Where’s the Volume Control?

This isn’t going to be anything meaningful, just a brief observation and perhaps a shout out to all the other parents of small boys out there. Lately, I’ve noticed that my son has exactly two volume settings: “Low” and “Ear-shattering”.

He seems to prefer “Ear-shattering”. A lot.

He’s not an obnoxious kid by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, compared to some kids his age, he’s quite withdrawn. But he has these moments throughout the day when he just absolutely loses all sense of place and gets VERY, VERY LOUD. EVERYTHING IS SCREAMED. OR YELLED. OR SPOKEN AT A VERY HIGH DECIBEL.

It’s a bit disconcerting.

I’ve been assured that other boys are this way, and in my limited experience with other people’s four year-old boys, I would have to agree. But it’s different when you live with one. It’s different when the one you live with can concuss the air like a nuclear detonation or the opening riffs of a Metallica concert. Up close, it’s uncomfortable.

So, I’m curious: any other parents of boys who noticed a similar phenomenon with your kid? Or is mine truly one of a kind?

Just curious.

My Buddy and Me

"Come play with me. I'll eat your soul." - This doll is just that creepy. Sorry.

No, I’m not talking about the freakishly-scary toy from the late 80s pictured here (though, seriously – who gives that to their kid without realizing the intense amount of psychological damage it’s going to do?). I’m talking about my son, Jon. Lately, he has been attached to my leg like stretch pants on Oprah.

It starts in the morning. He won’t let Rachel get him out of bed. It has to be me. And once I’ve got him out of bed, then I have to get his milk and we must plop down together on the couch. Now, this would be ideal if it weren’t my responsibility to get Ella out the door every morning. So I usually end up just dropping him on his butt and racing out the door, hoping we’re not too late for the bus.

The positive, though, is that when I come back into the house, he lights up. There’s something magical about those little brown eyes that turn the color of honey when he sees me, and even more magical is when he pats the couch cushion next to him, pulls the blanket to one side and says, “You wan’ come shnuggle wif me?”

You would have to be dead not to feel special with an invitation like that.

When I do sit down, he immediately works his way into my lap and nests, nuzzling his chick-fuzz head into my shoulder before sighing a contented sigh that sounds like a dove cooing. In fact, when he did so this morning, Rachel looked at me and said, “You should see the look on his face! He is absolutely where he wants to be.”


We took Jon today to a tree farm for a field trip with his preschool class. He was excited. He kept asking me, “We go on mission trip?”

When we finally arrived at the farm, he got out cautiously, which is hysterical to watch. He’s so unlike his sister in small ways – where Ella would charge the Light Brigade, Jon tiptoes as if walking on glass. Where Ella would begin the barrage of questions, Jon will silently observe and touch before making a sound. It’s the little things like that which make being a parent so rewarding; watching your children each tackle the world on their own terms, seeing how they each come to their experiences with different goals and approaches, different hopes and fears. It’s amazing.

Once we were given permission by the farm’s owners, we started walking down the dirt road that runs beside the rows and rows of trees (mostly firs and cedars, trying to grow up to be chopped down; there’s a bitter irony). Jon took a few tentative steps, but soon enough was running ahead of us, his little legs bouncing across the dirt, his little head wobbling on his neck like a top losing momentum. He dashed down the hill and then up it, pausing near the crest to take in the smiling scarecrow that someone had erected.

“Wat’s dat?” he asked.

“It’s a scarecrow,” I answered.

Jon looked at it. “It not scare me!”

In fact, nothing did this morning. After the rest of his class arrived we sat through a book reading and some pictures before jumping onto a tractor-drawn hayride around the farm. Now, this was an old-school Ford 3000 tractor, which meant a lot of noise, a lot of smoke, and one heck of a lot of dust being belched up by the gargantuan turning tires. But Jon never made a peep; in fact, he sat st0ck-still beside his mother, never once reaching or crying out for me. Just sat there, like a little man, his left hand nestled neatly into his mother’s, his face calm and collected, his little eyes wide to drink it all in.

When we got off of the tractor, we were allowed to feed some goats and cows, which proved to be interesting for me. In trying to show Jon how to feed the animals (our instructions were, “Just hold the bread on your hand, and the animals will lick it off”), I unintentionally got my hand too far into a cow’s mouth and got nipped on the finger by one of the bovine’s jagged teeth.

This was a disaster waiting to happen on many levels; first of all, the wrong reaction from me would permanently scar the children waiting to feed the animals. Secondly, the thought of whatever microbes and/or diseases might be in the mouth of a cow made me loose in the lower abdominal region. Third, I really didn’t want to cry in front of my wife.

I sucked it up and pretended like nothing happened.

“See,” I said to Jon, “you just hold it out and they’ll eat it.”

Then I said to Rachel, “I just got bit by a cow.” Not the most masculine of sentences, but at least I didn’t cry.

After some anti-bacterial gel and a vigorous hand cleansing, I watched Jonathan feed the goats and cow without a hint of hesitation. While some of his classmates were decidedly timid, Jonathan was barging to the fence, bread in palm, holding his hand up for any available animal to snack on. He got so proficient at it that the lady in charge of the farm, Denise, remarked, “Wow! Look at him – that’s amazing!”

Jon just turned to me and said, “See daddy? I feed cow! Moooo!”

The rest of the trip went like that: Jon trying something, succeeding at it, then turning to me for approval. Whether it was picking pumpkins or sitting for a photograph, Jon wanted to know that I was watching and that I approved. And I was happy to validate him.


Such are the joys of fatherhood. Knowing that one word, one nod, one glance can make all the difference between a child who believes that he can face the world and win, and a child who believes the world will always overtake him.

It’s interesting, but with Ella I was much more aggressive, encouraging her to branch out, spread her wings, use her imagination and not be contained by anyone else’s preconceived notions. I never wanted my daughter to end up in the fetid little box our culture creates for girls; I wanted her to be both princess and dragon slayer, builder of castles and caregiver to those who live there. In short, I wanted her to have as much freedom to be her as possible.

I’ve not been as encouraging with Jon, in part because I guess I innately felt that society isn’t as stacked against boys. But I’m beginning to see that my presumptions were off; while it’s true that our society is more encouraging of boy’s “coloring outside the lines”, it’s also true that the world is not as welcoming to a child as it once was. Our expectations are higher (if you’ve ever noticed how quickly people get PO’d at a crying baby in public, you know what I mean), and that directly affects the margin we give our children. The unspoken message is “Succeed or else.”

By not encouraging Jon to color or write or play or imagine, by just leaving him alone and letting him go at his own pace, I have inadvertently disadvantaged him. Or so I thought. But watching him today, listening to the things that his teachers said about him (apparently he has quite the imagination…), I realized that Jon was given freedom just as much as Ella was – by not pushing him, I gave him space to discover himself on his own. And that person, the little man that he is, was on full display today.

One day, I know, the shnuggle-fest will end. He’ll be too big for it, too manly for it. One day those same dark eyes that light up when I enter a room will darken in my presence, and the magic will be replaced by mischief (or malevolence). The day is coming when my little buddy will be my young man, and hopefully he’ll be the kind of young man that earns the respect of his peers and his leaders. My goal is to give him the space – and the encouragement – to ensure that happens, while he actively wants me involved his world.

And when it does happen – and I know it will – I’ll also know to give him and his invitations into his life all the credit.

But What Will I Do When He’s Gone?

Photo "sunset" used under the Creative Commons License of Flickr.

My brother wrote a blog today about my grandfather, entitled, When the Journey’s Over. Inspired by Pop’s rather precipitous decline, it fanned into flame something that’s been lingering since Saturday. Then, when I talked to my wife on the phone this evening, she said something that turned that flame into a forest fire.

“You know,” she said, “I think your grandfather will live until you get home.”

That’s been on the back of my mind all week while I’ve been out of town. I saw my grandfather before I left on this trip, at a family cookout on Saturday at MawMaw and Pop’s house. They have turned the front room into Pop’s new bedroom, and he spends every minute of his day huddled beneath blankets of varying sizes, sleeping most of those minutes and looking closer to whatever lies beyond this world than this world itself. I was not prepared for this sight when it greeted me, and I had to work hard to keep my emotions in check before my family. I wanted to run to Pop’s side, fling my arms around his neck, and just weep. Instead, I ushered my kids into the TV room and tried to find something to keep me busy.

It was only later, after my father and his siblings had changed and fed Pop, that I ventured into his new room to talk. His eyes, vacuous and rheumy, had trouble focusing on me, and he couldn’t follow my words. While I was talking to him, his eyes simply closed and like that – he was off to sleep. Losing him like that, even to a catnap that would end as quickly as it began, made me think: what will I do when he’s gone? I couldn’t think of an answer, so I did what all men do: I found something else to think about. The rest of the evening passed without so much as a sad thought.

But when we left Saturday, after I had kissed him on his forehead, I turned to MawMaw.

“I don’t care what time it is,” I said, fighting tears, “if something happens, call. I’ll be home.”

I meant it, too. Even though I’m leading a group of students on a mission trip here in Brunswick, Georgia, and I am responsible for keeping the mission work on schedule and keeping the kids on the forefront of my mind, everyday as I sweat through the heat, humidity and other, ever-present challenges of leadership, I find myself thinking/praying, “Please, if the phone rings, don’t let it be my dad.”

Because I know it won’t be MawMaw that calls to tell me Pop is dead. It will be my father.

It wouldn’t be anyone else.

In fact, I got to thinking about my dad having to make that call. Having to stare at his father’s body, overcome with emotion, his heart disintegrating in his chest, even as he forces his fingers to dial a number that’s usually reserved for phone calls of a far less serious nature. I thought about how his heart will be racing, and how his throat will close on him in the seconds that that God-awful ringing noise bounces across the phone line, and how, when I finally answer, the best my dad will likely be able to muster will be a choked and sobbing, “He’s gone, Jason. He’s gone.”

I know this because that’s exactly how I made that phone call to my dad seven years ago. Only it was over Ruthanne. I remember, standing there in that tiny hospital room, my soul melting out through the soles of my feet, that I couldn’t believe I had to make that call. I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t know how to begin. How would he respond? My father, so stoic and quiet in almost every aspect of life, would he handle this news like everything else? Or would he burst into tears? Or maybe let out a guttural moan of exquisite pain?

I remember feeling a sense of shame, as though my daughter’s death was somehow my fault. I worried, irrationally, that my father might tear off a pound of flesh and blame me for the death of his first grandchild. I worried that my dad might die from a heart attack brought on by pure shock, and I would have to deal with two deaths. Mostly, I just couldn’t comprehend what I was having to call and tell him.

I, so good with words in so many ways, was truly at a loss. And when the ringing finally stopped, and my dad said his groggy hello, the only thing that I could think to do was forget everything else and seek solace in the strongest, bravest person I know.

“She’s gone, Daddy! She’s gone!”

It was a garbled cry, the plea of a confused son looking to his father to make everything better. Dad misunderstood me and thought I was talking about Rachel, and before he could even ask I corrected him.

“No! It’s not her! It’s Ruthanne! She’s dead, Daddy! She’s dead!”

He didn’t cry. He didn’t moan. And he certainly didn’t tear off a pound of flesh. Instead, in a voice as gentle as a slight breeze, he said, “Oh son – I’m sorry.”

It will be my turn to say those words soon. Sooner than I’m ready to admit, I’m afraid, my father’s voice will come to me and I will hear in it the anguish and pain and fear that I felt that night so long ago. Unlike my father, I will cry. I will moan. I will weep at the simultaneous loss of a good and lovely man and the ending of that good and lovely man’s suffering. And I will do all of this in a matter of seconds; then I will compose myself, and I will speak the only words of comfort that I’ve ever known to work in a situation like this:

“Oh dad – I’m sorry.”

I dread that call, not just for the sorrow of my grandfather’s death or my own father’s pain, but for the reality that will immediately follow it: this phone call will be repeated, this communication between father and son, only I will assume my dad’s role, and, I imagine, Jonathan, my son, will assume mine.

And my dad will assume Pop’s.

It’s a horrifying thought: what will I do when he’s gone?

But this is the way of all fathers and sons. Just as dad will lose Pop, I will lose him, and one day, hopefully after many, many happy memories, Jonathan will lose me. I will close my eyes and pass from his life, and he will feel the sting in his eyes that I’m feeling right now.

And when that first tear falls from his face, and makes a splashing contact with his new father-less world, I pray that the years of love and laughter and memories I believe we’ll create together will sustain him and give him the courage we all need to face death. I pray that he’ll find strength in his faith. I pray that he’ll be as strong then as my dad will be whenever the time comes to make that call.

But mostly I pray that his son will be able to put his arm around my son, and say, in the tradition of our family, those beautiful yet simple words of comfort:

“Oh dad – I’m sorry.”

That’s not too much for a father to ask, is it?

My Son, The Monster

Crying for little to no reason at all. Mood swings. Hitting people. Screaming “NO!” at the top of his lungs. Deliberately disobeying even the smallest request.

My son has officially turned into a monster. If Lady Gaga wants him, she can have him.

We’re pretty sure it’s because he’s getting his final molars in. And I say pretty sure because, a) we can’t actually get him to let us feel around in his mouth, and b) there’s just no other realistic explanation, short of demonic possession. And we know possession is out because we can’t get him to sleep without singing a medley of his favorite Jesus songs before bedtime.

It’s been frustrating, to say the least.

Now, I don’t know if this is just particular to me, or if it’s a common occurrence across the parenting spectrum, but whenever my son goes grade-A nutzoid, I feel a tightness in my chest that panics me. It’s not a heart attack-type feeling (at least, I don’t think it is), but more of an emotional anxiety that grips me right there in my heart. It’s a feeling of helplessness mixed with annoyance mixed with a frightening anger. It just sits there, dead center, as if it were a piece of food I can’t swallow. And the more Jonathan screams or whines or disobeys, the more it builds.

I don’t know if this feeling comes more from being incapable of helping my son or from being tired of hearing the crying. I can’t tell if I’m just a normal parent experiencing normal parent emotions, or if I’ve somehow become psychologically unstable and need to be medicated. I just know that I hate feeling that way about my child. I want to feel nothing but love, nothing but magic, nothing but the sweet tenderness of a Hallmark moment.

"I thought I told you to go to bed...does Daddy need to come in here?"

But life is so infrequently like that. I mean, half the time it seems like I vacillate between Ward Cleaver and Jack Torrance, despite my desire to be a good dad. Some days I know I’m three good seconds away from grabbing an axe, hacking through a door and shouting, “Heeeeeeeeeeeere’s Johnny!” not because I hate my family, but because I genuinely feel that close to being out of control.

And maybe that’s my real issue – control. I like for things to be smooth and conflict-free, and that just ain’t life with kids (it’s rarely like that with adults…). I’m not a certifiable control-freak, but I have grown to appreciate the predictability of my five year-old; in fact, I almost prefer Ella’s age precisely because we’ve already bypassed all of the crap we’re currently going through with Jonathan.

Which makes me wonder if part of my problem too is the feeling of “Haven’t we done this before?” There’s a small kernel of resentment, maybe, at having to train another kid all over.

But even in the monster madness, there are moments that make me laugh and remind me that I love, LOVE, the boy. Take bedtime last night – I put Jon down to bed at 9:15, way later than normal, and, because of the time, I abbreviated his bedtime routine and plunked his little butt down in the crib. He was quiet for almost an hour, and then began screaming his head off for no apparent reason. I went in and shushed him, but by the time I walked out of his room he was at it again. I could feel that familiar clutch in my chest, so I sent Rachel in to deal with him. She walked in and got a robust “NOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!”, and promptly turned around and walked out.

So it was Daddy or nothing.

I went back in there, fully prepared to either scold him severely or punt him through the window, but once he saw me, he stood up, held his arms out and said, “Daddy, peese.” I walked over to the crib and he wrapped his arms around my mid-section and rested his head against my stomach. I could feel his little fingers working over the fabric of my t-shirt as he attempted to get a better, bigger hug on me.

I picked him up. He nuzzled his head into the base of my neck where my jaw meets my ear and he let out the most contented sigh you’ve ever heard. It wasn’t huge, mind you – more on par with a simple exhale of breath than anything else – but the satisfaction I heard in that release  was immense. Jonathan ran his fingers through my hair lazily and within three minutes was sound asleep, his little chest rising when mine fell, our breathing intertwined. His skin, so soft and warm, was damp from the tears he’d unloaded, and in the few minutes that I rocked him, I felt the stress/anxiety/anger melt away because I knew he felt just as pained as I did.

Having kids is easy. Raising them borders on mind-shattering insanity. But being a kid is equally as tough. Every experience in childhood is somehow different from the one that precedes it, every day brings some new emotion or word or developmental milestone. It’s no wonder kids go crazy and take adults with them.

But it doesn’t last, thank God. At least, the early stages anyway. There will be growing pains of a different sort in three years, or ten. I don’t know if I’ll ever truly be able to be at ease around my son until he’s an adult; and even then, I’m not so sure. I think it is just the life of a parent – to be perpetually on edge around your child; not so much because of them, but because of the world that surrounds them.

Right now my son is a monster, and I probably need a good dose of fluoxetine. But he’s my monster, and I love him. Here’s hoping his molars, and the other 5700 developmental breakthroughs ahead of him, arrive soon.

My Wife, The Mama Bear

Rachel, the Mama Bear. I would advise against messing with her...

Most people wouldn’t think that tough comes in a package that looks like a Victoria’s Secret model but is sweeter than honey, but that’s okay – I know better. Not only does tough have a womanly figure, tough also has a great sense of humor, a keen sense of discernment, and some of the most beautiful eyes you’ve ever seen.

And by some quirk in the universe, she married me.

Yesterday reminded me of just how tough my wife, Rachel, really is. Not only did she haul both of our kids down to the pool by herself (a feat of epic proportions when you factor in the number of pool toys we have to take to keep Jonathan amused) but while they were at the pool, four teenaged boys started making trouble.

Rachel put a stop to it.

When she tells the story, her personality comes out: details, timing, not one thing said or recalled incorrectly. She tells it very much like the teacher she is, and it sounds fairly straight-forward: some teenaged boys were attempting to trespass at our neighborhood pool, she called them on it, they cursed at her, she called the cops, the boys ran. Simple, neat, end of story.

It’s a terse account of what, in my mind, was a situation filled with potential disaster. In fact, she takes what is a great story and turns it into a book report.

So I’m going to tell it.

First of all, some context. Our pool is a half-sized Olympic pool surrounded by a chain-link fence with two deadbolted gates. To get in, you have to have a HOA-issued key. If you don’t have one, the rules of the pool are explicit: you cannot come in. We’ve had several issues with vandals trying to circumvent the rules by doing such things as cutting holes in the chain-link or breaking the locks. So our neighborhood has a heightened sense of paranoia about the pool. We even have signs posted around to encourage members who spot trouble to call our HOA president so he can call the cops.

Secondly, Rachel was there with our kids, but there were also two teenaged girls laying out by the pool in their bikinis.

Now, if you have never been around teenaged boys then you don’t know that they tend to run on two types of fuel: testosterone and stupidity, both of which the teenaged male produces in copious quantities. Put teenaged boys around three attractive ladies in bikinis, and they’ll produce testosterone and stupidity like the government produces false promises.

In other words, this was a situation primed for something bad to happen.

If there had been only one teenaged boy, this is no problem; teen boys are easily confused and can be rendered quite harmless by an attractive woman. Three women in bikinis would pretty much render him incapacitated. But this wasn’t just one boy, which brings me to my next point.

Teenaged boys in a pack take on a pack mentality, which is dominated by the pack leader. In Rachel’s case, the pack leader was a boy with a muscular build and an utter disregard for the clearly posted rules of our pool. It was the pack leader who began the whole confrontation by leaping upon the fence and trying to climb over it. Rachel yelled him down off the fence, and his buddies gathered around to see what he would do.

Muscles stood there.

My wife, undaunted, pressed him for information. “You can’t come into the pool unless you are a member of the pool. Are you a member?”

Another boy raised his hand. “I am.”

“Okay. Where’s your pool key?”

He grunted. “I don’t have it.”

“Okay,” my wife said, “why don’t you go home and get it, and then come back. It can’t be too far to your house.”

“Someone forgot to give me the pool key,” the boy lied.

Rachel’s warning bells went off. “Who forgot to give it to you?”

“Uh, someone,” The Liar said.

“Someone who?” she persisted.

At this Muscles, The Liar and the other two boys walked away from the pool fence and back into the shade of our pool pavilion. Rachel could hear them barking at each other, their tempers flaring, but she walked away and back to where the kids were eating snacks.

And that’s when Muscles lost his freaking mind.

With his back to the fence, he screamed out, “BITCH!”

Here’s where my wife telling this story has it’s benefits. It’s at this point where she makes a face that can only be described as her version of the female, “Oh, hell no” face, which is a mixture of severe perturbation and outright masochistic violence.

If you’re in a committed relationship and ever forgot an important event or deadline, you know this face.

Anyway, after the boy curses, Rachel immediately grabs her cell phone – and here’s where the toughness kicks into overdrive – marches over to the fence nearest where the boys are sitting and dials the HOA president. They overhear her side of the conversation with our HOA pres:

“Hello, Dennis? Hi, this is Rachel Brooks…(she gives him our address)…yeah, that’s me…well, I’m down by the pool, and there are some boys causing a problem…well, first of all, I don’t think their members to the pool because they don’t have a pool key and were trying to jump the fence…uh-huh…well, I hollered at them and kept them from jumping the fence, and to their credit they climbed down…yeah, but then they sat down under the pavilion and started talking, and one of them screamed out a curse word at me…I’m here with my kids, and there are two teenage girls down here too, so what do we need to do…okay, so you’re going to CALL THE COPS…okay, I’ll wait right here…thanks, Dennis.”

The boys immediately get up and split into two groups: the weaker pair, the ones who’ve said nothing and were probably halfway between panicked and pissed at the other two, get up and walk away as quickly as possible. They did not pass “GO”, they just bolted the scene.

But Muscles and The Liar do not leave in a hurry. Instead, as my wife goes back to put her cell phone away, the duo takes a slow stroll around the fence towards Rachel. This idiot pair tries to menace my wife by walking towards her in a semi-threatening manner. They don’t come all the way to where she’s at, though – they turn and walk towards the woods, but they make sure to keep eye contact with Rachel for a long time. Finally, they disappear between the woods and some houses on the other side of the neighborhood.

When the cops finally show up, Rachel tells them what happened, and in her words, “they didn’t seem overly concerned.” But the show of force had been made, and if those boys were anywhere near the vicinity of that pool, they know that my wife meant business.

And that’s what makes me proudest. My wife, for the sake of her children, went Mama Bear on some punks and the punks backed down. Rachel roared and came away the victor. Could this situation have gone badly? Sure – with some kids these days, provocation like that only fuels their rage and leads to sometimes violent ends. In fact, I’m cognizant that my stereotyping of teenaged boys is rather dated, and built upon what the world was like when I was a teenager. Boys today don’t have nearly the same inhibitions I had as a kid.

And I’ve seen enough of the local, state and national news to know that teenagers can be some of the most cold-blooded and quick-tempered killers around.

But yesterday, thank God, that wasn’t the case.

My wife will probably read this and cringe. “You’re embellishing!” she’ll say. “It wasn’t that bad.” And perhaps my imagination does create mountains out of molehills from time to time. But that doesn’t diminish the fact that my wife is one bad mother. Three kids, a radical surgery, and a showdown with some teenaged punks is a pretty impressive resume of resilience and toughness. And she’s showing my daughter that women don’t have to be cowed by the stupidity of aggressive men, that women have power too, and don’t have to put up with boys’ crap. It’s a beautiful thing to be around.

I’m just glad she’s on my side.

But I’m going to take the trash out just to be safe…