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.

Our father who ain’t in heaven

We live in an overwhelmingly religious area. It’s not buckle-on-the-Bible-belt religious — there’s a lot more tolerance than that. But there’s a certain assumption that everybody’s generally with the god-and-church program. That program is a general monotheism in the Judeo-Christian tradition, and anybody in the ballpark gets a pass. The only time I’ve ever seen things turn nasty was when an oddball cult drifted down this way after being pushed out of Sedona by real estate prices. The 49-foot plastic statue of “mother earth” they erected was forcibly torn down after the local mouth-breathers gave enough testimony to fuel a flotilla of First Amendment lawsuits, had the group been so inclined (the cult has its own reasons for staying out of court).

Being (lukewarm) Jewish, my wife gets a pass. But as an atheist, I’m not in the ballpark. Our diverse household makes it a little more interesting not just in social interactions, but also in terms of Tony’s religious upbringing. It’s not that we dwell on religion — quite the contrary — but religious issues pop up in weird ways.

When Tony lost his beloved pink bunny, Mom quickly assured the tyke that the toy was now in heaven with God. Besides being an interesting theological innovation, this left me in a bit of a tight spot. I first conducted an impromptu funeral for the departed plush toy before later, oh-so-gently, and in unrelated circumstances letting Tony know that I don’t believe in gods or an afterlife. He doesn’t seem troubled by the revelation, and I see no reason to make a big issue out of matter.

Not making a big issue of it is important to me. For one thing, religion just doesn’t matter to me in general. I’m not going to have anybody’s zealotry jammed down my throat, but neither am I interested in belittling the sincere beliefs of perfectly nice people who just happen to hold views at odds with my own about humanity’s role in the universe. I was a bit troubled to see the tack taken by one of my wife’s medical school classmates, who is raising her sons in an area as rural as ours, but more rigidly religious. Rather than treat the enthusiastic deism of their neighbors as harmless beliefs that she just doesn’t share, she’s taken to mocking those views, and the intelligence of the people who hold them. I mean, it’s one thing to be proud and open about your beliefs; it’s a bit different to set your kids up for a religious war with everybody else.

For no good reason.

And there usually isn’t a good reason because, unless people plan to turn their views into legislation or jihad, it doesn’t need to matter to me a bit what they believe. As Thomas Jefferson said, “it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” If I start looking for unnecessary confrontations with people over religious views they have no interest in foisting on me, then it’s clear that I’m the one who’s a fanatic, or else I’m just a jerk.

So I’ll raise my kid to be a religious skeptic, but respectful of other people’s beliefs. And he’ll eventually come to his own conclusions after hearing from mom, dad and his friends.

On that note, here’s Penn Jillette discussing the same topic:

Stranger Danger … err … Danger

Except for the true fuck-ups among us, who I feel safe in assuming don’t bother to read parenting blogs, we raise our kids in a safe environment surrounded by people who love and indulge, or at least tolerate, the little tykes. That’s a warm and reassuring environment. So I have no excuse for failing to anticipate that pulling my son aside, placing a hand on his shoulder and warning him that some of the adults he encounters in his daily life may want to kidnap him, eviscerate his corpse and wear his skull for a hat might cause a bit of upset.

Tony loved Tae Kwon Do at first, but after about two weeks he started to complain that he didn’t feel well when it was time for class — the usual vague and morphing symptoms you get from a five-year-old trying to get out of doing something. My wife and I pressed him, and sure enough, he still liked Tae Kwon Do — but the brief “stranger danger” portion of the class scared the shit out of him.

We’d briefly addressed “stranger danger” at home, but I didn’t push it because I think it’s overdone. Yes, I want Tony to be cautious of strangers, but the fact is that kids are usually victimized by family and friends, not random predators on the street. So we’ve told him not to get in cars with strangers, not to let people touch him in ways that make him feel uncomfortable, and similar warnings, all handled with a light touch.

His Tae Kwon Do teacher also touches — gently and reassuringly it seemed to me — on stranger danger. He raises a few scenarios, emphasizes that most strangers are good people, and reminds the kids that the techniques they’re learning are just-in-case skills that can help them in the unlikely event that anything bad happens.

The teacher doesn’t talk about it in every class and he doesn’t beat the kids over  the head with the issue, but somehow his take on “stranger danger” triggered fears that mine didn’t.  Tony has been dreading the next warning about monsters in human form roaming the streets of his once-safe world.

Well, I can’t undo what has been done, I can’t change the Tae Kwon Do school’s curriculum, and I wouldn’t completely neglect these warnings anyway. So my wife and I found ourselves exploiting a new and unexpected teaching moment.

Fear of “stranger danger” became an opportunity to talk to Tony about the things that have scared us in the past, but which we did anyway because they were worth doing. They’re worth doing because we end up enjoying them, or because we get something out of them that’s worth enduring the jitters. It’s OK to be scared, we said, and being brave means being scared and doing something worthwhile anyway.

That seemed to do the trick. Tony is still scared of “stranger danger” but he’s on-board with the idea that Tae Kwon Do is worth the occasional moment of discomfort. Good for us for pulling a small victory out of our lack of foresight.

Someday, I’ll find a way to explain to Tony that his old man is usually too stupid to know when he should be scared.

Dress for (childhood) success

My son, Tony’s charter school has a … well … uniform suggests that it’s stricter than it is, and dress code sounds a bit looser than reality. Let’s call it a sort-of uniform. He has to wear khaki or navy shorts or chinos, red, white or blue polos with the school logo, or white button-downs. It’s the U.S. flag, rendered in separates, plus khaki — patriotism, as set off by a neutral tone. The “uniform” is sufficiently generic and locally popular enough that everybody from Wal-Mart to Old Navy to local shops has a section set aside that meets the requirements, and several businesses in town can handle embroidering the logo on the polos.

I can remember a time in my distant youth when the idea of a school dress code, let alone a uniform, would have set my anarchistic heart a-boil. How dare those fascist bastards tell students what to wear!

But that was before I watched a generation of tweens adopt garb that made Times Square hookers look tastefully attired. I’m sorry, but “cameltoe”‘ should not be visible on a 12-year-old girl. And I know that I’m a bit behind the times, but I stubbornly maintain that boys on their way to … anywhere … shouldn’t flash underwear between the boundaries of their wife-beaters and their baggy shorts.

So screw my old black-flaggish sentiments and bring on the polos and chinos. Or, more accurately, watch as I choose to associate with people and institutions who maintain slightly higher standards. And good for them if they still fly the black flag.

Methinks the bunny could use a jacket

Dad and the kid get ready for a nice-casual dinner

It’s not just school — my wife and I are raising Tony to present himself better than seems to be the norm today in the world around us. I’ve been to weddings — and not casual affairs either — where people showed up in jeans (and acted like barbarians). I’d like Tony to recognize that as unacceptable unless specifically invited to dress down by the hosts (the behavior is another matter — he doesn’t ever get to carry on like a Vandal sacking Rome). And I’ve been to nice restaurants where clods showed up wearing t-shirts and shorts and got bent out of shape when they were tucked in by the kitchen. I want Tony to reflexively shy away from doing that because he sees it as disrespectful to the other guests and the establishment (as well as making him look like an idiot).

Manners have to match. That means simple courtesy (really, how hard is it to say “please” and “thank you”?) and a generally respectful attitude toward the people he meets. That doesn’t necessarily mean he has to memorize the difference between a fish fork and a … ummm … OK, well at least I know there’s such a thing as a fish fork.  But basic table manners are required as part of our small effort to keep the next dark age at bay for one more generation.

Yeah, I know that I risk stirring up a hornets nest by suggesting that anybody should show a little concern for the people around them and put their best foot forward at anytime, anywhere. That’s tough. I guess I’m just a rigid son of a bitch.

Tony has a P.J. O'Rourke moment at a formal event

To achieve our ends, good behavior is just the expected norm in our house and we’ve treated dressing well as a pleasure. Even at five, Tony has two sport coats — one linen and the other cotton. He picked out his own bow tie and his neck tie. He doesn’t have to dress up, he gets to dress up for restaurants, weddings and other slightly (or very) special occasions.

And it has worked so far. He particularly favors the bow tie.

It’s not like we’re dolling him up like Little Lord Fauntleroy. He mostly wears t-shirts and shorts during the summer and pull-overs and long pants during the cooler weather. But there’s an understanding that nicer clothes is appropriate for nicer occasions. And that it’s respectful (and enjoyable) to wear those clothes. I think that’s a fair standard to maintain.

We’re not breaking the bank to do this, either. His linen jacket cost twelve bucks on a remainder rack and the chino jacket set us back another twenty (mom did indulge him on the ties, though). I also made sure he has a decent pair of brown, lace-up shoes in the rotation — they don’t cost any more than velcro, though they’re getting harder to find. He was proud when he learned to tie them all by himself, too. It’s not exactly black tie, but it sets a decent tone for a kid his age.

I have no illusions that Tony will happily stick to the program throughout his life. He’ll hit his teen years and he’ll rebel. But at least we’re giving him a decent starting point for that rebellion.

Try not to dwell too much on the future

I’m reading Conspiracies of Rome by Richard Blake. It’s one of those rare books set in ancient Rome after the western Roman Empire has fallen. The protagonist, Aelric, is a Briton sent to Rome in 609 to make copies of books to benefit the monasteries and church schools in his home country. Upon reaching the old imperial city, he wanders depopulated streets filled with rubble, poverty and faded glory. It’s a fascinating book in its own right, but especially so since I’ve also been reading the Marcus Didius Falco series of books by Lindsey Davis, which is set in first-century Rome, when the city was wealthy and functioning.

The maintenance staff unionized, didn't they?

Will a future artist capture the rubble of New York as well as Canaletto portrayed the ruins of Rome? Will the paintings just look like the Rotten Apple in the '70s?

In the Davis books, Falco is explicitly portrayed as a plebeian — a cash-strapped commoner. But the carefully researched stories portray him bathing daily, eating Spanish olive oil and other imported foods, enjoying access to entertainments from around the world and generally living comfortably by historical standards, if not at a 21st century level.

Over five centuries later, Aelric rents rooms at an inn chosen, in part, because it’s one of the rare establishments that still has running water. He walks the same Forum that Falco walked, but sees it packed with mud and filled with broken statues. The temples that Falco once viewed with a cynical eye have been stripped of their marble and gold leaf, the Colosseum that Falco watched being built has already had its heyday and is now abandoned. The sewers are clogged, the aqueducts broken and the population a fraction of its former height, devastated by the long decline and collapse of the West, the city’s reconquest by the now-Constantinople-based empire, disease, invasion …

Although the protagonists in both Blake’s and Davis’s books are fictional characters, I can’t help but imagine the descendants of the first-century Falco and his patrician girlfriend, illiterate, hungry and scratching in the dirt, staring at the visiting barbarian Aelric, himself a descendant of the people who smashed Roman civilization in Britain.

And the contrast between the two visions of Rome inevitably makes we wonder what lies in store for my son, Tony, and his children, and so on. What world will they live in as the generations go forward? Because nothing lasts forever. The country in which I now live will, one day, fall or be pushed aside just as Rome was, suffering the fate of all civilizations. There will, once again, be war, poverty, ignorance …

No, I don’t have a crystal ball. I just have a knowledge of history and how it tends to repeat itself. Of course, my history books will one day lie rotting, just like the scrolls Aelric tries to salvage, and the Internet connection I’m using now will likely suffer the same fate as the Roman aqueducts, which were smashed for tactical advantage and left useless because nobody had the resources to rebuild.

And then, after that, a renaissance will start, as some new civilization rises up.

There’s a fair chance, since I’ve already reproduced, that my descendants will be mixed up in all of that decline, turmoil and rebirth as the generations pass. Does it surprise you to know that I’ve had the 3 a.m. horrors worrying that my great-great-whatever may have to dig through garbage heaps in the ruins?

But that’s always been the case, hasn’t it? The option is to toss the dice and trust your descendants to deal with what life throws their way, or else to bow out of the game entirely. I almost bowed out, but ultimately didn’t. All I can do now is to hand Tony the tools and confidence he’ll need to deal with what comes his way, and hope that he’ll do the same in turn should he have children of his own.

This afternoon, I’m taking him to his Tae Kwon Do class. It’s a small thing, but he enjoys the running and kicking and blocks, even if he has no idea he’s picking up the fundamentals of unarmed self-defense, self-discipline and physical fitness. Lots of small things like that can really add up.

Of course, he’s getting trained to kick my ass, if he ever so desires, so my personal fall may come a little sooner than the next sack of Rome.

If he can take me.

Which tribe are you?

I’ve written before about the tribal impulse among people. By that I mean the tendency to flock with those like ourselves and to turn — sometimes savagely — against the “other” that threatens our alike-hood. Well, I’m as susceptible to tribalism as the next person, provided the next person is also as much at home at truck stops as at the opera. Well … maybe I’m a little less tribal than some people. But, I’ll tell you, nothing brings out the instinct to circle the wagons and repel the outsiders like spawning.

It started as an effort to meet people we could just talk to. Most of our friends are (and are likely to remain) childless, and as much as we continue to enjoy their company, there’s a certain disconnect between parents and those who still eat late dinners and keep fragile objects within reach of sticky little hands. Of course, meeting people we could talk to soon became meeting people with whom we’d want to talk, and off to the races we went, building our tribe.

I’m not trying to imply that our tribal quest is a bad thing — in fact, it’s a natural thing. If you’re going to build connections with people, you need to have something in common, and that something seems to become a bit particular when the wee ones are involved. It’s odd how extreme that quest can become once kids enter the picture.

I don’t really know how we’ve done it, but somehow, in small-town Arizona, we’ve managed to build connections with several other families of late-spawning, well-educated, reasonably cosmopolitan types. Given the propensity for even the local gentry to venture no further than Phoenix to acquire necessary educational credentials before returning home to breed as quickly as possible and never again venture beyond the familiar, this is quite a coup.

Most (though not all) of our new friends are, therefore, not originally from around here. They’re college-educated, in their late thirties and forties, with young children. They have cultural interests, are generally secular-ish, or at least comfortable in a room full of secular types. One has a picture on his wall of a well-known bar in which I used to imbibe in New York City, and can not only quote the drink prices, but also evoke the spicy mustard they keep on the tables. At least two, quite serendipitously, have political views similar to my own.

They are, in fact, a hell of a lot more like us than are our pre-breeding friends. Before having kids, I chose my amigos because they were enjoyable people to know for a variety of reasons, including outdoorsiness, wit, good hearts and the ability to be in one another’s company without engaging in violent conflict. Now it all seems to be about finding fairly narrowly defined versions of ourselves, with the connections largely driven by reproductive choices.

It’s freaky, not consciously planned, and yet I can’t claim that this just dropped into my lap.

Tribalism really is natural — so natural that, once a kid is in the picture, you don’t immediately realize that your instincts are pushing you to huddle with a like-minded herd.

Culinary Interlude: Caponata … err … ratatouille

I love food — Mediterranean-sourced food in particular (though I won’t turn down anything tasty no matter where it’s from). And one of life’s great mysteries is: Is ratatouille or caponata the better dish?

The answer of course is “yes.”

Actually, sometimes when I start cooking, I’m not sure whether I’m on my way to making caponata or ratatouille. Either the celery and sugar gets added, or it doesn’t. And maybe I reach for green olives and find calamatas instead. It’s OK — everybody wins either way. Since I tend to split the difference between caponata and ratatouille, a purist might take issue with my recipe, but I’m willing to bet they’re both descended from some dish ancient Romans served up way back when (the preparation of which no doubt involved heated arguments in Latin over the proper recipe), as translated through 2,000 years and shifting regional tastes.

Baked ratatouille topped with an egg and fresh basil. Nobody will know you've been repurposing the same batch of stewed veggies for days.

Here’s my take on caponata:

1 eggplant (diced into 1/2-inch cubes)
2 zucchini (diced into 1/2-inch cubes)
1 cup diced celery
1 onion (chopped)
2 cloves of garlic (minced)
1 large tomato (chopped)
1/2 cup sliced good-quality large green olives
1 tbs drained capers
1 tbs tomato paste
1 tsp sugar
healthy splash of red wine vinegar
Pinch of oregano, fresh or dried
salt and pepper to taste

Dice and salt the eggplant in a collander (more ritual at this point than anything — I haven’t had a bitter eggplant in years).

While the eggplant does its thing, saute the celery in 2 tbs of olive oil until it softens. Add the onion and garlic and saute that until it softens and gets a bit brown.

Empty the celery-onion-garlic mixture into a large bowl.

Add about a quarter-cup of olive oil to the pan and saute the eggplant and zucchini cubes.

Add the celery-onion-garlic mixture to the pan, along with the chopped tomato, capers, vinegar, sugar, tomat0 paste, oregano and olives.

Let the combined ingredients simmer for about 20 minutes — covered at first, and then uncovered for the last five minutes (use your judgment, based on the amount of liquid present, since you want this to thicken).

If you leave out the celery, vinegar  and sugar, add two chopped roasted red bell peppers, swap the green olives for calamatas or no olives and replace the oregano with basil or thyme, you have more of a ratatouille.

I like making big frigging batches of this stuff, because I get a lot of mileage out of it. I serve it as a side dish, on rice or on pasta. But one of my favorite presentations is to spoon the stuff into ramekins, crack an egg over the top, drizzle on a bit of olive oil, salt and pepper and bake the ramekins until the eggs set. Top with fresh basil, add bread and salad and get ready to impress the assembled diners with your artful leftovers.

Oh yeah. And the best thing about caponata/ratatouille? My kid loves it. Especially with the egg over the top.

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