day like today

Sandy Hook: One Year Later

I wrote this piece last year, a few days after the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School. As I re-read it today, in honor of its one year mark, my emotions still feel pretty raw. Not enough has changed in our culture, but I try to be hopeful. In the end, hope is all we have.

So, it is in that spirit of hope that I ask you to visit the following site: Sandy Hook Promise . There, you will find the inspiring mission of the parents, family, and friends of Sandy Hook Elementary who refuse to just be the latest victims of gun violence and are fighting for change–real change within our country. It’s a powerful approach, as they are working towards sensible solutions, not more polarization of citizens in regard to gun control. I urge you to check it out, sign the pledge promise, and if you can, donate a few dollars. I know money may be tight, I know everyone seems to want donations from you, but we need to band together to effect real change. If you do decide to donate, perhaps choose the $26 option–one dollar for each person who lost their lives that day. Thank you for reading this.

The World’s Greatest: An AMERICAN Tragedy

I am a mountain
I am a tall tree
Oh, I am a swift wind
Sweepin’ the country
I am a river
Down in the valley
Oh, I am a vision
And I can see clearly
If anybody asks you who I am
Just stand up tall, look ’em in the face and say

[Chorus]
I’m that star up in the sky
I’m that mountain peak up high
Hey, I made it
I’m the world’s greatest
And I’m that little bit of hope
When my back’s against the ropes
I can feel it, 
I’m the world’s greatest

–from  The World’s Greatest, By: R. Kelly

Tears sting my eyes, as these lyrics blare through my iPod. I am out for a run on this cold, damp Sunday morning. I begin to weep openly–the emotion becoming too much. I can’t stop thinking about those kids. The innocent victims of another horrific school shooting. This is not the kind of music that I run to, usually. The song happens to be on my iPod because I downloaded it last year for my boys, who were performing it in a talent show at school. We played it every night for about two weeks. As I run, the lyrics take me back to watching them onstage with several dozen other elementary school children, scared and nervous as they performed in the dark auditorium for beaming moms, dads, and other family members. Then, my mind immediately shifts to the school children at Sandy Hook Elementary–the ones who experienced such a different form of fear and nervousness. The ones who lost their lives. The ones who lived– who will never be the same. I cry because none of us will ever be the same.

I am bawling my eyes out as I run on the side of a very busy road, and I don’t care how I look. I am so sad. And this song is making my grief spew forth because the lyrics are so beautiful. The words remind me of a comforting poem that  is often shared at funerals, by a woman named Mary Frye: Do not stand at my grave and weep, I am not there; I do not sleep. I am a thousand winds that blow, I am the diamond glints on snow, I am the sun on ripened grain, I am the gentle autumn rain… The song now comforts me in that way. I take solace in the fact that these gentle souls, and the adults who lost their lives protecting them, are now a part of a greater good, a larger entity.  Their spirits will live on in all that is beautiful and innocent, like them: a twinkling star, a majestic vista.  They cannot have died in vain.

I have been pretty emotional all weekend. I agree with many things I’ve read on Facebook about not giving this gunman the notoriety our society seems to bestow on the madman du jour. I am so fed up with all of the violence. I am embarrassed to admit that I paid little attention to one of the latest shootings at a U.S. mall. Like many, I’ve grown numb, tired. But this horror, this living nightmare, may be the wake up call this country needs. All weekend I keep staring at my sons, who are both around the victims’ ages. I feel helpless that I cannot shield them from the ugliness of our world. On Friday, as I watched them get off the school bus, wearing Santa hats no less, I was stung by the fact that 20 parents would no longer be greeting their children off the bus. They will never come home again. The Santa hats underscored my boys’ innocence. I thought how, just yesterday, I was hopeful their belief in Santa would last one more year, and now I am concerned that their belief in humanity will last one more year. How could I even begin to explain this event? They know nothing of what occurred in Connecticut–how long can that last? I feel ashamed for even thinking this way when others have no child to explain anything to anymore.

I hit repeat on my iPod. I want to hear this song again. I want to cry my eyes out for all of the victims and their families; I want to wallow in this pity I feel for all of us, for our country. I hear the echo of the singer saying “The world’s greatest…the world’s greatest.” I think about that phrase. I think how Newtown, Connecticut has witnessed the world’s greatest–the greatest examples of heroism, selflessness, and loss of innocence. I think of this land of ours, and how we are supposed to be the world’s greatest–and we are at so many things–including killing. I’m sure you’ve seen the stats by now. The magazine Mother Jones reports 61 mass shootings in the US since 1982. Fifteen out of 25 mass shootings of the last 50 years occurred in the US–the next country in the line up has two. TWO! Why are we such a violent country? Why are we so much more violent in our domestic lives than other countries. The gun control debate is raging with sound and fury now. Mental illness is also being talked about with deserved attention. One of my burning questions: Why does it seem we are more mentally ill than other countries? Why do these gunmen aim at the heart of our Nation–our innocent school children? Is this the price of freedom? How many more schools need to be ambushed before we begin meaningful dialogue and real change?

Speaking of schools, another reason I feel so emotional is because I am a teacher. I read the stories of bravery from these others in my profession, and I am humbled beyond measure. I picture myself trying to hide my students and fend off an attacker–or die trying. Could I be so brave? I pray to God, yes. Sadly, since Columbine, we’ve all become jaded. And teachers have an ever-growing fear. I know it scares me. My teaching career has spanned the spate of school shootings. As a result,  I saved my son’s hand-print from an art project in preschool in my wallet–so that if our school was ever attacked, I would have his hand to hold in the end. I have also saved special messages from the boys on my phone, so if I ever think I won’t be coming home, perhaps their sweet voices would comfort me as I prepared for whatever was in store. Why the hell would I think like that? Why? Because too many schools have been subject to such terror. I teach in a wonderful school, in a beautiful town, with the most amazing kids. Many of these tragedies have occurred in similar settings. And as the death toll in schools across the country continues to rise I pray, “Let this one will be the last.”

Just this week, I had the chance to visit my son’s second grade classroom to talk to the children about Christmas. It’s a public school, and this was part of their Social Studies unit–including all of the holidays we celebrate this time of year. My first observation when I arrived at school–one I’ve had numerous times–was the sad commentary of having to be buzzed in via intercom. A sign reads: “Please stand right here when speaking into the console so camera can see you.” Every time I’m buzzed in, I feel like I am visiting a prison. Yet, once inside  I see the joy, I hear the laughter of the children, and I notice all of the incredible work being displayed. It is a happy place. It is a place of energy and enthusiasm. I’m glad my kids can go to such a school. That afternoon, I enjoyed sharing my knowledge of the Nativity with the kids, and I told them what I say to my own students: “I love teaching in a public school because we are all so different, and we can teach each other about our differences. We are different, and yet we are the same.” They understood.

And I guess that’s why I am writing this blog entry: I want to understand. Yet, as I get older, as I seek more wisdom, I realize that there are so many things beyond my understanding. And I know that is how life works. I think of how much I’ve changed in the past decade, as a husband, as a father, as a man. I am the least religious I have ever been (16 years of Catholic school), yet I am the most spiritual, the most peaceful I’ve ever been. I don’t know if I believe in a God the way I was raised to believe in him. I hope there is a heaven. I hope that there is a place where people go where all of this makes more sense. Here is the picture that stirred my thoughts on this concept of religion yesterday. I came upon it online. The caption was in honor of the victims at Sandy Hook Elementary:

“We can’t help but think this is what heaven looked like today.”

heaven

Credit: painting by John Lautermilch

If there is a heaven, then these sweet children and their protectors are certainly there. Now if only they could help those of us on Earth who are left trying to make a better way from all this. Tonight, I pray to them for strength. Strength for all of us.

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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

Lego Minifigures: The Funeral Series?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe boys and I have been spending a lot of time in the fields behind our house. The weather has been picture perfect, and our two new dogs, Huck and Rosie, are frolicking like young pups should. There are moments of pure joy–like when I watch the boys smiling as they race the dogs in the tall grass–and there are moments of pure annoyance–like when the boys want to play Simon Says. There’s so much I love about being a dad, but I really can’t stand children’s games: “Simon says, leave me alone!”

The highlight of these walks involves  little pockets of conversation we have between picking up dog poop and wiping away tears because someone got attacked by a thorny branch. Take this conversation from earlier in the week:

Owen (8): Dad, when I grow up, maybe I’ll work for the LEGO company and I’ll design LEGO lands and stuff.

Me (43 for one more day): That would be so cool, O.

Owen: Yeah, and, and like maybe I’ll be in charge of making LEGO minifigures, and I’ll make one of you.

My heart swells with pride. My boy wants to make a LEGO figure out of me! This is the epitome of love and respect coming from a third-grader.

Owen: And I’ll make him have glasses, and bald on top with a patch of hair under his chin like you have, and he’ll be holding a cup of coffee.

MY BOY. I can see the figure now, sitting on my desk, inspiring me as I write another one of my best-selling books. But wait, what’s this? I’m awakened from my daydream as I hear Hayden calling out something a few feet behind.

Hayden (7): Yeah, and we’ll bury the minifigure with you because you’ll be dead by then. Lego-Spooky-knight-

Me: NOOO!

I envision my gravesite, on a similarly beautiful afternoon, with mourners tossing in LEGO figures the way others would flowers.

Hayden: Yeah, you’ll be dead by then, right? Well, wait, when do people die again? Seventy? Eighty?

Me: Well, it depends. You have to take care of yourself so you can live longer. That’s why you shouldn’t smoke, or lecture-lecture-lecture, blah-blah-blah…

Owen: Yeah, Hayden, look at Pop‘s dad. He’s still alive and he’s 98! That means he took care of himself.

At this point I make some lame attempt to explain to the boys the theory of “everything in moderation.” I tell them how too much of anything is bad for them, and then I give some terrible analogy about ice cream. How they eat ice cream most nights, but if they ate an entire container every night, they’d probably be unhealthy. I mean this from a cholesterol standpoint, but I miss the mark.

Owen: Then you’d be so fat, you wouldn’t be able to leave the house.

Me: Well…here I try to defend overweight people but the moment is lost…

Owen: Dad, how DOES Santa get down the chimney? I mean, he’s fat. Really fat, right? How does he do it?

Lego_SantaAnd hear we go again–Santa! Everything comes back to Santa Claus.

Me: I think he uses a magic dust made out of snowflakes (Oh, God. am I encouraging drug use for them down the road? I wonder.)

Owen: I KNOW Santa’s real, because we get gifts on Christmas that are signed From: Santa.

He reaches out to hold my hand, wanting me to reassure him that Santa does exist. I think, yeah, third grade, that’s when the doubt reaches its highpoint. I hold his hand firmly. I watch his little brother bounce ahead of us with the dogs. I breathe in the fresh air and then it dawns on me that there are three topics my sons never tire of: LEGOS, Death, and Santa.

This conversation has become the most exhausting thing about my day. I go from being immortalized as a LEGO, to my untimely death, topped off by the reminder that Santa’s days are numbered, too.

Maybe tomorrow, I’ll walk the dogs after bedtime. Alone.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Image 1,2,and 4 courtesy of Johnson Cameraman

Image 3 courtesy of Lego-wiki

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

Car Talk, Volume 2

Car_toySummertime, and the livin’ is easy–ISH.

I know I am lucky to be a teacher, because I get to enjoy a longer summer vacation. But anyone who has kids knows that “vacation” can mean anything but relaxation. Change is difficult, especially for kids, who crave routine. We are into our second week of summer here at the Trainer household, and everyone is beginning to adjust. Part of our plan includes a local camp through the township. Last week was a bit tense, as the boys worried about who they would know and if it would be fun. Today, as I dropped them off, they seemed like they had been going there all their lives.

This morning’s car ride to camp was much more lively than any morning last week, as the nervous energy was replaced with excitement. I must admit, I was a bit grumpy, as it was pouring rain. I’m talking buckets! Here in Pennsylvania, we just ended our wettest June on record. Suffice to say, I’m a little sick of getting soaked. Luckily, our car talk pulled me out of my foul mood. The following is a transcript of our ride to camp:

As we pull out of the driveway, a middle-aged woman turns on to our street and waves me down.

Lady: Can you tell me where Phipps Avenue is?

Me: I don’t know, Miss. (I see she has directions printed out. I ask her to read me the last few lines. After she fumbles through some street names and landmarks, I am able to direct her to where she is going. A car pulls in behind her, and patiently waits for me to explain things to her)

Lady: Thank you so much.

Me: You’re welcome! Have a good day. (I wave to the car behind her in appreciation–happy to see that it is my neighbor)

Owen(8): That was crazy!

Hayden(7): Yeah, what the heck was that?

Me: That lady was lost, guys. And she needed our help.

Owen: Yeah, but she had no idea where she was.

Me: Exactly. Did you see how nervous she was?

Hayden: Yeah.

Owen: Were you nervous?

Me: (I immediately dismiss this as a silly question, but then it dawns on me that I was a bit nervous). Well, I was a little worried that the car behind her was going to honk or yell at us to hurry up. People have trouble being patient. I know I sure do sometimes. But, it’s important to help someone when they are lost, because someday…(I go up an octave when I say “day” hoping they will finish with “someday you might be lost.” They don’t bite.) Someday you might be…

O and H: LOST!

Me: Yes. Lost. Not even “might be”–will be. Everyone gets lost. Everyone. That’s why it’s important to be patient because someday you will be in a similar situation.

As we drive, the roads are flooded and traffic is slow. We pass the community college where there is a delay at the entrance. A young man has a flat tire and is stuck in the middle of the entrance. Cars begrudgingly detour around him.

Me: Oh, no!

O and H: What?

Me: That poor guy has a flat tire. He’s not having a good morning. You know, we’re lucky because we’re on summer vacation, but a lot of people have to go to work today, and it’s raining, and it’s Monday.

Hayden: I HATE Mondays.

Owen: Me, too.

Me: Now, Mondays can be rough, but you can’t hate a whole day. And why would you hate it if you’re on vacation?

The boys ponder this as they watch lines of cars going this way and that. We stop at a red light.

Owen: Dad, look! There’s your car, but in red. (I drive a 2005 Saturn Vue. )

Me: Oh, yeah. Look at that. (There is a Prius stopped right in front of us at the light.) I’m thinking my next car will be like the one if front of us. It runs partially on electricity.

Owen: Can you get in blue, please?

Me: I’m sure I can.

Hayden: I want you to get a car like the one Big Dave has (our next door neighbor). A conterv, a conventi…

Me: A convertible?

Hayden: Yeah.

Me: Well, that’s not really practical for us, and that car costs a lot of money. Big Dave is older than I am, so he’s been able to save more money because he has worked longer than I have.

The green turn arrow appears on the stop light above us. The lady in the turn lane next to us angrily honks her horn at the car in front of her.

Me: That woman seems to be having a bad morning, too. She needs to be more patient.

Owen: If you quit your job, do you have to give all the money back that they paid you?

Me: No! That money is yours. You earned it. (Then I make the mistake of trying to further explain the consequences of quitting a job. I use words like “benefits” and “stock options”. I do not even know what the hell I am saying, I just want them to know there are consequences when you quit something. I dial back the rhetoric.) The goal is to always get a better job than the one you had before. You will have a lot of different jobs in life. You might even get fired or laid off. (Here I go again–more depressing employment speak. Topic shift…) You know, I recently read that 30% of the jobs that will exist when you guys are adults, don’t even exist now.

Confused looks from the back seat.

Me: Think about it. (Holding up my cell phone) We didn’t even have these until ten years ago. And when I was little, we didn’t even really have computers.

Owen: I wish I lived back then.

Me: Really?

Owen: Yeah, then I would’ve just played outside all day.

This observation saddens me, and makes his younger brother go apoplectic.

Hayden: But Owen, then you wouldn’t be able to play Minecraft! (He hits Owen’s arm to reinforce his shock). They didn’t have Minecraft back then!!!

Owen: It would just mean that I would play it when I was older.

Hayden still looks distraught.

Owen: Your older self could play Minecraft because it exists now.

Me: Well, we had video games, like Atari. (I try to defend my generation and the fact that we found reasons not to play outside all day, too. 🙂

We reach the line of cars waiting to turn in to the school for camp. It looks worse than it is.

Owen: Dad, do you know they changed the drop off spot?

Me: Yes.

Owen: But do you know where to drop us off?

Me: No. But don’t worry. I’ll just follow the other cars.

He seems satisfied by this logic. We clearly see the other campers checking in at the front of the school. I am glad to have returned to the present; to have stopped time travelling into the past where my sons would have played outside more, but now would be middle-aged men; to the future where they may have just been let go from a company that continues to downsize to increase their profit margin. We are here at camp. It is summer. It may be raining. It may be Monday. But my boys are safe, and they feel secure in their new routine.

Greeter: Hello! Is this your first week?

O and H: No, our second! (They bask in their status as “seasoned” campers.)

Greeter: Then you can go find your group behind me.

Female Counselor: Hi, Hayden!

Male Counselor: Hey, O! What’s up?

The boys smile as they enter the now-familiar line of fellow campers. I walk to my car, with a bit more of a bounce in my step. I don’t even mind having to splash through a few puddles.

Car Talk

Car_toyI love the conversations that occur in the car with my sons. They can be so profound, enlightening and unpredictable. Here is a transcript of today’s car ride on the way to visit their grandmom, my mom.

Owen (8): This is a weird question, but how old were you when your dad died?

Me: That’s not a weird question at all. It’s a very good question, actually. Let’s see…I was twenty-four. (I am now 43).

Owen: How did he die?

Me: He had a disease called cancer. Some people die when they get cancer, and some people are able to get better. Grandmom had cancer.

Owen: And she beat it.

Me: And Pop had cancer.

Owen: Beat it.

Me: Even Aunt Lori had it.

Owen: And she beat it.

Hayden (6): But not your dad.

Me: No, he didn’t beat it.

There is silence for a minute. We pass a cemetery.

Hayden: Maybe your dad’s buried in there.

Me: No, I know where he’s buried. But I don’t visit cemeteries, I think.

Me: You know, some people believe that when you die, you come back to life again in another form. It’s called reincarnation.

Both boys: Cool/Awesome.

Owen: I want that to happen to me.

Me: You do, huh? Well, some believe that you come back as a being that you need to learn from. Like, if you were mean to a cat all the time, then you might come back to life as a cat.

Owen: I can’t wait til you come back as a cat, Hayden.

Me: No! You have to be REALLY mean, not just annoying. (But I was thinking the same thing, Owen:)

Hayden: Like, you have to throw heavy things at it.

Me: Yeah. And you don’t only come back in a negative way. You can come back as something different from you are now, like a girl, or a person who lives in another country, or a dog.

Hayden: I do NOT want to come back as a girl! (Suddenly) Oh! Oh! I want to come back as a banjo player.

Laughter. Lots of laughter.

Me: A banjo player, huh?

Hayden: Or a baby.

Owen: Maybe your dad has already come back as something.

Me: That would be cool, wouldn’t it? Like maybe he’s one of the birds that visits the bird feeder attached to our window, and he likes to come to the window and look in on us.

Owen: Or maybe he’s a tree. Dad, wouldn’t that be cool if we planted a tree and it was actually your dad?

Me: Whoa!

Hayden: But no grave stone! It wouldn’t be cool to have grave stone underneath the tree in our yard.

Owen: Yeah, if people have a grave stone in their yard, everyone will think they are weird.

We drive some more in silence.

Hayden: What if he came back as a building?

Owen: No, he can’t be a building.

Me: Buildings aren’t alive.

We pass a Dunkin Donuts where a man is pulling out of the lot smoking a cigarette.

Hayden: See that man smoking? That man’s coming back as a cigarette.

Owen: Yeah, so he can feel what it’s like to be set on fire.

Hayden: Yeah!

Me: Okay. We’re almost there, boys.

I Know Why the Jaybird Sings

It’s one of the first signs of warm weather where we live. The jaybirds dance on our lawn. Naked, as the saying goes. And by jaybirds, you know I really mean my sons, right? Well, they do. They love to dance “naked as jaybirds.” It happened yesterday, earlier than usual, but the weather was an unseasonably high 86 degrees and that meant water fights.

I am out front doing some yard work–I seem to manage fifteen minute intervals of weeding and whacking these days. And there I am, trimming back some shrubs, when the boys sneak up and attack me with their water pistols. I scream with genuine surprise then delight, and they are pleased with their subterfuge. At this point, they are wearing bathing suits. I give them my usual five-minute warning, this time regarding homework: “Homework in five minutes!” “Okay.”

As they gallop back to the hose, I can’t help but smile. I am thrilled that they took it upon themselves to come out and enjoy the beautiful sun. I left them inside with the babysitter (the television) because I REALLY photo (27)need to trim these shrubs. Watching them at the hose, I become nostalgic. Yes, a form of nostalgia I feel now as a parent that makes me sad for the fleeting memory while I am witnessing it. The kind that makes me thankful to be experiencing this event, but already sad knowing it will be over too soon. The moment quickly fades into a memory on my lawn, to be joined by the previous memories of sprinklers, and slip-n-slides, and kiddy pools of seasons past. I think about how sweet and innocent this time in their life still is, and how just a hose, some water guns, a bucket (and an unsuspecting dad) are all they need to thrill them.

While I continue in the garden, they squeal with laughter, as the cold spray of water shocks their lanky bodies. When I finish, the boys are a bit miffed that I do not want to get soaking wet. “But we wanted to attack you some more.” “Sorry, we have to do homework.” “Can you at least dump this bucket on us?”Owen asks. “Sure!” I say. What a consolation. “But I’ll only do it if you turn around. It’s more fun if you don’t see it coming.” Both boys sit in the driveway with their backs to me, and I proceed to drench them with a five gallon bucket of ice-cold water. This time, they scream with surprise then delight. “Okay, now homework!”

The boys dutifully listen to me. They strip out of their bathing suits, grab their towels and then their book bags. They settle down at the table on our patio and begin their homework–naked! I am taken aback by this and can’t find the words to tell them to dress. It’s as if they do their homework naked every night. They sit sans clothes through reading, spelling and math. I even serve them drinks and snacks. And once again, here I am confronting a situation as a parent that I did not see coming:  At what point does it become not cute or okay for my boys to be running around “naked as a couple of jaybirds”?

photo (17)Naked babies are adorable, naked toddlers are funny, but a naked first and second grader? Weird? Awkward? Unfortunately, they are growing up so fast, but in many ways they are so similar to the boys they were 1,2,3 years ago. Yesterday was the first time I was thinking, “this can’t continue much longer, right?” Yet, what I loved about the entire event was how comfortable the boys were with their natural state. It is a goal of mine for them to be proud and aware of their bodies. I know it is, in  part, my rebuttal to my Catholic roots, in which at my sons’ ages I was already obsessing about the different types of sin (mortal or venial), and where I remember being told to get my hand out of my pants because it was “dirty.”  Well, that set me back a couple of decades. And please don’t misunderstand, I’m not trying to raise little nudist or run a commune. But I love that there is a sense of innocence and acceptance that my sons convey in these situations.

After homework, they begin to chase each other around the backyard. “Okay. Enough. Go inside and get clothes on.” Their two full moons run past me as they giggle their way into the house. A few minutes later, they are at the kitchen counter. Baseball season has started, which means dinner at 5. As I make their meals, Owen says, “Dad, I learned how to write H, E, and L in cursive. So, guess what word I can spell–in cursive!?” “Owen!” I say, acting shocked. “Yep, I can spell the H word in cursive now.” “Well, did you?” I ask. “NO! But I could.” “He accidentally said it twice today,” pipes in his younger brother, Hayden. “You said it yesterday, too.” he continues. “It’s not an accident if you keep saying it,” I tell him. “I’m sorry, but I think I really love curse words,” he confesses. ME, TOO! I think, but I say, “Curse words make you look dumb. There’s always a better word to use than a curse word.” But these words will never make you feel as good as a bleeping curse word will! I think. Boy, this has turned in to quite a day. Doing homework naked. Cursing at the kitchen counter. Should I let them try a beer with dinner?

The moments come often. They are reminders that their innocence is a fleeting phenomenon. Have you been on a playground lately? If so, then you’ve probably heard some six-year-old  singing about sexy ladies a la Gangam Style, or one of Kesha’s latest ditties about playing with your junk. And my sons are right there singing along to some of these choruses. Yet, I am amazed that they don’t know more! I am relieved that they’re only spelling Hell (in cursive). And I want to continue to be a part of the conversation. Not as their friend, but as their father. If I can at least help them understand why something is offensive, then maybe they will think twice before saying or doing it.

Baseball practice is hot. The fields are dusty with dry dirt, and all the boys want to kick it up like it’s their job. On the way home, I inform Owen and Hayden that they have to get a quick shower. They hate showers. We’re lucky if they get one every other night. The whining starts. Hayden begins to cry. “Look, you’re dirty. You smell. You have to get a shower,” I holler to them in the back seat. More protests. As I pull into the driveway, I notice the hose still out from their afternoon frolic. “Fine. You can get a shower OR I can hose you off.” “Hose! Hose!” they insist. They jump out of the car, put their baseball equipment away, and strip down. Dammit, I wasn’t thinking about the fact that they would be naked out here, again. And now many neighbors are home from work and enjoying the spring night. What the hell is wrong with me?

I turn the hose on. The boys are tired. The water is cold. It does not have the same thrill it did this afternoon. In fact, it seems torturous. I regret it the moment the water slaps their skin. I feel stupid. Embarrassed. Pam comes outside and sees this display. The boys are yelling for their towels. I put the hose down, and fetch the ones still drying on the fence from earlier today. We quickly wrap them in the cottony warmth. They head inside. “Honey,” Pam says, “they can’t be naked like that. You know…” “I know,” I say. “I know.” And now I do.

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The poet Maya Angelou once said, “A bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song.” Clearly, I do not have all the answers when it comes to the conundrums that parenting puts upon us. And now, I head into this new season more aware that my jaybirds are becoming fully fledged. But I think of their laughter, their squeals of delight while playing around the yard, and I can’t seem to silence the song just yet. Their nakedness is part of that freedom, that joy.  They are still singing the song of childhood, and I want that chorus to last for a few more years. But I can promise you one thing–no more hose baths at night.

A dad has to start somewhere.