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Five years a parent

It is five o’clock on a January morning in 2014 and I’m driving a pickup truck on the Grand Central Parkway. My pregnant wife is in the passenger’s seat. It’s dark and the roads are nearly deserted.

“In a few hours we’re going to be parents,” I tell her. “Isn’t that crazy?” She agrees.

This week our older girls, fraternal twins, will turn five. That’s a half decade of parenting in the can. We have three now, the youngest will be three in June, sharing a birthday with one of her uncles.

Having kids is a definite turning point in everyone’s life, and it brings a kind of happiness that is hard to achieve in other places. But it’s not panacea where unicorns and rainbows to replace the regular sturm und drang of life. All the same stresses and difficulties are there, and now they are there with new mouths to feed and diapers to change. Kids won’t turn you into a better person. You’ll still be an angry curmudgeon if you were one before their birth. But as miserable as your life may get from that point onward, your children will be a consistent reason to be happy, even when they are throwing up on you.

I am extremely fortunate that I went into parenthood with a very wide support network, a steady paycheck and a happy marriage. Not everyone has that. When I was born my parents were half the age I was when I had kids. Neither one had a college degree at the time. I started out way ahead; I have no excuses if my kids become serial killers.

Luckily, our kids are great and continue to inspire us to be better people. I see how bright they are and how they enjoy learning and I want them to never stop loving life or the pursuit of knowledge. Despite the many stresses and strains; my wife and I enjoy our molding, shaping and unconditionally loving these impressionable young lives. It’s an awesome responsibility but also one of unlimited potential.

I vowed not to be the kind of parent that gauged someone’s worth by whether or not they reproduced – I faced enough of that before I had children.

“So do you have a family?” someone asked me at a business reception years before I met my wife. They meant to ask if I was married and had kids, but the question seemed like they were checking to see if I had hatched out of an egg. Well I was raised by wolves and since I’m not biologically wolf I can’t track down the pack that raised me by my sense of smell, so no I guess. —was how I should have answered, but I mumbled a simple ‘no’ and noted I wasn’t married and changed the subject.

And while my kids are crushing life, we must refuse to put their accomplishments in place of our own. No one outside a tight circle of family and friends care how awesome your kids are, and having children is no excuse to fall on your face in every other aspect of life. No slacking.

This weekend we’ll be hosting a kids’ birthday party for the twins with pizza, cake and animals. It will be a big, tiring, stressful day but one that will have a happy ending because we get to spend it with our children.

Five years have gone by fast. Wish us luck on the next fifteen.

 

The dark allure of the carnival

Two years ago, when our youngest was a newborn still in the hospital, I had a Father’s Day with our older daughters and decided to take them to a carnival that was being held out on Long Island.

The drive out there gave the girls some nap time and allowed me to treat myself to some drive-through White Castle in an indulgent celebration of my continuing my bloodlines.

It was on the grounds of a community college not too far into Suffolk County (the part of Long Island farther away from New York City—technically both Brooklyn and Queens are on the Island of Long Island but whenever a New Yorker says “Long Island” they mean Nassau or Suffolk County, which constitute the larger mass of land outside of the New York City borders).

Because it was Father’s Day and extremely hot, or for whatever reason, the carnival was not well attended. There were a few rides where my girls were the only ones on at the time. One ride that was empty had a height requirement, and I told one of the twins to step up to the height measurement board by the entrance to see if she was tall enough. She misunderstood my instructions and began stepping up on the bottom run of the fence around the ride, which had the effect of both immediately proving she was not tall enough to ride the ride but making it look like I was telling my daughter to cheat. As I was trying to correct this, the man running the ride, who was wearing the requisite carny uniform of sun-leathered skin emblazoned with tattoos, quickly waved my girls onto the ride.

More recently, my wife and I took our girls to a local carnival held on the grounds of a Catholic school nearby. It was fairly well attended but our kids were only eligible to ride a few of the rides. Most of the rides were for older kids and grownups and some of them looked rickety and unsafe. The same carny types were running the rides, and the ones who were running the kids’ rides were happy to have the business. From a trailer-born midway, the typical games of change were running with giant stuffed animals to lure impressionable youth to beg for their parents’ money.

A few weeks later, another similar carnival, a larger one in Astoria, had a ride malfunction and injure a passenger who fell out of an open car on a rickety amusement park ride.

We hold the carnival folk in envy in some ways also: they travel and see the country in ways most of us wish we had the freedom to do. And we see their itinerant ways and employment in leisure as hinting at some greater, more liberated life, even though it is a much harder life that consists of working while other people have fun, for long hours in the hot sun for little pay.

Eight years ago, a Wisconsin writer traveled as a carny and wrote about it for the publication Isthmus in an article ‘My life as a carny.’ He summarized it this way:

“[W]here I expected dangerous men and unpleasant bosses, I discovered instead a unique community of people who slave away their summers for a pittance, and an enigmatic family that provides many of them with far more than just a wage.”

One counterintuitive point that the article makes is that traveling carnival rides have a better chance of being safe than those at established amusement parks, because they are inspected more frequently.

From the interactions I’ve had, I have some away with the impression that because my wife and I have raised our girls to treat people with respect and be polite, especially to the people who work for a living and serve us, that the carnival workers pick up on that and treat us well in return.

We come away from these carnivals a little poorer financially, I like to think that our family is richer in experience. Carnies are part of the brilliant milieu of New York City; we appreciate the dark allure of the carnival, as it is illuminating when you approach it with the right attitude.

Fatherly adventures of being your children’s +1

This past weekend I had several hours alone with my three children. Normally we have full family outings on the weekend but it helps keep our family healthy if my wife gets a break from being around children for at least a few hours each week.

There was a Twist & Sprout festival at the Queens Botanical Garden and I decided this would be a good place to take our three daughters. We had been there last year and it was a good time with plenty to offer the kids.

After getting my girls out of the van and dropping off some compost, we set off to explore the festival. Arriving at the Queens Botanical Garden with my daughters is like being a celebrity’s date at an award’s ceremony. Because they are there at least twice a week for the Forest Explorers program, my girls know a lot of the people who work there. One of the teachers at the program recently graduated college and gave my girls big hugs. Other employees waved hello to us from their zooming golf carts or from arts & crafts tables.

There was a puppet show and the puppeteer was the mother of another one of the students at the Forest Explorers program. Other parents stopped to chat with me; they recognized my daughters and asked where my wife was. It was all very friendly, but I was definitely a stranger among them. I was appreciated for bringing my girls there. No doubt they are the better life of the party.

While I pride myself on being a good Dad, the point was driven home that for most hours in the week, I am largely absent from my daughters’ lives. I am out the door to catch a 6:30 a.m. bus in the morning and with afternoon rush-hour traffic I am usually not home before 7 p.m. It is dinner time soon after I arrive home and time for bed soon after that. The weekends are when I try to catch up and cram a lot of living into two days before the cycle starts up again, at least on most weekends (sometimes I have to work on the weekends).

Since 2014 I have been my children’s +1. In theory I could show up at a family gathering without them, but I’d face an extremely disappointed crowd. There’s no substitute for adorable young children.

Case in point: my reception at the Queens Botanical Garden was warm and embracing, which would not have been the case if I had shown up on my own. No one would have treated me poorly, but no one would have known who I was or given me a second glance. When fantastic little girls are your posse, you are a 100% winner wherever you go.

Our children are better versions of ourselves, bright and new to the world with endless possibilities in front of them. When we’re well received based on being with them, it reflects their position in the world and how they’re being raised.

We’re doing something right.

The savage madness of New York City Pre-Kindergarten

Having children in New York City means a life of deadlines and bureaucratic navigation. While every child is guaranteed a public education, it takes immersion into byzantine administration in order to ensure your offspring can access the best schools available, and the grapevine is full of horror stories and cautionary tales of kids being sent far from home to sub-par schools.

My wife and I are waiting to hear where our older girls will attend preschool. Universal Pre-K started several years ago and it’s free to all kids the year they turn four years old. We are lucky in that we live in an area that has good local schools. A lot of younger couples have kids and then find themselves racing a clock to get to a better neighborhood in or out of the five boroughs that has suitable education choices.

I am blessed with a great asset in making sure my kids get into a decent Pre-K: my wife. She was the one who did the research and learned how to traverse the absurdist labyrinth of rules and applications (e.g.: applying to only one or two schools won’t work, if you do that, the system will automatically fill in the other choices for you, so your attempt to limit the choices may backfire big time). She figured out which ones were closest and had good ratings, and came up with a list of preferences that will mean our older girls are likely to be in a good place.

The schools we applied to include both public and private schools close to where we live that run public Pre-K programs.

One of those public/private Pre-K schools is a place called Holy Mountain. This school does not have any religious affiliation that we can discern. It has a mostly Asian student population, but so do most schools in our area (we live in Flushing, Queens, an area known for its large Chinese immigrant population; it has a large Korean population as well).

But the name Holy Mountain will always first make me think of the 1973 Alejandro Jodorowski film, The Holy Mountain, which I first saw projected onto a wall during a punk rock show many years ago. It is an art film filled with strange and bizarre images, even watching the trailer many years later is to step away from reality for a few minutes.  One of the most well-known and memorable images of the film include a parade of crucified dogs that have been skinned and disemboweled.

So now whenever my wife and I discuss Pre-K for our kids and we note that Holy Mountain was one of our top choices (it’s nearby and it has high ratings with a Montessori-based teaching style, so what if it has a weird name), all I can think about is my older girls parading down 31st Road in gas masks while carrying crucified dogs.

This week, the results came in: and our girls will be headed to Holy Mountain in September. Mutilated canine parade, here we come! I now need to watch that film again. I’ll have to find a time when the rest of my family is asleep, as I am the only one in my household who has this big a taste for eccentric cinema.

We are lucky to live in an area where such services are available within walking distance. For the value it returns, no investment in public education can be too big.

Doktor Kaboom Drops Science on the Queens Theatre

Queens Theatre in Flushing Meadows Corona Park is not one of the park’s better-known attractions. The iconic Unisphere gets much more attention, and the Queens Zoo probably sees a lot more foot traffic, but the Queens Theatre is a lesser-known gem in the large park.

This past weekend it was the sight of a recent performance by Doktor Kaboom, a comedic science performer who has a family-friendly show that targets impressionable young children and works to give them a love of science.

The good Doktor, with his spiky blond hair and thick faux-German accent, looks and sounds like the love child of Guy Fieri and Angela Merkel (who has a PhD in Physics), but he’s actually a native of North Carolina who lives in Seattle and found a way to combine his love of comedy and science.

The whole family went and we were lucky enough to have extra tickets for a friend and his daughter. The Queens Theatre mainstage theater seats 472 and the rows are on a gradient generous enough to provide decent viewing from all angles.

After a brief introduction, Doktor Kaboom took the stage and we were on our way. The entire show is geared towards children, working to spark an interest in science and there’s no better way to do that than to show them that science allows you to make a mess. Using a catapult to try to help a young volunteer from the audience catch a piece of banana in his mouth, the bit had the stage littered with banana pretty quickly and it was good fun. I vowed to never feed my children bananas the same way again, but I’m not sure I am going to be able to build a catapult fast enough to realize this dream.

One of the best parts of the show was when the good Doktor implored the kids there to have confidence and faith in themselves. He said that at a previous show a 10-year-old kid said that he was a failure, even though he was a bright young man who could speak three languages. That base level of self respect is sadly missing from a lot in our society.

Unfortunately, some basic theater manners are also lacking. The Doktor had to remind the audience to refrain from using mobile phones, which is Theater Manners 101. Lack of civility as well as a dropping aptitude in the sciences are general signs of societal rot and sad to see, but at least there’s one guy out there fighting the good fight. That guy wears old-fashioned goggles, a bright orange lab coat, and shoes with flames painted on them.

But that didn’t slow down the show. There is a lot of safety instruction in the Doktor Kaboom show, even though the worst you may be exposed to is high-velocity banana and some soapy residue. He manages to use some optical illusions to trick your mind in ways that even jaded adults will find fascinating, and he takes time to explain what is happening in terms that children can understand. There are also plenty of under-the-radar jokes for adults as well.

There were no loud explosions as the Doktor Kaboom name might imply, but fear not. The show is well worth the time and has a big impact.

The continuous triumphs of raising girls

I was driving my three girls home from the Queens Botanical Gardens and as I merged onto a highway overpass that would take us home, our van overlooked some athletic fields where several teams were playing soccer.

“Daddy, do girls play soccer?” one of my three daughters asked.

“Yes, of course,” I said.

“Then I want to be a soccer player!” she said

“Yes, me too!” one of her sisters chimed in.

They expounded on their plans to dominate the sport of soccer. I reminded them they could play both soccer and hockey and they agreed that they could excel at both sports.

What struck me about this conversation was not my girls’ enthusiasm for soccer, but that they thought, at their early age, that they could be limited because they were girls. It was heartbreaking that in just over four years, they could conceive of being constrained in what games they play.

It was an interesting discovery that before they were three years old, my daughters craved representation of females in media; they were very conscious of what characters were in front of them. Most cartoon characters are boys, and the female characters in most popular children’s television are either princesses or fashion-obsessed mice. There are some notable exceptions (Dora the Explorer and Doc McStuffins), but even in cartoons with some positive female role models, they are usually a small part of the larger action.

This is one of the reasons my wife and I bring our girls to professional women’s hockey. The Metropolitan Riveters of the National Women’s Hockey League have been a must-see for our family. Besides being a fun sport to watch, women’s professional hockey, by the very fact of its existence, provides an invaluable service for the parents of girls. Our daughters can see women held in high esteem and being celebrated for hard work in their chosen field.

While my wife is a stay-at-home Mom for now, she is active in local civic affairs and has a leadership role in her local Community Supported Agriculture Group. We like to think that we don’t avoid the facts of life but present the world as honestly as possible, but there is no reason our girls should think that there are limits to what sports they can play.

There are efforts underway to have more portrayals of girls in various roles in different media, not just in hockey, but in all of life. People are making their own books, controlling their own art.

A former co-worker who has daughters older than mine said that girls are more likely to drop out of playing sports when they reach age 10; she noted that her oldest daughter made it through that age with her love of sport intact. It was a relief.

While hockey for me is a more interesting sport than soccer, I’m happy to have my girls interested in soccer. It is an easier concept to teach. Everyone knows how to kick a ball and run after it; hockey requires players to be proficient ice skaters to play.

I’m cautious about pushing hockey on my girls too hard, not because I really care if they play hockey, but I’m determined that they remain interested in playing sports.

So yes, girls play soccer and much more. Let it always be so.

 

Super Bowl Hype Has Run Aground

I had every intention of watching the Super Bowl this past Sunday but life got in the way.

Being a New York Jets fan, I have no real reason to watch the N.F.L., but believe it is a major current event that bears witnessing to be properly informed, not that one needs much of an excuse to sit and eat and watch TV. Also, in keeping with a tradition I had with my mother (RIP), my brother and I have decided to make a bet on the Super Bowl every year. My brother is a die-hard Patriots fan, so the bet was easy to make. I bet on the Philadelphia Eagles to win; the loser buys the other lunch.

As a New Yorker, I should despise both teams. The Patriots are cheating panty waists. They even cheated against my Jets, which is like cheating against people from the Special Olympics. Nonetheless, like the arrogant Dallas Cowboys of decades past, they have become the dominating franchise with numerous Super Bowl victories. The Philadelphia Eagles have been the hated rivals of New York football fans for decades. There’s something about Philadelphia fans absolute violent savagery and dedication that is endearing. They went into the game as underdogs.

Until I went to college, I could not see the use or interest in football. It is a slow game with rules that are not easy to comprehend (wait, they have to kick it again already, what happened?). Sports in general failed to arouse my interest as a kid. Why invest so much into a game when you could be out shooting bad guys or doing karate on people. I prowled around with toy guns, back when you were allowed to have realistic-looking toy guns, and pretended to hunt Russians or terrorists. I would rather practice being a bounty hunter or future warlord than try to remember a bunch of rules that made no sense. Sports seemed a poor substitute for real adventure in the world.

In college, sports made more sense. The athletes represented our school in the most primal, tribal way, and supporting the team was something that could bring even the most politically fractured college campus together.

So this Sunday came and I figured I would turn on the Super Bowl and it would be in the background while I had a regular Sunday with the family. The game was supposed to start at 6:30 p.m. Eastern time, and we knew that Pink was going to be singing the national anthem.

At the appointed time, we told our children that “Pirate Pink” would be singing on television soon. Our children know the singer as “Pirate Pink” from her appearance as a pirate on “Sponge Bob Square Pants.” But something went wrong. We turned in to the Super Bowl when it was supposed to start and they were actually starting to play football? What happened to the 45 minutes of bullshit before the actual game? The coin toss, the national anthem, the endless displays of hype and patriotism? We only have one TV in our home and I was banking on Pink’s appearance to make the transition from “Doc McStuffins” to football; no easy task.

As the actual Super Bowl got under way, my older children began to cry over missing “Pirate Pink” sing on television. I was the worst Dad ever. I made my chicken dip and enjoyed dinner with the family while watching “The Simpsons,” which is the only TV show we allow to run during meal times regularly.

I was glad to miss the game because I tend to jinx many teams that I watch on television. When the New York Yankees were in the World Series against the Atlanta Braves in 1996, I watched the first two games and the Yankees were crushed. I quit watching entirely and the Yankees won the next four games and reclaimed the crown as world champions once again.

Since then my not watching sports has helped my preferred teams. This year was a year I missed more Georgia Bulldogs games on TV than in recent memory, and they had their best year since 1980, making it all the way to the national championship game. Go Dawgs!

It was social media that informed me that my not-watching mojo had helped the Eagles win their first Super Bowl.

Congratulations Philadelphia. Please don’t burn your city to the ground.

 

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