Big ears, big nose, big hassle

Evil MickeyAt least, that’s my initial reaction to the family’s upcoming trip to Disneyland. Yes, I know that I’m the dad, and if I so dread a journey to the Magic Kingdom, then I have nobody to blame but myself. But the fact is that we get to punch three tickets on this trip: We take Tony to a place that is, admittedly, a childhood Mecca, we visit my father-in-law/step-mother-in-law, and we visit my mother-in-law (never the twain to meet, lest a massive fireball consume much of the LA area. Come to think of it …). That is, we’re packing an awful lot of grownup pain into one week in order to clear the schedule for the rest of the year.

Now, I have to admit that I had a great time at Disneyland when I made my own childhood pilgrimage. Of course, that was … err … something like 38 years ago. My tastes have shifted a bit since then. I seem to remember my father grimacing a lot and searching — in vain — for a drink.

In vain, I say, because you still can’t purchase alcohol in Disneyland. A more sadistic policy I can’t begin to contemplate. But booze is blessedly available, I’m told, at something called Disney California Adventure Park, which used to be one of Disneyland’s parking lots. We’re getting park-hopper passes, which allow us access to the neighboring venues, so I’ll get to see which is magicker — and grab a much-needed drink.

I’m going to need that drink, I’m sure. Let’s see, two days of ricocheting like a pinball off the wife-beater-bedecked hordes from Middle America and their ill-bred spawn. And the soundtrack will be, “It’s a Small World…” over and over again. Yep, I’m going to need that drink. Or electroshock therapy.

Do I come off as a snob? Damn straight, I’m a snob! I also hate crowds, and I have a low tolerance for kid-oriented activities (hence holding off on fatherhood until I was 40.) Frankly, if there is a Hell, and I wake up there, I’m convinced it’s going to be a theme park. A really crowded theme park.

Tony is going to have a wonderful time, I’m sure, comparable to the joy I felt lo those many years ago, when I first discovered Pirates of the Caribbean and the wonderful world of Tomorrowland (I’m still waiting for the punchcards I’ll need to access the home terminal connected to the community super-computer!) For a kid, the only thing that beats rides and cheerful characters is rides and cheerful characters geared towards lovers of pirates and Star Wars.

The kid scores across the board.

Who knows? I may even shed a bit of my accumulated curmudgeonliness and enjoy some of our time at The Happiest Place on Earth.

But then there’s Legoland. Crap, we’re going there, too … Well, at least I’m told there’s one place to get a drink …

A (dental) rite of passage

Tony’s first tooth came out with little drama. Between one word and the next, while chattering about (what else?) Star Wars in the back seat of the car on the way to school, his loose tooth tumbled out of his mouth and down his shirt.

That was easy.

The next one … Not so much.

We had just come out of Tae Kwon Do, Tony was strapped in to his seat, chomping on a fruit leather as I backed out of the parking space. I heard a crunching sound.

“Crunch?” I remember thinking. “Fruit leathers aren’t crunchy.”

That’s when the howling started. Tony had bit down exactly wrong (or right, depending on how you see it) on the fruit leather and dislodged the loose(ish) tooth right next to the first one to go. Ouch. Yeah, that apparently hurt quite a lot.

And boy, was there a lot of blood. Like, horror movie quantities. It was dripping down his chin as he wailed, so there was a vampire-run-amok quality to his image in the rear-view mirror as I hastily re-parked the car.

Thirty seconds later I was rinsing his mouth out with a water bottle and then packing his gum with a wad of tissue when a mom with another tot in tow walked over to the SUV next to mine. Quickly surveying the scene, she correctly judged that, despite all evidence, I was neither beating my son to death nor being consumed by the undead. She introduced herself as a dentist, produced a sealed packet of sterile gauze from her purse,and then went on her way.

Oh, thank you, wandering puller-of-teeth and filler-of-cavities.

Funny how I’d blocked these particular memories from my own childhood, but now they’re all coming back. Forget fruit leathers; right now, the pantry is full of apple sauce.

Kiddy omerta or (mostly) stop snitching

Soon after Tony started kindergarten, Wendy and I noticed that he seemed to be taking the school’s code of discipline a bit … too seriously. Specifically, I remember him coming home and telling us that he’d informed the teacher that one of his classmates was out of her seat when she was supposed to be in place drawing or tracing or fingerpainting or engaged in whatever educationally enriching pastime was supposed to occupy the little monsters’ attention.

Had she bothered him?

No, she just broke the rules.

Now, Wendy and I may have occasional differences, but neither one of us is interested in raising a snitch, a stool pigeon, a cascittuni.

Not that it’s so dramatic. Pretty much every parent spends extensive time and effort trying to get the kids to follow some basic rules, only to find the once anarchic, feral beasts turning into rigid enforcers of every petty rule upon one another. Their natural personalities and their upbringing both have a say in how far they take the self-deputization, but it’s pretty common.

So, what to do?

I didn’t want Tony becoming a tattletale, but neither did I want him sitting quiet while some deranged classmate ran amok with a sharpened popsicle stick. It was time to start drawing distinctions. Certainly confusing distinctions at this early, black-and-white stage of development. But distinctions nonetheless.

So I told Tony that a lot of rules are in place to make the lives of teachers and other authority figures easier, but he didn’t need to worry about those — let the teacher enforce his own rules. In fact, a lot of those rules are silly, so while he shouldn’t go out of his way to break them, he doesn’t need to worry if his friends break them. I told him that he should only tell on rule-breakers if he thinks somebody might get hurt, or if somebody is taking or breaking stuff that doesn’t belong to them.

I think that’s enough for now. So far, it’s working. Tony seems to understand the distinction between petty red tape and rules that actually protect people and property. And he understand that his parents don’t emphasize the former but consider the latter worthwhile. We haven’t had any more tattletale incidents, though he has complained about the snitching ways of a classmate.

I’m sure we’ll run into a few speedbumps, but we had to start somewhere, and this was as good a place as any to set the precedent for (mostly) no snitching.

That’s right. I’m an old bastard

At Walmart, this morning, I wheeled my cart up to check-out and noticed that, of the … oh …. fifteen? … eighteen? … checkout registers, exactly one was open. There’s a line, of course, because people have an odd habit, during daylight hours, of wanting to buy stuff at places where there’s stuff to be bought.

Well fuck that, I think. And I headed to the self-checkout registers. I did this despite the fact that I had … loose vegetables.

If you’re familiar with self-checkout registers, you know that the problem with loose vegetables is that the whole process of purchasing the damned things is dependent on some half-wit clerk entering the right product code so that, say, the big picture of carrots and the words “bulk carrots” that pop up when you hit the “Look Up Item” button on the touch screen send usable information to the computer when you jab ’em.

The right code was not entered for loose carrots.

Or for Gala apples.

And the twitchy device threw a fit and signaled “unexpected item in bagging area” when … I don’t know … the air pressure in the vicinity experienced a mild shift?

Then, of course, my age had to be verified because I had three bottles of surprisingly drinkable plonk that The Wine Group has been kind enough to bottle for Walmart at $2.97 a pop.

This means the the 19-year-old seat-warmer overseeing the robotic station had to motivate her shapeless derrier in my direction a total of four times. The fourth time she politely suggested that I might be happier standing in line at a manned register in the future. I don’t think I was being extra-sensitive in perceiving that politeness as the variety generally directed at whispy-haired folks who treat television remote controls with the fear and awe often assigned to downed fighter planes by Pacific cargo cultists.

18K of RAM, bitches!Would it have been worth my while to tell her that I still have my old Timex Sinclair 1000 (with the 16K add-on RAM module)? That I can hand-code HTML? That I once converted a 386 PC to a 486 by swapping out motherboards on my kitchen table to save myself the price of a new computer? So I know the problem ain’t with me, but with her pimply boyfriend, who’s been banging her in the freight bay instead of maintaining this piece of electronic crap.

Hell no. That would have confirmed me as an artifact in her mind. So I just smiled and completed my transaction.

Now get off my lawn, honey, before I hack your bank account. Yeah, I can guess your password (by the way, you misspelled “Bieber”). Let me just get this cassette drive warmed up …

The mad archer is loose

Prized possessions that they are, the bow and arrow we built together are locked away in Tony’s room, so I don’t have a photograph to offer. But he’s very proud of them, and damned if the arrow doesn’t travel quite a distance, despite being fired from a homemade weapon of green wood strung with mason’s line (after an unsatisfying experiment with jute string).

The idea came from … well … every boy’s imagination, of course. But it was inspired by The Dangerous Book for Boys and its nostalgia for the risky, outdoorsy, jury-rigged boyhoods of yore. I experienced much of that kind of boyhood myself (can you say tennis-ball-can mortar?), and I’m inspired to hand it on to Tony.

Of course, the British authors of Dangerous recommended types of wood entirely unavailable in Arizona. Ash? Where in hell am I going to get ash? So we used a mesquite branch. But mesquite is covered — I mean covered — in thorns. So I shaved them off with my pocket knife.

Which is yet another reason to make sure Tony has a pocket knife!

Then we found out that jute string is crap, lasting maybe three shots before shredding. So we broke out the mason’s line.

And that arrow travels! It’s only a green-wood bow, good until it dries and loses its springiness, but that dowel arrow flies far enough to give any mothers or roaming wildlife a few tense moments.

Tony is very happy now. And more dangerous, of course.

It ain’t luck

Bouncing around town with Tony to Tae Kwon Do, the library, the playground, school, doctors’ offices and the like, it’s inevitable that I see a variety of parenting styles. I don’t think there’s any one right way to parent, but it’s obvious that there are some … ummm … styles of parenting that are steeped in failure — soaking in it, wallowing in suckage — while the successful ones have a few broad commonalities.

In any area where kids and parents gather, I’ll see some children who are reasonably well-behaved on an ongoing basis, and others who seem to have slipped unobserved past the gates of Hell to wreak havoc on the world at large. The well-behaved ones are almost always the ones with parents who treat them with some amount of affection, positive reinforcement and kindness. The monsters are the ones whose parents bark at them, insult them, or ignore them.

Usually — almost always — the well-behaved kids and affectionate parents show signs of being gainfully employed and self-supporting — not wealthy, but obviously making their own way in the world: clean, with decent clothes, functioning cars, and a sense of organization and purpose. The abusive and neglectful families (as likely to be random guardians of the moment as actual parents) of the hellions all too often (with occasional unfortunate exceptions) show indications of precariously perching on the bottom rung of the socio-economic ladder, or maybe just teetering on the brink of the abyss, surrounded as they are by a funk of despair, BO and stale cigarette smoke.

You’d think, wouldn’t you, that the people with, let us say, less-admirable parenting habits might see some cause-and-effect relationship here? One style (or group of styles) of parenting seems linked to better-behaved children and all the indicators of a measure of economic success in life. The other style correlates with a multi-generational train wreck lived within the confines of trailer parks and government-subsidized housing.

Except … Except …

A couple of times I’ve been approached, and seen other good parents approached, to be told that we’re “lucky” to have such smart, well-behaved kids.

Lucky.

Isn’t it funny how much good luck seems to result from a modicum of planning, work and giving a shit?

But if you sit around waiting to be blessed with a “lucky” kid, time is going to drag on …

That sense of accomplishment

I’m going to stop apologizing for not posting often. As it turns out — who knew? — taking care of a kid in half-day kindergarten is more time consuming than taking care of a kid in full-day pre-school. That’s especially true when you don’t just plant the tyke in front of the TV when he gets home, but insist on math lessons, reading, fun excursions and activities like Tae Kwon Do.

Soon the student will become the master!

Tony becomes just a little bit more dangerous as he earns his gold belt.

That’s my clever little segue into boasting about Tony’s transition from a white belt to a gold belt in his chosen martial art. The school held a nice graduation ceremony/ marketing effort/holiday party the week before Christmas at which Tony and his classmates showed off their skills and were awarded their new belts (this one has velcro, so I don’t have to fumble with the damned knot anymore).

Tae Kwon Do has turned out to be one of the better things we’ve done for the little guy. As you’d expect, his agility, strength and balance have developed in a dramatic way. But so has his self-confidence and self-discipline. He wants to achieve, he does achieve and he is rightfully proud of his accomplishments.

He’s also acquiring self-defense skills in the process, including an awareness of potentially dangerous situations and some mental preparation for dealing with them. I think that’s important.

There’s also value in having a safe outlet for natural aggression. After watching her sons pound each other bloody, my once pacifistic sister signed off on my father’s proposal to purchase boxing gloves and protective gear. Now when they want to tangle, they have a match in the back yard under somewhat controlled circumstances (and they’re better prepared for unofficial matches in the schoolyard). Tony can release some energy by sparring and hitting practice dummies.

I’ll recommend martial arts instruction to any parents, with the caveat that finding teachers who have the patience and experience to work with children is key. I can imagine some amped-up adrenaline case doing a lot more harm than good.

A little bit ahead of the pack

As it turns out, Tony is well-advanced over most of the other kids in his kindergarten class — possibly all of them, though I’m not exactly running the little tykes through a skill appraisal just to see where my own son ranks. I expected him to excel at reading, and in fact he’s doing extremely well. Where I’ve seen some of his classmates struggle to sound out a few letters in series, Tony now reads the stories in his Highlights magazines on his own, as well as short books. Partially this is because we nudge him to do so — on our weekly trips to the library, at least one book he selects has to be one he will read to me (Peanuts books have been a hit, recently). But he’s also motivated; my wife wandered out of our bedroom one morning to find him perusing the the phonics book I used to teach him to read. It was open on his lap.

“What are you doing?” she asked.

“I’m looking over my reading lessons so I don’t forget them.”

Our five-year-old is voluntarily reviewing his lessons? Cool.

Despite my relative innumeracy, Tony is also advanced in math, though not so dramatically so as in reading. I’ve been running him through those math game books you can pick up at book stores, and he’s acquired a good, basic understanding of addition and subtraction. I’ll formalize the lessons though — I just ordered a math home study kit that will, I hope, prove as successful as the phonics program.

Of course, this means that I’m really sending him to kindergarten so he can socialize and so I have time to work out. There’s value in that, too.

There’s only so much energy to spare

If I’m not posting on this blog as often as I’d like, it’s only because I’ve discovered how remarkably little can be accomplished in the brief time between dropping your kid off at kindergarten after breakfast and picking him up in time for lunch — especially since I insist on a regular exercise regimen. In the remaining fragments of hours, sometimes it comes down to a choice between a little writing, or nailing shingles back over that new bald patch on the roof.

Complicating the issue is sleep deprivation. Every parent knows about sleep deprivation from that first difficult year when you emerge from a brutal schedule of night-time feedings and naps snatched while leaning against the wall to realize, to your astonishment, that you haven’t run the car into a utility pole or given the kid up for adoption (although dropping that bundle of joy somewhere certainly came up in conversation with your significant other, didn’t it?)

Thunder and lightning (very, very frightening)

Animation by Sebastien D'ARCO

But sleep deprivation still pops up in odd ways. Take last night’s thunderstorm. Upon the first crash of thunder, Max, the stray we adopted after finding him wandering in the desert, bolted straight for our bed. This is a dog that sustained himself in the wilderness and who I’ve had to physically restrain from mauling coyotes on the hiking trail. But the one thing he fears is thunder. So with a single leap he hurdled his eleven-year-old body onto the bed and perched his 65 pounds on my stomach.

The dog was only seconds ahead of Tony, who charged into the room with toy bunny in hand, scared equally shit-less by the thunder. He quickly crawled between mommy and daddy while I tried to shift the canine weight on my belly to some less agonizing position. Ultimately, I ended up with the dog sprawled lengthwise on top of me, Tony’s elbow in my ear, and Wendy barking instructions at the assembled multitude.

The only resident of the household seemingly unfazed by the storm was Sadie, our second dog, who we adopted from the Humane Society. So far as I can tell, after suffering starvation and abuse before she came to our home, she’s so impressed by our ability to deliver meals on a regular schedule that no mere nocturnal flash and boom could detract from her enjoyment of a full belly and a scratch behind the ears.

Well, I’m glad somebody has faith in me.

Needless to say, the night was effectively over. Fortunately, there’s a plentiful coffee supply in the house.

And that, in part, is why I seem to have so little energy to spare these days. Though, granted, it doesn’t explain why I’m writing now.

Who is that mysterious stranger?

I’ve written before about the perils of “stranger danger,” but the fact is, for stay-at-home dads, often we seem to be the dangerous strangers.

You notice it at the playground when you wander in with your kid. The moms simultaneously keep their distance and hover over their little darlings — not-entirely-compatible dual agendas necessitated, apparently, by the uncertain direction in which we’ll head once we inevitably whip our dicks out while straddling the see-saw.

It’s OK, moms. We won’t tell anybody that you’ve been texting your friends while your kids eat stale Doritos off the ground at the bottom of the slide.

And at various activities, in the parental holding pens, the moms chat among themselves while trying to pretend that we’re not perched on the folding chair next to them with our canvas-and-leather-goddamn-it-it’s-masculine kiddy bags on our laps.

Of course, there’s a reason. Stay-at-home dads are still a relative rarity, though increasingly common. What to make of us remains a bit of a dilemma for some women. And, yes, there’s a sexual-tension element. Never mind that lesbian moms might hit on them too; that almost never happens, while getting hit-on by guys is a regular event. An unknown guy in the vicinity with apparent free time on his hands might well turn out to be an unwelcome annoyance (if we’re really welcome … that’s a separate problem). Even if some moms don’t fear that we’re gonna get all octo-handy with the first woman that chats us up, they don’t want to look over-friendly to the rest of the herd.

Frankly, bridging the gap often requires an introduction from a female — either our wives or existing women friends. That makes us safe(ish).

Of course, bridging that gap might be a hazard of its own. When I finally achieved “safe” status among the observer seats at Tae Kwon Do, it engendered an extended conversation that kept me from a gripping chapter in the latest novel I’d tossed in that rugged man-bag of mine.

But … Hell. Controlling timing in life is just a lost cause.

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