Thursday, December 30, 2010

From the bucket...

Due to a virulent puking bug that has worked its way through our entire family, I do not have a post ready for this week. Come back next Thursday for some post-Christmas thoughts on Santa.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Lord of the Legos

December in Kentucky is supposed to be chilly, with thirty degree days and twenty degree nights being not unusual. But over the last three weeks Old Man Winter has given us a full display of his wares. We’ve had snow. We’ve had ice. Temperatures have consistently remained at least ten degrees below normal. We’ve even had a couple of days where the mercury couldn’t push its way up into the double digit markings.

As a result of all this, Polly, Pip, and I have spent very little time outside of our apartment. It’s just been too cold. Each morning I’ve looked through our kitchen window and thought maybe I should take the kids out to at least walk around in the snow. But then I’ve felt the harsh blast of air rush in as Ava leaves for work and decided that even playing in the snow would not be fun for long enough to justify all the effort it takes to bundle the kids up and keep them warm. So we’ve made due with what diversions we can find inside.

In past years, this kind of confinement has been an unpleasant experience for Pip and me. We could usually make it for a couple of days without incident, but by day three or four we would start snipping at each other. Little annoyances would then become magnified and our frustration with being stuck inside would build up into a full-fledged tension between each other. Ava would then have to spend a couple of nights working to defuse things in order to restore harmony in the house.

That has not been the case this year. In fact, I have come to enjoy this time together. One reason for this is that I have gotten better at heading off moments of frustration and at anticipating when Polly and Pip need a shift in their activities. Another reason is that Pip is becoming less dependent upon me for direction and more capable of creating games for Polly and himself. A third reason can be located in the emerging prominence in our household of one my favorite childhood toys: Legos.


Between the ages of six and twelve, I spent a great deal of time playing with Legos. I had a moderate amount of these finger-sized interlocking blocks, and from the wings, wheels, lights, and bricks of solid green, yellow, blue, black, grey, and white I built an ever-changing array of different structures and vehicles. I had a particular affinity for space-themed constructions. The several Christmases of this period netted me a pair of spaceships, a space station, a moon rover, and a couple of smaller exploration vehicles. It was great fun to work through the instructions for one of these sets and have the picture on the box come to life in my hands. It was even more fun to then tear the thing apart and see what I could build on my own. I have fond memories of running around our house flying the armada of unusual vehicles my sister and I had created.

After my Lego fascination was replaced by other interests during middle and high school, my mother packed all my accumulated parts away in an 8” x 8” x 12” box and put it on a shelf for me to rediscover some day. I left it there when I went to college. Then, while I was in graduate school, my parents moved, and the box came into my hands once again. It has remained amongst our stored things ever since, waiting, a bit like Tolkein’s ring, for the right time to re-emerge.


When Pip was eighteen months old, we bought him a basket of wooden blocks at a yard sale. I spent much of that summer and fall trying to convince him that building something with them was fun, but he was only interested in knocking things down. In fact, he was so eager to wreck whatever I tried to build that I rarely could get more than two or three blocks stacked on each other before he would come barreling towards me with hands and feet flailing. This got so frustrating for me that I eventually put the blocks away.

From that starting point, he has gradually progressed towards a more constructive relationship with building toys. This development started with a sack of Mega Blocks (basically a toddler version of Legos) that my parents gave him the following Christmas. He took some interest in stacking these together but was still much happier ripping apart the creations of others. The next spring, Ava found a small bucket of Legos at another yard sale and brought them home for Pip to try out. Through the summer we would get them out periodically, and Pip would fiddle with a couple of pieces while I built a helicopter or a tractor or a locomotive or an airplane for him. Over the winter as he turned three years old, he began asking me to make specific things for him – a ship, a dog, a dinosaur, a sailboat. He started paying more attention to how I was putting things together and began being more protective of these creations. He also started making a few creations of his own with the Mega Blocks. These usually consisted of a single large block topped with a few stray pieces that jutted out to the left or right.

When we moved to Lexington this past summer, Ava and I put the Mega Blocks away and shifted Pip’s creative energies towards the small bucket of Legos. With these pieces he began imagining more complex structures – a railroad station, an airport – and asking me to build them. He wasn’t ready for a full project of his own, but he hovered around me and quickly began adding his own pieces to the foundations I created.

In late November, he was ready for more. One day he saw a picture of a cargo ship in one of his books and decided that this would be his first independent Lego creation. He worked on it sporadically for a couple of hours, adding some pieces here, pulling others off there, and then brought it over for me to see. In his hand was a solid 4” x 4” x 6” block cobbled together from Legos of various sizes and colors. The block rested on a small grey platform and was topped by a pilothouse defined by a pair of Lego windows. His face radiated pride.


Watching Pip work on his cargo ship, I could feel the time for the big box of Legos was at hand. Before we moved Ava had found a full cache of basic building pieces at a thrift store and had added those to the box from my childhood. Now I was anxious to see what Pip and I could do with such a massive collection, and I began to look for opportunities to finally crack into this stash.

In that respect this cold snap could not have come at a better time. After a couple of days inside we needed something new and exciting to keep us from getting stir crazy. The Legos were a perfect solution. So two weekends ago I went down to the basement during the kids’ naptime and dug them out.

When he saw them, Pip dug into the pile immediately. He was particularly attracted to the old brochures and instruction manuals I had kept because all the pictures they held gave him a flurry of new ideas. After about twenty minutes a common refrain began: “Daddy, can you make this for me”; “Daddy, I want you to make this thing”; “Daddy, do you know how to make this one?” It was like the song of the Sirens. I couldn’t, nor did I want to, resist. I happily plowed in with him and started giddily building away.


The cocktail of novelty, nostalgia, and the constant possibility of building something cool has carried us a long way over the last two weeks. We’ve made it through several days inside that might otherwise have driven us crazy. (In truth, Pip and I have probably benefited from this more than Polly. She likes the little vehicles we have built for her but gets frustrated that she can’t build more with us. I forget sometimes that she’s not even two years old yet) But what has really made these days enjoyable for me is not seeing what Pip is creating with the Legos but observing the larger developmental moves that his play with the Legos brings to the foreground. Pip’s creativity is expanding. He is asking more sophisticated and complex questions. He is learning how to share things and take turns with Polly. He is developing an awareness of how to politely communicate his interests and intentions. He is even proactively engaging Polly to keep her happy by bringing her new toys when he starts playing with something new and by finding ways to redirect her when she is beginning to bother him.

All of these things point towards the idea that Pip is becoming a person we hoped he would become. It gives us confidence that we are making sound choices in approach our parenting and makes us feel positive about both Pip and Polly’s futures. Confidence and the vague sense of certainty that comes with it can carry us a long way. They have made the last three weeks more enjoyable than I would have ever expected, and they make me feel like this winter will be a little bit better than the ones that have come before.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

This week’s post can be found at the Daddy Dialectic blog. The front page is here. A direct link to the post is here.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Getting Through the Two's

By every standard I can think of Pip was a wonderful two-year-old. At home, he was talkative and playful. He loved to read books. He loved to run and climb. He was always interested in helping me with yard work or cooking or cleaning. He was very gentle and cooperative with Polly when she came along. That’s not to say that he did not have his moments, and unfortunately, its those moments that come to my mind first whenever I think back to that time in his life. The brief periods of a given day where Pip was whiny or irritable or stubbornly uncooperative triggered in me some of the worst emotions I have ever felt. I learned a great deal about myself during the six months surrounding Pip’s second birthday and much of it was ugly.

Now Polly is entering into this same period of her life. As is normally the case, she is doing a boat load of new, fun, and astounding things: stringing four and five words together into coherent thoughts; doing simple shape puzzles without any help; building block towers that go ten or twelve high; engaging in all manner of creative play with Pip. She is also getting coyly rambunctious at bedtime, periodically tossing silverware at the dinner table, banging things repeatedly on the oven, head butting, climbing on tables, and requiring regular reminders to keep her feet off the table during meals. Last night she was showing some rare form around bedtime by first being decidedly uncooperative while we were brushing her teeth and then by giving Pip a few swift kicks to the head just before it was time to turn out the lights.

None of this behavior is malicious or mean-spirited. Sometimes it is just the result of being tired or hungry. Other times it is spurred by boredom or impatience. Regardless, it is all very experimental. Even the head kicks from last night were enacted while looking at me with a half-smile and a wide, searching look in her eyes. She knows when she is crossing a threshold and pushing out into uncharted lands. And, with each step she takes, she is watching us to see what happens.

When Pip started doing such things, I had no strategy for handling them. I had read some parenting books that made me aware of what was happening, but the books did not offer me any tools to manage these experiments in the context of getting things done in daily life. “Avoid getting into a battle of wills” is a fine suggestion but does me little good when I need to get clothes on a recalcitrant child. Walking away and coming back later was not a good option. I needed something more interactive to get me through such moments, a couple of strategies to fall back upon when our family train had jumped its metaphorical track. I didn’t really get them.

With the six to eight months of experimentation with Pip and the subsequent eighteen months of reflection time, I think I am now positioned to better handle whatever may come with Polly. My strategy is based on two principle ideas:

1. Adrenaline is my enemy

I was a competitive swimmer in high school. In college, I got into long-distance hiking. In graduate school, I ran a couple of marathons. As such, I am friends with adrenaline. It brings me a rush when I’m at the peak of exertion and follows this with a period of latent joy when I’m all through. It makes me feel more alive, confident, creative, vital, and potent. It tempts me to go running even when the temperature outside is ten degrees.

Unfortunately, adrenaline – or whatever cocktail of chemicals that are actually at work in all of this – also complicates my attempts to manage an uncooperative child. The pattern is very predictable. An initial moment of frustration with the child’s behavior prepares the stage. As I repeatedly fail to alter the child’s actions, a pressure builds up. I can feel it pulsing in my brain and pushing against my skull, crowding out all other thoughts, calling for me to explode, to shout or stomp or do something violent that will create an ecstatic release of adrenaline into my bloodstream. I can sense that the child is feeling this too, its body seeking the release that comes with unshackled tears. When we reach this point there is no painless way out. Most of the time I can hold it back, but this effort leaves me a simmering wretch for hours afterwards. Every once in a while, the beast slips loose, and I must deal with the recriminations - both external and internal - that follow.

The first few times I went through this cycle I had no idea what was going on. I would get frustrated with something and then before I knew it I would become a barely caged monster. Then, somewhere along the way, Ava suggested thinking about the role adrenaline was playing in all of this. At the time this suggestion just made me more frustrated because I had no idea how that was supposed to help me. But, gradually I came to see that by focusing on heading off my own adrenaline build-up at the outset of a potentially frustrating situation, I could keep these situations from spiraling out of control on me.

One of the early products of this realization was a modified time-out method for bringing Pip back into balance when he gets out of control. With Polly I am attempting to deploy an even more pro-active strategy. This consists of trying to be as boring as possible whenever I need to correct or alter her behavior. For example, Polly likes to climb on tables. From time to time she will sneak up on one and wait for one of us to notice. Now when Pip would do something like this, I would first politely ask him to get down. When he didn’t comply, I would ask again and again with my tone of voice getting increasingly more strident with each repetition. This would set the whole adrenaline cycle in motion. With Polly, I will start by asking politely for her to come down from the table. When she doesn’t, I walk over to her, pick her up slowly, and place her down on the floor. The key to this action is to make the picking up and putting down process so slow and so long that it become boring for both of us. This way there is no rush that might make the removal process ‘fun’ or ‘interesting.’ Polly usually kicks her feet around a little bit and hangs out without too much aplomb. By the time she makes it to the floor she is happy to run off and find something else to try.

2. Counting is my friend

One of our neighbors has a son who is about the same age as Polly. Every once in a while when we are out in the front yard, they will come over to talk and play for a few minutes. During one of these visits, the boy’s mother mentioned to me that she was having a harder time lately getting him to do what she asked of him. In particular, he would become very agitated whenever it was time to leave a place or go inside. We chatted a bit about this and then a few minutes later it was time for her to go. She went over to her son, who was playing on one of Pip’s bicycles, and told him it was time to leave. This set off a cascade of tears that eventually concluded with the mother picking up her son and hauling him away.

As they disappeared through their front door, it struck me that this mother had failed to do one simple thing that might have completely changed how the situation played out. She had not given her son a five minute warning. She had waited until it was time to go to tell her son that they would be leaving. As such, her son had not had a chance to prepare himself for the coming change. He had not had a chance to wrap things up. He had not had a chance to mentally say goodbye. The kid was basically whiplashed from one state to another. It’s no surprise that he was so upset.

Fortunately, I learned this trick early on with Pip, and we have hardly ever had a problem leaving one place for another. It doesn’t even matter how much actual time passes. Sometimes five minutes is really two. Other times it can stretch to ten. The point is to create a moment for him to get ready. Once that is accomplished, changing states has usually not been that hard for him.

I also learned over time that I could use this process for smaller state changes by announcing a number and counting up to it. This started out as a sort of threat along the lines of “I’m going to count to 10 and if you don’t come here by then you are going to be in real trouble.” Eventually I realized that there was no need to use it as a last resort. Instead, it could be a game. Whenever I required Pip’s attention or needed to move him from playing with something to getting a task done, I could tell him what action needed to happen and announce a number upon which that action would commence. Then, instead of angrily counting, I could make silly noises with each passing number. This way the counting would be fun. I could use it to get his attention, give him time to change his state, and maybe, down the road, facilitate his ability to count.

With Polly, I have started employing this strategy for almost everything – eating food, going to the bathroom, brushing teeth, putting on pajamas. Any time I need to move her from one thing to another or just move her along in a process that we’ve already started, I tell her what we’re going to do and pick a number that I am going to count to. It’s astonishingly effective. I can tell her over and over to do something without success, but if I give her the silly counting terms she will at the very least allow me to pick her up and carry her along to whatever it is that needs to be done.


These two principles and the strategies they encompass are obviously not full-proof. They work within a context of established and predictable patterns where both parent and child know what is going on and are comfortable with what will happen next. This will not always be the case with a two-year-old. At the same time, having them at hand gives me a first step, a place to go when things start to break down. They give me confidence that I have something to try and sometimes that confidence is all I really need.

I am looking forward to the next year of Polly’s life. It will be interesting. It will be fun. I imagine I will learn things good and bad about both her and me. My biggest hope when it is all said and done is that the good things will be what comes first in my memory.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Rocket Science

If someone had asked me in elementary school what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would have answered: “an archeologist.” I don’t exactly when I decided this, but sometime around age 7 or 8 I developed an interest in anything ancient and especially anything that was or could be discovered by digging around in the right place. This interest began with the pyramids and all the wonders contained therein. It continued to be stoked by my discovery that our world contained full Roman cities preserved under volcanic ash, a buried Chinese tomb containing a complete army of life-sized terra cotta warriors, and ancient Mayan temples hidden under the jungle growth of the Yucatan peninsula. For a brief period my family purchased a subscription to National Geographic Magazine, and I remember flipping eagerly through the pages in search of articles about the next recently discovered ziggurat foundation or the next Viking ship found sunken in the mud near the mouth of a German river. I also remember being confused whenever I came across one of the magazine’s articles on small towns in the Great Plains or stories on Hindu dancers in Bali. These were of no interest to me. I wanted to see jeweled daggers, large earthen walls, and hieroglyphics carved into stone.

As I moved into middle school and high school, the thread to which this interest in archeology was tied quietly slipped through my fingers. I’m not really sure why. Perhaps other, better opportunities came along. Perhaps the job ‘archeologist’ did not show up on the career matching sheet used by my high school’s guidance counselors. Perhaps I merely suffered from a lack of imagination about what was possible. I was still intrigued by things ancient and buried, as evidenced by the five years I spent learning Latin, but I filed this interest under the tab of personal interest, not professional aspiration. The idea of pursuing archeology as a career had vanished from my consciousness without really putting up a fight.

I feel like this kind of thing happens to many people. As kids we wanted to be firefighters, astronauts, pilots, teachers, mechanics or chefs. Then over time these fancies drifted away to be replaced through the forces of practicality, necessity, inertia, distraction, or opportunity by careers like accountant, business manager, engineer, and chemist. It’s not like we gave up on some firmly established dream. It’s just that our ideas about what a good career would be and what is really possible for us within the range of options out there changed, subjected as they were to influence by a variety of powerful forces that felt subtly beyond our control.

While thinking about this in relation to the people I know, I could only come up with two people who had a stated career interest at an early age and went on to pursue that interest as they grew into adulthood. One wanted to become a doctor. The other wanted to be a fighter pilot. Both had clearly established visions of themselves in these careers and, more importantly, a well-defined Ur-moment, a point in their memory where they could say “that was when I knew I wanted to do this.” My doctor friend points back to a childhood visit with a pediatric allergist who was able to substantially improve my friend’s life by getting under control the wide array of debilitating allergic reactions from which he suffered. My pilot friend got hooked on the idea of flying fighter jets after watching the movie Top Gun.

This second friend and his slightly ridiculous, yet undeniably powerful Ur-moment came to mind this weekend because Pip and I experienced something together that, were he a touch older, had the potential to capture his imagination in a similar fashion.

As is our family’s custom, we spent the Thanksgiving holiday at Ava’s parents’ house. Her parents live in northeast Ohio where the weather during late November is almost unfailingly miserable. Snow is common. Cold is just about guaranteed. This year we were treated to a combination of mid-thirties temps, strong winds, and a dash of bone-chilling rain that kept us cooped up inside for all of Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. While Ava and I eventually went a bit stir-crazy, Pip and Polly handled this confinement quite well. With all the different people and unfamiliar things to play with, they mostly avoided that nagging boredom that drives children to climb on tables or swing electrical cables around over their heads.

Ava’s parents also do a good job of engaging the kids in various ways like letting them help with cooking, building play houses and caves out of pillows, blankets, tables, and chairs, and having a variety of books on hand that the kids have never read before. One of the books they had put out this year contained a story in which the main character, Alex, uses about twenty different forms of transportation to get from his house to the place where he works. The book was designed to be overflowing with things to look at, and all the cars, trucks, airplanes, trains, helicopters, hot air balloons, cruise ships, ferry boats, and submarines commanded Pip’s attention for multiple hours.

On the next to last page of the book, we learn that Alex is an astronaut and see that preparations are being made to launch his space shuttle. When Pip and I were reading this book together for the sixth or seventh time on Saturday afternoon, Pip started asking questions about those preparations. In particularly he asked why the workers had to take cover just before the shuttle lifted off. I tried to explain about rockets and all the fire and smoke created when they are launched, but I could see that he was having difficulty imagining what I was talking about.

Then I remembered YouTube.

I’ve used YouTube a couple of times over the last several months to show Pip and Polly video clips of things that I can’t describe to their satisfaction. We’ve watched hang gliders riding thermals along a California cliff and giant airport fire trucks putting out fires on airplanes. As the videos play, I usually provide some commentary, pointing out things about which I was trying to tell them or talking about how something works. As they don’t watch television regularly, the opportunity to see any video is a special occasion, and in these moments they tend to be willing listeners to anything I have to say.

On this evening, Ava’s dad was working on his computer in the opposite corner of the room. He happily plopped Pip on his knee and together the three of us flipped through the YouTube archives in search of a shuttle launch to watch. There were plenty of clips to choose from. We ended up watching one of Discovery and another of Atlantis, all the while talking about the forces at work and the immense energy needed to get one of those ships off the ground and into space.

Then we found some footage of a Saturn V rocket. This was the multi-stage launch vehicle used for all of the manned moon shots made by the United States space program. The particular footage we found was for the launch of the first successful moon shot, Apollo 11. The footage was taken using a high-speed camera that was mounted on the launch platform and whoever had posted the video had slowed everything down to about a quarter of real time speed. In the background, they had also added a soundtrack using a violin and some synthesizers whose timbre rose and fell dramatically in accordance with the action taking place on the screen.

And that action was mesmerizing. It began with the ignition of the engines. The camera frame was focused tightly on the exhaust cones and the anchors used to hold the rocket steady until all the engines were ignited and their upward thrust was properly balanced. Sparklers were fired and a massive flame leapt downward from each of the cones. Then, the anchors dropped away and the whole massive cylinder started moving upward through the screen. Passing through a halo of vapors created during the ignition process, the white rocket rose gradually up the screen, eventually giving way to a blotchy plume so intense the screen became pixilated, the computer roughing in boxes of flat red and yellow when it could not fully process the dynamics of the colors present. This plume was followed by a moment of blackness as the smoke from the flames engulfed the camera. At this point, the footage moved to another camera which tracked the rocket as it shot higher and higher into the clear blue firmament, flames spewing forth in such a way that the whole thing resembled a giant squid squirting upward from the depths of the ocean.

The three of us watched all of this in silence. We stared at the screen transfixed as the second camera struggled to keep the burning rocket within view. It slid up and bounced down and rattled back and forth for a couple of minutes, sometimes managing to show only a blackened tip or a fiery tale for seconds at a time.

The whole time I was hoping that we might get a glimpse of the second stage ignition before the rocket passed out of visible range. Near the end of the eight minute clip, a second ball of fire appeared about a third of the way up the rocket. This ball dripped orange flames down along the shaft below until a steady flow was established between it and the similarly sized ball of fire at the tail of the rocket. This blazing barbell hung around on the screen for a few seconds before moving off the screen for good, seemingly moving too fast for the camera to catch up.

The footage concluded with a second look at the initial moments of the launch from a camera perched higher up on the launch tower. This time after the rocket passed through its vaporous ring and the footage continued on through the swatches of white, red, and black, no second camera picked up the lost feed. The blackness of the smoke became the blackness of a screen gone dead.

The intensity of this footage seemed to sap all the energy from Pip. Once the clip concluded, he softly proclaimed that he was done looking at movies for now and was ready for dinner. He slid down from his grandfather’s lap in a slight daze and took a couple of shuffling steps. It was as if he was not totally sure his legs would carry him. At the same time I was coming to realize how profoundly thrilling I had found that video and how, in this random moment, I had instantly become incredibly curious about how it all worked. How, I wondered, does one create that much force and how does one actually go about harnessing it to propel an object into space?

It struck me that at some level Pip was probably wondering about such things as well. He certainly could sense the visceral excitement this video generated for both his father and grandfather. Perhaps channeling that excitement to a certain extent, he had focused steadily on the screen for the full extent of the video. As he made his way towards the dinner table, I suddenly had a vision of him in thirty years talking about how this was the moment when he realized he wanted to be a rocket scientist.

Do I actually think this will happen? No. In the four days since watching that video Pip has not mentioned it once. And, given that he is not yet even four years old, I imagine that he is too young to project himself into the future in quite that way. But that age is coming and watching that video was a reminder of how simple and unpredictable things can play such a significant role in the ways we know ourselves and, consequently, in the things we choose to pursue. Human beings may strive for logic, for coherence, for a rational and meaningful course to their lives, but serendipity, randomness, and chance are truly the kings of our experience. We ultimately build our order from the masonry that they provide.