Monday, November 27, 2017

Dashing Dreams in the Drop-Off Line

It began with an innocuous radio ad on a trip to the middle school at 7:50 a.m.

My daughter had missed the bus. As always, she changed the station before I had the car in drive, from NPR to Top 40. Our fingers fought over the presets, calling a truce on the light rock one playing holiday music for the coming weeks. It’s a game we play.

Then the song ended, and some auto ad said something about “financing available.”

“What’s financing?” She asked.

I turned the dial down. I relish conversations like this, held in cold cars on grey mornings with kids who’ve missed the bus.

“It’s when you take time to pay for something,” I replied, conjuring up a good way to describe this complicated aspect of life as an adult. “Say you want to buy something for $1000, but you don’t have $1000. You can arrange to pay $100 a month.”

“Oh,” she nodded, as our familiar path took us down a side street, past our church, and toward the big school with the white columns.

“But the catch is that, you don’t pay for 10 months, you pay it for like 12. So, you end up paying $1200 dollars for a thing that cost $1000.”

“What?!” she exclaimed. “And people do that on purpose?”

“Yes.” Though I’m impressed she finds the concept off-putting. “It’s called paying interest, and it’s why it’s important that you study math in school.”

“That’s just adding and multiplying,” she began, laying the ground for a question all kids ask at some point. “Why does anybody need to learn algebra?”

She’s good at math, by all accounts. So, I wondered where this came from on this particular morning commute. I explain that Algebra teaches problem solving; It teaches logic. I tell her that if she wants to be an engineer or a scientist, a doctor or a nurse, she’s going to need to know lots of math, and it starts with algebra.

With thoughts of life beyond school in the air, our car makes the turn into the parking lot and begins the dreadfully slow crawl that is the morning drop-off line.

She seizes the moment we’ve created.

“That’s why I want to be a professional soccer player.”

It’s a dream she’s held for some time, recently turning it into her standard answer for what she wants to be when she grows up. I love it about her. But I also know it’s not terribly realistic. I say that not based on her skill, or her drive, or her work-ethic, but just based on, well, math.

Very few kids grow up to be professional soccer players.

I’ve wondered for a while when she was going to grow out of this dream, not wanting to rush it but also not want it to hurt too bad when it happens. This wasn’t the time I’d imagined. But, on this morning, my filter failed to function, and the truth stumbled out of my mouth.

“You should probably have a backup plan,” I say, too easily for the daggers it contained.

“What?” she shrieked, aghast at my bluntness and lack of faith.

“Well, it’s just not many people play professional soccer.”

She stared straight ahead, and I saw the look on a kid’s face when her dad heartlessly dashes her dreams in the drop-off line at middle school.

In defense, it wasn’t heartless. It hurt me to say it.

I tried to backpedal, telling her that if she wants to be a professional soccer player, she should start playing soccer every day in the yard rather than hanging in her room on her cell phone. I wasn’t saying I wanted her to do that – though I’d prefer it -- I was saying, if she wants to that’s what she needs to do. It was my version of tough love. And it felt cruel.

My middle-schooler, atop a medium-sized mountain. 
But the subject touched on something I’ve struggle with of late: the parental desire to balance the myth we tell our kids from the time they are born – that they can be anything they want – with the reality of life.

I’ve wondered of late about the usefulness of reasonable expectations, and whether a dose of realism early on could contribute to long-term happiness.

We say we all want our kids to dream big. And that’s what we train them all to do. And for some, those dreams come true. A very few. For most, the dreams don’t happen – at least not the way they expect.

I often wonder if the bigness of our kids’ dreams isn’t creating adults who fail to find contentment in their decidedly mediocre lives.

I don’t mean mediocre as in bad. I mean mediocre as in normal – no excessive fame, no ridiculous wealth, no millions of followers on Instagram. Just a happy, normal, mediocre life.

Maybe we should encourage our kids to dream medium.

It doesn’t sound as catchy, it won't sell a ton of inspirational cat posters, and it sure wouldn't make for a particularly compelling moral to a new Disney movie, but it might make more sense.

These thoughts all tumbled through my mind as we crept along in the middle school parking lot waiting our turn to disperse into our day, her to school and I to work.

She sat quietly. Staring at the car ahead and refusing to get out until we were closer to the door, despite the sign saying student drop-off started three car-lengths back.

I didn’t want her to go.  I also don’t want her to let go of her dream. Not yet.

“I’m sorry,” I said, as she finally opened the door and pulled at her backpack.

She shrugged. “It’s okay.”

Then she departed.

I hate math.

Don’t get me wrong. I do want my kids to dream big and to want to do great things. I hope all their dreams come true. But, more than anything, I want them to be happy. Content. Satisfied. I don’t need any of them to be professional soccer players, or Astronauts, or YouTube stars. I just want them to feel gratified in the life they live.

That’s my big, medium parental dream. And there’s nothing mediocre about it.

 Here's other articles 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 Learning Lessons from a Little Boy.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Who In Their Right Mind Plays Basketball at Five in the Morning? Answer: Dads do.

“Dad, I hope I never get to the point where the only time I can hang out with my friends is at 5:45 in the morning.”

My daughter said that to me recently. And there’s a reason.

We were discussing the fact that, for the better part of the past year, a group of dads and I -- all in our mid-30s to mid-40s – have been meeting at the local YMCA at 5:45 a.m. one day a week to play basketball. 
That’s right. I said 5:45 a.m. 
That’s the official tip-off time. We play for about 45 minutes (exactly 45 minutes, according to the official dad-timekeeper’s watch, to be precise), finishing and parting ways by 6:30 a.m.
I wish I was a little bit taller,
I wish I was a baller...
For the record, basketball is not my sport. Soccer, yes. Lacrosse, maybe. But when it comes to basketball, I kind of suck. I’m short, relatively speaking. And even if I’m taller than some people, I can’t jump very high. Oh, and I have no aim. In fact, while some people shoot 30 percent from behind the arc, and that’s considered a good thing, I shoot about 30 percent from underneath the basket. Layups. That’s not considered a good thing.   
If you’re old enough, you likely remember those commercials for the U.S. Army: “We do more before 9 a.m. than most people do all day.” We could have similar commercials, though they’d be more like: “We miss more layups by 7 a.m. than most people miss all year.”
I say that in jest, because not all of us are bad at basketball. In fact, a few of us are quite good -- one of us, in particular. (Let me stress: I am not that person).
But, in a weird way, it doesn’t really matter. Every Thursday, whether we’re going to make all our shots or none of our shots, we gather at this ungodly hour under the baskets at the local YMCA, when our kids, wives and most normal people are deep in their dreams or hitting the snooze, and we break up into teams, and we play. Because, that’s when we can. 
Since we started playing, I’ve heard lots of stories about other groups like ours who gather in other gyms on other mornings and play before the sun comes up. I’d bet that, across the country, at any early morning moment, there is likely a group of almost middle aged men playing morning basketball in most towns. 
And there’s a reason for that, too.   
Anyone who has a kid or two or five knows the challenge most parents face when it comes to both having a social life and staying in shape. The challenge being, when exactly do we have time for either? 
Despite the Instagram post of some within our cohort showing both six-pack abs and well-adjusted kids, most parents with children in the home suffer from friend-time/workout-time/space-time constraints.
There is no time for much of anything outside of what we must do. Between work and parenting, making meals and driving kids around, and, of course, sleeping, what is left, really? Heck, my wife and I are pleased with ourselves to even shower each day.
For many years, I just suffered through this lack of personal time.
Then, a couple of years back, I was told by some doctor that if I intended to suffer through as many years as I wanted to, I had to start working out more regularly. And, soon after, I discovered that the only time I had to do that – or anything other than work – was between 5:00 and 6:45 a.m. 
So that’s what I did. I started waking up a few days a week and getting in a workout before the rest of the world awoke. It began as personal workout time, and still mostly is: running on the treadmill, riding the stationary bike, or wandering around the weight room trying to look like I belong there.

Now, some mornings it involves a team sport I’m not all that good at.   
Despite the ridiculous hour, we always have enough willing participants to make a game of it. Most often we play 4 v. 4, pulling from a pool of about 10 dads.  Some days we play 3 v. 3. Occasionally, we play uneven teams, like 3 v. 4, with that one really good guy on the lesser-numbered team. And that team usually wins, anyway. 
But again, it kind of doesn’t matter. Because, it’s 5:45 in the morning, we’re getting in a workout, there are no kids around, and we’re among friends. 
And, by the way, it’s often the most fun 45 minutes I have all week. That’s not meant as an insult to the other 10,035 minutes in the week. But it is fun, despite the significant scars to the ego caused by so many missed layups. 
So fun that I often leave wishing we played every day. Not that I’m suggesting we do. 
Because I also like to sleep. And 5:45 a.m. is pretty stinking early.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

A high schooler. Let that sink in.

It’s been two months, so the reality of the situation has taken hold, and I finally have the strength to write these words without feeling like I’m in a bad dream: We have a high school student living in our house.

And she’s our daughter.

Our wee first child, who I remember being born and a thousand other little kid things since. That precocious little blonde who could count to 16 before she was two, and said “actually” so clearly and so often as a toddler that we knew we were in trouble early: she’s officially a freshman.

Which makes me officially old. It makes all my old friends officially old too, and some of them are taking it harder than I am.
I almost accidentally kicked this sign.
But I didn't.
It really hit me when she went to her first homecoming game under the lights at the high school football stadium. The rest of us attended, too, though we promised not to acknowledge her. It hit me then because, while I don’t recall much about my freshman year, I remember my first homecoming game. It was rainy and cool and smelled of popcorn. We were under the lights of our much smaller stadium with all the new friends I’ve lost touch with in the decades since. It was a blast. At least, I thought it was at the time.
And it really wasn’t that long ago. Honestly.
The weird thing is that, as she begins this adventurous time in every young person’s life, all I can think about is the next looming milestone: college. That’s what gets me. Oh my god. She’s going to be in college soon. Like sooner than how long ago she was in elementary school, which wasn’t that long ago.
College, like leaving the nest, and moving out, and getting away from this whole family of ours. And that makes me want to put my head in my hands and wail. I miss her already.
And how are we going to afford that, anyway? A thought that makes me stop wanting to cry and start wanting to hyperventilate.
WTF is she doing to us, growing up and causing all this pain, self-reflection and general regret that all these years have slipped through our fingers forever.
But she doesn’t seem bothered by it at all. She’s having the time of her life, attending high school football games, taking honors courses I would certainly fail, and going to things like Improv Club.
Improv Club? Really. We didn’t have clubs like that at my school. God I wish we did.
I also had a lunch break. Which she doesn’t, and for the life of me I can’t figure that one out.
Maybe it’s because she goes to a school that has way too many Type A parents, or something, but most kids at her school don’t take a lunch. And that’s not a typo. They don’t have a lunch break in their daily schedule. They grab and go, eating in art, or study hall, or some other elective that’s supposed to make them more desirable to some college admissions officer.
No lunch?! Whoever heard of such a thing? And why exactly are they doing this? Preparing these kids for a life of eating at their desk and working through dinner? Besides, if they are never in the school cafeteria, when is the big musical number supposed to happen? When are they going to stand up to the big school bully and dump his (or her) tray of food all over their letterman sweater?
Seriously. I couldn’t have survived without a lunch. Still can't. Nor would I want to.
I have half a mind to pull her out of that darn school and start teaching her myself. I remember algebra, a little. I’m sure we could figure it out together. ("Dad, algebra was 8th grade. I'm taking geometry now"). Fine. I’ll just have to quit my job and brush up on a few other subjects. And then we could also have lunch together. And we could keep her here and protect our wee little girl from all those mean people in the world who don’t even want her to eat.
That could work.
... Or maybe it couldn’t.
Maybe this is all part of the parenting gig. This bitter sweet job that you wish away half the time, and yet never get enough of. Maybe letting go is part of the art form.
I’m just not ready.
I guess I’m fine with high school. Sort of. But not college. Not yet.
I don’t even want to think about that.