undeaddad

explorations of mindful fatherhood


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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.

 


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The Birds

hitchcock-birdsThere’s this image that plagues me most nights as I’m trying to drift off to sleep. I see birds swarming my body, concentrating around my head. It’s like a personal Hitchcokian-horror show. The perimeters of my being start to blur, as the birds begin swarming in and out of my cranium, like parakeets fighting for a roost.

At that point, some semi-conscious part of myself imagines putting a shotgun to my head and blasting the little demons right out of there. This imagined action is paired with a pining for release, freedom, and quiet.

I have this semi-dream most often when I’m overwhelmed, and have given it lots of thought.

I’ve come to the conclusion that the birds are my thoughts, my worries, constantly circling around my brain. None of them find a roost or discover a quiet place to land. Instead, they’re all fluttering around, restless. These embodied thoughts torture my mind and prevent me from sleep, and my fantasy about blasting them to smithereens is my desire to be rid of them; to have an empty, restful head that can pass into the oblivion of sleep. The longing to pull of that trigger is the longing for quiet, delivered in one glorious shotgun blast.

Ugh, that sounded morbid, but it’s not meant to. I think my life is too easily consumed by thoughts, worries, and preoccupations. These things flutter in and out of my cranium, preventing me from focusing on what’s right in front of me. These birds get in the way when I’m trying to unwind, when I’m trying to have fun, when I’m trying to listen.

It’s insights like this that spur on my need for three things: meditation, therapy, and writing. The Zen teacher inside of me wants to rely solely upon meditation and mindfulness practice, recognizing that the way to “put things down” is by cultivating a mind that can be present in the here-and-now, and allow thoughts to pass. That voice tells me to get back to my mediation, to get back to my chanting, to get back to my practice.

But then there’s the therapist voice in my head, which tells me that’s not the full story. Theses swarming thoughts are also signs that there are many things in my life I need to work through: issues with my parents, my desire to be a good husband and father, my conflicts about my relationships and my place in the world. There is a time to put these things down, but there’s also a time to pick them up and look them over. A time to make sense of them and to make peace with them. It’s in my therapy, my conversations with my wife, and my writing that I’m able to hold these issues in my hands, turn them over, and really examine them.

I have to listen to these birds. There’s a time to shoo them away (perhaps less violently), allowing them to fly away, leaving my cranium empty. But there are also times when I need to pick them up gently and to show them understanding and care, so that they can eventually learn to roost.


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The Butt of Space

theresnoplacelikespace_ss3This is the first (and perhaps last) blog post  I’ve allowed my son to title. According to him the full title should be “Dr. Seuss Explores the Butt of Space”, but something about the Cat in the Hat’s proctological leanings really turned me off. The post captures a moment that truly exemplifies the sense of humor my wife and I have passed down to our son.

We’ve had a bunch of Dr. Seuss books in our home since our son was a baby, even the Seussian books published in the good doctor’s name posthumously, that tend to be more educational and less whimsical. One of those is the Cat in the Hat space book, There’s No Place Like Space.

The other day, my son brings me the book, giddily instructing me to, “Look what it says!”

He points to the page with the mnemonic for remembering the planets’ names:

  • Mallory………Mercury
  • Valerie……….Venus
  • Emily…………Earth
  • Mickels………Mars
  • just…………….Jupiter
  • saved………….Saturn
  • up………………Uranus
  • nine hundred and ninety-nine……………Neptune
  • nickels.

“I know, I know,” I said, “They left out Pluto.” (Which he, like every other 7-year-old I’ve ever met, has always resented.)

“No, no,” he points to the Uranus line. “Look!”

I read it again, “Up…Uranus.”

“Get it? Up Uranus, like up your butt!”

“Yeah, I get it.”


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Back from the Dead

hand-zombie-grave-e1325617835981It has been 47 days since my last post, and I have to ask myself, what the hell happened? In the year and a half since starting this blog, this is my longest hiatus to date. What happened? Life. Shitty life.

The past couple of months have been filled with obligation. Just lots of work. I had to chair a math night at my son’s elementary school, write an article for work, and take care of innumerable work projects. When all this hits the fan, I find myself exhausted on a regular basis, and any alone-time I carve out is either consumed by work projects or by worry about these projects.

During these dark days, some of the important things in my life begin slipping off the radar. I abandon my mediation practice. I stop doing my back exercises (and my inner Will-Farrell-hot-tub-lounging-professor emerges). And most of all, I stop writing. I easily resort to the mantra, “I don’t have time.” And when I do have the time, I’m either too consumed by thoughts/worries/frustrations about everything else going on in my life, or I think to myself, “I deserve some downtime.”

To me, downtime usually means vegging out: watching TV, movies, sleeping, or reading crap. It’s basically mindless garbage. I start feeling as though my mind is so consumed by things I kind of resent (i.e., work), that it deserves just to shut down. In the moment, any of those things that are meaningful or helpful fly out the window. But why? I think it’s likely that those things feel like they require energy and thought, and I’m typically left with none.

That’s why writing is a good barometer for me, as I’m sure it is for others.  When I haven’t written in a long time, I realize that I’ve been simply too exhausted to pour my thoughts into words. I’ve been consumed by work, obligations, and other demands that overwhelm. It’s a sign that I haven’t had time to strike a balance. A neglected blog (like a neglected journal or diary) is a sign that I haven’t saved some of my energy for the things that are important, like reflecting on my experiences, focusing on my family, and learning from my own mistakes. That’s what my blog is supposed to be about. So if I haven’t attended it for a while, it’s a sign that I haven’t reserved any of my time or energy for things that are important for me and my own growth.

In short, I’m happy to be back writing. I hope to keep in mind that me-time does not have to equal mindless-time, because it leaves me feeling sapped and empty.


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Quarter Naked

broncos-cheerleaders(2)My son was forced to suffer through several hours of football this past Sunday, as we watched the conference championships. He’s a reluctant football fan, and gets quite squirrelly as the game persists. His mind wanders and he begins asking random questions. Midway through the second quarter he asked,

“Why are the cheerleaders a quarter naked?”

Good question, I thought, but chickened out and punted it to my wife. She responded with something to the effect of, “People think it’s sexy.”

This is the tricky thing with 2nd graders: they’re inquisitive about all sorts of stuff, and the older they get, the more they begin noticing adult things in the world around them. In the case of my 2nd grader’s questions, the answers are sometimes so complex that I’m flooded with a multitude of ways to answer. To respond to his question about “quarter naked” cheerleaders, do I talk about the ways in which women were historically disallowed from playing sports and relegated to cheering on the sidelines? Do I talk about the long history of high school culture in the US, in which the most popular and therefore most attractive girls are chosen as cheerleaders? Do I tell him about how grown men are so similar to high school boys that we continue the tradition of cheerleading in our major sports institutions? Do I mention that one of the few sports his dad enjoys watching is famous for its misogyny?

Thank god for my wife.  “People think it’s sexy” was probably the most pithy answer.

The whole “sexy” thing has been an interesting term to navigate while parenting. It’s a word he knows because it’s bandied about in every day life so readily. One of the ways he’s exposed to “sexy” things is when people kiss in movies or books. It’s been interesting reading the Harry Potter series to him, because as the characters get older, they appropriately deal with more adolescent topics, like flirtation, jealousy, and kissing. It’s been interesting noticing how my son’s reactions (and mine) have evolved over time. At first, reading about or seeing kisses in the movies was simply met with silent confusion and a comical look. At some point, the awkward silence was broken with his exclamation of “Awkward!”  We’re a family of comics, so the break in tension with this comic zinger was often hilarious and welcomed.

And then, something switched to make him say, “Inappropriate!”  My wife and I discerned that it must have had to do with the fact that Harry and Cho Chang get all kissy-faced in school. As a 2nd grader, my son was aware that there’s appropriate and inappropriate school behavior, and kissing obviously wasn’t something (2nd grade) students were supposed to do in school! We weren’t keen on that one, since we didn’t want him thinking it was necessarily “inappropriate” for teenagers to kiss. Thankfully, the reaction evolved to the less rule-based response: “Ooh la la!” I believe that one came from my wife, during Harry Potter’s run-in with the lovely French witches of Beauxbatons Academy. So, that’s now the comic relief when something “sexy” is going on. If someone kisses in a book or movie, if someone’s wearing a slinky dress, if teenagers go out on a date, one of us proclaims “ooh la la” and move along.

I’m good with “ooh la la’s” for now. It’s baby steps for me, until we reach middle school. Then, quarter naked cheerleaders will be the least of my worries, I’m sure.


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Chucking the iPad for 2014

noipadforyouI’m not big on resolutions, but find that the new year is always a time of reflection and hope.  As I look back on 2013, I feel like it’s a personal anomaly. Prior to this year, I hadn’t owned a smart device. I was limited to the non-texting dumb-phone that the salesperson made fun of me for buying back in 2011. But for all of 2013, I had access to an iPad, which changed my life, for the worse.

Here are the two things that are great/terrible about technology. One, it keeps me connected. Two, it allows me instant access to any information I need. On the first account, I became hyper-fascinated over the course of this year with my social media and communication possibilities, like facebook, twitter, email, and my blog. I would incessantly check for returned emails, blog responses, and new facebook posts. Aside from some very positive connections with bloggers over the past year, most of the time was wasted seeking fleeting personal validation. I think there’s a hunger in each of us for connection, recognition, and validation, which is why technology and social media are so addicting. They feed us what we need most as social beings. However, it’s a virtual or disconnected form of contact that isn’t quite as gratifying as coffee with a friend, a hug from a relative, or a kiss from my wife. So, it leaves me feeling manic and spent.

On the second account, devices give us instant access to any information we want. I think people are naturally curious, and we’re prone to asking questions. For instance, re-watching Silver Linings Playbook yesterday, I wanted to know whether Bradley Cooper’s nose scar was real, how far Baltimore is from Philly, what crabby snacks and homemades are, and what other movies the slimeball bookie friend had been in. Those questions all coursed through my mind in the span of one scene. I wanted to grab my iPad and check the answers to all of them. But if I had, I’d no longer be watching a movie with my wife, but instead trailing off into my own world of curiosity. Day to day I constantly want to know answers to my questions, and have lost the ability to ponder things on my own and to tolerate not knowing something.

I frequently think back to a picture my son had drawn of me about half a year ago, with me staring at my iPad. In some ways, this had been the picture that occupied his mind when thinking of me, and I hated it. Will my son remember me as the dad with his nose pressed up against a screen?

For 2014, I’m putting the iPad away. I don’t need to be militant. I don’t need to be extremist. But when I’m home and my family’s awake, that thing goes in a drawer or in a bag, and is out of reach. It’s too tempting to have it close, to have it accessible. Because in the end, what will be more important? How many likes my post receives? Jennifer Lawrence’s birthplace? Or that picture of me that resides in my son’s brain when he thinks about his dad?


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My Son’s Just Not That Into Yours

kids arguing

My question is this: When should we as parents intervene at the parent-to-parent level, and when should we simply coach our kids to navigate their own relationships?

My neighbor is such a pain that I’ve considered dedicating a separate blog to my conflicts with him. Instead, I hold back and relegate a few choice posts to our ongoing feuds. The latest conversation with him was an interesting mix of land disputes, fatherhood, and childhood friendship.

The guy next door was in a tizzy about the way I raked my leaves, and started bullying me about how I had to remove them from a certain wooded area of my lot, sending me emails citing town ordinances. After I corrected his misinterpretation of the law, he explained that his beef had more to do with “unresolved issues” than it did with the leaves, so he invited a conversation.

Turned out he was concerned about the disintegration of his son’s relationship with my son. My son hadn’t played with his son since the beginning of the summer, and my neighbor felt as though I had turned my son away from his. The back-story is that his son and mine played together for about a year. His son is a little socially awkward and a bit of a trouble-maker. He would frequently refuse to go home when his parents asked for him or would ignore my or my wife’s redirections if he was breaking our house rules. Nothing too egregious, to the point of us having a sit-down with parents, but enough to be annoying. The kid also had a butt fascination, frequently trying to hit people in their’s during light sabre battles, ramming his head into my wife’s butt, and investigating the butts of our pets. Simply put, he’s a little weird.

After a while, we made sure that the boys were always in sight so that we could monitor a bit more closely. My son is the perpetual rule-follower, so he tends to steer clear of anyone in violation of the rules. By the beginning of the summer, he was pulling away, frequently putting the kid off when he showed up at our door, suggesting they play after lunch or the next day. When the kid showed up again, my son would decline a second time.

Finally, we sat our son down and asked why he didn’t want to play anymore. “I’m burnt out,” was his reply, as though he was some mid-life professional discussing a career change. We told him that he needed to be upfront with his friend; if he wanted to take break, then he should tell him that. Afterwards, he successfully had a conversation with the boy, saying he wanted “to take a break from play-dates over the summer.”  The kid got it, and stayed away…

…until the end of the summer, when re was ringing our doorbell again.  My son turned him away a few times, and the kid finally stopped coming over.

So when my neighbor sat me down, he was in a huff that we hadn’t shown him the respect of letting him know that my son didn’t want to play with his. He felt it was unfair for him as a parent to keep sending his son over to our house, only to set him up for rejection. I could empathize with that experience, and kind of felt badly. But the question arose: How much should we as parents intervene at the parent-to-parent level, and how much should we help our kids navigate their own relationships?

In this particular situation, there wasn’t anything bad enough that prompted us to intervene directly in the boys’ relationship. There wasn’t outright bullying or even arguments, there wasn’t meanness or cruelty or even terrible violations of rules. In most of those cases, my wife or I would have likely stepped in or approached a parent. This was just the whittling away of a relationship based on a poor fit. My son didn’t want to play much anymore and couldn’t articulate a specific reason. I’m left to assume that the two just didn’t click, and perhaps even that my son thought that the other boy was a bit odd or maybe a trouble-maker.

What would I have said to the other parents in that case?  “My son just isn’t that into yours?”  “My son thinks your kid’s kind of a trouble-maker”  “Don’t send your kid over anymore because he’s a bit odd?”  I can’t fathom what I would have said. Plus, this wasn’t an abrupt thing. Just like adults can, these kids had drifted apart over time, and there wasn’t any specific marker that indicated to me that I should really go talk to the parent.

In the end, my neighbor made me feel like a bad parent. As though I hadn’t been thoughtful enough as a parent to step in and say something to my son’s friend’s dad. I felt this guilty tailspin. Had I mis-stepped? Would a “good” parent have done something different? I started resenting this other parent for his judgments, especially if he hadn’t been following his own advice, which smacked of hippocracy. If he had wanted to have a conversation about things as the relationship was having a part, then that responsibility fell upon him. Plus the added accusation of me “turning my son against his” was over the top.

In the end, it’s about deciding the line for ourselves. At times, kids need to navigate their own relationships, which can be confusing. Our job as parents in this case was to help our son be clear with his friend and draw a line for himself. I think that in the long run, this was the best decision. I will be there as a mediator when needed, but certainly a cautious, strategic one.

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