Monday, November 30, 2009

Thankful in Munchkinland

Remember the story of The Wizard of Oz? It's the magical tale of a Kansas farm girl named Dorothy. Longing for something beyond Kansas, Dorothy finds herself transported to a place "somewhere over the rainbow." Carried away by a tornado, Dorothy's house finally comes to rest in Munchkinland, an enchanted place inhabited by energetic little folk who resemble elves on speed. Emerging from her battered house with Toto (a wiener dog with whom she has a semi-creepy relationship), Dorothy suddenly finds herself surrounded by rambunctious little people known as munchkins.

As a father, I feel I can identify with Dorothy. No, I've never been a Kansas farm girl. Nor have I ever donned a pair of ruby slippers, clicked my heels together, and chanted "There's no place like home" over and over again (except for one episode in college that involved a bet, a bottle of Jose Cuervo, and a really awkward encounter with the Chapel Hill police department). What Dorothy and I do have in common is this: We both know what it's like to occasionally find ourselves overrun and overwhelmed by needy little people. That's why I often refer to life with small children as living in "Munchkinland." You're constantly surrounded by little munchkins. Only, unlike Dorothy, there's no yellow brick road out of town... at least not for a few years.

And yet, despite the craziness and chaos that often reign in this suburb of OZ, I'm truly grateful for my time in Munchkinland. In fact, there's no place on earth I'd rather be. Sure, it would be nice to slip back to Kansas once in a while for a nap and a TV show that doesn't require counting to ten out loud; but truth be told, Kansas is just too quiet. While the madness of Munchkinland is sometimes enough to make me run for the hills, I always come back to the fact that my life is blessed and wonderful because of my beautiful wife and kids.

During this season of thanksgiving, it's especially fitting that I remember to be grateful. There was a time when Meredith and I didn't know if we would ever see the city limits of Munchkinland. Despite all our storm chasing, Meredith and I had a difficult time catching the tornado. Prior to our oldest child's birth, Meredith had three miscarriages. The first happened very quickly; Meredith miscarried just a day or two after we learned she was pregnant. The second miscarriage was the hardest. Meredith carried the baby for twelve weeks before we learned that our child had died. I'll never forget the experience. For the first few weeks everything seemed normal. We talked about the nursery. We argued over baby names. We wondered which Ivy League school the child would eventually attend. Then came Meredith's twelve-week check-up. When the nurse called her name, Meredith and I made our way back to the examination room. The nurse had Meredith lie down on a table, then ran a strange device over the top of her stomach in search of the baby's heartbeat--she couldn't find it. The nurses then moved us to another room where a specialist gave it another shot. She couldn't find a heartbeat either. Removing her latex gloves, the specialist calmly said, "I'll just be a moment," then excused herself from the room. A few minutes later the doctor entered to tell us what we already knew: Our baby was dead. Somewhere around the seven or eight week mark he or she simply stopped growing. After breaking the news, the doctor stepped out to give Meredith and I a moment alone. Saddened and in shock, I turned to my wife. Unable to hold back her tears any longer, Meredith broke down as she stammered the words, "I'm sorry." Eventually, I would cry my own tears of sorrow. But at that moment, all I could think about was how much I loved my wife and how much I wanted to comfort her. It broke my heart to see her so devastated. I rushed across the room to where she was seated, put my arms around her, told her I loved her, and assured her again and again that it wasn't her fault. Sometimes, bad things just happen. Sometimes, disappointments occur for no reason we can understand. Sometimes, mommies have miscarriages.

A few months later, there was a third miscarriage. Like the first, it was relatively quick. It wasn't as traumatic as the second miscarriage, but it was extremely disheartening and seriously challenged (but didn't destroy) our faith that we would ever become parents. Thankfully, God used friends in Atlanta to hook us up with a fertility specialist. He diagnosed some problems and performed a surgery that apparently fixed the problem. Meredith finally gave birth to our daughter, Emerson, in 2003. Not surprisingly, we decided to give her the middle name Faith.

And so, as I sat in church on Sunday listening to someone share about how grateful they are for their family, I took a few moments to watch my own little munchkins as they colored, fiddled with a toy, or did whatever else they could to remain quiet in the service. I thought about how fortunate I am to have them. It reminded me how important it is to take time to give thanks to God and to cherish the people that He has blessed you with. Even on its craziest days, Munchkinland is the best place on earth. So grab those little munchkins. Give them a huge hug. Play with them. Listen to them as they share with you Spiderman or Hannah Montana's coolest attributes. And allow yourself to enjoy the excitement of the holiday season as you stay close enough to your kids to see it through their eyes. Before you know it, the day will come when you'll wake up to realize that you're no longer in Munchkinland; your munchkins have grown up and headed off down the Yellow Brick Road to hang out with friends, date a guy (or girl) with tattoos, go to college, and so on. But for now, they're still munchkins. So hold them close, make the most of your time on this side of OZ, and give God all the thanks.

In the spirit of this Thanksgiving Season, here are ten more things that I'm thankful for:

1. Prozac (I don't use it, but it's good to know it's there)
2. My beautiful wife ('nough said)
3. The fact that even God hates Duke (Cameron Indoor Stadium is located on a site that used to be Sodom and Gomorrah)
4. Barack Obama's bailout plan (I was afraid that my kids and I wouldn't be taxed enough in the future)
5. Carolina basketball (because it represents all that is good)
6. My beautiful wife (it was worth mentioning again)
7. Good cigars (do I need to expound?)
8. My parents (for making the most of their own time in Munchkinland)
9. American Idol (because nothing says "wholesome family entertainment" quite like watching other people's dreams get crushed week in and week out)
10. Did I mention my beautiful wife?

Monday, November 23, 2009

K-9 Invasion

A number of people who've read my blog and newspaper articles have told me that my writing reminds them of the movie Marley and Me. It's a film based on the autobiographical book by writer John Grogan. The book describes everyday life during the thirteen years Grogan and his family lived with their out-of-control dog, Marley. I have to admit, I haven't seen the movie. I'm at a stage of life where the only movies I get to see are in computer animation or involve Hannah Montana singing hip-hop-ho-down songs in the midst of an identity crisis. But from the way people describe the film, I can understand the comparisons. I don't mean to put myself in the same league with Mr. Grogan as a writer (I'll wait until someone pays me millions of dollars to make a movie out of my book before I do that). Still, there are some similarities. We both write about real life--beginning in, and inspired by, the home. I've found that the people who enjoy my writing do so mostly because they can relate to it. They think many of the things I write about are funny because I focus on the things they deal with too. They understand the frustration of trying to fasten a car seat while your wife stands nearby saying things like "Why is it taking so long?" and "It's supposed to attach easily." They get how disheartening it can be to just finish filling the bath with water, only to notice the ripples around your two-year-old's private parts that tell you he's peeing in it. They know how hard it is to pull a Spiderman action figure out of a clogged toilet when you're already ten minutes late for work. Yes, people relate to writers like Grogan and myself because... well... we put into words the things they themselves feel and encounter. Hopefully, we do it in a way that makes them laugh at the otherwise maddening realities that make up family life. Laughter, after all, reminds us that the very moments that seem so upsetting at the time, often are the endearing memories that make us smile and reminisce fondly later on.

I mention the comparisons I've gotten to Marley and Me because, if true, then my writing is about to become even more Marleyesque. That's because the Howards have a new family addition. Last week, like so many pansy fathers whose resolve is no match for the sweet, persistent "please daddys" of their little children, I gave in and agreed to getting a dog. "How disruptive could it be?" I thought. "We have a fenced yard now. I won't have to walk the dog or follow it around with a pooper scooper." Yeah, let me be the first to admit it: I'm an idiot! I didn't consider the fact that my wife would adopt a dog in desperate need of an exorcism. I haven't actually witnessed it yet, but I'm pretty sure that when the dog isn't eating the kids' shoes, vomiting on my new rug, or attempting to make passionate love to my leg while I'm in the middle of a business call, she's probably in the next room levitating above the floor, spinning her head all the way around, and speaking to my children in Lucifer's voice.

I should have known I was in trouble when Meredith started researching dogs. I love my wife desperately, but we often aren't on the same page. Meredith will say something like, "We should buy a new house." To which I will respond, "Yeah, we could possibly do that." BOOM! The next thing I know, I'm hitting grocery stores in search of empty boxes and figuring out which moving company to use. What I often consider an idea, Meredith considers a plan. The same thing happened with the dog. The kids had been begging for one, so Meredith asked me what I thought. What I said was, "I'm open to it." What Meredith somehow heard was, "For the love of God woman, get us a dog now!!" Within twelve hours, Meredith had researched and found out that boxers are great with kids. She neglected to tell me that boxers also apparently do crystal meth. Before I knew it, Meredith had found a pet rescue center that specialized in boxers.

Something told me I was about to bite off more than I could chew when Meredith informed me that someone from the center was coming over to do a "home visit." I kid you not; we had to submit to a home visit before we could get a dog. "You've gotta be kidding me," I thought. "What, are we adopting a child or a dog?" Every ounce of me wanted to mess with the "doggie social worker" when she came over. I couldn't help but think of things I wanted to do or say to freak her out. I could just picture how fun it would be to answer the door wearing a Michael Vick football jersey, then ask her questions during the interview like: "So, which parts of these dogs are the meatiest?" and "Hypothetically speaking, how well can boxers be trained to fight?" Of course, I didn't do or say any of those things; Meredith would have killed me. So I bit my tongue, submitted to the "home visit" (I'm still shaking my head even as I write the words), and did my part to help our family attain the highly-sought-after status of "Boxer Approved."

A couple of days later, Meredith and the kids arrived home with our new family member: a thirteen-month old, somewhat lovable, yet certifiably crazy boxer named Zoe. There are moments when I really like Zoe. When I have the time to wrestle or play, I enjoy rough-housing with her in the backyard. But my life is hectic enough. I'm doing all I can to keep the plates of marriage and parenthood spinning. I can't do it with a boxer constantly nipping at my feet. To make matters even harder, my wife is overly concerned about the psychological well-being of this dog. Every time I attempt to put Zoe in the backyard alone for a while so I can get some work done or just watch a game without being jumped on, Meredith is quick to point out how much boxers don't like to be alone and how they need human contact. I'm sorry, I thought she got enough human contact when she was humping my leg. Or how about the twenty times an hour I have to wipe the snot off her face so that she doesn't get it on my new couch. I have three kids for cryin' out loud. I'm over my daily snot-wiping quota already without a dog. I don't need a dog with sinus-related issues. Certainly canine mucus removal must count for some kind of human contact.

Then there's the at least once a day that my daughter, Emerson, rushes into the house screaming, "Daddy, Zoe's attacking William! Zoe's attacking William!" I drop what I'm doing and rush outside to find my four-year-old traumatized son curled up in a ball, crying, and screaming "Daddy, Zoe's eating me!" Meanwhile the dog stands over him, nipping and licking in an attempt to play. William's not hurt, he's just scarred for life. Later, when he's older and watches the movie Cujo for the first time, he'll probably wet himself, flashback to those episodes in the backyard, and plot ways to kill the father who failed to protect him from this maniac dog. Yep, make no mistake: Zoe is the anti-Lassie. If Ole Yeller was a Jedi knight, then Zoe is Darth Spayeder. She doesn't mean to be the embodiment of canine mayhem, it's just worked out that way--at least sometimes.

So why haven't we gotten rid of Zoe? Well, don't think we haven't thought about it. In fact, don't think I haven't considered it as recently as this morning. But the fact is, Zoe is a lot like me. Just when you think she's been a big enough jerk to warrant excommunication from the family, she does something just heart-warming enough to redeem herself and make you think, "Well... maybe she's worth keeping." The kids love her. My wife wants to give her a chance (although Zoe overwhelms her at times, too). In between the mad attacks on my furniture or the "quality play times" Meredith insists that I have with the dog in the backyard, I catch glimpses of a sweet pet that could very likely grow to be one of my children's best childhood memories. Even William, God bless him, loves Zoe. And so, for now, we'll hang in there and see how things go. At the very least, Zoe will keep me supplied with material. Who knows, maybe there's a Doglosophies blog somewhere in my near future.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Let's Hear It for Buffets and Chinese Delivery

(This post is a modified version of an earlier article)

I love to eat out. Food is definitely my weakness. God forbid that I ever end up under a mountain of insurmountable debt. But if I do, people will likely find me comatose under a pile of credit card bills filled with charges to Ruby Tuesdays (awesome ribs), Mexican restaurants, and enough Chinese delivery to put me in the running to be our nation's next ambassador to Beijing. Still, as much as I love it, there's no getting around the fact that eating out changes drastically once you become parents. No more hitting restaurants around 7pm for a slow-paced and enjoyable meal. Appetizers and intelligent adult conversations as you wait for your dinner become things of the past. Now you find yourselves battling senior citizens for the best seats at places that offer early bird specials. With kids, going out becomes a major logistical operation. there are diaper bags, bibs, strollers, and hand wipes involved. The word buffet takes on a whole new meaning. Buffets mean no waiting. No waiting means less screaming, fewer emotional meltdowns, shorter periods of scrutiny from bothered co-patrons, and less money spent on sedatives to calm your parental nerves. If you're lucky, you can be in and out before your kids ever realize that they've missed the opportunity to become a public spectacle.

Oh sure, Meredith and I occasionally attempt to eat at a restaurant where the waiter or waitress actually takes your order and brings your food to the table. But with three small kids, such outings are far from fun and relaxing. Loaded down with diaper bags, collapsible strollers, booster seats, and enough hand sanitizer to sterilize an operating room, my wife and I lead our tiny troops out of our minivan and into the unsuspecting establishment. Once inside, we immediately see the hostess' face turn white with dread as I utter the words, "Howard, party of five." The five to ten minutes that we wait for our table seems like an eternity as we try to keep our impatient little bunch together. Like alternating goalies in a Stanley Cup final, Meredith and I take turns attempting to keep our crew in check between our dancing bodies and a corner of the all-to-small waiting area. Finally, just when we can't deflect another puck, the hostess leads us to our table. Passing young dating couples, friends enjoying an evening out together, and various others just trying to savor a quiet meal, I can see the look of Dear God, No!! in their eyes as they spot our boisterous brood heading for their area.

Once seated, Meredith and I zip through the menu as quick as we can. Our waitress barely has time to say, "Good evening, my name is..." before we hit her with a whole list of drink and entree orders. Sorry, no time to order drinks, appetizers, and main dishes separately in our parental world. After ordering, we try in vain to manage the madness of spilled drinks, overturned salt shakers, multiple bathroom trips, and little people enamored with the sound a metal spoon makes when banged repeatedly against a restaurant table. All the while, the restaurant's liquor and beer selection grows more and more appealing with each passing moment.

Finally, our food arrives. Meredith and I get the kids served as fast as we can. Then we proceed to down our meals at a rate rivaled only by starving refugees. It's not that we're hungry, it's just that we know the window for escaping without a major kiddie meltdown is rapidly closing. Once finished, my wife and I grab our macaroni and chicken-finger covered children and break for the door.

One paid check and a hectic journey across a busy parking lot later, our little platoon is back in the minivan. Mission accomplished. Troops fed. On the surface, Operation Meal Out was a success. But it will be hours, if not days, before Mom and Dad recover from the traumatic ordeal. I still love eating out. But since my current insurance plan doesn't cover emotional therapy, I think I'll stick to the buffets and Chinese delivery until the kids are older.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Somewhere Between Bigfoot and Donald Trump's Tears

I'm a schedule kind of guy. There's a lot going on in my life. I've got my own business. I've got a marriage. I've got three awesome but inevitably demanding children. And, with mid-November nearly upon us, I'll soon have North Carolina Tarheel basketball to watch. In short, there are a lot of demands on my time. To make things even more challenging, I usually work from home. On the surface that sounds like a great gig--and in many ways it is. But you'd be surprised how slow production goes when you're working within shouting distance of the fam. It's hard to stay on schedule when you're breaking up arguments over who gets the Incredible Hulk cup at breakfast, or trying to calm down a child you can't understand because they've burst into your office scralking (screaming, crying, and talking at the same time). Throw in the three or four times a morning my wife breaks my concentration with screams of "Calm down, your father is working!" or interrupts me with requests like "Can you take a break to help me with just one thing?" and you've got the potential for some mounting frustration.

The point is, when you've got a hectic life, routine helps. Daytimers can be like second Bibles. Scheduling well and sticking to a plan can be the all-important difference between accomplishing what must be completed in a day or finding yourself behind the eight ball because today's unfinished tasks have overflowed into tomorrow's already full plate. That's why, every morning after I get my daughter off to school and spend some time praying, I open up my daytimer and lay out a strategy for getting things done. I love getting it down on paper. On paper, my plan always works--I can fit everything in.

There's just one problem. When you're married with kids, unaltered plans rank somewhere between sightings of Bigfoot and Donald Trump crying on the list of rare occurrences. Jimmy Ray Jimbob's claim that a spaceship of aliens "come along and snatched me outta my deer stand cuz they said they was wantin' to study intelligent life on earth" is far more believable than any father claiming to work from home without familial disturbances.

Of course, I love my family more than work. Any writing project I'm involved in is not as important as my wife and kids. It's not that I don't want to be available to deal with all the situations or help with family demands that arise during the day. It's just that, last time I checked my direct deposits, my kids don't pay me very well. In fact, they're takers. My first-grade daughter has been living rent-free under my roof for over six years now. Except for a two-year phase in which she wanted to become a princess, she hasn't even offered to get a job and help with the family expenses. Her two younger brothers, William and Carson, seem content to simply play and watch Sesame Street. No ambition. No vision. No asking themselves, "What am I doing with my life?" Nope, they just want to have fun and bother their sister. Other than breaking the world's record for most questions a four-year-old can ask his father in a ten-hour period, William has no real goals. Carson, meanwhile, just wants to eat, hide half-eaten lollipops in clean laundry, and sit for as long as possible in poopy diapers. My wife works as much as she can, but she and I agree that we want her devoting most of her attention to being a mom (a role she's gifted at). That means that family income falls predominantly to me. I don't want to put work before my family, but I've grown accustomed to making sure we have electricity and enough food to eat too.

And so, flexibility becomes everything when you're a dad--especially if you work from home! At home, the snares and conflicts of family life can catch you even during the work day. You still have to meet all the demands of your job; you've just got to learn to be okay with the fact that it won't all go according to plan. That project you were going to be wrapping up by 6pm so that you could relax and watch the ballgame at eight, often has to become the task that you're still working on at 11pm because--well--daddyhood called somewhere during the day. Yep, as a father, you have to know ahead of time that, while your daytimer might make for a fun read, it still belongs in the fiction section next to Cinderella and Barak Obama's My Life as a Moderate.

If you're a work-at-home dad who sometimes deals with the frustrations of trying to run your business or please the boss while simultaneously answering the call of scralking little people and a wife who expects you to have time for "just one thing," then take heart! You're not alone! We're in this together, brother. Just take life where it's at. Pray for wisdom to pick your battles. Hopefully, you'll know when it's time to step out of the office to help with family matters and when it's time to lock the door and pretend you can't hear Armageddon occurring in the next room. And talk to your wife--A LOT! Meredith and I have drawn boundaries, only to cross them and have to talk and redraw them again. The key is communication. Keep sharing feelings and expectations, and make sure your wife feels free to do the same. Don't let the frustrations that often accompany the conflicting demands of work and parenthood spark arguments between you and your wife. Just keep trying. And who knows? Maybe one day you'll come across Bigfoot on a camping trip or find yourself passing a Kleenex to Donald Trump.