W: Look at those costumes! I thought that Will Farrell movie was a parody, not a documentary.
J: I think that pair represents Edhardystan's first medal contenders since ice dancing became an Olympic sport.
W. Ooh, I see a tramp stamp!
* * * * *
W: Italy is ice dancing to the theme song from Godfather, Part 2. Really, guys?
J. He does kind of look like Fredo.
W. Last night the Israelis ice danced to Hava Nagila.
J. I didn't know the Israelis hava ice rink.
W. Yeah, where's the Disney movie about that?
* * * * *
J. How awesome would it be if the Americans ice danced to Mellencamp? I'm thinking R-O-C-K in the USA. . .in white wife-beaters.
W. I'm just really hoping the Russians ice dance to the theme song from Tetris.
But what's been going on around here that's really important? Besides building a snow fort that could have held off Chief Pontiac longer than the original Fort Detroit? Birthdays. I held off writing about the girl's birthday party because my wife knit her an amazing dress and any photos would have revealed it before she had the chance to write a post about it. But she's been working long hours lately and just hasn't gotten around to writing about it, and that means I have been getting "bonus" time with the kids, with the real "bonus" coming at the end of the day when I'm so exhausted I can watch at least six minutes of Keeping Up with the Kardashians before I realize it isn't a rerun of that very special episode of Silver Spoons where Bruce Jenner discovered that Alfonzo was dyslexic.
We pestered the girl for a few weeks before her fifth birthday about what kind of party she wanted. It turns out that's a really dumb question to ask a four-year old, because not only does a four-year old think that a "swimming party with a bouncy castle and a slow roller coaster and a trampoline at the bottom of a slide that lets you jump into the swimming pool with cake and presents but where you can also do gymnastics. . ." is possible, a four-year old thinks that you, as her father, are capable of setting it all up in the basement. "All you need are some engines," she tells me when I express doubt in my ability to pull off such a simple fête.
At some point she decided a bird-themed party would be an acceptable alternative. The kid has been into birds ever since Zan brought her a bird-watching book and we've spent a lot of time this winter pheasant spotting (they are even easier to see in the snow).
The boy's birthday was yesterday, and if you think we're the type of people to go this nuts for a two-year old, you're sorely mistaken. It was a more low-key affair, with some balloons, party horns, pizza, and just a few neighborhood kids running around the house. Still, we had to have cake, and we cemented our reputation as total weirdos with the bakery staff with this one:
What's that? you ask. A woodchuck perhaps? A hamster? Surely you wouldn't get your son a birthday cake with a rat on it! Sorry, it is a rat. We were walking out of the YMCA a few weeks ago and a rat scurried across our path into some bushes, where it continued scurrying around much to Gram's delight. "Rat in the bushes!" he shouted, "See it!" Since then, Rat in the bushes, see it has become his catch phrase every time we see bushes. So we got him a Rat in the bushes birthday cake. Yep.
†Does anyone have any advice about what's essential to do or see or eat in Charlottesville? Monticello in winter? Do you live near there and want to come hear me talk about some stuff? E-mail me for details.
I'm sitting in the darkness texting my wife, and I write, This is the worst morning ever but can't even punctuate the damn sentence because my daughter is clawing at my face and screaming in fear of a bedraggled green hoarder who never leaves his trash can. It's one of those moments where you wish you could turn into 1950s dad, lift the kid up by her collar, look right into her eyes, and in a calm-yet-slightly-menacing voice say, Look kid, Oscar is not a monster. He's just grouchy, is all. But you can't because your son is knocking on your other cheekbone like it's some great oaken door in an old Poe story, trying to get your attention so he can be sure you are indeed hearing him beg repeatedly to GO HOME. You want to say, I'm here suffering for your pleasure but it's clear they are not pleased. Instead of saying anything, you just collapse under their weight, endure their continued assaults, staring longingly into the next aisle where a woman has a one-year-old sitting perfectly content on her lap next to a well-behaved 3-year-old who keeps turning around to look back and forth between you and your kids as if to say, Consider how they reflect upon you, these reprobate offspring you've dragged to the theater. Tsk, tsk.
You know you're a pretty lucky bastard when your worst morning ever involves nothing more than Monday matinee theater with a couple of kids who've changed their minds about seeing the latest potboiler performed by the Sesame Street Traveling Players (about five minutes after the curtain rises). But somehow this morning has turned out to be worse than both New Year's Day 2008 and that time two months ago when you went to The Mall. New Worst Morning Ever. You imagine other peoples' "worst mornings ever" that involve shipwrecks or drive-by shootings or waking up after a long all-you-can-eat night at the Shellfish Hut. What's made this morning so completely awful is not enduring the kids' behavior or twenty minutes of the performance itself, but the simple realization that you really don't want to leave. You had five hours of sleep last night. You walked over a mile in the February cold from your house to the theater without a stroller and you aren't nearly ready to go back out there with them. Besides, you don't get out much, and haven't been to the theater in ages. You actually want to sit there and find out whether this pink winged thing calling herself Abu Dhabi will remember the magical spell that can return the red muppet, the blue muppet, the monocled, besneakered vampire and the bear wearing diapers to their normal size so that the red muppet can plant his flower in the giant bird's garden. That's how far you've fallen. You manage to squeak out a halfhearted, "We paid good money to see this show. . ." but you know you won't make it past intermission, and it is with a distinct sense of sadness that you accept you may never know what happens at the end of Sesame Street Live: Ernie, I Shrunk the Freaks.
* * * * *
I guess my hopes were just too high. The last time we did this, long before her brother came along, Kid #1 seemed to really enjoy herself, and rereading that post proves her enjoyment was as infectious as my prose was pretentious. As a freshly-minted five-year old, I guess she's now way too mature for it, despite a lingering, irrational phobia of all creatures of indeterminate species with green fur. Kid #2 is the same age she was when I wrote that post, but he's as indifferent to Elmo as she was obsessed with him. If I try to turn on the television to keep him from destroying one part of the house while I clean another, I inevitably find him far from the screen digging for errant cough drops in the junk drawer or pointing and grunting at the pictures of soft air pistols in the sporting goods circular he's pulled from the recycling bin. Sorry Elmo, he's just not that into you. He's much more interested in figuring out a way to hurl projectiles at me more efficiently.
Lately I've taken to wearing an old-fashioned Mackinaw hunting coat. I shame my bird-hunting ancestors by hiding hippie diapers in the game pocket and various pre-packaged organic foodstuffs in the pockets where ammunition and beef jerky were supposed to go. Going to Sesame Street Live, my pockets were bulging with so much way-cheaper-and-healthier-than-the-concession-stand goodies I looked like I was heading for deer camp. Tragically, the kids ate most of the good stuff on the walk over and we were left with little more than a handful of cereal, two of those watered-down-apple-juice boxes my wife insists on buying, and an old-timey sassafras candy stick. When I gave the latter to my son, he spit it out and looked at me with disgust. What's up, Pa? Did you pick that up on your weekly visit to Oleson's Mercantile? You might fool some orphan you picked up on the streets of Mankato with that hokum, but this is the 21st century, bro. Where da Skittles at?
Alas, no one would be tasting the rainbow this day.
I emptied all my coat pockets looking for any more goodies that might prolong our stay inside the theater. Imagine my joy when I found a ziplock full of dried fruit and imagine my dismay as he dumped it all on the floor beneath our seats. GO HOME, he shouted while my daughter watched the stage between the slits of her fingers that covered her eyes. YEAH, LET'S GO. So we did, and we shuffled past the other knees in our aisle, past others' laughter and mirth, and my ungrateful little saplings never even turned their heads back towards the stage. After we made our way out through the ornate lobby and onto the street and a block and half towards home I realized I didn't have my wallet or cell phone. They'd fallen from one of my many pockets during the frantic search for food.
So we had to walk back and beg the doormen to let us back in despite a very strict no-re-entry policy, carrying both kids back through the ornate lobby, shuffling past the mirth and knees again and then down on my own to comb through spilled cheerios and dried apricots to find my wallet next to my phone stuck to a stick of sassafras candy. The seats were filled with children not insisting to leave, and I considered what conclusion to draw from all this. You could have just driven, you cheapskate. Things are naturally just harder with two of them. You probably deserve the children you got. And sometimes mornings are just the worst.
As we walked back up the aisle, the characters were dancing to some lyrically-butchered version of Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On." "Look!" I heard someone shout, "Burt and Ernie are doing The Hustle!" But by the time I turned around, they were doing something else. Damn, I thought, I really would have liked to see that.
My son has started singing and he's just awful at it. Lately I've been trying to teach him to sing "Happy Birthday" for his sister's annual "one-year-older-but-not-much-taller" jubilee. He learned the words quick enough, but there's something about the way he sings them that makes the simple tune sound like an Estonian funerary dirge performed by an in-bred goatherd into the merciless winds of the Baltic Sea. I just look at him and think, Damn, son, you're never going to sing in a rock band. Maybe you could play bass, or become a white rapper named Tône Dëf who gets mocked in the early stages of American Idol, Season 23, but if you ever have any hope of scoring chicks you'd better be athletic. Trust me, the bookish romantic loner thing doesn't work. I'll buy you a case of those Mark McGwire steroids before I let you bring home a volume of Rilke or utter the word "Rimbaud" in my presence. I won't stand for the sighing and mopery, son. You don't want to bring a platonic Mormon friend to prom who's only allowed to go at all because her father can tell just by looking at you that there's a greater risk of her giving lap dances to a room full of LDS missionaries than there is of you moving in for a closed-mouth kiss during the final chorus of Boys II Men's "End of the Road." While everyone else is getting it on post-prom at Andrew Howard's Lake Michigan cottage, do you really want to be at the 99-cent theater's midnight screening of Wayne's World 2 with your Mormon entourage? Don't think I'm buying you a bass guitar either because those guys get laid even less than bookish romantic types. Even less than drummers.
Perhaps you think I'm being hasty. He's only two! you shout at your computer monitor. And you're probably right. But by age two Buddy Rich was already an experienced Vaudevillian (billed as "Taps the Wonder Drummer"). By age two Mo Kin's xylophone lullabies were already luring Kim Jong-il to sleep in his cryogenic chamber every night. And at not much older than two, Tallan "T-Man" Latz was embroiled in litigation over whether hammering Elkhorn Wisconsin nightclubs with the blues was a violation of child labor laws. It's not inconceivable that my little guy could be stuck with that voice forever. Occasionally he "sings" me a mumbly approximation of the first few lines of "Monster Mash" or "Frosty the Snowman." Adorable, true, but if one were to judge the singing alone it is clear he's almost as tone deaf as his sister, who sings almost as poorly as her mother. Not a single member of my tribe can carry a tune in a wheelbarrow. And I'm not exactly Dean Martin over here. The last time I took singing seriously was fifth grade when my hippie-turned-fundamentalist music teacher changed the words in "Kookaburra" from . . .Gay your life must be! to . . .Happy your life must be! and I was all, That's the gayest thing I've ever heard. I sing lullabies. That is all.
People who take singing really seriously in casual situations make me fidgety, like the super-serious guy on our recent Christmas caroling excursion who insisted he couldn't sing "Joy to the World" because it was in the wrong key. I wanted to ask, "What's a key?" but any such query would have been drowned out by my father-in-law singing "Feliz Navidad" like he'd just been punctured by a harpoon. My father-in-law is almost deaf (so he has an excuse), but I don't know what to say about the people responsible for the other half of my wife's genes: an Irish family of eight kids and I've never heard one of them sing. They don't even clap during "The Wild Rover" (though they do plenty of drinking and fighting to prove a rightful claim to their ancestry). At some point her uncle recruited this other local family to sing at all their family events, and these people always come armed with pitch pipes and jazz hands. Truthfully, I would rather suffer a music-less existence with a family that sings like bellicose sea lions than hear that middle-aged couple and their kids sing "Choo Choo Ch'Boogie" ever again.
* * * * *
The silver lining of having a child who can't sing is that you will never have to watch him in a vocal jazz performance. While my wife recognizes our son's nascent tone deafness, she keeps some dubious hope that even with this genetic millstone he'll be the musical one in the family. We named him after a musician, she says. We could hire someone to train him. You know, like Sister Maria. I think she harbors a deeper, more sinister fantasy about raising a brood of harmonizing von Trapp-lites. Every year when it comes on network TV my wife insists we watch The Sound of Music and every time we do so it makes me a little more angry.
"I liked this family better before Sandy Duncan came along."
"That's Julie Andrews."
. . .
"Why am I supposed to feel bad for these kids living in their giant mansion in the mountains?"
"Because their totalitarian father didn't allow them music after their mother died."
"I thought Sandy Duncan was their mother?"
"No, she's the nun who takes care of them."
"Those kids better have leprosy."
. . .
"I know another girl who's sixteen, Liesl: her name is Anne and she lives in an Amsterdam attic and your creepy boyfriend is going to keep her from seeing seventeen."
. . .
"Why are they frolicking so?"
"Sister Maria is teaching them to sing."
"'La, a note to follow so?' Rogers and Hammerstein really phoned that one in, didn't they?"
. . .
"I thought if they won the singing contest, Captain von Trapp didn't have to go back into Das Boot."
"No, he still has to go. That's why they're running away."
"They're running to Switzerland on foot?"
"I guess so."
"Next time take some Jews with you, you assholes."
* * * * *
Our neighbors take their daughter to Canada every Wednesday for violin lessons. While the idea of a weekly poutine run sounds tempting, I do think I'll wait a few years and enroll the kids in ordinary piano lessons or find a pixie-ish postulate from a nearby abbey who works cheap. As sure as I am that genetics are working against them here, I'm even more sure that they deserve a chance to overcome them. I believe I also owe them the chance to prove their curmudgeon of a father wrong, even if he ends up fidgeting whenever they sing.