Finding Goodness in Unexpected Places

“Someone give me some good news,” she said.

She wasn’t exasperated; she didn’t have that frustrated edge to her voice that people often have when they’ve been hearing nothing but terrible things for an extended period of time. The sigh she let out as she spoke hinted more at resignation than anger. Her request sounded as though she had all but given up the fight against negativity and was grasping for one last moment of hope to remain grounded.

I didn’t blame her for trying to lift the mood in the room; the office lunchroom conversation had not exactly been pleasant. It had been relatively short and the subject matter may not have held the same overbearing weight as the headlines screaming from the newspaper lying in the middle of the table. Still, discussing a coworker’s week-long struggles with digestive issues and the various challenges that go along with planning one’s wedding were enough to start bringing her down and she’d had enough.

“I don’t necessarily have good news,” I answered. “But how about an adorable picture?”

She smiled and nodded vigorously. I scrolled quickly through the photos on my phone, selected a shot I’d taken earlier that week of my children sharing a milkshake and passed the phone across the table. I grinned as she began kvelling; I mentioned that I could not believe the similarities in their faces, from the outlines of their noses to the curves of their cheeks to the shapes their lips formed as they puckered around their straws. She asked with a knowing smile if they love each other and I couldn’t answer yes emphatically enough.

I was glad that I had been able to help her smile at that moment but her request stuck with me through the rest of the day. I couldn’t begin to count the number of times recently when all I’ve wanted was for someone to show me something positive. The news has been one terrible thing after another after another. I pass multiple homeless people every day as I make my way through the city. I work with children who are doing their best to handle significant mental illnesses, many of which are as heartbreaking as they are scary.

Still, somehow, we keep breathing, keep moving, keep pushing through.

I made my phone calls and home visits during the rest of the afternoon, my coworker’s request periodically re-entering my consciousness. My wife and children had spent the day in the city with friends and I went to meet them when my visits were finished. Their faces lit up when they saw me and I had a passing thought that I had found my own personal piece of “good news.” We remained in the city for some time longer and then made our way through the evening rush hour crowds to take the subway home.

The subway had just started moving when I heard someone singing from the other side of the car. I couldn’t see him clearly through the commuters standing between us but I caught glimpses of his face. His skin was dark but his smile shone, practically eclipsing the pale fluorescent train lights. It was difficult to make out the songs over the murmurs of the other passengers and my daughter’s ongoing commentary (“Train! Ride train!”). I could tell that the people around him enjoyed it, though; their applause sounded more enthusiastic than the soft, polite claps I was used to hearing for subway performances.

The man began moving toward our side of the car, asking for donations as he weaved slowly between the other passengers. He stepped gingerly past our stroller, careful to protect his guitar from hitting the handles or the people sitting nearby. The family of tourists behind us said that they had not heard him playing and he began strumming immediately.

“Don’t worry… about a thing,” he sang.

I smiled, quickly recognizing the Bob Marley song. Shayna motioned for me to pick her up so she could get a better look at the musician. I planted my feet to balance her weight with that of my work bag and the movement of the train and hoisted her into my arms. I leaned in next to her ear and joined in softly.

“‘Cause every little thing… is gonna be all right.”

I leaned back against the subway pole and turned slightly so that Shayna could see the man with the guitar without having to look over my shoulder. The man returned her gaze as he sang, his warm smile continuing to shine.

“Don’t worry… about a thing,” the man sang again as he returned to the chorus. This time, though, I harmonized with him loudly enough for everyone near us to hear.

“‘Cause every little thing… is gonna be all right.”

Shayna giggled and smiled back, captivated with our duet. The man’s eyebrows rose briefly from the surprise of having an unexpected partner but his expression shifted quickly back to enthusiastic joy. We finished the song together and I passed him some money as he thanked me for joining in. He gave me a fist-bump and one last gracious smile before moving into the next subway car to perform for a fresh audience.

Positivity

I found myself thinking of my coworker again. She was right; the world seems so often like it’s crumbling around us that it’s difficult to find reasons to keep a positive attitude. That train ride made a difference, though. My kids saw their father sharing an interaction with a man who came from very different circumstances, not least of which had to do with the color of his skin. I felt good about providing an example for the way I expect my children to treat others, especially those less fortunate than we are. And, as for my singing companion, I can only hope that he appreciated my joining with him in what I assume was one of his lower moments.

There is still good news around; sometimes we just have to spread our own.


The “Reasons to Stay Positive” graphic was borrowed with permission from the creator, Ms. Dani DiPirro. Follow her @PositivelyPresent on Instagram.

More Questions Than Answers

I never saw it coming.

I was the adult authority figure for a group of eleven-year-olds but, on this particular morning and in this particular dance session, I was just another participant.1 The teacher was leading a traditional Israeli dance and had our group standing in a circle, holding hands. The boy to my left was often a grudging participant and today was no different. He let go of my hand the moment there was a break in the music, complained to me about hating dancing and maintained a sullen expression throughout the session. I was used to a certain amount of resistance during the dance sessions from the kids, especially the boys, but my patience was starting to wear thin. During one of the breaks in the music, I finally stopped requesting and instructed the boy, somewhat sternly, to give me his hand.

The boy turned to face me. His hands were covered by his sleeves, which he had stretched over his fingers. They remained by his sides but I imagined them balled into fists underneath the fabric. He stared up at me, his face a perfect combination of anger and defiance, and his eyes narrowed ever so slightly as he spoke.

“Aaron, I’m not gay.”

I think I managed to keep my reaction neutral but, honestly, I’m not sure. I know my eyebrows raised sharply but I hope that was it. This felt like a critical teaching moment and I didn’t want to mess it up by overreacting or launching into a tirade about the ridiculousness of believing that an activity like dancing can “turn someone gay.” Also, we were still in the middle of the session and I wasn’t sure who else had heard him. The worst thing would have been for me to make a bigger deal out of this comment and end up embarrassing him in front of his peers. But I also didn’t want to just ignore it.

I took a quick breath and exhaled.

“That has nothing to do with anything right now,” I said in what I hope came across as an even tone. “Now, please give me your hand so we can finish the dance.”

He lifted his arm but did not take his hand out of his sleeve. I took hold of the fabric as a compromise and dropped the subject.

The rest of the session was uneventful. The dance lasted another minute or two before the teacher moved on to other line dances that did not involve physical contact. My mind was still flooded with thoughts and questions, though. Did I handle the moment correctly? I wanted to acknowledge that his comment was significant; it was certainly important for him that I knew he was not gay. But, even so, I did not want to validate any suspicion he might have had about a connection between dancing and homosexuality. Plus, I, myself, am not gay, but why should that even matter? I could have said, “Neither am I,” before asking for his hand again but I didn’t want to give the impression that I agreed with any premise that being gay was a “bad thing.”

There was more to deal with here than just my reaction, though. How had he even come to the conclusion that being gay would be something to be ashamed of? Was it a function of mainstream media continuing to perpetuate stereotypes and biases against anything outside of the heteronormative box? Was his concern a manifestation of anti-LGBT sentiments he had learned from his parents? Does this boy actually think about the way his friends and society will perceive every action takes and worry that someone will think he is gay? For that matter, was he actually ashamed of the idea that someone might consider him to be gay for holding a man’s hand during a group dance or was I projecting that feeling onto him?

I kept grasping for answers to these questions, looking for some logical way to explain the boy’s comment and whatever my next step should be in addressing it. Even if the moment had passed, there had to be some other action I was supposed to take, some other comment I was supposed to make, some other thing for me to do. His comment was short but it was important and disappointing and powerful. As a social worker who specializes in working with children and families, didn’t I have a duty to speak up against these kinds of opinions, to teach young adults how to adjust to their world, to impart the wisdom I’ve gained from life experience? I couldn’t just sit back and allow him to keep thinking… whatever he was thinking. Could I?

In the end, I left the moment alone. I didn’t say anything else about the boy’s comment in the moment and I didn’t try to speak to him in private about it. I told myself that I would have done more if we had a different relationship; if I were his social worker or his counselor or his teacher, I would be in a better position to have that conversation. My thoughts would be more impactful and he would trust me more if I were in a different position. I didn’t think I had the type of emotional capital with him that I would have needed for my words to hold any weight. I decided that I would speak with him more closely if the topic came up again in the future, particularly if I could work it into a larger discussion involving some of his peers. It may not have been the right decision but it’s the decision I ended up with.

Either way, I’m still asking questions.


1. You can read my other posts involving dancing here and here.

Fitting In at Dad 2.0 Summit

It had been a warm day.

I had expected the temperature to be higher in New Orleans than at home in New York, but even I was surprised to feel uncomfortable in anything more than a t-shirt. I’d spent the afternoon by myself, making my way through the French Quarter to buy souvenirs for my wife and children before the conference started. I ended up with a fair-sized haul: Mardi Gras masks, a pair of t-shirts and a children’s book for my kids, plus a cookbook and beignet mix for my wife. I was sweating by the time I returned to the hotel because I had been walking quickly, weaving through the other passersby walking slower than me; an hour and a half in the Big Easy was hardly enough to shake my New York City impatience.

It was around two hours later when the tone was set for the rest of my time at my first Dad 2.0 Summit. I had traded my sneakers and t-shirt for loafers and a button-down and finally put some food in my stomach (I had barely eaten since putting down a cheap sandwich at the airport). I found myself standing in the hotel courtyard with what must have been over one hundred other conference attendees. I was exchanging pleasantries with one of the few people I had met face to face before when I felt a tap on my shoulder.

The man was a few inches shorter than me and looked to be a year or two older. His hands had been shoved into his pockets and he gave a sort of half-smirk as he looked me in the eye. I recognized him as one of the other dad bloggers with whom I’d had countless conversations online, between our shared contributions to Dads Round Table and more general interactions in the dad blogger Facebook group.

“Hi, I’m Aaron,” I said as I extended my hand.

He glanced quickly at my offer but his hands didn’t move from his pockets.

“Don’t try to introduce yourself and shake my hand like I don’t know who you are,” he said. The half-smirk spread to the rest of his face as if to say, What’s wrong with you?

“Er– okay,” I said nervously, bringing my hand back to my side. I had never been so thankful to be holding a drink in my other hand.

“Hi John. It’s nice to finally meet you in person,” I said, trying a different tack.

His smile became more genuine and the conversation took a more natural turn. We began speaking about our respective flights, our families at home and our latest online projects. He shared his insights from having attended previous conferences and gave me some suggestions about pacing myself and taking notes because there was going to be a lot to take in.

I had no idea how right he was.

A few days later, after returning home to my family, my job(s) and the rest of reality, I’ve finally been able to start processing my experiences over the last week. I’ve begun reviewing my notes from the different workshops, updating my social media profiles according to the suggestions I received and thinking about strategies for solidifying the connections I made with brand representatives at the conference. I’m doing my best to stick to a plan, rather than just throwing things at a wall and hoping something sticks, but it’s still been somewhat slow going.

Through it all, though, I keep coming back to that moment on Thursday night when John tapped me on the shoulder. I had similar interactions with dozens of other people during the course of the weekend. I would offer my hand and introduce myself, their eyes would light up with recognition and they would respond by either shaking my hand or wrapping me up in a bear hug.

The most jarring part was getting used to the idea that I could fit in with these other people,1 most of whom were much more experienced in this world than I. Some of them had turned their blogs into genuine revenue streams and were able to leverage their brand connections into amazing experiences for their families. Some of them had been professional writers, working as newspaper reporters and broadcast journalists; one was even the founder and managing editor of a magazine. These people had built social networks, parenting organizations and baby gear businesses and I… well, I consider it an accomplishment if I publish a new blog post each week.

None of the accolades seemed to matter, though. After my initial shock of meeting people whose names I had recognized online for five years, the conversations became more about writing, parenting and the brotherhood that we had all joined. We were all fathers and content creators who had joined together to compare notes, share insights and lift each other up to new opportunities. We were all at different stages of parenting and blogging but we all had the same goals: to become better at each.


1. I say “people” instead of “men” because there was a strong contingent of women there, both representing brands and their own blogs. I learned as much from them as I did from the other dads.