Posted by: laughs4dads | December 17, 2010

The Talent Show

My, wife, Barbara, used to be an art director, and I’m a writer. So when Casey was a toddler, we both watched very carefully to see which talent Casey displayed.

We assumed it would be one or the other, and not something totally out of left field, like prodigious math abilities.

And sure enough, from an early age, she seemed to really like drawing, although she didn’t show a preference for any particular medium or, for that matter, drawing surface.  She would happily use markers, crayons, pen or chalk to sketch on paper, slates, magazines, walls, furniture or herself.  She certainly seemed to be concentrating while she was doing it, taking great pains in color selection and getting little furrows in her little brow.  And although her finished pieces looked like a dog happened to walk across the paper with crayons attached to its paws, Barbara was quite pleased with Casey’s apparent artistic bent.

On the other hand, I took her numerous recitals of the alphabet to indicate an early fondness of words that would lead to a future as a writer, or, at least, someone with good penmanship.  I just knew that, soon, she’d be arranging those individual letters to form words and turning those words into sentences, and the sentences into paragraphs, and the paragraphs into great stream-of-consciousness literature or maybe a few Harlequin Romances. (How was I to know that by the time Casey reached adulthood, people would be communicating solely in 140-character bursts.)

However, being good parents, we did not restrict Casey’s endeavors to art and writing.  We got her a piano, a guitar and a set of drums, although the last item was actually furniture that Casey used as percussion intruments. It appeared, though, as if Casey was following in her parents’ footsteps in having no musical ability whatsoever.  She not only sang horribly off-key, but her piano accompaniment was equally off-key, although it was not by any means off the same key.  Of course, Casey’s tone-deafness might have been a learned handicap, since she was usually singing along with Barb or me, and we sing off-key. And, in fact, as soon as she got away from us for a summer of sleep-away camp, she developed into a serviceable guitarist with a decent singing voice.

These days, parents are always trying to broaden their kids’ horizons, shuttling them to ballet class and karate and acting classes and language classes and soccer practice. And it gets even worse when the kids are four years old.

And I guess there’s something to be said for sampling a little of everything. On the other hand, I think they’re just as likely to arrive at their true calling without directions from you.

Anyway, with the speed at which the world is changing, the vocation at which your child will excell probably doesn’t even exist yet.

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Posted by: laughs4dads | December 15, 2010

HOW TO: From Crib to Bed

In my last post, I wrote about how to get a baby to go to sleep in her crib.

However, there comes a time in the life of a child when she has to give up the comfort and familiar surroundings of a crib in favor of a new, unfamiliar bed.

The problem is that most parents have no idea of when exactly that time is.

And I am in no position to shed any light on that situation.

Rumor has it that the child herself signals her readiness for the big move by doing something dramatic like getting a concussion trying to climb out of her crib.  Casey’s daredevil friend, Benjamin, did this, but then, Benjamin would try to climb out of anything, including a moving vehicle, if he was not restrained. He is now 24, and amazingly unscarred.

Casey, on the other hand, was more of the shy, retiring type.  Although she’s become a lot more adventurous as an adult, as a toddler she was a bit of a wimp when it came to trying new things.  The most dangerous thing she ever did at that age was balancing herself precariously on top of a wall in our condo development and walking the length of it.  I should point out, however, that even though Casey went through the motions of walking a tightrope, this wall was actually about four feet wide and only about four feet high, and one of her parents was always standing two inches away, making this endeavor about as dangerous as trying to balance yourself on a sidewalk.

Obviously, if we had waited for Casey to pull a stunt like breaking out of her crib, we might have found ourselves in the position of having to ship the crib to her college dormitory.

The ultimate deciding factor in getting Casey a bed was that we were planning to take Casey on vacation and wanted her to be able to sleep in a bed at the hotel.  This was something Barbara was dreading because she had taken Casey up to Boston to visit relatives and Casey had slept in a bed there.  The only problem was it was Barbara’s bed.  And Barbara was in it.  Casey spent the evening tucking Barbara in and kissing her good night.  Barb did not get much sleep.

So, anyway, one Saturday the entire family got in the car to buy Casey a bed.  Casey enjoyed this excursion immensely, as each store provided a maze of mattresses through which she could lead me in a spirited game of “Gotchu.”  (In this game, I would chase Casey.  Forever.  It was a hard game for me to play, since the idea was to chase her but not catch her, which was difficult to do, since Casey did not run very fast.  If you’ve ever tried to ride a bicycle at one mile per hour, you get the idea.)

We were already prepared for a case of “sticker shock” because some of our friends had recently bought beds for their kids and had spent over a thousand bucks plus the mattress.  These beds were intricate modular units that included desks and bureaus.  I didn’t think Casey needed a desk yet.  I figured the nursery school she was about to start was unlikely to give her much homework.  We settled on a simple turquoise headboard to accent Casey’s blue eyes.  The headboard and mattress and box spring cost about $600.

What I didn’t know was that Barb now intended to redecorate Casey’s room in turquoise to match the bed.  That would cost about $2,000.  There was, apparently, no cheap way out.

Until the bed was delivered, Barb and I carefully tried to build up some hype by telling Casey what a big girl she was and what a truly momentous occasion this was going to be.  Barb even invented a little fairy tale about Princess Casey and her new bed.  We thought we were being so smart.  We thought we had created an atmosphere in which Casey couldn’t wait to sleep in her new bed. We thought we were going about this so expertly that somebody might want to write about us in a child psychology journal. 

And, sure enough, a week later, Casey watched with fascination as the delivery men assembled the bed.  Then she hopped right in and made herself at home, all the while exclaiming “Casey’s bed” with true pride of ownership.  We played in her new bed.  We read stories in her new bed.  There was only one thing Casey wouldn’t do in her new bed.

You guessed it.

We did everything we could to make the transition as smooth as possible.  We moved all the stuffed animals she liked to sleep with and showed her how much they enjoyed sleeping in the new bed.  We moved her pillow and her blankets.  We offered to sleep with her.  Nevertheless, come bedtime, we couldn’t even get her to lay down in it, much less go to sleep.  “Crib,” she screamed.  “Sleep in crib.”

Okay.  We weren’t going to make this a traumatic experience.  We moved everything back to the crib and Casey went happily to sleep.  We’ll wait till she asks for the bed, we told ourselves.

So, every night, we said, “Casey, would you like to sleep in your bed tonight?”  And she’d say, “No. Crib.”

We tried to tell her how advantageous it would be for her to use the bed.  “If you sleep in a bed,” we’d tell her, “you can spend weekends at grandma’s house.”

“No,” Casey would reply.  “Crib.”

Then we tried to appeal to her eye for interior design.  We bought a nice new turquoise quilt.  “Pretty,” said Casey when Barb put it on the bed.  That night, we said, “Would you like to sleep in your bed with the pretty new blanket?”  And, to our shock, she nodded yes.  So Barb took her upstairs and I sat downstairs and counted down from ten.  Just when I got to zero I heard “NO!  CRIB!”

One night I heard Barbara fall into that old vicious cycle of parental double standards.  She began using Casey’s friends as examples.  “Jenna sleeps in her bed,” Barb told Casey.  “And Ben sleeps in his bed.”  I sat there imagining the conversation 10 years hence, when Casey would want to get a piercing. “But Jenna got her tongue pierced,” Casey would say. To which Barbara would reply, as mothers have always replied, “If Jenna jumped off a roof, would you jump off a roof, too?” (As it turns out, I don’t believe Jenna got piercings in any unusual places. I’m also pretty sure she never jumped off a roof.)

Well, I don’t know whether or not it was the result of implied peer pressure, but Barb finally got Casey to lie down in bed one night.  Then Barb sat next to her in the rocking chair to keep her company until she fell asleep. 

An hour later, it was my turn to sit next to her in the rocking chair until she fell asleep.  I sang a lullaby and stroked her hair.  I told her my version of “Princess Casey and Her New Bed.”  Meanwhile Casey became fascinated with the shadows her hands threw on the wall in the glow of the nightlight.  An hour and a half later, Casey was snoring.

She slept until about one in the morning, when she discovered that one advantage of the bed was that she no longer had to cry to get our attention.  She simply appeared at our bed like some sort of miniature ghost and whispered “Mommy.  Daddy.”  Barb put her into the crib; mommy wasn’t about to sit in the rocker for another hour. 

The next night, armed with a stuffed kitty cat grandma had given her, Casey again retired to her bed, and Barb sat on the floor near the door to her room.  This was to relieve Casey’s dependence on having us sit in the rocker, but it was less comfortable.  An hour later, I took my shift on the floor, and listened to Casey talk to Kitty Cat.  And Baby, the Gorilla.  And Elephant.  And Bear.  And Panda.  When Barb returned, she found us both asleep.  And this time Casey slept through the night.

We seemed to be making progress, but it was still not ideal.  For one thing, we’d be missing a lot of television if we were sitting with Casey until 10:00 (this was before TiVo).  Barb shared with me a new theory:  “Maybe it’s wrong to move her old animals into the bed,” she said.  “She associates them with the crib.  Maybe we need to get her all new bed animals to sleep with.”

I anticipated spending $100 or so on new stuffed animals, assuming, naturally, that none of the 479 stuffed animals that Casey had downstairs would do.  No, these animals would have to be brand new, with no prior associations. 

And they’d most likely be turquoise.

Let’s talk about the most enjoyable part of any day for any new parent.  Bedtime.

Of course, I’m not thinking here of your bedtime, although that is enjoyable.  It is not as enjoyable as it once was, however, because now it is something of a gamble.  As you go to sleep, you are saying to yourself, “What are the odds of the baby sleeping through the night?”

Ah, but baby’s bedtime, there’s something to look forward to.  The end, essentially, of another day and the start of a glorious, albeit brief, vacation.

There are many philosophies regarding the imposition of a bedtime.  Some experts say “When they’re tired, they’ll go to sleep.”  These experts are likely not to be parents themselves. Others say “When you’re tired, they’ll go to sleep.”  These experts are firmly in the “wishful thinking” school of parenting.

Barbara and I say make a schedule as soon as you can, maybe even while the kid is still in the womb, and stick to it.

“Ha!” you say, and then wonder why you are making loud utterances while you are reading a blog.  “Easier said than done.”

Well, actually, it was pretty easy.  Easier, at least, than, say, filling out a tax form.  The trick is not to treat bedtime as an isolated event.  Bedtime, you see, really begins at naptime.

Naptime is the bugaboo.  If you want your kid to go to sleep at 8:00 PM, it’s probably not a wise idea to have a 6:30 PM naptime.

Barbara enforced a 1:00 PM naptime.  Well, around one.  Okay, anytime between one and four.  They key was, at 4 o’clock, Casey got woken up, regardless of when she had gone to sleep.

Now perhaps your child doesn’t want to go to sleep at one.  Maybe she likes to watch all the judges on daytime TV.  Tough.  You have to make her go to sleep.  How?  Baby Nytol, of course.  No, no, just kidding.  There are other ways.  (On the other hand, if they can have Baby Tylenol and Baby Ambusol…)

What did we do?  Sometimes Barb would take Casey for a drive.  She’d drive around, looking at the expensive houses in our area and peeping into people’s swimming pools, until Casey fell asleep.  Then she’d come home, leave Casey in the car with the garage and the car windows open and the door from the garage to the house ajar so she could hear when Casey woke up.

This is probably not an option if you live in an apartment in a city.  I mean you can’t leave the baby in a car parked at curbside.  She might wake up when somebody breaks in to steal the radio.

But there is an alternative.  Someone we knew simply put her baby in the carseat and put the carseat on top of her washing machine.  With the machine turned on, the motion of a car is simulated, and the baby is fooled into dozing off.  Three warnings here: 

1. If you have a top-loading machine, be sure to close the lid, or your baby is likely to shrink.

2. If you live in an apartment building with a laundry room, bring plenty of quarters.

3. Do not, repeat, do not leave the baby at a Chinese laundry unless you want a stiff child with a missing belly button.

Okay, so, one way or another, the kid napped in the afternoon and woke up at four.  Now it’s bedtime.

There’s probably more advice written about bedtime than any other aspect of child-rearing.  I’m about to add to it.

Some experts tell you not to allow the baby to get attached to an object, like a blanket or a stuffed animal.  We ignored this.  In fact, Casey got attached to a blanket and a menagerie.  She’d go to sleep with her blankie and five or six stuffed animals including a little gorilla which, when she began talking, she named “Baby,” which made us worry about our future grandchildren.

Some experts also advise not to let the baby take a bottle to bed.  We ignored this, too.  We’d put Casey into the crib equipped with blankie, “Baby” and bottle, the three B’s.  However, she was always good about taking the bottle out of her mouth before she dozed off. You have to be careful it doesn’t stay in the mouth all night; it’s not good for their teeth, and it’s hard on the nipples.  

You may want to know why we ignored all the advice of experts.  Simple.  It was not important advice.  The important thing was that Casey go to bed when we wanted her to.  In exchange for that favor, we were perfectly willing to let her bring anything she wanted into bed with her, even if it was a baby boy. 

All this is not to imply that Casey quietly acquiesced to our desires.  We did not say to her: “Okay, honey, bedtime’s at eight, no exceptions.”  And she did not say: “Very good, mother and father.  As always, I will abide by your wishes.”

Not at all.  We simply put her in the crib and said goodnight.  And she simply cried.

One of the age old questions in parenting is “Do you let them cry or not?”  This, in fact, is question number two, right after “Why exactly did we want kids?”

I am told that up to three months or so, it is medically inadvisable to let them cry.  After that, the whole thing becomes psychological.  If you let them cry, do they think they have been deserted?  If you go in and hold them, do they get spoiled?

I believe in beginning life’s lessons early.  In life, if you get pulled over for speeding by a large, surly officer with mirrored sunglasses, crying won’t get you out of the ticket, unless you are an extremely attractive woman.  (This assumes, of course, that the large, surly officer with mirrored sunglasses is a man. Or maybe it doesn’t.)  If I am faced with an unreasonable client, I doubt crying would get me anywhere, although at times I’ve been tempted to try.  So it’s just as well that a six-month-old learn quickly that crying is not the answer.

I also strongly believe in Behavior Modification.  I think Pavlov did wonderful things with dogs, although I would hate to have been responsible for cleaning his carpets. My feeling is, if you respond to the crying, the kid learns that crying is a good way to get attention, hugs and caresses.  That never worked for me in singles bars; I didn’t see why it should work for my child.

On the other hand, it does sort of ruin your evening listening to your baby cry, especially if you’ve rented a movie on pay-per-view.  And besides, what if it’s not a plea for attention?  What if something is really wrong, like the baby’s head is caught in the “Sesame Street” mobile?

Well, Barb and I decided on a time limit approach.  If Casey wanted us badly enough to cry for twenty consecutive minutes (otherwise known as “An Eternity”), then she could have us.  This was not a strict rule; we could recognize various kinds of crying, and if we heard the one that said, in effect, “Help, there is a large reptile in my room,” we’d go up right away.  Usually, however, the cry was more like “I’m not quite ready to go to sleep yet, so I thought I’d annoy you.”  That was the one she’d have to keep up for twenty minutes.  Interestingly, it worked out that her stamina and our rule matched perfectly.  She seemed to be able to cry for about nineteen minutes and thirty seconds before petering out.

And then we had the single most valuable commodity of parenthood: Silence.

Nobody gets into this parenting thing without having some idea that life is going to change in some dramatic way, such as becoming virtually non-existent.

One of the biggest changes is the increased responsibility, and this is the change parents think they’re most prepared for.  “Oh, yes,” they say, “we’re really going to be grown-ups now.”  And they do all sorts of grown-up things, like having a will drawn up, and saving for college, and trying to fold up strollers to put them in the trunks of their cars.

Barb and I thought we were prepared, too.  But we weren’t ready for the biggest responsibility of all: Setting a good example.

It’s incredibly stressful to go about your day, knowing that your every move may become indelibly imprinted on the mind of a two-year old.  The pressure is unbearable.

We’d see Casey pushing her little vacuum cleaner like mommy did and using a sponge like mommy did and playing with the keys on the computer like daddy did.  Of course, daddy wasn’t playing with the keys; he was using them to write deep, insightful, meaningful prose.  But Casey couldn’t know that and, probably, neither would anybody that read it.

Here’s another example.  Casey liked to go into my closet and try on my ties.  Did that mean she was going to acquire my taste in clothes?  That was, indeed, a frightening thought.  She also took a special interest when I decided to grow a beard.  It was obvious she wanted one, too.  How do you explain to a two-year old that girls can’t grow beards, especially when you consider the appearance of some of our baby sitters?

We had to be so careful.  When somebody sneezed, Casey would say “Bless you.”  It was really cute.  So we had to remember to say “thank you.”  In the real world, of course, adults are not that polite.  One may wonder whether it was us teaching Casey how to behave or the other way around.

Meanwhile, here’s this little human being that’s actually more like a lump of clay.  We could mold her the way we wanted.  Did we want to chisel specific values into our daughter so that she became another version of us?  Or did we want her to define her own shape, even if it might end up like a piece of modern art with everybody standing around saying “What the heck is that supposed to be?”

Those were profound questions.

While we pondered them, we bided our time telling her things like the correct way to wake somebody is to give them a kiss.  As far as I know, there isn’t some etiquette book out there with a chapter called “Proper Procedure for Awakening a Sleeping Person.”  Barb and I simply told her that because we preferred it to Casey’s old way of waking people up or, specifically, waking us up, which was to pound on our chests.  As you might expect, Barb was a little more adamant about the kissing method than I was.

But would Casey realize that our instructions only applied to people she knows?  Would she end up roaming Manhattan kissing winos?  Would we someday get a note from her principal saying, “Casey seems to have a problem.  Whenever classmates fall asleep in class, she kisses them, even if it is a girl.  Please come to my office to discuss this serious matter which may affect your child’s entire future because I am putting it into a permanent report that will follow her for the rest of her life and will conveniently show up in the media if she ever decides to run for public office.”

So, anyway, now Casey is 24, and she doesn’t seem to have picked up too many of our bad habits. On the other hand, she doesn’t seem to have picked up much from us at all, at least not much that I think is environmental rather than genetic.

Does she have our values? I guess so. As a family, we’re tolerant of all lifestyles except, perhaps, really stupid ones. We don’t put much stock in organized religion. We’re honest, I think, most of the time.

Casey seems to be a good person. Do Barb and I get credit for that? Maybe a little.

I do know that we’d be assigned all the credit if she had turned out lousy!

Posted by: laughs4dads | December 8, 2010

N-n-normal P-p-parental N-n-nervousness

Today I’d like to talk to all my readers who have just become, or who are about to be, first-time parents. (But the rest of you can listen in.)

One of the problems with being a first-time parent, aside from the fact that you have to have a kid in order to be one, is that nothing really prepares you for it.  No, that’s not quite right.  You are prepared, but you don’t believe it.

Your feelings are like this: you’re sure your child will grow up to be president, or head of a major corporation, or a very talented performer, if only you can get through the first few months without dropping her.  There is just so much to worry about, you know you’re going to screw up something and that, when you do, it will ruin your child’s entire life and cause her to resent you so much she’ll put into a really awful retirement home.

My wife Barbara wasn’t really like this.  She launched herself into motherhood with a wealth of confidence.  This may be because she had two younger sisters.  I am an only child.  In the beginning, I handled my daughter with all the care I had once used to dissect a frog in high school biology. I was terrified that something would go wrong. I remembered how that poor frog ended up.

Perhaps the ultimate symbol of parental nervousness is the nursery monitor.  This is, essentially, a one-way walkie-talkie.  You put the transmitter in the baby’s room and you keep the receiver at your side at all times in case the baby has an urgent message for you. After all, it’s not like she can text you yet.

The nursery room monitor is a very silly thing.  Unless you live in a house the size of Rhode Island, you will hear your baby cry without the need of advanced electronics.  Babies are very good at letting you know your presence is desired.

But, of course, parents don’t buy nursery monitors to hear their babies crying.  They buy them to hear their babies breathing.  When you are not up all night trying to get your kid to go to sleep, it is reassuring to lie awake all night in your bed listening to your child sleeping soundly in hers.

When Casey was born, we lived in an apartment in Manhattan, and Casey’s crib was on the other side of a wall. A thin wall. Nevertheless, we dutifully used a monitor, and we would never get much sleep, because when Casey slept soundly it meant “with sound.”  Lots of it; she snored like a bear.  It was like having a muffler-less car idling alongside our bed. And we’d hear it in surround sound: from the monitor and through the wall.

To make matters worse, I used to hear what we came to think of as phantom cries.  I’d be laying there and I’d hear crying over the monitor, so I’d go into Casey’s room (which was a small section of the living room), only to hear the contented pig-like noise of a deep sleep.  This happened often, and it was really starting to get to me.  Barbara ridiculed me in front of our friends. (These were our childless city friends, from our pre-Casey days, who already thought we were crazy for having a kid in the first place.  Now they thought I was really losing it). 

But then, when Casey was four months old, we moved to a townhouse in the suburbs, and my condition seemed to worsen.  I was still hearing the phantom cries, but now they were different phantom cries.  Sometimes I’d even hear phantom mothers singing phantom lullabies! 

I was ready to take a nice long vacation in a place where they wear tight, backward jackets when I realized that our receiver was picking up transmissions from our neighbors’ house two doors away.  It wasn’t Casey I was hearing, it was Jenna!  And the singer of the phantom lullabies was her mother, Becky!  The stupid frequencies were crossing! 

Once I knew this, it was only with great restraint that I did not take our transmitter and scream into it “Hey, mommy, I want some water.  Now!”  Since Jenna wasn’t talking yet, this would have come as quite a shock to Becky, whose breathing could have been quickly revived by her husband, Eliot, who’s a doctor.

Anyway, as far as nervousness goes, let me calm you down.  There’s nothing to worry about.  No matter what you do, no matter how careful you are, your kid is going to do something perfectly awful somewhere along the way, and you are going to be blamed for it.  Remember, it’s a proven statistic that only 47.6% of known psycho killers were dropped on their heads as babies. 

By the way, the other 52.4% were once put to bed without a full burping.

(Just kidding.  I’m sure you’re burping your kid just fine.  You are, aren’t you?)

Posted by: laughs4dads | December 6, 2010

What to Do During the Roughly Ten Hours a Day Your Baby Is Awake

Babies, as adorable and lovable as they are, have this annoying habit of actually being conscious for a good portion of every day.  During this period, which can seem longer than the Roman Empire managed to stick around, good parents will do all they can to provide stimulation for the child.  Wise parents, on the other hand, will stay as far away from their child as possible.

Mothers tend to do better during this period, because the baby holds endless fascination for them. Fathers, on the other hand, get bored easily, and the novelty wears off quickly.

In the early months, playing with a baby is difficult, as the kid has the mobility of a small stone.  In fact, many of the things you can do with it are the same sorts of things you can do with a rock, like tossing it up in the air, rolling it on the ground and throwing it at pigeons. A word of warning here: do not try to skim a baby across a body of water.

According to child rearing experts, it’s really important to talk to your baby a lot, and to keep your face very close to it.  That way, it becomes familiar with your voice, hears language being used and, at the same time, can reach up and poke your eyes out.  This is, apparently, just about all the stimulation it can handle.

When baby begins to crawl, all sorts of possibilities emerge.  For one thing, the child can now crawl over to you and poke your eyes out.  It can also drool over greater areas of your carpeting.  Barbara’s sister, Gwen, had a good idea to stimulate her daughter, Errin.  She hung pictures at Errin’s eye level, so that no matter where Errin crawled, she’d have something to see.  Upon entering their house, however, you had the uneasy feeling that you were upside down. 

About this time, you’ll notice your baby doing little things to entertain itself.  Casey, for instance, turned teething into a little game wherein she would repeatedly utter the sound “maaaaa” as if it were her mantra.  This somehow caused large bubbles to come out of her mouth.  Once, we left her alone for fifteen minutes and found her with a beard of foam on her face.

As time went on, I found I could play actual games with her.  I don’t mean Monopoly or Dungeons and Dragons or anything, but games we made up that had definite sets of rules.  Unfortunately, only Casey appeared to know exactly what these rules were, but I tried to follow along as best I could.

Hide and Seek was one of her favorites.  I would hide in the closet and say “pssst” until she found me.  Then I would hide somewhere else and say “pssst” until she found me.  Then I would hide in the closet again and say “pssst” until I realized she had stopped playing and was a third of the way up the stairs.

She liked to play the same game over and over.  “Ring Around the Rosey” was a favorite.  She could play that until there was a visible circle-shaped erosion in the carpet. I fully expected alien spacecraft to land there any minute.

Then there was “Night.”  She’d get into our bed, pull up the cover, and pretend to sleep.  I never knew what the point was, but I let her play as long as she liked.

Once we had these games, I very much enjoyed playing with Casey.  For very short periods of time.  An hour seemed to be my limit.  Call me a lousy father, but I think an hour of spitting a blue, plastic ring across the room so that my daughter could retrieve it and shove it back into my mouth was just plenty, thank you.

Yes, I know, you mothers can do it all day, and I admire you for it.  Barbara could keep it up forever. True, she’d take unwarranted glee in a trip to the supermarket, but I was of the opinion that she deserved those vacations as much as anybody. 

Childhood fantasies are beautiful and fragile things, and I fear we treat them badly.

Perhaps it is because we have forgotten ours.

I don’t remember what I dreamed about at two years old, but when Casey was that age, I wanted to believe her fantasies were pure and bright, full of furry creatures and lilting music.  Her fantasy world, I imagined, was one in which Mickey Mouse and the Cookie Monster co-existed, where every animal, every plant, every object was capable of speech, where nothing could go wrong that couldn’t be solved in the time of a 7-minute cartoon.

Casey had embraced a special circle of friends in her waking hours: Mickey, Goofy, Bert and Ernie, Pinocchio, ALF, and a few less famous but nevertheless beloved creatures of varying sizes, colors and filling materials.  And I believed she dreamed up wondrous adventures with all of them.

Because Barb and I valued Casey’s fantasies (and, I think, envied them), we decided to take her to Walt Disney World in Orlando.  It was there we discovered, without much surprise, that America, or, at least, American business, did not value our child’s fantasies as much as we did.

Like Las Vegas, Orlando is a city without a geographical reason for being.  There is no shore, no port, no mountains, nothing but flat, boring land and sinkholes, which are these lakes that appear suddenly when a patch of ground disappears for no apparent reason, swallowing anything that happens to be on it, like, as in one celebrated instance, a Porsche dealership.

And just as Vegas is a town that sprouted up around a vice, Orlando is a town that was built around a mouse.

I’m aware that the city existed before every available piece of land was turned into an architectural nightmare of resorts, amusement parks, fast food places and souvenir stores, all with no other purpose than to make a despicable living off children’s fantasies and the people who have made the pilgrimage to pay homage to them.  In fact, we happened to have friends who lived in Orlando, and these friends did not make it a habit to dress up as forest animals, so we knew there were some normal people who live in central Florida. But were it not for this prior knowledge, you could not have convinced us that Orlando’s mayor was not a talking duck. (This all happened 22 years ago, remember, so it may be different now, especially considering some recent election results in Florida.)

Every furry, talking, singing, dancing creature had been captured and squeezed onto t-shirts, towels, mugs, umbrellas, lunch boxes, sunglasses and more.  They had even removed Donald Duck’s beak and glued it onto a baseball cap.

And it seemed a shame that Walt Disney, a man who so carefully and protectively cultivated so many fantasies, had his name on so many of the enterprises that are now so thoughtlessly destroying them.

For weeks before our journey, we built this trip up for Casey.  “We’re going to see Mickey,” we’d tell her.  And, if asked where she was going, Casey would reply, “On a plane in the air.  See Mickey Mouse, the duck, Goofy.”

And so we arrived in Orlando with a simple goal of locating Mickey Mouse, introducing him to our daughter and snapping a few pictures.

What we found out, however, is that Mickey Mouse is like Big Brother in the novel 1984.  His likeness is everywhere, but you just can’t see him in person.

We spent a day looking for him at Disney World.  We took two different forms of transportation just to get from the parking lot to the front gate.  We paid a fortune for tickets.  All this to get hit with a bunch of commercials.  Every two feet there was a “Kodak Picture Spot.”  Every three feet there was a souvenir store.  We got to wait on half hour lines for three minute rides, many of which were sponsored by great American fantasy-fulfilling corporations like Goodyear.

In the end, we had met Goofy and some minor characters like Tigger from Winnie the Pooh.  But we saw neither hide nor ear of Mickey Mouse.

Our friends who lived in Orlando told us that Mickey was sheltered like a superstar, and that he never made personal appearances (like at corporate receptions, for which he was available for hire) without a body guard.  And here I always thought it was Pluto who protected him.

After our disappointing day in the Magic Kingdom, we went to a “Character Breakfast” at one of the many humongous resort hotels that are part of the Disney empire.  Goofy, Pluto, Chip ‘n Dale and some characters I didn’t recognize wandered around the dining room while we ate an expensive breakfast for which we had waited half an hour–just like the rides.  But Mickey wasn’t there.  No Minnie, either.  There wasn’t even a sign of Donald Duck.  Perhaps he was finally getting fitted for a pair of pants.
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We finally had to fool our own child.  We took her into the official Disney Character Store where they had a human-sized stuffed Mickey, and we said, “Look, Case, there’s Mickey,” and I muttered something in a high-pitched voice, and Casey seemed satisfied, but I still felt guilty, so I told her that Mickey said she could pick out anything in the store to take home.

And so we returned home with a duck hat, a plush Pinocchio, a little Daisy Duck doll, a Winnie the Pooh and a Goofy puppet, not to mention a bunch of t-shirts.  We don’t know if Casey bought our Mickey Mouse scam and, if she didn’t, if she was disappointed.  But I know we were.  It seemed the only thing magical about the Magic Kingdom was how it made our money disappear.  It was certainly not so magical as a child’s fantasies.

When it comes time for you to plan your trip to Disney World (and the time will come, because we have been conditioned to think we are bad parents if we don’t give our children the experience), take my advice and stay home.

Your children will treasure their fantasies much more if they don’t see them on t-shirts.

(On the other hand, Casey, now 24, cannot wait to visit the Wizarding World of Harry Potter.)

Posted by: laughs4dads | December 1, 2010

Presents of Mind

With Hanukah beginning tonight, and the holiday shopping season in full swing for everyone else, today’s post will come in very handy to all of you who might have to buy a gift for a toddler.

Allow me to describe the perfect present.

(Note: The present about to be described may, in fact, not be perfect as far as the child is concerned, but that is of little consequence, as the child will only play with the box anyway.  Rather, the following describes the perfect present from the child’s parents’ point of view.)

The perfect present is not apparel.  It is virtually impossible for an outsider (definition: anyone who is not the mother) to purchase the correct size clothing for a child.  While you are at the cash register paying for the overalls that you believe to be two sizes too big (so the kid will grow into it, you think), at the very moment you are handing over your money, the child in question is growing by three sizes, specifically in order to be too large for your gift.  Another frequent faux pas is to buy the right size for the wrong season.  If you buy a winter coat in the correct size, but give it during the summer, it will no longer be the right size by the winter. 

Forgetting about sizes for a second, you should know that parents have very particular feelings about what looks good on their child, and you can rest assured that their feelings do not match what you were going to buy.

If you insist on giving clothing, the mother will smile graciously and say, “How cute!” in a high-pitched voice, but she will be thinking, “Oh God, what an idiot.  It’s much too small and the color’s all wrong.  This person is very, very stupid.”  She will hate you because, invariably, she will end up having to return the clothing, and anyone who has ever stood on line with a two-year old in the adjustments department of a store will know that most people would sooner use the article of clothing to start the barbecue than try to return it.

Okay, then, so what else can you get the little darling? Well, there’s always money.  This is, of course, boring for the child, whose only use for cash is in making confetti.  The boredom can be overcome by putting the cash in a large box with lots of gift-wrap.  However, you may still think cash is crass.  Maybe so, but it is hardly ever brought back for a refund.  On the other hand, maybe you go in for the disgustingly Norman Rockwellian gift of a savings bond, thus making your contribution to the child’s future and locking in the lowest possible interest rates.  Bonds are always looked upon as cheap gifts, because people know you paid less than the face value.  There is this feeling that you only got it because of the discount. There are gift cards, of course, but they have all the drawbacks of cash, and none of the flexibility. Also, they are much harder for the kid to shred.

So, no clothes, no cash.  That leaves toys.

There is one important distinguishing characteristic that separates the bad toy from the good toy.  One trait that makes the perfect gift shine out in the crowd.

You may think I’m about to recommend that the toy not come from China, a country that is obviously trying to kill our children with poisonous playthings. Or maybe you think I’m going to tell you to purchase something educational. “Peh!” I say to your academic activities. Perhaps you’re thinking, “Oh, he’s a creative person, he thinks we should buy something creative.” No way. Creative things are messy things, and you don’t want to get blamed when “My Little Potter’s Wheel” starts spitting wet clay all over the place.

Here’s the one and only attribute that matters: the toy should be one piece.

Believe me, I have looked on with dismay as my daughter tore open the wrapping on a 49-piece miniature dinnerware set.  I knew, even as I watched her eyes light up, that there would soon not be a room in the house, not a nook or a cranny, not a crevice or a corner, that did not contain a dish, teacup or ladle.  You are better off giving a gift of a few dozen common ants; at least nobody will cry when they are disposed of, and they don’t spread as rapidly.

That’s why a doll is nice.  Or a truck.  One piece.  Simple.  And if the kid doesn’t like it, so what?  The kid didn’t invite you over, the parents did.  Do you like the parents?  If you do, give something simple.

If you don’t like the parents, I highly recommend a set of 64 permanent, unwashable, colored markers.

Posted by: laughs4dads | November 29, 2010

The Invasion

They walk, they talk.  They roar, they soar.  They tumble, rumble, shake and break.

They are everywhere.  And they are coming to get you.

They will invade your peaceful home.  And it will be your innocent child who welcomes them into your home.

TOYS!

In our case, they arrived even before our daughter did.  Little furry things, their interior organs made from genuine recycled materials.

Then came the noisy things.  Mobiles that hung over the crib and circled our infant like vultures that happened to be singing “You Are My Sunshine.”  And rattles that were aptly named because that is exactly what they do to the brains of adults.

Then came the moving things.  Bunnies that hopped.  Bears that sauntered.  Scooters and wagons and trikes. Oh my. 

Then there were bigger furry things.  Dogs and dinosaurs and pigs and other, less definable species. 

And, worse of all, the multiple-piece things.  Plastic cubes and cylinders, meant to fit into the appropriate holes of a box and used instead to apparently replace breadcrumbs so that Casey could retrace her path through the house if she had to. 

And Lego Blocks.

Lego Blocks are very nice.  There is, I understand, an entire village somewhere in Scandinavia made solely of Lego Blocks.  I have to assume that babies are not allowed near it or it would have been reduced to multi-colored rubble long ago.

While I’m sure Lego Blocks are intended to stimulate a child’s creativity, what they actually do is stimulate the seemingly innate instinct in children to want to lead blitzkrieg attacks over London.  Here is how Casey would play with Lego Blocks:  she’d sit by calmly watching my creativity get stimulated; she’d hover patiently as my structures grew taller and more architecturally sophisticated; she’d wait cunningly as I completed what could pass as a red, yellow and blue scale model of the Chrysler Building.  And then, with a kamikazee cry which, for all I could tell, might have really been in Japanese, she would strike.  Legos would go flying everywhere, possibly into New Jersey, so that weeks later we were still finding them in the far reaches of the house.  That is how Casey played with Lego Blocks.

Early on, before she knew better, Barbara found the sheer number of toys very taxing, not because she had to clean them up, but because she felt obligated to name them all.  Not that she put an awful lot of creative effort into it.  A small, collapsible man that suctioned onto Casey’s walker was called “Mr. Man.”  I think you need no further examples.

Casey was sort of fickle when it came to most of her toys.  She’d sometimes pick up a toy at which she had never looked twice and play with virtually nothing else for a week.  In other cases, a favorite would suddenly fade from favor and get exiled to the rear of her playpen, evidently to be forgotten until the precise moment when Barbara decided to store it in the garage or send it up to Casey’s younger cousin, Errin, who lived near Boston (where, fortunately, her parents also resided). Then it became a favorite again.

Among the toys that lasted the longest were Casey’s puppet collection: Ernie and Bert; Oscar; Grover; Mickey Mouse; a mynah bird named Mikey; and a cow.  All of them had set routines from which they were not permitted to deviate.  They also had distinct voices and vocabularies.  The cow, for instance, said only two words: “MMMMMOOO,” of course, and then, when Casey put a New York Mets cap on its head, “MMMEEETS.”  The games we played with the puppets were usually quiet and relatively neat, but a problem arose when Casey insisted that we play with three at one time.

One of Casey’s favorite toys was something called The Marbleworks.  This thing combined the scariest elements of her other toys: many parts that could get strewn about haphazardly; the need to be built and then, of course, destroyed; lots of noise; and, last and certainly least, six marbles which had uses beyond this actual game, such as being inserted in father’s navel.  Anyway, I would use all these various track sections to build a raceway, then Casey would put the marbles in the top (painstakingly placing one in each starting gate), tilt the top forward and yell “There they go.”  When they got to the bottom, she’d do it all over again.  And again.  And again.

Marbleworks marked an increased maturity on Casey’s part.  For instance, she did not destroy the structure immediately after I built it.  And when it was time to put it away, she’d help dismantle it in an orderly fashion and even put the pieces back in the box.

We also built our first verbal game around the marbles.  This was the dialogue that took place every time we played with them:

CASEY: Darmles?
ME: Marbles.
CASEY: Darmles.
ME:  Marbles.
CASEY:  Darmles.
ME: Say “Mar.”
CASEY: Mar.
ME: Say “Bles.”
CASEY: Bles.
ME: Marbles.
CASEY: Darmles.
BOTH: Toys!

She knew very well how to say “Marbles,” and there was this twinkle in her eye to show me that she knew, and she knew that I knew, that we were playing a game.  The only trouble was, we did it so often, I would find myself saying “Darmles” in normal conversation. Fortunately, the subject never came up at work.

Anyway, as we enter the holiday shopping season, don’t forget to get yourself the one thing that will help you deal with all the toys around your house.

A bigger house.

Posted by: laughs4dads | November 26, 2010

The Day in Black

The black plague. Blackbeard the pirate. Black hats in cowboy movies. Black widow spiders.

In our culture, black often denotes something bad, something you wouldn’t go out of your way to participate in or meet up with.

How, then, to explain the insanity that occurs on Black Friday?

You’ve seen the commercials for a week now, each store trying to outdo the others, not by having bigger sales, but by opening earlier. “Black Friday sales start at 4 am!” “Doors open at 3:30 am!” “12:01 am–we can’t start any earlier than that!” “Our Black Friday starts on Halloween!”

And if you shill it, they will come. Morons standing out in the cold, lined up outside the mall at some ungodly hour of the morning, stuffed and drowsy from Thanksgiving dinner, with the glazed looks in their eyes that indicates some sort of mass hypnosis. Meanwhile, tired-looking news reporters stand by, ready to interview the idiots (“Oh, I do this every year, so I can get the best deals and get everything I want before it’s sold out, and get away from the 30 family members who invaded my home yesterday.”)

Why?

Are the prices really that much better than they’ll be tomorrow or next week? Is it something like a cult mentality, with everyone having been brainwashed into showing up at Sears in the middle of the night? Or is it the simple thrill of being in JCPenney at three o’clock in the morning? I mean, who knows, maybe all the toys do come to life at night and now we’ll surprise them!)

As for me, well, for as long as I can remember, I’ve done all my holiday shopping by mail order, first by catalog and now, of course, online. Amazon and I go so far back they actually used to send me little gifts like coffee mugs to thank me for my business. Really. I may have started using Amazon before Jeff Bezos was even born!

Because I am a sane person. And from November to January, I avoid malls like the, well, like the plague.

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