Thursday, December 08, 2011

Writing About Not Writing: The Empty Set

This is a post about not writing. It is not a post about writer's block. Enough has been written about that already. It is a post about people saying to me, "Hey, you should write about this, or you should write about that," and me saying, "Meh, I really don't want to," or "Maybe later," and this happening often enough that I begin to wonder why I'm not wanting to write so much and then deciding a good way to answer that question, which is a legitimate one, is to write about it.

So the basic question is, why the hell am I not writing about being a dad and stuff? I look back and see my last solid post, about Jr. and a balloon, was almost six months ago. I say solid, meaning not some kind of polemical thing intended to touch a cultural nerve and get people all pissed off and leave a million comments and maybe get the attention of the New York Times, or some random deposit of verbiage excreted by whatever onanistic satyr happened to frolic in my head that day, but a piece about life with children from a man's point of view that really reaches for some kind of truth.

A few reasons come to mind. Practical considerations can get in the way. I've been sick. In and out of the hospital. That will sap you of the will and ability to write more completely than anything I know. A couple of times when I was on really high-end morphine to kill the pain I started having really disturbing dreams and thought, "Hey, you should write about that." Then I came out of it and thought, "I'm not Charles Bukowski or William S. Burroughs or William Blake or Thomas de Quincy, who the hell needs to know about what my brain decided to do after four days on morphine when the anesthesiologist told me I had "mild hospital psychosis" because the walls were talking to me? I went days without seeing my kids and that sucked, so what was there to write about if this is a blog about life with children from a man's point of view? Etc. etc.

But if you really have something to say, as all real writers do, you overcome shit like this. You write your unfinished symphony as you expire from tuberculosis knowing that your literary and musical friends will celebrate the publication of your score or verses or novel in the blazing light of the funeral pyre upon which your corpse is cremated on the beach at Viareggio. That's just the way it is. So there has to be a deeper reason. Hospital psychosis is not sufficient.

So when we get down to the deeper reasons, the emotional, existential, psychological ones, two seem most prominent. The first is the way the blogosphere, and maybe even the culture, is changing. The second is the way my family has changed.

How the blogosphere has changed: When I started doing this, I was alone in the house with an infant feeling overwhelmed and isolated the way every new parent does. I also felt a tad self-conscious about being a father who was staying home to take care of the kids. For all these reasons, plus the fact that I just tend to write about stuff, Daddy Dialectic was the perfect outlet. So I started telling these little stories that are variations on themes that, in some ways, are as old as the pyramids, or the hanging gardens of Babylon.

Were there other dads out there doing the same thing? Sure. You get a little community feeling from chatting with them. Some write stuff I like, some is not to my taste - no matter, let a thousand flowers bloom, I say - but I wasn't writing for other bloggers. I was writing for myself and for some unspecified lector or lectrice who kind of knew what I was talking about. Maybe this world wide web thing could bring us together in the anonymous, Platonic act of reading. That was, and still is, enough.

But a little while ago I looked around and thought wow, this has become an industry. It's a niche, the way there are niches for model rocket builders and stamp collectors and mercenaries and bondage fetishists. There are a million blogs by dads about life with children from a man's point of view. There are conferences in convention hotels, there are short films and documentaries and YouTube videos and rock songs and interviews on news shows; there are websites that rank the best websites, the blogs with the most hits, the funniest ones, the most progressive or the most Christian; there are debates about how to make dad blogs as popular as mom blogs (ex.: "How can we get men to leave more comments?") or about how to sell shit on your dad blog; there are blogs that are beautifully produced and customized like glossy lifestyle magazines featuring only three or four people; there are blogs by some famous dude who happens to have a kid and then instantly begins to write famously for the New Yorker or Rolling Stone about all the things everyone else has written about in a less famous way.

I look at this and think, Jesus Christ, how many times can someone write about changing diapers? Though this consideration does not seem to affect the general output of mom bloggers, which is like some kind of eternal, geological geyser, I admit that the geometric explosion of the dad-o-sphere leaves me wondering whether or not it is all rather trivial, and whether I have myself helped to perpetuate the triviality. There's a solution to that, which is to get more and more niche, to write about being a parent from more and more particular angles - black, Asian, gay, infertile, whatever - and that's all good but still at some point you run into the problems listed above, or the fact that, being none of the above, I should shut up. The world is going to hell, as you may have noticed; maybe we should start thinking more consistently about some of the reasons for why that is? Why are we spending so much time writing about being parents? Because we are not writing about Revolution? About God? About the conquest of Nature through science? Or self-liberation in the the endless play of Eros? Or because, in reality, we have control over so little else in out-of-joint world?

Don't feel like you have to answer those questions. They're the same ones I've been asking myself for a while now. 

How my family has changed: The truth of the matter is, this is probably the biggest reason for not writing, and everything above is just grumpiness. We've adopted a daughter. I shared this impending development with Daddy Dialectic readers a while ago, and thought at the time that I would keep readers apprised of the entire experience as it unfolded, as many adoptive parents do. What happened is just the opposite.

For whatever reason, going through the adoption process has made me much more protective, much more circumspect, about the narration of my family life. When Spot was born, I wanted to talk about it, and people wanted to hear about it. When we adopted Squeaky, it became much more problematic. People still want to hear about it, but I'm not sure I want to tell them. Why not? I'm not sure. But it's a different ball game with Squeaky. She had a life before us, albeit not a terribly long one. She has biological parents out there somewhere. There are things about her situation that I feel should be disclosed at her discretion only, when she is mature enough to be aware of them, something which I feel is less of an issue for Jr. I knew Jr. when he was a zygote, I saw him come out of the womb, I helped to keep him alive from the very first hours. There is less of a blank space between us, we are more closely entwined, I exercise the right to speak for him with more confidence.

Not so, with Squeaky. I don't own her experience the way I own Jr.'s. Not that I actually say much about Jr, really; most of it is about what I think about Jr.'s experience. It's all about me. So he's safe. But I have yet to figure out a way to feel that way about Squeaky and her story. It certainly is a story that deserves to be told, but the learning curve of being father to a girl, an orphan, and an institutionalized child from another country with moderate special needs - all at the same time - is rather steep.

There, I wrote something.

Monday, October 03, 2011

Winning And Losing

Seesaws, rocking horses, and merry-go-rounds can be lots of fun for children. But playground chess with your father-in-law is serious business.

At a playground in a Vacaville mall, my father-in-law Barry and I played chess with pieces the size of toddlers. Five of us were on our way back to San Francisco from Tahoe, and after four days of in-laws and three hours in the car with fourteen-month-old Sam, it was time for a break. Following six inches of snow in the mountains, the sunshine was welcome on the checkered board, but there was a chill in the air, as Barry plotted black and white revenge for a slushball in the ear.

Surrounded by wooden rocking horses and noisy children, Barry huffed and puffed around the oversized board, while I coolly repelled his black queen with white pawns. After ten moves his queen looked spent. I rocked back on my heels, surveyed Vacaville’s spacious and navigable Nut Tree Mall, and wondered whether to celebrate the victory by visiting the Gap or New Balance. His queen was pinned between my rook and his king. It looked all over. He shoveled a bishop in the middle, but I advanced another white pawn and pinned that too. I was just musing whether a quick or elegant finish would be more fitting for super-competitive Barry, when I realized that his queen and rook were lined up to checkmate me.

The sun seemed brighter, and I squinted hard at the board. Losing to my father-in-law was not an option. I wouldn’t hear the end of it in thirty years. In the distance, children looked faceless as they played on a steel seesaw. I could sacrifice a rook, but that wouldn’t shift the queen. Then my wife, Fitzsimmons, walked up.

“Can you take Sam?” she said.


I retracted my queen, blocking black’s threat and threatening a queen swap. Barry backed off, but the danger was still there, so I pushed the white queen forward again. What just happened? Two moves ago, he was dead meat, now it was me on the rack.

“Have you got him?” asked Fitzsimmons.

“Yeah,” I said. “I’ve got him.”

Even if Barry traded queens, I’d still be ahead. Nothing to worry about. I posted Sam between my legs and pointed to the white knight.

“See the horse, Sam?”

The knight looked like the seahorse in his Fabulous Fishes book, the same curved neck with the sculpted markings. But it was still parked in its starting position, like an undriven Ferrari. As my baby Bobby Fischer toddled away to play with the oversized checkers set behind us, I took Barry’s queen with mine.

“Oh, you haven’t just done that,” he said.

He took my queen with his rook, then I snaffled a bishop with my pinning pawn. Ten minutes of tension, then thirty seconds of bloodbath.

“Now what do I do?” he said, and he pushed forward a rueful pawn.

This was what I’d been waiting for. With no queens, it would be just the guys, king on king. And while my rook controlled the center of the board, his king was out in the open, exposed. Then I turned round and realized Sam was gone.

“Where’s Sam?”

“Dunno,” said Barry. “Didn’t she have him?”


My eyes whirled round the playground. Hundred yards long. Forty yards wide. Fences with gaps. Quarter of a mile away, the thunder of the freeway. I could feel the blood pulsing behind my eyes, the heat rising in my temples. What had Sam been wearing? I couldn’t remember.

I spun around. The nearest exit was only twenty-five yards away. How long had he been gone? How long had I been thinking about beating my father-in-law? How long had I failed to notice my son’s absence? This was the kind of thing that happened to other people. Should I find a security guard? Tell an employee? Call 911? What would I say? “His name’s Sam. He’s old enough to walk, but not to run. Blue eyes, light brown hair, fat cheeks. Waves a lot.”

I strode away from the chessboard towards the center of the playground. I didn’t know what to do, I just wanted to make sure I could see everything. The mall was designed for entrances and exits. Not escapes.

It felt like a movie. The scene where the parent turns hysterical and starts shouting for their kid. Did Sam even know his name? Yelling would frighten everyone. But would it stop someone snatching him? His walking had really progressed over the last month. Could he have got onto the road? How fast does a car need to drive to kill a fourteen-month-old boy? My mouth tasted of metal.

Then, at the end of the playground, between the fence and the golden carousel, I saw him. Walking unsteadily, his hand held by the young woman in charge of the carousel. She smiled at me, blamelessly, as if it was she who should be grateful for the chance to spend time with Sam. He was smiling–he always smiles at strangers. He looked up at me and grinned. I picked him up and felt his weight on my chest, his cheek against mine, and my heart beating like a blacksmith’s anvil.

“Thank you,” I said to her.

Later, we will leave Vacaville, leaving behind the carousel, the playground, and the chessboard. Leaving behind a toddler-sized king penned by his own pieces into a corner and checkmated by the white knight. The car will feel quiet on the ride home to San Francisco. As we cross the marshes south of Napa, the sky will seem immense and I will wonder at how close I came to losing. After we unpack the car, I will try to recall the face of the carousel girl, and my eyes will fill with tears as I remember only her green baseball cap and red apron.

By the golden carousel, I picked up Sam and walked back to the checkered board, carrying him over my shoulder and rubbing his back.

“Is he alright?” said Barry, reaching through fear for calm.

“He’s alright.”


“Now then,” I said. “Whose move is it?”

Piss on the Door Knobs

Hello readers, Ava here. I have asked Jeff to use his blogspace to insert some reflections about parenting in the post-industrial era. While Jeff’s perspective is written from the local, household influence, I’d like to write about the political economy of parenting in these post-industrial times. What I have found is that what distinguishes us from our parent’s and grandparent’s generation are the constraints that act upon us for which we have no control.

We moved for employment a year ago. Our house didn’t sell the first week on the market, or the first month, or the first year. To sell it, we will pay an ungodly amount of money to bring our total losses to an even more ungodly amount of money. And it hurts. Polly was born there. Pip took his first steps there. There were birthdays and holidays and visits from friends. I remember the weekend that Polly learned to wave and we had pizza at the kitchen table for dinner.

We now rent a two bedroom apartment, as described in Jeff’s post, On Wildness and Sharing Our Space. And while the location is wonderful, we are tired of being exploited in the shameful renter/tenant environment that clouds most places in America. Our lease was inaccurate when signed, we are responsible for maintaining a property that the owner avoids responsibility at all costs, and we are at the mercy of someone else’s schedule.

For the past two months, we have pursued purchasing another home. After signing a contract and getting it inspected, we found that the risk of potential repairs was too great. And we’re sad, because we feel we have done “everything right” and we deserve the security and stability that marked previous generations.

And this is the chaos of post-industrial parenting: the notion of doing “everything right” as causally related to security and prosperity is a myth. I know it’s a myth, I teach hundreds of students a semester that it’s a myth, and yet I don’t want to believe it. I want to believe that I can work harder and harder and it will result in a better life for my family. I want to believe that there is a “right decision” and a “right way” and that we are, indeed, doing things right. And the frustrating thing for the post-industrial parents is that we ARE doing everything right. It just doesn’t mean what it used to.

In explaining our ups-and-downs in the post-industrial economy, a friend of ours said of our vacant house, “Piss on the door knobs. It will make you feel better.” Well, as a nation, we’d better get ready for a whole lotta piss on a whole lotta doorknobs. Because there are a whole lotta post-industrial parents doing “everything right.” And we’ve got nothing to show for it but vacant houses with pissy doorknobs and a crumbling economy.

Saturday, October 01, 2011

The Way of the Toddler Fist

Seven months after my daughter’s second birthday, she snapped. Not the regular toddler tantrum that had become a regular occurrence in our home. Nor was it the ‘I’m going to run myself into a shelf, yank all of the boxes of cereal to the ground—and then dance on them’ whirlwind. It wasn’t even the ‘I’m going to thrash my arms and legs about on the floor, just like I’m at a Bad Brains show, and then I’m going to wail and force everyone in the grocery store to look at YOU’ type of snapping. Baby-girl elevated her game to the next-level. She snapped in that way that forces you to reexamine your parenting style and ability.

We were at Martin Luther King Jr. Civic Center Park, in Berkeley when it all went bad. The park is kind of like a prison yard, especially during the Farmer’s Market: little pockets of the homeless in one section, families in another; skaters, folks who believe that Burning Man should never end, and people attempting to get you to sign something all dot the landscape. Tucked away, next to a fountain that has seen more piss than water, is a raggedy little park-ish play area that my daughter adores.

The centerpiece of this spot is a little saddleback climbing structure—the primary reason that my kid chooses this place over others. It was here where my wife and I discovered that our daughter is not afraid of heights, or jumping from them. It was here that she realized that she could climb up and over something—she didn’t have to go back the way she came. Revelatory. And it was here where she had her very first violent encounter.

It was a busy day, and the line to climb was longer than usual. I was completely impressed that the baby-monster was as patient as she was. I praised her repeatedly. In return, she gave me her smile—the one that she now uses to try and manipulate, but was fully genuine back in the day. Makes me fall in love every time she unleashes those perfect teeth and high cheekbones. In the middle of our little love-fest, it was her turn. Abruptly she mountain-goated up the wall in about two steps. Just as she was about to summit, some five or six-year-old boy grabs her hood, and yanks her backwards off the wall. When she slammed into the ground, I heard her breath forcefully escape—but she wasn’t moving. Not once, have I ever felt so fucking helpless. I froze: trauma-induced ossification. ‘She hit her head. She hit her head,’ was all I should think. Would she have a head injury? As a survivor of one, I knew how dangerous they were. Oh, God. What did I just let happen? (I always blame myself when my kid gets hurt).

She stood up, unsteady, but standing on her own. This made me feel like the ultimate in crap fathers because I had no part in helping her get to her feet. She looked around, and she seemed okay—I felt the lower part of my body begin to defrost and I slowly made my way over to her. Before I could ask how she was, she jumped on the boy. She must have been twenty-four, twenty-five pounds at the time, but she marshaled all of it to knock this kid to the ground. She then started punching him in the face. Not little kid punches, but very well executed pistons: Left, right. Left, right. Raining down hurt on this boy. And she wouldn’t stop.

Watching my little wisp of a daughter handle herself against this big kid made me proud. When I find out that we were having a daughter, I made it my life’s mission to ensure that she would never be a victim of violence—at the time, not acknowledging that participating in a violent act, is being a victim to violence—but I knew too many women who have had their bodies and spirits violated, and this would not happen to my baby-girl. So to see her, without fear, standing up to and retaliating against a bully, made me feel as if I was setting her on the right track.

But something just felt wrong. I am no stranger to violence, nor am I opposed to it as vehemently as some of my more politically progressive friends are. I grew up violently, and have achieved a relative level of comfort with the act and all of the attendant spiritual mess that comes with it. I’ve been shot, stabbed; have a permanent scar in the back of my head from fighting racist skinheads—but this is my story, not my daughter’s. She (hopefully) will never have to live through one percent of the evil that I did.

I rushed to her, lifted her off the boy, and held her. I was surprised at just how strong she was. Then she said one of the clearest sentences of her life. Eyes wild, body continuing to thrash, at the top of her lungs: I want my justice! What the hell? What kind of concept of justice have we been teaching her? Not even bothering to check and see if the boy was okay, I broke wide and ran over to my wife who was dozing in the grass. She lazily looked up at me, saw that I was shell-shocked; looked at our daughter, saw that she was going crazy, screaming about wanting her justice. The look she launched my way was purely: what the hell just happened? I cannot even take a rest without you two getting into some kind of trouble.

I glanced over my shoulder and saw that the little boy, and whom I assumed were his parents, coming over to us. They were too close for us to make an escape that did not look obvious, so I braced myself for the eventual conversation. My default setting was “crisis, with a side of aggressive response” and this has me on edge, ready for confrontation. Always. Needless to say, it is a tiring way to live. I have been on a personal project to purge violence from my life—physical, emotional, verbal, all of it. Violence has no place for me, as a partner, or as a parent. This isn’t to say that I won’t protect my family, or myself but it is nowhere near the top 10 responses to confrontation—it used to be my first three choices.

I figured the best course of action was to meet them halfway, adopt a neutral stance, and let them speak first. See, I told you I’ve been working on it. What happened shook me. They were nice. They were more than nice; they were apologetic. They gave me the history of their son’s behavior and how his comeuppance was long overdue. That it was delivered by a tiny little thing made it all the more poetic. While we laughed and made small talk, I couldn’t stop thinking that our laughter and easy conversation was an endorsement of violent behavior. I mentioned this, and it kind of killed the mood. They awkwardly disengaged themselves, and my wife and I were left with how to redefine and appropriately teach what justice was. Like that would be easy.

We had to figure out a uniform way to discuss a concept that we didn’t even agree on. For so long, I confused justice with retaliation and revenge. But in my new social and psychic evolutionary state, I had absolutely no clue what to tell my daughter as my concept of justice was in flux. My wife comes from a profoundly religious background, but she was moving towards a more holistic spirituality, so her ideas around what is just were also changing. Why in the hell did we have to explain heavy-duty concepts so early in the game? As neither my wife, nor myself have parents, we’ve already had to explain death to our daughter after she asked about her grandmother and grandfather—her mother told her about heaven, and I told her about dirt and worms—can we get a break?

Despite all of this; all of this trying to be a socially and politically responsible parent; trying to get the more negative and destructive aspects of my upbringing to scab over and sink beneath the surface, lessening their influence on my present—there was still a sliver of pride at watching my daughter handle herself in that way. She was assured, confident, and fearless, traits that girls are very rarely allowed to cultivate, without great cost. Me and her mother’s ongoing project is to somehow extract the violence as a first resort, without affecting her confidence, fearlessness, and self-assuredness. We’ve been working diligently on this, but we may have pendulum swung too far in the opposite direction.

About a month after the park incident, we went to a birthday party. She was having a ball, until it was piñata time. We played zombies and dragons at home, so she’s used to all types of crazy stuff. But this particular piñata had an advocate that day, in the form of my daughter. The kids all took turns whacking this multi-colored fish. Whap! The last hit exploded the fish, and snacks and money spilled from the fish’s guts. My little baby-girl burst into tears. For about ten minutes she was inconsolable. When she finally calmed down, we asked her what was wrong. Through the remnants of her tears, she said: “Is the fishy okay? Kids shouldn’t hit the fish with sticks. Now all of his insides are on the ground.”

My wife and I had two completely different reactions: My wife was so proud that our daughter could show that type of compassion, even for something inanimate. I reacted to it as if her piscine concern was a form of weakness. I felt that all her blubbering was a sign of weakness, a loss of her fighting spirit. Needless to say, this is something else I’m working on. More later.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

The Gun on Hampshire Street

1. This summer, we moved back to San Francisco's Mission district after a year-long sojourn in suburban Palo Alto. Three weeks ago we were putting my son to bed. He was finally drifting off, and so was I. The heavy curtains were pulled shut and it was very dark in the room. I heard sounds outside but they were phantasmagoric nighttime city sounds, spectral sirens and echoing shouts and groaning buses.

2. Then I heard a string of words, blurry but filled with fear. My eyes flew open and I was awake. The next words were absolutely clear. "He has a gun! He has a gun!"

3. We've met most of our neighbors on Hampshire Street. There's the Mexican family of six above us, who share their three small rooms with another family of three, a mother and two children who are not supposed to be there, according to the lease, who slip in and out of the apartment like ninjas. Next to them, there are the five (or six, or seven, or four?) almost-certainly undocumented Mexican men, who also live as invisibly as possible, running shadowy errands at all hours of the night. There's the nice, professional, Euro-American lesbian couple in the apartment next to ours. There's the childless, biracial, heterosexual couple next door, one an architect (I think), the other a composer (I think) who listens to Satie and Debussy in their bamboo backyard garden. On the corner, there's the self-appointed Chairman of the imaginary Hampshire Street Sidewalk Gardening Society, a gray-bearded gay man who always dresses in black from head to toe and spends his weekends trimming the leaves and watering the soil of the potted plants that line our street. There's the elderly Chinese woman who butchers and plucks chickens on her stoop, streaking the sidewalk with wine-dark blood and bone-white feathers. Then there is the house directly across from ours, the one whose picture window is covered by the proud pirate banner of the Oakland Raiders. I don't know how many people live there. I see and know the two matriarchs, one Latina, the other white. There are two very young kids, one toddler and one baby. There are two (?) pre-teen girls. There are many teenage boys, boxer shorts always visible above the low line of their jeans. Only once have have I seen a grown man enter the house.

4. Liko was awake and I was awake and my wife was awake. I crossed my arm over them and told them to lie still, and we waited. I waited for one minute, my eyes on the clock. I didn't hear anything else. No shots. There were noises of misery, but they were subdued. I asked Liko and my wife to stay where they were and I went to the window. I parted the curtains. I found our street carpeted with police cars from one end of the block to the other, their lights silently flashing. I could see a line of civilian cars beyond them, stalled and waiting. I was disoriented. How could I have not heard the police arrive? Why were they there? I watched. Two of the young men who lived across the street were on their stomachs, their hands cuffed behind their backs. One of the boys, the older of the two, had an officer sitting on him, knee in the small of his back. I looked for guns. The police had drawn theirs, shadows in their hands. There were no other weapons that I could see. Now I was aware of one of the mothers who lived there, whom I'll call Maria. Maria was hysterical, standing over the police and her sons, now crying. It was her voice that I had heard, shouting about the gun. "Daddy?" said my son. He had gotten off the bed and was standing next to me, his face next to mine against the window, taking in the cars, the police, the guns. I put my arm around him but I didn't tell him to go back to bed. Part of me wanted for him to witness what was happening, so that he would know these things happened. "Did the police get the bad guys?" he asked.

5. I went outside. The stepfather of the girls who live upstairs was already there on the sidewalk. He doesn't speak much English and I don't speak much Spanish, but in a roundabout sign-language and Spanglish way we shared what we knew, which was practically nothing. We watched as the boys across the street were hauled to their feet and pushed into the backs of police cars. We watched as the mother fled up her stoop and ran screaming into her house, wrapped in the arms of a man I had never seen before. One by one the police cars pulled away and the backed-up traffic trickled slowly down our street, the drivers' eyes wide, wondering if they had taken a wrong turn into the wrong neighborhood. Then everything was still and quiet and dark, and we, the other father and I, slipped inside, returned to our families, not knowing what had happened in front of our building.

6. That morning I was angry at the families across the street. I assumed many things. I assumed the gun in question belonged to one of the boys and that they had been engaged in some kind of criminal activity that brought the police down on them. This hadn't been my first encounter with the neighborhood's simmering violence, and I was angry with myself for having moved there and exposed my son to these things and other things, from the trash on the street to the stink of urine that we walked through on our way to school. I pledged to move back to Palo Alto as quickly as possible.

7. The following weekend one of the girls upstairs had a birthday party. They grilled and shared their steak and corn with us, and I brought up a six-pack of beer. My wife and son played a board game with the birthday girl. Then we strung up a homemade Spongebob piñata on the sidewalk and the kids took turns pounding on it with a baseball bat, enraged one minute and laughing the next. I stood there with beer in my hand. I stopped watching the kids. Instead I was looking across the street. The matriarchs were on their stoop with the youngest kids. They waved at me and I waved back. Then I crossed the street.

8. I asked what had happened the other night. I wanted to know and felt I had a right to know what happens on my street. I was polite but underneath that, I was angry with them, and at myself, for exposing my son to violence. I expected to hear, I guess, that their sons had been the targets of a stealthy drug bust, which would explain why the police cars arrived silently on our street. I expected to hear that one of their sons had pulled a gun on the police. I suppose that some part of me wanted an apology. Not just for that, but for everything. All the shit we had to deal with in the Mission. I was so fucking sick of the filth and the stench and the criminality and the weapons. The night before, a father of two had been shot and killed in back of the restaurant where he worked, five blocks away from our building. He had been sitting in the alley taking a smoke break. The newspaper said he had been killed by two gang members; it seems he had been wearing the wrong colors. I wanted an apology for that. I wanted someone to be sorry. I suppose somewhere in the back of my mind I was remembering how I had almost been killed on my birthday, three weeks before my book was released, by three young men from the Mission. They had beaten me over the head with a tire iron and pointed a gun in my face. I wanted an apology for that, too. Someone had to be responsible. Why not the mothers of these dangerous children? If they're not responsible, who is?

9. Maria told me that her two teenage sons, the ones who had been arrested, had been in trouble with the police many times. The other mother, whom I'll call Nancy, sat with us. As Maria and I talked Nancy wove in stories of her own life on Hampshire Street. Nancy's seventeen-year-old son had been shot and killed in front of our building, I discovered. He had not been in a gang, she said. He hadn't done anything wrong, his mother claimed. He just got into a fight with the wrong guy. It was after Nancy's son had been killed that things seemed to go wrong with Maria's boys. They got angry. They were kicked out of school. They were arrested for stupid things related to fighting and vandalism. The older one became intensively, obsessively protective of his brother. I stood on their stoop, the beer can warm and tight in my hand. I held my head still and I listened, and the awareness grew in the back of my mind that I was a privileged idiot, a judgmental prick, a tourist, a gentrifier.

10. The night they were arrested, the two boys had been sitting on the stoop talking, just as I was with their mother as she told me this story. A police car glided down the street, slowed, and stopped. Out jumped a police officer. The cop knew the boys. He had arrested them before. He walked up the steps, his hand resting on his gun, and demanded to know what they were doing. The cop didn't know it was their home. He didn't know about Nancy's son, probably. He didn't know anything about them, except that they were known to him. Maria's oldest went off. He yelled at the police officer, told the cop to get the fuck away from his brother and away from his house. Yes, that was not a smart thing to do. Young men often do dumb things. The cop's partner called for backup. As cars arrived, the confrontation escalated. It got physical. Maria saw the flashing lights of the police cars through her curtains--like me, she hadn't heard sirens or heard the argument outside--and she raced out of the house and saw both her boys being thrown to the sidewalk. She didn't know why. She had been talking to them not 30 minutes before, and all had been peaceful. She saw her younger son struggling as he was pushed to the cement, and as she came out of the house she saw a cop pull his gun. That's when she screamed. That's when she shouted, "He has a gun! He has a gun!"

11. I don't know how much of this account to believe; my gut feeling is that Maria was telling as much of the truth as she knew. This much is certain: neither boy was armed. It was the police who had the guns on Hampshire Street, not the boys. It was police who drew weapons outside of my sleeping son's window. The brothers were booked that night, the younger for disorderly conduct, the older for resisting arrest. The older brother was taken to the hospital for minor injuries. When the boy, eighteen years old, emerged from the ER, he didn't see any police waiting for him. He asked the nurse where they cops had gone. "They left," she said, not looking at him. "Can I go?" he asked. "I guess so," said the nurse. The boy had to walk home from the hospital. He didn't have any money or a cell phone. He couldn't call his mother. His mother didn't know where he was. As Maria told me this story, I remembered my son's question. He asked me: "Did the police get the bad guys?" The bad guys.

12. Palo Alto is a funny place; maybe it's just typical. A friend of mine once said, "Nothing can ever go wrong in Palo Alto." The streets are clean and they smell great. The schools are excellent and safe. There are no homeless, there's no visible misery. You can't buy a home for under a million and a half dollars. Everyone works for Google or Facebook or Stanford or one of a hundred start-ups. Everyone's angling for their IPO. Disaster is something that happens to people you don't know. It's other people's children who are shot on sidewalks, other people's fathers who are shot in back alleys. And you know what? Disasters will happen, but I don't want them to happen to my son. I don't want him anywhere near disaster. I don't want to ever see him bleeding on a sidewalk. We're going to leave the Mission, or at least this street in the Mission. We're not staying. You can judge me for that if you want. You can call it "white flight." You can call it anything you want. But we're ultimately leaving. (I say "we" but I should make it clear this is what I want; my wife, for the record, has a different take on things, seems willing to put up with the things I won't.) That's our personal solution. For some, there are always personal solutions. Some of us have options. We can, for example, run away.

13. We're not going to leave because of Maria or Nancy or their sons. We're not leaving because of the families or the men upstairs, our friends and neighbors. We're leaving because of the police, or what they represent. We're fleeing the front line of a war that our society is waging against poor people. The Republicans have accused President Obama of "class warfare" for suggesting that maybe possibly we could ask America's richest people for a few pennies to help finance infrastructure, education, health care--and yes, the two wars and occupations we put on a global credit card, not to mention the militarization of the border with Mexico (where tens of thousands have died in a drug war that reaches into neighborhoods like the Mission). The rich are refusing. Places like Palo Alto are refusing. Let someone else pay, they say. They're explicit: Why, there are Americans who are supposedly too poor to pay any taxes at all! Parasites! That's not fair! Or--some, not just Democrats, whisper--let's just raise the debt ceiling. Let's put it on credit. We'll pay it off later, after our IPO, after the next election. After, later, someday. Let the children pay.

14. This morning I saw the rivulets of blood flowing across the sidewalk. There on the stoop squatted the old Chinese woman, a coffee-colored Americana headless at her feet. I said hello and she did not answer. Instead she turned her face and hunched her shoulders, as though ashamed of what she was doing. I walked more quickly and plunged my hands into my pockets, my footprints bloody on the cement behind me. I felt ashamed as well. Ashamed and angry.

For a less personal, more political take on the same issues, see Sally Kohn's op-ed in Friday's Washington Post, "President Obama shouldn’t be afraid of a little class warfare."

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Feeding Mei Mei, or, Drinking with a Russian

Author's Introduction:

Feeding my daughter, our second child, is an experience classifiable as something between a torture session, a séance, a joint psychotic episode, the climactic scene from The Exorcist, and the nursing of an alcoholic Russian submarine officer who has lost the ability to speak. It is this last similitude that provides the title for the following theatrical interpretation, because it is my daughter’s voracious consumption of yogurt – to the point of gagging, and gorging herself such that, when subsequently laid down for a diaper change, she looks as if a dinner plate has lodged in her stomach – it is because this ravenous consumption of yogurt is repeatedly punctuated by bellows of the most profound animal satisfaction, the most contorted expressions of burning discomfort, and the most earnest mutterings for “ma-ma,” that I can think of no more perfect comparison than with a Slavic mariner. (All offended Slavic mariners please send hate-mail separately to my blogger email).

"Drinking with a Russian"

An experimental one-act play based on leaked National Security Administration transcripts of an American father’s attempt to feed his daughter as she inexplicably channels the personality of a Russian submarine officer.

Act One

(Curtain rises to the tune of Regina Spektor's "Sailor Song". Family kitchen. Baby Squeaky is in the high chair. Enter father in kitchen apron. Prepares food at the counter, approaches baby with a tub of yogurt.)

Squeaky: Vodka!

Dad: [turning around, surprised] What?

Squeaky: Vodka! Don’t make me say it again!

Dad: Slow down and start with your yogurt. Open up!

Squeaky: Get that French shit out of my face. You know what I want! Where are you hiding it? M-BAH!

(Father closes kitchen windows, quickly spoons mouthful of yogurt to baby, who makes a sour face.)

Squeaky: Ma-ma! (slams fist on tray repeatedly)

(Father quickly spoons another mouthful of yogurt to Squeaky.)

Squeaky: (bellowing) Yes! More! (coughs) M-Bah! (slams fists on tray again)

Dad: I think we should slow down a little. You may gag if we go too fast.

Squeaky: Ah, how it burns going down. (coughs, grimaces) Another tub for everyone, all around!

Dad: This is just yogurt, Squeaky, not vodka.

Squeaky: Oh, but how it kills the pain. M-Bah! More!

Dad: OK, have some more. This is peach flavor. Remember to chew, because it has chunkies.  I can’t believe your appetite.

Squeaky: My appetite? Do you know what it’s like to live inside a tub at the bottom of the Arctic Sea? When all you hear is the ice slamming the hull, week after week after week? We get hungry down there, amerikanskiĭ.

Dad: I can’t imagine.

Squeaky: (bellows, then waves away the spoon, startled. Frenziedly grabs her left arm with her right hand. Holds her left hand in front of her face, moves fingers and studies them as if in a trance) The spiders!

Dad: What spiders!

Squeaky: Get the fucking spiders off my arm! (coughs, projecting yogurt onto father’s apron and all over the high chair tray)

Dad: Jesus, Squeaky, you just spit up the last ten minutes of my work. Now we have to start all over again. And there are no spiders on your arm.

Squeaky: (makes a toothless grimace) Wipe off the fucking spiders before they get to my head you fascist prick. (calms herself)

I remember a song we used to sing, at times like this, when the tub would get snagged on the bottom of the Baltic (raises her arms and drops them onto the table in  2/2 rhythm):

In the doorway there is standing a Cossack
His beard snowy white upon his chest
He is waiting for the lovely Natasha
She costs plenty, but she is the best

Dad: We’re gonna have to wrap that one up before mom comes home, Squeaky. Hey, why is your face so red? Are you OK? (father stands up suddenly) Are you choking? Oh my god you are red as a tomato!

Squeaky: (grunts) I’m shitting my pants. This is going to take a minute. (grunts)

Dad: Why do you do it that way, on the seat of the chair? Wouldn’t it be easier to let me help you stand up? Gravity is  your friend.

Squeaky: Do you think we had room to stand up in the bathtub, my friend? (grunts) Hit your skull on the bulkhead just once and the Americans will send you a torpedo for breakfast. Besides, after all those years, it feels better this way. (issues a final grunt, raises arms in expectation of being lifted) 

Time to swab the deck, mate.

Dad: Just like in the submarine, right? (lifts Squeaky for diaper change)

Squeaky: Full fathom five, captain. (breaks into song again)

And there is singing, and there is dancing,
And the Russian vodka is all right.
Come to the Kretchma, that's where you'll ketchma,
Drinking vodka every night



Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Trophy husband, one year later

[originally posted on August 10, 2011 at daddy in a strange land]

Exactly one year ago today, The Today Show told the entire morning-news-watching nation that I, as a stay-at-home-dad married to a doctor, was an example of a new status symbol for "alpha women." I was a trophy husband.

If you watch the entire segment linked here [having trouble embedding it, sorry]—which was pegged to a Marie Claire article for which la dra. and I had been interviewed for an hour each and in which we were reduced to a family photo and one quote about (not by) me presented very much out of context—you'll see that the NBC videographer who shot and cut the piece ignored the magazine editor's "trophy husband" framing and that good ol' Matt Lauer actually went after her for it, closing with a reference to "the guy in the piece" who said "'it's not babysitting, it's parenting." [My new catchphrase. Heh. I need to make t-shirts.]

In the intervening year, the conversation in the mainstream media and in the parentblogosphere about changing roles, especially in an uncertain economic environment, and the redefinition of fatherhood has continued. Fatherhood gets talked about in the context of a larger re-envisioning of modern manhood online, dadbloggers plan their own testosterone-centric take on the momblogger conferences only a few of us dare to crash—and yet, things like SAHDs, involved fatherhood, and equally shared parenting continue to be treated as "trend stories," as anomalous and intriguing oddities that are newsworthy because they're not "normal."

Just a week ago, AngrySAHD Josh K. wrote some guidelines on "How Not to Screw Up the Conversation About the Modern Dad" on the site of The NYC Dads Group after watching another group member and dadblogger get set up in an adversarial moms-vs.-dads conversation about parenting skills on iVillage. His "list of a few things to think about when being an involved dad, and especially when discussing it, whether it's on TV or the playground":

  1. Don't be the boob.

  2. Be involved in everything—not just major discipline.

  3. Be on top of your stuff.

"For better or worse," he writes, "part of the 'job' of being an involved dad is helping to change the incorrect impressions people have of all dads. Set an example, live that example, and correct people when they are wrong."

I was lucky with how my Today Show experience turned out. I had no control over how the finished article portrayed me and my family, and no control over how the video piece would use us as an example of a stay-at-home-dad/breadwinning-mom family with which to introduce the topic on the show. I totally lucked out in having Matt Lauer virtually have my back and fight against the usual mom-vs.-dad, stay-at-home-vs.-work-outside-the-home adversarial framing of much of the media coverage modern parenting gets.

In a comment on the NYC Dads Group post, I wrote, "[I]n terms of how not to screw up the public conversation, a lot depends on the luck of having sympathetic allies involved in the set-up and presentation of the discussion. We can't assume folks'll have our back or be on the same page, and if they aren't and we're all by ourselves, especially if we're on their media turf, it's very easy to get steamrolled no matter our intentions."

As I said earlier, this stuff still gets portrayed in the media as the funny little human interest story, "hey look, they're doing things different [read: not normal], maybe it's a trend [read: not mainstream]." But as hinted at above, we're not waiting around for the mainstream media to tell our stories or just sitting around waiting for the day that what we're doing is so non-remarkable that there is no story. We're telling our own diverse, not-always-agreeing-with-each-other stories, moms and dads, SAH and WAH and WOTH and full-time and part-time and everything in between, in every possible permutation of "parent" and "family. We're connecting with each other virtually and IRL and creating fluid, fluent communities of interest and support, on new blogs, on Twitter, in books [like the new Rad Dad: Dispatches from the Frontiers of Fatherhood, to which I am a proud contributor], everywhere.

And so that's how we continue to shape and "not screw up" the conversation—by having it with as many different people in as many different venues as we can. I recently had a conversation with another dadblogger about his mixed feelings on being lumped into a "trend" of redefined fatherhood when all he felt he was trying to do was raise his kid and be himself. But he was a part of it, I countered, whether he liked it or not, simply by the fact that he had chosen to talk and write publicly about who he was and how he was raising that kid, as a dadblogger. Mere presence, while not enough to make real changes, is enough to start—and I think that there are enough of us out there writing and talking about what we're doing and living to be sure that this is, indeed, the start of something.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Race is Always a Parenting Issue

[originally posted at The Good Men Project]

Last week, The Good Men Project started a conversation about race by publishing 8 articles from diverse points of view over the course of the week. However, the site launched the series last Monday with four pieces, all approaching the topic from a black/white perspective and written by black and white writers. I wrote the following response in partial reaction to the disappointing but unsurprising couching of America's continuing race problem in monochromatic terms, and it was published the next day, after, as it turns out, Daddy Dialectic's own Rad Dad Tomás Moniz' "Beautiful on All Sides," reprinted from Rad Dad: Dispatches from the Frontiers of Fatherhood (buy your copy now!).

It seems that whenever a new conversation about race in America is started, no matter the good intentions, the starting point is always the same. The American historical experience and conception of race is grounded in the opposition of blackness and whiteness, two categories socially constructed over time in ways that have served to define “the other” as “not us” and “us” as “not them” at the same time as preserving power and privilege for one “us” over the “not us.” Thus, it’s no surprise that The Good Men Project’s call for a new conversation about race, and its intersection with what it means to be “good men,” begins with four personal, deeply felt, and honest essays that nevertheless fail to acknowledge that when we talk about race in 2011, it’s no longer enough, if it ever was, to color the dialogue in only black and white.

When I am called to put a racial or ethnic label on myself, I call myself, among other things at other times, a multiracial Asian American. I am also the stay-at-home father of two multiethnic Asian American daughters. Short version of the long story, three of my four paternal great-grandparents were Austrian Jews and all my maternal great-grandparents were from Japan (yes, my family was in camp), and I’m from LA, married to a woman who came from the Philippines when she was one. What does it all mean, and what does it matter? It means that I am a father of color of children of color in a United States in which multiracial by no means equals post-racial, and it matters a hell of a lot.

When I was a newbie SAHD in a new town, I started blogging. But before I was a dad, I was a college activist on race and diversity issues, an ethnic studies major, and a social studies teacher at a diverse, urban LA-area public high school not unlike the one I had attended myself. Issues of race and social justice were intimately intertwined with my journey as a new father—how could they not be? And so, besides writing about the archetypal SAHD-out-of-water experiences and the daily routine of diapers and naps, I co-founded a group blog for Asian American dads and joined a nascent blog whose blunt name needed no explanation, Anti-Racist Parent, which has since been renamed Love Isn’t Enough.

Countless times, I’d encounter commenters asking, “I thought this was a parenting blog! Why are you always talking about this race stuff?” For a parent of color, navigating race and racism is a parenting issue. Already, as one of the few Asian Americans at her school, my six-year-old has come home asking me why classmates insist she’s Chinese or ask her where she’s really from. And I know that it will be far too easy for my smart, personable girl who also happens to be really shy in large groups and with authority figures to get lost in the stereotype of the quiet Asian girl, and that it’s my job to monitor, teach, and intervene.

Race may be a social construction, but it continues to have real consequences upon people’s lived experiences. I know that my experiences as a biracial Asian American boy growing up in the Los Angeles of the ‘70s, ‘80s and early ‘90s (I graduated from high school just a few scant months after the National Guard used our blacktop as a staging area) will be very different from my daughters’ experiences as multiethnic Asian American girls growing up in a more conservative, more homogeneous Central Valley in the early 21st century. But I know that having a biracial black man in the White House and mixed folks a Hollywood trend doesn’t equal the end of racism, and that colorblindness leaves us unable to see, and that sometimes it isn’t enough to just love our children and hope for the best but that we must equip them with the lessons of our past, the tools with which they can shape their world, and our guidance with which they can learn to do so.

This conversation isn’t a new one, and it’s not one with an end in sight. And that’s okay. Because we don’t have this conversation for our own sakes. But as we move forward, we need to make sure that more and different voices telling more and different stories are heard, because in those different stories we will find the common experiences that bind us and learn what we don’t know we don’t know. Only then can the conversation include everyone, and move forward.

Friday, August 05, 2011

Blogging, Privacy, Porn, and the Monetization of Intimacy

Today, the Good Men Project published an essay of mine about the lines of privacy in marriage, in which I argue that spouses have both the right to secrets and the obligation to be as honest with each other as possible, using porn as a case study. That sounds like a paradox to some, I’m sure, and here I want to offer up another paradox: That in the age of transparency, we as daddy bloggers have the obligation to speak out and tell our stories—but we also have the right to privacy.

That’s probably not a controversial point with most readers (striking the balance is what we call a public persona), but I have been challenged many times to “tell the whole truth” about my life—or, in my journalism, to dig beneath the surface of what moms and dads tell me about their family lives, to get at “the real truth.” This often has a lascivious undercurrent, as when people want to know how many stay-at-home dads and moms have had affairs. There is a certain, growing strain of thinking in our culture that worries that anything we reveal in public must be a lie of some kind, that surely we’re hiding something, and of course we are. There’s tremendous pressure to reveal more, more, more. This pressure is social—but, as I’ll discuss in a moment, it’s also financial.

As I write at Good Men, this mirrors a dynamic in contemporary American marriages. Today our ideal marriage tends to be totally consuming, in that we expect total transparency and involvement from our partners. But this is a pretty new, fairly unstable (as measured by the divorce rate) social experiment we’ve got going on here in college-educated twenty-first-century America. There are other ideas of marriage that allow both partners to have extensive, separate lives outside of marriage, in friendships and community involvement—and there are ideas of marriage that allow both partners to cultivate inner lives apart from their partners. In other words, they don’t expect total transparency and disclosure. Spouses are allowed to have some privacy. Many marriages are battlegrounds between these competing ideals, with spouses fighting over every intimate inch of private ground.

A battle between transparency and privacy also rages through the public sphere, online and off. As a culture, we’ve evolved into an exhibitionistic beast in which people reveal the most intimate details of their lives through memoirs, Reality TV, social media, and blogs—and in my view, it’s no accident that this exhibitionism has grown up alongside the rise of the Christian Right in American culture and politics. Moral absolutism goes hand in hand with the assault on privacy, feeding each other. From this perspective, Mark Zuckerberg and Mike Huckabee are allies. We’re at the point where people who cultivate private lives seem suspicious: “If you’re not doing anything wrong, why hide?”

In my Good Men essay, I write the following:
In marriage, disclosure and transparency are important—but we must also recognize the genuine doubts and anxieties that hold our spouses back from being completely honest with us. In fact, I’d go further and argue that to make our confessions compulsory robs them of their power. It’s the struggle to reach the point of confession that defines us, not the split-second catharsis of confession all by itself. To put it another way, truth is a road we build as we travel, not a destination. We don’t have to tell everybody everything all at once.
I’d like to suggest that the same principle applies to disclosure in public life, especially for those of us who write about marriage and family on blogs, in books and magazines, through social media. In both in marriage and in the culture at large, for individuals, honesty is important—but it should not be obligatory. In the essay I mention that I had a conversation with my wife about pornography, but I don’t feel the need to share the details of that conversation with you, dear reader, though doing so would doubtless drive traffic and catalyze outrageous comments that would feed the search machine that would drive even more traffic, and thus generate advertising dollars (if we took ads here, which we don't).

In a very real way, we now live in an economy of confession. Our intimate details can be monetized.

It’s up to each person how monetized they want to be. No one makes any money off this blog (and no one ever will). But I’m a writer and I’ve written about my life in blogs and magazines and books, and I’ve gotten paid for it. I have Facebook and Twitter accounts, and you’re welcome to friend or follow me. But I have rules and lines I’m not willing to cross, which have been set with my wife’s input. We’re selective. I defend our right to be selective. It’s our call, not yours, and people who wants to violate the boundaries we set can go fuck themselves.

So why talk about my private life, or write about other people’s private lives, at all? Why be a daddy blogger? Why write personal essays? Some people do indeed think I should just shut up—more than a few folks have implied that I do this for some combination of money or attention. These are often the same people who demand “the whole truth.” And let’s not pussyfoot around: money is nice, because we need it for food and shelter and books. Attention is important because in our economy attention, like intimacy, can be monetized. And vanity is also a factor in all writing.

However, “the real truth” is that there are better ways to make a living than to write about fatherhood and family. In fact, I suspect doing so has caused some serious damage to the rest of my career as a journalist. Many potential employers worry about hiring a guy who speaks out openly about prioritizing family. Many journalistic employers simply don’t take family issues seriously—I don’t seem “serious” to them since I write about “soft” things like male caregiving. I should be covering wars, business, technology. Man things.

So, again: Why do it? I do it because parents get a raw deal in our society and I want to do something to make it easier for us. I see my writing about fatherhood to be a form of political and cultural activism—among other things, through my work I’m campaigning for more people to recognize that today’s fathers have caregiving responsibilities that demand new public and workplace policies, stuff like paternity leave and flextime. I think a narrow, rigid definition of masculinity has caused an incredible amount of damage to our psyches, our bodies, our marriages. Redefining fatherhood and masculinity demands that we strive to be honest about our lives—to tell the truth, for example, about how we feel when we denied access to our children through divorce or workplace pressures. The more honest we can be, the more powerful our stories will be.

But that is not the same as arguing for verbal diarrhea. As Ernest Hemingway knew and practiced so well, power can also arise from what we choose not to say, from the silences that surround the words we speak. I’ve never been sold on the idea that men and women speak separate languages, but there is certainly a hardboiled male mode of communication (not shared by all men or all cultures) that seeks an artful modulation between silence and confession, secrets and disclosure, which can create a deep pressure that turns men’s inner lives into diamonds. I try to give that tradition—the one that defined our grandfathers—the respect it deserves, and I try to learn from it, build on it, use it to redefine who we are as guys.

I also believe that there are other priorities that can and should undermine public “honesty.” There’s the privacy of our spouses and children; there’s the pressure of our careers, which are the means of supporting our families. These things are important. There are also secrets, our own and others’, that we want or need to protect. That’s OK. Resisting the assault on privacy and the monetization of intimacy (of which porn is an example, incidentally) is a form of activism as well.

I’m not sure if what I’m saying will be useful to you, dear reader—this is a meditation, not a set of guidelines. And those lines, I’d like to suggest, are something that each of us much draw for ourselves, on our own.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Heads or Tails

I usually give Polly and Pip a bath three times a week – on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings. While they do most of the bath stuff together, there are a couple of differential moments when some kind of choice between the two of them must be made. The first moment comes at the beginning when we have to decide whether or not to use bubble bath. The second moment arrives in the middle when I have to identify who will get their scrub-down first. The third moment arises at the end when one child must get out and be dried and clothed while the other is allowed to stay in the water and play a bit longer.

For Monday and Wednesday, these differential moments are easily handled through the taking of turns: on Monday its Pip’s turn to select the type of bath they will have, to get washed down first, and to stay in the water longer; on Wednesday its Polly’s turn to do these things. Friday, however, presents a dilemma. On Fridays I get to choose whether or not to use bubble bath (usually not, since it’s almost impossible to wash the bubble bath suds out of the kids hair), but I don’t want to have to keep track from week to week which child got to go first and stay in the bath longer. We already have too many of instances of turn taking that I have to keep straight as it is and with the time interval being relatively long, I just wind up getting confused about who did what when. So, I decided to flip a coin instead.

Now, the coin flip is a decision-making technique with which I have an ambivalent history. My parents used it occasionally to resolve competing claims between my sister and me over who got to sit in the preferred seat in the car or who got to choose what music we would listen to. I remember the coin flip being a constantly frustrating experience for me because when it was her turn to choose heads or tails, my sister would always take the latter and win. When it was my turn, I would guess one or the other and generally lose. This sense of being beaten down by the gods of chance was only sharpened by my inability to complain or appeal to anyone. Of course, it was these very qualities that made the coin flip so appealing to my parents and why I was happy to inflict this exercise upon Polly and Pip.


To make the whole coin flip a bit more of a production, I developed a ritual that turns the thing into a lesson in probability. To start with I tell Pip and Polly that there are two sides to the coin, heads and tails. Then I show them what each side looks like. Next I tell them that because the coin is evenly weighted, there is an equal chance that after being tossed in the air, the coin will come up heads or tails. Then I add that, as we do this week after week, the coin will come up heads and tails approximately the same number of times, meaning that over time you each will get to stay in the bath longer about the same number of times. Finally, I ask one of them to call it in the air.

Now those of you who have some experience with probability might notice a problem with this ritual. While my description of the probability at work in the single coin flip was correct, my characterization of the long-term results was not. In order to get the long-term evenness between heads and tails that I was describing to Pip and Polly, the only thing that can be allowed to vary is the flipping of the coin. But, by letting Polly or Pip call heads or tails, I introduced a second variable. This second variable means that in any given flip there are four possible results – child selects heads, coin lands heads; child selects heads, coin lands tails; child selects tails, coin lands heads; child selects tails, coin lands tails. While within these possible results there is still an even chance between ‘wins’ and ‘losses’ for a given flip, the second variable – the child’s choice – does not possess the same evenness in probability as the flipping coin. In fact the child’s choice must be considered completely random in that there is no way to predict over a series of flips how many times the child will choose a given side of the coin. This means that the win/loss balance for this series of flips will also be completely random. The fairness that I promised to Polly and Pip was a lie.


It took me about four weeks to realize my mistake. At that point I made the easy fix and permanently assigned heads to Pip and tails to Polly. These will be their assigned sides from now until I no longer have to arbitrate these choices for them.


I don’t know that Polly or Pip will ultimately appreciate the amount of consideration I have given to this otherwise insignificant moment in their Friday morning routine, but it feels like a small victory to me. In my daily work with Polly and Pip I don’t often get to put aspects of my formal education to work in such recognizable ways. There was something satisfying in doing so, in taking a stab at something, sensing that there was a problem with my approach to it, and then working out from my memory what I needed to do to fix it. It was my own little internal game, one of which Polly and Pip will never be the wiser, and it made me happy that I got it right.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Switch Hitting: How Women's Soaring Economic Power is Changing Men and Fatherhood

Here's the video from a presentation I gave with my friend and collaborator Christine Larson at Stanford University's Clayman Institute for Gender Research. Chris outlines the nature and trajectory of women's rising economic power; I come in at the end with some opinions about how men and families should respond. Please share!

In other news, next month PM Press will publish Rad Dad: Dispatches from the Frontiers of Fatherhood, which combines the best pieces from this blog and the award-winning zine Rad Dad, two kindred publications that have tried to explore parenting as political territory. As I edited the book, I kept getting choked up, and once actually cried--these are incredibly powerful and sometimes extremely funny essays about the birth experience, the challenges of parenting on an equal basis with mothers, the tests faced by transgendered and gay fathers, and parental confrontations with war, violence, racism, and incarceration.

I'll be promoting it with coeditor Tomas Moniz at book fairs and playgrounds around the country. Here's the schedule so far:

Timberland Regional Library, Olympia, WA
Wednesday, August 03, 2011 at 7:30 PM
Special Guest: Nikki McClure, Sky Cosby and others

Richard Hugo House, Seattle, WA
Thursday, August 4, 2011 at 7:00pm
Special Guest: Corbin Lewers

Powell's City of Books on Burnside, Portland, OR
Friday, August 5th, 2011 at 7:30pm
Special Guest: Ariel Gore

Zephyr Books, Reno, NV
Saturday, August 20, 2011 at 6:00 pm

The Avid Reader, Davis, CA
Wednesday, August 31, 2011 at 7:30 pm

Brooklyn Bookfair, Brooklyn, NY
Sunday, September 18, 2011

Bluestockings, Manhattan, NY
Sunday, September 18, 2011 at 7:30pm
Special Guest: Ayun Halliday

Woodenshoe Anarchist Collective, Philadelphia, PA
Monday, September 19, 2011 at 7:00 pm

Baltimore Bookfair, Baltimore, MD
Sunday, September 24, 2011

Reach And Teach, San Mateo, CA
Saturday, October 1, 2011 at 3:00 pm

New Parents Expo, Manhattan, NY (tentative)
Sunday, October 16, 2011

In October, Tomas and I will organize "Out of the Bookstores and into the Playgrounds," a series of guerilla readings at playgrounds throughout the Bay Area. Want to help organize one or just bring one of us to your town to talk about the book? Contact me at jeremyadamsmith (at)

Friday, June 17, 2011

Not that I timed it but...

...available right now from Microcosm is the latest issue of Rad Dad! Here's their review:

Hot on the heals of Rad Dad 19, we're excited to announce the release of issue 20! This issues features articles about special needs children, traditional Japanese grandparents, queer male allies, and an interview with Brian Heagney—the author, illustrator, and publisher of the kid's book, The ABCs of Anarchism. Some of this issue is learning lessons from your children—or even them teaching you lessons—and as always, Rad Dad is a forum and a source of hope that parents and children can one day be welcomed in radical spaces. This is important reading—vital stuff for parents and nonparents alike.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

The Blue Balloon

No balloon is long for this world. The one Jr. picked that morning was no different, but unlike others it was also bound for glory. Sky-blue and proud of itself, it held taut the longest tether that Jr. had yet attempted to handle, rising a full length above the other three at our table. When the end-of-year preschool party was over and the moms began breaking down the decorations, Jr. saw that his chance had come. He told me what I already knew – that he wanted a balloon, the blue one – so I asked the mom if she would pass it to him as she was cutting the ribbons. She did, and it was his. Jr. was given stewardship of this young balloon, and the young balloon, that morning, consented.

There have, of course, been others before the blue balloon, and this spring the crop of inflatables has been especially rich. There was the dark blue balloon from the year’s first outdoor birthday party, which roamed the playground with the others like a pack of forest animals, until it nestled in Jr.’s lap for the ride home. There was the orange one, extracted from a forgotten goody bag and notorious for having become deranged in the car on the first day of driving with the windows down. And then there was the Mylar Elmo, the birthday balloon that gave such joy at first, then wasted away in a lingering decline, sinking lower and lower over the course of weeks and drifting piteously about the house at knee level, eventually settling into a corner like an arthritic old dog, still shiny with red fur and big white eyes, but shivering on the kinds of household drafts to which only balloons are sensitive.

We weren’t out the door before Jr. called to me and pointed above his head, where the balloon was bobbing gently against the dining hall ceiling. I brought it down to him and told him that with this balloon he had taken some real responsibility. It was young and wild and had ideas of its own. It was spring and windy and we had errands to do. We weren’t going to lock this one into the car until we docked safely in the garage and could turn it loose in the house, as we usually did. There was no fooling around this time: if he didn’t hold on tight, the blue balloon was gone. 

Having said that, I admit that it was not a good idea for me to open the car’s sunroof as soon as we hit the road. I had not sufficiently internalized our trial balloon safety program –implemented just days before -- the one that advised keeping all the windows rolled halfway up when a balloon was being transported, for the sake of the balloon, the driver, and the longevity of all passengers. For some reason this rule did not seem to apply to the sunroof of a car on a magnificent spring day. The blue balloon, prevented from escaping out any of the windows, saw the sunroof slide open and shot upward to take advantage of the oversight. The ribbon pulled tight and began humming like a sheet in a storm, the balloon flying up above the car a good four or five feet. “Yes!” I could hear it saying, “Faster! Faster!” 

“Jr., pull it back!” I cried, helping with one hand to reel it in. I closed the sunroof. 

Jr. then realized that he had to monitor all the dangerous forces that were out to get the blue balloon, including his father. He took great care, as we set out on our neighborhood errands, to wrap the last few feet of balloon ribbon around his hand and wrist before rolling up alongside me on his bicycle. Depending on our direction of travel, the balloon would trail behind us, or blow ahead of us, or swirl in crazy circles as we passed through invisible vortices.  Jr. pulled the balloon down as we ducked into doorways, and reeled it in when we crossed a windy intersection or turned a blind corner. He inspected the ribbon each time he dismounted his bike. His only failure was to forget the balloon when we stopped to visit a dog on the porch of a neighbor. 

“Jr., where’s your balloon?” I asked a few feet from the porch. Whatever expression had been on Jr.’s face the moment before fell to the ground together with his bicycle, and he ran in his preschooler way back to the porch to retrieve the balloon. It had waited for him, despite the breezes and all the temptations of spring. I wondered if Jr. had begun to win its loyalty.

The parking lot at Grandpa’s building is a treacherous place. A narrow space between two high-rises that face Lake Michigan, it is almost always windy, and on windy days, it is a permanent gale. I parked the car and began to assemble my bags and the armful of Jr.’s things that always went with him to Grandma and Grandpa’s. I unbuckled Jr. from his car seat and stepped back to let him scramble out as he saw fit. He had shown such maturity in his care of the blue balloon that I did not nag him, as I might have otherwise, to check his wrist wrappings.

They were undone. Jr. was doing something with the car seat buckles while the ribbon hung loose inside the car. Whatever loyalty the balloon had displayed on the porch was instantly overcome by the force of the wind and the attraction of the open blue sky. 

“Jr. your balloon!”

“Daddy can you…”


It flew away faster than I could run, horizontally across the parking lot and then, as if sensing a new-found freedom and exulting in the height of the towers around it, up and up and up. I was amazed at how high it had gone so quickly.

Jr. began to cry. “Balloon!” I picked him up. Should I take him inside and avoid this spectacle? Would that make it any easier? I didn’t move. We watched it go higher and higher, up over the building next door, a sky-blue balloon almost invisible against the blue spring sky. After a minute, it disappeared, headed north, downtown, towards the glass and spires of the tallest buildings in North America.


Later that week, Jr. saw the pictures I had taken of his time with the blue balloon. Something shifted in his expression, and he ran to the sofa.

“I’m very proud of how you took care of that balloon,” I told him. And I truly was.

“Where do you think it went?”

“Up to the top of the Sears Tower,” I said. “Then maybe up to Wisconsin. Maybe it even got to Canada. Wouldn't that be something!”

It was, after all, quite a balloon.