Red Nails and Pink Legos

It started, as so many important moments do, with a question.

Eitan had been watching television, one seemingly inconsequential kids show or another, when a commercial came on for a Lego model. He said immediately that he wanted to get it and Trudy and I, without batting an eye, said that we would be happy to buy it for him. Eitan smiled broadly, pleased with his instant victory, and resumed watching. After a moment or two, though, he turned back to Trudy and me, his satisfied grin replaced by a look of confusion.

“Why didn’t the commercial show any boys playing with the Legos?” he asked.

Trudy and I glanced at each other quickly before Trudy answered.

“Why do you think there weren’t any boys?” she asked, turning his question around in typical parenting fashion.

He thought for a minute before answering.

“Because it’s pink and they think only girls should play with pink toys?”

“You’re probably right,” Trudy answered. “What do you think about that?”

“I think that’s not fair,” Eitan said. “Boys and girls should be able to play with whatever toys they want. It doesn’t matter what color they are.”

Now Trudy and I were the ones smiling broadly.

img_3352I wasn’t the least bit shocked when Eitan asked for the Lego model; he is always looking for more Legos and Cinderella’s Castle was right up his alley.1 Plus, this wasn’t the first time we’d had a conversation like this with Eitan. Eitan has never been shy about enjoying so-called “girls toys,” including dressing up in Disney princess costumes, singing along with Mary Poppins and playing with tea sets. We’ve encouraged him to play however he wants and with whichever toys he wants, regardless of their colors or industry-dictated target audience. We don’t care if he’s crashing monster trucks or wearing a blonde Elsa wig – or doing both at the same time – as long as he’s enjoying himself.

Eitan’s so-called “feminine” interests aren’t limited to toys either. He’s been asking to have his nails painted for a year or two already and he’s gone with Trudy on a number of occasions to get manicures. Plus, last week, Trudy told Eitan that she would be going shopping for new clothes for him and she asked if he had any requests. He answered, without any hesitation, that he wanted some pink and purple clothes.

“I like those colors,” he had said.

I continue to feel a thrill anytime Eitan talks about bending conventional gender norms. “Because I like it” is reason enough for me to encourage him to pursue his interests, regardless of where they might fall on the gender spectrum. More importantly, though, there have been many incidents recently in which toxic masculinity has led young men to commit horrible acts of violence. I want to be a part of rewriting the narrative of how boys and young men are “supposed to act” and I love the idea of working together with my family toward that goal.

I’ll admit, however, that I sometimes feel nervous when Eitan says he wants to go to school with painted nails or wearing a pink shirt. Our home is a safe place for him to express himself however he would like but I’ve seen enough of the world to know that not everyone else has the same sentiments about gender expression that Trudy and I do. I’m pleased to say that the feedback Eitan has received from adults about his nails, at least, has been quite positive. Adults have told Eitan, “I love your nails!” and “That’s awesome that you got to spend time with your mom!” Other children, though, have told Eitan that “wearing nail polish is for girls,” for example, and I would hate for ignorant comments like that to make Eitan hesitate to express himself in public.

I can acknowledge why some people are uncomfortable with the idea of a boy painting his nails or wearing pink clothing. We’re taught as children that there are definitions attached to a person’s sex that extends to their interests, their clothes and their choice in a mate. When people go through years of that indoctrination and then become faced with a person who does not fit into one of the boxes they have constructed in their minds, they struggle to reconcile the two. And, while that discomfort might be understandable, that should not give people the right to force others to conform to their ideals.

Our society has become more accepting of non-traditional expressions of identity since I was a child but we have a lot of work left to do. We need to analyze why we cling to our views of “proper” behavior, especially when the definitions of proper are assigned based on a person’s sex. We need to help our children feel comfortable playing with whichever toys or wearing whichever clothes strike their fancy. If we have any hope of preventing future incidents of toxic masculinity leading young adults to committing acts of violence, we need to redefine masculinity in the first place.

1. I was a bit shocked when he finished building it in under three hours with almost no help (he’s five and a half!), but that’s a different story.

Lego Star Wars and #RoarForChange

“Is Chewbacca going to be there?” he asked, his eyes wide with expectation.

I smiled and shrugged my shoulders.

“We’ll have to wait and see,” I said with a wink.

He smiled back but didn’t ask again. I could tell that he knew to expect to meet the large Wookiee from Star Wars but he was apparently content to let some degree of suspense continue to build.

We held Eitan out of school on Friday. It was May 4th, the unofficial holiday of the Star Wars movie franchise1 and I’d received an invitation to attend an event in Manhattan with Lego and Star Wars. I didn’t give Eitan much more information than that – partially because I wasn’t sure what to expect – but he didn’t ask for much more. He knew that he wasn’t going to school and that he was coming into the city for a special trip with me and that was enough.

We got to the event a bit early. The PR people were still setting up for the day and there wasn’t much to see yet. Eitan burned off some energy in the meantime running around Bryant Park and we borrowed a Ping Pong ball from two nearby players so that we could hit it back and forth with our hands on an empty table. The air was thick with humidity and felt more like mid-July than early May. Eitan broke a sweat quickly and his young legs began to falter sooner than they would have in even slightly cooler weather. We walked over to Times Square to walk through an air conditioned store for some relief before sitting on a bench outside for a snack.

As we turned back onto 6th Avenue, I saw what we had been looking for. A rope queue had been set up, as well as two backdrops displaying Star Wars and Lego backgrounds. I could see a tuft of brown fur just over the taller screen and didn’t bother to hide the smile that spread quickly onto my face.

“I think I see someone,” I said, squeezing Eitan’s hand a bit.

Family Chewbacca“Really? Who?” Eitan asked excitedly.

I didn’t answer, preferring to allow Eitan to see for himself when we arrived.

We finally got close enough to the display for Eitan to get a better look. Standing in front of him was Chewbacca, the six and a half foot roaring Wookiee from the movies. Eitan grinned broadly and looked back at me, his eyes twinkling with delight. I picked Eitan up so we could take a picture with Chewie and he shook the Wookiee’s paw, the smile never leaving his face. At the PR rep’s prompting, I let out my best Wookiee roar and Chewbacca patted me on the back, apparently impressed. I asked Eitan if he wanted to try but he shook his head shyly.

We stepped back to allow other people to take their pictures and I drew Eitan’s attention to the odd looking pedicab that had just pulled up next to the curb. I explained that Lego engineers had assembled thousands of Lego bricks and attached them to the pedicab to make it look like Chewbacca and Han Solo’s ship, the Millennium Falcon. He listened with awe and began begging me to take a ride. I told him we already had an appointment and he began jumping with glee, unable to contain his excitement.

Lego MFTrudy and Shayna arrived shortly afterward and we were all able to board the “Millennium Falcon” together. Our driver accelerated to hyperdrive as we traveled through midtown traffic, avoiding nearby “ships” and “asteroids” (read: potholes). He committed fully to his role, making references to the characters in the Star Wars movies and puns based on the story and the sights we passed as we navigated the New York City streets.

We disembarked from the “Falcon” after the ride and Trudy and I thanked the Lego and Star Wars public relations representatives for the invite. Eitan gave Chewbacca one last hug and, although Shayna was not interested in any physical contact, she spent the rest of the day pointing out “Too-back-a!” anytime she saw him on clothes or in stores. We wished the crew a happy Star Wars day and said our obligatory “May the Fourth be with you” to everyone we met that day.

I was not compensated financially for this post; we received advance notice of the Lego Millennium Falcon and an appointment for a ride around Bryant Park, plus Eitan was given a free miniature Lego Millennium Falcon model. The opinions here are, as always, my own.

The event was coordinated as a partnership between Lego and Star Wars as part of the Roar for Change movement. Roar for Change is a global challenge from Lucasfilm and Star Wars: Force for Change that supports UNICEF’s lifesaving work for children around the world. Between May 3 – 25, 2018, Star Wars: Force for Change will donation $1 to UNICEF for each public post, like, or share on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter that includes #RoarForChange. It’s obviously too late to ride the “Falcon,” but please watch the video below for more information and post on social media using the hashtag #RoarForChange to boost the total donation to UNICEF.

1. Fans started the “holiday” because of the punned phrase, “May the Fourth be with you.”

Putting the Pieces Together

It’s probably an overstatement to say that I loved playing with Legos when I was a kid.1I enjoyed them, to be sure, and I wished at the time that I had more models. I would open the outer package, dump all of the tiny bricks together into the inner box and start building. My eyes would bounce back and forth like tennis balls from the instruction booklet to the box of bricks to find the pieces I needed and back again to complete each step. I would pore over the instructions, making absolutely sure that I had placed the pieces correctly before pressing them together. I would sit, sometimes for hours on end, constructing airplanes, medieval castles and woodland fortresses.

But then I would leave them alone.

I treated my Legos like art. I positioned the different Lego people to create still shots of action scenes. The EMTs were loading the stretcher into the Red Cross plane to fly the injured skier to receive proper medical attention. The guards on watch were preparing their catapult to defend the keep. Robin Hood and his band of Merry Men had robbed a knight and had stashed their loot in the chest in their secret hiding place at the base of the tree. My Lego models depicted a moment in a larger story that was in the process of being told, even if I never quite got around to telling the rest of it.

I was never bothered by the idea of the story being incomplete. Each set presented a glimpse into the characters’ lives and there was room for interpretation to fill in the blanks before and after. The thrill was in the process, analyzing the way each piece fit together to form a larger design. I would try to anticipate each next step, noticing oddly shaped bricks along the way and looking forward to seeing how they would contribute to the whole. Then, once I had finished, I could let the pieces speak for themselves and people could draw their own conclusions about how the one woodsman had managed to get up into the tree or why the pilot had to help the EMT instead of focusing on flying the plane.2My brothers played with Legos differently. My middle brother would actually play out some of the scenes with the figures. He enjoyed playing with action figures in general and approached the Lego sets with the same attitude. He would launch the catapult and drive the race car and conduct conversations between the characters. Pieces would go missing here and there as a result of their increased use but he took general care of the sets. He kept them intact, for the most part, and usually put them back in the boxes or up on their display shelves.

My youngest brother, on the other hand, had no such interest in the models keeping their forms or in maintaining the divisions between the sets. All of the Legos ended up together in one large bin, tree branches and race car wheels mixed together with airplane wings and castle walls. Anytime I would see the bin in his room I would feel a combination of nostalgia and irritation with a hint of “Well, I guess they’re his now” thrown in for good measure.

That’s how it goes for eldest siblings, I suppose.

I’m bringing all of this up, of course, because Eitan has caught Lego fever. He had a set of Mega Bloks when he was little and then we bought him two Duplo sets – a zoo and a fire house – but he never seemed to be as interested in them. Then we bought him his first real Lego set around his fourth birthday – a police helicopter that also included a robber stealing from an ATM machine. He and I built it together and then I spent the next half hour trying to help the robber escape from Eitan and the cops.

We bought him a few other Lego Junior sets over the next few months – superhero sets, mostly – and he would play with them for a while and then lose interest. At some point, though, the switch flipped. He became addicted, constantly requesting new sets. Superheroes, vehicles, Star Wars, it didn’t matter; he wanted to build and he wanted to play.

There have been a few times since Eitan was born that I’ve felt somewhat separated from him. His features have always resembled Trudy’s more closely than mine and he’s been more attached to her since he was a baby. I see myself in him, though, when he’s building his Lego sets. He focuses in on the instructions, his brow furrowing just like mine used to and his eyes pinballing back and forth between the diagrams and the piles of pieces nearby. His facial expressions while he’s building, his fascination with creating new things, even his beaming smile of accomplishment when he has finished – those are all mine.


It might as well be five-year-old me in that picture.

I’ll admit that I still wince every once in a while when I see him throwing some of his already-built Lego models as he plays. I flinch when I see the models crash to the ground, pieces occasionally flying off. I have to bite back the impulse to tell him to stop because he’s going to ruin all of his hard work. Then I remind myself, just as I did when my brother would toss all the Legos into one big bin, that they’re not mine. Building is no longer something I do to enjoy myself; it’s now something I share with Eitan.

And, honestly, his way is more fun.

I was not compensated financially for this post, but I did receive a free Lego Technic model (not pictured) for Eitan. As always, the opinions included here are fully my own.

1. I know the technical, correct language should be “I loved playing with Lego bricks” because Lego is the manufacturer and the objects are the building bricks. I don’t care. I’m calling them Legos.

2. The technique of creating individual scenes but not filling in the beginnings or endings would show up frequently in my writing as I got older, like here or here or here.

RAD Girl Revolution

“You can’t be what you can’t see.”

That’s the slogan for RAD Girl Revolution, a new children’s book created by two mothers from my neighborhood, Sharita Manickam and Jennifer Bruno. Like many modern parents, they were disappointed with traditional portrayals of gender roles in children’s books. It wasn’t just the “knight in shining armor” and “damsel in distress” tales that concerned them; it was the idea that astronauts, fire fighters, business people and a host of other professions were almost always characterized as men. Despite the increasing prevalence of girls empowerment programs across the country and a rising presence of similar slogans on clothing targeted to young girls, Manickam and Bruno kept coming back to the same bottom line: if girls couldn’t point to women in specific roles in society, they would have a much more difficult time visualizing themselves in such a position.

To that end, the authors created a book that shows girls dressed as members of professions where women are traditionally under-represented. Bruno staged photographs of young girls for each page, from judges to police officers to CEOs. Each photograph is accompanied by a short rhyming poem to make the picture more accessible to a young child’s imagination. The book is cute on its own but it’s message elevates the project to a more meaningful level.



I’m excited about RAD Girl Revolution for obvious reasons, of course. My daughter is about to turn two and I want to make sure that she grows up believing that she has every possible opportunity available to her. She won’t be able to be “anything she wants,” of course; her genetics are likely going to prevent her from being a professional athlete, for instance. But I would prefer that DNA prevent Shayna from reaching a certain goal, as opposed to an arbitrary glass ceiling imposed by the society in which she lives.

The other reason I’m excited, though, is less obvious.

A few months ago, I wrote a response to a Time Magazine article about toxic masculinity and the differences between the ways parents approach raising sons and daughters. Essentially, girls continue to be encouraged to speak about their feelings and experiences, while also receiving increasing pushes to pursue their dreams, no matter how far fetched. Boys, on the other hand, are still consistently pushed into traditional male-dominated fields and often face criticism for choosing a different path. Girls who want to be doctors are empowered; boys who want to be nurses are ridiculed.

Admittedly, RAD Girl Revolution is not going to solve the issue of traditional views of masculinity pushing young boys into the same typical fields. And it shouldn’t; its main focus is on improving girls’ status in society, a noble cause in its own right. Redefining masculinity is a process that has to start with training sons to think differently about women and girls, as opposed to training girls to stand up for themselves against boys and men.

But that is exactly the other reason I love this project: Trudy and I will buy this book for Eitan as much as for Shayna. We want Eitan to grow up believing that girls and women belong in every profession as much as he does. We want him to understand the different perspectives that women can bring and the value of including input from different sources when solving problems and developing programs. He needs to believe that the assumption that a girl would be unsuitable for a job simply because of her anatomy is not only inaccurate, but harmful. Girls may not be able to be what they can’t see, but boys can’t visualize other possibilities if they don’t see them either.

I hope you’ll join the RAD Girl Revolution with us by contributing to its Kickstarter account and following its progress over the next few months. For more information, please visit the project’s Facebook page, follow RAD Girl on Twitter and Instagram, and check out their recent news spots on PIX11 News, NY1 and amNY.

The Unintended Hospital Visit (or, How a Kia Saved My Life)

“Okay, Aaron, here’s your car,” the rental car representative said to me as he gestured toward a maroon sedan in the garage.

I wrinkled my nose a bit as I gave it a quick once-over.

“A Kia? That’s all you’ve got?”

I didn’t know much about cars when I was twenty-four (although, honestly, not much has changed in the ten years since). My knowledge could basically be summed up as, “If it works, great; if it doesn’t, find someone to fix it.”1 The one thing I did know, though, was what I had heard about brand reputations. I knew that foreign-made cars, particularly from Japan or Germany were the “best,” and that American-made cars were generally fine, though not quite as good. I couldn’t have told you exactly what the differences were between the brands or what made one “better” than the other, but I knew what I had heard.

The other thing I had heard was that Kia was a cheap car that you only bought if you couldn’t afford anything else.

The salesman laughed a bit and reassured me that Kias were much better than the public had been led to believe. “Plus,” he added, “I can’t give you any other cars because you’re still under twenty-five.”

I grimaced slightly but I was familiar with the company’s policy about renting certain cars to people under twenty-five. I’d rented cars a number of times through the foster care agency where I worked to visit my clients at Westchester and Rockland County hospitals, bring them to interviews at more distant school placements and, in the most unpleasant situations, to move them and their belongings from one foster home to another. My age meant that my cars were never flashy; a Ford Focus, a Chevy Malibu and, on one occasion, a full-size white van with the rental company’s logo on the side. On that particular day, I was traveling to an inpatient psychiatric hospital in Ossining with my coworker so that we could visit a young man who was hoping to get some good news on his fourteenth birthday. On that particular day, I was getting a Kia.

My coworker and I got in and I pulled out of the garage. I weaved through New York City traffic to the West Side Highway and began driving north along the Hudson River. It was a clear September day and the river shimmered brilliantly under the perfect blue sky. It was the kind of day that foster care workers cherish; the days when we could work with a team to make someone smile, ease someone’s worries and feel, for once, like we were making a difference.

It was a day of promise.


The trip went smoothly. There wasn’t much traffic and I enjoyed being able to actually drive, navigating the hills and curves of Route 9A and getting a feel for the handle of the car. I watched the scenery shift from the drab concrete of the urban jungle to the healthy green of trees whose leaves had only just begun to turn. My already good mood seemed to improve even more as my colleague and I shared stories about our families and our experiences in child welfare, as well as plans for our upcoming meeting.

Then, in a flash, all of my senses went blank.

I remember being vaguely aware of our car moving, sliding backwards down a slight hill until it came to a stop with a lurch. I was confused; I couldn’t piece together why I was no longer driving toward the hospital. My vision began to return slowly, colors starting to peek back in through the blanket of white that had covered my eyes. A faint smoky odor reached my nostrils and I thought I could hear voices, though they sounded like they were miles away. My forearm was stinging, though I wasn’t sure why. My addled brain kept trying to fight through the haze to figure out what had happened.

Finally, it clicked: we had crashed.

I’d been making a left turn off of 9A onto the quiet street where the hospital was and I never saw the other car coming. It slammed into us as I turned, sending us spinning around until we were facing the opposite direction from where I had been trying to go. The other car had caromed off ours into the guardrail while we spun and stopped in the middle of the road. Our car had ended up facing the median before sliding down the sloped side of the road, coming to a stop when we reached the same rail. The white blanket had been a combination of my brain turning off to avoid additional trauma and the airbag deploying. The airbag had also been the source of the smoke and the burn on my arm.

I began to panic once I realized the situation. My mind, which had previously been moving at a snail’s pace as it recovered from the impact, suddenly began racing. I needed to make sure my coworker and the other driver were all right, to call 911, my girlfriend, my parents, my supervisor, the hospital to let them know we couldn’t make it and I had to do all of it immediately. I asked my coworker if she was hurt (she wasn’t) and used the adrenaline that had begun coursing through me to push through the dizziness and get out of the car.

I could see the other vehicle, a black sports car, a short distance away. The driver had also come out of the car and there were some people standing with him as he stood leaning on the driver side door. I called out to ask if he was okay, noticing that my voice also sounded far away, and felt relief wash over me when the group gestured that he was fine.

I pulled out my cell phone to begin making phone calls and stopped when I felt my knees start to buckle. The world tilted around me and I was just barely able to grab the car door to steady myself. I blinked hard, took a few deep breaths and walked gingerly toward the guardrail so I could sit down. I planted my hand on the rail as I lowered myself to the ground and took another deep breath as I started making phone calls.

It was early evening by the time the other supervisor from my foster care unit and our director arrived at Westchester Medical Center to pick us up. Ambulances had brought us and the other driver to the hospital as a precaution but we were fine. We were all quite shaken up, to be sure, but none of us sustained significant physical injuries beyond some bumps and bruises.

My coworker and I were speaking with our director and supervisor about the accident while we waited for our discharge papers when I realized my work bag had been left in the car. I don’t remember what I had in it that made me want it back; certainly, no one would have faulted me for leaving without it. But I said I needed it, so we stopped at the auto body shop where it had been towed before driving home. The employee showed me where the car was and said I could get whatever I needed.

I stepped into the garage and inched my way between a weathered turquoise coupe and a black sedan to get to the car I had rented that morning. The bag was easy to reach – it was sitting on the backseat, waiting patiently to be picked up. I was about to return to my colleagues when my curiosity got the best of me; I turned to check out the damage before going back outside.


This wasn’t the car I was driving (this is a stock photo). But this is really close to what my car looked like.

The car had been totaled. The front corner on the passenger side had been completely inverted and the hood was folded almost in half. The case that should have housed the headlight was missing and the lower part of the windshield on that side had a long, snaking crack in it. I looked down at the hole in the front tire and the bent wheel rim and I found myself wondering how my coworker’s legs had not been crushed. My thoughts began racing again as I pictured the tragic outcomes that had somehow been relegated to alternate universes instead of my current reality. I whispered silent thanks to the powers of spirituality and physics that had spared us and gave the car a symbolic pat on the trunk.

I stepped out of the garage into the cool evening air. The clouds on the horizon were splashed with watercolor hues of pinks and oranges as the sun retired for the night. I took one last glance back at the car, now reduced to a jumble of metal plates and screws, and swore never to make fun of a Kia again.

1. My grandfather reportedly used that exact phrase in the Air Force when his superiors asked what he knew about radio operations.

This post’s featured image can be found here and the driving image can be found here.

Explaining the Walk-Out to a Kindergartener

Eitan had been ready for school for a little while by the time we asked to talk to him.

He was sitting at his homework table, coloring in the small Star Wars coloring book he had gotten as a birthday party favor or as a small treat from Target or some other place that five-year-olds acquire little coloring books. His sneakers were already tied and knotted and his hair was neatly gelled and combed. He was wearing his backpack for some reason, even though he would have to take it off to put his coat on when we were ready to leave.

Trudy was finishing getting ready in our bedroom and had left the door open so that we could talk. Eitan stood up slowly from his chair and walked over to stand next to me. I reassured him that everything was fine and that we just wanted to talk about something that was happening today.

“So,” Trudy began, “some kids in your class might be leaving school–”

“Why?” Eitan asked, cutting her off.

“They’re fine and they’re going to come back–”

“But why?” he asked again.

“I’m telling you. They’re going to go out for a little while and then come back.”

“Where will they go?”

“They’ll just be standing outside the school,” I answered. “They’ll go stand outside for a bit and then come back in.”

“Cold! Cold!” Shayna interjected.

Trudy and I smiled. “Yes, Shayna, it’s cold outside,” I said.

Trudy turned back to Eitan. “Do you know what it means to protest?” she asked.

Eitan shook his head no.

“You know when we ask you to turn off the television or to put your shoes on or to go do something else and you argue with us? That’s protesting,” she said.

“To protest is to say that you don’t like something,” I added. “So when you argue, you’re saying you don’t like the fact that we’re asking you to do something you don’t want to do.”

“Right,” Trudy said. “So the people who leave school are going to be protesting. They’re saying that they don’t like–”

“Trump?” Eitan interrupted.

Both Trudy and I burst out laughing. We don’t spend a lot of time discussing politics in front of Eitan but, clearly, he had picked up on the connection between our current president and the word “protest.”

Eitan looked confused, though. He had figured out that this was an important conversation and he had not intended to make a joke. Our laughter had caught him by surprise.

“You’re not really wrong,” I said. “But the people who walk out aren’t going to be protesting Trump by himself. They’re angry about the rules that the government has about who can own guns.”

“There are people who don’t use guns the right way,” Trudy continued. “Unfortunately, there have been some people who have brought guns into schools and people have gotten shot.”

“That’s why only police officers should have guns, right?” Eitan asked as my mind immediately jumped back to the other conversation I had just had with him about guns. “Because the police help to keep people safe so they should be the only people who get to use guns.”

“That’s a really good idea, Eitan,” Trudy said. “But people are allowed to buy guns. It’s one of the things that people are free to do because they live in America. You know what it means to be free, right?”

“It means that you don’t have to do what people tell you,” he answered. “Like the slaves in Egypt weren’t free.”

Trudy’s eyes widened with pride, marveling at the association our son had made. My lips spread into a broad grin; I knew that we had gone over the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt every year at Passover but we hadn’t started talking about it yet this year. I made a mental note to compliment his religious school teacher for helping to refresh Eitan’s memory.

“You’re absolutely right,” I said. “In fact, if you hadn’t said that, I was going to use that exact example to explain freedom to you.”

“So, in America,” Trudy continued, “people are free to own guns if they want. The problem is that not everyone uses guns in the right way and we want to change the laws to make it harder for the wrong people to buy them.

The conversation continued in a similar vein for another minute or two. Eitan said that he understood and Trudy and I each gave him a hug and a kiss. Eitan went to play with Shayna until we were ready to leave and Trudy and I stood watching them for a moment.

“He’s really amazing,” I said.

“Yeah, he is,” Trudy agreed. “I couldn’t believe he made that freedom comparison.”

She had been smiling but her expression morphed quickly into a mix of anger, sadness and a hint of fear.

“I can’t believe we just had to have that conversation with our five year old,” she said.

My own smile faded into a grimace as I wrapped my arms around her.

“I know.”

Shooting From the Hip

“You’re not in trouble,” I reassured him. “I’m just curious.”

Eitan was sitting across the table from me. He was still wearing his pajamas, as he usually is when we eat breakfast, and his hair seemed to think that it was still in bed. His almost-six-year-old face looked nervous, as though he did not believe that I only wanted to talk. He had just started to tear off a new piece of his French toast to dip in the syrup on his plate when I asked the question.

“I don’t know,” he said quietly and took a bite.

I didn’t blame him for feeling uncomfortable. Trudy and I have had a number of discussions with Eitan where we were just trying to understand why he was behaving a certain way. My social work instincts told me to avoid the word “why” so I wouldn’t come across as confrontational or interrogative but I could tell that Eitan was still on the defensive.

Plus, this particular situation was… well, it was different. Even if it wasn’t.

I was asking him about a note I’d found on my phone, which I knew I had not written:

I was also thinking about the fact that I found the note the day after seventeen people had been murdered by an eighteen-year-old young man at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

I returned my focus to my sweet, innocent boy sitting across from me. Eitan’s cheeks showed the slightest shade of pink and I thought I saw his lip tremble. He gazed back at me for a moment before tearing off another piece of French toast. Eitan wasn’t fidgeting the way he usually does when he has been caught doing something wrong but it was plain that he did not want to maintain eye contact.

“Eitan, I promise you’re not in trouble,” I said softly. “Do you remember what made you write that note?”

Eitan shrugged. “Because I thought it was funny when Han Solo shot Greedo.”

I paused to think of what to say next.

Trudy and I have been consistent on the “gun issue” since Eitan was little. We have not allowed any toy guns into our house, aside from water pistols. We didn’t buy Eitan a toy gun when we visited the OK Corral in Tombstone, Arizona and we’ve talked with him about the differences between real bullets and the projectiles that some of his toys shoot. And I was very careful to speak with Eitan about the differences between the Stormtroopers’ blasters and real-life guns before we watched Star Wars together for the first time a few months ago.1

I sighed.

“You’re right,” I answered. “I thought that moment was kind of funny too because of what Han and Greedo were talking about and because it’s a movie. I bet Greedo didn’t think it was too funny to get shot, though.”

Eitan looked down as he chewed. “No, probably not,” he said.

My lips shifted into a half-frown, much like the emoji I use all too often in my text messages.

“Do you know why I was so surprised to see that note in my phone?” I asked.

He looked up at me, but didn’t answer. His eyes still showed a hint of fear.

“Well,” I started again, “do you remember what guns are used for?”

“To shoot people?” Eitan asked meekly.

“Yeah,” I answered. “And what happens when people get shot?”

I could barely hear him as he spoke.

“They die.”

“Right,” I said, my half-frown returning. “Or they get hurt really badly. That’s why Mommy and I don’t want you to play with guns or pretend you have a gun. Because we don’t like the idea of people getting hurt or of you pretending to hurt people. Does that make sense?”

“Yes,” he said, nodding.

“Good, I’m glad,” I said. Then I added, “Again, I’m not mad. I promise. I just wanted to make sure you understood how Mommy and I feel. Plus, guns themselves aren’t necessarily bad; there are some people who use guns to hunt for food.”

“Right,” he said, starting to smile. “And police officers use guns to keep us safe, right?”

“Right,” I said, returning the smile. “People who use guns just have to be trained and we have to be really careful around them.”

I changed the subject at that point, feeling confident enough that the message had gotten across. I’m not worried that Eitan will grow up to be a serial killer or that he’ll shoot up a school but there have been so many mass shootings2 and terrorist attacks3 since Eitan was born that the idea of him playing with guns makes me sick to my stomach. I know that I can’t control what he does at recess at school or when he’s playing with his friends; I wouldn’t want to. Eitan will make those decisions as he grows and learns more about himself and the world around him. Trudy and I are just going to have to keep having these conversations with him as he gets older to make sure that he’s making informed decisions and considering the consequences of his choices.

He’ll have to take things from there.

1. I know I wrote once that I was going to wait until Eitan was older to show him Star Wars. I wrote that piece over a year ago, though, and Shayna and Trudy were both not feeling well one weekend this past fall, so he and I watched it together while they slept.

2. Aurora. Sandy Hook. Orlando. Las Vegas. Parkland.

3. Paris. Barcelona. Malmo, Sweden. And these two footnotes are just off the top of my head without doing additional research.

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.


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.