Monday, April 01, 2019

Upon a Hill

We will do our best to earn this. An acceptance from a school is less of an achievement than a promise. What is going to matter is not the ink on the diploma, but the sweat it takes to get it. I know that we are rather fortunate. That even though we had a great group of friends pulling as hard as they could, that we had to catch a couple of breaks to get in. Sometimes, but not very often, you get lucky. We will not take for granted that we made it, because there will be times ahead when the luck breaks the other way. There are going to be challenges with our boys since, like all, if they arrived at a school fully formed they would not need to go to it. We will dig deep. Elementary school was a challenge for me. It is strange to look back at your youth, and see it not through the eyes of a child but the ones of a father. I realize now that because elementary school was such a challenge for me that how much my father had to try to help my school. He gave his all into my education at a time when other dads were more interested in the sidelines. An education is a journey shared, and we will do our best to do the heavy lifting. There is a book that talks about the languages of love. It is about couples, but what I have learned through this process is about the language of love from fathers to sons. This language has fewer words than some, but comes with broader shoulders and higher hopes. I thought the best way to honor my father was to name our first born son after him, but what I realize now is that the best way is to teach my own son that language. We will do our best to earn this. After I graduated from elementary school, I had to repeat a grade and was sent to a boarding school in Western Massachusetts. The school was an athletic one (which is really not the direction I needed to go), and it even had its own ski slope. The fall term was about soccer season, and everyone was sorted. The varsity got to practice at the top of the hill near the dorms, the jv was at the middle, and the intermediate team was at the bottom. I was once again placed on the intermediate team, which came as no surprise. The thing is I really love hot water, and the only way that I was going to get a hot shower was to run up the hill and try to beat the much better athletes, the jv and the varsity, to the dorms. Sometimes when you are sent to the bottom of the hill it means that you are just going to have to run twice as strong. For me it was not just the start of learning how to run, but the beginning of learning how to strive. And while it took a high school for me finally to get my act together, during that brisk New England autumn I still showered rather well. We have been given a great gift of a school upon a hill. It is a beautiful place with the great resources of wonderful teachers, phenomenal music, a stem lab, a garden, and so much more. I know that we need to hustle to take advantage of the wonders of Cathedral. My sons will have what is for them their own warm water, and they will learn to run hills to get it. So begins our journey.

Monday, March 18, 2019

Wheels Keep on Turning

Our youngest rode a bike on Sunday. His first journey went straight into a fence. The next was into a bench. Eventually he learned to turn and brake if for no other reason than the lack of bandaids. The bike still has training wheels, and in a few days he will go back to occupational therapy to work on jumps and landings, balance and coordination. He moves ever so cautiously through the world and tells me each day, as I leave for work, about the dangers of the outside. Around the pool during holidays he clung to the side and made sure never to wander in even though the water came up to his chest. For him to get on a bike and to start to pedal without consequences is to visit a foreign planet. It might have been his older brother's excellence with a bike that got him to ride. Perhaps it was his grandmother's kind words, or that the bike was new and blue, or maybe just simply that it was a sunny day and he finally felt old enough to move. We all pedal in life at different rates, reach milestones at different times. Getting there usually takes a few crashes along the way. I learned to write after college from the sports pages of the San Francisco Chronicle. They had the style of conveying the facts with the slightest of winks, that you had to tell the truth, but always make sure that you leave in the parts that amuse you. It was a style I could mimic, a structure I could use. I reached writing late and perhaps not well, but like my son on the bike I am glad I reached it at all. A couple of nights ago, I sat across from a father whose son has dysgraphia which is what kept me from writing, and when I heard his tales of frustration, of being able to know far more than you can say, of salvation with computers and caring teachers, and of the hurt when trying to get out the words; it brought back such memories of a youth struggled. I could also relate to the father since I am now one too. And this means giving the push on your son's back to get him started on a bike with the knowledge that there is a pretty good chance he will hit a fence. But there are no bandaids for fathers. There are just occasional sunny days that you need to cherish when your kid starts turning the wheel.

Wednesday, March 06, 2019




We arrived a little early for the Discovery Museum's Class, and as my son and I have done this wet winter, we waited in the rain. At five, he is at the point where our adventures together are more interesting whether they are trips to Oakland’s Fairyland or to the Cow Palace for the Reptile Expo. Going to the Discovery Museum to take a class in building Leprechaun traps was a bit like both.

There was a bin of trap supplies - tape, straws, nets, cardboard, and popsicle sticks - from which he grabbed a fistful of parts. The other parents, mostly dads, were eagerly arranging things for their kids, but I very much wanted the trap to be my son's, and so in the end we were left was a pile of scraps hung together by tape. The only way it was going to trap a leprechaun was to confuse it.  The trap looked sad, in a Charlie Brown design kind of way, and we took it over to the testing table to see if it would work on small, wind-up robots.

The robots, lacking higher intellect and an Irish disposition, completely ignored the trap and scurried of to another kid's trap that at least was sticky. My son didn’t mind and his project now waits on top of our mantle fully ready to be deployed in a couple of weeks.

Of course, the other thing we are trying to catch in a couple of weeks is a spot in a kindergarten, which at this time seems almost more mythical than an Irish Fairy. The hunt is one of recommendations and reviews, interviews and information sessions, and tours and teachers to the point where it seems less of a trial of intellect but a journey of endurance.

To complete it, we used words as our tape and popsicle sticks.

Anyone trying to get into these schools uses what they can, and if your child is wonderfully presentable you go with that. But if perhaps your child is a bit normal then you have a great deal of explaining to do.

My wife and I became an editor/writer team, and we searched for adjectives like “cerebral" while trying to figure out how to say “does not like talking to strangers” without using terms like “aloof.”

We wrote to friends a lifetime ago, and met nice people everywhere we visited.

We said “wonderful" a great deal and sprinkled “thank you” like the winter rain.

Our son also started to write. While his classmates wrote about peanut butter and unicorns, he finished his first book on Kryptonite that was dedicated to his younger brother and whose back cover had a bar code he drew. He is starting to formulate his own epic journey, and I hope which ever galaxy he visits, super hero he thwarts, or Sith Lord he trains that he, too, sprinkles in the “thank you” along the way.

For even if you manage to catch a leprechaun, you still need to charm it. Words are your best bet unless you have a unicorn or perhaps a peanut butter sandwich.

Sometime soon the rain must go away and so will our little adventures of preschool. The larger beasts of kindergarten are yet to come. I hope we have tales of dragons.



Thursday, January 31, 2019

Kindergarten Tornado

My eldest son wanted to make pancakes.

 Later that morning was yet another elementary school tour for him, and his emotions tend to come from his stomach as opposed to his heart. Your child has but a brief moment to show brilliance at these places, that somehow during the time between when he and his fellow candidates march in a Choo Choo Train line to meet with a team of experts and afterwards when he rushes back to you that his letters will be straighter, ears will hear better, and smile will stretch wider than the normal boy he usually is. It is the moment when he goes behind the curtain to see the wizard who checks on his brains, heart, and courage while you wait with a bunch of other parents who are also pretending not to be stressed while wishing that they were home.

 Getting into kindergarten is a long, yellow brick road. There was no way he was going to do it on an empty stomach.

He almost climbed completely into the fridge to get the milk and butter, and had to get a chair to reach the shelf that had the bisquick. The one parenting concession he agreed to was that my wife was in charge of the stove, but we were a little distressed about how easily he turned it on. He went slowly with the pouring, the mixing, and the flipping.

 We rushed the rest of the morning. When we put him in a booster seat for the drive he complained about having food all over his pants. A quick change later, it was clear that he was more thoughtful than I was who can barely cook and badly dresses.

So many years ago I toured that same school and had left it crying. A boy had slammed my fingers, and that was it. I didn’t get into the place; nine years gone with a set of tears. Life is a series of auditions, but only occasionally call backs.

 My son was the caboose of the interview train and one of the first to rush back. We went to a park, and he never said a word about what happened behind the curtain.

The next few weeks we will wait in a fog of uncertainty. There are the moments when my kid can be truly insightful and the others when he can be painful (especially to his younger brother). Which version of my son was there I don’t know. What is certain is that he is learning how to the handle the world. We have no idea where he will wind up, but he will be cracking eggs and sweetening his life with just a touch of syrup.

Saturday, December 15, 2018

On Ice

Perpetually on the preschool birthday circuit with its symphonies of screams and sugar our family went together to the ice rink to celebrate a girl turning five. The family was generous to let David come since these things are run off head counts and wrist bands. He was happier to be at the ice rink than his older brother who only wanted to run around with a purple balloon sword.

David wanted to go on the ice and waited patiently while I went to get our boots.

We had chided him in the past for being, what we thought, was lazy and stubborn. He didn’t want to go up and down stairs as much as his brother, insisted that we carry stuff for him, and refused to ride at bike camp to the point that his counselor admired his determination. But to focus on the symptoms was to miss the cause. It wasn’t that he was lazy as much as doing these activities are harder for him than his brother. We recently learned that his gross motor skills are more like mine and aren’t as developed as much as his peers. Granted like everyone he will have to be able to motivate for his needs (like cleaning up), as much as for his wants, like drawing super heroes, in which he possesses an unmatched determination.

David wanted to go on the ice, and I didn’t want to show how excited I was to join him.

* * *

We are at the twilight of our eldest going to preschool, and our minds are focused on what happens next. 

We have visited six different elementary schools, each of which feels like a different asteroid about to hit our world and permanently change it. There have been moments of beauty like when we saw kids singing in a church, moments of worry like when our tour leader wasn’t really sure where the fifth grade was going to be the following year, but mostly moments of anxious parents trying to smile and be as positive as they can while they, too, were trying to figure out their own incoming asteroid. 

The elementary school admission process had made me a bad conversationalist; I grew only to have one topic to talk about. It is hard to not just become completely focused on the size of the craters are coming, but also to feel that you have to share your own crazy hypothesis with everyone else.

I wonder what the dinosaurs did when they saw the streaks in the sky.

And to be caught up in all of this is to miss the wonders of the now. A week ago Edward drew me a picture with the word “Daddy” on it.  He tells jokes. He loves adventure camp, building symmetric towers, and making up stories with his mom on the couch. He has the beginnings of his own narrative. No need to rush the next chapter.

He can also have a major meltdown if he needs food at 5:40 and can antagonize his brother out of boredom, but these are smaller moments of the day than the rest which is good.

* * *

David wanted to go on the ice, and I gave my wife our camera in case I might stumble and fall. I have spent the autumn being an assistant teacher for the first time and it has been uneven. The teaching part has been fine with times that I did make things clearer and only a few when I didn’t. But the classroom has its own desperation that in some ways is the opposite of my fellow preschool parents.

These kids are teetering. They are the ones who didn’t get into the good public schools and are stuck with the teachers who didn’t either. Our main teacher is French, and while I do love the culture, in that country either you are someone who passes things, or you are discarded. It is a county that brought public shaming in the form of a guillotine. She shames kids more than I would, listing out on the board the ones who need help, getting angry at the ones who didn’t answer the questions correctly, and refusing to accept that a kid not having a computer at home is a good enough excuse to do his programming assignment.

For these are the children that don’t have computers at home. One of them had his glasses broken and had to spend a month squinting since he couldn’t afford another pair. One wears the same track sweat shirt every day, which I initially thought was great and am now worried that might be the only one he has.

Half the class dropped after the first month.

The school wasn’t my first choice either, but it was one of the few left with not enough volunteers and no one wanted to claim me.

I feel a bit bonded with these kids even though I don’t just have one computer at home, but three.

Still there are the differences. For instance, there isn’t any gunfire in my world.

On my second day teaching a kid fired a gun at school. He was a freshman, two years away from even able to drive, and launched a bullet into the place perhaps because he only wanted to show off. The cops came, the reporters came, and the social workers came. And then after a week they all left.

What I learned is that all shots are heard around the world. It is hard to think about functions and variables when you are wondering what is in a kid’s back pack. One of the other TA quit, and my wife suggested I do the same. With two small kids I understood the calculus, and if it happens again, I won’t come back.

But until then I made a promise that I would do my best for these kids, that someone needs to help them debug things, someone has to make sure that they can stand upright when things get slippery.

* * *

David and I made on to the ice. Unlike other parents I gripped his hand. I didn’t want his first time circling the rink to be a failure. I want him to think it is okay to go and try something even if you aren’t really skilled at it.
At school he is learning how to have friends however fleeting. The newness of friendship makes it okay if it is only for a few moments playing with blocks or being a fireman. At three there is little sense of permanence, but much more sense of play. 

He can be such a happy kid and is learning how to be silly with others.

He, too, grasped my hand tightly as we did our two loops around the rink. Each of his steps was made with quiet concentration. I have no idea if he enjoyed the skating as much as the proximity. I did my best to hold him aloft, to prevent him from crashing too soon, and to take in a small moment in a noisy birthday.

Soon things will change, and I will have to learn to be okay at letting go.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Force the Net

The saddest I ever was after a birthday was when I got a tennis racket. My mom and I went to the tennis shop and since I wasn’t that great of a player my mom and I decided on the middle of the line racket, another sensible choice in a childhood of practicality. It was one of the first of the larger head rackets with an extra wide sweet spot for my troublesome aim. I thought it was great until the next day my cousin’s mom went to the same store and bought an even better racket.

I was devastated to the point my mom got my aunt to apologize to me. Over the years my family talks about that racket as a code for not getting what others have, of being slighted with someone with more money.

I thought about the racket over the years as well, but what I realized is what I should have thought about was my aunt. Her son, tall and agile, was a great athlete and she was just trying to get him the best for him to reach his potential. He once again would crush me in tennis matches; my lifetime winning percentage in that sport is about the same as a chair.

Still my mom would cheer me after points with phrases like “great effort” when my shots became close to coming in. For her tennis was the great social opportunity, and she was determined that I have a good backhand despite how many lessons it would take. Ultimately through no fault of the racket, she let me go on to a sport like running and my younger brother would be the one with the wonderful game and brilliant social life.

I thought about the racket again this week, when another dad sent me a picture of his son in a brand new Star Wars costume. The son is my eldest boy's best friend, and the two of them had been discussing the force, and Darth Vader for weeks on end. Mine has a sticker book with a legend and he determined to know every nook and cranny of the world as if he was a 40 year old on the internet. He asks me about who built the Death Star and is disappointed that most of the engineers don’t have names.

And so there it was a photo of his best friend in a Kylo Ren mask shown to my son. It was his personal tennis racket. My son now had a true want.

With my years of tennis training, I did something then that I was so unsuccessful as I was in the sport. I rallied. I decided that instead of buying a bigger Darth Vader costume, that my son I would work to build with what we have. My wife quickly came up with the idea of using a paper bag for the mask, I did my best to draw the outline of the helmet, and my son colored it in. He was so proud of the mask that he tried to scare his brother the new two days.

What I realized what I sometimes have to teach is the importance of working with a need. That my sons needs to know if you want to have something you need to go out and get it. My years of being bad at tennis filled me with a need to be good at some sport, which gave me the drive to run. The best private schools aren’t great at teaching hunger if they are working so hard to be nut free.

The masks we give our children shape them, protect them, and ultimately change them. 

I thought about sending the photo of my son in his paper bag mask back to the other Dad. And then I realized that is something my aunt would have done. No need to cause a racket.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Alt Delete

I hit my reset button, the ctrl alt delete of where I was going.  To me “alt delete” means that through dieting I am deleting the alt parts of myself preferably around the waist. The control part is hard.

I switched out the carbs of my diet, lowered the sugar, and gave up on alcohol and caffeine.

My body has spent the better part of a week telling me this is a horrible, horrible idea.

I don’t have as much hunger as the complete lack of energy save for trying to twist off the top of an Advil bottle to deal with the headaches.

I didn’t realize how much I had become carbs and quick energy. To be a new parent is to be in a world of burst speed - dashes around dropped bottles and chases around bath time. It is jolts in the morning when you didn’t sleep because the little thing next to you was trashing, and drinks at night to ignore the crying from upstairs.

I had been on a march of ever expansion since the birth of my eldest. I got in habit of taking him to coffee shops and ordering croissants when he was a new born. That is one of the many things that needs to change.

He lost his first tooth this week, a sort of one time weight loss of his own. But when he got the dollar the next day he held it up as if it were an olympic medal. A trip to the dentist determined that more dollars where headed to him soon.

We live our lives like our teeth - they start as baby, eventually the wisdom comes, and then we spend the rest of the time making sure that they don’t drop out. Maintenance becomes the new goal.

Turning 50 soon means that I am on the health clock. Overweight creates all kinds of health issues and I think the next phase isn’t as much about burst energy as it is making sure that all is healthy and well.

I want to be the best for my sons and so I had to reset myself. The agony of headaches is nothing compared to the despair of heartaches of not being with them.

So I will do my best in a world of salads and water, push on as I can against a rebelling body, and watch things change even if it is one tooth at a time.