Skating, Part 1

Note: As I write this, I am sitting in a hotel room, in Colorado Springs, Colorado. The high today was 27 degrees. Why, might you ask, would I—who, hating both heights and the cold, am clearly not a skier—leave sunny California, where the low today was 57 degrees, to come to a place whose nickname is, as far as I can tell, “Land of Nothing”? Answer: Skating! This year Mark made it to the national championships for his skill level. That competition, scheduled by people whose ancestors were clearly polar bears, was in Minnesota in January, where the temperate rarely climbed above zero and was, at one point, colder than Antarctica (I’m not even joking). Anyway, there was a pairs coach there who fell in love with Mark (not literally)(I assume). She is based here in Colorado Springs, home of the US Olympic training facility, and wanted him to come out to see if they could work together with a female skater she had in mind. Depending on how this weekend goes, Mark might be moving out here in the next few months to begin his life as a potential Olympian in earnest. Stay tuned …

But this is not that story. This is the story of how it all began … 

People ask me how Mark got into figure skating. The long, scientific answer is: “I don’t know.”

Unlike Daveon, who played baseball for years, and then switched to cross-country and track for the last several, Mark flitted from activity to activity every few months. From day 1 until about 7th grade, he tried: swimming, gymnastics, ultimate Frisbee, baseball (a disaster—he clearly hated it, though he wouldn’t quit for reasons I still don’t understand), basketball, capoeira, soccer, and a few others I’m sure I’m forgetting.

But somewhere along the line he happened into skating, and—for reasons I still don’t understand—among all the “activity of the month” options, this one stuck.

There is one story I like to tell that maybe gives a clue as to Mark’s bond with the rink. When they were little, I took the boys to Toy Story on Ice. (One perk of fost-to-adopt: During the “fost” period, you get free tickets to just about anything and everything kid-related.) A few months later, we rented Toy Story 2 on DVD (see: Movie Night). About halfway through, Mark started crying. Bawling, actually.

There didn’t seem to be anything particularly sad going on in the movie at that moment, so I asked what was wrong.

He practically shouted: “They’re supposed to be on skates!”

For the record, Mark says his interest was piqued the night we watched Ice Castles (see: Movie Night). But I’m pretty sure that was well after he had already started training. From my end, I’m just planning to thank Pixar when Mark brings home Olympic gold.

Next: Skating, Part 2

Advertisements

ASCEND

As you’ve probably figure out by now, raising my kids has helped me believe in magic. And not just because of all the years I spent coming up with clever ways to convince them that Santa Claus was real. Including the year I made a big show of having them see me to go bed, and then changed the sheets overnight, so I could say that Santa magically put new sheets on my bed while I was asleep.

Anyway, back from the North Pole. Here’s the magic story of ASCEND:

When I got the boys on January 11, 2003, Mark was in preschool, and Daveon was in 1st grade. Which meant, legally, I had to get him into school ASAP. Unlike many adoptive—or biological, for that matter—parents, I did not do a big search to find the “right” school for my kids. I also did not move into a neighborhood known for “good” schools. Even after 40 hours of parent training, a lot of what I did and still do in terms of parenting would fall under the scientific approach known as “winging it.”

We started with our neighborhood public school, where Daveon lasted all of two days. After his third (fourth?) fight started by a kindergartner, we were done. A guy I know at the YMCA had worked for the district for years, and he recommended a school whose principal he knew well. She was doing “great things” there. Maybe for some kids. Daveon lasted at that school until June, barely. And only because we had our alternative already lined up.

Meanwhile, Mark got into a Head Start campus at the old Oakland Army base. Because most of their day was eating, sleeping, and playing—aka Mark in his natural habitat, at least until skating kicked in—he did fine.

So, magic: About two weeks after I got the boys, I was invited to a friend’s birthday dinner in San Francisco. It was a grown-up event as a nice restaurant. I was very torn about leaving the kids so soon after I got them, but on the other hand the thought of a few uninterrupted hours of adult conversation was irresistible. I arranged for my heroes Jim and Chris—fresh with their own two newly adopted kids—to watch the boys, and off I went to the big city.

One of the main topics of conversation was, unsurprisingly, Joe’s new kids. Across the table from me was a woman named Elena whom I did not know. Elena asked about the kids’ schools, and I explained where they landed, more and less smoothly. She then said flat out: “You need to send them to my school. I’ve been teaching in Oakland for over 20 years, and it’s the only place that I would send any kids I had.”

Um, OK.

The good news: Said school was having an orientation for prospective parents of kindergarten students the next week. I called on Monday and got a slot at the event.

The bad: They only had openings for kindergarten. But Elena advised: “Just go and apply for your younger son. If he gets in I’m sure they can work something out for the older one.”

When I pulled up that Monday afternoon, my first experience of ASCEND was watching a group of older students (7th or 8th grade) walking down the hallway in a double-file line … in silence … with no teacher leading them. As a point of reference, I would be hard-pressed to remember a single kid of any age walking down a hall in silence—teacher or no teacher—at either of Daveon’s earlier schools. I thought: “I don’t care what else they do at this place. I want my kids here.”

At the orientation, the teacher, parent, and principal spiels were encouraging.  Entering just its third year, ASCEND was a small school (max class size 20), founded by teachers and parents who demanded better for their kids and knew they could provide it. There was an activist spirit to both the faculty and parent make-up, and they were doing great things.

At the end of the presentations, I approached the principal with my application for Mark and explained that I had met Elena a few days before. She said immediately: “Oh I know who you are. Just give that to me and I’ll take care of both your sons.”

They were in. In part because the school was almost 100% Latino and Asian, and improving the racial mix with a couple of African-American boys fit their vision of diversity nicely.

And in part—you’ll never convince me otherwise—magic.

And magic it was, especially for those first few years. Daveon’s reading increased two grade levels within six months, and Mark, getting in from the ground floor, had a solid foundation from day one. The kids stayed with the same teachers for two years, and those particular K/1 and 2/3 teachers did work magic on the kids—an amazing blend of compassion, individuation, high expectations, and constructive discipline that many schools would do well to mimic.

Though the school changed in later years—growing larger, turning over staff, losing some of the special charm that made it ASCEND—and though the boys had some high- and lowlight school experiences after that (stories for another time), ASCEND gave the boys—and me—a “home away from home” base that really spoiled us in terms of what school could be like.

Next: Skating, Part 1

What Just Happened

Note: At the time I originally wrote this piece, the events described had actually just happened. It’s been a few years now, but still …

It’s Sunday night, and I need to write about the weekend that just happened, because it’s so … us.

Vacaville is a town about 45 minutes northeast of Oakland, on the way to Sacramento. It is one of the few Northern California towns with an ice rink and a figure skating club. This year said rink and club hosted the Central Pacific Regional Championships—“step 1” for skaters in our area trying to make their way to the national championships.

(If you ever have a lot of time—and want to be really bored—allow me to talk you through all the ins-and-outs of a skater getting from his/her own home skating club up to nationals. It’s scintillating stuff.)

Mark, our skater boy extraordinaire, had competition events on both Saturday and Sunday, so we made a plan to stay overnight in Vacaville. Daveon would not be going up with us, because he had a cross-country meet Friday evening into Saturday morning. His meet was, of course, a few hours downstate, in completely the opposite direction.

The plan was that Daveon would drive up and join us on Saturday night and stay over till Sunday. Why? Because he wanted to support his brother in his first ever major qualifying event, right? Not a chance. It turns out that on Sunday he himself had a second cross-country meet in—wait for it—Vacaville.

Keep in mind, saying the boys both had athletic events on the same weekend in Vacaville is not quite the same as saying they had same-day events in San Francisco, or Vegas, or LA. Unless you count the big outlet mall, Vacaville is … well, let’s just say pretty much the only thing anyone counts there is the big outlet mall.

So now it’s Sunday morning. From our hotel, one kid is up early to go to the rink, the other up to go to the field. Meanwhile, our great family friend Zoe is up early in San Francisco to catch a ride to her first high school crew regatta in Sacramento—which means she will be heading right through Vacaville on her way up and back. Aunt Steph and Uncle Tony will make the trip up to see her a few hours later. And after she is done, they will all be able to stop on the way home and watch Mark—in Vacaville.

Which means we now have our two families with our three kids all in this little town of nothing, all for separate athletic endeavors. (There’s a tangential thread here about how two of Zoe’s good family friends, Joseph and Vicki, who live in Oakland and San Francisco, respectively, both happened to be in the Sacramento area on Sunday and were able to see the regatta. Because, of course.)

And that’s not even the punch line. The best part of the story is that our collective athletes’ accomplishments looked like this:

  • Daveon – first in his race
  • Zoe – second in her regatta
  • Mark – third in his competition

So we had our own little family set of gold, silver, and bronze medalists, in three different sports, on the same day, in the same part of the state roughly an hour from home.

So us.

Next: School and Other Reminders Your Kids Have Outside Lives: ASCEND

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