Saturday, February 1, 2014

A Good Cry

I was shaving yesterday morning. My beard is back for those of you who follow my facial hair. Like my sanity, it comes and goes. And I recalled seeing Smokey Robinson in an interview saying he wrote the Miracle's 1965 soul classic Tracks of My Tears while he was standing in front of his mirror, shaving.

Apparently, fellow Miracle Marvin Tarplin recorded the music for him and said, "here you go, see what you can do with this." And Smokey said the first three lines of the chorus came to him right away, but he couldn't come up with the last line, which would become the song's eventual, famous title. Number 50 on Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, by the way.

"How do you say 'I love you' in a different way?" he mused. "In the history of music, 'I love you' has been said in every way possible. But then I stood there in front of the mirror shaving one morning thinking, what if somebody cried so much for love, you could actually see the tracks in their face where the tears came down? And that's how the song happened."

Take a good look at my face
You'll see my smile looks out of place
If you look closer, it's easy to trace
The tracks of my tears

Lord knows Justice and Adam and I have carved out our share of those tracks. At the beginning, tears came out like buckets, like waterfalls, like an endless well from this little girl who was so hurt inside, there was nothing left for her to do but to take us with her. 

"I'm not your sweetheart!" she would scream at us, and we'd leave the room and cry. "I hate you," she'd rage, and we'd go away and cry again. "Get away from me!" she'd yell, as we came back for more. Like prizefighters, Adam and I. Get hit, get up, get hit, get up. Too dumb and stubborn to stay in our corner and throw in the towel. Where that resiliency came from, I don't have a clue. There are wells within us we don't even realize we have until we need to draw from them. Thank God for that, because children need them.

So much about our early relationship with Justice was about tears - hers, mine or Adam's - that I want to reach back in time and comfort that struggling trio and tell them, "Hey, it's really going to be okay. All those books you're reading on adoption and parenting that dangle all that far-off hope in your face? Every single one of them is right. All of these tears are natural. Things are absolutely right on schedule. Let your tears fall because this too shall pass."

The beauty of so many tears is coming out on the other side and realizing it really does end in something better. There is a transformative nature in tears. Sometimes you just have to keep going and cry until there are no more left. Because at the end, you get something unanticipated and magnificent.

Galway Kinnell writes in his poem Crying:

Crying only a little bit
is no use. You must cry
until your pillow is soaked!
Then you can get up and laugh.
Then you can jump in the shower
and splash-splash-splash!
Then you can
throw open your window
and "Ha ha! Ha ha!"
And if people say, "Hey,
what's going on up there?"
"Ha ha!" sing back, "Happiness
was hiding in the last tear!
I wept it! Ha ha!"

The little girl who railed in rage is gone. She has been replaced by one who had to cry a lot of tears in order to find her happiness on Bonnie Castle Way. There's still a bit of "arm's length" in Justice's expressions of love. Kids who survived the System don't come with, "I love you," and "I love you, too" built-in. Verbalizing love is not part of their vocabulary. They keep that vulnerability close to their vest. But now she'll allow hugs and showers of kisses. She even enjoys them. She even seeks them out, though she'd kill me with a glance for even suggesting it. She may not say, "I love you," out loud, but it's not because it's lacking in her nature, it's just not in her lexicon. Yet, I keep telling Adam. Yet.

"Look at this," I said to Adam, who is very verbal, and needs to hear that audible "I love you" more than I do as the litmus test of success. I was showing him pictures of Justice riding on his shoulders at Sea World this past December. She is giggling, arms wrapped around his neck, all bright smiles. Oh, how I enjoy watching Justice saddle up Daddy and take him out for a trot. She puts him through his paces, putting her little hands on his cheek and turning his head the direction she wants him to go. Those are her reins and he never fails her. He is her faithful horse, Prince.

"There's your I love you," I tell Adam, who still pines for the verbal version. "When she climbs into bed and snuggles up next to you all night, you miss the whole thing because you sleep like a log, but there's your I love you right there. It doesn't come in words, but she's putting it out there, every day."

Sometimes "I love you" isn't a spoken phrase. Sure, it's a nuance sometimes. But other times it comes up like a rubber mallet and hits you over the head. They don't call it painfully obvious for nothing. All you have to do to hear it is to stop trying so hard to hear it.

In family therapy, Miss Hannah, our therapist, occasionally stops us to check our goals. She does these assessments a couple times a year. The kids go off and play while Adam and I sit at the table and tell her where we're at. The question that used to stump me in those tear-tracked early days was "Tell me about Justice's good qualities." I'm ashamed to admit, that was hard. "Strong-willed," I'd grumble. And by strong-willed, I didn't mean strong-willed. By strong-willed, I meant "Pain in the ass." "Driving me bat-shit crazy with her defiance and her powerful hatred of me during this incredibly hard new situation."

But now the compliments flow like rain. Like tears of joy. Like honey off the tongue.

"She's strong-willed," I say, but now it's in genuine admiration. "Independent, self-assured."

"Compassionate," Adam adds. "Empathetic, helpful, thoughtful."

"Protective, creative, artistic, free," I toss out.

"Smart, graceful, athletic," Adam adds.

"Full of fun," I say. "Good-hearted, well-meaning, adventurous..."

"Brave," Adam and I say together.

And it goes on like this for quite sometime, until Miss Hannah finally smiles and says, "Okay, that's enough." And we smile, knowing our therapy with Miss Hannah will soon be coming to an end, at least for this essential era in Justice's life. Who knows what help her teen years will require when all that abstract thinking kicks in. She has not cried her last of life's tears, we know that, but for now, in this incarnation, we all sense our days of little girl adjustment therapy are winding down. And we're good with that.

We're discovering the essential truth of Justice. She is many things to us now, and what is good about her so far outweighs what is challenging, it's a joy to wake up each day just to see what will happen next. Happiness was hiding in the last tear and we wept it. Ha-ha!

Friday morning before school, we all colored. I made black and white coloring pages of all our faces with my iPhone, printed them out, and we all colored our family in the brightest colors you can imagine; primary, yellow, blue. Justice looked like the blueberry girl from Willy Wonka. "You're turning violet, Violet," I pointed out. And she giggled.

I hugged her right before she left for school, and she let herself melt into my arms for a minute and she said, "Sometimes I think of you when I'm at school and I cry."

"Because I'm so mean and grumpy?" I asked, pouring on the fake growly-face.

"No," she said giggling, hugging back a little.

"Because you miss me?" I whispered hopefully.

"Yes," she whispered back.

And then she was gone. Off like a shot. Another drive-by loving from the irrepressible little girl who has stolen my heart so completely, I can't imagine taking another breath without her.

And then thank goodness the house was empty, because I cried too. For a good long time, and joyfully.

There's your "I love you," I told myself. Right there. 

"I love you, too," I whispered to an empty room.

And smiling, I went back to the table to pick up the crayons.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

How Much Hours?

As I type this, there is a digital timer running downstairs counting down the hours and minutes until we go to the Sobe Ice Arena at the Fiesta Hotel here in Las Vegas to enjoy what the schedule calls "open skate," and I call "hopefully not a trip to Urgent Care."

This comes immediately on the heels of our trip to SeaWorld over the holiday school break, where our friend's daughter fell down and broke her arm on the snow they pump into a special kids' play area during the Christmas season. She was only walking. On shoes. On feet. Our kids will be balancing on ice skates. Never before attempted. Fast forward to the next blog title, "Scenes from an Emergency Room."

Anyway, perilous thoughts and potential Four Stooges choreography notwithstanding, we're going ice skating today because Grandma Judy sent us a Groupon, and we are not one, two, three or four to turn down a freebie. Thank you, GJ.

The timer is running downstairs because open skate doesn't start until 2 pm, and in Justin's world, that's a million years away. It's either start a timer for him or listen to him ask out loud every five minute interval, "How much hours until we go?" I tell him it's "how many hours" ten times a day, but to Justin, "how much hours" is the way to go. It's stuck in his immoveable syntax, just like "panties," which he still uses for "underwear." Future Mrs. Justin Reisman, I really apologize, but by all ongoing indications, you're both going to call your underwear panties. You'll want to encourage him to keep his voice down in Target.

Developmentally, Justin has made great strides in the vexing and perplexing way only boyhood can illustrate. He can shoot amazing baskets from the free throw line -- impossible shots for someone four feet tall -- then come up to me two seconds later and ask me to tie his shoe. He can build Lego sets that require an advanced engineering degree, but still flip his plate off the table attempting to cut his baked potato. He remains a combined enigma of total grace and oh shit, watch out.

Intellectually, the kids are growing too. They still hate losing games to each other, but the DEFCON 1 tantrums have turned into DEFCON 4 sulks and bad manners, and now they're over chess and backgammon instead of Chutes and Ladders and Candyland, which is cool to watch, even if the good sportsmanship is still a work in progress.

I read two books this past month by arguably the best elementary school teacher in the United States, Rafe Esquith. Rafe teaches children of immigrants in inner-city Los Angeles, most of whom speak English as a second language. Not only do his fifth graders score higher on standardized tests than all others around him -- (he thinks standardized tests are a load of crap, by the way, and I tend to agree) -- he also teaches them, in the course of a year, to read music, play rock songs note-for-note, behave impeccably in public, including an annual trip to Washington D.C., and oh-yeah-in-his-spare-time after school, rehearses with them daily to put on an annual Shakespeare play. Unabridged. A different play every year. Front to back. Cover to cover. The guy is a scary-good teacher. Stunningly good.

And his whole philosophy boils down to a sort of humble, "aw shucks, anybody can do just have to be organized." And balls, he sure is. Every moment is accounted for...on the clock, or the thousands of hours of personal time he "gives up" for his kids. His fifth-graders often grow up to be some of the brightest college graduates in the nation. He's the only teacher in the nation to receive the National Medal of the Arts. Oprah Winfrey gave him a $100K "Use Your Life Award." Queen Frickin' Elizabeth made him a Member of the British Empire. Mother-a-God, Rafe, take a day off.

Anyhoo, the books have inspired me greatly -- not so much to cram education down my kids' throats 28 hours a day -- but to at least understand that "education is doesn't stop at 3 pm," as Esquith writes. I feel challenged to give just a little extra in 2014, and be just a little more organized in delivering it. If Esquith can teach 40 fifth graders how to read music and stage Shakespeare, I think I can spend ten minutes at the kitchen table with a globe, playing games and pointing out Brazil.

So, yep. I actually made a weekly schedule for learning games we'll play at home. Geography, art, math, music, dictionary, writing, science, organizing, Torah, theatre. They're all in there, mapped out daily in easy-to-stomach ten minute segments. This is on top of "D.E.A.R. - Drop Everything and Read," which we are already doing. How far we'll get with the new mini-segments, I do not know. Where it might take them, I have no earthly clue.

But it can't hurt to try, and it is fun to be involved in their learning lives proactively, and not just as a disinterested observer, picking school sheets out of their backpacks at night and throwing the "done ones" away. It might be good for a while to remember I'm a teacher, too. And if I can make it fun, maybe learning will always be fun for them. That's my job, too. There's nothing noble or braggy about that. It's just part of what I'm supposed to be doing. Besides, what else am I going to do? Sit around here writing blogs all day?

I want them to read better too. I want them to learn to love to read, like I do. I don't quite know how to do that yet, but I'm open to your ideas. How do I foster a love of reading in these two kids? The boring online basal readers they use in school certainly aren't lighting any fires. I think it's up to me to find material that sets their minds ablaze and their desire to gobble up more and more.

"I want my students to love to read," writes Rafe Esquith, in a quote I'm typing up and posting on my wall. "Reading is not a subject. Reading is a foundation of life, an activity that people who are engaged with the world do all the time. If a child is going to grow into a truly special adult -- someone who thinks, considers other points of view, has an open mind, and possesses the ability to discuss great ideas with other people -- a love of reading is an essential foundation."

Amen. Now how do I make that happen? Your ideas are more than welcome.

Meanwhile, with ongoing thanks to Irving Naxon, beloved inventor of the crock pot (because right now I'm cooking a hell of a pot roast and writing you this little update at the same time) we Reismans will embark on 2014 with a little more planning, a little more organization and a little more learning, to make up for early days of falling, floundering and shell shock. We're finding ways to use our time better lately. We also have a weekly menu planned out here at home now, too. We started that a few weeks ago. The kids know what's coming up every day for breakfast, lunch, dinner and snack time, and I don't have to scramble at the last minute with last minute shopping and wondering what the hell I'm making for dinner. It's working out great. But yeah, that part's just me bragging.

So, there you have it. That's the New Year's Resolution in our house. Better organized dads, more enlightened kids, and little tiny ten minute attempts to make learning something they love, not something they have to endure.

How much hours will it take? I really don't know.

But I think it will be an awfully great adventure.

"Teach Like Your Hair's on Fire" by Rafe Esquith, c.2007 Penguin Books, New York
"Lighting Their Fires" by Rafe Esquith, c.2009 Penguin Books, New York

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Marbles in the Marble Jar

We have a marble jar in our house, and the kids win prizes by filling it up for cooperation, good behavior, and sometimes, just because we love them and give them extra marbles for no reason at all.

It holds 117 marbles, and they fill it to the top every week-and-a-half to two weeks. There's no purpose or numeric, Kabbalistic mysticism to 117 marbles. That just happens to be the number of marbles that fit in the jar, without a bunch of marbles spilling over onto my carpet where I'll almost assuredly step on them in the dark and say swear words. 117 is maximum marble jar capacity, so that's how you get, to quote 2012 J2.

The prizes range from the very ordinary (a Saturday movie or new earrings at the mall), to the very fashionable (new skinny jeans or a new dress), to the gotta-have-it, heart's desire (a new Arsenal league soccer ball, a trip to Adventuredome, or God help us all, fur-lined boots).

At 7 and 8, J1 and J2 have not yet discovered these are all things we'd buy them anyway. There's nothing better than having your kids feel extra special with prizes that are just the normal, everyday business of life. There's no better day in my house than the one where I say, "What should our next prize be?" and they both shout out, "New shoes, new shoes!" and little do they realize, they've grown another size, so those were on my necessary To-Do list anyway. I believe, my friends, that's called an automatic Win-Win.

I bought the marbles at Wal-Mart, and they're pretty spiffy jar-fillers. We call them marbles, but they're really not. You couldn't shoot a game with them. Like us, they're not round and smooth yet. Like us, they're rough and sharp and they're crazy-sparkly like gems. I got them in the fish tank section. They're diamond-shaped, see-through, shiny and colorful. They're blue and red and yellow and pink and orange. They're diverse and different, like we are too. It's a pretty marble jar. It catches the sunlight. It gets prettier and prettier as victories mount and we fill it up together. I guess you really can't wish for anything more than that, right? Victories you fill up together?

We're pretty generous with the marbles. Doing homework will get you marbles. Sometimes a marble a page if we're feel magnanimous. Taking your plate to the sink will get you a marble. So will cleaning your room (although this is still mostly an untested theory). Being helpful gets you marbles. Being kind. Getting along. Being cooperative. Treating each other with loving kindness. Handing the last cookie to your sister and saying, "Here, Justice, you can have it." That'll get you a shitload of marbles. Boy, will it ever.

Mostly, marbles are for the times we get caught in the monumental act of respect. For looking beyond ourselves to see the other person sitting next to us. The amazing and beautiful times where no one is doing something good to earn something. The times where you get a marble and you say, "wow, I didn't even see that marble coming." Those are the priceless marbles. The ones you earn for not thinking about you. The ones you earn for thinking about someone else.

J1 and J2 have come so far in these past 17 months with us, it's sometimes hard to believe they're the same kids. From siblings whose default setting was fight and fight often, to the cooperative, sharing, caring duo of now, I almost can't believe it. I am blisteringly proud. I am stunned to watch it unfold.

I posted a video clip to Facebook the other day. They were at Chuck E. Cheese, feeding prize tickets into the ticket-counter machine, and effortlessly, for a minute and a half of video, they cooperatively found a rhythm. They instinctively handed each other tickets, fed them into the machine, didn't fight, didn't push, didn't compete. They just worked with each other with barely a word said, for the common good...them. It was fascinating to watch.

Do they still fight? Oh Lord, yes. They are a brother and sister, 7 and 8, one year apart, and if sibling rivalry didn't rear its ugly head at least once a day and lead to a minor spat or skirmish or two, I think I'd send them to the doctor for a cognitive workup and a blood panel. Big sisters think little brothers are an almighty pain in the ass and I assure you, it's vice-versa. He likes to kick the soccer ball back and forth at breakneck speed, and she likes to sit on it and take her time pondering new self-invented rules like, "okay, this next time, we all close our eyes and whoever gets it first gets a thousand dollars." It drives him up a tree. As far as stylistic pissing contests go, they can still come up with some doozies.

But there's no rage behind it anymore. Whatever life did to these kids to wallop them in the ass, mind and spirit...the worst days are behind them. Some of it is just growing up and growing older, but some of it is pure Them. We don't have to do "Kid of the Day" anymore to see who's turn it is to push the garage door button and turn off the light switch at night. They don't give a shit anymore. Life's too full of other things now.

The constant chorus of "that's not fair!" which haunted us from Day 1 to Day 365 is now just a watered-down, auto-pilot afterthought. There's no heartbreak to it anymore. There is still the occasional sense of injustice and inequity, but it finds its basis in reality now, not knee-jerk reactivity. "Fair" is a word that means something to them now. It is not a egocentric baby-demand. It is a thing that has objectivity and nuances.

I'm so proud of them.

They have grown, and continue to grow into remarkable, beautiful, wonderful-wise children. Life threw them lemons and they made lemonade so sweet we can all taste it. We can spot it from a distance. The anger, the hurt, the uncertainty, the rage...they turned it into hope. And goodness. And possibility. And, if at first they don't succeed? They try, try again. Lord, how they try.

I don't think there is anything more pleasing to the eyes of a father to watch two children whose anger at the world first turned inward to anger at each other, learn how to love each other again, to be best friends for real this time, to rediscover balance, cooperative spirit, and careful respect as they continue to settle into the ever-changing landscape of their lives.

More I cannot wish you, the Scottish blessing says.

Future J1? Future J2? Always love each other. You will never have another friend like your sister. You will never have another friend like your brother.

Never, ever, ever.

They're not even here right now. They're having a playdate at their friend Noya's house. But I just got up and grabbed a handful of marbles and I put it in their jar. I love you kids. And I love watching you love each other. That's my reward. That's my prize.

17 years Adam and I have been together this year. 17 months the kids have been with us this month. 117 marbles. If that's not kismet, well then, get your own jar. Try it yourself.

Meanwhile, our jar keeps filling. These wonderful, crazy-beautiful kids of ours...they beat the odds.

Dad and Daddy. Justice and Justin.

We overflow.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Oh No I Won't, Oh Yes You Will

Gonna stand my ground
Won't be turned around
And I'll keep this world from dragging me down
Gonna stand my ground
And I won't back down

Thank you, Tom Petty. Justice came with that song factory installed.

There's something incredibly humorous and painful about raising a defiant child. Sometimes you laugh so much it hurts and sometimes it hurts so much you hide in the bathroom. It's a Vitamix shitstorm of emotions, and honestly, while it's fascinating from a sociological and psychological standpoint, it's just plain maddening from the parenting poop deck of the USS Clueless.

I've been trying to wrap my head around it more and more these days, not just because Justice was diagnosed with ODD (Oppositional Defiant Disorder) straight off the bat, but also because I'm watching several of our friends go through the same things with their kids right now and, well, in for a penny, in for a pound...maybe whatever I learn and regurgitate can bring them some small flashes of hope and sanity too.

Justice takes a drug for ODD called Risperidone, which is the same drug they give the old folks with Alzheimers and Dementia so they stop hitting the nurses aides. It's an antipsychotic medication and it helps her control her outbursts, which she really can't control otherwise.

And I should preface these remarks by knowing full-well a whole passel of you well-meaning parents are undoubtedly going to jump on my case and give me holistic holy hell for giving any type of "mind altering" drug to my daughter. You think you won't? Pfft. I've talked about ADHD and Ritalin in this blog once or twice and a few of you went balls-first off the nuts-and-honey deep end.

So, before you're tempted to rescue my children again, let's leave it at this: your opinion is noted, but as my dear friend Andy used to say, I don't give a squirt. I'm as holistic as the next guy. I even banned high fructose corn syrup this year. But if you think I'm going to tackle Oppositional Defiant Disorder with no gluten and a bottle of fish oil capsules, you're out of your Whole Foods-loving mind. I love you dearly. Now put a sock in it.

ODD is one of those pain-in-the-ass, hard-to-interpret, "is that what it really is?" conditions. Is ADHD a real problem, or are kids just "energetic?" Does any child really have ODD, or is she just "strong-willed?" We spend so much time trying to spin our kids legitimate imbalances into positive pretty-talk, I think we often do them a great disservice. We certainly aren't helping them cope with their multi-year battles with ODD by sighing our exhausted, loving, tomorrow's-another-day smiles and saying, "I guess she's just independent." Bool sheet, mom and pop. She's not independent. She's freakin' whacked out.

Independent kids are good, cookie. I've got two of them and I love them to pieces. Strong-willed kids are good, too. Defiant children, on the other hand, have a legitimate problem that we have to help them fix. And by fix, I do not mean "finally achieve victory over them."It's not a contest we're supposed to win. 

"You WILL do what I say, because I'm the parent" is more or less bullshit machismo. You know it...and they know it, too. "Your goal is to join with your child, says the book I'm reading right now, not be her adversary. The more you realize you are working with - rather than against - your child to lower her defiance, the more you will make this happen." Ha! There it is! Right there in a book! I kind of suspected it was the case, but as usual, I feel better when I'm validated by an author. Which is probably why I buy so many books. I just keep hitting the "buy now with 1-click" button until I find one that agrees with me.

Justice Rachel, now 8, came to live with us a year and six months ago. That's not a whole lot of time to give it all up for God and country, as far as automatic compliance goes. You know those movies where the kid from the broken home yells at the new, hated stepdad, "you're not my real father?" Well, in our case, you can hardly blame the little pumpkin. She's got double bragging rights on that one.

So, sure. Some defiance was to be expected. Predicted. Noted. But almost off the bat, we saw things that just weren't healthy. Strange slow-motion movements and walking. Blank, disassociated stares. Rages. Not just tantrums. We all know what tantrums look like. These were frenzies. 

And what brought them on? "Can you pick up that book?" "Can you finish your homework." You know. The usual, mundane tortures of being 8. The proverbial kidlife crisis.

Our approach to all of this the past 18 months has really been fourfold:

1. Keep recognizing it as a real condition, and not saying "oh well, she's just strong-willed."
2. Continuing to work with our family therapist so she knows she's heard and her feelings are believed. We rotate sessions. The kids work with us one week, and go solo with the therapist the next. They can express their feelings with us and they can express their feelings without us. We think this is good.
3. Medication. For us, it's what works. It ran out once, and we watched as every bit of progress we made disappeared entirely in five short days. For better or for worse, for whatever reason, it's what she needs, so we're making sure she gets it.
4. (And this is the new one for us) Trying to see defiance through Justice's eyes. Trying to understand it's something that makes her feel as sad and frustrated and confused and uncomfortable as we are with it. Trying to realize it's not a contest we're supposed to win. Trying to realize we do her absolutely no good trying to break her like a horse. Trying to get our thick dad heads around the fact that we don't have to win

I'm loving Jeffrey Bernstein's book, 10 Days to a Less Defiant Child, and if your kid's a pain in the ass, I suggest you put it in your Amazon shopping cart, pronto.

In it, he makes a brilliant point. Defiant kids lack emotional intelligence. Plain and simple. And this confuses some parents, because their kids, like Justice, might be academically high-achievers. The kind the teachers love. They might be intellectually years ahead of other kids. They might be reading Dochevsky and cracking the Pythagorean theorem while their classmates are still pissing their panties at recess. But this doesn't make them emotionally intelligent. They're sort of, well, through no fault of their own, emotionally dumb.

And that's a hell of a puzzler for a parent, because then we get caught up in the silly trap of, "she's so good at school, she's so smart, her teacher says she is so far ahead of everyone else, why can't she just cooperate at home?" as if one set of skills precludes the other. It doesn't. Bernstein suggests emotional intelligence is a whole different ball of wax, skippy. I may be a brilliant pianist but that hardly ever means I can pop the hood of your car and fix your carburetor. Apples, peaches, pumpkin pie.

Another reason I like this book is because it has a really good chapter called, "Why Not to Yell in a Nutshell." And who doesn't need that reminder? Adam and I are not yellers by nature, but I'll admit, when it comes to defiance and Justice (and her brother too, when he lines up in aggravating sync), there have been times when when our obedience urge trumps the angels of our better nature, and we damn sure bark them back into action. Not proud of that. Just saying we're not infallible. The halo a lot of you have generously given us these past two years is often a little wobbly.

Bernstein says yelling at defiant kids is just dumb.

  • It does not alter your child's behavior.
  • It gets in the way of exploring the problem.
  • It gives kids the wrong kind of attention, and they'll misbehave even more just to get it.
  • Defiant children think concretely. "If it's okay for them to yell, it's okay for me to yell back."
  • Yelling just leaves them resentful toward you.
  • They act out when yelled at.
  • The more you yell, the less they hear.
  • Yelling says, "I'm mad at you. I don't like you."
  • Children who are yelled at only respond to yelling. They stop responding to rational discussion.
  • Yelling tell your child you're not a safe person to open up to and they can't trust you.
  • Yelling tells your child, "you deserve to be yelled at."
  • And the one that strikes me as the saddest one of all: yelling is demeaning. It's a way of saying, "I have power and you don't."
Justice, sweet, crazy, maddening child. I don't ever want you to think of your childhood as powerless. Not in this house, anyway. It's been way too powerless for way too long, and this is where all of that is supposed to change. If I didn't want that beautiful change to happen, then I should never have stepped up to bat in the first place.

So, shame on me when I yell at you. And shame on Daddy. We're human, we fail, and we'll do it again. I'm sure we will. But I want you to know, we know it's dumb. We know it's stupid. And it's not the way to find you where you need to be found.

"10 Days to a Less Defiant Child."

Oh, Dr. Bernstein, you silly, hopeful, impetuous fool.

If we, the imperfect, the frustrated, the stressed, could really tap that motherlode in a mere ten days, we'd all come over to your house next week, buy you a big steak dinner and kiss your sassafras. Such ain't the case, though. It takes way more time than that, best-selling teaser titles notwithstanding. But your book is a hell of a step in the right direction.

And in a dawning era where Adam and I are learning how to help Justice with her defiance, instead of battling with her over it, you've given us a long needed blueprint in concrete, appreciated terms.

Well, I know what's right
I got just one life
In a world that keeps on pushing me around
I won't back down

"No child ever grew up, looked back and blamed their parents for being too understanding," you write. And I do believe that's right. "Stricter is better" is no longer automatic common sense, and I'm going to allow myself to move past it. I'm going to work with her on this, not against her. It's not about my need to win, to be obeyed, to break her. It's about her need to have a good, sane, comfortable life. Loved. Heard. Understood.

Don't back down, Justice.

Your two dumb dads will get you through this.

10 Days to a Less Defiant Child, c.2006 Jeffrey Bernstein, Philadelphia, Da Capo Press, Perseus Books.
I Won't Back Down, c.1989 Tom Petty & Jeff Lynne, from the album Full Moon Fever.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

From the Hallowed Halls of Facebook

J1 and J2 announced at dinner tonight they have decided to be best friends. But they're still going to fight.


Justin, while riding on my back yesterday: "Daddy, your hair has bald in it."


Me (singing): I've got the moves like Jagger, I've got the moves like Jagger, I've got the moo-ooo-ooves like Jagger...
Justice (not even looking up from the TV): You've got the moves like a horse.
Justin: And a duck.


Justin (at a restaurant): I'll have a Diet Coke.
Me: (to the server) No, he'll have lemonade.
Justin: (talking to me in Danny's little deep kid voice from "The Shining," using his finger to talk): Justin wants a Diet Coke, Mr.


Upon receiving their first Susan B. Anthony dollars.
Justin: Who's this?
Adam: That's Susan B. Anthony.
Justin: When was she the president?
Adam: She wasn't. She was a leader for women's rights.
Justin: What's women's rights?
Adam: A hundred years ago, women couldn't vote like men. Susan B. Anthony wanted to be able to vote like
a man. She wanted to be able to do anything like a man.
Justice (after a confused pause): Did she want to pee like a man?


Justin: Look, Daddy. I found a feather.
Me: Where did that come from?
Justin: (rolling his eyes) From a bird, Daddy.


Me: Who's your favorite football team?
Justin: Green Bay.
Me: Green Bay what?
Justin: Green Bay Packers.
Me: Excellent, who's your favorite baseball team?
Justin: Milwaukee.
Me: Milwaukee what?
(long pause)
Justin (unsure): Milwaukee talkies?


Me: Whenever you feel like fighting in the car, here's what you should do. Take a deep breath and hold it for ten seconds. Let's try it.
(They do).

Me: Once Daddy got so mad at me, he had to hold his breath and count to 55 million.
Justin: Really?
Adam: Mmm-hmm.
Me: In fact, he's still counting.
(Short silence)
Justice: What number is he on?


Justin demonstrates his math prowess again:
Me: What's 6+7?
Justin: 10
Me: No, try again.
Justin (yelling): It's 10!!
Me: No, it's 13.
Justin: Ohhhh, I thought you said 6+11!!


Justin: Can I get a new bat for my birthday? I won't hit Justice with it.


Justin: Daddy, do you have binoculars?
Me: Yes
Justin: Can I have them?
Me: You can borrow them, but you can't have them.
Justin: No, I mean when you die.


Thanks for the laughs, kids. We love you.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Yom Kippur with the Reismans

When I was young and not Jewish and working in radio, Yom Kippur rolled around on the calendar one year, and not knowing what it was, our morning man Andy and I started joking about it on-air.

When we took our first commercial break, there was a tap on the door from Vern Falk, our old station manager, who chastised us for making light of a solemn day and offending our Jewish listeners.

This was in Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin, mind you, where Andy and I didn't even know we had Jewish listeners.

Anyway, we went back on the air, apologized, and got back to the real business of the day, giving away summer fun coupons from McDonalds and reading the weather.

Such is life in AM radio.

Now I'm older and I'm Jewish and I've sat through a few of them. 17 to be exact. And here's what I can tell you.

First of all, they're not short.

You go to services the night before. Then you go to services in the morning. Then you go to a Torah study. Then you go to a kids' service. Then you go to an afternoon service. Then you go to a service for dead people. Then you go to an evening service. And that's just Yom Kippur. We bookshelf that baby between Rosh Hashanah on one end and Sukkot and Simchat Torah on the other. This is the time of year when all heaven breaks loose. As far as the schedule grid goes this time of year, the Jews leave no stone unturned.

On Yom Kippur, you don't eat.

You fast from sundown the night before until sundown the next day. And when it's over, you go to Adam's mom's and eat bagels and tuna salad, the likes of which you never tasted before. After 24 hours, that tuna salad is like manna in the desert.

And lastly, you atone for your sins like it's going out of style. Holy smokes, do you atone.

You ask forgiveness for your sins from the past year. You delcare them null and void. You pound yourself on the chest as you read off a litany of sins and transgressions from soup to nuts. Not kidding. Really. You physically make a chest-hitting gesture with your fist as you rattle off dozens of sins. Sins of yours. Sins of your community's. Sins and sins, and when you're done with those? More sins.

Now, the Reform Jews -- and I am one of them -- aren't crazy about the terms "sin" and "sinner." They strike us as too Christian. They strike us as too Orthodox and strict and old-fashioned. You'll more likely hear Reform Rabbis desribe Yom Kippur with more than a whiff of gentility and therapist-couch correctness, "a time for self-relection, a time for self-examination and awareness. A time for coming together as a people and discovering who we are and who we have the possibility of becoming."

Horse hockey. You're atoning for sins. Call it what you want while you're applying your Revlon bright red #254 to Wilbur, but strip away the pretty talk and what's left over? A bunch of mildly hungry Jews sitting in a room for ten hours repeating and repenting for how sucky they've been for the past twelve months.

I'm not automatically fond of Yom Kippur. Bucking myself up and greeting it with good cheer every year is not my default setting. That is no big secret to Adam or to our Jewish friends and family.

I grew up in a Christian church -- the First Assembly of God -- a fundamentalist, evangelical batch of bible-thumpers if ever any were thumped. This is the group that speaks in tongues in most congregations and lets poisonous snakes bite them in a few down south. I try not to make judgment calls on other people's religions unless I've carried the membership papers myself, so in this case, I judge openly. FAOG (and believe me, they are damn careful about adding the "O" to that acronym), did me more harm than good, and distanced me further from a belief in God as a healthy, welcoming presence than anyone's church has ever done before.

It may be a good match for some folks, but for me personally, I can only describe my childhood growing up in that church's long shadow as a dark and irrevocable time, an unquestionable failure and a massive mismatch. It took a long time for me to surgically extract the venom they injected and find my place in organized religion again. But c'est la vie, don't we all whistle snatches of that old tune, in one form or another.

One of those First Assembly poisons was their almost maniacal focus on sin. Over and over, from the youngest of ages, we heard a constant reminder and an accusition that had no end. "You are a sinner, you have sinned." "For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God." Put it on a bumper sticker. Paint it on your forehead. Start giving that shaming message to children at 3, 4-years-old and don't let up until they are sad, frightened, religiously-vacant adults.

So, no. When I came to Judaism, it was no great nostalgic heart-tugger to draw the ten hour sin card right off the bat with Yom Kippur. Once a year, Adam and I would go to Chabad (Orthodox and outreachy) because they were free and we were too poor to go anywhere else. God bless them for the free entry when you've got nowhere else to go, but they still include good old Leviticus 18:22 in their list of sins. "Thou shalt not lie with mankind as with womankind. It is an abomination."

Abominably speaking, that's never been one of my favorites.

But to Adam, who was born Jewish, The High Holy Days, the Days of Awe, Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur are as ingrained in him as Christmas and Easter to any Christian. They're the Big Kahuna, the Numero Uno, the cat's pajamas of Judaism. And if you're going to raise Jewish kids -- and we sure as hell are -- all-day temple on Yom Kippur is where we need to be.

Our Yom Kippur didn't get off to a particularly whiz-bang start this year. First, nobody mailed us tickets and we got snapped at when we tried to tell them at the door. Next, the ushers from our men's club were more than a little rude and argumentative when we tried to save four extra seats so our extended family could sit together. Not very happy about the seat saving, those men's club deputies. Not exactly a warm welcome for the Reisman/Nelson clan this year.

Then about an hour into the first evening service, a woman stood up and walked out in anger when she saw Justin playing quietly on my iPhone in the row ahead of her. "That's disrespectful," she hissed at Adam. "I can't even sit here and watch this. I have to go sit somewhere else." 

As people around us rushed to our defense, it took all the self-control I could muster not to respond with a great big holiday F.U. 

If you had a clue, lady. If you only walked -- not a mile in my shoes -- but just a block in my shoes -- you would have realized twelve months ago, I couldn't get that kid to sit still in a chair for more than two minutes at a time. Two minutes.

And now he'll sit quietly and still for two and a half hours. And if that victory is still electronically enhanced sometimes, even on the holiest of Jewish days, I'm still going to take it at face value and be overjoyed, and I won't be ashamed of my shitty parenting for your sake. Go sit your nagging, pious ass somewhere else.

So, yeah. That's where my Yom Kippur started this year. Not a good hello.

But as I do every year when Yom Kippur rolls around, I start out grumpy, then I make my peace with it. More than that, I find my peace in it. I find my place in it.

This year, it happened when I watched the Rabbi put on his tallit. (The tallit is our prayer shawl, non-Jewish friends).

I remembered Rabbi Malcolm saying once, before he drapes his tallit over his shoulders, he covers his whole head with it, and in those short moments where he blocks out the world, he imagines the faces of all four of his grandparents. Thinks of their strength. Thinks of their goodness. Thinks of the traditions they gave him.

And traditions matter.

And that's why, for Justice and Justin, I continue to put on my happy face, even when I'm not happy about it, because I want them to grow up believing I believe in Yom Kippur, even when sometimes, I don't. All my dysfunctions notwithstanding, they need to know that this holiday matters to their parents, and it should matter to them. It is important for them to be there. In whatever shape or form. It is vital.

So, I wrap my prayer shawl over my head and I picture my grandparents.

There's Harry Senior, who died before I was born. From him I understand discipline. Duty. Respect.

There's Leona, my dad's mom. From her I understand a grandparent's pride. She bragged about me in front of people. She let me overhear it. From her, I learned there is value in public praise.

There's Ken, my mom's dad. From him I learned inquisitiveness. Courage to roam. Learning, investigating, finding out how things worked. Taking the road less traveled.

And there's Hannah. From her I got all the rest. Unconditional love. Open arms that were always there. A childhood of safety and joy and security. As Dorothy said on her way back home, I'll miss you, Scarecrow, the most of all.

So, this year, with my grandparents in my heart and my intent to keep doing better, Yom Kippur lent some magic after all...not just for me...but in spite of me.

For hours, I drew myself together in my tallit. I wrapped it around me. I wrapped it around Adam. I wrapped it around my children. And it made me feel good.

I want Justice and Justin to know what it feels like, that goodness. I want them to be comforted by our holidays shared. Maybe we can all let go of our past pains long enough to learn to wrap ourselves in under a single blue blanket and love these days together.

Yehuda Amichai:

Whoever wrapped in a tallit in one's youth will never forget:
taking it out of the soft sack, opening the folded tallit,
spreading it, kissing the border along its length (sometimes embroidered
and sometimes embossed). Afterwards, a great sweep over the head
like the heavens, like a chuppah, like a parachute. Afterwards, folding it
around one's head as if playing hide and seek, and then wrapping
the body in it, tight tight, letting it fold you like a cocoon
and then opening it like wings for flying.
And why are there stripes and not black-white squares
like a chessboard? Because squares are finite without hope
and stripes come from infinity and go on to infinity
like the runways at the airport
so that angels may land and take off.
When you wrap yourself in a tallit you cannot forget
coming out of a swimming pool or the sea
and being wrapped in a great towel and casting it
over one's head and wrapping in it, tight tight
and shivering a little and laughing and -- blessing.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Baby, Write This Down

Baby, write this down, take a little note
To remind you in case you didn't know
Tell yourself I love you and I don't want you to go
Write this down

Take my words, read 'em every day
Keep 'em close by, don't you let 'em fade away
So you'll remember what I forgot to say
Baby, write this down

-George Strait

As the memories of my second year of adoption weave in and out of this journal, I find myself left with so many unfinished writings, I don't know what to do with them. They're things that want to be blogs, but they're not quite big enough to stand on their own two feet.

The "draft" feature of this column is always astoundingly full of snippets and paragraphs and slices of life that never fully come to fruition...things that seem incredibly important as I write them down, but they never find life as finished essays, which is probably for the best, since they're all so random. Then again, aren't we all.

I think I rarely finish most of these snippets because this experience itself is simply so profound that half the time, my inefficient vocalizations along the way barely do it justice. I'm grateful for your compliments when you tell me you've read this and enjoyed it, but believe me, if I could somehow uncork and record the true magic all this is, I'd be writing you four times a day. Writing about this experience and having this experience is a night and day difference. Like my friend Pratibha used to say, "like holding a candle up to the sun."

I've waited for the things below to gel into something  profound (or at the very least, full-length) because they seemed so important when I scratched them down. But a few months later, here they still are, unfinished ramblings, aging away like fine (or not-so-fine) wine, yours for the sipping. They're not full bottles, but they come from the heart. I put them here for safe keeping. Short and unfinished as they are, I didn't want to lose them.

Enjoy it While You Can

It occurred to me the other day as the new school year begins and we were all in full closet-cleaning mode here on Bonnie Castle Way, Justin's little boyhood is coming to an end. Not his whole boyhood, heavens no, we've got ages to go on that one (I say with a wink), but his little boyhood. 

I was surprised as he helped me clean out his closet, how many of his clothes were not necessarily too small...they were just suddenly deemed too preposterously uncool to wear anymore.

Just like Justice traded in her Hello Kitty comforter for Justin Bieber (and P.S., try staring at that growingly wearisome face every morning on your daughter's bed)...and her Tinkerbell sticker earrings from the dollar store for real-live dangly pierced ones from Claire's at the mall, Justin too is giving up the trappings of his too-short little boyhood.

I've been told Spider-Man has got to go. No shirts with superheroes anymore, period. He'll still gladly play Lego Batman on the Wii, but keep it off his t-shirts, thank you, because it's way too uncool. No more Pixar shirts either. God forbid, Mater from Cars and Buzz Lightyear made him physically shudder when we found them at the bottom of his shirt drawer. He's growing up, and he won't be Toy'ed with.

I thought of that as I was picking his underwear off the floor (again). I smiled sort of wistfully as one retrospectively does when we turn life into literature, and I dropped them in his hamper thinking, "I'm really going to miss this." At a certain point, he won't want to have Superman and Skylanders on his underwear anymore, and that'll be sad, because it'll mark the definite end of his littleness. It won't be the end of his childhood, but it will be the end of his little boyhood, and that time's just as precious.

You Made Me Love You

You made me love you
I didn't want to do it
I didn't want to do it
You made me want you
And all the time you knew it
I guess you always knew it

For lots of gay men, the whole world is a Judy Garland song. Over-the-top and let's put on a show. The wistful one above, "Dear Mr. Gable," is the one that plays most often in the soundtrack of my mind as Justice really does begin to love us with genuine attachment, whether she wants to admit it or not.

She came to us in stages. First, not at all. Then resentfully. Then cautiously. And now, more openly. Fearlessly. Naturally.

And I'm happy for us, of course. But I'm even more happy for her.

Adopted children are world-weary by the time they're seven. The world is an unsure and cynical place. They can love and be loved, but in the background, a message plays.

"I've loved like this, but I've lost it before."

"I wish I could trust this to last."

"It feels good to be loved, but this too could pass."

You and I look at life's difficulties and say, "this too shall pass." Adopted children look at life's beauty and say, "this too could pass."

It's tragic that any child has to feel that. It's beautiful beyond words to try to fix it.

I'm happy for us -- but mostly I'm joyful for Justice -- because a jaded little girl has learned how to love again.

She's rusty, but she's getting good at it.

I Am Here to Learn

Let go, or be dragged. - Zen Proverb

When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be. - Lao Tzu

Way back when we started this journal, I talked about having to let go of the fantasy we had before we adopted. Like most other adoptive parents, we came to the table with a fully-formed fantasy of what our family would be, how our children would act, how we'd efficiently -- not effortlessly, but at least efficiently -- parent them through each difficulty.

Which turned out to be 99% bullshit, of course. Like we could line up the problems in an alphabetical list and tick them off the clipboard. "Delusional" comes into play very heavily before you adopt. After reality kicks you in the nuts four or five hundred times in the first year, you learn to erase the picture and start over.

Your family will be what your family will be. It will set its own course. It will become what its supposed to become.

If your family is a ship with a rudder, you're very lucky. Mine is a paper kite. And the wind comes from an oscillating fan on Red Bull.

Sometimes ridiculously mixed metaphors are the only things that come close to describing it with even a hint of accuracy.

I've had to learn to adjust my expectations for paper kites, especially when it comes to the childrens' anger. There's always plenty of it, seeded deep in their souls in dark places I can't quite get to yet, and when they give it to me, I have to be very careful not to give it back.

If someone behaves negatively towards you, it helps to remember that he or she is a human being like you and to distinguish between an action and the person who does it. If counter measures are needed to prevent someone doing harm, it's always better to do it with a calm rather than an agitated mind. If you act out of anger, the best part of your brain fails to function. Remember, compassion is not a sign of weakness. - The Dalai Lama

Hello, Dalai. I'm turning the facts above into My New Seven Truths, because I need them.

1. Compassion is not a sign of weakness.
2. Not even in parenting.
3. Stop being angry when they are.
4. They're little, you're not. Don't follow their tantrums with one of your own.
5. Let go of what you think your family should be.
6. Just let it happen.
7. Fly more kites.

Through the Long Night With You

I quote Billy Joel a lot because I like him.

I had every album. Then when I started driving, I had every cassette. Then when cassettes went the way of the dinosaurs, I had every CD. And now that CD futures are sketchy at best, Billy Joel lives on in my world in a bunch of sound files. When those go belly-up, I don't know what I'll do. Inject him directly into my veins, I guess.

Here's a Billy Joel song that makes me think of my kids.

I quote song lyrics a lot here, but sometimes there's just no commentary to attach to it. Sometimes it just rings simple and true, all by itself.

The warm tears
The bad dreams
The soft trembling shoulders
The old fears
But I'm here
Through the long night with you

No, I didn't start it
You're broken hearted
From a long, long time ago
Oh, the way you hold me
Is all that I need to know

All you past sins

Are sins past
You should be sleeping
And it's so late
But I'll wait
Through the long night with you

Take Us Home, George Strait

So ends my unfinished "drafts" pile. My inbox is empty and my work here is done for the day.

You can find a chisel, I can find a stone
Folks will be reading these words, long after were gone
Oh I love you and I don't want you to go
Baby write this down

More half-baked drafts and Sunday morning incompleness is inevitably on the way.

Some days I'm too busy finishing what I started to finish what I started.

"Write This Down" by Dana Hunt & Kent Robbins from the George Strait album "Always Never the Same," c.1999 MCA Nashville. "You Made Me Love You" by Joe McCarthy & James V. Monaco, c.1913, "Dear Mr. Gable" version c.1939 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. "Through the Long Night" by Billy Joel, c.1980 Columbia Records