Friday, December 17, 2021

The Last Little Boy Christmas

All week we have been hearing about the party in Link’s class today. At 9 years old and in fourth grade, he is so excited about the last day before Christmas break and telling us of the movies they will watch, the games they will play and the treats they will eat. We had to shop for stocking stuffers for twenty, snacks to share with everyone and “Dad, help me remember to take my card game!”

Last night Link packed up his bag and told me how he is taking a blanket and a few of his favorite stuffed toys as recommended by the teacher. This morning he put on some clothes and told me with a hint of regret that he had forgotten his Christmas PJ’s at his Mom’s house. Seeing as how I moonlight as Santa, I happened to know he had a set of red Christmas pajamas in the gift stacks. I consulted with Mrs. Claus, and we agreed they should be gifted early. Link lit up like a downtown Christmas tree, smiling from ear to ear as he pulled the red shirt and fuzzy red plaid pants from the wrapping paper. He quickly put them on and gathered his blanket, a comically large stuffed fox, and his favorite pink river otter (he has 5 stuffed river otters, one of which is pink). 

As he donned a Santa hat, he asked me with curiosity, “Do you think anyone will make fun of me for wearing PJ’s to school?” I confirmed with him that the teacher had invited everyone to do so and we discussed why anyone might poke fun and how to possibly handle it. I let him know that in the unlikely event he were lucky enough to be the only one wearing red PJ pants, a festive shirt and a Santa hat that this would be an awesome show of Christmas spirit. He agreed that even if he were the only one, that would be OK with him. I asked how he would feel if someone did make fun of him and asked if he wanted to carry a change of clothes. He said he wouldn’t like it, but that he didn’t mind the possibility and didn’t need the extra clothes. In looking over his outfit and gear, I thought it more likely he could catch some snide remarks on his pink stuffed animal rather than the outfit so I asked him, without indicating an opinion on the matter, if that was the critter he wanted to take or if he wanted to choose one of his other brown otters. He pondered it and said, “No, I want this one, it’s my favorite. If someone makes fun of me, that’s OK.” I nearly cried on the spot with pride in him and out of concern that this would be the day another boy or group of them would mock and point at him for choosing the toy. It made me sad to know, whether it be today or in the coming months, that he is nearing the age where so many children seem to make it their job to mock each other and point out how someone else is different. He seems well prepared, and I talked with him about how others’ mean words are really like boomerangs intended for themselves. Those who throw the worst are often the recipients at home or in other groups. I encouraged him to let me know how it goes and even gave him a few retorts for any insults on his clothing or animal choice that would show his confidence and lack of concern for any potential naysayers. 

As we drove to school, I could only think of the email notice received by so many of us indicating the school system is aware of the general threats made against schools nationwide on this last day of the session before Christmas break and all I wanted to do was turn the car around and keep my little elf locked up in Santa’s workshop forever. This is the world we live in. I must hope my son has a great party and while there is some worry over the natural social challenges of school age children, the sad fact is I have hope and pray his school isn’t the target of some kid with easy access to a firearm. 

Next year, he will be 10. I have a sinking suspicion this could be our last "little boy Christmas," though we might be lucky enough to have another year or two of him being as excited about Christmas parties and unafraid to risk the ire of others for not being cool enough. Today I hugged the little elf, he gladly offered up a smile for his picture and skipped into the school in his pajamas with his pink otter in tow. Merry Christmas little man, you bring the spirit to us all and I hope it lives forever in your heart. May your day be full of candy canes, sugar plums, songs and games! All I want for Christmas is for you and your sisters to come home safe and to feel no shame or fear among your friends. 

Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Parenting through a global pandemic.

If your situation is anything like mine, you are suddenly thrust upon the at-home schooling world while still dealing with your “usual” responsibilities (if there is such a thing anymore). It’s all more than a little overwhelming and I find myself often lost in my own perception of the situation. MY stress, MY feelings, MY aggravation and it’s very easy to fall into the old song and dance of, “why is this happening to ME?” I could write a book on being above or below the line (and that victim mentality is definitely below the line), but in this case I want to take another approach. Let’s put ourselves in the place of these kids and try to remember what our perception of the world looked like when we were the little ones. Let's keep in mind what it must feel like for them to witness this moment in history.

I know things weren’t always perfect when I was growing up. The world and my family had our share of problems, but during my younger years I was blissfully unaware and unconcerned about those issues for the most part. In the vast string of moments I now think of as “childhood,” I had a definite feeling that no matter what, everything was going to be OK. In my eyes, the world was controlled and held at bay by my parents. This is one of the wonders of being a kid and it is something we have all been doing our best to provide to our littles from the day they came into our lives. I was an adult when 9/11 came along, but that is the closest thing I can imagine to the psychological impact to this generation’s worldview right now. In one terrifying morning, I went from thinking the world was one way, to knowing it was another way altogether.

Now we're the grownups and all these kids (when did we have so many? LOL) are looking to us. Recent events like school being cancelled and being unable to see their friends, having the ability to go and do things they want, and lack of the ability to just live in what was “normal life” is very hard on the kids. Couple that with the bits of news they see, the concern for relatives they can't see and for themselves (Will I get sick? Will my parents?) and this is a slow burning traumatic event.

Whether they are verbalizing it or not, they are impacted. Whether they are showing us or not, they are concerned and worried. It is now painfully obvious to them that what happens in the world is not always controlled by their parents. This is a hard thing to reconcile for me and I’m trying my best to show some extra patience, to spend time (even when I don’t have it), to give an extra hug and to keep up every aspect of “normality” I can with the kids. I’m sorry they have to learn so soon how little we control, but I will make sure to teach them what we do control… our reactions to any situation. I talk with myself every morning about this and remind myself it’s not about me, my feelings and anxieties can take the backseat while the kids are watching. As the grown ups in the room, we can take it, we can pretend to be OK even if we're not at that moment, we can hold our tongue and watch our tone. We can check that outburst of frustration at schoolwork or their need for more supervision. Of course, there is still discipline and structure, but there is a big, big helping of grace needed for these little ones who woke up to find that everything they knew changed in a heartbeat. Keep this in mind… they will graduate, they will grow older, they will remember this time and more than anything, they will remember how we made them feel in the middle of it. Those frequent moments of insubordination, bickering, or apparent lack of motivation are natural responses to major stress. Have patience, show better ways to respond and give more hugs. Be easy parenting partners. We can do this.

Friday, April 3, 2020

What's in a name?

I have to admit, my heart breaks a little to see pictures of things the kids cannot do right now. There are plenty of smiles in our house and, as usual, children seem to take anything in stride (as long as we do). We are taking advantage of the time at home and enjoying the extra quality time, but the strangeness of the situation is hard to come to terms with. We are glad to have plenty to do in and around the house and the school work is a welcome diversion before lunch, but every time we step outside I feel like we're just enjoying some "yard time" in the "big house."

These sacrifices are small given the reward of saving lives, but I long for the day when kids can again run around a playground with friends or perfect strangers. I miss watching them dart around the park not knowing, caring or even asking for names. What's in a name anyway? Who needs one when you know each other through twinkling eyes and laughter in the sunshine?

I miss the smiles between children at the park as they push and test boundaries of "fair play" and see which of their tricks can make the others laugh. I look forward to the time when telling the kids to keep their hands away from their mouth and face is just a form of correcting manners and civility again rather than a massively important lesson in safety.

Please don't mistake my nostalgia for despair, we have so much to be grateful for and hope and happiness rule the day. I am thankful for our pets, they keep the place lively. For our screened in porch and pool to pass the days, for the size of our clan (four kids get on each other's nerves sometimes, but it's great to have siblings in shared isolation). I'm thankful for a job that allows me to work at home and gives me the time to check on others. I'm grateful for my wife's ability to support the local hospitals remotely.

My heart goes out to those with more imminent financial concerns and those suffering from illness or dealing with loved ones who are. I try to remember those sheltering alone and to know for some that is very hard (so check on them). I hope everyone is appreciative of what we do have and that we look for the bright side of every day and every moment. It is always there. There can be no light without darkness. Take care of yourselves and, if you're able, someone else too. Whether we know the names or not, we're all just playground brothers and sisters with a twinkle in our eyes and a longing for brighter days to return.

Monday, February 3, 2020

"I am a Giant"

J Bean was struggling with some homework. After working on it independently, I found her crying in despair over the assignment. It took some convincing, stern and loving, to remind her we don't give up. We don't shy away from challenges and that while I don't really care if she ever learns how to divide decimals, I certainly care a whole lot that she learns she is capable of anything and she can, in fact, do all things.
I gave her 15 minutes to collect herself then we regrouped and tackled the material. Now, when you're teaching your kids how to do math, it's best to sit and read as if you don't know a thing because it's probably not being the taught the same as when you learned. The computations might be the same, but the tricks and ways they ask you to think about it might not be. So I sat down, told her I was green at this approach too and we were going to learn it. At first she was frustrated and kept revisiting the recent failure... finally got her to let that go and focus on what we were learning. And I did learn it, I stopped and told her to be patient as I learned what she already knew so we could go past it together into your part she was struggling with. I explained the movement of the decimal and defined the quotient (the answer), the divisor (the one doing the dividing) and the dividend (the one being divided) and that helped to unlock the hieroglyphics for her. I illustrated that decimals were no harder than regular division. When I showed her how to move the decimal, the comprehension hit her eye with a flash. I don't think I've ever been so proud of her (and myself), the visible click in her eye changed her posture, her facial expression, her confidence and everything all at once. This must be the feeling lifelong teachers fall in love with, what a reward! Then I set her down with a problem to do on her own. Reassured her we weren't going to work on this all night, but told her I wanted to end on a success. She did the problem and did it right. We're actually behind on the lesson and she has some catching up to do tomorrow, but she got it. She can do it. She was all smiles and said, "Thank you for teaching me, Daddy." So after I scraped my melted heart up off the floor and before I sent her off to bed, I told her to stand on a chair in front of me. She giggled at the thought and asked why... "Just do it," I replied.
"Look at me, in my eyes. I wanted you up here because you are a giant, and I want you to see you how I see you."
She giggled nervously, eyes darting around. I had made sure the new arrangement had her looking down on me.
"None of your brothers and sisters are around, it's just you and me, so don't be embarassed. I just wanted you to know that you are capable of all things and that you are a giant. I mean that."
I told her, "Things are not always going to be easy. You're a smart kid and you're going to be challenged constantly, but I want you to know you are capable of anything, that's not just something I say. It's 100% true. I'm so proud of you for picking yourself up earlier, because that's hard (and I've been there)... look in my eyes, you think there is never a day when I don't think I can do what I need to do that day? There's plenty of them, kiddo, but I learned a long time ago what you just learned tonight. You collect yourself, you refocus, you come at it another way, you find help, you learn from somone because there is nothing you can't do, only things you can't do YET."
"Do you understand?"
"I think so, Daddy."
"Then tell me."
"Tell you what?"
"Tell me you're a giant."
"I'm a GIANT!"
"Yes, you are. So when you hear that little voice that was talking to you earlier, the one that had you crying in your robe and giving up.... I want you to smack that voice in the face <I slapped my hands together>... you tell that voice NO... I CAN DO ALL THINGS!"
"Do you believe me?"
"Will you do that for me next time? You come find me, you come find someone and we'll work through it together. Nothing is impossible and I'll always be there for you. I don't care about that assignment, but I do care about you knowing how to pick yourself up and carry on because there are going to be some tough days. Now give me a hug, because I'm very proud of you."
As I tucked her in a few minutes later, she said, "Daddy, you're wise." LOL, for some reason, that made me laugh and I told her that I wasn't always wise and that I learned the same way and that sometimes I forget, but that we both need to try our best not to. Curling up and crying is fine for a time, sometimes we need that, but then we get up and we try again. Same for us parents, right? I don't always show up like I intend to, but I keep trying and that's enough. Once in awhile, like tonight, I get it right.

Friday, March 15, 2019

Mindset... it always starts with you.

 Today as we took a look around a new park Link was in a particularly foul mood. I think he stayed up too late last night. In his mind, everything was against him. He didn't like the park (his sister thought it was the best park she had "ever been too"), he was tired, he was sweaty, the bugs were biting... if it could go wrong for him it did and even things that were not wrong were aggravating him.

I found myself telling him straighten up, turn your attitude around, decide to have a good time and you will immediately start having one. After passing on this advice a few times, I found myself getting aggravated because he was ungrateful and whiny. I was starting to snap with my responses. Suddenly it hit me... I was not following my own advice. Here I am telling him to start acting like he's having a good time and turn his attitude around in order to turn a bad day into a good one, but I was doing the exact opposite. I'm trying to teach him that external input is a small part of the equation. Events happen, good and bad... some we can control, most we cannot. What we do have total control over is our reaction. I took my own advice and examined my reactions. As we walked over the boardwalk we saw a creek and I excitedly told the kids to watch my leaf. I cast it off and they all watched with intensity as my leaf swung around the bend, almost caught on a limb and tumbled along the shallow sandy bottom out of sight.

One of Link's sisters said, "Let's race!" I agreed and encouraged Link to grab a red leaf nearby. Everyone had a leaf in the water and several were stuck. I told them all to try again, there is no limit to the race leaves you can use! Soon all were smiling and tossing in leaves as I announced the leaf race as if it were the Kentucky Derby. Link's smile soon spread to his mindset and the rest of the walk was pleasant. We all spoke in the car about mindset and how we worked together to change Link's. I told him I was proud of how he was able to turn his day around and rewarded them with some sprinkler time once we got home.

It always starts with ourselves. The only thing we can control. The sooner we learn that we cannot control others, even our children's emotions and feelings then the sooner we can look inward to find the way to help them by helping ourselves.

Sunday, March 3, 2019

Get Out Of Your Lane

It has been over 4 years since I last attended the Dad 2.0 summit. The last time I was there, I was in the throes of a separation and was heading back to the workforce after 5 years as a stay home dad. It was one of the most difficult times of my life as I had to say goodbye to a marriage and to my days full of my children and turn again to the corporate world.

I also had reached nearly 300lbs and was suffering from many weight related health issues. For a few years I flopped around in this limbo. I had bad habits, I had my children half the time and the other half I lived like I was a frat boy bachelor. My health spiraled further.

I was lucky enough to meet a woman who saw past my shortcomings and saw the version of myself that I had once sought. She loved me for the bits of that guy that still shined through. We started dating and were married about a year later. We blended our households and became the modern day Brady Bunch. We bought a house and started getting used to asking for a table for a half-dozen when we were out to eat. Unfortunately, my health did not improve much. I was happy and lost a bit of weight, but was still dealing with serious hypertension, high cholesterol and my blood sugar was on the rise into pre-diabetic levels.

After a year in our new home the doctor gave me some stern warnings and I decided that I needed to address my health. I reached out to a friend, started a nutritional program and lost 152 lbs combined (I lost 80 and my wife lost 72). It was during that time that I decided it was time to get out of my lane to change my body, my mind and my situation. I missed my time at home and made it my goal to find a way to support my family from home. Since the weight loss had changed my life so much, I looked into and became a health coach, soon I walked away from my previous career and have since helped over 60 people find healthier versions of themselves.

Then just last month, I attended the Dad 2.0 summit again, this time as a presenter and I had the amazing opportunity to speak with other parents about how they too could get out of their lane and make changes in their relationships, their jobs or any area of their lives with a clear goal, a plan and action. As usually, the summit was rejuvenating for me. To have the opportunity to rub shoulders with some of the best fathers on the planet (no kidding) and to rekindle friendships from those I only see online was amazing. This year was also a new experience, in that it was the first time I took my wife. It was fun to see her meet some of the characters from my online world in real life and for them to meet her and get to know her grace and kindness. We had an amazing vacation in San Antonio while attending the conference and she was able to see some of the movers and shakers I am always talking about.

It's nearly unbelievable to fathom how much a life can change, a person can change, in 4 short years. I just wanted to tell you all that your current reality does not have to dictate your future. It is never too late to make a change and to create the life you have dreamt of. Find your "why," set a goal, make a plan and do the work... that is how you change a dream to a reality.

I have so much to be thankful for and work everyday to pay it forward. If you have personal goals you seek to meet, go after it and do it hard. If I can help you in anyway, just reach out.

My wife and I when we met (above left) and now (above right and below).

Saturday, December 22, 2018

Father Time

A small white house nestled in the curve of a paved lane overhung by Live Oaks and Dogwood trees is the home of Mr. Odell. He is well over 90 years this year and I’m about 10 years old. My Mom takes us over to his house once in awhile and he attends our church in Ellenwood, Georgia. My Dad is new in his career as an airline pilot, so he’s gone for days at a time and Momma works to keep the cabin-fever away by taking us here and there for visits and activities.
Mr. Odell’s house is small, tidy, and quaint. Behind his house are grapevines and gourds as well as a small vegetable garden. He has birdfeeders made of gourds, planters made of gourds, gourd windchimes, birdhouses and bowls all from gourds. The old man loves to have us over and shows my sister and I his latest puzzle each time when we arrive. He works on thousand piece or bigger puzzles all the time. Placing each piece on a specially built table and then gluing the masterpiece to a wood or cardboard backing for display, though most seem to sit in endless stacks of a dank poorly lit room in the back of the house. I wonder at how he stares at the puzzles and a single piece for what seems like an eternity at times. The kitchen is small and bright and coffee is always brewing and there is a small porch out front.
Mr. Odell is a tall, wiry man with big hands and a white beard. He has a comically large and quick smile and a twinkle in his eye reminiscent of Saint Nic though he has none of the jelly bowl on his small frame. He has family, but none live nearby, and his wife passed decades ago. He occasionally pulls a smooth plank of metal out of his pocket and rubs it between his thumb and forefinger.
“What is that Mr. Odell?” I ask.
“Oh, this is a silver dollar I started carrying in 1910.”
I look wildly at him, this is 1987 and I’ve been around for 10 years. This relic of a man has been carrying this silver dollar since the turn of the century? It doesn’t look like a silver dollar. It’s the size of a quarter and completely smooth save one notch missing from one side. Mr. Odell explains that he carried the silver dollar on a chain for the first 30 years or so, but the chain eventually wore through the coin and he has since kept it loose. The coin resides in the small watch pocket on his denim overalls along with his pocket watch which was probably just as antiquated. I was envious as I could be and carried around my own silver dollar for a few weeks before losing interest and probably the coin. Mr. Odell also showed me a halfmoon sliver of metal from his front pocket, which he explained was his wedding ring that had also worn itself down to a shiny half-moon on his finger decades ago. He returns the items to his pockets as soon as I had a glimpse and a feel of them. We sit on the front stoop and watch black birds swoop across the horizon like a modern piece of pointillism come to life. He says nothing and sips on his lemonade.
Momma and Jessica are wandering around the grape orchard in the back and my little sister squeals with delight at the sight of a butterfly. Momma shows her how to pluck a honeysuckle and lick the nectar from the stigma of the flower after pinching off the calyx and pulling the tiny plunger through the flower. Squirrels quarrel noisily in a tree nearby. Mr. Odell slowly gazes toward the street again and puts a foot on a stump that is sawed off at table height. A car scoots by too fast and he mentions that cars are not too loud these days. “You gotta pay attention so as not get run over,” he says to me.
The idea was novel, so I asked what cars were like before. He laughed and stood, stretching his long bony skeleton like Don Quixote just came to life and stepped out of a Baroque painting. He hitched up his overalls, tucking his bony hands into the front flap. This pose signified the beginning of a story, so I waited with much anticipation. Mr. Odell began in his crackly centenarian’s voice, which still carried the weight of its former strength. “Well, one day when I was about your age, I sat here with old men from the area and they would tell yarns while spitting chaw or taking a nip from a flask when the women-folk were in the house. One man was prone to making bets… and let me tell you Eric… never take a bet. A man won’t offer it if he thinks he can lose; and never make a bet because one day you’ll be wrong, and you will lose big. Anyway, this fella told my Daddy that he bet a silver dollar he could move his hand before my Daddy could drop his hatchet on his finger there at that very stump. My Daddy took the bet and we all readied the area in anticipation since Old Paul wasn’t prone to losing a bet and my Daddy wasn’t prone to taking one. The table was set, and Paul had his hand on the stump…”
(“Pardon the pun”, Mr. Odell said and chuckled to himself, though I had no idea why at the time)
After wiping the smile off his face and letting the laugh die in his belly, Mr. Odell continued, “Well, ol Paul had his hand in a fist on the wood block with his pinky sticking out and my Daddy had his small prunin’ hatchet at the ready. After much deliberation about how this would start, it was decided that one man would count to three and my Daddy could drop the hatchet at any point after. Daddy even laid a couple of cumquats on the table to show Paul how he would do it. Two quick chops turned the fruits into four pieces as easy as a hot poker through butter. Now they were ready, and Mr. Johnson started counting. One… Two… Three… but as he said three, we all heard a commotion on the road. It was a motor vehicle and I, for one, and prolly most of them had never seen such a contraption. It was putting along with smoke belching out and an awful noise. ‘Look!’ I said. Just then we heard a hatchet dig into the stump. Daddy and Paul looked down wild-eyed and Paul put a handkerchief over the tip of his finger. The nub set on the block next to the cumquats and looked right at home, truth be told. They took Paul inside and Momma and them cleaned and cauterized his finger. It wasn’t so bad, he didn’t even lose a knuckle, but that’s how I got this here silver dollar.”
I watched him roll the smooth metal disc across his knuckles like it was floating on air before flipping it up and asking me “Heads or Tails?!” before placing it deftly back into it’s home. Heads or tails was another joke, since the smooth plank had no discernible features.
“Yeah, Ol’ Paul was alright, but he weren’t no fan of the horseless carriage after that.” Mr. Odell slapped his knee, and guffawed as he plucked a pomegranate from the tree, cut it in quarters with an old Case knife and tossed me a section. I have no idea if the story was true and don’t much care. When you’re older than everyone else, I guess you can tell whatever kind of story you want, who’s to say otherwise?
Momma and Jessica came back to the house and Momma asked what was so funny. “Oh nothing, just telling this little fella about the first car I ever saw,” he said and shot a wink in my direction.
We would bring him a covered dish once every week or two and enjoyed the yard and putting some puzzles together over the next year and eventually we moved away. It was before social media and I doubt Mr. Odell woulda been the Instagram type anyway, but I think of him from time to time. A kind man, with a kind heart and a great story to tell for any occasion. I know there is no possibility he still roams this Earth, but I will always envision him on that stoop watching the cars roll by while the dogwood blooms fall in the yard.
Goodbye Father Time, the idea of a coin in your pocket for nearly a hundred years was probably the first concept of time and aging I ever had and helped me to imagine that my life’s choices could affect me for far longer than I could imagine. Time can sand a ring into a sliver and wrinkle an old man into a gnarly tree, but it couldn’t extinguish the twinkle in his eyes until they closed for the last time.

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