Parenting Tips

Bok Choy Bad Boy

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I sautéed up some bok choy for my family’s dinner the other night.  In fact, I fried up and doled out that nutritionally-dense Chinese cabbage on two consecutive nights.  Two nights in a row. One after the other.  I talk Bok Choy.  I talk Bok Choy real good, apparently.

How did it come to this?

I did not spring from back-to-back sautéed bok choy stock.  When I was born, my parents and I were living in a trailer park in Central New York. (Yes, I said “Central.”  To me, the “Upstate”  moniker requires a considerable jaunt north along I-81, preferably in a blizzard and under whiteout conditions.)   Growing up in Syracuse, my parents insisted that we eat healthy, but I don’t recall any gourmet shopping trips to any particularly ethnic locales around town.  I’m not sure there were any ethnic locales.  Unless one considers Irish pubs and Italian pizzerias as qualifiers.  And there was nothing exotic about the powdered milk we frugally stockpiled, my boyhood friends’ mumbled complaints to the contrary notwithstanding.  High school introduced me to the wonders of Hungry Man dinners.  I gladly overlooked the always-frozen centers of the turkey portion in order to make my way to the gooey peach cobbler.  At least I think it was peach cobbler. 

In undergrad, one of my freshman roommates, David, arguably enlightened me regarding high cuisine, I suppose. He brought a plug-in hot pot tastefully emblazoned with the words, “Le Pot Chaud.”  (It’s French, you see?) Though in retrospect, the hot pot sparked when introduced to the electrical outlet, dimmed our lights as if an atomic bomb had just hit the power grid, and seemed to churn out only Oodles of Noodles.  Not to mention, the Oodles of Noodles never made it to the fully-cooked state.  Al dente, at best.  (Italian, see?)

In law school, one of my first dates with my future wife (maybe even our actual first date) brought out my inner Julia Child. But the homemade meal was hardly coq au vin (French again, but most assuredly not included in my starving student vernacular).  Instead, I made…catfish. And I think I cooked it in a beat up toaster oven purchased at a garage sale.  And I had a helluva time peeling the dried-out fish from the “well-seasoned” aluminum foil tray with a rarely washed plastic spatula prone to (minor) incidents of melting before my fresh faced date arrived. Honestly, it’s a miracle that a second date ever happened.  In fact, there’s a decent chance that I’ll be served with divorce papers tonight, once my wife reads this paragraph and relives the traumatic episode. Bottomfeeders:  The fish and the cook. 

So how is it that I now prance around a spice rack making mental notes about the need to replace the cumin with an organic strain? And swap out coconut aminos for soy sauce?  Coconut. Aminos.  What?  Wasn’t that the stuff that triggered the steroid era in Major League Baseball? And why am I now finding myself buying only a certain kind of salt mix — insisting on the kind with shreds of fennel in a small brown bag with a red javelina drawn on the outside?

Perhaps more to the point, why do I feel the need to counterbalance all this with odd, Delta Force poses struck next to a 7-foot Star Wars villain? Hey, I can still be a bad man. Someone not to be trifled with.  A guy who won’t tolerate sustained eye contact on the street.  A dude in cahoots with some heavy intergalactic muscle, too, evidently. I can be both, right?

Well, that’s enough existential angst for now.  I’ve gotta run and plan my dinner recipe for tonight. These red peppers aren’t going to stuff themselves.

Thanks for reading.  

I (Allegedly) Cheated on my Wife.

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That's the gist of it this morning.  I don't feel like I cheated, though I have been roundly accused of same.  I have yet to admit the cheat.  The incriminating evidence is inconclusive, at best.  And there is no money in the budget for a forensic examination. So any alleged cheating will very likely remain unproven beyond a reasonable doubt for the foreseeable future.  

And yet, the suspicion lingers in the air.  

To be clear, the current dispute centers not around any sort of romantic liaison.  No.  Something far more serious, threatening the very underpinnings of our 25-year relationship:  Food.  My wife Hilary and I recently took the plunge on a new "diet." I put the word "diet" in quotes because it's not really a diet.  I italicized the word "diet" just now because I want to make sure you read the word "diet" with the intended emphasis and intonation.  This Whole30 thing is, to my mind, not a "diet" or a diet.  It's more about reprogramming your body over the course of 30 days by ruthlessly and mercilessly stripping away all the foods that you have come to love over the course of your entire life.  No cheese.  No pasta.  No Doritos. No croissants or Dunkin Donuts.  No cream in your coffee.  No hoppy beers.  No beers of any hoppiness, for that matter. No rice.  Etcetera, etcetera.  No etcetera, I bet, if I looked that up on the verboten list.  It's a rather spartan existence, the goal of which is ultimately to determine which foods are good for your particular body, and which are not.  And oh by the way, if one consumes a forbidden item along the way, even accidentally, one starts all over again. On Day One.  Back to zero. Thirty more days in solitary. 

Sounds simple enough, and it is if one follows the rules.  Still, without a doubt, it is a long slog.  Objectively, it totally sucks.

I committed to this same month-long program a year ago, and our kids are likely still scarred for life, dragged along for the tortuous ride as they were.  Riced cauliflower induces nightmares without fail.  The boys scratch their eyes out at the sight of sweet potato hash.  I am fairly convinced that my eldest has programmed our Alexa device to automatically dial Child Services if I paw at the insides of a spaghetti squash with a fork. And "zoodles" (deliberately in quotes rather than italics here) is a word that may not be spoken aloud within my sons' earshot.

Despite these atrocities visited upon my family at this time last year, the other day my wife rather casually offered to join me on a second belly-crawling trip through the desert.  We started about a week ago.  Turns out this thing is much easier when accompanied by another glutton for punishment.  ("Glutton" is of course exactly the wrong word here.  No gluttony involved, believe you me.)  We have both been doing great.  Keeping on the straight and narrow.  True believers.  Yes, evenings on the family room couch stir up painful yearnings, frequently spoken aloud, for just one Oreo or a single handful of Fritos.  But these yearnings are not acted upon.  

At least not intentionally acted upon. 

And now we arrive at the crux of it. Yesterday, I may (or may not) have cheated.  Apparently, whilst trying to stuff a commando Whole30-compliant grocery trip into the ten remaining minutes before a pediatrician appointment, I may (or may not) have committed a serious and unforgivable error. The familiar, oblong almond milk bottle I grabbed by the neck and shoved in my bag somehow lists "cane sugar" among the typed ingredients.  According to the Whole30 Gospel, this may as well be marked by a skull and crossbones. A screaming alarm should have sounded on Aisle One at Cal-Mart the moment my fingers made contact with the bottle. I should have been tackled by a cadre of jumpsuit-wearing security guards. With my wrists ziptied behind my back, my panicked pleas — " The font size is too damned small! I was in a hurry! The condensation on the bottle obscured that particular item on the list!" — fall on deaf ears. It doesn't matter; this is a strict liability crime.  Either you did it or you didn't. 

There is no question that the offending and totally illegal item ended up in my family's refrigerator.  Those two little terrifying words — canesugar — quietly and patiently ticking away like a time bomb. The question, the only question that matters, is whether or not I poured some of this radioactive material into my afternoon coffee.  I simply cannot recall, what with the whole coffee thing being such a rote and mindless daily task.  Frankly, if it were mischievously hidden in a container marked "Half 'n Half," I would numbly pour rat poison into my coffee.  And drink it without incident.  Probably do the same thing again the next day.

But again, my actual intention doesn't matter here.  There is no gray area.  Either I drank the cheating almond milk or I did not drink the cheating almond milk.  The former — my wife's favored theory — means I have to start all over again.  So I'm sticking with the latter.  But I don't know how much longer I can withstand this withering cross-examination from my Doritos-deprived partner. Wish me luck. 

And thanks for reading. 

 

 

 

16: Keep On Casting.

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Our first moment together: Sixteen years ago tonight (at 7:51 pm), I caught your slippery little 7.8-pound body with mine own hands, after several hours in totally uncharted territory.  I was terrified.  Shell-shocked from what goes down in these delivery rooms and what had just gone down in this delivery room. How have human beings done this sort of thing for tens of thousands of years?  I was also elated. The enormity of the moment was not lost on me. “Maxwell, we are so happy to meet you,” I croaked, choking back the new father tears streaking down my new father cheeks.  Your future moments — the coming night when I lay next to your bassinet confirming every new breath, and the coming years with everything else — spun through my mind.  All completely unknowable, more or less.  Cast the line out and see what happens. 

I’m still casting. 

How is it possible that you are now 16?  I am terrified all over again.  Not at the memory of changing, give or take, 6,000 soiled diapers.  Rather, at the prospect of not remembering in detail every single moment since the day you were born.  And the prospect of your many moments yet to come.  Increasingly, your moments are just that — your moments.  Not mine.  The fishing rod is planted firmly in your palms.  Not in mine. 

This summer you spent weeks in the Alaskan backcountry wilderness.  Stuffing and re-stuffing your wet and odiferous gear into your heavy backpack.  Mixing up lumpy fried rice and biscuits by campfire cooking stove.  Practicing drills to fjord streams and flummox grizzly bears. Rallying your fellow hikers during a frightening cold snap. Finding out more about who you are and who you might become.  Even today, I could not pinpoint on a map where your legs carried you.  These are your moments, not mine.  

In less than a month, you’ll head off to boarding school.  The once slippery 8-pounder now moving through your days in the general direction of adulthood.  Out of my sight, out of my hearing, beyond my touch. A distance further than I am capable of casting, in fact.  I’ve visited the campus, talked to the coaches, devoured the website and Instagram feeds.  We’ll set up a regular FaceTime schedule, to be promptly ignored.  You’ll likely text with curt requests for this unnecessary thing or that unnecessary thing.  So most of those texted requests, too,  will be promptly ignored. And your little brother may or may not set up shop in your newly-vacant bedroom at home (we have considerable work still to do with him and this whole fishing metaphor). 

And strangely, I’m OK with all of this.  You should be too. Your mom and I will, of course, always be here for you. Nothing could every change that.  Nothing.  And hopefully, we have helped shape you enough along the way such that you are pointed, more or less, in the right direction.  We’ll keep shaping, too; we are nowhere near done on that front. But for the most part, we are reduced to supporting roles.  Supporting roles in the moments that you experience.  You cast.  We watch.  No one can know what the future holds.  What lies just below the surface of White Pond’s still waters.  Every throw of your line opens up new moments. Your moments.  Just know that I’ve still got a small fishing net around here somewhere, just in case you need a little help hauling in. 

Happy 16th Birthday, son. 

And thanks for reading. 

Ride of the Valkyries

My father-in-law and I are locked in an unspoken battle. A battle for control of the kitchen's ambient aura. He, evidently, prefers library-like silence. I, evidently, need music. Any music, really. Audible, if only faintly, in every room. If I walk into a room completely devoid of music, I stop abruptly, bolt upright, ramrod straight, and recognize immediately that something is amiss. No music. I can't hear any music. Must. Have. Music.

On the counter of my father-in-law's kitchen there lies a clock radio. Early ancestor of the shouldered boom box and of the more recent, omnipresent Bluetooth portable speakers. Every summer I recruit the clock radio into the service of addressing my inability to tolerate a quiet room. I know the clock radio wants only to blink the time in blue green digits. Probably it has forgotten any other features. Likely no music has seeped from its speaker holes since I commandeered its control center a full year ago. Someone has slid the volume bar to zero, which always triggers a brief bout of confusion on my part. For a moment, I wonder in panic if perhaps, at long last, the music playing components have fried or fizzled. But I know my opponent's mind by now. I suspect the volume-to-zero saboteur silently (of course) hopes I will leave it at that, and not fiddle with the clock radio again this summer. I am finally defeated after years of waging kitchen counter clock radio battles, he figures.

Hardly.

Instead, I call to mind the "Apocalypse Now" scene of Robert Duvall's character storming a beach with a squadron of helicopters. blaring Wagner's best-known opera piece. The radio dial is more or less always stuck on a local classical music station. So the odds are pretty good that this particular, fright-inducing composition will blare suddenly and distortedly when I accidentally slide the volume bar all the way to eleven. I stomp across the beach with my Civil War era cavalry hat and yellowed ascot. Claiming the kitchen and its environs as my own. The battle decided in my favor, once and for all.

Until I return from a day at the beach or a trip to Dunkin Donuts to find the clock radio inexplicably mute. All evidence of my recent victory gone, as if I had never actually been victorious in the first place. The kitchen has apparently not been captured and secured, after all.

It is of course possible that I am imagining this musical war in my own mind. The wiring or radio tubes or whatever could just be shorting out. A carpenter ant could be raising his or her little family in the radio's innards, for all I know. But I don't think so. I think there is a real conflagration at play for several years now. Writing this sentence, I can hear nothing from the kitchen downstairs, though I am certain I depressed the "on" button less than an hour ago. My father-in-law may have won this battle. But I am resolved to win the war.

Thanks for reading.

(Not Quite) Ready for Takeoff, Batman

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This little fella is on his way. Actually, he has been on his way for quite some time. An object in continuous motion. From the moment we first laid eyes on him in the hospital room nearly 16 years ago.  Before then, really, since he was an active little bugger in his mother’s belly, as I recall.  To date, no matter how far he’s sprinted off, his little figure in the  distance was still perceptible to the human eye.  To my human eye. 

I feel that’s about to change.

We have had some test launches, to be sure.  Sleep-away summer camps during which Max would effectively hover on the dark side of the moon, incommunicado, for weeks at a time. A month-long sojourn to China — I still don’t have a firm grasp on the far-flung villages he visited; it all seemed so surreal.  The Terra Cotta Warrior statuette stands vigil on my bedside table, a subtle reminder as I sit here typing in my pajamas, that my firstborn has stood in places I can barely comprehend and likely will never see.  And it feels as though he is poised to do it again. Only this time, to me, feels different. 

We have twisted the dial two years into the future, more or less.  The dreaded thud of college-trunk-on-dormroom-floor will twist my innards two years earlier than they expected to be twisted. My boy is headed to boarding school in the fall. Two thousand nine hundred eighty four and four-tenths of a mile from home. I’ve had a couple months to mull this over. To conjure up the poignant, anticipated images in my mind’s eye, affording my head and heart an opportunity to process things. To try to make peace with it. I am forcing myself to get there, because this is the right thing for Max.

But I’m clearly not there yet.

This streak of consecutive nights I plod up the bedroom stairs to the living room couch?  I have been telling my wife, and myself, that the couch offers respite from the frequent snoring emanating from my bed and/or from the dog’s bed.  There is snoring, but that’s not what gnaws at me.  The bowls of cinnamon squares at 4 in the morning are not the result of low blood sugar or simple hunger. The obsessive Twitter newsfeed binges that settle me back to sleep just as the birds outside begin to wake do not stem from a need to stay abreast of breaking news.  

I am wrestling with what happens — what I know will happen — when a parent gives the greenlight for takeoff. 

I vividly recall watching my preschool, race-bibbed Batman pump his little legs down that short stretch of macadam. I guess I didn’t realize the nondescript strip of pavement was actually a runway. And that he would continue running right through the finish line tape. Off in the distance now, he’s nearly off the ground, feet barely in contact.  I can still see him if I squint, but just barely. And I need to get myself ready.  

Thanks for reading.  

The Monopolist in the Mirror


I pretty much despise board games. I think the genre is misspelled — “should be ‘bored’ games,” I’ve often smartassedly protested. Not at all sure from whence this aversion came. But an aversion, nonetheless, it most assuredly is. Bordering on a full-fledged phobia. Don’t tell me the DSM-IV sits conspicuously silent when it comes to Yahtzee-induced hyperventilation. I recognize a diagnosable malady when I feel one. 

So it was with considerable trepidation that I bellied up to the Monopoly board on our living room carpet last night, ill-advisedly consenting to a competition with my wife and my 11 year-old. Our Little League season had just come to a sudden end, my team losing in the championship game two days ago. So the after-dinner ruminations of the past several months — noodling over various lineup combinations and scanning spreadsheet data describing our opponents’ tendencies — have ceased to ruminate. (Yes, I realize these ruminations likely are covered by the DSM-IV.) 

My annual, post-playoffs, hazy funk left me vulnerable.  Head cocked to the side, drooling a bit, staring off into the distance. Lingering in this addled state, I numbly heard some faint murmurs about “playing a game” as the dinner table’s chairs were pushed back from the dinner table. I vaguely recall the click of the door that secures the closet bursting with boxes of anxiety-provoking “games.” And someone I think asked me if I wanted “the shoe or something else” as my game piece. My head swam a bit as I distractedly shouted from the kitchen, “I’ll take the guy with the top hat!” 

Everyone knows that there is no gamepiece guy with the top hat. Everyone except me, that is. That guy is the iconic, Robber Baron logo who graces the box cover. You can be a schnauzer or you can be a wheelbarrow. But evidently you can’t be the mustachioed industrialist who presumably is or was a constant presence in the local society pages. My wife and son, of course, knew this critical piece of information that I did not. And I have no doubt that, sitting crisscross applesauce in the other room from me, the two shared a knowing, conspiratorial look. If you walk into a room not knowing who the mark is, welp, you, sir, just might be the mark. 

The game did not go well for me. 

We played at an accelerated pace, due to an impending  and agreed upon bedtime. I had little time to ponder my moves before making them. And I exacerbated my poor decisions by going on a property and utility buying rampage. I also deliberately shouted “Yes!” with each roll of the die, knowing this distracting tactic was likely a breach of die-rolling etiquette. An attempt, in retrospect wholly unsuccessful, to mask my general ignorance and bitter disappointment with the piddling $6 “rent” promised by my just-purchased property. I enthusiastically shelled out $50, over and over again, to spring myself from Jail. Sporting a sweaty-faced maniacal grin, probably exactly as a genuine convict would do if given the opportunity to purchase his freedom for $50. 

If I was going to go down, I was going to do it loudly, with style, and following a game strategy so preposterous and wrong-headed that my adversaries would be confused. A little intimidated. Maybe a touch frightened. And with any luck, they would never invite me to join them again. I hope they learned their lesson. 

Thanks for reading. 

Excuse Me, Adonis


So I’ve been offline for some time. Well over two months have staggered on by, it appears, since I contributed anything new in these here parts. Not because the well has run dry, mind you. But because the well is full up. So many seismic and poignant events have transpired within my family over the past 60 days. Hospice bedside vigils, east coast boarding school enrollments, sudden and unexpected health scares. All of this has effectively paralyzed me, writing-wise. I fear I am not up to the task of articulating the enormity of these life-ending and life-changing developments. Perhaps some things are best left unremarked upon. At least in the context of this self-indulgent blog. So many complex thoughts swimming in my head begging to be unpacked and sorted out. I’m stuck. 

And then this morning, my 11 year-old snaps me out of my ink-slinging stupor. Subtly reminding me that even when the shit hits the fan — and perhaps especially when the shit hits the fan — a little levity can be a wonderful thing. 

In the course of our morning pre-work and pre-school ablutions, I teasingly asked my hairdryer-wielding wife, “Hey hon, what’s it like to be married to an Adonis?” I had just caught a glimpse of myself in the bathroom mirror. Thinning hair mussed and parted in the middle like a geriatric Alfalfa. Eyelids half-mast. Featuring boxer shorts that merited a toss in the hamper 3 days ago. 

Hilary showed mercy and more or less ignored my rhetorical query; Solidarity in our shared journey of 25 years now, both painfully aware that our collective and respective wheels have long since come off. 

Thankfully, my son Everett’s wheels remain intact. On his blue, electric flowboard. On the tiles of our bathroom floor. There are days when I suspect his actual feet might not make actual contact with the actual floor. Hovering unsettlingly in one room or another. At this moment when Hil and I struggle a bit to steel ourselves for another day, our motorized Everett says, “Excuse me, Adonis.” Then he rolls on by. 

With those three words, Ev reminded me that everything will be OK, even when things couldn’t seem further from OK. Even when you hold your mother-in-law’s warm hand during the last hours of her life. Even when you embrace your wife with a full body hug, over and over again, as she grapples with the loss of her mom. Even when you prepare to send your firstborn 3,000 miles away to a new school — fleeing the coop far earlier than you fear you can withstand. And even when your own parents’ recent health scares reinforce the inevitable but unwelcome specter of their mortality. Everything will be OK, Adonis. Excuse me. Get out of your own way, too, while you’re at it. And get back to finding reasons to laugh. 

Thank you, son. And thanks for reading. 

Love Stinks (Still Waters Are Bottomless)


My youngest keeps his cards close to his vest. Doesn’t wear his heart on his sleeve. Well, he is sporting a vest. So really, he doesn’t have any sleeves on which to paste his feelings. Especially what with clutching all those mysterious and unknowable cards to his chest. Everett isn’t one to share his emotions, is what I’m trying to say. His waters may be still, but they are bottomless. Wrong word choice. Strike that. Let’s go with “deep.” His waters are deep. They run deep. There, that’s better. 

Here’s how things transpired: I posed my plain vanilla afterschool standard, “How was your day, bud?” I fully expected the age -appropriate, totally opaque, “Oh, fine.” Instead, I get, “Well, someone I like found out they are someone I like.”

Oh shit. 

I found myself in uncharted territory. Woefully unprepared. I almost wish he had copped to selling smack in the 7-Eleven. Or robbing a Chevron station. Those scenarios seem easier to navigate than that of unrequited love: “Were you caught? Arrested? Let’s get you legal counsel immediately. Wait, are you wearing a wire?” 

That stuff is easy. But capital L capital O capital V capital E? Fuggedaboutit. 

I chose to keep my mouth shut.  Any wrong-headed words in this moment, no matter how well-intended, would surely doom my smitten 5th grader to a life devoid of meaningful attachments. Playing checkers on a park bench with strangers. Pigeons pecking at his feet. Paper-bagged bottle at his side. Emotionally alone. All because his dipshit dad gave the wrong advice at that critical moment: 4:05 pm PST on March 23, 2017. 

The pressure. I bit both of my lips together with both rows of my teeth. Hard enough to leave a mark. The sound of my heartbeat pulsing in my skull. All my energy focused on trying to come up with something useful and important and encouraging and fatherly. Covering up my rising panic with my go-to: slow nodding of my head with a slight, all-knowing squint of my eyes.  Like I’ve seen in the movies. 

“Was it “Livy??,'” I heard someone say.  I froze and held my breath, suddenly realizing that “someone” was me. That incredibly dumb question — dare I say, the worst possible question — was mine. My intrigue regarding the identity of his little heart’s desire overwhelmed my apparently weaker instinct to embrace his little heart. (Note to readers: For what it’s worth, “Livy” is not the real girl’s name here. At least I don’t think so.) 

My faux pas was ignored or instantly forgiven or perhaps catalogued for later, added to the long list of “Dumb Things Dad Said.” Ev soldiered on in the face of my ineptitude, explaining that he had even gotten into a scrap with a classmate whom “Livy” apparently preferred to my second born son. A little physical altercation. I must admit, my spirits brightened for a moment. A fistfight fell well within my smack-selling/gas station-robbing fatherly advice wheelhouse! Now we got ourselves somethin’ to discuss! 

But the moment passed. We were, I realized, firmly ensconced in matters of the heart. Well above my pay grade. Beyond my ken. (Note to readers: For what it’s worth, “ken” isn’t a real person in this particular situation. At least I don’t think so.)

Fortunately for me, a mad dash to Little League practice interrupted our discussion. And bought me some time during which I could (and did) plumb the depths of my better half’s encyclopedic emotional playbook. I will spend the rest of the day now preparing an elaborate Decison Tree. Ready to dispense perfect advice to my heartsick 11 year-old at 4:05 pm PST today.  I only hope he hasn’t put his vest back on by then. Wish me luck. 

And thanks for reading.