Friday, August 22, 2014

New Beginnings




For many people, January 1st represents a fresh start -- new year, new commitments, new opportunities. For those of us with kids, January frequently comes in August.  This year, for my family, our "new year" began on August 20th at 6:00am.

Alarms rang.  Parents arose, forcing grogginess aside.  Dog walked, lunches made, showers taken, and then the real work began.  We woke the kids.  Mayhem ensued.

This year, our new beginnings include something significantly different.  Now that he's big-boy-3, Sam is starting school.  He is being initiated into the early wake-up/get dressed/eat breakfast/hit the road routine. I'm proud to say, although he did have the deer-in-headlights look about him, he did great.  Only roughly 5,972 more days like that until high school graduation.  We're on our way!

The other kids have new beginnings, too.  Emma has made the transition from "little girl second grade" to "big girl third grade".  Will took the gigantic leap to middle school...all the way across the street at our school. And Jack has made the somewhat easier transition to King of the School as a reigning 8th grader.  He's seen all; he knows all.  We're luckily he's benevolent.

But the kids aren't the only ones who get new beginnings.  Parents sometimes do, too. Since my last blog post, back at the end of the school year, there has been a "new beginning" bubbling.  This is really the first time I've spoken of it.  Keep reading and you'll understand why.

Sometime last Spring, the writing bug hit me, as it does often.  This blog is a Godsend to me -- as a guy who feels the need to write like other people feel the need to sleep, I get a public outlet for whenever the urge arises.  However, the blog has its limitations, and there are times when the writing bug is compounded with the creativity bug and, in those moments, nonfiction, semi-autobiographical prose simply will not do. It's then that I knowingly hit the "new" option in Word, stare at the glaring white page, and start to shape ideas. Sometimes I know where it's headed; most times I don't.

Back in the Spring, I had an idea that needed some room to grow.  I wanted to write a vehicle for my kids. As most of you know, my kids love musical theater, as do Blythe and I. The writing bug hit. The creative bug hit. The blank page stared at me. Why not write a musical for the kids?

There was one problem.  I can't write music.

Never being one to allow silly little obstacles like 'not being able to write music for a musical' get in my way, I came up with a work around.  I would write a story in which the characters would sing some of our favorite songs that were written for other musicals.  Basically, I was going to re-purpose music. This idea really made me proud...here I was, writing something my kids would love, using music that we all love, and I was going to create and write and all was good in the world. Genius!

Here's the thing.  Apparently, someone long ago decided that you can't just take other people's music and use it without asking.  There are laws written for this kind of thing.  In my mind, it's really ridiculous.  I mean, if those authors would want to use my words, I'd gladly lend them.  But, it seems, nearly all professional musicians and writers want to actually be paid for their work, whether used as intended or "re-purposed".

There was hope, though.  My friend, Seth Travaglino, the gentleman who pointed out the potentially lawsuit-inducing flaw in my plan, suggested an alternative.  Seth is a terrific guy, one of the most talented people I know (and a great dad and teacher, too -- He's a triple threat).  He graciously read my script and made two suggestions.

Seth is ingrained in the theater arts community in the Tampa area. He offered to bring in someone who could write original music to fit the script.  I jumped at the offer.

Seth also suggested something else.  Every year, our Junior Thespians troupe at school (I've written about Thespians before, but in a nutshell, think Competitive Theater for kids) performs a One Act at competition. Seth asked if, perhaps, we could edit my script, add music and have the kids perform this original piece for the One Act competition.

Butterflies.  No, butterflies doesn't describe the feeling correctly.  Adrenaline?  Anxiety? Not quite right either.  I'm sure there is a more accurate word.  I'm just not sure what it is.

Time for some truth about writing and me.  I love writing. Since you're reading this, I'm guessing you kind of figured that on your own (but it is still very meta to mention, right?)  Sometimes when I write about writing, it generates some very reassuring responses, which are all very kind, but it makes me feel like I'm pandering for response.  I'm not.  That's not to say the responses aren't incredibly appreciated -- more than you'll ever know, really.  But, again, that feels like pandering which is what I'm trying to avoid in the first place.

I mention the butterflies/anxiety/adrenaline/neurosis and my response to response because when Seth suggested we take this to competition, I was flooded with two contradictory feelings: overwhelming excitement and overwhelming fear.

When I'm done writing this blog post and I hit "publish", my heart will race.  "Going Public" with thoughts, feelings, memories, emotions creates the same feeling in me as if  I'd ingested 15 cans of Red Bull.  I'm excited and tingly and nervous and edgy.  I imagine this must be what my kids feel like on stage.  The vulnerability of it is exhilarating and terrifying at the same time. And I get like that for a simple, mundane blog post. Now, put yourself in my shoes and extrapolate that feeling -- knowing the words you write are going to be performed, publicly on stage by people you know and love, along with extraordinary music (thank you, Blake Conley -- your art is as inspiring as it is masterful) in front of an audience of strangers.  A thousand thoughts and feeling crisscross all at the same time.  Great big huge, hairy, fang-bearing, blood-sucking butterflies.

Yes, this is a kids' show.  Yes, I understand some of you will accuse me of being overly dramatic (not the first time I've been accused of that.  Probably won't be the last.) The incredibly high quality work that Seth creates on stage would change your mind, I promise.  Kids show?  Yes.  But it is not trivial or trite by any means.

In my show, one of the story lines has a boy coaching his friend on how to ask out a girl.  The boy being coached is concerned because he's never admitted to this girl his feelings for her.  He's afraid of her response.  He is having a hard time being vulnerable.  His friend gives him this advice:

"Close your fist. When your hand is in a fist, nothing can hurt the inside. But nothing can get in, either.  Now open it up.  Sure, it’s vulnerable now.  But it doesn’t keep everything out, either. (Puts a piece of candy in his hand) It’s one or the other.  Have an open hand.  You won’t regret it."  

I took my character's advice.  Here I am with an open hand.  It's exhilarating and terrifying.  I can't wait to see this thing on stage. It's exhilarating and terrifying and it's exactly as it's supposed to be.

But let's back-up a little bit. Before we get to the point where this story could be performed as a one act, it had to actually be one act.  When I wrote the original script, pilfering other people's music and bending it to my will, I wanted to fit in as many amazing (and apparently illicit) songs as I possibly could. So, the script was a traditional two act show.  Okay -- not exactly a "traditionally" two act....it was a long-ass, jam-packed two act show.

You might think, well, it shouldn't be that hard to edit a two act show down to one.  Cut some story threads here and there.  Take a major character or two and push them to the background.  Make sure you hit the themes harder and faster.  No big whup.  Right?  Right.

And you'd be absolutely correct.  If you weren't the writer of the piece.  And if you were, you'd stress. You ask, "How can I take out a single perfect word?"  Then, you make deals with yourself.  You find ways to turn three sentences into one.  You condense descriptive words into a single describer.  You find less important themes and untangle them from the story.  You make it work.  And with every cut, with every reduction, you agonize.  It's analogous to pulling out every hair on your head, one hair at a time.

And after the multiple surgeries, you prepare to take off the bandages -- a read-through without editing. A read-through to ensure the spirit of the piece lived through the process.  To ensure your characters were still who they were supposed to be.  To see if the retold story is the story you want to tell.

So, I did all of that.  And when I was done, I realized, the process was the best thing to ever happen to my writing.  If necessity is the mother of invention, she must also be the aunt to creativity.  This process forced me to find an economy of words.  To ensure each word had impact.  To ensure each word had necessity. To make the very best story as tightly wound as possible without extraneous thoughts or notions or verbiage. It helped me make something better than what I had made before.

And so, it was then, when I handed over this new one-act creation of beauty to Seth and we started to discuss time restrictions (One Acts can be no longer than 40 minutes, from set-up to strike) that the realization struck me -- my beautiful, finely tuned, dare I say 'perfect' editorial effort was, well, at least twice as long as could be allowed. Crap.

Long (long...LONG!) story shorten....this happened a few times.  The script needed further edits for time. And each time I edited it, I thought I could find no further way of cutting it without losing the integrity of the story.  And yet, with each round, somehow, I felt like it became more pure and really what it should have been to start.  Through this process, I learned to write a better story (none of those skills are on display in this particular blog piece, though.  So sorry.)

There is another really important part to the story of the short but eventful life of this one act, and that is the collaborative process that helped it become a real show. Our partnership deserves a blog post all of its own -- it was magical and reassuring and awesome in so many ways. Seth Travaglino brought in Blake Conley, our uber-talented composer and lyricist.  This is not an exaggeration -- the first time I listened to a song Blake wrote for the show, my jaw went slack and I was speechless.  As you all know, for me, that's a true rarity.Last night,  I played a song for the kids that Blake recorded recently -- Will, by far my most discriminating child and harshest critic, very seriously told me that Les Miserables has been replaced as his favorite musical by this show.  It wasn't my writing that affected him.  It was these amazing, addictive songs. Blake, my friend, your talent astounds me.

And the driving force through this process was Seth himself.  Every team needs a rock, someone to give vision, keep focus, and lead.  Seth is so good at all those things, it's hardly noticeable when huge leaps of progress are achieved.   Working with both Seth and Blake, I am humbled by their enormous artistic and humanistic abilities.  And I'm grateful to have been a part of this group effort.  As I wrote earlier, this topic really deserves an entire blog post, but until I can make that happen, it would have been criminal not to give them the utmost credit I possibly can. From the depths of my soul, thank you, Seth and Blake.

So, onward this little show goes -- today, kids received the script and music to start the learning process. By November 8th, it'll be a full fledged one act production, brought to life via the talents of co-directors extraordinaire Seth Travaglino and Micheal Vokoun. This should be an amazing ride.  On occasion, I'll post an update or two.

Welcome to life, "Understudies".  You're in good hands.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

The Auld Lang Sine, Corbett Prep School Year 2013-2014

The last day of school, to me, has always felt a little bit like the end of the holiday season in December.  So much to to grateful for, so much to look forward to, and a little hint of sadness to see the previous year go. So, as we look back, and look forward, and are a little sad, let's take a moment to take it all in.



Congratulations to all our Corbett Prep friends on another terrific school year. We're so grateful for this wonderful school community -- the learning and experiences our kids have taken part in. 2013-2014 was an amazing school year in so many ways.

As we enter 2014-2015 with an 8th grader -- only one year from high school!!!, a 6th grader, a 3rd grader, and (gulp) the littlest guy entering Corbett as a PreK 3 student, the expectations are high for an amazing ride!


Beyond the classroom, beyond the lunches and car rides to/from school, beyond the homework battles and last minute touches on seemingly every major project, beyond the memorization of lines and living room dance recitals, beyond complaints of the restrictions imposed by the dress code and constant battle to figure out where one of the kids might have left their lunchbox.... Beyond all the craziness, all the endless, frenetic, constant, "wouldn't have it any other way" craziness... This year wouldn't have been so special without our tightly woven net of Corbett Prep friends, both child and adult.

Years from now, when we look back on these days as fond memories of simpler times (they're
always simpler in retrospect, right?), it won't be the homework nor projects nor lunches nor dress code that will be featured. It will be the times we laughed about the homework, and the times we commiserated about the challenges creating the picky child lunch", and the moments we debated amongst ourselves whether a logo was or wasn't dress code compliant, and the memory of discussing creative ways to ensure a project was up to snuff.  Homework, projects, lunches, dress code, grades, field trips -- they are the framework of where our memories will live, but it is our friends who we will always remember bringing beauty to that framework.

Thank you all for being a part of our family's school experience this year, for allowing us to be a part of yours, for being there in moments great and not-so-great, for laughing with us, for helping us through moments when we were on the brink of tears, for having our back so many times and allowing us to return the favor on occasion. Thank you for sharing your kids with us, and for the loving way you have accepted ours in your life. Thank you for your friendship and so much more. 

Saying goodbye to this year is tough and exciting at the same time. It was an amazing year of growth. But just like the inevitable turn of the seasons, the end of the school year is followed by a joyous summer break, followed by the start of the next adventure. And we go into it knowing we have each other, not simply our Corbett Prep friends, but, really, more accurately, our Corbett Prep family.


Thursday, April 10, 2014

How I Fell in Love with Fiddler

A father was saying goodbye to his daughter at the train station.  She was going away, going away to be a grown up, but her father would always see her as his little girl.  She was going far away, into difficult circumstances, facing many unknowns.  Her father had responsibilities at home to the rest of his family, so she had to go alone.  Their goodbye ran chills up my spine and filled my eyes with tears.

It could have been me on that train platform, in the uncomfortable quiet before the inevitable goodbye.  It could have been a grown Emma, naively comforting me and assuring me it would all be okay.  That’s what I saw in my mind’s eye.  It was an incredible emotional connection I made at that train station.

But it wasn’t me.  In fact, it wasn’t really a father and daughter.  More than that, the train station was three feet off the ground, on a stage in front of me.  I was watching 12, 13 and 14 year olds transform into adults.  This emotionally effective moment came from a middle school performance of Fiddler on the Roof


And, as I sat there, mesmerized and half-considering yelling out to Tevye to not let her go – as I sat there, in that moment, I realized that I had to admit how very wrong I was.  Not for the consideration of giving Tevye very public parenting advice…had I seen this show one more time, I don’t know if I could hold that in.
I was wrong because when the middle school musical was announced, the majority of people involved were uber-excited. Jack, my middle schooler who this affected the most in our family, couldn’t wait.  The director, a good friend of mine, told me Fiddler was one of his favorite shows and I later came to understand that he would only produce it with just the right group of kids.  The excitement level among our friends who are parents of middle-schoolers seemed sky high. I’m now embarrassed to admit, my reaction could most accurately be described as “meh”.  But that, you see, was my own fault, my own doing.  I didn’t get it.  I do now.

For many of you, the thought of any emotion at the unveiling of a school musical selection is whimsical, at best.  However, I know many others of you live in a household similar to mine… the school musical isn’t just some light and airy “oh, isn’t that fun” kind of thing.  In my home, the school musical takes over – we’ll be reading lines, listening to music, practicing choreography, diving into background material, searching for costuming pieces – for months and months.  That’s to say nothing of the emotional investment in the rehearsal process – the time the kids spend together, the (hopefully) lifelong bonds they form, and the stories they tell us.  So, the unveiling of the musical is not just some flighty and fun passing moment in our house.  In our house, it’s an EVENT in capital letters.

When Fiddler was announced, my brain sunk deep into its recesses (not to suggest my brain is too deep, just that as shallow as it may be, it sunk to its deepest parts) and dusted off some memories and deep seated emotions…  The memory that jumped to mind was watching Fiddler on the Roof on TV as a child, at maybe seven years old or so.  I remember it as boring, frankly.  I remember it all looked old.  I remember people with funny accents and jokes that the adults laughed at but didn’t seem funny to me at all.  I remember being bored….  And I remember my parents explaining how this was a movie about our people.  My family’s ancestry – both sides -- is a direct line from Eastern European Judaism.  I think they thought this fact would make me love the movie more when, in fact, it drove me further away.  I didn’t want to be associated with this movie or the people in it or the stories they lived…  (I may need to see Woody Allen’s therapist to really dig deep into this counter-intuitive reaction.  But, I’m fairly sure, I’m not the lone Jew in modern day who felt this way.  Maybe we could get a group session…)

When Fiddler was announced, I tried to get past my apathy and tried to get excited for Jack and all the other kids.  I knew – in my heart, I knew – this is a show that people love.  I have complete trust in the gentleman directing the show.  He is an amazingly talented and caring guy, and his standards for what goes on that stage are incredibly high.  I trust him...  So, I knew there had to be redeeming value in this show.  I just had to get past my own head trash. 

We watched the movie with Jack.  So, okay, it was much better than I remembered.  I secretly cursed my parents for making me watch it as a seven year old – and then realized that Emma just watched it with us.  She’s seven.  Oops.

Over the next couple months, Jack came home with stories and tidbits from his rehearsals.  It was clear that he had fallen in love with his part (Motel the Tailor) and the show.  He’d regale me with the things he’d learned about Judaism in the early 1900’s.  He’d retell stories of character development and symbolism and authentic dances.  His excitement was palatable.  And that helped me.  But it didn’t get me over the hump.
In the weeks before the show, I happened upon IMDB’s Fiddler on the Roof page. As I commonly do, I wandered over to the “Quotes” section and started perusing.  Tevye: As the good book says, when a poor man eats a chicken, one of them is sick. Hey – that really is clever.  And I read more.  Tevye:  I know, I know. We are Your chosen people. But, once in a while, can't You choose someone else? As I read more and more, I came to appreciate how finessed this writing really was.  How had I missed that before? Well, it is a classic, right?  This brought on the much deserved self-imposed head slap as I uttered “duh” to myself. 

When the show opened, I came to the theater with a much more open mind.  And what I experienced watching this show, I still have a difficult time putting into words.  I mean that literally.  After the first show, I found my friend who had directed the show and I could not form the words to tell him what a profound impact the show had on me.  Wordless.  Me! Mark the time and date, as that was a first and might be the last time that happens to me.

The show opens in darkness, with the sound of live instruments tuning.  Our show had musicians – live musicians! – who volunteered their time to play.  We had teachers and teachers’ spouses and alumni and friends who volunteered their time – lots of their time – to come play for this show.  And these people were no mere amateurs.  They played beautifully and added an element of warmth to the production.  How incredibly fortunate we are to have folks of this quality play for our kids’ show.  It was magical.

The first vision on the stage was of the cast forming a semi-circle at the back, all dressed as Russian peasants from 1905  The Fiddler, perched on the roof of the little stage house, played the familiar Fiddler tune, and on walked Tevye.  Our shows are all double cast, meaning there are two kids who play each role – when one is “on cast” (meaning playing the casted role), the other is in the ensemble in their “off cast” role.  The first performance I attended was for Jack’s “on cast”. In this cast, Tevye was played by an eighth grader named Eli.  I’ve known Eli for a number of years, and he’s a wonderful kid, always a smile on face.  I’ve seen him act and even do some improvisation work.  I knew he was talented. 

But when Eli walked on that stage, he wasn’t Eli the smiling eighth grader playing Tevye.  He was Tevye.  The costume helped, but something inside Eli made that character come alive. His mannerisms, his accent, his relationship with the other characters, his relationship with God – he was Tevye.  I lost myself watching his performance.  Had you told me this was a professional production with kids who had been on stage since birth, I would not have blinked.  Eli started the show – and then the rest of the cast came in – Golde, Tzeidel, Hodel, Chava, Perchik, Yente, Feyedka, Lazar and, yes, Motel came to life, too.  We were transported back in time in a way I’ve never experienced. 

It wasn’t just the lines that were spoken, although they were spoken well.  It was the little moments.  It was the reaction to the dialog.  It was the very real relationships these kids had with each other, being given to us, the audience, as a gift.  I watched Jack and one of the female cast members, a friend of his in real life, react to the news that their characters were being forced out of their town.  Devastation.  And I watched as they tried to silently comfort each other. The looks on their faces.  The trust they had in each other. It was a small moment, hidden behind the main action happening at the front of the stage – but that little moment was so powerful for me.  I felt what they felt.  I was hurting because of their pain.  And, yes, they are 12, 13 and 14 year olds on that stage.  Think what you will, but it was a moment that will last in my memories forever.
The music became electric.  This “old” show, in my mind at least, infected me with its musical charms.  Jack performance of “Miracle of Miracles” became an earworm for me (here is the video if you’d like to see for yourself: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YXBftynKOLw), but all of the music was unbelievably fantastic.  I recognize that isn’t very descriptive for a writer to write “unbelievably fantastic” but I’ll remind you that I am at a loss for words…

That loss for words extends to what may amount to be my favorite moment ever that I've watched Jack on stage.  If you think of musical theater as "compartments" -- the big three are "acting", "singing", and "dancing".  Of those three, Jack has always felt least comfortable with the last one -- dancing.  However, knowing that he wanted to be on that stage and not limited, he worked to overcome his lack of natural dance ability.  He was so serious about it that he asked us to enroll him in ballet classes, which, by the way, helped him immensely!  In Fiddler, Model and Tzeidel get married at a very traditional Eastern European Jewish wedding. And at this wedding, the men do a very traditional "Bottle Dance" where they balance an empty bottle of wine on their heads and dance until it falls.  The dance they do is intricate and difficult.  I thought, surely, we'd cut this from the staged version of the show.  Nope.  I watched Jack and some of his closest friends perform a stunning bottle dance, live, for seven performances of this show.  The nauced performance they give gives me chills.  To know the love this group of boys have for each other and to see their breathtaking achievement -- no words.  This was the jaw-dropping, audience frenzy-inducing moment of the show.  (Here is one performance, if you are interested in seeing it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oEL4J8bIu_Q)

After seeing the show for the first time, my head was spinning.  How would a group of kids, not even in high school, give a performance like that?  The answer is clearly – they bought into it, too.  They fell in love with this show.  I was starting to understand.

I had the pleasure of seeing the show again the next day, with the other cast.  After what I had experienced the first night, I wasn’t sure what my expectations should have been, but, no surprise, the other cast knocked it out of the ball in the same way Jack’s cast had.  It was different – but so engrossing and beautiful and tangible…. And again, my head was spun.  These kids, most of whom I’ve known for years and seen do fine work in other shows – beyond “fine” actually…I’ve seen them do phenomenal work in other shows…. but in this show, they took it to a level beyond anything I could have comprehended before seeing it.  Maybe the right word is “enchanting”.

After three shows from each cast, we were blessed with the opportunity to watch the staff and alumni of our school perform in one performance, with the kids providing the ensemble.  It, too, was magical – and not just because Blythe performed the role of Grandma Tzeidel to perfection!  I walked out of that last show as a convert.  I had become a Fiddler fan!

As with all shows, the kids get incredibly close.  However, there was something about the magic of this show that made even that different.  When the shows were over, the emotions ran high.  For our eighth graders, this was their last hurrah as a middle school performers.  Seventh graders were being handed the leadership mantle.  There were lots of tears and lots of laughs…and lots of hugs.  They were a family, saying goodbye….like Tevye at the train station.


We’ve been so fortunate to have such an amazing “theater family” around us in all the shows the kids have been a part of the past few years.  It shapes Blythe and I as much as it shapes them. We, too, have formed bonds that will, hopefully, last a lifetime.  These shows are really special moments in our lives.  I was worried that Fiddler wouldn’t be as special.  Wow – how wrong I was…  With that new mindset, I say “L’Chiam”!

Friday, March 28, 2014

The Better Half

Most of the time, my blog posts center on my kids and some of the experience and lessons I've learned from them.  This post is a little different.  This one is about my partner in parenting, my partner in life.

As many of you know, my job has me on the road a lot.  I've been on the road roughly half a month for each of the past four months. I love my job and I think I'm fairly good at it. The one part that's so tough is knowing, even after I come home from one trip, there is a date in the near future where I will have to say goodbye again for for the next one.

But, frankly, I probably have the easy part.

When I leave, my headaches are composed of uncooperative airlines and weather not designed for speedy travel. However, at home, life goes on. Early morning wake ups for band, a little boy who needs the attention of a parent from the moment his eyes open, a little girl who doesn't want to open her eyes (but school beckons anyway), lunches that need to be assembled, breakfasts for all, rides to school in traffic (and sometimes rain -- and we all know what happens to Tampa traffic when it rains...), permission slips to be signed, goodbye kisses to be delivered -- and that only he first two hours in the morning.  It's hard enough when there are two of us, but when I leave town, somehow, Blythe manages on her own.

She manages the laundry. She manages the meals.  She manages the rehearsals and the dance practices and after school activities and the homework and the dog and bedtime routines... And she does it with grace.

I know the term survivor guilt is usually applied to a situation where two people experience similar circumstances and only one survives, but I going to take some liberty here and explain that I feel "survivor" guilt when I'm on the road.

Blythe rarely complains, but I know when she has had a bad day. And a bad day isn't comprised of those activities I listed above -- that's a normal day. A bad day is all those responsibilities while dealing with a cell phone that refuses to work properly and realizing that my travel schedule means that she can't be at a Girl Scout sleep over for Emma and having the kids catch colds and not feeling so hot herself and having one of the animals get sick in the house....

Survivor guilt because  I want to help -- all I want to do is my part to help -- but I can't because I'm not there.

Blythe is a trooper.  She's been down this road with me before. She knows the trials of the traveling husband. She doesn't complain. And sometimes, that makes me feel worse.

I don't think this public sentiment of appreciation can aptly demonstrate my most sincere appreciation for all Blythe does for our family.... She's our glue and our rock.  Not just when I travel. Always. I'm very lucky. 

But tonight, when I only got to speak with her for twenty minutes between all the plates she was spinning and her desperate need for sleep after having a tough night with Sam last night  -- and getting up at the crack of dawn for Emma's field trip this morning...and still dealing with the other wake ups, and lunch preps, and breakfast needs, etc... I feel selfish for wanting more of her time tonight when she needed it for recovery.  So, instead, I'm just going appreciate her a little more, hope she is sleeping well, and look forward to my trip home on Monday when the team is reunited again. I love you, Blythe. 

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Hiking.

I took my daughters to the mountains today and after a gentle hike the weather seemed likely to change so we headed back down.  We did not make it to the waterfalls but one day we will. My "Dad moment" was when we were halfway along the trial, sitting on a rock looking out across the landscape and we just talked. I wanted them to stop and pay attention to the journey and not just the prize.

The landscape of Utah is beautiful but the time with my kids was my gift. I required them to walk ahead of me and the youngest wanted to take the lead.  She lead us up the hill.  She wanted the responsibility, stayed on the path and learned to step aside for others. Just like her Dad does on escalators in airports. My kids were courteous to every person and I am so very proud of them.

Having experiences with my kids allows me to know who they are and I cannot get to know them without allowing them to have some room to breath. The same goes with adult relationships and they will one day be adults also.  I am in no hurry for that.

While we were sitting on that rock I tried to instill in them the benefits of just sitting still.  Take moments to pause and appreciate life and just enjoy it. I am still working on that concept with them and just as I saw the beauty of the mountains we were looking at was the beauty in their eyes and how me needing to teach them is teaching me the same lesson.


Friday, March 7, 2014

The WHY of Me


I was a quirky kid. Those of you who know me now probably find that shocking.  Or, maybe not.  But, yes, it’s true -- I was a quirky kid.  One of the defining moments of my childhood was the result of a quirk. To this day, I remember the moment vividly -- probably because I received a fairly severe admonishment from my fourth grade teacher. I was accused of looking at someone else’s paper while taking a spelling test. But.... well. The truth? I was looking at my neighbor’s paper.  Just not for the reasons you might  think. 

You see, the first instruction the class was given for that particular test was to “write your name on the upper right hand side of the paper”.  Simple as that instruction was, it caused me great consternation. No, I knew my right from my left. (When I was in the second grade, every morning after we said the Pledge of Allegiance, I would push my right sleeve up over my elbow, having just used that right hand to place over my heart which gave me confirmation I had the “right” right, and I left the “left” sleeve down to help me remember my R’s and L’s throughout the day.  When it was warm and I wore only t-shirts, I’d use the same mnemonic device, but with my socks instead.  By the fourth grade, though, I had right and left memorized.  Quirky, I know.)   

This simple instruction -- "write your name on the upper right hand side of the paper" --  made me sweat every time, regardless.  Serious confusion engulfed my brain and a battle inside it ensued.  Did the teacher intend for me to write my name on my right hand side of the paper or the right hand side of the paper as if I were the paper? If she had simply said “right” instead of “right hand” I believe I would have understood more clearly, but “right hand” implied ownership of the handedness – and even though the paper itself had no hand per se, if it had had a hand, it would have been, in fact, on my left hand side.  So, I did what I thought I had to do – I looked for confirmation on my neighbor’s paper.  I just needed to see where he wrote his name…. and I got caught.  Being nine years old, I was fairly inept at explaining why my eyes wandered, so I accepted the consequences. 

See what I mean?  Quirky.

I mention this because of another quirky childhood story which was recently unearthed from the crevices of my brain.  This one stems from back in second grade as my class was putting on a “Mother’s Day” event.  All our mom’s were invited into our (kinda) beautifully decorated classroom.  My classmates and I had made cakes and other barely recognizable pastries that looked exactly like they were made by seven year olds.  For this event, each student stood in the front of the room, held up their hand-drawn picture, and pontificated about the greatness of their mom.  There I was, in the front of the room (my right hand sleeve pushed up; the left one down), and I read off my reasoning for why my mom was so great – “She takes care of me when I’m sick”. 

On our ride home, my mom asked me why I had chosen that particular idea to illustrate why I loved her so much.  She seemed disappointed.  And I understood.  My proclamation of love for my mom was kind of crappy.  But the truth was, I had had a really, really hard time trying to put into words why I loved my mom.  I mean, not only did my seven year old vocabulary have some severe limitations, but the complexity of explaining why my mom was the greatest, best, most awesome mom in the whole world in one or two sentences was paralyzing.  So, I looked at what my neighbors were doing (are you sensing a theme here?) and kind of went with the general consensus of “mom’s take care of us”.  If it was good enough for Bobby and Kim, who sat at my table, it was good enough for me.

The problem was that it really wasn’t good enough.  And I knew it.  I knew it, but I couldn’t do anything about it.  I didn’t have the words.  I was incapable of explaining what I felt inside. 

I’ve come to find that the game was rigged from the start.  It wasn’t my answer that was the issue; it was the question being asked.  “Why do you love your mother?”  Biologically, the human brain is not wired to answer this question.

Long story short, our caveman ancestors had different everyday concerns than does modern man.  Whereas we bitch and complain about work, never having enough money, laundry piling up and the neighbor being a drunk, the first humans on earth had to deal with other life issues like defending themselves from tigers, how to get some sleep and not be some bear’s breakfast, carrying things around before we figured out the whole “wheel” thing and having a love/hate relationship with fire. 

Talking was not the strong suit of the caveman.  Grunting worked just fine to express their needs.  They had very real emotions, just like their modern day brethren: fear and love being two of the strongest, but they did not have the capacity or need to communicate those emotions in words.  Emotions existed to help them survive.

As we developed into our more modern form, circumstances in our lives have changed considerably. Our brains have developed more abilities – the ability to communicate developed out of a need to form more complex communities.  We still had the “caveman” core – the Limbic brain – which controls things like emotion, motivation, long-term memory, but we also added an outer region which allowed us more communication and reasoning skills.

So, the Limbic brain, where emotions form, has no language functions itself.  It wasn’t designed for that.  Has anyone ever asked you why you love your spouse, and while you know you do, you have a difficult time coming up with the words to describe why?  Your Limbic brain knows you’re in love but it isn’t real good at using the more complex and developed communication centers of the “outer” brain.  (For anyone with actual medical knowledge reading this, please forgive my simplification in this explanation.  My outer brain is not nearly developed enough to adequately explain brain function.)  So, literally, there is a biological reason that the seven year old me couldn’t put into works why I loved my mom so much. 

This limitation of the Limbic brain was brought to my attention in a book I’m reading called Start with Why by Simon Sinek.  It’s about how certain leaders and companies achieve great things while others, who seemingly are more capable, fail.  Mr. Sinek’s premise is that it is not WHAT you do, but WHY you do it that determines your success.

For example, Mr. Sinek discusses how Apple has dominated in a technologically saturated world.  Ask yourself this – What does Apple do that Dell or HP couldn’t?  They are all “technology” companies, right?  Yet Apple dominates, innovates, and leads the space while Dell and HP simply follow.  Why?  Mr. Sinek’s explanation is that Apple has a very strong WHY while the other two focus on their WHAT.

Dell and HP think of themselves as computer or technology manufacturers. They build very good machines which help people in their everyday life.  That’s WHAT they do.

Apple is a company that from day one wanted to challenge the status quo and make people’s lives better through the use of technology.  Everything they do is built around that notion.  It empowers them to break the rules.  Consumers love the results because it is designed with their exact wants and needs in mind. Because Apple has that strong WHY, they can innovate and  have built a cult like following who loves them for it.

Having a WHAT can be explained in words – WHAT's live in that outer core of brain.  Having a WHY is emotional.  WHY's live in the Limbic brain.  And when you get an entire organization with that same emotional belief system, you get amazing results.

There is certainly a lot more to this explanation that those few paragraphs above, and I don’t think my brief explanation does the book justice.  If you’re interested, here is a link to a TED talk from Mr. Sinek on this subject.  Trust me, he does a FAR better job of explaining this concept than do I. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sioZd3AxmnE

Reading the book lead me to thinking about my parenting skills.  It occurred to me that these same concepts are very relateable to raising a child or children.  When I first applied this concept to parenting, I almost dismissed it, thinking, “my WHY is that I want to be the best parent I can possibly be to my kids.”  But that isn’t a WHY.  That’s a WHAT.

To get to my WHY, I needed much more introspection – and maybe some therapy, but that’s yet to be determined!  Communicating WHY's doesn’t come easy.  Did I even have a WHY or was I just going through parenting my kids because that’s WHAT I thought I was supposed to do?

After much thought, I do have a WHY.  I’m not sure I have an easy-to-communicate, boiled-down WHY that I could print on t-shirts or coffee mugs, but I’ll try.  My WHY involves doing everything in my power to ready my children to be successful and happy adults.

Again, this gets very complicated because there are so many limbs on the tree that grows out of my WHY. Thinking it over, painfully, I’m fairly certain my parenting WHY stems from my own failures to be ready for life as an adult.  I don’t blame anyone but myself for that, and I eventually did grow up and figure some things out, but to say I was a “late-bloomer” would be a kinder description than one I would likely give. 

Here is how my WHY affects my parenting.  I’m very big on applauding not simply achievements but just as equally (sometimes deliberately more predominantly) focusing on and accentuating the work involved to create the achievement.  For example, we recently received our kids’ second trimester report cards.  Jack, again, received straight A’s.  As I’ve discussed in previous blog posts, Jack is dyslexic.  Back in third grade, Jack struggled and struggled with every school assignment.  Spelling tests were torture.  It frequently took us four or five hours a night to complete homework.  But, Jack persevered and adapted.  He was the hardest worker I’ve ever seen.  I’m telling you honestly, I could not have done with he did – he worked and worked and worked.  He never complained.  He put his head down and just worked.  And he started to see the results.  Eventually, he fully adapted to the point that most people are unaware of his reading issues, but that work ethic stuck with him.  He knows what it takes and he earns those A’s.

For Will, life has been easier on the school work front.  He started reading young and it has never been a challenge for him.  In fact, school, in general, has never been overly challenging for Will.  Sure, there have been assignments here and reports there that tested him, but for the most part, Will has always been able to get by on his wits.  Then, fifth grade happened.

Fifth grade has been the first time Will has been truly challenged.  The work has been harder and more complex.  And there is more of it.  A lot more.  All of a sudden, things didn’t come quite so easily for Will.  Now, he didn’t do poorly, but on his first report card, there were a few B’s – something Will has never seen before. He was upset. 

So, we had a talk and I told him the truth.  This was one of the best opportunities that he had in life.  He had a choice.  He could keep doing things the way he was, using his natural skills, and he’d likely still get A’s and B’s – a maybe an occasional C.  Or, he could push himself.  He could learn to work through issues.  He could learn to never accept “good enough”.  He could focus on his effort rather than taking things easy. 

Will accepted the challenge.  This wasn’t easy for Will.  He had to admit he had an issue – Will has a pretty high opinion of Will, so to admit there was an issue was a great leap.  And over the next few months, we (Blythe, Will and I) worked together a lot on his homework – more than we had ever done before.  In the past, Will would get home, cruise through his homework and jump onto whatever Xbox game was en vogue at the time.  Now, he would bring his homework to me, I’d show him where he needed more effort, I’d give him examples of how to improve his work, and I’d push him, sometimes to his frustration point, to not accept mediocre.  There were several times when he was angry at me for calling him out, but he always did the work, ultimately.  And he admitted to me that he really didn’t know what “complete” assignments looked like before we started this.  It started to gel.

So, when Will’s 2nd Trimester report card also had straight-A’s, we were beyond thrilled.  And I made sure to celebrate Will’s hard work that led to these results.

This is a part of my WHY.  When I was young, my report card was also celebrated – but generally for the results on the paper, not the work involved in getting them.  I took away that “being smart” was a real attribute.  I had no idea that “being smart” alone got you nowhere in life.  Only combined with hard work does your brain capacity help you in any way.  My work ethic was lacking when I was a young adult.  I just “got by” because I thought “being smart” would ultimately be my meal ticket (literally).  It was a hard lesson for me to learn…and now, as a part of my WHY, I try to ensure my kids understand, when it’s easier to instill, rather than later in life when the lessons hurt a lot more.  I can proudly say that Jack, Emma and, now Will are well on their way to having a significantly developed work ethic that could rival an adult’s.  When Sam is old enough, he, too will hear my message.  It’s a part of my WHY so he’ll have no choice but to hear it in everything I do…

There is, of course, a lot more to this WHY.  It is my desire to expose the kids to as many facets of the realities of life as I can.  Another example – no one’s fault but mine, but I was not prepared to understand money issues as a young adult.  Money issues – salaries, bills, mortgages, credit, etc. – were never discussed around my house, and I never asked.  It took me a long, long time to understand the realities of money and how it affects your life.  I feel fortunate to have been employed in positions that have allowed us to have a lifestyle we truly enjoy, but in my younger years, there was a lot of hard knocks I wish I could have avoided.

I spend as much time with my kids as I possibly can.  It’s easy because I love being around them and being with them is as much for me as it if for them.  But it also comes from my WHY.  I want them to know they have value and they should never feel devalued in their worth.  I spend time to help them understand just how valued they are and to be proud of it.  Of course, I don’t just “tell” them over and over and over how valuable they are.  I try to show them – having real conversations with them, inviting them to spend time with me, going places together, asking their opinions and truly engaging their thoughts.  Having real interaction about things that are important to them.  That’s how they can come to understand their value.

There are plenty of other examples of how I live my WHY, but I won’t bore you with them here.  The great thing about a WHY is it comes out in everything I do… even writing a silly blog about being a dad.  Or posting on Facebook some funny family interactions.  Or playing with my kids. Even jokingly embarrassing my kids in public because I’m, you know…quirky.

So, I challenge you today.  Parent or not, think about yourself and the things you do.  Think about what drives you to make decisions and take action.  Sit down and put into words, the best you can, your WHY.  I can promise you, going forward, it’ll help bring clarity to your life.




Saturday, March 1, 2014

When the child raises the parent

Here is a teaching exercise I never thought about until confronted with.

How to teach a child to eat a sunflower seed?

It isn't really that easy until it is easy.  When I pay attention the whole process having been repeated thousands of times is quite involved.  I got all philosophical on my kids which annoys them but they are getting used to it.

"Crack the problem open gently enough to achieve the goal without obliterating it. Use precise skill to get the reward then spit out what is useless. But pay attention to what you are doing or you can choke on it. Did I ever learn or just realize I already knew?"

My daughter says "Silly Dad, it is just a sunflower seed and I don't like this flavor."

I enjoy how she just gets to the point. I remember when my oldest was just a bit over a year old she found a banana and noticed it was food.  She figured out how to peel it and was about halfway through it before I found her.  I just stood back at a distance and marveled at the miracle she is.  It is a simple thing but in the context of a one year old there is no such thing as simple.  Every action following each breath is a learning experience.  I was happy to see she could figure things out and had instincts.

Parenting was still new to me at the time and the shine had not worn off.  I like to think it still hasn't and hope that it never will.  Everyday they impress me and the lesson plan they create for me develops into something I don't expect.

Of course now their intuition and instinct manifests itself in using my iPad, Android tablet, and cell phone to the degree that I feel they are no longer my possessions.  Neither of my kids had to be taught how to use any of these gadgets. I still often wonder when I will get the excuse to teach them how to use a Thomas guide in case the battery runs out.  There are no pay telephones I can teach them to use.  I feel like a relic sometimes.

I appreciate more and more what my parenting generation went through and they likely felt the same way raising me. I do insist on my kids knowing what a record player is but so much is available to them that I also hope the simple pleasure of eating one sunflower seed is noticed.

I have made the mistake of not noticing simple things and it has cost me.  They are now teaching me to pay more attention.  I love them for this.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Breakfast at Truman

Having my kids for a weekday overnight I decided to celebrate by hanging out for awhile at my 1st grader's school.  They allow parents to come anytime and eat with their children.   What an amazing morning it turned out to be.

We arrived early. My 3 and 6 year old met a 5th grader named Jasmine who seemed to be a community greeter.  She helped us find restrooms and instructed me on school policy regarding visitors.  She explained that she is almost always the first child at the school each day, arriving before most of the faculty.  She gets bored and waits in the school lobby to talk to people.

It made me think of my elementary school and how on Thursday half days all of the latch key kids gathered at the school to play kick ball because parents were working and we had nowhere else to be.  A janitor broke the rules and gave us the ball and other equipment then stayed late to collect it.  He seemed to understand.

Jasmine explained to me a complicated mess of Dad and Mom schedules, visitation and just simply far more than she should have to be dealing with.  On the positive, she has an ipod shuffle and I asked for her to list her songs. One was from "Hollywood Undead" which I actually recognized. She then proceeded to help other kids and parents as the day was taking form.

When the faculty arrived I paid $1.75 each for myself and my youngest as guests and the three of us went into the breakfast room.  Given a choice between cereal or pizza, I learned most kids prefer chocolate milk with their cereal even more than pizza for breakfast.  It was explained to me that government regulations also  required them to also take either a slice of wheat bread or a pear.

We sat down to eat and I learned that a boy named Bryce is in love with my daughter.  He had the confidence to tell me himself but as a Dad I am not ready to deal with this. I showed him respect. Then an ex-boyfriend of hers came to the bench and to break the tension luckily my younger distracted be with a need to go potty.  When we returned another girl offered to teach me how to do braids. I don't do hair. Every six months I pay $20 for a number four buzz that takes five minutes.  Professionally speaking I like 15 minutes from shower to elevator to classroom. I now have a volunteer tutor in the art of annoying little rubber bands and I am grateful for that.

After breakfast we went outside and the first thing I noticed was that if a soccer ball is available it does not matter if it is snowing, or who given race, creed, religion, or any economic circumstance that is present,  kids and adults will play.  The bell rang and I watched as my daughter followed protocol.  She stood in line at the correct door, then shouted "Dad stay with me and meet my teacher!!"

It is one thing to be proud of our children.  When they are proud of us and express wanting us in their lives it brings us secretly to tears of joy.  I encourage my friends to take a morning if you can to walk through their experience and anything else that shows you their perspective.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

I'm coming home

While waiting for my flight last night I monitor the "upgrade list".  I was 10th so I had no chance.  In the tournament of customer preferences I managed to get as high as six.  I am still trying to guess the algorithm Delta uses for this.  Oh well.  I wasn't looking for the free snacks anyway and at 6' 3" I have still managed to find ways of making legroom.

When boarding commenced the announcement came "Sky Priority" which normally makes me feel privileged as I look forward to first dibs on overhead and getting to my window seat without asking two other people to stand back up and get out of my way.

That was until it seemed 2/3rds of the entire airplane were just as special.  "I haven't flown hundreds of thousands of miles to just end up like everyone else!  Sky Priority is being handed out like candy!"  I thought.

Then I had a vision of a (insert nightmare here) freeway with commuters spending 4hrs+ a day logging substantial miles of their own and get nothing but horns honking, flat tires and toll roads in return. I was grateful for being scrunched up in my middle seat with a TV in front of me.  My commute each day of last week was two flights of stairs.  I could not complain.

I thought of past generations of fathers who took to traveling on the road in beat up cars and facing risk of being stranded in the desert with an overheated radiator and having to choose how to use his water.  I could go back farther into the past but I would rather think about how the times we live in have not changed the base instinct that we have to both explore and provide for our families.

My daughters were already prepared for bed and it is 20 degrees outside.  It was better to take a cab home than be picked up. On arrival I tipped the driver and carried my things through the snow and made the door.

I was finally home and there was only one thing on my mind.  Upon the sound of my keys turning the lock my children rushing down the stairs to greet me. I couldn't get my luggage into the foyer before having to rush to the base of the stairs to catch my now 60lb oldest leaping from the height of five stair steps into my arms. Her youngest sister chose the third step and I had to catch her with one hand.

It was late so I agreed to one game of "Chutes and Ladders" before tucking them in as "Snug as a bug in a rug". I had been also been assigned the task of making pancakes in the morning even though I am not very good at it.

I am home.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Be Thankful, Because You Can

I cried at my kid’s school today. 

Not tears of joy. Tears of overwhelming sadness.  

I was in the back of the auditorium as the entire school gathered for a Monday Morning Meeting.   On the large screen behind our Headmaster, a terrific video played, revealing that our school had won the Project New Hope Challenge. The kids went nuts – cheering, bells ringing, feet stamping – pure joy and pride in their community. Tears ran down my face. My heart was breaking.  All I could think about was the mom who wasn’t there to see her children celebrate.

Two days ago, the awful news starting to seep through the school community.  The worst kind of news – the kind you hope to never get.  A parent at our school had succumbed to Cystic Fibrosis, leaving behind two beautiful children – her fourth grade daughter and fifth grade son. 

I didn’t know Felice well.  We said hello at school events. My parents know her parents.  My wife was just on a field trip with her ex-husband last week. We ran in the same circles, but were never more than acquaintances. Yet, I’m heartbroken over her loss.

As I stood in the back of that auditorium, watching my children stomp their feet, wave their hands in the air, high five the kids around them, smiling ear-to-ear, I cried. Felice is never going to get another chance to stand in the back of the auditorium to see her kids. 

Giving thanks around this time of year is a national tradition.  Being honest, I think some people seem to take the “thanks” part of Thanksgiving for granted.  They are “thankful” to be away from the office.  They are “thankful” for their  football team getting a win.  They are ”thankful” to ingest both pumpkin and apple pie. But who am I to judge what one should be thankful for? Maybe – probably -- I’ve been guilty of these same misgivings in the past.  But not this year. Not me.

I woke up today.  I hugged my children.  And for that, I’m thankful.

I spent the weekend with my kids.  I saw my oldest son perform. I spent time singing and joking around on a car ride with my soon-to-be 11 year old son.  My daughter and I worked on some of her homework together, and she told me stories about her classmates.  My youngest, just two and a half, took me on a walk around our neighborhood – a walk he didn’t want to end…and, truthfully, neither did I. My wife and I, exhausted, still managed to eat dinner together, watch a show or two and enjoy each other’s company.  For all those things, I’m thankful.

I get to do those sorts of things everyday.  Everyday.  Everyday, I spend time with my family. How could I not be thankful for that?

I see people who allow outside conditions to adversely affect their lives.  Money issues, stress from work, family strife, unemployment, another day with the flu or a broken arm or an upset stomach.  I’ve been there.  I know how awful circumstance likes that can be -- how mind-numbingly terrible it is to wake up each day and have to deal with that type of stress.  It can take over your every waking thought.

What I know now is that as long as I get to wake up every day and hug my children and spend time with my wife and experience life with them all – the highs, the lows, everything in between—what I know is that I’ll be thankful for that. Those times will still be difficult.  There will be adversity and disappointments, but, ultimately, I will be thankful to have the day.


I hope you have a wonderful holiday with your loved ones.  Be thankful, because you can.