Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Pulp Fiction

This is a guest post by Stewart, aka "Papa":

As a willful 10 month old, Max has taken over our lives, and our apartment, in many ways – not the least of which is our bookshelves. The living room bookcase used to feature nothing but award-winning hard-cover tomes. Never mind if we had actually read any of them, the bookcase advertised to all of our visitors that we possess exquisite literary taste. Updike? Austen? Murakami? Check, check and check!

But that was then. Now our bookcase contains no less than 57 baby books for Max. Goodbye “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” hello “Cat in the Hat”! 57 books for a 47 week old may sound a tad extreme, but it’s not entirely our doing. Presents, hand-me-downs and gift-cards generated the majority of his collection.

Left side of baby bookshelf

And I’m very glad to have all 57, for a reason that might surprise you: their construction. Books published for Max’s age come in the form of “board books.” That means they are comprised not of leaves of paper, but of thick cardboard slabs. Most of you probably know this, but I didn’t until a couple of years ago, when our nephew Luke (the son of my sister-in-law, Esther) was perhaps a year old. He was very into animals at the time, and Jacob and I had excitedly bought him a huge hard-backed book full of animal photos that we planned to present to him during our next babysitting gig. Esther, however, rained on our parade by correctly pointing out that the glossy animal photos were laid out on thin sheets of paper that Luke would instantly tear up in his enthusiasm over their content. He simply wasn’t ready for paper books.

Right side of baby bookshelf

Max certainly isn’t either, as he reminded me this weekend when his own babysitter came over. As I was cleaning up the apartment Sunday evening in preparation for her arrival, Max was innocently watching me as he sat by the bottom shelf of our bookcase, where we keep our DVD and music collection. When the doorbell rang announcing the babysitter’s arrival, I turned to pick up Max, only to see him cheerfully munching away on the paper cover to my Ella Fitzgerald CD box set! (A cardinal sin in this gaddy’s eyes). After my initial reaction that I was glad the babysitter hadn’t witnessed this abject lack of decorum on the part of my son, I shifted into what probably should have been my initial reaction, which was concern over Max’s decision to start a paper-based diet.  It was then that the genius of the board book -- letting babies handle their cardboard pages without tearing them apart, and easing fear of babies’ knack for chomping on their reading materials -- truly hit home.  It’s no wonder that the children’s publishing industry nicknames board books: “chewables”!

Max does Ella wrong

So why am I happy to have 57 of these chewables?  Because the pages of board books are so thick, and the books themselves are so tiny – so as to fit in tiny toddler hands – that these books can have as few as four pages to them . . . total. That’s just fine and dandy for the kids, who have the attention span of a cartoon character, but for us parents the experience does not quite satisfy at the Updike, Austen, Murakami level. Don’t get me wrong, one of my favorite parts of my day with Max is reading with him before his bedtime.  But part of what makes the experience enjoyable on my end is that I have 57 books to choose from on any given night. In the 15 minutes that Max is on my lap, we tackle at least 5 or 6 books, so having that variety each night is crucial. No matter how much I genuinely enjoy many of Max’s books, if I had to read the same 10 or so night after night I might go crazy!

Now that I feel like I have a little experience in this genre, in my next post I will share with you my all-time favorite books from Max’s collection, and why I find them so enjoyable to read with Max. So if you are in the market for some board books, for yourself or for that special new parent in your life, be sure to check it out!

Thursday, March 24, 2011

In Memorium, My Aunt Beth

Last week, Stewart, Max and I drove to the suburbs of Philadelphia to attend the funeral of my Aunt Beth -- my mom’s younger and only sibling. After the service, we went back to my Uncle Jack’s house, where the family gathered to reminisce about the memories we all have of her. Driving home after that emotional day, I recalled my own relationship with Aunt Beth, that began when I was just a kid.

As far back as I can remember, I was always fond of my aunt. I wouldn’t have been able to articulate it as a kid, but in retrospect I really liked the way she was somehow able to be direct and witty while at the same time exuding an unassuming and accepting personality that put people at ease. Let me try to give you some examples of what I am talking about.

I have one particular favorite story that perfectly captures Aunt Beth’s direct and witty side. One day, when I was 11 years old or so, I was spending time with my aunt at her home looking at family photographs. I innocently asked her why my mother looked younger than she did in the photos when my mom was actually the older sibling by a couple of years. (Please understand that I hadn’t yet acquired all of the graceful tact that you all know I now possess.) My aunt replied, “That’s easy. It’s because your mother dyes her hair and your grandmother Augusta does good touch up work on her photographs!” As a little kid I was shocked that my mom dyed her hair, and absolutely delighted to be made privy to this family secret! From then on I knew that I had one cool aunt in my Aunt Beth. I have told this story to my mom repeatedly over the years to tease her, and she always responds the same way: “That’s your aunt Beth!”

Mom (l) with her sister, my Aunt Beth (r)

While perhaps less exciting, what I hold dear even more about my aunt are my memories of her warm, embracing side. My family photo story comes from one of the handful of times that I got to visit Aunt Beth at her house over some of my school vacations when I was a tween. As I mentioned in a prior post, since I am the youngest child in my family by a fairly wide margin, I did not have any cousins to play with growing up, unlike the rest of my siblings. So I cherished my trips to see Aunt Beth. They made me feel special because I had my very own place to go and my own family member to visit.

It is weird now though to realize that I would visit her for an entire week. It doesn’t seem like it now, and I can’t remember any particular conversations we had together during those visits other than my photo story. While I doubt that our conversations ran very deep, my Aunt Beth was a very easy person to be around and I certainly know that enjoyed talking with her. At a point in my life when I didn’t always feel that I related to my peers, and felt vulnerable around them, I felt very safe with my Aunt Beth. She was very attentive, and also had the time to spend with me. When I started visiting her, her oldest kids were already out of the house, and her youngest was a senior in high school who was busy with her own life, so my aunt was free to become my companion. My favorite memories of those visits are playing game after game of scrabble with Aunt Beth, with frequent breaks for ice cream! In fact, my Aunt Beth was a Scrabble maestro. I don’t ever remember winning a game against her during those visits. So what possessed me to keep playing so many games, knowing that I would go down in defeat? I really enjoyed the game, and I was good at it for my age. My grandmother Sadie had taught me how to play, and I liked continuing that tradition with my aunt. Besides, there wasn’t anyone else at the time who would indulge me in playing back-to-back games like she did!

By the time I was in ninth grade, my visits with my aunt ended. Maybe I felt that I was getting too old to be visiting my aunt over school break, I’m not sure. I am sure though that I loved those visits while they lasted, and they helped get me through those difficult middle school years. Afterwards, I still saw my aunt a couple of times a year, and made sure that we played Scrabble every Thanksgiving.

Traditions like these have gained new importance in my life now that I’m a parent. When Max is old enough, I look forward to teaching him how to play scrabble and to playing many family games with him and Stewart. Max will also have his Aunt Paula and Uncle David, both avid scrabble players -- plus many other family members -- to play games with, whether it be on school vacation or over family holidays. My hope for Max is that, like me, when he is an adult he will look back fondly on his childhood bonds with the adults in his family’s life who are always there to support and encourage us.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

"Family" Secret

As a gay male couple out and about town with a baby, Stewart and I hear one constant refrain from the many strangers we run into: “Do you remember the Modern Family episode where Cameron and Mitchell . . . .” If you have no idea what I’m talking about, congratulations, you’ve somehow managed to live a fulfilling life during the past two years without watching one of the most highly rated and critically acclaimed sitcoms currently airing on network television. Modern Family is an ABC sitcom about the hilarious trials and tribulations of three related southern California couples who are each raising families. One of the couples is the aforementioned Mitchell and Cameron, who are gay partners raising a young daughter who they adopted from Vietnam.

Because gay parents raising a small child are such a novelty on mainstream television, many people we’ve met over the past ten months toting Max around have naturally assumed that we are fans of the show. For example, recently we were down in Florida visiting Stewart’s parents, who are staying the month at a resort in Palm Beach. In two separate instances during our four day visit, women came up to us at the resort to dish about Modern Family, assuming, without asking, that we are regular viewers. Obviously these women (it’s almost always women . . . or gay men) are “cool” with our family dynamic, or they wouldn’t enthusiastically approach us to discuss our life with Max as it is supposedly mirrored in this popular sitcom. Because they are so well meaning, I feel the impulse to nod along with every Modern Family plot detail that they delve into with us.

But, the time has finally come to confess that I have been living a lie. I have terribly misled all of these well-meaning people. The shameful truth is this: before last week, I had never seen an episode of the show. This prevarication is made worse by the fact that this blog has already referenced Modern Family not once, but twice, in prior posts. Worse still, Gaddy Daddy was featured on a website promoting blogs about families akin to those featured on the show.  I doubt those running the website realized that they know more about my little Gaddy Daddy website than I know about the famous sitcom they were comparing it to!

Cameron, Mitchell & daughter Lily

For people who know my television habits, this actually may not come as a big surprise. I generally don’t watch sitcoms, or for that matter many shows on network TV. This isn’t to say that my taste is too highbrow for that, though. I watch plenty of dubious television programs that hopefully Stewart will allow me to keep secret from you all. (Stewart: let’s just say that it’s not all that unusual to find episodes of Bravo’sThe Real Housewives of . . . Everywhere” playing on our TV!) My point is that I have absolutely nothing against Modern Family. Any show that beams loving same-sex led families into the living-rooms of mainstream America is all right in my book. It’s just that network sitcoms generally aren’t on my radar screen.

But I’m tired of deceiving the many well meaning strangers who apparently believe that one of the duties of being a gay dad is being a fan of this show. So last week I decided I would go online and watch an episode of Modern Family to see what all the fuss was about, and to see just how astutely the show spoke to my life as a gay dad. The episode I watched was entitled “Unplugged,” in which Mitchell and Cameron freak out about the difficulty of getting their daughter, Lily, into a prestigious preschool . . . that is, until they are told that they can play the diversity card of being an “alternative family” to guarantee them admission into the pre-school of their dreams. Naturally, given that this is a sitcom, the guys get overconfident about the admissions process after hearing this news, leading to unexpected, and very funny, complications for their chances.

Fretting over Lily's pre-school interview in "Unplugged"
I must admit that the episode not only had a lot of laughs, but rang true to life for me as well. It just so happens that even though Max is just 10 months old, Stewart and I have already discussed potential pre-schools for him. Those of you living in New York City will know why; for the rest of you, let’s just say that this city is notorious for being ridiculously cut-throat and competitive about getting your toddler into a top city pre-school. At some schools, just getting an application is competitive, and then there are the interviews! Modern Family’s “Unplugged” episode gave Stewart and me a very humorous sneak peek into what we have in store for ourselves, and I enjoyed it.

I still can’t say that I will watch Modern Family on a regular basis. Sitcoms still aren’t my cup of tea, and it’s not as if I have a ton of idle time to watch new shows. But I’m certainly glad that I can now say that I’ve seen it, and I’m sure I’ll catch other episodes when they’re on. It’s a smart and funny show, and if it encourages the many people that I run into with Max to say a kind and supportive word to us, consider me a big and grateful fan who hopes it enjoys a long run.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Our Ten Year Journey to Ten Months

While in my late teens, my mom liked to tell me: “Jacob no matter how far out there or different you think you are, you have very traditional values.” She was right. Last weekend marked the ten year anniversary of my first date with my (now) husband, Stewart, on February 26, 2001. Ever since I came out as gay at age 22, I knew that my ideal future would include a life-long partner and a kid to raise with him. I was not envisioning a “husband” per se, because gay marriage was not only legally unavailable in the mid 1990s, it wasn’t even on the radar screen back then. That didn’t discourage my plans though. To the contrary, I even pinpointed the exact age I wanted to be when having a kid: age 38. I figured that gave me plenty of time to have fun as a single guy, and then get my act together through a serious relationship. Of course, life doesn’t run according to our planned timetables, and Max arrived when I was 36. But who doesn’t love an early present?!

Summer 2001, months into our relationship
While I ultimately succeeded in my aspirations beyond my wildest dreams, they didn’t always seem attainable. First off, I had the small problem of actually finding a life-long partner. Before I met Stewart, my longest romantic relationship had lasted all of 2 months. I remember being 27 years old and worrying that I was never going to find Mr. Right. Secondly, even assuming I found that special person, what was to say he would want to embark with me on the journey of parenthood? The concept seemed much more far-fetched back then than it does now. I didn’t know any gay male couples that had kids, or for that matter many gay male couples at all, and there was no such thing as the sitcom Modern Family on network TV. The only gay dads I had even heard of were men who came out as gay later in life after they already had children through a straight relationship. Most childless gay men who came out back then thought that in doing so they were necessarily sacrificing any opportunity to have kids of their own. Stewart has told me that he was one of those men.

Nor was it immediately obvious when Stewart and I met that we were destined to create the family we now have. Stewart was dating somebody else at the time, and so we were just good friends for a period of six months before he broke off his relationship and we became a couple. During those months we slowly became closer as we played squash together first weekly, and then twice weekly, and then started hanging out together after each squash match. Sometimes that entailed watching college basketball while having lunch at a sports bar, or discussing books at a cafe, or checking out art galleries in Chelsea. I realized that I had finally found somebody who shared all of my eclectic interests in life. Therefore it hardly seemed strange at all that our first official date was attending a New Jersey Devils pro hockey game followed by a late-night visit to a gay bar back in the city to watch a favorite drag queen perform. But I’m pretty sure we were the only couple with that itinerary that evening!

Ticket from our first date, a hockey game
From the very beginning I was up-front with Stewart about my serious interest in becoming a father down the road, and thankfully Stewart was receptive to the idea. As our relationship progressed, we renewed this discussion at every important step along the way -- including when we moved in together in 2003 and when we tied the knot in 2008 -- just to make sure we were still on the same page. Each time we were more and more enthusiastic about pursuing parenthood together, and finally decided to go for it in 2009. The rest is history, as they say, and our precious Max, born almost 10 months ago, is proof positive that a little dream I had in my twenties could actually become an amazing reality over a decade later.
With 10 month old Max on the 10 year anniversary of our first date