Archive for category: Child’s Play

Father Knows Best When He’s Got It Good

21 Feb 2011
February 21, 2011
Dad Knows Best

Jim Anderson surrounded by his adoring family. Umm, not quite me.

I walked down the hall as I’d done thousands of times before. As always I’m on a mission. Most of them are trivial: take the trash to the kitchen, transpose a novel from my backpack to my nightstand, or talk to my wife about something or other. This time as I walked out our bedroom door I turned my head, just for a second, to glance at my older daughter’s bedroom. And in that moment I felt the culmination of my life to that point. These fleeting events can never be predicted. If we’re lucky we’re open to them when they hit us. How many have I missed?

Her room was clean (clean!) but empty. She’d spent the night at a friend’s house –a sleepover that was sure to transform my happy, laughing daughter into a sleepless zombie later that day. But for now it was quiet and I was safe. In that second, as I turned my head from her bedroom back to the hall, I realized I had a family and I was the Dad. I heard a pileated woodpecker’s ratta-tat-tat on a tree just outside her window.

It was a funny realization. I knew all of this already but somehow it hit me anyway. Strange as it sounds, I felt fulfilled. Me, fulfilled? I’d spent most of my life looking forward with expectations and aspirations and suddenly here I was.

Sometimes I feel like I live in a sitcom. I grew up wanting to be a Father Knows Best sort of dad but I’ve ended up more of a Modern Family type of patriarch. That is, I was far from the benevolent CEO of my family. Instead, I’d turned into a quirky guy who’s happy to be surrounded by his quirky outside-the-box kids. And like a sitcom, zany moments quickly follow calm, contemplative ones like these. Just now my youngest started screaming. She’s gotten a sliver in her finger. She wants it out NOW but is afraid it will hurt when I attempt to remove it. She’s shaking so hard with anticipation her fear is sure to become a reality. What’s a father to do? With one fell swoop I take the tweezers and pull the entire sliver out. Yeah, just like that. Just like the 1950s iconic father Jim Anderson would do.

Yes, I thought in that second, I’ve got the family I deserved. I turned my head and returned to my latest mission. But this time I didn’t forget what really led me down that hall.

Just Thinking Good Thoughts

12 Sep 2010
September 12, 2010

My mother’s tombstone is so high above my head, it’s hard to connect with her grave.

Every trip to Los Angeles is punctuated by a visit with my parents. They’re buried at Mt. Sinai Memorial Park, just a few hundred feet from each other. I haven’t lived in L.A. since the mid 1980s but it will forever be the place I come from. And this visit has become part of my ritual each time I return. I’m usually alone with my thoughts but this time the city was a stop on a family vacation so my wife and girls were with me. As we drove toward the cemetery gates we stopped by the roadside to buy a bouquet of flowers from a vendor.

These visits are never comforting. My early life wasn’t easy but the city holds those memories, always waiting for me to return. As we walked to my mother’s grave I explained to my family we would divide the flowers into two uneven groups. The larger one would be for my mother and the smaller would be for my father. The imbalance reflected part of that old family history, one my wife was familiar with. But how do you explain the details to your questioning children? I didn’t. Someday, when they’re older I’d get into the details but for now this would have to do. However, leave it to them to understand more than you want to make clear. As we pruned and arranged my mother’s bouquet my twelve year old said “When you and mom die we’ll create two equal bunches.”

This led to further questions. “Where do you want to be buried, Dad; here or in D.C.?” “Do you want to be cremated?” “Do Jewish people get cremated?” Mom had already made her last wishes known but I’d been silent. “Can I be buried here?” my youngest asked. I had no answers to these queries. And, truthfully, I didn’t want to think about them at that moment. I was working too hard on my past to consider that future.

My mother is buried in a crypt stacked ten feet above other crypts. I never liked that distance. It’s too high to really feel a connection with her but she’s buried next to both of her parents and I wouldn’t want to change that. Her grave marker, however, is a different story. “BELOVED WIFE AND MOTHER,” it says. Not very creative or personal. Hundreds of beloved wives and mothers surrounded us. But I was connected to only one. When she died my father took care of all the funeral arrangements. And even though my sister and I were adults he never asked us what we’d like to say.

• • •

When I was nine, I watched the scariest movie I’d ever seen, Invaders from Mars. The film was about a boy named David who was just about my age. One stormy night he looks out his bedroom window to see a spaceship landing in the open field behind his house. When his parents go out to investigate the ground opens up and a celestial chorus crescendos as they disappear. Shortly thereafter they return “changed.” The Martians have implanted a device to control them. David knows but nobody believes him. At the climax of the film he suddenly finds himself back in bed, woken up by the same thunderstorm that began the story. His parents come in to reassure him his nightmare was only a bad dream. Even now I cringe.

But as scared as I was back then I watched the movie four more times that week. Such are the inconsistencies of boyhood. I never walked through a vacant lot again without looking down at the ground, ready to sidestep any opening that suddenly appeared.

As I lay in bed after the fifth showing I couldn’t get that vision of David’s altered parents out of my head. I was wide awake, too afraid to close my eyes. When all my young survival skills failed me I yelled for my mom and when she popped her head inside my bedroom door I admitted to my scifi film addiction. She listened quietly as I spilled my guts and when I could spill no more I remember her saying “Just think good thoughts.” That was it. “Just think good thoughts.” As if that would solve my biggest problem ever.

• • •

As we stood looking up at my mother’s grave I mentioned to my wife my desire to change my mother’s tombstone. “What would you like it to say?” she asked. I didn’t know. “Well,” is there any phrase or word you remember your mother saying?” Immediately I remembered the story of that very scared little boy, a set of Martians, and a mother. “How about ‘Just think good thoughts.'”

It was perfect.

On Talking to Strangers

24 Apr 2010
April 24, 2010

Never say a commonplace thing.

Jack Kerouac

My name is Jeff Gates and I talk to strangers. More on that later.

Ad for Online Security Software

We don’t want our children to be fearful of public engagements. But we want them to be able to understand the risks. Illustration from an ad for online security software.

With one bona fide teenager and a proto soon-to-be teen in the house privacy has been a hot family topic. Well, only their parents seem to think it’s an important issue. The girls seem totally nonplussed. And that’s our point of contention. My wife and I are trying to teach our children about the boundary between public and private space in a world that seems to be working against us. The boundaries are constantly changing and we can’t rely on our upbringings to guide us. There was no Internet when we were kids. Children have unparalleled access to information. But they have no real world experience with what to do with it or how to engage it.

Thursday, Nina Simon, who has written a great deal on the participatory museum (and has just published a book about it) came to the American Art Museum for a talk. Museums are morphing. The old hierarchical authoritative paradigm–we are the experts and we invite you to come to us for knowledge–is changing. In this Web 2.0 world museums are now beginning to engage our visitors in dialogues, not lectures about our collections. Nina has written a lot about this process and her experience is helpful in understanding this challenge. Her topic in a nutshell: how can we talk with strangers who come to our museums and how can we devise situations where visitors can engage other visitors?

I love talking with strangers, both online and in the real world. But I’ve devised some fuzzy rules for these engagements. So how do I reconcile this with my concern for privacy and the education of my girls? The answer is context.

Interestingly, Thursday was a banner engagement day for me. I had two of the most intriguing conversations with strangers within hours of each other. At lunch I was sitting in the cafe at Barnes and Noble sipping a coffee and surfing the net. Sitting next to me was a man on the phone. Being the voyeur that I am I overheard him talking in his Irish accent to an airline, trying to confirm his flight home the next day. When he got off I turned to him and asked if the volcano had stranded him. I mentioned that I had just come home from a conference at which many of my European colleagues were struggling with the same issue. But before I approached him I assessed the situation. He didn’t appear to be threatening; we were in a public place; and I could leave if I needed to. The assessment was cursory (I didn’t ask him for references) but I also relied on my past experience to continue. Let it be known I’m not one of these chatty strangers who will talk with anyone about anything. I have boundaries and I respect others’. He asked me what I did.

He works as a researcher for the Dictionary of Irish Biography, part of the Irish Royal Academy. He was at the bookstore for its free WiFi and a conversation about the Net and the changes cultural institutions like ours are encountering ensued. It was an amazing and serendipitous encounter with a total stranger. And if I hadn’t connected with him on a common ground (the volcano) we would have never had that conversation. And wonderfully we are now in contact with each other.

A few hours later I was grabbing a bite to eat at Starbucks before Nina’s lecture. As I sat down at a long table a man was standing next to a woman talking about mathematics. At first I thought he was trying to pick her up (and indeed math might simply have been his entry into her world). She appeared to be a bit uncomfortable with the engagement, explaining that she had done her PhD on the subject and worked for the National Institutes of Health. It appeared her credentials were her only defense but he ignored them. And when he finally left she was pissed. She immediately called a friend. “Why do men think they know it all,” she said. I listened (hey, it was a public space and I was two feet from her). She was disgusted. And I seriously wondered if I should enter her world. I had something to say in defense of my gender, but should I? I decided to but I was prepared to disengage if it was clear I was adding to her discomfort. Yes, I actually thought this through. I would take a chance but, given the context and sensitivity gender plays today, I was prepared to apologize and leave if need be.

She got off the phone, we made eye contact, and I said: “Not all men are like that.” She sighed and explained the whole encounter. When she was finished I replied: “Perhaps the only thing you can do is to raise a son the right way.” She laughed and thanked me for adding a bit of levity to a situation she obviously faced often.

Two radically different encounters with strangers. Yet each was rich, adding a bit more to all of our experiences in those public moments. Whether on the Net or in a coffee shop, the notion of public and private space is changing. And we’re struggling with it just like our institutions are.

So after Nina’s lecture about engagement, I stood up at the Q and A to ask her to talk a bit about a workshop she’d given to a group of teenage girls on how to talk with strangers. Her reflections on teenage interactions were interesting but my parental experience made me feel there was a piece missing. Nina had provided these girls with tools for talking to strangers (signs and ways to pose interesting questions to query strangers) but I was looking for how to teach teenagers to assess the context of an engagement, just like I had with my fellow strangers.

Nina responded to my concern by stating that most dangerous encounters were with people who knew each other. I agreed with her stat but I still felt uneasy. In October 2002 DC’s sniper John Allen Muhammad used our neighborhood as a random shooting gallery. Experiences like this inform our lives. I just don’t want these to run our lives.

A few years ago my intelligent older daughter opened a gmail account (without our knowledge) and was emailing a “girl” who worked at Cirque du Soleil. Yikes. She was so trusting of basic information without any skill to assess its veracity. This is a learned thing. But how should we be teaching it?

I don’t have a pat answer. But, for the moment, I believe it’s something that will come in time as my wife and I reinforce what I call “healthy paranoia” to our children. Privacy and public engagement are not mutually exclusive. Ten years ago when I started posting online missives about my family I set some rules of the road for posting personal information. These are malleable, changing with each context. We don’t want our girls to be fearful of every public nook and cranny. But we do want them to understand that looking at the context of these engagements is important for their safety and success of these encounters. It’s a calculated risk.

But risk taking is not a science, although I wish it was.

Our Real Family Vacation

13 Sep 2009
September 13, 2009
Shadow Puppets in Santa Fe

I went to Santa Fe and all I got was this wonderful portrait of my daughters. Click image for larger view.

It’s the week after Labor Day. The girls are back in school and I’ve got deadlines at work. It’s been rainy and cool and I’m starting to see just a hint of fall colors on the trees above my head. Way too early, I think. Summer, my favorite season, has instantaneously migrated to fall, my least favorite. I know what’s coming (PDF). Our family vacation to Santa Fe just two weeks ago is starting to seem like a very distant memory.

Family holidays end and what do we have to show for them? Some worn out maps; a few bills to pay. My daughters came back with a few beautiful baubles from the annual Indian Market in Santa Fe. Nice, but I’m hoping they’ll eventually look back on these annual trips with more substantial family memories (and more uplifting than my wife and I took away from our own childhood family vacations). That’s evolution, right?

In order to help that along I’ve documented our time in New Mexico. I brought my video camera but didn’t touch it once. Instead, I wanted my souvenirs to be those special slices of life in between our normal family dynamics (which never seem to take a vacation). It was a chance for me to be creative while really getting away from my daily grind.

I got my best souvenir just a few days into our trip. On our visit to the International Folk Art Museum I took this portrait of my daughters. In addition to the amazing folk art tableaus from the collection of Alexander Girard, they had an exhibition of Indonesian shadow puppets and instruments. The girls gravitated to the family room off the main exhibition space where they immediately began to put on their own shadow puppet show.

I caught them in play, but the photo reflects the girls’ relationship. My older daughter on the left, a newly anointed teen, seems to be admonishing her younger sister for something. A new constant in our lives, the image reflects our family dynamics captured on camera as a family vacation memory. So much for trying to document the “in between.”

There were other photos, more stereotypical of travel. And I hope my children remember the vacation part of these vacation images: my oldest mistakenly drinking from a large water bottle of holy water at the Santuario de Chimayó or my youngest’s excitement at attending a performance at the Santa Fe Oprah. But I’ll best remember this photograph because it reminds me of where we really spent our family vacation in the summer of 2009.

Believing in Santa One More Year

23 Dec 2007
December 23, 2007

You might remember we dodged a bullet a few weeks ago over the Tooth Fairy. But the big question remains: does our youngest still believe in Santa?

Last week I got a voicemail from my wife: “I just thought you should know, on the way to school today your daughter announced she no longer believes in Santa Claus.” Well, I thought, it’s over and it seemed so easy. For the rest of the afternoon the weight of my bureaucratic day job seemed so light.

At dinner that night I angled for the confirmation. “So, mom told me you no longer believe in Santa.” “Let me get this straight,” she replied. YOU’RE the one who’s been eating the cookies I left for him?”

I hesitated. This was it. The power to end “it” had been handed to me and I could go either way. Time slowed to a crawl as I weighed our destiny. I could prolong her childhood dream or dash it and move her that much closer to her next life stage: teenage angst. No parental class or book could ever prepared me for this. I was on my own.

With a sigh of relief I admitted that, yes, I was the one eating her cookies all these years. “But what about those notes? she asked. “Me too,” I replied. I grabbed a piece of paper and a pencil. “See how I can change my handwriting?” I looked at her as she processed this new information.

But without giving her a chance to react her older sister chimed in: “Let’s do an experiment. This year don’t eat the cookies and let’s see what happens.” “Yeah,” my youngest said. “Let’s see what happens.”

“But I thought you told mom you didn’t believe in Santa anymore.” No, I said I didn’t believe in those store Santas anymore. They’re creepy.” I looked at my wife, her covert expression telling me I had indeed received quality intel from her.

My daughter is hanging on with dear life to that fantasy just a little bit longer. But at least we don’t have to make a last minute trip to the mall to find one of those jolly old (and creepy) store Santas.

Of Teeth and Claus

23 Dec 2006
December 23, 2006

Notice: Seasonal and youthful spoilers below. If you are under 13, ask your parents to read this first.

A tooth-shaped note to the Tooth Fairy

My daughter’s tooth- and toothbrush-shaped note to the Tooth Fairy. Is this the work of a true believer?

Parents are constantly assessing their children’s progress towards independence. It starts early: are they eating too little, too much? Getting too little sleep, too much? Pooping too little or too much? Some times maturity can’t come fast enough (ask my wife at the end of a hard day) and sometimes we want childhood to last forever. Our expectations, based on facts, figures and the less empirical parental feeling, are constantly being adjusted.

And so this time of the year parents all over the world conduct the Annual Fictitious Character Assessment: do they or don’t they still believe in Santa Claus (and by extension, the Tooth Fairy). The AFCA metric is the first wink towards adulthood. And this week we had to test for both characters.

Unlike other measurements we must work in stealth. Different from charting our children’s height and weight, we cannot use a wall or a scale to mark their progress towards the truth about Claus and the Fairy. And unlike, um, talking about the facts of life, we cannot just blurt out those facts. This must be handled with finesse and sensitivity for this is their first jolt of real world reality.

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