Monday, April 27, 2009

Where Cheerios and Goldfish Go to Die!

I have a mini-van. That's not surprising given that I have three small kids. The fact of the matter is, once you have a third child, you have to drive a mini-van. Parents with one or two kids can possibly get away with an SUV or a sedan. But once number three rolls around, it's mini-van or bust. Don't even think about trying to have a cool ride. Cool is no longer an option in your life. Practicality has beaten it into submission. That's why you see dads wearing some of the most ungodly combinations of clothing imaginable. It's not that we woke up one day and suddenly thought black dress socks look awesome with a pair of striped bermuda shorts and a T-shirt that reads, "Back Hair Makes Better Luv'n". No, we just don't care anymore. If its kinda clean, doesn't smell too bad, and is within arms length, then screw it! That's the day's ensemble. It's practical. It gets the job done. And that, my friend, is all we have the time or energy for. In the same way, when you have small kids, you don't enjoy the luxury of worrying about how you look driving a car. You're only concern is survival. Just get there! Thus, mini-vans are an essential part of multi-kid world. They keep travel manageable. They get the fam from A to B.

My mini-van is the Bermuda Triangle of baby stuff. Baby stuff goes in, but it doesn't come out! It's the place where Cheerios and Goldfish go to die. Some are eaten. Most are lost forever in the abyss of my kids car seats or the darkness of a world that exists below the mats of my floorboard. The UN could feed a small Vietnamese village with the Cheerios hibernating within the crevices of my van. In fact, there are probably several breakfast cereals that consider my vehicle a sacred burial ground. I think a few of them even require an annual pilgrimage. Not to mention the toys that haven't been seen since the early days of the Bush administration; the aroma of souring milk trapped in sippy-cups yet unfound; partially consumed juice boxes; discarded lollipops stuck to the back of the driver's seat; dried snot rags that actually crack when touched; and things so disgusting that you would have offered the gross kid in elementary school a dollar to lick them.

While the mini-van is certainly key to parental survival on a day-to-day basis, it takes on a whole new meaning during the course of a long trip. It's a blessing and curse. Vans make the trip possible. You just can't expect to make long drives in a cramped car with small kids. Oh, you could try it. But most insurance plans don't cover the drugs and therapy needed afterwards. On the other hand, long trips in a mini-van also mean being trapped in a tube with squirming, impatient little people for hours on end. As a father, nothing screams "VASECTOMY" quite like seven hours of screaming, crying, and whining over who ate the last graham cracker or who is touching who when the first who doesn't want to be touched by the second who. Throw in a flailing one-year-old who's pooped in his diaper and is mad as hell because he's dropped his cookie in the one spot neither parent can reach, and you've got a real funfest on your hands.

I write this post one day after returning from just such a trip. My wife, Meredith, and I loaded the kids into the "Bermuda Triangle" last Friday and drove over six hours to Charleston, SC. It was a worthwhile cause; my cousin, Benjamin, was getting married. Still, worthwhile or not, fourteen hours in a van for a visit that lasted less than forty-eight hours was, to say the least, challenging. I won't say that six plus hours in a van with anxious children is the equivalent of hell, but it's close enough to scare you into wanting to be a better Christian. We were only an hour or so into the drive when cries of, "Daddy, William called me a butt crack!" and "Daddy, Emerson called me a poopy head!" began ringing from the back seat. That's when, as a father, you find yourself yelling some of the dumbest stuff you've ever said in your life. Phrases like "William, your sister is not a butt crack!" actually passed my lips. In addition, I think I issued a decree that no one in the family is allowed to ever talk again, ever touch anyone else in the family again, or ever compare another family member to a part of the human anatomy again. At one point, out of utter frustration, I yelled something that, quite honestly, was unintelligible even to me. Finally, with nerves fried, drool running down my chin, and the words, "Go to your happy place, Kindred; Go to your happy place...." running over and over again in my mind, we reached our destination.

The weekend then proceeded to be packed with all the normal wedding stuff. Friday night we got the kids dressed and headed off to the rehearsal dinner. While most attending adults conversated and enjoyed the social atmosphere of the evening, those of us with small kids looked like a local police force concerned with riot control. We chose a spot in one corner of the room, then formed a perimeter. As far as anything that happened inside the perimeter, as long as there was no blood and no cracking sounds, we let it go. But the minute one of the midgets tried to break our line of defense, boom! We tossed their little butt right back into the mix. Occassionally, one of the munchkins made a successful break for it. It's always a touching moment when the father of the groom is trying to deliver a toast to the happy couple while you run by in front of him chasing a three-year-old who's yelling "I have to pee, I have to pee!" Even more challenging is trying to corral said three-year-old with one hand while holding your very much wanted (and arguably needed) beer in the other.

The next day was the wedding. Meredith took our crying one-year-old outside. I remained with William and Emerson. Emerson was interested in the wedding. William chose the Lord's prayer to announce that he was bored and to ask if my cousin and his bride were ever going to be done getting married. Then it was off to the reception. Once again, we parents formed our perimeter. Again, there was the occassional prison break. On one occassion I had to pull my youngest, Carson, out of the wishing fountain. Somewhere in the midst of the craziness, I managed to drink three Scotch and waters: one for each child.

On Sunday, it was back in the car and back on the road. More whining, more flailing, more nerve-rattled babbling from dad. The trip did have a lot of nice moments though. After all, I dearly love my family and my kids, despite the challenges they often throw at me, are great. We had fun at the beach. I dug holes with my sons (no real objective, just dig). I jumped over breaking waves holding hands with Emerson (seeing her have fun and laugh made the trip all wothwhile in and of itself). I got to see Mom and Dad dance together two days before their forty-sixth wedding anniversary. And on the drive home, we took an hour to play giant checkers at Cracker Barrell and have a nice meal.

Are trips challenging? Oh yeah! Do I sometimes feel embarassed by the state of my mini-van, dreading to see what long-lost object or missing body might fall out when some poor, unfortunate teacher opens the door in car-line at my daughter's school? You bet. But I'm grateful for the little people in my life who make the mini-van necessary. I try to remember that for every petrified Cheerio and funky odor that calls my vehicle home, there's a multitude of special moments I've already experienced with my kids, and I pray there will be countless more. So we'll keep driving the "Bermuda Triangle," struggling to keep perspective and remain grateful. After all, there's a lot of people out there who would gladly trade their Lexus for the love and memories found in one, messy mini-van.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Pacers Look Better Over Time

A couple of months before I turned sixteen, my father came home and surprised me with the news that every teenage boy longs to hear. "Come with me, son," he said, "let's go check out the car I just bought you." YES! My own car! I couldn't believe it. Already I enjoyed the advantage of being a few months older than most of my friends. I'd be getting my license before any of the other guys. Now, thanks to dad's unexpected benevolence, I would have a car. I was psyched! "No stopping me now," I thought. Life is sweet!

After allowing dad a few minutes to dump the jacket and tie he'd worn to work, my father and I piled into his car and headed off to claim my prize. I don't remember much of what we talked about on the way. I'm sure he was probably lecturing me on the responsibilities of owning a car and bombarding me with the importance of driver safety. But all I heard was "Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah..." My mind was already fastforwarding to me and the guys cruising up and down Fayetteville Street. Finally, my days of standing at the mall exit, pathetically waiting for my mom or one of my friend's parents to pick me up were over. No more watching every girl I remotely liked climb into an older guy's car and head off for a night of dating fun while I headed home or to a friend's house to play ping-pong. Nope, soon it would be my time. Unleash the testosterone! Let the good times roll!

A short time later, we pulled up to a house I'd never been to before. It was then that my heart fell to the floorboard of my dad's car. There, in front of the house, with a big SOLD sign on the windshield, was a freshley washed, shiney red, Pacer. I don't know if you're aware of what a Pacer looks like. But picture a giant, pregnant rollerskate, and you've pretty much nailed it. Not only that, but the thing is 90% glass. If you don't want to drive it, you can just park it out back and use it as a greenhouse. It's also round. I swear on my life, it's a round car! "God help me if I ever flip it," I mumbled, "the thing will roll through four counties before it finally stops."

"Well, what do you think?" Dad asked. I didn't know what to say. I was torn. On one hand, I appreciated dad's willingness to buy me a car. On the other, I was horrified. I could feel the icey grip of high school celibacy tightening around me. Cold, clammy sweat poured out of my adolescent body. Everything in me wanted to yell, "What do I think? I'll tell you what I think! I think you've insured that I'll never have sex! I think the only girls who'll be seen with me are the ones who wear head gear and pluck their unibrow for special occassions! I think that once word of this gets out, my soon-to-be ex-friends will exhaust themselves finding ways to make my life a living hell! And I think that the moment I drive up to Asheboro High School in this thing, kids in the band will kick my ass!" Despite my inner panic, I bit my lip, kept my emotions in check, and forced a subdued "Thanks, Dad."

For two weeks I drove the Pacer; or, as my friends came to call it, the "eternally-a-virgin mobile." Since I only had a learner's permit, Dad was beside me most of the time. He kept giving me pointers and showering me with directions. But all I could think was how I looked like I was driving a fish bowl. Look everybody, it's the boy in the plastic bubble! Finally, the humiliation became too much. I got up my courage and told my dad that I just couldn't drive the Pacer. To my dad's credit, he was pretty cool about it. I guess he remembered how precious cool points are when you're sixteen. You don't have money. Your reputation is the only currency you've got. He sold the car and, after my birthday, I bought my brother's old clunker for $350.

To this day, I would love to know what the guy who okayed the Pacer was thinking. Think about it. At some point, some high-paid exec in Detroit looked at the first Pacer that rolled off the line and thought, "Oh yeah, that baby'll sell!"

But I digress. The point I want to make is this: Time greatly changes your perspective. When I was a teenager, all I saw was an ugly car. Now that I'm a grown man, I don't look back and see my dad's failed attempt to buy me a cool automobile. All I really think about is how much he loved me and cared to want to give me what he thought I wanted. I once heard it said that almost only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades. Other than that, intentions don't get you very far. But you know what, when it comes to fatherhood, that's not necessarily true. Intentions might not carry the day at the time. But as the years pass, kids see less and less of whatever went wrong, upset them, or caused them embarassment, and a whole lot more of the love and intention behind the parental gesture. So keep on giving dads. We might not always get it right. If you're like me, your cool points were exhausted long ago. We'll likely fall short as we try to relate to our kids. Perhaps our efforts to spend time with them or take an active part in their lives will even seem, at times, embarassing or like a nuisance. But hang in there. Your best efforts might look like a Pacer today. But one day, they'll be an important reminder to your kids of how much you've always loved them and just how lucky they are to have you for a dad. So thanks for the car, Pop! And this time, I really mean it.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

My Princess is Six

Time moves swiftly. Today my daughter Emerson turned six years old. I can still clearly remember sitting in a hospital room in 2003 and holding my wife's hand as she gave birth to our little girl. At around 11pm the doctor decided that Meredith would need to have a C-section. The first time I saw my daughter, she was a football shaped head sitting on top of Meredith's belly. Then, like a hiker pulling his tent out of a backpack, the doctor pulled the rest of her little body right out. It looked like a scene out of Alien.

Since that night, I've watched my daughter grow from a cute, plump baby with cheeks you could sneak illegal immigrants across the border in, into a beautiful little girl. Every moment of the journey she has never been anything less than my princess. She has never possessed anything less that 100% of my heart. I have two boys whom I dearly love as well. But there is just something special about the relationship a dad has with his daughter. She smiles at me, hugs me, draws me a picture, or climbs into my lap, and I just melt. When you have a little girl, you spend half your time overwhelmed by how much you love her and wondering what could have possibly made life worthwhile before she was born. The other half you spend praying to God that she never meets a boy like the one you were when you were a teenager and vowing to kill the little son of a gun if she ever does.

My daughter's birthday started with presents. My wife and I surprised Emerson with a new pair of roller-skates and a fish tank for the new fish we would let her pick out later that day. On one hand, it was awesome. Emerson loved the gifts and was very excited. On the other, her three-year-old brother, William, was horrified to learn that it was not his birthday and he would not be receiving a fish. Not since the Angel of Death made his trek through Egypt has such a cry of suffering risen to the heavens. William then proceeded to run behind Emerson as she attempted to skate, crying and continually asking, "When is it my turn? When is it my turn? When is it my turn..."

Eventually, we made it to William's soccer game. Three-year-old soccer games are quite an experience. There is usually one kid who is very aggressive and scores all the goals. The rest mostly watch this midget Pele run up and down the field, occassionally turning their attention towards a grasshopper they just found or running off the field of play without warning because they just noticed their buddy from preschool playing two fields away. When the coach tries to tell them what to do, they usually ignore him or respond with something along the lines of "I have to pee," "When is the game over," or "When do we get our snack?"

After an hour of munchkin World Cup competition, we headed back to the house until it was time for Emerson's game a few hours later. Once at the house, Emerson put her skates back on, and William resumed his hysterical "When is it my turn? When is it my turn?" pursuit around the house.

Around 12:45, Emerson and I headed back to the soccer field for her game. Being the head coach, I surveyed my team to see who had arrived and didn't have to go to the bathroom. I then chose my starting seven, Emerson being one of them (she's pretty good at soccer). It's a six-year-0ld league, so I try to let every kid have a chance to play goalie for a quarter. Today, I decided to start Sarah in goal. Sarah is a sweet girl. Not sure that she really wants to play soccer though. She's barely as big as my three year old. In front of that big soccer net she looked like an unsuspecting fly about to be squashed by an unseen fly-swatter. It just so happened that the team we were facing turned out to be the best in the league. One of their players was especially good. I have serious doubts that this kid is really only six. He was a head taller than anyone on my team, and I'm pretty sure I saw him smoking cigarettes and shaving before game time. This kid rocked us for six goals all by himself in the first period. Poor little Sarah looked like a mallard on the opening day of duck season. I can only hope she won't need therapy as a result of the experience. We ultimately lost 9-0.

Despite the soccer carnage, the rest of Emerson's birthday was great. At Emerson's request we went out for Chinese food. Then we went to the pet store and let her buy three fish, which she promptly named Sparkles, Emily, and Lizzie. After bath time, my wife, Meredith and I sat with Emerson and William in Emerson's room and watched the fish (1 1/2 -year-old Carson was already in bed). We turned the lights out and just watched the fish swim by the light of the fish tank. We talked about the fish, the day, and how William wants a fish and roller-skates too on his next birthday. Eventually, Meredith took William to bed and I laid down beside Emerson in her bed for a few minutes while she fell asleep.

As I quietly climbed out of the bed and left the room, I took a few moments to look back and watch Emerson as she slept. I felt myself getting emotional as I looked at her. "She's so beautiful," I thought, "and she's getting so big." We all have moments in our lives when our problems suddenly don't seem like much; when we realize that we need to work a bit harder to keep our priorities straight and devote time to those we love rather than letting ourselves become consumed by work, the pursuit of material success, or focusing on life's obstacles. Watching Emerson tonight was one of those moments for me. My princess is growing up (and so are my little boys). I don't want to look back one day and kick myself for worrying about other things or focusing too much on the future when I should have--and could have--been enjoying the moment. As dads we need to remember that our kids won't remember the material things we gave them or how much success we achieved in the professional world. They'll remember us coaching their soccer team, holding their hand while they tried out their new pair of skates, and lying with them and talking as we watched some fish swim around a little fish tank. I often don't get things right in my life, but one thing I did nail: I enjoyed and savored today. I hope and pray I can keep that attitude every precious day I have with my kids.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Where Were These Kinds of Easter-Egg Hunts When I was a Kid?

I failed to go into much detail in my opening post about my kids. However, this would not seem to be a big deal given that, thus far, no one has read it. Guess all that proof reading was for naught. Still, this blog will hopefully prove constructive. If nothing else, it will give me the forum to express my thoughts, fears, feelings, hopes, and ambitions regarding life and fatherhood. At the very least, maybe it will keep me from going insane from the frustration, confusion, and torturous lack of sleep that inevitably accompanies being a parent.

Without question, being a dad is the greatest blessing in my life, along with my marriage. But it's also alot like that scene in The Matrix, when the computer agents have captured Morphious and are trying to hijack his mind. As a father of three small kids, you can feel your brain slowly turning to mush. It's kind of like being interrogated as a prisoner of war. You have no freedom. You aren't allowed to sleep. And you're constantly being yelled at in languages you don't understand. Your kids are breaking you. They're not even aware that they've defeated you in psychological warfare, but they have. One day you're having intelligent conversations, know every player on your favorite sports team, are up on all the current events, and wouldn't entertain a second thought about the benefits of anger management therapy. The next you find yourself singing Barney the Dinosaur's "I Love You, You Love Me" song all alone. You continue watching the last fifteen minutes of "Dragon Tales", failing to notice that the kids have left the room, because you want to see how the story turns out. You're lucky if you can watch one full game played by your favorite team, much less know names and stats. And minor irritations that use to bounce right off of you now manage to launch you into fits of anger and profanity. It's a rapid intellectual digression.

But back to more specifics on my kids. My daughter, Emerson, is my oldest. She'll be six in a couple of weeks. She has my heart wrapped around her little finger. She is definitely my "Sweetie-Petitie." When you become the father of a little girl, you use terms like Sweetie-Petitie with surprisingly little embarassment. You love her so much that you don't think about how you look wearing a silly hat at an imaginary tea party nor how you sound calling her cute nicknames and singing to her over the phone when you're out of town.

I also have two sons. William (a.k.a. Little Bubba) is 3 1/2. Carson (a.k.a. Little Chico) is just over 1 1/2. They're my buddies to be sure. I love 'em both to death.

Today is the day before Easter 2009. Holidays are certainly different with small children. Mostly, they're different in a good way. Santa comes alive at Christmas again. Halloween becomes a blast once more. (As a grown man, I've found it to be just plain awkward going to someone's door dressed as Batman and begging for candy when you don't have a small child with you.) And Easter? Well, with the arrival of tiny Howards comes the return of the Easter Bunny, Easter-egg hunts, dying Easter eggs, and candy--lots of candy.

This year, my mother-in-law asked if she could take my wife and daughter to Savannah, GA for a "girls' weekend." I said it was fine with me if it was fine with my wife, Meredith. Emerson wrote a note to the Easter Bunny, letting him know she'd be in Savannah. Then she gave me strict instructions regarding where to leave it Saturday night. Meanwhile, my boys and I are having a "guys, Easter weekend" here at home.

This morning I took William and Carson to an Easter-egg hunt at the church. It's about the fourth or fifth Easter-egg hunt I've been to since Emerson was born. I use the term "hunt" losely. Most of the time, they're more like Easter-egg pickups. We just stand around a big field with hundreds of Easter-eggs thrown into the middle, just lying there, waiting to be claimed. Finally, someone yells "go!" Then all hell breaks lose! Kids and parents rush into the field, blazing a path of fire as they make their way to claim gobs of candy. It's like a fight-to-the-death cage match between midget wrestlers--an ocean of tiny limbs, little body checks, and tear-producing collisions. All the while, shouts of "mine!" and the sound of breaking plastic eggs resonate from every section of the crowd.

But the kids are not the most dangerous participants. No, that honor goes to the moms of the toddlers! Carson, as I mentioned, is only a year and a half. He doesn't grasp Easter nor the idea of an Easter-egg hunt. Like most toddlers, he just imitates or stares as mom or dad picks up a few eggs and sets them in his basket. It's the mothers of the toddlers who are on a mission. They're the ones who are going to make sure that their little darling get's his or her freak'n eggs!

I remember Meredith at Emerson's first Easter-egg hunt. It was the first time we had participated in such an event as parents. From the word go, Meredith became like a possessed woman. She was like a hockey player in game seven of the Stanley Cup finals; bumping moms, diving for eggs. A couple of times I could swear I even heard her say to another toddler, "This is MY house!!" I just held the video camera and stayed out of the way. All in all, it was a wonderful way to celebrate the resurrection of our Lord.

My point about Easter-egg hunts is this: Where were these kinds of Easter-egg hunts when I was a kid? When I was little, our sadistic parents and church leaders took great pleasure in actually hiding the eggs. We'd emerge from wooded areas scarred by thorns and branches, all for the mere satisfaction of finding one egg. They'd let us explore some of the most god-awful places as we sweated and strained, often in vain, to find one more item to place in our basket. Then, once the egg-hunt was over, they'd count the eggs. That's right; not only would I often have to deal with the disappointment of finding only one or two measely eggs despite crawling in places only snakes had previously traversed, but I had to endure the humiliation of watching as my pathetic booty was compared to the fat kid who could smell sugar and thus beat the hell out of everyone to collect more than half the eggs. To throw extra salt in the wound, the Sunday School leader would then give the fat kid a chocolate bunny on top of all of his eggs as a prize for winning. Fatso got most of the eggs, the chocolate bunny, and a pat on the back from the church leaders who'd taken such pleasure in watching us scramble, dig, and bleed in vain. What I would have given for just a big field, a bunch of visible eggs, and an "On your mark. Get set. Go!" setting me lose to grab all I could.

Anyway, I will depart for now. William is dying for me to go outside and play. Happy Easter.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Until You Pee on an Electric Fence

I love being a dad. In fact, whenever I talk to men who are expecting their first child, I always tell them that fatherhood is the most exhausting fun they’ll ever have. It’s a lot like a rollercoaster. Daddyness is a wild ride but one you’d gladly pay to take. The ups take you higher than the Dali Lama’s backyard. The lows drop you somewhere between your septic tank and hell’s roof. Still, as a dad, you’re inexplicably drawn to the experience.

To say that being a dad is challenging is a bit like saying that an inflamed hemorrhoid is inconvenient—it’s somewhat of an understatement. I recall a story my father once told me about his older brother, my Uncle Jack. My dad and uncle grew up in Hampstead, North Carolina. It’s a little town in Pender County, just north of Wilmington. When my father was growing up, there wasn’t much more to Hampstead than pig farms, peanuts, Protestant churches, and the fish house where my grandfather worked. One day, Uncle Jack saw an old hog lying in the mud just on the other side of a wire fence. It was then that he got an idea that, to a twelve-year-old boy looking to amuse his friends, must have seemed brilliant—he decided he was going to pee on that hog. With friends laughing and egging him on, my uncle undid his pants, took aim, and let it fly. He peed right through an opening in the fence and hit that hog right in the snout.

As my uncle and his pals laughed it up at that poor pig’s expense, they failed to realize something very important. My uncle was about to learn, in a very painful way, that he had chosen to harass a hog lounging on the other side of an electric fence. According to my father, when his brother’s stream hit that fence, my Uncle Jack unleashed musical notes rivaled only by the Bee Gees. “To the best of my knowledge,” Pop told me, “it was the only time your uncle every did a back-flip.” To this day, my Uncle Jack can’t be in the same room with a plate of barbecue without flinching to protect his private parts and breaking into a verse of “Stay’n Alive.”

I share this story because being a dad is kind of like peeing on an electric fence. A guy who’s done it can try to describe the sensation, but until you feel your own testicles doing the electric slide inside your jockey shorts, you just can’t fathom the experience. Kids change your life in ways you never could have imagined. You can try to tell an expectant father what it will be like, but it is something that just has to be experienced. It’s a different world. No matter how much I try to explain to my children the meaning of the word schedule or the importance of daddy’s routine, they just don’t seem to get it. They can’t understand the concept of patience or an adult’s need for a good night’s sleep. They are, after all, just kids.

And yet, there is no greater joy in my life than being a father to my three beautiful kids. I love playing ball or tag in the backyard; jumping with them on the trampoline; dancing with my daughter at the palace ball; or helping my son hit the shot that wins the national championship. For all the challenges, tests of patience, spilt glasses of milk, and late nights of holding a screaming child as I pace, half-asleep, back and forth in my underwear, I realize that I am right where I want to be. God has truly blessed me.

This blog is, by no means, intended to be the writings of an expert. Its purpose is not to provide deep answers to life’s questions about fatherhood. Rather, it’s intended to encourage readers that they are not the only ones whose family jewels occassionally get zapped by electricity. We all pee on electric fences from time to time. Having a baby and becoming a dad is a challenging, joyful, and often hilarious journey for any man who embarks upon it. My readers should not absorb the things they read here like patients in a therapist office. Rather, they should take them for what they are. Confessions, thoughts, comments, and, at times, cries for help from someone like them: an average dad just trying to raise his kids without accidentally doing something that costs them thousands of dollars in therapy when they get older.