Monday, March 18, 2013

Prayer for a Chicken

Lately, we've been making it a point to say a prayer at dinner time. We had gotten out of the habit, but the boys are old enough to understand the reasons for thanking the Almighty and others for the food that they eat and the other blessings that we enjoy.

The dinner prayer can go two ways. There's the singing kind, courtesy of Michelle's family. As you tap your hands on the table, it goes like this:

"The Lord is good to me,
And so I thank the Lord,
For giving me the things I need,
The sun and the rain and the appleseed,
The Lord is good to me..."

Commence rhythmic clapping

"Amen, amen,
Amen, amen, amen

The boys like this one, as you would imagine. We introduced a second, more solemn prayer as well. It's open to variation, but it goes something like this:

"Dear Lord, thank you,
For the food we're about to eat,
For the plants and animals that provided it,
For mommy for cooking it.
We thank you for our family and our friends,
We love you Lord, and we love you Jesus,
In your names we pray, amen."

Not exactly lyrical or rhyming, either, but at least it's sincere.

So, we mix the two up, depending on the children's mood (Spazzy? Go with the solemn prayer.), level of hunger (Famished? Whichever is quicker.) and when we're having dinner (Late? Solemnity prevails.). Also on Fridays as of late, Michelle's been whipping up a fine breakfast-for-dinner feast of scrambled eggs with veggies and pancakes dotted with chocolate morsels. Yum!

Last Friday, when we had finished reciting a prayer for that meal, Nathaniel opened his eyes and asked why we hadn't thanked the chickens – you know, for the eggs.

"Because they're animals," I replied. "We thanked the animals already."

He mulled my answer but did not query further. My guess is he was thinking about when we have chicken for dinner, in which case we certainly want to thank the animal's contribution to sating our appetite, and those chickens that laid eggs that turn into scrambled eggs, fried eggs, pancakes, french toast and other breakfasty stuff. It's a fair point and an understandably difficult distinction for a 4-year-old to make. Since I don't want yet to get into a discussion of dying versus living chickens' contributions to meals, I've not bothered to help clarify it for him.

Tonight, we were having tacos and a fruit salad, and began singing the amen song for our prayer. As we sang, Nathaniel had taken it upon himself to recite the serious prayer, or at least the parts he remembered. Michelle and I stopped singing and asked Nathaniel if he wanted to lead the prayer. He nodded, folded his hands, closed his eyes, and began:

"Dear Lord,
Thank you for the food,
For the plants and animals,
And for the chickens."

May they get their due. Thanks, chickens.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

A Trying Weekend

Ever had one of those weekends when you find your patience is always being tested? I'm having one of them.

Maybe it's because I'm going through one of those sleepless jags. Those stretches when I feel perpetually beat. By the time 8:30, 9, 9:30 rolls around, I'm dead tired, and I go to bed. But I can't sleep. My mind races, from things minorly consequential to truly, well, mindless. I don't know how to shut off the mental movie reel that turns on as soon as the bedroom lights are turned off.

So, I imagine my troubles with sleep exacerbates my frustration with the boys, and I'm sure it's shortened my patience fuse. But I digress, mostly, because the boys have been a handful.

Let's start with Nathaniel. We all know he's high-energy, super octane, hyper kinetic. A five-course meal of activity. But this weekend he's been all that and more. Leading up to the weekend, he already was in full spazzy mode, traumatizing Michelle so much that she called me in the middle of the day spluttering that she couldn't take it any more. And that mommy can take a lot, so I know she felt as if she were at the end of her rope.

So, Saturday morning rolled around. I got up – or more accurately, Nathaniel the human alarm clock woke me – and I went downstairs to compile a breakfast of breakfast-for-dinner leftovers (awesome scrambled eggs with asparagus, spinach and peppers and pancakes) with a side of freshly cooked bacon. So far, so good. Mostly. The boys played, but mostly they wanted me to play with them. I'll take that as a compliment at this point, as they don't see a whole lot of me during the week, and, maybe they like me some, too. And, I try to oblige, to a point. After all, they are brothers, and I feel they need to learn to play together, or separately, without Michelle and/or I being involved. Still, it's nice to be wanted, so this is a tricky little tightrope to traverse. I remember one of my friends from our church's men's club saying to his son, "I'm not your friend. I'm your father." His son was several years older than even our oldest, but it still struck me as a stark line-in-the-sand declaration that I don't look forward to making but realize that I ultimately I likely will.

Anyway, I digress again, I guess The point is, I also wanted to watch some college basketball on TV (If you can call it a TV; our flat-screen tube picked a fine time to die, so we brought this tiny box that we use to show the boys VHS movies downstairs as a sub), but every time I settled on the floor to squint at the tiny figures on the screen, one of the boys would interrupt me. Plus, there was a lot of eye rubbing, and we hadn't even hit noon yet. I endured this for an hour or so, and finally announced lunch and nap time.

And that is where the games began. Isaiah was exhausted. He had slept in Natty's room the night before, and apparently the "sleepover" wasn't all that restful for him. He was yawning and pawing at his eyes at like 9:30. He was done. Normally the quiescent one, I figured he'd be an easy one for nap time. And he appeared to be, snuggling into his woobie as I lay him in his crib.

When I got downstairs, though, I heard thumping, shrieking, whoops, war cries, screams, shouts, stomps, jumps, falls and general mayhem. Had some devil entered his body? When I entered his room to check, the carnage was apparent: Stuffed animals strewn throughout the room, blankets roiled and abused and a major stench of a little boy who had worked out an awful poop. Diaper changed and scolding administered, I figured mission accomplished. He was very tired. But for the better part of another hour, he wouldn't let up. The thumping, the whooping, the screaming, the yelling, the stomping, the jumping, the knocking, the careening, continued.

I would've done something about it, but I was preoccupied with the other one. Nathaniel has gotten wise to nap time and now treats it as a game of "Can I get out of my bed and raise hell and then get back in my bed before mommy or daddy get upstairs and check on me?" He's pretty good at it, too. His ally are the stairs, which creak as you walk on them. It's nigh to impossible to sneak upstairs and bust him. There are too many creaky spots. Believe me, I've looked for them. So, I settle in to watch some college hoops, and WHUMP! I go upstairs and enter Nathaniel's room, and lo and behold, he's in his bed, under the covers no less, eyes closed. I think it's him, but with his warrior brother, I'm not sure. I've got to give him the benefit of the doubt. I go back downstairs, sit on the floor to watch, and WHUMP!

And this goes on for a few more time before I start to get really pissed. Quiet time is not so quiet, and it's actually more irritating than if the boys were raising Cain around me downstairs. Finally, Isaiah falls asleep, and I thought Nathaniel had, too, until he "woke" up, came downstairs and within minutes, started bouncing off the walls and rubbing his eyes.

We'll fast forward to Sunday. Remarkably, the boys behaved well in church, darn near angelic until we neared the end of what must have been at least a 30-minute sermon (and this for a service geared for families). Lunch was on the early side, and I shuttled the boys to quiet time, in separate rooms. This time, Isaiah went quietly, exhaustion winning out over crib madness. Nathaniel also snuggled into his covers, nary a protest, appearing to welcome the rest.

For a bit, there was no noise, and I settled on to the floor to squint at the tiny figures running around on the TV. Then, WHUMP! BANG! WHUMP! This time, I didn't bother trying to be sneaky; I sprinted upstairs and caught Nathaniel trying to sneak from  Isaiah's room back into his own.

I was furious. I can barely describe how mad I was. Not only had Nathaniel disobeyed me about quiet time (don't get out of your bed), but he had gone into Isaiah's room and woken him up, too. I wanted to spank him, but I wouldn't; instead, I did my best verbally intimidating, fear-of-God, make-him-pee-in-his-pants admonishment that I could. The jig was up. No more games. He would stay in that bed for as long as it takes. THIS IS IT.

His eyes grew very, very large. And then he began bawling.

And so I picked him up, sat on his bed, took several deep breaths and rocked him for a while. I whispered to him that I was really, really mad at him, not because he got out of his bed and woke up his brother per se, but that he wasn't listening to his mommy or me, and was disobeying us.

He nodded as if he understood. Then, I told him he would stay in his bed until I came back and got him.

And, this time, he did.


Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Daylight Savings Time Sucks

We don't like daylight savings time very much around here.

You see, we have two little boys, and it's important to keep a schedule, for them and for us. Part of that routine is getting them to bed around the same time each night, roughly 7:30. The ritual starts earlier about an hour earlier, with a final bout of playing, shooing them upstairs, getting them in their pajamas (no easy task with flailing limbs), brushing teeth, final pees in the potty, filling the humidifiers, fetching them last swigs of water, locating lost woobies (blankets), reading them books and singing.

Whew! No wonder Michelle and I are so wiped out by the time little heads finally meet the pillow.

Anyway, a major ploy, or proxy, in the it's-time-to-go-to-bed rite is to announce that it's dark outside. After all, darkness is a universal icon for nighttime, and nighttime in this household has been drilled like a sergeant's order as bedtime. It's easy to show, easy to understand, and easy to enforce.

And, in winter, it makes for a (relatively) easy way to begin the bedtime dance.

In Iowa, the sun is well below the horizon by the time 6:30 rolls around, even in November. So, beginning then, our lives are made that little bit simpler by the change of seasons.

But then daylight savings time comes and wrecks our best laid plans. "Spring forward!" the supporters exuberantly cry, anxious for that precious extra hour of daylight to get started on spring planting, play outside or drive home in waning daylight. Us? That extra hour of daylight means that it's no longer dark at 6:30 – not even close, in fact. Now, our base argument of darkness = bedtime no longer reads true. We can see it, and the boys can, too. It's harder to convince them it's time to get ready for bed.

And, it's only going to get worse. By late June, when it will stay light here in Iowa until past 9, it will be all but impossible to coax the children to bed at their normal times, with the sun practically blazing through the blinds in the house. Good luck coaxing Natty and Isaiah to sleep when neighbors' children are happily shrieking outside. (How do they do it in Iceland? Inquiring minds want to know.)

I remember this was a trial last summer. But at least Isaiah was not even 2, and he got sleepy in the early evening no matter what was going on around him. But he's not even napping regularly nowadays, and Nathaniel? ... well, that one resists sleep as if it were a disease (and just like his daddy did). So, while others bask in the elongated days, here we brace for the backlash.

"Clocks fall back" never sounded so good.

Thursday, March 7, 2013


All was going jim dandy this past weekend until Nathaniel decided to get hurt.

Saturday evening, we partook in the rare luxury of going out to dinner. Sunday morning, we tried a new church in town, followed by breakfast out. Followed by a restful day of good family fun.

That evening, the good family vibes continued as Nathaniel and Isaiah embraced in a hug as a song played, making as if they were lovebirds locked in a slow dance at prom. Without warning, feet got tangled, Nathaniel lurched backward, with the full force of his 30+ pound butterball brother adding to the fall. Wham! Natty's head bashed against the corner of the wall, and blood began spurting from the back of his head.

Michelle and I looked at each other, a dazed, "How did this happen? Oh, of course it happened" look on our faces. Then it was off to the hospital emergency room to get the wound checked.

As we were driving, Nathaniel, who had remained lucid the whole time and now sat with a bag of ice wedged between his head and the car seat, asked where we were going.

"To the hospital," I said.
"Why?" he asked
"To have a doctor check you and make sure you're OK."

"What will the doctor do?" he asked after a pause
"Well," I said, "You may need to get some staples for that cut, like you did a couple of years ago, when you were two and jumped from the sofa to the coffee table and landed on the back of your head."

That took a couple of moments for him to digest.

"I need to get some stamples?"
"Staples," I said, correcting him.
"Stamples?" he said again.
"Staples," I repeated.

We got to the hospital and after a while a nurse ushered us into an examination room.
"Do I need stamples?" were the first words out of Nathaniel's mouth.

I didn't bother to correct him.

As we waited – and waited – Nathaniel had become fixated on the prospect of stamples and how they might be applied to his head. I gingerly tried to navigate to an answer that would be (mostly) truthful but not get him too worked up. After all, getting stampled is just what you think it is. Someone jams little stamples into your head, pulling hair, piercing skin and driving little metal nails inward. It must be painful, and I could understand why the little bugger would be anxious. Hence, my attempt at a delicate explanation.

Well, it turned out that, yes, Nathaniel would need stamples – three, in fact. After a faulty first try, our third-year medical resident got them in. Mostly. One needed to be rearranged, and the middle veered at an angle, like it was shot in mid-lurch. Nathaniel, bless him, whimpered just a little during the while thing.

For his bravery, I promised him he'd get a treat at Dairy Queen.
"Gary Queen?" he asked, excitedly.
"Dairy Queen," I said, then realized the futility of correcting him on that one. It was pretty cute.

And so, a tranquil Sunday night turned into a nearly five-hour sojourn to the hospital, a trifecta of stamples and ceaseless badgering about Gary Queen, and a letdown when each store was closed on the way home.

On the up side, Nathaniel and his stamples were a hit with his schoolmates the next day, and he got lunch and a hot fudge sundae on a blessed snow day this week. In fact, we all got treated at Gary Queen, per Nathaniel's request.

Getting stampled never ended so good.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Star Wars obsession

Our boys are obsessed with Star Wars.

They have Star Wars sticker books. They have Star Wars figurines. They have Star Wars light sabres (more on that later). They have Star Wars T-shirts, underwear and socks. They are bedecked, head to toe in Star Wars gear, including accessories.

They think about Star Wars day and night. When he wakes up in the morning, Nathaniel, the 4-year-old, bounces into our room with his blue-tipped light sabre holstered to his pajamas, ready to do battle in bed. During the day, he constantly pesters mommy and daddy to engage him in duels. He's always one of the good guys. Lately, he's been infatuated with some Jedi called Kit Fisto. I've been tasked with being one of the bad guys, someone named Count Dooku, wielding the red light sabre, symbol of evil. The battles rage in the kitchen, the bathroom, the living room, dining room, library and hallway. The sabres swing viciously, and hands, arms, legs are chopped off, until, at last, the evil overlord has been slain, falling to the ground in agony, and the victor standing over him with smug smile.

When mommy and daddy tire of battle, Isaiah, the two-year-old, is enlisted into the cause. Lately, he's wanted to be a Jedi master called Shaak Ti, but he's also been known to want to be Mace Windu, too. Either way, this poses a problem for Nathaniel, as his brother also represents good, reducing the ideological significance of the encounter. Plus, Isaiah isn't up to par with his sword fighting, or so Nathaniel thinks.

Many nights, the boys choose a Star Wars tune as one of the song sets at bedtime. Isaiah has two descriptions: The uplifting, Jedi song is "Bum Bum good guy." The battle-rattling, dark side tune is "Bum Bum bad guy." Either one is a winner for bed.

Aunt Rachel gets the dubious credit of spawning this craze. When we were staying with her and Sharon, she introduced the boys to the first films of the Star Wars six-pack – you know, the ones from the 80s with the then-superlative special effects and riveting plot line that swept the nation and the world. The boys were smitten from the first scene, and their fascination with the films, the characters, the different worlds, the spaceships and everything else, has exploded over time.

Take those sticker books. They are involved and heavy into the minutiae that only a real devotee could appreciate. Nathaniel has taken to these books like a kid to ice cream. He's devoured the characters and their roles. By now, he's memorized dozens of the Jedi fighters, nearly the entire cast of the evil characters and hordes of the otherworldly beings, animals, creatures, critters, places and things that comprise the Star Wars universe. The amount he knows about the franchise – just months after being introduced to it – is stunning.

Oddly, he stores all this trivia in his little mind, yet he can't recall what he did last night or at school just hours after being there. What gives?

Anyway, the intense interest morphed into obsession once Mimi Atlanta presented the boys with the light sabres. You slide a lever down on the hilt, swing the colored sabre from its sheath, and you're ready to go. The boys have been endlessly entertained with the light sabres since Christmas, and they are their favorite toys, surpassing even the Bat cave, which had a surprisingly long run.

All in all, good, clean fun and one divorced from video games and more predicated on imagination and action fighting. I'm sure the video games will come, so let's enjoy the role playing while it lasts.

And, now, for some gratuitous shots, since we haven't posted any in a while.

Nathaniel overjoyed with his Star Wars comic book

Isaiah overjoyed with Batman and the bat cave

Nathaniel and Isaiahb dining on chicken nuggets and watching Spiderman cartoons (while Daddy watches the Super Bowl on the TV)

The boys and their Ogre

Thursday, February 21, 2013

A sad anniversary

This is an anniversary that I wish had never happened, and I didn't have to remember.

Today is the tenth anniversary of the Rhode Island nightclub fire.

Chances are this has passed in many people's minds, a victim of the endless string of tragedies, conflicts, fighting, brutality and evil that seem to mark each passing day in our world.

I don't know much about those events, because I wasn't there. But I do know about the nightclub fire, because I was there, covering it for the AP. I was at Rhode Island hospital in the raw chill of the early morning, where many of the victims had been taken and where many families had come, wondering if their sons, daughters or loved ones were alive.

I was there to find some of those victims and their families and to interview them about what happened and how they felt in the frantic, chaotic hours after the fire. It was by far the most difficult assignment I have ever had.

The first people I met were an older couple, Doug and Barbara Magness. They were more than gracious as I approached them and awkwardly explained that I was looking for people affected by the fire. They listened, and invited me to come to their home.

I wrote dozens of stories in the months and years following the fire. Most were about legal skirmishes, court rulings and other matters that seem trivial now. But the ones that stand out, that are meaningful, in my view, are the ones that put a face on that awful night. These are the stories, and the people, that I remember.

I remember the Magnesses and their emotions, so genuine and raw, as we sat in their kitchen, and they described to me what it's like to lose your only child and daughter in law. Their story.

I remember George Solitro, who wept as we sat in a bar, and he described what it was like to lose his best friend in the fire. I remember Andrea Stewart, who talked about losing best friends and coworkers in the fire. I remember Melanie Fontaine, who lost her brother and fiance in the fire. Their stories.

I remember Michelle Spence, who allowed me to follow her for a year as she recovered, haltingly, from her injuries from the fire. One of her stories.

I remember the fire, and I remember the people. Please do, too.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013


It's good to be home again.

Yeah, I had fun in Boston. I learned a lot, met some new and old journalist friends, was reminded how poorly some scientists communicate, ran along the river (twice!), ate a ton of food and spent a night at a good buddy and his family's home, complete with a polar-like trek in the snow walking the family dog. It was a varied, and eventful, six days.

But I was ready to leave – and come home again. And, it is fair to say that Michelle was ready for me to return, too.

She and the boys also had a varied, and eventful, time. One day they went to Grandma's, and the boys learned the joy of dunking cookies into milk. Another day, they went to Mimi CR (that's Cedar Rapids, in contrast to Mimi A, for Atlanta) and Aunt Rachel's home, where the boys got their Star Wars fix by watching the first film of the series.

Even so, they missed their daddy, I was told.
And, boy, did I miss them.

So, when Michelle stopped by the terminal, and I peered inside, I saw big, broad smiles on both boys' faces. Isaiah was kicking his legs in a frenzy, yelling "Daddy!" Nathaniel was so excited his body quivered. Before I could get in the car, Michelle told me that Nathaniel wanted to see the inside of the airport. (So, that was why he was so excited.) I took him in, and he helped me fetch my luggage.

After getting in the car, I heard Isaiah's newest phrase – "What the heck is that?" – the latest in a string of words and phrases that he has picked up from his brother (See Star Wars characters for more). Our two-year-old has exploded lately with his use of words and is now rattling off sentences. Simple ones, to be sure, but still sentences with subject, verb, and even object. It only seemed like yesterday that we were getting concerned whether he had some hearing issues that was stunting his speaking. While he certainly enjoys his new words and phrases, his favorite one probably remains, "Nathaniel .. mean."

Some things don't change.  At least he can tell us now when Natty is being mean to him.

Michelle looked happy, but I'd venture she looked more relieved by my return. I think I was in the car for about five minutes when she looked at me and said, "I'm off the clock now."

I should've expected that. Here comes the noise, the bedlam, the spazziness, the wailing, the crying, the spilling, the screaming, the running, the jumping, the falling, the cuts, the bruises, the blood and the tears.

Boy, it's good to be home again.