I recently had a few opportunities to expose my children to some life-enriching experiences that are outside their normal routine – one music-oriented, one athletic-oriented, and one service-oriented. Every parent wishes their kids to be well-rounded individuals and give them periodic glimpses of life’s rich and varied opportunities for new awareness, and so in the past week, there were three events that allowed me to share the awareness with my kids.
If only they had any interest in them whatsoever.
LIFE-ENRICHING EXPERIENCE NUMBER ONE: MUSIC
The first event was a “Class Act” concert presented by their elementary school. It featured a brass quintet performing various musical selections on the stage of a local middle school auditorium. These concerts are held every year and feature the professional musician in residence who is working with the school that year as the students focus on a particular composer. This year it was a trombone player from the Orange County Pacific Symphony Orchestra, and the composer they studied was Beethoven. I questioned whether Beethoven would sound very good as performed by a brass quintet, but it was a free show, and it was also a chance for my children to listen to music outside of their normal playlists.
Shortly after the performance began, I remembered why I swore last year I would never bring them to another one of these “Class Act” performances. My kids aren’t the most patient specimens as it is, but put them in a scenario where they have to (a) be quiet, (b) be still, and (c) be respectful, and I might as well be asking them to hold their breath for an hour straight – they just can’t do it.
The trouble began before the show even started.
“I can’t see,” Makena complained. The seats directly in front of us were full of adults – tall adults with large heads. After shuffling seats three times between the three of us, we ended up where we started and she repeated, “Dad, I still can’t see.”
“Fine, you can sit on my lap when the performance starts. Now be quiet, the Principal is talking.” I whispered, aware that these metal folding chairs were placed practically on top of each other, and thus strange parents were barely inches away from us on either side, subject to every sound we made.
“I want to go sit over there,” she pointed to the aisle, where kids were encouraged to sit on the floor so the limited chairs could go to the adults.
“Go ahead then,” I replied, still trying to whisper quietly. It’s hard to whisper quietly when you’re annoyed and trying to hide it from gossipy parents on all sides. The Principal was on stage talking about what a fantastic evening of music we had ahead of us. I doubted it was going to be fantastic enough to be worth the headache I was getting.
“I don’t wanna go unless Hayden goes,” she replied. This clearly wasn’t my problem, and I tried not to make it my problem, but I wasn’t liking how it was turning out. I turned to Hayden in hopes he would be feeling generous, but he cut me off before I could ask the question.
“I’m not movin’”, he said, apparently channeling Rosa Parks.
“Well I don’t wanna go alone,” she whined. “Dad, you come.”
“Honey, I don’t want to sit on the floor,” I replied, realizing I probably sounded whiny myself. My head was pounding and I was losing my patience, and had pretty much kissed the “fantastic evening of music” goodbye.
“Well I can’t SEE!” she declared in a not-even-trying-to-whisper way. The man in front of her turned and looked at us, guiltily, as if to say “Look, I’d leave if I could. I don’t wanna be here any more than you do”.
“Sssshhhh!” I hissed. The Principal was instructing the children on the rules of proper concert behavior and my daughter was systematically breaking every one of them. My intended Evening of Culture was turning into just another battle of wills with my seven-year-old hell-raiser and my eleven-year-old surly- teenager-in-waiting.
“But Dad,” she whispered, “I can’t see!”
“Fine – sit on my lap when the concert begins!” I said. Then I remembered that last year we had the same arrangement — and by the end of that night my legs were so achy I could barely walk out of there under my own power. I wished I had kept my mouth shut.
As soon as the show began, she climbed in my lap and I spent the next hour listening to various comments of the “I’m so bored!” variety, accompanied by heavy sighs, rolling eyes, and aching thighs.
As God is my witness, we will not be attending “Class Act” next year.
LIFE-ENRICHING EXPERIENCE NUMBER TWO: SPORTS
Two nights later, I won four tickets and a parking pass to the Angel’s home opener in Anaheim. To have won anything was a thrill for me, since the only thing I’ve ever won in my life was in a radio call-in contest back in the 80’s: I won four tickets to see Warrant, a band I didn’t even like. (I still don’t know why I called in to the radio station – bored at work, as I recall. The tickets went to waste; I couldn’t even give them away.) Anyway, flash forward twenty years and here I am, the recipient of tickets to an Angel game, which happily coincided with my kids’ first night of Spring Break. I thought, “Well, THIS will be a fun experience for them – who doesn’t love a ball game on a warm spring night?”
The first flaw in my thinking was the whole ‘warm spring night’ business. It rained earlier in the day, and the afternoon was dry but chilly. It was not going to be a short-sleeved event. Still, not a problem, I thought – we’ll just bundle up.
I announced the news to my kids. The reaction I got was, shall we say, mixed.
“The Angel game? WOO-HOO!” Hayden cried, overjoyed, when I called him to tell him the news. “Awesome! I’m so excited!” I was surprised by his reaction, because he is not a sports enthusiast (neither is his Dad) and really doesn’t care to watch sporting events. His sister tends to be more into ball games, and has demonstrated remarkable hand-eye coordination and an athletic ability that is quite impressive. So the fact that Hayden was excited was great; I expected him to express disinterest and a “Do we have to go” type attitude. Happily, I was wrong.
It was Makena who expressed that attitude.
“Oh great. Baseball.” she said dully when her brother handed her the phone. “I don’t wanna go,”
I smacked my forehead as my chin fell open. Unexpected, this was.
“Whaddya mean you don’t wanna go? It’s an ANGEL game!” I said, incredulously.
“Yeah, but I don’t like baseball” she replied casually. This, from a girl who, two weeks earlier, begged me for a baseball bat and a softball, and who demonstrated an ability to hit about nine out of every ten pitches later that day at the park. She’s a total natural. I found myself getting very annoyed and frustrated – this was supposed to be a good thing! A fun thing! And I was gonna make them have good fun, dammit!
“We’ll talk about it when I get home” I said, checking my temper and forcing my voice to sound calmer than I felt. I felt a few hairs on my head go gray at the effort.
“Okay,” she said, “but I’m not going.”
I sighed and hung up, repeating the mantra “It’s not okay to hit a child; it’s not okay to hit a child, it’s not okay to hit a child…” Sometimes that mantra is the only thing standing between me and a Child Services intervention.
I got home and centered myself before I walked in to the house, not wanting to be Angry Dad on the Friday night outset of Spring Break. I walked in the house and found Hayden in his pajamas. At 5:30 on a Friday. I took a deep breath and counted backward from ten.
“Hey buddy, shouldn’t you be dressed?” I asked, wearing a smile that felt very forced.
“I am dressed” he replied, not taking his eyes off the issue of Entertainment Weekly he held in his hands.
“It’s going to be cold tonight, you need to dress warmer than that,” I said reasonably.
He yanked down the waistband of his pajama bottoms and said, “Hey, I’ve got long underwear on under these!”
“Go put on some pants,” I said, choosing not to debate his wardrobe. “Where’s Makena?”
“Upstairs,” he replied. “I don’t have any pants.”
“Yes you do”, I said.
“No I don’t”, he responded. “I looked.”
“If you looked,” I said, trying to keep my voice level, “you would have seen several pairs of jeans that I just put in your bottom drawer yesterday.”
“Aww, jeans? I don’t wanna wear jeans, it’s Spring Break!” He gave me the look that I have recently discovered means “c’mon, Dad, be cool.”
I had no idea why jeans appeared to be the enemy of Spring Break, but ignored it. “Just put some pants on. Makena!” I called up the stairs. “Come down here.”
Angry footsteps thundered down the steps. She came downstairs sporting a pouting look of misery, as though I were taking her to the dentist – in a prison.
“I. Don’t. Wanna. Go.” She folded her arms and sat on the couch.
We went back and forth for a bit, me trying to get her to agree to come willingly so I didn’t have to make it An Order, and her responding in ever-increasing levels of distress. I came to realize that something was wrong. She was upset about something else, and the way she was dealing with it was to rain on the baseball game.
At this point, she was lying on the couch, crying very deeply. I sat down on the floor next to her and put my hand on her heart. I breathed out the frustration and tension I’d been holding and cleared my head, remembering that this wailing tempest who was the object of my frustration at the moment was also my precious little girl who I loved unconditionally, and that clarity added a level of tenderness to my fingers as I brushed the hair out of her eyes and away from her forehead.
“Did something happen at school today?” I asked her, gently.
“Uh-h-huh,” she replied through the tears. She told me that she hugged a kid at school that she thought was someone else, and when she did, the kid pulled away from her and, I guess, freaked out. She said that her teacher made her apologize to the other student in front of everyone. Her face was red as she told me the story, the tears were soaking her face as she sobbed, “It was just a hug and – and — I was just so EMBARRASSED!” Then she sobbed into the couch cushion.
Having just written a post on the embarrassment suffered in elementary school, I could completely empathize with her. “I understand,” I told her. And then I took the opportunity to share with her one of my many embarrassing stories from school, which not only took her away from her own unhappy tale, but also, eventually, made her smile.
The smiling was a good sign. I decided to press further. “I’ll tell you what: we will go to the game tonight, and I’ll make you a bet: If the Angel’s pitcher scratches his butt ten times or more during the game, I’ll buy you guys ice cream afterward.”
This received a giggle from my girl. “Okay,” she said.
I can always count on one universal truth: butts are funny.
We got to the game, and the evening changed. Makena was very interested in the rules of the sport, and I apparently impressed her with my knowledge. I explained what the various figures on the scoreboard meant, and what a double-play was, and why the crowd booed so often.
Hayden’s attention was occupied all over the place. “Dad, where’s the popcorn guy?” Then, a minute later, “Ooo, a beach ball! Over here! Over here!” He would cheer when everyone else cheered, but I suspect he wasn’t actually watching the game as much as he watched everything else.
Eventually, he reported “Dad – we got a butt scratch. That’s one.”
Makena jumped in. “He did! He did! Dad, I saw it, the pitcher scratched his butt!”
The woman in front of us turned to look at us, amused. I’ll say it again: butts are funny.
Two innings later: “This is fun – I want to LIVE here!” Makena said, all smiles and joy.
“See?” I replied. “I told you you’d like it. Trust your Dad. I wouldn’t steer you wrong.” I flagged down the popcorn vendor.
“Dad – butt scratch, there’s three!” she yelled excitedly.
“Wait, I thought that was two?” I said.
“No, you missed one,” she said, testing to see if I’d buy it. I did.
The popcorn was delivered down the aisle, followed by cotton candy a short time later. Makena fed me chunks of cotton candy while asking what an inning was.
“This is the best night ever!” she declared, her face sparkling with pink sugar.
“I think you’re right,” I replied, kissing her sticky cheek.
“Dad – nut scratch. Does that count?” Hayden asked. “That should count.”
The night got very cold and we huddled together under a blanket. We stayed until the end, watching the Angels lose by one run. When it was over, the kids lamented that we didn’t get to ten butt scratches. I said I’d buy them ice cream anyway, since they behaved so well at the game. Fresh delight broke out on their faces.
As we made our way up the stadium steps to the exit, Makena took my hand and turned to me and asked, “Do you know any other sports, Dad?”
“Sure,” I said, being mostly truthful. I mean, she didn’t ask how WELL I knew them, right? “I know lots of them.”
Kids are so easy to impress.
LIFE-ENRICHING EXPERIENCE NUMBER THREE: SERVICE
I belong to a men’s group that has a requirement to perform an act of community service once a month. It can be anything, but it has to be for service outside of our organization, and it has to be for a specified amount of time.
This month, I decided that I would include my kids in the act of service, to expose them to the need for volunteerism and the good feeling one gets from being of service to others, for fun and for free.
The Surfrider Foundation was holding a beach clean-up event in Long Beach the other day, and I thought it would be a perfect opportunity to let the kids volunteer for service. In the spirit of teaching them to be non-conformists, however, I opted to not join the herd of folks cleaning in Long Beach, but instead, held our own “Indie-Cleanup” with just the three of us in Seal Beach. Service is great, but let’s try and retain our individuality if we can, shall we?
The kids were less than pleased when I broke the news to them. Groans of “aaawwwwwwwww” were followed by, “Do we HAVE to? It’s Spring Break!”
I was getting real tired of the “it’s Spring Break” excuse.
We stopped at the donut shop on the way. I figured that donuts make everything better, so they would likely add a dose of sugar-laden goodness to the morning’s effort. The day was sunny and beautiful, though not terribly warm. We wore sweatshirts to brace against the chill in the air.
Seal Beach was fairly empty when we got there, and the parking lot was full of vacant spaces. I pulled into one and got out of the car to feed some cash into the parking meter. The kids remained seated in the car.
“Let’s go guys,” I said, pulling the trash bags and rubber gloves out of the back of the car.
“How long do we have to do this?” one of them asked, sounding tired and put-out already. Apparently the donuts didn’t help much.
“One hour,” I replied, and pulled out my cell phone. “That’s all. Just one hour. When the alarm on my phone goes off, it will be quitting time.” The alarm on the phone has helped us often when setting time limits on events – the kids take it as law. No one disputes the cell phone alarm.
So I set it for an hour and ten minutes. Just cause I knew they’d loaf a bit.
We put on our rubber gloves and opened up the trash bags, and set out across the sand. I told them that anything natural – leaves, sticks, shells – can stay on the ground. Everything else should go in the bags.
I was invigorated by the sea air and the sense of doing good for the community, and I was a trash-collecting machine. My bag soon filled up with an astonishing array of refuse. I couldn’t walk more than a few steps without seeing something else that needed to be picked up. I saved the bigger stuff for the kids to get, to give them a sense of progress. Still, there was no shortage of large items – there was just so much trash there.
Hayden got into the spirit, keeping pace with me and enthusiastically picking up items and tossing them in his bag. Makena lagged behind us, examining shells and picking up the occasional trash piece. Her heart really wasn’t in it.
“Dad, how long has it been? Can you check your phone?” she asked.
I checked my phone. “It’s been ten minutes, Mak. C’mon, let’s get busy.”
Heavy sigh back at me. But she went on collecting.
While there seemed to be no limit on the kinds of items found lying on the sand, the perennial favorites were in large supply: fast food condiment packets, plastic drinking straws, random scraps of candy wrappers and chip bags, screw-on plastic bottle caps – I alone found dozens of each of these items. Among the singular items found were one sock, one flip-flop sandal, one pair of women’s sunglasses, one plastic ball, and one used condom. Stay classy, Seal Beach.
But the most common item, by far, was the cigarette butt. I alone picked up hundreds of them. I couldn’t walk more than five steps before encountering another. They were everywhere. I even found one spot where some jackhole who chose to smoke cigarettes using those plastic cigarette filters had left six of the plastic filters lying on the sand. This especially irked me, for some reason. The person went to all the trouble of using plastic filters, and yet couldn’t take the extra step of packing them out when they left. I tried to not wish a lip infection upon this person, but couldn’t help it – it sort of slipped out.
“Kids, this is another reason why smoking is a really, really bad idea,” I said, holding a handful of cigarette butts in my gloved hand. “Not only is it terrible for your health, but they end up as trash and wind up all over the ground. Look at all of these.”
I waited for them to contemplate man’s insensitivity to the environment, expecting them to tear up like the Native American looking over the landfill in that old 70’s commercial.
Instead: “Dad, can you check your phone? How much longer?”
I glared at them from behind my sunglasses for a moment, not-saying the things that immediately popped into my head. After a few seconds, I pulled out my phone.
“Thirty minutes. We’re halfway done” I said.
Another groan. Again I fought the urge to respond. I debated whether to mention how many kids in the country would absolutely LOVE to be at the beach on a beautiful Saturday morning picking up trash, because many of them live thousands of miles from the nearest ocean – many of them have never even SEEN an ocean in person – and here they were taking it for granted. But I didn’t say it. It’s just not something in their awareness yet, and these landlocked children I was thinking of would carry no significance for them. I was dealing with a seven and eleven year old. I had to reduce my expectations of them.
Eventually, the alarm on my phone began to sound, and I held it up to them so they could hear it. Cries of “Yay!” went up, and they dropped their bags and stripped off their rubber gloves. I’d gotten a little over an hour of community service out of them, and so we sat down on the sand where we ended up and talked for a while, laughed and joked and sang songs and talked about school. We stayed another half hour there, in that little huddle, lying on the sand and letting the sun warm us. I felt good at having this experience with them.
“Now, doesn’t it feel good to have spent the morning being of service to the community?” I asked. And then, realizing I was just feeding them a response I expected, I re-phrased my question. “How do you guys feel now, after doing this service?”
Hayden: “I’m tired.”
Makena: “My feet hurt.”
I sighed. The replies were honest. I settled for that.