the sperm diaries: volume 1

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My sperm are slow.

I don’t mean ‘slow’ as in ‘not very smart’.

My sperm have an impressively high IQ and sharp wit – if I do say so myself. They are NOT developmentally delayed or slow learners; make no mistake, these are not short-bus sperm.

My sperm are just slow. Physically.

They swim in slow motion. It’s a fact. Countless doctors have confirmed it. I have changed my underwear size, style, fit – and brand – numerous times to accommodate my little swimmers. I’ve slept in awkward positions; had sex in even more unconventional positions than I thought possible. I’ve even had surgery to give them a little boost. But no matter what, they seem to have one speed. Slow. They’re not lazy; I like to call them leisurely. My sperm don’t run, they stroll. The actual term is motility. ‘Poor motility’ – that’s what they call it when your sperm are like mine. It’s not an insult, dirty little secret or scarlet letter condition; they are not doomed and they don’t deserve to be shamed. They number in the kazillions, so there is no shortage; they are not endangered, but all of them, each and every one likes to take it’s own sweet time.

My sperm and I were supposed to be a father by now.

Our mantra is this: We may be slow but eventually we’ll get there. My sperm may not have speed on their side; but they have endurance. Like me. We are in it for the long haul.

“Hey Isaac, get in here. You have GOT to see this.”

The large, hairy man yelled. I was lying on my side, in what most members of the male species would consider the ‘vulnerable’ position. The backside of my dime-store hospital gown was gaping wide open as if to say, hi, come on in and have a look around; my smooth, 22-year-old bum faced an open doorway that someone named Isaac or Elijah was about to pass through. The man hollered again, “Hurry up, come take a look.” I don’t remember their names though I’m pretty sure the big one was named Abraham. And not I’m sure this is exactly what he said. They both spoke Yiddish. Their words muffled beneath shaggy, decade old beards; they wore prayer shawls, colorful yarmulkes – their dark features framed by long, well quaffed ringlets. Following a routine health exam by my primary care physician in a swank upper east side office – a stones throw from fifth avenue– the WASPY hood where I felt most at home – my insurance company referred me to ‘one of the cities top fertility experts.’ This is how I ended up half-naked on an exam table in a run down lower east side office building, adjacent to a turn of the century synagogue and a famous Jewish delicatessen.

The smell of lox and fresh baked bialys (onion flavored) wafted in through an open window while I jerked off into a plastic cup facing an ancient menorah. I said a prayer to every God I had ever heard of (and a few I made up) as this alleged fertility specialist and his assistant co-examined me. These two 50 year old Orthodox Jewish doctors seemed to me to be just a couple of rubber gloved rabbis rummaging around in my private altar. I guess this is what they mean when they that a prostrate exam can be a religious experience. If this sounds like something a 22-year old yuppie in training does for fun, as a hobby, or just to kill time on a lazy winter afternoon, you’re dead wrong. I wasn’t doing this for fun or for adventure. I wasn’t even doing for me. I was doing it for my bride. Molly and I had been married a few days south of a year.

This humiliating, humbling and potentially violating exam was an anniversary present of sorts. It may have been my inaugural probe by men of the Jewish faith but this wasn’t my first fertility exam.

This had been going on for a while. As far as family planning is concerned, we were more premature than, you know what. The conversation started sometime around our third date. We were determined to have children. We were destined to have children. We were catholic. We were required to have children.

It was a fertile attraction from the beginning.

She was attracted to my sperm.

I was attracted to her eggs.

On our first date she packed a little picnic and we spent hours in a park dodging the intermittent rain showers sharing family stories, our childhood highlights and our matching desires to have a big family of our own. My mother has 13 brothers and sisters; my father has eight. Each of them averages five offspring that includes my immediate tribe. On our second date we went to church and the sermon was about the virtues of a family. Be fruitful and multiply. And on the third date – we got naked. When you partake in any version of sex without the immediate goal of making babies, the Church calls it ‘wasting the seed.’

After a session of seed wasting, recklessly spilling our baby batter in every room (there were only 2) of my collegiate apartment, we rested; and that’s when she noticed it. A large mass in my left testicle. She admittedly had never felt a man’s nutsack before (my word – not hers) but she sensed something wasn’t quite right about this one. She grabbed and groped and tugged. She was studying it. Analyzing. I think you should have that looked at. She said. YOU’RE looking at it. I replied. Who else did you have in mind? She paused, dramatically: A professional. A professional what? I joked. But she wasn’t joking.

This was serious.

I had been aware of the growth for years now. I always been a bit curious about the size and shape, how it felt, how it looked, how it differed from the right one – but I was never worried. I was actually a little proud of my rather large left testicle. I held it in high regard. But as she held it in the palm of her hand and swirled it around in her fingers, I got a little concerned. This was not the way I had imagined the evening. Although the date started with me getting lucky; I ended up getting diagnosed. We were juniors at the University. I ran in a social circle where people inquired your GPA and your SAT scores but no one had ever asked about my sperm count until her.

I want to get to know your sperm.

I think you should too. Let’s think about it as a research project. I guess you can’t blame her. When you buy a car, you kick the tires, check the engine, you test-drive it. You have mechanic look under the hood. In our fledgling relationship, she was the mechanic. Spring term at the Student Health Center isn’t exactly hopping with 19 year olds exploring their future fertility. Most of the horny undergrads are trying to NOT have children. When I arrived for my appointment, I noticed colored condoms in candy dishes, flyers about abortions and posters by Planned Parenthood to support unplanned pregnancy. No one seemed to be in there to find out, how to improve their chances of getting someone knocked up. The fair-haired, mild mannered, overly anxious urologist-in-training smiled when his ice-cold hand (no glove) grabbed my balls. I winced. After a bit of groping and a few um hmm-ing, he explained he had seen this before. Not in real life, only in textbooks. He studied the mass with the same enthusiasm as Molly had. But was actually a little gentler; a little more reverence. He was actually in awe.

This is quite a beautiful specimen. He blurted out.

Well, thank you, I think.

I think I said.

He knew what was going on down there – and seemed more fascinated than concerned. I was relieved. It wasn’t going to kill me. I thought.

It’s not going to kill you. He said.

But it is killing your sperm. Which come to think of it, he said, I’m going to need. I’m going to need to look at your sperm. Semen actually. I need to test it. Now.

I explained that neither my sperm nor I were not prepared for a test. Can we come back later? We may as well do it now. He insisted. You’re here. I’m here. And with a little porn and a few minutes, I’m pretty sure they’ll show up too.

A ‘varicocele’ is an interconnected group of thick, engorged, unwieldy varicose-like veins, hence the name. The veins expand and grow inside the scrotum and wrap themselves like vines around the testicles. To the touch, it feels like a massive wad of intestines or an odd shaped spool of squishy yarn. When this network of veins – that circle the semen-manufacturing planet as if part of a sexual solar system – fill with blood the effect is a rising temperature, it becomes a microscopic microwave – a global warming of the groin. In other words, it gets really hot in there.

My sperm – it turns out – were sweating. They were hot –trapped in a little sperm sauna. By the time they got released from their steam room/Jacuzzi and catapulted into the great abyss of her sea they are already exhausted and parched. And as a result, slow. So there it was. The sperm are slow because they’re overheated. At least that was the theory. This novice Doogie Howser-like doctor told us that that the best way to reduce the heat is to reduce the blood flow and prevent the little pools of blood from forming. The thinking was, the lower the temperature, the more mobile the sperm. In the bestcase scenario, removing this mass of veins and the engorged blood tunnels would reverse the heating effect and improve the motility.

It was 1987, years before advances in fertility treatments and the proliferation of the ease and elegance of laser surgery. At the time, the only way to remove the varicocele was to cut it out. To gut the nutsack. Then like a gastric bypass like surgery– they would tie off the remaining ones – strangling them and stopping the blood flow. The surgeon simply removes a large section of the veins. It’s like weeding a garden. Then poof. Fertility. But wait, not so fast. There was a catch. There was no guarantee this would improve the motility, the count or the maturity of the sperm. The odds were 50/50 at the best. I could have it cut out and then test the sperm and hope it made a difference. The other alternative was to wait until we were trying to have children and hope for a miracle – that there was at least one little sperm that could. We could out for the hero.

The strange thing was this – we didn’t even know that we couldn’t conceive. We hadn’t tried. We hadn’t even had intercourse. But there was also the risk of waiting too long, doing irreparable damage and thus preventing us from ever having the chance. Whenever a sharp object goes anywhere near the zip code of your scrotum, balls or penis, you want to be awake for it. You want to be watching carefully. I was knocked out. Drugged. Anesthetized.

I never saw the actual blade of the knife pierce my pure white, virgin, Swedish hairless skin but the aftermath suggests a butcher at work. The incision starts just above my pelvis and heads northwest in a jagged line stopping just before my left testicle. The scar is in the ballpark of 6 inches long. Given the fact that on average, men lie about length in that arena by at least 2 inches – you do the math. But it’s there. Every time I shower, every time I have sex, every time I don’t have sex – it’s there – a tattooed reminder of the first stop in a long journey to being a father.

We were so young. We were still virgins. We weren’t engaged or betrothed, so there was no hurry to have them cut into my manhood now – certainly not before midterms.

But I had insurance and she had enthusiasm. We thought, if I had the operation by senior year, by the time we were married, my sperm would cool down to normal and speed up to above normal – I imagined a Mario Andretti like speed. Fast and Furious – the way we had sex. I don’t remember discussing it, I don’t remember agreeing to do it. I remember waking up – praying that the knife hadn’t slipped and transformed me into a version of the future Lance Armstrong. I reached down to make sure it was all still there. The next thing I remember seeing is her, Molly, by my side.

Over the next few weeks,  I remember her loving me, protecting me, nursing me. She changed my bandages; she cleaned the incision. It’s true she was taking care of me; but she was also taking care of what was now clearly HER sperm. We fell in love over this whole business. But we didn’t tell anyone. It was our secret. The first of many. The jagged scar that violates the left side of my groin is a permanent bond. With our secret surgery in the rear view mirror, we moved forward with the college sweetheart script.

We got engaged.

We graduated.

We got married.

We honeymooned.

We moved to Manhattan.

We moved forward quickly.

We made a decision to not return to the doctor to check the sperm.

We got busy.

Besides, we didn’t really want to know. We wanted the magic of conception, not the science. We assumed the surgery was a success. We had done the right things; we took care of business, we waited till we were married to consummate and now we would be rewarded with healthy, hearty, speedy sperm. That’s how it works. Right? We were in such a hurry to start our life; we assumed our sperm would have a sense of urgency too. We tried the entire first year of our marriage to conceive. As we approached our anniversary, she decided it was time to check on the little guys.

This how I found myself jerking off into the little cup next to the menorah while looking at the panty section of an old Sears catalog.

Isaac, I really want you to see this.

Abraham showed Isaac the incision and seemed to explain to him the surgery I had undergone years ago. He seemed quite interested in what remained of the varicocle. Despite the surgery, it was there – it had never disappeared completely – but it never returned to its inflated size either. In the small dingy bathroom facing Houston Street, I stepped into my adult uniform – the blue pin striped three-piece suit and added my obligatory red power tie. (It was the 80s). I said a little prayer for all my unborn children. Abraham and Isaac watched me with great interest – I was as foreign to them as they were to me. Young, hairless, thin – a Goya for god’s sakes. I entered the thick silence of their office. Was I supposed to say something or were they? It was like how I imagined an awkward morning after would be.

At the time, it didn’t occur to me that the moment was profound, holy, ordained. In the Old Testament, Abraham is the Father of all of God’s people – having him as your fertility go-to guy has to be a good omen.

I had so many questions. About my sperm, about Jewish faith, about Jewish sperm, about my nutsack, his Torah.

The only thing I manage to ask was this: Where can I get a good bagel with creme cheese around here? He directed me to Katz Deli on the corner.

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I stood outside the glass windows of the revered kosher deli in the yet to be gentrified lower east side. On that chilly, drizzly afternoon, it seemed to be something more than a restaurant, like a church or a synagogue, a place of passage. Besides, my sperm and I were hungry. So I went inside. I must have watched over a hundred different people come and go in that long, endless afternoon as I waited for the test results. A woman dragging an army of children. Two young lovers holding hands. An angry man with a hairless cat on his shoulders. Humans. They are everywhere.

As they passed in and out of the doorway on their way to life it occurred to me that we are all the same. We have the most basic thing in common.

We are all sperm and egg.

Each person. Sperm – egg. Sperm – egg. I labeled each person who passed.

There was an egg stepping into the subway.

Look – two sperm racing to catch the bus on Houston Street. Sperm holding door for egg. How did I want my eggs, the waiter asked. Fertile. I said. Did I just say that? Yes, he explained, you said fertile, I said how do you want your eggs. Over easy. I corrected myself; I’d like them over easy. We are all miracles. One in a million. A sperm and egg making another sperm and egg is not mechanical, it not just science or medicine, it’s a fucking miracle. Literally a fucking miracle. After I got the results, I stopped at a green grocer on my way home – and bought a couple bouquets of flowers– daisies – her preference. While we made love, I said a prayer to Allah and Muhammad and Jesus while I was coming inside of her. Come one little sperm you can do it. But it wasn’t in the cards. It was not to be. Not that night.

7 years, millions of slow, sweaty overheated sperm later, we remained unfertilized. Still unmothered still unfathered.

The sperm that had been so attracted to her eggs would never meet.

The hope we felt that first date, the first operation.

The hope – like the sex – slowed down until it reached a standstill and the relationship had slowed to halt.  There  was no tearful goodbye – no breakup scene between her eggs and my sperm  – no, my sperm will miss you.

This was the unspoken loss.

My sperm were simply not fast enough for her eggs.

The thing that brought us together would eventually unravel us.

The children we so badly wanted, failed to hold us together.

My ex wife is a beautiful, kind and loyal woman. But make no mistake, she is resourceful. It didn’t take her long to find someone else’s sperm.

It’s been over 10 years since someone else’s sperm made contact with her eggs. I think I actually felt it her moment of conception; I woke up in the middle of the night after a dream – and I thought – she is fertilized.

In the dream, she was on a swing, in a white gown. A wedding dress that looked like a hospital gown – or the other way around.  I was pushing her. The closer she came to me, the further away she went.

She was pregnant, glowing and beautiful.

After all we had been through, it came down to this.

She had another man’s baby. His sperm beat mine to the punch.

The first time I saw a photograph of her daughter from another man – a stranger to me – a husband to her, I gasped.

I felt a sharp pain in my groin, my scar tissue ached. It actually ached. After all the hopes and dreams, the dialogues and diatribes, the prayers and promises – after being sliced and cut and probed and jerked off and turned inside out and upside down and it was all for nada. The consolation prize is this:

I guess I finally understand what they mean when they say ‘wasting the seed.’

adoptation.

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It started with a sizzle reel.

That’s right, sizzle.

For those not familiar with that, it’s what we in the entertainment world call a sales piece; a promotional video that shows off you or your product, the brand or the wares you are selling –  edited cleverly with drama and hype and positioned in a most favorable and exaggerated light. Usually there is a driving track and a hard to miss, intrusive (sometimes even aggressive) title treatment. In other words, it sizzles. It should make the viewer so hot and bothered for the product or service that at the end of it they are gasping, “where do I sign up. I want it now.”

It’s a deal closer.

So when my friend Marshall and his boyfriend Chris asked me to come to Washington DC. and make a sizzle reel for them, I was intrigued. What exactly were they selling and to whom?

‘We’re adopting,’ they announced proudly.  ‘And we need a sizzle reel.’

Of course.

The business of adoption ain’t what it used to be.

It is no longer shrouded in secrecy by the church, or the government, using cloistered nuns to hide mothers in secret places and deliver babies to infertile parents through clandestine tunnels and archaic delivery channels;  no more mute transmissions without voice and choice for either parents or birth mothers. The cloak of mystery of adoption is over. The veil is lifted. Adoption has entered the commercial age. The digital world. It is a whole new game. That’s why they wanted a video of them to post on their website for potential birthmothers to review. It’s like a kick-starter for new parents. A pitch that says, ‘Gimme your baby.’ Or something like that but more subtle. Or not.

This is what we have come to.

Adoptions are not just open they are open markets.

Birth mothers want to choose who is going to raise their baby before they give them away.  Makes sense, I mean, after the 9 month physical and emotional roller coaster –  back breaking pregnancy and torrential flood of hormones then the actual delivery – one deserves to know the recipient of this endurance – and miracle – are good peeps. So now there are websites and interviews, meet and greets and if you really are serious – like my friends – even a reel. For reals.

When Marshall was adopted decades ago, it was a totally different story.

Just as winter was thawing and the light of spring was hovering over DC, I landed fully equipped with camera and curiosity. As a former creative director in the advertising world, I was the perfect man for the job.  So I arrived in the pleasant, Mount Pleasant neighborhood of Washington. I took a photo immediately. Yes. That’s a very good start.  Good name for a place to raise a baby. Or is it a little too obvious – maybe a bit earnest? Too Mayberry. A little Gayberry?  I wondered.

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I have known Marshall since were young guys in Atlanta; playful, selfish, single guys. We met because we wore the exact same glasses, same sweater, similar smile. From across the room at a theatre gathering for the elite of Atlanta – he was Head of Development for AID Atlanta and I was a Creative Director for Cartoon Network…we were friends at first glance. ‘Nice glasses,’ I said. He echoed the sentiment. We complimented ourselves by complimenting each other.

Mere mirrors.

We saw ourselves in each other. In other words, we were sold. No sizzle reel needed.

Ours is that rare friendship that hasn’t relied on currency or transactional tit for tat. No, what can I do for you or the other way around. It hasn’t been put through the fires of romance and sex either. We don’t want or need anything from each other. Never have. In a way, we kind of adopted each other as brothers.  When I was in rehab, he was the first to offer a hand, a visit, and a gift. I was always on the phone or a plane after a breakup. Over the years, we have weathered moves, jobs, heartbreak, death, loss, and recovery. This friendship was never ripped apart by difficulties but brought together by them – nonjudgmental. Gently weaving in an out of each other’s lives stitched together by a calm certainly and love. Resilient to time and distance.

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I arrived at their place, the home they have created together. Until this visit, I hadn’t spent too much time with Chris, Marshall’s boyfriend and partner. I didn’t know them well as a couple. In the past few years both of Marshall’s parents have passed away – his adoptive parents. Marshall was one of those Catholic Charities secret babies. Since he started dating Chris, Marshall has changed a bit; grew a little quieter, a little calmer, a little grayer; deeper somehow. Maybe it comes with age, maybe it comes from losing your folks, maybe it comes with someone like Chis.

They say, when you meet ‘that’ person. Something in you just lets go. I sensed, something in Marshall had just let go.

I have always been more curious about his birth parents than he has – at least outwardly. I remember one day when we were at his apartment in the middle of one of the many moves he made over the past couple decades, he mused, ‘Maybe it comes from being adopted but I don’t have many personal items or mementos; I’m just not sentimental.’

Then he brought out a cardboard box. It was filled to the brim with the precious items folded and stuffed inside. Papers, photos, a few objects, letters. Each one with such meaning. I think the opposite is true – the fewer things we keep, the more sentimental we actually are. It’s not the numbers, it’s the depth.

I could tell something was different before I even turned on the camera. Something was connected here. Beneath the sleek, simple, clean design and usual aesthetics of this home – there was a sense of warmth. Like the smell of Aunt Joyce’s fresh baked walnut cake wafting from the kitchen; an emotional version of that. Marshall is one of two. He is a couple. They have that something; an invisible umbilical cord connecting the two of them – they are tethered. It was calm.

I had always arrived the protective brother, the cautious best friend, set out to protect him from someone that would hurt him. Over the next few days I watched them, ate with them, interviewed them. Sometimes on camera, sometime over coffee.  Just before or after a nap. Dinner, walks. Farmers market. I watched and listened. Then one night, it just felt right to sink into conversation as they sank into the sofa. They just opened up; talking about the things  important to each of them, their dreams, their goals. Their similarities, their differences.  Life. Love. Reality. In those moments, Chris appeared to me. Sweet, calm, centering.

I realized it right then – I saw it: Chris had happened to Marshall.

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We spent hours, in that one spot, camera locked off, them leaning into each other, in front of a big Spanish Christian painting at the center of the room. Where was the sizzle? I guess you could say the absence of sizzle was the sizzle. Beneath it was substance;  sweet and honest.

They talked a lot about why they wanted to adopt.

The previous year, Marshall had met his own birth mother.

Something about being in love with Chris and burying the parents that raised him, something about his relationship and/or stage in life had brought this desire to the surface – he wanted to know.

I had been going through my own adoption journey. In Los Angeles after a decade of soloness, singlehood and profound experiences helping my nieces and nephews after their fathers passed away, I was ready to adopt a child.

I had worked with lawyer and an adoption agency before I ended up in the foster-to-adopt program at LA County. For 12 weeks in the fall, 20 of us met every Thursday from 6-10 pm. We shared dinner, and conversation; something between therapy and boot camp. It was kind of a scared straight for would be adoptees. Counselors painted the worst case scenario; drugs, addiction, violent offenders, birth mothers and relatives that swoop in after 12 months of foster care and reunify with the child you have been loving. It was heartbreaking to hear. Couples dropped out. Singles dropped out.

I stayed in. I’m going to do it. I’ll show them.

And yet I had this sinking feeling I didn’t want to go through the parenting process alone. Being a parent is hard enough. But being a parent in a messed up legal system with 99% of the children exposed to drug and alcohol, surely can be brutal. I graduated from the program, ready, approved, fingerprinted, home checked, CPR’ed about the same time Marshall told me about contacting his birth mother.

‘She handed the phone to her husband.’ He said.

It isn’t always easy. So quickly. I had already learned this in my course. This was normal. After a few visits and months of talking to her on the phone, on this weekend, the sizzle reel weekend, she was going to be there. His birth mother. The woman he was happily building a relationship with, the woman who gave him life was coming to his life just as his life was coming to life. This was the happy ending that Philomena (the story the movie was based on) didn’t get.

That weekend, his closest friends got to meet her.

It was breathtaking to see him in her and her in him. After all these years of not knowing her, we got to be part of the knowing process.  She didn’t want to be on camera, I respected her privacy but was able to steal a few moments of them – laughing and eating cake.

She waved a finger at me in playful reprimand – just like a mother. I couldn’t resist watching them falling for each other. Connecting.

Their genetics matched.

Their body language synched.

Over the next months, as I scrolled through hours of footage, watching these two men essentially vowing to be good parents, to raise a child together, I thought of how far we have come – how good-different today is. How poignant it is that she-he-they will create a new story of adoption – with each other in the light, in a different light.

The adaptation of adoption.

As it turns out, their video was not so much a sales film as a confessional. It felt kinda sorta holy. As holy as the oversized painting that hung in the background. As I watched the footage, I became mesmerized by the painting Marshall bought many years ago at an antiques/vintage auction as art – because it was soulful and colorful. It it was actually a premonition of this moment.

The painting depicts a presentation of a baby. A religious ritual and iconography of a holy child.

It was father’s day when I finally finished the video.

As I got ready to send it off, I viewed it one last time. Here’s what I saw: I saw two men in love with each other, wanting to be fathers to another. They weren’t trying to sell anyone, they were simply bringing their desire out in the open. The sizzle was the truth. Maybe it’s true that gay men once again have something to teach the world. About adapting. About adopting.

The importance of adaptation – adapting our ways of thinking; the need to adopt a new perspective on life, love and family. When we come out of the shadows – there is nothing left but light.

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A few months later, they called again. This time, they asked if I would marry them. They caveated – they would get married in DC first – where it was legal. Then, they would have a party/celebration in North Carolina, where Chris was born, where it was still sadly illegal for two men to wed. They wanted me to be more like an emcee; a host. But by the time their November wedding date came around, it was legal to get hitched in North Carolina. He said, “The wedding is gonna be real.” I quickly become a certified minister and on a fallish weekend in the South, surrounded by their family and friends along with pounds of pork and half dozen life size puppets, it happened.

I married them –  legally, socially and spiritually.

It was magical and somehow just seemed right. That night, a southern tough guy, big, brash but sweet and a few whiskeys into the night told me over a fierce battle of ping-pong, ‘well, dude that wasn’t so bad.’

He meant to say, ‘gay wedding or straight wedding, love is an incredible thing.’ He meant to say, ‘why have I been so afraid of the gay for so long?’ He meant to say, ‘love is love’.  He meant, ‘I’m happy my childhood buddy Chris is happy.’ He meant all of this. We all did. It seemed, the weekly Skype chats we had every Sunday night in the months before the wedding,  where the three of us discussed marriage, the meaning, the significance, the aesthetics, the menu, now all dissolved into this one moment. Their wishes, their vows, their dreams sprinkled over all of it.

They were hitched.

Their chosen theme and vows related to the Buddhist principle – Abandon Hope. It is not as cynical as it sounds, it’s actually the simple practice of accepting the moment, planning but not being attached to the outcome. Not hoping for something or someone other than what is.

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A few weeks ago, the new couple got a call from their adoption lawyer.  In the video and website, it’s quite clear they are in love; two gentle men who not only want to raise a child but are able.  All those months ago, when I interviewed them in front of that Spanish painting of a saint and a baby, I had asked them to sell me; pitch me.

‘Why should I give you my baby?’

I was goading them to say something clever or witty or persuasive. I wanted the sizzle slogan for the sizzle reel. They paused and said:  “To the mother out there, we just want to say, we’re not gonna try to pitch you or sell you. If it’s a match, it’s a match. If it’s not, then well that’s ok too.”

And they meant it.

I thought, if I were a birth mother faced with the awful, courageous decision, this is what I would want to hear. As it turns out, it was a match.

They got the call last week; Marshall was in San Francisco on business, Chris in New Orleans, they met in Texas. And arrived in the middle of the delivery. They cut the umbilical cord. They held her. All of them were in the light, in the room together.

So, this is what happens, when labels, fears and limitations disappear, love appears.

And she did.

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We had our first Skype call today. I got to met her.

Welcome to the planet, little girl.

Marshall called it the ‘common miracle’ of birth. So many do it and yet. But theirs is a little uncommon. The little uncommon miracle. As I watched her and them and me all together in one screenshot, a window on the world, what ran through my mind is the thought that I shared when I married these kind good men, “The world has over 7 billion people, and here we are, just a few of us gathered; what are the odds? It is either a total random coincidence or not.

This is so specific.

It’s got to be a miracle.”

Zuri cooed and kicked and Chris smiled as he held her. And I thought, this is what happens when we abandon hope; everything becomes so, well, sorta really hopeful.

thanks, mr. jobs.

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‘Thank you, Steve Jobs.’

God, I never thought I would say those words.

For decades, I have been both infuriated and seduced by the man; alternating between curious and angry, enamored and resentful. I idolized and villainized him. His products have both helped and hijacked my career and personal life – devouring my time, my attention and my bank account. For all of his grand invention, he was at the core just a ‘dealer’, feeding society’s ‘more, please, now’ addiction. By blurring technologies with toys, he hooked billions with a ‘shiny new, faster, more colorful’ lure.  

Ironically, he considered himself Buddhist but masterminded products that disconnect us from our minds instead of settling us deeper into them.

Like many, I grew tired of his rhetoric and bravado, his secrets and sweatshops. But when I watched the now famous 60 minutes interview where he rejected his birth father as a mere sperm bank – and vowed to never meet the man, I was actually sad. Here was the man responsible for helping billions connect and he couldn’t (wouldn’t) connect to the one man with whom he shares DNA.

So when it comes to Mr. Jobs, I have felt many things – but grateful? Never. Not until last week. The week that my own father turned 83.

A poet named David Whyte writes about asking the ‘close-in’ questions; the important inquires we want to – need to – long to – make. The ones we trip over while falling into mundane chit-chats like, ‘how is the weather? or ‘how’s your hip?’

So I asked my father a very close-in question: Is there something you want to do before you die?

When he was 70, I bought plane tickets to Sweden and we journeyed to the small northern-most island (Oland) from where his ancestors emigrated.  It was our first venture into creating a new relationship that is present and erases history by creating new memories. As we stood side by side in front of the old red barn where his grandparents were born and married, a stones throw from the sea, we were connected to each other, our DNA, our genetic birthright. And in that one moment, the world got much smaller.

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These were the days before iPads, iPhones, WI-FI, Facebook or Facetime. The days when you said, ‘You had to be there’, and you really meant it.

More than a decade later, he said there’s only one thing he wants to experience. As a volunteer driver, he transports veterans and handicapped folks to hospital and medical appointments from the small town where he lives to the big city. For a dozen years, he has been traveling the same stretch of country road, a few miles west of Portland Oregon, watching glider planes soar through the air, thinking: I want to do that. So for his birthday, his kids, the five of us, gave him a gift certificate to take the glider ride. He was moved by the gesture.

But on the actual morning of his 83rd birthday, over coffee at the local Starbucks, he confessed that there was something else he wanted.

An iPad.

A what?

For some reason, this frightened me more than the plane ride. He could have asked to go nude skydiving while getting stoned and it would have felt safer and more sane than this. But it was his day. So we set off in search of the device.

Where I live in Los Angeles, the city is littered with apple products. They’re ubiquitous. But in the small coastal blue collar-farming town where I grew up, I wasn’t even sure we would find one. As it turned out, partially because of Apple’s impending announcement of the new product launches and because farmers, loggers and truck drivers don’t seem to connect to the apple brand, there were plenty of iPads for purchase; they were even on sale.

An hour later, we sat at Starbucks, a half-cup of luke warm coffee and an unopened factory sealed iPad between us.

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He stared at it. Would he fail at this? Was he too old? Would his inability to do this be the true indicator of just how old he was, proof that he was outdated, his mental operating system too old or slow to upgrade?

I stared at him and wondered, what must it feel like to have raised five kids, dozens of grandchildren, been married 56 years to the same woman, driven over a million miles in a freightliner delivery truck, retire, then spent the next 17 years delivering thousands of ailing and elderly people to doctor’s appointments? What must it feel like to see friends and family members fade and fail and fall and be hauled off to homes that are not their own homes because they can’t seem to remember their name or address?

I realized that for him, this product was not a luxury or a toy; it was about survival. An impulse to thrive. He had a clear choice: to sit in his La Z Boy and stare out the window while the world he used to be a vital part of passes by or to gaze into a virtual new world on a lightweight 9 x 7 screen. Newly retired from his post retirement volunteer gig – he knew he was going to have a lot of time on his blue-collar hands.

His hands are big and worn, beautifully stained with decades of hard, physical work; non iPad work. He has first generation immigrant fingers. They had never touched an Apple product until that day.

They fell heavy on the delicate glass. A thud almost.

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At first, he couldn’t find the right touch. He was pushing everything; smearing the screen with his fingerprints and with one poke opening every single app on his home page. iTunes started to play when all he wanted was to send an email. The Reader’s Digest app open when he pushed Sports Illustrated. I heard him say to himself, ‘What the hell is a Safari and what do I need that on here for?’

He was frustrated.

‘Where the hell did it go? I lost my google. I can’t find my goggle.’

The joy of anticipation disappeared as quickly as it had flooded in.

This was going to suck. For both of us.

But then something happened.

His big, thick fingers found just the right touch. They found a groove and slid intuitively across the screen; soaring and gliding up and down and across. It was as if someone from the other side had taken over and was guiding his old mans’ fingers.

Then he discovered Facetime. He immediately dialed his oldest daughter, my sister. And that’s when he really came to life. He entered a new generation.

‘I can’t believe this is happening.’ He exclaimed.

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It must have brought back the memory of being a young man, seeing his first child and holding her for the first time; now, here he was 50 years later, holding her in those same hands.

Virtually.

‘I see you.’ He said. And we saw him.

Alive.

My mother, who made a vow to get off this planet without touching a computer or a smart phone, peeked around the corner to see what all the commotion was about. When she saw her daughter’s face on the screen – she just stood back and waved, still not sure about all of this.

My father spent his whole birthday Facetiming, e-mailing and Facebooking dozens of people – his children, friends, brothers and sisters. He connected to the world. He learned something new.

His brain was activated.

Then we rested.

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We forgot all about the glider that day. He was too busy soaring through technology. I was proud to help him cross over – to be there with him when he took off – to connect with him as his world got bigger and smaller with the touch of a fingertip.

The next week, when Apple made its first big product announcements since Jobs passed away, I felt a pang of compassion for this guy I have never met. Steve Jobs left this planet without ever saying to his father – or having his father say to him – ‘I see you’.

Zero connection.

But every morning, thanks to him, I get to see my father – even though I live a thousand miles away.

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A few days later, Maurice Olson went on his glider ride.

I wasn’t there, but my sister was. His first-born watched him get air bourne. And almost simultaneously, they sent photos and video of the big ride. At the bottom of the email it read, you guessed it, ‘sent from my iPad’.

As it turns out, I guess you don’t have to be there to experience it after all.

And for that, Mr. Jobs, I am grateful.

Meet the Babymooners.

I just returned from my very first ‘babymoon’.

I’m not sure what Dr. Spock would say about the phenomenon, but I
suspect he would approve of what I witnessed this weekend. He might even
endorse it.

It wasn’t mine exactly; I was a witness to someone else’s ‘babymoon’. I
must admit, I had not heard of ‘babymooning’ before, but now I’m a
believer. I might even be an evangelist. I feel like spreading the word to the
world.

It should be a commandment for all expecting parents: Thou shalt go on a
‘babymoon’. It should be covered by pre-natal health insurance.
Pediatricians and psychologists alike should prescribe it. Heck, it should be
mandatory federal law: Babymoons or jail.

A ‘babymoon’ is the au courant term for a honeymoon-like vacation or
getaway that soon to be parents take as a last hurrah before the baby
arrives.

I didn’t make this up. It’s legit. The New York Times wrote about it in 2007
and since then it’s been so trendy that luxurious high-end hotels, airlines
and frou-frou all encompassing spa packages have gotten in on the act.
But the babymoon I saw, amidst the ancient redwoods and crashing seas of
Big Sur, cost very little and was priceless.

My friends Karen and Lucas combined their baby moon with their
wedding, and threw in a honeymoon to boot. The weekend I was a
privileged to be part of has proven to this non-believer one thing:

Babies really do bring people together.

Karen, a Hollywood set decorator and writer, had been trying to adopt for
years when she met Lucas, a Venice skateboarding musician internet whiz
kid. They fell for each other. And then decided to live together.
That’s when I met them.

I moved into the guesthouse behind their home and suddenly our lives
were separated by only a green picket fence and a fig tree under which the
owners of the property had planted the placentas of their babies. They said
it was for good karma and more babies.

Karen and Lucas are no longer in the 20s or 30s. Like me, they are past the
point of idealist romantic notions and I think they had all but given up on
the Hollywood dream fantasy of love and marriage and the miracle of
babies.

But before long the miraculous happened. The fruit of the fig tree bore
more fruit. Karen and Lucas got pregnant. Then they got engaged.
Hence the trek to Big Sur. Their mooning activities began. First up, the
marriage.

A wedding usually involves lots of people and stress and conflict and family
and a big party. But this was just about them, and just about the most
unique intimate thing I have ever experienced.

Karen a beautiful, bountiful 6 months pregnant and Lucas the ever-earnest
Groom and father to be, have wonderful timelessness about themselves and
their relationship. Old souls wondering around the modern world.
I was their witness, standing next to them like a proverbial guest house,
this time separated this time by a new age minister and shaman named
Soaring. My dogs, Curious and meme served as the ring bearer and flower
girl.

Soaring placed her hands on Karen and Lucas – first on their hearts, heads,
and then their feet and asked them to they look out into the horizon – and
consider the endlessness of the union they were entering into.
Then she placed a blessing on them and their son to be – Noah Jackson –
who had a front row view of the nuptials, from inside Karen’s growing
maternal belly hidden beneath a stylish Great Gatsby like dress.
From out of nowhere, like the waves that crash on the coasts rocks, a tide
of unexpected tears and laughter washed over us – interrupted the service
with a tsunami of emotion – baptizing the union; anointing this tribe to be.

There they were, in the middle of the day, in the middle of their life, in the
middle of nature; the moment devoid of artificial rituals and guests and
gifts and artifice. A holy circle was sealed.

I felt I was witnessing something special. A birth. A pre-birth-birth. The
birth of a family. The minister was a midwife. I was a stand-in for all their
friends and family past and future.

There is no book or manual or guide written for this thing they were doing.
They were writing it as they went. The vows were unconventional and
personal, the prayer unpolished and nondenominational and spontaneous
and Karen, and Lucas – both totally traditionally on the outside, were
winging it. Out on a limb. They were present to the moment.

This morning Lucas wrote about in his face book account:
It couldn’t have turned out better. It turned out to be a wedding for just us,
or just for the marriage. It wasn’t a last minute trip to Vegas and it wasn’t
a yearlong obsession. A strange and wonderful thing about the ceremony
was that it turned into an ecstatic experience, along the lines of being
born again or doing peyote in the desert. It was related to crying our eyes
out with joy at the same time that Soaring did a complex series of new
agey rituals.

I went back to the beach the morning after, to take a dawn photo of the
space as a keepsake for them and maybe pick up on some of Soaring’s
residual blessings. Along the path a few left over rose pedals along with
some day old dog pooh. My dogs ran over to the shore and trampled over a
word that was etched in the sand.

Love.

Corny. Sure. But there is was. In big bold letters. Someone had come and
gone at dawn and writ it in the earth.

I like to say, ‘some of my best friends are parents’. But I think I’ll start to
claim, ‘some of my best friends are about to be parents.’ And to all of them
I have one piece of advice: Do what Lucas and Karen and Noah did.

Take a babymoon.
Now.

Go away to prepare a holy space for the baby that will be arriving. Get out
of Ikea and into the woods.

To many new parents in our world, the baby has become a prop, an
accessory or a vanity creation. When I think about the amount of time and
money new parents won getting the room ready with cribs and toys and
gadgets, paint and wallpaper and mobiles, I get overwhelmed. I wonder
how many new parents skip the most important step of all in preparing for
the arrival. It’s not about the room or the place; it’s about creating space in
the relationship.

This is what Lucas and Karen created this past weekend.

And if their baby-honey-life-love-moon was any indication, Noah’s room is
ready. His place in the world, in their world, in their relationship, is going
to be filled with love.

And that is cause for a celebration – and, if you’re smart, a vacation as well.

some of my best friends are parents

It seems to happen to all of them eventually. even the
best ones. my friends, my family members, my sisters, my
teachers, my work partners, my travel partners. young,
old, blonde, blue-eyed, bald. people I like, people i love,
people i respect, even people who I don’t really have any
opinion about. they all become parents. eventually.
parenting, it seems, does not discriminate.
so I’m trying, as a single, offspring-free guy, to not
discriminate against parents.
but it’s hard. I have my favorites.
see, they all have such different ways of being parents.
no one seems to do it by the book. and it has nothing to do
with who they are as humans. at least not on the surface.
it seems that they surprise you with their parenting ways.
take Hilary for example. who knew that she would be one
of the most maternal people i know. her boy – and my
freshest godson- luka (pictured above) arrived in late
february. and the truth is, nothing has really changed
about Hilary except all of her best qualities have been
illuminated. and some of her other traits have been
muted. she still has energy – maybe more so. she still
plans and follows up on her plans. and plans on
following up on the plans that she hasn’t even planned on
making yet. she is still girl-like energy. she still hikes
daily, she still yogas excessively. she is still very much
Hilary. but she’s become calmer and sweeter and gentler
and more shall we say laissez-faire. she doesn’t control
the child, the child doesn’t control her. it’s pretty great
to watch. they are kind of doing a little dance. when i ask
her, ‘can you believe you have a baby?’ she just says, yes.
she is going with it. it helps that he’s calm, mellow and
smiley and that her husband, helps out. they must have
some sort of deal that in exchange for his 80 mile bike
ride a day, he changes a couple diapers each night.
something. but it works. he likes the kid. and he took care
of the infant boy for a week while Hilary was in Cannes
(still Hilary!)
after years of watching morbidly from the sidelines, I
have stopped trying to figure out how people become
parents. it just happens. no matter how gracefully or
awkwardly they slide into it. and before you know it, you
hardly seem to recognize them as the person they were
without children. it’s weird…like they’ve always had one.
and maybe in some ways they always did, they were just
waiting for it to arrive.
Hilary’s father said the other night, it’s like her mother
light switch went on. she just is a mother.
i just spent four beautiful days with the widow of dr.
stock, talking about his life story. what i didn’t know,
what many have forgotten is that the first to words of his
million selling book is this:
trust yourself (you know more than you think you do)
as a parent, that’s the advice he gave. then he filled 200
some pages with very specific detailed advice – the
answers – so that they will put their trust in him – or the
book. kinda like religion. have faith – but do everything
this book and your elders say. or else…
but he was the expert in a time when there was none. at
the baby boom. the pre-google, google of baby care topics.
the place our mothers and grandmother’s went when our
poop turned green and blue and like a fire hydrant
spraying all over the sofa or when we couldn’t stop
crying or when they wanted to discipline us and the
spanking a day didn’t seem to be enough (it worked for my
parents, that’s for sure)
what he believed – and learned for himself – is that self
trust is the best way to be a parent – and a human – for
that matter. we all know how to be parents. in just the
same way that we all know how to be friends, lovers, sons,
daughters. sometimes messy, but mostly loving.
hilary is the third (at least) round of friends who have
pro-created. or as i call it replicated. it would seem so
much like making a mini photocopy of self – if it weren’t
for the fact that they seem to develop their own
personalities real quick. like in the womb. before they
start crying because we have interrupted that nice long
fetal nap.
the first round of baby making was when i was married in
my twenties in the eighties and our couple friends and my
siblings were multiplying, duplicating themselves. in my
thirties, it was a new generation and a new intent, people
who waited and were getting married (or not getting
married at all) but decided to extend themselves into
another little human. the kids weren’t defining them as
much as they were defining their kids.
now i’m surrounded by people in second marriages with
first families. or second families in first marriages. they
are petri-dishing, sperm stealing. surrogating. my
neighbor is adopting. it’s taken her 4 years and she’s still
on a waiting list. it’s random. i know single woman who
would do anything to be a mother and some single men who
have made designer babies and are on their 3rd kid in 10
months.
having kids is a beautiful thing. except when they cry, or
shit, or grow up.
This friday my nephew Taylor will graduate from high
school. he is the last of Diana and mark’s boys to graduate
from my hometown high school. he is the brother of
Dustin and Aaron the original uncle hollywood boys. I
can’t imagine the gap that will be there not having his
father in the crowd. unfortunately, he will have good
company in too many other boys in his social circle who
are missing a parent. the hollowed absence must define
the importance of such a person.
his passage is a life change for him for sure. for Diana it
means an entire chapter of her life seems to be closing.
she is graduating as a parent. kinda. or the role is just
taking a new shape. as i learned, the relationship with
parent can change as my dad travelled to Sweden to
discover where his roots, his ‘ancestral’ parents came
from. we spend a lifetime getting to know our parents,
they us and in turn ourselves through each other.
as i get to know Spock’s personal story, it seems as though
his wisdom comes as a response to his immersion in
psychological and freudian intelligence as well as his
own mother’s heavy hand. i think all of our instincts for
or against parenting or certain types of child rearing, is
borne out of our own experience – embracing or rejecting
or somewhere in between.
I have no children but it’s true what a teacher of mine
once said. don’t worry if you never become a biological
father – there are so many ways to be a parent. what
sounded once like a bad consolation prize – makes sense
to me now. I thought about that this spring break as i
spent a beautiful week in new york city helping buy prom
dresses for my 17-year-old god-daughter triplets or just
yesterday when i received a card from god-daughter army
saying really nice things that almost made me cry.
maybe there’s is not only a biological clock that ticks, but
a spiritual clock too. one that wants to love and nurture
and be taught by the younger, more innocent ones. the
children. babies and kids of our lives. i have many god
children and nieces and nephews and some of my best
friends generously share their kids.
the truth is I celebrate them all. and am in awe of the
selfishness it requires and the self-seeking that it
inspires. no matter how they parent, they are doing it. and
I am watching. in some ways being parented by them as I
observe.
they discipline with kindness or firmness, they walk
trough grief and loss with dignity and insanity, they spank
them or ground them or love them too much or not
enough, who am I to judge? I trust the ones that trust
themselves. and become surprised to learn that just
because someone is a good friend, or family member,
doesn’t mean I would want to be their child…and vice
versa.
I guess we have to trust that we somehow have made our
way to the perfect parents.
who knew that it was trust – of all things – that is the
foundation of all good parenting. i guess spock did. you
just have to read the first page. and go from there. we
all know more than we think we do.
i think.