New York

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.

A Picture’s Worth?

They say a picture’s worth a thousand words. I disagree. I say a picture’s worth about five words, and often those words are inaccurate. I came to this realization after our family ventured to New York City for a weekend of Christmas cheer. We had tickets to a 9 a.m. (yes, a.m.) show of The Radio City Christmas Spectacular on Sunday morning, so we decided to go up on Saturday and ring-a-ling some Christmastime in the city. My wife’s parents met us in Manhattan.

On the train ride back that snowy Sunday afternoon, I posted this picture on Facebook:

photo (35)

It received the most likes I’ve gotten all year (over 90!). Yet, as I looked at the photo, and the sweet comments from my FB family, I felt like a bit of a fraud. “Beautiful family,” said my friend, Barb. Thanks, Barb. I agree.

However, there is so much more to the story than the pictures we post on any social media outlet. Think about that profile picture you just updated with a shot of your Christmas tree. Any fights happen during the decorating? Or, what ugly comment fell out of your mouth while trying to get your kids to look perfect for the family photos of the now obligatory holiday card?

Yes, this picture captured some of the fun, and all of the magic that the Big Apple has to offer during the holiday season, but it did not tell the whole story–the thousand words were far from that photo. For this picture was taken only an hour after my son said the ugliest thing he’s ever said to me, and I responded in (un)kind.

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New York City is one of my favorite spots, and as I get older, I think of it as home to the world. I love the feeling of belonging I get when I’m in New York.  The city makes me feel alive. However, the city with 2 young boys can make me feel suicidal. Beyond the complaining about walking (“My pants are hurting”) and the cold (“I can’t feel my neck”), there is the constant worry that one of your kids may die! My darling son thought it was funny to run ahead to the corner of every street, threatening to step into oncoming traffic. If I had a dollar for every time I yelled “Hayden” as he approached a cross walk, I would have been able to stay at The Four Seasons rather than The Courtyard Marriott. I knew it was bad when I started having fantasies about having an only child–or GASP none at all (only for the weekend, of course:). I would chastise myself mentally for thinking this, but then I would spy both kids walking zigzag down the block, stepping in everyone’s way, or brushing up against any surface in the hopes of ripping their brand new winter coats. Breathe, Michael. It’s the holidays. Enjoy this moment. Let them be kids… GET OFF THAT WALL NOW!

We packed a lot into one day. We marched our way up 5th Avenue and marveled at all of the glittering photo (34)storefront windows, and the dazzling display of wealth. We stood in line at FAO Schwarz and then beheld the most fantastical, over-indulgent toy store in the whole United States. Surprisingly, we convinced both boys that Radio City was our gift to them , and they could use their allowance to buy a toy (they get allowance for things like breathing and going to the bathroom inside the house). Hayden insisted we go to the Build-a-Bear factory to spend his allowance. As I watched the corporate bear adoption process, I was amazed at how sweet the whole experience felt. Then, more walking up to Rockefeller Center, aka Santa’s Insane Asylum. We’re talking throngs of people, hundreds packed so close together that even the Dalai Lama would feel claustrophobic.

I was relieved that we didn’t have any plans to ice skate, we were simply trying to view the tree and get to the LEGO store-which happened to be smack dab in the center of The Center! The store felt like Santa’s Workshop on Steroids. Owen planned on spending his money there, but after a half-hour of deliberation, we realized the line snaked around the store and down the stairs. I kid you not, it was probably a quarter-mile long. Bad Daddy came on the scene and said, “I’ll be happy to come tomorrow after the show, but we can’t wait in this line for an hour.” Tears. “The LEGO I really want is at the other place, but mom told me to wait til I came here.” “FAO Schwarz?” I ask. He nods. “I’ll take him back there,” says Pam. Had the madness seeped into her head? “Go for it,” I say. “Hayden and I will walk back to the hotel.” Which we did, after I got a Starbucks–no madhouse there, since there’s one on every corner in NYC.

Now a weekend in New York usually involves dinner and a show. However, when you have a seven and nine-year old, your dinner is at 6 p.m. and your show is at 9 the next morning. But reservations are still required, and we had them at a yummy spot called La Bonne Soupe. After a brief rest at the hotel, we headed back out into the bustle and walked up to the restaurant. I had been attempting to get a picture of photo (31)photo (30)the boys for our Christmas card all day, but Hayden insisted on making a goofy face in every photo. I tried on our walk to dinner, but he continued to smirk and squinch–not a genuine smile to be had. The restaurant was “cozy”, which is Manhattan for cramped, yet, the ambiance was warm and welcoming. The place is famous for their French Onion soup, and the menu was filled with many tempting dishes–which happened to come with a complimentary glass of wine. Sign me up. Although, at that point, I could have used a bottle or two.

Everyone was tired, but the boys were quickly fading. For Owen, fading means getting more quiet, for Hayden, fading means getting more obstinate. He refused to sit up, he was banging his plate and silver ware, and my mother-in-law had to ask him (politely) to get his hands out of his pants. All of this with the distraction of games on my I-Phone. It was early enough, and the place crowded enough, that he was not making a scene, but I was out of patience and he was out of time. I looked around the room, comforted by another family with two girls of similar ages to my sons, whose parents were hesitant but resigned to handing over their phones at the first sign of trouble.

Just then, a man sat down at the next table. He was older, well-dressed, and eating alone. Alone in a nice restaurant on a Saturday night–so why was I envious of him? Oh, I know why. The reason was kicking me under the table, trying to coerce me into downloading another frigging app to my phone. “No, Hayden,” I said, annoyed. He began to whine. “No!” He did the limb-flail on the booth seat. I was done with this behavior. I pulled one out of the Parenting Torture Manual: the under-the-table-pinch. He shot up, startled. Then, he realized what I did. I thought he might scream, upturn the table, chase me with a butter knife. But instead, he just hurled the meanest thing he’s ever said to me, right there in Manhattan, in front of all of us, including my in-laws. With quivering lips, he mumbled, “I wish you didn’t live with us,” with such dramatic flair that I would swear he’s been watching Lifetime TV movies.

And my response. My response? I looked at him, and with a measured tone said, “Oh, yeah, well guess what? When you act like this, no one at this table wants to live with YOU!” Inside, I felt better, but outside, I was being met with uncomfortable stares from everyone at my table AND the man sitting next to us. He looked up from his soup bowl and stared right into my eyes with an expression of sad disapproval–You are a mean man, Sir, his eyes said. No, my eyes shot back. NO! You have not lived with this kid for the past seven years. You haven’t watched him almost kill himself at every damn street corner today. You weren’t there when he choked his brother in line at FAO Schwarz. You weren’t there when I ran back into that madhouse of a toy store because he forgot the goddamn birth certificate for his goddamn bear: Mushroom Thomas Trainer. Don’t you judge me. This kid could put anyone over the edge. Even you, Mr. Perfect.

“Would anyone like another glass of wine?” asks the waitress as she checks in on our meal. “Yes!” say the four adults at our table. “YES!”

That’s the real story. Not the one you see in the photograph. That’s what I kept coming back to after I posted that picture on Facebook. This picture does not tell the whole story. Far from it. This picture does not show my insecurities at being a dad, the regret I feel for my reactions sometimes, the constant fear I have that something bad might happen to one of my children, the unfair resentment I have towards my sons’ for not knowing how lucky they are–we are–to be afforded these wonderful experiences, experiences I never had as a child.

I sit alone on the train, in an odd one-seater by the exit, and watch a lady and her boys eat cupcakes and giggle in the seats right in front of me. I am aware of the ease with which they handle each other, this family in front of me–my wife and our boys. It’s an ease I wish I could feel more.

The car ride home from the train station is adventurous and tense, as the first snowfall blankets the highway. The boys are excited to see the flakes. Pam and I worry as we see cars in ditches off to the side of the turnpike.

We are relieved to get home without incident. Excitedly, we begin to recap our experience in the city.  It’sphoto (32) unanimous that the Toy Soldiers was our favorite Rockette number in the show; Owen longs for the French toast he had at the corner diner; Hayden recalls the Rockefeller Center scene depicted in LEGOS. Like most trips, there were many bright moments, peppered with some miserable ones. And that’s the nature of family, of traveling, of life.

Then, Owen gripes about me making them wear those “itchy” sweaters to the play, and Hayden whines about the fact that I refuse to let him wear sweatpants everyday.  I tease them for being wimps. They say, “You’re so mean, Dad! You’re the meanest dad in the world!” I recall the Bad Parenting Manual this time and respond with, “Oh, yeah? If I’m so mean, then why don’t you two go and live somewhere else! Then you’ll see how good you have it.” Response one: “Fine!” Response two: “We will!” “You two wouldn’t make it to the end of the driveway!” They attempt to do just that, in six inches of snow, in bare feet. They come back in, frozen. The three of us can no longer tell if we’re kidding or angry, and I can see the headlines now: “Boys die of pneumonia attempting to run away from home. Meanest Dad in the World Missing”.

Pam brings the boys up to bed, and I throw myself a pity party while I shovel the driveway. With each mound of snow I heave, a thought spews from my mind: Well, someone HAS to be the bad guy; Mean? They’ve don’t even know what mean looks like; These boys live a charmed life; I’m tired of always being the disciplinarian. My thoughts pound steadily, each one making me feel worse. Then, I hear a banging on the bedroom window above–it’s Hayden, freshly showered and in his PJs. He’s banging hard. What did I do now, I think negatively. He says something, but it’s muffled. “What?” I yell up to the little figure in the night. “Will you come up and snuggle me?” he yells, louder this time. I laugh at the absurdity of it all, the meanest dad in the world being asked to snuggle. “Sure,” I say. “Give me five minutes.”

As I lay in Hayden’s bed, we talk about all the things we loved about the Christmas Show at Radio City. He shows me where his new bear, Mushroom, is going to sleep. Then, he asks me to draw letters on his back. I spell words and he tries to guess them: N-E-W Y-O-R-K C-I-T-Y: “New York City,” he shouts. S-A-N-T-A: “Santa,” he says, stifling a yawn. I-L-O-V-E Y-O-U: “I love you,” he whispers, halfway off to dreamland.

No picture could capture this moment.