Monday, March 8, 2021

Sticks and Stones and ... DON'T EVER SAY THAT

Race relations always seem to find its way into my books. Maybe it’s because I'm from Virginia, or my childhood, how I was raised. Either way, it’s not always by design but it’s there, creeping onto the page... Racism, bigotry, injustices large and small. Yep, that’s me, never afraid to let it rip. 

Me the author? Fearless. But me the dad? Not so much…

The other day my eight year old son came home and told me he'd learned the N-word. 

I stopped whatever I was doing. I froze. I found myself getting angry, blaming people. I gave the word all the power it needed to thrive. 

Eight years old. And while he knew there was such a thing as the N-word, he didn't know what it was or what it meant. All he knew was that it was off limits. Now he'd overheard it, from a kindergartner, of all things. 

He was shy about it, unsure, his eyes wide. He hadn’t said it right, hadn’t wanted to say it at all. I asked all the wrong questions. Where did you hear this? Who said that? I looked at my wife, like, How did this happen? That we were in our kitchen and he should’ve been telling me about a game of tag, or even freaking Minecraft. Instead, this precocious, beyond-his-years kid, was asking me about the N-word.

My skin lit up. My breath caught short. Of all the talks I’ve had with this kid, about any and everything, from Coronavirus to Trump to more recently the Capitol riots, this was the one I’d secretly wanted most to avoid. Like so many other white people, I thought (hoped) that because we weren’t racist, because we didn't use words like that, well, he would never encounter it.

I know, I know...

It wasn't that we had never talked race before. But now, as he asked me about this terrible word, I could only cringe. I imagined him saying it, unknowingly, just because it was a bad word. Last year, pre-Covid, back in first grade when he learned the F-bomb it was like some sort of secret power he held in his mind. 

But this word is different. It’s heavier. It’s…

…That kid in the woods when I was five

…That dude at the park who looked around before he told a joke

…The old man when we cut through his yard to play ball

…The kid in the rich neighborhood when he saw my dad’s van as I was getting dropped off

How could I expect my son to magically understand the power of this word?

I couldn't. Instead, I let him watch me stammer and stutter and nearly scold him on how he was never, ever to use that word under any circumstance. 

And I could tell he wanted to know why. This kid who once told me he wanted to learn every word. Why was this bad word different than other bad words?

As adults, or parents, I think sometimes we assume our kids know stuff we take for granted. But again, I can't expect my kid to somehow just get it. To understand exactly how horrible this word is, to grasp the back breaking weight of it. Because it's not just a bad word, it's... much uglier than that. It carries a history that many of us wish to forget. 

But we can't forget. Because it's still there, on the tip of a kindergartner's tongue. 

And while trying to raise a kid without that kind of hate or ignorance, it's been easy to pretend none of it exists. When we’d discussed the Civil War, we'd touched on slavery as this awful thing in the past. But was that enough? To explain that word? Why it still lingers?

We hear all the time about black father’s having the talk with their sons. And that’s devastating. From that context, I'm lucky. Here I'm worried about my kid using a word that is off limits when some parents are having life and death discussions. 

Yet at the same time can I honestly look at this little white kid before me and tell him racism was something in the past? Pretend it doesn't exist? I thought I could, hoped I could. 

But…

…A coworker, with a nudge, when it was just him and me in the van

…That guy at work who said I only hang around ------s

…A friend of a friend’s father, at the dinner table

I can’t.

And later that night, in bed after I had some time to think about it, I could only try to explain. To help him understand what has happened and how that word came to be. I could only tell him what I've witnessed. The damage a word can cause. 

I haven't felt it, not like my friends have. But I’ve been close enough to its hurt, the tears, the anger and rage it carries. I’ve watched it hit my friends full on. I've seen their reactions. I've heard my friends use it in an attempt to take the word back, in songs when it was reclaimed and rearranged.  

From there, we talked about hatred and atrocities. We talked about the Holocaust, about Hitler and what he he'd done to the Jewish people.

Then we talked about slavery. We talked about all men being created equal. We talked owning humans, their ancestry. We talked segregation, Jim Crow, and Ruby Bridges. What it must have felt like when she walked into school each day, that word being slung at her like a brick.

Imagine how that felt?

It was a lot for an eight year old. But I realized by shying away from it, I’d only delayed the inevitable. I thought since I didn’t talk like that it would be enough.

But it wasn’t enough.

Sure, I’d shielded him from that word, just as I’d shielded him from violence. But now it’s here, in our kitchen. It’s time to talk. To listen. To try and understand and go forth and do the best he can for the world around him. To try and be the solution.

Damn,  

I need to take my own advice.

 

Friday, January 8, 2021

Back Up and Running

My son and I like to roughhouse. We love playing football at the field at the end of our street, which lately always seems to turn into some sort of Braveheart battle scene. We play basketball. I go hiking in the woods with my dogs. We ride bikes, climb trees, wrestle. I’m pretty much his tackling dummy/stunt guy. Everything he wants to do, I’m game.

But… my back.

At forty-five, I guess I might need to slow down a bit. But I tweaked my back over the holidays (could’ve been the street hockey goal he got for Christmas). I never stopped doing what we do, until I couldn’t do what we do.

I gave it a day, then two. By day three it was still bad. I couldn’t walk or sleep, and my posture was crooked. My wife, a lady I watched give birth to a child without the help of any epidural or medicine at all, was hardly sympathetic to my whining. The next day I called the physical therapist.

My appointment was three days out, so by the time I walked up the street, feeling darn good about magical healing powers I might add, I was considering cancelling altogether.

I mean, this stuff was for old people, right? Ladies in walkers, old men with new hips, that sort of thing. I was only a bit sore, at least until I coughed and almost cried.

The therapist welcomed me in. We’ll call her Tara. Before I could tell her I thought it all might be a waste of time, Tara pointed out the way I was slumped to the side—which I totally thought I wasn’t doing.

She looked me over, and to my horror didn’t laugh me out. Didn’t tell me to go run off with the young bucks. Nope, she asked me to lie down. She looked me over. I kept on about how I was fine. Tara said she had to get “Jim” because he was a strong guy.

Odd, I remember thinking. Why would she need a strong guy?

Before I could think much more about it, Jim walked in. A barrel chested guy with broad shoulders and a penchant for rolling his neck, he looked me up and down holding back a smirk. He told me lie back and relax and grab the sides of the bed, as he began admiring my shoes. He straightened my legs out, as I sat back and laughed.

Oh, okay, I laughed, telling him all the silly stuff my son and I do together, I mean, you know how--WHAT IN THE WORLD DID YOU JUST DO TO ME?

Jim yanked my leg with the force one might use to start a lawn mower. Something clicked, and after my initial shock, I noticed and immediate difference. “That ought do it but maybe we should do one more,” he said, a wild look in his eyes.

I walked out with a second appointment. I was feeling like an old man. I mean, my back was significantly better but gone were those awesome days in my twenties when I’d hurt myself and wake up the next day good as new.

But I’m on the mend. Just no more hoisting my kid up on my shoulders. And I’m not ready to give up Braveheart football or street hockey or much of anything else. No way. I’m armed with new muscle activating techniques, some youtube stretches and strengthening exercises. I mean, as I’m writing this, I feel ready to go...

To my next appointment.

Wednesday, December 30, 2020

A Few Things...

 

Go back to any post on this blog in 2013 and it’s easy to see my kid is my world. So what happens when a new baby comes along? Well, I’m supposed to say my world has evolved And it has. But…

It’s different.

Of course I love the new baby. Don’t be silly. But it’s like I’ve entered this strange new place where it’s now baby world and kid world. We have jibber jabbering and baby talk in one room and a boy whose whole life has changed way too much in one year in the other.

I mean, not only does my kid (and everyone) have this Covid thing endure, with school shutting down last spring and now this hybrid stuff without friends. Toss in a baby and the new dynamics of our family and well, we're off to a rocky start.   

Again, I don’t claim this problem as ours alone. It’s not original. But I don't write about everyone's experiences, I write about my own. And this is new to me and it’s no easy adjustment.

My son loves his new sister. He’s great with her. They play and he’s already deemed her a “princess warrior.”

But, well, babies cry. And they need lots of attention. Again, nothing new here but we’re talking about a seven year-old who’s emotional state isn’t always solid ground as he’s trying to navigate the world’s many problems. 

And so sometimes, when the baby is crying and it’s getting harder and harder to control our son’s downtime from technology our lives now depend on, as we work to figure out when it’s okay to play games or do schoolwork or otherwise zone out and just look at pictures he’s taken on his digital camera, it can get dicey to say the least. And I’m working from home in a laundry room, trying to work a day job, write sometimes, sell books at others while my wife is exhausted from going back to school and breastfeeding and being the bad guy who gets on our son about school work to the point I almost seems like my son and my wife’s relationship is just one more casualty of this stupid year in Covid...

It can be exhausting, you know?

So uhh… How do you fix this?

You don’t, that’s how. You realize you’re with the people you love most in the world and it’s best if you just look at the bright side because otherwise you’re not doing anyone any favors here, especially a new born baby.

So here we are, in this new, bizarre, hybrid, online, work-from-home environment. We have a baby. We have a kid who only goes to school a couple of times a week. We are so far removed from our lives only just one year ago that it’s hard to fathom.

But…

The other night, my son and I were at the dinner table. He was moving pasta around on his plate and we were playing chess (hey, don’t knock the dinner habits, at this point it’s survival). I had the baby sitting on the table with us and he was making faces at her, trying to get her to laugh. At four months, she’ll giggle and smile occasionally, try to tell us something in baby speak.

But then…

She started laughing. Like, real, belly laughs. Simon kept on with the faces and she was hiccupping and giggling up a storm, just filling up the house with the healing power of baby.

After all the fights we’d had lately, all the family arguments and the adjustments to having this new life form in our house, it was a moment I’ll never forget.

Seriously, these little moments are what it takes to keep me going. We have our health, our house, each other. I can complain about everything else but what does it matter?

For a few moments I was filled with enough joy to keep plugging along. To remember what is important. Christmas was small this year, a few yard visits with grandparents, a few neighborly hellos and a house full of warmth and cookies. Just a few of everything...

But that laugh. Simon’s face. Things may have fell off some from where we were but it’s proof we can get it all back. We can be happy together.

We can make it.

 


Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Bella the Beast

 

The first baby napped. A little bit of playtime in the morning then boom, nap. Up for lunch then he snoozed through most of the afternoon. He napped before bed. He was regular. Life was regular.

This time around. Nothing is regular.

She’s a sweet little girl, I think. When she wakes up, she’s bright eyed and looking around, the trees really get her attention. The world is a special place, and she’s loving the view.

But after five, ten, fifteen minutes max and her brow wrinkles. Her color turns from a milky white to a deep crimson. The lip juts out and...

Three…

Two…

One…

The beast is here.

The beast will claw out your eardrums with her seek-and-destroy screams. She will slap you into submission. She will shriek, wail, pause to fill the lungs before she roars again. You don’t want to be short a bottle or breast when this thing is hungry.

She is just beginning to coo and jabber but blink and these little moments vanish. Usually, it comes with a smile, enough to melt your heart until she destroys a diaper on your lap. And then the beast returns with a vengeance.

When she sleeps, we tip around the house like cat burglars. Any creak on the floor and we exchange wide eyed looks, scowls, everyone ready to turn on one another in an instant. In the case our seven year old forgets the little beast is sleeping and comes rushing in flushed and loud—you know, being a seven year old—my wife and I lunge for him, a single finger to our lips. Shhhh!”

She’s not quite two months old and seems to realize her absolute power over us. She can change plans on a dime. She can get what she wants. All she has to do is threaten to blow and she will be returned to Mom’s arms, ready to nurse.

I know things will change. I’ll go back to work. We’ll all go out into the world again. Maybe we’ll look back at this time together and remember the good moments. The soft coos and the rare smiles. The impromptu walks with my seven year old on my lunch breaks. This very easy morning commute down the hallway. My open window, the birds’ morning songs and the slight breeze in the fall leaves. The…

Oh, baby’s crying. Gotta run!