Life is absurd. And life is precious. Family is a lot of both.

Friday, March 30, 2012

The Pro Circuit

Sometimes my husband gets to have all the fun.

Take last weekend when he yanked off the training wheels for Child #5 once and for all! We've done this for the same kid once and for all at least three times before. Teaching kids to ride a bike is a lot like teaching them to use the potty. That is, some children take right to it and make you feel like a professional coach. And some kids make you feel like a professional loser.

Number 5 has never liked the feeling he calls "wibbly wobbly". It took us a while to get that, but made sense when we recalled that he never liked the baby swing, was terrified of sliding down the pole at the playground, and long refused to climb a ladder even on his bunk bed. Yes, he may have vertigo issues, but at age 7 the reliance on training wheels was getting a little ridiculous. So off they came. Again. Only this time Superdad was super serious.

Our #5 is no different than the rest of his siblings in that he talks a lot. And as I watched him struggling with that wibbly wobbly bike while Superdad held on to the back of his seat and they went round and round the circle, his mouth never stopped moving. Superdad reported later that the one-sided conversation went like this: "This is really a bad idea. I really don't think this is a good idea. I don't like this idea. This is really a bad idea." Superdad also reported that listening to that one-sided conversation while jogging hunched over going round and round the circle is a quick way to develop a migraine.

I stepped out to check their progress about an hour into the training session. It was clear that the bike rider had the concept. He was upright, pedaling and balanced well on his two wheels. For about five feet. Then, each and every time he got going he just planted his shoes to stop the bike and picked up his bad idea chorus. Superdad impressed me by not tossing the bike and its rider over the fence. What's more frustrating than a kid who CAN do something but just WON'T?!

"Listen, buddy," he said. "We are not stopping until you ride around this entire circle without stopping. Do you hear me? No dinner, no potty breaks, we're not going inside to sleep until you KEEP PEDALING!" Superdad was getting his cape a little bit into a wad. Unflustered, #5 planted his shoes and pointed to a tiny notice printed on the side of his bike. "Can't do that, Dad," he replied. "It says right here that it's dangerous to ride a bicycle after dark."

To Superdad's credit, he laughed.

It didn't take long until everything clicked -- like it always does eventually -- and our newest bike rider was off and zooming. Round and round the circle he flew, still talking all the while. Only now he'd changed his tune to, "Look at me! I'm a super good rider. Check out my tricks!"

Superdad collapsed on the grass beside me as we watched. After a while our little guy squealed to a stop, high-fived his dad, and proclaimed before taking off again, "You know, if you ever give up your job as a ninja, you could be a professional bike teacher."

"Ninja?" I asked.

"Well, yeah," Super(Ninja?!)dad answered with a grin. "I told him my job in the city is being a professional ninja and he believes me. I'm not ready to break it to him that I'm just a lawyer."

I laughed so hard I felt downright wibbly wobbly.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Stylish...with Children

I adore parents who make big families look cool. And lately I think there is no one as cool as the Novogratz family. In case you haven't heard of them because you don't inhale HGTV and magazines like I do, they are a couple of decorators who have seven kids (all theirs), yet exude that aloof, stylish factor that is almost always mutually exclusive with parenthood. Almost...but not always thanks to these genius people who somehow manage to combine nine lives into one amazing lifestyle. Am I gushing? Yes, I am. And not just because I'm envious of their creativity and business success. Mostly because I want to know how in the world they get so many people to agree to such a funky, out-of-the-box aesthetic. (Want examples? Click here for fun at home with Rob and Cortney. Yes, I feel we should be on a first-name basis.)

We only have eight people in our family but there are enough opinions running rampant to make it seem more like 16. Or 24. Consider the day our enormous sectional couch was delivered. It was a joyous occasion given that our former seating arrangement had involved one love seat and two small chairs. Family movie night meant a pile of beanbags dragged from other rooms and a lot of complaining. I liked the way our small furniture didn't overwhelm the living room, but had to agree that being able to pile together on one couch would be nice. And it was. Until we started arguing about where to place it.

In my opinion, the person who comparison shopped, did the sit test, chose durable upholstery, scored a great deal and negotiated the terms of delivery should have ruled. But I was overthrown in a very noisy coup. It was decided by the decidedly un-expert decorators that the couch should sit on an angle directly in front of the television. From the back of the crowd I suggested placing it against the wall to leave more open space but was quickly, fervently, rudely I think, shut down with the ultimate argument: "We won't be able to see the TV as well." Fine, I agreed. And then I spent the next four months with a crick in my neck (it was too close to the screen) and a bruise on my hip (the corner seemed to jump out and attack me at least once a week).

Then came the day of the Christmas tree. Absolutely the only way our 9-foot tree would fit  in our living room was to move the couch. To the wall. When it came time that night to watch Elf I noticed we were all seated together and I heard not one complaint about seeing the screen. I, being an expert, kept my mouth shut.

Then came the day the Christmas tree came down. Suddenly there was a chorus of "Hey, let's leave the couch like this." and "I think it looks better with more space in here." and "Why didn't we put it here in the first place?"

After retreating to my room to pound my pillow (an effective parenting tool, by the way), I just smiled at them in acknowledgment that it's really a good thing I live with so many experts.

The big comfy couch against the wall...perfect!
So, Rob and Cortney, here's my biggest question. I read that you two have similar tastes. But surely out of your seven offspring, someone wants a more (or less even) traditional stamp on his or her clothing or bedroom. Surely. Do you put down your ultra-cool cowboy boot-clad foot if one of the kids wants to wear Crocs? Do you threaten grounding to the kid who asks for a Pottery Barn quilt? Is there no allowance for she who wants to spend her money on a "Wizards of Waverly Place" lunchbox?

I'll likely never get a chance to ask these style gurus my question in person. But I think I may have found the answer when I read about how they named their children. I guess Wolfie, Bellamy, Tallulah, Breaker, Five, Holleder, and Major never had a fighting chance to buck the uber-cool vibe their parents have set.

In hindsight I'm wishing we'd named our kids Aretas, Epaphroditus, Pleasance, Naaman, Salihah and Airic. Unusual, yes. But each one has a meaning that includes something about being agreeable.

And I could use a lot more being agreeable around here. Especially now that I am in the market for a really great coffee table.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Traveling Circus

When I boarded a flight last month with my baby, the two men occupying the front row would not make eye contact with me. "Sorry, guys," I said as I slid into the middle seat, "but it's gonna happen." I didn't want to jinx us by bragging on what a happy traveler this little one has been, but by the time we touched down in Dallas, he'd won them both over and the passengers around us cooed and complimented his sweet smile as we disembarked.

I know how nice this story is because I have lived the exact opposite. It was a flight 13 years ago so horrific that my husband stood and apologized to the entire plane full of people once we landed. So bad that not a single one of them said, "Oh, it's okay. He's cute." No one. We scurried off that flight feeling emotional daggers of hatred being flung at our backs. Well deserved daggers, if you ask us. Yes, it was that bad. Really. Bad.

We are what you could call semi-professional travelers with children. Thanks to the global needs of the Army, we have logged more than 200,000 miles with at least one member of our party under the age of 2. We did the math because we like to remind ourselves why we look so tired.

Among our adventures:

  • A road trip to a graduation ceremony involving two toddlers and a pregnant mother driving alone, staying overnight at a riverside cabin straight out of a horror movie, and not sleeping at all.
  • A train trip in Germany involving a dead car battery, a two-mile hike with four children to the station in pouring rain, and an emergency stop at a pharmacy for antacid.
  • A four-hour drive to Poland in a blizzard with three children, a baby, and a nanny crammed into an undersized station wagon, only to arrive and find the accommodations had no heat.
  • A gondola ride to our lodge at the top of a Swiss mountain on a vacation which included an overheating car, a near-disastrous bicycle crash, and a case of mild hypothermia for the 6-year-old.
  • A Christmas flight home from Germany while Dad was deployed. This one involved four children, an extremely pregnant mother, a pat down at the airport (in hindsight OF COURSE they thought I was a crazy person), and a lot of tears.
  • A 16-hour race home from Colorado involving another blizzard, a diaper explosion, and an enormous toy that had to be wedged in and out of the backseat every time we stopped for a potty break.
  • A last-minute trek across five states for a funeral that involved one harried dad, five children, two dogs, two fish, and an unhappy parakeet.

I could go on (see Carry On Baggage), but you probably wouldn't believe me and this list is more than long enough to explain a couple of things to our dear children.

Here's the deal, kids. We wouldn't have this gray hair and those worry lines if we were, say, vacationing on the beach all alone these past 18 years.

And if you love us you will never, ever again ask to go to Disney World. Blame it on post-traveling stress disorder, but just the thought of it gives us the shakes.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

I'm (Not) #1!

Yesterday brought a professional disappointment in the form of a rejection email. It's not as dramatic to click and open: "Great piece. It's just not right for us at this time. Keep writing!" as it was back when I had to tear open a self-addressed, stamped envelope that arrived in a stack of mail. But the sting is the same.

I wonder if I will ever get mature enough to keep rejection from clouding my day. I am fully aware that the world is crammed with writers far more eloquent and clever than I. And I know very well that writing, once you nail the grammar rules, is a subjective exercise. I suspect mathematicians never feel rejected professionally. Numbers either add up or not. No opinion gets in the way of what's right and what's wrong.

When I was a young writer (and soon to become a young mother) the prevalent message was "You can have it all!" I think "having a bit of both" is more realistic. "All" is just too much to wrap up and hold in two arms. (Honestly, if you have help in the form of nannies, house cleaners, trainers, etc., you actually have what you want and have delegated the rest. And good for you who can afford to do so.)

The problem with having a bit of both is that I will likely never be outstanding at either. Most days I'd say I am a good mom. And most days I'd say I am a good writer. But there's not really a day when I'd say I am great at either. And I can promise there's not a day when I can say I am great at both. Throw the good wife role into the mix and it's tough to even pick up what I choose to carry on any given day.

I'm not ever going to be that mom who makes a hot breakfast every morning, but I will make sure we have your favorite cereal and enough syrup for the frozen waffles. I'm never going to hit a bestseller list, but I will keep writing and trying to improve. I'm probably not going to greet my hubby with his slippers and a daily massage, but I will do what it takes so he doesn't forget that he's my favorite person.

Maybe maturity is figuring out that running in the middle of the pack is just fine. Superstars up front. Slackers in the back. Those of us with our hands full can keep each other company.