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  • Family Reunion in NYC

    Reunions that include all four kids are far too rare these days, so it was great to come together briefly in New York this past weekend. Ostensibly, the reason was to formally (and belatedly) celebrate Ben’s high school graduation, which we did with a small gathering of family (biological, extended, extensions of extended) on Saturday evening.

    Nick and Conner came from Durham on Thursday night and, given that she had only visited the city a couple of times, we hit the sites hard on Friday. Nick took Conner to her first Broadway show (“Waitress”) and a friend gave them a backstage tour. Once the day was done, we had walked more than 10 miles.

    On Saturday, Jill and Kate came in by train from Virginia and Emma flew in from Pittsburgh. At that point, we had all four children together for the first time since Emma’s graduation in July. Thanks to Ginno, Casey, Bernadette, and everyone else who took the time to stop by, say hello, give a hug, and catch up. It was great seeing all of you.

    On Sunday, Emma and I stuck around and went to The Newsboys Variety Show at 54 Below to see Ben perform a song (“Unemployed”) with his roommate Josh. Again, I was struck by how kind and (obviously) talented the cast of this show is, and by how warm and friendly they are. They are a family unto themselves.

    Before you knew it, the long weekend was over and it will be Christmas before the four are together again. But it was nice — very nice — while it lasted.

  • Family Time in Texas

    Growing up, my sister and I had only two first cousins. Thanks to a mini-baby boom on both of our parts, our kids don’t have the same problem. Between the two families, there are nine Cook-related first cousins.

    Unfortunately, given the size of the families and the distance between us, we don’t see each other much. Julie has taught her kids to send me off with, “See ya next year, Uncle Glenn.”

    What’s remarkable, though not surprising given their ages (9 to 20), is how much Julie’s kids change between visits, none more so this time than Matthew, her 16-year-old middle child. Matthew, who is autistic, has shot up over the past year and now is almost as tall as I am. He also is pursuing his black belt in taekwondo, the Korean martial art that focuses on head-height kicks, jumping and spinning kicks, and fast kicking techniques.

    On October 20 (fittingly my dad’s birthday), Matthew will take the test for his black belt after pursuing it for just 20 months, a remarkably short time frame but one that shows his dedication to the craft. When I was in Houston earlier this month, my mom asked me to take a few photos of Matthew in his class because I could not be there for the test in person.

    Here are some of the photos I took. Congratulations to Matthew for his upcoming accomplishment, Julie for maintaining the juggling act I know all too well, and my mom for all of the schlepping she does back and forth for the kids.

    See ya next year…

    Speaking of which, the last time I was in Houston in May 2015, my great nephew Lincoln was a newborn. Now he’s a 16-month-old toddler, constantly active and filled with innate curiosity.

    He also holds the distinction of being my mom’s first great-grandchild, and given that Calliope and Lincoln live with her in Clear Lake, the focus of much of her attention.

    During my visit, my mom asked me to take some pictures of Lincoln in “his natural habitat.” Nothing posed, just candids of a little boy. Here is the result.

    ••••••

    To see the photos from last year's visit, go to http://tinyurl.com/JuliesKids.

  • Farewell

    In honor of this week's "Newsies" casting announcement, it's time to share this tribute that Emma choreographed and danced to in honor of her twin brother during the Fly performance. Shot on an iPhone, the quality is not the best, but you can see the beauty and genuine emotion that Emma brings to her dance, set to the song "Farewell."

    Having Ben at home the past 14 months, after being away for almost four years, has been special for our family and especially for Emma. During the period when he was gone, she grew up, stepped out of his shadow, and became the independent, beautiful young woman we are fortunate to know today. When Ben returned, Jill and I noted several times that they were more "twin-like" than before he left in 2009.

    I'm proud of all of my children, but Emma's performance — when we knew Ben was leaving but could not publicly announce it to the world — brought tears to my eyes. I'll never understand fully what it must be like to be in her shoes (or his, for that matter) but seeing this duet gave me some insight into how hard it is for them to be apart.

    Watch it and you'll tear up, I promise. And you'll smile, too...

  • The Oldests

    We should have known then that something was different about Kate. And I think, deep down, that we did.

    She walked at nine months, graduating to running two months later. She was talking in full sentences at a year. Her tantrums had a ferocity to them — “This is a test of the Emergency Broadcast System!”

    And she never slept. To this day, I don’t think she ever rests.

    Kate, our oldest daughter, is ADHD/bipolar. She also is very bright, yet she wrestles with paranormal forces that lurk inside her brain. At times, she is a hard child to embrace, as if the disorder creates a force field that prevents you from warming up to her, even though that’s what she wants and needs more than anyone.

    ••••••

    He wants nothing more than to be on stage — it’s his calling, he says. And he has to sit on the sidelines while his younger brother moves (seamlessly it seems) from show to show, graduating from recitals to the Washington, D.C., stage to New York in a remarkably short period of time.

    Nicholas also is a child of divorce, the oldest child in our family. Geography requires him to travel at least 250 miles one way to see us.

    He’s split between two families with five half siblings, all with different interests, strengths, and challenges. He’s divided between parents who genuinely don’t like each other. He is so ready to get on with life after high school, but deep down I think he’s nervous about his future and what it holds for him.

    He looks just like my ex; in many ways he acts just like me.

    ••••••

    Nicholas and Kate are my oldest children.

    On the surface, they’re like many above-average, middle/upper middle class kids you see today, navigating that all-too-difficult phase from 12 to 18 that captures, enraptures, exhilarates and frustrates them and us. They will be the first to tell you that their families love them. They will be the first to say that life is fun, but not easy.

    Welcome to the club, you think. You'll learn.

    At times, you want to shout how much worse they could have it. (Remember the speech your mom and dad gave you when you wouldn't finish your food?)

    And while all of that is true, this is their reality.

    It’s our job to show them how to navigate it. A daunting task, indeed…

  • How Does It Feel? — Part 2

    At this point in our story, Nicholas, Katharine, and Emma have been relegated — not necessarily because they chose to be — to supporting players in Ben’s reality show. And like all siblings, especially ones that share similar interests in performing, they alternate between supportive and one of the following:

    a. Jealous as hell.

    b. Proud but not willing to show it.

    c. Both A and B.

    Between mid-October and the night before Thanksgiving, Ben did not see his sisters due to “Ragtime” rehearsals. Because Nicholas lives in North Carolina, we had not seen him in three months. That prompts remarks such as:

    “Dad, I never thought I’d say this,” Kate said to me the other night, “but I actually miss Ben.”

    “Dad,” Ben said a couple of days later, “I never thought I’d say this, but I’m looking forward to seeing Kate.”

    First time I think they’ve agreed on anything.

    The two I feel worst for in this scenario are Emma and Nicholas. Being twins, this is the first time Emma and Ben have been apart in their lives for an extended period. It also means Kate and Emma have to be together far more than any sisters do/should.

    Ben and Emma are the old married couple in the family. They bicker, bitch, and laugh at each other daily. Emma and Kate manage two of the three, but laugh usually is not one of them.

    It’s also been tough for Emma because, until this year, she always was in school and dance with both Kate and Ben. Now Kate is in a different school because she’s in 7th grade and Ben is in school in New York. Emma is truly on her own for the first time.

    She’s done very well given the circumstances, and despite the fact that she is our most methodical, black and white child, she’s managed to adapt quite nicely to everything. Flexibility, however, is still foreign to her; after all, this is the child who would, given the opportunity, alphabetize the people she mentions in her nightly prayers.

    I’ve written about Nicholas already (see “The Oldest” entry below), but I do understand how difficult it is for him. Ben’s dreams are Nicholas’ dreams, too. And Nicholas’ brother is living his dream. Because of the divorce and the distance, we are not able to give Nicholas the same day-to-day time and attention we give the others. It’s a hard reality that once he turns 18 and lawyers are no longer standing on the periphery, we hope to rectify someday. He deserves it…

  • Welcome Home...

    For the next several weeks, Ben is back in Northern Virginia, performing as the page in Terrence McNally's "Golden Age." The play has a short three-week run at the Kennedy Center — thank God for those circle backs — and gives us a chance to be together as a family for just over a month.

    More on the play later, but I thought you might want to know how Ben's siblings greeted him upon his return. Emma, sweet Cook that she is, made him a cake. Kate, whose ADHD/bipolar inspired ditziness masks a wicked sense of humor, contributed this:

    Gotta love big sisters, don't you?

  • Stage Dad: Four Kids, Four Stars

    It’s still somewhat difficult to fathom that I’m the parent of a college student and, in a few months, three high school students. Somewhere along the line, I blinked, and they grew up.

    My son, Nicholas, finished his first year of college in May in North Carolina. My daughter Kate will be a sophomore at one high school in Fairfax County and Emma, Ben’s twin, will be a freshman at a different school. And then there is Ben, who will be a freshman at multiple locales across the United States.

    Occasionally, like now, I pause to wonder how all of this happened. Where did the time go?

    This is a story about the siblings, the ones that have had to learn to adapt with us in this nontraditional world.

    ••••••

    Once the “activities ‘r us” schedule kicks in, parenting multiple children often is a case of divide and conquer — a “who picks up/drops off who when” maze that has no end in sight, but is so close you almost don’t realize it’s passed until it has. Add to that the mystery of having children spread across multiple states, and the divide/conquer dilemma increases exponentially.

    Over the past several years, my wife and I have largely divided and conquered thusly: She has the lion’s share of taking care of the girls, and I deal with Ben-related things. I also take the one-day back and up trip to visit Nicholas, who is from a previous marriage.

    In reality, it’s a practical matter. My insomniac-addled, vampire-like biorhythms and work schedule — thank you, telecommuting (!) — lend themselves more to the chasing back and forth that is required when you are dealing with a child performer and a son who lives 250 miles away. Jill — the far more pragmatic, rational and organized one in the relationship — is better equipped to handle the early morning schedule and afternoon schlepping that comes with raising two very different, but active teenage girls.

    In parenting Ben, it helps that I’ve never been much of a performer, and that I have no desire — or talent — for the stage. But the performer’s world gets so crazy sometimes that it’s difficult not to become caught up in it.

    I’m sure that has had an effect on my other children, and for that, I’m sorry.

    ••••••

    Almost three years ago, just after Ben moved to New York to be in “Ragtime,” I wrote this about the kids on my personal blog (“Our Reality Show”):

    At this point in our story, Nicholas, Katharine, and Emma have been relegated — not necessarily because they chose to be — to supporting players in Ben’s reality show. And like all siblings, especially ones that share similar interests in performing, they alternate between supportive and one of the following:

    a. Jealous as hell.

    b. Proud but not willing to show it.

    c. Both A and B.

    One of our largest parenting challenges — and believe me, we have a number of those — is striking the appropriate balance in paying attention to each of the four kids. It doesn't help that all basically like and do the same things and are — like all siblings — genetically programmed to compete with each other for time, attention, and, yes, resources.

    ••••••

    Any sibling will tell you: Too much togetherness can be suffocating, no matter how close you are. Conversely, it’s also tough for siblings not to have face-to-face contact for weeks — and in some cases, months — at a time. How all of the kids have evolved and matured is a real testament to them as people, and to us as a family.

    Over the past three years, I have watched all four of my kids grow in different ways as they move more deeply into teendom.

    Kate, our oldest daughter, has suffered her entire life with the knowledge that twin siblings were born before she turned a year. Emma, Ben’s twin, was hardest hit by the separation, at least initially. When he left for New York at the start of sixth grade, she faced being in her elementary school alone for the first time. And when her sister quit dance, she was the last torchbearer at MFAC.

    The move to New York was equally difficult for Nicholas, in large part because his brother was living his dream.

    But Nicholas has turned that difficulty into dedication. He made great strides in his first year of college, which ended with him being accepted into Elon University’s BFA acting program and performing with Vital Signs,  a terrific acapella group. What strikes me is how much he has matured this year and how our relationship, left strained at times by the separation and divorce, has evolved.

    Emma continues to work diligently in dance, and seeing huge growth in her ability as a production of “Hook” nears later this month. Like Nicholas, she is equally serious about her academics, and is moving into high school on strong footing. She is jealous of her twin — especially so when he meets a celebrity — but no one is more supportive of him.

    Kate has moved away from performing, leaving dance as she entered high school and moving into athletics. A terrific visual artist, she is continuing to find her way despite some obstacles that are not of her choosing.

    Jill and I are just as proud of each of them as we are of Ben, even though life circumstances make apples-to-apples comparisons impossible. Together, we work to ensure that each child develops and grows at his or her own pace. And we are doing everything we can to give them the opportunities they need as they move forward.

    Yes, it’s a juggling act. And yes, I don’t handle it as well as I should sometimes. But in many respects I wouldn’t have it any other way.

  • The Saga of Moo-Moo

    We’ve all heard the phrase, “You’ll be able to laugh about this someday,” usually in conjunction with “Laughing is better than crying.”

    That brings me to “The Saga of Moo-Moo,” a family story that still makes my oldest son steam, my youngest son squirm, and the rest of us shake our heads in bemusement. In honor of the fifth anniversary of my dad’s death, the recent passing of the full moon, and an expensive visit from the travel ghosts/gods, Moo-Moo’s story brings a welcome dose of humor.

    Morbid humor, perhaps. But humor nonetheless, with a twist for an ending.

    Flashback to five years ago today: The entire family — all six of us — is flying home from my dad’s memorial service. It was a special time, the only opportunity all nine of my parents’ grandchildren have been together, and an exhausting (as you might expect) experience.

    At this point, Nicholas is 14, Kate is 10, and the twins are 9. All handled themselves very well throughout the trip, so I should have expected the wheels to fall off at some point. And they did.

    ••••••

    I’ve nicknamed my twins Hansel and Gretel, because everywhere they go they leave a trail. I realize it’s genetic. They get this trait from their father, and I got it from my father, along with his humor. Ben and Nicholas get their sense of humor from me as well.

    What follows next wasn’t funny, at least at the time.

    We got off the plane at the Baltimore-Washington International Airport and, as usual, did the inventory a little too late. Nicholas realized he’d left his sketchbook on the plane and, more important/catastrophic, a small stuffed red cow he had named “Moo-Moo.”

    “Moo-Moo” was one of those last throwbacks to childhood bedtime, the stuffed animal/blanket that you’re never really ready to part with despite your desire to be an adult. In Nicholas’ hormonal teenage eyes, he couldn’t deal with the loss of his grandfather and “Moo-Moo,” too.

    So we went to the ticket counter and pled our case to the Southwest attendant, a very nice woman who promised to do whatever she could to help. (Fortunately, this was five years ago, and it was not captured for A&E’s reality show, “Airline.”) She sent someone to look for the stuffed animal.

    We waited, and waited. The plane’s takeoff was delayed. Nicholas quickly sketched a “Lost” poster for “Moo-Moo.” The very nice woman patiently took the “Unchecked Article Loss Report.” 

    At some point in this process, “Moo-Moo” mysteriously appeared. As it turns out, Ben had picked it up and hidden it as we got off the plane. Only after the plane was stopped from taking off did the then 9-year-old realize the joke had gone horribly awry.

    We slinked out of the airport, making profuse apologies to the nice (though understandably pissed off) attendant and pointing visual daggers at our youngest son. It was a long, quiet ride home. I thought, in some way, it was my father’s ghost messing with me.

    Moo-Moo’s fate would not be mentioned again — until we received a mysterious box almost four years later.

    ••••••

    The box arrived at our home on April 8, 2011 with Nicholas’ sketchbook, the “Lost” poster, the original incident report, and an unsigned letter. Cue the “Dragnet” theme.

    “This book was found at BWI Airport by one of my cleaners a few years ago — I put it in a box intending to mail it to you. The address was in the article loss report but the box was inadvertently placed in our storage area. I saw the box and realized it was never mailed — sorry for the mistake. The book has tremendous sentimental value… Thanks.”

    Then the P.S.: “I cannot vouch for the cow. Seems like it was never located.”

    Jill and I had to smile and shake our heads. We called Nicholas, who was glad to hear about the sketchbook but still seemed to have PTSD from the experience. Later, we told Ben, who remembered the cold ride home and the withering looks from his older brother on that sad night 44 months before.

    “Stop! I don’t want to hear about it,” he said.

    And then he muttered: “I still have dreams about that cow.”

    I thought about the Moo-Moo story again after an almost comical anniversary weekend of travel mishaps. Kate missed her train from North Carolina and took a bus. Nicholas missed a plane from Boston due to weather and had to take another plane the next day to Virginia. Emma left her pillow and blanket at home when she went to a dance camp.

    That was all within the space of 72 hours.

    Ben was spared somewhat in this travel saga, although being on the road means he has more than his share of stories to tell. And things to leave behind, I’m sure…