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From the Daddy Archives . . .

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It usually happens like this: I am sitting in my chair, quietly typing, as my daughter Katie “plays” in the next room. The next moment, she is gently tugging my sleeve. I glance over the top of my laptop and smile, oblivious.

“What is it, Bear?”

“Daddy,” she says. “Everything is going to be fine.”

By this point, it is too late. I slam the laptop shut. I am no longer Daddy, but Dad. I rush into the playroom to find my dog painted blue.

When Katie was born, I spent the first 2 nights by my wife Annmarie’s side, half-sleeping in a half-reclining hospital chair. We were both exhausted, yet filled with awesome anticipation. I remember a few specifics. The TV stuck on the shopping channel, the smell of antiseptic, the little pink hat on Katie’s head. Mostly, I remember emotions. An intense devotion to my wife, and a looming doubt. I did not know if was up to the task of raising this child.

Katie came home on the third day. It took us a full 15 minutes to strap her into the car seat. We wanted to do everything perfectly. To swaddle her just right, to change her often enough, to cradle her like we’d been taught. Over the next few nights, none of us slept much. Annmarie breast-fed every few hours. Whenever Katie made a sound, however insignificant, I woke up to make sure she was alright. Whenever she seemed too quiet, I woke up to make sure she was still breathing.

Katie is now 6 (6-and-a-half, she insists). There are times I think back longingly to those nights of invented worry. Especially when Katie empties all of the shampoo bottles onto the bathroom floor. Or cuts the sleeves off of her 9 favorite dresses. Or dismembers her mother’s string of pearls.

Still, there is something wonderful about the chaos. When I take the time to play with Katie, totally uninhibited, I feel a version of that anticipation from the night she was born. Who knows where our next game will take us? A beauty salon for plastic ponies? Pirates in space? With a few stuffed animals and a cardboard box, a rainy Saturday becomes a raging storm at sea. All hands on deck! Being a father is the best — perhaps the only — excuse a man has to be unabashedly childlike.

After Katie’s original blue-dog moment, I wondered why she had done it. She said she wanted to play ‘Blue’s Clues,’ after the TV show with the blue dog. Apparently, she had asked me to join her several times, but I was too busy. So, she enlisted the dog.

Of all the excuses not to play with my kid, being “busy” is the lamest. Too often, I do not play because I have forgotten how. The other day, Katie asked if we could make a fishing stream in our kitchen. My first thought was “No, that is impossible.” I considered the engineering challenges — levy construction, hatchery management. Both seemed beyond my expertise.

But when kids ask grownups to join their games, they expect us to leave our grownup rationalism behind. So I overcame my doubts. I said, “Sure, we can catch fish in our kitchen.”


“Being a father is the best — perhaps the only — excuse a man has to be unabashedly childlike.”


For the next 20 minutes we searched for supplies. Katie found old strips of greenish drywall in the basement and dragged them out. We arranged them like a stream. For fishing poles, I used a pair of chopsticks, some string, and 2 magnets. We made fish out of construction paper, folding a flap at the bottom so they would sit upright. With a couple staples punched into their top fin, they were catchable.

We built a bridge with 2 chairs and a leaf from our dining room table. Dangling magnets from our chopsticks, we caught fish until Mom came home. Then Katie taught Mom all the tricks of kitchen fishing. By the time we were done, the kitchen was strewn with crumbling drywall scraps and loose staples. But what a magical day.

The peaceful home is a trap. Whenever Katie is quiet for too long, especially with friends over, it is time to worry. But that is not the worst thing. Even when I am cleaning toast out of the DVD player, even when I regret not making time for my daughter, my biggest fear is not that she will repeat one of her misadventures. It is knowing that the day will come when I no longer need to worry. I will not check her in bed to make sure she is breathing. I will not grow suspicious at the sound of nothing. My little girl will grow up, and I will not need to play with her.

One day, I will be sitting in my chair, typing away, and realize that the quiet I hear is no longer an indication of mischief afoot, but a sign that blue-painted dogs and gentle tugs on my sleeve are gone for good.

From Fatherly.com (originally featured on Huffington Post).

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Walk This Way

Through a mixed-up series of not-very-interesting events, I ended up walking two miles this afternoon in last year’s flip-flops. After I snuffed out my irritation, and jettisoned the useless shoes, I found myself noticing things about my town that despite traveling these roads every day, I had never observed before. There is something about traveling on foot that opens my eyes.

In an effort to capitalize on/make fun of the popularity of the HBO series, the coffee shop had a pastry display entitled, “Game of Scones.” I usually go to the Starbucks, since the chain has better parking, but I made a mental note to give this local shop another try next time I need java out. Two doors down, I saw a sign advertising a “World-famous Comedy Traffic School.” I puzzled over this. Was this a comedy school that had a lot of traffic come through its doors, i.e. had trained a lot of comics? Or was it a Traffic School that taught with great humor? Either way, I had never heard of the joint and it was only about a mile from my house. I will have to look it up.

The local art museum had a new exhibit opening. I am forever making tentative plans to go there, but have yet to set one foot in the door. Since there was no line and no cover, I took a slow (barefoot) lap around the gallery. It occurred to me that, in general, canvases depicting naked folks on trapezes are not my aesthetic. But, I feel thankful to live in a place that encourages artistic endeavors, and I moved on.

I picked up a flyer for a Pilates studio in the basement of the knitting studio nearby. Everybody I know who does Pilates is rail thin. Did Pilates make them that way or is Pilates a skinny girl sport? Is it even fair to call it a sport? What is the difference between exercise and sport anyway? Jerseys? Competition? A snack bar? I was distracted from answering this question by what seemed to be a disproportionate amount of dog poop smashed into the sidewalk on Main Street. When I visited Paris, I remember this, too. Shop owners hosed off their sidewalks most mornings. We have weekly street sweeping in town. I know because I was ticketed a few weeks ago for not moving my car. But do we have sidewalk cleaners? Or maybe folks should just clean up after their dogs.

As I turned off into my hood, I noticed that one of my neighbors still has Christmas decorations up. A trumpeting angel. And quite a few strands of lights. Or maybe s/he was getting a jump start on this upcoming season. There is quite a bit of peer pressure around here to deck out your house and yard. Another neighbor has turned four or five kiddie pools into makeshift garden beds. Both cool and tacky. I decided we should all be friends.

As I arrived home, sore-footed and sweaty, it occurred to me that I could probably apply this same exercise in perspective to my own family. We trip and stumble out the door most days, late to something, forgetting something else. Most days, I think the kids know exactly what I am going to say even before I say it.

“Can I play on the iPad?”

“Did you fold your clothes yet?”

“Can I have a snack?”

“You can have veggies.”

And so on, and so on.

We get in ruts, and travel the same well-worn paths. I hustle them along without really hearing them. Without seeing.

With the start of summer vacation this week, I think what excites me most is the chance to take some new steps together — to walk, bike, jump, and hike — to open our eyes to one another, and be surprised by what we discover hidden in plain sight.

PS — Speaking of noticing, this is my new favorite family portrait.  Lizzie drew it.  First off, look how skinny I am.  Seriously, my legs go on for days.  Second, look how no one is crying or hitting or spitting soup back into a bowl.  When my kid thinks about her family, this is what she sees:  smiling people holding hands.  This warms my heart.

LIzziefamilydrawingjune2015

 

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The Campification of Summer

As the school year winds down, there is really only one thing left to decide: where are we sending the kids to summer camp?

If your neighborhood is anything like mine, you have a multitude of choices. Just thumbing through our local directory, I see Lacrosse Camp, Ballet Camp, Forensics Camp, Archery Camp, Bible Camp, Volleyball Camp, Sewing Camp, Reading Camp, and even a Camping Camp. There are beaucoup opportunities this June, July, and August. A bunch sound super-cool.

Except I don’t think we are going to do any of them.

Working parents: I get it. School is closed. You need places to park your kids. You folks, I understand. But the rest of us? The stay-at-home dads? The work-from-home moms? What is our excuse? Was there some meeting I missed when we all got together and decided to pee on summer?

But my daughter loves soccer. So play soccer with her.

But my son loves to paint. Then give him paper and a brush.

Since when did a child’s passing interest in an activity translate into automatic enrollment in summer camp? Why are we so eager to contract out this parenting stuff? Last year, I paid 300 bucks for my daughter to participate in a week of Music Camp — Monday-Friday, 9-5 — culminating in a performance on Saturday afternoon. I’m not sure any experience has ever made her dislike music more.

And I’m not alone. I know folks who spend thousands of dollars to bounce their children from one ill-run, overpriced camp session to the next. Our kids are frazzled and exhausted. In July. During the school year, we have accelerated the pace of academic skills in young children. We over-homework, over-test, and over-schedule. But summer…summer used to be untouchable — marshmallows, fireflies, skinned knees, ice cream. What the heck happened?

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I would keep them home, but everybody else is at camp and I don’t want them to be bored. Why not? Boredom is good for kids. It’s the big empty field of possibility. And it is a necessary part of summer. Boredom inspired our epic Kick the Can battle of August, 1985. Boredom inspired us to invent Tree Tag, a game that only ended with blood or mayhem. Boredom gave birth to Mud Bakery, Baby in the Air, and countless other awesome/useless games to fill idle time. Defying boredom used to be the creative work of childhood. We drew with chalk, and rode bikes, and had lemonade stands, and planted gardens, and held talent shows, and picked dandelions, and walked to the library, and stayed up too late, and awoke without an alarm. It was like retirement for children. We learned how to be at ease in our own skin.

Now summer has become Chess Camp, Baseball Camp, and Pottery Camp. On balance, chess, baseball, pottery…these are all terrific hobbies. But do you really want to knit for five hours every day? Or play the violin? If I were a kid, I would be afraid to show a predilection for much of anything. Do one card trick and you are off to Magic Camp. Have a bake sale and it’s Cooking Camp for you.

But I don’t know how to play chess, so I HAVE to send the kids to camp. I hem my skirts with a stapler. Believe me, I understand the allure of Sewing Camp. But I also like the idea of my children and I learning something together. Last month, we tried a Paleo cookbook. This week, we are muddling our way through Intro to Piano. We played a clumsy version of “Heart and Soul” before bed last night. It sounded like “Chopsticks,” but it was great fun.

I am not against all organized summer activities. I know high school students who take Math courses or SAT Prep to get their schedules in order for the upcoming school year. My friend’s daughter is trying for a scholarship, so she attends gymnastics clinics throughout the summer. I, myself, went to Show Choir Camp. Yup. Twice. Super-nerdy. Also fantastic. For four nights, we hung out in a college dorm, ate pizza, and congregated with other singing and dancing nerdballs just like us. But we were fifteen, not five.

This kindergarten camp stuff is different. Parent-driven. Like some bizarre competition to get our children ahead. As though plopping a kid into Soccer Camp at age four will ensure high school varsity stardom. I’m afraid we are raising a generation of torn rotator cuffs and worn-out knees. We teach our children drive. We would be wise to teach them leisure, too.

So, sure. Book a camp, maybe even two. But otherwise, man, let the kids play. Stake out July. Declare August sacrosanct. Rededicate summer to barbecues, swimming pools, mosquito bites, and bicycles. Make the most difficult question your kids answer be: Will the lightening bugs really die if I don’t poke holes in the lid? This isn’t just nostalgia. It is necessity. These are glory days. They are numbered. And we are missing them.

LemonadeStand

Originally published by the New York Observer.

 

 

 

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There Is More than One Way to Load a Dishwasher

My husband is in charge of bedtime tonight. Which is why it is 10:24 and all three children are still awake.

I don’t mind breaking rules. I hold cereal taste tests for dinner and let the kids eat hot dogs for breakfast. In an era of helicopter parenting, my children run barefoot, climb trees, and walk by themselves to the corner store. But when it comes to bedtime, I am regimental: Bath, Jammies, Teeth, Books, Sleep. This is a half-hour process, though I have gotten it done in as little thirteen minutes, seven if I skip the bath.

My husband’s strategy is different. He strives to wear the children out. “It’s simple,” he says. “Play hard, sleep hard.” I think he developed this theory on a college bender. When Dad does bedtime, it is customary for the kids to fall asleep in the same clothing that they wore to school. With Nutella on their faces. And smiles. He frequently skips Bath, Jammies, Teeth, and Books, and goes straight to Circus Stunts. When I went in to say good night just now, they were practicing acrobatics.

“Watch this, Mom,” shrieked my five-year-old. “It’s called cannonball!” She tucked her forehead to her knees just as her father hurled her three feet into the air. She landed upside-down in a pile of pillows, laughing.

I looked at him. “Really?”

“At least she didn’t hit the ceiling fan this time,” he said. Then he turned his attention to our two-year-old who was demanding a trick called, “Beeto,” which seemed merely to involve Dad shoving him to the mattress by his face.

Despite our philosophical differences regarding bedtime, we no longer argue about it. I used to implore my husband to stop thrashing the children and read them a damn story. He used to ask me why I insisted on so many freaking baths. “Didn’t we just clean them yesterday?”

But somewhere along the way, we realized this was not a disagreement worth having. It just wasn’t. My husband works in an office, and he actually misses playing with the kiddos. I work from home. I see them constantly, and by bedtime, I am desperate to have them out of my sight. But even if this was not the case, arguing over bedtime routines is wasted breath.

In fact, a lot of our old arguments have fallen by the wayside. We no longer squabble over what goes in the kids’ lunch boxes, how the clothes are folded, or how to load the dishwasher. (He does it terribly WRONG, but it just isn’t an argument worth having.)

We could easily fill our lives with disagreements about these things. But we have bigger fish to fry. We are raising three little humans and every day there are hundreds of questions to answer. Can I cut my Barbie’s hair? Do I have to wear matching socks? Can I please wear these purple shoes to build a time machine in the garage? In the beginning, we made up all of our answers. Often, Dad said YES, and Mom said NO. Occasionally, vice versa. But after ten years of inventing answers to our kids’ incessant questions, something funny has happened: we finally know what it is that we stand for.

We are for love, but not indulgence. We want our kids to feel safe, but also curious and to know adventure. We nourish their wellness with good food and exercise. We teach them to be brave, honest, modest, and kind.

And that’s about it.

I think too many of us argue about the little stuff — the toys, the dishes, the bedtimes — because it is so much easier than figuring out the big stuff. Deciding where our children will put their dinosaurs is way simpler than determining what we will teach them about God. Or Santa Claus. Or sex before marriage. Saying NO to mismatched socks is easier than talking about nonconformity, or popularity, or whether it is more important to be accepted by peers than to be secure in your own skin.

My husband and I could definitely argue about the dishwasher. (I mean, my God, he puts Tupperware lids on the bottom rack.) But there is so much more to figure out. When our daughters say they want to be cheerleaders, will we let them? And how about our son? We have taught all three how to punch, but will all three learn how to sew, too? The oldest is asking about home school. Should we try it? The kids are toying with piano, but the middle one wants a drum kit. Can we still say we support the Arts if we don’t want a drummer in the house? When we want to argue, this is where we spend our breath. Who are we hoping these children will be? How are we helping them get there?

When we think about it that way, it turns out there are plenty of parenting rules that are actually not rules at all. Kids are marvelously resilient. They can eat Cheerios for breakfast or sushi. It does not matter. The trick is in valuing one another’s choices in front of the children, and letting them know there is more than one way to pack a lunch, style a Barbie, and even (gasp!) load the dishwasher. Lots of questions have more than one right answer. Just as there are many ways to be brave, honest, modest, and kind.

 

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New DadvMom on New York Observer today.

 

 

 

Health & Fitness & Oreos, Uncategorized

Little Surfer Girl

Lizzie went surfing today with her preschool class. Say what you will about Angelinos, but they knock some things out of the park. Lifeguards picked up the kiddos and drove them to the beach, where they played Sharks and Minnows, donned teeny-tiny wetsuits, and then kayaked, surfed, and sailed. All morning, I was wide-eyed. It was like watching the best kind of magic show – children dazzled by one mountaintop experience after another, all before lunch.

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Big idea for today: it is fun to say yes. All day long I say NO. No cookies, no marshmallows, no hitting, no arguing, no jumping on the bed. But today we said, YES.  YES you can surf, and YES you can sail. And everyone was happy. I like YES days.

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Why We Do Not Take Family Vacations

My husband and I vacationed separately this spring.

Friends have asked whether our marriage is okay.

It is. Though sometimes we daydream about leaving. Just hopping in the car and driving away.

Not from one another. From the children.

It’s not that we dislike them. They are delightful. They walk and talk and eat soup. But we also kind of hate them. Not in a mean way. Just in a we-wish-they-lived-somewhere-else-sometimes kind of way.

I like the idea of family time. The five of us in the car on an adventure — to explore a canyon, a riverbed, a zoo. But in reality, time spent together with our children is just awful.

Our kids are two, five, and ten. There is very little that entertains all three of them. We’ve tried biking. The oldest does okay, but the younger two are basically ballast, adding seventy pounds to the bicycle trailer of whichever parent happens to be healthiest at the moment we set out. We’ve tried skiing. My husband and I hit the slopes with the oldest kiddo while the little ones run up a tab in the childcare room, and trade colds and flu bugs with the other inmates. We’ve tried hiking, but on our last rocky sojourn, we carried two-and-a-half crying children the last three-fourths of a mile.

For birthdays and holidays, we would prefer to give our children experiences rather than toys. But most experiences come with a height and weight requirement. At the amusement park, the child who was over forty-eight inches tall rode roller coasters, while the munchkins spun in circles on flying bananas and elephants. When we attempted horseback riding, only the girls and I rode, while my husband and the toddler napped in the car.

Even when we are together, we are not.

So this year, we called it like it is. Dad and Katie camped the Grand Canyon while Mom, Lizzie, and Henry visited family in the Midwest. For the most part, this division worked. I like to hobnob and kvetch with relatives. My husband is good for about twenty minutes before he’s off to nap or play chess on his phone. Conversely, he enjoys beef jerky and sleeping under the stars. I don’t mind camping, but after about four hours, I miss salads. And chairs. So this split arrangement suited us.

Katie at Grand Canyon

Surely there were inequities: Lizzie missed additional school days, while Katie begrudgingly had to attend. I drove in spring snow, while my husband came back with a tan. But there were also advantages. He was able to take one child to the Canyon without worrying that the other two would fall in. I visited my ninety-four-year-old grandmother without my tween interrupting to find her favorite programs on the Disney Channel. I also spent a perfectly wonderful afternoon with my five-year-old. We went shopping, to tea, and had a lengthy conversation about kittens. I was not impatient with her like I so often am when corralling all three kids in and out of the car. Everyone had individual attention and age-appropriate escapades. The ten-year-old canoed with her Dad while 2000 miles away, the little ones went to the dinosaur museum with their auntie and uncle. And our children — the kids who routinely smack one another with tennis rackets and chase each another with sticks, the people who proclaim, “I wish I never had a sister!” — these clowns actually had time to miss one another. Maybe we need less family time rather than more.

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Or maybe the whole point of family vacations is not enjoyment but endurance. Maybe traveling with kin is supposed to be cataclysmic. Your job is simply to survive and tell the story. My husband remembers a family sailing trip to Greece as one of the mountaintop experiences of his childhood. He caught an octopus. He learned to snorkel. He dragged behind a boat in the Cephalonian Sea. When I ask his parents about this same trip, they remember the family unity, the way they sang together, fished together, and ate what they caught. How they shared their dreams under an impossibly blue sky. But I call bullshit. I bet if I had witnessed the week during which they were all trapped in close quarters on that listing sloop, I would have seen navigational discord and tantrums, seasickness and tedium, and at least one person threatening to abandon ship.

But that’s not what they remember.

And it turns out, it is the memory — the idea of family time — that matters. The essence of the experience is what lasts. Thus, our children believe they are awesome campers, rather than the jackasses who argued over the s’mores sticks until someone caught on fire. They believe they can kayak, surf, and paddleboard, even though when we do those things, the girls complain about “the ocean getting them wet,” while the youngest rolls on the beach and eats sand. They tell people they like to bike, hike, and ski.

If that is the case, maybe one of these days, my husband and I will drive, fly, or even sail somewhere with all three of our children. As long as, when it is all over, we can drive, fly, or sail somewhere without them. Because regardless of what they remember, I know we will need a vacation to recover from that ragged, wonderful, bullshit vacation. And with any luck, as we reflect back on the memories, it will all turn into the same glorious trip.

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New DadvMom on New York Observer today.

 

 

 

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Have Your Midlife Crisis Together

There comes a point in every marriage when that feeling slips away.

Your heart does not skip a beat when he enters the room. He does not smile knowingly when he hears your voice. The things you used to love about each other start to grate — his naps and mismatched socks, your refusal to vacuum on even a semi-regular basis. Your jammies morph from silk to flannel, and the magic you pocketed from those early days just…runs…out.

Part of the problem is comfort. When we date, we look for a person who takes an awkward situation, an outing with a relative stranger, and makes it seem natural. We seek out the individual with whom we feel most at ease. I married my husband because of his intellect, spontaneity, and zest for life. He made complicated undertakings seem manageable. He married me because I was his emotional center and his closest friend. Also, he says, because of my boobs. But the point is, I made him feel comfortable.

Comfort can be awesome. He knows the music I like, and whether I want my steak rare or well done. I know which seat he prefers on an airplane, and what kind of books he enjoys. Being known is nice.

Except when it isn’t. I only have about 3 ½ decent stories to tell at a cocktail party. Which means my husband has heard them 272 times. He only has 2 ½ good stories, so now I am as sick of his anecdotes as he is of mine. We have come to the point in our marriage when we feel like we know all there is to know about one another.

I have never cheated on my husband. But if I was going to, now is about the time it might make sense. Because falling in love is fun. Ninety-three percent of the greatest movies ever made pay homage to it. But staying in love…well, that’s something altogether different.

The truth is that being married to someone for a lot of years can be kind of boring. And boredom can be scary. What if the magic is gone for good? What if I don’t love him any more? Which is, of course, the scariest thought of all.

But boredom is not a reason to leave. It is not a reason to cheat or settle or eat ice cream straight from the carton.

If you play it right, boredom is the moment when the real magic begins.

I had a prof in college who always told us to “make the familiar strange.” He asked us to consider age-old questions in academia with new eyes and a fresh perspective. I think this holds true for marriage, too. We call it a midlife crisis when a man buys a red convertible or a woman pierces her navel after the age of thirty-five. But relationships need triage from time to time. If the two of you are in a rut, maybe it is time to take a risk, and do something you might regret. Just do it together.

As part of our shared midlife crisis, my husband and I remodeled a bathroom, quit jobs, sold our dream house, built a website, moved across the country, joined a choir, formed our own book club (of two people), and auditioned for community theater. We have taken surfing lessons, yoga classes, and piano. We have eaten ostrich, eel, cow’s tongue and bull testicles, and washed it all down with absinthe.

At least half of these adventures, we have come close to regretting. Especially the balls. But the point was that we undertook them together, and shared new experiences that have changed how we look at each other. I will never forget my husband’s jitters as he went to audition for the part of “Man in Pink Pants.” It was a side of him I had never seen before. Thankfully, they cast someone else, but now we have a new story to tell at parties, and new fondness for one another.

So the next time boredom creeps in, go watch a horror movie, take salsa lessons, join a dodge ball league. Let ennui nudge you towards new adventures. You don’t have to climb Kilimanjaro to find them. Go hiking and have a long talk. Have the kind of wandering, rambling, full-of-possibility conversation that led you to fall in love in the first place. What dream do you still want to pursue? What parts of yourselves do you value, but never take the time to share? What steps can you take together to make some of these aspirations a reality?

My husband and I have taken a few of these walks lately. We laugh about the mini-regrets we have shared over the past fifteen years, and plot and scheme about the next fifteen. The next thirty. We allow ourselves to be vulnerable together. And dare to believe that the best years are yet to come.

New DadvMom on New York Observer today.

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Middle Skool

Back in my day, middle school was called junior high. But it was still just as middling and miserable.  A whole building full of kids too big to be little and too young to be old.  When I turned thirteen, I told my mother I would no longer be appearing in public with her, and I told a total stranger I loved him.  Middle school = major mixed-up, in-between-land.

One of the English teachers had a standing rule that if we were having a bad day, we could put a copy of Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, Very Bad Day on our desk, and put our head down. No questions would be asked.  People fought for that book every single day.

As an adult, I do not encounter many middle schoolers. They do not sneak into the bars I frequent and I am careful to attend movies when they will not be in attendance. I even avoid my local coffee shop between 2pm and 3 on weekdays because it is teeming with twelve-year-olds ordering frappucinos.

However, I have had two encounters with middle schoolers lately that have given me pause.  The first was a prank.  Two young boys knocked on our door and asked whether we “to win a million dollars.”  When we said, “No thanks,” they plead and entreated until we said, “Okay.”  Then they asked us a series of three nonsense questions. (i.e. “If a plane crashes directly on the border between the United States and Canada, where do they bury the survivors?”) Lucky for me, I must have had the same dumb riddle book when I was a kid, because my daughter and I answered all three questions correctly.  Upon our successful completion of the pop quiz, the boys opened a briefcase and handed us a piece of paper labeled, “ONE MILLION DOLLARS.”  Then, they ran away.

These two boneheads reminded me of my own junior high shenanigans.  My friend and I used to phone boys and ask them to take a survey about the music of “a hip new band called Americana.”  We would then sing invented lyrics and accompany ourselves with a harmonica and my kid brother’s drum kit.  I need you, like the flowers need the rain.  I need you, to save me from my pain.  Most guys usually hung up.

My second encounter with a middle schooler was this afternoon when I was working in the yard.  As most who know me can attest, I dislike yard work.  I love the notion of growing flowers and vegetables, but I hate weeding, mowing, trimming, mulching, and any of the hundred other tasks of keeping up with neighborhood joneses.  If I had it my way, I would pave my front yard with concrete.  I was swearing under my breath about the thorns on the shrub I was pruning when a boy called to me from the sidewalk.  “Excuse me. Do you need help with your yard?”  He explained that he had a service and that he could, “mow lawns, pull weeds, and do a little chainsaw work.”

I asked the boy where he went to school and how he liked it.  “I go to the middle school. And it’s, you know, middle school….” His voice trailed off and he looked visibly pained by merely reflecting upon the misery of school.  I recognized that suffering.  I remembered it.

“Middle school can be pretty rough,” I said. “But people don’t stay jerky forever.  Hang in there.”  He smiled, and asked whether we knew each other from church.

“No,” I said, “but you came and played a prank on me and my daughter a few weeks ago.” He smiled, shyly, and his cheeks colored red. I was afraid he might turn and run away again.

“It’s okay,” I said.  “It was kind of funny.  My five-year-old liked your nonsense riddles. She wanted to know if you had any more.”

Middle school children can be hard to like.  They are too noisy at movies, too rambunctious on playgrounds, too big for trick-or-treating, and too sneaky in the 7-11.

But when I think back to my fractured pre-teen self – the girl who wore way too much make-up in an attempt to feel beautiful, who faithfully watched General Hospital, and called milkshakes “lunch,” the moron who used to watch fights in the parking lot at the funeral home, who snuck into rated-R movies, and learned to French kiss in the back of a school bus – well, I think that kid could have used all the help she could get.

So to commemorate the lousy human beings most of us were between the ages of twelve and fourteen, I’m declaring this Be Nice to Middle Schoolers week.  Go to a carwash.  Buy something at the baseball team bake sale.  Engage one of them in conversation at the gas station.  Remember: they are not evil.  Just scared.  And posturing. And enduring a fair share of terrible, horrible, no good days.

To kick things off, I have hired my twelve-year-old neighbor to mow the lawn and pull weeds next week.  He has agreed, reluctantly, to leave his chainsaw at home.

Uncategorized

Bad Choices

New DadvMom post at Fatherly.com.  For all of us who make bad parenting choices and still have great kids to show for it.

Green Horses

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12D

This shout-out is for Tom who, on the Denver to Cleveland flight, gave up seat 12D — an awesome aisle seat with extra leg room — and switched to a middle seat that did not recline, in order to accommodate my kids and I when our boarding passes called for us to sit apart. You just told me, “No problem. Life is too short to worry about airplane seating,” and went on your way.  I wanted to kiss you.

And as someone who worries quite a bit about airplane seating, I thank you for your perspective.

You see, I seldom fly the friendly skies. My children and I travel pretty frequently. But, all too often, we fly the hostile why-can’t-you-keep-your-kids-in-line-you-slacker-of-a-parent? skies. People do not want to sit by us on airplanes. We always spill our drinks. Sometimes we smell like poop. My son kicks the seat. Of course, I stop him, but he usually gets in a few solid thwacks before I hold his feet still.

And, I am embarrassed to say that, up until fairly recently, I thought my carry-on area was under my own seat.  So I never understood why people complained about the lack of leg room on airplanes. I always had plenty.  And none of my obviously put-upon travelers ever told me what an irritating traveling companion I was.

So thank you, Tom, on the Denver flight, for making it feel like no big deal that my noisy, smelly kids and I were on an airplane. Even though we are a hassle, it is nice to not always feel like one.