Sunday, February 28, 2016

Finding Our Version of Perfect a Few Rows Down

My son walked through the tunnel connecting the upper concourse and the actual arena and paused as he took in the massive space that is the largest college basketball stadium in the country.  

“Whoa,” he muttered.  Whoa is right.

The boy's first glance at the Dome.
It was this five-year-old little boy’s first visit to Syracuse University's Carrier Dome. And, it was an awesome sight to behold: a world within a building, with a bulbous white roof like a puffy cloud arched over a coliseum big enough to hold 50,000 people and an entire football field, to boot.

For basketball games, they only use half the stadium, tucking a court into the one end. But the whole space is still there before you. And it’s immense.

All four of the kids stopped at the railing at the end of the tunnel and just gazed at the sight before them. We were three levels up, which added an element of height to the view as well. Our 8-year-old daughter, who happens to be afraid of heights, stood less close to the railing than the others. And while the dome looked bigger than they expected, I’m sure the court looked a bit smaller.

Then we turned away from the railing and showed our tickets to the usher. He pointed up the steep concrete stairs toward the rafters.

“Whoa,” I mumbled.  Whoa is right.

One of the older kids look at me as their expression of amazement, turned to disappointment. And it was then I knew I’d screwed up. On the day weeks before when I planned this rare family outing, my intuitive frugality – a.k.a. my tendency to be a cheap ass – had steered me toward more affordable tickets. And now, the usher was steering us to the cheap seats.


You learn pretty early on as a parent that perfection is impossible. It’s never more true than when it comes to the plans you make for you and your family. I’m not talking about the big plans, like where you’re going to be in five years. But the small plans, like what are we going to do this Saturday.

You can make all the plans you want, and envision all the perfect outcomes. When reality happens, one unforeseen variable can turn the whole affair on its head. Often that variable is out of your control: an unexpected toddler meltdown, an unsuspected stomach bug. Life has no shortage of flat tires. But, occasionally, the unforeseen variable was seeable. And you just ignored it because you’re dense, or overly optimistic, or cheap.

The day we went to the Dome for a basketball game started out pretty well. We decked ourselves in Orange and then piled into the van to make our way to the stadium. The excitement was palpable. For two of our children, it would be the first time to an SU game. For the rest of us, it was the first time we were going with the entire family.

I’d made the plan for this family outing to the Dome around Christmas. I’d picked a game on a Saturday against a lesser ACC opponent – as in not Duke or Carolina. Then I bought six tickets. It wasn’t cheap.

The plan felt perfect. I’d looked forward to it for weeks. Then reality arrived.
Picture it: A husband, a wife and four kids sitting on a cold, hard bench in the nose bleed section of the Carrier Dome, with row upon row of empty, cushioned seats between them and the third level railing. Picture, too, a miniature basketball court in the distance, complete with small ants in warmup suits doing what looked like lay-up drills. It was hard to tell.
Did I mention the 14 rows of seats between us and the third level overlook were all cushioned … and empty. Cushioned seats; all empty.
After the usher pointed us up the concrete staircase, one of the “glass-half-full” kids in our family saw the orange and white cushions and exclaimed, “Cushions! Yes!”
That lifted my heart momentarily.
Then we began our ascent to section 318, Row N. When we passed Row J, I realized the cushions were ending in a few rows, and it was cold metal from there on.
Row K? Cushions. L? Cushions. M? Cushions. N? No cushions. I could hear the air being let out of my pre-teen daughter’s mouth as she sighed at our cushion-less future.
She, too, was the one who vocalized our collective frustration as tip-off arrived and the seats in front of us remained empty.  “Really?!” she said.
Row M had cushions. It was also a few bucks more.
So, no cushions for us.
I kept smiling, and we did a few family selfies, as prompted by the Jumbotron. Then we tweeted the selfies to an appropriate hashtag to let the whole stadium see how happy we were despite having the worst seats for miles.
I tried to focus for a moment on exactly why I’d dragged the family there. And I knew it wasn’t for the views, or even the game. It was for the memories.
I’m getting older, and the memories of my youth are further and foggier than ever. But I do remember the first time I went to a real baseball game. It was Memorial Stadium in Baltimore. Orioles vs. Yankees. I was there. My dad was there. I don’t remember what our seats were like, probably not that great. I come from a 300 section kind of family. It’s just reality.
I also don’t remember many details of that game. Reggie Jackson was in the outfield. And Cal Ripken was probably playing – though that’s kind of cheating. I don’t recall if he was.
The truth is I don’t remember much about it. But I remember it. I remember the feeling it gave me.
That’s what we’re doing with our kids, why we plan so much, and drive so much, and fill our weekends – and most of our weeknights – with adventures and outings. It’s so a handful of those experiences will make it through the great distiller that is childhood memories and that they and us will come out on the other end happier.
And yet, it seemed there was a dearth of happiness in Section 318, Row N of the Carrier Dome that Saturday.
Luckily, I’m married to a woman who knows how to fix such problems. With a break in the basketball action – we knew because the ants all huddled on the sidelines -- she asked the kids if anyone wanted a pretzel. One thing I’ve learned in the many professional and college sporting events I’ve attended since that trip to Memorial Stadium is that the food makes up a quintessential part of the experience.
So, down the steps she went with a couple of kids in tow in search of overpriced pretzels.
I sulked in the seats with the remaining kids and contemplated the benefits of moving down one row into the empty cushioned seats before us. Would the usher notice? Would the kids learn the wrong lesson?  The truth is, most 300 sections let you move down to the better seats once it’s clear nobody’s coming to fill the slightly more expensive rows. Yet I couldn’t muster the will to decide what to do.
Then I saw my wife returning with the pretzels, rounding out of the tunnel to begin her ascent. And she did something brilliant; She sat down in the empty, cushioned row of seats by the railing. The usher didn’t even glance her way. Then she waved at us to come down.
It didn’t take much convincing to move the rest of the kids down to where she was.  It was only 14 rows closer than our seats. But the court was that much bigger, the players that much clearer and the seats that much better.
Suddenly, the kids were into it. The moment I’d planned for had arrived.
Can you guess who we were rooting for?
It helped that the game was a good one, with leads exchanged back and forth, and long shots made, and the crowd rapt with it all. The band played, and my kids chanted, “Let’s Go Orange” along with 23,000 others. The drama was so intense that my almost-teenaged daughter at one point anxiously exclaimed, “I didn’t sign on for this,” which is pre-teen lingo for “This is intense and awesome and I’m so into it.”
We all felt the same.
To top it off, Syracuse won -- in exciting fashion, no less. 

The A-team’s John “Hannibal” Smith used to say, I love it when a plan comes together. Why I’m quoting a member of the A-team is beyond me. But I thought of that oft-repeated quote from the mid-80s as this plan of mine came together, despite my best efforts to derail it under the guise of frugality.
And I realized something else. As a parent, you learn what real perfection actually looks like. It’s not perfect.
We achieved our version of it that day. And I’m sure the kids will remember it.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

How to Make Virtual Friends And Find Your Tribe

Making friends after you've become a parent is hard. That’s one parenting truth people forget to warn you about. It can be a friendless endeavor.

Often, it starts by losing the friends you had before your kids came along. They fade away. Some do so by continuing on their pre-kid trajectory. Others have kids of their own and recoil into their new lives. You’re still “friends” with these people, technically, but you never see them.

The act of having a child then hinders your ability to replace those friends. Lack of sleep, diapers, soccer practice, it takes up all of your time. That challenge seems to grow exponentially with each child.

I know because I have four kids. And a few years ago, I had no friends.

Of course, I had my brothers. But they had to be friends with me. And they each had their own circle of friends. I had guys I’d been friends with my whole life who I’d hang out with and laugh with on the rare times I’d see them. But they all live hours away, or are so caught up in their own lives that the best we can do is say “We should get together more” when we happen to randomly see each other once a year or so.

When it came to regular interaction, I had no one I could chat with, laugh with, or interact with. I had no one who would ask me to get a beer after work, or to watch the big game, or just to complain to or listen to about dumb life stuff. You know: friends.

I took pride back then in thinking that my wife was my best friends. Which is an honest and sweet sounding thing, unless your wife is also your only friend.

Back when I had no friends, I also worked from home. You can probably see where this is going. Working from home also hinders the whole friendship thing. I had guys I’d meet up with on work conference calls every few days. But we didn’t exactly have conference calls after work hours, unless there was something really bad happening. And because I worked remotely from home, I couldn’t “grab beers” with them when the official crap was done for the day. Despite the fact I got along well with these guys, they didn’t exactly fill the friend void.

And here’s the thing about us people. We need friends. We’re social beings. We need people beyond our kids, and our spouse, and our coworkers, and our families. We really do. Because there’s stuff you can talk to friends about that families won’t react well to, that coworkers don’t want to hear, that your wife is sick of hearing, and that your kids won’t understand.

Back when I had no friends I also began writing this blog. Those two things aren’t related. At least, I don’t think so.

So to recap: I had kids, worked from home, wrote a blog, and had no friends.

And then the weirdest thing happened. A stranger who also happened to be a dad and a writer reached out to me. His name was Oren. It turns out, he had lots of friends. And he invited me into his group. It was a Facebook group of fellow dads and writers from all over the world.

Me and a few hundred of my closest friends listen to
Michael Strahan talk about fatherhood and life.
One of many highlights from Dad 2.016 Summit.
It sounded odd. But suddenly, when I wasn’t busy toiling away at work stuff, or driving kids to soccer practice, I had a group of people that I could laugh with and joke with, tease and debate. Some of them were work-at-home dads like me. Others were stay-at-home dads. And some worked at offices, and did their best to parent and write about it. There were divorced dads, gay dads and Canadian dads. There were funny guys and finance guys. Guys with 100,000 followers on Facebook and guys with 100. They were all dads who wrote. They were like me.

I had virtual friends. I’d found my tribe.

I know what you’re thinking -- or at least, I know what I was thinking at the time. I also know what my brothers were thinking, because they razzed me. Virtual friends aren’t real friends. They’re just pixels. Things that let out a “bing” when they respond to you.

I thought about that some. And it’s true, in the age of the Internet, and Facebook, and Twitter, it’s easy to make virtual connections. But it’s hard to make those connections feel real.

Still, for the past three years I’ve been interacting with these fellow dad writers online: laughing at their jokes, reading their articles, and hitting “like” when they post pictures of their families. We talked about world events, shared beers though “drink threads,” and picked on each other about whose professional football team sucked the most. These virtual friends filled a void in my life that was created by parenting, and was ironically refilled by the same endeavor. They helped me through a time when I needed friends.

I grew to really like these guys.

Then a very sad thing happened. One of them got sick and died. That was Oren.

I can tell you something I learned: If you think virtual friends aren’t real, then you’ve never lost one the way we did. I bawled. We all did. Hell, I’m crying as I write this. Sorry.

Also in the past three years, this dumb blog thing helped me reconnect with a lot of old friends, real friends who have scattered across the country since whence we met. Friends in places like Colorado, and Southern California, Maine and Florida, Saranac Lake and Rochester. People I’ve known throughout my life, who now have kids and struggle with all the same crap us parents face -- including the challenge of making friends -- but who just happen to live far away.

Some of the Old Friends I just met.
I’ve also broken through on a more local level, getting up the gumption to join a group of fellow dads who have kids at our local elementary school. And I started working from an office again, rather than home.

Now, I have people, both real and virtual, that I can get a beer with – though I rarely have time to do that.

Still, I felt I owed something to these virtual friends, the ones who befriended me when I had none. And I owed something to myself. I needed to make them real.

This past weekend, I went to a conference for dad bloggers, writers, and authors, and other people who just care about fatherhood issues. It’s called the Dad 2.0 Summit. This was the 5th annual gathering and the first one I could attend.

To the uninitiated, it may sound like a strange thing – a bunch of dad bloggers hanging out at a hotel. It’s much more than that, though that would have been enough. It’s a conference for the people on the cutting edge of what modern fatherhood means. As I told my kids, it’s kind of a big deal.

For me, it was a homecoming. A surreal one at that. All those guys who were just “bings” and pixels were suddenly standing there before more, extending their hand to shake, and offering to buy me a real and actual beer.

It was surreal. And it was also very real.

One of the many cool things I got to take
back from the Dad 2.0 Summit.
I finally got to meet these guys I’ve known for three years, and to make some new friends, and laugh, and joke, and celebrate, and cry. I got to mourn the man who introduced me to all these dad writers and do that surrounded by these friends.

So today, I feel like a person with lots of friends. And you’ll be happy to know that my wife is still my best friend, and that doesn’t sound lame to me at all.

But there’s a lesson here that I hope others can draw from my story. It can be hard to make friends. But none of us are truly alone. There’s people out there who are struggling with all the things you’re struggling with, facing the same obstacles, enjoying the same outlets. You just have to find them. Because they are there, and they are real.

So, find your tribe, befriend them, and meet them. You won’t regret it.

I certainly don’t.

Like the article?  Here's others you may enjoy. Learning Lessons from a Little Boy, Tip of the Hat to Single Parents, and Thanks to My Backup, and New Year, Few Expectations