Wednesday, June 17, 2015

The Bliss of Buttons

I teach high school English. That is to say, I preside over English Language Arts classes occupied by sixteen, seventeen and eighteen-year olds. Most of the time, I don’t feel like I am teaching anyone anything—not through lack of effort or energy, but simply because of the disconnect between teacher and student that seems to grow wider each year. Once in a while, I feel like I make a connection or two. But since I became a father again late in life, and late in my career, the time I spend working is almost never as satisfying as the time I spend with my twins; and in terms of which one I would rather be doing—well there is simply no contest.

Something different happened at the end of this school year, though, that made the happiness gap between teacher and dad more tolerable, and at the same time, more difficult to live with. The irony lies in a surprise letter from a student.

Every year I ask my graduating seniors to give a brief evaluation of the class and the year’s projects. They sometimes use the assignment as a chance to be honest in their praise or criticism of my style and personality. I take both with several grains of salt.

However, this year a student said something so wise and so honest I was stunned. He recounted a moment from a class when a student asked me if the pictures on the wall were of my kids. I answered yes, and then apparently—I have no actual memory of it—said in a quieter voice, “they are my loves, the reason I get up in the morning.” I’m not surprised I said that; I think it all the time. I was just surprised that I actually said it aloud and that someone remembered it.

The student went on the say he then realized why I got so irritated with inattentive and obnoxious students on occasion.

He wrote, “I understood…why would anybody want to spend their precious days among minors who aren’t even eager to learn, when you could spend it with those you love.”

He went on to say he realized what really motivates us as people: our loved ones who give us “an indescribable sensation of pure bliss and joy.”

Today I sat with my daughter at the kitchen table, long after we had finished our Wheaties and bananas. She was practicing buttoning and unbuttoning the three buttons on my pullover. She would fasten them with great care (and some considerable effort on the last one that is always a little stubborn). Then she would unbutton them, and then start again. I was not even a little bit bored, or restless. There was absolutely no other place I wanted to be, except in that bliss.

I guess there may be some education taking place at school after all—I learned something valuable this year about what is really important to me, and why I keep getting up in the morning.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Five Fingers of Scotch

Okay—I’m not too proud of this one; but there’s an explanation.

Meal times with infants can be problematic.

Once they graduate from breast milk or formula to what people mistakenly refer to as solid food (a quick look at the gelatinous glop that passes for baby food will dispel the notion of anything solid), the smiling, enthusiastic little consumer who used to passionately reach for the bottle turns into an alternately sullen or demanding miniature screamer who always wants whatever you don’t have.

Oh sure, there are idyllic moments when the happy, cooing angel “opens wide” for a spoonful of orange mush and blithely swallows it all, opening wide again to show mommy and daddy it’s all gone and she’s ready for another. Parents beam, and then applaud; babies laugh; good feelings permeate the kitchen nook, and all is well in the universe.

Then there are the other moments.

Babies scream, shake their heads, swing wildly at the spoonful of greenish sludge—until their aims improve and the swings become deadly accurate. In between attempts at feeding, Mom and Dad sigh heavily, look at each other in despair, hang their heads, and brace themselves for more attempts.

Average meal times began to lengthen from twenty minutes to close to an hour. Something had to be done.

Enter the era of plausible distractors.

We discovered that shiny things would hold our babies’ attention long enough to shovel in a couple of spoons full of squash, peas, applesauce or pear-raspberry-mango-spinach-ham puree (who comes up with these combinations?).

The first time, my wife just grabbed an empty plastic bowl that was nearby. I didn’t have a bowl, but there was a miniature bottle of Cutty Sark—actually a chocolate facsimile with a tiny drab of actual whiskey, but wrapped in shiny foil and looking just like a scotch bottle—so I handed that to my tiny dinner guest and voila, she ate most of the food before she could get bored with the bottle.

Of course, just like anything else that’s too good to be true, it was…too good that is, and only true the first time. After that, we tried other distractors with varying degrees of success. We didn’t discard the old distractions, though; we just collected them into a giant Tupperware container that we leave on the kitchen table. When meals begin, we try a bite or two commando (sans distractions) but quickly move to the box and work our way through the collection.

 Currently the box contains the following:
·  Two chocolate liquor bottles (we had to replace the originals after they were baby-handled for a few weeks)
·  Three plastic lids
·  Two spoons (“Here, honey, you can feed yourself like a big girl”)
·  Two homemade noisemakers: Clean out the plastic tubs from Gerber Organic Fruits; insert three unshelled almonds; seal top with packing tape; hand to baby.
·  Two more noisemakers—this time with M & M’s instead of almonds.
·  Two bright, pink, plastic pairs of sunglasses
·  Two empty bags of “squeezable” baby food with screw on lids. Caution: keep an eye on the lids, they are almost small enough to consume.
·  A very large building block
·  A smaller, large building block
·  A brochure for a real estate agent
·  A paper cup (okay, not very shiny, but they grabbed it from the bathroom and I left it in there)
·  A plastic telephone receiver
·  Various straws, napkins and cups

Lately they have become so intransigent that nothing in the box works by itself, so I just put the entire tub in front of the baby I’m trying to feed and hope that by the time she empties it on the floor I will have coaxed her into consuming something like a good meal.

That’s when I reach for the real Cutty Sark.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Implements of Pacification

There are several accepted methods for quieting a screaming infant. All of them work some of the time, some of them work more often than others, but none are guaranteed to work on any given occasion. Below is a brief list.

The Pacifier

As its name implies, this is the go-to option for the average parent. Pacifiers come in a dizzying array of shapes that emulate, with varying degrees of success, the nipple that infants would almost universally prefer to the plastic contraption you are forcing into their wailing mouths. Equipment note: they also come in various sizes, and that’s important. Don’t make the mistake of inadvertently choking your 6-week new infant with a pacifier intended for a hulking 1-year old.
Pacifiers have also acquired a variety of overly cute nicknames such as binky, bo-bo, boppy, paci, nuki, plug, chupon, and my favorite—mute button (this is only a partial list—at last count there were approximately 573 frequently used names for this little device, some of which defy logic in their origins).
The most important skill to acquire in the use of the pacifier is the “quick insertion” technique. Finesse may make the motion more aesthetically pleasing, but nothing is more important than rapid response in heading off an approaching crying jag.
An interesting sidebar on the pacifier occurs with twins—well, at least with our twins—and it is a ritual known simply as the Daily Pacifier Exchange. It’s kind of like raising the flag in front of the school or turning the quaint little stop light in the bar to the green “Open” signal. In the morning, when both twins wake up, we bring them into the bedroom to ease ourselves out of sleep mode and into child care mode around 6:30 a.m. We put both twins on the bed, facing each other. One of them automatically looks at the other, reaches out, and takes the pacifier from the other’s mouth and holds it up for inspection. The other twin, also automatically, reaches out and takes her pacifier. After a cursory viewing and rotation, they each insert the stolen pacifier in their own mouths, and go on about their baby business.
I don’t know why they do it, and so far, they aren’t talking—literally.

The Blanket

Next to the pacifier, the blanket is the most common source of comfort for most babies. Like the pacifier, it has also acquired a number of nauseatingly cute nicknames: bankie, bookie, binkie, etc. (My first batch of kids came up with the variation of “bundy” long before Al Bundy became part of Americana).
Even before our twins were born, we had accumulated several dozen items, ranging from beautiful, hand-woven future heirlooms to practical receiving blankets. After they were born, we brought home a few dozen from the hospital, and then went out and bought about twenty more. As any parent can guess, many nights we searched the entire house unable to find a single clean blanket when we desperately needed it.

Stuffed Animals

This is a bit of a crap shoot. Before the kids arrived, we bought a collection of cute little stuffed toys, hoping one would become the beloved plaything each kid would cling to and probably wear down to a bald clump of material by the time they were old enough give up their infant security treasures. So far they haven’t made their choices. My wife, on impulse, bought a five-foot tall stuffed bear at Costco. The kids like it and really enjoy wallowing in it. I’m not sure they recognize it as a creature because of its overwhelming size, and of course, the real problem is, according to the first law of twins, we’ll probably have to buy another one someday.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Holiday Recap

I am a teacher. I am also, obviously, the author of this blog; and a husband, and a not-so-young-father of 10-month old twins.  Those four job descriptions, it turns out, are less than compatible. Now that I am once again on summer break, I am resuming my duties as blogger.
To fill the gap left by the previous nine months of distraction, I offer this collection of highlights of everything that took place between Halloween, 2011 and Memorial Day, 2012.
As you may imagine, it has not been that eventful.


The practice of dressing small infants in ridiculously overpriced, and over-sewn, garments for the purpose of eliciting “aww, how cute” responses from neighbors and relatives has a relatively brief tradition. At one time, in a more genteel age—say the 1950’s (the real ones, not the seductively re-imagined, lushly art-directed and loads of fun, “Mad Men” 1950’s) mothers just stuck the little ones in a stroller and slogged about the neighborhood with a couple of clowns whom they had just costumed that afternoon. They would not have dreamed of wasting time, much less money, on an infant or child younger than about five.

But today, we paw through racks of prefabricated costumes for newcomers of literally all ages, fully aware that the $39.99 we spend will be a giant waste of funds that we could have spent on practical stuff like two cups of coffee at Starbucks (ugh), or a round of cocktails at the place we will wind up after looking at the bill for the Halloween costumes.

As is evident by the accompanying photo, I was not able to resist the peer pressure to dress up a couple of uncooperative 3-month olds as, yes, the cutest ladybugs since the beginning of time—the looks of abject terror in their eyes notwithstanding.


Despite our astonishing lack of religion, my wife and I seem doomed to comply with a number of liturgical rituals such as a church wedding and a formal baptism. In the Greek Orthodox Church, baptisms rank just above Easter and just below the second coming of Christ in relative importance. It includes a full, triple immersion, an hour-long mass and an exorcism—that’s right, an exorcism. In our case, the priest had no sooner finished the Greek version of the exorcism when daughter number two promptly spit up all over him. No, it didn’t look like green pea soup. It was kind of beige, so I think the only thing he exorcised was the wandering spirit of an interior designer.


We had a quiet Thanksgiving, mostly just sitting around being thankful that we didn’t have to do another baptism.


I have to be honest, I love Christmas. Over my lifetime, I have amassed thousands of ornaments. My wife has a nearly equal number. So naturally, we went out and bought some more for our twins. After all, this was their “Baby’s First Christmas.” Of course, we bought “Baby’s First Christmas” ornaments last year— when my wife first found out she was pregnant—but those don’t count.

We also have tons of Christmas decorations and lights. None of the lights work. But, like everyone, I keep them anyway, waiting for the Great Spirit of Holiday Lighting to appear, painstakingly test each mini lamp, replace the bad ones, untangle the hundreds of miles of wires, and miraculously re-insert them into the original packages, which I have also kept.
My wife, instead, hired someone to put up the lights for us. This is the ultimate act of emasculation for most men, but I was too tired to argue, even after I paid $234 for a 25-foot ladder on which I had planned to permanently disable myself after hanging half a strand of the non-working lights.

A couple of days before the big night, Santa Claus made a visit to our neighborhood. We bundled up the twins and hauled them out into the street to be photographed with the big guy. As is evident in the accompanying photo, they really loved it—the looks of abject terror in their eyes notwithstanding.

New Year’s Eve through Memorial Day

Not much happened in the first six months of the year.
One of the twins started crawling on Cinco de Mayo. Which was a little anticlimactic, since the other one had already been crawling since Ocho de Marzo.
The main thing worth celebrating was the fact that they both stopped waking up during the night. It may be philosophically nihilistic to celebrate the absence of an event, but you try six months of not sleeping and see how underwhelmingly positive your attitude is…or isn’t.
Oh yeah, they also went down their first slide, ate solid food, saw their first baseball game, got their first five-foot stuffed bear, sat in their first high chairs, went to the beach for the first time, got their first colds, and took their first bath in the bath tub.

They really loved it—the looks of abject terror in their eyes notwithstanding.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Burp Notice: A Formula Action Thriller

A famous quote from Benjamin Franklin observes that “Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.”

Updating that for parents of the electronic age we might have, “TiVo is proof that God pities us, and wants us to know what we are missing.”

As parents of two very demanding infants, my wife and I often find ourselves sitting and holding the little ones who have finally quieted down for a minute, and catching up on hours of shows recorded during times when they were not so quiet.

One of my favorite shows is Burn Notice. It’s the story of former CIA operative Michael Weston who has been blacklisted and now operates as a kind of Robin Hood for hire, while occasionally carrying out contract missions in the shadowy edges of the world he used to occupy as a government agent.

Apparently the show was created by an ex-spy and much of it is comprised of tongue-in-cheek voiceovers that give step-by-step lessons in espionage, usually beginning with the phrase, “When you’re a spy…” and continuing with fascinating and usually humorous instructions on constructing bombs, tapping phones, etc.

What follows is an episode of my life written in that style.

Note: To get the allusion, you may want to check out at least the opening sequence of the show at:

Act 1

Exterior. A quiet two-story house in one of southern California’s sprawling suburbs. As we dissolve to an interior, we see a middle–aged man intently mixing carefully measured powder and liquid in a small bottle.

VOICEOVER: “When you’re a dad, you will often be called upon to participate in infant feeding. While most mothers today embrace the idea of breastfeeding, the task can become logistically unworkable—especially with twins.

“That’s where we come in.

“The first requirement is a bottle. While some modern fathers go for the latest in gas-suppression technology and sterilized disposable liners, a simple bottle and nipple combination is still the device of choice for the seasoned professional.

“Next, you will need a nutriment. Breast milk, pumped and preserved by refrigeration, is ideal. But in a pinch you can mix an acceptable substitute using two ounces of powdered Similac and 120 milliliters of filtered tap water at 99 degrees Fahrenheit. The resulting mixture should be vigorously shaken for five seconds, unless you like having it regurgitated in the middle of the mission (and in the middle of your lap).

"The actual feeding is a simple, but time-consuming procedure. It can be uneventful, if you are dealing with a cooperative infant, or it can be nearly impossible if you are trying to feed a Tasmanian Devil.

"Which is why you should always have a back-up plan.

"Fabricating a sudden “emergency” run to the store for diapers and wipes is good, but If you want to log some serious away time you may need to take on a second job. On-call heart surgeon is best, but night watchman or pizza delivery guy can work if you sell it right.

"However you deal with the demands of the job, one thing is clear: until the baby is burped, you aren’t going anywhere."

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Blood Lines

Psychologists and Sociologists suggest that birth order in a family creates certain predetermined types of personalities.

The First Born is usually a quick learner who is more driven to succeed and more of a perfectionist. The Middle Child is more laid back and often a good mediator, sometimes more of a social person. The Youngest Child is usually last to mature, sometimes a bit of a trouble-maker and often a clown who tends to act without a thought to consequences.

Of course many factors can affect the personalities of children and change these stereotypes quite a bit, but most of us can look at these generalizations and recognize ourselves and our siblings.

Thinking back to my first three children, I see how these personality types hold true for the most part. My first born daughter was an early speaker and reader, always driven to be the best at everything, though not obsessively, but more so because she simply wanted to do everything and do it right. My middle son is more relaxed and even tempered (though he, like I, sometimes lets his Irish heritage come through in times of stress) and he tends to see things from multiple points of view. My youngest son was always bright and inquisitive as a child, but also a source of constant amusement, and less driven to succeed early on in his life.

Now that we have brought into being a new “batch” of kids, I wondered how the birth order dynamics would play out.

The accepted thinking is that a late born child will be more like a First Child—but of course, we have twins, and it would be almost impossible to have two “A-Type” personalities pop out at the same time.

I do see two distinct temperaments in my little ones, but it seems like they may have arrived slightly out of order. Although they were only two minutes apart, the “older” twin, Anastasia, seems more like a middle child: mellow and unstressed and somehow amused at the whole process. The “younger” twin, Christina, is aggressive and active, physically strong and demanding.

In terms of slogans, the younger one seems to be saying, "I want the world and I want it now!" while her older sister, through her demeanor declares, "I'd like at least a piece of the world, but I'll wait until after my nap."

Of course, they are only six weeks old at this point, but if my first go-round is any indication, these dispositions will probably follow them, at least in some way, as they mature.

We may indeed be prewired for certain psyches and characters; all I can do is help them grow into theirs in the most positive way I can.

Friday, August 26, 2011

The Art of War

Our household is very much like a WWE Tag Team match these days.

In one corner are the twins.

Although they claim that they don’t yet have the power of speech, I am convinced that they communicate through some inscrutable system of correspondence—maybe a little known native people's language like in Wind Talkers—and that they hold clandestine baby meetings in which they plot their covert ops, including synchronized diaper-filling and tightly coordinated screaming jags that have my wife and I scrambling to plug in pacifiers, warm up bottles, change diapers, strip off soiled (and I mean, SOILED) clothing and seek the ever- elusive baby blankets (see blog entry on “Baby Physics”) like a couple of really bad Whack-a-Mole players . Their timing is nearly flawless, and their execution, Navy Seal-like in terms of shock and awe.

In the other corner are my wife and I.

We are not yet as sophisticated in our battle plan as the pint-sized ninjas we are committed to care for, but we are learning.

In response to the twins’ attempt to weaken us with sleep deprivation—which, by the way, ranks well above water-boarding in terms of sheer torture—we have begun to use the old “tap-out” system. Some nights I get up for all of the feedings while my wife sleeps, and the next night she does the same for me. By this system we stay sharp (well, OK, as sharp as really tired middle-aged people can be) and ready to respond to the next infant assault tactic.

We are also well armed.

We now own two of every item sold at Babies R Us, including wiper warmers, clip-on pacifier holders for the strollers (we have three strollers by the way: one armored transport version for twins and two highly portable umbrella strollers, that hold up about as well as an actual umbrella in a hurricane) and other tools and apparatus (apparatuses? apparatti?) necessary to hold out until re-enforcements arrive. Yes, I know re-enforcements are never actually going to arrive, but the concept keeps us going.

Currently, the conflict can best be described as a stalemate; that may also describe either my wife or me, since we rarely are able to work a shower into the battle plan. For now, we keep in mind the words of Sun Tzu: "All war is deception." I think we have successfully deceived ourselves into thinking we are winning.