Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Rocket Boy

The Boy's fifth birthday was a while ago (6/6, to be exact), but we officially celebrated on the 14th. Again my lovely wife did a lot of work for the party — rockets were the theme this year — and everything came off well. We made cutouts from old file folders to serve as paint patterns (which didn't quite work like we hoped) to busy the kids until everyone arrived. Once all were accounted for, we went out back to the large, sloped lawn in Teardrop Park to launch rockets. My wife discovered these small foam rocket launchers at Target (that worked surprisingly well), and we also brought out the larger stomp rocket set we picked up for the occasion. I had originally wanted to make water-propelled rockets out of plastic bottles (great idea, Make Magazine), but it turns out that they go dangerously high in a city like ours. And as much as I'd like to see up close one of those policemen on horseback that always patrol our neighborhood, I'd rather not provide my children with a story that includes the phrase "so then dad got arrested..."

When the pizza arrived (and pizza always arrives at these parties), we retrieved all the loose rockets and went in to eat, right as the sky opened up and turned the streets into creeks. After pizza was cake: this year my wife made a lovely blue buttercream solar system, complete with fruit rollup planets (the earth even had discernible and proper continents) and a toy space shuttle blasting off from one corner. It was darn good.

The kids trickled out home with their rockets and goody bags filled will space bracelets, tiny rocket capsules with crayons inside, and space stickers.* Everyone really seemed to have a good time, including The Boy (unlike last year). The presents he received were great, too — lots of games and construction toys, which fit his mind and level just right.

He arrived in the night five years ago (why do they always come at night?) into hands from the rescue part of the hospital. He was just barely a spark, or, looking back, perhaps an atom newly split before it lets loose a blooming cloud. So small and nothing but potential swaddled in doubt. Now the doubt is gone, and five is definitely worth celebrating.

Happy Birthday, son. (And thanks for thanking your mother.)

*Did you ever notice that everything sounds better with 'space' in front of it? Pants = boring. Space pants = cool.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Bring back the tough dad? Did he ever leave?

Originally uploaded by dmealiffe
My lovely wife recently passed along a Wall Street Journal piece by Kevin Helliker called "A Father's Tough Love." In it, Helliker writes about how his father's stark, tough treatment of himself and his four brothers looks from a distance. Helliker's father as he describes him was pretty manly — a butcher who also firmly ran a newspaper delivery business before and after long hours of cleaving meat — and he embodied the distant Midwestern father of the times. Helliker writes, "It was a style that placed Dad at a certain distance, that required him to scoff at scraped knees and hurt feelings, that often cast him in the role of bad guy."

This style has (more or less) become less acceptable, and Helliker collects reasons why that might not be a good thing:
"The whole culture needs the father back," says Lila Kalinich, a Columbia University psychiatrist who served as senior editor for the book [The Dead Father: A Psychoanalytic Inquiry]. "Fathers substantiate law and order. Fathers can create a sense of womanliness in daughters and bring the male children into manhood."
Hmm. I'm not sure what Kalinich means by "womanliness" or "manhood," and I do wonder how Helliker's father would have treated a daughter. (As I understand it, tough dads of this sort had deeply distinct double standards for parenting girls and boys, and girls were treated so differently because they were believed to be so much weaker and more vulnerable than boys on just about every score.)

Compare Helliker's sentiment with that expressed in a Father's Day speech by the current Democratic nominee for president. Here's Obama speaking of fathers' duties:
The first is setting an example of excellence for our children – because if we want to set high expectations for them, we’ve got to set high expectations for ourselves. It’s great if you have a job; it’s even better if you have a college degree. It’s a wonderful thing if you are married and living in a home with your children, but don’t just sit in the house and watch “SportsCenter” all weekend long. That’s why so many children are growing up in front of the television. As fathers and parents, we’ve got to spend more time with them, and help them with their homework, and replace the video game or the remote control with a book once in awhile. That’s how we build that foundation...

It’s up to us – as fathers and parents – to instill this ethic of excellence in our children. It’s up to us to say to our daughters, don’t ever let images on TV tell you what you are worth, because I expect you to dream without limit and reach for those goals. It’s up to us to tell our sons, those songs on the radio may glorify violence, but in my house we glorify achievement, self respect, and hard work. It’s up to us to set these high expectations. And that means meeting those expectations ourselves. That means setting examples of excellence in our own lives.

The second thing we need to do as fathers is pass along the value of empathy to our children. Not sympathy, but empathy – the ability to stand in somebody else’s shoes; to look at the world through their eyes. Sometimes it’s so easy to get caught up in “us,” that we forget about our obligations to one another. There’s a culture in our society that says remembering these obligations is somehow soft – that we can’t show weakness, and so therefore we can’t show kindness.

But our young boys and girls see that. They see when you are ignoring or mistreating your wife. They see when you are inconsiderate at home; or when you are distant; or when you are thinking only of yourself. And so it’s no surprise when we see that behavior in our schools or on our streets. That’s why we pass on the values of empathy and kindness to our children by living them. We need to show our kids that you’re not strong by putting other people down – you’re strong by lifting them up. That’s our responsibility as fathers.
(You can read the whole thing here or watch him deliver the entire speech here.)

My own father was from the older school (punishment wise and all), but I didn't live in fear of him. Which is to say that toughness isn't synonymous with gruffness, and kindness isn't tantamount to weakness. And toughness has never gone out of fashion, just its expression. I'd like to think that my wife and I teach Q and The Boy strength not through physical intimidation (of either our children or others) but rather in our expectations of ourselves and of others.

We'll see how well we did, I suppose, when they look back.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

A father's day

It's been a full day, as most are. June weekends have been stuffed, and this one was taken over for the most part by The Boy's fifth birthday party (more about that later no doubt). Today was a little different, a time for recovering and for Q and The Boy to bring out the drawings and gifts for me that they had squirreled away in the closet. I think they enjoyed keeping the secret as much as what they kept secret, and I relished the theater of it all. My lovely wife also went to the kids when they both fell out of bed earlier than usual this morning. Now that's a Father's Day present.

Here's a story that fits this day nicely: Last weekend we went to a birthday party at some good friends of ours who used to live in our building. Their daughter was turning three, and, along with cake and too much great food, we knew there was going to be swimming (they have a pool) and a large inflatable castle water play thing that Q and The Boy would love. These friends left our building for an expansive house just north of the City, so we packed up our swimsuits and towels and car seats and set out for the rented car.

First, the car was late. We were supposed to get our car at 1:00 p.m., but the good folks at Zipcar called to say that the renter before us was running behind and would I like to cancel my reservation (at no charge) or take it late? Not going was, of course, not an option. At 1:30, then, I went down into the parking garage to retrieve the little Mazda as my lovely wife and the kids waited up on the sidewalk. I drove up and parked in the garage's opening to strap in the kids and load up generally. Now, we're more or less car-ride rookies, and odds are better than even that Q will throw up at some point during the trip. (She knows this, too, and usually claps her hand over her mouth just as I set her into her car seat.) Wouldn't you know it, Q did throw up right as I was fastening the belts, before we'd rolled an inch. Okay. So we took her out along with the bag with the beach towels, and we sacrificed one to clean her up. As we were swapping her dresses (my smart wife always packs extra everything), an SUV pulled up behind us wanting to exit the garage and honked. We scrambled back into the car and drove off, glad to be on our way.

As we were almost out of the city, Q asked for her Big Blanket and Little Blanket, which is to say she wanted her comfort blankets that she's had since, well, the dawn of her time. My wife looked to the back seat for the bag of blankets (and swimsuits and towels and flipflops and sunscreen and ...), and realized that instead of it sitting on the floor beneath Q's swinging feet it was sitting on the sidewalk just outside the parking garage in downtown Manhattan.

So we faced a choice: (1) go back for the bag and miss most if not all of the party, or (2) go on and start repairing the psychic damage suffered by a little girl whose parents left a big, irreplaceable chunk of her life on a New York street. We opted for (2), given that the bag might very well have been taken by the time we got back to the garage anyway.

To Q's credit, she (unlike my wife and I) didn't freak out. As I went into reassuring mode, my wife called the garage to ask if the attendant could walk up and check for a bag. She did get a hold of him, but he said he couldn't leave the booth for another fifteen minutes or so and that she should call back. About thirteen-and-a-half minutes later, my wife called again, and it turned out that the bag was still there (and still full of stuff) and that the attendant had it next to him in the booth. Deep, collective sighs ensued.

Could he keep it there until we brought the car back that night around 7 p.m.? Well, he told us, he couldn't say for sure — his shift ended at 4 p.m. and all bets were off after that. Sheesh. Okay, we made it to our friends' house, and as we rolled to a stop in their driveway, Q threw up again, this time all bright red juice all over her new white dress. My wife took them both into our friends' house, borrowed swimsuits for them both and left them to get wet with the other kids as she borrowed their washing machine for Q's seat cover and dresses. This was at about 2:45.

At 2:47 I got back into the car and drove the 30 city miles back to the parking garage for the bag. There was no choice, really — we couldn't risk re-losing Q's blankets. And but so I did make it back to the booth in time and back to the party (another 30 city miles) by around 4:30. I arrived in time to sing "Happy Birthday" and down two pieces of cake on a princess plate. At 5:30 we retrieved the fresh laundry and the exhausted, exhilarated children and went home with all our possessions plus two new goody bags full of wonderful stuff.

Things all worked out, then. And now I have a story to tell and a reputation with Q and The Boy: The Boy now has (another) reason to think of me as forgetful, and Q has concrete evidence of what her dad will do for her. Not a bad trade off, all in all.

Okay, so this post is getting a little long, but I want to exit with a poem by Timothy Steele that I recently ran into. It reminds me of how I've spent and spend much time these five years as a father, and the lines themselves arc and move just like Q.

The Swing
by Timothy Steele

She shrieks as she sweeps past the earth
And, rising, pumps for all she's worth;
The chains she grips almost go slack;
Then, seated skyward, she drops back.

When swept high to the rear, she sees
Below the park the harbor's quays,
Cranes, rail tracks, transit sheds, and ranks
Of broad, round, silver storage tanks.

Her father lacks such speed and sight,
Though, with a push, he launched her flight.
Now, hands in pockets, he stands by
And, for her safety, casts his eye

Over the ground, examining
The hollow underneath the swing
Where, done with aerial assault,
She'll scuff, in passing, to a halt.

Happy Father's Day, everyone.

(Note: Here's the blog header at the time of grandpa and The Boy from a few years ago

It's for you, Grandpa


Friday, June 13, 2008

Happy Birthday, Dad!

Today is my dad's birthday, and I won't say which one (not because the number is too high but rather because it's not for me to say).

Every now and then dad used to joke — or half-joke — that he didn't expect to live past 55. He passed that some time ago and is still going strong as they say.

He might now joke that he's living on borrowed time. I like to think that he's accrued this "extra time" fair and square for a host of reasons and memories and that he's owed it. And a lot more besides.

Love you, dad. Happy birthday.

School Daze Update

(NYC - Battery Park City: World Financial Center Plaza, originally uploaded by wallyg. Photo used under Creative Commons license.)

Battery Park City and Tribeca has been abuzz lately with school stuff. As I mentioned a little while ago, our two downtown public elementary schools, PS 89 and PS 234, are some of the best in the city. That lure plus the incentives provided by the City and the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation offered after 9/11 really did revitalize the neighborhood. Revitalized the heck out of it. PS 234 is way over capacity — even with its new annex — and the principal of PS 89 has had to get crafty with the building plan to carve out new classrooms.

With the recent news that many kids had been put on the waiting list, the issue seems finally ready to boil over (again). Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer came to the PS 89 auditorium yesterday for an open forum on downtown overcrowding. I didn't get a chance to go, but my lovely wife did attend for a while. It was packed, she said. Stringer vowed to work to get all the kids who wanted to go to 89 and 234 in their doors. Small problem, though: there isn't any space. Ideas were floated, such as commandeering more space in the buildings (though not much is left), or bringing in trailers as temporary classrooms. Someone also suggested that Stuyvesant, the nearby high school, lend some of its classrooms for PS 89, but the principal of that school was on hand to regretfully point out that they're squeezed as well, so no dice. As it stands, then, PS 89 will have 6 Kindergarten classes next fall (which comes out to about 25 or 26 kids per class), some of which may very well be coloring in the stairwell.

The trailer approach is typical in that it's short term. As a friend of ours from the building pointed out, these Kindergartners aren't likely going anywhere, which means that the year after these schools will be struggling to find space for all their first graders as well as their new crowd of five-year-olds. The solutions sound temporary but, as is often the case, the problem isn't.

That same friend from our building suggested that parents hold meetings on the latest construction site —where another luxury apartment building is beginning to rise — right across from PS 89. Perhaps if the big real estate developers can't make their money, the city government will finally feel the pressure to do some sound city planning.

Battery Park City is back; now it's time for the City to pony up.

Monday, June 09, 2008

The City at play

The New York Times recently published a feature story on the city's best playgrounds (best according to the Times anyway). Our own Teardrop Park made the list, which, though it certainly should be on the list, is somewhat unfortunate because now the secret is certainly out.

In any event, for those who have a hard time imagining what kids in NYC actually do (besides slinging their pants low and spraying graffiti all over), I suggest having a look at the Times's slide show of some great spots to let Q and The Boy loose. We've been to the first on their list, what they call the Jane Street Playground and what we call the Water Playground, and the second is where we unwind every night.

Not a bad place to spend your early years, all in all.

Friday, June 06, 2008

The Big 5

The Boy turns 5 today. The gifts have been trickling in from all over, from family, friends, and his babysitter. And though his party won't be for another week, we gave him the present from us, too. Since he's such a big kid now, we hooked him up with a skateboard (with skulls on the bottom, of course), a new fire-red helmet, and pads for his knees and elbows. He's been asking for a skateboard for awhile now, so after pulling it out of the bag and holding it like a freshly caught fish for only a moment, we went right out to the park paths to try it out.

This photo just hints at him; he's big and full and funny. And five.

Happy birthday, son. Mom and I are proud of you and love you. Welcome to the last year you can count on one hand.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Now that's a close marriage

The New York Times recently featured a Buddhist-teacher couple, Michael Roach and Christie McNally, who have never been apart in in their 10 years of marriage. And by never being apart they meant never being more than 15 feet apart. The Times reporter, Leslie Kaufman loves to add perspective throughout the article, such as:
If they cannot be seated near each other on a plane, they do not get on. When she uses an airport restroom, he stands outside the door. And when they are here at home in their yurt in the Arizona desert, which has neither running water nor electricity, and he is inspired by an idea in the middle of the night, she rises from their bed and follows him to their office 100 yards down the road, so he can work.
They eat from the same bowl, read each page of each book together, the works.

No doubt this article is designed to get readers to thinking about distances of all sorts in their marriages. (Sure did the trick for me.) The story so intrigued David Plotz, now the new editor at Slate, that he and his wife decided to try out the fifteen-foot rule for a day. And Slate filmed their "stunt" (as Plotz called it) for their video site SlateV. The short piece goes like this:

Like Plotz and Rosin, my lovely wife and I have our own professions and places to go to practice them. Unlike Plotz and Rosin, our professions are deeply distinct, and at the moment I spend weekdays 80 miles or so from my wife. Our experiment of this sort, then, would probably be more dramatic and more revealing to both of us than it was for them.

As Rosin notes toward the end of the video, spending the day so (literally) closely together left them little to talk about when most wives and husbands, us included, do become close at night. It's that expansion and contraction of distance that provides some of the good kind of mystery, I think. Besides, you can't reliably measure the closeness of a marriage with a piece of tape.

Now I'm off to the train and to think about my wife.

Monday, June 02, 2008

A real doll

Nadine's recent post about dreading her return to work after six months with her new girl got me to thinking about leaving for work. My lovely wife luckily took extended time off from her career for both The Boy and for Q early on, but she returned to the world of adults to make sure that we all didn't get thrown out into the street. I was also lucky to have a college professor's flexibility, particularly in the summers, which gave me much more time with my young children than most men. (True, I did often feel like I should be researching or writing something to help land that elusive tenure-track position somewhere in Backwater U.S.A., but I could deflect the guilt by erecting block towers or sand castles.) Now, though, we both work a lot, in part because we want to provide for them, in part because we want to see what we can make of ourselves.

It's hard to recommend that both parents work, apart from the fact that it's hard to get by on a single salary. Good does come of it, though: Q is currently smack in the middle of her princess phase, a phase neither my wife nor I encourages all that much. Too many of the Disney, um, heroines embody rescue fantasies, and we want our girl to be proactive, to think outside the princess, so to speak. (Probably not that much to worry about given Q's natural tendencies, but still.)

My wife's working has actually helped with that. A few nights ago, Q was playing with her Cinderella doll in the bath (the one with the bejeweled swimsuit that turns purple under cold water). Q proceeded to wash her hair, informing me that Cinderella had to look fancy because "she's going to an important meeting." And tonight, when my wife was asking Q whether she wants to curl her hair "like Cinderella" for her aunt's wedding this summer, Q forcefully replied that Cinderella "only curls her hair like that when she has an important meeting."

Odds are, Q (and The Boy, too) will have lots of important meetings in her future, many of which she will call and run herself. I like to believe that in being gone we're helping to teach her that sometimes it's okay and even important to be somewhere else.