Archive for the “Kids & Parents” Category

I finally beat Sara, my seven-year-old, in a game of Wii baseball today. It was a pitcher’s duel, still 0-0 in the bottom of the last inning, when I managed to swat a homer that barely cleared the outfield wall. I’ve got ice on my elbow right now to reduce the swelling from swinging out of my shoes, but the victory is worth the pain. 

There are two reasons I won the game. First, Sara had a lousy day at the plate. She swatted a lot of long fly balls, but they fell just short of the fences — and for once, my Wii players didn’t drop any. Second, I spent hours taking batting practice this week while the girls were in school, all in hopes of figuring out the difference between YOU SWUNG TOO EARLY and YOU SWUNG TOO LATE. The result of all that practice was announced by Wii during today’s contest:

You swung too early!
You swung too late!
You swung too late!
Strikeout!
Foul Ball!
You swung too early!
Foul Ball!
You swung too late!
Strikeout!
You swung too late!
You swung too late!
You swung too early!
Strikeout!

And so forth, until the last inning, when HOME RUN appeared on the screen. Exactly one hit, probably nothing more than the laws of randomness catching up with me, but it was a game-winner.

Yes, I practiced my Wii batting so I could stop getting shellacked by my daughter. This no doubt says something about me as a father, and whatever it says, it’s not a compliment. My rationalization was that someday she’ll be a teenager and I’ll have to discipline her for various infractions … staying out past curfew, drinking underage, lying about where and when she got that tattoo, etc. It’s not going to do much for my father-intimidation mojo if her nickname for me is “Whiff Boy.” I also want any pimply, hormone-addled teenage boys she dates to be afraid of me. That’s not going to happen if she introduces me as, “This is my dad. He swings like a girl.”

After my last post, a reader left a comment suggesting that Wii is equipped with a dad-detector, the purpose of which is to make sure the dad always loses. I’m beginning to think the reader is correct. During today’s baseball game, Sara was throwing 94 mph fastballs. I couldn’t bring anything close to that kind of heat. By putting my entire body into it and risking a rotator-cuff injury, I managed to throw a 71 mph fastball once — which she promptly swatted for a double. The rest of my “fastballs” were in the 60s. If our playroom were bigger, I’d put a pitcher’s mound in there and let my weight generate something resembling momentum. On the other hand, the dad-detector may just limit a dad’s pitches to 71 mph, period.

I also practiced my bowling this week, once again in hopes of figuring out how to overcome the dad-detector. Two nights ago, Sara and I played a round of 100-pin bowling. It’s a way-cool game. Nothing like watching 100 pins go flying and scoring a strike … well, if Sara’s the one bowling, that is. During this particular game, she rolled nine strikes in 10 frames. She began the game with seven straight. No, I’m not making that up.

I was so happy for her, I stood behind her and took mental notes, trying to steal her technique. I watched where she lined up her Wii bowler (pretty far to the left), how hard she threw, and how she turned her wrist to generate that wicked curve to the right. Then I mimicked her throw exactly. I swear I did. But while her version of the throw sent all 100 pins flying, mine always left one or two pins standing. If it was two pins, they’d be as far apart as two pins can be. It had to be the dad-detector at work.

The only game Sara’s no good at is Frisbee golf. She throws a Frisbee just fine, but she’s never played real golf and doesn’t think like a golfer. She doesn’t yet grasp, for example, that it’s not a good idea to go for a green that’s 200 yards away with water in front of it. During my 20 years of playing actual golf, I’ve put enough balls in the water to cause a slight rise in worldwide sea-levels, so I know when to lay up.

Alana, my five-year-old, can beat me fair and square at Wii bowling now and then, but that’s it. I let her win most of the time at tennis and ping-pong, two of her favorite games. It’s easy to let her win. I just play left-handed. Instant incompetence.

However, her newest favorite is Wii boxing, which she can play by herself. She’s such an enthusiastic boxer, my wife had to put a big strip of blue tape on the carpet as a DO NOT CROSS line. Otherwise, Alana keeps dancing in to deliver body-blows and ends up smacking the TV.

I was pleased she was enjoying the boxing until I noticed the Wii character she chooses to box is named Tom — the character I created for myself, glasses and all. Now I wonder what she’s thinking when she’s in there punching away.

No cookies after school? Is that what you said, big guy? (WHAM!) I’ll decide when I get cookies from now on, got it? (WHAM!) Next time you say “No cookies,” you’re getting one of these. (WHAM!)

Two players can also box against each other, and both girls have asked me to play. I’ve refused so far, telling them I don’t like boxing. The truth is, I’m not going to risk getting punched out by my daughters. Their teenage years will be challenging enough as it is.

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Well, I knew it had to happen eventually. Sara, my seven-year-old, is beginning to figure out that her daddy was born with little (if any) natural athletic ability.

Without really intending to, I’d managed to keep my ineptitude at sports hidden from her by virtue of being several times her size. Whenever I kicked a ball 20 yards, it probably looked like a half-mile to her. Whenever I launched a wiffle golf-ball over the garage with a nine-iron, I probably looked like Tiger Woods to her young, innocent, admiring eyes.

It began to dawn on me just how badly she’d been misled when we were watching a Titans game early in the season:

“Daddy, you really like professional football, don’t you?”

“Yes, sweetie, I do. I’m glad you like watching with me.”

“Well … if you like it so much, why don’t you play professional football?”

Apparently she assumed it was just a vocational choice.  Let’s see … computer programmer, or linebacker for the Bears? I dunno, I’m not sure I want to put up with the millions of dollars and the adoring fans.

I was flattered, but figured it would be better in the long run if I began to disabuse her of the notion that Daddy is the strongest man in the world.

“Sara, these are professional athletes. They train their whole lives to be this good. And they’re way bigger and way faster than I am.”

“Oh. So did you play college football?”

“No. College football players are pretty big and pretty fast too.”

“Oh. Did you play high school football?”

“Uh … no.”

After a thoughtful glance towards the TV, she attempted to offer me a graceful exit.

“Is it because you don’t have dark skin?”

“What?”

“The football players all have dark skin.”

“That’s just the defense. I mean, no, they don’t all have dark skin.”

“Well, most of them do.”

Time to fess up.

“Sara, I went to a Catholic high school with a very good football team, and only a couple of the players had dark skin. I didn’t play football because I wasn’t strong enough or fast enough.”

“Because you ate a lot of sugar when you were a kid and you weren’t healthy?”

“I’m sure that was part of it, yes.”

So she accepted that her daddy wasn’t a good athlete. But at the time, I don’t think she fully gasped that her daddy is, in fact, a bad athlete. For that to sink in, Santa Claus had to give her an evil, despicable, klutz-exposing contraption known as “a Wii.”

The hugeness of my physique relative to Sara’s provides no advantage whatsoever in Wii games, because everything — golf, baseball, sword-fighting, bowling, tennis, archery and Frisbee — is played with a small electronic paddle. Strength is meaningless, and hand-eye coordination is everything. Consequently, she regularly beats me in golf, baseball, sword-fighting, bowling, tennis, archery and Frisbee. For reasons I can’t quite figure out, I still win in ping-pong and basketball.

Pretty much every day now, she lays down the challenge.

“Daddy, can we play Wii?”

“Uh … okay.”

“What do you want to play?”

“How about ping-pong?”

“Naw.”

“Basketball?”

“Maybe when I get a little better. Let’s play baseball.”

In my defense, I think our Wii paddles may be equipped with a klutz-detector installed by some aging jock at the Wii factory who misses his carefree, youthful days of picking on weaklings. I say this because during several of our baseball games, Sara hit a fly ball to the outfield and my Wii character — I’m not kidding — dropped the ball.

If you’re not familiar with Wii baseball, all you do when the other player is batting is throw a pitch. There’s no fielding. Your Wii characters play defense automatically. And mine automatically drop fly balls now and then … just to make sure I never forget why I hated recess and gym class.

My lack of hand-eye coordination might not be so embarrassing if not for the fact that Sara is turning out to be a natural jock. Even though she quite obviously inherited my frame — all the way down to the almost-freakishly-long thumbs — Mother Nature somehow managed to infuse her copy of the frame with a large dose of jock-DNA from her mother’s side. (My father-in-law was an all-conference halfback in his youth and is still built like one at age 67.)

The signs were there from birth. When Sara first popped out, she held her head up and looked around as if demanding to know who turned on the lights. By the time she was six months old, if she decided she’d just as soon wear that poopy diaper for awhile longer thank-you very much, it was a battle to hold her still and change her. More than once, my wife and I looked at each other and said, “Man … how can something so little be so strong?”

Now that she’s seven, she’s still strong, and she’s turning out to be athletic as well. I already suspected she was blessed with good hand-eye coordination, because when we toss a football around in the back yard, she throws spirals into my chest. I just didn’t suspect her hand-eye coordination would exceed mine quite so vastly, quite so soon.

Last night, we played Wii baseball. When I was batting, Wii responsed with a more or less continuous string of helpful on-screen tips:

You swung too early!
You swung too early!
You swung too late!
You swung too early!
You swung too late!
You swung too late!
You swung too early!
You swung too late!
You seriously suck at this!
You swung too early!
You swung too early!

Sara’s on-screen messages were more along the lines of:

Double!
Single!
Double!
Double!
Home Run!

This was in spite of the fact that I’d discovered if you press the “A” button before pitching, you toss a fairly wicked screwball.

When she hit a grand slam and pulled ahead by something like 20 runs, Wii produced a message I didn’t know was even in the programming:

Mercy Rule. Game Over.

Well, okay, she’s having fun and all that. I mean, she loves me, she admires me … it’s not as if she’ll stop respecting me just because You swung too early! and You swung too late! feel like exactly the same swing to me. Right?

It snowed nearly five millimeters in Middle Tennessee last night, so the schools were closed today. After I woke up and drank some coffee, Sara asked if I’d play Wii with her. I said sure, but I need to check my email first. A few minutes later, she poked her head in my office.

“Let’s play Wii now, Daddy!”

“One more minute, Sara.”

“Awww!”

“Just one more minute.”

She left for the kitchen. A moment later, she yelled for me.

“It’s been another minute already! Come on, old man, I’m going to kick your butt!”

I guess that pretty much answers my question.

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As I described a couple of days ago on the Fat Head blog, I recently started experimenting with intermittent fasting and found it surprisingly painless. The purpose of fasting in this case is to induce hormonal changes that lead to weight loss and better health.

My first attempt at fasting took place when I was 10 years old, and weight loss had nothing to do with it — the last thing I needed at that age was to become any skinnier. However, like most adolescent boys, I felt a deep need to go on a vision quest so I could meet my animal protector and be shown my purpose in life.

I knew all about vision quests because I’d become utterly fascinated with American Indians in third grade. By fourth grade, I’d ploughed through every book on Indians that could be borrowed from the Bettendorf public library. While some boys decorated their bedrooms with posters of quarterbacks and home-run sluggers, mine featured posters of famous Indians: Tecumseh, Geronimo, Red Cloud, Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, and a few others. I was, as far as I knew, the only kid in town who watched westerns and secretly hoped John Wayne would take an arrow.

Of all my Indian heroes, I liked Crazy Horse the best. He was a brilliant strategist in battle and almost unbelievably brave, riding straight into his enemies without hesitation. But there was a good reason for the bravery: his vision. During a vision quest, a white owl showed Crazy Horse how to paint his face for battle and promised he wouldn’t be killed. Most importantly, Crazy Horse learned during his vision that he was destined to lead his people.

(Just for the record, if a politician in modern times shared a similar story, I’d vote for somebody else, no matter what the owl predicted.)

I’m blessed with a pretty good memory, but 42 years after the fact, I have no idea what personal destiny I expected to be revealed in my vision. If I’d met, say, a golden hawk, and the golden hawk happened to be honest, the message he delivered would’ve been similar to a fortune I once pulled from humorous fortune-cookie:

Your life will be far more ordinary than you ever thought possible.

Perhaps I was merely hoping for some useful tips in my vision, such as: If you wear red boxer shorts every day, you’ll no longer strike out in kickball. Whatever I was expecting, during the summer we lived in Carbondale, Illinois, I grew increasingly determined to have my vision.

Unfortunately, the lifestyle of a white, suburban 10-year-old includes several barriers to a vision quest.  The two biggest are called “parents.”  Mine weren’t very open-minded about me wandering off into the wilderness for a few weeks. They reminded me that when I actually wandered in the woods for a few hours during summer day-camp, I came home with a tick lodged in my scalp and spent the next week worrying that I’d contracted Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever. They also couldn’t appreciate the advantages of building a sweat lodge in the back yard — although my mom convinced me that a really hot bath would provide similar purification.

Luckily, after I made a strong case for the necessity of a vision quest, they agreed I could try fasting — a crucial component for achieving a trance state. In retrospect, they probably agreed only because they figured I’d never go through with it. But I did.

At several points throughout the Day of the Vision Quest, my mom attempted to undermine my discipline by preparing some of her most awesome meals: cinnamon toast with hot milk poured on top, Campbell’s tomato soup with American cheese and saltine crackers mixed in, and hamburgers prepped with Lipton Onion Soup mix. Despite the temptation and the recurring light-headedness, I remained strong and went to bed without eating a morsel all day. I was ready for my vision.

When the vision came, there were no white owls or golden hawks. There were no animal protectors at all. My vision was of three men wearing black body-suits and black masks, sneaking into our house through my bedroom window. They were, as any kid could tell you, “Bad Guys.” One of them tiptoed close to my bed and spoke to me. I don’t remember what he said, but I’m pretty sure he wasn’t explaining my purpose in life.

I snapped awake, shaking. I knew it was only a nightmare. I knew there were no Bad Guys climbing through my bedroom window. However, the nightmare alerted me to a danger I’d previously overlooked: In this house, unlike in our house in Iowa, my bedroom was on the ground floor … which meant Bad Guys could, in fact, climb through my bedroom window any time the thought occurred to them.

Psychologists tell us the only inborn fears are of heights and loud noises. The psychologists are full of it. Fear of Bedroom Invasion by Bad Guys may not afflict babies, but it develops during childhood as predictably and as naturally as teeth. Parents certainly don’t cause it. We’ve never hinted to our daughters that Bad Guys might show up in the middle of the night. They don’t read books or watch TV shows featuring Bad Guys. And yet soon after we moved to Tennessee, I had the following conversation with my daughter Alana, who was four at the time:

“Do you and Sara like your new bedroom, Alana?”

“Yeah! I really like my tent-bed.”

(Her “tent-bed” is a sleeping nook built into the wall. )

“I really like your tent-bed, too. It’s pretty cool.”

“Yeah, and if a Bad Guy comes into the room, he’ll probably kill Sara first because she’s closer to the door, and then I’ll get away.”

This is from the daughter people refer to as “the sweet one.”

When I was her age, my older brother Jerry performed similar calculations, but his intentions were a bit more heroic. He figured since I slept in the bottom bunk, the Bad Guy would bend down and grab me first. So he kept a butter knife under his pillow and assured me he would plunge it into the Bad Guy’s back.

I found this battle plan comforting. I imagined the Bad Guy staggering wide-eyed around our bedroom, trying desperately to reach over his shoulder and extract the weapon, then finally crumpling to the floor, cursing himself with his last breath for being taken out by a six-year-old wielding a butter knife … or perhaps mumbling, “I @#$%ing hate margarine!”

That image was no comfort now, however, because my brother and his butter knife were sleeping in another room, and there was no top bunk from which to launch a successful ambush.  After fasting all day, I was obviously too weak to take on one Bad Guy, never mind three. And for all I knew, the nightmare was a premonition. The only smart move was to get myself as close as possible to the one person I knew who could kill three Bad Guys: my dad.

When the fear subsided to the point that I was no longer catatonic, I slid out of bed and tiptoed to my parents’ room. Unlike my daughters, I never developed the stealth required to crawl into an adult’s bed without being detected, so my mom woke up immediately.

“What are you doing?”

“I had a nightmare. There were these three Bad Guys–”

“Okay. Shhh. Go to sleep. Tell me about it tomorrow.”

When tomorrow finally came, I ate a hearty breakfast. The vision would have to wait.

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A few nights ago, I was working in my home office when I heard my seven-year-old daughter scream bloody murder from the kitchen. As you might imagine, nothing propels a father from his chair as quickly as his child’s scream. My daughters’ screams have alerted me to fingers pinched in doors, fingers crushed by toilet seats, fingers stung by bees, heads banged against granite counters, heads banged against wooden bookcases, heads banged against other heads, heads stuck in railings, knees scraped by sidewalks, knees punctured by wooden splinters, and toes injured by butter knives, mixing bowls, pantry doors, kitchen chairs, and a Lazy-Boy rocker-recliner.

When I bounded into the kitchen, my daughter Sara was sitting in a chair, crying. My wife was standing behind her, holding a pair scissors and looking stunned. Sara can be quite be a handful, but my wife isn’t the type to resort to stabbing as a form of discipline, so I concluded that both the scissors and the screams probably had something to do with the piles of hair settling beneath Sara’s chair.

As it turned out, Sara had announced she was tired of her long, beautiful hair and asked my wife to cut it short, like her little sister’s. Then, partway into the operation, she had a change of heart — which she explained by screaming. It may be a woman’s prerogative to change her mind, but not halfway through a haircut. So there she sat, sobbing violently, still wearing long hair all around except for a newly-mowed row in the back. That row was roughly two feet shorter.

When we decided to start a family, I wanted daughters. I love having daughters. But as a man, I’m not equipped to handle hair disasters and other female emotional traumas. I literally have no idea what to say. If my daughter was being harassed by a bully or just lost the big game, I could probably offer sage advice, or at least some comforting words. But a hair-disaster meltdown freezes my male brain.

It’s not that I’m clueless about the importance of fine-looking hair. As a balding man, I’ve had an unbroken string of bad hair days dating back to the early 1990s. I don’t like it much, but I’ve never cried about it … even though I didn’t ask anyone to give me the balding look and can’t get my hair back simply by avoiding scissors for a few months. 

Even as a kid, I never had a meltdown over a hair disaster. One Saturday when I was 8 or 9 years old, my dad took me to a old barber near his office for the sake of convenience. Dad had work to do, I’d tagged along, and I needed a haircut. The old barber asked what kind of style I wanted, so I described in great detail how long to leave the bangs, how high to trim around the ears, and how to shape the back. The old man nodded, then pressed his electric clippers against my head and gave me a buzz cut — apparently the only style in his repertoire, and not a popular style during the era of The Beatles.

Did I scream? Have a meltdown? Stay indoors for a month? Nope. I just went home and held my head under a running faucet. Then my older brother informed me that watering your hair doesn’t make it grow any faster, so I put on a baseball cap and got on with my life.

Sara’s hair-disaster meltdown wasn’t even the first I’ve experienced. Several months ago my wife took Alana, our five-year-old, to a stylist for a trim. Alana seemed quite happy with it. We all thought the short hair looked cute on her. Three days later, as we were driving to Chicago, she suddenly burst out crying.

“Honey, what’s wrong?! Are you okay? Alana, what happened?!”

“I …(sob) … I … (sob) … I HATE MY HAAAAAAIR!!”

Just like that, out of nowhere. Times like these, I realize as much as I adore my daughters, I’ll never fully comprehend their little female minds. I tried to imagine what Alana was thinking just before the meltdown.

I’m tired of sitting in this car seat. Mommy says when I’m older I won’t need the car seat. That will be nice. Geez, look at all that corn. There sure is a lot of corn in Indiana. I’ve been staring at corn for hours now. It must’ve been a thousand-hundred minutes since we stopped. I hope we stop soon, because I think I might have to pee-pee. Maybe if we stop soon, Dad will let us have ice cream. We almost never get ice cream. Grandma gives us ice cream, though. I love Grandma. She’s going to be so happy to see us. She’ll probably hug me and say, “Alana, what happened to your hair? It’s so short!” You know, Grandma’s right. My hair is short. It’s too short. It’s way, way, way, too short. It looks awful … I HATE MY HAAAAAAIR!!”

Now it was Sara’s turn to hate her hair. When the sobs subsided enough to allow for coherent speech, she insisted my wife should just back away and leave the disaster as it was. My wife explained that long hair in the front and short hair in the back isn’t a flattering style. So they negotiated and settled for short in the back and somewhat longer in the front. I’ve seen women choose that style on purpose and could never figure out why. It ends up looking like some kind of hair-helmet. I sneaked back to my office to avoid being asked an opinion.

Unfortunately, my wife decided Sara needed reassurance that disaster had been avoided and brought her back for a visit.

“Daddy, look at Sara’s new hair style. Doesn’t she look cute?”

Uh … uh …

The thing is, I’m a terrible liar. The upside is that if I pay you a compliment, you can be sure I mean it. The downside is that people sometimes regret asking for my opinion. It’s not that I’m incapable of lying, but I really hate doing it. It’s a pride thing; my word matters to me.

Years ago, a girlfriend tried a new hairstyle best described as “experimental” — at least three inches longer on one side than on the other (among other horrors), so she appeared to be on the verge of tipping over. I literally said nothing about it, because I couldn’t think of anything nice to say. I simply pretended I hadn’t noticed. But of course, being a woman, she was required by law to drag an opinion out of me soon after I picked her up.

“You didn’t say anything about my hair.”

“No?”

“No.”

“Oh. Sorry. So, you in the mood for Thai food, or maybe Mexican, or -”

“Well?”

“Hmm?”

“Do you like my new haircut or not?”

“Uh … you know … I’d have to say … I like pretty much everything about you. And of course, on top of it all is your hair.”

When my daughter reaches her teens, it’s a given that I’ll become the stupidest man on earth for a few years, and during that time my opinion probably won’t matter much. But for now, I’m still the smartest man on earth and also the man she most loves and admires. And there she was, standing in front of my desk, her eyes pleading for a compliment.

“Daddy, look at Sara’s new hair style. Doesn’t she look cute?”

Uh … uh … oh, just get over it.  It’s her pride that matters, not yours.

“Yes, she does. That’s really cute, Sara.”

“Do you like it, Daddy?”

“Yes, I do. It’s very cute.”

I’m a middle-aged man with two young daughters. Over the years, there will be hair disasters, makeup disasters, clothing disasters, and other disasters I can’t even anticipate, some of which may involve piercings. I don’t like saying nice words I don’t actually mean. But for them, I will.

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Dear Dad:

It’s impossible to explain a father’s influence on his son in something as measly as a letter.  I could write volumes and still have more to say.  So let me just talk about your shoes.

Although more than forty years have passed since I was a little boy, I still remember waiting for you to walk through the front door at night after work.  You were HUGE.  You wore dark suits and serious business shoes, usually black or brown wingtips, polished to a high shine.  You always struck me as being in a bit of a hurry, and when you strode across our wooden floors, those shoes went BOOM-BOOM-BOOM

I wanted to grow up as soon as I could and wear shoes like yours.  Sometimes I would pull a pair of wingtips out of your closet and remove the wooden stretchers – which took some effort for a skinny kid like me – and slip those big shoes over my feet.  I’d try walking in them, stepping carefully to avoid tripping.  I wasn’t big enough to make them BOOM, but I liked the way they looked.

I knew the wingtips were your working shoes.  I didn’t really understand what kind of work you did, but I knew working was how you took care of us.  I knew the dark suits and the booming shoes and the daily trips to your office were the reason we lived in a nice house, and also the reason we didn’t look like the shabbily-dressed kids we saw when Mom took us along for her charity work.

Now and then you took Jerry and me to the office on a Saturday when you needed to catch up on some paperwork.  We enjoyed those office trips, partly because of the old-fashioned soda dispenser, the kind with rows of metal rails that held the bottles upright by the necks. For a dime – you always seemed to have dimes in your pocket – we could slide a bottle along those rails and out the side to release it. The lid was heavy and you had to hold it up for us.  But that was easy for you because you were HUGE.

I liked the way your office smelled … like paper and ink.  I liked the starkness of the fluorescent lights.  I liked looking at the photo on your wall of someone handing you a plaque and shaking your hand.  I knew that whatever you did, you were good at it, good enough that people wanted to shake your hand.  When I sat and did math exercises at my desk in school, I pretended I was in my own office, doing important work that would make someone want to shake my hand.

I don’t know exactly when I decided I didn’t want to grow up and be just like you. Certainly by the time I enrolled in college, I knew I’d never be happy wearing dark suits and working in an office.  I rejected your advice about majoring in accounting.  I explained, somewhat hesitantly, that accounting might appeal to you, but I’d be bored out of my mind.

That’s when I began to realize you didn’t want me to grow up and be just like you, either.  When I chose pre-med for my major, you said that’s great, go for it, I’ll support you.  When I switched to psychology, you said that’s great, go for it, I’ll support you.  When I switched again to journalism as a junior, you said that’s great, go for it, I’ll support you. 

I’d like to say you were simply doing what any father would do, but I already knew that wasn’t true.  I had a girlfriend whose father disowned her when she switched her major from business to art; without any support from him, she graduated swimming in student-loan debt.  In high school I had a classmate who’d been told from birth he was going to be a doctor like his father, period, end of discussion.  He flunked organic chemistry in college and committed suicide.

When I had some humorous essays published after college, your golfing buddies told me how much they enjoyed reading them.  I was proud to be published, but more proud to know you’d been bragging about me to your friends.  When I announced I was going to quit my magazine job and go freelance, you said that’s great, go for it, I’ll support you – after all, you had quit a comfortable corporate job to run your own business and understood the drive to be independent.

And so, in a fit of optimism, I struck out on my own … and fell flat on my face.  That’s when I found out what “support” truly means.

It was embarrassing to spend part of my adult life living off loans from you, loans I knew you would never let me repay.  It’s still embarrassing when I think about it.  But I believe things happen for a reason; and even if they don’t, we can find our own reasons in them. 

Unlike Mom, you were never comfortable being affectionate. Until you became a grandpa, it took a couple of tall drinks to pry the words “I love you” from your lips.  I knew you loved me, but I didn’t fully understand that you love me, period, no matter what, just like Mom. 

I kept expecting one of those loans to come with a lecture attached, firm instructions to wise up, let go of my childish dreams, go get a real job as a sales rep.  But that never happened.   When you said anything at all, it was along the lines of, “Don’t worry.  Do something you love, and be the best at it. Things will get better.”  Those years, painful as they were, finally made it clear to me that you didn’t just support me.  You supported me.

I’m happy with my life, Dad.  It’s been a thrill to play in a band, act in plays, publish humor in magazines, travel the country as a standup comedian, and produce a film.  But without you behind me, I wouldn’t have done half of those things.  At some point, I would’ve given up.

I once asked another comedian what his parents thought of his act.  He said they’d never seen him perform; they didn’t think standup comedy was a respectable career, and they weren’t going to encourage him by showing up.  He asked if you and Mom had seen my act.  I just said yes; I didn’t think it would be polite to say, “Yes, many times, and they bring their friends.”

You didn’t choose my path, and I didn’t follow in your footsteps.  But when I look back, I realize I’ve worn your shoes many times. 

When I left a secure job to pursue my own goals, I was wearing your shoes. When I wrote clearly and powerfully, I was wearing your shoes.  When I made people laugh out loud with a witty observation, I was wearing your shoes.  When I worked and re-worked a programming project to get it exactly right, believing that “good enough” isn’t good enough, I was wearing your shoes.  Every time I returned money to someone who accidentally overpaid me, or gave to a charity, or helped someone in distress without expecting anything in return, I was wearing your shoes.

These past few years have not been kind to you, Dad.  Cancer, Alzheimer’s and age have diminished your body and your mind.  Your quick steps have slowed to a shuffle.  I’ve had to hold your arm and help you navigate the single step from the garage into the house so you don’t trip over it.  On some days, you don’t recognize Mom and have to ask who she is.  I know the next time I visit, you may not know who I am.

But I know who I am.  I’m your son.  And in my mind, you’ll always be huge … and you’ll always BOOM when you walk.

I love you, Dad.  Thanks for the shoes.

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Dear Mom,

You said after you and Dad retired that you hoped to discover your purpose in life someday.  Since you’ve read rather a lot on spiritual topics, you already know that people who’ve had near-death experiences often recount being told to return to their lives, and to remember that the purpose of an earthly life is to love, to learn, and to teach.

If that’s true (and I like to think it is) then you’ve already been living your purpose, even if you’re unaware of it.  

When I was attending Illinois State, I met some of your former students, and they all thought you were a marvelous teacher.  I could’ve told them that.  I’ve been attending the Shirley Naughton School of Moms for five decades.  Here’s just some of what I’ve learned:

Pre-preschool:  Moms are warm and sweet, and they kiss you a lot because they love you.  When you grow up, you will probably marry Mom.

Preschool:  Moms don’t like it if you use your crayons to create an artistic expression on the bricks.  If you draw on the bricks, Mom will make sure you learn how to remove crayon marks with a toothbrush.  She will still love you, though.

Kindergarten:  Moms know how to make buttered toast with cinnamon and sugar and hot milk poured on top.  This is quite possibly the best breakfast ever invented.

First Grade:  If you don’t wear your scarf and hat, you’ll get an earache.  Moms warn you about these things because they love you.

Second Grade:  If you get an earache, it’s okay to wake up Mom in the middle of the night and tell her about it.  She’ll hug you and kiss you so you’ll feel better.  The next day, she’ll take you to the doctor.  He’ll put oily stuff in your ears.  And you should’ve worn your scarf and hat.

Third Grade:  Moms know how to take an ordinary can of Spaghetti-Os and turn it into the best lunch ever invented.  They do this by mixing in pieces of hot dogs.  It’s a lot of work, but they do it anyway because they love you.

Fourth Grade:  Really good Moms become den mothers for a bunch of Cub Scouts.  They teach you techniques for creating modern art, such as gluing split peas to a jelly glass and spray-painting the whole thing gold.  You can give these masterpieces to your grandparents.

Fifth Grade:  Moms don’t like slugs.  If you find a slug on the sidewalk, you definitely should not put it on the kitchen counter shortly before Mom walks in to cook.  Hearing your mother scream isn’t as much fun as you might think.  If you do put a slug on the kitchen counter, Mom will still love you.

Sixth Grade:  If you learn a new song at school, Mom would like to hear you sing it. If you sing really well, your Mom will say so.  If you don’t sing really well, she’ll say you do anyway.  You probably shouldn’t judge your talents based on what Mom says.

Seventh Grade:  If they are surprised, Moms can forget what their own kids look like.  If you forget your homework, you probably should not let yourself into the house through the garage door and surprise Mom coming out of the bathroom.  In this situation, Moms often mistake their kids for axe murderers.  If you do grow up and become an axe murderer, your Mom will still love you and tell people you’re just confused.

Eighth Grade:  Moms love dogs.  They also love hamsters and guinea pigs.  If you want any of these animals for pets, you should go straight to Mom.

Ninth Grade:  If you make Mom angry enough, she’ll spank you.  This isn’t much of a concern, however, because it doesn’t hurt.  Also, it will probably only happen two or three times in your entire life.

Tenth Grade:  Good Moms love your friends and feed them better meals than they get at home.  They also talk to your friends as if they have brains, which is true in most cases.  This means your friends will want to spend a lot of time at your house.

Eleventh Grade:  Moms are smart!  They can go to college and learn about English literature and philosophy.  The good news is that if you’ve also been reading literature and philosophy, you can enjoy talking to Mom about those subjects.  The bad news is that sometimes you’ll end up talking until 2:00 in the morning and spend the next day feeling tired and not all that philosophical.

Twelfth Grade:  If you’re studying literature in school, you should raid Mom’s library and see if she’s already read whatever book you’ve been assigned.  If she has, you could almost write a term paper on what you glean from the notes she scribbled in the margins.  At the very least, you’ll have some interesting points to raise in class and impress the teacher.

College, First Year:  Moms love you and don’t care what you plan to do for a living as long as you’re happy.

College, Second Year:  Moms don’t mind if your band practices in the basement.  They like hearing the same song fifty or sixty times in one week.

College, Third Year:  Moms love you and don’t care what you plan to do for a living as long as you’re happy.

College, Fourth Year:  When you come home for weekends and holidays, Moms celebrate by making Beef Bourguignon.  This is the best dinner ever invented and only takes a couple of days to whip together.

College, Fifth Year:  Moms love you and don’t care what you plan to do for a living as long as you’re happy.

Early Twenties:  When your best friend is getting married, Moms will make moussaka for the rehearsal party.  This is the second-best dinner ever invented and only takes a couple of days to whip together.  The next morning, it’s also the best breakfast ever invented.

Later Twenties:  If you write a play, Mom will be reasonably sure you’ve established yourself as a literary genius. 

Thirty:  Moms don’t care if you can’t find anything to do for a living as long as you’re not completely miserable.  Moms will assure you that if you follow your dreams, something good will happen.

Early Thirties:  Moms are good to your girlfriends and can even miss them when you decide you didn’t actually mean to get engaged.  Some girlfriends will tell you they wish they’d had your Mom instead of theirs.

Mid Thirties:  Moms make excellent comedic material.  If you can’t make people laugh by talking about your Mom, you’d better find another career to pursue.

Later Thirties:  Great Moms make great Grandmas.  Contrary to what some little grandsons believe, grandmothers don’t necessarily live in little houses that smell bad, and it can make you feel warm and fuzzy to see how much your nephews like going to grandma’s house.

Forties:  Little boys don’t actually grow up and marry their Moms.  But when the lucky ones grow up, they do get married and are almost ridiculously happy because they learned how to love and be loved – from Mom.

Happy Mother’s Day, Mom.  You really are a marvelous teacher.

I love you.

Tom

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I got married relatively late in life, and now I have two little girls.  As a parent, you look forward to passing on all your accumulated wisdom to your children. It’s a little early for that, but in the meantime, I’ve learned quite a few lessons from them. Here are a few samples:

  • If something is delicious, eat it without hesitation or guilt – and don’t assume anything isn’t delicious until you’ve plucked it from the floor and tasted it.
  • If you’re bored, don’t sit around and mope … re-arrange your environment! You can start by dumping all the books on the floor, which will encourage you to begin that alphabetizing project you’ve been putting off.
  • After a good nap, things that upset you a couple of hours ago won’t seem so bad.
  • Don’t take glorious sights like a full moon for granted just because they’re common. Bounce up and down, point to it and yell, “Moon! Moon! Moon!” This will help others appreciate it as well.
  • Chewing on a box of food is almost as much fun as eating the real thing, especially if there’s a picture on it. Cardboard is a low-carbohydrate food, plus you’ll burn a few calories gnawing on it.
  • If you try over and over and over, you’ll go places and get your hands on things the bigger and smarter people swore you couldn’t.
  • When you get hurt, cry with gusto for about two minutes, then forget the whole thing and move on to something else.
  •  Anything in your environment can be a toy if you decide it is. Boxes, paper towels, shoe strings, feminine napkins, entire rolls of toilet paper – they can all provide hours of entertainment with a little imagination. (And if you’re relatively dexterous, you can stick the napkins to your chin and tell people you’re growing a beard.
  • When you talk about the people you love, focus on the positive. For example, “I like leaning on Daddy’s belly, because it’s big and soft like a pillow.”
  •  When you hear a song you like, wave your arms, stomp your feet, and shake your booty with abandon. If other people laugh at you, that’s their problem.
  •  When you’re hurt, the people who really love you will hug and kiss you, even if you don’t smell very good at the time.
  •  If no one’s kissed you lately – even though you smell fabulous – you can always kiss your reflection in the mirror. You can also talk to the mirror when other people don’t understand what you’re saying.
  •  If the people you live with are always hogging the remote, hide it from them. Under the sofa is a good spot.
  •  If you spread a few cashews around when you have more than you need, they’ll turn up later in unexpected places, and this will make you happy.
  •  When you give advice, use clear examples. If your little sister is chewing on her hair, you could say something like, “Don’t chew on your hair! You’ll go bald like Daddy!”
  •  A fancy vocabulary is overrated. A short sentence with simple words can often say everything that needs saying.
  •  Whenever you try something new, there’s a good chance you’ll fall down and bump your head. But even a baby knows that’s no reason to quit.
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