Monday, September 29, 2014

The Great American Family Vacation

When I first started this Blog, I talked about the “American Dream”. Getting married, buying a house, and having kids. Those are definitely the big three, and I’ve checked all three of my bucket list. However, there is another activity that is almost as American as the big three – that of taking the traditional summer family vacation.

You may recall that we actually have taken a few trips with Jackson over the years. You may think that the great “cruise” experiment of 2012 qualified as a “family vacation” – but not in my mind. As a middle class child growing up in the Midwest, summer vacation meant one thing – loading up the family vehicle and driving to the beach. THAT is the quintessential family vacation.

When we decided to take a vacation, our family and friends pretty much had one consistent response – “you’re crazy”. Taking a vacation with a 2.5 year old and a 2 month old? With no additional assistance besides yourselves? I think taking such a “vacation” is punishment for stealing in some third world countries. But we shook off their warnings, assuring ourselves that we were fully capable of surviving our children and the trip, and that we were going to prove them all wrong.

We were drunk with confidence, and making questionable decisions.

The Preparation. Once we decided to take a vacation, we were pretty open to a variety of options. Again, to fit the bill of being a “family vacation”, it just required us to drive to a beach somewhere. After some quick research, we discovered that traveling from Cincinnati Ohio to ANY BEACH IN THE COUNTRY takes approximately the same amount of time. It’s uncanny. Seriously – pick any beach on the Atlantic coast of America, from Maine to South Carolina, and it’s going to be like 10-13 hours away. So we decided on finding a nice, quiet, family friendly beach by the name of Sandbridge on the northern end of the Outer Banks. What could possibly go wrong?

Over the years, I’ve taken the advice of the wise Rick Steves, and packed less and less on each trip I take. I could probably survive a week at the clothes on my back plus a bag containing a bathing suit, pair of mesh shorts, toiletries, and cell phone charger. Heck, forget the bag – the stuff I need could probably fit into the pockets of my cargo shorts. However, having kids means you need to find a way to pack up approximately 50% of your house two to survive one week outside of your house. As we started to consolidate items in preparation, it was quickly evident that there was no way half of our house was going to fit into the trunk of my Camry. We were going to need to borrow a larger family truckster – in this case, the in-laws’ mini-van. The family vacation just kept getting more and more traditional!

With the mini-van packed to the brim (literally, we had to remove the back seats to fit all of our stuff), we rolled out. Adventures awaited!

The Drive. One of the biggest fears leading up to the vacation was the 10 hours that we would be spending in the car each way on the trip to the beach.

First the kids:

With Jackson, we had options – give the kid enough York Peppermint Patties and time with the iPad and he would probably sit in his car seat for 24 straight hours. Evan on the other hand? When he cries, the remedy 90% of the time is picking him up – something totally illegal while driving a car (thanks, Obama). Your only options for a two month old are to feed them (something quite tricky – but not impossible – while breast feeding), or attempt to entertain them with books they don’t understand, funny faces they don’t find funny since they’re miserable, or with plugging them with a pacifier and praying.

And really, can you blame him? I did some quick math, and Evan spent 1/70th of his life thus far in the car on this trip. That’s 1.5% of his life!

Then there’s us:

Is having one person drive 10 straight hours possible? Absolutely. However, I get stir crazy and need to stand up and walk around during a 2 hour movie, so the prospect of driving for half a day made me twitch. “Don’t worry”, KB told me, “we’ll split up the drive and you’ll have plenty of time to take a nap and play on your phone during the drive.” Somehow, during this planning, we failed to factor in that our children are not self-sufficient. In reality, we discovered that keeping both kids happy while driving usually required sitting between them and doing everything you can to keep them entertained. There was no napping. There was no the Facebook-ing. Just the challenge of keeping two kids happy with the added element of difficulty associated with them being strapped into car seats.

On the trip down, we played it smart – breaking up the drive over the course of two days, resulting in two more-reasonable five hours drives – but this also introduced a new fun element to traveling with two very small kids… sharing one happy hotel room.

Hotel Life. Again, looking at the big picture, we were SMART. We realized that we couldn’t stay in a single hotel room for a week at the beach. The prospect of getting Jackson to fall asleep while I was less than 10 feet away seemed unlikely. He would want to play with me the entire night. Likewise, if Evan was right next to me, I’d feel like a REALLY bad parent when I pretended to not hear his cries and sleep through the night. This is why we rented a condo in Sandbridge – with two big bedrooms, and a great walk-in closet for Evan to sleep in. A family that sleeps apart stays together… and also actually gets to sleep.

But then there was the pesky overnight stop in Charlottesville, Virginia. It would be crazy to rent two separate hotel rooms for the night, and I think someone would have frowned on KB and I dumping the kids in one room and us sleeping in the other – so we all piled into one room and hoped for the best.

First the good news – it turns out that hotel rooms are better than any playground or amusement park for Jackson. Seriously, if you asked him the highlight of the entire vacation, he would probably pick the 12 hours spent inside the hotel room. Why?

Inside, there was a real life phone he could play with (thankfully, we didn’t end up with any crazy long-distance charges on our bill when we checked out), a microwave at his eye level (hello free radiation!), a fridge at his level that he could open and close repeatedly (energy bills be damned), and two big beds to jump on. What more could you ask for?

In all honesty, everything was going great and everyone was having a good time until it came time for sleep. After repeatedly snagging Jackson and pinning him down in his bed, he finally relented and laid down for sleep. Thinking he was finally drifting off to sleep, Kate and I sneaked our phones out and started checking Email / the Facebook / Internet… and were immediately busted by our child.

“What you doing?”
“Nothing – go back to sleep”

We’d lay in darkness and silence for ten minutes, then assume he was asleep and try again.

“Daddy – what you looking at?”
“Nothing – go back to sleep”

This continued for about an hour, until I rationalized it was “late enough” to go to bed on vacation and not feel like I was super lame. In hindsight, it was good that I got my sleep – given that the beach awaited!

The Beach. This probably goes without saying, but it is dramatically different going to a “family” beach location versus going to an all-inclusive resort in Mexico, the last few vacations we’ve taken sans-kids. Here are a few of the key differences:

  1. In Mexico, where you have nothing to do but sleep in and relax, you need to be on the beach by 7:00 am in order to secure the best oceanfront chairs and location. Ironically, at a family beach, where your kids wake you up by 7:00 am, you can show up on the beach at 10:00 am and there is no one there. Why?
  2.  In Mexico, before you can head for the beach, you grab a quick bite to eat and lather up the suntan lotion. It can sometimes take up to a half hour to get ready. On a family vacation, getting the kids to eat breakfast, dressed, and ready for the beach is somewhat more intense. If you start right when you wake up at 6:30 am, there’s a chance you’ll be on the beach just before it’s time to come in for nap time – if you hustle.
  3. In Mexico, you leave your room with a towel, a room key, a book, and maybe an oversized mug for alcoholic beverages. Maybe you even have a bag to carry these things in, but it’s small, lightweight, and you can swing it in the breeze as you happily walk to the beach. Remember how I brought half of my house on the trip with me? Well, even though it required a mini-van to drive it to the condo – it turns out that we could take most of it from the condo to the beach strapped to my back and draped around my arms… oh, and also carrying Jackson the majority of the time… just because he didn’t feel like walking. Most walks to the beach ended with me dropping everything and falling down face first on the sand, exhausted.
  4. In Mexico, you have pretty busy days. Read a book, drink, play in the ocean, drink, walk on the beach, drink, eat, nap, swim in the pool, drink, nap, repeat. On a family vacation, I spent five days on the beach and swam in the ocean for a total of ten solid minutes. It turns out that when you have one child who can’t swim and another who can’t be in the sunlight, it somewhat hinders your ability to do your own thing on the beach. There’s lots of parenting… not so much drinking. Walks on the beach happen… but lose something when they involve carrying around a child and worrying about spending too much time away from the sanctuary of the Shade Shack.

I would be remiss if I didn’t at least dedicate one solid paragraph to my favorite part of the trip – the Shade Shack. Knowing that we needed to keep Evan out of the sun all day, we researched Amazon and found the highest rated shade device was the “Shade Shack” – compact, quickly “popped open” and created a nice little lean-to that you could sit under and enjoy shady times on the beach. The first day, it worked pretty good. You load up the base with sand to prevent it from blowing away in the breeze, it did provide some nice shade for Baby Evan, and it seemed far more convenient than those suckers fighting with umbrellas and Easy Up Tents.

Then it came time to take it down and put it back into its nice compact case. There were four simple instructions. Fold it in half, grab it at a 90 degree angle, twist it, and it magically returns to its original saucer-shaped form. Lies. LIES I tell you! After fighting with the Shade Shack on the beach for a half hour, I dragged it back half open to our condo (along with the other 50 pounds of beach-going materials on my back) and threw it on our patio.  Kate foolishly thought “silly boy, I’ll take care of this” and then proceeded to fight with the Shade Shack herself for a half hour on the patio – before deciding we would just hold it together with beach chair towel clips.

The good news is, that made it even more challenging to drag it to and from the beach every day – which is good, because that was the added degree of difficulty I was looking for in my Sherpa-ing. On the last day, I had visions of chucking the Shade Shack into the beach in a fit of passion and crying “go back from whence you came, devil object!” but instead we brought it home so that Kate could return it to the good people of Amazon as being “defective”. Check mate.

The Verdict. Having said all that, there were some of those “magic parent moments” on the beach that were definite highlights. There’s something about the sheer joy Jackson found in jumping waves in the ocean (translation – me holding him and having him jump the waves) that I won’t forget. There was the sacred tradition of passing down the art of making drip castles to Jackson that made me think “if I die tomorrow, at least I’ve taught him all that he really needs to know”. There was the seven straight days of hearing the hilarious comments from Jackson that I normally miss while he’s at school all day. And then there was actually spending some face-to-face time with Evan that helped distinguish me from the other males that he sees the most in his day-to-day life… that being the male actors on Scandal.

You’ll note that there weren’t a lot of Evan stories on the trip, and there’s a reason for that. It turns out going to the beach with a baby who isn’t allowed to be in the sun is kinda like taking a deaf person to a music concert. Yeah, in theory they were there, but they didn’t really experience. Aside from the token ten seconds where we put Evan’s feet in the ocean or two minutes where we put him in the pool, the highlights of his day were trying to avoid getting sand all over him and trying to find a way to take his naps in the wind of the beach.

When we returned home, people asked me how vacation was. I often replied the same way – “it wasn’t really vacation… but living normal life in a different location.” But then I decided to look up the formal definition of the word. It turns out “vacation” is defined as an extended period of recreation, especially one spent away from home or in traveling. By that very pure definition, we probably did take a vacation – we were away from our house for a week, we traveled, and in theory there was recreation being had… at least by Jackson.

As for me, since I returned home more tired than when I left, so it is difficult to call it a “vacation” – but here’s the thing. As a grown-up, when I think back to my youth, the vacations are what you remember. It’s an extended period of time that you are forced to spend time with your family and make memories all day every day. Is it sometimes painful and exhausting? Absolutely. Were there times I cried out “we’re disbanding this family!” Maybe every day. But good or bad, memories were made. And in the end, I guess at this point in my life, vacations aren’t really about me – they’re about making memories for the kids. At times, I think Jackson would have had just as much fun playing with dump trucks and dig digs on our couch at home with me for a week – but then every time he sees a commercial for a beach vacation, he’ll say “I was there!” and is excited about it. Note: he also says this when he sees footage of war in the middle east, but… close enough.

We took a family vacation and we lived to tell about it. Were the warnings we received beforehand justified? Absolutely. Did it take so much out of me that it took a solid month to regain the energy to write a blog post about it? Fact. Good, bad, or indifferent, did we make family memories that we’ll never forget? Most definitely. Clark Griswold was right. In the end, isn’t that all that matters?

Monday, July 21, 2014

The Second Child Experience

Three and a half months since my last post, I make my triumphant return to Man-vs-Baby! At this point in the Jackson baby experience, I had written a shade over 12,400 words about it. So I suppose it’s only fair that I mark the one month birthday of my new child by typing out a few hundred words to summarize the Baby #2 experience.

I was trying to think of a good analogy for how the pregnancy of a second child differs from the first, and the best I could come up with was that of a new roller coaster. The first time you ride a new roller coaster, it’s exciting and scary. You are paying attention to every second of going up that first hill. You’re nervous, wondering what’s going to happen next, and holding your breath waiting for the peak. Since you have no idea what’s coming up, you’re observing everything around you and taking in every second – knowing that any moment could be your last.

With a second child, it’s like riding that same roller coaster again. This time, you know what’s coming. You’re chatting with your friends as you creep up that first hill, cognizant of the heights you are reaching, but not having the same apprehensive fear of the unknown. The hill that seemed to take hours to climb the first time suddenly takes only seconds – and before you know it, you’re hurtling down the hill for another ride.

It’s not that the ride is any less fun the second time, it’s just that the hill is less noteworthy. No one ever talks about a roller coaster having a great hill. They talk about everything that comes afterwards. Babies are the same way.

Having said that, let me highlight some of the major differences between Baby #1 and Baby #2.

Breaking the News. With the first baby, you try to get creative with the reveal to family and friends. For Jackson, it involved choreographed wrapped presents and iPhones with secret pictures of ultrasounds. With the second baby, we did what about 90% of the world does – and put our first child into a “Big Brother” T-shirt before family came around. It’s also hilarious to see that the shirt means nothing to males (who either don’t read t-shirts, or assume that the child is just a fan of the CBS reality show), but females pick up on it right away.

Registration.  The good news about the second baby is that you are spared from the grueling hours spent registering for baby items. You get a chance to bust out all the stuff from your attic / basement and attempt to remember how to use it. I thought back to assembling Jackson’s things for the first time. Cautiously following the directions word-for-word, tightening screws and seat belts as hard as humanly possible, and doing everything I could to ensure these devices wouldn’t kill my child. Contrast to that to Baby #2, where I assembled them on memory and shook them once to ensure they wouldn’t fall apart before calling it “good enough”. On the down side, this attitude nearly prevented us from taking Baby #2 home from the hospital, but more on those illegal shenanigans later.

The Name Game.  With Baby #1, we had a boy and girl name decided upon six months before Jackson’s birth. There was never any doubt about the names, and we had plenty of time to develop nicknames for our unborn child using the initials of our names (thus, Baby EJ). With Baby #2, twelve hours before the birth, KB turned to me and said “we need new names”. Here’s the problem – you pick the absolute best names available with your first child. In the process, you find fault with almost every other name in the world to justify your decision. Therefore, when you go back to these names two years later, it’s impossible to find one that you love the same way you loved the names for Baby #1. Kate and I went on a babymoon a few months before the birth of Baby #2 with the sole goal of coming up with a baby name. Instead of reading books on the beach, we read lists of names. THOUSANDS of names. Just when I thought we had accomplished our goal, KB wavered… fearful of names being too popular, worried that we didn’t have a “good story” of where the name came from, or concerned it didn’t “go with” Jackson. So we debated for the next few months – hitting numerous roadblocks, giving up countless times, and reading even more baby books and blogs. But we were unable to reach a true consensus. One of the first things I said after the birth of Baby #2 was so… are we good on names? In the end, the name was the one I picked on that beach months prior – so KB either finally conceded that it was a good name… or realized that she couldn’t post a Facebook announcement without a name, so she had to just accept it and move on.

The Room.  Jackson’s room was fully assembled, painted, and ready for its close up pictures at least a month before his birth. Baby #2’s room received its first pictures to hang on the walls this week – just before the one month anniversary of the birth. I chalk this up to being realistic. We recognize that the kid isn’t going to be sleeping in that room for at least a few weeks. Given that we aren’t sitting around with extra free time, this “just in time” delivery only made sense.

So there you have it, the summary of the nine months leading up to the birth in just under a thousand words. I’m getting more efficient in my old age!

The Birth. As for the birth itself, it’s funny how leading up to it, Kate and I asked ourselves the following questions:

 What are we going to do in the hospital for a day after this kid is born?
Are we going to be bored?
 No Jackson and nurses to take care of our baby. Is this going to be like a vacation?

Packing a hospital bag for Jackson, we were ready for a week in the hospital, weather conditions ranging from blizzard to heat wave, and had enough gadgets in our bag of tricks to deal with any potential labor pains or challenges. Packing a hospital bag this time, I seriously debated if I could just go with the clothes on my back and put a cell phone charger and toothbrush in my pocket.

On the other hand, we entered the final months of pregnancy with a heightened state of awareness. Once Kate went into labor with Jackson, he came out relatively fast. With him, I was at work in a meeting at 11:00 am when I received a phone call that she was feeling bad. I rushed home, we went to the doctor, who sent us to the hospital, and at 6:00 pm, he was born. Truth be told, had the doctors been on time at the hospital, he probably would have been born at 4:30 pm.

So with Baby #2, when KB first started to feel “weird” at 8:00 am, I stayed home from work, we went to the doctor immediately, and were at the hospital at 10:00 am. Since it wasn’t our first rodeo, we spent our little time in the hospital doing things like taking pictures to post on Facebook and setting up a tripod to video tape our faces during the birth. An hour and a half later with a solid five minutes of pushing, and Baby #2 was born!

Say hello to Evan:

We left the hospital about 24 hours after he was born… but not without a little drama. Remember the shoddy re-assembly of baby items referenced earlier? It turns out we forgot a critical piece of padding for the baby car seat – you know, the piece that makes it actually snug for a newborn. So when we attempted to leave, the nurses were like “uh, that’s a little loose – tighten it up.” I jerry-rigged a loop in the belt behind the seat to trick them and snuck out before they could retain our child and arrest us for endangerment. Booyah. One nervous car ride later, we found the missing padding from the attic and returned to our standing as “mediocre parents”.

One month after his birth, what are my musings?

Babies are Easy. Honestly, I think back to 2012 Brian and wonder what the hell he was complaining about. Kate feeds him. You set him down and he doesn’t go anywhere. He sleeps for like 18 hours a day. One week of paternity leave was basically “Game of Thrones” leave because we spent so much time sitting around inside our house watching TV.

The level of effort for a second child (to this point) is far less than double one child. Yes – I know this is going to change dramatically once Evan is more mobile and opinionated. But for now, it still feels like Jackson creates all the work – we just have to do it now carrying around a 10 pound sack of potatoes that cries periodically. I’ve told numerous people, “Once you’re staying at home on Friday night and waking up on Saturday morning at 6:30 am, it doesn’t matter if you’re doing it with one kid or two” – which I think sums it up pretty well.

You absolutely forget what babies are like. I guess Jackson used to cry and wake us up in the middle of the night, but now I can only remember him sleeping through the night and doing fun and hilarious things. I think in hindsight, your first child is always an angel. Numerous times, I’ve said “man, Jackson never did this” only to be corrected by KB that he did “this” all the time, and did it much worse than Evan.

Babies are for girls, and toddlers are for boys. I’ve always said this, and think Evan has only confirmed my theory. At the end of the day, babies still pretty much lay around, eat, sleep, and poop. They don’t necessarily NEED me for any of that. On the other hand, Jackson runs around, builds forts, and plays hide and seek. Doing that stuff on your own is far less fun than doing it with Dad. So when push comes to shove, I find myself spending disproportionately more time with him than Evan. But I also think he’s getting more return on the investment of my time than Evan would at this stage in life – so it’s simple finance math.

I have no idea who Evan will become. Kate has often said that she’s waiting to see what Evan is going to “be like”. When Jackson was one month old, we had no idea he would become a crazy man without fear (except leaves) who loves construction equipment and farm animals. At this time, we have no idea what Evan is going to be like. We’re in no hurry for him to grow up, but I can’t help but be excited to see how he turns out.

Back to the roller coaster analogy. Like I said, a pregnancy is like going up that first hill. It’s all anticipation and excitement for the rush that follows. It’s crazy and exciting and exhausting – but before you can catch your breath a baby becomes a toddler – and any preconceived notions you had about “free time” or “being busy” are thrown out the window. But it’s a wild ride – even though I think I know what lies ahead, like any good roller coaster I’m guessing there are enough twists and turns to keep me guessing about what’s coming next… and give me plenty of fodder for the Blog.

Round two!

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Year Two Musings

Where does the time go? I use this expression to both refer to the whirlwind of the first two years of my son’s life – and also the fact that I’m sitting down to write his two year blog about two months late. Yikes! Suddenly it makes perfect sense why my parents saw zero TV shows during the 1980s. Raising kids takes up all your time!

But as we hit the two year mark, it seems like an appropriate time to look back – to do a retrospective of sorts, of the entire “baby experience”. Don’t get me wrong – I know there are many, MANY years of child rearing ahead of me – but this blog started out as “man-vs-baby”, a look at how having a baby changes one’s life. So what have I learned over the past two years?

Love. Ironically, in my first ever man-vs-baby blog post, I talked about how I was looking forward to teaching my child about unconditional love (you know, the kind of love one has for Cincinnati professional sports teams even though they perennially crush hearts and dreams). However, more than anything else, having a child truly shows you what unconditional love really is. .People can talk about loving food, their friends, family, heck – even their spouse. But in some aspects, those are easy. You are able to love them while still retaining some independence and ability to do what you want. A baby comes into your life and takes away some of those things that you previously held so dear and encroaches on the majority of those independent activities. Remember the good old days of being able to read the newspaper at breakfast and have a leisurely meal? Gone. Remember being able to spend a lazy Saturday on the couch watching football and drinking beer all day? Gone. Clean cars and clothes? Gone. If one of your friends started dating someone who immediately impeded their ability to do all the things that they loved, you would call it a horrible, one-sided relationship, and one that was doomed to fail. Yet this is exactly what happens with a baby. It’s like marrying an uber-controlling chick who mandates how you spend nearly every minute of your day… yet you still love her more than anything in the world.

It’s crazy when you think about it. I remember before I had a baby, people would tell me all sorts of stories about how much your life would change… and thinking to myself, “this sounds horrible”. But they’d always finish the stories by saying something like “yeah, but it’s totally worth it”. I never understood that – and I don’t think anyone can understand it until it happens to them. But it’s totally true. What makes it “worth” giving up so many things that you thought previously defined you?

I’m not sure if it’s a sense of obligation (since you brought this life into the world and feel a sense of responsibility towards it), a desire to impart all the wisdom and life lessons that you’ve gained to someone else (allowing you to impact the future), or the feeling of pride and accomplishment of watching your baby grow – but in the end, it all boils down to the same thing. You would do absolutely anything for this other human being, even if they (literally) crap on everything you used to hold dear.

While you still fundamentally remain the same person you were pre-baby, having a baby gives you a new sense of purpose in life and in some aspects re-defines you. The weird thing is, when you suddenly see this new purpose and responsibility in life, it makes a lot of the old ones seem less important in comparison. The happiness you gain from seeing your baby walk for the first time, or say their first word is far greater than any joy that you got from those things in your life that the baby may have taken away. If you asked me to name the highlight of this year so far, Jackson doing the “Go Dayton Flyers” cheer on his own would be towards the top of the list. It’s that amazing.  

Hmmm – I guess when you put it like that, maybe it’s not such an unconditional love. In the end, you do get something back in return. Maybe it’s more like a long-term investment. You put in a lot of energy and hours that don’t immediately pay off. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – babies aren’t really that fun. Babies are for girls because they get to cuddle them, dress them up, and… well, treat them like babies. Toddlers are for boys – bringing the kind of entertainment that can only come from a miniature person saying “go away D” instead of “Go UD”. They come back to you slowly over the years, in little moments and big events that make you forget about all the things you sacrifice along the way.

Unique. The other big thing I’ve learned is that parents can’t pick their children – and that’s a very good thing. What do I mean by this? Some of Jackson’s favorite things in the world are trucks, diggers, and construction equipment. All things that KB and I care exactly zero about – and didn’t care about when we were kids. This has both educated us (turns out that diggers are really called things like “front end loaders” and “backhoes”) and introduced all sorts of new toys into the household to play with. I know there are all sorts of debate about nature vs. nurture out there – but Jackson came out of the womb loving this stuff through zero intervention from the outside world. Your first reaction might be – “who is this kid? Why doesn’t he like the same things I like? Does the mailman like diggers?” But the more I think about it, the more interesting it makes life. How boring things would be if Jackson grew up loving Dave Matthews Band and watched TV shows from the 1980s. We would constantly be arguing about setlists and which Transformer is the best – and of course I would be right and he would be wrong, which would be crushing to his self-esteem.

By default, having kids broadens your horizons. You find yourself spending time at any local park you can find, the zoo on any nice weekend (along with every other parent in a 100 mile radius) and what restaurants can get food on the table within 5 minutes of placing an order (thank you Skyline). But through Jackson, I’ve also learned so much about all modes of transportation, construction equipment, and the joys associated with pretending there are bugs hiding under our couch… which he then pretends to eat.

Don’t get me wrong – as mentioned earlier, I do my best to influence him in life. There’s a reason he knows the UD cheer, calls football and basketball “Daddy’s Game”, and enjoys Skyline chili. But the fact that he is his own independent little person with his own interests and priorities is pretty cool. It’s also what is completely terrifying about having a kid. No matter what you might do, they might turn out to be moody, stubborn, or listen to Nickelback. You can do as much as you can as a parent to mold them in your self-image, but there is only so much you can do.

The Truth. On my first blog post, I mentioned the “big three” in the American Dream – getting married, getting a house, and having babies. I mentioned how society deems all three as completely worthwhile endeavors and all things that people should try in life. I was 100% on board with getting married and 100% against home ownership, but was unsure about having a child – and promised that I would provide you the truth on this blog. So with two years under my belt, what does the survey say?

Turns out kids are awesome.

I’m not saying this because I have a child and want everyone else to feel my pain.

I’m not saying this to trick myself into thinking it’s great and I made a smart decision.

At the end of the day, my life is better with Jackson in it, plain and simple. He brings me happiness, purpose, and entertainment. He’s a lot of work, but even after two years, the payout has exceeded the investment – and that’s all you can ask for any gamble, right?

In fact, I like it so much that I think I’m going to go another round – or as Jackson would put it “more again”. Yep, we’re taking this American Dream to the next level by adding Baby #2 – coming this summer!

I feel like it’s only fair to get a Blog or two up prior to this child’s arrival, so that it doesn’t appear like I’m playing favorites – but to be honest, it seems like a much less dramatic life change than the first child presented. Maybe it’s because we have no time to think (or worry) about it, or maybe it’s because society has much less “structure” around a second child (no showers, no people constantly asking “are you ready!?”, no unrequested advice about parenting from family, friends, and strangers), but it’s almost like a normal event at this point, rather than something that is going to fundamentally change everything we know.

Now that I have effectively jinxed myself into having a devil child that will exhaust me beyond belief and strip away the brief minutes of independent freedom I still have in my life, I’ll close out this Blog. Consider this the end of the “Jackson Only Posts”. Monk, you’ve had a good run – thousands upon thousands of words solely dedicated to you and you alone. Your future brother / sister will not be so lucky, so this will be something you can hold over his / her head for the rest of your lives if you ever want to claim that you are the favorite. But that’s not true (well, it could be true if they turn out to be a devil child) – you were just the first. That’s super special, and I love you for it – you were basically the best first child anyone could ever ask for - but you came into our lives in a time when I still had some free time and need to document the overall “baby experience”.

From here on out, it becomes the “two child experience”. Goodbye month-to-month thoughts, hello broad experience posts and complaints. It’s man-vs-baby 2.0! The exciting and terrifying future awaits!

Monday, December 16, 2013

Year One, Month Ten Musings

Velociraptors. From the perspective of the parents’ ability to contain and restrain their child, there are a few game-changing moments that happen over the first few years. The first is once they start crawling. Hello baby-proofing the house, needing to clean your floors daily to prevent your child from turning all their clothes black (or in our case, not – and just buying dark colored clothes), and needing to worry about having barriers at the steps. This one is fairly easy to accomplish, as the parents maintain a pretty significant height advantage, and can cover ground a lot faster walking than a baby can crawling. The second change comes once they start walking. Suddenly you REALLY need to baby-proof the house (not just 12 inches up from the floor), move breakables to top shelves, and put locks on your cabinets to prevent them from drinking cleaning supplies – or even worse, your booze. It’s a little more annoying – I can’t tell you how many times I still go to throw open a drawer only to be foiled by its baby-proofing -  but you once you establish a safe perimeter, you can feel okay in leaving your child alone there for short periods of time.

The third game changer? When your child gains the ability to open doors.

Remember that scene in Jurassic Park where the characters think they are safe, hiding behind a closed door? Then they discover that velociraptors have discovered a way to open doors and it was total chaos? It’s the same thing with kids.

Suddenly, simply closing doors isn’t enough. You have to lock them. Easier said than done.

For some kids, I’m sure this isn’t a big deal. But in the case of Jackson, he might as well be the president of the Jim Morrison fan club. Ever since he has been able to walk, one of his favorite pastimes is opening the front door, then trying to shut himself in between the main door and the glass screen door. He would hang out in there, completely silent for a few minutes, then throw the door open with a big smile. Over the years, this has developed into a much more elaborate ritual. He’ll now grab a set of keys (toy, or real – if he can snag them from me or KB), tell us “bye”, blow us a kiss, and then go into the door. He’s basically telling us “guys, I don’t like you and can’t wait to leave you”. Adorable.

However, now we have to be uber-vigilant to make sure that front screen door is locked all the time. Otherwise, we might think he’s playing hide-and-seek for a few minutes only to find that he’s busted free and taken the car for a joy ride down the street. This sounds pretty easy – but the screen door can only be locked and unlocked from the inside. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve left the house via the garage, then tried to re-enter a few hours later via the front door only to be stymied. Then there’s all the times when someone visits our house, and gets motioned by me to come inside – only to find that they can’t… and then I have to throw two cats off me and get up from the couch to let them in. It sounds like I’m being super lazy here, it’s enough of an annoyance that we don’t lock the screen door by default 100% of the time.

Currently, Jackson is able to open and close bar handled doors, but can only close knobbed doors. That means we’ve only got to worry about approximately 10% of the doors in our house. However, school is a much different story.

Apparently there is some real or imaginary law about not locking doors at Jackson’s school. I get it – it’s an “open door” policy that allows parents to bust in at any time and ensure that their child isn’t in a cage or being forced into sweatshop labor. However, they also have a bar handled door that leads from his classroom into the hallway... and if my kid can open doors, I’m pretty sure that the majority of the kids in his class can do the same. You want to talk about being attacked by velociraptors? Step foot into a classroom full of 1-2 year olds. Maybe they’re starved for grown-up attention. Maybe you’re just something shiny and new that they don’t see all day. Maybe they can sense that my pockets are laden with keys, iPhones, and other things they’d love to play with. But whatever it is, they’re ON YOU as soon as you set foot in the room. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – I have no idea how those teachers do it.

Upon a recent visit, I found my child using a foam block to create a step to reach the paper towel dispenser. He’d grab one, then go and pretend to clean off the table. Then he’d throw the paper towel away and repeat. When I went to stop Jackson from doing it, his friend Cooper (“Coop Coop”), used the same foam block to play with the water in the sink. When the teacher pulled Coop Coop off the block, another child went and started hanging from the sink, swinging back and forth. The teachers are outnumbered like 10-2! How in the world can they prevent the inmates from overtaking the asylum!? Even worse, how do they prevent the inmates from escaping the asylum? How often do kids escape out the door while the teachers are busy keeping other kids out of trouble? Twice a day? Twice an hour? There’s a water fountain directly across the hall. I have a hard time believing that Jackson doesn’t spend the majority of his time at school plotting how to get out there and press the button to turn it on and off repeatedly. Is it like prison, where he trades the chicken nuggets from his lunch to bribe some other kid to distract the teachers? Or have the teachers somehow succeeded in teaching the kids to stay away from the door?

I’m skeptical. If Jurassic Park taught me anything, it’s that you can’t keep dinosaurs or toddlers locked up for long. Somehow “life finds a way”…

Mr. Popular. Speaking of school, it’s been a pretty interesting month. There were numerous occasions where I had the honor of dropping Jackson off, picking him up, and even attending a Thanksgiving lunch (which was a great opportunity to torture the kids – but more on that later). When Jackson approaches the classroom, the kids who see him shout out “Jackson!” (ironically, most of them saying his name much better than he can say his own name, which is more like “Da Dack”) – it’s like Norm walking into Cheers. At first, I thought nothing of it, assuming that every child who came to school got the same treatment. But then I noticed that this wasn’t the case. The teachers would make comments like “Oh yeah, Madeline was wondering when Jackson was going to get here”. At Thanksgiving lunch, grandparents of some of the other kids said things like “Oh, this is the Jackson that we hear so much about!” followed by the teachers confirming “Yeah, everyone knows Max and Jackson.” Hell, before Madeline’s mom left at Thanksgiving lunch she told her daughter “Go give Jackson a hug”.

What’s going on here? No offense to my lovely wife or myself, but why is Jackson Mr. Popular at school?

Is it because he’s a trouble maker? I’ve confirmed with his teachers that he has his “crew” at work – consisting of Jackson, Max, and Cooper. I’ve seen the work of Jackson and Coop Coop. It looks like the work of criminal masterminds. Are they the rebels that all the other kids look up to?

Is it because he’s got an easy name? According to the Internet, Jackson was the #1 boy name in 2013. That drove KB crazy (to which I assured her that he’s a boy and will spend his entire life going by his last name, like me), but it increases the odds that the kids in his class have a Jackson in their family or neighborhood – and it’s a name they’re already familiar with.

Is it because he’s hot stuff? The ladies obviously like him, which makes sense. He dresses quite stylish thanks to 90% of his wardrobe coming from our friends’ kids, who have much better taste than I do. He could just be reaping the benefits of them being trendy and buying their kids something more than solid colored T-shirts and sweatpants.

Is it because he could care less about anyone else in school and just does his own thing all day? Could it be that adage about not caring about what other people think really does make you cool? I’ve seen glimpses of my child playing at school – I can’t recall him ever truly interacting with another kid while he’s playing. He’s usually off doing his own thing, or playing with toys while other kids hang out nearby and attempt to hug him. Is he Mr. Independent that all the other kids like because he’s already too cool for school?

I have absolutely no idea, but do find it ironic that my son will probably be the most popular that he’ll ever be in life at an age where he has no concept of it and could care less. On second thought, maybe that’s a good thing!

Full Assing It. Finally this month, a topic that made much more sense when I started this blog post back in November (I know, I know – I’m a slacker!). Jackson has always been somewhat of a perfectionist. You might find this difficult to believe, given that he usually has half of any given meal on his shirt and caked into his hair, but this kid has a very strong sense of right, wrong, and order – and when something is out of order, it’s unacceptable. Take the aforementioned doors for example. At some point over the past month, Jackson has decided that the natural state of doors is to be closed. If he sees an open door, he shuts it. This is great for times that we forget to shut the door to our downstairs basement – but somewhat annoying when we’re trying to run out the door to school and work, but have to stop and wait for him to shut every door upstairs before heading down the steps. He’ll shout “uh oh!” and point to the open door, then leap from my arms and run over to shut it before proudly walking back, thinking he just prevented catastrophe. Good work, bud.

However, the fall season has proved to be a little bit traumatic for the Monk – because in his mind, the natural state of leaves is in trees – and if they’re on the ground, that’s an “uh oh!” Over the past few weeks, I’ve slowly gotten him to accept that there is nothing “uh oh!” about leaves on the ground. Showing him that we can just brush them off the driveway, rake them into a pile in the grass, or throw them in the air for entertainment. When he’s climbing up the steps of our deck, he’ll stop on each step, shout “uh oh!” and then swipe all of the leaves off of the step before moving on to the next step and repeating the process. Similarly, when picking up sticks in the yard, I’ll casually toss them over towards the pile of debris in the corner of our yard. Jackson needs to walk it over to the pile and make sure it lands in just the right place on top – otherwise, it’s another “uh oh!” with him running to make sure that stick ends up in the right place.

A popular kid that does things right and doesn’t take the easy way out? I’m questioning more and more if he’s my child with every passing day.

Now that it’s December and snowy, there’s a whole new problem – snow. Jackson loves seeing it on the ground, likes saying “sno!”, and was seemingly very excited to go out and play in it for the first time… until he touched it, and realized that it stayed on his gloves after he removed them from the snow. That was NOT the natural state of his gloves and he freaked out, wanting that snow OFF his gloves as soon as possible. As you can imagine, this makes playing in the snow quite difficult. We attempted a little sled riding, with him on top of me to prevent any part of him from touching the snow, but that got old pretty fast. So at least for this year, it doesn’t look likely that Jackson’s going to be spending a whole lot of time frolicking in the snow. I guess it’s a good thing we’ve yet to invest in “boots” for him, and instead are using his shoes, wrapped in a plastic bag, held in place with a rubber band, with some of Kate’s thick socks wrapped over the top. Classy.

On second thought, maybe this “afraid of snow” thing is just a ruse to avoid being seen outside with these contraptions on his feet. After all, he has a cool kid reputation to keep up…

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Year One, Month Eight Musings

Let’s be honest, the surprising thing about last month wasn’t that there was no blog post. It was that I actually made it a year and a half keeping up with my monthly updates. Given how busy life can be, carving out an hour or so every month to sit down and write a witty, insightful, heart-touching, grammatically correct blog can be tough – but even tougher can be finding worthwhile topics to discuss. I feel like the blog has gone through some very clearly defined phases over the past year and a half. There were the initial posts pre-Jackson about the whole “process” of having a baby, and all the craziness that went along with it. Then there were the first post-Jackson posts that basically were about the changes to life that a baby brings, along with all the “first time” topics. But recently, we’re into the “gradual update” stage. There are still some “firsts” here and there – but once you’ve got a kid who can walk, semi-talk, and has some personality, there are much fewer distinguishable items that stand out on a monthly basis worthy of writing about. The days start to bleed together into a relative sense of normalcy – and it just becomes “life”, which has its fair share of highlights and lowlights, but they’re generally much more subtle.

So having said all that, the primary reason there was no Blog last month was more due to a lack of material than a lack of time. One of the things I’ve found over the years is that if I don’t have good source material to work with – if I’m not inspired to the point where my fingers just rapidly rattle of thousands of words without much effort – the Blog posts tend to suck. They’re forced, they lack the normal witty spark, and I finish them by posting them and saying “well, that was garbage. I hate it.” Rather than doing that last month, I just skipped a month – it seemed like as good a time as any to take a breather, given that we just hit the year and a half mark with the Monk. Now I’m refreshed and have some new things to write about – at least for this month. There’s always the chance that I run dry again next month, so the Blog may be a little more sporadic from time to time – but rest assured that I’m doing this for your benefit, to ensure that the quality remains high and that there aren’t any months where I’m just mailing it in.

Mailing It In. On the other hand, I’m totally fine with mailing it in every once in a while when it comes to parenting. Take this past weekend for example. KB and I were in the running for the elusive (and imaginary) “Parent of the Year” award that we always joke about winning when we do things like forget to change Jackson’s diaper for 6 hours. But we had an action packed weekend, taking him to visit a fire station and sit inside fire trucks, getting pictures of him taken at the mall, visiting his Grandma and Grandpa’s house to play with all their fun toys, and then going on a Pumpkin Patch train ride, which combined two of his favorite things – trains and pumpkin throwing (no matter how much we try to teach him that pumpkins aren’t for throwing). Needless to say, when Sunday afternoon rolled around, I had pretty much maxed out my parenting juice and was ready for beer, football, and couch. I was perfectly content to mail it in and let Jackson play with his trucks on the couch while learning how to scream at the TV during a Bengals game.

This was a foreign concept to my overachieving wife.

But let’s be honest here, how much parenting to kids really need? Isn’t there the risk that spending all day every day doing engaging activities with a child is going to turn them into someone with ADD, who constantly needs new and exciting things to keep them happy? Isn’t there something to be said for kids learning to be happy entertaining themselves with simple objects. You call it lazy parenting, I call it “teaching kids to use their imagination”.

(Side note: It must be paying off, because this month I saw Jackson use his imagination for the first time. Playing in his crib, he would walk to the one side, pick up something and carry it in his outstretched hands and then set it down on the other side of the crib. He repeated this a few times before going back to playing with real toys. It was pretty cool to see – and either a sign that he’s got an active, functioning brain, or that he’s stolen some invisible toys from rich kids school… you know, the kind who can afford invisible toys.)

Granted, I’m not advocating for plopping the kid down in front of the TV and walking away for two hours (only for like a half hour when you REALLY need to get dinner cooking) – but if I’m nearby, occasionally making comments and ensuring that Jackson isn’t jumping head-first off the couch (which he is prone to do), it seems perfectly reasonable to spread out a few toys and see how he can entertain himself during an afternoon of football. It also led to some pretty hilarious moments. At one point, I jumped off the couch and yelled “GO, GO, GO!” Jackson looked at me and then said “go go go” while shaking his fist. I’ve never been so proud. Then, since it was a Bengals game, there were numerous occasions where I screamed “NO!” at the TV and fell to the ground in despair. Jackson mimicked me on this one as well, which was easy to do since that’s somewhat his favorite word… even though he doesn’t know what it means.

No. Jackson has a number of “go to” words – words that he says all the time, even when they don’t apply to the situation. Phrases like “a bus” and “dig dig dig”. Given that some of his favorite things in the world are buses and construction equipment (or really, any vehicles), it’s not surprising that he loves saying these words. He’s a hawk when it comes to spotting things that he likes. When driving in a car, a bus can be right next to him or a hundred yards in front of him and he’ll see it in his mirror and scream “A BUS!” When we wake up in the morning and open the blinds on our windows, you can faintly see the tops of buses at a school a mile away. He sees them and screams “A BUS!” As we fly past roadside construction equipment at 80 miles per hour (if Kate is driving) or 67 miles per hour (if I’m driving), he’ll shout “DIG DIG DIG!” It’s really quite impressive. Given his uncanny ability to spot these things, we’ll often give him the benefit of the doubt, assuming that he really did see a bus but we didn’t – or saw something that looked like a bus, but was really a mini-van or Jerome Bettis.

But then there’s the times when we’re doing something like sitting on our bed reading a book about dogs and he’ll point to one and say “A BUS!” Although his vocabulary is increasing with each passing day, it’s almost as if since he doesn’t know any other words to exclaim happiness, he just uses things that make him happy – like buses. When he gets all fired up about something, you can bet there’s going to be a “DIG DIG DIG” coming your way, accompanied by him pretending to dig furiously with his hand. We’ve grown to accept (and love) these Jackson catch phrases.

The word “no” is something altogether.

Jackson understands what “no” means. He uses it correctly a lot of the time.

“Jackson, do you want me to change your diaper?”

“Jackson, do you want to go inside and eat dinner?”

“Jackson, do you want to do a fashion show for your mommy with the new clothes she just bought?”

But it’s almost as though he’s come to expect that anything we ask of him is going to be something that we want him to do, but he isn’t going to like. As spoiled as this kid is, it’s somewhat shocking that at least part of him doesn’t think “wait a minute, maybe Dada and AmMa are trying to give me something I want” (yep, somehow Kate has gone from MaMa to AmMa over the past month. It’s weird, but now I’ve come to accept it and call her that almost exclusively). Does he really think we are plotting against him in everything we say and do? Are we that much of a buzz-kill already? I guess all we can do is mess with him, knowing that the answer is going to be “no” regardless, to try and create funny moments that we can capture on video to mock him with at some point in the future:

 “Jackson, do you want to eat an avocado?”

 “Jackson, do you have a nose?”

 “Jackson, do you want to go to the Construction Equipment and Bus Expo, hosted by Elmo?”

Diggers. Speaking of construction equipment, I’ve recently come to realize how quickly kids make you feel dumb. Admittedly, I’m not the most handy guy in the world (understatement). I’ve never worked construction, which is why I don’t wear jeans to work. But when you have a kid, you feel obligated to tell them what everything is, as a way of educating them about the world around them… including all the various trucks and equipment building the new school and playground near our house. Some are easy – dump trucks, tractors, cement mixers. But then you start getting into the gray area of things like Bobcats. You know Bobcats, the small bulldozer-y things that are pretty common at most construction sites:

Thinking that they were similar to Kleenex, where everyone calls them by a brand name rather than some generic term, I was taken aback when Kate started explaining to Jackson that it was a “digger”.

Excuse me? That’s racist.

So imagine my surprise when I then found that there are entire books devoted to – and titled – “Diggers”. You mean this isn’t something that my wife made up to name something she wasn’t familiar with (like how she calls football helmets “hats”)? Over the past few months, due to my son’s love of “diggers”, I’ve come to learn a lot about them. There are thousands of videos on the internet of diggers just doing construction work. Three months ago, I’d be asking myself who in the world would put something up on the internet, let alone who would watch it. Now I’ve seen all of them. I know the various parts of the diggers (or “excavators”, as they are called if you’re being fancy). I know all the various uses for them and have seen them come in all sizes, big and small. Heck, I’ve technically broken the law to let my son play on them. It’s a whole new world that I knew exactly zero about pre-Jackson. Look at him, expanding my boundaries already.

If only you knew what your kid was going to like before they were born, you’d have time to prep on learning all about it in advance (when you still have free time to do things like read books and surf the internet without having to split the screen and have YouTube up on half of it with videos of dump trucks).

Sounds. There is one area that probably should be a mandatory part of all child birth classes – learning the sounds that every single creature in the animal kingdom makes. This seems like the common thread among all kids – regardless of what they are going to be interested in as they grow up, they all know how to make animal noises when they’re young. Jackson can say the name of one, maybe two types of animals. But he can make the sound of any animal you can throw at him. Actually, even beyond animals, Jackson specializes in making the sounds of everything from police cars to motorcycles. But with animals, they really should have parents practice in advance, because if you don’t know how to make the right sound, you’re setting your child up for a lifetime of mockery in school and around his friends.

Listening to someone else make animal noises is a very telling activity. If someone just says the words like “meow”, it means they’re not really much fun. If someone actually meows like a cat (which is more of a “re-ow” sound, it means they’re getting into it and probably are going to be pretty fun if they get a few beers in them. The tricky thing is when you get to animal sounds that aren’t obvious. Cats, dogs, sheep, cow – no problem.

What about a fish? Jackson dominates fish sounds, basically making bubble sounds with his mouth. Genius. I would have never thought of that and probably would have just said “swim swim swim”.

What about animals even harder than a fish? Jackson has a book of animal sounds where there is a caterpillar in it. Really? I’m fairly certain they are 100% quiet. When you push the button, it makes this crazy “woop woop woop” sound, so now Jackson assumes that’s the sound they make. Lies!

There needs to be a cheat sheet. There needs to be some international standard on what sounds things like – or at least the makers of children’s books and toys need to stop including things like guinea pigs (no idea), giraffes (neck neck neck?), and foxes (what does the fox say?). As it exists today, it’s just setting me up for feeling like a failure and making me a disappointment in my son’s eyes, who assumes I know the answers to everything in the world. Thankfully, he doesn’t know any better – yet. But at some point, he’s going to come storming home from school yelling “why didn’t you tell me that caterpillars don’t make noises?! I was the laughing stock of school!”