undeaddad

explorations of mindful fatherhood


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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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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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