Sunday, March 5, 2017

What's in a Name? Everything.

Photo totally stolen from the Dad 2.0 Facebook page without permission
I just got back from the Dad 2.0 Summit, a conference for dad bloggers. Like last year I met a bunch of great people, networked with other dads/writers, met with brands, and tried to sell myself as a freelancer. The conference covered everything from the touchy-feely discussions on involved fatherhood, to the technical aspects of influencer marketing and podcasting. There were keynotes and breakouts on topics ranging from managing blended families, to how to pitch to brands. There was a panel on implicit bias that affected me in ways I'm still trying to process. But of all the insights I came away with, the one that stuck is this: no one knows how to pronounce anyone's name.

Sure, there's the easy ones like Brian Craig, but this is a conference populated by bloggers, people we know almost exclusively online. So when you bump into Aaron Gouveia or Michael Moebes it can be a little awkward trying to introduce them to people. Then there's the names you feel like people should get. For example, people calling the very funny Dave Lesser, "Lester" all weekend had me in stitches. Then there's me, I always get called "Robert." That's not my name. It's especially funny to me because when I'm at a conference I'm generally wearing a name tag. It doesn't matter.

I've always been particular about my name. I've never liked being called Robert. Part of it is that it's a slippery slope. People get comfortable calling you Robert, and the pretty soon you're Bob. Then Bobby. Then Bobbo.

I am not "Bobbo."

The other thing I've always disliked about being called "Robert" is that it robs me of part of my identity. Not just the part that wants to be called by his proper name. It robs me of my identity as a Latino man. It improperly Anglicizes me in a world where I don't believe I will ever be fully accepted by Los Anglos. It's weird to think that so much of who I am is wrapped up in that one little letter 'o'. But it's there. All of it. That 'o' represents who I am. It represents my family. It represents coming from a heritage that is simultaneously overlooked, and misrepresented.

Me c.1985. The shirt says,
"Interracial-Intercultural"
Puerto Rico was won for the US in the Spanish-American War. Its people are natural born US citizens, but have no representation and no electoral college vote. Most mainland Americans don't understand Puerto Rico's status. This include people like me, who grew up as Boricua in California. I know way more about Chicano history than I do about my own people. So when folks have yelled at me to go back to my own country, it's kind of a complicated response. The one constant is that I have always been the "other." I'm too brown to be accepted by mainstream white society, but not brown enough to have been accepted in my predominantly Black and Chicano Oakland schools. It was weird going from being bullied for being a "white boy" in 5th and 6th grade, to being considered too "ghetto" at the private school I attended in 7th. And that doesn't even touch on the systemic and institutional racism endured in a variety of California public schools, racism I was only vaguely aware of as a child, but that stung my mother more than I understood until decades later. All of that, the colonial history, the personal history, having West Side Story as my favorite movie, album, and play as a kid, all of it is wrapped up in that little 'o.' So it kills me to be lumped into a homogeny I've never been accepted in by being called something as common as "Robert."

But that's only half the story.

(Sorry)

I'm also half Japanese.

My Great-Grandparents
Well, sort of. The biological fact of the matter is that I'm one-quarter Japanese and one-quarter-mostly-White. The thing is, my Japanese grandma Yo was grandpa Kelly's 3rd wife, out of 8. By the time I was born he wasn't much of a factor in our family's lives. I don't know any of the white people I'm related to by blood. I hung out with my cousin George a few times in high school, but rumor is he later moved to Germany and joined a neo-Nazi group. So yeah. Culturally, I'm half Japanese. I also carry the psychological and emotional burden that many Sansei and Yonsei people carry, of having had family in internment camps, but also having them hesitant to talk about those times. It's a weird experience to grow up with people who lived through an important time in American history, but to have to learn about it at school because they don't talk about it much. The dozen or so times my grandmother opened up about life in the camps is considered downright candid by the standards of many Nisei led families.

My grandmother got out of the camps by enrolling at the University of Utah. One of my great uncles was already enlisted on December 7th, 1941. Another joined the 442nd all Japanese American regiment soon afterward.

I can't type the numbers 4-4-2 without tearing up.

The rest of my family rode out the war years in the Arizona desert, all except my great grandfather. He died before the war, and the story my grandmother tells is that it's better he did. She claimed being put in the camps would have killed him. At this point it's hard for me to separate fact from legend when it comes to my great grandfather. There are books and secondary sources available, my family is, or was, well known in Japanese American circles (there are books by them, and about them, which is also a weird thing to grow up with) but I think I've avoided them in part because I am so in love with the legend. I grew up with the tale that my great grandfather was a samurai, who was disenfranchised with the end of feudalism in Japan. Because he was not the first born son he stood to inherit nothing, so he came to America. Over the years he worked as a bicycle repairman, and helped to organize farm workers in California, like an under the radar Japanese Cesar Chavez. One story I've never verified is that he refused to touch money because it was beneath him. The point is that he was proud. He was regal. He could not, would not, have borne the indignity of being imprisoned under false pretense. He was warrior.

That history, as convoluted and embellished as it might be was central to my identity as a young person.

Photo: Crazy Ex-Girlfriend S1:E09
My kids are even less Japanese than I am. My wife, T is mostly of Irish descent. Buddy, Lou and Yo look like anime characters. They have Asian eyes, but Buddy and Yo also have light hair and Anglo features. Lou looks like my mom. I've written about some of this before, but knowing that they would be more white than anything else, it was important to us to give them something to connect them to their other heritage. Each of them have a Japanese, or family first name (we found out that Lou's first name is actually Arabic, but that's for another post), an Anglo middle name, and a Spanish last name. Honestly, as much as the Anglo middle names were ostensibly a nod to their UK roots, they were really a hedge in case the kids wanted to assimilate at some point. It was a well known rubric in my family. My mother and her siblings each had a Japanese name and an Anglo-ish name. Interestingly, the two girls went by their Japanese names, while my uncles went by their Anglo names. (I have no idea what that means, if anything.)

So where is this going? Buddy's first name is my middle name. My middle name is my great grandfather's name. It's an important name. It means a lot to me. A few weeks ago my son told me he wanted to change his name. He wanted to go by his middle name, the white name. It was a painful moment for me. His reason was that some kids at school had found
out what his name means, and they were teasingly calling him by the English translation of his Japanese name. (I'm sorry, it might be frustrating that I'm being circumspect, but I'm trying to protect the kids from future Google searches.) The translation isn't a bad thing. It's something that was always a point of pride for me, but he didn't like the tone. He wanted to go by Michael.

I was crushed, but I tried to hide it. "OK, Buddy." I said. "I will call you whatever you prefer. And I'll tell your teachers to respect your choice. But I want you to know that your name carries meaning, it was chosen with purpose. Sleep on it. You don't have to decide tonight, but when you do decide, I'll be with you 100%."

The cast of "Naruto: The Next Generation"
Fast forward a couple weeks and I'm taking a day to unpack and organize boxes from our recent move. While I work I'm watching American Pastime. As is often the case, I can't tell if this is a good movie, or if I just like it because it's in my wheel house. The film is a saccharine-sweet story about the internment experience of a Japanese American family. It's also about baseball. As I'm watching and unpacking, Buddy wanders in and out of the room. He eventually settles in and watches the last half with me. It's only an hour and forty-five minutes long, but it takes us near double that to get through because we keep pausing to discuss what's happening and to answer Buddy's questions.

Even though we've been to museum exhibits about internment, and talked about it together he's still a little confused about why the JA characters are being treated so poorly. So we talk about racism and fear and xenophobia. We also talk about his ancestors and the No-No Boys and the 442. We talk about what's happening now, and how Japanese Americans see the markers of history repeating itself. The ending of the movie is predictable. I don't care, I cry anyway.

The crying surprises Buddy. He's not used to it, which is funny because I feel like I cry a lot. Maybe it's that I tend to do it alone, keeping a brave and stoic face in front of the kids as my Japanese heritage supposedly instructs. Whatever the reason, he tries to console me. "Hey dad, it's OK. Do you want to sit down big guy?" That's right, my seven-year-old just dropped a "big guy" on me. I assure him I'm OK, and I hold him close. He persists, "I not used to seeing you like this, dad."

"I know Bud." I tell him. "It's just that, this, all of this. This is why your name is so important. This is what your name means to me, and what I hope it can mean for you too. Your name carries all of this with it. It's the immigration story, the Asiatic Barred Zone and internment. It's the Navy stealing your grandmother's house, and denying it for fifty years. It's the 442 and the Lost Battalion. It's the 1965 Immigration Act, when Japanese immigrants were finally able to become citizens. It's Grandma Yo living in a converted funeral home and sleeping on the lawn at University of Utah during the war. It's having everything taken away, and building up a family legacy of artists and writers and academics. Your family overcame a lot, and you are a part of that. That's why your name is so important."

I felt guilty laying that on him. "But look, Bud. If you want to go by your middle name, that's OK too." I added. Of course by that time the damage, or inspiration, was done. "No dad. I get it now. I want to keep my name."

I still feel guilty. As much as I want him to understand and internalize his Japanese heritage, I don't want to emotionally brow beat him into it. I don't know if he'll ever feel accepted by his peers, but at least I know he's in good company among the men whose names no one knows how to pronounce.

Great-Grandfather, Me, Buddy. We all share the same name.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Would You Rather Move Forward, or Would You Rather be "Right?" by Sheila Coleman-Castells



This guest post is written by Sheila Coleman-Castells. Sheila is bay area by birth, and West Virginia choice. She is a "Washington Insider" who, in this post shares her views on how we move forward under Trump. This post originally appeared as a Facebook status and is reposted with permission.

I am a child of the Civil Rights Movement, and I was born in Berkeley, CA. My grandfather was one of MLK's sidemen in CA, raising money from Hollywood and rich Californians and working on social projects such as the Peralta Colleges. He taught us some important things, but he paved the way for us to be insiders. Why? Because while ya'll protest and throw rocks and pebbles (so helpful, and we appreciate it), some of us have to put on that uncomfortable-ass power suit (complete with spanx), and walk the halls of the legislatures and the governor's mansions and Congress and negotiate with these criminals so that we can get actual legislation passed so that you can have the rights that you think you protested for. In reality, you didn't get shit. Real movements work because there are people working inside AND outside to make thing come to pass. On Friday, people went to airports and protested. Great...excellent. But THAT NIGHT, the ACLU left their kids' basketball games, or came out of the garden, took off their jeans, took a shower, put on that suit and went to work in the courts.

Insiders.

So, I so appreciate the pipe dreams, but protests and sit-ins alone don't do shit. It takes lawyers, lobbyists (like me) and other "insiders" to bail your ass out of jail and actually write the briefs and the legislation and all that you want. Activists are great. Feel good all you want. But legal action and laws are better. That's what me, and people like me do.



There have been a lot of protests since Ferguson, has anything really changed? -ed. 
Interestingly enough, I get beat up all the time for not being "progressive" enough. 

Yes, Me. Madame Blue. I eat blue, sleep blue, bleed blue, but because I am pragmatic and feel that we must work with what we have, I am a "traitor" to some (mostly those who are "armchair politicians" who have never, ever worked in politics in their lives). I had a battle with one of these progressive partisans (hint: He was a disaffected Bernie supporter) just yesterday. There are people who believe that what they WANT should be what IS. Well, I WANT a beach house in Martinique, but I ain't got one, and standing out in the 14 inches of snow in my yard with a bikini is going to make me REAL damn blue, not to mention a candidate for a one-way trip to the funny farm.

Well, some of us work in the real world of "realpolitik", and know that we need to start where we are, not where we "ought" to be or where we "want" to be. One of the first things we need to do is to understand those we've left behind. There isn't a Whole Foods within 150 miles of me, and not one in the whole state of West Virginia. That ought to tell you something about West Virginia, and it is not that people cannot afford that food. We have a Range Rover dealer in Morgantown where a Whole Foods might just do nicely, so such a market exists. What does not exist is the type of elite foodism that comes with a Whole Foods, not to mention that this chain wouldn't stoop to open a store here because there is no "cachet" to being in West Virginia for them.

And there is the rub. West Virginians voted for Trump in droves for many reasons, some overlapping, others not. But here is the one that they ALL would say: The Democratic Party doesn't speak for, or to them anymore. The Democratic Party isn't the party of the working man and woman. The Democratic Party isn't the party of the person of faith. The Democratic Party isn't the party of families and traditional American values. The Democratic Party doesn't care about THEM.

And listening to my Blue Brothers and Sisters, I might see where they are coming from, although I would disagree that we can't speak to them.

I cannot tell you how many Dems I know who have never gotten their hands dirty in a job, or stood on their feet all day to make a dollar. These are the same folks that decry me working for a nationally prominent, mostly Republican, trade association (although my principal job is to fight for Energy Efficiency, a very Blue ideal) where the men and women swing hammers and breathe in sawdust each day. My favorite group are the Dems who hate religion (Bill Maher is their patron saint), and think that anyone who believes in God is an idiot (but who will protest to save Muslims, like last week). So, how can you think that Christians are stupid but Muslims need saving? People of faith are one and the same, and most just want to practice that faith in peace. Yes, there are both Christofascists and Radical Islamists, and both are a tiny majority of the whole. But many of my Democratic friends dislike religion and religious people, and sing that hater hymn loud and clear; then they scratch their heads and tell me that they don't understand why the "fly-over states" (hint: I live in one) go Republican when the GOP could hardly care less about them? Well, the GOP sings from their hymnbook (whether they actually believe and practice it or not), and we ain't on the same page.

My dears, perception is reality, and reality is in short supply with many of us Democrats. I can't tell the GOP what it should be, nor do I care. But I have to tell the Dems what THEY need to be. They need to move back toward the center-left, and leave the margins for the shouters and the fanatics if they want to win in 2018 and beyond. Progressive values are great, as long as they include tolerance for all perspectives and all orientations. We have forgotten the working man and woman, and we have nothing to say to them. How do you get your child to college when you, yourself haven't been? Why is it bad to work with your hands and your back? We educators have had to tackle that beast for years, and we have experience in empowering parents to help their kids where they are, not just held up a lofty goal that was unattainable. You walk before you run. Where feeling disempowered about influencing their children's future is concerned, I have seen more similarity with inner city minority parents and rural majority parents. Both groups feel powerless. So let us help them where they are, not berate them for being where they are.

People of faith, many faiths, do wonderful things. Some do horrible things, but you would not dare judge all Black or Gay people by their least common denominator. Why do we Blue folks often do that with religion? Leave your own personal baggage with church or temple at the door, and see the big picture. Stop demonizing people who choose to believe in a god. That is a sure way to alienate people every day if the week. Look at the bigger picture: There are people who are fed, clothed, housed, soothed, sobered up, and educated by communities of faith every day of the year. Not everything about faith is bad, and if you don't choose it, fine. Most of us aren't trying to get you to join our congregation or our parish. But for those who do, it is NOT because we are intellectually inferior or doubt science. "Religious" is not a synonym for "stupid". If I hear that crap one more time, some of you might be meeting a God you don't believe in right quick. Bigotry is bigotry...why is racial bigotry worse that religious bigotry? After this weekend, many have said that it is not. So why say or do this on the regular?

Read this article, then rethink. I was told something very important when I was young that has stuck with me for many years: Would you rather move forward with you goals, or would you rather be "right?" Sometimes, it is better to work together and form consensus with those with whom you have things in common rather than be in that lofty tower of righteousness and all alone. Trump exists because we pushed anyone who didn't believe in our candidate in a corner and failed to speak to them (as well the fact that the GOP were more effective in getting their message to not only their base, but those on the fence). Not all Trump voters are racist idiots. Many are scared and desperate for what they perceive to be stability. Can we reclaim them? Can we reclaim the fence?

We can, but only if we start embracing ALL of us. People like me who love being a Mom and a part of a family, who are somewhat traditional, who believe that my faith makes me much of whom I am, who appreciate all levels of education and have both common sense and empirical knowledge. Us who have no issue with Boy Scouts don't think that is corny or old-fashioned, and actually do want to know how we are going to pay for stuff in our society. Us who embrace work and a leg up for the poor and downtrodden, and want equality for all people. Why can't I have that, and why is that not "progressive?"

Let's win in 2018. Let us reclaim the center and stop being idiots. The Tea Party were a bunch of jerks. Are we becoming the HERBAL Tea Party? If so, jerks apply within.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

I Did Not Vote for the First Woman President (And I'm Not Sure What to Tell My Students)

T put this up on our house around midnight as the election was being called for Trump.

I started composing this Tuesday afternoon when the world seemed like a different place. It's starting out the same as I'd intended, but the ending is not what I expected.

I did not vote for the first woman president of the United States. That much should be obvious since as of Tuesday night there will not be a first woman president of the United States for at least four more years. However, I did not vote in the hopes of electing the first woman president of the United States.

I voted for the candidate I felt would be the best leader for our country. I voted for the person I believed was the most qualified, and the most able to lead us forward. I voted for the candidate I most believed in and most trusted. I voted for the best available person for the job.

If she had won, she also would have been the first woman to become president of the United States.

But she didn't win.

There's a lot of anguish and a lot of fear associated with a Donald trump presidency. There's a lot to digest today and in the coming months. There are actions to plan and to take. There's some grieving too.

The most immediate concern for me, after thinking of my daughters and the fear I have for my own life as a Latino male, was that I had to get up and teach in the morning. It's probably been hard for people in many professions to get up and go in to work. My Facebook feed saw a few friends who called out Wednesday morning. I didn't want to go to school. I didn't want to go anywhere. I was afraid. Not for my own safety, but for my students.

Like the members of the field they are training to join our students are mostly women. Our profession, and our program are also home to a greater percentage of LGBTQ people than are found in the general population. Being in the Bay Area, we also have more people of color than the demographic studies of interpreters would predict. All together this means that our student body is primarily made up of the exact people who have the most to fear from a Trump presidency.

I had no idea what to say to them.

I wore a Black Lives Matter t-shirt to school
on Wednesday. It was the only form of protest
I could muster on short notice.
I got up Wednesday morning dreading the idea of facing them. My lesson plan seemed inadequate to either address or to paper over the events of Tuesday night. The difference in being a teacher having to get up and go to work on a day like this is that you can't hide. You can't tele-work. You can't hide in a cubicle. At the college level you can't just bail and hope someone finds a sub. You have to show up, and not only do you have to show up, you have to lead. Sure, these students are adults, even if some of them are young. But they still look to you for some kind of guidance, some show of leadership. In my new job as the figure head of my tiny program I feel this weight more than I did in the past. I couldn't just stand up at the front of the room and start going over Monday's homework. But I didn't know what to tell them.

I arrived early hoping to finish up a power point but I kept getting distracted by my feelings of dread and powerlessness. There was nothing I could do to change what had happened. There was nothing I could say to reassure them. So instead of the power point I started a project I had been putting off since I'd taken the position this fall. When I was in grad school many of my professors had small signs posted outside their offices that said, "Safe Zone" around a pink triangle. The idea is to show that your office is welcoming to LGBTQ students, that they don't have to hide who they are or worry about how their identity might impact their academic progress. So I printed off a sheet and posted them in the areas I control, my class room and my office. It was a very small gesture, but it was the one thing I could do to try to stem the tide of hate that has taken over our country. It was my attempt at showing my students that no matter what happens over the next few years, they belong here.

When the first student arrived she asked me if I was OK. I choked up trying to answer. I realized I hadn't yet spoken to anyone since going to bed the night before. I hadn't interacted with another person until that moment. It was hard to use language through the emotion of it.

We started class at 9:00am. I stood up and told them that I wasn't prepared to be there. I told them that my head and heart were not fully present. I apologized for not being able to stand up and lead. I confessed that I didn't know how they were feeling or whether I should try to go on as if it were a normal day, or crumble to a heap in front of them. I told them I was tired because I'd stayed up until it was called.

I also told them that they had been in my thoughts that night. I recognized that each of them represented a vulnerable community. I told them that I cared about them, that their safety and security were important to me. I told them I felt helpless. I showed them the little signs I'd made in an attempt to exert some measure of control. The country may turn on them, threaten their marriages and their bodies, but this building, these rooms would remain safe. We all cried.

My cousins reminded me on Wednesday that our family has been through worse. Our grandparents were put in camps during WWII. Their home and livelihoods were literally stolen by the Navy. They rebuilt from nothing and laid the foundation for us to become who we are, a Yonsei generation of artists, writers, and teachers. Hopefully things won't get that bad during Trump's reign.

We did get through our lessons for the day. There was more catharsis and more tears at various times. I got up in Thursday and did it all again with my second year class. As is usually the case, I think that honesty about my misgivings was the best approach. The hardest part of this job isn't the academics, it's everything else. We get up and do it because we have accepted jobs that include trying to lead a younger generation. Standing in front of that room, addressing these students who are just as scared and unsure of the future as I am has helped me deal with my own anger and frustration. Finding the strength to be vulnerable with them has helped me find the resolve I will need in the coming years.

Friday, October 28, 2016

Just Let the Kid Dance

I am not a Men's Rights Activist. I am a feminist. This is not a rant about how men have it hard. Men, in general, don't have it hard. This is just a story about a little boy who wants to dance. His name is not Billy Elliot.
I grew up with a single mother who wasn't into sports. It's not that she didn't like them. It's not that she didn't know that sports exist. It's just that sports weren't on her radar. While my friends were running shuttles on the soccer field I was being shuttled between art and dance classes. I loved art and dance. I danced on and off through high school. I went to Shakespeare camp. I was a skater. I danced. No one ever questioned it. I don't remember a single time when I was made to feel like I didn't belong. To the contrary, I feel like I was always welcomed.

This is the experience I relied on when I signed Buddy up for dance class last fall. It wasn't the same for him as it had been for me.

From the beginning he was subjected to teasing from the girls either in his class, or waiting to take the next class. Too many times he was told that "boys don't take dance. Boys don't do ballet. Boys don't wear tights." Just like that a few dumb ass elementary school girls had undone months of me showing him videos of male ballet dancers and regaling him with stories of my days spent in tights, going over the initial positions, and demonstrating my still excellent turn out. He didn't feel uncomfortable in in his leotard and tights until other kids decided that he should. It wasn't until a couple months into the class that the teacher told us he could wear warmup pants if he wanted. We didn't know that earlier because the printed instructions and requirements were very clear about what was expected. The times when I raised my concerns with his teacher she would look at me blankly and then tell me she hadn't heard or seen anything. A couple times there were assurances that they valued Buddy just like the rest of the dancers. Nothing changed.

Despite the setbacks, as I periodically rebuilt his confidence, he decided he wanted to participate in the spring recital. So we paid the surprisingly high fees for the recital and the costumes for both kids and committed to a second session of classes. (You had to sign up for the recital early in the first session, there was little time to decide if you liked the class or not.) It was at this point that the underlying discriminatory indifference became clear.

The girls' costumes arrived two months prior to the recital. We had time to make sure they fit. We were taught how to put on the weird headband. We were told that we must have nude colored tap shoes for both kids. The day the costumes arrived I found Buddy in tears as the costumes were handed out.
"What's wrong Bud?"
"I don't want to wear a dress!"
Once we assured him that his costume would be more masculine we were told that his had not yet arrived, but it would. We were told that every week for two months. When we arrived at the dress rehearsal, which was also our only chance to take pictures of the kids on stage (there is a strict no photo policy during the performance), we still did not have a costume. When T did his makeup, we still did not have a costume, but we did have little girls squealing "EW WHAT IS HE DOING?" because they are asshole children. T kept her composure and explained to them that everyone on stage or on TV is wearing make up, even the men. I might have been there to help explain things, but I was not allowed.



#LetBertoBeADanceMom was a short lived internet non-phenomenon that completely failed to go viral. About a month before the recital the parents were called into the studio at the end of class to film the kids doing their routines so they could practice at home. At the end the teacher asked for volunteers to be "Dance Moms" during the recital and dress rehearsal. "We need to two moms from each class." After 30 seconds of silence with no volunteers I stepped up. "Hey," I thought to myself, "I spent most of my life doing theater and dance. I can do makeup. I can help with costume adjustments. I'm perfect for this.

Maybe you're thinking that thirty seconds isn't a long time. Trust me, it's forever. It's so long that during dress rehearsal if a group was 5 seconds late for their entrance cue the director started again until they got it right. Imagine thirty seconds of dead air on the radio. Or try this, the next time someone asks you a question, just look at them silently for thirty seconds before you answer. Or the next time you answer the phone, don't say hello for thirty seconds. Seriously, it's enough time that if it sits that long after a teacher asks for volunteers, it's clear that no one wants to do it. "What's involved?" I asked. Silence. "Like, what times do we have to be there?" The teacher finally replied that it was just the regular listed times. "OK, I can do it." Silence.
"Oh, no dads. Only moms."
Thanks to my friend Gloria for the pics
I was stunned. I didn't even think to ask why, I just stood there dumbfounded and uncomfortable. After another thirty seconds a couple moms complained that volunteering would mean missing their kids' performances. It was only after they were assured that they would be able to watch from the audience that two women stepped up.

No dads. Only moms.

None of the other parents seemed to think this was odd. The reactions to my complaints on social media were mixed. A few dads thought I should sue. Most people jumped on the idea that other parents, and the kids themselves would feel uncomfortable with a man back stage helping so many little girls change clothes. I get that. But that's not the situation.

All the dancers were instructed to arrive at the venue in full costume and makeup. The little kids were each in one dance, and did not have any changing to do. There were older girls who were in multiple dances and did change costumes, but they were in a different room than the little kids, who were also in different rooms than each other in many cases. (Buddy's class had a room to themselves.) There was no chance I would have seen anything improper or uncomfortable. But no, I can't help.

No dads. Only moms.

But I digress, back to the costume debacle that acted as a metaphor for the entire dance school's approach to having a boy in their midst.

At the dress rehearsal T finished Buddy's makeup and left the backstage area before his costume arrived. While she was getting the kids situated in the mysterious land where dads dare not tread, I was investigating the costume situation. I was assured that it was "being Ubered over right now." Seriously? After eight months of class they had to get a costume Ubered over on the day of the dress rehearsal? Ridiculous.  I know what you're thinking, "Dude, it takes a while to get a custom made Durham Bull costume that emits smoke from the nostrils and has all those neon lights." And you'd be right, but that's not what the costume was. We waited anxiously for Buddy to come out. We took bets on whether he'd have a costume on or not.

It was Push. When his group came out, during the only chance we'd have to take photos, he was wearing a shimmery black dance dress shirt, a bedazzled bright pink tie, and the shorts he'd been wearing when we arrived. Oh, and the nude tap shoes.



When I went back stage to pick him up after rehearsal I was handed $40, presumably for him only getting half a costume. We were asked to provide out own black pants. When I brought up my frustrations with his teacher she gave me a blank look, the kind teenagers give their least favorite family members during dinner, like she was waiting for me to stop talking so she could leave.
"It's been very frustrating that Buddy has been treated like a complete afterthought all year. It's like you're completely unprepared to have a boy in your class. You've had eight months to get him a costume and then the day comes, and he doesn't have pants. How does that happen?
"Well," she replied dryly, "it is very unusual."
UNUSUAL? It was difficult for me to hold in my fury. If this were a girl in a traditionally male activity being treated this way it would be a local news item. There would be outrage. But I wasn't done. With all the strict clothing instructions they'd given us, hair ties must match the hair color, pins must be done just so, etc. how could they not understand enough about mens' fashion that they had him in nude shoes?
"Also, you're telling us we have provide black pants. Didn't you know that weeks ago? Why not tell us? Also, why did make him buy nude shoes? He's wearing a black shirt and black pants. He's going to wear black tights underneath. Why nude shoes? no man wears nude shoes with black."
"All the dancers are wearing nude shoes."
"ALL THE DANCERS ARE WEARING NUDE TIGHTS! He's wearing black. He already had black shoes. Didn't you think this through even a little?"
"Well he can wear tan or khaki pants."
"With a black shirt and a pink tie? Have you ever met a man anywhere before? No. You were right that he should have black pants, don't come to me with tan pants just to justify your poor idea about the shoes. We're returning the shoes and you're taking them back without complaint."
It's astounding how obtuse people are allowed to be without somehow falling onto train tracks and being run over. So with that my wife went to the thrift store and found and hemmed a pair of size 8 black dress pants.

On the day of the recital Buddy looked great. He danced like a champ. He showed all the qualities of the world class ham that he is. He was jazzed. He had his performer's high. He also maintained that even though he liked dancing, he never wanted to take a dance class again. Rugby season started soon after and he spent the summer running around the field and not asking the girls on his team why they were there.








Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Being a Good Landlord Almost Bankrupted Me

This is not my Berkeley house, but it's similar.
 Many people lament the state of the rental market in the Bay Area. I spent eight years charging below market rent because I believed in helping the middle class. My reward: being pushed to the brink of bankruptcy.
On the outside everything is great. I recently landed a dream job teaching at a college back in my home town. The job provides the two things I never thought I'd be able to have together, teaching in my field and living where I grew up, among my oldest friends. I always thought I'd have to sacrifice one of those components for the other. Then all of a sudden, this job opened up and it seemed like everything had fallen into place. Our years-long quest to find a way home was coming to a close.

Getting the job required some investment on our part. Aside from the years and student loan dollars we'd put into getting me into a position where I was a qualified candidate for a tenure track teaching position there were up-front costs as well. Unlike some universities with larger budgets this college did not offer to fly me in for my interviews. I paid my own way, on short notice, to fly across the country in order to put my best foot forward. It was just prior to walking into the room for the first interview that I learned that if I did well, there would be a second interview. I did well and when I was offered the second interview I asked if I could do it over the phone. The college preferred that I come in person, so I swallowed hard, and on even shorter notice, boarded a cross country flight in order to put my best foot forward.

It worked. I got the job. In that moment I was thrilled and fine with the financial investment it took to  win the position. I still am. I still believe that I made the right choice in laying out the cash to secure a job that could make my family exceedingly happy. But the money is spent.

While I was at my first interview my father-in-law, who had been battling cancer for some time, was transferred from rehab to hospice. As soon as the interview was over I changed my return flight so that I could get back home right away. My wife jumped on a plane that evening as well, flying from our home in Maryland, to Arizona to be with her dad before he died. She purchased a one-way ticket, not knowing when, or from where she would return. It ended up being a week while she helped with funeral arrangements (he was to be buried in Indiana), and helped her mother move from Arizona to California to be closer to our families. After driving the moving truck to from Arizona to California, my wife returned home from the west coast in time for us to spend 14 hours together as a family before I flew off for my second interview.

We were satisfied with the decision to have her fly out on a same day fare so she could be with her dad before he passed. We were fine with the decision for her to miss work to help her mother. We believe we made the right choice in laying out the cash to help our family both emotionally and practically. But the money is spent.

Once I accepted the job we faced the prospect of moving. Again. We had been in out new home for less than a year when we decided to pursue this new gig. The kids had just recently related how excited they were to not spend another summer moving. Sorry guys.

I don't know if you've ever moved across country, but it's not cheap. We took a hard look at our finances and realized we would end up in significant credit card debt, but decided it was worth it. After all, this was the fulfillment of our dreams. This was a chance to possibly make the last move for the last job to the last house.

Don't we deserve to live in our house too?
The house. The house is what makes all of this possible, and what is doing us in. My brother and I inherited our mother's house when she died. For the last eight years the house has been rented to a nice family. We have rarely raised the rent, the raises have been below what is allowed by law, and the rent has never been raised to anything near market value. Without the house my family wouldn't be able to consider moving back. The housing market in the Bay Area is out of control. You'd think that having the house there to move into would solve a lot of problems for us, and you'd be right. It's also going to temporarily bankrupt us.

The city we live in is very tenant friendly. It's easy to see how that's happened over the years. As a mostly quiet university town it's always been a desirable place to live. As such, the rental market has steadily become higher priced. Over the decades shady landlords have done terrible things to get tenants out of rent controlled apartments to take advantage of boom times in the market. The result is a set of regulations that require landlords to pay relocation fees for tenants they evict for various causes.

For our situation, known as an "Owner Move In," we were required to pay $4,500 to our tenants because they claim that they are low income. Their family is actually a lot like ours. The person in the family I have been dealing with is also an academic who does some freelance writing. They have kids, just like we have kids. It hurts me to cast them out into the current rental market after eight years of stability. I know that I probably wouldn't be able to find an adequate place to rent for my family given my income. I wish I could live my dream, in my home, without having to displace someone else. But I can't. My income isn't that different from theirs. In fact, our incomes are so similar that based on my new salary, my family nearly fits the city's threshold for low income. That is, if our situations were reversed, I could petition to be paid a $4,500 relocation fee. But I can't afford to pay one.

At the time of our move our bank account showed $9,000 in combined checking and savings against $2,600 in debt. (These numbers don't include our monthly income or expenses). Half of that $9000 is the deposit we are holding for our renters, which will be paid back when they move out. The other $4,500 is what we will have to pay in relocation if our tenants can show that they meet the definition of "low income." The net result of that math is that my family will soon be in the nightmare position of many other American families. We will be heavily in debt, with no savings, no safety net. We will be one missed pay check away from disaster. And that's before we pay for our move, or know whether we'll be able to cover our expenses between moving and figuring out what to do with our current house. If you're keeping score, that means that for some time period we will have two mortgages (plus rent we pay to my brother for the house) and no savings. We spent more than another $3000 in moving expenses. All because we want to live in the house we already own. But the money is spent.

Trucks are expensive. (Banana for scale)
I get it. I do. I understand why we need laws to protect people from unscrupulous landlords. I don't understand why there aren't provisions in place to also protect middle class people who are also living on the edge. I called the city to ask what happens if a landlord doesn't have the $4,500. The woman I spoke to said she'd have to get back to me because it had never happened. In the end the city attorney, by way of a rent board counselor, informed us that we'd simply have to come up with the money somehow. I told her, "I don't have the money." She replied that the people we were evicting don't have place to live. She said it with mic-drop finality, the righteousness of someone who spends their life standing up to evil and defending the poor. "Neither do I" I replied. "If I can't live in my house I also have no where to live." She admitted, sheepishly, that I had point.

I'm not mad at the tenants. They have their own life altering issues to deal with on top of having to move. Just as we had our life altering issues to deal with on top of having to move. I don't even fully blame the city. The law is the result of years of scuzzy landlords screwing people over for profit. But that's not me. It's hard to believe that a city ordinance meant to protect people is also designed in a way that will leave my family penniless. Or worse, leave us in debt and without any cash on hand. This is how the stories of people who lose everything often begin. But the money is spent.

I'm scared. The only other time I've had a bank account at all zeroes was right after my divorce. But in that case I was 27 years-old and single. I had a student loan, but no other debts. I knew I'd be able to figure it out. Now, with three kids and major expenses from my move I'm as afraid for my future as I have ever been. Maybe you'll read this and scoff. Maybe you'll think to yourself that I'm better off than others. I am. Maybe you'll think I deserve this for being silly enough to chase a dream and think I could have it all. I ]would disagree. Maybe I should have been better prepared for all this, but it's hard to prepare for something you don't think will ever happen. The person who had this job before me was here for 35 years.

In reality it is my fault, for not pursuing money at the cost of all else. Where I live single family homes like the one we're renting out are not subject to rent control. This means that with enough notice I could raise the rent periodically to keep up with the market. Right now the house we originally rented out for $2,400 has seen roughly $350 in rent increase over eight years. That's $2,750 for a house that has a market value of $4,000/month. For me it was more important to have this one family in the house rather than pursue the maximum profit. It's my Berkeley upbringing that causes me to value the well being of the tenants and their family over that of my own. The fact that I have willingly sacrificed thousands of dollars and saved the tenants money, and probably at least one increase related move doesn't factor in to the law that requires me to give away thousands more.

In the situation I'm in now I do look back and wonder what would be different if I'd insisted on collecting market value all these years. But I know the answer to that. I'd be a villain like the landlords you see in articles like this where tenants have their rents increased double or triple digit percentages all at once. I'd be a symbol for everything wrong in Northern California's dot com era. I'd be the kind of person that the current laws are meant to protect tenants against. I didn't want to be that person. I have not been that person. But I'm paying the price anyway.

There's a larger point to all this. Maybe it's something about laws that make the middle class cannibalize each other. A family having to leave their rental and facing financial pressure in a market made crazy by dot-commers and Airbnb, needs to take the full life savings of another middle class family in order to survive. Laws that targeted the 1% are backfiring and bringing ruin to a couple who have student loans and a home and who have tried to do everything right in terms of paying creditors. Laws that are pitting one normal family's needs against another's. Maybe it's about bureaucracy that lacks nuance.

There's a ballot initiative this year, Measure AA, that seeks to increase the relocation payment to $15,000 per unit plus $5,000 for families that claim to be low income. The wild thing is, there's no test for income status. All people have to do is claim to be low income, they are not required to provide proof unless the eviction goes to court. Had we been forced to pay $20,000 in order to reclaim our home we couldn't have done it. Essentially, our renters would have laid permanent claim to our house. It's unacceptable. A normal middle class family like ours shouldn't be held hostage simply because we didn't want to sell our home. Worse, we shouldn't have to be painted into a corner where the only way for us to get our house back is to drastically raise the rent in an effort to force tenants out. To borrow a phrase, "Ain't nobody got time for that." Besides, it's morally and ethically uncool. Sadly, if measure AA passes it will be the only way for people like me, people with no savings and no cash, to get their homes back when it is time to stop renting them out. If AA were in effect last summer I'd still be living in Maryland hoping that the job I wanted came open again while I was still in the workforce. My dream, my family's dream, would have been denied even though we've tried to do everything right.

Maybe this is the final cost for all of the great experiences we've had. Along with declining to raise the rent there have been times when I have placed experiences above finances. I chose to stay home and raise my kids rather than work the 93 hours-a-week I had been putting in the previous few years. Maybe I'm a secret millennial, and not the hard working Gen-Xer I'd believed I was.

I have been blessed to be able to pursue An Interdisciplinary Life. I have hope that I will be able to bounce back from a bank account that reads $0.00 in assets and more than $5,600 in debts. I look forward to being able to follow this up in a year and telling you it all worked out. But the money is spent, and I regret nothing.





Saturday, August 20, 2016

Finding Religion as an Adult

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Religion was not a part of my upbringing. Like many Berkeley, California moms my mother could be described as “spiritual” rather than religious. She took bits and pieces from our Japanese heritage and mixed them with Mexican Catholicism and Caribbean Santaria. We had an ambiguous alter in our home with rice, whisky, incense and pictures of our ancestors, but we never talked about it. I kept up this non-traditional tradition through my twenties. 
When I met my wife she was going through her own religious awakening. She had started attending Episcopal services in high school, largely unbeknown to her parents. I still don’t totally understand why she started. She says she found comfort in the routine and the message. While we were dating I went with her at times, and encouraged her to go on her own when I didn’t feel up for it. I always reminded her that she felt better when she went. I attended her confirmation, and at the time had no intent to join the church myself, or even attend regularly. We were still dating and I wasn’t fully committed to her long term, let alone the church.
FamilyCommunion
Things changed when my mom died, but it wasn’t the idea of death that turned me to religion. My mother’s death touched off a feud within my family that had been simmering for years. My mother’s siblings and friends, people I expected to support me during this time, instead focused their pain and anger about the situation on me. They squabbled over my mother’s “estate” in as much as it could be considered one, no more than a few thousand dollars and a small house. But they behaved as though it were a fortune. The acrimony and distrust were tearing at me. I had never felt more stressed or persecuted in my life, and I had changed schools every year from kindergarten through Jr. High. I felt alone, but mostly I was angry.
I was angry that my mother had been taken from me when she was just 54. I was angry that she hadn’t finished getting her affairs in order before she died. I was angry that everyone had been so insistent on the power of positivity that my mom and I had never been allowed to have those deep end of life conversations that I longed to have. I was hurt that my family distrusted me as the executor and trustee for my 17-year-old brother. I didn’t know what to do.
During this time I left my career in Washington D.C. and moved home to California to help care for my brother. My wife chose a church nearby and for lack of anything else I started attending more regularly. I found that every week the sermons spoke to something I needed. They weren’t just about God or Jesus or what the Bible said we should think. They were about how we could live better lives and be better, happier people. A few of them were about forgiveness. The rector talked about how to let go of resentments. She told us how we could try to understand the people who hurt us. She gave me a blueprint to follow to move past the hurt my family was causing. Beyond that, her words helped me remain open to having a relationship with them. After I’d spent a lifetime banishing people who had hurt me, it was permission to let go of the grudges I was building. It was freedom.
After that I became more interested and involved in the church. I had found a place where the message of the Bible was about love and acceptance, not the hate and vitriol associated with the loudest voices of the religious right. I started confirmation classes. My wife and I were married, and held our reception in our home parish. I was confirmed on the same day my son was baptized.
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I’ll confess, I don’t believe in all of it. I honestly don’t know if there’s a God, let alone one true God. I don’t believe in all the miracles. I don’t think the bread and wine actually become flesh and blood. I believe that we should be good people in the world for the sake of being good, not because of any reward in the afterlife (if there is one). Still, I’ve taught Sunday school. I am raising my children in the church. Many of my fellow Christians would say these thoughts mean I may as well not bother showing up. What I do believe in is the message and the structure. The primary take away from every service I’ve ever attended is to love everyone. The only action we are compelled towards is to make the world a more peaceful and caring place. Being good in a vacuum can be hard. Having some guidance helps me.
My secular friends, which is most of my friends, like to post memes and articles to social media proposing that you don’t need religion to be a good person. I think that’s true. But when my family is in a time of need I notice that people I hardly know from my church are almost more likely to step up and help than are my non-religious friends. It’s been parishioners who have organized meals for us when we’ve had a birth or death in the family. When my father-in-law died a woman I didn’t recognize knitted my wife a prayer shawl and brought it to our house. The thing is, we have never asked for the help we’ve received, it’s simply materialized when people heard we might need it. This isn’t a knock on my non-religious friends. Rather it acknowledges that being in a church seems to compel people to not just feel sorry for others, but to act. That sense of community has deepened my connection to the church. Finding religion as an adult has been as much about discovering faith people, as about believing in a higher power.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Check Me Out on City Dads Group




Hello Gang,

I hope you're all having an awesome summer so far. I wrote an article For City Dads Group recently and I wanted to share the link here. It's about how strange it when your four-year-old gets a nose job. Lou had her nose re-done a few months ago as part of her surgery suite related to fixing her cleft. In the column I explore what the term "normal" means to me, and why it makes me uncomfortable.

I hope you'll check it out.

Daughter's Cleft Lip Makes Dad Question What is "Normal"