27 Jun

Welcome to my fort

My kids did something last week that convinced me they’re not all that different than kids were several generations ago. With free time on their hands and a house full of toys, games and electronics, they shunned all the fancy stuff and built a fort.

Their fort-building enthusiasm made me question why we bother with apps and expensive game consoles when so much fun can be crafted from a king-sized bed sheet, wooden clothespins and a few chairs. The kids fortified their cozy castle with pillows dragged in from bedrooms, favorite Superman blankets and flashlights. Then they disappeared into the fort and played the rest of the afternoon.

This is the tent seen in the movie The Holiday. Cameron Diaz climbed into it for a visit.

After hearing hours of giggles from behind the linen walls, I couldn’t resist crawling in to have a look around. Our Beagle Charlie followed me in, wriggling excitedly as if he’d been let in on a secret.

Once inside the fort, three decades of time fell away and suddenly I was young again, too. I remembered crawling under my aunt’s coffee table on Sunday afternoons when I was a kid – pretending it was my own special hideaway. I’d lie on my belly and prop myself up on my elbows, sipping on a straw stuck into a cold can of Nestea. The air conditioning vent was right under the old coffee table and I’d eventually fall asleep there enveloped by cool air.

When grown-ups build houses, we want soaring ceiling heights and expansive windows – wide open spaces and rooms that flow into each other. But sometimes, especially during the heat of summer or the bitter winter, what feels best is a cozy, darkened space lit only by the flickering of a movie on television or lamplight shining on a great book. The so-called “man cave” which has become so popular in recent years is nothing more than a glorified fort of our childhood, complete with big screen T.V. and nachos.

At the end of the day, the practical parent in me almost made the kids clean up the mess – put away those pillows and fold up the bed sheets. But the kid in me didn’t want the magical fort to disintegrate into boring household things again. Under the big top of the kids’ imaginations, those sheets house adventures and whispered stories. They become the corner café serving up fruit chews and juice boxes to all who enter.

So we’ve left the bed sheet fort in place for the summer. It’s their home away from home inside our home. It’s a cool refuge on a blistering hot day. When their friends come over to play, it’s the first place they’re invited into, and the visitors always say the same thing once they’re inside: “Cool! Let’s pretend it’s a …” And then the pretended scenarios are as different as the kids themselves.

Just when you think today’s kids are all about texting and Xbox and Nintendo and growing up at a million miles per hour, they surprise you. They go and build an indoor fort and are thrilled with their efforts. They remind you that, at their core, kids are creators and the simplest building blocks are often the best.

By grown-up standards, our bonus room upstairs is a real mess– overtaken by fort construction and games, toys and books pulled in and out of those billowy walls. But every time I walk by it, my inner kid is delighted that some things never change. And it always makes me thirsty for a can of Nestea, nostalgic for a coloring book and eager for a cool summer nap in a hideaway all my own.

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20 Jun

The flip-flop frenzy

Recently we took the kids to an amusement park. While the boys and I rode the big stuff, Tom chaperoned Kate on kiddie rides because his stomach is less forgiving and he has a healthier respect for gravity.

As the boys and I climbed onto rides and roller coasters, I noticed that there are now flip-flop storage cubbies at the front of the lines. Ride attendants announce that you should stow your flip-flops and other loose items into a cubby so you won’t lose them.

Inevitably, when the flip-flop announcement was made, half the people in line slid out of their so-called shoes and tucked them into the cubbies where they would then retrieve them after the ride.

Being a rational person with a healthy curiosity, I couldn’t help but wonder: “Why would someone wear flip-flops to an amusement park?”

Flip-flops to the beach? Sure, that makes sense because the flip-floppy action makes it easy to shake sand out from between your toes.

But flip-flops in a place where you’re likely to turn upside down while experiencing G-forces? Not to mention the miles of walking from one end of the park to the other? Have flip-floppers lost their minds along with any sense of appropriate footwear.

I hate to sound like a snob but, let’s face it, the flip-flop is a poor excuse for a shoe. It’s a slab of flimsy rubber attached to a wimpy, y-shaped strap. There’s not even a hint of arch support or toe protection. (And yes, I’m aware of how old and un-hip it sounds to be advocating for sensible shoes.) Nevertheless, I say the flip-flop is a shoe slacker – a foot freeloader.

When someone loses a toenail during the summer, you can almost bet a flip-flop was involved. The day shoe design technology was being handed out, flip-flops were off smoking weed at the beach.

That being said, there’s no denying the wild appeal flip-flops have for millions of people. Flip-flop lovers claim they’re the most comfortable shoes in the world. But I never liked the feeling of a strap between my toes any more than I like the idea of thong underwear running through other more personal valleys of my anatomy. Just feels wrong. If that makes me a shoe prude, then so be it.

In my mind, the flip-flop’s greatest asset is the ease in which you can be in or out of them. It makes them handy for fetching the newspaper and checking the mailbox. But if, God forbid, you should need to break into a sudden sprint to run from danger (a snake, perhaps), flip-flops are not your friend. They will flip and flop right off your feet as you flee.

Despite what I see as their many faults, flip-flops have cultivated a loyal, almost fanatical base, having grown into a 2 billion dollar industry in America. Long before people in amusement parks wore them, the ancient Egyptians flipped and flopped around the Middle East in them. Flip-flops have even been found depicted in cave drawings.

Research shows they caught on in America in the 1950s after soldiers brought them home from Japan as souvenirs. In Japan, they were called Zori’s but Americans renamed them for the signature sound they make as they smack up against bare feet.

Flip-flops have come a long way since then and, I’ll admit, there are some really cute ones out there, bedazzled with jewels, sequins, polka-dots, flowers and more. Some brides are even ditching their heels for fancy bridal flip-flops.

But I, for one, still haven’t flipped for them. In my book, they’re all flop.

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17 Jun

The Father’s Day Top Ten List

One day Tom accused me of not being able to admit when I’m wrong. I told him he was probably wrong about that, but I did take his comment under advisement. Maybe I’m a tad stubborn when it comes to admitting when my way isn’t the best way.

So for a Father’s Day gift, I told Tom and my dad I’d write a list of things they’ve been right about. They looked dubious. “I’ll even publish it,” I said, taking it a step further.

“And then you’ll say it’s the shortest column you ever wrote, right?” Tom asked, taking the punch line right out of my mouth.

It took brutal honesty to come up with the list, but here it is documented for the world to see: “Top 10 Things the Men Were Right About.”

10. “Things add up.” Tom, remember when you started grousing about the bills and I pointed out that the new clothes I bought were on sale? And then you said all those sale prices add up? Well… okay. You were right. I suppose there’s no arguing with math.

9. “That rock music is too loud.” Dad, the years have proved you right. Music really can be too loud, and these days it gets on my nerves when it is. But lately I find myself wanting to say the same thing to you when you and your aged ears insist on watching the History Channel at a volume so loud it shakes the windows.

8. “Ugly recliners are comfortable.” Yes, Tom, you’re right about the hideous recliner. It feels like sitting in a bag of jumbo marshmallows. But I still contend it’s better to have an attractive chair you don’t have to hide from houseguests rather than a cowhide version of the Michelin Man.

7. “Lectric Shave removes stains.” For decades, my dad has insisted on the all-purpose stain removing power of his after-shave lotion – a bottle of green liquid called “Lectric Shave”. He uses it on everything. I’ll admit that I, too, have stashed a bottle away for emergencies, and I’ve even used it to remove permanent ink. But it makes me wonder, Dad, if you should be using industrial strength cleaner on your skin.

6. “Don’t assume the worst.” Tom says my mind always jumps to the worst-case scenario about everything. I worry too much, he insists. He may be right about that, but then again I worry that maybe he’s not – which probably proves his point.

5. “A little dirt won’t kill you.” Having three kids is like living in a germ-filled petri dish. So Dad was right. If a little dirt killed you, we’d be long gone by now.

4. “It’s the same thing.” I had to hear it from a pharmacist to confirm it, but you were right about the over-the-counter medicines, Tom. The generic stuff will relieve the headache I’m getting from admitting you’re right.

3. “It is what it is,” Tom says every time there’s a situation I don’t like but can’t change. Frustrating but true.

2. Maybe I do snore – a little. Our three kids have recently backed up your claim. But if I do snore, I’m sure it’s a dainty, ladylike snore that’s not worth mentioning in the first place.

1. “I know more than you think I do.” Despite the occasional eye roll to the contrary, yes – you guys do actually know a thing or two. Perhaps women don’t always give you credit.

And here’s the one thing I know for sure: You’re both great dads, and I’m lucky to have you. Happy Father’s Day.

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07 Jun

Letter to my middle child

Dear Jack,

Eight years ago tonight, we met for the first time. I was the exhausted woman with the lovely epidural drip. You were the very red, very loud newborn who came roaring into the room at 11 p.m. You fit into my arms like a puzzle piece, and I marveled at your perfect skin and wavy hair.

Your brother didn’t warm up to you as instantly as Dad and I did. He ignored you those first few months because he was only 2 years old and unimpressed when you came home and did nothing but eat, sleep and spit up on people. But one day, after several months of taking no notice of you, he walked by the baby swing where you were nestled and reached out to pat you gently on the head. You smiled up at him. After that, you were “in”. He couldn’t deny your charm.

Speaking of charm, you’ve always had plenty. Sure, you had your share of toddler temper tantrums, but you also had an irresistible twinkle in your eyes that made even the most trying days manageable.

Jack at age 3 wearing alligator boots

One spring you fell in love with a pair of green rubber rain boots with alligators on them. Because you were the second child, I’d learned to pick my battles and footwear didn’t make the list. So I let you wear your beloved rain boots everywhere. And people would stop to comment on your cute boots, which made you beam and love them all the more.

But I don’t think it was the boots that turned heads. It was the way you wore them with such a natural swagger. Not everyone is cool enough to make rubber boots look cool, but you did.

When you started preschool, I didn’t worry because you already had an easy way with people. Every time I see you in action, I wonder how someone as outgoing as you came from someone like me. You’re the kid who makes friends everywhere he goes. One of these days, you should teach me how you do it.

I dropped you off at a friend’s birthday party a few weeks ago, and when you walked through the door, four boys yelled your name and rushed to meet you with hugs and high fives. I felt like the mother of a little rock star.

But your magnetic personality isn’t what I love most about you. It’s your heart. Oh boy, is it big. It makes mine swell with pride every time I think of all the times I’ve watched you put your own wishes aside in order to make someone else happy. You do it instinctively, so I know God must have made you this way.

I never put much stock in birth order stereotypes, but seeing how you broker peace treaties between an older brother and younger sister has made me think maybe there’s something to it after all. You’re the creamy white filling between rigid sibling cookies. You make it work, and they love you for it.

You play one-on-one basketball with your brother and easily transition into playing make-believe with your little sister, and you’re somehow equally happy doing both.

They say the middle child often gets overlooked, and I hope we never make you feel that way. You deserve attention, and I want you to feel as special as you are.

So happy eighth birthday, Jack. I’m immensely proud of the person you’ve been ever since you came roaring into my hospital room. And I’m blessed to have this front row seat to watch where you and your tender heart go from here.

Love,

Mom

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02 Jun

Is downtime a dirty word?

When our daughter Kate was almost 3, I walked into the living room and caught her climbing the wall – literally. She’d scaled a wingback chair and stepped from the top onto a window ledge. Balancing on the thin strip of wood, she grabbed the window casing near the ceiling. When I spotted her, she was hanging by her fingertips, smiling widely over her gravity-defying achievement.

That was the day I enrolled her in gymnastics. Right away, she loved it.

Fast forward three years and thousands of cartwheels later, Kate has been asked to participate in a preliminary program for a competitive gymnastics team. They say she has a natural ability, which is something I realized that day she climbed the wall with relative ease.

I should be happy Kate can advance and compete in a sport she loves. But something about it is unsettling. As the kids get older, I’m hearing more from fellow parents about how extra-curricular activities have changed from simple hobbies into full-fledged obsessions.

Today, sports are serious business, requiring more time and money than ever before. Competitive teams, including those with kids in elementary school, are expected to travel to compete against teams in cities as far as five to 10 hours away from home. Not just once or twice a year but as many as 10 times per season. Weekends are all about the next trip, the next game, the next hotel room.

In addition to time, there are hard costs. Gymnastics meets typically have fees ranging from $60 to $120 per event. With as many as 10 meets per year plus travel, lodging, instruction, and uniform expenses, the total easily soars over the two thousand-dollar mark. One sports father and blogger at StatsDad.com kept an online running tally of his family’s expenses for soccer and baseball-related costs, and the year-long total came in at more than $8,000.

But it’s hard for parents to say no when it’s something we assume is “good” for our kids. Author Mark Hyman recently published a book called “The Most Expensive Game in Town: The Rising Cost of Youth Sports and the Toll on Today’s Families.” In his eye-opening analysis, Hyman says when it comes to sports and our kids, “We have a hard time distinguishing between supporting them and feeding our runaway ambitions for them. The difference isn’t apparent until long after the credit card has been swiped.”

The money is one thing, but what’s bothering me more is pure logistics. Yesterday I sat in an informational meeting for parents whose kids are about to enter competitive gymnastics. The coach ran through a list of “commitments” we should be ready to make, including multiple weekend trips to long-distance meets with our 6-year-old gymnast in tow.

But we have three kids playing three different sports where the seasons overlap. How can we make that work? Our only option is to split up so one of us can chaperone this kid while the other shuttles a brother or sister to a different game.

Families typically spend five days a week going in different directions for work and school. The weekends should be our time to be together – not separately crisscrossing the tri-state area in search of a cheap hotel rate and another check-mark in the win column.

Not long ago, downtime was a normal part of childhood, but it’s been replaced with practices, trips and game schedules. Are we trading in quality of childhood for quantity of achievement? Are kids winning games and losing something much more important?

I certainly don’t have it figured out. But the questions are there, and they’re alarming ones.

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