We Need to Hear Something Good

It’s kind of rough right now, isn’t it? Ferguson. James Foley. Gaza. Syria. Ukraine. Ebola. Seems like everything is going to Hell. And that’s on top of our own everyday challenges, which we all do our best to conquer, but sometimes seem overwhelming.

How do we cope? Hugs help me. This morning, I felt the weight of the world release its grip for just a moment as I was embraced by the boys and my wife on my way out the door. I am fortunate. I know happiness. I also know stress and distress, and I worry about things. Sometimes I can’t sleep because of it. Oh, you, too? Yeah. It’s not easy, is it?

When we’re alone with our thoughts, when the news seems only bad and getting worse from outside and inside our personal spheres, how do we remind ourselves that it’s not all sadness and anxiety and woe? I’m not sure we can, frankly. Yet, I saw something nice today on the road to work, and it made me wonder.

A nine-banded armadillo decided to cross the road near my subdivision during morning rush hour. Armadillos (AKA Florida speed bumps) are unfortunate victims all the time, but this little guy was lucky. Every car on both sides of the two-lane road stopped and waited while it crossed from the woods into a patch of high grass on the other side. It would not have surprised me to see the first car just drive right on and kill that creature without a thought. Seeing what happened instead lifted my spirits — all those cars lined up for a full minute or more, just to let one small armored ground squirrel get where it needed to get on a muggy Florida morning.

It was a small, good thing, a brief flash of collective consideration for another living being by a group of strangers in a hurry, and it made me feel better — if only for a minute or two. I know it sounds trite. I know it’s a little cheesy. I know one lucky armadillo making it across the road in rush hour traffic because of the kindness and decency of a few morning commuters won’t erase the worries of the world.

But what if we all took the time to notice one small, good thing and shared it? All those small, good things combined might make a dent. It might give us (or someone else) the mental and emotional lift we need to carry on in the face of all the craziness. Maybe. I don’t know. If you do have a story to share, though, I know I’d love to read it.

Please share it in the comments below, or on my DadScribe Facebook page. Something small. Something good. A reminder that there is more to life than worrisome world events and day-to-day stress. Something to help us all make it through another day.

Thoughts about SeaWorld never stray far from Dawn

A killer whale leaps from the pool as trainers look on from the deck during a performance last week at Shamu Stadium.

A killer whale leaps from the pool as trainers look on from the deck during a performance last week at Shamu Stadium.

No matter where my family and I went Wednesday at SeaWorld Orlando, I thought about Dawn Brancheau.

In the morning, we stopped and gawked at a dozen or more dolphins swimming leisurely along in their open-air enclosure.

I thought of Dawn.

We watched a SeaWorld caretaker bottle feed a rescued baby manatee, who is destined to be released back into the wild.

I thought of Dawn.

We saw a 3D sea turtle film at the Turtle Trek exhibit, and we saw a rescued turtle with paralyzed rear flippers thriving in that environment, and we listened to (and approved of) SeaWorld Entertainment’s message to “be an everyday hero” when it comes to sharing the world with marine animals.

I thought of Dawn.

A SeaWorld trainer interacts with a killer whale at Shamu Stadium after the performance on Wednesday.

At Shark Encounter, I thought of her. At the Antarctica section of the park, even as we froze our toes in the penguin exhibit, Dawn was never far from my thoughts.

Occasionally, I checked my iPhone for updates on SeaWorld Entertainment’s tumbling stock, a result of a worse-than-expected second-quarter earnings report. I checked Twitter and other online channels and was not at all surprised to see anti-captivity activists revel in the apparent public rebuke of SeaWorld’s practices regarding the company’s trained killer whales and dolphins in Orlando, San Antonio, San Diego and other marine parks around the world.

I thought about Blackfish, the compelling documentary that attempts to indict SeaWorld’s treatment of orcas.

I thought about the passionate entreaties and the harsh vitriol I’ve read on Twitter and Facebook and at animal activist sites like the Dodo and PETA-backed SeaWorld of Hurt.

I thought about SeaWorld’s detailed online response to those claims, and I thought about how frustrating it must be to SeaWorld that its message of animal rescue and environmental conservation has been largely lost in the public discourse in the wake of Blackfish.

Shamu Stadium was packed for the Wednesday afternoon performance of One Ocean, SeaWorld Orlando’s killer whale show.

Then we watched the orca show at Shamu Stadium, where the killer whales jumped out of the water while trainers danced and gestured and tossed fish into open orca mouths. The performing killer whales also used their tails to splash spectators in the first few rows.

The stadium was packed.

I kept looking for Tilikum, the 12,000-pound killer whale that killed Dawn Brancheau on Feb. 24, 2010. I thought about Tilikum in his holding pen somewhere behind the main performing pool. I wondered if he was listening. I wondered if he was watching.

I thought about the three people whose deaths were attributed to interaction with Tilikum – Keltie Byrne, Daniel Dukes and Dawn Brancheau.

I mostly thought about Dawn, who died only yards away from the stadium where thousands of spectators cheered other killer whales jumping and splashing on Wednesday.

I thought about the arguments against keeping marine animals in captivity. I thought about how millions of people would never see these animals up close if not for SeaWorld, and how seeing these animals up close makes them real, and how proximity can engender empathy.

I thought about my sons, both of whom love animals.

After the show, a few handlers demonstrated to our group how the killer whales have been trained to respond to signals requesting that they provide urine and blood samples used to monitor their health. One trainer narrated, while a handful of others interacted with the orcas.

Later, I talked to Craig Thomas, a 28-year SeaWorld veteran who responded to the alarm the night Dawn died (click here for a transcript of my interview). He used to work with Tilikum. Now, Craig Thomas is the assistant curator of Shamu Stadium at SeaWorld Orlando.

The whole time I talked to Craig Thomas, I thought of Dawn.

I thought about how both sides in this controversy have interpreted Dawn’s legacy. SeaWorld Orlando named its education center after her and holds an annual 5K run/walk in her honor. The makers of Blackfish and the adherents to its message have turned Dawn’s death into a rallying point for the anti-captivity cause.

I thought about all the subpoenas and legislation and the political back and forth. The impassioned pleas and boycotts on one side. The defensive posturing by a corporate giant that has done what it does for 50 years, and only now has begun to acknowledge that things must change. Change means significantly larger killer whale enclosures in San Diego, San Antonio and Orlando, along with a $10 million matching donation for killer whale research.

I thought about all of that, and about Dawn, and about how parents can explain the issue to their kids.

Many might simply say SeaWorld is in the wrong, that it is morally reprehensible to use sentient creatures like dolphins and killer whales to make money by amusing the masses.

Others might say that the animal rescue efforts SeaWorld undertakes, and the message of conservation that SeaWorld advocates, are worth talking about, worth preserving. And that the way to bring attention to those efforts and that message is to expose as many people as possible to the beauty and intelligence of killer whales and dolphins – that the shows make it real for millions of people.

Opposing ideals, opposing ideologies. Both compelling, both important.

I prefer to think about Dawn, and to share the message of the Dawn Brancheau Foundation, which is “dedicated to improving the lives of children and animals in need.” I’ll think about Dawn’s family, which issued this statement about Blackfish. It reads, in part: “Dawn’s death is central to our story.”

I’ll share the facts with our children, who are not too young to start thinking about the welfare of these wonderful animals we are so fortunate to see up close. I’ll let them know some people think it’s wrong to put animals in cages, while others believe that as long as the animals are properly cared for and treated with dignity, there is a place for zoos and marine parks in our society.

I’ll tell them about Dawn. And I hope when they think about all of this, they think about her, too.

SeaWorld

The memorial plaque at the Dawn Brancheau Education Center, SeaWorld Orlando.

Disclosure: I was invited to experience behind-the-scenes tours at SeaWorld Orlando and Busch Gardens Tampa for purposes of learning about SeaWorld Entertainment’s conservation, rescue and veterinary care programs, as well as the entertainment component of the park’s marine mammals and other animals. Opinions are solely those of the author.

 

In Transit

He turns and grins, speeding ahead of me on the moving walkway, pulling the suitcase behind him, sprinting away and looking back over his shoulder as he moves, laughing and checking to make sure I’m still trying to keep up, making sure I’m still with him.

The rolling suitcase looks huge as he drags it behind him, the handle gripped in his small hand, its bones still as delicate as a bird’s but growing, growing stronger every day.

He looks back and smiles that smile, brilliant white permanent teeth still too big for his 8-year-old mouth. That smile.

I smile back and quicken my pace. He laughs and turns away, sprinting again toward the end of the moving sidewalk.

“Don’t run,” I say.

He slows and as I watch him struggle to keep control of the suitcase my eyes moisten and my throat tightens and I fight back tears because here, on this long, glass-enclosed concourse between the main terminal at TF Green airport and the rental car center, as we race along from one moving walkway to the next, as he looks back over his shoulder and grins at me, in a moment of perfect and terrible clarity I am reminded that one day he’ll look back and I won’t be there.

I’m here now, though.

I blink away the tears and break into a sprint, catching him in two strides, passing him and laughing, racing ahead and looking back over my shoulder to see him laughing, too, and trying with all his might to keep up as we hurtle toward the end of the moving walkway.

What do we tell the children?

What do we tell them?

What do we tell the children of Gaza as the tears stream down their faces, leaving tracks in the layer of dust that settled on their cheeks after bombs turned their homes into craters?

What do we say to the terrified children of Syria, where the innocent years have been smothered in bombs and blood?

What words are there for the lost and desperate children of the American border, where they stream across in their thousands, running from death, hoping for a new life?

What do we tell them? What can we do?

We see the images on TV, hear the horror even in the refined, detached voices of the men and women assigned to cover it. How can we change the channel? How can we look away?

How can we not, though?

It is easier, safer, to turn away from the horror than to stand up to it. Chores and errands demand our attention. Games and movies beckon. The lawn needs mowing. The baseball team is heating up down the stretch. Football is starting. School is around the corner. Vacation, birthday parties, a trip to the zoo.

All of this is here, in front of us. This is our reality. All we have to do is change the channel. All we have to do is click over to BuzzFeed or Upworthy or Reddit or Facebook.

Get lost in the fun.

Forget the faces. Forget the agony. Forget the blood.

Forget those children.

Hey, sorry. We all have problems.

Besides, they aren’t my children.

But yes.

Yes, they are.

They are mine.

They’re yours, too.

These children? We can’t see their faces, hear their cries, and relegate it to that place in our minds where unpleasant thoughts go to hibernate, waiting to stir when poked and prodded by our demons and thrust into our nightmares.

We can’t do that. We can’t just ignore it. Can we?

But what do we tell them? What can we do?

If I was there, if I didn’t have my own concerns and problems and distractions, if I could drop it all and run to them on the Rio Grande and in Gaza City and Aleppo, I would tell them that there is more.

That this is not all there is in this world, that life is still beautiful. That there are flowers and toys and music. That somewhere on this planet, a kitten purrs and a toddler laughs and laughs.

That even though the world allows little boys to be blown to bits on the beach as they play soccer;

even though men with guns and foul faces force little children to trek across dangerous Central American  fields and treacherous waters in a blind search for something better;

even though it is unspeakably awful now and sadness, despair and anger are their close companions … there is hope.

There is more.

I would tell them: Don’t give up.

You are precious.

And I would take them in my arms and hold them close, and cry with them until our mingled tears soaked the dry and fractured earth.

 

Once More … For Oren

Give Forward

Oren Miller, founder of a Facebook dad bloggers group almost 800 strong. He and his family need our help. Now is the time to act.

They were in the car together, Beth behind the wheel, husband Oren Miller by her side. This was life now. A trip to Johns Hopkins for radiation treatment, a necessary precursor to deal with a cancerous invader in Oren’s brain before the rest of it could be dealt with.

The rest of it is stage 4 lung cancer, which has spread and is life threatening. Very life threatening. But that would have to keep. First, the brain.

Oren’s phone rang. It was me.

My editor at TODAY Parents had agreed to let me write it up live. When a group of dad bloggers get together to make something this big happen, it’s news. Especially on the Friday before Father’s Day.

What was so big that the parenting arm of the TODAY Show immediately responded in the affirmative to my inquiry that afternoon? The fundraiser, of course. Using the wonderful Give Forward platform, Oren’s fellow blogger and Marylander, Brent Almond, had set up an online fundraiser on behalf of the Facebook dad bloggers. This group, this extended family of fathers and writers from all over the world, would do our small part to help Oren’s family.

Oren Miller

L-R: Oren Miller, his wife Beth and friend and fellow blogger Brent Almond, together on Memorial Day weekend — hours before Oren’s cancer diagnosis.

The idea was to raise as much as we could to help them enjoy a nice vacation getaway before Oren began his treatment in earnest. We figured $5,000 was a nice, round target.

Brent posted the link to the fundraiser late Thursday evening. By Friday morning, the amount raised had slid right on past $5,000 and was bearing down on $10,000 before noon. When it reached $13,000, I emailed my TODAY Parents editors and told them news was happening.

Important news. News that illustrated the strength and power of these things that bind us in that Facebook group. Fatherhood. The creative impulse. Passion for our roles as caregivers, and compassion for others.

It had to be shared, this wonderful story that arose from such a terrible thing.

I say terrible, because that’s what it was. And is. Yet, Oren’s grace and dignity in the face of this awful circumstance moved thousands (here it is in his words, powerful words, words that will make you cry and wonder at the strength of this gentle father and caring husband).

That Friday afternoon, as Beth and Oren wheeled their way toward Johns Hopkins for his radiation treatment, I reached back into my professional past and tried to wear my journalist hat for an interview session. We chatted, he and I. He sounded tired, of course, but all I heard was music in that thick Israeli accent of his. His responses to my forced and awkward questions were as graceful as you would expect, if you know him.

And then he put Beth on the phone. I wish I had known Beth before this. She sounds amazing. She also let me know how much the group has meant to Oren during this time. I wrapped my TODAY piece with a great kicker quote from Beth, but it was cut in the final edit. Here is that quote now, in its entirety:

“Right now, this is the [worst] time you could ever imagine,” she said. “The only time in those early days in the hospital I saw Oren smile was when he was keeping up with what was going on with the group. I don’t think he would have made it out of the hospital if not for that. I really don’t.”

The fundraiser goes on. The goal has been increased to $30,000, and as of this writing, we’re past $26,000. It’s more than a vacation fund now. It’s money they can use for medical bills or any other needs that will arise as they fight this. The founders of Give Forward have generously agreed to donate $25 for every post the dad bloggers publish (up to 40 posts), an additional $1,000. Click here to donate, if you like, or simply to leave Oren and his family a message of love and hope.

There is no moral here. No feel-good story, no happy ending. Not really. There is something, though, and it’s this: We can do good in this world when we act together out of compassion and love. What else is there?

Oren Miller

Oren Miller and family.

 

Thank You, Dad: a Father’s Day Appreciation

Dad and me, circa 1988 or '89. This would have been in Palm Beach Gardens. That young man on the left could (and still can) play a mean mandolin, and he could pick it at shortstop.

Dad and me, circa 1988 or ’89. This would have been in Palm Beach Gardens. That young man on the left could (and still can) play a mean mandolin, and he could pick it at shortstop.

My dad taught me how to play baseball and how to love music.

There are traits he possesses — stoicism, a quiet dignity, an abiding sense of (and appreciation for) the absurd — that I catch myself unconsciously trying to emulate every now and then.

I have never quite managed to match most of the character traits I admire most about my dad, but that’s OK. I can’t be him and he wouldn’t want that, anyway.

There is one thing, though, that I feel pretty fortunate to have absorbed. My dad, Vietnam veteran, itinerant sports fan (Reds, Phillies, Indians, Rays just in my lifetime), logical thinker, musician, and so much more — he is his own man. Even as he sacrificed for his family with career choices that might not have been as emotionally fulfilling as following the path of the singing cowboy, he knew who he was and everything I saw him do erupted from that knowledge.

Dad and me, circa 1972 or '73. Note the Dolphins helmet. And the sideburns.

Dad and me, circa 1972 or ’73. Note the Dolphins helmet. And the sideburns.

I am different from dad in a lot of ways, but in that way we are the same. He taught me baseball, and so much more that I might never fully appreciate. But one trait that is very much a part of who I am is a fierce independent spirit, and I can’t help but think I inherited that from dad.

Dad, thank you, and I love you.

Happy Father’s Day to all my readers! Is there something about you that you know your dad helped shape by example or through lessons taught? I’d love to hear about it in the comments here, or comment and give me a follow on the DadScribe Facebook community.

That little guy looking askance at that huge hunk of smelly leather would grow up to become a voter in the annual BBWAA Hall of Fame balloting. Dad got me started early on the game.

That little guy looking askance at that huge hunk of smelly leather would grow up to become a voter in the annual BBWAA Hall of Fame balloting. Dad got me started early on the game.

TODAY Parents: We’re in this together

TODAY Show

I’m proud to announce that I have joined TODAY.com’s new roster of contributors. With the shift to TODAY Parents from TODAY Moms, the website for the popular morning show is acknowledging the growing desire of dads everywhere to be seen as equal and equally engaged partners in parenthood. After all, moms and dads: We’re in this together.

Parents tell stories. It’s how we relate to one another. It’s how we cope, and how we thrive.

It’s also how we empathize with the blank, sleep-deprived stares we sometimes encounter as we try to engage other parents. We know what they’re going through.

How do we know?

Because we’ve been there — believe me, we can tell you all about it. Also, because we’ve listened to others who have been there.

Parents know what it’s like to wake up to a major diaper blowout in the middle of the night — only to find the box of baby wipes empty.

Parents know how it feels to experience all the firsts — the joy and pain, the rapture and agony. Parents also know that sometimes, the rapture and agony are the same thing.

Parents know what it’s like to bear the awesome responsibility of caring for another human being — a helpless, clueless, selfish, hungry, not hungry, sleepy, NOT sleepy, stubborn, funny, clumsy, loud, disobedient, angelic, possessed, loving, cute, smart, beautiful human being.

Parents know all this and more, and we love to talk or write about it.

The power of story-telling is to help us find common ground. A good story illuminates and entertains. A great story reveals something about ourselves that we might not have realized.

I started this online journal in February, 2012, because I wanted an outlet to share my family’s stories. It has evolved over the past two-plus years into a catch-all site for my musings on parenthood or politics, issues and trends, small moments and monumental milestones.

Always, it’s about the story. The individual chapters that make up the particular posts, and the big, sprawling, shared story of parenthood.

The Big Announcement

Now, I am thrilled to let you know that I’ll have another platform for story telling: TODAY.com.

The website for the popular TODAY Show invited me and five other dad writers from around the country to join a panel of regular contributors. The invitation coincided with a name change for the parenting section of the site. What once was known as TODAY Moms now is TODAY Parents. This marks a significant and welcome shift, an acknowledgment that the task of parenthood is a shared endeavor in many households around the country and the world, and that fathers — more than ever — want to be recognized as equal and equally engaged parenting partners.

This week, as a lead-up to Father’s Day on Sunday, the TODAY Show will feature fathers from around the country. TODAY Parents, meanwhile, will feature introductory posts from the new panel of writing dads. Our posts will reveal our favorite “dad hacks,” clever and simple solutions to those sticky situations parents sometimes find themselves in. Read ours this week, then go share your own parenting “hack” on Twitter and Facebook using the hashtag #DadHacks.

Here are my fellow Today Parents dad writers, with links to their personal websites:

Be sure to give these talented writers some love on their personal blogs, and please share our TODAY Parents work as often as you see fit. Check out (and follow) the TODAY Parents content on Facebook and Twitter, too

Finally, a favor. One of the reasons I chose to write about parenting is because being a father is such a big part of my self-identity. I can’t imagine anything more important for me to focus my creative energy on, and there might be no more fertile ground for funny, tragic, poignant or just plain insightful stories.

Tell me your story. Let me know what you think. Give me ideas to share with the TODAY Parents audience. Find me on Twitter or Facebook, or leave a comment on a DadScribe post. Make me laugh. Make me cry. Make me want to share what you have to say with the world.

That’s what we do, after all. We’re parents. We tell stories.