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, August 26, 2018

The Childhood Check-First

"Have you seen my daughter?"

The mother who asked me looked around nervously and then back at me.

"Somebody said your wife took some of the kids across the street to use the bathroom," she said.

"I'm sure she did," I said. "Let me go find them."

Her concern was palpable and I could feel it pressing down on my head and back, pushing me toward the park's edge.

I had heard only five minutes earlier that the Mama (what I lovingly call my wife) had taken at least two of the kids attending Bryce's birthday party across the street. We knew one of the neighbors who lived across from the park, a park where there are no public bathrooms.

As I walked toward the street, I knew the feeling -- the feeling all parents get when they're children are out of sight and you don't know where they are, and only a minute earlier they were right there in front of you. That sick, panicky feel in your gut, when your heart pounds fast in your chest and your mind takes you places you don't want to go.

Then I saw the Mama come out of the house with five kids, not two, and one of them was the daughter the other mother was looking for her. I turned back to her and the other mother saw her daughter, too. The relief was now what was palpable.

"Mama, you've got to check first before you take the kids away," I said, referencing the Kidpower practice of kids "checking first" with their grown-ups before they go somewhere or do something that may be a safety problem.

"I know, I know," the Mama said, guiding the kids back across the street to the park. "Sorry, I was just trying to get the kids who had to go."

I saw the other mother hug her daughter and then say to her, "You always need to check first before you go anywhere, do you understand?"

"Yes," the girl said and then ran off to play with the other kids again.

Checking first, it's really important, but then later it got us talking about letting our girls do more things on their own, like walking to the same park after school with other kids and with or without other adults. We'd never let them walk or ride their bikes to school from where we live. It's too far and we live on the edge of town with unknown homeless population that travels back and forth to a nearby ravine area where they camp, not to mention the the homeless who live in campers and motorhomes in and around the area.

It's not about us being callous and uncaring to the plight of those who live on the streets, but we are concerned about the safety of our family and others from those with mental health problems and/or drug problems, the fringe criminal element, who choose to live in the shadows in the edges of town.

That may sound overdramatic and paranoid, and maybe some of it is, but we've had our share of incidents in Santa Cruz that cause us to be more cautious. All you have to do is read the threads of Take Back Santa Cruz, a Facebook group that continuously posts about the criminal element in our city. I was downtown recently going to the movies with my daughter and a homeless man in a burlap robe was scattering leaves on the sidewalk and the street and then drawing strange symbols on the sidewalk in pink chalk. He mumbled to himself the entire time.

I grabbed my daughter's hand and hurried across the street away from him.

"What?" she said. "That man?"

"Nothing," I said.

As far as I know the man was completely harmless. Or not. I don't know, and while we need to be cautious, we can't live our lives in constant worry of what could happen. Even when something tragic happens, like the murder of Mollie Tibbetts.

As well as the recent story about the 8-year-old daughter take the family dog for a short walk alone and how someone called the police on the mother for letting her daughter walk alone. The mother just wanted to give her daughter a little more independence. To free range or not to free range -- that is the question.

We get it. Our girls are now 8 and almost 10, and we let them walk a short ways down our street and around the corner to get our mail, with us waiting by the front door, paying attention to the time they're gone. They do wait after school sometimes as well now, in the library or playing on the playground, but that also doesn't mean our girls are even ready to walk or ride bikes by themselves too far yet.

When I asked the girls if they would be comfortable walking by themselves from school to the park nearby, they both told me "not really." Beatrice the oldest would be more comfortable with it, but Bryce wants an adult there, the Mama specifically.

We want them to be safe while gaining independence, but there's no rush for us as parents, or them as children, to be wandering off too far by themselves any time soon. Beatrice was at a friend's earlier this year and then they went next door to another neighbor we did not know. When the Mama found that out, she reminded Bea that this was not safe and that she always needs to "check first" with us, her parents, even if the people she's with say it's safe and okay.

Because we don't know what we don't know and wouldn't have known where she was or if she was in harm's way if there was an emergency and we needed to get to her. That's why the childhood check-first is a constant that can never be compromised.


Sunday, August 19, 2018

Unraveling Our Own Patriarchal Demise

“So we may boldly say: ‘The LORD is my helper; I will not fear. What can man do to me?’”

–Hebrews 13:6


"You better think (think) 
Think about what you're trying to do to me
Yeah, think (think, think) 
Let your mind go, let yourself be free..."

–Aretha Franklin, Think


It was the Sunday school coloring pages of Jesus smiling with open arms that still haunt me today. Jesus and little children gathered around him, all smiling back, seemingly safe and sound.

And Jesus was a man. 

And God is a father.

And Father knows best.

And Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” 

But they most certainly do. It's a man's world, for God's sake.

I grew up in an evangelical Christian family, and while to date I don't have a problem with the idea of a benevolent and loving God, I do have a problem with its human roots in patriarchy and its history of oppression -- a system of society, religion and/or government in which men hold the power and women are largely excluded from it.

A system of control that has enabled horrible atrocities to continually occur. The latest grand jury report out of Pennsylvania on abuse in the Catholic Church revealed that at least 1,000 children had been abused by 300 priests and accusing senior church officials of covering up abuse complaints. 

Not just that it happened, but that the church officials covered it up for decades. Men have been doing this for other men for thousands of years, and it's so entrenched in our social and cultural DNA, it's no wonder the unraveling is so painful for us all, especially for women and children.

For men and fathers like me, and I know there are many of you out there, we are finally understanding that deconstructing patriarchy and its ultimate oppressive control is how we can help prevent systemic domestic violence and sexual assault on women and children (and even other men).

We can be part of the solution, to work together with women to transform their communities and shift gender stereotypes, end rape culture and deconstruct the patriarchy. That’s just what we’re attempting to do in Santa Cruz with the Commission for the Prevention of Violence Against Women (CPVAW), holding a one-day awareness and prevention conference called Transforming Together on Saturday, October 6, 2018, at the Louden Nelson Community Center.

According to data collected by RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network), one in 9 girls and 1 in 53 boys under the age of 18 experience sexual abuse or assault at the hands of an adult.

And in 88% of the sexual abuse claims that Child Protective Services (CPS) substantiates or finds supporting evidence of, the perpetrator is male (mostly parents and relatives and others trusted by the children).

The statistics go on and on and the stories of children being sexual abused continue (like the recent migrant children in Arizona).

The sexual and emotional abuse I experienced as a young boy at the hands of my first step-father, one who told me each time it happened that it was "our little secret" and not to tell anyone, especially my mother. I never repressed it, and I knew it was wrong, but I didn't talk about it for years.

Kidpower teaches that problems should not have to be secrets, and that sometimes grown-ups have to touch kids' private areas for heath or safety, but it should never have to be a secret. Otherwise, other people are not supposed to touch private areas, nor are they supposed to ask you to touch their private areas, or to show pictures or movies about people and their private areas. 

Kidpower is the global non-profit with a mission to teach people of all ages and abilities how to use their power to stay safe, act wisely, and believe in themselves, and one organization I truly believe makes a difference in the lives of children, teens and adults around the world. (For an important related read on protecting and empowering children, check out Doing Right By Our Kids.)

I also know that many religions, their respective institutions and the people who belong to them do many good things for their followers and their communities around the world. I also still believe in a loving, benevolent (and genderless) God. However, as a child I wanted so desperately to believe in those pictures of Jesus loving and protecting the children. And yet, I was let down again and again by lesser, more fallible men pimping out patriarchy in the name of their heavenly Father for their selfish pleasures at the expense of women and children, just as they continue to do today. We will do everything we can not let that happen to our daughters, to empower them to protect themselves.

This may be uncomfortable for some folks to read, but change for the better doesn't come from acquiescing to the status quo and believing its God's will. Because it's our will, and it comes from confronting the very discomfort we've allowed ourselves to live with, the defaulting to faulty male leadership for generations. I'm angry that this destructive male dominance continues to subdue love, freedom and yes, feminism. A feminism that has nothing to do with being anti-male and everything to do with ending oppression, domestic violence and sexual assault (thank you, bell hooks and Aretha Franklin).

"The LORD is my helper; I will not fear. What can man do to me?"

"You better think (think)..."

Anything he wants. So, I'd argue being a real man today is all about unraveling our own patriarchal demise.

Saturday, August 18, 2018

The Adventures of Sweetheart and Dragonlily: Part 1

Inspired by our pets, a guinea pig named Sweetheart and a rabbit named Dragonlily, I decided to engage in a little creative writing. Enjoy!


The Wormhole

The white rabbit with the black dragon tattoo on its back wanted to go to the beach. The dragon tattoo was actually a big patch of black fur that looked like the outline of a dragon on his back, something their Ooo-menz always pointed out to other Ooo-menz that came over to visit. Although the rabbit hadn’t ever actually seen the dragon tattoo on its back, it was happy it was there because it made the rabbit feel quite special. 

Now, back to the beach – the Ooo-menz went to the beach all the time, because they lived by the beach, and the Kid Ooo-menz couldn’t stop talking about how much fun the beach was. The rabbit hopped over to a triangular wooden hutch in the middle of the backyard. The hutch had a see-through caged section and a smaller enclosed room with a hole in the center, big enough for another animal the size of the rabbit to pass through.

The rabbit wiggled its noise and nibbled on some backyard grass. It was a beautiful day.

“What’s up, Sweetheart?” the rabbit said to the wooden hutch.

The see-through caged section of the hutch was empty.

“Sweetheart, you there?”

The rabbit heard a low groan come from the dark entrance of the enclosed room of the hutch. He couldn’t see anything.

“What do you want?” came a low voice from the darkness. It sounded annoyed.

“Sweetheart, I just –“

“Don’t call me sweetheart.”

The rabbit wiped its nose with its front paws and then ate some more grass.

“But that’s your name,” the rabbit said.

A nose, mouth and dark eyes surrounded by white fur poked slightly out of the hutch enclosure.

“True, but I also know it demeans me as a woman,” answered a voice from the darkness.

“I don’t know what that means. You’re a guinea pig,” said the rabbit.

“A female guinea pig,” said Sweetheart. “A proud female guinea pig that doesn’t like mouthy male rabbits named Dragonlily.”

The rabbit named Dragonlily stopped eating and closed its eyes.

“Dragonlily. Ugh. Who named us these names again anyway? I mean, I like the dragon part because of my tattoo, but Dragonlily? What were these Ooo-menz thinking?”

Sweetheart waddled out of the hutch enclosure into the sunlight. Her white nose and face turned into a large creamy brown body except for another white patch behind her head. Her dark eyes watched Dragonlily’s every move.

“Our Kid Ooo-menz did. And they’re girls – girls rock, you know. And there’s nothing wrong with our names. They’re good names. The Kid Ooo-menz take care of us and you shouldn’t make fun of them. You’re such a mean boy.”

Dragonlily went back to eating grass.

“I’m not making fun of them,” he said between chews, “I’m making fun of our names.”

“Our names are great. Well, mine is great. Yours is, okay,” said Sweetheart.

“Right. And they also call us guin-guin and bun-bun,” said Dragonlily.

“Ha! Bun-bun! That’s funny,” said Sweetheart. “You’re a bun-bun.”

Dragonlily hung his head and his pink and white ears sagged.

“Wow. Thanks, Sweetheart.”

“I’m not your sweetheart.”

Dragonlily sighed. He hopped and ran around the yard, darting from underneath the white hibiscus flowers to behind the Japanese maple tree to the storage shed on the other side of the backyard. Sweetheart munched on a patch of grass pretending not to notice.

Dragonlily darted back to the hutch and then stood on his big back feet and leaned against the hutch. Sweetheart wiggled her bottom and backed up.

“Hey, I really want go to the beach today,” Dragonlily said. “It’s such an amazing day and we’ve never been. Let’s go!”

“The beach? Are you serious?” Sweetheart said.

“Yes, the beach.”

Sweetheart sighed.

“Well, we can’t get out of the backyard, first of all. And second, even if we could, we wouldn’t which way to go and how do we get there. And third, we’re not supposed to leave. Ever. It’s not safe and not allowed.”

Dragonlily shrugged his little rabbit shoulders.

“Not safe? We’ll be fine. Not allowed? They’ll never know if we come and go quickly. And I hear from the sea gulls that there’s some tasty sea grass and other plants for us to munch on. C’mon, our Ooo-menz are gone for a few hours and it’s a perfect time to go on an adventure.”

Sweetheart shook her head and backed her bottom right up against the hutch cage.

“Why would I want to do that? We have no idea how to get there, so how could we come and go quickly? And I’m perfectly happy here. We’re safe here, they take care of us and we have all the grass, hay, fruits and vegetables we could ever want.”

Dragonlily laughed and tilted his head to the right as he stared at her with his big left blue eye outlined in black fur.

“Obviously.”

Sweetheart frowned.

“Are you making fun of my size?”

“No, ma’am.”

“Because I’m the right size for me.”

“Understood.”

“And I’m happy just the way I am.”

“Obviously,” said Dragonlily.

He snickered and pushed on the hutch. He rocked it back and forth with his front paws.

“C’mon, you’re great and I’m great, so let’s go to the beach and do something new! We do the same things every single day. Don’t you want to do something new and fun?”

Sweetheart shook her head.

“And not safe? No, I don’t,” she said.

“Fine,” said Dragonlily.

Dragonlily darted to the back gate. He had tried many times to dig under the fence, but the ground was too hard, like the cement at the bottom of the retaining wall that separated his yard from the upper street behind their house. In fact, any place along the fence where the dirt met the wooden fence was just too difficult to dig under.

Shrink the think, he thought, which was his way trying to figure out the right answer to a big problem.

Shrink the think.

Sweetheart laughed.

“You’re not getting out of here, Dragonlily.”

Shrink the think.

He darted back under the white hibiscus flowers. The ground was moist and softer here. He looked down at his front paws and an earthworm popped its head out of the ground. Or its tail. Dragonlily wasn’t sure.

“What’s up, kids?” it said.

Although Dragonlily couldn’t see the worm’s mouth, if it did have a mouth, he heard its voice, which wasn’t too high or too low.

“What?” was all Dragonlily could say.

“I said, what’s up, kids?”

Sweetheart overheard and called out from behind them.

“Hi, Kes. Dragonlily wants to go to the beach.”

“Kes?”

The worm wriggled out of the ground a little more.

“Yes, Kes. That’s my name. Pleased to meet you, Dragonlily.”

Dragonlily backed up a bit.

“Um, sure. Pleased to meet you – Kes.”

“You kids want to go to the beach today?”

“Not me,” said Sweetheart. “But this crazy guy does.”

Dragonlily nodded. He wasn’t sure if Kes the worm was a boy or a girl, and because he couldn’t figure it out, he really wanted to know.

“Pardon me, Kes, but are you a boy or a girl?”

“Does it matter?” the worm said as it pulled the length of its body out of the ground and wriggled closer to the rabbit.

“No, Kes, it doesn’t,” said Sweetheart, sounding annoyed again.

“So sorry,” Dragonlily said. “I didn’t mean to offend you.”

“No offense taken, just don’t ask me again. I am what I am.”

Dragonlily nodded and then hopped over to the hutch. He still wondered what Kes was.

“You two know each other?” he said.

Sweetheart swallowed a mouthful of grass and nodded.

“Yes, I met Kes in the spring after the last rain we had and our Ooo-menz had put me out in a patch of wet, new grass. It’s a really nice worm. And quite smart as well.”

“Ah, thanks, Sweetheart,” Kes said. “Now, who wants to go to the beach? Dragonlily?”

Dragonlily focused again on how badly he wanted a beach adventure. He hopped and spun in the air like rabbits do when they’re happy.

“Yes! Yes, we do! Can you help us get there?”

“I’m not going anywhere,” said Sweetheart.

Kes wriggled to the where the shade of the hibiscus flowers stopped and the bright sunlight started.

“Yes, I can get you both to the beach.”

“I’m not going anywhere,” Sweetheart repeated.

“How?” said Dragonlily.

“A wormhole, of course.”

Dragonlily blinked.

“A what?”

Kes turned the top of its worm body back toward the place where it come up from the ground.

“There. A wormhole. Us worms make wormholes, tunnels through time and space. Like shortcuts. We can travel anywhere we want in a matter of seconds. You didn’t think we just ate dirt and pooped dirt, did you?”

Sweetheart laughed.

“That’s a good one, Kes,” she said.

Kes continued.

“A wormhole is also called an Einstein-Rosen Bridge, but if you’ve never read any theoretical physics, wormhole is easier to remember, of course; consider the source. A wormhole connects extremely long distances like a million light years or more, or even short distances such as a few feet, or down the street, and even time travel between points in time. I could get you to Natural Bridges State Beach down the street in a flash.”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about, but if you get us to the beach, we’re in!” said Dragonlily.

“I’m not in,” said Sweetheart.

Dragonlily hopped and spun again. He darted over to the hutch and opened it with his long front teeth.

“C’mon, let’s go to the beach, Sweetheart!”

Sweetheart waddled out from inside the hutch.

“Again, I’m not going anywhere,” she said.

Dragonlily darted behind Sweetheart and shoved her bottom towards the worm.

“C’mon, let’s go! It’ll be fun!”

“I think we’re breaking a safety rule. Actually, many, many safety rules,” she said as she slid closer to Kes and the hibiscus flowers.

“C’mon, the Ooo-menz are gone!”

“You mean humans, don’t you?” Kes said.

“No, the Ooo-menz.”

“Sure,” said Kes and wriggled back to its hole. “Anyway, give me a minute so I can prep the wormhole,” he said. He whispered something at the hole, but Dragonlily and Sweetheart couldn’t hear what it was.

“Has any animal ever gotten hurt going through a wormhole?” Sweetheart said.

Kes shook its body back and forth.

“Not really. I think. As far as I know only worms use wormholes, so this will be a first.”

Dragonlily stopped pushing Sweetheart forward.

“Wait, worms time travel?” he said.

Kes didn’t answer the question. Suddenly a strong wind whipped through the flowers and the hole the worm had come through glowed with swirling tiny bright white stars and opened a few inches bigger than the small hole it was.

“Okay, jump through,” Kes said.

“Jump where?” said Dragonlily. “That’s not big enough for me. And it’s certainly not big enough for her.”

“Hey, watch it, bub,” said Sweetheart.

“Sorry,” said Dragonlily.

Kes wriggled away from the swirling, lit up hole.

“It’s big enough. Just jump through,” Kes said.

“Are you sure?” said Dragonlily.

“I’m sure.”

“I’m not going any—”

But Sweetheart couldn’t finish her sentence. Dragonlily shoved her hard again from behind and they both headed straight for the swirling hole.

Kes called out to them as they slid into the hole.

“Have fun! And oh, don’t forget – you have to find the Monarch Wormhole Station to get back home. And say Home Station when you find it. If you don’t, you may end anywhere or any time!”

Then the wormhole closed up and Kes wriggled away. The worm dug into another moist spot in the dirt and disappeared.

And Sweetheart and Dragonlily were gone.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

This Creativelocity

She kept adding things to it. Gummy bears and other little colorful creatures having some kind of elaborate yet fun party around, inside and atop a glass mug full of ice cream, cookies and other sweets in general.

Then there was the back page of her artistic creation, with a pair of eyes peering out from some darkness asking:

Hello, is this the party?

And then one of the other gummy creatures responding:

The party is over here, Jeff.

I’m sorry, what?

This was our oldest daughter’s entry in the Downtown Santa Cruz Association ice cream month coloring contest. Both our girls entered. We assumed there’d be dozens of kids that would submit their entries as well.

The winner would win ice cream every week for one year from these local ice cream and cookie shops: The Penny Ice Creamery, Mission Hill Creamery, Pacific Cookie Company, Marini’s Candies and Coldstone Creamery. The girls were so excited about coloring their respective pages and turning them in – and dreaming of all the super yummy ice cream.

Beatrice’s idea was a to color in an fantastical world of gummy bears having a fun party. She felt pretty good about her final submission, as did Bryce. We told both girls that they each had a shot, but in the end, only one person would win. Maybe it would be one of them, or maybe not.

Two weeks later after they submitted on the deadline, the Mama (what I lovingly call my wife) received an email stating that out of over 50 different submissions, Beatrice had won the contest.

A whole bunch of tasty ice cream every week for a year. Wow.

Bryce was bummed at first, until we reminded her that we’d all be benefiting from the sweet win. Beatrice beamed when the Mama told her; we were all so proud! She told the Mama she purposely added a lot of creative detail to her picture to make it a story, and that she visualized winning, something she hears from us all the time. In fact, at the bottom of the coloring sheet where it listed the URL DownTownSantaCruz.com, she crossed out the .com and wrote “Thank you” above it and below it “for making this happen.”

Accessing the creative energy of the universe, the inspired spiritual economy of reciprocity. Put it out there, and get it back. Right on, Bea.

She may be struggling in math, but we definitely encourage her and her sister to stoke their creative fires. They’re both always drawing and coloring and building and crafting and experimenting, and for Bea now, writing stories and comic books. We burn through reams of paper. We recycle a lot of paper and keep it for them to use, and yet, when they burn through that, they’re digging into our home printer and creating more stuff with the good paper.

So that’s why the Mama keeps them stocked up with the paper and pencils and pens and marking pens and paints and glue and a myriad of other stuff that keeps them designing at the speed of imagination, a creative velocity of colliding atoms that generates an innovative gravity too many of us lose in adulthood. And like physics, its messy yet intentional and smooshed together, this creativelocity, this coloring of inside and outside the lines and even the spaces in between – to find patterns and insights and stories where none were before. Maybe someday they’ll help solve the world’s problems, or at the very least, keep their souls nurtured and their sanity in check.

Either way the gummy bear party is over here, baby, where the sweets couldn’t be any more divine.


Sunday, August 5, 2018

Of Consent and Love

She's already been married three times to the same boy. Received a wedding ring from him. Kissed him at school. Had his baby whose name keeps changing.

And she's only seven years old.

Of course, it's fairly innocent and all in due course of growing up. Not all kids are interested in marriage and kids as a kid; Beatrice certainly isn't. But Bryce, our youngest, she's got that maternal kid thing going on. Has always been interested in babies. Which may or may not be a good or bad thing. At least, not until she's a teenager.

Ugh.

However, we keep it real with the girls no matter what. Having age-appropriate conversations with them about life and love is very important.

One night at dinner, babies came up again during family discussion time. My niece is having her first baby soon, and we had just gone to her baby shower. The girls were very curious about babies again and how girls get pregnant, how the baby grows in the belly, all the baby things.

"Do you know how babies are made?" the Mama said (what I lovingly call my wife).

"You have to kiss a boy," Beatrice said.

"Well, there's more to it than that. Boys and girls have parts that fit together. Do you know what they are?"

The Mama has already had these discussions with them, and we both use the actual words for what the parts are when we need to reference them, not cutesy made-up words that are easier for nervous adults to handle than their kids.

"The penis and vagina," Bea said.

Both girls frowned. The conversation continued and I started to sweat. Not because I was uncomfortable with the content, but because I always remember the context of my early education when my mom kept it real with me.

I was six or seven. He was seven or eight, a neighborhood kid, a friend of sorts, one who led and I followed. There was a little girl in the neighborhood, around four and still in diapers, or some early iteration of pull-ups.

I was extremely uncomfortable because he wanted the little girl to pull her pull-ups down. I knew it was wrong, felt it was wrong, and yet and I didn't do anything. She looked scared. I looked away. She pulled it down and he laughed. We didn't touch her or hurt her.

My mom had watched the whole thing from our dining room window and immediately came outside to make us apologize to the little girl. She sent the boy away and told the little girl to go home (she lived next door), who ran away crying (I don't remember if she talked with the parents of the girl or not, but nothing ever came of it).

She then took me inside and began to explain to me the differences between boys and girls, what a vagina was and what a penis was and what happens with sex and why it was so wrong to do what we did. Why I needed to respect women and never force anything upon them that they didn't want to do, to never hurt them or belittle them in any way. I was mortified, but she made me look her in the eyes and promise.

Now that the Mama and I have children, and since we've been involved in Kidpower, we've reiterated more than once with the girls a key Kidpower safety tenet, that people shouldn't touch your private areas or ask to touch them, or to show you pictures, movies or videos of their private areas. That sometimes adults have to touch for health and safety, and in those situations, it's never a secret.

Keeping it real can also be very poignant and sweet, and watching the girls touch my niece's belly with her growing baby inside reminded me of when our girls were growing inside the Mama. Our children need to understand the how and why of sex and babies, and the long-term context and commitment of consent and love.