March 25, 2011

My First Parent/Teacher Conference - Did I Pass?

While parent/teacher conferences are about the child, you can’t help but feel like, as the parent, you’re the one getting reviewed. After all, this is your kid. She talks like you. She plays games like you. She dances like you (poor thing). She claims that her favorite musician is Elvis Costello to impress everyone (like you) but, in all actuality, it's really Rick Astley (like you). She shares your DNA, your genes, your love of bacon. And she most certainly has mastered your ability to always close her eyes in photos.

I hope there isn't a grade for that.

For weeks I had been dreading this day, but it finally arrived. This was my first ever parent/teacher conference and it showed. Sweat poured off my face forming pools of nervousness on my collar. My leg bounced fast and repeatedly, shaking the floor and rattling everything around me, including my wife. When Ella's teacher called us back, I contemplated faking a heart attack. But three dads from morning conferences had already pulled this trick, so there was no room left on the floor.

I had really prepared myself for the worst. She talks too much. She doesn't wait her turn. She forgets to say "Excuse me" after she passes gas. I had considered every possible negative that the teacher could throw our way. Thanks to my skills as a writer, I was able to come up with a scripted retort that was not only smart and insightful, but also could apply unilaterally to every one of them.

"It's all my wife's fault!"

The conference hadn't started yet and I was already throwing my wife under the wheels on the bus that go round and round. Round and round. I couldn't decide if this plan was genius or super genius. I did decide that I wanted Taco Bell for lunch. That was definitely super genius.

"Let's talk about your daughter," said the teacher, reaching into a stack of files. Her desk was cluttered like all great, experienced teachers' desks are. Books and projects hung onto the edges for dear life, while a picture of her own daughters occupied prime real estate and served as the centerpiece to not only the desk, but the entire room. It was all I could focus on until she pulled Ella's file from her stack.

"Your daughter is special," she said to us. "She's gifted and kind. I don't know what you're doing, but you're doing something right so keep it up."

And there it was. In a matter of three sentences my fears were erased. Someone other than family and friends—people who, by law, are legally bound to say nice things about your kids—said our daughter was gifted. She said Ella was kind. She said that we, my wife and I, were doing something right. Something right!

It had been at least 10 years since I'd received a grade on anything, but for the next 30 minutes I listened as Ella's teacher gave me (and my wife) an A+. I had a lot of A's during my school days, but none ever meant as much to me as the one I received that day. My first parent/teacher conference was a success.

When I got home that night I hugged both my girls. While there are countless moments where I soak in just how lucky I am, I rarely step back and realize how lucky our kids are. They have a Mom who works hard every day to give them discipline, values and love. They have extended families who take the time to be a part of their lives. They have teachers—at school and at daycare—who guide them to be their best. And they have an A+ Dad who works hard every day to be the best Dad that he can—even if he can't keep his eyes open in photos.

Thankfully Ella's teacher didn't lower my grade for that.

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March 18, 2011

Baby Name Bracketology: How to Pick a Baby Name

For my wife and I, picking a baby name is a lot like the NCAA March Madness basketball tournament. We are members of the selection committee who, after months and months of reading baby name books, studying the statistics and checking to see which names lend themselves to the worst nicknames (Art the Fart, Lydia Chlamydia, Liberty the Stripper), assemble a list of names vying to win over our hearts and become our baby's name.

The discussion is often spirited and filled with useful, constructive comments like "That is the dumbest name suggestion I've ever heard in my life." We rule out names of grade school bullies, ex-boyfriends/girlfriends, Hollywood socialites, names your parents have suggested, dogs and, reluctantly, video game characters. (Sorry Luigi and Zelda; I made plays for both of you.) After a full season of debate, we finally settle on a mix of 64 names (32 male, 32 female) that both of us are willing to consider.

Like March Madness, there are perennial powerhouses that make it into the bracket year after year—like William, Joseph, Eric and Michael for boys, and Elizabeth, Sarah, Mary and Jessica for girls. These names carry prestige, have reputable histories and, most likely, are also the name of one of your family members whom will believe you when you say, "Of course we named the kid after you because we love you so much." Though, in all likelihood, you probably named the kid after Jessica Alba.

The new millennium added a few newcomers to the brackets that now show up every year, like Aiden and Jacob and Madison and Emma. These names get points for being trendy and, somehow, lose points for being trendy. I actually don't understand the math in this equation. My wife tries to explain it, but my brain explodes. All I know is that the algorithm she uses seems to only rule out names that I like.

Stupid math.

Next are bubble names, ones that have decent stats and just enough magic to crack the tournament, like Doug, Timothy, Lynn and Melissa. These names held popularity for decades, but thanks to some recruiting violations and your mom having too many friends with these names, they're unlikely to make it past the Sweet 16.

Finally, you have your Cinderella stories—names that your wife never would have allowed into the bracket, but sneaked in via automatic bid because you asked her while she was half asleep. This is also known as "winning the conference tournament." It includes names you've always loved like Marshall and Violet and Bacon and Chiquita. Names you heavily root for that, occasionally, will make a deep run in the bracket. But rarely do these Cinderella teams win the whole thing because, well, your wife eventually wakes up. Still, it's good that they make the tournament because one day when your 17-year-old hates your guts because you won't let her see her favorite band, Rhymes With Truck, in concert, you can look her straight in they eye and say, "Your life could be worse. Your Mom tried to name you Chiquita."

This, as most parents know, is where the real excitement begins. The names are divided in half (by gender) and seeded. Over the course of weeks, names will beat names and winners will come forth. Some will be buzzer beaters while others will be lopsided victories. Names you expect to go far will lose, and names that barely had a chance at first will make their way into the Elite 8. And by the time you make your way to the delivery room, you'll be down to the Final Four. Finally, as you kick people out so your wife can deliver your baby, one winner will emerge from each side of the bracket—one boy name and one girl name—and the championship rests on the gender of the baby.

Then the beautiful baby is born and, to your surprise, doesn't look like either of the names you've picked.

That, my friends, is called a bracket buster.

OK, so maybe this isn't the best way to pick baby names. But this bracket gives me hope that, one day, my wife and I might actually agree on a name for our child (which hasn't happened yet). With so many outside influences and opinions, it's hard not to get annoyed with nearly every name that has ever existed. The best you can hope for is that when the baby pops out of your wife, it can tell you what name suits it best. Even if it's just in the baby's smile.

Though, let's just hope the smile doesn't say "Art the Fart."

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March 10, 2011

Naptime: Why I Don't Trust Baby Dolls

Our family naptimes usually go down like clockwork. All it takes is a couple of soft songs, tucks of the blanket and a few pats on the butt—and I am out like a light. If I'm lucky, the kids fall asleep too. Sometimes I'm not so lucky.

A typical naptime involves lying down with my youngest daughter, who will fall asleep within minutes of me pretending to be asleep. Once she's out cold, I switch beds to join my oldest daughter, who will spend an hour asking me why her baby doll's eyes won't close. After a 20-minute discussion about how dolls aren't actually people and why the Cincinnati Bearcats deserve a 5-seed in the upcoming NCAA March Madness tournament, she'll roll over and doze off without, for some reason, making a compelling argument as to why they shouldn't be a 5-seed.

This weekend was different, though. For weeks both girls had been pleading with me to let us all nap together in one bed, much like the "Whos" do in the cartoon version of "How the Grinch Stole Christmas." On paper this sounded like a nice idea: all cuddled up together; blanket on; some of us (the girls) drifting off to dream about princesses; others of us (me) drifting off to dream about Winnie Cooper. And like most parents who are dumb enough to think that this plan might actually work, I agreed to try it.

"Now, you're both going to go to sleep, right?" I asked, while handing both girls their baby dolls to hold and giving them kisses on the forehead.

"Yes, Daddy!" they said in unison.

"You're going to shut your eyes right now?"

"Yes Daddy!"

"You guys aren't going to make any peeps?"

"No Daddy! We only do that in the toilet."

With that, I closed my eyes. I've found that if you can get the kids to be quiet for exactly 48.3 consecutive seconds, they will fall asleep. Anyone with kids will tell you that that is much, much harder than it sounds, because it's typically interrupted with chatter like But I'm not tired and I don't want to sleep and I think my baby doll is farting.

Internally, all parents start the naptime clock the second after the last word has been said, so I was counting. One, two, three ... 32, 33, 34 ... We were getting there. Then I heard a THUMP followed by two little, giggling voices. I opened my eyes. There were my girls, head-butting their baby dolls together. They did it again and giggled louder. So I uttered the six-word sentence I never imagined I'd have to say:

"No more baby-doll head-butting."

I re-tucked them in and closed my eyes. Once again, the silence cracked around second 42 by another round of giggles, though there was no accompanying THUMP. I tried to ignore it, but the giggling persisted. When I finally opened my eyes, I saw two little girls, with big smiles on their faces—and baby doll fingers up their noses. So I uttered the nine–word sentence I never imagined I'd have to say:

"Get your baby doll fingers our of your noses!"

They laughed awhile longer. This forced me to lay down the law. No more talking. No more laughing. No more baby doll fingers in your noses. No more doing anything other than closing your eyes and falling asleep. I tucked them in one final time—tightly—putting my arm over them for safe measure and, once again, closed my eyes.

Tick. Tick. Tick. The countdown clock was at full speed this time, inching up to the magic number. I counted each second in my head like a New Year's countdown crowd at Time's Square. I hit 46, 47, 48, 48.3, 49 … and all was still quiet. It finally worked. The nap had finally arrived. I don't know why I doubted it. I'm too awesome of a Dad for it not to work.

And then I felt it. Two tiny, little baby doll fingers quietly being shoved up each one of my nostrils.

They. Had. Won.

I opened my eyes to two giant smiling faces, ready to burst with laughter. I could have been mad. I could have yelled and screamed and hollered. I could have handed out punishments so menacing that they would have made Timeout seem like a birthday party. But I didn't. There aren't many moments in life where your children get the best of you, and yet my kids got me—good. The weird part is that I was actually proud of them. The even weirder part is that several minutes had passed and the dolls' hands were still up my nose. So I uttered the only five-word sentence that I could think of that fit this situation:

"I really love you guys."

From there the countdown clock started and never stopped. We drifted off to sleep, carrying images of princesses (them) and Winnie Cooper (me) in our heads. And while I'm not sure what the princesses told my girls, I did take to heart to the four-word sentence Winnie told me:

"They had it coming."

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March 1, 2011

How I Got a Forehead Hickey
(& Other Parenting-Related Injuries)

Parenting-related injuries are a part of the game. No matter how much you plan and prepare, you're bound to need a box of Band-Aids and a full roll of duct tape to repair the daily damage your kids do to your body. Here's a list of 5 common ailments all parents encounter from time to time and the likely scenarios that cause them.

Nap Bladder
The sudden need to pee the minute your child falls asleep on you.

You know the drill: After battling on the couch for 25 minutes, where you have to say things like "Stop talking!" and "Stop flopping around!" and "Stop putting your finger up my nose!" your kid finally falls asleep across your chest. You're comfortable. The kid is comfortable. "Karate Kid 2" is playing in the background. Life is perfect. And then BAM! You're bladder calls out to you:

"Hey bro, I know I could have warned when it was more convenient, but I decided it'd be funnier if I waited until now to tell you I'm about to explode. And you know what? It is pretty funny."

People without kids will say silly things like, "Just pee before you lay down." Oh, it's that simple, is it? I could dehydrate myself for days, chug a gallon of salt and pee six times before the nap—effectively draining every possible drip of water in my body—and still have to pee the minute that kid begins to snore. Most of us muscle through it so our kids get the sleep they need. But our bladders rarely recover.

Horse Knee
Deep rug burn on your knees acquired from pretending to be a pony.

When games and tea parties have worn out their welcome and the kids need something to do, they turn to Mom and she always has a brilliant idea up her sleeve: "Why don't you just ask Dad to pretend to be a pony. I'm sure he'd love to do it." After 10 laps around the house with each kid kicking at your side saying "Giddy up!," you attempt to end this game by telling your kids that pony rides aren't free and it'll cost them a quarter a ride. Once again they turn to Mom who, as luck would have it, conveniently has an endless supply of imaginary quarters—which is hard to believe considering how much money she spends on shoes.

Sneak Attack Kidney Punch
A blindsided shot to your kidney.

You're sitting on the floor minding your own business when two little fists—generally covered in something sticky—come out of nowhere and knock your kidneys senseless. The move is most painful when 1. You're not expecting it, 2. The kids get a running start and 3. It happens the minute ESPN finally starts to show the highlights of your favorite sports team's game, effectively rendering the last 47 minutes useless and forcing you to sit there for another hour until they come on again.

Lego Limp
Piercing pain on the bottom of your foot caused by stepping on a pointy toy that was left haphazardly in a highly trafficked area.

Kids never leave their soft, cuddly stuffed animals in the walkways, but they do litter the floors with every Lego, princess crown and hard, plastic Happy Meal toy they own. The sharper it is, the more likely it'll be left like a booby trap in front of one of your three favorite home amenities: the TV, the fridge or the bathroom. Many of these toys eventually become embedded in the bottom of your foot. One day the scars will be fond reminders of when your kids were little, but for now they are they number one reason you drop F-bombs.

The Forehead Hickey
Having your kids attach the suction cup side of a baby book to your forehead over and over again until it leaves a giant hickey square in the middle of your face.

It seemed like an innocent game. It ended with a week of having to explain to family, friends, coworkers and one overly inquisitive waitress why my forehead looked like someone sucked on it for an hour. Not even duct tape could remedy this one.

Oh Boy, You're Having a Girl
(A Dad's Survival Guide to Raising Daughters)

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