Thursday, June 27, 2013

My little reader and my Google Reader

First, a few pictures of my blossoming reader. After that, a request for help.
The only one on the plane who took the safety announcement seriously
Still poring over it, long after the presentation was over
There be dragons here
We spent a good 25 minutes talking about this single page.
In a couple of days, Google Reader will disappear. Every time I log in, I get a message reminding me of its impending doom. And I still haven't found a replacement. When the demise of Reader was announced several months ago, I spent some time researching alternatives, but I wasn't ready to make the leap. Now I'm going back and trying to do more research, but it's tricky because a lot of the reviews I find are many months old and may not be fully accurate.

According to my stats, I've got over 100 subscribers on Google Reader. My Google Reader companions, I feel your pain. You might consider subscribing to my posts via e-mail (there's a "Follow by Email" button on the sidebar); that's probably the safest way to make sure you see my stuff.

But for a Reader alternative, I found this article on Lifehacker that offered a few brief reviews for replacements, and based on it, I'm thinking Feedly, The Old Reader, or Newsvibe. Have any of you started using an alternative? How did you choose? How do you like it?

Note: I originally created the Then/Now comic for the Insatiable Booksluts. It's a cool blog about many things literary. You should check it out.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Hand in hand, into the great unknown

My daughter thinks I'm a real strong-man. She'll saunter up, jab her finger at me, and shout, "Show me your muscles!" I squat down, roll up my sleeve, and let her feel my bicep. "Wow," she exclaims. "Nice muscle." Said to the guy who hasn't weighed more than 130 pounds in years. Then she holds up her arm, and I poke and measure her bicep. "Wow," I tell her, "That's a pretty good muscle too."

Sometimes she'll pick something heavy up, squeeze it tight to her belly, and carry it over to me, grunting all the way. She'll drop it in front of me, and wait for an impressed exclamation. In time, she'll learn that the size of her bicep is less important than stretching to do hard things. I want my daughter to feel confident that most obstacles in life are surmountable with the right attitude and a lot of hard work. 

At the same time, I want to communicate to her that part of becoming strong is both supporting and relying on the people you love. Like trees with intertwining roots, we can be stronger as a group than we can on our own. It's a concept I sometimes struggle with myself, being an extreme introvert (lovingly, my wife sometimes calls me Boo Radley). But it's the reason I got married. And I see its importance even more now that I have a little girl. Which brings me back to the concept of holding hands -- another analogy that projects big in my mind.

I've written before about holding hands with my daughter. I love holding her hand. I love the way she weaves her warm little fingers between mine. It's a primordial pleasure; it sparks instinctive feelings in me, feelings connected to fatherhood; feelings connected to family. I love holding hands because of what it says about trust, and what it says about safety, and what it says about joining forces with another person to confront both the dangers and the mysteries of life.

When Addison was younger, I'd need to proactively steer her away from streets, from electrical outlets, from delicate display cases in stores. She's grown a year wiser, a year more circumspect; also, a year more adventurous. She knows not to dash into the road; she understands that things are breakable; she knows that some things are off limits. She is maturing from a wide-eyed foal, transfixed by shiny baubles and new sensations, into an eager colt, a daring explorer. The transition isn't necessarily one of lessened danger, but one of maturing, deliberate intentions. Where before she had little sense of her own fragility, at almost three and a half years old she's truly in the midst of judging risks and making calculated decisions. She's getting bigger, stronger. Literally and metaphorically, she's flexing and growing her muscles.

We haven't stopped holding hands. I still instinctively reach out to her, and she still (when she feels like it) reaches back. What's really changed is that I used to be the captain of our ship, choosing a direction with a crew that was sometimes amenable and sometimes insubordinate. But now as often as not, she is the charismatic visionary at our helm.

"Daddy, come on," she'll say, hauling at my hand, seeking to move her big lump of a dad, no matter whether our break has been five minutes or five seconds. "I have something to show you." It touches me that even though she sometimes wrests leadership away from me, she hasn't kicked me off the boat. She's not just sailing off on her own. She wants to explore, but she still wants a partner. Or perhaps a first mate. She wants to burst upon that frontier but she wants to do it with a companion at her side. I love the way she tugs at me now, urging me on in the same way that I used to urge her on. She threatens, she cajoles, like a tiny parent.

"I will LIFT you up. Like this. Ungh! I am PULLING you up! Ungh! You need to LISTEN to me! We are GOING! We are still 'SPLORING!"

It's a fun new phase, this moment where she is excited to explore, and equally excited to share. It's fun to be hand-in-hand with her. And the significance of hand-holding isn't lost on her. Right now her go-to form for a figure, whether drawing humans, monsters, or aliens, is to draw their arms extended, so that she can stretch each limb out to touch the next. It's a worldview I can get behind.

Alien family. Note the number of eyes. And the overlapping arms.
Monster family. Note the scary faces and funny bodies. And the arms.
Our family. Arm in arm.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Fatherhood: A reason to make things right

I usually stay pretty focused on my own navel here on the blog. I write about my own experience as a dad, and I don't usually spend a lot of time critiquing society or offering calls to action. And this post isn't intending to do those things, exactly, but I hope it offers something a little different to think about.

In May, I read a post from the National Fatherhood Initiative about a new program to help men in jail reevaluate their responsibilities as fathers. And then the other day I learned that Sesame Street just created a show for kids with parents in jail or prison. In the past, Sesame Street has tackled things like divorce and bullying, but this is a really significant new step. It's a thirty-minute special feature (you can watch clips of it here) that probably won't be broadcast. With Father's Day around the corner, this stuff has got me thinking about parenthood and incarceration. One in 28 kids in the U.S. has a parent incarcerated. That's up from 1 in 125 twenty years ago. Where we'll be in twenty more years is anybody's guess.

This isn't a completely new thing for me; my wife actually spent most of her master's degree researching various angles on incarcerated men, especially their financial experiences. Several years back, we even moved to a town in Illinois and spent three months interviewing men in jail for her thesis. My thoughts stem from that experience.

Across the table from me sat an imposing man - large in all directions. He wore a neatly trimmed beard, and smiled as all of the newly selected researchers took their seats. My wife and the other lead researchers had set up a preliminary discussion with this guy who'd recently been in the jail. He explained that, years before, he'd fled the state to avoid arrest for drug charges. He eventually joined a church, got married and had kids, and ended up deciding that he wanted to clean the slate. He returned to Illinois, walked into the jail, and asked to be booked so that he could serve his sentence. It wasn't easy. He lifted up his shirt and showed us the scars from improvised knives. He also described being allowed to hold private meetings in his room with several other men for what the guard thought were KKK meetings, though they were in fact scripture study sessions. If there's something I learned from that discussion, it was that appearances can be deceiving.

A week later, we arrived at the jail for our first visit. The female researchers had been asked, awkwardly, to please not dress provocatively. A guard took the entire team on a tour of the jail, and when we entered the cell blocks, every eye was on us. Men sidled up to the glass and leered. Some seemed to be goading others into calling things out. "Hey, sweet thing." "Hey, look over here." A couple men barked.

The first interview I helped run was with a young black guy, maybe 22 years old. He wore the standard black and white striped uniform. Scraggly beard hair. He sat comfortably, but with good posture. He gave us firm handshakes, and smiled. We asked him about his family relationships and about his children. We asked him what he was charged with. "Armed robbery," he said. What did he expect to do when he got out of jail, we asked. He wanted to be a chef, maybe start his own restaurant. When we asked how often he felt like he couldn't get going, he said, "every day."
How often did he feel depressed? "Every day." How often did he feel lonely? "Every day."
The next interviewee was easily six feet tall and 180 pounds of pure muscle. He entered the room cautiously, and his handshake was careful, tentative. We thanked him for coming in, and he waved it off, warming up to us. "Hey, I'm not doing anything else. And this research is gonna help people, right?" We said it was. "Well, let's get started!"

Another guy we interviewed sat across the table from us, fidgeting constantly. He cried after nearly every question we asked, and apologized each time. "I'm sorry guys, I don't know why I'm crying so much. I hardly cried at all last week." We asked if he had a good relationship with his parents, and he cried. We asked if he understood how compound interest worked, and he cried. He didn't know how it worked. The jail's nurse came in and gave the guy a paper cup with pills in it, and one filled with water. When she left, he explained,
"I've been in solitary for like three weeks now, and I swear I'm going crazy. I just needed to talk to someone."
We interviewed guys who were in jail on drug charges, for moving vehicle violations, for grand theft auto, for armed robbery and conspiracy to commit it, for murder, for sexual assault. One intimidating white guy, the minority race at this location, had a completely shaved head and extremely long goatee beard. He was covered in tattoos. It turned out his arrest was for dumpster diving.

We never knew whether many of the men had done what they were charged with. In fact, we told them it was in their best interest to merely state their charges, and not give further detail. Still, some frankly admitted guilt. Others admitted that they deserved to be in prison, but that the specific charges brought against them were bogus. Others said it was their first time, and they were scared. A few claimed innocence.

I'd always intellectually understood that guys who go to jail aren't necessarily bad people. But what struck me, over and over again, was how normal and friendly these men were. Once they were away from the watchful eyes of other men in the cell-block and alone with us in the interviewing room, they were just regular people. Yes, probably in many cases people who had made big mistakes. And there were some men who refused to interview with us. But the ones who agreed seemed to genuinely want to both become better people, and to help other people to do the same. They shook our hands, laughed with us, told jokes, cried.
They talked about wanting to invest, wanting to hold a real job, wanting to provide for their wives, their girlfriends, their kids. 
More than anything else, it was their kids who made them want to fix their lives. They didn't always know how to fix things, but the desire was obvious. In talking with a lot of these guys, I couldn't help feeling that they were just like me, only they hadn't had all of my advantages. Many came from broken homes. Many lacked involved fathers; many learned to commit crimes from their fathers. Many had never had a single male role model show by example that there were ways to survive without resorting to crime.

That's it. I don't have a huge point to make; mainly just that being a father matters. Someday I want to do community service work in a jail; there's a demographic there that needs people to care, that needs people to try to understand. And it's a powerful thing to realize that fundamental feelings about parenthood unite us. For many of these men, fatherhood is a beacon of light, sometimes the only beacon of light, beckoning them in from the storm. And I salute any man who catches a glimpse of that beacon, and struggles forward against all odds to reach it. There's a lesson in that for all of us.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Hut, hut, hike! A birth story

For the next couple weeks I'm thinking particularly hard about being a father. Ironically, my wife and daughter will be out of town until after Father's Day. Which leaves me a lot of time to muse about stuff and try to articulate some things that bounce around in my head.

Three years, three months, and 21 days ago, Addison was born.

It's not often that I've been able to mark a point in my life where everything changes. I know, I'm only thirty (thirty?! shoot, I barely remember turning 21); I know there will be other moments that rock my world, for the better and for the worse. But in my young life, my daughter's birth marked a transition point that was remarkable both for its long-term impact and for the visceral contrast where one moment she was not here yet, and the next we were graced with a squalling, powerful announcement of arrival. And then feedings, and diaper changes, and rocking, and cradling, and staring, awestruck, at this creature we made. Sometimes it seems as though only disasters produce the kind of sudden change I'm talking about. But the birth of a child, that's a notable exception.

I didn't see my daughter's birth. I was in the room, just a foot or two away. When my wife made that final push, I was holding her hand, my head close to hers. When I think of it now, it reminds me of a moment we'd had together years before, before we were married. We were sideways in her car, held in place by our seat-belts, cocooned in crumpled metal, bleeding. Emergency responders scrambled about, spreading an opening here, cutting a piece of metal there. A helicopter settled nearby, its rhythmically thumping blades like a manic heartbeat.

I know that there are parents, both men and women, who find the birthing experience exhilarating. But during Lindsay's labor I was as anxious as I had been so many years ago when I looked over at my girlfriend in that mangled vehicle, and saw how the roof of her RAV4 was caved in, pressing down on her head. She'd ask if I was okay, get confused, and thirty seconds later ask again if I was okay. Over and over. When the paramedics tried to test her responsiveness, she only answered when I leaned in close, gripped her hand, and repeated the question. Four years after that roll-over accident, and here I was squeezing her hand again, my face inches from hers, asking her to focus, telling her she was doing a good job, praying that it would all end well. Inside, I was tied in knots.

Lindsay was in labor for nearly 24 hours. From the early morning all the way through to the evening, Lindsay and I worked through a series of coping techniques that we'd practiced ahead of time, because she wanted to labor at home for as long as possible. In a lot of ways, those techniques were for me as much (more?) as for her. We were nervous and excited; mostly I was nervous and she was excited. But as the sun started going down, things started going south. She'd had pain all day, and managed it. But as we entered the evening hours, our coping efforts just weren't doing the trick. It turns out she was having back labor because the baby was turned the wrong way, though all she knew was that things were getting really freaking hard. The nurses later expressed frustration that Lindsay never mentioned she was having back though a first-time mom should know what that is. Lindsay thought maybe she could last a little longer; we debated it. Finally, we got in the car, and met our doula at the hospital.

The next five or six hours were rough. Lindsay had so much pain. She was trying to avoid unecessary interventions (pitosin, epidural, etc.), but near the end she had lost control. Sometime after midnight, when she agreed to the epidural, she couldn't lay still enough on the bed, and the anesthesiologist almost gave up. I'd hoped that I wouldn't have to bear the sole burden of guiding my wife through these tough moments; that's why we got a doula. But in the end, I was the one she looked to. I swallowed hard and stepped up to the plate. With our eyes locked, our fingers entwined hard enough to hurt, and me desperately trying to maintain a calm, confident tone, we made it through the epidural, and ultimately, through a successful birth.

When they asked me if I wanted to cut the cord, I was done. No thanks. I just wanted to slump next to my wife, and stroke her hair, and hold her hand -- gently, this time. Lindsay was okay. Our baby was okay. When they brought Addison over and put her on Lindsay's chest, it was like a ray of light burning away a sky of storm clouds. It was a miracle. It was the end of a race, that moment crossing the finish line where your muscles don't just relax, but become quivering mush. We cried. Our little girl cried. Everyone cried, breaking the dam of so many hours of frustration and pain and anxiety and determination.

When I was talking with my wife about the experience, she said jokingly, "Man, I forgot about all that. I was a superhero." I can't deny it; my wife was freaking amazing. And no less of a superhero was my little girl, who squeezed through the proverbial eye of a needle. And then stuck her tongue out at us, as though to say, "Get ready for some sass!"

When I go back and read my wife's account of her labor experience, my heart starts beating fast, just like the thumping rotors of that helicopter. My breath gets shallow, my hands a little sweaty. Why, I wonder, can't people just drop a seed in the ground and wait for a kid to sprout out of it? Why's it gotta be so hard?

It says a lot about the worth of a kid that we go through so much to get them here. I'm gonna say "we" here because even though what my wife did was much harder, what I did is still probably the hardest thing I've done in my life. Hardest and best. That kind of trial is like a purifying fire; it's a scorching baptism that, should you make it through to the other side, clears away all the chaff and leaves only the things that matter. It gives you a chance to start over, to plot a direction with the incredible momentum of a birth to spur you on your way. Of course, the distractions of life come sneaking back soon enough; but that's why I like to take a moment to look back and remember that moment I became a father. Putting words to this stuff helps me see the path I perceived then, and the path I'm on now, and try to nudge them a little closer together.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

On coloring like a boss

Lindsay and Addison have been gone for a week. Yeah, I've missed them, but not in the "I don't even know what to do with myself" way that some people describe. I was a solitary guy before I got married or had a kid, and though I usually spend my days with a three-foot side-kick and I see my wife frequently since we're both at home, solitude is still comfortably nostalgic for me. I may in fact have compared myself to Boo Radley in a recent interview.

But just because I like being alone doesn't mean I don't also like thinking about my family. I've spent a little time going through the old pictures on our camera, which are mostly of Addison and my wife. They're pretty people. I like looking at them.

Right before they left, I got a series of pictures of Addison coloring that I've particularly been enjoying. Here's the scene:
It's around one or two o'clock, and Addison and I have just returned from the gym. I want to go check my e-mail and talk for a minute with Lindsay, so I tell Addison to color for a minute.
I sort of lose track of time, and haven't been hearing any noises from downstairs, so after 15 or 20 minutes I tiptoe to the family room (if she hears me, she'll tell me she needs my help) and this is what I see:

Nice. She's productively engaged, she isn't trying to stick anything in the electrical socket, she's not coloring occult symbols on the walls. I sneak back to my room and get back on the computer. Another ten or fifteen minutes passes, and I decide to check on her again. 
I tiptoe out, and she's gone from coloring regular to coloring LIKE A BOSS. I mean, look at that stance. That coloring book doesn't stand a chance against her:

And as I watch, she switches from coloring like a boss to whatever the next level up from that is, something truly epic and hardcore:
Yeah, my daughter planks while coloring (maybe this shouldn't surprise me, given her history with this position). She's not even thinking about it. She's so into her coloring book that she unconsciously chooses a position that tenses and tones every muscle in her body, so that it can match the intensity of her coloring. This girl, she kills me.
Also, she does some ballet-looking moves. I guess it's in her blood, since both her mom and grammy were dancers:

For the fun of it, here's two memes. Before you know it, you'll see some football player doing one of these in the end-zone, and then it'll be everywhere.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Deadlines, chuckle monkeys, frugal vs. cheap, and relational aggression

The last installment of conversations from recent memory, which I first recorded on my Facebook page. Since Addison and Lindsay are out of town for three weeks, and Addison mostly refuses to talk to me on the phone except to shout "Pickleweasel!", it'll probably be a couple weeks before I have more conversations to share.

It's been a while since I recorded one of my daughter's conversations about death, which are a daily occurrence. Here's the latest, this one overheard between Addison and my wife: 
Addison: Daddy needs to come eat with us. I will go tell him: If you don't eat, you will die! 
Lindsay: Well, daddy can't come down right now. He's working. He has a deadline. 
Addison [gasp]: A DEADLINE?! 
I wonder how many other common words there are that include "dead" that I don't even think twice about, but that my daughter probably hears as dire proclamations.

One of the games I've played with Addison since she was maybe a year old is offering silly versions of words to see if she can tell when a word is real or not. As she's gotten older, she's gotten tired of my endless stream of nonsense. But once I got into the habit, I couldn't stop offering fun sounding words in her presence, especially since she finds it so immature. The other night, I was repeating "chuckle monkeys" over and over, trying to catch her attention.

Me: Are you ignoring me?

Addison (concentrating on her dinner): ...

Me: I said, are you ignoring me?

Addison (still not looking at me): Yes.

Me: Is that nice?

Addison (blithely): Yes.

Me (raising my eyebrow in mock severity): Is it?

Addison (finally looking me in the eye): Well, you were saying silly words. And also, when you said that silly word, mama started saying a silly word too. So I was anoring you.

Me: You know that silly words are one of my favorite things in the world?

Addison (sighing): Yeah, I know. But they are way too silly. Sorry.

Sorry back at ya, kiddo. I'm pretty sure I'll still be breaking out new ones for the first date she brings home. I'm looking forward to it.

Addison, talking to her Gramps: 
Addison: We are fwoogal. 
Gramps: You are a noodle? 
Addison: Eff. It starts with a eff.  
Gramps: Feudal? 
Addison: Fwoo-Gal. Fwoogal. 
Me: Frugal. 
Addison: Yeah, fwoogal. 
Gramps: Do you know what that means? 
Addison: Yeah. 
Gramps: What? 
Addison: I don't know. But you are fwoogal, and mama is fwoogal, and daddy is fwoogal, and grammy is fwoogal. 
Gramps: It means we're cheap. 
Me: No, frugal and cheap are not the same thing. 
Addison: Yes, yes they are. 
Frugal and cheap are NOT the same thing. I am both of them, I admit it. But I'm just trying to teach her the frugal part. I wonder if that means I have to teach her what money is first.

My threenager, giving her mother a hard time: 
Addison: If you push me, I will push you back. 
Lindsay: I would never push you! That's not nice. 
Addison: I'm just warning you... 
Lindsay: You guys, stop ganging up on me. 
Addison (mis-hearing her mom): Sorry, we HAVE to. See? Beep! We are hanging up on you! 
Listen to that sass. We're gonna try to put the kaibosh down on the relational aggression and just keep things at good ol' aggression.