Movie Night

As you have probably picked up by now, I’m big on creating family traditions and rituals. Maybe the most consistent and longest-lasting tradition in our repertoire was movie night.

If we didn’t start movie night the first weekend the boys were here, we certainly did so soon after. In its early version, movie night looked like this: During the week, I would order a movie and a cartoon from Netflix (the kind that got delivered on DVD, via snail mail. Anyone remember that?). On Saturday night—and I mean, faithfully, every Saturday night—we would order a pepperoni pizza for delivery and then sit and watch our cartoon and movies with our pizza.

The only variations I think we made at this stage were that we sometimes changed which pizza place we called, and sometimes we threw in a dessert. (For the record, we’re not a big dessert family, which is why our dentist loves us.)

Mark at one point declared movie night his favorite thing about us being a family.

Over the years, new variations came along: At some point we started rotating the movie and cartoon selection, so that each of us took turns making that week’s picks. At an even later point—probably when I realized that the kids were humoring me by sitting through my PG selections—I dropped out of the rotation, and the kids took turns making picks on alternate weeks.

The menu varied up as well. We first added “make your own” tacos on alternating weeks with the pizza—my least favorite, because it involved the most prep and cooking—and later added a third option called “freezer food,” which basically involved mini pizzas, mini hot dogs, mozzarella sticks, pierogi—all that healthy stuff. Which I loved, because I could basically just spill everything out onto a cookie sheet and pop it in the oven. Because I am lazy, I’m pretty sure we alternated pizza – tacos – pizza – freezer food – pizza etc., so that I could double up on the nights where my kitchen jobs involved pulling out paper plates and paying the delivery guy.

As you might imagine, we watched a lot—a LOT—of dumb kid movies over the years. I love Jackie Chan, but boy, has he made some terrible movies. Because my kids are cool, we also watched a whole bunch of musicals mentioned elsewhere, and The Queen, also mentioned elsewhere, and a fair share of stuff that was either funny or charming or quirky or some combination of the above.

Unfortunately, my kids decided they needed to grow up right around the time I decided single dad should have a social life. So movie nights became pretty rare occasions. Somehow it always seemed to be Mark’s pick, and aside from the occasional Pitch Perfect, we spent most of the time watching things blow up. Cartoons went by the wayside a while back, because after exposing/inflicting so many of my childhood Saturday morning favorites on them—HR Puf’n’Stuf, Josie and the Pussycats, the Bugaloos—about the only thing we could agree on was Scooby-Doo. Scooby-Doo loses some of its appeal when you remember who the ghost is going to be before the opening song is over.

We probably stopped movie nights around the time Netflix stopped delivering DVDs by mail. Occasionally I’ll dig up something (via streaming now, of course) to watch for old times’ sake. But somehow it’s not the same when I’m not wiping up goopy cheese off the floor after the closing credits.

Next: What Just Happened

Small World

As I’ve mentioned before, for many, many years, Daveon played Little League in the spring. For a few of those years, the field was behind a junior high school, directly across the street from a higher-end grocery store. This was great for in-game snacking. My particular favorite was a chocolate peanut butter cookie roughly the size of a softball. (For you non-LL parents: Each level of little league has a different-sized field, so every few years we had to switch to new ones. The ones that were out in the middle of nowhere were much less snacking-friendly.)

Anyway: On one particular day, I went across the street mid-game as usual. One needs to fortify oneself for all those foul tips. I’m pretty sure I wasn’t getting a cookie this time—maybe a sparkling water? That sounds much healthier.

So I’m looking at my water options, and I hear a voice behind me that’s vaguely familiar. I turn around, and lo and behold: It’s the boys’ county social worker extraordinaire, Amy. Amy is one of my favorite people, not least because every time I see her she tells me how we are one of her favorite families. It was Amy who more or less made it possible that the boys moved in less than two months after I first saw their picture. Amy gets a high pedestal in my hall of fame.

After we chatted a bit to catch up, I told Amy that Daveon was playing baseball across the street, and Mark was somewhere nearby in the park. If she had the time, she should come over and say hi. She did, so we checked out together and walked over.

After we crossed the street and approached the dugout, Amy gave a big shout “Hello!” and walked straight into the arms of … another player on Daveon’s team. It turns out that he had also been a foster kid, and Amy had also been his (I am sure amazing) county social worker. As these things happen, the couple who adopted him were among my favorite fellow baseball parents.

After Amy caught up with this kid and his folks, she turned, let out another “Well, hello!”, and approached … one of the other team parents, who it turns out is her boss at the county. No hug this time.

Finally, in the third-place spot, my kids got their turn on Amy’s dance card. Of course, last did not mean least in terms of her excitement and warmth. If my kids ever have a low self-esteem day, a chat with Amy would be the guaranteed cure.

For those keeping score at home (get it? score? baseball?), on a team of 12 players, three had “no degree of separation” connections to Amy. That’s better than most of the kids’ batting averages.

So while it was a wonderful experience to reconnect to someone who was so instrumental in bringing us together, and who has always been a vocal supporter, it was maybe even more amazing to see how interconnected our story is with the lives and stories of others, and that while we are surely an “alterna”-family in many ways, our experience isn’t so different after all.

Next: Movie Night

Christmas at Tilden

Of all the magical stories, this one is hard to top for its magic-ness:

It was a Friday afternoon in December—I’m pretty sure it was the kids’ last day of school before the winter break, but don’t quote me. My ex and I were still together at the time. He had taken off for a weekend in Seattle with his ex—without bothering to tell me until he was already on his way to the airport.

This was not the first time something like this had happened.

I was not in a very good mood.

To my (and/or my previously mentioned guardian angel’s) credit, I did not do what I usually did in those situations: sit and stew. Instead, I decided call a friend and see if they wanted to go for a drive with the kids—nowhere special, just get out and ride around.

We just started tooling around for a while, and then one of us—well, one of the adults, it wouldn’t have been the boys—suggested we head up to Tilden. Tilden is an enormous regional park in the Berkeley hills, with a bunch of windy roads and housing a lake, a steam train, pony rides, and other attractions. It wasn’t exactly a destination on a December Friday at 5pm—by which point night had pretty much fallen—but it was as good as any for a “distraction” drive.

We headed up through North Berkeley—which is not normally how I would go up to Tilden, but that’s how magic works—and started heading down the windy, steep road to the lake at the bottom of a canyon. About three-quarters of the way down, we found ourselves in a short line of cars, which seemed unusual given the time and location. And then, at the end of the road, we saw it.

At that intersection, the turn to the lake is to the right. But immediately to the left, there is the Tilden Park carousel. As carousels go, there isn’t much to say about it, other than that I believe it’s really old. But that night … well, let’s just say we didn’t make the right to the lake. We instead made the left: straight to Santa’s Village.

The carousel itself was covered in lights, as was its enclosure, as was the enormous evergreen just outside—how they got the lights up that high, I can only imagine the size of the ladder. Inside the carousel enclosure, all around the edges, were small Christmas trees covered in ornaments for sale, each with a different theme: one had trains, one musical instruments, one plush animals, even one with UC Berkeley items. As the boys and I had a tradition where every year each of us bought a new ornament, the setting couldn’t have been more perfect.

Meanwhile, back at the village: Next to the carousel was a booth selling seasonally appropriate food such as popcorn, cider, and hot chocolate. Between that and the big tree was Santa’s home, featuring occasional visits from the jolly man himself—though not, unfortunately, while we were there.

Across the walkway from that was the rest of Santa’s village: a full assembly of lit homes, walkways, a few reindeer, I even want to say a geographically confused penguin. Not to mention proof that Miss (Shirley) Kookamooka is real, which might have been the sweetest treat of all—at least for dad.

All very magical, all completely unplanned. As we were leaving, we saw the line of cars to get in now stretched at least 50 long up the hill—so our timing was spot-on as well. The perfect exclamation point to our surprise visit to the North Pole.

Next: Small World

Bedtime Hits

For our first half-dozen years or so, the boys and I read in bed together at night. It helped that the bed was California king-sized (since downsized to a queen), and that they were little-ish kid-sized (since upsized to young men). We would clamber onto the covers and either I would read aloud, or we would take turns reading a page, etc. The list of books we went through this way reads like a greatest hits of kids’ classics: a few Harry Potters, A Wrinkle in Time, The Phantom Tollbooth, The Hobbit, and on and on (not to mention some considerably less-classics, such as the atrocious one about the fat cat that they insisted on reading over, and over. You’ll notice my brain refuses to try to remember the title.)

As the boys got older, the nightly ritual changed to (more or less) weekly, and instead took place place in the living room. As much as possible, I tried to reserve Sunday nights for an early bedtime to allow for 20 minutes or so of shared reading—definitely taking turns at this point. We hit a couple of Shakespeares this way (all tragedies, all chosen by the kids—make of that what you will). Our last effort, before Daveon very impolitely ended the ritual by taking off for college, was American Gods by Neil Gaiman—which we stumbled through (and never actually completed) for a very, very long time. As you can imagine, free Sunday nights became increasingly hard to come by.

But back to the “bed clambering” phase. The other ritual that accompanied our reading was the nightly check-in. It’s pretty much what it sounds like: We would check in about the day, everyone shared a “big feeling,” we’d make sure we were all on the same page about tomorrow, and we’d say our prayers for folks in need and for anything we might want. To this day Mark will sometimes come into the living room in the evening, plunk himself down in a chair, and begin: “OK, so tomorrow looks like …”

Who says your kids don’t retain stuff?

Anyway: Somewhere during that time, for a period of about a year—this must have been when I was intaking a lot of caffeine—these nightly check-ins had a special bonus feature. Whenever one of the boys said something that reminded me of a song lyric, I would burst into said song. For example:

Son: “Remember when …”

Me: “REMEMBER! REMEMBER! REMEMBER! REMEMBER! Remember my name … Fame!”

Son (most likely during a tickling session): “Daddy, stop!”

Me: “… In the name of love, before you break my heart, think it o – wo –ver.”

Son (this one more of a wrestling session): “Daddy, let go!”

Me: “I like the night life, bay-bay! She said … let’s go!”

Etc.

These outbursts became known as our bedtime hits, and, me being me, I set out to capture all of them on CD. We ended up with eight volumes’ worth (289 songs, 175 hours). Let’s just say, iTunes loves me—as do some of the local independent record stores, as I sought out and found old CDs with some of the more obscure tunes: You try to legally download the theme song from H.R. Puf’n’Stuf.

It’s a pretty impressive collection, if I do say so myself: Show tunes, old R&B, some hip-hop, lots of schlock hits of the 70s (not sure what this says about me), even “If I Knew You Were Coming, Id’a Baked a Cake.”

I have long since forgotten what most of the “lyrical triggers” were for most of the songs, and the kids have long since lost interest in the bedtime hits—nothing they are playing on “cool stations” KMEL or Wild 94.9. But I like to think that someday, when we are gathered for a holiday or some such, one of them—or who knows, maybe one of their kids—will be rifling through dad/granddad’s old CDs, and the “bedtime hits” title will strike them such that they will pop it in for old times’ sake, or curiosity, or both.

And then we will be able to REMEMBER! REMEMBER! REMEMBER! REMEMBER! the old days, when they were small enough for all of us to fit on dad’s bed.

Next: Christmas at Tilden

Hike

I feel like our family has had a lot of magical experiences. Here’s one.

Daveon, from age 7 to about 15, played baseball. Every spring—and a few falls—he signed up for little league and was out there every practice, every game, every time.

As 8- or 9-year-olds will, he wasn’t exactly the best at keeping track of schedule changes. So it was that one time we faithfully drove up the hill to his Double A field, only to discover that practice had, clearly, been canceled. There wasn’t a soul in sight. Not sure how I missed the memo, but it wasn’t the first—and certainly wouldn’t be the last—time.

Being sort of a planner—I believe the term my old therapist used was “control freak”—I don’t always do so well when these kinds of situations arise (read: adult tantrum). But this time, instead of complaining about poor communication, and the wasted drive, and what I could have used that time for instead, my guardian angel must have been in town, because I was inspired to say:

“Hey, we’re up here now, and we have a free hour or so. Let’s go for a hike.”

So we did. The park where the practice field is located, if you know the Oakland Hills, is kind of amazing. There’s a stone stairway that leads up to an outdoor amphitheater, with a creek running alongside that ends in a fountain. Of course, being me, and having lived within shouting distance of this great place for over a dozen years, I had never explored it in any depth.

So, the hike begins. Starting at the fountain, we made our way up the stairs, seeing little lizards (salamanders?) and other cool such creatures in the rocks and water. I want to say frogs, and/or turtles—but don’t quote me.

We detoured around the amphitheater, and made our way to the top of the ridge. Up this high the little critters were replaced by birds—lots of big, scary-looking, predatory birds. And then, at the very top, a young guy playing sax. Just up there, in the middle of nowhere, by himself, tooling away on his alto.

Because, when I think of red-tailed hawk breeding grounds, the first thing that comes to mind is Johnny Hodges.

We sat and listened for awhile, thanking him for the impromptu show. And then we started making our way down, passed what looked like a garden area, and came up to a low stone wall. What magical place could this be? A rock garden, or another secret stairway?

And so, of course, we hopped it. And then found ourselves, not in a garden or on a stairway, but inside the amphitheater—the very empty, very locked amphitheater. The “low wall” we had just hopped was now a very high wall indeed from the inside, with no grabbing places to climb back up. We wandered around for a good while testing all the doors and gates, and sure enough, we were locked in. We finally came to a six-foot chaing link fence, so of course I did responsible, role-modeling father with his two impressionable sons would obviously do: I boosted them over it, and then hopped it.

We made our way back down the stone steps, more lizards, salamanders, maybe turtles and/or frogs, and scored it practice 0, ticket for trespassing 0, adventure 1.

Next: Bedtime Hits