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Blue Cart Below

2 Sep

Sometimes I feel like Will Smith.

Not “Fresh Prince” Will Smith or “Independence Day” Will Smith.”The Pursuit of Happyness” Will Smith—except for the tall, dark and handsome part.

Aidan’s mom and I haven’t stuck to the custody agreement much, but last night Aidan stayed with me as outlined in the agreement. Thursday nights, plus certain weekends, are supposed to be reserved for her and I. On our way to school this morning, I explained those details to her. I didn’t have to do any selling.

It’s heartwarming to know my daughter wants to spend time with me. She even says she wants to spend more time with me. That type of comment makes me smile since I am usually alone in taking her to school, pick her up by myself most days and spend hours with her many days a week. She’s the main reason I’m so tan right now, thanks to frequent trips to the pool.

The strong connection that comes from spending time together gets reinforced by conversations about real issues. This morning, as I carried her to school on my shoulders, we passed over a bridge. She looked down and saw a blue shopping cart. Although a shopping cart left in a seemingly random spot is not rare sight in towns like Lewisville, this particular one inspired a conversation that would last all the way to school.

It wasn’t only the cart that caught her attention, it was the blanket inside. I imagined that blanket providing a bit of comfort to someone last night. It seemed likely that a homeless person used the cart and the blanket and left them in that spot while remaining out of sight nearby or heading somewhere else for the day.

Aidan listened carefully as I suggested someone without a home may have needed the cart and blanket. As a person who who walks a great deal of the time, sometimes 6-8 miles in a day, I have crossed paths with hundreds of people living on the streets of Dallas and Houston. (I remember frequently being approached by homeless people outside the Walgreen’s on Montrose near Westheimer in Houston. Aidan’s mom and I would always give them money, whenever we had cash and change in our pockets.) I told Aidan that lots of people in cities all over America are homeless.

“Why can’t they build a place to live?”

I explained how a homeless person doesn’t have the money to get the tools and materials necessary to build a home. That prompted Aidan to ask how a person on the streets can make money. I explained how I’ve often observed homeless people collecting bottles and cans in order to sell them. Aidan said, “but that’s not enough money!”

She’s right, of course. Even without knowing what a person can make from selling bottles and cans, she instantly knew it wasn’t enough to sustain a life. I did say that places and people offer help to people on the streets, providing money or food, a place to stay, and clothes to wear. But Aidan returned to the topic of homes.

“But they need their own place to live.”

Just before reaching an intersection, the conversation shifted to homeless kids. I explained to Aidan that many kids are also living on the streets. As I looked to my left, a brother and sister walking to another school stood there, mouths opened, observing us. I’m not sure what stunned them more: my candid chat about homeless kids at 7:30 am or Aidan sitting on my shoulders on the way to school.

My daughter has a tremendous amount of empathy and understanding despite her young age. She explained how a child of homeless parents may have to ask for money to help the family. I have to wonder what she’s seen on TV or heard somewhere that made her sound so informed. She even said that if her mother and I were homeless, she would ask for money. She said a kid shouldn’t have to do that but “we do what we need to do.”

She may be an only child and she may be the only grandchild on both sides of the family, but my daughter is not spoiled. At times, she’s a typical six year-old, consumed by her own thoughts and feelings. But when she and I have candid conversations, she always demonstrates an ability to think deeply, show compassion for others, share her thoughts without reservation, and try to create solutions to what really are grown-up problems.

Come to think of it, Aidan reminds me of Jaden Smith—except there are no movie cameras rolling when she’s at her best.

Support Through September

29 Aug

When I put Aidan to bed at night, the ritual involves a couple things. The first part is a bedtime story. Sometimes I’ll read several stories or make up a story to share. (Tonight’s story involved the toy box at my grandparents’ house and how wearing a vest from it gave us special powers.) The second part of the bedtime ritual is a series of questions for her to answer.

1. What did you accomplish today?

2. What do you want to accomplish tomorrow?

3. How can you help someone tomorrow?

I believe it’s important to remind her that we can make a commitment to help someone else every day, even when our own lives are busy and challenging. It’s an idea I lose sight of at times. Between finishing one book, developing another, auditioning, acting when booked, taking on writing assignments, looking for new clients, marketing my services, taking my daughter to school, picking her up, spending quality time with her, blogging about our experiences together, and making time for myself, most weeks seem to provide little time to focus on helping others.

But that’s not really true, is it? As one of my former clients likes to say, “what you focus on is what you get.” By consciously setting aside time to provide a helping hand, and selecting the individuals who are deserving of that help, I can incorporate problem solving, advice, aid, guidance and support into any week—regardless of how busy my life seems.

I want to go a step further starting September 1 by devoting time each day to lifting someone else up. This form of daily support will be dedicated to using anything within my reach to assist a friend, family member or colleague. Now I can’t drive you across the country or write a term paper for you. I won’t be able to handle the responsibility of telling your boyfriend or girlfriend that you want to end the relationship. And I certainly don’t want to tell an employee of yours that he’s fired.

There are numerous lists online that describe ways to serve others. One list I read contains 100 ideas, a great place to start for anyone who has not been living a service-oriented life. While many of the ideas are brilliant, I am going to focus on the top 5 ways I can provide support in September.

1. Writing a recommendation letter

2. Promoting someone else’s idea/project

3. Volunteering for a charity or an individual in need

4. Teaching a skill that I know well

5. Giving honest feedback

That’s not to say I’ll do one good deed a day and call it quits. I’ll continue to provide help whenever I can. But the mission of devoting one act of service a day to a specific individual will help me demonstrate to Aidan that helping others is an essential step in cultivating balanced and healthy relationships. It can also empower us by keeping our energy flowing in positive ways. Those are important lessons for an only child who still believes the world revolves around her.

When this works like I expect it to, my new tradition of helping people daily will have a long-term impact as my daughter carries it forward over the course of her lifetime. She’s already got the right nickname for the role. I can even envision the headline 30 years from now:

AID HELPS MILLIONS!

100 Goodbyes

9 Aug

I never saw reaction to a t-shirt like the one my friend Victor got in Lake Charles, Louisiana wearing a shirt featuring Redd Foxx’s face above his best-known phrase from Sanford and Son:

YOU BIG DUMMY

It caught the attention of strangers who stopped him just to share how much they liked the shirt. At times, I felt like they were just moments away from hugging him. Yes, the joy in their eyes was that apparent.

I thought about that shirt tonight as I put my daughter to bed. She would say “dummy” is a bad word, and she’s right. But the connection to Redd Foxx came from surveying her room once again. It could be mistaken for a carpeted junkyard. If the reference wasn’t lost on her, I would buy her that t-shirt in her size, or she could wear a larger size as a nightgown.

I kept those thoughts to myself, and I refrained from calling her room a “disaster” like I often do. With school starting less than two weeks away, I did mention the need to get her room cleaned and organized. It wasn’t a general mention; I got specific.

Me: We’re going to donate or throw out 100 items.

Aidan: That’s everything I have.

Me: Oh, that’s not even close. You won’t even notice the 100 items when they’re gone.

Aidan:  How about 21 items?

Me: No, 100.

Aidan: 21.

Me: If we rid this room of 100 items, you’ll have room for new things.

Aidan: How about 200 items?

Me: Okay, let’s not get overly ambitious.

I left the room as she and her puppy cuddled for a night of sleep. Of course, I’m up trying to devise a plan of attack. I could bring in a shovel and a wheelbarrow. But the idea is to remove only the items we want to donate or throw out so I’ll have to be more strategic.

Evaluating her wardrobe might be an easier way to start. Anything that she’s outgrown could get set in a paper grocery bag for easy drop-off to Goodwill. I bet we could easily find 30 items to give away.

Toys she no longer plays with or has outgrown might lead to another 30 items, to donate, as long as they’re in good condition. I suspect she has a lot more toys that will just go straight into the trash. I will face resistance from the girl who believes EVERYTHING can be glued back together.

Books may only provide a handful of additional items to donate, but the real opportunity may come from stuffed animals. Yes, those prized possessions of childhood are vulnerable here. She’s got so many stuffed animals, many of them spend their days jammed together in piles and containers. The view can’t be pretty. Thankfully, they don’t need air to breathe.

If we just focused on stuffed animals, saying 100 Goodbyes could happen in a few minutes. But there is no way she’s going to part with 100 stuffed animals all at once, even if she almost never plays with, looks at, or remembers they exist. I could suggest donating them to children who would be comforted by them. She would like that very much, but I suspect we wouldn’t get more than 10 donated.

Obviously I won’t wait for her to start selecting items. I’ll have to schedule a day for this massive undertaking. We’ll have pizza and ice cream and anything necessary to make the process a bit more tolerable. And I already have one item in mind that can go: the IKEA bed she no longer sleeps in. If I could convince her to donate every toy in the boxes that cover that bed, we would reach our goal 10 times over.

 

 

Five Sundays on the Sidelines

5 Aug

I heard some great news on Thursday from my friend Drea Avent in L.A. She will be working as a sideline reporter during five games for FOX NFL SUNDAY during the upcoming season. The news came via Facebook, and I quickly posted a message of congratulations. This is national TV, the big time for a sports reporter who has been working her way up for years.

I’ve known Drea since she and I worked together at News 24 Houston, a now defunct 24-hour cable news channel owned by Time Warner Cable. She was very green at the time, but clearly demonstrated both an in-depth knowledge of key sports and a passion for learning her craft as a sports reporter. Seven years later, I am so proud to see her move to the next level in her career.

There are football fans who don’t share my appreciation for female sports reporters. Some may keep their opinion to themselves; others boldly tell anyone who will listen. In fact, on Friday morning I heard from a friend online who didn’t hesitate to share this perspective:

“I don’t think women should be police officers, fight in combat or be NFL sideline reporters. Period.”

This statement wasn’t made by a man. It came from a woman who considers herself a die-hard football fan. It reminded me of a story my ex-wife once told me about her line of work as a radio news anchor. Despite her superb on-air delivery, listeners in some of her markets have called to complain about a radio station having a woman anchor the news. Some listeners even said they couldn’t understand her. Clearly they must be deaf or have ears that were programmed to understand men’s voices only. Otherwise, I have no explanation for this phenomenon.

But back to football, one could argue that networks place women in high profile positions on camera to draw more men to the broadcast. Female sideline reporters may also draw more viewers who are women, perhaps looking to find someone they can relate to during the game. Whatever the argument, or the reasons given, women are here to stay in the field of sports reporting. They’ve earned it. They deserve it. And just like the men in the same field, there are good ones and not-so-good ones in those roles.

I suspect some people mistakenly use the argument that women can’t understand football because they haven’t played it. But one of America’s most celebrated sportscasters, Bob Costas, hadn’t played a single professional sport when he began his play-by-play duties for minor league hockey games while still attending Syracuse University. Later, at NBC Sports, Costas served as a play-by-play for NBA games despite never having dunked a basketball or even attempted as much as a foul shot.

As Derek Jeter approached the 3000-hit milestone this season, he wore a wire so the experience from his perspective could be captured by HBO for a documentary on the Yankee captain. But Jeter didn’t suddenly start doing his own play-by-play. He continued doing what he gets paid to do: play baseball. He left the play-by-play and color commentary to the people whose job it is to provide it.

You see, sports reporting and announcing is a different game altogether. Those talented men and women who bring us stories from the studio, the booth or the field come a variety of backgrounds, but the mission is always the same.  They serve to tell us what we need to know and what we want to know about a sport, a particular game and its players. They’re storytellers. Plain and simple. The good ones provide helpful insight and observations; the best ones break national stories. Ultimately, they all look at what’s going on, interpret what they see, and communicate with us, the fans.

It’s a similar situation in wartime news coverage. We don’t assume radio, TV and print journalists and photojournalists covering the stories actually spent time in basic training or on a battle field fighting the enemy. Their training came in how to effectively tell a story using the medium in which they work. The award-winning journalists—who often risk their lives to get the story—did not become better at their jobs because they had tours of duty in Iraq. They mastered their craft.

As the father of a six year-old girl, I listen to the “women shouldn’t be” objections carefully. I can’t brush them aside because that’s the reality of the world my daughter is growing up in. Once upon a time not everyone accepted women as doctors, but it still happened. Not everyone agreed that women could be astronauts, but it still happened. And not everyone is happy to see women working as sideline reporters, especially my friend who said, ” I’d rather look at a man than a woman.”

As for me, I’ll be watching the upcoming NFL season with a new sense of excitement and purpose. On five Sundays, my dear friend will be on the sidelines doing what she enjoys most in front of a national TV audience. And I’ll have Aidan by my side so she can see, despite the objections of some, it can be done.

Outside the Touch of Time

1 Aug

The summer of 1955 marked the opening of Disneyland, the launch of the Guinness Book of World Records, and the fury of Hurricane Diane, which killed more than 200 people along the East Coast of the United States. The damage in its wake was estimated at three billion dollars, making it the first billion dollar storm. Although it affected parts of New York State, the heavy rain and flooding was not seen in the upper reaches of the state where my mother was living with her parents, sisters and brothers. No doubt, they heard reports of the hurricane, but the LaBrake family farm in Lisbon, New York was unaffected.

I look back to summer of 1955 because that’s when my mother was the same age as her only grandchild is now. Of course, six was very different back then. But available technology aside, the lives of my six year old and her grandmother-at-six are vastly different in other ways.

My mother at six had lived in only one house. My daughter has lived in three houses and two apartments, counting both the residences her mother and I shared and the ones we live in separately.

My mother grew up with 13 brothers and sisters. Because they were born between 1933 and 1955, not all 14 siblings lived at home at any one time. My daughter is an only child. She’s also my parents’ only grandchild.  None of the sisters and brothers with whom I was raised has a child yet.

My mother’s parents had been married for 23 years by the summer of 1955. My daughter has been experiencing the divorce of her parents for two and a half years now.

My mother had not flown by age six, whereas my daughter has flown numerous times between Texas and New York,  most recently flying from Dallas to Buffalo with her mother in July. Her first trip by plane occurred in October 2005 when we flew to New York to spend a week there.

At age six, I’m sure my mother wasn’t allowed to use the telephone. My daughter has been using a cell phone since she was a baby when she would occasionally call her grandmother by chance with the press of the right sequence of buttons.

While these differences are noteworthy, what’s more important is the shared family heritage. My daughter is a LaBrake, not by name but by blood. She has a right to hear the family stories and get acquainted with the family members. That’s been challenging to do while living in Texas. Most of the family lives in New York State and we rarely get visitors here. But there is a solution in the works.

No, I won’t be moving home anytime soon. I haven’t decided to buy back the family farm either. I’m also not petitioning the state of Texas to switch places with New England. However, I am developing a book project that will allow for a lot of family time for both me and my daughter.

The book, called Outside the Touch of Time, will share stories of the 14 LaBrake siblings, starting with their childhood and spanning decades until the present day. I plan to interview each person in his or her home in the coming months and finish the book in time for a launch in 2012, the year marking 80 years since my grandparents got married at the tender age of 18.

All 14 LaBrake siblings gather along the St. Lawrence River in Lisbon, New York during the family reunion of 2008.

Rather than conduct phone interviews, I plan to see my mother and my aunts and uncles in person. Trips to New Mexico, New York and New Jersey will be necessary as each of the 14 siblings lives in one of those states. Isn’t it odd that nobody lives in a non-New state?

Family photos will be an essential part of the book, and I’m sure I can find a relative to help coordinate that part of the work. I also plan to bring a professional camera to take new photos for the book and its marketing materials.

I’ll be bringing something else, too: a digital audio recorder. This will be the only time someone is capturing these stories in any kind of digital format and they must be saved for future use related to the book and future enjoyment by the family.

Oh, I plan to bring one more thing: my daughter. I can’t imagine making these trips without Aidan. After all, she is the next generation. I know her presence will help liven up each visit, and her own storytelling skills will be enhanced by participating in this experience. I might even assign her a few duties before, during and after each interview.

While family stories and fun facts are central elements for the book, the narrative will place their lives in the larger context of life in America. We’ll look at the rates for sibling survival in the U.S., and hear from a sociology expert about the unusual occurrence of more than a dozen siblings living past the age of 55. The research data will accompany professional observations about the factors that may have contributed to this kind of longevity in one family.

Even with a plan to self-publish, writing Outside the Touch of Time will require donations in order to get started. I have set up a fundraising page on IndieGoGo so anyone interested in supporting the project can give whatever amount is suitable for them. You’re also welcome to donate a camera or recording equipment. The deadline for reaching our goal is November 1, and interviews will commence once the goal has been reached. 

Your support is necessary in bringing this book to life, and I appreciate generosity of any kind. I know my daughter will be pleased, too. She may even want to send you a handwritten thank you note.

Not the Same School

30 Jul

As the school year came to a close in June, Aidan said goodbye to her elementary school. The plan was to move from Lewisville to Richardson a month before she begins first grade.  I felt sentimental during the last time I walked her home after school. We made that same walk so many times, often snacking or sharing a cool drink on the way. Aidan said we could come back from Richardson sometime and do that walk again. I smiled, quietly knowing that her idea would never actually happen.

A few variables prevented that move to Richardson from happening, but we got some surprise news this week that still means Aidan will not be going back to the same school. Oh, she’s going back to the same school building. It retains the same name. Yet something else has changed.

The latest public school accountability ratings in Texas means my daughter’s school has been downgraded from Exemplary to Recognized. It’s a change shared by many schools around the DFW area and around the state. The story was covered by numerous media outlets, including my ex-wife’s radio station, KRLD, a CBS property.

A year ago, the designation of Exemplary or Recognized didn’t matter to me. I wanted her in a good school but I wasn’t aware of the differences. After investing months in her education—and countless hours helping her develop reading and math skills—the change is significant. Even before this news, I was already responding to the normal summertime loss of skills developed in the classroom.

Now that I have this news, helping Aidan do homework in the coming year becomes even more important to me. She’s a bright girl and I want to inspire her to challenge herself more inside and outside the classroom. I also want to facilitate her exploration of new subjects and activities. This may be the year she begins to learn to play the piano. We may also consider signing up for a sport, such as soccer.

I have a feeling we’ll be watching less TV in the coming year and spending more time engaged in educational activities and outdoor recreation. I’m even thinking of setting up an agreement where she has to earn her hours of TV. I think the new brand of structure will be a valuable part of her experience as a first grader.

She doesn’t know anything about the ratings changes. She doesn’t even have an understanding of how different first grade will be yet. She does know that new experiences are coming her way. As August begins, new clothes and new school supplies will accompany the start of a new school year. While she’s enjoying the excitement of all that newness, I will be reminding myself that her school’s new ratings will challenge me to step up my commitment to her education.

Sure, I’ll pause to take plenty of pics of her first day of First Grade, then it’s all business from that point on. That reminds me, I also will need something new before the school year begins: a new wallet filled with cash. I wonder if I can find one at Marshall’s.

Online But Off Base

20 May

In a field of challenges related to divorce, one of the biggest ones for me involves the internet. More specifically, it involves what I post online on sites like Facebook and Twitter. I’ll give you an example.

“Let’s see if using the blender to make smoothies also serves as an alarm clock for a sleepy girl.”

That’s an early morning post from today about my daughter. It suggests a few things (e.g., I’m with her on a school morning and I make breakfast for her) and you  may draw conclusions about the rest. You may assume she’s at my home. (She wasn’t.) You may assume this is a Friday morning routine. (It’s not.)

Now here’s a pic I took last night at school during the Kindergarten class performance at the PTA meeting.

Aid enjoys a proud moment after successfully finishing a class performance for a PTA meeting.

Again, you may draw some conclusions of your own based on this one photo. You may assume I used my camera to take this photo. (I didn’t.) You may assume her mom was present at this event. (She was.)

Posted comments and pics allow people to interpret what they see and read. It all comes from what information that is provided (or suggested) and what is left out. The trouble is, I don’t have complete control over how people interpret what I post. That’s created some challenges for me.

The primary area of concern is the obvious one for any divorced dad. Maintaining a relationship with my ex-wife (Aidan’s mom) in person is always a work in progress. We don’t adhere to the custody agreement which can be a blessing and a burden at times. The flexibility is an asset but it also puts us in the same room far more often than a typical divorced couple. Then, when you consider that we also cross paths as co-parents in the online world,  you start to see how new issues could develop quickly.

She and I are Facebook friends. We follow each other on Twitter. She frequently asks me to retweet the links that she provides. They’re usually parenting-related links so I happily share them when I can.  On the flip side, she’ll make this blog accessible to her fans and followers. For now, the online relationship seems copasetic. I hope it stays that way.

On more than one occasion though, one of us has severed the online relationship. I’ll admit, it’s not easy to see my ex-spouse post about an experience we shared with our daughter yet make no mention of me. I know she feels the same way about my posting pics of Aidan when I’m using her camera to take them—and sometimes her laptop to upload them.

Even this blog came under fire once. A previous title unintentionally suggested that I’m a single dad and didn’t clearly mention my divorced status. Thanks to a productive chat or two with my ex-wife, I made some changes, which turned out to be real improvements.

She’s a great mom in many ways, and I know that her devotion to our daughter cannot be questioned. I’ve met many other divorced men and women who can’t say the same thing about their ex-spouses. I’m lucky. Aid is lucky. That doesn’t mean life around here is always easy. We have our share of problems, like anyone else, and the ones online tend to get a lot of attention since we’re both people who spend a lot of time online.

The objective seems to be sharing that virtual world without consistently irritating the other person. That potential peaceful co-existence benefits everyone. It allows my ex-wife to have access to my pages to see pics and read comments about our daughter’s adventures. It allows me the same access to enjoy special moments that I may be missing.

With this in mind, I’ve decided to create a few points to remember how to effectively manage the online relationship.

1. It’s never the whole truth. Brevity is the nature of online posts.

2. When reading her posts, remember she’s only telling her story.

3. When posting my own thoughts and comments, avoid misleading details or anything that suggests full credit when it’s undue.

4. When on her pages, only read content related to our daughter.

5. Avoid all negativity. Never say anything directly or indirectly negative about her or allow anyone else to post negative comments about her.

I’m sure she and I will discover new challenges in the coming months while we share the online world. But when we encounter each issue and obstacle, may we peacefully find a solution by remembering that the one who benefits the most is the little girl we both love more than anything else.