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.

Monday, April 30, 2018

Airborne Migrations

The trip was meant for my mother in law. It went beyond being her 70th birthday to something that motivated her for nearly a year. It was a chance for her to return home, back to the county she came from, to acknowledge those that shared her journey, and for a brief time to get all of her brothers and sisters back together again for a laugh and a pint. It was referred to as “the wedding” since it would be that kind of a gathering with the purpose of celebrating life’s transitions.
But like most weddings, you hardly get to spend time with the bride. My only long conversation with her was when we traveled from the hotel to the airbnb and she refused to believe that google maps had a better understanding of directions than she did. In the end it turns out that she wasn’t Luke Skywalker with the Death Star and perhaps could use a guidance system. She was equally unafraid to give me other guidance about all things Irish as we walked, and such is the relationship between sons and mother in-laws.
I did my best to listen.
For me the trip was more about seeing if we could take two small kids abroad. In particular, it was about David who had never gone out of the country. He was named for his Irish grandfather, and has the same thick hair and curved eyebrows as my mother in law. It was just under forty years since there was a David from the family in Ireland, half of my mother in law’s life.
David lives in a world of super heroes that I am allowed to occasionally visit. What is labeled as five minute super hero stories from a book that is well worn often become 20 minute discussions about who is on each page. He wears as much batman clothes as he can, though I do my best to limit him to only 2-3 pieces at a time. When he got upset, I started to draw super heroes for him to calm him.
The drop-offs at school became David surrounded by five of his friends watching me make sure that Aquaman had an orange shirt and green pants. Accuracy is a very important part of his world of heroes and villains, and so we spent a year making sure that I drew Superman just so (always with a cape) or Batman with a utility belt. It was a pattern of convenience since a drop-off is like defusing a bomb attached not with with a red or green wire, but with an umbilical chord. It worked and we kept going even in Ireland.
We pretended that the Dublin Castle is where Bruce Wayne lived - even though as David’s brother, Edward, pointed out it wasn’t a real castle anymore just a museum. We learned about Brian Boru and Bram Stoker, of the heroes and monsters real and imaginary. We fled the leprechaun museum shortly after the multimedia presentation on Newgrange became too spooky. We built lego ninjas and robots in the hotel. We wandered through a country rich in legends and storytellers, a kingdom of faeries and selkies where the taste of salmon could bring the knowledge of the world, and the entire time David wore his Batman raincoat complete with two pointy ears on the top of the hood worn ever upwards even indoors.
Mythologies can flow both directions across an ocean.
I thought about migrations when we went to Herbert Park, a gem of a park only a few blocks from where David’s grandfather grew up.
On one side of the park is a modern playground with the same safe slides, scoopers, and child screams as in America. On the other is a duck pond surrounded by blooming trees that looks like something Monet would draw, elegant in its silence except for the occasional quack.
I wondered if these birds were descended from the same ones that were here when David’s grandfather was a young boy. Or do these birds migrate from all over only briefly stopping in Dublin. Are some brought over and released? Where do the birds fly?
Ireland, itself, is experiencing its own immigration. None of the workers in the hotel nor the baby sitters for the nights out with the cousins were born in Ireland. The cab drivers complained about the influx of foreign nationals. The aunt who sat next to me during dinner, seemed to have in interest in Donald Trump. Things flow both ways across the ocean.
My mother in law’s father had a stroke much too young. It meant that for each child there was less money, and the distance they traveled from their home in Navan to where they settled, correlates to birth order. The first went to the states, the next London, and so on. The birthday party was a reverse migration; the youngest traveled the least to make it to Trim, but when they all arrived back with the same bushy brown hair, that David also shares, it was quite clear that though they lived in different ponds that they were all of the same feather.
There is no such geography on my father in law side. The pattern is more of doctors and writers; red heads and brunettes.
The writers came in handy for all of the toasts.
The doctors came in handy since the other thing airborne we brought with us was sickness. Everyone except me had ear issues. My wife in particular was off balance enough where I had to go to the pharmacy to pick up medicine only to find that half the store was spray on tans and pregnancy tests. I assume that one leads to another. Our eldest, Edward, was the one who needed the most help since when we arrived at Trim his temperature shot up to 104.5. His fever caused him to scream desperately at night. It was the banshee voice of true horror, and my wife did her best to make him drink ice water to cool him down.
I am still frighten of whatever shook him in the middle of the night and was glad that the fever changed as quickly as the Irish weather.
The week before we left, David changed our drop off routine. He drew a villain for me. It was the Riddler complete with green pants and purple question marks. The face had the eyes in the right place, and there was the slightest of smiles.
My wife told me he had been drawing people all day long and that he was well beyond what was age appropriate. Representational Drawing is supposed to come in much later. There was one article that said that at 3 some kids will be able to draw for 15 minutes at a time, and I wondered about David’s ability to be at the art table for a hour or two.
There is a danger of over extrapolating your child’s abilities. A kick of a soccer ball, doesn’t mean a world cup invitation.
But at the same time, I felt something that I couldn’t help - pride.
When I dropped him off at school the day after our long flight home, he asked me to draw him an Irish Ninja.
I don’t know what he will remember from the trip, but I would like to think that he remembers it as a place of legends and family myths. That he dreams of things that fly whether they are birds, aer lingus airplanes, or Superman. That he looks at all of his great aunts as part of his own tribe. That he felt this was a country worthy of Bruce Wayne.
I asked his brother what was his favorite part of the trip.
He said without hesitation “Burger King”
Sometimes you don’t migrate that far away from home.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Circular Journey


Our first parent teacher conference was a surprise to me. The teacher had mark our eldest son’s report card with such a  consistent score of “average” that it almost felt that the entire thing could have been done over Netflix’s and chardonnay, and when we went to see her the news was much the same. I learned that if you wanted someone to say that your child is brilliant in every way take them to a grandmother; schools are often there to say what isn’t going well.

“He has no real interest in music or art,” she said, which stung a bit. Our youngest loves music especially if it is off the sound track from Zootopia, but our eldest hadn’t sung at home any of the songs he was being shown at school. 

Until one day, he started singing Moonshadow by Cat Stevens. It was only the slightest semblance of a melody, but it was music. I put the song on our home stereo, and slowly we learned the lyrics together. Our youngest also chimed in, and of the handful of words he has two of them are “moon” and “shadow”.

And so we entered into our autumn singing a song about decapitation.

Sometimes it takes a while to get somewhere.

Next week I am returning to the place that I started - 2### Clay Street, San Francisco CA 94115. It is where I came home from the hospital 48 years ago. My parents moved out of the place when I was just a little bit older than David is now. I have no memory of living there, and I know that our memories of Steiner Street will fade from our boys. The stickers of monkeys and elephants that we put up for them will be pealed before the new tenant arrives.  The carpet where they first crawled and later walked isn’t coming with us to clay street. We are leaving the swaddles and swings that soothed them.

The new place has a tiny back yard, and there will be tricycle races and easter egg hunts there. The boys’ room is going to have balloon wallpaper, and the carpets in the new place will get stained just as much as the carpets in the old.

The distance between the two houses is four blocks so the places we eat and shop will be the same. The distance I will have traveled in my life is five feet from the infant’s room to the master bedroom, which I know isn’t very far.

But it has been a circular journey.

One night at the Clay Street house 47 years ago, my parents woke me to watch Neil Armstrong climb down a ladder. Waking an infant is something you are never supposed to do - far better that they can sleep so you can get yours.

It was time to see a man who had travelled farther than any man ever has, a time to watch humanity’s desire to explore the world, a time for parents and a child to share a moment of wonder. My parents still remember the large cardboard box I played with afterwards which I pretended was a rocket. Some houses aren’t forgotten.

And so I am going to return to the place from my distant past, a place where I watched someone walk amongst the shadows of the moon. I am still learning the melody of being a father and a husband, but the lyrics of life sometimes has a familiar refrain.

Friday, August 28, 2015

E & E

It is my son, Edward’s, birthday tomorrow and no longer will my wife and I be able to tell to the random playground parents that we have two under two. The speed of our family creation was a badge given for bravery (and a touch of foolishness).

Instead the birthday marks the transition towards toddler. The age is not referred to as the terrific twos. His disposition is changing from one of needs, such as food and sleep, to one of wants like doors being open or iPads to be held. This past week he has developed a new great want - Elmo.

When I greet him in the morning his first word is Elmo, which has taken over his vocabulary like ‘Aloha’ in Hawaiian.  After I clean his diaper, he says ‘Elmo’. After I give him the milk he says once again ‘Elmo’

He has a small Elmo doll but prefers the world of Elmo literature. If I am to blame for his constant running around, I like to think that his mom gave him his love of books.

In one tale, there are little flaps to be lifted so you can help Elmo find his blanket. In another the flaps are for numbers, letters, shapes, and colors. My son checks each page several times.

My wife and I are a bit worried about traveling some place where we didn’t have a handy Elmo. Her idea was to buy several like the way we bought three shirts for my wedding in case I sweated too much.

I started to look at videos and audiobooks for my son, but I prefer the red headed monster silent.

I know that a year from now he will have new wants, and I think about how much he has changed in the last. A year ago to the day was the first time he started to walk in a way that resembled rugby players after a night at the Tonga Room. He doesn’t stumble as much any more.

Halfway through the year, his brother arrived whom he greeted with tears. He now hugs him every morning and brings him bottles or toys to make him happy. I asked Edward if he wanted to give David the Elmo doll, and Edward replied with his other favorite word ‘mine.’

I think that turning two means that you have so many more flaps in life to look under, so many words and letters to learn, and so many more pages to turn. There are monsters in the world, but some can turn out to be friendly. That streets can be busy, but are safe if we hold hands.

I know that there are green eyed monsters of brotherhood, and for that matter this year will have tantrums with epic choruses. And I hope we weather these well by counting to ten with numbers we have learned from the streets of Sesame.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Life Aquatic

My eldest son, Edward, said his first swear word yesterday. He was, of course, mimicking his father who in a moment of frustration over a spilt mocha on a changing table launched the explicative. In my defense, during the week I take care of the kids during the 6’s of a.m. and p.m. - the twilight between sleep and exhaustion. The mocha is my fuel, my milk drink as opposed to his.

To my son, who has so few words, perhaps the swear could have meant the same thing as “boom” or “uh-oh”. Life with two small children is a series of liquids and spills and there is the never ending clean up of wipes and towels. It has become part of our routine enough that Edward will sometimes grab a towel if he spills something. His favorite person for a while was the trash man.

We have a life aquatic with our heads out of the water barely enough. Parenting is the process of riding the tides of toddler attentions - the fast shifts of the currents of desires.

Edward for the most part has been living well. He has a collection of aunts and grandparents whom I refer to as the mutual admiration society. He has gotten used to having a younger brother in the same sort of way of getting used to eating using a spoon. It isn’t always, and when it doesn’t work out it gets a little messy. But the intention is there.

To get him out of the house away from the newly steam cleaned carpets and couches, he goes to a bevy of activities. He has soccer tots on Mondays, where he insists on stacking cones as opposed to running around them. He goes to Jameroo and Music Together, which are meant to cultivate his artistic side, but wind up being places where he runs around the peace circle screaming. Someday he will do exercise in sports classes and art in art classes, but for right now he explores things impulsively.

On Thursday mornings he goes to swim classes at the JCC. We got our first report card a couple of weeks ago - never too early to start measuring kids in San Francisco. He had top marks in enthusiasm and confidence, but did not fare so well when it came to the section of skills. It looks like it will be a career of venture capitalism.

Not all of the kids in the class are unafraid of the water. Some luckier parents have children with a better sense of danger. There was one girl, Olivia, who would cry the entire class. I would get the updates on Thursday dinners about how everyone was doing. In my mind Olivia was of Russian descent with large eyebrows, and a power set of lungs. She is, in fact, Chinese and didn’t scream as loudly as my imagination. More of a whimper.

I kept asking about swim class over dinners. Did we think the instructor named “Blaze” lived in the Haight or were the rents to high there? Was Edward kicking on his back? Did he put his head underwater? Does Blaze have good earplugs?

The updates kept coming, and one day I got the major news. Olivia had stopped crying during class. Edward had held her hand and made her feel safe in the water. I like to think that with his hand held he could not splash as much either, and that the two of them could start to learn about the aquatic life with a sense of calm.

I then learned that at the next class they had started to kiss. We spent a few weeks of Thursday dinners speculating about the two. About how he would think of his summer romance with his few words of “up” and “down”. Would he grow up to be an olympic swimmer, because he had found true love in a sea of chlorine.

And then yesterday it was broken to me softly. Olivia had spent the entire class with Sebastian who was both blonder and younger than my son. Edward was very troubled that she would not hold his hand anymore and could not understand why she would kiss Sebastian instead of him.

When he came home from class, he took a longer than usual nap. That evening he didn’t pick on his brother except for a few times of pulling his hair.

I was, of course, devastated by the news. How could she I wondered. Was my son just a stepping stone for the shallow end of the pool? You have such little time to give your children the advice they need to handle the world. You won’t be there for all of the heartbreaks. I can only hope that Edward reached down into his small list of words, and after going past things like “apple” and “blue” would come to say what his father told him. 


Shit.