Wednesday, June 22, 2016

They Make Me a Better Sport

We're old school Dubs fans at my house.

I am a poor sport.

It's tough to admit, but it's true. Part of the reason is something I noted about a month ago while waiting to hear back about a job interview. Some people can do that thing where they say, "Don't worry about things you can't control." I'm the opposite. I only worry about things I can't control. Why would I worry about anything else? I control all the other things so there's little to worry about there.

Being a poor sport doesn't come through as much when I'm playing, though I have been known to be a bit of a hot head when I feel an opponent is playing dirty. It comes out in spades when I watch rather than play. In fact, I've come to realize over the years that watching brings out the worst in me because I can see everything, but control nothing. It's why during my rugby days I played better as a scrum half, in close to the action, than as a wing standing on the outside with a great view, but little minute-to-minute impact. I never got in trouble playing scrum half. I was constantly in trouble as a wing.

I don't coach anymore, I didn't have the right temperament.
I quit coaching a couple years ago when I realized I couldn't stop yelling at the referees. Yelling at referees is terrible to begin with, but for me it was especially egregious because I am a referee. I was haranguing guys I worked with, guys I had to face at the ref meetings. I couldn't stop. So I had to recuse myself until I could work on my issues and be the kind of coach I expect when I referee.

So why am I writing about this? I may have found my salvation, and it's my kids.

There are a few things that being a parent has changed for me that I would not have changed on my own. I eat more vegetables and cook healthier meals now, not because I have internalized that it's good for me, but because it's good for them. I drive slower and more patiently, not because I don't feel the road rage, but because I want them to be safe. I don't pick up my phone when I'm driving, not to save my life, or yours, but because I want to be able to say to them "See, you can drive without FOMO." Having them with me is also making me a better sport, at least when I'm in front of them.

It started with the 2012 NFC Championship Game between the Giants and the 49ers. San Francisco lost on a muffed punt in overtime that led to New York's winning field goal. I was bummed, but Buddy was heart broken. For the next three days our morning commute was consumed with him crying, begging for them to replay the game so the 49ers could win. That's when I had to institute The Rule. The Rule is that when our team loses, whether as fans or as players, we can be sad about it for 24 hours, then we move on. As a fan The Rule is useful because it acknowledges our emotions and our need to grieve, while also allowing for the fact that sports fandom is kind of a silly pursuit.

Go Buddy, go!
As Buddy and Lou have gotten older and begun to engage more with the sports world, I have had to become better. The first big challenge came last year when Buddy started playing Under-9 (U9) touch rugby. I tried my best to just be a parent. I didn't want to be a coach, I didn't want to referee. I wanted to be a parent and let him experience what it's like to hear other voices.

Really, I wanted to not want to be a coach or ref.

The truth is I desperately wanted to do both. It killed me to see coaches who were caring and well meaning, but didn't have a ton of experience with little kids, devise drills and practice sessions that failed to hold their team's interest. It was all I could do to swallow my frustration with how the games were officiated. None of this is because the coaches or refs were truly inadequate, but because it is so hard for me to watch imperfection, even in games where they don't keep score. (A note on keeping score, you can say you don't keep score, but the kids all know the score.) The next challenge came this month as my Golden State Warriors carried a three-games-to-one lead in the best of seven NBA Finals, that then became a three all series with a deciding game seven to come.

Generally it had been easy to rant and rail at basketball games like a typical fan because they usually start well after the kids' bedtime. I became notoriously obnoxious on Facebook during the playoff months of April, May and June. I also had more riding on this than the average fan. A Warriors win would mean trip home to California for me to work the victory parade. I had worked the parade the year prior and I was over the moon at the idea of doing it again. With game seven in Oakland, and with the two-time MVP on our side I was confident our team would win, could win. Might win. OK, I'm generally a pessimist, but I figured they would win despite my reservations.

2015 Warriors Championship Celebration

It was Sunday night before the last day of school and I offered the kids the chance to stay up and watch the game. Early on I realized the biggest challenge of the night would be in keeping my comments measured in order to be a good example for them. So while I complained about things on Facebook, I tried to remain calm while Buddy snuggled next to me on the couch. (Lou elected to go to bed before half time).  At one point in the first half Kyrie Irving hit a tough shot and had a foul call go his way on what was, in my mind, not even close to being a foul. It was bad enough that it happened, but then he danced. He danced because he was happy. He was happy because he was playing better than he ever had in the biggest game of his life. But it burned me up and I said, "Someone should punch Kyrie Irving right in his stupid smug face."

Nope. That is not what you say in front of a seven-year-old kid.

I got up. I got a drink of water. I went to the bathroom. When I came back to the living room they were showing the replay of Kyrie's dance. I sat down with Buddy.
"Hey Bud, a minute ago I said someone should punch Kyrie Irving in the face. That's not true. I shouldn't have said that. I was frustrated, but no matter how frustrated you are you shouldn't say that someone should get punched in the face. Do you know why I was frustrated? Because he was dancing and taunting his opponents. It's rude. If you're ever doing really well in a game, don't dance. You can be happy, you can high five your teammates, but don't do things to taunt the other team. And if someone taunts you, or dances, don't think about punching them. Use whatever emotion you have as motivation to do better. Then, if you win, go back to the locker room and dance your butt off. But always show respect for your opponent."
Other than a couple instances of "That's not a foul!" I was well behaved the rest of the game, even as the Warriors let a seven point half time lead slip away. Buddy did implore me to stop begging for coach Steve Kerr to take Anderson Varejao out of the game. Honestly, it was a brutal few minutes for both us. For me because I could see Varejao single handedly losing the game. For him because he had to hear me cry about it.

In the end the Warriors lost the game and the series, and I lost my trip to Oakland. The game ended up being a classic, won by Irving on a shot with just a few seconds left. I apologized to Buddy. I thought he'd be up to see his first championship win. "It's OK dad," he said, "I got to see my first championship game, and I got to stay up and see it with you." And with that he demonstrated that he was already a better sports fan than me, which is what I want for him. We talked about what the game meant for LeBron James and the city of Cleveland. We talked about how that game will likely go down as an all-time classic. With that we started our twenty-four hour mourning period with a hug, a wan grimace, and headed to bed.

Let's get it again next year.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Little Boys and Nail Polish: This is Why I'm Moving Back to Berkeley

OK, there are actually a lot of reasons why I'm moving. It's where I'm from. It's where my oldest friends now live with their kids. It's where we have family.

It's also a place where I grew up understanding from a young age that people can and do express themselves in different ways. It's place where I could take art and dance as a kid and not feel weird about it. It's place where I grew up knowing that homosexuality was normal. It's a place that, on the whole, was more accepting and tolerant than any place I've ever lived.

I want that for my kids. It's been tough for us uber-liberal hippy types the last few years. Below is an email my wife sent to out previous day care. The goal isn't to trash the center so I am removing the identifying information. Her email was wonderfully written, and is a great example on how to approach these problems.
"Dear Daycare Director, 
I'm writing to share some feedback about an experience at [Daycare] that is now years old. Since the events I'm sharing are long in the past, I don't expect that any specific immediate action needs to be taken, but since they have had a profound effect on my child I am sharing with you anyway. 
Our son, nicknamed Buddy, attended [Daycare] full-time from 2011 through 2014. He generally had a wonderful time at [Daycare]: had positive experiences, created wonderful memories, and built lasting relationships with both his peers and his caregivers. We were especially grateful that some of those caregiver relationships were very long-standing, as he had one classroom teacher who happened to transition from his Toddler classroom into his Preschool classroom, so the two of them got to know each other very well. 
Our son has always had a flair for self-expression, and during his preschool years he experimented with fashion. Like many young children, he enjoyed decorating himself with nail polish on his nails, barrettes in his hair, and sparkly things everywhere. We knew that this behavior being outside American gender norms, he might come in for some questioning or even bullying from his peers, but we were completely blindsided when we learned that some of this bullying came from his teachers. When I personally heard a teacher saying "Buddy, why are you wearing your sister's barrettes? Those don't belong to you," I made a point to take him shopping for HIS OWN barrettes and show them to that teacher, saying "These are Buddy's barrettes that he picked out for himself, so please don't tell him they don't belong to him. They do." Buddy picked out his own outfit to include a skirt one day (as he had worn to many non-school locations prior to that), and as I dropped him off I was very nearly in tears, afraid about what was going to happen that day. I had a quick conference with his most supportive teacher and asked her to please look out for him that day, and help him if he decided he'd rather change into jeans. He came home still wearing the skirt, but did report that some students and teachers reacted negatively, and he never ever chose to wear that kind of outfit again--not at school or anywhere else. I will never know exactly what was said to him that day, but I have to wonder, since this particular experiment of self-expression didn't phase out or anything... It stopped on a dime that day. 
I am bringing this up now because I had a painful conversation with Buddy last night. He has current classmates who are very insistent about gender norms. Okay, these kids are six and seven years old, so we don't expect them to be particularly enlightened or supportive. But he told me that he doesn't like nail polish anymore (true--he has steadfastly refused all nail art for three years) because "Ms. S" asked him if he was a girl when he wore nail polish to preschool once. Ms. S was his teacher who worked with him for years at [Daycare]. He then proceeded to say to me, "She told me I can't have nail polish on my fingers and then she made me take off my shoes and socks to see if I had any on my toes. She made me feel embarrassed!" A [Daycare] teacher ordered a child to take off items of his clothing, in front of his peers, in order to shame him about a completely innocuous decoration. 
"She made me feel embarrassed" is a devastatingly understated way for a seven-year-old to describe his own public humiliation, isn't it?

So I'm writing to you with this new information, not because I'm requesting any formal discipline or any specific actions at all--just because I feel that you need to know that this happened at the hands of your staff. The one request I'll make of you is that you respond to this information with a promise, to me and Buddy's father, not to let it happen again to any other child in [Daycare]'s care.
Thank you so much for always having been responsive to my concerns over the years. Despite this disappointing experience, we have a lot of love for all our friends at [Daycare]."
Later in the day we received this response from the day care director. 
"Good afternoon, 
I'm so sorry to hear that this happen to our wonderful Buddy.  I'm just sick to find out that a caregiver here at [Daycare] left devastating effect on Buddy's life.  I'm glad you are bringing this to my attention because I this can now change what's happening in our facility because every child need to feel valued.  Please be reassured that I'm going address this matter with all my staff because children need to feel valued in all their choices. Again, thanks for giving us the opportunity to be a part of your children's lives and if  there is anything I can do to help just let me know and I will be there for you and your family."

The response helped, but as my wife said to me later, "I'm tired of having to fight these battles on his behalf."

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Birthday Parties are a Waste of Money

I've seen it firsthand. I've been right in the thick of things, surrounded by chaos. The screaming, the crying, the damage done to person and property.
I was a birthday party entertainer. 
For two years during college I worked for a company that provided edutainment science programs for kids in after school programs, summer camps, and birthday parties. For two years I put on the same show three to six times each weekend as I drove all over the Los Angeles area in a 1989 Civic with no A/C.
In that time I saw everything. From families who had likely saved all year to hire me as a treat for their kid, to lavish spectacles where I was one of several acts and felt lost in the shuffle. I was often paired with, or pitted against, some sort of inflatable structure. Some parents were engaged in the show, others used it as a time to grab a drink and chat with friends. That's how I once ended up being the only one to notice a bouncy house full of children tipping over and deflating. I sprinted across the yard and pulled eight kids out of the rapidly collapsing 500 pounds of PVC before anyone came to help out. Still, I realized I had it easy when I left a party with Batman and Buttercup the Power Puff Girl. When Batman got around the corner to his car he removed his rubber cowl and so much sweat poured out it looked like he had dumped a bucket of water over his head. The guy in the Buttercup costume didn't seem to be doing much better. By comparison my teased out half-fro and lab coat seemed like a blessing.
Even as I was doing it I couldn't believe that this was a thing. Hiring from our company wasn't cheap, and of course there were up-sells and add-ons on top of the base price. I was paid for each performance, plus tips, which I relied on. Whether I was treated like a star or an after thought I knew I wouldn't have a version of me at my kids' future parties. As much as I appreciated being able to pay my way through school on the wallets of these families I think it was a waste of money. Becoming a parent has only hardened my resolve. Parties at gyms, bouncy places, or climbing establishments run $250 and up in my area. No way my friend. I bristle at spending more than $50 for snacks, there's no way I'm buying trampolines and pizza for twenty.

I'm not a total party pooper. It's just that I still believe in the power of the old school parties we had growing up, at home. My two oldest children have birthdays five days apart. For them we have one party on the closest weekend to their birthdays. This way all their friends can come over and destroy my house once and I'm done for the year. For a couple years we prepared activities for the kids. Once our kids chose to perform a play for their guests. Over the years we've found that the activity is usually ignored in favor of just running around the house, or the yard (or the house and the yard). The last party involved half the guests grabbing light sabers and muskets and waging war on an imagined enemy, while the other half sang karaoke into a purse/boom box. Other times we've simply rolled some balls out in to the yard, or helped the kids make super hero capes. The point is, kids don't need a bunch of froo-frah to have a good time. All kids really need are some friends and enough space to roam around. And cake, kids go ape for that stuff. Our home and park based parties are enough. My kids have never asked for anything else.
Super Hero Party
I get that there are different families with different needs. Some people have more money than time and would rather not have a gaggle of rug rats run through their showpiece homes. Some people just hate cleaning up. For us, a single income family with a stay at home parent, we'd rather spend that $250 on a season of dance lessons, or art classes, or sports dues and equipment. Hell, you'd be better off putting that money in a 529 plan and giving it to them when they're eighteen. Elaborate birthday parties are a waste. I don't think most kids really care all that much, and I'm not willing to get caught up in keeping up with someone else's lifestyle. I'm lucky that my kids feel the same way. Besides, why hire entertainment to occupy them while I grab a beverage with the other parents, when they can entertain each other for free?