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

Monday, June 2, 2014

A GREAT TEACHER

Dear Spike:

You were crying when you walked into our room this evening, just a bit past 9 p.m.

"What is it?" I asked. "A bad dream?"

"No," you said. "I haven't even slept yet. I'm just nervous."

"About the last day of school?"

You shook your head.

"About the summer? You're going to miss your friends?"

No.

"Then what is it?"

"I'm nervous about being in second grade next year," you said.

This I thought I understood. You're in an accelerated learning program at school. Even in kindergarten and first grade, you've struggled sometimes to keep up. You're a smart kid — brilliant, in my mind, for whatever that is worth — but sometimes I wonder whether you need all this pressure.  

I reached out and wiped away one of your tears. 

"It's going to be OK," I said. "We've got a whole summer to get ready."

You fell into my arms and sobbed.

"It's not that," you said. "It's just that... that... Ms. Clark."

Oh no, I thought. Did your teacher say something about second grade to frighten you? I'm sure she wouldn't have meant to do something like that. You certainly don't need the anxiety.

"Ms. Clark?" I asked cautiously. "What about Ms. Clark?"

"She... she... she's just been such a great teacher."

At this point your whole body was convulsing.

"And you'll miss her?"

"Yes," you wailed. "I'll miss her so much!"

Not every teacher will mean this much to you, kid. Some will be the most important people in your life. Others will feel like your worst enemy. Some you'll remember forever. Some you'll be happy to forget as soon as class is over.

But there are few people in the world who have the potential to mean so much, to do so much, to be so much to you. There are few we trust in the way we trust teachers.

And there are few — very, very few — who can impact our lives so profoundly.

You don't know it yet, but you're a lucky one. The woman who is scheduled to teach you next year, Ms. Leone, is as special as they come. You're going to learn so much from her.

That doesn't mean you'll ever forget how much Ms. Clark meant to you this year.

But come next year, just about this time, I suspect we'll be having this conversation again.

Love,
dad

  

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

YOU ARE SEVEN

Dear Spike:

I vaguely remember seven.

Second grade. Mrs. Trecek. Flashlights in a blackout. Book fair.

Jimmy Harrell. Mini golf.

Ronald Reagan. Pete Rose. Star Wars. The Last Electric Knight. My first fight.

Soccer. Baseball. Church choir.

We Are the World. Johnny Bench's Baseball Bunch.  

Seven was good and bad, but mostly good. It was happy and sad, but mostly happy. It was childhood — but with a tiny bit of recognition that something more than childhood existed out there.

Now you are seven. And this year will be good and bad, but mostly good. It will be happy and sad, but mostly happy. And it will come, I'm willing to bet, with a tiny bit of recognition that you will not be seven forever.
 
Which is, I think, what makes seven so special.

Love,
dad
 








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.