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.