Reconnecting with Our Past

horse

The 1971 World Horsehoe Pitching Championships.

I grew up in a neighborhood where rectangular patches of black clay blotted the green grass of everyone’s backyards. With the center of my six-year-old universe being a suburban neighborhood that sprouted from a meadow in 1952, I thought all yards rang with the sounds of men tossing horseshoes, tossing insults at their partners and tossing back cans of Rheingold and Schaefer beer.

I suspect my Dad had the best horseshoe pits in the neighborhood because most summer evenings the men flocked there. He’d come home after eight hours of designing brochures for a printing-press manufacturer and after a quick dinner — something like pork chops, baked potatoes and Delmonte canned green beans — would change out of his work clothes. A set of horseshoes hung from a rack off a slate gray Sears Craftsman band saw in the garage. He’d grab a pair and would bang them together. The neighborhood men would come outside, sit on their front steps to tie their shoes. Soon they’d be climbing over the waist-high white picket fence that surrounded the yard.

About the time I hit the first grade, my hometown was hosting the World Horseshoe Pitching Championships. With horseshoe fever gripping the community, the town fathers scrambled to construct a large fenced-in horseshoe court in the park across from the high school, while the fathers in my neighborhood scrambled to hone their horseshoe pitching skills. I don’t believe any of them actually competed in the tournament, but the commotion undoubtedly stirred their competitive juices.

I remember watching the backyard hum with activity those summer nights in 1971. Sometimes I’d watch from my Dad’s second-floor art room, which offered a bird’s eye view of both pits. I’d watch the metal shoes float effortlessly in a lazy arc across the soft lawn falling with a dull thump into the clay.

An art room was another feature I thought could be found in all homes. On certain winter nights my Mom might be lounging in an arm chair after work, Baretta flashing colored shadows across the living room floor, while my Dad worked upstairs.  I would hear from his stereo turntable the smaltzy pop of Englebert Humperdinck, or the bleating country songs of Marty Robbins. I’d climb the stairs to watch him, hunched over his drawing board, glasses dangling from the tip of his nose as he worked with pen and ink or pastels. On the table behind the swivel chair would be an array of rubber erasers, razor-sharp exacto knives, colored pencils and his Leroy lettering set.

Over time the men stopped playing horseshoes. Some died, some moved away. Upstairs in the art room, the colored pencils and Leroy lettering set got packed away in cardboard boxes and shipped south when my parents sold their home.

And I learned that most homes do not have art rooms, most back yards do not have horseshoe pits. I would think about that once in a while. And then I got older and didn’t think about it at all.

I was walking the dogs in the park recently when I saw two guys throwing horseshoes in sand pits just beyond the trail, and for a moment the winter’s sun warmed to a June evening. The clang of horseshoes rang in the air, mixed with the popping hiss of freshly cracked Rheingold cans.

The next day, a Tuesday, I was walking across the creaky wide plank floors of the art museum where I work on site two days a week. Walking through the contemporary collage exhibition, my mind began to float back to Leroy lettering sets and exacto knives. I could almost hear the once-familiar strains of gunfighter ballads and trail songs.

When I got home that evening I looked around our house, at the history books and the William Jennings Bryan walking stick in the library. I thought about my wife and I writing in our office, putting together words and editing each other’s copy as we work to grow a home business. I wondered what Penelope makes of all this. Of the things that are unique in our household. I hope she appreciates it, and appreciates those things that are unique in the people she meets.

Growing Pains

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Penelope hurried over to me, eyes brimming with tears, her thumb and index finger wiggling one of her bottom teeth. She told me her tooth was loose and started to cry.

I asked her if she was bleeding or did something that loosened the tooth, but she shook her head. “Does it hurt?” I asked, and again she shook her head.

“My tooth is coming out!” She looked confused. “What if all my tooths come out? I won’t be able to eat my cereal?”

Here’s the part where I kick myself a little, and wish I had said something truly helpful. The wife walks into the room moments later, and when she heard the news, grew excited. “Wow! Look at you? You’re becoming a big girl! How exciting! You’re losing your baby teeth, and new big-girl teeth will grow in their place.”

Hearing this not only eased Penelope’s fears, but she became enthused at the prospect of becoming a big girl and about all the interesting things that would happen to her.

So, what did I say when Penelope told me her fears of losing all her teeth and not being able to eat cereal?

“Well, your Grandma lost all her teeth, and she has no problem eating. You’ll be fine.”

God I hope her mother is home when she gets her first period!

Superheroes, super aches

Super Penelope channeling her inner Batman at a friend's birthday party.

I learned some new things playing superhero at the park with Penelope:

  • The proper superhero flying pose is to make a fist and extend your right arm. Your left elbow should be held tight against your ribcage.
  • Superheros work on “school days” but not on “home days.”
  • Superhero duties include: chasing bad guys, helping kids in trouble and feeding dinosaurs.
  • Dinosaurs live under sliding boards and eat pebbles, but only pebbles from the area of the park farthest from the sliding board.

Penelope is running across a field toward a pebble-strewn track. I’m chasing behind her and dragging along our eldest beagle, who would prefer the comforts of her bed to playing the role of Superdog this chilly afternoon. I worry that Superdog’s only super power will be the ability to poop on my pillow while I’m in the shower. We gather a few choice pebbles and skip back across the field to feed the dinosaur. Penelope puts her hands to the side of her head: “Oh no! We need more dinosaur food!”

Oh boy! I take a gulp of air. This endeavor was supposed to wear the kid out, but I’m the one who’s likely heading to bed early. Back across the field we go. I’m huffing and puffing like a steam engine in pants. We make several trips collecting dinosaur food until Penelope pronounces the imaginary beast sated.

Galloping across the field, I suspect I’m providing a good chuckle for anyone looking out from one of the windows of one of the houses abutting the park. And if that’s the case, I don’t mind a bit. One of the unheralded bonuses of having a four-year-old is the chance to be a kid again yourself. If I tried skipping across the open fields without a kid, somebody would probably be chasing me with a net.

One other thing I’ve learned cavorting around the park this day: No matter how good I am about shunning Easter candy, there’s no way my caboose is wending gracefully down the sliding board. Nor will it fit comfortably on a swing. And, while we’re on the subject, didn’t any of these playground planners consider making the plastic tube that serves as a passageway from one side of the play set to the sliding board just a little bit larger?

By the end of the afternoon, I’m feeling my age. My knee joints ache, and my back is barking at me. I strap Penelope into her booster seat and hoist the beagle into the back where she can plot her revenge. I pour myself into the car, grunting a half-hearted vow about getting in shape. But as I back out of the parking space, I catch a glimpse of Penelope smiling in her car seat. And suddenly, I feel super.

The Caffeinated Kid and Other Parenting Mishaps

As someone who will slice up a bunch of jalapeno peppers and then immediately take out his contact lenses, or rub Ben-Gay on his wife’s back and then go to the bathroom, picking out five really bad parenting moves was no problem. Actually, it was a problem because I thought of 16 and had to cut.

Anyway, in no particular order, here are my five personal favorites:

Think before you sing. The other day I was driving to the supermarket with Penelope in the back seat. We were listening to a track by G.B. Leighton, an indie musician out of Minnesota, called “The Most Important Night of My Life.” I didn’t think much about it until after we returned home, and Bernadette asked me why Penelope was singing the first line of the chorus: “I’m going down to the liquor store.” (Ironically, if you watch the video link, Leighton warns about this very thing happening. If only I had seen the video sooner.) All I can say is thank God Penelope couldn’t decipher The Clash’s “Death or Glory.”

And, as a corollary I’d like to add that parodies of children’s songs are a really bad idea. Singing “the driver on the bus goes (insert farting sound here)” to the kid is a pre-K parent-teacher conference just waiting to happen.

Think before you practice. This week I started classes at Mix ’em Up Bartending School. (As an aside, I just want to say that the classes are fantastic, the instructors are terrific, and I’m happy to be adding a skill to my repertoire that can’t get outsourced to India.)

When I return home in the afternoon, I take a little time to practice what I’ve learned. Since I’m pouring liquid — really, water — from one type of container into another, Penelope suddenly finds me more interesting than the Kratt Brothers on PBS Kids. Later, Bernadette was giving Penelope a bath when the little one grabbed her plastic play cups and asked, “Mama, would you like an Alabama Slammer?”

Note to self: Practice making Sex on the Beach after 7:30 p.m.

Note to everyone: No matter how I phrase above sentence it always sounds dirty.

Opposites don’t attract. A recent conversation between Bernadette and I went like this:

Bern: Penelope is in this phase where she just won’t listen. You ask her to do something, and she won’t do it. Or she does the opposite.

Me: I know what we can do. We’ll just tell her the opposite of what we want her to do. So, if we want her to clean up her toys we’ll tell her to go watch TV.

Bern: Really? That teaches her to listen to us . . . how?

Umm . . . yea, good point.

Bedtime ain’t crazy time. I have a tendency to rile up Penelope right before bedtime. One example, and believe me there are many, was when I decided to act out one of her favorite books, “Sneaky Sheep” by Chris Monroe, complete with her stuffed sheep, wolf and Golden Retriever. Funny voices and bouncing animals all but guarantee a 7:30 p.m. bedtime isn’t going to happen. Penelope stayed awake several more hours, and was — how shall I put it? — an absolute joy when the sun rose the following morning. I’d like to publicly apologize to my wife, Penelope’s teachers, the woman who runs the playroom at Shop-Rite, several neighbors, my two beagles and a stray cat that wandered onto our property the next day.

The “new” new coffee generation. Recently I was working from home. I like to start each morning off with a cup of coffee or two or seven. On this particular morning I set my steaming mug down on my desk, shuffle back to the bedroom for a sweatshirt, then downstairs to drop a load of laundry into the washing machine, then into the kitchen to make some scrambled eggs. I carry my plate of eggs to my desk, set it down, reach for my coffee, but it’s gone. Since I have a terrible habit of leaving things all around the house, I pick up my plate of eggs and retrace my steps, but no luck and no coffee.

So, I call out to Bern who has a sixth sense for knowing where I’ve mislaid my car keys, wallet or the remote control. But she’s stumped. As I stand in the family room, scratching my head, a whirling dervish of a four year old careens past me, arms flapping in the air, yelling, “I’m flying!! I’m flying!!”

When I got back to my desk, my plate of eggs was missing. It was the beginning of the longest day of my life.

Teaching My 4 Year Old About Dr. King

Last night at dinner, Penelope told us she’s off from school Monday because it’s Malu King Day. We worked with her a few times, and were able to get her to pronounce his name correctly by saying, “It’s Martin, like Martin Kratt from the Kratt Brothers.” Hey, whatever works!

She said: “He lived a long time ago. Before anyone was born.” When I told her I was three when Dr. King died, well, she looked at me like I was 263 years old. And while I may look that age by the time Friday night rolls around, I certainly don’t feel it. Penelope wanted to see Dr. King, so I uploaded a slice of a YouTube video of his “I Have a Dream Speech.” The video lasted about 90 seconds, which I figured was about the attention span of a four year old, but her eyes were glued to the screen. When it finished she wanted to watch another video (she pointed to a postage-stamp-sized square of Dr. King’s final speech in Memphis).

Dr. King's final speech.

We listened to Dr. King’s soaring words. : “And so just as I say, we aren’t going to let dogs or water hoses turn us around . . .”

“Dogs?” Penelope turned around and looked up at me.

I hesitated. “Well, you know how there’s that scary dog down the corner? He means dogs like that.”

Her head swiveled back to the video. When the speech ended, the video flashed to a grainy black-and-white photograph of a motel balcony in Memphis. Then the CBS eye and words “Special Report” flashed on screen. A smooth-skinned Dan Rather announced that Martin Luther King had been killed. I knew what was coming next.

“Why did he die, Papa?”

I struggle when it comes to explaining to her the darker hours of our history and inhumanity. Our nation’s history sparkles with great moments, but is also littered with great tragedies. I wonder, what is the correct age to start teaching your child about these darker moments. Any ideas?

For now I want my little girl to enjoy her innocence of the meanness that lurks in this world. “It was a terrible thing that happened, Pop Tart. And someday, when you’re a bigger girl, we’ll talk about it.”

She nodded, and turned back to the computer just as the screen faded to black.

After dinner we drove to Buckingham Friends meeting to hear the St. Thomas Gospel Choir perform. As we settled onto the stiff wooden benches of the meetinghouse, I glanced around the room. The choir members, dressed in white shirts and jeans, were huddled on the far side of the room, perhaps in prayer or in preparation for their performance. The musicians were tuning their instruments. Friends greeted one another, and several children giggled as they clambered among the back benches. Penelope watched them wistfully, and asked if she could join them. We agreed, and told her it would be time to return when the choir members took their places to sing. She hesitated a moment, suddenly uncharacteristically shy, but Bern coaxed her. “Don’t be afraid, go ahead.”

It didn’t take long. Within minutes, she was giggling right along with two other children: a blond-haired, blue-eyed girl; an African-American toddler; and my Asian daughter.

The perfect image to remember Dr. King’s legacy.