Monday, May 22, 2017

A Brief Rant, Because I Can't Take It Any S'more!

With campfire season upon us, it’s time we had a straight-forward talk about something that’s been bugging me more and more in recent years. I’m talking about s’mores, specifically the frequency with which these traditional campfire treats are concocted for our increasingly spoiled children.

It used to be that you had a campfire to have a campfire. That was the reason. Occasionally, once the initial excitement of starting the fire and the pure awe of the fire itself had begun to wane, some well-organized parent would announce that they’d brought the various ingredients for s’mores. People would cheer and then search for appropriately long and thin sticks. This was not an every fire thing, but only at the special occasion campfire.

It doesn’t work like that anymore.

Now, s’mores have become a seemingly necessary part of every darn fire, ever.  If there is burning wood in a pile with people sitting around it and children in the vicinity, the kids expect there to be some s’mores. If not, they will be downright disappointed.

S’mores are not special anymore, but required.

It’s gotten so bad that we even have fires for the sole purpose of making the s’mores.

And what's with the spelling? "S" Apostrophe?
It's just annoying.
BTW, that marshmallow is done.
Two parties I’ve attended in recent weeks ended the exact same way. At some point as the evening wore on, the host announced that they’d bought the ingredients for s’mores. There was no campfire when they announced this. The kids all got excited, of course, and I’m looking around saying, but there’s no fire?

Let that sink in. Rather than busting out the s’more ingredients at an existing campfire, they busted out the ingredients and said it lets go make a fire so we can cook these ingredients.

This is just wrong.

What’s worse, these were the first two campfires of the long spring and summer campfire season, and already my kids have had s’mores twice. TWICE!  Thinking back, we were lucky if we had s’mores twice a summer.

I blame the parents, as always.

You see, us parents fondly remember that time we had s’mores a few decades ago at that one fire, and now we try to give our kids that same experience every gosh darn time. I add it to all the other ways parents these days go way overboard to the detriment of everything decent, including our sanity.

But here’s the other problem. S’mores kind of suck. And most people don’t even like them that much.

Think about it. You’ve got three ingredients. First you've got the marshmallows, which are quite disgusting both in form and in substance. Do you know what they are made from? Sugar, water and … gelatin. Look that one up. It’s a made from a substance found in animal bones. Puffy, white mashed-up animal bones.

Then you’ve got graham crackers, which are pretty much toddler food. Sure, they’re good crushed and turned into a crust under cheesecake. But when’s the last time you saw someone eating a graham cracker who wasn’t teething.

And, of course, you’ve got the chocolate. Everybody loves chocolate. But if you think about it even more, the least tasty way to indulge in chocolate is probably within a s’more.

It just so happens that at both of these parties – and at most campfire parties that I attend – the s’more supervision parental duties got left to me. That’s because I’m a bit of a safety freak, and for some reason I get nervous when twenty kids between the age of 2 and 14 gather around an open pit brandishing sticks that often turn into marshmallow torches, always to the shock of everyone involved.

“OMG! Your marshmallow is on fire!”

No crap. They were sticking it in the flame for the last three minutes.

And of course, in every bunch there’s at least one little pyro who tells you how much they like the burnt ones. It’s a lie. They just like burning stuff and pay the price of eating a burnt marshmallow for the rush.

As always, once the s’mores making frenzy is underway all chance of me relaxing to hypnotic dance of flames is extinguished. In its place, there’s left a few fights over the best stick, mild corrections for kids who cook too close to the flame or too far above it, and, of course, don’t forget the warm, gummy bizarre animal byproduct that covers everything from your fingers to your chair to your beer can to your daughter's hair.

Most of the kids don’t even eat the darn s'mores. They take a bite or two, and then purposely drop it in the dirt and demand another one.

A kid at one of the parties who’d half eaten three of the concoctions before conveniently dropping them, came up to me and asked for another. I told her, rather than make another s’more, how about you just burn a marshmallow on a stick and eat some of this here rapidly softening chocolate. She agreed to the plan.

Because that’s really the only good part about s’mores, isn’t it? Eating chocolate and burning stuff.

I know I’m outnumbered. But I vote to eliminate this whole s’mores thing and get back to having a fire for the fire’s sake.

If people want to bring some chocolate, fine. But let’s dial back the s’mores. Okay, people?

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Friday, April 7, 2017

Overcoming Dad-Solation, One Sketch at a Time

In a little less than twenty-four hours, the lights will dim, the curtains will rise, and a bunch of full-grown men with school-aged children will don various costumes, caveman outfits, star wars regalia, and women’s dresses to take the stage for an hour-and-a-half long sketch comedy show.

It’s known around these parts simply as Dad’s Night. And it’s become something of a tradition at our local elementary school.

Frankly, it is awesome.

Weird; but awesome.

A lot of ink has been spilt recently about the plight of middle-aged dads in America. This is not always a group that warrants the most public empathy. But everyone has their struggle.

For dads it includes the trouble we face balancing work and parenting and friendships. The last of this series is often the one that loses out. That’s because, in the modern hierarchy, it’s the least important. We need our jobs, for sure. And our families matter more than anything. So our friends become expendable.

Five dad's in dresses.
It's for the children.
Nobody tells you this before you have kids, but many men who are dads have few actual friends.

We don’t choose to disregard our friendships, necessarily. It just happens. Between jumping on conference calls, attending soccer practices, and needing to sleep every damn day, our time for friends simply disappears.

An article in the Boston Globe by Billy Baker summed this subject up well when he wrote: “When people with children become overscheduled, they don’t shortchange their children, they shortchange their friendships.”

It’s true. Parenting can cause a distinct kind of loneliness. Even if you truly love and enjoy the company of your spouse, you can still be lonely together. I’ve written about this subject before (here and here), though not as eloquently as Mr. Baker.

And yet, we also know that friends are important.

The reality is that we are social beings. We like being around other people. We need friends and friend groups. Without them, the trials and challenges of life and parenting can wear on us, mentally and physically.

Women face similar challenges as men, no doubt. But if you’ve ever watched the group of parents picking up kids at an after school event, you’ll notice that the mom’s talk like they know each other well, and the dad’s all just nod and move on.

I so related to Billy Baker’s article that I dropped him a note. As a one-time columnist, I know how rarely people who agree with you send such notes. Mostly, it’s the people who hate your guts because of the opinions you’ve shared that write. So I wrote Billy; and he wrote back.

I won’t share what he wrote, because I was never that kind of columnist. But he was impressed by the bond created through a sketch comedy show at an elementary school.

And it is kind of profound when you think about it.

Because here’s the other interesting thing about this subject: It’s not only dads who struggle with their relationships with dads. Schools struggle with that relationship, too.

Involving fathers in the education of kids benefits everyone. Yet, it is elusive. The same stresses that pull dads from friends, also pull them away from the daily educational routine. That’s not to say it’s true of all dads, by any means. There are many dads who serve as the primary parent, or who truly share daily parenting responsibilities.

I used to be one of them when I worked at home and did most of the pickups and drop-offs. Since I returned to the office, my wife does that more often.

But even when I was the front-line parent – taking kids to dance class after school and attending all the in-school events I could – I felt the dearth of dads. And, it was lonesome.

For me, all that changed when I joined the group of dads who do this once-a-year sketch comedy show.

And, to be sure, it’s not just one show. We hold writers meetings starting in the fall. We practice through the winter. We have dress rehearsals in the spring. Then the intensity of the actual performance – especially for a group of dads who don't do that sort of thing typically – creates a unique bond.

We do all of this for the kids, of course. The running gag being that our involvement with Dad’s Night often pulls us away from home more than not, and likely drives our wives crazy.

But it is time well spent. Our kids see and enjoy the fruits of our work. We certainly fill that critical friend void. And we connect with our kids' school in ways that we usually don't.

Now, everywhere I go in town I see dads I know. We laugh and joke and no longer just nod hellos at each other. It has changed my world.

I’m in my third year of Dad’s Night. And in less than twenty-four hours, the lights will dim, the curtains will rise, and my friends and I will don costumes, outfits, and dresses for a sketch comedy show for our kids.

Every school should do something like this.

It is awesome.

Weird; but awesome.

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Sunday, March 12, 2017

False Summits and Frozen Tears in the Green Mountains

A thick wire. A pulley. A row of 40-foot-tall metal posts aligned in the direction of the sky, all hoisting their load on steep angles up a mountain. And, a bench for two.

Ski lifts are precarious things.

As I sat in that bench, being levitated up the steepest incline I’ve ever been on in my decades of going up and down the snow, sitting next to a 9-year-old who has a fear of heights, I took solace knowing that this particular ski lift had been around for longer than I had. It was born in 1963. And it had worked reliably every winter since, taking skiers to the top of the 3,640 foot Madonna Mountain.

Longevity in such endeavors brings some level of solace. Though I also feared that, maybe, the lift's age would betray us on that day.

This shot gives a sense of the view,
and the steep incline of the Madonna 1 double chair.
I am not exaggerating in saying that the most notable ski lift at Smugglers' Notch – the Madonna 1 double chair – is also the scariest and most breathtaking ski lift I’ve ever been on.

We’d long talked about taking the family to this mountain, which is often cited as one of the best family ski destinations in the east. It's also more affordable than some other Vermont resorts, with a focus on skiing and teaching, and less so on high-speed gondolas and unnecessary amenities. Smuggs seemed a good fit for us. And not just for the skiing.

My sister Amy lives in the shadow of the peaks that are home to this and other famous ski hills, like Stowe and Jay. From her yard, she can literally see the trails at Smuggs cutting down the north side of the central spine of the Green Mountains. She has urged us and our other siblings to come visit during the winter season for many years.

We always wanted to, but weren’t ready to do so as a skiing family – as evidenced here. In the past two ski seasons, that changed. As evidenced here, and here. (Gosh, you’d think I’m a ski blogger. But I’m not, I swear).

This year, we finally did it.

My other sister and my mother organized the trip as a way for all of us to celebrate Amy’s birthday milestone. I’m not saying what milestone because she is my younger sister. And its mere mention will likely make everyone involved feel old.

In all, five of us Ruddy siblings, our spouses, our offspring, and our parents gathered in a few well-appointed suites near the slopes of Smuggler’s Notch for a long weekend of skiing, eating, and being together. Like the age thing, I’m not saying exactly the number of people in the suites, because we were likely over the fire code, which is typical most places we go. But it was plenty of room. And it was loads of fun.

It was also really freaking cold.

So cold, in fact, that the planned day of skiing – the Saturday of our weekend visit – didn’t happen because the temperatures were quite low, and this mythical thing known as the “wind-chill” claimed it was close to zero Kelvin.

On that day, we found an indoor pool for the kids, went antiquing, met a local artist, took a fun shopping jaunt to Stowe, and then enjoyed some adult beverages … and did a puzzle (Don’t ask).

The next day we skied. And despite warnings about the “wind-chill” again, the sun shone brightly and everyone who wanted to ski did so to their heart's content, or there about.

Most of our time was spent on the lower, tamer Morse Mountain, a more manageable array of lifts and slopes that has helped make Smuggs so well-known as a family place. It’s mostly winding Greens and wide groomers, and it held our interest until it didn’t.

As we skied Morse as a family – our kids, a few cousins, an aunt and uncle included – there was another thing drawing our attention: the looming peak of Madonna Mountain that was never far from our sight.

At the tail end of a good day, we all set out for the lifts that would take us to the summit of Madonna. It would prove to be the summit of our trip as well.

As we hurtled our way toward the sky, up and up on Madonna 1, I convinced my whimpering daughter to just look sideways at the trees. That’s because every other direction you could turn your eye – down, up, or behind us at the shrinking landscape of Vermont – could give you instant heart palpitations.
She chose, instead, to simply close her eyes. Also a smart choice.

Because there was something else about the Madonna 1 lift. Despite several false peaks that convinced the frightened passengers that the end was near (in a good way), it kept going, and going, and going.

The last of many false summits before
the actual summit of Madonna Mountain
Shielding her eyes, however, didn’t stop her from hearing the exclamations from the people in the chair in front of us as they arrived at every false summit, yelling “Oh My God!” when they reached the top of the latest precipice and saw that many hundreds of feet of ascension still waited ahead.

Have I mentioned yet that my daughter inherited her fear of heights from her father?

On the lift that day I may have told her that crying was no use, because her tears would freeze before they hit the ground. It was the phobia talking. 
I always say that I’m not really afraid of heights. I’m just afraid of falling. It’s an admittedly bad cliché of a joke I’ve told far too often. It’s also a fear I’ve faced on many occasions: zip-lining in Estes Park, rock climbing in the Adirondacks, every time I go up a building more than ten stories.

Well, suffice it to say, I faced my fear again that day. My daughter faced her fear as well. And, as indicated by the typing of these words, we both survived.

When we finally reached the summit, part of me wanted to kiss the snowy ground. But it was one of those wind-blown, fairly exposed summits that never lets you forget exactly how high up in the sky you are. Kissing was not in order. Skiing down was.
That's my, "Oh crap, how are we ever going to get down" face.
So that’s what we did: my frightened daughter, my wife, my other kids and me – after an obligatory family photo, of course – made our way down the entire 2000 feet vertical drop. And it was one of the best runs we have ever skied together.

Safely going up and then getting down Madonna Mountain was certainly a highlight of our first annual ski vacation to Smugglers Notch. One of many highlights, in fact.

And, yes, I know that “first annual” isn’t actually a thing according to the rules of grammar.

But I think it’s safe to say we are going to hit the repeat button on this winter trip to Vermont as annually as we can.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Bye, Bye Bunny Hill; Hello Headaches

For the parent who skis, there are few things more liberating than having your youngest child – just 6 years old – get comfortable enough on skis to finally get off the darn bunny hill.

For the parent who skis, there are few things more frightening than having your young children hurtling down a mountain as you chase after them yelling, “Slow down! TURN! TURN!”

We’ve been skiing as a family quite often in recent years. Some of the adventures were blogworthy. One was even publishable. Yet, for all that time, we’ve always been tethered to the bunny hill by at least one of the kids – a fact that can put a real damper on a family day on the slopes.

It was mostly our fault. Scratch that. It was entirely our fault. We only went skiing a few times a year since our youngest was born, and we often went to places where the leap from the bunny to the big hill was too much for a novice, pre-school skier to handle.

I’d always look wistfully at parents who could take all their kids up the mountain together and think, someday that will be us.

Slowly, we made progress.

A few years back, our oldest daughter joined us on the big hill -- as did our second oldest two years ago, quite famously. Our third daughter made the jump at age 7, at the tail end of last season. As we entered this winter’s ski season, our hope was to get the boy up the chairlift and onto the big hill.

It seemed quite the goal. On previous trips, he’d earned himself the nickname jelly legs, because he appeared to enjoy falling, and was perfectly content to snowplow through his lesson and then drink hot cocoa will the rest of us tag-teamed babysitting duties between runs.  

Yes. We had to get him off the bunny hill. For our own skiing sanity.

And, just one day into our ski season, it happened.

“Hooray!” The crowd cheered.

Something clicked with the boy. He’s no longer called jelly legs.

Now I just call him the blur.

It might well have been the most horrifying day I’ve ever spent on a mountain.

Before we get too worked up, please know that everyone is fine. Nobody got hurt, other than typical falls and one strawberry on my eldest daughter’s chin from her wandering too far into the terrain park. That worked out as a good thing, since she got to tell friends nonchalantly that she got injured on a jump in the terrain park, letting them fill in the gaps imagining her doing a backscratcher or 360 or some other oddly-named heroics. Maybe it was more like a face plant – but I’ll never say anything.  The important thing is that we all walked away from our day skiing.

But, for a spell, I wasn’t so sure.

The world's least photogenic family (most of them) on top
of a mountain. For the record, the sun was in our eyes.
The first indication of trouble occurred when I was filling out the boy’s paperwork for his lesson. We decided that day to go to Labrador Mountain, one of four ski hills within 30 minutes of our house. We chose Lab because of a good day there at the end of last season, with our older kids and their friends all enjoying free reign of the park’s manageable blues, and even testing their abilities on a few black diamonds.

Like most hills near us, Lab offers a decent lesson package for younger kids, with a combined two hour lesson and lift ticket for less than the price many hills charge for the lift ticket alone.

I should have known from the moment I filled out the paperwork for the lesson that he was going to push the envelope that day. He stood next to me as I read the form’s questions out loud.

Name? … He answered the question as I wrote.

Address?  … He answered.

Parent’s Cell Phone? … He stared blankly as I filled it in.

Number to call in case of an emergency? … “9-1-1” he replied.

“No, buddy,” I corrected through a smirk. “They mean like Nana, or another cell phone.”

He shrugged. Let’s hope no one has to call 9-1-1 today, I thought.

With the form was complete and him registered for the next lesson, we had some time to kill. So we went out to warm up on the bunny hill. After about two minutes, it became painfully obvious to me and the guy running the tow rope up the slight incline of a beginner hill that my boy was ready for more of a challenge. Even before the lesson, my wife – who had taken a few runs with the girls already -- decided he was ready, and bravely took him up the lift herself. I didn’t agree. But who am I to stand in the way of progress.

Not that I was vindicated or anything, but they struggled mightily to make it back down the mountain. She said he fell more than thirty times. They almost missed the damn lesson. Luckily, they didn’t.

I, for one, was glad he was back in the hands of professionals.  And, as lessons always do, his time in ski school gave me and my wife a chance to actually ski together.

As we tackled the more challenging trials with the girls, the boy’s instructor decided, too, that he was ready to go up the lift.

With that, the cork was popped. He was officially off the little hill. After the lesson, he never looked back – not even to see me trying to catch him.

As the day wore on, our whole family went up and down the mountain many times. And I began to envy the moms and dads who had kids stuck on the bunny hill. Because, despite our son’s willingness and ability to handle the harder parts of the hill, he still had a problem with control. And with speed. And with stopping.

He’s pretty much like that old cartoon of the Tasmanian Devil, except on skis – a whirling dervish of down jacket and snow. His only way to slow down is to crash. And every time he speeds down the mountain, over a bend and out of sight, we know we’ll find him in a heap, bouncing up as we near to gather his skis and go some more.

Thank goodness for helmets.
It’s a bit much for a worrisome dad to take. Let's just say that I’m a much more reserved skier than my son. At one point, I even told my wife I had to take a break because my nerves couldn’t handle watching him barreling down the hill like a pint-sized, out-of-control snow plow.

But then, the most harrowing thing I saw involved another child of mine. The girls can never let the baby of the family have all the attention.

In a mental lapse brought on by a day of exertion, I decided to take my daughters down one particularly steep black diamond – one they both swore they’d been down the year before.

They were mistaken. As was I.

About a third of the way down, the incline became too much for them to handle, so much so that our 8 year-old gave up on the notion of turns and slowing down altogether. She shot down the hill dangerously fast, passing expert slalom skiers and the local downhill team in training.

I stopped and stood helplessly, yelling “Slow down! Slow Down.”

She didn’t. She went even faster.

I looked away. I actually averted my eyes. Then I consciously decided that wasn’t the responsible thing to do. So a trained my eyes on the disappearing dot that was my daughter.

To say I was terrified would be an understatement. I was sure it was going to end poorly. Her life actually flashed before my eyes.

Within seconds – which felt like years – she was at the bottom of the hill. I was sure she was going to shoot out across the parking lot and into the hills in the distance. But she didn’t. She slowed. She regained control. And then she stopped.

I’ve never been so delighted to so a child of mine not in motion.

When my other daughter and I finally made it to the bottom of the hill, I hugged her and asked her how it felt to go that fast.

She said, "It was terrifying."

Needless to say, between the boy and his sister, by the end of our day skiing, I was ready for a glass of wine. And a therapist.

In hindsight, it was a perfect day on the mountain.

The boy made it off the bunny hill. Which means freedom.

Then again, the boy made it off the bunny hill. And that might just be more than I can take.