Tag Archives: parenting advice

Notes On Fatherhood

I Don’t Know’s On Third

First baseball game of the season. Machine pitch for the 9-year-old boys means a high scoring, high action game. Bottom of the 5th. Catcher is setting into place. First batter taking practice swings. My son’s team is in the field, facing the plate, knees bent, still and ready. My son is at third base. And he is dancing.

He’s not literally moving rhythmically to music in his head. He is practicing. Mimicking what he will do when the batter grounds to third. He will catch the ball and throw to first. But he is not putting his glove in the dirt and then pretending to throw to first. He is darting his glove straight out in front of him and then whipping a straight side-arm motion with his other arm. So it looks like ‘glove out ‘stop!’ gesture, hop, other arm swing around with a sideways hip twist.’ Once and again, once and again. As if in rhythm.

He may not be the best player on the team, and by a lot. But I do not care. Really I don’t. Picture the most obnoxious and demanding dad yelling at his son to crush his enemies, and I am the polar opposite of that. I want him to have fun, to be a good sport. All I ask of him is that he tries – that he shows the other boys, the coach, that he’s doing his best. He is a nice boy. A gentle boy. And to be his father is pleasure in its purest form. He does not insult the other team. He does not make excrement jokes in the dugout. He sometimes even tries to chat with opposing players when on base.

At this moment, I know he’s nervous. He is terrified of the ball in general, and he loves to play right field because he sees almost no action there. But the rules say that each boy must play at least one inning in the infield. And so here he is in the 5th at third base. His practice tells me he is nervous. But he wants to show the other boys that he is ready. That this is what he will do with speed and fury when called upon to do so. He wants to show he’s got the moves down. And so he is dancing.

The inning begins. He plays toward shortstop, as coached. He runs to his base and turns with his glove out to catch a throw, every play, whether a runner is on second or not. For, that is the third baseman’s job. Then, there is a force play at third. I speak up from the dugout, “Marco! Force play at third! Marco!” He notices me. “Force play at third!” He nods with surety. As if he knows what I mean. I so very much hope he knows what I mean. The coach yells “Marco, if you get the ball, step on third base!” He nods again. I am not reassured.

Then a solid hit to third. Ground ball, one bounce, coming at him hard. I know he will raise his glove, side-step, and leave the retrieval to the fielder. And he does not catch the ball, but he uses the back of his glove to knock the ball to the ground. And it works. He has stopped the ball. Parents cheer. The coach yells ‘good job, Marco! You kept a single from becoming a double!” My son nods again. As if he knows. He did not catch the ball. He did not step on third. But he acted. He tried. And I could not be more proud.

Next inning, bottom of the 6th, he is happily back in right field, behind first base. I look over toward him and realize I must position myself where he can hear me without having to yell so loudly that everyone notices, because he is standing out there, his glove on his head like a hat, karate punching the air.

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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

My Seven-Year-Old Son And Me, Building Our First Birdhouse Together

A Project I’d been Dreaming Of Since I Found Out I Was Having A Boy

(Basement workroom, work bench, basic tools)

“Okay, my boy. Here we go. I know you’ve been waiting a long time to do this, and you’re finally a big enough boy to use a hammer. But be very careful, and don’t do anything unless I say so first, Okay?”

(I point to his drawing of a birdhouse, our ‘blueprint,’ all crayon, ridiculous, not a single right angle, and hovering unattached in the sky. The scene is complete with a bird family, a cloud, and a sun so huge it would roast the Earth at that distance. His scale would make the birdhouse about the size of a small school.)

“Let’s start with the walls. We can see if we have some wood that would be the right dimensions for us to use.”

(I had spent a few hours over the previous days cutting wood to the proper sizes, so that we would have minimal cutting before assembly. We would make a few short, easy cuts, mostly for show, and then we would hammer the living crap out of the wood, and hopefully have enough uncrushed material left over to actually house a bird.)

“Okay, look over the wood pile and… where are you? Where did you go?”

(He is nowhere in sight and does not answer.)

“Marco?” (His actual name, not the ‘where are you’ game.)

“Marco!”

(He has found a box of toys he has outgrown, but now finds himself re-enamored and unable to part with them.)

“We can talk about maybe not giving these away later. We have to do our building today, so let’s please get back to work. We have to work and focus if we want to do the job right. So come on back. Come on. Let’s go, buddy.”

(Back at the woodpile, with the precut pieces all stacked neatly on top.)

“Do you see any that are about one foot square? No? Are you sure? Look again. Right on top there. Use your ruler. That one on top looks to be about right. Just hand me those top few pieces. I’m pretty sure they’ll work. Just hand them to me please. Just… I’ll help you.”

“Well, I do think they’ll work just fine. Can you measure them? Just hold the ruler. Just hold… just… the ruler. Where’s the ruler?”

(Two minutes of looking for the ruler, no luck.  Then a snack, a pee (him), and some action figures, and we’re back at it in about a half-hour.)

“Okay. Let’s get these boards together and get this done. Hold this piece. Just hold it still. Just… no, it’s not an airplane. Yes, if you hold it sideways and wag it around it can be kind of like an airplane, but right now we need it to be a birdhouse wall. Just hand it to me.”

“Those are dowels. Yes, they look very much like swords. We’re not sword fighting right now. We can sword fight with your foam swords when we’re done here. Don’t… just for a minute. I’ll get started.”

“No, I’m not going to sword fight with you yet, so please stop poking me. I’m using tools. They’re pretty cool tools if you want to… ”

“Yes, just go ahead and sword fight in the other room.”

(20 minutes later. He’s started a DVD upstairs.)

“Do want to help? Marco? Come on back down, buddy.”

“Yes, that’s good singing. I like that song. You sure sing it a whole lot.”

(20 more minutes later, one finished birdhouse, very basic, box design, no entrance hole.)

“Where are you, Buddy?! Come look at our birdhouse!”

(He comes down the stairs)

“Good job, buddy. Go show Mommy what you did.”

“No, we’re not going to paint it today. I think you’ll be painting it with your mother.”

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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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