Thursday, August 29, 2013

When Did Back To School Become Its Own Season?

I knew it was going to happen eventually, starting a post with the phrase, “Back when I was young.”  So, here goes:

Back when I was young, we didn’t set aside the final three weeks of summer to focus solely on going back to school.  We just didn’t. 
Sure I remember buying some #2 pencils, and digging through my older brother’s dresser drawer to see if his school shirt from last year fit me.  We had to make sure it didn’t have too many stains, or that yellow tinge from the rusty water in our well.  But we’d usually do that the day before school started. 
What was so important she couldn't make it three feet
from the mailbox before opening?  Teacher Letters.
My kids, on the other hand, have been talking about back to school-related rituals and procedures since early August.   It began with the hype in advance of the so-called teacher letters – so-called because its from their new teachers, telling them which class they’d be in for the coming school year.  And, this year, two of our kids are moving up to new schools.  So it's a big deal, no doubt.  But, come on people. 

There were actually internet-based rumors in our town about when the local school would mail the teacher letters.  Vacations were scuttled so that families could wait by their mailboxes. 

Not us.  We happened to be out of town on the Saturday the letters finally arrived.  My wife and I got a text from a neighbor that the “letters have landed."  We decided it best not to tell the kids, to avoid them begging to go home early the rest of the weekend.  We told them on the drive home.  You’d swear we said Santa was waiting in our living room.

“Drive faster, dad!”

The letters are just the start.  Next, you have to read all that stuff.  Then comes the detective work determining which friends are in your class.  I almost needed another phone line to handle all the calls.

And the letters, of course, have within each a supply list.  That's when the real shopping starts.  Which is followed by the school meetings and tours.  Then more shopping.  There's more, but that's all I care to recall in my current back-to-school-season frazzled state.

Is there a Hallmark card for going back to school?  Maybe they’re behind this?

Or, maybe it’s a public school thing?

Growing up, we went to a small, private school – which was not nearly as fancy as that sentence implies.  It was very small, and not exclusive.  We went there because my dad’s family had a thing for Catholic school education.  And because the public schools near our suburban-D.C. home were too big and not known for being particularly good at educating children.

My parents may have been concerned about us falling in with the riffraff at the public school.  As it turned out, we were the riffraff at our private school. 

As school started, sure we’d do a bit of back to school shopping.  But we didn’t have some big, all-hands-on-deck, multi-store trip, where everyone got new clothes, sneakers, new book-bags and more erasers than even my kids could ever need. 

For one thing, we had uniforms.  We made, maybe, one trip to JC Penney’s to get a pair of khakis and gym shoes.   That was it for clothes.  And we’d be lucky if we got some new, lined loose-leaf paper, a few folders and a lunchbox that didn't smell from being closed all summer.

We also had small classes at our schools.  So we knew in advance who the teacher was going to be, usually the same teacher that had been teaching that class for decades -- Sister something-or-other.

The school year would start when we’d pull up to said school, get out of the car, and our parents would pull away.  There were no big, instruction-filled teacher letter packets that I recall.  No orientations.  No soft-grand-openings.  No two-page long lists of supplies.  Okay, maybe once I remember getting a Trapper-Keeper.  But only the once. 

Still, I'm pretty certain it wasn't quite like things are today.  My mom may remember it differently.

Am I wrong?  Or am I just getting old?

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The Baggage That Comes With Being A Dad ...

In the mountainous regions of Eastern Nepal, high among the Himalayas, live a people called the Sherpa. They are known worldwide for, among other things, their ability to carry ridiculously large quantities of bags, as their Western traveling companions tag along on the trek unencumbered.     

I think of the Sherpas, and my connection to them, every time I go on a trip with my family.

This past weekend, my wife and I took our kids on an overnight trip to my family’s house on Lake Ontario. It was just one night. Did that stop us from stuffing the mini-van so tight that I couldn’t see out the back windows? No. It didn’t. 

"Honey, don't forget the beach toys." Grumble. Grumble.
We took more for this so-called night away than we packed for the full week we spent in South Carolina in early July. Heck, we packed more than I took with me when I moved away to college some two decades ago. In fact, if you added up all the stuff I had packed on various overnights and weekend trips during my pre-married, pre-child days, it would still be less than what we took for one evening at the old camp. 

Gone are the days when I could just grab a change of clothes and a towel (a nod to the Hitchhiker’s Guide) and spend a week on the road. Don’t worry, I’d usually buy a tooth brush once I got where I was going. Usually. That was then.

Fast forward to this past weekend and we packed enough clothes for each kid to change outfits more than Cher at a concert. Plus sweatshirts, jeans and pajamas. We packed not only bath towels for each family member, but we also brought beach towels for each. We packed sheets, blankets, and pillows. Pillows!? As I said, in an instructional tone the morning of our trip, “When I was young, we used to roll up our jeans and use that as a pillow! C’mon people!”

We also packed sleeping bags, a tent, and the blow-up mattress, in case we decided to spend the night under the stars. Then we packed enough food to feed our entire family for the foreseeable future, including drink boxes in four varieties, snacks galore, water bottles and bottles of water (go figure), paper plates, paper towels, toilet paper, and dog food. As my wife said, you never know what the camp is going to need.

Let’s not forget the beach junk. We didn’t. Boogie board, umbrella, two beach blankets, three beach chairs, and 4 life jackets – in case we ended up on a boat, or a kayak, or a canoe. You never know. Sunscreen, bug spray, the camera, the phone chargers. You get the idea.

Once the van was completely packed – and I mean completely -- with enough provisions and gear to get us through fall, 5-year-old Sadie asked, in her concerned voice, “Are we moving?”

Luckily, we did have a van to actually transport the provisions and gear the 50 miles north to the lake house. Real Sherpas would have carried it the whole way. But I do feel bad for the poor soul who had to take all that stuff to and from the van, and then repeat the task the next day with 95 percent of the stuff. The kids drank the juice boxes, accounting for the missing 5 percent of cargo.

In our defense, we are packing for six people, nowadays. I must have heard that defense a hundred times, as I grumbled under the pile of blankets, or beach chairs, or whatever I was carrying.

I guess that’s one way I’m not like a Sherpa. They don’t complain. 

Oh, and they climb mountains.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

I Really Hate a Good Read … Except This One

When it comes to other people's writing, there’s a scene from Woody Allen’s film Midnight In Paris, where Owen Wilson’s character asks Ernest Hemingway to read his unpublished novel, that says it all:
Owen Wilson's Character: “I would like you to read my novel and get your opinion.”
Hemingway:  “I hate it.”
Wilson’s Character:  “You haven't even read it yet.”
Hemingway:  “If it's bad, I'll hate it. If it's good, then I'll be envious and hate it even more. You don't want the opinion of another writer.”

I imagine the fake Hemingway speaks for most writers out there.  He even speaks for those of us who just fancy ourselves as writers.  When I read published work that’s just okay, or even bad, I think, damn, I could’ve written that.  Why didn’t I write that? And, why can’t I get the stuff I’ve written published?  Not just blog published, but really published.  I mean, this jackass got their stuff published.

When I read something that strikes me as pretty darn good, I am consumed with envy and self-doubt.  It’s disheartening, even debilitating.  I remember once when I was stuck while writing one of my currently-unpublished books, and I decided to turn to Angela’s Ashes for inspiration – a work I’d read and admired years before.  This time, I read a single page, then I curled up in a ball and didn’t write another word for a solid month.  It was that good.  

"You don't want the opinion of another writer."
But, every once in a while, I stumble on something that is immune to my writer’s envy.  Not that it’s necessarily better than Pulitzer Prize-winning Angela’s Ashes.  More that’s it’s so creative, and so personal, and so rich in voice that I feel there's no way I would ever write that way, because it's that writer's voice, not mine.  When that happens, I feel like I’m reading a writer's mind, not their words.  That’s a kind of writing out of reach of even my envy.

I read something like that recently.  It was a blog post by another daddy blogger.  That’s right, I’ve decided I’m a daddy blogger, and now I read other dad blogs. Yikes.  In a few hundred words, this writer, who goes by the name Black Hockey Jesus (and I've since read eschews the title daddy blogger), captured all the emotion I’ve tried to write about, the bittersweet stuff that every parent knows watching their kids grow up.  And he did it in a way that I never would have thought to imitate, accidently or otherwise, even with a hundred typewriters, a hundred monkeys and a hundred years.   I’m probably overstating it at this point.

For me, it worked.  This blog post made me think about all the times in recent years that I’ve held my kids tight, on a down day, and just been thankful that I had them, and could hold them.  Living reminders of how lucky I really am, even when I don’t feel all that lucky.  This blog post made me think, that someday, I won’t be able to just grab them, and pick them up, and squeeze them tight.  It’s already started.  My 10 year old is getting too big to carry in from the car after she falls asleep on late-night trips home.  She stills fakes asleep.  But soon, even that won’t work.  I won’t be able to carry her.  Nor will she want me to.  

It made me think about the misspent times the past few years that I way too fondly reminisced about the freedom of my younger days, or even looked forward to the empty nest that’s a decade and a half away.   Recently, my brother,  who also has a few kids, began a sentence, "When we get our lives back ..."  I laughed and agreed, and our wives frowned.  What the hell were we talking about?  This full nest of ours is our lives, and it's what makes life worth living.  At least my life.  At least now.

This one blog post made me think about all this.  And it got me choked up.  I don’t like to admit it, but it did.  

Good writing can do powerful things. And this did.  Here’s a link.

Thank you, Black Hockey Jesus, for writing this.  I didn't hate it.  

Monday, August 12, 2013

The Year of the Turtle

Back in the mid 80s, when we used to take the extra fabric around the ankles of our jeans, then fold, wrap and roll it as tight as possible to our ankles -- in a fashion practice known as pegging -- I asked my mom how anyone could ever have thought bell bottoms were cool. She said, all things come and go. She even went so far as to predict that one day pegging would be seen as odd and bell bottoms would be back in style. I thought she was nuts. 

A decade later, she was right. It was the first time I remember seeing the pendulum swing so clearly, and it proved a powerful lesson. All things do come and go: even things as odd as excessively loose, or ridiculously tight pant ankles.

But even in her wisdom, I do not think my mother could have predicted a blast from the past that has come back recently to overtake our household. It’s a trend for sure, though not of the fashion variety, and it has become the singular obsession of my four children. Anyone who has interacted with my kids in recent months knows the scourge of which I speak: Turtles. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, to be precise. Though, by my estimation, they are middle-aged mutants at best, by this point.

I remember the first time the series made waves in the late eighties. After that, I don’t think I heard a thing about them for a decade or two. Though I'm kind of out of it when it comes to trends.  Now they are back, stronger than ever, as a newly animated series has suddenly taken over Nickelodeon’s summer programing. 

How these four mutant martial artists made it back from obscurity, I haven’t a clue. Heck, I don’t know how the trend caught on in the first place. This was a television series that jumped the shark in the concept room.   

They're mutants. They're reptiles.
They're ninjas. And they're everywhere.
Still, my kids love it. They've gone so far as to each adopt the name of a favorite turtle, along with a preference for the color of their chosen turtle's headband and constant repetition of key quotes from that character.

There's Leonardo, the leader (blue); Donatello, the smart one (purple); Raphael, the tough guy (red); and Michelangelo, the dumb, but funny one who likes to surf and party a lot (orange). I never quite understood why the so-called “heroes on the half shell” were named after four great Italian artists. They just were. Again, the idea for this animated foursome passed the exit for absurd long before the names were chosen.

And, of course, each turtle also has its own specific martial arts skill and a ninja weapon or two. Which makes for hours of family fun, as the kids pretend to fight evil and I scream at them to stop hitting each other with fake ninja moves.  
I’m half expecting this year’s Christmas wish lists to include nunchucks and throwing stars, as well as all the TMNT crap our local, neighborhood Target can cram into the aisle that all the retail giants will most certainly devote to the mutants this shopping season. That is, if this trend last until Christmas.  
As the old saying goes, the flame that burns twice as bright, burns half as long. That's right: I just quoted ancient Chinese philosopher, Lao Tzu. Circa 550 B.C. That's because the kids have decided that I am Splinter, the giant mutant rat that is their sensei. I take my pretend dojo lessons vey seriously.   

We’ll have to wait and see just how long this turtle obsession lasts. But it certainly proves again that all things come and go. No matter how absurd -- like bell bottoms.  

Though, I’m still waiting for pegged pants to come back. Or, did that happen already?