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July 11, 2007



The Family at Ronan's Dedication

So we had a wonderful, spiritual dedication of Ronan in the Unitarian Universalist faith last Friday. (If you’re not sure what UUism is, click on the link.) Some 40 family and friends gathered at Brooklyn’s historic Old Stone House, where the Maryland Brigade held off the British while Washington’s Army escaped to Manhattan during the Battle of Brooklyn Heights. (The neighborhood looked different then.)

The service was about twenty minutes long, which seemed much shorter to me. Considering all the thinking we did about what readings, music and prayers we were going to include, it was over eyeblinkingly fast. But it was one of the best services I’ve been to because our love filled the room, swept up the congregated guests and had everyone really happy about Ronan’s coming into the world and pledged to guide him throughout his life.

That night the House was a place of peace, except for the teenagers rehearsing MacBeth outside. ("Aw, Gee! We can’t go in the house!" Said one disgruntled teenager. She was re-gruntled when the leftover food was given up.) Planning a gathering is harder than it looks. We were quite happy that the worst thing that went wrong was that we forgot the orange juice at home.

Writing a spiritual service is not like making a video (my chosen vocation.) With a video you kinda have an idea of how it’s going to turn out before you’re finished. It might not be the same vision you had at the start, but you know midway through the planning whether you’ve got something or not. UU services are more ephemeral. You can read the words in the order of service over and over, but it takes on a life of its own once it reaches the audience. I once attended a service where the celebrant had obviously planned out a complicated and thoughtful experience. The problem was that the audience didn’t want anything to do with the service and immediately after the service began, they created their own. The celebrant left in tears.

Thankfully we’ve been very successful in creating spiritual places for our family’s events. The dedication is our second UU event; the first was our wedding. We’ve also survived a hectic preparation for a baby shower that was really fun. I’ve learned several things between the three events that are important, regardless of what religion you follow. Here are some of them in no particular order:

1.)       Include friends and family in the service. Our minister is a good friend who did both our wedding and Ronan’s dedication. Friends and former students played music. Others came and set up the space, stuffed the envelopes for the invitations, and hit play on the CD player. Some did a lot and some did a little. Having your loved ones involved in all aspects of the service created a spiritual and emotional tone that filled the room with love.

2.)       Go with the flow. Midway through the first hymn at our wedding, the pianist (my high school friend) stopped playing. He had three stanzas. The congregation had five. We all had a good laugh. At the dedication my brave foster brother played the hymn with only a quick prior glance at the score. As he winged it, the whole congregation began to hum the melody. Suddenly everyone was humming along to the slow progression. Ronan wasn’t sure what was going on and started to cry. Despite that it was a really nice moment to hear everyone singing together. I think it was my favorite moment from the dedication. At the baby shower the power went out. So what. Just focus on the gathering, and the power of friendship, family, and love.

3.)       You can have too much food. We gave away dozens of bagels at the baby shower and the leftover pizza and salad from the dedication went to the MacBeth players. At the wedding we didn’t have enough cars to get the leftover food to someone who could use it. I’ll always regret that. As part of your event planning figure out somewhere that can take your leftover food so it doesn’t go to waste.

4.)       Invite everyone you want. I truly believe that this is a non-issue if you plan ahead. Figure out your invitation list before you start sending out invites, and figure that half of the people you invite won’t be able to make it. You know your family and friends, so if you think you need a bigger space, you probably do. If you need to order pasta instead of steak, do it. If people are coming to your wedding or baby shower just for the food, you’re missing the real point of the service.

5.)       Let the parents in. Leave out parts of the service and give your friends and family a chance to speak instead. Yes, one high school friend spoke for a really long time about how much he loved his daughter at our wedding while sprawled across the stage, but it was his statement to me. My parents’ comments at the Dedication were really lovely. You’ll be pleasantly surprised about what people have to say about you. You may learn something you didn’t know about the people in your lives.

6.)       Words on paper mean nothing. The emotion behind them means everything. Every time we plan a service, the last run-through makes me think I’ve suddenly turned Episcopalian. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.) The service always feels more formal to me than I think it should. When we’re done I’m amazed and gratified that the people who participated brought themselves to the service and made the words we wrote for them their own. The love and compassion they feel for me and my family transcended the mere writings into something profoundly moving.

7.)       Find your center. The afternoon of the dedication I got some really bad news. I can’t really go into it but it made me really unhappy. I did talk to people about it at the dedication, but while the dedication was going on I was able to forget it and not think about it and just enjoy the service and my family and my baby. It’s hard but find your focus by communicating with your partner and doing what you have to do to leave that negativity outside the circle of celebration.

8.)       Make alternative plans. Before the baby shower, the power went out. If that happened again during the Dedication, we were prepared. The service was at night so we had dozens of candles. We had alternative plans for the music. Thankfully we had lights and sound so we didn’t need them. But they were there if we needed them. I was actually looking forward to a service by candlelight.

9.)       Allow strangers into your spiritual space. Besides the savage fighting in Scotland going on the stage outside, some guests brought people we’ve never met to the Dedication. At the end of the dinner the police showed up for a community visit with the park supervisor. Don’t sweat it – the strangers won’t bother you unless you let them. They may even enhance the ceremony with their presence.

10.)    Focus. Sure, you can have rented circus lions, the Blue Angels, or invite the President of the United States. You could send out press releases and spend a small country’s gross national product on a party. You could; I wouldn’t. The best parties I’ve been to are the ones where the people giving it have put something of themselves into it. Share your wallet and people will talk about that. Share yourself and people will remember for a long time.

July 14, 2007

Dads Unite

Since I moved to Brooklyn from Manhattan, I’ve felt a little isolated. Most of my (pre-marriage) friends live in “the city” (A term that I use, but I’ll get letters from all of my Brooklyn friends — especially my wife.) I have many, many Brooklyn friends, but with work, life, and a baby, somehow it’s an effort to pick up the phone or go out the door. People have been really great at coming out to see us, and we’re making new friends with kids the same age, but it’s still weird to go from the hectic, hundred-people-a-day world of the UN School to just Ronan and I. Of course, that’s weird in a good way; I love just having one thing to focus on, but the transition is strange. Thankfully I had nine months of just being alone to think about things, and dealt with a lot of issues over parenting, careers, life, work, happiness, sadness, and many other complex emotions before Ronan came.

Now I’m ready to see more people. I’ve called some friends, and Ronan and I have made some trips into Manhattan and some trips around Brooklyn. I joined a new Dads group, and Terry and I joined a new Moms group. Generally it’s been very positive. We haven’t been going to the Moms group as much since Terry went back to work, because I’m chickenshit. The three or four times we first met the group, there were Moms and Dads because of the meetings being on the weekend. The few times we went to the weekday meetings, there weren’t many Dads. The E-mail group started referring to the “Moms Meetings” and I lost the will to go. I’m sure if I went, everybody would be cool with it; I just have problems being the only Dad when the boobs come out and everybody breastfeeds. (Okay, they ALL don’t breastfeed at the same time. We can all debate this and I will lose, but it comes down to me being uncomfortable being the only guy in the park with a group of women who feel comfortable whipping it out. And I know not all of them feel comfortable feeding in public. And Terry has breastfed Ronan at the park.) So, yes, I’m being hypocritical. I know I’m wrong, there’s nothing wrong with breastfeeding, and more power to them, but if I’m the only guy, I worry that somebody’s going to point at me like they did in the movie Invasion Of The Body Snatchers. If I knew that another one or two Dads were coming, I’d be okay with going. But I don’t know. Yes, I know that’s an irrational fear, but we live in an irrational world. I’d be completely fine with some events being designated just for Moms, but I don’t know which ones are for Moms and which ones are for everyone. So I patiently wait for a weekend event with the Dads invited. (Hint to any April 2007 moms out there still reading!)

According to this New York Times Article, Park Slope women are quite comfortable with breastfeeding. I’ve eaten at Two Boots many times, and I can’t remember anyone breastfeeding a baby while simultaneously using 29 tables, but perhaps I go there after most children are asleep. Even the author, who is a woman, and was also breastfeeding, was a little amazed at the comfort level.

Park Slopers either think the article’s funny or they think it’s perpetuating horrible stereotypes about our neighborhood. (My favorite joke — “The People’s Republic of Park Slope.”) One of the great things about Park Slope is that it can be so many things to so many people. It’s a small town neighborhood to some, a great part of the center of the world to others; it’s a trendy, night oriented, young adult magnet, and also a kid-friendly, family-oriented suburb. It’s a center of liberal democratic power; it also can have some pretty traditional ideals about raising a family.

What amazes me is that even in liberal, cutting-edge kid raising Park Slope, the author of the NY Times article and the Moms’ Group (ahem, Moms and Dad’s Group) left out the Dads. Park Slope must have the highest concentration of engaged, active fathers in the United States. They are everywhere, and they are strapped to children of all ages. (Okay, not teenagers, but I know some parents who are rethinking that.) I don’t think you can talk about parenting in Park Slope without talking about the Dads. Sure, there are many fathers here who don’t care a whit about parenting, and there are involved Dads in Central Park, but the Brooklyn density is so much higher according to my scientific count of looking out for every baby-encumbered Dad I can find on 7th Avenue.

So it’s sort of surprising that it’s taken me this long to go to a Dad’s group meeting. One reason is inertia; if Ronan pukes on me, it’s likely that I won’t go because I’ve just cleaned the house and I’m done in. I missed one meeting because of taking the GREs. Part of the reason is that the Dads approached organizing this in a very male fashion (“Why should we meet when our wives haven’t gone back to work yet?” “Where do you want to meet?” I dunno, where do you want to meet?”) And part of this is that, all evidence to the contrary, I’m kinda shy. I have that whole love me/hate me thing where I’m my usual sarcastic self, and some people think it’s warm and funny and some people think I’m the Anti-Christ of rudeness, and the more nervous I am, the closer to Satan my tongue becomes. So it took three months or so to get Ronan and I to a meeting.

Ronan, who Ryan says is already practicing his “Blue Steel” look, seemed to feign indifference to the whole affair. But I had a really good time. I was struck by how gentle and caring everyone was with their babies, and they talked about many of the same issues that the Mom’s Group does without embarassment (bottle vs. breastfeeding, sleeping through the night, how to put on a Bjorn, etc.) They were really comfortable with being a Dad, and they really like it. Most had given up career time to be a Dad; some worked part-time. All obviously felt that being a Dad was a worthwhile thing to do. I don't think I annoyed anyone too much. They had met a few times before so I was asking lots of questions that they all already knew, like how old the babies were, who was still working, etc. but they were really nice and answered them all again. 

Between feeding Ronan and getting to know people, I didn’t even order anything from the Tea Lounge, so it was a cheap afternoon as well. (Sorry, Tea Lounge, catch ya next time.)

Because I was facing the sitting room, while most of the Dads were facing the bar, I could see people’s reactions as it dawned on them that there was a group of ten men all holding babies. Some people confirmed we weren’t waiting on line for snacks. But most got it, and smiled approvingly at the gaggle of Dads and their babies. Everyone was nice enough to ignore the sudden wave of crying that swept through the group (The babies, not the Dads.)

It made me think about my stepgrandfather. On my side of the family, Ronan has lots of cousins once or twice removed. When they were young, before my stepgrandfather died, he used to watch their Dads take care of the kids. He would complain bitterly about how my female cousins weren't doing enough for their families in a totally sexist way. There was a little tension between the cousins and my stepgrandfather. My cousins were too busy helping with the holiday meal to notice him while their husbands took care of and played with their children. I could see in his face that he recognized that he had lost something with his biological children, that he was realizing that he had lost something in himself. I don’t think stepgrandfather ever got on the floor and played with his young children. Some sixty years later, when it was too late, all he had to show for his traditional, Leave-it-to-Beaver approach was jealousy. I was profoundly struck by how sad the fathers and children playing together always made him. He tried not to show it, of course, and most family members didn’t notice. But I did. Sorrow is all I felt for him; he didn’t annoy me anymore. Seeing a man — who prided himself on never showing tears — once shed a single tear when the fathers and children of our family played together made me feel really sorry for him. I also wanted to emulate my cousins — and their husbands — as a parent. He saw me watching him, as he wiped the tear from his eye, and he looked at me for just a moment. “Please don’t say anything,” his eyes seemed to say. I didn’t.

I’m still hanging out with my Manhattan friends, but I’m glad to find some kindred spirits, who are experiencing the same things as I am. I think it’s really great that a buncha men can hang out in a tea lounge with their children and nobody thinks it’s strange.

July 26, 2007

Going Green

I was a hard-core environmentalist once.


In college I helped start my university’s recycling program by stuffing the basement of my dorm full of newspapers until the Fire Department barfed regulations all over the Director of Student Activities. At my old job I held on to a recycling station long after most of the others had migrated into full-time general trash cans and I found out the maintenance workers just threw out everything, despite being repeatedly warned not to do that. I gave up eating meat, because the meatpackers disgust me (did you know that as meat eaters, we’ve probably eaten human parts that got caught in the machine?) and because the runoff from the cattle effluence is a major source of pollution.

Now I have a beautiful, happy baby boy.

Watching the news I wonder how great it must be to be a child (specifically, my child. I know not all children have such blissful lives.) Ronan, who simply beams happiness whenever he’s not overtired or hungry, has no idea of how terrible things are for most of the world. As I watch PBS News (the least offensive TV News) I marvel at how completely fucked up things are, and how much worse they are going to get, and then wonder if I didn’t bring Ronan into the world just for him to watch it obliterate itself.

And then he smiles, and I wonder what the fuck I was just thinking. Ooohh, big smile!

I’m aghast at myself for this, but I’ve become a creature of convenience. I think we all have to do more, but damn it, I’m tired. I’ve eaten terribly and slept terribly for four months, and I just don’t want to think about global warming right now.

Yes, we just upgraded our air conditioner to a supposedly more energy efficient model, and we’re trying to figure out if it’s the Mayor’s Office or the Department of Film and Television or New York’s Strongest Sanitation or Con Edison or Harry Potter or whomever is supposed to drain the old one of nasty fluids so we can trash the old one, which was built out of an old engine from the Spruce Goose and just as loud.

But I don’t want to do any more than check to see if my used salad dressing bottle has a “1” or a “2” on the bottom and toss it into the recycling bin. I think the biggest problem the environmental movement has is that parents are just too overwhelmed to care. Yes, if we all just separated our garbage a little, millions of birds and fish would live happy lives until fat happy bears ate them. But damn it, it’s 5:15 AM as I write this, Ronan is staring at me with his gorgeous hazel eyes (he got them from his Mom, who has amazingly gorgeous eyes as well) and he doesn’t want to sleep.

I think I began to question my commitment to environmentalism when the empty box crisis hit us. It began with the IKEA store we set up in Ronan’s bedroom. Sure, the PAX wardrobe looks great now, but the seventeen boxes it came in had to be broken down. Boxes will not break themselves down and tie themselves up with string. (Note to packaging conglomerates: I am not advocating self-disposing boxes. Please do not think of more ways to waste oil.) The next wave was the baby shower. Then the UPS man dropped by daily. Yes, we found space for all the wonderful clothes, furniture and presents, but the boxes they came in piled up in the outside hallway.

I don’t know the published reason the garbage men have to have tied up boxes for recycling (just like I don’t understand why the recycling truck is so far behind the garbage truck) but I think the actual reason is that less people will recycle if they have to do something about it first. I am completely incapable of simultaneously holding piles of cardboard while wrapping string around them, so I’ve come up with an ingenious plan: I wait for Terry to tie everything up.

My wife was a cowboy in a former life. I’m thinking of buying her a branding iron just so she can complete the picture. (NOTE: I just read that sentence, and it is way more salacious than I intended. She is not getting a branding iron for Christmas. I’m not into that sort of thing.) With only two hands, she can wrestle the boxes together, wrap them in what seems to be a single stroke, and tie a knot quicker than the MTA crushes your joy like a hard boiled egg. (Expect to see that phrase a lot, because it confused people, and I’m going to use it as my non sequitur signature.) And dang it all, she ties it perfectly tight, without wasting string, every time.

When I attempt to recycle boxes, either I run out of string before I get all the way around, or I use too much string, or the knot doesn’t hold, or when I pick it up, the string is too loose and all the boxes fly everywhere. Terry has shown me her amazing super powers several times but I can’t figure out how to tie a simple square knot to the right length.

Keep in mind that when we recycle cardboard, WE RECYCLE CARDBOARD. The first pile was almost two feet high and four feet long. Try to measure the right amount of string for that.

While Terry has energy and mad skills to deal with cardboard recycling, I just think of the baby and I’m bushed. (Not that Terry isn’t tired; I’ve been getting more sleep on average the past four months.) Dishes? I have a baby. Cleaning the house? I just changed him. Grocery shopping? Well, I could throw on a baseball cap and not shower and head to the coop.

That’s the evil corporations’ diabolical plan: to get all the exhausted, overwhelmed parents together and frame the entire environmental debate in terms they can’t deal with: Saving the planet means you will have to do more work. This is evil in so many ways.

July 30, 2007

Attached at the Hip

Ronan Laughs

Ronan Laughing QuickTime Movie 1.9 MB

Ronan has entered that phase of infancy where he can’t stand to be awake and not near me. It doesn’t seem so bad on the weekend or evenings when Terry is home, but during the day it seems as if I cannot take a shower or cook myself a meal without him wailing in the background. I have mixed feelings about this; on the one hand, it’s a great feeling. On the other, I’m tired. Try carrying fifteen pounds of squirming infant and see how much energy you have.

This is the dreaded attachment phase of parenting, where from about four months to about seven months, the infant, who has identified the primary caregivers, completely freaks out if we are not present.

My first encounter with the attachment phase was about ten years ago, when I knew nothing about it. A friend asked me to babysit. Expecting a fun afternoon playing with a happy baby, the poor kid was asleep when he arrived, and woke up to find his mother gone and some hairy fat thing in her place. Of course, the afternoon was hours of tears, and I felt like the worst babysitter in history. The low point was when the just-crawling baby figured out, probably out of sheer terror, how to get out of its stroller. I was doing dishes when I heard a loud crash. The poor terrified kid had gotten his leg stuck in the seatbelt and had flipped over. Crying while upside down, he never recovered. I’m not sure I ever recovered either, but I thought “What a nice feeling for the mom, always being wanted.” Of course, that thought came to me as I gladly handed the kid back to his Mom.

Now I’m living the flip side. Ronan watches me wherever I go in the room, and moans kinda like the dying giraffe in South Park. It’s a great feeling as a parent to rush through a two minute ice cold shower because your only son is acting as if he’s in mortal peril. The first few days I went without lunch just to hold him, but then I just gave up and felt guilty while I ate. (I get hungry. It doesn’t mean I’m a bad parent.)

This stress is partially made up by the Satanic prowess the kid has in cuteness. He rarely cries in my arms, and it’s usually for a short duration while he fights going to sleep. If he’s not tired or hungry, which are easily solvable problems, he’s deliriously happy. As in, laughing-like-a-maniac happy. Apparently I’m not only funny to adults; I rock with the 4-month-old humor. A sample conversation:

Jason: Do you want a bottle?


Jason: Do you want some more?


Jason: Do you want your diaper changed?


Ronan’s favorite activity is getting his diaper changed. We have several theories about this. Either he’s just happy because he fills his diaper regularly and doesn’t like it when he’s dirty; or, his focus is such that the diaper-changing table puts him at the right height to see us clearly. Either way, he giggles and kicks his way through the whole process, which is slightly inconvenient because you can’t easily put a diaper on properly when your baby is squirming all over the table.

All in all, I’m glad he’s such a happy baby, and I vastly prefer clinging and laughing to parental rejection and tears. I’ll suffer through my guilty meals and get back to making my baby laugh.

I just hope that my friends still find me somewhat as witty as they once did…

About July 2007

This page contains all entries posted to Freaks & Geeks Parenting in July 2007. They are listed from oldest to newest.

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