Friday, March 13, 2015

OPPORTUNITIES LIKE THIS

Dear Spike,

This afternoon I watched a mother crouch next to her toddler daughter on the side a fetid city street. She lifted noodles from a small plastic bowl and pushed them into the little girl’s mouth. The girl — she was three years old, perhaps — was closing her eyes after each bite in a way that made me think she was savoring her meal. She and her mother were both smiling and laughing with one another.

Today I am in Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. This kingdom has an economy that is growing quickly, but many people are being left behind. There is a lot of poverty here and a lot of desperation.

I am so fortunate to get to have these sorts of experiences. When I do, I am reminded that people in places like this are absolutely no different than you and me. They do not deserve their poverty any more than we deserve our wealth.

We are so fortunate.

We belong to a small number of people ever to have lived on this planet who do not have much cause to worry for their day-to-day safety, or about access to food, or about access to clean water, or about shelter, or about education.

That is not so say that we don’t have real problems. It is not to say we cannot have and air grievances. It is not so say we cannot feel slighted or that we shouldn’t demand change.

But it’s helpful, I think, to have opportunities like this — to put all of those problems into perspective.

Certainly, we can be proud of what our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents did to make this possible for us. But it behooves us to never forget that all of this happened largely independent of anything we have done in our own lives. And it is important to consider, as well, that there is little privilege in this world that wasn’t built on the exploitation of someone else’s parents, grandparents or great-grandparents.

Does that make us obligated in some way to help others who are not so fortunate? I think so, and I think you will come to think so, too.

How? That is a much harder and much more complicated question.

But here is a place to start: Smile more. Laugh more. Savor more. If people in desperate situations can do these things, we have no excuse not to do so as well.

Love,

dad

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

WE ARE STRONGER

Dear Spike,

Though I understand the depth of a father’s love, I can only imagine the deepness of pain Michael Brown, Sr. has suffered in the months since his unarmed teenage son was killed by a police officer in Fergusen, Missouri.

I cannot relate, though, and would sooner die than be able to.

So I was overwhelmed with appreciation for Mr. Brown’s plea for peace in anticipation of a grand jury’s decision, tonight, as to whether to criminally charge the man who took his son’s life.

“No matter what the grand jury decides,” he said, “I do not want my son’s death to be in vain. I want it to lead to incredible change. Positive change.”

Hurting others is not the answer, he said. And, of course, he is right.

Tonight, as parts of greater St. Louis fall into turmoil in defiance of Mr. Brown’s pleas, and as protests have erupted in other parts of our nation, I wanted to take a moment to share with you this man’s words.

“We are stronger united,” he said.

 When we are hurt, our impulse is often to hurt back. The deeper the hurt, the stronger the impulse. This is a natural urge. But only when we overcome these desires can we break free of a cycle of violence that only creates greater, greater and greater pain.

At a most basic level, this is a lesson we can apply to relatively small pains. We can see this when someone refuses to respond to an offense caused inadvertently by someone they cherish.

At a far vaster level, this is a lesson we can apply even to tremendous evils. We have seen this non-violent movements led by individuals like Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi. We have seen this in the truth and reconsolidation efforts in places like South Africa.

This does not mean we should forget. Nor does it necessarily mean we should forgive.

But if it should come to pass that you ever find yourself tempted to respond to pain with pain, I wish for you to be strong. I wish for you to be courageous. I wish for you to be steadfast.  

I wish for you to be peace.

Love,

dad

Monday, October 20, 2014

DO JUST THAT

Dear Spike,

You didn’t complain. You didn’t argue. And though it was clear that you didn’t want to do it, you did as I have long come to expect from you: You said, “OK” and immediately did as I asked.

And then you made me pay for it.

Let me back up: I’ve been coaching your soccer team for a few years now. Over the past year, in particular, you’ve blossomed as a player. Your ball control is tremendously skillful. You are comfortable shooting from either foot. And while you are often the smallest player on the field, you’re always the most aggressive.

True, sometimes you’re too aggressive. There are many yellow and red cards in your future, young one. This I can see clearly.

I try very hard to treat you with no favoritism and, if anything, I’m harder on you than your teammates. That’s how it was when my father coached me. I think that was the right approach then and now.

And you get the assignments that no one else wants. You pick up the cones at the end of practice. You help pump up the balls. You are my demonstration partner whenever your grandfather, who is helping me this season, can’t be present at practice.

So the other day, when the opposing team arrived for the game short one player, the decision was easy. “Give them Spike,” I said.

You changed from your black uniform into your white one and ran toward the other coach.

“What position do you usually play?” she asked you.

“I’ll play any position,” you told her.

She started you at striker.

Our team kicked off. You stole the ball at midfield, dribbled the remaining length of the pitch, and tapped a perfectly placed shot into the corner of the net past the out-stretched hands of our goalkeeper.

1-0.

Matea — one of our other most skillful players — was among those you dribbled around en route to the goal.

“Matea,” I yelled. “Next time knock her down.”

Matea nodded. And she proceeded to try to do just that.

It was a glorious thing to watch as, one by one, your teammates stifled your attempts to notch a second goal.

With just minutes to play, the score was tied at two. And that’s when you took a pass from one of your temporary teammates, dribbled toward the goal, cut left and nailed a left-footed shot into the back of the net.

3-2.

A few minutes later, the referee blew his whistle. You cheered with their team, shook some hands, and finally trotted back.

“You played an amazing game,” I said. “Was that fun?”

You looked up at me as though I’d asked you whether you’d like to get a tattoo of lobster on your forehead.

“It was different,” you said diplomatically. “I’d rather play with my own team.”

“But you played so hard anyway,” I said. “And you beat us.”

“Because you asked me to,” you said.

And that’s all there was to it.

Love,

dad

Saturday, September 20, 2014

THE SMALLEST PLAYER

Dear Spike:

You scored four goals in the first game of the season, and another today. And when you're not on the field, you're fearless in the goal.

You're almost always the smallest player on the pitch, but you play as though it doesn't matter.

Because...

...

... it doesn't matter.

Your favorite professional player, Joao Plata, stands 5-foot-3. One of my favorite players, Crystal Dunn, is 5-1.

There's certainly a place for height in this game. Fullbacks are generally advantaged by a few inches. Goalies, too.

But to make pirouettes like a ballerina with with a ball glued to your boot? Height's no advantage there.

Not every sport is like this. Basketball, American football, volleyball — players in these games are all advantaged by a few extra inches or a few extra pounds. But in your game? It doesn't matter.

I thrill at the soccer player you're becoming. And that's the long and short of it.

Love,
dad 

Friday, July 18, 2014

A COUPLE YEARS

Dear Spike:

I have this dream, once in a while, that makes me bolt awake and pretty much kills any chance of getting back to sleep:

You mother is out of town on some sort of a business trip. I’m sitting on the couch writing a lecture. Suddenly, I hear you screaming from the bathroom.

“Daaa-aaaadddd! It’s happening! What do I do?”

And that’s it. That’s the totality of the nightmare.

I wake up in a cold sweat and tiptoe into your room, just to make sure…



… yup, still seven years old …

...


… and then pace around the house until morning comes.

Even if it all starts happening early for you (and increasingly, research shows, it is for many girls) we’ve still got a couple years ‘til puberty, but I’m pretty much terrified nonetheless.

Up to this point, I’ve basically parented you the way I would have parented myself. That’s more or less my plan going forward, too. But as you begin the long, awkward and rampantly hormonal journey into physical womanhood, there are going to be a lot of times that I’m simply not going to know what to do.

So here’s the deal: I’m not going to pretend like I know anything at all about what you’re going through. And between now and then, I’m going to be working really hard on developing the humility and patience it’s going to take not to try to solve all — or any — of your problems.

But here’s the caveat: I’m not going to use the fact that I’m clueless as an excuse not to do anything at all. I’m not going to go into hiding. I’m not going to force your mother to take the brunt of all of the tough times. I’m going to be here.

I know you’re not going to like that sometimes. I’m going to work really hard to recognize and respect that.

Sometimes, I’ll screw up. I’ll give you space when what you really need is a hug. I’ll try to engage you in a conversation when what you really want it time to yourself. I’ll go to the store and buy every feminine hygiene product off the shelf and create an Internet playlist of how-to videos so that you know how to use them.

So far, I feel like I’ve been pretty good at this dad thing. Going forward, I know that there are going to be a lot of times that I’m just plain bad at it.

I know it’s a lot to ask, but I’m hoping you’ll grade me on the curve.

For now, though, I’m going to tiptoe into your room and peak in, just to make sure…


… yup, still seven.

Love,
dad


Wednesday, July 2, 2014

JUST FOR YOU

Dear Spike:

I couldn’t find my headphones today, so I took an entire interview’s worth of notes with my left hand as I held my little mobile phone to my ear with my right hand. No problem.

The one-handed letter I’m now writing is proving a bit more difficult, but I wouldn’t change a thing about my current circumstance — left arm pinned helplessly behind your back as you sleep soundly on my chest.

It reminds me of how, when you were just a baby, you would sleep on my stomach and chest as we rocked together in the rocking chair, deep into the night and well into the wee hours of the morning, as I worked on a story meant just for you.

That story began: In a small house on the edge of a small town, a small girl knelt beside her bedroom window, folded her arms upon the sill, and sighed.         

I’ve read “Near Where The Lilac Grows” to you several times in the intervening years. Alas, it might have taken a back seat to Harry Potter on a list of your favorite books, but you still ask for me to read a chapter, now and then, and quote liberally from its pages.

“A pigeon! Is that what you think I am? A common street bird?”

Last week you asked me: “Was the Catlands really inspired by mommy’s bad eyesight?”

Yes, it was.

And a few weeks back, you wondered: “Does Amitri leave Lilac forever?
 
I suppose I don’t know.

You know, you won’t always sleep on my chest. I know this is the way things are and the way things are meant to be. But you’ll always have that book. And when you read it — if you read it — you’ll be connected to a time in our lives when we’d rock together, all night long, and collaboratively conjure magical beings and mystical lands.

It might not be Harry Potter, but it’s yours.

In newspaper reports, magazine articles, books and blogs, my writing has been read by millions of people. That’s good, I suppose.

The work that means the most to me, though, are the words I’ve written for just one person.

Sometimes those words come easy. Other times, like writing without the benefit of your dominant hand, it can be hard.

But when you give someone your words, it’s a gift you’ll share forever.

Love,

dad