Monday, September 23, 2013

Bonzo for Bedtime

Ten years into this parenting gig, you’d think we’d be good at the one thing we have to do every darn evening. You’d think. Yet, without a doubt, bedtime at our house sucks.

The younger ones are supposed to go to bed at 7:30. The older one at 9:00.  “Supposed to” being the operative phrase. We usually send the kids to bed as close to the designated time as possible. If they are all asleep by 10 p.m., it’s been a raging success.

Between helping them wash up, reading to them and one of us lying down with the younger ones to help them settle down, it’s always at least a two hour process. More often than not, the one of us who lies down, falls asleep.

It’s a rare evening that we both make it through bedtime awake, with the kids actually asleep. Even when that happens, we almost certainly get a post-bedtime visitor, wandering back down the stairs claiming “I can’t sleep,” or “I had a bad dream,” or, my favorite, “I’m hungry.”

Sometimes they don’t even come down. We just hear giggling, or screaming, or the unmistakable sound of furniture moving across their bedroom floor as midnight encroaches.

Candid scene captured in my children's dollhouse, proving
frustration with bedtime is universal. At least in our house. 
“What the hell are they doing up there tonight?” I’ll ask from my prone position on the couch, as my wife puts her face in her hands and starts to weep. Personally, I don’t care where they put the furniture, as long as they don’t come down the steps.

We’ve thought about it for a while, and we were finally able to pinpoint exactly when the difficult bedtimes began.  Shocker, It was when our first child was born. To be more precise, it was on our second night as new parents.

Ironically, on our very first night as new parents, as we slept in a tiny room in the maternity ward at Georgetown Hospital – my wife in the hospital bed, me on a bizarre fold-out chair that kick-started a decade’s worth of back problems -- the nursing staff wheeled our new baby girl out of the room to the nursery, so we could get some needed sleep. As the sun rose the next morning, an older nurse who’d cared for thousands of newborns on their first night, wheeled our new daughter back in and told us she slept like an angel. We felt blessed. 

After the second night, the same nurse wheeled our child back in again and, this time, gruffly told us that our baby was up all night and was “inconsolable.” They sent us home from the hospital that day, and bedtimes have gone downhill ever since.

We struggled mightily with bedtimes as our child grew and became adept at the bedtime-avoidance arts. We asked more experienced parents, read how-to books, watched Supper Nanny – nothing worked. 

My wife read this one book, in particular, called the “Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child.” The authors had not only figured out how to get difficult bedtimers to sleep, but they posited that failing to do so would result in unhappy children. Yikes.

These experts suggested setting up a routine. Like a bath. So we did it. They suggested reading to them, to help them wind down. We read. They suggested being firm. We were firm. Nothing worked -- at least, not for long.

As a last resort, the book suggested letting our young child cry it out. (We have since learned that "CIO" is a major dividing line in parenting philosophies). They said, most kids will only cry for about 40 minutes. And after a few nights, they'll never cry again.

The first night of “crying it out,” our daughter screamed for three hours before we relented. The second night, it was closer to four hours. Clearly our kid was more stubborn than the test children the authors experimented on. We just didn't have the hearts of the will power to do it. Maybe it's because we had hearts.   

We’ve added three kids to the mix in the decade since. And we’ve tried lots of “strategies” to get them to sleep.  We've sung songs. We used positive-reinforcement, like “Good-Bedtime Charts.” We’ve tried bribery. And, we experimented with yelling at them – at least, I did. Nothing worked with regularity.

Nowadays, we still use routines as the bedtime foundation; one routine being that we always read stories to them. (Though our oldest now reads to herself). Sometimes we lie down with a kid to help them settle. And sometimes we fall asleep.
We're still perfecting our methods.

But ten years in, there’s only one thing we know for certain: bedtime sucks.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Blogger Confidential

I’ve often wondered why the “F” I write this blog. Like, what the hell is wrong with me?  
Why expose my family -- my wife and kids in particular -- to the world for its viewing judgment, and for potential public ridicule. (It’s not that public, no post of mine has ever gotten more than a few hundred thousand hits). But seriously, why would anyone blog?Why put yourself out there, like an open book, to be judged, or liked, or defriended. Are bloggers just masochists (not that kinds of masochist), or a narcissists, or some other “ist” I’m not even aware of yet?  

Thinking about it makes me wonder why any of us do the things we do, especially the public things. Why do we sing, or act, or take pictures that we share, or aspire to cook for large groups of people? Are all these, in some ways, just self-aggrandizing endeavors?  

Then, the other day, I was watching one of my favorite writers, a self-described “essayists,” who was talking about his own version of this affliction. The essayist was Anthony Bourdain. He doesn’t know me, but I consider him a personal friend. And, yes, I know how stupid that sounds.

To give an understanding of my level fondness for Bourdain -- one I’m sure I share with many friends of equally good taste in writing, food and drink -- he makes my short list of the people from all of history I’d have dinner with, given the chance. The list: Mark Twain, Cal Ripken and Anthony Bourdain. If nothing else, we’d tie on a good buzz -- after Cal went to bed, of course.  

Tony, as those of us who know him well call him, said the following describing what exactly he does for a living:

“I’m certainly not a journalist. I’m not a chef anymore. I like to flatter myself by saying I’m an essayist. But, I’m a storyteller. I see stuff. I talk about that. I talk about how it made me feel at the time. If you can do that honestly, that’s about the best you can hope for ... I think.”

Hearing that, something clicked. That’s all I’ve ever wanted to do with this dumb blog. And to say I wanted to isn’t even accurate. I can’t help it. It just comes out of me, like it really needs to get out and into the open air. It's cathartic.

It’s like my brother who has to bring his guitar to every campfire he attends. Or my photographer friends who can't walk away from a gathering without a memory card full of pictures. Writing about my life, about what I think, what I see, and what I feel, is all I know to do. When I don’t do it, I feel less whole.

It may annoy some people when I put up the umpteenth story about my too-cute-for-words kids. (I know, that alone is barf-worthy). And I may have caused some friends to block the incessant self-promotion of these so-called “bits.” But writing is part of who I am.  

I see stuff. I write about that. I write about how it made me feel at the time. If I can do it honestly, that’s about all I can hope for ... I think.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

The Revenge of the Red Bowl

I’ve already begun plotting my revenge. But it’s going to take at least a decade to pull off.   
The plan is simple. When my kids are all teenagers, I am going to take them to a restaurant that serves its meals on plates and bowls of all different colors – so it’ll likely have to be a Tex-Mex joint or maybe a Café.   

I’m going to order the soup. When the wait staff brings it, I’m going to act completely shocked. Then I’m going to stand and scream at the top of my lungs:

“What! No! Not the green bowl! I wanted the red bowl!”  

Then I am going to cry uncontrollably until someone brings me my soup in a red bowl. It’s fool proof.  

If my kids have learned anything from me, it’s that you appease the screaming person who wants their cereal in a specific bowl, or their apple juice in the Nemo cup not the Princess one. Because each one of our kids has done this to us, and each one has eventually gotten their way.

Clearly, some one has tried to
serve his food in the wrong bowl.
This childhood obsession with specific tableware usually starts around 2 years old and last well past 5. It’s a stage of development, I assume. I gave up trying to convince a screaming kid that Rice Krispies tastes the exact same out of any colored bowl. (It’s also true of the generic Wegmans-brand alternative Crispy Rice, which is 2 bucks cheaper).

Toddlers, preschoolers and, apparently, kindergarteners are simply not old enough to understand that the molecular structure of apple juice is in no way altered by the kid cup in which it is served. I stopped engaging in that argument a few kids ago.

Maybe by appeasing them, I’ve trained them to act so rashly. But with the first one, we really did try. 

We were determined never to negotiate with our first toddler. We were going to teach her to eat out of whatever vessel her breakfast was served in, and to be grateful for the pleasure. 

Of course, that led to long standoffs, where the cereal would sit there, between us, getting mushy in the wrong bowl. The screaming and crying would continue well after the cereal was ruined and dumped in a pile in the sink.
She could go hours without eating just to get her favored bowl. Apparently, there’s a strain of stubbornness that runs in either my family, or my wife’s. I’m not certain which.

We had similar stand-offs with kids two and three -- though, with each my breaking point became easier for the child to reach.

By the time our fourth kid entered the phase where he cared passionately about the color of bowl, type of spoon or brand of cup, I just said, "Fine, which bowl do you want?"

Even if I have to dig it out of the dishwasher and give it a quick hand wash, it's less trouble than listening to a kid scream through breakfast.

Over the years, our policy of tableware appeasement has saved time and cereal, and it also bought silence – at least occasional silence.

Of course, if a kid wants a specific bowl that another kid is already eating out of, well, that’s another story. They have to wait ... or they could just eat out of another bowl because it really is the same.

WAHHHHH! Fine, just wait.

I’m sure there are loads of people better than me at parenting that have an answer to this dilemma, who could solve my children’s propensity to scream when given an inferior vessel or an unwanted spoon. These so-called “toddler whisperers,” I imagine, could cure my cranky kids after just a few meals. But four kids into this parenting thing, I’ve got more pressing battles to win.

Instead, I plot.

My revenge is going to be awesome, and, I anticipate, a bit unexpected. Because, I’m hoping all my kids will be out of this stage by then; And, it really makes no logical sense to complain about the color of your plate or bowl so loudly that the establishment refuses to serve you a meal. Especially if it’s a really good Tex-Mex joint. I do love me some enchiladas.

On second thought, I’ll definitely have to find a Café to exact my revenge.

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Thursday, September 5, 2013

Childhood Moments Through A Viewfinder

This week, my third daughter got on the bus for kindergarten for the first time, and I missed it.  I was standing right there.  So, it’s not like so many dads and moms who have to miss milestone like this because of work or other duties. 

I missed it because I was more worried about getting the shot than living the moment.   

We were ready, waiting in the front yard: my wife, our daughter, our neighbor, and me.  When the bus rumbled up the block, I assumed the perfect photographer's angle and position, crossing the street in front of my daughter to line up my lens so I could see right up the steps of the bus.  I’d be ready when she turned around and waved.

I stood with the camera to my eye (a digital Rebel SLR – I know, old school).   And through the tiny view finder I watched a tiny version of my little girl cross the street, then round the front of the bus.  She hesitated for a moment as the district-assigned school bus assistant gave her basic bus loading instructions, then she climbed up the steps, turned and disappeared down the aisle.   

I got a few photos, but I missed the shot.  She never turned around on the steps -- the pose so many other parents posted this week on the internet -- and she never gave us a wave.  

Immediately, I was bummed that the shot hadn’t happened.   Dang.  

Then I looked over and saw our neighbor, who has helped babysit our baby girl since she was born, crying.
In this old New Yorker cover, parents are all checking
their email during trick or treating.  In today's version, we'd
all be recording and posting. Which is far better. Right?    
Our neighbor said what made her cry was when our daughter paused, stepped back and looked up with her big, uncertain eyes at that open bus door – the one that, for us parents, represents our vulnerable babies going out into the world (even if it’s just kindergarten).

I didn’t see that happen at all.  I couldn’t see it looking through the back end of a camera, standing where I had to be in order to get the perfect angle for the wave-from-the-steps shot.   The perfect angle?
I realized then I hadn’t just missed the shot.  I’d missed the moment.

And I'd missed the emotion.  I didn’t get that familiar lump in my throat when those growing-up milestones occur before our eyes.  My eyes were blocked by a Canon and my emotion stifled by the frustration I felt that the bus driver or the assistant hadn’t told her to turn around and wave at the family photographer. 

It made me think of all the time I’ve spent filming and photographing their lives, looking through a viewfinder or staring at the back of an Iphone: birthdays, school plays, graduation ceremonies. 
If I didn't have a camera to my eye, I'd feel naked.

When you get the shot and capture that moment, it can be perfect.  Years later, when everyone gathers on the couch to look at old photos, or to watch an old video, it's certainly worth it. 
But how many times have we watched those birthday song videos, which I have dutifully recorded every time at the expense of just soaking it in.

Are all of us so obsessed with recording life that we are missing it?
Because, I can tell you, when you miss the shot and the moment, it kind of sucks.  

This time, for sure, I wish I had a second chance just to live the moment.