Friday, October 25, 2013

Stealing Hubcaps with Dad

Before it became fashionable, my Dad did something not many parents did:  he took each of his children to work with him.  As a college professor, Dad could choose to include his children in his working life more than, say, a sergeant in the army or a member of the S.W.A.T. team.  Although it took a little effort, keeping track of us and entertaining us, Dad thought it was important to show his kids—individually—what he did for a living. 

Each time he brought me to his work, he would introduce me and say to the class, “I bring my kids to work so they don’t think I steal hubcaps for a living.”  That statement, while succinct, reveals much more than my Dad’s anathema to stealing—plus, I don’t know if my Dad would be good at stealing hub caps.

Dad’s effort to include us into his work life produced in us the curiosity that kids who did not visit their parent’s work have.  Those days at the school gave us a hint of his world, introducing us to the passion in his life.  I grew up with some kids whose father was the silent monolith who came home and weighed down the couch for a few hours before he passed out. They “knew” their father, but they didn’t really understand what made him tick.  I’m not saying that a few visits to the school where he taught revealed the inner secrets of his soul, but I could see why he spent many of his waking hours there at the college.

I never lived through one of those days with Dad without seeing a different side of him.  At the college, he wasn’t the authoritarian parent, but the tour guide to the rest of his life.  I got to see him as a professor, a person in charge of teaching all these cool kids, and he was able to teach me a little about his world.  Those days showed me more about my Dad than weeks of living in our home with him.  He was excited about what he did, and his interactions with students showed us that he was capable of something else other than hauling in groceries from the car or mowing the lawn.   They respected him and he loved teaching them.

As with most boys, school itself was a jagged little pill we had to swallow daily.  Aside from recess and lunch, school wasn’t the best place in the world for a Towles boy.  Yet Dad’s excursion to school allowed us to see a different part of school that most kids couldn’t see until they started shopping for colleges to attend. 

To a 10-year-old kid, a college campus is like Disney World.  It’s familiar, but nothing like I’d ever seen.  College was school, but it didn’t seem like anyone did any studying.  These students were adults, but they looked like kids.  And every college student was cool.  Every single one.  And my Dad was the person who introduced me to all these cool college kids.

Taking us to school with him was an individual time, where each one of us got to spend the entire day with Dad, beginning with the drive in to work.   With a boiling cauldron of pre-adolescent humanity greeting him at the house whenever he came home, you would think that one-on-one time would be an added tour of duty.  Yet Dad made it special.  On the way to school, he would put me to work.  Since I made him get there later than usual, he would let me help him on the drive to the college.  Dad would give me the list of students and make me call out their names while he prayed for each one.  I wasn’t there, flipping with the radio channels or asking ten thousand questions.  By the time we got through praying for the students, we were there on campus, ready for the day.  He would tell me which class we were visiting and what we were learning that day.  He would tell me where to sit and what page of the book the class was learning.  (I got to carry college books.  I was the man.) 

I was introduced to almost every student he had in the class.  Meeting all those people was terrific, but it wasn’t the best part.  The classes were great, but they weren’t the best part.  Missing school was a terrific idea, but that wasn’t what I looked forward to the most.  You know what I loved the most?  The food.  Yep, the cafeteria at the college where my Dad taught was awesome.  I could eat all I wanted to eat, and I actually wanted to eat all I could.  Unlike the food at my school, college food tasted good, and Dad and I would fill up on what college students actually ate:  waffles, cookies, and Pepsi.   

I am sure that those visits to the college were a great break for my teachers, but that wasn’t why my Dad brought me to school.  After those visits to the school, I not only knew more about my Dad’s work, I knew more about my Dad.  We spent one-on-one time and we found out about each other. 

As I am a parent now, I want those days with Jonah, where he can see what I’m doing at work and why I’m doing it.  I don’t want my son to go through life wondering where I go when I leave in the morning, and, more importantly, why I’m leaving to go to work.  I learned a lot about my Dad during those days at work.  I learned that my Dad is a shameless teacher, willing to be goofy to make a point.  I learned that he walks really fast from his office to the classroom, and he drinks coffee constantly.  I learned that he will eat almost anything.  Doesn’t sound like much, but to a ten-year-old boy, it was the Rosetta Stone of my Dad’s life. 

Most of the stuff I learned during those visits didn’t even involve conversation, but when we talked, it was important.  It was important for me as a boy to learn that men need to talk to each other … that Dads need alone time with sons … that men are not born, they’re raised.  He taught me that Dads talk to their kids because Dads care.   Those trips to the college taught me that Dads weren’t big silent monoliths who ignored their family.  He taught me that Dads were active.  Dads aren’t mysterious demi-gods who raise kids from on high.  My father is many things to me, but mysterious and aloof are not a part of those things.  I know Dad because he chose to hang out with me—a tough thing to do with a ten-year-old boy—and he talked to me.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Jonah's First Pictures

We’d been getting some slight pressure from some sectors of our family who shall remain nameless—Mom—to get a professionally-done photo of the kid.  To be honest, I really don’t like those pictures where the kid still looks more like an alien than a Towles.   So, our waiting was part planning and part we-don’t-have-time-to-do-this-in-between-feeding-clothing-sleeping-and-burping this little monster. 

As we were at home dressing for this event, Sunday asked me, “What should Jonah wear?”  It was a very important question, one that would impact how we would see the little guy for years to come.  Important question.  Wrong person asked.  I looked at Jonah and he usually smiled at me.  I didn’t mind if wore the overalls instead of the blue jeans.  It didn’t matter to me.  As a father, I did not care what the kid wears for most of these occasions.  On top of that, if I did make the choice, it would probably not look as good as if Sunday made the decision.

Fortunately, Sunday and I have the “if it doesn’t matter to me, then you make the decision” conversation.   This conversation says that if one of us does not care about the outcome of a situation, then the other person can make the decision on his/her own.  For instance, I usually don’t care what we eat for dinner.  My favorite food is “leftovers.”  Doesn’t matter, usually.  For Sunday, she actually has to have food that tastes good.  I require food in the correct abundance.  Thus, if we’re going out to eat, she’ll choose where we’ll go, as long as there is enough of it to fill me up. 

For our pictures, she made the call, and we left with jeans on, but different shirts. 

As we entered the picture place, I realized a few things:

One: the picture place looks like every other picture place on the planet.  From Tallahassee to Tel-Aviv, the same cheesy pictures on the wall, the same props and the same nasty carpet.  Never enough seats, and never any reading material. 

And we wonder why we waited so long to get pictures done…

Two: the person taking the picture NEVER looks like he/she should be working with the public.   The woman who took Jonah’s picture needed to slap on some deodorant and drag a comb through her hair.  A toothbrush would have also been a great idea, too.

Three: the posing suggestions always make me nervous.

The first thing the picture person, a.k.a. “nature girl” tells me to do is take off my shoes.  I thought she felt uncomfortable around people who regularly wore shoes.  (Remember, we lived in Kentucky).  Then, she had me stand up on the large box that we should have been sitting on for the picture.  I am wondering where she’s going with this, especially since she now has a great camera shot at my quadriceps. 

But then, the magic happened. 

She redeemed herself like no other.  She stood Jonah up in front of me and I held his hands way above his head.  He smiled, stuck out his tongue, and the woman took his picture.  Cutest thing you ever saw. 

There’s something you need to know about Jonah.  He is a personable little guy who likes to laugh and coo at people.  His most endearing habit, in my opinion, though, is his penchant for sticking out his tongue.  He smiles, toothless, with tongue protruding.  He screams, mouth agape, with tongue protruding.  He sleeps, lips pursed, with tongue protruding.  He’s like a lizard or something.  Every picture we took had him smiling with his tongue out.  It was a good time. 

I got out of there with my boy happy, my wife happy, and with my shoes on. 

Friday, October 11, 2013

Terror Nightmares and One Frozen Baby

Please note:  this week's blog talks about my son's out-sized ability to sleep.  If you're reading this, and your kids didn't sleep through the night until they were in the second grade, I'm giving you a trigger-warning for jealousy.  My kids (both of them) slept through the night around week 5ish. (ok, week 4).  

If you talk to anyone who’s been with Jonah for any length of time, you know that sleep is not his problem.  In fact, within a ten-minute buffer, we can pretty much tell when he’s “going down town.”  So, we had a slight scare this month when he started waking up in the middle of the night screaming.  

My younger brother, Luke, used to wake up in the middle of the night screaming.  For a seven-year-old kid, seeing his younger brother wake up screaming and not waking up is pretty frightening, and I haven’t forgotten those nights.  It was even worse because Luke didn’t say much, so his screaming was completely opposite the way he usually behaved.  On top of that, Luke used to sleepwalk and sleeptalk.  To be honest, those times were a little funnier than the terror dreams, mostly because he’d say stuff like, “I’m not gonna talk to that woman over there in the corner,” or “Where Am I?” 

For a little boy like me, it was better than TV.

So I began thinking…

My first thought:  He’s having terror nightmares like Luke used to have.  I was having visions of Jonah coming into our room in the middle of the night, screaming his head off or telling me strange, sleep-induced riddles.   While much entertainment can be had by Luke sleepwalking, I didn’t want to have to deal with Jonah in the middle of the night like that.

My second thought:  Maybe he’s hungry.  We all know that eating in the middle of the night runs in the family.  I still don’t think Dad sleeps through the night without eating a bowl of cereal.

My third thought:  If I stay still long enough, Sunday will get up and see what his problem is.  We’ve all done it.  Admit it.  The old “frozen man” routine works from time to time.  It’s a beautiful thing. 

We did crack the code, though.  As the summer began, we would turn off the air conditioning, leaving the apartment comfortable during the day.  At night, though, Sunday likes to administer some light snuggling and it gets a little hot under the covers, in a manner of speaking.  (Thinking of beach scenes or libraries will eliminate those visuals you’re getting right about now).  Well, we would turn on the AC so that Sunday and I wouldn’t be so hot at night.   

We didn’t realize that Jonah’s room was getting a little more AC than we were.  On top of that, we had the humidifier cranking in the room, too.  He was crying at night because he was cold.  My man was like Chilly Willy up in there.  He could have held glasses of ice tea in each hand, just to warm himself up.  I have never felt so bad for a kid.  We ended up dressing him in one of those pajama things that looks like a bag with arms in it.  Then, we put those mittens on his hands.  It’s rough when you gotta get Nanook of the North’s wardrobe to help your son sleep through the night.

On top of that, we really thought all that bragging about his sleep talent was catching up to us.  Big relief when we figured it out.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Imbecile Dad Stuff, Part II (The snakebite)

My father acted in ways that defined himself as a father while still being a full-fledged parent.  He didn’t act as an extension of my mother.  At times, we certainly wished he did, but he didn’t. 

Here’s one major bit of evidence.

Dad came home from jogging one day, carrying a two-foot-long blacksnake.  He wanted to show us what it looked like, allowing us to hold it, look at it and otherwise keep it from biting us. 

Bottom line, Dad didn’t mind introducing us to danger.  By danger, I don’t mean anything that could kill us or maim us permanently.  I’d call that mortal danger, which is much different from plain, run-of-the-mill danger.  Mortal danger involves safety ropes, parachutes, oxygen tanks, and rabid dogs, cut brake lines and ticked-off grandmothers.  These scenes of mortal danger are not the issues that my Dad took on for lessons.  My Dad, to put it bluntly, has an equal fear of heights and angry octogenarians.  Thus, he only taught us about the danger around us.   

Run-of-the-mill danger represents the normal, every-day things that a boy might encounter.  In our world, a black snake was a normal “danger.”  Where we lived, snakes were common and snakes needed to be encountered.  And Dad brought it to us.  Taught us how to hold it.  Not poisonous.  Not deadly. 

And that was the message.  “Go ahead, take it.  It’s NOT POISONOUS.”  Dad’s reason for bringing us a live, two-foot black snake was simple:  he wanted to show us danger in a father-controlled way.  He showed us to see what black snakes looked like, to hold them safely, and to admire the power and beauty of such an animal.  He wanted to ensure that we would be able to recognize real danger in the woods where we played and in the backyard where we spent most of our time.  “This black snake won’t hurt you in a serious way.” Dad’s lessons were real for our lives as young boys who loved the outdoors.  The snake was a moving, writhing lesson in a controlled environment. 

Unfortunately, the environment changed.  For some reason Dad had to leave to go to work, and Mom hadn’t gotten back from her job, so it was my older brother’s task to “hold down the fort” until Mom got back.   By the way, if you want to have a snake in the house, and you want your fourteen-year-old boy to “hold down the fort” until Mom gets back, then tell them what to do when—not if—someone gets bitten by the snake.  Namely, tell the boys to keep their traps shut. 

Dad must have been confident in his snake safety lesson, because as he was leaving, Dad said, “Just throw that snake outside when you’re done with him.”  With that, he skipped out of the house, confident that we had learned the valuable lesson of snake handling.  Unfortunately for Dad, young boys don’t usually hold to “safety” lessons for long after the safety person leaves. 

Needless to say, I began doing something stupid with the snake—I honestly don’t remember what—and the snake didn’t take too kindly to such treatment. 

Now most of the time, black snakes are not very aggressive.  They avoid contact with animals larger than mice and other vermin they eat.  Black snakes often squirm off to safety whenever humans come around and they usually don’t mind being handled, but only when the handler has respect for the snake. 

I didn’t have respect for the snake.

Thus, the snake craned its body around to my hand and sunk its fangs in my young flesh.  A surreal pause in my life occurred there, with the snake buried in my hand, and I…..began…….run.

I sprinted outside, disconnected the snake from my hand, and threw it in the open field beside our house.

I ran back into the house and yelled with triumph, “I got bit by the snake!  I got bit by the snake!”  My brothers crowded around me with jealousy.  The two small puncture wounds had begun to bleed and the real envy flowed.  They wanted a snakebite too. 

By the time the envy had subsided, however, we really hadn’t had the lesson on “what to do when you get bitten by a snake.”  So my older brother had the great idea to call Mom to ask her what we should do.

I shall now explain a phenomenon that most people experience, but do not often see explained.  This phenomenon occurs when two dissimilar groups attempt communication:  Male to female, Parent to child, Voter to Politician.  One group may communicate a message, but that doesn’t mean the other group hears the same message.   

Thus, the problem with my older brother’s phone call revealed an early lesson in communication.  This is what my brother said, “Dad left a snake here for us to play with and it bit Matt.  What should we do?”

This is what my mother heard:  “Dad brought home an ultra-poisonous black mamba snake and it swallowed Matt.  We can see him through the snake’s body.  Oh look!  Matt’s waving to us through the snake’s skin.  Isn’t that neat that Matt can be swallowed whole like that by a snake that Dad himself brought home?   Does this mean we’ll have better vacations now that Matt is no longer taking up all that money with his clothing and food requirements? What should we do?”

Mom was nonplussed.  As she began questioning my brother, he began forgetting a few details, like, what kind of snake was actually in the house in the first place.  Not good.  Not good at all.

Mom quickly got off the phone with Joe and called Dad.  After a number of intense conversations, Mom and Dad came to an understanding.    You might think that Mom demanded that no more serpents be invited into the home.  You’d be wrong.   You might think that Mom demanded that we, as boys, never be allowed to encounter wild animals picked up on the side of the road.  Wrong again.  You might even think that Mom would require Dad to temper his “danger training” to us boys.  You’ve just struck out. 

No, Mom knew that Dad’s training was important, not only because it allowed us to recognize dangerous situations, but also because it taught us how to handle them when they went wrong.  Sure, I was bitten by a non-poisonous snake.  But we didn’t hide it.  We didn’t even try to lie about it.  Joe said it the way it happened.  “Dad brought a snake home for us to play with.”  That’s what happened. 

Mom knew that, while bringing a snake home is unusual for many parents, it allowed us to know more about our surroundings.  After he brought that snake home, we could recognize a black snake (nonpoisonous), but we could also recognize other snakes (poisonous) that we may have encountered.  We went away knowing what could hurt us and what could not hurt us. 

Mom simply wanted to notified.  That’s it.  If Dad was going to bring something home—and he often did—she wanted to know about it.   She even wanted to be in on the experience. 

Happily, the result of the calls and intense conversations did not include what many television shows or movies include.  At the end, Dad wasn’t an idiot.  Heck, he wasn’t even wrong.  Mom saw to it that we didn’t consider our Dad an imbecile simply because he viewed parenting differently than she viewed it.