Cussing Around the Kid

I attended my first Major League baseball game when I was 8 years old. The New York Mets played the Houston Astros, and naturally, being the Mets, they lost 7-4.

There’s something about a boy seeing his first live baseball game that leaves an indelible impression. I remember so much from that day: My father and I and the neighborhood kids sitting in the sun-drenched upper deck of Shea Stadium on a Wednesday afternoon; the thrill of watching Ed Kranepool hit a home run into the right-field bullpen and the disappointment that Willie Mays didn’t play; getting home before sundown, grabbing my freshly oiled Rusty Staub mitt and playing three-fly-six in Bobby Westerfield’s backyard.

That first trip to Queens in August of 1972 suckered me into becoming a Mets fan, and I’ve seen a lot of losing ever since. In hindsight, I consider my father’s prodding to support National League baseball in New York a peculiar form of child abuse.

I suffered a great deal as a kid from watching the Mets trade Nolan Ryan and Tom Seaver to Mettle. (The Mets actually ran a contest to name the 1979 Mets mascot — a mule — and I entered. Really, I did. Not surprisingly, my suggestion of M. Donald Grant didn’t win.)

These days I don’t watch much baseball. I just don’t have the time anymore to see a bunch of guys scratch and spit for hours on end. If I wanted to do that, I could always look up my freshman-year college roommates.

But one particular Sunday, while waiting to drive to the local pool and gun club, I flipped on the TV and a Mets game. Naturally, being the Mets, they were losing. And, within minutes, the manager made some idiotic decision. Then I did something all guys do when watching sports on television: I started yelling at the set. It’s a DNA/reflex/guy thing. And somewhere in my brief rant I may have called Mets manager Jerry Manuel a few . . . ummm . . . inappropriate names. Nothing too terrible: stupid, pinhead, jackass. There may have been a dipshit thrown in there; I can’t remember. Unfortunately, Penelope the parrot was playing nearby and started immediately repeating those words.

I knew I must do something. Horrible visions floated in my head of Penelope going to preschool Monday morning and calling her teacher a jackass. So, I did what any dumba. . . — quick-thinking Papa and Mets fan would do: I spent the next 20 minutes trying to persuade Penelope she should reserve those names for the “old man in the blue baseball uniform.”

At first, I wasn’t sure if she bought it. But I felt better the other day when I was driving the car, and after getting cut-off, proceeded to call the other driver a pinhead.

“Papa!” I heard from the backseat. “Baseball man?!”

“Yes, Pop Tart, that’s right! The baseball man just cut me off!”

{Gratuitious plug time: I’ll be among the authors signing copies of the local history book “East Amwell” from the Images of America series on Sunday, Sept. 19 at the Unionville Vineyards in East Amwell from 2 to 5 p.m. A portion of the proceeds of books sold there will benefit the East Amwell Historical Society. If you’re looking for something fun to do, please come, buy some wine and buy a book. We’ll also be at the Borders Books in Flemington on Oct 2 from 1 to 3 p.m. Last week, at a local Harvest Fest we signed and sold close to 80 copies. Finally, in my last shameless plug (all for the noble cause of preserving local history) I will be doing an in-studio interview on WDVR FM 89.7 Monday, Oct.  18 at 4 p.m. about this book.}



By the Seat of our Pants

Recently, a social worker visited our house to evaluate how Penelope was handling her new environment. I tend to make Bernadette nervous before these visits because I threaten to say things like, “Well, I’d love to show you the basement but I’m afraid the other orphans are down there rolling tobacco leaves into cigars.”

During this visit, the social worker spotted our copy of the book “What To Expect From Your Toddler” sitting on the coffee table besides an assortment of toy musical instruments and asked me, “So, what have you learned?”

“I’ve learned I no longer have time to read,” I said.

OK, that’s not entirely true. Recently Bernadette returned from the library with an armful of books with titles like “Parenting With a Purpose” and “The Secret of Parenting.” Occasionally, I will flip open a book and leaf through it as if I expect some ephiphanic phrase to leap off the page causing me to leap off the couch and exclaim: “That’s it! That’s what I need to do to guarantee my kid will always behave in every situation no matter where we are or how much (or little) sleep she has had!”

Needless to say, that hasn’t happened, nor will it ever. I think experience is the great teacher in parenting. Well, perhaps not experience itself, but what we do with what we experience. (I guess you can say that about anything in life.) We’re lucky because overall Penelope behaves well. But, like any child, she has moments when she acts bratty, antagonizes the dogs, or decides her play stove is boring and wants to play with the real one. When Penelope crosses the bad-behavior line, she winds up in her room or sitting on the family-room steps thinking about what she did wrong.

Lately, we’ve been struggling with Penelope’s unwillingness to nap. One Sunday afternoon, Penelope absolutely refused to nap, even though she had Samsonite-sized bags drooping below her eyes. We eventually threatened her with canceling our planned pool outing (swimming, not billiards!) if she didn’t rest.  Nothing worked. The minute we left the room, Penelope would climb off the bed to read or play. This went on for much of the afternoon, leaving Penelope even more exhausted, Bern on the verge of tears and me pulling my hair out. Although the day was a scorcher, Bern and I agreed that we couldn’t give in and take her to the pool.  Then, we discussed whether we needed to wean Penelope off naps anyway — she starts afternoon pre-school this fall — and how best to go about doing so.

But I think in this and the hundreds of other instances that have popped up, we’ve learned that parenting by the seat of our pants is a perfectly natural approach. You can read all the books you want, call all the friends and family members whose parenting skills you respect, but it all comes down to relying on your experience and common sense to make an intelligent, quick decision. And I hope and suspect that as long as Bern and I support each others’ decisions and keep the lines of communication open, that it’ll all work out. Somehow.

Bern and I do our best to do the right thing. We’re vigilant about teaching her manners, and can honestly say that it’s less and less often now that we need to remind her to say ‘please’ or ‘thank you,’ or ‘excuse me’ if she needs to interrupt a conversation. Sometimes she gets the phrases mixed up.

The other day Penelope was drinking a glass of milk at the dinner table when she let out an adult-sized belched.

“What do you say?” I asked.

“Thank you!” she responded.

So, she’s learning . . . well, we’re all learning!

Last Lesson

When I was about five years old, my Dad would take me to Mountainview Park. For a little kid, that playground was like Disneyland. It had a sliding board enclosed in a tube, an above-ground tunnel and swings that made you feel you could kick a cloud. Playground equipment back then was constructed out of metal. It would have the occasional jagged edge or bolt that wanted to pop out when you least expected it, but I didn’t care. My Dad would stand close by, letting me run wild but keeping a close watch to make sure I didn’t hurt myself.

When I was 16, my Dad took me to Mountainview Park again, this time to teach me how to drive. He set up the horses to act as the front and rear bumpers of cars and showed me how to parallel park. I remember his patience despite the damage I did to his workshop equipment.

My Dad taught me a thousand and one lessons great and small. Paying me a nickle for each frog I caught in the yard (and taking them to the nearby woods to release them) taught me the value of money and to care for all God’s creatures. I remember when he’d drive past a boarded up house he would ask me how I’d feel if I “lived in a place like that,” and realized that he was teaching me to appreciate what I had in life. (When he was a kid growing up in the Depression, his family had very little.) He showed me how to spackle a hole in the wall, how to take care of a puppy and how to hit a baseball.

But it didn’t occur to me until I was packing Wednesday night to visit my Dad for the last time what those lessons all meant. He wasn’t just teaching me how to have fun while being safe or how to drive. All those little lessons added up to something far more important. He was teaching me how to be a good husband and a good Dad.

I hope I can be as good a Dad to Penelope as he was to me.

Thanks for everything Dad. I love you and will never forget all you taught me. Rest in peace.

{Thursday morning as I was leaving my house to drive to North Carolina, my sister called to tell me my Dad had passed away in his sleep earlier that morning. The Parkinson’s Disease and other ailments he fought so bravely for so long, finally beat him. He was 84.}

Between the covers, under the covers

I arrived home from a Historic Preservation Committee meeting around 9 one night and was surprised to see my daughter’s window all lit up. Penelope’s bedtime is around 7:30 p.m. A well-lit window is not a good sign.

I grabbed my bag and rushed into the house. Bernadette hovered over the kitchen island. The white toddler monitor crackled; it’s yellow and red lights flashed like a smile.

“Come here. You’ve got to hear this,” she said. I leaned in and listened. Penelope’s voice rang through the bursts of static.

“Tushy . . . . tushy . . . tushy . . .  tushy. . . .all done.” Thunk. Pause. “Moo moo sere . . . moo moo shere . . . woof woof sere . . . woof woof shere . . . quack quack sere . . quack quack shere . . . all done.” Thunk.

“She’s up there looking at books?” I asked.

“Yes, I was going to go up there, but I thought I’d give her a few minutes. I mean she’s looking at books.”

I understood. Bern and I have always loved to read. As a kid she loved going to Two Guys to spend her birthday money on Nancy Drew and Little House books; I remember my father driving me to the local library for the “Alfred Hitchcock Presents The Three Investigators” series.  Our living room resembles a library crammed with old biographies, history books and a collection of fiction I inherited from my uncle.

We chatted briefly over a Rolling Rock before I headed upstairs to settle Penelope down again for bed. On nights when I put Penelope to bed, I let her pick three books to read, hiding as best as I can the ones I don’t like. Then I’ll read the first story and she’ll “read” the second. By her reading I mean she knows two or three words for each of her favorite books, and will repeat those words as she turns a page. The third book is read by her stuffed Elmo toy.

My Elmo impersonation is mediocre at best except with the undiscerning toddler population in our house. Besides, I think what I lack in vocal skills I make up with enthusiasm. Stuffed Elmo raises Penelope’s window shade to look for Mr. Noodle, peppers Penelope with questions about her book and cracks goofy jokes. (“You’re wearing pajamas with my picture! Wow! I have a pair of pajamas at home with your picture on it Penelope!”) When story time ends, I lay stuffed Elmo aside and click off the lamp. Penelope has taken to fumbling in the dark for stuffed Elmo  and nestling it beside me as we finish the night with a few choruses of “Mama Buy You Me!” (which translates to “Mama’s Gonna Buy You a Mockingbird”).

One day I will miss these moments.

Penelope’s door squeaks when I push it open. Sure enough, her favorite books are piled on the floor — which explains the “thunking” noises we heard — including those we just heard her reading: “The Tushy Book,” “Old McDonald” and “Big Frog Can’t Fit In.” She goes through phases with books; one week “Big Frog” is her favorite, the next it’s “Moose and Magpie.” I guess I do the same thing with authors. Presently, I’m on a William Styron kick, so it’s a minor miracle I’m not writing this:

Penelope and I could taste the haunting briny air as the cedar trees swayed and moaned under the weight of the squall. Books failed to ward off our emptiness. (OK, pretty lame, but you get the idea.)

I collect the books, give Penelope a peck on the forehead and let her lie down in darkness. Moments later, she slumbers peacefully.

I don’t know if Penelope’s growing fondness for reading is innate, or the result of seeing her parents snatching odd quiet moments with a book. I’m just grateful it has happened, and I hope it never ends.

Moving Day

Congratulations! You’ve found the new home of the blog formerly known as “Growing Up With Penelope.” I’m still working on the design, some new blogs and even the title. If you’re ever planning on starting a blog someday, let me make a suggestion: Skip Blogger and use WordPress. It’s far better organized, contains all kinds of nice features and little gimcracks, and is just a pleasure to use.  I’ll be adding videos, stories, polls, etc. Please sign up to follow this blog, participate in the polls and leave comments.

I’ve migrated all the old blogs, photos and comments here. I won’t be adding any new blogs to the old site, but this one will be a work in progress for a little while.

Santa Claus and Transvestites

January 7, 2010

More random stuff

Bernadette was out running errands with Penelope yesterday and stopped at a bagel store for lunch. Since Penelope can pack away the food, we have to eat at the cheapest places we can find.

So, the two of them are sharing lunch when a man with long white hair and a bushy white beard sits near them. He waves to Penelope and strikes up a conversation with Bern. Within five minutes he starts detailing his long list of medical problems: liver trouble, heart disease, food poisoning and chronic fatigue syndrome.

As he starts discussing his bout with lyme disease, Penelope points at him and exclaims, “Ho! Ho! Ho!”

Yes, Penelope, while there is a Santa Claus, he most assuredly doesn’t eat at the bagel shop and talk about food poisoning.

Bern is talented at attracting bat-shit crazy folk. Two Januarys ago, while vacationing in Chicago (yes it was cold; it was 15 below zero in Chi-town when the plane landed), we had a strange experience at a piano bar. I wandered off for a few moments to determine whether the person wearing a dress and sitting at the piano was a man or a woman. When I returned to our table, a couple was chatting with Bern. After a few minutes of talking, they offered to buy us drinks. We passed. But then we strongly suspect they propositioned us for a couples’ swap because the man looked at his girlfriend and said “Ready?” and she responded affirmatively. Then they both simultaneously crossed their wrists.

Bern said, “What the hell is that?” and the pair quickly scampered away, leaving their drinks behind. Most peculiar. A friend later convinced us that they were suggesting a mate swap. Anyway, the lesson I learned from this experience was never to wander off to spy on a transvestite in bar.

The New Year

OK, having survived as a parent for a few months in 2009, I’ve decided to set some ambitious — well, not quite — goals for twenty-ten. I’m blogging them here with the belief that if they’re in writing, I might actually achieve them. (Yes, I know it’s a lame theory, but kindly work with me here!)

1. I will learn how to change a diaper in a public bathroom while Penelope is standing.

2. I will figure out the purpose of the goofy plastic blue bath toy Penelope has. I have no idea where it came from or what it does, and the one time I tried to hide it in a closet, Penelope dug it out.

3. I’ll learn how to get tights on a squirming wiggle worm.

4. I will stop raiding Penelope’s animal crackers after I put her to bed. Did you know Animal Crackers contain no trans fats and there’s only 100 calories in 13 of them? However, I’m not sure if that claim is truly accurate since I didn’t check the fine print to see if some animals have a higher caloric content than others.

5. Since we brought Penelope home last August, I’ve only finished four books. So, I’ve compiled a list of 20 books to read or re-read this year. They include:

— Pride and Prejudice. Every time I start this book, Bern gets all worked up because she believes she has yet another excuse to watch the PBS 427-hour miniseries with Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy. I immediately place the book back on the shelf.

— Tom Jones. I thought it was a biography about the singer until someone told me otherwise. (You’ve been a great crowd, good night. I’ll be here all week. Don’t forget to tip your waitress.)

— War and Peace. Yes, the book is 1200 pages long and the print is microscopic, but it weighs about 17 pounds and the additional upper-body conditioning would do me some good.

— Don Quixote de la Mancha. Yes, I need a reminder about attacking windmills. Actually, I want to re-read this because I had a conversation about this book recently and am not so sure about my interpretation of the ending.

— Remembrance of Things Past. Because I’m thinking of titling my autobiography “Remembrance of Things Pabst.” OK, that’s an old joke but I still enjoy it.

Footnote: Yesterday, a friend from work gave me a box of Maltesers that her boyfriend brought from Scotland. Maltesers are similar to malt balls, but lighter. And while I was hoping they’d have scotch in them (they don’t), they were real tasty. So much for that New Year’s diet!

The Things We Left Behind

A quick update . . . .

After our dinner at Makedas in New Brunswick, Bernadette and I promised each other a date night once a month. While I’m not surprised we’ve kept that promise, I admit in retrospect I am a little amazed that on our second date we journeyed into New York City. And not just into midtown, but way way way downtown (where there’s free parking if you’re lucky!).

I was a little nervous about this trip, but had complete confidence in our babysitters: my friend Mark and his mother. In fact, Bern called the babysitters only twice. Well, I guess three times if you count the time she made me call them.

We planned a special night which included attending a farewell party for a friend who recently moved to Boston (we hope you three are doing well!), and a stop at the City Winery to catch an acoustic performance by Blue Rodeo. The band hails from Canada and is quite popular there, but has never caught on here in the states. I’ve been a fan of their music for about 15 years, which is about how long my wife has had a little crush on guitarist and singer Jim Cuddy. She downplays it, but I remember years ago I was watching a video of theirs and Bern, who happened to glance at the TV while walking through the family room on her way to the kitchen, stopped dead in her tracks, backed up and said, “Holy Hottie, who’s that?!”

Hmm, maybe my goal to learn to play guitar and write songs is a good one.

Anyway, we both loved the venue, the drinks and appetizers, the chance to be grown-ups without a two-year-old in tow, and most importantly, the show. Afterwards, Bern and I met Jim Cuddy. He signed our CD, and we chatted for a few minutes. Bern thought he looked a little tired but that didn’t stop her from acting positively giddy on the walk back to our car.

The band was touring to promote its new double disc, “The Things We Left Behind.” Basically, it’s 16 songs about infidelity and the heartless things some couples do to each other.

I wanted to tell you
I could see all along
You pretending to forget

While you’re out on the town

So I sat in half knowing
And I try to forget

The last time you wanted me

And I lay in your bed.

— Greg Keelor, The Things We Left Behind.

I cannot imagine how the poor guy in that song feels. I just know I’m grateful for my family; I know I’m a lucky man. And when I forget, Bern is good enough to remind me.

If you feel so inclined, you can watch Blue Rodeo’s latest video here.