Monday, July 29, 2013

How to Handle Hotels - A Kids' Guide

Editor's Note: Guest-writing this piece are our children, who are the industry leaders in how to make themselves at home in hotel rooms. If they had a Web site, it would probably be called But they don't.

Hotels are AWE-SOME! They are mini-houses that you can stay in when you are on vacation, and they always smell good, and somebody else cleans them. You should go to one sometime, because usually they have refrigerators and even swimming pools! And you can sometimes get breakfast there, if Dad can figure out how to cook waffles in the waffle iron (use that spray stuff first.) If not, Mom can always do it. So here is our list of ways we make hotel rooms awesome:
We didn't stay here, but if we did, the bed wouldn't be big enough.

1. Sign in. Immediately upon your arrival, take the notepad and pen sitting on the dresser and write your names and room number on all the pages. This lets housekeeping know you've arrived. If nothing else.

2. Turn on the TV and immediately ask to watch the Sprout channel. Hotels never have Sprout, but we ask our parents for it anyway, then we whine and cry so loud that they'll turn on anything even remotely age appropriate to keep us quiet...God, maybe even Cartoon Network. We may have seen an episode of Assy McGee for all I know. (Side note: All hotel TVs are programmed to start at Channel 1, which is either an infomercial for the place you're staying or a channel previewing a movie where a woman is murdered in her hotel room. When it's the latter, your parents will literally fly across the room and rip the remote out of your hands as if you're carrying an open canister of flesh-eating acid. Then they'll turn on Assy McGee. Trust us.)

3. Locate the $4 bottles of water and $8 bag of peanuts and ask if you can have some while trying to open them. Again your parents, who have just set down the beach bag full of 99-cent boxes of dry cereal and Capri Suns, will leap across the room to keep it out of your hands. Then, locate the vending machines and ask for something out of those. Be persistent. Never take "We'll see" for an answer.

4. Hotels always want you to feel as if you're home, so feel free to kick off your shoes and immediately lose them. It might sound hard in a smaller space, but the balcony is a good place to start, or under the beds, or in the microwave..

5. Also on the "at home" theme, it's perfectly fine to run up and down the halls yelling and screaming. Those are some big halls, and why wouldn't everyone want to know "I have a belly button" and "My brother just pooped his pants?"

6. Force your parents to let you unlock the front door. Hotel doors are cool because they don't use keys, but rather "credit cards." Wait until both parents are loaded down like pack mules, then, in your highest voice, screech out your desire to open the door. If your parents are nice, they'll patiently yet wearily watch you fail to open the door three or four times before, once again, ripping it out of your hands and grumbling, "Here. I'll do it." But hotel room doors are awesome.

7. Use the secret code on the radiator to irreversibly turn on the heat. Make sure to set it for some ungodly temperature that starts with an 8, then pretend not to notice as your parents get more irritable looking for your shoes while wiping sweat off their brow. We could have put the tooth fairy out of business if we had trademarked the phrase, "Why is it so God-damned hot in this room?" Also, petition the Grand Hotel Authority of the Universe to remain steadfast in their refusal to put such knobs out of the reach of 18-month-olds.

8. Maintain an irrational fear of the bathtub. Yes, it's just a bathtub, and, yes, Mr. Rogers' time-honored maxim of You Can Never Go Down the Drain holds as true as ever, but, by God, we just saw a lady get murdered in her hotel, and we're reasonably sure it happened in the bathtub. Trust no bathtub, even those in the Taj Mahal or your grandparents' house, because they are just not your bathtub. Also, scream at the top of your lungs when your parents rinse out your hair.

9. Point out how weird the hangers are. Ask your parents why hotels always have weird hangers. We have 22,000 hangers at home, so I don't know why they'd think we'd steal theirs.

10. Screw around with the bedding arrangements. Our parents, such stodgy traditionalists, usually try to sleep sister and brother in one bed and mother and father in the other, with little brother in the cage pack -n- play. By 1:15 AM, we have ourselves in perfect sister-mother-brother-father formation in one bed, with Dad sleeping between in the crack between the bed and the wall, even though the bed is at least 50% larger than any bed we have ever owned. The other bed then goes unused.

These should get you started. If you have any others, please relay to us through our parents because we don't have e-mail addresses or Web sites. Remember, staying in hotels is F-U-N fun fun fun!!

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Birthdays and Bedpans, Part 2

It's Caillou playing hockey for the Penguins. Any comparisons to Sidney Crosby will be summarily rejected.
Warning: The following can get a bit graphic. If you get queasy at the sight of synonyms and euphemisms for "puke," divert your eyes. Also, Part One is here.

We had gone 36 hours without anyone else in the family succumbing to the bug or whatever it was that knocked me down for about 48 hours earlier this week, though to be fair, the word "bug" wouldn't seem to do it justice. "Stomach-eating viral infestation from Hell" sounds more accurate. It lasted too long and involved too much lingering "general malaise" for it to be just bad food, so we were leaning toward it being the rare virus that comes in and strikes just one lucky person and leaves the rest of the family intact. I don't know what kind of virus you would call that, but I'm sure Dr. Nancy Snyderman knows. Our own medical diagnoses complete, we were able to concentrate less on illnesses then and more on our son's 4th birthday.

6:30 PM
I got home from work later than I wanted, which meant that we needed to jam in a dinner out, opening presents, and cake and ice cream all before bed. I'm thinking most parents have their kids in pajamas by 6:30, but not us. Our kids never go to bed before 9 o'clock anyway, because we're terrible parents.

I changed out of my work clothes but could only find a pair of jeans...not the optimal dress for the current weather, 97 and hazy (in other words, standard USA summer weather) but since we were going to just sit in air-conditioned comfort and were pressed for time, jeans it was.

But because the birthday boy has been waiting since March to open presents and has openly wept on recent occasions when there has been no mail specifically with his name on it, he was hungrier to tear into some wrapping paper than to tear into some food. Which was understandable since he never eats anything anyway. So we waited and watched him stoically open his presents (no 4-year-old in history has ever showed less emotion on his birthday; I wasn't sure if he was opening presents or watching Schindler's List) while our stomachs rumbled.

When it's your birthday in our house, you choose the restaurant where we eat, and nobody is allowed to throw a fit, especially the parents. We were not surprised, then, to hear that on this special night we would be eating at Friendly's for perhaps the fifth or sixth time in the last 30 days, but we were surprised at the reason why:

"They'll sing to me there."

We have a six-year-old daughter who dances on stage in front of hundreds of people, but our son, when he's at his most comfortable, usually stares into his feet when he talks to people. So who volunteers to be serenaded by high-school and college-age servers and hosts in front of an entire room of people? We couldn't believe it. And after pointing out that virtually ALL other places in the area will sing to you, that you don't HAVE to pick Friendly's, he stood his ground. It's his birthday.

We noticed that the parking lot was relatively empty. On the way inside, we threw out several theories why...we were there later than usual, too hot even for ice cream, it wasn't the same since the original Friendly's burned to the ground after a lit cigarette started a fire in the adjacent flower bed. An exiting patron had the answer..."AC ain't workin in there, awful hot." We stopped in the entry way, holding our diaper bag and our booster seat and our toddler, and I flashed my standard "My balls are sweating profusely just thinking about this," look, but all I got back was an "It's his birthday" counter. So we entered the conservatory dining room and of course were seated next to the kitchen.

Fanning ourselves with menus and wet napkins, we let the server know that we had a birthday celebrant among the 14 or so people in the house, and if they didn't mind coming over and doing their thing in this oppressive heat, we'd appreciate it. They did, and our son was overjoyed. I think. He had the same reaction as he did when he opened his gifts, which is the same reaction good players have when they hold a losing poker hand. So we have no idea if he enjoyed it or not. My daughter was mortified. In either case, there was an echo in the restaurant as they were chanting something in military cadence.

Of course, by Federal mandate every Friendly's party must order at least one ice cream treat, and so we sat and tolerated watching the two boys struggle to stay in front of two melting vats of ice cream by eating it with their hands. (If you are lactose intolerant and OCD, it would have been your worst nightmare.) As it got more apparent nobody was going to finish their ice cream before smearing it all over their hands and the table, we abruptly picked up and left, which started an epic temper tantrum with the 1-year-old.

Nobody working at Friendly's that night has kids, we think, because in the middle of our emergency evacuation when we were offered balloons. Never, ever offer balloons to parents who have the "we gotta get outta here" look. For some reason we stopped to accept them, perhaps to quell the temper tantrum, perhaps to avoid two more.

Once we got outside, all three balloons fell off their sticks (why sticks? Is this 1945?) and so we chased those down while we held the diaper bag and the booster seat and the toddler, then get all that stuff into the trunk, except the toddler, maybe. Daddy's starting to get a little impatient, and the sweat is pouring into previously unreached areas.

9:00 PM
We live only 10 minutes from the Friendly's, but that was plenty of time for the 1-year-old to fall asleep, so we joyfully dumped him in his crib when we got home, despite his desperate need for a power-wash, maybe stopping to take his shoes off. We still had cake to get to, so we lit the candles, turned out the lights, sang Happy Birthday, watched him blow out his candles, cheered, realized we forgot to hit Record on the video camera, then did it all over again but with 67% less enthusiasm. It has to be close to midnight by now.

Everyone passed on cake at that point because all anyone wanted to do was go to bed. As you can tell from the photo, this cake could be used to stop flooding. At least six inches high and wide enough to feature Caillou playing hockey for the mid-1990s era Pittsburgh Penguins. Don't ask. It's his birthday.

10:00 PM
It wasn't actually midnight but at this point who even notices. Even the kid who earlier opened all his presents wanted to go to bed instead of playing with them. Except for the batting tee and real aluminum bat; he wanted to use those things in the living room, within reach of some important knick-knacks. But mostly he wanted to go to bed, so he did, along with his sister. One of the more painless bedtimes, but considering all we had been through, the path there was arduous.

At last it was time to reflect on the day that was...chaos at work, chaos at home, chaos in the sweatshop restaurant, more chaos at home. Time to watch the least chaotic sport on, just to settle the nerves.

10:45 PM
Until there was crying. There might not be any crying in baseball (though tell that to Pirates fans the last 20 years) but there was crying in puking, as a certain six-year-old managed to throw up all over her bed and on her bedroom carpet, a messy trail covering a single flip-flop as she gamely tried to get near a toilet.

No problem...we'll just get this cleaned up and strip the bed and put some new sheets on, and you'll be as good as new. We may tend to fly off the handle and lose our tempers as parents at times, but there is always a soft spot when one of your progeny has just vomited all over her things. On top of feeling physically bad, now she feels regret for messing stuff up. And the taste is horrible. I always feel really bad when a little kid throws up.

As we were just finishing patting ourselves on the back for the efficiency and compassion with which we handled that situation, we heard some more footsteps struggling down the hall, and some coughing, and...oh shit, we didn't give her a garbage can, did we?

This time she got closer to her ultimate destination, stopping a stride short of the bowl before re-launching. Really? Just one more step and you had it...but compassion, yes! We still showed close to 97% of the compassion we did the first time. After her second bout with this, though, our daughter did request a sleeping mate. (There's a moment of truth for a parent, who among you will volunteer to sleep next to a spewing machine?) My wife came up with the best solution of both worlds; she would sleep on the couch and let out daughter sleep on the air mattress next to her.

Really there was an ulterior motive here. I think she did this less for our daughter and more because she gets tired of the now 4-year-old twisting her hair and kneeing her in the kidneys all night, so a night on the couch next to a sick kid is preferable.

Somehow unable to sleep after all that, I turn on the NFL Network. As much as I love football, the NFL Network has some pretty terrible programming, and not much of it. Can only watch the Walter Payton thing so many times.

2:56 AM
I'm awakened by the bed shaking, and my bedmate shaking, followed by a BLLLLLLLAAAAAAAACCCH cough cough couuuuugh three inches from my head. Victim number two has been identified, and I fly out of there like he's an axe murderer. Where's that garbage can? Where's the toilet? Is he done yet? Where is the backup to the backup set of sheets? My wife is awakened by the chaos and affords our son the same comfort we afforded our daughter (the first time) while I dry heave in the bathroom sink. She does not offer to sleep with him, however.

"I frue up a yil' bit," he declared when asked the mostly rhetorical "What happened?" question. Still very stoic, businesslike, matter-of-fact. No panic, no fear. Everybody pukes. Most impressive is that he turned down a drink of water after his ordeal. But this is no big deal. I fetch him a new pair of pajamas for the rest of the night, and he points out that "they don't match."

"Put them on, anyway." Three sets of pajamas and two sets of bed clothes later, we may be finally ready to...

6:02 AM
Beep, beep, beep, slap.

6:11 AM
Beep, beep, beep, slap.

6:20 AM
Beep, beep, beep, slap.

6:29 AM
Beep, beep, beep, crash landing into the far corner.

The show must go on.

His sister made the 4's herself! Including the backward one. Reversals are ok through second grade, from what I understand.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Birthdays and Bedpans, Part 1

Everything turns upside down in the house when one of the parents is sick. Not sick like the sniffles or a headache. And as I've said before, not sick like awesome, the way you twenty-somethings use it. Dad would never be sick in that case. No, sick like deathbed, can't move, flu kind of sick. This place is always a madhouse, but when one of the tall people is suddenly felled by illness, the wee folk remarkably show some compassion and keep their behaviors in check, their tantrums to a minimum, and their desires for impossibly high items like fly swatters and mail catalogs directed mostly toward the healthy parent. Except for the wee-est one, who still batted me on the ears with a rake and threw baseballs into my crotch as I lay on the couch and moaned.

Maybe we're just lucky then, that two of our three kids are courteous enough to totally ignore us when we are at our worst, instead of ratcheting up the annoyance when they sense weakness, like wild animals. Maybe, as we tell each other all the time, God really does only give you what you can handle, and so we got two really easy ones and one sorta easy one who we might groom to an easy one if we have enough energy left.

I mean nobody came and offered to take my temperature with a plastic thermometer or listen to my heart with a plastic stethoscope, but that's fine. Their respectful distance meant more than their half-hearted attempts at taking blood pressure and my half-hearted attempts at explaining what the imaginary numbers would have meant. Of course when anyone got near me, I told them I'd make them throw up, so that might have played a role, too. Oof! Another rake to the side of the head. I'd put him in his bed as punishment for that, but I couldn't lift a tissue. "You can go to bed if you want to," offered the three-year-old in his expert medical opinion. I took him up on it.

The next morning everyone trod lightly. There was a certain amount of anticipation, though. Not quite Christmas morning but probably more than Easter morning, as the two oldest tried to enter my force field of sick. They looked curious, perhaps to see if the miserable adult they left last night was back to being his more normal morning sort of miserable. Eyes still glazed with sleep, fingers in mouths, they approached, shy, like they would an adult they had never met before. They usually want cereal at this hour, but they aren't shy about that. What do they want?

"Did you throw up last night?"

When I nodded my bedhead yes and smiled a little, they moved in, guards down, sitting up straight in my bed, rapt with attention like I'm a WWII veteran finally opening up about my experiences. They came prepared with an arsenal of follow-up questions, one of which wasn't, "Might you throw up again with us 3 inches from your face?" Apparently they thought throwing up was a one-and-done exercise,

What color was it?
What bathroom did you do it in?
Did you get it all in the toilet?
How come I didn't hear you last night?
Did Mommy throw up too?
Did it hurt?
Did you cry?

At the risk of being too graphic the answers are, in order, horrendously brown, my own, yes this time, because I was tiptoeing the whole way (alternatively: I have no idea how you didn't hear Bert going, "HONK. HONK. AYUUUUUUUUGA, as I tripped three times over your brother's Sesame Street car/dashboard thing that is loud enough to scare away intruders), no, no, and no in fact it was the happiest I'd ever felt while doing it.

As in any family, though, the two next questions after someone gets really sick like that involve (1)  whether it was a virus or did I just "get a hold of some bad meat," even though it's usually the bad meat that gets a hold of you, and (2) who's next in the family, which usually gets as much speculation as the name of the Royal Baby, complete with odds.

Since our three-year-old is preparing to celebrate a birthday in the next day, we figured that with his typical middle-child luck, he would come down with some horrific virus that would make us debate hospitalization. So if Vegas were posting odds, I'd bet the house on his being the "next" one.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Helping Girls Find Their Misplaced Dads

This shirt is making the funny-meme-baby-T-shirt rounds at an Internet near you. If, like me, you're pink/teal color blind, it reads: "It's simple...I'm a princess, mommy is a Queen, and daddy is around here somewhere..." (commas mine, capitalization errors theirs.)

Not much bothers me as a dad, since on the parenthood scale, my needle more often points toward "Buffoon" -- anyone who's watched me try to stick a pair of overalls on a wiggly child would agree. Sometimes I do wonder why all dads in commercials for household items wear the same plain gray t-shirts that make Bill Belichick look like Versace, but then I look at what I'm wearing and shrug. Otherwise, when a dad does something inexcusably stupid on TV or in movies that causes the mom to grimace, I usually just make a mental note -- don't do what that guy just did.

But I've never gotten lost in the house. Or anywhere on my own property. So I'm not entirely sure what the shirt means, not sure who finds it funny, not sure if it's meant as a commentary on the emotional vacancy of dads and husbands in some families, or if it's just the Easter Bunny hid him and didn't leave good enough clues. I'm also not sure where to tell these young ladies to start if they are truly interested in finding and reconnecting with their dad. Still, I'll try:

--Where did you see him last? Did you have him yesterday? What did you do with him when you got home? Throw him on the end table? Have you checked your pockets? You didn't wash him, did you? I've told you how many times not to leave him just lying around, your little brothers will carry him off and Lord knows where we'll find him. IF we find him...IF they didn't put him in their mouths, he's a choking hazard, you know...

OK, maybe your dad isn't keys or hot pink nail polish. Then where could he be? As the shirt says, he's around here somewhere, so we'll rule out strip clubs, bars, and racinos. For now. Based strictly on my own experiences, here are some more places to look for your dad:

1. Is he outside swearing at the lawnmower? If he's anything like my daughter's dad, he fully expects all machinery to work right without any upkeep, maintenance, or care on his part. That's why they're called MACHINES. The minute a machine stops working, even if you leave it out in the rain for four straight days, it stops being a machine and starts being "a big stupid pile of shit." Check for loud noises in the backyard and maybe a separated shoulder from overzealously pulling on the cord.

2. Is he in the shed? Unequivocally the answer is no. Don't even look there. You're more likely to find David Attenborough filming about glaciers in your shed than your dad.

3. Is he in the closet? Sometimes my kids' dad hides in the closet when we play the "chase each other all over the house game" and he needs to catch his breath. Oh, you weren't playing that game? Try there anyway, there may be cookies nobody told you about. Hurry, before they're gone.

4. Is he in the laundry room? You may have not thought to look there after he was banned for turning Mom's pants into capris and her capris into bloomers. Both honest mistakes...but don't let your mother fool you into thinking she's never shrunk anything in her life either. Wink, wink.

5. Is he under that big pile of couch cushions and Dora blankets over there? You were playing fort, right? Of course you were, everyone plays fort. Maybe he's still buried under all those big pillows and you forgot about him.

6. Is he at work? Maybe he's not actually "around here somewhere" at the moment, or maybe "around here" means "in the same area code." But maybe he's off earning money for you to go to college someday and to fund your activities. Try giving him a call at his work number. If that doesn't work, try his cell phone. If that doesn't work, try his beeper. If that doesn't work, try his pager. If that doesn't work, try his administrative assistant. If none of those work, try the strip club.

7. No no no, one of those will work! He'll pick one of them up. He always picks up when you call. Your dad is there, just go find him. OK, first take off that stupid shirt, throw it in the old rag basket in the basement, and then go find your dad. You just weren't looking hard enough. You don't even have to call him king.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

18 Months: Time to Get on the Pot?

About a month ago or so, we examined what a 17-month-old should look like, act like, and sound like and determined that I didn't really have one around my house, despite evidence to the contrary like a birth certificate and piles of my toothbrushes facedown in the corner of the playroom gathering hair between the bristles. Actually it turns out I did have a 17-month stumbling around here. It's now almost time for him to become a mature 18-month-old, old enough to vote on things like what he'll eat for dinner and to smash his brother over the head with Emily. So since I do indeed have one, what should I expect from this one-and-a-half-year-old now?

Before we try to answer that, let's make one thing abundantly clear. There will be no half birthday parties. I guess that's, as they say, "a thing" now. Though probably not for one-year-olds who can't understand the logic behind actually opening the juice box before you can drink the juice, much less fractions. But also not for the regular party-goer in our house, Little Miss Six, who would jump at the opportunity to celebrate something, anything, and dress like Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz to do it. (I'm going to go get the mail by myself, Mommy, can I wear my red shoes?) Instead we just sort of mark the half birthdays, in a gee-whiz-you're-getting-big sort of way, and let the kids realize their next real birthday is now officially on the radar. Six months is still eons for kids, which means kids will for eons add "and-a-half" to their ages.

The other reason we won't make a big deal about the baby's half-birthday is that we now sit just days away from a fourth birthday for the middle child. Ever since his sister turned six in March, he's been dialed in on his own birthday and all the attention it affords. We'll certainly bowl a few games, we'll eat a Caillou cake (tastes like whine), and we'll open some presents. We've heard about this day for months now, and if we preempt it with anything more than a cursory celebration for his baby brother six days earlier, the middle kid might pick up and leave the house. Though he'd miss tugging on his mother's hair in bed too much, so I'm calling his bluff.

Back to 18 months. People who know about this stuff say that this boy should suddenly be able to put away all his toys, I think. At least he should be clearing out all the cabinets, which he's been doing most of his life, then trying to put the contents back, perhaps in a different order, which he hasn't tried once yet. Mostly he leaves them there for us to trip over. Same with the entire box of Q-Tips, though at least he's not doing this to himself yet.

They also say he will want to know what is behind, under and inside of everything he sees, but I think they left out a few prepositions. Regardless, he fit that description at the beach the other day, when he nearly ended up under the ocean. We know now, after having two other kids we could trust to not get lost between here and anywhere, why parents buy those leashes, and use them.

Every part of his body is his nose, which explains why he's not sure what to do with all those Q-tips. Occasionally he'll point to his ears and his hair, but mostly he just dupes us by calling everything his nose. Or he really thinks he has ten noses on his hands.

But the big event that we should begin to prepare for is, yes, Potty Training! (Don't say it unless you mean it, parenting Web sites offering up monthly milestone updates. You can't just drop that one in there with "can hold a cup" and "starts to act more independently." Potty training is the prize milestone, because we will immediately save the equivalent of a mid-compact car on diapers annually. I'm really excited about this.) I think I'll make a potty chart right now, and I'm going to pick out some sports-related underpants and of course some cartoonish pull-ups and get this thing started. No pressure, of course. But let's do this. I'll buy you a gold toilet if you can get this process started.

One site also mentioned something about "gross motor skills," so everyone step up and take a free shot at your best farting joke. Do it fast, because this kid is going to be potty trained before I'm able to put his used diaper genie on eBay.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

This Treehouse Must Go

This old moldy reminder of someone else's kids is coming down. Eventually. My poor weed whacker and its ancestors will appreciate it.
One of the bigger projects on our plate this summer is the total, definitive destruction of this treehouse in our backyard.

Yeah, yeah, I know that you're thinking. With three kids growing into the stay-outside-until-dark-and-rescue-lightning-bugs-from-no-real-imminent-danger stage, you should leave the thing up and let the kids hide out in it, share secrets in it, and hold a decade-long coming-of-age party in it. Instead, you'll just get them another imagination-sapping video game or electronic, beeping, lighty-up machine. Kids should be playing outside from dawn until dusk, not coming in to even go to the bathroom or to get a Band Aid or report a stalker. The way we did, back in the good ol' days. Your kids are going to get fat and lazy. Childhood obesity is right around the corner, even though your daughter could walk out of a jail cell without turning sideways and your son only eats 3 meals a week.

Stop thinking that. This treehouse - which isn't really a treehouse anyway, there are no trees to build it on- came as part of the property we bought in the summer of 2004. We didn't really do anything with it at that time since we had no kids, and then in the fall of that year, some 10-year-olds visiting our neighbors came over and broke all the windows in it while we were away. Beautful. That's just conjecture, but it's pretty good conjecture. Our neighbors have an annual bonfire, visible from space, on the night we turn the clocks back (extra hour to party!!) and play classic rock and argue about parking until everyone passes out. It's a real hoot. I'm sure keeping track of their kids was out of the question that night.

Though you can't tell from the photo, the land that the playhouse sits on is named (unofficially) Nature's Ghetto - it's a swampy, marshy, snake-infested glob of mud and still water that has killed three lawnmowers and four weed-whackers in nine years and offers no practical use other than to foul Dad's mood every time he tries to jam a lawnmower through that quagmire (very likely) and to potentially give us all malaria (not really likely but it sounds harrowing). And I'll mention snakes again. One day we did save a washed-up, pregnant turtle from back there and put her back into the tiny stream behind all that green. But one neat nature moment in nine years isn't going to cut it...the rest of the time it's just weeds and mud and piles of dead leaves, with a few snakes mixed in. A perfect place to build a playhouse!... so thought our house's previous owners, who must have known they would move and some other sucker would have to deal with it.

If the name Nature's Ghetto isn't doing it for you, maybe Sisyphea is better. At some point we fell into disfavor with the real estate Gods, and they sentenced me to endlessly push a lawnmower over that crap, only to have the grass grow back faster and thicker than the time before. Every winter I pray for temperatures to dip into the minus-280s, hoping maybe stuff will die, but if anything winters are getting warmer, so no luck there.

Fear not, though, parents who think I'm robbing my kids of playful experiences. A few years ago we got this playset for our kids that sits away from the dangers of Sisyphea and, since neither my wife nor I has the patience or mental wherewithal to Do It Ourselves, we just got somebody else to build the thing. It took two experts an entire morning and half an afternoon to construct it, so had we attempted a DIO venture, it would still sit today, three years later, as dangerous abstract art.  The only maintenance here is some sealing each fall and knocking down the screen-door sized cobwebs that grow there overnight. More my speed.

But I've been informed by our Secretary of the Interior (my wife) that I no longer have to maintain the Sisyphean Badlands if I just get rid of the playhouse. That's why this is such an important project. Knock down that thing and I am able to "give back to nature" by letting nature do whatever the hell it can with earth that even my kids are afraid to go near. (And I can spend more time at my desk job!) If I were smart, I'd turn this destruction project into a fund-raiser, and give people one whack with a real-live hatchet for a dollar donation, which would go to pay for the hatchet I'll need to buy to get started. I have also considered burning the playhouse down, but I'm not an expert with fire, so I'm afraid I'll lead the Today Show some day with "Breaking News: Delaware, Engulfed in Flames, our Al Roker is on the scene."

I don't wish to meet Al Roker any more than I wish to catch Delaware on fire, so I'll start with a hatchet. Maybe upgrade to a chainsaw. Stop by if you want take a few swings; I'll waive the initial cover charge.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

A Big Hallmark Book of Christmas Ornaments Has Arrived!

Since hers is "Limited Edition" I hope my daughter picked out an ornament slightly more original than this.
Of course it has. Because Independence Day is practically over, and now that 2013 is officially half over, it's time to start ordering limited edition Christmas stuff in case it goes out of stock so you can hide it somewhere that you'll never look when you actually need it, which is to say the season when the jolly, fat elf gets all the credit for your foresight and preparation and awesome parenting.

Considering all the junk mail that falls harmlessly into our recycling bin daily, I was suspicious how this piece caught my daughter's eye and not the repeated attempts to get me to slash my mortgage payments in half. Wait a minute, this wasn't junk mail! My wife actually picked it up at the mall yesterday and has already pre-ordered my daughter's ornament for Xmas 2013. That blows my mind. Look, I know dads like me tend to think we can do most things just as well as moms, but this is something I am wholly not wired for, planning for Christmas while I sweat profusely and beg for my third shower of the day after cutting the grass. Something seems inherently wrong about the whole concept.

My daughter, then, has her ornament already lined up for Xmas 2013, a full 174 days before Christmas but only around 56 before the tree goes up. (Another good reason we pre-pre-pre-ordered.) It's a Wizard of Oz-themed number large enough to eat off of.  Actually, I have no idea what she's getting, but anything Wizard of Oz themed is always a good guess, whether it's Christmas ornaments, clothing, DVDs co-starring Tom and Jerry (?? We own it and I still don't get it) or the style of rain gutters to put on the house.

The amazing part is, if we hadn't ordered it by July 13 or some such meaningless date in the middle of baseball-only season, the entire line would have been sold out and Christmas ruined. Ruined, I tell you, 160 days before it even happens. Not cool. This never happens on the other holidays. Unless you tell me you've seen roadside stands just across state borders open on Christmas Eve selling bottle rockets and Roman candles? Is that not just as important?

Tonight, my daughter opened the (90-page!) catalog to the sports section and plopped it down in front of me and flatly asked, "Need anything?" I didn't know what she was showing me and what she had just said, so when I asked her to repeat, the response was an even flatter "Need anything," as if she's on her way to WalMart. But now that she has ordered her ornament, everyone else in the family has to get theirs. Wait, can't I just live through July first?

I'm sorry, but when presented with choices of who will represent my distinguished tastes on our family Christmas tree this year, I'm going to need more time. Unfortunately, the 2013 class of ornamental athletes is limited, ranging from Hall of Famers to the merely above average. We have:

Drew Brees - future Hall of Famer, holds record for most consecutive games with a TD pass. Most girls think he's cute.

Marcus Allen - Hall of Fame running back who somehow managed to lose a fumble in almost every playoff game he played in. Both the Kansas City Chief and LA Raider versions available. Most non-football fans have no idea who he is.

Shannon Sharpe - Hall of Fame tight end. Both the Bronco and Raven versions available. Has a very loud mouth.

James Harrison - Not going to the Hall of Fame. After the Pittsburgh Steelers won the Super Bowl and were invited to the White House, he accused the Prez of front-running: "He never would have invited us if we had lost." Well, DUH. Despite being a linebacker, he is shown carrying the football, which can mean only one thing.

Joe Theismann - Of course this happened.

Nolan Ryan - Hall of Fame pitcher. Struck out more hitters in baseball than anyone ever.

Bobby Orr - Hall of fame defenseman and only 3rd or 4th best hockey player ever.

How those last two got in there with a wider array of football players is a question best left for the suits at Hallmark. I'm leaning toward bagging all the athletes and just going with the standard "Second Christmas with Three Kids" ornament, perhaps made by the same people who make the people who have no faces.

One person unaffected and undistracted by all this Christmas talk is the soon-to-be four-year-old, who has a birthday 15 excruciatingly long days away. He's been looking forward to his birthday since his sister dominated the month of March with hers, so he's keeping his eyes on the July prize, which includes his request (demand) of a cake featuring Caillou dressed as a hockey player. We'll see what we can do, kid, but in the meantime don't start worrying about Christmas ornaments, there's still a little 2013 left, right?

Monday, July 1, 2013

These Are Our Dream Cars

No use trying to clean this, she'll just keep kicking me
Kids, as you probably are aware by now, are an inquisitive bunch. But if you ever feel like your kids aren't asking you enough questions on a given day, just take them to drop the car off at the shop with your spouse. Then be prepared to answer the following, at a minimum:

Where are we going?
Well then where is Mom going?
Why is Mom driving a different car?
How is Mom getting home?
How will the other car get home?
When will the other car get home?
Will Mom be there when we get there?
Are we going to beat Mom there?
Why can't Mom go in the same car as us?
Why is the car sick?
Will Mom stay all night with the sick car?
Will Mom fix the car?
Can I have a juice box?
Are they going to fix the radio?

Repeat the above list once for each speaking child in the household.

The last question may be a bit specific to our gang, since we have one car with satellite radio and one without. Every time we take the latter to get an oil change or tune-up, it is assumed among the younger set that the [terrestrial] radio will be "fixed" because "it sounds like the radio is blowing its nose." That's before we even travel through the barren radio wasteland of the Pennsylvania Turnpike between Harrisburg and Pittsburgh, when it sounds like the radio has incurable sleep apnea.

The cars in question at our house are a crossover (healthy, with satellite radio) and minivan (sick, though not "sick" in a twenty-something good way, with terrestrial radio, creaky brakes, and one remote-controlled automatic sliding door that doesn't automatically slide anymore.)

Yes, we own a minivan. The great necessary evil in families of five or more. I have nothing to add to the whole van discourse other than my Liechtensteinian neutrality. We have one minivan, and it is absolutely vital to carrying three kids and all their stuff while keeping them at arms length from each other. We don't pretend it's cool, but we do recognize that without it, we'd have needed to give one of our kids away by now. Those who go out of their way to remind me they'd never be seen alive in a minivan, it's been noted. More than once. You're welcome to sit in the back; the windows are tinted so dark, nobody can see you anyway.

That said, when child number three arrived, I had every opportunity to turn us into a two-van household, and I shied away from it. There's no need for two minivans in this family any more than there is for two rotary telephones. (The fact that we bought our first van three months before our first child was born in retrospect seems steeped in paranoid over-preparation. We had a minivan before we had a bassinette. So we could transport baby home uber-safely, then make her sleep on the couch.)
Instead, we got a "crossover," a vehicle that reinforces the feeling you're still really cool but without all the uncool things now associated with an SUV, like tipping over on highways and embarrassingly low gas mileage. The primary downsides to a crossover are the dirty seat factor from when your daughter tramps through her fairy garden right before entering (see above) and the too-much-togetherness factor, especially when we put the two boys next to each other, and even more now that the 1-year-old is nuanced enough to pester the bejeezus out of his older brother by kicking his arm gently while he tries to maneuver his LeapPad. Therefore, we use the crossover for local trips only, and we usually keep the youngest home on those trips, just to keep tempers under control.

Neither of these would be what most consider a "dream car," but when you grow up like I did not knowing a crankshaft from...uhhh...any other important car part, you don't really care what you end up driving, as long as your kids are safe and you can get to Point B without too much worry, especially when Point B is home. You don't need to go from 0 to 60 in any specific amount of time. Even the backs of our cars are pretty expensive logos, no stick family lined up neatly in height order, no destination ovals, no tributes to dead relatives, no precocious boy urinating on a rival's insignia. None of that makes a car a dream car. Just satellite radio, so the radio can breathe a little, that's all anybody's asking for.

The three car-seat alignment...1-year-old (backwards) on left, where he can kick 3-year-old (middle) while 6-year-old plays with her window control