My Third Grader Learns the Meaning of Irony

Below is a copy of Owen’s first official essay. He was very proud of his work. And upset when he discovered what happened to it. Yep, the dog ate his homework. Please note the title/topic of his piece.

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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-


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.


Image 1,2,and 4 courtesy of Johnson Cameraman

Image 3 courtesy of Lego-wiki

Off, Huck!

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This is our new puppy, Huckleberry. See Huck leap, run, fetch, sleep, eat, bite, chew and, of course, jump up on everything! See our sons try to “help” my wife and me train our newest family member. See them try to stop Huck from jumping up on them, the counter, the bed, the couch, the dinner table. Hear the boys yell “Off, Huck!” over and over again. Now say “Off, Huck” real fast, as if you were six and didn’t know what a comma was yet. “Off, Huck!” “Off Huck!” OffHuck!” “AwwF*ck!”  Uh oh.

Goodnight, Sweet Boy!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Portrait of an Artist as a Weird Man, numbers 4 and 5

This is a series of weird drawings my kids make of me. I haven’t posted one in quite some time, but both boys have drawn renderings lately that I could not resist.

Daddy and Donkey Kong, by: Hayden (6)

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Hayden drew this for me because he loves trying to help me get better at Wii. In my speech bubbles, I am saying “Do I have to hold any buttons?”

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Dear Daddy, by: Owen (8)

Owen drew this picture of me to go along with his Christmas letter from school (he always seems to leave out a body part). The letter moved me so much, that I chose not to share it publicly. Some moments are meant to be private! I’ll just say that in the letter he says I am a “wonderful dad!” Sniff. Sniff. Boy, I’m trying to live up to that– but some days I certainly fall way short.

The thing I love about these drawings, all the ones featured in Portrait of an Artist, is the fact that these boys don’t care what I look like–no matter what, they think I’m pretty cool. So, whenever I feel like a load, or wonder if any amount of sit-ups will ever get rid of my belly doughnut, I am reminded that looks do not matter nearly as much as memories and experiences.

And on that note, I’ll leave you with a funny example: One day recently, we were walking in the woods with our dog, Rufus. The boys suggested we play “I spy…” It was Owen’s turn, and he said, “I spy something gray.” And Hayden shouted, “Daddy’s mini hair!” And we all burst out laughing. Bald jokes rank just below potty humor in our house:) One of the best things about children is that they teach us to laugh at ourselves–life’s too short to take it all so seriously.

To Owen On His Eighth Birthday

Dear Owen,

Today is your eighth birthday, and I  just wanted to share some observations with you about your life.

It seems like just yesterday I held your little body in my hands—my two hands!  Time DOES fly. It travels by leaps and bounds. You are eight today, and soon enough you will be in high school, med school, law school, then NASA…maybe I’m getting a little ahead of myself. The point is, life is fleeting. That’s why I make every effort to capture as much of this time that you and I have together. I am constantly saying to myself, “Remember this…remember this.” And I try.

I have certainly enjoyed the milestones with you– from teeth, to walking, to monkey bars, to bike riding. But it’s the small things that I love the most. Like the time I was putting you to bed and you discovered your shadow. You ran back and forth from the night light to the closet for a half hour straight. Or how you became our little TV junky from the moment I plopped you in front of Baby Einstein at a few weeks old. Or how you make up all these crazy rap song rhymes and sing them over and over; or how we tease you for staring in the mirror of the hutch in the dining room when we have dinner; or how you still carry a wooby to bed and suck your fingers (I know, we’re working on it); or how,  sometimes, when I’m driving, I’ll reach back to hold your hand (I’ve done this since you were a toddler) and you still let me hold it; or how you create all these amazing abstract drawings out of your imagination. But what I love best about you is your sense of wonder. You have such a cool perspective on the world, and I am humbled and privileged to be able to see this world through your eyes. Through your lens, my world is brighter, more magnified.

Your fresh perspective prompted me to begin a journal a few years ago of quotes you and Hayden say.  Here are some examples to help you appreciate what I mean about your viewpoint:

“Daddy—even when I grow up and I become a daddy, you’ll still take care of me right?” “I sure will, Owen.” It was this question from you that prompted me to keep a quote journal. We were driving in the car. You were five. And out of the blue, you just asked me this. Tears instantly shot into my eyes. Hearing you ask this made me realize the magnitude of bringing another person into this world. And even though you will grow up and find your independence, I will always take care of you, and you of me. Family takes care of each other. Always.

“Daddy, watch this. I’m gonna run faster than the rain drops.” What I love about this quote is that your 6 year old self believed it could really outrun the rain. Nothing is impossible when you are young. It is because of this belief, that I have been able to steal a little magic from you. Nothing is impossible if you believe in yourself. Thank you for reminding me of this.

“You have to eat your breakfast or you won’t be strong and brave.” Owen, you are a true first born—you have such a sense of duty and responsibility. You said this to Hayden, who was refusing to eat his breakfast. And you said it with such conviction. You do try to be so brave. You always have. I remember one of your first haircuts. We went to an unfamiliar barber shop (since bald daddy hadn’t needed a barber in years:) There was one old man and he was kindof scary, and the place reeked of his cigarette smoke. You were the only customer. He was pretty gruff, but was trying to be gentle. You kept looking at me for reassurance, and you held it together until the very end. When he whipped out the clippers and started buzzing your neck, you began to bawl. I was so impressed that you hung in there for as long as you did–don’t worry, we never went back there. My brave boy. Keep eating your breakfast, buddy.

Owen: And when I’m 900, I’ll go up to heaven so I can come back down as a puppy dog.

Mommy: And maybe I’ll come back as a kitty cat so you can chase me.

Owen: No! I don’t want to chase Mommy.

Mommy: Maybe I’ll be a dog, too, so we can snuggle.

Owen: Yeah, you’ll be one, too, and Daddy and Hayden and Rufus (our actual dog). Pause. What do we look like in heaven?

Mommy: Some people think we look like angels, you know, with wings.

Owen: Cool!

What I find so moving about this conversation is that kids are simply matter of fact about death. When you said this, I laughed at the thought that you would live to be 900 years old, and then I was sad that we won’t be together forever. That is a sad reality. But I promise you this. For all the time we have left, I will always love you, and I will always be here for you. Mommy and I are so lucky to have found each
other, and then to have had you and Hayden.

I hope someday you will read this. And you won’t hate me for embarrassing you, or roll your eyes at how corny I am. Remember, life is short. And we only get so much time to say the things we want to say. I am so excited to share this day with you, and the year ahead, and as much time as we will have. You will always be my little Owee. I love you, buddy. I hope you continue to find life to be very captivating, as you have captivated us for these past eight years.

Love always,


Froggy Went a Corpsin’

The tragedy occurred around bedtime. Pam called me from upstairs, in an  I’m trying not to sound panicked tone. “Honey, come up here please.” “Okay,” I said from the computer with the hope that my response bought me five more minutes. “NOW!” she repeated urgently.

I rushed up the stairs. “What? What is it?” Pam and the boys were all standing outside of Hayden’s room. “It’s the frogs,” she said. The frogs were technically Hayden’s, a gift from his godmother three years ago. Fred and Shaggy, named after THAT Fred and Shaggy. Pam didn’t need to say anything else. I could see Caterina, one of our two cats, licking her paws and her chops. “Caterina ate the frogs,” Hayden wailed. “Oh, no! I’m so sorry, Hayd.” He had buried himself in Pam’s arms. “Why doesn’t everyone go brush their teeth, and I’ll clean up the mess,” I offered.

I surveyed the crime scene. The lid to the frog tank had been knocked off. Puddles of water and red pebbles were strewn across the top of the dresser. There was Owen, hot on my heels. “Do you think they’re dead, Dad? Do you think she ate them?” “I’m not sure, O, but you should be brushing your teeth.” Then, a discovery. “Look! There’s one on the floor,” he said. And indeed there was one of the frogs, dead in the center of the room. But Hayden’s cries had just subsided, and I didn’t want this to start another round of sobbing. “That’s frog poop, Owen. Now get out of here and let me clean up.” At this point, Pam was in the doorway looking at me. As Owen passed by her he said, “Well, that poop has arms and legs.” Dammit, I hate when kids are right.

I scooped the frog up in some tissues and flushed it down the toilet when the boys were finished in the bathroom. I ran the frogless tank down to the laundry room in the basement, where I emptied the remaining murky water into the laundry tub. Well, this is one way to get me to clean the tank, I thought. Then, I bagged the tank and threw it away in the outside garbage.

Back upstairs, Hayden railed against Caterina. “Stupid cat! I hate you!” “She didn’t mean it, Hayd. That’s what cats do.” Little consolation for a six year old. “Get out of my room!” he yelled to her. And that was the funny thing–she wouldn’t leave his room. She remained under the bureau on the damp rug, licking the walls. “Do you think the other one’s under there?” Pam asked. “No, she ate it,” I said. “Now let’s get these guys to bed. It’s late.”

About an hour later, we both emerged from the boys’ rooms, having fallen asleep with them once again. We had been looking forward to watching the season premiere of HOMELAND on Showtime all day, and we weren’t going to let a few deaths spoil our evening. These days, we don’t watch a lot of TV, so when we find a show that we must see, it’s a big deal. I insist we watch it on the big screen in the basement. So, we get our snacks, turn out the lights, and curl up on the couch for some nice suburban escapism.

HOMELAND is a show about terrorism and a turned U.S. Marine. It is edge-of-your-seat viewing, and the season opener did not disappoint: chase scenes, new villains, and more secret alliances. As we sat there engrossed, Pam shot up in her seat. “Holy shit! I think I just saw a frog out of the corner of my eye.” “Shut up!” I say. “A frog or a grasshopper,” she says. “Are you messing with me?” “NO!” We pause the show and stand up. And then. And…then… “OH MY GOD! IT’S THE FROG!” she yells.

Screams. Loud screams. Loud, curse-filled screams from both of us. Have you ever been involved with the death of a small creature, but it totally wreaks havoc on your mental state? Back from the dead images, from all the horror movies of my youth, flood my warped brain: Night of the Living Dead, Creepshow, Pet Cemetery. Fred or Shaggy “hops” lamely in our direction and Pam bolts up the stairs. “I can’t do this,” she hollers. “Come on,” I say. “Don’t leave me here.” From the other side of the door, she exclaims, “I don’t do animals.” “Oh, really, but what, if it was a human you’d pick up the body?” I say in disgust.

“We should put it out of its misery, right?” I ask from the bottom of the steps, where I am now alone (sort of). “I guess,” she says. “Well, get me some tissues and I’ll take care of it.” She finally gives in, but by then I’ve lost sight of him. We spend the next 10 minutes moving furniture, blankets and toys, and still no Fredshaggy. “I guess the cats will get him,” I say, hopefully. “What if the boys find him first?” Pam wonders. We are at a loss on what to do, so we decide to at least finish HOMELAND–standing up, of course. There was literally one minute left. As we turn off the TV, Pam yells, “There he is!” “Where?” “Right next to the Bat Cave.” Sure enough, there he was. His one leg clearly maimed and his froggy skin covered in lint from the carpet. “Sorry about this, buddy,” I say.

After I finish flushing my second frog of the evening, Pam and I try to piece together the events. CSI we ain’t. Theory 1: Caterina used him as her springy plaything, and eventually brought him down to the basement while we were watching the show; Theory 2: I accidentally dumped him out in the laundry tub when I was pouring out the gross frog water. Whatever the scenario, we are exhausted.

“Oh, no,” Pam cries from the dining room. “What now?” I ask. “Rufus (our yellow Lab) just ate an entire bag of Milano cookies.” “Oh, well, he’ll be fine.” “Honey, they have chocolate in them. Dogs can die from chocolate.” “He’s not going to die,” I say, on no particular authority. “But, if we wake up, and he is dead, then it’s your turn to pick up the body.” I turn into a petulant child. I begin my rant about the manliest job expected out of a husband and father–taking out the dead. “I had to do the frogs tonight, that dead deer on the lawn this summer, and every damn spider that comes in this house!” As I list my corpses, Pam looks at me with that look that says, Yep, and I married him folks.

It’s been two days since the event, and not one word from the boys about the frogs. I thought for sure I would have to run out the next day with them for the replacements, Velma and Daphne to be sure. But neither one has said a thing. Which is fine by us. We were outnumbered by the pets in our house since getting the kittens last summer. This puts the human/animal ratio back in our favor at 4:3. And that suits us just fine. For now.