Saturday, November 29, 2008

Gifts for Stacey

Stacey is 12 now, playing on her school's basketball team, looking grown-up and acting independent. She has a circle of acquaintances that I have never met; I see her talking to some of them when I have reason to be in her school -- when I volunteered at the book fair, or when I attend an orchestra or choir concert, or a basketball game. She is not at the top tier in the school's pecking order, and doesn't strive to be. The girls she fought with for dominance for so many years have gone their separate ways, and Stacey is at a point where she has a lot of opportunity, and few things weighing her down.

She can sing. She can dance. She can play various sports. She can argue... boy, can she argue. She is not afraid of math, or contributing in class, or of social shunning for being smart. Stacey is tall, and beautiful, and is becoming more classy and discerning every month now. And though she has grown away from total dependence on me, doesn't base her self-worth on my opinions, and is likely to say "no, I don't want to go with you dad, go by yourself" for whatever event, we have managed to find our bond again and love and support each other the way only a father and daughter can. Our relationship went through a rocky period this year, but we had a strong foundation to weather the storm.

I'm so proud of her and her growth that I have a hard time writing about her, as I get too emotional and stop making sense. In her childhood, I did my best to support Stacey in her efforts to explore all life has to offer, friendships, the arts, sports, the sciences. I believed in her, believed that her brilliant mind and her love of life and people would win out over the challenges she faced -- when in school the answers stopped leaping off the page at her, when her longtime classmates stopped inviting her to their parties, when the other soccer players started to get better field awareness and stronger shots than she did, when she started to be less eager to go to voice lessons or dance class.

I knew she was strong enough to get through all the challenges and setbacks, to find her voice, to deny apathy a foothold in her heart, to remember how interesting the world is and how much it wants her to explore. But during the worst of it, I was afraid. She and I had grown cool towards each other, her schoolwork started to slip, the TV was on more and more. The shining dream she had of being the pediatric cardio-specialist, confident, dependable, loved and respected by all, started to fade. I felt helpless, and my efforts to encourage her to keep trying were rebuked.

In the end, our love for each other stayed stronger than the problems. She turned the corner academically, socially, and physically. Best of all, she did it herself, on her own terms, at her own pace, when she decided her wounds had healed enough, and it was time to get back in the game. So, I guess it's not my job any more to kiss her skinned knees and tell her to watch out for the mean kids [figuratively -- I never did either of those things literally], but to let her know that I still believe in her, and that I'll love her no matter how the endgame plays out.

I recently went to Amazon's "gift organizer" and identified who all my purchases over the last decade were for. The process took me from the current date backwards to 1999, one purchase at a time, and it got me feeling pretty nostalgic. Over the last few years, there were plenty of items going to extended family and friends... Liberty has some stuff, little Scout, Uncle Bill, my mentee Dave, some members of the old church group I was in, extended family. The further back I went, the more I found that everything was for either me or Stacey. During the time my life consisted of only Stacey, work, and emptiness, I bought a lot of books for myself to keep sane. And for Stacey, a few trinkets here and there, and mainly books. Amazingly, there were only ten dates that I purchased items for Stacey from Amazon. I thought I used them a lot more, but I guess online shopping never quite replaced the instinct to go out to a real store and handle the wares you want before you buy them.

Here are all of the items I have ever bought for Stacey from, and the dates I bought them:

Nov 27, 1999, "And if the Moon Could Talk" (book). This is the first bedtime story I ever bought Stacey. She was 3 years and 3 months old. Her mother and I were still together, but it was clear that our marriage was on its last leg. She and I broke up 2 months later. I first read the book to Stacey at the apartment I moved into. She and I shared a bedroom for about a year, with her bed immediately beside mine. It faced a kid's bookshelf that I bought for her, and filled with lots of Doctor Seuss and Madeleine books, her favorites. At bedtime, she would get under the covers, examine the bookshelf carefully, then throw off her blankets, run and grab the book she wanted, and get in bed with me and snuggle up to listen to me read it. After that I would put her back in her own bed and tuck her in, where she would contentedly fall asleep. For the first few months at the new place, more often than not I would wake up with her back in my bed.

Sep 23, 2000, "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" (book). There was a large gap in time, close to a year, between the first and second purchases for Stacey, but I still preferred to look for things in stores back then, and if I was getting something out of the blue for Stacey, I made sure she was with me to help pick it out. She liked the Grinch story from the animated version we had on VHS (still a popular format in 2000) that had Boris Karloff as the Grinch, however we couldn't find the book version of this story in the local bookstores, so I gave buying from the Internet another whirl... Along with watching various VHS tapes with Stacey, I was also going nuts with my new Tivo then, recording lots of Blue's Clues, Rolie Polie Olie, Bear in the Big Blue House, Rugrats (pre "All Grown Up!"), Wild Thornberrys, As Told By Ginger (my favorite), and Madeleine (her favorite) TV shows. We spent a lot of afternoons out doing stuff, playing at the park down the street, buying craft gear to make bead animals and felt art projects, playing at the local mall's play area, and then we spent a lot of nights after we got home with her sitting in my lap watching whatever had recorded that day on the Tivo. The Grinch book made it to our bedtime story shelf, and got read a few times, but didn't displace the favorites for little 4 year old Stacey: Sneetches, and Madeleine's Rescue.

Nov 11, 2000, "Measuring Penny" (book). Stacey was still in a play-based daycare at age 4, and never went to a true pre-school. I had no intention of pushing her to be a focused, driven, and crazy student at a high-class multi-thousand dollar tuition primary school, either. However, we enjoyed playing brain games. At age 4, I had taught her, using circles drawn on a whiteboard at my work, how fractions work... divide a circle into 4 parts, and shade in two of them, and you've filled up one half of the circle... 1/2 = 2/4. She also played a lot of preschool computer games, solved puzzles on (back before they got weird and started charging money to play), and we used to love this card game that was basically nouns that you would deal out a few of and tell a story based on. She quickly changed from making up stories like "There was a carrot, and it turned into a car, and it turned into ice cream" to "After I ate my CARROT, I was still hungry, so I got in my CAR and went to the store to buy ICE CREAM." "Measuring Penny" is a book about a girl who measures her dog as a homework assignment in about a dozen ways, how fast it runs, how much it weighs, how long the nose and tail are, etc. It taught concepts like standard and nonstandard units (Penny's tail is one biscuit long, for example) and that there are many properties things have that can have numbers assigned to them. It was not part of my master plan to put Stacey in front of lots of things like this that have "educational value", whatever that means. I specifically avoided exposing her to a lot of things that had a claim of educational greatness... Dora, for example, which is crap. If it's crap, you won't learn anything. Measuring Penny was not crap, it was fun. For us, learning about the world and about numbers was always spontaneous, natural, and unplanned. Because I never forced things like this on her, letting her choose what book to read or what game to play, she never resisted them, and never grew to think of learning or using your brain as a chore.

Jun 4, 2001, "Angelina Ballerina" (book). I got this for Stacey after we saw a stuffed Angelina doll in a store at the mall, and I explained that the character came from a popular kids book... which was naturally not at the bookstore. Stacey, nearing her fifth birthday, had been in a ballet class I enrolled her in for a few months, and was having a great time. I wanted Stacey to have the same experience in classes like this that kids from non-broken homes had, kids who had moms who had taken dance before, who knew where to go to get dance clothes, who knew the unwritten rules of suburban elitism. As a single dad, I knew none of this, so I went out and researched what some basic ballet positions were, what dance clothes were needed, what the different shoes were, and how to do hair. I could already do a simple braid with Stacey's hair, and had experimented with pigtails, and many small braids, but that was about it. I couldn't french-braid or do a ballet bun, so I learned both of those. I had always been antisocial, so I learned how to talk to people during this time. There was some confusion and anxiety when the other parents didn't know what to make of me, and I wasn't sure if I was "doing it right" as far as smalltalk and when to compliment or acknowledge someone else's kid. I felt, as I have often in life, like an autistic trying to mimic strange behavior and emotions that I didn't understand. I got better at it, and later in life become almost natural about talking to people. I got invited to some suburban parties, joined and participated in a church group, started inviting the neighbors over to dinner, and felt good about myself and how I handled myself socially. Being a better people person, I was able to leverage my new likeable self and my geek skills into a steady series of promotions and job offers, ending in the present day with double the salary I was making when Stacey and I bought this book. The spark was wanting her to have an enriched childhood. I wanted that bad enough to fight against my social anxieties. I struggled against them, and made myself a better man, and it was the love that Stacey invokes in me that set it all in motion. My princess. I hope I never let you down.

Jul 8, 2001, "The Great Kapok Tree" and "The Shaman's Apprentice" (books). Stacey and I went on a little hippie kick shortly before her fifth birthday. These are both picture books written by the same author, Lynne Cherry, that are set in the Amazon rainforest. The Great Kapok Tree is about all the life that is dependent on Kapoks (giant trees comparable in size to a football field), how fragile the ecosystem is, and a plea for conservationism. In the story, a sleepy logger takes a nap and dreams about all the animals who will have no homes if he cuts down the tree he is working on. The Shaman's Apprentice is about the real medicinal properties of plants, and how Amazon Shamans have been using them successfully to treat various ailments common to local villagers, and how a certain Western doctor went back to plants to help fight a disease. Good reads, both.

Nov 11, 2001, "Buddy" and "Fly Away Home" (VHS). I bought these on behalf of my computer-illiterate mother so that she could give them to Stacey for Christmas presents. They are both loosely based on true stories. "Buddy" is based on the life of Gertrude Lintz and the Gorillas she tried to raise as her children, clothed and eating at the table with forks and knives. The part about her selling Buddy to the circus where he was marketed as ferocious and hating humans, and his painful last years with untreated skin conditions, rotting teeth, and death from double pneumonia were conspicuously absent from the movie. "Fly Away Home" is based on Bill Lishman teaching a flock of geese a new migration pattern by leading them with his ultralight plane. Fantastic story, really. In the movie, however, he was given a moderately attractive and precocious daughter, Amy, who had raised the geese from birth, and it was she herself who flew the ultralight on the multi-legged migration from Canada to North Carolina. The movie was also completely Disnified, with a backstory of Amy's mother having died, her moving to live with her estranged father, the evil game warden who wants to pinion the geese's wings, etc., etc. My opinion is that entertainment shouldn't butcher a true story. But these weren't my presents, they were my mom's, and Stacey enjoyed watching them with her. Stacey and she have always been close, and they look so happy together that I'm only mildy annoyed at all the hillbilly that my mom exposes Stacey to, and I mostly don't think about the fact that mom really wanted a girl.

Dec 7, 2002, "Pretty Pretty Princess Dress-Up Board Game". This was a Christmas present that was geared towards Stacey bringing out at sleepovers. She was 6, having a great time in the first grade, and I was integrating myself into the inner circle of her elementary school by volunteering to teach computer classes to 4th and 5th graders, chatting with the office staff whenever I could, cooking for school parties, and volunteering as much as a man could for Stacey's Brownie troop. I had just moved back into the house that May after my ex-wife moved out of it. I reacquainted myself with my neighbors, relearned how to mow, found the appliance manuals, a roofer, a plumber, and a painter, and went about making the house livable again. Life was good. Stacey had lots of little friends, went to a lot of birthday parties, and the other parents liked Stacey, and accepted me as an involved parent. The kids thought of me as the cool dad, and lots of neighbor kids were always over playing with Stacey in her play room. And, we began to host sleepovers where around 4 - 6 kids would show up. We all went out to see movies, or out for pizza, and I always had a giant breakfast waiting for the kids when they woke up. "Pretty Pretty Princess," however, went mainly unused.

Nov 20, 2003, "OshKosh Multi-Color Stripe Turtleneck". Predictably, this item is no longer for sale, being 5 years out of fashion, and I was not even able to find a picture of it anywhere. Such is the nature of kids' clothes. My sense of style is very plain. Most of my clothes for most of my life have been solid color blues and greys, few logos, few flourishes. When I look back at some of my earlier attempts at business clothes, I'm thoroughly embarrassed: short-sleeved button down shirts, a thin solid-colored tie with a four-in-hand knot, no blazer, cheap Dockers, and Florsheims with the bottom scuffed up because they were too expensive to replace. Look ma! I'm a businessman!!1! Seven years old is where it started to be difficult for me to get good clothes for Stacey. Prior to that, JC Penney, Lands End, and Children's Place, and anything that didn't look completely stupid to me was well received by Stacey and her peers. At seven was where styles started to form, and where it was clear who's parents were willing to shell out cheddar to dress their kids as future high-society socialites, who wanted their girls to grow up to drive trucks or join the roller derby, who weren't going to stop their girls from the path to teen pregnancy and dancing a pole, and who wanted their girl to feel pretty without looking pretentious. I was the latter category, naturally. Stacey didn't have strong preferences, and was basically willing to try whatever I thought looked nice. As the years went on, my opinion on clothes (and any other topic) carried less weight, and Stacey developed her own style. It was, thankfully, conservative. Another thing to be thankful for is the relationship Stacey has with Liberty now. She is the hip, younger influence who knows fashion inside and out. She helps Stacey navigate the tween girls clothing landscape, to avoid the trashy, the whoreish, the pastel, the boy band worship, and other ill-conceived outfits and accessories. Not that my input would be bad, just that Liberty's is an order of magnitude better. And better received. In 2003 it was just me and her, though, and we didn't do so bad.

Feb 16, 2006, "The Boy Who Reversed Himself" (book). Stacey was ten when I bought this, and a few months away from finishing the fifth grade. A geek message board I hang out in was having a discussion about science fiction books for kids, and a lot of people reporting liking William Sleator books a lot. The summary of "The Boy Who Reversed Himself" sounded a lot like a couple TV show Stacey and I watched a few years earlier, Strange Days at Blake Holsey High, and Eerie Indiana. So I bought it, and Stacey thought it sounded neat, but never read it. I still see it once in a while on a bookshelf or laying on the floor in a pile of stuff. I even read a couple chapters myself... basically there's a kid who can move into the fourth dimension, which causes him to re-emerge in normal space reversed, and he gets into some shenanigans. This year Stacey was having a hard time all around. I was a bear to live with, having been without a true mate for six years, her peers in extracurriculars were specializing and developing strong skills, and she was muddled down with viola, voice, soccer, dance, girl scouts, the "Able and Talented" special math program, adjusting to life with braces, struggling with increasingly difficult schoolwork and increasingly apathetic teachers, and watching me be disowned by all the friends I asked to testify on my behalf in my divorce. The miracle is that she didn't crack, with all the pressure she was under. She lost some friends, and dropped out of scouts, the divorce ended and her mom and I manage to work together quite well now, and her mom stepped up and gave Stacey an extra level of love and support. She got through it, and because she did I now believe she can do anything. Ten years old and dealing with all that shit at once. Think about it. There wasn't any energy left for her in '06 year for casual reading of kids' sci-fi books, thereby preventing her from falling down the rabbit hole of geeky subculture for a little longer.

Dec 3, 2007, "Super Mario Galaxy" (Wii game), "Brain Age", "Imagine:Babyz", and "American Girl: Julie Finds a Way" (DS games), and "The Settlers of Catan" (board game). This was Stacey's entire Christmas gift list last year, minus a couple gift cards. I was consumed with woo-ing Liberty last December, and she married me a few months later. I did spend some effort on the gift list, though. My mentee, Dave, who is active in the video game subculture, identified Super Mario Galaxy as the coolest Wii game out that season, and I think he was right. It deliberately plays with your sense of orientation and perspective, much the way Dragon Hunters does (click the link and watch the video on the bottom... it's wild). She got a DS the year before, and had specifically requested the Babyz game when we visited a Game Stop one Saturday. She had received an American Girl present each Christmas or Birthday for the last several years, and I found an American Girl DS game that didn't seem like complete crap. Brain Age was popular then, Dave showed it to me on his DS and I liked it, and thought Stacey would, too. Lastly, Settlers of Catan, a German-style board game. It has the potential to be fun, and Stacey, Liberty, and I sat down to play it once and enjoyed it. Now all we need is time where Stacey isn't at some extracurricular, Liberty isn't at work, school, or preoccupied with Scout (and I love Scout, at close to four years old, she's just not board-game friendly yet), and all of us have the urge to sit down and talk to each other. It happens, but not every week. Stacey was into Babyz for a while, and I got into Galaxy a little bit myself, and it still occasionally comes out when there are guests over.

So that was last Christmas, the beginning of the modern era in my life with Stacey, she and I both adjusting to living with Liberty and Scout, she learning the ropes of middle school, noticing that boys notice her, being asked to dances, remembering that she's smart and capable, remembering that she's loved and wanted, building new skills (such as basketball -- who knew? I'll have to write more on that as the season progresses this year), and, as I mentioned at the beginning, making new friends that I've never met, whose parents I've never met. She's growing up, and continuing to amaze and delight me, and I'm so, so glad that I'm there to watch it happen.

So thanks, Amazon, for the trip down memory lane. It helped me remember how awesome my kid is, and how much we've been through together. It didn't help me remember how much I love her, though, that's something I never forget.

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