undeaddad

explorations of mindful fatherhood


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Shoveling My Own Goddamn Driveway, Again

snow-shovelA couple of years ago I wrote a post about 30″ of snow hitting the Northeast and the back-breaking shoveling that took place at my house. The post was about contrasts: the amount of sweat and toil I invested in my hard work versus the money my neighbors spent on plow services.

Living in a wealthy section of town when you’re not wealthy can do that to you. When I’m in the yard, I frequently feel the gaze of my neighbors  and hear their imagined voices. “Look at his ugly grass.” “Wish they’d invest more in that siding.” “When are they ever going to cut down that dying tree?” But those are my own insecurities talking. They are the voices we all get in our heads when we imagine others are staring at us, judging.

And so what do I do? I judge back. “Look at them with their fancy plows. Never do a day’s worth of hard work in their lives.” That’s what my original post was about: judging the character of others based on a common household chore.

Anyone who lives in the Northeast knows that this past week and a half has been monstrous. In our town, we got about 20″ of snow in blizzard conditions early last week, followed by an additional 8″ this week from a Nor’easter. So my wife and I found ourselves outside on at least 3 occasions, shoveling the walks and driveway.

And I listened.

I listened really hard, but I didn’t hear them. I didn’t hear the voices of disdain and condemnation from my neighbors. Instead, I heard the soft crunch of the shovel meeting the snow, the soft whistle of the wind, the creek of the swaying pines. (Punctuated by my old-man grunts as I hurled snow from the path. Yet another sign of my age.) But there was no inner voice imagining what the neighbors were saying. My eye didn’t drift down the street to see if I was the only one hard at work. I didn’t glance over at my neighbor’s already-plowed driveway with envy and frustration.

I was hard at work. My wife was hard at work. It was us, the snow, and teamwork, and I reveled in it. I could feel my body hard at work. I could feel the beads of sweat. I could feel the world around me. I felt accomplished. I looked over at my wife, and saw her toiling just as much as I was, and I knew that I had a true partner: someone ready and willing to do the hard work needed so that our family could survive another day. And I saw my son, 8 years old, picking up a tiny, forgot shovel and pitching in, moving whatever snow he could from the path. I knew we were setting a good example.

This snow storm wasn’t about contrasts. It wasn’t about what they’re doing versus what we’re doing. It was simply about what we were doing. And what we were doing was marvelous.

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Get Out of My Way, I’m Trying to Get to Diagon Alley!

20141229_073410After months of saving and anticipation, our family was lucky enough to visit Orlando this holiday for a trip to Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade! This was a trip that dad was looking forward to perhaps more than anyone.

Last winter, I had been searching for new jobs options and had some interviews. I told myself and my wife prior to one very pivotal second interview that if I didn’t get this (dream) job and found myself in the same crap job in the summer, then we were all taking a trip to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios as my consolation prize. As the title of this post suggests, I did not get the job and, unfortunately, my current job ramped up to a flurry over this past summer, so much so that I couldn’t even take a vacation as planned in June. So we postponed everything until December.

Needless to say, I had a lot invested emotionally in this trip. First, it felt like something I was owed. If I had to languish in my demanding and thankless job, then I was damn well going to get a fun vacation out of it. And “fun” was the key word. Although we could have saved up for the Caribbean or an overseas locale, I needed somewhere that would serve up simple, unadulterated fun, and only Harry Potter would do the trick. Secondly, if I was driving my family out (yes, driving, 20+ long hours from New England), then it had better be good. I felt like it wasn’t only me who was “owed” a good vacation, it was my entire family, and I had been the guiding force for devising this trip: scheduling the vacation package, booking the hotels, even coming up with an itinerary. And so felt that the responsibility of providing a fun time rested upon my shoulders.

I was smart enough to get a package that included early admission to the park, which felt a little crazy at first, arriving at the park in the pitch-black of 6:30am, but was well worth it. Early admissions folks got herded forward to the Wizarding World locations before the gates opened, giving us full access to the best parts of Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade before the throngs. It was upon our very first entry through that brick wall that I realized we had done it, and damn was it worth it. As completed Potter nerds, my wife, son, and I reveled in every nook and cranny of Potterdom. Seeing it for the first time, and getting into the attraction without hassle caused me to drop my shoulders and relax into the experience.

20141229_153751And then the craziness happened. Surprisingly the Sunday after Christmas, the crowds were not that bad. We were reasonably well prepared for the amount of people we’d be seeing, but the next two days were shoulder-to-shoulder crowded. I particularly remember our second day of early admission (heading to Hogsmeade this time), and feeling the stress as folks rushed past one another, causing me to instinctively move faster and usher my family along. It was almost as though my body reacted uncontrollably to the pace of others. On one of our return visits to Diagon Alley, the crowd was so bustling, it was difficult to move anywhere without knocking into others. I recall how someone would cut me off or bump into me (“Asshole”), but the next minute I’d be cutting someone off or accidentally bumping into them (“Who’s the asshole now?”). I wasn’t intending on being opportunistic, is was just that the shear number of people made it difficult to navigate the crowd and time my movements.

What helped were these little “a-ha” moments when I could see my body and mind responding to the throng of people, whether speeding up to match the pace of the crowd or nearly crashing into some unsuspecting park attendee because I was simply trying to move forward. I wanted a good experience for my family. I wanted to make the trip worth all the trouble and “get mine.” When, in fact, everyone there held the same desire for their families. Folks had come from all over the world, investing hundreds if not thousands of dollars to give their children and families this experience, and we were all working off that same adrenaline and need to take care of our own.

20141229_154936 (2)When I realized this, I was able to take things in stride. This realization made it much more tolerable when someone bumped into me or seemingly cut me off. In the chaos of excitement, anticipation, and humanity, everyone wanted a good experience. They wanted to show their families a good time. This was the motivation that bonded me with them in some way, and I realized (in that very Buddhist-y way) that working solely for the betterment of our own rather than for the good of everyone truly is the root of much of the strife in the world. Sure, I still wanted a good experience for my family, but getting caught up in the competitive spirit would have only caused my trip to suffer. When I was able to see that we all wanted the same thing and reminded myself that we’d get our turn, everything fell into place, and we had a great time. Or, perhaps it wasn’t some great realization. Perhaps Harry Potter simply cast his spell on me.

I wholeheartedly recommend the experience to all my fellow Harry Potter fans. Universal has done an amazing job. And I fully recommend visiting Orlando Informer, which is an invaluable on-line resource of planning your trip to the Wizarding World!


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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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I Wanna Be a Crotchety Old Man

RoosterCogburn(JeffBridges)_250912101922Sometimes I want to be Rooster Cogburn.  Who the hell is Rooster Cogburn, you ask?  Well, Rooster Cogburn’s response would be, “Who the hell are you?”

Rooster Cogburn is the character from the movie True Grit, originally played by John Wayne in 1969 and re-booted with Jeff Bridges in 2010. For me (sorry purists, and my own father), I’m focused on the Coen brother’s 2010 Rooster. Rooster is a surly old US Marshal who helps a young woman track down her father’s murder in the old West.  The thing I like about the character is that he’s old, and ballsy, and doesn’t give a damn about what other people think of him. He’s going to do what he thinks is right.  He doesn’t care about first impressions, or using the right words, or impressing the right people. He says what he means, even if he comes across as a bitter old coot.

rocky4I find that I really enjoy lots of old male characters who embody this same I-could-give-a-shit mentality in movies. Regardless of whether its Mickey Goldmill from Rocky or Carl Fredricksen from Up, I love these guys. It took some reflection for me to understand why. In my life, I feel I have to be on my best behavior at times.  At work, I have to play a role.  I have to be unflappable, and hold my cards close to my chest.  I have to bite my tongue and devise the best way of approaching a situation that takes into account all perspectives.  I have to sit on my anger when my boss is a douche.  I have to hide who I am to get through the day.

The same goes for being out in the community.  In a relatively small town, you have to hide your feelings at times. If a parent or a kid gets under my skin, I pretty much have to sit on it. The shock waves of disputes in a small town can reverberate, and I always have to think about my son. Not in a don’t-make-waves sort of way, but folks can be petty, and parents’ reputations certainly dictate how adults or other kids treat your child.  So, for all these reasons, I hold back on what I might think, or what I might like to say, in a very un-Rooster-ish fashion.

review_up_1I want to blurt out.  I want to tell people to go to hell sometimes, but I don’t.  It’s sitting on these feelings that can tear a person up.  But it’s this act of blurting out that I see every day on-line.  Virtual life brings out the Rooster in many of us. Behind the veil of technology, many of us feel like we can spurt out whatever vitriol is in our blood, and throw caution to the wind. Many people let it all out and become crotchety old men on line.  I can see the intrigue. With a life of quiet repression, I can see how folks want to let it out on line. When first starting my blog, part of me wanted to adopt a pen-name personality that was crotchety.  A nom de plune that would be brash and rude whenever he felt like it. It was such an attractive option, the thought of having this outlet for telling people off. I ultimately decided not to go in that direction, because the things I wanted to write about were rather sentimental, and didn’t lend themselves to a shit-stirring ass of a narrator.

However, I’ve certainly read a few of blogs by shit-stirring asses, and I then see that the it isn’t so attractive from the other side of the page. These folks can certainly incite furry and debate, which is sometimes productive, but many are provocative for provocativeness’ sake. They just want to rile others up. I’m sure there’s some catharsis for the writer, being able to put out whatever hell-fire is on their mind, but in the end it’s usually just biting and self-indulgent.

And that’s not the allure of these old man characters that I love so much. It’s more so that they’re true to what they think and feel, even if it’s unpopular. They don’t spew out garbage simply because it’s on their minds, but say things they feel need to be said.

Ron-SwansonPerhaps the best example is Ron Swanson, the (not-so-old) city hall worker in Parks and Recreation, who sticks to his anti-government, meat-loving, gold-burying values. Although my leanings are very different from Ron’s, I absolutely love him. Ron is the type of guy who is frequently driven to contribute his thoughts by the ridiculousness or ignorance of those around him. He comes off as crotchety and even mean at times, but behind his words is a heart of gold. He says these things because he truly believes them and, when you get right down to it, because he thinks they’re important lessons for the people he loves.  And yet, he doesn’t punish others or hold them tightly to his values, but he makes a place to say them. I guess what I’m trying to say is that he sticks to what he thinks, but not without regard to others. He wants them to know what he thinks because it’s important to him, but also because he thinks it’s important for them and their well-being.

There’s certainly a fine line between being Ron Swanson and a domineering, shit-spewing, raving maniac. I’ve known plenty of people who trounce over others because they think they know what’s best.  That isn’t what I’m supporting or the type of person I want to be. But, at those times when I’m swallowing my own thoughts and feelings just to get through a situation, I do ask myself: What would Ron Swanson say?


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Leaf-a-phobia

raked_leaves_pile_212753Standing on my lawn in a sea of red, yellow, and brown leaves last weekend, I couldn’t help but notice the alien green glow of my neighbors’ grass.  Their carpets of rolling green stretched on forever, unblemished by a single speck on non-green.

Sometime it seems as though the neighbors are deathly afraid of leaves.  Looking at their lawns, you’d be amazed we live in a community of trees, because come Fall, the leaves seem to magically disappear as soon as they hit the ground.  I’m gone when they disappear.  I believe that trucks of workers drive in during the weekdays and do their noisy covert work, cleaning away any vestiges of tree remains.  I’m trying to figure out if it’s intentional.  Do my neighbors really dislike the leaves and want to see them cleared regularly?  Or, is it simply a byproduct of their scheduled home maintenance?  In other words, do their regularly scheduled lawn-care plans mean that the leaves just disappear with everything else on a weekly basis, in a matter-of-face, un-examined way.

Regardless, there are no leaves.

Standing ankle deep in my own leaves this past weekend, I noticed the chill in the air, the empty trees, the barren flower beds.  I noticed the death all around. The death that comes every year.  The dryness and decay made me think of my own losses.  Hopes that have faded, or opportunities that have been lost.  But all this thought about death and loss didn’t necessary depress me.  I didn’t feel alone in the loss.  I didn’t feel as though the loses where solely attached to my fate. The world goes through a period of loss, death, and decay.  Because I was surrounded by the brown dryness of dead leaves, I felt like a part of something; part of a cycle.

I went about collecting leaves in order to cut my still-growing October grass, and had created a pile under my son’s tree-trapeze.  Given how many trees we have on our property, even the mid-October pile was a sight to behold, and my son’s eyes lit up with excitement.  He spent the next few hours swinging and jumping into the leaves, calling me over each time he invented a new trick.  He had me swing him, or remove his step-ladder, or video him taking his leaps.

The green grass under the leaves and my son’s gleeful play led me to think about the exuberant life that’s only capable of flourishing because of the cycle of death in the world.  Without the leaves losing their foliage, by son wouldn’t have his crunchy mattress to leap into.  Without the nutrients from the death and decay, the rest of the world couldn’t grow and find its vibrancy.

Perhaps I was waxing too poetic.  They’re just leaves.  But I couldn’t help but notice all these feelings that welled up, simply standing outside, doing a bit of yard work.  It made me think about the contrast between my yard and some others.  It made me think about the ways in which we organize our lives to keep the death out; to keep things pretty until the first flakes of snow white-out the landscape.  I think it’s hard tolerating death, disorder, chaos.  That’s what leaves represent.  They are the loss of all that was beautiful and vibrant over the summer.  Sure they’re pretty in all their colorful splendor when they’re still on the trees, or novel when they’re underfoot in a park or a nature preserve, but once they fall on our lawns, they sit there like dead bodies in our front yards.  And the process of collecting them is like cleaning up the mess and disorder of death, carting them off in bags or trucks, or burning them on great pyres.

But if we can’t sit with them, if we can’t tolerate them for this season, then we rob ourselves of those reminders.  We rob ourselves of the full cycle of life, and miss the opportunity to feel that we are not alone in our losses.  We rob ourselves of the opportunities to see the joy and life that comes from death.

We need to pile up those leaves while we can, and jump in with abandon.


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My Son, The Lonely Buddhist

8131655646_c300b23a8d_zThe other day in the car, my son lamented to my wife,

“I’m a lonely Buddhist.”

She asked him more about it. He told her that most all of the kids at school are Christian or Jewish.  He pointed out that we don’t live around any other Buddhists, and that there are no Buddhist kids in his school, which makes him sad.

It was like the other day, when we were driving his friend home from an archery lesson, and the kid was describing the seder meal at Passover to my son.  The kid said something to the effect of, “If we lived in ancient Egypt, the Egyptians would have given kids like you and me a hard time, because they didn’t like Christians and Jews.”  The kid rambled on for a while, and my son shot me a look in the rear view mirror as if to say, “Can you believe this guy? Help me out here.”

“It sounds like your friend thinks you’re a Christian, buddy,” I said to my son during a lull in the conversation.  “Do you want to talk to him about that?”

“I’m Buddhist,” he told his friend.

“”Is that a type of Christian?” his friend asked.  My son went on to describe the Buddha, and explained to his friend that he goes to a Zen center.  The friend listened, dumbstruck, absorbing the notion that there were more than just Jews and Christians in the world.  By the time my son was done with his short explanation, we were at the kids house.

After the kid got out of the car, I told my son what a good job he’d done.  I was really proud of him, and happy about the way everything played out.  If people make assumptions about my son, many times I’ll step in and answer for him.  This time, I thought it was important for him to correct the assumption.  He just seemed to need permission or help starting that conversation.  I was so proud that he was able to say something.

My son has come home from school in the past, proclaiming that he voiced his difference.  He’s asserted in class that in addition to Christmas, Hanukkah, and Kwanzaa,  Buddha’s Birthday is celebrated in December.  For show and tell even brought in the cedar stick used to start meditation time.  The teacher eats it up.  Kids haven’t been so helpful.  One of his shittier classmates leaned over to him once and said, “God doesn’t like people who don’t believe in him.”  We had many discussions at home about that kid and his remark.

I grew up a Catholic White kid in a mostly Catholic, nearly all Christian, suburb of Chicago.  My Irish and Eastern European heritage seemed no different than that of anyone else in my nearly all-White suburb.  Let me put it this way: my mind was blown when I was 10 years-old, and my friend disclosed that he was Lutheran. Lutheran?  What the hell was that?  I was so sheltered, I didn’t quite comprehend that not everyone affirmed the Pope or believed in transubstantiation.

I had it so easy blending in with everyone else, to the point that my belief systems were a match with those around me.  We were seemingly the same, inside and out, spirit to pigmentation.  But my son faces a very different life.  He’s one of the only non-White kids in an 98% White community, and he’s Buddhist to boot.  Not only do people not look like him, but he even has to explain his spiritual practice to a friend who has zero concept of what he’s talking about.

But at least he does it.  For all the timidity that he shows on a daily basis, there’s still something inside that incites him to speak up about his Buddhism.  He’s told friends, explained things to his teacher, and even woven it into his artwork at school.  It’s obviously very important to him, and he makes his voice heard, even if in small ways.  When I was a kid, if people made presumptions about me, I would just swallow it.  I’d shut up and go about my day. There was something in me that was too afraid of confusing or offending others.  This fear persisted, even though I didn’t even have much to speak up about.  I looked the same as everyone else, had the same religion as everyone else.

And yet here he is, my son, looking different and believing different things, and he’s found his voice.  I couldn’t be prouder of my Lonely Buddhist.


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Triumphs and Traumas of a Buddhist Egg Hunt

BuddhasEasterEggI did a terrible thing: In my quest for fairness, I overlooked my own son.  And I feel just terrible about it.

Here’s the scenario: My son belongs to a Buddhist children’s group, for which I volunteer from time to time.  Just recently, the entire sangha (or community) celebrated Buddha’s Birthday. The ceremony occurs in the Spring, so it incorporates themes similar to Easter, such as new life, hope, and joy.  The kids take part in the first part of ceremony before heading outside for some fun activities.

This year, running with the theme of Spring, we held an egg hunt on the grounds of the Zen center.  However, we try avoiding the competitive aspects of tradition egg hunts.  I bet many of us (with Christian backgrounds) have been there before as kids: our bodies quaking with anticipation at the start line, baskets in hand, waiting for the signal to rush forth and scavenge as many eggs as we can (or at least more eggs than that damn kid next to you).  And in some cases, there’s a coveted “golden egg” that’s used to declare the “winner” of the egg hunt.  The entire scenario elicits a competitive, cut-throat spirit, leading to elbows in the gut, head-on collisions, and tears.  All in the name of (re)birth and celebration.

The way we’ve done these hunts for the past two years is to hide eggs and then put a group basket in the middle of the field.  When the parents call “Go,” the kids rush for the eggs, but are only allowed to pick up one at a time.  They then rush back to the group basket where they deposit their egg before heading out for another one.  In the end, we divvy up all the eggs, so that everyone gets an equal share.  We’ve found that this has helped emphasize cooperation and has tempered kids’ competitive streaks.

Our egg hunt was going splendidly.  The only controversy stemmed from those damned golden eggs. The packages I’d bought contained golden eggs, which I should have tossed aside, but added to the mix nonetheless.  Hunting for the golden eggs brought out the competitive spirit, regardless of their eventual destination in the group basket.  When the oldest girls saw them, they barreled past one another, leaving some very disappointed.

After the flurry of excitement, we went back inside to divvy up the eggs.  But what to do with those damned golden eggs?  There were only 4 and we had about 12 kids.  My wife had an epiphany: we’d allow kids to offer them to the Buddha.  It was a great lesson on giving away something precious.  I asked volunteers to come up to make offerings.  Unavoidably, more than 4 kids presented themselves.  Luckily, I had set aside a few bigger eggs, so we had about 7 eggs to offer.  And yet, there were 9 kids opting to make offerings.  In the midst of my handing out the offering eggs, many eager hands delved into the basket without permission.  Kids had eggs in hand, waiting for me to send them up to the altar.  I looked around and two kids were without eggs, one of them being my own son.  In that moment, I didn’t think I could ripped an egg from another child’s hands to give it to my own son.  In the rush of confusion, I allowed the kids to keep the eggs they’d nabbed from my basket and started looking for two extra eggs to give to the egg-less kids.  Just then another very kind girl holding a golden egg asked my son if he’d like to offer it with her.  He agreed, and I found another empty egg for the last child.  We seemed fine. Whew!  I’d avoided a mess.  Not so.

After the class, when the kids went downstairs with the adults, my son was nearly in tears.  I held him close, because I thought I knew what it was about.  He felt badly that he didn’t get a golden egg for the offering.  I told him it was okay, because we were secretly going to bring the golden eggs home to use for next year, and he could keep some of them in his room.  I thought it was about the eggs.  I thought I’d solved the problem.  It wasn’t and I hadn’t.

My wife pulled me aside later and told me my son was a sobbing mess because dad had overlooked him.  It wasn’t about the eggs.  It wasn’t about the competition.  It was about dad not keeping him in mind when orchestrating the class.  And it was true, I hadn’t, and I felt deeply saddened.

When I help run this group, I’m acutely aware that my son is in the mix.  In running the class (just like the egg hunt), I try to be fair to all.  I never want my son to feel as though I’m singling him out because I have higher expectations for him than the others, and on the flip side, I never want him to feel as though he gets special privileges just because he’s the teacher’s son.  And yet, in my quest for equanimity, I actually treat him differently from the rest.  In that moment when I was presented with the conundrum of 9 kids holding 7 offering eggs, the first thought that came to mind was that I couldn’t just take away other kids’ eggs to appease my son.  When in fact, I should have taken his feelings into account.  I should have seen that my son’s potential disappointment was valid and needed to be addressed by me, not only as his father, but as the teacher.  If it hadn’t been my son who was egg-less, perhaps I wouldn’t have been as clouded by the potential of perceived favoritism.  I might have asked all the kids to put down their eggs, so that we could find enough eggs to go around, and then divvy up the offerings.  But no, I didn’t.  I prioritized the other kids first, and then figured I’d patch things up with my son and the other egg-less kid.

In my attempt at treating everyone the same, I was actually treating my son differently.  It really took me aback, and I had to reflect long and hard on the subject to avoid becoming defensive or self-righteous.  When I came home, I offered a big apology.  I said I was sorry that I overlooked him and his feelings, and that I would do my best to keep him in mind, just like I keep all the other kids in mind.

Sometimes in our quest for fairness, we can overlook those right under our noses, even our own kids.