25 April 2013

Reading Rainbow

There was a great piece in the New York Times yesterday, “Memories of a Bedtime Book Club,” by Book Review writer Dwight Garner. In it, he described the nostalgic, bittersweet process of putting away his family’s collection of picture books, since they hadn’t been read in years, his kids being 13 and 15 now. It made me think about our own miniature book club experiences and reminded me of something I don’t always think about: that this time is finite. That I too will pack up a bunch of picture books someday.

Can I go ahead and get sad now for that inevitable development?

It’s going to be a pretty big job. (And I don’t just mean that metaphorically.) Our collection recently swelled to the point where it fills an entire bookcase in our older son’s room. This can be attributed to the addition of a second human into our world and the requisite influx of adorable board books that goes along with it. It is also the result of enrolling both of them in a program called Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library, in which you can sign up to have your kid receive a book of Dolly’s choosing every month until the age of 5. That’s a lot of books. And it’s helped us to discover a bunch of writers and artists we might not have otherwise stumbled upon.

It has also allowed our son to learn a woman named Dolly Parton is sending him books.

“We got a new book.”

“Is that from Dolly Parton?”

“Yes. Yes, it is.”


I mean, I’m already nostalgic. Having a second kid allows you to just wallow in it. To keep reading all those books that the older kid has outgrown, to feel those words on your tongue again, to realize they never left your brain, that they are perhaps permanently seared there.

But I hope that even though they outgrow certain books (as they do clothes, shoes, car seats, everything else under the sun) I’m optimistic they will never outgrow books. I mean, they’re not going to be able to escape them. The place is full of them and always will be. 

As long as the little one stops dragging them all off the shelf and spreading them around the floor, endangering them all with his grabby hands, his iron-like grip, and his endless reservoirs of saliva. We get it, we appreciate your interest in Italian neo-realism and female graffiti artists, the absurdist works of Samuel Beckett and the history of LSD, but all in due time.

(Also, you cannot watch Seven. Or Boogie Nights. Or Training Day. Please stop dragging these things off the shelf and examining them all with that wide-eyed, inquisitive look of yours. Someday. Maybe.)

Another thing Garner gets right in his article is how amazing it is to be able to pass on books that we enjoyed as kids to our own children. And to rediscover them at the same time. Lately, the Doozer and I have been reading a lot of Shel Silverstein. Prior to this, I hadn’t cracked a Shel Silverstein book in decades, but that guy was kind of a genius.

Although, there is a weird undercurrent of darkness throughout his work. Many, many references to death. I find myself trying to rush through these sections, even sometimes (the writer in me) attempting to rewrite certain passages on the fly to be a little less morbid.

But why? What for? I mean, I get the instinct. Just like I’m not looking forward to the day they’ve outgrown these books and I have to box them all up, I’m not looking forward to them outgrowing anything. I want them to stay these tiny perfect creatures. I want to maintain their innocence, but I also want to fill them with wonder and wisdom and truth. I’m going to censor Shel Silverstein? What’s wrong with me? There’s darkness in the world, things die. Get over it.

Maybe I’m protecting myself. From the reality that they will experience pain someday. Anguish. Heartache. Maybe that’s what I’m avoiding. As long as they are little, their pain is relative, denial of certain toys, or missing out on sweets. Those are manageable. But what about what happens to them later? When I pack up those books for good and they start heading out into the world without me? Hopefully I’ve filled them with hope and curiosity and knowledge and truth.

Maybe I’m getting ahead of myself. Maybe this time is finite. But I know, even if it ends, it will stay with me always.

I am a lifetime, charter member of this book club.

18 April 2013

Greetings From Legoland!

We’ve entered the Lego phase.

Well, phase is relative. I’m pretty sure that we’re looking at some kind of Lego-themed fifth birthday party later this summer. It’s all-encompassing. It’s everywhere. They’re not just one other toy on the shelf in the toy store these days—they have their own entire store now. It’s a culture. It’s a way of life.

The Doozer has acquired several of his own sets and minifigures. But also, he likes building the old sets from my basement and those that belonged to my brother-in-law. It's funny to see the differences between the Legos then and now. They all used to have the same face, just with different hats. Or hair. Now they have facial features, sideburns or stubble or beads of sweat. Scars, maybe.

He’s also fascinated by the old catalogues. They’re so limited and so generic. City. Space. And that’s about it. Pirates. Not Pirates of the Caribbean, mind you, just pirates. Plain, old, run-of-the-mill swashbuckling buccaneers. That doesn’t stop me from doing a ridiculously lame Jack Sparrow impression while playing. Until the kid insists that I stop.

We have yet to find a set that he has not been able to build in record time. Despite the fact that the low end of the age range on the package is several years above his current age. What is this suggestion based on exactly? Are other 4-year-olds just eating the bricks? I don’t understand.

When we visit the Lego Store, I think his head is going to explode. Superheroes. Star Wars. Ninja Turtles. Chima. What the hell is Chima? What is this thing? Or the Friends line. The “girl” Legos, in the purple boxes, which seem to be there to balance out all the other ninja-fighting, pizza-eating, monster-fighting, lightsaber-wielding, Chima-ing, boy-targeting items. 

The Doozer was invited to a girl classmate’s birthday party recently and immediately said he wanted to get these for her. Of course, he picked out the karate studio and the sports car, but still. He just wants to share that love of Legos with everyone he knows. All six people.

There’s an essay in Michael Chabon’s Manhood For Amateurs (sorry, I can't say enough good things about this book, it’s basically my new official fatherhood guidebook) about this subject. In “To the Legoland Station,” he laments the over-commercialization of the Lego sets and worries that making them so specific eliminates the inspiration factor. In his day, you had to use your imagination to build whatever you want, rather than the rigid limitations of the latest superhero or Disney set. He worries until his kids prove him wrong and start mixing and matching sets at will.

But he’s right. The specificity of the Lego toys can be bizarre.

I love all the Dark Knight tie-in stuff, like Commissioner Gordon. The guy that played Sid Vicious is now immortalized in yellow plastic. Or the mini-Bane. This chilling, anarchist villain has become a child’s plaything? What? And now the Mandarin, too. Does Sir Ben Kingsley—Ghandhi himself—have to sign off on his Lego minifigure likeness? We live in a very strange world.

Of course, they’ve gone and retired the Harry Potter ones now, the bastards. The kid’s not even old enough yet to know anything about that particular pop culture phenomenon.

And now we’ve been sucked into the obsession. The wife and I recently found ourselves digging—yes, digging—through bins at Target to find mystery minifigure packages. Have you seen these? They’re these mystery packages that you have to open to find the random minifigure you’ve purchased—the one that looks like Hamlet, or Julius Caesar, or a gypsy fortune teller? Maybe it’s a judge or a DJ or a man in a chicken costume? We’re as eager to see what we get next as he is.

Is this what the whole Pokemon thing was like? Is this who we are now? Like that ridiculous Schwarzenegger movie about Christmas shopping? Or the Garbage Pail Kids phenomenon? Times change, toys change, but apparently parents don’t. There’s even a Lego movie coming out next year, from the guys who made Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs. It’s got Lego Batman in it. I’m sort of ashamed to admit how excited I am to see this. 

And maybe the Doozer would even want to watch it with me.

All these Marvel superhero and Star Wars and DC Comics tie-in Legos seem designed to unite kids and parents, to appeal to our inherent nostalgia about pop culture. I would think, if they really want to connect with adults, they should come out with sets and minifigs based on Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead. Right? Personally, I can’t wait for the Mad Men Lego set. The Don Draper minifig with a cigarette and a scotch glass. Pete Campbell with those new sideburns. Peggy Olson with oversize storyboards. Just imagine it.

(And I want a cut if that thing goes forward.)

Watching the Doozer play with his Legos, I’ve seen him refute Chabon’s notion of homogenization. He’s mixed up judges and spacemen, monsters and cops. I’ve seen Captain America fighting Darth Vader. Yeah, that happened. Patton Oswalt was really onto something there. He has a set of miners with tools and trucks and one day he spun a tale so elaborate about betrayal and double-crossing and theft that it might as well have been a subplot involving Boyd Crowder on Justified.

But now that he’s in bed, I’m free to do my own set-ups and stories, to mix up pirates and space aliens, Ninja Turtles and Jedis. To build my own little world and climb into it. Escape the weirdness and instability of my reality, get inside a little world I can exert some regiment and control over.

What? No. I’m not going to do that. Forget I said that.

11 April 2013

Breeders Are the Worst

This weekend, I was at the library with our kids (alone), and while checking out books, the librarian  asked how old my kids were. I told her and she immediately added, “They’re really cute.” I must’ve looked confused or surprised by her comment, which in turn was interpreted by her as my refutation of her compliment, because she then said, “Of course, I imagine you must have your hands full.”

(Yes, as previously stated, I go out into the world deliberately hoping for exactly this recognition. But it’s still a bit jarring and unexpected when it actually happens.)

Back at home, I told my wife about this encounter and asked if the same thing ever happened to her. “All the time,” she replied. I thought she was kidding, but she wasn’t. She said she can’t enter a grocery store without having a complete stranger (often very old women) go out of their way to gush over the ridiculous adorableness of our offspring.

Who are these people exactly? Who are interrupting our day to tell us we have such impressive genes? Get out of here, people.

This sort of unexpected, random attention is the opposite of another phenomenon I’ve encountered lately. Let’s call it Breeder Backlash. People seem to hate us, for no reason. Or rather, they hate certain types of parents and they lump us all together as one mass of evil. Or so the Internet tells me. There’s a lot of online commentary about this whole parent/non-parent divide, such as this piece that was recently posted on Pajiba, “STFU, Childless People: The 10 Most Annoying Complaints From Non-Breeders About Parents,” in response to the STFU, Parents blog and the recent book inspired by that site.

The backlash is basically against oversharers. You know the ones. They definitely exist, I’m not going to deny it. They’re all over my Facebook feed. And I really hope that I’m not one of them.

And there are a lot of complaints. About the oversharers, the helicopter parents, the ones who appear to have absolutely nothing going on in their lives except there are kids in it. What’s weird about reading this Pajiba piece is that I found it incredibly relatable. But not from the perspective you’d imagine. From the other side. Even though I’m a parent, I still have these complaints about other people’s kids! Sometimes, I have zero empathy for other parents. Is that wrong?

One thing that stuck out to me in the Pajiba piece was an offhanded reference to becoming a parent having something to do with repopulating the Earth. Which suggests a selflessness which is not necessarily present. I would argue that there are actually more incredibly narcissistic reasons to have a kid. Like, I’m great and you know what the world needs? That’s right, more of me.

Also, this is an opportunity to mold a human being in your likeness, the perfect companion. You have all the same interests and you get to make all the choices about what you do. Finally, they think you’re the cat’s pajamas. At least for a while. You’re the entire world to them because they don’t know any better. And they just love you unconditionally. You can’t buy that type of flattery. But you can totally manufacture it.

Being a parent is very selfish. Or maybe I’m just doing it wrong.

So that’s a thing to keep in mind. Some parents think that people who don’t have kids are just self-involved and don’t really understand what it’s like to be there for someone else, to be committed to something bigger, to devote themselves fully to another life. Which is bullshit. As a committed narcissist, having kids is just as self-involved as not having kids. And yeah, we’re not all oversharing parenting zealots. Some of us just want to have our kids for our own selfish reasons.

Look, it’s not like we’re in the wizarding world and kidless people are just boring old Muggles. I wish it was like that. I wish being a parent was like getting to go to Hogwarts. It is not, let me tell you.

Because that would be amazing.

04 April 2013

The Kobayashi Maru

Recently, as sometimes happens in parenting, the wife and I were having a disagreement. During the conversation, she pointed out to me that I was thinking of things in terms of being an adult and not trying to imagine what a 4-year-old’s perspective might be. Which was true. And it made me realize that I do this all the time. There are times where I have unreasonably high expectations about the behavior of our kids, simply because I think in terms of being a grown-up. I know this and this and this, so why don’t they know it, too?

All of this led me to realize that becoming a father has apparently drawn out my inner Spock. And apparently, I have an inner Spock. Which is kind of depressing. I guess I’d always hoped that if I had an iconic sci-fi character lurking in the recesses of my soul that it would be Captain Han Solo with all his brash confidence and wit and style. But instead it’s Mr. Spock with his robotic lack of emotion and rational—sorry, logical—brain.

Watching our sons play together recently, I found myself thinking this: What you’re doing makes absolutely no sense. Why are you doing that? No, really, why are you doing that?

And again, I realized that I do this all the time. Usually I can connect with that part of my brain or personality that remembers being a kid, can identify with being a kid, allows me to empathize with my own kids. But other times, I shift suddenly and uncontrollably into I’m a grown-ass man mode, in which I look at my children like they are space aliens and behaving in the most insane, irrational manner I can possibly fathom.

Even with the baby. Which I recognize is borderline insane. Because he’s a baby.

What is the fascination with the remote controls? They are not toys. Why do they amuse so? And why are you constantly in motion? Isn’t it nice to just sit still and relax? Once in a while?

Yes, let’s drop food all over the floor while eating dinner. Sure. Why not? And while we’re at it, let’s love something one night at dinner then wrinkle our nose and hate it the next night. That makes sense. 

And while we’re doing any activity of any kind, let’s go ahead and just not take time out to go to the bathroom. Ever. You must be uncomfortable, right? You’re acting uncomfortable. You know what will alleviate that discomfort, right? And so, why don’t you want to do that? Just wondering.

Taking out all the stuffed animals—every single, last one—and spreading them around the room, like the world’s plushiest obstacle course. Pushing all the pillows off a chair and onto the floor as you climb down, for no reason whatsoever. Insisting on reading the same book night after night, week in and week out. Or demanding to play with Batman Trio blocks every single night before bed. You think I’m kidding, but I’m not. Every. Single. Night. 

It is just completely illogical.

Okay, fine, screw it, I guess I’m Spock. Whatever.

Live long and prosper . . .