Never Give Up

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One of my best friends is a former editor of a major tennis publication. I used to be a tennis reporter. We both grew up loving the game and its history. Put us alone in a room, and we can talk for hours about matches played decades ago.

So yesterday, a few minutes after the US Open women’s final, my friend who lives in New York and soon will move to China called me in Honolulu where I was on the treadmill at the Y watching the match and squeezing in exercise while my daughter was in her hula class. In the ’80s and even ’90s, Robin and I would have had to negotiate long in advance this kind of conversation about the last Grand Slam singles match of the year for the women.

Truth be told, the final was not too exciting. Robin and I both agreed that Sloane Stephens rose to the occasion while Madison Keys appeared frozen about the prospect of winning her first major title.

Both young women had returned to the tour only recently from major injuries and surgeries, so to have gone this far in the US Open was for either world-class player an unexpected dream.

Sloane spoke about dreams in her trophy acceptance speech: “Parents, never give up on your kids” while acknowledging all the sacrifices her mother, a star swimmer at Boston University, had made to give her daughter opportunities to dream about holding a major championship trophy some day.

“I think parents don’t get enough credit. When I was 11 years old, my mom took me to a tennis academy. One of the directors there told my mom that I’d be lucky if I was a Division II player and I got a scholarship.”

HulaI could write on about being underestimated many times in my life, but this post isn’t about me. It’s about Sloane, her message about parents that we can never hear enough, and a reminder about why I wake up every day: to give my daughter every opportunity I can. I will never, not for one second, let someone else decide her limits. She has already surpassed predictions. Like Sloane and Madison, she will help pave the way for the world to be more inclusive, welcoming of diversity, and for life to be lived on a more level playing field.

 

 

 

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Venus Rising

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Ruckmann-by Kubota!I’ve watched the US Open from different places in the world and different stations in my life for more than 40 years — yes 40!

I began watching it as a boy when the championships were still played on grass tennis courts, then briefly on clay when some still referred to the tournament as Forest Hills, and then on hard courts in Flushing Meadows.

I’ll never forget watching two finals exactly 20 years ago. Princess Diana had just died and a Canadian who later adopted British citizenship named Greg Rusedski made it to the last day of the tournament. I have always loved symbolism and tried to talk to my boyfriend at the time how moving it was for Greg to wear a black armband to signify he was in mourning for Diana as so many of us were. Just a few days earlier, I had placed a bouquet at the gates of the British Embassy in Washington.

He was my first boyfriend, and he didn’t want to hear about Diana, Greg, nor about my love for tennis nor symbolism.

On the women’s side, a 17-year-old debuted at the Open and reached the final before she lost to Martina Hingis. I remember feeling sorry for her because she lost badly after such a brilliant run, and Martina, never the most gracious player on the court, mocked her a bit after she won the first set 6-0. I also, though, took a deep breath when she received her runner-up check from Tony Trabert, an elder statesman of the game who won the title twice in the ’50s. Tony, one of the most gracious ambassadors the sport has ever known, said kind words to the young woman who stared past him and then tossed the check into her belongings like it was an old grocery list.

What a difference 20 years make! Venus Williams is now herself one of the most gracious ambassadors tennis has ever known and she is in the semifinals again at age 37!

As for Martina Hingis? She retired twice from singles competition partly because Venus and her sister Serena began to easily outhit and win routinely against her. No stranger to controversy that includes a two-year suspension from the game, Martina is still winning championships in doubles.

Tony Trabert? A father of five and grandfather of 12, he has been referred to as “an American treasure.” As a boy, I once wrote Tony Trabert to find out about earning a scholarship to his tennis school. I’ll never forget receiving a personal, handwritten note from Tony thanking me, encouraging me to love and pursue the sport, and to apply for a scholarship. I instead went to music camp that summer, but I still have Tony’s note.

My first boyfriend? The relationship more or less lasted a year. Truth be told, I believed back then that my first serious boyfriend should be the man I marry. I’m so glad I revised my dreams! Sometimes things need to change. I’m just glad, though, that some things, like Tony Trabert and Venus Williams playing her way far into the second week of the US Open, and my love for tennis and the history of the sport seem to last forever.

 

Huggers

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GrünTagMy daughter loves hugs. She enjoys giving and receiving them. She trusts easily, sometimes a little too readily. When she seeks affection or attention, she will often say to a person, “I love you.”

Ellen Bear recently said good-bye to a young boy at the YMCA, a classmate in her hula and Hawaiian Studies class and not someone we know too well yet. She called him Sweetie. When Ellen had her back turned, the boy poked his sister and gave her the same term of affection my daughter had given him, only in a slow, mocking voice. He did it twice.

I observed all this and tried to hold myself back. When he did it a third time, I went up to him, smiled, and said gently, “Guess what? My daughter was being nice to you. If you want to mock her for that, have the courage to do it to her face.”

My husband and I have had many conversations with Ellen about overhugging, about discerning when a person wants a hug and when not. We’ve even tried to define boundaries such as

  1. Hug only guests who come to our home and share a meal
  2. Hug only your teachers

Before and since Ellen was born, my husband and I have heard and read many instances of people with Trisomy 21 basking in hugs. We do not want Ellen to be a stereotype.

We also have two main fears about our daughter being overly generous with affection. First, that she shows it to the wrong person. Second, that she will be mocked and in much harsher ways than she was at the Y.

For the latter, I can’t, nor would I want to control every interaction my child has with her age peers. What I can do is try to reinforce, even role-play appropriate boundaries.

I’m still learning boundaries myself. Having come from a German-American home, we didn’t hug too often, especially in public. I joke with my mother that my yearly hug allowance with her is two. I startle her sometimes by telling her I love her even though I don’t have to. I’ve never doubted my mother’s love nor the other way around.

I’m pretty generous when it comes to hugging my daughter. Then again, I’m someone who has usually worn his heart on his sleeve, a blessing and a curse.

It’s always a balance, every day. I wrote most of this post before Ellen woke up. When she did, I hugged her.

 

 

Overachievers, Late Bloomers, and Trailblazers

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Ben und Ellen!Yesterday my husband and I met with our daughter’s new teacher and her counselor after school. We reviewed Ellen’s strengths and areas for improvement as a young learner and as a girl finding her way in second grade.

Yes, the girl has Trisomy 21, also known as Down Syndrome. Yes, Ellen is already a trailblazer. Blessed with excellent health and a nimble mind, she has already achieved a great deal for any girl her age. She is a Brownie. She’s in a hula and Hawaiian Studies class on weekends. She is bilingual. She adores reading. She’s a pretty good speller. She’s being brought up in two faith traditions and attends a Sunday school. She’s embraced by the YMCA community, our family’s second home.

And for all that, she may need, at least for now, extra support, even one-on-one assistance in subjects like math.

I looked around the classroom where my daughter spends many days. The walls, decorated with children’s work, maps, and illustrations, protected us from the sudden downpour outside. The chalkboard, a multi-colored roadmap to navigating a second grader’s day, showed me one of many ways my daughter is being guided to her potential.

And then I took in the participants for our after-school conference, all members of Team Ellen: the counselor, like me, slowly graying at the temples, unlike me preternaturally calm, who stated why we were all there — “To reach agreement on what the next steps are to help Ellen reach her eventual goal: graduation from high school and her acceptance and graduation from college”; Ellen’s generous, smart teacher whose insights after knowing my daughter for just three weeks are right on the mark yet who looked grateful when I wanted to share more and who stated what she wants most for all her students: A Never Give Up Attitude; my husband, the definition of wisdom and clear, measured logic; and me, Mr. Wear My Heart on My Sleeve.

I held up pretty well, though. My relief turned into streams of gratitude for Team Ellen that began to overflow as much as the creek near our home rushed free past its traditional path as the rain continued.

I looked at my daughter this morning with more tranquility than I usually do. The rain had ceased hours ago. Ellen may stumble now and then, but I have a hunch she will be like me: a late bloomer and bit of an overachiever who is unexpectedly, and not entirely by choice, a trailblazer. She is lucky to have Team Ellen, which keeps growing every year, to help her stay on track.

What Ifs

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Ruckmann-by Kubota!Dear Readers,

One of my best friends has been grappling with a major life decision. It would involve a move to another continent, and for her a new culture, language and lifestyle for a new job. She would be leaving behind a great deal for a fresh start in the late summer or early autumn of her life.

I tried to be a good listener during our phone call yesterday and offer a helpful perspective.

I told her about my living in New York City for a year, where she is now, and my dreams of living in Europe in a German-speaking country. At the time, I was 21 years old, still a fresh graduate from college with a degree from a respected journalism school. I was working a full-time job for an estate attorney for the German Consulate, a part-time job for a weekly newspaper in Brooklyn, and attending evening Business German classes at New York University.

I was a young man from a modest socioeconomic background who had led a very sheltered life as a member of a vast German-American family with no gay role models save for a much older second cousin whom my father and one of his brothers mocked openly. (They later told me I was too sensitive when I objected to their portrayal of this mystery relative I had never met. They also, with great concern, asked my mother if I were trying to pass on a secret message that I might be gay.)

I knew I liked being a man, so any image of a drag queen made me retreat deeper into the closet. I was terrified of AIDS. I knew I wanted to be respected by my family, so I breathed great sighs of relief every time I won a national poetry award, a match on my college tennis team after which I would call my parents, and, after one year of living in New York City, received a Fulbright scholarship, to this day still a great shock! I also tried to act straight, which must have been pretty funny to all who knew in their hearts that I wasn’t. I explored a lot of New York the one year I lived there because I didn’t drive and walked everywhere. One day, passing through Grand Central Terminal on my way to work, a gentleman asked if I had ever tried modeling. He gave me a card.

I was horrified and curious at the same time. To make a long story short, I eventually was featured in one national ad for sweaters along with a dozen other young men. They wanted us to represent countries from around the world, and they gave me a haircut to make me look like I might have come from Holland or Germany.

I left the modeling world pretty quickly. I knew I couldn’t hold a candle to the stunning acquaintances I made who were auditioning for the same part-time gigs I was. I was also scared out of my wits.

What if I became real friends with some of these guys? Then I would be gay, right? Then I would get AIDS, right? Then I would die young, right? And my family would be humiliated, right?

To make another long story short, I moved to Austria, lived in a monastery, taught in two schools, studied translating at the University of Vienna, and wrote poetry. The wonderful Fulbright administrators in Vienna approved my scholarship for a second year. I left the monastery, worked at an embassy, tried to date women, and played a lot of tennis with many straight men. I was terrified a few might realize I was actually gay even though I had not yet accepted that fact. After some years, I returned to the United States. I married a woman. I wanted children.

Oh boy.

My convoluted message to my dear friend yesterday was “Take chances. You may never know if they will come your way again. You don’t want to wake up 20 years from now and think, ‘What if?'”

And that lead me to thinking.

What if I had not moved to Austria but had dated men in the ’80s in New York City? Would I still be alive? What if I had stayed in the monastery in Austria? What if I had never married a woman I loved? What if I had never taken a chance a few years ago in the summer of my career and had not persuaded my family to move to Hawaii. What if I had not persuaded my husband to try parenthood?

I have no amazing answers. All I can write is that I feel fortunate that life has turned out to be a marathon and that I try to savor every mile even when I’m exhausted! I try not to overthink the miles before and after. Sometimes I just decide to run them.

So, to my dear friend in New York, whatever decision you make, keep the faith and know I and many others will be rooting for you!

 

 

Best Friends

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Dear Readers,

Unsere kleine KatzeI was cleaning our home at the end of a long Saturday and ahead of a busy Sunday: hula and Hawaiian Studies class at the YMCA Saturday morning; homework; late lunch at our daughter’s favorite restaurant; sports to improve her hand-eye coordination; reading and story retention practice; sleep!

This was before Sunday faith service and school; reading and math practice; a trip to Ellen’s favorite museum; more reading.

When Ellen made it to bed Sunday, I showed my husband what I found during cleaning on Saturday evening: a note Ellen had written when we encouraged her to spend some time on her own with both her parents in the house but during a needed break when we were all taking a little alone time.Ellen und ihre Lehrerin

How can someone be my best friend? Please can someone be my best friend?
Love, Ellen

Oh, boy. My heart stopped when I first read my seven-year-old daughter’s note.

My daughter is adored by her two fathers. I miss her when I’m at work. I miss her when I’m asleep! In Hawaii, she has aunties and uncles who love her but don’t see her often. Last year, she had a once-in-a-lifetime teacher who changed her life — and ours.

Ellen plays with a lot of kids at school and at the YMCA. She knows other kids in Dharma (Sunday) School and Girl Scouts.  She has birthday parties although she herself has not been invited to any for two years. We have had a few playdates at our home. We put the word out that we would like more. Responses are kind, but there have been no commitments aside from a recent playground acquaintance.

My husband and I are treating that bit of promise carefully, trying not to go overboard while still being hopeful.

Ellen’s playground friend is also seven years old, in second grade, loves to play. Unlike Ellen, she has a sibling and she was not born with an extra chromosome. She has a mother and a father.

She and Ellen have exchanged a few notes and small gifts that they have brought with them when they have met at the playground. We hope in the near future to have a family meal together.

But we offer Ellen words of caution: take it slowly. Ellen usually does not. She loves to embrace kids, call them Sweetie, her Best Friend. We have told her it takes time to get to know someone and that best friends are truly a special gift. We have even told her that if she showers too much affection on people she doesn’t know too well, she will be mocked.

We know that may happen anyway given Ellen’s extra chromosome. But since she was born and a few national experts told us she was very healthy and had great potential, we have tried as parents and encouraged others to treat her just like any other young girl.

My daughter and I are very much alike. When I was a teenager, I wrote a poem called Nantucket SmoothieVerses where I compared myself to a seagull flying too close to people, hoping for food and leaving hungry. The poem won a major award, but poetry did not always cure long stretches of feeling alone.

I kept taking my chances, though, on tennis courts all over the world, in book and running clubs, poetry and music groups, places I’ve worked and studied, faith groups, the scary world of dating, reconnecting with my family. Eventually I found friends, even those I would consider best friends.

I have one now, thousands of miles away, whom I can call at any time of day for any reason. I love her as much as any sibling or cousin. She is there for me no matter what. I can also count on her to give it to me straight, so to speak, a real gift.

So I’ve told my daughter it takes time, to be patient, to really get to know people and try to observe how they are responding.

It’s taken me decades to acquire this wisdom and I’m still learning! In the meantime, though, my daughter has two best friends already: her two dads.

Finding Normalcy

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In a week of incomprehensible actions and inactions by the chief occupant of the White House, I’ve been heartened and disheartened by the responses and non-responses to Donald Trump’s refusal to single out white supremacists and neo-Nazis who rallied just one weekend ago in Charlottesville, Virginia.

I don’t know about readers of this blog, but my new norm is to check the headlines every couple hours on my computer, stare at them for a few seconds in disbelief, take deep breaths and sometimes a five-minute walk to process, and, if I feel the world is in danger like I did a few weeks ago when Donald was thumping his chest about North Korea, start to recite The Lord is My Shepherd.

HulaAnd then I look for reassuring ways to make life seem normal again: take our gorgeous daughter to hula class, or plan a mildly exhausting but satisfying family outing on one day of a three-day weekend. (I love that Hawaii observes three state holidays connected just to Hawaii in addition to recognizing national holidays!)

Or dig below the top tennis headlines to find out about the vicissitudes of careers of players who probably aren’t household names. There have been a few this weekend. Melanie Oudin and Vera Zvonareva have tasted the highs and lows of the professional tour for many years. After health setbacks and a few comebacks that have stalled, Melanie has decided to retire. She had many memorable moments early in her career when she was very young, particularly at the US Open, but she now is struggling to win matches on the ITF Tour, the minor leagues for professional players. Vera just played her first match on the main tour in two years after taking a long break to get married, have a child, and earn another Master’s degree. She now hopes to qualify for the US Open where she was once was a finalist.

I take in all this news — too much at times — and have to drink lots of water so I don’t get dizzy and start to overthink about which Democrats or Republicans may retire or strive for comebacks, about which fans may respond to them, about which sponsors — in Donald Trump’s case corporate chieftains, his arts council, and members of his evangelical advisory board — will hold true to them.

And then I go back to basics or what has become for me the familiar and beloved: family time, raising a child, checking off work deadlines.

In her retirement tweet, Melanie Oudin thanked friends and family, coaches, fitness trainers, physios, sponsors and her agent. I wonder if Donald will thank as many people when he retires. Not to overthink again, but I wonder if he might want to retire a little early rather than strive to stay on the political circuit in Washington, D.C.

I’m a ways from considering any kind of retirement. I savor what I have now: parenthood, family, a satisfying job in a great school. Like Melanie, I know what I appreciate most: a team effort.

 

 

Mahalo, Senator Schatz

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I was probably too stunned to cry last night, and I think I still am.

What I can do is thank Senator Brian Schatz, from the great state of Hawaii, for inspiring me after he stated “As a Jew, as an American, as a human, words cannot express my disgust and disappointment. This is not my President.”

I am now stating that as a gay man, as a human, as a father of a daughter born with an extra chromosome, as a citizen, I am forevermore beyond hope for the current occupant of the White House.

Sure, as an optimist, I’ve thought that Ivanka and Jared might have had a few meaningful conversations with the grandfather of their children. Or that Elaine Chao, who came to the United States as a young immigrant from China, might wake up at midnight, decide that enough is enough, resign, and show greater loyalty to her husband, Mitch McConnell, whom Trump has publicly humiliated, than to the man who nominated her as Labor Secretary. Or that Melania might say to her husband, “Take a good hard look at yourself in the mirror and ask what messages you’re sending to our young son.”

But even if any of those scenes actually played out, I truly doubt it would change what Trump has now broken: faith that the person occupying his current office will protect and preserve civil rights.

There is a silver lining: more and more citizens of the world are expressing out loud their commitment to diversity, inclusion, and to respect the rights and worth of every individual.

 

 

Many Sides

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Even before yesterday, Charlottesville and for that matter vast parts of Virginia would not be places my husband, daughter, and I would travel together. We have strong connections to West Virginia, but we won’t be walking down streets in that state holding hands together anytime soon either.

Since Donald Trump moved into the White House or has visited upon occasion when he isn’t staying at his resorts at taxpayers’ expense, much of the United States no longer feels safe to me. On my own, I might “pass” for straight (although even many of my friends may dispute that!), but I sure would be giving my real identity away were I with my husband and our daughter who was born with an extra chromosome.

Mark Twain, who hailed from America’s heartland, once wrote of Hawaii, “It is the only supremely delightful place on earth.”

No place is perfect, and as a guy of northern European heritage who can’t speak Hawaiian pidgin, I am reminded at least twice a week by well-meaning and sometimes not so well-meaning people that I did not grow up here. But all in all, in the part of the state we live, my family has been warmly embraced by the communities where we work, live, learn and play. We’re even featured by one of those communities in a national diversity effort.

It does take effort, and in many cases years, to open minds and hearts. A decade passed after I came out of the closet before some of my immediate family could acknowledge publicly, without embarrassment, that I am gay. After I brought my husband to a family reunion as my husband, the first time a same-sex couple in my vast family had done so, I was chastised for being a little too open about the nature of our relationship. Now, fortunately, I have several gay cousins, many of whom are also raising children, who no longer have to pretend or be subtle and taciturn in ways no one has ever expected from a straight member of my extended family.

My husband and I are very grateful for ending up in a part of the United States where we can be proud of who we are and raise our daughter to be proud of who she is — and appreciated.

Donald, do your part so that all families can feel this way in the other 49 states you are president of. By condemning yesterday as an “egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides,” rather than calling it by its name, white supremacy, you’re making the Land of Opportunity a No Man’s Land.

The Little Things That Help Us Get Through the Day

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Ruckmann-by Kubota!After a pretty lousy night’s sleep, I climbed out of bed grateful for a new morning.

With a six-hour time difference from the Mainland, I usually watch news reports about the Continental United States that is well into its day.

Fortunately, this morning, my daughter insisted on watching her show while she did advance homework for second grade.

That gave me a little more time to brace myself for the latest headlines on my computer like Guam Threatened, or the more terrifying North Korea to Create ‘Enveloping Fire’ in Guam.

For me at least I’ve come to expect the completely unexpected from the chief occupant of the White House. Yesterday, I thinks it’s safe to say I was one of millions he scared the dickens out of, especially, and most immediately, women and men on Guam, with his threat that North Korea will be “met with fire and fury.”

Here’s an idea: why not have the Commander in Chief, who actually never served in the military, leave the comfort of his extended vacation at his golf resort and fly to Guam and other places in our neck of the Pacific to offer a few reassuring words?

The likelihood of that happening? I think it’s more possible that Billie Jean King, who is the same age as Donald Trump, will come out of retirement and win Wimbledon again.

So in this current twilight zone of looking ahead to the future and trying to greet it with hope rather than dread, what are a few of the little things that keep me grounded?

  1. Helping my daughter navigate her first days of second grade
  2. Talking with my husband but knowing well enough not to overtalk
  3. Having very concrete goals at my job and checking them off
  4. Keeping track of daily tennis results
  5. Taking walks
  6. Writing
  7. Responding whenever possible to anyone I see with kindness and gratitude

What is helping all of you, Dear Readers? Whether in Guam, Hawaii, New Jersey, Washington, D.C., or anywhere else, we are all in this together. Let’s reach out to each other.