Crying in Office Depot Aisle 8

Back to school! Second grade started Wednesday and I dragged Shayla clothes shopping and to get a haircut, rituals that feel as important as they are trivial. Why do we buy new clothes just before school starts? Our economy depends on us buying this stuff, but it’s deeper and more primal for me.

I can only vaguely remember back to school shopping when I was a kid (and Easter shopping, another time when a new outfit was not optional). My main preoccupation was with what I would not wear—tied to my primary goal for just about all my schooling: avoiding humiliation and teasing. No purple or pink. Nothing with logos. Better bland than making the wrong move. So I should understand firsthand why Shayla’s responses to everything I suggested she try on was “no, no, no, no, no.” Sometimes, sensing my annoyance, she’d say “sorry to be saying no so much Daddy! But, no, no, no.” The only strong yesses were to cute animals wearing mustaches… it’s a theme this year, cats with mustaches, groundhogs with mustaches, platypuses, don’t ask.

Backing up a minute, the history minded might ask, how could I possibly have had any fashion rules as a kid and ended up in these outfits:

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…and all I can really say is that we live in the times we live in. Also I’d kill, today, to have a pair of plaid pants like the ones I wore on that rocket.

But back to my stubborn child. While I realize it’s her job to find her own way by rejecting every great idea I have, when I found her literally the perfect cocktail dress, how could she say no? I mean, check this out:

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Wouldn’t I have killed to have a parent with great taste trying to get me into something really fab? And of course the answer is no. (See above, they did.)

While she good naturedly posed for a photo before refusing to buy the dress, she was clear. There was absolutely no way she was getting it. I begged, until I realized she should reply “If you want this dress so much Daddy, buy it for yourself.” Why should I pick her outfit? It won’t save me from the humiliations of being 6, and 8, and 12; I’ve been there and done that. And it won’t save her either. Besides, it’s possible the thing is just too womanly for a 7-year-old. She doesn’t have any cocktail parties on her fall schedule. Her picks were girly, tomboy, 100% her.

Which brings us to the Office Depot. How hard could it be to pick out an accordion folder for 2nd grade? OK, this morning another mom told me there were tears in the office supply store trying to do this same errand the night before, but Shayla caught me off guard after school (“please! we’ve GOT to get this, some kids brought theirs today!”), and there we were. Did I have the note with the part number of the suggested accordion? No. But here’s another parent from our class! She’s got the number, and there’s no match. Oh, and one that might be close is sold out. Plus Jaden was home sick today and he’s projectile coughing on the classmate’s mom as she’s trying to help us (moms almost always feel sorry for dads out with their kids). Each folder isn’t quite right, the ones I suggest are not making Shayla happy, and everyone’s patience is fraying. “Just ask them!” Shayla keeps hissing, insisting that the Office Depot staff will know Teacher Anita’s preferred folder. I’m not proud of much of my shopping heavy-handedness this week. But I joyfully report that I only almost, but did not, say to my 7 year old: “sweetie, the people working at Office depot barely know their asses from a hole in the ground, they will not solve this folder dilemma.” Instead I picked up my sneezing, snotty 4-year-old, grabbed the hand of my distressed 7-year-old, and walked out of the store.

“I don’t think we can get this today” I said.

Disaster Avoided, Again

A long, rolling shake woke us this morning, a mild but persistent earthquake. Google says it was a 6.0 near Vallejo. It must have felt big there, but I’m not sure I would have noticed if it weren’t for the sliding door of the closet thumping rhythmically.

It woke Jay as well. “That was a long one” he said, and went back to sleep. My adrenalin surged, then relief washed over me. We avoided the big one, again.

It’s a crazy feature of our primate brains, tuned to danger, that good fortune is hard to see, nearly invisible.

It wasn’t until Jaden got a fever and cough Friday night that I realized we’ve gone all summer with nobody sick. That’s remarkable, because for two snotty years it was rare to go a week without at least one of us having a cold or flu. Certainly we didn’t go a month. It seems like one, often two of us, had some sort of cold that whole time, as our family built its immunity, the kids bringing bug after bug home from school. Two plus months of easy breathing is cause for celebration.

A lovely young couple brought over a fruit salad yesterday, new friends we met at a Family Builders picnic this summer. They’re just entering “matching,” where you start hearing about possible foster matches, reading case files of many many kids. They are enegetic and optimistic, it was heartwarming. It’s been three years since we started matching, though that’s hard to believe.

The part where it seemed like we’d never get kids was so quickly replaced by the part where it’s hard to remember we ever didn’t have them.

Tonight they’re sleeping peacefully, though one’s a bit sick. We have a roof over our heads, water and electricity available even during the drought. Second grade starts on Wednesday. The dog’s eye problems are holding steady for now. August is gorgeous in Berkeley.

There’s so much to be thankful for, even if it does take the occasional quake to remind me.

Our Historian

It’s been a year since we got married, and following a tradition I’ve heard about but never known anyone to actually do, we defrosted the top layer of our wedding cake and had it for dessert after dinner.

It was delicious.

Jaden loves cake, and somehow he talked me into putting Hershey’s syrup on it, so he double loved it. But afterward he was agitated, looking though all my work and personal printed stuff for something. Finally he found our Holiday card from last year.

I thought this was part of his “how soon is Christmas” campaign. Now that his fourth birthday party is over he’s working on inviting everyone to a Christmas party he’s throwing. But no, I realized my four year old was showing me a photo of  the cake we’d just eaten:

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I know everybody’s kid is amazingly precocious and smarter than everybody, but what four years old do you know who’ll sift through the old photos to show you what he remembers about a year ago?

Ever since he moved in, he’s been fascinated by family and friend photos. He wants to see pictures of us as kids. He wants to see our parents as kids, and great-great-grandparents. He shows us photos of when he was a baby and wore a cast. He’ll walk you through the Disneyland album, describing every attraction and offscreen event. This kid is a history buff.

An old soul, if you will.

When I was a kid adults would sometimes call me an old soul, and I never knew what to think. It sounded like a compliment, but one that might come with some baggage. Melancholy maybe?

But Jaden, probably unlike me at 4, will not be dissuaded from what he decides comes next. He’s a stubborn, ornery old soul. And thank god for him.

 

Both Here and There

I was startled looking at the Target check-out belt: skateboard, knee- and elbow-pads, and pullup diapers, all for the same kid.

It terrifies me thinking of Jaden, my about-to-be-4-year-old, zipping around on a skateboard. But before you call the cops, I’ll point out that he’s made incredible progress on the scooter his Grandpa Ted gave him. And another parent told us her boys scooted around on their bellies for years, practicing for the harder stuff. Our plan is to let him have what he so badly desires, and monitor it closely. Our plans so often work out.

How could he be both refusing to complete potty training, in a sweetly reassuring babyish way, and demanding new advanced sports that terrified me as an older kid? Something about it doesn’t compute.

It reminds me of going upstairs to see what all the yelling was about, to find 7-year-old Shayla atop the bunk bed ladder, greedily watching her Kindle tablet while deftly kicking away her brother, who was trying to climb up the stairs. “This isn’t what I was thinking when I said you need to let Jaden watch that show with you.” She’s incredibly smart and sophisticated about so many concepts, but a complete baby about sharing.

I guess my mistake is in expecting some kind of internal coherence in our personalities., even though I know better. The same morning I’m finishing two challenging, cool projects with a lot of complex demands, I suddenly want to cry because I didn’t buy anything for the birthday party and I feel like a failure as a dad and a human being. It hardly seems fair to ask my kids to make more sense to me than I make to myself.

(Speaking of Bad Dads, we may be entering our Aylet Waldman phase of parenting. When a mom asked what the theme for Jaden’s birthday party would be, he decided on the spot. “Hot dogs.” Jaden will love it.)

I’ll try to be more patient with my little bundles of inconsistency. And with my kids too. Oh and, spoiler alert! If you see Jaden in the next couple days, don’t say anything. The little athlete is getting a skateboard for his birthday. The worst part is, at 4 he’ll probably be better at it than I ever was.

Art, Vacations, Summer

We frontloaded summer vacation this year, a week of family camp that’s a beloved tradition, then a week at the beach in Southern California, a chance to prove to the kids that you actually can swim in the ocean, and time to hang out with all the grandparents. It was sweet.

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It was a relaxing blast to start the summer, though I suddenly wonder, “is that all the vacation I get??” Um, yes. But the kids are in camp, and the mood is summer-y. It’s a sweet time of year.

Shayla’s been bringing home fun art projects, but I’m a little jealous. In my pre-parenting fantasies, I was the one drawing and painting and putting together creative projects. But there’s so much dang laundry to do! Also, while I’m way better at not engaging in the tug of war that my daughter and I find ourselves in so easily, I can tell she gets more permission and freedom from camp counselors right now.

So I find myself an art appreciator, which is pretty sweet too. It’s wonderful to see her color sense, her more sure lines and shapes. Here’s the prize so far, a piece during camp on “The Human Body,” this one dedicated to her lungs. “My [lungs] helps me play tetherball” it says:

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Hung along side some pretty great art in the house, it holds up I think.

One other summer photo that captures the mood so far. Here are mermaid Shayla and Pirate Jay:

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Hope there’s not too much sand in your underpants, but a little.

Half a Life Ago

Twenty five years ago this week my mother, quite ill in the hospital, had her 54th birthday. She’d had surgery to install a port for some kind of chemotherapy, but she never fully woke up, though she did say “balloons” sometime after she came back from surgery. We had, in fact, filled the room with balloons. It was one of the last things she said, and two days later she died.

I was twenty five, so this was roughly half my life ago.

It’s hard to know exactly what to say about this. Today I don’t think they’d be operating on someone so ill and clearly at the end of her life, so her death might have been more peaceful. Today the treatments for breast cancer are so much better that she quite possibly would have lived. Neither of these thoughts seem particularly useful.

I’ve had so many thoughts and feelings about losing mom, but with this distance they all have a slight air of unreality about them, even as many of my memories of mom are so vivid. She was an incredibly lively, joyful person. Funny, a bit silly. Solid.

Now that I have my own kids, there’s so much I’d like to ask her about. The other day I found Jaden hiding behind the shade of a window, clearly pooping in his diaper. I had a distinct memory of myself at his (or maybe younger) age, hiding behind the curtains in the dining room. She’d love the story. I wonder if she’d remember the incident.

Another: our dog is an increasingly unruly beast, and while we make noises as if to train him, Jay and I have clearly decided there’s no point. I’ll come to finish clearing the dishes and he’s standing on the dining room table, licking a plate. Something about the way we barely notice this reminds me of mom and our childhood dog, who got away with murder. I remember mom laughing when I taught the dog to take little candies, ever so gently, from between my teeth.

This week mom would have been 79, and next week dad’s turning 80. He’s been married to my stepmom for over 20 years. It just doesn’t seem possible.

Here’s a picture I love, of mom in bathrobe, our dog Fireman, my brother Scott, and me. I have no idea what’s going on, but the feeling in the photo is just right.

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Happy birthday mom. I know you’d get a kick out of your zany grandchildren, and how they’re putting me through some of what you went through. I want to think you’re seeing some of this from wherever you are, and having a chuckle.

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The Gold Trophy

The whole “micro” softball season was focused on the basics: which base to run to if you hit the ball (first), how to hit the ball (swing), how to work on a team (hint: not everybody should run for the ball at the same time). Nobody kept score, and at the end of the game each team did a cheer for the other team. 2-4-6-8, who do we appreciate?

It was delightful to watch their batting, running, and team skills develop this Spring, especially delightful that my own negligible catching and throwing skills are, for this brief moment, as good as my daughter’s. It was heartwarming to see so many adults donate their skills and talents to the kids: four coaches gave our team of 13 their loving care each Saturday morning.

And the season ended, as it should, with a gold trophy. Each kid got one, with her name, the team, 2014. I would have told you I’m against “participation” prizes, but you should have seen the excitement when the girls got these gold statuettes. Priceless.
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Facing the Truth and Moving On

Maybe parenting is the art of the impossible. How do you balance these crazy opposites?

On the one hand, my daughter’s idolization of her mom is something she deserves to hold on to. She’s lost so much, it would be cruel to take that away. On the other hand, the part of her that remembers her mom is drawn to girls who are similarly abusive to her. She’s in a cycle of pursuing rejection.

For a while I was fixated on these other girls. Their bad manners, drama, cruelty. But with time it’s clear that Shayla is creating this with them, practically begging them to treat her poorly, rewarding them richly with attention when they withold or insult. When one leaves, my girl manages to find another frenemy.

Last week on therapy day I pick Shayla up at the regular time, and she’s weeping and furious at the latest insult. We get to Wendy’s office, and Shayla’s in a state, going over and over the latest insult.

Wendy says “I wonder if you remember other people who yelled mean words at you when they were mad, and you kept trying to forgive them?” Uh-oh, she’s going to go there.

Shayla lists a number of kids who she’s tangled with.

“I read a report about somebody else who did that, before.”

“Who?” Shayla seems to genuinely want to know, and have no idea.

“Most kids can remember what happened from about 3 years old. See if you can remember anything.”

Back and forth they go. Who? Who?

Finally Shayla guesses her mom, and Wendy says yes, and I tell her that’s what I understand too. She looks like we’ve just told her the Easter Bunny kicks kids in their sleep. She’s gobsmacked. “What did she call me?” she wants to know.

I don’t like repeating those words, says the therapist.

Wow, it was a payoff of two years of work that Wendy could get this on the table. I realize it’s just a step on the way, but I felt like I’d witnessed something amazing.

I was ready for big fireworks later in the week, bedwetting, or school drama. But everything was smooth. I told Shayla I was sad that her mom sometimes said mean things to her. And then I dropped it. Things settled back to normal.

I guess that’s how you do it. Little by little, as she’s able to take it, I’m going to have to dish out this ghastly story. Help Shayla see how deeply unwell her mom is, and what wounds she’s got from her. And I also have to help her keep her love for her mom alive, help her understand that under the mental illness and substance abuse, somewhere in her higher self of course her mom loves her, deeply.

What really amazes me is that this wound seems such a small piece of her life. There are the frenemies, and there’s the therapy. But so much of every day is spent on school, softball, family friends, reading.Swimming. SpongeBob. For her seventh birthday we got her a Kindle Tablet (for the parental controls) and she’s playing Fruit Ninja, slicing up watermelons. It’s not that this weight she will have to carry isn’t terrible, but it is true that she’s got so much else going on, so much energy for math, stories, dancing and silly games.

It seems impossible, but somehow she’s moving forward. Here comes Summer, and Summer Camp, and all the rest. It goes so fast!

Happy Mother’s Day

Did you ever set out with clear sights and end up doing exactly the wrong thing?

I’ve swerved with my 6-year-old, between working to help her face the tragedy of her mom, who not only can’t take care of her, but can’t even manage a visit or card, and letting her forget about it and just be a kid. I hope I usually look to my daughter for which is the right way in the moment, but sometimes I push it one way or the other, and I rarely know if I’m doing the right thing. But tonight, I’m clear I blew it this week.

With Mother’s Day approaching, and no news of her mother and no way to contact her, I was worried about Shayla and how she’d do. I checked with the teacher about when they might do something for mother’s day, because in past years there have been upsets out of the blue that later we traced back to something I wish we’d thought of. I wanted to be prepared. To my surprise, the teacher said they weren’t doing Mother’s Day this year, something about diverse families and they’ll do a generic family day in June. I fear she may have changed plans she had, which was not my intent. My daughter has to grow up in a world where there’s a mother’s day every year, and I don’t want to hide that from her.

Yet with no activities in school, somehow it didn’t come up all week. I thought I should say something, but hated to bring it up. I put it off and put if off, and we got well into the day with no mention. I’m ashamed to say I even called my stepmom in private, so Shayla wouldn’t hear. I’d gone from sensitive to hiding the facts.

Late in the afternoon she heard it mentioned. “It’s Mother’s Day?” she asked, as if slapped. I’d done exactly the wrong thing. It came up several more times. Of course it would, and I was a fool to imagine it wouldn’t, though the truth is I wasn’t consciously thinking about it.

Her upset was brief, a little cloud passed over her, passed quickly. Yet the more I thought about it, the more exactly wrong my approach seems. I don’t ever want her to think I’d rather not talk about her mom, even when that’s true. The hard to talk about has to be ok. She’s entitled to denial and avoidance when she wants it, but I should not encourage that to make things easier for me.

I don’t think it’s something she thought about much the rest of the day. She had a busy, happy weekend, and if she’d been brooding about her mom we’d know. But I see I’ve got to set the course more clearly, and face up to these hard conversations earlier and more often. It would have been a 2 or 3 minute conversation tops, and I could have been her ally in facing this.

Of course this was a minor blip, and I realize I have to tack back and forth between the extremes. We’ll find our way. But what I would do to not have left her stranded today.

Next time. Happy Mother’s Day everybody!

Stranger in Strange Lands

Parenthood, I’m finding, is a trip deep into unknown territory, from playdate to PTA. There’s the thrill of easy membership: they just accept that I’m the dad here — no proof required. And the welcome shock of feeling  “post-gay”: my primary identity in most of these places is Shayla or Jaden′s dad. Everything else is a distant second.

Poised right on the cusp on introvert and extrovert, I both crave social interaction and then suffer if I don’t really know or connect with somebody there. We’re still figuring out where we and the kids fit in, so there are plenty of “alone in the crowd” moments these days. This weekend was a case study.

 One: Girls’ Softball League

The giant fundraising bar-b-q had hundreds of families, the girls competing for furthest batting distance and lining up to sink their coach in the dunk tank. There’s a classic that never gets old, the “ding” and splash of some poor person getting dropped into a barrel of water. And everyone has been so nice to us, even as I admit how little about the sport I really understand. I suspect people think I’m exaggerating, but really I know nothing. There’s less panic when I practice catch with my daughter in front of others, though, so maybe there’s hope? I learned html, surely I could figure out softball. But I haven’t yet, and despite everyone’s kind inclusiveness, I feel like I’m just about to be uncovered as an imposter.

Two: Gay Night at the YMCA

OK, this sounds like a disco-themed joke, but the Berkeley Y and the gay family organization Our Family have a yearly night of fun for the kids. Swimming, basketball, trampoline, jumpy house, pizza. But because we’ve been embedded in our schools and neighborhood, we don’t know that many gay families. And as much as I love swimming, getting two kids pool-ready is still a major undertaking. Shayla’s slowly becoming more independent in this regard — she can use the women’s locker room and all goes fine. But Jaden will climb the urinal and roll his clean clothes in the puddles, so vigilance is needed. The kids love it, and I enjoy that they enjoy it. We knew several families there, including our school principal, which is a nice feeling. But it’s strange to still feel a bit of the outsider.

170px-Henry_Edwards_-1871Three: The Bohemian Grove

We were invited, by a friend of a friend, to the founded-in-1872, old school men’s club in the woods, for a children’s concert. It was a chance to see something I never thought I would: the rustic, fantastically posh getaway-for-the-powerful in the redwoods of the Russian River. The log cabin that held the full bar featured a boar’s head, and small trolly making the rounds of tracks around the room. Help yourself to their wine collection or very nice beer on tap! The lodge had a huge, roaring fire. Porters, dressed in vaguely 1920s attire, quietly make the whole place run, and get you whatever you want. We were just across the way from the club where Henry Kissinger is a member.

I was so grateful to have a glimpse into this life, and there were many lovely-seeming people there. But the air of entitlement and old money was unmistakable as well. There was a guy completely unironically dressed in full Thurston Howell attire. And those pants I’ve seen in catalogs with little giraffes or flags or boats in an endless grid? I found the people who wear these! Thoughts like this kept exploding in my mind, as I felt both like a voyeur and someone who maybe doesn’t really belong in that world.

It was a full weekend, every opportunity to meet new people and push my life into new directions. But it was only after leaving the posh Grove picnic that I eased into true joy. We stopped at the river, the kids wading and swimming in the water, laughing and splashing. We played our find-the-car games and laughed about Jaden’s farts until both kids nodded off. It was a perfect end to Sunday.

For now, it’s still our immediate family I’m getting to know. There will be time to branch out and be part of larger communities, but these days, it’s those 3 who I’m gladdest to be around and whose company I need.

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