Archive for December, 2009

When we pull in the driveway, I see our empty garbage cans  strewn by the curb, where the garbage men tossed them.   I ask Alani to bring them up the driveway.

“Are you going to pay me?” Alani asks, getting out of the car.

“Yeah,” I say.  “You get to live here.”


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Here’s a statistic for you. I’m at Caribou Coffee, at 8:01 am Christmas Eve morning, and I notice that there are 11 men sitting at Caribou, and one woman. All the men but three sit by themsleves, reading a newspaper, staring at a laptop screen, or scribbling on mysterious paperwork.

I’ve noticed this phenonema before. It’s true of any coffee shop in America in the early hours. Men, usually solitary, outnumber women by about a ten to one ratio.

My theory is that when women are lonely, they call a friend. When men are lonely, they go to Starbucks.  Or Caribou. A smile from a pleasant barrista costs only $1.79. If you get the trivia question right, $1.69.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe these are not lonelyhearts.

Just a minute – I’m going to investigate. . .

. . . I’m back. I wandered around Caribou, pretending to read the bulletin board, get a napkin, and glance at the Free Press while scouting out each isolated coffee drinker. It’s just as I thought: Not a a single wedding ring on any of them. The men vary in age from their thirties to fifties. One wears a red t-shirt that says, in large white, block letters, “BAH. HUMBUG.”

Eleven solitary men, sipping coffee alone on Christmas Eve morning.

One, leaving, calls out to a man in a green hoodie as he passes by his table, “Merry Christmas.”

The guy in the green hoodie looks up from his paper. “Yeah. Back atcha,” he says.

Wait. There are twelve men, not eleven. I forgot to count myself. But I’ve got a wedding ring on, and I’m getting the hell out of here.

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I berated my six-year-old stepson during a back yard football game on Saturday. 

It was Jack and I against his mom and older brother, Michael.  They’d just kicked off to us.  It was time for our first play from scrimmage,  I noticed that Michael and his mom were talking, with their backs turned. 

It was an opportunity for a trick play: the quick snap.  We’d score before they knew what hit them. 

But we’d  have to move fast.  I bent over and murmured in Jack’s ear:  “I’m going to  hike the ball to you, right now.  You run.”

“No.” Jack said.


“I want to tell you a play,” Jack said.

This was not the time for Jack’s famed stubborness.  I glanced over at Rachel and Michael.  They’re still distracted.

“You can tell me next time,” I said. 

Jack’s face clouds.  “No!” he said.  “I have a good IDEA!”

His mom and brother glanced in our direction.  It’s now or never.

“We can score a touchdown!” I told Jack through gritted teeth.  “I’ll hike…”

“No!” Jack said. 

“Jack…”  I try again, but it’s too late.  Rachel and Michael have wandered back to the line of scrimmage.

“Great!” I said to Jack, exasperated.  “You blew our chance!”

Rachel took me aside.  She tried out some of that “it’s just a game” stuff on me, and, when that didn’t make a dent, she tried some “he’s only six“.  I think she even suggested that her boys just wanted to have fun, and didn’t care so much about winning.

I’m not having any of that crap.  Rachel’s a wonderful mother, but what I’m thinking at that moment is that she’s not doing her boys any favor by babying them on the football field.

Some Buddhist teachers can trace their lineage, teacher by teacher, back to the Buddha.  I can do the same with my hyper-competitiveness in back yard football.  In 1928, Knute Rockne yelled at one of his players, a lineman named Frank Leahy.  Leahy later became head coach at Notre Dame and, in 1948, berated a one of his players, a skinny farmboy from Denison, Iowa –  my dad.  

My Dad didn’t berate me or my four brothers when we played backyard football, but he did carry forward the no-excuses approach he learned on the practice field in South Bend, Indiana.  When I failed to catch a football after diving for it and having it skid across my outstretched fingertips, there was no pat on the head, no “Nice try!”. 

Instead, my Dad said:  “If you can touch it, you can catch it.” 

When he heard someone taking solace in a tie game:  “I tie,” he said, “is like kissing your sister.” 

I called Rachel later last Saturday, after my game-time adrenaline subsided

“Sorry,” I said. 

Maybe the hard-nosed Rockne/Leahy approach isn’t right for a first-grade boy.  Maybe.

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Nothing draws the battlelines in a stepfamily quicker than rival Christmas traditions. 

Alani and I had an angel we put on top of our Christmas trees during my single father days. Shimmering lace wings.  Blonde hair.  Satin gown.

Rachel and her boys had a five-pointed star that lit up.

Our first Christmas together, in 2007, was a month after Rachel, Michael, and Jack had moved in.  It was a tense and stressful time, but the Christmas tree decorating was amicable until the moment arrived to affix the tree topper.  We immediately separated into enemy camps.

Rachel and I pretended to be above the fray, but the idea of demoting our angel was painful to me, and I think Rachel felt the same about their star.  My recollection is that I solved the problem by sawing off the central lead, and fastening the star and the angel at equal heights on the butchered tree.

Now, two Christmases later, it seems obvious to me that the star should shine above  the angel.  She’s descending from heaven, right? So the star should be above her shoulder, on top of the tree.  I climb on a chair and fasten them that way.  Not a peep from the kids.  This year, they seem oblivious to the great ornament controversy.

Sometimes, after a few years, this stepfamily business gets a little easier. 

In fact, for the first time, this year, we risk taking all the kids out to select a Christmas tree.  I’d avoided this in the past, fearing the kids would disagree over rival tree candidates. 

And that’s exactly what they do.

Alani picks a Scotch Pine, Michael an elegant Frasier Fir.  (In my family, we drove Fords and decorated Scotch Pines on Christmas.  Rachel prefers  Buicks and Frasier Firs.)

As Rachel and I walk through the tree lot, I casually mention that I’d always had Scotch Pines growing up.  Rachel just as casually mentions that the problem with Scotch Pines is that they’re messy.  They drop a lot of needles, she says.  Michael expresses his concern that the long-needled Scotch Pine might prick someone and draw blood, and that the Fir was a safer choice.

Alani attempts a lobbying campaign, touching the tip of a Scotch Pine needle to show Michael that her finger is unscathed.  Michael, not interested in debate, puts his hands in his pockets and walks away.

After a brief stand-off, Alani rescues the night by agreeing to the Frasier Fir.  We announce our choice to the tree-lot guy.  Michael beams. 

Alani comes up to my side and quietly asks if I want to see the tree she liked.  I do, and walk with her through the dark rows of trees while the tree-lot guy drags the Fir to the baling machine. 

“There,” she said, pointing.  It’s a fat, round, long-needled pine.

“That’s a beautiful tree,” I say.  I put my arm around her shoulders and give her a squeeze.

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Here’s what I noticed about my stepsons after Rachel and I got married:  They fight a lot. 

It was almost impossible, for example, to let both boys in bed with us without one poking, kicking, or pinching the other, followed by retaliation, followed by full scale battle.  Rachel and I enacted a no-fault fighting-in-bed policy: if there was any tussling in our bed, both boys were immediately ejected.  No questions asked, no determination of guilt, no appeal.

The rule had no effect.  Even faced with swift, sure ejection, the boys could barely last five minutes in bed with us.

I finally figured out what the problem was:  me.

Before I married Rachel, when she lived at her old home, in her old bed, Jack and Michael each got one side of her.  After the wedding, a grown man suddenly appeared in their mom’s bed. When the boys came in, sleepy-eyed on a Sunday morning, to climb in bed with their mom, I already occupied her left flank.  That left the boys to fight for the scrap of mom-territory I’d left them – her right side.

The boys have the same gene that all mammals have – puppies, piglets, kittens – the gene that makes them fight for any available space near the source of love and lactation.

So now I vacate the bed occasionally, to give the boys the same equal access they enjoyed in the pre-stepdad days. 

But it’s not easy giving up my spot.  I have the same gene they do.

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I’ve got a question:  Is school orchestra band not cool? 

We went to my stepson’s middle school concert last night, in the gymnasium.  Michael plays the trombone.   The sixth, seventh and eight grade orchestras sat side-by-side, in three semicircles of folding chairs. 

Here’s what I notice:  There are 45 kids in the sixth grade band, 35 or so in the seventh grade band, and only about 25 in the eighth grade band. 

Why do kids quit band as they near high school?

What a squandered opportunity: one of my great regrets in life is that I never played in a high school marching band.  Drums, maybe, or trumpet.  I went to Catholic schools, which means I learned the difference between venial and mortal sins, but not how to read a treble clef.  Our only musical instrument was the round black harmonica Sister Rosita pulled out of her black burkha.  

I sat in the gym last night envying the kid playing the snare drum behind the tubas.

Maybe kids are quitting the geeky school orchestras to form garage-rock bands.  There was a hint of this last night.  Most of the cameo performances were along the lines of the four girl flautists playing Frosty the Snow Man, or the eighth grade piano player pounding out Hey Officer Krupke.  

They got polite applause.

Then an eleven year old boy, electric guitar strapped over his shoulder, stepped forward.  He started thumping out chords  in a steady rock beat.  He leaned forward toward the standing mike. . . was he going to sing?  Yes!  And not bad.  A song by the band Fish. 

He gets a raucus ovation, hoots of appreciation, and high-fives all the way back to his seat.

I lean over to Rachel.  “That,” I say, “Is how you get girls”

Still,  does that sort of glittery rock stardom compare with marching onto an October football field in polished white spats and epaulletes, snapping your trumpet up at the flick of the conductor’s baton, and letting loose with On the Banks of the Red Cedar?

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I’m talking to Alani in the middle of a jostling crowd in downtown Detroit.  It’s an annual event, Noel Night.  I’m leaving.  Deborah, a grown woman who has been an extra parent to Alani since pre-k, will be with Alani and her friend Anna. 

But the girls are intoxicated by the night and the scent of fellow adolescents in the crowd.  They are both thirteen, quick, and wily.  Deborah’s no match for them if they decide to accidentally-on-purpose ditch her.

I want to make sure Alani understands she has to stay with Deborah. 

“You have to stay…” I begin, talking loud so she can hear me over the dull roar of  crowd.

Alani interrupts.  “I know, I know,” she says.  “Mom told me.”  She waves her hand at me dismissively.  “Ciao,” she says.

Yeah.  A “Ciao” from my thirteen-year-old daughter.

“No,” I say to her.  “Listen.  It’s not Deborah’s job to keep you in sight.  It’s your job to keep her in sight.”

From the pained expression on her face, you’d think that I’d told her to keep her ear muffs snug. 

“I know,” she says.

I watch her go, swept up in a rush of people ascending the stairs at the Detroit Institute of Arts. She turns to look at me once before the crowd swallows her up.

These are the dangerous years. 

I remember my sister warning me, when Alani first learned to walk at thirteen months, to be watchful.  They can fall down stairs, she said, open kitchen cabinets, walk out the front door.  A year old baby is mobile, but has no understanding of danger.

Now I realize that the same can be said of a thirteen-year-old.  It’s not bottles of Drano beneath the sink I worry about now.  It’s that even in this wonderful, milling, festive Christmas crowd, there is someone who might hurt my daughter if they had the opportunity.

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