undeaddad

explorations of mindful fatherhood


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Struggles of a Buddhist Dad

894-Buddha-and-MangaWhen I was shopping around for a local Buddhist community, I sat down with the abbot and monk of a local Zen center for an interview.

“I’m a father, with a wife and son, and I don’t have much time that isn’t already dedicated to my work or family,” I explained to him. “What do I do about my practice and making time to come to the Zen center?”

“Your family is your priority and your practice,” he responded immediately, with great confidence. He went on to explain that being a father is the situation I am in, and that dictates how I use my time. I should dedicate myself to my family, he explained, and by fully engaging in every action with them, I am practicing Zen.

That did it for me. Up until that time, I had been half-halfheartedly searching for a Buddhist community, but had little faith in the process. I had been biased against American Buddhists for most of my life. I had met too many old White male Buddhists who were more interested in wearing beads and touting their belief system than being engaged and compassionate with those around them. But I’d come to a point in my life where I had to admit to Buddhism’s hold on me, and I wanted to give up my trepidation and stereotypes, and find what might be out there for me. The abbot’s response caught my attention, and I’ve been part of the community ever since.

But this has been the problem: even after I found a faith to embrace, the integration of my family life was a challenge. Most American Buddhist communities are very individualistic in their practice traditions. Most communities offer meditation, retreats, and interviews for the individual practitioner. They may also hold talks, community meals, or discussion groups but, for the most part, these events cater to the individual practitioners in the community. And who are these individual practitioners?  Typically, they are the people who have time to go, by themselves, to a center or temple for meditation. In my journeys, this typically translates to young adults (folks in their early 20’s) or retirees, who have the time to dedicate to individualized practice.

So what about people my age? What about folks with kids? Where are the families?

From my experience, parents can’t make the time to go. Who will watch there kids? Plus it feels rather self-indulgent to go sit in meditation, when there’s a family dinner you’re missing or a soccer practice that the kids need to get to.

But is this what a faith community is supposed to be about? Faith communities are composed of two essential elements: faith and community. Ever religion has its believe system, comprised of world-view, ethics, story tradition, practices, etc. But in order for it to be a religion, it must have a community: that group of people who come together around a particular belief system. Most of these communities culminate naturally around a church, synagogue, or mosque, where there’s an expectation that the family commune regularly with other families of that faith. In some cases everyone in the family comes together for a service or practice, or kids head out for religious education or activity while the parents worship or practice. Regardless, most faith communities are inclusive and embrace families and family life. But few American Buddhist communities feel this way.

As for me, I’d much rather say, “Let’s get in the car and all go to church!” than “Have fun at dinner while dad goes off to sit quietly for an hour.” This was the impetus for me to start a kids group at my local Zen center. I knew that if I wanted a community of Buddhist families, I might just have to help create one. So my wife and I were instrumental in getting a children’s group off the ground. It’s had its ups and downs, but for a while it was quite special, and gave the kids and families an opportunity to come together to learn about mindfulness, meditation, and Buddhism.

But four years later, the two elements never connected up: faith and community. Here’s what I mean. We overlaid our kids group onto a functioning Zen community, comprised mostly of the practitioners I mentioned above, young adults and retirees. In some ways, they enjoyed having kids around, but they didn’t know what to do with us. Although our group grew, it grew on the periphery. The second issue was that the parents coming for the kids programming weren’t really part of the Zen center community. They were interested in mindfulness classes for their kids, but they weren’t necessarily Buddhist or practitioners. Plus, most didn’t have the time or interest in connecting with the rest of the community because, although it’s fun to come to a kids class, they don’t have additional time to practice with the broader community. Therefore, we grew this community of kids and families, but it was segmented from the rest of the faith tradition.

At this point, the family community is transient. If you’re coming for a mindfulness “class” it’s much different from, say, going to church. The “class” mentality doesn’t keep parents dedicated to the group. Therefore, folks come and go, and there isn’t a consistent group attending. There isn’t much connection to the rest of the center. Everything feels disjointed.

My wife has more recently been going to a Unitarian Universalist church for services, and I’ve been coming along. UU’s are experts at children’s religious education. It’s a hallmark of the faith community, and I find it to be inclusive, respectful of difference, and amazingly varied across the lifespan. When I see this, I feel an emptiness in my heart. This emptiness comes from my strong desire to force something that isn’t easy. It comes from this a desire to be a part of a Zen faith community that also honors, engages, and loves families and kids. But this isn’t the case within most Zen centers. Even if there is a recognition of the importance of family, there is no outlet to foster and care for parents and kids.

I’m trying to come to peace with where things are for me now. I realize that forcing a community based on my own desire isn’t very Buddhist, isn’t very “Zen”. All my disappointment and grief are a product of that desire, and of seeing what I “can’t have” from the UU community in my own Zen center. I find that I need to remind myself of the teaching I received was from my initial interview with that abbot. My family is my priority and my practice. As an Zen practitioner, I engage fully with the situation I am faced with, whether it’s sitting down for a meal with my family, going to a kids group at the Zen center, or listening to a sermon at the Unitarian church. It will be a process letting go of my grief for the community that never was, but that grief is what holds me back from fully engaging, fully seeing the glory or the community I have right in front of me: my own family.

 


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Don’t Be Like Me, Son

geeksSoccer season is wrapping up for my son, which is a bitter-sweet conclusion to the Fall. With the end of the season, my wife and I get to reclaim our Monday nights, Friday nights, and Saturday mornings, but my son is left without his team and his new favorite sport. I will truly miss seeing my son out there are on the field. His gusto, resilience, and comradery remind me of all the ways he’s not like me, which is a good thing.

As a kid, I was super anxious. I was the good, quiet kid in the back of the class who kept his head down and did his work. I was the kid who was respectful around adults and shy with peers. I was also the kid who was terrified of group sports, because I was awkward, uncoordinated, and un-athletic. During PE or recess, I would shy away from group games and sports for fear that I would mess up and evoke the jeers and disappointment of kids in my class. To combat this scenario, I’d do two things: I’d stay away from competitive games and sports as much as possible, and I’d become self-deprecating among my peers.

When captains were picking teams among a huddle of elementary school boys, I’f be the first to say, “Uh oh, I hope you don’t get me on your team!” or “Okay, I’ll just move to the back so you get a better view of the good players.” or (when I was one of the last few kids) “Looks like you’re down to the worst of the worst.” Basically, I was a 10-year-old Richard Lewis.

In this way, I beat the other kids to the punch, protecting myself from insults because no one insulted me as well as I did. But I also self-segregated myself from other kids. I distinguished myself as the kid no one wanted on his team, and so I never really tried. If I was bad, then why fight against it? So I never tried my hardest. I never fought past the awkwardness to gain any skill.

Apples don’t fall far from the tree, and so my son is like me in many ways. He struggles with coordination and rhythm. He can’t quite move his body as fluidly and nimbly as some other kids his age. He’s also quite shy. He’s very quiet around adults and is slow to meet friends. When I see these traits in him, I feel badly, because he has inherited traits from me that hindered me as a kid. So when I see him shying away from social interactions, or struggling with sports, I feel sorry for him, and wish I hadn’t yoked him with these weighty obstacles.

I think many parents struggle with the challenging traits they see in their kids, especially those the recognize (consciously or unconsciously) as arising from their own genes. They trigger in us all the memories of how we suffered as kids or they ways in which we were hindered or held back because of who we were. Parents want the best for their kids, and so this realization of a parents’ less-optimal traits are sometimes a guiding force for how we attempt to shape our children.

For me, I always push my son to interact with others and have a voice in the world. I prod him to go up and ask adults questions, like librarians, waitresses, or cashiers. I coach him about how to respond to adults if they ask him questions, so he isn’t a nodding mute when confronted with an adult inquiry. I encourage him to make friends or approach other kids. I know I do these things because I was a shy kid who never took social risks and never had much of a voice. I don’t want my son to grow up like that, because I experienced it as so limiting.

Sports were different though. I never pushed him to do them, because I was always terrified of them. For myself, I felt as though they’d be a set-up for ridicule because of my awkwardness. I think that in many ways, perhaps unconsciously, I de-emphasize sports with my son, because I see myself in him, and want to protect him from any rejection.

But my son is not me. When soccer season came around, I was astounded that he wanted to try. He was (perhaps luckily) put on a team that my wife and I dubbed the Bad News Bears, because they were a troop of rag-tag kids on a loosing streak. Their abilities ranged from not-so-good to okay, and so there were very few superstars on the team. I was thankful because I didn’t want any cocky athletic kids making fun of my son.

My son was off to a rough start. He fumbled around with the ball at his feet and shied away from the action. When the kids charged for the ball, he would defer to his teammates and take a supportive role, never taking the lead. When he did get the ball, he’d quickly give it up or pass it to someone else. When I projected my 8-year-old self into his shoes, I knew I’d do the same, but I’d take it to a different level. I would have given up. I would have complained to my parents that I didn’t want to go, or I would completely opt out of receiving the ball for fear of how badly I’d do.

But not my son. Throughout the season, he stuck to it. He practiced and practiced. He gave his all during formal practices, only to go home and ask me to kick the ball around with him. He loved goal keeping and would ask me to shoot balls his way while he defended them from hitting our fence. As games progressed, he’d get gutsier and charge in with the other kids. He scored one of the team’s few goals during the season! He started asking the coach if he could be goalie, and even asked his mom and me to buy him goalie gloves. By the end of the season, he looked like a different player, still with a lot to learn, but a kid who wasn’t afraid to get in there, make mistakes, and push through the struggles.

A childless male friend recently asked me what’s the best part of being a parent. With this soccer season fresh in my mind, I responded that it’s seeing your child surprise you. It’s seeing aspects of you in your child, but realizing that in spite of being an amalgam of you and your partner’s genes, your child is a unique human being who can always surprise you.


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Taking One for the Team: Or, How I Got Talked into Being Unikitty for Halloween

My kick-ass Unikitty mask

My kick-ass Unikitty mask

Being a dad means taking on rough jobs, whether it’s unclogging toilets, cleaning vomit, or dressing like a big pink LEGO kitten for Halloween.

My son had a tricky time deciding what to be for Halloween this year, but finally landed on Emmett, the construction working main character of the LEGO Movie. In spite of the show’s popularity, we couldn’t find a single costume manufactured to look like any of the LEGO Movie characters. During our pursuit of a construction vest and Piece of Resistance, my family joked about us all dressing like characters from the movie. Immediately, my son said my wife should be Wyldstyle, the DJ-named master builder. My wife turned around and insisted that I be Unikitty.  Not Batman, not Vitruvius, not even President Business. Unikitty.

For those unfamiliar with the movie, Unikitty is a pink, block-headed kitten that lives in land of rainbows and lollipops, and meets every challenge with syrupy sweetness while tamping down her seething rage.

emmet At first I insisted there was no way in hell I was being Unikitty, but my wife and son were adamant that it would be the best possible costume. They thought it would be hilarious, and I’m a sucker for making the laugh. I also knew it would likely be one of the last years that my son would tolerate his parents dressing up for trick-or-treating, let alone dressing with a family theme. I’m sure that in the years to come, he’ll scoff at any suggestion that we dress up with him, and I’m sure as a middle schooler he’d drop dead from embarrassment if we aligned our costumes with his. So, I sucked it up and I did it: I became Unikitty.

As a dad, I think it’s my job to do whatever it takes to make my family happy. Sometimes that means accomplishing very practical tasks, like holding a job and making money so that we can have the comfort of food, home, and heating. Or, it might take the form of family activities, like apple picking, visits to the pumpkin patch, or trips to the amusement park. But other times it’s making a complete fool of myself to get a laugh.

WyldstyleI’m not a natural at putting myself in uncomfortable, semi-humiliating situations for a good laugh. My wife is naturally funny, irreverent, and goofy, and has such a knack for making herself the butt of a joke for a good laugh. She’s always ready with a crazy face, story, song, or dance. I usually have to be prodded to be the clown. Most of the time she has to spur on my goofiness, whether it’s making me do a weird dance, hiking my my pants up under my armpits, or giving me a wedgie that rips my boxers by pulling them over my head (yes, this has happened). Plus, there’s usually the double-embarrassment of photographing or videotaping the incident.  I may feel self-conscious or ridiculous, but I’m so glad she encourages it. These times of goofiness are some of the most fun we have as a family, and are the times when we fall out of our chairs laughing, nearly peeing ourselves. Isn’t that what family’s about?

UnikittyI’m actually a bit uncomfortable dressing up as a big pink box-headed kitten for Halloween. Especially since I have to see other fathers who wouldn’t be caught dead in a costume like mine. I kind of feel like a nervous kid who risks a daring costume or piece of clothing and fears that his friends are going to make fun of him. But screw that. My family wants me to be Unikitty.  They think it’ll be hillarious, and that’s all that matters. So, for this Halloween, I’m happy to take one for the team, and strut around the neighborhood in second-hand ladies pink pajamas with a box over my head. I’m Unikitty, and I’m proud.

 


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Fifty Shades of Mortification

Screenshot_2014-10-19-08-29-48 (2)So my wife asked me to read Fifty Shades of Grey. I hesitated, but finally agreed to listen to the audiobook, because (like many) couldn’t bring myself to tote around the tell-tale grey-tied book cover. Went to audible and downloaded it to my cell phone so I could discretely listen to the story.

I was at the YMCA early one morning when it’s typically filled with senior citizens and middle aged folk, and I started some stretches. I popped in my earbuds and opened my audible app. Pressing play, nothing happened.

Figuring the volume was turned down, I jacked it up. Even though the volume was turned to the max, I could only faintly register the voice of the reader.

I spent about a minute investigating my audible app and searching my phone’s settings page, all the while hearing a faint voice recounting the story of a red room of pain equipped with whips, riding crops, and nipple clamps.

I attempted adjusting the cord, and that’s when my heart shot to my throat, as if I were suspended upside down by Mr. Grey himself. My earbuds weren’t plugged in, and my phone was broadcasting its dirty tome to the Y’s grey-haired visitors. I plugged in my earbuds and ran, red-faced, to a treadmill.

I don’t think the seniors at the Y will look at me the same way again. Damn you, Mr. Grey.

 

Post-script: While writing this post and attempting to pull this image from my phone, the story popped back on, reading aloud to everyone in the coffee shop. Oh my.

Post-post-script: What’s up with Anastasia Steele’s inner George Takei?


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$h#t Talking Friends

theleagueMy wife and I started watching The League, a long-running show about fantasy football friends who basically love/hate (mostly hate) one another and are driven by their all-consuming goal of screwing each other out of the yearly league trophy. While the show’s a bit intense on the burns, cuts, digs, and jabs the friends throw at one another, there’s something refreshing about it. Although the guys’ exchanges verge on cruel (with the exception of digs on Andre, which are always cruel), their friendships are long-standing and committed.

I used to have friends like that. Okay, not quite that mean and not that obsessed with football (we were way too nerdy to be sports fans), but friends who were comfortable enough to dig on each other. I was only recently reminded of how much this aspect of friendship has been absent from my life when an old college friend wrote to a group of us about attempting a reunion. In the process of inviting me, he informed me that he’d been keeping an eye on the bestiality laws in California, and would let me know when it was legal for me to return to the state. He also told another friend that 1997 wanted its hotmail address back. What a d-bag, but a completely lovable one.

Since leaving college, I’ve moved around so much that I’m left with very few friends. As I get older, I’ve realized how hard it is to find new friends at my age (see my previous post). To make matters worse, I find myself living in a fairly boring suburban monoculture, which doesn’t provide the wealth of friendship possibilities I’d like. Let’s just say that open house night at the public elementary school is overly crowded with wealthy, grey-haired 50-something fathers and their very young wives. Not exactly my typical friendship pool.

I once made friends with one of these older gentleman, a local professor who had about 15 years on his wife (she was more my contemporary than he was). After getting to know him for a while, I had this back-log of old man jokes in my head; a wealth of walker-walking, Viagra-chomping, prostate-enlarging jokes that had nowhere to go. These didn’t pop into my head because I hated the guy, but because I wanted to test the relationship and see if it could evolve. It’s not because I’m a sick bastard, but because many of my best relationships have been marked with a level of comfort and humor in which guys could rag on each other, and which was the hallmark of a strong, mutual friendship. But there was something about this guy that told me he couldn’t handle it. Ultimately, the relationship died out. Our backgrounds, daily lives, and approaches were just too different.

Some might read this post and interpret these kinds of friendships as immature men holding misdirected hostility that seeps out in the form of competition and verbal aggression. In the context of comparing my experience with The League, I can understand this interpretation. In the show, there is very little love expressed between these fictional friends, and the threats they perceive in one another override any care they hold for one another. But that’s not what I’ve experienced in these friendships. These friendships, for me, have been some of the most caring I’ve experienced. In the case of my recent email exchange, after a few more quippy emails shared between the group, I reflected on my experience. I wrote a personal message to the friend who had suggested the reunion and expressed to him how much I missed having such a close friend in my life. He responded thoughtfully and kindly, and we exchanged flattery and well-wishes, planning on re-connecting soon. In spite of not seeing each other for 7 years, there’s a strong bond between us.

As a 40-year-old man, I think it’s incredibly hard forming new friendships, let alone those that can evolve to embody the comfort and care I’m talking about. Many friendships at this age are relegated to specific contexts (i.e., work-friends, soccer-sideline-acquaintances), but these contexts dictate specific sets of scripted interactions and limits. Plus, many men my age are (rightfully) consumed by their family and work lives, which don’t allow time to invest in friendships and cultivate strong bonds. I’m left with a sadness that some of my friendships may never be able to evolve to the point where we can insult each other’s size, intellect, and fashion-sense, and yet say goodbye being certain we have each other’s back.


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Dear Soccer Dad, Do you want your son to hate you?

kicking-and-screaming“Isaiah, move up! Move up!”

“Isaiah, what kind of a kick was that?”

“Isaiah, why you giving up, bud?”

These shouts ring from the sidelines a few feet away from me on a brisk October Saturday morning. I’m there to watch my son in the town’s U9 soccer league, and I’m loving being a newly christened soccer dad. There’s something great about having a new home team and it being your son’s. But what’s up with this dude down the line?

There are all sorts of soccer dad’s, as I’m beginning to learn. Surprisingly, the most popular version is the absent soccer dad, judging by the lack of men on the sidelines (but that’s fodder for another post). There are also the quiet watchers, the cheerers and, apparently, the beraters. I’m surprised to learn that I’m a cheerer, and a very vocal one. Like, verging-on-annoying-cheerer.

As a kid, I was always a quiet sports spectator. Sure, I would cheer and clap when a point was made or a ball was saved, but I never shouted words of encouragement or cheered for specific players. I was somewhat sports illiterate growing up, and so I think the prospect of shouting encouragement or advice felt overzealous or even hypocritical.

But now I see these 8-year-olds running their hearts out on the field and I want them to know we’re cheering for them. Although I’m historically bad about remembering kids names, I’ve been pretty good at learning most of the team members’ first name at this point in the season. I shout words of encouragement for each of them as they receive the ball, I praise their defense and passing, and I cheer when a ball is saved and (less frequently…we’re on a losing streak) when a goal is scored. Each time, I try to call the player by name.

I explain all this to convey that I understand this desire to be vocal on the sidelines. I’m not there to be a passive observer, but Isaiah’s dad takes active support to a new level, by becoming coach, ref, judge, and asshole. He’s the guy who’s there before every practice, running the ball with his son and giving him lots of pointers. He sits through practice and yells advice, peppered with lots of frustrated commentary. Game days are by far the worst. He shouts to his kid about where to be on the field (even when counter to the coach’s strategy). He yells at him to move faster or stop giving up. He berates him for slowing down, giving up the ball, or allowing a pass.

It’s hard sitting on the sidelines near this guy, hearing all this. My imaginary monologue to him goes something like this:

“Do you want your son to grow up hating you? Because that’s what you’re doing. Only two things can come out of this. Either he grows up hating and rejecting his dad who always gave him a hard time, or he grows up always trying to please you, while at the same time feeling like he’s never good enough. In the second scenario, he’s likely to treat his own kids to a life of insults because it’s his only model for how to be engaged as a dad. Pull back a bit dude. It’s great that you’re here, but let the coach coach, and chill out a bit.”

I can’t, however, imagine a scenario in which I have the balls big enough to confront this guy with my diatribe. But these same sentiments run though my mind each time I hear him. I don’t see anyone else (aside from my wife) holding the discomfort of hearing this guy’s comments, but I can’t imagine other parents find it unproblematic. Plus, the coach is always on the opposite side of the field from the spectators, and so a lot of it happens off the coach’s radar. Perhaps the most skilled and emotionally cognizant coach would be able to finesse a conversation with all parents about etiquette and the proper show of support.

But what do I do? As the season goes along and I become more invested in my son’s team and its players, what do I do with my discomfort and pity for this kid who’s given such a hard time by his dad. For now, when I see him set up his chair on the sidelines, I’ll set up mine a few dozen feet away. I’ll focus on the game and try to drown out his words, but that poor kid will hear them for the rest of his life.


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Karma Police

kismet10cSometimes I have no fun at all, and sometimes it’s my own damn fault.

Random groups of children and parents set the stage for some of my most frustrating experiences. For instance, this April vacation, my son and I had some alone time and planned a day around robots. A local museum was hosting free guided tour of its robotics exhibit for kids and families. The issue was that it was free and first-come-first-served to only 25 participants, which was a set-up for all sorts of anxiety.

My son and I made a day out of it. After taking the train early and having breakfast, we charged through the rain and stood outside of the still-closed museum under an awning. Eventually making it inside, we had to wait until 30 minutes prior to the tour to receive a free ticket. We scoped out the reception desk, and at exactly 10:30, they started giving tickets away. Someone’s dad cut in front of a line that included me and women with strollers. I was mildly annoyed, but got my tickets and we waited.

When the tour started, they cordoned off the entire wing, so that only tour participants could take part. We felt very special. The tour started well, with the curator giving the kids stickies to put on the exhibits they found most interesting and most scary. I noted that the tour seemed small, with only about 20 people. Finally, about 10 minutes late, another family of five, a mom and her 2 pre-teen girls and 2 teenage boys showed up. Her kids started on the periphery of the group, while she found a bench all to herself, staring at her cell phone.  It took about 5 minutes for her girls to stray from the group and wander the deserted hall, and after about 10 minutes her boys followed suit, until the entire family was doing their own thing and mom was staring at her phone.

I kept glaring at them. I kept thinking about how disrespectful it was to the tour guide. I kept thinking about all the other families in the museum who had the opportunity of a private tour stripped from them by these people who weren’t taking advantage of it.

About 30 minutes into the tour, that family left the exhibit, never to return. I was left up on my moral high horse, alone with my frustrations.

The issue with being up there on my moral high horse was that I wasn’t down in the tour with my son. It was hard for me to put away my anger and instead focus on the fun that was happening right in front of me. This happens to me a lot, especially around children and their parents. Inevitably there’s somebody that’s out of control or at least troublesome: the kid who runs around, or disturbs the group, or makes fun of the exhibits, or barrels over other kids. But that’s not the unnerving part; after all, they’re just kids. In most cases, these kids are chaperoned by parents who aren’t doing anything. They sit back on their phones, or appear oblivious, or throw their hands up with a “whatcha gonna do” face. This is the thing that drives me bonkers.

“We live in a society, people!” my inner George Costanza screams. The only way to enjoy the fruits of society is by sharing them. When parents don’t teach their kids to share space, time, and resources, then kids become self-serving, domineering adults. And so standing in that tour group, my mind wanders to the future; to these kids growing up and populating a world where my son has to share the highway with them as they swerve through traffic, or stand in line while they cut in front for their morning coffee, or work in an office where they steal his ideas and pawn them off as their own. I think of a million different scenarios about how the world is (and will) become a worse place because kids aren’t taught about how to respect others.

It all sounds very good as a write it. In fact, there’s a part of me that wants to stop there. End of post. People suck.

But what I’m really trying to convey is the way I feel obligated to be the morality/karma police in these situations. Looking around the tour group, there were obviously children who were participating, and their parents appeared just as engaged. Even the curator seemed to be ignoring the wandering family and going about her business, touring the group. Why was I the one steaming? Why did I feel as though I had to hold the weight of other people’s decisions?

I think that is the hardest part for me. I don’t want to lose that part of me that discerns behaviors that I don’t want to cultivate in my son. I also don’t want to be so fixated on that discernment that it takes over my mind and disallows me from enjoying the moment in spite of others. I’m sure the other parents in the group noticed this wandering family. I’m sure some of them even made judgements about their behavior. But somehow, they were able to live and let live, or perhaps even forgive and forget. For me, it never feels easy.

 

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