Wednesday, April 1, 2015

FAVOR OF KITTENS

Dear Spike,

For a while now, our family has been playing a funny game called “or kittens.”

It goes like this:

“Would you rather step in vomit… or kittens?” “Would you rather have to eat rotten spinach… or kittens?” “Would you rather sleep in a mud puddle… or kittens?”

The joke, of course, is that the answer is always kittens, because the alternative is so disgusting.

Thing is, though, you’d pick kittens over just about anything — so we don’t really need to make the alternative unpalatable. And so, lately, the joke has been turned on its ear.

“Would you rather have a million dollars… or kittens?” “Would you rather be president of the United States… or kittens?” “Would you rather have all the powers of Superman… or kittens?”

The answer is still kittens.

The other day you and your mother were visiting me at the university for lunch. You’d just gotten a scoop of Famous Aggie Ice Cream — mint chocolate chip, with extra chips — and we were talking about how amazingly good the ice cream is at the college’s famed creamery.

“Mama,” you said. “Ice cream… or kittens?”

As good as that ice cream is, your mother didn’t hesitate. “Kittens,” she said.

“Daddy: Ice cream… or kittens?”

Kittens, I told you after just a tad more thought. (I really like Aggie Ice Cream.)

“You know,” I said, “this would make a good survey topic. You should ask some other people.”

You’ve been acting a bit shy lately. You shrunk down in your chair a bit.

“Really,” I said. “It’s easy. The people on this campus are really nice. Watch.”

There was a group of young men — football players, I gathered from their size and bulging muscles — sitting at the table next to us.

“Hey guys,” I said. “Ice cream or kittens?”

“Excuse me, sir?” the smallest of the group asked.

“Ice cream or kittens?”

“Um… Ice cream?”

I gestured to the young man next to him, only slightly bigger.

“Ice cream,” he said confidently.
   
And then I looked to the biggest of the group. 

“Ice creams,” he said, offering a plural emphasis.

“Well,” you said, “that’s three for kittens and three for ice cream.”

If there’s one thing you can’t abide, it’s a tie. A few minutes later you were standing in front of my class with a piece of paper and a pen.

“I’m doing a survey to determine what people like more: Ice cream or kittens,” you explained to my students.

“Wait… we have to choose?” one student said.

“Yes,” you replied.

“Between ice cream and kittens?” he asked.

“That’s right,” you said. “OK, can I have you raise your hands for kittens?”

A lone woman raised her hand in the back of the class. You looked confused.

“Um… again… please raise your hand for kittens.”

The woman raised her hand higher. No one else budged.

“Oooookaaaay…” you said. “Ice cream?”

The rest of the class — nine students in all — voted for ice cream.

“Um, I think I should clarify,” you said. “The kittens are not for eating.”

The students held their ground. The score was 12 to 4 in favor of ice cream.

Your mother tells me you asked a few more people throughout the day as you wandered around the campus, but finally gave up when the results weren’t skewing in favor of kittens.

And that’s life, kid. Sometimes, when we’re searching for truth, we don’t always get the answers that conform to what we think they should be. Let me assure you: The search is worthwhile nonetheless.

These days, it seems, a lot of people are afraid to search — afraid to learn that the world is a very different place from the way they think it should be. And so, all too often, we insulate ourselves from contrary ideas and opinions. We tell ourselves we know enough. We tell ourselves we already know the right answer, so we don’t have to seek any additional information.

And we do this even though the choices we’ve made for ourselves are actually just as silly as ice cream or kittens.

Democrat or Republican? War or peace? Pro-choice or pro-life? Capitalist or socialist?

None of these things is as black and white as we all-too-often tend to think. We live in a world where there is good and bad and a whole lot of gray in all of our choices.


And thankfully, we live in a world in which we can have ice cream and kittens.

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