Yes, that’s my toddler snowboarding. Extreme sports don’t have to stop when you have kids.

familysmallCross-posted from Washington Post

My husband and I believe our outdoor adventures should not be curtailed just because we are parents of three kids. The photos in our living room attest to the creative ways we’ve managed to fish in Alaska with a newborn or hike a glacier with our children, who were 2 and 5 years old, outfitted in crampons. Last year, our then 1-year-old even snowboarded at Snowshoe Mountain.

These are our parenting creds. However, to those who label me as an American-born Chinese and my husband as an American-born Korean coupled with the reminder that we are both products of tiger parenting, we are often judged. My dad would chide, “You are a straight A student. You went to Harvard. Don’t you want that for your kids?”

Sure, but I also have great respect for how the outdoors and extreme sports shaped my character. By the time I turned 20, my parents had taken me white water rafting, spelunking, hiking, and horseback riding through nearly all the national parks in the United States and Canada. This fueled a thirst post-college for snowboarding, snow-machining and ice climbing. When my dad passed out at the bottom of the 600-foot deep Ubehebe Crater in Death Valley National Park and it was up to 9-year-old me to get help, when I thought I was going to die the first time I ice-climbed and found the strength to use my icepick for a self-arrest, these are the moments that I think of when someone (including myself) tells me I can’t do something.

While my husband did not grow up with outdoor or extreme sport experiences, he did find a passion in these things once he left home. He scuba-dived all over the world before we met and earned a fifth-degree black belt in Taekwondo. His father taught him that when you start something you have to finish it. This is what he tries to teach our kids, especially my eldest (10) who announced as soon as she could string together a sentence that she wanted to be a race car driver and an Olympic snowboarder.

Serving as Girl Scout and Cub Scout leaders, my husband and I can prove that kids who spend time outdoors eclipse their peers in environmental stewardship, more readily seek challenges, are better problem solvers and gain skills that will help them do better in school. In extreme sports, we find them happier, more passionate about their goals, more sure of who they are.

The key is introducing outdoor adventures and extreme sports early. We had to find outfitters who were willing to waive age-limits and find creative solutions like strapping adult instep crampons onto my 2-year-old. We found coaches like Chris Hargrave, president of Windells Academy who sprung my 1-year-old loose from Snowshoe’s pre-ski school and showed us how to attach an accessory to her board so we could tow her and she could discover the sensation of riding on her own. (My oldest, Kyra, wasn’t allowed on a board until age 5 due to age restrictions at the resorts we tried.) A father of three kids, Hargrave said, “If you put the things that you want your children to have access to later in life in their hands when they are babies, they will develop a balance and taste for it.”

Second, my husband is all about safety; he’s made a career out of it. (He’s the Regional Safetly Manager for a Fortune 500 company.) We go to places like Snowshoe in West Virginia, a family-friendly resort that offers Terrain Based Learning (TBL), an approach created by Hargrave using shaped snow to keep speed in check so students can have fun without the fear of losing control.

“If early lessons aren’t handled right with the young ones, they will turn against the sport quickly,” says Frank DeBerry, president of Showshoe whose daughter threw her first terrain park trick at the age of 7.

So we decided to send our risk-adverse son, then 6, to TBL and Snowshoe’s first snowboard camp, coached by Hargrave. We didn’t care if he never snowboarded again after the camp, we just wanted him to give it a try at the top of a mountain with the best conditions in the region.

On the first day, Ethan started on flat ground, learning to balance and jib, then moved to the mini-pipe feature (like a skate ramp made of snow) where he learned to pump and control pressure. Next, he pumped the rollers into a return wall, worked on going down the fall line with banked turns, and linked turns on a perfect slope. By the afternoon, he was shreddin’ the gnar on the greens.

On the second day, when a camp instructor asked who was a beginner, Ethan refused to raise his hand. I whispered in his ear, “But you’ve only snowboarded for one day.”

“Mooommm!” he shushed me. “I want to do tricks.”

On the third day, Ethan studied a steep runway leading to a nearly 15-foot jump in a terrain park. While airdogs flew by and showed off huge stunts, Ethan tried to blend into the scene by planting his hands in the snow, shifting all his body weight onto the tail of his board and lifting the nose into the air. With his head down in the tripod trick, Ethan contemplated whether he was going to drop in on the jump.

Decision made, Ethan stood up, took a few hops towards the jump, bent his knees and pointed his board straight down the ramp.

We were shocked. That jump was way beyond even my skill level and I had been snowboarding for 19 years.

Ethan’s bravery inspired me to give the jump a shot even though I crashed miserably. When I caught up to Ethan, he was whimpering on the steep landing. “My heart,” he cried. When I asked if he was okay, he said, “Mommy, you shouldn’t have tried the jump.” He kept telling me that the jump was too hard for me and that next time, he’ll show me how to do it. Before I could process this great transformation in my son, Hargrave yelled in my direction, “Kyra just did a 360!”

Though both of them had a few falls that weekend, they were hooked on snowboarding.

Now, all three of my kids practice tricks off their skateboard and on their snowboards. Their friends beg us to take them on our next adventure. Their backpacks are stuffed with books about climbing Everest or how to survive an avalanche.

As winter settles in, all of our dinner conversations are about when and where they get to ride. Ethan says he will never ski again. Kyra insists that I cook them healthy meals packed with protein since they both joined a Ski & Snowboard Racing Team at Pennsylvania’s Blue Mountain Resort.  This is a family commitment that will require a four hour drive every weekend until March, but we’re committed.

Whenever any of us are afraid to try something new, I direct them to our newest family photo hanging strategically next to the television. I remind them of this moment when they pushed their limits because these are the times that I see my children reach for greatness.

On the softest powder above the clouds at 4,848 feet, the five of us are on snowboards, yes even our toddler who just learned how to walk.

Leslie Hsu Oh is a freelance writer whose work has been named among the distinguished stories of the year by Best American Essays and is working on a memoir. Read more at www.lesliehsuoh.com and on Facebook or Twitter: @lesliehsuoh

The More You Give, the More You Get Back

Cross-posted from Today Parenting Team

In this season, I often remind my children of the important lessons we learned about giving and sharing when we lived in Alaska. In this photo, Kyra (5) and Ethan (2) are presenting their first harvest of petrushki (beach lovage) to Rita Blumenstein, a renowned traditional healer and member of the International Council of Thirteen Indigenous Grandmothers. Auntie Rita had spent Mother’s Day with us on the coast of Turnagain Arm, Alaska, where she taught my children not to take too much, so other people and animals can harvest too.

At Anchorage Museum’s Living Our Cultures, Sharing our Heritage: The First Peoples of Alaska exhibit, Elders and youth are interviewed among the Athabascan, Eyak, Haida, Iñupiaq, Tlingit, Tsimshian, Unangan, Sugpiaq, Yup’ik, and Saint Lawrence Island Yup’ik..

In the Yup’ik video, Alice Rearden (Cucuaq Aluskak) speaks about ella, or awareness. Growing up in Napakiak, her Elders taught her “that if you are out walking and see a piece of driftwood sticking out of the mud, you should pull it out and turn it over so that the muddy part can dry. That piece of wood is alive and aware, and it will feel gratitude for your kindness.”

Her features are delicate, but when she speaks, her voice is laced with the weight of more than 12 years of wisdom, gleaned from serving as lead translator for the Calista Elders Council. The video pans to a scene of fish hanging on a dry rack while Rearden says off screen: “We always grew up with that sense, of not putting yourself first or above others. Giving gifts to people, those kinds of, you know, unselfish gestures that you do for people—it will come back in turn.”

Yup’ik Elders explain that “those who are capable must help those less fortunate through sharing food and doing chores for them. We were admonished: ‘Even though an old woman wants to pay you, you do not receive it.’ When an elderly woman or man is given something or helped, she is extremely grateful and thanks you with enthusiasm. And they give the person who helped them something beneficial, thinking of something in their minds that will aid him positively in his life.

“Yup’ik discussions of the ethics of sharing describe its consequences in terms of its nonmaterial return—the grateful thoughts it elicits.…Today, sharing knowledge is as critical as sharing food in both the transfer and transformation of Yup’ik moral standards. Admonitions to act with compassion and restraint remain foundational not only in Yup’ik interpersonal interaction but in their relations with their environment.”

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Living in Alaska, it seemed easier to teach my children about sharing. While dip-netting, we always collected fresh fish heads discarded on the beaches and delivered them to Elders whom I worked with in town. They helped me clean, pack, freeze, and ship salmon to relatives in the Lower 48. Now as they get older and we move further away from Alaska, I hear them yelling “mine” at each other and slipping into that urban self-centered way of thinking.

As a mother of three, Kyle (13), Kayla (11), and Christopher (4), Rearden trades ideas with me on how to teach our kids tuvqakiyaraq, the custom of sharing, in an urban setting. Rearden grew up “feeling shame to get more than someone else. Whenever I was asked to share, I always gave the other person a bigger piece. I would cut a candy in half and be ashamed to take the bigger piece.”

She raises her children, who were all born in Anchorage, with these ideas: “The more you give, the more you get back. If we are stingy, like if you don’t share your toys, then [they] will break right away. When you give, it will come back to you. Your selfless act is always rewarded. They see that I don’t hold back when it comes to helping in any situation. I hope they [her kids] watch me and observe what I do.”

Because it is hard to keep traditions like tuvqakiyaraq in the city, Rearden goes out of her way to share food. She often hosts feasts where she cooks all day, serving her most precious subsistence foods, making sure her kids see that she is serving her last bag of salmonberries. She says, “it’s just enough for them to see. I am always talking to them and explaining the reasons behind sharing, the reason why it’s important to give to others and have compassion for others.”

Here’s something simple that I try with my kids. I take an apple and cut it in two. I present both pieces to my oldest. Sometimes she will try to stuff them into her mouth before her two younger siblings notice. Sometimes, she’ll bargain with them. “Okay, I’ll give you this apple, if you give me that Xbox controller.”

Always, I’m patient. Using these opportunities as teaching moments, I’ll remind her of the lessons we learned in Alaska. Always, she’ll give away the larger piece or press both pieces into the little hands of her brother and sister.

Parts of this post are excerpted from my original publication in First Alaskans Magazine.

Interview with Leigh Newman

Cross posted from  http://49writers.blogspot.com/2015/04/leslie-hsu-oh-interviews-leigh-newman.html
When I first met Leigh Newman at Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, I felt like I found my long lost sister. We are both raising our children in an urban setting (New York for her, Washington, D.C. for me) when we hope to pass on the values we learned in the wilderness. In Still Points North, out now in paperback from Shorefast Editions, Newman writes with tenderness about searching for identity and the difference between how to survive and knowing how to truly live. It was a finalist for the National Book Critic’s Circle John Leonard Prize. Her fiction, essays and book reviews have appeared in One Story, Tin House, The New York Times Modern Love and Sunday Book Review, Fiction, Vogue, O The Oprah Magazine, Sunset, Real Simple and Bookforum. She currently serves as Books Editor of Oprah.com and teaches writing at Sarah Lawrence College. 

The first time I read Still Points North, by the time I got near the end, I flipped through the last few pages impatient to find out whether this self-reliant/self-exiled travel writer would choose marriage or divorce. We are all dying to know if you are still married to Lawrence, for how long, how old are your kids, and what is his reaction to this book and comments readers have made about him? Does he come with you on book tours?
Wow! You’re right. I should included a follow-up insert. Yes, Law and I are still married. We have two kids, both boys. One is 9 and the other 5. As for Lawrence’s reaction to the book: he loves the reader comments; he comes off great!
At the end of your book, you drop teasers like “mugged at knifepoint by a transvestite (long story, another book)….drifting until you end up on camelback at the border of Libya (long story, another book).” Well, which book are you working on? And if you aren’t working on these stories, can you please tell us what happened?
I’m working on a book of short stories about Anchorage—and that weird existence between the city and the wilderness. Most of it is about dreamers, dazzled and deluded and crashing to earth. Not unlike myself.

The stories you’re talking about are part of a book I may never write…I ‘m not sure. It’s about very dumb things I did and survived.

 

In your book trailer, you say “by age eight, I could land a 40 pound king salmon, dig out an outhouse, patch a wader.” Will your kids be able to make similar claims? As a mother raising a nine-year-old, six-year-old, and one-year-old in the Washington DC area, I’m often frustrated that I can’t give my children experiences like hiking with crampons on a glacier at the age of two when we lived in Alaska. I too have photos from my childhood like the one on the cover of the book (your sassy pose beside your father who is repairing something in front of his floatplane and your dog Jasmine) and those you shared in various interviews (you as an infant bouncing up and down in a pack n’ play in the woods beside a tent) which I’m trying to capture for my kids now. What have you done to make sure your kids have the same experiences you did with your dad?

I just do the best I can. I try to go up with the kids once a year. This year we’re going to Fairbanks to go snow machining with my brother, who lives in a dry cabin. Other years, we’ve gone fishing, camping , skiing. The Alaska I grew up is kind of gone for me now—my dad no longer flies so we use cars and boats to get into the bush, which is a totally different experience. Powerful but different. I also just try to teach them all the skills they will need. They both ski, fish and do archery.

 

One of the things I loved about your book was the parenting tips that surface here and there. For example, “Ask kids about feelings. Specific ones. Mad. Sad. Broken Heart.” Do you have any tips for moms who are or dream of being travel writers?

Leave the kids with dad. Go. Come back with big present.  It will be happifying for you and inspirational for your kids. Show them how you want to live.

 

In interviews you shared that the process of writing Still Points North was not easy including a coffee spill right before the manuscript was due that shorted out your computer, “I wrote a lot of sloppy, long, meandering drafts. My editor Jennifer Smith at Dial was the one who kept (gently) pointing me in the right direction. Her comments really woke me up to the values of collaboration, even when that meant cutting out 120 pages (an excruciating process). The same went for her editorial assistant, Hannah, who weighed in on key points. Once I let them in, I had to let everybody in—agents, PR people, other writers. They all had good ideas, ones better than my own. It’s kind of shocking when you think about how talented and insightful people can be when you offer them the chance to help you.” From the point of time in which you sold Still Points North on a book proposal to publication, what advice can you offer other memoirists on how to navigate the implosion or explosion of a book? When to listen to your gut vs. agents/editors/writers?
I think….that you have the best b.s. meter. Usually when a good editor or agent points out an issue, you already know it’s an issue, you just couldn’t admit it to yourself. It is almost a relief to get rid of the problem. If they point out something that really doesn’t resonate—just don’t do it. I usually sit on edits for 3 days before I say or do anything. The first day I’m furious and weepy and sure they are idiots who just don’t get my vision. Then the second day, they might have a point. The third day, they are so insightful! How could I not have seen it!
We’ve all heard in critiques to avoid the present tense because it complicates what Philip Lopate calls the “double perspective, that will allow the reader to participate vicariously in the experience as it was lived (the confusions and misapprehensions of the child one was, say), while conveying the sophisticated wisdom of one’s current self.” And yet, you managed to do this beautifully in Still Points North. Please do share your secret.

 

I don’t know. I wish I did. I had read almost no memoirs when I wrote mine, save A Boy’s Life, which is in past tense. Now, of course, I feel so conflicted. Writing in the present tense is so natural for me. But I read all kinds of criticism about it (see William Gass) and it does rob you of reflecting, as an adult, on the complexity of what happened in your past. You lose out on your own hard won insight . So I wish I could do it differently—I feel very animalistic about writing, very instinctual—but I go back to the present, again and again. The past tense to me is sophisticated, elegant, and I long for it the way rube always long for urbanity, even as a rube knows she is still a rube.

The Great Blue Heron

It balances like royalty, on one long elegant leg upon a tree outside my bedroom window. Head raised high, azure blue-gray plumage ruffling gracefully in the breeze, it is a magnificent bird, nearly as large as my 18-month-old.

I had only seen it once before in the two years we lived in this townhouse. That time, I enjoyed the bird on my own. Baby was asleep in her crib, while I photographed the bird standing like a statue on that tree, stalking prey in a man-made lake trimmed with office buildings and houses. When it launched itself into the air, I nearly felt its wingtips brush my cheeks as I admired it quietly from my balcony. “Thank you,” I said to the bird, “for bringing me a taste of the wilderness that I am homesick for.” _MG_2804

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Photo credit Leslie Hsu Oh

Today, Kyra is helping me pack bags for a road trip. Ethan jumps up and down on piles of clean laundry on my bed while Riley attempts to dip her fingers into the toilet (yes, her new game to annoy mommy). I pull the shades up, hoping the man-made lake as depressing as it is can rejuvenate me like the river that used to run in the backyard of my cabin in Alaska. And that’s when I see my bird.

I squeal. The kids drop whatever they are doing and press their noses against the window. “Mommy, is it injured? How come it only has one leg?” Ethan asks.

“What is it?” Kyra asks.

Perfect opportunity to crack open the Audubon  bird book, which we never get a chance to use now that we live in the city: “Who can tell me what kind of bird this is?”

While the kids flip through the book and ask each other questions like “does it have a yellow bill“ or “chestnut and black accents,” I tell them about the day I spent with this bird and how happy I am that they get a chance to meet it.

Finally, they reach a consensus: Great Blue Heron. I play its call on my iPhone bird app and Riley snatches it out of my hand. Kyra and Ethan wrestle the iPhone out of Riley’s hands and google answers they can’t find in the Audubon book.

Thank you Great Blue Heron for creating a teaching moment that entertains all three of my kids.

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Photo credit: Leslie Hsu Oh

“Oooo mommy, do you know why herons stand on one leg? Thermoregulation hypothesis,” Kyra stumbles over the words, “Or to look less suspicious to their prey. Cool!” Now they are teaching me.

“Can we go on the balcony to see him?” Ethan asks.

I agree, but warn them that we must be quiet and go all at once so that we don’t scare the bird. While I put on a coat for Riley, Kyra steps out too impatient to wait. By the time, I get outside the heron is showing off its six-foot wingspan as it glides across the surface of the lake crusted with the light of the sun.

“Wow!” all three kids say.

They are so quiet that beneath the sound of the cars whipping by for last minute Christmas gifts at Fair Lakes Shopping Center, we can hear the ducks squawking on the shore and the advertisement calls of the frogs. Who knew that in the midst of office buildings and townhouses, animals had made a home for themselves just like I need to.

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Photo credit Leslie Hsu Oh

Brace Yourself

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This summer, I was determined to celebrate my children’s birthdays with an outdoor adventure. Three years ago, we had to uproot them from their place-of-birth (Alaska) and move to the Washington, D.C. area. I feared that they would lose their confidence in nature where at age 2, they could traverse a crevice in crampons with the biggest smile on their faces. So you can imagine my disappointment when I suggested whitewater rafting for Ethan’s birthday and both kids said, “No” without even looking up from their iPads.

“Do you even know what I’m talking about?” I asked after confiscating their iPads.

“Sounds scary,” Ethan said.

I sat both of them down in front of my laptop and searched for some videos. I explained how my parents took me rafting as soon as I was old enough. Ethan was turning six and I wanted to give him the same gift.

“I’d rather get toys,” Ethan said. That statement alone made up my mind. I was going to take them no matter what obstacles I had to overcome such as how were we going to afford the trip and who would we beg to watch my one-year-old.

Kyra, who turned nine a month ago, studied one of the rafting videos I found. For her birthday, we fished for flounders on the ocean but returned empty handed. “Boo,” she had said as she did now when she saw someone fall out of a raft on a Class 5.

“Boo,” she said again on Ethan’s birthday after all the arrangements I made to get us on the Shenandoah River. Our River Riders guide, Kaitlyn, had just maneuvered us through a series of Class 3 rapids. “The Doah” as Kaitlyn called it sloshed into the raft soaking our shoes.

Ethan complained, “Ack, I don’t want my feet wet!”

In an effort to get some reaction from my stone-faced kids, Kaitlyn pointed out some of the wildlife. “Do you see that bird with the long neck on the shore? That’s a blue herring or West Virginia Pterodactyl.”

The kids got frustrated that they couldn’t see the bird. Five rafts with the rest of the passengers guided by River Riders swept by.

Kaitlyn asked Kyra, “What can I do to make you smile?”

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Kyra said, “I’m hungry.” For the month of August, we had a rare day when the sun did not burn my skin and a gentle breeze lifted the hair on the back of my neck and my child who was knownas the “thrill-seeker” in the family was paying absolutely no attention to her surroundings.

“Forward paddle,” Kaitlyn shouted at my husband and I. “Back paddle. Together please.” She had seated us at the frontof the raft and instructed us that the more in sync we were the smoother the ride. The river fought my paddle and a blister developed on my right thumb. I kept thinking, please, don’t let any of us fall into the river. Images from the safety video River Riders showed us at the start of the trip played in my mind. Feet trapped on the river bottom. Helmets slammed against rocks. So far, my husband had not made one comment about whether he thought this trip was a good idea or not. It seemed like our paddles were also not communicating too well.

By the time, we landed on a massive pile of boulders in the middle of the river I started to worry whether the city had ruined my family. As soon as each of us stepped onto the rock, we immediately scattered in different directions. Plus, with what seemed like thirty other people that landed with us, it took a while for me to herd the four of us together.
None of us said much as we downed several cups of pink lemonade which the guides reassured us would be the sugar kick we needed to get through the rest of the rapids. Kyra finished a granola bar that Kaitlyn had given her.

“Want to take a swim?” I asked Kyra and Ethan.

“I’m scared,” Ethan said.

“You know how to swim and you have a life jacket on,” I said, taking his little hand and helping him into the river. We all had the right gear, that’s something I am religious about, so our wet shoes gripped the slippery rocks as we made our way deeper into the river until the water rose to my waist. My husband seemed much more relaxed than I. He chased and splashed the kids while I just stood there observing them all. By the time someone snapped a family photo for us, both kids were floating on their backs and giggling.10553782_553026271469369_5096286803175696260_o

After our swim, Kaitlyn deftly guided us through a rapid called the “Dragon’s Tongue.” The boat spun 180 degrees and white froth coated our backs. Ethan loosened his death grip on a webbing strap and said, “I felt the tongue lick me.”

Meanwhile, Kyra started to warm up to Kaitlyn. She started to ask questions like “So can we pretend to fall off the boat?” or “When can we go down a waterfall?” or “Can I scuba dive?”

Scuba dive? How did my daughter know what scuba diving was?

Kailyn asked, “So if you could scuba dive anywhere in the world, where would you go?”

Without hesitation, Kyra replied, “Atlantis.”

Ethan agreed.

When we entered the Potomac River, Kaitlyn pointed out Virginia and Maryland and said we were now in the “State of Confusion” and I thought that’s exactly how I was feeling. Confused that I didn’t know my kids as well as I thought I did. Confused about whether my parenting had failed in the city.

Fortunately, Kaitlyn had a solution. First, she “surfed” our raft in Lower Staircase for a long time, long enough for the bucking, spinning wet ride to remind me to enjoy the present moment and the thrill of not being in control. Second, she hooked a flip line to a biner on the bow and asked Kyra and Ethan to hang onto it for our last rapid of the day.

“Brace yourself,” she yelled as we paddled hard down a chute. The raft tipped back and the kids were launched into the air above White Horse Rapid. As the raft pitched, Kyra and Ethan whooped so loud that the other rafters smiled at us.

Later on the way back to the car, after Kaitlyn arranged for all the rafters to sing “Happy Birthday,” Ethan grabbed my hand and pulled me down to his eye level. He whispered as if he were telling me the greatest secret ever, “Thank you, Mommy.”

I couldn’t resist asking, “So if you could only play your iPad or raft, which one would you choose?”

His cheeks turned pink. “The White Horse,” he said.

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Also posted at Spawn and Survive

Is Batman Real?

The week before Ethan turned six, Barnes and Noble announced that Batman was going to make an appearance. I don’t know if I was more excited or my son.

Ethan dug his Batman costume out of the closet and cleaned it with a lint brush. He dressed his Build-A-Bear in a matching Dark Knight outfit and tucked a batarang carefully into his belt. I pieced together a Batman costume for Kyra and Riley from Ethan’s loot (masks, utility belts, flashlights, grappling hooks, and of course batarangs) and made sure everyone had a cape. Kyra dressed her Build-A-Bear in a Superman costume.

The night before, we tattooed the back of each other’s hands with the Batman sign.

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Then, everyone (except me) passed out, exhausted from all the preparations. Earlier this month, in a fit of anger, Kyra had said the worst possible thing she could have ever said to Ethan, “Batman is not real.”

So the timing of Batman’s visit was perfect. I tried to make sure it was even more perfect by arranging for Batman to acknowledge Ethan’s birthday. Barnes and Noble promised to do their best to make it special and maybe even get everyone in the store to sing “happy birthday” for him.

Whenever I asked “Are you excited Batman is coming to town,” Ethan played it cool with nothing more than a manly shrug.

Sometimes, he would ask, “Do you know which Batman is coming? Is Bruce Wayne coming or Batman? Where do you think Batman is coming from? Do you think he’s staying with Wonder Woman?”

To which I played it cool. “I have no idea.”

He pretended that he didn’t care, even refused to keep his suit on when the event finally started. Clark Kent read two books while Ethan studied him closely.

When Batman entered the room, Ethan froze. He couldn’t put on his suit. He stared at his shoes. I was a mess too. I couldn’t decide whether to film the moment or photograph it. My girls disappeared with the crowd that rushed to form a meet and greet line. My husband helped Ethan put on his suit. Ethan refused to put his mask and cape on. All the time, I’m thinking: When is Batman going to say anything?

About 15 minutes later, it was our turn to be photographed with Batman. Kyra and Ethan hardly looked at him. They stood to his left while my husband with Riley in his arms was on his right. They all stared at me as I snapped photos. Then, Kyra tried to put Ethan’s mask and hood on. Ethan shoved her. The two of them started squabbling. Nobody said anything to Batman. I handed off my camera to a friend who captured the scene. My husband started walking away. The moment was passing. Nobody was saying anything!

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So I started blabbering to Batman about what a huge deal it was for Ethan to meet him. He looked down at Ethan who stared at him and said, “Hi.”

Ethan said nothing.

A Barnes and Noble employee handed a goodie bag to Batman and whispered something in his ear. He got down on one knee, handed Ethan the bag and said, “Happy Birthday.”

Ethan looked like he was about to pass out.

I was filming this awkward exchange. Later when I viewed this footage I heard my high-pitched crazy voice, “Ethan, would you like to hug Batman?”

Ethan frowned and shook his head at me. I snapped photos of the two of them looking at each other and me as if they had both landed on an unfamiliar planet.

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As we left Batman, I asked Ethan, “How do you feel? Are you excited you got to meet him?”

To each question, he would shrug until at last he said, “It’s my personal business.”

It would be a few hours later as I’m tucking Ethan to bed that he started talking.

“Do you think Batman knows that I want to be him when I grow up? How did he know it was my birthday? How come his grappling gun looked like plastic? Isn’t Batman supposed to be old? Did you tell Barnes and Noble it was my birthday?”

I climbed into his bed and wrapped my left arm around his little body. He rubbed his nose against my cheek and held onto me as if I were his lifeboat. As I cleverly quelled all his anxieties, I wondered how much longer my son and I could have moments like this. How long could I convince him that Batman is real? Is it good or bad parenting that I want him to believe Batman is real? Maybe I made things worse by getting Batman to say “happy birthday” to my son?

In the darkness of his bedroom, I felt his tender kisses peppering my cheeks, my forehead, my nose, my ears. He took his time planting each one and letting them bloom. I never felt kisses like this from him before.  Each kiss perhaps an acknowledgement of how hard I worked to keep his dreams alive.

Before sleep snatched my son away, he whispered, “Mom, I wish no one else was there but Batman and our family. I get shy when I’m with someone that tall and someone I like that much.”

A.K.A.

The first word my son learned to write was “Batman.” The second was his name. The third (which took me a while to decipher because I could not believe that he understood an acronym) was A.K.A. Ethan aka Batman, that’s how he defines his place in the world.

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Ethan invites his friends to “Wayne Manor” on his fourth birthday. Photo credit: Leslie Hsu Oh.

Batman isn’t just a favorite character or toy. To my son, Batman is someone he aspires to be someday. A hero. A man who puts aside his own needs to “defend people, defend myself ,” Ethan wrote on his “me” poster for Kindergarten.

The first time he could articulate this to me, I think he was two and I asked him, “Why Batman and not Superman or Wolverine or the Hulk?”

Before I tell his answer, you’ll need to know that this boy already knew more than I did about each superhero and their affiliations and powers and weaknesses. His bedtime reading included Marvel Encyclopedia, D.C. Comics Ultimate Character Guide, or Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe.

You also need to know that he’s a product of superhero fans. My husband always jokes that the only reason why I married him was because he read more comic books than I did. Before we had kids, we had bedtime conversations like “If you could be any superhero, who would you be and why?”

These conversations became dinner ones once the kids were born. The first thing they wanted to sort out was our secret identity. Daddy aka Hulk was the easiest for all the obvious reasons of how the kids view him as the strongest in the family, their protector, and discipliner.

My oldest Kyra, who just turned nine, was a no brainer too because ever since she could grasp a car in the palm of her hand, she has wanted to be a race car driver. Naturally, she likes anything that requires speed. Kyra aka Flash.

My youngest, Riley is only one years old but this baby has the deadliest nails ever, no matter how we trim and file them down. Since the day we brought her home, she digs those nails into our flesh or claws our face in her enthusiasm to show us her love. Those angelic chubby cheeks would lure you close and then she would swipe your face. Riley aka Wolverine.

IMG_6476 Ethan picks out an outfit for his six-month-old sister on Christmas morning, 2013. Photo credit: Leslie Hsu Oh.

Ethan picks out an outfit for his six-month-old sister on Christmas morning, 2013. Photo credit: Leslie Hsu Oh.

My identity is still being debated. Ethan, who is now five, insists that I must be the Batgirl. But my husband says hands down that I’m Rogue.

I worry whether it is okay that my family lives within the comic book world. Superheroes are the rose-colored lens with which we make meaning out of the meaningless events that occur in life.

We are faithful patrons of the superhero genre, watching every blockbuster superhero film on opening day in 3D IMAX. I would take photographs of the kids dressed to the nines in the heroes depicted in the film we are watching that I never post on FB because I don’t want to be judged. Am I introducing my kids to violence at too young an age? Or am I teaching them how to be a hero?

Because secretly, I kinda like that my kids are growing up believing in superheroes. Perhaps, this is a trickledown effect of the way my artistic mother raised me in which I was actually pen pals with Santa Claus until I came home one day from high school in tears searching for the letters as proof to my friends that he was real and poor Mā Ma had to sit me down and say, “Oh finally, I can stop writing those letters.”

But mostly, I enjoy seeing them run around with a cape fluttering in the wind behind their backs. I like that I can be their sidekick and see them teach me things. I like that they believe in the idea of heroism, superpowers, and hope that when you think someone died, they actually didn’t. Certainly, this is influenced by the fact that I lost both my mother and brother to the same disease in my early twenties.

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I also like how I can get them to learn just about anything as long as I tie it to superhero trivia. For example, Kyra and Ethan learned the alphabet quickly with our road trip game of identifying a superhero for each letter. (My favorite is pointing out how important homework is when Iron Man or Spiderman solve a problem with their wit.)

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At age 3, Ethan figured out that Batman is much better with homework than Bruce Wayne.

Of course, I’m careful to spend a lot of time talking to my kids about what is right and wrong, what’s Hollywood vs. reality, and the things that are okay in the superhero films but not okay for them to act out on the school playground.

So back to my question to Ethan when he was two, “Why Batman and not Superman or Wolverine or the Hulk?”

He was quiet for some time. All I could see was his round brown eyes blinking behind his Batman mask. He brushed off some lint off his padded muscle chest and adjusted the gadgets on his utility belt. “Because I can’t fly.”

Kapow. Splat. Whoosh. This answer settles uneasily in my stomach. On one hand, I’m glad he is wise enough to aspire to be a superhero that could actually be possible within the limitations of reality. But I’m also terribly sad, that he has already  begun to define what he can and can’t do.

Dear Readers: I just returned from Squaw Valley Writers Conference where I wrote this piece. It has  inspired me to return to Love+eMotion, which I took a hiatus from to work on my memoir.