Having a Merry Lizard Christmas

Just before Christmas, Penelope sprawled herself across the family room floor and wrote out her wish list to Santa Claus. The list was seven pages long which was quite an accomplishment since she only asked for six things. I think that’s about right for someone who’s four years old. My favorite line in her “Dear Santa” letter was : “I’ve been very good this year unless I was bad.” When she finished, we stuffed the letter in a snow-white over sized envelope and shipped it off to the North Pole.

Perhaps the most curious item on her list was a stuffed monitor lizard. She’s grown rather fond these past few months of a book about reptiles, and one page features an illustration of a monitor lizard preparing to feast upon a nest of crocodile eggs. So come Christmas morning, Penelope clambered down the stairs to discover a foot-long stuffed monitor lizard perched precariously atop the manger. (I bet you didn’t know a monitor lizard was present at the birth of the baby Jesus!)

The monitor lizard has quickly become the king of the animal farm that is Penelope’s bed. Last night, when I tip-toed into her bedroom to make sure she was still breathing — sorry, that’s a joke for a few folks — I saw Penelope softly snoring with a bare leg sticking out from under a blanket and a stuffed monitor lizard hugged tightly against her chest. I’m anticipating the soon-to-come day when I open the refrigerator to find the lizard sitting atop the egg bin staring back at me as if I’ve just interrupted a private moment.

I doubt there are many four-year-old girls who sleep with a monitor lizard. Hopefully, she’ll get that out of her system while she’s still a kid.

I think her fascination with animals of all stripes and textures comes from three sources. First are the numerous animal books she has on everything from dogs to dinosaurs. I think our two beagles — Sammi and Rudy — are also partly responsible for her becoming an animal lover. And the feeling is mutual, although I suspect the dogs love Penelope because she has a habit of leaving half-eaten cheese sticks on the coffee table. Lastly, Penelope is addicted to “Wild Kratts” on PBS Kids. The show starts with two brothers (Martin and Chris) who talk about some critter — be it an aardvark or a gecko. Then they morph into cartoon characters to rescue an animal in trouble. She’s probably watched all 20-some-odd episodes multiple times. Yesterday at the park she insisted on calling some little boy she met Chris. (His name was Kenny.)

As I watch all this I wonder if it means anything for her future. Will she become a veterinarian or a zoologist and help animals? Will she want to work at an animal shelter? Or is she just on her way to becoming a crazy cat lady?

Well, I doubt that last one. But I can’t help wondering if the clues about her future are already in place. But, then again, why rush things? In my heart I know it’s best just to enjoy a quiet moment watching a snoring child cradling her stuffed monitor lizard. These moments don’t last forever.

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On a Snowy Presidents’ Day….

Penelope woke up before the sun again this morning. As usual, the first words out of her mouth were: “I’m hungry! I’m hungry!” She hopped into our room as giddy as a spider monkey with a tennis racket much to the sleepy chagrin of Bernadette and I.

In my daze, I told her that in 10 years she is going to want to sleep until noon, and that’s when I am going to start the family tradition of the “Saturday Morning Let’s Vacuum the Upstairs Hallway Party.” She liked the idea. You all are now my witness to that.

I think Presidents’ Day has confused Penelope a bit. When I told her why I wasn’t going to work at the office today, she grew very excited and I could not understand why. Then I realized she thought I had said “Presents Day.” I then told her that we celebrate today because it’s near Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. (That’s the president she knows. Well, she also knows George W. Bush, but thinks his name is “Jackass.”)

Her face lit up like a Christmas tree, and she began clapping and laughing and begging us to take her downstairs. She started babbling a bit, and it took me a few moments to get the gist of her words.

I had to explain to her that Presidents’ Day was different from the last holiday we celebrated. But she understands now that Lincoln did not come to the house last night and leave presents in the library. Although,  when we later clomped down the stairs for breakfast, I saw her cast a hopeful glance through the library doors. Fortunately this little kid bounces back quickly and the promise of a cheese stick and Mickey Mouse revived her spirits.

Maybe today her and I will swing past the local Borders to find a children’s book on Abraham Lincoln. I would imagine such a book exists. Yes? It’s not like I’m seeking “The Adventures of Millard Fillmore.”

Musical Notes

Last Christmas, the school Penelope attends opened a store that sold inexpensive gifts that kids could purchase for their parents. Penelope decided to buy me a purple rubber duck for the bathtub and a key chain. The chain is five inches long and in white blocks spells out “I (heart) music.” Because I’ve been listening to a lot of Frank Sinatra lately, Penelope tried to find me a key chain that read: “I (heart) Frank.” I’m glad she couldn’t.

Music has always been an important part of our household, and we’ve stuffed several binders with jazz, classical, rock, opera, Americana, blues (mostly the old eight-bar traditional blues of Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon and Howlin’ Wolf), pop, show tunes, gospel and older country. Everything but hip-hop and rap, which means, no doubt, that Penelope will likely embrace hip-hop and rap when she’s older.

Which is fine. I only hope the music she embraces is what touches her soul and fills her senses and her emotional and spiritual needs. I’d hate for her to gravitate toward some music simply because it’s popular or because her friends listen to it or because it’s rammed down her throat by a gaggle of corporate cranks who could be just as easily selling soap flakes as deciding what music gets marketed to the masses. But whatever happens, happens.

I think music forms the soundtrack of our lives. Many of my childhood memories revolve around music. I can remember drawing comic books on the back porch while my brother’s stereo speakers blasted Uriah Heep. I’m not exactly sure why my brother gravitated toward one of the worst metal bands of the 1970s. Just listen to this for 30 seconds — go on, I dare you — and after laughing your pants off at their pants and hair, you’ll understand why speculation is rampant that Spinal Tap was based on this band.

Another musical memory I have is wandering up to my father’s art room. He’d be hunched over his drawing board, working, and from his tinny speakers would bleat Marty Robbins’s “Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs” (which featured such cowboy classics as Big Iron and They’re Hanging Me Tonight).

Although the first album I ever purchased with my own coin was ELO’s “Out of the Blue,” I became a big Alice Cooper fan in my formative years. And while I don’t recall ever running about the house wearing mascara with a boa constrictor slithering around my torso, I can still remember my parents quizzical looks when I asked for “Alice Cooper Goes to Hell” one Christmas.  I doubt bringing this record into school for Music Appreciation Day was the only reason my teacher requested a conference with my parents, but I suspect it made her top 10 list. I waited until my 12th birthday to ask for “Muscle of Love.”

Somewhat amazing in hindsight that I’m not receiving some form of psychotherapy these days. Then again, Frank Sinatra did sing an Alice Cooper song, so perhaps there’s some symmetry to my musical proclivities.

While Penelope enjoys “The Muffin Man,” “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” and “Before They Make Me Run,” her all-time favorite song is “Down the Road Apiece.” I haven’t taken a car ride with her in the past month when she hasn’t asked to hear it. (Although this song has been performed by Chuck Berry and the Rolling Stones, she prefers the Bruce Springsteen/Joe Gruscheky version.) The only lyrics Penelope knows are: “down the road, down the road, down the road apiece,” and “Mama’s cookin’ chicken fried in bacon grease.” But she knows them real well and sings them quite loud. Perhaps she likes the song so much because it mentions food. That would also explain “The Muffin Man.”

I know the time will one day come when she hates my music. But for now, I’m perfectly free to cruise down the highway, arm banging against the car door in time to “Sinatra at the Sands with the Count Basie Orchestra.”

Provided I play “Down the Road Apiece” first.

…And The Livin’ Is Easy

Bernadette and I have joined a social club. I’m not sure what I’m doing in a social club, except to say that I was unable to find any anti-social clubs in the area. And, even if I did, I suspect it would host few events and the two or three people who actually attended them wouldn’t talk to one another. When pondering this decision, a famous line from Groucho Marx twirls  in my mind: “I don’t care to belong to a club that accepts people like me as members.”

The group is actually a pool and hunting club. I worried before joining that the two activities are co-mingled. I imagined heads bobbing up and down in sparkling pristine waters and children frolicking at play, while hunters ringed the hillsides shooting at them. My concerns were quickly allayed: Swimming in summer, hunting in winter. I’m not much of a hunter, and I do not own a gun. I do own a fabulous set of steak knives, but doubt the deer of our beloved woodlands have much to fear from me chasing after them with my trusty Henkels. Come to think of it, my experience in handling firearms is limited to filling a clown’s mouth with water when the carnival comes to town.

So, needless to say, I’ll be spending most of my time at the pool. I’m grateful we joined because the pool is absolutely gorgeous, and the weather this summer has been brutal. Most summers we have a few hot days, but this year heat and its best buddy humidity have propped their feet up on the coffee table, grabbed a bowl of chips and decided to stick around for a while. Unfortunately, our air conditioner decided to make them feel at home by blowing hot air. At least the air conditioner will be useful come December.

Penelope adores swimming with a wild abandon that, as a parent, is both wonderful and terrifying. She loves playing blind man’s bluff with girls her age and Ninja with some older boys. She also enjoys Marco Polo; unfortunately, whenever she hears “Marco” she will respond, even if she’s not playing. One afternoon she was yelling “Polo” from the picnic tables.

She tries to dive by cupping her hands above her head and jumping belly first into the water. She is dying to touch the bottom of the pool and to jump from the diving board.

When Penelope and I arrive at the pool I marvel at how many friends she has made. As we hurry down the grassy hill toward the pool, I can often hear some child’s voice shout “Penelope!” or “Penelope’s here!” It reminds me of Norm walking into Cheers.

Then, wearing her bright yellow floatie, she’ll jump in the pool. With her head bobbing in and out of the water, she’ll swim toward a group of laughing children.

I lean against the cyclone fence and take it all in. The children splashing and playing games. The adults chatting; dark sunglasses hiding smiling eyes. A beach ball flutters across the buoys that divide the shallow end of the pool from the deep. The colors here are so crisp and vibrant: the shimmering blue water, the deep green leaves of the trees as they sway below billowing white clouds. I am convinced it’s impossible to feel unhappy at a pool.

Well, until somebody pees in it.

Lead stomach in Leadville

The inevitable happened in Leadville, Colorado earlier this year. I was walking along the main street in the city with the highest elevation above sea level in North America when I heard a gurgling noise, a distinct splat and a startled yelp from Bernadette.

Penelope had succumbed to altitude sickness: The orange, Grape Nuts, egg, and granola bar our daughter had eaten for breakfast beat a hasty retreat from the bottomless pit of her belly. During the drive to Leadville, Penelope fussed and screamed in the car, but we took this as a sign of her being tired, not a warning that it was Sayonara cereal time.

To make matters worse,  Bern was carrying Penelope in the back pack, which meant she was now wearing Penelope’s breakfast like a bad hat.

The episode was remarkable to me for two reasons. First, we had recently celebrated our sixth-month anniversary with our daughter and except for a minor incident involving  too many blueberries on an empty stomach, she hadn’t vomited yet. So far, she has endured a 15-hour plane ride from Beijing to Newark, and exposure to other young children carrying unfamiliar germs, and devoured vast quantities of offerings from the seven seas, an organic farm and nearby restaurants with barely a belch.

The second surprise was this: Penelope’s vomiting failed to set off a bizarre chain reaction. I can visualize it in slow motion: Bernadette diving her head into the nearest trash can while Penelope holds on to the backpack for dear life; me reeling before collapsing to my knees and retching in the gutter; my college friend Dina  looking down on the whole mess, puzzled and wondering why she ever invited us out to Denver.

One of the many things that terrify me as a parent is knowing little kids can do some really disgusting things. They jam their fingers inside their nostrils and pull out green goo the size of  a marble. They crap three times their weight in one sitting. They find a week-old hunk of cheese mashed between the couch cushions and think it’s a perfectly appropriate mid-afternoon snack.

I know little kids can do disgusting things because I used to do them all the time. When I felt sick as a child, I would climb the stairs, walk into my parents’ room, announce my illness and then proceed to throw up all over the throw rug. Never mind that my bedroom was next door to the bathroom. Maybe I thought the odds I’d get to stay home from school improved if my Mom had to scrub the floor that night. Regardless, the problem was that seeing myself sick only made me more sick.

If I could barely stomach my own illness, I sure as well couldn’t handle someone else’s. And that meant college would prove challenging  because I would witness classmates overindulging on Saturday night and paying for it Sunday morning. At times I hear the prayers of those who didn’t make it to church bouncing off the ceramic tiles in the men’s room, and pause for a moment wondering whether I could stomach what would surely be an ugly scene.*

So I always figured I was the wrong person to ask for help if you got sick. The few times Bern has been ill since our marriage, I’ve done the concerned husband thing: planted myself firmly about two feet from the partially closed bathroom door and asked if she wants a glass of water. I thought when Penelope gets sick, I’d say to Bern, “Why don’t you go clean her up and I’ll . . . ah . . . who’s thirsty?” But when Penelope foiled my strategy by not only getting sick but also using Bern as a target, I had to think fast.

I volunteered to run into the nearest luncheonette to grab some napkins. Hey, at least I was standing on my own two feet and not rolling around in the gutter.

I always knew I had it in me . I just never suspected I could keep it there.

*Just for the record, I’m not saying I didn’t enjoy one or two or 10 adult beverages on a given night while in college. But somehow I was pretty good about not crossing that point of no return between just feeling fuzzy headed the next morning and wanting to cut my head off and tossing it down the trash chute.

{This blog entry has been sitting around for a while collecting cyber-mold. Maybe I just didn’t have the stomach to publish it!}

Discover the dream?

The dogs were taking me for a walk the other day when I stopped at the mailbox. Our mailbox, which sits across the road from our home, is rather oversized and resembles a dog house perched precariously atop a pole.  I think my wife actually mistook it for one because she once suggested I sleep in it. I forget what I did to warrant that, but I’m sure it wasn’t good.

I generally bypass the mailbox when walking the dogs. My beagles have no sense of direction, so carrying an armload of mail and dragging them along usually results in a paper trail of letters and catalogs strewn up the driveway. It’s also a little dangerous: One dog likes to attack horse trailers, and what exactly she’d do if she ever caught one God only knows. The other needs only the whiff of a shadow of a possum that lumbered through our neighborhood three weeks ago to dart off on its trail. Also, on days when I stop, the mail will include a box so  large that Carol Merrill should be standing in front of it. (OK, why can I remember the model’s name from “Let’s Make a Deal” circa 1972, but not where I put my damn car keys?)

As a gust of wind whooshed me up the driveway, a large snow-white envelope caught my attention. My first surprise was that it’s addressed to Penelope; the second was who it’s from.

I corralled the dogs into the house and dropped the mail on the kitchen island. My wife is currently on  a detox diet, which means that, by default, I am too. Not that she’s forcing me onto her diet, but I’d feel bad slurping up a giant plate of penne vodka while she’s nibbling on brown rice and broccoli. On this day, she’s stirring a big pot of hot and sour tofu cabbage soup.

Once a friend learned “we” were on this diet and asked if I’d lost anything. “Only my will to live,” I told her.

I called Penelope over. She was standing in her play kitchen pulling from her toy oven a wooden pizza that looked more appetizing than Bern’s soup. I held up the envelope, and Penelope scampered over.

“You have mail,” I said. She cocked her head and blinked uncomprehendingly. “Really, it’s yours. Take it.”

I extended the large envelope, and she tentatively reached for it. “Me? Mail?” I reassured her. She slowly ripped small pieces of the envelope as if she were peeling an artichoke.

Finally finished, she gasped as she pulled out the contents. Her eyes widened in delight. After all, it’s not every day a  three-year-old gets a glossy magazine promoting tourism from the Nebraska Office of Economic Development. I’m not sure why the good folks at the Nebraska tourism board think my daughter is the right demographic to pitch, but I confess my marketing experience is pretty much limited to the “3 Ps.” Yet I still can’t picture toddlers booking flights to Omaha to visit the World’s Largest Ball of Stamps or even the Kool-Aid Museum (with the rather eyebrow-raising slogan “Discover the Dream”).

Penelope loves her shiny new magazine. The first night before she went to bed she left it on the family-room coffee table, pointed at it, then me, and said, “No Papa.” I got the message: Keep your stinking paws off my magazine. She scampered off to the kitchen to repeat the admonishment to Bern.

The next evening, Penelope carried her magazine upstairs and wanted it read to her before bedtime. I conjured up a tale about a mythical, magical place called “Nebraska,” where Elmo and Mr. Noodle frolic when they’re vacationing from Sesame Street. Now, the guide has become a staple in our night-time reading selection. It’s not out of the ordinary for Penelope to want me to read “Polar Express,” “There’s a Wocket in My Pocket,” and “The Nebraska Tourism Guide” before shutting out the lights.

Our daughter may not yet be able to say her full name, opting for the shortened Pelli over the mouthful of consonants and vowels we bestowed upon her. But she can say Nebraska and Omaha.

Addendum: Recently Penelope received a second packet in the mail, this from the Texas Tourism Council, and a third from Rhode Island. If this continues, she may have all 50 states memorized by kindergarten.



Toddler vs. Food

Lately, I’ve become addicted to the TV program “Man Vs. Food” on the Travel Channel. In case you’ve never seen MvF, during each episode the paunchy host visits restaurants that specialize in serving single portions of food capable of feeding the island of Madagascar. I watch in stunned amazement as someone tries to devour a stack of 13-inch pancakes or a 7 1/2 pound “Sasquatch Burger” the size of a monster-truck tire.

My fascination, I believe, stems first from my love of discovering local eateries that break the chain of homogeneous restaurants one finds scattered around every truck-stop interstate exit from Trenton to Tucamcari. The show also draws upon memories of college days when several dorm-room buddies and I attempted to drive a Fritsch’s Big-Boy bankrupt by gorging on its all-you-can-eat midnight buffet. That failed effort culminated with me lying on the frozen ground in a farmer’s field watching wisps of my breath swirl amongst the stars as I groaned prayers for a quick death to God, Buddha and the Galloping Gourmet.

But perhaps my interest is rooted in my ceaseless wonder at how much food Penelope can pack away. After all, on a daily basis I have a front-row dining-room seat to Toddler vs. Food.

Most mornings Penelope greets Bernadette and I by standing in her doorway yelling “Hi Mama! Hi Papa!  Hungry! Hungry!” Bern and I now employ a lightning round of “Rock, Paper, Scissors, Lizard, Spock” to decide who’s getting out of bed first. (In case you want to settle disputes this way, it’s: Scissors cuts paper; paper covers rock; rock crushes lizard; lizard poisons Spock; Spock smashes scissors;  scissors decapitates lizard; lizard eats paper; paper disproves Spock; Spock vaporizes rock; rock smashes scissors. Credit Sam Kass and Karen Bryla for inventing Rock, Paper, Lizard, Scissors, Spock in 1998.)

Since paper disproves Spock, on this particular Saturday I stumble downstairs as Penelope scampers besides me. She charges toward the refrigerator, throws open  the door and digs into a drawer for a cheese stick. A bowl of Cheerios and some blackberries or apple slices will follow, sometimes before the coffee pot beeps joyously from the kitchen counter. Penelope will clamor for “Nemo Snacks” — gummy fruit snacks shaped like fish from the Disney cartoon — but those are afternoon treats since we don’t allow her to eat candy before noon. (The no-candy-before-noon rule was strictly adhered to in my parents’ house when I was growing up, and one I abide by to this day. Since my Mom didn’t have a no-drinking-before noon rule . . . well, let’s just say it made college that much more entertaining.)

Later we all hop in the car and drive to Buckingham Friends Meeting to attend a memorial service for Dr. Christian Hansen, a truly remarkable man. I encourage you to check out his free e-book autobiography In The Name of the Children and consider donating to the American Friends Service Committee. Chris, a pediatrician by vocation, spent his life helping the world’s neediest children. His book also discusses his experiences meeting Dr. Martin Luther King and participating in the Meredith March in June 1966.

After the service, Penelope chows down on some blackberries, raspberries, cantaloupe, seared tuna, roast beef, orzo salad and a brownie for dessert. By the time she’s nestled back in her car seat for the ride home, she’s clamoring for those Nemo snacks. But since she just finished grazing at the buffet table, we decide to give her jaws a break. You’d think with all this eating that Penelope would resemble a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade balloon, but she’s quite thin. In fact, she’s a tall skinny kid; our doctor tells us she’s in the 95th percentile height wise for her age. I have started to wonder if she’s Yao Ming’s love child.

Penelope has also impressed us with the variety of foods she will eat. The other night after dinner, she pronounced the white clam pizza positively “mm-yummy.” We’ve watched her devour mussels, tofu, bok choy, artichokes, calamari and quinoa — not in one sitting, of course. On our last trip to the supermarket she cheered when she spotted the broccoli. Recently we visited friends in Denver — I’ll be writing about that soon — and I was sorely tempted to see if Penelope would eat Rocky Mountain oysters, but Bern nixed that idea. (“You’re not feeding our child bull balls!”)

Bern and I are thrilled that she’ll try just about anything. Now, we’re just waiting for that call from the Travel Channel.

{Note: So, where the hell was I? For those of you with whom I haven’t spoken, I’ve been busy collaborating with several other members of my community’s historical society on a book that will be published later this year. I hope you will consider checking that book out once it’s published. A portion of the profits from those books sold by the historical society will go to our organization. The book will also be available at area Barnes & Noble’s, Borders, etc. and will be available online.}