Thursday, January 21, 2010

Oedipus Chex


I remember well the day my father said, as he shed the sports section of the paper from his lap and checked the day's barometric pressure on his GPS-wristwatch device, "You want to castrate me."

I don't remember exactly how I replied to this. It's not the kind of question that comes up often enough to have a practiced and ready response. One tactic that occurred to me would be to respond as my now 3-year old son does when his soccer coach asks "Are you a purple dinosaur?" Spot smiles knowingly and in a falling tone says "Nnnnnnnoo ...", meaning Of course I'm not a purple dinosaur, or in my case, Of course I don't want to castrate you.

But I think he meant it. Which made me wonder if I did mean it. So I remember thinking, there in the living room, as the Chicago Bears wasted yet another hour of my father's sports-viewing life, would it really be better if my father were castrated? If he were a docile eunuch who did not interrupt the flow of my existence with his bad jokes repeated as if the reason we didn't laugh was because we didn't hear him the first time? If he didn't disrupt my psychic equilibrium with his Russian peasant house manners, or his tendency to lose important documents and to rely on other people's cell phones for vital communications? And would I really want my mother all to myself?

In spite of all their potency, these questions quickly sank into my deep subconscious, an already crowded place, where they were duly labeled and set aside for consideration by some future psychotherapist.

Until, that is, the day the tables were turned. I descended the staircase one morning to be met by the same Oedipal glare that my father must have known well. In a bath of soft light before me I saw the heartwarming scene of a mother, dressed for work and feeding breakfast to her son, holding a boy in a puppy-covered sleeper with puppy ears flopping off the side of each foot. Yet this boy, shattering the Norman Rockwell charm of the scene, frowns when he sees me, and raises an accusatory, pointed finger into the air.

"Daddy, you go back upstairs!"

I grab a glass of orange juice, and sit down across the room. My son repeats his demand. I sense my inner Walter Sobchack dislodging and rising to the surface, the same irritable reflex I often saw in my father long before Walter Sobchak was invented. "Hell no," this Walter Sobchak/father composite might have said, this father who in those moments of lost self control reminded me of -- and may in fact have been distantly related to -- the fabled Jewish gangsters of Odessa.

"No," I say, with a small portion of offense and a larger portion of incredulity. Mom gets up and goes upstairs to get something. Exuding crisis and near hysteria, determined not to share the same breakfast space with Daddy, Spot bounds off of the sofa --"I better go see Mama!" -- and runs upstairs.

For the next several weeks, if I trespassed on the morning feeding -- which was Mama's job according to our division of labor -- I was told to go back upstairs. That never worked, of course, and so being the clever boy he is, Spot began asking that I relocate to the kitchen. Spot's Oedipal instincts didn't stop there, however. It wasn't long before Spot claimed exclusive possession of my in-laws, and not just sovereignty over breakfast, but lunch, too: "Daddy, you go away!"

It was sometime in my 30's when my father shared his Oedipal concern with me; Spot isn't even three yet and he's already working to banish me from breakfast with Mama, and then lunch with Mama's parents. I've always suspected there was a nugget of truth to Freud -- just a nugget -- but now I'm going to hide the cutlery.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

How Do You Know What a Fork is For?

I thought I'd highlight some wholesome family content just published on Shareable.net, which I edit:

How Kids Learn to Share Tools: How do you know what a fork is for? Objects carry meanings and tell stories, says developmental psychologist Debbie Siegel--shared stories about who we are as humans and communities. This is a really interesting essay, and I think parents will find it helpful.

How to Share a Nanny: Very practical nuts and bolts overview of how to share a nanny with another family.

How to Plant a Garden at the Neighborhood Playground: Our circle of families went to the city and asked if we could plant a community garden in a strip of dirt available on our neighborhood playground. To our surprise, the city said yes. Here's how we did it.

Can Sharing Survive Parenthood? You're young, in love, and more or less equal--but will it stay that way after the baby is born? Marc and Amy Vachon (whose book came out this month) say yes, if you ask the right questions before you become parents.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Giving Hockey a Try

“Keep yer stick on the ice!” yelled a dad, his voice filled with anger.

“Come on, number fifteen!” yelled another. “You skate like a girl!”

Liko and I were watching a youth hockey game at the Yerba Buena rink in San Francisco. We were surrounded by fathers watching their boys play hockey...and, man, was it ugly.

As the kids battled on the ice, you could feel the tension rising among the parents.

Then I heard a lone, small voice from the other side of the bleachers:

“Have fun!” it said.

I looked up, and so did the other parents.

There stood a fellow on the top bleacher, smiling down at us. The smile said, C’mon, guys, lighten up.

I chuckled, and a ripple of laughter spread through the stands. We did lighten up.

One of the (few) moms yelled, “Have fun keeping your sticks on the ice!”

“Have fun skating like a girl!” shouted a dad.

Dads are way more active in sports than moms; in many communities, it’s the main way that fathers play a role in the lives of their kids and other people’s kids. Indeed, sports are the primary path many boys take to manhood.

That's both a good thing and a problem. It's a good thing because kids get exercise and they learn about discipline, focus, teamwork, and cooperation. It's a bad thing because in today's sports culture, they also learn about misogyny, homophobia, belligerence, self-destructive levels of competition...and the neuroses of their fathers.

"I've seen a lot of hardcore, winning-obsessed, hyper-competitive moms," says Regan McMahon, author of Revolution in the Bleachers: How Parents Can Take Back Family Life in a World Gone Crazy Over Youth Sports. But fathers, says Regan, can be much worse. "It may be more common for men who have grown up playing sports to have certain opinions about how to be a star, or perhaps they want their child to have the success they had, or if they weren't a star, they want to experience vicariously the stardom they never achieved."

This leads to the kind of angry heckling I saw in the Yerba Buena bleachers; those guys are angry at their younger selves, first and foremost, and at the loss of their youth.

Inwardly, I was cringing: My son has been skating for two and a half years, and we were there so that he could participate in "Give-Hockey-a-Try Day" that afternoon. It's something he wanted, that I had resisted. The thought of my son entering this hockey culture, surrounded by these thuggish men, filled me with an old, sickening disquiet.

I'm not superior to these guys, and I know what Regan is talking about: I often find myself projecting my own athletic anxieties onto my son. I was a decent runner, but in team sports I was mediocre (soccer) to lousy (baseball). I very well remember the shit I got from both teammates and coaches, and I came to dread practices and games. By high school, I had stopped participating, and like millions of other freaks and geeks, I grew to hate sports and jocks. Today, when I see my son trying a sport, my stomach clenches as I watch for signs for failure and weakness.

That's not so different from the dads who stayed with sports, but never achieved as much as they hoped. While individual ability and commitment vary, the ultimate truth about sports is that, by definition, 99 percent of us won't become stars. The best we can hope for is fitness and fun, but too often our sports culture ruins our bodies through overtraining or ruins our self-esteem through bullying and hyper-competitiveness. That culture has shaped me as well as other fathers.

That afternoon, Liko suited up and skated out onto the ice, stick in hand. All the pictures that accompany this blog entry are from that afternoon.

He was the smallest one on the ice, but I watched in awe, truly in awe, as he held his own. I watched him do his best, overcome obstacles, negotiate problems, recover from mistakes, take coaching, handle aggression from other kids, manage his own aggression, and gain new skills. All on his own.

Did this brave, strong boy really grow from the premature newborn who could fit in the palm of my hand? What a miracle. What a gift. I admit it: I was proud.

Again, that's a good thing and a bad thing, that pride.

"The father-son relationship is a delicate one, and boys really don't want to disappoint their dads," says Regan. "And I've seen many boys who seemed to care more about what their dad thought of their performance than their coach. One basketball star I knew would look up in the stands at his dad after every shot, not at his coach. I have heard, anecdotally, about a lot of kids -- boys and girls-- who want to quit a sport or a team but feel they can't because their dad doesn't want them too. That can strain marriages, too, when the dad is gung-ho and the mom isn't."

This might be the arena where dads can have the biggest impact in improving and repairing the world. I think about that dad who spoke up in the bleachers: "Have fun!"

It really made a difference, that small action; it took the emotion down a notch. Regan tells me that it's critical for dads to try to "be a voice of sanity in team meetings"--to emphasize the fun, to vote against yet another tournament or extra day of practice.

"Support your child's love of sports, but don't push them," advises Regan. "Keep your ego out of the equation. Keep in mind that your child is playing sports for his or her pleasure, not yours."

That's good advice for individual dads. But the issues go beyond behavior; there's also a policy dimension to the struggle to make youth sports fun again. I'm no expert in this stuff, but Regan is, and so I'll quote her at length:

Putting policies in place to prevent overuse injuries is an important step. One of the best thing to happen in recent years was Little League finally adopting pitch counts to save young pitchers' arms. Dr. James Andrews, the orthopedic surgeon who pioneered the so-called Tommy John surgery for baseball pitchers' elbows, lobbied the national Little League organization for five years before they finally agreed to limit how many balls a kid could throw in a week. Dr. Andrews got tired of seeing injuries in 9-year-olds that he used to see primarily in professional athletes.

I'm an advocate of keeping P.E. a priority in schools, re-establishing intramural sports and encouraging kids to be multi-sport athletes in high school. One of the big changes in youth sports over the past 15 years is that it's gone from being about fun and participation to a star system that weeds out the weaker players and promotes the stronger ones. So recreational leagues are looked down upon and elite travel teams are seen as desirable. Consequently, kids are specalizing early and playing one sport year round, which can cause overuse injuries.

Some states, like Utah, have mandated downtime for interscholastic athletics, so there can be no training or competition for 12 weeks in a given sport. That guarantees that athletes and coaches get a break, and their competition will not gain an edge because they're required to take a break, too. And hey, the kid might get to go on a family vacation or attend a cousin's wedding for a change!

The elite travel teams have gutted high school sports programs to a large extent. So the highly competitive players are missing out on the experience of playing for their schools, because many coaches and parents keep them off the school team because it won't improve their chances for a scholarship and their is a perceived inferiority of play. I think that's a shame.

Interscholatic leagues tend to set their schedules so kids can play multiple sports in a school year, but elite club coaches and parents sometimes discourage their athletes not to participate in school sports. One Bay Area high school I know of actually has a stated policy that kids can only go out for one sport, which I think is kind of shocking. Doing multiple sports is a good way to prevent overuse injuries. So I'd support policies that encourage participation in multiple sports.

In general, I think policy makers should recognize the need for balance in chilren's lives. So any policies that would improve the balance between hard work and free time, sports and and family, commitment to club team and participation in school life, would be beneficial.


This was originally posted to my series for Mothering magazine, "Twenty-Five Ways for Dads to Change the World."

Sunday, January 03, 2010

A Note to the Judys of America

So I’m in Florida for my brother’s wedding. In the courtyard of my future sister-in-law’s apartment complex, I met a neighbor I’ll call Judy. She told me my brother is wonderful, my future sister-in-law is wonderful; she told me about her work buying and selling condos; I mentioned that I have a son.

Then she asked: “Where are you coming from?”

“San Francisco,” I said.

“You’re awfully brave to live there and raise a child,” Judy said.

“Why? Because it’s so expensive?”

“No,” said Judy. “Because of all the perverts! All I hear about on the news is gay marriage, gay marches, gay this, gay that. How can you stand all that perversion!”

This is not, in my experience, an isolated incident. Just about every time I go abroad to cities not named New York or Seattle, I find that perfect strangers—having ascertained that I am, in fact, a red-blooded, All-American male who has certified his heterosexuality by marrying a woman and fathering a child—feel free to say the worst, silliest shit you can imagine about San Francisco.

I was polite to Judy. I’m polite to all these ignorant wingnuts. I told her about our life on Castro St., about our gay and lesbian friends with children, how much we enjoy life and our neighborhood in San Francisco. I sketched the contours of my family’s life in the most upbeat, positive terms I could muster.

Later, I told a male relative I'll call Bob about my conversation with Judy.

“Well, you have to admit," said Bob. "It is unusual that you’re raising a child on Castro St.”

“No, it’s not unusual,” I said. “There are lots of families on Castro St. Lots of the parents are gay and lesbian.”

“How is that possible? Don’t you need a man and woman to have a child?”

“No, dude. People adopt, lesbians get sperm donors. You meet gay and lesbian parents on every playground, in every school. They’re a minority, sure, but they’re part of the world of families in the city.”

Bob just shook his head and walked away, as though he doubted what I had to say. He thought I was exaggerating, being politically correct, or something. He’s not a bigot, but my experience just didn't seem to compute for him. According to everything he knows, gay and lesbian people can’t be parents. They're too busy popping meth and engaging in unnatural (and thus curiously appealing?) sexual acts to raise families.

The main difference between Judy and Bob is that Bob thinks it's A-OK to engage in unnatural sexual acts. Their view of gay and lesbian life is identical, but Bob just doesn't have a problem with it. The problem with Bob is that his picture of gay and lesbian life is waaaay too narrow.

Why am I writing this? Realistically, I guess, to remind myself and Daddy Dialectic's tiny part of the world that bigotry and ignorance are alive and well. When you live in a bubble, you forget what it's like outside, or at least I do.

But I also want to (unrealistically?) say something to the Judys of America, on the off-chance that one of their representatives has stumbled here: It’s just not nice to tell a San Franciscan, after having exchanged a few sentences, that our city is full of “perverts.” For pete's sake, don't assume that because I'm straight, I'm on your side. San Francisco is full of families, and some of them are straight, and some of them are gay, and some of them are related by blood, and some of them are formed of friends and lovers. We don't live in separate spheres; we mingle and overlap, and the truth is that we've formed a great community in which to raise kids. And you know what? I'd rather raise my child in a city like San Francisco than among the Judys of America.