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.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013


There's something about leaving my boys and my dear, awesome wife that is very hard.

I realized that yet again this morning as I departed for the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting in Boston. I'll be gone six days, an eternity for Michelle and myself, too. The boys have no concept of time, but they know I'm leaving, and they reacted in different, yet heartfelt ways.

I got up early and made a scrambled eggs and toast breakfast for Nathaniel, who also wakes up early most mornings (and is my alarm clock for the most part). As we were sitting and eating, he looked at me and asked whether I was going to work, which has become a standard, daily question.

Yes, I answered, and I'm flying someplace, too, this time.

He mulled this for a moment.
"Will you call me?" he asked.
I assured him I would.
"When?" he asked.
"When I land," I replied.
"Don't forget," he said.

To sweeten the pot, I told Nathaniel that I would Skype with him when I arrived in Boston – and show him the hotel room where I’d be staying.

“Wow,” he said, his eyes wide.

How cool to get such a reaction from an event that to any grownup would be incredibly boring.

Isaiah has an ear appointment (check the tubes) that morning, so Michelle and he dropped me off at the airport on their way to the otolaryngology office. Isaiah was happily playing with his “good guys” – two Luke Skywalker and one “Dee-Dah” (read: Yoda) figurines, plus a baby Elmo doll – when I got out of the car, grabbed my travel items from the trunk and gave him a goodbye kiss. I walked toward the terminal door, and when I turned around, Michelle motioned to me, pointing toward the back and miming.

I returned to the car, and peered in through the open window. Isaiah was sobbing.

I gave him another kiss and told him I would call and would be back home soon. He sniffled, but he didn’t seem satisfied with the answer.

This is why it’s hard to leave home. My family actually misses me. For different reasons, but still.

And I miss them. Already.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Tackle Football

Lately, the favorite game in the house is called "tackle football."

I have no idea how this came about. If you believe that, I have a nice piece of real estate on a faraway planet to sell you.

To play, we congregate in the den and choose teams. Nathaniel and Isaiah, on one side, generally want to be the Beavers, after their Uncle Matt's basketball team. I, the other team, end up being the Raisins, always the opponent, always the enemy, because it is the team that Aunt LeeAnn and her family root for, and the perennial foil to the Patriots.

I stopped writing this post, because, well, I don't remember now. It's a rare uninterrupted moment on a Sunday morning, so let me try to finish this.

So, we have two teams, invariably the Beavers and the Raisins. The goal line is a rug in the library, and  the playing field is the living room, with the sofa and the TV stand forming the sidelines. We have  sweet, squishy Nerf football. Starting on one end, Nathaniel and Isaiah line up on one side, with one of them being the quarterback.

"Hut, Hut, hike," one says. Then he takes the ball and begins running. The other brother, in this case Isaiah, waddles alongside.

Writing timeout: Isaiah has brought me Elmo and Ernie stuffed dolls, and he's now climbed up on a chair and is reaching for a piece of toast. He seems content.

Back to the action. I tackle the ballcarrier, in this case Nathaniel, and the brothers line up again and repeat the sequence. This time, Isaiah is the ballcarrier, and he hugs the ball up high against his chest, grasping it with both hands as he squeals with delight and chugs forward. Daddy executes a gentle takedown, just shy of the rug paydirt.

Third down and goal.

Nathaniel lines up as quarterback/running back, calls the signals and bursts forward. I lunge to make the tackle, miss, and Nathaniel scampers into the end zone. Arms raised, he yells "touchdown!"

High fives are exchanged, and now the Raisins get the ball.

Daddy comes up to the line, surveys the defensive duo, chants "hut, hut, hike" and lurches forward as he "runs" on his knees. Nathaniel plows into his father, shoulder down, knocking him over.

Isaiah piles on with delight after the whistle. Shockingly, no flag is thrown.

Two more plays, two more bone-crunching tackles from the inspired Beavers defense. Daddy's drive is stuffed short of the end zone.

And so on – that is, until Daddy's knees begin to ache, and he calls it quits.


It's just tremendous to be a father and see your boys take pleasure in a game that you yourself enjoy. Lately, Isaiah has been obsessed with what he calls "tackle football,"

Another pause. Nathaniel would like to watch another episode of "My Little Pony." This how I stole those uninterrupted moments. Completely manufactured.

As I was saying, Isaiah has been obsessed with what he calls "tackle football." Any picture he sees of a football player, in a magazine or on TV, gets him chanting for tackle football. Any picture of an athlete in general, regardless of the sport, gets the chant, too. I find this very cute, mainly because it echoes my own love for sports.

This may seem highly premature, but I've already been thinking about what I'll do if my sons want to actually play football. I'm truly split on a decision at this time. On one hand, I really like the game, and I think the boys would, too. Back in high school, I would've loved to play safety and just pop people. So, perhaps there's some vicarious "wish I had done that" going on with letting the boys play.

Yet I'd be a fool if I wasn't aware of the game's dangers, especially as disturbing reports mount of concussions coupled with advances in neuroscience and greater insights into the effect of repeated blows to the head. Who would put his or her child in a situation where such injuries can arise?

Yet what are the odds of my child being seriously hurt playing football, versus other sports, be they basketball, hockey or baseball? And, might there be far better technology, and vigilance, by the time they reach the age at which the violent nature of football becomes the norm?

Most importantly, perhaps, what if either or both of them really want to play? Am in the position to deny them, when I sparked their interest in the first place?

I don't have a good answer for that.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Raisins Fanatics

On the day of the Super Bowl, it's the right time to talk about some Raisins Fanatics.

I'm talking about my sister and her family and their obsessive devotion to that football team from Baltimore that squares off this evening against the 49ers.

My sister never liked football – or most other sports, for that matter – yet she has been converted into a football fanatic and into a Ravens superfan, as if she had been dunked into the NFL's holy waters. More on that startling transformation in a minute.

First, though, let's talk about the Raisins. That's what Nathaniel calls the Ravens. We've been reluctant to correct him, because it's so cute. Little ones have the darndest ways of pronouncing words. Isaiah, for example, adds a syllable to a certain caped crusader, calling him "Bad A Man." Nathaniel had all sorts of permutations to words. Among a few:

"Chokky milk" = chocolate milk
"Down nairs" = down stairs
"Ubba dubba der" = over there
"Sabati" = Spaghetti
"Orangen" = clementine
"Crumb" = salad crouton (Not a mispronunciation, but a novel descriptive and thus cute nonetheless, at least in our book)

Not to be done, Isaiah and his mispronunciations:
Ughie = Cookie Monster
Auka = Oscar the Grouch
Elmo = OK, he got that one
"Gapa" = Chewbacca (assuming I spelled it correctly)
"Dee Dah" = Yoda
"Orangen" = See Nathaniel, above
"Bum Bum Bad Guy" = Darth Vader (This requires some explaining. "Bum Bum" is the beginning of the Star Wars evil empire song, which both Nathaniel and Isaiah have memorized. "Bad Guy" speaks for itself.)

Back to the Raisins and my sister. You see, Lee Ann barely cared about sports from she was coerced into being a cheerleader for my youth football team in Houston (We were the Oilers. That's the hometown for ya.) through adulthood. But the last few years, long after she and her husband, Rob (who grew up a Detroit Lions fan) and their family moved to Baltimore, she grew this strange attachment to the football team. The Orioles? No. Area college teams? Please. But the Ravens? Oh yeah.

The fandom has grown over time, like kudzu, to where it has invaded every aspect of their lives come football season. A game is not missed on the TV, with the family decked  out in Ray Rice and Ray Lewis jerseys for the occasion. For Christmas, a son saved up enough money to buy a signed, framed picture of Ray Lewis that hangs proudly in the front foyer, I am told. And, in the two weeks leading up to the game, my sister – so dispassionate about athletics for nearly her entire life – has been relentlessly posting pro-Ravens propaganda on to Facebook and Lord knows where else.

Rabid, meet my sister.

I say this mostly tongue in cheek, once I got over the shell shock of her transformation. We all have things that we care deeply about that strikes the next person as a little strange, eccentric or downright kooky. We all have our oddities. I am not casting aspersions. She is my sister, you know. I'm just poking some fun – at her but at myself, too.

For not too long ago, I used to go ape----- over games, especially matchups involving Duke basketball. Ironically, as my passion has waned in light of my changing view that sports is entertainment more than anything else, my sister appears to have gone in the opposite direction with her emotional attachment. Who says we don't change?

Of course, I will watch the Super Bowl this evening. With more than mild interest. After all, it is the Super Bowl. And, I will root for the Ravens, even though they knocked off the Patriots. It's a gritty bunch, and I like gritty, always have. But I have a feeling that my level of interest will nowhere near that of my sister and her bunch.

I just hope their fandom is amply rewarded.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Let it Snow

I'm pretty excited. It's looking like it'll snow tonight and tomorrow.

I love the snow. I love watching it fall, as individual flakes flutter to the ground. I love watching it stick, and accumulate in a creamy, white meringue on the ground. I love the tranquility that a snowfall brings, how it muzzles much of the non-natural world around us, leaving nature to sing her song. I love how it looks, a crisply fresh topping that masks much of what is otherwise unsightly. I love how thankful it makes you feel to have a warm home and a loving family (and a glass of good wine).

I don't like to shovel it. Just to get that straight. My romanticism does not border on losing my lucidity.

I also like what snow brings, and by that I mean sledding. No matter the danger (see post in December), I really, really like taking the boys sledding. I love careening down the hill, eyes watering, the wind biting at my face, as I plummet downward, desperately trying to steer us away from trees, signposts, curbs, kids and other hazards. It's an easily acquired rush of adrenaline, a very cheap thrill.

We've had just one good snowfall this winter, around Christmas, and with the state, and much of the Midwest in a drought, as January neared an end, we wondered whether there'd be another. And the weather – not to dwell too much on the weather (Hello, do you believe in climate change, you remaining doubters?) – has been like a yo yo. Today, for instance, the temperature climbed above 60º – 60 degrees – before beginning a descent so rapid that it would have made a parachutist dizzy. By tonight, we will be below freezing, and what has been rain will turn to snow and continue as such for much of the day tomorrow. In all, the weather watchers – those glorious folks who can be wrong half the time yet enjoy complete job security – say we'll get between 5 and 7 inches.

By tomorrow night, we'll drop to 3º. So, in a span of about 36 hours, we'll watch the air temperature see-saw by about 60 degrees. Wow.

No wonder I've seen geese flying in different directions the past couple of days. They must be as confused as a hiker with a broken compass.

Getting beyond yet another example of wild weather and the growing body of evidence of our unrelenting upending of the world's climate, I'm just looking forward to the snow. Heck, I may be even stay up late enough to greet the first flakes as they descend from the sky.

Bring 'em on!

(I'll worry about shoveling later.)

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Night Running

For the first time in nearly a decade, I've found it challenging to run regularly.

No, I haven't suddenly lost my joy of slapping feet on pavement. Nor have I injured myself or reached the point at which muscles, tendons and joints rebel.

For a while, I could blame the fall off on our move to Iowa. There was so much to do – find a town and a home in which to live, transition to a new job and a newly created one at that with its attendant expectations and pressures. Then, once we did move to our home, we were consumed by all the renovations needed to make it habitable.

And, oh yeah, we have two very active young boys.

So, on this long to-do list, running pretty much took up the caboose. Even as we got more settled in our house and I more comfortable with what I was doing at work, I still was having difficulty carving out the time to run.

I could hardly blame the children, or Michelle, for the lack of time. I mean, I could wake up early in the morning, before work, and go for a jog. A lot of people do that. But I'm not a morning person. I'll be darned if I'm going to watch the sunrise as I'm grimacing through a workout. In fact, the last time I forced myself to run in the early morning was when I was training for my first marathon in 2003. And yet the few times I managed to roust myself, I do remember an intense feeling of satisfaction as I watched the sun rise above the ocean and bathe me with first rays, like I had been born again. But despite the emotional rapture, I mostly avoided morning jogs.

Nights are tough, too. That's children time, and it simply wouldn't be fair to give that up for my own wants and needs.

I had a handy runaround for a while. I ran twice a week during the lunch hour with some coworkers from my department and other offices around the Brown U. campus. The building where I worked had a shower, so it was easy to pop in, wash up and be back at my desk with little time in transit. Plus, I could check my email immediately after the run, in the off chance that I needed to respond to something immediately.

It was a very good gig, better than I should have known.

There's no such arrangement here. No coworkers to run with during lunch. And, worse, no nearby shower. Instead, there's a university rec center that I can pay to join (inexpensively, I might add), but it's several blocks away. Likewise, the city's rec center is several blocks away (although with free lockers and showers). Logistically, it just makes the whole exercise a lot tougher.

It all left me with a gnawing frustration. I need an outlet; and, I'm not talking about crocheting, or something like that. Real, physical activity, to clear my mind and wear out my body. That's what I need, or I feel caged, bottled up.

In short, I needed to figure out how to get running again.

A couple of weeks ago, it finally dawned on me: How about running at night? Come home after work, play with the children for a bit, sit with them for dinner, put them to sleep. And when that's all done, go out for a run.

The thought had crossed my mind before, but I had swatted it away. I didn't feel comfortable not seeing where I was running, afraid I would step into a hole or trip over something in the road. I also didn't have any fluorescent running clothes, which made me fearful of not being seen by a wayward car. And, by the time we get the children in bed, it's usually pushing 8 o'clock, and my mind is closer to bed than to anything else.

Something had to give. It was either night or nothing. So, one night about three weeks ago I skipped dinner and after getting the children to sleep, I slipped on a light-colored winter running shirt and took off.

The neat thing about our little town is it doesn't take long to get out of it. This is no urban jungle. In fact, where we live, I'm on a rural road in minutes. My favorite one is a straight shot north out of town. I slip by the Cornell College ballfields, over the railroad tracks and countryside, here I am. I chug along, over one small rise, past a house on the right and its barking dog, over a bridge and the iced sliver of a creek. A little farther on, I see the lights of a smattering of houses in the woods on the right, and then it's up another rise to a view toward the horizon in all directions. I run a while longer, my breath leaving a wispy trail with each exhale in the cold air. The turnaround is a real highlight. As soon as I do it, I look up, and soak in the stars in the southern sky, fully illuminated, a jumble of constellations framed against the faint silkiness of the Milky Way. Directly in front of me on the horizon are the twinkling golden lights on the hill and a church spire silhouetted against the night sky.

I smile and plod toward home.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Hoopin' weekend

It was a hoopin' weekend.

We traveled this past weekend to watch my brother-in-law Matt's basketball team play. That's Minot State University (No. Dakota), a newly minted NCAA Div. II team to those who are unaware. It was Michelle and my (and the boys') first time to see Matt live, although we've watched numerous games when was head coach at Jamestown College and now that he's with the Beavers.

For me, a lover of roundball, it was a special treat. Watching games is so much more fun when you feel like you have something invested that is more than casual entertainment. Granted, I love my Duke Blue Devils, as it's my alma mater. But there's a different feeling when someone from your (extended) family is involved, whose energy, ambitions and livelihood are on the line. You are all in, and there's no in between.

It is that way with Matt's teams. So, when we looked at Minot State's schedule at the beginning of the year, this weekend jumped out at us. For two reasons, principally: One, the team would be in northeast Nebraska and Sioux Falls, So. Dakota, the closest they'd be to us this season. And, that, folks, is not all that close, 5 1/2 hours away. We also noticed that the first game, on Friday, of the back-to-back twinbill was against Wayne State, where Matt started as a graduate assistant and rose to assistant coach in four-plus years there. So, let's say there'd be a little something extra for that contest, no matter what Matt or anyone else said.

We took off for Wayne about 1 on Friday afternoon. The game started at 8, so we figured we had plenty of time. Yes and no. I tend to underestimate Iowa's width, so that took a little longer than anticipated. Michelle and I underestimated how long it takes little boys to get out of a car, walk into a bathroom, pull down britches and pee. And, neither of us took fully into account driving rural roads in a remote section of Nebraska at night.

I'm talking Nebraska 175 west. Go look at the map. 175 branches from I-29, heading like a straight shot west. Road atlases are deceptive in many ways. States generally fit on one page, no matter their size. So you get Nebraska on one page, just as you'd have Rhode Island. Need to look at that legend, because what may be a thumb's length in Nebraska is probably the same as driving the length of the Ocean State. Maybe more.

Back to 175. This stretch looked simple, as I said, nothing more than a straight line west. Well, we got off I-29 and within minutes were crossing an old steel-trussed bridge that arched like a gymnast on a balance beam. To our surprise, we saw a sign as we crossed that there was a toll. $1. When we got over the bridge, there was a single-level structure a half-step up from a shack. No gate. No lights. No sign telling you to stop. We slowed down, unsure where the window was, or the attendant for that matter. As we drove along the side, we saw a figure at a window. We stopped. An old lady in a dress slid open the window, took the dollar, politely said thank you and slid it shut, all in about 15 seconds. Transaction completed, we were on our way, and our lady probably returned to her knitting.

175 is one of the most entertaining roads I've driven. For the better part of 10 miles, it was like riding a roller coaster. Up, up we go, reach the top, and down, down, down we go. Reach the bottom, and up, up, up we go again. Hump after hump, hill after hill, exactly the same. No curve, no deviation. Up, down, up, down. A biker's nightmare, a geologist's dream.

We made it to Wayne about 20 minutes before game time, with me gunning it about 80 on the rural roads. The game was entertaining, if not thrilling. Both teams appeared to be going through the motions, not playing badly per se, but not competing with any more intensity than you might find at a NBA regular season matchup. But Wayne State made the mistake of letting Minot State hang around for too long, and a couple of treys late put the Beavers ahead, and they played excellent defense down the stretch to steal a win.

The next night, we were in South Dakota, as the Beavers took on Augustana College, a superior team on paper and in the standings. Minot fell behind early and trailed by 8-12 points most of the game. Yet late, they forced a few turnovers, made some nice plays and nearly pulled off the upset, losing by two.

All in all, a good weekend for team comprised of NAIA players playing in a higher league. Credit to Matt, he's got his team playing cohesively, with passion, intensity and grittiness. The players have bought into his philosophy, and they've notched some nice wins to reward their effort and conviction. They may not be pretty, but the Beavers are a fun team to watch, a bunch you can feel good about rooting for.

I also realized from this weekend how complicated it is to coach college basketball at any level. It is not simply coaching basketball, although the practices, the strategizing, the game tape analysis, the in-game instructions and adjustments are so much more complex than even an ardent fan like me can fully appreciate. There's also all the logistics; the team meals, arranging the hotels, the travel (by bus, too), the academics, the management of players and your own coaches. It's just a heck of a lot of moving parts. And underlying all of that is one simple truth: Winning matters entirely.

You've got to really love what you're doing to put up with all that.

We know Matt does. And we're glad we have his team to root for.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Little Grownup

It seems like it happened overnight, but our little Nathaniel has become quite the little grownup.

Most mornings, including weekends, he gets up, strolls to the bathroom, pees, and returns to his room to play quietly while mommy and daddy snooze (and that sleepmonster, Isaiah, too). Sometimes, he doesn't come into our bedroom until after 8.

Shangri-la, baby.

It gets better. Natty Lou has taken an interest in dressing himself, especially when his clothes du jour include a Star Wars t-shirt and sweatpants. Michelle noticed this behavior and decided to up the ante. One night, she spread Nathaniel's clothes on the floor, just like he would be wearing them. Beginning at one end, the layout looked like this: Socks, then jeans (or sweatpants), with underwear (Mickey Mouse and Star Wars) laid on top, followed by t-shirt (or undershirt) and long-sleeve sweater, pullover or shirt. If you were to view it from above, the arrangement resembled a two-dimensional stick figure, with the floor as a backdrop.

Nathaniel knew exactly what to do. He got up, dressed himself and barged into our room, proud of his achievement.

It was one early morning wake up call we could handle.

Sunday, January 6, 2013


Surprise, surprise! A blog post. Really.

Right before Christmas, it snowed for the first time this season. We got roughly five inches, enough to lay a pretty blanket of white on the ground and to make the holidays seem pretty and bright. 

It was also enough to make sledding a go. The day after it snowed, a Friday as I recall, Uncle Matt came over, and he and I took the boys out in search of a hill. I knew about one definitive sledding hill; when Michelle and I were scouting towns in which to live last summer, we noticed that Mount Vernon reserved one street for sledding. We knew this, because at the top of the street (and the top of the hill) there was a gate that would close off the street to vehicles. Down the street there were other gates along the side streets to keep vehicles from crossing the sledding hill-street. To clinch it all, there also was a sign that laid out the sledding hours and rules.

A street that is turned into a sledding hill. We thought that was pretty cool.

Back to the story: So, I knew about the street sledding hill. But a neighbor who grew up in Mt Vernon told me that a lot of bigger children use that hill, and, considering our boys are just 4 and 2, respectively, I was concerned they might get overrun. So, we all tromped over to Cornell College, its campus located on a hill, to find a spot.

Surprisingly, despite many slopes, it was hard to find a good sledding place. The college is pretty densely packed, and many of the hills led into a street, or parking lot, or there were a bunch of trees. Eventually, Matt, the boys, and I found a decent slope, and we got to it. We just had to be careful to make sure we stopped ourselves before we hit a concrete wall, and we had to avoid steering too far to the right, so we wouldn't go careening over a six-foot drop into a parking lot. Not ideal, but we made the best of it, and most importantly the boys had a good time.

Still, the street sledding hill was in the back of my mind as I decided to take the boys sledding the following weekend. I must admit that I was curious about the hill. Just passing by it as we walked by the street on our way downtown, and back, I knew it was a good sledding hill. At the top was a nice crown that after several feet, became a steep descent that went about the length of a block. Then the street, leveled off gradually. In all, if you could get good momentum and stay on course, it appeared you could go for 6 to 7 blocks. That's a doggone good run.

Knowing all this, I couldn't resist the temptation any longer. I packed the boys in a tow wagon, and we headed toward the street sledding hill. To my surprise, there were only a smattering of people there – a lady and two youngish children and a dad with a pair of youngsters. I felt better about our decision immediately. But what next? I couldn't leave 2-year-old Isaiah at the top of the hill himself, so I needed to figure out how we'd all go down together. We had two sleds, a rectangular toboggan and a plastic saucer. I tried all three of us on the toboggan. We lurched forward, then quickly veered leftward. Before I knew it, we careened onto the bank, our sled flew out from under us, and we all tumbled out onto the snow. 

Isaiah wasn't thrilled about our spill. So, that was the end of the three-person toboggan. My next idea was to put the boys into the toboggan, and to follow them in the saucer, while holding onto their sled. This actually worked better than expected: We slid down the hill, and we got some good velocity. The trouble was we had no way to control ourselves. Inevitably, the boys' toboggan would get turned around, or mine, or both. While thrilling, it also introduced the element of danger, of running into a tree or spilling over the side of the course. Still, it was the best we could do, and it all went just fine until the last run.

It all started out fine. The boys leading on the toboggan, me following on the saucer, one hand clasped to the boys' sled. Partway down, the boys turned backward, and the rope got tangled under their sled. I tried to yank the rope out as I was turning backward. We kept skidding down the hill, now on the steep part, both of us facing backward. Now, we were moving right, toward the side of the street. I glanced behind me, made a quick check of our location, and turned my attention back to trying to turn the boys' sled into the forward position. Bam! My lower back smacked into a signpost, thinly covered by an orange vest. The boys had tumbled off their sled and were looking at me. I was so shocked I just sat there and laughed. 

Isaiah didn't think it was funny. He was pretty traumatized. And, once I got up, I wasn't laughing either.   I walked gingerly, hunched over, as we trudged home.

The thing about sledding, though, is once you start doing it, despite the hazards and spills, you don't want to stop. So, a couple of weekends later, we were back out there, this time accompanied by Michelle. We've been in a deep freeze, with nighttime temperatures often in the single digits. The hill, with all its use and the freezing weather, had gotten quite icy. It was so slick in spots that you could slide down it on your stomach. Still, we were there; shouldn't we do it?

Well, we did. And it was great. It was great, because I figured how to guide the toboggan, meaning I could "steer" it down the hill, keep it in the middle of the course and give us a nice, long ride all the way to the bottom. Let me tell you, it was awesome. Fast, zippy, wind-in-your-face, hair-raising ride. Even better, the boys loved it, too.

Can't wait to get out there again.