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Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Battling the Beige

Caleb is adamant about the Christian rock. Someone gave him the digits for the big Christian rock station, and so now he dials them in on his radio. Ordinarily I wouldn't allow any radio other than baseball games, but since it's rock about Jesus, I feel wicked telling him no. It's not the Jesus part I'm opposed to, after all, just the unartful licks and painfully trite lyrics.

In an effort to steer the boy in a better direction, I made a CD for him. He refused outright my offer to put on some blues or jazz. "Christian rock, Dad. I want Christian rock." I told him that's what I'd put on there, only some that's better than what he's likely to hear on the radio.

So I loaded it up with tolerable Christian rock. Lifehouse, because their lyrics are thoughtful. Jars of Clay because their Who We Are Instead album has some nice gospel-sounding, bluesy numbers. Kutless because if you're going to do Christian rock, then let's rock. As Sheryl Crow says, this ain't no disco.

I also put on a Sam Cooke gospel number, along with Johnny Cash's "God's Gonna Cut You Down." Redemption can be a slow process. One song at a time, I'm going to win this boy back from the beige side.

posted by Woodlief | link | (4) comments

Friday, August 1, 2008

Silence of the Olden

I remember back when Wife and I were younger, how terrible we thought it was when we saw older couples sitting wordlessly in a restaurant. "I can't believe he's reading a newspaper," I would say. "We'll never be like that when we're older," Wife would affirm.

We said these things because we were stupid. I came home from Atlanta last night, and to celebrate we all went to Red Robin. Wife and I are eternal optimists, it seems, because no matter how hectic the last dining experience proved to be, we manage to tell ourselves that this time it will be pleasant.

Do you want to know why older couples go to restaurants and sit without talking? Because they've had twenty-odd years of this:

"Dad, I want to invent a hamburger!"

"Good. Isaac, get off the table."

"Dad, can I sit in your lap?"

"No. Eat your food."

"Isaac, get out from under the table."

"Why is this baby squawking? Did you bring something he'll eat?"

[Insert deadly glare from Wife here.]

"Dad, I'm going to tell them to put the burger on a Kroger bun. It will be a Kroger burger."

"That won't work."

"Yes it will."

"Kroger is just a grocery store. We buy Kroger buns from the grocery store. There's nothing special about Kroger buns."

"Isaac, stop kicking the table."

"No Dad, Kroger is a special food company."

"Fine. Do what you want."

"Isaac, get off your brother."

"Dad, can I put my head in your lap?"

"No. Honey, the baby is still squawking."

"Do you really think I can't hear it?"


"Isaac, sit up."

"Maybe I'll invent a macaroni and cheese burger."

"Dad, will you rub my back?"

Sigh. "Yes. I can just eat with the one hand."

Only to really get the feel, you should make all those sentences collide, and layer that cacophony with the noise of a baby who wants to be held by his father because he senses an opportunity to get food all over his father's shirt, lay hold of his father's silverware and toss it to the floor, and otherwise give his father indigestion.

Eventually Baby Isaiah discovered a table of pretty girls nearby, and commenced to flirting. He grinned and made baby noises, and when they looked over he dropped his chin to his chest and practically batted his eyelashes at them. Soon they were all waving and cooing at him. So he tried to crawl away from us to sit with the pretty ladies. His mother had to drag him back to our table. He is going to be trouble, this boy.

Then Isaac and Caleb got in on the act. They are going to be trouble as well. Eli stayed close to me, but with those eyelashes and freckles that boy isn't going to have to work at it. He is going to be the most trouble of all, mark my words.

(Note to self: keep them on the farm once they hit puberty, at least until each of them knows a profitable trade. They're going to need to be able to support my grandchildren.)

The point is, Wife and I understand now why older couples are quiet in restaurants. It's because they are all talked out. Just watch them. They don't even speak to the waitress; they just point to what they want on the menu. I imagine once the last boy is out of the house we may go for a good solid year without saying a word. And it will be blissful. Then we'll spend the rest of our days wondering why they don't come visit more often.

But that's okay, because we'll visit them. Mostly because we love them. But also to watch them eat with their own children. Heh heh heh.

posted by Woodlief | link | (3) comments

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

William Isaac Woodlief: "Where is the tooth fairy's house? I want to go there."

I don't believe he's thought that out. I mean, what does she do with all those teeth? And how does she earn all these coins she hands out? And what kind of person goes creeping into children's bedrooms?

I'm just saying.

posted by Woodlief | link | (1) comments

Time for a Little Carping

The snake ate my grass carp. I think I told you how I stupidly left my pond fountain off long enough to kill all the fish (but not the $#!%!*! snake). As a consequence, an algae problem has presented itself. Thick wide islands of slimy green algae, anchored to the bottom of the pond by long runners of progressively darkening stuff that terminates in a base of sludge. (For those of you who were planning on having sushi for lunch, I apologize.)

So I bought some grass carp. Two six-inch, rambunctious fish, just aching to get at my algae. I haven't seen them since I dropped them in. And it's not like I've only casually visited this pond, you see, because recently I had to go in to slough off the algae.

Allow me to paint that scene for you. Picture me in shorts and knee-high wading boots. No shirt, because I'm an idiot. We'll come back to that point. In one hand I'm carrying a metal rake, and in the other I have my big machete. But of course I have to put down the machete, because the algae is so heavy that I need two hands to rake globs of it toward the shore, where I scoop it onto the grass. I don't know how to accurately portray the smell, but imagine death being simmered at the bottom of a big pot, and you should get close. Now let's add the heat: 101 degrees. Because it's Kansas, and the heat is the only way we know to keep away the shallow coastal types.

So there I am, slowly working my way around the shore of the pond, which is a good thirty by forty yards at its widest points. I'm stomping and slapping at the tall grass, and talking really loudly in hopes of scaring away the snakes. I'm scooping algae. I'm jumping at every movement in the grass at my feet. And meanwhile, my shoulders and back are acquiring third-degree burns, because of the part I mentioned earlier, about me being an idiot.

At some point Isaac, my worker buddy, came out with his little rake to help. We eventually realized that we needed to call in the Woodlief Navy. So I dragged our inflatable raft down to the edge. If you've ever had a big dog try to sit in your lap, this was me attempting to situate myself in that raft. The only reason God didn't let me roll over is because I was providing him too much entertainment right-side up.

I rowed to the center, and began reeling in algae. Don't underestimate the weight of water-logged algae. I heaved in a little at a time and wrung it out, creating giant balls of rolled, dried algae that I plopped at my feet. All the while I kept looking over my shoulder for that ginormous snake. I think he was nearby, because I kept hearing these swishing, plopping sounds. He is a crafty one, this snake. I pulled at least 250 pounds of algae out that way, and I think next time I'd just as soon use napalm.

But back to my grass carp. There wasn't a sign of them. What would eat two six-inch grass carp? That $#!%!*! snake, is what.

So now I've got to get more grass carp. And I'm going to have to stake out the pond with a shotgun. Somebody told the snake I bought a machete, because he's made himself scarce. But sooner or later he'll have to rear his bruised head, and that's when I'm going all Bolivian army on his Butch and Sundance. Because a man can only take so much.

posted by Woodlief | link | (2) comments

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Wienerectomies and Other Tales

I hit the heavy bag Monday for the first time in five years. I didn't have wraps or bag gloves, but there it was, hanging insolently in the corner of the gym, practically begging for a beat down. Which it got. I have a bruised hand now, but it felt really, really good. A therapist might suggest that instead of beating an inanimate object, I ought to identify the people who have caused my anger and talk things over with them.

But the thing about the bag is that: 1) it doesn't talk back, and 2) you can beat the living daylights out of it without getting arrested. A lot of the world's problems could be solved, I think, if everyone had a heavy bag hanging in his garage.

I bought a machete this weekend. It seemed more practical than carrying a gun around on the property. Just let that probably-not-poisonous-but-nobody-is-really-sure snake rear his viper-like head now. It's definitely going to be up to me, though. The other day a mole popped up directly in front of my lazy dog, and I tried to get her to sic it, but instead she just rolled over for me to scratch her belly. The mole actually tunneled under her to make his escape. I didn't really want it dead; I was just curious about how the dog would handle a real live critter. Obviously if anyone is going to be killing creatures around here, it's going to have to be me.

Maybe I should have killed the mole, I don't know. We're still sorting out our place in nature. I was all set to shoot coyotes and bobcats until a friend explained that I ought only to do so under certain circumstances. I caught the boys, meanwhile, splashing about in the creek without shoes again. We have a concrete bridge to the back part of our property, and beneath it are three drainage pipes through which the creek flows. The boys have discovered that it is fun, when the creek is low, to crawl through these pipes. Given what I know of snakes and spiders and other creeping things, I admire their pluck.

Nonetheless I had to give them a stern talk about snapping turtles, and how difficult it would be to go through life lacking a finger, or toe, or wiener. That last one got their attention, and led to all sorts of interesting dinner-table discussion about how, exactly, a turtle could bite off one's wiener.

They wear pants most of the time, and at least two of them consistently have on underwear, so I think the threat of a wienerectomy is minimal, but if that visual works to keep them from wallowing in the creek, I'm all for it. I suppose a child psychologist would suggest I not fill their heads with irrational fears, but this imaginary child psychologist probably agrees with the imaginary therapist who says I shouldn't hit the heavy bag, and we all know how useful that advice is.

posted by Woodlief | link | (3) comments

Let Those with Ears to Hear...

Caleb broke my heart last week. He told me that he prefers Christian rock to blues and jazz. And not even the good stuff, but what they play on the popular Christian radio station. In an effort to open his ears to the truth, I played him one of Stevie Ray Vaughn's first concerts. Nothing doing. The boy wants Christian pop.

Then, as if to rub salt in my wounds, he and Eli went outside to play golf. They play with plastic clubs, since none of us thinks Isaac should have access to anything so lethal as a real golf club made of genuine skull-crushing metal. Christian rock and golf. Sigh. The things these kids pick up from their friends.

I'm thinking maybe I'll tie him down and make him listen to Stevie Ray's version of "Little Wing" until he understands the error of his ways:

posted by Woodlief | link | (2) comments

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

An Update on the Body Parts We Do Not Speak Of

Several people sent me suggestions for the little-boy parts that I was having so much trouble naming with something appropriately descriptive yet not clinical. Some of my favorites, along with the slightly anonymized name of the offender:

  • Juevos (Ken L.)
  • Twig and berries (Jason A.)
  • Nizzles (Jeff S.)
  • The Manlies (Carl H.)

And finally, my personal favorite, and the new Woodlief family word for those most important of particulars: Nuggets. As in: "Hold on to your nuggets! I'll be there in a minute!" Or, "Watch your nuggets in the ring, son, that one fights dirty!" The applications are endless. Many thanks to my friends Amy and Paul.

posted by Woodlief | link | (1) comments | TrackBack (0)

Friday, July 11, 2008


The thing about boys who call their thingies by the clinical name is that it's creepy. This is why my sons call it a wiener, to Wife's utter mortification. She defers to me nonetheless, as the resident expert on all things wiener-related. The problem is that, as some of you may know, there is more to the toolkit, if you will. And said equipment needs a name, because one Mr. William Isaac can't be troubled to get all of his junk out when he pees. Instead he lets his waistband rest just below the, um, point of exit.

He doesn't seem to have a problem with this. But it's giving me the willies. Lately I've just pointed in horror when I catch him doing it and urged him to pull his pants all the way down. Sometimes he tries to comply in mid-pee, and that's just not a good idea. So I need a word to refer to what it is that I want him to liberate from his waistband.

I understand if nearly every woman who would ordinarily read the entire post is now exiting. I understand that I am being irrational. I merely submit that whereas we guys don't tend to get all emotional about Julia Roberts movies, or sappy Internet stories about handicapped puppies and the Life Lessons they hold for us, or about the tone of someone's voice in a conversation, or the ten billion other things that some women, sometimes, on rare occasions, get emotional about, we do bend in the direction of sentimentality where the wiener is concerned.

So I need to have a discussion with Isaac, but I'm finding myself at a loss as to what to call his . . . other parts.

Jellybeans? That might ruin a perfectly good candy.

Marbles? Little boys play with them enough without giving them a toy's name.

Peanuts? That's bad on about ten different levels.

It's a real conundrum. I'd ask you your opinion, but apparently Movable Type hates me, and has decided to shut everyone but professional spam dispensers out of my comments section, including me.

Recently I found myself in a distant city, on a subway, and there was a guy next to me reading a handbook for first-time fathers. I wanted to ask him if there's a section on this problem, but I didn't want to scare him. Somebody ought to write the real father's handbook, though. It would cover stuff like what to call the wiener, how to deal with foot odor, and where to hide your bubblegum so your three year-old can't find it.

I'm just saying.

posted by Woodlief | link | (23) comments

Thursday, July 3, 2008


Yesterday I was supposed to spend the afternoon painting. We have many square feet of wood in need of paint. This was my mission.

Instead, we drove into the biggest honky tonk near our wilderness spread, which happens to be the little Kansas town of Newton. Little Newton has two worthy bookstores, and a health food store, and at least two nifty diner-type eateries. Also a local donut shop. Doughnutery. Whatever.

Isaac and I wandered off on our own and into the health food store, where we found a tray of free chips and spicy spinach-asparagus dip. We agreed that lunch hadn't really tided us over in the manner to which we were accustomed, and so we stood there grazing until people began to give us disapproving looks. Double-dip one time and everybody gets completely pharisaical. It's not like this is cold and flu season, people.

We all spent about an hour in the bookstore. The way this works is Caleb immerses himself in books, while Eli and Isaac make a faithful effort for approximately ten minutes, in the older boy's case, and ten seconds, in the younger boy's case. Isaiah alternately squawks to be picked up or put down, whichever is most inconvenient for you. The way to handle Isaiah is to give him Cheerios. We are teaching this boy to squawk for Cheerios. When he is grown he will sit on a milk crate in Times Square, holding a big sign that says: "Will squawk for Cheerios." You don't often find street people who can spell "squawk," but we are aiming to home-school the child, after all.

So the point is, I bought a nicer paperback edition of Canterbury Tales to replace my worn-out version at home. Please don't take that to mean I am a Chaucer scholar. I only read it one good time in high school, and that was because they made me, and because I discovered it has lots of dirty parts.

Anyway, I like to see the names of people who owned books before me. My old copy of Canterbury Tales was once owned by Martha Ann Elliott. I don't know anything about Martha Ann Elliott, except that she wrote her name on the title page of my book in curvy cursive letters, as well as at the top of page 241. Perhaps she did that to snare the clever thief who might purloin her book and rip out the title page. The constable would have him by the collar, demanding that he return the book to Martha Ann Elliott, only this devious thief would sneer: "Look, her name isn't in it. Possession is nine points of the law." Criminals always know the law better than the rest of us. Case in point: lawyers.

But because she had been so foresighted, intrepid young Martha Ann Elliott would confidently step forward, coolly flip to page 241, and in so doing send the wretch to reform school. Afterwards, Martha Ann Elliott would skip with her best friend to the soda shop, where they would share a chocolate malted.

I don't know where Martha Ann Elliott grew up, but I like to think it was a place with constables and reform schools and chocolate malteds. I like to think that Martha Ann Elliott led a life with many adventures, and that years later, as she lay in her comfortable dying bed surrounded by her rambunctious yet respectful grandchildren, she wondered about this copy of Canterbury Tales, and sent a good thought to the person who owns it.

As for my new copy, it was once owned by Mary Esther Hill, who wrote her name on the title page as well, in sassy, forward-slanted cursive. I don't have a story made up for Mary Esther Hill yet, except that she greatly admired Flannery O'Connor and raised peacocks on her family's milo farm. But I think she had a fine life as well. I'm happy to report that neither she nor Martha Ann Elliott underlined the naughty parts of Canterbury Tales. I appreciate that because sooner or later my sons will start perusing these books, and I want them to have to hunt for the naughty parts, just like I had to do. Start coddling your kids and they'll end up on a street corner begging for Cheerios.

But the real point is this: I've gone from Martha to Mary. I like to think that means something, if perhaps only that I should aspire to do so. Which is why I'm writing to you instead of painting. Now I'm going to go inspect each boy's Lego spaceship, which they have been laboring on in the basement for the past half hour. And then maybe I'll paint. Or maybe I'll see if there's anything to Chaucer beyond the naughty parts.

posted by Woodlief | link | (2) comments

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Reptiles and Other Cold-Blooded Things

I hit a snake in the head with a rock the other day. It was a fat water snake, the kind that all the experts say isn't poisonous, and is more afraid of you than you are of him, and a lot of other baloney that you shouldn't believe coming from somebody who likely as not managed all the A/V equipment in high school and was captain of the Dungeons and Dragons Club before getting his snakeology degree. (Speaking of D&D, check out my friend John Miller's essay in the WSJ.) All I know is that this snake had a triangular head like a viper, and showed no intention of moving as I approached. I think he wanted me to step on him.

(Brief and graphic aside: Did you know I was almost bitten by a water moccasin as a child? He was five feet if he was an inch, and he looked to be ten feet to a kid. He was as big around as my bony leg, and he came out of a bunch of reeds at me. My testicles didn't drop back down again for a month. Only guys will understand this.)

So there I am on my property with that slithery snake who thinks it's his property. I pick up a few rocks, and sizzle one just past his head. No movement. He's one cool customer, this snake. So I try a different approach, with a rock the size of my fist. I launch it like a basketball. It lands on his head with the sound a walnut might make if you whack it on your tabletop.

This gets his attention. It also gets my dog's attention. She comes running over to investigate, and at this point I'm wishing I had one of those aggressive hunting type dogs, instead of an old once-abused lab-retriever. She thinks she can be friends with anyone. But this snake, nursing a headache now, isn't feeling friendly. So he lunges at her, and she jumps out of the way, and then he starts slithering into the reeds by our pond. I launch another rock at him, and hit him in the tail, which makes him jump like a certain Woodlief baby who recently learned to keep his wet fingers away from electrical outlets.

And then the snake was gone. I like to think he is lying dead in the reeds, but I suspect I'll be seeing him again. And since he's shown he doesn't like to cede his ground, next time it's for all the marbles. Mano a snako, if you will, just like John Wayne would have done it. And don't think the Duke wouldn't have used a gun, even if all the so-called experts say water snakes in these parts aren't poisonous.

We bought a bunch of algae-eating fish yesterday for the very same pond where Mr. Snake is in residence. Two animated grass carp and a bunch of wiggly fathead minnows. The boys stood with me on the dock while I opened the thick plastic bags in which the irritated fish had been placed, and then emptied them into the water. It probably would have been wiser to squat at the edge and ease them in, so differences in water temperature didn't cause some kind of fish shock. But see the above section about the water snake. I dropped in the fish like they were Airborne Rangers, and if they can't hack it, I'll go buy some tougher ones. Does anyone know of a fish that eats snakes?

Maybe I should take an approach like the U.S. military hunting Talibaners in Afghanistan, and just start firing buckshot all along the shore. If nothing else it would relieve some stress. But if snakes are anything like Islamofascists, I'll only attract snakes from all the neighboring ponds, and find myself in a protracted holy snake war on hostile terrain. Probably better to win the hearts and minds, with limited psych-ops. I wonder what music most repels water snakes? The Alan Parson Project? Mr. Mister? The Carpenters?

Or perhaps I could adopt the tactic used by the little boy in There's an Alligator under My Bed. I would have figured that my most tender-hearted and imaginative child, six year-old Eli, would not want a book about a large carnivorous creature under a little boy's bed. Instead it is the only book he wants to check out from the library. I suppose we are going to have to break down and buy it. Or perhaps he might enjoy Mercer Mayer's lively reading. Check it out and tell me if you think it will work with snakes:

posted by Woodlief | link | (2) comments

Monday, June 30, 2008

Cheerio Milestone

Friday afternoon it was just me and Isaiah, biggest grump and littlest grump. I was painting when he woke from his nap, and so I fetched him from his crib and we tried to figure out what to do with each other until the Mama and brothers came home. I put on my Best of Steely Dan CD. There's something both troubling and endearing about seeing one's year-old baby wiggle in delight to:

"The Cuer--vo Gold, the fine Co--lum--bian..."

But we went with it. For all Isaiah knew, they were singing:

"Some Ma--ma milk, some squished up ba--na--na..."

You didn't know this, but Isaiah has had trouble swallowing. He would gag even on baby food, and he wasn't gaining weight. The doctor had his throat X-rayed, which revealed nothing abnormal. We were relieved by this, though perturbed by the extra year's savings I'll have to put away to pay for the therapy he's going to need after the psychological trauma of the X-ray, which involved me handing him over to strangers who shoved him beneath a big scary machine. If he refuses to get in cars when he's older, and insists on sleeping outdoors, and has trust issues, we'll know why, won't we?

The point is, we've been excited by little milestones, like his not choking on mashed sweet potato. So there we sat on the kitchen floor, Isaiah and me. He had a lean and hungry look, young Isaiah, and I was feeling a rumbly in my own tumbly. So I fetched the Cheerios.

I sat down in front of him and opened the box. He did a happy, anticipatory wiggle. "I think you're ready," I told him. He wiggled. I gave him a Cheerio. He gummed and chewed at it, let it float around in his mouth for a minute, and then swallowed with a smile. I clapped, and he wiggled, and then he squawked for another.

So we sat on the kitchen floor and ate Cheerios, and it was a good afternoon.

posted by Woodlief | link | (3) comments

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

I kept all the boys last night while Wife had a much-needed break. She had a pedicure, and a meal without interruption. The boys and I did alright. Isaiah ate his sweet potato mush without fuss, and then crawled from Daddy to brother to brother, begging tiny spoonfuls of chocolate pudding.

I explained to the boys that old-school Brits call desserts "puddings," which they thought was odd but endearing. Then I told them that french fries are "chips." That seemed just downright odd to them, especially since "fries" doesn't mean potato chips. Caleb asked me where the french fry was invented. "Germany," I told him. He'll realize that's funny in a couple more years. In the interim, however, he's likely to misinform all his friends.

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Monday, June 23, 2008

About Isaiah

I realized, after posting about his birthday, that I haven't said much about Isaiah. This has been largely the result of his being unable to do anything but poop and squawk. But I gave it some thought, and came up with two lists of particulars for those of you who want more information about the littlest Woodlief.

Things one year-old Isaiah has decided he likes:

  • Ice-cream cake

  • Daddy's spaghetti, when finely chopped

  • Being carried by one of his older brothers

  • Pulling out all the cookbooks and scattering the loose-leaf recipes neatly folded therein across the kitchen floor

  • Getting tossed in the air by Daddy

  • Everything about Mama, but especially her breasts

  • Giving open-mouthed kisses

  • Yanking Daddy's goatee

  • Yanking the cat's tail

  • Baths

  • Having Isaac climb into his crib, even though Isaac's parents have repeatedly threatened him with bodily injury if he does it again

Things Isaiah is decidedly against:

  • Getting licked all over his baby-food smelling head by the dog

  • Naps

  • Being strapped into his car seat

  • Not being able to ride on the tractor with Daddy

  • Anything involving the green bean

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Thursday, June 19, 2008

A Father's Creed

"Dad," Eli asks me in a whisper, "why did Abraham kill Isaac?" We are in his bed, looking out at the darkening sky and listening to crickets. In his bed across the room, our Isaac is already asleep, a lamb clutched to his chest, his mouth agape.

"He didn't kill Isaac, remember?" I kiss Eli on the head. "God sent a ram to be sacrificed in his place."

"I thought Abraham killed him."


"But why did God tell him to kill Isaac?"

It's more complicated to explain than some might think. As I explain how God wanted to stretch Abraham's faith, and how Abraham thought God would bring Isaac back to life, and how God was even then writing the story of Jesus, I feel myself coming to that place where I am struggling: the doctrine of propitiation, of score settling, of wrath. In my mind I can hear the fussy answers from self-satisfied types who take a masochistic delight in the Angry God. I hear a string of preachers from my own childhood, warning me to be a good boy or go to hell. I remember the nightmares I still have, of demons coming to take me there.

"Why did Jesus have to die?" Eli asks.

A good Presbyterian would tell him the wages of sin is death, and that a price had to be paid, a sentence served. Instead I tell him that when sin came into the world, it made all of us sick. "Do you know how when you do something bad, it makes you feel bad inside?" Eli nods. "The blood of Jesus will make all of us well," I tell him. "It works slower on some than others, but it's the medicine we need. And one day he will come back, with all his angels, and then all the evil things in the world will try to fight them, but they will lose, and then none of God's children will be sick any more."

Eli lays his head down on my arm. He asks me why we can't see God, and why God made the Devil, and when Jesus will come. I tell him about heaven, and how all things will be made right one day, and that Jesus will never let him go. I put my head next to his, and breathe in his scent of wet puppies and toothpaste. "I will always love you," I tell him, "no matter what."

"I know."

Somewhere beyond the crickets and our line of hedge trees is the world into which one day he will venture. Maybe he will have a more accurate understanding of whether the blood is a cure, or a debt paid, or both. Years ago the answers seemed more certain to me.

I think sometimes my children will leave me with more questions than answers. But they will go knowing that they are loved by their God, and by their father. If you ask me what is my creed, this is what I will tell you: that I am selfish through and through, but for them to know those two things I will lay down my life, walking all the chastened paths along which a parent must stumble.

posted by Woodlief | link | (6) comments

Monday, June 16, 2008

Muddle-headed: The Good Kind

I've had to travel four of the last five weeks, so that by Friday I was feeling thin, as Bilbo Baggins claimed, like butter stretched over too much toast. Traveling like that leaves me muddle-headed, and not in the good way. Some of you know what I mean about a good muddle-headedness — you get it when your thoughts are focused on a project, or a dream you have had, or a beautiful scene in the novel you are writing. People speak but you only partly hear them, bugs bite but you don't notice, you forget what speed you are traveling on the highway. I didn't say that good muddle-headedness wasn't dangerous, did I? But so are most things worth experiencing.

Then there is the bad muddle-headedness, which is what I get sometimes when I travel. It's the feeling of being shot out of a cannon, so that every field you darken and every cloud you scatter on your journey is a physical reminder that you are out of place, that it is only your thin skin that holds everything inside you. It's lying exhausted on a hotel bed unable to sleep, and the nightmares that come when you do sleep, and the feeling, when that alien sun penetrates your eyelids, that your soul has gone slantways, and won't ever be right again.

Or maybe it's just me.

I always feel like the prodigal son when I come home, welcomed though I don't deserve it, and amazed that I could ever have felt disconnected from the earth when I have this woman and these little ones waiting for me there. It reminds me that I am just water and faint breath and the thinnest spirit, even though to them I am Husband, and Daddy.

And so yesterday we celebrated Father's Day. They gave me (in no particular order, though you can probably guess which I liked the most):

Augustine's Confessions (Everyman's Library edition, of course)
a Library of America edition of James Agee's film criticism
Sufjan Stevens's Christmas CD collection
the Twister DVD
a cowboy hat
chocolate pudding

To top it off, a good friend loaned me his 20 hp Kubota tractor, replete with belly deck, tiller, and grader, until I get my feet wet (metaphorically speaking — if I actually get them wet it means I took the tractor on too step an angle near the creek, in which case stop reading this and come get me out). This involved borrowing another friend's trailer, which was located at a third friend's spread, and then maneuvering the whole 4,000 pound rig on back country roads, on account of our not exactly being street legal, what with the lack of lights and chains on the hitch and so on.

And this is how you know God has a sense of humor. We moved all this heavy equipment without so much as a scratch to my truck, and then, as an afterthought, my friend suggested I take an old dead Christmas tree for my pond (it gives shelter to the smaller fish). I strapped it in, but botched the job. Halfway home it flipped over the back before the straps locked it tight, so that its trunk pressed a three-foot dent into my tailgate, mangling the latch.

The thing is, though, I'll take a busted tailgate over leaving home any day of the week, and twice, as it turns out, on Sundays. I used to feel guilty over never having slouched around Paris, or speared fish in Fiji. I suppose those things will be nice should they come my way. But for now, there's plenty of adventure right here on the home spread. And from the way I feel when these babies and this woman crowd onto our big bed and burrow themselves into my chest, as if I am the Christmas tree and they the little fish, I can't imagine any place more suited to who I am, or more importantly, who I am supposed to be.

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Monday, June 9, 2008


This is how the dinner table works in our house. The food is ready, and Wife is announcing this in her best I-cooked-for-you-people-while-you-all-conspired-to-drive-me-crazy voice. Baby Isaiah is squawking because he came equipped with a special squawk alarm that goes off the moment anyone puts him down. His older brothers are doing a Three Stooges routine around the door, Isaac stopping because he realizes his socks are wet from playing in the creek, Eli bumping into Isaac as he bends to remove the wet socks, sending him sprawling, and Caleb bumping into the door because Eli, in an effort to be our one obedient son, has closed it behind him lest the cat/dog/mosquitoes/stifling heat/snakes get in. Their father, meanwhile, is asking how many fingers of whisky he can pour without setting a bad example for the children.

This is followed by tromping up and down the stairs, as each boy either washes his hands but forgets to pee, or vice versa. Wife is warning them the food will get cold, and ignoring my question about the whisky. I am holding baby in one hand, and a whisky bottle in the other. Isaiah is still squawking, despite being in my arms, both because I won't let him have the whisky bottle, and because he has realized, once again, that while I am generally a big Daddy-barrel of fun, I am not currently equipped with lactating breasts, and this being dinner time and me being stingy with the whisky, he'd just as soon have his mama.

Eventually we make our way to the table with clean hands, and get water cups distributed and napkins placed and the appropriate level of utensil technology before the appropriate little people. Sometimes we even do this without sending Wife into tears. I strap the baby into his seat and stuff into his mouth a spoonful of whatever mush is on his menu. We all sit. There is talking and immediate eating, down at the young heathen end of the table, until they are reminded that we are going to bless the food, that we always bless the food, that we have been blessing the food since before they were born, and have done so every day of their short lives, and that if they don't start remembering this soon their lives will not get any longer.

We all hold hands. There is silence. Baby Isaiah has been watching, these past weeks, and now he knows, when we do this, to reach out his mush-covered hand and place it on top of Mama and Daddy's hands. He does this, and smiles at me, and then I pray: Thank you God for this food, though really I am thanking him for all of it, for the good and the bad and especially for them, without whom all my meals would be lonely and quiet and pointless.

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Monday, June 2, 2008

Traveling Blues

So me and the boys are flying down the highway in my truck.

[Editorial aside: there is little better, men, than being able to type that sentence and have it be true.]

Like I said, we're flying down the highway in my truck. My full-sized pickup truck, to be more precise. Me. And my boys. The sun is low over the trees on the distant Kansas horizon, and we're sweaty and tired after a long day of man stuff. I turn up Blues Traveler's "Crash Burn." This is good, driving-with-the-boys-in-a-truck-like-real-men-do music.

So then Caleb says to me: "Dad, this sounds like old-timey music. Like from the 1990's."

Got that, everyone? Richard Marx, Celine Dion, and Melissa Etheridge are old-timey. Caleb may actually be more right than wrong, now that I think about it.

Still, I prefer to think of some music as timeless. Which is why we were listening to Blues Traveler, and why Caleb has an Oscar Peterson CD in his bedroom, and why I'm hoping all those violin (read: fiddle) and piano lessons naturally turn into a folk/jazz/blues ensemble when the boys are older. But until that day, here's some old-timey music for your Monday:

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Friday, May 23, 2008

Because Some of You Thought I Was Dead

It's come to my attention that there are rumors floating around on the Internet, to the effect that I have killed myself in a tractor accident. That's a ridiculous notion, of course, that I could get myself into a fatal tractor accident, for the simple reason that I don't yet have a tractor. I do, however, have weeds taller than three of my four children. And poison ivy growing thick enough to reach out and grab you if you get too close. And a pond full of dead fish.

Yep, apparently you have to keep those ponds aerated. That's what that fountain is in the middle of it for. I thought it was just for show. In the suburbs, the fountains are for show. Out here, they're for making sure your fish and turtles don't all go belly up, making your pond smell like a second lagoon. So now I've got to get on the waders and go scoop up dead creatures from my pond. And adding to the excitement, there's a really big snake in there who seems to think that the deed on this property has Snakey S. Snakerson written on it, instead of Tony "Snakes Give Me the Heebie-Jeebies" Woodlief.

So I want you to picture me in waders, with a net in one hand and a shotgun in the other, because that's the only way I'm going in that stinking pond.

Inside, meanwhile, the walls are mostly painted, and the floorboards and wall trim are up but in need of painting, which means I have about five miles of narrow boards to paint without getting said paint on the walls where they reside. I thought I was a genius because I painted some of them before they went up, but then I stacked them while they were still tacky, plus I forgot that they get about a bajillion nail holes in them, each of which my perfectionist wife smears with stark white putty.

Our bookshelves are up, but there are no books on them, because I have to anchor the shelves to our newly painted walls. This is imperative because we have not one, but two climbers in our house now.

The books are safely (so we thought) in tall stacks of boxes in the garage. We have a lot of books. They are taking up a substantial portion of the garage. This is relevant because for a time there was a stray cat on the property, trying to insinuate himself into our family. Our cat took exception to this. They spent several evenings staring at each other and making that high keening sound that cats make when they want to fight or procreate. Eventually, our cat beat up the other cat and sent him packing.

But not before seeking a peaceful alternative by peeing on everything he could find.

This includes some of the book boxes. I'm not sure which ones. It will be like Christmas in Hell, opening those boxes, waiting to see which books are ruined. I'm hoping it's the Wife's Bodie Thoene books, and not my Everyman's Library editions. Because while I may not know all the ways there are to skin a cat, I can come up with at least one that will suffice.

So that's all for now, because it's beginning to look like rain, and if I don't mow around my barn soon, I am going to lose sight of it. Ever stub your toe on a barn? Not an experience I want to have.

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Monday, April 21, 2008

Flying the Coop

The Great Woodlief Migration of 2008 has begun. Today I spent 12 hours painting in the new house. I also made the flooring guys listen to my music, which ranged from Lyle Lovett to the Hackensaw Boys to Death Cab for Cutie. The probably think I'm deranged, but then they probably don't care so long as the check cashes.

The boys played by our new pond a good part of the day. We saw a dead snake floating in it, which I thought would make a good deterrent for Isaac ("See? He drowned. That's an icky snake in there, isn't it?"). Instead he got a stick and tried to fetch the thing out. For the most part there's nowhere on the property where he can drown unless there's been a hard rain, but now I hear there are bobcats.

Bobcats. I was all set to get a rifle, until a friend explained that his daughter shooed one away with a stick once, when it threatened her chickens.

I'm still getting the rifle, with scope, because I also have a beaver issue. Beavers are only cute in cartoons. In real life they chew down your saplings. There's one working on a sapling to which my back porch has a clear LOS. Best get your affairs in order, Mr. Beaver, because there's a new sheriff in town.

I'm sure after a couple of evenings I'll break down and get somebody to trap him, but it gets the blood up nonetheless, playing sniper from one's own back porch, which I could never do in the old neighborhood, except with an invisible rifle, which is a pity because it was a target-rich environment, if only lawyers and accountants were fair game, and around tax time I think we all agree that they should be.

Tomorrow we load a big truck. I'm pretty sure I would rather take a baseball bat across both knees, but with my luck that's not going to happen between now and the time I have to go pick up the truck. So we'll be loading. I may even tell you about it, if I can figure out how to get my satellite-card Internet doohickey thing to work, because in our new and unnamed locale, there's no cable.

No cable, no city water, no sidewalks, no homeowner's association. Actually there is an HOA, but it has one member, and his name is Tony Woodlief. Further, as King of the Woodlief Homeowner's Association, I hereby decree that there will be no ridiculous walls built at homeowner expense, no strictures against ugly treehouses or redneck-looking sheds, and further, that all members of our HOA can walk around buck raving naked whenever they please.

It's good to be the king.

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Friday, April 11, 2008

Where We Are Found

Isaac has this thing where he feels like he needs my company any time he has to pee between the hours of midnight and 6 A.M.

Which is inconvenient, because every once in a while I try to sleep between those hours. This morning I was coming out of the bathroom a little before six, freshly shaved and showered, wearing my navy business suit on account of needing to bring some smack today, and there he stood in the bedroom doorway, like a little haunt. Frankly, he scared the bejeesus out of me, but when you're wearing your smack-bringing business suit, you have to play it cool.

So I picked him up, and he pressed his warm chubby cheek against my neck, and I carried him to his bathroom. There we enacted our usual routine, in which he leans back against my legs and tries to fall asleep in mid-pee, and I try to keep him pointed at the interior part of the toilet.

I don't care how nice your suit is, there's just no looking cool in that situation.

Afterward, I carried him to his bed, and tucked him back in. He told me goodnight, even though daylight was beginning to whisper its arrival. Little stinker.

Every night before I put him to bed, I fuss at him not to wake me up. But part of me, the part that has given up on foolish ideals like world peace and a good night's sleep, is glad that he searches me out in the dark hours. I doubt he even remembers these times, but I like to think that some part of him will remember that when he needed me in the darkness, I was there.

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Thursday, April 3, 2008

But Sometimes Thou Shalt Bring the Smack

One of the nice side benefits of home-schooling, other than the occasional highly inappropriate parent-teacher conference, is that you get to deface the textbooks as you see fit. For example, Caleb is using a reading textbook that contains brief essays, and about which he has to answer questions. Recently the essay of the day was about bullying. "Dad," he asked, "what should I do if I get bullied?"

This is a common tactic for Caleb; he innocently asks for my parental advice, while keeping his reading book by his side, in hopes that I'll inadvertently answer one of the questions for him. His teacher has scolded me enough times, however, that I'm on to this trick. Even if I didn't care so much about his education, I would still have to listen to my son's teacher, because I have to sleep with the woman.

So I answered: "I don't know, son. What does your essay say you should do?"

Caleb scrutinized the essay, looking for clues. "Oh," he said. "If they call me a coward, I'm supposed to agree with them."

Now he had my attention. "Can I see that book?" He handed me the book. The essay explained that the best way to deal with bullies is to let them do what they want, and not fight back. If they call you names, laugh along with them. If they call you a coward, tell them they're right. Bullies like it when they're confronted, the essay explained.

"Give me your pencil," I said to Caleb. He handed it over. I crossed out a good quarter of the essay, leaving the parts about how bullies are disturbed and unhappy, and how it's important to tell adults when you're getting bullied.

"Why'd you cross those sentences out?"

"Because sometimes the best way to deal with a bully is to punch him in the nose as hard as you can, and to keep punching him until he falls down."


I know, I know, turn the other cheek, and all that. I'll get my sons started on pacifism once they're confident they can punch out the bully. Because unless you're willing to punch the bully, turning the other cheek isn't Christianity, it's cowardice.

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Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Land Spreading Out So Far and Wide

We've lived in our house with a For Sale sign in the front yard longer than we've lived without it. Yesterday we finally sold the thing, albeit not before getting dunned for a ridiculous neighborhood boondoggle, which I've already informed one HOA officer I fully intend to come back and egg once it's completed. It's the only way I see myself getting my money's worth.

But back to the house, which isn't ours any more, though we live in it for one more month via a rent-back deal with the new owner. He's an attorney, which gave me a queasy feeling, but he proved to be a decent enough fellow at the closing. We like the house very much, with its swimming pool and rounded castle walls. But somehow we settled on the conclusion that we aren't going to be the family who lives in a house like that amidst meticulously edged and fertilized lawns. The new owners will be that family, and I'm sure they'll be just fine, and the neighborhood gossips can now breathe a sigh of relief.

As for us, we've found a house on twenty wooded acres north of the city. It has a creek running through it, and a pond, and a basketball court, and the boys are beside themselves. There's also a garage/barn-type structure that is apparently a mechanic's dream, though all I noticed is that it has a corner office which will serve nicely as my writing haven. We've traded suburban for rural, and mortgage for mortgage, and somehow we're becoming country people, which when I say it makes me conjure Nellie Olsen's mocking voice.

Now there's just the small matter of moving our houseful of stuff without divorcing one another or accidentally leaving behind one of the children.

I wrote about the potential move a while back at World on the Web, and faithful reader Coneen Brace was so excited for us that she went to my Amazon Wishlist and sent me Frederick Buechner's The Sacred Journey, along with an album by the Hackensaw Boys: "Love What You Do."

I wanted to take the latter as a sign from God that I should quit right now and just work on the books I've been writing, but the Wife noted that it doesn't rightly count as a burning bush if I picked out the album myself and put it on my own Wishlist. Plus there's that new land to pay for, and the baby needs new shoes, and when you get right down to it, women are far more practical, as a general rule, which is why more of us aren't starving. But the point is, thank you Coneen, for both your generosity and your optimism, because there's a good many people who know me better, and who are taking private bets about what will do me in first, a chainsaw or an overturned tractor.

And you people know who you are.

So it's off to the country in the next few weeks. Fresh air (allergies). Clean country living (well water). Nature in all her splendor (poison ivy, snakes, the frogs my sons keep capturing). Man in his natural element (real men, anyway). Praise the Lord, and God help us.

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Monday, March 31, 2008

It Runs in the Family

My nine month-old beat me up this weekend. It was only for a moment, but in that brief time I was clearly on the defensive, and he bringing the pain. He didn't mean any harm, he just likes to get rambunctious. I think it's the influence of his three older brothers.

He was on my lap, trying his best to bite my nose, when next thing I knew he did this little baby judo move, slipped under my arm, and clamped down on my nipple.

This is the same nipple that Caleb once latched onto as a baby. I don't know what my sons find so alluring, or perhaps threatening, about this nipple. It is basically the same size, shape, and configuration as your average man-nipple, although much more abuse and it's likely to get deformed. I've got a mild case of cauliflower ear from my unaccomplished wrestling days; I know from whence I speak. This nipple never hurt anyone, but still it's been a target of abuse from my children. I'm thinking I'm going to start duct-taping it until they're all well beyond nursing age.

So there I was, with a baby clamped onto my nipple. And the thing is, you don't just yank his mouth away in that kind of situation. For one, he's a baby. I'm beginning to think he's impervious to pain and dissuasion, but still. Furthermore, that thing he's clamped onto? It's my nipple. If you're having trouble getting the point, I suggest you clamp a vise-grip on your own nipple, and then keep reading.

I began to negotiate the release of my nipple, which only made the boy giggle, because it involved my fingers under his chubby chin. That's when he pulled his second kung-fu move; he reached up and grabbed hold of my bottom lip.

I know a thing or two about fighting. I can name you several places to inflict inordinate pain on someone's body. In all my years of training, however, I never covered the bottom lip pull. Thumb to the underarm, yes. Fist to the temple, all over it. But this lip pull maneuver is still relatively new to me, even though his older brother used to do exactly the same thing.

Now, those of you with vise-grips on your nipples, imagine trying to dislodge your tender bits while your lip is being stretched to your belly button, and you get the picture. I fought him off, and I only talked for half an hour like I'd been injected with Novocain, but the fact remains that my baby beat me up. I knew the day would come when they would be tougher than me, but I always thought I would have a little more time.

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Thursday, March 13, 2008


Since we have bidders on our house, we've gotten back into the habit of looking for houses in the country. The boys' favorite thus far has been a log cabin-style house in lovely Mulvane, which is the sight of the finest Italian restaurant in all of Kansas, and an elderberry winery to boot. The house looks like a giant got really creative with his Lincoln Log set. All it lacks is the little red plastic chimney. The inside corners even had criss-crossed log ends.

As we were preparing to leave, I looked at the corner nearest the door and whispered to the Wife, "How long do you think, if we bought this house, it would take Isaac to figure out that he could climb those corners all the way to the ceiling?"

Isaac crouched by the door as I whispered this, squeezing his shoes back onto his fat little feet. As he stood, he reached out a hand to balance himself. His hand settled on one of those log ends. He looked at it, then looked up to the ceiling. His epiphany blossomed into a beatific smile.

He was a quarter of the way to the ceiling by the time I scooped him into my arms. A fish swims, a bird flies, and Isaac climbs.

I really do love the little stinker, and so I'm hoping he survives to adulthood. Some days I'm not so confident.

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Wednesday, February 13, 2008

A Filled-Up Life

Monday was Caleb's birthday. He is eight years old now. That morning I made breakfast for the family, and then took him to work with me. He did school work at the table in my office, and I did my own work at my computer. He finished first, because he is smarter than me, and a more diligent worker. So he took out a Lego spaceship kit that he got from his great-grandmother, and he put it together. After that, he built a hangar out of office supplies, and then built a paper airplane for me, to keep in the hangar. They're on my desk now, though Caleb is at home, busy being an eight year-old, doing schoolwork and reading everything he can find and getting bigger by the second, so big that soon I won't be able to pick him up and carry him to bed at night.

When we finished working we went to lunch, and then to Target so I could buy him a pencil sharpener he's been wanting. On the way into the store, he walked beside me, and even though my hand was dangling near his arm, he didn't take it the way he used to do when he was a little chattering boy. Now he is a big boy, and he doesn't need to hold my hand so much any more.

They keep getting older, if you're lucky, and so do you. Soon they don't need you to hold their hands or make their sandwiches or say their bedtime prayers with them. Soon you have all the quiet time you ever wanted, hours and days and weeks of it, interspersed with an occasional phone call, if you're lucky. Soon they are grown and they are gone.

I have years and years left with them, and I am sure they will grind me down to dust before the last of them leaves, but sometimes I am sad when I think about an empty house. I am happy too, in a way I didn't expect, because I know one day each of them will have his own house full of youngsters. They will crawl into his bed at all hours, and make messes and fill every room with giggles. He will toil and fear and laugh over each of them just as I have over my own children, and there is nothing better on earth.

I would give them anything, because their happiness is mine, and so I am happy when I think about their houses full of children, because I know that no matter what I do to make them smile now, there is an incomparable joy awaiting them, the joy of their own children. It almost makes it worth letting them go, not that I have a choice, which is probably best, selfish as I am.

That's a lot of philosophizing for an eight-year birthday, more than I did on my 40th. It's warranted, I suppose, because while I am simple and shot through with weakness, they amaze me. They come out so small and defenseless, and before long they are throwing crotch-level tackles and asking impossible questions, and healing wounds I didn't even know were there. We look far and wide for miracles and even rumors of miracles, and forget the miracles among us, the small lives that God is either foolish or hopeful enough to trust us with.

I've had eight years with Stephen Caleb, and five with Timothy Eli, and three with William Isaac, and less than one with Isaiah John, and I've not appreciated the time as I should. Let me appreciate the years to come. Let them be many, a great many, and forgive me for the time I've wasted. Forgive me for overlooking these miracles.

We could fill up a life with thank you and forgive me, couldn't we? I imagine we should say both every day.

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Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Wiener Update

It occurred to me that one day in the less-than-distant future, a young lady may decide to conduct an Internet search on the term: "William Isaac Woodlief." Said lady will be, of course, interested in marrying young Isaac, and itching to bear an entire brood of Woodlief babies. The last post might, naturally, give her pause. Being chaste and of good upbringing, she won't know how to, as it were, verify the goods. So in the interest of setting her mind at ease, I'm happy to report that everything is healed up nicely.

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Thursday, January 24, 2008


So tonight, in between stripping naked and getting into the tub, there was some jumping and general little boy rambunctiousness. I could hear them upstairs, and the thing is, I only needed one more minute for the task I was trying to finish. One more minute, and then I would be up the steps to supervise the bathing. One precious bloody minute.

It's those one-more-minutes that kill you as a parent.

Have you ever seen a bruised penis? I'd never actually seen one before tonight. It's not pretty, let me tell you. Whatever you're imagining, Isaac will tell you that his is worse. Somehow the boy managed to injure his penis, his face, both butt cheeks, and his big toe. In one fall. There were no steps involved. No baseball bats or blocks of concrete. Just a bed, and a push from his brother, and BAM: we're in a home triage situation. One boo-boo bunny to the face. Calendula ointment on the butt cheeks. Arnica cream all over the place. A package of frozen peas on the pee-pee.

I never thought I would have to hold a package of frozen peas on my son's penis. They don't tell you this may be a possibility in parenting class. It's all breathing and learning to count to ten and not freaking out when they get a diaper rash. But penis bruises? Nowhere in the manual.

I have to confess, it shook me up a little. I'm going to have a drink now. Maybe two.

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Friday, January 11, 2008


A couple of nights ago I shot a cat. Lest you animal fetishists send me nasty email, or the anti-feline masochists among you send me packages of veal, I'll note that I didn't use my 9mm, but rather my Daisy Red Ryder underlever cocking BB gun, from ten yards out. You see, I thought he was picking on my cat. You might recall that we have a cat. The Wife would likely assert, were she reading this over my shoulder (which is, incidentally, not an advisable way to blog), that it is my cat.

It used to be that fat neighborhood cats would slink into our garage, beat up our kitten, and eat his food. He's grown a bit, however, and he still has his claws. Recently I found cat fur all over the garage, and assumed he'd beaten up one of those neighbor cats. The worm has turned, I thought. How now, brown cow? And other such exultant internal monologue. But the other night, I heard this curious keening from the garage.

Some of you are chuckling right now. I need you to understand that I never owned a cat as a child. If you read the earlier post about this animal, you will also notice that I used to think he was a she. I sometimes have this problem with humans as well, especially on college campuses. The point is, I am naive when it comes to the ways of the cat. Or I used to be.

So I grabbed my shooting iron, and went out to the garage. The noise was on the other side of the garage door. I opened it, and there in the driveway stood my cat, who is black, facing down another black cat. The problem was that in the lamplight I couldn't tell which cat was mine. I got a bead on one, and waited. They waited too. Then it occurred to me that if I moved toward them, my cat would stay, while the intruding cat would bolt. I took a step forward, my sights trained on what I thought was the intruding cat. She bolted. I shot her in the rump. She snarled and disappeared into some bushes.

At this point, I expected some gratitude from my cat. Instead, he looked at me as if to say, you idiot, and disappeared into the bushes after the first cat.

This was no food-dish raid. It was a booty call. Incidentally, I've since learned that cats like the rough stuff. This would explain that fur all over my garage, as well as my cat's new swagger. He's turned my garage into his playboy lounge. My cat is a player.

I understand at this point that several of you are already typing officious comments about how I need to get him neutered. But I'm hoping we can take him, naughty parts and all, with us when we move to the country at some future date, where he will sire a long line of mouse- and snake-hunting cats. So until then, the neighborhood ladies had best guard themselves.

This may be a moot point, now that I've gone and shot one of his girlfriends in the rump. I have to confess, it ran through my mind that this might not be a bad strategy toward young human ladies of questionable repute who come sniffing around my boys in the coming years. I understand that it is of dubious legality, but it certainly leaves an impression. I'm sure my sons would give me that same you idiot look, but they'd likely thank me for it later, don't you think?

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Thursday, January 10, 2008

I Know, It's Only Rock and Roll

Wednesday night I went with some of my uber-trendy, DC blogger friends to the Rock & Roll Hotel to see the 1900's. They have a great act, and those of you who live in real cities should go see them.

Afterward, I got interviewed by somebody from Spin magazine. They even put my picture on their website. Notice that I am the oldest person they interviewed. Then someone asked me the last concert I'd been to. The answer was Rush, in 1995, with my good buddy Bill Chandler. I couldn't hear for three days afterward. Explaining all this to my younger companions made me feel very, very old.

So I went back to my hotel room and went to sleep. In the morning, I showered, and scrubbed at the ostentatious black ink mark on my hand, the stamp I'd gotten at the club. It wouldn't come off. This led to some amusement among the fifty or so young people to whom I had to speak later that morning. Is that a tattoo? Surely he didn't go to a club, did he? Do they allow people his age into clubs?

This, too, made me feel very, very old. I suppose it's good to be humbled in this way. So I'm resolved to go see more indie bands in small, dark clubs.

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Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Busy Day?

This morning I stood in line at Starbucks, reading my Atlantic and waiting to order my customary grande hot chocolate with no whipped cream. My friend Ben recently explained that brain scientists believe happiness is generated by the successful pursuit of a goal, such that instant gratification — through video games, for example, or pornography — short-circuits the process, providing an initial boost of happy chemicals but leading quickly to a let-down, which perhaps explains the gloomy faces on all the overindulged teens at the local mall. I don't read science, because I have Ben for a friend. He loves science, and reads it, and then we meet at Starbucks and he tells me about it.

So I stood in line, enjoying both the instant gratification of holding and gingerly turning the pages of my beloved Atlantic, while working toward the happy goal of my hot chocolate. It was the perfect blend of immediate and future happiness that enables me to function. Writing is usually like that; there is the work of crafting lovely sentences, but also the immediate thrill of knowing that I am good at it, and that something holy may come from my unholy hands, and that it was what I was created to do.

The Starbucks guy was asking each customer if we have a busy day ahead of us. I like this Starbucks guy, because he is nice, and because once he gave me a free hot chocolate. I think if more people gave me hot chocolate, I would like more people. I like the Starbucks people in general, because they are refreshingly cheery. Someone at Starbucks is very serious about screening out the grouchy, slack-jawed doofuses one frequently finds staffing other such establishments. This is what hiring comes down to, in the 21st century: don't hire doofuses. It's harder than you think.

The cute, plaid-skirted Catholic schoolgirl at the front of the line apparently has a big day of doing whatever it is that Catholic schoolgirls do; I couldn't make out what she was saying, but she said it with exuberance. The business guy in front of me got to the front, and announced that he just wanted coffee, black, he didn't care what kind, and for them to leave room in the top of the cup. The Starbucks guy asked him if he had a busy day ahead of him. "Always," he said, gruffly, followed by something about being in his own business, or being a captain of industry, or being some kind of implement that one might purchase from Home Depot — I couldn't quite make it out, but I'm sure it supported the impression he wanted to create for all of us, which is that he is a Very Important And Busy Man who can't be troubled with coffee choices and Starbucks banter.

He took his cup without saying thank you, and strode out of the store, the long tails of his overcoat trailing behind him. He was the star of a movie playing in his own head, as I suppose we all are from time to time.

The Starbucks guy, somewhat chastened, took my money, but didn't ask me if I had a busy day. So I volunteered it. "In case you're wondering, I don't have a busy day. I'm going to shut my office door, drink my hot chocolate, and read." He smiled. It's not a bad day, I think, if you can restore the air when someone sucks it out of the room. And I think we all know I'm full of hot air.

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Friday, January 4, 2008

Airing Things Out

This year, Santa decided that it would be great fun to leave whoopee cushions in everyone's stocking. I received two, perhaps one for each cheek, or maybe as a sign that I ought not to get a hot chocolate from Starbucks every day, even though it's how I talk myself out of bed in the morning.

The boys think this is great fun. You get to play a trick on someone, which is hilarious in and of itself, and said trick results in a fart noise. Whoopee! How aptly named is this device.

They are good sports about it, too, recognizing that a brother's enjoyment comes partly from the deception. Even though the whoopee cushion is always in plain view, the "victim" pretends as if he doesn't see it, and sits down extra hard. Forget the more expensive toys; most of Christmas Day's play consisted of my sons nonchalantly asking one of their brothers to "have a seat," or "come sit down," as if this is everyday conversation for young boys. "Sure," is the reply, and then the fart sound, and then they roll around laughing.

Eventually, Eli came to me with a mournful look. He'd become over-exuberant with his whoopee cushion, filling it too full of air. It burst. "Since you got two," he asked through his sniffles, "can I have one of yours?"

"Sure," I told him, as if I had a choice, as if I can say no to that sad little face. I suppose this means I really will have to lay off the hot chocolate.

Christmas night I made a pot of Christmas chili (it has red and green peppers in it). I played Handel's "Messiah" on the stereo. As I chopped peppers I could hear, mingled with the appearance of the angel to the shepherds, the sounds of farts and giggles. Somehow, this seemed right. That's part of the significance of the annunciation to the shepherds, that the King of kings was introduced to the lowest of the low, completely upsetting the hierarchies of man. Those shepherds were an uncultured lot, after all. Who knows, perhaps Handel might have incorporated the whoopee cushion, had it been available to him.

I like to think that more of our highbrow than lowbrow ways will rub off on our children, but maybe it's best if they get an equal dose of both. I can't imagine, after all, getting along with anyone who can't appreciate a whoopee cushion. In fact, once they're older, and serious about some young lady, I'll recommend that as the test. If she laughs, she's a keeper; if not, throw her back and keep fishing. Because we're rednecks that way.

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Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Christmas Cheer

There's probably some irony in writing an essay for a major international publication about how I am going to ease back on the throttle come this Christmas season, only to find myself collapsed in a chair at the end of December, praying for the quick approach of January 2nd. The plain truth of it, I think, is that being a parent of four boys is serious work, Christmas or no Christmas.

I'm still struggling to lay down my urge for efficiency, and be a full-time teacher. Instead of chopping vegetables in ten minutes, I need to work with one of the boys to chop them, and show him how to do so without slitting a finger vein. Rather than shovel snow in record time, I need to get my sons engaged, even if it means I get whacked in the shins — and other sensitive body areas — eight or ten times with the flats of their small but incredibly hard shovels. There is no speed in a family this size, except in the transmittal of vomiting- and snot-based viruses, which spread faster than rumors in church.

The work aside, however, it was a good season. A few days before my birthday we had a snowstorm, and the next day the boys and I had the mother of all snowball fights. I made a pile of snowballs, like Will Ferrell in "Elf," which I used to pelt the little whippersnappers. Isaac, not understanding the rules of war, kept toddling over to my pile, beneath his ten layers of coats and sweaters, and taking snowballs. He seemed so wounded, when I told him to make his own, that I just let him use mine against me.

Caleb, on the other hand, was a fount of knowledge about the rules of snowball war. There is, for example, a rule that says you can't hit someone else's snowball-in-process with your own snowball, which is one of my favorite things to do. I think of it as akin to when Jackie Chan grabs the bad guy's gun and takes it apart. There is also a rule about knocking down snowballs with your hand, another of my snowball aikido moves. Breaking these and other rules led to extreme displeasure expressed in no uncertain terms by Mr. Stephen Caleb. I don't know where this first son of two firstborns gets his rule-centered uptightness.

Eli proved the wiliest of the bunch. I could make the others scatter when I charged them, but he would stand his ground until he launched his snowball, and then scamper away. He also nailed me in a penalty round. The penalty round happens when you hit someone in the head. I accidentally pegged him in the noggin, and so I had to stand against a tree while he fired a snowball at me. He caught me square in the face. Then he giggled, looking very much like a snow elf must look, if one were to believe in such things.

On Christmas morning, the children were beside themselves, even Caleb, who has been having his doubts about Santa. More than once he's asked me if Santa is real. He's been hearing rumors, you see. I know lots of parents struggle with what to tell their children, and many try to walk a fine line by hemming and hawing about Santa being the spirit of Christmas, and so on.

I flat-out lie, and I have no problem with it. Santa, I explained to Caleb, is as real as you or me, and he is coming, so you'd better leave him some milk and cookies. Preferably chocolate chip. Homemade chocolate chip.

They were delicious.

Isaac was so excited, Christmas morning, that he did a little happy dance, capped by rearing back while I wasn't looking and punching me square in the groin. I think that's how Houdini got killed. The kid uses his hips when he punches; it's an innate warrior skill.

After I recuperated for a few minutes on the bed, we opened presents and emptied stockings and ate lots of delicious yummies and listened to Christmas music. It was a delightful day and we didn't miss driving from house to house one little bit.

Now we're observing the twelve days of Christmas, which means we have until January sixth to watch Christmas movies and listen to The Nutcracker Suite and read "The Night Before Christmas." Every night we also read the explanation behind the items in the song for that day (how the partridge on the first day of Christmas represents Christ, and so on). Then we hang an ornament depicting that item on a little tree. It's a nice complement to our Jesse tree.

We'll likely leave all our decorations up until the end of the month, because that's just how we roll. If our neighborhood busybodies don't like it, all the better. We'll slowly take them down, a little at a time, like we're weaning ourselves from a delicious drug. That can take some time, because we have a tree in every room. We heart Christmas, you see.

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Friday, December 14, 2007

This, That, the Other

It has been a while, hasn't it? Insert the usual excuses here. Since the thought of composing a seamless essay is usually what keeps me from writing anything here for unconscionable gaps of time, I lured myself to the computer with the notion of writing you a disjointed, conversational little jaunt of a letter, much like what one sometimes gets from one's grandmother.

We recently had the big homeowner's association meeting, to vote on the oversized monuments intended to announce to the world that our neighborhood is just like every other insular white enclave of privilege. It was surprisingly civil, though one of the women on the monument committee proved to be decidedly ugly. Her vicious snippiness, however, was more than offset by the kindness of another monument committee member, who I now consider my new neighborhood friend.

During the spirited debate, my attention was drawn to a new resident, who has the distinguished, healthy-looking early gray of businessmen the world over. He seemed to be sizing up the crowd rather than the issue, as if he was looking to throw in with the winning side. Not a bad strategy for a new neighbor. So when he spoke up in favor of the monuments, I knew we'd lost. He parroted the arguments of the pro-monument side, and for good measure, accused one of the anti-monument folks of not attending previous meetings — a strange accusation coming from someone who had never been to a previous meeting. But it was what one of the pro-monument speakers had implied, and so he was just throwing in with the winners, and proving his mettle with a meanspirited jab. He'll fit in just fine here.

So yes, the side of reason lost, by nine votes. Adding insult to financial injury, a couple of evenings later I left my truck in our driveway overnight. In the morning, I went out to find that someone had let all the air out of one of the tires. Coincidence? Maybe so.

In other news, Caleb and I had a an appointment yesterday with our new dentist. While my hygienist scraped and fussed over my chompers, I listened to Caleb in the next room, quizzing his hygienist. He is in this ask-and-answer stage that I hope will pass before he needs to find a wife.

Caleb: "What's that big machine thing for?"

Hygienist: "Well, it's—"

Caleb: "Oh, I know, it's a laser, so if there's a cavity you can blast it. What's that pedal for?"

Hygienist: "You see, that's—"

Caleb: "I bet it's so you can turn up the lights really bright, when you want to see way way far down somebody's mouth."

After we were done, the receptionist offered us cookies and hot chocolate. This seems, to me, the equivalent of a car repair shop spreading one of those tire-puncturing nail strips across its exit. We like everybody in our dentist's office, though. They make me want to get more cavities.

My mother bought the boys a trampoline. I set it up a few weeks ago. It involved lots of pipes. Caleb organized the neighbor children into a platoon, and marched them into the garage, where all the pipes lay, and then out to where I was assembling the contraption. They love the trampoline. I, of course, think only about future dislocations and broken fingers and blunt force traumas to the head, but to them it's all about somersaults and belly flops. That's probably a better perspective on trampolines, and life in general.

Sometimes when I put Eli to bed, he whispers to me in long, breathless sentences all the things that I think he's stored up for the day. Recently I went outside with the boys, after the ice storm, and put them on thick pieces of plastic, and slid them down our driveway. When we came inside, shivering and ready for hot chocolate, Eli took my hand and asked me if we could snuggle until the hot chocolate was ready. It is hard to describe how it feels, to be loved that way.

Isaac hits me, all the time. He whacks me, and then he wraps his arms around me and squeezes. This is how he says I love you. I hope he finds a new way by the time he's bigger than me. Isaiah, meanwhile, has already smiled more in his first six months than I have smiled in my nearly, ahem, forty years.

That's right. It will be official in four days. I am going to be old. I'm actually sad about it, because I don't see what I've accomplished. The Wife keeps pointing out all these beautiful children, but then I remind her that God made them, not me, and it's my job not to screw them up, and we're a long ways away from being out of the woods in that regard. I suppose I won't be happy until they've survived my parenthood, and I'm in bookstores coast to coast, with perhaps a movie deal thrown in for good measure.

The Wife, meanwhile, is getting younger. All that stuff you hear about men aging well, and women going to pot? Apparently there's some kind of reverse-aging force field operating over our house, because the opposite is true here. I suppose that makes me a lucky man.

Yeah, it does.

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Friday, November 16, 2007


Caleb, Eli, Isaac and I recently had a boys' night out. We made our way to our favorite diner and ordered up omelets and chocolate milkshakes. A favorite food item for the boys, as it turns out, is the maraschino cherry, replete with bright red stem to match its bright red skin. I noticed that rather than wolfing his down, however, Isaac was simply dangling his about. "You going to eat that cherry," I asked, "or just love on it?"

I meant it as a rhetorical question. Isaac smiled at me, then leaned forward and gave the cherry a little kiss. "Mmmwah." His brothers giggled. I rolled my eyes. The little ham spent the next twenty minutes, in between egg bites, kissing his cherry, cuddling it in his hands, and sweet-talking to it, all while casting mischievous grins in my direction.

Little smarty-pants. I don't know where he gets it.

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Friday, November 2, 2007

On the Virtue of Having One's Head Sewn to One's Neck

We are walking across a parking lot. I am holding Eli's hand, and carrying Isaiah. Caleb has hold of the hem of my shirt. This is how we do parking lots. The wife is close behind. Suddenly she stops. "Where is Isaac?" she asks in a panic. That boy is forever wandering off, after all.

"Um, you're holding him."

She looks down at the boy whose arms and legs are wrapped around her trunk like he is a Koala bear. He grins up at her. She chuckles, that I-may-well-be-losing-my-mind laugh that is increasingly common in our house.

It may be time for a vacation.

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Friday, October 26, 2007

Thanks, Oscar Meyer

Another scene you don't anticipate until you have a house full of boys:

Eli and Isaac are in the tub. I have washed Isaac, and now they are squirming past one another so Eli can get on deck for his scrub-down. "Ouch!" Eli squeals.

"What's the problem?"

"He stepped on my pee-pee!"

"Well, if you had been moving over like I told you to do, instead of just sitting there, it might not have gotten stepped on. Isaac, apologize for stepping on Eli's pee-pee."

Isaac gets a big I'm-really-not-sorry-at-all look on his face. "Sorry for steppin' on your wiener."

He may have heard that alternate word from me. I'm not going to confirm or deny this. I'll just say that the person who introduced that anatomical pseudonym to our household is a comic genius, because it never fails to elicit giggles from all the males in earshot, while making the poor woman in our house roll her eyes. Giggling, predictably, ensues. The trampled pee-pee is forgotten.

See how important humor can be?

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Tuesday, October 23, 2007


This morning I woke to a Johnny Cash mood. I slipped into my black slacks and fitted white shirt, eased on my uber-trendy polished black shoes, shrugged into my black leather jacket, popped some sleek black sunnies on my face, and strolled out to my truck. I fired the engine and pushed in my Folsom Prison CD.

I was slick, I was bad, I was the dangerous beating heart of cool. I flicked on the windshield wipers. They skidded across a thin sheen of ice.

I don't care who you are, or how you're dressed — there's just no way to look cool when you're standing on tippy-toes with a bright blue window scraper in your hand, struggling to clear the center part of your windshield. I wonder if Johnny Cash ever had to clean his windshield.

I've got to start parking in the garage.

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Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Gentle Monster-Killer

As I step out the door with Eli Saturday for our weekly trip to his violin instructor, he has his little violin case slung over one shoulder, and his sighted underlever cocking cowboy rifle over the other. In his hands he clutches an apple and a granola bar. He sits directly behind me in my truck. He crunches his apple and his granola bar.

We are comfortable with each other, Eli and me. Sometimes on these drives he has a lot to say, other times he is quiet. Today he is content to crunch and swallow, crunch and swallow. I am content to listen to him. I don't understand the feeling of completeness that washes over me when I hear my children eat, or when I lean over them in their sleep and listen to them breathe.

We are waiting at a stoplight now, at a busy intersection, and suddenly Eli stops crunching. I hear him pick up his rifle, cock it, and fire. One shot: clack. He puts the rifle down. He resumes crunching.

"What did you shoot, little man?"


"Oh." I look to our right and see an advertisement for the Halloween stores that are ubiquitous in low-rent storefront space this time of year. He just took out their giant poster of a mournful Frankenstein's monster. I think the monster probably appreciated it.

"You just needed the one shot?"

"Yep." crunch crunch crunch

We drive on our way. Eli is an observant boy. I suspect he saw that poster the last time we drove this way, and made a mental note to bring his shooting iron next time. And that's the thing about Eli — there's no bluster beforehand, no bragging afterward; he just brings his rifle, takes one shot to get the job done, and goes back to his apple, gentle as ever.

As I drive, I think about how I want to be like Eli when I grow up. I pray that I don't undo whatever it is that has knit him together so tenderhearted and relentless all at once. I wonder what the world would be like, were more men like that.

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Monday, October 1, 2007

Wistful cowboy

Wistful cowboy

Isaac is three as of last Friday. I took him to lunch and then to work, which promptly became "work," where he crawled under my desk and generally charmed and pestered everyone in earshot. Then it was back home for special Mom-and-Isaac time (they made sugar cookies) while I took his older brothers shopping for presents. There was a party, of course, with cake and cookies, followed by more fun with friends.

When I finally put him to bed that night, he was sweaty and frosting-flecked and sleepy. I think he knows he's loved. And yet he is, sometimes, for just a whisper of a moment, the wistful cowboy. It's in our genes.

Happy birthday William Isaac. Our lives are much more chaotic, and blessed, for your being in the world.

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Sunday, September 23, 2007


I am washing dishes when Eli sidles up next to me. He is a gentle presence, watching. Sometimes when he wants to talk you have to help him get his words started. "Where's Isaac?" I ask, not because I think he wants to talk about his little brother, but because I always get a little nervous when Isaac isn't in sight.

"He's sleeping," Eli says. "He's quiet; that's how I know he's asleep."

Which is one of the reasons the boy waits to talk until he catches one of us alone.

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Tuesday, September 18, 2007

All's Fair

While at the Kansas State Fair, I was struck by the widespread obesity. How did we get so fat as a country? I pondered this as I ate my corn dog, followed by a basket of spiral chips, onion rings, meatballs on a stick, a slice of pizza, teriyaki on a stick (skewering just about any food item with a stick seems to make it taste better, doesn't it?), an ear of roasted corn, a bite of Isaac's caramel apple, and an entire funnel cake. Could this predisposition toward fatness be in our national genes? My jeans, in any event, are noticeably tighter.

The fair was everything it promised: the smell of sweat and axle grease and fried goldeny goodness thick in the air, the music and squeals and murmur of people, bodies and machinery in motion, an entrepreneur on every corner selling something, clusters of red-necked, thick-armed farmers in seer-sucker overalls, their stout offspring, the older boys with chew in their mouths and their hats rigid and proud, wide-eyed children everywhere, faces sticky with ice cream and cotton candy, some hopping with joy, all of us mingled together and hopeful, or weary, or both.

Caleb demanded entry to every big-boy ride his height would allow, including the spinning, dizzying kind for which I have no stomach. He looked like an astronaut or a pilot whirling through the air, blissful. Eli preferred rides with some heft and force — bumper cars, the child-size roller coaster, the rollicking slide. Isaac wanted what his brothers rode, until he got his wish, on a whirligig of a ride, his screams of terror so loud that the operator stopped it early. After that it was the motorcycles that go in a slow circle, and the carousel, and the flying elephants, but only with Dad tight beside him.

We came home late, and though neither the wife nor I voiced it for a few days, we both had the lingering sense that the fair hadn't taken. We'd rushed things, and let the older boys pair off with the children of friends we met there.

The fair, we realized, is an important part of our family tradition. It surprises me, the snobbery I find toward the state fair, from native Kansans, no less. I know several executives who pride themselves on never going. Having lived in states with actual cities, I have to stop myself from reminding them that they live in Kansas.

No Kansan is too good for the state fair. In fact, nobody is too good for the state fair, period, though perhaps the state fair is too good for some people. If you find it beneath you to get elbow to elbow with people who have not enough money and too many kids, and folks who work the earth, and greasy-fingered, shiny-eyed cheerful miscreants operating the rides, then perhaps you have too high an opinion of yourself, because we are all made of the same suspect dust, it seems. And if your mistaken opinion of your social position prevents you from getting a fresh corn dog and a hot steaming plate of sugary funnel cake, then it serves you right. Go content yourself with a pseudo-cosmopolitan meal in your favorite faux Euro-bistro with the cheap furniture, and pretend you live in New York. As for me and my household, we'll take the fair.

Friday night, this sense of incompletion still lingering, the wife and I decided to make another go of it on Saturday. If you can imagine how your children might react, were you to tell them that you were instituting a two-Christmas-a-year policy, then you have some sense of the elation in our home.

Saturday's damage to my waistline: one steak sandwich, one cheesesteak, a cherry limeade, fried mozzarella sticks, another basket of spiral chips, a healthy portion of Caleb's meatballs on a stick, and part of a funnel cake, the bulk of which was hastily consumed by my hypoglycemic wife as we drove home, after which she went promptly into a sugar-induced coma.

There were more rides, only this time we stayed together, the non-riders cheering for the riders. Each boy won a stuffed animal, which is good because the two goldfish they won Monday were dead by last night (funeral service to be held this evening). At the end, we all piled onto the Ferris wheel. Eli and Isaac snuggled close to me, and Caleb sat beside his mother to protect her and the baby. It carried us into the cool evening sky, where we sat quiet and peaceful. Lights glimmered below us, softened by the haze. In the distance, gentle rain clouds sat like mountains, and made me think of the thousand hills, and wonder how heaven can be any better.

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Friday, September 14, 2007

Soul Man

I didn't think Isaiah cared much for my singing. The old standby, "Baby Beluga," has proved ineffective. "You Are My Sunshine" gets a yawn at best. My lovey-dovey voices work great to get a smile, but the singing, not so much.

Tonight, as I got Isaac out of the tub and prepared it for Isaiah, who was squawking and barking at the lack of interaction, I started belting out some Sam and Dave. There was a coo from where he lay. I came over to him, still singing, and he grinned. He wiggled. I hit the chorus, and he squealed. I took his wiggly hands in mine and helped him keep rhythm. I gave him some Otis Redding. He grinned even bigger. Marvin Gaye. Percy Sledge. Big hits with the baby. Big. Hits.

Isaiah's got soul.

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Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Bed Hopping

I'm not sure that Isaac is actually sleeping in his bed. For those of you relatively new to SitG, Isaac is our two year-old (though he frequently insists that: "Tomowwow is my birfday. I'm telling the twuf. It is"). He's made a fairly regular habit now of climbing into our bed around 3 a.m. Understanding that this could become habit-forming, I've taken to waking him immediately, picking him up along with whatever toddler paraphernalia he's dragged down the hall with him, and plopping him back onto his own bed.

The other night, as I carried Isaac back to bed, I noticed that Eli's sheets were strangely askew, and he was scrunched up against the edge of his bed. Like a two year-old had been sleeping beside him. A two year-old who likes to scoot up right next to his sleeping partner. Curious, I peeked into Caleb's room. Same thing.

The next morning, I asked them if their brother had crawled into bed with them. As it turns out, he's making pretty regular rounds. He's like a hobo, sleeping in one place until he gets rousted, then moving on to another. Apparently he's big on the snuggling, and well, one can't snuggle by oneself, can one? I'm waiting for the night I discover that he's crawled into Isaiah John's crib. It's only a matter of time.

Isaac is such an affectionate boy. He's going to make some sweet girl very happy. He'll also drive her crazy. As I think on it, she'll probably need to be beefy as well as sweet, because he doesn't seem to be developing any gentle skills at all. All the more reason to sell our house and move out to farm country, where the girls, I hear, are tougher.

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Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Friends Bearing Guns

The other night I moved into that syrupy space between wakefulness and dreams, and thought that the Wife was roughly snuggling me. There was frenzied movement, interspersed with a tight little squeeze around my chest. There was also something metallic that occasionally whacked the back of my head. She's on the wrong side of the bed, I thought to myself.

Finally I woke to find Isaac snuggled in behind me, his ducky in one hand, his cowboy gun in another. Even when he sleeps, that boy can't be still.

Later I had a dream that Eli was kidnapped by a gang of carnies who travel by train. I have no idea what that means. In my dream I stepped into my bedroom long enough to grab my two favorite guns. Then I called a couple of men I know, and they brought their guns, and then we went and got Eli back. What's nice is that I'm confident each of those men would help me bring violence if that's what was needed, without hesitation. It's good to have friends like that.

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Tuesday, July 17, 2007


Eli is bringing me another bookmark, a long piece of white paper cut all the way around with craft scissors to give it a decorative border. I have hundreds of books. I think soon most of them will have a bookmark made by Eli. It's what he does sometimes, just sits at his desk and quietly sings and makes bookmarks, like we are all in danger of losing our place. Maybe we all are.

"Do you know why I make you bookmarks?" He asks me.


"Because I love you. Do you know why I make them long and thin?"


"Because you're long and thin."

I love that he is sweet-hearted and innocent, and believes that the world can be a good place. I love that he is my son. I love that he helps save me from losing my place.

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Thursday, June 28, 2007

When They Jump

I'm teaching Isaac the beginnings of swimming. He likes for me to stand in the pool, close to the edge where he is crouching, his arms outstretched toward mine, hands twisting, beckoning me closer Daddy, closer, and then he jumps and I catch him, letting his head dip beneath the surface before I pop him back up into the sunshine and my arms. Then we "swim" back to the steps, my hands on his hips while he splashes and kicks. When I first told him to swim like a doggy, he kicked his legs and went Woof! Woof! Woof! until I explained how doggies swim.

Once he slipped off the bottom step while I was helping Eli swim, and for a second he was suspended in the water, only his hair above the surface, his feet stretching and not finding the bottom. Then I had him in my arms, and he was sputtering and crying. He knows what "deep" means now. He jumps toward my arms every time, knowing that it's deep water he's hurling himself into. It's stunning, if you contemplate it, how they trust us so completely. It's stunning as well how many of us set about betraying that trust with our neglect, or anger, or perhaps a seemingly innocent desire to see them fulfill our dreams.

And yet this little boy still jumps, when I hold out my arms. I hope I never fall short. I like that "sin" means "falling short of the mark." It suggests an immorality in what I see among too many parents, and often myself — the falling short. They set out meaning well, and hoping good things, but in the daily grind they — we, I — fall short of the mark. Our children jump, and we aren't there to catch them. So they jump less and less, and then not at all, and their eyes take on that look of sadness or resignation you'll find on an abundance of faces in any high school, so much so that many parents tell themselves that's just how teenagers are.

It always fills me with a deeply peaceful feeling to be around our friends whose teenagers are happy and sociable, who don't have that look of being set against the world as a consequence of having come to believe the world is set against them. It's good to know parents who have stayed the course. It makes me hopeful. Are you staying the course?

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Wednesday, June 27, 2007


What people don't tell you before your first baby is that you don't always feel lovey-dovey towards him when he arrives. So you feel guilty for a few days, until one day you look at him and are overwhelmed with a Mama or Papa Bear feeling, because at the center of every cell in your body you feel rooted to this squirming little thing that clings to your fingers and burrows into your skin looking for a breast.

The Wife was in love with him the moment I put him in her arms, and now he's starting to grow on me as well. I'm not sure he likes me yet, however; I sit with him bundled in my arms, and he gazes up at me with a suspicious expression, as if he is thinking: "You are not the Mama." Once he gets past the need to eat every two hours maybe he'll find me more interesting.

I've tried to spend more time with the boys these past few days, to remind them we still love them. They've all taken to baby brother, though until he can wrestle he's of limited use to them. For the most part they pet him the way they pet our kitten, or they take his head in their hands and say Hello, baby Isaiah, and give a pretend squeeze, because by now they've heard Mom or Dad tell them to be gentle, for God's sake, about a million times. He likes to watch them, maybe because they are smaller, and closer to his scale, or perhaps because something in his genes is already called out to do little-boy things, only his muscles won't yet respond. So he watches them with a slightly less suspicious look (because they, too, at the end of the day, are also not the Mama).

Another piece has been added to our puzzle; this is how it feels, as if all along we were waiting for this boy to arrive and make us more complete. This is why we are parents, the Wife and me, and many of you reading, why we endure the terror and heartache and deprivation, because we are not completely us otherwise. We trade a world of black and white for a world of color, and become more fully ourselves and more fully something better at the same time. This is what they do for us even as they drive us crazy. But it's a good crazy.

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Monday, June 18, 2007

A Father's Day

Father's Day morning, the Wife brought me homemade blueberry muffins in bed. I sat reading short stories and eating blueberry muffins, and it was blissful. Soon I heard them conspiring outside my bedroom door, the little ones and their mother the ringleader. In marched a little troupe of celebrants, each bearing a gift. They perched themselves around me on the bed, each clamoring for me to open his gift first. They gave me a big bucket of bubble gum, some metal collar stays, a Hemingway-style pocket journal, and a cheerful little book published in 1902, titled The REAL Diary of a REAL Boy, by Henry Shute. It's written in the language of a schoolboy, and has entries like this:

December 15. Micky Gould said he cood lick me and i said he want man enuf and he said if i wood come out behind the school house after school he wood show me and i said i wood and all the fellers hollered and said they wood be there. But after school i thaught i aught to go home and split my kindlings and so i went home. a feller aught to do something for his family ennyway. i cood have licked him if i had wanted to.

I love old books, the feel and weight and texture of them, and the knowledge that they were born when people read, and when they read something more intelligent and edifying than Danielle Steele or Robert Ludlum.

We went to church and happily it wasn't a sermon about how none of us men are good enough as fathers. After that we went to our favorite Wichita restaurant, and I had a Dr. Pepper and didn't feel the least bit guilty about it. Later that day there was more short-story reading and then a run with the boys, Caleb and Eli on bicycles and Isaac in the running stroller and me doing the hard work in between wheezing at them to look both ways before turning onto a street, and to be extra careful because that SUV coming at us is being driven by a teenager, and for God's sake to look up at the road and not down at how fast their feet are pedaling.

Later that evening we had my favorite meal: hotdogs and the Wife's extra-special macaroni and cheese. As an added bonus her grandmother, who is visiting, made me creamed corn. Still later, I attempted to make The Perfect Tom Collins, according to a recipe I found in The Wall Street Journal, but I put in too much gin and then tried to compensate with more soda and sugar, but then that threw the squeezed lemon into too small a proportion and so by the time I was done it was something more like a soggy sugared pine tree than the perfect anything, but liquor is liquor and it tasted especially good because I bought the gin the next county over, because Wichita forbids alcohol sales on Sundays, unless one happens to own a restaurant or bar, which likely inclines one to contribute generously to city council members, who in turn are more likely to stick by their moral position that alcohol should not be sold on Sundays.

One day, in heaven, I'm going to sip a Tom Collins with Jesus on a Sunday, and we're going to have a good laugh about blue laws.

Still later, some friends and I watched a man movie, although it wasn't really because there was far too much kissing and love lost for my taste, but the moral of the story was good, plus more than one bad guy got skewered, so it was certainly a good use of two hours.

Around midnight I realized that while I may be an okay father, I am a very bad son, because I didn't call my father or stepfather. I'll try to remember how easy it is to be swept up in the chaos and bliss of being a father to all these young ones, so that my feelings aren't wounded when they are too busy being fathers to be sons.

I lay awake for a time after the house was completely dark and silent, thinking thank you over and over in my mind, whispering it to God. And he must say I know when we thank him for our children, because he is a father too. It is good to be a father. More fathers should try it. If I can get this right, I keep telling myself, the rest of it doesn't matter. Be a good husband. Be a good father. The rest of it fades away almost as soon as we are cold in the ground. Help me get this right. That's what I whisper to God in between the thank yous.

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Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Growing Pains

Eli woke up crying last night, growing pains in his legs. I remember those pains, and my mother giving me two chalky St. Joseph's aspirin, the ones with orange flavoring. There's something about being cared for by your parent in the middle of the night that almost makes the hurt worth it. So I gave him medicine, and rubbed his legs, and told him a story that my grandmother used to tell me at bedtime, about a little mountain boy who liked to chop wood, but who got careless (this being a grandmother's story, and perhaps more to the point, one of my grandmother's stories) and chopped into his own foot, nearly taking off a toe. But, through hard work and determination, he not only recovered from his injury, he entered the wood-chopping contest in the state fair and won first place, despite being the smallest competitor.

"Does he have muscles like me?" Eli asked, yawning, the pain disappearing in a cherry Tylenol haze.

"Yes. Big muscles for a little fellow."

"Did you ever chop wood?"

"Yes." I showed him a scar from cutting wood. He showed me a recent ouch. I curled up next to him on his bed, and we whispered to each other about little boy things, until his eyelids began to flutter. I put my face down on his pillow, and breathed in his smells of soap and toothpaste and the slobber dried into his beloved blankey. I thought about how one day too soon for me, and not soon enough for him, this will be over. He will lie on a bed with his own child and tell him about the little woodcutting boy, and I will be Grandpa, who visits sometimes and barks at the television news and always has chewing gum or candy to share.

I remember holding Eli once, or perhaps it was Caleb, or Isaac, or maybe this realization has happened with each of them, and the Wife coming up and helping me hold and hug him. I remember the smile on his face, eyes closed, a look of bliss. "I have no knowledge of what this must be like," I told my wife. Neither does she. We have never been held by a mother and father at the same time, both loving us and loving each other. It is an alien gift that we give our children, yet we sense its power in the peacefulness that comes over them.

The only thing better than feeling that embrace, I imagine, is giving it to my children, and knowing that they will never hold their own children and marvel, without experience, at what that feeling must be like.

This is part of the discovery, as I've written about our family, here and in the pamphlet (and have you ordered your copy yet?) and in pages that perhaps one day someone will read — that it is possible to build a foundation on razed ground. Perhaps it even makes us more careful, knowing how easily a home can crumble. Each brick matters very much to us. We have a generational vision, not only of how far we can get our children along a path free of neuroses and fear and insecurity, but how far they in turn will take their children. I think you have to have that vision as a parent — am I laying the foundation for my children and their children to live full, meaningful lives, or am I just feeding them the seed corn, set as I am on my own comfort and temporary success?

These are the things I thought about as Eli drifted off to sleep. They wonder sometimes, I think, why I watch them, why I search their faces. That's one thing I'll be happy for them never to know, that endless question: Am I getting it right?

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Friday, June 8, 2007

Boys, Girls, and Basketballs

Yesterday was the last day of a four-day basketball camp for Caleb and Eli. On the whole I think the major American sports (football, baseball, basketball) are a source of more harm than good when it comes to character-building (see this interesting study about cheating by student athletes, for example). But I believe this has more to do with the low moral qualities of the adults involved, and besides, I want my sons to have the rudimentary skills even if I'll hesitate to let them get very involved in these sports as they get older. And while they think I'm an awesome basketball player because I routinely dunk over them on our seven-foot rim, I can barely dribble. So, basketball camp.

I noticed something interesting as I watched them go through various competitions. There were nine groups of children, segregated by sex and age, gathered around hoops, competing to see who could do the most lay-ups in two minutes, dribble around obstacles the fastest, etc. In all of the boy groups, I saw intense competitive concentration. Through the din of a hundred basketballs slapping the floor, however, I heard a melodic sound that was out of place. In the youngest girl group, you see, they were cheering for each other.

It was endearing, and for a moment I wished the boys could support each other like that, instead of being so intently focused on winning. But then my internal man slapped my internal chick and told her to get hold of herself, that civilization is not built solely on nurturing and acceptance.

This is a challenge in raising boys, to love and nurture them, but also to prepare them for a world where they must struggle, where triumph is not guaranteed, and where a great many wicked people will be set against them. We have to raise them to face challenge and danger without shrinking, to continue striving in the face of defeat, and to crave victory. I want my sons to be gracious gentlemen, to be sure, but the difference between a gentleman and a coward or weakling is that a gentleman can pound a lout into submission, though often he may choose not to.

I'm tempted to write more here about some of the things I've realized about finding the balance between toughness and nurturing with my boys, but instead I'll direct you to (and have I mentioned this already?) my pamphlet on the subject, available from the New Pamphleteer.

C'mon, you had to know that was where I was headed.

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Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Little Negotiations

Overheard while driving:

Isaac: "Twust me, Eli. Tomowow is my birfday."

Wife: "Isaac, your birthday isn't until September."

Isaac: "Is that tomowow?"

Wife: "No, sweetie. It's a lot of days away."

Isaac: "Oh."

And then later, while Eli and Isaac flop around like otters in the bathtub, periodically splashing either me or my newspaper, or splashing each other:

(splash, splash, splash)

"Stop, Isaac."

(splash, splash, splash)

"Stop. Stop. STOP."

(splash, splash, SPLASH)

"Stop doesn't mean do it!"

"Oh. Sowwy."

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Monday, May 14, 2007

A Father's Day

I have a two-foot shadow, and his name is Isaac. When I mowed on Saturday, he insisted on sitting in my lap the entire time. When it was time for the push mower, he followed behind with his little plastic mower, the one that clicks as its wheels roll. He even had on his goggles (he calls them "gobbles") and a mask. (For the record, I know that I look like a dork mowing the grass with a mask, but the alternative is misery, and I have now reached the age where comfort trumps cool. Not completely, as it turns out, because at the same time I am moving away from wearing shorts in public, having decided that one simply cannot look like a real man in a pair of shorts.)

When I got out the trimmer, Isaac fetched a plastic hockey stick and followed behind me, pretending to trim. In the back, where a slope leads me to keep him from riding on the mower, he follows behind on his tricycle, gobbles and mask on, pretending to mow. It's the seriousness that's most impressive, how the boy pretend-mows row after row. He's no gentleman farmer, this one.

Then it was on to some pipes around the pool filter that were leaking. I got my tools together, and he ran to get his little plastic tools, along with his yellow construction hat. I sawed and cursed under my breath, and he chirped at me while whacking away. No matter where I went, he was right there with me, all day.

All. Day. (I love my son I love my son I love my son)

It can be a little unnerving, like having one's own leprechaun, except that instead of dispensing wisdom and hints about a pot of gold, this one asks roughly one billion questions per minute and likes to drop his trousers and pee whenever the mood strikes him. If they had any doubts before, our snooty neighbors now have confirmation that we are in fact a family of rednecks. The practice mortifies my wife, but I admire the boy's frontier spirit. The problem is that he doesn't hide behind anything. Wherever he happens to be when the need arises, that's the place that's getting watered.

By Sunday, I was a little spent. But Sunday was Mother's Day, so my job was to give the Wife a break for a day. It's interesting, isn't it, how we celebrate a day by not doing the thing it was named after? Mother's Day. Labor Day. Thanksgiving. You get the idea.

But I figure the poor woman has earned it, if only for putting up with me.So I needed to give her a break. Caleb's been pestering me to build something, and so I figured that might be a good thing to occupy everyone's time. What, I asked him, did he want to build today?

A cannon. The boy has instructions on how to build a cannon. So off we went to Lowe's, where we bought approximately 10,000 PVC parts, some of which are actually the right shape and size. Isaac insisted on carrying a big length of pipe. As we made our way down the aisle, him staggering under the weight, me trying to keep him from whacking anyone in the crotch, he declared, "I strong. I two. I Isaac Woodlief."

I am man; hear me roar. Or in my case: I am father; let me sleep. But the mission was accomplished — at least insofar as Mom got her rest. The cannon still needs work. I'm trying to help Caleb understand that no project is worth anything unless you have to make at least five trips to Lowe's to get it finished. He's not convinced.

That night, before bed, each boy gently hugged his mother, careful of her swollen tummy and the wiggly creature inside. They're all very sweet to her. I'm trying to help them grapple their way to manhood, and to being good husbands themselves one day. This will be nothing short of a miracle, because I've not been much of either, a man or a husband. This is the miracle, that they are changing me as I try to raise them. This is why the sleeplessness and the fatigue and the lack of privacy are all worth it, because without them I am something far less. Yesterday was Mother's Day, but it was also Father's day, and it was good.

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Friday, May 11, 2007


Caleb wants to build things: robots and rockets and bug traps. I can barely build a sandwich. Thankfully our friend Lyndal will be able to teach him how to weld when the time comes. For now he's content to make things out of construction paper and tape, or use whatever else he can find in creative ways. A few weeks ago he buried his plastic bucket in our front yard, up to its lip, and then positioned three rocks over it like a little carport. His theory was that an unsuspecting bug would toddle under the rocks for shade and fall into the bucket.

That didn't work out, but something nice about Caleb is that he is not easily daunted. His latest quest is to catch a cricket. He hears them through his open window at night, and he's decided he should have one as a pet. Around nine o'clock last night, as the last sunlight was fading, he put on his froggy boots and went outside with his little plastic terrarium. He was going cricket hunting, he said.

There are precious few times in a parent's life when even the dullest of us understands that we should grab this experience or that moment with our child. This was one of those moments, and so I put on my shoes and followed him out. He had intended to go it alone, but I could tell he was glad for the company. We held hands and traipsed through the dark, and I whispered to him that the crickets always seem far away because they're hiding from us. Caleb was certain that somewhere there must be a guidebook on how to catch a cricket. "Maybe you could look it up on How to Catch A Bug dot com," he offered. "Or maybe Bug Trapping dot com." We don't let the boy surf the Internet, but somehow he's gathered that it has everything you want to know, so long as you remember to put a "dot com" on the end of your question.

(I wish this were so. I'd start with www.HowDoIKeepFromScrewingThisFatherhoodThingUp.com and work my way over to www.SurvivingWhenYourPregnantWifeCan'tHaveChocolate.com.)

We couldn't find any crickets, but as we returned to the front porch, we spied two Junebugs (I think) clasping the stone wall beside our door. "Do you want a Junebug?" I asked him.

"Sure," Caleb said. He shivered as he looked closer. "It might get you."

"I don't think it can," I said. I steered him over to the bug, until his terrarium was positioned just beneath it. Then I lightly flicked at the bug. It wouldn't let go of the wall. Then I noticed it had little pincers, and was trying to bite me with them. "Whoa," I said, "it's trying to get me."

"Be careful Dad!"

I flicked it again, and it bounced off the top of the terrarium and onto the ground. Caleb and I jumped back. We carefully approached it again and tried to coax it into the terrarium. "Pick it up," the Wife goaded me, having ventured out onto the front step to observe her two brave men.

"I'm trying," I groused. I attempted to nab it by a back leg, and then by the rear of its shell, to no avail.

"Ooo! Dad, be careful." I tried again. I hate bugs. They're so . . . crawly and creepy.

Finally the Wife stepped in, scooped it up, and dropped it in the terrarium. That's probably just as well; I might have hurt it with my kung-fu grip.

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Monday, April 30, 2007


You can often discern what Isaac is thinking, even if he doesn't tell you. When he wants to make trouble, his lips are pulled thin and the tip of his tongue shows through his teeth. When he is irritated, his eyebrows push together and he squints like a little cross-eyed thug. Plus there's usually some hitting involved. When he's happy, he grabs hold of the closest person and squeezes tight, making an MMM MMM MMMNNHH sound.

Sometimes what's on his mind seeps out in subtler ways. Saturday he asked me if I like vegetables. "Yes," I said, with more exuberance than is perhaps warranted. "Me too," he said. "What's a vegetable?"

"Well," I said, "there's green beans, and peas, and carrots, and . . ."

"And hot dogs," he chimed in. "Mmmmm, I like hot dogs. They are yummy for me."

Later we were all in the minivan, on our way to do an errand. Caleb sat in the back, working a crossword puzzle. "Mom," he asked, "what was Abraham's wife's name?" Notice how he asked his mother. If you think you're smart, or that you're in charge, just observe to whom your children direct their questions. It might be illuminating. And humbling.

"Sarah," the Wife said, after a series of clues proved fruitless.

"Mmmm," Isaac said, "I like cereal." Sarah. Cereal. I suppose they have a similar sound.

The conversation turned to Eli's violin practice. One of his exercises is something his teacher calls a "tucka tucka stop stop," which is four half notes followed by two quarter notes. "Do da taco taco stop stop Eli," Isaac directed him.

That evening we had hot dogs and French fries and baked beans for dinner. When he saw the spread, Isaac's face took on the same look he wore on Christmas Day. Wouldn't it be nice if all of us were so easily satisfied?

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Sunday, April 8, 2007

Easter Day

We stood in church and sang the hymns, the boys with their shirts tucked in for once, me in a tie for once. Caleb had written on his notepad: "He is risen. He is risen indeed. Eastre Day. Amen."

We sang the hymns and the sound of it would make even the heaviest heart lighter, the kind of lightness that makes you want to sing at the top of your lungs, even if all the hymns were written by people with high voices, the kinds of voices that seem to reach heaven so easily. So I sang that way, loud and not always in tune, and tried to push my words up past the clouds, so that God might hear a whisper, or the echo of a whisper. I sang that way, and I wondered, "Is there grace in your cup for me?"

And the answer came back in the voices of my brothers and sisters, for when we sing to God we are also singing to one another, and to ourselves. The stone has been rolled away, the cup that held bitterness has been refilled with life, and the world has been forever changed. He is risen, indeed.

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Saturday, April 7, 2007

Correspondence with the Easter Bunny

Caleb's note to the Easter Bunny:

"Dear Ester Bunea,
This is all I want
A bascket for my bike and a little wite rabbit.

The Easter Bunny's reply (as channeled by the Wife):

Dear Caleb,
Thank you for the note. I don't carry the bunnies with me because they eat all the candy. I will put in a good word for you with your parents.
He is risen!

I'm not sure which of my sweethearts is cuter.

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Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Word of Mouth

"I cute," Isaac walks into my bedroom and declares. "Eli handsome."

"Who told you that?" I ask him.


Apparently my five-year-old son has discovered word-of-mouth marketing.

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Monday, March 12, 2007

Birthday Sugar

The thing about giving up sugar for Lent is that Lent stretches over March, which is when birthdays occur in my house. A forward-thinking man would have considered this, and given up something else, like cursing in traffic. But no, I gave up sugar.

The thing about having birthdays in March is that sometimes Nana visits. Nana also has a March birthday. That's one more cake in the house. Banana cake, with cream frosting. It looked delicious.

The thing about Nana visiting is that she makes chocolate-chip cookies. Chocolate-chip cookies are my favorite treat in the entire world, except, perhaps, for Breyer's chocolate-chip ice cream.

(Pause to reflect on the joy of scooping up chocolate-chip ice cream with a chocolate-chip cookie, and then eating it.)

The thing about giving up sugar for Lent is that it's about to drive me crazy. I know, we're supposed to reflect on the sacrifice our Lord and Savior made for us, how he gave up everything that we might have eternal life. In the face of that eternal gift of love, what's a little sugar? This is the outlook I am supposed to have.

I am a weak and wicked man, because mostly I just think about those chocolate-chip cookies in a big plastic bag in my cupboard, and how heavenly it feels when your teeth shave clean through a cool soft chip, and how the chocolatey sugar of the chip mixes with the sugary crisp dough of the cookie to create a taste that simply must have been in the Garden of Eden, for Adam and Eve to have wept so much upon being cast out. Which means, if you think about it, that in Heaven there are probably chocolate-chip cookie trees, with big disks of milk-chocolate laden goodness weighting down their branches.

I could be wrong, but I imagine I'll learn soon enough, because any day now I'm going to die from sugaritis deficitis. It's real. You can look it up.

For Eli's five-year-old birthday we went to the petting-zoo, where the thuggish sheep ganged up and scared him back to four. They all wanted the little food pellets clutched in our hands. This is what welfare does to creatures, you know. Isaac, meanwhile was unfazed, even though a little billy goat hopped up on the bench where he was standing and got eye-to-eye with him. Isaac doesn't back down from anyone.

Eli told me he was sorry I couldn't have sugar. I told him that I can have one kind of sugar. He didn't get it, until I grabbed him up and kissed his face and neck about 100 times. Big, slobbery kisses. He giggled and told me it was disgusting, but he didn't fight too hard to get away. His mother's the same way.

I suppose that's the best kind of sugar, isn't it?

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Saturday, March 3, 2007


"Dad," Eli explained, "water is stronger than crumbs, and germs are stronger than water." I'm not sure what he means, exactly, but I have the feeling he's right. Somewhere in his fantastic brain he's thought this out, because that's how he is; he thinks and thinks, and then he shares the connections his synapses have made. He sees giant birds in the dark-on-light grain pattern in a wooden door, or an airplane in the Picasso-esque musical drawing in his violin classroom. He sees things and then he tells you about them, and at first it makes no sense, but if you tilt your head to the side and see like a child or a genius sees, then you can visualize it.

You can learn a lot from children. Earlier today, Caleb came to tell me about the bug trap he's made. He read about it in a book; I can tell because as he explained it, he looked into the distance at key points, almost as if seeing the page on which the directions were written. He's already such a black-and-white child; I hope that he doesn't also have a photographic memory. I only pray we help him become a Nathan and not a Javert.

This afternoon we fired a rocket on our front lawn. It was made from a plastic bottle, with silvery fins of carved balsa wood covered in foil. The fuel was baking soda mixed with vinegar, and the first time we tried to launch, the cork that is the primary mechanical part blew out of the back while I was still holding it, and nearly took Eli's head off. Nevertheless, during our second trial he had enough faith in me to hold the fuel tube while I filled it with baking soda.

The rocket went a good thirty feet into the air. That's high if you're full-grown, but it's especially lofty when you're a two year-old whose never seen a rocket launched before. I'm afraid that now I've contributed to some kind of formative experience that will one day lead Isaac to become an astronaut. I'll have to pray that by then we've had the good sense to eradicate NASA.

The other day I opened the front door to see Caleb and Eli lying on the brick walk, looking up at the clouds. Eli was pointing out the mysteries you can see, if you'll only look the right way, while Caleb was explaining to him how clouds work. I listened, and loved them, and learned, because like I said, you can learn a lot from children. It's one of the ways they make us better than we are, if we'll only let them.

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Thursday, March 1, 2007

Three Reasons

Caleb has borrowed my Essential Charlie Parker, and I don't think he's ever giving it back. He likes to listen to it as he falls asleep, and so I hear it drifting down to me from his bedroom, the cool sound of that inimitable saxophone, and with it the knowledge that my seven year-old is far cooler than I'll ever be.

Isaac wandered into the bathroom while I was shaving this morning. He had on a sweater, and cowboy boots, and nothing else. He was carrying a little plastic Playskool drill. It occurred to me that he is going to make some lucky lady very happy indeed, what with his cowboy attitude, his penchant for home repair, and his disdain for pants.

And then there's Eli, who this morning greeted me in Army-man garb, though he is less Army man than Snuggle man. His favorite thing is for me to pick him up and cradle him in my arms. Sometimes I hold him tight, his face pressed to mine. When I do this he fits his soft ear into my own, as if he is listening to my thoughts. If he could, what he would hear is, "Thank you," though he wouldn't understand why this runs through my mind like a melody. One day he will. This is my prayer for all of them, that they have children who give to them what they have given to me.

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Tuesday, February 27, 2007


"Wouldn't it be something," Caleb says over dinner, "if my birthday was every day?"

"It'll feel like it soon enough," I grumble.

"Well," says his mother in her exquisitely motherly way, "having your birthday once a year is what makes it so special."

Caleb chews on his salad and thinks about this. "If I only had to make my bed once a year, it still wouldn't be fun, because it's a chore."

"I was wondering if he'd figure that out," the wife mutters to me.

Like Caleb, I also began immediately to poke for holes in the wife's logic. "What if," I ask her, "it's not the case that having birthdays once a year makes them special? Maybe you have the causality reversed. What if we only get them once a year because they are special?"

"You have a very cynical view of God," she replies, shaking her head.

Somebody has to ask these questions, you know. Apparently it's up to me and Caleb.

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Friday, February 23, 2007

Popcorn Friday

It's popcorn Friday. I've got several little things to share with you, but rather than cram them all into one disjointed post, I'm going to be like a traditional blogger, and spread them across several brief posts. I call them popcorn posts.

Why popcorn Friday? If that's what you're asking, then you are asking the wrong question. What you really ought to ask yourself is this: Why not popcorn Friday. I think you see my point.

Those of you who get an email announcement when I post can rest easy — this is the only post you'll be alerted to. Of course if you don't check back later, you may miss something worthwhile. Probably not, but maybe.

Let's lead with something undeniably cute, like Isaac. I think I've mentioned that one of his most frequent replies, when asked why he's not only rooting through a kitchen cabinet, but is all the way in the cabinet, or where his pants are, or why he whacked Eli with a spoon, is, "I don't know." He says it like he's just as exasperated as we are.

A couple of nights ago, after a rough day which led to, among other injuries, a big scrape on his elbow, Isaac crept upstairs to the bathroom. I say crept because he likes to wash his hands, only if you don't monitor him, he'll use the entire bottle of grape-smelling kid's soap. Isaac doesn't like to be monitored. So he crept up the stairs.

Not long after, I heard him crying in the bathroom. I ran upstairs to find him standing over the sink with his little arms in the air, a thick layer of suds covering each arm from fingertip to armpit. "What are you doing?" I hollered.

"I don't know!" He wailed. The suds had gotten on his elbow ouchy. I rinsed his arms and lectured him about not sneaking off to do what he knows he shouldn't be doing. He sniffled and said "Okay." This is his other staple phrase, and it means, "Can you stop lecturing me now, because I'm only two."

I dried his arms and picked him up. He hugged my neck, and put his face against my cheek. He smelled like a very clean grape.

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Friday, February 16, 2007


Valentine's evening, after the rush of work and dinner was over, three little boys gathered around my chair. Caleb and Eli each handed me brown lunch bags covered in heart-shaped stickers. Inside Caleb's was a collection of elaborate cut-out hearts, two Reese's peanut-butter cups, a little candy bar, and a handful of those confection-sugar hearts that have things like "Be Mine" inscribed on them. It hadn't occurred to Eli to put candy in his bag, and he doesn't know how to cut out hearts, so instead he had cut me some slips of paper using scissors that leave a scalloped edge.

Each bag also contained a card; inside Caleb's was a note: "Dear Daddy how has work been going? Happy Valentine's Day. Love, Caleb." Inside Eli's was a stick-figure with spiked-up hair. "It's me after I have a bath," he explained. Isaac, meanwhile, stood watching and waiting for me to share the candy.

I have their little cards on my desk, next to my Father's Day drawing from Caleb (it shows him hitting a hole-in-one), next to the homemade card in the shape of a birthday cake, complete with lots of candles (it took Caleb most of a day to draw and cut it out), next to a picture of Isaac in nothing but a t-shirt and a cowboy hat, holding a little cowboy gun.

His card asks, "How is work going?" My answer is that it doesn't matter, does it? As long as I can come home to these little boys every day, work doesn't matter one bit, except that there's enough of it to pay the bills and keep them in candy hearts. Perhaps I should be more career-minded. But looking at these little Valentines as I type, I can't see work as anything but means to the end. I have a feeling that on my deathbed, I won't recall a thing about work. And I have a feeling, just as sure, that I will remember that Valentine's night, looking down into their expectant eyes, and opening the best Valentine's presents I ever got.

I like to linger in those moments, try to stretch them out, imprint them into my mind. I don't want to look back on the best part of life and find that I've missed it. So I linger.

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Tuesday, January 23, 2007


Isaac is in his literal stage. His mother asks, "Isaac, where is your sock?" Isaac replies, "I took it off." (He's also in his stripper stage. I thought this only happened to girls whose parents give them names like "Brandi," but like so many other parental notions I entertained before this boy came along, this is not true.)

"Where did you take it off?" asks his mother. "Off of my foot," he says, with that you idiot tone of voice typically heard only from teenagers and customer service representatives.

He's also in his legalistic stage. We don't allow the children to throw around words like "pee-pee," because if we did allow it, every other word in our house would be "pee-pee." These boys are with "pee-pee" the way the writers of The Sopranos are with the f-bomb.

So no "pee-pee," is the rule, unless it's necessary, as in: "I have to go pee-pee," or "Ouch! The toilet seat fell on my pee-pee!"

Well, Isaac has picked up on the spelling of "Mississippi." He can't quite spell it, but he knows there's a couple of "p's" in there somewhere. So he'll burst out with something like, "Ess-I-ess-I-ess-ess-I-pee-pee-I." Then he'll glance at his mother. "I said 'pee-pee' Mom. Should I say 'pee-pee?'"

"Only if you're spelling 'Mississippi,' Isaac."

"Oh. Okay. Sissippi. I-ess-ess-I-pee-pee-I. Ess-I-ess-I-ess-ess-I-pee-pee-I. Ess-ess-ess-I-pee-pee-I. . ."

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Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Not Scared

We're watching The Polar Express, Caleb, Eli, Isaac, and I. It's cold and icy outside, and so we're jumbled together on the couch, watching the magical Polar Express sway and slide across thin ice.

A frightened expression has been forming on Isaac's face. He clutches his favorite ducky close to his cheek and watches the Polar Express try to avoid destruction. Finally, unable to bear the suspense, he pops down from his place on the couch and clambers up onto my lap. He holds his ducky up to my face. "Ducky scared," he says. "I not scared. Ducky scared."

I hold Ducky tight. Since Isaac is firmly wrapped around Ducky, I squeeze him too. The other boys inch closer. We are a tight bundle on the couch, transfixed by The Polar Express. We are safe from the world on this couch.

The train rights itself. Everyone survives. It is a beautiful, peaceful, happy ending. I know other kinds of endings are popular with some people, but this kind is the best.

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Friday, December 22, 2006

For Jen

This is the special Jen Alves Christmas Edition of Sand in the Gears. Jen and her husband are two of my very most favorite friends. Some might note that my relatively small number of friends makes this a dubious honor, but I like to think that it merely reflects my discriminating taste.

But the point is, Jen got hit by a car, and so now she's laid up for the next few weeks, which means I'm catching crap for not updating SitG. Therefore, dearest Jen, this one's for you. So back off. I mean, I know you got hit by a car and all, but really.

Today I will work on Christmas cards. Some of you may actually receive such a card. I would like to warn you that your card, should you be so lucky as to receive one, will be late. At first I felt really bad about this. But then I remembered that little baby Jesus had to wait, like, six months for his Christmas presents. And you know what? He didn't complain even once. So unless you think you're better than the Prince of Peace, just get out of my grill about the late card.

Today I also have to drive to the Prairie Rose cowboy store to get Isaac a holster and pair of toy six-shooters. Some of you might recall my last Christmas adventure in search of cowboy guns. I'm not going through that again, so this year I'm heading straight to a place that will have what I need.

The boys are all beside themselves about Christmas. Once we got the tree up, Caleb exclaimed, "That tree is hunormous!" That's how we do it in the Woodlief house: lights everywhere, a tree in every room, even an Isaac-sized old fashioned light-up plastic Santa in the classroom. Santa is just barely holding his own against the boy, who sometimes confuses hugs with tackling. At least Santa doesn't have to contend with a flying, groin-high tackle-hug every time he walks in the door. I'm afraid the only memory my boys will have of me is this funny cross-legged thing I do every time they rush me.

It turns out that they are all musical. Eli is excelling at violin, which he is eager to transfer to guitar, having realized that chicks don't rush the stage at a violin concert. Sometimes he crawls under the piano bench and holds down the pedals for Caleb, whose piano teacher believes he has perfect pitch.

Caleb had his first recital a couple of weeks ago, which I watched from a back room, because Isaac chose that exact moment to begin throwing up on me. I suppose there is never really a good time to get vomited on, but this seemed like a decidedly inconvenient time. Caleb played beautifully, however. And by that evening, Isaac was back to his old self. My ridiculously expensive and fashionable shoes, on the other hand, are a different story.

As for Isaac's musical ability, it amounts to a stomping wiggle-dance that he does whenever music is playing. He also taught himself that old Christmas classic, "Stinkle Bells."

I never really felt my age until this boy came along. A few weeks ago he got up at 4 a.m. and decided that he needed some medicine for his cough. Unable to reach the medicine cabinet in the boys' bathroom (not that it would do him any good, seeing as how it's loaded primarily with tinctures and ointments and other such voodoo-type treatments) from his footstool, the boy ventured downstairs to get a child-sized chair. We know this because we later found the chair halfway up the stairs. Growing tired, apparently, of hefting a piece of furniture up the steps, he decided to help himself to about a dozen Twizzlers, and a juice box. Then he got a spoon and pounded on our door to inform us that he wanted medicine.

Trust me, it is so much more enjoyable to read about this than to hear that fat little fist jouncing your door at four in the morning.

So, I had a birthday on Monday. Some of you sent presents. You are very good people, and I am thankful for my presents. I very much like presents, in fact. One reader, Lori MacKean, sent me a lovely book and Johnny Cash CD, without even knowing it was my birthday. Unexpected, undeserved gifts are always the best, don't you think? And that's really what the first Christmas gift was, though we usually forget it, caught up as we are in getting paper cuts from Christmas cards and trying to find exactly the right tchotchke for Aunt Hilda and shouting at our children to just please, for the love of God, be quiet until we get through the five-mile check-out line at Target. It would be nice if we could all just put a stop to this escalating Christmas arms race and take just one day, or one hour in a day, and remember that first gift.

Not that I want to discourage any of you from sending me lovely, thoughtful gifts like dear Lori. I mean, who am I to tell you how to spend your time and money? It's a free country, and if you want to go to my Amazon wish list and buy me something pretty, I won't stand in your way. So thank you, Lori, and I hope you and your family have a delightful Christmas.

But back to me, and my birthday. I got many very nice things, but one gift in particular stands out. It came from my boys. It was their idea. It is a nose-hair trimmer.

As Caleb explained, they got it for me because I have "lots of hair up there." He made this little wiggly-finger motion as he told me, his eyes fixed on my nostrils. They insisted on watching me try out the contraption, which, I was thrilled to learn, also has an eyebrow-trimming attachment. A word of caution, however. One wrong move, say, because your two-year old decided to hug your leg in mid-trim, and you'll have a funky-looking eyebrow. And people notice that sort of thing, believe me.

I hope you all have a lovely Christmas. Notice that I didn't wish you a "happy holiday." I'm wishing you a wonderful celebration of the birth of our Savior, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who was crucified, descended into hell, rose from death, and ascended into heaven, where he sits at the right hand of the Father, waiting until that blessed moment when he descends once again to separate the sheep from the goats, to slay the false prophets, and to judge the quick and the dead. So all of you politically correct, watered-down ecumenical types can bite me. And anyone who thinks the false prophets are just in the other religions can bite me too.

Those of you who don't share my faith know I love you anyway. But it's Christmas time, and I hope you have a merry one. I also hope you consider that first Christmas gift, which was given to you too, whenever you choose to unwrap it. Merry Christmas.

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Wednesday, November 15, 2006

The Shots Heard Round the Doctor's Office

The thing with these children is that they remember everything. They get this from their mother, who can remember the look I had on my face three years ago when I asked if that's what we're having for dinner. This, by the way, takes all the fun out of arguing with the woman.

So we flash back to three little boys getting immunization shots. There is Isaac, seeing if he can't find something in the doctor's office to break. And there is Caleb, declaring quite confidently that he is absolutely not going to let anyone stick a needle in him. And then there is precious little Eli, asking his mother why he has to get a big ouch. The answer, he is told, is that it will keep him from getting sick.

Flash forward five months. Eli, sniffling and coughing, confronts his mother: "We got those shots so we wouldn't get sick, but I got sick. I'm not getting any more shots ever."

Being a father has opened my eyes to how often each of us thinks he sees the whole picture, when in reality we only see a sliver. Yet even though Eli thinks we made him get a shot for nothing, he loves us all the same. Would that each of us had the same grace for others.

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Saturday, November 11, 2006

The Imp

We are potty training the imp. Our method has always been to let the child run about naked from the waist down, so that when the need hits there is an immediate awareness of no diaper. This means lately I've been greeted when I get home by a chubby little monkey in a sweatshirt and socks. "Hi Dad!"

"Isaac!" I like to kid him, "where's your pants?"

"I don't know!"

The training has been stretched out because we're trying to sell our house, which means we get frequent calls informing us that we have to turn on all the lights and vacate the premises. No, we aren't leaving the state, just this neighborhood. We have our sights set on a place that is more . . . us.

The point is, we have stretched out this boy's potty training for too long. He now has no compunction about leaving little puddles -- because he can't just pee it all out at once -- scattered about the kitchen. It's like having a puppy, only a puppy can't climb atop a table and jump up and down on it like a raving lunatic until it crashes to its side, landing (of course) on his fingers so that he has to get his first x-ray before he can say: "emergency room co-pay."

But, there were Winnie-the-Pooh stickers involved, as well as a couple of pretty x-ray machine ladies who thought the boy was absolutely the cutest thing they had ever seen, so in the end I don't think he learned a thing from the disaster, except that when you say "goodbye, ladies" to pretty x-ray machine women, they're likely to come chasing after you to give you one more hug and another Winnie-the-Pooh sticker for good measure.

The primary reason we like to get our youngsters potty-trained around two years-old is very simple: the diapers are appalling. Especially for the imp, who is in the 3rd percentile for height, and the 96th percentile for weight. He's not fat, but he is a thick chunk of barreling, screaming baby flesh. It takes a lot of food to sustain those numbers and that energy level.

His mother's been teaching him exclamations that are acceptable alternatives to what he's picked up from Dad. So, to tie it all up and let you get back to your Saturday, I've got the boy on the changing table, and we're dealing with a Level 5 Hazmat disaster. As the wave of odor hits, I search my vocabulary for something that won't earn me a smack upside my head from the wife, and, in a poop-inflicted stupor, I simply utter: "Oh!" Isaac takes this as his cue to teach me a few phrases.

"Oh boy! Oh bodder (bother)! Oh goodness! Oh mercy! Oh poo!"

"Amen to that," I mutter.


I've never had a child so cute and such a terror all wrapped up in the same hyperactive bundle. He can't walk anywhere, he has to run. He can't speak, he has to shout. Food isn't eaten, it's gobbled. He even tackles sleep like it's a bear that must be wrestled to submission. Everything is an adventure, in his eyes. It's a good way to see the world.

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Monday, October 9, 2006

Goldfish and Miracles

I promised my subscribers (that's right - if you send me your email address I eventually add you to my notification list, which means that you're updated when I post, usually in the form of a snarky little one-liner direct to your Inbox) that the next post would involve little boys and goldfish. I'm not known as a man of my word by the people who know me best, but I've always aspired to be such a man, and today's as good a day as any to start, so herewith is a story about a little boy and a goldfish.

Caleb came into the kitchen last weekend, sobbing and holding his fishbowl. "My goldfish is dying!" His mother took the bowl and brought it to the counter, where we watched the fish, whose name is Gold Star, alternately puff and roll to his side and float. I've never seen a goldfish in the throes of death before, and I'm here to tell you that it's not pretty. Caleb buried his head in my stomach and cried the hopeless, dejected sort of cry that we've all experienced, the kind where there's not even the strength to raise your hands to your face, there's just the limp-armed, mournful cry of someone learning that the world isn't as lovely as he thought.

The wife immediately went about trying to resuscitate the fish, which involved putting it in fresh water and telling it to breathe. "Caleb," I asked, "when did you feed him last?"

"I don't know!" There was a fresh round of sobbing. "He's going to die!" From where I stood, the fish was already more dead than alive. The wife took Caleb's hand and told him we should pray for the fish. Great, I thought. Teach him early that there are no miracles any more. So they prayed an earnest little prayer for Gold Star, and I stood there with my hands on Caleb's head, already angry with God for letting him down. When they were done, they looked up to see Gold Star staring at them through the clear glass of the bowl, with that perpetual look of fishy surprise on his face. "God made him better," said Caleb with confidence. Then he took Gold Star back to his room and fed the poor starved thing.

I'm sure it was the clean water that did the trick. Or perhaps all the wailing shocked the fish out of his coma. To Caleb, however, it was a miracle, and when he prays he expects God to move. I confess I don't ever expect miracles when I pray. I don't even expect things to go right. I expect disappointment at every turn. I expect disease. I expect an early death. I suppose one day Caleb's prayers won't be met with a miracle. By then maybe he'll understand what I'm still only learning, which is that the very fact that we have any life and love at all is itself a quiet miracle, one that we usually forget because we are so intensely focused on the one that never comes, the great audacious miracle that will finally set everything to rights. So my question for you this Monday morning -- and I hope you understand by now that my questions are always as much for myself as you -- is simply this: what will you do with your miracle today?

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Friday, July 28, 2006

Right As the Mail

A few little things, which are really, when you think about it, the big things, in that they linger in our memories long after the social events and Important Meetings and sermons have faded:

I let the older boys wash my truck last weekend. They like washing my vehicles. Please don't tell them that this is actually work. I set about mowing the yard on the other side of the house, pleased with myself for getting labor out of a four and six year-old on a Saturday, when so many other fathers suffer the daily affliction -- well-deserved, mind you -- of teenagers slouched on couches, letting their brains dribble out of their ears as they play with videogames.

After some time, however, I noticed whenever my mowing path brought me to the front of the house that I could see no activity. Where were those boys?

Finally, I turned off the mower and walked over to the truck. Now that it was quieter, I could hear two things: the hiss of the water hose, and giggling. As I got closer, I saw that they had rigged the hose so that it was spraying into the bed of my truck, on full blast. Then they popped up from the bed, like two little otters.

They had turned the bed of my pick-up into a swimming pool.

The older boy, Caleb, is so confident. I hope one day it serves him well. We were leaving the grocery store recently -- the Wal-Mart, and remind me to tell you bellyaching Wal-Mart-is-going-to-ruin-the-world upper-income types about the sweet old Mom-and-Pop grocer near my house when I was a kid, the ones who charged me five dollars for a gallon of milk because they knew we just had the one car and that my mother was at work, and that my baby brother needed milk, and how these are the people I think of when I hear about Wal-Mart driving small businesses into bankruptcy, which is why I always mutter "good" under my breath when I hear that, because Wal-Mart is like a tax cut for poor people, but all that is another story, and not the one I'm telling here.

Anyway, we had walked halfway down a packed aisle before I realized that our minivan was on another aisle. I directed our caravan that way, and as I did Caleb said: "Dad, somebody moved our minivan."

"No, buddy, I just led us down the wrong aisle."

"No Dad, I am true. This is our aisle. Somebody moved our minivan."

I am convinced that everything is my fault, yet my boy believes that every choice he makes is the right one. Now I just have to figure out how to teach him to make right choices, because little is more annoying than a man who makes disastrous choices while telling himself that he is as right as the mail.*

Or I could buy him an Xbox and ship him off to government school and pretend I'm not responsible when he emerges from childhood a nihilistic, cynical slacker. Not to put too fine a point on it.

I'm running in the mornings, which is an elaborate and sweaty means of finding time to listen to music. Sometimes a song will stick with me for days, and not in that Barry Manilow, "Mandy" kind of way, but in a good way, like a whispered secret from a friend, a happy secret, just for me. And in that spirit I thought I'd whisper a little of it to you:

Don't believe the lies
That they told to you
Not one word was true
You're alright
You're alright
You're alright

Maybe you didn't need to hear that. But in case you did, well, there you go.

* My friend Brett Hinkey and I had a running debate about whether Doc Holliday in "Tombstone," one of the finest movies ever made, by the way, and far better than Kevin Costner's ridiculous "Wyatt Earp," says "right as the milk" or "right as the mail." I was certain that it was the former, since Doc is clearly a libertarian, and could therefore never believe any government-provided service is efficient or effective, while my friend Brett insisted it was the latter, which of course he would do because he is a direct-mail genius and therefore thinks about all the private-enterprise components of the mail system that make up for the fact that its operational core is a government monopoly that has long since outlived its usefulness and justification. Brett and I would have been happy to let this dispute continue for years, because it essentially afforded us an additional reason to watch "Tombstone" from time to time, but then his lovely wife suggested we watch that scene with the sub-titles on, and this is when we learned that Brett was right, and the phrase Doc utters is, in fact, "right as the mail." It is, therefore, in Brett's honor that I use that phrase, and include this footnote, which has now quite possibly grown to be as long as the entire bloody post preceding it.

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Friday, June 23, 2006

Love Hurts

The other night I held Isaac, our youngest, in my arms. He cooed "Daddy" and stroked my cheeks with his hands, an angelic smile on his lips. Then he stretched his arms back as far as he could and brought his sweaty little palms crashing into my ears. He followed this by maintaining a grip on my ears and pulling them like they are taffy, with the emphasis on the word "like," because they most assuredly are not made of taffy, though I fear they are a bit larger now. In short, the boy treated me exactly the way you want to handle a large assailant who has you in a bear hug. As I've explained elsewhere, the boy seems to have an innate talent for inflicting injury.

And then, as my howl reverberated through the kitchen, he went back to the sweet loving. This child is going to be trouble.

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Thursday, June 15, 2006

To Be Coveted

I've returned home from a trip and the wife is in the kitchen, neither barefoot nor pregnant, mind you, but it's a pleasing sight nonetheless. She gives me a wife-type greeting that you need not concern yourself with further. Suddenly there is a screech at our knees. It is Isaac, and he is pulling at his mother's leg to separate her from the object of his affection in order to stretch his arms up at me and get on tippy-toes in the universal child language that means: pick me up, now.

And what is he screeching? "Mine! Mine!! MINE!!!"

It's nice to be coveted. I have no idea why this baby loves me more than all my other babies -- combined, no less -- did at that age. But it's nice.

Or perhaps he just doesn't want any younger siblings.

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Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Ice Cream Trip

It was our first family bike ride: me leading with Isaac in a seat behind me, Caleb close on my rear tire, Eli in third, and the wife occupying a spot at the end, from which vantage point she could bark at Eli to stop looking at his wheels to see how fast they are turning, or alert me to any attempts by the baby to free himself from the seat or sling his helmet into traffic.

"Why doesn't Dad have a helmet? Dad, you should wear a helmet."

"Those with substantial life and long-term disability insurance can elect not to wear a helmet."

"Mommy, Dad isn't wearing a helmet."

"Your father makes the rules."

Don't think I won't be using that against her later.

We're off, on a three-mile ride to the ice cream shop. We live in Kansas so it's just a shop, not a shoppe. We ride on sidewalks the entire way and I worry that a tractor-trailer will careen off the road and hit them or that Eli will see a butterfly and pedal into the street or a dog will attack or a part will fall from an airplane and land on someone because that's what I do, all day long as well as in my dreams; I worry about them.

Sometimes I soothe the worrying place by imagining someone trying to snatch my child or attack my family at home, only they don't account for that part of me that has absolutely no problem killing someone, and I choreograph in my head exactly how the fight would go and always the bad people end up a bloody broken mess and exceedingly dead. I tell myself that mental preparation is half the fight. I think I make myself crazier when I do this. It really helps me knock out the last mile of a run, however.

Miraculously we all arrive at the ice cream shop unharmed, sweating, happy, proud. The wife and two littlest are red-faced, being creamy-colored little people, whereas Caleb and I glow with a tanned, manly sheen. We park our bikes and the wife insists on locking them all together with one of those stretchy metal cords, even though we are at an ice cream shop in Kansas. The children are hopping and telling me what flavors they want, and how it absolutely must be in a cone and not a little kid's cup and how it won't be any good if there isn't a cherry on top, and I put my hand in my pocket and realize that it is empty.

I look at the wife. "Did you bring any money?"

This is my way of sharing the blame. She has no money either. She never has money. That is how I keep her from leaving me. So far it has worked, though now we are in a predicament. I break the news to the munchkins, and I see in their little faces the realization that their father is a profound disappointment, not to mention a very poor planner. Now it is all out in the open, the fact that I am a big fat stupid loser. I knew they would find out eventually, but you're never prepared when the dread moment arrives.

Then I have an idea, involving reckless speed and a pickup truck. While the wife takes the two oldest inside to look pitiful and beg for ice water, Isaac and I race back home. On the way I teach him the word "Whee-e-e-e-e." We are very fast, despite the fact that he weighs as much as Refrigerator Perry and is wearing a bulbous bumblebee-themed helmet. Soon we are rolling into parking lot in my truck, and Daddy is again the hero, or at least the guy with the wallet to whom you have to be nice if you want ice cream.

Later we load bikes in the back and pile babies into the cab, sweaty and sticky and smiling, and I think to myself: wouldn't it be nice if every mistake could be redeemed so easily?

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Monday, January 16, 2006


Eli is getting undressed for the evening. He fights out of his shirt and t-shirt, then sits on his bedroom floor to wiggle out of his pants. Now he is looking down past his little white pot belly at his tighty-whiteys.


He stands up to inspect the situation further. He pulls out the waistband to discover another waistband underneath.

"Ooh, I have on two underwears."

Sometimes he forgets to take off the old underwear before he puts on the new underwear. One time he actually tried to put on the new underwear before taking off his pajamas. He's thoughtful that way, in that he's thinking about other things. He and I are a lot alike.

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Monday, December 26, 2005

Sweet to Eat

"Eli, you are sweet."

"I know. I'm sweet to eat. You should eat me up, Dad."

I make a munchy tickly face as I walk over to where Eli is painting a wooden toy truck for his brother, a truck destined to be opened and soon forgotten because it is not one of Eli's toys, and hence holds no interest for Isaac.

"But don't really bite me."

I bury my face in Eli's neck and poke his pudgy belly. There is squealing and giggling. And he tastes better than anything I'll get in my stocking.

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Saturday, November 26, 2005

Turkey Hunt

Caleb and Eli seek me out, each carrying a little plastic hatchet. "We're looking for the turkey," says Caleb.

"Thanksgiving's over."

"No, the little turkey that goes in the play barn."

"Oh. I don't know where it is."

"Well, have you sawn it?"


"No, Caleb, have you seen it. You said 'sawn.'"

Caleb walks away, still looking for the little turkey, though from where I sit I can see two of them, each carrying a little plastic hatchet.

"Caleb, you said 'sawn.'"

"I know," he replies with an irritated tone. Don't know where he learned that.

"Caleb, be polite. Say: 'thank you, little brother, for correcting me.'"

"Thank you little brother for correcting me."

"Dad, I'm not little."

Little turkeys.

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Thursday, November 10, 2005

Fighter, Dreamer, Hero

Several of you had very thoughtful critiques of my last post regarding what I see as an unconscionable intermingling of politics and faith by AFR, which I will reply to soon. But for now, let's talk about something we can all agree on, which is the unfathomable, almost unbearable cuteness of my children.

Isaac has escalated his campaign to procure another Tootsie Roll. Often after dinner we'll let the two older boys each have a piece of candy from their Halloween bags. Isaac is no dummy; he knows that's where the Tootsie Rolls come from. So as they sit on the floor, rummaging through their candy for exactly the right treat to follow Dad's lasagna -- as if anything could improve upon such a feast -- Isaac toddles over to them and begins to assert ownership over their cache by stooping down on his stumpy little legs and squawking in their ears.

The boys giggle, they scoot away, they continue to rummage. So a couple of nights ago, realizing his screeches weren't having the desired effect, he walked his wobbly walk over to where a wooden spoon lay, picked it up, wobbled back, and whacked Caleb on the head with it. Having secured his older brother's attention, he hollered more Baby-speak that can be translated roughly: "Give me a freaking Tootsie Roll you big selfish goober."

We disarmed the child and hauled him away. I've never seen a 13-month old glare so. Perhaps we should have named him Cain.

The next day, Eli came up to his mother, holding a paper phone colored and cut out by his older brother. "Mom, the phone ringed."

"It did?"

"Yeah. It was the chocolate guy." He popped a chocolate kiss in his mouth.

I used to think candy was just something we give to children because we like for them to enjoy the taste. Only now am I discovering its vast comedic value.

Caleb, the oldest, the pioneer, has started riding his bicycle sans training wheels. This wasn't a calculated decision; one of them flew off and I couldn't find the bolt, so it was easier just to take the other one off. Balance, push, and off he went across our front yard, scaring me to death as he looked back to tell me that he was riding his bike without training wheels, me the one person in the world most fully aware of that, aware as well of all the large merciless trees in his proximity.

But he missed them all, and rode and rode. Later, he, Eli, and their new little neighbor friend had a convoy going down our little-traveled street. Caleb started to fall, and instinctively reached out, causing his little friend to topple. At the last second he grabbed the boy's shirt, and so they started to fall the other direction. Somehow he got his foot down in time and righted the both of them. "It's okay," Caleb said as he patted the boy on the back, "I saved you."

My sons: the fighter, the dreamer, and the hero. A man could do worse.

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Monday, July 25, 2005

As the Crow Flies

I've been away on a top secret mission. I want to tell you more but then I would have to hunt all of you down and kill you, and I don't need that on my conscience. I wish I had a coherent essay or thought to share, but everything floating around in my head lately falls into one of the non-Sand topics, which are:

1) Things that will anger people who can hurt my career
2) Things that will offend my relatives
3) Things I'd rather hone and sell for cash

So you get the inoffensive dregs. Don't fret; it won't always be this way, I think. As the Greek saying goes: "First, secure an independent income, then practice virtue." Not that utter frankness is ever considered virtuous, of course. Much like daily exercise, it wears better as an aspiration than as a practice, and we generally despise the people who do it regularly.

I could always blog anonymously, I suppose, but website polygamy just doesn't work for me, for the same reason that the real thing would be impossible, which is that I can barely keep up with the one I have.

Fortunately, there are the children to discuss, which is how it is in person as well, when I find myself thinking only things that nobody else in the room really wants to hear, even though they like the idea of wild thoughts, and if you think I'm talking about you then of course you are the exception, and I'm really talking about that other person who as we all know is the worst of small-thinking small talkers.

Anyway, the children. Eli came to me recently, water running off his soft hair that can't make up its mind whether to be blonde or red. "Eli, I asked, why is your head wet?"

"I baptized him!" shouted Caleb from the bathroom. Well then. Hallelujah, I guess.

Eli has invented a word that I really like, because it relieves one of the responsibility for remembering exactly when something happened. The word is lasternight, and it means "some time other than right now." Two recent examples:

"Lasternight, I had a dream that a boy took my sandwich." The meaning here was literally last night; I know this because he woke me up at 3 a.m. to tell me about it.

"Lasternight we went on the volcano slide and it was scary and I don't like the volcano." He's referring in this case to an incident that happened last summer. He will be telling his grandchildren about it, as they visit the grave into which I will be planted early as a result of being worn down by the mercilessly frequent recountings of the volcano slide incident. Eli, I'm sorry we went down the volcano slide. For the love of the holy mother and all the angelic host, please let it go.

Caleb continues to burnish his superhero credentials. A couple Saturdays ago we were hiking in the Shenandoahs when a black bear crashed through the brush and across our path, about forty yards away, trailed by a couple of cubs. Yes, I know black bears are more afraid of us than we are of them, it's their home not ours, blah blah blabbity blah. But as I stood there completely helpless, all I could think was that I am never going into bear country again without a .45. Screw the park rangers, screw the federal government, and screw every tree hugging, Sierra Club membering, I-learned-about-nature-from-an-encyclopedia-during-long-asthmatic-summers-cooped-up-in-my-daddy's-beach-house-on-Rehobeth save-the-whales granola-cruncher who takes offense at my inclination to shoot any animal that gets close enough for me to see the color of its fangs.

I looked down at Caleb and saw that he had fished a little red squirt gun from his pocket, and he was holding it with a grim look on his face. Unlike his law-abiding father, the boy was packing heat. Fortunately for the bears, they went on about their business.

Fast-forward to this weekend. We drove down to Sperryville, where you can stop at a little roadside joint for one of the most delicious grilled burgers you'll find anywhere. The boys and I all went to the restroom, and while I was helping Eli wash his hands I could hear Caleb around the corner at the door. I knew he hadn't washed his hands yet, so I fussed at him to come back and wash up. It was one of those extended fussings, the kind you let out when you have the time and the presence of mind to do so, about the importance of washing our hands, of always staying where I can see him, of not piddling about in the restroom but doing our business, washing up, and getting out.

When I was done, he said, "Dad, I was holding open the door for that old man with the cane."

Yes, the old man with the walking cane and barely enough strength to work the paper towel dispenser. The one I had not given a second thought because I was so intent on policing the boys through an efficient and effective bathroom visit. So while the family all had burgers, I had an order of crow.

Which is why, to bring us back to the theme with which I started this missive, sometimes it's better to keep your thoughts to yourself.

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Tuesday, July 5, 2005

Superhero: The Early Years

I'm sitting at the kitchen table when Caleb dashes past with his superhero cape on. "Dad, is my cape flying behind me?" He disappears down the hall before I can answer.

Thump thump thump thump, here he comes again. "Dad, is my cape flying . . . whoop!" Slip, crash. He disappears from view behind the kitchen counter.

Seconds later he pops back up. "I'm okay!" Thump thump thump thump, down the hall he goes.

Superhero in training.

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Friday, May 27, 2005

Welcome Home

Yeah, yeah, it's been a week. I spent a good chunk of it riding back and forth between the world's financial and political capitals. I'm not that important, mind you, but occasionally I have business with important people. I am an extra in their theatrical productions, if you will.

So Wednesday night presented a simple choice. On the one hand: a nice hotel bed, uninterrupted sleep, and a productive train ride home from NYC in the morning, augmented by coffee and doughnuts from the Penn Station Krispy Kreme. Boring to some, a luxury vacation to me.

On the other hand: a late-night train that would let me pull in to my driveway at 2:30 a.m., a fact that would neither be known nor respected by three merciless little boys in the morning.

So of course I got on the train. I thought briefly about surprising the wife, but the image of 9mm slugs peppering my chest gave me cause to rethink. She has no qualms about sending someone to meet his maker; she hails from the "kill them all and let God sort 'em out" school of domestic, foreign, and home defense policy. Anything coming up those stairs once the lights are out had best have wings on his back and a trumpet in his hand, because the good Savior and his holy host are the only non-Woodliefs welcome after 10pm.

She was happy to know I was coming home early, which is something that always fascinates me. I can barely stand myself.

I awoke too early, to Eli snuggled up beside me, clutching his slobber-smelling little blanket. He had scooted into my arms, close and snug, so that his hair tickled my nose. We lay there and talked about little boy things for a while. It was perfect. Thank God for the late train.

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Saturday, May 21, 2005

Apology Accepted

I return to the bathroom where only seconds before I had stationed Eli in front of the pot with instructions to tinkle before bedtime. This is important, you see, because otherwise he forgets to go until he is playing with giant chocolate Lego blocks in Dreamland, where instead of toilets they have golden trees that sing Raffi songs when you pee on them.

As I approach I see that he is bent over like an ostrich, with his head almost completely in the toilet bowl. Apparently the boy is interested in a plumbing career. Naturally, I am horrified, and so I bellow in that idiot-speak we parents have during our worst nobody-warned-me-about-this moments.

"Hey, uh . . . boy! Unh-unh!! No, no, no, no, no!!! Get your, uh, get that, uh, get your head out of the toilet!!!!

He stands up straight as an arrow, his lip quivering. Add one more page to my weighty file of screw ups as a father. He pulls up his pajama pants, grabs his little blue blankie, and stands there looking at me with glistening eyes.

I get down on my knees in front of him. "I'm sorry for yelling, little buddy. Do you forgive me?"

More lip quivering. "No."

"I shouldn't have yelled, because you didn't know any better. I just didn't want you to get any germs. Toilets are dirty. We shouldn't stick our heads in them. But I shouldn't have yelled. Did I scare you?"


"I'm sorry. Do you forgive me?"

He thinks about it for a second. "No."

I pick him up and plant a kiss on his soft little face. "I won't yell again."

He perks up. "Yeah, the next time I stick my head in da toilet, you won't yell at me."

"I won't yell, but you shouldn't stick your head in the toilet, okay?"

More thought. "O-o-o-kay."

And now as I type this he is sitting in my lap, a happy little lamb, last night forgotten. I never used to be an "I'm sorry" person. Now it feels like I say it all the time. But I like "I'm sorry" people more than the other kind. Don't you?

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Monday, May 16, 2005


Monday. The dreaded day. If you're one of those perky, I-can't-wait-to-charge-into-the-week-and-meet-my-challenges-with-a-smile kinds of people, then, just, jolly good for you. Only know this: the rest of us really, really don't like you right now.

I learned a couple of things this weekend. First, I discovered that Home Depot has some competition, apparently from a store targeting people inspired to redo their living rooms after watching Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. It seemed that way, at least, after Eli asked: "Can I go wif you to da Homo Depot?"

The hyper-sensitive will take offense, but you all know in your heart of hearts that Carson would think it's hilarious. Either way, it looks like we got rid of cable not a moment too soon.

And Caleb taught me a little something about endurance. It was Saturday morning breakfast, and I sat at the table huddled over my cup of coffee and a Bible, trying to muster the energy to charge into the day because, if you haven't figured it out by now, I don't really have any enthusiasm for charging anything in the morning. Caleb, sensing my need for encouragement, patted me on the shoulder and said, "Dad, you're persevering, 'cause you're keepin' on keepin' on. That's what persevering is."

Amen, young brother. So that's my wisdom for all of you as we begin another week at the grindstone. Persevere. Or, if it suits your inner Soul Man better, keep on keepin' on.

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Friday, May 13, 2005


Ring. Click. "Hey you, what's up?"

"Tell me if I'm crazy. We were getting slurpees, and all they had were the flat tops like you put on a soda cup."

"You get less slurpee that way you know."

"Exactly! That's what I told the lady, and she says 'no you don't, because you only fill it to the top of the cup.'"

"But it fizzes. That's what the bubble top is for."

"That's what I said! You get, like, 30 percent less slurpee without the round top!"

"Yeah, it's a total rip-off, and anybody who would deny it is a big fat liar."

"Thank you!"

"You're quite welcome."

Comfortable silence.

"I love you."

"I love you too."

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Thursday, May 12, 2005


You pull the container of leftovers from your refrigerator. You are unable to recall exactly how long it's been in there, because you never adopted your grandmother's habit of marking the refrigerator-entry date on every container using a felt marker and masking tape. She warned you that this would be the consequence. You attempt to snifferentiate, but you can't quite tell if it's supposed to have that odor. You examine it closely for mold. There could be some, there in the corner . . . nope, that's just a spot of congealed fat. You realize that you were hoping it was mold, just so you could be sure.

By this time, your kitchen is five degrees cooler because your refrigerator door is standing wide open. Do you eat the leftovers? It was pretty good the first time. But how long has it been sitting there, stewing in a fetid pool of microbes? Do you throw it out? Your mind lingers on that food poisoning incident three years ago, the time when your stomach declared: "Everybody out! Two exits! No waiting!" So what do you do? The clock is ticking. The kitchen is cooling. The electrical meter is spinning. What do you do?

If you live in our house, you put it back and let it sit long enough to be sure it's gone bad.

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Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Confessions of a Garden Hitman

My wife, God love her, is the Joan Crawford of gardening. That peony's bloom not full enough? Rip it up and relocate it. Coneflower too short? Switch it with the hydrangea. Our plants live in the modern economy: deliver top-notch performance every day, or you may find yourself schlubbing it at the back of the bed with the juniper and moneywort. You think you've got job security, Mr. Forget-Me-Not, because of your cute little bloom? Stop bringing your A-game and you'll be forgotten faster than Bob Saget.

To judge from the beautiful gardens she's created, you'd think my wife is a saint among flora, a Thomasina Aquinas of the plant kingdom. But trust me: if our plants had legs, we'd wake up one morning to find them squeezed into the neighbors' yards, trying to look inconspicuous. If plants could prosecute humans for harassment and assault, the boys and I would be bringing my wife peanut M&M's and back issues of Martha Stewart's Living at the local correctional facility.

I am not guiltless in the slaughter, I must confess. I am her henchman, Oddjob to her Gold Blackfinger. I have assaulted more roots than Paris Hilton's hair stylist. I have shoveled more dirt than Kitty Kelley and Sidney Blumenthal combined. You think plants can't scream? Come spend a night in Tony's dreams, my friend.

Being rooted out of the ground is a traumatic experience for a plant. It hurts. Pieces of them fall off. Things get ripped and broken. It's like giving birth, or pulling a hangnail, or watching Katie Couric put on her Really Concerned face. Despite the pain it causes, a rule of thumb in our house is that every plant will be planted at least twice -- once where the wife thought it would look good, and then where she's now certain it will look good. This epiphany inevitably comes after I've showered, and the new Ideal Position is usually either two inches from where it was first planted, or at the opposite end of our property.

Then there's the turning. That's right, plants, like supermodels, have good sides and bad sides. Apparently I am very bad at discerning the difference.

All of which is to say that last night there was some dirty work to be done. There was a flower in a corner bed, bearing a silly name I can't remember, something like "Flaming Humpback Gorillabush," or "Jumping Zarathustra Ambleweed", and it wasn't hitting its marks. I was tapped to both demote and replace it with . . . a fern. This is not good for anyone's self-esteem, plant or no.

The boys decided to help. They grabbed their little shovels and followed me into the back yard, alternately whacking my shins or whacking each other in that innocent accidental sort of way that impedes barking at them for it. There they dug little divots at random places in the bed while Isaac egged them on from his mother's arms. And there she stood, all sweetness and light, not giving the uninformed observer a hint of the iron-fisted tyrant that resides beneath her soft, lovely, sultry exterior.

But the plants and I, we know different. She is a genius with flowers, which I respect. Perhaps she is even an Evil Genius, which kind of turns me on.

Still, sometimes I pity the plants. If not for a twist of fate they might have gone home with some unmotivated homeowner with no expectations whatsoever. They would have been free to flower as seldom as they wished, to phone it in, if you will. But rather than get the plant equivalent of a tenured professorship, they found themselves thrust into a sweat shop run by Cruella De Vil.

A fitting fate for many tenured professors, perhaps, but not for innocent plants. Such is life, little flowers, and don't look to me for salvation. I love her, and she's great with the kids, plus she's, well, hot. So while I feel for you, don't think for a second I won't hack you to colorful little bits at her command.

Perhaps one day there will be a reckoning; maybe you will all grow opposable thumbs in the middle of the night and lay hold of the pruning implements. Trust me, I've had that nightmare more than once. But barring a freak evolutionary event like that, you should simply resign yourselves to your fate. We are the dictatorship, and you are our killing field.

Better you than me. Now quit reading my website and get back to flowering. And try not to throw out so much pollen -- my allergies are murdering me, and the bees are frightening the children.

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Monday, May 2, 2005

Training Days

To be a proper parent, contrary to what one sees any given Saturday afternoon at McDonald's, is to train one's children. What they don't tell you before they let you take the kid home from the hospital, however, is that being a parent means being trained by one's children as well. The question is, who will win?

As in all wars not involving the French, each side wins its share of battles. The challenge is that most of these training skirmishes are fought by the combatants unawares, such that occasionally one discovers, in a moment of frightening clarity, that one has been programmed to do the bidding of a little fartling. This is humbling, especially to those of us who have mistakenly come to believe that we are more clever than our children.

Baby Isaac, for example, has taught the rest of his family to entertain him. He did this by screeching at the top of his lungs. It is a bloodcurdling scream, the kind that makes your hair stand on end and gives you cause to surreptitiously check to see if you've wet yourself. When the boy goes on a screaming tear, it's like being locked inside the chimpanzee exhibit -- all that's missing is the prospect of being hit in the head with flying poo, and once the little monkey figures out how to undo his diaper I'm not sure if we'll be safe even from that.

Why does he do it? I've asked myself that question many times. I mean, the boy's got a good life. He has unfettered access to breasts, unlike, say, his father. He sleeps whenever he wants. He is doted on by everyone in the family, not to mention countless women in public places. He is free to engage in belly-laughter uninhibited by the fear of inadvertent flatulence. This is a life of which most men can only dream.

Only recently did I discover why he mimics a jet engine. Saturday as we sat around the kitchen table eating lunch, the child let out one of his heart-stopping banshee screams. Without thinking, we all made little placating shushing sounds in unison. Isaac grinned with delight at our performance, and screeched again. And so we all shushed again.

He is the conductor, you see, and we are his shush orchestra.

I had a similar epiphany yesterday as the wife and I endured the End Times weeping and gnashing of teeth that defines the period immediately following naps in our house. You'd think the older two boys were prisoners on a chain-gang road crew, the way they moan and groan when we roust them from their warm little beds in the late afternoon. But then I took a closer look at the dynamic we've created. Nap time is when the wife and I do a lot of our chores, so we're still in that get-stuff-done mode when we wake the boys. If they whine that they're hungry, we stuff a snack in their little yappers. If they want to watch "VeggieTales," we're inclined to let them. This is not good parenting, because children are like a government bureaucracy; they always need just a little more to be happy.

So yesterday the wife sent them stumbling into the back yard after nap, to harass me while I mowed. (Honey, did I forget to thank you for that? It was wonderful bonding time. Thanks! Love ya!) Within minutes I found myself mowing a pattern of connected circles so Caleb could have a race track for his scooter. I did this with one hand, because I needed the other to keep a sniffling Eli balanced on my shoulders.

At some point it occurred to me that serfs working their master's land probably had an easier go of clearing the fields than I was having mowing my own bloody grass. Am I not the lord of my manor? Am I not the king of my castle? So why am I breaking my back to placate two little rugrats?

Because they trained me.

Oh, they're clever little weasels, these children. Keep your eyes open, good parents, because the person who said you can't teach an old dog new tricks didn't have a house full of urchins.

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Tuesday, April 26, 2005


The children were all tucked into their beds, and my wife and I were settling into that blessed sliver of time when all is quiet in the house and we are actually awake to enjoy it. Then a strange sound drifted from the baby monitor. A gaspy, sucking kind of sound. I raced up the steps and threw open the door to Isaac's room. He was lying on his belly, and when he heard me enter he popped his great bald cube of a head up over the crib bar and gave me a gummy grin. Then he returned to the evening's entertainment, which was flurgling his forearm.

You know what a flurgle is, though you may not know that's the name for it. A flurgle is best applied to the warm tickly flesh of someone you love, preferably by surprise. You accomplish it by placing your lips firmly against, say, a belly, and then blowing really hard, producing a flubba-flubba sound. Go ahead, try it. I'll wait right here.

Pretty nifty, huh? The juvenile-minded among my readers might note that the sound is much like what one is able to produce with another orifice of the body, after eating a can of pork and beans with a side of cabbage salad.

That's right, my seven month-old son has discovered how to make fart noises. The boy's a prodigy.

This fascinates him to no end. If you pick him up, he starts pecking at your shoulders like a chicken. He tries to blow but mostly he just drools. If you hold him long enough, your shirt is left with a trail of slobber marks tinged by whatever godawful vegetable his mother has inflicted on him (her philosophy is that you give them the really icky foods when they don't know any better: yams, avocado, brown rice -- all the stuff Adam and Eve found waiting for them after they got kicked out of the Garden). Occasionally he connects and gets a little sound, which leads him to squeal with delight.

Bored with life? Have children. Just be sure to get plenty of sleep first.

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Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Love and Taxes

Despite what you might think, doing taxes together is not a good means of drawing close to your spouse.

I can see how one might expect otherwise, that it could foster a "You and me versus the World" mentality, or simply give occasion for one spouse, say the one who doesn't have to get up at five every morning and schlep ninety minutes to work, to recognize what a great provider the other spouse is, and perhaps give him a congratulatory back rub.

Not so much.

Tax time in our house is like one of those frantic side scenes in disaster movies like "Titanic" and "The Towering Inferno," only punctuated with titles of arcane government forms.

"It says we need the 8385-B, 'Reconciliation of overcontributions to retirement and pension funds.' Where are we supposed to get that?"

"What the hell is an overcontribution? That sounds like a made-up word, like 'pre-boarding,' or 'impacting.' It doesn't even make sense."

"It means we contributed too much. What does the I-943 form say, on line 238?"

"It says 43 cents."

"No, you're looking at SI-942. I'm talking about I-943."

"Well how the hell did our *%#$!*! S-forms get mixed in with our federal forms?"

"I don't see any need for you to take the Lord's name in vain like that."

"In vain? In vain? It's not in vain. I earnestly, truly want him to manifest himself right now, in all his righteous splendor, and smite Caesar and all his minions with their petty rules and hellish forms! Oh no, sister, it's not in vain at all!"

"I don't think raising your voice will help matters."

"Fine. While you're digging in that pile, can you find me the 6243-7211B subsection-S form again? I think I filled in a number from the wrong line. Sorry."

"Sweet holy mother of God!"

"Look, if I can't call on the Savior, then you're not allowed to call on his mother."

"Make me a pitcher of frozen margaritas right now, or I'm filing for divorce."

Somehow we survived, and even got our sorry, unreliable new Epson printer, which is rivaled in its undependability only by the thoroughly unsatisfactory customer service of it manufacturer, to print the forms in mostly readable fashion. (Note to Epson: I'll be glad to amend this comment, which Google should do a nice job of picking up, especially when I include phrases like "review of Epson" and "Epson customer service," once you people stop sending me sorry refurbs as replacements for the brand new printer that never worked in the first place, and actually provide a workable return label so we don't make fruitless trips to the FedEx office in an effort to return your third-rate merchandise).

I like to think my wife and I are stronger for the ordeal, but I'm glad the exercise only comes once a year. I feel the IRS pushing me to a point of bifurcation -- either I will simplify my life to the point that I have only one small form to fill out, or I will assemble enough wealth that I can afford a legion of accountants and lawyers to battle forms on my behalf. As in most things, the middle ground stinks.

On a lighter note, Eli is picking up a little French.

"Daddy, do you know what 'bon appetit' means?"

"No, Eli, what does it mean?"

"It means 'have a nice eating.'"

He's such a cute little tax deduction boy.

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Wednesday, April 6, 2005


If you had to pick the single most demoralizing word in the English language, what would it be? I've had a variety of single words hurled at me over the years, but the one word that can most effectively take the wind out of my sails comes in the form of a question. That word is: "What?"

Let me explain. During the day, my job is to motivate and enable a diverse group of people to achieve a complex set of challenging goals, in limited time, under considerable pressure, and with scarce resources. I am the man in charge, or, as the French might say, "Le Reçeveur du Merde."

This involves a lot of listening and, quite often, making someone unhappy. It's the nature of the game, and it's good training, don't get me wrong.

But then I come home, where I also hold the title of President, as well as Chief of Maintenance, Head Security Officer, IT guru, and sometime Love Doctor (just checking to see if you're reading, honey). This, too, involves a lot of listening. I walk in the door to be greeted by a wife desperate for uninterrupted conversation with a rational adult, two little boys who soak up my attention like thirsty plants, and one baby who actually takes offense if you don't engage him in gurgle-talk. There's no doubt about it, I'm a popular guy.

Given all the competing demands on my attention, the opportunities I have to speak and be heeded are like open holes in a good defensive line -- you don't get them that often, and when you see one you'd best charge into it before someone closes the gap. Sometimes I spot an opening and race up the field, only to turn around and see that everyone has packed up and gone home. Usually this happens when I have a brief and rare flash of wisdom that I feel I should impart to the boys. I think of these as my Clark Griswold moments.

"See kids, some children don't have many toys or clothes or even food, but we have been blessed with all kinds of good things. That's why it's important to be thankful, and to take care of our belongings, and to give some of what we have to people who need it."


Sigh. "Caleb, didn't you hear anything I just said?"

"Be thankful."

"Yes. And what else?"

"For children."

"No, I said . . ."

"I thankful for my blankie, and airplanes, and my ship . . ."

"No, no, no, Eli, Daddy said be thankful for the children."

"No, I didn't. I said some children don't have . . ."

"I thankful for the children, and my blankie, and airplanes, and my ship . . ."

"No, Eli, it's my ship. He thinks it's his ship, Daddy."

"Listen, boys. Listen. You both need to get in the habit of being quiet when Mommy or Daddy is talking, and listening to our words. No more interrupting. Listen to what we say."


This boy is a highly effective stealer of wind from sails. Monday we stood at the check-out counter in the grocery store, tended by a cashier wearing a shirt that said "WORD" in big bold letters, under which was stenciled a revolutionary fight-the-power diatribe of the sort that inspires skateboarders and the judges who hand out Nobel Prizes for literature. Ever the sociable type, Caleb asked, "What's your shirt say?"

The cashier saw this as his opportunity to hit us with some knowledge. No kidding, he pulled the shirt away from his chest so he could look at it more clearly, and began to read it to us. It was weird and awkward, because he could barely read it (I suspect the fact that he was looking at it upside-down is only partially to blame), and there were people behind us, and I just wanted to get home with my beer and chips to watch Carolina jump all over Illinois like a hobo on a ham sandwich.

I was trying to think of a diplomatic way to cut the lecture short when Caleb set him straight. "No, no, no, I don't want to hear all that." He pointed a little finger toward the top of the shirt. "What's that big word say?"

"Well, uh, 'word'."

"Oh. That's nice."

And that was the end of the speech. The cashier finished ringing us up, mumbled "have a nice day," and we went about our business. My son. World-class bud-nipper.

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Tuesday, April 5, 2005

Don't Touch

The very first order given to us by the Almighty was: Don't touch. Are you listening to me? Hands to yourselves. Don't. Touch. Very, very bad things will happen if you touch that tree. See here, I've given you all these other trees, covered with yummy fruit. Mmmmm. Go enjoy the garden. Ride an elephant. Build a tree fort. Discover Velcro. Just don't touch that one tree.

So, being human, Adam and Eve touched it. As punishment, God gave them boys to raise.

And the sinful impulse continues to this day, in my own sons. It's like their eyes don't work correctly, and so they have to put their grubby little hands on something to actually see it (except for Isaac, who gets acquainted with an object by covering it in slobber and then whacking himself in the forehead with it).

Caleb has discovered that touching is an effective way to insert himself into a conversation. He doesn't use a gentle hand on the arm, like how my wife signals that I'm working up too frothy a conversational lather with dinner guests, or offering a Scotch to the wrong in-law.

No, Caleb's new method of interruption is a really hard poke, right in the stomach. The first time he did it I actually yelped. It's a stealthy, unnerving little attack on the senses. And then, once you know it could be coming at any time, it kind of puts you on edge. So now Caleb is learning that it's a bad idea, especially at the dinner table, to poke the bear.

Eli, meanwhile, has become fond of giving me a little open-palmed whack as he walks bye, punctuated by "Hi Dad!" Sure, it sounds sweet enough, until the first time he catches you square in the groin.

Women don't understand how so much pain can be generated by such a small gesture. They think they've got the corner on the pain market because of that whole childbirth thing. Well, we hurt too, ladies. So quit your snickering.

You know who you are.

It's interesting how so many ills in the world can be traced back to this inability of man to keep his hands to himself. War, taxes, Michael Jackson -- all these things could have been avoided had only we listened back in the Garden. Such a pity.

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Tuesday, March 29, 2005

The Simple Things

A beauty of having little boys is that they can turn even the most mundane of activities into an adventure. This can also be viewed as a challenge, or a danger, or a price of having little boys, depending on your mood and current level of sleeplessness. Take washing hands, for example. You'd think it's a simple task: rinse, lather, scrub, rinse, dry.

You'd think.

Each of my two oldest boys has developed his own little routine. Caleb first turns on the cold water -- just the cold -- full blast. Then he rolls his sleeves up to his shoulders, more or less, because the little fussbudget doesn't like the wetness on his clothes. Apparently they are made of the same material as the Wicked Witch of the West; I know this because he does essentially the same woeful "I'm melting" routine when he spills juice on himself.

Since he's usually in front of a mirror when washing his hands, Caleb views it as a good opportunity to try out some new experimental monster faces, or maybe just have a discussion with himself. You have to remind him to finish, or he'll just keep washing and talking. I have no comment about which side of the family he gets this from.

Eli needs coaching, or he'll revert to either the wiggly-finger wash if he's in a hurry, or the full-on surgeon's scrub-to-the-elbow routine if he's of a mind to be diligent. No matter which he chooses, however, it's always the case that the surface area he actually hits while rinsing will be roughly 50 percent of that covered while scrubbing. It makes me itchy just thinking about it.

Then there's the shake and dry. Both boys have this flippy-flappy thing they do with their hands which is designed to distribute water over a maximum amount of counter and mirror space. Then they get down from the sink, taking care to put their newly-rinsed hands squarely in the little puddle of liquid soap they managed to drip on the edge. (I don't worry about this so much, it keeps them regular.) Finally, they step over to the towel and wave their hands around it while thinking dry thoughts. I've never seen anything like it -- these boys can worry a towel half to death so that it's wound up and wrinkled and hanging by the thinnest of margins, yet leave the bathroom with hands dripping wet. They're like those kung-fu masters who can hit you twenty times without leaving a bruise.

I've actually gone into a bathroom with them in good spirits and a relatively high amount of energy, and left grumpy and needing a nap. But I'd like to see everything the way they see it, as an opportunity to be joyful. Some days I think they're going to kill me, but I can't think of a better way to go.

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Thursday, March 24, 2005


Eli is very proud that he can now get a cup from the cupboard on his own, and reach the water dispenser on our refrigerator door with only minimal chance of dousing himself. I know he is proud of this new ability not because he says so, but because right now there are about fifteen little plastic cups sitting precariously on various tables and counters throughout my house, each half full of water. Some have bits of Goldfish cracker on their rims, other have colorful twirly straws protruding from them; I even found one with half a cookie in the bottom. The other night I watched him use three different cups in a span of five minutes.

And talk about pride going before a fall -- every one of these cups is no more than three centimeters from the edge of its respective perch.

A few weeks ago Eli gave the wife some instruction about how potty time will work from now on: "Mom, when I say 'I'm done,' don't say 'just a minute' -- come wipe me!"

I suppose I would be impatient too. There is nothing so humbling as waiting for someone to wipe your behind.

Come to think of it, there is. It's being in the middle of a serious conversation on a spiritual matter with friends who respect you, and having a bit of wisdom on the tip of your tongue, and opening your mouth to impart that wisdom to your friends, only to be interrupted by a command bellowed from the bathroom down the hall:

"WIPE MEEEEEEE!!!!!!!!!"

Yeah, you're suddenly not so smart when that happens.

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Tuesday, March 22, 2005

A Little Boy's Love

Sometimes when you are responsible for three little boys day in and day out, you just need a quick nap. So thought my wife as she stretched out on the bed. But after a moment she heard Eli's voice just outside our bedroom. "I love you. I love you so so so so much." Her mother's heart filled with tenderness, and she rose from the bed and went into the hallway to give her thoughtful little boy a hug.

And there she found him, sitting on the floor, gazing with great affection at . . . his little blue blanket. "I love you, blankie. Mmmmmmmm-unnnh. Hug. Kiss. I love you." He hugged it tight and rubbed his cheek against it.

Then he noticed the woman who had labored for twelve grueling hours to bring him into the world, the woman who had nursed him for eighteen months, the woman who changed his diapers and tended his scrapes and cared for him during illnesses.

"Oh, hi Mom."

We're not sure whether to be honored when we get some shadow of the great love this boy has for his precious blankie, or offended.

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Monday, March 14, 2005

Look Before You Leap

We're playing in the back yard, soaking up the last warmth before another cold front rolls in. I'm kicking a miniature soccer ball around and Caleb and Eli are squealing as they chase it, periodically whacking me in the shins with their little sneakers. Caleb has learned to throw his body into mine in order to make space to steal the ball. Eli hasn't learned this, nor has he learned that the only place where the ball absolutely will not be is where it lies when he begins one of his full-tilt charges. I feel a little guilty, like when you give your dog a peanut butter cracker and watch him lick at it incessantly after it gets stuck to the top of his mouth. But if you can't enjoy your children, why have them?

I pick up a little red ball and say, "Hey boys, watch this." I drop-kick it high into the air, inspiring them each to utter "ohhhhh" as it launches. It arcs as the earth pulls it back home, and then it lands with a thud on the other side of the short picket fence running along the edge of our back yard.

A relevant piece of information in this story is that our neighbors own two gigantic furry beasts that are "dogs" in the same sense that Hummers are "passenger vehicles." No kidding, when we first moved in and before I was sure they couldn't get over the fence, I kept my handgun close by when the kids were out back. But the dogs proved fairly passive and immobile, and today they weren't even outside.

Or so I thought, as I put my hands on top of the fence and propelled myself over it.

Now, if you're a giant, hulking, protective canine, and you want to catch someone invading your space, about the only place you can hide in that yard is behind a little scrap of tall fence that precedes the long run of short fence comprising most of our border. This is how I know he wanted me to jump the fence, because he was crouched behind the tall section. Had this been a court of law, I might have gone free with this proof of entrapment.

But this was not court, this was High Noon, and my gun was safely, uselessly tucked away in my bedroom. As an aside, I know they have statistics on how locking up your sidearm leads to fewer accidental shootings, but do they track the cost of fewer on purpose shootings? Just pointing out that gun safety isn't always.

Not that I could have blamelessly shot the creature; I was in his yard after all, and it's just not Christian to jump your neighbor's fence and shoot his dog. That may be something they would do, say, in New York City -- if they had guns and yards, that is -- but not down here. It's not that we're less violent, mind you, it has more to do with the fact that if you shoot a man's dog down south, he's liable to jump your fence and shoot you back.

I confess that this thinking has only occurred in retrospect. My immediate thought as I landed to the sound of a deep, fearsome growl was less edifying. Think Sergeant Hulka in "Stripes," as the errant mortar round whistles toward him, and you have the extent of my eloquence in a moment of duress.

Now here's an interesting geographical tidbit about Tony's back yard: it's sloped, such that the fence is considerably taller from the other side. I wouldn't have known that, had I not been standing seven feet from a furry monster with an alarming ability to accelerate. Were I not over there with him, the difficult return leap would have given me comfort as I contemplated his irritation.

But I believe in a God of miracles, and more importantly in this case, a God who equips our bodies with a natural wonder-drug called "adrenaline." Adrenaline, I can now attest, has the remarkable property of enabling one to leap with all the vigor and dignity of a cricket on crack.

As I scrambled back over the fence, I saw the distinctive personalities of my sons on display. Caleb stood a safe distance from the fence and pointed out that I was leaving his ball to the mercies of the dog. Eli, meanwhile, had laid hold of the fence with both hands and was halfway up it.

I landed and peeled the brave little idiot boy off the fence as the dog reached the opposite side. I swear I could smell human flesh on his breath. Or maybe it was just squirrel. It was definitely something that had been a reluctant meal. I shepherded the boys away from the fence, to the sounds of Caleb's protests.

"But Daddy, you forgot my ball!"

"Dude, did you see the big dog?"

"Yeah, and he's gonna eat my ball!"

"Would you rather him eat your ball, or your Daddy?"

Not yet instinctive in his telling of little white lies, Caleb weighed the options.

"Listen," I said as I maneuvered to obstruct his line of sight, not wanting him to suffer the trauma of seeing his ball devoured, "we have other balls." Having just come close to providing a new chew toy to a waist-high carnivore, I was exquisitely aware of this fact, let me assure you.

He contorted his body to look around mine, equally determined to see. "But not another red one."

The dog sniffed the ball, harrumphed, and squatted down beside it to taunt us. Not wanting my sons to see their old man bested, I came up with a brilliant solution. "Hey boys, let's throw the Frisbee!"

"Oh, okay," said Caleb.

"Frisbee!" shouted his brother, no doubt thinking this would present another opportunity to climb into the mouth of danger.

"You know, the wind isn't very strong back here. Let's take it to the front yard."

I think I saw the dog smirking as we left him in possession of the red ball. Yes, fine, you're the bigger dog. But my sons still think I'm tougher than I really am, and for all your ability to intimidate, you still have to scratch yourself with your teeth. So bite me.

Figuratively speaking, of course.

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Friday, March 11, 2005


If you've been thinking about applying for a new job, you've got one more day before the maximum possible score on the SAT jumps from 1600 to 2400, rendering many of us idiots.

Of course if you have a family, this has already happened. Entire days go by during which I cannot utter a coherent sentence inside my house.

"Isaac, uh, Eli, uh, Caleb, get that uh, uh, uh thing up off the, the, the thing."

"What, Daddy?"

"The thing, the thing! Get it up before it gets wet!"

"What thing?"

(Snapping my fingers, gesticulating wildly) "The uh, uh, cup! The cup! Pick it up off the uh, uh, uh. . ."

"This cup?"

"No, no, no! That one, on the uh, uh..."

"This one on the couch?"

"Yes! That's it! The couch!"

I can give speeches to crowds, I can wax eloquent in a debate, but put me at home with three boys and a wife for half an hour and I become like Porky Pig on Ritalin. Sometimes in desperation I burst out with a "Stop! Stop! Stop!" -- the parental equivalent of "Broken Arrow." I usually do this while putting my hands in the air, an effort to convey the fiction that I am a man in charge.

My family, bless them, usually humors me by obeying. Then I deal with their complaints/stories/requests one at a time, triage style.

"Eli, stop poking Isaac's head. Caleb, save that story until bedtime. Isaac, stop your caterwauling. Celeste . . ."


At this point, it's a good idea to pause, collect one's thoughts, and consider the consequences of one's actions. Something I'm learning the hard way is that it's far better to think about one's words before they come out of the mouth than after.

And, action.

". . . Celeste, you are smoking hot. Have I told you that lately?"

I am an idiot, about this there is no dispute. But I'm no fool.

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Friday, March 4, 2005

Thin and Happy

Something about being in charge is that to do my job well I have to make someone unhappy every day. If you put enough people in an organization, you almost guarantee that at any moment someone will feel that the pay/workload/recognition/criticism is too low/high/infrequent/unfair compared to what they do/need/want/could get somewhere else/see someone else doing/getting/taking. Like most people, I want to be liked, so I don't enjoy this.

What I'm learning, though, is that if you try to make everyone happy in the short run, you end up getting little done, which leaves most people unhappy in the long run.

I traveled to 9 cities in 23 days last month. I don't know if the three return trips also count, though the miles are just as hard coming or going. I hardly wrote anything during that time, which disappoints me. Sometimes I think if I just stretch myself a little thinner, then I can make the time to write. That's what real writers do, right?

I don't know. Sometimes writing is just breathing for me. I'm better off when I do it. But time is so precious. I sleep 4-6 hours at night to get the work done and still be there like a good husband and father is supposed to be. Most of the time I feel like I fail at it anyway. I let friendships wane, and reading go undone, and only squeeze in the writing when I can't hold my breath any more.

I remind myself it's just a season. I want to kick myself, though, when I think about how I spent my time years ago. Nine hours of sleep a night, television, lounging around -- oh, the hours I wasted! If only there were some bank into which we could place the time, just to keep it safe from the days when we don't know how to use it properly. In our maturing years we could withdraw it when we look at our children and see them getting older almost overnight.

Caleb is quite the diligent student in our home school. One day he was scribbling in random colors, and the next he is drawing people and writing his name. Yesterday I came home and found a picture on our refrigerator: two little smiling stick people with triangular bodies and big heads, holding hands. Under the slightly bigger body was scrawled "Caleb," and under the smaller body was "Eli." Eli does his best to keep up, and my wife is good about giving him work to do too, so when I come home they rush to the door to show me their school work.

Short of seeing them pray together, and seeing one take care of the other when there are tears, I can't think of any sight that gives me greater joy.

Caleb had his "five birthday" a few weeks ago. We had a little party here in Virginia, and then because I was traveling so much I took the whole family to Wichita to deposit them for a couple of weeks, which meant another party with his Kansas friends. The day before that second party, he began to quiz me about the amount of presents he was likely to get.

"Caleb, you got most of your presents at the Virginia party. This is a friend party."

"But, but, but, will there be presents?"

"There will be a couple."

"How many?"

"A couple. Two."

"Only two presents?"

"Yes, and you should be thankful."

"Well, that is very, very sad. Do other people only get two presents when they turn a number?"

I found myself going down the path of telling him to be thankful because children in China don't have enough rice to eat. It's amazing how our parents didn't know anything when we were kids, yet they get wiser as we age. Take that infamous parent reason for obedience: "because I said so." Who didn't hate that rebuttal, that unreasoned muzzle on further debate?

Yet now I think it's one of the best things a child can learn. Because I said so. I said it, thus it is so. Don't argue, for I have spoken.

Because. I. Said. So.

Brilliant. Subtle, yet authoritative. It's especially useful when you realize, as I have, that your five year-old is a better attorney than you. That boy is bound for the legal profession. We should therefore pray for his soul, and pity his future opponents in the courtroom. Or perhaps he'll end up a preacher. He's lately taken it upon himself to evangelize to Eli, who is unashamed to say what many of us feel at times.

"Eli, is Jesus in your heart?"


"You should invite him in. He wants to be there."

"But he's not."

"He just wants to love you and take care of you forever."

Eli informs us that though Jesus is not in his heart, the King of kings and Lord of lords is in his shirt. I don't know how Jesus got there, but Eli tells us that is where he currently resides. I suppose this is progress.

For all my complaints, I'm storing up these memories. I'm living a good life. So who needs sleep?

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Friday, January 7, 2005

Call and Answer

It was a tender moment. I held Eli in my lap last night, and began to sing:

"Ba-by Beluga in the deep blue sea
Swim so wild and ya swim so free
Heaven above, and the sea below . . ."

"Stop dat singing."

"You want me to stop?"

"Yes. You sang dat song lesterday."

"Oh. Well then. Do I, uh, need some new material?"


Ah, children. Aren't they so refreshingly truthful?

Little stinker.

A new year means being buried under work. I called home yesterday to let the wife know I would be running late. After barely half a ring, my call was answered.

"Who is it?"

"Caleb? Is that you?"

"Oh! Hi Daddy!"

"So you've started answering the phone now?"


"Where's mom?"

"I don't know."

"Are you downstairs?"

"Yeah. We're playing with the castle."

"Is mom upstairs?"

"I don't know. I don't see her."

"Can you go . . ."

"Do you want to talk to Eli?"

"Yes, but first . . ."

(in background) "Here, talk to Daddy."

"Hi Daddy!"

"Hi Eli. Can you get mom for . . ."

"We're playin' wif da castle!"

"I know. Listen . . ."

"And wif da cars, and da trains. Caleb took dat one from me and I said 'give dat back' but he said . . ."

(in background) "No I didn't."

". . . and I said 'I want dat car' and . . ."

"No I didn't, Eli. That's not true."

". . . and I cried . . ."

"It's not true."

". . . da other car. Are you home?"

"Well, I'm on my way. Listen, go get m. . ."

"Want to talk to Caleb?"

"I already talked . . ."

(in background) "Here, Caleb. Talk to Daddy."

"Hi Daddy!"

"Hi. Listen, I'm going to hang up now, because I can't come home until I get off the phone."

"Want to talk to mom?"

"YES! Yes I do! Where is she?"

"I don't know. Just call her and see."


"Bye Daddy!"


Note to self: unless it's nap time, call wife's cell phone.

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Friday, December 17, 2004

Like It Or Lump It

The thing about being outnumbered by your children is that there are more of them than you. Just passing along a bit of wisdom, because that's what I do. The wife and I are heading like punch-drunk fighters into the holiday vacation season, with wonderful attitudes about family, and gift-buying, and Christmas overall. The two littlest ones are battling a bad cold bronchitis asthma -- nope, heh heh, actually that's pneumonia -- as diagnosed by a quack crack team of pediatricians and urgent care physicians.

I hate it when my little ones are sick.

It looks like they may be on the mend now, and so the world is looking better. Eli and I have had some quality time lately as I give him treatments with a nebulizer, which for the uninitiated is a misting device attached to a mask. A side benefit of the illness is that he now knows what the word "treatment" means.

"Daddy," he told me yesterday over the soft hiss of the machine, "I don't like dat treatment."

"I know, little man."

"I don't like it."

"Well, you can like it or lump it."

"Lump it."

"Okay, lump it."

"No, you lump it."

"You want me to lump it?"

"Yeah. Like dat." He waved his hand around. I have no idea why he thinks "lumping it" means waving one's hand around, but I followed suit. Heck, I have no better idea of what it means to lump it, and when you're stuck in a chair with a sick toddler, any entertainment works. "No, not like dat, like dat." He waved his hand more frantically.

I did the same. "Is that better?"

"Yeah. Lump it."

"You're just a little lumper."

"No, I Eli. You're a lumper."

Given how often I complain about things that I have no choice but to do anyway, I suppose he's right. Faced with a choice between like and lump, I do choose lump, and all too often. I think I need to like more. Thanks for the attitude adjustment, Eli.

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Thursday, November 11, 2004

Tickle Monster

The boys decided some time ago that I make a good monster. At night they tell me to hide in their closet and then they scurry off to my bedroom, giggling wildly. After a few seconds of conferring, they come sneaking down the hallway to look for me. This always seems to hold a lot of suspense for them, even though I am usually pretty much where they left me. Sometimes I ambush them from another room, but most of the time I just curl up on the closet floor and wait.

As they come closer I begin to growl, which sets off waves of giggles. Sometimes they keep their courage and come all the way to the closet door, at which point I'll grab one of them with a roar and commence tickling. Most of the time one will bolt, which causes the other to bolt, their little heels pounding into the floor as they race back down the hallway.

Some nights when their courage isn't so great I can get a little nap that way. Don't judge.

I've noticed that Caleb inevitably appoints Eli to the recon position. I guess it's the older brother's prerogative. I've started to get on to him a little, because the other phenomenon I've observed is that when I get hold of Eli, Caleb usually just squeals and runs away, abandoning his little brother to his fate. When I grab Caleb and begin to tickle him, though, Eli tackles me.

This usually just means that he jumps on my back and rolls off onto the floor, but it's brave nonetheless. I'm encouraging Caleb to defend his brother the same way.

A while back my wife bought them each a little rubber sword and shield -- part of her effort to make knights out of her little boys. One night I was playing the Tickle Monster, chasing them around the house, when they disappeared into their bedroom. As I approached they came charging around the corner, yelling a battle cry, swords in hand.

My first reaction was pure pride at having raised little warriors. My second reaction was that those little rubber swords really hurt when you get whacked with them. My wife, accustomed to seeing the boys scamper through the kitchen with me on their tails, thought it was entertaining to see the scene played out in reverse.

Caleb has taken up a bit of the monster responsibilities, occasionally chasing Eli around. The other night after he brushed his teeth, Caleb stood in front of the bathroom mirror and practiced his monster face. From the bedroom this is what I heard:

"Rrrrrrr. RRRRRRR! GGRRRRR!!! Ooh! I scared myself!"

I made up a story for them, about a Tickle Monster who loses his tickle. Two little boys named Caleb and Eli help him find it again. They'll probably never know how close to the truth that story really is.

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Friday, November 5, 2004

Post-Election Bliss

Okay, show's over folks. Let's move on. Time to heal, rebuild, reunite, blah blah blah.

I'm happy to report that I voted, by the way. This is not always a given. I used to answer relatives, shocked that a man with a Ph.D. in political science wasn't voting, with statistics showing that the odds of one vote influencing the presidential election were less than the odds of getting hit by lightning on the way to the polls.

Then that whole kerfufle in Florida happened, ruining a perfectly good excuse. So Tuesday I joined my wife at the polls (she's always been a better citizen than me). We pulled up in our minivan that has a big "Jesus Is The Standard" sticker on it, dragged out our three kids, and slowly ambled across the parking lot. Somebody accosted us and tried to thrust some literature into our hands.

Because there's obviously some doubt about how the obnoxiously overt pro-life Christian man with multiple kids is going to vote.

Once we got inside things moved pretty quickly. The advantage of living about 9,000 miles from a major metropolitan area. It makes for a hell of a commute, but every two years I get the express lane at the polls. We voted, with some advice from Caleb. I told him that in daddy's world people who don't own property don't get a vote, and so he should zip it.

Afterwards we all got those self-righteous "I voted" stickers (subtext: "why haven't YOU voted yet, you freaking communist?"), including Caleb and Eli, who got two apiece.

That's a trend with both of them, because they're so stinking cute. They got enough candy Halloween night, after just one trip up our street, to give an entire African nation diabetes. They were both dressed like firemen. Caleb would charge up to each door and announce his presence, usually to an extremely insightful comment like, "Oh, are you a firefighter?" Each time he answered, "No, I'm a rescue hero."

Eli was always behind him, timid and much quieter. He'd insist, in his tiny little voice, "I'm a rescue hero too."

Then the candy would flow. My God, they are precious. But then you already knew that, didn't you?

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Friday, October 15, 2004


Ever put off writing a letter until you have the time to make it really special? Then the next thing you know, eight years have gone by, the person you were going to write to hates you, and you can't remember what you wanted to say in the first place?

So I've been meaning to write a long post about the new boy, post a picture, and so on. It ain't happening any time soon. So let's just hit the main points for now.

The child is like a teenage boy -- he parties all night, sleeps all day, and is obsessed with breasts. Given that I'm an up at five in the morning kind of guy, this doesn't wear well on me. The wife, on the other hand, has some kind of estrogen Superwoman thing going on that enables her to nurse him every ten minutes at night, reorganize the garage and work in the yard all day, and still look breathtakingly beautiful when I get home.

Everyone asks us: "how are the other boys adjusting to their new brother?" The answer is that they are France and he is Lichtenstein, which means that they mostly talk to and about themselves, but occasionally remember he exists and stop by for a visit.

Eli has struggled a little, however. The second day we had Isaac home, Eli came into our bedroom where my wife was sitting on the bed nursing the baby.

"Mommy, will you hold me?"

"I can't hold you right now, sweetie." Quietly he turned and left the room. A minute later I peeked into his bedroom and saw him curled up in his little rocking chair with his blanket under his arm and his fingers in his mouth, listening to music.

"Are you sad, Eli?"

"Yeah. I can't fit in dat bed."

"Come here, baby." He toddled over to me and I cradled him in my arms. He sighed, that long low sigh we all make when we finally get to hug someone we love and have missed terribly, or when we slip into bed after a miserable day.

We talked about the random things that occupy a child's mind, him looking up at me with his cheek against my chest, and for a little while he was the baby again. Then he wiggled out of my arms and tackled me, ready to give the little boy thing another go.

I worry all the time that I'm not giving them enough of me. They crave my time; they soak it up like thirsty plants. Caleb still talks fondly about when we spent a few days putting flooring in the attic. It was a hot and miserable job from my perspective, cutting boards, dragging them up the stairs, and gluing and nailing them down. But Caleb had a blast in his little tool belt and yellow construction worker's hat as alternated between whacking boards with a hammer and decorating them with his little brush and watercolor paints. I wish I could see the world through his eyes more often.

The other night one of the boys started a rumor, which spread to the other one, that I was going into work in the middle of the night. I know this because they opened my bedroom door at 11 p.m. and marched to my bed like a delegation from some tiny country of wee people, demanding to know whether I in fact was getting ready to go to work.

"Do I look like I'm getting ready for work?"

"I don't know."

"I'm sleeping, babies." They just stood there quietly in the dark, but I could feel them staring at me suspiciously. "Now let's go back to bed." Of course this required a Daddy escort, because while they were brave enough to come down the hall to check on me, they couldn't quite muster the courage to make the return trip on their own. Then there was the tucking in, the requests for sips of water, the additional questioning about exactly when I planned to go to work, why I have to work at all, and whether they could have chewing gum in the morning.

"Daddy," Caleb asked me a few weeks ago, "why do you have to work?"

"So we don't have to live in a shoe box."

Fast forward a few weeks. "Daddy?"

"Yes, buddy."

"Do you have to work tomorrow?"



"Uh huh?"

"I want to live in a shoe box."

They are an observant, literal little crew with keen memories. Just the other day I caught Eli chomping on something at eight in the morning. "Eli, are you chewing gum?"

"No, I'm Eli."

It's often frustrating in the moment, but it makes me smile when I write it down. I should smile more often, because one day all I'll have left is what I've written, and what scraps of memories remain in my mind. But I'll be able to watch them, God willing, experience what I'm enjoying and enduring right now. I hope I prepare them well.

posted by Woodlief | link | (14) comments

Monday, September 27, 2004

Little Boys

Yeah, there's still only two of them. The littlest brother seems content to just stay where he is, which the doctors assure my wife is not a permanent situation. She's beginning to doubt their word. The promise of some kind of Guinness record seems to be little consolation.

The two who had the mercy to be born before being able to walk, meanwhile, are enough to occupy us for now. There is something about little boys, I think, that makes them crave danger. By Sunday evening Eli had sustained a scraped knee, a bashed nose, and at least two shots to the head that would have sidelined the average quarterback.

All of these injuries were the result of doing something that normal people with sense simply do not do. Why hold your head half an inch from your headboard when you are about to sneeze? Why, child, must you balance yourself on one knee while sitting at the table? What can be gained, little monkey, from racing your tricycle well beyond the posted driveway speed limit?

Caleb, meanwhile, lost most of the skin on his elbow when he decided to sprint down the sidewalk on his way to visit the college girl of whom he is enamored. Best he associate those feelings with pain early, I say.

I am, as you know, a worrier. These boys are going to put me in an early grave.

Eli's vocabulary has taken off of late. His cute words are disappearing, replaced by correct pronunciations. Friday, though, he asked me for a "pollylop." I hope he doesn't learn the right word any time soon.

Caleb, meanwhile, is in the stage where the correct words are very important. Yesterday I told him to pick up his army man and put him away. "Dad," he lectured, "this is not a army man, this is a rescue hero."

Right. Rescue hero. Every day with children I get dumber.

posted by Woodlief | link | (5) comments

Thursday, September 2, 2004

Yet another one of those disjointed posts that you find so endearing...

The thing about running an organization is that people expect you to do stuff. I miss the corporate job.


I don't talk much about my work here, which is probably best -- don't want to embarrass any of my hard-working, dedicated colleagues. Suffice to say that having just come out of my first 90 days as president bruised but still alive, and heading now into a big board meeting, with a wife at home about to give birth (I knew her "date night" idea would only lead to trouble), I've been a bit busy.

I'm having a blast. I've never been busier, but man, is this fun. Budgets, more opportunities than money, learning the idiosyncrasies of my team and their teams, watching them respond to challenges (no small part of which are stupid questions from their new boss) -- it's great work if you can get it.

But enough about me. Let's talk about you. Have you missed me?

Back to me. Some of you who have had the embarrassing misfortune of accompanying me to Starbucks, where in the past I invariably ordered hot chocolate, will be thrilled to know that I've come over to the dark side.

Actually, it's the lots-of-cream-and-sugar side, because I can still barely stand the taste of the stuff. But this caffeine thing -- this is a bandwagon I can jump on with both weary feet.

That's right. I'm a coffee-drinker now. I spent my college years learning to drink beer, because the senior who bought booze for us wouldn't stoop to purchasing wine coolers. My smarter friends, the ones now going bald working in law firms, all learned to drink coffee instead. I am a slow learner.

My wife has misgivings. Something about coffee breath. I think my burgeoning chewing gum addiction should cancel that out. Plus without the 10,000 daily calories from a daily cup of hot chocolate, I'm now in position to lose another 10 pounds. I'm not sure where it will come from, as I believe at this point I've already worked my rear end off. Perhaps from my fat head, if the opinion of the woman beside me this morning in a Porsche is accurate.

Word of advice, honey: I may just drive a Honda, but if you're going to take my lane you'll need to redline that thing -- I don't have to leave second until I hit 60.

Okay, seriously, enough about me. I know why most of you come here -- because of what I have to tell you about the three sweeties in the picture to the left (and now you see why my kids are so good-looking -- boy, did my wife trade down when she started dating me).

Because of the wife's bed rest we haven't made the 30-minute drive to church in a couple of weeks. Feeling some accountability to God, however, we have had a little Bible-reading and prayer time instead. Basically this amounts to me reading and embellishing some of the cool butt-kicking stories in the Bible, which Caleb digs. He'll get a kick in a few years when he learns that it's acceptable to say that Samson beat down the Philistines with the jawbone of an ass, as opposed to a donkey.

Anyway, last Sunday I asked everyone what they are thankful for, and whom they want to pray for. Caleb said, "Mickey Mouse for being so helpful, Nana, and my little brother who's about to pop out."

The wife followed with, "My family and my mom, and that my boys will be safe this week coming and going."

Then it was Nana's (my exceptional mother-in-law) turn. "I'm thankful for . . ." she began. Then Caleb jumped in with: "Your doggies and Stephen Caleb."

Yes, we are all thankful for Stephen Caleb.

posted by Woodlief | link | (20) comments

Wednesday, August 25, 2004

Yet another reason . . .

. . . why I love my wife -- well, I'll get to that in a minute. First, you need a little background. Here's the thing: I've known and observed a lot of teachers over the years, but I don't know anyone better at teaching small children than my wife. Among other locations, she taught for a few years in a run-down school in Detroit. Most of her students had only one parent at home, if that many. There were few resources, management was awful, and the curriculum imposed from above warrants a prison sentence for several Ph.D.'s in some university Education Department somewhere.

But she made it work. Her children scored in the upper 90th percentiles on the math and verbal sections of the CAT test, while the rest of the city languished in the 60's (the latter an inflated number because of cheating by teachers and administrators, if what she witnessed in her school was an indication of behavior elsewhere).

She gave her children equal measures of love and discipline, and they loved her in return. She excels at teaching, for reasons I don't fully understand. She makes it look as easy, like Michael Jordan used to do for basketball.

But the realities which render me the breadwinner and her the homebound mother are:

1) I can earn far more being pretty good at what I do than she can earn despite being among the best at what she does; and,

2) She is better at the daily tasks of training and teaching our children than I will ever be.

So she stays home, and our family is better for it.

And now to my original point. Today she got a letter from the county government. It's a "Jury Questionnaire," intended to determine whether the recipient belongs among the pool of people who might be summoned in the coming year to pass judgment on their fellow citizens. Among the data requested are "occupation" and "employer."

My wife's answers:

OCCUPATION: homemaker

EMPLOYER: God and my husband

Don't you just love this woman?

posted by Woodlief | link | (10) comments

Monday, August 23, 2004


It was Nana to the rescue this weekend, thanks to the impending William Isaac's desire to see the world sooner than fits the doctors' schedule. With two boys, a wife on bedrest, and an upcoming board meeting, let's face it: I need back-up.

Thank goodness for my mother-in-law. Now, I understand that's not a sentence uttered frequently in English, or any other language. Go ahead, Google it. I'll wait.

Like I said, it's not a common utterance, especially among men. But most men don't have my mother-in-law. She cooks, she cleans, she plays with the kids, and she only fusses when I try to bus the table after dinner. She even makes me chocolate chip cookies.

I love Nana. With her riding shotgun, I was able to keep the wife relatively immobile, which is difficult to do even when the doctors give strict orders, which my wife interprets as "loose guidelines," or perhaps more literally as "impossible rules delivered by pinheaded compassionless automatons whose overriding concerns are prompt payment and lawsuit avoidance."

She says "to-may-to," I say "to-mah-to." In any event, we survived the weekend. Caleb pitched in, too, helping me make beds. Now, my philosophy of bed making is that it's a clearly inefficient use of time. You figure five minutes to make the thing and two to unmake it, and you're on the hook for 49 minutes a week. That's 42 hours a year -- a full work week. Think about what good you could do with 42 extra hours a year.

My wife does not share this philosophy. Apparently, bed-making is VERY IMPORTANT TO A WOMAN. So important that I twice caught her trying to make the thing. So I shooed her out and called on my oldest son, and we assembled the bed. Everything went fine up until the decorative pillow part, for which I have no flare. I know this because for the first few years of marriage, the wife thought I was playing a joke whenever I tried to be helpful by adding the pillows.

Caleb also knows it. As I added the pillows in some semblance of symmetry (why do they sell odd numbers of matching pillows?), he shook his head. "Dad, you are doing that so, very, wrong." With an exasperated sigh he corrected my work. I'm proud to report that his arrangement looked no better, though he was satisfied with it.

The next morning the wife and I lay in bed listening to the boys play in their room. My wife has them trained not to leave their room, except to use the potty, until one of us comes to get them. This is a very good rule. Nothing gets your day off to a bad start like being awakened by a two-year-old stepping on your groin as he walks across your bed to get to his mama.

We could hear them giggling and tumbling around, and I thought: this is heaven. Then the wailing began. In came Eli. "Caleb pushed me down."

"Caleb!" No answer. "Caleb!" Still no answer. The boy had suddenly gone deaf. "Stephen Caleb!" Apparently he was banking on my sloth to save him. "Stephen Caleb Woodlief! Get in here right this minute!"

Finally a head peeked into the room, framing a face far too innocent. "Yes?"

"Come here, child." Slowly he entered the room. "What did you do to your brother?"


"Then why is he crying?"

"I don't know."

"He pushed me down!"

"Caleb, tell me the truth."

"Well, I don't think I want to tell you, because then I might get a spanking."

It's very hard to sustain the grave visage of a parent about to dole out justice at moments like that. Once the chuckling was over, I pulled him close, and we talked about telling the truth, even when we don't like the consequences.

I've noticed that when I'm having those gentle, instructive talks with one of my boys that I like to hold my forehead close to his, with his head in my hands. Each of them in turn likes to tug at my beard while he listens. It's a moment framed by our frailty, as I try to impart to them the lessons I've only learned through failure, and they stroke my rough face, as if sampling the life into which they are being propelled all too fast.

I think we have only a few such opportunities while their hearts are really open to us. I imagine that if you could count them; the number would seem small when held up against all the times they will be tested and found either well-trained or wanting, protected or wounded. We squander so many of those chances. The rest of the time, they learn by watching us.

That's an even more frightening thought -- that the life of someone I love so dearly will be profoundly shaped by my actions and, just as important, my inaction.

What other mission compares to this? What other calling has as much eternal importance? The job? Don't deceive yourself; you'll be forgotten within six months of leaving. Your publications? Most likely irrelevant within a generation, if ever they were relevant to more than a handful of people. Your money? Talk to someone who already has plenty, search his heart, and see if any happiness you find there comes from the zeroes in his bank account. Admiration of others? The crowd is no more loyal than the wind.

Most of us leave our families each day to pursue one or more of these things, and many of us forget that they are but means at best, and we make them our life's purposes. But when we feel death coming to collect our bones, do we ask to be surrounded by our money, our books, our contracts and co-workers?

No, we want only those we have loved. And if there are none we have truly loved, perhaps we realize what those around us already know -- that ours was a wasted life. The same is true if the ones we love have no desire to be with us. The first is a measure of the heart, the second a measure of resolve. Can I love anyone more than myself, and have I given of myself to them? These are far more important questions than anything that can be gleaned from a resume, no?

Funny, how we spend all of our emotional energy on things that matter so little, and think so little about the things that matter most.

So, before you charge into the week, take a moment to consider why you are charging. Who do you love? Who loves you? Where are you going, and why? Worth asking now rather than later, don't you think?

posted by Woodlief | link | (4) comments

Monday, August 16, 2004


One of the forbidden words in our house is "but." To be honest, it's more of a contraband word, in the sense that marijuana is contraband on the University of Michigan campus. I play the role of the dedicated but slightly unhinged campus DARE coordinator.

Now my youngest has discovered the illicit pleasures of the rebuttal. And he really, earnestly, means it. It is, in fact, his motto. A typical afternoon with Timothy Eli "But" Woodlief, lately, goes a little something like this:

"Eli, don't climb over the back of the chair."

"But, but, I climbing."

"Eli, don't throw the airplane."

"But, but, I flying."

"Child, do not jump on the stairs."

"But, but, I not jumping."

"You are jumping. Stop it.

"But, I not."

"And stop saying 'but.' Your answer is supposed to be 'yes sir.'"

"But, but, I didn't say but."

"You just said but."

"But I didn't say but."

"Yes you did."

"No I didn't."

At some point in the process my wife breaks us up. She's like that sweet teacher you had in third grade, the one who was really mild-mannered, but who could suddenly turn on you like Bilbo Baggins in that scene in "The Lord of the Rings" when he wants Frodo to let him hold the ring one more time.

"Honey," she patiently instructs me, "I don't think you're going to get anywhere by arguing with the child."

"I suppose you're right. I just . . ."

"And you need to obey your father! Did he tell you to stop jumping on those stairs?"

"But . . ."

"Don't you 'but' me, little boy. You get off those stairs right now."

"I not jumping . . ."


Don't let her sweet, innocent manner fool you. This woman can bring the smack. You may think that you're a fast draw with your own can of Whup Hiney, but before you can even get your hand on the button, you'll discover that it's already been broughten, as they say.

In other words, she's an expert at what Barney Fife called "Bud Nipping." At some point I'm going to have to take the reins as the boys get older. These are like my apprentice years; I find myself taking mental notes as the former school teacher does her work.

The problem is, the boys not only have her good looks, but her stubbornness too. Me, I'm as easygoing as the summer breeze. But the rest of them? Like a pack of mules. You ever hear the saying about herding cats? Try herding mules, my friend.

But goodness, I do love them so. I'd take my mules over anybody else's kittens any day of the week, and twice on Sundays. Especially Sundays, I think, as I prepare for another grinding week. Especially Sundays.

posted by Woodlief | link | (3) comments

But I Never Said It Out Loud. . .

My wife informed me that during a recent trip to the grocery store, when they passed the aisle with detergents and other cleaning supplies, Caleb announced, "This is the Mommy aisle."

"Why is it the Mommy aisle?" inquired my wife, perhaps already speculating as to the answer.

"I guess because God made you that way," replied my son.

Why do I foresee years of failed sensitivity training ahead of this boy? If only the re-educators had done a better job with his troglodyte of a father . . .

posted by Woodlief | link | (5) comments

Monday, July 26, 2004


Yesterday Caleb, Eli, and I hunched down behind Caleb's bed and shot at bad guys storming our position from the yard down below. Caleb and Eli used wooden pistols, and I used a toy telescope doubling as a bolt-action sniper rifle. We had no injuries other than one gunshot to my shoulder, which the boys patched up. They are still of an age where neither they nor their army men ever get shot. We old guys are more vulnerable.

Last night, an hour or so after I put them to bed, I came upstairs to see Caleb standing in the dark at his bedroom window with his cowboy boots on, quietly shooting bad guys. "I heard something," he explained.

The night before last, I found him in his closet at 11 p.m., gearing up with his plastic sword and shield. "I heard a noise," he informed me.

Caleb has an imagination that lends itself to fearfulness at times; he hears noises and sees shadows around every corner. But I love his instinct. Would that I had such a response to every fear of my own. Instead I often just leave the armor in the closet, in my Bible, forgotten in verses I learned long ago. We can learn a lot from our children, if only we listen.

posted by Woodlief | link | (2) comments

Friday, July 23, 2004

His Heart

It's late, and Caleb should be asleep, but instead he's awake and in our bed, curled up in my arms. We talk about his day, and about the difference between a beard and a moustache, and about pizza. He's so little in my arms, and getting so much bigger each day.

Sometimes I see him as he will become, and I'm excited about the life he'll live, and sad that one day he'll leave us. I feel in those moments the fiercest love, so strong that sometimes it makes me cry, like now. I wipe my eyes, because he wouldn't understand how tears can come from happiness and sadness all mixed together in a good way, in a way that makes you understand in your heart, maybe for only a few seconds, how only a few things in life are important at all, and how vastly important those few things are.

"I've got to go to the doctor," he says, "so he can see if I have Jesus in my heart."

"I believe Jesus is there."

"Yeah." A smile. A hug around my neck. "Sometimes my heart is broken."

"It is?"

"Yes, but then Jesus makes it all better again."

Mine too, little man.

posted by Woodlief | link | (3) comments

Tuesday, June 29, 2004

The Little People

I know, it's been awhile. You knew that was the arrangement when you first started coming here, so don't give me the guilt trip. Even though I don't always write, I often think about you, my faithful and oft-scorned readers. I think I mentioned last time that I started a new job. It's taken a lot of time.

<Jim Carrey voice from Dumb and Dumber> A LOT </Jim Carrey voice> of time.

So that's why I've been absent. I've made time to write today, though, if only because the alternative is to bore my staff with stories they probably don't want to hear. So I bring them to you.

Caleb has finally discovered that one of the benefits of being a big brother is that one can "try things out" on one's smaller siblings. Last week we were all outside: me laboring over a dying lawn, the wife giving me encouragement from the porch -- it's so convenient to be pregnant during the yard work season -- and the boys occupying themselves. Caleb's self-appointed chore was to walk about the yard with a fat pair of plastic pliers, "fixing" the trees.

"Caleb, don't bend the branches with your pliers," instructed the wife.

This is what happens when you take away productive work from a man. The boy stood there for awhile, and then he wandered about aimlessly, and then he decided to "fix" Eli's ear.

"Ow, Cayeb!"


I made Caleb sit for several minutes, to think about why he shouldn't have done what he did, or at least about how to do it without getting caught next time. I'm not a big fan of the time out, primarily because I see it used by people whose primary goal is not the proper training of their children, but rather to secure a temporary vacation. Sometimes I use it nonetheless, when a little whack on the behind seems overzealous. I know, I know, without proper discipline my child may not get in to Harvard. I take comfort from knowing that some people turn out to be decent human beings without the benefit of an Ivy League education.

So after a proper period of mourning for his sin, I released the boy back into the wild. He jumped on his little bike (note to self: explain why boys should be careful getting on their bikes, or make Caleb wear a cup) and pedaled around the driveway. After that grew tiresome he conquered the mulch pile that has been sitting in our driveway for two weeks (sorry, Honey). A good while later, he returned to the pliers.

Immediately came the protests from the peanut gallery on the porch, where Eli had joined his mother to lounge in comfort while awaiting my coronary, and the substantial accompanying life insurance payment:

"Don't hurt my plants, Caleb."


"Don't squish my ear, Cayeb."


Little Eli has learned to give a number of instructions like that. "Don't step on me, Cayeb." "Don't take my train, Cayeb." "Don't squirt me wif dat water, Cayeb."

I think it's good practice for life. We should all have the confidence to tell others not to infringe on our person or property. There's also a lesson in all of this for Caleb, though he doesn't yet see it: Eli is catching up to him in size, plus his little brother has no fear. Thus will the oldest boy learn the lesson that it pays to be nice to the little people -- not only is it the Christian thing to do, but more importantly, some of them may outgrow you.

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Monday, May 24, 2004


So the wife is going to have a baby boy. Caleb knew she was pregnant before we did; one day rubbed her flat stomach and asked, "When are you going to have that baby in your belly?" Another embarrassing trip to CVS later, and we had our answer, namely that this year we are going to finally be outnumbered in our own house, and that the ringleader is destined to be either a psychic or an obstetrician.

But this was only part of our answer, because as regular readers can well understand, we were hoping to have a little girl again. There were some tears when a recent sonogram showed another little boy, and guilt over shedding the tears. We spent the following weekend watching the boys play in the back yard, and being reminded of the sweetness that underlies their sweat and lunacy. Any child is a blessing, even though we had different plans, even though we bought a little pink dress because we were so sure this one was a girl, even though we had chosen her name.

Any child is a blessing, we know this when they look up at us in their delicate, vulnerable state and see us as their world, a response out of all proportion to anything we deserve. And for a time they are ours, and it is an interlude filled with love and sacrifice and frustration that we wouldn't trade for anything. Those little boys are precious, and I'm glad to add another to their number.

Now there is the matter of the naming. We started a trend, or rather Caroline did, when she told us she wanted the brother she wouldn't see to be named Stephen. We liked the name "Caleb," and so he became Stephen Caleb. The next one was Timothy Eli, the first name to honor the wife's dead father, the second because we liked it. Two boys with a New Testament, Old Testament name, each called by the second one (though Caleb often gets called "Stephen" when he is in trouble, which is probably less than prudence dictates, but more than he would prefer). We feel a bit like those parents whose first names begin with the same letter, and who think it will be cute to give each of their children a name beginning with that letter as well. At some point it isn't so cute, but you're locked in.

We may break bold new ground, however -- very bold, if Caleb has his way. "What should we name your new little brother?" I asked him yesterday.

"Hmm," he replied. "I think Isaac, or Fluffy."

Isaac Fluffy Woodlief.

We may have to get Caleb a rabbit, or perhaps a kitten. He is stubborn and persistent enough to have this new one answering to "Fluffy," if he sets his mind to it. Sometimes good parenting consists of channeling natural childhood inclinations into the right places.

Come to think of it, that's probably true for all of us.

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Friday, May 14, 2004

Turnabout is Fair Play

Last night in a fit of frustration I couldn't remember the oldest boy's name. "Eli, uh, boy, uh, Caleb, sit down!"

With a droll expression well beyond his four years, Caleb replied, "Okay, Mommy."

This reminded me of a game Caroline used to play when she was two, and learning pronouns and gender. "Caroline is a girl," she would announce, "and Mommy is a woman, and Daddy is a man."

"That's right, sweetie. Very good."

"Daddy is a woman!"

"What?" I would ask with feigned shock.

"Daddy is a woman! Hehehehehe."

Then I would sweep her up into my arms and tickle her while I kissed her neck, until through her squeals and belly laughs she relented. "Daddy is a man! Daddy is a man! Hehehehehe!! Daddy is a ma-a-a-a-a-a-an!!"

"That's better," I'd say, standing her back up. Caroline would put her little fingers to her face to push her curly brown hair out of the way, and adopt a mischievous look. The she would curl her arms up to her chest in preparation for another tickle attack and declare, "Daddy is a woman!"

"Come here!" I'd say in my best fake monster growl, and I'd tickle her some more. It was a good way to spend fifteen minutes. I miss that.

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Friday, April 23, 2004


My children are developing personalities. Caleb, for example, is a persuader. "Daddy, would you like to go to the ice cream place after dinner?"

"We'll see."

"Well, after we eat, we could go to the ice cream place, you know, and I can get a ice cream with sprinkles on it."

"Maybe. You'll have to wait for the answer."

"Okay. After I eat all my beans, we can go."

Eli is more bull-headed. He's developing this remarkable sound, which is exactly the noise a teapot makes when its contents reach the boiling point. We're getting a full dose of it lately, along with the lying on the ground and the screaming when he doesn't get his way. Remarkably, there's only one thing that will get instant compliance.

"Okay baby," I tell Eli, "it's time to put away the basketball and take a bath."

He sprawls to the ground and begins to squeal. "Eeeeeeeeeeeeeee!!!!!!!"

"Tea's ready," says the wife. Sometimes she's not what they call, in common parlance, "helpful."

"Eli, get up," I say in my most serious voice.


"I said, get up!"

Eli adds foot stomping to his performance. "Eeeeeeeeeeeeeee!!!!!!!" Thwap thwap thwap.

"Alright. Go get the spanking spoon."

At this the boy pops up and gives me a half cheerful, half tearful "Okay." He toddles into the kitchen, where I hear a drawer open, and a little hand rummaging through it. Then around the corner he scurries, a wooden spoon in his hand. "Here go."

I take the spoon and tap him on the bottom a few times. "You must be obedient."


"Now say, 'I apologize.'"

"Apologize, Daddy."

"Okay, I forgive you. Now put away the spoon for Daddy." He takes the spoon and returns it. Then he comes back to the scene of the crime and stands looking up at me, feet planted, waiting.

"Eli, it's time to take a bath."

Pitch forward, commence wailing. It reminds me of that Bugs Bunny cartoon in which a sheep dog watches over a flock while a wolf devises various ill-conceived schemes to steal sheep. The sheep dog, of course, catches the wolf at every turn, and generally gives him a good pounding. What's funny is that they both behave like employees; they greet each other cordially as they punch a time clock to begin the day, they take lunch breaks, and so on.

I'm not sure whether I'm the crafty sheep dog or the stupid wolf, but I definitely see the parallel.

The good thing is, he'll grow out of it. I think. Sometimes I work with people who make me think otherwise. The difference is, I can't tell co-workers to go get the spanking spoon, because apparently there's some law against that.

I worry, though, that Eli will figure out that the command to fetch the spanking spoon can also be met with a tantrum. Fortunately, Caleb is always close by, and delighted to retrieve the spoon when it's not for him. He's helpful that way.

That's what big brothers are for.

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Wednesday, April 21, 2004

When Duty Calls, Don't Answer

The call came as I laid hold of my intended purchase. "Honey, where are you?"

"The CVS Pharmacy. Why?"

"Well . . . can you pick up a box of [insert name of exceedingly personal female product here], please?"

Sigh. "Okay." I turned and there they were behind me, the entire array of goods designed to mitigate a curse that, let's be frank about it, wouldn't have happened if Eve -- the woman -- could have kept her chompers out of the one fruit God said not to touch.

The wife is fond of pointing out that Adam was standing right there the whole time. Like the woman would have listened. But perhaps Adam would have mustered an objection, had he known that in addition to getting kicked out of Paradise, he would be consigned to purchasing items with names almost as embarrassing as the informative pictures on their packaging.

As luck would have it, my checkout person was a teenage girl. It just doesn't get any better than this, unless you count the two other women standing behind the counter with nothing better to do than observe. You'd think I was buying nude pictures of Rosie O'Donnell, for crying out loud. They're chicks, after all. Have they never seen the product I'm buying? Is there some law that says a man can't pick up a box of freaking [personal female product] for his wife who really, really should have planned her weekly shopping a bit better?

There ought to be such a law. I love my wife, but not to the point of risking jail time, and that could have been my perfectly defensible cover story. But there are no laws against buying products you can't possibly use yourself, probably because the fruit cake industry would long ago have gone defunct otherwise. So there I stood, with a big ole box of humiliation in my hand.

"Do you have a CVS card?" the girl asked as she fumbled about with the package, looking for a price.

"No. And don't you dare price check that."

"Um, okay."

Transaction completed, I slinked out of the store and made my way home. Now, the interesting thing about the embarrassing personal product aisle is that its contents aren't always properly separated. A well-intentioned shopper might intend to pick up a box of [personal female product], for example, and accidentally purchase a bladder control product instead.

In front of witnesses. Which I did.

Exchange? I don't think so. Go back? Not on your life. I paid my dues. The car starts just as well for the wife as it does for me.

And don't think, once she's there, that I'm not going to call and ask her to pick up a can of jock itch spray. I believe you know me better than that.

posted by Woodlief | link | (16) comments

Monday, April 19, 2004

Training Day

This was a weekend of firsts in the Woodlief house. To begin, Eli began full-fledged potty training. I got home Friday to find him running about the house in nothing but a t-shirt and socks. There's something to keep in mind when you potty-train little boys: They will pee on your furniture, frequently with neither awareness nor remorse.

We like our furniture, so Eli spent a good deal of his weekend on the potty. We read Once Upon a Potty to him enough times that I have all the lines floating about in my head such that I'm liable to say something embarrassing at work today -- not that we didn't already know it by heart. The names change depending on whether you've got a boy or girl, but the plot is basically the same: kid wets his diaper, grandmother buys him a potty, and then, after much valiant effort, he drops a load in it. It's the Horatio Alger of poop stories.

Sometimes during potty training, because life goes on even as the sphincter refuses to cooperate, you just have to put a few books and toys around the kid and wait him out. Eli, being resourceful and impatient, is rarely satisfied for long with what's in reach. So every once in a while we heard the grating s-c-r-a-p-e of the plastic potty across the floor as he propelled himself like a two-legged crab toward some object that momentarily held his fancy. It's a bit disconcerting to leave your child sitting on the potty in one place, step out of the room for a moment, and return to find him sitting on his potty under the kitchen table.

Caleb's first was a serious haircut. I'm talking high and tight. That's because my first was to give the haircut. This is ordinarily the wife's duty, but she left Caleb and me alone on the back patio for too long while she dilly-dallied upstairs. Here was the boy, and there were the clippers, and one thing just led to another.

It's amazing -- you can be married to someone for thirteen years and still not have heard every sound they're capable of making. Caleb said he wanted a haircut like Daddy's, and so I gave him good customer service, and I think any divorce court judge would concur.

After the massacre, I told Caleb to strip down to his tighty-whiteys so I could hose him down. He went inside to put down his clothes, and in the interim the wife gave my own coif a little touch-up (not without unusual vigor, I might add). Suddenly out streaked Caleb, buck naked. He frolicked as God must have intended before Adam decided that nudity is a sin, especially for those with a typical American diet.

The thing about Caleb is that whenever he gets an outdoor nudity opportunity, he likes to pee on something. (And really, guys, who among us doesn't?) So he marked the fence as part of his territory. Eli found this immensely fascinating, and I'm afraid that he drew the wrong lesson from it, and so I'm very glad that today is a working day for me.

People sometimes ask: does your wife work? As if what she does at home is something less than work. Use that sloppy language around her today, as she rushes about the house with a roll of paper towels in one hand, and a spray-bottle of carpet cleaner in the other, and you're liable to get a punch in the stomach. No matter how difficult we who work outside the home may find our co-workers, odds are we needn't worry about them taking a whiz on our bookshelf. And in the unusual event that they do, there are legal remedies.

But odds are as well that our co-workers aren't nearly as loveable as my wife's. So it's a trade-off -- we who go to work every day get to have adult conversations (such as they are) and be free from worry that we'll be vomited on after lunch. But none of our co-workers will be gathered around us on our deathbeds, unless we happen to work in a mortuary with a good employee discount. All in all, I think it's probably a good trade-off for those who can do it.

Even on potty-training days. Right honey?


posted by Woodlief | link | (7) comments

Friday, April 16, 2004

Fridays seem to be good days for writing about the munchkins. Something Jeff Brokaw wrote in a very kind, thoughtful letter to me has stayed in my mind. He said that I should write more of the good things I remember about Caroline. I haven't had the good grace to write back to Jeff yet. Does this count as a response? I'm told that writing to a mass audience is a way of keeping up emotional barriers. At first I interpreted that as good advice, but on further reflection I think it was intended as a warning.

In any event, I think Jeff is right. I've been haunted for so long by the torturous days and hours, the horrors of those final moments, that I've let them crowd out the beautiful. This, it seems, would be the worst, final indignity, for Caroline was more than a pitiful victim of a broken world. She was light and love and innocence, and the perfect fit for a hole in my heart.

So, good things about all three of the babies today. First, Caleb. I hope you'll forgive the fact that much of my writing about him seems to involve bodily functions, but let's be realistic: a) he's four; and, b) he's a boy. The comedian Bill Engvall (and if you don't know who he is, you really need to run straight out and buy this) has a routine in which he announces that somebody must have told his son there's a wiener thief on the prowl, because the boy won't let go of it. Apparently, says Engvall, he's worried that if he does, someone is going to snatch it away. "It's like his own little worry-stone."

Those of us with boys and those of us who were boys have all been there. A trip to any sporting event will reveal that some men never get out of the habit.

Is it still there? Yep. Better check again, though. Yep, still there.

So the other day, I see Caleb doing a good bit of fiddling, if you will. "Caleb," I ask, "why are you messing with yourself?"

"Well, I'm fixing my pee-pee."

"Is it broken?"

"No, it just fell out of my underwear."

For a moment I had a burst of fatherly pride, until I remembered the treacherous tighty-whitey flap. It's like a little trap (I wanted to say booby trap, but that seems especially out of place in this context, no?) sewn right into the underwear. Best the boy learns early, I guess, that it can end up where it doesn't belong unless he's vigilant.

Lay off -- it's never too early to begin worrying about these things, especially with that cute little social bug. He has enough of his mother's features to make me think he's going to remain good-looking, and he likes people. You do the math.

Eli, meanwhile, has a stubborn streak that he gets from his mother, because you know how easygoing I am. He was picking at a cucumber in his bowl during dinner, and finally he held it up for closer examination. "Potato, Mommy?"

"No, that's a cucumber."

"No, potato." Dissatisfied with the wife's response, he held it up to me. "Potato, Daddy?"

"Cucumber, sweetie."

"No, no," he said, shaking his head in disgust. "Potato."

And finally, a memory about my first stubborn little one, Caroline. I remember we had just flown into North Carolina from Kansas, and were riding with the wife's grandmother and aunt. I drove, and Caroline sat in a car seat in the back, between her mother and her great-aunt, whose name is Karen.

"Do you love me, Aunt Karen?" asked Caroline sweetly.

"Of course I do, honey."

Caroline pointed a shoeless foot up at Karen, and a mischievous grin crept over her face. "Then kiss my foot."

And now I'm smiling. I should think about these things more often. As for you, dear readers, have a delightful weekend.

posted by Woodlief | link | (6) comments

Wednesday, April 7, 2004

Finding Nemo

The following tale attests to the pervasive Disneyfication of our culture. It's important for you to understand, before I tell you what I'm about to tell you, that we don't let our children watch television. We limit their video intake to a handful of brands, mostly VeggieTales, Thomas the Tank Engine, and Mr. Rogers. We don't take them to children's movies. They've never been to Disneyworld, Disneyland, EuroDisney, or even the flipping Disney store in the mall.

No offense to Mr. Disney or Mr. Eisner, but we just aren't interested. Granted, Caleb sleeps with a Mickey Mouse doll, but I thought that was the extent of the Disney knowledge in my home.

So explain this to me. My two-year old is sitting buck-naked on the floor after a bath. He's hunched over, studying his little Wiener schnitzel very carefully.

"Whatcha got there, Eli?"


That's what he's named his Willy Wonka. Nemo.

Hold your derisive comments. He's only two. If he's still calling it that when he's eighteen, we can see about some kind of lobotomy or corrective surgery or something. But for now, from a proportionality point of view, the kid's perfectly normal, and on track for healthy development in that department. In fact, a Nemo to a two-year old is like Orca to you or me. So there.

Anyway, I'm thinking naming rights. If the kid's gonna call his little pickle "Nemo," it should at least pay for his college education. I've done some investigation, and best I can tell, this would be a first-of-its-kind deal.

Nemo. I guess it could have been worse. He could have named it Pocahontas.

posted by Woodlief | link | (4) comments

Monday, April 5, 2004

Cute and Cuter

Eli: "Mama, you're cute."

Wife: "I am?"

Eli: "No. I'm cute."

posted by Woodlief | link | (2) comments

Wednesday, March 31, 2004

Dumb, Slow, and Happy

I got back Monday evening, and to her credit, the wife showed up at the airport to retrieve me. This could be less a consequence of love than an indication of her pressing need for reinforcements, but I'll take what I can get. Does the cavalry captain ever stop to ask why the besieged settlers are so excited to see him? Of course not -- he just cracks out his Winchester and starts shooting Indians, thankful to have gainful employment.

Me too. And being the considerate husband, I suggested we stop at Chic-Fil-A on the way home, the one with a playset that appears to be produced by the same company that makes those plastic tubes for gerbil gyms. The kids love it, and the wife looked like she needed a break, and Lord knows after an exhausting weekend of dealing with people -- which you know I so dearly love -- I wasn't going to entertain them. So we stopped to patronize a place that everyone should visit at least once, if only because they close on Sundays and may very well be one of the last corporations where putting principle over profits is not a laughable concept.

Apparently there had been an upchuck episode in the high recesses of the kiddy castle, because there was an ominous sign announcing that a cleaning was underway, and a chair blocked the door to the play area. This meant that we had no choice but to make the boys eat before playing, which is a task roughly equivalent to making a puppy sit still through a reading of Proust.

I think that older forms of travel served the unintended but essential purpose of affording our minds the necessary time to transition between highly varied environments. Only an hour before, I had been reading on a jet, ensconced in quiet music from my headset. Now I struggled to get the bare essentials of an update from the wife. "So, did you hear back . . ."

"Dad, when can we go play?"

"I told you, Caleb, when they're done cleaning up."

"Are they done?"

"Not yet. Please eat. So, did you hear -- Eli! Get down from there!" The boy was hanging by his fingers from the top of a high bench, struggling to pull himself to its pinnacle. With his knees tucked up against either side of his abdomen he looked very much like a fat frog doing pull-ups. He grinned, but his smile turned into a squawk of protest as his mother yanked him down.

"Did you hear -- Caleb, don't flick milk with your straw -- from the -- Eli! Get down!" The boy was now making a bridge with his body by putting his hands on the table and his feet on the bench, so that his little behind arched high in the air. Once again his mother, who had Eli-duty by virtue of where she was sitting, returned him to a seated position. Again came his bitter protests.

"Dad, now can we go play?"

"When they're done cleaning."

"Are they done?"

"No. Eat. Now." I turned again to the wife, who was engaged in an elaborate game of speed chess in which Eli rearranged his food and drink cup so as to maximize the opportunity for tipovers, while she worked just as diligently to minimize this risk. "So I was saying, have you heard back . . ."

"I have to poop." I looked at Caleb, as did the customers seated around us. He had that deadpan, like-it-or-lump-it expression that is common to Division of Motor Vehicles bureaucrats and airline attendants. "I have to poop," he insisted, louder.

So off we went. Two conversations with surprised bathroom patrons and a series of vain threats later, we were back. "Did he poop?"


"No, Mama. I didn't have to poop." He said this as if the whole poop idea was mine.

"Can we please talk about something else? Hon, did you hear back . . ."

"Can we go play?"

"When the playroom opens."

"Is it open?"


"Yes it is."

"No it isn't. Eat."

"Yes it is."

"No, it . . . well praise the sweet Lord, it is open." Displaying a speed that is never evident at bedtime or when toys need to be put away, both boys raced into the playroom.

Blessed peace. Sometimes they are much cuter behind a thick glass wall, as is true of many zoo animals. Other times I just want to squeeze them and never let go, because every day they get bigger. I sat with the wife and we watched them scramble and climb and slide. Every so often one of them would remember us and wave heartily.

I wish life were that simple for them, and that safe. Joyful work, soft surroundings, Mom and Dad close by. What happiness wouldn't I surrender to guarantee them that?

But I can't, and they wouldn't take it anyway, because one day they'll want to have munchkins of their own to love so fiercely that their hearts will feel like bursting. The lives they will build are outside the playroom, outside my protection. So I hold them and teach them while I can, and pray that they become better men than me.

I think they will. But today they are just my little boys, and life can only get so bad when something as wonderful as that is true. In fact, they tend to make it downright joyful, despite my best efforts. I think in the end my children will teach me much more than I teach them.

Perhaps this is as it should be, with each of us only really learning the important lessons when we have little ones to shepherd. Maybe not -- I can feel the twenty-somethings and childless professionals reading this and gritting their teeth. All I know is that I was much smarter and wiser -- and life much simpler -- before I had children. Funny thing is, now that I'm dumber and slower, life is much better. Who would have thought?

posted by Woodlief | link | (4) comments

Wednesday, March 24, 2004

A Good Kiss

Eli is sitting at his little table in the corner of our kitchen, eating Cheerios. This is never a pretty sight, especially when he's a little snuffly. He sees me watching him, and with much effort he scoots away from the table and toddles over to me. "Kiss?"

I survey, with no small amount of queasiness, the drool and snot and Cheerio debris on his face. "Kiss?" he asks a second time. It is a soft, insistent whisper. I lean over and kiss him on the cheek.

"No no no no no no. Kiss." He thrusts his lips out.

There are times in every parent's life when we must do things that defy our very nature. It crosses my mind to wipe his face first, but something tells me that doing so would damage the delicate innocence of this moment. So I kiss his wet, messy, expectant little lips.

"Mmmwaaah," he exclaims. "Good kiss!"

Yes, it was.

posted by Woodlief | link | (6) comments

Monday, March 22, 2004

Favorite Shirts and Do-Overs

The problem with little boys and their favorite clothes is that boys grow, clothes shrink, and seasons change. Caleb's favorite shirt is a thick yellow cotton one. If he were in charge of dressing and clothes washing in our house, he would wear it every day with his "comfy" pants, which used to live up to their moniker until they began to cut into his waist and ride up his calves. It's both pitiful and entertaining to watch him lie flat on the floor and squeeze himself into those pants, all the while muttering about how comfy they are.

Saturday started off well for Caleb, because his mama laid out his favorite yellow shirt (he hasn't figured it out yet, but the pants have been confiscated, set aside until Eli has sprouted another few inches). It occurred to me, however, as I got an initial feel for the weather, that the yellow shirt would be too warm, especially since Caleb was going to help me put flooring in our attic. (Actually, he mostly just whacks at random boards with his little hammer and occasionally flits close enough to the stairway opening to give me a heart attack. But in Caleb's world, that's helping.) I went into his room, where he was rolling around on the floor in tighty-whitey's as he struggled to pull his socks up.

"Hey, little man," I said, "I think it's going to be too warm for you to wear your yellow shirt today. Let me find you something better to wear." I stepped inside his closet to examine the array of little-boy shirts hanging there. I selected a thinner one, and stepped back out of the closet to find Caleb spread-eagled on the floor, his favorite yellow shirt firmly pinned beneath him. He looked up at me with a grim face. "It's not too warm."

I relented, and nature was kind enough to be cooler than I expected that day. It's hard to be in a bad mood when you observe the beautiful little happenstances of life that make it a wonderful experience for your children. How do we lose the ability to be satisfied with such small things? When was the last time you made up a cheerful little song about your favorite shirt and hummed it during breakfast?

Of course not all of childhood is filled with happiness. Eli, to take an example under my own roof, had a tougher Saturday morning than Caleb. First, he woke up wet. Then, after family snuggle time (that's what I call it -- it's really just a pathetic attempt to sleep a few extra minutes while the youngsters wallow all over the wife and me), he slid off my bed and got himself wedged between it and my side table. After that he stubbed his toe, and then Caleb took his favorite toy, and then the poor child stepped on a train that he had left out, and squealed in such pain that I didn't have the heart to tell him it that was about time he got hoist on his own little careless petard.

By ten or so that morning, Eli was done. He picked up his little blanket and tucked it under his arm, grabbed his baby doll, and headed for the steps. "Sleep now," he said, with as much positive energy as he could muster. We watched as he worked his way up the stairs, and then followed quietly to see what he would do.

"Where are you going, Eli?" I asked.

"Bed time." With that, he tottered into his room. We peeked around the edge of the door, and sure enough, he had wrestled himself up into his little bed. With an exasperated sigh he rested his head on his pillow and closed his eyes. It lasted that way for only a few minutes, and then he was up and ready to try again.

I have mornings like that, too, when I just need a do-over. I think we all do. In fact, the world would probably be a much better place if we could all get comfortable with the idea that sometimes it's better just to go back to bed. Don't you agree?

Happy made-up songs, naps, and do-overs. Why do we set these things aside so quickly?

posted by Woodlief | link | (3) comments

Wednesday, March 17, 2004

Mud Puddles and M&M's

Caleb in a rainy parking lot: "I want to walk through the pud muddle. Wait, I mean the rain muddle."

Last night Eli sang his ABC's for me, but with a slight modification:

"A B C D E F G; H I J K, M&M's and me..."

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Monday, March 15, 2004

Sweet and Stinky

I don't think I have a theme today, which would not leave me in good stead with my 7th grade English teacher. Or maybe there is a theme lurking in here somewhere, and that theme is the combination of sweetness and stinkiness that is the little boy. I'm walking a fine line here -- a friend recently told me that my use of "cakehole," as in "Caleb doesn't shut his," is starting to sound unkind.

Love forgives all, as the epistle goes, and so perhaps this too can be forgiven. Certainly in my boys there is an abundance of love. We arrived late last night from Wichita, and took a Washington Flyer cab home. This is, by the way, the only livery service that is approved by the Dulles International Airport Authority. This makes me suspicious, in much the same way one might view with jaundiced eye a life philosophy book endorsed by Ben Affleck.

But at 10:30 p.m., after traversing a third of the country with two little boys who are fond of expressing their opinions, I'm not what you might call a discriminating shopper. Washington Flyer is stationed near the baggage carousel and it has some concern for its reputation, so it beats trying to save twenty bucks by hiring one of the frustrated Iranian limo drivers who lurk by the doors of the airport mumbling, "you want cab?" On a risk-adjusted basis, Washington Flyer isn't such a bad deal.

So we piled in the back of the cab and Caleb gave directions to our Hindi driver. Eli, sensing a long, smooth ride, nestled into me and began sucking his fingers. I offered my thumb to his free hand and he grasped it gratefully. This is the same child who two hours before, I was certain, was about to pop a blood vessel because we could not get his sandwich unwrapped fast enough. But here he was in my arms, peaceful and accepting my love. I breathed the baby-shampoo smell lingering in his hair, which I'm sure by this evening will be replaced with the faint smell of sweaty little boy that seems to come upon them when they are a year old and doesn't leave until they've been domesticated by some sweet young girl.

Caleb, meanwhile, satisfied that the driver knew what he was doing, settled back into the special bliss of a four year-old, which is to have Mommy and Daddy on either side, our arms on his legs and around his shoulders and in general creating a cocoon of protective parental flesh over 80 percent of his body. He looked up at me, smiled sweetly, and then giggled at the fact that he had just passed a particularly stinky one. Windows went down, chastisements were delivered.

Since she's not here to defend herself, I want to point out that he gets that from his mother, or from somebody on her side of the family.

Caleb is the real storyteller in our house. One day he was going on and on (I note lovingly) about when he worked in the circus, and the time he drove a train, and other such little boy fantasies, and then he simply announced, "and that's the end of my story." I think he wove that particular tale for about three days, stretching it across several car rides and dinners. He's a prolific storyteller, too. No sooner had he finished his story than he took a deep breath and began to deliver another.

Eli, on the other hand . . . well, I don't know what that boy will do. Sometimes I think he'll become a general, the way he barks orders across the house ("Daddy! Are you!?! Daddy! Come here!"). Other times I think he'll be a pediatrician, the way he attends to the little cloth baby doll that has been his constant bedtime companion for two years. I see him solve problems and make mental connections that convince me he'll find a cure for cancer. Then I watch him try to eat a sandwich by inserting it vertically, and think to myself, "that boy is going to end up working the Tilt-a-Whirl."

No matter, I'll love them no matter what they do, or don't. That's the nature of parenthood -- it so transforms us that even the most selfish of creatures finds himself praying that if blessings are limited, then please, God, give them all to my children. But I know that blessings aren't in short supply.

Sometimes I lie awake at night and think about the fact that I've already won the lottery. Everything else is a bonus.

posted by Woodlief | link | (8) comments

Wednesday, March 3, 2004

A Song and a Prayer

I got an email yesterday from the charming mommy and writer Jordana Adams, who informed me in no uncertain terms that a post on pockets is completely inadequate. So today seems like a good day for one of those posts that contains several seemingly random snippets from life in the Woodlief house, which I masterfully tie together at the end into a bow such that they dovetail nicely, if you will, if I may, to mix two loathsome cliches.

As I write this I'm in a section of the train where three guys have run everyone off with their loud yapping about computer games and the composition of beer. These are grown men, mind you. They never bring anything to read. Instead they sit and talk about how they would operate the Virginia Railway System if they were in charge, and whether the Roto-Rooter model 2000 auger is better than the Evinrude model 350.

But I harbor no malice toward them. What's this, you ask? Have you turned over a new leaf, Tony? Do you have nothing but sweetness and love flowing through your veins now for your fellow man?

No. But I do have an MP3 player, by virtue of the fact that I lived yet another year, which my darling wife chose to reward by giving me a tool to augment my introvertedness. No dummy, she. Enough talk at the dinner table about killing your fellow train riders and you get results, at least in my house.

So right now, while they are debating just exactly how dumb it is to have two rather than three stairways to the train platform, I'm cranking Third Day. Isn't technology a beautiful thing? Today it may just have saved three lives.

It seems like I always have more to write about Caleb than about Eli. I've thought about why this is so, and I think it's primarily because Caleb doesn't shut his cakehole. Talk enough and something interesting is bound to pop out sooner or later, unless you're John Kerry.

Eli, on the other hand, has this habit of getting up close to you, like he's telling you a secret, and then murmuring very softly. "Read book? Read book." That's his method; he asks for something, and then he confirms that you will in fact deliver it. Right now it's cute. When he's six feet tall and 190 pounds of seething muscle, it might lean more towards intimidating.

We'll come back to the little pumpkin whose birthday, by the way, is next Monday, the same as his mother's. First, a little about Caleb.

This weekend I was working at my computer when the boy came stumbling into the room, groggy and messy-headed, fresh from a long snooze. He crawled up into my lap, put his head on my chest, and sat there gathering his thoughts. I knew what he was looking at: a box of Bazooka bubble gum given to me by my wife on Valentine's Day.

Caleb is a chewing gum freak, even more than me. I knew he was working up his case. Finally, he pointed a little finger at the box and declared, "Daddy, God says you have to share that candy."

My son, the televangelist. He called it "candy" because his mind works like a grocery store. Chewing gum belongs on the candy aisle. "Really?" I replied. "Well, I wouldn't want to defy God, now would I?"

"No," he said with the same ominous tone Moses must have used on Mt. Sinai. I gave him a piece and he spent the next minute unwrapping it with fumbling little post-nap fingers. He finally popped the pink rectangle into his mouth. I could feel his jaw working against my chest as he returned his head to its resting place, satisfied.

My wife came in and sat down in a chair beside my desk. She surveyed the scene: me with approximately seventeen pieces of bubble gum in my mouth (I was in the writing zone -- gum helps this), and Caleb working on his own piece. I'm sure we looked like a couple of grazing bulls.

"Daddy, this is good candy. Did mommy get that for you?"

"Yes, she did."

"Mommy, you are the best candier ever."

Little suck up.

Actually, he's not a suck up, he's just polite. A few weeks ago we stood outside his Sunday school class, in a bit of a line created by a recalcitrant child who wasn't quite convinced that her parents were coming back for her after the service. This was probably with good reason -- had I been her parent, I might have considered that option. Don't worry; I'm just kidding, as far as you know.

Behind Caleb stood his little friend William. "I like your coat," said my son.

"Thank you. It's blue." William seized the edge of it and thrust it forward to make his point.

Caleb smiled approvingly. "Splendid."

Now I ask you, isn't that so much better than "cool"? There is such joy to be found in raising literate, well-spoken children. Now, if I could just find the "off" button from time to time.

I don't want you to think my boys are nerds, though. The other night we had a boy's night out -- the three of us set out in the party wagon (actually, it's a Honda minivan) to a suite at the MCI Center (working for a large unnamed corporation has its benefits).

On the way Eli demanded a song performed by Nickel Creek called "The Fox." For he and Caleb, this song is entitled "Bones-o," because that's a word in one of the stanzas. I won't try to describe it; just go buy the first Nickel Creek album. If you don't like their music, I'll thank you to exit civilized society and procreate no more.

Anyhoo, the three of us are cruising down Constitution Avenue, kicking it to "Bones-o," and I look back to see that Caleb is playing air guitar. That's right, air guitar. I don't mean half-hearted strumming, no -- I'm talking full-on, stern-faced, heavy concentration-to-get-the-chords-right air guitar. I tried not to let him see me laughing.

Not that I'm judging him, mind you. My friends and I used to do a pretty pathetic Led Zeppelin imitation in college. I take no pride in that. It might surprise you to learn that no woman ever pounced on any of us after witnessing that wretched spectacle. In many ways air guitar is a very effective form of birth control, right up there with a Kucinich for President bumper sticker.

So I'm hunched over towards the driver's side window, giggling at what I've just seen. The sound of Eli mumbling in harmony because he doesn't know the words, and then randomly shouting out "bones-o! bones-o!" only added to my delight. I turned back to steal another glance and now Caleb had a fake microphone to his lips. He even had the singer's grimace going, like what you might see on "Star Search."

I swear by all that is holy, I have never allowed my child to watch "Star Search." Are these things just hard-wired into little boys, along with farts and stinky feet and an aversion to salad?

But little boys are not all goofiness and odd noises. At least, mine aren't. They're both so tender-hearted that sometimes it just melts me. I'm not so easy to melt. At nights before bedtime I'll kneel down beside Caleb's bed, and he and Eli will join me. I'll ask Caleb what he's thankful for, and I'll get a list that includes close family members, Mickey Mouse, and his favorite toys. I'll ask him who he wants to pray for, and he'll usually say "Eli." That boy needs help, is his point.

Then I'll ask little Eli what he's thankful for, and his answer is always the same: "Um, ABC's." For a child who talks so little, he sure is thankful for his letters. I suppose that's a sign of something good. When I ask who he wants to pray for, he also says, "Um, ABC's."

That's been his consistent answer, until last night, when he said, "Mommy." I can't conjure up a sweeter joy than hearing your child pray for you. I've heard people say that every prayer reaches God's ears, and I'm not always sure that's true. But I think the gentle whispers of children, who don't yet know enough to be so sure of their own wisdom and so doubtful of the mysteries of their Creator -- I think these prayers always find their way to God, and I think they must always make him smile.

posted by Woodlief | link | (14) comments

Friday, December 5, 2003

Write What You Know

A friend told me that this place, when I used to put things in it, was a window to my soul. I think there's something wrong with me, in that I can set down in words what delights and torments my soul, but I just can't talk about them, at least not to most people. I'd much rather talk to a thousand people in an audience than to one person -- at least, most one persons. I used to think that this was something I needed to fix, and I guess it still is, but I'm starting to believe that it, like many other things about me, cannot be repaired. Maybe that's alright; maybe writing will suffice. I have been writing, as some of you know. But maybe I should write more here.

But enough about me. It's been a wonderful year and a terrible year, and I'll write more about that here, but not today. Instead I'll write about the children.

Caleb has a block set, which when assembled produces a manger scene, complete with little wooden animals and a little wooden Jesus. Last week he got out the box that holds all the pieces and brought it to me. "Daddy," he said, "can we put together the Jesus farm?"

"Sure," I said. "Let's grow some Jesuses."

I hope I don't go to hell for that.

Sometimes we go to this family-owned pizza place in town. They are always busy, and so you place your order and then you get a number and then you wait for what feels like forever as you smell the dough cooking and the sauce simmering. Eventually they call your number, and you feel what it must be like to have St. Peter look up sternly from his big book and give you the nod to pass on through the pearly gates.

The lady who works the microphone is not originally from the U.S. She's from Sicily, I think, or maybe Greece, or perhaps Bulgaria. Maybe Massachusetts; I don't know. She announces the numbers with a thick, deep voice, and inserts extra syllables into some words, and removes consonants from others. Fifty-nine becomes "fifity-nine." Thirty-three is "tirty-tree."

My boys have picked up on this. We have to sit far away from the counter now, because when she announces a number, they sometimes parrot her, and then giggle. Eli is the worst, because he believes anything is funnier when it is loud. When they're sixteen and they do that, I'll have to smack them on the backs of their heads. But for now it's done out of innocence, and so I just smile.

I took Caleb to work with me the day before Thanksgiving. He popped right out of bed that morning while it was still dark, and I dressed him in khakis and a white shirt, and put my Snoopy tie on him. Then we slipped on our coats, and I put on a backpack full of his books, and art supplies, and music, and we set out for the train station.

The train, of course, was thirty minutes late. Caleb paid them back by leaving granola bits and banana smears all over the floor and three seats. He met four people as well, which is three more than I've met in my whole year riding the train. What can I say? He's an extrovert, and I'm the pathological opposite of that.

I don't think I did anything for his work ethic once we got there; as soon as we set down our bags, I took him back out for a Starbucks run. Did you know that they make a child's size hot cocoa, which isn't as hot? Caleb got two, because he dropped the first one amidst a crowd of people waiting for their lattes and frappucinos and various other sissy drinks.

Had you or I splattered their pants and hose with chocolate, we would have been cursed. But when Caleb did it, in his little floppy hat and Snoopy tie, and immediately afterward said, "Oops. I'm sorry, Daddy," well, you would think that the boy had just sung a Shirley Temple tune while dancing on the countertop. I think a couple of people actually applauded. And the nice Starbucks lady gave him another cup of cocoa, gratis.

So the lesson is: always say you're sorry. Especially if you're a man.

Work was productive for Caleb. He used up all my tape, drained at least two markers, and left me on the hook for about a ream of copier paper. I don't think it was so productive for the ladies in the office, because my son is, in the popular vernacular, a chick magnet.

But he's also a boy, which means he has the concerns of a boy. For example, one recent night he asked -- during dinner, of course -- "Daddy, do trains poop?"


"Well, some trains poop."

"No, they don't."

"Thomas the Tank Engine poops."

"That's smoke."

"Well, I think it's poop."

"Enough of the poop talk."

I shouldn't blame him. What's the first thing they tell a writer? Write what you know.

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Tuesday, August 26, 2003

Yeah, yeah, I'm still here

I think it's best that I not promise regularity in my postings. I learned about a delightful little creature while hiking in Colorado last month -- Giardia. The trademark of this parasite is that it induces alternating bouts of constipation and . . . the opposite of constipation. My first thought, upon hearing my good friend describe an intimate encounter with this beast, was, "thanks for warning me after I decided to go wading in this mountain lake." My second thought was, "hey, sounds like a model for my blogging."

So after a long period of absence, the bug you can't shake is back. No, not back back, just right now for this post. Not to say that I won't be back again . . . oh, never mind. Now I'll share some random things that, at least when I made notes on them, seemed interesting enough.

First, the youngsters. A couple of days ago, as we prepared to make a trip somewhere, I came into the hallway to find Eli sitting with his legs sprawled, looking on with great interest as his older brother struggled to squeeze his little leather sandals over his fat feet.

"Unh. Unnnhhhh. It can't fit. Be still, Eli."

"Toes? Toes? Toes?" A moment later, with much satisfaction: "Toes."

I finally had to intervene when Caleb lost the spirit of the exercise, the goal of which is to get the child's shoes on, yes, but to do so without twisting his foot more than 180 degrees in either direction. Still, his heart was in the right place.

Eli's heart is in the right place too, most of the time. For example, a few weeks ago some denial or chastisement brought Caleb to tears as we drove down the road. After a few seconds of watching his brother cry, Eli began to wail. This encroachment on his Dramatic Moment caused Caleb to stop his own crying and fuss, "No, no, Eli, I'm crying." My son, the Prince of Drama.

He's also the Prince of Style. When he wakes up in the morning he likes to busy himself in his room. The other morning I came in to find him stripped down to his tighty-whiteys, with a pair of flip-flops slapping against his heels as he motored about the room, doing whatever toy arrangement makes sense to a three year-old. I thought that might make a good look for me as well, but the wife disagrees. Oh, the ravages of age.

It used to be the case that while Caleb brought out toys to play with in the morning, his brother would sit with his face stuck into the space between the crib bars, watching enviously, waiting for a parent to come liberate him from the prison masquerading as a bed. One morning the wife fussed at Caleb for not giving Eli a toy to play with. The next morning, she came in to find the crib piled with toys up to Eli's armpits. The poor child was just sitting there, immobilized, no doubt wondering how long he could breathe once the pile of stuffed animals and building blocks covered his face. It's good to have an obedient child, but be careful how you instruct them.

There are times lately that I worry about taking Caleb out in public dressed in shorts, because I'm worried some child welfare busybody will see all the scrapes and bruises and think I'm beating him. The boy collects bruises like Larry King collects wives. Saturday he sat beside me, reading a book, and I reached out to touch a bad-looking scrape.

"Owie, bud. That must have hurt."

"Yeah, don't touch it."

"Okay. You sure do have a lot of bruises."

"Yeah, but my ouches are melting."

It took me a moment to understand that he meant they were healing. "That's good."

"But don't touch them -- they're still ouchy."

Isn't it wonderful how we can turn any word into an adjective with the addition of a "y"? Try it. I'll get you started: the Democrats have been positively dolty over the war on terror. More and more college and professional athletes (insofar as there remains a difference) are thuggy in their behavior. You get the idea. Wow your friends and family with it.

Eli is getting into books now. Well, he pays attention for about thirty seconds, and then he usually breaks into some sort of Daddy-climbing maneuver which involves elbowing me in the throat and stepping on my crotch. He does sit still for "Goodnight Moon," however. He calls it "Nie moo moo," which may not seem so endearing when you read about it here, but is disarmingly cute in practice.

Occasionally, the little fartlings sleep. That is the blessed time of peace, when the wife and I read, or watch the latest offering from Netflix. Unfortunately, there are some classics that aren't on DVD, and that's where a friend with Tivo can round out the entertainment portfolio nicely. Some months ago my Tivo dealer sent me a copy of "Valley Girl," the Nicholas Cage/Deborah Foreman classic. I eagerly ushered the little ones off to dreamland a few minutes early, and settled down with the wife to enjoy that 80's masterpiece. I was a little bummed, however, because there was, totally, like, some editing.

I pointed out the missing sections to my wife. After a few minutes of this she chimed in. "And wasn't there a scene where he dressed up like a preppy to win her back, but she dressed up like someone cool?"

"Uh, no."

"Yes, there was."

"No, there wasn't."

"I'm pretty sure there was."

"Who's the movie master? Tony. Who hasn't even seen all of "The Godfather?" You."

"I know there was that scene. They cut it."



"Oh yeah, during the high school graduation fair. And then Danny and Sandy sang a song together, and then Stockard Channing told everyone that she really wasn't pregnant after all. Then the two of them got in a car that carried them off into the clouds while the gang sang 'We'll Always Be Together.'"

"You're not funny."

The story ends happily, rest assured, because the Movieland powers have just released "Valley Girl" complete and unedited on DVD, which you can purchase here, though if you want to buy one for yourself, you'll have to go here. I feel blessed to live in a country so technologically advanced. But tell me, with all our mechanical prowess, why are we still unable to disperse the two pickles on a McDonald's cheeseburger? Alas.

I'm happy to report that the basement is all but done. As a friend told me recently, the almost dones will almost kill you. But we're close. I had some labor difficulties, and had to fire the person helping me hang doors, who also happens to be the mother of my children. She insists that she wasn't fired, but a transcript of our conversation would show something like the following:

"Okay, push the top forward."

"Which side?"

"What do you mean which side? Your side."

"No, I mean the hinge side or the . . . other one."

"Hinge side. Now push through a shim. Hold it, hold it. Not so far."

"Level your side out."

"No, first I've got to put the shim in."

"You need to level . . ."

"Stop pushing against the door . . ."

". . . you've got to get the other side flush . . ."

". . . running this operation . . ."

". . . quit pushing . . ."

"Okay," I said, yanking open the door that was now quite possibly wedged forever, "you're fired."

"You can't fire me," she said with her little chin thrust out, "because I quit."

"No, you're fired."

"Too late," she said as she stepped past me. "I already quit."

Anyway, times are tough in the post-Clinton, chickens-have-come-home-to-roost economy, and I didn't want an unemployed person on my conscience, so I gave her another try, with the very clear ground rules that I was in charge. This time things worked out great, just as the Old Testament would predict. It also helped that I got some additional instruction on door-hanging, but having a more compliant workforce was clearly a key to success. Take that, you union bosses and women's libbers.

I'm still riding the train. As I sit here and type and try to ignore the fellow across from me, I'm led to wonder whether a lip-picking, potbellied Department of Education employee really needs a Blackberry. Do any of us believe that the obstacle to quality education reform in the U.S. is inadequate communication between tenured education bureaucrats? Just a thought.

We tried yet another church. This one is Reformed Baptist. What that means, for those of you who haven't had to bone up on inter-denominational differences, is that they've gotten the nature and destiny of man right, but they've held on to the Wednesday night services, the legalism over drinking, and the hymns that you probably last heard during a re-run of "Coal Miner's Daughter."

But they are very kind people, and we'll probably go back, at least for a while. I don't think we'll be able to make this church our home, however, because they restrict communion to believers who have been baptized by immersion. To some of you this may be an example of the petty differences that divide people of faith. In one sense, you are correct. But it also provides an opportunity to see that the details of one's theology really matter a great deal, if one is serious about what one believes. And if one isn't, why bother at all?

But that's another post. I don't want to approximate that Giardia thing too closely.

posted by Woodlief | link | (10) comments

Monday, April 14, 2003


As I left my bedroom the other morning Eli's squawks drifted up to me from the
kitchen. Apparently the interval between the last dregs from his milk bottle and the next course (pancakes) had stretched out too long. He was standing at the refrigerator door, alternately banging on it with his palms and grunting with anger as he tried to pull it open.

The boy is always hungry, and eats as if he rarely gets fed. I worry when we eat out that someone will see him gulping and gnawing at his food and call the child welfare authorities on us. He gets a piece of food firmly in hand, opens his mouth as wide as an opera singer, then jams in most of his fist. No shrinkage along the transit line of table and protruding belly for this kid; he is getting all of his food into his mouth. He makes an "Ah-goom" sound with every bite; the "Ah" is emitted while his mouth waits for the food, the "g" comes out as the food goes in, and the "oom" follows last, possibly his version of "mmm."

Caleb, meanwhile, bless his little heart, rarely shuts his piehole at the dinner table. Endless. Chatter. He even interrupts me -- I am not making this up -- to ask me what I am saying. He actually uses my talking as a reason to simultaneously talk.

And then there is the lovely wife, the planner in our family. Planning is, for a woman, a pseudo-interactive exercise that involves what counselors call "reflecting back" to the patient speaker. It works like this: she details her latest thinking on where the cabinets will go in our utility room, for example, and I offer up some commentary about what makes this a good idea, to show that I've been listening.

Put all of this together, and you have a typical conversation at our dinner table:

"The cabinets will look great . . ."


"Dad, did we have pizza the other night?"


". . . that last one once we mud those holes . . ."

"Ahgoom. Heh heh."

"Dad, is that a circle pancake?"


". . . don't you think that will look good?"


"I need some syrup on it."

"You have syrup."

"Ahgoom. Ahgoom."

"Not on that piece."

"It's sitting in a pool of syrup."

"But I need syrup on it."


"We also need to hook up that sink, and I'll need you to cut holes in the back . . ."


"Good Lord, what is wrong with that boy?"

"He's upset because he's done with his pancake."

"Well for the love of all that's holy give him another one."

"He's already had two."

"Dad, he's already had two."


"Three won't hurt. He's a growing . . ."

"Excuse me, excuse me Dad. Did you say 'growing'?"

"What? Yes."

"You said he's growing?"

"Okay, tubby, Daddy says you can have another pancake. These boys are going to eat us out of house and home one day."

"I . . ."

"Excuse me, excuse me Mom. Did you say 'house and home'?"

"Yes, Caleb. What were you going to say honey?"

"I forgot."

"You forgot, Dad?"


"He he he. That's so silly."

Sometimes the wife says we never talk. But often I feel overloaded with the sheer crushing burden of talk. It may be the case that I don't talk, but we do a lot of talking. And then there's work, with its massive, copious, largely superfluous array of talking to, above, about, around, for, down to, and sometimes even with my colleagues and associates. Oh dear Lord I need a day of not talking.

I've heard people say that a parent's relationship with his children is like God's relationship with those of us who are his children. We are disobedient by nature, and we constantly need correction and guidance, but always there is the forgiveness welling up from that deep heart of love that only a parent can fathom. If you want to understand how God can forgive your continual affronts to his dignity, have children. The love of a parent gives him no choice.

One could write a book on this, and another on all the implications of Christ's rebuke to the Pharisees: "You are of your father the Devil." I want to be with my children even when they are rotten; but I cannot tolerate many of the children of other parents. Yet even with this love comes frustration; one can almost hear it when God says to his children, "Be still and know that I am God."

Be still. Be quiet. Even the Almighty God wanted his kids to shut their yaps sometimes. I'm beginning to understand that many of the things my mother did were not in fact evidence of mental illness, but merely symptoms of parenthood, like locking herself in the bathroom to eat a Hershey bar unmolested. Sometimes we need the blessed silence.

But now I'm traveling and I miss their tender, guileless (usually) voices already. I think the day will come too soon when they'll have their own little people to take care of, when they'll be wrapped up in conversations about handwashing and poop and what is appropriate to carry onto the slide (soccer ball: yes; toy lawnmower: no), and they'll go a little crazy too. And I'll miss them, and I'll respond with joy when they let Grandpa visit and sit at their table and just . . . listen.

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Friday, April 11, 2003


For Caleb, breakfast is the most important meal of the day. He knew I'd be home this morning, so he decided to lobby God during last night's bedtime prayers:

"...and Lord, thank you for all the wonderful things you give us..."

"And please give us eggs, and bacon..."

"...thank you for our home, and our family..."

"...and pancakes, with syrup..."

"...and for my job, and for your love for us..."

"...and cranapple juice, and we can eat it when we get up..."

"...please forgive us, Lord, when we are selfish..."

"...and give us a g-o-o-o-o-o-d breakfast tomorrow. A-a-a-a-men."

I'm sure the good Lord has heard worse prayers.

posted by Woodlief | link | (8) comments

Thursday, April 10, 2003

Crazy Little People

Recent Caleb song (to the tune of Frere Jacques)

Are you sleeping
Are you sleeping
Stephen Caleb?
Stephen Caleb?
Power power power
Power power power
God Amen
God Amen

Eli can now eat with a spoon, though he clearly detests this artifice, and thinks we are all idiots for forsaking one of nature's greatest food-eating tools, the hand. At every meal now he makes a point of flipping some of his food onto the floor out of spite.

He likes to play "Hide My Face." This amounts to saying "Ah goo!" and then flopping forward to bury his face into some large object, like a pillow. You should try it. As you might imagine, this has entailed some painful lessons about the relative hardness of things. A typical game of "Hide My Face" goes something like this:

"Ah goo!" Plants face on cushion of footstool for five seconds. Looks up. "Heh heh." Cruises a little closer to my place on the couch. "Ah goo!" Buries face in couch cushion for five seconds. Looks up. "Heh heh." Takes hold of my leg. "Ah goo!" Plants nose squarely on my knee. Takes two seconds to realize that this hurts. Looks up at me as if I've deliberately pulled a Thai-boxing move on him, and bursts into tears of pain and betrayal. I feel bad though I didn't do anything wrong. Game is officially over.

posted by Woodlief | link | (2) comments

Tuesday, April 1, 2003


I'm not sure where he gets it, but Eli can be both stubborn and vindictive. He's so Southern that way. Last night he sat over a wooden cut-out puzzle, slowly removing pieces and trying to fit them back into place. This proved to be immensely frustrating for him, because in his opinion each piece belonged at a right angle to its original position. The puzzle, of course, disagreed. He sat there for a minute with one particularly resistant piece, straining to fit it back into place. Finally he crawled over to the trash can and dropped it inside.

Way to show that toy who's boss, son.

posted by Woodlief | link | (5) comments

Thursday, March 20, 2003

Caleb likes to read signs. He can't actually read them yet, but he does some creative deciphering. He told me that the sign on the Minneapolis airport's moving walkway, for example, says "go to the airport." That doesn't quite capture it, because he emphasizes each word when he is sign-reading. So it came out like this: "Go. To. Da. Airport."

Last night we went to Target, and he explained that the big red sign overhead says, "Let's. Buy. A. Toy." So we did, a sweet new Matchbox forklift (he likes the heavy machinery).

Caleb likes belly flurgles. What's that, you don't know what a flurgle is? It's when you bury your face into someone's neck or belly and blow so that you make a big noise that would embarrass grandma if it came out of grandpa in church. So every night when I put on his pajamas, Caleb asks for a belly flurgle. This is a dangerous enterprise, because he holds his arms up, but he is ready to bring them crashing down, elbows first, as soon as my face gets near his belly. It's like Thai fighting, only I'm without a mouthguard. My latest angle of attack is to wait until he tries to take off his shirt. Ever try to take off your t-shirt without raising your elbows above your shoulders? Pretty difficult.

Apparently we make quite a sight, Caleb with his shirt halfway off his head so that he looks like a nun, cackling and screaming as tries to push my face away, and me going "ffffff" in pre-flurgle blowing while I try to avoid a black eye. Eli sometimes tries to get in on the action. He pulls himself standing by my arm and waits for me to pick him up, deposit him on his back, and tickle him. This causes him to giggle and throw both his legs in the air. It is always a funny sight because his legs are only eight inches long.

Last night Caleb asked me to sing "Angels We Have Heard on High" as his bedtime song. Quick, sing it. Not that easy to recall, is it? I got the first verse right, but the second went something like:

"Shepherds why this jubilee? Why your joyous strains prolong Something something dooby-dee Something can't remember the song

Glo-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-ria, in excelsis deo..."

Caleb lay with his head on his pillow, listening with a mixture of confusion and disgust. When the song petered out he contemptuously turned his back to me and went to sleep. Sometimes children are so hard to please. Mental note: one night when I'm ninety and Caleb tucks me in, demand that he sing "Come On Eileen" and get all the words right.

posted by Woodlief | link | (3) comments

Wednesday, March 12, 2003

Honey Got A Gun

Few things wake a man faster than the sound of his wife pulling a handgun from his sock drawer. The smooth steel barrel of a Beretta being dragged across plywood makes, at 4:20 A.M., a distinctive sound. The wife retrieved the gun on her way back from the bathroom, and then slid into bed and lay perfectly still. I lay there wondering what I had done. Still no movement. I quickly reached over and put my hand on the gun. "What are you doing?"

She whispered very quietly, "I saw our bedroom door open and then close."

"Are you sure?" Silence. I began to repeat myself and she put a hand over my mouth. She leaned close. "The closet door is moving," she whispered.

Women, I thought, as I turned to see the closet door slowly opening.

You might be surprised how quickly you can chamber a round when you've got some incentive. It's hard not to be self-conscious when you are stalking a stalker in your closet. I felt like I was doing a bad imitation of a TV-show cop as I edged along the wall, flipped the closet light, and threw open the door, remembering to keep the gun chest high so as only to obliterate anyone over five feet tall.

Of course the closet was empty. I know multiple gunshot wounds can be messy (for let's face it, that gun was going to be fired more than once if at all), especially in one's closet, but I would have preferred shopping for new clothes to the extensive house search that was necessitated by not finding someone there. So I slid from room to room with nothing between me and the elusive intruders but boxer briefs and a .380. It wasn't as attractive as you might think; despite being black, the handgun is not slimming.

I found no one. The next day at lunch we had a chance to talk about it. "So do you still think you saw something last night?"

"Something woke me up, and then I saw the door move."

"Wait. You saw something, so first you went to the bathroom and then you got the gun?"

"Well, I had to go."

I'm trying to decide how I feel about that. I think I'll chalk it up to coolness under duress. I remember reading about a man in my home state of North Carolina who awoke one night to the sound of someone trying to break in through his front door. Like a good Southerner he grabbed his shotgun, but he didn't go to his front door. He wanted a clear shot. So, he went out his back door and crept around the side of his house, snuck up behind the would-be intruder, and aerated his torso.

The thing you should know about North Carolina is that it is, in the parlance of common law, a "home is the castle" state. In other words, unlike the oppressed people of Massachusetts, a Tarheel is legally entitled to fill you with holes if you try to violate his domicile (or his woman -- rape is also grounds for the use of lethal force). Thus this homeowner's action was perfectly legal. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if the state troopers asked him to pose with them for a picture. He was as cool as the other side of the pillow, as they say. And so is someone who can take a leak when she thinks there's an intruder at our bedroom door.

Either that, or she figured the bad guy would get me first, giving her time to grab the handgun and squeeze off a few rounds.

I'll stick with cool as a cucumber. It helps me sleep better at night. Especially now that I keep the clip under my pillow.

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Wednesday, February 26, 2003

Fromage Du Pied

One night months ago Caleb noticed that little bits of fluff from his socks had collected between his toes. "What's that?"

"Toe cheese."


This might have been a mistake. It wasn't really toe cheese in the improper foot care sense. It is only a matter of time before we have some embarrassing public announcement from Caleb about his prolific toe cheese. All sins of parenting incur punishment, believe me.

So now every night when we put on pajamas Caleb wants to hunt for toe cheese. He squats down in his tighty-whiteys and pulls his socks off by the toes, stretching them to three times their previous length. Then he inspects the spaces between his toes in very methodical fashion. He starts with the big toe and its second-in-command, seizing each and pulling them wide apart. When he finds some lint (lint, I tell you) he gasps excitedly and says "Toe cheese!" He wipes it out with his finger and moves on to the next space. "Toe cheese!" Wipe, then pull apart the next pair. "Oh, no toe cheese." "Haah, toe cheese!"

"Hey man, do you ever notice that your toe cheese is the same color as your socks?"

"Yeah, it's blue! Blue toe cheese!"

posted by Woodlief | link | (4) comments

Wednesday, February 12, 2003

A Conversation Over Birthday Cake

"Caleb, child, sit still in that chair."

"I think it's that Y-chromosome; it leaves boys uneven so they can't sit straight."

"Whatever. I thought girls had the Y-chromosome, and boys have X."

"No, I'm pretty sure that boys are Y's."

"No, I think they're X's."

"No, Daddy, boys aren't wise."

"He's right about that, you know."

"Oh yeah, well it wasn't three wise women that went to Bethlehem."

"That's why it took them two years to get there."

"Only because they each had a wife in the back of the wagon, second-guessing them across the desert."

"Probably because they wouldn't stop to ask for directions."

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Friday, January 31, 2003

The Bath

So we decided last night to bathe the two urchins at the same time. Caleb, who will soon be three, sometimes gets a bath based not on his grubbiness, but on our need for some short-term containment.


"I tackled you on your stomach, daddy!"

"Actually it was a little lower, son."

"Let's tackle again!"

"Time for a bath!"

Caleb likes bubbles in his bath, and assorted plastic boats and creatures (and really, who doesn't?). The bath is a ritual. First, I get the temperature right (Caleb prefers that I do this, as his mother -- being a woman -- is under the impression that all baths with a temperature less than 400 degrees are "just a bit chilly"). While I do this, Caleb struggles to undress himself, which frequently involves panicked yelping once he gets his shirt stuck halfway over his head, or a Homer Simpsonesque "Doh!" when he bends over while pulling off his pants and whacks his forehead on the side of the tub.

The amount of bubbles is very important, and he always watches closely as I squeeze the purple plastic bottle of bubble juice at the tumbling stream of water.

"It needs more bubbles."

"Just give it a minute."

"It needs more. More daddy. More bubbles."

"Fine. More bubblas." (Caleb used to call them "bubblas." In some homes children learn from their parents to mispronounce words. In our home the parents learn it from their children.)

"Buuubbblles." Hurried scramble to strip off underwear and socks. Thump. "Doh!"

I used to pick him up and lower him into the tub, but now he likes to climb aboard himself. In the winter this is a delicate process, because the side of that tub is cold. Only a three-foot tall boy, you understand, can appreciate just how cold.

Last night we negotiated the ritual, and once Caleb was in the tub he happily chattered to his plastic teapot as he repeatedly filled it with water and emptied it. This, of course, led him to announce that he needed to tinkle, so I had to lift him, dripping warm bubbles, from the tub and place him on his potty for some quick relief. I returned him to the tub.

Then I had my brainstorm. Eli, you see, was still smelling like the Indian food we'd had the night before. The boy eats anything, even though he's only a year old. Wednesday night it had been spinach babagasomethingorother, and, frankly, the boy was beginning to smell like something you find hanging at a Bangladeshi meat market. "Hey," I said to the wife, "let's put Eli in the tub with Caleb."

She warily agreed, and so I brought Eli to the bathroom entrance and begin to peel off his layers of clothes. He quickly discerned what was in store, which made my job much harder, because he began to wiggle and strain to get to the bathtub. (Apparently the boy's smell had begun to offend even him.) The undressing became a moveable affair, as I alternately pinned him down and used his determined forward motion to assist in the clothes-peeling process.

He finally made it to the side of the tub, buck-naked, and squealed at his brother in triumph. Caleb was only too happy to share his big warm bubbly tub, and so I deposited Eli next to his big brother.

Eli likes to express his love for water by splashing it. Slap slap slap. Splash splash splash. He is undeterred by the fact that he is inevitably the greatest victim of this mayhem. Caleb joined in, but Caleb has water-in-the-eyes issues, so he held a washcloth in one hand, to dab at his eyes, while he splashed along with the other.

I had to restore order, as my socks were quickly becoming like two sponges left in the bottom of the sink. Eli decided to be an otter, slipping back and forth on his smooth narrow behind, nearly dunking himself several times. The wife watched as I managed all this, alternately laughing and exclaiming, "Oh, honey, don't let him go under!"

Apparently, babies do better above water. This, men, is why we need wives, to remind us not to drown the baby, or to let him stick his brother's fork in his eye, or to put hard liquor in his juice cup.

Eli was determined, however, to get a closer look at a toy underneath the water, and so he leaned forward and stuck his face beneath the surface. This did not last long, because my son is no idiot. He came up sputtering, and then gave me a big, bubbly-faced grin. One day, son, you'll have a sweet wife to remind you not to do that. Until then, you have us.

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Wednesday, January 29, 2003

Why Life Remains Worth Living

Some of you know that I am doing some basement repair. I'm very happy it's not basement construction, you see, because that would fall under the purview of various county permitting and taxing authorities. Just a little basement repair. Unfortunately, I'm a bit slow at it, despite considerable help from my friend Lyndal.

It has been an educational experience, for me and for Caleb. Lyndal bought him a tool belt and kid-sized tools. Caleb likes this very much. He loads it up with tools and walks around the basement, whacking boards with his hammer ("No no, not the drywall Caleb!") and measuring things with his tape measure. Recently I turned to see him bent over a board, assessing it with his little plastic t-square. To complete the picture, understand that his pants were dragged down considerably by his tool belt.

That's right. My son has a crack problem.

Not only has he adopted the dress, Caleb has acquired the lingo. The other day he watched intently as I cut a piece of Sheetrock. I let him stand in front of me and help hold the box cutter as I stooped to run it along the broken edge. Then I guided his hand as we sanded the rough edge. Once the edge was smooth, I said, "Alright, man, good job. You know what happens now, don't you?"

He replied, "Glue and screw, my friend!"

So Caleb is down with the vernacular of a hip modern home repair dude like his father. Sometimes he is too down with it. Witness the following excerpt from last night's family trip to the grocery store:

Me: "Honey, can you help me remember that we need to get some up dog?"

Wife: "Hmm."


Me: "Hey Caleb, will you help me remember to buy up dog at the grocery store?"

Caleb: "Yes."

More silent brooding on my part.

Wife: "You know he isn't falling for that."

Me: "I know. He's too hip. But he'll still pull my finger."

Wife: "Ugh."

Eli, too, has some new lingo. He learned it from his brother: "broom, broom." It is a little boy's car sound. I frequently hear them playing together now.

"Broom, broom, bbbbbbrrrrooooom."

"Brooom. Stttppd."

"No, Eli, don't slobber me."


"Broom, broom, bbbbrrrrooooom."

"Broom. Stttppd. Brrrooom."

"No, Eli, that's my Mercedes. Here's your cement mixer."

"Gahh. Mmm."

"No, Eli, don't eat my Mercedes. Give it."



Eli is extremely proud of his new sound. If you aren't careful, he'll lay it on you when you are holding him close to your face. This invariably leads to a cry of disgust and desperate groping for a tissue. Eli has saliva issues.

But they are fun. Some people have more fulfilling careers or vacations or whatever. We have our children. It's a good trade-off. People who tell you there is no trade-off are idiots, or just not very good parents. So my children are wonderful, but let's be honest, parenting is an extreme imposition. That doesn't mean it is bad, but it is what it is.

My mother insists that she used to hide in the bathroom from my brothers and I, in order to enjoy a candy bar in peace. Somehow we could sense the presence of chocolate in the house, and would gather outside the locked door, banging on it and demanding entry. I suppose this must have been something like having the Huns at the city gates. My mother is now insane. I have this to look forward to, I suppose. Still, being a parent is worth it.

Last night we were running late getting the children to bed. The precious moments of privacy before sleep were dwindling. I impatiently instructed Caleb to pick out a short bedtime book. He walked over to the little wooden bookshelf in his bedroom, and returned with a multi-part epic about Franklin, and his trials and tribulations as a young turtle.

"No, Caleb, I said a short book. Take that back and pick again."

"Okay." He toddled back to the shelf. Presently he returned.

"Good lord, child, I said a short book."

"What did he pick?" Asked my wife, who had her back to us as she changed Eli.

"The Bible." There was a brief pause. "I hear you snickering over there."

Note to self: be sure to put ice cold hands on wife's back just as she drifts off to sleep tonight.

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Monday, January 6, 2003

Batteries, Thankfulness, and Mr. Rogers

We try our best to keep our children from the mass of plastic, noisy, electronic garbage that passes for toys these days. Children used to play with wooden or metal toy trucks that required them to scoot around on the floor and make sounds. Now they are given plastic trucks with electronic gizmos that won't keep quiet, and a remote control so they can sit on their fat little fannies and steer them into the ankles of nearby adults. Even Tonka, the great toymaker of my childhood, now produces almost nothing but this junk.

Anyone looking to explain the rise of attention-deficit disorder, beyond parenting that fails to instill self-discipline and peacefulness, need look no further than the hyperactive electronic surroundings of the modern American child. We overdose them on sugars, stick them for hours on end in front of a big box with flitting color pictures and overly loud sounds, give them toys that produce the same effect, and then marvel over the fact that they can't sit still, or pay attention long enough to learn to read.

Despite our best efforts, Caleb is fully aware of the importance of batteries. This is because two of the things he loves -- flashlights and a child's tape player, feed on them like vampires. Thus we are inevitably searching for batteries.

I tell you this so you will understand the following scene: Caleb is sitting on his little potty. It is during a period when he has decided that his poop is too precious to release into this uncaring world. The hour of crisis has arrived, when the danger of unintentional release has compelled him to direct his body to release no waste, lest the dam, if you will, burst forth.

So there he sits on the pot, happily reading his big Busytown book, while I cajole him.

"Poop, Caleb."

"Oh bother (for he loves Winnie-the-Pooh -- pardon the pun), I'll have to poo-poo later."

"How about now?"

"Oh bother . . ."

"Alright, alright. But don't you need to tinkle?"

A serious look comes over his face as he contemplates what it will take to achieve this while continuing his poop embargo. Finally he declares, "my pee-pee's not working. It needs new batteries."

May that never be true.

A few nights before Christmas he was again enjoying a good read of Busytown (he calls it his "big book busytown book") when a knock came on the door. I opened it to find forty or so carrolers on our front lawn. They commenced to singing, and upon hearing them the lovely wife walked towards the foyer from the kitchen. Now, Caleb loves visitors. He had only just an hour before made fast friends with a hopelessly deluded and earnest college student seeking contributions for a local environmental group. So as my wife came down the hallway, she -- thankfully -- intercepted Caleb, waddling as fast as his pants, which were still down around his ankles, would let him. She helped him get decent before bringing him to the door, which I'm sure the crowd appreciated.

And then there is thankfulness, which, like many things that we are tempted to take for granted in children, must be inculcated. We are standing in the grocery store check-out line, and Caleb is trying, and failing, to keep his little hands off the candy.

He asks, holding up a bag of M&M's, "can I have it?"


"Can I have this?" He is holding a Twix bar.


"Can I have this?" Bazooka gum.


"Can I have this?" Tic-Tacs.

"No, Caleb. Listen, we just bought you a something. We need to be thankful for what we already got this evening."

He studies the candy shelf in silence. I count the items in the cart wheeled by the woman in front of us. There are decidedly more than twelve. I feel a tug on my jacket, and look down. Caleb is now holding a Snickers bar.

"Can we be thankful for this?"

That's not as easy to answer as you might think. Moral instruction is especially difficult when one is struggling not to laugh. I wonder if God ever has this problem.

So now he's into Mr. Rogers. I am fine with this. The Grand Marshals of the Rose Parade this year, by the way, were Mr. Rogers, Bill Cosby, and Art Linkletter. The only interview I saw with them was on a Spanish station, during which they spoke in English and their interviewer translated for his Spanish-speaking viewers. At one point, the interviewer asked Bill Cosby whether he believed there are still good television shows for children.

"No," said Cosby, suddenly going from jovial to a bit angry. "There are things on today that my parents would never have let us watch, and there are few shows that I think are good for children to see any more."

While a slightly surprised interviewer translated his answer, Mr. Rogers reached out and put his hand on Cosby's arm in a show of support. So I dig Mr. Rogers, and Bill Cosby, and I recall Eddie Murphy's famous spat with Cosby, and now conclude that Murphy will be blessed if he can ever claim to be half the man that Cosby is.

But back to Mr. Rogers, and his influence on Caleb. My son has some cheap blue nylon tennis shoes with velcro straps. They look a lot like the blue shoes Mr. Rogers puts on when he comes in to his house, singing his famous song. A few weeks ago my wife happened upon Caleb at the top of the stairs, slipping on his "bobos," as I call them. "Would you be mine, could you be mine, please won't you be my neighbor," he sang.

God bless Mr. Rogers.

And as a good neighbor should, Caleb often tries to be helpful. The other day he and Eli were in their bedroom with their mother. She and Caleb went into another room for something, leaving Eli to play on the floor with a block in the manner he has, which involves lying on his back and chewing fruitlessly on it, in the hopes that it will transform itself into food. After a moment he realized he was alone, and began to fuss.

"What's wrong with Eli?" Caleb asked.

"Oh, he doesn't know where we are," replied his mother.

Caleb ran back into the bedroom. "We're in Virginia, Eli."

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Thursday, December 19, 2002

Plop, Plop; Fizz, Fizz

I used to look forward to getting a bad cold. This wasn't just because I could then watch "Dumb and Dumber" in the middle of the day and not feel terribly guilty about it. It wasn't just because my sweet woman would bring me chicken noodle soup and Wheat Thins and little slices of cheddar cheese in bed. And it wasn't just because being sick allowed me to take a nice long nap in the middle of the day without ruining my nighttime sleep.

No, what I used to like about the cold was that it offered me the opportunity to take the greatest cold-fighting medication known to man -- orange-flavored Alka-Seltzer Cold and Flu remedy. Plop plop fizz fizz, baby. A shot of fizzy orange tonic, and then lie down on the couch and fall asleep to the gentle sound of Jim Carrey asking, "Hey, want to hear the most annoying sound in the entire world?"

But then they took it off the market. Seems it was giving too many people coronaries. I have been very bitter about this. I mean, so do jogging shoes, but you don't see any overweaning government agency yanking them off the market, now do you? So the Feds deprived me of my meds. Overnight, the cold became less inviting.

A few days ago, the wife and I have collapsed in front of the television to watch a show we are too tired to see, but which we watch anyway, because the prospect of going to sleep only to wake up seemingly instantaneously for another day of labor is more than either of us can bear.

"Look honey," says the wife, gesturing to a commercial running across our television screen, "they've brought back your Alka-Seltzer." She pats me on the shoulder. "Now you can get sick again."

"No," I reply with a surly voice, "it's not the same. They've reformulated it. I need the stuff that can give me a heart attack."

"You don't know -- this could be just as good."

"It's never just as good."

"How do you know that?"

"Two words for you, my friend: New. Coke."

This evokes a visible shudder. I've made my point clear.

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Wednesday, October 30, 2002

Youngster Update

I suppose you want to hear about the youngsters. I think Eli is going to be a commando. He has the army crawl perfected, and he knows that when grabbing someone's head you should grip him firmly by the ears. If only we could get him to stop gnawing on shoes and eating floor lint. All part of the survival skills, I guess.

Caleb, meanwhile, has finally figured out why Eli is pressed to his mother's chest every three hours. I believe he's a bit envious, but heck, so am I. A few days ago, after observing for a few minutes, Caleb announced, "I want to try it. Can I have some?"

Without an ounce of pity, my wife informed him, "Your time has come and gone."

I suppose some of the more militant La Leche mothers would disagree, but it seems to me that your child should be done breastfeeding once he is capable of naming them. I know there's a whole long list of reasons for nursing a four year-old, but, the very high "Ewww" factor aside, I suspect this sort of thing might produce malign side effects, like overdependence and emotional immaturity, both of which lead in turn to voting Democratic, and we certainly don't need any more of that.

One of the many girlfriends Caleb left behind in Kansas is named Kami. She's three times his age, but he digs the older women. Yesterday he sighed and said, "I love Kami."

"I know you do."

"Yeah. She has cars."

He's a good little fella, despite his weakness for doe-eyed lasses with ample Matchbox collections. It maddens me to think of all the vile people waiting to get their hooks into little ones such as these. Marketers, government educrats, diversity-mongers and their trailing throngs of professional victims -- the list of trolls itching to influence our children seems to grow with each Harvard graduation. They must be guarded against with a vigilance that lesser parents will never understand.

For example, Caleb received as a gift a book that is all about rescue heroes. You know, firefighters, police officers, paramedics, overbearing weekend-warrior ATF thugs (just kidding), and so on. On every page there are at least two of a type of hero, and at least one of the heroes is a person of color, or a woman, or both. On some pages there are no white males among the heroes, which is fine, as far as I'm concerned. What's interesting, however, is that one of the scenes shows four police officers (two brown women, one white woman, one black man), arresting two bank robbers.

You can, I'm sure, guess the rest. Although no other job classification in the book features all white males, both robbers are white men. While the illustrator clearly went out of his way (and far outside the boundaries of credulity -- how often do you see a woman firefighter lugging a man down an escape ladder?) to ensure a misrepresentative but idyllic diversity on his pages, he chose not to extend this diversity to the criminals.

How pathetically condescending, but then again, so is Jesse Jackson, and nobody's kicking him out of the Women and Minorities Grievance Committee.

Even worse than this subtle attempt at indoctrination is what produced the following statement from Caleb today as he handed scrap papers to the wife and me: "Look at me, I'm the mailperson."


"I'm the mailperson, Daddy."

"The mailperson?" I asked my wife.

"He has a tape that talks about different jobs like that. It must be on there."

"I want it out of my house."



"I hear you."

"So," I said to Caleb, "you're the mailman, eh? The mailman."

"Yep, I'm the mailman."

Take that, all you people who would trap the minds of our children in your insipid little utopias. Brainwash your own kids, if any of you bother to have them.

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Monday, October 14, 2002

Weekend Warrior

As most of you know, we traded our lovely three-story 1912 home in Wichita for a suburban box in Northern Virginia that costs three times as much. Most of the unpacking is done, and my very good friend Lyndal is coming out next weekend to help (let's be honest, to supervise my very unskilled labor) frame and drywall the basement and install a bathroom. So the wife and I decided this weekend would be a good time to plant some trees in our empty yard.

Off to Lowe's we went. After spending well over an hour, at least twenty percent of which involved tracking down the one employee entrusted by the corporation with sensitive information like how much it costs to rent their truck, we had settled on a ten-foot willow, two redbuds, a cherry tree, some other assorted flowering tree-like things, and a dozen azaleas (an opening salvo -- trust me, we'll be back).

Wife: "Don't you think we should just pay the $20 to rent their truck?"

Me: "Nah, we'll just have to lay all these trees down anyway. I can make them fit in the minivan."

Wife: "Are you sure?"

Me: "Oh yeah. No problem."

I asked the cashier for twenty or so large plastic bags, some of which I used to enclose each tree's base, others of which I tied together as rope to rein in the willow's branches. We slowly rolled our cargo to the minivan.

Wife (as I open the back): "Oh I forgot, I have the old paint cans back there."

Me: "Well then. This gigantic Hummer-brand stroller you bought at the yard sale takes up a bit of space too, doesn't it?"

Wife: "Here, let's put the paint up in front of the kids' seats." (translation: honey, lift these enormously heavy boxes of paint cans and cram them into these two really small spaces).

After much fitting and refitting we were on our way. The inside of our minivan was much like I imagine the rainforest, teeming with green things and echoing with the squawks of pygmy natives in the background. Poor Caleb had his legs bunched up to his chest, squeezed from their normal resting place by the Bradley Fighting Vehicle my wife had mistaken for a stroller. He periodically swatted at the willow branch invading his head space, fussing each time, "No, willow, get away. Stop that."

Eli had no quarrel with the redbud branch hanging over his carrier, as we discovered minutes later when we stopped at the Food Lion for baby wipes.

Wife (exiting her seat and opening the side door): "I'll be right back, I just need to get (sound of side door opening, followed by a bang and a splat). . . Oh my God."

Me: "What?"

Wife: "I just got paint everywhere."

I rounded the minivan to find a large growing puddle of white paint on the asphalt, inside the well underneath the floorboard (where the side door's rolling mechanism resides), and along the inside of the side door. The wife ran (so she says) in to buy water and paper towels, leaving me to battle the paint with five old Wendy's napkins. In the midst of my pitiful cleaning effort I looked up to see Eli eating an entire redbud leaf. His eyes met mine, and he gave me a large conspiratorial grin.

"Give me that." He gurgled. "Do you have some in your mouth? Oh, you little stinkpot..." I dug around and extracted a piece of leaf the size of a quarter. "Is there any more in there?" I circled his mouth with my little finger, which he gratefully gnawed with his two teeth.

"Ouch." I pulled back my finger, and he smiled as he grabbed another leaf with great zest. I immediately confiscated it. "Stop that. Stop it." I adjusted the branches, evoking protest from Caleb on the other side of the new greenspace.

"Quit it willow. Quit touching me."

I stooped down to continue cleaning, only to be distracted seconds later by a horrid belching sound from Eli. He had, of course, yakked up the rest of the leaf. He smiled.

"Look at you, covered in your own vomit. Have you no self-respect, man?"

"Da da da da da." Burp. "Da da da."

Eventually the wife realized that I would not in fact be able to clean the minivan with five Wendy's napkins, and so she emerged from the store with a three-gallon jug of water and a roll of paper towels. We proceeded to dilute and mop and wipe, while Caleb griped at the willow and Eli increasingly asserted his wish to be liberated from the baby carrier. We finally hopped into our somewhat cleaner minivan and sped off, leaving a paint can stuffed with wet paper towels on the cement parking lot island.

But I did save $20 by not renting that truck.

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Friday, October 11, 2002


*While the Congress has provided President Bush with War Powers against Iraq, there is a concerted effort by those who prefer U.N. inspections (most of whom live in areas unlikely to be the target of Hussein's weapons) to avert war. This is a commendable sentiment (which rings hollow coming from the French, who do billions a year in business with Iraq), but I think it's important to have a little skin in the game. So here's what I propose: all of the weapons inspectors must either agree to relocate their families to Israel, or sign a document authorizing U.N. security forces, in the event that a chemical, biological, or nuclear weapon traceable to Iraq is used, to execute their parents, siblings, spouses, children, and grandchildren.

Knowing one's own family is at risk might change one's perspective, I think. That's why gun control advocates tend not to act on the suggestion that they display front yard signs that read: "This home is gun-free."

*Remember when the Israelites spied out the Promised Land, only they got scared of the inhabitants, and tried to turn back to Egypt? Moses talked God out of striking them all dead, but in turn God decreed that none of the adults over age twenty would enter the Promised Land (except for Joshua and Caleb, the two faithful warriors). It will be forty years, He said, until the children of Israel get in.

Everybody remembers the forty years part, but they forget that God first said the Israelites would be restricted from the Promised Land until the last of the rebellious men over age twenty was dead. Now, the Israelites were a stubborn bunch, as proved by the fact that immediately after the chastisement, they worked up the chutzpah to try and take the land themselves, which led to a solid smack-down from its inhabitants. So I'm thinking the odds are that they must have heard those two decrees (until everyone is dead, forty years), and thought to themselves, "hmm, I wonder if we can speed this up a bit."

The point is, did you ever wonder what it must have been like for that last guy left from the original rebellious bunch? I mean, he knows everybody's waiting for him to drop so they can go into the Promised Land. He's pretty sure they won't just kill him, because back then murder actually led to swift punishment. But don't you think they probably did what they could to reduce his life expectancy a bit?

"Hey, Saul, what say you start the fire tonight?"

"Hey, Saul, mind helping me with this really heavy stone?"

"Have another greasy quail wing, Saul."

"Hey, Saul, I'll bet you 200 pita chips you can't climb up that cliff blindfolded."

Poor Saul. The pressure must have been unbearable. He knew the limit was forty years, and that he was coming up on it fast, but he never knew for sure if his kinsmen really did want his company all those times they invited him to join them as they sharpened knives.

The lesson, of course, is that when God tells you to go into the Promised Land, you go.

*I take a train for part of my commute. I'm sitting here trying to work, and on one side of me a fat man with a horribly loud and grating Jersey voice is yapping at the woman next to him, while across from me a woman is droning on and on into her cell phone. Everyone around them is giving them evil stares, but people like this are oblivious.

Note to self: either start packing earplugs, or the Beretta. Maybe both.

*Recent conversation in Virginia:

Me: "Caleb, do you need to go potty?"

Caleb: "I don't need to go poo-poo!"

Me: "Then why do you have your hand on your behind like you're trying to keep it in?"

Caleb: "No. I don't need to go poo-poo!"

Me: "It's going to happen sooner or later, man. Everybody poops."

Caleb: "Nope."

Considering some of the uptight people I run into on the Metro, I think he may be right.

*A good friend pointed out that I never provide any updates on Eli. That's because Eli says nothing other than "da-da-da-da-da." Frankly, he's been a bit of a one-trick pony.

But lately he is getting to be more interesting. One of his favorite things is to grab my ears and try to eat my face. He has two teeth now, which means this always carries a hint of danger. When it's chilly we put a little cotton cap on him; on each side it extends into a string so you can tie it under his neck. When we got home from a drive last week we discovered that he had untied it and managed to pull it over most of his face, so that he could only see partially out of one eye. He had his head tilted so he could make the best use of the half-eye, and was busy turning left and right in an effort to figure out where everybody went. I wonder if you traumatize children by leaving them in such predicaments long enough to take a picture.

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Wednesday, September 25, 2002

Notes From the Traveler's Diary

Earlier this week I went on a one-day business trip in the middle of my vacation (and right now I'm on still another trip). A few observations I made along the way:

* The woman in front of me waiting to board a plane in an airport which shall remain nameless asked the attendant for a pink gate check tag, which he promptly produced. She attached it to her luggage, and was about to remove the portion that was her claim ticket when the attendant stopped her in mid-pull.

"I'll do that."

"Oh, am I not supposed to?"

"It's just a federal law."


The woman stood up, and when he was done with some paperwork, the attendant bent down, extracted her claim ticket, and handed it to her. Now, I don't know if he was correct, or misinformed, or simply pulling her leg. But what struck me was the fact that neither she nor I found it impossible that our federal government might take upon itself the burden of regulating gate check tag de-perforation. What's more, I haven't any idea how to determine if the government does in fact regulate this activity; a poorly kept secret in Washington D.C. is that when a Congressman recently asked the General Accounting Office to identify all laws covered by federal criminal penalties, the GAO declined, explaining that the mass of such laws is too extensive to allow measurement. And that's just the criminal law. If the GAO can't count all federal criminal statutes, what chance does the average citizen have to determine whether the government forbids unauthorized perforation? One might ask an FAA employee, but does anyone really expect them to be more accurate than the average IRS help-line consultant?

Once past the gate agent, I went through a corridor and out on the tarmac to the waiting jet. I had the idea that I might be able to stow my carry-on in the overhead compartment, but when I got to the ladder the stewardess told me I would have to let them put it underneath. She handed down a pink tag. I attached it, and asked her if she wanted me to lift it up to her for federally approved de-perforation.

"Don't worry about it, you can just pull it off yourself."

Thus we stumbled over the problem Frederic Bastiat illuminated, that overweening government makes every man a criminal. This occurs either due to ignorance, or simply to disdain for a government that, like the typical blogger, has something to say about everything. After all, how serious can the government be that has time to issue rulings on toilet flush capacity? The British empire, by way of comparison, never concerned itself with chamberpot volume, and that's why it was feared and respected around the world. Want to know why people from other countries feel perfectly at ease insulting America, and picking the pockets of its citizens, or far worse? Because we tolerate things like milk price regulation. A government that leaves its citizens alone so it can focus all its energy on developing new ways to kill non-citizens -- now that's a government that commands respect.

And the reason, by the way, why I'm not telling you the name of the airport in which all this occurred, is in order to protect my rebel stewardess friend, who not only facilitated my violation of federal law (I think), but also called me "darlin'" when I exited. I'm a sucker for Southern women with a healthy disdain for regulations.

* In a bathroom in the Dallas airport I noticed flamboyant gang graffiti scrawled with blue marker on the wall over a urinal. The urinal. What pitiful little excuse for a gang has to scribble its signs where people urinate? An overpass is one thing -- it serves as a tribal marker of old, delineating property lines and serving to warn would-be interlopers. But a Dallas airport urinal? What's next, Chico, the Coke machine in the Weehawken bus station?

Another thing about signing a highway overpass is that it entails a little risk. I'm all in favor of licensing hunters in the off-season to bag people who do this, but I can't help but admire someone whose tribal urge to scratch his mark is so great that he summons the cajones to hang fifty feet above traffic to do it. But dashing off your gang sign over a urinal is just, well, sad. Everybody pees. But only someone with real machismo hangs from an overpass.

* Here's a poser: how do you suppose airlines reconcile the belief that passengers need instruction in seatbelt fastening with the belief that we care about the current altitude, visibility, and aircraft windspeed?

* Another question: why are airplane storage bins -- the ones where they keep all the snacks and cups and useless little non-absorbent napkins -- made out of metal, with latches that apparently require a series of deafening hand and body blows to secure?

* On my flight back to my undisclosed North Carolina location, I sat behind an attractive blonde, who began to cry as we lifted off. I gave her a napkin from my valise (I'm sensitive that way). She wiped her eyes with half of it, and then began writing what appeared to be a forlorn note on the other half. (I peeked -- I'm weak that way).

Across the aisle from her was a guy in tree-hugger sandals, dark denim jeans, an untucked black turtleneck, frizzy shoulder-length blonde hair, and the physique of your typical coffee shop employee. At first he read a book written in German, later he switched to grading philosophy papers. All along he cast furtive glances at the woman in front of me, and arranged himself in various alluring European sissy-man poses. From time to time he dropped things in the aisle so he could bend down and get them, each time looking up at her in vain anticipation of one of those deep-caught-in-the-majesty-of-your-visual-embrace soap opera moments.

Fat chance, Bjorn; she had a Texas accent. Save it for the undergrads at Brown.

posted by Woodlief | link | (11) comments

Tuesday, September 17, 2002

Excerpts from the Great Woodlief 2002 Migration

This weekend I drove 1300 miles with my wife and sons from Kansas to an undisclosed haven in North Carolina. The haven is undisclosed not because I fear any of you people, but because most of our family lives in North Carolina, and some of them track how much time we spend at the homes of other family members. On the way we stopped at the St. Louis Arch, where we learned, just before being hauled over 600 feet to the top, that the Arch was the site of some of the first high profile affirmative action (read: race-based) hiring in the U.S. Fortunately, this was back before skill had been completely displaced by race as a criterion for employment.

We also stopped at Mammoth Cave, where Caleb thoroughly resented the fact that I made him hold my hand in order to prevent plunges into dark uncharted depths. There we learned that the cave system was once owned by a ruthless entrepreneur who despoiled this natural resource in order to provide tours. But I think that if the Feds had found the cave first, it would have remained the private playground of researchers living on the government teat. Thank goodness a ruthless entrepreneur had the foresight to blast out some entrances and carve walkways before the government confiscated it.

So we'll vacation here for two weeks, though half of that will be taken up by work. Not that I'm bitter.

Okay, so I'm bitter. But I'll get to see my family, bust some caps with my brother-in-law the deputy, and eat food that can only be survived for extended periods when you spend 12 hours a day priming tobacco. I'll also write, and some of that will be to you, here at Sand in the Gears. Then we'll drive up to our new home in Virginia, and the next stage of life will begin.

As always when I travel, I store up little snippets of reality to share here. What follows is a sampling. In the next couple of days I'll put together an actual cogent essay for you, on a topic I think you'll like. But for now I give you excerpts from the Great Woodlief 2002 Migration:

It is mile 675, and the wife and I have engaged in a running temperature skirmish since St. Louis. When she is absorbed in her book, I turn the temperature up. When I'm trying to keep runaway tractor trailers from grinding us into aluminum dust, she turns it down. Finally, she catches me in the act:

Wife: "Will you stop turning it up? It's hot!"

Me: "I'm really cold."

Wife: "Did your mama birth you in Hell?"

Me: "I wasn't born in hell, but I was raised there."

Wife: "Self-pity is unappealing."

Me: "So is frostbite."

Later, I ask the wife to turn down the narration of the train video Caleb is watching.

Me: "Can you turn down the volume? That guy is loud AND boring."

Wife: "Caleb won't be able to hear him. You get a headache when you can't hear what people are saying."

Me: "Can I test that hypothesis for a while?"


Me: "Why are you pointing that remote control at me?"

Wife: "I'm looking for the 'Nice' button."

Me: "I don't come with that feature."

Wife: "I knew I should have bought the newer model."

One morning we were enjoying the continental breakfast in the restaurant of a hotel (On what continent do they eat instant grits and greasy doughnuts for breakfast? Is Hell a continent?) when a man with gray hair tied back in a pony tail strolled in with a book under his arm. He walked over to the waiting area adjacent to the restaurant section, turned up the television, and then took a seat in the restaurant as far away from the television as possible. Then he opened his book and began to read. I wish I were more comfortable telling people like this that they are rude. Instead, I listened to Bob Schieffer conclude "Face the Nation" with the most ridiculous soliloquy on September 11th that I have heard to date. "We still don't know for sure," he opined, "why these people did what they did."

Oh really, Bob? Those bin Laden videos haven't quite laid it out for you? The hateful screeds pouring forth from Muslim countries don't compute? I think when one examines all the evidence that contradicts your claim, one can only conclude that you, Bob, are a moron. You shouldn't be on television. You should have a job that requires you to wear a shirt with your name on it.

The reality, I think, is that even though we know precisely why the September 11th perpetrators "did what they did" (here's a hint, Bob: it's called "murder"), liberal elites aren't comfortable confronting the truth, because it contradicts their peace-loving-brown-people-oppressed-by-capitalism paradigm. I say Toby Keith should get his own Sunday morning talk show, and use it to interview American servicemen. There would be a dearth of J.D.'s, Ph.D.'s, and journalism B.A.'s, but I think we could all cope, don't you?

And finally, because I know why many of you are really here, a brief Caleb update:

* He is getting very good with his unprompted "thank you"'s.

* When he wants to be held, he sticks his arms up and says, "Can I hold you?" Sometimes I respond by putting my leg against his chest and acting like I'm going to jump into his arms.

* He has learned that the word "big" always sounds better when followed by the word "ole." Examples:

"I want a big ole kiss!"
"I want a big ole bite of ice cream!"
"I had a big ole poopoo!"

* He thinks that the Southern "bye" (pronounced "baa") is a different word from "bye." A few months ago he told his great-grandmother "bye," and then, as if remembering that he was speaking to someone of another language, threw in a "baa."

* On the steps up to the St. Louis Arch, he got just his toes on the next step, and nearly fell backwards. "Whoa, that was a close one!"

* Sometimes when we play I pick him up, cradle him, and then lay him on the ground with mock force while I say "body slam!" He likes this. Unfortunately, he sometimes requests a body slam in front of total strangers, who look at me in dismay. They seem to think that either I physically abuse my child, or let him watch professional (i.e., fake) wrestling. I'm not sure which is worse, by the way.

* He has become the master of two year-old sound effects. My daughter used a hair brush to brush a doll's hair, my son uses it as a gun. This would seem to contradict the "social construction of gender" theory espoused by childless women's studies professors. Don't tell them though -- as my wife learned whilst earning her M.A. in Education at the University of Michigan, they get really snippy when you make arguments based on facts. I'm reminded of one of my favorite taunts:

"So, you're a feminist. Isn't that cute?"

posted by Woodlief | link | (13) comments

Wednesday, August 21, 2002

I feel guilty when I see all those hits from my wonderful readers, and I remember that I haven't posted anything new in a few days. Then I remember that most of you don't pay me, while the people who do pay me have been demanding most of my waking hours.

Still, I want to share a couple of things with you today, kind readers. What's more, in the next couple of days I will fill you in on some Big News for the Sand in the Gears staff. Aren't you just tingling all over with anticipation? I have that effect on people, you know.

Back to the matters at hand, which aren't great matters of national security, mind you, but if you want that you can read one of 10,000 daily news issue blogs (and odds are once you've read the one, you've read the others anyway). My, that was catty, wasn't it?



The Scene: My family and I are walking through a park near our house. I have the baby jogger, but Caleb has decided he wants to run too, so he's a little bit ahead of us, head down, little arms pumping diligently, bobos slapping on the sidewalk. Across the park, about a quarter-mile away, a high school track team jogs along the edges of a field.

Me: "I know men and women are supposed to be equal and all, but did you ever notice that when a track team's boys and girls go running together, most of the girls clump up significantly behind the boys?"

Wife: "That's because they're all talking."

Me: "That's not very politically correct, you know."

Wife: "But look at them. You can see them talking."

Me: "It's not about what you can see, it's about what you're supposed to believe."

Wife: "I guess I'm a scientist at heart. Observe, baby."

Me: "You know this is going in the blog, right?"

Wife: "Speaking of which, I have a question. How come you never blog any of the dumb things you say?"

Me: (deleted)


Proof that I am a bad parent: Caleb went to spend the day with some friends who live on a farm. This involved much frolicking and sweating, which was fine, because I like to hose him down in the back yard each day anyway. But check out the following exchange:

Woman: "Hey kids, let's go feed the chickens."

Caleb: "Yeah, let's go feed the chicken nuggets."

Just to highlight the distance between good and bad parenting, I'll share with you what the child of this friend then asked:

Child of Good Parent: "What's a chicken nugget?"

Bad parent. I am a very bad parent.

posted by Woodlief | link | (7) comments

Monday, August 5, 2002

I don't have any illusions about the most popular part of this site. It isn't my insightful social commentary, or my witty dissections of twisted authority figures. It's the little guy in the pictures at the bottom of the page. So, here's a little Caleb for you.

As we settled into our flight last week, I removed the latest New Republic from my bag and put it in the seat pocket in front of me. Wishful thinking, of course, the notion that one can read while seated next to a two year-old who provides a running commentary on the people around him ("she's sleepin' daddy"; "that man's goin' to the potty, daddy"). The magazine had a caricature of George W. Bush on the cover, with a sneaky look on his face. Caleb pointed at the cover and announced, "he's naughty." Then, in a louder voice, he asked, "can I see the naughty magazine?"

The people in front of us turned around. I laughed nervously, and announced so all around us could hear: "Honey, it's not a naughty magazine, it just has a man on the cover who looks funny."

"Can I hold the naughty magazine?"

"It's not naughty. Stop calling it that."

"Can I hold the naughty book?" Now other people were casting glances at us. My wife, across the aisle, pretended not to know me.

"It's not a book, it's a magazine."

"Can I hold the naughty magazine?"

"Stop calling it that." More loudly, I announced, "We don't have naughty magazines!"

I could read the minds of the people around me: Sure, you pervert.


We visited a church while out of town. It was communion Sunday, and this is one of those churches where they bring the bread and grape juice (oh, to be in a church without hangups over alcohol!), to worshippers in their pews. Caleb was feeling a little hungry, and I had to restrain him from helping himself to a piece of bread when the plate passed. Since we weren't familiar with how things are done in this church, we held our bread and surveyed the crowd surreptitiously, trying to discern whether we were supposed to go ahead and eat the bread, or wait until everyone had been served. The entire time, Caleb was standing between my knees, trying to bite the bread in my hand while I move it around to keep it out of his teeth.

Next came the juice, and a similar look of betrayal from Caleb once he realized he was to be denied this as well. Once we were done, we all sang "How Deep the Father's Love for Us." Caleb quickly developed his own song, adapted to the tune of the hymn. It went something like this:

"I want some grape juice, I want some ju-uuuuce Please I want some grape juice, Daddy can I have the juice, Pleeeeeeeese, ju-uuuuuuce."

As my wife often observes, people go to church when they are thirsty. So it was a nice metaphor. A little embarrassing, though.


Sometimes when traveling, I lose my discipline as a parent. Some samples:

"Daddy, I want an apple."

"Not until you finish your french fries."


"Daddy, it's bedtime."

"Not yet, honey. We haven't gotten ice cream yet."

I'm a bad, bad father.


We went to a nice, quiet little Italian place I know in the city we're visiting. None of the waiters speak English very well, and they all like Caleb. Caleb likes nearly everyone, especially people who bring him food, so it makes for a good relationship. My wife and I were enjoying the last of a crisp Pinot Grigio. Caleb, long since finished with dinner, was getting restless, so I let him slither out of his chair and crawl out from under the table to stand beside us. He loitered there, participating in our conversation in the fashion of two year-olds (Wife: "How did your meeting go today?" Me: "They're all good contributors." Caleb: "The fire truck goes round and round."). After a few seconds I realized that Caleb had drifted a couple of feet to the table behind us. He had his shirt pulled up to his chin.

"Caleb! Come here." Caleb walked back to our table, his shirt held high. "What are you doing, son?"

"I'm showing my big basketball belly!"

"I don't think people want to see your belly."

"It's a big one!"

"That it is, son."

"I know!"

If you've not seen your grinning two year-old happily rub his chubby belly after a nice meal, you haven't lived.

posted by Woodlief | link | (4) comments

Wednesday, July 31, 2002

The Lawnmower Song

Does anyone know what the Lawnmower Song is? I'm asking because Caleb requests it every night.

Every. Night.

Here's out ritual: First, I get his PJ's on while he dances all over my feet and pooches out his belly, making the whole enterprise a challenge, which seems to be his goal. Next, we read a story, which is usually the same story we've read for several weeks in a row. Once he gets on a story, that is the only story worth reading. Right now he's stuck on "Busytown," though I think I'm transitioning him back to "Curious George Goes Fishing." Oh, for the blissful days of "Goodnight Moon." "Busytown" is just so, well, busy, and Caleb is like Howard Cosell, with a comment on everything, and some sort of weird programming that requires him to repeat a sentence until I confirm its veracity.

After the story, we say our prayers. Then I turn off the light while he climbs into bed, and then the following exchange takes place:

Me: "What song would you like for me to sing?"

Caleb: "Umm, the mawnbower song."

Me: "I don't know that song. What other song would you like?"

Caleb: "It's from the mawnbower book."

Me: "Okay, now what song would you like?"

This is followed by a selection governed by the aforementioned rule applicable to stories, namely, that it will be something I've sung for the last 47 nights. We were on "Away in a Manger" earlier this summer, and now we're on "You Are My Sunshine," which I improvise with a verse about Caleb. (Because someone will ask: "You are my Caleb, my Stephen Caleb, and I will love you -- all the rest of my days; I will hug you, and I will kiss you -- please don't take my Stephen Caleb away.")

So, what the heck is the Lawnmower Song? Is it a real song, or is he just messing with me? He'll do that, you know. He kind of smiles when he asks for it, like he knows it doesn't exist. Maybe I should make one up, something like:

Lawnmower, lawnmower Cuttin' my grass all day Cuttin' in the mornin' Cuttin' in the noontime Cuttin' my cares away

or, I could do a riff off "The Wheels on the Bus":

Oh, the blade on the mower goes round and round Round and round Round and round The blade on the mower goes round and round All around the yard
The carb on the mower goes putt putt putt Putt putt putt Putt putt putt The carb on the mower goes putt putt putt All around the yard

And so on. That would throw him off his little two year-old game, to have me actually sing something the next time he asks for the Lawnmower Song. At the same time, if his cultural knowledge is greater than mine (a distinct possibility), and there really is a Lawnmower Song, I don't want to screw him up with a fake one. You parents understand my dilemma. Any ideas?

posted by Woodlief | link | (9) comments

Monday, July 1, 2002

Excerpts From Life

Since my last business trip was going to be so l-o-n-g, I decided to bring along my little darlings. Although the first two days of a trip by myself tend to be blissful, what with reading uninterrupted and taking nice warm bubble baths and painting my nails and all, by the third day I start to get kind of sad, and by the fourth I feel sick to my stomach from wife and baby and little chunky boy withdrawal.

So I loaded up the whole fam damily on an airplane and schlepped them cross country. What fun we had. Sure, there was the inappropriate screaming and inopportune pants-pooping, but my doctor has prescribed a sedative that he promises will help me control myself a little better next time. Some tidbits from our journey:

Day One

Me: "Caleb, what would you like to eat for breakfast?"

Caleb: "Uh, chicken salad."

Me: "How about some yogurt?"

Caleb: "Nope. Chicken salad."

Me: "Sweety, I don't have any chicken salad. How about a banana?"

Caleb: "No, I want chicken salad."

Me: "Here, eat some cereal."

Caleb: "No, I want..."

Me: (Making a sound much like Dr. Evil to his son in the first Austin Powers movie) "Cht."

Caleb: "...chicken..."

Me: "Cht."

Caleb: "...saladdddd..."

Me: "Cccchhhhhhhhhtttttt."

Hours later:

Me: "Caleb, what would you like for lunch?"

Caleb: "Chicken salad."

Me: "How about peanut butter and jelly?"

Caleb: "Nope. Chicken salad."

Repeat morning scene. Repeat again for dinner. Chicken salad. Chicken salad. Chicken freaking salad.

Day Two

Me: "Caleb, guess what I have for you!"

Caleb: "For you!"

Me: "Yummy chicken salad!"


Me: "Want a bite?"

Caleb: "Nope, I want macanoneys (translation: macaroni)."


While driving through godless heathen country (the D.C. metro area) on Sunday morning, we pass numerous people jogging and/or going to the local version of church: Starbucks. I threaten to do what my grandfather used to do, which was to roll down his window and shout "Y'all ought to be in church!"

For some reason just the mention of this mortifies my wife. We stop at a streetlight, and a man and woman jog past. The woman is talking rapidly.

Me: "She sure has got a lot to say."

Wife: "Only a woman would talk and run at the same time."

We drive in silence for a moment.

Me: "Sometimes I forget how cool you are."


In a moment of married couple serendipity, while discussing the rudeness of city folk, my wife and I simultaneously declare that said rudeness in Washington, D.C. is largely confined to white men. Upon further reflection we narrow this class of rude people to white men in business suits. To be sure, there are plenty of courteous white men in D.C. (99% of them Southerners, I'll wager), plenty of rude white women, and the occasional rude non-white. But the examples that stick in my mind, and in my craw, include either stubby little balding sweaty white men in their overly tight suits, or shabby, bearded academic types, or slick young attorneys and staffers who glance at themselves in every shiny window they pass on the sidewalk.

They don't observe social etiquette, and I doubt many of them create anything valuable. Shame on all of them, and for the rest of us men for not slapping them square on their mealy mouths whenever they break into a line, or fail to yield their seats to the elderly, or yap on their cell phones in that effete overeducated voice that was equally ubiquitous, I am certain, in the upper circles of Louis XIV's France.


Had a chance to visit Monticello. Observed a lack of quality control in the tour guides. My group drew a middle-aged Southern woman whose voice and bearing commanded respect. We all listened obediently as she explained the interesting history associated with each room.

Well, almost all -- I found myself distracted by the tour guide who was leading a group behind us. While our guide explained how Thomas Jefferson used to keep meticulous weather records, and wrote over 20,000 pieces of correspondence during his lifetime, I kept catching snippets from the next room like this:

"...women weren't allowed..."
"...slaves didn't have..."
"...only white men could..."

I doubt the guide in the next room said anything untruthful. But I wonder what her charges were left with, other than an impression that Thomas Jefferson was a typical patriarchal old white dude whose slaves built him a nice house on a hill. It seems that political correctness increasingly demands that we not only ritually denounce, as a form of false penitence, all who owned slaves (except African tribal leaders, of course), but that we also obliterate from memory the good and noble things they created (or worse, perpetuate the myth that these things were really mostly the result of African ingenuity).

As a Presbyterian I'm all for communal guilt, but -- not to put too fine an academic point on it -- give me a freaking break already.



To: Management, Hardee's Restaurants
From: T.W.
Subject: Stench

My years in management consulting tell me that a reek resembling a slaughteryard outhouse is not conducive to sustainable customer volume.


My son Caleb is a little ham. Older chicks dig him. Strange women have been known to give him money just for being cute. We are in a near-empty restaurant, after a messy meal, getting our things ready to leave. He's kung-fu-ing me, which consists of standing about three feet away (so I can't tickle him) and shooting his little hand out in my direction while making a "foosh" sound. Every time he does it, I lurch back in my seat, he giggles, and the waitresses all laugh in that cute way eighteen year-old girls have.

Eventually one, then another, then another ends up near him; he is surrounded by chicks, and he doesn't have the good sense to be anything but annoyed that they are inhibiting his judo chops. I take his hand, thank our waitress, and we head for the door. He turns around and, waving with his free hand, says "Bye, ladies!"

The ladies, of course, fall all over themselves at how cute this is, which is why I taught him to say it. One day, son, you'll thank me.

posted by Woodlief | link | (6) comments

Monday, June 17, 2002

Observations While Traveling

I. I have an undeniable truth to convey to you about airplane behavior: anyone who puts his seat all the way back when there is someone behind him is boorish and self-centered, ill-equipped to function in civil society, and likely suffering from mental and sexual dysfunction as well.

II. A sight I'll not soon forget: in the St. Louis airport, I passed a massage station with two customers contorted over straddling devices. Masseuses the size of sumo wrestlers grunted over them, their fat rippling in wide waves as they used beefy hands and elbows to work over their victims, who evinced a mixture of shock and embarrassment.

III. I probably travel more than most of you, so I don't know if you've noticed; the airlines have stopped feeding us. Oh sure, they still fling a bag of pretzels your way, to be consumed with a spritz of liquid insufficient even for a Presbyterian baptism, but most no longer serve you a sandwich during mealtimes.

Now admittedly in the case of some airlines this is no great loss; I recall Continental serving a foul-smelling mystery meat embedded with brownish-yellow lettuce and shrouded in a tortilla wrap far too colorful not to arouse suspicion. But it's the stealth with which this small entitlement was eliminated that irks me. I've sat near countless travelers on mealtime flights in the last few weeks who are surprised to learn they won't be fed. They were counting on it; otherwise they would have eaten something beforehand, or brought food aboard.

Being a vindictive person by nature and nurture, it occurred to me that punishment is in order. What better way to punish the airlines for revoking our food privileges without warning than to bring aboard our messiest possible meals? What follows is a short primer on the best foods for such an undertaking:

Potato chips: The chip is overlooked as a messmaker. It crumbles, sure, but it also slathers the fingers in a greasy residue that is resilient against removal except when offered the opportunity to attach itself to fabrics, like the back of an airplane seat.

Pizza: This item offers the grease appeal of the potato chip, with the added weapon of random sauce leakage. Be sure to eat it while leaning forward.

White-cheese popcorn: The "cheese" is really a powder finer than talcum; it seeps into fabrics and establishes itself, leaving a faint white shadow impervious to brushing.

Overripe peaches: Not only will the juice run down your forearms, off your elbows, and on to both armrests, but when you are done, you can stuff the pit into the magazine pocket. A twofer.

Pork fritters: Designed by the devil himself, the pork fritter is the ultimate weapon for airplane interior defacement. Be sure to eat it without a napkin, towards the end of your flight (so the fat won't have time to congeal on your fingers). As you exit, place your hands just below the overhead luggage compartment on either side, and walk forward slowly. Depending on how fast the fumigation crews work, this can take a plane out of commission for the better part of a week.

IV. I took my family on this last trip, and had an interesting encounter with a couple of embittered feminists who sat in front of us, yapping the whole flight about the social construction of gender and the socially embedded nature of the male hierarchy. Towards the end of the flight, Eli started to cry for lack of a nap. As we stood in line waiting to exit the plane, one of them turned and said, "You should have a girl; they're better behaved." Her 200-pound love interest, smug in her tinted eyeglasses and nouveau peasant wear, nodded sagely.

What they didn't realize is that they were dealing with a Southerner, for whom the subtle insult is an art form honed at countless church socials and Sunday fried chicken dinners. So I replied: "Yes girls and boys are very different."

The patronizing smiles melted off their faces and were replaced by tight-lipped anger. They were caught in the great feminist lie, of course, which is that women are somehow both exquisitely different from men, yet somehow only "women" by virtue of oppressive social construction. This is the turd floating in the punch bowl at the lesbian faculty summer solstice mixer, if you will, and it's really bad taste to point it out.

Pointing things out in bad taste, of course, is my raison d'etre.

posted by Woodlief | link | (14) comments

Tuesday, June 4, 2002

Good Job!

When potty training a two-year old, it's important to give them lots of encouragement. So, my wife and I developed the habit with Stephen Caleb of saying "good job!" whenever he was, well, productive on his little plastic potty.

So now, if he hears a porcelain seat being lowered, he drops what he's doing to run into the bathroom and give its current occupant some hand clapping and cheerleading: "Aaayyy. Good job!"

Oddly enough, I appreciate the affirmation.

posted by Woodlief | link | (4) comments

Wednesday, May 22, 2002

A Very Special Sand in the Gears

I have several semi-connected things to tell you about today. The title of this post is dedicated to the end of another season of television, and my attention-deficit mood is inspired by the same venue:

From the Proud To Be an American Department: In a wooden box on my dresser I have cufflinks, a Purina Mills checkerboard pocketknife, an American flag lapel pin, and two Beretta clips holding .380 hollow-point rounds.


We bought our two-year old, Stephen Caleb, some Matchbox cars at Target last night. He digs cars. At night he gets three or four in his little hands and holds them tight, so that I have to pry them loose to get his pajamas on, and then he snatches them right back. He clutches them to his chest while I read him stories, and while we say prayers, and while I sing to him as he's lying in bed. In the morning, he's sprawled sideways with little cars strewn about the bed, like a giant who has demolished a city before falling asleep on the wreckage.


The receipt from Target had this informative note at the bottom:

"DID YOU KNOW WE HAVE A PHARMACY? FAST, FUN, and FRIENDLY Pharmacists here 7 days a week to serve you."

Who wants a "fun" pharmacist? Friendly, yes. Fast, only within reason. But fun? Fun is switching a high-powered laxative for someone's Viagra. I don't want a playful pharmacist. I want anyone handling my drugs to be deadly serious.

Not that I use Viagra, mind you. That was just an example.


Saw these bumper stickers on the same driver's car a few days ago:

Everybody has a right to be stupid. You're abusing the privilege.

Your village called; they're missing their idiot.

The second one reminds me of a review someone wrote about Hillary Clinton's insipid book on raising children; he entitled his essay, "It Takes a Village Idiot."


I like Don McArthur's take on Stephen Jay Gould's recent passing:

God kills noted evolutionist


A while back I posted mail from a reader who mentioned an old Blondie cartoon. Since then, I've been getting hits from Google, about one per day, from people searching for Blondie and Dagwood porn.


I used to do a lot of corporate training, speeches, etc. I still do a little of that, but don't tell anyone. Whenever I would talk to people about the ubiquitous corporate vision statement, I tried to get across to them that the words should be in plain language, and they should mean something to the people who do the work. I contrasted this with 99% of the vision statements I've seen, which look like they were written by aliens who are impersonating humans, but who haven't quite got the lingo down yet. My favorite vision statement, up until yesterday, was from the Miracle Brewing Company:

We Make Good Beer and Sell It.

Yesterday, however, I saw a vision statement I like even better. It was, interestingly enough, from another beer company, Oaken Barrel Brewing:

We Brew It. We Drink It. We Sell What’s Left.

If you fax them your resume, tell them Tony sent you.


When I get home from work I like to put Caleb in the baby jogger and go for a run. It's hard work, pushing 60 pounds of jogger and little boy, and he doesn't make it easy. He's well-behaved enough, but he's a chatterbox; he has this overpowering need for a response to everything he says. It's like having a second wife. Here's a typical example:

Me: (puff puff, puff puff, puff puff)

Caleb: "Airplane, Daddy."

Me: (puff puff, puff puff, puff puff)

Caleb: "Airplane, Daddy.

Me: (puff puff, puff puff, puff puff)

Caleb: "Airplane, Daddy. Airplane.

Me: (puff puff) "Mmmhmm." (puff puff)

Caleb: "Daddy, it's a airplane. Airplane daddy. Daddy. Daddy. Daddy. Air - plane Dad - dy.

Me: "Airplane. It's an airplane." (wheeze, puff puff)

Caleb: "Airplane."

Me: (puff puff, puff puff, puff puff)

Caleb: "Hear dat birdie Daddy? Daddy? Daddy?"

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Saturday, May 4, 2002

Scenes From a Restaurant

Wife: "Have you noticed that there are a lot of fat people here tonight?"

Me: "We're at a buffet. In Kansas. And it's steak night."


Me: (as I come back to the table) "Some really big fat guy just cut in front of me."

Wife: "You'll have to be more specific if you want me to get a look at him."

Me: "He got two big pieces of steak, and two sausages. He'll probably keel over before he's done with dinner."

Wife: "I'd say that's true of several people in here."

Me: "That's what I'm hoping. There's only a few pieces of cherry pie left."

(Still later. Note: my son is recently potty-trained, but still finds #2, if you will, to be distinctly unpleasant)

Me: "Do you need to go potty?"

Son: (as he stuffs macaroni into his mouth): "No."

Me: "You're tugging at your pants like you need to go potty. Do you need to go potty?"

Son: "Nope."

Me: "You know, you have to go poo-poo sooner or later."

Son: "Later."

(Still later. A woman stops about two feet from where I sit, looking in my direction)

Woman: "Hey, good-looking!"

Me: "Huh?"

Woman: "Oh, not you, him." (She points to some guy sitting near me.)

(I resume eating my black-eyed peas, in bitter silence)

Wife: "Hey, good-looking."

Me: "Thank you."

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Monday, April 22, 2002

Why Can't Women Be More Like Reader's Digest?

I've observed that many women have an approach to storytelling akin to Kevin Costner's philosophy in Wyatt Earp, which is to take as long to relate the story as it took for the story to actually happen. Many men, on the other hand, prefer just to hit the major points, under the theory that most experiences not involving food or sex are boring enough the first time, and barely worth the retelling, except insofar as not sharing them with one's mate can impact the probability of having food and sex in the future.

I've always been curious about why this is, and I think part of the answer lies in the fact that many women seem to be more empathetic than men. During a recent restaurant outing my wife told me about a conversation between two of our married friends, and she was actually speaking as if she were the wife in the story:

Wife: "So she said (adopts a loud, angry tone) 'if you think I'm going to pick up your dirty underwear and keep my mouth shut while you ignore me and our children, you've got the wrong idea about marriage!'"

Me: "Honey, do you realize that everyone within a 20-foot radius thinks you were talking to me, and that they are all now speculating on exactly how dirty my underwear is?"

Moments like this can be acutely humiliating. But my wife doesn't mean any harm, she simply feels the emotions of the people in her story. So when she tells me about a conversation with the grocery store clerk, or how some children behaved in the park, she is reliving it, which compels her to describe details and nuances that I wouldn't bother to communicate were it my story.

This can have other interesting consequences. For example, our church has a prayer chain, which is simply a group of women who call each other, one after the other, to pass along any immediate requests for prayer that surface throughout the week in our church community. The problem is that the more people talk, the more embellishments and inaccuracies creep into a story. Because women tend to take longer to tell a story, this creates more opportunities for a predicament being prayed over to become increasingly grave. Last year a fellow who fell off a ladder and broke his leg ended up with his foot amputated by the time the prayer chain women got done with him. Had it been men passing along the story, his leg would have healed miraculously and he would have gotten off with just a "stinger," which is football parlance for "some undefined but manly pain." I've instructed my wife, should I ever get sick, that she is not to put it on the prayer chain unless she is confident that she and the kids can get by on my life insurance money.

So men and women are different. (Isn't it interesting, by the way, that it took the apparently androgynous author of Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus to tell us that?) And even though we men don't listen, and nod repeatedly to get them to hurry up, women still faithfully persist in telling us their unabridged stories. I think that's one reason we love them, because they put up with us when what we really deserve is a punch in the nose.

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Wednesday, April 3, 2002

Retail Tale

Yesterday I bought a tuxedo from the least motivated salesman in the history of retail.

Me: "So I guess I'll need some shoes that go well with this."

Salesman: (easing into chair) "Yep, shoes make the man."

Me: "Yeah, it's good to have the right pair, or else the whole suit looks bad."

Salesman: "I know that's right."

(Silence. I stare at my feet. He appears to reminisce about his glory days.)

Me: "So I guess I should try on those shoes now."

Salesman: (slowly lifting out of chair) "Let me get those for you."

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Tuesday, April 2, 2002

Basketball Thoughts

My team, Anyone But Duke, won the NCAA men's basketball championship last night. It's not that I have anything against the Duke players, or even their rat-faced, take-a-year-off-when-my-team-is-likely-to-have-a-losing-record coach. It's their students. The students who threw sugar packets on the court during their first home game against Maryland following Len Bias's cocaine overdose. The students who taunted North Carolina player Scott Williams after his father killed his mother before shooting himself. The thousands of pasty, vile, displaced New Jerseyites whose presence is a perpetual stain on the honor and dignity of my home state.

Nope, no bitter feelings toward them at all.


Interesting commercial during last night's championship game. For $14 I can get a Final Four program. But that's not the best part. The $14 also buys me immortality. I'll quote the commercial:

"Now you can relive the excitement forever, without ever leaving your living room."

Life without end, from the comfort of my living room. I wonder if that includes cable.


Conversation during the closing ceremonies:

Me: "When are they going to have the "One Shining Moment" video tribute? I'm sick of watching these guys take turns cutting down the net."

Wife: "Why don't they just leave the scissors up there on the ladder instead of carrying them up and down? It's dangerous."

Me: (scribble scribble scribble)

Wife: "What did you just write?"

Me: "Nothing."

Wife: "You're putting what I said on your website, aren't you?"

Me: (guiltily) "Why would you think that?"

Wife: "I'm not talking to you any more."

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Saturday, March 23, 2002


My wife came out of the health food store with a few bags of this new low-fat chip I wanted to try:

Me: "So what flavors did you get?"

Honey: "Barbeque and Urban Garlic."

Me: "Mm, edgy. I like that."

Honey takes on that look she gets when I don't make sense and she's not in the mood to plumb the depths of my senselessness. We drive for a while in silence.

Me: "Oh, Herb and Garlic."

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My two year-old son has lately taken to playing with a mint tin that we keep in the car. Yesterday I noticed that he had opened it, and that he was alternately taking out mints, gripping them in the same grubby hand he was using to pick his nose, and then putting them back. And all this time I just thought the mints were going stale.

Sometimes ignorance is a good thing. Especially when you just had a mint.

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Tuesday, March 12, 2002

Hospital Visit

Hospitals are a strange mix of caring, committed people and box-checking bureaucrats. The nurse who stayed with us for twelve hours of labor and post-delivery care, for example, did cleaning up and tending tasks that I won't describe here, and she did it all cheerfully, as if she actually enjoyed it.

The nurse during our evening stay, on the other hand, demanded that we track every diaper event on a little form. In the morning, she asked me to verify that Eli had indeed had the number of "poops" and "pees" (medical terms, I think) indicated by my handwriting. Up until that moment, I had assumed that she was simply taking no chances, and wanted to be sure that my son has well-functioning bowels:

Nurse: "Okay, so that's four poops and one pee, right?"

Me (gesturing to notes): "No, there's another pee at 6:40 pm."

Nurse: "That one doesn't count; my shift started at 7."

Me: "That's funny. The diaper seemed just as wet."

The next morning, the picture-taking woman came in to tell us that she would be taking our son for his picture:

Picture Lady: "You aren't obligated to buy any pictures, but the hospital still needs to take one. Here's a form that I need for you to fill out and sign."

Me: "That's interesting that there's a place for my signature. You made it sound like I don't have any choice."

Picture Lady: "We like to have the parents' consent, but we take the pictures without their consent if we need to."

Me: "So you come into the room and physically yank the infant out of his mother's arms even if she doesn't want you to?"

Picture Lady: "Well no, we don't do that. If a parent is absolutely opposed we won't take the picture, but (ominous tone) we make a note in your file that you refused the picture."

The file. This must be that Permanent Record my fourth grade teacher warned us about. You know all those guys in bright orange vests that you sometimes see gathered around a sewer hole? Bad Permanent Records.

Well, I certainly wasn't going to let my son begin life on the wrong foot, so I let the Nazi take the picture. She came back with twenty shots of Eli with his face squished up and his eyes squeezed shut, and asked us to choose which one would go into the file.

Wife (choosing randomly): "Um, that one."

Picture Lady: "Oh yes, that's a nice one."
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