I Scream

A few weeks ago, I went outside to shake my fist at the neighborhood children who had taken to trampling my newly seeded lawn, when I noticed my son and a couple of the younger kids (he’s 10, they’re a little younger, and the neighborhood range of miscreants who run together goes from 5 or 6 to 16ish — which is to say that it’s basically Lord of the Flies, and my son was hanging with the littluns) sort of hunkered down behind the car, which was parked in the driveway. One of the littluns looked over at me sort of guiltily and murmured to my son something like “tell him,” which interrupted my fist shaking. I looked at my son, who had gone kind of a shade of gray.

I should here back up and report that just a few minutes before, my wife and I, both recently finished with work for the day, had been occupying separate water closets. My preferred water closet is a tiny room inside the master bathroom, which is itself buried in the master bedroom (the door of which was closed lest the dog come in and befoul the boudoir), which is upstairs. When I am spending a little time in the old W.C., I am not well prepared to respond to inquiries from downstairs. Yell helpfully as I might, I simply am unable to best the acoustics of our home and make myself heard. So when I heard my son’s plaintive and repetitive cries first of “Mom” and then of “Dad,” all I could do was yell repeatedly (a vein in my forehead no doubt throbbing with the exertion and frustration of it) “I’m finally taking a dump, leave me alone.” And when he kept calling upstairs, I could do little but try to explain my situation more stridently, and perhaps in increasingly colorful language.

I am not a horrible father. My son’s cry was not one of pain. It had much more of the routine “come prevent the dog from trying to escape as I for the 25th time in as many minutes enter and then exit the house again to trample your precious newly germinated grass” pitch. Had the cry been bloodcurdling or one indicating pain or clear emotional distress, I would assuredly have quickly set the affairs of my toilette in order and gone downstairs. I imagine my wife was in similar straits. Eventually, my son stopped calling out.

Let us return to the driveway. A littlun has implicated my son in something. I have ceased to shake my fist at the neighborhood children. My son with trembling lip approaches me and says “I threw a toy at the ice cream truck.”

IMG_20170611_232617The neighborhood children leave things in my paper box. I am no Boo Radley. They aren’t making little gifts for the neighborhood recluse (though a recluse of sorts I am). They just leave shit in my yard and in its structures. Sometimes I find cell phones or scooters or balls. More frequently I find trash. One child left a small plastic doll in the paper box, and this my son decided for some reason to hurl at the ice cream truck as it drove by.

I should disclose that I have many times declined to give my son money to purchase frozen corn syrup from the ice cream truck driver. For one, I find the truck’s noise offensive. Ours plays an obnoxious song and then pauses after about every maybe 6 phrases of common measure to broadcast a sardonic recorded “Hello?” For another, I can’t imagine the ice cream is actually any good. I am personally an ice cream fiend. I am well known within my nuclear family for eating all of the ice cream. Often enough of a summer evening, my poor impoverished children will put aside their ribeyes and their caviar and virgin champagne and ask if there’s dessert, and my wife will say something like “beloved progeny, I have procured ice cream for our family’s enjoyment” and I will have to kind of sheepishly confess that I have since selfishly spooned all the ice cream from the carton while nobody was looking, whereupon the rest of the family will rend their garments and roll in ashes (from a mound of burned cardboard ice cream containers) while I wipe ice cream from my moustache. Which is all to say that I am in no way opposed to ice cream. But I am sort of opposed to ice cream driven around in an obnoxious van. I just read a book in which the author proposes a brilliant ice cream truck prophylactic strategy wherein the parents tell the children that the truck plays music only when it is out of ice cream, and I approve of the strategy.

So, my son is starved for ice cream while I am growing fat from Tennessee’s finest chocolate and rocky road cows. He has many times (the very afternoon in question, even) been denied ice cream from a truck. Naturally then as the truck drove by on its way out of the neighborhood, he picked up one of the trinkets that had been left in our paper box and chucked it at the passing truck. Why not do this, in his position?

My wife and I meanwhile were shackled to our separate toilets.

The driver stopped. Whether she emerged from the truck or whether she squrrrrched the truck to a halt and backed up or whether at the time of impact she was simply already in a good position to berate my son I do not know, but the misc en scène aside, she gave him what for. She threatened to call the police. She said that his behavior was the fault of his wretched parents. She sent him in to fetch one of his parents — who were both legitimately just trying to have a quiet dump at the end of the workday as he called dutifully up the stairs so that they might come down and negotiate with the ice cream truck driver to mete out a fitting punishment. He made a good faith effort, but his parents, thrall to their bowels, failed him. Apparently the ice cream truck driver bought it, or was more concerned with terrorizing more neighborhoods with her terrible siren call than with exacting justice.

My gray-faced son confessed all to me. I told him how foolish the behavior was, but told him I had done something similar when I was about his age — but that my missiles had been rocks (if I’m being honest, when I was older, they were occasionally smoke bombs and sparking fireworks) and the road a highway, which had been much more dangerous. He had an opportunity to learn from not only his own folly but from his venerable father’s. I sent him in for the day and let him know that he’d probably lost all chance of ambulatory ice cream for the summer, since the driver wasn’t likely any time soon to forget the long-haired boy who had flung a toy at her truck and raised her ire, and then I continued to shake my mighty fist at the rest of the neighborhood children and to harry them off of my lawn.

Now, when we hear the ice cream truck’s blasted anthem, we also see my son squirt inside pretty quickly lest he be taken to account by a driver who’d be understandably skeptical that both parents were on the toilet at the precise time of the cataclysm I describe. I laugh every time and sometimes give him a wink and perhaps a comment about natural consequences and the likelihood that he’ll ever do anything quite like that again.

Table Tennis

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Last year for Father’s Day or my birthday, the kids got me a little portable table tennis set. You just clamp the net posts to an available flat surface and — boom — you’re ready to play table tennis. We don’t use our formal dining room very much for dining. In fact, the table is often covered with things that get dumped on it rather than put away in their proper places. We needed the seating for Thanksgiving, so we had to clear the table off, which meant that the time was ripe for playing some table tennis. The table’s a bit smaller than a regulation table, but it’s still fun to hit with the kids.

The kit came with two paddles and a little sack made of netting to store the three balls in, and my son and I both delight in asking one another to go grab the ball sack so we can play some table tennis. (Yet another instance of why I should win Father of the Year.)

My daughter, who hasn’t typically been the most physical or coordinated of children, is actually pretty good at getting a little volley going, and I really enjoy hitting with her. My son tends to play on the table top itself a bit less consistently than she does, and we wind up banking off of walls and the floor or just smacking the ball hard at each other, which is also fun, if differently so.

Scratch

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This weekend my son came home after having been outside for a little bit. He had clearly been crying, and he was holding his glasses in his hand. Reportedly, he had gone up the hill (where he’s not really supposed to go without asking) to fetch a friend, and the friend’s dog had gotten out the door, leaped on him, and absconded with his glasses. I maybe 70% believe that that’s precisely what happened. The glasses look more like he tried to use them as a skateboard.

He’s had these new glasses for just a month or two, and the left lens is irreparably scratched, with gouges deep enough that the whole “the dog ate my glasses” story seems a little fishy to me. He had been crying not because he was hurt but because he was afraid he’d be in trouble, which even if I find the specifics of his story a little suspect, he wasn’t, and I feel bad that that’s what he was worried about. I tend to think I’m pretty easygoing as a parent, but really I’m probably sort of a hard-ass, if one with a mostly very gentle and (I think/hope) understanding temperament. I reassured him that though the damage was unfortunate, he wasn’t in trouble over it, and mostly I was just glad he wasn’t hurt, and new glasses could be acquired.

I resisted the brief urge to tell him that I guessed we knew what Santa would be bringing him for Christmas this year.

Poirot and Holmes

For the whole of my kids’ lives, my wife and I have read aloud to them. They’re about 3 years apart, so for a few years, we split the kids up and read littler kid stuff to my son and bigger kid stuff to my daughter. I’ve tended to prefer to read things at a level above what I’d expect my kids to understand on their own, and I explain and we talk things through as needed. This is fun sometimes, like when you’re reading the Bobbsey Twins to your 4 or 5 year old and are confronted with explaining not only things like what Obsidional coins are, but also what veiled racism and unfortunate parody of stereotypes and entrenched classism are.

As my son got a little older, we were able to read more together as a family rather than splitting up. We’ve read things like the Harry Potter series, The Lord of the Rings, the Prydain Chronicles, and lots of other stuff. It’s a family activity that we all look forward to, and reading aloud to my kids is one of my very favorite things to do.

A couple of years ago, when we had exhausted a lot of the books I was willing to read and were looking for something classic, I decided to try some Sherlock Holmes. We got a collection of Doyle’s stories and novels and dug in. My son was less interested than my daughter, though he hung on through a couple of novels and a number of stories, but eventually my daughter and I split the Sherlock stories off and read those together separately from the family reading.

They’re kind of a mixed bag. Some of the stories are really neat, but others you read and feel just kind of meh about. As with the Bobbsey Twins books, there are some anachronisms that need explaining, and there’s the occasional drug use (Holmes liked cocaine) to talk about, not to mention lots of murder. Mostly we’ve enjoyed the experience of reading about Sherlock, though.

Having exhausted most of those, we this year decided to give Agatha Christie’s Poirot stories a try. I had never read anything at all by Christie. We were struck right away by how similar the Poirot/Hastings and Holmes/Watson setup and dynamic are. The stories are darned near interchangeable if you just swap the character names out and substitute in some of Sherlock’s stock phrases for some of Poirot’s French phrases. In one of the stories we read last night, Christie makes a direct reference to Holmes, which was kind of neat to encounter. We’ve read a half dozen or so of the Poirot stories, and on the whole, I think I’ve enjoyed the Sherlock stories more, but there’s plenty more Poirot to read, and there’s been plenty to enjoy in what we’ve read of Poirot (I especially liked “Wasp’s Nest,” which we read last night).

It did my heart good that last night, I offered to turn on a Doctor Who episode we haven’t watched yet, and my son cried out for a Poirot instead. I’d still like to watch the Doctor Who, and so would the kids, but I’ll favor falling into a book over staring at a screen 100% of the time.

Youth Orchestra

 

Until this summer, I had no idea that my daughter would have the opportunity to play a string instrument in a school orchestra. She is fairly small in stature and so naturally she chose the cello (I suppose she could have chosen the bass). It turns out that there’s a vibrant extracurricular youth orchestra scene in our area, and the other night, I took the kids to a concert.

There were five orchestras at varying skill levels and with varying instrumentation (the most advanced had full percussion and some brass and woodwinds too). It was remarkable how good the kids were. Even the beginners were passable, and the most advanced group played some stuff that seemed really difficult, and they played it astonishingly well.

Some of the song selections included pretty predictable classics, and with the concert running right up until bedtime, the kids were a little sleepy through some of the well-played but kind of lulling songs. The jury’s out on whether we’ll go to another concert.

I really enjoy live music, how it fills your chest and turns into an almost tactile experience rather than merely an aural one. I love the richness of tone you can hear when the musicians are right there in front of you. I like watching the conductor dance around, and when there are several orchestras with several conductors, as was the case here, I enjoy observing differences in how the conductors interact with their musicians and express the music physically.

One thing that really struck me, as we listened to a few songs I wasn’t familiar with, was what an amazing act of creativity the composition of music is. A person just makes up all these layered sounds with their harmonies and dissonances and counterpoints, with their changes in rhythm and volume and brightness. An orchestral composition seems just a dazzlingly complex thing, and it springs out of a person’s imagination. I suppose visual arts and writing can also be extraordinarily layered and complex, but whereas (having written by now millions of words in my lifetime) I can sort of vaguely imagine constructing something complex from words, this idea of turning silence into beautiful music as an act of creative will boggles my mind.

I was in the middle of a sentence

A couple of times recently, my daughter, when her younger brother has interrupted her, has rudely spat out the sentence (interrupting him right back) “I was in the middle of a sentence.” Her tone when she’s done it has been horrible — hateful and curt and unforgiving.

She learned it from me. For a while, my kids both had a habit of interrupting me, and it began to annoy me something ferocious. So I got in the habit of interrupting them back and saying this sentence in what I now realize, hearing it reflected in my daughter’s voice, was a really awful tone. The first couple of times I heard this echo of myself in her, I didn’t say anything about it, but last night I did.

What I said was “I’m sorry.” Although I think I’m mostly a reasonably good parent, I’ve certainly done some things, or said some things, I’ve regretted. This has been one of my more shameful things in recent years. I started using this phrase at a time when I had begun introducing sarcasm as a way of providing feedback, and my introduction of sarcasm for this purpose is another of the parenting failures of which I’m really ashamed. I suppose I started this at a time during which I was frustrated and was sort of venting, and it was a really unhealthy way to parent my children and a crummy way to treat a human being in general. This year I made an effort to scrub sarcasm from my repertoire when giving the kids feedback about their behavior (sarcasm in general is still in bounds if offered humorously and with something like a wink), and I think I’m pretty well broken of the habit.

So, I apologized to my daughter last night for treating her (and my son) so rudely. I told her it was no way to treat a human being and that, as with the sarcasm, I was going to work on scrubbing this awful sentence from my repertoire. I said I hoped she’d join me.

There are certainly worse behaviors I could have modeled, and this at least is one that we can both learn from and use to improve how we treat other people, but I still feel like a pretty big dud over it.

Cello

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My son makes things out of paper. He once made a moderately convincing machine gun, and he’s recently made a cube and a pair of scissors that actually scissored like a pair of scissors. Perhaps his greatest triumph to date has been this cello, which he modeled loosely on the cello his older sister now plays in middle school orchestra.

The little holes on the front, which sort of look like headless body builders because he misjudged the cut to make, are on a real cello called F holes, but when I was first acquainting myself with the instrument to help my daughter get started, I learned that the concave curves on the side are called the C bouts, had read that there were F holes, and managed to think briefly that the F holes were called the A holes, so that now occasionally I’ll do this schtick in which I name the other lettered bits of cello anatomy and express surprise that I never can find the A hole. I’m still waiting for my Father of the Year award.