A Writerly Person

My daughter is a writerly person. Which is to say, she has a facility with words. She can take several completely unrelated ideas and smash them together. She can take one really big idea and bust it up into tiny little pieces.

I love to see her at work. Sometimes organizing a movie script. Sometimes drawing out a comic book. Sometimes just sitting on the floor with her whiteboard and writing until she runs out of room. Then, erase and continue.

Tonight she was drafting her letter to the 4th grade teachers, explaining why, as a rising 4th grader, she would make a kick-ass safety patrol officer. Those are my words. Not hers.

Raising a writerly person is great fun. I get to see her worry over the proper word choice and puzzle over the clarity of this idea or that. She’s on a good track. I expect she will write her books before I do.

I am being careful not to praise her ability too greatly. People often make too much of talent. Fun to see her sit down and write a well-made paragraph easily and with joy. Better to see her save that draft, set it aside until tomorrow, reread, then change a few words. Kill a sentence or three. I encourage the writing but praise the rewriting. Better that she know now what it is taking me a lifetime to figure out. A thing isn’t written until it is completed, and a thing isn’t completed until it is rewritten.

I don’t do boredom.

My 5 year old daughter is growing up ridiculously well-entertained. She has shelves of books, puzzles and games. She deftly navigates Netflix and DirectTV menus.  She loves Temple Run, Sims and Angry Birds Star Wars on the iPad. She has become a MarioKart master.

Over the recent Christmas break, we fell into some bad habits. We watched too much TV, played too much MarioKart and washed it all down with iPad. We also read books, made up stories, played outside and did other stuff, but Netflix and MarioKart were central features in our three weeks off together.

She got in trouble yesterday — bedtime defiance issues — and lost her Wii privileges. Loss of Wii is a double-hit because it means no Netflix as well as no MarioKart. Losing Wii access is the surest way to capture my daughter’s attention.

Today, a day spent Wii-free, she complained once of boredom. “I’m bored,” she told me. I don’t think this was strictly true. In fact, I think her boredom was feigned to provoke me. It works.

I hate hearing my daughter say she is bored. I hate hearing adults say they are bored. I don’t really understand what boredom feels like. I don’t do boredom. I do frustration, confusion, laziness, tiredness and exhaustion all the time, but I don’t do boredom.

Boredom  happens when a person is utterly uncomfortable or unfamiliar with their own mind. Boredom happens when the room is quiet and a person runs out of thoughts to fill the silence.

Boredom, as it happens, is also a gift. Boredom forces the mind to pay attention. Boredom is a an empty state. Boredom is often a clever disguise for creative resistance. Boredom is the time our mind takes to assimilate new ideas in the absense of incoming stimuli.

My daughter is only five. Maybe she is bored. Maybe she is not. Impossible to say. I know I cannot tolerate willful boredom. Read a book. Make up a story. Sing a song. The mind is always moving. There is no such thing as actually sitting still.

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Disney Princesses

My wife and I are the kind of parents who think too much. For years we worried that Disney merchandise, especially the Disney Princess line, would corrupt our child. Disney Princesses, we believed, would exploit our daughter’s faith in hope and happiness and pervert her inner purities toward commercial consumerism, damaged imagination and general stupidity.

We held this line, more or less, for 5 years. Then, the Disney Store had a sale on Disney Princess dolls. We were shopping for nieces and nephews and were lured over by the hugely discounted dolls. Our daughter loves the stories and the dolls are way more interesting than standard Barbie fare. First, we picked up Rapunzel and Mother Gothel. Rapunzel’s hair was outrageously soft and we had never seen a wicked stepmother doll before.

Then, Belle and the Beast. Belle likes books and the Beast has a removable head that transforms into the Handsome Prince. Then, we picked up Snow White because her dress is a lovely shade of blue and Prince Philip because he has a great cape and looks very princely.

There it was. In one fell swoop and $60, we abandoned our principled stance against the Disney Prince machine. We took them home, wrapped them and waited for the stupidity to set in.

It didn’t happen. I unboxed the 6 dolls the day after Christmas, expecting the immediate onsite of trite story arch — true love, magical kisses and happy ever afters. Instead, my daughter picked up the 6 dolls and launched into a 30 minute, improvised musical about Rapunzel’s co-dependent conflict with her wicked “mother”, wrestling to balance her own need for adventure against the knowledge that leaving the tower would devastate her already emotionally crippled mother forever. The other characters intervened to fuse a  fantastically complex mashup of fairy tales that served as foils against the Rapunzel/Gothel storyline to show other ways of being mother/daughter.

It was a powerful, mature mini-opera sung in more or less rhymed couplets. I tried to record it to share with the world but my daughter forbade cameras during her performance.

I was powerfully amazed and powerfully humbled. I should not have been surprised. My daughter is creative and can’t help but make stories from the objects around her.

Disney dolls are not totems. They have no power beyond the power that is lent to them through story. I knew this but had somehow forgotten. Toys have no power until they are brought to life through story. With a sufficiently strong imagination, all objects become playthings and the story is everywhere.


There Are No Words

There are no words to explain what happened today in Newtown, Connecticut. There is no consolation to give the parents of gone children.

There is no rule to govern why it was some other person’s child and not mine. There is no way to measure how much future genius, energy and insight was lost.

I am angry. I am baffled. I am scared.

This happened. This can happen again.

And yet, I must send my daughter out into the world. She needs to be in the world. The world needs her to be in it.

And so I am working with impermanence. I am working with fear. I return to these like a mantra: attachment and impermanence; impermanence and fear.

I am not a prayerful person and yet I wrap my whole life up in one single prayer. That I can help things become bigger rather than smaller. That I can help open spaces rather than close them.

My entire life wrapped up in one single prayer that has no words, only action. Constantly working to make the world a place where we can be awake and alive. Constantly working to make the world a place where we can live.

Fairy Tale Fact Check: Do Dreams Really Come True?

A few nights ago, my daughter and I read the Disney storybook version of Cinderella for bedtime. Cinderella is one of her favorite Disney stories and we read the storybook on a pretty routine basis. We got through all the usual stuff – cruel stepmother, bratty stepsisters, endless chores and a party for which Cinderella has nothing suitable to wear. Fairy godmother shows up and temporarily fixes things with a killer dress, fancy hairstyle and some new shoes. Oh yeah, and she turns Cinderella’s only friends in the world into work horses.

That’s all fine. Cinderella gets to the party, dances with the prince and accidentally breaks curfew. She rushes home in a panic, leaving behind the prince who has fallen completely in love with her based on a few dances and exactly zero conversations. He is so smitten that he sends a servant out to find a woman with the same shoe size so he can marry that person. The shoe, of course, fits Cinderella so the prince is happy to marry her. We never learn what she thinks of the prince. Presumably, he is a good match. He is, after all, handsome. Being Disney, he is probably charming. Also, he appreciates nice shoes. Not a complete recipe for happiness but certainly an improvement on her current situation.

And so the story resolves with the very practical solution. Cinderella marries the prince to get out of her bad family situation, and they live happily ever after.

At the end of the story, my daughter says, “Dad, is it really true that if you wish hard enough your dreams will always come true?”

I resisted the urge to explain that plenty of girls besides Cinderella have used sudden, unplanned marriage as a way of getting out of bad situations and found that it didn’t really help them all that much. But, that wasn’t what she was asking and that isn’t really the moral of the story.

My daughter is five. I am always giving her advice for when she is twenty.

I struggled around for a bit and finally came up with this: “I believe that the things we want most in life can happen if we are patient; work very, very hard; understand our talents and use them appropriately.”

She considered this for a moment, shrugged and said, “I mean, can you be a princess and marry a handsome prince?”

It was my turn to consider, my turn to shrug. And then, the fatherly wisdom of last resort, “Maybe. Go to sleep.”


The Best Part of My Day

I worked a 10 1/2 hour day today. It was a long day but also a good day.

I visited the Occupational Therapy Assisting program student mobile app presentations. This was the culminating moment in our semester-long work toward using iPads in the college classroom.

I received a nice compliment and words of encouragement from a colleague I respect very much.

I got home to a great dinner with my wife and daughter and then snuggled up with daughter on the couch to watch Johnny Test.

All good things, but the absolute best part of my day happened 20 minutes ago when my 5 year old daughter said, “Dad, I’m feeling very proud of myself. I’m growing up and learning lots of new things.”

Life is busy, noisy and chaotic at the edges. There is purpose in the center. Sometimes you have to find it. Sometimes it finds you.

For a future-oriented person like me, there is no better contribution to be made than being a dad and an educator.

Do the thing that scares you

My daughter started kindergarten today. She has been looking forward to this for months. She is ready. She can count to 1oo plus. She reads a little. She writes her name, my name and her mom’s name. She knows her address and phone number. She can dress herself, get her own breakfast and operate the TV remote.

Still, she had a moment of doubt. When entering the school this morning, she told her mom, “Let’s just wait and start kindergarten tomorrow.”

Michelle is terrific in moments like these and encouraged Emersey, reminding her that she was ready and, besides, they were already there.

Kindergarten is a huge rite of passage. I don’t remember what it was like for me when I started kindergarten. Maybe Emersey won’t remember, either.

But I will remember today. Kindergarten is a huge rite of passage for parents and an important reminder for me. Keep moving forward. Do the thing that scares you even if you aren’t sure you are ready. Do the thing that scares you especially if you aren’t sure you are ready. Keep moving forward. You are probably there already.

The truth about profanity

I got stung by a yellow-jacket about an hour ago. It hurt. I cursed. I used a few of those words you want people to believe you only keep for really awful special occasions. I used them loudly. I used them repeatedly.

This is not a new thing for my neighbors to hear. I curse when I build things. I curse when I get impatient. I curse when I lose things.

I don’t curse a lot but when I curse, I curse with gusto.

I was raised to believe in the forbidden power of Bad Words. I grew up carrying around the vague notion that Bad Words had magic powers and could send you directly to heck. I had a terrible time keeping up with which words were Bad. All the usual culprits were on the list (for the complete list see George Carlin). Words like crap, dang and hell occupied an undefined status. They could get me in trouble but definitely weren’t as bad as the baddest Bad Words. I once got in trouble with my Sunday School teacher for saying “holy cow”. She asked if I had ever actually seen a cow that was holy. At the time, I wasn’t versed enough in world religions to offer the Hindu perspective.

As a lover of words, the idea that some words are forbidden for no specific reason was frustrating. I was baffled by the general confusion surrounding which specific words I was being protected from.

Shit and crap is bad. Doo-doo, poop and feces are fine. I don’t know about you, but, to me, the later are more embarrassing than the former.

I’m thinking about this because I have a five year old daughter who listens to everything I say and likes to try out novel expressions in various situations. My wife and I are intentionally raising a child who loves language. We rarely use the same adjective twice. We play rhyming games. Emersey invents elaborate song lyrics with complex internal rhyme schemes. She starts kindergarten in August and already routinely uses words like “extraordinary”, “magnificent” and “inconvenient”. We talk about feelings a lot. She knows the difference between sad, irritated, agitated and gloomy.

All of this is to say I hate the idea of forbidden Bad Words. I can’t bring myself to chastise her for an occasional dammit or hell in the appropriate context. This is going to be a major problem for me because we are not just raising a kid to value the wonder of language. We are raising a kid who has to function well in polite society. I don’t want to raise a vulgar potty mouth. Not because I believe Those Words are bad but because I believe that the indiscrete overuse of Those Words reflects poor command of language and shows an inability to reach for richer, more effective words when the situation requires.

In short, I hope to raise a daughter who understands that there are no Bad Words but there are certainly Bad Uses. A word in itself cannot be bad, but it can be unwisely used and carry unintended side effects along with it. The purpose of words is to be understood. People judge us by the words we use. If they are well-impressed with our verbal toolkit, they are more willing to believe we are intelligent and treat us accordingly. If they find our toolkit lacking, they expect the opposite.

I’m not yet sure how I will handle this explanation when a kindergarten teacher wants to have a conversation about my daughter’s occasional use of the word “damn”. Did she use it appropriately? Did the word suite the context in which it was used? Would another word have more effectively conveyed her intended message? These are questions I suspect most kindergarten teachers will not enjoy. After a year of this, I may find myself resorting to the Bad Words list out of a sense of convenience more than anything else.

Until then, I feel completely justified polluting the neighborhood a bit with a few expletives when stung by a yellow-jacket, building a swing set or looking for my car keys. But I really must remember to be more creative and precise in my cursing. Good parenting is modeling desired behaviors. I want my daughter to invent new swear words that dig at the meat of the moment and get underneath the skin of the situation in a way that the typical everyday Bad Words just can’t.

Parenting makes me humble

I’m a day late on wishing my wife, my mother, my mom-in-law and all the other terrific moms out there a happy Mother’s Day. I need you to understand that I am wonderfully blessed to have mixed genes with my wife. She is a great mother.

My daughter is clever, kind, generous, funny, silly, brave and curious. She uses big words like “activate” and “chrysalis”. She makes up stories with more complex plot arcs and character development than most anything I’ve ever written. She has command of emotional vocabulary to describe her feelings, which are many and complicated. She comforts people who are hurt. She asks awkward questions of complete strangers. She cries sometimes when she is not well understood. She is stubborn, independent and full of ideas.

All of the good things my daughter is come from Michelle. Our daughter is an only child, so Michelle made the difficult choice to quit work and stay at home. Financially and emotionally, this has been a huge sacrifice. But I can see the benefits of the time they spend together – learning, playing and talking.

Michelle has a gift for explaining the world in a way that is honest, simple and direct. She doesn’t skirt the difficult issues like death and loss. She makes our daughter brave and confident with a belief in herself and an understanding that every action is a choice. We are never powerless. We always have choices. How we feel is a choice. How we react is a choice.

I don’t say it well enough. I certainly don’t say it often enough. My wife is a terrific mother, and I am grateful to be working at her side.