Wednesday, December 30, 2009


My mother mailed me a copy of Ishmael by Daniel Quinn, with a note saying that as she read it, she imagined me as the narrator.

I had never heard of this book, and I'm only 79 pages into it right now, but it's kind of aggravating me. What bothers me, aside from the narrator's inability or refusal to see exactly where his teacher's leading questions are leading, is this notion that's been at the heart of much of what I've read, watched, and been taught since I graduated high school in 1990, and a little even before that: that western civilization, particularly European and American cultures, are inherently selfish and evil in a way that other human societies and especially other living creatures are not.

Maybe I'm just sensitive, being a white man whose childhood photos look a bit like the kid on the cover of Rage Against the Machine's album Evil Empire.

OK, to be honest, my brother looked more like that kid than I did. But you know what I mean: brown-haired, blue-eyed white kid. Evil Empire. So I'm a little sensitive.

Wait, what was I talking about again? Oh, yeah. Isn't there something in the genetic mandate that all living things share that's a bit problematic at heart: the drive to successfully reproduce? I mean really, a genetic mandate NOT to reproduce wouldn't be passed on very far, would it?

I'm not saying that the culture whispering in our ears that we are the pinnacle of creation and that the earth is ours to use to our own short-term advantage isn't part of the problem, I'm just saying that I think maybe the cultural story is our way of explaining to ourselves the base biological impulse that we've become so successful in satisfying: spread the seed and do everything you can to see it grow to spread its seed, too. The notion that "a lion or a wombat" wouldn't have "conquered" the earth if a series of accidents in their evolution hadn't given them the massive reproductive advantages that would allow and even impel them to do so seems biased in a "humans are inherently different from animals" sort of way that's precisely the inverse of the one the book rejects. If that makes sense.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Complex Human Emotions

Aerie gave me the morning off, and I went to see Where the Wild Things Are at the discount theater. $1.75 ain't bad. Too bad the soda and popcorn weren't on the same price scale.

Much thanks to Aerie; it was the perfect movie for me to see today. I couldn't see Max as anyone but J-H through all of the pre-wild things segments, but J-H sort of disappeared when Max hit the island.

I was a little distracted by the Wild Things performers, too. Tony Soprano was particularly distracting. And Catherine O'Hara. I thought Alexander must be Steve Zahn. And it took me awhile to place Chris Cooper as Douglas. I didn't peg Mark Ruffalo as the boyfriend, or Forest Whitaker as Ira. And I thought Catherine Keener must be doubling as the mother and as K.W. But she wasn't K.W. at all. So all of that kept pulling me out of the story a bit, now and again. But mostly I was amazed.

It was good for me because it was a story about a young boy coping with the complications of being a human being. He was an immature person trying to process complex human emotions like love, jealously, anger, isolation, fear, powerlessness, and so much more. Each of those wild things was an aspect of himself as well as a study in the impossibility of peace, love, and harmony in a human community.

Which of course made me think of me. And the boy. And how he acts out. And how I react to it. He is the wild thing. He is Max in the wolf suit, standing on the table and yelling and biting. And I am Catherine Keener, reacting, and knowing I'm not doing right, and not knowing how else to do it.

I don't know that it helped, but it made me want to keep working to be my better self, to remember that each of us, including me and my son and and everyone else are all weak and afraid and hurt and capable of more and trying and failing. And trying again.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

29-Month Slump

I've been in a slump lately. My weight loss has stopped, mostly because I stopped following the tenets of Weight Watchers. Again. My daily enthusiasm for spending time with Thumper has dropped off, partly because of a string of days where he was sick and the weather was too cold for playgrounds, partly because of the phase he's deep into now (throwing, hitting, screaming, resisting every idea that is not his own), and partly because my attitude sucks.

I yelled at him at dinner at the end of last week. Somehow, table manners became a big pet peeve for me. He bangs his fork. He plays with his food. He spits out his beverage. He throws peas on the floor. He paints with his spilled soup. I don't know when I became the "act right at the dinner table" Nazi, but I yelled at him. And Aerie got upset with me. And I got upset with her. And I brooded about it for two days before I came to the conclusion that she was right and apologized. I have to find a way to change my expectations for him. My expectation that he feed himself without incident is clearly out of whack with reality, so I can continue to get upset when that expectation isn't met, or I can accept that it's not a reasonable expectation now.

I've been thinking about this job, and about the arcs my other "real jobs" have taken over the years. I think I'm at the point where I'm comfortable with my ability to do my job. I've mastered many of the positive challenges of my daily tasks, the challenges I enjoy, but I haven't yet learned to live in harmony with those negative challenges, the ones that I don't enjoy. I've become complacent, and in some ways bored with a job I feel like I've learned how to do pretty well.

So what's the next part of the arc? Well, either settling comfortably into the rut and learning to appreciate the ease and the boredom, or finding new ways to expand my role so that I can keep growing and learning new things. What does that mean in practical application? I'm not sure. I don't think it means just finding new places to go, new parks and playgrounds and museums and shows. I've been thinking about Mother's Day Out programs a lot lately, as people keep impressing upon me how it's important to get him comfortable with a classroom setting before he enters full-time public school. The problem is: they're freakin' expensive. I wonder if these two problems of mine can find a solution for each other?

I don't know; I'm just talking here.

On Men in Groups

In my SAHD group, the dad who posts the playdate schedule asked for feedback. He had two questions: What would make the group better for you? What can you do to make the group better? Here was my answer:

Before I started this job, I heard mothers talk about how playgroups were essential. They shared babysitting, they kept each other sane. I thought I would feel awkward on the playground, with the mothers looking at me like I was a pedophile. I thought I'd go a little crazy with limited adult interaction. Like so many other things in life, my anticipation was way off from reality. I don't think this group offers very much, but I don't think I'm missing much either. It is what it is. If other dads show up, great. If not, oh well. Most times, the mothers are perfectly friendly. In fact, the best playdate Thumper and I ever had was at a playground with 3 moms with kids Thumper's age. No other dads showed up. We played. We talked potty training. It was great.

What would make it better? Maybe rotating group playdates where one or two dads watch a group of kids and the other dads can have some time to run errands by themselves or whatever. Make it an opt-in program, rotate whose turn it is. Maybe split it into a couple of age groups.

Vary the playdates so there are more activities than just outdoor playgrounds, especially during very cold or very hot weather.

Maybe dads parent different from moms and are just more suited to going it solo.

What could I do to make the group better? Maybe show up more, but 2 or 3 a week is about as good as it's going to get for me. I let other dads know when I'm going to be there, which would be helpful if more people did. If I knew I wasn't driving 20 miles to an empty playground, I'd be more likely to go.

I could offer in-home playdates at my house, pizza parties, cupcake decorating parties, or something similar. We've got soccer fields, baseball fields, volleyball pit, etc. at our local park. Informal soccer games where kids could run themselves into exhaustion might be good.

To be honest, the "Off topic! Enough already; take it off board!" smackdown that I got when I first joined dampened my enthusiasm for trying very hard to start my own activities. I think the group would do well to be much more careful about how it presents itself to new members.

Those are my thoughts.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

He Never Throws Tantrums for Them

We pick up the meals for our Meals on Wheels route at a local senior center. We affectionately refer to the little old ladies who congregate there as "the Dominoes Ladies" because that's their game of choice. The Dominoes Ladies love Thumper. They have a candy dish there, and they specifically stock it with the items Thumper loves best. He gets one piece when we arrive, and another when we come back to drop off the warmer bag and the cooler after our route. They often try to sneak him an extra piece, too.

Yesterday, I took the gear to the store room before stopping and helping Thumper choose his piece of candy. When I came back out, one of the Dominoes Ladies was helping him. She gave me a stern look and declared, "You're falling down on the job, Daddy." Then I headed to the back to return the binder that has the client list. Another Dominoes Lady told me as I passed, "I had a dream about him. I don't remember what it was about, but I woke up talking to him." Then a third Dominoes Lady took me aside and whispered, asking if it would be OK if she brought him a gift next time. She has some stuffed animals she'd like to give him, but she wanted to make sure I didn't mind first.

They have long conversations with him. They show deep interest in what color and flavor his candy is today. They let him play their piano. They cheer and applaud when he does, or when he sings and dances. Dominoes Ladies love Thumper.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

I'm Really Starting to Like This Guy

I never heard of Tim Minchin until @natraehawking re-tweeted @thomasemson, who declared "White Wine in the Sun" the best Christmas song ever. And since, I've been abusing his YouTube videos, and yes, even buying some on iTunes.

"White Wine in the Sun"

I really like Christmas.
It's sentimental I know,
But I just really like it.

I am hardly religious;
I’d rather break bread with Dawkins than Desmond Tutu,
To be honest.

And yes, I have all of the usual objections to consumerism,
To the commercialization of an ancient religion,
To the westernization of a dead Palestinian
Press-ganged into selling PlayStations and beer.
But I still really like it.

I'm looking forward to Christmas,
Though I'm not expecting a visit from Jesus.
I'll be seeing my dad,
My brother and sisters, my gran and my mum.
They'll be drinking white wine in the sun.
I'll be seeing my dad,
My brother and sisters, my gran and my mum.
They'll be drinking white wine in the sun.

I don't go in for ancient wisdom.
I don't believe just 'cause ideas are tenacious
It means they're worthy.

I get freaked out by churches;
Some of the hymns that they sing have nice chords,
But the lyrics are dodgy.

And yes, I have all of the usual objections to the miseducation
Of children who in tax-exempt institutions are taught to externalize blame,
And to feel ashamed, and to judge things as plain right or wrong.
But I quite like the songs.

I'm not expecting big presents;
The old combination of socks, jocks, and chocolate
Is just fine by me.
'Cause I’ll be seeing my dad,
My brother and sisters, my gran and my mum.
They'll be drinking white wine in the sun.
I'll be seeing my dad,
My brother and sisters, my gran and my mum.
They'll be drinking white wine in the sun.

And you, my baby girl,
My jet-lagged infant daughter,
You'll be handed 'round the room
Like a puppy at a primary school,
And you won't understand,
But you will learn some day
That wherever you are and whatever you face
These are the people
Who'll make you feel safe in this world,
My sweet blue-eyed girl.

And if, my baby girl,
When you're twenty-one or thirty-one
And Christmas comes around,
And you find yourself 9000 miles from home,
You’ll know whatever comes,
Your brothers and sisters and me and your mum
Will be waiting for you in the sun.
Whenever you come,
Your brothers and sisters,
Your aunts and your uncles,
Your grandparents, cousins,
And me and your mum.
Will be waiting for you in the sun,
Drinking white wine in the sun.
Darling, when Christmas comes,
We'll be waiting for you in the sun,
Drinking white wine in the sun,
Waiting for you in the sun,
Drinking white wine in the sun,
Waiting for you,

I really like Christmas.
It’s sentimental I know.

"Not Perfect"
....This is my body, and I live in it.
It’s 31 and 6 months old.
It’s changed a lot since it was new.
It’s done stuff it wasn’t built to do.
I often try to fill it up with wine.

And the weirdest thing about it is,
I spend so much time hating it,
But it never says a bad word about me.

This is my body, and it’s fine.
It’s where I spend the vast majority of my time.
It’s not perfect, but it’s mine.
It’s not perfect....

Monday, December 14, 2009


My cousin found me on Facebook! Funny, it hadn't yet occurred to me to look for her there, though I've Googled her now and again in the, oh, hundred years or so since I've seen her. Yay, Facebook!

Here's what I remember about her:

1. The photo. It's a treasure in my family, this photo, iconic of our relationship at the time. I know I have a copy somewhere, but it's after midnight, and I don't know where to begin to look. I bet Aerie'd know, if she were awake. It shows Cuz and me at two years old, her with the flaming red hair, me with round belly and cheeks, sharing a can of Coke in a field of green grass. My mother used to joke that we could sell that photo to Coca Cola if only the label had been turned a little more directly toward the camera.

2. That house. The house of my cousins, not far from the home into which I was born, was the coolest place on the entire planet. As I recall, though the memory of a child before he was five is less than reliable, they had a sauna in the basement. They had an electric organ. They had cable (we watched Breaking Away again and again!) and a home computer (an Apple II! With Hunt the Wumpus and Lemonade Stand!) before people had cable and personal computers. They even had that most exotic of appliances: the trash compactor. They had the big back yard in which we celebrated the 4th of July, with sparklers. My uncle was rebuilding a Fiat from the ground up, and he drove like a lunatic. As I recall.

3. Cuz and I, getting busted by my flustered aunt, in that hazy time in my memory when I was 5-ish or before, in bed together, exploring the differences in our parts when we were supposed to be napping. I can't recall now whether she was amazed that I had what she did not, or if I was amazed that she did not have what I did. But one, or both of us, was astounded.

4. The lake vacation, some handful of years after we moved a couple of states away, when the cousins all came together for a couple of weeks, and Cuz and I played smurfs, or maybe trolls, and the cousins all made fun of our new Texas accents and repeatedly sang "Put Another Log on the Fahr" at us, and we fished, mostly unsuccessfully.

5. The splintering of that family of cousins through what seemed like a long string of bizarre and unjust tragedies, beginning with the too-young death by cancer of my well-loved aunt, whom I called "Aunt Piggy" because it was almost her name, and I was young and confused, and because she gave me some sort of fabric pig book when I was two and was hospitalized with pneumonia, that I still had years later. The pig book, that is, and not the pneumonia.

I think the loss of that extended family, first by our moving away when I was five, right at the early edge of my current memory, and then by what seemed from a distance to be the dissolution of the cousins' family, has shaped how I feel about familial connections now. I have pined, now and then through my life, for that connection with the cousin who was only a few months younger than I, who was in some ways, for a little while there, almost like a sister. I want Thumper to have and know and love his cousins and aunts and uncles and grandparents. I want him to grow up with them, to still be playing with them long after he's five, to never feel like he had and then lost them.

So. Anyway. I'm glad to hear from her again.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

An Apology Would've Been Nice

One of the things Pops taught me was to be unafraid to try to do things myself. He taught me how to use tools, and in return, I lost, misplaced, and mistreated all of those tools. I recall him saying that one of the biggest changes in having his last child out of the house was that tools remained exactly where he left them.

He taught me how to do all sorts of things, from using a coping saw, to roofing a house, to changing a water pump on an '82 Escort. So I've got the do-it-yourself genes, but unfortunately, I didn't inherit his skill, patience, or attention to detail. The result is that I know enough to get myself into trouble, but not enough to get myself out. So I get by with a little help from my friends, and especially my family. When Aerie and I bought a townhouse years ago that had a rotten bathtub, among other problems, I got a lot of practice fixing stuff. I called it my practice house. I did a terrible job tearing out the old tub, installing the new one, and putting in new drywall in the bathroom. God knows how we managed to finally sell that place.

So in the new house, when I wanted to screen in the deck, I called on Pops. He had the equipment. He had the know-how. And what he didn't know, he could figure out. When I wanted to turn an office into a bedroom, I called on Big Brother. He's a structural engineer who used to frame houses. He knows his stuff.

Big Brother and I, we turned this:

Into this:

It's not perfect. Even in the picture, you can still say the shape of where the old door used to be. But it's pretty darn good. Much gratitude and love to Big Brother for all of his expertise and help.

But you see that white patch of joint compound up there? See that? We had a couple of unrelated electrical problems that I couldn't figure out, so we decided to call an electrician. And as long as he was here, I thought it best to let him move the light switch inside that room so that I wouldn't spend the next 20 years annoyed that it was six feet away from the doorway. And he more or less did a good job. He fixed the two other problems, but he left screws and cut wire and various detritus from his work laying around the house. But worse, he put a hole in my new wall. I was happy with that wall. Aerie was happy with that wall. All I had left, after floating, and taping, and texturing, and painting the hallway side, was painting the bedroom side. That's all. Nearly done. And the electrician, when drilling through the old header above the old door, missed. And put a hole in my new wall.

He said, "Oh." He said, "I guess I missed." And then he proceeded to lavish praise on my drywalling skills. He suggested that I was so good at it, that it would be no problem for me to fix his mistake. And then he gave me $25 off my bill.

Son of a bitch never even said, "I'm sorry." And now I'm patching and texturing and painting again. I'll bet I'll be looking at that spot for the next 20 years and thinking about that stupid electrician.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Kid-Friendly, Passionate, and Professional

I am swearing off those "fun" haircutting joints for kids, like this one or like the one we visited today, Cool Cuts 4 Kids. We went there before on the recommendation of a neighbor. It wasn't a great experience, but it wasn't horrible, and at least I got his hair cut. This time, though: not good.

First we went to give blood, and the phlebotomist, remembering us from previous visits, mentioned how big he's getting and how long his hair is. It's hard to tell how adorably moppish it is here, but this is the "before" picture I took (with the usual camera resistance):

So I told her that we were going to get a haircut today, but I spelled the word and told her I didn't want to give him advance warning since he's not real keen on the idea of haircuts lately. She told me that her kid hates haircuts too, but she didn't spell it, and Thumper immediately started yelling about how he WON'T get a haircut! Thanks, lady.

So we headed to the barber that we went to for his second-ever haircut. That one went pretty smoothly and was about $7 cheaper than the Fun! For Kids! places. But today, the barber was closed. How do you make a business profitable by closing shop in the middle of the day on a Monday, is what I'd like to know, but oh well. So we went to Cool Cuts again.

Immediately, I knew it was a bad idea. I think I could've made it work, but the available "stylist" wasn't going to let me. Thumper ran straight to the train table at the front of the shop. He loves trains, and he remembered it from our previous visit. I would've let him play for a bit and get comfortable, but she immediately tried to grab his hand and lead him away. So I picked him up to carry him to the chair. The phone rang, and she ran to the back to answer it, so I let him choose between the yellow car and the red fire truck. He chose the car. When I started to put him into it, he tensed up and said, "I don't want a haircut!" I held on to him while he stood in the seat, pointed out the T.V., and told him he could watch a Barney video. God help me; the kid loves Barney. He was just warming to the idea when the "stylist" suddenly returned, put her hands on both his thighs and started forcibly pushing him hard down into the chair. He began screaming, locked his arms around my neck and climbed straight up my torso.

So I picked him up and walked quickly toward the door.

"Wait, wait!" she said. "I have a lollipop!"

"If you'd given me a minute," I yelled, "I could've talked him into it, but you pushed him and now he's freaking out. I'm not going to do it now. He's a human being, not a puppet!"

"I'm sorry!" she said. "Wait, wait!" But we were gone. I may have mumbled an inappropriate word or two on our way out the door.

I sat in the car with Thumper for a few minutes and calmed him down. I reassured him we weren't going back to the barber, and that I was mad at her, not at him. I asked him if he wanted to go to his favorite place for lunch. I reassured him some more. He stopped crying, and I buckled him into his seat.

"Did you say, 'Goddammit?'" he asked.

"Yes," I said. "I'm sorry. It's not a nice thing to say."

"Say, 'Darnit.'" he advised. Then, "I'm going to dry my eyes a little bit. They're wet."

God, I love that kid.

Usher Lessons: An Ongoing Series

Today's lesson is about crowd control. The key to maintaining control is early prophylactic action. If one waits too long, the prohibited activity spreads like a virus until it's too late to stop the infection. Then all you can do is treat the symptoms. Allow me to illustrate.

Saturday and Sunday nights, I worked in the arena seating area for University commencements. One of our goals was to keep people from gathering against the rails above where the students' processional entered the arena. There's nothing parents and grandparents like better than capturing every moment of little Johnny's triumphant achievement on camera, so they gather en masse at the railings, leaning on them, putting more and more weight on them, jockeying for better and better position, until a potentially dangerous situation is created. Since we prefer to make the evening news for our wonderful events and not our tragic incidents, we do our best to prevent that situation from arising in the first place.

One usher told me the story of a patron in a previous year's commencement even dangling a baby, Michael Jackson style, over the railing towards one of the degree candidates. When the usher asked her to step back from the railing, the patron snarled, "But he wants to see the baby!" Wow.

Anyway. What was I talking about again? Oh, yeah. Saturday, I decided not to man the rail until the procession began to assemble. Instead, I helped seat patrons, settle disputes over saved seats, help get mobility impaired patrons to the right sections, and the usual load-in fun. By the time I managed to return to the rail, a mob had already formed. A usher supervisor on the floor, who had stood there watching the mob form, told me, "You need to clear that aisle. But you're in charge up there, so whatever you want to do..." Thank you for the help, sir.

By that time, the patrons' idea of their entitlement to that location as a photo opportunity was too well-established; I couldn't do much more than ask them not to lean on the rail and to please return to their seats after they'd taken their picture(s), neither of which pieces of advice they heeded since they'd already digested the idea that they belonged there. Luckily, there were no fights, no pushing, and no one fell over the rail, crushing several students moments before the culmination of their triumphant achievement.

Sunday, I manned that rail from the moment doors opened, and didn't have any problems at all keeping the entire aisle clear. For the most part, all I had to do was stand there, acting as a visual deterrent. I politely informed the first one or two patrons who stepped up to the rail that we had to keep the aisle clear. They returned to their seats. The other patrons, seeing the rejection of these first explorers, didn't even try. It was lovely. It was peaceful. There were no snide comments from my fellow supervisors.

So the lesson is, in crowd control, those first few moments are critical. If you can stop the idea of ownership of space from hardening like epoxy in the minds of the crowd, you're home-free. If you miss that moment, you're screwed.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

She Should. She Really Should.

I just want you to know that Uggy Buggy, aka Social Worker Sister-in-Law ("SWSIL"), is what some might call "the bee's knees" and some others might call "da bomb." If she had a blog, I'd point you all (or "y'all," since this is Texas after all) at it right now. But she doesn't, which must be just an oversight that the universe will correct forthwith.

That's all. Just thought you should know.


I saw this on Velvet Verbosity, and I just had to share. At over 16 minutes, it's epic by internet video standards, but it's worth it. Thanks, VV!

"Validation" starring TJ Thyne & Vicki Davis. Writer/Director/Composer - Kurt Kuenne.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Looking Back

I'm still waiting for the "and laughing" part, but maybe that takes a little longer.

"Do you want to go to the playground and play with Ethan?"

"NO! Where's Ethan?"

"Do you want a hot dog for lunch?"

"NO! Can I have a hot dog?"

"Do you want to watch Barney?"

"NO! Yeah, I do."

I've said it before, and I'll say it again: It's a good thing he's so cute.

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