Parenting, bicycles and learning to let go
As published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette (with revisions)
Kids learn when they are ready. My wife, Lori, and I were recently reminded of this when our kids spontaneously demanded to have their training wheels removed.
Last year they were content to zip up and down our dead-end street with four wheels, even when the neighborhood gang was pedaling and scooting proudly on two.
Soon we raced alongside our budding bicyclists as they learned to balance and we practiced letting go.
Neighborhood tradition includes riding from top to bottom of the side yard at the end of our block, where the grade is slight and the grass offers soft landings, which eased our minds and their bodies.
When they graduated to the adjacent alley, differences between our kindergartener and preschooler emerged.
Eldest Zoe was entranced by the bright, Forsythia blossoms lining the right edge of the lane. Each attempt ended the same; like a bee drawn to pollen she veered off the path and straight into the bushes, growing more frustrated each time.
“I can’t do it. I keep crashing. I will never be able to do it,” she cried.
Yet, with renewed determination she eventually succeeded, ever so cautiously.
After a few tearful attempts, Adam rocketed down the alley, banked the turn, zipped half way up the block, made a sharp 180 degree turn, headed back to the alley, and skidded to a stop, sporting a wide grin.
Each day they take to the streets with helmeted heads, honing their balancing, steering and stopping skills, wailing when they crash into parked cars, curbs, neighbors and each other, squealing at their successes.
Their confidence grows faster than mine. For more than a week I put the brakes on their repeated requests to ride on the bike path. Visions of them crashing into an oncoming bike muted their pleas.
Eventually we took an incident-free ride along the path, as I ran between them, Adam racing far ahead and Zoe taking in the sights. Emboldened by the experience, they began scheming about longer rides, leaving me excited and terrified.
As teenagers, my friends and I toured by bike for many summers, each trip hundreds of miles, camping along the way, thrilled to explore the world on our own terms. Despite our parents’ fears about cars, trucks and bears, we never incurred more than mosquito bites and sore muscles.
Then, I took their approval for granted; now, I’m awed that they allowed us to feed our adventurous spirits in this way.
As an adult, bike touring has been replaced by years of bike commuting, the past five pulling a trailer, first with Zoe, then Adam, too. Loading the kids into the trailer, our second car, is a family ritual.
In the early days, Lori and I took turns pedaling Zoe to and from day care, and to the farmer’s market on Saturdays. When Lori worked weekend shifts, I chauffeured Zoe to town for lunch and a big chocolate chip cookie to share. She would fall asleep on the way home; parking her chariot on the patio, I’d sip tea and read the paper until she awoke.
Later, Adam at her side, we rode to and from preschool, the parenting center, library, lunch dates, and parks; sporting water bottles and snacks, they belted out “Going on a Bear Hunt,” through heat waves and snowstorms alike.
The thought of biking with an empty trailer – worse yet, no trailer at all – leaves me feeling grief for the loss of this cherished stage of fatherhood.
This journey, filled with a zest for adventure, theirs and mine, and my attempts to ensure their wellbeing, is quite a ride. And, ready or not, Zoe and Adam are offering me a new opportunity to practice letting go, which will never be as easy as riding a bike.
Celebrating curiosity and the Earth, every day
As published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette
Young children exhibit boundless curiosity. With two of them, each day offers a double-dose of wonder at our house.
Daughter Zoe’s curiosity has blossomed along with her emerging ability to read, write and count. She notices to, too and two all sound the same, yet have different spellings and meanings.
“What’s up with that?” she says.
Recently she informed younger brother Adam that the thousands come after the hundreds and the millions after the thousands. Adam dutifully repeated his sister’s instruction. Then they both started squealing about billions, trillions and gazillions.
In a moment of calm that followed, Zoe asked, “How big is infinity?”
A recent editorial reminded me that curiosity is not just the domain of young minds.
The piece highlighted a new proclamation from European cosmologists that the universe is now estimated to be 80 million years older than previously believed, meaning 13.81 billion years, basically infinity.
The editorial linked curiosity about the existence of the universe to a perennial question among philosophers, “Why is there something rather than nothing?”
So, I was delighted when Zoe recently asked: “What does nothing mean?”
Knowing the world’s most accomplished philosophers are unable to answer such vexing questions, I simply laughed and responded: “How can nothing mean something?”
Then we both laughed and Adam joined in, rattling off names of planets and noting which is farther from the other, leading him to his own philosophical query.
“What’s beyond outer space?” he asked.
Their questions inspire me. Yet, as a father, I wonder how to ensure that their curiosity continues to flourish as they come of age in an uncertain world.
Spring’s arrival helps ease my worries, though, reminding me that the Earth serves as an endless source of wonder. Outdoors their minds and bodies run wild, marveling as the bulbs they planted in the fall emerge in a rainbow of color. They scramble for their collection jars as a universe of critters crawl from the thawed ground. Zoe makes art with bark, moss and other natural objects while Adam uses sticks and rocks to explore his surroundings.
We celebrate Earth Day in the spring, a time when our minds and bodies awaken once more to our oneness with the Earth. Our annual celebration of the life-giving planet we inhabit is a gift to our children, an act of gratitude for the sense of wonder they so profoundly embody, which is reason to celebrate the Earth every day.
Wednesdays are made of wrestling, chores
As published in the Hampshire Daily Gazette
Wednesdays are for male bonding. Lori leaves early for work and after coaching our kids, Adam and Zoe, through eating, brushing, combing and dressing, the three of us scurry down the street to get big sister on the morning school bus.
Returning home, I defer to Adam about what the day holds for us. Predictably, Adam says, “Let’s do something in my room.”
I play along and say, “Oh, what would you like to do in your room?” Grinning he says, “Let’s do something rough.”
“Like what?” I respond.
And in a voice that belies his 3½-year-old stature he roars, “Let’s wrestle!”
And so we tangle on the carpeted floor, practicing our patented moves, including the cud crusher, where Adam jumps off the futon and lands on me, the alligator chopper where I scissor him between my legs and nibble his toes, and his favorite, the pile driver, where I scoop him up and pretend to repeatedly drop him head-first to the floor.
After our warm-up, it’s time for home repairs and cleaning. Today we plan to extract a toothbrush that has spent months lodged deep in the recesses of the master bath sink drain. We round up our plumbing tools. Adam is drawn to the big red pipe wrench, which if he dropped would probably send us to the emergency room for a foot X-ray, so I steer him to the little one.
With the pipe off, we flush the slimy crud and goo into a bucket, including the long, thin object once used to clean Adam’s teeth. “We can’t brush with that any more,” he announces.
Feeling emboldened by our success, we head to the kid’s bathroom to clean that sink trap, too. Adam’s vivid memory reminds him that I need to fold myself like a pretzel to reach the pipes nestled in the vanity and that I have been known to yell like a pirate when engaged in this task.
“Try not to get frustrated,” he advises.
“What should I do if I feel frustrated?” I ask.
“Take a big breath,” he reminds me, which I do moments later.
Repairs complete, we turn to cleaning. While I wipe down the sinks, Adam strips down to his Bob the Builder undies, jumps in the tub and starts scrubbing with great vigor and enthusiasm. This lasts for almost one minute when he announces, “It’s clean.” I finish up and after dressing himself Adam starts in on his new favorite cleaning job, scrubbing toilets. He loves the scrubbing and flushing.
After a bagel and juice snack we tackle the basement. When I pull out the vacuum, Adam immediately volunteers his expertise. For an hour I sweep and he vacuums, sorting and storing the miscellaneous toys and craft supplies he and his sister have scattered across the floor as we go. “Watch this Daddy,” he cries, demonstrating how he can make different sounds with the vacuum by sucking up pennies and bits of tissue paper.
After honing our domestic acumen, we break for lunch and then snuggle with hugs, kisses and pirate stories before Adam gifts me a two-hour nap, during which I crank out work emails and teaching plans.
Later, after picking up Zoe at the bus stop, the two of them dine on afternoon snacks.
Predictably, Zoe heads to her room where she decompresses from her day with alone time. A sparkle in his eye, Adam slides down from his booster seat and says, “Daddy, let’s do something in my room.”
After wrestling, books and more wrestling, I say, “Mama will be home soon and we need to get started with dinner.” Having just landed on my torso, Adam jumps off my aching body and excitedly says, “Let’s go cook!”
Adam would like every day to be Wednesday; the mere thought exhausts me, and besides, I can’t take too many more cud crushers. But I realize the bond forged through this weekly ritual is a priceless gift, for both of us.
Reflecting on male fascination with guns
As published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette
As a teacher, I remember school shootings.
I remember Jonesboro. I was a high school teacher in 1998, a time when schools were safe, we thought. Then, at a middle school located in an unincorporated section of an Arkansas college town, two boys, armed with 13 fully loaded guns, shot 14 people, killing four students and one teacher. The shooters were ages 11 and 13.
I remember Columbine, too. I had recently left a teaching position at one of the top high schools in Wisconsin and was working for a gun violence prevention organization. During my last semester at that school a freshman boy, who was tired of being bullied, brought his father’s gun to school, and after luring the older boys to the parking lot, pulled out the gun to even the score. Unlike Columbine, the incident was diffused without a shot being fired.
For years I had considered myself fortunate to teach at that school, in part because in accepting the position I turned down an offer to teach at a different school. The fall I almost began teaching at that other school, nestled in a small, rural community, police narrowly foiled the plot of five students to massacre a list of targeted students, teachers and administrators.
I remember Northern Illinois University, surrounded by farm fields and endless horizons, where I earned a master’s degree. A few years later, when I was between college teaching jobs, a student walked into a crowded lecture hall there and fired more than 50 rounds, killing five people, including the teacher.
While still a teacher, now I am a father, too. So most of all, I remember Sandyhook.
For weeks, and still occasionally, it is our 6-year old Zoe whose body I see among those precious children in Newtown. Yet, it is fathering our 3-year-old son, Adam, which leaves me anxious about the way our culture shapes male fascination with guns, and the tragic consequences that often result.
I remember being fascinated with my first gun. The chrome barrel and cylinder were shiny and the white plastic grip fit perfectly in my little hand. I felt big when I pulled the trigger, the red ribbon of caps making popping sounds that echoed throughout the backyard of our small, middle-class, suburban community.
I remember being a young boy when our teenage neighbor was also fascinated with a gun. Showing-off for his friends while his parents were out, he playfully put a shotgun to his head and pulled the trigger, thinking it was unloaded. He was wrong.
I remember one of my high school buddies being fascinated with a gun. He and his friends were fooling around with his father’s rifle, while his parents were at work. When the friend pulled the trigger, a bullet shot through the side of the house and into the neighbor’s living room. Fortunately no one was home.
I remember the teenage brother of one of my college friends, who was angry about being suspended from athletics at his small, private Christian high school, and then brought his father’s gun to school and shot the teacher who had caught him smoking in the bathroom.
And I remember, just weeks before Newtown, waiting at the bus stop one morning.
Two boys, kindergartners, showed up at the bus stop with toy guns, chasing and shooting at each other, startling other children, and parents. Our 3-year-old Adam stood motionless, fascinated with the big boys and their brightly colored guns.
When the school bus arrived, the mothers took the guns from the boys. Then as Adam and I waved goodbye to Zoe, we watched as one of the mothers walked up to the side of the bus, playfully pointed the toy gun at her waving son and pulled the trigger, Adam’s gaze fixed upon her.
Adam loves trucks, power tools, dirt and sticks. In time, he might love guns, too. The scenes at the bus stop are just the first of many seeds that will be planted in his fertile imagination, shaping his thoughts about guns and masculinity.
Despite the male fascination with guns, very few boys and men commit accidents or crimes with them. Yet, nearly all gun accidents and crimes occur at the hands of boys and men. No single, parental act will void this unfortunate truth, not in a country with 300 million privately owned guns.
But changing culture has never been accomplished by single acts. So, while entrenched political forces disappointingly, yet predictably, hold to the status quo, we have choices as parents.
We can begin reclaiming the sanctity of our own homes and communities by saying “No!” to toy guns, violent video games and gun-saturated media. And while these simple yet difficult parental-acts will not immediately prevent gun deaths, the accumulation of our acts, in time, can help shape a culture where boyhood fascination with guns is as outdated as young children riding in automobiles without car seats.
And yes, when boys don’t have toy guns they often use a stick, instead. But boyhood fascination with sticks does not cause accidental shootings, nor do troubled young men show up at places of worship, movie theatres and schools to kill people with sticks.
For kids, fun in the snow trumps holiday gifts
As published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette
Simplifying holidays can be challenging. This year my wife, Lori, and I attempted, once again, to harness exuberant gift giving energy, which in our family stretches from Hanukah through Christmas.
We started by noticing that our kids, Zoe and Adam, enjoy playing with Legos, blocks and trains, and, not surprisingly, our house is constantly littered with hundreds of small toy pieces. We decided the perfect family gift would allow the kids to play with these existing toys and reduce household clutter.
Recalling a trip to a children’s museum, we thought about an amazing train table we had seen. The table was about 2 feet high with holes cut in the middle so that young children could crawl underneath, pop up in the middle and easily reach all of the table while routing trains around the tracks. We had to drag our kids away from it when it was time to leave the museum.
What could be better than a train table, we thought?
After the holiday shopping frenzy subsided, I headed to a big box home building store with gift money pooled from extended family, and the kids.
A materials run with Daddy routinely serves as a morning of entertainment for Zoe and Adam. They ride in the race-car-shaped shopping cart, pretend to drive the riding lawn mowers and track down beeping forklifts. With a granola bar and water bottle for each, I can shop for more than an hour with minimal discord.
In housewares I selected a pair of shelving units, which when assembled have six cubbyholes each. Then the kids selected colorful fabric baskets that can be stuffed full of miscellaneous toys and shoved into the cubbies. They each picked a paint color and while that was being mixed we headed to lumber for a sheet of plywood and a few 2-by-4s. The project was already proving to be great fun for everyone.
In the days that followed, I realized that completing the project would take longer than I ever imagined. One morning we assembled the first shelving unit, each kid cranking in a handful of screws before losing interest. The next morning we assembled the second shelving unit. On the third morning the kids stuffed toys into some of the baskets and even managed to get a couple of baskets into the cubbies.
Eventually, we laid out the tracks on the plywood to determine the best design. After assembling the 66 pieces of track in a variety of patterns, over the course of many days, we settled on a giant figure eight with a 16-inch hole to be cut in both the top and bottom of the eight.
The kids donned earplugs and jittered with excitement as I fired up the jigsaw. I rounded the sharp corners of the plywood, in an attempt to reduce future bodily harm, to their heads and my shins, and then cut the centered holes. We sanded the edges smooth and sucked up the dust with the shop vacuum.
With the board set across the top of the two shelving units, the kids played happily for at least 10 minutes before Zoe, in an sweet and suggestive voice said, “Daddy, this table is really nice, and it will look even nicer after we paint it.”
In their well-worn smocks they rolled and brushed white primer on the bare table and a green topcoat the next day. A day later we reassembled the tracks and eventually painted a lake and a river that runs under the trestle.
The table was a cooperative work of genius, a family project of epic proportions that ended without tears and the kids love it.
Yet when Lori asked the kids about their favorite part of the holiday break, they both reported that playing in the snow was the highlight. The train table did not even receive honorable mention.
And, it was true. Zoe and Adam could not get enough of the snow. In their rag-tag collection of hand-me-down puffy jackets, snow pants and boots, they made snow people, climbed mountains, shoveled, sledded, dug tunnels, and ate snow, lots of snow. Adam even declared: “Snow is healthy food.”
What could be better than free healthy food that falls from the sky, I thought?
In the end, making the train table was a great family bonding experience, the final product will serve as a source of play for years to come, and we may have reduced a bit of household clutter. More importantly, the kids reminded us that fun simply happens in the present moment. And in the moment, fresh snow trumps holiday gifts, even the coolest train table ever built.
Children shine light on life’s basic lessons
As published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette
December is stressful for families. The cold and flu season, hectic pace of school, work pressures, and protracted holiday season collide just when our mammalian energy contracts. On these colder, darker days even a mild irritation can trigger a melt down for kids, and parents.
On a recent family outing, I dropped off my wife, Lori, on Main Street to enjoy some solo holiday shopping. I headed to the public library with the kids, where they had a blast and I perused the movie section. It was a cold, wet day; I was preoccupied with work, not feeling well, a bit sleep deprived, and according to of my kids, acting like Mr. Grouchy Pants. So when it was time to meet Lori, instead of leaving the car at the library and strolling into town, I decided to gamble on finding a parking spot in the public garage.
Up we went, weaving our way round and round five floors, the kids hollering with excitement all the way to the top, where, along with five other disgruntled drivers, I learned that the garage was full. The kids were equally thrilled, I was not, as we drove down and around five floors, and out into the uncovered public lot.
As I searched for an open space, the kids started overheating in their puffy coats and boots, their tummies grumbled and I became increasingly irritated; staying in the library lot would have been easier. Finally scoring a spot, I parked, turned off the car, left the door open, sprinted half-way across the lot, plunked two quarters in the parking station and victoriously returned to the car, parking slip in hand.
Soon the whole family sat contentedly, stuffing our gobs with burritos, chips and guacamole. This lasted about 13 minutes. After lunch, as we strolled through the indoor market, I realized I had better make a hasty return to the car to avoid a parking ticket.
Reaching the car with 10-minutes to spare, I found a $15 ticket tucked under the wiper. I hustled to catch up with the parking attendant who was about to escape from the lot. Upon hearing my concern, she gracefully said: “Oh, maybe I misread your parking slip?” Taking the time to reexamine the slip, she calmly pointed to the expiration time, showing that, indeed, I had over-parked. Comparing the time on my phone against the time stamped on the slip, I was confused and increasingly irritated.
Within the course of our conversation I learned that while parking in the garage costs 50 cents per hour (the first hour free), the uncovered lot is 75 cents per hour and the lot across the street is 25 cents per hour. To help clarify all of this, the expiration time is conveniently printed on each parking slip, which, since I assumed all parking is 50 cents per hour, I did not take the time to read.
The attendant patiently listened to me explain how confusing a system this is and how it stands to reason that if 50 cents is good enough for an hour of garage parking it ought to be equally worthy of uncovered parking. I was just barely reasonable with her. In the end, I acknowledged that I had failed to read the parking slip, she was doing her job, and we parted ways.
Moments later, Lori and the kids arrived in festive moods, just in time for my temper to flare as I carried on about the idiotic parking system and the ticket that would cost us more than lunch, effectively putting a damper on everyone’s mood.
Before we could pull away, the attendant returned and cut me a break, which I clearly did not deserve, and in my sullen state, I failed to even thank her before she disappeared.
Later that same day, as we prepared to sit for dinner, I ask daughter Zoe to clean up the art supplies that were strewn across the kitchen. She offered a familiar reply, “I didn’t do that,” to which I calmly said, “Zoe, let’s remember to take responsibility for our actions.”
When I am stressed I often forget some of life’s basic lessons. Fortunately, my children have a way of illuminating these moments, which is a gift any time of year.
This election season, kitchen table politics
As published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette
Anticipation of Election Day results loomed. Over dinner my wife, Lori, and I discussed the logistics of getting to the polls in the morning.
Inquisitive daughter Zoe interjected, “Who are you going to vote for? We both laughed. Lori said, Obama, and 3-year-old brother, Adam, retorted, “I’m gonna vote for Mama.”
“What happens if it’s a tie?” chimed Zoe.
“What are they teaching in kindergarten these days?” I wondered aloud.
I contemplated Bush v. Gore, the passé popular vote, the imperious Electoral College, a Republican House selecting Romney, a Democratic Senate choosing Biden, and then Adam dropped his spoon on the floor and nearly fell off his chair as he wiggled to reach it. I spared everyone the civics lecture and we turned attention to kitchen cleanup, baths and bedtime stories.
Disappointed by the lack of a viable eco-friendly candidate, we consoled ourselves by traveling to the polls without burning any fossil fuels. Lori walked and I pedaled with the kids in the trailer, first dropping Adam at pre-school, then to the community center.
Weaving our way through a gauntlet of folding tables and chairs, staffed by wide-eyed seniors, Zoe and I successfully procured a ballot and headed to an open booth.
While we affixed “I Voted” stickers to Zoe for three previous elections, starting when she was 6 weeks old, I spontaneously decided to end her role as passive observer.
Madly enthusiastic about pencils, pens, letters and words, I knew she would jump at the invitation.
With voters waiting in line behind us, I tucked Zoe’s mittens under my left arm, balanced the ballot in mid-air with my left hand, held the official pen, which was tightly tethered to the booth, in my right hand, and pointed with my chin to the correct line on the ballot as I coached Zoe in the fine art of vote casting.
She drew a beautiful line, perfectly completing the broken arrow. I lifted the ballot with fatherly pride, and was horrified to see we had voted for the wrong candidate.
I instantly rationalized our vote would not alter the outcome in a state where the result would be decisive, nor did I want to disempower my daughter in her first act of suffrage, nearly a century after the passage of the 19th Amendment. Yet, in the event our president failed to be re-elected, my stomach turned at the thought of giving our one and only vote to his political opponent.
I reassured Zoe that her penmanship was wonderful and was relieved when the election judge agreed to provide us with a fresh ballot. This time we both held the pen, first casting our vote for president, then for the first woman U.S. senator in our state’s history.
The following Sunday, with the smells of homemade oatmeal-raisin muffins baking in the oven and cinnamon-apple sauce bubbling on the stove top, we gathered round the kitchen table and watched the President’s acceptance speech on YouTube.
As the first family took the stage, we noted that Sasha and Malia are only a bit younger than some of the cousins, thinking our gesture would help the kids appreciate the event. Minutes later, Zoe asked: “When are the muffins going to be done.” And, echoing her disinterest, Adam glared at the computer screen:
“When is he going to stop talking?”
One of the memorable lines of the speech, for me, was Obama’s reminder that “Democracy in a country of 300 million people is noisy, messy and complicated.” Just like family life, I thought to myself. Then I smiled, recalling the adage: Politics starts at the kitchen table.