Moonlight and Dadhood

What makes a man a dad? Having a child? No. That just makes him a father.

What makes a man a dad is raising a child. Taking responsibility for that human being. Guiding and steering that child. Exposing that child to the world. Encouraging both effort and mistakes. And allowing that child to be who he or she is, whatever that is.

Moonlight, which last night won the Oscar for Best Picture, is about dadhood in the best sense. There’s no father in the film. The main character, Chiron, who grows up in three chapters, is parented by his mom, who’s a crack addict. Loving, but a crack addict. The only man Chiron seems to know is Juan, a drug dealer played by the brilliant Mahershala Ali, who won Best Supporting Actor.

The two meet when Chiron is a child, and though after that initial chapter we do not see Juan again, his essence remains, his effect as powerful as a fragrance. Lingering and influential. Juan becomes Chiron’s friend. He gives him a place to sleep, a refuge from the increasingly questionable home he shares with his mom. But most important, he gives Chiron swimming lessons. He takes him out into the Atlantic (the film is set in Miami) and shows him how to float, how not to drown. It’s wide open on that day, sun and sky, and two guys who somehow rely on each other. Juan holds Chiron’s head above water, and I think it’s safe to say that Chiron holds Juan himself above water. It’s a small yet stunning scene.

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Years later, we see Chiron as a grown man. The small child became a scrawny teenager and then later the exact opposite: a muscular man, a man with a confident swagger. Chiron grows into someone who looks like Juan, even down to the gold grill.

After the childhood he had, it’s no surprise to learn that Chiron is afraid. Who wouldn’t be? He’s afraid as we all are, wondering who he is, why he is, and where he’s going in this life. Through him, we come to realize who Juan really was—and we see how deep the impression can be of a man who steps up to be a kid’s dad. We saw Juan teach Chiron how to swim, how to make his way in the world. We saw Juan teach Chiron how to be.

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The brilliance of Moonlight is that is about a man we see who illuminates a man we don’t. Juan is a man who understood that he could be a dad without actually being a father. Though we don’t see how this affected him, we see what Juan left Chiron: a priceless roadmap into the future, in which a young boy finds the courage, over time, to be simply himself.

If that’s not being a dad, I don’t know what is.

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My Journey From Straight to Gay: Choosing Authenticity

The following was published, in a slightly different form, in March 2016 at The Huffington Post:

I have always wanted to be a dad. I was inspired by my own parents, who created a life in New Orleans (with my two younger sisters) that was as warm and sweet as the beignets at Café du Monde. My sisters and our parents and I did everything together. We went to movies, we talked, we hung out. We enjoyed one another’s company, and we still do.

At 32, I married Ellen. Like me, she was a writer. We met on the train platform while commuting to our jobs in New York. When we had children, we set out to make extraordinary people. Today our sons, Jeremy and Ian, are intelligent, kind, generous young men, quick to defend those who cannot defend themselves, and even quicker to find good in our hard-edged world. Frankly, I don’t know how we did it. We pretty much made up parenting every day — and our constants were dedication and love and a fierce sense of family.

tony buchsbaum

At the age of 48, I began to evaluate my life in a new way, grappling with the idea of family and thoughts about marriage and parenting.

The cause for all this questioning? In 2010 I began to feel that my sexuality was shifting. After a course of events that forced me to ask hard questions about myself and my life, I realized I was interested in men. My love for Ellen didn’t vanish, but now there was this curiosity. And more than curiosity, real interest. This was not something I’d felt before and hidden out of some sense of fear or shame. No. These were entirely new feelings, and even though I was curious about them, I was also terrified of how they would affect my family.

You can see my dilemma. I had a wife I adored. Kids I was wild about. I’d grown up expecting to be a husband and father forever. That was my personal standard. But what if I really were gay? We always talk about coming out. But in this case, it wasn’t about my coming out. It was about feelings that were suddenly coming out of me. If I let them out, would I lose my family? Would Ellen take everything from me, even my children?

My choice was this: I could try to bury these intensifying feelings and somehow power through a growing depression, day by day, for the rest of my life. Or I could have a series of affairs, dalliances that might satisfy these new feelings. Of course, that would mean lying to Ellen, to everyone. I would not be living a lie; I would be a living lie.

Well, neither of those was me. I had faith in my wife. Long before, we had agreed that real commitment wasn’t about being committed to who we were at that moment, but to the people we would become. I hoped that still held true.
When I told Ellen the truth, she was as worried as I was. What did this mean for our family? With her support — and even though I don’t drink or use drugs—I went into rehab for five days in an effort to unplug, reboot and gain some perspective. For two years afterward, we saw therapists together, focused on finding a solution.

Finally, on a stormy night in 2012, we admitted that the solution was to separate. It wasn’t what we wanted, but it seemed all we could do. Watching Ellen’s anger and sadness, I was desperate to make it all go away — but how? The next day, weeping as we raked damp twigs and dead, crackling leaves, I told her I didn’t want to be divorced. I told her I loved her. “I know you love me,” she said, “and I love you. But it’s not just about love. It’s also about desire.”

Our family spent time together, real time, quality time. We truly, deeply enjoyed one another’s company—and Ellen and I didn’t want to destroy that. So we decided to go in stages. We would separate but stay in our house, at least for the time being. I would live in the guest room, but first we had to tell the boys. What would they say? By then I knew that Ellen wouldn’t take them from me — but would they take themselves?
So on a Sunday afternoon, we told our sons we were separating. We told them we were not angry, that we still loved each other, but that I had come to realize that I was gay. We told them how important it was for us to be true to ourselves and courageous enough to live authentic lives, no matter what.

Jeremy, at the time 16, spoke first. “Can you and mom just promise me you won’t date the same guys?”

Ian, 12 then, said he was afraid everything would change. I told him I was the same man, the same dad, that I’d always been. He asked if he could spend some time thinking in his room. Later that afternoon we took a drive, and I asked him how we were doing. “I’m really proud of you for telling me the truth,” he said, then added, “And I’m really proud of myself that you were able to tell me the truth.” And that, really, was that.
Soon enough, life calmed down, and we all tried to get used to what was happening. I made some mistakes — this was all new to me, to all of us — but my sexuality was accepted and quickly became something we could all laugh about. In short, we did what we always do: we talked, we listened, and we cared.

Two years later, in December of 2014, Ellen and I divorced. It was collaborative. Both our lawyers noticed that we cared more for the other than we cared for ourselves, and I was happy that my love for her was obvious even to strangers. My “crime” was seeing my own sexuality change, like a rug pulled out from under me. From the start, Ellen understood that this was no one’s fault. For that I will always be grateful to her.

Nine months later, we sold our house. That was very hard, especially at the end, because it was the last thing Ellen and I owned together. It was our home, the only one Ian had ever known. The last morning, there was a lot of crying in those empty rooms.
Where are we now?

Jeremy is away at college, and Ian’s in high school. I see Ian and speak with Ellen almost every day. We’re both dating. We share a great deal of love and respect, and we’ve become the best friends we started as, riding the commuter trains to New York.
People tell me how brave I’ve been. But I don’t know. My own changes pulled the rug out from under me, and then I pulled the rug out from under Ellen. She was the brave one. I was just…authentic. I told the truth. I couldn’t show my kids that hiding one’s true self was the way to go. I had to show them that being authentic matters deeply, even when it causes pain.

Thanks to those same constants — dedication and love and a fierce sense of family — as well as respect and empathy, my family has not come to an end. It’s only changed. What was wonderful has become, well, a wonder.
There’s no training for momhood and dadhood. It really is do-it-yourself, and we really do just make it up as we go. I think, though, that we start with what we know. My parents were my example. They showed my sisters and me that parenting is both a journey and a partnership. And they showed me that family isn’t just where you go when there’s nowhere else to go.  It’s where you begin.

My 20-Year-Old Son Found A Perfect Metaphor For Fatherhood

Some months ago, for a large project I’m working on, my son Jeremy asked if he could write something about fatherhood. What he delivered took my breath away. I believe what he says can be applied not only to fatherhood but to anything at all.

 

A day does not go by that I don’t think about fatherhood in some way. At 20, I’m a little young for that, sure, but I wonder: How will I raise my kids to be good people who are confident, courageous, smart, kind, and respectful? I look to my father to shed a little light on that.

Jeremy Buchsbaum

I’ll start with an anecdote: I rock climb. Sometimes with a rope, sometimes without. When I use a rope, I need someone holding the other end to keep me from plummeting to my death, should my grip give. That person is the belayer. It’s not the belayer’s job to pull the climber up the wall. If that were the case, the climber would undergo no stress, build no strength, and gain no experience. The belayer’s job is to be there in case the climber falls. The belayer keeps the rope just slack enough so the climber doesn’t feel any tension on the way up and feels essentially alone on the wall. Yet the rope has to be taut enough so that if the climber falls, they don’t hit the ground or lose much progress on the wall. Climbing and belaying are hard things to do. There’s a foundation of trust that fuels the climber-belayer dynamic, and I can’t help but think fatherhood is similar.

My dad is my belayer, despite the fact that I don’t live at home anymore and don’t talk to him every day. I know, however, that he’s there when I need him. He’ll work out the problem with me and tell me about times he’s dealt with similar situations. He’ll tell me what he thinks is a good course of action, but only after hearing my story and exploring how I feel about what I’ve said. He is not a “helicopter parent.” That is, he doesn’t pull me up the hard parts of the wall and prevent me from climbing. Helicopter parents remove the essence of life from the lives of their children in the same way helicopter belayers remove the essence of climbing from their climber. Dad doesn’t remove my essence. Instead, he ensures that it thrives. It’s how his parents raised him, and it’s what I’ll do when my time to belay comes.

In defense of the helicopter parent, it’s got to be damn hard watching your climber do so well and then start to falter. As a wiser adult, you probably know how to get past that part, and the last thing in the world you want to see is your child fall. I get it. But how will they get stronger if they don’t have the chance to succeed or fail on their own? The answer is: They won’t.

One of the more underrated jobs of the belayer is their ability to encourage the climber to get back on the wall. They can suggest alternate courses of action or simply say, “Try that move again.” Teaching resilience, the power to get back on the horse — or wall, rather — is hard. It’s very hard when belaying, and I’m sure it’s difficult for fathers. The horse I’ve been on and off for a while has been romance. I found a girl and then it turned out I didn’t. Found another, same story. My pattern isn’t what I’ve wanted it to be, but my dad gets me back on the wall. I know one day I’ll reach the top of that wall, and half of the adventure is the journey, the climb. One of the only people who get me back on that wall is my father, and romance is just one example. Grades, friendships, enemies, jobs, really anything I do, Dad encourages me to get back on the wall and maybe try the maneuver a little differently. To “fail forward,” as one of my professors says.

My point is that from my perspective, fatherhood is not necessarily teaching kids to reach the summit. Rather, it’s to make them feel not so high up, while making them feel like they’re on top of the world. My dad taught that concept to me by showing me the peace sign and telling me a story. With two fingers in a V, he says, “My parents walk with me whatever road of my life I choose, and if I need their help or walk a bad road, they support me. They allow me to go down one path” — he traces up one of his spread fingers with his index finger to indicate that path — “and if that doesn’t work, they taught me to try another path the next time” — he traces back down the first finger and up the other one. Like his parents did for him, my dad can’t guarantee my success or my failure. He just tries to help my attitude through it all. And attitude makes all the difference.

How I see my father is derived from how he presents himself to me. How he looks at life and fatherhood is how I look at life: If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well. That’s so true, I think, and understanding that ensures you’re on the better road just by doing your best.

There are more people for you to love in the world than there are people who love you. That’s a little depressing, yet also an exciting reality. To me, it’s what keeps the chaotic river of life flowing. One of the people I know loves me, and whom I love, is my father. My life belayer.

New article at Huffington Post: “Wimpy Kid” Author Is No Wimpy Dad

Seems to me that if you’re a man who writes mega-successful kids’ books, you must know a thing or two about being a good dad. If nothing else, you have to know how to relate to kids and how to tell a good story that will engage them. I figured Jeff Kinney, the author of the Diary of a Wimpy Kid books, would be such a dad.

View More: http://jenniferciminophotography.pass.us/jeff-kinney
                                          Photo: Jenn Cimino
To read my interview with Jeff Kinney, click here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/58594eade4b0d5f48e1652c1?timestamp=1482248929445
And please like and share from there! It matters!

Are you today’s dad?

I sure am. If you are, too, shout it out!Screen Shot 2016-04-02 at 4.22.13 PM

I just put the Today’s Dad logo up at Teepublic. So you can put it on shirts of all kinds. Like the one here. (Style and color are up to you.)

When you wear the Today’s Dad shirt, you’re telling the world that you’re the kind of dad who’s involved, committed, engaged, and there.

Let people know you’re more than a father. Let people know you’re today’s dad.

More Batty Than Super

So, every dad reading this knows that half the fun—and maybe more than half the fun—of seeing superhero movies is to take your kids. Superhero movies are like peanut butter and jelly: classic father/son Americana. They’re rites of passage. They’re a hoot.

Until the hoots become boos.

Which brings me to Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. My son and I sat there as it unspooled. We knew it was going to be bad (the trailers promised us that). The question was: How bad?

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In a word: oy.

We sat and sat and sat, all three of us (my son brought a friend), and when the lights came up, we all looked at each other and smiled. And then the rants began. Here’s a partial recap (if you care about spoilers, maybe stop reading):

  1. The central conflict of the movie is that Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) thinks Superman (Henry Cavill) is a bad guy. Well, a potential bad guy. It seems that now Gotham and Metropolis are across the bay from each other, in the same universe. In this twin-cities world, the alien Superman is so powerful that people are wondering what would happen if he turned against poor, defenseless man? Not that he’s exhibited any leanings in that direction. Devious schemer Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) is just making it seem so, and people are buying it. In what world does this make sense? I rub my chin, thinking. Hmm. Maybe in the same world in which a billionaire businessman who’s known for the art of the deal, bankruptcy, TV shows, and bombast is actually taken seriously as a presidential candidate?
  1. Now, Bruce Wayne is supposed to be a pretty smart guy. Yet even he has fallen for Luthor’s media manipulations. He now believes the man wearing the colors of the American flag is a potential bad guy and should be outlawed, while he himself, all in black, the legendary character who’s just a costumed, well-outfitted vigilante, is the hero who will stop him.
  1. During the big bad climactic fight, Lois Lane (Amy Adams), in what can only be described as some miraculous telepathic moment, realizes that only she knows the location of the one weapon that will turn the tide in a battle that she has not laid eyes on. What’s more, when she goes to retrieve that weapon, it puts her in the kind of mortal danger that will force Superman to abandon that battle in order to save her, putting millions of lives at risk. Let me put this another way: The heroes are battling the new bad guy (because, after all, the only thing that can unite enemies is a common enemy), leveling buildings into rubble, killing countless thousands, and Lois Lane somehow divines, having witnessed not one moment of said battle, what the two caped men need in order to have a chance at winning. Riiiight.
  1. Our friend Lex Luthor has secret computer files that Bruce Wayne wants to see. When he finally gets his batty little paws on them, he finds videos about four human anomalies: Wonder Woman, The Flash, Aquaman, and Cyborg. Got it. This is movie marketing at its best: embed teasers for movies-to-come in the movies we’re watching. I have no problem with that. It’s fun. What I do have a problem with is this: Luthor’s PC folders are marked with Wonder Woman’s nestled Ws, the Flash’s lightning bolt, Cyborg’s dimensional C, and Aquaman’s stylized A. Now this pisses me off. How can these icons exist if the heroes don’t yet exist, at least in pop culture? This is the result of some doofus (maybe even one of the filmmakers) thinking it’d be cool to have Luthor already have the icons for the movies now in production. (Marketing!) Makes. No. Sense.

The movie has one (and I do mean one) original idea, and it’s not even a good one. In the first climactic battle, the one in which Batman and Superman beat each other up a bit, what’s the one thing that stops Batman, who has the upper hand, from killing Superman? It’s this—are you sitting down? Their mothers share the same first name. Yes, folks. That’s it. Batman finally has Superman under his well-armored boot, his neck mere moments from being snapped, and what stops him? “Martha.” Jeez Louise.

I’m only scratching the surface of the many things that are wrong with this movie. But blog posts can only be so long.

There is really just one good thing about this movie: Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot). She kicks ass. She’s a character we know almost nothing about, yet she comes in, lights up Bruce Wayne’s libido, and pretty much saves the day, nicely setting up her own film (due in 2017, with that nestled Ws icon front and center, no doubt).

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice exemplifies what’s wrong with Hollywood today. That is, for some filmmakers (hello, Zack Snyder), it isn’t about making a film that actually works. Heavens no. It’s about making movies that sound good in marketing. Who wouldn’t want to see Batman v Superman? Titans at each other’s throats! That’ll get ’em in the seats! By that time, whether the movie’s good or not is sort of beside the point. The money’s been plunked; after that, who cares?

I don’t know. Maybe I’m overthinking it. But was it just too much trouble to make this movie work as well on the screen as it did in the studio’s marketing department? Was that too much to ask?

“Dad, I was hit by a car.”

The last few days, I’ve been thinking about what impacts kids’ lives. This line of thinking was inspired by these seven words, which no parent wants to hear: “Dad, I was hit by a car.”

Car Driver Hitting Little Biker

It was a sunny, warm Thursday afternoon. My 15-year-old son, Ian, was biking home from school. It’s a mile-and-a-half ride that he does frequently. But this time, around the corner from home, he was crossing a driveway, and at the same time a woman was driving out of it. Ian thought she saw him, so he kept going. Unaware of him, she put her foot on the accelerator and hit him. He flew onto the hood of her car, then hit the pavement.

He told me later that those few seconds slowed to a crawl, like a series of frames in the movie playing in his mind. In the instant before impact, he knew she was going to hit him. In the split-second after that, he lost his balance. Felt himself hit the hood. Was aware that he was airborne, tumbling. Saw the pavement rush up at him. Put his arm out to break the impact. And then he was on the ground, dazed and scraped and bloody. The driver—a woman of about 70—helped him off the street and onto the grass, where he called his mother and me. Luckily, I was home from work that day.

I ran from my house, five minutes from where Ian was, and on the way I saw flashing police lights that I knew were heading for him. When I arrived, I threw my car into park, jumped out, and ran. I knew Ian was basically okay—after all, he’d called me—but I wanted to be next to him. I had to see him. Touch him. Hear him. His mother was already there, along with half a dozen police officers, paramedics, an ambulance, the woman who’d hit him, and a bystander who’d called 911.

“Are you his father?”

“Yes.”

I knelt in the grass next to him. There was a nasty scrape on his forehead and another on his arm. The blood was fresh, sparkling in the sunshine. Ian’s bike was twenty feet away, in the grass, the handlebars twisted 90 degrees.

On the way to the hospital, in the ambulance, Ian Snapchatted his friends. Word spread fast and concern poured in. I found myself grateful that Ian and his brother Jeremy go to the climbing gym so often. They know how to control their bodies. They know how to fall.

As a dad, I spend a lot of time in the moment, making what feel like snap decisions about steering my kids this way or that. But at the same time, I also look ahead to what my kids’ lives might eventually look like. Ian wants to make movies, and even at 15 he’s already writing scripts and directing short films. He meets these challenges like any filmmaker, with dedication, intelligence, and creativity.

When I look ahead, I see him on a set, at the center of an immense production, in charge of a battalion of technicians and actors. I see him on the stage at the Oscars. I see Ian as he might be, and I see him as he is. I see his commitment to writing, to fleshing out ideas, and to performing in his high school’s musicals, which he wanted to do originally because he was curious about how it would feel to be directed. I see his commitment to his friends. I see a young man who puts every last iota of effort into everything he does. I see a boy who cares, who knows that caring and effort and kindness matter, and who understands that if it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well.

I also see Ian with his family, with the kids he’ll have, enjoying quiet moments that will give him a lifetime of pleasure and memories. I also see that, like me, he will worry about all the things beyond his reach. One day he’ll realize, as I have, that there are things he simply can’t control, things he can’t direct.

Like a woman driving into him.

The things that impact our lives can be such small things. Every day, we all survive what will, a moment from now, be the past. But what about the future? The future is at the mercy, really, of everything we can’t control. Every other driver. Every other person. Every other everything.

After Ellen and I got pregnant, I used to talk about the wonder of tiny things. How, if the circumstances had been even slightly different, a different sperm would have reached the egg, and we’d have a different child now. Such small things. Tiny differences. It used to fascinate me, but now it frightens me deeply to know that massive impact can be caused by even the smallest incremental difference.

If the driver last Thursday had been going only one or two miles per hour faster, Ian might be in a very different place today. We all might. When my mind goes there, I imagine all the lost moments that haven’t even been moments yet. Ian’s work. His family. His joys and sorrows. His dreams. His reality.

When I look at my son, I feel such pride. I see how strong he is—and also how fragile. I see the impact he’s already having on the world, and I see the impact the world has on him.

What makes a father a father?

This post will launch what I hope will be an ongoing series of small posts by adults and kids my team knows. The question is above: What makes a father a father? The answer is, well, going to be different every time.

First up, my son Ian, age 12.

A great father is someone who will love his sons and daughters. One who’ll give his kids a great father-son experience or daddy-daughter day. When my dad takes me to the movies or to Starbucks to write, I get a warm feeling and I tell him how awesome he is. A good father must be involved in their child’s life, like helping his son ask out that special someone or care for him after the breakup. Good dads are lenient, but not so much that the child will feel free enough to do whatever they want. If a dad yells at their kid, it’ll make them frightened and lower their self-esteem. They’ll be scared into good behavior—but the father is blinded by that and doesn’t see that their child is afraid of them. So, a great father doesn’t scare their kids into good behavior, but instead quietly teaches them what they should and shouldn’t do and lets them learn from their mistakes.

 

Raiders of the Lost Childhood

Part of the joy of being a dad is reliving moments of your childhood with your kids. This afternoon, I took my son Jeremy to see Raiders of the Lost Ark on the big screen. I saw it, like most people, when it was first released in 1981, and I can still remember how amazed I was as Steven Spielberg’s homage to movie serials and James Bond unfolded.

Harrison Ford’s Indiana Jones was indelible from the moment he stepped from the shadows and brandished his whip for the first time. Seeing it today, I realized how much of this movie uses shadow to tell its story.

Things happen off-screen, shown to us only in shadow, and I was impressed all over again by how Spielberg tells his story with such artfulness. That moment when Marian Ravenwood (Karen Allen) turns around and sees him in her bar in Nepal—we don’t see him, we see her, and he’s depicted by a huge shadow on the wall behind her. Even so early in the film, we know his face by then, and we get to know more of both of them by watching only her expressions. It’s a wonderful, rich moment, and there are countless others throughout the film.

Another great moment is when the crowd parts to reveal the Egyptian with the massive sword. He spins it this way and that—and Indy, having already had a stresssful day, just shoots the guy.

I also love the moment when Indy confers with Sallah and Marian about how he’ll catch the truck carrying the ark, and he says, “I don’t know. I’m making this up as I go.” This isn’t just Indy talking; it’s the screenwriter, too. The line sets the tone for these films and so many others like them: the hero is a pinball, bouncing from moment to moment, unsure what the situation will throw his way.

I’d forgotten just how layered the film was—but even better was sitting beside Jeremy in the dark theater. This wasn’t the first time he saw Raiders, but all the other times have been on TV or DVD. So in a way, this was the first time—the first time we saw it together, as it was meant to be seen, larger than life.

A couple of years ago, we watched it on DVD with my other son, Ian. Ian said he thought it would suck because the special effects would be so terrible. I told him to wait and see. When it was over I asked Ian if the special effects had sucked as much he thought they would. He said, “What special effects?” How could I not smile? I explained that was the whole point. He’d been so caught up in the story that he forgot to look for them, and they were done so well that they hadn’t called attention to themselves.

Anyway, these moments mean so much to me as my sons grow up—and in a way, as I grow up too. Every time we sit in the dark together, at home or in a theater, watching movies that are my cultural touchstones, I get to see them for the first time because I see them through my kids’ eyes. And even better, I know these same movies will become their touchstones as much they’re mine.