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Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Never Make A Promise You Can't Keep*

The promise: To build a tree house for my son Spencer before his fifth birthday.

I would like to mention up top here that this was not my idea – but the wife’s. She’d been looking at web sites and books with schematics and decided that she would take off the week of Easter, essentially Spring Break for the masses, and we will build the tree house.

The beginning of my tree house boot camp started on Saturday, March 26, 2005. My wife and Spencer drove to a lumber store in Burlington, NC, because it was significantly cheaper than the local Lowes or Home Depot.

My wife is all about the discount.

When they returned, Spencer ran in to tell me of how the wood fell out of the truck and that “people he didn’t even know” helped them pick the wood off of the highway. Yes, I just said HIGHWAY. My wife and son were one of those people – the kind who spill lumber out of the bed of a truck. Shortly thereafter, I ferried 60 pound bags of cement to the backyard and hauled whatever timber was needed at the moment off the back of the truck.

In the blink of an eye, my wife darted off to rent a two-person auger. Boy, did we feel sore the next day. But shit if we didn’t get some holes burrowed and 6” x 6” x 12’ posts set.

We finished framing the tree house, fastening lumber with lag screws to the pine trees which acted as the back of the tree house. Since we don’t have much in the way of tools, we borrowed a power drill and some drill bits. Outside of that, our circular saw, a hammer, and a pair of vice grips do the bulk of the work.

Day One was over and we were spent.

Sunday, Day Two, began at the crack of dawn. The kids were fed breakfast, coffee was made and by 9 a.m. the family was outside and construction continued. 5 ¼” x 6’ x 10” decking boards were placed as flooring. By now it was apparent that our thorough measuring wasn’t all that thorough: some angles weren’t straight and some lumber wasn’t level. We were well on our way to building a tree house of Dr. Seuss proportions.

Midway through the day, my hands became to sore – the hammering of ten-penny nails and screwing 2 1/2” screws into planks with a shitty drill bit took its toll.

We broke for the day at dinner time.

Monday found rain in the forecast so I attended a business meeting most of the day and it turned into a day of much needed rest; a day to recoup our energies and step back and take in what progress had been made.

Tuesday began much like the other days: the kids got fed the coffee brewed and then off to the backyard to work amongst the backdrop of whirring saw blades, buzzing drills, kids hollering and us screaming back at them. The agenda called for putting up the 6’ x 6’ sides, slapping up railings made with 2 x 4s and placing the balusters. The balusters mimic the look of the deck in our backyard and also function as a safety element prohibiting the kids from falling off the sides. As dusk arrived, the yard was cleaned of its construction litter and the tools placed back inside, because the next day was Spencer’s birthday and for that we spent the night at Wrightsville Beach.

Wednesday morning slogged by because we couldn’t leave too early since check-in time at the hotel wasn’t until after 3 p.m. We packed clothes and organized toys to be used as distractions for the kids during the 2 plus hour drive to the beach.

The wife was behind the wheel and we were somewhere east of Raleigh. She came upon what appeared to be an unmarked police car. He sped up and she followed him. Then he slowed down and got behind a car in the right lane. My wife did the same. He broke out of the right lane and sped up. Again, my wife followed suit. Finally he settled back into the flow of slower moving traffic in the right lane and with that my wife made the executive decision that the unmarked car is not a cop after all but probably just some business man. She zoomed past him in the left lane.

Moments later she cried out, “Dammit! It was a cop.

I turned around to see the red and blue blinking lights. I started to search for the registration in the glove compartment.

“Ma’am,” he said. “Do you know hwy I pulled you over?”

“I was doing the speed limit,” my wife snapped back.

“Ma’am,” he said emphatically. “Don’t argue with me! I haven’t written a ticket in over four years but I still could if I wanted to.”

The cop is obviously angry. He lectured her about safe driving. “Especially with children in the car,” he said.

“Ma’am,” he said sternly. “Please drive safely.”

The rest of the car ride to the beach is done in silence.

The beach was fun. The weather was great, the ocean water was predictably cold, but the pool was heated. Spencer did double duty going from beach to pool to beach and then back again to the pool until late in the evening. We attempted to eat dinner out by our youngest Cole was restless at the dinner table so we retreated to the room and ordered room service where we sat and ate as we looked out from our balcony to the beach, the waves and the horizon.

We ordered The Incredibles on pay-per-view and collectively snuggle in bed. Despite all the hype I’d heard about the movie, it barely kept my interest - or anyone else’s for that matter – and consequently drove the whole family to sleep.

Sunrise came too soon.

We hit the breakfast buffet, tackled the beach and pool one more time, than headed back home. Once home the car was emptied and it was back to the business of building a tree house. A couple of hours were put in tinkering before we shower up and the babysitter arrived. The wife was on vacation after all so a nice dinner between the two of us was a must.

Friday - Day Four of proper building if you are counting - came and we framed the roof, built a ladder, and attached a slide. The wife had second thoughts about putting on a tin roof because it cost too much so she settles for a blue tarp. I balked at the blue tarp because it didn’t appear very safe – the tarp wasn’t going to break the fall of a pine tree limb. So the roof situation is rethought and it is decided that the tarp with go and the tin roof will stay.

Saturday came and we now had a tree house in the backyard. But it was raining and the yard was all tore up from all the lumber and saw dust and still muddied from the previous rain storm earlier in the week. Our goal to finish in time for Spencer’s birthday party on Saturday was achieved only nobody was going to get to enjoy it since it was pouring down rain.

We kept the promise we made by building the tree house in time for his party. But it wasn’t an easy task.

And another lesson in the world of parenting was learned: never make a promise you can’t keep.

*A version of this essay originally appeared in Raleigh's The Hatchet.
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Friday, March 16, 2007

The Dirt On Dad

The first major obstacle, and there would be many, that I had to wrap my head around when I first became a stay-at-home-dad was laundry. With a thirteen-month-old boy, there was always laundry to be done. Growing up my mother always had a dedicated day for laundry, usually Saturdays but sometimes Sundays. By the time I got to college and started washing my own clothes I noticed religious undertones to doing laundry; for some it was like the Sabbath, a day dedicated to observing nothing but washing machines and dryers.

But with an infant, laundry can be a daily routine. There are burp cloths, drool bibs and exploding diapers. It is basically impossible to keep a baby’s clothes clean - they puke, they piss, they crawl, and they cry - there’s not a moment in their existence at this stage of life when they possibly can’t soil their clothes.

Laundry, and the constant need to do it, was the first household chore to make me feel like I was going mentally ill. It was like trying to stave off waves from the sand castle you built at the beach as a kid, a useless and plumb silly task. And just when you thought you’d gotten a hand on the boy’s laundry, along came time to wash our clothes. I had to have a crash course from my wife in the basics of “line drying” clothes and told that it was imperative that I read the labels as to how to care for certain articles of clothes. Curses! It just seemed to never end. As a matter of fact, almost seven years later I still find that there’s always a load of laundry to be done only now I sometimes ignore the pile of dirty clothes until they get up and walk away.

It would pretty much be the same way with dishes. There would always be a bottle to wash. Although we were still breast feeding our son, my wife had to pump her breasts so there was always an arsenal of breast pump mechanics to be disinfected and cleaned as well. I began to formulate a design for the man-boob; some sort of breast-like device that a father could wear that would simulate the scenario of breastfeeding on mom’s teat. I’m sure it has been invented by now.

The dishwasher and the laundry machines became my new best friends, we shared coffee and conversation together most mornings although they weren’t very good at conversation – it was pretty much a one-way street but they were very attentive and great listeners.

In keeping with the cleaning m.o., I started a very intimate relationship with our vacuum cleaner. Much like dishes and dirty clothes, there wasn’t a day that went by that I felt I couldn’t find a reason to use the vacuum. That first Christmas after I became an at-home dad my wife got me one of those Dirt Devil hand-held vacuums, the only downside to the Dirt Devil was that it didn’t come with a holster. It would be much further into my tour of duty that I would discover the genius that is the Swiffer and his glorious cousin the Wet Swiffer. Somewhere down the line, I began thinking about leaving my Hoover for a Dyson, but those Dysons I just couldn’t afford.

There’s one common thread here and that is my own anal retentiveness. I found that I was becoming completely obsessive about trying to have everything clean all the time. A few years later I would learn to let go, that it was OK to not have the household clean as a whistle 24/7. I realized that the pursuit of such a thing would drive you completely bonkers. I also have come to the conclusion that it is perfectly okay to be bonkers.


ESL For Kids - Trying to explain the good from bad*

Just the other day my 4-and-a-half year old son Spencer got his first black eye.

It happened the way most injuries happen to little boys – by accident.

Spencer was watching a television show. Worked up with nervous energy, he decided he was going to start spinning around in the middle of the family room.

“Be careful,” I said.

“Know your surroundings,” I said wondering to myself if my words ever since past the cranial cracks of his thick skull.

“Watch it!” I hollered. The preceded to chide him about getting too close to the edge of the futon couch, visions of hospital emergency rooms dancing in my head.

And that’s when I averted my eyes for s second.

And then there was the sound: Thunk! The indecipherable wail of sheer pain followed soon after and I knew exactly what had happened by deductive reasoning. Now finding the exact spot of impact was a more challenging task.

“Where does it hurt?” I asked him.

“My fa-fa-faaaa-ce,” he said.

“I know, I know but where on your face?” I said.

“Here,” he said between sobs and pointed to his cheekbone.

I did my best sports trainer impersonation to try and get him to let me put some ice on it, but he would have none of that nonsense. Thirty minutes later, he was no worse for the wear and back out on his bicycle riding about the neighborhood, nary a spot of evidence to indicate the household trauma that just took save for an itty, bitty scratch just left of center of his nostril.

By the next day, a fair amount of his left cheek was puffy, like he’d been bitten by a bug or something. As day-three-after-the-accident began, the makings of a black eye were starting to appear. By nightfall, he had a full-fledged shiner.

The next day he came home from playschool talking about frozen peas. After much deliberation, I deducted this: His teacher Jane had mentioned something to him about having a “shiner” and that he should put a bag of frozen peas on it.

“What are peas?” he asked.

“Those little, round green things you hate to eat,” I said.

“Why would you put peas on your face?” He asked.

Clearly, I could see this was going down a road I was going to be unable to navigate; a road where questions arise like possums crossing the blacktop in the night. You know they are out there it’s just that you don’t ever expect to see them, much less hit one.

I was about to crash full-on into a serious dilemma of inexplicable dimensions.

By the time my wife came home from work that night, Spencer’s left eye socket was a marble of purple, blue, green and yellow hues. She asked him how school was and he told her about the frozen peas. She was as confused and I was at first mention of the frozen peas.

“Frozen peas?” she said. “What are you talking about?”

I stepped in and explained everything as best I could.

My wife beamed with excitement.

“Your first shiner!” she said.

“We’ve got to get a picture of that,” she said. “We’ve got to document that.”

“But why do they call it a shiner mom?” asked Spencer. “And why are you so excited about something that has caused me so much pain?”


My wife turned to me with a look of astonishment on her face: “Uh, help me out here Greg,” she said.

“It’s like a rite of passage,” I began, “You will have painful things happen to you over the years that mark your path to becoming a young boy, and even, a man.”

This is precisely the wrong thing to do here, as most parenting textbooks will tell you; you should avoid at all costs giving existential lectures to children, much less children under the age of five. But I do it so often, and sometimes, I think I do it well.

I tried my best to explain the ratio of bruises and broken bones to a boy’s age. When I was younger I had amassed over 300 stitches by the time I was 15 I told him. I added that I also had my share of scrapes and bruised yet I somehow managed to avoid ever breaking any bones. I suspected I may have broken a rib and a toe over the years but they were never officially diagnosed by a doctor.

I then launched into a spiel about good and bad, trying my best to explain their differences, or in some cases, why using the term “bad” might actually mean good. Its times like this that I feel like I’m teaching an ESL class to my kids. “Some things, bad or good…” my wife wisely interrupted me before I ran off down the Philosophy 101 road.

“We’ll stop talking about your shiner now,” she said.

Another good example of teaching ESL to my kids happened just a few weeks before the “shiner” incident. It was the day I got blindsided by the “hurricane” fiasco.

As the days leading up to Hurricane Frances counted down, it was virtually impossible to avoid having the kids see/hear references to the big storm. Sometimes they spot the occasional gun-toting Iraqi or some cracked-out redneck while channel surfing past the evening news, but I usually do a good job of monitoring what goes in their eyes and ears.

Yes, my kids watch too much TV. But shit, what do you do when your son figures out how to operate the remote? In my case, I tell ‘em ESPN is channel 31.

Sports are good.

And there are all kinds of lessons to be learned through sportsmanship; through playing on teams. But, and there’s always a “but,” it can bite you in the ass.

Here’s my ass-biting anecdote: We are driving in the car listening to the local modern rock radio affiliate when an emergency broadcast bulletin is broadcast over the radio waves.

“Beep! Beep! Beep!” screamed the radio.

“A tornado warning has been issued for…” and blah, blah, blah the National Weather Service went on to warn residents of hurricane force winds and possible flooding. A voice spoke from the backseat.

“That was kind of scary dad,” said Spencer.

“Well, hurricanes can be kind of scary,” I said, “and dangerous.”

“If hurricanes are so bad, why is there a hockey team named the Hurricanes?” he asked.

“Damn!” I said to myself then dug deep and hard.

“Maybe the people who named the team just wanted to focus on the fact that hurricanes are strong and powerful,” I said in my best faux televangelist speak. “Maybe they just don’t want to think about the bad things a hurricane can do.”

I don’t think I dig a good job of saving my ass – my days are numbered.

*A version of this essay originally appeared in Raleigh's The Hatchet.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

It's Tourney Time!

Yes folks, it is officially tournament time in my neck of the woods and that is some serious shit to some people (most people!). I live in ACC country where UNC, Duke and NC State all rub elbows and shoulders with each other on a regular basis.

Now I grew up in ACC territory and lived pretty much in the shadow of the University of Maryland but I was never a Terps fan as my old man went to Villanova so the Big East took priority over the ACC in my family's household.

People often toss around the cliche that basketball is like a religion around here, but it is pretty much true - much like Sunday mornings, everything stops when there is a basketball game on in Chapel Hill, Durham and Raleigh.

I first encountered this phenomenon when I moved to Carrboro - a small town east of Chapel Hill - from Los Angeles in 1995. Now I had been well-versed in the fact that the locals took their indie rock music scene very seriously and in the mid-'90s. The town would become a mecca for the indie scene; kids still come to worship it to this day.

But I was totally unprepared for the basketball fever.

It's an eerie feeling when you go to the grocery store in a college town and all the aisles are empty.

"What's going on today?" I asked the teller. "Carolina game," she said.

Of course I would should learn of the huge UNC/Duke rival, of the canonized State coach Jimmy V, and of how some people just purely can't get along with one another based on the color they wear.

When I worked in Raleigh at a weekly newspaper, one of my co-workers told me how in high school the teachers would just leave the ACC tournament on TVs in the classrooms all day and nobody was expected to do much of anything except for cheer on the Wolfpack. And of course it's perfectly understandable, if not downright acceptable, to play hooky from work on ACC Friday. If you are one of the unfortunate saps who has to work, everyone turns a blind eye to having the TV or radio on or obsessively looking at the sports ticker at the bottom of your computer screen.

In the 12 years that I have lived here, I have only had the opportunity to see two UNC games and one Duke game, the latter coming just last week.

I was working a Duke/Maryland pre-game party for a local catering company. We were set up in the Hall Of Fame room which is connected to Cameron Indoor Stadium where Duke plays. Cameron is legendary for many things, from its tiny size and intimate setting to giving birth to the Cameron Crazies - those over-enthusiastic fans who paint their faces, wave hands and bounce up and down for the entire duration of the game.

My co-worker had gone to Duke and was asking me if I'd ever seen a game at Cameron.

"Nope," I said. "But I've always wanted to."
"We could totally sneak in," he said. "I mean we're practically already in the building."

So he spent the better part of the two hour pre-game party schmoozing security guards with plates of food and endless sodas. But it was all for naught because when our shift wound down and the game got underway, the hostess of the party said she had two extra tickets and asked if anyone on our staff wanted to go.

An that's when it came down to me and my co-worker.

We didn't finished our breakdown until close to half time so he suggested we go over to the campus bar and pound some beers. "Sounds like a great idea," I said. At the bar he told everyone that we were going to the game and that it was going to be my first time at Cameron which was kind of like having some one who has gone to Spring Break three times nod at the fellow who was about to lose his Spring Break virginity - that look that said, "you have no idea what you are in for."

"I'm excited," I said. I never let on that I wasn't a Duke fan but then again I went in the spirit of competition not as a fan of either team. "This is just so random," I said to him.

"I was just watching this episode of Oprah about this whole positive thinking craze surrounding this movie The Secret and the book the Laws Of Attraction," I said trailing off as I looked at the big screen and half time stats.

"Dude," he said. "Never begin a conversation that starts with 'I was watching Oprah,'" he explained as he patted my shoulder.

With that, we finished our beers and watched the game.

And I have to say it was exciting; the place was filled with electricity and at only 7,000 seats it was downright intimate even though we had nosebleed seats.

Now if I could just see a Carolina/Duke game at Cameron, with Carolina winning, that would be utmost fulfilling...

Go Heels!!
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