Friday, April 8, 2016

Suicide and Survivor's Guilt

One of the few times we were all together after my first birthday.
There are aspects of life that highlight the contrast between the things you know and the things you feel. There are trivial ones, like sports fan superstitions, and then there's things like coping with suicide. It's common for the people left behind to carry guilt. We feel like we should have been able to do something. If only we'd seen it coming, if we'd called, said something, answered the phone, whatever it is we feel we should have been able to do to prevent it. We feel this way even though it's probably not true. It's not our fault. It's the difference between what we know and what we feel.
My uncle committed suicide shortly before I was born. As long as I've been a conscious person I've been aware that people sometimes kill themselves. It became part of the backdrop of my life, something that was always a possibility. When I was twenty a friend hung himself in the stairwell of my house. We always believed that the 15 bedroom house was so big, and busy at all hours, that he expected to stopped. Or he was making a statement. Either way, I didn't feel guilty, or angry. It was just something that happened. We all knew that the way we lived as adolescents, some of us weren't going to make it to adulthood. I didn't blame my friend, I knew there was something wrong inside him that he couldn't control.
My dad was different. I had been married a few months when I came home and found a police officer's business card stuck in my screen door. It was the coroner's office. They wanted me to come identify the body. I was a thirty-year-old orphan. It wasn't fair. Not just that he'd died, but that he'd lived as long as he had, while my mom died of cancer at 54. My mother did everything "right." She was vegetarian, a swimmer, she drank her one glass of wine. She raised me. 
My dad was the opposite. He wasn't around when I was a kid. At one point I hadn't heard from him in so long that I started telling people he had died. Growing up in the South Bronx projects, he was at times a gang member, a heroine addict and an alcoholic. He claimed he'd been shot once. He didn't eat well or exercise. But he was indestructible. I was six-years-old when he first beat cancer. He lost a lung that time. At twelve I came home one night and found him comatose from vodka and pills. My senior year of college he did it again, they told me he wouldn't live through the weekend. I was told that four weeks in a row before I stopped driving the 400 miles home on Fridays. They later found him wandering the ICU looking for cigarettes. He'd woken up from an induced coma, pulled out all the tubes, and set about finding some smokes. That's also when he beat cancer the second time. They'd found he had prostate cancer but didn't treat it until they knew he'd recover from the pneumonia.
In later years he survived diabetes and a car accident that destroyed his car and lost him his license. By 2008 he was losing his sight and a foot. We had been in touch sporadically over the years, trying to repair a broken past. I wasn't as attentive as I could have been in the year after my mother passed. I was also newly married and we were waiting out the three months before telling people we were expecting a baby. We were three days from the big announcement when I found the card in my door.
I could have called him earlier and told him he was going to be a grandfather. I still can't shake the feeling that I might have been able to give him something to live for. After every incident my dad would say, "Nothing can kill me. I'm from the Bronx." He was right. The only thing that could end his life was his own desire to die. I don't know if he was depressed about our fractured relationship, or if he was weary of his rapidly deteriorating body. Maybe it was a quality of life issue. Maybe staying alive for his grandson would have been a burden rather than a relief. The problem with suicide is you rarely get answers. None of the four suicides that have touched my life have involved a note. Without one no matter how much I know I couldn't have changed it, I feel like I might have.
I didn't know my dad well at the end of his life. I did love him. I do miss him. I miss having that link to my childhood. I miss being able to compare my son to myself at the same age. I have no one now who can tell me if he's just like me. To this day, no matter how much I read to the contrary, I carry the guilt of not having done enough to save him.
It's not my fault. It's not yours either.

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Her Cleft was a Surprise, Her Strength was Not

Yesterday Lou had her fourth surgery related to her cleft. Recently I thought back to the day she was born, and how her condition caught us off guard. T had to be strong for Lou that day. Lou has been strong for us ever since.

It was a surprise. Not just her condition, the whole thing was a surprise, for me anyway. We were in the middle of moving across the country when my wife called to tell me she'd been feeling nauseous. Starting a PhD program wasn't going to be the only big endeavor that year. If I'd been planning we might have waited, but when I told people this my wife corrected me, "This is exactly when I wanted to have the second."

That spring I warned my professors and classmates that I might disappear for a couple weeks after spring break. I also ruined the Fourth of July for any of them who also had mid-April birthdays (if that's you, maybe your parents like fireworks too). I made a lot of jokes during those 40 weeks. It's how I respond to stress. One that I kept coming back to was that the baby would have a cleft palate. I don't know why I was fixated on that, but any time I expressed anxiety over the birth that's what I went to. It wasn't totally out of nowhere, my uncle had been born with a cleft.

From the beginning this labor was different than our first. It progressed very quickly and lasted just four hours in total. By the time the midwives arrived at our apartment T was already in transition and ready to push. When Lou emerged we were thrilled to have our first daughter. She was healthy and screaming and  purple, just like you expect. When I looked at her little wailing face announcing herself to the world something seemed out of place. "She's got something stuck under her nose" the midwife said trying scratch it away. I knew what it was, "She has a cleft."

My heart sank. Not because the cleft was a huge problem, my uncle had one, in the fifties, and he's fine. I was worried about the scars she'd have, but more than anything I was gripped an irrational thought, "I caused this." It was my fault. It was because I had made all those stupid jokes. No one really knows why clefting occurs. It's an almost random one in 700, but two of the risk factors are family history (ding!) and being Asian (I'm half Japanese), so in a way it is my fault.

Clefting is usually diagnosed on the 20 week ultrasound. I found that out on the Internet a few minutes after my Lou was born. Sure enough, it's clear on the pictures we had if you know what to look for.   It shouldn't have been a surprise, the tech should have caught it. We should have had time to prepare. Instead all we knew was what we could find online, so naturally I was panicked. The one useful thing we learned is that Lou wouldn't be able to nurse. The open spaces in her lip and her oral cavity made it impossible to create a seal or to generate a vacuum need to suckle. If we'd labored in a hospital they'd likely have been able to resolve it there. But Lou, like all of our children, was born at home. Now it felt like a race against time. The baby needed to eat and we had no idea what to do.

We called our pediatrician. He told us he'd look into it and asked if we could come in. My wife tells me we went, though I have no memory of being there. When we arrived he told us he had set up an appointment at Children's National Medical Center. We lucky, Lou had been born on a Tuesday, Cleft Clinic day at CNMC. By the time Lou was three hours old we were starting a day-long series of meetings with the team who would handle her care for the next 19 years. We learned that she will need between 7 and 9 surgeries during that time. We learned that she will always have scars. Most importantly we learned how to feed her using special bottles called Haberman Feeders, that look like tiny turkey basters. Ever the joker, I nicknamed her "Zoidberg" after the Futurama character. The most amazing part of that visit was T. There she was, sitting in the examination room taking it all in just three hours after giving birth. Each time a new doctor came in looking at the chart they'd pause, look confused, and then ask T, "Is this right? She was born three hours ago? Why didn't we come to you?" T would explain the home birth and the doctors would gaze at her as if she were a unicorn.

Having a cleft baby isn't easy. My wife pumped 11 times each day for the first six months, before tapering off to 8. We had to plan out lives around being able to pump, which is more complicated than it sounds. We couldn't be away from electricity for more than a couple hours at a time. T pumped in the car while commuting. She pumped at baseball games. She pumped everywhere. Still, it's also not as hard as raising children who have
more serious conditions. Lou has a speech impediment. She has an IEP for speech therapy, but she'll grow out of everything except the scars. She's grown to be a resilient and vibrant girl. She doesn't mind talking about her cleft. Whether it's enduring two major surgeries before she was a year old, or something she would have had anyway, she's fearless. We started calling her "Crash" based on her propensity to push her physical limits, then get up and dust herself of with a resounding, "I'm OK!" She is. She was always going to be. I shouldn't be surprised.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Star Wars Canteen and Cabin Fever

Halloween. Good times
Maybe you heard that we got a huge blizzard here on the east coast about a month ago. School was closed for a week, it was actually a nice break. I love when the kids are home and it's all of us just hanging out. The kids like it too. Even with all the love of being home we do end up looking for things to do. This blizzard gave us a chance to take on a project we'd been talking about for a few months, the kids' version of Eddie Izzard's "Death Star Canteen" bit.

If you haven't seen, then for crying out loud, click the link. It's brilliant. If you prefer there's also an animated version and a fantastic stop-motion Lego version.The problem for me as a parent is that there's some cursing, so I can't play it for the kids. The bigger problem is that I forgot about the cursing, played it for one kid, then had to play it for the other kid. Then they both started dropping casual f-bombs. So we had to clean it up. First, we found a transcript online, and I bowdlerized it. We had fun doing readings of that for a while, and then reciting it on weekend mornings while making breakfast. Once Buddy decided to be Darth Vader for Halloween we knew we'd end up doing a filmed version. The blizzard finally gave us the time.

Now look, I don't know how this goes for the Holderness family, but making a movie like this with a four year old kind of sucks. Also, Buddy is kind of a perfectionist so not getting it in one take was frustrating. The main problem for Lou was waiting for her part, and being quiet. But after a few dozen takes it finally came together. So below I present to you a clean, kid friendly version of Eddie Izzard's Death Star Canteen.

Friday, February 26, 2016

I Didn't Know Oren Miller

Photo by Chris Bernholdt

I didn't know Oren Miller. Oren died a few months before I would have had a chance to meet him. Oren was a blogger, and a father, and many other things that I don't know about because I never got to know him.

Last weekend I went to the Dad 2.0 Summit, a conference for bloggers and brands to come together and talk about "the changing voice and perception of modern fatherhood." I was there because I was introduced to a Facebook group of dad bloggers. The group was founded by Oren as a place were these dads could come together for support. There's a lot of discussion about writing, about growing an audience, about the mysteries of SEO (search engine optimization). Guys share their writing and comment on each other's posts. There's also a lot of personal support. There are parenting discussions. It's also a place where guys can vent about family or work or anything else they can't express to people in other parts of their lives. And it's not just complaining about things, there's real raw emotion there at times, and the support they get from the group is inspiring.

Photo by Isom Kuade
I attended Dad 2.0 as a recipient of a Miller Grant, a scholarship to help writers attend the conference. Without the grant I would have been hard pressed to attend. Our family lives on one income, so it's a luxury for a stay at home dad like me to lay out money to attend a writing conference. I was also selected to read a piece I had written as part of the conference's Blogger Spotlight. It was a fantastic experience for someone like me who is still almost wholly unknown in the blogging world. It was like fantasy camp for bloggers. Having a chance to meet with other writers, to make connections with brands, and to get mentoring from PR people and industry insiders would have been worth more than what I would have paid if I had not received the grant. Being there for free was like winning a sweepstakes. Just attending that weekend and being chosen to read doubled my social media engagements and followers. It's meant getting retweets and shares from people with much greater online presence than I have. It's also meant deeper connections with a large group of dads I had only known through avatars and online comments. It was chance to not only grow as a blogger, but to extend a network of friendship and parenting support throughout the country (and Canada, Hi Canada!).

None of this would have happened if not for Oren Miller. If not for his idea of a "A blogging dads group. So crazy it just might work" I wouldn't have had this experience. If not for the support and inspiration I gleaned from his group I may not have written your favorite post on this site. All the things I've posted in the last year might have remained stray stubs of thought rattling around my head along with random baseball statistics and grocery lists. Instead, they're here. I'm here. You're here.

One of the themes of the conference was legacy. The Friday keynote speaker, Brad Meltzer noted that your résumé fades after you die, your legacy is determined on the impact you have on the people around you. He's right, but I think there's room for both. The dad bloggers group is part of Oren Miller's résumé. It's also an artifact of the impact he's had on the people around him. It feels weird to say, because I feel like I'm laying claim to something I don't really deserve, but I am part of Oren's legacy. Anything I accomplish as a blogger, any writing that reaches an audience as a result of this space has its roots in the dad bloggers group that he started. Without Oren there's no Interdisciplinary Life.

Someone asked the conference attendees what their one missed opportunity or one regret was about the conference was. I didn't answer because I still felt too unworthy to say it publicly. Claiming a little piece of Oren's legacy felt like I might be trying to take it from the people who really knew him. It made me feel like a poser. My biggest regret is that I didn't write this post in the Oren Miller tribute book that was going around the conference, and was later presented to Oren's wife Beth. My biggest missed opportunity was being too afraid to approach Beth after her heart wrenching reading of a letter that Oren had written to himself several years before. I didn't have the confidence to approach her and tell her that even though I never knew Oren, that I owed him, and her, a debt of gratitude.

I understand now that by appreciating the community he built, by taking a place with those he brought together, I can never take anything from those who loved him. If anything, I hope they see his legacy being amplified. It still feels weird to write this.

Thanks Oren.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

KidScience (The Hashtag is Silent)

For every action, there is an equal chance your sister will run screaming to tell on you.
"The scientific method is an ongoing process, which usually begins with observations about the natural world. Human beings are naturally inquisitive, so they often come up with questions about things they see or hear and often develop ideas (hypotheses) about why things are the way they are." -Wikipedia (the source of all the combined scientific knowledge in the world)

Maria Montessori noted that, "children are like little scientists." It's true. For my kids though they're like little scientists who would be on a senate climate change panel. They are ignorant of, ignore, or misinterpret all previously available science in favor of their own observations.

The quotes below are just from this morning.


"It's chilly, I'm going to turn the light off because lighter things reflect heat and are cooler and darker things are warmer."

"That's 6 pies? How can you tell?"
"Because that's how many inches it is"

"When I close my eyes I can still see, it's just that all I see is black."

"Did you know giants are made by people? Not 'fi fie fo fum' giants. Like, stop lights."

"I'm eating atoms."

"You know what's funny about talking? You just have to move your mouth in the way you say the words. Unless you're talking to yourself"

"Daddy, what do I sound like? Because when I see a video I don't talk like me."

OK, so some of them are spot on. I love them when they have a little bit of knowledge. It's entertaining for me, and eventually educational for them.

What observations do your kids make about the world? Let me know in the comments.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Your Dog is Not a Baby
I've seen this picture (and many like it) floating around the internet for a while now, and I bet you have also. It's fine. I don't personally ascribe to the assertions, but I get it. I do. I do think that if you invite people over and then let your dog act like an asshole you're a poor host, but that's me. If this is really your stance, I'm fine with it.

The thing that gets me is that the people I see post this stuff on social media are often the people who refer to their dogs as children. They call them "fur babies" or "my kids" or whatever other manner of silliness that equates owning a dog to being a parent.

Oh man, I hope I applied to enough good preschools
This has bothered me for a long time. It's been at least seven years, maybe more. It's been so long that I've had this post sitting here as a draft for at least a year. I haven't been able to write it though because so many of my friends seem to hold this belief.

Look, I'm going to say this straight out: your dog is not a baby. Your dog. Is not. A baby. It's not. It's not even close. Yes, you love your dog. You love your dog a lot. You love your dog more than you've ever loved any human. That's fine. You say you love your dog as much as I love my kids. That's asinine.

I have dogs. I love them. Before I had kids I indulged the dogs. We had an awesome time. I know what it's like to have dogs and no kids. I love my little furry friends, but even before having kids I knew I wasn't parenting my dogs. First of all, they were two-years-old when we got them, so they were basically adults. Second, they're dogs.

"You're home!"
The real issue is one of actual responsibility. Sure, there are some similarities. Both parents and owners have to keep their charges fed and clean up poop. Dog owners have to occasionally worry about getting a sitter. Both worry about proper socialization behavior. Both need regular doctor visits and can't brush their own teeth. You can't leave either in a car while you're shopping. That's where similarities end.

"OK, I left some water. See you when I get back"
I can leave my dogs home alone for a few hours while I go to work or run errands. Can't do that with a baby. In some states you can't do that with a kid until they're older (in human years) than many dogs will ever get to be.

When it comes to Tater Tot and Saracen, I'm not worried about the long term psychological effects of bullying or the public school system . I don't think about what pressures society might put on my dogs vis-a-vis their gender identities. I have no anxiety at all regarding what my dogs will do after high school. I'm not worried that we're not saving enough to help them get through college. I never think about what I'd do if my dogs faced a tough job market.

I'm not worried about my dogs hitting puberty, because it's socially acceptable for me to sterilize them. No fears of unwanted pregnancy here. On the other hand, had they not been rescues I could have arranged breeding for them. That's frowned upon with American children. Besides, my dogs have each other. They're best friends. I worry about my kids starting to date and how I'll handle those early relationships that I know are going to end in tears. I worry about what kind of example I'm setting for the kids in how I interact within my own marriage. I worry that they'll be hurt, that they'll be damaged. I don't really have those concerns for the dogs.

But the main problem is that if I had a list like the one above you'd all think I was a horrible parent. Let's recap, but imagine it's my three kids we're talking about.
1. I live here, you don't.
2. Sniff test is mandatory
3. If you don't want jam on your clothes stay off the furniture.
4. Chances are my parents like me more than they like you.
5. To most people I may be an obnoxious spoiled child, but to my parents I'm an angel who can do no wrong.
6. If you're nice to me...well, no promises.
So no. You're dog is not like a kid. Because there are people who support you letting your dog act like a brat.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Chasing Your DreamS

I'm not really sure how I got here. Seriously, it's weird.

OK, I know how I physically got to where I am. It's not hard, I'm sitting in my "office." (OK, it's a TV tray and a folding chair in a corner of my bedroom, but it's what I've got.) What I mean is, when I look back to who I was twenty years ago, or even twelve months ago, I don't know how I got to this point in my life.

This past weekend I headed off to my first Dad 2.0 Summit. It's a conference for dad bloggers. At this time last year the site you're reading had been around for twelve years and had thirty posts since 2013. On Saturday I read to an audience of guys who get more views in a day than my most popular piece has had in two months. It's was certain to be a packed house, mostly because I went on five minutes before Michael Strahan of NFL fame and now the co-host of Live! With Kelly and Michael.

I have business cards for my blog. I headed to a DC hotel to talk to other bloggers and sponsors about "the changing voice and perception of modern fatherhood." 
This is not where I expected to be. How did I get here?

It's sort of the big question of my life.

There are people who say you should pursue your dream no matter what. They say that you should never give up. They imply that if you quit on your dream you have some kind of moral deficiency. I disagree. I think there's a lot of value in giving up on a goal. 

When I was three-years-old I was going to be a fireman. 
At age six I wanted to be a stay at home dad. From five to eighteen I was definitely going to be an actor.  That was the dream. I didn't get into my first choice theater schools, and I realized the odds I was facing chasing a life on stage. I went for a back up. I became a sign language interpreter, a field  I'd become aware of by accident when I joined Inner City Outings (now called, Inspiring Connections Outdoors), a Sierra Club group that took disadvantaged kids on wilderness trips. When I volunteered to be a white water rafting guide for ICO I had no idea that half of their members were Deaf. It took two years on the Dean's List to convince my family that interpreting was a real major. It took seven years to complete my B.A., working full time and taking community college courses for the first few years. Then I signed up for two more years and got a master's. 

The truth is, I was such a lousy student in high school that no one should have expected me to go to college. My guidance counselor refused to meet with me. My mom told me that, "butlers make good money." As if I'd ever have the poise or patience for being a butler. No one had any faith in the idea that I'd do anything productive. I didn't give them any reason to. I had gone from being considered gifted and talented through 8th grade, to being a near drop out who managed to fail PE. Yet somehow I've made it this far. 

I loved acting because I never wanted one job. I wanted every job. I wanted to do everything. I chose interpreting because it gave me something similar to acting. I still get to become other people every time I go to work. As an interpreter I've worked for almost every department in the Federal government. I've worked for a Major League Baseball team. I stood in front of 900,000 people at my hometown team's championship parade. I've been to China. I've worked in health care, education, law, tech, and even theater. That's the dream.

I was re-watching The Office series finale recently on Netflix. At the end, Jim talks about his journey being at the company and how he never expected it to lead to anything. He ends up saying, "Everything I have I owe to this job." Like Jim, I also met my wife at work. (Thanks Obama Interpreting). Everything else that I've done has grown from there.

 T has been everything you could want in a supportive partner. 

I was climbing the ladder at the company where we met when my mom died. T was one hundred percent behind the idea of ditching everything and moving home to be close to my brother, who was still in high school. Three years later, when I had a chance to pursue a PhD she was one hundred percent behind abandoning the life we'd built in California to come back to the east coast with a one-year-old and one on the way. The strength of our lives and the foundation of our relationship has been our flexibility. Our willingness to change our lives on the fly to pursue opportunities has always led to better opportunities. Everything I have accomplished I owe to her willingness to help make it all happen. It's a trait I try to repay when she pitches an idea for something she wants to do. 

Now I'm here at this conference where I have been selected to read a post to a room full of bloggers. I'm here because T shared my dream of having one of us stay home. I'm here because T agreed that I should be the one to do it. I'm literally living the life I'd dreamed of as a kid. 

I'm here because a member of another side project, Your Mom is so Berkeley (a joke between co-workers attracted 5,000 strangers who wanted make fun of my hometown), suggested I join a group of dad bloggers on Facebook. So I joined the group, got inspired, and wrote. Then something happened that hadn't happened for me before. If you look at the right hand column you'll see that this blog dates back to 2003, but it wasn't until last year that most of you started reading it. I never expected this. I can't figure out if it's weirder that I'm I was there at this conference, or that some people actually recognized me.

OK, if you made it this far, thanks because it's basically been a weird list of how cool my life is. I do have a larger point.

My life has been very cool. I've played rugby in England because I met a guy at Kinkos who was printing recruiting flyers for a rugby team. I refereed a televised rugby game because I got hurt and couldn't leave the game behind so I picked up a whistle and a former teammate was able to assign me to a televised game.


My life has been this way because I've allowed myself to have multiple dreams. Though I've wanted to be different things at different times I've always been ready to seize the next opportunity. As I think more about it I realize that all I've really wanted in my life is to do cool things. It's meant giving up on some dreams. It's meant making sacrifices. But the thing that's carried me through, the thing that's made my life the amazing experience it's been, is that I've been willing to find happiness along many paths. I didn't get stuck on having one goal.

 I don't know where I'd be if I'd stuck with acting. I doubt I'd be making a living at it. I know that I would never have met T, my kids would be different kids.

It's OK to give up and shift gears. Don't limit yourself. It's OK to decide you want to do something else. Giving up is great. I encourage it. It's made me everything I am. 

PS: As I was writing this post about how great my life is here and how much I love doing exactly what I'm doing T sent me a job posting for just about the only job that could get me to leave being a stay at home dad. It's back home in California. It would mean pulling the kids out of school and moving them across the country. It would mean T leaving a very good career. It would mean leaving the house we just bought this summer.

I'm on it.