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


There are many ways our family story flips convention on its head. Here’s another one …

Among the endless categories in which I flunk at being a gay man, one that stands out is my less-than-zero interest in musicals. Pre-parenthood, I think I had seen a grand total of two: Cats with my family circa 1979, because my older sister was a big fan; and Chicago in 2001, when I was visiting New York with a group of gay men who clearly know the rules better than me.

Then I adopt these two little boys, and for about a five-year period, it was “all musicals, all the time.” Our house seriously turned into show tune central.

As with many things related to our family, I can’t really remember how our love affair with musicals started. I can only say during those year we watched them and listened to them … a lot.

Here, off the top of my head, are the musical movies we’ve seen and (usually) loved, either live, at the movies, or on DVD:

  • The Wiz
  • The Wizard of Oz (three guesses which one the boys voted had better music)
  • Hairspray (a particular favorite)
  • Oliver
  • Mamma Mia!
  • West Side Story (both the movie and the “edgy” onstage revival, which basically meant sometimes they sang in Spanish; which would have been fine, except neither Tony nor Maria could sing)
  • Xanadu (the movie from 1980—I’m not even joking)
  • Fame (when they were a little older—and can I just say, seeing it again for the first time since I was a teen: Wow!)
  • Little Shop of Horrors
  • Godspell
  • Pitch Perfect
  • All the High School Musicals (yes, I love my kids a lot)
  • Bring It On
  • The Color Purple
  • Fela!

But for as much as (mostly) enjoyed everything we saw on that list, nothing … and I mean, nothing … compares to the spell cast on my kids (pun intended) by Wicked. Oh. Em. Gee. For a solid year, our house was all about Wicked. We saw it, bought the soundtrack, and listened to every song, pretty much every day, all day, all the time. You haven’t lived until you’ve seen a 12- and a 10-year-old boy dueting at the top of their lungs in the roles of Elpheba the Wicked Witch and Glinda the Good Witch to “What Is This Feeling?” (Answer: LOATHING!) Priceless.

Proving the “too much of a good thing” rule, we saw Wicked a second time about a year and a half ago. This round, everyone (i.e., the kids) was a critic: Glinda was too goofy, the original Elpheba sang better, the band didn’t sound as good, etc.

But we will pop the CD in from time to time, and it’s still fun to watch them belt away about how much they loathe each other.

Honorable mention to all those Rankin-Bass Christmas specials, which, if you count them, add another half-dozen musicals to the list. Thanks to The Year Without a Santa Claus, every holiday season we were treated to another kids’ competitive/insulting sing-off: “Mr. Heat Miser/Mr. Snow Miser.”

I have to say, it’s much more entertaining when my kids are mean to each other in character.


Next: Hike

Miss Kookamooka

The next few posts look at some of the things that make our family unique: The rituals, family lore, etc. that define “us being us.” (Warning: Much silliness ahead—that is a family hallmark, or at least was, until my kids reached the age where “We love being silly!” gave way to “We need to be cool.” Sigh.)

There are no real “lessons learned” in these posts, except maybe an overarching one: I think rituals and lore are important for all families, and maybe even more so for alternative ones. They create a sense of tribe and belonging. So I encourage every family to create and meaningful rituals and share family stories (real or made-up), especially when your kids are young enough to enjoy them.

I start with probably the silliest example of all …

Miss Kookamooka lives at the North Pole. She is Santa Claus’s next-door neighbor. She travels the world teaching the cha-cha.

She is a real person.

You may find this hard to believe, but my kids found it hard to believe in Ms. Kookamooka. As “evidence” they pointed to the fact that they never saw her, even though I claimed that she was a friend and visited our house often.

Me: “It’s not her fault you are always away doing dumb stuff like school and activities when she comes here. And besides, she is very busy—it takes a lot of time to travel the world teaching the cha-cha.”

I suppose it is Ms. Kookamooka’s fault they my kids also, for years, did not believe that there was a Queen of England.

Me: “Your rooms and beds need to look better than that. What would the queen say if she stopped by for a visit and saw those covers all over the place?”

(Apparently, in addition to being friends with Miss Kookamooka, I am also friends with the Queen.)

Kids: “Daddy, there’s no such person as the Queen of England!”

(Side note: There’s a joke here somewhere about how queens come to visit our house all the time, but I’ll hold off on that one.)

Anyhow: The Queen was vindicated when Uncle Cedric sent a postcard from London, and there was Liz in all her glory not only in the photo, but on the stamp. Clearly Uncle Cedric has more credibility with my kids then I do, because from that point on they were firmly on “team Queen.” So much so that, a few years later, they both voluntarily sat through Helen Mirren’s “The Queen” movie—twice. But that’s a story for another day.

(Mostly unrelated tangent: A while back Mark said he wanted to go to London someday, because you never know, you could meet a “dutch and duchess.”)

As it turns out, Ms. Kookamooka got her vindication as well, when we happened upon Santa’s Village in Tilden Park in Berkeley (yet another story for yet another day). As we walked through the village, right next to Santa’s house, there was a “snow”-covered cottage. At the end of its lane stood a mailbox labeled S. K.

Shirley Kookamooka.

See you in cha-cha class.

Next: Musicals

2 on 1

[Note: It was 13 years ago today that two little knuckleheads climbed into a mini-van with their bags of clothes and favorite toys, tried to remember that this guy “Joe” was now “Daddy,” and started the adventure recorded on this blog. Happy anniversary to my two favorite people!]

Imagine that you have one friend in Fiji, and one in Greenland, and you are trying to pack to visit both of them in the same week. With one suitcase.

That’s what dealing with two kids at once can often be like.

It has happened more times than I care to think about over the years that on any given day one of my kids is in his Fiji space—happy, go-lucky, playful—while the other is off in Greenland—cold and remote. This is fine when I’m 1 on 1 with either of them. Being Mr. Sensitive Parent and all, I simply follow their mood. You’re feeling playful and chatty? Let’s chat and play. Channeling your inner Gloria Swanson? I’ll give you all the space you need.

When the three of us were all together, however, dealing with “Fiji vs. Greenland” presented a challenge. Given that there was no other parent around with whom to adopt a “divide and conquer” strategy, I was forced to figure out how to juggle the different atmospheres alone. I’d like to say I came up with a brilliant solution, but I’m trying to keep this book relatively honest. I was able to come up with three options, none of them ideal:

  • Prioritize Fiji: In other words, stay playful and light so that the Fiji kid doesn’t feel let down. This generally has the effect of driving Mr. Greenland crazy, as he feels pulled into a party he’d rather not attend.
  • Honor Greenland: This creates a mood of sulk that works well for the kid in focus, but leave Fiji (no pun intended) out in the cold.
  • Give each place its proper focus: In other words, be playful with Fiji and ignore Greenland. This is probably the logical answer, although there’s something about knowing that kid 1—already in a mood—is sitting there watching kid 2 and me goof around that doesn’t feel right. Or actually, feels dead wrong.

In reality, in these situations I would most often defer to Greenland. There’s something that feels worse about forcing a Debbie Downer to have fun than there is to create a quiet space for all. Fiji is usually in a good enough mood not to let it bring him down, or at least that’s how the thinking goes.

I’m sure sometime in the next 10 years I’ll get to hear all kinds of variations on, “And then there was the time I was in the WORST MOOD and you and [Fiji brother] were telling jokes and LAUGHING!” (and vice versa). Followed by a litany of everything else I did wrong over the past 20 years, probably in excruciating detail. I can’t wait …

I guess this is why people buy homes with wings. Or watch most of their meals in front of the TV.

Next: Us Being Us: Miss Kookamooka


There are lots of ways having kids makes a person feel old. Most of them have to do with crappy music or current TV depictions of high school, not to mention the Harry Potter view of relationship, which I describe elsewhere.

Another way is when you compare a milestone from your childhood to that same milestone as your kids experience it—and the two have nothing in common. And you think, “Wow. Am I that old?”

Case in point: When I was a teenager, driving went like this: As a sophomore, you took driver’s ed. As a regular class. In school. Driver’s ed included both the written work and driving time with an instructor. At 15½, you took the written test and got your permit. This cost maybe $10. You drove around for a while, whenever you could convince a grown-up to get in the car with you. At 16, you took the written test and got your license—another $10. Then your life was divided between doing errands for your parents—usually your mother, and usually involving shuffling your younger siblings to gymnastics or piano or little league—and taking off with your friends, usually with no destination in mind but just for the sheer joy of being out on your own and DRIVING.

Fast-forward 30 years, and here is what driving looks like for my kids: First, you need to take an online course—there are no school driver’s ed classes anymore. This costs anywhere from $50-150, depending on whether you can find a discount code. Assuming you pass the course—if not, you need to take it again, and no, there is no “second try” discount—you get a certificate in the mail. Certificate in hand, you go to the DMV to take your written test. This I believe is another $30, but don’t quote me. It certainly isn’t 10. Then you get your permit.*

Then you need to do six hours with a professional instructor. The cheapest one I found was $65 per hour, for a grand total of $390. The instructor needs to sign off on the permit.

Then you need to do 50 hours of driving with a licensed adult over 25. Fifty hours probably takes about a month in your average suburb, and is probably a couple of round-trips in L.A. Here in the Bay Area, with our awesome public transportation, it took us over six months for each kid to get his 50 hours. And that’s with me making up trips just for the heck of it. (Global warming, anyone?)**

Fifty hours later, you go back to the DMV for the driving test. If you fail after 50 hours, this is not a good sign for your competence as a driver in the years to come. Assuming you pass, congrats, you have a license!

So now you can hop in the car with your buddies, right? Au contraire. Unless you are 18, for the first year you have your license, you can only drive by yourself, or with at least one licensed driver over 18 in the car. So if you want to take off with your buddies, buddy-mom (or uncle or older sibling) needs to go with you. Not exactly the exhilaration of freedom.

You can, however, be coerced into errands by your dad.***

So overall, getting your license today is a lose-lose for the young driver, dad’s wallet, and the car, which keeps appearing in front of the house with new, mysterious scratches and dings.


*This really happened: Daveon took his course certificate to the DMV for the written test. The very nice DMV woman told us that this course was not approved by the DMV, but she was going to let him take the test anyway. I asked her for a list of approved courses, so we didn’t run into this same problem with his brother. She said, without even blinking, “Oh, we don’t have a list. We can only tell you whether the course is approved after you bring in the certificate.”

**You may wonder why, given our wonderful public transportation, the kids needed to get licenses at all. My reasons are simple: One, if I ever fall down the stairs, I want them to be able to get me to the hospital, stat. And two, their athletic activities take them far and afield, well out of the reach of our bus and train service. You only have to drive your kid an hour to the same ice rink three days in a row once, and suddenly having other driver options starts to look pretty appealing.

***There are exceptions. If you get your license at 17 or later, you only have to wait until your 18th birthday to lose the restrictions—not an entire year. And drivers under 18 can drive younger siblings in cases of “parental need.” Believe me, we had a lot of parental need in those first driving years.

Next: 2 on 1

(I) Love You

A fellow gay adoptive dad (who, being much smarter than me, waited until he was partnered before having kids) requested that I write a post on this topic: Saying “I love you” to the boys–how often did/do I say it, and what have their reactions been over the years.

My hunch is that he is expecting something like this: I used to say it a lot when they were younger, but over the years they have resisted/been embarrassed by it, so I stopped. That would be a fairly normal storyline, which of course means it’s not the one our family followed at all. The truth is much more embarrassing.

First, some background: Growing up, my family wasn’t very big on “I love you.” Among the seven of us—mom, dad, four sisters, me—I’m pretty sure I heard those words roughly, oh let’s just say for a ballpark, probably about: zero times. There was clearly some kind of (often awkward, clunky) love floating around, but verbalizing it wasn’t high in anyone’s skill set.

In best “I’m going to give my kids better than I got” fashion, when I put our little family together, I was a committed “I love you”-er. The minimum was once per day, at bedtime. After stories, wrestling, bedtime hits, whatever other rollicking activity we did, at the tuck-in point, I let each boy know: “I love you.”

As I say, that was the minimum. On days where I was more grounded and present, or just in a better mood, I might remember to toss out an unexpected “I love you” for no reason at all—except, of course, that I do.

The boys, being affection sponges (I’m pretty sure that’s the technical term), soaked it all up. During those first few years, I never once got a blush, or a deflection, or a “Dad, you’re embarrassing me.”

So the daily (plus) habit continued, until it didn’t. And when that shift took place, the culprit was … me.

I can’t believe I just wrote that.

I’ve described elsewhere my “what was I thinking?” relationship with my ex. Here is another reason to bang my head against the wall a few more times: At some point, I intuited—or maybe he told me directly—that my ex was jealous of the open affection I showed my kids. In his defense, I rarely showed him such affection (for reasons which, if you knew the two of us …).

Being an enlightened sort who has maybe the teeniest, tiniest tendency toward taking on other people’s stuff and being an emotional accommodater, I came up with what was clearly a brilliant solution: To stop being so openly affectionate toward my kids.

One of the casualties was our bedtime sign-off—or, at least, the “I” part. Somewhere during the ex years, our cuddly “I love you”s morphed into breezy “Love you”s, all thanks to dad’s dysfunctional inner workings.

The kids, true to form, neither balked at the change nor, for as long as it lasted, expressed any embarrassment at this abbreviated version.

Over the years, tuck-ins gave way to more casual check-ins, which eventually gave way to the kids just … going to bed with no parental involvement. That was probably when “(I) love you” went into hibernation.

Surprisingly—or not, depending on how you slice it—“Love you” made its comeback courtesy of Daveon.  At some point just before or after he went off to college, Daveon began signing off our phone conversations—even the hard ones—with a cheery “Love you.” (To be fair, knowing Daveon, he might sign off all his communication—with his friends, his teachers, the cashier at the grocery store—this way.) So in this minor way, “Love you” has re-entered our world. And as with many things having to do with big hearts and open expression, I have my kids to thank.

(P.S. For what it’s worth, I think Mark would be embarrassed if I started signing off our calls with “Love you.” But when he leaves for school, I’m going to do it anyway. Which leads to this thought for anyone struggling with the more traditional “I want to (or do) say ‘I love you,’ but my kids balk” scenario: It’s a judgment call, but my own bias (and practice) is to allow the kids to lead in most things, especially as they get older (“This makes you uncomfortable, I’ll stop/modify it.”). But I also think it’s important to hold firm to the handful of things that matter most to you. As I jokingly—but truthfully—say about Mark, expressing “I love you” is that important to me when he’s far away, I’m gonna do it. If it makes him uncomfortable … well, sometimes (I) love (you) hurts, right?)

Next: Driving


Let’s cut to the chase: I am not a pet person. I would happily have no pets, never. Forever.

On the other hand, if my kids had their way, our house would look like Dr. Doolittle’s waiting room. They actually like animals and would like nothing better than to have a bunch crawling underfoot.

Being ever-mindful dad, I’ve tried to find ways to compromise over the years. First attempt? Fish. Fish seemed easy, they live in a small glass box, and I would never have to take them to the vet. This was, in a word, dumb. First off, fish take a ridiculous amount of work for inch-sized creatures whose life consists of swim in circles, dive for something to eat, lather, rinse, repeat. Second, although they “like” the fish, my kids were never really interested in them—which means that these particular pets have, from day one, been solely my job. Nothing I love better on a Saturday than cleaning out smelly tank water.

So from fish we started negotiating warm fuzzies, with the caveat: Nothing that could run underfoot. I already had two kids, I wasn’t trying to trip over anything else. That led to—what became the first in a series of—hamsters. These were Daveon’s pets, and true to form, Mr. Man took excellent care of them. Not just the requisite feeding and cage-cleaning, but talking to, holding, playing with them. Unfortunately, hamsters only live about a year and a half, and after a while I think Daveon got tired of the little funeral ceremonies we would hold in the planter box on the side of the house. Later he talked about wanting an iguana.

My biggest pet mistake was the rabbits. For a long time Mark begged and pleaded for a rabbit. Clearly my inner voice was working strong here, because I held back. But he persisted, and persisted, and … after about six months, I relented.

When we got our first rabbit, Blackberry, from the shelter, he came with a phonebook-thick set of instructions. The “dos” and “don’ts” included an endless list of what he could and couldn’t eat:

  • Iceberg lettuce, out—too much water, makes them gassy. Romaine, OK.
  • Pellets? OK in small amounts for one meal only. The rest, greens. Organic greens. Pesticide residue is bad for bunnies.
  • Carrots are the perfect rabbit food, right? Wrong. Too much sugar. One baby carrot per day, tops.

Once I was at the store buying organic dandelion greens, basil, mint, and cilantro. The woman next to me said, “Wow, you eat really healthy.” I told her, “It’s for our rabbits.”

Update: This truly just happened this morning, same grocery store. Bagger: “You buy a lot of herbs, huh?” Me: “For the rabbits.”

That’s just food. You’re also, according to the instructional phone book, supposed to let your rabbits run free in your house. Let me repeat: Rabbits, which are basically big mice with cuter ears and tails, running free in your house. Except: They love to chew on cords, so you need to unplug everything, keep the cords high, and cap your outlets for good measure.

Did I mention I work from home, writing for tech companies? Do you know how many cords are in our house?

Then there was: You can’t let your rabbits outside, because it’s too cold and they might get picked up by a hawk. The shelter wasn’t even wild when I told them I was building a pen in the garage, because even that would be too cold.

In our garage. In Oakland.

When I was a kid, I had a rabbit who lived for 12 years, outdoors, in the Northeast. Sniffy ate nothing but pellets, and survived real winters. My mother would have no sooner let him in the house than the Grim Reaper. Sniffy was kind of grumpy—maybe he missed getting organic Italian parsley—but otherwise he seemed fine.

Not to mention: When we first got Blackberry, he lived in a pen in Mark’s room, under the loft bed. That worked for a while, except Mark was scared of the rabbit. So it made perfect sense that he started  pleading for a second one. When I finally agreed and we went for number two, I built a large, two-story pen in the garage—the one the shelter said was cruel and unusual punishment.

This led us to: Bunny dating. I am not kidding. You bring rabbit 1 to the shelter, and put it in a small enclosure with a series of rabbits, one at a time, and see how each pair does. Sometimes they go straight for the jugular—not good. Sometimes one chases the other’s butt—not good. Sometimes they ignore each other—not great, but better than the other options. If they sniff and start grooming each other, that’s the best-case scenario. We tried about 10 potential roommates with Blackberry,  never getting any farther than ignore. So that was the one. And into our life came Hugs.

At which point Mark immediately decided he didn’t want to take care of the rabbits, and could we bring them back.

Luckily Dr. Daveon Doolittle stepped in, agreeing to take over half the chores. And there they remained till Hugs passed on to rabbit heaven, two love bunnies in their split-level garage condo. And my electric cords survived to live another day.

Next: (I) Love You