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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Springggg Forward!

Like a cartoon character shot out of a catapult, we’re zooming through Spring. An intimate Passover Seder, a giant egg-dying-and-hunting kidstravaganza, and a million things in between. Will the dog’s eye require surgery? Should we give in and get Shayla a DS for her birthday? Is the kids’ mom alive, and would a visit be advisable? Does anybody make toddler pants waist size 5T, length 4T?

And what’s that we’re zooming towards? Summer, year end school parties, a ga-flurry of birthday parties, the bang-bang-bang of enrichment day camps. 

It’s reminding me of the slightly sick hangover I had as a kid the day after consuming 3/4th of all my Easter candy. I remember the fun, and a few of the to-dos, but it’s a jittery haze.

But even as it seems I’m not doing enough as a parent, or that this pace doesn’t feel sustainable, there’s another part of me that knows the anxiety and twirl of this is in part “phantom pain.” If I sit still for a minute, I have to admit that most of the things we have to figure out are getting done. The kids are clothed, in school, loving their activities and our family life. The dog’s getting treatment, summer camps are planned, and we’re blessed to be able to almost afford it all.

So who’s panicking in there?

The part of me that was long frenetically engaged in making this family happen — coordinating the trainings, paperwork, decorating, self-improvement, planning, hoping, and gnashing of teeth, among other tasks — has still not grasped the fact that we’ve really done it. We’re a legal family, a done deal. Whatever gnashing and thrashing was necessary to make this happen, I don’t need it anymore. (And now that I’ve taken a breath, I have to admit it’s possible it was not really needed in the first place).

I resist this because it seems silly to feel stunned, confused, even traumatized, by good fortune and dreams coming true. But it’s really been so disorienting.

So it’s the same old story this month. Too good to be true, sinking in slowly, and, as always, the good stuff is going by in a blur. I’m trying to sit and enjoy it a minute before running on to the next thing.

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.