Thursday, November 16, 2017

Who In Their Right Mind Plays Basketball at Five in the Morning? Answer: Dads do.

“Dad, I hope I never get to the point where the only time I can hang out with my friends is at 5:45 in the morning.”

My daughter said that to me recently. And there’s a reason.

We were discussing the fact that, for the better part of the past year, a group of dads and I -- all in our mid-30s to mid-40s – have been meeting at the local YMCA at 5:45 a.m. one day a week to play basketball. 
That’s right. I said 5:45 a.m. 
That’s the official tip-off time. We play for about 45 minutes (exactly 45 minutes, according to the official dad-timekeeper’s watch, to be precise), finishing and parting ways by 6:30 a.m.
I wish I was a little bit taller,
I wish I was a baller...
For the record, basketball is not my sport. Soccer, yes. Lacrosse, maybe. But when it comes to basketball, I kind of suck. I’m short, relatively speaking. And even if I’m taller than some people, I can’t jump very high. Oh, and I have no aim. In fact, while some people shoot 30 percent from behind the arc, and that’s considered a good thing, I shoot a about 30 percent from underneath the basket. Layups. That’s not considered a good thing.   
If you’re old enough, you likely remember those commercials for the U.S. Army: “We do more before 9 a.m. than most people do all day.” We could have similar commercials, though they’d be more like: “We miss more layups by 7 a.m. than most people miss all year.”
I say that in jest, because not all of us are bad at basketball. In fact, a few of us are quite good -- one of us, in particular. (Let me stress: I am not that person).
But, in a weird way, it doesn’t really matter. Every Thursday, whether we’re going to make all our shots or none of our shots, we gather at this ungodly hour under the baskets at the local YMCA, when our kids, wives and most normal people are deep in their dreams or hitting the snooze, and we break up into teams, and we play. Because, that’s when we can. 
Since we started playing, I’ve heard lots of stories about other groups like ours who gather in other gyms on other mornings and play before the sun comes up. I’d bet that, across the country, at any early morning moment, there is likely a group of almost middle aged men playing morning basketball in most towns. 
And there’s a reason for that, too.   
Anyone who has a kid or two or five knows the challenge most parents face when it comes to both having a social life and staying in shape. The challenge being, when exactly do we have time for either? 
Despite the Instagram post of some within our cohort showing both six-pack abs and well-adjusted kids, most parents with children in the home suffer from friend-time/workout-time/space-time constraints.
There is no time for much of anything outside of what we must do. Between work and parenting, making meals and driving kids around, and, of course, sleeping, what is left, really? Heck, my wife and I are pleased with ourselves to even shower each day.
For many years, I just suffered through this lack of personal time.
Then, a couple of years back, I was told by some doctor that if I intended to suffer through as many years as I wanted to, I had to start working out more regularly. And, soon after, I discovered that the only time I had to do that – or anything other than work – was between 5:00 and 6:45 a.m. 
So that’s what I did. I started waking up a few days a week and getting in a workout before the rest of the world awoke. It began as personal workout time, and still mostly is: running on the treadmill, riding the stationary bike, or wandering around the weight room trying to look like I belong there.

Now, some mornings it involves a team sport I’m not all that good at.   
Despite the ridiculous hour, we always have enough willing participants to make a game of it. Most often we play 4 v. 4, pulling from a pool of about 10 dads.  Some days we play 3 v. 3. Occasionally, we play uneven teams, like 3 v. 4, with that one really good guy on the lesser-numbered team. And that team usually wins, anyway. 
But again, it kind of doesn’t matter. Because, it’s 5:45 in the morning, we’re getting in a workout, there are no kids around, and we’re among friends. 
And, by the way, it’s often the most fun 45 minutes I have all week. That’s not meant as an insult to the other 10,035 minutes in the week. But it is fun, despite the significant scars to the ego caused by so many missed layups. 
So fun that I often leave wishing we played every day. Not that I’m suggesting we do. 
Because I also like to sleep. And 5:45 a.m. is pretty stinking early.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

A high schooler. Let that sink in.

It’s been two months, so the reality of the situation has taken hold, and I finally have the strength to write these words without feeling like I’m in a bad dream: We have a high school student living in our house.

And she’s our daughter.

Our wee first child, who I remember being born and a thousand other little kid things since. That precocious little blonde who could count to 16 before she was two, and said “actually” so clearly and so often as a toddler that we knew we were in trouble early: she’s officially a freshman.

Which makes me officially old. It makes all my old friends officially old too, and some of them are taking it harder than I am.
I almost accidentally kicked this sign.
But I didn't.
It really hit me when she went to her first homecoming game under the lights at the high school football stadium. The rest of us attended, too, though we promised not to acknowledge her. It hit me then because, while I don’t recall much about my freshman year, I remember my first homecoming game. It was rainy and cool and smelled of popcorn. We were under the lights of our much smaller stadium with all the new friends I’ve lost touch with in the decades since. It was a blast. At least, I thought it was at the time.
And it really wasn’t that long ago. Honestly.
The weird thing is that, as she begins this adventurous time in every young person’s life, all I can think about is the next looming milestone: college. That’s what gets me. Oh my god. She’s going to be in college soon. Like sooner than how long ago she was in elementary school, which wasn’t that long ago.
College, like leaving the nest, and moving out, and getting away from this whole family of ours. And that makes me want to put my head in my hands and wail. I miss her already.
And how are we going to afford that, anyway? A thought that makes me stop wanting to cry and start wanting to hyperventilate.
WTF is she doing to us, growing up and causing all this pain, self-reflection and general regret that all these years have slipped through our fingers forever.
But she doesn’t seem bothered by it at all. She’s having the time of her life, attending high school football games, taking honors courses I would certainly fail, and going to things like Improv Club.
Improv Club? Really. We didn’t have clubs like that at my school. God I wish we did.
I also had a lunch break. Which she doesn’t, and for the life of me I can’t figure that one out.
Maybe it’s because she goes to a school that has way too many Type A parents, or something, but most kids at her school don’t take a lunch. And that’s not a typo. They don’t have a lunch break in their daily schedule. They grab and go, eating in art, or study hall, or some other elective that’s supposed to make them more desirable to some college admissions officer.
No lunch?! Whoever heard of such a thing? And why exactly are they doing this? Preparing these kids for a life of eating at their desk and working through dinner? Besides, if they are never in the school cafeteria, when is the big musical number supposed to happen? When are they going to stand up to the big school bully and dump his (or her) tray of food all over their letterman sweater?
Seriously. I couldn’t have survived without a lunch. Still can't. Nor would I want to.
I have half a mind to pull her out of that darn school and start teaching her myself. I remember algebra, a little. I’m sure we could figure it out together. ("Dad, algebra was 8th grade. I'm taking geometry now"). Fine. I’ll just have to quit my job and brush up on a few other subjects. And then we could also have lunch together. And we could keep her here and protect our wee little girl from all those mean people in the world who don’t even want her to eat.
That could work.
... Or maybe it couldn’t.
Maybe this is all part of the parenting gig. This bitter sweet job that you wish away half the time, and yet never get enough of. Maybe letting go is part of the art form.
I’m just not ready.
I guess I’m fine with high school. Sort of. But not college. Not yet.
I don’t even want to think about that.


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?


Here's other articles you may enjoy: Vegas, Baby!, Dog Responds to "Mystery Poo" False Accusations, and Tip of the Hat to Single Parents, and Thanks to My Backup,

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.



Here's other articles you may enjoy: Learning Lessons from a Little Boy, One Smiling Moment -- The Truth Behindan Okay Photo, and Tothe Lost Little Girl in DC: Watching You Find Your Mom Made My Day.

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.