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Friday, March 31, 2006

Mission Accomplished. My younger son went on an emotional roller coaster today. When I picked him up from school at 3:15 pm, he was beaming because he'd just earned an 'A' for his California mission project. He constructed it out of Legos and designed and built it himself. I didn't even breathe on it. Many of the other kids had finely detailed missions built from clay or foam blocks, but those required a dad's helping hand. After school we headed up to the Little League field for a late afternoon game where we got pounded, 14-0. All the kids on the team were upset. Although my son got a hit and made a good play at third, he felt down like the rest of his teammates. Many of the kids were in tears. Even though we were hopelessly behind, we played until the bottom of the 6th inning when the game got called for darkness. Some of the moms asked afterwards why we didn't just forfeit after 5 innings and go home and get out of the cold, but we wanted to teach an important lesson: you don't quit just because you're behind by a big score. You hold your head up high and play the game. Some of the families went out for dinner afterwards and the kids came back to life. Nothing like a hot meal and an ice cream dessert to lift your spirits.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Now that the medication has worn off, I can report on my colonoscopy. Last night, as I was administering laxatives my older son asked what I was doing and I told him I was preparing for a colonoscopy. He said "Oh yeah, I know all about it. The dad in 'King of the Hill' got one." I guess that's public health education today. Like many men over 50, I knew I should have a screening, but kept putting it off. Then last month a close family friend was diagnosed with colon cancer and underwent surgery. That prompted me to the referral. I can report that all went well. I'm good to go for another five years. At the GI Clinic at Santa Monica Hospital I was given a mild anesthetic, so I had little discomfort during the actual procedure. It was the preparation that was an ordeal: 24-hour fasting (no food, only clear liquids) and two doses of a powerful laxative. Arrghh! I'm glad it's over. In the waiting room I looked at a brochure on men's health. In addition to the usual warnings about heart disease, prostate cancer, colon cancer and STDs, it had a section titled "Manage Your Stress Level." One of the key points was Share Your Feelings:
Let your friends and family give you the support you need. When you talk about your problems, you realize that you are not the only one trying to deal with the stresses of everyday life.
Pretty basic advice, but most of us males need to be reminded of it every so often.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

They say it never rains in Southern California. Remember that song? The refrain was, "Man it pours." It was pouring last night and I took my younger son out to look at the puddles, street flooding and the local flood control channel, which was roaring (B&W image). You can tell we are not used to rain here in LA, my son doesn't have a raincoat, so he had to borrow mine. We had a wonderful time. On the way back I taught him "Singing in the Rain."

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

The F word is used "a few times a week" by 32% of American men (and 23% of women), according to an AP poll released today. My wife and I are very careful not to use any profanity in the house. However, we did have a family discussion about "the F word" as a concept a few months ago. It started out this way: I burped while eating dinner. "Excuse me, " I said, adding "Better to have it come out of the attic than down in the basement." "What does that mean?" asked my younger son. "It means it's better to burp than fart," I said. Younger son dropped his fork and pointed at me. "Dad! You said the F word," he gasped. A lively discussion about flatulence and what constitutes so-called "four letter words" followed. I was secretely pleased that my younger son was ignorant of this term. We do all we can to protect the innocence of children. Unfortunately, profanity is all too common at the middle-school and high school level, so my teenager is cognizant of all of George Carlin's "seven little words." I'm proud to say he has never used any of them in my presence. The AP story quoted Judith Martin, "Miss Manners," as stating that profanity is increasing because the people who are offended "don't speak up about it." I agree. Families need to have a zero tolerance policy and enforce, in their homes and carpools. For more on the AP poll, see the story on Yahoo! News.

Monday, March 27, 2006

GRUPS: Isn't this a wonderful photo of cool-looking dads holding babies? It's from an article titled "Up With Grups," in the current issue of New York magazine (www.newyorkmetro.com). The writer, Adam Sternbergh, said the term Grups was first used in Star Trek and stands for a contraction of "grown-ups." In this very long article, Sternbergh focuses on 30-something people with young children. One of his key points is "this cohort is not interested in putting away childish things. They are a generation or two of affluent, urban adults who are now happily sailing through their thirties and forties, and even fifties(author's italics), clad in beat-up sneakers and cashmere hoodies.." I'm 55 and no longer "sailing." When you get in your fifties and/or when your kids become teenagers, you no longer wear cashmere sneakers or have collections of $200 jeans. The good news is you will not become brain dead at 50. However, you will not be buying expensive shoes and jeans because your kids will be in high school and you will be much more worried about how you are going to pay for their college education. Pay for tuition? Yes, you will pay for their college tuition because that's what your parents did for you. Only now, the tuition costs a small fortune. At that point, you will from being a Grup to a Bankgrup.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

What is coaching? I was talking to one of the parents after the game today (our second in 24 hours) about coaching. She said her son liked having me as a coach because "Coach Jim always has something positive to say." I enjoyed hearing that comment, but it naturally came from a team mom. My own sons would not say that of me. I can be very critical of their behavior. That's one of the key differences between parenting and coaching. When I'm coaching, I always try to stay positive, to put the best face on things. When a kid strikes out, I tell him "You'll get him next time." Our goal as Little League coaches is to get the best performance out of our players during a game situation. In Little League, there is always another game, another chance. In Little League you can always improve your performance and "do better next time." In life, there many situations where there is no next time. When a beloved grandmother dies, she is gone. If dad loses his job, the family may have to move. Parents have to deliver bad news and help their children adjust to the truly terrible blows life can deliver. If your child is in an advanced language or math program and is failing, you need to pull him out. If he tries out for a sports team and doesn't make the cut, that's too bad. The lesson has to be "You just didn't make it." He will have to learn to accept the failure. In high school, the great funnel of our capitalist meritocracy starts to winnow out the winners and losers. Our children take a big step towards adulthood. Some are going to flunk French or get shut out of the popular social cliques. Some of them will have acne, become overweight or even develop drug problems. Enough negativity. I've got to turn in. We've got a practice on Tuesday and a game on Friday.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

We're in first place! We won again today. We defeated the Padres 7-6 in a nailbiter. We were ahead by two going into the last inning and the Padres got a home run. You could just see our guys sag. It was like they had the wind knocked out of them. But our pitcher hung in there and we got the final out on a groundball. We had solid fielding all day. The coaches felt proud, our hard work at practices had paid off. The kids (and the parents) were exultant after the game. Everyone was beaming with joy. And why not? We're in first place. Four weeks ago we lost our first game in a blowout. Now we've come together as a team. It's a good feeling. I went home and took a nap. We've got another game at 8 am tomorrow (dang).

Friday, March 24, 2006

Expensive chips: This is my younger son, ignoring the new, cheaper ("good for dipping") taco chips I bought. He says he'll only eat the blue corn chips, which are $3.95 for a small package at the supermarket. It was report card day today. I'm not one to boast, but - he came home with straight 'A's. Did I mention that he also studies piano and is the lead-off hitter on his baseball team.. Man, I hate people that brag about their kids.

Hugh Hefner would never win any "father of the year" awards but he had a huge impact on men of my generation. The current issue of the The New Yorker contains a book review of "The Playmate Book: Six Decades of Centerfolds." (Note: on Page 145 there is a sampling of centerfolds from 1955-2004. Pubic hair in The New Yorker!)

The reviewer, Joan Acocella, uses the review to take an overview of sex and nudity in the last 50 years. As she notes (and the thumbnails on P. 145 show) Playboy went from showing the girls with carefully draped towels, then progressed to bare breasts, then full frontal nudity complete with pubic hair.

My first experience with Playboy came in 1964 when I was in junior high school and we passed around dog-eared copies (and we were not interested in the interview with James Baldwin). In those days Playboy was only sold in liquor stores, so most of our copies had been purloined from dad or bought from an older brother).

Commenting on the evolution of the centerfold, Acocella notes "The very remoteness of the women is their attraction...This (image) is not so much sex, or a woman, as something more like a well-buffed Maserati."

I concur. In the '70s, my girlfiends never shaved their legs. One didn't even shave her underarms. It seemed perfectly normal at the time. Now women shave their legs, their underarms and create "landing strips" on their mons. Call me old fashioned, but I like a thick bush.

What does this have to do with fatherhood?

Towards the end of the review Acocella opines

That, in the end, is the most striking thing about Playboy's centerfolds: how old-fashioned they seem. This whole 'bachelor' world, with the brandy snifters and the attractive guest arriving for the night: did it ever exist? Yes, as a fantasy. Now, however, it is the property of homosexuals. Today, if you try to present yourself as a suave middle-aged bachelor, people will assume you're gay.

I don't remember ever enjoying bachelorhood. I had a wonderful childhood and a great mom and dad. One of the best things about being a parent is that you get to experience childhood again. Unfortunately, when your kids get to high school, you experience adolescence again, and that's not so much fun.


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Thursday, March 23, 2006

Beards are in. According to a story in the today's New York Times, beards are back in style (at least among the trendy Park Slope set). Here is a photo of me with a beard in 1986. I had a beard from 1978 (age 27) until 1988. I shaved if off when I was in the middle of a frustrating job search. I was interviewing at some big PR agencies and not getting positive results. I thought that if I shaved off my beard I would look more corporate, more conservative. I guess it worked. I later got hired by the local affiliate of the Rowland Company. Last summer I went five days without shaving and flirted with the idea of growing a beard again. Unfortunately, my facial hair is now grey! So I shaved.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

John Lennon: I rented the Dick Cavett interview of John Lennon from Netflix and watched it with my teenage son tonight. The interview was taped on Sept. 11, 1971. I was 20 years old at the time. While Cavett's monologue seems silly and pointless, the interview fascinating. I was surprised by Lennon's spontaneous interaction with Yoko. They were brave to go on. Can you imagine a famous husband and wife going on a live 60-minute program in 2006? No way. My son was initially interested in this show, but became critical once John and Yoko lit up their first cigarette together. "He's smoking. He's killing himself," said my son. Like most kids his age he is fiercely anti-tobacco. This is due to our California norms about smoking and the school system's public health education. I smoked my first cigarette when I was 13 (it tasted terrible and made me dizzy). By 16 I was addicted. I carried a pack of cigarettes (Kent, if I remember correctly) to high school and lit up my first one on the walk home. Fortunately, I was able to quit when I was 25 (after a close friend died of cancer). Smoking and drug use aside (and those are two pretty big points), I see John Lennon as a positive role model for my son. He was smart, creative, hard working (at least in the first half of his career). He was constantly growing and always exploring what it means to be a man. When the Beatles with their long hair became famous in 1963 it ripped off the masculinity straightjacket that had imprisoned men for 50 years. You could have long hair and be a man! Chicks dig long hair! That was very powerful information in the 1960s.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Death and taxes: April 15 is coming up so I've been working on my taxes. I've been thinking about death, too (are we having fun yet?) The topic of life insurance came up today when I was doing some research for one of my clients on catastrophic healthcare costs (another light topic). I came across this quote from a recent issue Health Affairs: "Social Security survivors' benefits provide monthly income to 7.5 million Americans, roughly equivalent to a $400,000 life insurance policy for each worker. FYI, survivors' benefits go to the children of the deceased worker." This is an important aspect of Social Security and a key reason in my view not to privatized the system. My dad died without life insurance. Why this occurred is a source of some dispute in my family. In any event, I was only 11 years old and his death was financial catastrophe for my family. My mother sold our home in Scarsdale and we moved to a lower-middle-class suburb. She did receive a monthly check from Social Security for my welfare until I turned 18. It made a big difference. So dads, is your life insurance policy up to date? I've got $750,000 in coverage. I've been buying term insurance for 25 years and now I regret not getting a whole life policy so I'd have some inside value. Live and learn (pun intended). Let's close on a positive note. Remember what Woody Allen said: "On the plus side, death is one of the few things that can be done as easily as lying down."

Monday, March 20, 2006

Tony Soprano's son: like most fans of The Sopranos, I was surprised by last night's episode. For those of you who didn't see the show, Tony Soprano is comatose in the hospital after receiving a gunshot in the stomach. His son A.J. (photo) had a hard time coming to terms with his father's possible death.

At the beginning of the episode, he cannot bear to visit his dad in the hospital and he refers to him in the third person ("Tony Soprano won't die"). By the end of the episode, he has accepted his father's mortality and even vowed to seek revenge on his father's attacker.

For any man, the death of his father is a pivotal moment. My dad died of a heart attack when I was 11 (in 1962). One minute he was there, a loving father, and then poof, he was gone. I've spent my whole life trying to heal that wound and understand what he wanted for me.

I have been fortunate to be able to recreate the loving father-son bond by fathering two wonderful sons. One of the reasons I enjoy coaching Little League so much is that my dad coached me in baseball 50 years ago. When I'm out on the field giving instructions to one of the players ("Hold the bat this way"), I sometimes get flashbacks of my dad helping me.

Figuring out manhood is a complex and confusing task for boys and young men and they naturally turn to their father as a starting point. When boys have no father in their life at all, they may turn to other male role models, such as teachers or coaches. I think this creates a responsibility for men who have fathering or mentoring skills to volunteer.

I guess you'd put me in the Robert Bly school on this point. I really think boys need to get this kind of training or modeling from a man.

Will A.J. really seek revenge for his father's shooting? I have no idea. One hint: TimeWarner CEO Parsons said today in the NY Times that Tony Soprano "will be around for the next 19 episodes."

In any case, we will have the opportunity this TV season of watching A.J. grow up and come to terms with his role in the family and his responsibilities as a man.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Women in law firms: a story in today's New York Times Business Section discussed why so few women reach the top of big law firms. Let me clear about my point of view. I spent a dozen years at large PR agencies and another seven years as a senior PR executive at a Fortune 500 company. After the birth of my second son, I made a decision to opt-out of the 60 hours-per-week track and spend more time with my family. My choice, my decision regarding work/family balance. In the current NYT article, this difficult decision regarding parental priorities is presented as an "option," albeit an expensive one. Look at this paragraph towards the end of the article:
The Plevans engineered this by cutting back on their social calendar, sharing household chores and making sure that at least one parent was home for dinner most nights. "We felt our presence and predictability were important," she says. "I organized my personal life so I was able to move toward my goals. The Plevans' incomes allowed them to hire household help, and they had relatives nearby to help them look after their sons — advantages that other couples often don't enjoy when trying to synchronize their personal and professional lives.
Excuse me. One parent home most nights? Just how many nights did these kids have dinner without mom or dad? Who helped them with their homework? How many school assemblies, parent/teacher nights, soccer games and birthday parties did these parents miss? If you want to delegate the raising of your children to grandparents and paid help, OK. That is a decision you can make. But let's be clear, that is a very strained definition of "parenting" and "family." Have you ever heard a child say, "Gosh mom, I'd wish you'd spend more time at work, so you can fulfill your career ambitions. Don't worry about me." These are difficult choices. We need to be honest about the consequences.If you are going to be partner at a major law firm, you are going to have to work 60-80 hours a week. You're going to miss many of your child's school and sports events. You are not going to be able to help with much homework. Instead you'll be having dinner with a client or finishing up the paperwork on that big malpractice case. What is the more meaningful experience? What memories and shared experiences will you carry with you after you retire? What is the greater contribution to the next generation? These are highly emotional decisions. Unfortunately, they rarely get discussed with balance in the mainstream media.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Janis Joplin: my 14-year old son doesn't like Janis Joplin. We just watched Pennebaker's 1967 Monterey Pop documentary. There were songs by the Mamas and Papas, The Who, Jimi Hendrix ("I know who that is, dad") and Janis. "Why is he lighting his guitar on fire?" my son asked. "Is Hendrix considered a better guitarist then Eric Clapton?" my wife asked. "Hendrix is like Picasso," I said. "He is famous for reinventing the form. Clapton is more like Cezanne, he is working within the tradition." Then Janis and Big Brother came on performing "Ball and Chain." The film has a great reaction shot of Mama Cass, who was seeing Janis for the first time. Cass is seen smiling, mouthing the word "Wow." "I don't get it," said Jacob. "What is so hot about her?" It was 1967. I saw Janis at the Avalon Ballroom that Fall. She just knocked everyone out. I guess you just had to be there.

Cup check: Five years of Little League coaching, but today was a first - the first time an umpire caught one of our players without a cup! Here's how: during the pre-game lineup, he went down the row of our time and had the players tap their cups. All the umps are required to do this, but this guy leaned over and listened for the echo of the plastic cup. He asked the startled boy, "Don't have a cup?" and the kid sheepishly nodded yes. We escorted the kid back into the dugout (they are not allowed on the field without a cup). It turned out he'd left his cup at home. His dad drove home and got it and he went back in the lineup in the 3rd inning. The other players were intrigued with this development and went around tapping their cups and/or adjusting them throughout the game. (Note: we have a girl on the team and she's not required wear a cup. I've been asked about this apparent double-standard a dozen times. When the boy asks about her exception, I just say "That's the rule" with the tone that signals "end of discussion." We don't get into anatomical discussion or gender role theory in Little League. My son was one of the cup adjusters. He stuck his hand in his pants (he was in the dugout) and poked at his cup and the soft rubber lining around hard cup fell off. He was walking around bow-legged (he likes to be dramatic) until I asked him what happened. I hustled him into the bathroom where we fixed the darn thing. PS We won the game 11-3. We're on a roll, 3 wins and 1 loss.


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Friday, March 17, 2006

Nonstarter: I just spent two hours sitting in freezing weather (it's in the low 50s here in LA) on cold steel metal bleachers watching our local high school frosh-soph baseball team triumph over a private school. Why? My son is on the team, of course. I wouldn't have minded if he was a starter, but he didn't get sent in until the 5th inning. There were 10 parents in the stands, all of them had sons who were starters. So I'm the father of a nonstarter. Should I feel humiliated? I can console myself that when he did get in, he made a great play at third, knocking down a line and throwing a kid out at first. It is always important to take the long view on these things. First of all, he is on the team. A lot of kids (6 or 8) tried out and didn't make it. Two other kids got dropped for bad grades (they need to maintain a C average). Second, he did have the focus to come in off the bench and make a good play. I don't expect my son to ever be a great athlete. I do hope he stays on the team. Athletics are very important for boys. As author Michael Gurian (see michaelgurian.com) notes in his wonderful book The Minds of Boys, it is important for boys to experience the sense of belonging to a team. Gurian suggests for teens one social, one athletic and one intellectual activity per day. Participation on a school sports team satisfies two of those three activities.