undeaddad

explorations of mindful fatherhood


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The Gift of Bravery

spotlightI recently had a birthday. A big one. My wife planned an amazing weekend of meals, shows, and events, and I really felt loved. One of the most surprising gifts of all, however, was seeing my son up on stage, being the gutsiest kid I know.

On the Friday night of my birthday weekend, my wife put us in the car and we drove off to a destination unbeknownst to me. I love surprises, so for most of the way I was baffled about where we were going. Then I saw this red brick building where my family had attended an improv show the year prior.

I guessed our destination, and my heart sank a little. I remembered liking the show and the troupe of performers, but I hate, hate, hate being on stage and having attention thrust my way. The mere possibility of the public eye staring me down sent a wave of anxiety through me. My wife, astute as she is, picked up on my hesitation and was disappointed that she might have made the wrong choice. I tried to explain that I liked the show, but after a long work week, the last thing I wanted was to become part of the entertainment.

We settled in and the show began. One of the performers pulled a paper from a cup: the slips of paper audience members were asked to write their names on as they walked in. Whom did they pick, you ask? That’s right, me. My wife and son stared at me in disbelief and we all burst out laughing.

I won’t go into the details of my time on stage, but suffice it to say I exuded awkwardness, self-consciousness, and a lack of talent, all the qualities that I love to display to a crowd of strangers.

Later in the night, however, when the performers were looking for volunteers for a spelling bee portion of the act, my 8-year-old son offered himself up as a volunteer. I was shocked, seeing him accept the invitation and jump up on stage with a group of adults. No other kids had volunteered that night, and my son was the youngest of any of the performers.

The cast took turns spelling single letters of difficult words in rounds, or making up absurd sentences with them. My guy was up there holding his own, understanding the jokes enough to keep them going. He beamed with excitement, and when the entire cast high-fived him at the end of his performance, he trotted back to his seat with his chest puffed up.

That was perhaps the best birthday gift of the weekend.

The trickiest aspect of raising kids is that we see ourselves in them. Sometimes we see the things about ourselves we like, such as strong shoulders or a caring disposition, but other times we see the things about ourselves that we wish we could shrug off like shyness or a short temper. The characteristic I sometime see that I’ve passed down to my son is my own timidity. Growing up, I was the shy polite one who didn’t stick his neck out and didn’t draw attention to himself. It meant that I got by, but I only just got by. I didn’t put myself out there, I didn’t take risks. It has taken me so many decades to become gutsier, to speak my mind, and to stand up for myself. When I see shyness in my son, I imagine the years he could spend in the shadows of others, a cute wallflower.

But life is surprising, and on this particular birthday, my son proved me wrong. While I cowered in the shadows, he proudly stood up and cast a spotlight on himself. My son’s going to create the next few decades of his own life, and they won’t look like my early years. So I can stop overlaying my experience, fears and misfortune onto him. The kid’s got guts, and they’ll take him far.

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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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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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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.