Thursday, April 16, 2009

"Do NOT ride your bike down the waterfall"

Intuition is a funny thing. It seems to be all tangled up with instinct and common sense. Without a doubt, some people have a natural feel for it. On-the-other-hand, just recently I heard someone at work ask a woman that he had never met "when the baby was due". Whoa. Divert your eyes. Back away slowly. For most men, we would intuitively recognize that a question like that has a fairly high probability of ending in an uninvited castration performed via blunt trauma. I shouldn't be too critical I suppose. I, like most men, have tended to develop what intuition I have slowly and painfully.

And that, my friends is where the funny comes in for parents. Kids have no common sense. They run at full speed into walls, cry as if they were wronged, and then kick the wall to get even. They throw scissors. They play with matches. They willingly sit and watch Barney and think it's hilarious. They ride their bikes down a waterfall. Yeah, that's right, down a waterfall.

A few weeks ago my wife had some errands to run on a Sunday morning, and left the three boys with me. I was working on laying some tile in the house, and had let the two older boys go outside by themselves. This was of course a treat for them, as they felt very grown up. We've been easing into the whole "outside by yourself thing", given that we just recently moved here, and that there are plenty of cliffs to fall off of, streams to fall into, and poison ivy to step onto. To be honest it was a treat for me too. With the older two outside on their own, there was only one helper left to walk off with tools.

I was feeling pretty proud of myself for how smoothly things were going. The tile was getting laid, the kids were all accounted for. Any parent should recognize those moments of calm confidence as a setup. It's one of those Survivor scenes when a contestant is shown saying "I've got this game under control." You can count on the fact that they are about to be stabbed in the back, publicly humiliated and possibly eaten by an alligator.

Evan came into the house, holding his head and doing one of those "crying so hard that I can't make a sound" numbers. I did a quick triage and noticed no missing limbs, teeth or blood, and began the debrief.

Me: "Evan, are you OK? What happened?"
Evan: "I was riding my bike and hit my head on a really big rock!"
Me: "Oh, I'm sorry. How did you fall off of your bike?"
Evan: "I didn't."
Me: "Then how did you hit your head on the rock?"
Evan: "Well, , umm, my bike bounced off of that little rock, and then hit that big tree, and then went up in the air and landed next to the big rock and that's when I hit my head. "

At this point, I'm thoroughly confused and checking his pupils for signs of a concussion. Evan is not quite five. He hasn't mastered the art of bike jumping, certainly not to the level of doing leg kicks off of trees, or trying to clear large boulders. Since Evan has inherited my tendency to embellish facts, I figured that I might need to get the story from Nolan, who is all about detail and accuracy.

Me: "What? Evan, that doesn't make any sense. Where's Nolan?"
Evan: "He's down in the stream trying to get my bike back up the waterfall. He told me to ride it down the hill..."
Me: "Nolan!"

Keep in mind this "hill" is a series of very steep drops, more like small cliffs. The waterfall only runs when it rains. Now as a dad I'm just a little bit proud of the fact that he a) was brave enough to try, and b) actually made it to the bottom in one piece. I had to play sergeant, though, and couldn't share that with either of them. Their punishment was getting the bike back up on their own, which took the two of them almost an hour.

As for me, my punishment was the realization that I could no longer be lax on the helmet thing. Ever since then, each time they want to ride I've got to find the stupid things, figure out which one belongs on which kid, adjust them, and snap them on, all while listening to them complain about how they "make my hair hurt."

Oh, and I have to remind them that they are not allowed to ride down the waterfall.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Get the kids, we're moving to the woods

Before I begin, let me warn you that this is a bit of a monologue. I don't enjoy blogs that are rambling manifestos, and I promise that I won't do that to you. Except for just a little bit this once.

It turns out that I've finally decided on a direction for this blog. Yes, it's obviously about my family. Yes, I tend to focus on the painful and rather funny side of being a dad. That's all good. But there is one overarching theme in my life that is fairly unusual. About eight months ago my family and I jumped head first into an experiment that is likely to at worst kill all of us, and at best turn us into red necks.

We've moved to the country.

I grew up in the sticks, and have romantically fond memories of the experience. Since that time, however, a couple of things have happened. First, I've completed a graduate degree and subsequently developed a successful career in the information technology industry, most recently landing at a major software corporation (one of the biggest in the world). That's turned me into a big-city softie. I spend a whole lot of time behind desks, in front of white boards, on airplanes, and generally not in the country.

Second, I've spawned. For all of you that have successfully reproduced, you'll recognize the process of grand introspection that happens as a new mom or dad. The cliches are all true -- your priorities really do change when you become a parent. For my wife and I, it quickly became apparent to us that we didn't want our kids growing up while being spoon-fed popular culture. Don't get me wrong. We have electricity, running water, air conditioning, a 46-inch flat screen TV, and internet access. We just don't want those things to define us or our kids. We decided that a house in the woods with some property would be the best opportunity for our family to grow up close to each other, the things in this world that are real, and God.

So here's the catch: I have absolutely no idea what I'm doing. Owning a home in the woods is much more difficult than I could have ever imagined. We have seven acres, a 1/4 mile long driveway, and a house that is solid, but needs a fair amount of work. I now own a pickup with a snow plow. I have a diesel tractor so that I can mow my 2-acre yard. We heat with wood, or at least we're trying to. Just keeping things running around here is at least a part-time job.

Of course, on the flip-side, I see deer every morning in my front yard. Wild turkeys roost in the trees outside of our house. There's a forty-foot waterfall right behind our deck that feeds a stream full of crayfish and frogs. My kids are outside from morning until night, weather permitting, and love being there. They build forts, they drag rocks and bugs and flowers back up to and into the house. They climb up and fall out of trees. It's all good.

So that's it. I suppose whether or not I consciously decided to make this blog about what happens when a geek dad moves to the country with three boys, that is ultimately what it would have been about. There is plenty of funny and plenty of painful in my life as a result of this lifestyle choice. I hope you enjoy it. I do.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Hey kids, wanna help me bury the cat?

Both of our cats died recenlty. They had lived long and rich lives, each of nearly 17 years, and died peacefully at the vets' office while eating a treat. I must say, I'm the worlds biggest wimp about this kind of stuff. I had known for weeks that the time was coming and just dreaded it. I knew that things were going to be tough for the kids, and had even tried to prepare them for the inevitable.

In case you're wondering, don't ever do that. Surprise is much better in these scenarios. Nolan put on a full-fledge Old Yeller scene that pretty much made me want to die. The younger two were clueless, but at age seven, Nolan got it and went nutso.

And why wouldn't he? These were the world's best cats. I'm embarrased as I write this because I fully realize that this could easily turn into a cat eulogy. Whatever. I can take the heat. First we had the female named Elliott (after T.S. Elliott's book), a patient tortie that put up with more grief from three little boys than I ever could have thought possible.

Then there was Kuchee. Yes, yes, yes - trust me, I know. But never-the-less, his name was Kuchee. We tried spelling it differently, but the pronunciation is the same. Actually we named him Kuching, which is Malaysian for cat (Michele's mother grew up in Malaysia). Obviously a very unfortunate choice because names tend to get shortened - to things like Kuchee. Many times over the past 17 years as I've yelled "Kuchee, here kitty, kitty, kitty!" out of my front door I've thought of changing that stupid feline's name, but I never could. He was, and forever will be, Kuchee.

This cat had a tough life too. In addition to having to put up with all of the teasing that I'm sure he got from the other cats about his name, he had epilepsy and hyperthyroid disease. Some of the more memorable moments in his life include:

  • The day he stopped chewing electrical cords. I tried everything to stop that stupid cat from chewing on cords. Verbal warnings, pillow throwing, spraying cords with foul-tasting substances, spraying him with foul-tasting substances. Nothing worked. Until one evening, just as I was drifting off to sleep, I heard the familiar grinding noise that I knew meant he was behind my dresser chomping on the TV power cable. I sat up just in time to see a blue flash from behind the dresser, and hear a Fred Flintstone start-up-the-car-style spin out on the wood floor as Kuchee tried to run from the small electrical fire that had started in his mouth. Once we got the burns healed, we never really had much trouble with cord chewing again.

  • The day that he was attacked by a hunting dog. About 15 years ago, Michele and I lived in a small townhouse. We've always believed that cats need to be able to roam outside, and so let both of ours have the run of the neighborhood. One day our elderly neighbor knocked on our door and told me that she would appreciate it if we could find a way to keep our cat from defacating in her flower boxes. Turns out that every day at around lunch time, he would hop up in her petunias while she was eating and give her a squinting stare as he fertilized the plants. A few days later another neighbor told me that he frequently jumped up on her screen and hung there calmly watching her cats freaking out and pissing on the floor. The only solution that I could come up with was to plant a stake in the back yard, tie a string to it, and hook him to the string. For the first few weeks things didn't go all that well, as he would wind himself up so tightly around trees and bushes that I was afraid he would choke.

    He eventually got the hang of things though, and we thought that the situation was fairly workable, until the day that I heard from a third neighbor, the one that we referred to as "the Mullet neighbor". The conversation went something like this.

    Mullet: "Guessn' your der cat don't much like mah dog."
    Me: "I suppose not. Why?"
    Mullet: "Weeeell, couple a days ago Ah opened mah door to have a smoke, right? And Mah dog Lug Nut here run outn' the door. Fore Ah could git him, he had yer cat in his mouth shakin him back 'n forth like a coon, right? Course yer cat didn't much like that, so he sticked his back foot upn' mah dog's nose, and put out his claws right far like and then yanked his foot back outn' Lug Nut's nose."

    Turns out that Lug Nut dropped Kuchee and ran back into Mullet's house spraying blood all over the carpet, walls, gun cabinets, and dart board. We didn't feel right about chaining the cat to a stake in the back yard after that. I'm quite certain that Lug Nut had ample reason for revenge.

  • The day that he learned about underground fences. My next solution to the cat nuisance problem was quite frankly brilliant. Rather than tieing him up in the back yard, what I really needed was a way to keep him away from the neighbors windows. My solution was to get one of those underground fences, put them around the neighbors windows, and when the cat got close he would get zapped. A few times getting shocked and he would stop bothering them. Keep in mind that these fences are meant for dogs, and I should have recognized that when I took the cigarette-pack-sized collar unit out of the box.

    I decided that it would be smart to test the plan before I went to all of the trouble of trenching around the neighbor's windows and doors, and so coiled up the underground wire in the living room and plugged it in. I attached the collar to Kuchee and adjusted for size. He walked back and forth over the wire several times and nothing happened. I'm guessing that the metal leads weren't making contact with his skin. At some point they did, though, and he literally did a backflip like I've never seen. That cat was gone up the stairs and under a bed faster than I've ever seen a feline move. Once I found him, I took the collar downstairs and tested it on my own arm. Holy @#$%#! I'm lucky I didn't kill the poor thing! Needless to say, I felt terrible and took the torture device back to the store...

This could go on, but I've already risked too much blog real estate on dead cats. Suffice it to say that our whole family will miss them, although perhaps not as much as I thought. I was very worried about telling the kids each time that I came home from the vet sans cat. They were a little upset at first, but as soon as I told them that they could help dig a deep hole, throw a carcass into it, cover it up, and pound a wooden cross into the ground they were focused on the job at hand.