Thursday, April 30, 2009

I Fought The Law and The Law...

A woman in line behind me for Belgian waffles at the Farmer’s Market last Sunday told me I was a criminal. She was debating with a friend whether or not to wait for the warm and sweet and homemade breakfast treat.

“They’re worth it,” I chimed in. “Easy for me to say, but I buy them for my kids every week.”

She noticed I was wearing bike shorts and my bike helmet. “So you biked here?”

“Yes. My wife is actually at obedience class with our dog, so our son is home with our daughter.”

“How old are your children?” she asked after deciding the waffles were worth it.

“Our son is 11 and our daughter is three.”

“Oh, you can’t leave him alone with her. It’s against the law in California for children under 12 to babysit, even for a sibling.”

“Really?” I was flabbergasted. “We’ve done it before…”

Halt! I realized then that I was such a big mouth. Not only did she catch me committing a crime, but now I was admitting to more disregard for the law. But how was I to know it was illegal for Miguel to be home alone with his sister? Must’ve happened after that insipid Macaulay Culkin movie.

California is one of a handful of state that regulates babysitting rules and regulations even for family.

I was shocked, kind of blown over as if I’d been pried loose from a tree in a torrential storm, as reality sunk in. We trust Miguel because he has earned our trust. We wouldn’t leave him alone at night or for more than an hour, but he has demonstrated sound judgment and gentle care in regards to his sister.

I was really shocked because I never intended to be a lawbreaker. Then I started thinking about other crimes. Occasionally, I have left the kids in the car while I’ve dashed into the video store to return a movie. I roll the windows down and leave them a bowl of water for crying out loud!

Now the mere act of biking for an hour and shopping at the Farmer’s Market while our soon to be a middle school-aged son cared for his active sister and the dog violates a California statute. He was alone with sister and puppy for about 60 minutes.

So now that I am a scofflaw and a bad parent, a potent mix of detestable and irresponsible, let me attempt to share what I’ve learned about my criminal ways.

Well, nothing.

I’m no civil libertarian (I wear seatbelts, a bike helmet, and pay taxes to a centralized authority), but I do believe the government is going to have to trust Verna and me on this. If we didn’t think Miguel could ably handle sitting for Maya, we would’ve made other arrangements.

But I have learned some basic guidelines for having older siblings watch younger ones. From Genevieve Thiers, a pregnancy and parenting expert: “In order for the younger siblings to obey another sibling, they need to start seeing that sibling as an authority figure. The most credible way to establish this is through your actions. Find ways to let your kids know that, for instance, Cindy is now a ‘grown-up’.”

Second, “one of the chief problems with siblings sitting for siblings is the fact that there's no incentive for them to do it right. With a professional babysitter, there's a clear contract: They sit well + you pay them = everyone's happy.”

OK, scratch that last idea. We do not pay Miguel to watch Maya. We call it part of his family responsibilities, which also include folding his laundry, setting and clearing the dinner table, and taking in the garbage pails.

Another website says parents should decide when an older child is mature enough to watch a younger sibling. But I also realize now that even though we trust Miguel he doesn’t know CPR and is unaware of any emergency-hospital contact information. He knows to dial 911, but how would he react if Maya started choking or seriously wounded herself?

Now that Miguel is a mother’s helper (one of our neighbors pays him a small amount to watch her almost 3-year-old son while she is in the house) it makes sense—legal and common—to have him take CPR training and acquaint him how to deal with random emergencies.

But I imagine we will still trust him with Maya for an hour or so some mornings or afternoons as the need arises. Just don’t tell any officers of the court or kindly folk in line at the Farmer’s Market. Big Brother is watching and eating.

Friday, April 24, 2009

The Power of Positive Thinking

Verna did something she rarely does last night: she went out alone. OK, she only traveled about 100 ft., but, hey, it was progress. She joined a few of our female neighbors for a couple of hours of ping-pong. After I put Miguel to bed, I was content to plop on the couch and read my thriller (which turned out to be more or less a dud) as she stoked her competitive fires with a Girls Night Out.

One of the women recently took a pap test and it came back questionable. Her mom died prematurely from cancer a few years ago, so she freaked out at the doctor’s office when she went in for a follow-up. She left without finishing the test.

“She’s probably suffering from some kind of post-traumatic stress syndrome,” Verna said as we lounged in the living room after she got home.

Another woman, who is a former neighbor, took the quasi-fatalist approach when talking about cancer and recurrence. She said, “People do die. We could get hit by a car at anytime.”

Verna laughed and responded to her, “Yeah, but the car has my name on it.”

Living with cancer and recovery means heightened stress for the rest of one’s life no matter what one's status. The sword never really stops dangling from above unless it is too late.

Verna said to me, “I wish I could go back to just feeling I might get hit by a car. Then you don’t worry about it.” She paused. “Do you ever think about it?”

I did admit that, since I’ve become a father and since she was diagnosed with cancer (and her life expectancy dropped dramatically after we found out it was Stage III), my death anxiety levels are higher than normal. But, no, I told her, I rarely ponder my demise.

Our former neighbor’s attitude is really a variation, I think, of the if-you-only-think-positive-you-can-beat-cancer notion that some people spewed at us when Verna was sick. Frankly, we found it insulting, especially since we lost a dear, dear friend to breast cancer. And if we accept the power of positive thinking model, does that mean our friend didn’t pray, hope, fight hard enough?


Yes, we could all die and eventually we will all die. But Verna’s point is she is now a marked person, and that is something that only cancer survivors and other related sufferers can truly understand. It changes how one physically and emotionally interacts with the world on a daily basis.

It’s frustrating sometimes that people push intentionally or not their own mental-health-karmic-cosmological agendas without truly walking in the shoes of the ‘patient’. Easy for me to spout right now because I, too, have not slipped on Verna’s footwear. But I have witnessed up close and personal her suffering and anguish, so I guess that gives me some kind of right to express these opinions.

None of this is to say that Verna is waiting for the Angel of Death to tap on the door and whisk her away. Hardly. She is enjoying life with family and friends. She is rather upbeat and extremely healthy. But her emotions and hormones constantly wreak havoc on her body and mind because of the gnawing fear that the cancer will (and the odds are highly likely) return.

Sometimes I think all she needs is a little acknowledgement and understanding. Sometimes those are my strong suits. Other times, I am an abject failure. For the record, however, Verna played three games of ping-pong and lost only once, to someone she has yet to beat.

She hasn’t given up hope of winning, but she is realistic. Time will tell.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Fair or Foul?

Little League parents signed a pledge at the beginning of the season that we would behave in the stands during games and at practices.

I should’ve known better.

Years ago, friends of mine in Connecticut, Ed and Denise Sanady, told me Little League horror stories: parents red-shirting their 10-year-olds so they’d be drafted by better teams and dubious scouting. I was astounded. How could adults poison what is essentially a kids game? Their stories left an impression on me, but apparently not enough.

Now that I am an adult with a son on a Little League majors’ team (the Yankees), the road to hell, er, Nirvana is paved with…

Last night, we played the A’s, a team we’d nipped a few weeks back when their centerfielder’s throw sailed past the catcher and threw the backstop with the bases loaded. The A’s were ahead, 3-2, in the bottom of the 4th when they erupted for seven runs. At one point, there were either two men on or the bases were loaded. The A’s batter ripped a hard shot just past the kid on 3rd. He had to quickly scoot out of the way to avoid getting pummeled in the stomach. The ball skidded foul into left field.

Amazingly, the umpire, who is just a teenager, ruled the ball fair, which emptied the bases. Yankee parents roared foul loudly and incredulously as one, two, three A’s runners circled the bases.

The Yankees head coach, Ron, calmly walked out to the umpire, who called in his associate, another teen, from the field. They explained that the ball had hit the 3rd base bag, so it was therefore fair.

The umpire was wrong, as all the parents so clearly and plainly saw. But that is not the point.

Verna and I teach Miguel that 1). You let the umpires rulings stand and you don’t argue and 2). You move on quickly and quietly.

We did neither. I did yell, “It was foul.” Once. Then I shut up. But the collective chorus was not silent for a few minutes. Another parent shouted. One grandfather said he was going to write to the League president. He said it to us in the stands, so it was possible the young umpire behind the plate did not hear him. But still…

An inning of two later, Miguel came up to bat for his second time. He sliced a ball hard and foul down the leftfield line. I chimed in, “Was that fair?” just before one of Miguel’s teammates from the dugout yelled, “Was that fair?”

Uh-oh. We weren’t modeling for our kids. We’d violated several rules—challenging anything from the stands—and ignored the oath we’d signed in January.

But it was hard. Not only were the Yankees getting beaten, but there were two or three blatantly wrong calls against us. Losing isn’t as bad as feeling cheated. Woe is us.

As the parents were fuming and the steam was rising out of our ears and foreheads, I knew we were wrong. The dictum has to be that the umpire is always right, especially when he is a kid not much older than the players. Sports and other competitive contests are imperfect dramas, but we still must respect their essential core. It’s just a game.

Well, for some at least. There is another team, the Blue Jays, which won 20 of its 21 games last year. Their only loss came to us, 2-1, on a daring bunt by Miguel. The Blue Jays are undefeated this year, and have beaten us twice already. They are good. But they are bullies.

One of their players tried to entice one of our runners, Connor, off second base after he’d doubled by politely asking him to step off the bag so he could straighten it. If Connor had moved, he would’ve been out. Only the umpire can call time.

The Blue Jays, who drafted last this year by virtue of winning the league championship last year, engineered the first pick in the draft (in the eighth position) because they recruited his father to be one of their assistants.

See, league rules state that a player must be drafted by the team for which their parent coaches. So the Blue Jays quietly brought in another helper in order to land the top prospect even though they chose him last in the first round.

I sometimes wonder how much better youth baseball would be without adult intervention. A few weeks ago, after one of the Yankees’ practices, the parents organized a virtually impromptu barbecue. As the parents munched and chatted, the kids played various baseball-type games on the grass beyond the centerfield fence. They played pickle and a few other games, laughing and joshing with each other, with tackling thrown in for good measure. Silliness reigned and they didn’t come up for air until we called them over for dessert.

Youth baseball without parents would be great, certainly for the kids. No adult intervention would mean less stress and more fun, I am convinced. I’m going to lobby the board shortly.

Yeah, right.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Music Men

Miguel and I shared an Abbott and Costello moment last night while driving to Oakland to see the Red Sox play the A’s.

“Who wrote the original American Woman?” asked Miguel, who has the cover version by Lenny Kravitz on his iPod.

“Guess Who,” I said.

“Is it someone I already know?” he asked.

“No, it is the Guess Who,” I said. “That’s the name of the group.”

“Oh,” he laughed. “Wouldn’t that be funny if we kept going back and forth, I’d ask the name of the group and you’d keep saying, ‘Guess Who?’”

As in, so what’s the name of the group?

Guess Who.

How can I? What’s their name?

Guess Who.

And on and on and on…

The ‘guess who’ episode reminded me of two others that are similar in a funny-things-that-kids-say kind of way. Back in late 2003, it appeared that the Yankees were going to foil the Red Sox yet again and possibly sign both Alex Rodriguez and Curt Schilling.

“Great, just great,” I screamed at the TV after watching the sports report. “The Yankees are probably going to wind up with two great players and the Red Sox get bupkes (the Yiddish word for nothing, nada, zilch, zero).

“Is he any good?” Miguel promptly asked.

The other one happened when Miguel was about five or six. He and I were playing a word game with our neighbor Jodi. We were trying to get Miguel to say the word bat, so my clue was, “Something Barry Bonds uses to hit the ball.”

Miguel paused and then said, “Steroids.”

I am glad I am committing these vignettes to the almost permanence of my blog, because there are countless others lost and forgotten. When I was a teacher, the secretary, Kay Johnson, had a notebook in which she wrote down all the funny and poignant things kids said during the school year.

I wonder where that magical book is now?

Each of the aforementioned stories also involves how popular culture permeates and influences our lives no matter how hard we try to distance ourselves, at times, from technology and the media.

Take the iPod, for example. Miguel has about 160 songs on his, and Verna or I have approved each of them. No songs with explicit or degrading lyrics are allowed. If it’s a questionable artist, Kanye West just to name one controversial musician, then one of us has to either listen to the song first or read the lyrics.

And we’ve been pretty flexible about his tastes, which run the gamut from the Beatles and the Dropkick Murphy’s to Alvin and the Chipmunks and Kate Perry.

But speaking of Kanye West, one of the bad boys of hip-hop and rap, Miguel asked the other night if I could download one of his songs.

“Which one?” I asked

“I don’t know. Let’s listen to a few, then I’ll decide.”

So we ended up sampling Heartless, which iTunes ranked as West’s most popular. The lyrics are pretty innocuous; it’s about West being so upset over being treated so poorly, in his mind, by a woman who dumped him that he labeled her heartless.

I now know the song is the second single off West’s 4th album (CD) and it was first performed at the 2008 Democratic National Convention.

Who wrote it?

Guess who?

Kanye West, lyrics and music.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009


I took a book out of the library yesterday by Stieg Larsson. He died when he was 50. I am turning 50 tomorrow, therefore...

OK, I am not knocking on heaven or hell's door, but the half-century mark is regarded as an important stage in life. And I have realized yet again that probably more than half my life is behind me.

I am not doing anything out of the ordinary tomorrow--by design. I will go to work, come home, and then all of us will share a Passover seder with two other families. I asked Verna not to let them know it was my birthday. We will celebrate as a family Thursday evening. Verna's father will join us at a local pizza joint, chosen mostly because Miguel wants to play video games, something we don't allow at home.

I am not averse to celebrating, nor am I modest or shy about calling attention to myself and my birthday[s]. Anyone who knows me well will testify that I like being in the limelight (at times) and enjoy a healthy modicum of attention. But for the past few years I have seen my birthday as just another day. Miguel and Maya get excited about their birthdays, as they should, and we honor them with gifts and--I hope--intense feelings of being special.

I lived in Israel when I turned 21, another important age marker across the spectrum of life, but I decided to spend the day without telling anyone it was my birthday. I treated myself to lunch at a favorite Jersualem restaurant, and that evening went with a friend to see Hamlet performed by a funky repertory theater troupe from London. The play was excellent. There were no props other than the actors and actresses. They made their own sounds for everything, including knock-knocking on doors and the whiny screech when they opened.

I guess the more psychologically inclined among us might read more deeply into my motives and say my actions then and now reveal either anxiety or possibly denial about growing older and facing my mortality. Or maybe not. Maybe I just said that because I really feel that way. Or maybe it is time to visit a therapist.

Or not.

My father began therapy when he was 60. He will soon be 78. He was unhappy when he looked back on his first six decades. He wondered if he had accomplished enough and the answers he came up with saddened him. So he sought professional help.

Nothing wrong with that at all.

I sense there might be a connection between my 21st and my 50th birthdays that explains my abnormal celebratory reticence. At 21, with the ribbon of life stretched in front of me, endless and full of possibilities, I was still adrift, unsure of where I was headed or what I truly wanted to do.

Fifty is somewhat similar. After leaving a sales job last August, being unemployed for more than two months, and then muddling through a luxury car sales job as the economy continued to tank, I am working part time in the non-profit world. My wife, who has a permanent retirement disability, makes more money than I do. And she's not working outside the home!

So, as I look back on my first fifty years, I am dealing with a fair amount of stress and sadness over my life. Like so many people, including family and friends, we are struggling financially, and I am very unhappy that I can't completely support my family.

Why party hard now when I really need to focus on securing full time work? Why celebrate when my heart isn't into it and I am bummed out about my status and inability to be a provider?

On the other hand, I am extremely blessed. Verna is very healthy right now, Miguel and Maya are sublime joys, and I feel great about my family, friends, and passions. Maybe that is why we are celebrating my birthday with family at Pinky's, a sports bar. Maybe turning 50 is about honoring those around me, for they are the blessings that make each day brighter. And that is why we are going to eat pizza on the first full day of Passover while Miguel enhances his hand-eye coordination (and lightens our wallets) with video games and Maya drinks apple juice and all of us share food and laughter on what is a momentous occasion.

There I said it.

Stieg Larsson dropped dead of a sudden heart attack in 2004, shortly after he submitted three manuscripts for what has become a wildly successful series of books about a young and unusual Swedish investigator. He never lived to see the fruits of his literary labors. I will soldier on through the muck and mist and the vessels of light struggling to burst forth beyond the horizon.

It is a happy, happy birthday!

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Girls Just Wanna Have Fun

Maya has a love-hate relationship with water, which is one reason why we warn her before her bath. Last week I said, “Maya, tonight you’re having a bath. But I’m not washing your hair, just your body.”

“Not my hair,” she said. “But you have to wash my booty.”

Wash my booty? Where’d she learn that one? Oh, thank you, big brother Miguel. In fact, Maya happily shakes her booty in public, at home, just about any place. Put on music with a good American Bandstand beat, and Maya is swaying her hips and wobbling her backside.

And her Elvis wannabe routine scares me. Not because I fear she’ll morph into a tiresome Vegas lounge singer who gorges herself on massive amounts of food and drugs. No, it’s because she’ll be a teenager in less than 10 years, and the boys will be swarming.

At the park last week, Maya was giggling and playing with two girls, one who is four, the other almost two. At one point the three of them laid down on the ground, hands clasped, and posed for a picture my neighbor wanted to take with her cell phone.

I leaned over to my neighbor’s husband (his daughter is the one who is almost two) and said, “I know you are renting, but if you can manage to stay here for another ten years or so, we can form a united front and keep the girls indoors until they’re 30.”

He laughed. His wife (the photographer), who is from Romania, said, “Be careful what you wish for. There was this girl from my town and her father kept her locked up. You know what happened to her?”

I was about to say, “She unleashed herself in a torrent of pent-up sexuality and screwed every boy in Eastern Europe?”

“She became a lesbian,” my neighbor said.

I was speechless and startled before I mustered a response. “Do you think what her father did caused her to become a lesbian?” I asked. “Don’t you think she was predisposed to that beforehand?”

“No, no,” my neighbor said. “What her father did caused it.”

I wasn’t about to enter into a nature vs. nurture debate with my very sweet and young neighbor, but I couldn’t help wondering Margaret Mead-like about the essential core of our discussion. Are people born with certain behaviors or lifestyles or do we choose them later on the basis of our life experiences?

I am inclined for the narrow purposes of this debate to opine that sexual lifestyle is a calling, a biological imperative that we pursue with determination. It is obviously controlled and influenced by environment. But it is way too dismissive and insulting in many ways to assert that homosexuality is the almost deviant offspring of a parent’s (or anyone’s) paranoid behavior.

And none of the debate about sexuality was comforting to me. Because Maya is precocious now I fear that will lead directly to recklessness later. So let’s play along and agree my neighbor is right. And I know that would be a colossal stretch of any imagination. But if she is correct does that mean I will be better served by sequestering Maya until she is 50?

Do I hear 60? When I’ll be 107! Oy!!