I waved goodbye as Jack’s bus pulled away that Monday morning, spiriting him and about 50 other kids away to the Days in the Arts program out at Tanglewood.  As I headed to my car, I felt quite the lump in my throat.  I recognized the emotion.  It was the emotion I felt when I was 17, and waving to my parents as my Boston-bound plane taxied me away from my Indiana home for good.  Except this was in reverse.  And I was completely unprepared.

My wife and I aren’t away from our two kids that often — a few nights at Otherworld, and 3 or 4 nights if we both make it away to Tanglewood ourselves for a residency.  Oh sure, we’ll have date nights here and there, thanks to our favorite babysitter or the generosity of our parents, and Jack has had a few sleepovers.  No big deal, right?  Five days without Jack.  We’ll deal, right?  It means more quality time with Peter, right?

He was only 11, but it felt like he had left for college.

We could send him emails which the staff would dutifully print out and hand him.  But he had no electronics, so he couldn’t call or write back.  We had a Facebook group that we eagerly checked for pictures or status updates, but they were few and far between.  It was a communications gap that could easily have been what my folks felt when I was going through freshman orientation and picking classes and calling them only once every few days, if that.  We knew he was having fun, and we couldn’t share it as a family.  Somehow it was harder with only one boy gone, because it felt too much like the day seven years from now when only one boy will be gone.

My wife said it felt like a piece of her was missing, all week.  Peter, despite having other good friends, still probably considers Jack his best playdate.  He pined for Jack every day.  I could distract myself somewhat with work, and Katherine distracted Peter with playdates and the local pool.  But we counted down the days until his return.

And when he did return he was… just a little different.  Five days away had made him more confident (and a little obnoxious… some manners were forgotten along the way.)  Far from being homesick, he was ready to go right back!  There was some retraining on how to live under our roof… just as Katherine and I remember having to re-learn some rules when we came back from college during those first few breaks.

I came to realize a few things:

  • I will have a little more empathy for my kids when we leave them with grandparents for 3-4 days while we go to Tanglewood ourselves… or any time I leave on a multi-day business trip.
  • I don’t know how my mom and dad can handle it when they say goodbye and climb in the car or head into the airport for the trip back to Indiana, or when they drop us off for our flight back to Boston.  This is the first time I think I’ve truly shared that complicated emotion: pride and wistfulness and happiness and mourning the faded past.
  • I understand better why Katherine’s folks visited her at least once a month while she was going to college in New Jersey.
  • I’ve heard that the two most stressful times in a marriage are when you have kids and when your kids leave the house.  I always thought the second one was because suddenly empty-nesters had to rediscover how to be a couple again.  Now I realize it’s just as much because the family unit you’ve cultivated for 18+ years is ripped apart redefined.
  • I’ve been blessed by not having any loved ones in my immediate family suddenly taken from me.  I can’t imagine the grief when I can barely survive five days without my son.  The suffering of the so-called “Gold Star” families takes on new color.

Jack will no doubt crave more ‘sleep away’ camps in summers to come, just like I went to ‘nerd camps’ and academic competitions at Ball State, Purdue, Indianapolis, and Orlando.  It will probably get easier for all of us.

But I’m not ready to redefine us.  Not yet.

Here’s what I learned in the 18 hours spent hosting a Minecraft LAN party for my oldest son, now 11 years old, with his brother and 4-5 of his friends attending:

  • More than 5 boys together have two volumes: Very Loud and Think They’re Being Quiet.
  • Boy conversations have more transmitters than receivers.
  • In boy conversations, if you repeat yourself enough times, maybe someone will listen to you.
  • A younger brother trying to hang with his older brother’s crowd will have fun, but often finds himself talking louder and louder to still potentially be ignored.
  • Boys love playing a game called “Manhunt,” which is basically Hide and Seek in the dark.
  • Our backyard does not have sufficient hiding places for Manhunt, but the wetlands behind our yard do.
  • 10 minutes of Manhunt in the wetlands = thorn bush pricks, dirty socks and soaked shoes from the creek
  • America’s Funniest Videos is perfectly acceptable, and even desired, dinnertime entertainment.
  • It’s fascinating to listen to 7 boys playing Minecraft in the same world while all in a room together, because of the mini-society they build up, with rules, supply bartering, teamwork and rivalries, and negotiations.
  • Even if a parent is in the next room over, boys with the lights off going to sleep can still only talk at Think They’re Being Quiet level.
  • The mother of an 11yo boy will be traumatized by late night boy discussions at Think They’re Being Quiet level.
  • Turns out 11yo boys care and talk A LOT more about girls than you thought they did.
  • Even after multiple lights out warnings, midnight seems like a perfectly reasonable time to finally go to sleep.
  • Likewise, 2am seems like a perfectly reasonable time to get up and play iPad games and Minecraft.
  • If you ‘bust’ those boys and tell them they can’t play Minecraft until after 6am, they will start at 6:01.
  • A 29 degree morning is certainly warm enough to go outside and play with nerf guns.
  • Our son has some great friends that we’re looking forward to him growing up with.
  • A Minecraft LAN party sleepover for your 11yo is an amazing, one-of-a-kind (though exhausting) experience.

We’re almost finished with dinner. The boys aren’t touching anything left on their plates.

Then Jack proclaims, “Can I have some Mac & Cheese?” You know, even though we’ve already eaten and he has salad and chicken left on his plate.

Then Peter follows suit. “Can I have some… <dramatic pause>….  FREEDOM?!?” he yells, as he pumps his fist into the air.

Katherine and I almost choked on our food laughing.

C’est très mal

I was helping 9yo Jack with his biography on Alexander Hamilton.  We were discussing the island where he grew up, which Jack was pronouncing as “Saint Crux.”

“It’s ‘saint croy,’ actually,” I told him.  “Or, you could even pronounce it ‘sahn crwah…’ ”

“Sahn what?” asked Jack.

“Sahn crwah,” I replied.  “That’s how you’d pronounce it in French.”

“Oh.  No offense, Dad,” said Jack, “but I wouldn’t trust your French.  It’s terrible.”

Wow.  WTF?   Where’d that come from?  Oh, yeah.  I had told him that factoid at the park yesterday, when we talked about singing and speaking in other languages, and I confessed that Katherine would make fun of my French pronunciation because it was so bad.

“You’re right, buddy.  Let’s ask Momma later to be sure.”

“Good idea, Dad.”

Reminds me of this comic, from a blog on learning French.  You don’t need to know French to see that the only question asked of Dad is “Where’s Mom?”

Out of the mouths of babes


Muppets Most Vomited

“Daddy, I don’t feel good.  My tummy hurts.”

These are words one never really wants to wake up to from your 6 year old, but truth be told, it was 6am, and the kids and I didn’t have anywhere to be until the PTO-sponsored showing of Muppets Most Wanted at 9:15, so we’re only talking, like, DEFCON 4 here.  With my wife out of town for the weekend, this is an easy fix: climb into bed with me and snuggle, and let’s all get some more sleep.

Twenty minutes later, though, we went to DEFCON 3.  “Daddy?  Daddy, I really don’t feel good.  My tummy still hurts.”

“Like, hungry hurts?  Or need to poop hurts?  Or, like, gonna throw up hurts?”

“Yeah.  Like gonna throw up hurts.”

WHOOP WHOOP WHOOP!  Alert!  Alert!  We are at DEFCON 1, I repeat, DEFCON 1!  Everyone up, out of the bed, get past the previous puke stain on the carpet to the bathroom, go go go move it move it MOVE IT!

My First Brilliant Foresight was preparing The Bucket — a small trash can with handles lined with a kitchen garbage bag.  Ten minutes in front of the toilet went for naught, but thanks to The Bucket, Peter Puke #1 ended up not on the den carpet.

Okay, this is not a drill, we get that now.  But, we’ve got a movie to see and $30 already paid for tickets and snack packs, as the first part of the Foley Boys Weekend.  Still, my son’s health and well-being should be of the utmost importance, right?

No.  I’m a cold-hearted bastard of a dad, apparently, because I kept telling Peter he was okay, and convinced him to suck it up so we could all go to the movies.  He wavered several times, since his natural tendency is to always vote for whatever he’s doing right now, but we all made it into the car.

We got about halfway down our street before Peter turned to me and said, “Daddy, I really don’t want to go, my tummy still hurts.”  What can you do?  Time to abort.  I apologized to Jack but said that with Peter really feeling sick, we’d have to see the movie another time.

At this point, the 9-year-old panicked.  Tears, sobbing, but-you-saids, the works.  I tried to console him as I made my three-point turn.  Somewhere between points two and three, Peter, torn apart by seeing Jack like this, sobs, “Okay, okay!  I want to go.  Let’s try it.  Let’s go, Jack.”

It warms my heart how much empathy these brothers have developed for each other.

So here we are, at the movie.  Jack is sitting with his friends.  Peter is sitting with me, separate from everyone else, “so I don’t get anyone sick.”  You got it, buddy.  As long as we’re on the aisle.  And if you EVER feel like you need to.. you know… let me know and we’re out of here.  Don’t worry about the movie, don’t worry about anything, we’ll just go go go.

I figured the movie would be distracting enough to help him get over feeling sick.  I brought him a water bottle to sip.  He didn’t even touch the popcorn or lemonade.  Just sipped, watched, and even occasionally laughed.

Then, about an hour in, he turned to me and made The Face.

You know The Face.  The twisted mouth, the raised eyebrows, the look of panic and shame.  The I’m-sick-and-I’m-gonna-throw-up-and-get-out-of-my-way Face.

WHOOP  WHOOP WHOOP Peter Puke #2 incoming WHOOP WHOOP….  all right Peter let’s go let’s go come on come on right this way go go go…

We stop at the top of the ramp.  “You’re not gonna make it are you.”  Head shake.

Aha!  Let me introduce my Second Brilliant Foresight: the plastic bag stuffed in my back pocket.  He threw up what little was in his stomach right there, in the back of the theater, in my plastic bag.  Then we walked to the restroom, him holding the plastic bag up like a horse feeder.  Which is good, because that meant he caught probably 95% of the second upchuck, ten feet in front of the bathroom.

Worst.  Dad.  Ever.

That’s all I could think as I hung out in the bathroom while Peter regained his composure.  I coerced him into coming.  I should have known better.  “I want to go home, Daddy.”  I know, son, I know.  Let me figure out how to extricate Jack.

But when we got back in the movie theater, the distraction kicked in again.  “I want to try one more time, Daddy.  One more time.”  You’re the boss, bud.  I’m out of plastic bags, though, so this is for all the marbles.  (That was a lie, though: I was armed with my emergency backup half-full popcorn bag in a pinch.  You ever catch yourself thinking: if this plane goes down, or if I fall into this alligator exhibit, or if a bomb goes off in this building, this is how I’m going to survive?  This was one of those desperate survival moments.)

We made it through the movie.  Jack and I thanked Peter about a hundred times for sticking it out with us.  I hoped that I had quarantined Peter enough to not magically infect everyone’s kids.

The rest of the day was penance for my decision-making.  Peter napped for about 3 hours while Jack played Minecraft for just as long. Nevertheless, we watched favorite shows together, played iPad games together, and otherwise huddled up for most of a rainy sick Saturday indoors.  A failed dinner attempt led to Peter Puke #3, right before bed, but once again in The Bucket — whew!

Before bed, I reminded Peter how to avoid another puke stain on our carpet.  If you have to throw up, throw up in The Bucket first, and then come find me — not the other way around.  Still, sleep for me may be tough.  After all, you ever try to swing a golf club waiting for the Peter-Puke-#4-Gotcha? 

The Parenting Game

When I was in grade school, I remember going to some sort of computer show with my dad, and being fascinated by a demonstration running on a TRS-80.  It was a robot fencing game with good-for-the-time crude animations of different positions and attacks.  The trick was that you had to program your fencer robot properly to react to or anticipate the actions of the opponent to win.  In other words, your superior twitch skills couldn’t win the game; you had to coach a stand-in and then hope it did well enough on its own.

As I’ve grown, I’ve continued to enjoy games and situations where you did everything you could to prepare a surrogate and anticipate its challenges, but in the end some elements were still out of your control.  Puzzles like writing a flowchart that guides a mouse out of an unseen maze.  The Lego autonomous robot competitions at MIT.  The concept of computer games like Black & White.  Board games like RoboRally and Space Alert.  And it’s not just gaming.  Tutoring a high schooler.  Teaching a class.  Training a sales team.  Managing and mentoring an intern or direct report.  Those all have given me a form of the same experience.

Parenting is the ultimate expression of this exercise.  

Think about it.  You’re the nurture in nature vs nurture.  If it were a role-playing game, you were just handed a character with some starting stats, and you’re in charge of leveling them up.  So you spend days, months, and years of more give than take, making sacrifices, teaching lessons, setting limits, disciplining and rewarding, trying to find out what they’re good at, encouraging and discouraging, and ultimately shaping the behavior of another human being.   It’s all out of love, of course.  Sometimes you get something back, but if you never got anything back in return, it’d probably still be all okay.  But it’s not optional – even if you chose not to get involved, that would still have its effect.

Parents joke about the lack of an instruction manual for their kids.  But there’s a more insidious problem related to not definitively knowing what to do.  There are very few opportunities for objective feedback.  You sort of have a sense of how well you’re doing, just like you might know that the meat you’re grilling is doing okay.  Like the grillables, you might not recognize that there’s a Real Problem until it’s too late — and a major kid problem is harder to recover from than scorching your hot dogs.  It’s no wonder that parents love seeing their child competing with others, such as in sporting events — what other metrics do you have to know whether your child is doing well?  What does “doing well” even mean?  Every opinion is subjective, and at the end of a hard day when your wife (and her patience) is exhausted, and the kids are screaming at you because they don’t want to brush their teeth, and you stumble back downstairs to their latest disaster area, you wonder if something is terribly, terribly wrong.

Last night we had parent-teacher conferences for both children.  Jack’s 3rd grade teacher told us how great he was doing.  His report cards is all pluses and checks (they don’t do A’s and B’s any more.  Shrug.)  Mr. Lynch told us how worldly he is, with his ability to retain knowledge of what he reads.  How aware of more than himself he can be, which is unusual at that age.   How well he behaves and listens in what is apparently a pretty tough, distractable, entitled classroom right now.  How his biggest challenge is really just staying engaged and interested in subjects (e.g., multiplication tables are hard to learn because they’re just too boring), and not being forgetful.  Peter’s kindergarten teacher told us what a joy he is.  “Whatever you’re doing, keep doing it.”  His report card is all T’s (on Target) with one D (Developing).  Mrs. McBride talked about the empathy he’s shown, once even asking her if she was okay when she was having a tough day with the kids.  About how well he follows directions and pays attention, and takes pride in his work, and is even doing some good reading.  About how his only fault, academically speaking, is being too hard on himself when he’s having trouble with something.  

I’m the kind of person that always tries to identify areas for improvement.  Who probes decisions and options, looking for weaknesses in the hopes of making it stronger.  Who worries about what I don’t know I don’t know.  None of those personality traits triggered during those meetings.

I walked out of both meetings with basically one takeaway.  I still don’t really know the rules of this “parenting” game my wife and I have been playing.  But we’re winning.

Chain of Fools

While we were vacationing in Door County, Wisconsin, my wife and I got into a conversation about how this part of the world is like what Cape Cod, Massachusetts used to be like before it got overcommercialized with big box stores and familiar names. We found out that this is because Door County still strictly regulates what businesses can open up on the peninsula; specifically, “they don’t allow chains.”

As we were driving back from a local art studio, Jack piped up, puzzled. “But Mama, I saw some in the corner of the studio, by the metal working shop. They had chains hanging up by the wall. I thought you said people weren’t allowed to have chains in Door County!”

It took us a while to untangle why he was concerned, and then to realize that he had never heard “chains” in the context of “chain stores,” so when we finished laughing over the mixup, we clued him in. We are definitely at the stage where sometimes we have to pause, realize this boy has not had our life experiences, and tell him things like, “if you dial 911 from an airport pay phone, even if you don’t put money in, it still works.” (But that’s a different story!)