Events

Nature’s Way

My wife was the first one to notice. A bird had built a nest in the wreath that hung from our front door. Actually, it was two different birds, as thereFullSizeRender (21) were two types of eggs in the small stick structure–two speckled brown and four light blue.

The boys were fascinated for a day or two, but quickly lost interest as the eggs just seemed to become another adornment in the wreath. They were not intrigued by the gestation period the way I was. Throughout the spring, I looked out the small window of the door, down into the nest, with the excitement of a toddler on Christmas Eve. I placed a step stool against the inside of the door and checked periodically on the egg inhabitants. The mornings were simply a chance to make sure all the eggs were still there, but the evenings afforded more interaction with the mama bird.

It became part of my nightly routine: put the dogs to bed, set up the coffee pot, check on the birds in the nest. At first, the mama could sense me staring down on her, and would fly away. But I quickly learned to position myself to the side of the window.  Once I mastered this, I could marvel at the mother bird’s determination to protect her offspring. Her head was on a swivel, moving side to side to ensure her babies were safe, and the porch light added a warmth that she seemed to welcome. After a minute or so, I would leave my perch and quietly walk to the comfort of my bed.

Then, one day in mid-June, I looked out the window in the early morning and found that there were no longer eggs, but a mass of fuzzy creatures, bizarre in their ugliness and shape. I laughed at my ignorance. Why would I assume the birds would hatch looking more like, well, birds? In addition, not all the eggs hatched. Someone told us that the one mother bird probably removed the other mother bird’s eggs from the nest. My first reaction to this was, how cruel, followed quickly by, this is nature’s way. And only three of the four blue eggs hatched–again, the way the natural world works.

The boys now had a newfound interest in the nest. I would catch them standing on the bench on our front step, peering down at the trio, trying to make out where one bird ended and another began. I watched them bring their friends over to spy on the latest stage of development.

As for me, I was somewhat put-off that the birds were so indistinguishable. Then one day, about a week after their birth, I noticed something that FullSizeRender (22)amazed me; each worm-like mass had a tiny yellow triangle towards its top. They’re beaks! I thought aloud. Again, I was surprised at my ignorance. Yes, Michael, birds have beaks. You remember kindergarten, right?

After that, I was hooked. I gazed down at the nest several times a day, watching these beaks turn into birds. I stared in wonder as each bird developed its head, focused its eyes, sprouted its wings. The wreath wriggled with constant movement, as the mama bird flew back and forth with food. I had gotten good at watching her flight patterns, and could see her occupying various branches on the pine tree near the front pathway. I even took to speaking with her. “It’s okay, mom. I’m not going to harm them.”

During those few weeks, I made several observations. There was an order to the three birds. The one towards the front was in charge.  He watched over the other two, he opened his wings first. The one in the middle followed suit, and the one towards the back seemed to develop more slowly and tentatively. Also, the perimeter of the nest was comprised of their waste–did the birds know to do this instinctively? And the mother bird visited the nest less often. I surmised that this was her way of getting her young to be more independent–forcing them to fly. However, she was never far away. I could spot her on various limbs in the trees nearby.

 

Metaphors abound in nature. One can find lessons and connections between nature and our human existence almost at every turn. Poets have mused about this for centuries. People learn to take comfort in the beauty–the daffodils that sprout after an interminable winter, the caterpillar that transforms into a butterfly, and understanding in the tragedy–the thousands of sea creatures that feed off a dead whale’s carcass, the need for predators to stalk their prey in order to survive. Indeed, nature is humanity’s greatest classroom. Yet, we seem to ignore it in our day-to-day lives. It takes a tremendous effort to get us to notice things. To appreciate them. The arrival of this nest prompted me to rediscover the array of birds and wildlife that surround our home. We live in a beautiful area ensconced with trees, streams, a pond, walking trails. We are very fortunate. And, sometimes, we look up from our phone screens long enough to spy the blue heron’s wingspan as he ascends into the sky, the camouflaged frog springing in the tall grass, the design on the turtle’s back who has appeared, seemingly out of nowhere, after a summer storm. Nature has its reminders, its lessons, yet there are perhaps too many for us to fully appreciate. So, when the world offers you a nest of birds–a literal bird’s eye view, one can fully embrace the mundane miracles that surround us.

FullSizeRender (23)As the birds became more active, so, too, did the interest from our dogs. Huckleberry, a hound rescue, and Rosie, a black Lab, started to spend more time near the front door. When Huck finally put his paws on the door and started clawing towards the wreath, we knew it was time to cordon off the front entrance. I set up a makeshift barrier of old puppy gates, and moved the bench. We had stopped using the front door months ago, so that was no hassle. Yet, the dogs’ newfound discovery made us worry. The three birds had come so far, we didn’t want to now be responsible for their demise.

And just as I learned to talk to the mother, I did so with her three young. “Good morning! How was your night? It’s okay. You’re safe.” My greeting was met with a frightened fluttering of wings and a bobbing of heads. Their reactions made me realize they were almost ready to leave the nest. These birds were now full-fledged. It was time to fly.

I watched one hot morning as the first bird–the front bird–moved up the wreath and attempted to flap his way out into the world. “Come on buddy. You can do it.” And he did. He teetered. He dipped. But then, he flew. High enough to disappear into the trees, joining his mother, I hoped. “Goodbye!” I called after him. “Good luck!”

The second bird was gone by sundown. No one watched her departure, but we were confident she was somewhere right above us with her family. The last bird, the tentative one, was struggling. Whereas the other two became emboldened with each passing day, this creature remained stagnant.

“Do you think she’s okay?” my wife asked at dinner that night.

“Yeah. It just takes some longer than others. She just needs a little more time to gain confidence.” Again, I could not help but think of the parallels between animals and humans. Everyone is different. All in due course.

The next day, she was still there. But she had managed to climb out of the nest and up into the faux leaves of the wreath. When I approached to check on her, she seemed skittish and panicky. “You can do it,” I said. But I had my doubts. I cursed the notion of survival of the fittest. Two out of three isn’t bad, but it doesn’t seem fair. Nature has a way–this now refrain popped into my head, and I wasn’t certain if I thought of this as a positive or a negative. A way of fulfilling or eliminating. Time would tell.

When I checked at bedtime, she was still there. Alone. “You can do it,” I whispered.

In the morning, I forgot about the nest until I was leaving to drive the boys to camp.

“Guys, shhh. I want to check on the bird,” I said in a loud whisper.

“I’ll do it,” said Hayden (10). He hopped on the bench. “Dad, it’s empty!”

“She may be hiding up inside the wreath,” I said, moving nearer to investigate. After a closer look, I was confident. “She’s gone,” I shouted. “She made it! I was worried about her,” I finally admitted.

As we walked away towards the car, the two dogs came bouncing around the house, hoping to join us for the ride. This had started to become part of our morning routine. But something else had gotten their attention in the Pachysandra that bordered our front path.

“What’s Rosie doing?” asked Owen (11).

“She’s after something,” I said, unaware.

“Oh, no!” yelled Hayden. “The bird!”

“Rosie, NO!” I screamed.

Confused, she looked up, with tiny feathers protruding from her closed mouth.

“Drop,” I hollered. “Rosie, drop!”

Rosie obeyed and a little creature tumbled out. It seemed to take a moment to regain form. But there, on the path, was the bird.

“Bad dog!” Hayden yelled. Tears had instantly shot into his eyes once he realized the worst, and Owen was in the driveway crying to himself.

“Is she dead?” Owen asked.

“No,” I said. “She’s just scared. Labs are retrievers. They have soft mouths.” I was grasping at hope here, not sure if I was making that up or not. “Get the dogs inside.”

While the boys did as I asked, the bird zigzagged her way under a bush. “Aww, birdy. Sorry about that. Are you okay?” She seemed weak, yet I wanted to be optimistic. I took the gates from the front door, and now made a barrier around the bush. If she did not progress by nightfall, she would probably die, I thought.

The ride to camp was somber. The boys stifled their tears, and I defended their canine sibling.

“Guys, Rosie was just doing what she was supposed to do. Dogs sniff out other creatures. Labs are hunting dogs. So are hounds. It’s in their nature.” Then I attempted to convey that birds, like all beings, need to quickly adapt or they will not survive, but as I began this line of thinking, both boys looked more distraught.

“Do you think she’ll live,” Owen asked.

“I do. I do,” I said. And I almost believed it.

“Should you move her?” asked Hayden.

“I might,” I said, but I really didn’t want to. “Well see.”

We pass a dead raccoon in the middle of the highway. “Whoa! Look at that.” Owen says, matter-of-factly.

It’s funny, I think. Roadkill doesn’t affect us. The bird that flew into our widow and died last month didn’t bring us to tears. We squash mosquitoes with glee. We fish in our pond. But certain lives affect us more. When you watch something’s life from creation to independence, you feel a connection, a bond. As a family, we felt this bond with these birds, on our tiny thumbprint of land that we call ours.

When I got home, I saw that she was tucked under the bush, up against the house. Her head was hidden in her wing. Is she giving up? I wondered. 

I kept the dogs away from this area and went about some yard work. She remained in her spot.

Before I went to pick up the boys that afternoon, I discovered her near the edge of the path. I was excited for her. “Good job. That’s it. You can do it.”

As soon as they get in the car at pick up, I give them a report. “Boys, she moved away from the house. She might even be gone when we get home.”

“If she’s not, you’re gonna have to move her,” said Owen.

“Okay! I’ll move her if she’s still there,” I said begrudgingly.

Once home, Hayden bolted up the driveway to check on our friend. “Dad, she’s still here. You’re gonna have to move her.”

“Okay. Okay,” I said. You’re the adult, Michael. They’re watching you.

With a surprising grace, I bent down and gingerly cupped the tiny bird in my hand. She was so light. So soft. The boys looked on suspiciously.

“I got her, guys. Don’t worry.”

I walked over to the shaded edge of our property where the dogs could not access. I found a spot hidden among the tall perennials. The grace I had moments ago was gone. Although my hand was inches from the ground, her landing was not soft. I had hoped she would flutter more when I opened my palm. There was little movement, and she fell over as I placed her down on the top of the small slope near the trees. I propped her up, but she was listless.

“Dammit,” I muttered, but the boys had already gone inside to get out of the June heat.

“Is she okay?” one asked.

“Yep,” I lied. “I’m just going to bring her some water. Come have your snack.”

By the time I came out with her water, minutes later, she was slumped over, dead.

“Shit!” I said, then I looked up apologetically, imagining her mother witnessing this scene from one of the many familiar branches she had stood upon these last few months. “I’m sorry,” I said to the trees, “I tried.”

That was a Friday. We were going to the beach for the weekend, and before we left, I checked on the bird one more time and pretended she was fine. I lied to the boys and told them she was doing well. They did not seem eager to check on her. Perhaps they did not want to confirm their doubts. By the time we came home Sunday, there was no trace of her. It was probably a nice surprise for the cat next door, or one of the many creatures that visit our property unbeknownst to us.

FullSizeRender (25)Weeks later, this small death has remained on my mind. A silly little bird, and I can’t seem to shake it. We live in a world where the atrocities dominate our attention. Murder, hate, destruction is at every turn. I’m still reeling from the horrific events at the nightclub in Orlando, and there have been at least five monstrous acts since then. My boys are still quite naive. We try to address concerns they may have, but we don’t actively seek current events to teach them how wicked the world can be. If they ask, we’ll answer, but they’ve made it into double-digits pretty unscathed.

I was so moved by the reaction of the boys when they discovered Rosie with the bird. They were crying before I could even piece together what had happened. I was relieved that their sadness was so palpable–honest and pure. And, oddly, I am jealous. In middle-age, I can barely shed a tear when moved to do so. I did not cry when I found the bird dead. Nor, did I cry over the recent loss of one of my favorite neighbors, or the many experiences that are worthy of tears–many tears. Is it human nature to become numb? Do our senses dull to the point where what was once tragic is now merely trite?

In the end, I guess the realization is I want to feel more, react more, notice more. I am humbled that raising these boys has allowed me to see things fromFullSizeRender (24) other, younger, perspectives. To grapple with innocence and naiveté in all its forms. To assist them as they navigate the truths of the natural world–death is a part of life. Nature takes its course.

Nature has a way. Everyday, creatures are born and they die. Beings thrive or succumb. Innocence is preserved or abandoned. Mothers and fathers do their best to protect and empower. And nature teaches us all the while. For those who are willing to look, to watch, to wonder.

 

To My Facebook Friends: An Apology

facebook-556808_640Dear Facebook Friends,

I owe you an apology–all 899 of you.

You see, for the past year, I have not wished one friend a “Happy Birthday” on Facebook. I have not written on anyone’s wall, or posted an emoji in honor of another year passed, even though I would get several reminders from my news feed to do so. I can’t claim I didn’t know. I DID know, and still, I chose to do nothing. The reason? Guilt. I could not, in good conscience, wish certain people a happy birthday, while knowing I would miss other people’s birthdays during the days I did not go on Facebook–oh, yes, there are days I do not go on FB.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I like Facebook. I like feeling connected to the people who comprise my world. I like seeing what childhood friends are up to, even if I haven’t seen them since childhood. I like that the boy who was mean to my wife in grade school complimented her on a photo she was in recently. I like getting friend requests from people who would not invite me to a party in high school. I like seeing your children, your pets, your sunsets (I could do without the food shots, except for @phillyfooddude‘s). But I do not like the feeling I get when wishing some people a happy birthday while completely ignoring others. I do not like the pressure I feel when Facebook reminds me that Dutch and 4 other friends have birthdays today; that Leanne and Jennifer had birthdays two days ago; that I have 27 friends with birthdays this month; that I could send money or a gift to them–all 27 of them… I didn’t even like when Facebook would automatically type the birthday wish for me. All I had to do was click “send a message” and the words would magically appear in the comment box. Yet, the guilt remained.

It was too much. So, I decided to stop the madness. I woke up one day and thought, “I can’t do this. I can’t acknowledge one, or ten or 500, and NOT acknowledge all 899.” It had to be all or nothing. I chose nothing–and that has made all the difference.

I must admit, there were times I was tempted. And I did cheat once or twice by writing a comment underneath other comments that indicated well wishes to the birthday boy/girl. But I could not officially write on someone’s wall. Hell, I can’t manage to send cards– or even a text message– to those who are closest to me. My bar is set so low that I can only make sure I have cards and gifts for my wife, sons, and mother, and I will sign any card my wife sets in front of me. That’s it.

To those of you who have mastered this birthday wishing in our modern world, I salute you. To those of you who have wished me well in the past, I thank you. And to those who have forgotten or ignored my birthday, I understand. I truly do.

Tomorrow is my birthday. I humbly request that you not write on my wall. I won’t even mind if you write on the walls of the seven other people who share my birthday on your Facebook.  I just think it unfair.

Thanks for reading this. Thanks for being my friend. I hope that this year of your life is the best one ever (I used to write that on certain walls:). I’m looking forward to liking your next post, and commenting on occasion. Until then, take good care.

Your friend,

Michael

P.S. Laney and three other friends have birthdays today.

The Crayola Factory Is Not Where Babies Come From

Last week, we took a day trip to the charming town of Easton, Pennsylvania to visit the Crayola Factory. Like most families, our kids have been holding Crayola crayons since they were babies. And, like most families, we took this one-hour car ride to the factory to talk to our boys about sex. Nothing says sex like…Wait. You don’t see the connection? (I’m relieved). The two are not connected, but that’s the thrill of parenting: you never know which direction your children will take you, even when you have Google Maps on your phone.

In the morning, as we are getting ready to leave, Owen (10) walks up to Pam and whispers something to her about sex. “Do you know what sex is?” she asks.

He shakes his head no. “Some kids at school were talking about it,” he says.

Hayden (8) chimes in: “And someone wrote it on the seat of the bus.”

We exchange a look. The time has come.

“Well, we have an hour in the car. We can tell you all about it,” I say. Owen looks nervous. “Don’t worry, buddy,” I say, “sex never takes a whole hour.” Pam shoots me a look that says behave, Michael. Behave.

And so our journey began. It was like Masters and Johnson by way of Binney and Smith.

Me: Guys, pause your video games. Mommy and I need your attention.

Pam: Are we really doing this now? We haven’t prepared what to say.

Me: It’ll be alright. We just have to start the conversation today. Boys, do you know anything about sex?

Boys: No.

Me: You have NO idea?

Boys: No.

Me: It’s okay if you have. We just want you to know the truth.

Both boys shake their heads. Sure, they giggle at the word “sexy” in songs. Sure, they wonder why Snow White and Prince Charming kiss so much in the TV show Once Upon a Time. They’ve heard talk, but they just weren’t putting two and two–or should I say X and Y–together.

Me: Well.. (deep breath) sex is something two people do when they are in love. It is a physical act. During sex, a man puts his penis in the woman’s vagina.

Both boys appear panic-stricken.

Me: A man and a woman have sex when they want to have a baby.

Both boys mouths drop.

Hayden: You’re freaking me out, dad.

Owen: Do we have to have sex?

Me and Pam in unison: No!

Owen: Do we have to have sex if we want to have kids?

Pam: Well, no, there are–

Me: Honey, let’s keep it simple. Yes, sex is where babies come from.

Owen: I’m not having kids.

Me: And, when a woman has a baby, it actually comes out of her vagina, not her belly.

Hayden: No way!

Me: Way.

Pam: It can come out her belly if…

Me: Keep it simple, hon.

Pam: Well, both of them did come out of my belly.  Mommy had what’s called a cesarean section with both of you.

More looks of fear.

Hayden: So, you guys had to have sex twice?

Pam: Mm-hmm.

Hayden: Oh, my gosh, Owen, could you imagine if you walked in on mom and dad when they were making me?

Owen: Stop, Hayden! That’s crazy. Can we stop talking about this now?

Me: Yes, we can. But I want you to know, you can ask us anything you want about sex. I’m sure you are going to hear things from other kids, and we just want you to know the facts. I’d rather you hear it from us then on the bus or from kids at school.

Hayden: Sex! Ew, that’s so weird. Why would anyone have sex?

Me: And don’t be those kids that go around telling everyone else what sex is now that you know.

Owen: Don’t worry. I don’t want to think about it. I’m NEVER having sex.

Hayden: Me neither!

++++++

For the rest of the day, the word pops up every so often. The boys crack up and shake their heads in disgust and amazement, but overall. a fine first outing.

AS we explore the Crayola Factory, I am thankful for all of the wonder they still have in being kids. Coloring and creating, climbing the crayon shaped jungle gym; making figurines out of molding clay. This is what it’s like, I think. They are exposed to things, and then they go back to being kids. Like rubber bands, their minds’ stretch, but then return–almost–to the original shape–almost.

++++++

A few days later, Hayden hands me a note from school. It’s announcing the return of his guidance counselor from maternity leave.

“How exciting!” I say. “Maybe she will bring in her baby for your class to meet.”

Hayden seems preoccupied by something. Finally, he says, “Her poor husband.”

“Poor husband?” I say, confused. “Why her poor husband?”

“Umm. I think you know.”

“No, I don’t buddy.”

“Ummm. S-E-X,” he spells.

“Sex!” Owen exclaims.

“Yeah, the poor guy had to have sex with her!” Hayden says.

“He’ll be alright,” I say. “He’ll be alright.”

And so will you, I think to myself.

 

Behold the boys latest creations, brought to you by Crayola markers. Can you spot any damage from our conversation?

"Skater Down a Manhole Cover" By: Hayden

“Skater Down a Manhole Cover” By: Hayden

"Rocky Roads" by: Owen

“Rocky Roads” by: Owen

Elf You!

This post originally appeared on December 5, 2013.

elfIt happened again this morning–another reminder of how I am depriving my children, something that I’m sure will leave an emotional scar for decades to come. You see, our house is elfless. You read that right. We do not have an”Elf on the Shelf” (brought to you by Hasbro…batteries not included). Sorry, certain marketing gems bring me back to the commercials of my childhood.

Anyway, there we were, getting ready for school, the boys eating breakfast at the kitchen counter, when a neighbor dropped off her two kids for my wife to put on the bus. “Now, Adam, don’t forget to have a good day at school,”she calls out to him as he bounces through the kitchen. Then, she turns to us and says, “Blinky had to make a special trip to the North Pole to give Santa a report.” The boys and I exchange confused looks. Pam says, “Oh, you have an elf.” “Yep,” she says, smiling, although I can’t tell if her look is one of rejoicing or regret. “He’s helping Santa keep a close eye on them.” We all laugh nervously–my wife and I with the fear that our boys will ask why we don’t have an elf. Thankfully, they don’t. Yet, as we continue with the morning routine, I feel a bit sad for them. They are excluded from this new holiday tradition. We are completely disconnected from the elf craze. This is what it must be like for my Jewish friends who did not grow up with Santa, I think. Lucky them!

I am kind of a curmudgeon when it comes to Christmas. I hate all the hullabaloo about shopping and buying presents, of giving and getting gifts. “We have to get Soandso a gift because they get us one.” “Another pleather wallet! You shouldn’t have, Uncle Marty.” Really, you shouldn’t have. It’s worse with my own kids, who start making preliminary Christmas lists in June! I think they’ve made six this year (so far). I’m such a Grinch that I look forward to the day when they no longer believe in Mr. Claus. Then, I won’t feel bad about shooting down their wish lists. Now, we have to invent stories about why they couldn’t get a thousand dollars worth of Legos from Santa.

I enjoy family get togethers. I like the idea of decorating a tree and eating Christmas cookies, but the whole consumerism thing gives me a headache as thick as Target‘s Christmas catalogue–which arrived before Halloween. And that’s why I was actually glad when we dodged the snowball of Elf on the Shelf. It has gained popularity just as our sons’ belief in Santa is waning. They are seven and nine for Kringle‘s sake. My wife almost caved last year, but I begged her not to give in. Thankfully, she was strong. But it is awkward for us when others mention their elves. Anyone with younger kids, toddlers and such, HAS to have one, like my poor neighbor this morning, whose son is in kindergarten. If our kids were younger, we’d have an elf. And I’d be in HELF–Elf Hell.

I don’t think American culture needs any more encouragement when it comes to celebrating Christmas. As a matter of fact, I wish there was a little more coal handed out. Plus, I’m bothered by the whole “Watching You” concept. It’s bad enough to invent the omnipresent eyes of the invisible Santa, but now to have one of his minions looking in on you, well, in that case why not just call him Big Brother? Sorry to be such a downer, but you can’t convince me of the value of this. Parenting is just one idle threat after another–I don’t need a plastic pixy to do my dirty work. Just as I try to stay away from Black Friday sales–which are still going on a week later, I might add–I try to avoid all things elf.

elf2

But I did have fun on my way to work. I fantasized about what I would tell the boys if they do ask why we don’t have an Elf on the Shelf. “Mommy’s allergic.” No. “They cost too much money.” Nope, they know how much they cost because they’re on display in every toy and card store. “They will leave poop in the house.” Definitely not. Knowing my boys, that would make them want one even more. Finally, I fantasize about having a conversation with them where I explain how we can’t get an elf because we have two new dogs under the age of one. Huck and Rosie would attack the elf, and could possibly even kill it, I explain. Next, we would all imagine the elf torn to shreds–its pointy nose and impish smile chewed to bits. Then one of the boys would ask if elves bleed, and I would nod yes. Their eyes would widen, as they hug me and thank me for saving one of Santa’s helpers. Then they would go to their rooms, clean them without asking and see all the toys they already have. “Dad,” they would holler, “come here, quick!” I would run upstairs to find them finishing a note to Santa that reads: Christmas List–Revised (in my fantasy, they know what revised means). “Here,” they would say (in my fantasy, they would speak in unison). Then, they’d hand me the piece of paper, which would state: “All we want for Christmas is peace on Earth.”

My boys…I shake myself from the fantasy just as I am pulling into the parking lot at work. I feel good. I’m oddly proud of my sons for wanting world peace. I remind myself to enjoy Christmas with them this year–it’s probably Owen’s last year “believing”.

And then an image pops into my head that warms my heart: It’s of our two dogs lying by the fire Christmas morning, gnawing on the last remnants of an elf ear . Ahhhh. Don’t you just love the holidays?

Photo credits: Michael Kappel

 

Happy Birthday, Owen.

“Ten years come and gone so fast
I might as well have been dreaming
Sunny days have burned a path
Across another season…”  –Paul Simon

I took this video from inside the house while Owen discovered the hose in the back garden. If you listen closely, you can hear my laughter.

song credit: “Can’t go back now” by: The Weepies

Wee the People

The voice of democracy rang through our house last week. Owen (9) came home to inform us that he was running for student council. “Only 4th and 5th graders can be classroom representatives,” he told me excitedly. “Each class elects one boy and one girl. A lot of boys are running, but I think I have a shot.”

As he walked out of the kitchen, I already felt like he had won. I was so proud of the fact that he decided to run on his own. As a parent, you’re often not sure if your kids are getting the message. We don’t keep a checklist on the fridge of all the things we do/do not want them to do. So, we try to lead by example. But, more than that, we hope. We hope a lot. Hope that they will understand all that we cannot put into words. That they err on the side of what’s right. That they just be nice, and kind, and president.

Over the next few days, Owen worked on his campaign. He sat in his room creating posters that highlighted his policies and platform. Posters that looked like this:

photo (51)

“Wow, Owen!” I said, impressed. “This looks awesome!”

“And I made him this one, Dad,” said his little brother, Hayden (8):

photo (50)

And just like that, I beheld the candidate and his campaign manager. For the next few days, it felt like I was in the presence of a young JFK and his brother, Bobby. The boys continued their work in earnest.

“Dad, did you notice on my signs where I ask everyone if they got their cards?”

“Oh, yeah,” I said.

“See, you can’t give out candy or prizes, so I thought it would be neat to give each of them a card before they vote.” Cards. He made 28 little cards for his classmates. Cards that looked like this:

photo (52)

“Here’s the one he made for me,” piped in his manager, Hayden. And he showed me this:

photo (55)

“Now, Owen, you should put all of these in a folder so you don’t…” directed Hayden, and the two boys were off again. I saw them cutting and folding, and placing everything in what I am sure was the first file cabinet for many of us–underneath the couch.

The day before the election, the boys and I were driving in the car. “So, Owen, if you did win, what is something you think you might do for your fellow classmates?”

“Well,” he said, “every month we go to a meeting with the principal and some teachers and tell them of any problems.”

“What do you think might be a problem you would bring up?”

“Umm, like, let’s say the buses are too crowded. Then I would work to fix that.”

“Okay, how?” I implore.

“By telling them we need more buses!” he answers emphatically.

Would that it were that easier, my son. Would that it were, I think. Yet, I say, “Sounds good, buddy.”

That night, I watch him craft his speech. He doesn’t let me read it, but he allows me to show him how to write it in big letters on several indexphoto (56) cards. Since I will not see him in the morning, I wish him well before bed.

“Good luck tomorrow, O. And just remember, no matter what happens you can still be a leader.”

“Okay,” he says.

“You’re a leader just for wanting to run in the election. No matter what happens–you’ve already won in my book.”

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I first thought about writing this post before the election took place, and I thought it would be cool not to reveal if he won or not. I truly believe he is a winner just for trying to do this at such a young age. And not a “winner” in the sense that every kid gets a trophy at the end of the season regardless of their record, but a winner in the sense that he took a chance, he stood up, he wanted to be a part of something bigger than himself.

But now that I know the outcome, I must inform you–and not for the reasons you might think.

Owen won. He did, and I am proud. But the victory was enlightening for other reasons.

For one, some of his “friends” said mean things about his winning–one even claimed they were no longer buds (the same boy who was playing with him at a birthday party two days later)–and therein lies a hard lesson for anyone. As the wise sage Taylor Swift once proclaimed, “And the haters gonna hate, hate, hate, hate, hate…” An important lesson indeed: there will always be people who will try to dampen your spirits, who don’t want you to succeed. But I am happy to tell you that Owen seemed quite unphased by this.

The second insight from the election comes from the fact that two of Owen’s running mates wore oxfords with bow ties and delivered Power Point presentations. My son wore his usual shorts and sneaks, delivered a heartfelt speech and gave everyone a colorful voting card–looks like Owen’s on his way to being a Democrat.

Regardless of his political leanings–he’ll always have my vote.

God Bless America!

 

 

I “moustache” you to look at this cake.

It is my son Owen’s birthday today. He turns nine. It is going too fast, this whole childhood thing. But we had a great day. He wanted a moustache theme–so we obliged. He and all his friends were wearing fake moustaches. It was a riot.

Here’s his cake:

photo 1 (1)

Here’s Owen:

photo 3 (1)

And, in case you don’t remember what it’s like to be nine, here’s a look into the mind of my newly turned nine year-old. It’s the view right outside the bedroom door in his mansion: (If you click on the picture, it enlarges) ( See “Key” below)

photo 4 (1)

Can you spot the:
zip line
snow hill
snowboard lift
spinney chair
slide
rope
snack bar
couch
trophies
money
hot tub
moustache case
go cart
snow boards
safe
limo
bathroom
pet fish

“You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.” —John Lennon, Imagine

The Road to Hell

There is so much more to this parenting thing than anyone expects, and so often I feel inferior at the job.

Something horrible happened this week that made my world shift. In the end, it was of little consequence, but it has had a profound effect on me. The experience made me sad–I feel powerless and afraid. And I almost didn’t write about it. Yet, after thinking some more, I realized that I can’t just write about things that are safe, or that I can poke fun of, or that happened a long time ago. If I did not write about this, I would feel like a phony. I remember reading something from the early stages of blogging about true writers write about stuff that is hard to face. I knew I needed to process this in writing. I can’t help it. I’m a writer.

++++++++++++++++

It was a beautiful Wednesday afternoon. I was lying in the grass after a run, waiting for the boys’ bus to pull up. I gazed into the sky and contemplated the possibilities of this world. As a kid, I loved to look at clouds, and as an adult I try to do so from time to time. I heard the bus at the street corner, and the boys found me on the lawn.

“Dad, what are you doing here?” asked Owen (8).

“Just looking at the clouds,” I said, as if I did it everyday.

They both made motions to go inside, so I pleaded, “Sit here with me a minute. Relax. It’s a beautiful day.” They dropped their back packs and lied down next to me. Hayden (7) placed his head on my chest, and we all took in the view. It felt grand.

“Guys, I need to ask you a favor?” I said.

“What?” they replied in unison.

“I want us to go up the street and visit my friend’s husband.”

I explained to them that someone I knew was staying at the assisted living home up the street. He needed to be under medical care while his wife was travelling.  I knew she would appreciate us checking in on him. Besides, I want my sons to know what it’s like to be of service to others.

“So, we’ll have a snack and then head up there, okay?” I asked.

“Okay,” they each said. I was impressed because there was no whining or sulking. Plus, they each obliged me with a drawing for Mr. Jim.  Pictures of some leaves and trees with “Happy Fall” in their best penmanship. I placed their pictures beside a package of frosted cookies I had for him.

“Who are they for?” asked Hayden.

“Mr. Jim,” I said.

“I want one,” he asked–a whine creeping in to his tone.

“Buddy, these are for our friend. We have lots of treats, but I bought these special for him. You can have something else–here how about these cookies?” I offered him some others from the pantry.

Hayden began his moan-and-dance, “Uhnnnnnn. I WANT ONE OF THOSE!”

“Well, sorry, you can’t have one.”

I placed the pictures and cookies in a bag and put them in the car. As I went back inside for the boys, I noticed they had helped themselves to the other cookies from the pantry. Playfully, I asked, “Did you guys eat these?”

“Yeah,” said Hayden. “We each had two!”

“Fine with me. You deserve two for being so good about coming with me. Now get in the car, we’re leaving.”

I put the dogs in the house and started to lock up. Owen was in the driveway. He looked nervous. “Hayden ate one of the special cookies, Dad.”

I swung the car door open, and there he was, shoving a cookie in his mouth, with crumbs and icing all over my brand new car. I had just gotten a pre-owned Acura a week ago. It’s a 2013 and the nicest car I’ve ever had. I was incensed. “Hayden!” I grabbed him by the arm.  “I can’t believe you! You knew these cookies were…and all over my…get out…and up to your room…no dessert for a week…” I was so angry. Why couldn’t he leave well enough alone? Why weren’t the other cookies enough? Why was it so hard to do something nice for someone else? Why do I care so much about everything?

I calmed down pretty quickly, but the edge was still there. I made him come down, repeated most of my rant in a quieter tone, and we drove to Sunrise Assisted Living. “Wow guys, this is so close to our house. If there were sidewalks on this road, we could’ve walked,” I said lamely, trying to act cheery even though everyone was quite miserable now. Sunrise is a pretty building complex. It strives for a Southern Gothic charm– rocking chairs adorn wide porches around the front of the building, and white carved moldings decorate the railings. The boys had never been to an “Old folks” home–and it had been quite some time for me, too. When we got out, Hayden was still fuming at me, and I was trying to ignore him. He walked at a snail’s pace and wore his big frown like it was his job–sometimes, I think it is. “Hayden, you better be nice when we get in there. Do not make this worse on yourself.”

I walked slowly so he could catch up, and he did. We stepped inside the grand entrance way. There was a great deal of activity. Apparently, it was BINGO hour, and groups of residents seemed to populate every corner of the place. It was lively and chaotic, and depressing. I could tell the boys were a bit nervous. A woman with a matted wig marched back and forth nervously, as if she were trying to wear out the carpet. Another woman at the counter was complaining to the receptionist about how they hide her lighter from her. “I feel like a sixteen year old girl again. Every time I want a damn cigarette, I have to ask permission.” The boys were wide-eyed. So much for “smoking kills”, I thought, looking at this woman who was in her eighties. Then, a kind lady in a wheel chair stole our attention. She had a gentle smile with a few thin strands of hair on her forehead, and she was without legs. I was proud of the boys for being so brave. Hayden reached for my hand, and tucked his safely into my palm. Good, I thought, he’s not mad at me now.

Owen looked at me and said, “Dad, there are so many more women here than men!” I decided not to explain to him the mortality rates of men versus women.

So, it’s true what they say about the road to Hell–it is paved with good intentions.  The gentleman we were trying to visit was not there. He was taken to the hospital the night before due to a fall. His wife did not know yet, as she was on her trip. I was glad she was able to continue her vacation, and her children were there to stay with her husband. The boys and I said goodbye to no one in particular, and made our way back outside. I tried to pawn off the cookies on the staff, but they refused them politely. I wanted the damn reminder of my anger out of sight. The stupid cookies were pointless now.

Back outside, we lingered. This had been quite an odyssey for us all, and so close to our house. The autumn breeze seemed to blow away some of our uneasiness. I didn’t feel mad anymore, just sad. Sad for the people in the home–they, too, were once young, many, I’m sure, with children of their own at their sides. Now, they all seemed lost, scared, confused. And sad for the boys. I used to hate it when my parents would make me interact with strangers, especially the sick and the elderly. It’s such a difficult lesson to teach children about. And sad for me–I just wanted to do something nice for somebody, and instead I felt angry and annoyed.

“We are really close to this place,” said Owen.

“I know,” said Hayden.

I welcomed the conversation. I wanted to get out of the doldrums and enjoy the rest of this beautiful day.

“You’re right, guys. It’s a shame this road is so busy. Maybe in a few years, you could walk up here.”

“Like when we’re twelve,” asked Owen.

“We’ll see,” I said.

“I’m going to walk home, now,” said Hayden.

Owen and I laughed. “Yeah, right,” I said. “You know that’s way too dangerous. Adults don’t even walk on this road.”

+++++++++++++++

Our street is busy. It’s not a freeway, but it IS a throughway, where cars and trucks zip down as they hurry up to get where they need to go. There is barely a shoulder, there are no sidewalks–and it scares the shit out of me. Our house sits far enough back off the road, and our development is a dead-end. Yet Penllyn Pike is treacherous, and we have been instilling a fear in our boys about the deadly consequences of this road since they could crawl. To top it off, the only part of the street that offers a buffer from the road is an old cemetery that abuts a small church. Indeed, this road could have been the inspiration for Stephen King’s novel, Pet Cemetery.

+++++++++++++++

We were half way to the car when Hayden announced this. “Come on, Hayd, don’t be silly,” I said, trying to stifle my annoyance with him from before. Now, if you’re a parent, you might try this move at times. The one where you just keep walking, not giving your child the satisfaction of taking them seriously. I do it with my dogs, too. If I walk in a particular direction, the dogs–and the kids–will usually follow. Usually. Now if you’re a kid, like my kids, you might play an annoying game where you think it’s cute (or funny, or evil) to “hide” on your parents. My boys are constantly hiding from us, daring us to find them, so they can “surprise” us. We shriek in fake astonishment, and they crack up. The end. Except, I’ve told the boys I don’t like this game when we’re out. We don’t hide in a parking lot, or near a road, or at the mall… I hate this hiding game. And that’s what I thought Hayden was doing when he began walking in the other direction. Hiding on me.

“Not funny, Hayden,” I said. But oddly, he had already disappeared. We’re talking seconds. He didn’t run. He simply creeped away–behind the building? On one of the porches? Back inside? He was just here. We were ten steps from the car, and now he’s gone. I saw not even a glimpse of his bright orange shirt and shorts.

“Come on, Hayden, lets go home.” I know how stubborn he can be, but if I wait him out, usually he flinches and shows me where he’s hiding. Usually.

“Dad, where is he?” Owen asked.

I could hear the panic rise in his voice. I tried to quell my own. “I don’t know, Owen. I DON’T KNOW!”

I’m a Fool for Back to School

Fall is here, hear the yell 
Back to school, ring the bell 
Brand new shoes, walking blues 
Climb the fence, books and pens 
I can tell that we are going to be friends 
Yes I can tell that we are going to be friends

–“We’re Going to be Friends” by: Jack Johnson

Fall is here–almost. It certainly feels like Fall in the Northeast. Today was beautiful–68 degrees, sunny, clear blue sky. And to make it even better, it was a school day. Yes. You read right. School. I love the first week back to school. There is so much promise in the air. A new beginning. A FRESH START. I teach high school. Ninth grade. When I tell people this, they usually groan and tell me they’re sorry.

No need to apologize. I love my job. Sure, there are things I wish I could change, but overall, it is the most rewarding profession in the world. I get to surround myself with bright young minds. I am a part of helping students see their potential. I look into the eyes of the future and see its promise. There is no better reminder of this than Week One of a new school year. I did not plan on writing a post about this. Like every other parent in the land, I thought a Facebook post of the kids at the bus would suffice. But this picture changed my mind:

photo (35)

I stumbled across it Friday afternoon. I was looking for my iPod on a book shelf, trying to squeeze in a run before the boys came home on the bus,  and there I was–my kindergarten self– smiling back at me. I actually uttered “Hello.” And instantly I was transported to that driveway, the driveway of my childhood friend and neighbor, Cindy. I noted our keen fashion sense, I wished I still had my vinyl “briefcase” (so mini- Mad Men) and realized that global warming must exist today, as we are wearing sweaters and long sleeves on an early September morning.

I love this picture. It holds particular significance because my friend Cindy died our senior year of high school–her future cut tragically short by a drunk driver. But this photo is not about endings, it’s about beginnings. And that is what I love about going back to school. We are all given a fresh start, a clean slate. We are not only permitted, but encouraged to begin anew. In the first week of school, everyone is clean and well dressed, new notebooks crackle, and the smell of freshly sharpened pencils waft through the air. In the first week of school, everyone has an “A”, and all kids are equal. In the first week of school, I am not troubled by the latest rumor or round of “He-said-she-said.” Rather, the halls are filled with “hellos” and “welcome backs” and “how was your summers.” I am not being naive, I am being optimistic. As I look out at each boy or girl, they have equal footing. I’m not bogged down with all of the sadness that will creep into the year–Mary lost her mother last Winter, Dylan’s parents are getting an ugly divorce, Alan’s family is basically homeless. I will swim in a variety of letters that detract from the feeling I have now: IEPs, 504s, ACTs, SATs, PSSAs, ADD, OCD…These all matter, they inform how I teach the individual. But in Week One, we are simply “period 5.” And I look at every student and I see us unified in hope. I want them to know that I am glad they are here, I believe they can learn, and I will do my best–which is exactly what I expect from them.

I don’t like to pre-judge– to hear about my students prior to meeting them– “You’ll love Jane!” “Jake can be a handful…” I want to get to know each person organically. I want us to figure it out, to grow together, and we will. On the flip side, as a parent, I try to not pass judgement as well. It’s hard. People talk. But I live in a great school district and all the teachers are dedicated–as I believe the majority of us are wherever we lay down our red pens. Yet, a question I have heard this week, and I even caught myself asking a girl in the neighborhood, is telling: “Do you like your teacher(s)?” What are we really asking here? What message are we giving to young people by saying this? For I think it does send a message to our kids, however slight or subtle it may be.

I witnessed a similar situation from both of my sons. Our elementary school recently merged with another that was shut down due to low enrollment. The students from Tall Pines are now attending Maple Acres (not the real names). Both of my sons came home from the first day and mentioned how there were so many kids from the other school in their classes. My younger son even complained that “it didn’t even feel like Maple Acres anymore.” He’s starting second grade, for crying out loud. This sounded like something a student overheard from a parent’s conversation and parroted the message to his/her friends, and they told two friends, and so on, and so on. Whether it was something they heard or truly how they were feeling, I was not comfortable with their negativity. “Well, guys,” I said, “Think about the kids from Tall Pines? How do you think they feel? Their school was closed. They’re the ones coming to a strange place where they don’t know their way around. You’re lucky. Think how hard it would be to have to go to a new place and start over. And who knows, one of those new kids may end up becoming your best friend!” That seemed to quiet their contempt. But it served as a reminder to me. We are so judgmental, so quick to assume. It’s too early in the year to be negative–the negativity will creep in soon enough.

When I stared at that picture today, I felt good. In my head, I commented to my former self how “You’d never have thought you would be a teacher someday, did you?” And then I was filled with a sense of pure happiness. I get to start fresh every September, and with each new school year, my hope is restored. And it’s not just me. Every teacher, every student will begin again. I think even parents look to September to restart the clock and try again. True, the circumstances will always be different, sometimes gravely so, but each September there is excitement and promise. This could be the year. This will be the year.

It might be cool if you went back and found a picture from your school days, the younger the better. Take a good look at it. Say hello to your old friend–take stock in where you’ve been and what you’ve accomplished. It’s never too late to begin again, and it’s the perfect time to do so because “Fall is here…”

owen school picassahayden school picassa

Tonight I’ll dream in my bed
While silly thoughts run through my head
Of the bugs and alphabet
And when I wake tomorrow I’ll bet
That you and I will walk together again
Because I can tell that we are going to be friends
I can tell that we are going to be friends   —Jack Johnson

A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Singing of Happy Birthday from Becoming More of a Burden on Parents, Family Members, Friends, and the World At Large

It happened again on Sunday. There I was, enjoying a delicious summer barbecue at a neighbor’s house. The food was plentiful, the weather balmy, so much so that I forgot the occasion for our being there–an 8 year-old’s birthday party. The kids had a blast, we had some drinks, and all was merry, until…until it came time to sing “Happy Birthday.”

My hatred of this song sneaks up on me. I forget how insufferable it can be, because I am so excited for the cake–those who know me well, know I am obsessed with all things cake. When did singing “Happy Birthday” become so annoying? It is either so drawn out that it may as well be a funeral march, or it is hijacked by screaming kids who think it’s a contest to see who can shout it the loudest. Adults sing it with such monotonous dread that it takes longer to finish than it does to bake the damn cake; kids just holler it at you.

The other night, I was watching Arbitrage with Richard Gere and Susan Sarandon. The movie begins with Gere’s character’s birthday. A successful billionaire, his cake is kingly–larger than our master bedroom. But when it is wheeled out by his butler–complete with sixty candles (!), his family simply says “Happy Birthday Dad/Honey/Grandpa.” Then, he makes a little speech. I loved this scene. I want to try it at my upcoming birthday. Let’s just say “Happy Birthday” everyone–I don’t even have to make a speech. Hell, I don’t even need a butler to serve it to me. Just a simple spoken gesture of well wishing and then– let’s eat!

IMG_0055I realized how bitter I was about this song when my younger son turned five. There we were, birthday boy, brother, parents and grandparents, singing our hearts out. Yet, it took us so damn long to finish the second line that Hayden simply blew out IMG_0057the candles. Just like that, the song was over. We stopped, somewhat dumbfounded. Then, I burst out laughing and said, “Well, okay, let’s cut the cake.” He knew! A five-year-old knew that all of this pomp made for too much circumstance. It was as if he was saying “While we’re young, people. While we’re young.”

I don’t enjoy being such a party pooper. In fact, I like birthdays. I like celebrating the lives of the people I care about. But the devolvement of this tradition irks me. Even as a child, I remember being annoyed when someone introduced the trend of adding “How old are you? How old are you?” to the end of the song. Or the crueler, but similarly inane, “You act like a monkey, and you look like one, too.” I think that one bugged me because I DO look like a monkey. Anyhow, every year, I share my observations about our society’s annoying birthday renditions with my students– a captive audience (emphasis on the word captive). I tell them to fight the injustices that have been done to this song, and encourage the group to avoid dragging it out. In addition, I tell them that they have the power to start the singing and set the pace. Once candles are lit, and lights are dimmed, no one wants to actually begin. Thus, I tell them to take control. In a loud, throaty voice, just utter the sound “HAP-” and the rest of the group will chime in with “BE-Birthday to you…” It never fails. Whenever one says that first syllable, the rest join in on the second syllable. Try it at your next party, and see for yourself. You may even want to just sing that one noise and then watch as the rest of the gang finishes the entire number. It is highly entertaining to watch the faces of your friends and family sing, while their eyes are transfixed on the flickering candles.

Growing up, we were a traditional “Happy birthday to you, Happy birthday to you, happy birthday dear So-and-so, happy birthday to you” sort of family. We sang it faster than any song we knew–be it a TV theme song (“The Brady Bunch, The Brady Bunch”) or commercial jingle (“Plop, plop, fizz, fizz; Oh, what a relief it is”) . We’d finish in less than fifteen seconds. I guess with seven kids, everyone was preoccupied with diving into the cake.  As an adult, particularly as a dad, I have come to realize that there are the traditional singers of “Happy Birthday” and the obnoxious upstarts who have to add the “Cha Cha Cha’s”. What. The. Hell. I had never encountered this until I had kids of my own. To make matters worse, there are those who take over the song (my sons’ included), who think it’s funny to add all manner of absurd imagery to the end–in addition to all of the Cha, Cha, Cha’s. Allow me to enlighten those of you who are lucky enough to have been spared such a lengthy performance:

. . . “Happy birthday dear So-and-so, happy birthday to you.” Note: The song should end here. But, Nooo. It then continues with:

“Cha, Cha, Cha. Ohh, la, la. Hi-Ya. Scooby-doo, we love you. Winnie the Pooh, We love you, too.”

Enough! E-nough I say. Let’s take back Happy Birthday. Let’s make it a quick, sentimental rendition. Let’s stop letting people yell it at the top of their lungs. Let’s stop adding nonsensical lyrics to a simple musical gesture.

Therefore, I propose that anyone who feels the need to ruin the Happy Birthday song be “accidentally” burned with the hot wax from the candles, which are now mere wick-nubs because a few big mouths had to take so freakin’ long to wish someone well, that the candles melted into the cake. It will only take a few “accidents” for your guests to get the hint. And besides, the pain will subside that much quicker with the taste of all that sugary icing in the victims’ mouths–but the scars will serve as a reminder for all future celebrations.

If this issue does not make you feel as sadistic as it does me, could you at least give the offenders a considerably smaller piece of cake? Thanks!

Warning: This diatribe is not meant for toddlers or senior citizens.