’s no answer to that. There are so many time zones. I could quit my work and find a way to be a full time dad. We could flee the urban for a simpler, more affordable life somewhere else. Our possible selves infinite.

At night the kids have been putting on “shows,” mash-ups of wrestling, singing, and recounting the major and minor points of movies. As their tiredness peaks so does their mania, laughing, falling over themselves, delirious with the joy of their specific lives, right now. There’s nothing better than that.

 

My Kids’ Berkeley

When it comes to geography, I’m a cat, not a dog. I’m slow to settle in. When I moved from Texas to the Bay Area, I loved it right away, but it took me a year or longer to start to feel like this was my home. Smaller moves across the bridge to San Francisco in 1993, and back to the East Bay in 2009, produced a similar shock.

While I’m great with a map, and I can get the big picture of what’s what pretty quickly, my “real” map of where I live is more pictorial and personal. I don’t know if this is how everyone does it, but over time I build up connections, a friend’s house, my favorite hardware store, the park where the dog got bitten that time. It’s when these associations paper over the whole landscape that I feel really settled and at home.

This week I was struck with how much my Berkeley landmarks are increasingly my kids’ landmarks: their former dental office, their schools, their favorite restaurants (not, as you know, to be confused with my favorite restaurants!). The softball field we went to by mistake trying to find little league. The art supply. A great kids shoe store. The seasonally-decorated cookie aisle in the market. Jonathan’s rock. The road where the wild turkeys sometimes gobble around.

All these places and hundreds more are now linked in my mind to our family. Gradually “my” map of the East Bay is becoming our map. While I’d be just fine with never having been inside a Chuck E Cheese, most of the time it’s delightful to have my kids’ joyful, sugar addicted view as I navigate around town.

Two years ago next month we met the kids, Two years ago May they moved in. My East Bay, my whole map of the world, will never be the same. And I’m so glad for it.

The Old Ball Game

I’d already gotten Shayla to the first practice of softball league, had put on my team shirt, met the coach, and offered to help carry up the equipment to the field when it hit me: I was a little league conscientious objector, and have never learned the rules of the game. I’d pray a ball never came my way, and finally pouted enough that my mom agreed to let me drop out. In basketball in middle school the other team would sometimes pass me the ball because they knew I’d just get flustered and pass it right back.

“Um, can I help carry up some of these, of this, this, um, stuff?” I offered. What was I thinking? I had a cold, sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. Did anyone see my deer in the headlights look?

I guess I signed up to be “team manager” of my daughter’s softball team the same way I got on the PTA, or went to graduate school. There must have been individual decisions and steps that led there, but it felt like I drifted along and suddenly, pow! I’m supposed to have something I want to write a thesis about.

The team manager just organizes parent communication and stuff, it’s not a coaching role. Having Shayla participate in a team sport did seem like a great idea, and several wonderful, trustworthy friends just loved it for their daughters. But I never stopped to think whether maybe they also liked sports. Aside from bowling I’m hard pressed to think of a sport that doesn’t seem dull to watch and if I have to participate inspires fear, aversion, or even terror. Uh oh.

I’m not bad at hiding panic (I grew up in Texas and never learned the rules of baseball, football, or basketball!), so we unloaded the bases, the bats and helmets and gloves (I knew those names without help), the “T”s that hold the balls for bat practice, some weird thing that’s for the dirt near home plate, or maybe it’s used on all that dirt that has no grass? I had the team rosters (I’m good at rosters). Our team coach told me he was excited but nervous, he’s a long-time sports guy but hasn’t coached kids before. Super friendly. His daughter and my daughter eyed each other. Then all the other parents and kids showed up, and I had to hand out T-shirts and do my duties. Intros and practice just took over.

Helping with the drills was easy enough—no holding the bat without a helmet on, keep a good distance from others when they have the bat, line up so you can throw to your practice partner. I understood all these and was able to help. Even though I didn’t think I was to be involved with the sports part, I guess my inner control freak won out for a bit. “Let’s get that helmet on sweetie” I hear myself say.

After snack we had the first “practice” that looked like a game; half the kids out into the field, half at “bat,” a pitcher-less game where each girl swung at the ball sitting on the little pole (the T!) and once it moved in any direction they practiced running to a base, while the fielders tried to get the ball. Characteristically Shayla was enthusiastic and wanted to get the ball every time. Every every every time. “Great hustle Shayla, but the hard part of your job is you have to stay in your area, and get balls only when they come that way.” Great coaching, and I can see what a valuable life lesson it would be, if she can learn it.

Coach needed some adults out in the field to help, so out I went. I had a vivid flash of bored, terrifying passages standing and praying no ball would come my way. Had I done a whole season of little league before bailing out? Or maybe I played later in school. I remembered something about all the kids in uniforms. Had I worn one?

I’m proud to say I held it together. Even with childhood sports trauma flashbacks I realize that I can do all these tasks better than these first graders. That being a dad will sometimes mean I have to get out of my comfort zone. The other moms and dads were super nice to me, though it was clear they’ve all played, if not all their lives then as kids, and every one of them could easily kick my ass at softball. But who knows? We’re starting with the basic skills. I might pick up a few things along the way. At a minimum I feel I’ll be able to not wince when a ball’s in the air anywhere near me. While my daughter learns to be a team player and to share the spotlight, I might even learn how to enjoy the game. Stranger things have happened.

Being the Practical One during a Family Flu

You know if you’re the practical one. You sense when it’s garbage night. You have the phone number for the kids’ dentist and doctor. If you and your spouse both have the flu for 15 or more days, you’re more likely to rise from a 103 fever and pick up the kids from school. We practical ones are just wired that way, and we must like it, though we also enjoy the odd whine about how responsible we are.

all-joy-and-no-fun-coverJennifer Senior’s new book All Joy and No Fun touches on how moms and dads tend to view certain responsibilities of parenthood differently, even as the sexes share more of the roles. (I should say Jennifer talking about her book on NPR, I’ve had the flu you know, and the new Wally Lamb We Are Water has been a perfect read for that, I don’t want to read about parenting this week!).

For instance, Jennifer finds moms and dads of course need a break from the kids, but dads tend to feel less guilty about it, even if plopping the kids in front of the TV or the equivalent. The sanity is necessary, but as the more mom-like parent, I’ll say the guilt can be awful. I more often power through and do whatever it is I think the kids need or want, even if I resent it and don’t get enough time to myself.

Co-parenting with the flu is an eye-opening exercise in learning about what kids can survive on, and how resilient we all are. With everyone sick, getting some peanut butter and jelly into whoever can eat, and getting everyone to bed counts as a victory. A big one! Forget all the extras, the stories, enrichment activities, high-quality time. Let’s put on Pet Patrol or Big Time Rush and sit on the couch staring into space.

The little guy calls out to me from his room, cheerfully, “Papa throw up on my diaper,” and I know I need to take over this diaper change. Both the kids are interested, maybe fascinated, and not scared at all, by the sight of adults barfing, sneezing, coughing, and laying in bed morosely. If they notice that we’re having a really awful week, they don’t say. I think they’re enjoying life as much as ever. And I have to say having these little beings dependent on us makes being sick more bearable. Before kids, I’d have been off my feet for most of it, binge-watching TV or similar. But that’s just not an option when your family needs you. Being sick is just one more (thankfully temporary) thing, and the more important tasks put it in perspective.

They’ll probably appreciate the added attention as we wind this endless bug down (please!?) and return to normal. I know I will. But what a great lesson to have to cut out a bunch of the stuff we do every day, and to see them still thriving, fighting, reading, playing. They know what they’re doing after all. Maybe I can ease up on being practical all the time, and trust that they will come through great despite me.

Staying with Joy

Sunday was gorgeous in Northern California, weirdly summery and hot, and we were at a memorial for my friend Frank Sclafani, who died suddenly and unexpectedly in the fall, a young, vibrant 59, gone too soon.

The crowd overfilled the space, and stories about Frank’s warmth and gentle kindness were everywhere. So much to celebrate, and so much to grieve.

It’s a wonderful reminder that we’ve got to savor every moment. I realize I touched too briefly on the joyful interlude I had with my kids last week, buried in my worries and anxieties about parenthood, which are all well and good. But look at these happy, crazy kids!

IMG_20140120_153935_677

There’s so much energetic, contagious, silly joy in these kids, so much life and expression. It would be foolish not to count myself lucky to have them, every minute. It’s the best gift I’ve ever been given, and I hope the gratitude I feel shines through a bit even in my worst laments.

We totally lucked out with these kids, and I’m having the adventure of my life. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

Parenting in an Individualistic Culture

Before kids, I pined so much for kid time. The longing was profound. I’m so happy to have kids now, overjoyed! But I’m surprised how lonely parenting can be. It’s like we’ve stepped through this door into a different world, and I haven’t completely adjusted; I don’t know enough people in my new land.

When I was active-duty uncle-ing, parent friends would tell me it was amazing that I helped out with someone’s kid every week, on a schedule. Incredible. Unbelievable. I thought they were being nice, so I failed to hear what they were telling me: “We’d love more help! We’re on our own with these kids!”

My misty-eyed ideal of a community of families raising their kids together is not really happening. Or not as much as I’d hoped. And being a parent I really see it. Our society is focused on individual achievement, which puts us all in busy jobs and paths. A great piece in the NYTimes the other day takes a clear-eyed view of our money addiction. It may not make us happier, but we sure want more. So there’s not a lot of spare time to help each other out, enjoy spontaneous dinners with other families, or have down time.

It’s hiding a bit to be so global. In myself, I feel how important it’s been to keep my business and career going at pretty much full steam. My sense of my own value in my work and career, my need to feel like I’m a full financial contributor to the household rather than “just” a parent. Gross, but there it is. That means long days at school and after care for the kids and hectic, overcrowded days for me. It’s crunched evenings for us all. Weirdly, this is the choice I’m making.

It’s not to say we don’t have people helping us. I’m so grateful for friends inviting us over, coming for dinner, helping out. It’s more that new parenting is so overwhelming. I don’t know that it would ever feel like enough.

I do think as we continue to adjust to this new life it will feel more integrated. We’ll make more friends with our kids’ friends’ parents. The terrain will seem less strange. Perhaps I’ll work a bit less.

IMG_20140120_153907_141Today we took the kids to this really dreadful squirrel movie, but they loved it. They had too much sugar, and so much fun. After we recycled our 3D glasses and got back outside, they started this frantic, fantastic game of tag. We sat on a bench and enjoyed their antic, silly running around. Other kids joined in. Shoppers smiled as they passed by. Five minutes passed. Ten! It was a breath of fresh air at the town square. A hint of what I hope will be more and more common: our family, connected to the world, relaxed for a minute. A little feeling of the village that I hope will grow.

Saved by a Walk in the Hills

Everyone’s ready for school to start again. Each morning for the last week, about 6 am, Jaden gets right in my sleeping face and says hopefully, “school today?” Shayla is also sick of us, ready to see her friends.

I thought I’d clear the cobwebs in my own head by sorting out the garage and getting some stuff to the recycling center, but as I dug through the piles my spirits sank. So much generosity and love and kindness, but the detritus of Christmas, and life generally, is a sad sight. Will I ever tent camp again, or figure out how to use those pipes to make a Halloween spider? Do I really need tile-laying tools? My old stuff taunts me with the things I used to do and may never do again.

Shayla agreed to go to the recycling center because she likes little trips, and she got to help smash up the boxes first. The recycling center really is a treat. In part this is because I have such fond memories of trips to the dump with my mom as a kid. She and dad had a phase of fixing up old houses, so there was plenty to discard, and my mom always saw it as an adventure. Also the new El Cerrito recycling center is this ultra-organized circle where you can bring styrofoam blocks, cardboard, old electronics, batteries, books, three kinds of metal and 4 kinds of plastic. It’s awesome.

On the way we passed a hiking trail that goes up into the hills. I mentioned as we drove by that some time we ought to go up the trail and see the amazing view of the bay. I’m not sure why I bothered. Suggesting a hike to 6-year-old Shayla is not unlike asking most people if they’d like to set themselves on fire; there’s very low likelihood of a yes.

Our recycling adventure was very satisfying, with the Goodwill lady helpfully suggesting a few places we could put some stuff that I hadn’t thought of. My mood was picking up. Then, incredibly, on the way home Shayla said “I want to go on that walk up the hill right now!” I was stunned, but am smart enough to grab a good offer when I get one.

We hiked up a steep, rocky path into the El Cerrito hills. The views of the bay are stunning: Golden Gate bridge, Bay Bridge, far north bay. I couldn’t believe how much we were climbing, and I kept telling her she got to pick when we’d turn around. I was starting to fear I might have to say it’s time to turn back when she found a spot to dig for dinosaur bones. She was very dedicated, for a couple of minutes, but satisfied there were none immediately available, she was ready to head down the hill.

What a surprising, lovely gift, getting out in a bit of nature as the bookend to the winter holiday. It’s my favorite way to relax. It gives me such joy, and fills back up my hope for all life. And today, the suggestion coming from Shayla, reminded me that I have no idea what these kids will or won’t do over time. I may never lay tile, but who knows, I may need the tent and lots of the other crap in the garage as their interests expand. What a nice feeling to head into 2104 with.

What Yelling and Screaming?

“I love your blog, but you never have anything like this in it” Grandpa Mel said quietly as Shayla threw herself into her third round of violent weeping and begging for… oh I can’t remember what. To bring a toy with us? To get something from her brother Jaden or deny something to him? Hot chocolate before dinner, a puppy that poos candy? These scenes tend to be repetitive and it’s hard to remember the details.

Later Jaden re-upped his game, proving his sister’s not the only drama queen. Shrieking and head-banging me because he refused to have his diaper changed before we went downstairs. I sat against the door, keeping it closed as he lunged his poopy self at it and yanked at the handle. I calmly repeated that we can go see papa and have dinner as soon as we change his dirty diaper. I’ve learned my lesson, I don’t wrestle him to the ground and force clean clothes on him, it gets me too mad (and it’s too hard to win). I wait him out, daydreaming about a beach trip to Mexico, while I murmer calm retorts to his murderous yelling. Everyone’s gone ahead, and it’s just a three year old and me. I can wait him out. There was a knock at the door. Not the police, fortunately. Grandpa Mel again, looking shocked that his darling grandson had only slightly less foam coming out of his mouth than a rabid dog.

Have I forgotten to mention the screaming and yelling the children do, in this blog?  I’m better and better at tuning it out, but it is a significant feature of life with kids 6 and “terrible 3″. These kids have some pipes.

One benefit of staying at your father-in-law’s retirement community is that noise isn’t a huge problem. I met a nice man who told me he lives right next door to the room we’re renting for a few days. “I’m so sorry,” I said to him. But he laughed and told me he pops his hearing aids out, no problem.

Still, it’s a shock to the system to be yelled at, viciously, at close range and high volume, with such… I guess the word is sincerity. With their purity of feeling, for that moment they truly detest what you stand for and your ridiculous rules and requirements. I used to think I’d be less affected by their outbursts over time, but the truth is the onset always brings a reaction. It’s a second later that my new skills kick in. Rather than taking the bait, most often I’m able to unhook, register that they need someone to push against and I’m him right now, and do my duty. Trying to stay reasonable, often staying calm-ish, proudly never resorting to murder.

Christmas, a whole week so far off school, away from home and routine. Of course the little ones have more than the usual need for a meltdown. But it’s at least the second night this week Jay and I have congratulated each other for making it relatively unscratched through some version of the Exorcist. Wow, that was exhausting. And did I mention we went to the mall for shoes? It’s me who should be drooling and pounding the walls.

But I have to say post meltdown is really great. When the weeping subsides, and the quiet is so sweet. All that crying oxygenated their brains and gave them quite a workout. They’ve got a peaceful sense of accomplishment being done with all that. I’m proud that I only got mad this time, not furious. Small victories.

I can hear the train headed through Northridge, the cars on the street. An hour of my own thoughts before bed (if I can make it a whole hour) is pure bliss. Hang in there everyone, just one more week before the schools have to take them all back!

The Art of Not Doing

It’s only the first day of the kids two week vacation, and maybe it’s time to admit I’m not as skilled as I’d like to be at relaxing.

In my defense, the run-up to Christmas has been quite a sprint: kids’ class parties and shows, present shopping, near-misses with Disney Boxes arriving by UPS, fistfuls of teacher gift cards and heartfelt but gotta-get-it-done notes. (In my heart I believe the teachers would prefer cash to these easily-lost giftcards, but I just can’t do it; it feels too much like a bribe, though we could debate whether all these presents are a sort of bribe… if there were time we could debate it, but there’s not!)

Yesterday we did a holiday brunch and three neighborhood Christmas parties. This morning I tricked Jaden into helping wash the windows and water the plants.

So when the whole family crashed in the living room this afternoon:

2013-12-23 the nap…why couldn’t I just go with it and chill?

I just don’t go from 60 to 0 very quickly. My mind, once zooming, has a hard time slowing down. There are two giant boxes in the garage that need wrapping. I’ve got to make sure crab will be available Christmas morning. We never did figure out how to mark the house entrance so people can find the front door. I think you get the idea.

But since it’s early in the break, I’m going to try and develop these resting skills. Yes, the whole Christmas production has to happen. But if I chill out a little bit, I bet Santa still shows up Christmas Eve.

Wish me luck, and a very joyful, relaxing Christmas to everyone!

Christmas and My Hamid Karzai Hat

I was smug at Thanksgiving when I didn’t get the bug going around. The kids puked onto me liberally and spiked 103 fevers. I handled it calmly, even pleasantly, and I didn’t get the bug. We had a nice Thanksgivikkuh! But if you believe in retribution, karmic payback came today. I got it, today perhaps by chance (it’s still going around her school), perhaps for arrogance. 101 temperature, swollen lymph nodes. My volunteer duty at Shayla’s Pancake Breakfast tomorrow ruined.

Christmas is a fever dream anyway, shiny, exciting, but treacherous. This is our second Christmas together, but there were others. We set up the tree, the kids were elated, and then Shayla’s mood turned dark that night. Sometimes I’m clueless but somehow I got this one. “The holidays have all kinds of feelings with them. Happy memories, and sometimes sad or scary things too.” She started to weep and weep, and while I never heard the exact story, the blister was popped: a blast of grief, then she was great, back here with her new dads, her new last name, her new life. Two years ago she was pulled from her daycare class, never to live with her mom again. Moved to a foster home where jealous girls ripped the earrings out of her ears. Her memories come in little vignettes, heartbreaking, matter-of-fact.

Our Chanukkah seemed so pure, at least as we celebrate it, a half-and-half family. It’s the dinners, the candles. Shayla was old enough to help light the menorah, say the prayer. We did no gifts.

Christmas is more tricky. I adore Christmas: Jesus in the manger, High School Madrigals singing carols in the mall in Austin, Texas. Our church doing a live nativity, on the roof!, that would make Bob Fosse proud. Mom laughing it off when the cat climbed up the Christmas tree and it fell onto Dad, typing on his Radio Shack computer. But for every bright bit, there’s a crush at the mall, a gross “gotta buy it” panic that tips generosity, forgiveness, and love into icky consumerism and hollow neediness.

In 2007, in December, as I was headed into the nervous breakdown that would change my life forever (the best thing that ever happened to me, before Jay and the kids), I had a late-night drunken online shopping spree, and I bought a Hamid Karzai hat.Karzai-usaid It was that lovely lambskin hat, vaguely Russian in shape, that he was wearing to the tribal meetings. Of course now the full disaster of Afganistan is clear, but at that time Hamid seemed to me like a hopeful statesman, a man who might bring things from the brink. It seemed like the hat a bold visionary would wear.

Googling Hamid Karzai hats was as easy as looking up recommended suicide prescriptions, and a few days later there it was, proof of my longing and desperation, but also a glimmer of hope. Who orders such an absurd, fabulous hat if they’re going to die? It was a sign of how bad things would get, but also a symbol of some spark deep down, some part of me ready to emerge from shame and guilt and my tightly wound self, into the full member of society, the partner, and father, I despaired I would not be.

The rest happened, of course. I found my way to someone I could really have kids with, and we made a family. The laws even changed and we’re a completely legal, married one!

But I find my memories of desperate, unhappy times help me with our kids. I want only beautiful, sparkly holiday memories for them. Yet I know they live in the world, which is beautiful and tragic, hopeful and crushingly unfair. I hope I can help them through it, to their own sparkly holidays, safe, true, and sound.

Merry Christmas everyone!