Sunday, December 13, 2015

Elf You and Your Elfing Elf on the Shelf

Like the Christmas season wasn’t elfing stressful enough. Now, there’s a magical elf in the house that supposedly reports to Santa every gosh darn night in December – or at least most nights -- and changes places upon its return.

What an elfing awesome idea! Thanks so much to the magical creators from the North Pole who came up with this challenging addition to our holiday routine. We really needed this wakeup call, this extra check on our attentiveness, this daily reminder that we are far from the parents we set out to be each day.

For the record, our family resisted this elfing movement for many years. We did. Then last year, as the kiddos exchanged their traditional Christmas Eve secret Santa gifts, one sibling got the other a brand spanking new Elf on the Shelf. So, our introduction into elf-on-the-shelfdom officially happened on December 24, 2014. The elf’s arrival initially set off a bit of family squabbling over whether to name him Abraham or Stanley. Why either name was the choice, I have no idea. A compromise was reached, and he was promptly named “Abraham Stanley.”

Our boring Elf on the Shelf, boringly sitting on a
boring shelf, where he'll likely be for more than
one morning in a row.
That very night, Santa came to our house and picked up Abraham Stanley and took him back to the North Pole, as the legend goes, until the next holiday season. (And by legend I mean the instructions in box he came in).

From last Christmas until this December, Abraham Stanley hasn’t caused us any trouble, spending the better part of the year with his friends and colleagues at Santa’s Workshop. Then, on December 1st of this year, he magically arrived on a shelf in our once happy home. Now each morning begins with a frantic kid-led search for our little yuletide spy. That search is often preceded by a frantic parent moment where one of us asks the other, did the elf move? It's amazing how this little question, which I had never asked before this year, can now shake me to my parental core.

Despite our united focus on this nightly task, and the google calendar alert set to 5:00 a.m. each day that simply reads, “Elf,” our little Abraham Stanley doesn’t always move. He’s a bit of a slacker, really. And that has left the kids a bit perplexed.

Apparently, he’s also not the most creative elf in the world. The kids regularly come home from school with stories of how other elves in the neighborhood always do funny things, having tea with dinosaurs and toilet papering the doll house. Ours just sits on shelves and atop rather predictable book cases.

“Why is Abraham Stanley so boring?” one of them asked me the other morning. Dagger.

Like I said, the only thing our elf does consistently is serve as a daily reminder that we are just hanging on as parents.

Not to deflect the criticism, but I think I know why he’s such a slacker. Let’s face it, any elf worth their salt spends December working on a serious toy production deadline. This whole Elf of the Shelf mass arrival is really just Santa’s – or someone else’s – plan to clean out the elf riff-raff. Personally, I’d like to send all these little red interlopers back where they came from.

Oh no. I think my frustration with Abraham Stanley has led me to go full Trump on these holiday helpers.

But honestly, we really don’t need their help. The mere threat that “Santa is watching” has worked to keep our kids on the straight and narrow – a few weeks a year, anyway – for as long as we’ve had kids. Having a physical presence on the premises only moves the good behavior needle a fraction, while causing more grief than anything. Our Elf on the Shelf is just not elfing worth the hassle.

I know darn well there are many parents who’ve complained about these magical little additions to the Christmas rigmarole before. And maybe we can’t just deport all the elfs currently in homes across the nation. But something needs to be done.

Because we simply don’t need more elfing stress this time of year. So, here’s my message to all the parents who have yet to go down the Elf on the Shelf rabbit hole: resist it. This is one new tradition that just isn't sustainable. To the parents who go over the top with your elf-written poems and hilarious antics: please tone it down a bit. I shouldn't have to resort to Pinterest to figure out which crazy predicament Abraham Stanley is going to be found in tomorrow morning.

And, to all the Elves on Shelves and the institutions pushing them on overstressed families everywhere: “Elf Off!”

I sure hope Abraham Stanley doesn’t read this.  

Please visit Ruddy Bits on Facebook for more random crap only parents could enjoy.



Saturday, November 14, 2015

Luna and the Chipmunks

“I think it pooped everywhere!” My wife exclaimed, aghast, looking at scores of tiny black pellets strewn about our foyer and staircase. Not exactly the kind of thing you want to hear on a relaxing fall weekend morning.

“No … those are nuts,” I responded, based on reason and the sound made when the shower of tiny particles exploded a few steps up the stairs from our front door.


“You know, like sunflower seeds.”

Our 12-year-old, wise in the ways of animal culture, added, “They gather nuts in their cheeks for winter, mom.”


Yes. Nuts. That’s the only way to describe a recent morning in our usually quiet home, on our quiet street, in our quiet little village -- absolutely nuts.

To explain, I should probably back up a bit.

If you’d visited our street just an hour earlier, you would’ve found our front door and screen wide open, with our big, cushy over-sized and over-priced armchair in the front yard on its side with me poised above it with my eyes bulging out and a fishing net in hand ready to pounce.

Maybe we should back up even more. Let’s start with the cat: Luna. You may remember her from such classics as the cat that climbed the 40 foot pine and the pet poo mystery.

Our family adopted Luna about two years ago. Since then she’s asserted herself as an outdoor cat, and she’s also grown into quite the able hunter. Her prey of choice: chipmunks. If I could catch fish as efficiently as she catches chipmunks I’d get sponsors and join the professional flyfishing tour. She often returns after a brief stint outside with a chipmunk, mouse or mole in her clutches, pawing at the door to show us her kill. Though, ironically, she doesn’t always kill them – at least, not at first. And I often intervene before she finishes the job. When I see her in the yard with a creature in her mouth, I’ll chase her and, when I can catch her, pick her up. She’ll drop her new toy and, though sometimes they land with a thud, nine times out of ten the rodent will hit the ground and scamper off into the nearest underbrush. She always looks at me like, “What’d you go and do that for?!”
Chipmunk, with cheeks full of nuts and seeds, rubs
his hand together while doing an evil laugh.
It’s not like I’m a chipmunk pacifist, I just find it easier and cleaner to break things up at that point rather than be stuck getting rid of the body later, which I have to do often. Trust me; there’s a small stack of formerly-cute little carcasses behind the stone wall in our back yard. So, I try to step in early when possible.
On this particular morning, I was in the garage preparing to do still more yard work. My wife and eldest daughter were out shopping for something critically important, I’m sure. As I came out of the garage with a rake, or shovel, or something yardy in hand, I saw Luna jog by me with a little furry ball hanging from her teeth.
I sprang into action.
Unfortunately, just as I sprang my youngest daughter came bounding out the front door, and prancing in went Luna with her chipmunk.
NO! I shrieked in my head. In that moment, I prayed the little guy was dead.
Before I was in the door, I learned my prayers had gone unanswered. Luna dropped the very much alive chipmunk, and it scurried into the corner of our living room. Game on.
She flew toward it, rearing up and lunging with her cute little paws extended like the villain from a jump-scare movie. The chipmunk, let’s just call him Chip, darted left, then right, and found himself behind a floor-length curtain – momentarily safe. Luna circled around, playfully padding at the curtain from one side and the next.
This continued for what felt like an eternity.
While the animals danced their deadly tango, the children screamed, scattered and climbed on the furniture like 1950s housewives with a mouse afoot.
“It could have rabies!” They each screamed in one version or another.
In that moment I thought how I hadn’t written any blog post lately. Not for a total lack of content, mind you, just nothing had occurred to compel me to break through the daily grind long enough to put pen to paper. Apparently, my inaction had upset the blog gods. And now their wrath was raining down on me with material I couldn’t ignore. I was witnessing, without a doubt, a “blogworthy” event unfolding in my living room. And it would only get better. By better, of course, I mean worse.
Always calm under duress, I began dispensing orders.
Sadie stop screaming rabies and open the front door!
Drew get upstairs and stay on the bed!
Chloe, get to the basement and find an empty laundry basket!
I was going to catch the darn thing or shoo it out the door trying.
“But I’m afraid!” Chloe replied.
Of what!? The basement or the rabid chipmunk!?
She pointed to the basement.
Fine, Sadie go with Chloe to the basement, I barked as I kept an eye on the chipmunk’s little toes sticking out from under the curtain. To think, my kids used to stand in the same spot during hide and seek. For the record, I could see them then, too.
When Chloe emerged from the basement she had the tiniest box she could find.  She clearly didn’t understand my plan. I sent her again for a LAUNDRY BASKET while I kept my eyes on Chip.
She finally came back with a laundry basket, but it happened to be the only one in the house with wide two inch slots on the sides -- clearly not chipmunk impervious. In her defense, it was likely the only empty one in the house.
Forget it, I said. And I took my eyes off the cornered rodent long enough to sprint to the garage and grab my fishing net. When I came back to the living room, where I’d left the Luna and Chip 23 seconds before, the cat was just walking around the big cushy chair that sits a few feet from the curtain.
“Where’s the chipmunk?” I asked, as shrill as I’d ever asked anything of a cat.
Luna just kept pacing around the chair and looking confused.
I looked behind the curtain. Nothing. And the next curtain. Nothing. The corners of the room. Nothing. Under the chair. Nope. The couch. Clear. I kept crawling around the room like a mad man. The cat sat down, looking at me, and then she started licking her underside like there wasn’t a live rodent loose in our living room. Eff-ing cats.
The trail had gone cold. I deduced that there was only three things that could have occurred while I was momentarily out of the room. The first theory, and most hopeful, was that it had run through the living room and out the propped-open front door without the cat noticing. Unlikely, but hopeful. The second, that it had scurried behind any number of pieces of furniture and floor-length curtain and was hiding in this room or another. Or the third, that it had found a way into the underside of the big cushy chair – which has some holes on its underside thanks to Luna’s other bad habits – and had climbed up inside the interior architecture of its oversized framework. I decided that was the most likely.
I promptly carried the chair out the front door, with the help of a reluctant daughter, and set it on its side so that a rodent could climb easily out of one of the underside holes. Then I watched it. And watched it. For some reason I still had my fishing net poised over it, like I had some reason to catch chip outside.
This lasted until it became clear it was about to rain. The raindrops were the real clue. So I carried the chair back inside with the help of a neighbor who’d come over to check on my sanity.
Time passed. The wife came home. I explained the predicament. She laughed and moaned.
We looked online and the good people of the internet told us to leave a door open, because chipmunks often let themselves out. So the front remained opened as we tried to go back to our lives with Chip missing, last seen in our living room.
And that’s when our wonderful, little cat strolled back in the open door carrying yet another chipmunk in her mouth. We’ll call this one Dale.
I could tell right away that Dale was still alive, as I saw his tail unfurl then furl like a paper noisemaker.
Already on alert, the family sprang into action. We all took up positions in the hall and at entrances to various rooms all trying to steer the cat away and herd her out the door. We were cowboys with a loose steer, though many of us looked more like rodeo clowns when the cat and her catch got near.
She tried to dart left to the living room. Blocked. She tried the kitchen and family room. Blocked, herded and harassed. She ran back toward the open front door, yes, and then took a hard right and headed up the stairs.
“Luna! … No!” my wife let out a guttural call.
I sprinted up the stairs behind the cat and corned her in one of the bedrooms.  Dale was still in her mouth, looking at me with its frightened eyes and puffed out cheeks.
I slowly approached the cat, and picked her up gently making certain not to entice her to drop the rodent. I held her carefully in front of me and walked briskly toward the staircase. We made it halfway down the stairs when Dale saw the light of the door and gave a productive shake, falling from the cat’s mouth and landing with an explosion on the fifth stair from the bottom. The chipmunk hadn’t exploded, but the contents of its cheeks had.
Dale was very much alive. And we all watched frozen as he scampered and scurried toward the open door, his rear legs swinging and swerving widely like a drag racer on wet pavement. Then, he was gone.
Two chipmunks came into our house, and one certainly left. All we had to show for it was a pile of nuts.
In other news, if your family’s interested in a cat, I know one that’s free to a good home, has all her shots, and excels at catching mice … and chipmunks.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Kid Quotes from a Family Hike

“Do we have to go?”
“I hate hikes.”
“How far is it to the top, dad?”
“I need a hiking stick.”
“Can I have a piggy back?”
“She hit me with her stick!”
“Do you think we’re halfway yet?”
"He fell."
“I’m okay … I’m tough”
"Wanna trade walking sticks?"

“I wish this was flatter.”
“Maybe we should go back.”
“Did we take a wrong turn?”
“Is this the top, yet?”
“This is sooo farrrr.”
“I think I see the top.”
“C’mon … race you.”
“Can I have the camera?”

“How high are we?”
“Did you bring snacks?”
“I want the red water bottle.”
“There are so many lady bugs. Do they bite?”
“Ahh! One bit me!”
“I hate lady bugs!”
“Can we go, please?”
“I want to go that way.”
“Please can we go that way.”
“You are the least fun dad ever.”
“I’m hungry.”
“First one to catch a falling leaf wins.”
“How much farther to the car?”
“I’m tired.”
“I caught a leaf!”
“Everyone has caught a leaf but me.”
“Owie, Owie, Owie! Daddy, Daddy. Daddy!
“Can you carry me?”
“Do we have Band Aids in the car?”
“I think I can make it.”
“This is so steep. Did we walk up this?”
“Can we go to the waterfall before we leave?”
“Can I go behind the waterfall?”
“We’ll be fine!”
“How about only people 12 and older can go behind the waterfall?”
“That’s not fair.”
“We’ll be safe, I promise.”
“Can I go too, daddy?”
“I’m scared.”
“She pushed me.”
“We’re so high!”
“This is amazing!”
“Can I have the camera?”

“Best day ever.”
“Thanks, dad. You were right.”
“I’m soooo hungry.”

Like the article?  Here's others you may enjoy: 5 Signs Your Child Has Become a “Tweener”, My Kid Wants and iPhone, and I Don’t Know What To Do, and To the Lost Little Girl in DC: Watching You Find Your Mom Made My Day

Saturday, August 29, 2015

The 14 Comedies My Kids Need To Watch to "Get Me"

One cool thing about my kids growing up is that the older ones are finally ready to appreciate the finer things in life, like the many ridiculous and essential comedies that shaped their dad’s strange view of the world and sense of humor.  

Recently I sat down with my eldest for a movie night, after convincing her she just had to watch Monty Python’s Quest for the Holy Grail. It was touch and go. She laughed at first, but fell asleep halfway through, right about when Sir Robin’s minstrels meet their fate (Yay!). We tried again a few nights later, and she made it to the end. She professed to love it. I figured she was humoring her old man.
A few days later I cut myself slicing vegetables, and she told me it was just a flesh wound. I laughed and smiled deep within – while I bandaged my finger.
Finally, I had someone else in my house who knew the answer to the age old question: What is the average airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow?
I realized, watching that movie was about more than simple father-child bonding – it was showing her a bit of who I am and why, and it was adding her to a secret world of quotes and quips of which only my siblings and select friends are members.
It got me thinking about the many movies my kids need to watch to truly “get me” -- me, as in their dad. Not all of these movies are appropriate yet. But here’s the list, anyway. It’s likely a similar list to that of many other dads of my vintage:
1.       Monty Python’s Quest For the Holy Grail

2.       Monty Python’s Life Of Brian

3.       Airplane

4.       National Lampoon’s Vacation

5.       Ferris Bueller’s Day Off

6.       Steve Martin’s The Jerk

7.       The Three Amigos

When they’re a little older

8.       Sixteen Candles

9.       Naked Gun

10.       Blazing Saddles

11.       This is Spinal Tap (you knew it had to be 11)

12.       Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure

13.       Mel Brooks: History of the World Part I

14.       Austin Powers

I’ve decided to make these movies a requirement of graduation from my house. So before any of them go off to college and out into the cruel and funny world, they have to watch all these fine films. Preferably with me. If not, they will be suspended over a pool of sharks with laser beams attached to their heads. … Or, ill-tempered sea bass, depending on what’s available.

What comedies would make your list?



Monday, August 17, 2015

The Heartbreaking Good Fortune of Returning to Work

This is a note to all the husbands (and wives and partners) of a parent who spent a few years at home, working or just parenting, while looking after the kiddos, only to return to an office job once those children grew. Please support them. Because, it’s a heartbreaking transition returning to work.

I know, because I just did it. And it’s hard. Really hard.

Our family’s story is a bit unique, as everyone’s is, I guess. For the past five years, since just before our fourth child and only son was born, I’ve worked from home as a consultant, freelance writer and adjunct professor. The work went through ebbs and flows, making me extremely busy at times and not terribly busy other times. My wife’s work-from-home job (I know, two work-from-homers is not exactly normal) was far more structured, requiring her to be at her desk or on conference calls all the darn time. Meaning that, for the past five years, I’ve been the parent of record.

A random and typical photo of my kids,
representing the last five years -- and the future.
I’ve been the one in our house at home watching after the kids when they’re not at school, making bag lunches in the morning, grocery shopping in the afternoon, playing in the yard after school, and preparing dinner way too late, pretty much everything but the laundry – which is a whole other story -- and working as close to full-time as possible myself, fitting my career in on the fringes of life. When I wasn’t working or tending to kids, I was usually driving them places: to pre-school, to playdates, to parks, to day camp, to birthday parties, to soccer practice. If they had someplace to go, Dad’s was usually driving – sometimes while on a conference call of my own.

I remember one time pacing in the front parking lot of a Chuck-E-Cheese, on a particularly tense conference call, while one of my daughters, her friends and all the other parents in attendance partook in the festivities. They probably thought I was a jerk, but I was just trying to balance my career and my family. And, for the last five years, I’d been able to do that while mostly being at home. Not too far from my kids.

It wasn’t always that way.

During the first seven years of our child-rearing experiment (our oldest daughter was born 12 years ago) I was the part-time parent; A weekend warrior. I worked 40-, 50-, 60-hour weeks well away from home, and fit in the parenting around the fringes, usually seeing our growing number of kids during their awful bedtimes or on the weekends that always felt too short.

Back then, it was my wife who bore the primary parenting responsibility, while balancing work and family from her home office. She was the one who made all the tough transitions, from full-time worker, to maternity leave, to part-time worker, to maternity leave, to contract worker, etc.

The pain in her transitions is something I never thought of when I was the one working an office job full-time. I imagine, most working spouses of homebound parents likely don’t think about the transitions either. If anything, we’re a little jealous of the whole arrangement.

But I can tell you, the transitions are hard. It’s truly painful to go from a stay-at-home mom, or stay-at-home dad, or a work-at-home-parent back to a nine-to-fiver. It’s hard to think that your time at home with the little ones is really over. It’s hard to watch your little baby turn five, and know that those years went by in a blink. It’s hard to think that all those hours, days, months, and years, where you sat on park benches and on a practice sideline, begrudging being around your children all the dang time, that those times are now over. And you’re back at the water cooler. Commuting. Working all day. And living for weekends that are simply too short.

Here’s a confession: the morning that marked my return to the office routine, I sat down after my shower on the closed toilet in our bathroom, with a towel, a t-shirt, and a toothbrush, and I cried.

Me. A grown man. A grizzled veteran dad. I cried. Heck, I bawled. The end of this era hit me. My time at home was over.

I thought about that fact that some of my kids didn’t remember the days when I wasn’t around. And I knew some of them might not remember the days when I was.

Yep. I cried.

(By the way, If my current boss reads this part, I don’t want them to mistake that sadness for regret about this new job. In truth, I am grateful, both for the chance to work from home for the past five years and for the opportunity to return to the workplace.)

I know I am lucky. Lucky I have these wonderful kids and a wife who still professes to love me. Lucky to have a good job when so many others – moms and dads – struggle to get back into the workplace.

But I do regret that time has traveled past me so fast, that my children have grown so quickly, and that I can’t seem to slow this world down no matter what drastic steps I take to do so.

To everyone who is at home with the kids, parenting full-time or working from home, I say, find a way to appreciate what you do have: Time. Time with your kids. It is the most precious thing we have.

And, to everyone who lives with someone who made the sacrifice of staying home for the kids' formative years, only to return to the work routine, know that it is harder than it looks. So, support them. 

Many moms (and dads) who've done it already know this: but it is a heartbreaking good fortune, returning to work.
No parent should underestimate how hard and fortunate it is.

Like the article?  Here's others you may enjoy. Learning Lessons from a Little Boy, Tip of the Hat to Single Parents, and Thanks to My Backup, and New Year, Few Expectations.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Sometimes, You Have To Actually Turn the Car Around

I relearned an important lesson this week: With kids, sometimes you have to follow through on all those threatened consequences.

If you keep telling them you’re going to turn the car around if they don't behave, and never actually turn the car around when they continue to act like … well, children, they will learn that the car isn’t going to get turned around no matter what they do.

This may seem obvious. It's straight from the parenting 101 books that I failed to read when I first started taking this experiential course in child-rearing a dozen years ago. 

But, I’ve been told lately that I’m not very good at this whole follow through thing. 

It’s not like I go around making threats to my kids. Sometimes they act like insane little monsters, and the fear of sanctions is the only way I can think of to get them to behave. So, threats happen.

Take, for instance, a dinner out I had on a recent night with two of our kids and their grandparents.
My wife is out of town with our two middle kids visiting her sister, so I have responsibility for our 5-year-old boy and 12-your-old daughter for the week. My parents, fresh back from a summer trip to Michigan and Canada, called and asked if we wanted to have dinner at a neat little seafood place.  

Sure, I figured. Why not?
What I didn’t figure was that, after a week with his father’s later bedtimes and lack of disciplinary follow-through, the 5-year-old boy would be primed and ready for his worst restaurant behavior in recent memory. 

Usually, with his middle sisters around, he just blends into our family’s typical restaurant commotion and acts kid-like but within acceptable parameters.
No such luck for our evening at the quant little seafood place. He was standing on the booth seat, under the table kicking people, blowing bubbles in his chocolate milk, dribbling water out of his mouth, then spitting water out of his mouth, and screaming “What?” at the top of his lungs like he was shocked to hear something as a way to humorously add to the adult conversation. It wasn’t funny.

I warned him several times that if he didn’t act better, we would leave the restaurant.

Only one problem with my threat: I was trapped in the interior of the booth, and I was hungry. I guess that’s two problems. But, it’s not like threatening to take him out of church when he acts up, which I always follow through on because who wouldn’t rather be walking around outside a church than inside it doing Catholic calisthenics on hard, wooden benches. Sit. Stand. Kneel. Sit. Stand. Kneel. That’s an easy follow through. But I really didn’t want to leave the restaurant and my soon to be arriving crab-stuffed baked sole. (Apparently, my sole is more important to me than my soul. But that’s not the point).

So, despite repeated threats to go to the car that evening with the misbehaving boy, we didn’t leave. His behavior never improved, though we survived, and later that night he fell asleep, finally granting me peace.

It served as a perfect example of me not following through on a threatened sanction, and I knew it. Thank goodness my wife wasn’t there to witness the affair.

Anyway, I resolved to do better next time.

That next time arrived sooner than expected, when two days later I picked up the boy and his sister at the separate day camps they attend in the mornings and decided to take them to lunch.

As always, the kids picked Panera. Those grilled cheese sandwiches must have kid crack in them, I swear.

Consider this a warning to everyone, if you kick me in the
shins you will not get a grilled cheese. ... I mean it.
We arrived just after high noon. Like every Panera in the lower 48 at that time of day, there was a long line of people waiting to order overpriced, small portions of fast casual goodness. So good, I usually leave still hungry, yet noticeably poorer. 
Waiting in line, the boy kept trying to jump up and grab my neck. I’m tall enough that he had no chance. But he kept at it. 

“Stop that or we’re leaving.”
Then he started pushing his big sister.
“I’m warning you, boy,” I snarled.
Then he kicked me in the shins.
That was it. I grabbed him firmly by the arm – not too firmly – and told him he’d been warned and now we were leaving.
Then we left. We actually left.

“I’ll listen! I’ll listen!” he wailed as we walked across the parking lot to our car. He was certainly expecting us to turn around and go back into Panera. But I kept right on going; into the car and back to the house.
He cried the whole way. 

I made him a much cheaper version of a grilled cheese at home and, after his fit died down a bit, he ate it.

Of course, leaving Panera for me was about as hard as leaving church -- an easy threat to make good on. It was also easier to enforce with just two kids in tow. If I’ve got four hungry kids and a hungry wife, I’m not likely to drag all of them back to the car because the boy is acting up. There’s too much potential for collateral suffering.

Years ago, I remember leaving a grocery cart full of stuff and walking out with one wailing child -- who happens to now be twelve. But in the time since, I must've softened to the point where I developed a no-follow-through reputation.

Not anymore. 
I don’t know if this one bit of follow through will work to curb future bad behavior. But it sure seems to have had an impact. He’s mentioned the episode several times since. I think he's still shocked that we actually left. 

And, if I have to make the threat to leave again and he doesn’t listen, you can bet I will make good on it. I just hope it’s at Panera and not a quaint little seafood joint.

Friday, May 29, 2015

Facing Fears (and Gaining Friends) In the Name of Humor

What possessed 15 dads, most of whom can’t sing a lick or dance very well beyond the occasional “sprinkler” move, to get on a stage in front a few hundred friends, family, and neighbors on a recent Spring night and generally make fools of themselves? Did I mention that some were wearing princess dresses?

So, why exactly would grown men act this way?
The answer’s quite simple. But the impact is kind of profound.
I heard about this annual school event, called “Dad's Night,” from one of the few friends I’d made over the years on my many trips to open-houses and other parental events at the local elementary school. He’d participated in Dad's Night the previous year and convinced me to attend an informational meeting last Fall to learn more.
What I learned: Dad's Night is an annual skit show organized, written, and performed by willing fathers whose kids go to our local public elementary school.
A skit show? I thought at the time. As in, on stage?
For the record, I really don’t like to be the center attention. It may sound weird coming from a guy who regularly puts his soul down on paper – or on transmittable digital bytes – to be broadcast to the world (at least conceivably).  But it’s true. I hate it.
Worst of all, I hate the thought of being on a stage in front of people. It’s just not my thing. I’m much more a behind the scenes kind of guy.
I'm the Elsa that looks more like Fiona 
But, they say life begins where your comfort zone ends. I read that recently. It may have been a poster with a kitten on a tree branch. Not almost falling off the tree branch; that’s a “Never Give Up” poster.  But just a kitten on a tree branch, ostensibly branching out, I guess.  Or maybe it was a guy clinging to the side of a cliff with just a few carabiners separating him from certain death.

In any event, you get the point. “Life begins where your comfort zone ends.”
For me, the border of my comfort zone lies somewhere between the closed curtain and the open stage.
Still, as I thought about our local Dad's Night, I figured I could at least help write some of the skits.
Besides, it’s tough for dads to meet other dads through their kid’s school. Women are far better at bridging that divide and making friends with the moms they see at pick-up and drop-off. For dads, even those like me who do a fair share of picking up and dropping off, it can be very tough. Many of us just don’t see each other often enough to gain a familiarity. Even when we do, it can be limited to head nods at the annual curriculum night, or handshakes at the school carnival.
Befriending other school dads has always been near impossible for me, and I imagine for many other dads. Because of it, I’ve never really looked forward to school events, filled with awkward head nods and occasional sports banter.
If nothing else, I figured this experiment would give me a chance to actually meet and get to know some other dads.
So beginning last Fall, I started attending Dad's Night planning and writing sessions every few weeks to talk about what exactly we were going to do in the Spring show.
It proved a nice escape from the house – I work from home, mostly, which is not as awesome as it sounds. And in the process I started to get to know this strange and funny group of guys. (Not an insult. I like strange and funny, and aspire to be both).
As winter crept by, the writing sessions became weekly rehearsals. At one point, in my naiveté, I’d hoped only to write. But as a rookie, I was quickly pulled fully into the production and even given lines – at least in the skit I wrote.  I ended up even volunteering – along with a few other guys -- to wear an Elsa dress for a Halloween skit and a few other scenes just to reduce my chances of getting more lines.
For a few months, each Sunday evening we gathered and laughed and worked out the kinks in our show. Occasionally we grabbed a beer after our meetings. Only occasionally.
As Spring grew closer, the nerves set in. Restful sleeps were broken by images of a Middle School auditorium filled with parents and kids that sounded like a field of crickets as my lines were delivered. I wasn’t alone in my fears, and found that several other dads shared the phobia. Some others didn’t and seemed to thrive on the thought of being up there. But most of us were scared.
As show night loomed closer, our weekly rehearsals became daily ones. Anxiety grew. And I got thinking: what the heck are we doing? Why are we subjecting ourselves to near certain humiliation and potential doom?
Then, two days before the show, it became clear. It happened when my third grader, who battles a level of shyness herself, came skipping home, proud as could be, that her dad was actually going to be in Dad's Night. She was practically a celebrity in her class because of it.
So, why would 15 grown men get up in front of their community to potentially make fools of themselves? The same reason we do most silly things: to make our kids laugh.
Show night came. And we danced. We sang. We dressed as Elsas. All in front of a packed house (it was a school auditorium, but I wanted to say that). I got most of my lines right. And there were no cricket noises – except that one joke I wrote. But otherwise, it was a success.
To put it mildly, we rocked it. My kids haven’t stopped laughing and talking about it yet, and it’s been a few weeks.
The bonus: Well, it’s as one of the other dads said, when you go through something intense and stressful with a group, it can create a unique bond.
By exiting my comfort zone and entertaining my kids, I also got to know this great group of strange and funny guys. Now, I’m one of them.
And I’m looking forward to the next school gathering, complete with a lot more head nods and sports banter.


 If your children's school doesn’t do something like Dads’ Night. It should.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Learning Lesson From A Little Boy

“This is not a joke!"

“Yes it is.”

“No, I’m not fooling around.”

“Why not?”

“Because this is serious.”

“No it’s not.”

The boy is four years old. Four and a half, as he’s quick to correct. Yet we still struggle mightily with how to discipline him. He literally thinks everything is a joke. And I am using the word literally as it is supposed to be used.

We aren’t rookie parents. He’s our fourth. Of course, we’re not the best at all aspects of parenting (ahem… bedtime). But we aren’t new to our struggles. Figuring out how to get him to take us seriously – to take anything seriously – is a great challenge.

“You lost dessert when you took your pants down at the table.”

I actually said that to him after dinner one day recently. In the middle of our meal, sometime after the prayer and before his sisters scattered to the wind, the boy mooned the table. As the girls all laughed, including his mother in a seriously-suppressed sort of way, I told him that it wasn’t funny to moon the table.

“Then why is everybody laughing?”

A fair question. One I didn’t have an immediate answer to. But it got me thinking, again, about the great trouble we face with him. How do we get this little guy to realize that life isn’t all one big joke?  And just as importantly, why exactly do I have to teach him that?

Our boy turns five this summer, something he’s been looking forward to since he turned four. He’s a great kid, he tells you he loves you, says thank you and sorry at appropriate times, and offers hugs without request. He’s smart, calling out the answers to his older sister’s math problems as she tries to figure them on paper. He’s fast, too. Super fast, as he likes to say. (He’s actually normal speed, but thinks he’s like a rocket; don’t tell him otherwise).

But when it comes to discipline, he’s kind of like Peter Pan probably was at four. He just doesn’t get it. When I go to put him in timeout, it invariably becomes a game of chase, with him laughing and squealing and letting out a guttural  “AHHHHHH” like PeeWee Herman being chased by a friendly bear.

This all matters because in a few short months this boy of ours will go to kindergarten. Full day no less.

It’s time for him to grow up.  Yet … I don’t want him to.

It makes me wonder where all the time has gone. And why the heck it’s gone so fast. And how it all seems like such a blur. I remember the first time we put a kid on the bus to go to Kindergarten. My wife bawled. I didn’t. I stood stoically and watched. Then I went to work. When the next two got on that bus when it was their turn, my wife cried again. I didn’t.

When he gets on the bus, I think am going to. I know it. Not because he’s the baby, or the boy (I don’t think like that), but because he’s the last.

For the past 12 year we’ve had little ones who needed us each day, to take care of and feed and clothe and wipe. For a good part of that, we’ve worked, sending them to the sitter, or to pre-school, or to some camp for half a day.

Always we hoped that we’d get to the point where one of us could stay home and just be the parent. It never happened.  And soon, they won’t need us to. As my wife muttered after she filled out the kindergarten paperwork for the boy, it’s gone.

People told us to cherish it, like we tell other parents to. But did we? Did we? Heck, I can barely remember all of it.

I know there’s a lot more parenting left to do, and a lot more time with our little people before they go off to college. But if it’s anything like the last 12 years, it’s going to fly by and become a blur.

And that’s why it’s so hard to teach this boy that his antics aren’t funny. Because they are. And I want them always to be.