Category Archives: Bringing Up Baby

The travails of raisin’ kids.

To Liza on Her Sixth Birthday

Liza contemplates a butterfly

Since you still are obsessed with animals, we celebrated your birthday at the Tennessee Aquarium. You got to look at all of the aquatic animals and pet stingrays and vibrate excitedly. Before you were born, I never thought that we’d be the kind of family with a season pass to an aquarium. Now we’ve been there enough that you know some of the animals by name and are disappointed if you don’t get to see Stewie the sea turtle.

Liza with a grasshopper on her shoulder

You love more than just the aquarium animals, which is good since otherwise you’d spend most of your time being sad that macaroni penguins don’t feature much in our day-to-day life. Bugs still hold a special place in your heart. You’ve kept a dead cicada in your car seat’s cupholder for more than a year. Last summer a grasshopper jumped onto your leg and you carefully helped it climb up you until it reached your shoulder so it could become your animal familiar. We have endless pictures of you with beetles and butterflies on your finger. You’re also fond of mammals. You asked to dress up as a cat for Halloween, and at Christmas when you got to visit a horse, your glee was strong enough to melt the snow all around you.

Liza stacks stuff on Anwyn the corgidor

You adore Anwyn, our rescued corgi-lab mix. You call her “puppy” even though she’s an adult dog, though we don’t actually know how old Anwyn is. Vets tell a dog’s age by looking at their teeth, evaluating the amount of tooth wear, and then making a wild-ass guess. One vet who saw Anwyn said that she was three years old, and then the next said that she was maybe a year old. If I tolerated error bars like that with you, this would be my letter to you on your second or maybe seventh birthday. Anyway, you like to hug Anwyn randomly, which she tolerates with the well-nigh infinite patience of a Labrador. She also shares your love of bugs. Some nights you two race as Anwyn tries to eat a beetle that’s skittering across the floor while you’re trying to save it.

Ballerina Liza brandishes a Nerf gun

Stuffed animals also count. You sleep with as many of them as you can pile on the bed. The stuffed animals build up like barnacles or YouTube comments, and like those two things, they have to be scraped off from time to time. We bring in a shovel and clear off your bed so that there’s room for you, but each night you choose a new animal to sleep with until your bed is once again covered. Your mom and I have wondered if they secretly compete to be nearest the bed and thus the most visible, increasing the chance that you’ll choose them to sleep with. We’ve had to limit the number of new stuffed animals you’ve been getting. “I just want this one,” you’ll lie convincingly, but we’re on to you. For you, getting just one stuffed animal is like eating just one potato chip.

Liza hangs upside-down in her rain boots

You continue to be way more athletic than anyone else in the family. When you went rollerskating for the first time since you were very young, you skated like a fiend. You’re still a big fan of swimming. If there’s a ball around, you’ll kick it up and down an imaginary field. At some point your mom and I should stop being lazy and sign you up for an organized sport, or even a disorganized one like kids’ soccer. It may be tied to how you love going very fast. When we went to a local amusement park, you skipped all the slower kid rides and made a beeline for the rollercoasters. It’s a good thing I still enjoy going on them!

Liza's drawing of some kind of weird cryptid

When you’re not running around, you’re often crafting. If I haven’t seen you in a half-hour and can’t hear you arguing with Eli, I know you’re in the office and the floor is covered with paper, crayons, pens, and glue. When I come home from work, I’ll often find a little drawing that you’ve made on a scrap of paper and left lying on a table or sofa or Anwyn. These creations often come with stories. “This is my angel dog cat butterfly,” you’ll say, proudly presenting the new cryptid that you’ve created.

Liza in her Daisy Girl Scouts uniform

All of this comes together in Girl Scouts, which combines crafting and nature in a way that is tailor-made for you. You joined this year and became a Daisy, though not a literal daisy, just a figurative one who earned petals by doing cool activities and also selling cookies. You sold lots of cookies, a number of them to us. I never thought I could be tired of Thin Mints, and yet here I am, completely uninterested in the sleeve of them that’s currently in our freezer and has been for weeks. It used to be that Thin Mints evaporated around me, and now they hang around longer than broccoli hangs around your brother. You didn’t just sell cookies to us, though. We had you do the selling. I didn’t bring the sign-up sheet in to work. Instead, you came yourself to take orders. You were dressed in your Daisy uniform and looked like a stereotypical cute and quiet and slightly shy Girl Scout and so you sold so many cookies.

Liza at preschool graduation

The best part was when you got to go to Girl Scout camp for one day. You communed with nature and told a counselor that compasses work because of the Earth’s magnetic field. Best of all, you got to paint your own t-shirt. You covered it with giant slabs of paint. The other girls in your troop painted dots or swirly lines. You? You got all Helen Frankenthayler on that t-shirt.

This year you started kindergarten, which also involved a lot of crafting. The first time I visited you at school I got to watch you paint in art class, your tongue stuck out as you concentrated. You were nervous before you started, worried that you’d fail kindergarten because you weren’t yet reading well. I was sympathetic. When I was in kindergarten I worried that I was going to fail kindergarten because I had to skip but I couldn’t do it. I practiced and practiced so I could graduate from kindergarten and not spiral down into a life of drunken homelessness. But the year went swimmingly. You made friends like Trinity and quickly mastered reading.

Liza concentrates on painting a wooden block

While school’s been good, it’s brought with it a host of social pressures that you’re all too aware of. One day you told me, “I don’t want to wear anything Star Wars to school. I don’t want the other girls to know I like Star Wars.” As we talked about it, you kept saying, “Star Wars is for boys,” despite how much you’ve enjoyed the movie and the Lego versions of it. “I don’t know any girls who like Star Wars.” I hate that we have to combat these kinds of stereotypes so early. I don’t want what you enjoy bound up in artificial ideas of what’s for girls and what’s for boys.

Liza in her Captain America sleep shirt

It helps that you’ve got an older brother. You and he watch everything from Star Wars to My Little Pony together, and he ignores most gender distinctions about entertainment. You two play together well, barring the inevitable fighting about whose Lego robot is stronger and nuh uh there’s no way that robot’s shield will stop your laser gun. You’ve got my temper, which means I can tell when you and Eli aren’t getting along because you start shrieking loudly and angrily, making chunks of sheetrock fall from the walls.

Liza has a serious "I just blew bubbles" face

Right now you alternate between being fearless and cautious, between running full-tilt ahead and lagging behind. It takes you a while to warm up to new things. We went to a My Little Pony event at the library, where there were people in giant Rainbow Dash and Twilight Sparkle costumes. You didn’t want to approach them at first, but when we were getting ready to leave you wanted to have your picture taken with them.

Closeup of Liza with paint on her nose

I love watching how you react to things. I can tell when something’s funny because you say “heh” in a low-pitched voice. If it’s really funny you giggle. You absorb every song you hear and sing along with it. There’s nothing like hearing your piping voice singing along to Helena Beat one octave up. Like Eli did before you, you’ve learned the rhythm of jokes but don’t yet fully understand their content, leading to you making up jokes like this one:

“Knock, knock.”

“Who’s there?”

“Applebee’s.”

“Applebee’s who?”

“Applebee’s got bees in it!”

Liza and friend peer over a pew, laughing

This letter’s a month late because life’s been so hectic lately, but I knew I was going to finish this letter. I’m writing it to future you and future me, so that we can both remember what you turning six was like. We’ll be different people then, the distant descendants of who we are now. My hope is that these letters will tie us to the past and let us re-experience what it was like when you were young.

Liza and dad and a pogo stick

To Eli on His Ninth Birthday

This year you requested one final birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese before the video game token embedded in your hand begins to flash and signal that you’re too old for the Pizza Rat. How could we say no to something so overstimulating? For adults, Chuck E. Cheese is actually a wight, draining life out of us by his very presence. He gathered you and your friends to him as if he was the pied piper and led you to the front stage, where he made all of you dance. As a reward, his assistants made it rain tickets on you, which you enjoyed but all of the adults found unsettlingly weird.

Eli is excited about SkylandersYou had another awesome Renèe cake, this one Portal themed. Last year’s cake theme was World of Goo, so you’re continuing your trend of wanting video games everywhere in your life. One day I’ll look at you and see ghostly life and mana bars floating over your right shoulder. Your current video game obsession is Skylanders, which combines addictive platform adventuring with collectible figurines. One night I said, “go brush your teeth,” to which you replied, “Did you say, ‘go play Skylanders’?”

“No,” I answered, “I said, ‘go brush your teeth’, which doesn’t really sound a lot like ‘go play Skylanders’.”

“Well, that’s what I heard.”

I don’t know how much longer you’ll be addicted to Skylanders, though. At lunch on Sunday you announced that you were planning on getting into Pokémon soon. That sounds remarkably like “I think I’ll develop a crippling meth addiction next month” to me, but we’ll see how it goes.

Eli reads on his KindleYour big gift from all of your grandparents was a Kindle, because, hey, we might as well get you addicted to electronics early. It’s been great because you love reading and you really love gadgets. If the Kindle also mass-produced Legos out of a 3D printer on its side then it would be the most wonderful invention ever. You’re as in love with reading as I was at your age, and just like me, you get so lost in what you’re reading that you don’t hear other people talking to you. You discovered Roald Dahl’s books and have been tearing through them. I’ve also been reading The Hobbit to you at night. I’ve discovered that I can’t keep the voices I’m using for all of the dwarves straight. I’m not Peter Jackson, so I can’t use funny beards to help you keep track of who’s who in the book.

Eli and his Nerf gunWhen you’re reading, you’re still and quiet. The other 120% of your life is spent talking. You’re incredibly social, wanting to talk to anyone and everyone about your day, their day, what’s been going on, and what Skylander character you’re most in love with right now. Most every thought that comes into your head pops out of your mouth, as if your brain is on speakerphone. When I get home from work you start telling me stories about your day and what random junk you found at school and the Lego figure you just built and also what are we going to do tomorrow, no, not school, after school. Even when you don’t want to talk you can’t help yourself, the words piling up in your brain and threatening to squeeze out of your nose and ears if you don’t open your mouth and let them escape. “Dad,” you’ve said on more than one occasion, “I thought of something but I don’t want to tell you about it.” “Okay, then don’t,” I’ll reply. “Okay.” (beat) “So what I was thinking was…”

Eli inna boxNot only are you an extremely social person, you’ve got a flair for the dramatic. When you want to express puzzlement, you cock one eyebrow and purse your lips. If you’re unsure about what we’ve told you but you’re willing to accept it anyway, you say, “Oooooooooooooookay,” threatening to use all of our city’s allotment of the letter O. You don’t walk into a room, you make an entrance.

Eli mugs in his knitted capThis year we decided to tackle your all-carb diet and try to make you appreciate other foods. Every day you have to take one bite of food you normally wouldn’t eat. This is tricky: if you really don’t want to eat something, you fret so much about it that you make yourself ill. It’s not helped by how you want to take that bite. Instead of eating, say, one green bean and being done with it, you eat half of a green bean. Then you eat half of the remainder. Then you eat half of that remainder, until the ghost of Zeno rises up and threatens to slap you if you don’t just eat the damn thing. But you’ve gotten better at trying out new foods. You try something and give us a thumbs-up that turns to a thumbs-down and rotates between the two options before settling on a final value that is usually mostly thumbs-down. We got a 45-degree thumbs-up from you one time, which was a miracle. It’s also improved your negotiation skills. “Can I eat hummus for my one food today?” you ask innocently, hoping we’ll forget that you’ve been eating hummus since you were two.

In fact, you want to negotiate everything. You’re nine, which means you want to argue a lot, but since you’re Eli those arguments are more akin to hostage negotiations. “I know you said I couldn’t bring a toy in the car, but I really want to take my Nintendo DS. I can’t? Then maybe I should take a small Lego figure, but since they’re so small, I’ll take two. How about just one? Maybe a single Lego brick?” You’re also a planner. Your mom and I will often hear you playing with your sister Liza and saying, “So first we’ll build up a Lego fortress and then your My Little Ponies can attack.”

Eli and his eye handI’m always amazed at your creativity and how your thoughts dash from topic to topic. You’re constantly dreaming up new things. You went bowling as a school field trip, because this is Alabama and when it comes to educational field trips it was either bowling or a trip to a deer taxidermist. That evening you excitedly told me, “Dad! I invented three new ways to bowl!”

“Do any of them involve rolling a ball down the lane towards the pins?”

“I invented four new ways to bowl!”

Eli and his crazy maskSpeaking of school, the pace of learning has dramatically increased. This year you’ve added an accelerated learning section every Monday. When your mom and I first were told about it we thought it was called AGS, which we could only logically assume stood for “Alabama’s Got Smarts!” We imagined it as a reality show where you have to answer trivia questions or Ken Jennings shoots you in the head. Anyway, you’re enjoying the accelerated learning class, but it’s one more thing to deal with every week. Third grade is when they really start bearing down on you to learn what you need for the standardized tests that will pave the metaphorical highway of your grade-school education. Overall you’ve taken it in stride, with the exception of spelling. You learned to read very quickly and have a gestalt approach to reading, so you’re not absorbing spelling words from what you’re reading. Even worse, you’ve got my dislike of memorizing stuff just to memorize it, and that makes your weekly spelling tests a chore.

Along with being super social, you love people. You have a deep reservoir of empathy that you draw on every day. Last December your mom went to Nepal as part of a group of women to help Nepalese women. That left you, me and Liza on our own for two weeks. Early on I was having a hard time, pulled between your needs and work and missing your mom something terrible. I was frazzled and unfairly taking it out on you and Liza, a time-honored parental pastime of directing frustration at our kids. You came up to me and gave me a big hug and said, “I’m sorry you’re having such a hard time, dad. What can I do to help?”

Eli and Liza togetherYour one empathetic weak spot, the wood to your Golden-age Alan Scott, is Liza. You love her and you want to be with her, but you can’t help doing things to get a rise out of her. When the two of you are playing, you alternate between including her in what you’re doing and ignoring her completely. You want her witnessing every thing you do, and yet you don’t want her having her own opinions. Welcome to life as an older brother! Think of it as training for middle management, the kind of job kids dream of having.

Eli shows Legos to GeofYour birthday celebrations lasted longer this year than they did last year, and yet the entire year has flown past faster than ever before. You’re a living refutation of the Theory of Relativity: even though you’re now moving faster than before, you appears to be aging more quickly than ever. You’ve lived with us for nine years. Chances are, we’ve been through half of your time with us. I try to pay attention to every moment, treasure them so that I’ll always remember, but they’re soap bubbles, popping even as my hand closes around them. That doesn’t matter, though. I have to remind myself that what you need is for me to live with you in the moment. After I was grown, when I talked to your grandparents about what I had learned from them and what I remembered, I was surprised to find that I mostly remembered things that had vanished from mom and dad’s memory. I have no idea what will become part of the mental tapestry you’re weaving out of your childhood. That’s scary and liberating, a reminder that now is what we have, and I am grateful beyond expression for that gift.

Eli and me and his Lego Egyptian pyramid

Now This is Science

While I’ve been away doing science things like working on a robot that can read your fingerprints from 10 feet away, Eli and Liza decided to get in on the science action.

Yesterday afternoon they were making popcorn for their afternoon snack. “Can you pop an unpopped piece of corn?” Eli asked. “Let’s do an experiment!” Very soon Eli and Misty were putting an unpopped popcorn kernel in the microwave and re-heating it for a few minutes at a time to see what happened.

Liza, meanwhile, had wandered off to draw on the erasable board that she and Eli use for studying, or so Misty thought. As the kernel was being microwaved a third time, she asked Liza, “What are you doing?”

Liza shows off the results of the popcorn experiment

“This is science. You need a record.” She was busy noting down their results.

To translate, she wrote:

Raoond 1 nufing.
Raoond 2 nufing.
Raoond 3 nufing.

She then proceeded to sign the record as a witness and get Eli to check off his name. Also the smiley face takes away the sting of them not being able to make the kernel explode.

Now I get to explain that they proved their null hypothesis!

Liza’s Awesome Shark Cake

One thing I didn’t talk about in my letter to Liza was her awesome cake. Our friend Renèe has made some awesome birthday cakes, including Eli’s robot cake and his World of Goo cake. She wanted to make Liza a cake, so Misty asked Liza what she’d want. We were expecting My Little Pony or Hello Kitty. Instead, Liza said, “I want a shark cake. With a shark.”

Shark Cake!Renèe totally delivered a shark cake. Look at that happy shark, rising from the cake and inviting kids to pet it so that it can sink its teeth into their tender flesh and drag them below the icing. The shark head was made of shaped Rice Krispy treat, and all of the kids had to take a bite of it. Take that, predator of the deep!

So, yeah, shark cake. I can only assume next year Liza will want a jellyfish cake. If she does, I have no doubt Renèe can make it, and that its tentacles will sting your mouth with their sweetness.

To Liza on Her Fifth Birthday

Liza grins excitedlyYou are another year older, another year taller, and another year obsessed with bugs and spiders. The other day you found a wolf spider outside our garage that had given birth to a gazillion little babies. “Aww!” you said. “Look! Baby spiders!” You paused. “Don’t kill them yet, Dad, I want to watch them some more.” Because you’re so interested in insects and spiders, you’re well aware of how the circle of life works. You killed a fly one time and then promptly put it on a web outside so that a spider would have something to eat, like you were some kind of Sonic car-hop who served fly smoothies instead of cherry limeades. Another time, when a ladybug landed on you, you excitedly shrieked, “Ladybug likes me because I’m salty!” After a pause, you added, “Ladybug pooped on me because I’m salty!”

Liza holds up her Big Book of BugsYou’re not as tolerant of all bug processes. When you discovered that flies vomit on things they’re going to eat you became distraught. Eli helped you face your fears, though. As he explained to us later, “I helped her not be afraid of flies. I told her that when they vomit, they suck it right back up so it goes away.” You’re also not quite clear on when a bug is dead or not. You picked a black beetle up once and put it in your bug catcher, showing it around proudly. “Honey,” your mom told you, “I’m afraid he’s dead.” “Nuh uh!” you yelled. You paused and then shook the bug catcher violently. “See? He’s moving!”

Liza lies beside our corgidor (corgi/lab mix) AnwynYour real obsession, though, has been our dog Anwyn. You’ve been asking us to get a dog since you were two, which means we’ve been listening to your pleas for 21 dog years. You had elaborate plans about the dog we were going to get. A bit before your birthday you announced that we were going to get a dog and that your mom and I would wrap it up and give it to you on your birthday and then you’d be surprised. Instead of going the fake surprise route, we visited a bunch of local shelters, finally adopting a young corgi-yellow lab mix that we named Anwyn. She is young and energetic and some twenty feet long. We thought that her being a lab/corgi mix was an accident of breeding, leading to much speculation about whether a step stool had been involved, but it turns out that lab/corgi mixes are a thing that some breeders are doing. They call the hybrid breed “corgidors,” which is totally fun to say. As a friend of mine said, “Beware the corgidor, my son! The eyes that plead, the legs that creep!”

Liza peers out from under a giant pile of stuffed animalsWe thought having a dog would make you less dog-obsessed, or at least focus your dog obsession. It hasn’t. You’re still able to spot dogs with frightening acumen. It may be in part because you have a love-hate relationship with our corgidor. Anwyn appears to think of you as another young dog. She plays with you by mouthing you and putting her teeth on your ankle to herd you, or by leaping up and knocking you down since she’s only fifteen pounds lighter than you and about as long as you are tall. You are very not crazy about this behavior, and it sometimes sends you into tears. But then Anwyn will calm down and you lie down beside her, hugging and petting ehr and occasionally wanting to play with her ears in a way that would lead to you being called Liza of the Nine Fingers if Anwyn weren’t so patient. I’m sure the two of you were made for each other, though: Anwyn also loves bugs, having a great time nosing them about and snapping at them so that they’ll scuttle away and she can chase them.

Liza and Eli look at a cicadaYour relationship with Anwyn is reminiscent of your relationship with Eli. You and he get along great until suddenly you don’t. You can’t stand to be around each other and then you can’t be separated. Eli has had a sentimental streak for you since you were born, but you’re starting to have one for him. In September you and he got into the habit of collecting acorns from the trees by our church and bringing them home to rot quietly on tables and counters. Eventually we outlawed more acorns coming into the house. He and you decided to plant the acorns instead so you could have as many acorns as the resulting tree would produce. “That’ll take a while,” I warned you two. “You may not have acorns until Eli is in college.” Eli looked so sad that you had to comfort him. “It’s okay, Eli, you’ll be in college and I’ll be in school but we’ll still love acorns!”

Liza slides down a slide in her Halloween outfitOf all of us, you’re the most athletic and the most pain resistant. You’ve taken up swimming, though saying like that doesn’t convey the intensity with which you swim. You leap into the water and paddle furiously. You’ve been taking swim lessons and can just about swim the length of the pool at the Y, and have developed a tiny six-pack and swimmer shoulders. That’s also helped you master the monkey bars, where you swing across them before dropping down from them like a blond-haired ninja from on high. You love riding your scooter and your bike, showing bike trick after bike trick that boil down to two basics: ride really fast, and then slam on the brakes so that you stop really quickly. When I was your age I rode a Big Wheel down the hill at break-neck speed until turning into the driveway and pulling the brake and spinning out, so I understand your love of moving fast and stopping suddenly.

Liza models one of Misty's hats in the sunlightDid I mention your tolerance for pain? In July you had minor stomach surgery. Eli wanted to comfort you and talked about how his anesthesiologist had told him that the anesthesia mask smelled like a monkey’s butt. “No,” you replied, “I want mine to smell of puppies and rainbows.” The surgery went fine. Your doctor told us that you’d need to take it easy for a few days until everything healed and it didn’t hurt to move. Two days later you were tearing around the house like crazy. I asked if it hurt. “Yeah. But I don’t care.”

Liza in a crocheted owl hat and coat brandishes a Nerf gunYour true love is reserved for crafting. You draw. You color. You glue things onto other things. When you stay with me in my office, you color on my whiteboard. “See? This is a sea serpent. Here are the fish in the sea under it.” You give your creations names, like UNOST. You can’t read, though you desperately want to be able to, but you’ve figured out the rhythm of consonants and vowels that let you string together letters in word-like ways. Just last week you turned to me and mom and announced, “God made me to make art,” at which point the sky opened up and your mom went up in a whirlwind into heaven, her earthly work complete.

Liza displays her fingerIf I’m not careful, it’s easy to make Eli the child of firsts and you the child of lasts. Eli has ushered us into various stages of parenting, while you have heralded the end of those stages. That’s not fair to you, though, and minimizes your own firsts and the ways in which you’re carving your own trail through childhood. You are very much your own person, and I celebrate that every day.

Liza gets ready to snag tickets in the Chuck E. Cheese ticket tubeYou requested a birthday celebration at Chuck E. Cheese again this year, and so it came to pass that Mumsy, your mom and I spent another birthday watching children bounce around and ride rides and play video games and vibrate with excitement. Chuck E. Cheese had added something to their birthday repertoire: a ticket-blowing machine. After you had eaten your fill of cake and pizza and also more cake, one of the employees led you into a large, clear cylinder filled with tickets and with an attached air compressor. The employee tucked your shirt in and gave you glasses to protect your eyes from the wind and the flying cardboard slips. She then put one of the tickets that was worth a thousand regular, lesser tickets onto the floor and slid your shoe over it. “When the fan starts,” she murmured, “grab it and stuff it in your clothes.” She then wedged another high-value ticket into a seam in the tube and pointed to it. “And pick that one up as well.” Then she closed the door, the air compressor kicked on, and cardboard went flying. With a nonchalance that made it look like you did this every day, you picked up the two high-value tickets and then plucked a few others from the air for good measure.

Liza enjoys batter licked off of a beaterLife in our house has swirled around like the air in that cylinder. Every day you’re buffeted by new emotions and new experiences. It’s not going to get any slower. Next year you start kindergarten, and you’ll have to learn how to deal with a new group of people while adjusting to an amount of homework that gives me pause. As with Eli, I see the future in front of you and am both excited and afraid for you. But I see you in that rush of life moving past you, carefully and thoughtfully picking up opportunities as they move past, and I know you’ll do great.

Liza and Stephen as Liza swings on the monkey bars

To Eli on His Eighth Birthday

Your birthday celebration started on February 4th with a trip to the Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga and will end some time around Christmas. The Tuesday after your birthday trip our friend Renèe gave you an awesome World of Goo-themed cake, undeterred by your reaction to the robot cake she made for your sixth birthday. May and Pop sent you presents, and the weekend after that, Mumsy came to visit. Pop Don and Nana Linda sent you presents after that. This is the longest your birthday fun has lasted, and if this trend continues, by 2018 you’ll still be celebrating your 2016 birthday.

Eli and his World of Goo Cake

The goo balls on your cake were appropriate, as you’re obsessed with video games. Every night you ask what video games we’re going to play (the current answer: Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP). A while back you volunteered your own money to buy Angry Birds Rio for mom’s iPad so you could play it. The greatest day of your life was when we gave you your mom’s old iPod touch. You filled it with games and play it whenever you can. When you realized that it would play music too you looked at it as if to say, “If you could also create chicken nuggets I wouldn’t need those two adults to take care of me any more.”

You actually like games of all sorts. A month ago you went through a two-week obsession with chess. I have a set that your uncle Andrew and aunt Joy gave me years ago that sits in our bedroom collecting dust because chess is not nearly as fun as shooting zombies in the head. You’d occasionally asked to “play chess” before, but this time you were deadly serious. We pulled the chess set down and I explained how to play and why I was making the moves I was making. I won, of course. Even though I’m a terrible chess player, I’m still better than an eight-year-old who’s never played before, and there’s no enjoyment quite like beating such a worthy foe so completely. But you kept wanting to play more, and with every game we played you got better. We checked chess books out of the library to help you improve and found online versions so you could practice when I wasn’t home. Then, as quickly as your storm of excitement arose, it dissipated, thankfully before you got good enough to beat me.

Eli shakes hands with a Tusken Raider

Then there are board games. We’ve spent many nights playing Ticket to Ride, Carcassonne (“Meeples! Let’s play Meeples!”), and especially Forbidden Island, which uncle Andrew and aunt Joy got you. Forbidden Island is especially great because it’s a cooperative game, and let me tell you, cooperative games are so much better than the ones around when I was a child. Forbidden Island is a lot like Pandemic except that, if you lose the game, you don’t feel as if you’ve doomed the entire planet to death or, worse, to playing bit parts in a Stephen Soderbergh movie.

It echoes when I played board game with my dad. I remember being ferociously upset with him when he kept beating me at Monopoly, a game that is designed to grind down all players but the winner. May was in the kitchen and, hearing my weeping, called out to Pop: “You need to let him win!” “No!” Pop replied. “That’s giving him a false victory. It won’t encourage him to do better.” Now I’m in his position, playing chess against you and teaching you how to play while walking the narrow path between giving you false victories and crushing your desire to play.

Eli dressed as a ninja for Halloween

In many ways you’re a typical eight-year-old boy. Your taste in food is terrible. You’re still on the “no carb left behind” diet, eating all of the bread and chips you can find, but you also eat chicken nuggets and peanut-butter-and-Nutella sandwitches and not much else. I have to remind myself that I survived my 9th-grade year lunch diet of peanut butter, baloney, cheese, and raisin sandwiches, and if I’m going to throw stones at your eating habits I’ll shatter the glass Jif jar I lived in.

You also like a lot of things that your friends like. You dressed up as a ninja for Halloween, just like your friend Josh and one of his friends. Even your cousin Sam dressed up as a ninja in Kansas City. We spent all Halloween night desperately trying to keep track of you in your black costume. At one point we discovered that we’d somehow added another ninja we didn’t know about to our herd of kids, as if there is some law of attraction involving ninjas that’s reminiscent of how political opinions on Facebook attract arguments.

Eli's ginormous chicken finger and cheese biscuit sandwich

In other ways you’re very much your own person. You, your mom and Liza recently wrote on our giant bathroom mirror with dry erase markers. Your mom wrote a Bible verse that’s related to her new ministry. Liza drew a dog and wrote “UNOST” underneath it, for reasons known only to her. But you? You wrote “BLOODY MARY” three times on the mirror right where I look when I shave in the mornings.

Your music tastes run to ’80s-style rock, bands in the genre that your mom dismissively calls “chicks with guitars”, and electronic dance music. You’ve discovered the Tron: Legacy soundtrack and can’t stop listening to it. One day you were supposed to go to school dressed as your favorite rock star. Your mom and I couldn’t figure out how to make you look like either Daft or Punk.

Eli mugs for the camera

You’re still a big ham, completely unlike me. Whenever we pull out a camera you begin mugging for it. You have your quiet, contemplative moments, but when you know you’re being observed you tend to put on a show. Part of this grows out of your interest in people and your desire to entertain them. Like me, you’re a people-pleaser at heart. You want everyone to like you and are puzzled when they don’t. I hope you don’t lose that love of people as you grow older and have to deal with more of them who don’t care for you for whatever reason.

Eli shows off his Christmas gift of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

School continues to load you down with homework. You have words you have to learn how to spell, practice sentences you have to write, books to read, Accelerated Reader tests you have to take on the books you’ve read, math homework, and short stories that you must read as quickly as possible before answering comprehension questions about it. Thankfully you still love reading. Books have been my constant companion. Just now I looked through the list of Newbery medal winners and had a rush of nostalgia about many of the books I read when I was your age. I hope you have a love of reading and books that survives your schooling. Fortunately you realize the real purpose of school: to pick up all kinds of random thrown-away or lost detritus, like hair clips and pennies, and proudly show them off when you get home. Every day I ask, “How was school today?” and you tell me about the things you found on the ground and the games you played in P.E.

Eli and Liza and the giant frogs

When you’re not at school or doing homework you’re playing with Liza. The two of you continue to feed off of one another, at once simultaneously unable to do without the other and unable to stand the sight of the other. You’re adept at pushing her buttons, making her angry when she doesn’t do what you want, but you also watch out for her and protect her. And you are often lost without her. Liza occasionally creeps into your mom’s and my bed early in the morning to snuggle, something you can’t do because sleeping with you is like sleeping with an angry messenger bike running at full tilt. One morning when she was sleeping with us you wandered into our room, plaintively calling, “Liza? Where are you?” When she’s not around you mope.

Your independence is growing in leaps and bounds. You had your first sleep-over the night before Liza had early-morning surgery. Shortly after your seventh birthday we were eating at a restaurant with friends. I realized with a start that you were getting back in your seat after having gotten up, gone to the bathroom, and returned. This sounds mundane and stupid, I know, but it was a glimpse into the future when you will no longer need my day-to-day care. I no longer drive you to school; instead, you ride the bus. Some mornings you run out to wait for it without remembering to tell any of us goodbye.

Eli's wonderful smile

The challenge for me now is to let you grow into your own person while providing guidance to shape the person you’ll become. I see a lot of myself in you, and I wish I could save you from the mistakes you’re going to make. You, like me, find a lot of things easy to do, so you don’t want to do things you’re not good at the first time. Talent is fine and necessary, but work and perseverance are far more important in the long run. You rush through your schoolwork to get to play time faster, making silly mistakes in the process. You’re going to have to learn the hard way that, while success involves a lot of luck, it also requires a lot of time spent honing your skills. You’ll also have to learn that a lot of what’s worth doing requires you to push past discouragement and pain.

You’re getting there, though. You love the ocean; when we go to the beach for Thanksgiving you’d spend the entire time in the Gulf if possible. I’ve had to nearly drag you from the water, your lips blue and limbs trembling from the cold. This Thanksgiving you tangled with a jellyfish. Its tendrils wrapped around your arm, leaving welts that stung terribly. As we ran from the beach to the house tears streamed down your face. “I’m never going to get in the ocean again,” you sobbed. But thirty minutes later you told me, “You know, I think I’ll be okay, even if another jellyfish stings me.” The next day you waded fearlessly back out into the water.

Eli's jellyfish stings on his left arm

For me now, parenting is like being part of a convoy as it drives through fog. I can’t see the road ahead and I have only hazy memories of the miles we’ve traveled, and sometimes I can’t see everyone who’s on this journey with us. It’s part of why I write these letters. I am a lepidopterist of memories, capturing them and preserving them carefully in words and sentences and paragraphs. We are the stories we tell ourselves and each other. I want your stories to be as true as they can be, and for you to know who you were when you were still learning yourself.

Eli and Stephen and the Easter peeps

Liza Loves Animals On the Internet

Misty has been haunting Pinterest ever since she discovered that it would serve her a never-ending stream of Doctor Who-related content. A while back she thought, what if I showed our animal-obsessed daughter the Pinterest board that has nothing but animals on it?

The answer: Liza becomes so enamored of Pinterest that her gasps of excitement suck all of the oxygen out of the room.

The best part is that I shot this video some twenty minutes after Liza first started looking at animals on Pinterest. This is her after she’s calmed down.

Night of the Ninjas

We started our Halloween festivities early Monday morning. Eli’s school was having Mad Scientist Day, a celebration I can completely get behind, so we put him in my lab coat, spiked his hair, and gave him purple highlights because that’s all the rage among hip young mad scientist these days. I too dressed up, for the first time ever since coming to work at AOS.

Me as Jamie Hyneman from Mythbusters

I don’t quite have the giant walrus mustache that Jamie Hyneman from Mythbusters has, but it’s as close as I could get without driving myself crazy. Besides, who wouldn’t want to wear a costume that has your co-workers encouraging you to blow stuff up?

We spent the evening trick-or-treating with some friends in their neighborhood since our neighborhood has been vaccinated against the Halloween spirit. Our friends’ neighborhood appears to have been lifted wholesale from the movie E.T., complete with decorated houses and hordes of kids roaming the neighborhood and attacking anyone with a bowl of candy. At one point in the evening we passed a compact front-end loader pulling a flat-bed trailer filled with trick-or-treaters and a smoke machine. In its front scoop was a flashing pumpkin that made it look like it had plowed through some poor church’s pumpkin patch and perhaps a high-voltage line.

Early on Eli declared he wanted to be a ninja. In hindsight, us letting him dress as a ninja was like an unregulated credit default swap: good in theory, bad in practice. Not only was he wearing a black costume that encouraged him to hide in the shadows, but every fifth boy was dressed as a ninja. We had three kids dressed as ninjas in our group alone. Even his cousin Sam in Kansas City was a ninja. Liza, on the other hand, just wanted to wear a random dress over her warm clothes. She ended up with a mermaid dress that her friend Kate had.

We had between seven and nine ninjas, mermaids, and Angry Birds in our party. The kids quickly divided into three groups. The older boys would run ahead, with Liza running pell-mell in their midst. Liza’s friend Kate would follow behind at a more stately pace, with Kate’s younger brother Jordan trailing behind. Keeping the kids together was like keeping spilled marbles from rolling everywhere. We parents eventually adopted small squad tactics. One parent would run to the first house on the block, the next parent would take the second house, and so on until we were strung out along the street and ready to intercept our mob of candy-crazed kids. As the kids would leave one house, the parent at that house would send the kids to the next parent before running ahead of all the other parents to keep the train going. All we were missing were SWAT vests and shouts of “GO! GO! GO!”

The two Angry-Bird-suited kids eventually tired of wearing their costumes, so I inherited one of them to wear until we got back to the house. This led to a combination costume of Jamie Hyneman and Angry Birds that I can only call Angry Beret.

Me plus an Angry Bird costume equals Angry Beret

While Eli and Liza were mainly excited to run from house to house shouting, “Trick or treat!”, caring little for what candy they got, they ended up with a huge haul of candy. We split it into five gallon-sized Ziploc bags: two for the kids, one for Eli’s classroom, one for me, and one for work.

The giant haul of Halloween candy

In conclusion, this is how I developed adult-onset diabetes.

Becoming Disillusioned With Insects

My first inkling that something was wrong happened the other night when Liza came running to me, holding her large stuffed bee and crying. “A fly landed on bee-hee-hee,” she sobbed, tears leaving shiny trails down her cheeks.

Liza had always loved flies, calling them our “usually fly pets”. I couldn’t understand why she as so upset, which, to be fair, is often the way it is with four year olds. Confused, I asked her, “Okay, but what happens when a fly lands on bee?”

“IT VOMITS ON BEEEEEE!” Liza wailed.

Misty had the same look that my dog MacGregor used to have when he realized he’d done something wrong by accident. “I told her that flies vomit on things they’re going to eat.” She paused. Liza wailed louder. “I think that may have been a tactical error.”

Indeed, Liza took to freaking out any time that a fly was in the same room as she was. The fly would buzz and Liza’s eyes would widen as she backed away from the fly, possibly afraid that it would sense her fear and vomit all over her in a giant Cronenberg-esque display of grotesqueness.

This story has a happy ending, though. This morning at breakfast several flies were flying around our table. “Maybe we could put out really sticky fly paper and put some food on it and then the flies could have their own food,” Liza told us.

Eli chimed in, “I helped her not be afraid of flies. I told her that when they vomit, they suck it right back up so it goes away.”

I can’t wait to see what Liza does the next time she has a stomach virus.

Hey, Stephen, How’s Liza Recovering From Her Surgery?

Friday, Liza had minor surgery to close an umbilical hernia. Our scene takes place Sunday afternoon.

INT. LIVING ROOM – AFTERNOON

This standard suburban living room is square and has all of its furniture away from the walls, leaving a continuous track around the center of the room. The MAN is in the living room. The GIRL enters and begins running laps around the room.

                    MAN
     Hey, what’re you doing?

                    GIRL
     Running a race. I’m racing my invisible friend Jai Alai.

The GIRL continues to run at top speed.

                    MAN
     Is that hurting your stomach?

                    GIRL
     Yeah. (beat) But I don’t care.

Exeunt omnes