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Friday, July 15, 2011

Of Dishes and Death

We are not very good at doing the dishes in my home. I suppose there are others with the same problem, but if you don’t have ten people in the household you don’t really have the same problem. It just takes one meal to have lots of dishes stacked on the counters. After one day there are piles of dishes. After a week the situation in the kitchen is precarious. You can be sitting in the other room and hear things in the kitchen shift and slide all by themselves. I had to dig my six-year-old son out once after a particularly nasty shift. He was just trying to get a drink of water. Okay, that would be an exaggeration—actually he could have gotten out by himself.

This “dishes” situation gets old very quickly, but the solution is a difficult one. The obvious answer is that somebody needs to do them. But who has the strength and stamina to do the dishes for ten people day after day after day? Solutions I tried were: 

  1. Pay. I tried to bribe the children with money to wash the dishes, but the children quickly discovered that the amount I could afford to pay just didn’t’ make it worth it.
  2. Punish. I made dish assignments with consequences, but I soon found out that there were no consequences motivating enough short of physical violence to tackle the daily mountain of dishes. I can freely admit that physical violence is not a part of my parenting style so I failed again.
  3. Do the dishes myself. Out of desperation and disgust at the state of the kitchen I tried this, but there were just too many and it took too long. There was also the humiliation of my twelve-year-old bringing me a spoon back because it was “still dirty, dad.”  I tried what seem to me to be a hundred other ideas and all of them failed. I would always end up back at “just let them pile up because surely the family would tire of having to hunt for a fork and plate to wash before each meal in order to eat.” They didn’t get tired of it. Oh, they didn’t like it, but it was easier than washing a mountain of dishes each day.
  4. Death. I finally hit upon a solution—it involved death. No, the solution did not involve an animal sacrifice or the death of any family members; the deathly answer was in literature—the Abhorsen series of books by Garth Nix to be exact. I could not get the kids to tackle the dish problem on their own. I could not tackle the dish problem on my own. But if I was willing to get after the dishes myself I learned that the kids were willing to  help me. I also learned that if I had a good recorded book playing during the assault on the dishes it was much easier to get the kids in the kitchen and keep them there while we did dishes together.
What is Abhorsen you may ask? In this series of books an abhorsen is the person whose job it is to keep the dead out of life. My kids were quite taken by Sabriel who, at 16, finds herself the abhorsen and in a battle against Kerrigore, a power member of the greater dead. In Lirael the kids are enthralled by this 19 year old misfit who unwillingly discovers she is Abhorsen-in-waiting. She is joined by the magical and delightful Disreputable Dog and others in a battle for the salvation of the world against the necromancer Hedge and his army of dead.

The kids are mesmerized by the story and since we only listen to it while doing dishes they are quite willing to join the work. It won’t be long before we are finished with the third book in the trilogy. What will I do then? Bring on another book, of course. There are so many wonderful books out there. I know the next one already—Ella Enchanted. They have all heard that book, but they love it. And so we will continue to slay the dirty dishes with the help of the dead . . . er, literature.

Monday, May 30, 2011

The Last Wedgie

                I am the father of eight children. As their father I am their leader and a role model. I take this very seriously and desire nothing more than to set them on a path in life that will lead to productivity, healthy relationships, and happiness. In spite of the seriousness of my role as Father and Dad I sometimes fall short of the bar. When I do there are consequences.
                One of my great weaknesses as father is the wedgie. Yes, it is true. When underwear peaks above pant-line I have a nearly irresistible urge to grab and pull. To my credit I mostly do resist. That is the reason I am still allowed to abide among the civil. However, there are moments of weakness that threaten to dislodge me from my high position and bring an ignominious fall.

                About two years ago I was passing my six-year-old daughter in the family room. Glory is the cutest little girl with big brown eyes and a wide smile. Those of us who live with her, though, know that this cuteness is sometimes just a shallow disguise to her impish nature. I tell you this in my own defense to let you know that she is not a girly girl who is easily traumatized. She is the youngest of three daughters which means she gets a lot of hand-me-downs from her older sisters. On this day she was wearing hand-me-down underwear which apparently, from how much stuck out above her pants, was too big for her. Her attention was on a doll and her back to me as I passed. I didn’t think twice, although I should have—I grabbed and pulled. Even as I let go I knew I had done wrong. She turned and wordlessly gave me an icy glare as she made adjustments.

                “I’m sorry,” I mumbled, failing to find justification for my action, and walked off humiliated.

                The memory of this humiliation kept my behavior on the straight and narrow for two years. But as time can heal wounds, it can also cause forgetfulness. Recently I was sitting in my wingback chair watching movie on the TV. My six-year-old son was sitting on my lap. He is my youngest and last child and is as cute as a puppy. He is smart, too. He has learned to make good use of his position as youngest child and has grown wise in the use of manipulation.

                Story (as in “end of story” the last child) is a joy to have around. All of the older children adore him. He has childish, but knowing, perceptions that are always illuminating. He can quote from movies with the best of us and he can mimic what he sees with precision. He is a load of fun. On the darker side he is young enough where throwing crying fits is still acceptable. He seems aware of this and uses it to his advantage whenever it is in his advantage. It seems I am the only one who can see through these fits and that leaves me at a disadvantage. While I am glaring at him thinking “I know what you are up to!” everyone else is glaring at me “How can you be so hard?”

                Story had a bowl of cereal on an end-table that he was eating as he watched the show from my lap. He was in a good mood and had been all day so how was I to know better? As he leaned to get another spoonful of cereal I saw his “Cars” underwear sticking out above his pants. I did remember when I did this to Glory, but Story was a boy. It would be all right. I pulled. Story gave a little gulp as the effect of the wedgie hit him. He immediately began making adjustments as he looked up at me. There were no words spoken, but there was plenty of communication in our eyes. I saw him consider laughing. I saw him consider a minor complaint. Then I saw him see Mom over my shoulder at the kitchen counter and I began to fear. Mom is a staunch believer that wedgies are evil. Not only are they evil, they are dangerous. Story knew how she felt about wedgies and I saw him decide to let me have it.

                “Dang,” I thought.

                Tears welled up and he began to cry. He slid off my lap and ran to Mom. Even before he could say a word she asked, “What’s wrong?”

                “What’s wrong is that he is about to execute revenge upon me by manipulating you,” I thought miserably wondering when I would ever learn.

                “You gave Story a wedgie,” she yelled incredulously. “Don’t you know how dangerous that is?”

                “It isn’t dangerous,” I said, stating a truth that should be clear to everyone. I mean, it certainly isn’t nice, but it isn’t dangerous.

                “You know how sore his little bottom is,” she said. I knew that Story had suffered from diaper rash and occasionally a sore bottom like the rest of my children, but this hadn’t happened in years.

                “His bottom isn’t sore,” I said.

                “It hurts,” he cried, big tears rolling down his cheeks.

                “I can’t believe you do these things,” my wife said.

                I was a little angry now at all the fuss. “There is nothing wrong with a wedgie!” I said. “Other than they are annoying.” I saw Glory, now eight-years-old, come into the kitchen to observer the fracas.

                “Come here, Glory,” I said. “It’s time for your yearly wedgie.” In my attempt at self-defense I had turned to defiance. I didn’t want to give her a wedgie, but I had to show my disdain at the idea of wedgies being dangerous. To my daughter’s credit she shook her head.

                “Girls can get yeast infections from wedgies,” my wife said. Glory nodded vigorously in agreement.

                I doubted this, but what does a guy know about yeast infections.

                “Now you take Story and put some Vaseline on his bottom,” my wife said.

                “What?” I asked. Story had had no problems with his bottom in years and suddenly, because I had given him a wedgie he was wounded? I looked at Story wondering if this sounded like a good thing to him. There was triumph in his eyes behind the tears, but also doubt as to what the prize was to be.

                “I’m not going to put Vaseline on his bottom,” I said with as much authority as I could, but the fact that I had given a wedgie had weakened my position considerably.

                Story, with a little less enthusiasm, came over and took my hand to take me to the bathroom where the Vaseline was. Even at six-years-old he knew that to back out now would undermine his power. In the bathroom we couldn’t find the Vaseline. We could have looked harder, but now, out of Mom’s view, he figured I had had enough. I could sense the case was not quite closed and that he might try harder to find that Vaseline yet.

                “Look,” I said. “Why don’t you give me a wedgie and we can call it even.” He was still snuffling as he thought about this and decided this sounded fair. I screamed appropriately as he grabbed my underwear and pulled. His snuffling changed to giggling and we walked out friends again. Luckily his mother didn’t ask for proof of the Vaseline therapy. I still believe that wedgies are not dangerous, but in any case that was the last wedgie I will ever give.


Sunday, April 24, 2011

Keeping Journals for My Children

                I have kept a journal ever since I was ten-years-old. I don’t why I started doing it, but I know why I continue to do it now. Our lives are stories. If our stories don’t remain after our lives have ended then it is almost as if we never lived at all. When I think of the millions and millions of people who have lived and died—and I have to use my imagination here—of whom there is no record I feel a great injustice has been done. I keep a journal not really thinking about someone in the future reading about me, but because I don’t want to forget my own life. I have noticed that my eighty-year-old father tells me the same stories over and over again. I know that there is so much more to his life than what he is telling me, but he can only tell the parts he remembers. I know this will happen to me (it already has happened) if I don’t keep a record.

                A major part of my life are the lives of my children. Three of my eight children are already grown and out of the home. I have five others between the ages of fourteen and six still at home. When I look at my eight-year-old and then look at one of my grown sons I realize that I cannot remember him at that age. It takes a lot of energy to bring up an image of my oldest son was a child. I can turn to a photograph, but even then I can’t remember the details of his childhood. What a tragedy to lose his childhood, and all it meant to me, except for some pictures and a few faded memories. Fortunately, I didn’t lose my sons’ childhood.
                When my oldest son was two-years-old I realized that I was going to forget all the little, seemingly mundane things that made up my life with him. I didn’t want to forget these little things that brought me so much joy, so I started keeping a journal for my son. This wasn’t a stretch for me since I always wrote in my journal every week anyway. After I got done with my journal I would write an entry in my son’s journal. These entries are pretty much just short letters to him describing something—anything—that was happening in our lives. I’m not pretending that you will be interesting in my son’s life, but here is an example of what I would write:

October 7, 1990

You talk a lot more now.  You repeat everything we say with some accuracy.  I love to listen to you talk.  It isn't always easy to understand you.  Sometimes I have to ask Mom what it is that you said.  Between the two of us we can usually figure out what it is you are saying.  The other morning you woke up and came in to me with a little plastic bag.  You said, "Look daddy. Stuff in it.  See, crayons."  Right now you are saying, "Need shower.  Need shower.  Need shower Daddy."  You like to take showers with me.  I will get in first, and then you will crawl in and sit on my feet with your back against my shins.  When I get out of the shower I will usually turn the shower off, but continue to fill the tub.  You like this because then you can play. 

You have finally learned how to ride your tricycle properly.  You used to push it around with your feet because you couldn't reach the peddles.  Now you can reach the peddles and you peddle all around the apartment complex.  It is fun to watch you. 

You like to sing.  We play tapes for you each night when you get in bed.  Some of the tapes are of primary songs and you are learning how to sing them.  The one you sing right now is Jesus wants me for a Sunbeam.  You get a lot of the words right, but they are not in the right order.  You are great to have around.     

                You see, these are just mundane things I have recorded, but things that are meaningful to me. I do not have an active memory of these things now, but since I wrote them when they happened I trust them and it makes me feel so good to read them. This boy is married now and moving on with his life.

                Of course when my second son came along I started a journal for him also. Then my third son. Finally I have eight children and keeping a journal for each of them keeps me busy. Actually it isn’t that hard. I don’t write in their journal’s every week, and when I do the entries are often just a paragraph or two. But in those paragraphs I make sure I write something that I know I will forget in the future.

                For my oldest son’s wedding gift I presented him with a printed and bound copy of “his” journal. It consisted of nearly two-hundred single spaced pages of letters from me describing his life as he grew up. But not only does it describe him, it describes his father and their relationship as they grew together. It definitely takes time and energy to keep a journal for each of my children, but I can’t imagine what else I could have done with the time I spent making those journal entries that would be of greater worth to me today.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

How Computer Games Have Strengthened My Family

Back in the 70’s (yes, I was a teenager in the 70’s!) my family came into possession of an Atari 64 Game system. I spent many hours in front of the TV trying to beat my brothers or friends at “Pong.” You remember “Pong?” The ball goes one way with a beep and then with a boop it goes back the other way. I found that great fun. At that time I had no idea what was in the future of computer gaming. For those of you who haven’t kept up with computer games these games have become extravagant compared to the games of the 70’s. Some are visual and storytelling masterpieces like “Mass Effect.” Some are just pure simplicity and fun such as “Mario.” Others are dark and violent like “Grand Theft Auto.” Others are down-right addictive such as “World of Warcraft.” While there are some games I would not allow in my home, with a family of eight children and six computers I have learned to take advantage of computer games to bolster my relationship with my children.

     When my oldest children were very young they gathered around me when I fired up a computer game. They just watched as I played. The original “Alone in the Dark” scared us all. I can still hear my two oldest boys yelling, “Turn off the music! Turn off the music!” because it was so creepy. Eventually the “Kings Quest” series came out and my boys were old enough to take the controls. This series took them on adventures in imaginary lands with a strange, engaging cast of characters. They had to make decisions and solve puzzles. I’ve never been much of a puzzle solver and found myself just watching as the son on my lap solved the puzzles. I helped make the decisions. Together we had fun.

     As we moved into the 90’s “Doom” came out. This game changed the gaming world and our lives. “Doom” was a network multiplayer game. You could actually see your game-mates in the virtual world of the game. When playing together we could play a deathmatch where we hunt each other down and shoot each other with shotguns, rocket launchers, or ye olde crowbar. Yes this sounds violent, but it was pretty much the same as playing army like I did when I was a kid. On the other hand we could play cooperatively also. We would meet in the virtual world and work together to destroy the mutant aliens that sought our destruction. We would cover one another or lead one who was low on health back to where we last saw a first aid kit (more health). We had hours of fun and still talk about the “days of doom” today.

     My oldest son was quite captured by “Starcraft.” It not only has a fascinating single-player storyline, it has a huge competitive side to it. In Korea there are professional Starcraft players who make over $100,000 a year (no exaggeration) competing at Starcraft. My son would download the replays of these competitions and I would watch them with him while he explained the strategies and mistakes in the match. Now married and in college he no longer has time for Starcraft, but we will always have those enjoyable hours spent together excitedly watching and discussing those competitions.

     My second son discovered the “Final Fantasy” series of games. This game takes a player on a long journey. The journey is so long that it takes a lot of commitment to finish. The commitment comes easy for most because the art is beautiful, the characters  full and engaging, and the storyline enchanting. After playing Final Fantasy by himself he suggested playing it again as a family. Once or twice a week we would sit down as a family and enter that magical world. As new characters were introduced we were able to tag them with our family names. The names appeared on screen and the kids loved it. Playing an hour or two a week it took a few months to finish the adventure, but it is an experience we will never forget.

     In a busy, fast-paced world like today any activity can come between a child and his parents including computer games. I have learned that by becoming sincerely involved in what my kids are interested in the activities actually bring us closer together. I haven’t actually played a computer game in years and yet by taking the time to ask questions, listen to their explanations, and even sit down and watch as they show me the games my relationship with my children grows and my life is enriched.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Joy of Reading

The magazines and newspapers are filled with statistics how reading to your children has a very strong positive effect on their lives. They tend to grow up valuing reading more and they tend to be more curious and more anxious to learn.  I read to my children. I started reading to them long before I heard these statistics. It never occurred to me to read to my children because it would make them smarter. I read to my children simply because it was fun!
Many of the books I read to them are books I read as a child. What a joy it is to have the opportunity to read these books again with the new eyes of my children. I was almost giddy when I brought home “A Wrinkle in Time.” I still have images in my mind from that book from my first reading nearly 40 years ago.  But not all the books I read to them have I read before. For some reason I ended up with a copy of “The Fellowship of the Ring” from the “Lord of the Ring” series and started reading it to my then six year old son. My four-year-old son listened in although he usually fell asleep. What a wonderful experience we had traveling together through Middle-Earth. I discovered my four-year-old was listening when one day I heard him say “my precious” while he was playing by himself in the living room.
My three sons are grown, now, and out of the home. But I have the five younger children and am getting to read them all my favorite books all over again. At the same time we are discovering new books and experiencing them for the first time together. The “Abhorsen” series had us staying up late for several weeks. “Saffy’s Angel” and the follow up books on the Casson family charmed us. We grew closer as a family with “Homecoming” and the other books involving the Tillerman family. Of course we thoroughly enjoyed the Harry Potter series. We read the “Golden Compass” series long before the hubaloo about the movie came about. Reading out-loud to my family had created some of the best memories I have.
Currently I am reading three different books with three different children. With my ten-year-old son I am reading “The Secret Garden.” It is a classic written long ago. Its power remains and my son is enthralled with the images of sickly Mary, the moor, the long corridors, and, of course, the secret garden. My twelve-year-old daughter and I are reading “River Secrets” by Shannon Hale. We’ve already been through “Goose Girl” and “Enna Burning.” My seven-year-old daughter and I are traveling through the enchanted, but dangerous, world of “Fablehaven.”
It takes time to read so many books at once. I can’t read to each child every night. Our house is not a clockwork house and so there is never a set pattern to the schedule. I end up reading to whoever is still awake and ready to be read to when my other evening activities have ended. Tonight it was my ten-year-old and “The Secret Garden.” Mary Quite Contrary is finally getting a bit healthier from playing in the cold moor air outside. For the first time she found an appetite and ate all her porridge. Amid the “wuthrin’” of the wind she heard a cry from down the hall. I can’t wait for the next chapter.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Of Teeth and Tears

                The tooth fairy has been the source of a lot of fun in my home. With eight children many teeth have been lost over the years and we are still losing them. Losing a tooth in this home pretty much follows the same patter.
                “Dad, I have a loose tooth. See!” The child opens his mouth and pushes a tooth forward with his tongue.
                I cringe, because it looks painful to me, and then say, while making a fist in front of their face, “I can help you get that tooth out.”
                “No thanks,” he answers without much worry. I’m not a very scary father. Actually, my making a fist is a kind of joke among the children because they know that I can’t stand the sight of blood. My two attempts at pulling teeth in the past with my finger and a string ended in miserable failure. The stories have been passed down from my older children to my younger children and is still a joke. No, all of the teeth that have been lost in this home have been of the “do-it-yourself” variety. It is always a relief to me to have a child excitedly run in to show me the tooth that is in their hand and the bloody spot where it had been in their mouth—and I didn’t have to do a thing.
                The child will put the tooth in a little ceramic “tooth” container on top of the piano. Then the “wait” begins. The tooth fairy never comes the first night. He might not come the second night. In fact he might not come for three weeks. I think that is the record. When my kids remind me that the tooth fairy hasn’t come I will consult the “tooth fairy blog” (you may have trouble finding that blog) to learn where he has been. He might have gotten caught in hurricane in Mexico. It might be that he was over in Russia at the time of the tooth loss and it just takes time to work his way this direction. Once he was on vacation (even fairies need a break). His GPS has been known to go out and it takes a bit to get repaired.
                Eventually the tooth fairy does arrive. This is usually about the time my child’s patience is running thin. My wife will quietly come out one morning before the kids have arisen and ask, “Has the tooth fairy come yet?” With that little prod I will hurry over to the tooth holder and find that, yes, indeed, the tooth fairy has finally arrived. My child will come and excitedly show me the loot while at the same time giving me the “it’s about time” look.
                Recently my ten-year-old son had been waiting for an especially long time for the tooth fairy to arrive. The big snows on the East Coast had really messed up his schedule. Checking the tooth holder became a daily ritual with him. He would be full of anticipation on his way to the piano and then resigned to the quirkiness of the tooth fairy schedule as he walked away empty handed.
                On the morning the tooth fairy finally arrived my son had not kept his scheduled visit with the tooth holder. His seven-year-old sister, even though it was not her tooth in the holder, was not so remiss. She checked and found the tooth had been replaced by a dollar and immediately ran and told her big brother. Instead of being excited at the news he puzzled us by breaking into tears and running to his room. This son has a record of being a little moody and everyone just rolled their eyes at his behavior. I had inkling that there was something more to his behavior than usual. Could it be that he was unhappy that his long wait had only produced a dollar? I didn’t think it was that because greed and ungraciousness has never been his style. I learned that it was the amount of money at all. It was the disappointment that he hadn’t discovered the exciting arrival of the tooth fairy himself.
                When I told others the reason for his behavior they just rolled their eyes again and thought that he shouldn’t be such a baby. I had to agree that he was acting like a baby, but on the other hand  I could  understand his bitter disappointment. Each morning he had had the delightful anticipation of checking the tooth holder. He knew that on one of these mornings his anticipation would be rewarded with the prize. As the days went on the anticipation of that moment grew. Finally, just when the moment the anticipation was to be rewarded his little sister had let the air out of his balloon with her untimely information. She had basically told him the ending of the mystery he was only half-way through reading. She was the cold-sore on the lip of his girlfriend who he was going to kiss for the first time. She was the one who used up the hot water right before his shower.
                This son will have to grow up and learn to handle disappointment better. There are unpleasant places I can go in my mind where the residue of memories of disappointments in my life remain. I wish I had the right to cry about each and every one of them, but as an adult I no longer have the right. This son is still young. He still has the right so I let him cry it out and pretended he was also crying for me.