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Notes On Fatherhood

Tree house

My son’s tree house is in reality a large play set with an extra few steps up to a higher platform, with safety rails and a tarped roof. It is huge and awesome and cost the price of a crappy used car. And because of our down-sloping back yard, I had to build a level retaining wall out of a couple dozen railroad ties, a few tons of gravel, a month of spine bending weekends, and the cost of a crappier used car.

We positioned the play set within a tuft of trees, and the desired ‘tree house’ effect was achieved. And it has the added awesomeness of a 14-foot slide off the downhill slope, right off the retaining wall, that sends my son and his friends rocketing into the neighbor’s yard at a speed that gives me palpitations to witness.

Sitting up on the top level of the tree house is an idyllic experience that begs for make-believe play of every sort, from Army Sniper picking off enemy forces at will, to Dinosaur Hunters picking off massive monsters at will, to Swiss Family Robinson Tree Home Army Sniper picking off enemy forces at will. For, however innocently the fun begins, violence and death are where the fun inevitably arrives.

And so it was on one particular occasion. My son and I, sitting at the child-sized plastic table on the high level of the tree house, enjoying an afternoon as wilderness explorers, when he climbs down to the lawn and runs inside to pick up a few toy rifles so the games can begin in earnest.

A minute passes. Two. Five. My neighbor, let’s call him ‘Bob’ because his name is in fact Bob, happens by, mowing his impeccable lawn – his lawn that makes our living room carpet look unkempt, which it totally is. He passes a few times. We give each other the cursory ‘I couldn’t hear you anyway’ wave over the scream of the mower. Then he shuts the mower off to fiddle with what must be a sprinkler head.

We begin a quiet conversation. Nice weather. Those sprinkler heads can be fussy. We sure could use a bit of rain. He is a grown man tending to his lawn. I am a grown man sitting on a small plastic chair in a tree house. By myself. Bob arrived on the scene only after my son had gone inside to fetch his requisite arsenal, now fifteen minutes ago, and as far as Bob knows, I have been enjoying a quiet afternoon up there all alone. I’ve got a nice warm coat on. I’ve got snacks. I’ve got a compass that points north if I turn it that way, and plastic binoculars that, when I look through them, I see only what I think might be peanut butter.

Bob wraps up his sprinkler fussings, stands to pull his mower again to life, and before he rips the cord, he says “have fun.” I close my eyes and nod. Yup. I built the damn wall. I paid for the damn fort. Why couldn’t I just enjoy some nice alone time out there by myself, with my snacks and nice warm coat, whiling away the afternoon within my own quiet imaginings?

Finally, I squeeze out from under the safety rail and step down the ladder. The slide is much faster but would rocket me straight into a body cast. I reach the ground and mosey inside, as if my dignity is very much intact. My son is watching TV, some toy guns on his lap.

“I thought you were coming back outside.”

“I got hungry”

“We had snacks out there.”

(No reply)

“How about a heads-up next time, okay, buddy?”

“Okay, Dad.”

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Notes On Fatherhood

Stupid Plus Unwelcome Equals Me

While helping my 3rd grade son with his homework, I have learned some very basic dos and don’ts that I would like to share, which may help you to keep from losing your temper in five seconds. But they likely will not help, as they have all only failed me so far.

First, do not let him eat a snack, or his pencil, when he’s supposed to be thinking. Food is a distraction, and their stains on his paper have got to make you look bad in the eyes of his teacher. And a pencil is, simply put, not food. Not even the eraser part. I did once witness my brother’s huge dog poop out a large portion of a red Nerf football, which I would liken to a horrifying neon cherry ice cream. I apologize for the image, but my point is that I am fairly certain a tiny bit of eraser would not do my son any real harm. Especially after living through his baby years with all the bits of bright and happy crayon colors we would occasionally find in his diaper. But hopefully, with my son, I will not have to resort to actual chew toys as redirection.

Also, you will quickly learn to distinguish between his ‘I’m thinking’ face and his ‘I’m pretending to be thinking’ face, which he will use as a way to stall, to finish up a daydream, or to just try to get that pencil back in his mouth. The biggest hint that he is pretending to be thinking is his actual voicing of “umm,” when it sounds staged, as if ‘this is the noise a person makes whilst thinking, and so I, therefore, must no doubt, at this moment, be thinking,’ while tapping the pencil eraser part against his cheek, stepping ever closer, back toward his mouth.

Also, do not allow stuffed animals at the table. They will arrive under the guise of friends who offer moral support, a cheering squad for his efforts, but they are really only there to act as puppets that he will animate to voice his own criticism of your work ethic and methodology.

Next, be emotionally prepared for him to use his teacher against you, immediately and constantly. “She does it this way.” “She said we didn’t have to do that.” My son is a good boy and he is only trying to make his life easier, which I can understand and appreciate, but he is full of crap and lying straight to my face. Performing basic math and spelling homework with parents is how children learn to debate. And lie and cheat. And probably steal.

Most importantly, keep in mind that his academic level is at a point where you are still likely able to help him with minimal preparation on your part. And if not, it’s still possible to fake it at this stage, and pretend to know an answer before you have actually figured it out in your head. Just stall. “Do you know the answer? Can you figure it out? Think for a minute. Get the pencil away from your face, please.” This should buy you the time you need to arrive at the answer. Unless you are my wife. She is a brilliant business strategist, but putting a two-digit number over another two-digit number and combining or separating them to produce a solution requires either the part of the Rosetta Stone that is still missing, or Dad. And Dad is not, as yet, missing.

And when my son does reach the academic level at which I cannot help him without studying ahead of time myself, I will without a doubt fail with catastrophic totality. And thus will begin the ‘Dad is stupid’ phase of my life, which should only last until I am dead.

Even with these early challenges, I still have grand designs for helping him with his homework in the future, as his studies advance. I fully hope to obtain copies of his text books, communicate with his various teachers, read ahead, and ready myself for any and all intellectual challenges posed by, say, 4th grade. And I have already received some crystal clear signals from his teachers that they would be happy to hear from me, but maybe not more than once, maybe twice. Better, though, to be a teacher’s bane than my son’s idiot father, though I will no doubt become both. When his teacher replies to a simple ‘how should he show his work?’ e-mail with phrases like ‘reform mathematical pedagogy,’ I know I’m fast approaching ‘stupid and unwelcome,’ and accelerating at a rate which I will never be able to compute.

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Notes On Fatherhood

My son’s basketball coach was sick for practice last night, so I had to assist another dad in running it. The other dad has a clue about basketball, so that was good. I wrestled and played rugby, so if I can’t hit it, I don’t know what to do with it. And having never, ever played basketball outside of a driveway, where all I can do is pass, pick and foul, I am bad. So very bad. Alarmingly, slapstickly, child endangeringly bad. Luckily, no children were harmed in the making of that practice.

If you are terrible at a particular sport or activity, I highly recommend that you still participate if you have time while your kid is young enough to not notice how badly you suck at it. It’s time together, you can help the kid practice at home, and decide if you want to reveal that you’re learning right along with him or her. Also, at practice, your active presence can cushion your kid from any other jerk or bully kids. No matter how pathetic you may be as a man, you are tougher than most 9-year olds, I promise you. And even at just 5-foot 9, I actually look pretty awesome with the rim lowered to 8 feet.

And don’t worry about the fact that the other dads and moms who are watching are openly laughing at you for being so terrible. The moms think you’re adorable and the dads are just glad they’re not as bad as you. And if you’re kid is 9, then you long ago lost any pride or coolness you may have once ever had.

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Notes On Fatherhood

All’s Quiet On The Midwestern Front

My son does not know how to not make noise. Mostly through talking, but also through singing and sound effects such as gunfire, explosions and the screams of villains and heroes alike. All on top of the background noise of stomping, toys equipped with sound effects and crashing furniture. All the various childhood activity clamor.

An advantage of this ‘condition,’ is that he is always easy to find, even when he is hiding. “Can you find me? Can you find me?” Yes, even though I thought the ‘go hide and I’ll come find you’ trick might buy me 45 seconds of quiet. Also, he cannot help but reveal every detail of every event in his life, real or imagined, so his mother and I get the benefit of his brutal honesty about everything, always, from whether or not he received a behavior warning at school that day, usually for talking, to what he thought could be improved in the lunch his mother provided for him that day. That last advantage is really more of a start of the downslide toward the long list of drawbacks.

The drawbacks are myriad and sweeping, and range from not being able to have a conversation with someone who is not him, to not being able to hear the television. That TV one makes me a bad father, I realize (“Please stop trying to emotionally connect with me, I’m trying to watch a fake family try to fake emotionally connect.”). The simplest drawback is one we don’t always remember until he has fallen asleep – that we have forgotten what quiet sounds like. Sweet, precious, golden quiet.

At school conferences, his teachers call him ‘social,’ with a tone that deepens with each rising grade level. His mom and I sheepishly agree, and promise to help him curb his need for constant interaction, knowing full well we have no idea how to do this, and have not ever succeeded to even dent his noise-making armor.

Even right now, as I type this, he is acting out a fight between two plastic dinosaur toys just inches from my keyboard. “Daddy look, Daddy look, grrrraaarrr!” “Yes, I see. Yes, I see. Yes, there it is right in front of my face, I see it, right effing there, biting holes in my train of thought.”

What was I typing? Oh yeah. Part of the problem, maybe all of it, is that our efforts to quiet him are too subtle. His endless social engagement and imagination come from a place of happiness – an exuberance with his life, a sense of identity. And we as his parents cherish this for him, and cannot bring ourselves to squelch it. Like all young children, he does not ask, ‘who am I, why am I here?’ – a question that will no doubt creep up soon enough, as his perspective widens with maturity. And there’s no need to rush that existential cross we each eventually build for ourselves to carry. After experiencing some of the more serious downsides of being a grown-up, as we all have and will, I have come to believe that among the many responsibilities of parenthood is the effort to provide your child with as carefree and happy a childhood as possible.

We realize fully that being an only child and our sole focus for his entire life has taught him that he is the center of the universe. And so, when people are treating him as though he is not the center of said universe, he seems to feel the need to remind everyone within earshot that they are wrong, that we all orbit around him, and so all attention gravity must pull back toward him for the moon and tides and all to remain in balance.

But his talkative nature has been the case since day one, it seems, rather than learned via our undivided attention. Before he could talk he would vocalize almost constantly. And when he first began to piece words together, he would talk until his throat was sore. He would talk until he fell asleep mid-statement, and had at times, quite literally, woken up and finished that statement.

And still now, while in the shower: “Daddy, what’s a baselisk?” (From Harry Potter?) While using the bathroom (him, or me): “Daddy, do you know the difference between a pterodactyl and a pteranodon?” (Because he wants to know? Or because he wants to demonstrate that he knows and I don’t?). He is also the very worst ninja of all time; stealth being surely the most basic of skills for even the most novice of ninjas. “I’m sneaking up on you. You don’t see me.” Pretty sure that’s not how that works.

And, anytime we are driving anywhere, even the 90 seconds it takes to drive to school. “Daddy, do you want to play Fighter Pilots? Police Patrol? Coast Guard Rescue Ship? Tank Battle?” Sometimes Daddy just wants to drive. I’ve even said, “let’s pretend we’re a father and son driving somewhere and we’re very late so the dad has to concentrate on driving.” “Okay, daddy. The daddy is speeding. That’s dangerous and against the law. The mommy would be mad.” I know Mommy will hear about the speeding at dinner later, but she will smile, knowing her driving has always been speedier. For now, as long as we are pretending, and he can narrate what is happening, he is content.

So, fine. Talk, son. Talk and talk and talk. We’ve all heard a parent say “he’s going to be an architect” while watching their son build some simplistic and precarious block mound. Or, “she’s going into fashion” because she’s wearing a tutu and cowgirl vest at the grocery store.

What will our son be? The sole anchor of a 24-hour news channel? The next great actor to don the famous screaming Godzilla suit? A professional diversion while others sneak quietly elsewhere? Sure, there’s ‘radio announcer’ or ‘politician,’ but he has given me more fantastical hopes, and louder expectations.

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Notes On Fatherhood

Find Your Meatballs

A friend recently asked me about how she could bond with her new step-son, who is a preteen with a new step-mom, and so the answer is: it’s impossible so don’t even try. But having made her sit through so many of my coma inducing stories about my kid over the years, she had earned the right to ask how she, too, might make her own stories boring enough to fade the color of the wall paint as she told them.

And so after my internal reaction of “don’t bother,” my answer was “find your meatballs.” She of course thought I was being a wise-ass, which of course I was, but knowing that she was sincerely reaching out, I was being a wise-ass in delivery only and genuine in meaning.

My son and I sometimes make meatballs together. I’m second generation Italian American. Think “The Sopranos,” if they were middle-class and obeyed the law. Actually, think of every Italian American caricature from the Sopranos who wasn’t in the mob. That would be about right.

So, meals, cooking, food in general were a massive percentage of my childhood experience. Grandparents next door, aunts and uncles up the street, cousins everywhere. Mom and aunts in the kitchen all afternoon, their nonstop chatter over the white noise hiss of breaded groceries frying in olive oil. You get the idea.

I live far away now. No cousins down the street for my son, no grandparents next door. I try to give him some sense of this family experience by cooking together whenever we can, which is pretty often. He’s young enough to still want to hang out with his dad, and I do almost all the cooking in my house.

Many years ago, when my wife, then girlfriend, and I moved in together, she asked me if I wanted my pasta ‘al dente,’ or ‘cooked.’ I told her to get out of the kitchen and to never cook for me again as long as she lived. She immediately agreed, and we have been generally happy kitchen-wise ever since. Here I need to say that she’s got a few good meals down, because she does, and because I would like to avoid getting throat punched in my sleep.

Making meatballs with my son is a long process with many steps and it requires him to concentrate, to do as he is told (whilst handling raw meat and such), and to have a thing to do with his dad that he likes. And the pay-off is meatballs, the awesomeness of which should go without saying. And I will risk bragging by saying that our meatballs are better than most (yours). Let me know if you want the recipe. And they are one of the very few high calorie non-crap foods he will eat, which a lot of parents know is a victory of ‘Impossible Dream’ proportions.

We don our aprons, lay out our supplies and ingredients, and we become a professional level duo of meatballers, a Guinea Batman and (half-Guinea) Robin that I’d put up against any surgical staff or Olympic bob sled team for seamless work process.

And thus we make meatballs. Lots of meatballs. At least 50 at a time. They freeze great, and they are the go-to conversation starter at every dinner which features them (“This was a good batch. Not too heavy on the breadcrumbs. Nice browning,” etc.).

My friend told me that her step-son doesn’t like to cook, but that doesn’t matter. My son and I have meatballs. She needed to find whatever they could do together that would hold his attention. It would be even better if on the surface the activity has nothing to do with her – her participation incidental, but her presence necessary.

Some time later, she told me she had actually started making meatballs more often. He enjoys them, which increases the likelihood of a pleasant family dinner experience, and she schedules those dinners on the nights when it’s his turn to clean the kitchen. She stays to help him move things along, which gives them as much as an entire hour in the same room together.

Maybe they talk, maybe they don’t. Maybe they solve a problem, maybe they load the washer and go their separate ways. But he’s doing something, and there she is. He feels her presence in his life. Not pressing to finish homework, or to get off the computer already. No explosive arguments where the kid discovers new ways to be insulting and disrespectful. She’s just there. And during those early teen years, that’s often what a kid needs, and maybe the best a parent can hope for.

I’m sure my kid won’t want to make meatballs with me in a few short years, and I’ll have to just be present and bite my tongue, which won’t happen and we’ll have those explosive fights I just advised my friend on how to avoid. But maybe I can at least threaten my son with meatball deprivation. I’m sure it won’t have the desired effect, but maybe it’ll give me something to write about in a few years. Even when kids are good for nothing, they’re always good for that.

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