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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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It’s 5:30am and it’s Christmas morning.  I wake up because I think I hear a rattling of the stair gate — the one which we still close every night even though at this point Peter could probably open it and wander the house if he felt like it and we wouldn’t mind.

My being alert somehow wakes up Katherine too.  “I thought I heard something,” I whisper to her.  We strain to hear the sounds of an overjoyed child on Christmas morning, but… nothing.  

We drift in and out of consciousness until shortly after 6am.  Now Katherine wakes up, and she has to pee.  REALLY has to pee.  This is bad, because Peter has a habit of waking up about 6am whenever I leave the room to start my day.  She tries really hard to hold it, but ends up grumbling as she sneaks out of our room and sits on the toilet.

*Kathump*…  *thump-thump-thump-thump-thump-thump-THUMP!*

Peter runs out of his room, stops in front of the gate, and gazes down the stairs.  Then he turns around and sees Katherine on the toilet.

“Buddy, it’s too early,” she says.  “It’s not morningtime yet.  Go back to sleep.”

Still not completely awake, he turns and thump-thump-thump-thumps back to his room, crawls under the covers… and falls right back to sleep?!  Katherine climbs back into bed with me until…

It’s 7:30.  Both of us wake up as we hear Peter whooping and hollering from the den.  Then he thump-thump-thump-thump-THUMPs his way upstairs and into our room, to show off his filled stocking.  (No 4 year old moves quietly or slowly on Christmas morning.)

But where’s Jack?  

Oh, here he is, working on a Lego set in the playroom.  It’s the one he got on Christmas Eve from Nana and Grampa.  Wow, he’s made a lot of progress.  How did he get so far?  

Turns out it’s because he’s been up since 5:30 — that rattle was him after all.  He snuck downstairs, saw all the presents, remembered that he couldn’t open them without us and that we wanted to sleep until it was light out, and went back to his room to read Calvin and Hobbes until 6:30, then came down and played with his existing toys until we got up.  He heard the whole Peter incident, too.

We totally win Christmas morning.  From that point on, it was present opening, a Skype to Indiana grandparents, Pillsbury cinnamon rolls and cheesy scrambled eggs, and a relaxing morning before packing up to go visit relatives.

 

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I wake up and look at the clock. 4:15 am. Ha, I think. Eat your heart out, Jack Reacher. My internal clock works too.. You see, the alarm was set for 4:30.

Why 4:30? That gives me enough time to shower and load up the car while Katherine showers so we can wake the boys up and get them dressed. You know, to leave the house by 5:30. To park the car by 6:00 and get to the terminal by 6:30 to checkin for our 7:55 flight. This is known as parental travel math and we have it down to a science. And to be fair, at 4 and 7 years old the Kid Delay Constant in the equation is getting pretty low.

I’m a bit worried I needed to increase that constant. Jack has been sleeping past 8. Peter, sometimes a 5:30 or 6:00 sort of guy, has settled in to 6:30 or 7:00. But we’re traveling to visit grandparents and they’re excited. I bet I can get them going.

At 5am, as I bustle around while Katherine starts her shower, I find jack downstairs in the kitchen. Wha…??? “Hi Dad. I was just so excited about going to Indiana that I had to get up.”. A phrase you don’t hear from many Bostonians.

At 5:30 the car is almost packed and I head upstairs. I reflect that I haven’t actually awoken Peter in the morning for …months? Years??? I can’t remember when. He gets up with me. Or he doesn’t and we let him sleep. This is a big deal. I should relish this.

“Hi Daddy,” he says, sitting up, as I walk in. “Time t’ go t’Indiana now?”

They end up not napping the whole day and bouncing off the walls until bedtime at 8 local time. At least they’ll sleep late, right?

Peter was in our bed at 3:30. He was up with me at 5:30 when I sought a less kick-filled couch. But that’s okay because Jack was up too playing on the cheap iPod touch we got him for moments like this. Really? Really? You kids… are weird.

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The lure of Facebook is the ease of grabbing a thought and posting it for your friends to see.  Unfortunately, that lure comes with a price — only some people see it, and then it disappears forever into the void of social media’s instant gratification.  In fact, the whole reason I started this blog was to capture those ephemeral moments that were disappearing in time.

The last 3+ months have seen me return to “lazy” Facebook posting for the quick laugh.  Even then, many moments with the kids were not captured and posted.  So many moments already lost, that we won’t even remember 5 days from now, let alone 5 years or 5 decades.

So without further ado, here are some moments borrowed back from Facebook posts over the last few months.  They prove, once again, that Kids Are Weird:

May 16: Jack flipped on his back at the dinner table… And before we could admonish him, Peter surprised us with a head shaking /facepalm. It was so hilarious, we asked him to do it again for this picture.

May 5: “Wanna come’n see our fort when i’s done?” asked Peter. “Sure,” we both said.
“TANG COCK!” he yelled in response.

*ummmmm….* “What was that, Peter?”
“Tang cock!” he repeated. “TANG COCK!”

*worried exchange of glances… why does he care about an orange-drink penis?*
Jack: “He said, ‘Stay and talk,’ Mom.”  *ohhhhh…. whew*

May 4:

MY children have learned to seize the day and enjoy every moment of life.
YOUR children ate ice cream an hour before dinner.

MY children have a sense of individualism and understand their unique value.
YOUR children demanded separate bedtime stories last night.

MY child is a motivated, self-starting get-it-done kind of person who is not a slave to the whims of fashion.
YOUR child climbed into your bed at 6am, having already gotten dressed in an orange T-shirt and blue shorts for another 50 degree rainy day.

MY child is steadily improving his hand-eye coordination and problem-solving abilities.
YOUR child is wasting the morning playing Lego Wii.

May 3:

Peter’s preschool project for their “camping” unit was marshmallows (cotton balls) on a stick. Jack took it upon himself to make a (cardboard paper) fire for toasting.

The bottom is all from one piece of brown construction paper — he didn’t cut strips for sticks, he cut out the triangles and squares to make it look like stacked sticks — and then he crumpled up orange paper convincingly and glued it on top.

This Jack-the-artiste stuff must’ve been how my folks felt when I started playing piano. “Where the hell did THIS talent come from?”

Apr 29:

Okay, I get that 4yo Peter still wets his bed at night. But today he wet his *brother’s* bed in the morning. As in, they were playing on Jack’s bed, and Peter suddenly just let loose all over the place — pillows, sheets, stuffed animals, part of the wall, all soaked. This was definitely not in the post-potty-trained brochure.

Apr 28:

Jack and Peter await our dinner guests, hiding in the front bushes. Note the “camo” helmet Jack has made out of a busted bike helmet, green paint, and various weeds and grass.

Apr 21:

This has been the weirdest day. Jack sleeps till 9am. Peter eats more than he ever has for breakfast. We take them to a kids orchestra concert with an instrument playground and Jack has a mini-panic attack, afraid to try playing anything in front of the instructors. During the concert, an exhausted Peter (why? he slept fine) curls up in a ball and begs to go home, and falls asleep in the car. It’s a beautiful day out, but I have zero motivation — I lay in bed for a few hours while the boys play Wii. In sports, the Red Sox blow an 8-0 lead, while the White Sox throw the 21st perfect game in MLB history. What is going on?

Apr 18:

Hilarious. Love my boys. They’re awesome. It’s too bad I did not capture them singing Maroon 5’s “Moves Like Jagger” immediately after this song. Also too bad that Peter is off key here, because I swear he was pitch-matching the first time through the refrain — makes a singing parent proud.

Apr 15:

It’s hard to, in good faith, tell the kids, “No, you can’t play Wii, it’s gorgeous out,” when all you want to do is curl up in front of your own computer and take a break from all the housework playing some Diablo 3 beta. This is why I prefer winter — guilt-free video gaming.

Apr 13:

After hearing our 7yo Jack singing a song by Fun, our 4yo Peter mused, “Why does dat guy wanna set da world on fire?” Then he looked out the window and yelled, “I SEE FIRE EVERYWHERE!”

March 12:

I’ve “played Dungeons & Dragons” with Jack before, which wouldn’t resemble D&D to most of its fans. It’s all about the story and, when possible, the miniatures. Well, Jack decided he wanted to run an adventure for me. How could I say no? Well, it turns out he was pretty ambitious, and the whole thing went surprisingly well — though I had to enforce the “1 hour” limit as it was before bedtime and he would have gone on forever with his stories! (At one point I walked out of the room to get a drink and came back and he was still excitedly explaining what happened in one scene.) His imagination, creativity, and story-telling abilities continue to astound me.  Here’s a photo journal of the whole thing.

January 4:

Jack made his own breakfast this morning with minimal supervision. Fried eggs, waffle, sausages…. And a surprise tear or two in daddy’s eyes.

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