Wednesday, March 30, 2016

The Golden Egg vs. the Golden Rule

A light bulb went on above the little boy’s head as he scanned the yard and realized where the Golden Egg likely was. He’s just five years old, and his bag of eggs was half as full as the other kids. Yet suddenly, he knew where the last, most sought-after, most well-hidden egg just had to be.

He darted across the grassy expanse toward an overturned plant pot tucked under a tree. Others saw his movement, realized what he must be thinking, and began to follow.

Arriving at the pot, he bent down and lifted it, revealing the glint of gold. A smile erupted across his face.

Just as he reached for the Golden Egg, an eight-year-old girl nearly twice his size knocked him over and swiped it from in front of his outstretched hand.

“I got the Golden Egg!” she exclaimed.

My wife and I witnessed this violation of all things good and decent, and we rushed over to set it straight.

It reminded me of the stories making the rounds this time of year about nasty adults and their selfish kids ruining some well-intended community egg hunt, storming fields and knocking over toddlers to get more eggs, which are usually filled with crappy candy and worthless coupons for half-off your next oil change. We read the stories and think: how classless can people be? We dismiss it as examples of bad-parenting, spoiled children, and entitlement. Who are those people, anyway, who will seemingly do anything for a handful of free candy or a Golden Egg?

There’s only one problem with the scene I witnessed with the boy, the girl and the Golden Egg: the kids were both mine.

The mad dash for plastic eggs has begun.
It happened at our annual family egg hunt we hold in the back yard of their grandmother’s house. There were just four kids involved, all my offspring, tasked with finding some 50 pastel, plastic eggs, most containing coins and candy. The Golden Egg – hidden better then the rest – always has a bit more. It’s a fun little tradition, and we’d never had any fights. Maybe some disappointed kids when someone else found the big egg, but no major breaches in etiquette and certainly no brawls. Until this time.

My wife and I immediately stepped in and scolded the older sister for knocking her little brother over and taking the egg he’d rightfully found.

She was incredulous. She grabbed it first! It was her egg! It’s not fair!

But he’s the one who found it, we said. You just grabbed it.

She didn’t see what was wrong with her actions, and my heart sank a bit. Then she started crying hysterically as her brother was handed the egg he’d found, wiping his own tears away and regaining the remnants of his smile.

For the record, our 8-year-old daughter is an exceptionally sweet kid. She’s funny and kind. She makes a point to hug everyone goodbye every time they leave the house, and she’s the one who advocates on behalf of all the spiders and stinkbugs I have to remove the premises, urging me to set them free rather than just squishing them like I’m apt to.

She also happens to be the third in a family of four kids, and has likely been pushed and knocked over herself a few times – not just in life, but earlier in the very same egg hunt. Growing up in a bigger family can be a combat sport. If anything, the episode was the culmination of an egg hunt that had gotten more aggressive than us parents were comfortable with, as kids dove for eggs like they were fumbled footballs. It was ultimately my fault for not enforcing the ground rules earlier.

She’s just a kid, too -- a kid who wanted a darn Golden Egg.

Despite making excuses for her, you can bet we used the incident as a chance to teach about being kind to others, and also about being fair, which probably confused her because she thought she was in the right, and because my lessons on fairness often sounds more like “Whoever said life was fair?” That’s my standard refrain whenever a kid complains that something isn’t fair. Fortunately she didn’t spit it back at me.

In my time as a parent, I’ve found that most kids are acutely aware of this notion of fairness – even if they have a skewed view of what it means.  It’s like we have an instinctual sense that things should be fair.

Understanding what “fair” actually means presents challenges, though, for kids and adults alike. It has nothing to do with getting what you want just because you think you deserve it. It’s more complicated. And, it’s true, somethings in life are inherently unfair. That’s just the way is. Others are unfair and call out to be fixed. Knowing the difference -- when there is one -- can be difficult.

It’s also hard to understand what accounts for a fair result when the results can themselves be so skewed. One kid got the Golden Egg. Three others did not. Is that fair? It doesn’t seem so to an eight year old. But that’s what we’ve always done. That’s the game. Thems the rules.

Which leads to more tough lessons for a kid to understand having to do with the balance between fairness and competition.

I know we’re talking about an egg hunt and not the Olympics here, but as parents, we all want our kids to be strong enough to succeed, to have the will to compete, and to learn to take care of themselves. Competition can teach this. Even competitions for plastic eggs. But we also want them to look out for the weak, to be unselfish, and to never be greedy. It’s a balance.

My wife and I could have watched the Golden Egg scene unfold and shrugged, complimenting the sister for her tenacity and telling the boy he should have grabbed it quicker. But that doesn’t seem right, does it? I want my kids to be tough, but I don't want them to think they can step on people to get what they want.

What’s not right, either, is what happens at those big, awful egg hunts. And when we see adults pushing past kids to fill their own child’s baskets, it’s easy to look down on them. Yet, in so many other ways, modern life rewards selfishness and greed over fairness and equity. In other arenas, we celebrate those who have excess and hold subtle disdain for those who’ve lost and have nothing. We call it survival of the fittest, or just business. Why does it strike us so differently when we see it happen on a field full of kids and dumb Easter eggs?

After our own egg hunt incident, I began to think what we did wrong and what we could do differently. Maybe it was the fact we only have one Golden Egg and four kids, setting up a classic battle for scarce resources. Of course, if we eliminate the Golden Egg next year, we’d also take away some of the joy of this particular egg hunt. On the other hand, if we have four golden eggs, it certainly wouldn’t  be as fun.  And how do we guarantee each kid finds one unless we fix the results? Why not just hand out the eggs? We don’t because even the littlest kids like the accomplishment of finding the eggs themselves, against the odds.

For me, it’s not about changing our egg hunt, or sheltering our kids from all forms of competition, or rigging it so that they always win. It comes down to teaching kids what fairness actually means and how to recognize it.

This talk of Golden Eggs reminds me of the Golden Rule: Treat others as you yourself would want to be treated. That’s fairness in an eggshell. And that’s the best lesson for my kids, and for anyone who struggles with notions of fairness, competition, selfishness and greed.

It’s true that life isn’t always fair. But that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t ever be.

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

Sunday, March 20, 2016

The Simple Phrase that Inspires This Dad to Run

This is not a story about weight loss -- unfortunately. Nor is it a fitness how-to. I’m not the right person to write that. This is simply about one dad’s motivation to get through his workout.

Like many adults, I’ve struggled with those extra pounds over the years. And, like most parents, part of the problem has been finding the time and energy to fit in a fitness regimen. The other part of the problem is that I love food, but that’s a separate story.
My doctor has a rather poignant cartoon on the wall in his exam rooms. It’s a simple drawing that shows a doctor talking to a slightly overweight, mid-aged patient by cartoonist Randy Glasbergen. The caption reads, “What fits your busy schedule better, exercising one hour a day or being dead twenty-four hours a day?”
A few years back, seeing that cartoon enough times, I committed to doing what I could to not end up dead too soon, because my schedule really couldn’t handle that.
I started hitting the gym a few days a week, going the only time I could: before the kids wake up. That means, on a workout day, I have to be out the door around 5:30 a.m., so I can be back home by 6:45ish.
There have been good and bad spells over the years, but I keep going back and reaffirming the commitment.
I’ve also tried various workouts in that time – spin bikes, ellipticals, weights, and treadmills, and combinations of those. All can work, I’m sure, but what has helped most is to run on the treadmill. I know this because when I run consistently, I see the weight drop off and the belt loosen.
There’s only one problem: running is hard.
As one runner friend said to me, in the first few minutes of a run, your body enters a period of shock, essentially saying, what the heck are you doing to me? To run is all about hitting that wall and pushing through it. And then doing that over and over again.
I’m not a natural runner. I don’t have a thin frame or a particularly smooth gait. I’ve found the only way to get the time on the treadmill I need to have an impact on my health is with a dose of motivation. That’s the only way to push through when my body just wants me to stop. The problem is that some of the typical motives other people use don’t work for me. I don’t really care how I look in a bathing suit. I’m married and have kids, any pride based on narcissism evaporated when we bought our second minivan. And I’m not training for a marathon. I truly don’t have time for that.
Yet, I do have one thing that motivates me.
A few years ago, I started saying a little phrase to myself which helps me get through that next wall. Heck, it even helps me get out of bed and to the gym some days.
The phrase is this: “I run so I can walk.”
It may sound like a slogan for a geriatric commercial, but it’s not.
You see, I have three daughters.
As a dad, I have a lot of jobs I have to do for them and their brother – making school lunches, picking them up places, preparing dinner, reading bedtime stories, and all the other parenting stuff we do each day without even thinking about it.
But I think about that cartoon and about not being dead too soon, and I know there is one job I have in my future as a dad of daughters that I simply cannot miss. And it involves walking with them.
Who the heck knows if any of my daughters are even going to get married? As long as they’re happy, I really don’t care. I’m really not one to think much about such things, and I certainly don’t want them thinking about that stuff either – despite Disney’s efforts to make that every girl’s obsession. There’s really no pressure here.
But chances are that one of them will get married. And, if it happens, I better damn well be there to do my job.
For me, the phrase has become more than about some fanciful day off in the future that may or may not happen. It’s about being there for them every day I can, for as long as I can: For the walks on the beach, for the hikes in the woods, for the strolls at the park, for the random moments I cannot yet imagine. I want to be there, walking through it with them, until it’s not my job anymore.
When I am running and I hit that wall, “I run so I can walk” is all the motivation this dad needs.
Now if I could just find a phrase that can prevent me from eating so much.

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

Monday, March 14, 2016

That Time I Spoiled My Child for Every Concert in Her Future

Here’s the good news: I finally got my hearing back. It took a few days for the ringing to end, and, in that time, I read a lot about a thing called tinnitus. But now I can hear again. Though let’s be honest, I haven’t heard very well for years – just ask my wife.

The bad news: I’ve ruined my recently-turned teenager for every concert she attends from now on until the end of time, short of some show where she gets actual front row seats and backstage passes.

We didn’t get front row seats or backstage passes when we went to see Fall Out Boy as a birthday gift and her first real concert ever about a week ago. But our seats were good. Very good.

I’ve been going to concerts my whole dang life, and these were the best seats I’ve ever had. Ever.

Usually, I’m a lawn seat kind of guy. Occasionally I’ll end up somewhere in the rafters, depending on the venue and the demand for the artist. A few times, when I was a bit younger, I went and fought the general admission crowds – that’s how I got briefly in the front of the mob for a Spin Doctors’ song. They were opening for one of those multi-band tours, I believe, and my moment in the sun ended when the mosh pit shifted and convulsed and spit me out ten bodies back.

One time I got into a luxury box for a show at the Cap Centre: Beastie Boys, I recall. (I didn’t pay for those tickets). That was a heck-of-a long time ago. Pretty cool way to watch a show, but not very close to the stage. Kind of subdued, really.
Fall Out Boy, Wintour Is Coming, March 2016, Syracuse.
Our recent trip to see Fall Out Boy was anything but subdued. We were close. Damn close. Too close, almost. Too close for my ears, for sure. But also too close for my daughter’s first real concert ever and for her concert-going sense of perspective. I think I definitely may have spoiled her.
These weren’t front row seats, mind you. And when I bought them, I had no idea how good the tickets were. The seats were off to one side of the stage and five rows back. Which, I figured would be just okay. They weren’t all that expensive, either. But, considering the angles and slope of the rows, the seats turned out to be the absolute perfect distance and height for the stage setup FOB uses on this tour – which is a giant V that cuts into the crowd, including elevated ramps literally a few yards from our screaming faces.
It wasn’t until we walked through the guarded doors to our section, stepped through the black curtain and up a few steps that we realized how absolutely, ridiculously close we were to the action -- and to the gigantic speakers. My daughter gasped with an “OMG” or something hipper and more recent that I couldn’t decipher; then she hugged the friend she’d brought along, while my eardrums let out a little whimper.
She’s ruined for sure. She doesn’t understand that most people don’t get to be that close, or that most times you attend a concert you’re better off looking at the Jumbotron if you want to see the sweat rolling down the bassist’s face. She’s liable to think that at every concert you’re able to count the strings on the guitar, feel the heat from the pyrotechnics, and read the tattoos on the drummer’s chest.
She’s totally screwed. More likely, every person who ever attends a concert with her again is screwed. Every person who ever calls her and says, I scored some ticket to some show. I can hear it now: “This is great, but one time we were like practically on the stage for a Fall Out Boy concert.”
It didn’t hurt that the band put on a great performance, mixing an array of their hits with lesser known but equally solid songs. It also didn’t hurt that the sold-out crowd, filled with teens, their formerly-cool parents, and tons of people in-between, soaked it up and sang along like it was the last concert on earth. And, for a few hours, it did feel like the center of the modern rock-n-roll universe.
For the record, my daughter was there.
But you know what else? I was there to witness it.
I did spoil my daughter that night. And I also saw a great show – probably the best I’ve seen since I saw Springsteen or the Stones more than a decade ago in DC. What I’ll remember, though, isn’t the sweat or the sound, but the look of joy on her face, the excitement with which she belted her favorite band’s songs, the tears she shed when they played that one ballad she loves so much, and the number of times her and her friend jumped and screamed and sang because that’s all they wanted to do.
Isn't that why we occasionally spoil our kids? Because we want them to be happy? Because we want to see them happy? That night, she was happy.
And you know what, maybe it won’t ruin her at all. Maybe, after this, she’ll be determined to fill her heart and her head with equally rewarding experiences, musical and otherwise. Maybe she’ll appreciate the uniqueness and the specialness of this concert, and every one she ever attends. Maybe she’ll look back with a special fondness on her first concert ever, and maybe she’ll remember that her dad was there too.
It’s been a full week since the show. My hearing has more or less returned. My daughter has lost all perspective. And I don’t regret any of it.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

The Ramblings of a Teenager’s Father

Yesterday my oldest daughter became a teenager. She’s been teetering on the edge for a few years, and now it’s official. The dark and brooding years are upon us. May she arise some day unscathed.

And tonight, I’m taking her and a friend to her first real concert: Fall Out Boy. That’s the band I famously called “Fall Out Guy” to another parent in an ill-conceived effort to look cool a few months ago. The mom quickly corrected me, and I laughed because I am so beyond being cool it’s helpless. But I digress.

My wife and I are parents of a teenager. How did this happen? I don’t know.

But her turning 13 and going to this concert reminded me of a few paragraphs I wrote two months ago and then tucked back into my computer documents file unfinished and uncertain. Here it is.

The white dashes flash by to the approximate beat of the Fall Out Boy album blasting from my empty minivan’s speakers. I’ve grown to like FOB in recent months as I prepare for a planned concert I’ll be attending with my daughter at a future day. They remind me of the bands I liked on the periphery of my musical tastes when I was younger. Worth a listen.

I’m traveling alone this night, a rare treat. Heading to the in-laws in Pennsylvania. Meeting my wife there, who has been in Washington working for a few days. The kiddos are left behind, being watched by their other grandparents.
Our trip has a purpose: to help my wife’s parents tie up the loose ends on the selling of the little store they've owned for 27 years.

27 years.
Clearly, my obsession with the passage of time has yet to abate.

I’ve always found it interesting how an hour on the road can creep by when that’s the length of the trip. And yet the same hour can fly by when it's part of a three hour trip. And, when part of a ten hour trip, the hours can click by like the lines in the middle of the road.
I guess time is relative, and you don’t need complicated formulas to see it.

Despite warnings from my elders, I’ve been truly amazed at how the years do click by faster and faster as you get older. The holidays upon us each year before you can blink. The adage “Boy, this year is flying by” said with more earnestness and sincerity each time. 
The whole of my youth stands in my mind as a millennia compared to the decades packed on since college. Yet the memories of both fade.

There’s a line from the Jimmy Buffet song, He Went To Paris, that used to confound me. It’s on the Margaritaville album, which anyone who’s spent time dreaming has listened to in its entirety countless times. Not my favorite song from the album, but it grows on you. The song chronicles the bulk of someone’s life, saying at one point, “And four to five years slipped away.”
I used to think, how can four to five years slip away?

Now I know.  

If nothing else, this dumb blog thing has helped me put into writing some of the precious experiences (and not so precious).  More and more, I think I need to do that, as the potential memories evaporate like dreams you neglect to talk about the morning after.
I joke with my eldest child that my mind isn’t what it used to be. Words don’t come as easily to my lips, and memories from last week slip through the crack before they make it to the long term file. I worry sometimes that I have early onset something-or-other. But I think it’s just life.

Then again, I haven’t written as much lately. Which only I notice, really. So there’s no need to apologize. I have a new job I’m enjoying and use the rest of my free time to eat with my family and sleep.
The other day, someone mentioned they saw something I wrote somewhere, and then cocked their head and asked how I liked the new job. I told the truth, that I like it a lot. I get to do good work.

It made me think about that question we all ask each other, what do you do? It’s a simple curiosity, but it’s also kind of profound how we use it to put people and their lives in a box. But it’s never that easy, is it? 
In the eighties there was an old show called Taxi. For some reason we watched it often and mourned when it got canceled. I remember one thing about it in particular. In their minds, none of the taxi drivers were actually taxi drivers. They were struggling actors, aspiring boxers, and other dream chasers. All except Alex, who’d come to grips with the notion he was just a taxi driver. And that was enough. He was okay with it.

I think about my answers to that question over the years: a journalist, a speechwriter, a chief of staff, a political consultant, a public relations consultant, a freelance writer, an adjunct. I've always struggled with this question, both asking it and answering it. I always just want to say writer. But that's rarely been true.

Maybe I don't like boxes. Maybe I'm just not okay with it.

Like I said, it was unfinished and uncertain.

More recently I went to a writers’ convention that I’ve mentioned before. One of the main speakers talked about legacy. He referenced that same question. What do you do? And he put that question in its place when he said this: Nobody cares about your resume when you’re gone. Your impact on this world is so much more important than just what you do for a living. It’s what you do in everything else that often matters more. And, most important, what you leave behind.

That’s what he said, anyway. It spoke to me as the parent to some amazing kids. Kids who are growing up too fast and becoming interesting, curious and complicated people way before my wife and I are ready. They are going to be my legacy.
Tonight I get to take one of them to a concert.

How did my wife and I become parents to a teenager? I don’t know. We just did. The white dashes keep passing by.

And I’m okay with it.

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