Wednesday, February 26, 2014

To the Lost Little Girl in DC: Watching You Find Your Mom Made My Day

Her eyes darted back and forth, not looking at any of us in particular, just searching for something, anything, that seemed familiar. She was walking in a circle, almost pacing, avoiding direct eye contact with all the strangers, at one moment wringing her hands and the next nervously scratching the roots of her wavy blond locks. Tears were welling, and starting to roll down her cheeks. The look of panic was unmistakable.

She couldn’t have been much more than 7 years old, maybe 8.

Whoever she was looking for, amidst the massive crowd that had descended on the marble columns and stone walls of the World War II Memorial in the nation's capital on a 6o-degree Saturday in February, was not there.

I was the first to notice her. As a parent, I know well the look of the lost child – and have seen it on my kids’ faces when they’ve gotten away from us for a spell. I also know the terror that goes through the parent’s mind and heart when we can’t find our kid, even for a moment.

“Dear,” I said to my wife, who was standing nearby, surrounded by our offspring. “This little girl looks lost.”

I intentionally addressed my wife loud enough for the little girl to hear, knowing that if she’d ever been briefed on what to do when lost, she’s likely been told to find a mom or someone in a uniform. Fathers and good men could begrudge that advice. I remembered reading something by a blogger friend on just this thing in the past few days. But it was no time for such misgivings.

“Honey, are you lost?” my wife said.

The little girl barely acknowledged us. She was too scared and panicked to know we were trying to help her, that we were going to help, that we weren’t going to leave her side until she was safely with her family again.

It was a rhetorical question anyway. We knew the answer.

And here's a photo of the inscription inside
the Lincoln Memorial, with someone's rude
child disturbing my shot. ...  Oh, wait.
That's my kid.  
Looking around at all the people we could see – which was quite a few – there were some young couples, a group of foreign tourists, a handful of college students, a jogger, a Hispanic family, and an older African American with a VFW hat. More importantly, there wasn't a panicked parent within sight.

We’ve all been there. At a fair or a mall or a department store. One minute the child is by your side. And the next, they’re not. After it happens a few times, the panic doesn’t come immediately. Rather, it builds, as you look behind racks and down aisles, and still can’t find them.

The World War II memorial – at least at the side entrances – seems almost designed to be a place where a child could slip out of a parent’s view, where walls and columns come together, obscuring the convergence of sidewalks just feet away. It looks open to adults, but if you're less than four feet tall, it’s a maze.

We searched around the South entrance for a minute, looking along the sidewalks leading up to the outdoor memorial, behind the walls, down the ramps. Nothing.

“What’s your name?” my wife asked. She kept crying, and pacing.

“Do you know your mommy’s name?”

“... or what color jacket she’s wearing?”

The girl didn’t respond. 

I wanted her to talk, but totally understood why she didn’t. That’s exactly how our second daughter would be. Our oldest daughter would hike to the closest store, convince them to lend her a megaphone, then climb the tallest column of the monument and call out to us, with an attitude. But our second would turn inward, paralyzed by fear, sadness and worry.

We decided to get away from that maze-like entrance and go to the center of the memorial, where it’s flat and open and we can see quite a distance in almost every direction. Without the girl engaging us, we herded her toward the open area, all the while enlisting our daughters to try talking to her.

“My name is Chloe. What’s yours?” said the one.

“We’re going to help find your mommy,” said another.

The girl didn’t speak, but seemed to understand.  

There were ten of us in our group in total. Me, my wife, our four kids, my sister-in-law who we were in town visiting, her two kids, and our adopted lost, little girl. 

The rest of us had spent the first part of our day visiting the monuments, as she likely had. And the whole time I'd worried about losing one of mine in the crowd -- mostly, I chased and corralled our 3-year-old boy.
Now we had a new purpose.

We all stood in the middle of the memorial looking as far as we could see for the one panicked parent that was most certainly out there. It felt like a few minutes. An eternity to a lost, little girl.

I started to wonder about "what ifs." What if the parents didn’t know she was lost yet? Or, what if she’d already been here for hours, searching? Or, what if she’d wandered here, aimlessly, from one of the other nearby monuments or museums? I started looking around for someone in uniform instead: A cop or a park ranger.

And then, it happened. From the far entrance on the North side of the memorial, I saw that panicked look we all know: A mom, running as fast as she could muster, her jacket falling-off one shoulder, her purse dangling behind, her eyes scanning the crowd, her head on a swivel. Nothing else mattered.

The girl saw her before we did, and set out as fast as she could. Across the open space, around the wall, up the ramp and into her mom’s open arms. The mom picked her up, and didn’t scold her, but just kissed her and hugged her. Behind the mom, two other daughters came running – one older, one maybe younger – with their looks of concern quickly turning to smiles. The older sister patted her on the head, and rustled her hair.

I felt instant relief, even joy.

They turned and left together, without ever seeing us, or even knowing we were there. My wife stood waving. And she kept waving as they went out of sight. Nobody waved back, or even looked.

“Why are you still waving?” I asked.

“I wanted her mom to know she was okay,” my wife said. “That we were watching after her.”

They’ll certainly never know it, but we were. And knowing she was back with her family made my day.

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Thursday, February 20, 2014

Feeling Bi-Polar on Frozen

I know it’s been said before, but that Frozen movie is really something. The Broadway-quality songs. The inspirational message that love conquers fear.  It’s arguably the best Disney movie of all time.

If I hear one more person tell me how much they love Frozen, and how awesome those ridiculously mind-penetrating songs are, I will jump off the nearest bridge – and probably take them with me.

Could watch it all day.
I can't take it anymore.

You really got to hand it to Disney this time. They finally poked fun at the notion of immediate, at-first-sight, true love, and focused on the real love we all feel for those we share our lives with, like siblings.
What the heck does Disney have against us parents. I could have told the king and queen, “Don’t get on the damned boat. You’re a parent in a Disney Movie. It’s like wearing a red shirt on a Star Trek away team. Your days are numbered.”

It’s really commendable how full of life Anna turns out when you think about the isolation she faced as a child. And, equally so, how grounded and almost selfless Elsa is, accepting exile to protect others, especially considering the power she possessed and other challenges she endured. It really shows the resilience and strength of the human spirit.

Yeah, Right. Rich kids who grow up in isolation and with immense power are always nice and loving. For some reason I can’t find the reality show where that’s the case.

My favorite song from the movie is, “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?” So catchy and cute.

“Do You Want To Build a Snowman” is the most depressing three minutes of cartoon since the opening scene of Up.

My kids are just adorable; They sing all the songs, all the time. In the car. In the kitchen. When we are actually building a snowman. I can't get enough of it. They’ve even practiced all the moves to “Let It Go.” Oh, you should see it.

If I hear  “Let It Go” one more time, I’m going to have my eardrums surgically removed. 

I so love this.                        
Please make it stop.

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Monday, February 17, 2014

Playing Tetris Finally Pays Off

A certain magical, British nanny (no, not Super Nanny) once said that “In every job that must be done, there is an element of fun. You find the fun, and – SNAP! – the job’s a game!”

In my house, I’ve been the head grocery-getter for a few years now. As I’ve said before, my wife and I both work from home. My job has a bit more flexibility on what time of day I actually work, while hers requires that she be at the desk during most working hours. Living near the busiest Wegmans for three counties, shopping during  evening hours or Sundays would be just plain foolish.  

For that reason – and others – I’m the Family Vice President of Grocery Procurement.

While there are aspects of grocery shopping I will never fully wrap my head around, like double coupons (or single ones for that matter) – other parts I’ve taken to like a duck to water. Or is it a fish to water? I don’t remember. Let’s go with duck, considering this is Ruddy Bits not Trout Bits, which sounds even grosser.

Anyway, one of the things I’m awesomest at is checking out of the grocery store. First, I rock at picking the right line. Bear with me as I throw over-stated compliments my own way. Some days, I need it. 

I think I've Lost All Perspective
I’ve gotten to know the checkout people at the local store and have a sense who to go to. Kind of like picking the right toll booth line on the Thruway, which I rule at as well. My wife might disagree with that. But when it comes to grocery checkout, she’s not usually there to dispute my effectiveness. So I’m sticking with my original self-evaluation. And I rock.

Generally, I try to avoid the self-check, since I see it as one more way they are taking jobs from real people. Not they as in Wegmans, but they as in the purveyors of self-service technologies. Plus, I’m usually able to find a person who checks out customers with speed, precision and care. Care matters.

Here are few tips on who to avoid when picking checkout folks:

The droppers. These are the one who take your fruit over the scanner and then just let it just drop into bag, smashing the metal shelf underneath. Bam. Squish. No good.

The single baggers, who bag everything separate. One spaghetti jar. One bag. Second spaghetti jar. Second bag. It’s just wasteful (though it does increase the number of bags I can carry in from the car at one time, of which I hold the world record)

The double baggers, who bag things together, but use two bags for every grouping, no matter the weight. I don’t need that many bags.

The chatty, check-out socializers. These are the ones who spend your entire checkout experience not talking to you, but to the cashier next to them about some store-related gossip. It’s riveting, but I’m checking out groceries not getting my hair cut.  

And then, of course, I avoid anyone who’s too slow. You can usually tell the dreadfully slow checkout person because they have no line – even when others have long lines. I guess everyone knows to avoid them.

Note how I didn’t mention people who bag bread with cans, or raw chicken with fruit. There’s a reason. And here it is.

The real way I excel at grocery store checkout is in the precision I load the groceries onto the cart. All those years of Tetris training led to this singular parenting act. 

I load all the large boxes at the front of the checkout conveyer belt, followed by the large plastic containers, then the cans and jars.  Next comes the raw meats, which are followed by frozen, then by smaller boxes, and then dairy that must be cooked, like shredded cheese. We next move on to deli items, tortilla shells and other cheeses that do not get cooked, followed by heavy fruits and vegetables, then lighter, crushable fruits and vegetables. Eggs come next to last, finishing off the conveyer belt with bakery goods and breads.

I’m actually quite anal about this, and surprised that in all the times I’ve gone grocery shopping no clerk has ever complimented my precision. The care taken loading the checkout conveyer belt really does make bagging, cart packing, car packing and unpacking, and putting away the groceries at home much easier.

Anyway, it’s a thing I do. And do well, I must say. In part because -- as Ms. Poppins suggest -- I have made it a game. If only it was an Olympic sport, I’d get more than just odd looks for my neurosis. Alas, it isn’t.

So, that's it. Thank you. And have a nice day. 
Paper or Plastic?

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

The Cure for Bedtime Book Boredom? Improv

“Dad, read it funny!”

Like all good parents of young children, my wife and I read to our kids. We happen to read to them each night as part of their bedtime ritual. Two books each, as a rule. We’ve always done this, taking turns or dividing and conquering as the number of kids multiplied.

Like most kids who get read to each night, my kids have their favorite books. These tend to change as time passes. But they’ll get stuck on a book or two for long periods of time, which means we can find ourselves reading the same darn book, to the same darn kid, every darn night for months and months and months.

It’s all fine and good if they pick a short book, or one we particularly enjoy. I can read, Moo, Baa, La La La by Sandra Boynton with my eyes closed in less than 30 seconds. (I know, I know; Quality reading time with the children is not a race). There are also long books I truly enjoy. I could read Pickle Chiffon Pie every night for many months. I know, because I have. And starting each fall, some kids always picks How the Grinch Stole Christmas, and we read it right up to Christmas Eve. I never mind it. Both of these books are 64 pages long.

But, like all good parents who read the same darn books to the same darn kids each night, I often get completely and utterly bored.

That happened a few years ago when one of the kids started picking out Dick and Jane: A Christmas Story each God-forsaken evening. If you’ve never read this book to your kids, consider yourself lucky. Here’s a synopsis. It snows, and Dick, Jane and Sally go out and play, taking turns getting cold and going back inside to make cookies with their mom, who goes by the 1950s moniker of “mother.”

An excerpt:

Dick, Jane, and Sally skated on the lake.
“I am cold,” said Sally. 
“I want to go inside.” 
Sally went inside. Sally baked cookies with mother.  

It goes on and on like that, cyclical and overly simple. Sure, it’s written at the first-grade level for a reason. But it’s done so with absolutely no consideration of the parent who’s going to suffer through reading it each night.

"Cheerio, Molly!" "Cheerio, Sally!"
-- channeling your Dick Van Dyke
voice. Or better yet, John Cleese.
So one night, probably after having a second glass of wine making dinner, I took matters into my own hands. I changed the words, gave Dick and Jane and Sally new names, and had the characters make lasagna and pizza and beef stroganoff, instead of cookies. And I made the mom, who doesn’t have much of a speaking role, sound like Julia Child. My kids howled with laughter.

“Reading it Funny” was born.

Now, at least once a week, I get a special request to read a book funny. Luckily, we’ve moved on from the Dick and Jane book – which is really hard to make enjoyable time after time. Usually, the kids will pick a book we know well, and I’ll just be as silly as possible, making Cinderella a pizza delivery guy who has to get a veggie-lovers deep dish to the castle, or reading Oh, the Places You’ll Go like Droopy Dog. (That got a little long, but I enjoyed it).

For any parents bored with reading the same old books, and who’ve never done this silly sort of thing, here’s a few quick tips on how to do Improvisational Bedtime Books.

Improv tips:

·       Pick books that have colorful pictures, and just forget reading the words altogether – try the Stephen Huneck series of Sally Goes To … books. Beautifully illustrated and awesome inspiration for kid humor.
·       Select funny-sounding voices and accents, like a pirate, or Scottie from Star Trek, or a Dick Van Dyke-inspired English accent. And don’t forget the words that define those accents, like "arr, matey"; “lassie” or “arse” for Scottish; and calling things “dreadful” in the Queen’s English or adding "governor" to things in Mr. Van Dyke’s. (Apologies to my Scottish and English friends. Your accents aren't inherently funny, only when impersonated by Americans, or attached to Monty Python quotes).   

·       Replace words with the most random things you can think of, like an ad-libs game. Pogo Sticks, Boomerangs, and Eyeballs seem to always get laughs.

·       Feel free to use age-appropriate potty humor (as long as mom isn’t listening). There’s a reason so many cartoons have fart jokes. Farts are funny. Make that, farts can be funny. They’re not always funny.

·       Don’t worry about the story line. If you do it right, the kids will be rolling with laughter and won’t have clue what’s actually happening.
You don't have to try too hard to be funny. Just get your silly on. Kids find humor in the weirdest things. So be weird.

"I always say, it's better to eat the bacon,
than to be the bacon. Right-o, Sally?"

In our house, we’ve done “Reading it Funny” countless times now, with lots of books that would otherwise be retired to the boring, over-read book pile. It’s usually a blast.

We don’t overdo it though, as there are other utilities to reading to kids each day, like having them read along with you, and, in turn, learning how to actually read themselves. But, on occasion, a good improvised story can be just the cure for bedtime book boredom.

Two bits of warning.  

First, it’s very hard to repeat a really good improvised bedtime book session. The kids will want you to read that book again, just like last time. If you did it right, you simply won’t be able to replicate the feat. Try another accent and a different book.

Second, if you do it well and the kids have fun, they aren’t likely to fall asleep any time soon. Sorry about that.

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Wednesday, February 5, 2014

A Two Van Family

I once asked a wise and salty sailor friend of mine the difference between tequila and mezcal. The question arose moments after he retrieved a bottle of mezcal from a hidden corner of a dark room and plopped it down in front of me and several fellow revelers on the tail end of a long night.

He held up two weathered fingers and replied, “Mezcal has two worms.”

Two worms: Twice as potent; Twice as frighteningly hallucinogenic; Twice as cool.

This definition of mezcal ended up being based more in folklore than fact. But it illustrated a point. Often, two of something good makes it a little better. Two dollars are better than one. Two Pizzas. Two Touchdowns (Sorry, Denver). You get the drift.

Years later, however, as I look out the front window of my house and see the two vehicles in our driveway, one relatively new and one slightly older, I realize the rule of twos does not apply to minivans. Two minivans, to be precise. Two minivans that belong to me.

Many formerly-cool feeling new parents have a moment when they realize they’ve become the suburban-dwelling, soccer game-attending, lame-ass people they never imagined they would. It usually happens when buying their first minivan.

Look at the badass grill on the new ...
Town and Country minivan.
Groceries be warned: We're coming to get you.  
We had a moment like that six years ago. It was about then that my wife was pregnant with our third child – very pregnant – and we realized that, with a third kid and the necessarily-ginormous newborn car seat that comes with it, there was no way our entire soon-to-be family of five could fit in either of the cars we owned at the time. Back then, my wife drove a Subaru Outback L.L.Bean-edition, and I had a fuel-efficient cross-over sport utility vehicle, with 4-wheel-drive and a stick shift.

I’m not a terribly materialistic person, and certainly don’t judge people by their clothes or the cost of their cars. I couldn't give a crap about designer purses, expensive shoes, or foreign luxury vehicles. But I also know that cars – with so many varieties, utilities, styles, colors – can be a form of outward expression. And both of these vehicles said something about who we were.

Yet, neither of those cars could fit more than two car seats or boosters. One had to go. And we had to get a vehicle that could serve as our primary family transportation.

We knew then that we needed a van, no matter what that might say about us. So we opted to trade in my sport-utility vehicle. We surrendered ourselves, turning in our “cool cards” and accepting our lot as suburban, soccer parents.

The van was great, as was the third child. We loved it, after we got used to the tricky handling and the sheer size of the thing (the van, of course).  With the new van, we could easily get our whole family places without taking two trips, or two cars. And that was essential. If nothing else, it proved extremely practical.

We also noticed almost everyone we knew had either a minivan or a really stinking-big S.U.V. that got 2-miles-per gallon and was pretty much akin to flipping the bird at the environment. For our part, we like the environment. As the fictional superhero The Tick said about the Earth, “That’s where I keep all my stuff.”

So, we were fine being minivan owners. We really were. It was all good.

In recent months, as the Subaru aged and began to show it, we started talking about the next car. Our choice was either to get a replacement run-a-bout vehicle, like a Jeep (I’ve owned Jeeps in the past and have a “thing” for them), or get a new van and keep the old van as our other car.

A Jeep would be cool; I could keep fishing gear in it and use it to travel for business. But getting a second van seemed far more practical, eliminating the need to do the old car switch-a-roo, or the car seat swap, whenever the parent on backup-call needed to do dropping-off or picking-up duties.

We couldn’t decide. So we waited.

Then, about a week ago, I wrecked the Subaru. Don’t worry, I was unscathed. And no other cars or people were involved. But the decade-old Outback, with 150,000+ miles on it, was ... well, the opposite of unscathed. Scathed? No, it was totaled.

Suddenly, we needed a new vehicle (new to us, anyway) and had to decide. Our deliberations came to a conclusion on a drive with all the kids in the old van, right after I banged the dashboard with my palm to stop the radio from popping – one of the multiplying quirks of our 2007 Town and Country, which has carted the family around for the past 6 years and shows the wear.

“It’s decided then?” I said to my wife.

“I guess,” she replied.

“It just makes the most sense right now.”

“It really does.”

“Would’ve liked a Jeep, or something.”

“Maybe someday.”

“So, we're going to be a two van family.”

With that, it started to sink in. I don’t think life could wring anymore of my former coolness out of me. But, then again, maybe there is something cool about being practical. Right?

Who has two thumbs, and
two Chrysler minivans? This guy!
(Not this guy as in Fonzie,
but this guy as in me).
Fonzie was practical, wasn't he?

Oh God. I just used Happy Days as a reference point for what's cool.

I am old. And, my daughters are right. I am not cool.

But I do have two minivans if anyone needs kids driven some place … or two different places at the same time, even.

Having one minivan is good. Having two, it's just practical.

Thinking back on it, there is one other thing I've learned related to twos. If you’ve eaten one worm out of a bottle of mezcal, it’s probably not a good idea to eat the second one.

Because, two of a good thing isn’t always better.

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