Divorcing My Team

We lived in a two bedroom apartment on Staten Island in 1981.  My father, who had no time or patience for football, turned on the radio because it was a long drive to my parents’ friend’s house in Westchester.  Somehow, providentially, my dad settled on the Giants-Redskins game on the radio instead of “all news, all the time” 1010 WINS.  I remember being upset, because a classmate had offered me (probably unbeknownst to his dad) an extra ticket to Giants Stadium.  It was just as well that I couldn’t go, because we were on our way to dinner in Tarrytown.

I don’t remember specific plays from the game, but 36 years later, other aspects still stand out.  First and foremost, my father noticed my interest and didn’t change the station, as was his wont.  The news literally bored me to tears then, as it undoubtedly does with my children, who’ve learned to dread seeing “1010” on our car’s radio screen.  Secondly, the announcers made it sound like the Giants were being beaten up by a playground bully.  For a third grader who was routinely picked on by white kids – bullies – often to negative effect, rooting for the “wrong” team definitely had an appeal.  I couldn’t and would never be someone who would taunt and torment another, but I could at least cheer for football players who did.  I didn’t appreciate at the time that this was the collective rookie year for legendary Redskins like Joe Jacoby, Russ Grimm, Dexter Manley, and Darryl Grant.  I was witnessing the birth of the Hogs and didn’t even know it.

I became a Skins fan in my dad’s 1977 Granada on 15 November 1981.  That year, I finally also learned the secret to fighting: if you don’t show pain, and instead keep hitting until your opponent stops, you win.  The same could be said for the Hogs, that lovable heavy drinking group of offensive linemen who ran at defensive lines like road graders on asphalt.  70 Chip was, naturally, an early highlight for me.  As the eighties progressed, I became more and more of a diehard fan, even after we moved to Houston.  Full disclosure, I’ve been known to sing “Luv Ya Blue” at the old Astrodome, but it almost isn’t cheating if your hometown team and your actual team are in different conferences.  Being a Skins fan in Texas could have borrowed a line from one of my favorite books, Tales of the City.  It was Anna Madrigal’s “logical family” vice “blood family” – but with football, which was infinitely cooler.  When I started playing football myself, since I was too skinny to be a Hog, I wanted to be 81; Art Monk, not Ernest Givins.  For better or worse, my football career ended with high school, but my love of the game and that team did not.

My fandom flared like a white phosphorous shell when I attended GWU, and I held onto it as a vestige of home when I enlisted in the Army.  I’ve lived through two owners; countless general managers, head coaches, assistant coaches, and players.  I helped make the lower deck bleachers shake on the last game at RFK, freezing my butt off because my buddies and I were painted burgundy and gold from the waist up.  I happily suffered in traffic before and after home games at FedEx Field, and even more happily paid exorbitant prices for tickets.  As a waiter and bartender in DC in the mid/late 90s, I also had the pleasure of waiting on a good number of them.  Norv and Nancy Turner were 100% class, and it was an absolute pleasure to wait on them.  Out of curiosity, a YOLO if there ever was one, I even once asked a player if I could try on his Superbowl ring.  It was a monster, wide enough for two of my fingers, felt heavier than a .45 caliber pistol, and I was in football fan Nirvana.  I told the player his check was on me, because he’d given me a story I’d tell for years.

Then the doldrums started, first with the Ol’ Ball Coach and his noodle armed Florida quarterbacks.  I was never a fair weather fan, and had even survived the one Ritchie Pettibon-helmed trash fire of a season.  I suffered and exulted through Coach Gibbs’ return, and hoped against hope that Chris Cooley was the H-Back Messiah we’d needed since Doc Walker retired.  The cycle never seemed to end, and it was maddening to say the least.  We would win the offseason with a huge coach or player signing, then watch other teams in the playoffs because The Danny couldn’t keep his little fanboy mitts off of the football program.  Or, we’d make the playoffs, which would inevitably raise our expectations for the following season, when the team’s play would tear our hearts from our chest.  We would watch a bad defense undermine a good offense, or vice versa.  We would watch as less talented teams played meaningful games late in the season, while our boys in burgundy and gold played out the string.  Casserly.  Cerrato.  Allen.  McCloughan.  Allen again.  Who the hell was in charge?  Hopefully not the meddling fan masquerading as a billionaire team owner, but then, this was also the man who forced RG3 and his “why are they sacking me” look on us.

Two seasons ago, my son, then six years old, asked me what a redskin was.  I’d been watching highlights on my computer, and he knew of my friendly rivalry with his uncle the Giants fan.  I told my son it was a bad name for Native Americans, then watched while he absorbed the realization that “redskin” was as ugly and powerful an epithet as the N word, or chink.  While I, his Redskins-loving father, absorbed the same realization.

As a person of color myself, the hypocrisy of my former self, singing “Hail to the Redskins” after a touchdown suddenly became too much.  The duplicity of a minority cheering for a team that George Marshall forced to be the last in the NFL to integrate.  I had known that, but hadn’t truly internalized it until my son, in his innocence, challenged every football assumption I’d built over thirty-plus years.  Then my son hurt me.  He asked, wasn’t one of my friends from the military Native American?  Did that mean I was calling this friend a bad name too?

Ultimately, I’ve come to the realization that I can no longer be a fan of a team named after a slur.  As with the divorce that ends a long marriage, this is a painful dissociation.  I’ve been hoping and praying (surprising even me, considering my heartfelt agnosticism) that Snyder will come to his senses and change the name.  This would be a fabulous and overdue idea, but Snyder has shown nothing but cynical disregard for a name change.  Mike Carey and Phil Simms even refuse to say the team name.  I’ve tweeted about it, written unintelligible Facebook screeds about it, but until recently could never condense my thoughts into a coherent post until now, though nowhere as well as Mike Wise.  I feel like an alcoholic admitting his problem at a meeting.  I’ve known no other team, so I find myself unaffiliated for the first time since that long car ride with my parents.

I don’t begrudge those who continue to root for the Washington football team.  Truth be told, I’ll still follow them, albeit not as closely as in the previous 36 seasons.  But gone are my burgundy and gold hat, my Sean Taylor jersey, the 44 onesie I got for my son when he was an infant.  Just Dan, a guy who has loved football for years and will continue to do so, but without the baggage of cheering the Potomac Drainage Basin Indigenous Persons.

The Defection

I was ten years old, going on eleven, and spending an idyllic summer in Korea with my maternal grandparents.  The highlights included a trip east to visit relatives who owned a rice farm – holy crap, that was some hard work, and being told by my great aunt to get some chickens from the coop for dinner; a visit to the Buddha statue at Soraksan; exploring the military displays on Yoido Island; handling an M16 rifle for the first time; and, of course, reconnecting with my heritage.

I learned Korean before English, but hadn’t spoken Korean since I was five.  This was, in part, a vain attempt to seem more “American” to white friends and not be seen speaking a language besides English.  Indeed, my mother’s biggest reservation about the trip had been the language barrier, but by the end of my second week, my dormant first language came back – albeit with an American accent that frustrates me to this day.  By the end of July, my Korean had improved enough for them to trust me to explore by myself.  My early addiction to Galaga started this summer, since one game only cost ₩50 (worth about a nickel in 1983), and the arcade was only two blocks from my grandparents’ building.

The only way I knew it was Sunday was because I’d had to dress up for the 11:00 Mass.  My maternal grandparents were sticklers for Mass, the ceremony and predictability of it, along with a priest who celebrated Mass in Latin as if Vatican II had never happened.  The absurdist side of me enjoyed the incongruity of seeing a Korean priest speak in Latin, but I digress.

After Mass came lunch at a two-table restaurant across the street, parishioners waiting in line for a bowl of buckwheat noodles in icy beef broth, then spending no more than a few minutes eating at one of the tables, so the next family could have its turn.  My grandparents walked home, so that my grandfather could begin his Sunday ritual of a nap, a beer, and three newspapers; I took off with two ₩1,000 bills in my pocket – that was twenty games of Galaga and a glass bottle of “cola,” a nondescript Coke clone.

I had come home to watch a baseball game, probably the Lotte Tigers because my grandfather was a fan, when the air raid sirens sounded.  At that time, air raid drills were held at least monthly, serious in purpose but treated like a passing nuisance like the Emergency Broadcast System here in the US.  I understood the broadcaster when he announced that this was not a drill.  Ten floors down, cars that rarely drove over 50 kph on the Ichon-ro thoroughfare were suddenly speeding and blaring their horns.  My grandmother got what I’d now call a bugout bag ready: clothes, food, money, and jewelry.  She told me to fill a bookbag with clothes, toiletries, and more food that she handed me.

Then Grandpa came into the master bedroom.  He wore the same deadpan, almost emotionless, expression that I still admire.  He went to the dresser where the sleeping mats and blankets were kept.  Inside a drawer under the pillows was a cheap wooden box.  My grandfather took the box out; from it came a Nambu Type 14 pistol, two magazines, a rag, and a box of ammunition.  He still hadn’t said anything, which unnerved me even more than the air raid sirens going off across the country.  He loaded the magazines, inserted one into the pistol but didn’t chamber a round, then put everything back in the box.  The box went into his bag.  Following the instructions given between air raid siren blasts, we took the stairs to the building’s basement.  My grandfather nodded at the building’s super, and everyone waited out the alert in a cavernous space I now see was being used for its intended purpose.  My grandfather had me sit between him and Grandma.  He put his bag down, but not before taking the box out and setting it on his knee.  Jet fighters patrolled overhead, their roar competing with the super’s transistor radio.

I remember finally crying after the all-clear sounded, a pent up release because everyone in that basement had been terrified of a North Korean invasion.  I remember how calm my grandparents had been throughout the air raid alert and shelter-in-place order.  The jet fighter noises abated, replaced by airliners using Namsan Tower as a marker before landing at Kimpo Airport.  It was a defection, Colonel Sun Tianqin simply turning east and hoping South Korea and freedom lay on the opposite side of the Yellow Sea.  Not, as feared, a precursor to a second Korean War.  We waited in that basement for the elevator and returned home; my grandparents put everything back in place as if it were just another Sunday.  My grandfather even began laying out his suit for the following day.  But first, he unloaded that pistol, hid the box again, and life went on as before.

About fifteen years ago, while researching a story for which I’ve only written scattered scenes, I came upon this nugget: Korean partisans along the Manchurian border were partial to the Nambu.  Ownership of one gave a partisan instant bona fides outside his normal operating area, because you had to kill a Japanese officer in order to steal his pistol.  Conversely, any partisan captured with a Nambu was summarily executed by the Imperial Japanese Army.  I’m no historian, and 34 years after Colone Sun’s defection I still don’t know the provenance of my grandfather’s pistol, but I do know he would have used it to protect me.  As he undoubtedly used it in the early 1940s to fight his way back to his family, and possibly during the early 1950s to protect his wife and daughters as they fled south.

Lesson learned: you never know how badass your taciturn grandfather was in his day, until you do a little digging.  I miss him.  I wish I could have gotten that story out of him before he passed, I bet it was a doozy.

Go Back to (fill in the blank)

I’ve heard variations on this theme for what feels like my whole life.  The blank in the title has ranged from China, Japan, Korea, to Hong Kong – and once, incredibly, even Burma.  I still don’t know how an ignorant white boy in the Houston burbs, who at the time couldn’t even name the states bordering Texas, knew about Myanmar.

My first memory of hearing this is first grade, right around the time I realized that white boys would pick fights with me simply because of my ethnicity.  A related memory is the “a-ha” light bulb moment I had at age 7, when I discovered that if you keep punching, even if you’ve been hurt, you’ll win.  Maybe not with the teachers or administrators, but I got into progressively fewer fights each year, until we moved to Texas.

Two months ago, I was watching the news because I feel incomplete without constant heartburn.  The scene was a Donald Trump rally, and one of his supporters in the background yelled it, presumably at either a reporter or a protestor.  You only have to hear it directed at you once, at age 5, to have a heightened awareness of that hurtful sentence four decades later.  It was unmistakable, though, and I froze.  To my dismay and horror, not a single talking head noticed.  I scanned social media, switched channels, and … nothing, nichts, nada.  I don’t even know if it was a live or taped video of a Trump rally, don’t know its location, so YouTube wasn’t an option.

Then it happened again, this time at a playground.  I was off that day, and took my kids to a playground closer to my in-laws’ neighborhood than mine.  The heat and humidity weren’t nearly as oppressive as they had been, the sun was out – a perfect summer day.  He was about six feet tall, white, with dark hair and a mustache.  A red Trump hat looked like a sundae’s cherry atop his small head and pear-shaped body.  We nodded at each other, the silent solidarity of two dads watching their kids at a playground.  I noticed that he’d look in my direction occasionally, but I paid no attention.  I tend to keep to myself at the playground.  I much prefer to watch my kids play, not engaging with parents I don’t know.  Not so Mr. Trump Hat, who found a kindred political spirit in one of the mothers there.

Their conversation, audible from eight to ten feet away, was about what I expected.  Immigrants bad, homosexuality deviant, all lives matter, a word salad like a misfiring car engine – it was like when Oswald Bates conjured words from thin air simply because they were multi-syllabic.  My kids had wisely stayed away from Trump Hat’s son, who seemed to have problems with playing too rough, and cursing every time he fell.  Then Trump Hat crossed a red line.  He made some comment about “don’t know why we just don’t nuke those sand n—-rs.”  My tweet storm about it begins here.

My sudden rage at that instant clouds my memory, but I said something like, “Hey, man, watch your language.  My kids are here too and they don’t need to hear that.”

“What the fuck is it to you?”  Trump Hat started walking closer to me, apparently thinking I would shrink away from confrontation.  Sorry, but very few unarmed people physically intimidate me, let alone someone who looks like 150 pounds of chewed bubble gum.  I kept looking over at my kids, who thankfully were oblivious to the fact that their old man was about to – what, get into a fistfight at the playground?  Trump Hat replied that this is a free country, he had a right to his opinion, neither of which statement I’d ever disagree with, but then came the zinger.  “If you don’t like it, why don’t you go back to fuckin’ China or wherever the fuck you’re from?”

“Seriously, man?  You want everyone here to know how ignorant and stupid you are right now?”  His recent compatriot quickly gathered up her kids and left.  One other dad I knew peripherally from this park, another minority veteran, but with horrible taste in moto-themed Marine Corps hats, came up.  I couldn’t help but laugh at how ludicrous this entire scene was.  I was determined to not hit the guy.  I didn’t want to be arrested over something as ridiculous as this.  I was afraid, though not for my own safety; rather, I was afraid that if I hit Trump Hat, I might not want to stop.  I knew that if I got into my first fight in 13 years, the release would be nothing less than exhilarating; I also knew I didn’t want to disappoint my children, who would very likely see their father get arrested for aggravated battery.

“I’ll knock your chink ass from here to Brooklyn.”  I asked, with what, his belly?  I called for my kids, told them we were going to a different playground, this one was dirty.  In the few seconds it took for them to run over to me, I told Trump Hat, if he wanted to throw down, now was his chance, but I’d also beat him bloody in front of his son.  Suffice it to say, my quiet angry voice works better than yelling or other histrionics.  With that, he backed off, I gave the Marine veteran a wordless fist bump, and we left the playground unmolested.  I badly wanted a cigarette and half a bottle of Jameson right then and there.  A glass of wine when we got home would have to suffice.  At the next playground, adjacent to my son’s school, the kids found instant playmates.  They were black, Asian, white, and Hispanic – an elementary school version of a Benneton ad, and this made me inordinately happy.

Discrimination doesn’t just exist, it’s learned.  Parents’ actions and words have remarkable effects on their children, it’s not as if the son of a Klan member would suddenly decide to work for the SPLC.  I felt sorry for Trump Hat’s son, not just because one day his old man will run into someone with far less forbearance than me.  But because that boy will grow up hating minorities, inheriting his father’s racism, only to possibly and suddenly wonder why society is leaving his family’s views behind.  Or sadder yet, the son will grow up hating himself as a closeted gay man because his old man has no use for anyone not straight and cis-gender.

What truly terrifies me is not the prospect of another attack by one or two would-be jihadists who are more Laurel and Hardy than Khalid Sheikh Muhammad.  What scares the bejezus out of me is the racism that had been rightfully driven underground, its mainstream voices muted, but now has found widespread acceptance again.  It’s the attitudes of men like Trump Hat, or this wonderful human being, or these extras from a possible Deliverance remake.  As satisfying as it may be to reply in kind with vitriol, if not a fist to the throat, I keep in mind Dr. King’s words.  In particular, I’m amazed at how far short I fall from this passage: “Using grace, humor and intelligence, confront the other party with a list of injustices and a plan for addressing and resolving these injustices. Look for what is positive in every action and statement the opposition makes. Do not seek to humiliate the opponent but to call forth the good in the opponent.”  If you follow me on Twitter, this is not quite how I approach it, but it does make me feel better to read words to which I might aspire.



Angry Email

I wrote this immediately after we returned to our hotel after one of the worst restaurant experiences of my life.  Enjoy the dumpster fire.

To: restaurant info email
Subject: Execrable Treatment
Dear Sir or Ma’am,
I’ve been in our industry for over twenty years, but rarely in my career (as a busboy, server, bartender, manager, general manager, or owner) have I experienced such shocking treatment as I did tonight as a guest in your restaurant.
My family and I dined on the deck upstairs as a 5-top, and sat around 7:00 towards the host stand and stairs.  Hailey tried her best, and was friendly, but judging from obvious lags in the flow of service, it was quite obvious she was in the weeds.  I well remember my days as a server being over his head, so I was (and generally am) willing to make an allowance for that.
The truly puzzling part of the meal came at the end.  My son and mother-in-law left to walk along the beach.  My son was holding the virgin strawberry colada I had ordered for him at the beginning of the meal.  The female Asian hostess chased my mother-in-law down, said he couldn’t take his drink because of liability issues, in a hostile tone that made my son uncomfortable.  This was more puzzling, since any liability issues usually stem from alcoholic beverages leaving the premises – but where is the risk of a seven year old smuggling a virgin drink in a plastic cup to the beach?  I had to later reassure him my son that he hadn’t done anything wrong, since he isn’t used to strangers scolding him.
My wife asked if this was your policy, since we hadn’t had an issue with this at other establishments in Newport and Narraganset during our visit.  The hostess’s dismissive response, since engaging with my wife seemed to be a nuisance: “Well, I don’t know, I guess so.”  Nowhere in my experience is this an acceptable reply to a guest.  My wife brought this to Diana’s attention, not to get something comped off our bill, but because my wife was flabbergasted by the hostess’s treatment.  Even while my wife was speaking with Diana, I could see the hostess rolling her eyes.  Really?
I enjoy writing notes like this as much as I assume you enjoy reading them, which isn’t very much.  Diana sat with my wife, heard her out, and was our one professional interaction of the evening.  I can’t sing her praises enough.  It could have just been a long or bad day for this hostess, but nothing excuses such behavior.  If not for Diana, the entire night would have been ruined.
Thank you for your time.
Daniel Kim

Happy Father’s Day to my Brother-in-law

Welcome to fatherhood.  I’m so happy for you and your new family, I can’t stop smiling.  I can’t and won’t offer any advice you probably haven’t already received.  What I will do, however, is start by telling you to stop worrying, you’ll do fine.

Before the little man was born, I’d heard that meeting your child for the first time is the single most magical moment of a person’s life.  This is, in fact, true.  When I saw your screaming little nephew, everything I’d ever been or thought of myself – well, that went out the window and I wept with him.  I thought, “This is my son?”  Through my tears, and his hungry cries, which were surprisingly loud, the only thing I could think to say was, “Hello, Ryan, I’m your Appa.”  I kept saying that over and over, because I could scarcely believe that it was true.

I wouldn’t trade any of it: holding him while he cried after a shot at the doctor’s, changing untold thousands of diapers, late night feedings, watching him grow into his gangly long-limbed body, but his smile most of all.  I can’t wait for you to experience all of this, and the pure joy that will be your daughter’s smile.  When Sophie does that, I feel validated, and I’ve got a feeling you will, too.

There’s an old saying in the South that good people make good parents.  To borrow a line from “Peanuts,” you’re a good man, Charlie Brown.  Lord knows, it won’t be easy, but I have the sense that you’ll be intuitively good at the parenting gig.  It will be worth all the monumental effort, the sleeplessness, the occasional helpless feeling of “oh my God, what do I do now?”  You may have already discovered a depth of feeling, an untapped capacity to love, that you might have thought didn’t exist before.  Embrace that, focus it, and this too becomes almost a fatherhood muscle memory.

You’ll be a great father, and your daughter will love you for it.  But in a couple of years, you’re on your own with potty training.


A Grandfather’s Christmas

Ever hear of a mechanical ambush? It’s basically an improvised explosive device or grenade on a timer or tripwire, set to explode on unsuspecting patrols during the Vietnam War. I just had a memory that hit me like that. The last time I saw my father, he’d already been diagnosed with stage IV brain cancer. Stubborn SOB that he was, he hadn’t gone to a doctor until he collapsed at work with a seizure; his films & other scans led to the on-call oncologist, who told him he had three months left, at best.

My happiest memory of Christmas with my dad, before the downward slope of adultery, neglect, then abandonment, was when I was six years old. We lived in a tiny two bedroom apartment in Staten Island, and like most kids, I had no idea we wanted for anything. As far as I knew then, my parents simply left the door unlocked because we didn’t have a chimney for Santa to slide down. I don’t recall what I got that Christmas, almost 40 years ago. I remember warmth, a note from Santa saying how he wished he’d met me but didn’t want to disturb my sleep (I know, any sane first grader wouldn’t have been put out if St. Nick woke them up), the joy that this holiday is supposed to engender.

Fast forward to 2009. I flew to Atlanta because I didn’t know if I’d get to see my dad alive again. I had tried in vain to get him to New York, to see and enjoy his newborn grandson, offered to pay for his ticket and put him up at my house, but he kept demurring. He wanted me to visit him in Atlanta. The problem with this, however, was that Atlanta meant her. His wife, for whom he left my mother long before my parents divorced, and her teenaged kids whom he’d adopted & doted on more than he ever had with me at their age. My step siblings were blameless, I knew, but in my mind I couldn’t accept that package deal. After some back and forth, I just never went. He never came north. 

My dad passed, ironically enough, around Ryan’s first birthday. Ryan is the same age now as I was then. He’s asked about his grandfather, using a child’s unassailable logic to say, why didn’t Grandpa love him enough to ever visit before Grandpa went to heaven? I still wish I knew.

What I can control, however, is how Ryan and Sophie remember their Christmases. Not as a one-and-done like their old man, but as a continuing series of happy days, with presents and family and food.  Their maternal grandfather, who loves his grandkids to pieces and spoils them rotten, will be around as ever, though with various ailments, for how much longer is anyone’s guess. 

This is my mission. My children’s happiness. My father couldn’t understand that, or if he did once, he forgot. I won’t. I just wish he’d met his grandson before he died.

Never Let Them See You Sweat

Any other Generation X’er remember this slogan?  It became almost a clarion call in the early ’80s, and it appealed to my father’s innate stoicism.  Considering that he hailed from the less straight-laced far south of Korea, near Taegu, he was remarkably uptight, almost zen in the way he internalized every little thing in his life.  Even me.  This is a man whose boisterous uncle once, during a visit to Taegu when I was 13, slipped me a shot of soju under the table.  “You’re a member of this family,” my great-uncle told me, “so by God, you should learn to drink like it.”  I remember my Seoul born-and-raised mother on the verge of a conniption, my dad embarrassed into complete silence by his hayseed relatives, when I did what my great-uncle told me to do.  A superficial analogy of Seoul vs. Taegu, my mom vs. dad, would be a member of the English upper crust and their stiff upper lip, vs. a loquacious Liverpool dockworker who likes having a pint with his mates.

Among the things I learned from my dad were: how to hold it in.  How to not give anyone the satisfaction of seeing you under any stress whatsoever.  Maintain an even strain.  Emotions are for the weak.  Be strong – if you aren’t, then at least fake it because one may never show any hint of vulnerability.  My god, but how I hated that – I wanted my inscrutable as hell Asian father to be Cliff Huxtable, or any other ’80s tv dad who’d hug it out, instead of one whose silences hurt worse than physical beatings.  When I was in high school I wanted him to hug me, encourage me, let me know it’d all work out – anything; I got bupkes.  Or rather, “you obviously aren’t trying hard enough,” “I don’t know why you’re having problems with [sports, girls, school, etc.],” “you are such a disappointment.”  And my all-time fave, “every time you tell me you’ll try harder, this [worse than expected grades, primarily] happens and it’s like you’re screwing with me.”  I didn’t have to try to decipher Korean with him – not my dad, whose tangent to this post’s title should be “I will sound more American than my own son if it kills me.”  He was so secretly embarrassed by his accent, he worked on it, he even once hired a speech coach.

To this day, half a decade after he passed, without having met his grandson, I cannot remember him telling me he loved me.  I’m sure he did at one point, and I do have fond memories with him, of him … until he started stepping out on my mother when I was in junior high school, then our relationship just tapered off.  It’s as if he lost interest by the time I hit my teens.  When he was proud of me, it was usually because I did something that helped raise his standing in the pecking order of his church.  When I turned 15, I decided I neither wanted nor needed his approval to feel personally validated – truth be told, I still don’t.  I did the usual rebellious stuff: I joined a band, becoming possibly the worst guitarist to ever try to play the opening lick to Sweet Child O’ Mine; I played football, which will actually be a secret to my mother until I publish this blog post; I smoked Luckies, a habit I didn’t kick until I finally promised my mother in ’96 that I’d start smoking something with a filter; I learned how to drink John Daniel’s Old No. 7 straight from the bottle; unlike our 42nd President, I inhaled.

Ryan turned 6 last month, a milestone we celebrated with cake, candles, and Lego toys that he leaves lying on the living room floor like punji sticks on an unsuspecting American patrol in Vietnam.  Like clockwork, as with all 5 of his previous birthdays, one aspect of his personality changed soon after February.  This year he became whinier, all clenched angry face and crossed arms, on the verge of tears if he disagrees with something we tell him to do.  The main culprits are bedtime, and the limits we try to impose on time spent on my his iPad.  A composer knows exactly which key, which note, will elicit the desired response from the audience; Ryan knows the whining annoys the hell out of me and his mother, but he’ll press forward with it, damn the consequences.  In that, he is his father’s son.

One day last week, I almost got whiplash from anger I’d suppressed (again, part of my inheritance from my dad) for 30-odd years.  Ryan was in full whiny mode, and we’d told him no tv or iPad during dinner, our family’s rule for any meal we share together, a generally rare event considering my work schedule.  He started crying, because there was a show he’d wanted to see.  I didn’t raise my voice at him, but I did tell him firmly that his behavior was unacceptable.  Then, I said this, which triggered my old anger to resurface: “I know you’re upset, but this is our family’s rule during dinner.  I don’t want to see you cry.  Hold it in.  Wipe your face and don’t show it.”  As soon as the words escaped my mouth, only to further anger my beautiful boy without giving him any opening for redress, I regretted them utterly.  He cried even harder, which made me feel like the biggest scumbag father on the planet, and he went to bed angry.  I mean, Jesus H. tapdancing Christ on a motorbike, when had I turned into my dad?  Emulate his work ethic, desire to excel, and his business acumen?  Sure.  But this?  No mother loving way.

Another thing I learned from my old man: how not to express myself to my children.  There isn’t a day that goes by without a hug, a kiss, some physical contact, or me just telling them I love them; I do this even if it’s the only interaction I have with them all day, since I invariably won’t get home until they’re asleep.  They might be little, but neither of them harbor any doubt that I love them and would do anything for them.  With any luck, they – unlike me – won’t try to glean some morsel of approval from an uncommunicative father’s odd grunt or unfamiliar gesture.

There were scattered moments between my teens and 30s when I still wanted that affirmation, moments that I still look back on with no small personal pride.  My promotion to sergeant.  Ranger School graduation – I secretly wanted him to pin my tab on me, but we were in the middle of a decade-long silence.  My first job as a restaurant manager in a suit, as opposed to a waiter or bartender.  The birth of my son.  Even that joyous time in my life felt diluted somehow, because of his pained (feigned?) disappointment; I steadfastly refused to spend any time with his wife and her kids, whom he adopted and doted on.  I had met them once, but it was such a mind-f**k to hear someone call him “Dad,” to see a woman who wasn’t my mother holding his arm, that I couldn’t deal.  I removed myself from the situation and avoided contact with them.

“You learn far more from negative leadership than positive leadership.  Because you learn how not to do it.” — General H. Norman Schwarzkopf

Following General Schwarzkopf’s logic, I learned a hell of a lot from my father.  I can’t bring myself to have my kids grow up in the same environment, envying friends publicly professing their affection for their dads with a hug and kiss, hating themselves for not living up to their father’s unspoken ideal.  When I put Ryan to bed the other night, I asked him if he knew I loved him, if he knew how proud I was of him.  He laughed.  “Of course.  Don’t be silly.”  I guess I’m not my dad after all.  That isn’t such a bad thing.