Wednesday, July 16, 2014

My son, the cat (sort of)

The kid sleeping in my lap right now turned nine months old last week. That’s not especially significant, except to realize he’s been outside about as long as he was inside, and life certainly is more interesting in its current state.

In the past few days I’ve come to realize the baby is quite similar to a slow-moving cat. To wit:
  • He responds to his name (and nickname) only at his discretion.
  • He cannot communicate with words, though clearly he is very particular about his likes and dislikes.
  • He crawls over and whines when he wants to be picked up or fed. He will attempt to climb up a human leg in pursuit of these goals.
  • He will not be held against his will.
  • His needs are paramount to those of the people in his life.
  • He disseminates bodily fluids in unfortunate places throughout the house.
  • He is intrigued by nothing so much as running water.
  • His diet includes what appears to be mush from tiny containers.
  • He prefers my bed to his.
  • He rather enjoys looking out the window, and also shiny or dangly things he can slap.
  • He scratches flesh with reckless abandon.
  • His waste is in a container in the bathroom, and the smell is distinct.
  • He likes to eat stuff he finds outside. (This includes sand.)
  • He retains a slight desire to be at least partially nocturnal.
  • He makes a beeline for the things he is supposed to leave alone, including computer cables and potted (fake) plants.
  • He will not pose for photographs.
  • He only wants to be left alone when everyone else wants to play with him and demands the most attention when important things need to be done.
  • He delights in shredding paper, especially toilet and facial tissue.
  • He appears to be aware of his cuteness and is attempting to use it as a defense mechanism.
Sure, it’s not a direct comparison (I’ve yet to hear him purr or hiss, and thankfully he doesn’t shed), but as a former cat owner there are frequent reminders of when I used to share the house with felines. And eventually he’ll grow out of a lot of these tendencies, which in many ways just plain makes me sad, because he is indisputably our last baby.

When I briefly entertained the notion of lobbying for a fifth child (which I’d never verbalize on account of me not being the one to actually grow the human), I realized it was the pinnacle of my penchant for procrastination. If we had another baby, then I could just stay in this part of life. It seems odd, but I’m rather used to dealing with diapers and getting up in the middle of the night to pop my thumb in a kid’s mouth. I have always resisted change, and each new kid allows me to comfortably wear the “father of a baby” mantle, which has served me well for the better part of a decade.

Yet we could add a baby each year and it wouldn’t keep our older kids from growing up. And since eventually I’m going to have to teach the big boys how to drive and navigate the murky social waters of junior high and high school, I suppose it would be helpful if I could count on a few decent nights of sleep somewhere along the line.

Also four boys is a lot. We have filled our house and, to a greater extent, our minivan. I’m incredibly grateful for the gift of each son and hope like heck I’m up to the awesome responsibility of being their dad.

Life is pretty good. I only wish I could respond with sufficient gratitude.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

A common thread

I glanced to my right at the dinner table the other night and saw our oldest engrossed in a book. This is not a new occurrence, but it’s increased of late in connection with a forced reduction in screen time and an incentive-based summer reading program at the local library.

It wasn’t anything high minded, but it was one of my favorites from childhood — “The Calvin and Hobbes Lazy Sunday Book,” a collection of Sunday strips of the beloved comic from the early years of its live run in American newspapers.

If he loves Calvin and Hobbes, I must be doing something right.
I’ve lost track of how many times he’s leafed through the pages of one of my Calivn and Hobbes books. Something about the characters or the humor appeals to him in a way a few Far Side books never have. He doesn’t quite laugh out loud when he reads them the way he does when he goes over the new comics each Sunday, but if he didn’t like these strips at all he darn sure wouldn’t be reading them for pleasure.

As I saw him read this particular book on that night, I remembered how it came into my possession. It was a Christmas present from my wonderful Aunt Beth. After he put the book down, I leafed through the opening pages to find the inscription, which surely would have the year marked.

While the age I was when I got the book as a present was my main curiosity, what I actually learned was much better. There was an inscription all right — it said , in very familiar handwriting, “Happy Reading & Merry Christmas 1989. To Scott from Grandpa & Grandma.”

So I got this book the year I turned 10 — the same age my oldest is now. But more importantly I remembered the gift came not just from my Aunt Beth, but a few days earlier when celebrating with my dad’s side of the family. I think we might have returned the one form Beth, probably because she actually didn’t leave an inscription, and also because the other copy probably came with me on the plane to Florida and was no longer in mint condition.

And while it means nothing of significance, it warmed my sentimental heart to think of myself as a 10-year-old, when two relatives got me such a perfect Christmas gift (probably with help from my thoughtful mother), and how 25 years later another 10-year-old boy in the same family is still enjoying that generous offering.

I’ve been trying to tell him lately how much I have in common, but of course he’s 10 so everything that happens to him has never happened to anyone else in recorded history, least of all his dad, and even if maybe something similar could have occurred certainly it affected him far more profoundly. The very notion I could begin to understand what life is like in his skin could not be more absurd if it were a tap-dancing platypus.

Such is life. I love that he’s like me, except for when I hate it. Still, I wouldn’t give him up for anything, and I like to think eventually he might say the same about me.

A prayer for July 1:

Lord, thank you for my wife and kids. I don’t say thank you enough, but I hope it’s clear to you and them how much it means for me to be able to share life with them. Help me continue to live out the gratitude in my heart and to make sure everyone is able to see in me a life changed by your love. Amen.

Monday, June 2, 2014

The good, the bad and those villainous mosquitoes

There was a quiet moment near the end of the Cub Scout campout Sunday morning — specifically a pause during the interfaith service set aside for silent prayer (“Take this time to be reverent in your own manner,” per the handout a Boy Scout prepared in search of some merit badge of his own) — when my 6-year-old pierced the quiet with his own plea to the almighty: “I wish mosquitoes never existed!”

Though only I heard his petition, it’s safe to say everyone gathered would have agreed. It was an absolutely brutal weekend in terms of the insect population. It was sufficiently warm in the hot sun, downright pleasant in a shady spot with a gentle breeze and no threat of precipitation like the downpour that sent more than a few families scurrying to their cars after dinner instead of braving the elements. But those bugs were just about unbearable.

Teaming up on a water rocket.
Before my future Tiger Scout weighed in, I’d tried to make my own moment of reverence an appreciation for the opportunity, insects notwithstanding, to enjoy some dad-and-lads time with the Tiger and his big brother, a veteran Webelo.

These excursions aren’t always the easiest. As a family, we thrive on predictability. We don’t adhere to rigid schedules, but generally if we set forth a loose agenda for the day there is a concerted effort among parents and children to hit the high points. Also we, as parents, are in control and therefore empowered to call our own audibles in full understanding of the potential consequences.

The Pack Campout is, on paper, highly regimented, with some items broken down to the quarter hour. But in practice, the structure tends to be abdicated, exacerbated by the unpredictability of the outdoors and the tall task of herding a bunch of grade-school boys who would be just as happy throwing rocks in the fishing pond for 90 minutes. (Indoor events, such as the Pinewood Derby, tend to be a little easier to manage. Also there are real bathrooms.) And I’m not in control of anything, barely even my own kids when each wants to head his own direction — not to mention worrying about how things are going on the homefront where my wife is wrangling the younger two.

As such, the weekend ultimately becomes a bit of a roller coaster, trying to manage expectations, get the most out of the fun parts and mitigate the inevitable minor frustrations.

Those fun parts, of course, were the backbone of my silent prayer of gratitude. When there was joy, it was unrestrained and contagious — the kind of high that keeps us coming back for more. The other times I try to see as opportunities, the chance to model for my kids the way an adult should act and help them learn to get along with the things they can’t control. I don’t always succeed, but that doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate the opportunity to do my best for my boys.

Our brief service ended with a group prayer. Modified for just a dad and his kids, I think it’s practically perfect:

A prayer for June 2:

Lord, thank you for the opportunity to be part of your creation. Give us the strength to endure, the wisdom to enjoy each moment and the courage to push ourselves farther than we ever have before. Bless our family as we journey through life. Amen.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Happy Mother's Day... ish

Twenty years ago, I had a mother, two grandmothers and a great-grandmother, all of whom were special to me in their own way and to whom I still owe, directly or indirectly, considerable parts of my personality.

Me and some of the important mothers in my life.
Today (as well as Sunday, when I had the idea to write but not the time), I still have my mother, whom I treasure greatly. And though I have lost both grandmothers and my great-grandmother, as well as two aunts who were mothers to two of my cousins, I have gained a wife, who has delivered four sons to this planet, a peerless mother-in-law as well as my wife’s grandmothers, all of whom, directly or indirectly, make me feel as if I lucked into extra families.

Twenty years is, of course, a considerable amount of time relative to my age. It’s a full third of my mother’s life and more than 57 percent of my own (thank you, online percentage calculator). On the whole, I feel I’ve fared far better in the love and loss department over that score than lots of folks, and keeping that perspective has helped me appreciate the everyday challenges of parenting.

Further, over time we’ve formed relationships with people who have struggled with becoming parents, who lost their parents far too early in life, who have encountered adoption from many angles, who have lost children along the road between conception and a healthy delivery. There are those whose relationships with their kids strained over time.

Observances like Mother’s Day can be nearly unbearable for these people as the rest of us carry on sharing old and new photos, making phone calls and meeting for dinner or, worse, taking for granted the ability to do any of those things without a hint of pain. Not that those of us lucky enough to have several mothers to celebrate should refrain from doing so, but at least we ought to realize the struggle others endure and acknowledge we might one day be forced to walk in those same shoes.

I wish I had a grand lesson to impart here. I also wish I’d had time to plan something to honor the mothers in my life this Mother’s Day instead of just stopping by the grocery store Sunday afternoon following swimming lessons only to realize the floral department closed a few days earlier as part of a remodeling project. At least Max colored a lovely picture for Kristie during church Sunday morning.

The more we’re surrounded by the day in, day out obligations of parenting, the less time there is to do anything special to celebrate the blessings of being in this stage of life. Someone always needs something to be done for them, and as much of a privilege as it is to help, it also puts a sizable damper on free time.

But even so, we’re incredibly lucky. I think we’re doing the best we can to make our kids feel loved, and that’s made easier by the generations before us who continue to make us feel loved. When life gets crazy, I try to keep that goal in mind and just hope for the best. Today is definitely one of those days, and tomorrow probably will be too. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

A prayer for May 13:

Lord, I thank you for mothers. I thank you for my mother, who loves me as much as anything on this planet and who continues to be a daily presence in my life. I thank you for my mother-in-law, who from the first day accepted me and made me feel as if I were her own son. I thank you for my grandmothers, whom I miss dearly. I thank you for those mothers no longer with us and the love they shared when we were together. And I thank you for my wife, without whom I could not be a complete person. Thank you, thank you, thank you. Amen.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Double digits

“Does it feel like we’ve been parents for ten years?”

It’s the kind of question your wife asks the night before your oldest son’s tenth birthday. My reply was quick and blunt.

“Nope.”

I feel I wear each of those ten years on my face, or in a few grey hairs — and most certainly in my caffeine consumption. This is not a complaint. I love all four of our boys and often feel real life began the day we learned we’d be parents. About a year before I met Kristie I realized how much I valued family and desired to be a father. I continue to be amazed life unfolded precisely along that path and try as best I can to live in gratitude for those specific blessings.

Yet wanting to be a parent is a hair different from actually walking miles in those shoes. The last decade has offered plenty of the experiences I anticipated (such as yesterday’s kindergarten soccer practice or tonight’s fourth-grade open house) and dozens I could never have predicted (including, but in no way limited to, our various emergency room visits).

We don't quite fit as well on the same couch these days.
Thinking back over the last ten years, I’m starting to understand how it’s possible for those everyday details, so memorable as they happened, to kind of blend into general memories organized by life stage — infant, toddler, preschool and so on. I retain many crystal-clear recollections of individual events, but the father-son relationship with the oldest presents in my brain as something more gradually evolving than a defined timeline with explicit milestones.

I worried my son turning 10 would make me struggle with my own aging the same as turning 30 a few years ago, but it really hasn’t. (Probably because I’ve still got another two years of changing diapers.) But to think we’re more than halfway to the point where he could leave for college, that he’ll be a legal adult by the time the baby reaches fourth grade, that’s when the numbers start to intimidate.

Having open house coincide with his birthday was a treat. He was so proud to show off the slideshow he prepared for his classroom, to introduce his brothers to his teachers and give us the tour of the building. He spends more time there than at home now, and been his best school year by miles. Somewhere along the way he turned that corner all little boys do en route to the teenage years, and I can already see signs of our future struggles as he strives for independence and we yearn to protect.

Ten years gone and my children have changed me in so many ways. It’s rarely easy yet regularly rewarding. Learning to love each of them differently while adjusting my outlook on life keeps me going each day. The kids have completed and changed my life and marriage time and again, which I expect to continue over and again. I know parenting isn’t for everyone, but for me it’s my highest calling — a true gift.

A prayer for April 24:

Lord, ten years ago today, I became a father. Each day since has been its own blessing, and I thank you for trusting me with these four boys. I thank you also for using the experience of fatherhood to help me understand a faint hint of what your love is like for all creation.

I thank you for my family and ask you to watch over us. Help me, specifically, to be the kind of father you have called me to be, to not just raise my boys to be good people, but to be for them an example of your love in the world. I am grateful for the community of faith you have provided for us and overwhelmed by the undeserved blessings in our life.

Thank you also for leading me on this journey of writing and prayer. I am grateful for the opportunity. Amen.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

The desire to create

Sitting at the breakfast table, I experienced a familiar urge — the desire to create. I simply wanted to make something today, only I didn’t know what that might be.

This probably is not surprising to those who know me as a semi-professional writer, or who’ve seen me turn a village park into a personal photo studio. Yet the yen to make has not always yielded successful creations.

I am a monumentally awful fiction writer. Even before I worry about hashing out a compelling plot I get hung up on naming characters. I should try fairy tales or fables and use unidentified animals as heroes and villains. Perhaps my shortcoming is one of the reasons I rarely read fiction outside the occasional bedtime story.

Good poetry, on the other hand, is a joy to consume. Though in college I took writing workshops in both fiction and poetry (with some overlap among fellow students) I remember being far more interested in and impressed with the poetry. At times I sensed a smidgen of my own talent, though my peers’ work routinely left me in silent wonderment.

Far greater than poetry is my love of music. On a few forgettable occasions I’ve thought myself capable of creating my own songs, always with disastrous results. Even arranging someone else’s original idea is far too daunting. So I’ve settled to create simply by playing or singing along. This is almost always enjoyable, but happens far too infrequently relative to how much of my life music used to occupy.

One of my most recent favorite snapshots.
Many of these frustrations are why I’ve been so interested in developing photography skills over the last several years. We got our fist digital camera when my wife was pregnant with our second son, and when she was expecting our third a few years later she surprised me by getting all of our family members together to get us a DSLR for Christmas. I’ve loved being able to create what some might call art, especially with my children as the subject.

My only other 2D artistic talent has been collages or tracing — I could never make anything from scratch. But with a camera, my job is not to create the image, only to properly focus, frame and capture. I can still be wracked by indecision and doubt when it comes time to choose what to print, which frame to choose and where it should hang, but on balance the only works I’ve enjoyed as much as some of my more treasured writing are my favorite photographs.

My greatest creations, of course, are my children. Yet for all their wonderful qualities that amaze and amuse daily, I am ever mindful of the true Creator. Even those without belief or faith must agree parents aren’t exactly custom-ordering offspring. Though I can influence their personalities as they mature, I did not draw the blueprint. It is a privilege and an honor to be their father, but their very existence is a constant reminder of the blessing and miracle of life.

A prayer for March 23:

Lord, thank you for my wife and my children. Thank you for the circumstances that brought us together to form a family, and may we all live in gratitude for the countless ways you show your love. Amen.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Questions I need to ask

“Why me? Why now?”

Those are the questions the doctor asked us a few weeks ago shortly after we met him for the first time. And while the specific details are immaterial, suffice it to say we had a satisfactory (if perhaps overly complex) response.

It was easy to understood why this question came up at this specific time. What’s surprising in some small way is it doesn’t come up more often. It’s a question we might often want to ask when meeting someone, and maybe there are polite ways to gently probe under the surface where a probably mundane truth lives. But the reason we generally don’t ask is because it’s the type of question we might prefer to not answer about ourselves.

Obviously this goes beyond the basics — I don’t expect the checker at Jewel to ask me why I chose to buy my roast beef there instead of the Mariano’s across the street. Of course, I’d have a ready answer if she did. But what if the question came from someone I already know well, someone who might almost be able to answer for me?

What if one of our dear friends from small group came up to me at social hour on Sunday and said, “So, why did you come to church today?” I might have to admit the entire family functioned on autopilot from the moment the baby started to wake us all from our Saturday slumber.

What if the kindergarten teacher Wednesday night inquired about our sincere reasons for bringing everyone to open house? Sure, it takes a real lout to tell an eager six-year-old no one is going to see his classroom. But did we have a true purpose beyond fulfilling parental duty?

It is important to note we had a really good time at the open house — the kid was beyond proud to show off his projects and introduce his brothers to any teacher he could find. But as I sit here tonight I struggle to come up with a better “why we went” reason than “because that’s what you do.”

And maybe for some things that’s all we need. A good chunk of life is motions that must be gone through lest we get bogged down and thrown off course. Yet I remain convinced there are plenty of times — surely far more than I would think of at first blush — where I would be well served to ask myself “Why me? Why now?”

Basically, the more time I spend considering why I do what I do, the more likely I am to think, speak and act in the way I hope my kids will want to emulate. When I lapse into the thoughtless grind, I barely resemble a man I want my kids to become.

I was glad the doctor asked. I knew we had the answer. But the next time, with the next inquisitor, I may well be stumped. That’s a problem I need to address.

A prayer for March 20:

Lord, help me be mindful of how my words, thoughts and actions can help or hurt the people I encounter. Teach me to focus intently on the path you set before me. Guide me, that I may ever follow. Amen.