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Random Thoughts from Last Weekend

Family Movie Night
Our neighbor gave us the idea for Friday Family Movie Night. It’s been a challenge finding movies that are multi-age appropriate, interesting to adults, and don’t contain objectionable content. Fortunately, our friend stumbled upon Popovich and the Fable of the American West.

“World-renowned circus performer, Gregory Popovich, and his talented group of former shelter animals come together to create the greatest circus performance on Earth!”
90 minutes of good, clean, hero’s journey fun.
Available on Amazon Instant Video

Nature Sundays
A new thing we started to give the kids screen time that is educational and entertaining. As creative marketing folks, of course we’ve branded it. This also makes it much easier to choose movies and puts some guardrails up on the kids’ choices.

IMAX Born to Be Wild
Perfect for a wind-down on Sunday.
“This heartwarming film documents orphaned orangutans and elephants and the extraordinary people who rescue and raise them-saving endangered species one life at a time.”
Held the attention of a 4, 5 and 9 year old.
41 minutes
Available on Amazon Instant Video

Live Experience
Marvel Live
Another family movie, or…a live re-enactment of a movie? We decided on the latter. Enter Marvel Live.

2 hours with a 15-minute intermission. All the biggies are present – Spider Man, Hulk, IronMan, Thor, Black Widow. There were probably some other superheroes, but they were onstage during my 20-minute power nap, so I missed them. Nevertheless, the kids had a blast. And yes, we caved and bought each a memento (ray gun, giant lollipop, Hulk stuffed animal).

We’re on a live theatre kick this year in an effort to round out their media consumption and to introduce them to as many new experiences as possible.

Family Meeting
We’re in the process of tweaking our weekly meeting format. It currently runs 20 minutes, but feels like 3 hours. Part of the issue has been people talking over each other, so Nick introduced “the talking ball” which is his Magic 8 Ball (“Will this meeting ever end?” “Outlook not so good.”). In addition to each person having time to say whatever is on his or her mind, we have also added the following quick-response questions for each week:

  • What made you happy?
  • What made you sad/mad?
  • How did you help someone?
  • What did you learn?

We also go around the table and have each person say something they like or admire about the person talking. Nice way to start the school week with an extra confidence boost.

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Look Ma! No Hands!

352

“It’s 3:59. Are we still going to basketball?”

Nick continues to drag a stick across the dirt in our backyard. He’s ignoring my question. It’s the 4th time I’ve asked in as many minutes.

“I love you, Nana,” Gabe chimes in, to reinforce his preferred son status.

“Thank you, Gabe. But I’m in the middle of talking to Nick right now.”

“OK, Nana. I like your shirt.” Yes, Gabe. And I appreciate your ability to charm. That will come in handy when you’re older.

At 4:04 I give up. By the time we pack into the car and drive to the park district, Nick’s class will be half over. Even at a mere $10 for the season, it still feels wasteful to miss a class.

“So we’re skipping today, are we?”

Still no response as he shrugs and meets Gabe on the play castle beside our magnolia tree.

“I don’t appreciate not getting an answer. It’s rude. How many times – “ I have to stop myself. I can feel the criticisms building, just waiting for their chance to curtail Nick’s burgeoning sense of self.

Walk away. Just walk away.

I hear the voice of Olivia’s teacher in my mind. How many times have I walked into her classroom at the end of the day and heard Ms. Georgia advise the kids to disengage? Surely after teaching toddlers for 25 years, she must have some special insight into conflict resolution…

From the kitchen window I watch Nick and Gabe point to an airplane passing overhead. Gabe giggles; Nick makes some odd flapping gesture with his arms. Gabe giggles again.

My eldest scrambles over the structure and into the tree, hooking his legs over a branch as he dangles upside down. I marvel at his core strength as he starts swinging his body to and fro, arms up hit the branch, then back to give Gabe a “high ten”.

“Faster, Nick! Go faster.”

He is the picture of effortless grace…until the momentum proves too much and he lands on his head in the dirt.

I am in motion before I am consciously aware of it, taking the stairs in the mudroom two-by-two, nearly tripping in my haste.

Then I stop.

Nick has pushed himself upright, shaking his head. His brother sits beside him rubbing his back.

“You OK, Nick? Do you need some ice?”

Nick doesn’t respond, but absentmindedly pats Gabe’s arm. He finally stands, then works his way back into position – first one leg, then the other, over the branch before he slowly unfurls his body.

“Good job, Nick,” Gabe encourages. He scans the backyard, settling on an over-sized green ball and rolls it towards the tree.

“Here, Nick! You catch, then throw it to me!”

The two brothers spend the next half hour channeling their inner circus performers – Nick still swinging upside down; Gabe finding balls of varying size with which to challenge Nick’s agility.

This is childhood – the beauty of self-directed, unrestricted play.

As much as Nick enjoys learning the perfect layup, he also needs this – time to experiment and explore. To fall, get up, and try again.

The time will come when he will want to leave this house, to be independent from his siblings.
From us.

But for now, he is here.
He is happy.
And that’s all that matters.

8

Did I Learn Anything From Camping? Um…

They made it look so easy...

They made it look so easy…

As Lori packed the last of our REI clearance swag and I stashed enough Zyrtec to keep a small village allergy-free, I psyched myself up for 3 days of wilderness fun. The “wilds” of Ohio were calling our name – by way of 1 insistent partner, “Think how close to nature you’ll be” and 3 enthusiastic kids, “S’mores every night!”

I really wanted to stay at home.

“You packed the hand sanitizer, right,” I asked Lori as I rummaged through my backpack.
“Yup.”
“What about the bug spray? The good kind – not that foo-foo environmental stuff.”
“Yes,” she stilled my hand and gave it a squeeze. “Don’t worry. It’ll be just like camping in the backyard.”
“But I watched you guys from the window.”
Her brow furrowed. “True dat….well, it’ll be fun anyway.”

Seven hours later, we pulled into the campsite.
It was not what I expected.

The rows of RV’s, trailers and tents brought to mind every bad action/SF disaster movie I had ever seen – you know, the kind where the government declares martial law and makeshift camps spring up across the land. I peered into the trees, half expecting the hordes of infected mutant zombie aliens to come crashing through the leaves.

I’m kidding.
Not really.

“This is awesome!” Nick sprang of the minivan and raced towards a gaggle of kids playing a few lots away from us. Gabe sprinted after him, stopping only at each fire pit to yell, “Everyone has S’mores!” before joining his brother in a pickup game of catch. Never one to be left behind, Olivia took off after her older brothers, then, realizing she was in fact let behind, waddled her way back to us.

“You ok?” Lori passed me a folded cot from the Sherpack.
“Mmmmhmmm.”
“You counting the hours until we get back to Chicago?”
“Minutes,” I corrected. “Counting minutes.”

Our Target tents were ridiculously easy to set up. And the inflatable mattress fit perfectly inside the tent – until the kids came back and used it as bouncy house. After that, it listed to one side for the rest of the trip.

“Guys, get your scooters and entertain yourselves.” They dutifully complied, and for the next 20 minutes we were able to unpack, organize and get a fire started. When they returned, we settled into a groove, the kids munching on fire-burnt popcorn, us nibbling wasabi rice crackers.

“This isn’t bad,” I mused, shooing gnats from my face. “I can be down with this whole nature thing.”

That must have pissed off the camping gods, because in the moments that followed, Nick almost fell into the fire, Gabe randomly threw up, and Olivia started screaming, you know, just because. They were tired, no doubt, from all of the novelty and excitement of our first family camping excursion, which is why they fell asleep almost instantaneously on their sloped mattress.

Our days followed a set pattern – wake, wash, eat, explore, commune, collapse – as we hit the beach, a few trails, and of course, Cedar Point. The days were pure delight – hearing Nick scream his lungs out on his first “adult” roller coaster, watching Gabe charm all of the retirees with his preschool lisp and impish smile, lifting Olivia above the waves as she giggled nonstop. But the nights were pretty miserable – filled with incessant buzzing from mosquitoes that left love bites I would have preferred from Lori to the spotty 3G service I nevertheless needed to finish some client work.

“This is hell,” I muttered as I stepped out of the car in which I had slept at a 65-degree angle for the last 5 hours. The first bursts of morning fire blaze through the clouds, and I held my breath.

This was it.
The moment of transcendence after my dark night of the soul.
Here it comes – I’m gonna feel –
Absolutely nothing.

The sun was pretty, but I still felt the same – my legs still itched, my mouth was gummy and I smelled myself.

Finally heeding the call of nature, I flip-flopped my way to the bathroom.

That’s when I saw them.

A woman in her late 50’s with a young man in his 20’s.

“C’mon, Tyler. Almost there.” His feet shuffled across the grass.
“O-o-o-o-o-o.” His face contorts, muscles straining to form the vowel. “K-k-k-k-k-ay.” His elongated neck and extended speech suggest a “condition,” but I knew not what.
“That’s it. You can do it,” she coaxed, and step by step, they made it.

A mother’s patience.
A son’s perseverance.

On the way back, I passed a pair of aging hippies, their battered RV a sore sight for eyes.

“Into the great wide open”

Together they swayed, the man crooning off-key in his companion’s ear.

“Under them skies of blue
Out in the great wide open
A rebel without a clue”

Around them, the camp stirred awake; plink of tin cups and whoosh of propane tanks mingled with groggy “g’mornings.”

I lost myself in that moment, becoming “one” not with Mother Nature, but with human nature.

Where love and acceptance
Compassion and communion
Found peace in the untamed
Wilderness of the soul.

My children greeted me as I rounded the corner – still in their PJ’s, happily munching toast around the fire.

“Can we come back again,” Nick asked, eyes hopeful.
“Of course we can, kiddo.”
“Yay,” Gabe piped in. “S’mores!”

6

Outside the Comfort Zone? No Thanks.

Yeah...we're not exactly best friends...

This is not my BFF. Not even close.

Last Saturday morning, Lori had the brilliant idea that the entire family should go fishing. At a park district a few miles from our house, grizzled – but not grumpy – old men teach newbies how to reel ‘em in and throw ‘em back.

It sounded great…’til Lori dropped the bombshell that we should divide and conquer. She would entertain Olivia at the playground while I took the boys to the pond.

I almost hit the curb as I muttered a four-letter F word – it was not “FINE” – before plastering a smile on my face as I pulled into the parking lot.

“It’ll be good for you,” she encouraged. “They don’t get to spend a lot of time with you outside.”

You see, I don’t do the outdoors.

I love reading about nature. Look me up any weekend and you’ll find my nose buried in the writings of Mary Oliver, John Muir, and Wendell Berry.

But to actually be in nature?

It takes a certain amount of planning for, psyching up, and then soldiering through to get me to do it.

A playground I can handle because there’s a rubber pad surrounded by concrete and only a smattering of trees in the distance. But a pond has, like, water and amphibians, not to mention fish and bugs. It is the perfect storm for my hyperactive immune system and longstanding neuroses. In fact, my allergist once remarked that she was surprised I ever stepped outside since I reacted to every kind of plant, tree and nut known to man. When a college crush once made the mistake of inviting me to a forest preserve for a seductive picnic, it ended early when I leaped from the picnic blanket, eyes already bloodshot from pollen – and upset the glasses of chardonnay and plates of chocolate-dipped strawberries – because I because I thought an ant was climbing up my leg.

It was a leaf.
She never called me again.

Maybe if I hadn’t almost drowned in a pond when I was a kid, or endured attacks from ginormous mosquitoes during our annual trips to Trinidad, I would have a better relationship with Mother Nature. But unlike Lori, who can spend hours tending to the garden or sleeping in our hammock, my happy time is in the library, surrounded by dead things that inspire ideas, not living things that can bite.

Nevertheless, the day was not about me. It was about raising the kids with a deep appreciation for the wondrous world that surrounds them, even if I couldn’t appreciate it myself.

“’C’mon gang,” I chirped as we made our way through the bushes. I could hear Olivia’s protests at being separated from her usual playtime buddy – moi – but they faded as we drew closer to the pond.

“Alrighty! Let’s get some stuff to put on the thingy – “
“Bait, Nana,” Nick supplied. “And we need a worm.”

“Right! Let’s do this!” Nick and Gabe both shot me a look suggesting I take it down a few notches. I shrugged, then signed us up for a small styrofoam container and 2 fishing poles.

“You have to cut it up into little pieces,” Nick said, as he examined the squirming mass inside the box.
“Uh…”
“You going to smash them, Nana,” Gabe inquired.
“Uh…”
“Can you just finish so we can get some fish,” Nick pleaded. “Last time with Mommy I caught 10.”
“Yeah,” Gabe added. “And I got 10 too”

“Really?” I tried to imagine casting the reel 10 times considering the hook – sans worm – was now hooked in my dreadlocks.

“Let’s see if we can get 11,” I encouraged, when we finally got our lines into the water.

Then we waited.
And waited.
And freaking waited.

“How long does it usually take, Nick?”

He shrugged, fidgeting a bit in his seat. “It’s faster with Mommy.” He stood up and peered over the railing. “I bet I could just grab one.” He stared to climb over the railing to reach the smaller fish at the pond’s edge.

“Do you do that with Mommy?”
“No.”
“Then don’t do it with me.”

My tone was harsher than I expected, but I was now hot, irritated, and ready to move on. Gabe decided that it would be a good time to practice gymnastics and started a parallel bars routine right next to his brother.

“Could you guys just – “

SMACK.

That would be Gabe’s head colliding with Nick’s elbow.

I raised my voice to cut through their crying. “SEE! This is what happens when – “

My thoughts were interrupted by the plaintive wail of my daughter, coming down the path in Lori’s football hold.

“We have to switch,” she announced, thrusting Olivia into my arms. “The parents are all crazy over there. And she does not want to do anything except spit on the ground and scowl.”

I soothed Olivia in my arms. “Well, she’s wet for one. And probably noshy since it’s 11…”

“There’s snacks in the car,” she answered sharply.

“Then I guess you’ll find us there,” I snapped in reply. I spun on my heel, leaving her to deal with the now whimpering boys. Sparing a glance over my shoulder, I saw her gather the boys into her arms, kissing each on the forehead, before resetting their rods and settling in. It looked so idyllic when she was doing it…

Safely ensconced in the air-conditioned car, I changed Olivia and dug out the snacks. We munched happily on granola as we head bobbed to Elmo, everything perfect in our hermetically sealed retreat. Twenty minutes later, the side door flew open and two enthusiastic boys bounded into the car.

“I caught 5 fish,” Nick beamed. “And Gabe caught 2!”

I smiled, genuinely happy for them. Then Lori leaned into the car and placed a gentle peck on my cheek.

“Better?”
I nodded.
“Better?”
She smiled.

As parents, we find happiness in radically different ways. I find mine when I compare notes with other parents, watching our children climb man-made structures. Lori finds hers when she trades observations with our kids, watching them navigate the natural world.

We’re yin and yang, our children centered between us. We play to our strengths, and support each other in our weaknesses.

That being said, she has a lot of heavy lifting ahead as we set off for a 4-day camping trip this weekend.

Fingers crossed, it’s a walk in the…park?

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The Woodpecker Laughs No More

Happier times for our red-headed friend

I walked onto our deck last Saturday and almost stepped on a red-headed woodpecker.

First though: Oh God, West Nile
Second though: Oh God, Avian Flu
Third thought: Oh man, I gotta get rid of this thing before Skippy finds it.

I opened the screen and yelled up the stairs, “C’mon boys!  We have to bury a bird!”

They bounded down the stairs, still in the pajamas, stopping short when they saw me poking the body with a stick.  I remembered hearing a hollow thump against our kitchen window, but had dismissed it.

Now I knew the cause.

“Is it dead,” Nick asked.

“Pretty sure.”

Gabe took a step closer, still clutching his cloth diaper/security blanket “What happen, Nana?”

“It’s dead, Gabe.  It can’t fly anymore.”

“Oh,” Gabe replied, with all the earnestness that only a 2-year-old can imbue into such a small word.

“We should bury it,” Nick decided, with which I agreed.  We opted for the front yard since it was separated from the back by a fence, meaning Skippy couldn’t dig up the body.  And while I got a small shovel and a permanent marker from the garage, Nick and Gabe searched for the perfect headstone.

“What do you want to write, Nick?”

His face turned pensive, eyes looking upward.   “I want to let God know to take care of him.”  As a product of Catholic school, he took heaven’s location quite literally.

As I dug the hole, Nick used his very best block printing to write the bird’s name (Woodpecker), date of death, and a few stars and hearts- classic adornments for the Kindergarten set.  Then, without prompting, he solemnly handed the pen to Gabe, who added his own scribbles.

We said a short prayer:

“Dear God,”  Nick began.  The woodpecker is dead.  We are sad.   We hope he comes back” –

I had to interrupt him.  “Nick, he’s dead, so he can’t come back.”  Visions of Pet Cemetery crept into my brain.  Shudder.

“Jesus is coming back, even though he died.”   You can remember this, but not what number comes between 17 and 19?  This is the takeaway from Catholic school?!  Oh, yeah, I guess it is.

 “True.  But Jesus was the son of God.” Do no self-edit that this is a belief and not a truism.  Explain it in a way that makes sense…to him.  “And he got superpowers. How cool is that?  This bird is just a bird.”

“But, God made everything.”  Again with the theology?!  It was just too early to be having this deep a conversation with a six-year-old.  “Yes, he did, but now it’s time for the bird to hang out in heaven, so we should finish up burying the body.”

He bowed his head, rethinking his approach, then started again.  “Dear God.  I hope you have lots of trees in heaven.  Woodpeckers like them a lot.  And we love you.  The end.”  Gabe has decided to jump on the prayer bandwagon, so I hear Nick’s words in stereo – once from his own mouth, followed by the near-consonant-free echo from his brother.

The three of us slid the rock across the freshly dug earth then headed inside for breakfast.

***

A few hours later, we mentioned our mini funeral to Lori’s sister, who is visiting for an impromptu lunch.

“You know, they can live a few hours after they’ve run into a window.”

WHAT?!?!?

 A quick hit from my good friends at Google confirmed it.  Some birds are merely stunned and need a soft quiet spot to recover.   Oh, and dead woodpeckers were a really bad omen.  We had buried this poor thing in a six-inch grave.

I raced down the front stairs, removed the stone and started digging frantically with my bare hands.

Dig dig dig dig

I swear we put the body right under the rock.  Where the hell was it?  Wait, was this the miracle Nick was talking about in his prayer service.  Had the bird been raptured?!

My flights of fancy come crashing to reality when I saw the unmistakable red at the very edge of the hole I had dug.

Oh, there he is.  If he wasn’t dead before he certainly was now.

Deflated, I walked slowly into the house, head hung in shame.  I had never killed anything larger than a house spider.

“He probably already had a broken neck,” Lori said as I flopped onto a chair.

“Maybe.”

“Are you going to tell the kids that you guys probably buried a live woodpecker?”

“No!!  That’s crazy!”

“Are you going to be sad for the entire afternoon now?”

“Probably.”

“Aww,” Lori pulled me into a hug.  “Looks like my little cynic has a heart after all.”