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.