Responsible parenting and leadership are a start. In between reaching for the sky (Toy Story rocks).

Screw the darkness. I prefer the lightness of Pop.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

When Empathy and Faith Aren't Enough

Three days later, the bus stop benches had been removed. I noticed them missing before we even crossed Harbor Boulevard to head back to our hotel. After four consecutive years of coming to Disneyland in and around the Holidays, the two benches near our hotel that we passed by a few times each day going back and forth to the park, had vanished.

"Look, they're gone," my wife said as we crossed the street, all of us bathed in Southern California sunshine and blue sky.

"I know," I said.

But although that's what we fixated on in that moment, it wasn't what bothered us. Three days earlier when we first got to Disneyland, we passed an old obese white woman, seemingly homeless, sitting on one of the benches, eyes closed, wrapped in what looked like a old blanket, empty food containers stacked next to her. That wasn't completely out of the ordinary because every year there are homeless camped out at that bus stop.

This time though the smell was horrible. Her smell. The fat woman wrapped in a dirty blanket. And it followed us in either direction after we passed her. It wasn't just the smell of body odor, urine and feces either. There was another underlying sulfurous smell of decay, something we didn't want to imagine. But she was still breathing, so it wasn't the unimaginable. The girls smelled it too and we treaded lightly on the subject when asked why she was sitting there like that. We told them the poor woman didn't have anywhere else to go.

That's where the Mama (what I lovingly call my wife) and I diverged, because while forgetting about the homeless woman after each time we passed was easier for me, it wasn't for her.

"Maybe we should call social services or something," she said. "Thousands of people are walking by her every day and no one's doing anything. And neither are we."

I empathized, but didn't comment further, and we never called anyone. Two days after passing her multiple times, we were on our way into the park yet again when the Mama tapped my shoulder.

"What?"

"Did you see that?" she whispered, making sure our girls didn't hear.

"No, what."

"The homeless women was gone."

"I didn't notice."

"You didn't see the yellow tape blocking off where she was?"

"No, I didn't," I said, although the sulfurous decay smell had been stronger this time.

"There was a big human waste stain on the bench and on the concrete under where she sat. So sad."

That image floored me. We crossed Harbor Boulevard and I couldn't get it out of my head.

"Are you serious?"

"Yes. You didn't see it?"

I didn't want to turn around to look. "No, but now I do. Thank you."

My faint attempt at humor was lost on her. "She's gone. The homeless woman. "

"Wow. I wonder if she --"

"I know. We've should've done something. I should've called someone. I feel horrible," the Mama whispered, her voice trailing off.

Later on our way back to the hotel room, we passed the benches again, which at this point had been hosed down along with the sidewalk underneath them. No one sat on them and the stench still hung in the air. The few people who seemed to be waiting for an actual bus stood away from the benches.

My wife struggled with everyone's inaction to this homeless woman's plight, especially her own. It had all been washed away. Literally. And then completely removed, only the footprints of the benches remained like scars in the sidewalk concrete. Again, I empathized, but moved on to worrying about battling the dense crowds and getting our return on investment with the rides and the character sightings and signatures.

Eventually my worrying turned a little broader and darker as I thought about what the coming New Year would bring -- global conflict, another recession, civil unrest, maybe a zombie apocalypse and God knows what else. I worried about my wife marching in the local Women's March on Washington next month. All of us are marching in it actually, and so I worried about all of our safety, even in this still peaceful bastion of progressiveness called Santa Cruz. The march mission across the country is to stand together in solidarity with our partners and children for the protection of our rights, our safety, our health, and our families.

But what about the homeless woman's safety and health? Why did her family and community fail her? If this was a test from God, then I failed miserably. I didn't even feel committed to Kidpower's commitment to integrity and safety for everyone. Not my problem. Somebody else's. I have my own first world kind to deal with here in New Pottersville. That much I thought about while we waited in line for the Storybook Land ride.

That, and the fact that on the night before we left for our Disneyland trip, Christmas Day, a young white guy with a scraggly beard wearing a hoodie sweatshirt rang our doorbell. I answered the door and although he looked to be well-dressed with a new knapsack, and not homeless, he proceeded to tell me he was trying to make his way up north to somewhere undecipherable and wanted to know if we had any fresh "tasties" we could give to him -- food that is -- and he kept asking me for different kinds of food, although I kept saying no.

After less than a minute, I shut the door on him. Maybe he was legit, maybe he wasn't, maybe it was another test from God. I'll never know. I did tell our neighbors to keep an eye out just in case. I should've never answered the door anyway. It wasn't that late, but unless we know who it is, we don't answer the door after 7:00, and we've lived in a relatively safe neighborhood for over 10 years now. And who the hell knocks on your door at 7:30 at night on Christmas Day anyway?

And who the hell lets an obviously "sick" elderly woman become homeless and possibly die in a pile of her own feces at a bus stop in Anaheim across the street from Disneyland during the holidays?

After this year, it just feels like we're all a long way from the happiest place on earth. Maybe it's just me and my clouded perception. I don't really know. A good friend of mine who was an amazing artist and who volunteered for marine mammal rescue locally passed away suddenly earlier this month, and he wasn't too much older than me. Feeling the road as I already do, it just added to my angry yet impotent introspection of late.

Maybe it's not all so bad after all, though. I mean, our family is healthy and our girls have grit and we have a home and employment and causes we believe in and we love and care for one another, our families, our friends. And we do live in a community that mostly embodies similar spirits. Even when I doubt a little, or a lot, I still have faith we'll be strong and persevere, and that our girls will as well.

Someone reminded me recently that everything that happens is God's will and we're just living His plan for us all. I grew up in the Christian faith hearing that every single Sunday bloody Sunday. But I've always struggled with it, and I don't believe that's how life works, because our will is God's will is our will.

There are no divine tests as referenced above, only our lives, our wills and the decisions we make, the actions or inactions we take. We should've called for that homeless woman on the bench, but we didn't. That won't happen again. (The jury's still out for the guy at our door, though.)

Today, when empathy and faith aren't enough, our complex collective wills need to take progressive actions. The kind that will make a difference in the years to come for ourselves and our children. Mostly positive and peaceful actions, but also a throat punch or two delivered to indifference and incivility as needed.

We know how incrementally complex our lives can become, how vitality and happiness are relative spectrums we try really hard to stay centered in. The Mama and I pledge to stay centered and fight the good fight together to protect our rights, our safety, our health, our family, our community and our country. Because no other wills will do.



Sunday, December 11, 2016

The New Old-Fashioned Way

“Rocking around the Christmas tree,
Have a happy holiday
Everyone dancing merrily
In the new old-fashioned way…”

John D. Marks, American songwriter


The idea was to get in and out without any international incidents. With the Mama (my wife) out again for another Kidpower workshop, child relations were strained and still flammable. The opportunity to let the girls pick out one Christmas gift for each other separately just wasn't realistic based on our schedules, so I thought I'd take them to the toy store together, since we had all morning and early afternoon. The rain came down cold and steady outside, and I didn't have another plan at that point as to how I'd pull it off, but was confident we could brave the excursion. I'd frame it with a softer diplomacy than the sometimes hard line of Daddy Goat Gruff.

"Girls, how about we go to the toy store and we pick out Mommy's gift from the both of you. We know she wants a game, something we can all play together," I said.

"Yes!" they answered.

"Can we get something too?" Bryce asked.

Of course I knew this was coming, and right as I responded I noticed the purple canvas bag laying on the sofa table near the front door. "You can pick something out for each other, yes. Within reason. So while we are there, you each keep an eye out for one gift for each other. When you think you know, I'll put it in a bag so the other won't see it. Sound good?"

"Okay," they answered. I knew they didn't really get it.

"Why don't we bring this?" I said, holding up the toy store catalog that they'd already been through a dozen times, with 95 percent of the toys on every page circled over and over again with different colored pens.

"Yes!"

I knew they'd really get that.

We got ready and headed out into the rainy day. After we parked and entered the toy store, we passed a Toys for Tots donation booth. A nice woman working the booth handed me a small flyer and asked for any toy donations before we left the store.

"Girls, we're going to get an extra gift or two today for other children who may not get any gifts this Christmas season, okay?"

"Yeah!"

Maybe they got that, and/or they were thinking of only themselves, but I had them covered either way.

Once inside, the girls began their joyful journey. Bryce, the fearless exploder, began bouncing from one toy to the next, pointing and exclaiming how cool everything was. Beatrice, the reserved imploder, proceeded with gleeful caution, overwhelmed by the sheer volume of it all, like she was a toy in Al's Toy Barn from Toy Story 2.

"Now girls," I said, smiling big. "Take as much time as you need. I know daddy usually tries to hurry through the shopping experience, but this time take your time. Please."

"Okay, Daddy," Bryce said, not really listening.

Beatrice just smiled.

Aisle after aisle we trekked and talked and touched. Look at this! And look at that! Wow! Cool! At one point I got them to help me pick out their gift for the Mama, and then we continued on the glorious toy campaign.

Without one single tantraumatic meltdown the whole time. Yes, I just made that up.

After some gift options were identified by each girl for the other, I'd quickly misdirect and keep them huddled on one aisle oo-ing and ah-ing over various over-priced toys, while I scurried clandestine to one of the gifts they had picked out (with the $15-$20 cap, of course) and tucked it into my purple canvas bag next to the Mama's gift. After the second gift was tucked away, we roamed for another 10 minutes until I noticed a confused and pained look at Beatrice's face.

"You okay?"

"Yeah."

"You all done now? Ready to go?"

"Yeah, let's go home. I miss Mommy."

Yeah, I miss her too, Sweetie. Knowing we wouldn't see the Mama for another few hours, I misdirected again to the "Buy One Christmas Book Get One More Half Off" stand near the cash registers.

"Girls, each of you pick out one book for our Toys for Tots donation," I said, and then added, "Oh, and pick out one of those candy Troll toy things that you like."

Because I'm just a sucker dressed in Daddy Goat Gruff clothing.

As we checked out at one of the registers I told the toy store employee that I needed to keep the gifts in the bag so the girls wouldn't see what they had gotten each other. She smiled and told me no problem. It didn't seem to phase her and she rang everything up as if she dealt with this request all the time.

I had the girls give the books to the Toys for Tots volunteers when we left. They thanked us and I thanked them. As we drove home, I was happy that this little trip went as well as it did. I thought about running a few more errands on the way home, and realized that could've caused a global nuclear escalation, so decided against it. Amen for that.

We listened to Christmas music all the way home. I sang most of the lyrics and the girls bopped their heads along, chiming in when they knew the words. The girls were fascinated that I knew so many Christmas songs. Then one of the many iterations of "Rocking Around the Christmas Tree" came on the radio.

"Daddy, I like this song," said Beatrice.

"Yes, me too!" said Bryce.

"Yes, so do I, girls. Rocking around the Christmas tree, have a happy holiday, everyone dancing merrily..."

It was a lovely time. Really. We rock-a-billied and sang and laughed all the way home. Fond memories of singing with my mother and family and friends during the holidays, decade after thankful decade going back to my childhood, wrapped themselves around my wary heart of late. I'd been so somber and insular, thinking only of myself and keeping my family safe and sound from what may or may not ever happen in the world around us. I hadn't been open to fully celebrating the joy of the holiday season, the joy and love of family and friends, a hopeful peace that's always meant so much to me not only at Christmastime, but each and every day -- everyone dancing merrily in the new old-fashioned way.


Sunday, December 4, 2016

The Middle of the Road Can Hold

In those few moments, she made the world's wrath her own.

It started like it always starts -- something doesn't go Bryce's way and the rage spiral begins. This time there was too much honey on her peanut butter toast. The peanut butter jar was nearly empty, and I didn't want to take the time to mix the new jar because of how the oil separates in the organic peanut butter we buy (can't it just mix itself?), so I made due with the little that was left. I thought I had it nailed, adding extra honey to cover for the lack of peanut, but to no avail.

"There's too much honey, Daddy."

"Eat it."

"No! Too much honey!"

"Eat it!"

"No!"

Of course I knew I wasn't helping, but my own spiral had begun as well. I was having a crappy week at work combined with the fact that my wife (known as "The Mama" to my regular readers) had a series of Kidpower workshops and had to leave really early, leaving me to wrap the mornings up and get the girls to school. Plus the recent election, the Dakota Pipeline protest and the general craziness and instability of world unknown, where many of us are still holding our collective breath, hadn't helped either.

Usually I have no problem with managing the morning routine even when I'm working early, which is all the time, but when the Bryce factor escalates, it's a tough road. And the Bryce factor had felt the adult stress in the room of late. Both girls did.

"What do you want then?" I asked her.

"Sunflower butter bagel," she answered, one of her staples to date.

"Fine, I'll fix you the bagel, but please go upstairs and get dressed for school. You know how Beatrice doesn't like to be late."

"Okay."

"I don't want to be late, Daddy," added Beatrice.

Everything mellowed again -- until she wanted the blue jacket. Her warm new blue jacket that was nowhere to be found. I even texted the Mama to see if she knew, but she didn't. Maybe she left it at school, she texted back.

That didn't sit well with Bryce who wailed on and on about it. I made her put on another jacket and herded both girls out the door.

"I don't want to go to school!"

"Get in the car!"

"Daddy, we're going to be late, aren't we," Beatrice said.

Christ, not now, I thought.

"No, get in girls and let's go."

But it was too late. Bryce distilled into a Molotov cocktail that blew up in the back seat. Bryce screamed and thrashed more than usual and Beatrice plugged her sound-sensitive ears, looking helpless in the rearview mirror.

"I don't want to go to school! No!"

"Stop it now, Bryce! We have to go now. We do this every morning. Stop acting like this!"

"Daddy, I don't want to be late!"

I might as well have poured gasoline on this latest flash fire. Every positive parenting action and Kidpower recommendation became a distant fire line in my mind. Only two days before I had picked Bryce up from school and we had a similar stand off, but this time I kept my cool, and not just because some parents watched as Bryce writhed and thrashed on the ground in front of me. I used what's called my "walk away power" -- literally -- and told Bryce I had to get back for a call and she needed to come with me. So I walked away from her. Then she followed, reluctantly, but quietly. All the way back to the car and was quiet all the way home.

Bryce began kicking the back of my car seat near my head and that woke me up. I wanted to pull over and spank her little butt, which we've never done with either girl, but I didn't. I should have pulled over regardless, I know, but we had to get to school and goddammit my girls were not going to be late because of this outburst.

Instead, we sat in the car at a stop sign in the middle of the road, with no other cars around, and I voice texted my wife. Bea continue to plug her ears while Bryce cried and kicked.

Can you call me in the car, I texted. Bryce is really mad. (Which autocorrected to Price is really a sad.)

Upset and kicking me.

Sorry. Pretty bad this morning. Thought hearing your voice would help. Love you.

Nothing like ensuring correct punctuation in urgent voice texts while stopped at a stop sign. She didn't answer so I knew her workshop had already started. I proceeded to school yelling at Bryce to stop while Bryce yelled at me and poor Beatrice tried to help calm us both, index fingers in ears.

We arrived and parked down the street from school like we usually do.

"Daddy, Bryce took off her shoes and socks," Beatrice announced.

I was so done by then, but I sucked it up and firmly opened up Bryce's car door and put her socks and shoes back on.

"Bryce, let's go," I said.

"My-my glasses," she said. She had finally calmed down, but she held one of her lenses in one hands.

I felt beat up, punched in the gut. All I could do was pop the lens back in her glasses, put them on her, and pulled her gently out of the car seat.

Besides Beatrice informing one of her classmate's parents of what had transpired on the journey to school, the same mom I had told of my woes earlier in the week, Bryce and I walked in silence the rest of the way to school.

We've survived all this before and we'll survive it all again. Later that day after school the Mama and I sat down with Bryce and talked about it, or as much as you can talk about it with a firecracker of a six-year-old. We talked about how it's not okay to act that way and that we need to use our words when we're mad and that it's not being safe when she uses her body to put herself and others in jeopardy because she's mad. We talked about how we should use our own words with her when we're made instead of yelling (which ain't easy). We laid out the Kidpowerin' for her as we do for both girls and each other. Bryce listened, and whined, and listened, and tried to articulate how she felt and why she did what she did.

We've survived this all before and we'll survive it all again. We do our best to provide a stable environment for our girls and know that's all we have control over -- and we're not the only parents who deal with emotional swings and childhood angst. It's hard when you're in those fiery moments, but we'll survive and our center will hold.

A few days later we were all in our local Christmas Parade marching down the middle of Pacific Avenue with the Mama's Girl Scout trip that our girls are in, and I couldn't help but think about what we've felt and projected of late has impacted them. I couldn't help but think how much positive energy it takes to keep our centers intact, and like the Yeats poem, how much negative energy is released when we don't.

And there was Bryce at the end of the parade celebrating her center in the only way she knows -- her way. Maybe, just maybe, the middle of the road can hold for us all.