Sunday, July 20, 2008
I suppose that it's normal for children to have rivalries with their siblings. In that regard, my two older girls are just like everyone else. My oldest, who turned 9 in April, seems to have chosen pestering my next oldest, who turns 7 in August, as her true calling in life. It's always interesting to see the way that they can be buddies one minute, and at each other's proverbial throat the next.
I looked at their report cards. As usual and expected, my oldest received good marks. As usual and expected, my second girl got stellar marks, along with copious teacher notes about what a pleasure it is to teach her, how far ahead of her class she is, we should consider eventually putting her ahead a grade, etc.
Children are individuals, and find a way to define themselves. In many families, one child is the athlete, one is the dancer, one is the A+ student, etc. But what if one kid decides to steal all the titles?
For my two younger children, this is not yet an issue. My son, at 2 years old, is too young to know the difference. He basically has down the concept that he and Daddy are the "boys", and Momy and his sisters are the "girls", and that because of that only he is allowed in the bathroom when Daddy is taking a shower. Beyond that, he has no clue.
My third daughter, at 5, is just about to enter Kindergarten in the fall, so she doesn't have a full grasp of interpersonal rivalry yet, either.
My second daughter has a wealth of gifts. Already mentioned is her intelligence. She is very proud of the fact that she can read "chapter" books. She is also a very talented athlete. She loves to run. Just over a year ago, at the end of her Kindergarten year (she just finished first grade a few weeks ago), her school had a fundraiser where the kids got their family to pledge money for them to run laps around the track at a local college, $x per lap. She ran farther than any other child in her school, except for a single sixth grader. For fun, and special one-on-one time, she wants me to take her down to the track and time her while she runs laps. And all three girls go to dancing school, and my second daughter is the most talented of them.
I don't worry so much about my third daughter. She is beginning to show some of her older sister's academic talent, she is the second best dancer (and has enough enthusiasm for it to close the gap somewhat), and has a personal flair for the dramatic that sets her apart. She won't have trouble making a name for herself. But my two oldest, because they bicker, I worry about them more...
I want my oldest girl to know that I love her, and that I am so proud of her, just who she is. But then I worry that I feel like I am overcompensating, and perhaps not paying enough attention to my second girl, and maybe she does so well at everything because she feels driven to try hard at everything to get my attention over her older sister. Then I worry that I am overcompensating in the other direction, and by making sure to praise and recognize my second girl my oldest will feel that I am neglecting her in favor of the one who seems to be good at everything. And of course, then I worry that I am paying too much attention to the oldest two, at the expense of the younger ones.
It's not always easy. I do the best I can to let them all know that I love them, and I am proud of all of them, and of all of their accomplishments.
Monday, July 14, 2008
Last week, around Wednesday or Thursday, my wife approached me with an idea. She wanted to enforce a new policy, and needed me to back her up: no computer or TV on Saturdays from now on.
I was raised in a very "liberal" Jewish household. My parents' idea of fully participating in the Jewish religion has always been going to the synagogue twice per year (on the High Holidays in September), lighting candles and eating potatoe pancakes on Hanukah, and eating matzo and matzo-ball-soup on Passover. My wife didn't grow up Jewish at all. She was born into a Catholic family, dropped out of catechism and refused confirmation, and then started her own little 20 year spiritual self exploration.
For the first years of our marriage, I never pushed religion on her. I never asked her to convert to Judaism. I loved her just the way she was. Then, about a year ago, I changed my tune for two reasons: us, and the kids.
I overheard a conversation that started me thinking. A co-worker was discussing the fact that she had gone out and bought cecmetary plots for herself and her spouse so that they could be buried together. I thought about my own future mortality, and the cemetary where my great-grandparents and my grandparents are buried. Someday, (hopefully not for a long time), my parents will be buried there, too. I want to be there someday, so that my children and grandchildren can visit all of us and see for themselves their history in our community. I realized that, unless things changed, my wife and I would have to be buried seperately. Our love is like that of Tristan and Isolde. I could not bear the thought of spending eternity with her anywhere other than by my side.
Second, my children have a profoundly Jewish identity. They are very spiritual and are always asking about the nature of G-d and the universe. They want to celebrate Jewish holidays to the fullest, and to make Jewish ritual a part of their everyday lives.
So, my wife and have started making religion a more overt part of our family's existence. And, with the help of our local rabbi, she has contacted a rabbi at the Bet Din (the rabbinical court in Boston) to undergo an Orthodox Jewish conversion.
My wife is a very smart woman, and an absolutely voracious reader. It is not at all uncommon for her to devour 10 or more books in a week. This religious activity has now provided her with an entirely new course of study, and she is reading and learning all that she can, from a wide variety of authors.
A large part of traditional Jewish practice is the observance of the Sabbath. The Sabbath, or "Shabbat" in Hebrew, is held to be more than just sacred. As the day on which G-d rested after creating the Heavens and the Earth and all that is within them, it is incumbent upon people to do the same. Orthodox Jews won't even ride in a car or answer the telephone. They have a big celebratory dinner on Friday night at Sundown, with blessings over wine and fresh bread, and on Saturday they have a day that is devoted to prayer, study, and time spent together as a family.
I have long held that social and religious practices are like a technology in that they perform a function, and that they persist over time because they "work". In recognition of that, we began having the Friday night dinners over a year ago, and it has been wonderful so far. It makes for a great ending to the week, a night to relax together as a family and reflect together upon the week just past. We often invite over friends and family, my wife has learned to bake the best home made fresh bread in North America - definitely two thumbs up all around.
So now she wanted to take the next step, and make Saturday an exclusive rest-and-family only day. In addition numerous small adjustments, that means two big changes: no computer and no television.
I had honestly thought of this before, but decided not to say anything. After all, she is the one who is going through the trouble of converting. The last thing she needs on top of that is me pushing her too fast and telling her what to do.
Last Saturday was the big day, and it was fabulous. There were no arguments over who's turn it was on the computer, or what show we were going to watch. There was far less squabling in general. Instead, we spent the morning at home together, then walked down to the park. We played games, told stories, and just plain-vanilla spent time together apart from the bustle of the everyday world. No phone calls, no email, no tv news. Just he six of us, and the sunshine, and a little ice cream for a special treat.
Even the kids seemed to like it better. Not only did they fight less (actually a lot less - there were hardly any arguments at all), but they also all got a more full share of my wife's and my attention.
My wife actually woke up Sunday morning and felt like it was Monday, because she never feels that rested after only one weekend day.
We are definitely going to make this or new way to spend every Saturday. Or, excuse me, every Shabbat.
Wednesday, July 2, 2008
I spent three day alone, and man is it different. I guess it has been so long that I really didn't remember what it was like to be by myself.
Starting with Sunday night... I have mentioned before that the computer is a big deal in our household. Well, on Sunday after I dropped my wife off with her cousin (they rode up together), I basically spent the rest of the afternoon and evening on the computer. I went web-surfing, I played video games, I downloaded a new video game off of a website. Nobody told me that I couldn't, nobody needed my attention, and nobody needed a turn.
I went to bed late, and woke up early on Monday morning. And when I woke up, it was like someone had flicked on a switch in my head. I was up. Even though I technically hadn't slept as long as usual - maybe more accurate to say would be that I hadn't spent as much time trying to sleep as usual. Nobody kicked me, or bumped me, or tried to climb in with me because they had a bad dream. I just fell asleep, and slept straight through.
And if I had such a great afternoon, evening, and night, then why did I start to think of my wife and wonder where she was as early as 3:18 Sunday afternoon?
Life has thrown me an interesting curve ball. I had the chance to spend my time doing anything I wanted, and what I ended up wanting is to sit down at the dinner table with my wife and kids.
Before I had kids, an old friend told me that I may have thought that I knew what love it, but I did not. He said that I would love my children more than I thought possible. It would be an entirely new experience. He did't mean anything by it. He said it just as a way of explaining something to me that I had never experienced before. I believed him, I had not reason to doubt him, and fair enough - I never knew how right he was until I had children of my own.
I am a big proponent of individual choice, and leaving people free to make their own decisions about their own lives. And I never give advice. Pretty much every bad decision I have ever made, in both my personal and professional life, has been the result of someone who loved me, and cared for me, and wanted the best for me doing their very best to give me the best thought out advice that they could to to help me be happy and successful, and then me following it. So I am definitely not one of those people who says that people in their 30's and 40's who have been married and never had children are somehow being "selfish". But I can say the my life would be incomplete without my family.
And there was no way for me to know that until I got married, and had children.
Tuesday, June 24, 2008
On Saturday afternoon we all traveled up to my wife's aunt's house in New Hampshire for a party. My wife's cousin just graduated from high school, and her Mom threw an enormous party for her. There was food and drink, a few sports games played, and finally fireworks and a bonfire. Quite a time.
And a quick aside - the family softball game was a heck of a lot of fun. It started out as a serious game, but then the kids wanted to get involved, and the adults began making multiple intentional comical and ridiculous errors to ensure that every kid at least got on base. My five year old hit a home run every time just by making contact with the ball and, having never really played before, she just kept running. The adults didn't want to tag her out, so they just kept dropping the ball, throwing it to the wrong player, missing the tag, etc. And she just kept running, sometimes tagging the base and sometimes not.
Also, when the graduation girl came up to bat, and I was pitching, I intentionally beaned her with the ball. It took her brother several minutes to stop laughing long enough to give me a high-five.
We didn't leave until very late, and the kids were so keyed up after everything that even then they didn't really fall asleep on the ride home.
The next day, Sunday, they were able to sleep in a little late, but then we had another party to go to, at the home of a current friend and former co-worker of mine. It had threatened to thunderstorm all afternoon, so he decided to cook indoors. He has an enormous, wall sized television as the central asset to his home theater, and for indoor entertainment we had a showing of the Jungle Book, followed by a rousing game of Monopoly.
It was quite a weekend, and Monday we paid the price.
Most kids, when they get too much activity and not enough sleep, are miserable. Mine are no exception. They all took up temper tantrums as a hobby, and getting into fights with each other as a profession.
But the queen was my five year old.
She was in the car seat behind my wife. She was throwing a knock down, drag out temper tantrum, and kicking her feet, when she accidentally took it too far. My wife, in her infinite benevolence, was trying to comfort her so she could calm down by reaching back and asking her to hold her hand. My daughter, eyes closed and kicking, ended up kicking the back of my wife's headrest, and only missed her head by and inch.
Life, like football, is a game of inches, and today my daughter is alive because of that inch. If she had actually connected with my wife's head, I would have killed her.
In the immortal words of Bill Cosby, "I brought you into this world, I'll take you out. And it don't make no difference to me, I'll make another one, look just like you."
I have never spanked any of my children, but it's not because I don't believe in it. It's just that none of the kids has ever done anything in my presence that has warranted it. My wife says that she does not believe in spanking, and that there are always better options. But more than once, she has been pushed to the edge of her tolerance and swatted someone on the behind. Not me. I always say that if you give me a good enough reason to unleash the "Ultimate Punishment", then it will arrive for you swiftly and surely, unencumbered by either hesitation or guilt. Perhaps because of this, they have yet to push the issue all the way.
But my daughter came awfully close. Within one inch, to be exact.
As it was, I pulled over the van, yanked her out, and sat her down on the curb for 15 minutes while my wife and I sorted it out and decided her fate.
Computer time is a big deal in our house. It is carefully measured and monitored, everyone has to take turns, only so much time is available. Therefore, having computer time taken away is a big deal, too. To have to quietly sit in the living room, only a few feet away from the precious computer, while some undeserving sibling is enjoying what should be your computer time, watching them as the revel in it; I'm sure that small some part of the children would almost rather get spanked than have to give up computer time.
I advocated for three full days of no computer. My wife (again with the benevolence...) vetoed anything over one full day. She said that the way I immediately pulled her out and sat her down certainly got her attention, and that a full day with no computer would make her remember.
Was I advocating too harsh a punishment? Did my wife end up being too lenient? My daughter is only five. It's difficult to find the path to follow, to strike the balance.
As it is, we have had a few exciting days here. First comes the party, then comes the hangover.
Tuesday, June 17, 2008
Last Wednesday night I tried going out for a walk at the park, adn that worked well enough. So last night, Monday, I actually went back to the gym. I got in 4 miles on the treadmill, followed by a couple of hard rounds hitting the punching bag, and I felt good. For a change.
This brings me around, interestingly enough, to my real topic - marital conflict.
Every married couple has to fight about something. I think it's actually in the rulebook. It's not the same thing with every couple, but everyone has something. If you don't, either your spouse is actually a paid employee who puts up with you for the money, or one of you is the reincarnation of Mahatma Ghandi. For my wife and I, it's my desire to exercise. Or, perhaps more precisely, my desire to train.
And there is a difference.
On just about every other aspect of our lives, we use one of three models that pretty much works everything out for the best: compromise, delegation, or assumption of responsibility.
Compromise is easy to explain. On some things, we work it out and come to an agreement. Disciplining the kids. Meals. Extra curricular activities. Do we or don't we ride up to Canobie Lake Park this weekend.
Delegation is easy to explain, too. For some things, one of us is just better at it that the other, or cares more, or has more time to do it. I already wrote about how much better my wife is at monitoring the kids' health and wellness. On my side, I have an economics and mathematics background, so she told me that she would feel better if I handled our finances and investments.
And as far as Assumption of Responsibility goes, we have a rule in our house that has solved many an argument before it started: if you don't like the way I do it, feel free to do it yourself. Earlier tonight I was putting my 5 year old daughter to bed and telling her one of my famous "Blue Monkey" stories. These are loud, raucus tales involving a nerdy college student who spontaneously turns into a giant blue monkey in conditions of stress, and then proceeds to do all kinds of bizarre, socially unacceptable, and sometimes disgusting things. They are very entertaining to a 5 year old. My wife doesn't think they are the best thing before bed - they might get the kids too riled up. Maybe she's right, but she never says anything. If she asks me to put the kids to bed, she knows there will often be a "blue Monkey" story. If she doesn't want the story, then she puts them to bed herself. On my side, my wife doesn't always do things around the house the way I would do them, but I'll be darned if I am going to say anything about it. She has a lot to do, and if I don't like it, I am welcome to go do some of it myself - any time I want.
I love going to the gym and training hard. Before I got married, I used to run about 30 miles per week, plus martial arts, boxing, swimming, and weight lifting. I took enormous pride in what I could do physically - how strong I was, how fast I could run, how far I could run; how tough I was, both mentally and physically. Then I got married and, more importantly, had kids. Especially my five year old. I know you have heard of sympathy weight. Well, when my wife got pregnant, something flicked a switch in my head. After work, instead of going to the gym, I wanted to come home and cuddle with my wife, rub her tummy, and go out for ice cream.
And that's the insideous part. I wanted to do it. I was happy skipping my workouts and coming home.
I don't even like ice cream!
The diet and exercise industry in the US is a multi-billion-dollar a year industry. I can sum up the entire combined wisdom and efforts of this entire industry in on equation. Ready?
"Eat Less" + "Do More" = "Lose Weight"
See? Very simple. My problem was that this equation has an equal and opposite equation.
"Eat More" + "Do Less" = "Gain Weight"
I was eating all the regular meals I had always eaten, plus taking her out for ice cream sundaes all the time, and I went from about 1500 calories per day of caloric expenditure from exercise on average to 0. In the 9 months she was pregnant, I put on 90 pounds and 14 inches on my waist.
I'm not as heavy as that now, but I'm still fat. My wife just doesn't understand why I want to get back into "fighting" shape. She was never a big exerciser. The only reason she can rationally understand for why a person might want to run is if they were in a building that was on fire. She loves me just the way that I am, she just doesn't understand why I am unhappy. In a sense, she is right. It's one thing to just want to be healthier, it's quite another to want to be able to run a marathon - or step into the ring and fight for 6 rounds.
It's because of who I am. It's not that physical things came hard for me, but it's that anything intellectual was always so easy for me by comparison. I could give a 50% effort in school, and still be #1 - so I never valued my accomplishments there. I never took pride in them. But in sports, my talents were only a little better than average, so if I wanted to excel I had devote myself with a passion. When I boxed and kickboxed, I often fought somebody who was naturally stronger, faster, or more agile than I was. The only way that I could win was by trying harder, preparing better, working harder on technique, and having better conditioning. When I won, it meant something to me. I was proud of myself, and what I had accomplished.
Today, it's sad to say, I really lack any pride in myself, because when it comes to my physical self now, I am really very average. Mediocrity isn't cause for pride, it's cause for shame or embarrassment. It's very difficult to do anything about, because training takes time - time to run 8 miles instead of just 2, time to hit the puching bag, and the speed bag, and to spar, and jump rope, and lift weights. Time to do it 4 or 5 days per week, not 1 or 2. Time away from my wife and kids who love me, and need me, and have the right to have me around. And my wife just can't understand why I'm not that guy who was content to sit on the couch and eat ice cream with her while she was pregnant, any more than she can flap her arms and fly.
Tuesday, June 3, 2008
What can I say? It was one HECK of a day. I started off with an old stand by - I took my son to the Home Depot. That is ALWAYS a thrill.
After that, my wife and I and all four kids met my parents at a local restaurant.
Have you ever seen National Lampoon's: Christmas Vacation?
EVERYTHING went wrong. The poor waiter was brand new, and really didn't know what the heck he was doing. It was still early enough on a Sunday that the after-church crowd was still around, and it was very busy. He had nobody to help him, and he mixed EVERYTHING up. My father and I couldn't stop laughing. He mixed up the drinks. Then he spilled one on the birthday cards the girls had spent all morning making for me. He brought us the wrong appetizers. Then he forgot to bring one of my daughters' meals entirely. Finally, when it was time for ice cream, he brought it for the adults and forgot all of the kids. It was a disaster.
But what can you do? He was just a kid himself, he was obviously very new, and he was overwhelmed. My Dad and I just kept laughing at everything, and tried to get him to laugh along with us.
Afterwards, my wife and I took the kids to the park and, wouldn't you know it, the water pump in my van cracked open like an egg JUST as I was pulling into my parking space. It drained all of the coolant out of my radiator, all over the parking lot. By this time, I just couldn't stop laughing.
We had a WONDERFUL time at the park. We visited war memorial and walked along all of the trails there, then went up the hill to the petting zoo (the worker there was nice enough to fill up a water jug for me to pour into my radiator, just so I could get the van home safely) and pet the goats/sheep/horses/etc. The peacocks were putting on a show for the females, and all the kids were amazed by their beautiful plumage. And they had two new pigs in the pigpen. Pigs are ALWAYS a big hit with the kids, because they are totally gross and disgusting.
(Brief Aside: I had alway been told that it was a myth that pigs were dirty animals. For anyone who hasn't been to the zoo in a while, you may be surprised to find that THAT'S the myth. Pigs are actually unspeakably dirty. They revel in projectile defecation.)
Perpective counts. If you get wrapped up in the ups and downs of daily existence, it can certainly wear on you. But both of my parents are still alive, thank G-d. Not everyone my age gets to say that. I have a beautiful and wonderful wife, and we both love each other very much. Unfortunately, not everyone gets to say that, either. And I have four smart, healthy, well-adjusted kids. And I got to spend my birthday with all of them. I am a VERY lucky guy, and I REALLY enjoyed my birthday.
(Special thanks to one of my wife's dearest friends; she invited everyone over and threw a birthday dinner-party for me later that night. The London Broil was perfect).
Happy Birthday to Me!
Thursday, May 29, 2008
My third daughter was very attached to her mother for the first two years of her life, and during that time she really didn't care for me at all. For some reason, we had a hard time connecting. She always wanted to be like Mommy, and be with Mommy. We didn't have any activities that we really shared. There was just not a lot there, and I wasn't happy about it.
I wasn't prepared to let the situation be. I wanted to find something that we could do together. I had read a book years ago that included a suggested list of things for Daddys to do with their kids. One idea that stuck out in my mind was "wrestling". My two older girls had never seemed to have any interest in that kind of play, but I figures that I would give it a try.
I started hesitatingly at first. She was so little (just 24 months), and I am such a big man, I didn't want to accidentally hurt her. And, in all honesty, it was a little wierd because we had such a distanced relationship before. But we both took to it like ducks in water. She was tough, and spirited, and refused to back down. And she was so smart, she already had such a vocabulary. She would take on a "tough guy" pose and scream out movie quotes as a challenge.
"You want a piece of me?"
"Do you feel lucky? Well, do ya?"
We would swing at each other with pillows, then she would put on her "War Face" (another movie quote) and charge at me, and I would let her push me over and jump on my back.
Every night before bed, she got some special time with Daddy to play a game that she dubbed "Fight on the Bed". And from then on, we had as close a relationship as any father and daughter I have ever met. As the years have passed, the other kids have joined in as well, especially my son. In fact with him the game could really be called "Fight the Daddy, Wherever He May Happen to Be Right Now." But it is still special when I play with my third daughter, now 5 years old. It was the spark that lit our very special relationship, and for that I will be grateful every single day for the rest of my life.