Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Crafty kid

Jackson, 6, and Grant, 3, Palm Coast, Florida
Speaking of Grant's imaginary friend, Jackson said, "You should make him out of pipe cleaners. That way Mom knows he's real."
Grant: "Yeah! We can make him hitting himself in the face with eggs!"

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Well, what's the point of a belly button, then?

Jackson, 6, Palm Coast, Florida
"Did Ellie puke up apples and blueberries out of her mouth or out of her belly button?"

Friday, June 25, 2010

A vision of the afterlife

Grant, 3, Palm Coast, Florida
"What some people do is be statues when they die. If you're not a statue then you just be dead all the time."

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Advertising that works

Grant, 3, and Jackson, 6, Palm Coast, Florida
Grant: I really want a Toy Story shirt. You know why?
Dad: Why?
Grant: Because I saw it on TV.
Dad: Oh...
Jackson: It's roll-back time at Wal-Mart.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Then my compass wouldn't work!

Dean, 5, Santa Monica, California
In a prayer, he said, "Bless that the planets will be safe from asteroids and that the earth won't lose its magnetic field."

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Who's in that movie, anyway?

Grant, 3, Palm Coast, Florida
"Let's go to the moo-thee feater and watch The Hairy Dinosaur."

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Cart sickness

Grant, 3, Palm Coast, Florida
Jackson said he didn't want to read in the car, because he'd get car sick. Instead, he'd bring the book with him when Mom took the boys to Wal-Mart, and he could read it there.
Grant: But then you'll get cart sick!

Friday, June 18, 2010

Have an ordinary Father’s Day

Fatherhood is mythical and spiritual and hilarious and heartbreaking. Being a father is heavy. Sometimes I expect my time with my children to feel extraordinary, and then it just isn’t.

It’s a lot of telling them not to pick up that bowl of Cheerios, and then telling them not to shake it. Then it’s a lot of telling them to pick up the Cheerios, every last one of them, because I’m sure not going to clean it up when you did it on purpose. It’s a lot of reminding yourself that when you were 3 years old, you didn’t know how to pick up a floor full of Cheerios, either, and you spent most of the time crying and then forgetting all about it and lying on the carpet and eating a few of them here and there.

The other day, my family and I went out to dinner to celebrate my son finishing kindergarten. It was supposed to be an extraordinary time, where we could make memories …

Grant: I want pizza!

Grant is 3. He thinks the waitress can only hear him if he cups his hands around his mouth and yells.

Hailey: Shhh!

That’s my wife sitting across from me in the booth. Jackson, 6, is the man of the hour. He hands me a crayon.

Jackson: Want to play tic-tac-toe?
Grant: I need some salt.
Brian: Sure.
Jackson: You can have the orange crayon.
Grant: (licking his finger) I like salt.
Brian: (taking the salt shaker away) Stop!

It’s times like these that try fathers’ souls. “Do not lick the salt shaker” is not something anyone should have to say in life.

Jackson: Bendy straws!
Grant: What is this?
Hailey: Sprite.

Grant takes a sip and grimaces.

Brian: Don’t you like it?
Grant: (gasping) Yes.
Brian: Why are you making that face, then?
Grant: I almost don’t like it.

The waitress brings a bottle of ketchup, and Jackson snatches it out of her hands.

Jackson: Look what she gave me! She is nicer than any store I’ve ever been to.
Hailey: It’s not a store, and you can’t keep the ketchup.
Grant: I am Buzz Lightyear.

Now comes the semi-serious husband-wife discussion while the children are occupied with their food.

Hailey: When we get back, remind me to make muffins.
Brian: OK.

Enough of that. Back to the kids.

Grant: Dad, you know what? If a turtle bites off a leg of a salamander, it grows a new one.

Hailey helps the boys learn about a new animal every day.

Grant: But Dad, a salamander can survive a bite to the head.
Brian: How does it grow back its head?
Jackson: The brain. That’s right inside where the bones cover.

I nod, swallowing a piece of pork, and push aside a bone.

Jackson: What is that bone from?
Brian: A pig.
Jackson: Eww.
Hailey: You’ve eaten a pig before.
Jackson: (frowning) I’ve never had a single piece of pig.
Hailey: You’ve had ham.

This sounds like a great teaching opportunity. Son, we’re all part of the circle of life, and one animal gives its life for —

Jackson: Why does it say 57 on the bottle?

but he has already moved on to reading condiment labels.

Brian: 57 varieties. Heinz. See?
Grant: (wiping his mouth, then holding up a napkin) Whose is this?
Hailey: It’s yours.
Grant: Why?
Hailey: Because you used it.

We’ve been in the restaurant for about 30 minutes, and I’m just starting to feel relaxed. Meanwhile, the boys are losing all sense of public etiquette. When I was 3, I tell you what, I never crawled underneath a table at a restaurant …

Jackson: (returning from underneath the table after fighting with Grant) I won.
Grant: (panting) Tie. We both won. I got 5, you got 30.
Jackson: Good. I won.
Grant: Who got 30 lost.
Jackson: In normal games, whoever gets the most, wins.

It was time to go home. In the parking lot, I reflected on this outing to celebrate Jackson completing his first year of school. There was nothing extraordinary about it. On paper, it was pretty disappointing. And yet, I realized that the boys had no expectation for anything extraordinary or memorable — just the opposite. The boys needed this whole experience to feel ordinary, to know that stress-free family time was the rule, not the exception. They needed to feel safe and important. Their bellies needed to feel full, and they needed to know that their parents loved each other and loved them.

This is on my mind often, but particularly because Father’s Day is just around the corner. I hope it’s a memorable day for all you fathers out there — memorable and ordinary.

This column was originally published Thursday, June 17, in The Palm Coast Observer.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

My father, my servant

Jackson, 6, Palm Coast, Florida
"Dad, can you go get the mail, since you're not doing anything in particular?"

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Dog to replace child

Kate, 5, Marquette, Michigan
Mom: Kate, what am I going to do when you go to kindergarten?
Kate: (matter-of-factly) Get a dog or something!
Mom: What would I do with a dog?
Kate: I don’t know, play with it!

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Get back in bed!

Grant, 3, Palm Coast, Florida
Supposed to be in bed asleep, Grant emerged from the playroom with a stuffed dog. He said to his mother, "Look, he has a big nose like you!"

Monday, June 14, 2010

Game suspended after one pitch

Jackson, 6, and Grant, 3, Palm Coast, Florida
were playing pretend baseball, with an imaginary ball and an imaginary bat. Jackson threw the first pitch and said, "Strike!" Grant disagreed. They argued. They fought. Finally, Grant quit the game, and he said his imaginary friend quit, too.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

I recognized you by your underwear

Nathan, 6, Idaho Falls, Idaho
His dad found Nathan hiding under some blankets, refusing to get out of bed. He pretended to be confused, calling Nathan by a different name, until finally he jumped out and said, "No! I'm NATHAN! Who else would wear underwear like THESE?"

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Plus or minus a few letters

Grant, 3, Palm Coast, Florida
His older brother was playing with a calculator, and Grant wanted a turn. He started whining: "I want to play with that escalator!"

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Praying by the word

Jackson, 6, Palm Coast, Florida
I asked Jackson to pray for a family I know, and he declined. He said, "That would be three sentences. I only pray two sentences."

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Surprise me

Jackson, 6, Palm Coast, Florida
To celebrate finishing kindergarten, Jackson had an idea. "Maybe you can make banners out of paper and cloth and hang them in my room at night," he said, "and when I wake up, I can surprised about what you've done."

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Buggy feet

Nathan, 6, Idaho Falls, Idaho
His mother, seeing him upside-down in a chair, asked, "Nathan, what are you trying to do, get as much blood to your head as possible?"
Nathan said, "Then my feet would get empty, and they would get all buggy!" He explained that he meant his feet would then have the sensation of little bugs crawling all over them, as when a limb "falls asleep."

Monday, June 7, 2010

Good guy, bad guy... any super power will do

Grant, 3, Palm Coast, Florida
Dad: What do you want to be when you grow up?
Grant: A bad guy.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

My mother, my servant

Jackson, 6, Palm Coast, Florida
"Mom, did you obey what I said last night and polish my trophy?"

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Only the bad parts

Madeline, 2, Seattle, Washington

"Mom, does mac & cheese turn into poop?"

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Reflecting on the use of time

I slumped onto the couch after a long day and closed my eyes for a pseudo-nap before dinner. I heard some troubling news earlier in the day, and I needed to think. It was “my time.” Then, my 3-year-old son, Grant, tiptoed up to me and started chattering. I listened with half an ear, try to give him an idea I was listening. I’ll make it up to him later with some quality time, I thought. But as his words filtered through, I realized I was going about it all wrong.

A death

I received an e-mail from a friend in Bradenton, just north of Sarasota, letting me know a homeless man I knew well had been found dead Sunday, May 25, in his wheelchair, outside a Chinese restaurant. He was 57 years old.

I first met this man when he materialized at the same church I attended when I lived in Bradenton several years ago. I was looking for a writing project, and he needed a ride to a temporary job, so I interviewed him as I took him to work every day. I learned that before he became homeless, he was making $100,000 per year as a computer programmer in Washington, D.C. He was married and owned a large home.

Then things fell apart. He had been sober and bright-eyed for a period, and then he fell victim to his old demons: alcohol, paranoia, delusions.

Alms for the poor

A year passed, and I was about to move to attend graduate school. It was late summer 2006. I was driving home from the store, and there he was, curb-squatting under a fluorescent street lamp several blocks from church. My brain told me to keep driving, but my nagging conscience steered me to the empty parking lot.

We talked quietly on the curb near the cave of a bank drive thru, reminiscing about dinners we had eaten in my apartment, and he ribbed about the enormity of my son’s toy collection.

It was getting late, and I knew my wife would be worried. I didn’t have much cash — five bucks — and I was hesitant to give it to him, knowing he’d probably just use it to buy more rotgut vodka. Still, I slipped him the five. He took it, and then grasped my hand for some time. He wept.

“Thank you,” he said. “Not for this” — and he waved the money — “this won’t help, really. But just the fact that you cared enough to give it to me.”

A scrap of paper

I left Florida to attend graduate school in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Thanks to a grant and another temporary job of my own, I was able to fly back twice to continue interviews and keep up the writing project. I sat with him and recorded story after story from his life in 2007. I didn’t know then that it would be the last time I would ever see him.

I’ve thought about him many times since, particularly about the scrap of paper he carried in his wallet. The paper was folded several times, and all that was written on it was a list of names: Brian, Hailey, Jackson, Grant. My name and the names of my wife and children. Somehow, it seemed, it gave him some comfort to know that, on the other side of the country, someone was thinking about him.

But that thought gave me little comfort when I heard he died. Why couldn’t I have made one more trip to see him? I had moved to Florida again and even drove through Bradenton one day on a business meeting. But how to find him? He had no phone number, and he could be anywhere. I didn’t take the time.

Now, it’s too late.

‘My time,’ revisited

I say all this not by way of confession, but because I know that many who are reading this can relate. You can remember a day that began like any other day, with cold cereal. You answered your phone, managed your e-mail inbox, and then you heard the news that someone you cared about had died. You ate lunch. You drove to your next appointment and sat through your next meeting with a blank look on your face.

All of this was on my mind when Grant interrupted “my time.”

I sat up. I pulled him onto my lap and asked him more questions. It didn’t matter what he said, I only wanted him to keep talking — to fill my time.

Someday, Grant will be gone when I get home from work. He’ll be at baseball practice or a friend’s house. He’ll be at a college diner, or he’ll be leaving his own office, with his own wife, his own children squealing at the sounds of his keys jingling as he opens the front door. I may have a lot of time with Grant, or I may have a little — I just don’t know.

So I kept him talking. And he told me he was scared. In our church, a child can choose to be baptized by immersion at 8 years old. He’s 3, but he said he’s scared to go under the water. I held him and told him it was OK to be scared.

I asked him what else he was scared of. Big dogs, he said. He looked down.

It’s OK, I said. I’m scared of big dogs, too.

He doesn’t know it, but I’m scared of a lot of things. I’m scared of bad health, of death, and mostly, of the thought that any one I loved would ever die thinking he was alone.

This column first appeared in The Palm Coast Observer on Thursday, June 3, 2010.

Potato poll

Jackson, 6, Palm Coast, Florida
At dinner, Jackson said, "Let's take a vote whether these mashed potatoes are amazing or spectacular."

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Trouble on the horizon with this one

Grant, 3, Palm Coast, Florida
Grandma sent him a book about superheroes. He called her back and said Wonder Woman was practically naked.

Grandma: Oh, I'm sorry.
Grant: It's OK. I like naked.