Saturday, May 26, 2012

Male Bonding

Miguel scooted past me the other night, holding a pair of his blue jeans. It was after nine, close to his bedtime.

“Miguel, what are you doing?” I asked.

“Nothing,” he said, the rumpled jeans stuffed close to his body.

A few minutes later I walked in to the kitchen, where he’d hidden himself, and found him cutting a small hole near the belt loops of the jeans.

“What are you doing?!” I shouted. It soon became quite clear that he was snipping circularly around a department store loss prevention tag that the clerk had forgotten to remove.

“I saw this in a movie once,” he said meekly as if scissoring a new pair of pants was an everyday occurrence.

I was livid. I imagine if I’d been a cartoon character steam would have shot out my ears and trailed above my head. Veins would have burst in my neck, and I would have turned from red to blue to purple to deep red again.

“I can’t believe it,” I screamed. “A new pair of pants!?! Why didn’t you just tell me? I could’ve gone to the store, any store, and had the tag removed.”

“I don’t know,” he replied.

I grabbed the pants, threw them on the kitchen floor, and ordered him upstairs to brush his teeth and put in his headgear. Since he’d already ripped the jeans I continued cutting until there was a dime-sized hole and the tag was gone.

Then I marched upstairs and delivered a late night lecture. “Miguel, it’s not just about the pants. It’s that you went sneaking around. If I can’t trust you with little things, like some tag on your pants, how am I going to trust with you with big decisions? Like, what are you going to do at a party in high school when your friends offer you alcohol or pot?”

I am sure that Miguel appreciated my barrage as he tried to nod off to sleep. “I’m going to say no,” he answered, his head already resting on his pillow.

“Yeah, but what if they tell you how good it is and they urge you to just try it, and you like it?”

“I’m not going to do that,” he said.

I closed his lights and hustled downstairs to calm myself down. The next morning, after I’d dropped Maya off at the neighbors who drive her to school, I said to Miguel, en route to his school, “OK, I overreacted about the pants last night. But I don’t want you to sneak around. Just tell me. And I do want you to make good decisions.”

He listened to me, but really wanted to fiddle with the radio. “Do you understand what I’m saying, Miguel?”

“Yes, but the hole is not bad,” he said, and then showed me how his belt practically covered it up anyway.

Then I noticed how low his jeans were below his hips. “Miguel, please pull up your pants.”

He did.

Later that night he and I stood in his bedroom with six large garbage bags and started throwing out, recycling, or bagging to donate piles of clothing and toys and assorted detritus that has accumulated in his bedroom and closet for a few years.

At one point he fingered through clumps of Tech Deck skateboard dudes, a collection of miniature guys and skateboards, replete with beyond-weird identities and trading cards. “I used to really like these,” he said. “I don’t know if I should give them away.”

I felt as if we were having our own Toy Story 3 moment, reminiscent of when Andy was wistfully rummaging through boxes of childhood toy friends before departing for college.

“You don’t have to give them away,” I said.

“No, I want to. It’s OK.” He poured them into one of the plastic bags designated for the Salvation Army or Goodwill.

“I guess now that you’re going to high school, you are no longer a boy,” I said, but added, “But I am not trying to rush you into adulthood.”

I asked him again this morning how he felt about discarding the Tech Decks and he said he was fine. I don’t think Miguel feels thrust too soon into manhood, though he does have some typically quirky adolescent ideas about what being a teenaged man is, such as watching R rated movies that I consider inappropriate. He implores at least two or three times a month to see The Hangover. And I answer simply, “Nope, not going to happen yet.”

And, I told him, what I am really concerned about is not about holes in his jeans, but about taking responsibility for his actions. Before his bar mitzvah ceremony, the traditional Jewish rite of passage that heralds a young man’s entrance into adulthood, I asked several friends to share what it meant to become an adult or young man.

My good friends Ed and Denise’s son, Ben, who is now married and for whom I babysat in 1987, said, “Don’t take yourself too seriously, and when you make a mistake, you need to take responsibility for it. Being a man means having to do things you don't want to do, for no other reason than simply you are a man.” His father said, “When having a conversation, try to learn more about the other person than they learn about you, and make sure your handshake is firm and you look the person in the eye!”

My friend Mike, who has three sons, one who is in school with Miguel, offered quite honestly and humbly, “When I was in my twenties and having a tough go of adjusting to adulthood my father told me it was time to be a man. At the time I knew he was right, but was truly confused on what being a man meant, and certainly had no idea how to get there, wherever there was. Too embarrassed to tell him I didn’t know what being a man was really all about I just took the comment and suggested to him “I know”. This hung on me for years and over time I figured it out. Being a man is having the confidence and strength to make choices that are right and just for one’s self and the others around them. There are of course many other attributes of being a man, but many of them cross gender…setting appropriate boundaries, compassion and empathy for others.

“I learned this over time, and my oldest son grew up without my being able to convey this knowledge to him and work with him to develop these skills…something I labor over a lot. I think my younger ones will benefit as I often talk with them about standing up for who they are, (not what their friends want them to be) and help them make choices that support their personal growth.”

The final word about being a man goes to Ed, committed father, husband, and devout family guy to siblings, nieces, nephews, aunts, uncles, cousins, parents, and everyone in between:

“Wait ‘til your mother goes to book club and then we’ll wrestle in our underwear and piss off the back porch!”

Sometimes you just have to let go. In more ways than one.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Modern Love

Sunshine splashed around us as Maya leaned toward me, a wide smile stretched across her face. “Luca’s so nice,” she gushed, over a plate of macaroni and cheese and fruit salad.

“Yes, he is,” I agreed. He was sitting right next to her at the Little League Bonanza, a carnival-like party of games, jumpy tents, music, a silent auction and raffle, and food, which serves as a major fundraiser for the Dixie Terra Linda Little League, in which both Maya and Luca, our five year old neighbor, play t-ball.

Up until a few weeks ago, Maya and Luca, who are still boyfriend and girlfriend, had plans to marry. Maya explained to me that “Luca wants us to get married.” This was a radical departure from Maya’s usual insistence that she was never leaving home. “I’m going to live with you forever, OK, Daddy?”

“But maybe you will want to go to college?”

“Nope. I’m going to live with you when I get older.”

Maya didn’t have her whole life mapped, however, beyond wanting to stay home with me and not have breasts. She never explained why (nor did I ask) she wanted to remain stuck in pre-pubescence, but I am sure it is because of what happened to Verna. It doesn’t take an amateur Freud to figure that out.

But when Maya and her previous boyfriend Leo, who is also not quite six like Luca, decided to cool things off and remain good friends (apparently Leo hopes to wed his younger sister), Luca inadvertently swooped in and pledged his eternal love—at least until 1st grade. Generosity may have also played a role in Luca’s behavior. Maya constantly shares her bracelets with him, for which he is grateful and shows Maya how modern Luca truly is.

A few weeks ago, though, as Maya and I were headed to the park, Luca called to us from his bedroom window. “Hi, Luca,” Maya said. “I have something to tell you. Can you come outside?”

“I have to take a shower. What do you want to tell me?”

“I’ll tell you tomorrow,” Maya responded.

Maya walked over to me, smiling shyly, and whispered, “I can’t marry Luca.”

“Why not?”

“I’m going to live in Hawaii with Maya,” her best friend who is three days older. My Maya said, “Luca can visit us.”

“Maya, what did you want to tell me?” Luca shouted down as Maya and I huddled on the sidewalk outside his home.

Maya relented and shared with Luca that their future together did not involve nuptials but some vague visitations in what might very well be the two Mayas’ Hawaiian paradise.

After his shower, Luca went to his mother, Ericka, and said, “Mom, can I talk to you about something?”

“Yes, what’s up?”

Luca told her about the conversation with Maya and how they now could not get married, just enjoy each other’s friendship on a tropical island.

“What do you think about that?” Ericka asked.

“It’s OK,” Luca said. “We can change her mind.”

Sunday, May 6, 2012

To Every Thing There Is A Season

Death sucks.

And when she is not yet forty, with two sons, 6 and 2, and super nice husband who is a hands-on father, and Mother's Day is coming, well, then, death really sucks. And when news of her death, which you just received this morning while strolling at the Farmer's Market with your six-year old daughter after hauling her 13 miles on a Burley trailer, stirs up memories of your own loss and how your two kids have no mother, and your heart aches every time Maya swats at t-ball or twirls in ballet class and Miguel writes a beautiful essay for high school or grabs a touchdown at flag football, and you can't share any of it with your late wife, well, then, it sucks on a personal and visceral level.

I formally met L. about six weeks ago at Whole Foods. Maya pointed out her oldest son, who is in another kindergarten class at her school, because they are sometime playmates at recess. So I started talking to her husband, D. and Maya and the son acted goofy. I'd seen L. several times around school, a wide smile on her face, bright brown eyes, soulful and expressive, but we'd only nodded. Then a day after Whole Foods, she and her sons were at the city park where we live.

She said, "I'm glad we met. I've known about you and what you've gone through. I wanted to offer my help any time, with Maya, whatever."

We exchanged phone numbers. She also told me part of her story. She'd been diagnosed with cancer in her 20s, shortly after she'd met D. How she healed herself with conventional and non-traditional methods. How proud she'd been to take command of her illness.

"I did a lot of reading and research," she said.

And D. had been with her throughout the ordeal. His love and commitment had never wavered before the extra pull of kids bonded them even more deeply.

I shared with her that I was going on a special vacation in a week or so to Paris, and she was genuinely excited for how my life journey was progressing.

A couple of weeks ago she went to the hospital or doctor with severe flu-like symptoms and they discovered she had leukemia. She got an infection, her blood was seriously messed up, that's all I know right now. Did she lapse into a coma or steel herself for a brave assault on the disease attacking her body? The details will wend their way through the community in their own time.

But now she is gone. Forever. After I absorbed the ice cold blast of news this morning, the wave of sadness and shock rushing over me, I asked my friend if I could reach out to D. when it's appropriate.

"I don't know if I have any specific wisdom to share," I said. "But I can talk about what I went through and how I coped."

Just as my good friend David Lanes did for me after Verna died, which had only been a year since the death of his wife. But I know now is not yet the time for D., while his emotions are raw and painful and time seems so fucking unreal.

When D. and I do talk I will share how I told the kids their momma was a star in heaven and how we went out for so many nights after Verna's death and picked out the brightest star and exclaimed, "That's Mommy." And how I went to a support group at hospice and Maya had play therapy there for a year, and Miguel saw someone for a year-and-half. And how my neighbors and friends and family pitched in with meals and babysitting and money, and are still there for us, because without a village I'd have never survived. Or how sometimes just the smallest, seemingly insignificant thing brought (and still brings) me to tears. Or how you never move on, but cope better. And magic, from children or other relationships, still exists and awaits.

As the news settled over me during the day I just wanted to reach out to those people closest to me and tell them how much I love them and how blessed I feel to have them in my life. I hugged Maya several times after dinner, at the park, and before she drifted off to sleep. I also grabbed Miguel and said, "Have I told you I loved you?" as he climbed up the stairs to his room. He nodded. "And," I added, "I'm proud of you."

D. is part (as was L.) of a small but devout cluster within Christianity, so I imagine his faith will provide comfort over the succeeding days, weeks, months, years. And I don't need to remind him the truth of the words of Ecclesiastes (chapter 3), popularized by the Byrds in their song, 'Turn, Turn, Turn', "To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under Heaven."

Because right now, at this very moment in this household and at D.'s home, we know that life is often not fair and death really, really sucks.