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Sunday, June 15, 2014

Lessons Other Dads Taught Me

As I look back at the oddness of what used to be "some day in June" now being My Day, I marvel at how amazing the feeling of carrying my two year old son a mile and a half into the ball park (and then back) will stick with me. Having my five year old whispering "Happy Father's Day" into my ear every time there was a lull in the conversation made me realize that this, more than anything else, is what my life needs to mean anything.

Honestly, for most of my life seeing the words "Father's Day" on a random Sunday in June had about as much meaning to me as "Arbor Day" or "Thanksgiving (Canada)". I was that guy who found it easier to espouse the old "Hallmark Holiday" cynicism that masked the fact that it was just something I had missed out on so much.

My dad passed away when I was four years old and I am sure that I probably colored something or pasted something together for him every Father's Day. I just have no memory of doing that. I never made the conscious decision that Father's Day was just another day but it truly was just something I heard about when other kids at church would say, "We're taking Dad to Roy's Taco House for Father's Day."

The perfect symbol of how that thought has been blown out of my life is that I actually had to stop writing this to go up and get my two year old out of bed, bring him downstairs, change his diaper and then help him pretend to fix my daughter's bicycle helmet.

As a Dad, I really am guessing every day. My main strategy is to wait for a question to answer or an emergency to avoid. Follow that up with a goofy face or noise and asking if the kids want cereal or pancakes and I am Super Dad!

I heard stories of my Dad being someone who drove a milk route before the sun came up and then did other jobs around town while still finding time to coach Little League Baseball and make sure that my five older brothers knew that he saw EVERYTHING. He put them in their places but those were just stories. For me, he was a character in stories more than anything else.

So, as my brothers were preparing to be grandfathers, I received two tiny packages.  I had as much perspective on, "What do I do now?" as I would have if I had become a Dad at 18 as I did at 43.  Then, I started to pay attention to what the Dads around me did.

The first person who taught me anything was a neighbor named Roger Miller. He and his wife had named their kids Kent, Kyle, Kraig, Karri and Kelly. We had a constant game of wiffle ball going in the Millers' back yard. Mr. Miller was that guy who was always there. I am sure that he had some sort of job but none of us knew what it could be. He coached Little League and was just constantly finding ways to be around. Even if it was swinging home to watch ten minutes of our games or to drive his kids and me to bowling, he was the first that I saw who probably did not actually have the time to be there for his kids, but somehow he was there for his kids.

For the most part, because my brothers were so much older than I was, they were more like uncles to me than brothers. My oldest brother Dave went to college the year I was born. Aside from the obligatory family holidays, Dave and I did not actually "hang out" until I was in my late Thirties. 

Dave actually had one son in his first marriage and later married into being a Dad. His amazing wife Linda brought with her two kids and Dave took on the challenge of raising them while still knowing that their Real Dads had all the power. He just plugged away and kept listening and through those challenges he became a Go-To Grown-up. When he and Linda had a son together, he knew that twelve-hour work days are no excuse for not listening and hearing what these people needed from him. 

Again, this lesson did not come to me until I got to hear some of the things Dave did for these kids. "Supporting the Family" does not just mean making a living.

Then, there is my brother Den (who I believe renamed himself 'Denny' when he turned 50 because he thought it made him seem younger.) Den's world got yanked around with job changes and transfers from our home town to Chicago to Nebraska and back to Chicago. He spent days and weeks at a time on the road for work but somehow gave his two kids the constant message that even after a 12 hour drive he was not going to miss what was important to them.  His two kids seem to be polar opposites but because they got to see how Den saw them as amazing people in their own ways. Therefore,they see it in each other. 

That is huge.

Before I get to more brotherly lessons in fatherly forays, I also look at another dad who had no idea that he was providing me a class in Fatherhood 101. He was a man named Norm Carbiener. Mr. Carbiener (every Dad is a "Mr."!)  really did not say a lot but I remember that the Carbieners would let me come out to their house and even let me stay with them when I came home from college. My biggest memory is that no matter what the story he was hearing from any of his three kids, it seemed to be the most interesting thing he had heard that day.

By the way, I had to stop writing this little essay for a few minutes because of the greatest Father's Day moment of all came when five-year-old Parker Pearson sprinted down the stairs and shouted, "Happy Father's Day!" and jumped on me. The fact that she runs to me like this every day in the morning and when school lets out is the ultimate daily affirmation of joy.

Then, there is my brother Paul. He is that "Cool Dad" most of us want to be. He did not just listen to his two amazing daughters talk about bands they liked and things they were doing, he went with them and participated.  I think he probably only embarrassed them in doing this every once in a while. Of course, I envision that he has a box full of "New Kids on the Block" concert shirts with the sleeves cut off but I think his daughters had much hipper taste in music than that.

Until I started paying attention to what other dads did, my only fatherly memories involved Andy Taylor and Opie and Ward Cleaver with Wally and the Beaver on reruns. It seemed like being a Dad involved a sit-down conversation after twenty minutes of the kids getting in trouble. That works right up until the next time my kids shove each other off the couch or attempt to knock each other off the slide in our back yard.

I honestly did not know I was missing out until the, "Dad, you wanna have a catch?" scene in "Field of Dreams". 

This Dad thing may seem conventional. My brother Dan has a great wife and two kids. He showed me creativity in Dad-dom. His job took him all over the area where he lived and he would map out the stops in his work so he could find thirty minutes here, twenty minutes there to see the endless barrage of games, concerts, recitals, church events and cookouts that having two daughters who seemed to be the social epicenter of our little home town brought.

Sorry, we interrupt this essay to answer Parker Pearson's question, "Daddy, did the Cardinals win last night?"   Yes. They did.  "YAYYYYYYY"

As late in life as I came to being a Dad, my brother Mark had another challenge in this Fatherhood Challenge. He married a woman who was the perfect fit for him but her kids were pretty much all grown-up. This means you have no chance of being called, "Dad" and they have seen it all and the old "You're not my Daddy" Concept could have made life pretty miserable. He had the instinct of just being someone they could count on as a friend and not just as some guy in the house.

The uncomfortable Land of the Step Dad could have been miserable had he not had the sense to just be there and come through for them.

That seems to be the biggest lesson I have learned. Nothing with kids will go exactly the way you draw it up. Finding ways to be around and be the one they jump on, giggle with, fear (just a little) and they trust that when you throw them in the air, you will catch them is what I have learned.

Now after all that wisdom, I need to go tell my daughter to get her fingers out of her mouth and tell my son to stop pulling on the dog's tail.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Star Student

Every day we watch the little "Life Force of Happiness" that is Parker Pearson run to the door and then stand in line as the rest of those tiny people wait to get the OK to go into the school. They march in as if a drill sergeant is barking at them.

Eventually, the back of my daughter's head disappears into a sea of pictures of "Dora the Explorer", Princess Anna and Queen Elsa, and Butterflies on the backs of backpacks. (Or would that actually be the FRONT of the backpack? Now back to our story)

However, this day is different. Presidential Elections do not get the buildup that Parker gave Star Student Day. Every kid in her class gets his or her own day. We got to hear about it for, well, basically every day since the world's last major event, Parker's birthday.

There was a poster to be made of All Things Parker Pearson. It involved photographs, glue, markers, two efforts at drawing a stethoscope and on the highest end of presentation...Parker coloring each letter of her name in, get this, a different color! (This would have been something that the shallow, single John Pearson would have seen as a down side of parenting but to this guy, it was kind of cool to see it come together.)

From there, Parker was allowed to bring her favorite book and some toys to show off. None of these toys actually seemed to be anything she plays with regularly but they fit in the bag so we did not argue.

As for the favorite book, since I was the one who would get to read to the class, I was kind of hoping for "Little Blue Truck Leads the Way" or "I Love You, Stinky Face" but Parker went with "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star". It is basically the lyrics to the song. I had no idea there are like eight verses to that thing! Plus, all would have been concerned that it is nearly impossible to read that book and not start singing the song.

So, with all the preparation we wondered how this five year old would respond to sitting on a chair in front of 24 sets of eyes and two teachers.

Sitting a couple feet away as Parker sat on The Star Chair, I looked and saw a little clenching of her teeth, a glance left then right. Then came the 7895th time that this Forty Pounds of Sweetness made me feel pride that started in my toes and burst out of my ears.

As her two year old brother found the bounty of having the other side of the room to himself, including all the trains and cars he could have dreamed of seeing, Parker went step-by-step through every picture.

"That's just me."

"That's my grandma and grandpa"

"That's my Daddy and me playing in the snow"

I know these seem simple but watching her as the other kids sat on the carpet with their eyes fixed on Parker brought that salty discharge to the sides of each of my eyes. (Okay, there was that one kid who kind of kicked the boy in front of him and was not listening but there has to be one in every crowd!)

As she pointed at her favorite things, here came the curve ball. She had a picture of Olaf the Snow Man from "Frozen" on the poster but lest you think that she was going the easy way and saying that movie was her favorite thing, not this girl! "Playing in the snow is my favorite thing to do." That's right. If they thought they had this five-year old figured out, nope! She zigged when they thought she would zag!

(Okay, I am overselling but the amazement at Parker's performance is only outdone by how exciting I find all of this.)

She even did a little comedy bit. Her favorite food is watermelon and she knew that Ms. French, the teaching assistant, hates watermelon. So, the sheer glee in Parker's face when she said, "Watermelon" and got the whole room to look at Ms. French made me think that all of my efforts at imparting the ways of comedy were not wasted.

Of course, then she pulled out the toys from the bag, again, none of which she actually plays with very often but she still owned the room. Yes, we all believe that our child is the most amazing human ever but I just happen to be right.

Then, the pressure was on. Parker, in her most adorable voice said, "My Daddy is really good at reading. This is 'Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star'. It's my favorite."

Now, I felt actual pressure. I had spoken to hundreds, even thousands at a time but, what if I screwed this up?  Those tiny eyes were looking into my soul but Parker gave me a look that, even with the lump in my throat at how proud I was seemed to say, "You can do it, Daddy."

I was able to plow through the seemingly endless verses and find out that the book was actually about the sheer joy someone can have if you just believe in someone else. This Star Student thing truly fit our relationship.

Parker gave that feeling right back to me.

It was time to turn it back over to the Star Student. The teacher said, "It's time for you to ask Parker questions."

Five-year-olds are limited to, "What's your favorite....(insert food or activity here)?"  Here are some of Parker's answers:

"Ariel. Oh, and Cinderella"
"Playing in the snow"
"The one I went to with my cousins"

There were more but one question stood out that Parker is either going to be a politician or simply cares about, well, everyone. A boy put her on the spot:  "Who is your favorite friend?"

Parker looked at a little girl in the front row. "Leila. And Katrina. And Lucia. And Nyiana. And Tessa....." She ran down the entire female population of K-4 and was just about to get to Liam G. and Liam W. and Juan and all the boys when the teacher thought that school got out in an hour and a half so they needed to end it.

From there, everyone got to go and draw a picture for Parker and write (or have the teacher's assistant help them write what makes Parker "A Star".)

It was pure and lovely and wonderful and just the type of thing I would have probably rolled my eyes at hearing about back when I thought I was cool.

First of all, looking at old pictures, I was never cool. Luckily, Parker never needs to know that.

It was time for us to go so she could go back to being with her friends. She looked at my wife and me and said, "Thank you so much for coming to my Star Student Day."

This tiny blonde person just allowed me to be a part of the coolest thing ever.

That's what a Star does.