Act Like a Mom, Think Like a Dad – Vol. 8 (Towers of Babylon)

I’m no religious expert so I’m not endorsing any kind of official interpretation here.  I’m just saying that when I think of the Towers of Babylon, a biblical story, I think of the heights to which a man can aspire and how we attempt to rival the very universe itself in our arrogance, at times.  I believe that’s what the story was about.  I also think of a giant House of Cards, tall and impressive and infinitely fragile.  This is what a human is; a combination of potential and actuality.  Each year of school or “training” in a skill puts bricks on that tower; puts cards on that stack.  This is part of why it seems so much “more tragic” to be near the death of an intelligent honor student or a trained warrior or a promising athlete:  all that time invested makes for a taller tower to knock down.  The more cards you’ve put on a card house, the more disappointed you are when you fail at that second-to-last level and knock the whole damn thing down.

Was that profound enough for you?  A delicious combination of abstract and overly-dramatic, I’ve probably managed to put you in a sullen mood.  Allow me to change gears and come back to this later.

I watched Lilo & Stitch with the family two nights ago.  I had never seen it before and I know now that it’s a lovely movie that holds nothing sacred until all of a sudden, somewhere near the end, it puts family on a pedestal and exemplifies the value of even a small and broken unit as a place where somebody belongs.  A place you can call home.

Stitch is an alien programmed to destroy things but he lands on a small island of Hawaii and, left with no large cities to destroy, is forced to make a life with Lilo, a young Hawaiian girl being raised by her over-stressed sister.  With a destructive purpose and nothing to destroy, Stitch is a perfect symbol for humans who feel we have no purpose and are thrust into this world anyway, struggling to find a meaning, or a reason (or simply make one up if we can’t).  Simple life alongside Lilo and her sister shows Stitch that he can find things to want, he can find a desire to create and to love and he can overcome his “nature.”


An important part of the story that struck me a day or so after watching it is the reason behind Stitch’s exile in the first place.  He was created by a mad scientist who was found out by the galactic government for his genetic experiments.  They exile Stitch because he cannot prove he has even a modicum of responsibility or potential in his head (other than destruction).  They gave him a chance to prove himself reconcilable and he used it to speak profanities at them.

In short, he showed them that he was no Tower.  He wasn’t going to build anything.  He had no potential value to them.  In fact, he had negative value.  Not only would he build no towers; he made it perfectly clear that he would most likely spend his time knocking other people’s towers over.

To add to this, let me tell you about a fantastic European fairy tale that gets less attention than but is equally as moving as Romeo & Juliet.  I know of this story because it has my namesake: it’s called Tristan and Iseult.  You may know of it as a James Franco movie.  Forget that you know about that movie and go look for the book version, preferably the one by Rosemary Sutcliffe (there are a ton of different versions of it).  I’ll assume that my endorsement is enough and that you’re going to read the book so I won’t spoil the whole story but I will tell you that in it, the hero and heroine are mostly perfect in every way; two veritable Towers of human existence.  They make an excellent contrast to Lilo, the angry near-orphan and Stitch, the destructive, lost alien, don’t you think?

This is, quite literally, the copy that I have - the copy that you should already be finding on amazon right now

This is, quite literally, the copy that I have – the copy that you should already be finding on amazon right now

So, after watching Lilo & Stitch I found myself re-reading some of Tristan & Iseult and I was struck by the fact that Tristan finds friendship and aid wherever he goes for a handful of reasons, not the smallest of which is his skill on the harp.  He arrives in Ireland wounded and near death, stinking of a rotten wound on his leg, and every stranger that he meets hears his harp-playing and what do you think they do?  They put almost all of the resources at their command towards getting him to Princess Iseult, the fairest healer in all the land.  It struck me, then: in a modern world where almost all of our movies and TV shows are about how strangers do NOT help each other, why do these strangers do everything they can to help Tristan at every turn?  Why does the entire world fall at his feet when he has problems?

Because he can prove that he is a Tower right when you meet him.  He is a spectacle to behold, fair and long of limb, but beyond that, your very ears are pleased at his coming before you can even see him; he is forever playing his harp as beautifully as the angels.  In short, he is worth saving.

Like a perfect conch shell that you pick up after passing a thousand broken bits of coral, Tristan is noteworthy.  He is a Tower with bricks stacked upon each other until they reach the sky; one layer of brick for his skill in archery, one for his musical abilities, one for his manners, one each for the many languages he speaks.

The point is that people value other people in much the same way that we value anything.  We objectify things.  You’ve heard this word before, objectify, it’s usually slapped before the word women when somebody’s trying to discredit a man’s system of values.  In truth, we all objectify everything, at least to some extent.

So the galactic government objectified Stitch because he had no evident value.  They gave him a chance to show them that he could have some potential value and he blew that, too.  He was tossed to Hawaii where he found a family that was headed by a sister with no evident value, either.  The “social worker” that comes to check on them makes it clear that the only value the state sees in the house is the potential value of little Lilo.  While her older sister is already an adult, and no Tower at that, Lilo may still grow into something noteworthy.  She is like a seed of a human.  Until she has shown that she has no evident value, there’s all that potential sitting there.

But if you watch the whole movie, you’ll see the truth.  There’s a home there, for all of them.  There’s a family.  “Ohana means family” is a beautiful line from the movie because “family means nobody gets left behind…or forgotten.”

You may wonder where I’m going with any of this.  To be honest, at first, I was sort of wondering the same thing, but I see my own point now.  It is that strangers will objectify you, but family won’t.  Family doesn’t always mean your parents and your siblings.  Family are those people that will never knock your tower down, even if it’s only a squat two-story thing with rickety windows and a leaky roof.  Family will never abandon you because you’re tower’s not tall enough, either.  Family doesn’t see a success or a failure, family just sees home; a place to belong.

Everybody deserves some unconditional love, even those of us that have made horrid mistakes.  I used to think that it was wrong to stick up for people you love when you know that they’re wrong.  I see now that everybody needs somebody to love them, no matter how wrong or broken or small they are.  I sure could have used a little more support in my “wronger” days.  A tall tower might get you the applause of strangers and the assistance of the masses, but when your tower starts to sag or it loses a few stories, all that will fall by the wayside.  A tall tower gets you praise, but it doesn’t get you love (just ask Tristan).  A strong foundation is what holds up a tall tower, so make sure you start at the bottom and look for those around you that are most important so you can help fortify their foundations, too.

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Making the Transition from toddlers to “young adults” – one man’s lamentations

I have a 7-year-old daughter and a 5-year-old son. Up until recently it seemed like they’d be toddlers forever but recent changes with my daughter (just general growing up, being able to read, tending to act more mature even than I do) are making me realize how fast they are growing up. They’re well into the phase of life that they’ll remember clearly when they’re older and it’s terrifying as hell. No more, “Oh, don’t worry about that, he/she won’t even remember it.” Now it feels as if every step I take could be the one that they resent me for or they remember forever.

So the main point of this installment is to remind you, dear readers, that at some point the leash gets cut and you’ve taught them everything you can. At some point they need respect, they need to be allowed to make their own mistakes.

Cherish every moment you’ve got. One day you’ll stay home from work, sick, and they’ll be at school, and you’ll turn on the TV and it’ll already be set to Nickelodeon as usual, but those early morning pre-school shows will be on and it will remind you that those days are gone.

One day you’ll be 30 years old standing in your living room in a bathrobe crying at Dora the Explorer because your kids are out starting their own lives instead of sitting in diapers, watching it with you.

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Restraint vs. Reassurance – How to Handle Unruly Kids

If you haven’t watched the video link yet, be forewarned.  It has some moments that might be considered disturbing.  The concepts that it cover certainly are.  From the mouth of a man with a “troublesome” son, let me tell you that watching this video certainly helped me strengthen the belief that I am approaching things correctly with my son, despite how difficult it is or how long it may take.

My son is now 5 and, like many children, has a lot of pent-up passion and emotion.  He’s the sweetest and most caring little boy I’ve ever met, but he knows what he wants and he forgets himself when he doesn’t get it.  He has been known to punch or kick at his mother and me in the past when he feels for even a second that we might not give him what he wants.  In short, he over-reacts.  He is something of a drama king.

For quite some time I let my frustration get the better of me in situations like this.  Have you ever tried to speak to or “control” an unruly child?  There is nothing as annoying as getting halfway through your message only to be interrupted by another form of disobedience or subversion.  While “listening” to the lesson I’m telling him about some small infraction, he will kick his feet around and knock something else over or interrupt about something that’s off topic.  Now this new issue needs to be addressed, and by the time I’m done with it, I’ve found that sometimes I’ve forgotten what the initial point was.  Is he doing this on purpose?  Honestly, I don’t think his long game is that long, so I’d have to say no.  Just the pure element of chaos works in his favor.  But what do you do, as a parent, in that instant?

For a while I would address this with speaking louder, or with physical restraint.  If he won’t stand still and look at me, I’ll cup his chin and turn his face to me (which leads to him screaming that I’m hurting him, but that’s what kids do – overreact, sometimes).  He’s so smart and he knows that I’m a reasonable man, so he’s aware that certain excuses will work better than others.  He can tell that appealing to my sense of his pain will work and will create a little uncertainty in me.  I am aware, now, that if I’m trying to teach him to control himself then I have to let him practice.  Grabbing him bodily to make him stand still during a lecture only teaches him that the bigger person with the stronger arms wins.  The schools in the video link are making this same mistake with these kids, as the kids themselves describe in detail at about the 5:10 mark.

Another large mistake I used to make was to cover his mouth when he won’t shut it himself or when he’s screaming and I need him to stop.  It wasn’t until I turned to the community for advice and did a little research that I learned that they don’t even do this with adult psychiatric patients.  The risks and danger of injury are too great.

We used to do late night Fridays after a long week of school and I would allow the children to stay up so late with me that I’d expect us all to sleep in until 11 or noon the next morning.  My daughter and I were great at this, but my son wakes up at 7:30 am no matter how late he’s been up, he’s like a little superhuman in that regard.  Knowing that this would lead to an unruly day because of his exhaustion, a lot of times I would insist that he go back to bed and the ensuing fight would be enough to shake the heavens (and wake my daughter).  His screaming not only threatened to wake her, but it infuriated me as well, due to my own exhaustion.  Covering his mouth with my hand and forcing him to quiet down seemed a viable option until I heard it from other perspectives.  Now I feel appalled that I ever did it and have made a verbal promise with him never to do it again.

A part of our brain, as parents, demands obedience.  Those are our little mini-people, and we deserve to be listened to, especially considering how much time and effort and money we put into their little lives.  I had also preemptively told myself that I would be a consistent parent.  If I said to my kids, “do that one more time and you’re going straight to bed,” by god, I had to follow through if they did it, no matter that it made me feel like a horrible person for sending a kid to bed for one tiny infraction.  It made sense to me, at first, that there is no reason whatsoever that they should be so willful or rebellious; listening to mom and dad SHOULD happen, at all costs.

But then you pull out the ledger and you look and you realize that the cost was too high, after all.  If I followed that road all the way down (which I almost did, at some times) it leads to me breaking the spirit of one of the people whom I love more than life itself.  I want to be his father, his mentor and his friend, not his tyrant.  I have to ask myself, at 5 years old, did I have a desire to do what mom and dad wanted all the time?  I don’t even have to answer that question…

I have adapted to a similar approach to the organization mentioned near the end of the video.  By allowing their student some time apart to compose himself they teach him to run through those motions himself, and become self-sufficient in that area.  Rather than restraining him physically or injuring him to teach him obedience, they opt to set him apart and give him the incentive he needs to want to come back to the team or group.  As opposed to forcing my son to calmness, I now send him to his room and tell him to cool off.  I tell him that it’s not just my rule – nobody can work in a team with somebody who acts like that, so until he’s ready to come back and be a team player, he needs some time alone to chill.

And of course, like the Big Mac that looks gray and floppy and asymmetrical and nothing like that delicious picture on the menu, the expectation almost never fits the reality, but I can at least walk away from the situation knowing that I’m not exacerbating his feelings or making things worse.  He’s my son and I love him, mess and all.  One day we’ll look back and miss these days – I try to remind myself of that whenever I find myself wishing them away for a “better” time when he’s more reasonable.

Being a parent is about being strong enough to deal with their flaws while helping them through them.  It’s not about banishing those flaws as quickly as possible in an attempt to make your child perfect.  With the right perspective, you’ll see that he or she already is.

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Act Like a Mom, Think Like a Dad, Vol. 7 (Interrupted Congress)

My wife and I got “started early.”  That’s a nice way of saying we were pregnant before we got married but when I say that our baby was a “mistake,” I say it in the same way that stumbling upon a nice sunrise while jogging at 6:30 am is a mistake; the same way that running into an old friend at the park is a mistake.  Hell, Post-it notes and Dove anti-bacterial soap were “mistakes,” too.  So were some of the first schizophrenia treatments.  Dick Vitale called that “Serendipity, baby,” but he was talking mostly about basketball.

We had a happy mistake and she was our flower girl at our wedding.  She was one of the first to hold her baby brother, too, and she tried to get up and walk away with him (he weighed almost as much as she did, even as a baby).  She lit up our poor and drab first house with bubbles of laughter and a baby-room full of pink and butterflies.  They were tough times, but times I will forever miss. 

Something else that I will forever miss is those first few years of marriage with my wife.  We are two of the luckiest people in the world because we stumbled into love with one another and, while it was a “mistake,” it wasn’t an accident.  Every difficult moment, stupid fight or make-up kiss has been part of a large plan that has moved us closer and closer together, but there are things that we will forever miss.  We never got to have steady married date nights.  We never got to take a nap in the afternoon and then get up to spend more time together, just doing nothing.  I never got to get soaked in the rain while I held an umbrella for her; we were too busy herding the crying children under that umbrella.  I never got to offer up the last triangle of grilled cheese to her while we watched Pirates of the Caribbean; the kids finished that grilled cheese while Jack Sparrow and Will Turner were having their fateful duel in the blacksmith’s shop.  Then they placed an order for juice which she or I fulfilled.  Every trip to the kitchen or the pantry or the bathroom or the backyard was family time, but it was moments that other couples share with each other, solidifying the power of their love and strengthening their connection.  While we most certainly have a strong connection, our love for the kids became the forefront of that conduit and has been that way for 90% of our marriage.  Here’s an example:

Just last night, after the kids had been in bed for a few hours and we were done watching our stories on TV we meandered to bed.  We were tired and it was late but with my hand placed lovingly on the thin cotton layer that covered her body, certain feelings were kindled.  I moved in, real smoothly, for a long and passionate kiss when our bedroom door creaked open.  Lo and behold, another male of the species appeared!  Luckily for him, he was also my progeny, so no defense mechanisms kicked in.  My son, Logan, still rubbing the sleep from his eyes, crawled into our bed, giggling his nervous laugh and dragging his stuffed dog (“Jared Dog”) with him as he nuzzled between us.  We all pulled off a midnight group hug with a couple little kisses hidden in there and my wife and I wrote it off to bad luck.

“Daddy,” my five-year-old son whispered to me before he drifted back to sleep, “do you remember when I stole your ice cream the other night?  When we were watching Goonies?””

“Yeah, buddy,” I said.  “I think you just did it again.”   My wife laughed, so Logan did, too.  I’ll explain the real joke to him someday, depending on what kind of relationship we have when he’s a teenager.

Love is a different thing when there are four people involved while it’s growing.  A lot of people get the marriage and the money right before the kids are thrown into the mix.  We didn’t.  My wife is an amazing woman with a heart full of love and a sense of duty toward the kids.  She’s messy and sexy and lazy and smart and I couldn’t imagine a better partner with which to dance through this tango called Life.  She’s hot and sensible and she likes Star Wars and Legend of Zelda.  We eat ramen noodles with hot sauce.

I wish, sometimes, that we had more time to do all of this. 

I’m going to say something now that will make a lot of people cringe.  It makes me cringe to say it, but it also feels good to get off my chest.  To be honest, it feels good to be a little selfish about it.  I say it for me and I say it for my wife and I don’t say it lightly.  To lessen the weight of it, I’m going to say it to my wife, here on this blog, because it feels easier to direct it at the one woman who will understand what I’m saying and won’t take it the wrong way.  Here it goes:

Baby, sometimes I wish we didn’t have kids.

Whew!  That was a doozy.  To clarify, I’m going to keep going. 

Baby, I wish I had rubbed your feet after a long day of work, rather than telling you I was tired, too, because I’d been chasing rugrats all day.  I wish I could have spent that toy and baby-food money on a necklace for you, and a new French Horn because I want more than anything in the world to hear you blast crystal clear notes into the sky and serenade me the way an angel would.  I wish we could be like our friends, who get home from work EVERY DAY to a quiet and empty house and then complain that their dogs are so much work; so much to take care of.  (I’ll still never feel good about those people that refer to their dogs and cats as their children.  You can’t just stick a toddler in a cage or push it into the backyard to get a few minutes of silence, and that’s just ONE of them any differences.)  I wish we could just lay in bed without interruptions and go out without a babysitter.  In short, I wish, sometimes, that I just had you to love.

But then, if all that were true, we wouldn’t have them…

In a time where our own government is acting up and seems like it needs a firm hand, a time when nobody’s got their money OR their marriage right, I propose that this could have gone down no other way.  Sometimes Congress needs to be Interrupted to keep it in line.  Sometimes love needs a test to push itself to be the best it can be. 

Sometimes a giggling five-year-old can be as good as a night alone, in bed, with your wife.  (But only sometimes…)



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Act Like a Mom, Think Like a Dad, Vol. 6 (The games we play, as parents)

This’ll be a short one, but it’s an issue I think needs to be addressed:

I used to play a lot of poisonous games with my wife.  We all do this, sometimes, but we don’t realize we’re doing it.  Here’s an example:

I’m sure I’m not the only one that does this one.  When you have kids around the house, messes spawn with the frequency and spontaneity of unwanted pimples (are any pimples ever wanted?  but I digress).  I teach my kids all the time to remember that a lot of adults are just grown up kids, and I have to make sure I practice what I preach.  In my mind, I see these little messes, these little piles of tee shirts and plastic knick knacks, and I think to myself, “Jeez, I’ve walked over that same mess for three days straight now!  When is somebody going to pick that up?!”  Who is this somebody I’m talking about?

It’s my wife.  The irony is that I’ve come to realize that she was probably playing the same game that I was, walking past these messes, wondering when I was going to take care of it, building up resentment.  Have you ever read the old comic strip Family Circus, in which the kids imagine a character named “nobody” and try to pin everything on him?  It’s funny because it’s a cartoon, but in reality, we all play these silly games, we blame each other, we rationalize to make ourselves feel guilt-free.

The only games I want to play anymore are Crazy Eights, Go Fish, the Legend of Zelda and Yahtzee (and others along those lines).  I want to play them with my family, with my friends, with my kids.  I want to clean up every mess I find in my house, because I love my family and I love my wife and love is not about expecting something from somebody else.  Love is something I do; it is an action I perform for them.  I’ve got plenty of it to spread around.

Have a great Friday (or whatever day it is when you read this post)

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Act Like a Mom, Think Like a Dad (Vol. 5, Show-Don’t Tell)

When I was a kid, show and tell never really held a whole lot of appeal for me.  If nothing else, the fact that I don’t remember it much shows how little it meant to me.  I think I was more concerned with the fact that it was Friday so Show and Tell meant the end of the school week and a fun weekend of running outside, discovering bugs and getting generally dirty and casual about life as a whole.

My son and daughter do show and tell now, every Friday.  I can tell he’s more like me, it doesn’t mean a whole lot to him.  Meanwhile, my little princess absolutely loves it.  She has a lot of stuff to show and a lot of words she needs to get out, apparently.  What’s important here is that it’s an activity for children for a reason.  Showing AND telling are very important actions to run through to practice what it means not only to see an item or an event for what it is, but also to delve into its meaning; to see how an artifact can take on human attributes and represent human experience.

Later, in college, a professor named Paul Sladky taught me one of the most important lessons I’ve ever learned as a writer, and it didn’t take a whole semester to learn it, nor did a large project or cramming for a test get this idea into my head.  He said a single sentence and it turned a lot of my previously literal and blocky writing on its head.  If you’re a writer or a parent, take this sentence to heart and run with it:  “Show, don’t tell.”

It seems simple, I know, and it runs against a lot of what we’re taught as kids, but that’s growing up, isn’t it?  If we were to be honest with our kids, just brutally honest, it would break their spirits.  Imagine telling your 7-year-old that being nice isn’t always the best course of action, or that violence does, indeed, solve some of life’s more ridiculous and difficult issues.  Every human needs a portion of their youth to be flowery and full of hope so that when things get heavier and they grow older they’ll remember that there is good in the world and that true stress-free, weightless living is not only possible, it’s worth it.

Professor Sladky taught me this as a writer, that to truly touch your audience, you don’t write them a piece that spells out for them the details of why the main character feels this way or that way.  You don’t have John sit down and say, “Well golly, what Susan just did makes me mad for the following reasons!”  Instead you show John performing actions that exemplify that angst.  Punching a wall is a cliche example, but you get the point.

My absolute favorite example of this is from the Harry Potter series, and it’s a line that was altered in the movie, probably due to the fact that the film industry panders to what it thinks are less intelligent viewers, while books remain for the “sophisticated and educated among us.”  If you know the entire tale of Harry Potter then read on.  If you don’t want a large part spoiled, then skip the next paragraph (and then go buy all seven books immediately and start reading today, you’ve got a lot of work ahead of you).

At the end of the last book, while the light is leaving Professor Snape, he looks to the boy he has been secretly protecting and caring for the last 7 years.  Everyone’s remarked that Harry has his mother’s eyes for his entire stay at Hogwart’s, so when Snape’s last words to Harry are, “Look at me…” I thought for sure he was about to tell Harry something important, or to spill the beans about the fact that he loved Lily Potter and give Harry the peace he wanted.  That’s what a poor writer would have done.  J.K. Rowling is not a poor writer.  It wasn’t until after Snape falls lifeless that I realized that he was just a human, just a lost child like the rest of us, and at his last moment, when peace fell over his soul, he just wanted to see Lily’s eyes one last time before his light left the world.

Talk about showing and not telling.  I’m getting teary eyed just writing about it now.  The movie added a line in which he says to Harry, “You have your mother’s eyes.”  I don’t generally use the term epic fail, and I understand why they did it, but I’m still disappointed.

They say the best revenge is living well.  I say the best education is living well.  I’ve found that this lesson of showing and not telling can expand to my job as an educator and protector for my children, as well.

You can’t yell at a kid or read them a self-help book to make them realize that sometimes they have to stay away from what they want in order to earn it the correct way.  You can’t teach them to discipline themselves by doing it for them all the time.

And yes, sometimes you have to explain to them in detail what’s going on, and what the right choice is, but those words are nothing but wind if you haven’t shown them that you walk that walk as well as talking that talk.

And most importantly, they have to know that walking that walk is making you happy; that you are, indeed, living well, or I can’t see any reason whatsoever that they might decide to follow you down that path.

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How to make your child a hand-sewn Lady Rainicorn in just 13 grueling hours

I watched a youtube video and it gave me an idea.  How many times has that sentence been said in the past ten years, I wonder?

In this video a young british (or maybe welsh?) fellow showed us how to hand-cut and hand-sew a small character from the Mario Brothers series.  It was a jumped-up blue ball, stuffed with stuffing and it had a mouth and eyes sewed onto it from the outside.  It looked great when he was done, and quite professional.  Easy enough, wouldn’t you say?

So what did I do?  Did I copy and print his outline and begin by making this simple project?  Heck no, what kind of example would that set for my kids?  I jumped in with both feet, torso, arms and head and I dragged both kids in behind me.

We are fans of Adventure Time, it’s a great, colorful cartoon with active characters who aren’t afraid to step on each other’s toes.  It teaches the virtues of bravery and loyalty, and it has plenty of little side jokes for the adults while the kids are busy laughing at the animation.

We decided we were going to make Jake the Dog, Finn the Human, and Lady Rainicorn from Adventure Time, so we took a trip to the craft store and started picking out colors.  Click the link above to see how it went.

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