Tuesday, May 19, 2015

The Day the Music Stopped

The plans were set. The next morning I would be headed with my closest friend to say goodbye to our friend Oren Miller forever. Mother nature had other plans and unleashed an ice storm that turned my car into a popsicle.

They said the roads were covered in ice and that travelling was not a good idea. My kids' school went into panic mode and delayed opening and the mad scramble for Jeff and me, as stay at home dads, was to do whatever it took to make sure we were there.

Through the sacrifices of our wives and generous offers from friends to care for our children we somehow found a way. Though our moms were worried, we soon discovered that the roads were clear and as we made our way to Baltimore, the sun came out lighting everything covered in ice like shining diamonds. The ice and fears melted away but our apprehension remained.

I hadn't thought about what I would say to my kids before I left. I was so focused on getting there that I didn't know what I would say to my three kids and especially my four year old about why Daddy wouldn't be home when she finished school.

I told them I was saying goodbye to a friend who had died. That he was a stay at home dad and a writer like me. I told them I wanted to be there for his family and for their two kids as well. Maybe that scared them to think it might happen to me too that dads are not invincible. As with a lot of things with kids, I felt the truth was the best way to approach talking about death. It serves children better to not be lied to when it comes to death.

We've been fortunate enough to have never had to deal with it up until this point. The kids are too young to remember the passing of my uncle and we've never lost a family pet. I simplified terms for my four year old mentioning cancer and how it makes people so sick that sometimes medicine can't make them better.

"You're going to see your friend Orange, who died?" she said. My older kids laughed and tried to correct her but it made me smile to think of him with his new nickname. I thought he would appreciate it and think it was funny.

If it weren't for the final destination on our minds, this might have been a guy's road trip, just two guys in a car on their way to see their friend. A trip with Jeff usually meant we were connected to our phones or wielding a camera. Instead, we were in suits and ties headed to a funeral home representing over 1,000 dad bloggers who wished they could be there too.

We talked about his life, how we met him, the impact he had on us and our community and the importance of the Dad Bloggers group on Facebook that he started. We laughed and bullshitted, listening to music of course, and ate some Wawa subs. It's not until we stopped to get his family a card that the weight of it all came crashing down on us.

Here were two writers, sitting in a car unable to think of any words that would make this all better.

No words could describe our heavy hearts. The sobs of his wife and daughter at the service were reminders of how precious life can be, how fragile it becomes when it is wrenched from our hands too quickly.  In that instance there is no way to not think of your own family. My tears could not be contained and I wept for my friend.

At the end of the funeral, a song that I didn't recognize played. I looked over at Jeff, the ultimate musical guide and saw him nodding his head, mouthing the words in affirmation.  It showed just how important music was to Oren; how important music and notes juxtaposed could have such meaning in our lives. Jeff said "Of course he picked that song" and as we queued up to head to the cemetery, Jeff's iPod played it for us again,  I Love You But Goodbye by Langhorne Slim.

On a bitterly cold and blustery afternoon Oren was laid to rest among the iced over drifts of snow. The sun was shining but the wind howled. It was the kind of wind that cut right through you. The kind of wind that freezes you from the inside as if my heart wasn't feeling heavy enough. My legs felt disconnected as I walked over to his final resting place to scatter the earth and say a final prayer to him. "Rest in peace, my brother." is all I could manage.

Later, at their house we gathered to pay our respects and his wife showed us around. They had recently moved into the house before he got really sick and it was all still new to them. One of the reasons they loved the house was because it was wired to play music in every room.  She talked about how the house was always filled with music and how strange it was that there wasn't any at that moment. The gathering of people that was void of music marked his absence.

I returned to my kids with a renewed sense of purpose. I didn't ever want to take my moments with them for granted even the ones that absolutely drove me up the wall. I never hid talking about his passing with them. It's amazing how the mind of children can simplify the most difficult of obstacles.

My youngest daughter still talks about Oren anytime we talk about something dying. I suppose it is because she saw the way it affected me and because she in turn experienced the loss too.  We had a plant that didn't make it over the winter and she said "Maybe it is now with your friend Orange, maybe he gets to take care of it"  That's how little minds work as if nothing is impossible.

For the longest time after I was extremely sad and my daughter could see it. She came up to me when we were playing on the floor and I had tears in my eyes. "Daddy, are you sad because you miss your friend Orange?" Yes, I said. "But Daddy, all you have to do is close your eyes and you can see him."

I still listen to that song from time to time. It will undoubtedly stay with me forever just like he intended it to. We all know that feeling when you hear a song that has somehow indelibly has been etched into your very being.

It's the way that song from college reminds you of a girlfriend, that song from your wedding, your spouse. It might be your grandfather's favorite song or a lullaby your mother once sang to you. Without it, we forget but the instant it plays we remember. I think about that silence and know that all we have to do is let those songs play. In time, when silence is more than we can bear there is comfort in knowing that wherever Oren is now there is music playing and it's perfect.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Grace and Frankie : Finally A Show My Wife Will Watch With Me

After the kids go to bed, it is time for my wife and I to watch shows "together". I say "together" because we may end up in the same room but we are never really together. She is usually on her device or I am not mine, unable to make a compromise on the content.

She likes her shows and I like mine. We haven't been able to agree on many that we like to watch together. I like drama and she doesn't. If she is overwhelmed, she leaves the room and comes back for the synopsis which I have to then relay to her before the show ends. She can only handle comedy which I enjoy but after awhile I get bored of it because there isn't enough drama.

See the dilemma? We'd like to come together in the perfect marriage of drama and comedy. That's exactly what we found in a Netflix Original series Grace and Frankie which premieres on Netflix May 8th. Do you think the way we've watched TV together has drastically changed? So has the family dynamic.

In Grace and Frankie, Jane Fonda (“Grace”) and Lily Tomlin (“Frankie”) star as two women whose lives are suddenly turned upside down when their husbands reveal they are gay and leave them for each other. Both sparring partners and partners-in-crime, they form an unlikely bond to face an uncertain future together and discover a new definition of “family,” with laughter, tears and plenty of mood enhancers along the way. Together, they must face starting again in their 70s in a 21st century world.

Sounds perfect right?  With stars like Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin who we haven't seen together since 9 to 5, you know their chemistry is going to be amazing. Supported by male leads Martin Sheen and Sam Waterston this is a show that had us laughing and crying at the same time. My wife loved Lily Tomlin's character, Frankie for her no BS hippie persona which is a great contrast to Jane Fonda's straight laced socialite character Grace.

Honestly, the greatest premise of the show is the dynamic relationships built by the show's excellent writing. In secret, Sol (Waterston) and Robert (Sheen) have been building a gay relationship unbeknownst to any of their families who just assumed they were close because of their business relationship.

The series breaks new ground in the complicated relationship they have forged despite their marital ties. They both come out at a time in their lives when they feel safe sharing their true feelings for each other. Only this isn't your typical, he's been cheating and he's trading me in for a younger model. This is a true story about a blended family that proves that family is what you make it. I applaud Netflix for doing something new. We've finally found something my wife and I can watch together.

Watch Grace and Frankie on Netflix starting May 8th. You can watch the trailer below:

Why We Should Be All In : Interview With Josh Levs

AllInPhotoI just listened to the keynote speaker at my very first Dad 2.0 Summit and I was so pumped up by what he had to say that I knew I needed to talk with him. Josh Levs talked about the changing perceptions of dads in the world today and he was interested in finding out directly from the source, what that meant to them.  He told the entire room that he was in the process of writing a book and the throngs of people were queuing up just to speak with him excited to be a part of it.  Having a good father and role model growing up, I wanted to share everything I could with him and share what it meant to me as a stay at home dad.

I made my appointment with him for the next day. I was flying out of New Orleans headed back home in the afternoon and figured that would give me plenty of time to make it. Conversations went long before me. Everyone was feeling that same excitement. This was something big for the good of fatherhood. We talked for a good amount of time and when we were done Josh he asked me when my flight was. I looked at my watch sort of panicked "In about an hour and a half" was my response. "Chris, you'd better get in a taxi now!" he said, worried that I wouldn't make it home.  I did, though it was close but I knew the value of sharing what I needed to say and so does Josh Levs in his new book All In: How Our Work-First Culture Fails Dads, Families, and Businesses Alike – And How We Can Fix It Together which will be available May 12th.  I was fortunate to have a chance to return the favor by interviewing him about the book and what he discovered about the state of modern fatherhood.

CB - What experience has really opened you up to writing about the transition of the modern man from the 1950s version we are used to seeing to the versions of fatherhood now?

JL - I was covering fatherhood, and parenthood from a dad’s perspective, on air and online at CNN.  As I explain in the book, I saw all these changes happening, and when I began covering them I got tons of amazing feedback, including from other media.  I realized that this story was largely untold.  Then, the tables were turned.  I faced a discriminatory policy that prevented me from being home with my daughter (my third child) after her birth.  When I announced I was taking legal action, it was like I had unleashed the floodgates of love.  So much support came in from women’s groups and men’s groups.  I realized that those of us committed to equality -- for our daughters and sons, for our wives and husbands, and for ourselves -- are All In this together.  I came to see how our laws, policies, and stigmas are still based on that outdated 1950s vision of gender roles, and how out of touch those structures are with our real lives.  Our workplace culture needs a wakeup call.

CB - You mentioned in your book the disconnect between the business world and family. Are you finding that most corporations value the bottom line more than relationships with their employees? Are there exceptions that see the light at the end of the tunnel?

JL - I’m an optimist. I believe most business leaders want to do the right thing by their businesses and employees.  But they don’t know the facts.  Better policies that respect workers as parents -- of both genders -- improve the bottom line.  I explain this in detail in the book, and I really hope business leaders will take note.  And yes, there are some businesses leading the way.  More and more businesses are creating sensible policies (Johnson and Johnson is among the latest).  In the book I highlight some big businesses that are thriving with better policies.

CB - Why is the balance between men and women so vital to the survival of our culture?

JL - I’d say it’s vital for our culture to thrive.  As a nation, we profess to believe in equality, but our laws, policies, and stigmas prevent that happening in the workplace.  We have so few women as CEOs and in the halls of power in government.  And these policies that act as gender police are a big part of the reason -- they’re pushing men out of caregiving roles and pushing women into them.  As I show in the book, economies thrive with more gender equality.  And that’s the world I want my daughter and sons to grow up in.

CB - Women have been fighting and continue to fight for equal pay for equal work. Some males in traditional roles will argue that men, especially white men, have no reason to fight or complain about inequality in the workplace when it comes to flexibility in their jobs. What would you say to those men?

JL - First, let me emphasize that very few men think that way.  Today’s dads who live with our children are very involved in family life when they’re home.  But they’re experiencing a lot of work-life conflict -- even more so than women, according to one study.  Many men who are fathers want more time at home with their families.   Many women want to have more time to pursue their careers.  So all those of us committed to equality stand together.  And that includes on equal pay -- men have as much at stake in that as women do, because men have every reason to want their wives to be able to make as much for the same work, so that the family has choices about how to structure their lives!  Plus, it’s just obviously the right thing to do, and men want this for our daughters and sons.

Yes, there are people who say men should not speak out on these issues.  And there are men who feel that when they do, they are told not to because they come from a place of privilege.  But as numerous women -- including actress Emma Watson, at the U.N. -- are pointing out, men must join these conversations.  All In is designed to help that happen in a big way.  We have the incredible legacy of the women’s rights movement to build on.

CB - What did you learn about stay at home dads when it came to asking questions about raising their children in an environment that often doesn’t see them as equal, competent parents?

JL - This is a place in which individuals all over the country can make a big difference in their communities.  Every dad, including me, has stories of being the one dad on the playground, or at storytime, or singalong or some other such activity, with a group of moms who are wary of him and don’t talk to him.  As Sheryl Sandberg says in the interview for my book, she always makes an effort to play with the dad.  Men and women need to get past the false suggestions that dads are untrustworthy, or for that matter incompetent.  This is also why there’s a section in All In that focuses on media and the portrayals of dads in fiction and news.

CB - Why is there such a gap when it comes to paid paternity leave? Does our society not put much value in a father’s impact on their children?

JL -It’s the same with the U.S. being the only nation with an advanced economy and no paid maternity leave.  It’s all based on the same false assumptions; that women should stay home (so who needs their salary?) and men should bring home the bacon (so why do they need paternity leave?).  It’s ridiculous and has to be rectified.  This thinking is hurting our businesses, our entire economy, women, men, and most importantly, children.

CB - At the end of some of your chapters, you give clear steps for the reader to follow to achieve certain goals that they can apply to their own lives. Have you found that people want to make a difference and often don’t know how to make it happen?

JL - Yes!  And I love that.  People are always asking for concrete steps, so I have laid out very clear step-by-step lists in the book.  Most people have never been told how these systems work or what rights, protections, and options they have.  I’ve learned through experience.  (Time Warner revolutionized its policy, making it much better for dads like me and for biological moms, as a result of my case.)  People get frustrated with Washington for good reason.  But here’s something big that we can make happen on a national level.  We can get this done.  (Hence the chapter title “Let’s Do This.”)

CB - What is so important about redefining our current world’s view on what makes someone masculine?

JL - False and outdated views about masculinity are at the core of these problems.  If you have children, being a committed and involved father is the manliest thing you’ll ever do.  Those who hold the power over our laws, policies, and stigmas need to understand that so we can all move forward.  Some Neanderthals, as I write in the book, are trying desperately to hold onto the old ways.  It’s important that we all reject that vociferously.

CB - We’ve begun to see a shift in the media away from the doofus dad. How important is it for brands to move away from that stereotype?

JL - Essential! Images of fathers are relevant to the public mindset.  Those stereotypes affect cultural thinking.  Some of the dads quoted in the book believe, by being active and involved, they’re the exceptions.  Even they don’t realize that they’re the norm!  The doofus dad imagery sends the message that men are less capable at home.  It sends bad messages to boys and girls.  Time to end it.

CB - What are some major ways we as men can be All In for our families?
JL - Being All In is about being empowered.  It’s about taking steps to improve life for yourself and your family.  There are things we can do in the workplace, in the public sphere, in our individual attitudes, and at home to make all that happen.  Rather than give you all the specifics here, let me just say: It’s in the book! :)

CB - Your book releases on May 12th. Where is it going to be available for purchase?

JL - Everywhere books are sold!  Also available via download.  See all this and more at Josh Levs.com

Josh Levs is the author of All In: How Our Work-First Culture Fails Dads, Families, and Businesses Alike – And How We Can Fix It Together, published by HarperOne, an imprint of HarperCollins Book Publishers, May 2015, RRP $25.99 hardcover.