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, 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..."