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Archive for January, 2010

I’m at a party in Hollywood, snagging crabcakes and Perrier from the roving waiters with their little round trays.

Alani got a small part in a movie. They just finished editing it, and this is the private screening party for cast, crew, and parent-hanger-ons.

Most of the actors are kids, and the event is heavy with moms. Some of them have actually moved to L.A. with their aspiring actor-children, leaving the dad at home a thousand miles away, to pursue the Holy Grail of child stardom. There is feverish talk of auditions, acting coaches, and t.v commercials.

Party attendees monitor the exact position and movements of the Director, Famous Girl, New Boy Star from England, and the other important people.

I am relieved to find a fellow dad. He owns an insurance business in Michigan. We are the men in tan khakis and brown shoes, in a sea of Hollywood guys wearing expensive jeans, fancy eyeglasses, and hair that seems unusually luxuriant and well cared-for.

I’m pleased to have on my dad uniform on in this crowd. I wish I’d gone whole-hog, and worn a plaid shirt.

The other dad and I talk about his insurance business, my work, and the tool and die shops that used to line Eight Mile Road in Detroit.

I keep an eye on Alani, who roams the party with the pack of girl actors.

Some of the girls, aged 13-14, are already competing with too-short skirts and glittery makeup. Surgical enhancements have not yet made an appearance. Two of them attach themselves with ferocious friendliness to Famous Girl, who has the lead in the movie. They flank her on either side. When Famous Girl moves, they move, right-left-right, manuevering with the precision of jet fighters in formation. When the Director’s Daughter arrives for the screening, the two girls make a quick calculation and suddenly abandon Famous Girl, attaching themselves with the same ferocity to Director’s Daughter.

Alani, thank god, does not have the same predatory instincts.

Years ago I read an account by a grown woman about her dad: how, when she was a high school student with a brand new driver’s license, he’d drive behind her to school on winter days when the roads were slippery, to make sure she arrived safely. She didn’t know at the time that her dad was doing this – he hid himself several cars back. She found out years later. For me, this story illustrated the essence of a dad’s job, once a daughter reaches the teenage years: let them spread their wings, but keep them in sight, and keep them safe.

Alani’s passion is acting, and she works hard at it. I respect her determination. But this Hollywood route seems an icy, treacherous road for a girl to travel.

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Cure for the Snore

It’s one a.m.  I’m trying to sleep with a red plastic candy container duct-taped to my back. 

It’s my mom’s idea.  I’m a bad snorer, and when I mentioned last year that I sometimes woke Rachel with my snoring, my mom immediately suggested taping a tennis ball to the back of my pajama tops.  This would prevent me from sleeping on my back, which is the prime snoring position.

I ignored my mom when she made this suggestion.  It sounded like a medieval torture device.  I’m willing to bet that my dad never slept with a tennis ball taped to his back.

But last Thursday, after a two day trip to Philly, Rachel came home and told me how wonderful she’d slept away from me.  It was a business trip, but she stayed with her best friend Jennifer and her husband Andrew.  In their spare bedroom, by herself.

She realized, waking at dawn, refreshed after sleeping seven straight hours, that she never slept straight through at home. 

 “The kids, the cats, your snoring,” she explained.

This is not what I want to hear – that my wife sleeps best 400 miles from me, in bed by herself.  I went downstairs, got a roll of duct tape from the kitchen, and looked for a tennis ball. 

There was another reason I was willing to take drastic measures.  The weekend before, on a school field trip, I’d slept in a lobby with one of the teachers.  She snored.  I woke at least half a dozen time to a noise that sounded like an animal being strangled. I did not wake refreshed.

I couldn’t find a tennis ball, but I spotted, on the living room coffee table, a red plastic candy container.  It was vaguely egg-shaped and had a Santa Claus head protruding from one end.  The Santa Claus might be especially persuasive, I thought, jutting into the small of my back.

I duct-taped the red container to the back of my t-shirt, put it on, and went upstairs to model my anti-snore attire for Rachel.  She lay in bed.

“Take that ridiculous thing off,” she said.

Nope, I said.  No wife of mine was going to sleep best 400 miles from my arms.

“But you like sleeping on your back,” Rachel said.

It’s true.  My back is my go-to position.  I usually start on my back, head slightly elevated by pillows, arms at my side, as relaxed as if I’m suntanning in a lounge chair at the pool.  Still, I had three other perfectly fine sleep positions – left side, right side, and stomach.

I got into bed.  I turned onto the left side, facing away from Rachel.  She tried to spoon me, but couldn’t because of the protruding candy container.  We flipped around to the other side and eventually fell asleep.

It was  torture.  After making the rounds between the three remaining postures for several hours, my body screamed for the back position.  By one a.m., sleep was impossible. 

I get up and go across the hall to an empty bedroom.  I rip off the t-shirt, crawl into the bed, and fall asleep.

So there are our choices:  1) Rachel sleeps badly; 2) I sleep badly; 3) we sleep separately.

Any ideas? 

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Two weeks ago my daughter asked if I wanted to chaperone a sleepover event at the school.  It was a fundraiser.  She called it a “lock-in.”  I told her yeah, I’d chaperone.

We were driving to Louies for dinner before her theater practice.

“You wouldn’t be all, ‘strict dad’ would you?” she asked as we turned onto Mack.

I considered.  “No.  I’d just be ‘safety dad'” I said.  For example, I explained, I wouldn’t want kids wandering off into remote areas of the school without supervision.  Even eighth graders.

Alani mulled this over.  As we slid into a booth at Louie’s, she thanked me for my interest in chaperoning, but told me she’d decided to go in a different direction.

Huh?  

No, I told her, I’d chaperone the lock-in. 

Alani shook her head.  She told me she’d already talked to Teacher Kristen, who was coordinating the event, about whether I should chaperone.  Teacher Kristen, Alani reported now, had asked if Alani would be “comfortable” with me chaperoning.  Alani expressed some misgivings, and Teacher Kristen (according to Alani), assured my daughter that if she wasn’t “comfortable”, then I would not be invited to chaperone.

What?   Alani wasn’t asking me if I was going to chaperone.  She was interviewing me for the job, and I’d failed the interview.

I was steamed.  Since when do a teacher and an 13-year-old decide who should chaperone a school event?  Isn’t that something the teacher and the parents decide?

I told Alani that, guess what?  I was CHAPERONING.  I told her I’d have a TALK with Teacher Kristen.  I think I waved my fork in the air as I made these pronouncements.

Alani retreated into stony silence for the remainder of the meal.  So did I. 

I realized later that I’m playing a weak hand.  Yes, I can still wield the authority that goes with the title of “Dad” a little while longer.  But increasingly, my daughter will develop relationships with other adults – high school teachers, guidance counselors, the director of her theater group.  My influence will wane if it’s  based on a raw assertion of my authority as King Dad.

I understand Alani’s concerns about my presence in the midst of her social life. I can be intrusive.  When I picked her up at school, I used to do something I called the “Let’s Go Dance” if she was dawdling with her friends.  It was a dance medley so hideously embarassing to her that she would be out the door within seconds when I performed it in front of her classmates.

This past weekend I accompanied her class on a different event – a field trip to a Quaker meetinghouse in Ann Arbor. I was on my best behavior.   

“You won’t even know I’m there,” I assured Alani. 

I did good. I was quiet and inobtrusive.  Except for that one part, where I thought it would be funny to hoist Alani over my shoulder like a sack of potatoes, in full view of her friends, and carry her, kicking wildly, out of the room.  That maybe was a mistake.

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When my stepson Jack was four, and I first spent time with him, I was a big hit. 

 “I want you to be my dad, like”  he told me. 

I told him that he already had a dad who loved him very much, but I was his step-dad.  Still, I basked in the glow of that “I want you to be my dad.”

When he was five, the shuttling between two houses began to bother him.  Jack asked his mom and I why we couldn’t all live together in one big house: me, Rachel, Rachel’s ex-husband, Rachel’s ex-husband’s girlfriend, and the kids – Jack, Michael, and Alani. It seemed like a fine solution to him.

He’s six now.  Last week he told his mom, out of my earshot, that he wished she and his dad weren’t divorced. 

That’s the thing about kids who are little when their parents split.  The parents get divorced once, and move on (ideally).  The kid, though, has to get divorced again and again, grappling with the separation at each developmental stage. 

When he was little, Jack was more attached to his mom than his dad, and it made sense for him to cast his lot with his mom and I.  But as he becomes a boy, his relationship with his dad is deepening.  Last week, after Rachel picked him up from his dad, Jack spent the first half hour at our home singing an improv song that went something like this: 

 “I miss my DAD, I miss my dad so MUCH. I miss my DAD, I miss my dad so MUCH!” 

The lyrics were repetitious and the melody uninspired, but it was heartfelt. In a sense, Jack is now experiencing the effect of the divorce for the first time.

But modern divorced parents have a therapeutic tool they didn’t have in the olden days of divorce: the cell phone.  Our policy is immediate cell phone access to any parent upon request.  The absent parent can tell bedtime stories and get immediate notification of the loss of front tooth.  It’s not The Parent Trap, but it’s something.

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Jack, my six year old stepson, is just starting to grapple with the notion that his mom is adopted.  Like this:

Jack:  “Are you adopted?”

Rachel:  “Yes. Do you know what that means?”

Jack:  “They got you from an orphanage?”

And this question about Rachel’s “real” mother and father:

Jack:  “Why did they sell you?”

Rachel told him that they didn’t “sell” her, but they gave her away because they weren’t able to take care of her.  Actually, Rachel said to me later, she has no idea if that’s true.  She’s never tried to find her biological mother or father.  “It’s a nice story” she says, about the “they couldn’t take care of me” theory, but it might not be true. 

 “I would live in a closet if I had to,” she said.  “But I would never give up my children.”

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“What if I fart while I’m getting the massage?” I ask Rachel.

We’re at a bed and breakfast in the Michigan countryside.  I signed us up for the couple’s side-by-side massage Saturday morning.  We slept in, ate a late breakfast at 9:30, snowshoed through the woods, lolled in bed some more, and are now dressing to walk downstairs for our massage.

I’m feeling a little gas coming on.  If I’m on the table, and something bubbles up, my choices are to let loose, or hold it in.  The first option seems rude, but tightening up for an hour doesn’t seem very relaxing.

“Yeah,” Rachel says as she pulls her jeans on, “it’s a problem.”

It’s hard to complain, though, when my only concern on a Saturday morning is whether I’ll pass gas during a one-hour massage.  Rachel and I are rewarding ourselves for a long and successful marriage with this weekend trip of good food, sleep,whirpool tub, and spa services. 

It’s our second anniversary. 

The uninitiated may scoff at calling a two-year marriage “long and successful,” but I guarantee that anyone who already had kids, and married someone with kids, knows that a two year tour of duty in this business – with no casualties – is a dramatic achievement.  That’s why the failure rate for blended family marriages is 70%.  It’s not for the faint-of-heart.

Stepmarriage years are like dog years.  You know: one dog year equals seven human years?  Same with a step marriage.  We’ve got the battle scars of a 14-year-old traditional marriage. 

So – we’re entitled to our weekend, whirpool tub, and swedish massages.

And if I need to fart, I will.

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Lung X-Ray

“Get a lung x-ray!,”  Rachel yells out the door as I leave the house.

I’m headed to the doctor’s office, after six weeks of coughing, bronchitis, and mild fevers.   It is only when I’m in the car and on the freeway that I remember that twenty-one years ago my dad, after being sick with colds and bronchitis for months, got an x-ray that showed he had a tumor in the left lobe of his lung. 

I smoked in college. Marlboro Reds.

Sure enough, Dr. Moss signs me up for an x-ray.  The x-ray room is right across the hall from the examination room.  I take off my shirt, check my undershit for yellow pit-stains, and walk across.

The x-ray technician is a grumpy middle-aged lady.  She presses my shoulders toward the plate.  “Hug it,” she says.  Then she turns me sideways.

“How long does it take to get results?” I ask her.

“A week,” she says.

She sends me back to the examination room.  I sit facing the open door.   Medical assitants in blue smocks with little yellow crocodiles walk back and forth.

Dr. Moss appears in the hallway, with his back to me.  He snaps two x-rays onto the lit-up x-ray reading thing.  It’s hanging on the wall right outside my room.  Could these be my x-rays?  No.  The technician said it would take a week.  Dr. Moss peers at one x-ray, the frontal, then at the other, a side view.  I look, too, at the fuzzy bone images inside the white outline of the back and abdomen.  It looks like me, I think. 

It is me.  I’m sure of it.  Suddenly I’m scrutinizing every movement of the doctor as he looks at the x-rays.

Dr. Moss pulls them out, flicks off the light, and walks into my room.

“Is that me?” I ask.

He nods, and eyes my file.  Is he avoiding my gaze as he prepares his “I’ve got some bad news” speech?

“How’s it look?” I ask.

“Good,” he says casually, still reading through my file.  Good?  What does that mean?  Good for someone with lung cancer?  That the tumor is small, and we probably caught it in time?

“So . . . it’s clear?”

He nods absently, completely unaware that his patient is letting out a big sigh of relief.

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