Perfect Birthday

Wake up 5:30am.

Practice yoga and seated meditation (listen to my body speak to me in a chorus of creaking sounds).

Take out dogs (Spike, who knows the sound of my meditation timer jumps on me and licks my face when it rings its ending zen tone).

Make M-ito’s breakfast (challah bread with peanut butter, strawberries, glass of milk) while Mom-ita tries to wake him up and get him out of bed (I have the easier job by far – but then it is my birthday).

My son gives me a birthday hug. Ahhhhh…

Make my tea (English breakfast with honey and milk) and take first sip.

Drive M-ito to  school while talking about books for half the trip (Mom-ita told him he had to talk to me – sigh – for half of the trip before he started to read which is what he usually does on the car ride in).

Realize I forgot M-ito’s cleats at home. Plan return trip in my head and call Mom-ita to prepare her for early journey back.

Come home.

Drive back with Mom-ita to M-ito’s school to drop off cleats.

Go to Dolphin Bookstore and order the perfect latte.

Order Andrew Smith’s new book, Passenger (arrival in two days) for me.

Write two new pages of WIP (I am Nobody).

Pick up M-ito early at school so we can watch him practice lacrosse. He is awesome. The coach speaks and my son listens. It never works that way with me. Ahhhhhh.

Drive to Starbucks. M-ito does homework. I shop for new messenger bag… and order it from Timbuk2. Ahhhhh…

Take M-ito to Tae Kwon Do and write while he kicks and punches his way towards his black belt.

Drive home.

Feed and take out very appreciative dogs.

Order in from Louies Pizza (Margarita with chicken).

Read Andrew Smith’s King of Marbury (absolutely awesome).

Check Facebook birthday wishes. Overwhelmingly sweet.

Watch presidential debates and try not to scream or throw things at the TV (Go Obama!).

Sleep.

I Help People Who Help People

Friday last week was Community Worker day at M-ito’s school. I’d scheduled an hour in the morning to attend and talk to the kids in the second grade about what I did for a living. Poppi, my father, was coming too. He’s an animal rescuer and rehabilitator, liscenced (not certified as he would be the first to remind me). He specializes in ducks and geese, uses the moniker, Duck Man. In other words he was set up to be a real hit with the kids.

I’d just come home from a trip to North Dakota where I got to run a 3-hour workshop for 100 judges, lawyers and drug treatment workers. I spoke right after the governer of the state and the supreme court justice spoke. They got ten minutes each and I got the rest of the day. Knowing that made me smile. What I hadn’t really thought about was how I was going to explain my work to a group of second graders. What is it that I really do?

I remember when my son first explained my job to someone else. He was four and said I was an officer because I worked in an office. Once he said I was a fencer, because he saw me fence once. I liked both of those answers. Now he knows I travel, teach yoga, teach other subjects like public speaking to judges and lawyers, and do other public health work with people who have diseases of some sort or another. But… he d0esn’t really understand the public health part. I’ve left it at that for the moment.

I sat down at a small desk with my knees hitting the underside. Poppi sat down and spread out his handouts at another collection of desks – his station – he’d made some copies of a how-to about how to take care of a baby bird or wounded bird if they ever came accross one. A mom who was an orthodontist had packages of lip balm, tootpaste, toothbrushes, small toys, glittering things (this was the third time she was doing this) I had… nothing. I hadn’t thought that far ahead. It hadn’t occurred to me to bring anything. And what would I bring? Condoms or syringes wouldn’t go over very well.

M-ito was in my first group of kids. He came over to me and gave me a big smile and hug. He rarely does that at school. Usually he just presents me with the top of his head for a kiss on his crown. But I got a hug, a real hug. That pretty much made my day right there, even without anything to give to the kids but words.

So here’s what I learned about myself when it comes to my work.

  1. How do I describe my job: I’m a public health worker. The kids could spell it easily because it was written on my name card. It took me two groups to figure this trick out. I tried different ways to explain public health. I settled on working with people who work in hospitals, clinics, and treatment centers. I’m pretty sure hospital is what stuck in their heads. I left HIV/AIDS, drug treatment, Sexually Transmitted Infections, Methadone, Mental Health Issues, and Hepatitis C out. I wanted to come back next year. I heard my dad tell the kids he was a rehabilitator – then, when he realized they had to spell the word – told them to just call it rehab. “Your teacher will allow that,” he told them confidently. With some groups I added that I was a boss and a teacher also. That didn’t need any explanation. I left out writer. It would have been too complicated and, well, I just haven’t been feeling very writerly lately so I left it out. It made me sad for a moment but I moved on, letting it simply be.
  2. When second graders interview you and they have to take notes on what you say – long sentences are out. Bullet points are in. “Just give us the bullet points,” a colleague of M-ito’s told me in the first group. From then on I adjusted all my answers to one to three words, keeping them as short as possible.
  3. What are the tools of my trade? Computer, LCD projecter, my voice, and my body. I think they understood the first tool best – everyone knows what a computer is. Some associated the projector with the smart board used in their classroom so that worked too. I’m not sure what they thought of my voice and body answer. I tried to explain a few times but gave up after the fourth attempt.
  4. What do I like best about my job? To teach. But I told them my favorite courses to teach were yoga, public speaking, and leadership. Three bullets – three answers. They understood yoga. I told them public speaking was teaching someone to speak like Barak Obama – which seemed to work. I told them teaching leadership skills was teaching someone how to be a boss – bingo.
  5. Finally… how does my job help the community? I kept trying to figure out a way to explain it but I didn’t have a lot of time – mere seconds before I had to come up with something. So I ended up with this. I help people who help people. “That’s people twice?” One boy asked looking up from his clipboard. “Yes,” I responded. “Yes it is.”

My Dad drove me to the train station later and we sat and had coffee while I waited for the train to come in. I let two trains go by, sipping coffee and catching up with him. He walked me from the coffee shop to the train the way he had my brother so many times before when we were younger and my brother lived in Manhattan. My brother died almost twenty years ago, dually diagnosed with schitzophrenia and chemical dependancy (he used one to treat the other) murdered for little real reason. What reason could ever be sufficient? The moment echoed for me. I’m sure it did for my father too. He gave me a big hug and a kiss before the train doors closed.

Later that evening I told M-ito how great it was to have the three of us in the same classroom, three generations all together for a purpose. “What’s a generation?” M-ito asked. “It’s every twenty years or so,” I said, knowing it wouldn’t be good enough. “I just liked having all three of us together,” I added. M-ito nodded and smiled.

Buddha Sutra

The Buddha, in talking about our own true nature, gives a talk on the four kinds of horses: the excellent horse, the good horse, the poor horse, and the very bad horse. I’m reading Pema Chodron’s The Wisdon of No Excape and the Path of Loving Kindness (only she could group those two statements together and get away with it) and she talks about this teaching with regard to our approach to meditation. The moral of the story is it doesn’t matter whether you are the excellent horse or the very bad horse because in any case it simply is your nature and you will learn from and through it.

When it comes to meditation I konw I’m the very bad horse. My innate “badness” at the task is probably what makes me teach it well. I have to really work at meditation and I make lots of mistakes from which I learn what to do and what not to do next time. This insight would have been lost on me if I’d simply started meditating and found samadhi. I’d be telling everybody, gee all you have to do is sit down, stop the chattering of your mind and find the peace that resides within. No big deal, see? Watch and I’ll show you. You can cross your legs into lotus, can’t you?

I was wondering how this would translate into fatherhood. First, what kind of father am I and then how does that then relate to my own true father nature? But perhaps here I have to also add in, How does it effect my son and my family? Not as simple as in the meditative analogy – my mind is chattering away like a monkey (monkey mind supreme) but I’ll learn how to manage it in a year or two and then, oh boy, then I’ll have such insight on it. When it comes to being a Dad-dito, any mistakes I make, well… my son feels them in the here and now. I lose my temper over him taking too long to get out of the house on a school day and my son hears me yell. He cries. I cry. We both suffer. Him for getting scared at my yelling and me because of the my own terrible guilt over yelling at him and seeing him get upset. And the lesson? Don’t yell. Get up earlier. Simple really but the drive to get more sleep is deep and insistent. It’s an interesting paralell.

I hear my own father and many other parents of his generation say, “I hope I was a good father to you,” and looking back now I can say he was (and still is), though at different times I’ve gone up and down on the rating scale depending on how our relationship is going- none of which makes me love him any less. I don’t think any of us wants to think of ouselves as the very poor horse when it comes to being a father – even though I know there are times I clearly am – perhaps more than I care to admit. At those times, I take it to heart that though my son has suffered through my inability to get on track, if I at least learn something from the experience and do better next time, he may not have to suffer in quite the same way again. I may be a very bad horse out of the starting gate but I’m an excellent horse on the turns. It’s good to know there are turns up ahead. The straight-aways make me humble. The turns make me smile. Or maybe it’s the other way around.

Classroom Blues

One of the most difficult tasks I’ve had  as a father has been to choose a school for my son. It should be simple. You have a good public school nearby  and you send your child there for free. That’s what I did where I grew up in Nassau County. I didn’t like school too much – there was a lot of drug traffic and some violence and I was glad, breathed a huge sigh of relief, when I left High School. I remember two friends burning their books in the school yard our last day. I can still see the flames in my mind’s eye. I loved books too much to burn them, but I understood the significance of their act. I was tired of learning and had been for a while.

M-ito’s last day of first grade at his school was yesterday. There was a small party – his class had only twelve kids – and a meloncholy air. A good third of the children, including my son, will not be returning next year.

For pre-K we sent him to public school, one for which we were zoned. We found it not to be a good fit for M-ito. I’ve learned that fit is important. A good school for one child will not be a good school for another. M-ito got lost in the pre-K in our neighborhood. He follows rules, raises his hand, does what his teachers tell him, doesn’t speak out of turn, and listens to what his teachers say. What happened to him in pre-K? His teacher didn’t pay attention to him. She didn’t know M-ito outside of his trouble getting his coat on by himself. (He liked it when she helped him put his coat on because she paid attention to him and talked to him, listened to him tell her stories, while she helped him put that jacket on.) He knew how to put his own coat on and he also had figured out a way, within the rules set out for him, to get a little attention for himself. In his class there were three other kids who had behavioral problems. The only other way for my son get attention was to hit others, yell, take other’s toys, push kids in the hall or on the stairs – but that’s not his way. The kids who did this took up 90% of both the teacher and teacher’s aide’s time. The teacher tried to shame the children into leaving their stuffed animals at home in preparation for kindergarten. I still can’t forgive her for that. The school had no idea how to use parents to help them with the children. They said they wanted parental involvement but they didn’t. We pulled him out of there after one year. Many other parents pulled their kids out too.

M-ito didn’t get into the charter schools in our area. He didn’t win a seat based on either of the two lotteries we entered him in. We didn’t have any contacts or “know anyone” who could influence our chances either. We looked at private schools. I still can’t believe it. Both Mom-ita and I went to public schools and I just assumed M-ito would too. After one year’s experience with public school as a parent I don’t want to do it again.

So I starting saying yes to every consulting gig I could get. I still say yes to them all. Private school is expensive – but we both think it’s worth it.

In kindergarten we sent M-ito to a local private school and it was terrific. The school seemed good and the kindergarten teachers were excellent. But around the kindergarten class, in the classes above, there were problems with bullies, and there were behavioral problems that we encountered and heard about throughout the year. We stayed in our kindergarten bubble and tried to ignore the other problems. A child was asked to leave the school in the grade above. A younger brother in M-ito’s grade left with him. This happened past the half way mark of the school year. The administration took a long time to act – but eventually did.

In first grade M-ito overall had a good experience. His teacher was good and the small band of classmates created a nice bubble again within which learning could occur. But another bully appeared in the grade above – and M-ito’s class had recess and gym with him. There was an outbreak of stomach aches in M-ito’s class in the fall because of the upper grade’s less supervised and rough play. They were switched to have recess with the kindergarten. Gym was still held with the upper grade and the threat of the second grade bully was felt all year. He made M-ito’s classmates cry, making fun of them or calling them names when the teacher wasn’t paying attention (which seemed often), and the bully’s own grade suffered his behavior too. The last day of school my son had a long discussion with us about whether he could wear a favorite shirt – a tie-dye shirt – or not. Was the bully going to call him names? Make a comment to him? M-ito stopped wearing any colorful shirt by winter’s end. Pink left the list of his favorite colors. It wasn’t worth it to him to deal with the bully commenting about what he wore. It was safer to go below the radar. M-ito knew which teachers were good in afterschool class (ie: kept control of the kids and didn’t allow bullying) and which did nothing and let the kids run riot. I’m still amazed he made it through ballet all year, walking from his classroom to the music room one floor above in t-shirt and black tights – his leotard hidden underneath. He must have really wanted to dance.

Bullying in a private school is a challenge just as it is in a public school, but the school had and still has no comprehensvie approach to address it. It’s done on a teacher by teacher basis. But not all teachers are good at classroom management. It seems most are not. Private schools also have the issue of  dealing with troublesome children whose parents make large donations of money to the school. Behavior that should not be permitted sometimes is. That’s another thing I learned.

And there are good teachers in good schools, bad teachers in good schools, good teachers in bad schools and bad teachers in bad schools. It’s tough to get a match. Friends of ours with kids in an upper grade suffered through a year with an abusive teacher. the teacher will not be coming back next year. There was some disturbing violence done to a teenager in an upper grade also. A teacher was fired. A child was expelled. What is the atmosphere of a school in which all these things happen? How is it taken in and absorbed by my son? Should I pretend that it doesn’t affect him? I know that it already has. But how much? Is he safe in his school? Administration dealt with each problem, but always seemed slow to react. I’ve found that administrators of schools are always slow to react. It’s not easy running a school with all these variables.

It’s been hard to pretend my son’s in a bubble when events happen around him. I can pretend but at a certain point I need not to. I worry what will happen next and whether it will happen to a child I know or if it will happen to my son. I wonder if every school is that way. Many people have told me it is so and that I just need to take the good with the bad and leave it at that. Others say, “boys will be boys.” I hate that. Boys are “boys” because parents and schools allow them to be. It is fostered by the school environment. There you have it. That is part of what is eating at me.

When I was in junior high school my best friend was hit by a train walking home from school in a downpour. I witnessed a kid I played football with – who later overdosed in high school – beat up a bully he’d been paid to take down. I witnessed it and walked away. Many of my friend’s lunches had been stolen by the bully. Many of us had been pushed around in the halls by him and his gang, had our books knocked out of our hands by him. I played football so was exempt from much of it. My smarter friends who didn’t play sports were not. 

For this upcoming year, the tuition went up a significant amount. We were notified only a few months ago. We’d already been looking at other options for a school but that was just about the last straw. We decided M-ito would be going to another private school in the fall. 

M-ito will be leaving behind friends as will we. Many families are leaving for similar reasons. Many are just tired of fighting and advocating again and again for slow and only partially satisfactory responses. Is this the way all schools work? Does change move so slowly? We’ve tried to find a school that matches the needs of our son. Will it be the right school for him? We hope so. We’ve investigated this new one in depth but the truth is you never know. There are so many variables. There is the school itself. What the school says it does and how it says it functions and how it in reality acts and functions sometimes are two different things. How teachers will be with your child may or may not work. What will be the mix of children? Will there be bullies? Will the staff be capable of handling him or her? How will my son fit? These are the thoughts that wake me in the early morning hours and stare at the ceiling with my heart racing.

We went to M-ito’s last day of first grade with heavy hearts. Other parents who are staying are not happy with us for leaving. Lines have been drawn, pickets thrown up and demilitarized zones created. It’s been lonely for Mom-ita. These are women she has called friends. Now some won’t talk to her. That’s another tricky part of your child’s school. You meet parents and develop new friendships. Your child’s friendships bring on new relationships for you as a parent also, whether you want them to or not.

I’m sure the parents who are keeping their children in the school are questioning themselves just are we are questioning ourselves. Should we stay? Should we leave? They care about their children and we care about our child. M-ito feels it too. He played Uno with his teacher and friends most of the party, smiling and laughing. But he has told us he’s scared about going to a new school and having to make new friends. We’re scared too. It’s a daunting prospect. Change is a scary thing. But sometimes status quo is even scarier.

And change is not only about loss, even if today it’s hard to see around it. It is also about growth. As a parent I have to remember to honor this both for myself and for M-ito. And for us, we hope, it will bring about a better education for our son.

Movie and Dinner

Typing away at my computer I looked across the room at Mom-ita to see what she’s doing. I know already – she’s on her computer, sitting at the coffee table surfing the web and alternately watching what’s on the TV – but I look anyway. We can see each other but not each other’s computer screens. We say a few words to each other once in a while, perhaps I go in to see what’s on the TV if I hear something interesting, before going to back to my work. 

If I go in to sit on the couch next to her I know she will look up at me in surprise, an almost, “What’s this about?” question hanging in the air between us. Our relationships with our computers have become close. 

When do we have time to talk to each other without M-ito around? When do other parents talk to each other? We have car rides, but only if we talk low, because these days M-ito wants in on all conversations. “I’m bored!” is his refrain if we leave him out. We’ve debated getting him an ipod just so he can occupy himself with it – only he gets car sick so that is risky. We have our evenings after he is asleep. That is if one of us (usually me) doesn’t fall asleep with him. We have the time before we go to bed, while lying next to each other, if neither of us is reading or, again in my case, not falling asleep. The day is long and we are both pretty tired by the time sleep catches us. We’ve also always been on different rhythms, mine an earlier one, hers a later one. We have our computer time when our individual work gets done, emails, yoga business, maybe some writing.

Perhaps it’s time we had a date? It has been a long time since we’ve had dinner together, without M-ito – or seen an adult movie or even any movie for that matter, that we sat all the way through. Last one was Space Chimps (horrible) and WallE (wonderful) but left with 45 minutes remaining in each so I don’t know what happens in either of them. M-ito get’s scared or bothered by the loud sound (we bring ear plugs to help with this) or he gets afraid for characters he cares about – and we have to leave before the movie is over.

I tell new parents all the time – make time for your baby. Now, I think, I need to tell myself to make time for Mom-ita and me.

First Tooth

We were sitting in Park Slope on the corner of 9th Street and 7th Avenue, eating Pizza. Mom-ita had an appointment and M-ito and I were going to Prospect Park to play ball with our new baseball mitts. M-ito turned towards us with a hesitant smile on his face after spitting something into his hand. “My tooth came out!”

Mom-ita started crying and I put on a happy face and gave my son a high five, low five, and some paw (reference: Mel Brooks Spaceballs). Inside my heart broke with both happiness at his growing up and leaving this symbol of his childhood behind, and sadness for his growing up. I want him to always be the same and I want him to grow into the wonderful man I know he will be – both at the same time. It reminds me of my own mortality too and makes me watch over my shoulder for the dance of my own death. All of this over the wonderful moment of a first tooth falling out. These more painful thoughts fled quickly.  There was a little blood, some trepidation, then a big smile on M-ito’s face, followed by our hugs. I took pictures and his gap-toothed smile peers back at me.

“This one will go in the yearbook,” I say.

I don’t remember losing my first tooth. But my family memories from that time are not very happy.

I hope the moment stays with him as joyous. I know the five dollars we put under his pillow later that night – from the “tooth fairy” – will probably not.

He said he thought the “tooth fairy” would leave him ten dollars. I told him there was a recession so five was all he’d get. I think the fact that he has finally caught up to his friend’s who have all lost one or more baby teeth already is probably compensation enough.

“What about the tooth fairy?” he asks Mom-ita. “How does she get in our bedroom? Where does she come from?” I didn’t hear her answer but I imagine she’s giving an illusive answer. If our son believes in a tooth fairy we’re not going to stop him. Losing a tooth is enough to give up in one day.