31 January 2013

Late Registration

Today is the last day of January. The beginning of the fall semester for the next school year is practically nine months away. And yet, apparently, we need to start thinking about this now. This is crazy. What is happening here?

It all happened because we heard about this school, this unique school where students were selected by lottery to attend, who just needed to reside somewhere in the school district. One of the other moms at our preschool sent out an email reminding people about the coming deadline to submit to this lottery. Deadline? In January? We were confused. But we looked into the school. We remained confused. Should we do this? Are we supposed to do this? I think we should do this. The thing is, it hadn’t even occurred to us to start thinking about next school year, when this one was barely half over. Apparently, we are terrible parents doing nothing but setting our child up for future failure.

Looking back, I think we lucked out with the preschool. We didn’t really do all that much research and so our decision was somewhat arbitrary (what do we know from preschools?), but it actually worked out with a hugely positive experience for us and for the Doozer. The universe seems to be looking out for him. Perhaps the universe is picking up our slack. I’m sure it won’t always do that.

So, anyway, we submitted to the lottery. And the Doozer got selected to attend this apparently very special school in the fall. I’m thinking this was lucky. If this hadn’t happened, I don’t know. He would not get into a good college, have a good job, have a good life. We would have really failed him. Seriously, the universe is on this kid’s side. We need to stay more on top of this stuff. Otherwise, he’s going to be stuck in our basement as a grown man and he’s going to resent us for it.

“What do you mean you weren’t concerned about where I went to kindergarten? Why did you let this happen? You’ve ruined everything. Get out of my room!”

So today it’s kindergarten. But what’s after that? How intensely must we focus on this trajectory? Do the decisions we make right now, today, really impact his college experience (or even eligibility), his future, his career, his life? How does one cope with this kind of stress?

Should we be thinking about what he wants to be when he grows up? Do we need to just go ahead and pick out that profession now and walk it back, start with the “right” kindergarten, to ensure he’s on the right path? What if he wants to be President? Have we already ruined his chances because we are not as focused on such things as we should be? Must we devote all of our time and energy to unforeseeable future events in the Doozer’s life?

Can’t we just relax with a glass wine and an episode of Parks and Rec? Please?

This whole experience is just plain weird. And represents what seems a serious generational difference, another example of how much things have changed since we were kids. For instance, we went through this previous Christmas season and constantly wondered how our parents ever managed to Christmas shop without the Internet. We would’ve committed hari-kari. 

What is happening?

I swear it didn’t use to be this way. You just went to school, right? Whichever one was closest. Our parents didn’t audit preschools and kindergartens and chart our path. There was a school, you went to it. That was it. Right?

But now. Now it’s different. Not only do we need to keep them alive (which is stressful enough on its own), we have to figure out a way to help them thrive in the world? When maybe we’re still struggling to figure out how to do that for ourselves? What about me? Am I over now? Am I supposed to take all my own hopes, ambitions, and dreams and just divert them to my kids now now, to hope that they get more out of life than I did? That hardly seems fair.

Let’s hope this is the right kindergarten. Otherwise, sorry, kid. We screwed you. You’re going to grow up to be a guy living in our (unfinished) basement, still obsessing over Star Wars. Maybe that will be normal, socially acceptable behavior 25 years from now. But I’m not optimistic about that.

So, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go shake out the couch cushions to start the kids’ college fund. Or the fund I’ll need to finish the basement when they eventually move back in and start blaming me each morning at breakfast for everything that’s gone wrong in their lives.

Good times.

24 January 2013

Music Lessons

There’s not enough time. It is racing by. But every once in a while, for a few minutes or so, things slow down. Everything disappears. You have no worries, no concerns. You are experiencing pure enjoyment. I’ve been lucky enough to find this lately. In something really simple.

Listening to music with my kids.

When was the last time you just listened to music, for the sake of listening to music? Not as a means to kill time on the drive to work or to get you through your workout. You just listen to music. Not since college? High school? Even earlier? For me, I think it’s been a while.

But here we are, working our way through the iTunes, listening to music for the sake of listening to it. And for the wonder of discovery. And re-discovery. Just hanging out. And it’s awesome.

There’s nothing quite like seeing your kid dance like a maniac to old Elvis Costello tunes. Shaking his booty to that weird song from the beginning of Ghost World. Or trying to mimic Tom Waits’ growly voice. Memorizing the names of all the Beatles. Banging our heads to Kinks-ian British Invasion stuff and 90s alt rock. Marveling at all the Ms in the name Marcus Mumford. Hearing the kid sing his lungs out. Sure, he doesn’t always get all the lyrics right, but his passion is undeniable. 

I get to do this, I keep thinking. It’s like when you had a crush on a girl when you were younger and you spent hours crafting the perfect mix tape to not only show that you are interesting and sensitive, but thoughtful and generous and worldly and sophisticated and worthy of possibly kissing. That mix tape had to say a lot. And so I get to do that again, crafting the perfect mix tape for my children. To fill them with the pure enjoyment of all these sounds.

And it’s not just music. That mix tape can be full of everything, all kinds of pop culture. He’s already into Star Wars. And Legos. The Muppet Show. And as he gets older, there’s even more stuff we can nerd out to. Mel Brooks movies and Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter.

How young is too young to listen to Wu-Tang?

There’s a great essay titled “The Amateur Family” in Michael Chabon’s Manhood For Amateurs (seriously, my new parenting bible) in which he talks about his dad getting him into Star Trek when he was a kid and the line he can draw from that to now watching Dr. Who with his kids. (Which is only the 9,723rd endorsement of this thing that I’ve heard—apparently I’m really missing something there.) His kids have embraced fandom and he realizes he’s given them a gift they can all share. And although I’m not sure about the whole four kids thing he’s got going on, I like how that experience sounds.

I wonder what my own kids will like down the road. Any of this stuff? Will it stick? Will it stay with them? Will we keep spending time like this? And will they share this stuff with each other?

There are still certain songs—or certain types of songs—that can immediately transport me back to summer days and evenings, riding in the car with my dad, off on some boys-only excursion to the hardware store, or seeing a game at Tiger Stadium. They’re oldies now, and then, too, I suppose. And though I couldn’t tell you the difference between the Coasters and the Platters, I can tell you what it feels like whenever I hear Motown and doo-wop and surf music and girl pop and Brill Building classics. Like summer breezes and fresh-cut grass and spending time with my dad.

And so I wonder if someday the Doozer will hear something by Elvis Costello or Tom Waits or the Decemberists or Ryan Adams and think back to cold winter evenings spent in the living room, dancing with abandon to the sounds coming out of our laptop. It might not have the same trappings of nostalgia as the AM radio in an old Chevette, but perhaps he will think of these moments and smile. 

The way I’m smiling now just thinking about it.

17 January 2013

Enhanced Interrogation Techniques

Becoming a parent really lays your shit bare. You can’t hide who you are when you’re a parent. The act of parenting forces you to see who you really are and what you’re really made of. You learn things you don’t always want to learn. Things you wished you’d never learned. Sure, you could take the entire experience to heart and try to figure out how to become the best possible version of yourself. Or you could let those lessons pile up like so many unread issues of The New Yorker or unwatched Netflix DVDs and face the most devastating truth of all: You don’t measure up and you probably never will.

One thing I’ve learned about myself lately (although in hindsight, I’m not sure becoming a father should have been necessary to learn this particular lesson) is that I would not hold up to torture. Hell, I wouldn’t stand up to intense questioning of any kind, forget about taking it all the way to torture. Of course, I possess no valuable information or secrets that people would be driven to such extreme lengths to extract it from me. Then again, my children are not most people.

It’s the Doozer, mostly. Although I’m sure that he’s really just working me over for the time when Little Brother starts talking—and asking questions—and I’m just a shell of a man who can’t stand on his own two feet under direct interrogation.

At the same time, I have also learned that perhaps in another life and under a different set of circumstances, I might have made an excellent tap dancer. Like Fred Astaire.

And here’s the thing. The kid’s not even after juicy secrets or illicit revelations. He wants to know about Star Wars and cartoon characters and why jokes are funny. And I am dancing around stuff. Literally dancing. We watched Mickey’s Christmas Carol, the Disney special, this year. It’s obviously, the same story as Dickens and it ends with Scrooge’s tour of a graveyard and, in fact, his own grave. 

“What’s that?” the Doozer wanted to know. “Why is he scared? What’s all the fire?”

“What? Huh? I don’t know.”

I don’t know. Honestly, I keep saying this to him. What happens when that ship blows up? What happens to those guys? I don’t know. At the end of the Three Little Pigs book, said three little pigs trap the wolf in a pot, which sits on top of a fire, and revel about never seeing him again. “Why?” the Doozer wants to know. Because they're going to cook him. You know, wolf stew and all that?

“Umm, because he’s trapped in the pot.”

“Why doesn’t he just push up the lid?” 

“Why? Ummm, because the pigs are holding the lid shut. And three pigs are stronger than one wolf. So, he can’t get out. Right? Right. Okay, time to go to bed now.”

What are we doing? What are we afraid of? 

They should just train kids to do interrogation. No enhanced techniques required. Nobody could stand up to the onslaught of questioning and curiosity. No one. I defy them to. Wouldn’t happen.
And this isn't even the important stuff. I’m currently reading Manhood For Amateurs, a collection of essays by Michael Chabon, that mostly have to do with fatherhood. (More on that at another time.) In one, a question from his children about Beatles lyrics results in his revealing to them that he has smoked pot—a lot—in his life. Are we supposed to do this? Is this what’s supposed to happen? The wife and I haven’t talked about this yet. Our oldest is only 4. Maybe we’re supposed to be figuring this out. How much do we reveal to them?

Where is the manual for this? A kid’s life is pretty black-and-white, stark, simple. But life is full of nuance. And complexity. And how do you navigate that with them? How do you balance your desire to be honest and straight with them, while also protecting them? Not to mention protecting yourself. It’s not weird to be overly worried about how your kids perceive you, right? Don’t answer that. 

Where’s the line? How much do we reveal? Do we just treat them like adults? I don’t know. Where does that end up? That seems like a slippery slope.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go change. Just thinking about being questioned by the Doozer—at anytime, about any subject—has caused me to sweat through my shirt.

10 January 2013

Infant Sorrow

In today’s episode, I discipline my infant son. And the seeds for his eventual bitter resentment of me as a human being are firmly planted.

Man, parenting is awesome.

All kids are curious. I assume. I’ve only really intimately known two of them. And from that very small sample, I can say that 100 percent of the kids I’ve known well have been curious. Little Brother, though, has taken it to a somewhat maniacal extreme.

It’s not mere curiosity that drives him, more like obsessive, fanatical inquisitiveness. And yes, this dogged persistence to explore the boundaries of his world, to experience everything in an immediate, tactile fashion would be admirable if his efforts were dedicated toward eradicating disease, inventing a new language or even in radical devotion to the creation of art. However, when applied to, say, biting our wooden furniture, manhandling glass Christmas tree ornaments, or venturing several inches too close to the fireplace—it is not so much.

Like all parents before and after us, we have now been put in the position of having to tell our son, “No.” Frequently. Loudly. Emphatically. Repeatedly. Frantically. Desperately.

When the Doozer was not but a wee babe, we had the same experience. Which you would think would prepare you for handling it better the second time. Strangely, it doesn’t. Or maybe that’s just me. In fact, rather than improving at being a dad this time, I often feel as though I am—preposterously, unfathomably—worse at the whole thing.

But anyway, with the Doozer, it was different. We would say, “No,” he would look at us for a long moment, take in this admonishment, and promptly ignore it and return to whatever activity we were attempting to get him to stop. It took much pleading and negotiating and insistence to get the point across. Our rejoinders never seemed to faze him or impact his feelings toward us beyond simple bemusement.

Not so with Little Brother. The word “No” has now manifested itself with him in the form of an almost complete emotional breakdown. It’s all there. The quivering lip. The red face. The screaming sobs and seemingly endless stream of tears. Like all kids before and after him, Little Brother does not like to be told “No.” Doesn’t like it one single bit. The look of complete betrayal and anger and confusion that plays out across his face feels like an indictment of my entire being, everything I am as a man and a father and a human being.

He’s not even one yet and I’ve ruined everything, forever, between us.

(My therapist tells me that I am prone to catastrophizing. But really, for all that I pay him, you would think he could just take my side.)

Why don’t they understand that we are only trying to keep them safe? Like when we chastised the Doozer for sticking his face in the bathtub the other night. We are not Johnny Buzzkill and Jane Killjoy, that’s not our purpose here. We’re fun. We get it. But keeping the two of them alive is our main priority in life. And it’s a big responsibility. Why can’t they understand that?

But apparently this is parenting. Being the bad guy. All the time.

(Also, I haven’t seen even 50 percent of the Oscar nominees, announced today. That is also parenting. But that’s another story.)

Why don’t I feel like I’m doing this any better the second time around? And here I thought that having one would mean you’ve got it worked out. But you find all new ways to screw up. And you screw up in all the same ways, too. Because this is hard. This is really, really hard.

Trying and failing and only occasionally succeeding. That is parenting.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I must go and attempt to dissuade the little one from trying to eat a delicious-looking picture frame. Thus ensuring the implantation of even more issues which will have to be worked out over years and years of therapy. No doubt on my dime.

Maybe if I smile as I say “No”? Maybe that—oh, forget it, I’m screwed.

03 January 2013

Watching the Detectives

It seems I have survived (barely) yet another holiday slalom of festivities, traditions, celebrations, obligations, mirth, merriment, and excess. Again, barely. Like many other areas of parenting, sharing the holidays with your kids is simultaneously exhilarating and completely exhausting. As the new year marches on and life resumes some semblance of normalcy, I hope to curtail all the stress-eating and stress-imbibing. Just pardon me a moment while I depressingly shovel half-stale Christmas cookies into my mouth, in private, and in shame.

Okay. Now that’s done.

For me, the most interesting aspect of this Christmas was the inevitable, continued proliferation of the Santa Claus myth. Because here’s the thing. The Doozer is so incredibly sharp and inquisitive, so curious and so skeptical, and the whole Santa Claus thing is so obviously a made-up farce that I cannot fully comprehend why he doesn’t seem more suspicious of the whole thing.

(We tried that Elf on the Shelf thing this year. He had a lot of questions about that little guy. But the big guy in the red suit? Swallows that one hook, line, and sinker.)

I posed this question to the wife. And she said it’s because he believes us. And all the other grown-ups in his life. “Who are all lying to him,” I responded. She shrugged, I think. Or in any event, didn’t have much more to say on the subject. Yet I couldn’t help but dwell on that notion. He trusts us. And we are lying to him. We are betraying him. We are breaking his trust and as soon as he finds out, he’s never going to trust us again. This is just the first betrayal, the first example of us letting him down. We’re just going to continue doing it after he finds out.

But seriously, why doesn’t he question it more? Of course, the subterfuge is extensive and detailed. Well thought-out and highly structured. Which is where the exhaustion comes in. Pretending there’s a Santa Claus just wears you out. The mental gamesmanship required to stay on your toes and not succumb to the random curiosity of the pint-sized Holmes in your house, who picks up scraps and crumbs and examines them closely, hears mumbled asides clear as day from other rooms, who manages to just flat-out out-think you at times—it’s substantial.

And of course when you’re a dim bulb like me (or perhaps just overtired and sleep-deprived, we do still have a baby-ish creature in our home who wakes at all hours of the day and night, ready to play and laugh and clap and babble, because he’s a demon of unstoppable force and energy), it is even harder to maintain that appropriate headspace where you are sincere and genuine, yet spewing falsehood after falsehood about elves and reindeers and magical sleighs. Sometimes you just simply can’t stay on top of the whole enterprise. On more than one occasion, I talked openly in front of the Doozer about presents ostensibly received from “Santa,” and implied that I had purchased them or that his mother had given them to me.

She kept correcting me. “No, they were in my stocking. Those are from Santa,” she’d say, while shooting death-ray eyes at me over the Doozer’s mop-topped little head.

“Right, right. I forgot. I’m not sure I really read the tags,” I’d say.

And he still wouldn’t question it. If his Halloween candy appears to go missing, he turns into freakin’ Columbo. If a book is removed from a shelf, or somebody wears a different jacket than normal, the notepad and the pencil and the steady stream of a thousand questions all come out. Weird, confusing, misinformation about Santa Claus and what really transpires on Christmas Eve? Nothing. He’s all in. How long does this last? When does he start really paying attention?

And subsequently start hating us, for being the awful, evil, lying bastards we truly are? That’ll be a very merry Christmas, indeed.

So, to our fellow liars and charlatans and myth-spinners out there, happy holidays and happy new year and best of luck preventing your children from hating you, forever, when they learn the truth of what we’ve been doing all this time. Yes, I count myself in that group. As a terrible, awful, no-good liar. And that makes me feel like a bad parent.

But, at the same time, I did get the kid to appreciate Elvis Costello this week. That’s something. (Yes, it all comes full circle.)