Sunday, March 28, 2010

My Brief Wondrous Career as a Soccer Dad

Spot clearly didn't want to be in soccer class. How could I tell? There he was, in the middle of the basketball court, crouched in turtle position with his face pressed against the floorboards as the phalanx of toddlers drove their soccer balls from one end of the gym to the other. This was a stunning, daring act of civil disobedience against the unwanted enforcement of our weekly athletics programming.

Yet it was hardly the first time Spot had protested in soccer class. It was only the most spectacular such collapse. I was confident that, as in previous crises, with a little cajoling he'd be back on his feet and off among the cones and floppy orange discs littering the floor. But this time Spot was raising the stakes. Coach Jaime swung in from the sidelines and stood protectively over my turtle boy as soccer balls careened around him. It was time for dad to intervene.

I approached Spot's successful participation in soccer class as a natural scientist might approach the outcome of a laboratory experiment. If I could control key variables in advance, I could guarantee the desired result in such a way that it could be replicated every Saturday morning at 10:30AM. It was simply a matter of setting the proper controls before plugging in the box. Did I administer the mid-morning fuel booster? Check. Had I drained the bladder? Check. Did I deliver an adequate pre-class pep talk? Check. Were the sneakers on both feet with shoelaces not too tight? Check.

So, if all went well, I would soon be jumping up and down on the sidelines as Spot managed to keep his focus and dribble the ball across the court and into the goal, much as I might were I warming up the giant magnets of an underground particle accelerator and high-fiving my lab assistants as we successfully smashed tiny bits of matter into their component quarks, bosons, and perhaps even a hadron or two.

But that wasn't happening, and Spot was deploying every possible subterfuge to sabotage the enterprise. Collapse #1 was a bogus potty alarm. Back from our unproductive run to the washroom and on the sidelines again, Collapse #2 followed with a demand for "banana." Banana peeled and in hand, Spot wandered back onto the court kicking randomly with one leg at balls that may or may not have been there, turning in ever larger, ever more meaningless circles.

Despite following every protocol and controlling for every variable, despite jerry-rigging the apparatus with a banana, this experiment was a failure. There were no quarks or Higgs bosons at the end of this accelerator. I failed to see the hand of God in the soapy tracks of my bubble chamber. No quarks or bosons, just randomly colliding soccer balls, just noise and a single rogue toddler with his banana gyrating through statistically improbable cycles of leg twitching glory.

It was at this moment that my Inner Hockey Dad awoke from its evolutionary slumber deep in the most primitive parts of my brain. This cold-blooded amphibian, this vestigial holdover from an earlier stage of male evolutionary development, lifted itself onto all four legs, swung its armor-plated tail against the more evolved portions of my consciousness, and bellowed:

"Kick the FUCKING BALL you fucking LOSER! Fucking A! Get your ASS off the FLOOR and K.I.C.K. the B.A.L.L!"

Now, although this crude commentary never made it out of my mouth, it nonetheless highlighted how invested I had become in Spot's performance. This was a surprise. It all began so simply: I saw a sign at the neighborhood club last spring, I signed him up, and all seemed to go well. He loved being surrounded by balls, endless piles of balls rolling everywhere, and running back and forth from one net to the other with other yelping toddlers. What joy!

Caught up in the enthusiasm, I joined an adult pick-up league, playing real soccer with real rules for the first time in my life, and loving it as much as my son. I endured one crippling injury after another, as well as the frustration -- as raw for a 40 year old man as for a teenager -- of not getting enough ball time. I took the ball to the park in the twilight of September evenings and dribbled endless figure eight's while Spot picked berries from nearby bushes and my dog panted blankly.

And why? How had my own expectations advanced so far ahead of my son's desires? Because, in the back of my head, I wanted to be ready to do all this with my son. I wanted to be ready to coach him when the time came. I wanted to jump into a sport that I always wished I had been able to play when I was a boy. And, more than all of that, I wanted to be able to kick the ball around with Spot.

But what if he didn't want to kick the ball, and in fact was now much more interested in picking the red berries from that bush and the black berries from this bush? So be it. He has tasted soccer, he has devoted roughly one-fifth of his brief life-span to it, perhaps it is time to sample other things. He can always come back to it, being the nimble, flexible creature that he is. It's his father, accustomed as he has become to projects requiring years of labor, who is not quite so nimble anymore.

Still feeling the effects of my Inner Hockey Dad's amphibian intrusion, I brusquely picked Spot up off the floor and carried him football-style out of the gymnasium and down the window-lined corridor. Away from the sound of bouncing balls and toddler voices, I set him down on his feet and let him run a few steps ahead. His protest was concluded. He had won. A smile returned to his overheated face. It was a sunny day and the rest of the afternoon lay before us.

He looked back at me and motioned me forward. "Not that way, this way," he said, coming back to get me. "I'll hold your hand."

Three years ago, there had been nothing in the space above that empty stretch of linoleum but swirls of dust floating in a ray of sunshine. Now a person stood there, and his small voice ahead of me called me forward. Only a fool would fail to listen.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

a kid friendly wild rumpus!

I was twenty and about to be a father. He had just turned twenty-one and was on his way to Redwood Summer, a call for people to come participate in direct action to save the redwoods and old growth forests of Northern California. We ran into each other at the local hardware store. It was May 1990. We had been friends during the school year at UCSB, studying together, attending environmental meetings on campus, talking politics, becoming more radical like many college students. We had fantasized in hushed tones during class breaks what it would be like to join hundreds of others attempting to make a change. But as the spring quarter came to a close, we saw less of each other; he, in fact, was actually planning on participating; I, however, was planning on preparing the small home I shared with my girlfriend for our first child.

So there we were standing in some aisle; it had been a couple weeks since we last talked. He was holding a back-pack full of stuff for a road trip. I was holding a bag of supplies to baby proof the electrical sockets in my house. He was picking things in preparation to camp out for weeks. I was going to pick up a few more shifts at the used bookstore that I worked for to help with the bills over the summer.

I remember the look on his face when he asked for the last time, ‘can’t you just leave the baby with your lady for awhile; they’ll both be here when you get back, but, right now, the earth needs you; right now, not when your child’s eighteen or nineteen.’

Now despite all the ways that this statement is fucked up, it’s painful for me to admit that it almost worked. I saw Rainbow Summer as my big chance, my opportunity to do something more. I feared that the pending birth of my son would be an impediment to my abilities to participate in creating social change. Up north in the trees: that’s where the action was, not singing lullabies and changing diapers.

And so I squirmed and gave some lame excuse about how I would love to go but that my lady won’t let me. Pathetic to blame family, to see it as a burden. But I did.

Now as much as I hold myself responsible for those former attitudes, and I do, I believe there is a larger issue also at fault. As a burgeoning radical, I was surrounded by a mythology of revolution that celebrated only one way to be a revolutionary; and, believe me, there were no newborn infants involved.

So at the time, I felt cheated at having to miss this event because of my other responsibilities; I mean all my radical role models seemed to have chosen otherwise. Che (and who didn’t love Che at twenty) left his kids behind and wrote oft-quoted, eloquent letters home; Ulrike Meinhoff, who haunted my dreams as one of the few revolutionaries who had kids and chose to commit herself anyways, had to send her children into hiding and then sever connections with them entirely; my chicano icons Joaquin Murrieta or Gregorio Cortez, didn’t saddle up with their two year old. In the corridos about them, there were only guns, whiskey, and getaways.

None of the stories my friend and I shared about radical politics included parents or children or grandparents or safe spaces.

So he left, and I remained.

I went on to evolve into a radical parent through reading and studying and working to create a small community of like-minded parents. But during those first few years, I secretly dreamed of the chance to once again be “able” to participate like a “true” revolutionary. The mythology of the revolutionary created a chasm between what I was “doing” and what was “important;” someday, I consoled myself, I could return to the fray, just as soon as I got the kids to bed.

So I longed for the road to the next demonstration even as I sat worked to create a childcare cooperative in my neighborhood. I imagined campfires in the forests of Northern California while I changed diapers on my feminist studies teacher’s desk. I dreamed of delivering fiery orations as I read Where The Wild Things Are over and over to my son, both of us yelling, ‘let the wild rumpus begin.’ However, it finally dawned on me: why the hell couldn’t there be a kid friendly wild rumpus?

And, yes, I know there were parents who have been able to participate in various forms of resistance throughout history (a testament, I’d bet, to the people who surrounded them). I have even had powerful support from my family to dedicate time, energy, and finances to various projects. So it can be done. But it shouldn’t be so daunting, so isolating. I am calling for an end to the dangerously powerful myth that revolutionaries leave their families behind. We shouldn’t have to choose? That’s a false dilemma. I sometimes dream about what might have happened had my friend encouraged me to come with my lady and my baby. Perhaps I still would not have gone. Or perhaps I would have. Perhaps some else like me would have. Perhaps a bunch of us would have. If the entire event was kid friendly, family friendly, with various actions and spaces, some of which, of course, could be more “direct” than others. But the possibilities, the potential, seem unlimited.

How about a new mythology, celebrating revolutionaries who refuse to leave anyone behind and refuse to remain silent? If I have learned anything, I have learned this: whatever we are involved in, it should take into account the ability for multigenerational participation. That’s sustainability, that’s revolutionary, that’s the pre-figurative politics I want to commit myself to.

My son is now nineteen; I am at peace and, in fact, grateful for the choices I have made. Looking back over the time that has elapsed, I have no regrets. I often wonder what my friend is doing. I want to ask him how that summer turned out. What was climbing those tall trees like? What craziness happened around the campfires? Did he fall in love with a little earth mama like we joked about? I’d also like to thank him. He was one of many people I have met in the radical community who have inspired and revolutionized me.

In fact, when I think about being a radical parent and an anarchist, I remember fondly all the strange, amazing people that I‘ve met in this loose-knit diverse thing we call a radical community who continue to challenge my thinking and expectations: the ones who organize anarchist conferences with childcare and parenting panels, the mamas and papas writing zines and the allies who buy them, the infoshop volunteers who do it year after year, the anarchist parenting listservs with their thoughtful reflections on how to parent in radical ways, the wandering crusties I encounter as I travel, sometimes alone, sometimes with my children, the artists who plan midnight mystery murder bike rides, and the strangers in distant cities who welcome me into their homes.

Because whether I’m home or on the road, whether I’m with my children or not, I am always a parent as well as a radical, and I will not be silent about demanding we consider ways to include everyone. And when I’m old, I want to embellish stories of my swarthy figure, similar to the Chicano banditos of old, only instead of the reigns of a horse, I am cupping the palm of my child.

Welcome to rad dad 17!