Today I turn 43. Despite the aches in my back, knees, and hands, I feel very young. Younger than I have in a long time, actually. I’m fitter, happier, and in an overall better mental state than I’ve ever been as an adult. Not that 43 is old, necessarily — age is really just a relative number. To a child, 43 seems like a lifetime away; almost certainly incomprehensible (and why should a child need to understand or think about it). To the very old it may seem like a lifetime ago. Although I doubt it. The one thing I notice most with aging — my biggest complaint — is that time seems to move faster and faster the older we get. I’m trying my damnedest to change this, however. And it’s working.

Obviously time is constant, but our perspective and perception of time seems to become completely screwed up as we age. Most of us rush around all day, meeting schedules and deadlines. We worry about what happened yesterday and lose sleep over what may (or may not) happen tomorrow. The free time that we do actually have is often wasted by us believing it isn’t enough time, so we discard it completely. This wasn’t the case when we were kids. The ancient philosopher Heraclitus wrote, “Time is a game played beautifully by children.” I think he’s right. Kids are better at making good use of time than almost all adults. Especially younger children. If there’s a spare minute in the day, they will find a toy to enjoy. Five extra minutes of playtime before bed is like a gift that is gratefully received. Kids don’t worry about it getting dark, but instead play hard until they can’t see. Unfortunately we regress as we age to the point that most adults are dreadful at this “game.” I know I used to be.

I’m far from an expert now, but I’ve found that I’m getting much better by reminding myself to be mindful, grateful, and frugal. These are really all related, and once you start to understand and practice them, worry and stress naturally fall by the wayside. I find myself appreciating life more, desiring less, and not caring much about keeping up with the demands put on us by American society and consumerism. By this I basically mean not worrying as much about money and material possessions. When you are truly aware, thankful, and consciously spending less on unnecessary items, life becomes simpler, more fulfilling, and time is much less of a constraint. It is a very liberating experience.

Many people think I’m crazy. I traded a very lucrative career to be a stay-at-home dad, and am now pursuing a career in teaching. My life is much fuller and my time is much better spent — and appreciated. I’m not suggesting anyone give up a career, but I would also caution against knocking it if you haven’t tried it. The older you get the more you understand the old “life is too short” saying. It is certainly possible to juggle a busy, stressful job and have a productive, happy personal life. But the key is to be sure you are happy — a question we can only answer if we are truly honest with ourselves. Time — or the lack thereof — has a unique knack for showing us what really matters in life. Sometimes it’s too late. My sincere birthday wish is that everyone eventually finds happiness…and has the time to enjoy it.

Cheers.

 

 

 

  
It’s a very cold and rainy spring break morning in my neck of the woods. Regardless, I’m still feeling very fortunate to be able to be home with my kids (well, mostly), and the weather provides a perfect day to make some popcorn, cuddle up under blankets, and watch movies. We have cable and Netflix, and movies are just a couple clicks of the remote control away, yet I would love to be able to take my son and daughter to the local video store to pick out some old classics. Something they have never had the pleasure of doing.

While technology certainly has its upside, our kids are missing out on some things that my generation took for granted. Long gone is the excitement of perusing the new releases at the pre-Blockbuster corner video store (don’t forget to check the recently returned cart — and try to sneak a peek into the Adult section), the joy of getting dropped off by our parents at the mall (my mom can take if yours can pick up?) and slowly flipping through records at Musicland (either before or after slurping an Orange Julius), or even just playing board (bored) games like Life, Monopoly, and Clue.

Perhaps I’m suffering from a worsening case of silly nostalgia as I get older, but it seems like it was just a simpler, better time when we were kids — despite being more difficult to do some things. I’m aware of course that every older generation thinks such things about the current “troubled” youth of society, but maybe the old geezers are on to something. I mean think about it…we rode our bikes everywhere (my kids literally dislike bicycles), we played outside from sun up to sun down in the summer (my kids would rather lie in bed doing “stuff” on their electronic devices), we got severe, tissue damaging sunburns (my kids wear sunscreen if they happen to enter sunlight), we played actual sports (my kids excel at virtual bowling). This is messed up, man.

Who am I kidding, my kids would probably freak out if they had to go to an actual video store. Part of how they act is on me for not being a better parent, and I suppose part of it is just the way things are today. That being said, my children do great in school, are generally very kind to others, are not complete spoiled brats (despite how I describe them), and my wife and I love the hell out of them (and that love is definitely reciprocated). They also recycle sometimes. The world may be going to hell in a hand-basket, but things could be much worse. As the old saying goes, the kids are alright (they just aren’t as good as when we were young).

Here’s to a happy spring break for all and some true quality time with your damn children (oh, and better weather than we have). Cheers. 

 

 

 

Recess

February 17, 2016

Photo Credit: A Photographer

 
If you’re one of the seven people who read my blog regularly, you know that I quit my job — no my career — almost a year ago to pursue happiness. I spent about six incredible months as a stay-at-home dad, and have been working as a substitute teacher since school started. I love being a sub and working with kids. It’s challenging, rewarding, and sometimes I’m lucky enough to work in the same school as my kids, which is pretty cool for all of us.

Back when I worked for “the man,” there was a trendy deli in a quaint neighborhood that I went to often for lunch. Okay, it was actually a Subway, but this particular location truly had some of the freshest ingredients, and it was in a cool part of town. It backed up to a park bordered on the far side by a school. On nice days I would get lunch to go and eat in my car with the windows rolled down. While enjoying some fresh air and a mediocre sandwich, I was always able to hear the school kids playing during recess. I couldn’t see them because a little hill was in the way, but I didn’t need to. What I could hear was pure joy. Jubilant laughing and playful screaming was perfect background noise on a warm, sunny day. The students were obviously elated, without another care in the world at that moment. It was a great — albeit very temporary — escape from the conflict resolution meetings, particularly particular clients, and general negativity and stress of the daily grind.

I’ve been a long-term substitute at the same school for nearly two months, and I now get to experience recess up close on a daily basis. Being able to physically see recess gives me a newfound appreciation — no awe, really — of the early coordination skills of our youth, which I formerly perceived to be somewhere in the range of fairly awkward to dangerously clumsy. Every day I expect to witness broken bones, lacerations requiring urgent medical care, concussions, or worse.

Let me attempt to paint a picture for you: at each recess there are about 125 kids playing on a chunk of rock-hard concrete that’s approximately the size of a football field. Sound scary? Wait. Now imagine these 125 kids playing seven separate games of tag, two games of basketball, a game of four square, and pretending to have a gymnastics meet. All while a soccer match is taking place. Oh, and a handful of the students like to just sit on the ground and talk. When I worked a recess for the first time, I asked one of the seasoned, full-time teachers where the ambulance was kept on standby. I was only sort of kidding. Amazingly, I have never witnessed more than a scraped knee (knock on wood), and even that is rare. It’s similar to what I would expect if several flocks of birds were put in a giant cage. The kids just magically follow their group around at high rates of speed, never running into the ever-present trouble surrounding them. It is truly something to behold.

The school I’ve been at recently happens to be designated as one of the district’s “English Language Learners” elementary schools. This means that students who are new to the country or unfamiliar with English are brought in from outside of the school’s normal boundaries in an effort to help get them up to speed before middle school. This results in a wonderfully diverse student population. I get to not only hear the youthful fun, but I see children from many different races, nationalities, and religions playing together (mostly) in harmony. Sure, there are disagreements and even occasional scuffles, but at this age there are really no cliques or clubs, just kids having fun together. It’s firsthand proof that love — or at least acceptance — is natural, and hatred is learned. This is a great thing to be able to witness.

Remember when we were kids? Most of us didn’t worry, judge others, or overthink our existence. Life was pretty simple, and most of the time was simply great. Despite that, we couldn’t wait to get older. Now many of us make things more difficult than necessary, as our remaining time on this earth races by at an ever-increasing rate of speed. Someone more clever than me said that “these are the good old days.” Trust me, you can do better than briefly escaping over your lunch break, over the weekend, or even over a vacation. Live your life like the kids on the playground — with exuberant energy, with kindness, and by making the most of the moments we have left. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that, regardless of age, everyone says they feel like a kid at heart. After all, we are just kids who grew up. Find time for recess.

  
In case you haven’t been following my blog (and based on my pathetically low number of followers, you probably haven’t), I quit my job about eight months ago to become a stay-at-home dad. This was a very tough decision, but it has been one of the best choices I could have made for both me and my family. While I’ve had a ton of support and encouragement from family and friends, I frequently encounter people who — for various reasons — seem to think that I’m not living up to my responsibilities as a red-blooded American man.

This most recently occurred during a field trip I attended at the zoo with my eleven year old son. Parents were not allowed to ride on the school buses, which were characteristically running late. As a result, a large group of parents were milling around the zoo entrance impatiently waiting for their children to arrive. I passed some time making small talk with a few moms, who made up the majority of the crowd, then saw an older man walking my way. He wore an expression that clearly said he was very relieved to see another dad. 

This gentleman, let’s pretend I don’t recall his name, introduced himself with a firm handshake. He quickly informed me that he was a retired truck driver. “I could drive any kind of truck, anywhere you needed me to go,” he boasted. “I spent a lot of time away from my family, and now I get to do this type of stuff,” he continued. I couldn’t tell if he was happy or annoyed to be there — maybe he was somewhat indifferent — but he made it sound like “this type of stuff” was his sentence for all the family time he missed before retirement.

“What about you?” he inquired. “Did you have to take off work to be here?”

“No I’m a stay-at-home dad,” I said. I could tell where this was headed.

The older man let out an uncomfortable snort of laughter, “Well, hey, that’s nothing to be ashamed of (as if I must obviously be very ashamed and embarrassed about my unfortunate situation). Whatcha makin’ for dinner (more laughing).”

My first impulse was to give this mother-trucker a flying roundhouse kick to the trachea. However, I quickly reminded myself that I no longer worry or care about what others think of me. I decided to take the high road.

“I know, I’m not ashamed, and am actually very proud of it,” I calmly replied. “And roasted chicken.”

I followed this with my quick spiel about how I left the construction industry after nearly twenty years so that I could spend much more time with my son and daughter. His eyes lit up. I had a glimmer of hope that I was getting through to him.

“Oh yeah? What kind of construction were you in?”

Ugh. Some people just don’t get it — and many never will. I’ve learned to accept the fact. If I was a woman, he probably would have been very happy for me. Keep in mind though that if anyone thinks a man shouldn’t be a stay-at-home parent, but a woman should, it’s not only an insult to the man, but is a bigger slap in the face to women.

There is a growing number of dads who are making the choice to stay home with their kids. I don’t understand why our society doesn’t embrace this. It means that men are putting their families first. It also means that women are perfectly capable of being the primary bread-winner. Most importantly, it means kids are spending more time with their dads.

Being a stay-at-home dad isn’t for everyone, and I’m certainly not saying there is anything wrong with being a working parent. I was one for years, and I know many people who do a fantastic job of it (starting with my wife). Fortunately, I had an opportunity and I jumped on it. I can rebuild my career and make more money when my kids are older, but I will never have another chance to relive this time in my kids’ lives. We make some sacrifices, but we are happier than ever.

If you are a stay-at-home dad, good for you. Be proud of yourself. Your kids probably don’t realize it today, but you are making a significant difference in their lives now, and are also affecting how they will function as adults. Don’t ever let anyone make you feel ashamed or embarrassed — or like any less of a man than they are.

On the other hand, if you think what I’m doing is crazy, that’s okay too. I think I can speak for all of us when I say that we are trying to make a positive impact on our families, and are not worried about impressing you. I simply ask that we are shown the same respect that you would want anyone to show you. Please remember that the world needs all kinds of people, including truck drivers and stay-at-home dads.

There was a time when I didn’t think I’d have a second child.  My wife and I had our first child, Jack, less than two years after we were married.  We of course were thrilled, and because we wanted at least two kids who were close in age, we started trying again just a few months after Jack was born.  But, as is often the case in life, things didn’t go as we planned.  Six and a half years and a couple (at least) of miscarriages later, I had resigned myself to the fact that Jack would be an only child.  We were fortunate to have him, and to be honest, I didn’t know if I wanted another child any longer.  I was in the latter half of my 30’s and my wife was on the doorstep of 40.  I didn’t want to put her at risk of a dangerous pregnancy or another devastating letdown.  When we were told about a specialist who might be able to help, we agreed that we would give it one last try.  I’m so glad we did.  In 2010 my wife gave birth to a healthy baby girl we named Ainsley.  She completed our family, and made us who we are today.  I can’t imagine our family — or life in general — without her.  She is beautiful, smart, funny and kind.  She has made me a better person.  What more could a dad ask for?

Six months ago I had a midlife opportunity (it may possibly have seemed to others to be a crisis) and quit my job of almost 20 years to become a stay at home dad.  Taking on major change and/or major risk is not part of my M.O., but, with great support and encouragement from my wife, I took a leap.  The first three months of my “retirement,” for lack of a better word, were spent with Ainsley.  Each morning my wife went to work and Jack went to school, and the two of us were left to have amazing adventures.  We did something every day — hikes, parks, libraries, tennis, picnics, movies, and more.  We read books, told stories, sang songs, and laughed.  A lot.  More than anything, we had great talks.  If there are any parents who think you can’t have good conversations with your five year old, I would challenge you to try harder.  We truly became best buds.  I’m not sure who enjoyed our time more.

Before we knew it school let out for the summer, and Jack joined us.  The three of us continued to have great fun, but he’s much older and isn’t always interested in doing some of the things we enjoyed in the beginning.  He’s at the age where he would rather hang out with his friends.  I get it and certainly don’t blame him.  What I was too naive to appreciate or understand while we were trying to have Ainsley is that it gave me a long period of time to spend solely with Jack.  I’m very thankful for that now.

When I left my career, I was on a quest to find happiness.  I feel truly fortunate to say that I’m finding it.  Happiness doesn’t mean every day is wonderful, instead it’s about learning to enjoy the moments that matter; to relish and remember them.  After all, it’s individual moments that make up our forevers.  If we slow down and pay attention, we will find that these moments are not few and far between, but are actually all around us, just waiting to be experienced.  Those more enlightened than me refer to this as being mindful.  I have found that being mindful is quite easy, as long as I remember to remind myself…

When Ainsley was a baby and would cry in the night, I would usually offer to take her so my wife could sleep.  I would go downstairs to our couch and lay her on my chest, where she would almost always settle down very quickly.  I would listen to and feel her deep, calming breaths as we both fell asleep.  I offered to help not only for my wife, but also for me.  It felt so good to hold her.  At that moment nothing else mattered.  This is how I have felt the last few months — nothing else mattered.  Nothing else could compare.

Tomorrow Ainsley starts kindergarten.  She’s so excited and so ready but, selfishly, I’m not totally prepared to let her go.  Everybody talks about time moving so fast, and man, it really does.  I would love to be woken up tonight — just tonight — to find a crying baby needing to be nestled on my chest.  Instead, she will excitedly wake me in the morning.  My wife and I will walk her to school for the first time, new backpack and lunchbox in tow.  I will remember to pay close attention to her expressions and actions until the first bell rings, and we have to leave her so she can start her own new adventure.  I don’t mean to be overly sappy, as I realize she is only starting kindergarten, but it is another step in what is a long staircase of simultaneously exciting and depressing (at least to me) events in our children’s lives.  I admit there is a part of me that doesn’t want my kids to grow up.

I am eternally grateful for the experience I’ve had over the past six months, and look forward to so many more great times to come with both of my children.  The future will never be quite like the past, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be equally good — or maybe even better.  Although she’s very young, I think Ainsley will retain at least a few faint, fond memories of our recent time together.  I know I will never forget.

  

My son starts middle school tomorrow.  This truly seems impossible, as I have such a vivid recollection of trying to console my sobbing wife after we dropped him off at daycare for the first time.  That was nearly twelve years ago.  I know from experience and from the words of people older and wiser than me that time isn’t going to slow down any.  On the contrary, it will most likely seem to accelerate.  If I had the middle school years to do over (and I’m glad I don’t), these are five things I would want to consider, so I will share them with my son.  I’m sure he won’t want to listen, but between the eye-rolling and sighing, maybe something will stick.

1.  Don’t take things too seriously:  Despite what you might hear, there really is no “permanent record” at your age.  You are going to make mistakes, make bad choices, and make a fool of yourself.  Don’t beat yourself up; learn to laugh at yourself instead.  If you do this, it will be much harder to be hurt when others laugh at you — and they will.  When you stumble, make it part of your dance.  When you fall down, pick yourself up (with a chuckle).

2.  Be yourself:  I know this will sound crazy, but please don’t worry about being one of the “cool” people.  Being yourself, instead of trying to be someone you think people want you to be, is one of the secrets to finding true happiness.  You are a great person, and don’t let anyone tell you differently.  By being yourself, you are giving people a great opportunity — the chance to know the real you.  By the way, many of the so-called nerds, dorks, freaks and geeks will grow up to be much more interesting than the current “in crowd.”

3.  Be kind and compassionate to everyone:  Kids will be mean, but you don’t have to be.  Everyone you meet will be worried about something, sad about something, and will have problems similar to yours — or possibly much worse.  Set an example by treating these people the way you want to be treated.  It’s just that simple.  Remember that the best way to get rid of enemies is by becoming their friends, and that the best kind of popularity is to be admired for your kindness.  People will notice kindness.

4.  You can talk to me and Mom about anything:  Your mom and I are extremely interested in what’s going on in your life.  We want you to be happy to talk to us about all of the good things, and to be totally comfortable coming to us with any questions or problems.  You will go through times when you feel like there is no one to listen, but we are always ready and willing.  Yep, we are your parents, so there may be times when we get upset or are disappointed.  Regardless, we will always have your back.  Don’t forget that we were your age — and it wasn’t that long ago.  We had the same questions you will have, and we made the same mistakes you will make.  Let us in.  Please.

5.  Be a kid as long as possible:  High school, dating, driving, getting your first job…  These are all things you’re excited about, I know.  Trust me, though, that one day, which will seem way too soon, you will look back and ask where your childhood went.  For now just have some fun.  Play hard, laugh loud and be silly, ride your bike with no hands, and do cannonballs off the high-dive.  You will have plenty of time to be older, but you will never be younger.  Bottle some of that youth up, however, because the good news is that you are never too old to act young.

Hopefully my son will heed at least some of my advice.  Come to think of it, I should too.  We all should.

Imagine That

May 7, 2015

  
“The world is but a canvas to the imagination.” – Henry David Thoreau

“Land ahoy, me hearties,” cried my daughter, Ainsley, from the helm.  “Let’s go get the treasure!”  The helm was actually a steering wheel attached to the jungle gym at our neighborhood playground, but to Ainsley it was real.  More “real” than anything she could watch on TV.  “Sit down behind me,” she instructed, then she took us on a voyage.

It had been a slow morning, and I was trying to think of something fun to do.  As a stay-at-home dad,  I like to get out of the house everyday, but we were both feeling a little lazy.  I threw out a couple of ideas, “We could go for a hike or play tennis?  How about the library?”

“Let’s just walk down to the park,” Ainsley suggested.

I have to admit that going to the park, while very easy (and free), isn’t my favorite activity.  Ainsley loves it, but I worry that it isn’t enough.  By “enough” I mean, what is she getting out of it, other than some outdoor time and exercise?  These are obviously important, but I also want her to be doing something productive.  When we hike, we talk about nature.  When we play tennis, she is getting better at a sport.  The library obviously has a lot of productive possibilities.

“Okay, the park it is,” I conceded.  “Tomorrow we are going back to the library, though.”

Our neighborhood park is about a half mile walk.  Once we arrive, I usually play with Ainsley for a bit, then let her run around on her own while I sit and watch.  This gives me a little time to make a grocery list, catch up on emails, or just relax and try not to remember the laundry waiting for me at home.  Sometimes there are other kids there, which is great.  It was just the two of us on this day, however, and I decided I would actively play with her the entire time.  This is when we had our voyage.  It was a short trip (it wasn’t long before the allure of the monkey bars became overwhelming), but it was long enough that it made me think about what it means to be “productive.”  It occurred to me that using her imagination like that, even for ten minutes, is equally as important as reading books, exercising, or a number of other so-called productive activities.

Do our kids today use their imagination as much as children of past generations?  I don’t have the answer, but you have to wonder.  Many kids now grow up with 1000 TV channels, the internet, and video games.  Electronic tablets are as common as books.  School districts (including my family’s, which is considered to be one of the more financially sound districts in our city) are cutting art and music budgets.  I have read about some districts in the U.S. that are completely eliminating art and music programs.

It sure seems like less and less is left to the imagination?  This is a shame, and the trend needs to be reversed. 

Hey all you grown-ups out there; using your imagination is fun.  Can you remember?  Sharing your imagination with your children is even better.  Pablo Picasso said, “It takes a very long time to become young.”  Think about that for a second.  Today Ainsley and I are going back to the park.  I’m going to fly a rocket ship.