Sunday, December 14, 2008

Dad, through a daughter's eyes

1 week old: What is that blurry thing?

1 month old: There's that face again!

3 months old: It's that guy! I love that guy!

1 year old: "Dada"

2 years old: "Daddy"

3 years old: "Look at me, Daddy!"

6 years old: "Dad"

9 years old: "Dad, can I have some money?"

12 years old: "Daaaaaad! Don't embarrass me!

14 years old: "Dad, could you be any less cool?"

16 years old: "Daddy, can I have a car?"

18 years old: "Don't cry, Dad. I'll be home for Christmas break. And can I have some money?"

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

With each new child (a parent's meditation)

With each new child

Everyday tasks are tougher

Quiet moments are rarer

Fuses are shorter

And the responsibilities weigh heavier

But the resolve is greater

Because their little faces couldn't be brighter

Nor their trust purer

So our task is clearer

And in this way a bit easier

Because the stakes couldn't be higher

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

How playing (and coaching) football prepared me for fatherhood

It struck me the other day that many of skills I learned playing football - and those I used as a football coach - have served me well as a father. I've already mentioned the stiff arm I use on strangers who try to kiss my baby, but the majority of useful skills came from linebacker drills. With three girls under five years old, it's amazing how necessary these are.

Skills I learned as a player:

Pre-Snap Read: anticipating what is going to happen next. When we enter a new environment, I have to scan for potential hazards, breakable pieces of priceless art, and chocolate. Remember Murphy's Law for Children: When it comes to chocolate, if it can be reached, unwrapped (optional,) and eaten, then clothing, furniture, and carpet will soon have chocolate stains.

Quick Feet: always be on the ready to move. When one girl dumps over the flower vase full of water, the baby is crying for her pacifier, and the third is unknowingly backing towards the down stairway, a quick dad has to throw a towel down, pop the pacifier in the baby's mouth, and kick a ball down the hall for the third girl to fetch, getting her away from the stairway.

Head on a Swivel: being able to see the whole field. When in public places, one girl will inevitably go one way while the other goes the opposite. We have a playground here that's outstanding but much too big. I have to keep turning my head to keep track of them. Where's Clara? There she is. Where's Kate? There she is. Where's Clara? There she is. You get the picture.

Never Take a Play Off:
the one play you decide to relax on the other team will score. Or your child will get hurt.

Skills I learned as a coach:

Do Your Research: understand your opponent, er, child. If one kid likes only purple lollipops and another will only use princess band-aids, you better make sure you have those in stock.

Game Plan: Joe Vollert gave me my first copy of Sun Tzu's The Art of War, where one of the kernels of wisdom is "win the war, then fight the war." Some may find it strange to liken war to football, much less child raising, but the parenting lessons learned in that book are amazingly appropriate, like "People are irritable when they are fatigued," and "Human Psychology is to go for perceived benefits and try to avoid prospective harm." The point is to prepare for what comes next so you are not caught by surprise.

Half Time Adjustments: No matter your preparations, things never go as planned. A good parent is flexible. Being too rigid in your expectations will just result in frustration and a child, who can sense that frustration, who grows up frustrated when they themselves are not able to adjust and adapt.

All those people who thought it was a shame that this football guy didn't have sons shouldn't worry - I seem to be doing just fine with my football training.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Crushing on my daughters, part 2

Earlier this year I created Kate's video, which you can find here. It has taken a while but I finally present Clara's video. Megan and I were amazed at how much she has grown in just the last few months. Two video clips in here are from Clara's school recital last Spring. I wanted to include some earlier video but was having technical difficulties.

Enjoy the little trip down memory lane.

Monday, November 10, 2008

So I suck my thumb, what's it to you?

It's what I do. It doesn't mean I'm insecure, shy, or needy. Daddy plays on his computer. Mommy organizes things. I suck my thumb. Got a problem with that?

I also need you to pay attention to me and not that new baby. If you don't, I'll say your name over and over until you do. If you snap at me I'll cry and you'll feel like an ass.

I'm super independent, but I like to sit on your lap for long periods of time. The two are not mutually exclusive.

I want to do what I want to do, even if you tell me I can't. I'll explain to you that I really want to do it. If I don't convince you and you still tell me I can't, I'll be devastated and cry. And you'll feel like an ass.

I'm not interested in being potty trained. This way's more convenient, anyway.

If I don't come when you call it's because what I'm doing is more important than dinner or bath or whatever it is you want me to do. If you yell or start counting to 3 real loud I'll cry and you'll feel like an ass.

I'm two. Deal with it.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Welcome Cecilia James Bittle

Our life has officially become a sit-com. Cecilia James was born on Thursday, October 30 at 5:59 am. Mother and daughter are healthy and happy. Clara thought the new baby was interesting but was more excited about going trick-or-treating. Kate was smitten with her new sister immediately, kissing her over and over. Some pictures:

And some obligatory Halloween pics:

Ladybug, Minnie Mouse, Cinderella, and Handy Manny (aka Kate, Lucy, Clara, and Miles):

The sad face of candy over-consumption:

Friday, October 17, 2008

Pumpkins Have Ponytails (and other thoughts)

I wish I had written down all the clever little associations the girls have come up with since they began speaking. Children don't have the language to describe much of what they are witnessing around them, so they make associations based on what they do know. For example, whenever something stops working, Clara says something like, "Daddy! The TV is crickets!" "Crickets?" "Yeah, crickets." I don't know where she got it, but her description of that quiet time when something is supposed to be happening, but is not, is the same as on television and in the movies. Crickets. If she has a cold and can't breathe through her nose she says, "my nose is crickets."

On the walk home from school today with her friend Nate, Clara saw a skeleton.
Clara: Look Nate, man bones!
Me: We call that a skeleton.
Clara (ignoring me and talking to Nate): I meant skeleton.

Two weeks ago, very matter-of-factly:
Clara: Daddy, pumpkins have ponytails.
Me: Is that what those things on top are called?
Clara: Yep

At dinner recently:
Clara: Zoobooschloop wawa
Megan: What the heck was that?
Clara: It was French

While eating pizza:
Kate: I'm eating beroni.
Me: Beroni?
Kate: Yeah, beroni.
Me: Oh, that's pepperoni.
Kate: Let's call it beroni.
Me: OK.

But with their language developing, at least once a day one of them will say something that amazes me. Today I was trying - and failing - to put a headband on Clara.
Me: I'm sorry, sweetie. I'm struggling.
Clara: Struggling means something frustrated.
I must have given her that "I'm so proud of you" look because she got bashful and snuggled up against me.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

The Dude!

A few months ago Clara shouted from the back seat of the car, "That's that guy from Sesame Street!" "Where?" I asked. "Right there!" I had to tip the rear view mirror to see where she was pointing, then looked in that direction, expecting to see Guy Smiley. Instead I saw this:

"Oh yeah. He is from Sesame Street." Great. My daughter, who wasn't four yet, was already associating commercials with the programs she saw them on. McCarthy is one of the biggest building companies in St. Louis, and sponsor Sesame Street here. Their commercial comes on before and after every episode. Every time we approached that same spot, the location of their headquarters, Clara wanted to see "that guy from Sesame Street."

Not long after, Megan and I were at a party with a friend who works for McCarthy, and conveyed our daughter's enthusiasm with his mascot. "You mean the dude?" he asked. The dude? "I don't know if everyone calls him that," he said, "but everyone in our office does." It turns out his kids love the dude as well.

The next time we drove past the headquarters, we explained to Clara that the Sesame Street man is actually called "the dude." Her eyes lit up, as if she learned a secret no one else knew. All the next month she asked if she could see "the dude." Then, on one outing, she noticed the dude on the top of a construction crane, then on the side of a construction trailer, then on a truck. "The dude, daddy! The dude!" It was as if the whole city was becoming a giant scavenger hunt, leaving images of the dude all over for her to find. If she sees a crane in the distance, she asks, "is that a dude crane?"

Then, this summer, while driving down I-80 in Sacramento, I pulled up behind a McCarthy truck. I didn't know they were in California, and Clara had yet to notice the truck. I counted down in my head: 5...4...3...2...1. Finally, from the back seat, "THE DUDE!!!!"

I "borrowed" that picture above from McCarthy's web site. The title of the picture file? "dude_home"

In our house at least, "the dude" no longer refers to the guy from The Big Lebowski.

Friday, September 05, 2008

What "Service" Means to Me

As I settled in to watch the first night of the Republican convention I saw hundreds waving signs with the word “Service,” and for a while I thought things had changed for the better. Here is what went through my head: Pundits had been saying that John McCain was going to try to appeal to the religious right. Many in the religious right, center, and left have over the past several years started to question the Republican Party’s commitment to fighting poverty and other social justice issues. In an attempt to connect his own military service, as well as the service of those who fight in Afghanistan and Iraq, with the community service that is necessary to fight poverty and injustice in the United States, McCain could package them both under the term “service” and be seen as a President who expects much from Americans, both overseas and at home. That is a message that would resound with people all over the political spectrum.

It didn’t take long to figure out that my thoughts were wishful thinking. The first part of the fantasy, the focus on military service, was rightfully used, though instead of having each speaker repeat the same story, I might have split McCain’s POW story into four or five parts, with each successive speaker telling a new chapter – it would have weaved a single narrative through all three nights of the convention and McCain could have ended it with himself as President of the United States. But the second part of the fantasy, “service” as community service, wasn’t even mentioned on the first night. On the second night I saw how wrong I was. Community service was not only absent from the Republican narrative, it was a punch line. Both Rudy Giuliani and Sarah Palin mocked Barack Obama’s years as a community organizer – to roaring applause and laughter. I sat there watching them both sneer at something that should be a virtue, and as I thought about the times that I had given of my time to help those in my community, I wondered how many who had done the same, religious or not, thought themselves the butt of the joke. I’m going to go out on the limb and say that is not the way to court religious voters.

“Service” to me has two meanings. My father served in Vietnam and returned to become a school teacher, fighting here in America for fair pay for teachers. My mother is a teacher for special needs children – she is one of the people that Sarah Palin praised early in her speech. My brother is a Sheriff’s Deputy, my sister is a nurse, and I was a high school teacher before deciding to stay home to raise my daughters. Service, to us, is service to country and community.

As a product of Jesuit education, I was taught that service was as vital a part of being a man or woman as knowing how to read or write. Two phrases, twin mottoes that adorn the walls of my memory, “For the Greater Glory of God” and “Men and Women for Others,” are so linked that I have a hard time believing the first can be achieved without the second. Community service was a part of each year’s curriculum, and we quickly learned why. Our eyes were opened to our world’s realities, not just the comforts of our friends and families. We could no longer hide behind that lie, that these impoverished “others” simply didn’t work as hard as our parents did.

I am not one of the many who have committed their lives to service. But I have, on many occasions, served food in inner city shelters, I have served the poorest of the poor in forgotten towns in Mexico, I have collected and distributed backpacks and school supplies to children, I have worked with special needs children and adults, and when the Mississippi River overflowed this year I hired a babysitter so I could go fill sandbags for my neighbors. My wife, the vice president of a company in Missouri, spends much of her time at our local Children’s Home, where staff and volunteers seek to make the lives of special needs children a little better. These people – and my mother – must have been confused at Sarah Palin’s speech. They were both praised and mocked.

Now none of this necessarily qualifies me, my wife, or those who work for the betterment of their community for President of the United States. But these people deserve better than the derision of those who seek to lead. They deserve respect, praise, and perhaps even the knowledge that their President has walked in their shoes for a year or three.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Hanging with the 4-year-old crowd

Last week Clara turned four years old. The way she acts now, you would think she just became an adult. "I don't need you to get me into the car, Daddy. I'm four years old." But sometimes she's just trying to work it: "Daddy, I don't need to eat my vegetables. I'm four years old."

The best part of the last week has been the time she's been spending with her group of friends. Whether they're spending so much time together because they're appreciating each other more or because the end of the summer is approaching, Clara hasn't gone two days in the past week without seeing her friends. Most of them know each other through either Clara's preschool class or an art class that Clara attended one day a week last year. Luckily, a couple of them have siblings Kate's age. "Lucy's my friend! Lucy's my age," Kate points out.

That picture up above is Clara and Alexis enjoying a birthday cupcake. We held a birthday pool party at our house. The kids acted like a flock of birds, following whichever kid happened to be deciding what to next at that moment. One minute they're all in the pool, then they're all at the playground, then they're all running in the yard, and then they're all back in the pool.

Dad presenting the birthday cupcakes:

Guess who got right in there with her plate?

We spent a morning in the Children's Garden at the Missouri Botanical Garden.

Then a morning at the zoo:

Can childhood get any better?

Thursday, August 14, 2008

How I spent my summer vacation, part 2

Continuing our jet-setting summer, the girls and I flew to Sacramento to visit Grandma, Uncle Chris, Auntie Tracy, and cousins Alex, Kyle, and Adam. We stayed for ten days, but it felt like far fewer as the cousins circled around each other in a constant tornado. I was able to do a ride-along with my brother, who is a Deputy Sheriff. Ask me about it, as some of the details are not appropriate for a friends and family blog.

Much of the time was spent making up for lost cuddle time:

When Chris and I were toddlers, our family camped with family friends in a place called Union Valley Reservoir, a lake past Placerville up highway 50. Now, almost 35 years later we took our children up to share the experience. The lake has a boulder you can swim out to and jump off. When the water was high, it was under water. When it was really low, you could walk out to it. As Chris and I got down to the beach this time, we were struck by how something that looked miles away when we were kids could actually be quite close to shore.

The girls loved their first camping trip, especially being able to get incredibly dirty. Kate was pigpen, and for some reason couldn't keep her shoes on, so her feet were caked with a layer of dirt. A few pictures:

Clara's first taste of s'more captured:

Kate didn't sleep much, so we get images like these:

After returning home, Grandma watched the girls so I could drive down to the Bay area to see Michelle's beautiful new baby in their new house. The visit was short, but even in a new house being around the Etters feels like home. Here's baby Ryan:

I drove up to the city and saw old friends from St. Ignatius, as well as John and Liz Regalia's little one Dominic:

Each time I visit San Francisco Megan fears I'll refuse to come home.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Suburban Jungle Warfare

We have a small garden with a half dozen tomato plants and some basil, rosemary, and peppers. It's taken me two years to figure out just how to plant them, stake them, and prune them to keep them healthy. The first year, the garden was part of the back yard, so I had a steady stream of visitors to the garden, including rabbits, squirrels, birds, and children. Last year my dad built a fence, keeping out the children, and we placed a plastic mesh over the top to keep out the birds. We had to abandon the mesh because the plants grew up through the mesh, creating a mess. This year, I created an inner fence of chicken wire that keeps the rabbits out and placed a plastic owl that seems to keep the birds away, but I've yet to solve the squirrel problem. They ignore the owl, don't care about the chili powder I've dusted, and are undeterred by the deer-away I've sprayed.

I have to admit, I think I'm going a little insane. One problem with being a stay-at-home dad is I get to see what goes on in my garden during the day. This year we have a bumper crop of tomatoes but because of our wacky weather, they've yet to turn red. Often I'll walk by the kitchen window and see a squirrel perched on the fence, feasting on one of my tomatoes. I used to be a calm man. Not anymore. If I see something eating my vegetables, I stop whatever I'm doing and run out there like a madman, sprinting towards the varmint to scare him away. Megan thinks it's quite funny.

I recently asked my dad to bring over his pellet gun. Now if any readers out there think it's horrible to shoot little creatures (as I once did,) don't worry, the squirrels are perfectly safe with me looking down the scope. Plus, they have to be there at a time when the girls aren't there to see what I'm doing. I actually got a shot at one yesterday. He was sitting on the fence having lunch on my dime. I quietly stepped out the back door, aimed, and fired. He calmly looked over his shoulder as if to say, "I wonder what that was."

I ask you, would it be overkill to buy some sort of infrared motion detecting laser defense system for my garden? I know I could buy a lifetime of tomatoes from the store for what it would cost me, but that's not really the point, is it?

(I walked over and checked for squirrels at least ten times while writing this. I need to go get a job.)

Sunday, July 20, 2008

How I spent my summer vacation, part 1

We just got back last night from a week near Charleston, South Carolina with Nana & Papa, Uncle Jim and Aunt Tracy, and, most importantly, their kids Davis and Elena. For an idea of what the week was like, I could just post this picture:

But I think I'll give a few more details... Click on any of the pictures for a larger view. Our condo was right on the beach, and we spent parts of each day on the beach or in the pool. Here's the view from the deck:

7 year old Davis was a champ. Here he was sharing his vacation with three squealing little girls and he acted like there was no place he'd rather be. Clara played too rough with Elena and Kate startled people by randomly shouting out things like, "DON'T EAT THE BEANS!" At dinner one night Kate couldn't get Elena's attention so she shouted down the table, "WHAT'S YOUR FAVORITE COLOR, ELENA?" Elena responded with her calm Minnie-Mouse-on-helium voice, "Pink." Satisfied, Kate turned back to her dinner, "OK." Milk almost shot out of my nose.

Davis wasn't stuck with little girls the whole time. He got to spend a guy day with his dad, Papa, and uncle at the USS Yorktown, an aircraft carrier at Patriot's Point near Charleston. What a great antidote for pink princess-y girlie buffoonery. A frickin aircraft carrier!

Here's Kate and Jim just before we boarded a carriage to ride around historic Charleston. Kate's hair and make-up guy can be seen rushing off in the background.

Porches like these are called Piazzas. This particular one is called the Ice Cream Piazza because the couple that owned it used to invite orphans to come have ice cream every Sunday during the Depression.

After our tour, Kate was a bit tired at lunch:

One of our attempts to get them all together for a group picture:

And though Clara didn't quite make it in the picture, this one is my favorite:

After that picture, we failed in our efforts to keep the kids out of the surf, and soon enough they were sopping wet, rolling around together in the crashing waves. It was probably only about 15 minutes total but all four of them wished it would last forever, and I'm sure they'll remember it that long.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Childhood Rite-of-Passage

We knew the day would come, but we were not prepared.

No amount of parental warning can truly educate a child to the dangers surrounding them. Sometimes the little one has to actually experience the touch of something hot, to knock over that lamp onto themselves, or to get their heads stuck between the slats of the dining room chair to realize that maybe they should rethink doing something like that again. And perhaps the constant warnings from us parents to slow down or you'll fall, to be careful with your milk cup, to hold the bannister on the stairs, or to stay away from the edge of the pool turns us from rational bestowers of wisdom to the adults in Charlie Brown: "Mwa mwa mwa mwa mwa. MWA! MWA!" But it only takes one drop of the ice cream cone to realize that maybe you should hold it with two hands. Cry all you want about it - it's not like I didn't try to warn you.

Last night Clara did something that she may think twice about doing again. She stuck something up her nose.

About an hour past her bedtime, I heard a blood-curdling scream from upstairs, which could mean anything from her closet light wasn't on to she had lost a limb jumping from the top of her dresser. I was betting on the closet light. When I opened the door I saw her on her bed holding her nose.

Me: What's wrong?
Clara: My nose hurts!
Me: What happened?
Clara: There's something in there!
Me: Do you need to blow your nose?
Clara: No.
Me: Clara, did you put something in your nose?
Clara: Uh-huh.
Me: What did you put in your nose?
Clara: I can't know

I grabbed a flashlight and some tweezers but couldn't see anything up in there - and no, exploring the depths of my daughter's nostrils no longer seems even a little bit gross to me any more. I was convinced there wasn't anything in there, but I took Clara downstairs to get Megan's second opinion. She couldn't see anything either, but did find that one spot high on Clara's nose was quite tender. Clara blew her nose several time but nothing substantial came out.

Megan: Clara, did you really put something in your nose or is that just a story?
Clara: I really did.

Megan believed her but I wasn't convinced. We've always called her "an unreliable witness" and I didn't want to turn this into an ER visit unless we were sure. A bit more nose blowing revealed a little blood, and I was coming around to the idea that something was up there. As we stood there debating the options, Clara blew her nose one more time and something came out: a small plastic screw, which could have fallen out of a toy or a piece of furniture. It was a smaller one of these:

Megan: Oh sweetie, do you feel better?
Clara: Yeah!
Me: Now you never put anything in your nose, OK?

Mwa mwa mwa mwa mwa, mwa? - But maybe it hurt just enough to stop her from doing it again.
(No, that's not Clara's x-ray up there.)

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Happy, Happy Weekend

After a weekend of visitors and celebrations, Clara and Kate have been happy to play quietly inside on this rainy morning. Five days of visitors and guests can tucker out little girls. My dad stayed for a couple of days and joined us and a dozen friends at the Webster Groves 4th of July parade, the height of Americana. I'm not sure what the girls enjoyed more, the parade or sharing their toys and pool with the other kids. Pictures below. Some of Megan's family, including her aunt who flew in from California, spent Saturday with us. Sunday and Monday were spent with my cousin Shauna, who came down from Chicago.