Tuesday, June 22, 2010

World's Best Dad?

Father's Day was a treat this year, as always. With the help of my lovely wife, Q and The Boy conspired to make a special breakfast for me that included sneaking out for coffee from a local shop where I go to treat myself. ("We're going to get the MAIL now, dad," Q announced in a particular vigorous attempt at misdirection, as they left early that morning.) My lovely wife made cinnamon rolls from scratch, and I made four or five or more of them quickly disappear — a luxury of these special days is not having to keep count. The kids presented me with lovely drawings, nicely framed, telling me what they appreciated about me, and my lovely wife gave me some nice shirts. I am well loved and loved well, is what I'm saying.

The Boy's tennis lessons have ended for the time being, so after the morning's surprises he and I went out to the park to hit baseballs while Q went to yoga. Then we all went to Yankee Stadium for the afternoon's game. Though it happened on Father's Day, the game was really for The Boy's birthday. It was his very first major league game, and what a game it was — punishing heat, a grand slam, a rain delay, a brief appearance on the jumbotron, a Yankees win. He loved it all, especially the wildly overpriced fan/spritzer thing shaped like a baseball, and I enjoyed sharing it with him. Q made it until the fifth inning before the seats far too hot to sit in and the slow pace got to her, and she jumped at the chance to leave when my wife offered it to her. But though I gave him a similar offer, he wanted us to stay all the way through Sinatra's "New York, New York." On the subway home, we even saw a guy with a hook for a hand, which somehow completed the day for me.

A few weeks ago I was paging through one of the thousands of catalogs we get from a place called Oriental Trading,* an outlet that specializes in bulk orders of craft and party supplies. If your kids have left a birthday party recently with a goody bag, I bet that at least some of the disposable dreck** dumped out on the couch has come from Oriental Trading.

Anyway, times being what they were, I saw lots of opportunities to pick up some chintzy stuff of the No. 1/World's Best Dad variety. Q was sitting beside me, so I casually asked her if she was going to get me a "World's Best Dad" mug (or whatever) for this Father's Day. No, she said. Didn't she think that I was the World's Best Dad, I asked? Nope.

Okay, but here's the interesting part: She's right. I asked her why she thought as she did, and she said that she really didn't know all the dads in the world, but even so I probably wasn't the best one. And, you know, I can't argue with that logic. Come to think of it, there are and have been quite a few dads,*** and, though I think I'm a decent one, odds are that at least someone is better at the parenting thing than I am.

It's an odd claim to stake anyway. I'm not sure what makes a best parent, though I have some idea of what makes for better and worse ones, and I'm not sure that if I did know, I'd want to be one. Why would I want to deny my kids the chance to improve on what I did and could do for them? (Or would the World's Best Dad realize this and make noticeable, lesson-worthy mistakes?)

In any event, I love being a father, and I love thinking about being a father. And if I've learned one thing this Father's Day, it's don't ever ask your kids how you're doing.

Happy Father's Day, all.

*I would very much like someone to explain the existence and history of this place to me. Not only is the company named "Oriental" Trading—an adjective that has long since stopped being acceptable geographically or racial-sensitivity-wise—it's located in Omaha, NE. I've been to the, um, Orient, and I've been to Nebraska, and one does not make a person think of the other. Also, Oriental Trading offers quite a bit of Christian-themed merchandise (e.g.), which doesn't really honor the majority traditions of most Far Eastern societies. All this adds up to one big ball of why.
**I'm looking at you, balloon-powered race cars.
***Abraham, e.g., or the Big Man Himself (if you're into that sort of thing)? Tough competition, admittedly.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

The Boy at 7 (Or there's a problem with the robot)

The Boy turned seven last Sunday. Unlike his sister, whose trip from four to five seemed like a slow, multi-stop cruise, The Boy's birthday was more bullet train. My lovely wife made cupcakes for his classmates the Friday before, but the handing out and eating of them during school snack time for the most part involved being outside and devouring and yelling. And then it was Saturday, with its little league game and swimming lessons and growing feeling that we were not quite ready. Then it was Saturday night, with my wife out rounding up the rest of the books for takeaway gifts while I soldered the last of the wire. Then Sunday morning tennis lessons and yoga for kids. Then the party.

Given the success and fun of Q's party, we decided to again have a small number of kids over to our apartment to celebrate The Boy. We whittled his list until together we settled on inviting eight kids, which meant (given siblings), we'd be looking at 13 kids total. Doable. Probably.

The main activity was mainly my idea. I'm a fan of the maker's movement and had seen in some post or other an idea for building a simple robot, called a vibrabot, out of household stuff. It consists of a small motor (from one of those small plastic fans) attached to a tin box of some sort, supported by thin metal legs. When attached to a AA battery, it spins an offset paper clip or bobby pin and "walks" around a reasonably smooth surface. It's pretty cool to bring something like this to life, and The Boy, who enjoys designing and making things in general, really loved making a prototype. It seemed like a good project for a room of seven-year-old boys.

The Boy and I did the difficult and dangerous stuff beforehand. I held the Phillips screwdriver as he hammered holes in the tin boxes to thread wire through. He held the solder spool as I joined wires to motors and batteries, and alligator clips to wires. At the party, then, kids would just have to attach motors to the boxes with cable ties, tape batteries to the inside, connect up the wires, and attach the legs with small nuts and bolts.

Okay, that meant we still had to get from this:

to this:

in something like an hour. With 13 kids. In our apartment. Sure, it was a lot, but I wanted each kid to enjoy the making as much as the having.

It almost worked. Some kids were able to get their bots together with just a little instruction, but several couldn't. A few played with their wires until the solder or the wire broke, or they worked newly attached legs until the bolts came loose. While cake was being eaten, I worked so that all but two kids (I think) left with working machines, and those two left with promises to get theirs working sometime soon.

Speaking of cake, it was, as usual, crafted by my lovely wife and (as usual) awesome:

circuit board cake

(Note the actual working lights on either side of the "M7.")  My wife continues to impress and amaze, and the kids have noticed. When she expressed worry about getting the cake to look like a circuit board, my son said, "You can do it, mom. You can do anything." And she can, I swear.

Growing up, my father and I shared a language of work, spoken in hands and tools. Some of my favorite moments with him were spent looking over the underside of a lawnmower or re-screening a door. Though I'm sure I often came along to fetch and hold (that's what kids are for, after all), he honored me with these quiet conversations. I probably talk too much when my son or daughter and I make and do things together — I'm pretty sure I think too much — but I want them to learn the grammar of work, to have their hands become familiar with a vocabulary of tools. And I want to have another thing in common between us that goes without saying.

After everyone had left and The Boy had opened his presents, the wind picked up from the west, and a mean-looking bank of clouds unfurled toward us over the river. The phone rang, and I answered it, but the line seemed empty. Then a boy from the party softly said, "There's a problem with the robot."

That's okay. We can fix it.