Ballet Dads

EmBasketballCULiteWe’ve got three sons and a daughter. They arrived in that order. By the time our daughter Emily was born, I had coached and/or refereed multiple seasons of Little League, Muni Basketball, and AYSO.   When our daughter arrived she showed great promise as a tenacious, though tiny, basketball player. Then things changed.

Suddenly, she was more interested in ballet than ball. She liked the outfit (always important), her friends were doing it (also important), and, generally, it didn’t involve boys (very important at age seven). Although I wanted to take her to her classes, they happened mid week after school – so I was out. Ballet became a ritual for mother and daughter and, as usual, I became the videographer.

EmBalletStillAltOur local coffee shop is in the same mall as a small dance studio. Last Saturday morning after I went to the gym, I swung by the mall to pick up a coffee for my wife. Walking out, I was amazed to be facing three middle linebackers, each carrying a small, pink backpack, and holding the hand of a tutu-clad mini-ballerina. The group was apparently headed to some kick-ass Saturday morning dance class. The daughters were skipping with their burly dads in tow. It was probably the cutest thing I saw all day.

I imagined the waiting area conversation during class. “My daughter’s tour jeté kicks your daughter’s tour jeté’s ass!” “Yea… well my daughter’s Arabesque puts your daughter’s to shame. She may have her mother’s looks, but she’s got my legs!” and so on. I’m clearly kidding about this, because I’ve been in these situations and generally speaking men don’t talk about dance.

Despite rumors to the contrary, men are actually capable of talking about things that matter – once they get sports and hot moms out of the way. There is, to some extent, an immediate bond between men who take their daughters to ballet. They are men who will venture with pride into the world of women, as beginning ballet continues to be, men who have learned to confront a tight hair bun or a blistered foot with confidence and love.

Men who know what it means to sign your dancer in, and out.

IMG_2706Saturday I envied the Ballet Dads with their little pink partners headed toward a room ruled by strict manners, classical music, and constant counting. I knew that despite everyone’s best efforts some edges would fray as personalities rose up, and the leaping got out of hand, and the relevés left the rails. I wondered how these dads would talk to their daughters about the “mean girl,” or the really strict teacher, or whatever would come pouring forth as they got in the car. I knew that those dads would be prepared, because mean girls, bullies, and tough coaches exist in everyone’s world – boy or girl, mom or dad.

This is the stuff that parenting is made of. Showing up. Being there. It’s about being a Ballet Dad and putting your whole heart into it. Teaching your child how to cope with hurt feelings, how to redirect frustration, and how to avoid being diminished by the behavior of others.

It doesn’t matter if you’re the Dad or the Mom, on a dance floor or on a ball field, the things children need to be taught are all the same: kindness, respect, generosity, and fair play.

This weekend we get to watch the Super Bowl. Let’s raise a glass to the all those Dads whose daughters will fall asleep in their laps during the game.

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You CAN Go Home Again

Dadnaaronsleep_81liteMany parents lament the fact that their children are growing up. We all yearn for those cuter times when our children could be held in our arms. For JoAnn and me, those delicious hugs from our children are now marked by facial hair and fashionable feminism. Watching our children grow has always been the physical embodiment of the passage of time, but at this point it would sure be nice to slow things down.

Any of us who has ever attended a high school or college reunion knows what it’s like to confront the passage of time and yearn for younger days. The expression “you can’t go home again” has probably entered our thoughts.

But you can go home again – if you’re willing to accept that things change and that change is as capable of being good as it is of being bad.

VVSPostcard60scropI serve on the Board of Trustees for my former high school, Verde Valley School, a very small and unique educational institution nestled within the world-famous red rocks of Sedona, Arizona.

This rural school was founded in 1948 when Sedona was known mostly for its natural beauty. It was rumored in those days that we were in the “spiritual center of the northern hemisphere,” but for a hundred and twenty-six teenage students, hormones and natural beauty trumped spirituality on a regular basis.

What was unique about the school was its focus on anthropology and human relations. As part of the curriculum, each school year students were sent to be immersed in another culture for a month. As a thirteen-year-old freshman, I was embedded in the home of a Hopi family on the Second Mesa of the Hopi Reservation. The house had no heated or running water and the bathroom was an outhouse on the edge of the mesa. That was educational.

VVS_0024fix2Those of us who’d attended in the fifties, sixties and seventies would talk of the unique closeness of community, our memorable experiences, and the various “characters” we’d all met while there. And, because today’s school wasn’t what we’d experienced, we’d also mourn the loss of what we believed to be the school’s essence. We felt that we couldn’t go home again. That all was lost.

Returning last week for a meeting of the Board I had a chance to dive back into the ethos of the school – that elusive, magical quality that we had thought had been lost in the “modernity” of our once-rustic environment. Sure, the kids couldn’t ride in the back of pickup trucks anymore, and the school no longer needed its own student-manned fire department. But the energy to learn, the curiosity that oozes from high school students was all still there. Whether I was watching activity on the soccer field, basketball court, or riding ring (yes, the school has always had a barn – but now it’s called an “Equestrian Program”), everyone was engaged, respectful and grateful for this rare educational opportunity.

VVSChapel15cropSmallIn the students and faculty I saw similarities between the nineteen seventies and now. I realized that the surface changes, like coats of paint, did not affect the nature and mission of the school at its core.

I’ve concluded that we can go home again – if we’re willing to accept that life is change, and that evolution doesn’t happen at the expense of the past…it builds on it.

We’ve seen it in our children. The circumstances of their lives are different. They no longer live at home, they consider our advice optional, and their life landscapes are dotted by smart phones, video games, and all sorts of new and different elements affecting quality of life. At their core, however, they are the people we raised them to be. Despite our deepest fears, our children bring their own optimism and curiosity to their pursuit of happy lives.

I’ve actually said things to my children like “In my day, we used to have to go to a library and look this up – we didn’t have the luxury of Googling on the internet.” My dad spent a lot more time on horses than I did. His father was born before the automobile.

Change is inevitable. Teaching our kids (and ourselves) to embrace, rather than fear change is one of the best gifts we can give them.

GreenFamHawaii2014Like Verde Valley School, our children will not lose sight of their core. Things around them may be different. They may have to repaint or rebuild some buildings. They may be broke for a bit, or sad for a bit, but their ingrained values, curiosity, and willingness to be flexible will always serve them, as I have learned mine serves me.

Change isn’t easy. It requires faith and flexibility – but in the long run the humanity we give our children, and each other, will serve us no matter what is happening in the world around us.

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Weddings and World Peace

TeddyNAliWeddingMy wife, JoAnn, and I started this year on the perfect note – we went to a wedding on New Year’s Eve. Essentially, we doubled down on hope.

After all, what is more optimistic than two people sharing their love on a day that marks the beginning of a new year? We celebrated the beginning of Teddy and Ali’s life together, and then, when midnight hit, the afterburners kicked in and we went whole hog into New Year optimism and happiness.

One week later, we are faced with the insanity that is the murders at Charlie Hebdo in Paris.

While watching the wedding ceremony, I realized that marriages are happening every day, in every time zone, in every culture — and focusing on these loving events is a very real antidote for the hatred that seems to be spreading over our troubled world. Certainly there are parents in every culture, Islamist, Jewish, Christian, Catholic, Buddhist, or others who bask in the happiness of watching their children find and wed their loved ones. Surely, these parents want their children to survive, to thrive and to create families. Who can attend a wedding and not want the world to be a better, more peaceful place?

coexistSo, how distant must the zealot Paris murderers be from the values of family, the love of community, and the meaning of life? What world are they living in… and where are their parents? How can their ideology be more valuable than human life?  The God of the Old Testament asks Abraham to sacrifice his son as a test of faith.  As Abraham prepares to do so, God releases him of the obligation, because what loving God could possibly ask a father to kill his son?

What can we do against an enemy with no moral compass?  I’m afraid we must expose them as the murderers they are.  And how can we do that?  Short term, we can unite in our opposition to their behavior, we can punish the people who fund them, and we can rise in defense of those whom they most brutally oppress.  Long term, however, and most importantly, we can teach our children to recognize hate-speech, bullies, and bad behavior and to oppose it when they see it.

We advise newlyweds to compromise, to listen to each other, and to “never go to bed angry” (to which one young wedding attendee replied, “Just stay up all night fighting!”). We counsel them to communicate about their differences in order to find peace. Yet, we seem unable to do this on a larger scale.

So, let’s start small.

vectorstock_1023337My resolution this year is to ask each of us to think about the weddings that happen around us every day, and to resolve — like all brides and grooms — to work on our relationships, to find a middle ground, and to contribute to making our world a happier home for us, our children, and our children’s children.

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Five Easy Resolutions Every Parent Can Make

vectorstock_634418These are difficult times in which to raise children. We’ve become a culture that mistrusts authority, that believes individuals are often more important than the society, and that everyone deserves special treatment. As a result, it is up to us, as parents, to raise children who will respect authority, tell the truth, and be kind to others. Here are some simple tools to help accomplish those goals:

  1. Accept that nobody’s perfect – neither you nor your child.

Murphy must have been a parent, because having kids certainly teaches us that if it can go wrong, it probably will go wrong.

Give yourself a break. I’ve made my share of mistakes. I’ve been emotionally weak and “lost it” more than a few times. I’ve gotten our kids’ names confused. I’ve ignored complaints in an attempt to toughen my kid up, only to find that the sprain was actually a fracture. It’s all part of the “live and learn” process – and it’s pretty clear to me that there are very few fatal errors that a loving parent can make.

Quilt2In the “History of the Eagles,” Joe Walsh points out that events sometimes seem terrible (breaking a bone), or ill-timed (getting fired), or tragic (losing a loved one) – but as we look back on those events, we realize that they are all part of the perfectly woven quilt that is our life. Chances are, you’re doing a better job than you think you are and someday you’ll look back on your process and see just how well it worked.

  1. Let your children learn from their own mistakes.

As our children got older, we gave them more responsibility and let them earn the right to make their own decisions. The early decisions were basic trust issues — being allowed to stay home alone, or go to parties with friends — but as they got older, the decisions become more serious, like where to go to college or whether to go to Mexico for Spring Break. Generally, by the time they got to their late teens, the groundwork for good decision-making had been laid. But it’s hard for parents to let go.

BeardedMeNMarcieI can clearly remember having my parents try to “guide” me toward “good” decisions when sometimes I just wanted to do what I wanted to do. I remember saying to them, “You’ve taught me how to make decisions, so if I make bad ones, it’s probably your fault.” They weren’t too happy with that one – but I thought it was pretty effective.

It was in those years that we learned to trust each other and taught each other some wonderful lessons – as my children have done with me. When my son Ben told me he wanted to major in History, I explained that I would prefer that he be an English major. Without missing a beat he said “Dad, History is English. It’s just stories that have already been told.” Case closed. Later in his life, that same son quit a job before having another lined up… a major mistake from our point of view. After a few months of unemployment, he was remorseful, but then he got the perfect job. (See the Joe Walsh sentiment above.)

  1. Be proud of your work.

Our water heater died the day after Christmas. I called our appliance source and they sent out Mike The Plumber to install a replacement. Mike didn’t mess around. He knew his job, and explained that he was replacing all my flex connectors with real copper pipe because “that’s how it should be done.”

During a break we had a personal conversation in which Mike revealed that he is a single dad raising an eleven year old son. As he spoke, he mentioned that he was sorry he couldn’t give his son more time, but he also told me of the projects that they had done together, all of which were opportunities to bond while demonstrating dedication and a solid work ethic. Mike is clearly a sensitive dad. Though he confessed to having been too tough at times when he thought it was necessary, I could see in him the same pride in his family that he had in his work. I gave Mike a copy of my book, and I inscribed it as follows: “Proud fathers raise sons who are proud of their fathers” —- because setting an example is the most important thing parents can do.

  1. Express gratitude with your kids every day.

SunsetBeautySometimes things feel as though they can’t get any worse. Sometimes your kid is sick, your car won’t start, your coffee spills, your computer won’t boot. That’s when it’s best to remember the things that are working right – starting with “I don’t think things can get much worse – so we’ve got nowhere to go but up!”

It’s easy to say there are lessons to be learned from failure — and there are — but there are also simple successes to be noted regularly. Things like “we’re lucky to have each other, and a roof over our heads, and the strength to believe that tomorrow will be a better day.” Try appreciating electricity, music, hot water, airplanes, or antibiotics sometime.

  1. Teach responsibility.

Avoid blaming, or searching for people or things to blame. It’s up to us to teach our children to “fess up” and admit when they’ve made a mistake, dented a car, or caused pain to another.

vectorstock_2268588My parents had a brilliant tool for this. They called it the “Armistice.” When I needed to admit that I’d broken something, or when my mother came to me in search of a confession, I could ask for an Armistice. Asking for an Armistice meant that I would not be summarily punished. Instead I would have the opportunity to admit my stupidity and help define my punishment. Inevitably my parents were kinder to me than I was to myself – but the lifelong lesson-learned was that I could step up to tell the truth and face reasonable consequences. Being truthful, and unloading the anxiety, has made my life, and that of my children, much easier.

With these five steps I believe we can bring our families closer, encourage our appreciation for each other and ease the passage of time.

Here’s wishing you a 2015 filled with wonder, love, and amusement.

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Making Marriage Work

In honor of the fact that JoAnn and I are celebrating our thirty-seventh wedding anniversary this week, I thought I’d reflect a little on what I think has allowed our relationship to survive.

WateringCan2People express their understandings of a marriage in many different ways, but my friends Andrew and Claudia put it like this:

Each person takes turns being either a watering can or a flower.  Sometimes we need to be watered, and sometimes we need to do the watering.

I know. It’s a simple metaphor, but it works. Sure, sometimes I don’t feel like doing the watering, or I feel as though I’m completely out of water. I’m sure there are times when JoAnn feels the same way. But after thirty seven years, I’ve learned it’s worth finding the emotional resources necessary to nurture my mate – even if it means having to change my own focus or ignoring something that has irked me. In the end, making that effort comes back to me as a peaceful life, a calm environment, and a mate who digs deep for me when I need her.
Being generous to someone I love seems a small price to pay.

I’ve known from the start that individual egos are the biggest enemy of a good relationship. Once someone begins to take umbrage, there’s a problem. Once the resentment begins to pile up, and both people become unwilling to water, the flower begins to wither. The key is making a conscious decision to break the cycle – essentially deciding that peace is more valuable than whatever is hanging up the conversation. I think JoAnn and I have done this (subconsciously) by creating an “ego” for our relationship, and considering how things feel (for each of us) before blowing into the china shop.

BlogLite21When we started out, we were just kids – seriously, we were twenty-four years old. In fact, now three of our four kids are older than we were when we got married. For whatever reason, on that day and for many days before it, we had a sense that we were right for each other.

For me, marriage wasn’t an emotional deal. I knew I “loved” JoAnn, but as I try to do with most things, I applied a little logic to my situation. My marriage theory was based on this thought: although I could probably approach any woman at a bar, introduce myself, have a fun conversation and end up having a “successful” evening, the fact is that I never approach that woman and I probably never would. Also, I knew that as a world-class procrastinator who never wrote a paper until the day before it was due, I figured marriage would create a series of deadlines to help me achieve my goals in life.

Both of those theories held true.

RGnJGGI also entered marriage with open eyes. When I told my father that I intended to marry JoAnn he said, “Son, you are going to meet three or four more women in your life whom you might find really attractive.” I sad, “What? Are you telling me you don’t like JoAnn?” And he replied, “No, I love JoAnn, I’m just telling you what’s what.”

There will always be opportunities that we believe might make us happier, but trying to catch every ball may cause us to drop the one that is most appropriate for us. By letting me know that there would be understandable and common temptation, my father was trying to prepare me to acknowledge those possibilities and move on. Like an addict, I resolved to live my marriage “one day at a time” so that a lifetime of fidelity wouldn’t seem so daunting – and when the temptation to consider others arose, I made it through those days. On Wednesday I’m getting my thirty seven year chip.

REGJEGFeetAnnivLite

Photo by Emily Greenberg

The hallmark of our marriage is that we’re kind to each other. We don’t yell. We don’t call each other names. We don’t keep score. This doesn’t mean that we don’t get angry, or leave each other space when one is feeling tapped out. It means that our kindness is defined by the swallowing of pride, of understanding and generosity. One of us will do the dishes when neither of us feels like it, because the dishes aren’t going to wash themselves. We take care of each other, and consider each other’s needs as equal to our own. It’s our agreement, and we both know we’re better for it.

People will object, “That’s easy for you to say, you married the right person.” But, the fact is we’ve spent years training each other. No one comes out of the box designed to cohabitate perfectly. We’ve learned to pick our battles. We’ve learned what isn’t going to change – and we’ve managed to get over it. We all have our nuances, things that can drive others crazy… or not. Our choice is to see those things as part of the process and move beyond them. Learning to trust and communicate about them, rather than suffering in silence, is one of the keys to moving forward.REGJEGLaguna

There’s an old expression – “Would you rather be right, or would you rather be happy?” I like being both, and my wife knows it – so she humors me (until I admit that I was wrong).

Marriage is not fifty fifty – it’s ninety ninety. Give more than half and it’ll make thirty-seven years go by in the wink of an eye.

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Trickle Down Parenting

When my wifeIMG_0857 JoAnn was pregnant with Emily, our fourth child, my mother decided that JoAnn needed a “day off.” She invited our family (three boys, ages fifteen, twelve and, six plus our newborn) and my sister’s family to meet her for dinner on Monday nights. “It will give you all a sense of family,” she said.

My sister has three kids. At the time, her oldest was fourteen, followed by two twelve-year-old twins – so even though they went to different schools, the kids were all pretty compatible in age.

IMG_0873We chose to eat “Monday Night Dinner” at a centrally located restaurant called the Souplantation, known as Sweet Tomatoes in Northern California and the rest of the country. Part of the plan was that each family had to scan the weekend newspaper to find the restaurant’s discount coupons. Our children did this with glee because they knew that it made Grandma very happy when they proudly presented their coupons when it came time to pay. In this way, they were contributing to making the meal possible.

IMG_0851Word of Monday Night Dinner became part of our vernacular. Our kids would speak of it often, and their friends were always curious. Grandma was very inclusive, and providing that her grandchild called her personally ahead of time and asked if it would be OK to bring a friend, their pals were always welcomed. Some even joined us regularly. They remain family friends to this day.

IMG_0864My parents had a very amicable divorce, so when my father heard that we were all gathering on Monday nights, he wanted to take part. That meant including his wonderful second wife (my stepmother) and their two sons. Once again, my mother chose the inclusive high road: “Greenberg – party of fourteen!”

Here’s the catch. It worked! Today our children, their cousins and their uncles are all very comfortable and loving with each other. They understand the concept that we are all family and that, idiosyncrasies included, we stand by each other and “show up.” There is a sense of unity and, although she passed away a couple of years ago, there is a reverence for Grandma Marcie that keeps her, and her goals, alive.

IMG_0902As I think about my mom today, I realized that she always did the right thing even if it caused her pain, embarrassment, or difficulty. This was the most important lesson she taught us all. My parents each had their problems, and neither of them was easy to live with — neither was ever wrong or capable of conceding — but they rose above their own frustration with each other to demonstrate for all of us how adults should communicate. This is why I credit “Setting an Example” as the most important thing that parents can do.

Swallowing anger and aggression is unhealthy – but my parents didn’t ignore their anger, they just did something positive about it. Both strong personalities, they chose to part company amicably and better appreciate each other without having to cohabitate.

IMG_0884So in addition to learning the value of a dollar (from coupon clipping), the need to ask permission to bring a guest, the importance of thanking your host, and getting to know your family, my children and I were treated to the concept that a peaceful life is more important than getting the last word.

Monday Night Dinner. Give it a try any day of the week.

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Keeping Thanks in Your Thanksgiving – 10 Simple Ideas

louis-ckLITELouis C.K. jokes that airline passengers often complain about slow Internet while sitting in a tube hurtling through the sky at 400 miles per hour.

I am often frustrated by bad cell coverage, when 20 years ago I couldn’t call anyone from the car.

Sometimes I feel like I’d be a real dummy without my smart phone. My need for instant information is important.

Yep, I’m living my life “on demand.”

When I want to ask a question — I ask Siri or text a friend. When I want to communicate with my family, I go on our group text. If I want to see a movie, I order tickets. If I want to hear a song, I buy and download it right now. If it’s your birthday — you’ll get some virtual love from me — maybe even some virtual flowers.

This Thanksgiving I think I’m going to slow it all down.

I have the impression that we’re all so busy living our lives that we don’t stop to appreciate the fact that we have lives at all. Sure, many of us take time to have conversations, or practice the calm that can be our religion. But too often, I find myself moving from one event to another with barely time to grab a coffee or a sandwich. I believe this goes for my children as well.

Gratitude is a key element in defining a child that “other people like to be around,” and November is a wonderful month for laying of that gratitude groundwork. In two weeks most of us will get to look around a table and give thanks for the miracle that got us all here.

My wife is an excellent cook. I know this because I’m not getting any thinner. I also know this because we’re usually sold out at Thanksgiving. Yep — everyone comes to our house, and we wouldn’t have it any other way because

Thanksgiving is perhaps my favorite holiday. It has no religious undertones, it reprises our Pilgrim predecessors who, in one of their last acts of magnanimity, invited some natives over to celebrate how lucky they all were to have corn.

So what’s Thanksgiving about today? It would appear to be about thanks (after all it’s in the name), but mostly I think it’s about teeing up Black Friday and maybe a four day weekend. Sure, there are sporting events, and even the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, but where is the thanks? How do we express our gratitude?

Here are some simple options:

  • TGivingTablePut all cellphones away before, during, and after the meal.
  • Take a moment — ask everyone to be quiet – and to focus on the wondrous things for which we have this chance to be grateful.
  • Ask each member of the group to describe one thing for which they are grateful.
  • Remember those who came before us (our families, not necessarily the Pilgrims) and create a sense of continuity with past Thanksgivings.
  • Thank everyone who contributed to the remarkable meal. (I hate to have to write that, but there are people who “forget” to do this).

Other options for “feeling” the day:

  • Volunteering-is-Great-for-TeensParticipate in a program with your kids and serve Turkey dinner to the homeless. (Many churches run these programs.)
  • Initiate a team project at home – include your kids in dinner prep, or gather toys or clothes to be given to charity.
  • Bathe your animals (just because it’s an act of giving (and not an easy one))
  • Call or visit a relative or close friend with whom you haven’t spoken in a long time.
  • Do something nice for a stranger.

We are surrounded by miracles every day — from pasteurization to pacemakers, from instant messages to innovative ideas. The gifts are all there, it’s just up to us to see them…

… and to say thanks.

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