To Our Daughter on Her Seventh Birthday

Happy Birthday

Happy Birthday

Seven years ago today, your future dads had just returned from the final vacation of their childless life.  We were patiently waiting for a child to be placed in our pre-adoptive foster home, mistakenly believing we had months to wait.  When you were born, we didn’t know that you had come into the world yet; we didn’t know that you had been transferred to the NICU while your little five-pound body valiantly fought the cocaine in your system, your muscles permanently tightening up, something that makes it impossible for you to do a cartwheel today.  We didn’t know yet that shortly after you left her body your birthmom went in search of the only thing she thought could quiet the sickness that was her addiction, leaving you behind and beginning the process of you coming into our life.  When you were alone in the hospital, fighting your way out of the NICU and bravely weaning yourself off the drugs without medical aid, we didn’t know that your first week of life was our last week alone.

At six days old, you didn’t know that our social worker called us to say you were waiting.  You didn’t know how we struggled to decide if this was the right decision.  You didn’t know that we took what little information we had about your birth and spoke with a pediatrician about the long-term effects on your health and well-being.  When you were one week old, you didn’t know that we were just around the corner, meeting with a doctor who said you were “eating like a champ,” something that is one of your most endearing qualities now as a seven year old.  You didn’t know that the nurses wanted so badly to bring us to you the minute we stepped off the elevator, but that we resisted because even before we met you we knew that one look at your face would bond the three of us forever.  While you were just a few dozen feet away, we sat and quietly weighed our options with one another.  The health risks, the legal risks, the emotional risks of calling ourselves your fathers without knowing whether you would be permanently a part of our family.

The day we met.

The day we met.

You didn’t know that with tears in our eyes we took each other’s hand, small smiles of assent on our faces as we walked down the hall to meet you.

You don’t remember the joy that immediately filled our hearts when we first set eyes on you, but now at seven years old you frequently ask about it, looking at the photographs we have of that day.  You see the enormous grins on our faces as we held you for the first time, so small but already such a huge anchor in our lives.  You look at those memories and then quickly jump up to measure your tremendous height against our bodies, smiling in proud disbelief at the way you’ve grown.

Seven years after you were born, we see glimpses of the young woman you will soon be, and you continue to bring us great happiness.  With every day that goes by, we are thankful for the decision that we made in the quiet hospital room.  As difficult as it is to celebrate the difficult circumstances that allowed you to come into our lives, we feel incredibly blessed to parent you.  Seven years ago we made a commitment to give you the best possible life no matter how long you were with us, and now that we are a forever family as permanent and important as any biological counterpart, we will continue that promise as long as we are able.  As you grow, you will certainly struggle with the way you came you into our lives, and we will always give you the support you need and the space you require.  Thank you for being our daughter and for giving us this tremendously amazing opportunity to be your fathers.


Notes from the World of Disney

My family and I are experiencing a bit of a hangover.  We just spent the past week in the World of Disney.  A good friend got married at the Wedding Pavilion on the Disney campus in Orlando last weekend, and we made a big trip of it, including a five-day Disney Cruise and a day at the Magic Kingdom.  Here are a few things that I learned during our vacation:

  1. Most people still aren’t sure whether they’re going to get punched in the face if they assume we’re gay.

    One night on the cruise, my husband and I dropped off the kids at the ship’s amazing children’s play area where they had wonderful activities and even fed them from time to time.  We bid them farewell, high-fived, and headed up to the adult-only restaurant at the back of the ship.  During dinner, a photographer was making the rounds and taking romantic photos of the mostly couples in the restaurant.  He first skipped our table, and then eventually came back.  He awkwardly asked, “Would you like a phot0?” and when we told him yes, he said, “Individual photos?”  I said that we would like a photo together, and he paused for a moment trying to figure out if he should treat us like the other couples, who he had sit together on one side of the table.  He finally decided to just go for it, and had me move next to my husband.  This sort of thing happened often.  The last night of the cruise one of our normal servers wasn’t feeling well, and so the replacement carefully asked if our family of two dads and two kids wanted separate bills.

  2. Being a gay family can sometimes have its perks.

    Some people we met on our trip had excellent gaydar and were totally unafraid of assuming the obvious: that we are a multiracial two dad family with two adopted kids.  These people were mostly the American and Canadian men who worked for the various arms of the Disney Nation, and most of them were gay themselves.  These guys usually took extra care with making our family feel welcome, and some gave us some insider knowledge like where to stand to make sure we could get Donald Duck’s autograph during the insane “Till We Meet Again” party the final night of the cruise where you have precisely fifteen minutes to battle 2500 other cruise guests to get photos with the Disney characters you failed to meet during the vacation.

  3. Being a gay family can sometimes be tough.

    Our kids are fairly social, especially our son, and when they made lots of friends on the beach or on the cruise, we tried to hook up with the parents in the hopes that we might be able to make plans to drop off the kids at the Oceaneer Club at the same time.  We didn’t want to make friends ourselves necessarily; we just wanted our kids to be able to hang out with the kids they got along with.  Our kids would make great friends on the beach, and soon it came time to say something to their parents like “Wow, our kids sure are getting along!”  The parents–mostly the dads–would sometimes merely grunt in our directly without making eye contact.  I consistently wondered if these dads were just reacting to the make up of our marriage.  And then there was the awkward moment in Bingo (which I love) when B-14 was called and the self-proclaimed Mayor of Bingo Town announced the number was “the Valentine of Bingo” and told everyone sitting with the love of their life to give that person a big kiss.  All the heterosexual couples around us starting smooching, so I turned to my husband and gave him a kiss on the cheek.  I know this is probably more than he was okay with, so I left it at that.  It was scary for a moment considering how the other cruisers would react, but thankfully it was kind of dim in the lounge and everyone was pretty much focused on their Bingo cards.
  4. My husband could make a million dollars if we moved to the Caribbean.

    At every stop on our cruise, the island women were offering to braid some white girl’s hair for $2 a braid.  These little girls would sit patiently while their hair was plaited into corn rows and beads affixed to the ends.  This is something my husband has perfected with our daughter’s hair over the past few years, and he’s quick and perfect with his technique.  I am half tempted to sell off everything we own and open a little braiding studio for him in the Bahamas somewhere.

  5. My daughter is not a racist.

    My kids got to meet Princess Tiana (again) on the cruise.  She’s the only African American princess, so she’s a big deal in our house.  She was included during the Princess Gathering a few mornings on the boat and even made a few solo appearances.  My daughter turns seven next week, and as she’s grown more savvy, she spent most of the week rationalizing why these characters weren’t the real characters.  Each of the character greetings included a crew member who helped organize the line and such, and at one point, a black woman from the United Kingdom was helping my kids after their photo with Chip & Dale.  My daughter was showing this woman her autograph book, and the woman commented on how she had seen her all over the boat collecting signature after signature.  My daughter said, “Yup!  And I even have Princess Tiana, see!”  And she flipped to that page to show her before continuing, “You remember that, right?  Because that was you, right?”  I was completely horrified.  Here was my black daughter making the assumption that this woman was previously dressed up like Princess Tiana simply because she was black, acting like all black people look the same.  I stuttered for a moment, trying to think of how I could apologize to this woman and explain all we do to help our daughter remain connected to her black roots, and then I looked at the woman and realized it was the same person who had dressed up like Princess Tiana the previous day.  She graciously tried to lead my daughter off the trail, noting the different accent she had (British versus Tiana’s southern lilt), and my daughter just smiled knowingly.

  6. Disney is still kind of evil, but in a sort of nice way.

    I totally get that Disney is evil.  I’ve written here before about the ways in which my husband and I have tried to navigate the difficult waters of inherently racist, sexist films with the social capital that comes with being intimately acquainted with their content.  This was our second foray into the World of Disney, and for every racist animatron on the Jungle Cruise and insanely skinny depiction of Ariel, there’s a little something good.  For Disney fanatics, there’s pin trading at Disney World where guests where lanyards covered in Disney flair that they can trade with “cast members” throughout the parks.  Amidst the pin options in the gift shops is always a rainbow colored Mickey silhouette.  I’m sure there are lots of ignorant folk who buy the pin because they like rainbows and think it’s pretty, not realizing that this is Disney’s subtle endorsement of our family, and it’s a small gesture amidst their cold corporate capitalist scheme.  Still, it was nice to see it and point it out to the kids on our last day.

This is a gay pin.


Gay Cakes

It’s February break, and this year my family is lucky enough to escape the cold and the snow for the warmth of the south. This morning, we got up earlier than usual and had a happy morning together anticipating our exiting trip. The dark winter months have taken their toll on our daily interactions, and we were eager to spend some quality time together as a family.

We got to the airport about two hours early, and after speeding through security, we were sauntering toward the nearest Starbucks kiosk. As we passed under a series of those ceiling mounted televisions all tuned to CNN, we heard snippets of the topic du jour:

“What these people have to understand is that we are not required to celebrate their gayness.”

It was one of those debate segments where an agitated white man pontificates about whether members in the wedding industry can legally deny services to gay couples.

“I mean, it’s like this couple saying to a baker you need to make me a divorce cake and if you don’t I’ll sue you. A baker should be able to say, ‘I will not help you celebrate your divorce because that is not a cause I believe in or one that I believe should be celebrated.’ It’s just absurd.”

Of course this isn’t the rhetoric I was hoping my children would be subjected to moments before we head to sunnier pastures. I simply wanted a chai latte and maybe a pastry or two. And here we had to listen to some conservative hide his discrimination behind a guise of civil liberties.

The problem with this age-old argument is that we aren’t talking about a baker who makes a living providing divorce cakes to recently liberated married folk. If a baker is in the business of making wedding cakes, he can’t deny equal services to different customers. If he made a divorce cake for one couple and then refused the same service for another couple who was part of a marginalized group, perhaps we’d be looking at some legitimate civil rights lawsuits. And so the same should be the case with the baker who consistently makes beautiful cakes celebrating two heterosexuals tying the knot who refuses to provide equivalent services to a gay couple.

I’m sure if I had continued listening to this yahoo on CNN continue his logical fallacies, I would have heard the suggestion that if we require bakers to make gay cakes the next step is that they’ll be required to make a cake for someone who wants to marry her dog. This is one of my favorite anti-gay marriage arguments. If we let two consenting same sex adults make a lifelong commitment to one another, the next thing that will happen is that people will start marrying their dogs.

This is clearly absurd. Dogs cannot consent to marriage, and the last time I checked they don’t share the same Constitutional rights as American humans. I know the assumption comes from the idea that two men or two women marrying one another is just so insane to some people that bestial marriage isn’t that far removed. To these people though, I say turn on a television or read a book. There are so many clearly boring representations of gay marriage these days that the practice may even appear normal to some of these doomsday decriers. Of course those can be written off as mere fiction. So I’d invite these people to come visit my family for a day to see how mundane life in the suburbs as a gay family can be. We are not having rampant sex with our animals, we aren’t out trolling the schoolyards for new recruits, and we aren’t hitting on the husbands in our neighborhood. Our lives are fairly normal, driving to soccer practice, dance recitals, and homework clubs; struggling to sustain a conversation with one another when we’re lucky enough to have a meal without the children present; and enjoying this wonderful and insane life of married bliss and family frenzy that even twenty years ago seemed like an elusive dream. Granted that our quest for normalcy is a lot more difficult thanks to people like the champion of zealot bakers everywhere, but we do our best and on the surface life is as vanilla as it can get.

We have just as much in our life to celebrate as the Joneses next door, and what right does a baker have to say that they don’t believe in us? We exist, and you’re going to have make us a pretty fabulous goddamn cake, okay?

Stealing an Identity

It fell off a truck!

My son has had a little problem lately with stealing.  It started out with small things; he’d sneak into his sister’s room and take the Lego toys he gave her for Christmas.  In his mind, he gave them to her (ie: when I told him to pick something out at the store for his sister he pointed at them) and therefore they belonged to him as much as her.  We figured gift giving was just a developmental challenge he wasn’t totally equipped for yet.

A few weeks later, he came home with a new pair of mittens.  They were the cheap kind that cost probably a dollar or two, so when he said that someone in class had a birthday party and this was the favor for everyone, I believed him.  The following week, he came home with a brand new pair of electric blue Nikes in his backpack claiming that his best friend had given them to him.  A phone call later, it turned out this wasn’t true, and the shoes had somehow found their way into my son’s bag at the end of the day while his unwitting friend put on his snow boots.  An email to the teacher that night revealed that he had stolen the shoes and the mittens story wasn’t true either.  Knowing that he’s only five, we didn’t sound the alarm bells just yet, and his teacher came up with a plan that if a friend actually gave him anything at school he was to ask the teachers if it was okay and she would send a note home; otherwise, his backpack should have no new items in it at the end of the day.

A few days later, he came home from the after school daycare center he attends twice a week with a little Lego figure.  Again he had a very cogent argument for how he ended up with it: his friend simply gave it to him.  My husband walked him back to the daycare to return the item since our son hadn’t followed protocol asking the teacher if he could keep it.  Later that night, the teacher called to say that our son had offered to put the Lego man away in his friend’s backpack, and slipped it into his own instead.

At this point, we just kept telling him we loved him and reinforcing that stealing made us and his friends sad.  We told him that just because he wanted something didn’t make it right to take it, and we asked him how he would feel if someone did that to him.  Standard stuff.  I mean, it’s not like he doesn’t have lots of toys at home.  This is clearly about something else, especially with the lying that accompanies the initial transgression.

Lock up your Lego watches

Then the other day at pick up, his teacher asked me to have a seat on the bench outside the school.  The three of us sat down and his teacher asked him to tell me what happened at the end of the day.  With a sheepishly innocent look on his face, he told her he didn’t know what she was talking about.  She then reminded him that one of his really good friends in class was very upset at the end of the day because his new Lego watch was missing from his cubby.  The teacher asked everyone to check their bags, and our son refused.  When she “helped” him, she found the watch in his bag.

Since a pattern is clearly emerging, I spoke with the school social worker the following day who agrees that this isn’t a simple case of “I want that thing and my parents won’t get it for me so I’m going to take it.”  She thinks he’s working out some other need, and obviously we don’t know what that is–and neither probably does our son know what that is.  We have some working theories of course, and the social worker thinks we’re on the right track.  There’s the normal younger sibling stuff of watching his older sister get privileges that he’s simply too young for, and she received some toys at the holidays that are geared for an older age bracket.  That’s all normal jealousy stuff.  Then in addition to that, our daughter got a Christmas gift from her birth-grandmother, something that was difficult for our son in the absence of any word from his birth-family.  The social worker also brought up the fact that he didn’t join our family until after he turned one; she mentioned he might be working out some issues over the confusion about those broken attachments that he developed during that first year.  We’re looking into some therapists, and in the mean time, we’re going to try to reinforce his identity with positive reinforcement and extra attention.

After talking to friends and doing some quick Google searches, we know this is all somewhat normal developmental behavior for a kid dealing with some significant issues that he’s not old enough to cope with alone.  At the same time, I can’t help but being worried about how his actions will be interpreted in this homogenous suburban environment.  Because of his impulsive inclinations and inability to stay still for more than thirty seconds at a time, I’ve already had a candid conversation with his teacher about him being thought of as just another brown boy with behavior issues.  What might be seen as cheekiness and exuberance in other little boys can easily be seen as annoying and distracting in my son simply because of the color of his skin and the kinkiness of his hair.  And now that he’s stealing, I worry about the adults and older kids in his school who think he is merely fulfilling another Latino stereotype.

As I’ve written about before, racial issues are really about how others interpret us–just like that saying that homophobia is really only a problem for the straight people who suffer from it–and I wonder how long it will be until my kids really start to realize that no matter how they behave they will always face the stereotypes, judgments, and misunderstandings that people have of the way they look.  Without the negative interactions that occur because of the way that others interpret those who occupy the space outside the dominant racial group, people of color could stay forever in what William Cross calls the pre-encounter stage of racial identity development, a stage where an individual is virtually unaware of his/her own race and may even identify more closely with the dominant group.  My kids have mostly moved beyond this level even at their young ages, both because of some racially charged incidents in preschool and also because my husband and I have tried to stay ahead of the curve by speaking about how others may be unkind to our family simply because of the ways we are different.  For the past two years, I’ve taken our daughter to an African American History show in Boston where they dramatize all aspects of black history, including lynchings, slavery, and segregation.  Last month, her first grade teacher even led the class through a modified version of Jane Eliot’s “Blue Eyes” activity in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday.  My kids are consistently exposed to activities, conversations, and media that shows them the good and the difficult aspects of their racial history and identity, but that’s only because of careful, thoughtful, and deliberate choices by me, my husband, and my kids’ teachers.  Even with all of this exposure, neither of my kids is old enough to really understand the truly evil side of racism in this country’s history and its present condition, but they do have an awareness of it, and they have the vocabulary and tools to begin to really internalize it when they’re old enough, hopefully in a healthy way.

But for now we can’t really draw the clear connections without confusing them and stunting their positive identity development.  We can’t tell our son that if he continues to steal that he will simply reinforce the negative stereotypes that people have of his race and doors of opportunity will close to him even though he’s so young.  We can’t tell our daughter that one of the reasons she needs to work so hard on her spelling is to combat the stereotype that she is less intelligent than her peers because of the color of her skin.  And so we continue to walk the tightrope of educating our children in an age-appropriate way about the realities of growing up as a person of color in this country, forever wondering if there is a safety net below us for that inevitable moment when we will misstep and fall.

That’s So Drunk

A few years ago in my school, I was part of a group of openly gay teachers who organized “A Day without ‘That’s So Gay,'” in which we brought awareness to students about the ubiquitous term.  At the time, students were saying it a lot.

My mom told me I couldn’t go to the party this weekend.

That’s so gay.

You’re homework is to read chapter six tonight.

That’s so gay.

I got the lead in the musical!

That’s so gay. (Okay, maybe this is an appropriate use.)

When I heard it, I usually called students on it.  I remember at my previous school, the building was literally falling apart.  A ceiling tile fell out during one of my classes, and this girl screamed, started laughing, and said, “That’s so gay.”  I asked her in front of the entire class, “So what exactly was either homosexual or extremely happy about that ceiling tile falling down?”  Everyone laughed, and I left it at that.  I’m sure it didn’t change any habits that day, but that’s all I was ready to do at that moment in my career.

So a few years ago, a colleague of mine spearheaded this “Day Without ‘That’s So Gay'”; we held a homeroom session where teachers read a blurb about the reason the phrase might be offensive, equating the word “gay” with “stupid” or “dumb” or “annoying.”  We supplied some talking points in response to the typical response: “Well we don’t mean it like that.”  We talked about the history around other colloquial expressions, like when “Jew” has been used as a verb or when I was growing up how we said everything was “retarded,” and the ways in which the normalization of those terms can hurt people who are already marginalized.  I know in my homeroom class, we had a great conversation about intent versus impact.  While the intention of saying “That’s so gay” might not be to offend someone or to equate being homosexual with being stupid or annoying, the impact on people who are gay or who love someone who might be pretty awful.  I opened up to my homeroom, telling them that every time I heard it, it hurt me.  I told them that the big difference between being gay and most other minority groups is that you usually can’t tell who is a part of that group by simply looking at them, and therefore, you typically can’t tell who you might be offending.  “I know you don’t mean it to offend, but now that you know it does, what does it say about you if you keep on saying it?”  My little group of ten or so students seemed to be coming around, and while I’m not aware of how the other discussions went in other homerooms, I know that today I really don’t hear it very often in the halls of my school.

I was thinking about all of this yesterday when I heard someone make a similar comment on a subject about which they are clearly ignorant.  I was spending the day with other teachers at a delightful professional development workshop focusing on dystopian literature.  During our discussion of the commentary that authors who write in the genre are making about our current society, we of course brought the conversation around to power in society: the haves and the have nots.  The former constantly fearful of becoming the latter; the latter often pushed down by the former.  And that’s when Little Miss Contrary decided to pipe up.  She is a high school English teacher who had spent the two days of our workshop saying how much she hated dystopian literature, contradicting our interpretations of the novels, and refusing to answer questions about what kind of books she does like.  When talking about the power in society, she brought the conversation around to economics, and went on and on about her sad little son’s inability to find a job:

Don’t blame him for your lazy son.

“He just graduated from college, and he’s been trying to so hard to find a job, but this economy is just awful.  And then I see people like this Philip Seymour whatever who has all the money in the world and he just pumps himself full of drugs with it.”

I did a double take.  Was she really linking her son’s job search to Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death the day before, the death of a wonderfully talented actor who had succumbed to an addition he had been battling for more than two decades?  How did one have anything to do with the other.

I immediately piped up, “Well, I’m not sure that the economy has anything to do with Hoffman’s drug and alcohol addiction.”

“Well, I mean, he just spent all that money on drugs.  He has no idea what other people are going through.”

Another teacher joined my crusade, “How about Justin Bieber?  That might be a much better example of what you’re talking about.”

Little Miss Contrary simply huffed and rolled her eyes.  A few minutes later during a break, she turned to the woman sitting next to her and said, “You know, I really don’t blame that Justin Bieber.  He’s too young to know better.”

This seemingly idiotic conversation hurt me far more than it should have.  Just like “That’s so gay,” when I hear people talk with such contempt for people struggling with addiction, I am reminded of the years and years of struggle my own mother endured at the hands of her alcohol addiction, a disease that eventually claimed her life six years ago.  And it hurts.  It hurts that people would think of my mother’s death with a huff and an eye roll like this woman did of Philip Seymour Hoffman, like she surely did a few years ago when Amy Winehouse died, or any of the other high profile addiction-related deaths in recent years.

What probably stings the most is that I went through a period of ignorance myself about my mother’s sickness.  I remember yelling at her once, “Why don’t you just stop?  I don’t understand why you don’t just stop drinking!”  I was in my twenties and my mother’s functional alcoholism that she’d lived with for most of my life had just turned gone over the precipice; she was often belligerently inebriated, had a few drunken car accidents under her belt, and had recently endured the demise of her 20+ year marriage.  She had been to rehab and back, and nothing seemed to be taking.  Like Little Miss Contrary, I didn’t understand why this woman who had enough money to live comfortably, who had friends and family who loved her, who once had a vibrant and exciting life filled with joy and happiness was now consistently choosing to drink her life away.

Even when she died after laying in a hospital bed for nearly two months, fading in and out of reality as her liver slowly stopped functioning, I didn’t understand.  At that point, I’d done all the reading, gone to counseling, attended Al-Anon, and logically I understood that my mother simply couldn’t stop.  She had a disease and the only real treatment that is available to addicts–counseling from professional and support from other addicts–didn’t work for her.  As a person myself who is able to say, “I’m only have one glass of wine tonight” and actually only have one glass of wine tonight, it didn’t make sense to me that someone could say that and then be unable to stop drinking four, five, six glasses of wine tonight.  It’s taken me several years beyond my mother’s death to come to terms with the fact that I really can be no more angry with her for dying from alcoholism than I could be if she had died from cancer.

Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death this week reminded me of all of this.  A good friend who has struggled with these issues herself immediately wrote to me with the news.  We had worked with him in New York briefly about fifteen years ago when he was doing some theater productions, so we felt a bit more connected to his departure than some of the other recent celebrity deaths.  Little Miss Contrary’s sentiments about his choice to inject himself with drugs shows the limitations of her understanding, limitations that are certainly the majority in our world.  To people like her, Hoffman’s overdose is another indication of the self-destructive decadence of the uber-wealthy, and while his tax bracket may have made the instruments of his death more readily available than others, this is a disease that doesn’t check salaries before attacking its victims.  Hoffman left behind three kids, and even not knowing really knowing him, I’m positive he wasn’t sitting in that apartment thinking, “What am I going to do with all of this money?”

A good read.

Loving someone with an addiction is probably one of the only things that will help perpetuate a better understanding of the disease, and in my personal experience, sometimes it’s moving beyond that love when the addict leaves our lives that really brings that understanding.  Sharon Rush suggests in her book Loving Across the Color Lines that being a white woman who loves her black adopted daughter taught her to see the realities of the racial divide in this country, and I think this is true of the significant strides in gay rights over the past two decades as well.  When a loved one comes out to us and we do not allow the knowledge to affect that love, we begin to understand the implications of subtle heterosexism that exists in our society, and we maybe speak up when we hear a kid say “That’s so gay.”

Likewise, when we love an addict, and particularly when we lose that person, we come to accept the realities of this disease.  It’s not knowledge that is easily come by, and it’s not a lesson I want anyone in my life to really endure.  At the same time, a shared collective understanding might provide a safer place for us all, one filled with empathy, especially for the victims that succumb to addiction and the ones that are left behind.

Paying It Forward

About four months ago, the gracious and lovely John McCourt over at Starbucks and the City nominated this humble blog for the Liebster Award.  I was super excited that my fledgling endeavor was garnering some attention, and I had every intention of passing the torch soon thereafter.  Of course, this took place right at the start of the school year, and all my best intentions went straight out the window.  Then yesterday, a friend at The Larsens Live Here nominated my blog again for the same honor, and I realized it’s time I pay it forward.

The Liebster Award is, as a friend describes it, a kind of chain letter for bloggers.  As a recipient myself, I am now supposed to nominate eleven up and coming bloggers that I think people should check out.  This magic number of eleven also is continued through a list of facts about myself, a series of questions the my nominators would like me to answer, and finally a list of questions that I pose to my subsequent nominees.  Since I’ve been nominated twice in the past few months, I have two sets of eleven questions to answer following my eleven facts before I nominate some blogs I hope people will check out.  Make sense?  If not, too bad.  Without further ado…

11 Facts About Myself

  1. I am a gay man.
  2. I am of Dutch Indonesian descent and the first born American generation on my mom’s side of the family.
  3. I have been happily married to my husband since the year same-sex marriage became legal in Massachusetts in 2004.
  4. We have two children: an African American daughter and a Latino son.
  5. I am a big showmo.  I love theater, especially musical theater.
  6. Growing up, my only real aspiration was to live in New York City.  Then I moved there and after a few months I realized there was more to life than living in the center of the universe.
  7. I now live in the suburbs of Boston in our lovely house surrounded by a white picket fence.  I never thought being so boring would be so much work.
  8. I never thought I’d feel this old when I’m still this young.
  9. I’m a high school English teacher, and if I had to do it all over again, I’d pick another discipline that would provide me the same salary with far fewer papers to grade.
  10. I’m an only child.
  11. My mom died in 2008 of cirrhosis of the liver after a longtime battle with alcoholism.

11 Questions from Starbucks and the City

1. Coffee or tea?

Definitely tea.  I can’t stand the taste of coffee.  I don’t even like coffee ice cream.  The smell is enough to make me gag usually.  I’m not a huge fan of tea either, but it’s the only alternative.  I do LOVE chai tea lattes though, and a large portion of my income gets siphoned off to Starbucks feeding that addiction.

2. Why did you start your blog?

Adopting two children of color has forced my husband and me to think carefully about how we could bring up our children to be proud of themselves and their multi-faceted identities.  They have two dads, they are adopted, and they are both racial minorities.  They’ve got a lot to grapple with in today’s society, and in doing our homework about how to raise them in a healthy environment, we both came to terms with the ways in which our own identities were shaped by our race and sexuality.  I started the blog last summer to help others who have similar families to ours deal with these daily realities, as well as to share with our friends and families the many trials and tribulations that we go through just being a family, the types of things that I’m not likely to bring up in normal conversation when we’re talking about the latest episode of The Good Wife or something.

3. When you’re not blogging, what are you doing?

Mostly, I’m trying not to yell at my kids.  They are at once the most endearing and most annoying things in my world.  I love them so much, and parenting is the hardest thing I’ve ever done.  It’s tested our personal resolve and the limits of our marriage in ways we never imagined.  So life when not blogging is devoted to taking care of these kids, shuttling them from dance to gymnastics to soccer, and taking in an occasional musical or two.

4. LA, SF or NYC?

New York City is still one of my favorite places on Earth, even though I left it behind for this life in the burbs.  I grew up in California, but near San Francisco, so saying Los Angeles would be a betrayal of my northern roots.  I never experienced San Francisco as an adult though, so I don’t have any tremendous affinity for it now, although I do have many fond memories of driving to the city in high school stalking the cast of The Real World on Lombard Street.

5. What is your favorite book? And why?

Oh man, I’m an English teacher primarily because I love books.  (I was blinded by the great literature out there to the reality of all the paper grading.)  Narrowing down my favorite book is kind of tough, but if I can look back on one of my favorite experiences reading it would have to be John Irving’s The World According to Garp.  The book spoke to my young twenty-something self on so many levels, and I remember sobbing uncontrollably on the subway ride home from to Washington Heights when I worked in Times Square because something monumental had happened in the book; there are many such moments in the book, and I won’t ruin it for anyone who wants to read it!  I loved being so moved by a book that I would weep with such abandon in public.

6. What is your favorite website? And why?

I’m a total liberal news whore, so I kind of love The Huffington Post.  I love how unashamed they are to just go nuts on the right.

7. Snow angels or sand castles?

Sand castles.  I’ve lived longer on the east coast now than I ever lived in California, but I’m still not used to the tremendous cold–although I do love myself a snow day now and then as a teacher.  My family is lucky enough to spend a lot of time in Provincetown in the summer, and building sand castles on Herring Cove beach is the best when you’ve got two amazing kids to help you out.

8. When you go out to a bar, what’s your drink of choice?

I love fruity martinis, something like a cosmo, which I’m embarrassed to order now because it makes me feel like I’m trying to recapture on an era that has long past.

9. What are you going to be for Halloween?

I’m going to be escorting two kids around the neighborhood begging strangers for candy.

10. Where do you want to be in 10 years?

In ten years, I’m hoping to be driving my daughter around the country checking out colleges that will help her pursue her interests–and hopefully make a lot of money so she can take care of her dads in their old age.

11. How are you going to get there?

We work on our daughter constantly to show her she’s a strong black woman who is brilliant and can work hard for anything she wants.  We try to do this while at the same time providing her a clear view of the reality of black women in this country, the ways in which others will both explicitly and unintentionally try to limit her potential, and how she can overcome those limitations.

11 Questions from The Larsens Live Here

1. Even if you’re not a city person, what’s your favorite city and why?

I love New York City because I lived there for two years and some of my best friends are still there.  It’s also where I can get my theater fix and still feel like a snob about it (I try to avoid things on tour).

2. Whats’ your favorite book? (don’t go nuts.  Just one you currently love, or the one you go back to over and over …)

Besides the one noted above, my most recent contemporary favorite is probably Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding.  Yes, it was a bit over-hyped, but I read it before I read about it, so I totally enjoyed the Irving-like storyline and characters.

3. What’s the most adventurous thing you’ve ever eaten?

I had iguana when I was in Belize with my husband several years ago.  It tasted like chicken.

4. What now-deceased or now-defunct  band or artist do you *wish* you had gotten to see in concert?

Ethel Merman.

5. What’s your favorite season and why?

Living through New England winters has taught me to relish the warm sun and blooming flowers that comes with spring each year.

6. What’s your favorite seasoning and why?

My mom taught to me pepper the crap out of everything I eat.  Fresh pepper is amazing, and when I go to a fancy restaurant where they grind it for me, the waiter is always at risk of getting carpal tunnel because I want so much.

7. What’s a belief you held as a child that makes you laugh as an adult? (Ruefully or otherwise …)

Until very recently, I misunderstood a lyric in Madonna’s “Like a Prayer.”  The line is supposed to be “Let the choir sing…” but I always thought it was “Lepers crossing.”  If your old enough to recall the controversy over the song’s music video, this makes perfect sense right?  There was the whole hullabaloo around the Pepsi campaign and the song, and then when the video came out and Madonna was making out with a black Jesus, they pulled the whole campaign.  Since she was dancing with a black Jesus in the video, I thought it totally made sense that she was singing about lepers because Jesus helped them right?

8. If you suddenly came into a pile of money, what would be the FIRST thing you’d do with it?

How much money are we talking here?  If it’s just enough to do some really nice updates on our house, I’d totally put in a two-person jacuzzi in the our bathroom.  Every day I come home from work and think, “Ugh…if only I could sit in a hot tub for 20 minutes before I pick up the kids, I’d be a much better parent.”  Seriously.  I think that every day.  Every.  Day.

9. Train, plane or automobile?

Trains are so much fun to ride, but they’re so freaking expensive.  Planes are the most efficient, but automobiles allow me to blare my showtunes and such while singing at the top of my lungs.  Oh, and I can also sing “Lepers crossing” really loud.

10. What’s your favorite Shakespeare play?

I taught Twelfth Night to freshman for five years, and it was total heaven.  Helen Hunt almost ruined it for me when she played Viola on Broadway, but luckily that Trevor Nunn movie is sooooooo good.

11. If you could go back in time to live in any place/era in history, what would it be and why?

I don’t think I’d choose to live any time but the present.  There is no other time I could live as openly with my family as I do now.  When I was a kid, I couldn’t imagine being married and having two awesome kids, living and working openly as a gay man in a community.  It’s no cake walk, but it’s certainly better than it was ten years ago.

My 11 6 Blog Nominations

I need to get reading more blogs!  I’ll try to find five more over the next school vacation week.

My 11 Questions for the Nominees

  1. Why did you start your blog?
  2. What fictional television character should be your real life best friend?
  3. Who is your favorite Broadway diva?
  4. Looking back on how your identity was shaped as a child, which Disney character warped you the most?
  5. What book should be required reading for all American high school students, but isn’t?
  6. What is your favorite imaginary fantasy that you acted out when you were a child?
  7. Do you believe in love at first sight?  Explain.
  8. If you’re gay, for which celebrity would you pretend to be straight?  If you’re straight, for which celebrity would you pretend to be gay?  (For example, I’m gay, but I’d probably leave my husband if Kerry Washington asked me to run away with her.)  If you’re something in between, play out the scenario accordingly.
  9. Who knows you the best in this world?
  10. If you had to live in a foreign city, which would it be and why?
  11. What’s your favorite showtune?  Seriously.  You have to.  Even if you don’t listen to them.

Thanks for reading!  Enjoy!

Teaching & Learning Are Not Neutral Acts

What’s your pleasure? It’s for science!

This week my daughter came home with an assignment in which she had to collect data, create a graph, and answer some questions about what she had “discovered.”  Her assigned question on which she was to collect said data was, “What is your favorite pizza topping?”  She was very excited about this homework, and she immediately wanted to put on her boots and tromp around the neighborhood asking people whether liked plain cheese or pepperoni.  Before we headed out, she looked at the data collection page, which the teacher had carefully constructed, including a few lines with prescribed sources: Mom, Dad, Sister, Brother, Friend.  This was followed by a bunch of blanks for the kids to fill in as necessary.  The instructions said that we should write down each person’s name, so she wondered out loud what she should do about the “mom” category.  Then she said, “And where do I put Poppy?”  After a bit of discussion about how crossing off “Mom” and writing in “Poppy” wasn’t going to corrupt the scientific process, she was off on her research expedition.

This is a minor issue I know and I won’t say a word to the teacher, but would it have been that hard to leave those lines blank?  Do kids who live at home with both their mom and dad need to be instructed that those people should be asked what type of toppings they like on their pizza?  Or does it matter if kids don’t ask their biological parents?

I encounter constant questions like this as a gay dad with two adopted kids.  Sometimes they remain internal, and sometimes I voice these concerns.  I know I need to teach my kids to navigate these waters they’ll be traveling their entire lives, and at the same time, sometimes I just want them to be kids.  My daughter is not even seven yet, and I could see this assignment giving her pause today in a way that will be a bit more heavy for her as she matures.

Ask any teacher who has become a parent whether the latter has affected the former and the answer will be resoundingly affirmative.  Parenting these two amazing kids with my husband has changed my teaching in even more important ways.  Seeing the ways that my family is marginalized in schools without careful and deliberate thought to the contrary has exposed the same understanding to me in my teaching at the high school level.

Useful reading tool or evil propaganda?

I first encountered some of these issues in graduate school, years before having kids of my own, when a left-wing gay Indian professor taught my multicultural literature class.  He assigned Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, and he carefully unraveled for us the way in which the old “Dick and Jane” primer books I remember from my own school days can actually be seen as oppressive propaganda for the dominant white culture.  In the novel, one of the characters is literally driven insane by her desire to pursue the normative beauty of Dick and Jane’s world.  That might sound a bit crazy initially, but now, thirteen years later, I can attest that this is backed up by both research and my own family’s experiences.  Anything that is presented as the norm to a class of students immediately pushes others to the periphery and makes them feel less than.  I remember in my undergraduate program a professor of communication grouping homosexuals with others who “lived outside society’s norm,” others like prostitutes and rampant drug users.  Although he was coming at this idea from a purely academic perspective, I immediately wanted to stop learning from him–and I was 21.

Now as an educator for more than a dozen years myself, one who teaches courses on anti-racist education practices to other professionals, I am all too eager to discuss the issue that teaching and learning are not neutral acts.  This is actually the specific wording of a basic tenet of these professional development courses I now teach, and when we go over these guidelines I am dying for one of the participants to ask what exactly that means.  Just last week, this was the situation.  I had started co-facilitating this course and when one of my colleagues asked the class if they had any questions about any of the guidelines, I kept thinking, “Come on, ask about the teaching and learning one…”  No one did, and so I didn’t get to tell them that whenever one of my kids’ teachers reads a story that has a mother and a father in it that they are reinforcing the isolation that my kids sometimes feel when they don’t see their parentage reflected in the curriculum.  I didn’t get to tell them about the sophomore student I had last year that wrote in a personal essay about how much it hurt her every time a teacher referred to winter break as Christmas break.

Do you see yourself?

I’m certainly not advocating for a watered-down politically correct curriculum in schools where no one is celebrated so that no one is offended.  Our schools’ curricula across disciplines should be filled with what so many multicultural education experts refer to as “mirrors and windows.”  We need to provide space in the curriculum so that all students see themselves (the mirrors) and learn about others (the windows).  Certainly, this is harder to do for our students who are not part of the dominant culture.  A Christian student who doesn’t read a Christmas story in school isn’t going to feel like society is ignoring his culture.  He simply needs to turn on the television or walk into a store to see his culture in full swing.  The Muslim student who is fasting for Ramadan though, is far less likely to walk into Target and feel validated by his culture.

To do this effectively, we obviously need to know our students, and this can be especially delicate when talking about touchy subjects like racial identity and religious views.  Last year though, I realized that had to get over it and just ask.  So in the beginning of the year, when I have my kids fill out a questionnaire that includes such innocuous items as “What career would you like to pursue after school?” and “List three words that describe you,” I added a few items that helped me identify students who might need some extra attention:

  • One of the many things we will be discussing is how race impacts identity in the characters we study and in ourselves.  To better help me prepare for these discussions and be sensitive to all of my students, please indicate how you racially identify.  Select as many as you feel appropriate!
  • To the same extent that I’d like to be sensitive to issues of racial identity, I’d like to be sensitive to each students’ religious background.  Please indicate how you identify.
  • Are there any religous or cultural holidays that you celebrate that are not recognized by the school calendar?  Please select any that are appropriate from the following list or add to the list in the “other” box.

Since I teach a fairly homogeneous school, most of the answers were similar: White, Christian, No.  This made the few responses that differed stand out all the more.  This knowledge is obviously very important, and it helps me remember how I might be able to bring a few more mirrors into my classroom for them (and to serve as windows for the rest of the class), but I took it one step further this year.  The third question about cultural holidays was an important one since my school has a “no homework” policy on certain vacation periods, vacations that typically revolve around Christian holidays like Christmas and Easter.  This year I looked up the handful of holidays my students identified and looked up the dates for each one.  I set a reminder on my phone for each holiday, and a few days before each one, I sent an email to the individual students, CCing his/her parents, wishing them a joyous celebration (if appropriate–that took some Googling in some instances) and letting them know that I was sensitive to the fact that their observance wasn’t recognized by our school calendar.  I added a note that if their family commitments impeded their work for class, they should touch base with me so we could work it out.

I’ve done this all year for holidays like Eid al-Adha, Hanukkah, Dewali, and this weekend Chinese New Year.  Of the dozen or so emails I’ve sent out this year, not a single student has asked for an extension, and every single one of the students, and all of the parents, sent a note of thanks for acknowledging their tradition.  These are students who have learned to be truly bi-cultural, most of them juggling their private family commitments with the demands of a high-performing school system that requires extensive work at home on a schedule that is tuned to the Christian majority.  They know how to ring in the Year of the Horse while cramming for midterm exams.  And simply having that feat acknowledged sometimes goes a long way.