The Ballad of Eun Young-Ki

If imitation is the best form of flattery, then this post was directly influenced by Angry Staff Officer’s lovely memorial to his late grandfather.  I lost my maternal grandfather, Eun Young-Ki, in 2006, at age 84.  I didn’t get a chance to say goodbye, since we had essentially lost him to Alzheimer’s related dementia some years before he passed; he also lived in Seoul, looked after by my eldest aunt, too far and too expensive a trip for me to make at the last minute.  According to my mother, my grandfather had his final lucid moment in his hospital room, when the nurse told him all three of his daughters, including the two who lived in the US, were there.

When I was one year old, my parents’ marriage was already on the rocks, a precursor to their divorce twenty-three years later.  Consequently, and in case they moved back to South Korea after they split up, I was sent off to my maternal grandparents.  My great-grandmother took me to Seoul, and I didn’t return to New York until I was almost five.  Side note: I was seriously cute in my first passport photo.

1972 passport

Because my grandparents were the only parental figures I initially knew; because the price of long-distance calls to New York was astronomical; and, let’s face it, because I was just a toddler; I came up calling my grandparents “Appa” (daddy) and “Omma” (mommy).  During infrequent calls to my actual parents, I called them my American mommy and American daddy, without knowing them besides a disembodied voice on the phone.  Three-year-old me thought nothing of the prospect of having two sets of parents.  I just rolled with it.

My grandfather was my north star then, a feeling that carried even into adulthood.  He was strong but quiet, never prone to histrionics like my grandmother or my mother.  He always had some dry remark when the world (at least, as I knew it then) went to shit.  His forbearance and patience eventually informed my own.  I’ve delved into the negative example set by my father here and here, but the one constant positive male role model in my life was my grandfather.  When I returned to the US before my fifth birthday, my grandfather accompanied me.  According to my mother, when we dropped him off at JFK Airport, and I realized he was leaving and I was staying, the word disconsolate doesn’t do my mood justice.

Just before I left for basic training, my grandfather took me to Cancún.  We did the usual touristy things like ruins, beach, and sailing.  We also talked a great deal, since this was ages before a teenager could bury his head in a screen to ignore his elders; for the first and last time, I got to truly know my grandfather.

Eun Young-Ki was born in a village near Osan in the midst of the Japanese occupation.  Like all other schoolchildren in the 1920s, he was forced to learn Japanese, which remained his second language (even better than his excellent English) until he died.  In fact, almost all of the books he brought on that trip were pulp-noir-yakuza novels he’d bought at the Japanese book store near his apartment.  My grandfather had had no electricity or running water, so when both came to his village when he was a teen, he said it was the last time everyone in his family was happy together.

Then the war happened.  Like all able-bodied Korean men, he was drafted press-ganged into the Imperial Japanese Army.  Not as a soldier, mind you – that would’ve been too much of an honor for a colonized people – but as a porter.  My grandfather was sent to Manchuria to build roads, barracks, airfields – anything that required manual labor deemed too lowly for a Japanese soldier.  Don’t get me wrong, the average Japanese soldier had it rough, especially compared to his American or Commonwealth counterparts.  The Korean labor battalions had it worse, though, because the Japanese saw and treated them as subhuman.

By 1942, with the war in full swing, my grandfather, unsurprisingly, had had enough.  He’d been a laborer for two years and hadn’t had any contact with his family during that time.  For the eldest child in a Korean family, the added pressure of having to care for his siblings undoubtedly sent him over the edge.  Eventually, he snuck out of their camp at night with two other Korean laborers.  One fell behind almost immediately, and my grandfather never saw him again.  About a week later, my grandfather lost sight of the other as they fled through a Manchurian forest.  Their roughest guesstimate had been, if they kept moving southeast, they’d find the Tumen or Yalu rivers that separated Korea from Manchuria, then simply trek south until they encountered more Koreans.

What my grandfather hadn’t anticipated had been a band of Korean gangsters-cum-partisans who “owned” part of the border.  Even accounting for my grandfather’s natural reticence, his distant, horrified expression when he recounted this part of the tale gave me chills.  They were Marxists in name only, the teachings of Mao Zedong and Kim Il-Sung but a cover for their lucrative smuggling business.  My grandfather had to join them in order to, essentially, earn his own freedom from them.  Details from him on this time were sparse, but capped by this gem of an offhand statement in English: “No one is a hero in a war.”  He was able to rejoin his family by the winter of 1944/45, after five years’ separation.  By then, he owned the Nambu pistol I described in this post.  His deadpan – and, in retrospect, certifiably badass – conclusion: “I lived.  Many didn’t.”

My grandfather didn’t waste much time after reuniting with his family, and promptly resumed the education that had been denied him by the war.  He matriculated at a teacher’s college that would later become the Seoul National University of Education.  An arranged marriage to the daughter of a wealthy Kwangju family was followed by three daughters.  First a set of twins, my mother being the younger of the two, then my younger aunt.  And because the good Lord has a sense of humor, another war.  They fled south to my grandmother’s family’s walled mansion in Kwangju, somehow avoiding North Koreans during their brief occupation of that city, then avoiding patrols from South Koreans who were involuntarily impressing young men into military service; they had apparently learned well from their former Japanese occupiers.  Luckily for my grandparents and their growing brood, the war and much of its attendant misery moved north and stayed there.

Until the ceasefire, my grandfather taught at an improvised school for his wife’s extended family.  He was press-ganged again immediately after the war, this time willingly.  The nascent Ministry of Education sent a hundred rising educators to the United States for their master’s degrees, seed corn for the Republic of Korea’s educational system.  Those were hard years, he told me, away from his family in a foreign land, communicating with them only by letter.  I’ve only been away from my wife and kids for a week at a time for business, and shudder to think what two straight years would do to my psyche.  Eun Young-Ki found himself in Nashville, of all places, earning his ME from Vanderbilt.  One probably well meaning person told my grandfather he didn’t have to use the colored water fountain.  My grandfather’s typically laconic response: water is water, the colored water fountain is closer, but thanks anyway.  This understandably gave my grandfather a view of America that he never shook: a wonderful and expansive country, but ultimately self destructive in its appetites and prejudices.

Once back with his family, now settled in Seoul, my grandfather began two parallel careers: one as a middle school teacher and, eventually, principal; the other as an advisor and ombudsman for the Ministry of Education.  It wasn’t a lucrative field, education rarely is, but it was the one he chose, a rarity during a time when the government used test scores to determine your future field.  Education gave my grandfather the kind of stability he’d longed for since he was a slave in Manchuria.  By the time I arrived in early 1974, my grandfather was pretty well established.  It was the confidence borne of this stability and accomplishment that made me gravitate more towards him than my grandmother.  It is the kind of confidence to which I still aspire, forty three years later.

His two younger daughters, my mother and younger aunt, eventually emigrated to the United States, as did thousands of their peers in the early 1970s.  Many Koreans saw America, despite its polarization over race and Vietnam, as a wellspring of better opportunities than could be had in President Park’s South Korea.  Since these daughters were leaving to pursue their master’s degrees, my grandparents took the loss in stride.

My mother, God love her, was not a great judge of character then.  My grandparents disapproved of their middle daughter’s marriage to this chon-nom (bumpkin) from Taegu.  Why, he wasn’t even Catholic!  NYU-Stern student?  Meh, still a bumpkin from Gyeongsangdo Province.  Amazingly, this prejudice is still alive and well in Seoul.  Imagine, if you will, the daughter of a buttoned up New England headmaster.  Now picture her marrying into a family of Southern evangelists who worship, talk, and eat loudly.  My father worked hard to soften his natural Gyeongsangdo accent, especially when speaking with my maternal grandparents.  I also know its occasional return grated on my mother until she finally divorced him.

As the father of three daughters, my grandfather loved having a male toddler around, all the more since I was also his first grandchild.  I learned from my own experience that a grandchild, specifically a firstborn male grandchild, can bridge many in-law chasms.  I suspect this was the case for my father; later still, both of my uncles, whose own first children were boys.  Looking back, do I feel sorry for my less fortunate cousins for the vagaries of birth order – yeah, nope.  I knew I was my grandfather’s prince, and still was until dementia took his marvelous mind thirty years hence.  After I returned to the US in 1978, I only saw him sporadically, about once every three or four years, when my grandparents came over from Korea, or vice versa.  One of my favorite photos of him was during a visit to Korea in January 1986.  If I’m beaming, it’s because I’m sitting next to my grandfather.  My cousins were relegated to the side across from us, and what I remember most clearly is that I had his undivided attention through the entire dinner.

IMG_2569 (2)

What did I learn from a man with whom I only spent a week as an adult?  Plenty, I’ve come to find.  Almost by osmosis, I picked up on an empathy that can and has served me well, in both the public and private sectors.  Like my grandfather, I tend to listen closely first before speaking.  Koreans have almost a cultural phobia of showing emotion, and my grandfather conformed to this, at least outwardly.  In private, however, he was demonstrative, quick with a laugh, and loving.  If you ask my kids, they’d probably say the same about me now.  If that is Eun Young-Ki’s legacy, then I’m more than happy to carry that on.  He was my grandfather, and my hero.

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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.

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.

Resistance Is Futile

Ryan has steadily but surely progressed from the terrible twos to the troubling threes.  If gray hair is a symptom of stress, then I’m probably going to skip salt-and-pepper, and go directly to a full head of white before he and Sophie are out of elementary school. Our latest battles have revolved, naturally, around baths and meals, which are really just continuations of old battles, picked up where we left off.  I thought of this post’s title during one excruciatingly defiant lunch, but then wondered which one of us, me or him, would be the Borg.

While a lot of this intractability almost feels comfortable because of its familiarity, his side of it has become, well… just more.  More fighting whatever I say, simply because I’m saying it, more screaming, more crying, more histrionics, more whining.  Most of all, more words that he wasn’t able to communicate just a few months ago, more words that leave us scratching our heads and asking ourselves if he actually said that (like “don’t worry if we missed the last episode of Dora, it’ll be on demand soon”).  I don’t mind much of that, frankly.  I do, however, mind the whine-screech in the key of E that lasts as long as he has air in his lungs.  After a teary gasp for breath, it’ll start over again.

He doesn’t want to bathe?  Fine, but I also can’t very well let him be as smelly and sticky as he probably wants; besides, his mother wouldn’t like it either. Two nights ago is a great example.  We’d just survived finished dinner and were “relaxing” by making his Thomas toys run over Sir Topham Hat over and over, when I had the bright idea to tell him it was bath time.  “No.”  Why not?  “Mogyok [Korean for bath] makes my head hurt.”  Why?  “I don’t like to be wet.”  Why?  “I can’t, I’m too busy for mogyok.”  What are you busy doing?  “Appa,” he then said, stretching the two-syllable word into three syllables, lasting four beats.  He let out a long sigh, as if he just realized his old man was a mouth breathing moron, and Ryan would surely die from embarrassment any second.  I have to remember how this sounds, in the probable event that I run into that again in 12 years.

Clothes had to come off first, but he kept insisting that “only Omma” could strip him.  That bought him about a minute while we waited for her, and even when she got to the bathroom, he’d changed his mind and now didn’t want to have mogyok.  I wanted to do it the old-fashioned way, just take his clothes off and ignore the crying.  No, my wife, ever the sensible one, made it a joke that he laughed along with, and darned if the little man didn’t actually willingly strip down for her.  Watching my wife make it look so easy made me want to gnash my teeth, but the best was yet to come.  Ryan said only Omma could be in the bathroom with him, and that I should leave. I asked him why.  His response: “I don’t want Appa look at me and do mogyok.”  Omma had to leave the bathroom, because someone had to watch his sister.

I defied him and bathed him anyway, and like that announcer said, “It’s on!”  First he tried to sit on his step stool and hold on tight.  He said, “I’m stuck, I can’t get off the stool.”  Nice try, but I’m stronger.  He tried to grab anything he could to keep from being picked up – the towel rack, the edge of the sink, the toilet seat and lid.  Nope, I just picked him up and plopped him down in the tub.  Even then he was fine, but when I started pouring water on him, he let out the screaming-crying-whining in E that I stated above.  You’d think I was a felony child-beater from the sheer volume and length of his crying, but it had to be done.  His hair was oily and matted, your hand would stick to his skin if you touched him, and he smelled kind of spoiled, like vegetables left out too long.  Have I mentioned that he’d also played with “my best friend, dirt” at the park earlier?  This left a fabulous layer of grit from scalp to sides of his neck to backs of his knees, in addition to the usual dirt. He kept squirming, especially when his whole body was slick with soap, but I kept at it until I had a reasonably clean facsimile of my eldest child.

My son, my pride, was laughing and having fun by the time his tub drained.  He couldn’t wait to jump out of the bathroom still dripping wet, with water running down his forehead into his eyes, just to show his Omma how clean he was now.  His pride in his newfound cleanliness was palpable enough that he wanted to be dried, lotioned, and dressed in pajamas.  Later still, he would willingly brush his teeth and wash his face before night-night.  Who was this angel child, and where was the devil’s spawn who’d been resisting dinner, then mogyok, earlier in the evening?

I felt like I’d just gone twelve rounds with Larry Holmes, then competed in a triathlon.  I guess what all of this boils down to is that I’m a heck of a lot bigger and stronger, and now he knows I can be scary and go against his wishes.  Good for Appa.  Today is mogyok day again, wish me luck.  Or pray for me.

No Hand Holding

Our friend N and her son B visited with us this month.  N is one of my wife’s oldest friends, one of those people (like my own best friend) that we just don’t get to see often enough.  Full disclosure: my wife and I are jealous of N and her husband, partly because their son actually goes to sleep at a normal toddler hour, unlike Ryan, who keeps the kind of hours you’d expect from a night watchman.  Naptime?  N told us that B is like clockwork.  Ryan?  Maybe, maybe not – and if not, be prepared for the tantrum fireworks later.  Eating?  Maybe B was on his best behavior around us, maybe he really does eat what his mother gives him – without the whining-crying-screaming, steadfast refusal to cooperate despite my best authoritative Stern Appa tone, back talk, and other histrionics my wife and I have long since gotten used to.

Ryan, surprisingly, didn’t hog his toys or become overly protective of them when B came to our place.  We’re still not sure about what inspired him to share, and also to morph into a solicitous host (Ryan even asked B if he wanted chocolate milk instead of regular milk), but we’re not complaining, either.  If anything, Ryan went so far as to show off to everyone how well he was sharing, but the adults were too busy catching up to do anything besides give him a cursory “oh, that’s nice” wave.  Since he wasn’t going to get good-behavior extra credit, Ryan took great care to introduce B to any of the dozens of different Thomas trains he has, and to show B how the wooden tracks can be disassembled, then hidden in awesome spots like between (or under) couch cushions – you could almost hear the toddler mind meld: you gotta try this, dude, it’s great fun if you want to tick off your dad, trust me.

B was a bit tentative around Ryan, but B is a year younger; even though both are in the 90th percentile for height, that age gap can be steep when toddlers are with each other, so B deferred to the larger Ryan.  They played with the toys Ryan wanted to play with, but then took turns with the Little Tikes car because B wanted to.  B, however, had one monster of an ace up his sleeve: he’d brought Trevor, which Ryan didn’t have but now wanted with all his being, the same way I once coveted a friend’s Reggie Jackson rookie card.  B knew he had something valuable, and like my friend with the baseball card almost 35 years ago, wasn’t going to trade it cheaply.  Ryan tried to grab it, but B basically cross-checked him (thank God the mothers didn’t see that, but now that they’re reading this… oh well).  Both (sons, not moms) started to get a little whiny because they each wanted to play with Trevor.  Our compromise for the boys was to let Ryan “hold on to Trevor for a little while,” which seemed to satisfy B, who didn’t want his toy to go unattended.  Thankfully, this didn’t last long, since lunch and the playground beckoned.

The boys had a bit of excitement at the deli during lunch, as the movie theater down the street caught fire, necessitating a street closure by no less than three police cars, and reaction from what looked like half of Long Island’s volunteer fire departments.  With all the hardware and flashing lights directly outside, B and Ryan were glued to the floor-to-ceiling windows in front.  B tried climbing onto a chair to get a better view, which my wife and N put a quick stop to.  Ryan tried to hold B’s hand while B climbed down from the chair.  B yanked his hand back as if Ryan’s were scalding hot.  B ran back to N, cried “Mama!” and hugged her leg.  Ryan took umbrage, simply complaining to his Omma that “B won’t let me hold his hand,” but like a summer thunderstorm it passed quickly.

On their way to the park, we told the boys to hold their mom’s and each other’s hands when crossing the street.  The mother part they got, but again, B didn’t want to hold Ryan’s hand.  It was like he didn’t want to appear uncool in front of any other two-year-olds who might be watching.  Ryan just shrugged and led the way to the park where, to both boys’ thrill, there was fresh mulch on the ground.  Well, maybe not the boys’ thrill, but it had been a while since the town’s park department had changed it out.  You get the idea.  B held a dandelion in his fist for so long that it disintegrated into a green-yellow mess, but he was still loathe to let it go, even while climbing up the slide.  Ryan, for his part, tried to blow a white dandelion, but wound up just crushing it when the seeds wouldn’t float away the way he wanted.  He was more fascinated by maple tree seeds and odd pieces of mulch anyway.  An impromptu game of tag ensued, with Ryan doing most of the chasing, but the boys decided that the swings would be a lot more fun.

On Friday, after N and B had flown home, what did I find on our coffee table after finishing an earlier draft of this post?  This:

The one that got left behind