Friday, December 28, 2012

O Christmas Tree

I'm not sure where the tradition of putting up a Christmas tree got its start. I've read the biblical Christmas account numerous times, and I know every line of A Christmas Story, but nowhere in either of those seminal works of holiday lore do I see an explanation for why perfectly warm human beings would leave the comfort of their homes in November or December and travel to a remote tree farm (or busy, annoyingly lit department store) and choose a small pine tree to grace their living rooms.

At my house, I've come to realize that the tree provides a measure of protection for the presents. Being forced to negotiate a tangle of Christmas lights and synthetic branches forces my kids to think twice about sneaking off with the gifts.

What the tree does not protect is the ornaments. There was a time when the tree was covered with the many ornaments of my childhood. They had been preserved by my parents for the day when I would have my own home (and pay my own electric bill, grocery bill, etc). There was a miniature metal bike, representing the year I learned to ride a bike (and symbolizing a time when things were actually made of metal.) There was a small rubber dinosaur, representing my early affection for prehistoric beasts.

When my kids were very young, we held off their curiosity by moving the ornaments higher up the tree. Yes, it looked silly to have half the tree bare, but it was better than finding an 18-month old with a mouth full of stuffing from a plush snowman ornament.

But my kids' ascent to full upward mobility happened with startling rapidity, and this year we realized it was futile to place the ornaments at the top of the tree, as that would only encourage adventurous attempts to reach the ornaments by balancing on the edge of a chair. So we chose only the sturdiest of our ornaments to adorn the tree, leaving the more fragile mementos safely packaged.

Not that it mattered. The tree was still a museum of oddities by the end of its first week. My dinosaur ornament found itself attempting to devour a bird ornament. The fake candy canes all ended up scattered among the presents under the tree--presumably after being tested for flavor and found wanting. Baby Jesus, who as I mentioned before has no business being near the tree, found himself sitting in a fire truck ornament I'd received when I turned six.

So as we end another Christmas season, I find myself staring at the Christmas tree and wondering. What does it really stand for? Who started this tradition? Would it really matter if it didn't get taken down until April? And why is there a pair of underwear on that angel's head?

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Wild Horses

I've decided to go all in for Father of the Year this year. I know it's getting late, and I know it will take a lot of work to make up for taking most of the Halloween candy and for leveling my daughter in a game of backyard soccer, but I really think I've struck something big: I'm going to make my daughter a rocking horse for Christmas.

Before you protest that I have no construction skills and that it will probably end up looking like a rocking platypus, let me remind you of my building prowess, which up to now has gone mostly undocumented for legal and insurance reasons.

Just a few years ago,I built a grow-lab for starting our garden vegetables. Here I am joining 2x4s with a three-inch galvanized screw while my four-year-old looks on. This structure now helps nurture my young tomatoes before they can be put outside. (My parents still think I use it to grow weed.)

And here is the tree fort I built this spring, which I would prefer you not mention to my homeowner's insurance company.

So I'm confident that I can fashion a few pieces of plywood into a movable horse. Plus my daughter absolutely went nuts when she saw one at a toy store the other day, and there's no way I'm shelling out 99 bucks for that thing.

My confidence in this endeavor (some would say cockiness) has led me to even consider some modifications on the traditional rocking horse design. (I could be accused of making the proverbial error of counting my chickens before they've hatched--or counting my horses before they've hatched in this case, which of course just makes me sound like an idiot.)

My first idea was a rocking unicorn. Experienced parents are slowing shaking their heads. Heck even inexperienced teenagers are facepalming themselves right now. The same issue plagued my rocking Triceratops and rocking horned dragon.

I want this project to have my own unique stamp on it--something that tells my daughter that her daddy made it just for her. Maybe the Platypus wouldn't be such a bad idea...

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Looth Tooth

My six-year-old got his first loose tooth the other day. Like many parents of boys, I was initially skeptical about whether he had come about this naturally, rather than as a result of jumping from the top bunk onto his brother. Six seemed early to already be losing one’s teeth.

But my musings about how the tooth had been jarred from its moorings were interrupted by my wife. “Are we going to do, you know, the Tooth Fairy thing?” I was speechless. I thought we wouldn’t have to make any potentially life-altering child rearing decisions again until girlfriends started calling. But there I was, pondering the existence of a midnight wanderer in a tutu.

I have to be honest; we’ve been pretty inconsistent in recognizing the figments of our culture’s imagination. We’ve introduced Santa Claus, but only as a character in a story, not as a prowler who slinks into our living room once a year and leaves presents behind. The Easter Bunny has been completely ignored, as I never could determine its connection to Jesus Christ.

But I haven’t thought about the Tooth Fairy since I was, like, nine. My image of her was something between Tinker Bell and that Bippity boopity boo chick from Cinderella. And I have no need for some mini-skirt clad hussy flittering around my kid’s bed offering him money. 

There’s the question of cleanliness too. Isn’t it sending mixed messages to teach my son to wash his hands and sort his laundry and then turn around and ask him to put a decaying tooth under his pillow?

Finally I have to think about his impressions of money. I guess it depends on your political persuasion, but most folks don’t think money is something that just shows up after you’ve done nothing but put in a good night’s sleep. 

Whatever I choose, I have to do it quickly. This thing is hanging by a thread, and I know it’s only a matter of time before some wrestling match or acrobatic routine shakes it out.

Monday, September 3, 2012

A Whole New World

I had hoped that by being raised with two older brothers and their respective dinosaurs, knights, and mud puddles, my daughter would turn out to be a tomboy. You know—the kind that isn’t afraid of spiders and would just as soon knock a boy down as hold his hand.

It appears I’ve failed. She’s only two, but she insists (depending on the day) that her favorite colors are pink and purple. She has tea parties for the dinosaurs and knights, and she’s totally gone for princesses. 

 The princesses are a problem. I know I should encourage her interests, but according to the Happily Ever After Princess Storybook we got at the library, princesses don’t win their men with dizzying intellect or feats of bravery. They just have to make sure their feet fit into the proper shoe. Or they have to be willing to put up with a man being a complete beast for a while. Or they can lie around laconically waiting for a kiss. Or they can wear a ridiculously low-cut top and allow themselves to be whisked about on a magic carpet.

I have no problem with my little girl dancing around in a dress and picking flowers all day. But if she encounters a troupe of short old men with long beards, I want her to be able to handle herself. She can still act like a princess, but I’m thinking more like Xena, Warrior Princess. 

With a turtleneck, of course.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Trust Me...

Kids are generally very trusting. I suspect it's because they are unaware of the existence of lawyers. This is why, for instance, children have to be taught not to take candy from strangers. Most adults would look warily at a bedraggled stranger sitting on a park bench proffering sweet tarts and move to the other side of the road. The same man could be carrying an axe and kids would still say, "but he's got candy."

In the same way, my kids have an undying trust in me, despite my introducing solid foods far too early and not bothering to put those silly plastic covers on our outlets. My two-year-old daughter in particular relies on my judgment regularly, not having gathered any long term historical data against me.

On a recent trip to the beach, I thought it would be a good idea to sprint down a 100 foot sand dune with her in tow. She readily assented, without considering the implications of my considerably greater size on the force of any crash landing partway down the hill.

At some point I'll have to teach her not to say yes to just any guy who asks her to run down a sand dune with him (and the accompanying jujitsu moves if he attempts to hold her hand). But I was thrilled to have a companion for my sprint. As veteran parents know, you can get away with countless un-adult activities provided there is a toddler present. Our run started well, both of us gaining speed as our bare feet sunk into the warm sand. Within moments, though, I realized that my daughter had switched from running to something akin to skipping. But with her tiny hand enveloped in mine, she no doubt felt secure touching the ground only once every six feet as we hurtled downhill.

I suppose the faceplant was inevitable. My daughter is not a gazelle, and gravity is a poor companion when you're on a steep decline. In one moment I was carrying her through the air as she jumped along with my loping strides. In the next moment, she was picking sand out of her swimsuit.

So while my Father of the Year application will probably be delayed once again, I know my daughter has great memories of the first three-fourths of our run down the sand dune. I just hope she forgets how it ended, so she'll trust me when I take her out dressed as a ballerina in October to ask strangers for candy. 

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Polar Plunge

At some point, almost every child has a well-meaning adult pull him aside and warn him of the dangers of video games. As a child who grew up playing Zelda and Mario Brothers (at my friends’ houses, because we didn’t have a Nintendo...or a microwave for that matter) I’ve heard the warnings about kids whose eyes were stuck open from staring at screens for too long or whose fingers bled from pushing the jump button too many times. None of us thought video games could really hurt us though.

As a parent, I’m trying to take a moderate view on video games. So far my stance can be summed up this way: No video game shall ever enter my house or be played by my children under any circumstances. See what I mean by moderate? Today, however, I decided to relax my rules a bit and let my six-year-old try a computer game. I made my way to a website that has dozens of free, supposedly educational children’s video games, where I chose “Penguin Drop” because it had a cool picture of a penguin wearing a parachute. I figured there was probably even some math lesson in there somewhere.

Imagine my bewilderment, then, when the game loaded and a polar bear appeared sitting on an iceberg with a cannon pointed at the sky and a pile of little frozen cannonballs next to him. Then, as you may have already guessed, the penguins (wearing parachutes) began to drop. At first, my son (who apparently does not know how a polar bear would normally respond if penguin paratroopers began landing on his ice floe) just watched. Once three penguins landed with the polar bear, the digital ice broke, and the game was over.

“What am I supposed to do, Daddy?”
“I think you’re supposed to shoot the penguins.”

So the second time, I helped him by aiming the cannon with the arrow keys, while he pushed the space bar to blast the invading penguins from the sky. I have to admit the game grew on me quickly. I raced to swivel the polar bear’s armaments across the horizon while my son pounded the space bar. Soon, however, I realized a few important things:

1. Penguins and Polar Bears don’t actually live anywhere near each other.
2. If they did, the phenomenon I was watching would be blamed on global warming
3. There was no math, reading, or anything else remotely educational about the game.
4. The game was a lot like space invaders.
5. I would have a much better chance of winning without a six-year-old at the trigger.

So I let my son clear the air a few more times, and then sent him off to bed. An hour later, my eyes were dry from staring at the screen, sores were forming on my fingertips, and I could actually feel my IQ dropping. But there were a whole bunch of penguins dropping too. I’m sure my son will ask to play again soon. Next time, I get the space bar. 

I probably shouldn't be surprised that he likes defending the iceberg against penguins

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Only Cavemen Can Write on the Walls

Do you remember making dioramas in school? They probably involved a cardboard box, a few lessons about habitats, and begging your mom for craft supplies. I made my first diorama in third grade for an open house. This was back when open houses meant your parents came to your school to inspect your work. If you made a convincing case, you could generally count on a trip to the ice cream shop afterward. So this was a big deal. Anyway, my diorama involved turned a shoe box into a desert, I think because we had a sand box in the back yard, which meant half my work was already done. I stole a camel from the nativity set (The wise men were already there. What did they need a camel for?) and borrowed my mother’s compact mirror to look like a pool of water in the middle of the desert. (Or in case the camel needed to reapply mascara.) I don’t remember what grade my teacher gave me, but I’m sure I got ice cream.

Not wanting my kids to miss out on this childhood pleasure, I had them use a Safari Ltd Toob to recreate a prehistoric world. We used the Prehistoric Life set, which includes a dozen small figures from the Pleistocene epoch. How do you pronounce Pleistocene, you say? I have no idea. I had to look it up just to have a shot at spelling it right. Here’s a look at the toys: 

You won't see these at the zoo
First we got out our encyclopedias to figure out which of these creatures should be eating the trees and which ones should be eating each other. Yes, we have encyclopedias in the house. Yes, I know there is a thing called the Internet. But I don’t need my six-year-old seeing ads with women in bathing suits trying to sell a granola bar or whatever.
Brennen finding information without seeing advertisements for online dating sites

Then we got out the glue, which led to an immediate feeding frenzy. Why do kids assume glue tastes good? In fact, how do kids innately know that some things taste better than others? Put a plate of carrots and a bowl of jelly beans in front of a child, and they go for the jelly beans every time. But I digress. Some of the glue actually made it where it needed to go.  

Princess Glue Stick
Sir Sticks-a-lot
Check that. A lot of glue. No amount of coaching can get a two- and four-year-old to use less glue. If the bottle is not empty, they need to apply more glue. Or eat more of it.

Once we had the thing looking colorful, the kids grabbed rocks, sticks, and leaves from the yard, driveway, and my wife’s landscaping to give their diorama a more realistic feel. 

My three children deciding the fate of a Woolly Mammoth

Then came the tough part: deciding where to put all the realistic replicas. My oldest insisted that each animal be engaged in some sort of life-or-death duel with another figure (including the Saber Tooth Tiger battling a volcano). My daughter wanted every animal blissfully munching leaves. In the end, we didn’t glue down the animals at all, so everybody can play with the diorama as they wish: Death Match, Vegetarian Delight, or anything in between.

Brennen insists that one of the animals should fly

As you can see, the final product looks great! Plus the kids have a toy they can rearrange and play with over and over again. I was so impressed, I decided to take them out for ice cream. Maybe it will mask the glue flavor.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Play Ball

I’ve decided it’s time to teach my oldest son how to play baseball. It’s not that I have delusions that he’ll someday turn out to be a highly paid professional ballplayer and buy me a beach house (although I wouldn’t turn down the offer). Rather, I think young boys should know how to handle themselves around a baseball bat and be aware that a slider isn’t just the name of a disgusting sandwich from White Castle.

Now, when I was growing up, my brothers and any neighborhood kids we could rope in played ball in what you might call a nonstandard field. It sloped uphill, with a large pine tree between second and third base, a boat parked in center field, and a steep ravine behind home plate. Game stoppages to chase wild pitches through patches of poison ivy were common. We also had a few special rules to make up for the fact that we usually couldn’t scare up more than eight players at a time. If you’ve never heard of pitcher’s hand out, opposite field out, and ghost runners, you’ve lived an overly sheltered life.

The first game between my six-year-old and me was going great. Then I hit a double off the roof of the shed in our backyard and stood on second while he approached me to tag me out. “Ghost runner on second” I called, and began trotting back home.

“Daddy,” my son called in a quivering voice. I turned to see a look of confusion and sorrow on his face. “I think you’re cheating. There’s no one on second.”

The explanation that followed could go toe-to-toe with any calculus lecture in complexity. No, I wasn’t cheating. No, there wasn’t anyone on second. No, he couldn’t tag me out even though I was walking back to home plate. No, I didn’t make this rule up just now. Yes, he could have ghost runners too.

My son must have seen some inherent disadvantage in this new rule, because he immediately asserted that we could each have only one ghost runner. Maybe he was nervous about being surrounded by phantoms while pitching.

We continued our game in peace with no further accusations of cheating. He won, 10-8, but I was robbed of a few runs when he insisted that a ball I drove over the neighbor’s fence was an out rather than a home run, because there was no way for him to retrieve the ball.

It’s okay though. It’s not like I’m trying to recover any lost glory days by smacking Wiffle balls into the next yard. If this keeps up, I’ll be smacking them into Lake Michigan from my lavish retirement villa.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Around the World in 80 Minutes

“Daddy, what’s inside the Parthenon?” Questions like these have replaced “Why is grass green” at my house thanks to the Around the World Toob® from Safari Ltd®.  The educational possibilities of this collection are almost unlimited, and my kids are drawn to the beautiful replicas.

Around the World
 We started by using the Around the World figures to make matching cards, which are popular in many elementary classrooms.  In this case, we have colorful replicas in place of pictures. I wrote cards with the name of each wonder and its country. Then my six-year-old worked on matching them up.

Brennen tries to remember where Big Ben is located
He was thrilled when he was able to match each of the ten figures to its name and country. Then we practiced saying the name of each wonder. Fortunately Machu Picchu wasn't included in this group, or I'd have been in trouble.

Then we brought out our world map. My four-year-old joined us for this, and both boys enjoyed trying to locate the country where each figure belongs and place it on the map. Although we have a large world map, this would work with any sized map, as the figures are just a few inches wide at most. 

Caleb sets the Empire State Building in New York
This turned out to be a wonderful group activity, as my oldest gave the name and country for each replica and his little brother tried to find it on the map. I was no help at all, as I spent the whole time trying to figure out why my camera batteries kept dying. A few minutes later, they had each model in the right place, and were they ever proud of their work!

Emily joins in for a group shot
So in one morning, my kids learned some history and some geography while playing and having fun. I learned what's inside my camera, which was far less fun. Now if I can only figure out what's inside the Parthenon.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Call of Duty or Honor or Whatever

You know that scene from epic guy movies where a muscular hero wipes out an invading horde of bad guys with like a butter knife, and then he’s standing there surveying the carnage, and says in a deep, gravelly voice, “My father taught me that duty and honor are more important than anything”? 

Well, as a father of two impressionable young boys that I would love to raise to be epic heroes someday, what I want to know is how do I get that deep, gravelly voice? I mean, how cool would it be to teach a kid to tie his shoes, and then tell him in a deep, gravelly voice, “Son, always remember that the rabbit goes around the bush and then into its hole.” He’d never forget that lesson. At the same time, I’d also like to know when those lessons about duty and honor are supposed to be worked into the conversation. 

I thought I’d discovered the perfect opportunity a few days ago when my kids were playing outside, and my youngest son began to cry because he’d fallen off his bike. (It’s about three inches from his seat to the ground, so why this is cause for tears is beyond me, but we must be sensitive, mustn’t we?) Anyway, the exchange that followed went like this:

Me (After clearing my throat repeatedly in search of my best James Earl Jones voice): “Son, going to aid your brother in his time of need would be honorable.”

Six-year-old: “Daddy, you sound funny.”

That went well. At some point I should probably consider the wisdom of trying to model my parenting techniques after the fictional fathers of half-naked male characters from guy movies who spend their time eviscerating their foes and sharpening their butter knives. That deep, gravelly voice on the other hand…maybe I’ll find something for that in my spam folder.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Tangled and Tied

You know those people who can take a piece of kite string and fashion a knot capable of suspending a grand piano in midair? Then they further insult you by saying, “Yeah, that’s a mid-shipman’s half hitch slip noose with a breaking point of seven tons.”

Having never been in Boy Scouts, Eagle Scouts, Little League, or wherever people learn these critical life skills, I can barely keep my own shoes tied. So I was thrilled when my five-year-old son recently learned to tie knots.

This has opened up some exciting new possibilities for him. Just the other day, for example, I pulled a pair of boots from my closet, only to find that it was tied to five other pairs of boots. Why do I have six pairs of boots, you ask? Shut up. That’s not the point.

Being able to tie knots, my son can now be expected to perform simple tasks like tying his own shoes and changing the oil. So far, though, he has yet to use his new power for good. Yesterday, while I thought he was playing quietly in his room, (No child, by the way, is ever just playing quietly in his room; it has taken me five years and three children to learn this) he removed all the laces from his shoes and roped every one of his dinosaur toys together into some kind of prehistoric chain gang.

This led to a daddy rendition of that “With great power comes great responsibility” speech from Spiderman, which I completely botched, because I could only think of the beer ad: “With great beer comes great responsibility.” My Father of the Year application will have to be postponed again. In the meantime, my son apparently needs a more constructive hobby. Maybe I’ll have him join Boy Scouts.

Friday, March 30, 2012

On the Road. Again.

A little over a year ago, my family moved from Minnesota to Michigan. We traded bitterly cold Minnesota winters plagued by Canadian winds for the heavy lake effect snows of Michigan winters. At least we gained a beach in the deal. Although my boys were only four and two, the trip through five states in a moving truck remains the highlight of their lives. This is probably because I was in charge of the eating arrangements in the truck, which meant we mostly ate powdered donuts and jelly beans. Never in their lives have they been able to ask for another donut so many times and have the answer be yes. Although it’s been 18 months now, my sons will still sidle up to me from time to time and whisper, “Daddy, remember the ride in the moving truck?”

 This may be why my sons so desperately want to move again. The boxes had barely been unpacked (who am I kidding; they’re still not all unpacked) when they began asking if we could move a second time. This time they wanted to go to Indiana. I’m guessing they chose the Hoosier state because it’s one of the few states they can name.

I have nothing against Indiana, but I don’t want to move there. I see Indiana as more of a place that you drive through to get somewhere else than as a destination. So not knowing how my sons’ little hearts were set on making an interstate move, I turned them down, suggesting we enjoy our new house in Michigan before moving again.

Not to be deterred, my boys moved anyway. One morning while I was still in bed wondering why no young boys had jumped on top of me yet, they packed up their things and left. Every toy, puzzle, game, and article of clothing in their shared bedroom was taken one by one to Indiana, which was conveniently located in the basement.

I eventually made my way to their now empty room, where I beheld nothing but furniture (which I presume they would have also moved if they were a little stronger). My subdued early morning surprise gave way to resignation as I realized how we would be spending the next few hours of the morning.

The basement looked a lot like Indiana. After a massive tornado. Apparently the movers had not been careful in the unpacking process, so all of my boys’ earthly possessions were scattered throughout the room. This isn’t really something a father should get angry about, so I helped them move again, this time back to their bedroom in Michigan.

When we were all finished, we went out for donuts, just for old time’s sake. 

Thursday, March 15, 2012


I played chess with my two-year-old daughter yesterday. Before you think I’m raising the next Bobby Fischer, I should let you know that she is only aware of the game’s existence because her older brother plays. She also has her own set of rules, which makes for an exciting and interesting challenge.

We began by setting up the pieces. Now, I’m no chess purist; I really don’t mind if someone calls the rook a castle, and it does not even bother me that much if someone refers to knights as horses. However, my daughter’s naming system raised some eyebrows.

First we set up the “babies” (pawns) in the front row. I like to think I’m open minded, but I think something is wrong with using babies as the first line of defense against attacking hordes. This is chess, not France. Then we set up the back row, with the aforementioned castles and horsies. Next came the fighter jets. I’m not sure how a bishop can be thought to look like a fighter jet, but it really does make the piece sound far more exciting. Last came the princesses. Yes, princesses. My daughter insisted the King and Queen both shed their royal titles and become female. She might be on to something though, as I can think of far more reasons to chase a princess around the board than to chase a slow-moving king.

Once that was accomplished, we began playing. At first, my daughter’s strategy was fairly simple: she did whatever I did. But after a few moves, she grew tired of copying me and started making more unconventional moves. Imagine my surprise when her rook left its home in the back row behind a pawn, leaping across the board diagonally to take out my queen—or princess if you prefer.

Then she increased the pressure by moving several times in succession. It makes it difficult to formulate a strategy when your opponent can move three different pieces into position before you get a chance to respond. I attempted to counter her moves, but the body count was increasing quickly on my side of the board.

Finally came the coup de grace. My two-year-old girl grabbed my king (the other princess) and moved it directly off the board to the pile of captured pieces. Apparently my pieces were now abdicating. Enjoying my surprised response to this move, my daughter proceeded to remove the rest of my pieces in turn, while I watched them pile up like bodies during a medieval plague outbreak. 

The end came quickly and mercifully when my last baby stepped off the board to join its infant kin, and my daughter declared herself the victor by reaching across the board, saying, “Good game, Daddy.”

Even though I was bested by this out-of-the-box strategic mastermind, I can’t wait to play her again. I’m interested to see what she comes up with next.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Pass the Kleenex

Have you ever noticed that young children perpetually have runny noses? Of course not. That’s gross to even think about. So you’ll have to take my word for it that kids get sick a lot. Like if colds were cheeseburgers, they’d all be on America’s Biggest Loser.

The primary reason for this, of course, is that young children routinely taste dirt, other children’s toys, and shoes. You know how some large stores have antiseptic wipes next to their shopping carts? That’s not so you can protect your child from the germs of the previous cart user, it’s so you can wipe off the bacteria colony left behind after your child licks the entire cart handle.

Parents with multiple kids are left with no choice once one child becomes sick. The rest are sure to fall; it’s only a matter of time. It’s sorta like a really bad sci-fi movie where some mysterious plague strikes a city’s birds, and before you know it the government is nuking an entire state to wipe out the disease.

But with kids, some parents make a conscious decision to spread colds as quickly as possible among them, knowing that having them all sick for two days is far better than having one sick kid every two days until the next leap year, as the virus slowly mutates and recycles its victims.

So don’t be surprised next time you see a family at the grocery store with three sick kids. They’re actually doing you a favor. But don’t follow them into the shoe aisle either.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Art Attack

Scientists would have us believe that there is a vast ring of debris, an asteroid belt they call it, somewhere a few miles beyond Mars. Well, there is a vast ring of debris floating around out there, but it’s not chucks of rock and ice. It’s made of countless pictures created by children to be hung their parents’ refrigerators.

You see, toddlers create pictures at an astounding rate. (Paradoxically, artists who wish to be paid for a living struggle to produce a decent drawing once a month.) It doesn’t matter if you have a dorm room mini-fridge or a walk-in freezer; a single toddler can fill every square inch of surface with a vast array of shapes, lines, and colors that only he can interpret.

What would look to the average adult like a series of crooked purple lines inside a blue oval is, to its creator, Noah’s ark. And even more amazingly, a child who can’t remember where he put his brother’s left sock five minutes ago can remember each and every picture he has drawn, and will notice if one is missing.

I discovered this when I made room for a fresh batch of drawings by removing some old pictures and placing them in the garbage. I may as well have thrown away my son’s favorite blanket, stuffed animal, and shirt for the look he gave me when he saw his artwork in the garbage.

Of course, the spaghetti-sauce-stained picture had to be prominently displayed once again. This led me to my grand aforementioned conspiracy theory. What have parents done with all these pictures since crayons became widely available?

That’s when it dawned on me: The space program. Does anyone really care if Jupiter’s seventh moon has ice on its poles? Of course not. All those missions succeeded in one thing: dumping reams of children’s drawings beyond the prying eyes of curious toddlers. Soon, these orbiting illustrations will fill the outer reaches of our solar system. And we wonder why Pluto took off.  

Monday, February 6, 2012

Miss America Meets Diaper Changing

I think there should be diaper changing competitions. If we can turn on the TV and watch a competition where men pull train cars attached to their waists by chains, why can’t we watch a contest where men race against time, odor, and other men to change diapers?

I know, people who like daytime talk shows and don't eat hot dogs would say this could make a spectacle out of what should be a caring interaction. But that road’s already been traveled; just try watching a beauty pageant where a teenage girl tries to explain how her platform of adopting animals will create world peace. In a bathing suit. (On the other hand, dressing animals in bathing suits might help with world peace. People would spend more time looking at Siamese cats in bikinis on YouTube instead of blowing things up.)

I would have no interest in participating in such a contest—I can never keep my child still long enough for an effective diaper change, and I almost never get those velcro straps facing the right way the first time. But it would be interesting to learn some new techniques, plus the prizes would be unique:

Anouncer: Congratulations, you’ve won our first annual diaper changing contest! Your prize is a year’s supply of butt paste!
Diaper Changing Champion: Uh, I was actually looking for the train-pulling competition. 

Yes, this could bring a new awareness to the challenges of parenting, all while providing some entertainment. And there's already a precedent for it. Just think of all the shows where people have to get rid of crap as quickly as possible for our entertainment, like American Idol or C-SPAN.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Building Memories...and Nothing Else

Making snow forts has to be one of the coolest parts of childhood. In fact, I’d say it ranks right up there with Christmas, Halloween, and the day you realize that someone will actually pay you for losing teeth.

The best place by far to make a snow fort is in the massive piles of snow left behind by snowplows. I know this not because I’m some kind of crazy dad who uses his kids as an excuse to fulfill a childhood dream of making a snow bunker capable of withstanding a grenade, but because my kids told me it would be a good idea.

So off we went with two small plastic shovels to chisel a tunnel network through the eight-foot pile of snow at the end of our cul-de-sac. We may have been better off bringing dynamite. Five minutes and two broken shovels later, we were no closer to our goal of building the ultimate snow fort, but we were all cold and suffering various injuries from the bits of ice and shards of broken plastic that assailed us as we attempted to open a passage into the snowplow’s detritus.

On the bright side, I may have loosened a tooth in the excavation process. I wonder if anyone will still pay me for those.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

All I Want for Christmas is Everything

Christmas shopping with a toddler is just like Christmas shopping with any other human being, provided that human is a raging alcoholic, and you are shopping in a liquor store. A toddler approaches any shopping experience with two rules in mind:
1. Grab everything within reach
2. Ask for everything out of reach

Given my natural propensity for making rash decisions and putting myself in impossible situations, it should not come as a surprise that I thought the best way to figure out what my toddler wanted for Christmas would be to take him to a store and have him show me what he wanted. (Experienced parents have just planted their palms firmly onto their foreheads, knowing the disaster that awaited me.) It started like any other trip to Target, with a loud fit by my toddler because the cart with the special seat for kids was gone. Why a store can have fifty-seven handicap parking spots and two Starbucks coffee shops but only one kid-approved cart can only be guessed at with elaborate conspiracy theories about security guards watching helpless parents melt down in the aisles because of a missing cart.

Once we had settled on the virtues of a normal cart, it was off to the toy aisle. It was here that I made my main mistake. (In addition to bringing a toddler on a Christmas shopping expedition, letting him sit in the bottom of the cart, not sterilizing the cart surface before he sat down, and not installing motion detectors on the edges of the cart to prevent unnoticed additions to my merchandise.) I told him we were at the store to decide what he wanted for Christmas. I failed, however, to include the following facts:
1. We would not actually be purchasing any toys on this trip
2. We do not have unlimited funds for Christmas shopping
3.  All the toys in the store had been electrified, ready to deliver a significant shock to anyone who grabbed them from the shelf without asking first

What followed was about as predictable as the French losing a World War. My son developed a sudden affinity for every item we passed, which was overpowered only by his desire for the item located next to the one he had been ogling five seconds before. His efforts to fill the cart with Lego’s, trains, and Matchbox cars were matched only by my labors at returning to items to their rightful locations.

The trip was not a complete waste, however. I did learn several valuable parenting lessons (none of which I will probably remember next Christmas).  First, toddlers really don’t have a clue what they want for Christmas. My son was equally enthused about every item he grabbed, declaring his undying loyalty to each chunk of imported plastic.  Second, toys are way cooler than when I was a kid. Remember when we actually had to imagine that our airplanes flew and our elephants trumpeted? Thanks to technology and a successful campaign by Energizer, that is no longer necessary. 

As I shuffled back to the car in defeat, with no better idea what to get my son for Christmas, he spotted the kids’ cart lodged in a corral. “Daddy, can we go again?” Maybe I should just get him the cart for Christmas.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

With Great Speed Comes Great Bodily Injury

Most people think that after the age of say, twelve, you can’t go sledding anymore. This is far from the truth; a great number of teenagers can be found hanging out on sledding hills; they just don’t actually sled. I, however, have been a big fan of sledding my whole life. The rush of wind and the thrill of speed more than make up for the long, arduous climb back up the hill that it took 13 seconds to get down or the jarring in the lower spine caused by bouncing over frozen ground with only a thin piece of plastic for padding.

 Just when I thought my sledding days were over, I realized I could take my son sledding as a weak excuse to fly through the snow once again. “No,” my wife said. “You’re not taking our six-month-old sledding.” Eventually he grew to be two years old, though, a perfect age to sit in a sled in front of me and shield me from the snow flying up in my face. 

I soon discovered that sledding had changed from when I was young. At the age of ten, I would have sought out the mound of snow built up at the bottom of the hill with no other thought than “This will be cool.” Now it’s, “This will hurt. I wonder if my co-pay applies to emergency room visits. Can I use my HSA to purchase ice packs? Maybe I’ll be able to deduct my medical expenses this year.” 

And then there’s the duration of the sledding event. I have nostalgic memories of spending the better part of a day sledding, and most of that time in mid-air wondering “now what?” But now that I’m dragging myself and a thirty-pound toddler up the hill every time, I’m more interested in quality than quantity. As in quality time sitting at the top of the hill resting. But a two year old has no interest in my stalling tactic of explaining why some trees lose their leaves in winter and some do not.  “Really, you want to go again…already?” 

 I can’t help but wonder when my son will be able to pull me up the hill.