Dad Love: An Open Letter to Non-Breeders

March 19, 2018

Note: We were lucky enough to be able to have children. Many of my friends can’t. My heart goes out to them. I hope their love still makes the world spin.

I’m from the generation that was in a panic over overpopulation. The mathematicians had crunched the numbers on their room-sized computers and figured the planet’s accelerated population growth would strip the resources until the day when there were more people than peanuts. It would be Soylent Green, then The Omega Man, straight through to Planet of the Apes. Only Charlton Heston would survive.

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This went through to the 80s punk-era when we devoted much vitriol for the “yuppies in the suburbs.” They were popping out kiddies faster than they could buy “Baby on Board” signs for their SUVs. (The U.S. birthrate did accelerate after 1980, as the  Millennial Generation started to arrive.) The Chinese were on to something,  limiting couples to two children. (I know, “ethical issues.”) More than two and you are taking more than you are giving and that’s evil; I don’t care what kooky offshoot of a mainstream religion you follow. How about none? “Who would want children in this over-populated cesspool. It’s gonna go all Road Warrior in, like, five years.”

We’re still racing to 8 billion people on the planet but the green revolution bought us some time, staving off the Malthusian tipping point when your town becomes The Road. Nevertheless, I am a product of my environment. Whenever I thought I might make a good parent, I would hear Lydia Lunch’s epic rant about children as vanity items, born of unrestrained egos. Children that grow up to destroy their creators. No thanks.

I don’t know if men have anything akin to a biological clock. When I hit my forties, some of friends from my youth were already becoming grandparents. Do the math. You have a kid at 18, and your kid does the same, you are a 36-year-old Mee-Maw. The thought started to re-enter my head and then after one week of dating Andrea, I knew we were going to become parents together. It was a cosmic message I’ll attribute to her goddess radiance (and a few whiskey gingers).

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I am now a breeder and I’m sorry it took so long to join the club. Yeah, I worry that our daughter will inherit a world that makes Black Mirror episodes look like My Little Pony. Or that the current idiot regime will end up selling America to China in some “art of the deal” maneuver and she’ll be working in a factory selling crap to be sold in a Beijing Walmart. But I have a feeling parents have had the same worries for a millennia. It always seems one generation away from end-times. It’s 2018 and we’re not eating soylent green. (Although I’m not 100% sure of the complete composition of Nutella.)

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I have a three-and-a-half year-old and every day is crazy bliss. The world could be on fire but I will be laughing hysterically because she just said, “Daddy, come in here and wipe my butt.” I still watch her sleep in complete marvel that we made this perfect creature. There are maybe half a dozen pictures of me at 3. There are a good 10,000 of our Cozy. Every milestone is celebrated. The first day she could open the front door, I panicked but now she asks to play outside. She now dresses herself, loves Tchaikovsky,  and says things like,  “I have a hypothesis” and “You have to stay hydrated.” It’s an endless sense of amazement every single day. Non-breeders must be disgusted by all our drooling and I could care less. I’m in a dopamine induced dream-state and each day brings a new high. As I write this she is putting on her ballet clothes because she wants to do a “beautiful dance” to the Kate Bush album I’m playing. Top that, hipsters.

On a side note, I don’t understand people who are not connected their children. There must be a dislodged silicone chip inside their heads. I have no doubt that I would take a bullet for this kid and am more than happy to know my life now is about serving her. I don’t mourn the loss of the guy who could spend an hour waiting in line for Sunday brunch. We’re making oatmeal with blueberries. When we fly together and the flight attendant says, in case of emergency, put your air mask on before you put one on your child, I have to really think about it. I can hold my goddamn breath, okay?

For a long time, I was a militant vegan. I would tell people, “Meat is murder!” Then I had sushi for the first time and I shut up about that meat is murder shit. Sorry, I just didn’t know. If you haven’t ever had a glass of really expensive wine, you can;t knock people who drop $100 on a bottle of pinot noir.

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I get the snark about breeders. Eight billion people is a lot of assholes. Sometimes I wish a virus would cover the earth and just wipe out dudes named Lance. We gotta get this down to a manageable 5 billion, but, hey, that’s not up to me. But I get the attitude. That was me until it wasn’t. Now I’m on the other side. I go to birthday parties for four-year-olds and talk to parents about the joys of potty training and cognitive development and joke about possible arranged marriages for our kids.

I look at my child and I see all the joys and sorrows of the world. I see babies being bombed in Syria or the toddlers being carried through the swaps of Myanmar. But I also see every child who looks up at the sky and dreams to fly. Cozy recently told me, “Daddy, I have I have something to tell you. I really love you and the moon. Can we go there someday?” I used to read the weeklies, looking for the next hip thing. Now I just look at her and wonder what took her so long to arrive in my life.

I’m not saying you should join the breeders club, but if you do, you will ask yourself the same thing. How did I not know?

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On becoming the working poor or How I robbed Peter to pay Paul

February 9, 2017

There is a Blazak tradition whenever I’m at a big Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner with my conservative family members in Chattanooga, Tennessee. While the dessert is being passed around my aunt, out of the blue, will just say, “All these people on welfare need to get a job.” All eyes turn to me and then I have give my lecture about how most welfare payments go to children, the elderly, and the disabled and the “able-bodied” adults who receive welfare are, for most part, working at low-wage jobs. (Fully one third of those working at Wal-Mart receive government subsidies.) They nod and go back to their pie and complaining about “aliens.”

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I’ve had a comfortable middle-class life. As a kid, I got pretty much everything I asked for Christmas. Went to a posh private university for college and grad school. Got the first tenure-track job I applied for (with an competing offer from one I applied to second). Paid off my student loans fairly quickly. Bought a house in my mid-thirties. Fattened my retirement fund. Started a family.

And then the shit hit the fan.

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When I was studying the rise of the racist skinhead culture, I developed an explanation called the status frustration theory. It’s certainly frustrating to have nothing in this land of plenty which frames the “American Dream” as one of endless economic upward mobility. I argued it is even more strain inducing to have some economic status and then lose it. My skinheads were the victims of Reaganomics. They witnessed their parents being downsized and laid off as America became a “post-industrial” economy. They saw the American Dream ripped away from them and hate groups gave them convenient scapegoats: minorities, immigrants, and, wait for it, the Jews.

Twenty-five years later, after a bizarre collaboration between a psychotic skinhead inmate and a few union-busting university administrators, I was joining them in the ranks of the downwardly mobile. I resigned my tenured position to focus on raising our daughter and my fantasy of writing full-time, but the loss of the salary (and benefits) had a bigger impact than I expected. Suddenly I was the guy I had been talking about in my lectures on social stratification and poverty. Unemployment benefits (which ran out quickly), Medicare, and WIC were not bullet points in a PowerPoint presentation. They were my social safety net.

Fortunately, I married a Mexican and those folks know how to double down and work their asses off. So while I tried to figure out what our “next steps” were going to be, my new-mom wife worked at whatever job paid the best, while trying to nurture her art and family. Andrea told me not to worry too much about the financial situation. “You’re a white guy with a PhD.,” she said.

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Three years later, the pressure is on to get back to full-time work. The writing, consulting, and part-time teaching has been hugely fulfilling, but this 50-something needs a salary again. The whole experience has given me a window into the world of the working poor. Glimpses came at left angles. The first time I tried to use our WIC vouchers at the grocery store to “buy” my allotment of milk and bread the cashier helped me because she was also on WIC. Sitting in the free-dental clinic so Cozy could have her new teeth looked at and the social worker asking about my home life. There was a good chance he had been one of my students. Watching the debate over Obamacare and wondering if congress members, fully-insured by the taxpayers, we going to take away my own health insurance. Those glimpses became just looking in the mirror. I was them.

There’s a lot to consider here, but the main rude awakening was just the hustle. The hustle to get to the end of the month. Will the bills get paid? How much room is left on the credit card? Will I ever pay them off? Should I get another credit card? Can I make a payment for one credit card with another credit card? Where can I borrow some money? What can I sell? Can I combine errands to save gas? Do I have a coupon for that? Does anybody owe me money? Can I tap into my retirement account (again)? Can I qualify for a home equity loan without a full-time job? (No.) Can I find a gig that will pay enough to cover the cost of daycare while I’m at work?

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That last one is a big one. I could pick up a job while I wait for a real position to land in, but what do I do with my daughter? The average price of daycare in the United States is about $1000 a month. (We pay $510 a month to have Cozy in daycare two days a week, plus the occasional drop-in when I’m working, plus a baby sitter on Wednesdays to cover the period when Andrea is still at work but I have to commute to teach my night class.) It’s not surprising that the number of children living with a grandparent over the last 20 years rose 64 percent. I wish we had a grandmother handy. But that’s America now. Working families have less time with their children. And many, like some of my community college students, add school to their work and family responsibilities. It shouldn’t be surprising that most Americans owe more than they own. I have $13 in my savings account. If we have an emergency, I can buy half of a cheese pizza.

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On the lucky side, my parents taught me how to be frugal. (Hey kids, Google that word: FRUGAL). I learned to save my pennies. “Don’t throw that away, it might be worth something someday!” my mother would chant. So I’ve been “liquidating” some assets. It was hard to sell my first Spiderman comic book (autographed by Stan Lee). At age 13, I bought it for $200 and sold it 40 years later for $11,000. That could have been a much-needed kitchen remodel or a grand trip to Europe but it kept the roof over our heads, so thanks Spidey. The nest egg was for a rainy day, but it’s been a mild winter so I can’t help to (finally) feel optimistic about adding to it instead of all this subtracting.

Understanding the daily stress of this insanity (How many phone bills can you miss before AT&T disconnects you?) has helped me to understand how most Americans exist in this nation where the rich get (much) richer while the rest of the country counts the days until their (totally inadequate) payday. It justifies buying a few lottery tickets for the fantasy of paying off all the debts in one fell swoop. It justifies the anger at a neighbor putting in a hot tub while you wait another year to fix the roof. And it justifies daydreaming about putting a crew together for a jewelry heist to rip off people who will drop a couple of grand on shoes they will never even wear.

As a criminologist, that’s been one of the more fascinating psychological aspects of this experience. I get it. I get the temptation to commit the “perfect crime,” playing a self-serving Robin Hood. But also, as a criminologist, I know there is no such thing as a perfect crime and arrest only make poor people poorer. It’s a financial black hole. It might make a great book but one I imagine my daughter would rather I don’t have the opportunity to write. I’m just saying, I get it, and I’m guessing a lot of my not-private-school students do as well.

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The only human path that matters is the one that builds empathy for our fellow humans. I am on that path. And when I climb out of this financial hole (and I will), I will remember the daily stresses of the working poor. I will advocate for them. Don’t fall for the “trickle down” lie again. People need living wages that actually meet the cost of living in America. And I will tell my wife to feel free to quit her job. She’s been shouldering the economic weight of our family for three years. She deserves a break. As do most working Americans.

Gender – Nature vs. Nurture 7: Baby – Toddler – Girl

January 25, 2018

It’s a common refrain around here – “Where did the baby go?” She’s just grown up so fast (said pretty much every family ever). Besides becoming a full on person, somewhere this past year, she became a full on girl. As a sociologist, for decades I’ve harped on the mantra that we are products of our environment and that gender is social construct. So I’m not quite sure how this happened. Is it my fault?

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We really worked on the gender neutral thing from day one, including dressing her in “boy” clothes, but the girl just loves all things pink. She’s had her stay-at-home dad as her primary caretaker but she’d still rather put on make-up with mom. And it’s not that her working mom is the most girly-girl. (Mexican women seem to have a bad-ass streak woven into them, but you didn’t hear that from me.) All our plans to dominate her nurture seem to have been thwarted by her nature.

Or have they?

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I’ve said it before. You don’t raise children in a vacuum. Cozy is not a lab project. She has countless influences outside of mom and dad, including little friends, teachers, grandmas and tias, and, of course, the media. All play a part in the nurturing of her gender cues. I blame Minnie Mouse. I think that was her first role model. Minnie, who just got her star on Hollywood Boulevard last week (40 years after Mickey), is not exactly an action hero. She’s come a long way, baby, but she still plays her cute card. Just watch where her knees go (in) compared to Mickey’s (out). Is Minnie a virgin to Mickey’s playa? We love Minnie Mouse around here but I’m betting that rodent has her own #metoo story. (I’m looking at you, Harvey Weinstein.)

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Cozy’s moved off Disney (maybe because we lost our Disney Channel connection) and on to the Paw Patrol. I don’t quite know what to make of this cartoon that has been mass marketed beyond belief. (Yes, she is wearing Paw Patrol undies today.) I like the positive go get ‘em attitude – “No job is too big, no pup is too small! – but it’s not like they are taking all that canine energy to improve access to the treehouse for dogs with disabilities or out defending the Paw Pussy Cats from being grabbed by the evil Drumpf. The gang is mostly male but there are two females (don’t call them bitches) named Skye and Everest. And Cozy is obsessed with them. She named her cat Skye and she has Everest socks. The patrol is led by a male (Chase), so we’re going to have to have a little Paw Patrol talk. “Wouldn’t the Patrol get more done if Skye took over?”

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She recently discovered the Little Einstein cartoon series. It’s another gang led by a (white) boy. These four kids fly around in their rocket, and have adventures based in famous works of art and classical music. It’s pretty cool, actually. There’s an episode based on on Strauss’ “Blue Danube Waltz” and Warhol’s Fish painting. My kid is humming Bizet and talking about Van Gogh’s Starry Night. Her favorite character is June, the dancer, and Cozy will dance to some Edvard Grieg like she was auditioning for the Bolshoi. I love my classical music-loving kid!

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I think seeing the Nutcracker last month was a turning point in her gendered idea of herself. It wasn’t the Nutcracker, or the Rat King that ignited her. It was the Sugar Plum Fairy. She just started glowing when the SPF tiptoed onto the stage. It reminded me of when I saw Elvis Presley in concert at age 9. “That looks like a good job,” I remember thinking. Cozy got to meet the ballerina who performed the role after the show and she was hooked. Now she is constantly dancing in her own ballet for one in a way that’s making us think she might actually be a natural at this. It’s feminine and flowing. How did this happen and how much are ballet lessons? And can she be a ballet dancer and community organizer at the same time?

I recently asked Cozy if she thought there was a difference between boys and girls. She told me that girls can jump higher and then started talking about the difference between kids and grown-ups. I think that’s still the main binary in her head. She still mixes up “she” and “he,” and I purposely don’t correct her. She’s “gender-fluid” on her own but suddenly really cares about being “beautiful.” Maybe it’s just a phase and by this summer she’ll want to be a basketball player. But at the moment, there is very pretty ballerina dancing in our living room.

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Dad Love 10: We Become Gendered

GENDER – Nature vs. Nurture 6: Fierce Fashionistia in a Fiercer World

GENDER – Nature vs. Nurture 5: Elmo is queer

GENDER – Nature vs. Nurture 4: She’s gotta be free

GENDER – Nature vs. Nurture 3: How babies queer gender

GENDER – Nature vs. Nurture 2: Ain’t I a black girl?

GENDER – Nature vs. Nurture: Round 1

Dad Love: The Wonder of Parenthood

November 30, 2017

Cozy was at her abuela’s for Thanksgiving weekend so Andrea and I used the rare child-free time to reconnect as “just us.” You know, like before everything became endless kid clutter and whose turn in was put the girl to bed. We’re talking wine bars, non-wine bars, a lot of making out in the car, sleeping in, and going to the movies. I didn’t dare to suggest The Justice League, because I knew Andrea wanted to see Wonder. It’s not a prequel to The Justice League (that’s Wonder Woman), but Julia Robert’s new film about a cute kid with a facial disfigurement. (How often have you heard that tag line?) If we thought we were briefly, “child free,” that film quashed that illusion.

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I blame my tendency to cry in films on my being a Pisces. That scene in Spiderman 2 when Spiderman (Tobey McGuire, dammit) is fighting Doctor Octopus and ends up on the commuter train with his mask ripped off. You know the scene? When the commuters realize he’s “just a kid.” Every time I lose it. (Even writing this I want to weep for Spiderman.) So Wonder was hard. I did not bring tissues. (Note: There are no spoilers in this post other than the fact the goddamn dog dies.)

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Wonder, directed by newbie Stephen Chbosky, follows the Pullman family who has a kid named Auggie with Treachers Collins Syndrome that makes him look a little like the Mole Man in Fantastic Four #1. (There are already way too many superhero references in this post.) The very first scene was the birth. Mom (Julia Roberts) and Dad (Owen Wilson and his beautiful nose) are filled with excitement as their second child pops out. You see the horrified faces of the young doctor and nurses as they rush the baby out of the room. Julia and Owen don’t know what’s wrong, but we do because we’ve seen the previews. And let the sobbing begin. Two minutes into the film.

Those of us who have had babies or who have held the right knee of our spouse while she gave birth know how emotional that moment is. It’s not just the nine months of anticipation. It’s the lifetime of wondering if you’ll ever have kids and what those kids will be like. Will they be healthy? Will they have all their parts? Will they have a few extra parts that will give them super powers? (Sorry.) In the birth video of  Cozy’s arrival you can hear my voice go into some range that doesn’t actually exists for humans. I was so happy she was finally with us after a crazy detour in her trip to be born. That moment is us at both our most mammalian and most human. All the hopes in dreams placed on our lineage are in that moment. We are the dreams of our ancestors and those dreams are now placed on this tiny baby. Bam.

We were so lucky that, even though Cozy was seriously late, she was completely healthy. That’s not the case for the Pullmans in Wonder. Little Auggie is facing countless surgeries that would have broken our hearts. So many parents go through this hell, but they do it without question, and often without much help. Their lives become consumed with surgeries, appointments, and special needs. Their lives, as well as their other children’s lives, orbit around the sick life of their child, losing much of their own identity in the process. That’s kind of the set up in Wonder when rejoin the family about ten years later.

The rest of the film is about how Auggie, who has been homeschooled by Pretty Woman, is starting middle school and likes to where a space helmet to hide his funky face. So that means cruel kids, bullies, inspiring teachers, Saul from Homeland, asshole parents of bullies, sweet kids, supportive siblings, the dog dying, Mom’s dreams deferred, cool dads, and, finally, acceptance. There’s a lot of tropes found in such films. (Will the bully be redeemed?) Ebert & Siskel might have felt a bit manipulated. But as a parent, I fucking bawled through the whole movie, and so did Andrea. In fact, my throat physically hurt from trying to choke back the tears for two hours. Thank God there was a bar nearby.

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Here’s why. You experience life differently as a parent. The young people in the theater (and there plenty of kids in the audience) must have had no idea how all of us parents were seeing this movie. I would have loved to interview them. “It was funny, not sad. Why were all these people crying?” But a switch is flicked when you become a parent. I felt it the first time we heard Cozy’s heartbeat. It’s not about you. It’s about them. You’re sole mission is to protect them so they will be ready to live without you. If this wasn’t true, women would give birth to 18-year-olds who who climb out of the womb and head straight to college. We have one job. And that job is 24-7 and does not get Thanksgiving weekends off.

I kept thinking that while watching the movie. What other job is 24-7 with no time off? I think we could do a better job of letting teenagers who think getting knocked up means a show on MTV in on this truth. It’s just not your time. (“My mom will help with the baby.”) It’s your mind. I’m never more than two thoughts away from Cozy. Right now I’m sitting in a Portland coffee shop and I know that Cozy is in daycare 9 blocks in front of me and one block to the left. She’s having her lunch and then a nap. I will pick her up at five o’clock and fall to my knees, knowing she’s had a fun, supportive day and is telling me all about it while I wrap my arms around her.

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The Sunday before Thanksgiving we were at the packed grocery store getting supplies. I was trying to get some Tillamook cheese out of the case, along with a few other shoppers. When I turned around, Cozy was gone. Just like that. Gone. Did she wander off? Was she abducted? Did I even bring her with me? My first thought was to find her but my second thought was my wife was going to kill me. “Oh, we’ll find her. I have to go back tomorrow. I forgot the almond milk.” So I’m yelling for my three-year-old. Who cares what people think? I don’t care about their judgment at this point. What am I going to do? Before I can grab an employee and order an immediate lockdown, I hear “Daddy!” Cozy was three isles away playing with some colorful soap she had found. In those 30 seconds there was the entire range of emotion, from sheer panic to an endorphin blast of picking her up again.

As a criminologist, I know that kids that don’t have close emotional bonds with their parents are more at-risk of becoming delinquent. The clearest example of this is the research on kids who are in foster care. They may have a roof over their heads and hopefully non-abusive guardians, but it’s not the same as an emotionally invested parent (biological or not) who has made that child’s well-being their priority above absolutely everything else. Someone needs to tell Kylie Jenner that her kid will take precedence over her Instagram account and make-up supply. It also makes me wonder about abusive parents. Do they have some genetic abnormality” To hurt my child seems contrary to every cell in my body. Every time I pick her up, I immediately think, “Don’t you dare drop her.”

I might just be neurotic. That’s also a Pisces thing. I’m still more than a parent. I’m still a sociologist and vinyl junkie. Andrea is still an artist and an immigrant. But our identities have been formalized by being Cozy’s parents. My being is shaped by this primary duty. “What do you do for a living?” “I make sure my kid is OK.” It’s a wonder we ever get to exhale.

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Watching the Wheels Turns 3: Thanks and Resistance

November 23, 2017

As you get older, measuring years in a life seems more difficult. The difference between my year as a 15-year-old and Randy at 16 seem like distinct chapters of a very logical book. I couldn’t begin to tell you how 46 was different from 45. But having a child puts you back on the clock. We’re not giving Cozy’s age by weeks anymore. (It’s 170 weeks today, if you care to know.) But the transition from 2 1/4 to 3 1/4 has been pretty grounding.

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It seems like a moment ago I was starting this blog, fully employed as a full professor at Portland State University, while the baby slept and my wife returned to work at her job at Planned Parenthood. Now we have a kid who runs the board on Candyland and likes to tell me what things really mean. Her sense of humor is as warped as her father’s. She likes to complain about our car being “stinky.” Yesterday, from the backseat, she said, “Daddy, can I tell you something crazy? If there was a stinky man here he would say, ‘I really like your car!’” I laughed so hard I almost ended up on the sidewalk.

Another year watching this child evolve as I’ve watch my country devolve. A year ago, I still was hoping that the election was just a bad dream. Now were racing towards either a version of The Handmaid’s Tale or Idiocracy. I can’t tell which is coming first. Last November, I was in New Orleans at the annual convention of the American Society of Criminology. One of my esteemed colleagues who also studies hate grabbed me by the shoulder and said, “This election might be bad for the country, but it’s going to be good for us.” Who knew how right he’d be? From the dramatic rise in bias crimes, Muslim bans, the rise of the alt-right fascists, Charlottesville, and Trump cultist who say they trust their pussy-grabbing leader more than they trust Jesus, it’s been one quick death slide of a once great country. But anybody who says the emperor has no clothes on is branded “fake news” by the MAGA police.

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It’s certainly kept me busy. I’ve done more interviews on hate crimes, the alt right, and mass shootings this year than I can count. CNN, NPR, Al Jazeera, flying to New York for CBS News (Yes, I saw Charlie Rose). I think the most surreal moment was doing an interview in a Portland hotel room with a former racist skinhead for a Canadian film crew doing a documentary on Trump-era hate and having to take a break to do an interview on Trump-era hate, via Skype, for live TV in Turkey. The world wants to know what the hell is happening in Trump America. I’ve been researching this issue for 30 years, so I guess it’s my time to join the global conversation. Hopefully, my words will help sound the alarm.

This Thanksgiving, I’m thankful for a few things. I’m thankful that the resistance to this swing to the moronic and hateful is being countered by a growing number of Americans, including traditional Republicans. The opposition to this thing that looks more and more like fascism is sometimes noisy and annoying and might veer off message or attract its own knuckleheads, but it is vital to the salvation of the core American values. Let’s be clear, Trump and his alt-right thugs want to destroy America and remake it in their hateful image. There would be no antifa (anti-fascists) if there weren’t fa (fascists). And there are fascists. I’m thankful that people are standing up to any form of authoritarianism, including those standing up to sexual harassers and abusive police. Maybe we needed the Trump nightmare to finally ignite the red blood cells of this country.

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Most of all I’m thankful that everyone in my family is safe and healthy. We are growing in spite of this assault. My wife has to keep her green card handy and we know that the GOP, under their dear orange leader, is hellbent on taking our daughter’s healthcare away from her. But so far we are holding strong. Cozy is doing great and we are thankful for her Obamacare-funded vitamins. Knock on wood, she seems perfect in every way and doesn’t even need diapers anymore. (Thank you, Frozen undies!) A friend recently had a stroke and I know how quickly all that can change, but we are strong and ready for the winter. Our little family is mighty.

In three years this blog has engaged in discussion in lot of issues, from baby brain development to football violence, and tried to keep the feminist lens in focus. A year ago, I was writing about the children of Aleppo (who are still being bombed, btw) and lord knows what I will be writing about a year from now. (2018, make America smart again?) But I am thankful to be able to share my family’s life and my random thoughts about the state of the world. And I’m thankful that you’re here as well. Unless you’re a troll.

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Baby Brain 3.0: The cognitive space between baby and baccalaureate

November 3, 2017

I’ve been on traveling way too much: Spokane, New York City, Atlanta, Birmingham, Oxford, Georgia and beautiful Lansing, Michigan. Each stop away from my family was an opportunity to remember how much I love them. But I have to admit that sleeping in a hotel bed without a three-year-old climbing under the covers at 4 AM was pretty nice. (If I look like I just rolled out of my bed for my CBS News interview in New York, it’s because I slept in to the last possible minute.) But upon each return, our daughter Cozy seemed like a completely new person.

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There are lots of moments when you realize that baby you swaddled is long gone. The other day Cozy climbed on the toilet all by herself, took a dump, and told us she didn’t need her kiddie potty anymore. (Yes, I wept.) A few weeks ago I was trying to get her to hurry up the steps of her preschool and she responded, “Whatever.”  She has numerous funny voices for different roles she plays. There’s her princess voice and her Hulk voice. We took her to Disney on Ice and she went as Elsa from Frozen and she was totally cool that there were a few thousand other Elsas there. Let it go. It was like she had found her tribe.

Childhood brain development is endlessly fascinating. Cozy seems to have sped through Freud’s anal phase and is almost a year early for the phallic phase. (More on that later.) In Jean Piaget’s stages of cognitive development, she is firmly in the Pre-operational Stage. She is still egocentric, but learning how to see things from others’ perspective. She wants to know why sometimes Abigail pushes her. She’s started using similes. “I can run like a cheetah.” Her language skills are rapidly expanding and she relates most things to yoga poses. Her pre-school had an earthquake drill and the teacher told the kids to climb under their desks and pretend they were turtles in their shells. “Oh, that’s turtle pose,” Cozy said. Her teacher told me that in the middle of an earthquake Cozy had all her classmates doing yoga.

When I look at the characteristics of young preschoolers (age 3-4), some of it seems like old news around her.

  1. Beginning to count objects. (“I want seven quesadillas.”)
  2. Noticing properties of objects and able to sort them. (“Daddy, I put your dirty socks in the garbage.”)
  3. Problem-solving skills like planning and baking. (“Let’s go get ice cream before dinnertime.”)
  4. Interest in their bodies and other living things. (“The cat’s butthole is funny.”)
  5. Understanding the order of events of their day. (“You have to read two stories before I go to bed, not one.”)
  6. Ability to take items apart and attempt to put them back together. (Mom’s make-up kit has been disassembled numerous times.)

On a daily basis I’ll have a “How do you know that?” moment. We were carving our Halloween pumpkin and I was trying to cut a circle in the top so we could scoop out the guts and she said, “Dad, that’s a hexagon.” Seriously, WTF? It’s like the Great Leap Forward of cognitive development. It’s more than a window into what College Freshman Cozy will be like. Her personality seems pretty complete, although I know we’ve still got some work to do. She’s just now started recognizing gender. Yesterday she told me that there are two girls and one boy in our family. I can’t tell what that means other than the boy in the family is not interested in make up, but the two girls are. Cozy and her lip gloss, lordy.

I have to think staying at home with her these three years has helped her brain development. There’s lots of stimulation, between our hikes in Forest Park and trips to the OMSI science center (and okay, the occasional binge on Nature Cat on PBS). Studies have shown that abused three-year olds have significantly less brain mass and fewer cognitive connections. A healthy environment this early will have lifelong benefits. There are still plenty of issues (Please eat what I made for dinner. Please?), but suddenly there’s this third person living in our house who has plenty of opinions and doesn’t need your kiddie potty anymore.

Trick

There was a moment when we were trick or treating that Cozy confidently walked up to a stranger’s door and knocked. Now the reward for that courageous action was a handful of candy but still, I felt like she was already off on her own and was going to be just fine. Baby brain bye bye.

The purpose of this blog post is to document where we is vis-à-vis Cozy’s noggin.

The emotional fatigue of looking for work

October 19, 2017

I had no idea it was going to be this hard. When I jumped ship from Portland State University in 2015, I thought I could just spend some time being a writer and taking care of my daughter while my wife went back to work. I had a small publishing advance, a book optioned in Hollywood, and a nice nest egg I had built for a rainy day.

It needs to stop raining.

The hope was, with my credentials, I could just hop into another gig when the time was right and the opportunity was meaningful for the work I do. It hasn’t played out that way. I’ve had a couple of close calls, including a great job opportunity at CUNY in Manhattan that I probably priced myself out of. (NYC is  expensive! Especially for a family.) There was a job with the city of Portland as a “hate crime program specialist” that looked like I had written it for myself. I didn’t even get an interview even though I’m already doing this work in the community. A longtime city employee told me it’s often the case that the city already has the hire identified and the applicant search is just an empty, but required, formality. Great. Thanks for getting my hopes up.

With a mortgage and a kid in daycare (and two maxed-out credit cards), I’ve suddenly realized that I’m the downwardly mobile American I’ve been lecturing about since I started interviewing skinheads in the Reagan years. Matching my old salary would be fantastic. Meaningful work is vital. But at this point, I’m starting to wonder what UPS drivers make during the holidays. I’ve been picky, hoping to stay in Portland or, if we have to move, some exciting Mecca of culture. God bless, but I’m not applying for the open position at South Dakota State University. My work requires gangs of disaffected youth and stellar coffee shops.

I’m writing this because I’ve learned that a lot of my friends are going through the same thing. Finding the “perfect job,” writing a compelling cover letter, and seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. I don’t know how many trips I’ve planned with my wife after I get back to full time work. The excitement for Cozy to be in her pre-school five days a week. An end to the sporadic income from consulting work. Benefits! A kitchen remodel! Work clothes! And then the “Thanks, but no thanks” email pops up in my inbox and bursts that bubble. Again. It’s an emotional roller coaster. And there’s typically one moment each day when I wonder what happened to my financially secure life and how the hell am I going to get out of this.

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Don’t get me wrong. I’m plenty busy. Between conferences in Spokane and Birmingham this month, CBS is flying me to New York City for an on camera interview. After I take Cozy trick or treating I’m being flown to Michigan to give a keynote. It’s exciting but it’s not the steady income a parent needs to provide for his child. Plus, Andrea says when I get back to work full time, she’s just going to stay home and make Mexican food. So there’s that. At 53, I should be fully able to provide for my family, but a Gen X mid-career change in a Millennial world has obstacles I didn’t foresee. You start to see why some men going on shooting sprees.

Unknown

As someone who has written a lot about masculinity (and its connection to violence), the upwardly mobile ethos is woven into my self concept. Male depression is acutely connected to lost economic status. I flash to that image of Will Smith in The Pursuit of Happyness where he’s clutching his son in a train station bathroom where they are basically living. I think about that scene all the time. I know that won’t be Cozy and I, but I don’t know that either. I know I’ve got a great skill set to offer, but why am I not working full time?

 

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Middle-aged men are the fastest growing demographic for suicide. There was a 43% increase between 1997 and 2014 for men between 45 and 60. Much of it is related to economic stress. I had my bout with suicidal ideation in the late 1990s. But a two-year-long prescription to Zoloft and writing my first novel, The Mission of the Sacred Heart (about suicide), got me back on track. Now, as a father, I can’t imagine doing that to my daughter. I hope Frances Bean Cobain curses her father, Kurt, once in a while for abandoning her that way. It doesn’t mean the thought doesn’t creep into my head occasionally, as the ultimate F.U. to the people that ripped away my career. But it’s better to be here and broke then not be here at all. Being an agnostic, I don’t rely on the belief that after I’m dead I can just sit on the cloud and watch all chumps cry, “We should have given him that job!”

I’m pretty lucky. My child is healthy. My marriage is strong. My roof isn’t leaking. And thanks to Obamacare, we (still) have health insurance. But it’s really hard sometimes. The uncertainty. The wondering what I can sell to pay a bill. The wear and tear on my wife as she shoulders the economic load and wonders when the old “full time and fulfilled” Randy will come back. It can double a soul over. I think all my fellow jobseekers probably have a certain Tom Petty song on a loop in their heads.

Well I know what’s right

I got just one life

In a world that keeps on pushin’ me around

But I’ll stand my ground

This blog is partially about men coming to terms with their vulnerability without resorting to the tired and destructive tropes of old school masculinity. So a message to those trying not to lose too much while they build something new – Hang in there. Everything is in the rearview mirror at some point. The sacrifice will be worth it.