Giving Thanks

A perfect gay holiday: Thanksgiving and a Musical

Yesterday, we braved the torrential downpours and headed to the airport on what is purported to be the busiest travel day of the year.  In August with the new school year looming, I went into my annual mental breakdown/depression and decided it was time to book a few vacations throughout the school year so that I had a little island oasis here and there in the dessert of the daily grind that was about to begin.  I set my sights on the first official holiday of the school year with a healthy two days off abutting a weekend: Thanksgiving. One of my oldest and best friends lives outside of Washington, DC, and we had toyed with the idea of heading down there this fall to see a pre-Broadway tryout of the new Idina Menzel musical.  I called her up, asked if we could kill two birds with one stone and take the trip over Thanksgiving weekend, received a joyous agreement, booked the flights, and entered the date on my countdown app on my phone.

Our friends go all out for visitors, even ones like us who would be perfectly happy hanging out in our pajamas eating take-out pizza just to enjoy the company.  Instead of just lounging, they pull out the good china, buy out the local Harris Teeter, and keep us sated with delicious home cooked meals and lots of wine.

As I sit here sipping my berry-flavored mojito punch, my soul is further warmed by the environment: a fire crackling just a few feet away, the kids playing nicely with each other and our friends’ ten-year-old daughter, the aromas of Thanksgiving dinner filling the rooms, and best of all the good company of amazing friends that we see far too infrequently.

I grew up with a huge extended family, six aunts and uncles on my mother’s side, four on my father’s, and lots and lots of cousins.  I loved those family gatherings when I was a kid, and it’s something that my own kids won’t ever have with only one uncle and two cousins to share between them.  On the days leading up to this trip though, our kids’ eyes twinkled with the excitement of seeing these friends, and I am so glad to know that the extended family we have created for them is one that is just as rewarding as any biological connection.  As they grow older, it will be nice to talk with them about how this family of ours mirrors the way in which our own immediate family was constructed.

This is what I am thankful for today.  And tomorrow, I will be thankful Idina Menzel.  Woo-hoo!

There better not be no understudy in tomorrow’s show!

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Leaves of God

photo

Holy Art

My daughter came home today with a Thanksgiving plant she’d constructed in her first grade classroom.  Little leaves of thanks were attached to twigs via green chenille stems.  On each leaf, the teacher had pre-printed “I am thankful for:” and the students were expected to write in their personal thanks, using the leaves to create the overall tree.  Here is what my daughter is thankful for:

  • Family
  • Her brother
  • School
  • Dog
  • God

The first three make me happy.  The last two leave me a little ambivalent.

First of all, we don’t have a dog.  We are gay cat people!  Our family of four humans is rounded out with two cats.  The kids treat them like part of the family and they even get little stockings at Christmas.  Where did this thanks for a dog come from?!

More concerning is the God issue.  I don’t know what to do about it.  It’s obviously a touchy subject, and I am absolutely fine with both of my children choosing whatever spiritual path they choose.  I just don’t want them to choose a particular path because it is the one most traveled.

With this latest leaf of thanks, she’s certainly not following in either of her dads’ footsteps.  My husband considers himself an agnostic, though he was raised Methodist.  I was raised by a self-professed “recovering Catholic,” and thus developed a penchant for atheism pretty early on.  Of course, my development was augmented by the constant vitriol being spewed at me as a young closeted gay teenager via the nightly news.  The anti-gay rhetoric I was regularly subjected to in the media growing up in the 80s and early 90s did far more to create an aversion to God than anything my Catholic-challenged step-father did for me.

Hmmmm…

I’ve tried to be religious.  I joined a Bible study group with some Christian friends in high school, thinking that maybe if I just read the good book I’d be attracted to its content.  During the first session, a zealous classmate from school went on and on about Sodom and Gomorrah and how it proves that homosexuality is bad.  I didn’t go back to that study group, and it wasn’t until I read the Bible as literature years later that I discovered how narrow that interpretation of Sodom and Gomorrah was.  I mean this is essentially a story about people raping one another, and a small portion of that assault is homosexual.  There’s lots of heterosexual assault going on in Sodom and Gomorrah too, but that doesn’t make for good sound bites.

When we first moved back to the Boston area, my husband took a second job as music director at a United Church of Christ.  The people were amazingly lovely, and I made the trip to church with him on special holidays like Christmas and Easter: I even sang with the choir a few times.  I remember a conversation with my husband after one of these visits where I said something like, “I just wish I could believe.  I just love the sense of community here.  They all believe, but I just don’t.  I feel like a charlatan forging these relationships when there’s zero chance of me believing in this God of theirs.”

I’m too rational a thinker.  I just can’t get all enthused about something that I’ll never know actually factually exists.  And of course there is the fact that the anti-gay mud is still being slung in the name of God regularly on the nightly news.  It might be more tempered than it was twenty years ago, but it’s still there.

I have so many friends that run the gambit from devoutly religious to culturally pious, and they accept me and my family and provide us the love we so happily return to them.  We consider ourselves close friends with some especially faithful churchgoers who speak openly with us about their beliefs and don’t push too hard on us.  As my kids get older though and they start to have conversations about God on the playground, which then comes home to the dinner table in the form of a conversation about how the clouds my daughter is studying in first grade science are actually the home of Jesus, I start to question what kind of guidance I’m supposed to give my kids.  We’ve talked to them about what we believe and what most people in this country believe and the different things that people believe around the world, but they still have this magnetic pull towards the mainstream.  I’m willing to let them give in to that attraction if it’s what they really want, but if it’s merely a desire to be mainstream, I have a problem with it.

They’re still pretty young.  When I asked my daughter about the God leaf, she said her teacher used that as an example on her own tree and she didn’t really believe in it.  I think she was just telling me what I wanted to hear.  She’s got time to figure it out though, and I’ll do my best to support her.

I didn’t ask about the dog.  That probably would have been an easier conversation.

We’re Doin’ Fine, Oklahomo

We’re doing fine!

My husband is music directing his school’s production of Oklahoma next weekend, which means that I’ve been a single parent for about two weeks, and I will continue to be one for at least one more.  (And before all the contemporary musical theater showmo snobs roll their eyes that there is yet another high school production of Oklahoma out there, know that this is their first “classic” musical after producing The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, Urinetown, and Working the past three years!  Also, a young student of color is playing Curley.  So there.)

In spite of completely stressing out at the prospect of my husband leaving the house three hours before the kids wake up in the morning and him coming home three hours after they go to bed each night, I tend to do pretty well on these solo ventures.  Without the crutch of relying on a second parent, I know that I need to structure the time with my kids to keep both them and me happy and busy.  When my husband is home during times like this, things tend to fall apart.  He was home one night this past week, and knowing that the entirety of parenting didn’t fall on my shoulders, I expected him to carry more than his share, which was clearly a recipe for disaster.  Each of us ended up banished to separate rooms within minutes.

Yesterday was Saturday, and I found myself having to–good heavens–parent my children for an entire day all by myself.  I initially thought we’d get away with some time at home and then a quick lunch out, but then I realized we all needed to get out of the house if we were going to make it through the day without tears.  We headed to the movies, and then enjoyed lunch at our favorite sushi spot at the mall.

Our sushi spot

The sushi restaurant is one of those gimmicky ones where the plates come by on a conveyer belt and you lift off the items you want.  The kids love the schtick and we all love the food.  The restaurant is in the middle of the mall with no walls surrounding it and no roof directly above.  At one point, my daughter saw a woman pointing from the second balcony of the mall and she immediately turned sour.  “That lady is pointing at me.  I don’t like it when people do that.”  I looked up and saw the woman smiling and chatting with her friend, not even noticing our little colorful family.

“I think she’s just pointing at the sushi conveyor belt, honey,” I told her.  “This place is kind of funny looking from the outside isn’t it?”  My daughter realized I must be right, changed her expression to one of amusement, and clicked away with her chopsticks.

I was reminded in that moment of a girls’ day out my daughter had with friends of ours a few months ago.  Two good friends, a married same-sex couple of women, one white and one black, came to take our daughter out for some girl time.  They got their nails done, had lunch, and talked about the things six-year-old girls want to talk about.  One of those things was apparently the fact that in towns like ours, sometimes people point and stare, especially at people like my daughter and our dark-skinned friend.  The latter asked our daughter if people ever stared and pointed at her in town, and she said, “Yes, and I don’t like it.”  Our adult friend told her that it happens to her too, and that she certainly doesn’t like it.  She said that she just stares right back and usually the person feels silly and turns away.

I’m sure a lot of the time, these pointing fingers and ogling stares aren’t necessarily directed at us, and at the same time the reality for my family and others like us is that the questions always hover there: Are they really physically acknowledging our differences?  Does it make a difference to them?  Do they know how it feels?

A colleague mentioned to me at school that a local family of color once asked her if teachers didn’t make direct contact with her because she was Latina and spoke Spanish.  My white colleague assured her that teachers typically don’t have time to make direct contact with any parents unless there is a problem.  The reality though is that for some families of color, the absence of that contact often makes us wonder if there is some unspoken problem.  The absence of a negative doesn’t always mean a positive for us.  I try to keep this in mind with my own students who live on the margins, and I hope that others keep this in mind with us.

Big Fish and Little Boys

My relationships (sort of) on stage

This past weekend we packed the kids in the car and headed to one of our favorite places on Earth: New York City.  Good friends bought a house an hour upstate two years ago (check out their blog!), and this provides a kid-friendly accommodation with free parking, not to mention great food, even better company, and lots of wine.  Our friends took the kids for the day, and my husband I hopped on the train to Manhattan where we had tickets to see the new musical Big Fish, based on the 2003 Tim Burton film and the 1998 Daniel Wallace novel.

Big Fish came to Broadway with lots of fanfare and a boatload of expectations.  Reviews were lukewarm though and the day after we saw it they posted a closing date for the end of the year.  The show is certainly not without its flaws, but we enjoyed our three hours at the theater immensely, even though I spent most of that time a blubbering mess in search of a tissue.  The show gets heavy at points, especially as the main character Edward Bloom lies dying in a hospital bed while his adult son struggles to discern truth from fiction before his only reputable source leaves the world forever.  I started crying way before that though.

The show stays fairly close to the source material: Edward Bloom is a traveling salesdad who returns home from time to time to tell one whopper after another to his young son.  The boy grows up with an eye for verisimilitude and what begins as simple questioning turns into the belief that his father is a consummate liar with something to hide.  The first song has Edward telling his son to “Be A Hero” and sets the stage nicely for this character who is doing what he thinks is right for his son, no matter what young adult petulance has to say about it.

Yes, I cried while the mermaid shook her junk

That first song isn’t really anything special, but the sentiment got me.  The father-son relationship in Big Fish isn’t a mirror to my relationship with my own son, but it did parallel it in many obtuse ways.  I do struggle with my son.  A lot.  I do my best to parent him in the only way I know how, and still we constantly butt heads.  I hold my ground, insist on certain things, and I try to balance this out with letting him be who he is going to be.  In truth though, the former far outweighs the latter in his life, and I know he can feel it.  I don’t know why when he chews with his mouth open at the table, it makes me want to scream at the top of my lungs; the same behavior from my daughter prompts a fairly calm, “Please chew with your mouth closed.”  Each night, I help him pick out his clothes for the following day; we’ve worked out a deal where he alternates between jeans and sweats, so when I pick him up from school and he’s wearing yet another pair of ratty sweats instead of the clean pair of jeans I put out with him, my blood begins to boil as I picture him manipulating the morning sitter as he carelessly tosses the clean clothes around his room leaving a huge mess for me to pick up.  When he spends 90 minutes on the soccer field, becoming more and more fatigued, he starts making bad decisions, like throwing a water bottle in the air that hits his coach right in the head, and I want to pull him aside and yell at him until he cries so I know for sure he knows how wrong that was.  I wish I could say I don’t always resort to these extremes, but at least I typically hold back in public.

I don’t want to make it sound like I’m emotionally berating the life out of him; he’s still a very happy kid, and we do share an appropriate affection, but he certainly gravitates toward my husband more, who is far less the disciplinarian and who doesn’t feel the stresses when solo parenting as often as I do.  Sometimes when I have to work late and don’t get home until after the kids are in bed, I secretly relish having taken the opportunity to skip a night with them where I might be pushed over the edge by my son’s simple–and mostly age-appropriate–choices.  This of course makes me incredibly sad, and I have to constantly remind myself that I’m doing the best I can.

Early in the first act of Big Fish Edward’s adult son sings about how his father is a “Stranger,” and at this point my tear ducts opened once again.  I feel myself sometimes pulling away from my son for fear of how I will interact with him, and I have to constantly push myself to re-engage.  I don’t want my son to grow up not really knowing who I am simply because I feared a negative outcome of our time together.  There was a time a few months ago where that was a real possibility.  My husband had to often come in and separate my son and me because I was being totally unreasonable.  My husband agreed that our son’s behavior wasn’t ideal, and at the same time he didn’t think it often warranted my highly emotional reactions.  I did some research, talked to some parenting coaches, and I think I’ve taken some necessary steps to alleviate some of that parenting pressure.  Still, the vestiges of those feelings have never really gone away.

In act two, Edward sings the best song in the show, “Fight the Dragons,” in which he explains some of what he’s trying to accomplish with his unique style of parenting.  While not at all a direct analogy for life with my son, I felt it so perfectly captured much of what I struggle with as a parent to an adopted boy of color with two dads who will grow up and struggle with all that in so many ways.  As I’ve written about here before, there will come a time when he is no longer adorable when he throws a water bottle at his coach’s head.  There will come a time when his predominantly white friends begin to acknowledge his color and I want to ensure that he stays an individual instead of becoming their mascot.  I want for him to think of himself as normal, and I still want to prepare him for the realization that he lives on the periphery in so many ways.  I think this is at the heart of my struggles with him, even though it often manifests in such frivolity as me screaming, “What do you mean you don’t want to put on slacks and go see Alvin Ailey?!”

Big Fish is closing at the end of the year, so please go see it!  It’s worth the discounted price of admission they’re offering these days, and it might provide a different glimpse into the struggles of the father-son relationship for you.

Anticipating Her Realization

Start Drilling!

My daughter came home today with a ring full of math flashcards and a set of instructions about how we could help her memorize these sets of the simple formulas.  According to state frameworks, she has to be able to answer these basic equations (9+0=9, 1+6=7, etc.) immediately without thinking or else she receives some kind of failing score on a report somewhere.  I’m not sure how I feel about this.  She’s in first grade and she loves school, and at the same time, I can see that she’s already sensing what a struggle learning is for her.  Given her history of in utero substance abuse, we’ve always known that she would likely have some learning disabilities, or at the very least some significant delays.  She spent all of her first few years in Early Intervention before getting transferred to a Special Eduction Individualized Education Plan (IEP) at age three.  The IEP is supposed to provide her greater access to the curriculum and development, and I wonder how it works in tandem with her race.  At what point will the stigma of being labeled a Special Education student coincide with what study after study shows are the lowered expectations of her race?

She has an amazing teachers this year; whenever neighbors hear her name, they ask, “Who do you know that you ended up with the best of the best?”  The teacher is also black, and she’s doing wonderful things with our daughter, following suit with a white teacher last year who did just about everything an educator can do to show a young black girl that she is worthy of the same expectations and education as the white kids that surround her.  And I still wonder if it will be enough.

We do what we can at home.  I insist that my husband and I follow Carol S. Dweck’s work on “The Perils and Promises of Praise,” cheering our daughter’s effort in relation to achievement rather than the achievement alone.  In the past two months, she’s made tremendous strides in her reading, and I am constantly telling her, “You’ve been working so hard with your reading, and look at how it’s paid off!”  She often beams with joy, and I’m hopeful that she’s making the connection between hard work and success, even if the latter doesn’t necessarily mean “the best.”  Of course these gains have come as part of educational interventions.  She gets pulled out of her classroom environment for 30 minutes a day to build up these skills.  Our son is almost surpassing her at sixteen months her junior, and I can see her getting frustrated when he sounds out complicated words with ease.  I wonder how often this happens at school for her.  How often does she see the other children, the other white children, expending limited effort to reach a point that requires tremendous concentration and effort on her part?  Not that there aren’t white children who struggle right along with her of course; they are just one of many though so they fade into individuality in a way my daughter never will in this school system.

We do our best to convey to her that she is perfect just as she is, no matter how hard she has to work at certain things.  We tell her that some kids can’t immediately identify a key change in a Broadway ballad like she can, but when the ring full of dozens of equations shows up in an envelope, and I’m making a daily reminder on my phone to spend ten minutes on math, it all sometimes feels so insurmountable.  It feels so inevitable that she will become disheartened with the systems that are working against her.  I suppose that I too know it’s inevitable that that will happen, and I’m just hopeful that I’m doing the most I can to prepare her for that realization.  We all reach that point where we understand that life is inherently unfair; I just hope she doesn’t reach that point too soon.

Tradition

While we’re not a Jewish family facing a Russian pogrom in the early 20th century, I do feel tradition to be an important part of our family culture.  Both my husband and I have somewhat strained long-distance relationships with our extended families, and the list of actual family traditions is rather short.  With two adopted kids though, I want them to feel our family is as cemented as their biologically created counterparts, and since we don’t even have a shared collective cultural history to share, we have to make do with what we can.

The Beginning of the Tradition

Our daughter was ten months old at her first Christmas, and a month prior we forced her into a gorgeous infant dress, put on a couple of seasonally-colored ties, and headed off to the local Target for some family portraits.  Initially, we though this would be a wonderful day-after-Thanksgiving family tradition, until we realized that coincides with another shopping tradition that makes going anywhere near retail outlets a Kamikaze mission.  Over the years, we’ve maintained the tradition of having our holiday portraits taken, and we now have a half dozen framed 8x10s lining our upstairs hallway that chronicle the growth of our family over the years, including the addition of our son in photo three, the skyrocketing height of our daughter who now towers over most of her classmates, and the shifting fashions in eye wear on my husband’s face.  This morning we headed off for our seventh annual trip to Target.  The kids looked amazing, and they were so excited to show off their high fashion to the neighbors before we headed out.

We have a few other family dress-up traditions: Boston Pops on Christmas Eve Day, fancy brunch on Easter Sunday, dining out for each kids’ Adoption Days.  I’m hopeful that over the years, these will provide a bedrock for our kids when they start to question the legitimacy of their family in relation to their peers, something that will be in the back of their minds when as adolescents they whine, “Why do we have to go to Target to take these stupid pictures?”  Or maybe they’ll continue to get excited about dressing to the nines and hitting the town with their two dads.