Month: February 2013

Old Yeller

2774519474_3dff3f1e56_zDon’t worry. This post is not further lamenting about my dog’s death, but the title just fits my predicament so well. You see, I am a yeller. I’m not just a loud person. I need to be the loudest in the room. I need to be heard. And if I feel you are not getting my point, I will simply yell it AT you. This is a horrible trait–probably my only flaw:)

This flaw is weighing on my mind because I recently had an incident with my sons that I am still ruminating about. Last week I yelled at them–a scream at the top of my lungs kinda holler. I’ve only done that a handful of times with them, but it’s the type of behavior where just once is one too many. And of course, what really irritates me about the whole incident is that I was trying to be nice.

It was Friday. They had been bugging me about swimming at the YMCA all week. When they got off the bus, I asked them if they wanted to go. They answered with a resounding “Yes!” “Then we’ll get pizza and watch a movie,” I said. What a plan! What a great dad! What an idiot for thinking it would be so easy! “Can we have snack first?” asks one. “Can we watch a little TV first?” asks the other. “Sure. We’ll leave in a half hour.”

Of course I try to accomplish a dozen things in that half hour, so an hour and a half later we’re finally getting into the car–just in time for mommy to be pulling in from work. Shoot, I never told Pam my plan, I think. “I want Mommy to come with us,” Hayden says.  This is not fair to Pam, who didn’t even know we were going. Understandably tired, she lets him down easy. But this will not suffice. Hayden goes full throttle into one of his tantrums. He starts yelling and flailing and I realize I should have gone an hour ago. The window of opportunity closed tightly while they were getting their Sponge Bob on. Pam dashes inside and I get both boys in the car, but Hayden is still crying and whining, “I WANT MOMMY TO COME!” Owen gets out of the car–“I don’t want to go now because Hayden’s ruining it.” This makes Hayden wail harder. I tell Hayden he can’t go if he doesn’t calm down. I tell Owen he has to go because we had a plan. Everyone is now miserable–including me and Pam– who is witnessing this dysfunctional tableau from the kitchen window. But–hear me now–up to this point I have not yelled once. I did not raise my voice at anyone involved. In fact, I hearken back to the childhood behavior gurus, Brazelton and Spock, and try to rationalize with my son like the good disciple I am: “Make a good decision, Hayd, I know you can do it. C’mon, Buddy, use your thinking side.” I recall the syllabus of books that I have read throughout my years as a parent: Touchpoints: Birth to Eight , What to Expect: The Toddler Years, 1-2-3 Magic: Effective Discipline from 2-12,  and, finally, I’m Okay, You’re a Brat (this is a partial list).

With everyone safely buckled, I take a deep breath and begin to drive. I am quiet, hoping the storm has passed. I turn on the radio, wishing to hear one of the inappropriate songs that might distract them, the songs they now sing with bizarre naiveté (Can I blow your whistle baby, whistle baby, let me know…). Within two minutes, they begin to fight over a Fun Dip packet in the back seat–a gift from one of their friends from their Valentine’s party yesterday–cards alone don’t cut it anymore. Owen lent Hayden the dip stick to have a few licks (GROSS) but now he wants it back. Hayden is holding the sugary powder pack hostage.They begin to hit each other. I turn back for a second to see what the hell is happening, and as I look again to the road, I see a line of stopped cars with glaring  red tail lights. A slam on my brakes–stopping just feet from the car in front of me. This is the closest I’ve come to being in a car accident with the boys. Once I realize that we were lucky, that we are safe and no one is hurt, I want to kill someone. F***ing Fun Dip. F***ing swimming. F***ing pizza. F***ing movie.

What I say is, “DAMMIT!” Loud–remember this post is about my yelling. “DO YOU SEE WHAT YOU ALMOST MADE ME DO? WE COULD HAVE BEEN REALLY HURT! GIVE ME THE FUN DIP! ARE YOU HAPPY NOW HAYDEN? WHY DO YOU HAVE TO BE THIS WAY? WHY CAN’T YOU BE HAPPY? WHY DO YOU HAVE TO RUIN THINGS?” Hayden sees my irrational state, and raises me twenty. He proceeds to kick the back of my seat. He yells at me, punctuating each word with a stomp of his foot. While still driving, I attempt to grab his leg, but then realize I need to reclaim my “Adult In Charge” badge. I turn the car around and head home. I am proud of myself for not continuing to go to the Y, but my screaming has not reached its end. “ALL I WANTED TO DO WAS…AND YOU GUYS DON’T REALIZE HOW GOOD….AND WE COULD BE AT THE HOSPITAL….I BET YOUR FRIENDS DON’T…AND YOU ARE SPENDING THE REST OF YOUR NIGHT IN YOUR ROOM, HAYDEN.” And with that we are home. The boys are in tears, and I slam my door and storm inside. “Well, that was a bust! We’re back…”and then I rehash the whole debacle for Pam, rants, threats, and all.

I march Hayden up to his room, he is still yelling, and I pretend to ignore him. As I begin to shut hisyell door, he looks at me, teary-eyed, and screams, “Why do you always yell at me?” To which I reply, “Why do you always yell at me?” I shut (not slam) his door hard, and I go to my room and lie down. Yes, it’s 5 o’clock on a Friday night and I’m spending Happy Hour in Hell!

“I’m going to order the pizza. Do you want any?” Pam calls up to me. “No!” I yell down, wallowing. I lay on our bed and just try to breathe, to relax, yet I can hear Hayden talking to himself in his room. I feel sad, not sure whether he is berating himself or me (probably both). I go to his door and open it.  “Can I come in?” “No,” he says, but bitter-sweetly. I go back to my room and lie down again. A few minutes later, I spy him hiding in my doorway, peeking his head in, hoping I’ll notice him. “Come on in,” I say. He climbs on the bed. “Hayden, Mommy and I love you very much, but we get sad when you behave like that. You say I always yell at you. When was the first time I yelled at you today?” In his signature inaudible whisper he says, “When we almost hit that car.” “And weren’t you yelling at me and mommy and Owen?” He gives me a pouty lip nod. “Let’s BOTH work on not yelling, okay.” He repeats pouty lip nod. We spend the next few minutes just lying there, savoring the quiet, which seems extra loud now that neither of us is screaming at each other. While I am glad to have this reconciliation, the thought that I often have is gnawing away at me: “Oh, God. He’s me. He’s me.”

“Pizza’s here!” Pam hollers. He and I both make our way downstairs. I proceed to gobble two slices of the pie I said I didn’t want. We salvage the night by watching Hotel Transylvania–again. My behavior weighs heavy on my mind. I am trying so hard to have patience, to show my boys how to be respectful and kind. But old habits die hard. I think back to my childhood where he who was loudest was the winner. Yelling was the most effective way to gain attention in my large family. To yell was to win. And what a price we paid for that victory.

The next day, Owen and I find ourselves sitting on the stairs tying our shoes. He then hops into my lap without warning. Just puts his arms around my neck and plants a kiss on my face. I am so moved by this. Each time we share such a moment, a voice in my mind cries out, “Remember this. Enjoy it. Such embraces will disappear soon. He will not be able to sit in your lap much more. He will not want to kiss you much longer.” I take this opportunity to address the incident from the day before. “Hey. I’m sorry I yelled like that yesterday. I was upset, and I was scared that we could have gotten hurt.” “You scare me when you yell like that,” he says softly. A small dagger pierces my heart. “I know I do. And I’ll try not to yell like that again.” He remains in my lap a bit more, and I will this moment into my mind so I can remember this promise that I make to him.

Having reflected on this situation for a week now, I am reminded of how my anger still seeps through into my life. I am not foolish enough to think I will not raise my voice ever again–I’m sure I’ve raised it every day since. But there is a difference between raising one’s voice and yelling. And I am aware that part of my anger is resentment. At times, I resent the fact that my kids don’t realize how good they have it–what a charmed life they are living, or how much attention and quality time we give to them. But then I think about these young men we are shaping, the habits we are forming in them through our example. I realize that one of the most important things I can do for them is show them how to remain calm and composed, even when angry. It has taken me decades, but one of the most valuable lessons I have learned is that yelling is one of the fastest ways to get people to shut down. Once you’ve yelled, you’ve lost.

Goodnight, Sweet Boy!

“I want to be the man my dog thinks I am.” –Author Unknown

puppyWe lost our sweet yellow Lab this week. Rufus Atticus  passed away on Tuesday, February 12th. He did go gently into that good night, licking a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup while the doctor gave him the injection. It happened, like so many things in our lives, unexpectedly, without warning. This time a week ago he was frolicking in the snow at his favorite spot: thenature preserve at the end of our street. And then his leg broke–just broke.  He gave a piercing cry that I have never heard from him. As he rested for the remainder of the weekend, we were cautiously optimistic. But the visit to the vet confirmed the worst. A malignant bone tumor. Of course there was the option of amputating the leg and giving him chemo, but that would only buy him a few months, which did not seem fair to him and was something I didn’t want the boys, or us, to endure. So, really, there was only one option–to put him to sleep.

After his diagnosis, I held it together while in the vet’s office, but once outside, the tears erupted. As I watched him hobble to the car, I couldn’t believe our time together was dwindling. Pam came home from work once I told her, and we cried together, with Rufus lying in his bed looking at us with the same lovable face–a face that blended wisdom, love, admiration, excitement, joy and sadness. This was his forever face. He was our first born, our starter baby. We bought him a year into our marriage, the pre-children acquisition to determine how we would parent together. And we certainly did learn a lot about each other by raising Rufus, about shared responsibility and  teaching him how to behave, about the fact that it’s up to both of us to pick up poop and walk him, and that whoever lets him out the other must let him back in…

When I think back on the past ten and a half years with this dog, I realize that I spent the most time with him in our family. I must have taken him on thousands of walks. Thousands! I walkedrufgrad him practically every day of his life. When he was young, these were long runs through hill and dale. As he aged, they became meandering trots through the woods. This became my daily routine, my ritual, my identity. In the neighborhood, it was common for neighbors to see me making my usual rounds. At the preserve, I was familiar with all the other dogs–I was known as Rufus’ dad (It’s a funny thing about pets–we all seem to know their names, but not their owner’s.) Rufus and I could be found in the open space at least five days (or nights) a week. But now I am dogless. Now, I don’t feel I can walk back there alone. Now, I feel like I will be viewed as a creeper lurking in the woods. How sad is that?

ruf22My sadness over this loss was at first surprising, but then completely understandable. I was losing my boy, my companion, my best friend. Sure, I had dogs growing up, but we never cared for them the way a dog needs to be cared for. We simply argued whose turn it was to let him out the back door and whose turn it was to let him in. But Rufus was my only dog as a grown man. And I did grow so much in his lifetime. Not only as his owner, but as a husband, then a father, and a man…Rufus was present through all of this. And his name! Rufus Atticus. This name was my first homage to my hero, Atticus Finch. Before Dadicus Grinch was ever a thought in my mind, there was this loyal creature who embodied so many of the good things about this world, much like my literary hero.

I spent most of Rufus’ last day on Earth on the floor. I wanted to be with him, to sit and reflect on all he was to us. At times, I wailed. I was filled with the typical regrets: I fell asleep on Friday putting Owen to bed and never gave you a walk; we’ll never go swimming in the bay again; you’ll never chase another squirrel out of our yard. Like all those in grief, I even embraced the things that drove me crazy about him–I wanted to hear his annoying bark when someone came to the door; I wanted to be covered in his fur that I was constantly bitching about vacuuming up every other day.

When we told the boys, they were obviously upset. We had practiced what we would say, but it made no difference. The words we rehearsed escaped us, and our raw emotions spewed forth. “Rufus is in pain and needs to go to heaven.” I think they were more taken aback by our crying then the news of his dying. “You guys look like your eyes are bleeding when you cry,” said Hayden. “Yeah, and it looks like your head is going to explode!” said Owen. “Well, what do you think you look like when you cry?” I asked. In hindsight, I’m glad they saw me cry. I’m glad they saw me sitting there with the dog on his bed crying for him, for me, for all of us. This is a part of life, and they will remember it forever. I want them to know there is no shame in crying, there is nothing wrong with being sad when someone you love is hurting. Because when a loved one hurts, you hurt, too.

313166_10150368796097036_1404978185_nRufus spent his final day as he did most other days–eagerly awaiting the next piece of food to come his way. However, on this day he did not need to wait long. Every time Pam turned the corner, she had a treat for him. From cheese to cantaloupe, from popcorn to pork tenderloin. This dog ate everything his heart desired. When we took him to the vet, the decadence continued with biscuits and chocolate–a dog’s forbidden fruit. He ate more pieces of chocolate than some kids on Halloween. Such pleasures helped to mask the grief we were all feeling, helped to hush the constant cries of pain he made when trying to walk on three legs.

After the vet gave him a sedative, he began to settle down on a soft blanket. We lied there with him on the floor and tried to quiet our sobs. The nurses kept the chocolate coming, which he lapped up with his soft tongue. A sweet older woman said, “This is how I want to go out. Surrounded by people who love me, being fed chocolate.” As the doctor waited to administer the medicine that would end his life, I began to talk about what a wonderful dog he has been. “From the moment we got you, Rufus, you were our sweet boy.” I then remembered the story I often told about picking him up from a breeder in Maryland. During times of sadness, I attempt to use humor to soften the pain. Not surprisingly, this can backfire. It can make things awkward. I seem to have a knack for making things worse by adding my weirdness to the mix. Such was the case when I launched into this tale.

“The family where we bought Rufus was very religious,” I began. “You’re not going to tell this story now, are you Michael?” said Pam. “Sure, why not.” The female doctor and two female assistants looked unfazed. “Yeah, this family had religious plaques and crucifixes around their farm. And the couple had three sweet children. The man said, ‘Well, there are two puppies left. You can have your pick. And if you want to see the bitch, she’s up in the pen.’ Well, it took everything Pam and I had not to burst out laughing like two high school kids. As I drove us home to Pennsylvania, with Rufus on Pam’s lap, I said to her, ‘Honey, wouldn’t it have been funny if when he asked us to see the bitch in the pen I said ‘See the bitch? I just drove with her in the car for three hours!'” We laughed at this, but then both agreed that the breeder and his wife would NOT have thought it was funny. Neither did the vet or her assistants, who all gave me a look that said “We’ll chalk it up to your grief, but that story makes you look like a real asshole.” I certainly felt like one. But as I petted my pup for the last time, I didn’t care what anyone else in the room thought about me, because my dog thought I was one hell of a guy. He said so everyday as he laid at my feet, as he greeted me at the door, as he plopped his pull toy in my lap while I read the paper, as he stood for our nightly walk as soon as I descended the stairs from putting the boys to bed.

Thank you, Rufus. For believing me to be the man I continue to try to be. Goodnight, sweet boy.


Tag, I’m It

My son, Owen, has been excited for his friend’s birthday party for over a month. It was held today at this cool place called Arnold’s thatRackMultipart20121011-28295-3i406n_grid_6 has laser tag, go karts, and a million other attractions–all with blinking lights and raucous music. Earlier this week, Owen asked me who was taking him to the party. I said I wasn’t sure. “We’re going to play laser tag and it’s kids versus parents! I hope it’s you, cause I told all my friend how you are really athletic.” Anyone reading this post who knows me is probably laughing right now. Even I would consider myself “active” but certainly not “athletic”. Gotta love the mind of an eight-year-old boy.

When Pam arrived home from work that night, the first thing out of Owen’s mouth was “Who’s taking me to Greg’s birthday party (same breath)I WANT DAD TO!” Pam laughed and said,”Why doesn’t dad take you?” The rest of the week, Owen was bursting with anticipation for both of us: “Are you excited, Dad?” “Now it’s kids versus parents so I’m not going to be on your team–which means I may have to shoot you–but not in the face. Plus, it’s just a laser so it won’t hurt.” “Hey, Dad, the party’s tomorrow. Are you ready?”

Today, we began counting down at 7 a.m.–five hours til the party. Before we knew it, we were pulling in to the giant warehouse parking lot that housed Arnold’s Fun Center–a facility larger than some countries. Once inside, it was sheer mayhem. There were a dozen birthdays going on simultaneously. Owen was anxious to find his friends, and once he did, he left me in the dust. I watched them bounce from video games, to bumper cars, to junior go karts, to laser tag. And I noticed that most of the parents seemed to have disappeared, claiming these two hours as a chance to shop or catch up on work or listen to a game on the car radio. So much for parents versus kids.

I was relieved that my physical prowess would not be up for inspection. But then, Greg’s mom saw me walking around and (felt sorry for me?) offered me a card for the amusements. So, I asked Greg’s dad if he was going to play laser tag. He was reluctant, but my look convinced him. We rounded up the boys for another game of tag. As we waited in the darkened vestibule to be suited up, I said to Owen and his friends, “You know, I was a laser tag major in college.” Their eyes widened. Someone shouted, “Kill Owen’s dad first!” Me and my big mouth. Once inside the neon labyrinth, I ran around like I was just another kid at the party. I was terrible, though. Everyone shot me. Including strangers. But no one was interested in my athletic ability, just my ability to be here at a kid’s party and join in the fun. When our game was over, I was proud of my 2,640 points, until I realized that every kid scored double or triple that. Oh, well.

As I once again sunk back into my role as spectator, Greg’s dad now urged me on: “You have to try the Go Karts.” “Really? I’ve never done it. I’m not sure.” He was giving me the same look I had given him pre-laser tag. “Okay, I’ll try it.” I’m glad I did. Talk about a rush. I can’t wait to do it again someday.

After another hour of games then cake, we thanked Greg’s parents and wished him a happy birthday. As we walked out into the parking lot, the glaring sun reminded us that it was, in fact, a beautiful day outside. I grabbed Owen’s hand to walk to the car. “So, did you have fun, Dad?” “I sure did, Owen. I sure did.” Yeah, the mind of an eight-year-old boy. Gotta love it.


The Younger Games

My cyber friend Vanessa (One Thousand Single Days) posted a blog entry the other day entitled “Sometimes I Play This Game”.  Here is an excerpt:

Sometimes I play a game.
In the game you guess the lives of the strangers around you. For example, the man using the pay phone with the glasses on the end of his nose is a security guard who stands in front of his full length mirror at night quick drawing his walkie talkie and quoting from “Lethal Weapon“.

 Everyone has a secret life, things they do when no one is looking. In this game you guess it. You make it up…

Here is my comment to Vanessa:

I played this game a lot as a kid. For example, I’d be in Kmart with my mom, and I’d pick someone to feel sorry for. Like, in line, I’d focus on an older lady and think–I bet she has no one at home…I hope her kids visit her…I hope she has enough food to eat…Does she have a cat? She needs a cat to warm her lap…I was such a maudlin child. I love that your characters have a wider-albeit bizarre-range. I think I’ll play your version this week:)

Her post reminded me of all of the games I would play as a kid, from the typical to the downright weird.

hide_and_seekI loved all the variations of tag/hide-and-seek that we played. At school, we played Ring Out on the black top during recess. One person would have to tag everyone and bring them to base. However, if you were not caught, you could set everyone free by tagging the base and shouting, “RING OUT!” At home, we played a hide-and -seek version of this called “Freedom All”. Everyone would hide, and when identified (“I see Timmy underneath Mr. Mason’s truck.”) would walk to base, which was a speed limit sign near the curb. Anyone not caught could touch the base before being tagged and yell “Freedom All!” Whoever charged the base usually gave it a good whack. Then, everyone would scatter to the reverberating sound of wongwongwongwong echoing in the street. It was always a highlight to be the one to save the day and free everyone. There were many other variations of such games: “Kick the Can“, “Ghost in the Graveyard“…

These were typical games that would help us wile away the hours spent outside. However, there were other, more obscure games. When I was in first grade, I was obsessed with The Six-Million Dollar Man. I was in awe of his bionic powers and would act out scenes from his adventures for hours–including his spacecraft’s horrendous plummet to the earth . One day, a girl down the street asked if she could play with me. When I told her I was Steve Austin, she insisted on being Jamie Sommers (The Bionic Woman). I made her audition by pretending to pop a tennis ball in her hand, then we made up some cheesy song about how much Jamie and Steve loved each other–I still remember the lyrics (Jamie and Steve are walking together, Jamie and Steve are singing this song–repeat 7,000 times). But the bionic version I loved to play involved my younger brother and sister. We called it Cung-ung-ung-ung, so named because of the sound effect of Steve using his bionic arm. We LOVED Cung-ung-ung-ung. In hindsight, it probably looked like we were gyrating all over the yard, acting out our bionic battles in slow motion. We also had special sound effects for Jamie and Steve jumping over the fence (Whooooooop) then landing on the other side (Whooooooop) and for Steve seeing amazing distances out of his eye (Bwooop/ Bwooop/ Bwooop). I think our game, and both of the shows, jumped the shark when the Fembots came on the scene–we could never find so many villains to play with us.

Another weird game involved making leaf houses. Someone’s mom was clearly a genius because she suggested we rake the leaves into piles and “make a game out of it”. Challenge accepted. Five of us raked the leaves into lines and then we created a leaf house. This was awesome because our leaf houses were always huge. My favorite part was that I was always had my own room–no sharing it with four brothers. I loved my room–even if my furniture blew away each day.

There was also a lot of role playing when we were young. We did the usual cowboys and indians, and cops and robbers, but having thestarsky and tv overactive imagination that I did, I would also play such roles by myself. I had a paper route when I was ten. I delivered the paper in the afternoon on my bike, but every other week, I would have to collect money from the customers door-to-door. I dreaded collecting, and often I had to do it in the dark. To pass the time, I would pretend I was a private detective on a case. This would have been around the time of Starsky and Hutch. I would speak into the collar of my jacket, as if I was communicating with headquarters: “Suspect was last spotted in this vicinity. I’m approaching the house now. If I’m not out in five minutes, send in back up.”

Recently, my sister reminded me of another game we used to play that made me laugh and cringe. Whenever we went to our grandparents’ houses we could drink soda. Grandmom always had Coke and Nana always had Pepsi. My Nana also had lots of snacks for us, too: pound cake, Pringles, pretzel sticks. Kristen and I used to pretend we were “smoking alcoholics”–taking drags off of our pretzel rods and shaking our glasses of ice, begging for one more drink. Full disclosure: this was when Dallas was all the rage, and Sue Ellen‘s drinking problem was seriously out of control. We didn’t plan on playing this game, but whenever we were at Nana’s and our soda glasses were empty, our inner-Sue Ellens would just appear.

This past week, I read a blurb in the paper that Lee Majors (Steve Austin) was guest starring on the new Dallas as Sue Ellen’s love interest. Talk about a time warp. Say it ain’t so, Steve. Say it ain’t so.