Blog Soup 9/26/2013

Hi! Things are a bit crazy in my house these days. I’m temporarily awake and free to blog, so here is an update on us.

  1. Except for me, my entire family is now in school full-time. Jenny has class all day Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday and also goes in sometimes on Thursday or Friday. Brenden is in kindergarten five days a week from 7:45-2:45. Jonathan is in preschool five days a week as well. I’m still trying to convince the boys that I really have spent many, many years in school and don’t need to go anymore.
  2. Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays are a bit tough for me. I get off work at 6:00, come home to help get the boys ready, take them to school, and crawl into bed around 8:15-8:30am. Then I get up at 2:00pm and pick them up. Plus Monday nights the boys have swim lessons at 5:45 and 6:45 in Southlake. So I’m usually pretty tired the first half of the week, not to mention the rest of the family.
  3. Jenny is probably studying more than she has in her entire school career. The material isn’t difficult for her, but the volume is staggering – tons of reading, video modules, and skills training. Despite the workload, she is keeping up and doing great. Starting in two weeks, she’ll be at Baylor Grapevine once a week working with real patients on a limited basis.
  4. I am embarrassed that Ted Cruz represents my state in the US Senate. If you’re not sure why, this editorial should help.
  5. The polls don’t show it since we haven’t played any tough opponents yet, but my Baylor Bears are one of the best teams in college football this year. They have a real shot at the Big 12 championship and a BCS bowl. Yes, it does feel a bit insane to write such things, but our defense is finally catching up to our ridiculous offense, and that should scare every team we’ll face this season. In our three games so far, our defense has scored more touchdowns (4) than it has allowed (3). We have tickets for the Oklahoma game Nov 7, our first real test of the season.
  6. I really want a media room / man cave with a nice projector, comfy seats, a wet bar, and soundproofed walls. You know, something like this. Since our current living room is open to the upstairs hallway where the bedrooms are and directly under our bedroom, my subwoofer doesn’t get much use when I have some downtime to watch movies or play games. Someday!
  7. Brenden is selling chocolate for his school’s PTA. I loathe cheesy fundraisers like this and would happily write the organization a big check rather than guilt-trip my family and friends and neighbors into buying overpriced junk they don’t want. I actually planned to refuse to participate. However, I forgot one crucial element: the fundraiser people give the kids incentives to sell. Brenden came home with his box of candy bars determined to sell two boxes so he could get get to play in the Game Truck (r) when it comes to his school. So guess what? I’m selling chocolate on his behalf. :-) To their credit, the chocolate company has improved its recipe, and the chocolate is now quite good.
  8. I did not sign up for the international desk at work next year. The international flights are interesting and the workload is light, but since you need a special qualification to work the desk, it’s difficult to trade an international shift away if needed. Since Jenny will have EARLY morning clinicals two days a week next year, I need to keep my trading flexibility. I might try it again in 2015 if I think we can make it work.
  9. Once we have the cash, I’d like to replace the Grand Caravan with a Mazda5 and the Fit with a Nissan Leaf or Chevy Volt. However, right now we’re saving up for other things, so we’ll try to squeeze a few more years from our current vehicles.
  10. The boys now have passports! I’m not sure when we’ll use them yet, but they are ready. We might do an awesome cruise after Jenny finishes school in May 2015. Once the Wright Amendment restrictions are loosened in October 2014, flying to cruise ports from Dallas on SWA will become much easier.

Ten Things I’ve Learned From Parenting

Brenden turned five this week, so it’s not a bad time to reflect on some lessons I’ve learned from being a dad. It’s hard to say whether fatherhood matched my expectations. When Jenny was pregnant with Brenden, I focused on preparing for life with a baby, which is MUCH different from life with two preschoolers. We still make plans for the future with them, but so much of fatherhood now seems to be able surviving each day without having to visit the hospital or the liquor store.

Here are a few things I’ve learned, or at least reinforced:

  1. Nothing in my life has driven me insane like my children have. When they are being difficult, they seem to bring out the worst in me, and I hate that.
  2. Few things in life have made me prouder than my children. Watching them make progress in the pool, seeing them treat their friends and cousins kindly without being prompted, hearing them say they love me, and getting enthusiastic hugs when I come home fill my heart with pride and wonder.
  3. It’s fascinating to see reflections of me and Jenny in them. Brenden got my stubbornness, love of data, comfort with routine, distaste of last-minute changes, and affinity for video games. Jonathan got Jenny’s gentle and kind spirit, creativity, and love of people.
  4. No matter what I do as a parent, many people are going to disagree with it. Maybe I’m doing things differently from the way they were raised. Maybe I’m not following their favorite parenting book or guru. Maybe they are afraid I’m going to horribly corrupt my kid or give him autism or spoil him or send him straight to hell or jail or dozens of counseling sessions later in life. But there are only two people who get a vote in how we raise our kids: me and Jenny. All other opinions are advisory only.
  5. Spending money on your kids is much more fun than I expected.
  6. It can be difficult to know how far to push your kids and when to step in and help. One good example is video games. Brenden loves to play, but many of the games he likes are challenging, and he often gets frustrated or intimidated after dying just once or twice. Then he comes to me or Jenny begging for us to take over and get him through the level or past the boss. On one hand, I want to say no because the only way to get better at something is to keep trying and thinking when things get tough. On the other hand, he’s five years old, and it isn’t realistic to expect him to be able to ace a game that challenges even a lifelong gamer like me.
  7. From time to time a vision pops up in my head. Jenny and I are around 50 years old. The boys are away at college, making the house ours once more. We share a bottle of wine and quietly ponder whether we did the best job we could with them, whether they turned out okay. We relax a bit once we decide the answer is yes.
  8. It wasn’t until I became a parent that I realized how embarrassing it could be when your kid acts up in public. (Sorry, Mom!)
  9. Even though I knew parenthood would significantly affect most parts of my life, thinking about all the different ways still amazes me. Without kids, we would drive different cars, live in a different house, travel a lot more, spend more time with friends, have more toys, spend our free time differently, and make numerous other changes. Although we make many sacrifices for them, I don’t begrudge those sacrifices. They are part of my new mission in life, the mission to give these two crazy boys everything I can give them to help them become men. As difficult as fatherhood can be, I derive great satisfaction from being their dad.
  10. I knew fatherhood would be a lot of work. I don’t think I realized how much fun it would be, how they would make me chuckle almost every day, and how much Jenny and I would enjoy laughing about them together.

I was apprehensive about becoming a parent for a while. If I could have learned some of these lessons in advance before the boys arrived, the prospect would have been more appealing and less scary. But that’s not how life works. Instead, I got to earn these lessons the hard way, and I’m glad I’ve had the opportunity.

South Padre Trip

Over the weekend, to celebrate the end of the spring semester (sure, it was actually before Jenny’s finals, but who’s counting?), we flew the boys down to South Padre Island for a couple of days on the beach. Here are some of the highlights:

New Love Field Terminal

As I’d hoped, our flights used the beautiful new terminal at Love Field. It is truly a great improvement over the old terminal – much brighter, more open and spacious, and many more choices for dining and shopping. Once most of the Wright restrictions disappear in October 2014, Love will become busier and more important for connections, and I really think travelers will enjoy the new facility.

Civic

Although Brenden wanted to get the orange and black Dodge Challenger, we rented a Honda Civic instead. (Sorry, buddy) As expected, it was a great car. It drove well, handled our two huge suitcases, provided a comfortable ride, and got great mileage, probably 30-40 mpg. My favorite feature was its real-time MPG indicator that gave me instant feedback on how much fuel I was burning. If all vehicles had that feature, I think most many of us would drive more efficiently.

Black Dragon Pirate Cruise

On Saturday, which coincidentally turned out to be Pirate Day, we took the Black Dragon Pirate Cruise from Port Isabel. It’s a 75-foot replica pirate ship complete with a crew of pirates who put on a show as they sail guests around the bay. The boys enjoyed it, especially Brenden, who had a nice sword fight with the first mate and won a pirate water pistol in the end-of-cruise dance contest. Much of the pirate banter went over their heads, and Jonathan got restless from time to time, but we thought it was fun. The water gun fight and sword fighting lessons were probably their favorite part.

Sea Turtle, Inc.

Sea Turtle, Inc. is a small rescue and rehab organization based on South Padre Island. We toured the site and saw numerous sea turtles ranging from youngsters smaller than a salad plate to five-foot, 180 lb. beasts. All of the permanent residents have been injured or deformed somehow and are unfit to live in the wild, but the organization also works to nurse injured turtles back to health and then release them.

Beach Time

We went to the beach a total of three times during our brief stay. Our hotel had some noisy guests and other issues, but it was cheap and within walking distance of the beach. The early-season cold water limited our time in the ocean, especially for “I’m ccooooowd!!” Jonathan. So they spent more time playing on the beach, running buckets of water from the ocean to the sand, digging holes, making sand angels, and burying their feet. We stayed off the beach when the sun was high and used rash guards and plenty of sunscreen, so the boys escaped without getting burned.

Zoo

Before flying home, we stopped at Gladys Porter Zoo in Brownsville. Despite Brownsville’s small population, its zoo offered a surprising selection of animals, including a Komodo dragon, at least ten giraffes, a rhino, a bald eagle, numerous snakes and lizards, a pygmy hippo, tigers, several primates, and free-roaming peacocks. The boys’ favorite part was probably the playground, which gave them the chance to burn off some energy and run around freely. They get frustrated on our vacations because we have to manage their activities so closely in many locations (don’t jump in with the endangered sea turtles, don’t jump off the pirate ship, don’t ride on the baggage carousel, etc.). They love being able to do as they please for a bit.

We had our share of challenges, including a highly inconvenient poop accident, hotel guests who chatted loudly outside their room for hours every night, a mattress that creaked like the sinking Titanic any time we moved, random meltdowns over silly things, bedtime drama, and the typical battles that occur any time we take them to a sit-down restaurant. But the boys had a blast overall, and we loved seeing them have such a good time. We have no current plans for our next trip. We might try something quick late this summer, but Jenny will be very busy with school this fall, so we’ll have to see what her schedule is like.

Here is our photo album from the trip: South Padre Island May 2013 Photos

Adventures in Parenting

Those of you who are parents already know that hardly any pursuit on earth can bring as much joy, passion, frustration, and despair as parenting. Sometimes you might get all four at the same time. Here are some of our latest adventures with Brenden and Jonathan.

The Mirror

When we moved into our house four years ago, two of the bedrooms had those 80s-style mirrored closet doors that slide open. Sometime in 2011, Brenden broke one of the mirrors on his closet door by either kicking it or rolling hard into it. Concerned that he might get cut by the glass, I completely removed and threw away the entire door assembly, leaving his closet open.

Jonathan’s room had the other set of mirrored closet doors, which we kept closed with a safety strap to keep him from tossing his clothes all over the room. Last week, Jonathan got bored one morning and decided he wanted to hide from us before we came to get him up. So he grabbed one side of the door and started pulling. Soon the brass edge piece came off, leaving the edge of the mirror exposed. Then he kept pulling, trying to open the sliding door outward like a regular swinging door. The mirror didn’t like that and shattered into several pieces held together only by the mirror backing. I still don’t see how he managed to do it without carving up his hands or stepping on glass shards. I donned the appropriate safety gear, removed the entire door assembly, and threw it away. So now neither boy has a closet door. We’ll replace them eventually…once they understand that destroying their house is generally a bad idea.

The Dog

I took the boys to the park to get some exercise. Soon after I sat down, a large, hyperactive dog ran up and jumped on me, dragging a leash behind it and chased by a little girl that probably weighed as much as the dog and obviously couldn’t control it. I shoved it away and looked around for the girl’s mother without success. Finally she showed up, and they all walked over to a nearby creekbed. I was already on edge but so far was resisting the temptation to go off on her. My boys were intrigued and watched the dog intently. Soon the dog bounded over to Brenden and started licking his face excitedly. As I hurried over to break them up, the mom tried to act friendly and gave me the typical line from such pet owners, “Oh, he’s fine, he won’t hurt anybody.”

No. You. Did. N’t.

I was nicer than I could have been and wanted to be, but I made it clear that I didn’t share her opinion and that she needed to keep her dog away from my children. She didn’t say anything but did finally grab the leash and lead the dog away.

Many pet people seem to make three bad assumptions:

  • Everyone else is an animal person, so surely everyone else loves their pets and won’t mind if those pets run around and get in everyone’s business.
  • Because their pets have never attacked anyone, they never will attack anyone.
  • Because they aren’t allergic to their pets, other people aren’t allergic to their pets, either.

Fortunately, even though Brenden is allergic to dogs, he suffered no ill effects from this incident. I didn’t shoot the dog or call the cops. I didn’t cuss out a stranger in front of my children. However, I did stand up for them. I hope that in the process, I gave the mom some things to think about.

Note to all pet owners: If your critter is threatening his kids, Papa Bear doesn’t give a bag of dog doo about your feelings or your pet.

The Battle

My children are stubborn just like me. They have no lack of self-esteem, don’t really get their feelings hurt even when they are in trouble, and tend to think their desires are the most important consideration for any given situation. For reasons I’m still unraveling, I want them to follow my directions exactly, much like a computer program or robot, and quickly get frustrated when (surprise!!) they don’t. Being far from a child care expert, my default response is to take a my-way-or-the-highway approach in which I quit listening to what they’re saying and browbeat them until they either comply or end up in time out.

That’s stupid. It’s based on the bad belief that their highest calling in life is to obey me. Please. Yes, they need to obey us, but they don’t need to be robots, either. The backbones that drive us crazy while they are kids will help them stand up for what’s right in the face of opposition when they are older.

So I’m trying to figure out a middle ground where they do what I ask by choice rather than by force. That means doing a better job of listening to them and understanding what they want rather than being too busy to consider their opinion. That means choosing my battles. That means fewer orders and more options, perhaps by setting a goal for them but letting them decide how to reach it instead of dictating exactly how I want it done.

Like everything in parenting, it’s a work in progress. Patience is not my strength, but I hope that changing my approach a bit will help it grow.

Colorblind Children

One thing I love about suburban living is the amazing assortment of nearby public parks. I count at least seven parks with solid playgrounds within a five minute drive plus an awesome, huge one that’s maybe ten minutes away. Why spend $1000 or more, not to mention a weekend full of cussing and imposing on friends and family for assembly, to put a smaller playset in our backyard? We can visit a different park every day of the week virtually for free.

Another advantage of playing in all these public parks is the boys’ opportunity to play with other kids. My sons aren’t exactly shy. When we show up at a park where other kids are playing, they happily jump right in and assume they are now part of the group rather than awkwardly lingering on the fringe hoping to get an invitation. For this shy dad, it’s a joy and a relief to see how comfortable they are with complete strangers.

Last week we went to the “Blue Park” – we’ve given each park a name that’s easy for them to remember – that sits near the apartments where Jenny and I lived when we first got married. Lots of kids were playing at the playground that day, many of them connected to a large family gathering that was grilling at a nearby picnic area. As usual, Brenden and Jonathan jumped right in. As I watched them play, I noticed that they were the racial minority at the playground. Most of the kids were black, the ones from the family gathering, and a few might have been Latino or white. I was struck by how, for my boys and seemingly for the other kids as well, race was an absolute non-issue.

They didn’t care whether the other kids were white, black, brown, or any other color. They were just happy to have someone with whom to play superheroes and pile up on the slide and giggle and run around and swing. One of the black boys was older, apparently the leader of the group. He was very patient and helpful with the younger kids of all races. At one point he even pushed Brenden on the swing for a bit, and Brenden loved getting attention from a big kid.

This little experience reminded me of a truth I’ve known for years but sometimes forget: racism is learned, not natural.

Let me be clear and honest here. I’m not perfect in the prejudice department. I’m not completely colorblind, nor am I sure that’s even a good goal given that race is part of one’s identity and is often tied into one’s culture, values, and much more in ways that are difficult for an American white male to understand. I still jump to inappropriate conclusions sometimes based on someone’s race. I still laugh at some racial humor that I probably shouldn’t condone. I choose to live in a suburb with a good school district, and that district does happen to contain mostly white kids. But Jenny and I are trying not to taint our sons’ worldview with any inappropriate prejudices, generalizations, or stereotypes based on a person’s race. I think that’s the main reason why being around kids of other races isn’t a big deal to them. Since we don’t make race an issue, they haven’t gotten any notion that race is worth considering. I like that.

I also want to preserve that perspective in them for as long as I can. I don’t try to persuade them to go to the parks where mostly white kids hang out. (I do try to steer them toward parks that have actual bathrooms rather than Portapotties or secluded trees, but that’s another post) I try to keep them away from racist people so those people’s hatred and ignorance don’t taint my sons’ young minds. I try hard to avoid the subtle Texas racism of describing a white man simply as a guy but a black man as a black guy, even though the man’s race is completely irrelevant to the story. Using language that way reinforces the idea that race is a thing when most of the time, it isn’t.

I also don’t plan to hide my children from “the minorities” by enrolling them in a private school or homeschool them for their entire school careers to keep them away from kids who are different. Brenden starts public kindergarten this fall, and we plan to keep both of them in public school through their senior years, just like we were. I want them to be around different types of people – different races, languages, religions, genders, socioeconomic classes, cultures, and sexual orientations – so they will have a better understanding of how people really are.

I am convinced their lives will be richer as a result, and so will ours.

Game On

m4s0n501

For Christmas the boys got their first Nintendo Wii games, Mario Party 9 and Just Dance Disney Party. They had played a couple of our old Wii games before (they particularly loved beating the heck out of each other on Wii Sports Resort), so the fam gave them a couple of their own. I added Toy Story Mania shortly thereafter.

Ladies and gentlemen, my sons are gamers, and I love it.

I got my first video game system, an Atari 5200, when I was maybe 6. Jungle Hunt was my game of choice. It was so long ago, the TV I used had a dial to change the channel instead of buttons or one of those new-fangled remotes. Although the systems changed and improved over the years, I’ve been a gamer ever since. Mario and Zelda on Nintendo. SimCity and Super Baseball Simulator 1.000 on SNES. Goldeneye on N64. Grand Theft Auto III and Dragon Quest VIII on PS2. Skyrim and Demon’s/Dark Souls on PS3. So imagine my joy at seeing my sons pick up one of my longest-running hobbies.

No, they aren’t quite ready to smoke you in Call of Duty, but Jonathan is slowly learning the basic concepts of the Wii. Well, OK, sometimes he thinks he’s playing but really isn’t, but give him some time. Brenden, though, is really getting the hang of several of the Mario Party mini-games as well as numerous iPhone games. Now that he’s learning how to read, he doesn’t need as much help with the instructions, either.

Oftentimes Brenden plays alone. Sometimes Jonathan tries to play with him, but I think he’ll be a better gaming buddy in 6-12 months. Sometimes Jenny or I play with Brenden. Once all four of us even played Mario Party at once! It was a bit like heaven combined with a train wreck, but we had a blast. We bought the boys kid-size Wiimotes that fit their hands better than the normal ones and come in bright colors. I’m so excited for them that I stayed up past 4:00am on my night off playing through Mario Party to unlock all the stages for them. I guess that’s the gamer equivalent of staying up all night sewing a dance costume, right?

Although we certainly won’t force them to play, I hope they will maintain their interest as they get older so it can be a way for us to spend time together guy-style: bonding through a shared activity. As they mature, their skills will increase. I will need to go all-out in some cases to beat them. Perhaps someday they will even surpass me, and the Circle of Life (r) will continue.

Their growing interest in gaming also provides another excuse reason to stay on top of things in the gaming world. Brenden and Jonathan surely need a Wii U, don’t they? Gaming is great for hand-eye coordination, problem solving, spatial reasoning, perseverance, and manual dexterity. I’d hate to deny my children any advantage in their development. :-D