Gender – Nature vs Nurture 8: The Looking Glass Self

August 7, 2022

There was a clear moment this past year when Dad picking out Cozy’s outfit for the day slammed into “societal expectations.” For the historical record, there is an event in the life of a second grader that sounds like this; “Dad, I don’t like how that makes me look!”

Legendary sociologist George Herbert Mead (1863 – 1931) often referred to Charles Cooley’s concept of the “looking glass self.” When “I” look in a mirror, I see “Me.” Me is society’s reflection and I evaluate myself by that reflection. It has nothing to do with who I am, only how they see “me.” I love mentioning to my students how they will never see their own face as it is. They will only see photos, videos, and reflections in mirrors, all versions of their face mediated by some external source. You don’t actually look like what you look like on Instagram. Sorry.

Even the most rugged individual’s sense of self is shaped by society. You’re a mountain man? Society says you have to have a beard, jeans, and flannel shirts. “But that’s just what I’m comfortable in,” says the rugged individual. “You know what’s even more comfortable?” asks George Herbert Mead. “Silk pajamas!” “But that will make me look like a cissy!” says the mountain man. Bam, society.

So me picking out my daughter’s clothes is starting to get filtered through the various mirrors of society. That’s not necessarily bad (“Pick out your own damn outfit,” Dad has screamed), but as we know, “society” is kinda messed up, like a funhouse full of distorted mirrors.

The first mirror is gender. This trip hits girls first. The boys in her second grade class seemed oblivious to what they should wear. Cozy has already been playing at wearing make-up with her friends. She has even said, “That outfit makes me look fat.” (Mom and Dad had a big “family time” conversation about that one.) And the way the fifth grade girls dress at her elementary school dress looks more college co-ed fashion than “kidswear.” According to feminist sociologists, like Carol Gilligan, all of this will be put in the service of attracting boys. 

Instead of being evaluated on her brains, her humor, or her ability to build a sustainable fairy house out of a bundle of sticks, society wants to primarily place her value in her “attractiveness.” Gilligan found that the self-esteem of 13-year-old girls plummeted as they began to realize that their worth was not based on what they had to offer the world but what they had to offer boys. The soccer player quits the team to become the cheerleader. Her research was first published in 1982. Forty years later, I fear the creeping insecurities of the 13-year-old girl who is told, “Boys don’t make passes at girls who wear glasses,” will arrive in the gender politics of 3rd grade.

The second mirror is race. Less visible to white girls, BIPOC girls know that white girls set the beauty standards, whether it’s the latest fashion, straight hair, or Instagram make-up tips. My brunette mixed-race daughter has commented, more than once, about wanting an outfit because the “blondies” will like it. Already in second grade, the Aryan girls are the mirror that the other girls are seeing themselves in (and never seeing a blondie looking back at them). This isn’t any critique of Cozy’s blonde classmates. We live in a white supremacists patriarchal culture that puts “blonde girls,” at the peak of the attractiveness scale, but that scale is changing rapidly.

The third mirror is class. Not only are these kids looking up to the wealthy, to keep up with the Kardashians, they (or their parents) are expected to shell out the money so they can “look cool.” The first day of school everyone gets evaluated in their new outfits and the poor kids are always shamed. “Your momma is so poor that when I asked her what’s for dinner tonight she lit her pocket on fire and said, hot pocket.” We can still find Cozy outfits at Goodwill but we are about 60 seconds away from that door closing and it’s gotta be the latest trend OR SHE WILL DIE. We’re trying to give her a bohemian ethic that rejects wealth in favor of a decidedly downwardly mobile artist esthetic. My credit card really needs her to be a beatnik.

All of this is tied to the process of “our baby” becoming her own person. But, as Mead explained, her sense of self is being formed by the culture she lives in and more than once I have been tempted to smash the mirror.

Here comes third grade.

The Rescue of the Girl in the Red Coat: Gratitude for One Ukrainian Dad

April 17, 2022

It wasn’t until my tenth day home from my Poland-Ukraine trip that I really had a chance to process what the experience meant and why I felt so different upon my return. I knew I was different but I wasn’t sure why or how. I could write it off, as I had been describing it to friends, as a “thimble full of PTSD,” but it was something else. My therapist asked me for the one resonating image of time in the conflict zone. There was no hesitation in my answer.

Before crossing into Ukraine we went to a town on the Poland-Ukraine border called Korzowa. The Polish government had taken a massive abandoned shopping mall called Centrum Handlu and turned it into a refugee resettlement center. We were there to retrieve a mother and her kids and get them to a safe house. When we arrived in our passenger van, I immediately recognized the building from the news reports I had watched in Portland. I saw the chef from World Central Kitchen, José Andrés, preparing meals outside the building and the trucks bringing in supplies from across Europe.

Sally, our fearless leader, reminded me not to take pictures inside, as these severely traumatized people needed compassion and not to be treated like zoo animals. That was fine because the memories of the sea of displaced humanity inside the mall will forever travel with me.

It was midday so the thousands of cots were mostly stacked up but there were still many parents and children trying to sleep in the bright industrial lights. We found our family in an arrangement of couches they had made their “room” for a few days, a mother, six girls, and a Pekingese, who peed on the floor while we waited for their shelter discharge papers. It was clear that many of the Ukrainian children were afraid of strange men because of what they witnessed from the Russian soldiers who drove them from their homes, so I did my best to be cheerful, always sharing pictures of my daughter, Cozy.

While we waited to be released, I scanned the countless people who were trying to figure out the next steps in this insane disruption. My eyes stopped on a father sitting in the middle of the floor with a few bags and his daughter, who was wearing a red coat. The look on his face was of complete loss. His country was suddenly at war, his life as he knew it had evaporated, and he had no idea what was going to happen next. He had his hand on his daughter and occasionally stroked her hair, but he kept his face from her eyes. I held my phone at my waist and took one picture. I didn’t want to forget his face. That could be Cozy and I so easily.

Reflecting on the moment with my therapist, my first feeling was of sadness. While I was there, I saw so many families turned into “refugees” overnight as the Russian rockets crashed into their homes. But the more I thought about it, I started to see him as a hero. He was Atticus Finch, making the tough choices to protect his child. The refrain across the border was “Heroyam slava!” (“Glory to the heroes!” In Ukrainian.) This father wasn’t shooting at Russians, but he was still doing something heroic.

And his daughter was wearing a red coat. The girl in the red coat from Schindler’s List had haunted me during my day at Auschwitz the following month. But unlike that girl, who would end up in a pile of corpses headed for the crematorium, this girl in a red coat would escape to safety. Because of her father.

While in Poland and Ukraine, I routinely reflected on how lucky I was. A home, a family, safety. There was a moment when we were heading west, across the Ukrainian countryside with another displaced family in the van, that I noticed the color of the sky was the same color blue as on the Ukrainian flag. I thought about how that same sky was over my daughter who was safe with her mother, over 5000 miles away. The endless pain caused by stupid anger was evident on the faces of the Ukrainian children I met. What could I do to reduce the pain from anger in my own home?

When the momentum of the global travel began to subside (my sleep schedule is still on Poland time), those images and lessons began to settle in the front of my brain. Andi and I had an honest discussion about our relationship, her relationship, and the likely direction of things. The anger that had been there just lifted. I’d seen too many families ripped apart by pointless anger. I’d seen the trauma on the faces of kids whose parents were pulled in opposite directions and unable to be fully present. Things immediately improved between us. Yesterday we took Cozy to an Easter egg hunt and Andi put her head on my shoulder as we watched our child race across the grass. And today we are going to a Thorns game as family. It feels like a spring rebirth. All it took was me seeing that Ukrainian father and his girl in the red coat.

I don’t know how the war in Ukraine will play out. The same is true with events in my life. We both have some rough months ahead. In Krakow, I started the process of getting “лава Україні” (Glory to Ukraine) tattooed on my arm and finished it in Portland. The blue of the Ukrainian flag inked into my skin will serve to remind me that the love that connects us across the planet will always win out over the anger. This Easter Sunday, that suddenly means enough. Upon returning home I learned that Oliwia Dabrowska, who played the girl in the red coat on a Krakow street in Schindler’s List is now 32-years-old and has been doing refugee work in Poland at Centrum Handlu. We probably crossed paths. She’s a hero, and, OK, maybe I’m a thimble full of hero to my daughter and to those little girls I helped get to safety. Heróyam sláva!

My last hours of 57, when I grew up.

February 19, 2022

When you grow up in the South, age 33 is supposed to be the transformative year. After all, that’s the year that Jesus got his shit together to fulfill the prophecy of getting himself executed. Southern wisdom is that if you’re not married by 33, maybe with a kid but definitely with your economic house in order, you’re are letting Ol’ Jesus down. For me, 17 was the year I got out of the house and figured out I was going become an academic instead of dentist. Thank Jesus. That was a year my sense of self felt like it was really coming together.

This is my last day as a 57-year-old and that brace-faced teenager seems light years away (and so does the 33-year-old). The past 12 months have been more transformative than anything I’ve ever encountered. When I look back at February 2021 me, I barely recognize the guy. Somethings are sadly the same. I’m still lobbying for a job in the Biden Administration and there still isn’t a fully functioning kitchen in this house, but the person in this spot has shed that skin. 2021 me looked like a lost boy, bouncing in the glee of the moment, but taking everything around him for granted.

If there was any year I wish I could have a do-over it would be 57. Previously it was 16 (so I could go to New York and save John Lennon) and then it was 21 (just because it was so incredibly awesome). But 57 was a year of stupid mistakes, like beginner blunders on a chess board. Beside forgetting Andi and my wedding anniversary for the second year in the row, I had fairly spectacular meltdowns in New Orleans and at the final night of Mary’s Club that had her questioning my sanity. In between those, I uncovered my history of child sexual abuse but not before I further sabotaged her trust in me. The new year began with me back on the proverbial cliff, contemplating non-existence. It was a hard year. Hard on my family.

The good news is I got back on the anti-depressants and found a therapist who really helped me get to the root issues, leading to what feels like a complete rebirth from the troubled narcissist I was. My journey in therapy began in 1998 when I was forced to confront some of those issues around depression. It generated a good book on the subject (that I’m proud of and everyone should buy), but it never really got to the starting point of my tendency to shoot myself in the foot over and over again. Thanks to Andi encouraging me to read more on my issues, I picked up a few books on Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) and then found a somatic therapist who specialized in hypo-therapy. It was time to go deep. This is the year my Saturn is in return, so big change is inevitable.

The time spent in therapy has been revelatory. The first time she put me into a relaxed state where I could actually talk to that 4-year-old boy who had been abused changed my whole way of being. I began to let go of my constant anger (which I visualized as the Incredible Hulk) that I laid on anyone in my radius, including my family and my wife. Developing skills to be mindful of my emotions reminded me that I can center other people and not be dangerously vulnerable. And being safely vulnerable is actually a good thing. (Yeah, I now know all about Brené Brown. She’s a rock star.) I can finally breathe. It’s going to be alright.

Today, our daughter asked if Andi was going to move back home. On the weeks Andi has Cozy, I spend as much time in her apartment as I do in our house, often laying next to her in bed in the early morning minutes before the alarm clock goes off, watching her sleep and thinking about how I used to complain about her snoring. I am in love with that snore. Old Randy might have asked his daughter to play some Jedi mind tricks on Mom, but I just said, “I hope she does, but I don’t really know. It’s up to her but whatever she chooses, we want her to be happy.”

There was a moment in this process where I saw a truth that Andi had long known, that when you truly love someone, you live to serve them, not your ego. I am here to serve her and our daughter, in whatever capacity the universe allows. My journey through the challenge of self-work this year highlighted that our complacency with our selves and our relationships is our biggest threat to our happiness. It’s too easy to be lazy in our culture, scrolling through life. We’re not done. There’s work unfinished. At least there is for me.

I turn 58 tomorrow. That used to seem so old. But I feel like I just grew up.

I had a feeling ’21 was gonna be a good year: Psych!

December 31, 2021

Like most people who survived the epic disaster film that was 2020, I had high hopes for 2021. I kept singing that Who song from Tommy; “I got a feeling ’21 is gonna be a good year.” Trump was defeated, the COVID vaccine was coming, and things seemed to be great on the home front. Man, I was wrong on all counts.

January 6 was the first day of winter classes at PCC, Andi’s 31st birthday, and the day Donald Trump staged a coup to flush American democracy down the toilet. As I Zoomed with my sociology students, we split screened in realtime the assault on the capitol, while my wife realized that the folks who have their birthdays on September 11 now had some fellow travelers.

Then the Delta variant busted through the vaccine barricades destroying any hope of kicking off the new Roaring 20s. It took me down in August, as I spent ten days flat on my back, hoping I wouldn’t cough a lung out. I survived thanks to Andi and Cozy dropping food and medicine into the basement. And that wasn’t even my worst moment of 2021.

Much of this early part of this year, this blog was dedicated to thoughtful policy pieces responding to the January 6th insurrection but then it turned personal. Over the summer my bad habits hit a low point, leading to the realization of the impact of a sexual assault that happened to me when I was just four years old. I tried to make sense of how that explained my narcissistic tendencies but it just made things more unstable in my relationship. In October, Andi moved out to rescue her sense of self. It was exactly what I needed to put the pieces together and leave that 4-year-old boy back in 1968. The time we spend together now is more meaningful than ever. You can’t say you love someone and take them for granted year after year. The personal growth the last third of this year has been so exciting, thanks to good reading, great therapists, and a loving wife who lives just down the street.

There were plenty of great moments this year, including our cross country, Atlanta to Portland, road trip. The meandering journey took us to the Arizona-Mexico border where Andi crossed when she was 8, and leading to one of my favorite blog posts of the year. This year I also joined the faculty at the University of Oregon, returning to the physical classroom to discuss racism twice a week with 150 students in Eugene. I read a lot of self-help books, listened to newly released Beatles songs, watched Cozy turn 7, sweeping into second grade (after over a year in remote), and had a hundred amazing dates with Andi. My meditation and mindfulness practices help me navigate even the hardest of moments.

I also managed to get out 28 blogposts in 2021, the most popular being The Barbarians at the Gate: Confronting MAGA Terrorists Post Trump, followed by Freedom Morons: What am I supposed to think about people who refuse get vaccinated? But it was my piece on my sexual abuse that received the most feedback, including many people sharing their own stories of sexual trauma and psychological fall out. I hope that post helped some folks. It’s never too late to heal.

I’m not going to make any predictions about 2022. It could go either way. Andi and I have tickets for a much-needed trip to Paris in March (as spouses, lovers, or just friends, we’ll see) so I hope the Omicron variant doesn’t lead to a global shutdown this spring. I do know I will continue to work on the hard issues and the hardest issue of all is myself.

2021 WTW Posts

The Barbarians at the Gate: Confronting MAGA Terrorists Post Trump – January 12, 2021

There Is A Way To Interrupt Domestic Extremism – January 23, 2021

Bridging the Great American Divide: Stepping back from the cliff that is Civil War II – February 1, 2021

Preparing for April 19th, 2021: Why We Need an International Approach to Domestic Terrorism – February 7, 2021

Two Robots Meet on Mars – A Valentines Poem for My Wife – February 14, 2021

Talking to Your Kid About Black History Month: First Grade Edition – February 18, 2021

Envisioning Our Renaissance at Home: Life After the Pandemic – March 8, 2021

I’m Vaccinated! Am I proud or am I ashamed of it? – March 24, 2021

Witnessing the Witnesses of the Murder of George Floyd: Trauma at the Trial of Derek Chauvin – March 30, 2021

Standing at the Border: Experiencing Xenophobia Through My Wife’s Skin – April 15, 2021

Cancelling White Fragility: Can Progressives Get an Assist from Madison Avenue? – May 13, 2021

Pandemic Nostalgia: Save a Mask, It’s Coming! – June 4, 2021

If You’re Hiring, Just Be Decent to Applicants, OK? – June 11, 2021

The Black Strawman: In Defense of Critical Race Theory – June 18, 2021

Mindful Meditation: Save me, Ringo! – July 15, 2021

The Delta Variant Got Me: Hubris Amid a Pandemic – August 1, 2021

COVID, Climate Change, and Misinformation: How Shock Doctrine Kills American Democracy – August 9, 2021

Freedom Morons: What am I supposed to think about people who refuse get vaccinated? – August 27, 2021

Death By a Thousand 9/11s – September 11, 2021

2028: A Letter to My 14-year-old Daughter at the Half-way Mark – September 27, 2021

I am the victim of child sexual abuse and it made me toxic. – October 22, 2021

Follow Up: Fixing What’s Broken – November 8, 2021

Confronting Misogyny in Family Feud America – November 13, 2021

Taking You Lumps: Remote Gender Work – November 19, 2021

Learning How to Let it Be from The Beatles’ Get Back Film – November 28, 2021

How to not be an anti-racist asshole: Mindfulness and Racial Progress – December 21, 2021

Dad’s Top 20 Discs of 2021 – December 27, 2021

I had a feeling ’21 was gonna be a good year: Psych! – December 31, 2021

Confronting Misogyny in Family Feud America

November 13, 2021

I think there was a naive hope that when the Orange Führur was banished from the White House (and Twitter) that the levels of toxic masculinity would ease off a bit. But this is patriarchal America and misogyny is our most hallowed value. Brittney Spears might be free, but the alt-right regularly refers to our vice-president as “Cum-Allah” and continues to plot its boogaloo boy revolution. Nothing triggers fragile men like ending middle eastern wars and a new Adele album.

I was reminded of this one night when the three of us were chomping on burritos while watching the produced-in-Atlanta game show Family Feud. I’ve enjoyed it since the Richard Dawson seventies and Steve Harvey does some pretty hilarious adlib comedy. It seemed like some harmless family entertainment since we’d burned through every episode of the capitalist propaganda-fest that is Shark Tank.

I’d noticed the “survey says” answers on the show’s gameboard occasionally went a little “off color” to go for the cheap laugh, but the Feud really showed its true colors one November night. The question was, “What is one thing a man could do that would cause his wife not to stand up for him.” Of course, the top answer was “cheat,” but when it flipped up on the gameboard what the oh-so-sophisticated writers had for the winning answer was, “CHEAT/GET A HO PREGGO.” I looked at Andi and she looked at me and then we both looked at our 7-year-old daughter. And then we shut the TV off.

Steve Harvey didn’t say anything about it and neither did anyone else as far as I can tell. This is how normalized sexism still is in 2021. If a woman gets pregnant with a married man, she must be a whore. And the chorus of “It was a joke! Get over it!” comes in to make the degradation of women just part of the normal background noise. Nothing to get upset about. Imagine if the “joke” about the “ho” had been about a “coon” or some other racist slur. We’d have heard about it then. Racism gets a rally and sexism get a yawn. That’s because patriarchy goes back a lot farther than white supremacy. And white supremacy goes way back.

This was playing out the same time that Arizona Republican Paul Gosar (who is a dentist and sits in the United State Congress) was joking about violently murdering Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on Twitter. And this complete psycho (visit his Twitter feed if you want a glimpse of the current state of Idiocracy) is still seated in the House of Representatives. This is how little we value women and girls in our country. Afghanistan, hold my beer.

I was reminded of how far we hadn’t come, babe, when we were shopping for our daughter’s Halloween costume. The costume store had segregated the costumes by gender (separate but definitely not equal). In the kids section, the boys costumes were various superheroes, serial killers, and Mindcraft stuff. The girls section was primarily, sexy nurse, sexy zombie, and sexy schoolgirl. These were the costumes for second grade girls. Cozy picked out a “sexy devil” costume that we figured we could modify to not catch the eyes of the Jeffrey Epsteins in the neighborhood. The sexualization of elementary school girls is not new but when it’s your second grader, you want to burn the costume store, Spirit Halloween, to the fucking ground.

I know this giant tanker of sexism takes time around. More women are now graduating from college than men. And women have outnumbered men in the workforce since 2010. But it’s the everyday sexism that cuts women and girls off at the knees. And it will continue to sabotage their deserved equity unit men say this must stop. (I zipped off a fervent Tweet to Steve Harvey and his show which we will no longer watch). I can only shield my daughter from so much sexist bullshit. I’m gonna need some help from my brothers in arms.

2028: A Letter to My 14-year-old Daughter at the Half-way Mark

September 27, 2021

Our daughter, Cozette turned seven last month and she’s way ahead of where I was in terms of coolness. When I was a new second grader at Highland Christian Academy, I didn’t even know the #1 single for that week (“Maggie May”), but I did know the Frito Bandito song. Cozy can riff on some Dua Lipa cuts and has a vast knowledge of classic rock lyrics. (She has a soft spot for Lindsey Buckingham’s Fleetwood Mac songs.) Cozy is well-versed, from Coltrane to Storm Large.

It just dawned on me that, at 7, she is halfway to 14, which was a big year for me and my musical coming out, so I thought I should write her a letter now and tuck it away on this blog until 2028.

Dear Cozy,

Happy 14th birthday! Every day with you has been a thrill and it’s so exciting to see you ready to rock 9th grade. You have turned into the most joyful, complex, and kind young woman I know. And even though your mom and I have had some influence, who you are comes from some wonderful spark that exists deep inside you. I thought I’d use this moment to tell you a little bit about what I was like when I was 14 and make a birthday promise to you.

I turned 14 fifty years ago in 1978. It was a great year of self-discovery and what I like to think of as my “musical coming out” year. You know what a role music has played in my life, starting with my pre-school raiding of my parents jazz records and endless hours listening to your grandmother playing Scott Joplin rags on the baby grand piano in our living room. But 1978 was different. It was the year your grandparents started letting their oldest son go to concerts without adults!

I already had caught the concert bug the year before. (Ask me someday what it was like to see Kiss in concert in 1977). For some reason, once I turned 14, my folks trusted me enough to let me go to concerts with my friends. And we went to every big show that came through Atlanta, from Blondie (at the Fox Theater) to Black Sabbath (at the Omni). In fact, if you listen to the 1978 live Blue Oyster Cult album, Some Enchanted Evening, (recorded at the Fox Theater) you can hear Charlie, Richie, and I screaming our lungs out.

You know how exciting live music is. Officially, your first concert was U2 in Vancouver, BC on May 15, 2015. For the record, you were 9 months old and The Edge fell off the stage. We’ve been to countless shows together since then. You know about the anticipation swelling as the main act is about to take the stage. You know about singing along with the actual people on the recording. You know about your ears ringing when it’s all over.

When I was 14, the other element at concerts was drugs. A lot of drugs. And everything else. I remember a guy drinking straight Jack Daniels before a Who concert, and telling everyone it was his life’s dream to see The Who in concert. By the time The Who took the stage, he was passed out drunk. Missed the entire show. I’m sure he told all his friends how brilliant the concert was. Those concerts were too important for me to miss a thing. I was clear-eyed sober, focused on every element of the experience, every guitar solo, every screaming fan pressed against the stage. And I remember them all 50 years later. Just a suggestion about the value of a clear head. You’ll want to remember this stuff.

Concerts were where I found my tribe. Other music fanatics and the various subtribes. By 15, I was firmly in the mod/punk/new wave tribe and going to Ramones shows. But at 14, it was all brand new. I people watched as much as band watched.

So you are at a magical spot right now. Given life expectancies in 2028, you’ve got another 70+ years of life ahead of you. That means you’ve got 14 years behind you, much of which you don’t remember because you were little, and 70 years ahead of you. The future is wide open. Most of my life is behind me, which is why I bore you with stories of the distant past. But for you there is this incredible newness and potential wrapped up in every experience. I would give anything to hear music that way I did in 1978. For my 14th birthday, I got the debut album of a band called Van Halen and you would have thought the Rapture had unfolded on Earth. That album was like a lightning bolt from God. (Our poor neighbors in Stone Mountain who had to tolerate me playing “You Really Got Me,” at full volume over and over again.) I can listen to that record now and it sounds nothing like it did when I was 14. Now, it’s just a classic rock classic. Then, it was EVERYTHING.

I know kids always get tired of us old folks saying, “Youth is wasted on the wrong people,” or “enjoy your youth.” But we’re speaking from a place of regret. I wish I would have known about the magic of 14 when I was 14. I just wanted to be 18, or 25, or 30. (Definitely not 64.) I’m begging you to take it all in. Close your eyes and turn the volume up all the way. Take a minute to feel how the sound lands on your body and what it connects you to in this moment in history. For me, it gave me the dream of escape; to the lower east side of Manhattan, to Liverpool, to London, or to wherever Styx wanted me to sail away to.

That’s my request. Listen and connect your music to your space and time and maybe your own tribe. My promise is, now that you’re 14, you can go to concerts without me. You have a great set of friends and I trust you to be there for the music. I will still drop you off and pick you up (unless I need my driverless car to do it), but you are free to be as fully into the experience of live music as I was at your age. And feel free to pick music that you think I will hate, because that’s also what 14 is about. (Bringing home the Sex Pistols album at 14 almost got me booted from the Blazak family.) You will find your people at shows. And you’ll find fashions. And you’ll find great opening bands that you will end up loving more than the headliners.

Fourteen is go time. It’s new car smell. It’s endless discoveries. It’s an entire human history of possibilities. And it’s music that will mean EVERYTHING. Go get it. I’ll be there to give you a ride home.

Love,

Dad

Envisioning Our Renaissance at Home: Life After the Pandemic

March 8, 2021

A year ago, we were in a panic. I remember walking into the grocery store on February 29th, and seeing every roll of toilet paper gone. (I bought a 6-pack of Corona and went home.) Now, after over half a million deaths in America, the light is at the end of the tunnel. Things are beginning to open, like a late-winter purple crocus. Thirty million Americans have already been vaccinated. (I’m scheduled for my Pfizer vaccine on Saturday!) Schools are making plans to reopen and restaurants are starting to seat diners. The insanity of March 2020 is being answered by the hopefulness of March 2021. There are still incredibly high rates of infection (Don’t you dare take off that mask!), but the future looks bright.

I’ve done several trainings on racial and ethnic inequities related to the COVID-19 infection and death rates (and now immunization access) over the past year. I always try to balance all the doom and gloom with a “silver lining” ending about the power of resistance and resilience. Looking back at history, the explosion of cultural creation that began in the Renaissance of the 15th century was a life-affirming response to the “black death” of the 14th century’s bubonic plague pandemic. The “Roaring Twenties” were a celebratory pivot from World War 1 and the influenza pandemic that wiped out nearly 100 million people a century ago. Maybe this pandemic will give us a new Renaissance, I would offer my bummed-out audiences.

So let me throw an idea into our grand re-opening.

We’ve survived this year-long pandemic in various ways. Mainly retreating from bars, clubs, restaurants, block parties, and family celebrations, as we socially distanced from each other. We’ve retreated into our phones (Tik-Tok as therapy?) and endless binges on the small screen. (I’ve seen every iteration of 90 Day Fiancé and am now bingeing The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.) We’ve become anti-social. The majority of my college students mute their videos during our Zoom classes. I’m not sure if they are human beings or Russian bots. Can I get a human interaction??? So the response to this year of isolation is to become SUPER SOCIAL.

People of America, let me reintroduce the once popular pastime known as home entertainment.

When I was a kid in the 1970s, my parents were always going to parties. My brother and I were either stuck with a babysitter, or peaking under the bedroom door wondering who all the laughing people in our house were. My mom hosted bridge parties, my dad hosted poker parties. My parents belonged to a gourmet dinner club and, when it was their turn, cooked and decorated the house for disco-era foodies. I grew up thinking every weekend was a house party. Complete with a wet bar. To this day when I hear Herb Albert and the Tijuana Brass my mouth waters for leftover hors d’oeuvres.

What did the swinging parents of the Seventies have that we don’t?

Well, for starters, they didn’t have social media sucking their eyeballs in an endless doom scroll. They also had better wages that allowed them to keep the wet bar stocked. But post-pandemic, we have a greater desire to be in a living room together, reading faces sans masks. (Did Ms. McGillicuddy just lick her lips while she handed me that Gin Rickey?) If there ever was a generation that was desperate to sit on a sectional couch and complain about kids and parents and government, it’s Generation Zoom.

So let’s bring it all back. Card games, Monopoly, charades, dinner parties, album listening sessions, jigsaw puzzles, Twister, fancy cocktails, inappropriate party games. All of it. Except the misogyny. We can leave that in the Seventies. (No key parties!) If the women want to smoke cigars in the backyard and complain about how their men are crappy at laundry while the men clean up the spilled Chex Mix, let ‘em. The kids can be locked in the bedrooms, watching the Wizard of Oz (or Ozark), while the parents crack open another bottle of pinot in the kitchen.

We’ll be back in the clubs and bars, seeing bands and getting Ubers home soon enough. But let’s not go back to normal. Normal sucked, too, if you remember. I don’t want 2019. Nobody wants 2019. If it’s Saturday evening, either you are going to somebody’s home for dinner, or you’re having somebody over for dinner. And then maybe an apéritif (Look up that word, loser) and a nice game of Parcheesi or even Cards Against Humanity. We need this! We need to sit across from each other, at a card table, and reconnect.

Great things can come from this. During the Enlightenment, salons became all the rage in Paris. People turned their living spaces into community meeting places, called salons. In apartments and front rooms, people would gather to discuss art, politics, and the meaning of existence in a post-Dark Ages Europe. German sociologist Georg Simmel invented the field of small group dynamics by observing interactions of salon participants. The next generation of grand ideas is not going to come from hunched-over trolls, sliding though endless posts on Instagram. It’s going to come from the collision of ideas that occur during a game of rummy, fueled by Whiskey Sours.

During the quarantine, we decided to take on a kitchen remodel in our 1909 Portland Craftsman home (with a very out-of-date 1960s kitchen). We want to turn our home into a welcoming place where people can bring a bottle of wine and stay as late as they want. No TV, we’re adding another couch to the living room for relaxed conversations. I’m going to re-learn how to play poker. (Seventh grade was a long time ago.) We want to start a circle of friends who feel comfortable inviting each over to their homes, even if it’s for a cocktail before heading out to the movies.  (Remember going to the movies? And friends?) Enough take out. Let’s cook in! And invite the neighbors! Home entertaining could be the great salve we’ve secretly craved. You’ve spent a year cleaning your place, for godssake.

Our culture is so divided right now. Let’s get to know each other again. Let our homes become safe spaces to argue and discuss and figure out what our Roaring Twenties should look like. I want you to dress for the occasion. I’ll bring the deviled eggs. Cheers!

Talking to Your Kid About Black History Month: First Grade Edition

February 18, 2021

I have a thing about Black History Month. I really get into it but I wish it was on a longer, warmer month. June seems logical. My students are reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X right now. I try to make sure black authors are in front of their eyes each winter. There’s just a binge on learning cool stuff. Did you know that the ice cream scoop was invented by an African-American named Alfred L. Cralle? No scooped ice cream for racists!

My love of the black history binge might have had something to do with a white supremacist moment I had in 1979. In my tenth grade journalism class had an assignment to write an editorial. The title of this editorial, written by a white kid in a historic Klan town was… ready…?, “If They Have Black History Month, Why Don’t We Have White History Month?” That’s how my 15-year-old brain was processing the state of race in ’79. My teacher’s response was, “That’s a very strong opinion, Randy.” It should have been, “Every month is ‘White History Month,’ you racist twerp.” So maybe my affinity for Black History Month is a penance for that sin, or the many others.

This year’s Black History Month is a bit more meaningful, in wake of the massive BLM protests last year. But also because my daughter, Cozette, is ready to dive in herself. I was where she is, first grade, in February, 1970, which was the very first Black History Month. The closest I got to knowing that I should think about race at 6 was staring at a “Black is Beautiful” poster in a shop on an a family trip to Niagara Falls. The women in the poster was topless, with a massive afro and a clenched fist. I was transfixed. Cozy is more familiar with images of Breonna Taylor that are painted on murals in our city.

Unlike me, Cozy is growing up in a house with plenty of black heroes. MLK is on the fridge and Motown Magic is her go-to cartoon. (I did have Fat Albert but I don’t know if that undid any racial stereotypes in the 1970s. I’m looking at you, Mushmouth.) But even better, Cozy’s teacher has her first grade class on a healthy diet of Black History Month stories. She’s started her winter school days with lessons about MLK, Malcolm X, Ruby Bridges, Harriet Tubman, and Louis Armstrong, among others. 

Her school is sponsoring a Black History Month art show, in which students complete portraits of African Americans that have inspired them. Cozy’s already done portraits of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, so she chose Louis Armstrong, someone who gets a lot of play in this house. (Fun fact: Cozy’s grandma met Mr. Armstrong after winning a saxophone contest when she was 16. In awe, her main memory was that he swore like a sailor.) At 6, Cozy pretty much captured the greatness of Satchmo. She’s a true jazzbo. As much as she loves Louis’ “wrinkly” voice, she prefers Miles.

Having a teacher who explains why Black History Month matters has been a wonderful thing. How do you explain to a six-year-old the horrors of slavery? “People owned other people just because of the color of their skin.” When I asked her what slavery meant, she grew silent and talked about her black friends and how it made her sad. Kids her age are quite aware of race, especially if they are not white. Cozy’s Mexican genes are talking to her European genes, while across the street from her African-American friends and in a house where her parents are always talking about racism. It must be a lot for her brain.

To help her out, I bought her a copy of The ABC’s of Black History by Rio Cortez, brilliantly illustrated by Lauren Semmer. D is for diaspora. She fell in love with the vibrancy of it, especially the entry on George Washington Carver (she loves peanut butter) and the “M is March” section, featuring BLM posters, like the ones she made last summer. In addition, PBS has made a point of centering black history in its children’s programming. She’s been glued to a cartoon called Xavier Riddle and the Secret Museum, learning about Rosa Parks, Frederick Douglas, Zora Neal Hurston, and Ella Fitzgerald. (The 1956 Ella and Louis album is now on repeat play, which is a very good thing, and Cozy has taken up scatting.)

At 6, I think Black History Month is about celebrating how African-Americans have made life so much better in America. She has an understanding of the pain caused by racism, but it’s not time yet to wade into the torture, trauma, suffering, exclusion, and dehumanization the begs us to make black lives matter every month. I can see her processing it through her peers. Generation Z kids not only have more diverse friend-groups than their elders, they themselves are more diverse. Where “mulatto” was a pejorative a hundred years ago, bi-racial+ is just the norm now. But these kids still live in world that pushes a white supremacist worldview. Despite Motown Magic, the majority of the cartoon, book, and TV characters she sees are white. And male. So while it’s certainly too soon to sit her in front of the TV for a screening of 12 Years a Slave or 13th, she can definitely start picking up on the whole unfairness of racism story and that people who look like her father benefit from it and that people who look like her friend Jaden are challenged because of it.

It’s a tricky path. What I knew about race at 6 came from horribly racist norms. People who lived in the city (i.e. black people) were savages compared to those of us (white people) outside of the city. The urban jungle was framed in contrast to “civilized” society. Cozy lives in the city with plenty of black friends, so that hateful dichotomy is gone, but the complexity of racism remains. It seems like the “primary school” agenda is simply that black culture is amazing and that our black friends have faced unfair struggles that we are committed to fixing.

I’m supposed to be an expert on this topic, but when it’s your kid, it’s a real challenge. You really want them to value everyone as fully humanized but also recognize the forces that have stood in the way of that simple truth. It’s harder than I thought. But she’s smart. I think she’s getting it, complete with the soundtrack. Thank you to all the great teachers who make February matter.

Saying goodbye to 5-year-old Cozy and hello BIG 6!

August 17, 2020

One of the cliche adages that parents get handed (all of which are appreciated) is that every stage of a child’s life are great. Our daughter, Cozette turns six today. By the way, she’s made it clear that she prefers Cozette to Cozy. And as exciting as it is, I’m really going to miss my 5-year-old. She was a rockstar. I couldn’t get enough of her wit and wisdom and spontaneous dance routines.

Five is such a growth period. Physically and mentally. Physically she’s been stuck at 50 pounds for months, but growing like a weed, stretching from babyfat 4 to skinny 6. And the first loose tooth is seconds from falling out. But it’s been the intellectual growth that’s been so stunning. She still loves her stuffies, but she is completely plugged in to the world. Seeing her take on the Black Lives Matter cause as a personal crusade has been breathtaking. How many 5-year-olds can tell you, in detail, why we should remember George Floyd and Breonna Taylor?

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My father is convinced we’ve “indoctrinated” her, but this is all on her. She’s not writing “BLM” in chalk on the sidewalk because of me, she’s doing it for her African-American friends and neighbors. She has an empathetic connection with them and wants to protect them from racism. I didn’t do this. She figured inequity all out on her own. She knows her black friends are hurting and, in her own way, wants to let them know they are safe with her and loved.

The fact that all this growth has happened during a global pandemic has been remarkable. The last three months of her kindergarten class were a disaster. Trying to corral a bunch of 5 and 6-year-olds to focus on Zoom for 40 minutes, four days a week was completely pointless. All COVID-era students, K through Law School, are getting screwed, but the little kids are getting it the worst. I don’t know if we were the best homeschoolers or if Cozy is now behind where she should be entering first grade, which is hard because she’s so smart.

Cozy’s great skill set is in her ability for social navigation. There is a complex social dynamic of kiddos in our neighborhood and it has a racial component. Our Cozette is the great peacemaker, like a little Freud, understanding the baggage that each child enders the playing field with. I was like that in high school, having friends in the various silly cliques. (Jocks! Preps! Freaks!) I was elected senior class secretary but Cozy already has her eyes set on the White House. (You heard it here first.) She knows how to speak to her audience and it is sincere as it gets. We won’t have to teach her empathy. Why “Y” is sometimes a vowel, yes, but empathy, no.

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For her birthday weekend we took a trip up to Orcas Island in the San Juan Islands. (Americans are currently prohibited from leaving the country so that was as close as we could get to the border.) We decided to go after watching Free Willy. She was crushed to learn that Keiko the Whale had passed away so I promised her we’d go see if we could find some orcas in their habitat. As we stood on the empty Crescent Beach, watching for whales, I told her, “Cozy, I’m rally going to miss the 5-year-old you.” She replied, “Daddy, I’m going to miss the 56-year-old you.” She knew that we were both moving through life together, growing and changing.

You can never step in the same river twice. I will never have Cozy, 5, to discuss political affairs and L.O.L Dolls with. But the 6-year-old Cozette is going to change the world. I’m just honored to be in that world with her.

Cozy and Me

Confronting Our Deaths in a Pandemic

April 7, 2020

It’s not a good time to be watching the news. The stories of people losing loved ones to COVID-19 can have me sobbing like a baby. Parents, like, me leaving their families too quickly. Some are frontline medical workers, some are educators, some are bus drivers that an idiot coughed on. They were here and then they were gone. Most got a test too late, not that there’s much help that’s available once you slide down the hole. I have a very old friend who is on a ventilator in a hospital room in Atlanta and we’re just hoping the wind shifts direction and blows him back to his family. So turning on the TV at the moment is sure to remind you that the glass is half empty as it’s being used to waterboard you.

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I started this blog in late 2014 because I was inspired by John Lennon’s decision to leave work and become a stay-at-home father for his son, Sean. I wanted to give the same kind of intensive care to our daughter, Cozy. Cozy, 5, is now the same age as Sean was when John was killed by a gunman in front of their New York home. In numerous interviews, people ask Sean Lennon what he remembers about his dad and he honestly replies not much. That answer shakes me to the core. I’ve gotten to meet Sean a few times (and so did Cozy, in the womb), and I always wonder how his life would have been different if he had gotten two or three more years with his fab father.

The specter of death seems very real today, watching the rising death count from coronavirus. (Remember on February 26th, when Donald Trump said that in a couple of days, the virus would disappear, “like a miracle”?) You can tell me that I’m statistically more likely to be killed by a falling Comcast satellite than to die of the novel coronavirus, but that’s not going to register, especially since there’s a pretty good chance I’m already carrying it. My persistent cough worries me. There’s no fever but the “science” on what this thing is seems to change daily. We certainly don’t have any leadership on the issue from our president, just daily campaign rallies where the science is attacked along with journalists and handy scapegoats (“China!”).

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The rate at which people go from fine to dead, body stacked in a refrigerated truck, is horrifying. The Detroit bus driver who went on social media to complain about coughing passengers was dead in 11 days. And like the Class of 2020 high school seniors who will never be in high school again, no prom, no hugging your favorite teacher, there’s little chance to get your house in order and say goodbye. If you’re lucky, you’re isolated from all humans, including your family, with a ventilator tube down your throat. People have brought family members to emergency rooms “just to be safe” and then never seen them again.

I’m not obsessed with death. Other than being over 50, I’m not particularly “high risk,” but what does that even mean? I’m the family member who makes the supply runs to the grocery store, where two employees tested positive. I touched an avocado to see if it was ripe. Then I touched my face. I’m probably gonna die. It’s been nice knowing you. When I was 7, I stole a piece of Brach’s candy from a Piggly Wiggly. There, I said it.

I do worry about leaving my family in the lurch if I succumb to this thing. I know it’s fashionable and all, but it seems like more trouble than it’s worth, and I think my wife would be pissed off if I got COVID-19 after running to the store because I suddenly had a mad craving for Pop Tarts. I think she actually likes me and appreciates my ability to, um, well, do something. God, I don’t even know. I do know my daughter thinks pretty highly of me and I’d prefer to stick around long enough for her to learn that I made some life changing decisions so this wonderful family could exist. Am I the only one who is thinking about how all these fragile relationships turn out if I become a part of the daily corona body count? I mean they can’t even have a funeral for dead me. I require a wake with multiple drunken awkward moments! But I was just cremated along with all the other wheezers. Poof.

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For those of us that have wrestled with depression, there’s a real need to constantly monitor our mental states. The moment it really hit me was the first time I had to wear a cloth face mask in public. I sat in the grocery store parking lot trying to get my courage up to don a cute face covering that one of our crafty neighbors had made. I knew it was the responsible thing to do, maybe even saving lives (I had touched the avocado, after all), but it felt like I was giving into the fear. Once inside the Fred Meyer, mask in place, I saw all the other depressed faces hidden behind their masks. It felt like an awful version of The Handmaid’s Tale. The sinking feeling that this was normal now had me wanting to go lay down in the bread isle and cry. What started out as kind of funny (“Why the hell is everyone buying toilet paper?”) is now centered around saving the lives of family members. On a beautiful spring day, it can seem so dark.

Those of us that don’t die, will get through this. And maybe we’ll have that promised renaissance afterwards. I just wish we had an actual leader to help guide us through the darkness instead of a self-serving madman. I guess it’s up to us. I guess it’s always been up to us. Let’s live. At least until we can have funerals again.