Sunday, December 22, 2013

Overheard 2013 Runners Up

As the boys get older the unintentional comedy gets sparser.  This year, Teddy made far
Nice faces, boys.
more oops funnies than Charlie did through the year.  In the interest of giving the boys equal time in the Christmas letter, the cutting room floor all belongs to Ted:

Holding his trembling hand toward something he wanted:
T: I’m using The Force.
P: How’s that working out for you?
T: Not great.

With an ice cube cooling his hot chocolate:
T: My ice cube weared out fast.

Dictating an email message to family members about losing his first tooth:
T: I lost my first tooth! Ya…a…y!  In ‘yay’, put 10 A’s.”

To go down memory lane follow the tag link for Christmas Letter to see how many cute things both boys said in past years.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

An Everyday

An Everyday

a prose poem
November 2013

Almost as soon as I get into the 
night-lit bathroom on Saturday,
I hear the smallest knock one hears
in our house.

After my "Come in." (compliant
like his mother was as a child), he
enters, his hair a true sculptural 
artifact of sleep.  He never sleeps in long.

Running the hot water for my 
shave, I watch him paste up his toothbrush.
Rather than "Good morning", he says
"I need cold."

Sighing, I switch from
hot to cold for him.

Just like I do, he sticks the pad
of his pinkie into the stream to
see if it's cooled to his liking.

Then it's back to hot for my shave.
And we're standing side by side
Y shaving, 1/2Y brushing.

When I thought about being a
father, I thought about feeding
and clothing, looking out for health,
teaching children right from wrong
and how the world works.

I didn't think much about
shaving cream and toothpaste
squeezed out simultaneously.
I didn't contemplate
competing demands for hot and cold water.

I didn't reckon with
a roommate thirty years my junior
sharing the sink.

While I help them learn how to live,
I also live with them.

And the lack of these 
moments will make me miss
them when they have new roommates
in East Lansing or Lewisburg.

Quiet dinners and clean, orderly rooms
will make me miss them.
Already, when they're gone for just
a day, their mother and I mock-remind
each other of chores to do.
They are not there to remind.
How will we handle it when they're
not coming back to share our

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Talkin' Turkey

Teddy focuses on the fundamentals this Thanksgiving

I'm thankful for
  • food
  • God
  • shelter
  • my brother

Friday, October 18, 2013

Teddy's first contract

Our boys have always played together a lot.  We credit Charlie's kindness as a big brother a good deal for that.  He really loves Teddy, and he gives him time.  We've sometimes lamented that Teddy has skipped some of the kinds of play he might have engaged in at a given stage because he wanted to "play up" to the level  at which Charlie was playing.

They still do play together a lot, but the demands of middle school can really tax Charlie's availability.  It can be hard to say whether he still wants to play with Teddy the same amount but has too much of his time consumed by schoolwork and practicing his trumpet or whether he's starting to pull away from their tight playmate relationship.  He often wants to read when Teddy wants to play.  When Teddy complained to Charlie on a recent morning that Charlie always says in the morning he'll play with Teddy after school but then never does, I didn't want to hear the whining anymore.  I suggested to Teddy that he get a piece of paper and write down what Charlie said he would do and then have Charlie sign it.  Our home's general counsel was already on her way to work, so she couldn't review the document, but to my amateur eye, this looks like Teddy's first contract.
"You said you would play with me this afternoon"

It's simple and to the point - written in Teddy's own (downsloping) hand and signed by Charlie.  That signature might not hold up as evidence in a civil case, but an attorney must crawl before he can walk.

As it turns out, Charlie breached this contract.  He took an especially long time doing his homework that day, and the afternoon evaporated with no sibling play.  Teddy pointed this out to him.  Much like arguing with the referees in a sporting event, it won him nothing at the time.  On a later occasion in the week, however, a reminder of this welshing served as a guilt lever, and Charlie put down his book and went and played with little bro.  The argument that ensued over what they would play and in what order pointed out why contracts get very long and detailed.  LSAT prep begins soon, no doubt.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Sunday, September 22, 2013

A Poem for Age 40

40 is the new 38

I pause today at 40 to look forward and look back.
I’m not upset with 40. It’s a mathematic fact.
I’ve shed some pale illusions, and I’m trying to slow down.
I’ve put down roots for me and mine in a stout, three-rivered town.
I’m married to the woman I have loved since eighteen years of age.
Forty minus eighteen equals twenty two years with Paige.
My skin has spots like some big cat’s, but I lack a leopard’s fierceness.
Said skin’s unmarred by tattoo ink, intact with zero piercings.
My back acts up, and my knees are sore, especially after hoops night.
By now I know
my second toe
nail will never look right.
I take three pills each morning and another few at night.
I’ve come to fear that my next beard will grow in gray and white.
There’s less hair on my head than there used to be and more on my ears than I care for.
I find I’m too often in some room with no idea what I went there for.
We’re closer today to my younger son’s college commencement than mine.
It’s hard not to take a certain offense at the lightning passage of time.
My twin brother’s better looking, but at this point, I’m stronger.
That makes sense; he’s been forty six whole minutes longer.
I’m raising two young patriots of whom I’m duly proud.
I wonder in the mornings if all patriots are so loud.
Despite eating better and working out lately
I can't seem to get and stay below one eighty.
I sweat from the scalp when I eat something spicy
I stay in at night when the roads are too icy.
High school students look really young;
that’s something that age forty has done.
I’ve lived through eight presidents.
I own my own residence.
No man is a failure who has friends.
I hope making new ones never ends. 

(Gasp. Panting. Out of breath.)

I wouldn't trade my life today for any day that came before.
I'm poised and ready to take on what my forties have in store.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

11 reasons I love and like my 7-year-old

I file this post under the good-gravy-the-start-of-the-school-year-is-busy-and-hard-to-
bedtime birthday cupcakes
adjust-to exception to the timely birthday post rules.  Also, for the math majors, I'm offering 11 reasons I love my 7-year-old because I offered that many when his brother turned 11, and my younger-sister wife felt that posting only 7 for Teddy would be unjust.

1. He hangs on me.  I confess that I only came to see this as a positive only after complaining about it.  Having a 50 pound human drape his weight on me while seated or standing doesn't always feel like an asset.  When I complained to Paige about it, however, after snapping at Teddy to get off me while typing, she said "but he's so bonded to you".  We had a lot of one-on-one time from late 2008 until he went to Kindergarten more than two years later, and it still shows.
2. He's a helper.  From an early age, Teddy's relished opportunities to help - mixing up ingredients, shopping, fetching stuff, carrying things.
3. He has an eagle eye.  It's probably most accurate to say that I admire this quality.  Teddy sees things other people just don't - mostly of the insect variety, but also coins on the ground and punchbuggies.
4. He has a strong, accurate arm.  From the time he could stand up (way before he could catch a ball), Teddy's been able to throw a ball a surprisingly long distance right to a spot.  It's wicked fun. 
5. He feels things so strongly.  Poor kid, he got this one from his dad.  Our main priority as his parents is helping him work with strong feelings - good and bad - and behave decently no matter what they are.  Happy Teddy, though, is incredible company.
6. He draws detailed pictures.  When Teddy undertakes to doodle, he draws complicated scenes with tons of things going on.  When asked, he can narrate the whole deal - e.g. "This guy dropped from the helicopter on his skateboard and went down the ramp and then did a flip off of here and grabbed the club and hit the dragon on the head."
7. Possibly related to his eagle eye, Teddy is very observant.  He's a professional noticer of things, people and patterns and he makes connections between the things that he observes.
8. He is so cute.  He's shed his baby fat, but he still has those big moony eyes and kissable cheeks.
9. He has a younger brother's bulldog spirit.  One of our big challenges as parents of two physical boys is keeping them from fighting, but when I'm not worried about safety or hurt feelings, I admire Teddy's tenacity in taking on his younger brother at every possible competition.  I first saw it when he was about 4 and tackling his 8-year-old brother with surprising ferocity.
10. His tastes are very predictable.  The palate has expanded since this chart, but Teddy's still very easy to menu-plan for: pretzels, provolone, bananas and apple juice satisfy most of his appetites.  It will be satisfying when he gets more adventurous in his tastes, but it's logistically easy to stock a Teddy-friendly pantry.
11.  He believes deeply.  Teddy prays with a sincerity and familiarity with which we should all approach God.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Monday, August 5, 2013

11 Reasons I Love and Like my 11-year-old

A happy boy and his birthday tacos.
1. He still thinks I'm funny.  Not all the time, but sometimes, he can't help but laugh at my jokes.
2. He works hard.  He does his homework and practices his trumpet and takes baseball coaching by actually changing his stance/swing/throwing.  He can start a task and stick with it until it's done.
3. He's so sweet with smaller kids.  He showers most of that sweetness on his brother, but he loves all babies, and he loves leading younger kids in games and adventures.
4. He has few secrets (I think).  I'll just choose to believe this one for as long as I can.
5. He's affectionate with everyone in his family.  He may be more shy than he used to about showing affection to his parents in public, but he loves our nuclear family and his extended family, and he's quick with a hug, a back scratch, a pat or a tug.
6. You know where you stand with him.  He's a straight shooter.  I think his honesty comes from how confident and sure of himself he is - more qualities that will stand him in good stead.
7. He's so game and enthusiastic.  He jumps in with two feet and likes going new places and learning new things.
8. He's a big sports fan.  I'd love him regardless, but it makes it easier that we share that.  One particular thing about his sports fandom is how quickly he forms a loyalty to a team he's rooting for.  We went to one baseball game in Korea, and he's a huge Doosan Bears fan.  He's always loved Robert Morris basketball, and he likes the major league teams for which his little league teams are named.  He never watches a game without choosing a team to root for by some criteria and then sticking to that.  He loves wins and takes losses hard and knows his stuff.  We found out at the end of fifth grade that he'd been giving Monday morning Pirates updates at his school's morning assembly for two months.
9. His new friend receptors are always open.  He only has friends and friends he hasn't met yet.  We worried not at all about leaving him at a summer camp where he knew zero campers and zero counselors.  He jumped right in, and we figured he'd be mayor by the end of the week.  (Turns out, that camp doesn't have a mayor.  But if it did...)
10. He takes serious things seriously: schoolwork, injustice, his faith.
11. He's so cute.  Awkward phase shmawkward phase.  Unless it's still coming, which it probably is.  But even then, this kid will still be cute.

With love for my Charlie Barley.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Story flashback via the Moth

I love The Moth.  It's a nonprofit that features people telling true stories, live, on stage, without notes.  There's a podcast, the Moth radio hour on some public radio stations and both main stage events and "story slams".  A story slam is open mic format with a theme.  Any number of people sign up, and they pull ten names at random to tell stories.  Volunteer judges then score the stories.  The winner participates in a "grand slam" competition of all the story slam winners for the past year.  In Pittsburgh, about 300 people attend the story slam; I don't know how many people put their names in, but I'd estimate it at 20-30.  It can be a torturous setup.  Knowing that you might get to tell a story (that's supposed to hold the audience's interest and that will be judged) means that you have to prepare.  For me, that means writing the story out and trying to memorize it well enough to be able to tell it under the bright lights.  But it's like if you had a to cram for a final knowing that you then stand a 60% chance of not having to take it.  I've prepared before and not had my name called.  It can be an unpleasant emotional roller coaster.

My name got called last night, though.  It was my second time in 4 or 5 tries.  The theme was "wanderlust".  The story I told was a repackaged version of this post from August 2009.  Read on for a trip down CP memory lane.  

I don’t call myself a stay-at-home dad. It’s more accurate, but more complicated, to say that I work part time and have primary parenting responsibility. Almost as complicated as it is to work part time and have primary parenting responsibility. I cut down from full-time at my job when my son Charlie was 6 and my son Teddy was 2. The following summer I figured out that with my Monday, Tuesday, Thursday schedule, I could leave on Tuesday for a 5-day trip while using only one vacation day. My parents have a summer place in Maine. When I grew up, we’d go there for 2 or 3 weeks every summer. Making a run for the coast seemed like the perfect use of my new schedule flexibility. The fact that my wife would have to stay in Pittsburgh to work and that this would be a solo parenting adventure in the month that my boys turned 7 and 3? I was up for that; it seemed like a neat reversal of the '60s era "mom takes the kids to the Hamptons while Dad stays in Manhattan" family arrangement. It would be a downmarket version, taking a 12-year-old Honda Accord to a 6-room bungalow in a honky tonk Maine beach town, but I liked the parallels.

To be honest, I wanted to prove to myself, to my wife and to the world – which couldn’t care less – that I could take two boys 1400 miles round trip by myself. To not burden my wife, I packed everything we’d need by myself on Monday night. Clothes, beach gear, stuff to keep them entertained in the car, diapers and pullups for Teddy who was not quite potty trained. He was on that cusp between being a toddler and a pre-schooler, but he really leaned more toddler.

After work on Tuesday afternoon, I grabbed Charlie from the summer nanny, got Teddy from day care, and we set off east. About 75 miles down the turnpike, I realized I’d packed the brand new portable DVD player. and NO DVDs. [Forehead slap]. It would be a harder evening drive than I thought to my sister’s place in Queens.

We hummed across PA as you do and then confronted New York with printed google map directions, no smart phone, no GPS. These facts became important when I missed the Van Wyck expressway in Queens at 11 pm, 375 miles into the trip. My dad of the year nomination probably went out the window when I woke my three-year-old by yelling FUCK as I saw the exit ramp go by. I bungled my way around 1-3 New York boroughs acknowledging how nice it is to have a navigator - like, say, my wife - in the passenger seat in New York City. I eventually got to my sister's 1-bedroom, non-air-conditioned apartment in the throes of a heat wave. The air was thick and motionless. She slept on the floor in the living room while the boys and I sweated a lot and slept a little in her bed. Charlie concluded from overhearing me tell his mom on the phone that I'd "f-bombed my way across Queens" that "to f-bomb" means "to drive really fast".

On Wednesday, we met up with my brother and his kids in Boston and caravanned up to my parents’ place. I have some great pictures of Charlie and Teddy dead asleep on the beach. After the road trip and the stifling night in Queens, they were not raring to splash in the icy ocean. But we did have fun the next couple of days on the windy Maine beach that I grew up visiting as a kid. I savored sharing that place with my boys, my brother, my nieces and my parents. We got to have a joint birthday party for the boys with the extended family at the cottage. It was nice.

On Saturday, we drove down to my brother’s place outside Boston and spent the night there to get us that much closer to home for Sunday’s drive. We got up and out early Sunday aiming to being home in time for dinner. We made great time from Boston down through Rhode Island and Connecticut and across the Tappan Zee Bridge. Then we crossed into New Jersey, over three and a half hours without a stop. With kids that age, this was an amazing feat. I’d put Teddy in a pullup for the ride home to cut down on urgent bathroom stops, and he slept all the way from Boston to New Jersey. It was golden. I was pretty proud of myself. He woke up in the Garden State and soon after, I heard baffling splattering sounds from the back seat. Teddy was reminding me in the most graphic way that sometimes, he gets carsick. He threw up all over himself and his carseat. And some luggage. And his brother's video game. I pulled over on the side of I-287 and field-stripped him in the breakdown lane as traffic whipped by. I changed his pullup and his entire outfit. I scraped vomit off the upholstery with a plastic knife and sopped up what I could with leftover rest area napkins.Nonetheless, it smelled horrible in the car, and we had 300 miles to go.

Once we were finally back underway, Charlie said "now we're really going to have to f-bomb across Pennsylvania to make it home in time for dinner."

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Udate: Dad's Summer Reading Program

No doubt careful CP readers have been wondering how Dad's Summer Reading Program has been going.  So far, so good.    Because the impulse behind the program was getting Teddy to read more, I'm pleased to report that he was the first to redeem a coupon.  He got to ten books by June 30, and he chose a pack of Pokemon cards as his reward.  Amazingly, the library only calls for reading five books to "complete" their Summer Reading program for the whole summer!

He's rated his books quite highly so far: five books at five stars, one at 4 1/2, two at 3 1/2 and one at two stars.  The stinker was Rise of the Serpentine, a Lego Ninjago book.  He called Darkwing Duck and the Calvin and Hobbes collection Something Under the Bed is Drooling "very funny" and gave them five stars.  He's also delved into some more honest-to-goodness chapter books.

Charlie hasn't gotten to his first 15-book milestone, but I'll keep you posted.

As a family, we're reading Little House on the Prairie at bed time and on road trips.  That will count toward their rewards when we finish it.  They don't know that the reward is reading it.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Dad's Summer Reading Program

We have one avid reader (the 10-year-old) and one who reads in discouragingly short bursts (the 6-year-old).  Immediately following a trip to the library, he reads with a high degree of absorption.  His usual habit is then to declare himself finished with at least one of the books he just got before it seems possible that he could have finished it.  He also gets really excited about a series of books (e.g. Magic Treehouse) for about 2 1/2 books.  I tend to find out that he "doesn't like those anymore" upon bringing home a stack of four of whatever series it was from the library.

All this is to say that I did not think that our library's summer reading program would be enough
to get him interested in reading this summer.  I have decided, therefore, to supplement it with Dad's Summer Reading Program.  The boys found at their places this morning four coupons, two of which are picture at the right.  They can choose whatever order in which they redeem these coupons for rewards valued at under five dollars.  They just have to show me their reading logs when they've reached a milestone (10 books per reward for the younger and 15 books per reward for He Who Would Read No Matter What).

We'll see how it works.  The younger complained that 10 books was too many at the same time that he planned the order in which he would redeem all four of his coupons.  The older chose one that he would redeem first then said "Maybe I'll read 75 books [15 more than the sum of all his incentive milestones] and get a five-pack of cars."  While I appreciate both his ambition and his confidence that he could negotiate terms completely different from those offered in writing, I think I'll stick to my original plan.

Watch this space for updates.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Sunday Haiku: Summer Pests

The kitchen smells like
Raid.  Ants in the cupcakes won't
be tolerated.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Media Review Doubleheader: If This is 40, Bring on 50

Armed with a free RedBox rental coupon from the grocery store courtesy of Kellogg's (wha huh?), we sought out a movie the other weekend.  Having read the quite enjoyable 2012 comedy issue of Vanity Fair - edited by Judd Apatow and heavy on his sensibility - and having enjoyed Paul Rudd just about every time we've seen him, we chose Apatow's This is 40.

It may be that they shortened the title from This is a Version of 40 That is so Bleak and Depressing we Can't Remember Why we Made a Movie About It or Where we Left our Souls.  Or they should have.  The trailer features the laugh-y parts, but in reality, this sort-of-sequel to Knocked Up portrays depressing people completely incapable of being honest with themselves or others.  The first twenty five minutes were so bleak that we paused it and asked each other if we should go on.  There would indeed be something to laugh at every five minutes or so.  We told each other that if the characters could make real changes deep inside themselves that the movie would be a good redemption story.  Spoiler alert: it doesn't happen.  They blame everything and everyone else for their problems.  They're horrendous parents.  At the end, my competent wife asked "Do you think Judd Apatow really hates his life?"  Casting his wife as a horrible person married to a horrible person makes this a very viable question.

On the other hand, we've bored everyone we could raving about an obscure drama/comedy that lived a too-short two seasons and is now on DVD.  Men of a Certain Age, an original hour-long show from TNT (yup, that TNT) stars Ray Romano, Scott Bakula and my long-term man crush Andre Braugher.  I know!  Ray Romano!  Whodathunkit?  They portray three guys nearing 50 who went to college together and are still friends.  One's going through a separation, one's married, one is single and, um, busy romantically.  One has little kids, one has teenagers and one has no kids.  One has big daddy issues, one battles an addiction and one has to confront the knife edge of following creative dreams versus having enough to live on.  The show portrays real male friendship featuring real give-and-take and accountability.  They call each other on their sugar honey iced tea.  It's dramatic but also deeply funny.  We got attached to the characters and plot very quickly.

If you think you know Romano from Everybody Loves Raymond, Andre Braugher from Homicide or Scott Bakula from Quantum Leap, think again.  Spend 26 hours with these episodes and you'll see whole different sides of all three actors.  Despite all of the good TV out there, there's still not enough real, moving drama on television.  Do yourself a solid and check out these two seasons.


Thursday, May 16, 2013

Pirates Pessimists

So far, the fool-me-once (or 20 times) Forsters have proven to be quite pessimistic about the Pirates prospects this season.  The battlin' Bucs are 23-17 through twenty games, which would project to 93 big wins this year.  Charlie's closest at the season's rough one quarter milestone, but he's even seven games under.

All I can say is that I hope we continue to be this wrong in the same direction. 

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Pro: Choice.

This NPR story about stay-at-home dads starts with a familiar framework for SAHD stories: Biff was a highly successful investment banker/neurosurgeon/forklift operator who didn't even know the names of his own children...until he lost his job.  Now, he's a happy stay-at-home dad.

That paragraph may have been stuck in cynical font, but there is a certain strain of SAHD stories that (while not quite that cartoonish) feature that premise.  Those stories make me deeply happy that I chose my part-time work arrangement and that I chose the role of primary parent for my kids.  For one, it makes me feel like I'm smart for making such a satisfying life decision without having to bumble into the enlightenment that it's really better for everyone involved to have one of us work less and earn less but be around more.  Secondly, though, on the hard days with this lifestyle, it's bracing to know that I chose this.  That this arrangement wasn't foisted on me by some outside force or circumstance.  When I want to blame someone else (because I'm frozen out of an important decision at the office because I work part time or because I'm facing menu planning fatigue at home), it's actually better that my bedrock is: I proposed and have executed my portion of this family work/life balance arrangement.  Whatever slings and arrows I face because of it come along with the stronger parenting and semblance of serenity that working less for pay affords.

It also helps me seize positive opportunities when they arise.  Today, when Teddy got off the bus and asked to go to the park and work on his fielding, I quickly did the math:

  • Do you have any homework?  No
  • Do I have intensive dinner prep work to do tonight?  No (Thanks, Peppi's!)
  • Did I cut my salary in half so that when my kid wants to improve his fielding, I can say yes and grab a bat and some baseballs?  Why, yes.  Yes, I did.
Four-and-a-half years into it, I wouldn't change this decision.  If I regret it in moments, I regret it rarely for whole days and never for as long as a week.  As a veteran part-time working mom said when I was mulling the decision: "You won't look back in thirty years and say 'I wish I hadn't missed that meeting.'"

Friday, April 26, 2013

Little League Dreams - in Parallel

LIttle League Dreams - in Parallel
an original poem

OK.  This is it.                                              OK. This is it.
Last inning.  We're down one.                        It's 4:45.  We're so busy.
Two outs.  Two men on.                                Game scheduled tonight.

Their best pitcher.                                        No other open nights this week.
It feels like everything hangs in the balance.  It feels like everything hangs in the balance.
Bend the knees.  Line up the knuckles.          Check my texts.  See if there's an email.
Back elbow up.  Can't drop the hands.            Send this work email. Don't think about it.
I've never faced this pitcher before.              He hasn't played in this age group before.
Don't know what he's got.                              Don't know who makes the decisions.
First pitch.  Ball. Pitcher's nervous, too.         Check my texts.  Nothing.
Whoosh!  Here goes nothing.                         BUZZ.  Wait.  What's this?
Oh baby.  I nailed it.                                     I dare not hope.
It could be.  It might be.                               It could be.  It might be.
HOME RUN!                                                  RAIN OUT!

Monday, April 1, 2013

Chart: 2013 Pirate Win Predictions

With one loss in the books, we make our Pirate win predictions.  Paige was spot on at 79 in last year's predictions.  We'll see who ends up being most accurate this year.  We all hope it's Charlie.

Because I can't get data labels to work on the computer I'm using for this post:
Charlie, 86
Paige, 82
2012 Wins, 79
Teddy, 78
Jeff, 76

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Videos that may hook you like they hooked me

Videos of little kids talking and adults acting out what they say wouldn't necessarily sound funny to me in the abstract.  In lesser hands, these videos might not be funny.  In reality, though, the Kid Snippets and Kid History videos at Bored Shorts TV's YouTube channel are totally captivating.  Clean, inter-generational family fun.  The main guys are brothers (and maybe Mormons, so you know it's clean).  The whole thing seems to be a real family affair.  Do yourself a solid and watch one.  Or ten.

Tip of the blog to the Jacksons for introducing us to this unique entertainment.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Faces of Teddy, Age 6

Click to view larger
Teddy is the plastic-faced Jim Carey of our family.  His expression can change from super-happy to super-sad and back very quickly.  I asked him to make some faces for me at this moment when he's six and there's still some babyfat tenderness to his cheeks.  I think his face will change a lot in the next year, and this feels like the end of a phase.  Of course, every day can end a phase.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Saturday, March 2, 2013

An Epiphany about Fifth Grade Graduation

When I first became aware of candidate Obama, one thing that caught my attention was his stance that schools - especially urban schools - should stop holding eighth grade graduation ceremonies.  He said that finishing eighth grade is not a meaningful accomplishment in a country where the real baseline credential for success for almost everyone is a college degree (a subject for another post).  I agreed with this anti-eighth-grade graduation stance and - by extension - saw fifth grade graduation as simply ridiculous.  

Now that I have a fifth grader in a big urban school district, I'm starting to see that ritual a little differently.  Although I moved around a lot growing up, I always attended suburban school districts.  The feeder pattern in most small suburban districts has multiple elementary schools converging into one middle school.  So, it's a new school with new classmates in sixth grade, but the students with whom you've shared your K-5 years are still there on the bus and in classes.

When the subject of middle school came up during a recent haircut, Charlie told the barber that he wasn't that happy about leaving his elementary school.  After all, as he said, he's "spent half his life at that elementary school."  The transition to middle school in a city district like Pittsburgh's differs from the suburbs because Charlie's class at his magnet elementary school will split up for different neighborhood and magnet middle schools.  The crowd at his middle school will have lots of unfamiliar faces and maybe only 15% of his current classmates.  Some of his buds are headed off to 6-12 schools, where if all goes well, they'll stay until (real) graduation.  On the other hand, he may reunite with some of his grade school chums when he gets to high school, having not seen them through the middle school years.

All of that is a long way to say that fifth grade graduation this spring won't be about Charlie and his classmates accomplishing some serious academic milestone.  It will, however, be a chance for the kids and parents to gather in this unique community one last time before it scatters to the four winds.  It will be a chance to mark the end of a happy part of childhood in a group that will never be reconstituted.  What this transition/farewell really calls for - if it weren't creepier than a graduation - is a fifth grade prom.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Review: Kindling Quarterly

My friend Tirzah pointed out in the comment section here that there is a new publication for/by/about fathers.  Intrigued, I ponied up the fourteen dollars ($14!) to get the inaugural edition.  I've now digested it and thought I'd share some reactions.

First of all, it's a beautiful object.  Originating in the NYC DIY movement and highlighting "creative individuals whose work and lives are inseparable from their role as a parent", it's printed matte on heavy stock and features very good design and arresting images, mostly of fathers and children.  While the photo subjects are refreshingly not model-level attractive, the composition of the photos really catches the eye.

Secondly, there's definitely a gap in the parenting publications out there.  I remember being disappointed in early fatherhood that Parents magazine really should be called Mothers magazine.  It really doesn't address fathers at all.  So huzzah to KQ for stepping into the breach and making a dad mag.

Unlike a great music album that catches your attention by beginning with strong tracks, having the best song third in the lineup (check your record collection - true more often than not) burying the weak stuff in the middle and then finishing with something very satisfying, Kindling Quarterly's first issue starts off extremely weakly.  It does finish in a sublime fashion, but oh! the start.  Right inside the front cover, we find a lovely-to-look-at paragraph strong on the passive voice and weak on basic punctuation.  The opening essay that follows features similar problems that smack of an editor who is not himself a reader.  I would not have expected such laxness in the text from a publication that is so carefully crafted as an objet.  Also, it's great to look different from other magazines out there, but why eschew bylines?  Especially when the front of the book was so poorly written, I wanted to know who wrote each piece.  I couldn't tell most of the time.  The enterprise looked rotten at the core; lovely to look at but a product of our society's long slide into ignorance of the rules of language.

As I said, the quality of the writing and editing got noticeably better as the issue went along (wedding at Cana, anyone?).  So let's call that an "opportunity for improvement".  I really liked the Dan Funderburgh mash note/photo essay at the end, the interview with Joe Randazzo from Thing X (formerly of The Onion) and August Heffner's travelogue about how Turkish men love babies.>

I have no idea why it's called Kindling Quarterly, by the way.  It never says.

Finally, I do hope that the first issue's Brooklyn-centric myopia dissipates over time.  It's probably just the founders tapping their near network first.  Needless to say, there are interesting dads who do not now and never have lived in hipster ground zero.  The opening manifesto says that KQ hopes to be a place where "men's parental stories can proliferate"  and says that "Done in an inclusive manner, surely only good can come of this proliferation."  I'll take them at their word and believe that it's going to be more inclusive than Issue 1 looks.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

I'm not fighting Huggies alone

Two different alert readers sent me the link to this New York Times article about how fathers - especially "daddy bloggers" - really dislike being ridiculed in advertising.  The article focuses on a daddy blogger summit (Thanks for the invite!), but my readers forwarded the link because of Chris Routly's activist response to Huggies ads.  As you know, I've railed about Huggies pejorative depictions of incapable fathers here and here.  

It was bittersweet to find out that Mr. Routly had launched a petition and gotten 1300 signatures and a meeting with Huggies ad execs. On the one hand, it was good to know I was not alone in hating that whole ad campaign.  On the other hand, I'd decided to launch here on Competent Parent a mancott of Huggies.  I was inspired by the girlcott launched several years ago by Pittsburgh teenagers against Abercrombie and Fitch.  I was inspired by Peter Chin, wife of a college singing group friend, whose campaign got Apple to take down the very offensive Make Me Asian app.  But now that Mr. Routly has reached Huggies brass, there's no need for my mancott.


Sunday, February 17, 2013

Sunday Haiku: Tradeoffs

Poetry doesn't
pay.  Contract murder bankrupts
my soul.  What to do?*

*This poem has no basis in my reality.  It came to me fully formed as a wacky idea for, say, a movie plot.  Starring, say, Luke Wilson and Zooey Deschanel.  No need to forward this link to any authorities. 

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Better living through science

Nice job, Western civilization.  It only took how many thousand years to come up with these easy open cereal bags?

This competent parent attests: they are easy to open.

Now if we could get the good people of Kellogg's to infiltrate Trader Joe's and work on the bags in their boxes of woven wheat crackers (Triscuit(tm) knockoffs).

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Post Update: Mazda5 Review and more Sexism from Huggies

These two items don't go together at all, but I wanted to update each of them, and neither of them felt like a full post, so I mashed them together.

When I reviewed our then-new-to-us Mazda 5 (a year ago yesterday), we'd never driven it in snow of any import. Now that we have, I'm unhappy to report that though it goes OK in the snow, it's not an easy car to get out of a parking space in snow and ice.  The zoom-zoom of Mazda advertising fame mostly comes through in front wheel drive that all too eagerly spins the front wheels in a futile attempt to move the car.  Twice on solo drives around the city in post-Christmas snow, I found myself feeling like a solitary Ernest Shackleton piloting the micro-van version of the Endurance. OK, perhaps a little dramatic there, but when I got into these spots, I really didn't feel like I'd get out.  I managed to get out of one snow wallow by rocking back and forth in reverse and drive.  The death knell seems to be stepping on the accelerator.  In our succession of Honda Accords, I could power and slide myself out of a predicament like this.  In the Mazda, I had to just take whatever inches of movement I could achieve while idling forward or back.  The second parking space, I don't think I would have extricated myself without the help of a passerby with a shovel.  

The risk of getting stuck again inspired me to put a bucket of salt in the car and invest in a portable shovel that stores in three small pieces in the shallow tray in the back cargo area.  So far, these steps have had a prophylactic effect: no snow to worry about has fallen since I put them in the car.  It's a shame, because the shovel looks really cool, and I'd like to review its functionality.

In other update news, I found Huggies at the sexist advertising game again.

Unlike the last ad I pointed out in this space, this one doesn't have explicit text saying fatherss need extra-good leak protection.  This one just uses an image that I feel almost certainly would not be used featuring a mother by any company.  Sure, triplets are overwhelming.  Even so, moms just don't get depicted in ads this way - as overwhelmed, in-over-their-heads incompetent goobers.  In the comments section on that earlier post, we talked about the fact that if it seems like a sexist message, but we can't put our finger on exactly what it is, maybe we should live with it because at least an ad for a baby product has a father in it.  That conclusion doesn't sit right with me.  If dads are going to appear rarely in ads, I'd rather they weren't depicted as incapable to handle the job of parent.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Books of '12: recommendations

Having told you what not to read (IMHO), today I supply my recommendations from this year's reading.  It turns out, I liked a lot of books in 2012.  I don't even mention JR Moehringer's The Tender Bar below, but that one's awfully good, too.

Best of the year: memoir

Wherever I Wind Up; My Quest for Truth, Authenticity and the Perfect Knuckleball, R.A. Dickey,  2012
(This one made it into my post recommending baseball books earlier this year.)
I heard R.A. Dickey interviewed - where else? - on Fresh Air.  When I heard that his new autobiography, written with journalist Wayne Coffey, covered not only his development as a knuckleball pitcher but also his childhood abuse history, I was intrigued.  I've read lots of baseball books, and the first person baseball autobiography always puts me in mind of Jim Bouton's Ball Four.  The difference between that book and this one - besides, oh, 42 years - is that Bouton was a self-unaware @$$hole of the first order.  Dickey comes across as much more humble.  His relationship with Jesus forms the centerpiece of his life story.  The book could have been subtitled "Grief, Jesus and Baseball".  Those who aren't so fond of God's Only Begotten may not enjoy this book as much as I did.  Dickey appears to leave nothing on the table.  Some details are only alluded to, but he really comes out with lots of tough stuff in his background,.  The book is not always well-written, especially early.  A memorably banal sentence that starts a chapter irked me: "My favorite time of the year was Christmas."  How many millions of people could have written that sentence about themselves?  It gets better though, and the book hits its stride as Dickey turns to both honesty and the knuckleball in parallel strains of desperation.

Best of the year: science made popular

The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg, 2012

A fascinating book unlocking secrets (hidden in plain sight) about how habits work in our lives.  Unfortunately, I didn't write this review right after I finished the book (as is my habit), so I've already forgotten some details.  The key framework is that habits work via a three-step process: a cue, followed by the routine, followed by a reward.   Duhigg applies this framework to everything from an afternoon cookie habit to alcoholism and gambling addiction.  Along with negative habits, Duhigg recounts how exercise and better eating habits can be cultivated and maintained.  He also covers organizational habits and how changing habits can change the fortunes of a company.  For this material, he cites Paul O'Neill's focus on safety when he arrived at Alcoa.  He also talks about why 12-step programs seem to work even though they lack any essential scientific soundness.  The author event tries to turn the book into a self-help book by publishing a "how to use this framework" section for the reader to attack personal habits or form new ones. 

Second best of the year: science made popular

Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney, 2011

I saw an Atlantic Monthly review of Willpower and was glad to find that it was easily available in the marvelous Carnegie Library system.  Baumeister and Tierney have written an unusual book.   Mostly, it compiles scholarly research on the topic for non-academic civilians.  Perhaps not surprisingly after The Power of Habit, it also converts itself into a brief (more successful) self-help manual for how the reader can increase his/her willpower.  I'd heard about some of the studies before, but they're fascinating all compiled like this.  Findings include: after making decisions, our willpower diminishes; to do lists work (if done the David Allen/Getting Things Done way); willpower is like a muscle in that it can be strengthened through practice; telling yourself you'll eat a sweet thing later can help you not eat it now; then later, you won't feel the need to eat it as much because deciding you'd have it gave you the "I got a treat" feeling in the first place.  There's also a chapter on the role of 12 step groups and other mutual-willpower-enforcing strategies. 

To summarize their prescription: know your limits, watch for symptoms of depletion, pick your battles, set goals, monitor your progress, keep track and reward yourself. 

Best of the year: manifesto

The War of Art, Steven Pressfield, 2002

I heard about this book on Marc Maron's podcast (in a somewhat dismissive context) and from our Associate Rector, Josh Miller (in a rather reverential tone).  Having read this slim volume, I can understand the latter better than the former.  Pressfield describes what he believes holds writers and other creative people back, a vague internal force he labels "resistance".   In the first third of the book, he describes that many forms resistance may take.  Wily and creeping, this malign enemy will linger and lurk and thwart.  In the second third of the book, he describes what he calls "going pro".  Pressfield believes to be a professional, a writer must write for at least four hours a day.  He doesn't go into as much detail as I would like about how one arrives at the pass wherein one can do that.  The classic question to ask an author is about his or her process.  The audience always wishes that there will be a magic formula to follow.  In describing the pro state so wanly, I believe he hopes to dispel the notion of magic.  It's work, and you do the work by doing the work.  In the final third of the book, he describes the spiritual dimension that he sees in the creative realm.  He believes in angels and muses and God and believes that if we will call on these positive forces, they will help us to overcome resistance.  The book inspires and stimulates and is difficult to describe.  An interesting note: I got excited about the book and wanted to buy it for some friends.  I expected to find used copies of a ten-year-old paperback for cheap.  No such luck.  The market holds the book in such reverence that used copies are priced the same as new.

Best of the year: fiction

Gilead, Marilynne Robinson, 2004 (Pulitzer Prize for fiction, 2005)
The first blurb on the back cover of the edition of Gilead that I read called it "demanding".  That's accurate.  The same blurb called it grave and lucid, which are also true.  The book simmers very gently for a long time.  One thing that makes it demanding is that - it being essentially letters written by an older father convinced he's close to death to his young son - it lacks dialog, especially in its first half.  Other books that tell a story without using dialog have shown me that this narrative tactic can indeed be quite demanding on the reader.  Add to this the fact that the narrator describes several generations of men who were all preachers of one kind or another, and it gets confusing in addition to gravely and lucidly demanding.  To my mind, the book started paying off when I realized how rarely we hear from our old men speaking frankly about their emotions.  Then, it started to pay off more by actually narrating events happening in the present, rather than just philosophy and family history.  And, in the end, the reader finds that that history matters substantively to the story that eventually plays out.  Stick with it if you dare.  It will pay off.