The Steal

Everyone else in the gym witnessed a simple steal; a move seen dozens of times during a basketball games. It was the first game of the season. The fact that the steal happened so soon in the beginning of this game was unexpected. Jake instinctively saw the opposing team guard hesitate and he pounced. He snagged the ball as the guard transitioned it to his other hand. This was a big moment.  The only two people that knew how big were me and Jake. This was Jake’s first game, his first time on the court with a team, his first time ever playing organized basketball.

That one steal, was the exciting culmination of an eight-month journey. Jake pulled me aside in the spring last year. “Dad, I need to play on a basketball team, my schoolyard game is pretty good.” The fact that Jake sprouted up six and half inches in less than year meant that the basketball gods were calling. A six-foot one fourteen-year-old in eighth grade grabs attention. It was time.

I had played some basketball in middle school and high school. My game was simple. I was the wide-bodied player you’d put in to fill the lane. I could knock frenzied guards off their feet. No matter how tall your center was, my linebacker skills guaranteed players would get knocked around. I was a brick wall on the court. I was naturally good at basketball, just not fast. Like every father, I needed to dig deep and reach back to find the parquet polished wisdom to teach my son the finer points of this quintessential American game.

You don’t get far in coaching basketball without channeling the ghost of John Wooden. Wooden was the esteemed coach at UCLA . Wooden coached the team to 10 NCAA national championships in 12 years. My mentor Bennett Sims would regularly throw “Woodisms” into his conversations. “Good things take time.” “We shouldn’t expect good things to happen overnight.” “Getting something too easily or too soon can cheapen the outcome.”

Jake and I started training on a warm day last May, right after school. The court was just behind the neighborhood center a few blocks from our house. At first I thought this asphalt court was going to be awful for training. A hundred-year-old Oak provided a nice canopy over the court. The tree roots bubbled up through the fractured asphalt. What we quickly found the roots provided several excellent tripping points. Eventually, these minor court hazards became tactile markers for future game winning shots. The biggest problem was that the asphalt had the texture of a cheese grater. One fall and the first and second layers of skin came right off of a knee or a hand. I believe this is why nobody played on the court, and for these same reasons we loved it. The Phinney Neighborhood Court became our new home.

Easily a hundred games were played in eight months. Jake excelled. At first he could not dribble and then he mastered swinging the ball around his back and through his legs. Jake’s shot looked like he was holding a large watermelon and throwing it over his head. After some course correction Jake had the arm extension of Hondo Havlicek. I would let him make easy shots near the basket to build his confidence. Every game the score got tighter and tighter. Jake’s objective was just to make the Varsity try outs. I thought he would be lucky to get a spot on the bench.

As the fall arrived, coolness hit the Phinney Neighborhood court. I found that I could not keep up. I’m not sure when it happened. I got winded. Jake began to out play and out shoot me. The master could not beat the student.

Jake tried out for the team. He got asked back for the second set of try outs. A week later the coach took him aside. “You made the Varsity team and I’d like you to be one of my starters.” Magic. You would have thought Jake had won an Oscar. Now Jake got serious. He had to get ready to play the season.

The Steal happened in the first game and that was only one of two games they lost during the season. Jake played consistently well. Occasionally the starting point guard would have to gently nudge him to be in the right place on the court. Jake’s attitude was simple. He was filled with gratitude. Jake was amazed he was actually on a team.

By mid-season I noticed Jake was getting slightly nervous before each game. In the car ride to one of the games I told him “hey pal, fear is a good motivator. I once read about three steps to evaporate fear. First see the fear as a dark murky cloud in front of you. Say to yourself “Bring It On!” then imagine yourself cutting through the cloud and then say to yourself ‘fear sets me free.” I had Jake’s attention. “Once you’re on the other side of the cloud, say I love fear!” Jake closed his eyes. “Dad can we put on Jay Z’s Gotta Have It? “ He was set. Jake came up to me at half time, “Dad those steps are awesome.” He was not nervous the rest of the season.

They made the playoffs. In game one, of the All-City Tournament, they lost by two points in the last five seconds of the game. Jake had five steals and three blocked shots. He was the big man in the center.

At the end of the game, with tears streaming down Jake’s face I reminded him that he just played the toughest team in the city. They were undefeated last year. Many of the kids had been playing together since they were five. Eight months earlier Jake could never have imagined starting in a tournament let alone having that many steals and blocked shots. “I’m so proud of your commitment. Your pure commitment and drive” Jake got silent. I looked at him. “I’m so proud of you.” He looked back. “You know it is pretty neat.”  Wooden was right “it’s the little details that are vital. Little things make big things happen.” Pretty neat.

Broken: A Nine Month Writer’s Block

Nine months. It has taken me nine months to write this blog post. I’ve spent a lot of quiet nights looking at a bright white, blank page. I’ve just sat looking at that blinking cursor bouncing on my screen unable to conjure up one word. Over one year ago this blog was started so that I could track my son’s development from his twelve birthday to his Bar Mitzvah. It was a marathon. I ran the blog hard. A book popped out from my effort. Unfortunately, one foot from the finish line I stopped. Why? Simple really, I could not find the right words to express my pride and admiration for my son Jake. Until now.

For the uninitiated, a Bar Mitzvah ritual can be a brutal undertaking. Just after a kid turns ten, Parents get their son or daughter’s Bar(Boy)/Bat(Girl) Mitzvah date from their Rabbi. A tutor is hired. A year from their Bar Mitzvah date, the pre-teen is required to meet with their Tutor at least once a week. These sessions go on for the entire year. Add to the Tutoring commitment, your kid must attend Hebrew School on Tuesday nights and Sunday mornings. The family is required to meet with the Rabbi once a month, prior to the service.

Once ready, there is generally a large two hour service that is a mixture of English and Hebrew. The thirteen year old is required to lead the service, and the newly minted teen is required to read from the Torah in Hebrew. Then they must deliver an old style sermon in English based on the Hebrew text. This all happens in front of hundreds of their family, friends and Jewish community. Believe me, Jewish teens earn that party.

Jake turned thirteen on August 5th. Saturday, September 17th, was his big day. Jake put the work in. As you know, from earlier posts, Jake decided to sacrifice a baseball season and other hobbies to make his Bar Mitzvah a priority. Jake took it seriously. He treated it like a job. Jake quickly learned his Hebrew. With the prayers on his iPod, it was customary to hear Jake sing off-key to the monotone voice of his Israeli tutor. Over the summer, every other day at Jewish summer camp Jake met with the Rabbi to go over the Torah teaching and work over his Hebrew pronunciation.

One month out, I put a big white Crate & Barrel box on the dining room table. We began to rehearse every word of the entire ceremony, every single day. This prep helped Jake get used to being on his feet speaking from a podium. At the formal rehearsal with the Rabbi in the synagogue Lisa hit the wall. It was ninety-six hours prior to the Bar Mitzvah. All the family preparations and party stress were consuming her. Jake saw that she was nervous. After we finished with the Rabbi, Jake took her aside, “Mom. Stop worrying about the service. I GOT this. You worry about the party and the family.”

Family began arriving on Friday night. Jake did not get distracted from his duties, as some teens might be expected to do. Instead, Jake spent time with every out-of-town guest. He thanked each of them for making the trip and taking the time to come for him and our family. I found myself bewildered. I would stand on the sidelines, listening to this child, not speaking like a teen but like a young man. He would engage in thoughtful conversation with humor, clarity and maturity. It was an out-of-body experience for me. I kept having flashbacks of him as a toddler and a baby. At one point, I even imagined that I felt the weight of his eleven pound, eight oz. baby body in my arms.

On the Saturday of the service, we made sure to tell the family to the Synagogue two hours early for family photos. You can take pictures before, just not during the service. This was the very first moment I got stressed. My father, who is always late, called from the Temple as I was tying my tie at home. “We’re here. All of us. Where are you guys?” With that, I was launched into a panic. We rushed out the door. Of course, every moron that should’ve had their driver’s license revoked happened to be on the road in front of me on our normal 18 minute drive to the Temple. Yes, I yelled, and loudly. Worse than that, I cursed like a New York City cabbie with Tourette’s. We arrived at the Synagogue in 12 mins. I dropped off the ladies in front because they had heels. I searched for parking. Calmly, from the back seat I heard “Dad… Dad. Don’t stress. It’s going to be a great day. Let’s have some fun.”

Every single moment from that moment is so fresh in my mind. I have television-like recall of that entire day; from sitting on the stage and seeing a sea of smiling faces to hearing the creaking sound of the divider opening to allow access to the overflow room, we were beyond capacity. Jake sang the Jewish prayers with perfect pitch. It was such a sight having Jake’s four grandfathers standing shoulder-to-shoulder behind him with pride and seeing Lisa’s father holding the Torah. Our entire community joined us in the Hora as we held hands and danced around the congregation. There were so many pure and blissful moments.

In our synagogue the Rabbi allows a parent to say three sentences at the end of Jake’s Torah portion. It is the moment he is ready to be accepted into the Jewish tradition as a man. Here is what I said:

“Today could be one of the proudest days of my life. You amaze me every day. Look out there. I love the relationships you have with so many people sitting in this audience. I love the man you are becoming. I can’t wait to see the positive impact and change you bring to this world. I feel so grateful that you are my son and that I get to be your Father. I love you so much.”

My best friends from New York and LA were in their seats exchanging $1 and $5 bills with our northwest friends betting that I would cry. I did not cry.

The Bar Mitzvah party was spectacular. When people arrived, 2 extra-large photos of Jake faced them, his eyes in one and his marvelous smile in another. A video projector streamed pictures from Jake’s life. The DJ sourced the music from Jake’s playlist that included everything from Al Green and James Brown to Justin Bieber and Rihanna. You were not invited to this party if you did not dance.

There was food and drink galore. Early in the evening, the kids had hot dogs from Dante’s Hot Dog cart. We made sure that there were jars and jars of colored jelly beans and gummy bears in the corner. Tubs of ice were filled with organic soda of every flavor. Gourmet hamburgers from Skillet were served up for the adults. Every twenty minutes I timed something to happen. Smoke on the dance floor to lasers at the end of the night. Games, games, games, a photo booth with a dress up chest churning out old school photos strips and there was only one break. No speeches or candle lighting just a 3 minute video I did for Jake. It took months to edit, complete with a 683 picture montage of Jake growing before your eyes. No awkward family microphone fumbling. We went back to the dancing. At 9pm I threw open the doors and there was Molly Moon’s Ice Cream truck. There was some major shrieking.

Every single person connected to the party setup had a personal connection to Jake. Our dear friends David North and Steve Quinn were on the ladders with Ed Fotheringham to helping install his art work and put the lights around the walls of the space. Ed’s remarkable wife Becky nursed us through the entire event process to the bitter end with her terrific party event skills. Becky kept Lisa from having a nervous breakdown. My Uncle Jack set up the tables with Becky’s kids helping and our dear Robin’s flowers arrangements anointing every table. Skillet was remarkable with the catering. Add the fantastic DJ Bryan Kretz (who set up a Studio 54 lighting with 3 of his guys) + our friend Molly Moon and my buddy Dante and his Hot Dogs. Everyone knew Jake. It was personal. Even our Portland pals, Ned and Louise, provided a personally prepared brunch for our traveling guests at the hotel the following morning. I will say it again. Everyone did it for Jake. He knew it too. Jake was so appreciative.

The Bar Mitzvah experience was so pure and joyful. I would get as far as the keyboard and freeze. It is as if that weekend and that shared moment was so sacred that somehow if I contextualized the experience I would pollute its meaning.  I was worried that writing about it would somehow fog the windows of my memory. So I just chose not to write.

I’ve finally found the words. It has not changed the meaning of the day. Now I shared it with you. Now I feel like you were all there with us. Jake owned it.

Growing Up

The car windows are wide open. Jake turns down Jay-Z. “Dad? Last year when you took me to camp?” He turns toward me in the passenger seat.
Yeah? I reply.
“How times did you have to pull over?”
What do you mean?
“How times did you have to pull over??”
You mean for coffee?
“No, after you dropped me off at the Camp???”
…You mean pull over for gas? I close the windows to shield us from the summer heat.
“Just tell me.”
Okay. I had to pull over twice. Yep, I lost it. I was a mess.
“That’s what I thought.”
Does that embarrass you?
“Nope. Not at all. I actually love that about you.”
Then Jake reaches over turns up Jay-Z’s “Dirt Off Your Shoulder.”

It is the stone cold silence that hits me first. A quiet in the house where I can hear a City Bus five blocks away or the giggling conversation of two lycra-dressed mothers on a power walk, happy to have a few minutes away from their families. As I listen, suddenly our home feels like a fish tank. My heart and head searching for the faint remembrance for that toy that may have rolled under the couch, or kid’s shoes strategically placed in the major causeway that always trip me up. I find myself yearning for that distant call for attention – “Hey Dad!”

Nothing. The nest is empty. Now, this nest, our home is just a wood frame filled with stuff, not the usual memory factory.  A factory filled with Jake and Lily laughter. A wonderful place filled with their unexpected observations. Case in point, Lily’s recent comment to Jake – “When you have your first kiss, I want to be there.” Lily had witnessed most of Jake’s important moments in our house and it seemed natural to her she wouldn’t miss his first kiss. Yes, her comment drew hearty laugh and encouraging smiles.

My boy is away for two weeks. Luckily, Lily is with him. I have a profound sense of happiness and gratitude knowing that I can provide this opportunity for them. I know Jake will have a terrific set of experiences. All of his Hebrew School buddies are in his cabin. He is about to make bonds of a lifetime. I am just learning that I am not always going to be there. Maybe Lily and I both have a little growing up to do.

Do You Realize

It is never good to hear a phone ring at one in the morning. Saturday night had just faded into Sunday morning. The tear-soaked voice on the other end of the line was my sixty-nine year old father telling me his “Daddy” just died. My grandpa was ninety-six. His ailing heart had had enough. At 12:15am Edward John Rehfeldt Jr. took his last breath.

Jake woke up the next morning and came into the bedroom. He looked at my face. Jake knew. “Great Grandpa is dead.” To the ears of a twelve year-old,  those words must ring with a stark finality. For Jake, this is his second direct experience with death. Five years ago we lost my grandmother. Death is not like in a Harry Potter movie. Some dark cloud does not swirl over your house and then, like crows born from a black hole, dark, cloak-draped skeletons descend from the heavens to look for you and your sick loved one.

In “real life”,  the news of a death comes simply, like a stray dog that walks into your back door unannounced. The information and the facts arrive in the most pedestrian way: a telephone ringing.

Lately Jake has been obsessed with listening to the Flaming Lips. Since we heard the news, I’ve caught Jake twice singing in the shower. The tune?  The Flaming Lips song is “Do You Realize.” Actually Jake has been singing it all week. In the shower, in the car and up in his room. At one point, while I was making dinner and I stopped to listen to him.  Then I finally heard these words:
Do You Realize – that you have the most beautiful face
Do You Realize – we’re floating in space
Do You Realize – that happiness makes you cry
Do You Realize – that everyone you know someday will die
And instead of saying all of your goodbyes – let them know
You realize that life goes fast
It’s hard to make the good things last
You realize the sun doesn’t go down
It’s just an illusion caused by the world spinning round

At twenty-five, I experienced losing my beautiful, graceful mother. Jake’s sweet voice brings back wonderful memories of my mother and grandparents and the terrific pain of their losses. I believe that love is transferred from us into the lives of others. When I Jake sings I know this could not be more true.

He is Taller

He is taller. As tall as my wife. When none of Jake’s friends are around he still slips his hand into mine. We will walk down the street holding hands. “Dad, I don’t want to grow up.” For those brief moments I flash backward: Jake sleeps in my arms. It is the first night of his life. His five macaroni sized fingers grasping my pinky. As we walk now, his long digits envelop my hand. I struggle to push away the thought of my boy as a man.

The spring season draws to a close. The days grow considerably longer in the Northwest. 10:00 pm is sunset. Jake and I often find ourselves in my two-seater truck at magic hour. It is my favorite time of the day. The truck windows are down and occasionally the dwindling sun glistens across his forehead. In that instant, I see my little Jake running to meet me down a long hallway. I see his cherub face looking up from his crib. Cut to: Jake in his “grown-up” bed. Pint sized Jake jumps on his mattress, excited for snuggles.

Snap – back. We are in the truck and the burnt orange-hues swipe across his forehead as his hair ruffles from the wind of the open window. In this moment, I see the Man. The Man he is becoming: a large heart, an enchanting smile, bushy hair and wonderful good looks.

I want Jake to stay frozen in time. As we walk together laughing we chat about Zach Galifinakis. I realize in that moment I will soon be able to turn Jake on to the humor of Animal House and the mastery of The Godfather. I’ve worked hard to teach him how to “watch” films and “hear” music. He just saw Terrence Malick’s “Tree of Life.” After the film finished Jake was pensive. “Dad the film was like visual poetry.” Exactly. Hmm… There is a whole new world for us to discover together.

I am amazed. How did I become a father to such a remarkable boy? Fifteen years ago all I could hear the Doctor say was “you might never be able to have children.” That day, his hollow statement echoed off the antiseptic linoleum floor straight into my broken thirty-four year old heart. Miraculously, here I am now, zipping toward the fading sun in my 1996 Toyota truck listening to my sweet Jake loudly belt back CSNY “Helpless Hoping” with perfect pitch, word for word. I think how fortunate I am. How I need to fight everyday to live life with grace and gratitude.

Don’t Stop Believin

I caught Jake whistling this riff  “Every-body-was-Kung-Fu Fighting…” What chopsocky disco-virus has polluted my son’s brain? Yes, my twelve year-old knows every note to the 1974 Carl Douglas hit. How is this possible? We have a dedicated sonic soundtrack piped in daily from KEXP. The radio station hums 24-7 inside our home. The station is our northwest arbiter of musical taste. If you walk by our house on any given day you will inevitably hear the distant interior echo of alt-country or Moroccan rap or urban Rockabilly music. ‘70’s disco, is rarely heard. I am puzzled.

I’ve started to realize that a parent’s media and art choices can define a kid. Jake was in Spanish class and there was an active discussion about the word  “concesión” or in English, “grant”.  Some kids were trying to get a handle on the usage of the word as a noun or a verb. Jake piped up from the back to remind everyone that the word can also be someone’s name. “Like Cary Grant, you know, the movie star that starred in ‘Philadelphia Story’ with Katherine Hepburn.” Later Jake told me exasperated “Dad, I couldn’t believe it. All the kids in the class had blank faces. I was like, come on, how do you not know who Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn are???”

When kids are toddlers, parents are told to encourage their child to move to the beat of music and dance with them. My wife was dedicated to a Mommy’s Group that taught pre-verbal munchkins simple children’s songs such as “The Itsy Bitsy Spider” and “Mary Had A Little Lamb.” How the hell did Jake pick up Thelonius Monk? I nearly swerved of the road one Saturday afternoon when a mixed playlist I had made shuttled to “Round Midnight.” “Hey Dad, is that Thelonius Monk?” How did you know that? I asked. “I don’t know, NPR?” Amazing. Our kid’s brains are like a vast memory chip that is always on. Our parental squawk box is etching permanently into our kid’s brains. Sort of scary and wonderful if you think about it.

Then it dawns on me that it all makes sense. Jake has his mother’s knack for Instant-Recall. My wife can hear 3 bars of a song and tell you who is singing, what song it is, when it was first recorded and possibly the name of the producer and the label. As a dyslexic, I’m happy when I can remember my name. When Jake was four we stood in line near the register at Starbucks and a track play lightly in the background. “Daddy, that sounds like Lucinda Williams.” “No honey, I don’t think so.” When I turned to order from the lip-pierced barista’s mouth was agape – “Sir, whoa, that is Lucinda.” I guess Jake has my wife’s genes.

As I write this, I hear my son getting ready for school. It is the same morning fire drill, every day: lunches struggle to be made and homework is soon to be not forgotten. Jake goes into the bathroom to brush his hair. The door slowly drifts closed and I hear … “Don’t stop believin’ — Hold on to that feelin’.” I stop. Journey? Really? Journey.

Oh well.

Zine Dreams

Jake stands twenty feet away from the Sonic Boom Records counter. He has his zine “Worldopolis” in one hand. He and one of his best friends created the 30 page comic by hand. I nudge him to go for it. He approaches the sweet twenty-year-old hipster behind the counter. She is just finishing with another customer. “Hi, my name is Jake and I created this zine, (nervously stammering) would you, could I, sell my zine in your store?” “Let me take a look.” She leafs through the pages of twelve year boy humor complete with celebrity caricatures, intestine sized mazes and, of course,  the cornerstone of the Zine: a retelling of the world’s destruction in 2012.

Wow, this is great. How much were you wanting to sell it for? “$3, it takes $2.60 to make it at Kinko’s and we want to make a little bit of a profit.” “We sell our zines for $4.99 , is that price good for you? We take a $1 on every copy, you keep the rest. I will take five copies.” “That’s great.” Jake’s face lights up.  He looks like he just got shot out of a roman candle. An entrepreneur is born.

It started with doodles. When the distinctive artwork got shared, Jake and his friend comfortably made suggestions to one another about things that could be improved. They enjoy working together. They quickly realized that they were on to something. They put together an approach. 2012, the end of the Mayan calendar and the destruction of the world would be their MAD magazine banner. One of the other kids suggested that they should ink-in the pencil drawings. He became the inker. Another kid had some ideas about how the issue could get laid out and prepped for printing at Kinko’s. Jake made him the Managing Editor. The first issue came out with limited parental interference. The boys are now running an operation that is in it’s third issue.

The apocalyptic theme of “Worldopolis” interests me greatly. For a twelve-year-old, the world they hear about comes from the random dispatches on NPR or scant threads of political conversations their parents have on their phones or around the dinner table. It is a world fraught with tsunamis, earthquakes, terrorist agendas and political hate speak. I ask Jake why they chose that theme. “Dad, the Mayan’s believe that 2012 will be the end of the world. We thought we could make fun of that fear.” Do you worry about your future? “I don’t want to grow up. It’s too scary out there. I want to stay a kid a while. The zine helps us poke fun at all that responsibility.  We know we have to face it when we grow up. It is fun to do and it makes us laugh.”

When kids are young we try to keep them from media. When Jake was three he mistakenly heard the news account of a couple holding hands as they stepped out of the 105th floor of the World Trade Center to their deaths on 9-11. My wife still recounts how she heard his little voice from the backseat of the car – “Mommy why did those people have to jump out of the building? The driver of that plane needs to say he’s sorry”

As adults we constantly push our children to stand up straight and listen. We want them to be responsible. We fill their heads with a playbook of the life that we think they should hear. Our fear is that they will repeat our mistakes. Contained in our cautionary speak is an inner dialogue about the parallel road they should avoid and ways we think they should behave. Our world is so damn complex –  even for an adult. I’ve pulled back from putting so much on Jake’s shoulders. All things, in due time. I’ve learned to listen and watch closely to what my son says or draws. I’m astounded by the wisdom contained in a simple zine.