Friday, February 14, 2014

WINE AND ROSES

Dear Spike:

For many people of my gender and relationship status, today can be a stressful day. But for me it’s wine and roses — figuratively, not literally.

Your mother worked at a Hallmark store during college, and that pretty much soured her toward the whole holiday-for-lovers thing. She’s never expected anything special on Valentine’s Day. Not chocolates or jewelry. Not dinner or dancing. And certainly not wine or roses.

So when I told her that I’d be away in Nashville for V-Day this year, she didn’t so much as flinch. You two are having a sleepover tonight and you’re going to watch some movies. I’m going to go find some Kurdish food and eat alone while grading papers. And that’s all fine and dandy, because this isn’t a particularly important day on the calendar for our family.

That’s not to say it can’t be an important day for you. If you grow into the kind of woman who expects a horse-drawn carriage ride through the park at sunset, followed by dinner at the nicest restaurant in town, I’m OK with that.

Save one thing: I expect you to grow into the kind of woman who does not expect any of that because you are a woman.

There’s nothing wrong with doing things that are traditionally associated with one gender or another. When your mother and I go out, I drive the car pay the dinner bill. I certainly won’t pretend that these and many other roles we’ve assumed in our relationship don’t have anything to do with the gender expectations we’ve been raised with, but they don’t have anything to do with gender.

I’m not a better driver because I am a man (fact is, I’m not a better driver at all.) I am not better at paying bills because I am a man, either (your mom just doesn’t like doing it.)

Your mother does not expect me to do anything because I am a man. What she does expect of me, she expects because I am her partner, and because over our 11 years of marriage I have come to understand the kinds of things she likes (backrubs, pajamas, super-hero movies) and the kinds of things she doesn’t (V-day, taking out the garbage and driving on busy interstates.)

Likewise, I expect nothing of your mother because she is a woman, but rather because she is the person in this world who knows me better than anyone else. She tolerates the things I do that align with gender norms (watching football, riding motorcycles, playing poker) and the things that don’t (my recent obsessions with designer shoes and figure skating, for instance.)

When these tolerations, expectations and demonstrations of affection come from the things we learn about one another over time, that’s a very wonderful thing — no matter if the end result conforms to gender expectations or not. But when these things come from assumptions about what women or men need because they happen to be women or men, that’s not a good thing. It’s unhealthy and demeaning to our humanity.

Insomuch as it has come to be associated with the way men should treat women, chivalry is not dead. But it should be.

Because people who believe men should do certain things to show their appreciation for women, just because they are women, are buying into a worldview that suggests women should do certain things to show their appreciation for men, just because they are men. And for all of human history, men have taken advantage of those expectations in ways that are unkind, abusive and cruel.

If and when you choose a partner you want something from that person, by all means ask for it. And if you don’t get it, you should reconsider the relationship.

If you want carriage rides through the park, you should get that. If you want backrubs and pajamas, you should get those too. Not because you are a woman, but because you are a cherished partner to another human being.

And if you want wine and roses, I wish you nothing less than that. Every day of the year.

Love,

dad

Friday, December 20, 2013

TO GET MARRIED


Dear Spike:

As I rolled two pairs of tights over your legs and pulled a knitted sweater dress over your head, I tried my best to put the enormity of what we were about to see into perspective.

“You know how our family believes that anyone who loves another person should be allowed to get married?”

“Sure,” you said.

“Well, did you know that some people haven’t been allowed to do that? That under the law in this state and other states, men haven’t been allowed to get a license to marry other men and women cannot marry women?”

“That not fair,” you said.

“You’re right. And today a judge decided that it’s not fair at all. The law has been overturned, and so there are lots and lots of people over at the county courthouse who are celebrating today by getting their marriage licenses.”

“Oh,” you said. “But why are we getting dressed?”

“Because we’re going to go watch.”

“Watch them get married?”

“Well, watch them get their licenses at least. Maybe there will be some weddings, too. Pretty exciting, right?”

“Um…”

“Yeah?”

“Daddy?”

“What?”

“That kind of sounds a little bit boring.”

Someday — someday very soon, in fact — it will be. But tonight the thing that happened in our state was nothing short of historic. I wanted to be there. And I wanted you to be there.

Because someday — when gay marriage is boring — it’s going to be because of days like today.

Let me back up, just a little bit:

The final vote I cast as an Oregonian was in opposition to a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. The first vote I cast as a Utahn was the same. I wasn’t on the winning side of either of those battles.

As it happens, 2004 wasn’t a particularly good year for civil rights in our country. More than a dozen states passed constitutional amendments that year defining marriage as an institution that would only be legally recognized when it consisted of a partnership of one man and one woman. Many more followed. For years to come, not a single proposed ban would fail to get a majority of voters to back it. Whenever voters had a chance to choose between equality and bigotry, they chose the latter, sometimes by just a little and sometimes by a lot.

But a lot can change in a decade. It has been nearly three years since a major poll has found anything but solid support for same-sex marriage in America. And our courts — slow though they’ve been to get to the issue — have followed suit, finding in an increasing number of cases that voters don’t have the right, under our Constitution, to grant legal privileges to one set of people while banning it from others.

None of this change has come without a fight, of course. There are still people in this country — many of them, in fact — who haven’t yet figured out that their personal moral objections have absolutely no relevance when it comes to other people’s legal rights.

And that brings us to today, when a federal judge struck down Utah’s nine-year-old gay marriage ban. In his decision, Judge Robert Shelby  ruled that the constitutional amendment known as Amendment 3 — passed overwhelmingly by Utah voters the year your mother and I moved to this state — demeans the dignity of same-sex couples “for no rational reason” and is, therefore, unconstitutional.



By mid-afternoon, hundreds of people were lined up outside the office of the Salt Lake County Clerk. By evening, the county had set a new record for the number of new marriage licenses granted in a day.

The state’s acting attorney general (a man I know and respect, but who is woefully on the wrong side of common decency and the march of human history when it comes to this issue) has pledged to appeal the judge’s decision. As a result, a tremendous urgency hung over tonight’s proceedings at the clerk’s office. Under a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling, the licenses issued today cannot be unissued — but a stay on Judge Shelby’s ruling specific to Utah’s ban could put any new licenses on hold for months or years to come.

And so it was that would-be brides and grooms arrived for their weddings in blue jeans and sweatpants, in work uniforms and hospital scrubs. Children were carrying school backpacks. Owing to the season, almost everyone was wearing thick winter coats. At least in the hour or so that we were present, there were no tuxedos or white wedding gowns.

They cobbled together what family and friends they could on short notice. In some cases, other applicants stood in as witnesses. Photojournalists, rather than wedding photographers, captured the nuptials. There was no cake. No toasts. No throwing of bouquets to wild unwed mobs. 

But there were tears in just about everyone’s eyes. Because, as it turns out, you don’t need any of that extra stuff to have a wedding. All you need are two people who love one another and desire to make a public commitment to each other.   

You sat on my shoulders and watched seven or eight such instantaneous ceremonies before reminding me that this was, in fact, all still quite boring.

I’m so very glad you feel that way.

Someday we all will.

Love,
dad


Photos: 
Top: My friend and former colleague, Natalie Dicou, and her partner Nicole Christensen, fill out their application for a marriage license. Photo by my good friend Jim Urquhart (over whose wedding I officiated, so I feel no remorse in stealing this image.)
Middle: A crowd of people (including you, Spike) watched as a parade of newly married couples emerged from the office of the Salt Lake County clerk. Photo from The Deseret News. 

Friday, November 22, 2013

AWFULLY GREAT COMPANY

Dear Spike:

You are a stutterer.

There’s really no point in being anything less than direct about this. It’s no cause for shame. It’s nothing to hide.

Much to the contrary, in fact. The way you speak is part of what makes you who you are. And I love who you are.

It’s true that not everyone will see you as I do. There are those who will associate the way you speak with a lack of confidence or intelligence. Those people could not be more wrong. Stuttering has nothing to do with intelligence. Or confidence. Or anything else, for that matter. It simply means that you might take a little longer to communicate than other people, and that those people might have a slightly tougher time understanding you.

So really, if you think about it, it’s their problem — not yours.

But your mother and I have always taught you to help people out with their problems. So that’s why we’ve asked the speech therapist at your school, Miss Rose, to work with you so that you can help people who don’t have the intelligence or patience to understand the way you speak. Miss Rose will help you practice ways to moderate your speech. And over time, we think, you’ll probably not have much of a stutter at all.

But even if you do continue to stutter, you should know that you’re in awfully great company. Winston Churchill was a stutterer. (He’s one of the most famous orators in history.) King George VI was, too. (There’s a wonderful movie about him called “The King’s Speech.”)

James Earl Jones. Carly Simon. Joe Biden. And 65 million other people.

My very dear friend, Chhun, stutters. He’s now helping children in Azerbaijan learn to speak English.

I don’t stutter, but I do have one heck of a lisp. And I travel all over the world talking to people about communication.

There are still people who make fun of the way I talk; even grown adults who should know better than to mock someone in that way.

There will probably be people who will make fun of you, too. That is life. 

They might laugh. They might stare. They might act exasperated.

If that happens, it’s up to you to decide how to respond. You can ignore them. You can correct them. You can fight them. I will not tell you what you should do.

But know this: I love the way you speak. And those who love you will love the way you speak, however you speak.

And everyone else? Well, that’s their problem.

Love,

dad

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

A GOOD BOY

Coltrane meets Spike. May 28, 2007.
Dear Spike:

There's a sprawling tree on the corner of 9th South and Lincoln Street, right outside the University Veterinary Center. Coltrane and I stopped on the sidewalk, under its branches, for a moment before turning up the clinic's concrete steps this morning.

I leaned into the blanket in which our beloved cat was swaddled and whispered into his ear. "Remember when you climbed a tree?" I asked him. "And I climbed up to get you down?"

It was 20 minutes, at the most, from the moment we walked through the clinic doors to the moment your dear friend — a cat you've always called "brother" — had passed. He'd suffered a stroke in the middle of the night. He brain was no longer working as it should. I'll spare you the details except to say that after finding him thrashing outside your bedroom door at 4 a.m., your mother and I were confident he wouldn't even make it to the hospital's opening at 7.

He did. Which meant we needed to do what companions must do. We needed to help him go the rest of the way to the end of his life. To give him a death free of any more suffering. And so it was that I held him, and I cried for him and for me and for you and for your mother as the doctor gave him the drugs that put him to sleep, then stopped his heart.

His ashes, I'm told, will be spread in an apple orchard — underneath, I'd like to think, a great big sprawling tree like the one that stands outside the clinic. Or maybe like the one that stood in the center of my backyard in the home I lived in for a short time after your mother and I feel in love, but before we lived together.

That was early in 2001, I think. Cole was maybe seven or eight months old. He'd escaped out a window and found his way up, but not down, the tree. When I got home, that evening, I changed into my combat boots, threw my old sea bag over my shoulder, and shimmied up the trunk. I put him inside the bag and lowered it down to the woman who would become his mother, and who would much later become your mother. She lifted him out of the bag and cradled him in her arms.

"You're such a good boy," she said.

Those were the same words she used this morning as she stroked the fur between his ears. And I told him, too.

Such a good boy.

Such a good boy.

Boy? Really? Why do we do that? He's just a cat, right? A Maine Coon breed of the species Felis catus, of the genus Felis, of the family Feliae, of the order Carnivora.

On the great big taxonomic tree of life we've got to crawl all the way over to Class Mammalia to get to a place where our branches meet.

But you called him "brother" and we all thought of him as a member of our family.

When I peeked in your desk at a parent-teacher meeting at your school a few weeks ago I found a worksheet you'd done a few days earlier. And notwithstanding the fact that the stick drawing that was pre-printed on the sheet was a textbook example of homo-normative socialization (with a mommy stick figure and a daddy stick figure and two children stick figures — the boys standing gauntly in all their naked stick figurativeness and the girls covering up their stickishness with triangle dresses) you'd turned it into an ever better example of inclusivity by penciling in two little ears and a sweet little tail on the stick boy.

Why? Because he was a member of our family. Because he was our boy. Because he was your brother. Because we loved him and he made our lives better.

And, you know, there's a strong case to be made that he made your life possible.

He was about six months old when I took him to get neutered. Your mother and I weren't dating at that time, but we were friends. I had to work at the newspaper that afternoon and so your mother agreed to pick him up for me. When I came to get him, that night, your mom had him wrapped in a blanket and he was purring like a Ferrari. And I can't say that this was the moment I fell in love with your mother, but I can't say it wasn't a contributing factor, either.

A few nights later later we shared our first kiss.

As I held him in the examination room and waited for the doctor to come in, I thanked him for what he did to bring our family together. And then there was a soft knock at the door, and it was time for him to go.

As he went, there in my arms, I closed my eyes and remembered the time he climbed that tree and I climbed up to get him down.

And maybe I rescued him. Or maybe he rescued me.

Love,
dad

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

HOLY SOLSTICE SCHEDULING

Dear Spike,

So ends the most epic summer ever.

You mastered the fine art of bicycle riding. You learned to swim like a mermaid. You learned to sew. You ate a raw oyster. You hiked Yosemite. You watched a lot of Phineas and Ferb.

OK, maybe that last part wasn’t so epic. (Although, I’ll be honest: That show — about all the amazing ways that two boy geniuses and their pet platypus while away the summer hours — is pretty much the best thing ever put on TV.)

Now, with just about 10 hours to go before you return to school, I’m feeling a bit jealous. I spent the better part of my summer finishing the book. It’s off to the publisher now, and I’m proud and happy about that (and, yes, about the check, too) but I feel like I missed a lot of really cool things this summer.

You and your mom were like the dynamic duo of afternoon activities. Bam! Off to the zoo. Wham-o! Into to the museum. Biff! Up the mountains for a hike.

Holy solstice scheduling, Batman!

In fairness: Our very privileged life gives me more opportunities to spend time with you than many dads have with their children. I’m a really fortunate guy in that way — so I’m not complaining.

But next summer, I think, I’m going to try to take it just a little bit easier. That doesn’t mean I’ll drop all my pursuits and projects (I don’t think I’d be very good company if I didn’t have a lot to do) but maybe we’ll take a vacation where I don’t bring my phone and computer along.

Summers are, I hear, one of the really great perks of being a teacher. I suppose I might as well try it out.

Love,

dad