making a list, checking it twice!

I apologize. I hate social media top ten lists. I realize I’m in the minority here because the truth is these lists are incredibly popular. They generate insane numbers of shares and views. I suppose they’re popular because they don’t require much thinking. Certainly not for the lazy writer who counts the top ten list among his top ten best friends. Shame on every last one of you lazy writers for phoning it in and shame on you for reading these lists…and for clicking on those You Won’t Believe What Happens Next videos. (You know what happens next? Exactly what you would expect to happen next.)

Now that I’ve gotten that off my chest please enjoy today’s blog post 10 Ways My Life Has Changed Since I Adopted My Sons

  1. People think I’m selfless. This is a common misconception. When you tell someone that you adopted your children they assume you are good person because only a good person would do something so selfless. Whatever. Adopting my kids was the most selfish thing I ever did. Basically I wanted something and I got it and then I ate donuts. End of story.
  2.  I got Christmas back. When I was a kid I loved Christmas. I would stay up all night waiting for Santa Claus. The weeks leading up to his arrival were pure magic and there was nothing better than Christmas Eve, the one night of the year when I believed that anything was possible. But then I grew up and slowly Christmas started to lose its magic. I would still go through the motions, but it was hollow. Then I had kids and poof! Christmas was back. Suddenly I’m a five year old again, staying up all night, and embracing the incredible magic of one perfect night. Is there a Santa Claus? Absolutely.
  3. I have two children. This one is a bit obvious, but every good top ten list has padding. Still, nothing will change your life more than being responsible for tiny people.
  4. I have a stronger relationship with my husband. Todd and I have had our ups and downs over the years, and it’s no secret that in the years leading up to adopting we were in a downswing. Fortunately we got our act together and just when we realized we didn’t have to be together it made us want to be together. I’ve known Todd for almost twenty years and I thought there was nothing left to know about him, but then I saw him as a father and I fell in love with him all over again. Having the boys has made me see and appreciate my husband in a new way. He is, simply put, the best person I know. I admire and love him.
  5. I watch cartoons again. Before the age of ten I watched cartoons nonstop, then I found soap operas and it was goodbye Garfield & Friends and hello General Hospital. Maybe I just got tired of the recycled plots or maybe it was the day ABC cancelled One Life to Live, but I turned away from soaps around the time we adopted Chris. Now I spend my evenings catching up Teen Titans and I leave the goings-on in Port Charles to a new generation of ten year olds.
  6. I played baseball with my son. I hated playing baseball as a kid. My Dad made me play because he thought I should and he thought I should because he knew I was different and I think having me play baseball was his way of trying to make sure I fit in, and for that I thank him. But still, it is a painfully boring game. And even though my kids show no interest in sports (yet) one of the best first days of being a Dad was the day I took Chris to the park and we played catch. It was a rite of passage that made me feel more like his father than a thousand re-issued birth certificates.
  7. I learned patience. I have a temper. I blame it on ten years spent directing plays in the theater and working with needy adult children. I screamed a lot as a director but I only screamed because I knew if I hit people I would probably go to jail. Anyway, parenting children is a breeze after you’ve worked with a gaggle of passive aggressive narcissists (there were exceptions, you know who you are!)
  8. I became a better version of my parents. My parents were very good parents, but they did have stumbles. I have the benefit of their experience and being able to learn from their wrong turns just as I hope my children will learn from my mistakes.
  9. I gained 25 30 35 pounds. The reason you gain weight when you have kids is not because you don’t have time to exercise. The reason you gain weight when you have kids is because you eat all the leftover food on their plate every night. And then eat a half gallon of ice cream while you catch up on Call the Midwife.
  10. I downsized. My weight notwithstanding, I have really cut back in every aspect of my life. My circle of friends is now a short line. I don’t waste money and hours at the mall. I don’t need stuff to make me happy because my family makes me happy. They bring out the best in me that isn’t always there. My husband and children are all I need. Ten years ago such simplicity would have made me run screaming into the night, but now I find comfort in just how easy it is to be happy.

Now please share the hell out of this top ten list as you are required to do by the gods of social media.

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making babies the new old fashioned way

Most people become parents the old fashioned way. They either say, “Let’s have a baby,” and then engage in meaningful heterosexual intercoursing, or they say, “Let’s have a drink,” and then three hours later forget to use a condom. And while both roads may lead to a baby, the second option makes for a better romantic comedy. We tried going the traditional intercourse route for years but it turns out you can’t make omelets without eggs. You also can’t make a baby with two penises because contrary to what your seventh grade health teacher told you in sex ed, you cannot get pregnant in the fanny.

Since boy + boy ≠ baby we turned to adoption. We had our reservations. Our first thought was, “Are gay people even allowed to adopt?” To our surprise not only were the gays permitted to adopt, they were encouraged to do so. There are nearly a half million children in the foster system and with most straights choosing to have babies through intercoursing, supply exceeds demand. Initially our caseworker seemed to only pass along profiles for the harder to place children. “He’s only started a few fires. I’d hardly call that a pattern.” We assured her that while we might be open-minded we didn’t think our dogs would enjoy living with someone who tortured animals even if “it was just that one time.” We persevered and eventually we hit the jackpot. Twice.

Adoption is a funny thing. You wait and you wait and you wait and then suddenly you have two kids and you’re driving a minivan. All you know is now and your memories are something that happened in a dream. I could not even begin to list all the ways being a father has changed my life because the person I am after my children is in no way related to the person I was before them.

Yesterday we met with our attorney to discuss the final steps in Elijah’s adoption. Today she will file the last round of paperwork and in a few short weeks we will go to court. When that day finally comes some judge will bang his gavel and poof! we will be a family. Except of course we already are a family. We may not have biologically created our boys, but they were born to be our sons just as we were born to be their fathers. And while the bang of that gavel will mean many things, it won’t change the most important thing.

the last days of the first months

Each day for the past four months my morning routine has been the same: drop off my oldest son at his bus stop, drop off my husband at his office, and then before going into work take my youngest son to the coffee shop around the corner and pass the time until his pre-school opened its doors. Going to the coffee shop, it was our ritual from almost the first day he had been placed with us. Having come from a very small town in rural West Virginia, going to a coffee shop seemed a great adventure to our newest addition and he loved it. Every morning he would stroll about the coffeehouse as if he owned it, putting on a show for the regulars who only encouraged him with their laughs and smiles. The barista was a big fan too, overlooking the contraband snacks we had brought from home to eat with our coffee and water.

After choosing a seat (always by the window!) we would settle in with our drinks and snacks, pausing from our respective distractions to make small talk and share smiles. I worked my way through the pages of the Call the Midwife trilogy while he polished off two seasons of SpongeBob on my phone.  The minutes ticked by slowly during those first few weeks as we both struggled to settle into this new normal, but in those final days it seemed as if no sooner had we sat down then it was time to part ways.

Today was our last morning at the coffeehouse. Summer vacation starts on Monday. As we walked from the car we played our last game of Booby-Trap Sidewalk. Inside he performed his last show for the coffeehouse patrons. We enjoyed our snacks and drinks as if it were any other morning. I read my book and he watched his show, both of us acting as if Monday would be no different. He looked at me and smiled. I froze the moment.

I’m not nostalgic, except now I am.

My son is just five years old and already he is growing up.

I try to freeze every moment before the present fades into the past.

I think back to those early days with my oldest son and I struggle to remember that first summer with him. Fresh off the plane from Oregon and we were strangers. We spent every moment of those three months together — we had our own routines, our own rituals — every day was a great adventure. We made small talk and shared smiles. I froze moments, but two years later, it seems not enough.

When you adopt they make you read books and take classes on being a parent, but for all their information what the books and classes fail to tell you is that children grow up and moments slip away. One day the seven year old turns nine and the next day the five year old is graduating high school. Life goes on.

children will listen

I learned the hard way that children hear everything…or rather, children hear everything you don’t want them to hear.  Look a child directly in the eyes and give them a specific set of directions and they will act like you’re an alien having just dropped in from another planet speaking a distant language of clicks and beeps, but have a private conversation with your significant other behind closed doors two states away and they not only hear every word, they commit it to memory.

Recently Todd and I were discussing a reading program that had been instituted at Chris’s school, some trademarked No Child Left Behind ridiculousness leftover from George W. Bush’s reign of terror.   It involves children reading from a specific book list for one hour every day, including weekends, under the supervision of parents with no distractions, meaning all televisions, phones, and computers in the house are to be turned off during the 60 minute reading period.   It’s a noble idea, truly, but to any parent who has other children in the home or is trying to juggle extra-curricular activities in addition to the every day school schedule, it’s a bit unreasonable.  And for parents like myself who have children who don’t arrive home from school until after 5 pm and then routinely have 60-90 minutes of homework a night, it’s downright laughable.

But that’s not the point.

The point is we made our negative feelings about this program known within earshot of Chris. The next day at school he told his teacher everything we had said, and while some of our points were valid, others were nothing more than the observations of a couple of bitchy sarcastic homosexual know-it-alls.  We admonished Chris (and ourselves) and then arranged a phone call with the teacher where we apologized and she graciously addressed our legitimate concerns.  Lesson learned.

As annoyed as we were by the incident, it was unfair to be mad at Chris.  He was, after all, just parroting us.  And isn’t that what most children do?  Aren’t we all just the products of our environment? Doesn’t it stand to reason that if you grow up in a house that traditionally votes Democrat, you will grow up to vote Democrat?  If you are raised Catholic, does it not usually follow that you will raise your children Catholic?  We may want our children to form their own opinions fostered by their unique experiences,  but if we were being honest, don’t we also want our children to parrot us?

As much as I may want my sons to be their own persons, to have their own ideas, to speak in a voice that is not mine — I hope the person I am helps to form the person they will become.  In a perfect world my children will follow the path of their parents and embrace the social evolution of progressive liberalism and not the status quo paradigms of regressive conservatism.  They will want families like their own and people of all races to be viewed as equal.  Would I love them any less if they grew up to be socially conservative Republicans?  Of course not, but I would reserve the right to occasionally cry in private.

Recently Chris has been asking a lot of questions about God and religion in general.  Where is heaven?  What happens if you go to hell?  Does God see everything?  I, in turn, have responded with, “In the clouds.  You sweat a lot.  Don’t masturbate.”  I’m kidding.

Right now Chris is curious and I’m not going to pretend to have the answers.  I believe in God. Todd does not.  Who is to say which of us is right?  So when Chris asks these questions we are sure to present many answers, a buffet of options.  We’ve stressed that not all people believe in the same God.  We’ve pointed out that some people, like Todd, do not believe in any God.  We’ve encouraged him to keep reading, to keep experiencing, to keep learning.  And even in this example, where we are telling him to make up his own mind, we are hoping he will parrot us — follow our example and be like one of us.

The truth is children will listen.  They need to listen.   They want to listen.  They are looking to us for guidance and we have no choice but to provide that guidance.  After all, it’s what we signed up for when we agreed to be parents.

rage! (against the machines)

Over the years I have come to realize that no matter how thin I may want to be the real reason I exercise is to control my rage.  It turns out all of those grapevines and crunches and half-assed attempts at camel pose had nothing to do with my desire to be physically healthy and everything to do with my need to be mentally healthy.

My love-hate affair with fitness began when I discovered aerobics while attending college in the early 1990’s.  From the first grapevine I was hooked.  My aerobic obsession eventually led me to the next level, step aerobics (aka aerobics on meth).  In no time I was a full-blown junkie, attending class four to five times a week, the siren-call of Blue Swede’s Hooked on a Feeling my theme song.

When I first started aerobics I was fat.  I was fat and I was angry about being fat.   That anger, coupled with a desire to finally lose my virginity, kept me coming back.  With each kick, each twist, each punch — I was visually beating the shit out of my fat.  I remember thinking:

If I keep doing this — (grapevine, left) — then maybe I won’t be so fat — (knee up, kick!) — and then — (gasping for air; step, ball, change) — maybe someone will have sex with me.

Eventually I ooga-chaka’d my way from 220 pounds to 170 pounds, at long last achieving the kind of body that I assume helped to convince someone to sleep with me.

My love affair with aerobics faded after I left college.  Our break-up sent me back to my first love food, a disastrous rebound that lasted for more than a decade until a friend suggested I try yoga. I was going through a rough patch at the time, the culmination of several years of bad choices, and the idea was yoga, with its breathing and focusing of the mind, would help to ground me.  And it did.

It’s amazing how much you can focus your mind when you really set your mind to it.

Of course while my fellow classmates were namaste-ing their way to a zen happiness I could never hope to achieve even on a good day, I was imagining elaborately-staged and fully-scripted revenge scenarios featuring a revolving cast of all the people I hated.

Yes, you could make the argument that this was a) not the intended purpose of yoga b) a perversion of all its philosophies and c) not healthy.  However, I would argue that it was better to feel my feelings rather than swallow my rage.  Ultimately I’m just not made for a 24/7 world of fluffy unicorn kitties with rainbows shooting out their asses.  And besides, it’s not like I would ever actually put these vengeful thoughts into action.  I was simply allowing them to stop by for coffee and a quick chat before I returned to the business of living in the real world.

By the time we adopted our second son my lifestyle and schedule were no longer conducive to yoga.  Unable to spare the two hours a day needed for the practice, I rebounded (again!) to the familiar and my mistresses of cake, donuts, ice cream, cereal and cookies.  It wasn’t long before the every day circus of two small children had me once again questioning my sanity as I teetered on the edge of a spectacular mental collapse.

Fortunately I discovered Zumba (aerobics for the new millennium) and spinning.  While Zumba is fun — like dancing at a wedding, but sober — spinning allowed me to work out all of my new, parent-related aggressions.  When Chris loses his glasses or Elijah insists on watching the same episode of Paw Patrol for the twentieth time, I simply head to spin class and bike my way to a different, quieter life.

Over the years parenthood has muted my rage and as a result I spend less time focusing on revenge fantasies.  Still, on those days when I feel like I just can’t make it to the top of the hill, I remember my yoga and I visualize what lies on the other side.  I imagine myself cycling down the hill at top speed to the theme of Paw Patrol taking out a sea of passive-aggressive middle-aged women and Target vest-wearing lunatics.

My old friend, rage.  She’s just the push I need.

hazy shades of winter

The year I turned 40 Todd and I celebrated our eighteenth anniversary. We have two children, ages 5 and 9.  The year my parents turned 40 they celebrated their twentieth wedding anniversary.  They had three children, ages 18, 13, and 9.

On the surface it may seem like we shared a similar path, my parents and I. But I was 38 the year my then-7 year old son arrived and not-quite-40 the the day we met our 5 year old. Contrast that with my parents who welcomed their first child before they could legally drink. At an age when I was staying out at bars until 2 am, my Mom and Dad were raising a hormonal teenager, a defiant seven year old, and a free-spirited toddler.

I don’t know how they did it.

Growing up, we struggled.  With Reaganomics failing to trickle down and steel mills closing up all across the rust belt, my Dad was often out-of-work.  My Mom found full-time employment as a clerk at a local department store, a position she held for years even after my Dad had achieved long-term job security.  Throughout the years we lived in a series of rented homes.  We were frequent visitors at the food bank.  We bought groceries with food stamps. There was no extra spending money, no family vacations.  Even McDonald’s seemed a luxury.

Of course at the time we never knew this because at the time my parents made sure we always had the things we needed.  We may have bought our clothes from the sale rack at the discount store and eaten an unusual amount of Hamburger Helper, but for the most part it seemed we did not want for anything.  Looking back I don’t remember the struggles.  I remember the Christmas Santa Claus came to visit us at the farmhouse.  I remember the make-shift living room floor picnics at the house on Market Street.  I remember the elaborate birthday parties on Buffalo Street.  I remember the unconditional love.

I don’t know how they did it.

My parents at age 40 had a dramatically different life than I have at age 40.  I hold a mortgage with the promise of home ownership.  I take annual trips to Puerto Rico.  I buy clothes on sale out of choice, not necessity.  The struggles and sacrifices of my parents gave me this life; I would not have it otherwise.

So I hope my struggles and sacrifices, however trivial in comparison to those of my parents, serve as teaching moments and provide for Chris and Elijah the tools to achieve their dreams.  I want to create memorable birthdays and Christmases and living room picnics and offer to my sons the unconditional love my parents so freely gave to me.

A 40 like my 40, but better.

eye of the tiger

My son had a bad day yesterday.  It all began when he left his backpack in the car.  He does this a lot, leaving things behind.  His backpack, his lunchbox, his gloves.  Last summer he came home from day camp in just his bathing suit, having lost his clothes, shoes and spare eyeglasses while at the pool.  It’s to the point that whenever I walk down the dirty stretch of alley between my office and the coffee shop and I see a single shoe or a stray pair of pants I think, “Chris must have been here.”

Not long after dropping my other son off at pre-K, I received a voicemail from Chris.  I assumed he was calling to ask me to bring his backpack to the school, but it turns out he was calling to tell me that his glasses had been broken by a classmate.  He was hysterical in a manner that would have won him the Daytime Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress for the next decade, at least.   I called the school and assured Chris that I was not mad, clearly it was an accident.

The day went from bad to worse when we picked up Chris from the bus stop and discovered that not only had his glasses been broken, he had also lost them at some point during the day.  This was followed by an epic three-hour homework showdown where Chris declared that 12 divided by 4 was 27 and a comma went at the end of a sentence,

Some days.

The truth is Chris was not just having a bad day, he’s been having a bad month.  There have been changes to the family dynamic with the addition of our son Elijah, suddenly Chris is not the only child.  For almost two years now he has had all of our attention, now he has to share it.  He also has to share his bedroom, his toys and his dog.  It’s a lot.

Chris loves Elijah and he loves being a big brother.  Having Elijah in the house means Chris gets to do his two favorite things: give orders and tattle.  But still even when you consider the pluses, all of this change is a lot for any kid to process.

Last night before bed Chris was feeling down, the day’s events had finally caught up to him.  He felt stupid for losing his glasses, for not understanding his homework, for having a bad day.

Chris has been through a lot in his nine years. He had a rough start, at one point living in a tent as a baby.  Since then he has lived in six different homes, and not always with the best people.  He’s been neglected and forgotten.  He has seen and experienced things people ten times his age have never seen or experienced, yet still he wakes up every day smiling.

He is the very definition of resilience.

As I told him last night, “You’ve been through so much that wasn’t good, but here you are still standing.  You’re going to have bad days, but you’re going to get through them.  Everything that came before — that was the hard stuff.  Not forgetting your gloves, making sure you have your glasses, remembering to read the directions on your homework — that’s the easy stuff.  You can do the easy stuff.”

I’m willing to cut him some slack — to overlook the lost glasses, the forgotten backpacks, the missing gloves, the refusal to read and follow directions.  He just needs time to adjust.  And I know that he will adjust, because he always does.  He has spent a lifetime doing it — from one foster home to the next. He’s a survivor.

check, please

I hate the word bully. It has become yet another flashy buzzword for these early days of the 21st century — another cause célèbre, another brand to sell, another ribbon to wear.  We attribute every schoolyard skirmish and childish disagreement to the work of a bully. Even harmless name-calling, once a rite of passage for all children, is now considered full-on psychological warfare and verbal intimidation.  When the four year-old who calls a classmate a poopyhead on the playground is labeled a bully, we have gone too far.

I am not unsympathetic.  I was routinely called a faggot from the ages of 8 to 17.  I know firsthand that bullies exist in our schools; the evidence being my story and the stories of the broken children who suffered far more horribly than I at the hands of these would-be oppressors.   Without question we have an obligation to stop these bullies, but we also have an obligation to distinguish between the bully and the children simply learning to navigate the choppy waters of childhood.  When we use bully as some sort of catchall, we effectively neuter our children and foster a culture of victimhood.

I suppose it comes down to this: which is worse, marijuana or heroin?  Are they equally bad?  Simply stated, if marijuana calls you poopyhead and heroin torments you until you kill yourself, which one would you put your resources into stopping?

If all bullies are the same then the real bullies inevitably slip through the cracks, left to mature, in size if not mind.  I can think of at least a dozen grown-up bullies I have encountered in my adult life.  People with such shockingly low levels of self-esteem they can be made whole only by making others feel less.  For the pint-sized tyrants we have zero tolerance, but for the adults we make excuses: we convince ourselves it would be rude to contradict them; we shakes our heads and cluck that everyone has a right to their opinion; and my favorite, we cite the all-forgiving “free speech”.

Every morning I walk past a restaurant I used to frequent on a regular basis.  One evening while eating there with friends, several people from my group were openly hostile to our waitress.  One woman in particular was especially condescending and dismissive, taking every perceived mistake as a personal attack.  The tension at the table was palpable, many of us were horrified and uncomfortable, but no one more so than our poor server.  Now when I eat there I burn with embarrassment, not because of what my bullying dinner companions did, but because I did nothing to stop them.

Several months ago when picking my son up from school I was part of a conversation with two other parents.  The conversation devolved into a thinly-veiled discussion on race, specifically how unfortunate it was that this otherwise wonderful school was so “urban”.  Polite racism.  One of the parents hypothesized that the school might not have so many discipline problems if it was in another neighborhood, by which she meant white neighborhood.  When I think back on that conversation I burn with embarrassment, again not because of what the other parents said, but because I said nothing to contradict them.

When I was teenager I had an uncle who confronted me about being gay.  At the time I didn’t know what I was other than an overweight awkward teenager who never thought he’d have any kind of sex — gay or straight — but still this man persisted: Don’t you have a girlfriend?  Why don’t you have a girlfriend?  Don’t you like girls?  He kept on for about fifteen minutes.  I suppose he thought he could bully me into heterosexual submission.  In this memory I burn the most with embarrassment, unable to stand up even for myself.

Bullies grow up.  They become racists, homophobes, and generally nasty people who take joy in reducing a waitress to tears.  We may be vigilant about curtailing the abuses of a ten year-old bully, but for grown-up monsters we look the other way.  It might be that in conjunction with policing our playgrounds we should also hold ourselves accountable.  Perhaps we should ask ourselves how often we — the adults — stand up to our bullies?

traditionally non-traditional, or the new normal

Yesterday was Elijah’s first day of school.  There were many forms to sign.  Several forms required the signature of both parents:

_______________________________                 _______________________________
Mother’s Signature                                 Father’s Signature

On each of the forms I crossed out Mother and wrote in Father.  I did this not because I was trying to make a point or engage in an act of passive protest or even because I was offended, I did this because father and father is how we identify.  I did this because this is who we are:  we are not a traditional family.

Like an ever-increasing number of families in this country we do not fit the mold of mom, dad and 2.2 kids.  If anything that traditional mold has been shattered by decades of divorce, familial reshuffling, and social restructuring.  In what may be an actual example of irony, the traditional family is no longer traditional, having been replaced by unimaginable countless configurations: single mom, single dad, two moms, two dads, two moms and two dads, two dads and a mom, two moms and a dad, three dads, grandmother and grandfather, aunt and uncle, stepfather and mother, stepmother and stepfather, mom who used to be dad and mom who is still mom, etc.

Non-traditional is the new normal.

I’ve always believed that the best way to affect change is to just be yourself and lead by example.
Every morning my husband makes breakfast and every evening I make dinner and every night before bed we both kiss the kids goodnight.  We are painfully boring.  A family just like any other family — a family just like your family.  The specifics may be different, but fundamentally we are the same.

Celebrate the non-traditional.  Embrace the new normal.  Change the form.

what am i supposed to do with a porcelain vase?

Eighteen years ago I was working at a small grocery store in my hometown. Todd lived across the street.  I remember the first time I saw him he came in to buy toothpaste and bleach.  It was cold outside and he was wearing a knit cap; he looked adorable and lost and the minute he put that cap on his head I knew I loved him.

Because this was 1997 and Tinder and Grindr had yet to be invented, I asked him out like any other self-respecting homosexual man masquerading as a teenage girl, I slipped a handwritten note into his grocery bag.  Would you like to go out with me?  

The only thing missing were the two boxes for him to indicate yes or no.

For the next two weeks we did what the Duggars refer to as “courting” — an act which consisted of long walks followed by a few awkward side hugs.  It was all very chaste and Puritanical.  I began to think maybe Todd wasn’t gay the night I leaned in to kiss him and he turned his cheek.  Of course he was gay and on February 17 he did not turn his cheek.

Over the years Todd has forgiven so much — he has overlooked my lack of patience, my tendency to overreact, my ability to make everything about me.  In return for looking past this catalog of flaws and shortcomings, I forgive him for taking too long to tell a story and not being Latino.

Eighteen years is long time for any relationship, but in the gay community — where most relationships begin after last call and end twenty minutes later — eighteen years is a lifetime.  I’m not sure how we did it or why we’re still together.  There is no secret to our success.

And besides, it’s not as if we didn’t implode. We did.  On more than one occasion. Some days it was a real struggle. But then I like that we almost failed.  It made us real.  It said we had something to lose in the first place.

Eighteen years later and there is no one I would rather share uncomfortable silences with than him.