Friday, May 29, 2015

Take Your Kid to Work Day

She grabs for the microphone, offers her chewed gum to bystanders, plays hide and seek under the table and behind the curtains, and, apparently, either steals your heart or turns your stomach. Riley Curry, the beautiful and lively two-year-old daughter of Golden State Warrior Stephan Curry has been getting more press and generating more discussion lately than the NBA players themselves. Most of the discussion is divided between two camps. Some say that children have no place in professional workplaces. Others say that children can not only be welcome in certain work settings, but can even enhance them.

For my money, Stephan Curry can have his daughter in every press conference that he does. Sure, that child is a tornado in the press room, but the issue is not Curry's parenting style, but whether or not he is effectively doing his job. I remember one night during my graduate studies when my ex-wife got stuck at work late and couldn't come get the big kids in time for me to go to class. My daughter was two at the time, and my son was five. The professor's policy towards missed classes and tardiness was pretty strict, but she was also a very fair and kind person. So, rather than miss the class with a sorry-sounding excuse, I showed up fifteen minutes early with two little kids in tow and threw myself on the mercy of the academic. I figured she was either going to let me come to class with them until their mother could pick them up, or turn me away, but I was determined to show that I was willing to go the extra mile to be a good student. Of course, I knew that I was hedging my bet, since the professor was a devout feminist and the course was in women's literature. In a way, it was kind of a test of the feminist perspective on fatherhood. And it worked. She said that as long as I could guarantee that the kids weren't disruptive, they would be welcome to stay. For the next hour or so, my son silently colored and played with his Game Boy in the desk next to me. My daughter on the other hand, while she was definitely well-behaved and quiet the entire time, needed more personal interaction in order to stay still. She spent that same time meticulously brushing my hair. Hard. With the wrong side of the wooden brush. It turned out well, in that the class went on as well as it normally would, and the kids' presence even informed the discussion when the topic turned to women writers working while caring for children. Unfortunately, I did need to ice down my head afterwards. Because of the brushing, that is, not the discussion.

To Stephan Curry's credit, he seems to be able to answer questions just as well as he would otherwise. I mean, when most of the athletes' post-game answers are the same anyway, how much does it really matter? How many times do we need to hear about missed opportunities and failing to come together as a team when a team loses? Or formidable opponents but making sure we played our style of game when they win? If anything, some of those same reporters that were supposedly so negatively affected by the disruption said that having the cute little girl causing havoc for her father made for more human interest and a more relatable story for their audience. On top of that, the NBA suddenly becomes a family centered organization, infinitely more attractive to women and others outside their normal demographic. The player becomes more than a scoring machine for his fans, and probably gives them a whole new reason to cheer him on, buy his shoes, and wear his jersey. Everybody wins.

In fact, I think that the real winner here is the Curry family, and maybe all of us watching them. In all of the debate over whether this beautiful child should be there, I had the hardest time finding any articles discussing why she was there at all. I put it together when I realized that she seems to show up at away games. Apparently, Stephen Curry has his wife and daughter travel with him, at least some of the time. If I were him, I would do exactly the same thing, not just because I want them around after a game, win or lose, but also to keep me honest. Too many of the other stories we hear about NBA players, and other athletes as well, are about them cheating on their wives with countless women, being accused of rape, or losing their families because of infidelity. I've even heard some basketball players try to make themselves out to be the victim, complaining that they are unable to resist the kind of aggressive groupies that are sometimes even sneaking into their hotel rooms on the road. I bet having wifey in the suite when one of those chicks tries to break in is a real deterrent to that kind of behavior. I bet it would be really funny to see those stiletto heels and tight skirts running down the hotel hall with a lamp flying after them. If you can afford to have your wife and child with you on the road, then why wouldn't you? Some might say it would interfere with his game, but I can tell you that the effect of having your woman watch you play is an exponential increase in both hustle and focus. I play ball with my friends after work at least three days a week, and whenever one of our wives or girlfriends come in the gym, it turns into a highlight reel for her man.

In addition to the incident with the college class, I've had to take my kids to work in other situations. When he was one, I pushed my son around in an Office Max cart for a couple of hours once, confusing the heck out of customers when I asked if they needed help. The irony was that I met another father that day who told me he once had to bring his two-year-old son to work - as an orchestra conductor. Just dressed the kid up in a baby tuxedo and sat him down in the pit with a plastic trumpet. As an adjunct professor, I had to bring both of the big kids to the last session of a freshman class I was teaching when they were five and seven. We got there early, they sat in the back and kept quiet, and students mostly came in to get their final essays back and have one last conference. I think most of the students thought the kids belonged to one of the other students in the class. Just a couple weeks ago, the baby couldn't go back to day care, because she hadn't been 24 hours without a fever, so I took her to work with me. I made her a little play area behind my desk where she would be out of sight, and she could play with my phone and some toys. I only had two classes that day anyway. One class had a test, so I could keep a close eye on her most of the time. The other class had a discussion and Q&A about a chapter in The Sun Also Rises, and she made one minor distraction, but otherwise stayed out of sight. My point is that in each case, I made a choice. It was either take the kids to work and do my job, and do it well, despite their presence, or take off from work and not only disrupt the learning program for my students, but also force the school to incur the cost and hassle of hiring a substitute. I figured that as long as I could do my job, and at the same time take care of my child properly, I would bring them.

Sure, if Riley were running out on the court and tripping up players or hanging on to her daddy's leg through a fast break, it would be a problem. But if Stephan is doing his job, giving good answers to reporters, if they're getting their soundbites, and their stories file on time, I don't see the problem. Maybe the reporters who are complaining need to understand their role in the sports industry. Nobody comes to these arenas because of what they write. Nobody turns on the game to watch them. Nobody even turns on the post-game interviews to see them. They tune in to see the players. And now, not even that. Now they tune in to see Riley.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Klingon Attack!

It's been so long since the big kids were babies that I sometimes forget what that was like. In a way, it makes things all kind of new with our baby. I do remember that my son, my firstborn, was just the chillest, most patient baby ever. Hardly ever cried. Never threw tantrums. He kind of spoiled me for what came next. Even through those difficult second and third years, I don't recall any terrible behavior or acting out with him. At worst, he would get on a "NO" streak for a minute, but usually a strong look with the people's eyebrow like The Rock was enough to get him back in line.

My daughter, on the other hand, was not a quiet baby. Like her brother, she was never one for tantrums, but her normal crying volume was quite loud. Like incredibly loud. The kind of loud crying that sounds like it's coming from inside your own head, centered between your ears, and seems to go on somehow even after the baby has actual stopped crying. There were never any moments of flopping in the grocery store or screaming and fighting in Target, it was just that she only had two levels of sound. It was either cute, bubbly, pleasant baby or top of the lungs screaming as if her leg was broken baby. 

It looked like the baby was going to find her spot right in the middle of her brother and sister - not the laid back, no rush, "I could use a change" style of her brother, but not the over the top, bloody murder, "I just pooped, why am I still wearing this diaper" style of her sister. She had a really good groove going. If she cried, we knew that something was actually wrong, and her cries had meaning and import to them. We could really determine the threat level by the tone of the crying.

And then things suddenly changed.

About a month or so ago, the baby started developing this really bad habit of bursting into tears for EVERYTHING. Anytime something didn't go her way, or she didn't get what she wanted, or even if she just had to wait, she would turn on the water works. We dealt with this by speaking firmly to her about using her words, especially because she really is so verbal. Just when she starts making some real progress in that department, all of a sudden she turns into the clingiest child ever. And only for her mother. If she gets home and her mom isn't there just yet, it's tears. If mom isn't the one giving her a bath, or putting her to bed, it's tears. If I wasn't so rational and manly, this would probably hurt my feelings. It's like having a whole different child suddenly, like some kind of changeling that the fairies switched with ours. For the first time that I can remember, I'm having to deal with the flops and the tantrums, and it's really strange to me. I can't lie. There's a small part of me that's tempted to let her have her way and make mommy do all the work. It's a really small part, though.

And I'm aware that I exaggerate sometimes for the sake of narrative effect, but I swear that it's not uncommon these days to see MyTy walking through the house with a 39-inch tall sloth wrapped around her leg or dragging behind her.

I've been trying to track down the cause of it, to figure out if there was any change in the home or at school that might cause her to be so clingy. There was an out of town trip a month ago, just the two of them, so maybe she got too used to all of that alone time. Also, school is over, and our schedules have changed a bit. Maybe she is getting confused or thrown off by the fact that she's waking up later and seeing less of mommy in the morning or afternoon. Is it possible that this is just a thing that babies go through? And maybe I either got lucky the first time around or I'm just repressing the memory of it?

Until we figure it out, if we ever do, we're just going to continue to use equal parts of reassurance and firmness. We can make sure that the baby gets a little extra focused snuggle time with mommy to try to appease the clingy monster in her, but then also enforce the schedules and parental roles in the house so that mommy doesn't get burned out and baby understands that she can't always have her way. Keeping fingers crossed at all times, of course.

In case that doesn't work, I'm looking at constructing an extra large baby carrier harness that can accommodate a 35 pound child. It might sound like a physical burden for MyTy, but then I'm told that weight training for women is great for increasing bone density.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Let's Hear It for the Girl!

The job of a step-mother is truly a thankless one, which is why their husbands need to go a bit beyond the norm to show their gratitude. When you think of all the different situations that step-moms are in, from tight families to chaotic households, from dealing with ex-wives, either good or bad, to dealing with the memory of a lost wife and mother, there really isn't one way to get the job done. My wife has really embraced her role as step-mother, to the point of reading magazines and blogs written by and for step-moms. In fact, I think she really thought she was ready for this role. After all, her dad was a strong single father through some of her teen years, after the death of her mother. She spent the rest of her teen years adjusting to the addition of her father's new wife, so she felt like she could really relate to what my kids were going through. Sure, the relationship between her and her step-mom was rocky at first, and probably largely because of MyTy's resistance at first, but they have settled into a sweet and beautiful mother-daughter bond and friendship that I hope inspires my own daughter.

But I think it bothers her that step-moms so often get a bad reputation. They are often perceived as interlopers, maybe even former mistresses and home wreckers. Their role in the family is so hard to define and so difficult to establish that very often, they end up on the the bench cheering on the team, but never get a chance to shine in the game. I took the kids to see Cinderella when it came out, and we all actually liked it for different reasons. The baby especially liked it, so much so that she burst into tears when she realized it was over, just rambling incoherently about pumpkins and mice. I've never seen her do that for any other show. But, as good as it is, my wife doesn't seem to want to watch it. She's put off by the whole "evil step-mother" trope, and I guess I can understand her objection. Even the word is a little annoying to her. For as long as I've known her, she's referred to her own step-mom as her "second mom," although I suspect that it didn't start out that way. In fact, I'm pretty sure she had some other names for her at first. 

One of the things that is definitely awesome about step-moms is that they are able to love children with the same intensity and depth as a biological parent, but without the chemical assistance. I don't mean drugs, at least not in my situation, as far as I can tell. What I mean is that step-moms often have to rely on other reasons for loving than the biological instinct, or social obligation. There is no evolutionary imperative in step-parenting. So step-moms in the best situations have to love the children in their charge with just the right kind of love, one that is nurturing and accepting, but, at the same time, doesn't push the child into a situation where their affections or obligations are in conflict. And of course, do all this, all the while knowing that the child they love would probably prefer that their family didn't include a step-mom at all. That's in the best situations. In the worst, step-moms have to search for reasons to love, remind themselves of reasons to love, and sometimes, unfortunately, continue to love when there are no reasons to do so.

But I thank God that things haven't worked out that way for us. We have our own unique set of problems, and sometimes everybody in the house doesn't get along with everybody else. When that happens, we pull ourselves together and remind ourselves of our individual obligations and contributions. Sometimes we even have to get some professional help and advice, just like we would with our health or our finances or any other aspect of our lives. Still, even when it's difficult, I know two things. I know that others have it a lot worse, and I know that a large part of the reason that we don't is because I married the right woman.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

You Are Appreciated!

In case you missed it, last week was Teacher Appreciation Week, so if you didn't make some small tribute to your child's teacher, you can still come through on Monday. In my classroom, it was mostly the usual, a few heartfelt cards, a gift card or two, and then basically being bombarded with sweets all week long. The sweets I don't mind so much, even though I'm prone to overindulge. I just treat that week like Christmas or Thanksgiving - just accepting it as a cheat week and then getting back to healthy living after the weekend. Still, it's all in love, and it does feel good to be recognized for hard word.

However, this year, I got a surprise this week. Among the few emails of encouragement and gratitude, I got one email, actually two back to back from the same parent, calling me a racist and accusing me of making a child suffer. This because the student got a zero grade for an assignment she turned it that was so far from completion that it was basically just a heading on a paper. And the heading was done wrong.

I actually get these types of emails or even face-to-face accusations at least once a year, just not during Teacher Appreciation Week, usually from disengaged parents who don't know me, but are angry about their child's poor performance. It's usually a combination of a frustration over the inability to get the child to perform and and a refusal to acknowledge the child's weakness or laziness involved. I sometimes wonder if the racist accusations pop up at these times because they tend to work elsewhere, but that's another blog entirely.

So, in defense against the charges, I have to start by pointing out that not only does the child's entire class consist of Black students, but also the entire high school is Black, with one or two exceptions, and so her child is certainly not singled out for her race. Then, I usually have to point out the flaws in the child's work, or the lack of it, which in this case would have been pretty obvious if the parent had just looked at the assignment online and the work her daughter submitted. Finally, the one thing that always makes the racist argument go away is when I say that I'm married to a African-American woman. Then comes the apologies and "I didn't know" and back-pedaling.

But even this bothers me. Why is that even a defense? Racism is such an irrational thing. Racism, or race prejudice, is defined, basically, as the opinion that other races are inferior to one's own, or actions based on that opinion. It tends to accept premises that are not only untrue, but unprovable. It often flies in the face of logic and even demonstrable facts. Like a virus, it usually persists in the most unlikely places and in the most adverse conditions. What is it that people always say when they are accused of racism or prejudice? "Some of my best friends are Black." And the irrational thing about that is that, somehow, they are unable to see how the feelings of superiority that they really do have are incompatible with the friendships that they really do hold. So, in my case, whenever something like this happens, and I get off with the interracial marriage defense, I often want to complicate things and ask my accuser why they would accept that defense in the first place. Is it possible for me to be married to an African-American woman, and genuinely love her, and also think that she is inferior because of her race? I actually know a couple of husbands who think they are superior to their wives for other reasons, and yet also think of themselves as loving them, so why not.

And I know it doesn't make sense to think that a person could be friends with someone, even married to someone, and still think that someone is inferior. However, one of the reasons we lose the fight against racism is that we expect it to make sense. I have this talk with my students whenever we read some literature that deals with racism, or some historical or even current event affected by racism. They tend to ask why somebody would behave so horribly, or how someone could be so racist, against all logic and reason. I always tell them the same thing, that racism is unreasonable and illogical, and when it starts making sense to you, that's when you know you have a real problem. For instance, the seniors just finished reading Heart of Darkness by Conrad. In preparation, we looked at several opinions of the novel, from scholars like Chinua Achebe and others. Some say that the novel is obviously racist, or at least supports racist ideas, because of its depictions of Africans, and others say that it's anti-racism, because of the way it condemns the European colonization of Africa. My question for the students is whether the same author can be genuinely opposed to colonization and the mistreatment of Africans for moral reasons, but at the same time also think of them as inferior because of their race. It doesn't make a whole lot of sense, but it seems to me that people do hold these impossible, irrational, conflicting opinions all the time.

I'm starting to think that accusations of racism work the same way. Sometimes they are well-founded and true, based on concrete evidence. Sometimes they are based on nothing but a hunch or a gut feeling or a vibe, and are still true, because the racism is so far beneath the surface. Sometimes you can know a person for years, and think you know where they stand on race, and then one joke, one FaceBook post, or one emotional reaction shows you how they really think, in places they would probably never admit to themselves. They might need to have this pointed out to them so they can start some real self-evaluation. But sometimes the accusation itself is unfounded and irrational itself, and flies in the face of all reason and evidence.

At the end of the parent-teacher meeting, the parent apologized for the offense, and acknowledged that she was frustrated with the grades and wasn't getting good information from the child about the coursework, the class policies, and this assignment. We worked it out and put it behind us, I hope. So, the lesson to take away from the experience, if there is one, is that racism is irrational, and the ways that we identify it or dismiss it are often just as irrational, or at least arbitrary. Also, that appropriate Teacher Appreciation gifts might include, books, cards, edible treats, or maybe a mug or t-shirt, but never nasty, accusatory emails.