“Bullshit, You Could Be Mine”

“What’s your name?” the impossibly cute, young woman said to my son as I placed him on his chosen carousel horse at the children’s museum.

“Jack,” he responded as I clipped the safety belt around him.

“Jack. I like that name,” she replied, “And what’s Daddy’s name, Jack?”

“Dada,” Jack said as we both smiled at each other and our inquisitor.

The carousel woman slipped us both a sly smile and continued with her questions.

“What’s your favorite part of the carousel, Jack?” she asked.

“I like going round and round,” he answered immediately.

“Cool,” she said, “I like going up and down.”  She made sure to make eye contact with me as she said it. I tried not to laugh. She held the eye contact as she directed her next question towards not Jack, but me.

“What about you, Dada? Do you like to go up and down too?”

I almost lost it. That mischievous smile came back for a split second before she finally broke eye contact and jumped down to the control panel for the carousel. I don’t even remember exactly how I responded, but I imagine it was super cool, sexy, and smooth. If there’s anything that thirty-six year old, bearded, stay at home dads are, it’s super cool, sexy, and smooth. Trust me. My chocolate almond milk boxes bring all the girls to the yard.

It doesn’t hurt that I spend most of my life tethered to probably the cutest, tow-headed creature that has ever existed. “But all children are cute, right?” “Everyone thinks their child is beautiful, right?” Wrong. It’s no different than the “everyone gets a trophy for showing up” mentality. It’s a nice thought, but it’s not reality. Believe me, if my kid was ugly, I would admit it. I see a lot of kids in my line of work, and there are lots of them with plenty ugly faces and often, uglier personalities. It’s evolution, baby.

My friend Casey and I coined a term for him a couple of years ago, “kidnap cute.” As a general rule, I think most kids would probably not even tempt your most dedicated kidnappers. But Jack is the kind of cute that would make even the utmost straight laced citizens consider kidnapping as a lifestyle option. The hardest part of my first few years raising Jack was often trying to convince the other parents at the park that the weird dude in the hooded sweatshirt with the big dark beard wasn’t trying to kidnap the beautiful, blonde boy that didn’t want to leave the park to take his nap. The second hardest part was keeping an eye out for the other park mom’s. The last thing I wanted was for one of them to steal my son and leave me with one of their ugly ones.

On countless occasions I’ve overheard otherwise child-resistant young women say that if they could be guaranteed a kid like Jack, they’d have one immediately. “Look at his eyes!” “Look at his hair!” “Look at that smile!” My son is like Ryan Gosling mixed with Spicoli from Fast Times at Ridgemont High in a pint sized package. Or better yet, a fucking toddler version of Matthew McConaughy. It must seriously suck to have attractive women calling you beautiful and gorgeous all the time. I’m still waiting on that phase of my life. If he somehow gets to skip his awkward middle school phase, I will definitely start hating him.

Until then, I’m going to keep enjoying him as my wing-man. He has no qualms about chatting up all the girls he can find, no matter their age. And when he leaves a mom or two for me, they incessantly gush over his very existence to me as they look me up and down for a split second and wonder, I imagine, if I’ve got another one of these Mini-McConaughys left in me.

Without him I wouldn’t have spent months as the only adult male hanging out with a group of young, highly attractive, Mormon moms. It was weird and highly titillating, like being the bearded house mother of the most sober sorority on campus. All pillow fights and magic underwear. I was Charlie, and they were my oft-pregnant stay at home angels.

You should see the attention we get from all of the servers at all of the restaurants in town. I’m holding court at the bars of Omaha as if I were Warren Buffet out for drinks with the hot blonde dude from Sons of Anarchy. We’re getting free refills! On beer! At breakfast! And we’re collecting sly smiles and free extra minutes on the carousel at the children’s museum every time the woman with the fondness for the up and down is at the controls. We’re like Maverick and Iceman in Top Gun. Except, he’s more like both of them rolled into one and I’m a short, bearded Goose just sitting around by myself singing “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling” and waiting for the scene where I die.

But hey, I’ll take it. I fucking love my Mini-Matthew McConaughy. I’d hang out with him any day, even if I were just the guy that carried around his bongos or rolled his joints. So I’m cool with the truth. I’m cool being HIS wing-man, anytime. I know my place, and I’m better for it. We make an attractive pair. Cute kids and good fathers are a killer combination. He’s there. I’m trying.

Maturity, responsibility, confidence, competence, playfulness, sensitivity, and commitment are all attractive qualities. If I exude any of these, I owe it to my little partner in crime and how he has changed me in the last four plus years. He’s sparked my continuing evolution into the confident, responsible, grown-ass man that all fathers should strive to be. It’s a well-deserved cosmic joke on men that they become the most attractive to women only after they’ve become competent fathers.

Without him and what he has made me, I wouldn’t be nearly as cool, sexy, or smooth. And I definitely wouldn’t be at the Children’s Museum getting double entendres tossed at me by flirty, doe-eyed twenty-somethings. Though, I’d like to think that’s mostly just because I wouldn’t be at the Children’s Museum in the first place.

“We make a good team, Dada,” Jack said as he looked up at me from the toilet as I wiped his ass for the ten-thousandth time. And just like that, another one of the many weirdly precious and hilarious moments of fatherhood came out of nowhere. I was stuck halfway between tears and laughter, about to have this particular trip to the bathroom cemented into my memories forever.

“We sure do, little dude,” I replied as I lifted him off the toilet seat and flushed. If only the carousel girl could see us now, I thought, knowing full well that there was probably only one woman who could ever find anything attractive about this particular scene.




The Omaha Children’s Museum

My son, Jack. Age 4-1/2 I’ll be his wing-man anytime.

And of course, this: http://youtu.be/2fWr6CBARMw


The “F” Word

“That fucking guy,” I hear four-year-old Jack say from the hallway. I’m in the shower conditioning my beard. I try not to laugh. He’s merely parroting the guy on the podcast I’m listening to, but I’m still pretty shocked he said it.

“Hey man, don’t use that word,” I spit out instantly without thinking before adding, “because you don’t know what it means do you?” We both move on. I rinse and repeat and he goes back to sliding around the wood floors with his new roller skates on his hands.

“Fuck,” I think. Not because Jack just used the “F” word, but because I called him on it and told him not to say it. I didn’t mean to. I went against my entire theory! Everything his mother and I had been working towards was suddenly, not for lack of a better word, fucked. For the last four years, I’ve been trying out this different parenting idea in regards to words like the beloved “F-bomb” and other “bad” words that I came up with right around the time I wrote this.

It’s a pretty simple idea: I treat “swear words” like any other words and ignore them. We use them, though we have honestly tried to cut back. But either way, we never call attention to them. When we use them or hear them, we don’t react in any way that isn’t appropriate for their context. We give Jack the benefit of the doubt, I suppose. It’s rare that Jack has ever really tried to use words he doesn’t know, so I figure if we don’t call attention to them, he’ll come to use them on his own time and hopefully in the proper situations. As an added bonus, I don’t have to watch my mouth in the only place I can safely run it, and we don’t have to monitor art or stifle good conversation. I’m sure my friends are slightly confused when we berate them for calling attention to and apologizing for their swearing in front of our child, rather than the act itself. Come on over and swear away, just shut the fuck up about it.

So far so good. He’s only dropped the F-bomb twice ever, both times repeating it right after hearing it. The first time, he repeated the phrase “All a fucking board!” after hearing a recording of me uttering the phrase during a joke about him in one of my stand up comedy sets. And then came the Steve Dahl “that fucking guy” as I was listening to his daily podcast in the shower. So probably the two guys that he hears talking the most on a daily basis said it and he mimicked it only twice in over two years of talking. I consider that a success. He hears us both say various iterations of the “F” word all the time, but hearing it rarely prompts him to say it.

In our house, Jack’s no stranger to hearing the “F” word. I can’t imagine that a day has gone by without him hearing it at least once. So maybe we’re not quite the Wu Tang Clan, or Goodfellas or The Big Lebowski, but the word gets tossed around the house pretty regularly, whether by us, our friends, our podcasts, or our songs. I suppose I could blame all of my years working in radio, where handcuffed for hours a day with the inability to say certain things on the air, mere mortals became gods of dirty minds and foul mouths. Or I could let the blame fall on his mother. She swears way more than her own father’s brief service in the Navy should warrant, and she pretty much taught me everything I know about the word “fuck,” as well as a few other great ones. Jack’s first foray into these language arts were highly influenced by the woman of the house.

But there’s no one at blame here. If I cared about my son saying certain words, I wouldn’t use them. And there are words I won’t use. But there are a million worse things to worry about when raising children than words, especially when those words aren’t hurtful to anything but prudish sensibilities and antiquated notions of etiquette. I am not one to be offended by language, so I don’t feel the need to raise my son in an environment where he is afraid to express himself with fun words at the proper times. So while I won’t encourage Jack to say the dreaded “F” word in front of Grandma or anyone else for that matter, I’m not going to shield him from it. I’m going to stick with the master plan and continue to treat it and the other “dirty words”  like any other words. The way they should be treated, and the way my son should be treated.

Crazy Train

“Ozzy! Ozzy! Ozzy!” my four year old son, Jack screamed as he jumped from one piece of furniture in our living room to the other.

I had finally found a copy of Blizzard of Oz on vinyl. It’s the Ozzy Osbourne record with Crazy Train on it. His first solo LP, the one with Randy Rhoades. It was a big day in our family. Well, at least for Jack and I. We stopped off at a new neighborhood record store after a day at the park and lo and behold, a mint copy of what has been a white whale of a record for my son and I, was sitting right at the front of the Metal LPs section. I couldn’t spend the twelve bucks fast enough. We raced home and both agreed that nap time would have to be replaced by what Jack calls “rocking out time” – a spastic combination of jumping on the furniture, dancing, and not only air guitar, but air drums, air bass, and air singing. Sometimes it involves running in circles. “Crazy Train” definitely always warrants all of the above.

Yep. My son is into Ozzy big time already. He’s only four and a half and that crazy, old, mumbling, British bastard is a hero to him. Not because Ozzy was a member of the band that pretty much created heavy metal. Not because he was a reality TV train-wreck pioneer. Not because he once bit the head off not only a dove but also a dead bat (coincidentally, one of Jack’s current favorite animals). No, Ozzy Osbourne is a hero to Jack because he wrote hands down what Jack considers to be the greatest song about trains ever. And now we were finally able to listen to it on Daddy’s record player, on the big stereo in the living room where there’s enough room for a dance party with plenty of space left over to fit his air drum kit and rack of air guitars. All aboard.

I’ve listened to a lot of “Crazy Train” in the past couple of years. And that’s coming from a guy that used to have to listen to it at least once a day every day for 13 years working for rock radio stations. I was already ahead of the game. I imagine if there were a Guinness Book World Record for continuous listens of “Crazy Train,” my son and I broke it at some point last March. My son has loved trains for as long as he’s known about them. The same goes for “Crazy Train.” Elmo has nothing on Ozzy in this household. And so we listen to “Crazy Train” and then we listen to it some more. It’s totally cool with me.

I wasn’t ever the biggest Ozzy fan, but you can’t be a fan of rock and metal without respecting the man. Black Sabbath was the shit, and the Ozzy solo stuff has grown on me due to my radio days and my Jack days. Plus, no matter what your thoughts on the rest of the Ozzy catalog, you have to admit that “Crazy Train” is a badass song. It’s definitely a classic. Randy Rhoades guitar riff is legendary and his playing throughout the song and album energized a newly solo Ozzy and made him a superstar. The lyrics are some of Ozzy’s better work, and you can’t knock the positive message. For a guy that most of square America thought was the devil, he was sure spreading a pretty Christian message; preaching about peace and love in at least the same vein as John Lennon, if not Jesus Christ.  And it’s a great song for air guitar.

I still remember the first time I played the song for Jack. I first got his attention as Ozzy screamed “All aboard,” with his maniacal laugh that follows. But, as soon as the chorus hit with Ozzy singing, “I’m going off the rails on a crazy train,” Jack’s face lit up like he was at center stage under the spotlight. He wanted to hear the song over again, immediately. And again. And again. And a few more agains. We must have listened to it for a complete hour at least, and we’ve never really stopped. By the end of it, 2 and ½ year old Jack was toddling around the house screaming the infamous, “Aye Aye Aye” part from the beginning of the song as he went about his day. He was my own tow headed “Little Ozzy,” devil horn heavy metal salute included.

Shortly after turning three years old, he started to pick up on more of the “Crazy Train” lyrics. One day I had been unloading the dishwasher, as usual, and was intrigued by what seemed like silence throughout the rest of the house. I snuck past our kitchen table in the other room and stood behind the big fat chair in our living room as I tried to secretly spy on Jack lying on the carpet in the center of the room. He was pushing a toy train engine  around and quietly singing to himself, “going off the rails on a crazy train,” over and over again. I just stood there silently smiling while a few tears fell into my beard. I beamed with pride. My son was singing “Crazy Train” unprompted. It was like a Field of Dreams -“how bout a catch dad?”- “I’d like that” – father son moment. It was fucking beautiful. Jack was officially and genuinely into music, and I couldn’t be happier. Nothing would ever be the same.

I’m not really surprised that Jack has taken to music like he has. Did I expect him to be able to pick out AC/DC and Led Zeppelin songs off the radio at age 4? Obviously not, but I am pretty psyched about it. Some might say it was my secret master plan all along to get him interested in my lifelong passion, but though I wouldn’t deny it, it’s probably just as likely that he couldn’t really avoid it. It’s a rare moment that music is not on in our home, our car, our backyard, or even his bedroom. For better or worse, he hasn’t slept in silence a night in his life, falling asleep to lullaby versions of songs by Zeppelin, the Pixies, the Beatles, Radiohead, and Pearl Jam. What started as a tool to lure a newborn baby to sleep and keep him asleep, has now become a bedtime necessity. I pity his future bedmate or college roommate. Believe me, we’ve tried to remove the music from the bedtime equation, but it’s still as important to him as his fuzzy, white blanket and I don’t see it going anywhere soon.

At first he just listened as music played in the background, but then he started to like and dislike certain songs or music genres over others. Even before he spoke, you could tell what he enjoyed and didn’t. Oddly enough, his first favorite song was Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream.” He would smile widely and bob his head around in his car seat anytime it was played on the radio. Even after he was older and started talking, he still held on to a preference for dance pop with female vocalists. Pink, Gaga, Kelly Clarkson, Miley Cyrus, Ke$ha, it didn’t matter. “Girl songs,” as he calls them, were his first love, and I still can’t skip past anything in the genre when it comes on the radio. In fact, I don’t even have control of the car stereo anymore, DJ Backseat Driver is always on the ones and twos.

Soon, he had to have his own Spotify playlist, which we filled with his old and new favorite songs. Crazy Train was first on the list. Then came his favorite “girl songs.” I didn’t even get into The Boss until my thirties, but at age 3 he already had not one, but two favorite Bruce Springsteen songs (“Dancing in the Dark,” “Radio Nowhere”). Both songs are on the playlist. There are also songs about different kinds of trains (“Runaway Train,” “Train Kept a Rollin,” “Get Back on the Train,”). There are songs about other modes of transportation (“Jet Airliner,” “Fast Car,” “Drive My Car”). He even loves the Dave Matthews Band song “Gravedigger,” because he thinks it’s about the Grave Digger Monster Truck, which he pushes around the house while Matthews sings about death and dying, oblivious to the song’s true theme. It’s hilarious. And then there’s the Pearl Jam songs.

The music of Pearl Jam has been a part of my life since High School. I was hooked from the beginning. I could quote you gaudy concert attendance statistics, but my obsession with Pearl Jam goes beyond the shows I’ve been lucky enough to attend.  I mean, I still have the receipts for my Pearl Jam album purchases. Believe me, I was just as surprised as you when I found them in one of my formerly many boxes of stuff from my past lives. If you ever find yourself in my living room, and you are kind, perhaps I’ll show you my scrapbook. Yes, I’m at scrapbook level with this thing. But to be fair, it’s a whole lot easier than moving boxes of your obsession from place to place every time you move across the country. Go ahead and ask my spouse.

It’s not surprising that my son would take to my favorite band by mere exposure alone, but I just never imagined it happening so quickly or passionately for him as it has. He may have loved Ozzy because he sang about a train, Steve Miller because he sang about a plane, and Katy Perry because he was two years old, but he loves Pearl Jam because he actually loves the songs. No planes, trains, or automobiles with female vocalists anywhere in sight. Just chopsticks for drumsticks and the occasional guitar made of markers or shoe boxes and his Pearl Jam album on repeat for hours. His Pearl Jam album. Bought at a local record store on the first day it was released, just like his old man. A tradition passed down from father to son; a rite of passage that has almost been forgotten in this day and age. In addition to a Jet Airliner ’45 I picked him up in a record shop in Denver, and his two Ozzy records, it brought his record collection up to four. Not bad for a kid who still can’t wipe his own ass.

At the moment, Pearl Jam is right up there with jumping on the furniture, sticks, and eating half of a candy cane and leaving the rest laying around the house, on Jack’s list of favorite things. As I was back in 1991, Jack is full on obsessed with the first Pearl Jam record of his lifetime. He has a full on air band routine for each song and even switches from acoustic to electric air guitar at the right moments. Some songs he drums, some songs he plucks a stand up bass, and others he “quiet sings,” which is whispering, but with the full force and vigor of an actual on stage performance. He even thinks he knows all of the words to all of the songs on the album, which he doesn’t. But it’s Eddie Vedder, so one can be forgiven for a misheard word or twenty.

If this was my doing, I’ve definitely created a monster. I have a four year old consistently yelling at me from the back seat of the car to “turn up the song, Dada,” or “change the song, Dada,” or “put on my new Pearl Jam album, Dada.” Yes. Yes. A thousand times, yes. I ride on the whims of a four year old who thinks of Ozzy as most think of Elvis or The Beatles. Luckily he seems to already be showing signs of having great taste, no doubt a product of good genes or at least good direction. It’s gotten to the point where I get burnt out on Pearl Jam long before he does, and that’s no small feat. But that’s Jack, he knows what he likes and goes all in. I get it. My music has become our music, my band has become our band, and it’s the coolest thing ever.

Sharing the joy of music with others has always been one of my favorite things in life, so the feeling of getting to do that with my son is beyond any words I could write here. Even if it wasn’t Pearl Jam, or music for that matter, I’m just so happy that I have shown him how to be passionate about things he enjoys. To show him how to enjoy. To show him how to love. To show him how to get lost in the joy. There are precious few opportunities for a 36 year old and a four year old to bond over shared interests, and I’m not taking it for granted. So I’ll continue to happily indulge my pint sized Pearl Jam fanatic, metal head, air drummer with a thing for Ozzy Osborne and “girl songs.” I can relate. And after Christmas, when those air drums become real, loud, badly played drums, I’ll truly put this relationship to the test.

“Do you know what I want to be when I grow up?” Jack asked me the other day.

I thought for a second, thinking back through all of his past ideas. First it was a train engineer, then a Monster Truck driver, captain of the “My Lemony Falcon,” and the more traditional, fire-fighter. Last I heard he wanted to be a paleontologist or better yet, a “bird scientist.” I told him I didn’t have any idea.

“I want to be the drummer for Pearl Jam,” he said.

I didn’t laugh. Hell, I’ve wanted to be in Pearl Jam my whole life too, I wasn’t about to derail his dream at age four and half.

“If they’re still around, I’m sure you can try,” I responded knowing that they’ve switched drummers on multiple occasions in the past, so it’s not entirely a fantasy.

“I’ll probably sing too,” he added.

“What about Eddie Vedder?” I asked, “He’s a pretty good singer already.”

“Well, I guess Eddie can do the singing but I’ll sing “Crazy Train” if Pearl Jam wants to play that.”

“Sounds good dude, you better start practicing those air drums,” I smiled.

“Hey Dad?”

“Yes, Jack.”

“Can we have a Pearl Jam dance party day, today?” he asked, already knowing the answer, “But can we listen to Crazy Train first, Dada?”

“I’d like that,” I responded, choking back joyful tears like a modern day Ray Kinsella in his field of dreams.

The Death of Fear?

“The first night that my son was born I started to think I was going to die.  Obviously I’ve always known that I would die, that’s not really what this particular feeling is about. It’s kind of fucked up, but since that kid popped out and began his life I’ve had this specter of the end of my life over my shoulder that I just can’t shake. I don’t want to die. I’m not trying to die. I have no reason to think that I would perish any time soon based on the odds alone, my good health not withstanding . But there it is, my death, in my thoughts more so now than ever. It’s beyond mere middle of the night heart pounding stark realizations. You just have to deal with those, realize you can’t change the final outcome, and go back to sleep. Or have another drink. This is different. It’s a different kind of fear of death.”

I wrote the preceding paragraph shortly after my son Jack was born. I hit “save draft” and forgot about it for awhile. It was always something I had planned to go back to and explore in greater depth when and if I ever had a chance. But then you spend every waking (and sleeping) hour making sure your newborn baby is happy, is fed, is changed, is sleeping, isn’t crying, isn’t sick, isn’t going to die under your watch and suddenly your own death, your own fears, and your own questions and problems get pushed so far out of your consciousness that you almost forget about all of them. Almost. Us humans, we are a worrisome lot.

I know it’s become cliche, but when you become a parent it’s instantly not about you at all anymore, so you learn to get out of your own head and into the life of your child. Not everyone is lucky enough to figure that part out, but I know it happened for me. It’s a daily struggle, but a necessary one. When I fail, I’ve been lucky. Something usually comes along to knock me out of the old patterns and into the reality I have discovered many times over.

Last Monday it was a Youtube video.  High on a Chicago Bears Monday Night Football victory against the Packers, I stayed up past everyone’s bedtime to listen online to post game coverage out of Chicago before moving on to my favorite late night pastime. No, not porn, Pearl Jam. As I perused YouTube for some new concert videos from the Fall Tour, I clicked away at suggested videos for a short while before coming across an ESPN segment featuring former New Orleans Saint Steve Gleason interviewing Eddie Vedder.

Steve Gleason is the dude that blocked the punt during the NFL spectacle that was the first post-Katrina Saints game at the Superdome. He played for the Saints for 8 years, and in 2011 was diagnosed with ALS. Gleason, a huge Pearl Jam fan, was able to sit down with Vedder one on one and ask some pretty deep and personal questions that focused more on life than the twenty plus year music career of Vedder and his Pearl Jam band mates. Gleason reveals to Vedder that he’s been working on a video journal library for his son, Rivers in case the ALS ran its expected course. In one especially touching moment, Gleason asks Vedder what he wished he could have known about the father he never met. Vedder is clearly moved by the question and tells Gleason that he would have wanted to first know if his father loved him and how much, and that he also would have appreciated some pointers on how to be a good man.

You should have seen me as I was balling my eyes out alone in the dark as I watched the clip. I knew thirty seconds in that I was fucked. By the end of it, I was sobbing into my beer glass and wiping my nose with the sleeve of my grandmother’s old Jim McMahon jersey that I had donned for good luck. My parents would probably tell you that I’ve always been quick to cry. Well, fatherhood has made it a thousand times worse. I shed tears at least three times a week now. I’m a pitiful, sobbing, emotional wreck behind this bearded facade, yet I’m happier than I’ve ever been.

It was that ESPN segment on Youtube that brought me back to that unfinished paragraph from my parenting past. Looking back at those thoughts after these last four years with my son provides some clarity. My new found fear four years ago wasn’t really fear. It was love. No shit. A strange love that I’m still coming to terms with. I immediately felt so strangled with unconditional love at the first intense, messy glimpse of my son, that my greatest fear instantly became the possibility that I would miss any second of his life. That feeling has exponentially multiplied by the day as I have watched my son grow into a quite amazing four year old so full of life, laughter, curiosity, and kindness.

I don’t want to miss out on one second of my son’s life. But no matter what, I will. It will never be enough. Whether I die next week or in 60 years, I’ll be missing out on something. I know this. That’s why this feeling is so frustrating. And juxtaposed with the imminent worries of a father like Gleason who has real shit going down, I see the absurdity. I know that I have to get over the hypothetical moments that I may miss and make sure I’m making the most of the real and present moments. So I’m working on it. Apparently living is the hardest lesson to learn about life. At least I’ve learned that so far, I suppose.

We must quit worrying about death (or the other million things that are out of your control, unnecessary, or unimportant) and put all of that energy into being present for not only our children, but for all of the people that are present with and precious to you in this all too brief and precious fucking existence. It’s something I have to remind myself of constantly. When we get out of our heads and into our relationships, whichever ones they may be, all of our fears can subside because we are in this thing together.

But that’s not to say that those feelings that started those many days four years ago ever really went away, just as the reality of our own eventual deaths never really stop haunting us in our dark bedrooms. Even as I write this the little thought of my son reading this after I’ve suffered a way too early death, burrow into my mind, my gut, and into all of my fingers as they press the laptop keys. Hell, it’s those feelings that inspired this whole writing thing in the first place.  The words on this screen are my video journal library to my son, no matter when he reads it.

I’m just grateful every day that I am able to offer my son more than just videos or words. I can make sure that he knows how much I love him by loving him. I can show him how to be a good man by being a good man. I can prepare him to really live. But, I’ll keep writing it all down just in case. For him, for me, for you. Because you never know.

“It’s a fragile thing, this life we lead. If I think too much I can get overwhelmed by the grace by which we live our lives with death over our shoulder.” — Eddie Vedder – Pearl Jam “Sirens”

Inspired by:

ESPN’s Steve Gleason and Pearl Jam Feature (Must Watch)

Pearl Jam’s “Sirens”

Team Gleason

All Aboard!

“Seven dollars,” the smiling white haired woman with round wire glasses said to me as I approached the entrance desk of Omaha’s Durham Museum with my son in my left arm. It was the second time I had been there in three days. Over the weekend, the infamous Dr. Sanchez and I had fought surprisingly (at least to us) large crowds on the last day of a two month long traveling Abraham Lincoln exhibit. Apparently we weren’t the only procrastinators in town. We bypassed the slow moving line and headed straight for the end of the exhibit before working our way backwards through the winding halls, occasionally squeezing our way between bored, chubby mid-western baby boomers, their elderly anchors and preoccupied teenagers in tow, to inch a few feet closer to catch a glimpse at a handwritten letter, the contents of Lincoln’s pockets when he was assassinated, or an old photograph of his legendary beard. It didn’t take long before we were done with Abe, or at least done with the crowd and the whole awkward scene. Wanting to squeeze a little more out of our entrance fee, we perused the surrounding exhibit which focused mostly on the privileged upbringing of pretty much every person elected president since Lincoln. I stubbornly crossed that off the list of Jack’s possible careers as we left the main exhibit through the two open doors and entered the bright, windowed first floor atrium. It was then that I knew I’d be coming back soon, and it wouldn’t be for presidents.

Directly in front of us was an old, matte black locomotive, a bright yellow Union Pacific caboose, and four retired train cars of various styles on display, including the fancy Cornhusker Club car, that you could walk on, in, and around. There was also an interactive model train setup that no average home basement could hold behind six large windows, complete with multiple tracks, multiple engines, a huge station with turntable, bridges, caves, towns, little plastic trees and people, a drive in movie theater, and even a derailed train accident. There were buttons you could press to get in on the action yourself, starting the trains, turning on lights, and switching tracks. If the retired real trains and the gratuitous display of toy trains wasn’t enough, behind and in between the antique train cars were huge windows looking out onto the real train tracks of the old station, some still in use. I couldn’t believe it was all just sitting down here in the basement of the museum unbeknownst to me.  Dr. Sanchez wasn’t that impressed, but I was already thinking about my return trip. It was a train fanatic’s wet dream, and I just happened to change the diapers of a budding choo-choo fanatic.

Two days later, I was back again trying to kill part of a cloudy and cold spring afternoon by feeding that same toddler fanatic’s recent obsession with all things trains. Sure I had just been there, and I knew we weren’t going to spend much time at the museum to warrant the full admission price, but I had to show Jack the trains. I set him down as I retrieved my wallet from my front right pocket and despite now having my own debit card to my wife’s account, I took out all of my cash. Seven dollars exactly, four of which I had just yanked out of the bottom of my son’s ceramic frog bank in order to pay for our excursion. I handed the mostly crinkled bills to the old woman, who seemed slightly surprised that someone not only paid in cash but with exact change. She smiled at the two of us as I picked Jack up and headed through the empty, cavernous main station lobby of what was once probably a crowded and bustling gateway to the city of Omaha and beyond. I pointed out the old station benches and let him climb upon them while I directed his attention to the elaborate high ceilings, the old soda fountain, and the one time ticket counters which were now transformed into a tourist trap gift shop. We hadn’t even gotten to the trains downstairs, the huge model train setup, or the window looking out onto the junction tracks, but the look on Jack’s face was enough to make me realize I had made the right decision. Seven dollars is a small price to pay for blowing your son’s mind.

In his short time as a walking, talking toddler, Jack has been infatuated by and attracted to many things:  from butterflies to baseballs, books to buses, guitars togarbage trucks, sticks to squirrels, birds, fish, fire engines, and police cars. He couldn’t get enough of that fucking Pillow Pet (until I actually bought him one). But this ballgame is not the same. Jack and trains is a sixteen year old me and Pearl Jam sort of passion. Absolutely nothing up to this point has ignited his desires like “choo-choo” trains do. He is a little boy with a man-sized obsession. If Katy Perry recorded a version of “Locomotion,” it would be his favorite song. As it stands, the one song he voluntarily sings on a daily basis is the theme to Dinosaur Train on PBS.

It all started with a Hallmark Christmas ornament from 1989. Growing up, my mom worked for the greeting card giant and our home was inundated with every single ornament the company made for about twenty years. When I cherry picked “my” ornaments from the stash of hundreds before moving out of the house, I never imagined that the old train one would factor so heavily into a later part of my life.  But, the small green, blue, and red metal train with a smokestack, a tiny gold bell, and movable wheels drew him in before we could even hang it on our artificial tree inside our Omaha living room. Jack’s tree trimming was officially over at that point as far as he was concerned, and off he went on his one track mind trip with his new “Choo-Choo.” Little did the Professor and I know as we continued to hang up the rest of the ornaments that that was only the beginning.

Back home for the holidays, his first gift was a small Thomas the Train engine and circle track from one of his grandmothers. A few days later the tank engine that would soon be known as “Baddis” was followed up with a small set of wooden Target dollar bin trains from his other grandma. They were the right gifts at the right moment. The little blue and red train with the smiley face and the red wooden engine wouldn’t leave his hands for the remainder of the trip and most of the following months. In fact, it pretty much became a given from that point on that Jack needed to have a train car in each hand at all possible times. There were to be no exceptions. He made that perfectly clear every chance he could. “Choo-Choo!” was his new mantra.

Soon there couldn’t be a trip to Target without him suckering me into a new train car from the dollar bins. Days where I would do nothing but help him push trains around imaginary tracks throughout the house and neighborhood, draw trains with crayons and baby Etch a Sketch’s, and sculpt trains out of Play Doh became a slightly annoying regularity. We took him on a train to a Chicago White Sox baseball game with his grandparents and we even spent a Saturday afternoon at the worthless Council Bluffs, Iowa, railroad museum just trying to feed his fascination.

Eventually a Thomas The Tank Engine bath set featuring three different rubber trains would enter the picture thanks to another trip to Grandma Pat’s. Screw bath time, “The Three Amigos,” as the Professor and I would begin to call them, were in his possession from the moment he woke up until the moment he went to bed. The four of them always together, one train never without the others. He even started saying their names, “Baddis (Thomas), Allie (Salty), and Percy,” and would yell for them from his crib at night. We even made a rule between parents that we had to account for the three little fuckers before we went to bed to avoid any unpleasant pre-coffee searches come morning. We now own three sets of them.

Then came the “The Alphabet Train.”

Tucked inside a three pack of children’s educational DVDs Jack received as a gift from his aunt was a documentary for kids about trains that focused on the letters of the alphabet. The film contained real live train footage with a narrator who talked about every aspect of trains and railroads you could think of while matching them to the corresponding letter. I really didn’t think much of it at the time as I put it in the player hoping for a few uninterrupted minutes to finish my morning coffee in peace. Not much of a television watcher up to that point, I was amazed at how quickly he desired to sit and watch the entire thing over and over again, even asking for the “choo choo show” with his morning milk and cheerios. Against our better judgement and our parental paranoia over letting a television raise our child, pressing play became easier than dealing with a whiny toddler at the crack of dawn. We would try to make up for it by immediately cancelling our DirecTV, but the “choo choo show” maintained its status as a daily staple of our day.

One glorious choo-choo filled day something unexpected happened.  Jack started saying letters and words we didn’t even know he knew. After a few weeks and a few hundred viewings of that stinking DVD, he would walk into the kitchen and grab an alphabet letter magnet from off the dishwasher and hand it to us saying the name of the letter clear as day. Very soon not only did he know about trains, locomotives, diesel engines, steam, tracks, crossings, headlights, tickets, turntables, cabooses, and stations, he knew all of the letters in the alphabet by sight. Needless to say, we’ve softened our stance on educational television just a bit, though it pains us to do so. You just can’t argue with progress. Trains were no longer just something Jack liked to pester us about, his obsession was helping him learn things I wasn’t sure how to even begin to teach him. If I wasn’t completely on board with his choo-choo habit before, I was quickly becoming the conductor.  

I used to know jack shit about trains, but I’ve always liked them. I know a bit more about them now thanks to a thousand plus viewings of that damn DVD, our various train rides, and all of our museum trips. But even before Jack came along, trains have always had a place in my heart and a place in a weird old recurring dream I used to have when I was younger and can barely recall. Most of my childhood was spent in houses by train tracks. My grandparents had train tracks practically in their backyard. I fell in love with the ease and romance of train travel during a brief stint in Europe and my many rides on the Metra and L trains during my time in Chicago.  I’ve always loved the idea of trains and the hobo lifestyle. I’m not alone. Think of all the stories, poems, paintings, songs, and movies about or influenced by trains. There should be more trains. I’m sure my son would agree. We are both primed and ready for a brand new era of train travel.

Trains are the perfect thing to get into when you are one, two, or thirty-three years old.  My son may focus on the wheels “going round and round,” but I love how they represent all the possibilty of life and its limitlessness. So many different tracks and directions to go but always with new mysteries in front of you, something familiar behind you, and the excitement and fear of running off the rails at any second. Being on a train is to constantly be a part of something. Sometimes you get to be the locomotive, sometimes you’re the caboose, sometimes you spend way too much time in the club car, and sometimes you’re just lucky enough to hitch a free ride on one of the box cars along the line. It doesn’t really matter when or how you got on, because you’re always going somewhere. Trains and what they can represent are fucking incredible. It took a two year old to show me that.

So, my life right now is trains, trains, and more trains. He’s into them, so I’m into them. But it could just as easily be tap dancing or taxidermy and I’d still have to be all about it. Especially since I’m with him all day, every day.  Whatever it is he’s into, I want to be into. I want to support it. I want to love it. I want to encourage it and provide it. But I know there is a fine line. I don’t want to let him focus all of his energy on one thing, and I don’t want to push him further into something that he may be ready to move on from. I know that at the drop of a hat he could be on to the next thing and I can’t hold him back, no matter how into being into him into whatever he’s currently into I am. I have to remember to be interested, supportive, and motivating, but not directing, smothering, or controlling. I can make my feelings known, but then I have to forget them and transfer lines if I have to.

I know there will be times that even when I’m fully behind him, it won’t be easy. Raising my son to be who he is and not who I am is going to be the greatest challenge I’ve ever faced. Sure, it all sounds good on the computer screen, but speeding headlong on the tracks to who knows where, I know it’s not always going to be the smoothest ride. Yet again on this parenting trip, I’m reminded that it’s not about me. I suppose that’s half the reason I’m writing all this shit anyways: so I don’t forget the way. I just have to remember the Choo-Choo trains.

“Ground! Ground! Now! Off! Off! Ground! Off!” Jack screamed. He was in the middle of a breakdown at the beginning of a train ride. We were spending yet another morning at the Omaha zoo and for the past hour all Jack would say was, “ride the choo choo train,” over and over again.  He brushed off the petting zoo, basically ignored a gorilla in his face, and feigned slight interest in a big brown bear. “Ackie and Dada ride the choo choo train,” he repeated.

“Are you sure you want to ride the train?” I asked.

“Yeah, yeah, choo choo,” he responded.

I pushed his stroller towards the zoo station, parked it with the rest of the child transporters and carried Jack to the ticket booth. I handed the teenage zoo employee a crinkled five dollar bill in exchange for a red raffle ticket to ride the train. As we waited in line to board, the steam engine announced its arrival with a loud toot from the whistle. Jack jumped in my arms and a frightened look of surprise swept over his face.

“Loud! Loud!” Jack yelled to the amusement of a few people around us. He was not so delighted. I could see it in his eyes. His desire to ride on the train was fleeting fast as we boarded a bench seat towards the back of the train. My instincts told me to abandon the ship right then, but I was invested and I gave him the benefit of the doubt. I put him on my lap and tried to distract him with questions about the train and the zoo. I got through about three calming questions before he started to refuse me answers.

“No. No. Down,” he pleaded as the steam engine roared to life and our train car shook on the tracks and jerked forward.

“Hey buddy, we’re riding the choo-choo. Here we go,” I said in my most soothing tone.

“No! No! Ground! Ground! Off! Down! No!” he bawled. Things were spiraling out of control. Tears were flowing, quickly turning the train ride into Splash Mountain. “Ground! Ground! Ground!” he squealed, louder than the steam engine. Jack was waiting for me to make my move. Passengers in front of and behind us were also waiting for said move. I waited with them trying to point at pink flamingos and rhinos in one last desperate attempt to distract him from his sudden fear of all things train.

Jack struggled in my arms and continued shouting and bringing himself to hysterics. He started to hyperventilate as the train braked loudly to slow down for a stop to releases steam. I didn’t even think about it. I just held him close, threw my backpack over a shoulder, and jumped to the ground on the side of the tracks, hitting the ground running just like movies taught me.  The train lurched past us and we were on our way to the stroller lot. Jack immediately stopped crying.

“Ride the choo choo,” Jack mumbled while shaking his head “no,” his little way of negating a sentence.

“I know, you didn’t want to ride the train. Everything is okay. Are you okay?” I questioned him as I pushed him up a hill in his stroller towards the exit and our car in the parking lot. “Luckily that five bucks came out of your bank, buddy,” I added caressing his blond curls.

“Yeah,” Jack sighed, before smiling and asking, “Cookies?” 

“Yes, you can have some cookies when we get back to the car,” I responded. He could have asked me for anything.

I’ll keep buying train tickets.  But I’ll also try to start getting used to the idea of letting some of them go to waste. I guess there will be times that even when I’m fully behind him, it won’t always be easy. Sometimes going along for the ride means that you’ll have to help him jump off when the time comes. It means you might almost get electrocuted and fry all of the electric fuses in the house trying to hook up Grandpa’s old, rusty, and slightly warped model trains while a two year old screams at you impatiently. Sometimes there’s collateral damage when dealing with a little boy and his one track mind.  I just wanted to give him more trains.

As I drove home from the zoo that day I stared at him in the rear view mirror while he devoured his cookies. I’ll never forget the look on his face when the reality of a train ride scared the diaper off of his idea of a train ride. I laughed to myself as he gave me a crumb filled smile, knowing right in that instant that no matter where he’s going, I’m always going to be on that train.

Spitting into the Sunlight

“So what do you do?” Juan Valdez asked me from the adjacent couch.  I was sprawled out on half a futon to his right and we were both waiting on the infamous Dr. Sanchez to return from upstairs. I had always thought it was kind of funny and almost unbelievable that Dr. Sanchez had a friend supposedly named Juan Valdez, and now I was being interrogated by him. He didn’t even offer me any coffee with his query.

“You should know by now not to ask a drug dealer that question,” the doctor said from behind the wall as he lumbered down the steps to the basement. The three of us laughed like a studio audience as Dr. Sanchez entered the room with hands full and handed me a shiny and cold green can of Modus Hoperandi before offering Juan Valdez a ginger ale on ice. I popped the top and slid the beer into my worn gray coozie while I tried to determine whether the big man on the couch was satisfied with and believed the doctor’s clever joke. I took a sip and restarted our conversation.

“Actually John, I stay home with my son,” I told him. It came out as natural and as comfortable as ever. It wasn’t always that way. I took another sip off the Modus and walked over to the table across the room to snag a tortilla chip. I dipped the chip into some guacamole and turned back towards him. He was a big man. Actually, “big” doesn’t really do him justice. He’s pretty much gigantic.  He could have told me he was a former NFL offensive lineman or an out of shape professional wrestler that used to give Andre a run for his money and I would have believed him instantly. His hand was bigger than my head.

“That’s actually a great cover for selling drugs,” he said as he spit an ice cube back into his glass with a clink. He was completely serious. He actually believed Dr. Sanchez’s quip. I almost choked on the last part of a chip and quickly washed it down with a huge gulp of beer. Dr. Sanchez almost spit out a mouthful of his own Modus as we both attempted to speak at the same time.

“Ha! He’s not a drug dealer! Oh Johnny boy!” the doctor yelled, way too loudly for the distance between him and Juan Valdez.

“That’s classic,” I said underneath Dr. Snachez’s roar. I laughed into my beer. It was obviously more believable to be a drug dealer than a stay at home Dad. I blamed the beard, which was currently carrying three random fugitive drops of beer like a big hairy stroller, safe and sound. I used my hand to knock them away as Juan Valdez back-tracked a bit and said he wouldn’t have been surprised to learn that I was both.

I would soon come to learn that he’d pretty much seen it all anyways, including but hardly limited to the inside of a prison cell. His stories were about as large as he, but one look at him and you knew they were all true even if they were well behind him. Some people become addiction counselors by strategy only after attaining various college and professional degrees. Then there are those that can help people greatly in that field precisely because they’ve lived and learned all the lessons–sometimes in the absolute hardest ways possible–and survived to talk about it. Nine lives are for cats; from the stories he tells, Juan Valdez may damn well be immortal.   

I, on the other hand, was still trying to conquer a mere toddler on a daily basis. I reclaimed my seat on the futon and watched Juan Valdez devour a hamburger in-between two pieces of wheat bread in roughly two bites. He almost finished chewing and looked over at me with bright eyes and excitement as Sanchez yelled something towards the television at a game he didn’t actually care about.

“So you are a stay at home dad, then?” the immortal one asked me,  mid swallow. Stay at Home Dad was a job that wasn’t even on his radar, but he was genuinely intrigued.

“Yep,” I nodded, setting my beer on the table and preparing for the inevitable cross examination that usually follows when I tell someone ‘what I do these days.’

“You have one of those good jobs, am I right?” he half asked and half exclaimed, the look on his face taking the place of a high five.

I smiled, picked up my can of Modus, and thought about my past week as I downed the rest of my beer. I wasn’t sure I knew what working a “real” job felt like anymore. Getting going fast enough in the morning to make a 10:50 dentist appointment a couple days ago was probably the closest I had been to a morning commitment with someone other than my son in quite awhile. No, I’m no longer a working adult. Now, I live the life of an almost two year old, and I’m gradually realizing that I was totally made for it. Bi-Weekly paychecks are nice, but I’ve been recently thinking that I’d much rather just be a dad and do ‘what I do these days,’ which can pretty much be anything. Absolutely anything.

Of course, there is a healthy share of wanted and unwanted routine, just to keep me grounded. I may not have TPS reports to file, but there are some things I can count on every day: picking up toys, stepping on Cheerios, putting shoes on little feet, changing unbelievably nasty diapers, getting pestered for cocacao (chocolate milk) or cookies, watching something with trains or muppets on television, taking shoes off little feet, spinning the wheel of food for whatever it is he happens to want to eat that day, stepping on more Cheerios, putting different shoes on little feet, changing more diapers, and constantly dreading the daily nap confrontation. I can count on Jack trying to ride the dog at least once. I can count on slipping or tripping on a random toy at least twice. 

I can also count on always feeling like I’m inside an episode of a children’s show. I’m kind of like Barney, in pajamas instead of a big purple dinosaur suit. From the moment I wake up I hear myself saying everything in a sing song manner and often just flat out singing songs. Didn’t know there was a song about toasting waffles? There is now. There is also a song about eating waffles, feeding leftovers to the dog, and loading the dishwasher. Hell, I’ve got a song for just about every moment of my day. Charles Mingus has nothing on me when it comes to improvisation. I don’t even think twice about it anymore. I bet I couldn’t even control it if I tried.

To make matters worse, I speak in weird voices all day long when I’m not singing, using words I would never want another adult to hear me utter. Plus, when I’m not the one talking, I constantly hear words that I can’t understand and have to try to translate anyways. I spend half the day repeating things I say over and over again and pointing out things he should pay attention to, and the other half of the day following Jack around as he randomly points at things and repeats their names, or what he thinks are their names, over and over and over again. We are constantly quizzing each other. 

On nice days, we have a pretty regular walking route we take through the downtown Benson area of Omaha where I push Jack like a king in his chariot as he points at all the cars, trucks, and buses in between each shovel of crackers and pretzels into his mouth.  Then we usually log some park time down the block, where I am often forced to swing alongside Jack instead of pushing him like a normal father and son. I’m not much of a swinger anymore. After two or three back-and-forths, I’m ready to vomit. But Mr. Jack won’t take any of my excuses, so I reluctantly swing away until I can convince him to let me watch him go down the same slide thirty-four times instead. Then he goes down the other one thirty-five times. Sometimes he just wants to throw sand or chase squirrels. Sometimes he just wants to sit on a bench and eat crackers. Sometimes he makes me swing again.

On bad weather days, I introduce him to my favorite albums while we dance. I hold him up and let him watch the records spin on my turntable. I show him how to play air guitar (which he can do) and metal horns (which he gets frustrated he can’t do). I chase him around the living room as we rock out to Drive By Truckers’ shows waiting for Mom to get home. I let him go through my shit and I let him wear my wife’s shoes. I let him play with my guitars and I join him on the ground as we push around little plastic trains and cars, though apparently I’m never doing it right (or I’m just doing it too good). I let him jump on and off the furniture when I need a break from him jumping on and off me. When I’m in a really good mood, I’ll let him break out the Play Doh, which usually puts both of us in a bad mood by the time I’m forced to pack it away again (mostly because Jack really isn’t ready to play with the Doh). I’m basically pestered until I empty the Play Doh from every can just so he can look at it, before I’m forced to build countless plains, trains, and automobiles from scratch that he in turn thinks are real toys and plays with until they are falling apart which makes him realize they are not and he starts to cry hysterically.

On the best days, he takes a nap.

And then there are those days where you find yourself so totally absorbed into the oddest moments. If you are lucky, those days are everyday. Days when you’re taking a piss and your son walks in, yells “Car!” and throws one of those Play Doh cars you just made into the toilet. All you can say is, “Yes Jack, that is a car. Good job, buddy,” and fish the Doh car out of the bowl. Then there’s the days when you spend an hour doing nothing but sitting in front of a computer screen with your son on your lap listening to Pearl Jam bootlegs while he’s hypnotized by the visualizations of the Windows Media Player and bobbing his head to the music. It’s one of those proud father-son bonding moments you’ve always imagined. Then he lets a big fart rip on your leg, gives you a sideways glance, and starts cackling.

One day Jack sat on my lap and pulled the zipper of my faded Chicago Bears hooded sweatshirt up and down for over twenty minutes in pure unexplained ecstasy. On another day we were listening to My Morning Jacket’s “Gideon” at a volume that probably would have been frowned upon by other caretakers as I held him under the ceiling fan, dancing him in and out of reach of the chains hanging from it.  I had never heard a more grandiose laugh. His face, shining both in the occasional bright light of the fan and out of it, boasted a wide, enviable smile while his eyes were intent on following the movement of the chains and nothing else. He giggled incessantly. He reached, he grasped for the chains, and he must have turned the light on and off at least a hundred times. I will never hear that song again without thinking of that afternoon.

There was also the first time Jack saw the reflection you can make on a wall with a watch or a cell phone. He chased the little light dot all around the living room for almost an hour as I lay on the couch laughing my ass off. There was the whole week where we spent entire mornings playing bull and matador. I would yell, “Toro! Toro!” and wave his favorite fuzzy white blanket at him as he charged towards me and ran through it, often crashing into my shins or falling over onto the kitchen tile or an area rug. Then there was the day Jack discovered dust particles in the sunlight through a window. Or, more specifically the day he discovered that doing raspberries into the dusty rays of sun looked really cool. He just kept doing it. One zerbert after another into the air. He started yelling “Da Da!” and pointing, which is pretty much his universal command. I followed suit and contributed some saliva of my own into the show. It was another one of those perfectly random, perfectly memorable moments. Just two buddies, one almost two, the other almost two plus thirty-two, sitting in the middle of the hallway, in the middle of our home in Omaha, in the middle of a weekday, laughing hysterically while spitting into the sunlight.

I caught a glimpse of some sun rays ripe for the spitting coming through the window of Dr. Sanchez’ basement window and mentally rejoined the conversation I was in the midst of.

“I guess I do, man. I guess I do,” I answered, smiling back at Juan Valdez, “you are definitely right about that.” I wasn’t really guessing, but I had stopped thinking of it as a job awhile ago. “Or you could say that I’m lucky enough to not have to work a job,” I continued. It obviously can be hard work staying home and caring for a toddler with the attention span of a small dog, an extremely limited and vague vocabulary, and the emotional fortitude of a drunk divorcee on Days of Our Lives, especially if you’ve never done it before. But it’s hardly a job when it’s your own kid and not some other snotty midget. It’s way more important.

When I first took this on, I was holding tightly to some part of who I was outside of my house. Eventually I became comfortable in my new role. Later, I fell in love with it. And the longer I do this, the more I realize that it’s much more important who I am inside of my house. Sure, I’m not just a stay at home dad, but I am a stay at home dad, and I feel like I’ve been training for it my whole life. It is definitely one of those good jobs that Juan Valdez was talking about.  He’s a wise man. The saying “do what you love, love what you do,” has never been more appropriate. And shit, my wife just got me my own debit card with my name on it and everything.

Parable of the Pillow Pet

Locked.  I tried the sliding glass door again just to make sure.  It wouldn’t budge.  I looked around the aisle for an answer, not quite sure exactly who or what I was looking for.  I was mostly just astonished that the case was locked. I was slightly confused.  I had presumed that safe sex was pretty much highly encouraged these days.  Apparently I was wrong.  I remember not being able to walk ten feet in the dorms or my college quad without condoms being handed to me whether I had a use for them or not.  Hell, the health clinic on campus gave away cases of them to students as easily as they did those little red decongestant tablets.

Yet, a little over ten years since the condom-ucopia of my college years, I found myself in the pharmacy aisle of a Baker’s grocery store two weeks before Christmas with all the condoms in Omaha locked up tighter than the cigarettes.  It was dumbfounding. Why would they lock up the rubbers? It seemed to me that even if people were stealing them from time to time, that sort of fell into the realm of the greater good, you know? I tried to understand the thought process behind the situation as I attempted to open the small sliding glass door again, this time fiddling with the round metal lock that was sticking out from the left side figuring that I might have missed something my first three tries. Nothing. 

Not sure who to ask to gain access to the lubricated latex mother-load, I looked curiously up and down the aisle again to no avail.  There was a line three deep at the pharmacy counter and no uniformed staff anywhere to be seen. After waiting a few minutes with no progress, I went back to the cabinet to try again.  Not surprisingly, it was still locked.  Even less surprisingly, my nineteen month old son was growing impatient as I tried to figure out my little prophylactic problem. I stepped back in line at the pharmacy and waited, the line now two deep, trying to convince Jack that we would be leaving soon.  I was thirty three, married, toddler son in one arm, Pillow Pet bumble bee in the other, waiting in line to ask the young woman behind the counter for permission to have protected sex with my wife. Merry Fucking Christmas.

I still hadn’t paid for the Pillow Pet, but I knew there was no way I was getting out of the store without buying it.  I came for the condoms, but I was already fucked as soon as I turned the aisle and headed toward the pharmacy.  There were two huge signs, one on a shelf to my left and another on an island display right in front of the self-checkout lanes.   The red and green marker on the white and yellow of the sign screamed about a “One Day Only!” sale.  All Pillow Pets were five bucks cheaper.  It was a Christmas miracle.  I would go against every previous thought my wife and I had on the subject and buy the little fucker his fuzzy pillow with the head on it.  Hell, it was Christmas in a week and we hadn’t even thought about buying Jack anything.  I got a bit excited at my unexpected Santa Claus opportunity as we stopped in front of the display.

I suppose I would have stopped anyways.  Once he lays his eyes on those things at the store, he’s a moth to bug zapper.  It’s easier to just stop and let him see them. Normally, a trip to the store or anywhere is no big deal for this Jack-Dad duo, but those damn Pillow Pets have warped his mind. Anything he knows about proper behavior takes a rare backseat to those two words and what they represent.  And he says them!  He was barely saying anything recognizable the first time I heard him say, “piwow peh.”  He pointed to the TV screen in our treadmill room and said it three times in a row.  He did it again the next day.  I earned a degree in broadcasting, worked in radio for a dozen years, but it was that very moment sweating on the treadmill trying to ignore that shitty Caillou show, that I completely comprehended the extent of the power of television and advertising.

Until that pillow pet commercial came along, I wasn’t even sure if Jack was paying any attention to the TV at all.  Soon after, he would stop dead in his tracks anytime it happened to come on.  The kicker was that at the most, Jack would spend an hour a day passively watching television while I was working out.  It was mostly just in the background as he pushed cars around or stacked blocks.  Nevertheless, the damn Pillow Pet commercial would always be on at least once. Jack’s eyes would glaze over and he would point and stare from beginning to end. It was basically an infomercial for toddlers, a Sham-Wow type spot for stuffed animals.  I swear it was close to three minutes long at least. From October to December, it was my son’s favorite show on television.  Then they started carrying them at the grocery store and Walgreens. It didn’t take him long to put two and two together.  Soon, no quick trip to the store for milk and bananas was complete without a brief stop at the Pillow Pet display–no matter how much I tried to avoid it.

The thing is, Jack already had a Pillow Pet.  Or, at least we tried to convince him of that fact.  The prior Christmas, his great-grandmother had bought him a small brown pillow with a bear head attached.  For all intents and purposes, it was a Pillow Pet.  A generic one sure, but the same cuddly concept.  For the first month of his obsession, he even bought into it.  He hugged it, he loved it, and he would run to his room to grab it every time the real ones made an appearance on TV.  But just like the homemade “Cabbage Patch” dolls that my Grandma Dorothy and my Mom tried to pass off on my little sister before she was old enough to know the difference, Great-Grandma Lu-Lu’s pillow with the bear head would eventually also be looked at suspiciously. And though he couldn’t voice those suspicions, it was clear that it was starting to cause significant confusion for his tiny mind: he knew that his bear pillow was half the size of the ones at the store and that it didn’t look like any of the ones he saw everyday on TV. The jig was up. Ho. Ho. Ho.

“Which one do you want, buddy?” I asked him.  I could tell he didn’t expect the question.  His eyes lit up and he stretched his arms trying to wrap them around the entire display.  Eventually he fixed his gaze on the bumble bee and commenced with his weird anxious moan and reach combo that he does when he wants something so badly he can’t stand it. I figured he’d go for that one or the ladybug.  They were the only ones with big red noses, and they were both featured heavily in the commercial.  I removed the stuffed bright yellow bumble bee pillow from the rack and handed it to him.  He hugged it like it was his mother. I probably could have left him in the store to be raised by the cashiers, baggers, and cart wranglers and he wouldn’t have cared.  He gripped his soon to be Pillow Pet like a life raft.  He didn’t even know what to do next.

I, however, was on a mission for a box of condoms.  We were leaving on our holiday road trip the next day and that night my wife and I were starting what I had begun to call the “Twelve Days of Sexmas.” I knew I had more of a chance to get a Lexus with a big red bow on top than twelve straight days of sexual interaction with my wife, but it had a nice ring to it and though I couldn’t determine her level of seriousness, the Professor seemed to be game. I had to be prepared. 

“Can I help you?” the polite looking young pharmacist behind the counter asked when we finally reached the front.  I was quick to respond with a question of my own.

“How do I go about getting something out of this cabinet?” I asked as I pointed down in front of me with my free hand, simultaneously shifting the weight of Jack in his overstuffed winter coat while holding the Pillow Pet in my other arm.

“I can help you,” the pharmacist responded as she grabbed a key from next to her computer keyboard and exited the half door to my left to open the lock on the sliding glass door to my right. She slid open the cabinet door and offered me an opportunity to browse.  Having already had twenty minutes to stare at the selection behind locked glass, I quickly grabbed a box and thanked the woman.

“Enjoy,” she said, which seemed both odd and completely apropos, though I wasn’t entirely sure if she was talking to me about the condoms or to Jack about his Pillow Pet.

“We will,” I blushingly smiled and then mumbled something about wanting to insure that this was the last Pillow Pet I would have to buy as I turned and headed for the self checkout with my curious set of goods and a renewed Christmas spirit. 

I scanned the box of condoms and set it aside before trying to talk Jack into relinquishing brief control of his bumble bee. I should have known better. He shook his head no while tightening his grip and made it known that if a scene was what I wanted, a scene was what I would get. A Pillow Pet was all he had ever wanted, and the look in his eyes told me that I would have to remove it from his cold dead hands. It was almost as good as the look on his face when I ripped the thing out of his hands and hip checked him aside as I scanned it, set it on the side, and hit the pay button.  Lucky for me my tactic had sent him directly into one of his red faced, slow building, super screamo fits where he sucks air silently for a good thirty seconds before letting loose.  It was just enough time.  I scanned my wife’s debit card and handed the Pillow Pet back to him, immediately halting the wail before he was able to release it.  He wouldn’t let go of the bumble bee pillow again for the next forty-eight hours.

After that he was pretty much done with it, casting the Pillow Pet aside before Christmas even came, replaced by an insatiable obsession with “choo-choos” that lives on to this day.  It was all he ever wanted, and now he could care less. Hell, I bet even Ralphie’s Red Rider BB gun was collecting dust in a closet before the Easter Bunny came hopping down that bunny trail a few months later. Its moment in the spotlight was minimal, but I  learned some things from that once coveted yellow and black monstrosity with the red fuzzy nose that now gets mostly ignored and routinely left in the basement. And the look of wonder on his face when I handed him that stupid bumble bee in that grocery store was worth far more than that $14.95 I reluctantly spent on it.

As far as this jolly old elf, my Twelve Days of Sexmas didn’t fare much better than the now forgotten Pillow Pet. My wife’s period arrived at my father-in law’s house just as we did. However, by the new year, three condoms did actually make an appearance.  They brought gold, frankincense, and myrrh.    

Fear or Flying

“Our first plane got in late and I had to run with her in my arms all the way across the airport to our connecting terminal,” my friend Timberly said as she offered up the tale of her experience flying alone with her eighteen month old daughter for the first time. “Plus, she was in desperate need of a diaper change that had to happen before we got on the plane, so I had to change her right there in front of the gate before we were rushed onto our next plane.” 
“Sounds like a hell of a lot of fun,” I responded.
“If you think that was fun, you should have been there for her complete breakdown on the flight home.  As hard as I tried, there was nothing I could do to calm her down.  I was totally out of snacks, though I’m not sure if that would have helped anyways,” she continued. “Plus, on the second flight back she had an explosion in her diaper and I had to change her in that tiny ass airplane bathroom.”

“How the hell do you do that?” I asked, not really expecting an answer.  I already knew the answer.  There was no answer.  You just figure it out.  Plus, my kid weighs like twice as much, and the logistics of her attempt would never translate.  Hell, I’ve changed Jack’s diaper on the top of the back of the toilet in the bar bathroom stall at the Crescent Moon on more than one occasion, so I knew exactly what to fear in the cramped confines of the friendly skies.  It wouldn’t be fun and more than likely I was going to get shit on me.  I sat back in the shotgun seat of my wife’s Hyundai, closed my eyes, and prayed that I wouldn’t have to figure out the airplane bathroom diaper change later that afternoon.  After all, it was barely an hour flight.  So, I had that going for me, but I also knew very well that my son’s ass has impeccable timing.  Still, I hoped for the best.

I had plenty of snacks, a small blue paper gift bag from my wife filled with a “life vest” as she put it, and plenty of time to catch our flight, but that conversation earlier in the week was still fresh in my mind.  The fear was slowly creeping up from my gut into my consciousness as I kissed my wife goodbye and grabbed my son and my suitcase from the car seat and the trunk respectively.  My parents had secured a cheap fare from Omaha to Chicago for me months ago, wanting to take advantage of the last few months of Jack’s ability to fly for free on my lap.  Jack was more than excited.  He had been enamored with planes flying overhead since the summer, and he definitely seemed to understand what I was talking about when I told him we would be going on an airplane.  When he woke up that morning I asked him if he was ready to go with Daddy on an airplane in the sky. He nodded yes emphatically, in the way that he had started doing in the past week, focusing all of his synapses and energy into the up and down head motion that seemed to take all of his concentration to pull off.  I smiled at his adorable affirmation, but I was somewhat less enthused than he.
With my son my only real responsibility these days, I had no reason to decline the ticket.  While the Professor enjoyed some rare time alone in Omaha, Jack and I would be flying together, in one cramped coach seat on a jam-packed Southwest Airlines flight from Omaha’s Eppley airport to Chicago’s Midway. This Stay at Home Dad show was hitting the road for the first leg of what would end up being close to a month away from Omaha for the holidays.  I slung the backpack full of toys, treats, diapers, and distractions over my shoulder, watched my wife drive off, grabbed my son’s hand, and with a deep, calming breath, led Jack through the revolving door into the airport.  After succumbing to his desires to go through the slowly spinning door a third time, I snatched him into my free arm and headed for the ticket counter to obtain our boarding passes.
I offered up proof of my paternity and proof of Jack’s age in exchange for my boarding pass and his, checked my suitcase, and watched Jack flirt with the woman at the counter for a few seconds as I set my mind towards the task at hand–getting through the security checkpoint.  My big, dark beard and titanium hardware in my right leg were enough to make air travel more than a mild inconvenience as it was, never mind the nineteen month old with the desire to wander, or the newly instated travel protocol that had thrown the entire country into a hissy fit for the past two weeks.  Based on all of the rumors and eyewitness reports flying across the internet in the last day, needless to say I was ready to be molested and I encouraged Jack to get ready for a fondling of his own.
“Let’s hope my penis looks bigger than yours in the full body X-ray,” I smirked to Jack as I took off my belt and emptied the contents of my pockets into my backpack as we approached the checkpoint. 
“Enis,” Jack responded, pointing to the front of his pants and lightening the tension that permeated from the cluster of TSA agents ahead of us.
I took off Jack’s coat, followed by my own as I tried to wrestle his blanket and stuffed monkey away from him to place into the plastic bin with both of our pairs of shoes.  Jack was taken aback by this infringement of his civil rights, and immediately started screaming for his “bee-bee” and his “ooo-ooo-onkey” as I tried to direct him through the line.  An older woman in line behind me made it known that she thought taking away a baby’s stuffed animal and blanket was absurd.  I gave her a polite smile trying to convey that I agreed with her but that a bearded Armenian such as myself can’t risk breaking bad on the TSA.  Jack wasn’t happy and I feared that this was just the beginning of what would be a miserable few hours, when suddenly we were able to bypass the full body scan and the pat down and were thankfully hustled through the metal detector without even a suspicious glance at my beard.  I led Jack past the smiling attendant to the other end of the conveyor belt to finally retrieve his monkey and put an end to his despair. 

“Luckily you weren’t trying to smuggle anything in that little fuzzy bastard,” I said to him as I sat him down on a nearby bench to put his shoes back on before gathering my thoughts, my belongings, and getting dressed.  “You got lucky this time, little man.”  I laughed at the up and down nod he gave me and the relative smoothness of our passage through security, as I fastened my belt and tied my shoes.  It was actually the best TSA experience I had had in years, despite the media hoopla and the toddler obstacle.  In fact, the baby had actually trumped the beard.  If all aspects of air travel with a child were this easy, I had nothing to worry about.

Of course, I was still worried.  The ease of movement through the security checkpoint had left us with at least two and a half hours to kill before boarding, and something told me relaxing with my traditional pre-flight beer or three was going to be out of the question.  I was ready to keep him occupied on the hour long direct flight, but I hadn’t considered the hours before boarding that might prove challenging.  I knew his patience was going to be pushed to the limit, but before I could even allow myself to get anxious about it, I got lost in the sweetness of his amazement at the planes outside the windows.  “OOOOOOO!” he would yell as he pointed to an airplane or a luggage cart or a gasoline truck.  “Coooooooool,” he continued as he climbed onto a chair and pressed his face against the terminal window leaving a spot of drool in his wake. He’d pull his lips back from the glass and slowly emit a fully formed “Wow,” his warm breath fogging up a tiny oval on the tinted airport window.
We spent the next hour and a half running from one terminal window to the next, repeating the process, Jack climbing up and down every empty chair in the vicinity, running across the terminal from gate to gate trying to catch a glimpse of something new, a chorus of “ooooos,” “cools,” and “wows” emanating from my tiny midget as he scurried through the relatively empty airport attracting the gazes of various fellow travelers.  With each scamper across the terminal, I stole a glimpse of the airport bar, thinking back to my non-baby days of air travel, growing thirstier with each pass. There had to be a way.
Not wanting to break into the as yet unopened care package in my backpack until absolutely necessary, or at least until we were on the plane, I led Jack to the little magazine shop where I purchased a copy of Rolling Stone that I was sure to not have a chance to read, and a package of never fail peanut butter cheese crackers that Jack grabbed off the toddler height shelf. 
“Coooogies,” he said as his face lit up at my willingness to buy the bright orange treats for him.

Knowing that the crackers would buy me some stationary time, I headed straight for the bar and ordered an overpriced draught.  With Jack in one hand and my beer in the other I scoped out a nice corner table underneath a television and set Jack in a seat with a cracker.  He devoured half the package before my third swig and was ready for more exploring. 

“Ooooooooooo,” he said dramatically, pointing all the way across the airport at something I didn’t even see.
“Yeah, that’s pretty sweet,” I replied trying to hurry my beer down my throat, but still trying to taste it.  “Here, have another cookie,” I said.  He brushed it off and pointed again.  He was no longer hungry.  That wasn’t a good thing.  I had counted on snacks to occupy him for the entire plane ride, but I already had to go all in with peanut butter crackers before we even lined up to board.  This didn’t bode well for anybody.
I frantically searched my backpack for something that might offer me at least a chance to finish my beer, never mind the upcoming plane ride.  I uncovered a toy motorcycle and one of my old yellow Matchbox cars that he had been attached to for the past week.  He took the toys but had no interest in sitting still, so I set up a barricade with a few empty chairs trapping him in the corner of the bar.  I knew it wouldn’t last, so I chugged the rest of my beer in a hurried gulp and carried Jack out of the bar area right before his patience ran out and right after he shoved the car a few feet away from us sending it rolling across the terminal.  As soon as I set him down, he was off again speeding awkwardly to the other side of the terminal like a mouse on a mission.  I caught up with him right before he attempted to go back through security, and dragged him unwillingly back to our gate where the line to board was just starting to form. 
I ate one of the radioactive looking orange crackers while I tried to find a comfortable position to stand in with Jack and a bag on opposite shoulders.  We waited to board while Jack finished the second cracker I was trying to eat, crumbs dropping onto both of our shirts. I then let him press buttons on my Blackberry, a final act of desperation on my part.  Jack was reaching the end of his appetite and his patience and we still had an entire plane ride ahead of us.  I prayed that my wife had packed a miracle inside that care package in my backpack, or at least some chloroform.  I feared the worst.  Like comic book cells, flashes of my near future flooded my brain. My well behaved Baby Bruce Banner was going to turn into the Incredibly Annoying Hulk at thirty thousand feet.  I was going to be “that guy” with “that screaming kid,” that would ruin the entire flight.  I wished I would have had time for another drink.  The trepidation lodged in my gut.  I tried to smile it away. 
“Are you ready to go on the airplane?” I asked Jack in a voice I never thought I’d use before I became a Dad, as he attempted to call a seventeen digit and letter phone number.  He dropped my phone to focus on his response, another emphatic, concentrated, up and down nod. I double checked to make sure I had everything and then handed the attendant our boarding passes and headed down the ramp to the boarding doors.  Jack’s face lit up and his excitement was almost contagious enough to squelch my anxiety as we stepped from the chill of the Omaha winter air to the stifling warmth of the plane cabin.
I squeezed my way down the center aisle carefully maneuvering so as to not smack anyone in the head with my backpack or Jack, noticing the smiles from fellow passengers as we passed.  They were either the result of Jack’s cuteness, or from their sense of relief that we were not sitting by them.  I guessed a little of both, and worked my way to the back of the plane where I snagged an aisle seat in the last row hoping to luck out and possibly get the row all to ourselves. 
“Please be sure to take any available overhead space as this is a full flight,” said the flight attendant over the PA system, immediately squashing my hopes, followed by a college aged passenger who snagged the window seat.  He was the only black guy on the flight and I was heavily bearded and had a 19 month old antsy child on my lap.  If there was any chance for an empty middle seat, the two of us in the back row held the golden ticket.  I offered my theory to my row mate and he laughed heartily as we both crossed our fingers.  Despite the threats of a full flight, we looked across the aisle at each other as the last few passengers claimed seats elsewhere, exchanged smiles, and settled in to perhaps the only non-full row of our flight.  We shouldn’t have been so secure in our comfort.

Soon enough, a late running and final passenger boarded and headed directly for our back row.  He was disheveled and carried quite the carry on haul.  After a brief argument with the rear flight attendant who eventually forced him to check his oversized bag, he took a look at the three of us already in the row and squeezed his way in between us. His disdain was quite apparent as he struggled to get comfortable in the middle seat as Jack fumbled through the seat pocket in front of me, pulling out each item and tossing it aside.  I tried to cast a sly glance over at the dude in the window seat to gauge his reaction to our new row member as the middle man buckled his seat belt with a sigh and immediately closed his eyes.

I gazed around our immediate vicinity and caught a few surrounding passengers trying to hide the fact that they were looking at Jack.  Hey, I totally understood their glares.  I’ve been there.  When you don’t have a kid on a plane with you, the last thing you want is a kid on the plane with you.  Hell, I used to cringe at the sound of someone else’s germ-ridden kid coughing up a lung in the cramped quarters of a flight.  I’ve sat across the aisle from a three year old that obviously shit their pants.  I’ve been kept awake on a red eye flight by a baby that never seemed to stop crying in the row directly behind me. I too was once childless and extremely anti-child.  The only difference now was that my wife and I were a bit lax one night, almost two years ago, in the birth control department.  I wasn’t any happier bringing a toddler on a plane than the rest of the passengers.  But, I was the one that had to deal with him.  I was the one that had to find ways to entertain him for a solid hour in a cramped third of a row so as not to disturb their precious flights.  I was the one that would have to figure out how to change a poopy diaper in the airplane lavatory if it came to that.  So, as far as I was concerned, the rest of them could just suck it up, face forward, and mind their own fucking business.
At least my fellow passengers, the middle man included, could just close their eyes, pretend Jack wasn’t there, fall asleep, and wake up in Chicago.  I on the other hand, had to be “on.”  Because I had once been in their child free flying shoes, I had a deep desire to step up my game to keep Jack in check for the duration of the flight just to prove to them that it could be done; that the presence of a young child doesn’t have to equal misery at forty thousand feet.  Turns out that Jack and I were both up for the challenge, but it wasn’t easy.
Shortly after takeoff, I noticed a smell.  I looked around and brushed it off until I smelled it again a few minutes later.  Flashbacks to my friend’s story crept into my consciousness while visions of a harrowing trip to the toilet closet behind me started to become more of a reality in the near future.  Of course he shit, I thought.  Things couldn’t go that smoothly for me, could they?  I lifted his butt to my nose and gave it a quick sniff before I slyly checked the inside of his diaper with my finger and prayed that it wouldn’t come out soiled.  It didn’t.  Phew.  I settled in and read the emergency pamphlet to Jack before placing my drink order with a much too talkative flight attendant who I had just overheard bitching a little too loudly to her partner in the galley behind us about a female passenger a few rows in front of us.
Then, I smelled it again.  I thought for a moment that it could have been the sneaky gas of a fellow passenger in our general vicinity before I caught a few of them tossing quick glances at Jack.  I played dumb and gave his diapered ass a sniff again.  No shit, literally.  But if that odor was any indication, and if it was in fact coming from my son, it didn’t bode well for the rest of the flight. I ignored the wafts of fecal fumes when they returned again a couple of minutes later as I tried to distract Jack with the picture of Santa Claus on the Sky Mall magazine, pretending that the smell wasn’t coming from the boy on my lap.  At that point, hopes, prayers, and denial was all I had between me and a mid-air diaper disaster.  Farting, I could handle.  I took my plastic cup of orange juice and ice cubes from the flight attendant, trying to hide the fact that I overheard both her disdain for most of the passengers on the flight and her odd story of her planned sexual escapade for that evening’s Houston stop over, and tried to snag a few sips before handing it over to Jack to spill all over the two of us.  I sat there uncomfortably, shirt covered in O.J., trying to contain Jack’s desire to explore the cabin, while I continued to send good thoughts to my toddler’s intestines.        
I waited as long as possible before breaking out the “life vest” care package that my wife had stowed in my carry on backpack along with all of my regular childcare necessities.  Inside were two cards with sweet notes of encouragement, a Ziplock bag of peanut butter “no bake” cookies, and half a dozen small toys from the Target dollar bin that kept Jack’s attention for about three minutes apiece.  Now, that doesn’t seem like much, but when you have to keep a one year old child occupied and quiet on your lap for sixty seven minutes with nowhere to go, every second of distraction helps.  Between the toys, the cookies, two rounds of orange juice and ice cubes, and the contents of the seat back pocket in front of me, we were good to go all the way up to the pilot’s announcement that we had begun our final descent.  After that, I just had to allow him to stick his meat paw hands in my mouth and giggle hysterically for fifteen minutes, and then we were ready to deplane. I was amazed with the lack of drama: no crying, no temper tantrums, no running aimlessly about the cabin, no annoying of the passengers next to us, and best of all, no shitty diapers. I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised.  Jack never ceases to amaze me.

The flight back home was even better, with the now veteran flier Jack entertaining a much friendlier crop of flight attendants and nearby passengers.  While other babies on board had unceasing breakdowns, Jack’s behavior had my fellow fliers fighting for his attention.  I wouldn’t have been surprised if they’d let him fly the plane or if he took the middle aged flight attendant into the bathroom to become the littlest member of the mile high club.  I know I definitely lucked the fuck out with this one, though I don’t know how much credit I can take for him.  He always manages to exceed my expectations.  When it’s all said and done, time and again, he shoves my worries back in my face with a stellar performance.

In the future, I hope to remember these instances where he has surprised me.  I hope I can keep being proved wrong by my son. Hell, I hope that someday I won’t have to be proved wrong.  With each new trial or adventure, I’m learning to start to give him the benefit of the doubt.  I’m learning to more freely offer him the credit that he deserves.  I’m learning more about my son and what he is capable of.  He is slowly displaying that more often than not he is worthy more of my trust and positivity than my assumed worries and fears.  If I can remember that, perhaps when it really counts further on down the road, I’ll be able to prove something to him. 
A few days after our trip, Jack woke up screaming from a nap.  I ran into his room to find him standing in his crib with his pacifier in two pieces in his hands.  He had bitten the nub off the plug, the third such instance in the last few months.  This time, however, it was the last one.  I called my wife at work and told her the news. 
“Well, I guess we’re done with pacifiers,” the Professor responded.
I knew getting rid of the pacifier was an eventual necessity before it was too late, but I wasn’t sure if he was ready.  I’d seen how he reacted to just the mere possibility of having to take a nap or go to bed without one.  There were even times when he was awake that you’d have to force him to give it up to much violent protest. 
“Okay, but that’s your call.  I’m not sure I’m on board with this decision,” I said, wondering more and more if it was Jack that wasn’t ready, or me.  “You can deal with it,” I continued.
Once again, I feared the worst.  I figured we’d have to listen to him scream himself to sleep for the next four days, and make several late night trips into his room to pacify him back to sleep ourselves. I saw lots of tears, frustration, and anxiety in the forecast.  I envisioned a completely ruined weekend.
I talked to him as I was changing his diaper and putting him into his pajamas that night.  We had one of our first Father-Son heart to hearts.  I told him what was in store for him at bedtime.  I told him there was no more pacifiers for bedtime.  I told him that it was time to go to bed like a big boy.  He gave me one of those real serious nods. 
It shouldn’t have surprised me that he went to bed without a peep.  There was no whining, no crying, no screaming.  He went right to bed “like a big boy.”  He napped the following afternoon without incident as well.  The next night, it was more of the same with Jack very easily letting go of his long time crutch of a pacifier, while I let go of something entirely different, and started to see my son as that big boy who could handle himself and his challenges a lot better than I was giving him credit for.

One is Enough

“Feels like old times doesn’t it?” I asked my wife as she walked out of my son’s room.  I was sitting in an awkward semi-upright position on the couch  in the living room.  It was 4 AM. I was not happy to be down there.

“Tell me about it,” she responded after her initial surprise at hearing my voice through the darkness.  This was more than just your standard middle of the night deja vu.  It had been awhile, but we had in fact been here before. Getting woken up by your crying kid in the middle of the night is something that you never get used to, no matter how comfortable it starts to feel once you’re out of bed. 

First comes the unceasing cry from the baby monitor.  The startling first few seconds of consciousness give way to anger after you look at the clock.  You try to decipher the wail and assess the urgency of the situation.  You hope it goes away.  Then comes the standoff.  You pretend you didn’t hear it.  You lay as still as possible.  You hope it goes away.  It doesn’t.  You try to wait it out until your spouse gives in and goes downstairs.  You succeed and listen as the scene unravels in the monitor, your body trying to convince your mind to just turn it off and go back to sleep.  Yeah, you’ve won, but you feel guilty so you follow suit downstairs a minute later anyways.  After all, there are no winners in these trying moments of parenting.  You lose together or you’re doing it wrong. 

If you don’t somehow end up in an argument before you get back upstairs, you bond over the shared shittiness of your situation and wordlessly renew your alliance in the dim green light of the microwave display as it obnoxiously reminds you of the current time.  You complain with each other, not at each other.  You laugh off your need for sleep as a team.  Oddly enough, those are the times that I feel closest to my wife. Those are the times when it becomes blatantly clear that we are still in this together.  And those are the times that I realize that I couldn’t do this without her. Shared desperation breeds lasting bonds. There have been countless moments like this, at obscene hours of the night or inopportune minutes of the day, where it’s the two of us dealing with the one him.  This was one of those times.  This was one of those moments.  Yet, this still fucking sucked.  We gave each other a tired sideways hug as we headed back upstairs knowing that we both had a tough task ahead of us; falling back asleep after our rude awakening before our son woke up again.

We hadn’t dealt with many late night team building exercises in quite some time.  A combination of a final round of teething and a bout of fever teamed up to change that trend, again.  This was the second night in a row.   If there’s one thing we’re proud of as parents, it’s been our success in the sleep war.  We’ve dug the nap trenches.  We’ve held the bedtime line.  We’ve been to hell and back.  We were not expecting another tour of duty. We thought we had said goodbye to four in the morning forever.  We wouldn’t go back there.  We couldn’t go back there.  Not again.  Not after all that we’ve been through.

We’ve rocked grooves into the hard wood floors, we’ve comforted in closed closets, we’ve let him “cry it out.”  We’ve blacked out windows.  We’ve worn out two CD players from repeatedly playing a Pixies Lullabies CD night after night. Those songs now drone on incessantly in our souls as well as in our son’s bedroom.  We’ve forced ourselves into seclusion in our upstairs bedroom.  I’ve fucking pissed in a makeshift bed pan in said bedroom so as not to wake him up by sneaking down the loud and creaky old stairs above his bedroom to use the actual bathroom right outside his door.  I’ve also failed to properly hide that fact resulting in an awkward exchange between my wife and one of our friends.  Try explaining the necessity of a piss jug to someone.  It just doesn’t sound right no matter how you spin it.  But hey, it’s our fucking reality.  Needless to say, it’s been a pretty “whatever it takes” sort of vibe to get him to fall asleep when we want him to and stay asleep for enough time to keep us all sane.

Shit, this whole stay at home Dad experiment, this entire parenting trip for that matter, has a pretty consistent “whatever it takes” type of vibe to it.  As they say about the unpredictability of the NFL: Any given Sunday, baby.  Except, it’s every damn day.  I knew this instance was merely a random momentary setback, but it was still disheartening to two parents who struggle with sleep as it is to be up two nights in a row with the kid like we were back to week three and breastfeeding was still in the picture.  Plus, we were trying to fight off the virus our kid brought into the house from one of those walking petri dishes he hangs out with.  And, maybe we stayed up too late the night before doing Mommy and Daddy things.  You know, the return of the perfect shit storm.  You come across them a lot as a parent.  Especially when you live in the Great Plains.

It’s those four AM nights that you thought were over, the seemingly never ending bouts of teething, the sleep war, and all the rest of the milestones that you’ve struggled to reach and pass that really make me wonder why anyone ever wants to do it all over again.  Another kid? Holy fuck. You’ve got to be kidding me?! Why on earth would you want to add the trials and tribulations of those first days, weeks, months, and years to the new found challenges of an older child?  No sir, it’s not for me, and I’m not afraid to admit it.  Sure, maybe I’m weak, maybe I’m selfish, maybe I’m lazy, but I would prefer if my son was an only child.  To me, that’s just being rational.  If I’ve learned anything from my first year and a half of being a dad, it’s that I don’t ever want to do it again.  It’s hard enough getting it right the first time.  It’s okay to stop there, isn’t it?

It seems like from the moment I cut the cord, people were asking us when we wanted to have our second kid.  It’s like if you have one, people automatically assume that that’s all you want to or can do.  The pressure comes from everywhere and it’s enough to make you want to perform a do it yourself vasectomy.  We weren’t really sure we wanted one kid, nonetheless a quiver full.  We never had some weird reproductive plan.  We never had any preconceived desires for a family of a certain size.  Surprisingly, at least to me, there’s plenty of other people willing to carry the torch of conception for the rest of us.  I barely know anyone with just one kid anymore.  It’s really quite the bandwagon. I’m good with waving and smiling with my wife and one child as it drives by.  Hopefully they throw out some candy.

The parents with the multiple children are always the ones that want you to have another kid the most.  After my own parents, they’re the worst offenders. But, I’m on to them.  My time with the MorMoms and their stables of children combined with a few instances of simultaneous babysitting for friends and neighbors have only confirmed my stance.  I’ve seen firsthand what it’s like to run errands and try to keep tabs on three kids in the grocery store. I’ve witnessed the rudimentary jealousy in the reaction of a child you’ve said “no” to as you say “yes” to another.  I know how taxing it can be to try to get two toddlers to nap at the same time on different floors of the house.  It wasn’t one of my better Tuesdays. 

The parents of multiple children love to rattle off a laundry list of advantages to having that second or third or fourth child.  But the advantages tend toward sounding a bit more like justifications when added to the myriad of negative aspects of having more than one child that they must think I don’t see, hear, or remember. According to my research, the second kid always comes a long and stirs shit up. What once was Camelot is now the beginning of the fall of the Holy Roman Empire.  There is all sorts of bitching and comparing and complaining about the new kid.  If you ask my friends, all of their first children were practically perfect.  Their second ones not so much.  I get the texts and listen to their stories.  I read their Facebook updates and their faces.  There’s proof of this shit.

“She’s nothing like my Jack was,” my friend Stacy, a very early proponent of multiple children said to me over my last visit to Chicago.  “She’s a holy terror!” she continued while I laughed, “Be glad you don’t have two.”

I am.

“Oh Jason, you’re no fun!” my neighbor Lisa said to me the other day as she reprimanded the youngest of her two daughters while we were at the park.  I was “no fun” because I didn’t want to have another baby, even though she had been dealing with her unruly second child all afternoon while I supervised her oldest and my only.

“No, that’s no fun,” I said with a smile, referring to her almost constant frustration with her second child.

“I never had this problem with Gracie.  Gracie was perfect,” she countered, dragging her youngest to her third timeout of the hour.

“Exactly,” I responded, smiling in the solace of watching my own perfect little angel eating sand.

Sure, I know the benefits of siblings.  I love large families.  But, in this day and age I also know that you don’t need to produce kid after kid just to reap those benefits.  My son is being raised in a very social environment.  Our large family is made up of not only relatives, but friends and neighbors and all of their respective offspring.  My son will not be lacking in role models, playmates, cousins, or friends.  He’ll be able to enjoy all the possible benefits without all of the certain negatives.  He’ll be an only child, but he won’t be a lonely child.  That’s the plan anyways. 

Make no mistake, I love being a Dad.  I love being a Stay at Home Dad even more.  Hell, “love” isn’t even a strong enough word.  There is no word.  But, I can’t guarantee that I’d feel the same way with another kid in the picture.  I can’t guarantee that I could even find the proper patience or balance to deal with not one, but two kids and a life at the same time.  When it comes down to it, like most parents, I just want what is best for my child.  When you’ve got a good thing going, it’s asinine to gamble on messing with it.  Know when to walk away and know when to take the money and run, as they say.  I’m good with that.  I’m also good with retiring that damn piss jug for good.  I’ll forever raise my glass to those parents that raise more than one kid and succeed.  I’m fine with being your biggest fan, your shoulder to cry on, your ear to complain into, and occasionally, your babysitter, just as long as your fine with those of us who only want to have one.

Just me and the Moms

It was one of those perfect, rare, crisp and sunny mornings of early fall that you’d sell your kid for in the middle of January, and I was eager to get outside.  I grabbed Jack in one arm and threw his doggie backpack around the other as I stepped out the door, cringing from the sharp stabbing feeling in my shoulder.  I never had aches and pains until Jack was around.  Now, I have the rotator cuff of a worn down major league middle reliever.  I stepped off the porch, taking a deep breath of Omaha autumn and noticed that things weren’t going too smoothly next door. 

“No, no, no, wait!  Don’t connect that!” I yelled from across the front yard as I latched the belt of Jack’s car seat in the back of my Elantra. My neighbor and her friend were attempting to jump start a mini van in her driveway prior to our visit to the locally famous Vala’s Pumpkin Patch. I was still trying to figure out why Julia’s van even needed to be jumped after the mere ten minutes in my neighbor Lisa’s driveway when I overheard their clueless discussion about connecting the jumper cables.

“You have to ground that one,” I continued, as I left my son in his car seat, grabbed my bag of cables from my hatchback, and ran across our yards to help avoid the catastrophe I envisioned had they failed to ground the last cable.  Truthfully, I couldn’t tell you what would actually happen had they connected all four clamps to both batteries, but I knew finding out wasn’t going to be a great way to start our Monday.  Lucky for all of us, I’ve had to jump start a few of my past vehicles more times than I would have liked, so the diagram on my jumper cable bag is tattooed on my brain. It’s one of the few automobile issues that I can actually remedy myself, sans instructions, but I figured the diagram would go a long way to convincing the pair that they were in fact doing it wrong. 

“See, right here,” I said as I handed Lisa the bag and directed their attention to the front of the cable bag.  “Maybe you should put a picture of that in your phone or something,” I offered with equal parts sincerity and playful snark.  Julia proceeded to connect the cables correctly, as the three of us jump started the mini van like an awkward pit crew.

“How many stay at home parents does it take to jump start a car?” a voice yelled from behind us as Julia started the van.  It was my wife yelling from our front porch.  The Professor was standing in her green robe leaning over the side of the porch with a coffee cup in her hand, in no hurry to head to work since Jack and I were freeing up the house for the morning.  Our little rat dog was barking hysterically from inside the living room window.

“You both need to shut up,” I yelled back, coming to the defense of my fellow “unemployed” parents and feigning a bruised ego.  The Professor laughed and sipped her coffee as I walked over and kissed her before running back to my car where Jack was getting slightly impatient with the unexpected delay.  He had no idea what the hell a pumpkin even was let alone the pumpkin patch happy fun farm that was Vala’s, but it was obvious that he wanted to find out and find out quickly.  For the time being, he would settle for a piece of a granola bar.

As Jack slobbered over a chocolate chip fiber bar in the back, I followed the silver mini-van out of the city.  In front of me were two moms, two boys under five, three girls under 4, what looked like at least three large duffel bags, two strollers the size of shopping carts, and a big bag of popcorn stuffed into every spare inch of the godforsaken soccer mom Honda, haphazardly changing lanes as they led me on I-80 towards Gretna, NE.  Jack and I were blaring “Highway to Hell” from the car radio, as I was trying to show him how to do the metal horns with one hand and drive with the other.  I would have bet my life it was a completely different atmosphere in the van ahead. 

My neighbor Lisa has two little girls. Julia, Lisa’s friend from church, has two boys and a girl about Jack’s age.  It turns out that all of Lisa’s friends are from her church.  Therefore, most of the adults that I interact with on a daily basis, if any, are likely from her church.  Lisa and Julia are Mormons.  It only really matters because I am not.  Not even close.  The only thing that I really know about Mormons is that there are many different kinds of Mormons.  Most frown upon alcohol and foul language.  Some inspire HBO dramas.  Some go to BYU.  Others advertise on television.  And if I’ve learned anything from those TV commercials, it’s that Mormons are pretty nice.  The Mormons in my life are definitely that.  They are also definitely not the polygamy kind of Mormons.

Though, I do find it quite humorous when Jack and I end up out at the zoo, the park, the children’s museum, or in this case the pumpkin patch, with Lisa, Julia, and anywhere from three to a half dozen other Mormon “stay at home” moms and up to a baker’s dozen or more of their kids.  I always wonder if anyone ever thinks that the guy with the big beard is out with his “sister wives.” Little would they know that all of the women are in fact Mormon, just not those kind of Mormons.

Instead, they’re my kind of Mormons.  I call them my “MorMoms.”  At least two to four times a week, it’s just me, Jack, and up to a half dozen beautiful, friendly, young Mormon women who want to hang out with me, feed me, laugh at my jokes, and carry my kid around all day.  Yep, on your average day in Omaha, no matter where we go, my son and I pretty much have all the moms to ourselves.  The pumpkin patch would be no exception.

I followed my two favorite MorMoms off the interstate exit and onto a rural highway before having to slam on my brakes as they abruptly attempted a U-turn in the middle of the road.  Thinking back to the directions on the flier I read while the moms were jumping the van, I knew we were on the right track and we just needed to keep going straight, but I followed suit, flipped on my blinker just the same, and spun the wheel around hard and fast.

“Hang on buddy,” I said to Jack as I completed a U-turn of my own.  We backtracked a few blocks and then I watched as they took a pretty hesitant right turn.  Soon, we were on a dirt path down a hill that I wasn’t even sure was a road, apparently taking the back way onto the pumpkin patch property.  We pulled into two adjacent parking spots in the stripped plot of farm land, and I could see in their faces that the U-turn was not a planned maneuver.  They blamed Lisa’s G.P.S. and were extremely and overly apologetic given the circumstances.  They’re always so apologetic, especially when they don’t have to be. It’s very cute.

I grabbed Jack out of his car seat along with his backpack and walked over to lend Lisa and Julia a hand with the scene that was quickly unfolding next to us.  I switched Jack to my good arm while I tried to wrangle one or more of the four kids who immediately leaped from both sides of the van before Julia could even remove her seat belt.  Lisa yelled to her girls, both of them halfway across the parking lot by the time we even noticed their absence from between the two cars, as she yanked one of the two enormous strollers out of the back of the van.  I helped with the second one as Julia stuffed it with diaper bags and her toddler.  We all scanned the area trying to do our own head counts of the kids.  There seemed to be more than we left with.  They were like wet fucking mogwais. They were all over the place.  I took solace in the fact that only one of them was mine.  Not that that really matters anyways.

Lisa and Julia, though both younger than me, have been at this stay at home parent gig a lot longer than I have and it shows.  They’ve got multitudes of offspring, yet they’re still chomping at the bit to take care of my solitary little man.  I’m easily the hotshot parenting rookie in their eyes, the requisite hazing included. They make fun of my shoulder injury as they carry around kids twice the size of Jack, rubbing it in my face as they snag Jack with a spare hand and lift him into their empty arm while already carrying their own preschoolers in the other. They make fun of me when I leave play dates early to get Jack home for his regular nap time.  I imagine them calling me the “nap nazi” behind my back, though I can’t be sure.  They’re probably too nice for that. But it’s still like leaving the bar early when all your friends are dug in until last call.  You never hear the end of it.

They laugh at the lack of junk food in Jack’s diet.  They laugh at his early bedtime.  They laugh at my grand aspirations for early potty training.  They make me carry the equipment and push all the strollers. Most often, however, the hazing usually takes the form of them stealing my manageable, roll with the punches, sixteen month old, and leaving me responsible for keeping track of their sleep deprived, sugar fueled gremlins.  While they pass Jack back and forth, giggling and flirting with him, I have to make sure that the rest of the kiddie caravan stays in line.  For a newbie like myself, it can get pretty overwhelming sometimes.

Do you know how hard it is to keep track of a half dozen four year olds in the Kingdom of the Night nocturnal animals exhibit at the Omaha Zoo?  It’s really quite the exhibit, and though I cherish the chance to silently chuckle when the MorMoms obliviously discuss their amazement over the “wet and weird looking beavers” and their “beaver holes,” it’s dark for fuck’s sake, and there’s alligators and shit.  Let down your guard and you might have one less preschooler to worry about.

Vala’s Pumpkin Patch was a nightmare in that sense.  Acres and acres of shit to get into, things to spend money on, animals within arms reach, contraptions to climb on and fall off of, stuff to ride on and fall off of, and plenty of places to hide.  It was like one big game of hide and seek tag on acres of farmland that I didn’t want to play.  Four year old kids are some crazy little fuckers.  I was counting kids, catching kids, grabbing kids, lifting kids, chasing kids, and answering countless absurd kid questions, as my kid was off making cute special memories with the neighbor lady.  As I tried to capture a few seconds of Jack throwing corn kernels from the corn pit on the camcorder, I noticed that he had something in his mouth.  Assuming it was a dried kernel, I reached in to snatch it out and surprisingly found a barely eaten green fruit snack that Lisa had given him earlier that morning.  Jack had somehow managed to chew on the same fruit snack for almost two hours!  Of course, I didn’t even notice because I was otherwise detained trying to keep one of the little girls from stripping in the corn pit or one of the boys from trying to waterboard his little brother with the squirt gun from the rubber duck race game.  Plus, it was almost an hour and a half past nap time!  I was beginning to think I was just not cut out to be a MorMom. 

As I sat in my driveway after our pumpkin patch excursion, watching Jack from the rear view mirror passed out in his car seat with a half eaten piece of pizza on his lap and part of a tofu dog balancing precariously on his chest, I smiled at the thought of them making fun of me for leaving early again.  I also thought about how much I am learning from my MorMoms.  For one, I’ve learned to always keep a stash of never fail snacks on me no matter how short or long the trip out of the house is going to be.  I’ve learned that tired kids make for terrible kids. I’ve learned that some kids do need a leash.  I’ve also learned the great benefits of including the “1-2-3” thing into my disciplinary repertoire as soon as possible. I’ve learned just how powerful a “timeout” can really be.  And, I’ve especially learned that I really don’t want to have more than one kid. Ever. Shit, being around the MorMoms so much, I’ve even learned to clean up my foul language a bit…at least around them.

Most importantly though, by hanging out with my “neighbor wife” and the other MorMoms, I’ve learned that no matter how little else you may have in common, it’s pretty easy to bond over the shared responsibility of 24/7 childcare.  Lisa may prefer “movies with Disney type endings,” “books meant for (whispers) teenage girls,” and the most innocent and bland country music out there, but we can relate to each other.  Despite the stark contrast between who we are as people, and the different ways we choose to raise our children, or spend our time, we completely understand each other. We’ve become unlikely fast friends. We watch out for each other.  We help each other out.  We make each other lunch.  We fucking text each other back and forth all day long.  Surprisingly, we’re the ones turning into sister wives.      

So it was on a blustery fall day that blew garbage cans into streets like video game hurdles to avoid that Jack and I found ourselves on yet another play date with my sister wife Lisa and the MorMoms.  Lisa got us into the Omaha Children’s Museum on her family pass, and it took about three minutes for Jack to find his usual spot in her arms while I was tasked with keeping an eye on all the more mobile little girls that seemed to scatter like my dog at bath-time as soon as we entered the first room.  There was one in the fake boat, teetering on a ledge where I’m sure she shouldn’t have been climbing, while the other made a run all the way across the room to the puppet show booth.  A third had her mind set on painting a watercolor and was asking me to find her a smock just as I caught the first one from falling of the boat.  All the while, I’m trying to keep some sort of an eye on my own kid who’s leading Lisa around the joint like she’s his rickshaw driver.

Jack can walk just fine now mind you, but the MorMoms are his favorite mode of transportation on days like this. I don’t blame him.  He is pretty much treated like some “golden child” or main Mormon Joseph Smith back from the dead in the body of a toddler.  My son has the MorMoms, especially Lisa, in the palm of his little meat paw with the ease of a smile.  Jack is more than fine with the arrangement.  He’s all about me, unless his MorMoms are around.  His instant love for Lisa, her daughters, and the MorMoms is how this whole weird friendship got started in the first place.

To the MorMoms, Jack can do no wrong.  He gets what he wants.  Everyone defers to Jack.  Their sons and daughters have to share with him, though he’s not expected to do the same in return.  Their children hear the “no’s,” Jack is showered with “yes’s.”  Their kids have to wait for lunchtime, while Jack is stuffed with all the snacks he can eat.  If Jack wants to hog the shopping cart or the popping lawn mower at the Children’s Museum and push it around for well over an hour, despite my objections, the other children have to adjust before the count of three or…well, you don’t want to know what happens when a MorMom gets to “three!”

I waved goodbye to Lisa and the girls as we pulled out of the Children’s Museum parking lot onto the one way street.  I handed Jack a peanut butter cracker from my last emergency snack pack in the dog faced backpack, and headed back towards Benson trying to make it back home in time to salvage some sort of nap.  Late naps are never good naps unfortunately, so I was prepared to just take what I could get. Nap time is Dad time, after all.  No matter how much they scoff, or how much they try to prove to me otherwise, the MorMoms will not get me to back down from the regular nap schedule. It would be easier to convince me to join their church.

I fixed myself a bowl of the homemade soup that Lisa had brought over for me the previous day as I heard Jack finally fall asleep through the baby monitor.  I texted a message of thanks to my sister wife for the soup, poked my real wife on Facebook, and settled into my welcoming couch with some headphones for what was sure to be too short of a time after all of that “shopping” and “mowing” with the MorMoms.  As expected, he shit himself fully awake a mere forty minutes later, and spent the rest of the afternoon staring out the window at the house next door, longing for just one more glimpse of his beloved MorMom and her daughters with their jugs of chocolate milk.