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.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Free to Feel

"Jive talkin'
You're telling me lies, yeah
Jive talkin'
You wear a disguise
Jive talkin'
So misunderstood, yeah
Jive talkin'
You just ain't no good..."

–Bee Gees, Jive Talkin'



Visalia Ransacker
The bad man was 20 feet from my sister and me. We were asleep, being alone most nights, our mother working the swing shift as a police dispatcher and our first stepdad working graveyard at a tire plant over 40 minutes away.

The bad man was 20 feet from my sister and me, breaking into our house from inside the garage. We'd left the door from the backyard to garage open, leaving him easy entry. Fortunately, my mother had left work earlier than usual, some time after midnight. She pulled into the driveway, got out of my stepdad's Corvette she drove to and from work less than 10 minutes away, and opened our garage door. The Corvette's headlights filled the garage with eerie white light.

The bad man stood at garage door that led into our house. He turned and his eyes shone bright through the holes in the dark ski mask he wore. Immediately he fled through the backyard. Immediately our mother jumped back into the Corvette, drove across the street into our neighbor's driveway, and then pounded on their door to wake them. They called the police.

The bad man was long gone by the time the police arrived. I remember being woken by our mother to tell us what happened, why police officers were all over house. Some of the officers asked us questions, questions we couldn't answer because we'd been asleep.

No, we didn't hear anything. No, we didn't see anything. 

The year was 1975, two years earlier than when I thought it all went down -- I was 10 and my sister 8. Which made sense, since the bad man I'm referring to was known as the Visalia Ransacker. He stalked Visalia from about 1974-1975, before moving on and escalating his violence; he was also known as the East Area Rapist, the Golden State Killer and the Original Night Stalker. Joseph James DeAngelo, a white male and former police officer, now 72 years old, was recently arrested after all these years, having committed at least 12 murders, more than 45 rapes, and over 100 burglaries in California from 1974 to 1986.

I had forgotten about the Visalia Ransacker for decades until my sister recently started asking me what I remembered. Our second stepdad, the one we always considered to be dad, was a police officer and detective for 32 years. One of his colleagues had worked on the Ransacker case and continued to do so for years, even after he retired. During the late 1970's, that's all the Visalia Police Department talked about. My sister also followed the case for years, theorizing for him to get away with everything he got away with, he had most likely been a police officer, which he was. She got me started reading I'll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara.

Chilling now, because more than likely he'd been stalking our family, just like he did with all the homes he broke into, with all the victims he terrorized, raped and killed. In fact, the odds are pretty good that he had already been inside our house prior to that night.

For my sister and I at the time, the horrid irony was that we lived with a real bad man, our first stepdad. He emotionally and physically abused our mother, emotionally abused my sister, and sexually abused me. His crazy didn't escalate until about a year after our mother found the Ransacker in our garage.

According to RAINN and the U.S. Department of Justice, nearly 60 percent of sexual assault perpetrators are white (probably higher) and mostly male. There are simply too many angry white men and boys in American society, something that patriarchy -- in this country's case, white men holding all the power and excluding women and minorities, who are encouraged to squash their own vulnerability and all emotional outlets -- has incubated for decades in the hearts and souls of too many repressed men. If you haven't seen The Mask You Live In, I highly recommend it. The documentary follows boys and young men as they struggle to stay true to themselves while negotiating America’s narrow definition of masculinity.

I'm not a criminologist or a sociologist or a mental health professional, and sometimes crazy is crazy, but I am a man who grew up with violence and sexual abuse; a man who's thankfully not emotionally repressed (I thank my mother for that); a man who's now a father of two girls and married to an amazing partner and mother. So, when I hear that the latest school shooter in Texas had pushed his romantic inclinations onto a girl who refused his advances, and then she became one his victims, I'm furious and flummoxed. Same as when I hear crazy talk about the Toronto van killer by this so-called patriarchal proponent: “He was angry at God because women were rejecting him. The cure for that is enforced monogamy. That’s actually why monogamy emerges."

America cultivates this repressive and violent culture. We can no longer stand by as ineffectual bystanders and shake our heads at these tragedies. We have to be the positive change of awareness and prevention that ends this emotional repression, this toxic patriarchy, with both men and women alike. And it all starts with our children, our boys, being free to feel and love in healthy relationships in healthy environments.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

When We Come to Fully Know God

"Write a world where we can belong
To each other and sing it like no other..."

–U2, Love Is Bigger Than Anything In Its Way


We weren’t going to have kids. Ever. Didn’t really want them. Didn’t disparage others who did have them either. Kids just weren’t in our life plan. Never ever.

That certainly didn’t sit well with our families, especially mine. I remember my parents and my sister staring at us in disbelief with the guilt-charged super-stink eye. Then asking me when we were alone if it was all my wife who didn’t want them, and when I told them no, it was me too, then more disbelief and super-stink eye.

“You’ll regret it if you don’t,” they’d say. Shake their heads. Roll their eyes.

But we were resolute in our decision. Without a doubt. No wavering. Year after year we lived our lives fully, with no apologies, traveling around the U.S. and around the world, eventually to again endure the never-ending child question nearly ever visit with family. Nearly 10 years together went by before we changed our minds. And we did change our minds. We’re happy we did. Thankful we did. Gratitude abounds. All the ups and downs that come with parenting, we were all in. Are all in.

The Mama (what I lovingly all my wife) and I have always believed (and know) that we’ve been on a spiritual journey together, having possibly known each other for lifetimes, and having chosen to be together again. We feel we’re closer to God now more than ever, not bound by ancient religious texts and the patriarchal words of men, but embraced the grace of a greater love, a forgiving and nurturing love.

Two important moments in our lives helped us define this greater love, one that celebrates the feminine and the motherhood that comes with having children, although we certainly don’t disparage those who don’t have then, or can’t. That is part of their journey, not ours, and their greater love is their own.

Our journey now includes Beatrice and Bryce, and no matter what important role I’ve played and will always play in their lives, the Mama carried them and birthed them and nursed them and everything’s them, and then together we’ve chosen to raise them…

September 22, 2008

Around 6:00 p.m. I go downstairs to get something to eat. Three minutes after I order a cheeseburger and fries our doula runs into the cafeteria telling me to come now. My first thought is the baby's about to be born, but as we're running back up the stairs, she says, "The baby crashed and they went to the O.R.!"

The baby crashed and they went to the O.R., I think.

The baby crashed.

The baby.

I feel like my body has fallen away and I'm flying towards the room. Our midwife and doula are shouting things I can't comprehend and they tell me to get the blue scrubs on. They lead me to the operating room and a nurse lets me in.

"You're the husband? Come this way."

Stark whiteness washes over me and I'm immediately sat next to Amy. She's shaking but strong and ready to go. I'm out of my mind but not showing it. She was supposed to be born at home, I think. The OB is there. There are nurses and the anesthesiologist and everyone's moving around doing things I don't understand. The leg clamps don't work on the table, so two of the nurses actually hold Amy's legs up. Amy’s spinal tap had numbed her lower half, but pushes and pushes anyway and the OB coaches her along. They wouldn’t let our midwife in because she yelled at the nursing staff, so it's just me holding Amy's hand and urging her on. And praying. I even joke at one point to offer my help in doing anything to get the baby out.

The OB says we're making progress and gets the vacuum ready. Based on what she's telling us, she's only going to try to vacuum three times and then we're doing a Caesarean. But the vacuum isn't holding any suction and they have to change it two times. The OB keeps encouraging Amy to push and push. The baby's heart rate stays in the safe range.

She pushes and pushes. Two sets of labor and two different experiences in 24 hours – at home and at the hospital. Finally the OB hooks the vacuum up and pulls and pop – she looks startled, falls back and smiles.

"There we go. It was the arm. The baby's arm was up over its head."

The baby's arm was up over its head. Wow.

A second later the baby is out, umbilical cord is cut and the baby is rushed over to a side table and cleaned. Amy's still shaking but smiling. She whispers, "I'd better pay my co-pay." The baby cries. The pediatrician who was in the operating room calls me over to see the baby and identify the sex.

I'm still flying when I see that our baby is a girl – our little Beatrice –7 lbs., 14 oz., 21 inches long…

August 21, 2010

It’s 2 a.m. and I'm standing over the crib stroking Bea's arms to soothe here and I know I have to go.

Beatrice had been up since 1:00 a.m., primarily because of her cold and snotty nose, but also because she knew something was up.

Because our midwives had everything under control with the Mama, it was up to me to tend to Bea if she needed it.

She did. Lots of it. She just couldn't go back to sleep and I had to stay in there so she wouldn't wail. She couldn't hear anything coming from our room; we keep a fan going in there for white noise and have been doing it since before she was born. (We dig it too.)

But she was obviously unsettled and aware of what's coming.

The Mama had been in active labor since around 12:30 and the motion of the womb ocean was climaxing to a category 5 hurricane.

Things were moving fast and I was missing it.

I stroke Bea's arm one more time and whisper: "I love you, baby, but I have to go help Mama."

As soon as I'm in our room, Bryce is entering the earth's atmosphere for the first time, the Mama finding her baby Zen center as contraction after contraction rolled through her.

Now I'm standing behind the Mama on the side of the bed. She grabs my hand with the power of a 10,000 volts, pulls me down towards her on the bed and shrieks:

"Get it out of me!"

That's the final reality of birth, my friends. Guys, we have no idea. Nada. Zip. Imagine passing a hot bowling ball through your urethra.

Mother Mary of God, I think. There's a Bryce coming out of my wife.

You see, the first time with Bea I didn't see. That plan was to be at home as well. If you're interested you can relive Bea's birth story here.

But this one I am seeing, the visual annealing that softens my Y chromosome for an ultimately stronger bond. And then it's done. We're in the moment of tearful Mama holding wet newborn to her breast, the universe expanding our hearts and souls exponentially

All 7 pounds, 8 1/2 ounces, and 20.5 inches of her…

This journey of parenthood is one fraught with challenges and setbacks, as is all of life throughout our lifetimes, and yet one with the potential to be full of love and gratitude. I believe for us, it is this very journey when we come to fully know God, the one who travels with us, always.

So, today I celebrate the Mamas everywhere. God bless you all.

Miss you, Mom. And thank you.

Sunday, May 6, 2018

How High Can We Get

I'd been traveling when she told me the girls wanted to go to the dance. It was the father-daughter dance for our local Brownie Girl Scout troops, and when the Mama (what I lovingly call my wife) ask Beatrice and Bryce if they wanted to go to the dance with their Dad, they resoundingly said yes.

And not just any dance -- a super duper luau. Right on, I thought. This will be fun.

But as we got closer to the big date, the Mama told the girls that probably none of their friends from their troop were going, and that they probably wouldn't know anybody at the dance. Then she asked them if they still wanted to go.

"Yes!"

That's all we needed to hear. 

As we got ready for the dance the night of, the Mama said to me, "Don't worry, they'll probably get tired and want to come home at 7:30."

"What time does it start again?" 

"6:00."

I smiled. It was 5:30 PM already. "Yeah, I know. Bea is usually asleep by 8:00, so I can't imagine her staying up beyond that. Bryce is the one who falls asleep later, although she might get cranky."

"Right, but I'll bet they'll both want to come home early, especially since none of their friends will be there."

"We'll have fun no matter what," I said.

"Of course you will."

We were ready to go and the Mama gave us all kisses and hugs and sent us on our way. When we got to the venue Hawaiian decor, surfboards and faux Plumeria and Hibiscus were everywhere, as were dozens of dressed up Brownies and dads in Hawaiian shirts, just like us. We did run into one of their friends and her dad from our troop, which was great for us, so that's who we hung out through most of the night. 

Before we did anything else, though, the girls wanted to take photos in the homemade photo booth area set up in the far corner of the room. And that's exactly what we did. These are the special moments we share with our children, and while immortalized in retro Polaroids, it's the visceral memories that keep our hearts warm and well lit throughout our lives.

Seven-thirty came and went and the girls were not getting tired. At all. In fact, they got their second wind and I was the one who started to wilt as the night went on. I hung in there, and when the limbo competition started, we all got in line, including me. 

Now, not all the dads were that excited to brave the limbo line, which was probably smart because of possible physical injury. 

"All the vertebrae in my back shattered just watching them do this," I said to another dad while we waited in line and watched the girls and even some of the dads clear the pole effortlessly.

"I know. I don't know why I'm doing this," the dad said.

"We're doing it for them," I said, pointing to my girls up ahead of us in line.

"That's a lotta love," he said.

"Indeed it is."

When it was my turn, I heard my girls yell "go dad go!" and I started the awkward and unnatural backward bend to clear the limbo pole. The tropical music cadence and the girls' shouts inspired me to make it happen, and I did, while all my vertebrae figuratively shattered along my spine. But I did it anyway, only one time of course, because there was no friggin' way I would've made another pole lowering, not in a million years. 

As the night went on and I watched the girls run around, learn to luau (which my dad friend and I did as well), and befriend other girls they met for the first time, me and my dad friend talked dad shop and it was all so much fun. It didn't matter that we don't get dadding right all the time, because we sure as heck don't; this wasn't about how low can we go as the limbo mantra goes. It was literally about how high can we get on the fun, fun that took the girls to nearly 10:00 PM, way past all our bedtimes.  

A high all warm and well lit. Amen.


Sunday, April 29, 2018

My Boldness Boon

"Whoa, you like to think that you're immune to the stuff, oh yeah
It's closer to the truth to say you can't get enough
You know you're gonna have to face it, you're addicted to love..."

–Robert Palmer, Addicted to Love


Suddenly I was standing by myself in a large room full of fancy-dressed folk, all parents of the kids who go to school with our girls. Some smiled and gave me a thumbs up. Others laughed and pointed. And there may have been a few who grimaced and shook their heads.

Like one of those underwear dreams sometimes people have, I wore only a white t-shirt and boxer shorts, dress socks and nice shoes.

Except this wasn't a dream. It was a promise made months earlier to my wife, who I lovingly call the Mama.

"Wow, you guys actually did it," one of the parents near me commented. "You look great."

"Thank you," I said.

Just a few hours earlier I had asked the Mama if we should reconsider. "No way," she said. "I listened to a podcast recently based on research that girls lose their confidence to be silly, boisterous and bold by age 9, to then stop trying fun and adventurous things. I don't ever want that to happen to me. You know that. Let's keep being different and have fun doing it."

I nodded. "Indeed. That's why I love you, Sweetie."

"It's okay if you don't want to do it, though."

"No, I'm still in. Don't worry."

She smiled and we changed into our costumes. The idea was partially mine, at least in opening up our  big PTA Auction Gala school fundraiser theme to a much broader spy genre, hence validating the Mama's original idea of dressing up like the main characters from Mr. & Mrs. Smith, the cute spy action flick with Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt from 2005. Not the scenes where they were fancy-dressed folk, though. The scene after their house blows up and they're in their underwear. Early on I tried to get her to consider another scene, even another dress-up option, but to no avail.

The main theme of the auction was always supposed to be a James Bond one, but there were some parents who complained about sexism, misogyny and gun violence, and rightly so, whether many others liked Bond or not. So my idea was to have them offer up a broader mix of spy characters, both men and women, that attendees could dress up as if they wanted to.

And they did. However, as I stood there alone, the Mama running around helping in the early evening of the big event, most of the attendees obviously hadn't wanted to.

The Mama is our PTA president, and her along with the auction chairperson and a myriad of other amazing parent volunteers, they put together quite an elegant affair. It's one of the biggest fundraisers of the year for our school, raising thousands of dollars from us parents bidding on donated products and services, as well as amazing artwork from each classroom. The arts program is a big deal at our school and that one of the many areas the PTA funds. Appropriately, most of the attendees dressed up formal for the night -- women in lovely gowns and pant suits, some vintage 1960's, and the men in suits and ties. It's a great night for all the mommies and daddies to raise a little money and a little hell -- all for the kids.

I help out with school activities when I can and when I'm not traveling, and for this particular auction gala, I help put together a video of the kids' class "thank you" pictures and the slide shows. So, for this event, I was the AV (audio-visual) guy, and happy to do it.

There I was, standing in my underwear, with a name-tag on my t-shirt that said "Mr. Smith" (I made the Mama put "Mrs. Smith" on), just to ensure people would know who my character was, even if they were familiar with the movie, which thankfully many were. Thumb ups. Compliments. Snickers. Pointing. The gamut, but mostly positive and fun comments, complimenting our creativity and the Mama's PTA leadership.

I was stressed, though. Not because of how I had dressed; I had already acquiesced to that compromise. No, the reality was I wasn't feeling well, still suffering from residual health issues from last year's scare. I didn't say anything to the Mama until late that night after we got home, not wanting to stress her any more than she already was.

The good news is that we both persevered and helped raise a lot of money for our school. As I watched the Mama thank all the parents in the room for their generosity, I fell in love with her all over again, her boldness such an inspirational boon to our relationship and to the lives of our girls.

And although Brad Pitt I am most certainly not, damn those super hot red rain boots. Mercy me, Mama. Mercy me.


Sunday, April 22, 2018

Never Say Never to Ever

In 1975, my sister and I rode our bikes over four miles round trip to school and back home again. I was 10 years old and she was 8. We rode through what was at the time part new housing development and part walnut orchard. In fact, the last half mile to school was through a creepy walnut orchard, one where legend spoke of a scary orchard owner who would shoot you onsite with a shotgun full of rock salt.

Yikes.

Fortunately for us, we never ran into said scary orchard owner with shotgun. Never happened, and I don't remember any of our friends who rode or walked through the orchard every running into anyone near that description. No, each round trip was pretty uneventful, just to and from school, though the chilly fog of winter, and the super hot of early summer and fall.

We rode our bikes everywhere. To the nearby mall, to the donut store after I finished by paper route, to baseball and flag football practice. To school and back. Everywhere.

I've had a bicycle most of my life, and then after the Mama (what I lovingly call my wife) and I got together, we had our own bikes that we rode along the ocean where we live. Considering how environmentally and health conscious folks are here in Santa Cruz, we were only hobbyist bike riders during the warmer months. A lot of hiking, running and walking year round, but not much bike action.

Then we had two children, and our bikes sat for years rusting under plastic tarps in our backyard. Even after our girls started experimenting with little bikes with training wheels and a tiny push bike without pedals, they weren't big fans. I'm sure that had something to do with the fact that we weren't riding our bikes, and they didn't really ride with other friends either. Needless to say, bike-to-school day isn't a big hit with the B-hive. We really thought we'd never be a biker family some day.

Plus, we're really too far away and live down a big hill for them to ride their bikes to their school, and unlike when we were little, they wouldn't be riding by themselves for years to come, even if they did dig their bikes. That's a whole other post about traffic and safety and free-range resistance for another time.

Beatrice started riding a razor scooter more than a bike, and Bryce preferred the non-pedal tiny racer bike, and that's where we've been for some time now. Flitting around here and there on the street above us or an empty parking lot below us was the extent. And then, a new boldness took hold, and the girls wanted to start going down the little hill on our street -- very, very fast. Of course, being the good parents we were, we watched out for cars while they burned rubber and tore around the corner off the hill.

One thing led to another, and when I was on one of my work trips, Beatrice and Bryce both wanted to start riding their bigger bikes (that were rotting in the garage). Just like that. Presto.

Who'd a-thunk we'd be dusting off and pumping up the tires of our decaying bikes and adjusting our bike helmets once again to join in on the bike-riding fun. As adults, we're too quick to say "forget it -- no way" when it comes to trying new or old things and taking risks and simply just making the time to do it. Never say never to ever when it comes to your kids, that's for dang sure. More #BhivePower for me, please.

Monday, April 16, 2018

A Grateful Man

Seven thousand miles away from home, the left lens of my reading glasses fell out of their frame and onto the empty seat next to me. It’s the one side where the screw always comes loose over time opening and closing them after wearing and storing back in their case.

When I’m home, we have a tiny eyeglass screwdriver that does the trick every time to tighten them back up again. To date in all my work and family travels the past few years, I’ve never needed the tiny screwdriver away from home. Ever. Until this time.

Although I usually check them before I travel and tighten accordingly, I must've forgotten this time. There I was, on a flight back home to the United States from Istanbul, Turkey, and I take my reading glasses out of their case, and – flop. There goes the lens out of the frames onto the seat.

I mentally thanked the travel gods first and foremost since no one was sitting next to me. Who knows what would’ve happened if there was someone sitting there. Maybe the lens would have bounced off the person’s leg and onto the floor, tumbling into the aisle to then be crushed underfoot by an unaware passerby. Or, what if it fell to the ground and rolled under the seats behind me, or fell between the person’s legs next to me while they slept? Then what?

Well, thankfully all the other "whats" didn’t happen. Then I worried that the tiny screw that came loose had fallen out and been lost forever, but no, it was still intact in its chamber ready to be tightened yet again.

Phew.

However, there was one thing I was painfully aware of – I didn’t have the tiny screwdriver with me. Crap. Probably couldn't have taken it on the plane with me anyway.

What to do, what to do.

I had been on a business trip to Istanbul and also Sofia, Bulgaria. Such an amazing trip and I was quite thankful to have been invited to go so far away to speak at an event and run one of the candidate experience workshops I’m so passionate about doing. I always say that, while I don’t like being away from my family for too long, I do love to travel with them when we can, and for work, to see new places and meet new people. I thank the Mama (what I lovingly call my wife) for giving me that little bug.

And so, if it can’t be family travel, then work travel it is. While away on this trip, I learned more about St. Sofia, the Christian widow of Italian ancestry who lived in Rome during the Roman empire, and whose name means wisdom. She had three daughters whom she named after the three great virtues: Faith, Hope and Love. All of the things that remind me of my wife and our two girls, Beatrice and Bryce. The story of Sofia and her daughters is prominent in the history of both places I visited.

What I needed now was some inventive wisdom – how to fix my glasses so I didn’t lose the lens and/or the tiny screw – so it was time to channel my three great virtues. The Mama’s like Mcguyver, the 1980’s action hero who could defuse a bomb with a paper clip, a rubber band and a plastic butter knife; she can do all that and more with her eyes closed.

Our girls are also quite imaginative and resourceful when it comes to utilitarian creativity. Give them an empty cardboard box and shortly thereafter you’ll have a combination luxury leprechaun trap and condominium apartment (Bryce wanted to ensure creature comforts for the leprechaun), or a shelf elf candy extravaganza entertainment center (the latest of many #BhivePower shenanigans around the house).

Me, not as much. I mean, I can get the things done, and I can be creative, but I can also take the long way around to get there.

Not this time, though; I set my mind to solving the problem with what I had. I didn’t think that asking the flight crew for a tiny screwdriver would’ve been fruitful, or smart actually, so I first tore a piece of the flight menu made of thicker card stock, but thin enough to fit into the screw slot. It didn’t work, though – too flimsy to stay in the slot and turn the screw.

Then I started digging through my electronics bag in my backpack to see what I could come up with. There was nothing small and thin enough to do the trick.

Think, think, think.

Then I saw all the USB flash drives. I picked one up and turned it over and over. The metal that made up the plug portion could be pried open and bent, so I went to work. I broke some the plastic insides and got the outside metal sheath detached. There were small outcroppings of thin metal like tabs that could potentially be used like a flathead screwdriver, but unfortunately they were too big.

There was a second sheath of metal underneath the first and it had smaller and thinner tab outcroppings. I separated that from the plastic part of the flash drive. But then I noticed the four gold conductive filaments that ran parallel to each other over the end of the inner plastic plug portion that were also small enough and thin enough. Victory, I thought. I folded back the two inner rectangular filaments and tried to use the outside ones as makeshift screwdrivers, but alas, they were too flimsy and just kept bending when I tried to insert them.

Back to the mangled inner second metal sheath – magic time!

This piece had even smaller and thinner metal tabs that weren’t flimsy like the gold filaments. I carefully bent the piece without cutting myself to single out only one of the tabs that could be used as a tiny screwdriver. I worried that the flight crew might think I was making a tiny shiv, but no one paid any attention to me (which also worried me).

I was ready to test it out. I fitted the lens back into its frame, closed it tight and held on firmly. Then I fit I homemade screwdriver into the tiny screw slot and turned. Success. Then I turned again. And again. And again. Until once again the frame was tightened with the lens safely intact. It worked!

Right on!

I put everything away and settled into my seat to watch A Man Called Ove, the movie based on the wonderful heart-wrenching novel I read last year about a man reminded of how precious life truly is.

Then somewhere over the Northern Atlantic, a grateful man with tears in his eyes longs for his family and drifts off into fitful sleep. 

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Music to My Ears

"No I can't help myself, no I can't help myself, no, no, no
Caught up in the rhythm of it..."

–Justin Timberlake, Say Something


The speaker wanted us to understand vulnerability. He started by having us stand up and introduce ourselves to someone we didn't know. Then he had us share what we did professionally. Then he had us share something personal that scared us.

The young man I met in this context told me he was scared about being a good father (he was definitely south of 30). He had a newborn at home and was already overwhelmed by the big picture. I told him I empathized; been there, done that, and still doing that.

I told him that for me, not having close friends in my later years was my fear -- good guy friends. The Mama (what I lovingly call my wife) is and will always be my best friend, but would my best male friends of youth and young adulthood still be around when I was older? I do know as long as we're living we'll invest in the friendships we've had for decades, but outside of that, there are still more women than men with more than a handful of lifelong friends and supportive networks. My friends and I are part of the growing exception to the great American (white) male rule of being tough, keeping women and minorities down and out, and in the end, drinking alone in a roomful of violent, broken Y chromosomes.

The vulnerability exercise got me thinking about being a balanced man today, one who's comfortable nurturing healthy friendships with both men and women and not afraid to say I love you without joking about bromance or being called gay (even my best friends and I have been guilty of this over the years). Today, too many American men are dying lonely and alone, without close friends, and the suicide rate is again climbing for men over 50 years old. 

Recently while traveling, the choice of staying absorbed in my phone apps or starting a conversation came down to the salad in front of me. A younger black man was eating what looked like a chicken caesar, and I was pretty damn hungry. I only had about 45 minutes to eat before my flight.

"How's the salad?" I asked him. We both sat at a long, high-boy table where many individual travelers sat. The airport restaurant we were in was pretty packed and the only quick seats were the high-boy openings. 

The guy eating the salad smiled. "It's pretty good. Especially when you're hungry."

"Excellent," I said. "I'm hungry and really need to skip the French fries this time."

He laughed and said, "I hear you."

I ordered the salad and a beer. We kept talking and then another younger black man next to the one I first talked with joined our conversation, and then a younger white man next to me started talking with us. We started talking about music, something all four of us got jazzed about. 

"Yeah, I'm a drummer," the guy across from me said. "Used to play for church bands, but dang it's gotten competitive." 

I held up my hands and said, "I'm only a hobbyist drummer; no wagering."

They all laughed. The other two guys said they played guitar, and then the white guy next to me shared a story of rocking out in his daughter's outdoor princess castle fort because his wife was tired of him playing in the house. Our conversation was effortless, as if we'd been friends for years. We talked more about our families, music, beer and then the conversation veered to strange travel stories. 

And then it was time for me to head home. I knew I could've kept talking to them all, and if we lived closer to one another, we might even hang out once in a while. It didn't seem like old-school patriarchy kept these guys down at all, although a 45-minute conversation does not a best friend make. I just knew in my heart that many good men, like these men, just as much as other good women, straight or gay and of any background, all long for the regular rhythm of social connection and loving friendships. Friendships that give us the courage to accept the vulnerability of empathy and humane co-existence. 

That's why we have to make it okay for our boys to love each other as friends and to give each other the emotional support they need throughout childhood, adolescence and adulthood, without any social stigma or hateful backlash. I believe these healthier male relationships will help break down toxic patriarchy and solve a lot of social ills in America. Definitely music to my ears. 

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Stigma Be Damned

"But there you give me one - another you just finished
You're my library - always open for business
But you never show it
You're just sitting with it
But I know the score, and you're killin' it
Line after line - when you're taking it in
Time after time - when you try to fit in
To some white shoes, or a blue collar..."

–Arkells, Book Club


When I picked the girls up from theater class, Pink Floyd's Another Brick in the Wall Part 2 played from our car stereo. Really loud. Probably too loud for a responsible and respectable parent picking up their children from anything school related. Especially since they were rehearsing in a church.

"We don't need no education
We don't need no thought control..."

I quickly lowered the volume and went inside to get them. They were wrapping up another class rehearsing Trolls, a kid-friendly musical based on the popular movie.

The Mama (what I lovingly call my wife) had wanted me to help Beatrice ask the play teacher a question. Bea wanted to know what she was supposed to do after saying her line "Branch, watch out!" when the Bergen scare her.

"Go ahead, ask her," I said.

"Um, what do I do after the Bergen scares me? Fall down? Run away?" Bea asked.

The theater teacher frowned, as if maybe she'd answered this question with every kid in the play at least 1,000 times.

"You run away," the teacher said.

"Thank you."

The teacher smiled, exhausted. The girls and I got back into the car and I asked them how the class went that day.

"Good," said Bea.

"Good," said Bryce. "I really like the singing and dancing."

"Right on. Bea, are you glad you asked the teacher your question? Now you know what to do!"

"Yes," she said, smiling. "I do."

"Excellent," I said.

I turned the radio back on and Van Halen's And the Cradle Will Rock played.

"Dad, turn it back to our channel," both girls echoed. They were referring to the local pop music station. They aren't fans of Daddy's rock and roll.

Too bad. I wanted to rock.

"I will in a minute."

"Dad!"

"Fine."

Right before I turned the channel, David Lee Roth sang:

Have you seen Junior's grades? And Eddie Van Halen's guitar riffed on.

And I had recently seen their grades. That sent me reflecting on where the girls were both at in school.

For the most part, they're both doing pretty good. On most subjects, especially science. And on being social. And on being involved in extracurricular activities like sports and theater. All these things are important for their development. We're not pushing them too hard at this age, but encouraging them to try different activities besides focusing on academics.

However, Beatrice, nine years old now, continues to struggle with reading and reading comprehension. When she was three years old, we discovered she had trouble processing the information she heard in the same way as other kids because her ears and brain didn't play well together. It's called auditory processing disorder (ADP). That in turn affected the way her brain recognized and interpreted sounds and how she reacted to various stimuli -- too much stimuli always overwhelms.

We knew then that, no matter how much help she got, there would be future setbacks academically and/or socially. We just weren't sure exactly what and how prevalent they'd be.

Bryce, seven years old now, didn't have the same problem early on, although recently we worried about her reading ability, too. So, it was time to escalate the reading at home. For Bryce, it's been the recognition and pronunciation of words she should've already been getting at her age. For Beatrice, it's recently been figurative language, metaphors and similes and the like, comprehending was she had just read and able to answer questions about it. To also be able to infer meaning from phrases like "reading is as easy as pie."

We've been working on it for awhile now, with the Mama institutionalizing regular reading times for both girls. We read with them in the mornings and after school and every night before bed. We read all sorts of articles and books, have them read to us, and then for Bea ask her questions about what she read, testing her inference ability, her vocabulary and retention.

Both girls are making great progress. Bryce is reading better and pronouncing new words more readily. And as for Bea, she's much better reading and comprehending at home than at school -- literally and figuratively. We know (as does her teacher and other school specialists) that the overstimulation from a myriad of classroom inputs inundating her regularly hinders her ability to understand written instructions in class, and then she gets overwhelmed and anxious, her synapses backfiring on her. Her teachers are willing to give her auditory and visual directions in conjunction with the written word, which we know from experience will help.

Even with the progress they've made, we have no idea what will happen in the next few years, just as we didn't know what would happen when Bea was three. We do know that the pressure to excel will only increase exponentially from all directions, in addition to the stigma of struggle if and when either girl struggles to fit in. But stigma be damned; as their parents we will do whatever we have to do to give them both the tools and resources they need to improve, adapt, thrive and live their best lives.

"But I know the score, and you're killin' it
Line after line - when you're taking it in
Time after time - when you try to fit in..."


Sunday, March 25, 2018

Every Little Thing

"Don't worry about a thing
'Cause every little thing is gonna be alright..."

Bob Marley and the Wailers, Three Little Birds


I ran into a rainbow. It appeared on my way to my weekly beach workout at Natural Bridges and I had to embrace the positive beauty of it and take a picture. And just a quickly as it lit up the cloudy sky ahead of me, it was gone.

It got me thinking about the day before at Thinking Day for local Girl Scout troops, of which our girls are part of as Brownies, the troop the Mama (what I lovingly call my wife) helped found. Unlike the recent overnight campout we did at the Beach Boardwalk, this was a gathering of local troops to celebrate different countries and cultures from around the world.

Before it started we recited the Pledge of Allegiance, I stood with my baseball hat on heart and spoke the words proudly.

However, I looked around and noticed not everyone stood, nor did they put their hands on their hearts, and the other men wearing baseball caps didn't even take them off. I thought it strange that, with such a traditional organization, its roots steeped in God and Country, only about half the adults celebrated the traditional allegiance to the flag.

That's all right, though, I thought. It's their right as Americans to celebrate however they want. It's not my place to judge either way. 

And then I moved on from it, being one to never take issue with the NFL kneeling and related activism of the past few years. If anything I supported it.

Later during the Girl Scout event, each local troop presented some brief entertainment -- singing, dancing or spoken word -- that was representative of the country they had. Our troop was Jamaica, and they sang the Bob Marley song "Three Little Birds".

There was no reference before Thinking Day started, during the event or after it, of the March For Our Lives event happening all over the world that same day. The march that was all about gun safety, gun control, violence prevention and stopping the epidemic of mass school shootings.

And there we all were, celebrating global diversity in a high school gym. I didn't have a problem of the not mentioning the march, although the Mama and I are big supporters of it and its mission. We had planned to go, and then decided not to. We had our superficial reasons, but ultimately for me it came down to the fact that our girls are still young enough not to understand the scope of the recent tragedies, or even hear about it at school, at least not enough to pique their interest to bring it up with us.

They marched with us at the Women's March, and the Science March, and the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day march. We talked about those missions with them, but when it came to the March For Our Lives, we were a little marched out and wary of talking about it with them. That time will come soon enough.

Again, it doesn't mean we're not supporters of the movement. We most certainly are. We also couldn't be more proud of this generation of older kids and teens, many of whom are close to if not already at voting age. We want to make it a better world for our girls just as much as they do.

Then came an odd moment during the Girl Scout event: the troop representing the United Kingdom played the John Lennon song "Imagine" and somewhat acted out the lyrics.

"What an strange choice for an event like this," I whispered to the Mama.

"I know," she whispered back.

"I dig it, though."

And I did dig it, because the message wasn't lost on us about wanting the world to "be as one", and the fact that John Lennon was killed by gun violence on December 8, 1980. Paul McCartney was out marching that day as well, remembering his best friend, which really moved me.

Maybe that wasn't the troop's intention, but maybe it was. Either way it was yet another rainbow of hope for me, that those of us with varying cultural and political beliefs can and should make a positive difference in this world. One where we're not going to necessarily be able to stop all the tragic shootings, but where we can make it a helluva lot harder to start them.

As I watched our girls sing the Bob Marley song as best they could, all I could see were two rainbows lighting up my world, and I knew that every little thing was gonna be alright.


Sunday, March 18, 2018

For the Adults in Charge

"Time after time we lose sight of the way; our causes can't see their effects."

—Rush, Natural Science


It's never okay, even if it's directed at a pet rabbit. I heard it again from upstairs and cringed.

"You're a stupid bunny!"

That word – stupid, or iterations of it like dumb or idiot or brainless – is never okay when they're used to tease or demean, even if the context is somewhat playful, because that word can be objectifying, labeling, and even threatening because of its usual negative context.

We're cutting someone or something else down by using words like that. There's no mistake: it's quite intentional when we say, "You're stupid." Even from the mouths of babes, which has been a recent problem we've been working on in our house.

Both our girls have been using the word too frequently, and when they started to call us "stupid", although they assumed their context was teasing, it was not okay. At all.

"You're a stupid bunny!"

"Bryce," I called down the stairs, "please stop using that word. We don't call people or things stupid. Use another word, like silly bunny, or don't use another word at all. Thank you."

"Okay.”

A minute later. "You’re a silly bunny!"

Obviously picked up at school from other kids using it, because even in my grumpiest Daddy Goat gruffness, I would never use words like that to describe either girl, or anything they do, poor childhood choices and all.

I can't say the same for when the Mama (what I lovingly call my wife) and I are talking about other adults and/or the world's state of affairs. I hope we've limited the use of any similar sentiment during calm or heated discussions when the girls are within earshot.

We're all works in progress, and the Mama and I are no exception to incremental growth. We work hard to keep each other honest and free from saying things that are never okay about attacking others, again no matter the context. Since the girls have been using the word way too much, we're all over it each and every time, reminding them not to call others stupid and to use other words that don't hurt – or nothing at all.

We're all about the Kidpower in our house, and if our children are calling someone by a hateful and hurtful name, and it's not okay with the adults in charge (us, their teachers, etc.), then it's never okay.

But what about if it is okay with the adults in charge? What about those in leadership positions including your immediate family, and/or those that work in the public or private sector and have a responsibility to their students, or their constituents, or their workforce, or their volunteers?

What if the adults in charge make it okay, including the current President of the United States? Where in public forums online or in person, we call each other losers or dummies or dumbshits or fuckups or faggots or fascists or libtards or c-words or worse?

What then? Do we just scrap this whole thing we call empathic humanity for being able to say any friggin' thing we want because we think we’re better, or we don’t agree or like something or someone else?

Absolutely not.

Does it make us weak when we cry foul at those using words that attack us and cut us down?

Absolutely not.

I believe it actually makes us weaker when we can't have civil discourse around dissenting opinions, even if it ends in stalemate; and when we just can't be nice and call each other hateful names because we think we're better, and that it's funny and we want to intentionally hurt.

Unfortunately, our emotional trigger fingers get itchy really quick these days and we overreact and underwhelm. Good God, there are also way too many people today who revel in being bad to each other's good, who respond positively to the negative celebrity of it all.

And for those of you today who say, "Wow, everybody's so sensitive; we can't say or do anything anymore," what you really mean is, "Wow, we can't get away with saying or doing anything we want any more."

Our children don't miss a beat when it comes to modeling our language and behavior. It's time for the adults in charge to continue to call out the other adults in charge to clean up their offensive acts and mouths. Being good to each other shouldn't feel so stupid bad.