All I Really Needed To Know I Learned While Watching Hockey With My Papa

Boston won. The post-game ceremonies started. This was important stuff, so I made Ruby pay attention. We watched them award the Conn Smythe to Thomas, and she noted the maple leaf adorning it. Then they carried out the Stanley Cup and called Zdeno Chara over. The moment came, and he hoisted it over his head in pure triumphant joy:

As he held it aloft I leaned over and whispered into Ruby’s ear:

Do you see that, Ruby? See how happy he is? That’s winning. He won and he’s happy. Winning is important. And I want you to be a winner.

He worked hard and tried hard and he didn’t cheat, and he won, and it feels good. Don’t forget that, Ruby. Winning feels good and I want you to win.

We’re not supposed to say stuff like that to our kids. We’re supposed to tell them that it’s important to try, to have fun, to participate and play and that winning doesn’t matter. And mostly, that’s what I say because mostly, that’s right — because most of the time most of us can’t win, so it’s an important life skill to learn how to enjoy the game.

But take a look at Chara’s face up there. I can probably say without a doubt that right there — that moment when he as captain hoisted his team’s trophy — that moment is probably the single best moment of his entire life.

Sure, playing feels good. And playing well feels even better. But winning feels the best.

 

Ruby’s First Race

Last Sunday, Ruby ran in her very first race. We did the Top Pot Doughnut Dash 5k, with Ruby in the jogging stroller, and afterwards she did the Kids’ Dash 1k. We looked forward to ending the morning with a performance from Caspar Babypants, Ruby’s new most favorite band.

When I was in high school I competed in long-distance track and field. I remember one race in particular: it was 1500 meters, 4 laps of the track, and I just wasn’t feeling it that day. I started slow and dragged behind the pack. Eventually I was chugging along a good 50 yards behind the second-to-last runner. But I have a rule: never come in last. As the bell rang for my last lap of the track I turned it on. Hard. I had plenty in reserve so I easily passed Mr. Second-to-Last and even caught another runner in the final stretch. The crowd went crazy as I sprinted across the finish line. I climbed the bleachers afterwards, receiving congratulations from my classmates, and my coach gave me a stern look. “That was an interesting race,” was all he said.

Before her race I sat Ruby down to give her some advice. She was a kid; she could spend hours running around… but she’d never done a straight kilometer. I was worried about the distance that stretched ahead of her. Here’s what I told her:

  1. Have fun.
  2. You don’t have to run the whole way; you can walk if you want to. But it’s important to finish.
  3. Don’t come in last.

Ruby disappeared up to the start while I maneuvered the jogging stroller through the crowd of parents who had gathered behind the line. Eventually I ditched it and fought my way to the front. Ruby was there, foot on the line, a determined look in her eye.

 

Ruby is Ready to Run

I grew up running. I can remember thinking of myself as the fastest kid in my class (until another one definitively claimed the title in 6th grade). I was a member of the cross-country club and the track and field team. I kept running through junior high school, and picked it up again as an adult. My brother, sister and I have all done half-marathons or more. We’re not built like elite lean runners, but we get the job done.

The horn sounded and Ruby was off! Older kids quickly sprinted well ahead of her, and she lost herself in the pack of the race. The course looped around a big sports field, and I ran across the middle of it, keeping abreast of her, planning to cheer her on at the halfway point. She kept up a steady pace.

Ruby had told me, a few days before, that she thought she would win the race. I had responded that it was a great goal to have, but not very likely.

In my whole life I’ve won just one race. I can still remember what it was like: a Wednesday night. The race was the 600 meters. My father was there; he was helping to measure the shot-put competition when the gun went off.

I was a good runner, but not the best — but my prime competition had not shown up that night. We bolted from our starting positions and I was in first place. After 200 meters the lanes merged and I was still in front. 200 meters later, 200 to go, starting the final turn, and I was still leading.

Feet, I thought to myself, don’t fail me now.

It’s funny, nearly 30 years later, to think of it: I don’t remember crossing the finish line. But I remember that plea to my feet; that feeling of being carried away by this unstoppable force inside of me. I will always remember it. And I remember looking for my Dad in the aftermath. Did you see? I won! Did you see?

The path went up a slight incline towards the street and I saw Ruby start walking. That’s fine. She got to the top of the hill and started running again, then disappeared as the crowd turned toward me.

I was so proud of her. She was only five years old, running a kilometer by herself, surrounded by older kids and parents and doing just fine — she was running, just running, lost in the moment, and that’s what it’s all about.

I stood by the side of the path, waiting for her to come into view. Finally the crowd parted and I could see her running towards me.

She was in tears.

She reached me and I scooped her up, holding her. Kids and parents streamed past us. I whispered that she was doing great, that I was so proud of her. She said, I wanted to run with you, Papa.

I dropped her to the ground, back onto the running shoes I’d bought her just the day before, and I held her hand. We ran together. We had fun. We picked out people to beat, and we passed them, hand in hand. As the finish came up I let go of her and she sprinted across the line while I cheered, and then I gathered her up and carried her off to celebrate.

* * *

In retrospect, I think I know what happened.

Ruby thought she was going to win the race. She is five; competition of any real sort was still a novelty. As far as she was concerned, she was the smartest, strongest, most beautiful girl who ever lived. She really thought she was going to win.

In fourth grade I entered a lunch-time chess competition at my school. My first opponent was Dennis, an overweight classmate whose natural intellect was masked by awkwardness. In short order he had the advantage and put my King into Check. I couldn’t find the way out. My brother, three years older than me, finally pointed out the only option but by then I was forced to concede. I was devastated. I spent the remainder of the lunch hour sobbing into the librarian’s flowery polyester blouse.

As Ruby’s first race finally commenced, the reality of the situation came crashing down on her. She was not going to win. She had no real concept of the distance or the people who were running; all she knew was that an endless stream of runners were passing her as she walked up that hill. She was losing the race.

If I could do it again I’d hold her hand the whole way.


Passionate Wisdom

UPDATE (June 13, 2011): The author of this story has come forward admitting that it is a hoax. Although the story loses some of its appeal without the lustrous shine of a “based on a true story” tag, I hope that the underlying message of my commentary still stands.


An out lesbian in Syria is visited by goons in the middle of the night, and her father stands by her, defends her, and ultimately sends them away in shame:

 

“And my daughter? Let me tell you this about her; she has done many things that, if I had been her, I would not have done. But she has never once stopped being my daughter and I will never once let you do any harm to her. You will not take her from here.”

All of us, as good parents, would share the same sentiment; we will defend our children with ferocity.  But this father goes a step further: he defends her with passionate, lucid eloquence:

So you come here to take Amina. Let me tell you something though. She is not the one you should fear; you should be heaping praises on her and on people like her. They are the ones saying alawi, sunni, arabi, kurdi, duruzi, christian, everyone is the same and will be equal in the new Syria; they are the ones who, if the revolution comes, will be saving Your mother and your sisters. They are the ones fighting the wahhabi most seriously. You idiots are, though, serving them by saying ‘every sunni is salafi, every protester is salafi, every one of them is an enemy’ because when you do that you make it so.

“Your Bashar and your Maher, they will not live forever, they will not rule forever, and you both know that. So, if you want good things for yourselves in the future, you will leave and you will not take Amina with you. You will go back and you will tell the rest of yours that the people like her are the best friends the Alawi could ever have and you will not come for her again.”

When our children are threatened or hurt or bullied it is our instinct to be warriors. We will fight others to save our own. But this intelligent man modeled a different parenting path: calm, passionate wisdom saved his daughter’s life.

Papa Tips #5: The Explicit Handoff

Ah, family life.  Just the three of you, gathered together, curtains drawn against the world, building your new little life together.

Being wise parents, you understand the importance of continued personal development.  You make sure that you have time together and apart — even if apart means being in the next room. So while one of you is tickling the baby, the other is tickling the ivories or tackling a novel.

So, let me set the scene:

You’re curled up in your favorite easy chair, finally getting into that thick tome you’ve been eying for the past month.  Your partner is there on the rug with the child, who is contentedly sucking on various appendages.  All is at peace.

You read for a while.  You look up. Baby is still content. Partner has wandered off — maybe a bathroom break.  Time passes.  Baby is happy. You hear the unmistakable clack of the keyboard from the next room — partner has probably been sucked into the Facebook vortex.  But baby is still contentedly contemplating the existence of a cardboard tube, so all is good.

Then baby starts to make some noises. You can see that some fussing is around the corner.

You glance at the doorway where your partner has disappeared. She hears the noises, right?  Is she coming back?

Baby is definitely looking for some attention. I mean, you were right in the  middle of this chapter and she’d been talking about taking care of the baby for a bit so you could start in on this book and where did she go?

Baby is amping up the fuss and is about to break down. With a frustrated glare at the still-empty doorway, you shelve the book and descend to the carpet.

This kind of scenario can happen all-too-easily.  You’re both there, you’re both parents, you’re both responsible.  But everybody needs and deserves time to be their grownup selves again.  In fact, you should work to explicitly give each other the quality non-baby time you need.  But it’s all too easy to wander off when baby is happy, only to find that you’ve burdened the other parent when baby inevitably breaks down.

The solution? The Explicit Handoff.

It’s easy: whenever official responsibility for baby’s care changes hands, acknowledge it.  Something like, “I’m going to go poke the internet for a bit, okay? Can you be on duty?”  This is especially important on weekends, when everyone looks forward to a change from the weekly schedule and fitting in all the relaxation and errands and chores can be a challenge.

Just like Papa Tip #4, this is one of those simple practices that can head off a source of low-level frustration.  Although, unlike the previous Papa Tip, I’m actually serious about this one.

 

Papa Tips #4: Use Your Accent

You’ve had your baby. You’ve gotten through the first week or so, and maybe even a routine is starting to re-emerge from the chaos.  It’s just you and your partner, building a little family in your little home, and all is sweet.

Your partner deserves a little quiet time, so you take babbling baby into the next room.  “Hi baby,” you say, “how’s my little baby? Whatcha looking at? You enjoying being alive? How about those hockey playoffs?”

“What’s that?” Your partner yells in from the next room.

“Nothing,” you reply.  “Just talking to the baby.”

Concentration / Relaxation

Concentration / Relaxation

You’ll hear a disgruntled grunt from the next room as your partner tries to resume the train of concentration/relaxation he or she was previously riding.

This scene will repeat itself over and over. The introduction of these one-sided conversations will lead to a bunch of were-you-talking-to-me-no-I-was-talking-to-the-baby-okay-fine-then exchanges.  They’re mostly harmless, of course, but it’s one of those minor little annoyances that can plague the first few months of parenthood.

Fortunately, there’s a way to get around them: use an accent!

That’s right, adopt an accent while talking to your baby.  French, Cockney, Jersey — the choice is yours. Just be sure to pick something that is clear, distinctive, and consistent; that way your partner will immediately know when your babble is directed at the baby.  Not only will you clear up all this confusion with your partner, but your child will grow up to sound charmingly foreign!

Okay… actually there’s no way around this. You’ll get used to it; I just wanted to warn you.

Taking a Five-Year-Old to Paris

Ruby and I returned yesterday from a 12-day trip to Paris (with a dogleg to London). The vacation was amazing: Ruby is an energetic, enthusiastic, resilient and amiable travel partner.

Me, Ruby, Sparkly Tower

Planning a trip like this with Ruby was a little daunting. I was excited to take her away to a foreign culture and experience it through her eyes. The Eiffel tower! Walks along the Seine! Stepping into a tiny shop, sampling the wares, exploring the bits and pieces of life that make that somewhere else so exciting … but I was also nervous: how would she handle the two long plane rides there and back? Would we find a way to meet in the middle of how a child experiences a foreign place and how an adult does?

Well, the answers are mixed.

The Plane Rides

I was so nervous about the plane ride — just she and I for 10 hours trapped in tiny seats — that I splurged on an iPad 2 and loaded it up with movies and games. The iPad turned out to be a great travel computer anyway, but on the long international flights it mostly supplemented the in-flight movies. Ruby watched the Yogi Bear movie 3 times in a row on the flight out of Paris, and only turned to the iPad between showings. Still, it was the perfect distraction and Ruby could explore whatever movies and games she wanted at her pace, leaving me to nap and read. A few minor inconveniences (and inevitable exhaustion) aside, the flights were painless.

Attitude

I’m still in awe at Ruby’s attitude and energy. She was, for the most part, a non-stop bundle of go-go-go. Whatever we suggested, wherever we wanted to go, she was up for it. The movement of travel appealed to her; riding the metro and tube and train and plane were all exciting. It was a simple joy to hold her hand and just walk the streets of these big, crowded foreign cities. At times we both wore down, of course, and got too hot or tired or crabby. But in general, this trip really did reinforce what a special kid Ruby is: she can take something like a 15-hour travel day totally in stride and still be perfectly pleasant and social at our first bistro dinner in Paris. Damn, I’m one lucky Papa.

Travel and Play

Headstands in the Park

Even though Ruby loved the trains and planes and (to a lesser extent) just walking, the destinations didn’t really impress her quite as much.Travel is so much about context that it’s really hard to appreciate why we should go out of our way to see the Most Famous Painting In The World when it looks just like all these other ones. Our trip up the Eiffel Tower was terrible; it was hot and crowded and the lines took forever. As soon as we were at the top, Ruby wanted to descend again. “But,” I said, “this is the Eiffel Tower! It’s … it’s the Eiffel Tower!” And the same happened for the Mona Lisa, and the Venus de Milo, and Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain”, and Buckingham Palace, and the Crown Jewels and a score of other destinations. We’d get there and I’d try to explain the significance and context and why it’s so cool that we are currently at This Important Thing, but a five-year-old can’t relate.

A five-year-old wants to play.

So we did: Ruby spent a lot of time each day at a playground, running from slide to swing to bouncy thing, just being a kid. It’s hard to be a kid when you’re in a strange city and your parent has an iron grip on your hand so that you don’t get dragged under a bus or smear snotty fingers on the Picasso. It’s hard to understand why this tiny butcher’s shop is any different than the meat case back at our local Safeway. But a swing and a slide: now that’s something Ruby understands.

Independently Traveling

My parents and sister met up with us in Paris and they took Ruby to parks and gardens and playgrounds as

Eiffel Tower with Nana

well, leaving me free to explore Paris’s museums and cafes and tiny shops and just walk and sit and go at my own personal, grown-up pace. There really is a difference between how a kid and an adult relate to being somewhere new; and making sure we each had room to take care of our needs really made the trip worthwhile. I couldn’t really explore the modern art of the Pompidou with Ruby by my side; I wanted to do the audio tour and read every placard and really absorb as much of it as I could. Dragging Ruby through the museum for several hours would have been a terrible experience for both of us. And meanwhile Ruby really needed to run around with other kids at a playground, but several hours each day watching her climb the exact same equipment we’d find in Seattle would have made me regret the $2000 plane tickets. Getting some time apart was necessary.

If It’s Important, Be It

It’s an inevitable attitude of parenting: you want to do something special with your child, but you want to make sure he or she is old enough to “really appreciate it”. It’s an easy trap to fall into, and it’s something you need to fight against. If something is important to you — if an activity espouses the values you hold dear — then do it. And then do it again. It doesn’t have to be Paris every time, but if you want to raise a traveler, you need to be a traveler. If you want to raise a hiker or camper, you need to get out in the woods. Don’t wait to read her your favorite novel; read it to her every few years.

The question of whether Ruby would remember this trip often came up when discussing it with friends. I think that’s a bit of a red herring; 33 years later, I remember just a few tiny snatches from a Disney world trip I took with my grandparents when I was five. But to me the question isn’t whether she’s going to remember this trip in 30 years: it’s how it’s going to color her life next week, next month, and next year. She’ll carry the confidence of having traveled well. She’ll have the context of knowing what a real-life Paris looks and sounds and smells like.

And, most importantly, we’ll both appreciate and cherish the bond she and I reinforced every day we spent together, holding hands, walking the crowded streets of Paris.

The Mona Lisa!

Who We Are

Ruby and I stand on the warm sand beside the ocean, the sweet swells breaking mildly before us. I crouch before her, get her attention, and tell her this:

When you enter the water, walk straight out. As that first wave swirls around your knees reach down and grab a handful of that foamy stuff and press it to your heart.

The ocean is bigger than us.

* * *

Ruby and I stand on the mountain, hot summer sun and sweat. Around us is air and clouds and wind, below us is dirt and forest and rock. I give her a high-five, then crouch before her, get her attention and tell her this:

When you climb a mountain, find the highest point. Then pick up a rock — any rock, it doesn’t matter — and place it there on the highest point of the peak. Thank the mountain by making it that much taller. We are not conquerors.

The mountain is bigger than us.

How To Explain DADT to a 4-year-old

This morning, in response to a story on NPR, Ruby asked me what “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” means. Never one to shy away from an opportunity to explain extraordinarily complicated issues to a young child, I dove right in…

First I started by explaining that the people in the army and navy don’t have as many rights as we do. For example, if I wanted to quit my job, I could do that any time I wanted. But people in the military aren’t allowed to quit. And if my boss told me that I had to move to Kansas, I could just say no. But in the military, if your boss tells you to move to Kansas, you have to do it. Ruby asked why people weren’t allowed to quit, and I said it’s because sometimes people in the military have to do really difficult things, and that too many people would want to quit. “Couldn’t they let just one person quit?” she asked.

Okay, now that we’ve established that people in the military have fewer rights I started explaining about love. I said there are some people who love other people who are the same sex as them. I said my friend Justin at work is married to a man and he only loves men. And I told her that I only love women. I asked her what kind of people she thought she would love, and she said she’d want to marry a man — not surprising given her age, gender, and that I was in the car with her. 🙂

Then I gave her some examples of people she knows who love both men and women — maybe that’s the kind of person she is? And she immediately said that *that* is how she is. She loves both.

Note that through all of this I wasn’t using any labels: no “gay”, “straight”, “bisexual”, “homosexual”. Those are shortcuts that are handy when talking with adults, but I think they’re too rigid to use when introducing this kind of a concept to a child — especially when I’m framing the conversation in terms of the individuals you love.

Okay, next step was to talk about where love comes from. I told Ruby: “love isn’t something you choose. It comes from deep inside you and it just makes you love someone. Do you think you could choose to not love Mama?” She said no, of course. “And do you remember when you started to love Mama? No, it was just there and it happened without you thinking about it. You didn’t choose it — it just happened”.

Moving on, I told her that some people don’t like it when a man loves a man or a woman loves a woman. I told her it makes them feel weird or uncomfortable or angry, or that it isn’t something they’re used to. And I told her that older people are more likely to feel this way, and that people in charge of the military are older and so they think a man loving a man is strange and don’t like it.

Finally, tying everything together, I explained that “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” means that if you’re in the military, it’s okay for a man to love a man or a woman to love a woman, as long as it’s a secret. But if they find out about it, then they’ll fire you. And that’s bad because the people who are getting fired really love their jobs.

I told Ruby that all of my friends and just about everybody I know thinks that it’s okay for a man to love a man or a woman to love a woman, and that we think “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is a bad idea. But there are people in other parts of the country who disagree, and sometimes it takes a long time for the country to change. I said sometimes, this country changes too slowly.

“But Papa,” she said, “it just changed to fall yesterday!”

Offbeat Papa

Welcome, Offbeat Mama readers!

Today I was the featured DILF at OffbeatMama.com: http://offbeatmama.com/2010/09/single-dads-are-extra-dilfy.

Maybe with all the attention I’ll get around to adding some new entries to this here little blog.

The Transparent Parent

A few weeks ago, I was walking to lunch with a coworker who has a son about Ruby’s age. He mentioned that he and his wife have been trying to avoid using spelling or oblique references in their son’s presence. For example, if there’s a debate about whether to have ice cream for dessert, they won’t start spelling I-C-E C-R-E-A-M while they hash out the details.  Instead, they try to involve him in their conversations even if the subject might be one they’d rather avoid or where their decisions might not mesh with their child’s easily predictable desires.

The notion of transparent parenting stuck with me as an interesting ideal, and it’s something I’ve thought about a lot since then.  Part of it is giving Ruby an honest presentation of how the world works; before decisions are made there is a conversation that is a critical part of the process.  Exposing her to the complete process teaches her about compromise and empowers her by bringing her into the process.  Decisions don’t spring fully-formed from Papa’s forehead; instead there is back and forth where we talk about feelings, desires, how close it is to bedtime, and whether we should save the treat for a more special occasion.

But transparent parenting isn’t an absolute ideal.

Kate, Ruby and I were driving back from a camping trip and about an hour down the road we stopped in a little town to stretch our legs and explore.  As we were getting back in the car, with a three-hour stretch of driving ahead of us, Kate suddenly realized that we’d left Ruby’s water bottle back at the campsite — and stated as much.  Ruby’s favorite water bottle, the only water bottle she’d ever known her entire life, with the cute picture of the backpacking dog and handy protective cap, was now gone.

Ruby cried for an hour.   She’d compose herself, grow quiet, and then think about her lost water bottle and start wailing again.  If you’ve ever been cooped up with a crying toddler in a small car you’ll know what kind of a drive that was.  So yes, there are times when you want to withhold information from your young charges.

It’s certainly easier to be a less-than-transparent parent.  Involving a toddler in decisions can be frustrating, exhausting, or just plain cruel.  Three-year-olds in particular are just beginning to learn about their own independence, and their psyches can be frail as a result.  I know that mentioning the words “ice cream” or “playground” will immediately fix those conclusions in her head, even if they are just remote possibilties in mine.  There is a tricky line one needs to negotiate.  But as parents, I think we can lean towards the convenience of opacity a little too often.

We were sitting around the breakfast table this morning and Kate was telling us about her previous evening, when she’s spent some time with friends at a bar.  Apparently some of her friends had gotten pretty “drunk“.  That was just how Kate said it: whispered, under her breath, so Ruby wouldn’t hear.  But really, saying the word “drunk” around Ruby isn’t a bad thing — it’s exactly the kind of information about how the world works that we want her to have.

Transparent parenting isn’t a hard-and-fast philosophy, or even a general rule of thumb.  It’s just something to consider as your child matures and becomes more appreciate of the world of adults around her.  It adds a new challenging layer to parenting, for sure, so it is best applied judiciously.  But keep the idea in the back of your head; soon you’ll find yourself spelling less and dealing directly with your child more often.  After all, isn’t that what parenting is all about?