Children

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.

 

Throwing Stones

FullSizeRender (13)August, 1973

I am sitting on the curb outside of our house, gathering up pebbles in my tiny hands. I am two months shy of my fourth birthday, but it’s not my birth I am fixated on–it’s the birth of my new brother and sister: twins!

My mother is coming home from the hospital today–having been absent from my life for over a week. Oh, she’s seen me. Dad took us over to the hospital and sat us on a bench in the lobby. “Wave to the camera”, he says. “You’re sure mom can see us?” I ask. “Yes, mom can see you on the TV in her room.” I take his word for it, but it all seems so alien to me.

I miss my mom. The last few days have been a blur. My grandmother, my mom’s mom, has been running the show. She’s efficient–making sure we are fed and dressed–but she’s not very warm. Not the type of grandmom whose hugs you get lost in or wants to shower you with kisses. Still, I can’t complain. Besides, there’s really no one to complain to.

The morning has been a rush of activity; the five of us–my three brothers, one sister and I– are busy getting the house cleaned for mom’s homecoming–with two more kids. My dad seems excited and extra patient with us. I like it when he’s like this.

Bored of my chores, I wander out the door. I tend to do a lot of wandering. I make my way down the driveway. I keep looking up and down the street, half expecting my mother to magically appear.

Our neighborhood is lined with twin houses: driveway, house/house, driveway, house/house… I like where our house is positioned on the street because we are right across from a stop sign. Every car that drives down Thunderhead Road must slow down in front of our house.

I love to steal a glance inside each car; to see if anything dangles from the rear-view mirror (fuzzy dice, a bandana); to overhear a lyric which blasts from the AM radio (Brandy, you’re a fine girl, what a good wife you would be…); to count how many people are in the car, and of those, how many are smoking (three and two); to spy a bumper sticker and pretend I can read what it’s saying (Wi-Fi 92’s gonna make me rich/ Flick my Bic).

But today I am distracted, nervous. I forget what my mom looks like. Plus, I’m about to be replaced as the youngest child–by twins, no less. How can I compete with that? I stand barefoot in the gutter and begin to gather pebbles. I throw a handful in the air, and listen as they rain back down to the ground. After a few throws like this, I see a car headed for the stop sign. I sit my Billy-the-Kid shorts on the curb, grasp some gravel, and wait for the car to pass my driveway. Then, I launch the stones into the air-aiming for the back of the car. As the tiny rocks spray onto the trunk, the sound–an echoing tinkle–is so much cooler. The driver keeps going.

Emboldened by my act of vandalism, I gather another pile, and repeat the procedure as the next car comes to a stop a few feet from me. The sound is just as thrilling and the driver seems oblivious once again. I am getting away with being bad  cool, and it feels exhilarating. As the next car comes, I grab another handful of pebbles, this one a bit larger. I am invincible.

But as they land on the car, the driver turns and stares at me. Caught! Yet, he keeps going. This guy knew what I did and I still got away with it. God, I love America!

I get up from the curb and attempt to find even bigger pieces. How far can I take this? Well, I’m about to find out.

With some larger stones in hand, maybe even a rock or two, I spot a Cutlass gliding its way to the stop sign. I don’t even bother to sit back down, to remain inconspicuous. I simply cock my arm back and launch the handful at the car. The sound is much louder and not nearly as melodic–more like a thud. As I watch the tail lights glow red at the stop sign, I notice they remain on. A woman in dark sunglasses stares straight at me and puts her car in park. As she opens the car door, I sprint into the house and up the stairs.

Curious, I wait at the top step to see what will happen.

Before there is even a knock, I hear my father speak through the screen.

“Can I help you?’ he asks.

My stomach drops. I cover my ears, but remove my hands every few seconds; Her words are distorted, but I am able to piece together her report: a little boy… threw…landed….car windows open……two small babies in the back….could have been…

My dad apologizes on my behalf. He then informs her of his two babies that he will be bringing home in an hour. “I’ll be sure to talk to him about this, and again, I’m sorry.”

In seconds, he appears at the bottom of the stairs. “What were you thinking?” he asks. “I’m just excited for mom to come home,” I reply. “Well, she has enough to worry about today, so why don’t we just keep this between us,” he offers. “O–okay,” I stammer. What? No yelling? No punishment? Maybe having twins around won’t be so bad after all, I think to myself.

“Thanks,” I say.

I remain upstairs for the rest of the morning. I don’t dare step foot outside, on the driveway, for fear I may be drawn in to more criminal activity, or worse, that I might watch a cop car pull up, with dark-sunglass woman in tow, to press charges on me for maiming her children.

The screen door slams repeatedly, as people move in and out of the house. Finally, it squeaks a bit more slowly, and I hear, “Oh my gosh! They’re home!” I watch from upstairs as my mom enters the living room in her sundress with two afghaned bundles. My dad spies me on the steps. His eyes tell me that he has honored his promise–that today is not the day to burden my mother–or him–with such trouble.

I slowly walk down the stairs, planting both feet on each step. Once on the landing, I run over to my mom and bury my face in her side. I am lost in the dangling blankets. I catch glimpses of my new brother and sister: a tiny hand, a fuzzy ear. I peer up at my mom’s face, reassured. She looks just as I remembered her.

***********************************

This is my second memory. My first involves me in a high chair talking to the refrigerator and dumping chocolate pudding on my head. But this is the one I recall often.

In childhood, I would usually conjure it if I needed to make myself feel guilty. As a good Catholic, I wasn’t comfortable unless I felt uneasy about something, so this became one of my go-to guilt triggers: “Like that time you almost blinded those children in the back seat of the car…” Such phrases would rattle in my head til I was reassured I was headed to Hell. As a teen, this event took on an Oedipal air: “How ironic would it have been if I blinded two small children on the same day that two small children were finding their way to my house?” Later in life, and most significantly, this event would serve as a reminder that there were times when my dad handled situations with a tenderness and grace that made me feel everything would be okay.

Now, as a father, I find that the most powerful response I can give my sons is one of understanding. When they come to me having done something wrong, consumed by guilt, expecting me to explode, and I simply say, “It’s okay. Everything will be okay,” it’s as if I have just waved a magic wand and made it so.

Such is the power of parenting, of perspective, of the words we choose–or do not choose.

Something to think about the next time you’re about to throw stones.

 

Gary On My Wayward Son

It came in a text message so short it could have been a tweet. It read: I love you and mom. Gary. And there it was, my son’s first genuine attempt at saying he loves me, sent to us via his older brother’s iPod Touch.

Now, if you’ve read my blog, then you probably know that I have two sons, neither of whom is named Gary. The Gary in question would be my eight year old, Hayden. And if you keep reading, I promise you’ll find out why we call him Gary.

When it comes to Hayden, I struggle with finding the right words to describe him, probably because he is such a dichotomy. The second born, he can be loving and kind one minute, angry and cruel the next. He is moody, he is temperamental, he is high maintenance, he is–dare I say it–me.

Hayden and I are a lot alike, and that’s why we tend to butt heads. When we’re not fighting, we get along famously. He’s the one whose more inclined to run errands with me, to walk the dogs, to go watch a high school basketball game.

But, I have a saying I use on him sometimes when he has tried my patience. I say, “And one day, Hayden, you will have a son of your own. And he will do these things to you, and you will call me on the phone and say ‘Dad, do you believe what he just did? I was never like that, was I?’ And I’ll say, ‘Oh, Hayden, you have no idea. No idea!'”

Our love for each other manifests itself in small ways. He’ll hold my hand when we’re walking in a crowded parking lot or the quiet fields near our house. He’ll rest his head on my shoulder as we sit and watch TV. He lets me kiss him goodnight. He even wants me to lie with him til he falls asleep. Yet, in the eight and a half years I have known him, he has never been able to say “I love you.”

When he was a toddler, I forced a few mumbles out of him, but never a clear expression.

The lack of “I love you, toos” used to bother me. I told myself to just keep saying it, and it would sink in for him to respond. But sometimes, my annoyance with his silence made me petulant. One night last year, I remember putting him to bed. Like every night, I tucked him in, kissed him and said:

gn.1

 

 

 

 

 

 

And in return, I got this:

gn.3

 

 

 

 

 

 

To which I said in an annoyed tone:

gn.4

 

 

 

 

 

 

To which Hayden responded:

gn.6

 

 

 

 

 

 

“SORT OF!?” I shouted, echoing him.

“Yeah,” he replied, “it means a little.”

So I gave up. I no longer cajoled. I never begged. I just kept saying it and meaning it. And in the past year, I’ve noticed him get more thoughtful about it. I see the smile on his face when we say those words to him. I see his eyes beam when we tell him how much he means to us. The other night, I tucked him in and did my routine of tickling/stealing kisses from him. When our game ended, and I went to give him his “official” goodnight kiss, I heard him whisper “fifteen.” “Fifteen what?” I asked. “Kisses. You gave me fifteen kisses.” I had two thoughts–well three: One–that’s a bit excessive. Two–how cute that he counted. And three–how much longer will he let me kiss him goodnight?

I do not know the answer to that. What I do know is that this boy understands he is loved. And I know it is reciprocated. A week ago, Hayden became sullen (for the tenth time that day). “What’s wrong, sweetie?” my wife asked him. He shared with her how he does love us, but he is not comfortable saying it. “Do you want me to tell dad?” she asked. He nodded yes. She obliged.

“No problem, buddy,” I said.  “We know you do. People show their love through their actions.” (My little passive aggressive/reverse psychology attempt at getting him to be nicer).

Then a few days after sharing his hesitation with us, we get the text. From our son…Gary. Hayden’s nickname came about as a coping mechanism. As a toddler, when he would pitch a fit, I’d say, “We don’t negotiate with terrorists.” This seemed a little extreme. Besides, I didn’t want to be blamed for giving him the idea if he became one, so I had to change my approach. When we thought of Hayden’s temper, Pam and I would joke about the boy in the movie Parenthood with Steve Martin. Dianne Wiest’s character had a son named Gary (played by a young Joaquin “Leaf” Phoenix). He was so angry and anti-social, yet she killed him with kindness. “Hi, Gaaaaaaarrrrrry,” she’d say with her sweet smile and kind voice. Gary was batshit crazy, but his mom was going to love him sane.

Pam and I took to saying “Hi, Gaaaarrrrrry” when Hayden became especially inconsolable.  As good parents, we tried to do it behind his back, or when he was out of earshot, and it was surprisingly therapeutic. “Hi, Gaaarrrrrrry” had the effect of a deep, relaxing breath. And as we slowly let our Gaaarrryyyy comments creep into our dealings with him, it became a way for us to try to kill Hayden with kindness. “What’s wrong, Gaaarrry?” “Awww, are you mad, Gaaarrry?” Our Gaaarrrrys would be extra long, an octave too high, and more sugary than a powdered donut.

As the years passed, the name found its way into more of our everyday lives. Now, it’s not uncommon to greet Hayden as Gary when he comes in the house from school or play. At first, Pam told me not to, but he piped in with, “No, I like it!” Oh, we still whip out our Gaaarrrry when he starts to act up, but Hayden has taken to the name–he has never seen Parenthood, although we did tell him about Dianne Wiest’s devil child.  Truth is, the more the name sticks, the less like Gary our Gary  Hayden is. How’s that for irony?

So, when I get a text from a kid named Gary who claims his love for me, I know I’m making progress. And when I get that phone call from him years from now about his own son’s behavior, I’ll say, “Put Gary on the phone, I want to talk to him.”

Cartoons by the talented artist Aidan Murphy.

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:

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“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.”

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

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!

 

 

“Alright, Mr. Demille, I’m ready for my…armpit fart?”

Huffington Post. THE Huffington Post. It’s the calling card that every blogger aspires to receive. If you are featured on the Huffington Post–you’ve arrived.

I have not been featured on HuffPost, as they say. Oh, I’ve submitted posts. I’ve tweeted them. I’m friends with HuffPost Parents on Facebook. I’ve done the sort of thing that most daddy bloggers have done, but still no bites.

So, imagine my surprise when, a few weeks ago, I received an email from a producer of “Tell Me Why…,” a video segment on HP featuring kids asking and answering questions. It read:

Hi Michael,

I’m a producer at HuffPost Live and I produce a segment each week called “Tell Me Why” where we invite a kid to come on and ask a question or explain something he or she is passionate about.  
We’ve covered everything from String Theory and Evolution to Space… but perhaps one of our favorite episodes was one about Boogers 🙂  I just saw this post about your son’s “to do” list, photo (40)which brilliantly ends with armpit farts.  We’re hoping to pick up where we left off with boogers, and discuss farts on “Tell Me Why” and I wonder whether you think your son may be interested in joining.
A strange request, I know… but I look forward to hearing from you, nonetheless!
All best,

Well, I called Claire right away and she could not have been nicer. The premise was pretty simple. They would Skype with Hayden and talk to him about armpit farts. We didn’t even have to leave our house. I set out to convince my eight-year-old that this was a grand adventure.

First, I inquired about his talent. “Hey, do you still know how to do armpit farts?” I asked as we walked from the bus stop. He proceeded to do a lopsided chicken dance with his hand inside his armpit: (place tongue one inch outside closed lips and blow)–yeah, that sound. Feel free to make that sound for the rest of this post.

Then, my other son, Owen (9), joined in on the action. “Dad, I can do them with my knee!” And he did. Right there in the driveway. He sat down and flopped one leg in the air with his hand cupped behind his knee. “And some kids can do them with their neck,” which he then attempted, unsuccessfully.

At bedtime that night, I showed the boys some “Tell Me Why…” video clips from HuffPost.

“That’s weird,” said Hayden.

“Wouldn’t you like to be in a video like that? It would be like being on TV,” I say wide-eyed, channeling my inner Willy Wonka.

“No way,” says Hayden, scrunching his nose.

I look at his brother, Owen, who is more of a natural ham–always performing for audiences both real and imaginary. “How about you, Owen? Would you do it?”

“Maybe,” he says. And I think I can convince him. I don’t push too hard, for fear I might lose. I’ll continue to goad tomorrow, I think.

I come downstairs after putting the boys to bed.

“Honey,” my wife says, “this is so exciting! The Huffington Post…” and she doesn’t even know how to classify it. It is then that I reveal my trepidation. “Yeah, I’m not sure. Is this really how I want to be recognized by Huff Post?”

I think about how I’ve been trying to work over the boys, to enlist them in my quest for publication. Then, I think about how this really has so little to do with me, or my blog, or what I’m attempting to do as I tap away at this keyboard, putting words down to capture my experiences.

And that’s just it. This is not MY experience. This is my son’s experience. And even though I am proud of the collection I have captured on this blog for three years, a sinking feeling begins in my stomach. These boys are no longer toddlers, they are not cute props, but individuals. My boys, and my blog, are changing, and I need to be more mindful of their rights, their boundaries.  As they get older, I am feeling I have less of a right to tell their story, as they are telling more of their own.

I am embarrassed. I feel a bit ashamed that I am trying to pimp out my son’s penchant for all things fart on a national platform. I envision a video feed popping up years from now, when one of the boys is running for president of a class or the country:), a video of them demonstrating the art of armpit farts on the Huffington Post. A video that went viral, that has more hits than Grumpy Cat or “delirious boy riding home from the dentist” combined…

I resolve not to push my boys to do this. If they’re not interested, then it’s not happening. This is their decision. This is THEIR life.

**********************
“I’ll pay you,” I say, desperately.

“What?!” says Owen. Yes, Owen. I’ve decided to put the full court press on him. There’s no way Hayden would do it. I’ll see if Claire would be cool with Owen filling in for him, even though it was Hayden’s drawing.

“I will pay you. Twenty dollars to do the segment.”

“Twenty bucks!”

“Yep. But once I call this lady, you can’t back out.”

I don’t even recognize myself. I smell the desperation in my plea. Inside, I’m panicking–but what if this is my only shot? What if this leads to more features on Huffington Post? A spot on the Today show. A three book deal with movie tie-ins. Happy Meal toys of the family Grinch…

My thoughts whirl. I’m such a sell-out.

I give him a few hours to think about it–to spend the money in his head.

After dinner, I try to mask my eagerness. “So, what do you think, buddy? Will you do it?”

“Nah,” he says.

Dream deferred.

And with that, the wind is let out of my sails. I am deflated. For one brief shining moment, there was Armpit-fart-alot.

But, truth be told, I was also relieved. If my quest for a gig with HuffPost had already made me act like this, I could just imagine what I would have been like during the actual interview.

I call Claire and let her know that the Trainers are a no-fart for her upcoming segment. Again, I am struck by how nice and approachable she is. For her, it’s just another day producing for one of America’s largest news outlets. But for me, it’s the silencing of the knock of opportunity.

Yet, in the end, I was relieved. One of the primary goals of my blog is to make sense of my world in a way that makes me a better father. I want to understand my past and make sense of my present, so that my family will have a better future. I want my boys to be proud of me and what I have created. What I will continue to create–for me, for them, for us.

 

 

 

Sunscream

While my friend is away this week, I’ve been watering her beautiful gardens and taking care of her pool–a job I relish because the boys and I go swimming everyday.

Yesterday, however, I was there by myself. It was the perfect day: bright, crisp, a gentle breeze and a cloudless sky. As the sun danced off the water, I was drawn to lie on a raft and just float in the pool.

Why is it that in these moments I feel guilty? When we are at rest, and our mind is clear, we should commend ourselves, not chastise.  I pushed those feelings of guilt aside, and as I closed my eyes and the raft drifted aimlessly, my thoughts hearkened back to other memories.

Now if you’re normal (and I know at least two of you reading this are), then you might imagine my mind sailing back to other peaceful memories of floating, like my honeymoon in Napa or a trip to the Virgin Islands. No. Not me. My mind drifted back to childhood, to a memory that is seared in my mind’s eye. You see, whenever I’m on a float in a pool, alone, I end up thinking about a time when I was six years old.

Although it’s hard to believe, when I was very young, my family had a pool. An above-ground pool. A legit above-ground pool. The kind that is meant to stay up for several seasons. The kind that had a filter. It was the most extravagant toy of my youth. And one day, I remember walking out to the pool by myself and climbing the ladder and getting on a float and drifting off to sleep. The reason I remember this, the reason it is seared into my memory, is because I slept for so long that when I was awoken by my sister, I was badly sunburned. I spent the next week nursing a blistering burn–literally popping blistery bubbles all over my skin. If you’re grossed out, imagine how I felt? Sunburn_flickr_02 About a decade ago, I had to go to a dermatologist for a skin check. I had a “questionable mole”. The mole got the answer I was hoping for–not cancerous–but in the process, I received more insight. For some reason, I found the doctor’s questions humorous. As if the answers were obvious and she was teasing me.

Have you ever had a sunburn? Ahhh, yeah. I grew up in the seventies.

Have you ever had a blistering sunburn? You mean sunburnS, plural. Is there another kind? I basically shed more skin than a snake in my youth.

People who have had even one blistering sunburn before the age of fifteen have a fifty percent greater risk of WAHWAHWAHWAH…At that point, I had to block her out. One blistering sunburn? I was human bubble wrap back then–all seven of us kids were.

I left the doctor’s office feeling very scared.

**********************************

When my wife and I were dating, I remember telling her my pool/blister saga while on a road trip. We were driving in the car one summer afternoon. “I just wish we had sunscreen back then,” I said, finishing my story somewhat awkwardly. Here she was, getting a glimpse into my wacky upbringing.

She looked at me with a sad expression, “Honey, we did have sunscreen back then.”

NO! No we did not. There is no freakin’ way we had sunscreen.

“Really?” I said, trying to mask my anger.

“Unhunh,” she said with a nod, feeling bad about being the bearer of such news.

“But that doesn’t make sense! Why would my parents not use sunscreen? We could always afford the Noxema afterwards to cool our scorched bodies. My mom even joked about how rich she would be if she had stock in Noxema.”

I was incredulous. I thought about all the times we were left out to bake in the sun like little potatoes: The trips to Wildwood, the days swimming in the pool, every outdoor event of my youth, with nothing but my white Irish skin to fight off the evil sun’s rays. And this was before the era of willfully laying out in lounge chairs with tin foil and baby oil.

What were we thinking back then? What!?

Sweetie,” Pam said to me, trying to draw me back from the past, “Are you okay?”

“Yeah, it’s just pretty messed up, you know?”

“You know what’s more messed up?” she said.

I did not.

“What?”

“The fact that you were in a pool by yourself at the age of six. How could you be out there so long by yourself?”

Oh. My. God. I had never thought of that! In all the times I’d thought of that event, it was the sunburn that made me mad. I couldn’t even claim I was a good swimmer. I even failed swimming lessons. (More on that saga here ).

**********************

And now, a decade and a half later, I think about how different my children’s experiences are. Christ, we put sunscreen on them if they’re coming to the food store with us. We sit outside the bathroom as they take a shower in case the water turns hot or they need a fluffier towel.

So different from my own experience as a kid. So, so different.

Then, the other day, Pam tells me that the FDA just announced that kids should no longer use spray-on sunscreen as they are inhaling too much of the fumes. Cry me a river, I think. When I was their age I was inhaling second-hand smoke. Hell, I had even tried a few cigarettes by their age.

Just sayin’.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, it’s time to go water my friend’s garden. And not to worry, I’ve got SPF 50 on this bald head of mine.

Love

love

I have come to realize that my sons do not say “I love you.”  I am trying to train them to at least respond, “I love you, too.” But lately, I’ve shied away from doing so.

One night, a while back, I was tucking Hayden(7) in to bed and I said, “Goodnight, buddy, I love you.” Silence filled the room. His face was buried in his pillow.   Frustrated, I said, “I love you, too, dad.” Still nothing. I tickled him. He relented. “Sort of”, he mumbled into the pillow. “Sort of?” I shouted back. “Yeah,” he said, “it means a little.'”

For a time, this incident made me sad. He knows I love him, I’d think. I hug him, kiss him, tickle him, and show him affection daily. And I know, deep down, deeeeeeeeeeeeep, deeeeeeeeeeeeeep down, he loves me, too.

Lately, though, I’ve changed my attitude about the lack of “I love yous” I hear.  I’ve had to search for why this affected me so much. There’s the obvious need to love and be loved, but I knew it ran deeper than that.

Why do we say “I love you”? What purposes does it serve? Certainly, it varies from relationship to relationship. Ultimately, however, I think it serves to remind people how much we care about them. But, as I consider this spoken gesture more, I also think it’s a way for us to remind them that they love us, too–or they SHOULD, we think (we hope).

Whenever I tell Owen (9) I love him, I do not get a response, but I feel a sense of acceptance. If I could read his thoughts, it seems they would say something like, “Of course you love me, I’m your son. I’m your first-born. I’m a good kid…but you don’t need to say it all the time–it’s a given. Relax.” Yet, often, when I tell Hayden I love him, there is almost a defiance in his reaction. His mouth turns into a half-smile/half-frown–a frile, if you will. I’m not sure I want to read his thoughts. I think he fights my love–I feel him rejecting this level of emotion because either he doesn’t feel worthy of my love, or he doesn’t want to care about me so deeply–or maybe a little of both.

But the love my boys identify with today, they will remember decades from now.

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I still remember the lunch my mother packed me for my first grade field trip to the Philadelphia Zoo. I walked home for lunch everyday, so packing a lunch was a treat. The bag was stuffed with all kinds of deliciousness: a ham and cheese sandwich, potato chips, a soda, cracker jacks AND a candy bar. I knew I had the best lunch in my group. I wanted to shout for joy from the top of the monorail. That day, that lunch made me feel so  special, so loved.

I still remember the time in second grade when I came home with a bad grade on a spelling test. I was so nervous to show my parents. And even though I was supposed to get it signed, I decided to hide it where no one would find it–under the clothes dryer. It was someone’s birthday that night and my grandparents were over for dinner. Towards the end of the meal, it dawned on me that the dryer gets very hot. As a junior neurotic, I decided that my spelling test would catch on fire and burn the house down. I began to cry. “I’ve done something bad–really bad.” My whole family, grandparents included, marched down to the laundry room. My dad laid on the floor and fished the paper out from underneath the dryer. He was not mad at all–about my subterfuge or my poor spelling. He smiled and said, “Next time, just tell us, okay.” “Okay,” I said, whimpering. As we ate our cake, I felt oddly elated–my dad loves me even when I make mistakes!

Both of these memories evoke times when I felt wholly loved by my parents. A very pure, somewhat magical feeling.

I grew up in a house where “I love you” was spoken a lot. Ours was a large family in a small house. Day-to-day, amid the chaos, it was hard to sense the love, but the words were uttered. As we left for school each morning, these three words would be part of the exchange between the seven of us and our parents. And each night, before bed, I would kiss my mom and dad, and say, “Goodnight. I love you. See you in the morning.” My mother would respond with her now-infamous “God willing,” leaving me to conjure her death as I laid down to sleep. My father? I don’t remember his response. I think it varied. But, I marvel at the fact that I kissed him goodnight throughout my childhood, and with every hello and goodbye as an adult.

For me, for my past, love was a spoken reminder. Perhaps the words were said in an attempt to add calm to the fray. Yet, those words hung like an albatross around my neck for much of my life. Often, love felt heavy, sad, anxious, chaotic. Often, love felt conditional.

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

To this day, my mother says “I love you,” to me every time we speak. If she calls me four times in a day, she says it four times. In an attempt to not become obsessive about this (which I think makes me more obsessive about it) I purposely do not respond with an “I love you, too” every time she says it–I shoot for fifty percent of the time. I am aware that my mother takes note of this.

Perhaps my refusal to overstate my love stems from the fact that, even now, there seems to be an unspoken obligation with those words, as if love can magically erase all the burdens of our past, or is the antidote for all that ails the relationships in a family. Love cannot. At least the words cannot. As cliché as it sounds, “Actions speak louder than words.” I love my mom, and I know that she loves me, but I’ve realized in life that saying I love you and doing I love you are very far removed.

When I first became a part of my wife Pam’s family, I marveled at the fact that they rarely said “I love you.” It is written in cards, but not said at the end of every encounter. It was as if I were finally connecting all the dots: Hmmm. They don’t go around saying they love each other all the time, but I know they do. They are kind to one another, and respectful of each other’s opinions, and they do thoughtful things for one another–DING! Oh, you can feel it but not have to say it every day, every phone call, every exchange. I found this to be very refreshing.

Pam and I do say it often–even several times a day, which I appreciate, because she is the most important person in my world–my life partner. In that case, I find it strengthens our bond.

As for the boys, I find I say it often to them, and usually there is no response. At first, this made me feel angry, worried. Then it dawned on me–they feel loved. They feel my love. Their needs are being met daily. They want for very little and we spend a good deal of time together, interacting or just in each other’s presence. I believe that structure, that sense of stability, makes these words seem unnecessary to them.  Thus, there is no need for them to say it back to me. For now. For now, they just need to know that they are loved and feel they are loved. And in the end, all of us need to accept that we are worthy of the love we are given.

Once again, having children has taught me valuable life lessons. Kids may be the result of love, but we cannot create life as a way to force someone to love us back. Love is cultivated over time. For a parent, it seems that love begins with an ultrasound. For a child, that love manifests itself in stages. It is our job to teach children how to love, and the best way to do that is to show them. In short, to love them. Unconditionally.

“I love you” can serve as a reminder that you love me, too. Or it can serve as a reminder that you are loved. As a parent, I choose the latter, and I know what the answer is, even if it is unspoken.

Now, I seem to ponder the concept of love more. Whom I love. Who loves me. Not, who I have history with, or who I am in close proximity to, but who I have an abiding emotional connection to and for. It has been a very enlightening journey–emphasis on the lighten. I DO feel lighter. I used to think of love as something that anchored me, like a rock. Now, I try to view love as a feather, as a breath. Light and soft.

 

 

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