Hollow Space – Part II


Drop off was hard, but we did it. We met two families for lunch earlier in a town near the camp and the boys had a chance to talk, fool around, and settle their nerves. Us adults sat, smiled at each other, and made small-talk. Some of the adults were veterans and a few of us were newbies.

At the camp we were too late to get a bottom bunk. We’d been early but not early enough. This doesn’t seem like a big deal at first glance but M-ito was a little freaked out by the closeness of the tent roof to the bed and the challenge of getting up into the bunk without a ladder. He’s never been in a bunk bed before.

Mom-ita came to the rescue. M-ito said it was okay, but I could tell it wasn’t. He was holding himself together the best he could but this was unravelling him. Mom-ita set to work. M-ito and I went to get the mosquito netting while Mom-ita wrangled with the counselors to see how our son could end up on a bottom bunk. His tent was the only one with all four bottom bunks taken. He was the fifth one to arrive.

This kind of thing always happens to me when I travel. I get a room with a brick wall outside my window, or a dumpster, or soiled carpet of a suspicious nature, or my reservation is missing, or it was for the following week. Sometimes these things happen to M-ito too.

On the way to get the netting. M-ito said, “Why do these things always happen to me?”

I didn’t know what to answer. “Mom-ita will take care of it. Have faith,” I said.

Two weeks of build-up was showing on his face. We sprinted a few times on the way to the store as if he needed to burn off something and leave it behind.

“I don’t think I can get up onto that top bunk,” he said softly, his head down, his hands in his pockets. “There’s a pin on the ceiling of one that will probably poke me in the head or take my eye out. And did you see the graffiti above the other beds? It’s creepy.”

“Let’s see what Mom-ita can do to fix things,” I said. “Have faith.”

We got the netting and slogged back up the path to the tents of the 10-11 year olds. Mom-ita was at another tent talking to a new counselor. M-ito’s things had been moved. “You’re over here now,” she said, “Bottom bunk.” His friend had switched with him, bottom for top, tent for tent. This was his second year at the camp so he was a veteran and didn’t mind.

M-ito’s face lit up.

We said goodbye and he ran off, leading a new boy who had the bunk above him whom he’d just met, to the camp store. I wanted to hold him a while, tell him I loved him again, but he needed to go.

I have a hollow space in the center of my chest. It’s amazing how I could find a true smile as he left and feel such sadness at the same time.

Now it’s time to look for his picture in the daily photo gallery. Refresh. Refresh. Refresh.

8th Birthday: A Save-the-World Party

I find my son’s birthday to be a number of things: sad, anxiety provoking, challenging, tiring, and at some point, hopefully just a little happy. This year we did a home party again. Mom-ita took care of all the arrangements like, food, who was coming, invitations, speaking to M-ito about everything, and helping him to make his birthday list. At 8, my son is still very much into birthdays. I hope he stays that way for a while.

My job as the Dad-dito was, as it has been in the past, to take care of the entertainment (I have been the entertainment the last three years as the yoga teacher for a personalized class two years in a row, and this year as the designer of the save-the-world from Ratzo treasure hunt), pick up the food the morning of the party, order the cake from Cupcake bakery, then pick it up, call my family and make sure they know the date and can come, buy the gifts on M-ito’s list, and help out the day of the party as opposed to getting in the way.

This year my father came with Jocelita, Max’s grandmother (my father’s girlfriend who has taken on the role of a grandmother – it’s a long story but that’s how it works some days) and they arrived with her in tears and him in a grouchy, angry mood. They were the first to arrive. Mom-ita was stressed. I was stressed. Four out of five people in the apartment were stressed. Oh joy. People were coming over, and M-ito was hanging out waiting, playing and already enjoying being the birthday boy even with this madness in the background. I think he didn’t notice what was going on and as his friends arrived (six in all – a small group this year and that was a blessing) he got wrapped up in them. I got wrapped up in occupying my father and listening to Jocelyn and cutting up the fruit salad and regular salad. I put my father to work on drawing characters for the save-the-world game and hoped, hoped, hoped, he would be nice to Max, whom I also asked to draw some characters for the game. My father tends to critique rather than help when it comes to drawing and M-ito is a good artist in his own right but needs to be encouraged not critiqued.

The save-the-world treasure hunt had the evil Ratzo trying to rule the world through the kid’s parents with hand sanitizer – vaporizing spray. I’d hidden  clues around the apartment and throughout the building (laundry, garden, mailbox bulletin board) all written in code with tricks and traps everywhere (every other step of the stairs to the garden was poison to the touch, green paper was poison and some clues were written on green paper, a puzzle of paper pieces was inside a green paper folder). I gave them antidote cards for when they were poisoned so they could keep playing the game, broke then into two teams, girls and boys, code books to be able to crack my code, a storyline to work from and 30 minutes to find Ratzo’s switch that would turn all parents armed with hand sanitizer into child vaporizing machines. I was up until 1:30am the night before setting it all up.

It’s easy to understand the feelings of anxiety, challenge, exhaustion and a little happiness. But why would I be sad? Well, my son is getting older and so am I. It is both wonderful and sad at the same time. I want him to grow up and be a man but I also want him to stay my little boy. Such a simple statement and filled with, for me so much emotion. But that is the nature of birthdays. They make me review life, both my son’s and my own and many times that is painful. So, given that, I try to find some happiness in the story of my son’s birthday, day. The smile on his face as his friends race across the apartment building trying to outrun the clock to find Ratzo’s switch that’s in the refrigerator, of course, dodging parents trying to sanitize their hands (I gave everybody hand sanitizer and they kept asking the kids if they wanted to clean their hands – the kids all ran away screaming NOONONONONONONO!). And watching him open his gifts, blow out the candles on his cake. All the things that make up a birthday celebration of turning a year older and a year wiser. And my son is both. Birthdays need to be celebrated as small rites of passage along the way of life. I need to remember how wonderful it is that he is growing up and learning about this wonderful and challenging world that we live in as human beings.

And also remember, that I  now have a full year to go before I have to do it all again. Whew.

I’m singing in the rain …

Okay, I’m not singing – mostly groaning. Why me? Why me? Giving my son a shower is not my favorite thing to do. I’m just putting that out there so you know where I’m coming from. It never really has been. Back when he took baths it wasn’t my favorite thing to do either – mostly because my son doesn’t like to take either a shower or a bath. But… these days it’s showers he takes and in the last couple of months I’ve noticed some changes. It’s not like it used to be.

Old days for a bath: I chase my son around the apartment and try to get him to take a bath. He won’t do it. I plead. I insist. He eventually goes in, complaining the whole time, sometimes kicking and screaming. “The water’s too hot. The water’s too cold. I don’t want to get my head wet. You’re pulling my hair. Ouch.” Then, I can’t get him out. He plays and plays and plays. I get splashed. It’s exhausting.

Old days for a shower: The same thing for starters. Arguments, and explaining why a shower is important (smelling bad is bad, smelling good is good) begins things, then half an hour later entrance into the bathroom. I shower him and he complains the whole way through. “The water’s too cold. The water’s too hot. Don’t splash me. I don’t like it when you splash me. I’m cacacacacacooold. I’m hahahahot.” Then it’s time to get out and he wants to stay in. The water is like rain and he’s singing. He laughs. I cry. It’s exhausting.

New days for a shower: Mom-ita says, “Shower night,” and both M-ito and I sigh and say, “NO!” at the same time. Mom-ita laughs. It takes a half an hour to get him into the bathroom – another ten minutes to get him undressed. I sit on the toilet seat (seat down) because there’s no where else to sit and watch as he slowly, slowly, slowly washes himself. To do his feet he puts the washcloth on the floor, steps on it and moves his feet back and forth – a big smile on his face. It’s genius. He doesn’t actually step under the water until he has finished dabbing and touching each of the areas he’s supposed to wash with a washcloth that has just a little bit of soap on it. Then I wash his hair and he laughs through most of it. Every once in a while he complains about the water being too hot or cold. Then I tell him to wash his face. This whole procedure from beginning to end can take another twenty minutes with me constantly prodding, “Come on M-ito. Wash yourself.”

I don’t get as wet as I used to so that’s something. I’m still just as tired when he finishes. He cleans himself more often than not. And he does laugh a lot. He likes to wash himself, even if he doesn’t do the best of jobs. I’m trying to let it go at that. Because when he’s finished, he smells good and that’s what Mom-ita checks for when he comes out.

One Meatball

It’s Sunday evening dinner. Mom-ita made pasta (my sauce, M-ito’s and my meatballs – true teamwork).

“How many meatballs do you want, one or two?” Mom-ita asks from the kitchen.

“One,” M-ito says from the living room. He’s packing his DS into his new Pokemon case. We just bought it on our way back from Tae Kwon Do practice.

Mom-ita asks again. “One or two?

“One,” M-ito says louder.

Twenty minutes later…

We sit down to eat. M-ito, standing, picks up his fork while swaying back and forth (ah for the days when he sat down and sat still for meals).

“Sit down, please,” I say.

“Sit down, M-ito,” Mom-ita echoes.

M-ito sits. His knees are six inches from the table edge. I reach over and slowly draw his chair in towards the table so his “drop-zone” is smaller.

“You should have changed your pants,” Mom-ita says. He’s still wearing his white Tae Kwon Do pants. “They’re never last until Wednesday.”

M-ito smiles as a pea rolls off his fork, unnoticed. I wonder if it hit his pants on the way down. He puts a whole meatball into his mouth and starts to chew.

“Don’t do that!” Mom-ita says, exasperated. “You could choke on that. I told you not to do that!”

“It’s small,” M-ito says around the disappearing meatball.

I shrug. He swallows.

M-ito reaches into his bowl with his fork and starts moving the pasta and peas around. He looks up at us. “Where’s the other meatball?”

“You only asked for two,” Mom-ita says.

“No I didn’t.”

“Yes. Yes, you did.”

“No I didn’t!”

I take my second meatball and place it into his bowl. M-ito smiles.

“What are you doing?” Mom-ita asks. “How’s he going to learn to accept the consequences of his actions if you do that? He said he wanted only one.”

I shrug again and give her the what can I do, he’s my son look.

She’s not buying it and looks down and away from me, exasperated again with another male in the family.

We eat quietly for a while. M-ito’s meatball disappears, one half at a time. I drop a pea on the floor. It rolls under M-ito’s chair and remind myself to pick it up after we’re finished eating.

Then half a meatball falls off a fork, Mom-ita’s fork, and onto my plate, like manna from heaven. I stare at it for moment, then pick it up with my fork and eat it, smiling at my wife. She rolls her eyes.

The circle is complete.

Dumb and Stupid Redux

The holidays are still a fresh memory but all the decoration are down.

The DS is now an integral part of the household.

We were all working last night. Mom-ita preparing dinner, me preparing for my yoga class, and M-ito preparing to be a world class fossil hunter. It sounds exciting, I know it does. But here’s the thing. In order to be a world class fossil hunter my son has to do the following:

  1. Sit hunched over a tiny handheld portable electronic gaming device (a DS) for an hour, possibly more if we let him – and we try not to let him ever go that long;
  2. Intuit directions and rules as he goes along as to what is needed to be a world class fossil hunter (not easy because the rules are in small print and I can barely read ’em even with my reading glasses and, of course M-ito doesn’t like to read the rules, and double of course because you also have to understand gaming lingo) – also M-ito makes lots of mistakes along the way and it is frustrating going;
  3. Figure out how to pause the damned thing when either his mother or father wants him to stop to either, say… get the table set, or answer a question, or interact in any way with the world around him;
  4. Yell out successes and failures to me while I’m ten feet away typing wickedly at emails (of which I have no idea what he’s saying because I haven’t played the game and can only guess at what his statements mean – I usually simply answer, “that’s great,” or “keep trying, you’ll get it next time.”);
  5. Do lots of thumb exercises and obtain good hand-eye coordination (hey, I have to be honest – it does take some of these qualities to succeed in the game including make good use of your opposable thumbs)

So… after the fifth or sixth time we asked him to come in and set the table M-ito, still playing, nodded and mumbled something akin to, “Yes.”

I got up and said, in typical, I’m-not-proud of myself-mode, “If you don’t put that game down I’m going to take it away.”

At which point he said, with extreme frustration, “I can’t figure out how to pause the game without losing the game I’m playing.” He said this, uncannily, while still playing, barely missing a beat.

I reached over for the game and he leaned away from me, using his elbow to slightly block my angle on the DS. I said, in my most menacing voice – because I was getting pissed off now (though you should note that I also knew I was tired from my work and upset at myself for letting him play so long and so… attempting to take some responsibility for the confrontation occurring), “You’d better turn that thing off right now or I’m going to throw it out the window.” Ah, that was poetry.

That’s when the tears started and the crying – all while still playing, at least minimally so his game didn’t disappear and be reduced to oblivion. Sometimes the most difficult part of playing these games is figuring out how to save your game. The simple precaution in the future is to read how to do this first, before he starts to play. After you’ve plowed through an hour of hard work making mistakes and learning game-play I understand not wanting to lose what you’ve gained. I do. I really do.

I used some yogic breathing, calmed myself and said, “Let’s look at the instructions and see what they say.”

Twenty seconds, M-ito still playing, I took the DS from him. His eyes wide with terror he shouted, “No!” as I touched a button to find the right screen. A quick flash appeared with the dialog, “Do you want to save this game?” M-ito used his stylus, angling the two screens towards him so he could see and pressed the statement a few times.

“It’s not saving!” he shouted again.

I took his stylus and tapped the, “Yes.”

The screen disappeared and M-ito mouthed, “O.”

Then another screen came on asking, “Do you want to continue playing?” and I quickly tapped “No.”

M-ito only saw the no and broke down into tears again. These are the kind of tears that go right through you. The dad-ditto-you’ve-betrayed-me kind.

“You lost my game,” he said. “Now I have to go back and start all over!” Variations of this came and went between sobbing and weeping. I sat in the other room, looking at Mom-ita and looking back into the room. I might have said, “It’s only a game,” but I hope I didn’t. I tried to tell him it was okay – that I’d not erased anything. He swore it was all lost. The game didn’t mean a thing to me, but I tried to remember it meant a lot to this 7-year old boy. M-ito’s anger turned sullen. He wouldn’t come in and eat. He wouldn’t talk to us. He might even have said something in the nature of, “You don’t want me” or “love me” but I’m still to this moment not sure. Mom-ita as the neutral party, tried to get involved. She said, “We’ll take a look at it after we eat,” but he got angry at her too.

We ate a quiet and unhappy meal. I got angry again after a while too and called him on his attitude (how did he get that look in his eyes and the nasty set of his jaw?) and the way he spoke to his mother. Otherwise I was silent the rest of the meal too. It was a big unhappy party and I didn’t think I could be brought lower until I started wondering if I had indeed lost his game. What if I did?

Finally, dinner over and the game back in hand, Mom-ita playing mediator. We looked at it together and lo and behold. The game was right where it was supposed to be – saved and in one piece.

M-ito looked up at me and smiled, gave me a big hug – night and day.

“Next time have a little faith in your father,” I said. Exactly what my own father had said to me many a time when I was a kid. Oh how these things come back and haunt you.

Hobbit Tales

I’m reading The Hobbit, by JRR Tolkien, to M-ito. I’ve been waiting to read it to him forever. Well, since I read it when I was ten or so. My friend Joe showed it to me and I read it and fell in love with it’s total sense of adventure immediately. I’m a sucker for a fantasy story. Dwarves, dragons, elves, hobbits, hero’s wizards – you can’t beat it. Since then I’ve read it twice but it’s been over ten years since the last time. I’ve told myself it would be great to read it to my son or daughter one day. Now that I have a son, I’ve been eyeing it each year, and looking at M-ito to wonder if it was time yet. This year since starting school he read How to Train Your Dragon by Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III (traslated from the Norse by Cressida Cowel) and a number of other books on his own that speak of adventure and new worlds, swordplay and dragons. With Hiccup under his belt I thought it was time for The Hobbit. It’s dark and there’s lots of danger and the tone is menacing, but so far he’s loved it.

Reading it has been hard, though, bitter-sweet to be exact. My friend Joe, who told me about the book after he’d read it, had been my best friend since we were both in 4th grade together. We met the first day of school – a new school for me – I left my lunch box behind and Joe took it home with him. He lived down the block from me. I went to his house to retrieve it and so a friendship was born on a sunny September day. We saw each other every day until, when we were both in seventh grade, maybe a month away from the end of school, he was killed. It was a freakish accident. He walked home from school early without letting anyone know. There were torrential rains. Crossing the rail road tracks he was hit. I can still picture the black sky, still hear the downpour against the school roof while I sat in math class. They announced his death over the loud speaker just before school ended.

So many things I do as a father remind me of my own childhood. I watch my son and watch myself as a child, or I watch my son and think of what was and what could have been. I have to remind myself, like so many other parents, that he is not me. Now that’s a challenge they never told me about in the school for parents.

The Hobbit is a wonderful book and I love the way my son pulls the covers up closer around him while I read to him about the three Trolls arguing about how to kill and eat good old Bilbo and his dwarven companions. He peers over my shoulder, snuggling in close. At the scary parts he covers his ears with his hands and closes his eyes. “Don’t read anymore!” He says, then takes his hands off his ears and asks me to read on. “Which do you want?” I ask. “Read on!” he says. I love being able to comfort him, being able to be his warmth when the story makes him shiver.

Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche says, “Hold the sadness and pain of smasara in your heart and at the same time the power and vision of the Great Eastern Sun. Then the warrior can make a proper cup of tea.” I try to remind myself of this, when my heart aches. I try to see the beauty of my son’s smile.

Today M-ito told me he wanted to write a new book of his own. In school they’re writing stories now – fiction. They’ve moved on from non-ficiton memoir and he’s thrilled because he loves to tell stories. “I’m going to write a story,” he says, “about a character I’ve had an idea about for a long time. His name is the Sizzler.”

All I can think of is the restaurant chain called The Sizzler, but I tell him to go on – to tell me about him.

“It’s about a Sizzler that has never had any adventures but he gets dragged into a bunch of them and all kinds of things happen.”

Now I can see the Great Eastern Sun.

Meeting Your Edge

A Buddhist story related by Pema Chodron goes like this.

A group of travellors gets ready to climb a mountain. After a few hundred feet a few can’t go up any higher so they stop. As the group goes up higher others stop, unable to go further. Finally a few reach the top. Those that stopped along the way, met their edge. They reached a place where the word “no” rang so loudly in their ears that they simply had to stop. The key is that the ones who made it to the top are not the winners. They had no fear of hieghts or had it but it was bearable. The ones who had to stop along the way are not losers either. They simply met their edge and could go no further. Meeting your edge means you have something to learn about yourself, that you need to open your heart to the experience, be kind to yourself and recognize that you have something to learn. Those who made it to the top will meet their edge on some other expedition. Everyone meets their edge, sooner or later in life. Engaging in life means you go up the mountain, you show up for the expedition, not knowing how far you will be able to go.

Sunday I watched my son meet his edge. He’s seven so he meets it often. But I’ve never seen it so viscerally before. A classmate whom he has only just met, had invited him to his birthday party and M-ito went. It was at a rock climbing gym out on Long Island. We’d been there once before on a reconnaissance of the place. The first time we went M-ito climbed half way up. The second time a quarter of the way up, then two thirds of the way up and finally a quarter of the way up, four different lines. I still can’t believe he kept at it even though it was clear that he was not enjoying himself.

At the party I saw all kinds of edge-meeting going on. Some kids did not come so they met their edge in their minds. One boy didn’t put on a harness, though he came for cake and pizza. One boy put on a harness and tried to climb only once, making it up half way then coming down, his arms and legs shaking. Several boys made it up half way and came down. Some made it to the top. One boy left in tears.

M-ito watched and when a few had stopped at the halfway point he gave it at try. He made it a few feet up then stopped. I watched as he tried with all his abilities to make his hand reach up for the next rock. It shook and trembled reached up then down, up then down. It was so painful to watch. Finally he looked down at us and asked to come down. He tried to climb twice, the second time with the same results. He sat down next to me afterwards, angry with himself, his arms crossed across his chest. He wouldn’t let me speak to him.

“You did great,” I said.

“I’m so proud of you.”

“You really did your best. It’s only what you could do today. Tomorrow will be different.”

“Be kind to yourself, you did great.” I’m afraid of heights but I can climb in spite of it. Still I know how hard it can be to keep going up. But it didn’t matter what I said.

He walked away from me with a scowl on his face. Mom-ita got him to speak to her by talking about something else. Then he settled in. He recovered about fifteen minutes later and seemed to move on. I had to watch while he processed and dealt with his damaged ego. It broke my heart to see and not be able to do anything about it. But my son is resilient and he seemed to be able to move past it. I wish I could have helped but I’m also glad Mom-ita was there to be of help.

Sometimes it just works that way.

As Pema Chodron says, meeting your edge means you’re showing up for life, you’re engaged on the journey. Practice loving-kindness to yourself and you open to life’s possibilities. Well, it’s something to shoot for.