Tags: daddyhood

My kid is a better writer than I am

My daughter Mia, who is nine now, has aspirations to be a writer. She's always at work on something. She's been toiling away at my laptop this morning, and a little while ago she brought it in to show me this. I asked her if I could put it on the blog, and she gave her permission, so here it is.


Agile Waters

I was at the Great Barrier Reef diving into the shallow waters with great impact trying to be silent so I could hear the whispers of the angel fish. I walked along the ocean floor sending clouds of strawberry blonde sand rising up to obey the ripples. I was running out of breath so I let go of gravity and sent my body silently floating to the surface. There were a few playing kids and the rest of my family arguing with my tax company ... boring stuff.
 
Did I mention she's nine? There's no way I was writing with this sort of imagery, this awareness of the language's potential for beauty, at nine years of age. I know adults writing today who don't. When I was her age I think  was writing Morris and Boris fan fiction, for god's sake. Sometimes she flat out amazes me.

Hey, what's this? I have a blog!


Okay, so I've let the blog go dormant for a while. Obviously I'm not one of these people who believes one should post something every damn day, regardless of whether or not there's anything to say. However, there is a happy medium between daily filler and a tumbleweed-strewn wasteland, and I will endeavor to find that place again.

So here's a highlight reel of what's been going on recently, told in an annoyingly disjointed Larry King style.

Mia is visiting her mom in Alabama for the summer. This time we're breaking up the visit into two segments, instead of one long stretch, in the interest of making the transitions a little easier for her. Summers tend to be a stressful time for the little one. So the first leg of the trip is due to end next week, and she'll be home for a couple weeks before going down there again. She turns nine right around that time, so we're going to celebrate by going whitewater rafting. Also, with kittens.

I went to the Sycamore Hill Writer's Workshop last week, and had a great time. The other attendees were Dale Bailey, Karen Joy Fowler, L. Timmel Duchamp, Molly Gloss, James Patrick Kelly, John Kessel, Alice Sola Kim, Meghan McCarron, Richard Butner, David Schwartz, Paolo Bacigalupi, Christopher Rowe, and Veronica Schanoes. I went with a story that wasn't quite ready for prime time, called "Alpha Dog"; it got a very enthusiastic reception, and I got some killer advice. It's now called "Wolves," and is about 600 words leaner. It's out in the world again, looking for a home. Alice Kim blew everybody away with a story called "Yellow Trash," which I hope you will all have a chance to read very shortly. Since both Timmi and Paolo flew in and out of Asheville, I got to spend some time with each of them, before and after the workshop, sitting over coffee. They're both pretty magnificent people. I think I left Sycamore Hill with some new friends, which I liked even more than the constant immersion in the craft. All in all it was a great experience.

I just found out a story of mine is getting reprinted in a forthcoming anthology, but since I'm not sure I'm allowed to talk about it yet, I'll just leave it at that and announce the specifics later. Suffice it to say it was welcome news, and it's a story I'm still proud of.

My friend Alexandra Duncan, who -- along with her husband Jeremy -- comes over to my apartment on Sundays to play boardgames with my daughter and me, just made her first professional fiction sale. Her story "Bad Matter" will be appearing soon in F&SF, and you should really seek it out. (I'll let you know when the issue hits the stands.) I'm not just saying that because she's my friend. I think this story will garner her some well-deserved attention. Congratulations, Alexa. You deserve it.

Finally, I will not be able to attend Readercon this year, as I am just too damn broke. Laird, I expect you to do all my drinking for me. I like good Scotch and dark beer. Man up, big fella.

Still some room for Daddy

Earlier this evening, as I pulled into the parking lot of a shopping center, Mia informed me that the class pictures had been sent home, and  that hers was "the worst one."

To my discredit, my first reaction was irritation. We had just finished a conversation in which she described being bullied by her cousin. Every time I pressed her for details, though, the story changed dramatically. It ended with my saying, curtly, "Well I don't know what happened today, Mia. You don't seem to be able to tell me the truth about it." She got quiet. I know she has troubles with her cousin, and it frustrates me that I can't help her with them -- and it frustrates me even more when I can't figure out exactly what they are.

So that was the mood when she offered up her opinion of her own picture in the group class photo. I sighed. "Oh come on, Mia." We've been working with maintaining a positive self-image, especially through choosing the words we use to describe ourselves more carefully. (I need this as much as she does.) She's been making great strides, and my first thought was that this was a regression into bad habits. I just didn't have any patience for it today.

So she retrieved the picture from her Hello Kitty backpack and held it to herself until I brought the car to a halt. Then she wordlessly passed it over.

My poor little girl.

It was bad. Not the kind of picture a parent thinks is bad, but the kind that will devastate a self-conscious kid. While most of the kids wore the standard motley of sheepish grins, baleful stares, and bizarre leers, my poor Mia looked like she had just been goosed by The Joker. Her eyes were round as small moons and her grin was a wide, fearsome display of clenched teeth. I've seen this face before, many times: it's her goofy face, her I'm-a-little-too-happy-for-it-to-last-much-longer face. And the photegrapher had immortalized it on camera. In a group shot. Which every kid in the class was going to take home.

God help me: I chuckled. Then, horrified at my own reaction and trying to cover it up, I asked, lamely, "Were you trying to be goofy?"

"No," she said, and then she broke down into tears. "I didn't know my eyes were that wide. I thought the he was supposed to pick the best one. He took lots of pictures. He was supposed to pick the best one."

"Oh, honey."

I didn't tell her it looked fine. She knew it didn't. It was embarrassing, and she's going to get teased about it. It can't be stopped.

She kind of leaned over in my direction. I unfastened her seat belt for her and she climbed into my lap. I hugged her and she put her head into my shoulder, just sobbing, this gentle, effortless cascade of grief and shame pouring from her like water from a jug. I stroked her hair and said "Oh, kiddo," a couple of times; and then, incredibly, despite my stupid reaction and our argument of only minutes before, and despite the world-altering catastrophe of this photograph, her crying eased to a stop. She just sat there with me for a few moments more, sniffling a little. But the tears had gone away.

I made up a story of an even worse face I made during one of my own class pictures; it wasn't true, but she didn't know that, and it got her to laugh at me and mimic my ridiculous face.

It's good to know, even as she's growing older and the rules between us are constantly being reset, that there are still hurts I can take away with just a good long hug. That there are some things I can still make better just by being Daddy.

Bittersweet

Well, Mia is getting older, as children will. In a few months she'll be nine years old. Which means we'll be four years removed from New Orleans, and four years here in Asheville, a city I thought I'd never come back to.

I've been drunk on memories for a long time now. In many ways my years in New Orleans made me into who I am now -- like Neil Young said, "all my changes were there." I think that who I am doesn't fit very well in this city. There's a feeling of walking through life here like a deepsea diver, bound up in my bulky suit, watching a strange, alien pageant play out all around me, and pulling oxygen from a place that doesn't even exist anymore. 

I know this is because on some level I still don't believe that this is what life is now. I still half believe that my old life is still waiting for me, ready to be worn comfortably again, like a favorite hat. And of course it isn't.

But while I'm suspended here, Mia isn't waiting for me. She's listening to Britney Spears, she's watching tv shows where pre-teen girls are wearing shirts that say "Parole Baby." And tonight -- for the first time -- she dismissed me from our nightly bedtime reading, telling me that she prefers to read to herself now. So I left her there and pulled the door nearly shut, a sliver of light carving into the dark hallway. I told her that she had to turn the lights out after she finished the chapter. She did. And the world moved on, just a little bit.

I'm trying to wake up from this. I'm trying to accept that I live here now. My daughter is fully engaged with this place and with her family here. She's thriving. Someday, inevitably, she will leave me behind. That's the way it's supposed to be. But not yet, please. Not just yet.

Running


A few weeks ago, I lost my mind. It happened so quickly that it took me some time to register the fact that anything had happened. And by then, of course, it was too late.

At the beginning of the school year, Mia signed up for Girls on the Run, a program for third through fifth grade girls. They spend a few months running in preparation for a marathon in December, and it's meant to foster health and positive self-image in the girls. This seemed like a wonderful idea, and it was an easy sell to Mia. They meet after school on Wednesdays, which quickly became Mia's favorite day of the week.

A few weeks ago the permission slip came home for the marathon, which is a 5K called Winter Wondergirl. The course winds around the UNCA campus, and is described on the sheet as "hilly and challenging." I chuckled warmly to myself. Somebody was going to go to bed early that night! I read through the form and came upon a discovery: Mia needed a running buddy. The girls couldn't run without them.

"I'll be your running buddy, kiddo," I said. That's when it happened. Right there.

Now, Mia is young and has lots of energy. She runs even when she doesn't have to. I'm serious. When she goes outside to play? She runs. There's not even anything chasing her. She just runs like a demented person. I think the last time I ran was in 1978. But I've started again, because it turns out 5K -- which sounds nice and innocuous, especially when paired with a cheery, glitter-dusted name like "Winter Wondergirl" -- is actually 3.1 miles in American, which might as well be the Bataan Death March to someone who is Round, like me.

Fletcher Park is just a short distance from where we live, and that's where I go to run now. There's a big, looping trail which is, I think, about a mile and a half in circumference. I'm trying to get to where I can make two circuits. I'm not there yet. But I can make one circuit, if you count running for two minute stretches interspersed with fast walking. But each time is a little better. A friend of mine from work is going to join us on the run; the problem here is that she's a real runner. She can probably sleepwalk through this thing. I predict she'll be a bit dismayed at our ridiculous rate of progress.

But the thing is -- and here's the really crazy part -- I'm not worrying too much about how we'll do this year. I'm looking ahead to next year. Because I've discovered that I really like it. It turns out that the runner's high is a real phenomenon. When I'm finished, I feel tired, but it's a fleeting kind of tired; more than that, I feel energized. I feel physical, if that makes sense. It's a strange new sensation for someone as sedentary as I usually am, and I want more of it. Last night, getting ready for bed, I found myself actually looking forward to running this morning. A month ago I would have thought such a thing was impossible.

So after I stink up the route in mid-December, Mia and I are going to keep running. Next year we're going to do better. (Well, Mia's going to do just fine anyway. Next year I'm going to do better.) And maybe I'll be a little less round, too.

I had a drought.

So I'm sitting here after writing the last post, listening to Glen Hansard and feeling peacefully tired, and I hear a door open down the hallway. A moment later Mia walks into the living room, eyes squinted against the light. She has an empty cup in her hand.

"Hey, sweetheart, what's up?"

She holds out the cup. "I had a drought," she says. "I was sipping and sipping and it was empty."

I take the cup and put an ice cube in it, and fill it halfway with water. "Good night, kiddo." I kiss the top of her head. 

She takes a sip and walks back to her room. "Good night, Daddy."

My sweet child. 

These are not the fairies you're looking for.

Halloween approaches. Arguably the year's best holiday. So naturally, a couple weeks ago, I asked Mia what she wanted to be this year.

"A fairie," she said. 

I was a bit dismayed, considering last year's choice. However, if she wanted to go vanilla this year, who was I to argue? It's her holiday, after all. I'm just the chauffeur. Cut to yesterday, when it occured to me it might be a good idea to start preparing. "So what kind of fairie costume are you thinking of, kiddo?"

She thought for a moment. "Do you know how to make compound eyes?"

"What? Compound eyes!?"

"Yeah, like a fly's."

"I thought you wanted to be a fairie!"

"I do. I imagine fairies with compound eyes. Like bugs. And a crown of leaves."

What have I wrought?

 ***

Unrelated, but funny: Earlier tonight we were having dinner at the Blue Sky Cafe. As we were sitting there, "She Talks to Angels," by the Black Crowes, came on. "Do you like this song, Daddy?"

"It's okay, I guess." I paused. Songs had been playing all night, and this was the one she decided to ask about? "Do you uh... do you know this song, Mia?"

"No. I just know you like mellow beats."

Games!

Now that Mia's getting older, we get to set aside some of the staid old stand-bys like Monopoly (although that one still gets played because she loves it -- check that, she loves Catopoly) and Sorry!, and get into some of the cooler, albeit much geekier, games that I've been waiting for. She loves playing these too, not just because they're so much fun, but because she thinks of them as grown-up games, and playing them is a real treat for her. 



Lately her favorite has been Talisman. This game is kind of like Dungeons & Dragons on a board. You pick a character (evil or good, ranging from priests to ghouls), and you must make your way through three different Regions, accumulating power and magical items (and curses and poltergeists, sometimes), until you reach the middle of the board and lay hold of the Crown of Command. Then you basically hurl spells at everyone else on the board until you either destroy them all or someone else makes it up there with you and tries to take you out. Like many epic fantasy stories, it starts slowly, and you might at first wonder what all the fuss is about; but by the latter half of the game it's all a mad scramble, with sudden reversals of fortune and a sense of time running out. It's great fun, especially with more players. Last weekend Mia and I played it with Jeremy and Alexa, friends of ours, and it came down to a dramatic showdown on the center square between Mia's good elf and Jeremy's evil wizard. Jeremy won, but after an hour-plus of racing and maneuvering, it all came down to a single die roll. Mia almost got upset, but Jeremy and Alexa were very sweet and supportive, and rescued her dignity with a few kind words and solicitations for help. They were great, and so was the game. I played a minstrel and was turned into a toad.



Gloom is a card game we've been playing a lot lately. You're going to read this and think I'm a terrible dad, but trust me: it's awesome. In Gloom, you start with four cards, each representing a member of a family: there's the crazy circus family (Mister Giggles is pictured above), a mad scientist family, a demon-haunted family, and a family of murderers. The goal is to visit as much misfortune and calamity upon yourselves as possible, thereby accumulating negative points, until the members of the family finally expire. Meanwhile you try to bestow weddings and fame upon members of your opponents' families, making them happy and giving them positive points. Once an entire family is wiped out, everybody counts their points and the lowest number wins. The cards are made of clear plastic: the family member is your base, and you layer fortunes atop them, so numbers are added to or obscured altogether. It's quite an inspired game mechanic, and works wonderfully. Perhaps the best aspect of the game is that it encourages storytelling. For example, Lord Slogar, the Brain in a Box, had the "Was Swindled by Salesmen" card played on him last round, giving him -10 points; this round, he's slapped with "Was Mauled by a Manatee." How did one event lead to the next? The player laying the card down has to explain it. It all leads to bizarre, wonderful stories, and a lot of fun. Think Edward Gorey and Charles Addams on a deck of cards, and you've got a good idea of this game's flavor.

 

This is the next one she really wants to play. Arkham Horror. It's been sitting on my shelf for over a year, waiting for the chance to get played. It's a cooperative game, which is a plus, but it's also pretty complicated. Essentially, all players are regular people in 1920's Arkham, trying to prevent a Lovecraftian monster from breaking through a series of gates opening all over the city, and devouring the planet. It's a game in which players are racing against time to close down the gates as they open. As more time passes, and more gates open, a marker moves along the Doom Track, which brings the Big Bad closer to freedom, and also causes situations in town to change. For example, if the counter moves too far along the Doom Track, shops begin to close down, limiting your access to supplies; more monsters begin to roam the streets, making getting around more difficult. There's a stack of Big Bads to choose from (you get one per game); each affects gameplay in a different way, which makes the flavor a little different each time you play. I played this game a couple times with my brother when I first got it, and really dug it. I'm not yet sure Mia's ready for its complexity level, but I figure the only way to find out is to give it a try.

Now if only I can find someone to play Settlers of Catan with me. Mia is strangely unmoved at the prospect of playing a game based around trading wheat and minerals ...

Volunteering in the classroom

 I volunteer in Mia's classroom every Monday morning, from eight a.m. until around nine-fifteen. I've been doing this since she started kindergarten. Although I don't always look forward to it -- as the kids get older, they get a little more confident, and thereby harder to control -- I wouldn't stop doing it for anything. I get to talk to Mia's teachers at least once a week; I get to know her classmates, so when she talks about them at home they're more than just strange names; and I can watch her in class a little bit, which allows me to get a sense of whether or not she's paying attention, and how she interacts with other kids. I get to see more of her work, too. She loves volunteer day, and that means something to me too. I'm peering into a world which is mysterious and arcane to most parents. 

The other day the school threw a breakfast for all the volunteer parents. As we all filed into the cafeteria and tried to cram our grown-up bodies into the floor-fixed tables and stools built for slender children, I was struck by the gender disparity. I wasn't surprised that there were more women, but I was surprised that out of maybe a hundred volunteers, I only counted four men, including myself. Why are fathers so poorly represented? Some of these women I know through volunteering, so I know that a proportion of them are working professionals. Hell, I work. That's the traditional excuse, and of course work schedules do indeed prevent some parents from doing this sort of thing. But all but four fathers? No way. 

That's just pitiful. Get involved, dads. Your kids spend an enormous proportion of their lives in school; it's as much a factor in their moods and their personal crises and triumphs as work is in yours. If you ignore that, you're missing out on a fundamental part of their developing lives. It means so much to them, and it'll be a revelation to you.