29 May 2010

Welcome to the Jungle

It gets worse here every day . . .

(This one's for you, Schwartz.)

Recently, on a particularly rainy spring day, with the option of letting the Doozer play outside removed from the equation, in an attempt to stave off cabin fever, we took our son to a nearby, jungle-themed indoor play facility.

Side note: Where did these places come from? When I was a kid, there was the dinky play area at McDonald's, which was nothing like this. And a note to such facilities, the coffee bar for the adults on offer is all well and good, but really, a bar bar would be better. Just saying.

Anyway, so as his wont, the Doozer takes several long minutes to acclimate to his new surroundings. The vast majority of the facility is a large play structure for bigger kids with ladders, slides, etc. We steer him toward the much smaller 3-and-under area. You must be below this height, to ride this ride, that sort of thing.

So, he stood there, silent, almost comatose, watching, observing. Just when you're about to give up and say, Let's go home, he gets this twinkle in his eye (maniacal? Maybe . . .) and takes off running. Leading you to realize that your offspring is a monkey.

Parental instincts kick in as you watch him in a group dynamic. Some of the kids are bigger than he is and you worry if he can handle it. Maybe some of them are playing rough. So you do your best to relax and not be a helicopter parent.

Then it dawns on you that you are one of the only parents keeping tabs on your kid. If there was a pop quiz about which kid went with which parents, it would be impossible to pass. You begin to realize maybe that's why these indoor play places exist, so contemporary parents can indulge in their preferred laissez-faire child-rearing attitude. That this place is safe, so safe you don't even have to pay any attention to your child whatsoever. You can sit on your fat ass with your mocha-whipped beverage and your plate of nachos (By the way, really? What kind of combination is that?) and completely zone out. Have some "me" time, while your kid runs around, who knows where, doing who knows what.

And then I see her. Some kid's mother, on a laptop, engrossed, consumed, with her back to the play area. And for the entire 50 minutes that we stayed there (same duration as you'd spend in a session with a mental health professional, hmmm . . .), she did not once look up from that screen or scope out the place to determine the location of her children. And I realized that being a parent has made me really judgmental. Though I am frequently plagued with doubts about my abilities as a father, I spend almost an equal amount of time being full of righteous indignation and feeling superior to other parents. I mean, they just make it so easy sometimes.

Someone once suggested that a lot of things in life (driving, online dating, or working most jobs) requires you to take (and pass) some kind of test. And yet, any idiot can be a parent. In this case, you should definitely be required to take (and pass) a test and prove that you have even a shred of common sense to be allowed to rear a child.

The weird thing is, though, in some ways, being a parent has made me more empathetic. In the past, when I heard a kid yelling in a store, I immediately thought it was the result of bad parenting. I would pass judgment on that child's parent sight unseen without a second thought. Nice parenting, I'd think, sarcastically. What's wrong with that person? Now I've learned that it's more of a volume issue than a behavior issue. Just because a kid is loud in a store, does not mean he is misbehaving. Our son is loud frequently and mostly because he sees something he recognizes or likes and feels compelled to point it out to us. He is not misbehaving. He simply has yet to grasp the concept of volume adjustment.

But mostly, yeah, I look around and see examples of parenting that are sub-par at best, criminal at worst. I mean, when did people get so dumb? I really think we need to institute some kind of test. An extensive screening process to determine that you're an intelligent enough human being to be allowed to raise a child.

And not a multiple choice test, either. Let's make them work for it.

18 May 2010

The Great Outdoors

Spring has sprung! Actually, it kinda seems as though we just fast-forwarded this time around right through spring and into summer, at the very beginning of April. And we're still not convinced that global warming, climate change, is a legitimate, serious concern? Uh-huh. Okay then . . .

(Clearly, this post was begun well in the past. Damn you, Writer's Block! And in the interim, the Midwest has experienced a variety of un-summerish weather. Apparently, we get monsoons here now. So let's go ahead and wrap this thing up before I'm washed away in a flood of biblical proportions.)

With the advent of warmer weather comes the opportunity to play outside. In the months since last summer, our son has obviously grown bigger and he is now way more mobile. No longer content to simply sit in a stroller or play in a confined, four-walled space, the Doozer is eager to explore, to run about and experience the great wide open.

[Ed. note: My wife and I had great difficulty agreeing upon a name for our son. We only pulled the trigger after some unnecessary harassment from the woman handling birth certificates at the hospital.
It's a big decision, back off, Lady. She was like an unctuous car salesman working hard to make a sale and get us off the lot. So, anyway, well before he was officially named, since we could not reach a consensus, he was often simply, the Doozer. And is to this day. I'm not entirely sure where it came from. Except it sounds funny and it's fun to say.]

And he's got some outdoor toys now: a ball, some sidewalk chalk. There is more than likely a play structure in his future. Mostly, though, he seems content to simply be outside, in the grass, walking or running, staring at the trees, the birds, stopping on occasion to point out the odd passing car or airplane flying overhead.

So we have entered that phase which encompasses grass stains and scratched knees, of digging in the dirt with bare hands and stomping through puddles. I am not much for the outdoors myself. (My wife often humorously, and accurately, describes the two of us as the country mouse and the town mouse. She couldn't be more right.) I suppose I must get used to it now. We live in a place full of foliage and fauna, so there is much in the way of outdoor activities all around us.

Unfortunately, I envision a camping trip in our future. Our near future. Can't we just take him to a bustling metropolis, replete with the creature comforts of a hotel stay, and introduce him to culture (art, theater, music, etc.)? Must we be subjected to mosquitoes and humidity and eating meals out-of-doors?

My own childhood experiences with nature were fleeting. Vacations meant cities and still do. There was one ill-fated (cue the
Deliverance-style banjo twanging) canoe/camping trip, undertaken by my father and I, along with two friends and their fathers. Having never been in a canoe should have been our first deterrent. But was not. We spent the entire first day paddling like maniacs, finding no balance or rhythm, zig-zagging wildly from riverbank to riverbank, often hurtling headfirst into low-hanging trees. Much consternation and cursing ensued.

Yes, son of mine, you have this to look forward to.

But, being a parent, I suppose, is an exercise in sacrifice, of adjusting your tightly-ordered world to suit the whims, needs, and curiosities of the very small human with whom you now share a house.

Who knows, perhaps in the process I will discover my heretofore unknown inner outdoorsman. Perhaps I will learn to love the sights and sounds, the trees, the birds, even the squirrels, deriving from them as much pleasure as my son does.

This is a lesson which I try to be open to, as a parent, a lesson which manifests itself each day in the varied expressions on the Doozer's face. When the world is new, everything is strange and wondrous and beautiful. After years of mowing lawns and raking leaves, of getting your glasses soaked in a sudden downpour or skidding off a snowbound road to find your car stuck in a ditch--it's easy to forget that there are nice things in nature, too.

In a funny way, becoming a parent almost teaches you to become a person again, a human. It's almost magical the way that a kid can reintroduce you to life, make you appreciate it in a whole new way.

All right, you've convinced me, buddy. Let's go stump in the mud . . .

Just give me a second to change out of these Lucky Jeans. And Pumas.

Change should be incremental. Let go, but don't totally lose your wits.