Friday, November 14, 2014


One day I went to the Celebration of Writing.

It was today actually; but as I learned at the event, good stories usually start with "One day..."

The participants were the 26 kids in my girls' kindergarten class. They had been working on writing and revising their stories in "Writers' Workshop" for the last several weeks, and today was the day they presented them to an audience of their classmates and whichever parents could get away at 2:30 p.m. on a Thursday. (I wasn't the only dad there, but I was the sawdustiest one.)

It was really cute, of course, and brought into focus, as a number of school visits have for me, that the skill levels in a kindergarten class are all over the map. The quality and content of the presentations ran the gamut, including vibrant, detailed drawings, droll humor, compelling narratives, scrawls, smudges, illegible quasi-letters, unintelligible mumbling, stage fright, and of course, tears.

The children were quite patient and supportive, allowing their classmates to present, and offering only positive comments and applause. It reminded me of the handful of open-mic reading events I have suffered through participated in. But this was much more adorable.

When Twin A (not her real name) got up to speak, my heart swelled with pride before she even did anything to elicit such a response. (Okay, my heart is pretty much always swollen with pride about these kids, but it got a little more so as she took the mic.) Her drawing was elaborate, neat, and creative, including multiple characters, a building, sky, sun, and five or six shopping carts. The crowd oohed and ahhed. (Fine. They oohed ahhed for everyone--but this seemed sincere). Her story was strong, well-paced, and included four characters and no less than three plot points.

But the transcription was, shall we say, lacking.

The point of this project, aside from achieving some buy-in for the students (writers know that an audience changes everything), was to get them to write their stories just by using their emerging skill of sounding out words. The teacher didn't spoon feed them the spellings. Some kids had fully-formed words that were mostly spelled correctly, some had attempts that were misspelled but made phonetic sense, some had their own personal cryptography that only they could decipher.

Twin A's story, like all of them, started out, "One day..." After that, the text comprised just the first letter of each word that she recited, interspersed with a handful of words she knows how to spell from memory, or that are on the classroom's word-wall: "a," "and," "we," "went," etc. Despite the minimalism of the written script, she nailed the delivery, and seemed pleased with herself.  I gave her a woo-hoo and a thumbs-up.

About twenty kids later, it was Twin B's turn. Her picture was lovely, detailed, and colorful. Her story was not as complex as her sister's, and yet it had some emotional resonance. Her spelling? Her spelling kicked ass.

There were audible "wow's" from the parents in the audience, and the teacher gave her an extra lavishing of praise, pointing out words she had spelled all by herself like "invitashun" [sic] and "bithday"[sic]. Twin B smiled and returned to her seat as I enthusiastically signaled my approval to her.

Moments later, as one of the last students was finishing up, Twin A sidled up to me, with a facial tic that was unmistakable. Pre-cry chin-vibration.  

No. Not now. Not here. Come ON! What is this even about?

"You gave her two thumbs up; but only gave me one," she said, her face collapsing into a quiet sob.

"I did? No. I don't think I did." Did I? "If I did, it was probably just because I was holding my phone in my other hand. To make the video, you know." (I know, right? I can really think on my feet.)

The promise of post-reading cookies and juice got her through the next couple minutes. The consumption of said cookies moments later seemed like they had created some perspective, and left the despair caused by my alleged transgression in the past. Forgiven and forgotten.

I rushed the kids off to ballet, and then we goofed off in the park for a while before heading home for dinner. Everything was good.

Once we were at home, both the girls settled into their most common activity, drawing pictures and writing words. Twin A asked me to help her sound out a word. Before we could get through it, though, Twin B blurted out the spelling.

A's eyes got wet. Her chin wiggled under the down-turned corners of her mouth.

"SHE ALWAYS GETS EVERYTHING RIGHT!!" she wailed. "She always knows how to write the words and I don't." From there it devolved into gasping and snuffling.

I carried her into the kitchen, trying to explain to her that everyone learns at a different pace. "Everyone is different!" Twin B hollered from the playroom, unhelpfully. I continued with my pep-talk, pointing out to the blubbering child in my arms that she is the one who can ride a bike with no training wheels, that she is the one who can ride a boogie board in the ocean--there are plenty of things that she can do that her sister can't.

"But..." she sobbed, "But...but I wanted to be the best one at the Celebration of Writing!"

Oh Lord. Here it comes.

My wife and I "joke" that Twin A is my child and Twin B is hers. It's more complicated than that, but it's kind of true. So when I see "my" child acting like I have historically been known to act, I worry.

This was me as a kid, and it only got worse when I was a teenager: If I wasn't good at something on the first couple tries, I didn't want anything more to do with it. I was going to find the thing I was The Best In The World at, and pursue it with all my energy--the hell with all that other crap--even if it was a thing that no one else did or cared about. It left me with quite a few regrets about all the things I now suck at that I could have achieved competency in.

"Look, sweetie," I said. "You can't be the best at everything. Nobody can. People are all good at different things. But you'll get better at writing. It's just that it kind of 'clicked' for your sister, and so she's a little ahead of you right now. It will click for you soon, I promise."

Before today, I hadn't realized the extent to which the writing hadn't clicked for Twin A. Both of the girls spend hours almost every day on the playroom floor, making up stories or notes to their friends and writing them out. Twin B asks for help sounding the words out. I enunciate loudly from the kitchen, where I'm goofing around on the internet doing research or washing dishes. But when I try this tactic to help Twin A, she says she's tired of sounding out--she just wants me to spell it for her. So I usually do. I figure they've been doing this all day in school, so I'll give her brain a little rest. Meanwhile, Twin B is clicking all over the place. I barely have to prompt her at all.

The snuffles subside, and Twin A wants me to help her write all the colors of the rainbow. "I want to be the best at the next Celebration of Writing," she says. "So I'm going to fill up my whole book with words that I sound out! And we can do extra words in the workbook too! Every day!"

"Uh...okay." This is definitely not me as a child. This is some other child. I would have retreated into my room for a good long sulk. "I mean, 'That's the spirit!' Let's do this!" And then I temper my enthusiasm with some gradeschool wisdom I have recently gleaned: "But are only competing with yourself; school isn't a contest." She doesn't seem to hear that. Whatever.

For the next hour, we sound out everything from red to purple (what ever happened to indigo and violet?) and beyond. We do some rhyming words and some common words, and some words of nearby objects. My wife walks in through the back door to see me, Henry Higgins-like, squishing our child's face into the shape it needs to be in to make the right sound, and tapping on her chest to indicate that that's the sound she needs to listen to herself say and recognize as being represented by a certain letter, and write that letter down on the paper. I'm grunting and gesticulating and occasionally bursting out. "Yes! That's it! Of course! Finally!" I'm exasperated and excited, and my wife tells me maybe we should take a break. But the kid is loving it. My wife walks into the kitchen and puts a skillet on the stove, lighting the burner with a sharp CLICK.      


Friday, October 31, 2014

Champagne Girls!

I wrote something for the New York Times today, and they called me a blogger. So here I am, posting something on my blog!

This pretty much explains everything about my kids these days.

The kids are in kindergarten now, and loving it. We did end up sending to the "disadvantaged local school," and it's awesome. When I'm not busy building stuff, I'm usually doing something for, with, or about their school, along with a wonderful group of committed parents.

Gotta go now--volunteering at the school's Halloween parade, and then hanging cabinets for the rest of the day.


Friday, June 27, 2014

Talking about Death and Asking for Help

In a few hours, my wife and I are meeting with a lawyer to sign the final version of the living will we set up for our kids. A couple weeks ago, we sat down in a comfy law office and hashed out the details of who would take care of our kids, our medical decisions, and our stuff in the case of some kind of tragedy. There's nothing like talking about all of the different possible combinations of deaths in the family, and what will become of your children in each different scenario, to force you to confront your own mortality. Like a lot of our peers, we dragged our feet on this important matter because of the ickyness of discussing our worst fears. As a people, we're kind of superstitious about discussing death. It's a topic that has a power over us, and a stigma, despite its absolute universality.

After the first meeting with the lawyer, I felt a sense of relief for having prepared for almost any existential eventuality. This was partially because my friend Oren Miller was on my mind. I met Oren first through dad blogging, and then in real life. He's smart and funny, an excellent writer, and a dedicated stay-at-home dad to two young kids. He also started up and moderates what has become a huge community of dad bloggers--a facebook group that's nearly 800 strong. It has become my--and many others'--main online forum for celebrating, griping, sharing, brainstorming, crowdsourcing, and dick jokes. Oren is the guy who has to rein in this bunch of opinionated, verbose dudes when the conversations get heated, and he does so gently but definitively. He's a mensch.

Last month, Oren went to the hospital with back pain, and came out with a crushing diagnosis of Stage 4 lung cancer that had spread to other organs. The prognosis is brutal: maybe a year left to spend with his family. He wrote beautifully about his situation here. I won't try to summarize what he had to say--you should read it--except to mention that, in addition to my heart breaking for his family, my head was nodding in agreement that once you have kids, the significance of your own mortality is less about how scary it is personally, and more about how it affects others.

In addition to observing the stigma associated with talking about death, we also tend to be ashamed and reluctant to ask for help. This is probably something we should get over. Oren has been stoic throughout this ordeal, but at the end of his post about his diagnosis, he asks anyone in contact with his family to help him out by treating his survivors in the ways that will encourage them to move toward happiness. This strikes me as one of the wisest and most selfless ways to establish one's legacy.

But without having asked for it, Oren's family has also been receiving financial help thanks in part to his brothers in the dad blogging community. One of our members, Brent Almond, set up a fund through Give Forward, with the modest goal of raising a few thousand dollars to send Oren and his family on a vacation. After receiving some attention in the blogosphere and mainstream media, however, the fund has far exceeded the original goal, and is closing in on $30,000, a sum that could help with medical expenses, and even become the seed money for a college fund for his kids.

So here's me asking for help. Please read Oren's story and keep his family in your thoughts. And if you have a couple bucks to spare, consider donating them to Oren's Give Forward fund. Here's the url again:


Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Good Morning, Five-Year-Olds

My mom still calls my sisters and me on the eves of our respective birthdays to say, "Goodnight, x-year-old." Then the next day, she calls again and says, "Good morning x+1-year-old!" She's been doing that since before I was born, I think. But she didn't call us when we were kids. She mostly, you know, said it in person.

Yesterday, I made the terrible mistake of trying to work from home a little bit while taking care of the girls, which made me wonder whether it was worse for kids to get yelled at by a parent all day than it is for them to stare at a TV. Often, they will play make-believe quietly for hours on end. Other times they go on wild rampages, leaving carnage in their wake. Yesterday was a rampage day. They snarled at one another, pestered me with accusations about how the other one had committed some unspeakable crime against them, and sometimes just ran screeching through the house. I could have fixed this by taking them to the park. But I really just had to make a couple phone calls. I could have plopped them in front of a movie and they would have zombied out for an hour and a half. But they were going to watch a movie at a benefit event we were to attend that evening, and too much screen-time is no good. So they got scream-time instead.


They essentially shrugged in response.

Shortly after going off on them, I started rushing them around so they would be ready to ride their bikes to this fundraising thing for the kindergarten they will be going to in September. KINDERGARTEN! IN A COUPLE MONTHS!

They jumped on their bikes (from which I'm hoping to remove the training wheels before they go to big-kid school), and I on my skateboard, and we headed to the brew pub that has partnered up with our school foundation.* (Mom had to stay home and work.) We took the same route that we will take to get to school in the fall. In fact, we cut through the playground to get to the pub.

Between our house and the school is a pretty big hill: probably a hundred feet of elevation gain in two blocks. It gets my heart rate up when I ride it on my bike. A few weeks ago, I would have had to push both of the kids on their bikes the entire way up. Last night, Maddy put the hammer down and charged almost all the way to the summit, her sturdy little legs relentlessly pushing that one big gear. Livvy made it about two-thirds of the way up with no help, requiring just a couple shoves to make it to the top.

At the event, the kids hung out with their friends, watched some of the movie in the special room we had reserved, but then asked if they could go to the designated kids' area of the main restaurant where they were showing a different video. They held hands as they navigated by themselves through the forest of grownups' legs, and settled in some bean bag chairs in the play space, while I chatted with other parents.

We rode home with their friend and her parents, cruising through the twilit neighborhood. Maddy and Livvy encouraged their younger friend, who was being a little timid on the bike, to hop curbs and not ride the brakes on the descents. I could barely keep up on my skateboard, and nearly bit it a couple times.

When my wife and I tucked them in, still a little wired from the exhilarating ride, I said, "Good night, four-year-olds."

As always, after they were asleep, I felt lucky and proud and profoundly in love.

I used to hold grudges against people. I guess I still do. Or, more accurately, I write people off. Shut them out if they get to be too much trouble. But these two, no matter how awful they get--or I get--every morning starts fresh. The days we spend together are full of peaks and valleys, and very soon, we're not going to sharing nearly as many of them. They'll be at school full time. I'll be at work. I can't say I'm stoked about that. Even the not-so-great days go too fast.

Fifth birthday AND pajama day at school: win-win

*If you wonder why I've been involved in the school foundation before my kids even go there, you can read this thing I wrote for NY Times last year. A lot has changed since then--all for the better.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

The Mother's Day Father's Day Birthday Post.

There is so much stuff I've meant to write here, but I just can't seem to get around to it. I've been doing quite a bit of freelancing, and carpentry, and parenting, and volunteer stuff for the school where the girls will go to kindergarten next year. And I'm just not into staying up all night anymore. So the blog languishes.

One of the reasons I started this blog was to have a record of what the girls have been doing, and I'm sucking at that. I mean, they learned to ski, for crying out loud! I could have written volumes about that, especially because it was my parents who really taught them. It just seems weird to write about it now that it's pretty much summer time.

Love the shirt. Hate selfies.
Anyway, I mostly just wanted to publish an email I got from my mom (with her permission, of course), since its one of those stories I've heard for most of my life, and it's really best told by her.  The setup was that my parents gave me a cool shirt for my birthday, and I posted a selfie of me wearing it on facebook, which prompted the email from my mom.

Also, this story pretty much covers a) my birthday, which was on May 30, b) Mother's Day (because this shows how awesome my mom is) and c) Father's Day, because it's partly a story about my dad and there's a picture of the two of us, and d) our cabin in Montana, where I'm taking the girls next month, and knowing my track record of late, I probably will neglect to share that here.

Hi, Andy -
Your comment about your cool birthday shirt made me think about your 3rd birthday. Do you remember it?
We lived in Missoula, and your Dad was in Viet Nam. I had discovered and bought the Flathead lake property early that spring. We were excited about spending some time there, and I bought a little camper trailer. I got a trailer hitch for the ‘66 GTO coupe (triple deuce, I’m told), hooked up the camper, and took off for the cabin site with you, your sisters, and Granny Goose. At that time, I didn’t even KNOW that I didn’t know how to back up a trailer! So we drove over the hilly, narrow dirt road and found a flat place at the top of our new property. We played around the shore, explored the mountainside and finally had a birthday cake in our new camper, talking about spending the night in it for the first time. Your present was a blue shirt, which you loved. You called it your birthday shirt.
May 30 was really a time to celebrate! It was your birthday and your Dad was due to come home the next evening after a year (his second tour) in Viet Nam. We were having a great party, as we always did with Granny Goose. Then I started thinking about what time I needed to leave the lake the next day to get to the Missoula airport in time to meet the plane from San Francisco.  Suddenly I remembered that we were dealing with the international dateline. Dad was coming home, not tomorrow, but TONIGHT. Needless to say, we abandoned camp and hurried home.
Well, I got to the airport and met my returning hero. Drove him home to the Dickinson house, and after lots of hugs and catching up with a year’s worth of kid stories, what he really wanted was a shower. After all, he had been traveling for more than 24 hours. He always has to add to this story that the shower backed up on him and he had to start out his post-war life with a plumbing problem.

Dad and me at the lake, shortly after my 3rd birthday
Here's the most recent thing I wrote for The Daily Beast. It's Father's Day related. 

Friday, March 21, 2014

Remember Four and Three Quarters

We're having good days these days; some of them back-to-back.
It's a jinx to mention this, I know;
But a curse to forget

We've had self-control,
Backed away from the bitter brink,
Negotiated like neighborly nation states.

It's a sweet spot.
Even the dog is onto it.
The two sisters play for hours and days, with ponies and pirates;
push and pull and patch it up. They hardly need me.

They hug hard.
Hug Mom ten times before she goes to work.
Hug hundreds of times, as much as I can handle, crashing and climbing,
Hanging, cantilevering, daredevil upside-down hugs.
Collapsed, deadweight, sleep-sweat hugs.

They're long in my arms when I see us reflected in a window,
One a bag of pythons, the other a barrel of birds.

Half a year from big-kid school,
They're so small when they reach up.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Just in case you thought I was dead

Hi! I'm not dead! I've been really busy building stuff and doing kid stuff, and doing some writing, but not so much in this space. Life is full and rich and interesting and dizzying.

This just occurred to me: Kids, like grownups, are sometimes inconsistent in their thinking. For instance, the other day, after watching a movie, walking around a fun part of town, stopping for hot chocolate, getting a treat from Ye Olde Candye Shoppe, pizza from our favorite joint, receiving an unexpected boon of awesome toys from an almost-stranger, playing with said toys for hours on end, one of my kids announced, "This was the most boring day ever!"  I asked her what a good day would be, and she answered, "A good day is when there are no parents and we can do whatever we want."

Today--about an hour ago--that same kid was crying at preschool drop-off (which hasn't been problematic in over a year, until recently), and said, "I don't like going to school because I miss Mommy and Daddy all day." Go figure.

Look! I (micro) posted on the blog!  Read on for something I wrote in San Diego Uptown News.  Following that, there's a teaser and a link to something I wrote recently for the Atlantic that I thought was pretty funny and a lot of people didn't get. Whatevz.


 What a Clown Taught Me about Work-Life Balance

There aren’t very many things that I’m really, really good at, but I’ve always felt like I’m kind of a master at the “work-life balance” that eludes so many of us—especially, it seems, those of us with kids.  Of course, I usually err on the side of “life,” and have bailed on a couple of careers that interfered with it too much.  And thankfully, I have been able to spend the past four years (since my twin girls were born) scheduling my work around my kids, which has tilted the scale way over to the “life” side.  Next year, my kids will be in kindergarten, which will leave me more time to work.  The balance shifts back and forth with time, and I hear that careers can be very fulfilling, but most of us hope to have more memories of quality time with friends and family than of punching the clock.

Last weekend, however, I met a dad who made me look like an amateur work-life balancer. 

To hear Jon and Laura Weiss tell it, they never planned for the life they have now.  They met in high school, married some years later, and started a family with whom they now spend almost all of their hours, on the job and off.  According to them, it all just kind of fell into place.  But it’s hard to imagine that the line of work Jon, Laura, and now all three of their kids are in doesn’t require an extraordinary, innate sense of balance.  The Weisses are circus folk.

I got the opportunity to meet Jon and Laura and their kids when my family and I went to see Circus Vargas at Mission Bay Park.  (They have moved on from that location, but will be in Mira Mesa until March 3rd, after which they set up in Temecula, so you can still catch them pretty close to home.)  I think I must have been expecting them to be shifty-eyed vagabonds or something, because I was very pleasantly surprised to find that they were some of the most open, friendly, laid-back people I’ve met.  Jon introduced us to his two teenaged boys who were manning concession stands and acting like teenaged boys; i.e., rolling their eyes at Dad’s jokes and exuding the impression that they knew much more about the circus biz than the old man did.

When we were done embarrassing the boys, we went to the “back lot” behind the big-top, to see where the circus families live.  According to Jon, Circus Vargas is definitely a family affair.  Many, if not most, of the performers and crew travel with their families.  There is a trailer that, when not on the road hauling equipment, functions as a school for the dozen or so kids who are enrolled this year.  Many of the kids will go into the circus business—some of the performers’ families have been in it for several generations—and some won’t.  Laura and Jon’s eldest daughter, whom we met briefly while she was on her way to get into costume and makeup, is continuing the family tradition.

Jon and Laura invited us into their home for the brief time before the performance was to begin.  While the interior was tasteful and neat, I have to say that the landscaping (dust and woodchips) left something to be desired.  Of course, every few weeks, they hook their home up to the back of a dually pickup truck and join the caravan to the next performance location.  I sometimes feel hemmed-in by our narrow, 1200-square foot cottage; but all five Weisses (and their tiny dog) live in a 43-foot fifth wheel trailer.  My kids were fascinated by this house-on-wheels, especially the big-screen TV tuned to the Disney Channel. 

As we lounged around in their kitchen, the Weisses explained how they ended up as a circus family.  Jon graduated from clown college in 1981 and planned on performing for a year or so, while he figured out what he was really going to do with his life.  Laura joined him at Ringling Brothers a couple years later, and they ended up staying with that organization for 26 years before moving on to Circus Vargas.  It turns out we had a lot in common with the Weisses, between moving from the East Coast to California (Circus Vargas mostly stays in the Golden State), traveling, raising kids, being shot from cannons…oh, wait—I never actually did that.  The point is, they seemed like the kind of people who had figured out how to live in a way that made them happy, and those are the kind of people I really like hanging out with.

The circus itself is very kid-centric.  There’s a pre-show (don’t miss this if you have kids!), hosted by Jon and Laura, where the children come out to the ring and learn tricks like hula-hooping, juggling scarves, and balancing peacock feathers.  If you don’t find this adorable, you are dead inside.

Once the pros take over, it goes from cute to mind-blowing pretty quickly.  I have to admit that my opinion of the performance may have been colored by seeing my four-year-olds literally agape and applauding wildly for most of the show.  It was a classic circus performance—thrilling, silly, amazing, cheesy, and just a lot of fun.  It also has the benefit of not having any animal acts, so we didn’t have to feel terrible about our complicity in the degradation of noble jungle beasts. 

There are very few things more engaging than seeing your small children losing their minds with excitement; and yet I still found myself reflecting, as I watched Jon Weiss balance progressively bigger things on his nose and chin—a dollar bill, a shoe, a hat, a folding table, a Costco-sized shopping cart, a 12-foot stepladder:  they’ve got a pretty good thing going, these circus families. 

As usual, I grilled the kids afterwards to see what their impressions of the show were.  They loved it all, especially the parts where some fire turned into a lady, and the guys jumped on the trampoline, and the lady changed her clothes a lot, and Mr. Jon balanced a shopping cart, and…and…and.
“So, what do you want to be when you grow up,” I asked.

“Circus girls,” they both said.

I hope they take me with them.     


Your Workout Looks Ridiculous 

Have you ever seen people riding those two-wheeled elliptical trainer contraptions? It looks like they just tore free of their moorings at the gym and started cruising down the street. Are they supposed to be scooters, NordicTracks, bikes, or what? They should decide whether they want to run or ride a bike or cross-country ski. They look ridiculous.

Of course, so does most exercise. We humans face an inherent conflict: Our bodies are meant to subsist on only the foods we can hunt down, scavenge, or coax from the earth by endless sowing, tending, and reaping. But our actual lifestyles consist of sitting on soft chairs and eating unlimited, delicious, and inexpensive calories. As a result, we engage in outlandish activities that are, when considered objectively, completely preposterous.
While less jarring than the sight of someone riding a piece of cardio equipment from the gym down the street, cyclists are a bit of an eyesore themselves, what with their loud, matching Lycra shorts and jerseys emblazoned with logos of Italian bikes that cost more than most of the cars I’ve owned.

By the looks of these Spandex harlequins, they’re more obsessed with their outfits, shiny components, and carbon-fiber frames than with the actual riding of their bikes, which, by the way, is accepted by much of the world as a means of transportation for people who wish they had cars.

Runners, on the other hand, with their minimalist equipment and dedication to doing only the most primitive and laborious of human physical activities, are the ascetic monks of exercise. It looks like a penance as they chug grimly along in whatever unpleasant conditions nature throws at them. Their faces weather-beaten and haunted, and their dead eyes fixed on the horizon, they seem just steps ahead of their personal demons, usually nursing a half-dozen or so repetitive-stress injuries.

I'm only allowed to post a teaser here, so please read the rest at The Atlantic...


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