life

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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The Secret Life of …Build-a-Bear

Now that my boys are getting older, I am confronted by contradictions daily. My sons act too cool when it comes to wearing helmets, but want the Scooby-Doo band-aids when they fall and get hurt. My nine-year-old, Owen, uses AXE hair gel to spike his, yet still wants us to tie his shoes. His seven-year-old brother, Hayden, hates to bathe, but still could spend hours in a bath playing with the pirate tub toys we’ve had since he was two.

Yesterday was a perfect reminder of how interesting it is watching my children grow up–right before my eyes. All year the boys have been mentioning wanting to get stuffed animals from Build-a-Bear. Secretly, I’d roll my eyes, smirk, and think to myself: “Seriously, you want another stuffed animal at your age?” We held them off until the holiday season, but they were still talking about it. Hence, Hayden “adopted” one on our New York City excursion. Mushroom photo (37)Thomas Trainer was born at the best toy hospital money can buy–FAO Schwarz. Owen did not have enough allowance then, so he received a gift card from my in-laws on Christmas. Fifty dollars–for a stuffed animal!! If I think about it too much, I’ll get sick.

That’s part of my problem. Even though we may be fortunate enough to afford a nice lifestyle and give the boys things they want (or ask my in-laws to) I have always had a problem with spending money, stemming from my childhood: Part Catholic guilt, part anxiety that my parents could not afford to do things for all seven of us–which adds up to never feeling worthy of such luxuries. Having children has forced me to confront this–a lot!

For years, I would play the saboteur, ruining experiences, or at least putting a damper on them, because I had unresolved feelings about money and spending. I would complain or deny under the guise of not wanting to spoil my kids or claiming we couldn’t justify the expense, but really it was guilt and shame on my part. It has only been more recently in my parenting journey that I have tried to be more fluid in my responses and reactions: To “go with the flow.” To choose the path of least resistance. I have certainly seen the benefits of this attitude.

So, that’s how I accepted the fact that my boys wanted bears, and that was fine by me. The insights I gained from this experience cost much less than a therapy session. First of all, I loved watching Hayden create his in New York. To watch him be so gentle and patient, to see the traits he selected for his bear’s personality: bravery, kindness, friendliness…reminded me of the hopes we all have for our loved ones. I was not there for Owen’s bear photo (36)yesterday–which is actually a mouse–and it’s probably better that I wasn’t: “Does he really need 2 outfits?” “No, you are NOT getting a Bear-Pad (fake I-pad) for this thing, it’s already too expensive.” I avoided such confrontations, and instead enjoyed meeting my son’s newest charge at home, and delighting in the fact that Owen chose to name him Rufus, in honor of the yellow labrador we lost earlier this year.

Yes, this Build-a-Bear experience was reaffirming in a weird, albeit corporate sort of way. But it forced me to consider and re-consider my job as a father. Often, I feel it’s my place to be the heavy, to say “NO!”, to have them act tough, to suck it up, to prepare them for a world that tells them to “man up.” But that’s where the contradiction comes in. They are not men. They are boys. They are only seven and nine. And in the end, I’d rather them still want to cling to a stuffed animal than to a remote control while playing Call of Duty Black OPs, or the latest gadget that our culture says ALL kids MUST have (I-pod Touch, anyone?).  No, if my kids still want to act their age, then who am I to stop them?

Which brings me to the second half of our day yesterday. The contradiction. The part where Owen and I went to see The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.The_Secret_Life_of_Walter_Mitty_poster It was pouring rain–the perfect afternoon to sit in a dark, warm movie theatre. I was excited because it was only PG. The movie, starring Ben Stiller and Kristen Wiig, is a remake and a reboot of the Danny Kaye classic, based on a James Thurber short story. On the way there, Owen asks me why I love movies so much. “I love the escape,” I tell him. “I love the way you can be transported to another time and place, a different world, for a few hours. And you know how I teach English? Well, I love the idea of storytelling, the art of storytelling.” I actually said the “art” of storytelling. I knew he had probably tuned me out by then, but it was cool to share these thoughts with him.

It was also cool to watch HIM watch the movie. As Walter envisioned scaling sky scrapers and later scaled the Himalayas for “real”, I watched Owen’s eyes widen as he sat, riveted, for two hours. How he laughed at the right parts, and gasped at the thrilling parts, and even grunted in agreement at the end when Walter calls his boss, his nemesis, a dick. (Hmm, didn’t know he knew that word). This boy, who had just hours ago been picking out PJs for his new toy, was now watching a movie that dealt with the harsh realities of life: loneliness, death, and the downsizing of corporate America.  A movie that also showed him glimpses of how tender new love can be, how amazing the world is and the beauty that can be found in our backyard or half-way round the globe.

As we watched the film, I was a sap (and a bit foggy from the night before)–tearing up at various parts that resonated with me: the relationship between a father and son, the unrealized dreams one must confront in middle age, the fear we all have of living life to the fullest extent possible. But they were also tears of joy, thinking about the path that lies ahead for my sons. Of all the lands that they have yet to encounter, of the relationships that they will discover (and lose) along the way, of the bridge we all build between our dreams and our reality.

AS we drove home, we talked about our favorite parts: Owen liked the imaginary battle between Walter and his boss through downtown Manhattan; I liked the scene where Walter skateboards down a winding road through the mountains of Iceland. Our discussion ended with his seal of approval: “Good movie, Dad. That was cool–really cool.” I nodded in agreement.

Yesterday, as I confronted these contradictions, indeed, embraced them, I hugged my son a little tighter, and he hugged his new buddy, Rufus, a little tighter, and we both held firm to the hope and promise that life has to offer.

And that’s exactly where we both should be at this point in our lives.

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.

The Bitter Pill of Aging

Two dollars and forty-nine cents. That’s all my most recent depression cost me. Lately, I’ve been down. The reason? I’m starting to feel old–I mean FEEL it.

Ever since I turned forty, my stance has been, “I love getting older. It gives me more of a perspective. More wisdom.” But now that I’m forty-four, I’m not so sure.

I dodged feeling sad last year when my eye sight changed. Maybe because they now call them “progressives” instead of “bifocals“, and technology has erased any trace of a line within the lens, my shift in eye sight seemed like just the latest change to my prescription.

And despite the fact that my now-favorite co-worker Bev called me a baby on my recent birthday, I feel I can’t hide from this aging thing any longer.

And that’s why I ended up buying this:

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I only take one prescribed pill a day, but I also take some vitamins and supplements, like fish oil to fight high cholesterol. And sometimes I’d forget to take my medicine, and a few times I took it twice. Other times, I would mess up and mistake a vitamin for my prescription… I was careless and clueless.  I’ve needed this for about five years now. I knew it would help me avoid any mix-ups. But I put it off. Getting a pill dispenser meant I was old. O-L-D!

Yet, the reminders just kept coming.

A few weeks ago, I was talking to some younger teachers at work, both in their twenties, and I started to say, “Just wait until your middle-aged like me.” And I had a mini-panic attack. As the words were about to roll off of my tongue, I realized that I had never actually called myself “middle-aged”. My lips became stuck and I  actually stuttered when I started to say mmmmmiddle-aged. Awkward.

Another day, while food shopping, I had to crouch down to get a box of crackers on the bottom shelf. My left knee locked and pain seemed to cement my leg in this position. I could not stand up. I could not straighten my leg. “This is it,” I thought, “I will now have to live in aisle five for the rest of my life.” Luckily, the hurt subsided. But since then, I avoid any crouching tiger positions–although there’s no avoiding aisle five.

Then, I decided to grow a beard for Movember to promote men’s prostate health–and it came in mostly white! One of my students even called me Santa Claus. “I think you mean Santa’s younger, skinnier brother,” I replied.  I wanted to shave it off right away. Damn you beard-for-a-good-cause.

And last week, I had my first migraine. I used to be one of those people who could say, “I don’t get migraines.” Oh, yeah, old man, well now you do. A friend told me that her doctor said that migraines can come on during shifts in one’s life cycle. “And, you know, maybe you’re getting them now because…” Pause. “Because I’m mmmmmiddle-age!” I yell back at her. “Well, maybe,” she says softly.

Then there are the boys. My sons are getting so big. Too big. I know they’ll be taller than me by middle school, and lately they walk around the house like they are auditioning for the role of sullen teenager on next year’s answer to Modern Family. They are content to play on their own. They watch TV and wrestle. I’m more of the guy who brings them Chex Mix or announces when dinner will be. My babies are now young boys–nine and seven.

Recently, several friends have announced that they are expecting. Great news. Yet, soon after learning it, I found myself sad. I’m done having babies. I no longer spend time in the rocker dozing with a drooling child snug in my neck. Everyone uses a toilet successfully (for the most part). Nothing in my house says “Fisher Price“. I am barely able to carry the boys in my arms–not that either of them begs to be lifted. It’s going too fast!!

I knew it was bad, when last week I actually toyed with the idea of having another child. I have adamantly held firm to the idea that two kids is plenty for me. Being one of seven, I like the balance and order that two children (seemingly) affords. Pam and I have always talked about adoption, though, even before we had the boys.  All week, I daydreamed about having a baby in the house. I mused about having a girl this time, and furnishing the now-guest-bedroom with borrowed items from friends and neighbors.

But then I did the numbers. Our youngest is seven, we’re forty-four, I haven’t had to get up at 2 a.m. for a feeding in 5 years. And I would be sixty-two at little Charlotte‘s senior year Back to School night. I’m already tired–now Lottie was beginning to exhaust me.  In the end, reality won over fantasy. Yet, one thing became clear. One of the reasons I’ve been feeling old lately is because it seems as if my kids don’t need me like they used to. They are more independent and I’m a little lonely. Sure, I’m their chauffeur, their human calculator at homework time, and number one fan at Saturday soccer, but it’s not the same as cradling someone you love in your arms, or holding someone’s hand just because, or singing them to sleep.

The other night, when I was being drill sergeant in the bathroom about brushing teeth, the boys and I were thinking of words that rhyme with “brush”. I said, “hush”. Then, I began to sing Hush little baby don’t say a word, papa’s gonna buy you a mocking bird...  Hayden looked at me wonderingly. “I used to sing that song to you when you were a baby,” I said. He nodded, toothpaste foaming in his mouth. A few moments later, when his older brother had left the bathroom, he tugged my arm and whispered, “Could you sing that song to me tonight in my bed?” “I sure can,” I whispered back.

And that’s exactly what I did. I curled in next to him and sang him that song, then a few others from my repertoire from his younger days: “Molly Malone“, “Feed the Birds“, and “Shenandoah”. I think he was asleep after two songs, but I didn’t care. I wanted to linger. Then, I crept out of his room and down the stairs. In the kitchen, I went to the cabinet and opened the W on my pillbox. More certain about things than I’d been in weeks.

“I’m pregnant and I know it!”

The movie Pitch Perfect, which spawned the “Cups” phenomenon, is hysterical. Yet, I don’t think it’s something that my kids should watch.MV5BMTcyMTMzNzE5N15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNzg5NjM5Nw@@._V1_ But they did, at a family party this summer with their cousins. No big deal. They watched it again with the babysitter a few weeks ago. She asked if they were allowed, and they said sure, they had already seen it. Since then, they are obsessed with it. They love Fat Amy, and they come home from school and put on song clips from YouTube. As far as I’m concerned, what’s done is done.  Now, the three of us can be found in various states of a cappella singing parts of the “Since You’ve Been Gone” audition scene. Hayden loves to mimic Amy fixing her boobs before she belts out her line. I can’t help but laugh.

It’s a weird world to navigate. The whole concept of sex, and curse words, and innuendo. Truthfully, I’m more offended by some of the exploitation on The Disney Channel than the stuff found in movies like Pitch Perfect. But it’s made for some interesting conversation. Like: “Guys, you can’t pretend to have boobs and adjust them”; or “No, you can’t watch the scene where they sing songs about sex”; or “Now, just cause they say these words in a movie, doesn’t mean you’re allowed to say them.” The funny thing is, I’m an English teacher. I love words. I do not want to back down from a conversation about words. And I don’t.

Yesterday, we were watching a clip from the movie, and Amy says the word “bitch”. I say, “You know we can’t say that word, right?” Owen says, “pitch”?  “No, the B word.” “What’s the B word?” asks Hayden. “It rhymes with pitch,” I say. “Bitch!” Owen says excitedly. “Yeah, but spell it, don’t say it,” I instruct. “B-I-T-C-H,” he replies. “You don’t have to spell it (correctly, I might add) now,” I say. They giggle.

As a child, I was terrified of being heard saying a curse word. I would not ask my parents what a word meant, and thought every bad word I uttered was one step closer to H-E-double hockey sticks. But it’s cool being on this side of things. Knowing that I am the gatekeeper for knowledge when it comes to curse words, and sex, and life. I am not foolish enough to think that they won’t find some (hopefully not most) of their education in the schoolyard, on the bus, or the internet, but I do plan on being a voice in the fray. Now, I marvel at their naiveté. I smile at their innocence. And I cringe a little at how to approach their inquiries.

Take today. We are in the woods walking the dogs, and Hayden starts quoting lines from Pitch Perfect. “Dad, I love the part when Fat Amy says [pause]. Now, I’m going to say ‘beach’ even though it’s the other B word, okay?” “Okay,” I say. He delivers the line. Owen pipes in, “What does the B word even mean?” “It’s so stupid,” I say. “It means ‘a female dog‘.” We all look at our little black Lab, Rosie, and laugh. “Language is strange, guys. The world decides that certain words are wrong or bad, and it’s important to know that if you say them, you will get in trouble, or people will look down on you. If you called someone a female dog, they would look at you and think you were weird. But if you call someone a bitch you’d get punished. Most curses are words that we have other words for. Ask me some?” They oblige.

“The s-h- word means poop, right?” Owen asks.

“Yeah,” I say. “You can say poop and no one cares, but if you say S-H-I-T you’re in trouble.”

“But crap means poop, too.” Hayden says, trying to reassure himself.

“Yep. And we don’t say that.” I love that they think crap is a curse word. The other day, my friend dropped his son off to play with the boys. As he was leaving, Hayden came out to the driveway and said, “Mr. Bill, Thomas just said the C word.” We both looked at each other wide-eyed. “What’s the C word, Hayden?” he asked. “C-R-A-P,” he spells. Relieved, I say, “Tell him not to say it–you don’t need to run and tell us.” Phew–I was not ready for that conversation.

The boys are now excited about our discussion. Owen says, “Well, what about F-U-C-K?” I’m sad that he’s heard this word–even if he’s just heard it spelled, which I doubt–but I do have to admit it is very cute when he spells it. Oh, boy, I think. I’m searching for words. “It means sex,” I say. (I decide to save the conversation about Fornication Under Control of the King or For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge for another walk.) “You mean pregnant?” Owen asks. “Yeah,” I say slowly, contemplating how far I want to go, and also unsure how he connected the two. “So, Mommy was sexed?” Hayden asks. “Um-hmm,” I say, stifling my laughter. “Mommy was sexed!” Owen says. They crack up laughing. I try to keep the educational tenor of the conversation. “And I don’t really like that so many songs mention sex, and you guys go around singing the word sexy. Like from that song, ‘I’m Sexy and I Know It’.” They are jumping with excitement. This topic has made them more playful than our puppies a few yards ahead. Hayden revs up to do one of his dance moves. He leaps in the air, lands with arms outstretched, then he belts out, in tune, “I’m pregnant and I know it.”

That’s enough sex talk for one day.

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.

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Image 1,2,and 4 courtesy of Johnson Cameraman

Image 3 courtesy of Lego-wiki

Portrait of an Artist as a Weird Man: Now with Man Boobs

manboobs

My son Owen’s latest rendition of me. This was a quick sketch he did the other night to delay going to bed. You can tell it’s summer because he drew me shirtless (which I was not at the time) and he has me wearing shorts. This is his first attempt at giving me hair all over: On my legs it looks a bit like lacy ballet slippers; my beard is actually just a few days of summer scruff, and my chest hair looks like a tattoo of an oak tree. Also, his attempt at giving me pecs makes it appear as if I am in the middle of a gender reassignment–I am not:) Owen is very cute, though. He said, “I’m going to draw you thinking about your 2 favorite things–coffee and cake.” And I think that’s a book flying towards my hands. Got to admit, this boy knows his father–even if he still gives him the arms of a T-Rex.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Caution: Lifeguard on Duty Will Break Your Heart.

It is the summer of 1977. Our nation has finally recovered from all of the hullabaloo surrounding The Bicentennial. Disco Fever will soon take to the dance floor as everyone tries to imitate John Travolta‘s finger pointing. And WiFi 92 FM still can’t get enough of Paul McCartney and The Wings singing about “Silly Love Songs“: You’d think that people would have had enough of silly love songs…But I look around me and I see it isn’t so…

 I find this song rather fitting because, you see, I am in love. Yes, I am eight years old, and I have fallen in love. Her name is Lynn. She is sweet, pretty and kind. Her brown, shoulder-length curls are sun-kissed with streaks of blonde; her long limbs are the color of caramel; her smile, electric. Lynn is probably around twenty, but age does not matter. I love her, and that’s all there is to it.

swim-19918_640I met Lynn at our swim club, Sunny Willow. She is a lifeguard there. I watch her sit atop the chair, ready to risk her life to save another’s. Occasionally, I get up the nerve to smile at her when I walk by her as she switches from guarding the shallow end to the deep end. I may even say “Hi” to her when I am coming back from the snack bar with two fistfuls of Swedish Fish–a penny each, and I buy a dollars worth. Her smile back gives me hope–she looks like the kind of woman who would wait–if the right man boy comes along.

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

“Michael, you have to take swim lessons this summer.” My mother announces this as we are driving to the pool in our purple station wagon.

“No way! I can swim.”

“Well, you need to get better.  I’m signing you up,” she insists.

I feel a nervous pang in the pit of my stomach. I still associate swim lessons with my horrible incident at the local high school–the one where I went to the bathroom in the pool. (Read about that here). I’ve all but put it out of my memory. I try to relax. After all, I am older and wiser–and in love. Then, I have an epiphany: maybe I will have Lynn as my instructor!

“Okay, sign me up!”

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

The list is posted on the bulletin board by the showers. The gods look upon me favorably–Poseidon…Neptune…they’ve felt the pangs of love that I now feel. They know what it’s like to be under a siren’s spell. I see my name on the list, and above it my instructor’s: L-Y-N-N.

For two weeks, I float on air. I jump from my trundle bed and eat my Alpha-Bits with my bathing suit on, anxiously awaiting to be driven to the pool. I spend every weekday morning with Lynn. For forty-five minutes she and I (okay, and about 6 other kids) swim together in the cool morning breeze.

Some people wanna fill the world with silly love songs.
And what’s wrong with that?
I’d like to know, ’cause here I go again

I hum the tune and repeat the lyrics in my mind, as I wait at the water’s edge for Lynn to take my arms and bring me out to examine my technique. I lay on my back in the water and feel Lynn’s hands supporting my head. “Kick,” she commands. And I obey. I kick with all my might. I look up at the blue sky, and feel as if I am already in heaven. I wish this moment could last forever. “Good job,” she says, releasing my head, and I swim back to the others, beaming with pride.

I love you, I love you,
I love you, I love you…and I do. I’m not sure what it all means, but I feel the fire in my stomach; I feel my heart beat faster when she is near. And as a result, I want so badly to impress her. To awe her. Maybe it’s foolish to think she can love a scrawny eight year-old, but perhaps she will fall in love with my form. So I swim with all the bravado that my chicken legs can muster, I splash my tiny arms with the might of ten Olympians. Lynn praises me–well, all of us. She smiles, and nods, and says how well we are all doing. And after lessons, I get to hang around the pool all day. I practice the movements as she explained them, and I do so in earnest, hoping she will notice me as she tends to her other life-gaurding duties.

I can’t explain the feeling’s plain to me, say can’t you see?
Ah, she gave me more, she gave it all to me
Now can’t you see,

The weeks go by too quickly, and before I know it, our last lesson has arrived. It is bittersweet. My time with Lynn will be less, but I feel I have greatly improved as a swimmer, and no one can take away this bond we have formed. As I enter the gate for our final class, I run immediately into her: my instructor, my muse.

“Hi, Michael!”

“Hi,” I say, sheepishly.

“I’m glad to see you. I wanted to talk to you about something before our last lesson.”

“Sure,” I say. An award, I think. I’m getting an award!  I have impressed Lynn so much that she wants to reward my efforts. This is the beginning of our future together. We will open a swimming school and spend our summers training kids–underprivileged kids– to be as skilled as we are.

“Why don’t we sit over here?” she asks.

We approach a picnic table and sit across from one another. Her eyes look especially green against the painted tabletop. Her white teeth dazzle me. An award! In my mind, I try to think of the title for my award: Most Improved…no…Fastest Swimmer…no… Most Likely to make the Olympics…I have a dazed smile on my face, but Lynn’s face does not mirror mine. She is not smiling. In fact, she seems to be frowning. I begin to tune in to her words: “I’m sorry, but you’re going to have to repeat the lessons. I cannot pass you this time. You’re just not ready.” I say nothing, just nod slowly. “Okay?” she says, tilting her head. “Um-hmm,” I lie. I am not okay. A minute ago I was captain of the swim team, standing on my diving block waiting to take the gold. Now, I am a dejected loser.

Lynn and I get up from the table and make our way to the pool. She puts her arm on my shoulder, but inside I recoil. It’s too late. I cannot bear her touch now. I am nothing but a disappointment to her. I spend our final class togetherswimming-97509_640 sulking. My movements are sluggish, slow. Every splash of water laughs at me mockingly. My heart is too heavy to swim, to float. The woman I love does not love me back–cannot love me back. She cannot even find it in her heart to pass me in swim class.

Love doesn’t come in a minute,
sometimes it doesn’t come at all
I only know that when I’m in it
It isn’t silly, no, it isn’t silly, 
love isn’t silly at all.

Flying the Friendly Skies–Yes, this IS a feel good story that involves air travel!

As the boys get older, air travel becomes easier. We load them up with Motrin for their ears, sugar for their mouths, and every electronic device their grubby hands can hold, and before we know it–we’re there.

We all know how much flying sucks, and anyone who has to travel with kids is exponentially cursed. I have referred to vacations with children simply as HELL in a different location. Two years ago, we flew to Disney World in a horrible storm. It was incredibly bumpy, and both boys were screaming and crying so loudly that I yelled out, “Would someone shut those kids up?” Those around me laughed nervously. It was such a chaotic landing that I was actually hoping the plane would crash and put me out of my misery.  We landed safely, as you’ve probably guessed, with both boys huddled on the floor–yes, the floor of our row, and Hayden passed out asleep from the trauma of it all.  Welcome to “the happiest place on Earth.”

The day we left for St. Thomas was bright and sunny with a clear blue sky. The boys acted like old pros, having flown half a dozen times in their lives. It wasn’t the nightmare I’d remembered.  It helps that people are nicer to you when you fly with kids. The TSA agents let you go in a special line, people let you board before them on the plane, and even the flight attendants  seem nicer to you when you have kids–they know! As we walked onto the plane, one of the female attendants greeted the boys and was drawn to the colorful array on Owen’s wrist. “Cool bracelets!” she said. “Thanks,” he replied. “Where did you get them?” “I made them.” “Wow, very neat.” Nice lady. She made the boys and me feel instantly relaxed as we made our way to the very back of the plane, aka turbulent central. PAUSE…

download (2)The next part of our story is brought to you by Rainbow Loom–the “IT” accessory this summer. Invented by someone who probably has cases of leftover silly bands from 2010’s craze. Theseimages are the hottest item among kids 5 to 15. Guys and girls alike wear them with a sense of entitlement. For those of you of a certain age–think back to the frenzy involving summer’s hottest must-have–the pet rock, for example, or the invisible dog on the leash. Hayden received the Rainbow Loom as a gift for his birthday and both boys have been looming ever since.  My wife and I have even been sporting them with our beach wear. We. Are. Cool.

As the flight attendant, Patty, serves us our “free” drinks, she says “And these are for the guys with the cool bracelets.” We smile, and I hint to Owen how it might be nice if he gave her one. He contemplates it, then it’s forgotten for a little while. The plane lands. The flight was smooth and uneventful.  As we make our way to the front and say goodbye to the flight staff, I watch Owen peel a bracelet off his wrist and hand it to Patty. “Would you like to have one of these?” “Oh my gosh! Really? You are very sweet. Thank you.” “You’re welcome.” Everyone is smiling. Patty seems amused and surprised at this small gesture. I pat Owen’s shoulder as we walk down the stairs, “Proud of you, Owen.”

Flash forward one week. We have throughly enjoyed our stay in the Virgin Islands. We are relaxed, tan, well fed and rested. Yet, as we make our way through the airport to return home, my mood quickly sours as I am reminded just how shitty air travel has become: the computer at self check-in that doesn’t work; the customs card I need to fill out even though I never left the US (It’s called the United States Virgin Islands, dammit); the TSA agent yelling his friendly reminders about removing all lap tops; the customs agent who acts annoyed with us for not having the boys’ birth certificates even though we were told we didn’t need them; Hayden, our seven-year-old, who can’t seem to remember our phone number or his birthdate when grilled by said agent; having to take off our shoes; the guy behind me pushing my plastic bins on the conveyor belt when I’m still unloading my pockets… By the time I reach the waiting area, I am in a foul mood. Countless hours of sun and fun seem to be a distant memory. I need a drink!

As we step onto the plane, our eyes widen. “Helloooo!” It’s the same flight attendant from our trip down, Patty. In fact, it appears to be the same flight crew. “I remember you,” she says to Owen. Owen blushes. Throughout the entire flight, Patty dotes on us. When she serves our drinks, she greets us with “and what can I get for my three favorite guys?” We all smile broadly. I respond, “We’ll take an apple juice, a Sprite, and a  Bloody Mary for me.” (Hey, it’s the end of my vacation). As I go to hand her my credit card, she says, “This one’s on me.” I protest. “No, this is for having such nice boys. I’ll be back in a few with cookies.” This makes the boys lift their heads out of DS land–cookies! I spend the next few minutes trying to impress upon Owen how cool this experience is. “Do you believe this? You never know when you will meet someone again. That’s why it’s important to be nice…to do nice things for people. It makes them want to do nice things.” I want to tell him all my favorite sayings on the subject–about crossing the same bridge, about karma, about the kindness of strangers, and paying it forward. I resist such pontificating, but he gets the message loud and clear. He understands. I see it on his face when he comes back from the bathroom. “These are from Patty,” he says holding a big can of Pringles. The same look returns when we are leaving the plane and Patty gives him a bag of treats in a special airline bag. “Be sure to share this with your brother.” “I will.” I am so dumbfounded by all of this kindness, that I lamely try to explain it to the couple behind us. They smile and nod. I want everyone to know. I want to shout it: “Be nice, people! When you’re nice it makes others nice!”

I’ve thought about this experience for the last few days. I love that Owen was taught such a valuable lesson, one I believe will have a lasting impression on him. I am reminded that the smallest gestures can have an impact beyond one’s understanding. I am grateful for all the Patties out there who have to endure a lot of unkindness in their jobs, and through it all they smile and show they care. I have never flown first class, but that day we were treated as such.

So, that’s my feel good story. We had a wonderful trip to an exotic island, yet my highlight occurred in the airport. For those of you who would like a little glimpse into our time there, I leave you with Hayden’s first grade report on our vacation. Although written before we left, it’s amazing how accurate his predictions were–all except room service. I’ve never had room service in my life, so I’m a little miserly about letting them have it. Is that unkind?

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st thomas etc 600These smiles make me forget the Hellish parts:) Note Hayden’s bracelets.