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

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.
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.
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"

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?

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Guesting on the Uncle Nacho Podcast

Me, Uncle Nacho and Grandma Yo
There are potential big moves going on here at IDL headquarters and I haven't been free to write much here lately. I'll be excited to reveal all that's been happening as it closes in on being released, but for now I'm excited to share my recent appearance on the Uncle Nacho podcast.

Full disclosure, Jiro Ignacio Palmieri aka "Uncle Nacho" is my younger brother. He's been involved audio, media, and radio for a few years now. He had a radio show in the San Francisco bay area on KPOO radio. Now he hosts the Uncle Nacho podcast, which "examines the intersections between sports, politics, art, and culture." The interview is a great overview of how I came to lead An Interdisciplinary Life and what that's meant for me. It's sort of this whole site here compressed into an hour of story telling. So if you've enjoyed reading IDL think of this as IDL on the go, a chance to get your Berto time and also do dishes.

This is part one of our interview. In this episode I talk about going to elementary school as a vagabond in Europe for a year and comparing it to American public schools. We discuss racial identity, how flipping over a white water raft full of Deaf kids led me to a career as an interpreter, my dad teaching me how to make a zip gun, and the creation of "Your Mom is So Berkeley." We also touch on alternative educational paths, growing up with a single mother, and a Berkeley High School legacy I had totally forgotten about. Within all of that we do indeed intertwine sports, arts, and culture.

If you scroll down past the embedded podcast there's some expanded info on things we didn't have answers to during the podcast.

There was a question that came up about how my family ended up in Chicago. I asked the branch of the family that stayed in Chicago and got a great response relating to Japanese American history. From my cousins Midori, Vince, and Rea who are all amazing artists and writers. The block below is edited together from their responses to my question.

Because jobs and housing weren't available to Japanese Americans post WWII on the west coast a Japanese community developed in Chicago around that time probably to support each other. Vince and his wife were in Hattiesburg Mississippi and they heard there was more work in Chicago for JAs (editor’s note: Vince is my grandma Yoshiko’s brother). Also, the American government had already taken our family’s home and real estate. They came up and settled in Hyde Park/South Side along with many other friends from camp and Hattiesburg. Hattiesburg was the home of the 442nd all Japanese Battalion. I'm not sure what Vince's first job was in Chicago before he became photo editor at Playboy. He only moved back to California once his job made that available to him. Yoshiko must have joined them at some point.

The folks who ran the camps were mostly liberal, though their good intentions generally did as much harm as good. They had an idea that you could solve racism by sending JAs out of camps into areas away from the West Coast, a few at a time and that they'd be accepted and assimilated if they kept apart from other JAs. This was obviously a terrible idea because (1) segregation wasn't a choice and (2) you try living among people who hate you without allies. So, there were serious programs to resettle folks out of camp, but the ones who left had to create new communities. The largest migration was to Chicago, which was possibly the most important JA city for a couple of years after the war, before everyone who hadn't made a stake there pretty much decided to go back to the West Coast. I think Larry's (another of Yoshiko’s brothers) JACL ties also meant a lot--there were some serious divisions among JAs about how to respond to incarceration and I suspect going to Chicago probably said something about you/your family.
Thanks for reading and listening. If you have any other unresolved questions from the interview let me know in the comments. I'll post the second part of the interview when it becomes available.