Lessons on Being a Dad to a Toddler

It’s certainly true what they say about the challenge of being a parent– although my idea of what that challenge truly is has changed a lot.

The tasks of taking care of a baby that sounded (at first) gross or difficult actually become routine and easy fairly quickly. Dirty diapers? Washing a grubby baby? Dealing with a child throwing a tantrum? These were all on the list of things I found intimidating when my kid was born and there was an adjustment period– but adjust I did. Aside: any dad who “can’t deal” with dirty diaper changes or screaming kids needs to man up. I actually laughed today when I had to snatch my 14-month-old kid out of the road and, his face nearly scarlet with rage, (hahaha daddy’s boy, alright) he repeatedly attempted to head-butt my jaw while he struggled and screamed. 8 months ago I would have needed a half-hour walk by myself after an episode like that. Now it’s just the cost of doing business when you absent-mindedly let the outside play get too close to the street.

The truly enduring challenge, then, has been something else entirely– the loss of time to indulge in a lot of the things I find fun to do. For one thing: good times spent with good people. I see my wife all the time but not in the awesome way we had come to take for granted. Quiet time together is so important to us and there’s almost none of that while our sweet little chubster is awake. We’ve had to completely alter the way in which we have fun both in and out of the house and be very mindful of the time we get. This is a little easier on us because we love our kiddo so much, but we’ve spoken wistfully more than once about the time when we could just run out of the house on whatever adventure we liked. I’m thankful we have each other and him, and at least we can work together on offsetting what we miss.

But there’s other folks, too. People interest me enough that I’ve always enjoyed hours of conversation with just about anybody! Having a toddler makes interacting with people difficult. Most people without kids don’t “get it” and have to make an effort to put up with an inquisitive toddler. Even when they’re trying their best, it can get uncomfortable. Many people who do have kids understand, but it can be hard to put hang-out times together. Between your kid(s) and their kid(s), there’s a lot of naps, appointments, routines, tasks, and worries that are all happening at different times. I can’t tell you how often considering my kid’s schedule has kept me from picking up the phone to make plans– and I only have ONE fifteen-month-old! I can’t imagine what this is going be like if we have four or five like we’re planning to do.

Aside from that, I have LOADS of other interests. I love literature, historical research, strength training, conditioning, learning new skills, cooking, you name it. I didn’t have anywhere near enough time for all of this stuff even BEFORE we had our kid, and now I have a lot less…

And there you have it. I’ve used “we” a few times in the last couple of paragraphs, but I’ve used “I” even more. When I reflected on this over the last few days, I discovered that so many of even my “quality” pursuits were profoundly self-centered. It’s to be understood, of course; I’m only human. Still, isn’t there an opportunity for improvement in this problem?

Speak to many people about their most fulfilling pursuits, and they involve service to others. It feels good to be of help to people who need it. Generations of soldiers and volunteers describe this feeling when asked why they do what they do. There’s even something for the self-centered and vainglorious in it: you get to leave a legacy through your actions. Isn’t that something most of us want? When presented with the choice between a long, happy life in obscurity or a short, violent, glorious one, the ancient hero of heroes Achilles chose the latter without a moment’s hesitation. To leave the world better or more badass than we found it: that’s the sort of thing we can feel good about on our deathbeds. I’ve often taken pride in my teaching job and the idea that I’m helping kids to a better outcome or understanding of the world through my work. I hope to make a difference every year.

Kids. And what about my kid? I look into the eyes of my beautiful son and I begin to question a lot of the dissatisfaction with lost time that I have. Isn’t a lot of it inherently selfish? It is good for me but if I were doing it living as a hermit in the desert, I suspect there would be a bit of an empty feeling about it. To push oneself to improve is far more rewarding when we can experience camaraderie with others in the process or leave a legacy through the example we set. I’ve happily poured thousands of hours into my young teaching career to experience this with my colleagues and students. Isn’t this now a shift to an even greater form of the same labor, with my awesome wife for the camaraderie and my own kids for the legacy?

This does not mean sacrificing all of my true passions at the altar of “raising kids.” Too often I’ve heard parents (bitterly) muttering that sentiment. It’s a frequent excuse for becoming a sad-sack shell of one’s former self. On the contrary, I think if I’m going to raise badass kids, they need to see how passion for life is lived, and learn by watching. Rather than give up my interests, I just have “shave close” and get to the marrow, as Thoreau envisioned– to decide what is truly a passion vs. what is more properly called a hobby(and can therefore wait until my kiddos are grown up enough that they require less time).

As a result, I can tell you I’ve spent a LOT less time on the phone, reading the internet, and consuming information on affairs that do not truly concern me and/or I can do very little to change, to say nothing of sports news(a truly frivolous way to spend time if there ever was one). This has made me a less-informed citizen on current news, although I keep tabs on the basics and the big stuff. In crisis over whether to give up this habit or my physical training and deep reading, I cut this out– and I don’t regret it for one minute.

In my general disapproval of people staring into their phones all the time, I had never truly considered how much time I was doing it until I suddenly had far less time in general. This forced a reduction. I think many folks would have allowed the training or the deep reading to lapse and I’m very glad I haven’t. It hasn’t been easy, but it’s funny to think that what was such a massive form of frustration– “LESS TIME!!” has actually improved the usage of the time I have. In the end, the decision was simple (though again, not ‘easy’). When I ask myself which of these things I’d like my son to see me give up, I know I need to put the phone down and go train or go read. History, training, and literature are passions for me in the realest sense– I feel good modeling them for my son. In the big picture of my family’s life, these are trifling sacrifices in a (comparatively) brief season.

And that’s been the biggest lesson so far– the transition from today’s individual small concerns to the long game of life– the big picture. It’s been hard blazing that path for myself. But in cutting out those instant gratifications and self-indulgences while trying to balance who I want to be for my son, I’ve found that I’ve focused more keenly on who I want to be, period, because really, they both come out to the same man.

I dig it.

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Thoughts on Football: “Tanking”

“Tanking”– deliberately turning in a sub-par effort to put you higher in next year’s draft order. Each year there is buzz around this, especially when next year’s draft class has promising quarterbacks.

I feel like I say this every year, but the notion that anyone on a NFL sideline is “tanking” for some big-picture shot at a draft pick is absurd. Player contracts are terminated at ease with very little impact on teams relative to impact on the player. Non-superstars who don’t perform well every week are soon gone. This is true to a lesser extent for coaches. How many head coaches with 4-12 or worse seasons under their belt are around? The reputation and job security of coaches is built through wins — made even more difficult to obtain with league-enforced parity. Aside from all that, the math on “can’t-miss” draft prospects hardly suggests that title. About half are disappointments and all need a supporting cast. Just ask Alex Smith.

This of course is before we get into the pride and competitive nature of the players– the overwhelming majority of whom had to fight and scratch their way into the league. Does any cornerback want to be known as part of a defensive unit that surrendered the number of points necessary to put up a 2-14 win-loss record? I’ve never been anything close to a professional athlete, but I’m competitive enough as a person to find that idea abhorrent even in backyard football games. I can’t imagine how I’d feel with career success, a stadium full of people and a live TV audience in the equation.

Everyone is shocked the Jets aren’t tanking this year like the idiot sports writers thought they would. Who would want to “tank” so that the Johnson family will have another high draft pick to screw up– Coach Todd Bowles, already on the hot seat? QB Josh McCown, already nearly 40 and playing purely for the love of the game? WR Jermaine Kearse, looking for his first big contract? And those are the big names– what about the backups who could wash out by association with the rest? “Tanking” is something I’ll bet no one outside of the executives in the front office would find acceptable. It’s a horseshit concept for sports radio hosts and sports ‘journalists,’ most of whom have never played a down of football.

Attitude Adjustment in Action

“Make the best of a bad situation.” It sounds like solid advice– something we aspire to do when we wind up in uncomfortable circumstances. But there’s something I don’t like about that phrase. It admits defeat right away. Making the best of a bad situation sounds like fighting a rearguard action during a steady retreat: the battle has already been decided. It justifies a defeatist attitude about your circumstances. It can be hard to avoid when things out of your control come together to form an inconvenient scenario, but I don’t like to retreat. I want to look for the win, by ambush if necessary! I’m not always good at this, but let me explain what I mean.

This is my first year teaching in a new school district and new state. I have taught eight years of English Language Arts and history, going back and forth. I’ve got my undergraduate degree in history and my MA in English. Despite valid licensing for both in two different states and a very good evaluation record, I had a ridiculous time even getting an initial license in the state of Kansas. Because of a few technicalities in Kansas state law for number of years in a row taught for a single subject, the only license available to me was through my MA. The language for this license type is meant for people coming into teaching right out of grad school. In essence, according to the state of Kansas, I am a first year teacher and need to be treated like someone brand new to the profession.

As a result, I have to complete a two year mentoring program with an experienced teacher in my building. This requires professional meetings multiple times over the next two years while he checks up on me to make sure I’m “progressing”– so I need to devote precious plan time and take occasional half days off to accommodate my mentoring schedule. As we sat down for our first meeting, I quickly realized how awkward this was for him. We had met and chatted a few times before and the last thing he probably wanted was to be babysitting another experienced teacher– let alone one not even close to his subject area (he teaches math). We discussed the circumstances and he revealed another layer to me: by more bizarre technicalities, he couldn’t mentor a true brand-new teacher right on his hallway. As an alternate-route certification prospect, she isn’t even eligible for a mentor at all until she gets her “initial” license in two years!

After we got done laughing about that, I was at a crossroads. While I didn’t have a full professional teaching license in the state of Kansas, I definitely had a license for a shitty attitude at this point. There were so many reasons to dismiss this whole process: a result of typically Byzantine government regulations that don’t hold up to common sense, a waste of time for two professionals, a waste of district resources, a diversion of skilled guidance from where it was truly needed, etc. And my mentor clearly appreciated my situation. In fact, I could have easily “made the best of a bad situation” by getting the professional aspect of our conversation done as quickly as possible, maneuvering myself through the hoops with bare minimum of effort, and getting on to resuming pleasant personal conversation we’d already had about life and teaching.

But I had a flash of good thinking I wish I got more often in times like these. If I did those things, then the whole list of reasons to dismiss the process that I mentioned above would be irrevocably true! The battle would be lost; defeat admitted. Enjoy the rearguard action on a bad day. What purpose would that serve? Why accept that list? Why willingly participate in a waste of time? I couldn’t change the circumstances, but I certainly could change my approach to defy that list.

After all, I’m hardly done learning in this game. My mentor might not teach humanities– ok, so talking about lesson plans is probably not the best use of time. But what about best practices in execution? It doesn’t matter what you teach; many of those remain the same from classroom to classroom. This might not be my first year, but it’s my first year teaching English to high school kids and several inefficiencies and bad habits were already showing themselves.

I embraced my mentor’s questions about what wasn’t going well as a great opportunity to self-reflect and thought out loud about what they were. For one thing, I’ve been making my students do quite a bit of thinking and writing in longer form. My idealism told me that this was a far better way to get them working with critical thinking skills and great literature than, say, worksheets or multiple choice, but it requires timely feedback. The truth is after two months I was woefully behind in grading and providing feedback on writing. How can I expect my kids to improve when we’re ten moves further ahead by the time they get feedback on the first move?  I was committed to writing but had to speed up grading. I also was struggling to pace my lessons: at my old school, I had gotten used to 75 minute lessons. Now I had 45 minutes– a staggering difference in instructional time. This led to many other difficulties. I wasn’t consistently assessing my kids on skills according to my plans. One day’s skills would spill over into the next day, which would disrupt the procedures for learning the next thing, and so on. I didn’t know what I expected my kids to know by the end of any given day.

Bad.

These were all things my mentor could appreciate. I got them down on a brief, bulleted list. Then we brainstormed about big picture fixes and little, day to day things that could solve some of the problems. Most importantly, these solutions had a measurable outcome that he could check with me on and get a simple answer. For example, I set arbitrary deadlines for grading writing: 48 hours for short prompts and 4 days for longer ones. As I send him brief details on when my kids are writing, he’ll be able to ask when we meet up if I’ve hit the deadlines- or he can simply look at the gradebook. I also set a reasonable goal of assessing at least three objectives per week. I anticipated that I would still struggle to assess every day. While that’s the ultimate goal, in at least some small way– I need to know what my kids learned– in the short term I still haven’t adjusted completely to 45 minute lessons and I need some solid wins. If I don’t make it one day, then that means there’s spillover to the next, making it difficult to assess another skill on that day with even less time. I don’t want to start immediately taking hits. If I can get three per week for now, that’s improvement!

By the end of our meeting, I had some concrete, achievable goals in my hand that are definitely going to impact student learning– the reason I’m in this game to begin with! I’ve got a great rapport with my mentor. I think he appreciated me being completely open to the process and reciprocated with ideas for how I could give him feedback on his mentoring questions and his approach. As I walked out to my car, I felt excited. I hadn’t wasted time at all. Who cares about the ridiculous things that brought that situation about? We imposed our will on it– snatching purpose from waste and victory from the jaws of defeatism.

Boom.

Why I Train With Weights

I’ve been strength training with iron implements since I was 15 years old and I’ve met plenty of people in that time with an endless list of excuses for why they don’t do it. Most are such total horseshit that they don’t provoke much reflection on my part.

“I don’t have time.”

Bullshit. In this American day and age, we have time for what’s important to us– end of story. Anyone with a standard job or less has plenty of time to train. Even with more than standard, and sometimes far more, there is time to train if you engage in a little sacrifice. As a KIPP teacher, I spent 60 hours per week working and nearly 7 hours per week commuting, made time to read books, cook all of my food, hang out with friends, and develop/enjoy an awesome relationship. After all of that, I was still training 4 days per week with separate outdoor running. I simply wasn’t spending a lot of time on my phone or the internet and no time at all on TV.

“But I have kids” doesn’t fly, either. I had a newborn baby last year. I certainly had to make plenty of sacrifices, but since I regard training as an integral part of my physical and mental health, I simply let everything else in the former list suffer. I didn’t like it, but it was what I had to do. Sometimes I had to get up before dawn (and the baby) if I wanted that to work– I got used to it.

“I don’t have time” is insulting to me. What someone is implying when they say such a thing is that I have all of this idle time available to my own vanity whereas normal people like them aren’t so lucky. Exercise is unquestionably valuable to everything about the human body. To not engage in it is to devalue oneself. This is also true for those Americans who can legitimately say they are working 80-100 hours per week in some building somewhere, and thus quite literally don’t have time. There isn’t a person alive today in this country who needs to work that many hours just to survive. To take on that many hours is a CHOICE. I understand this can be done in service of a larger goal and I respect that– but people need to own that it is at least a short term self-destructive choice they are making, and the longer they persist in it, the more destructive it is.

Where things get interesting, however, is when I get someone who questions the value of strength training with weights as a choice for exercise. I had a guy do that pretty well over a decade ago and it stuck with me. “Weights are boring and impersonal… it’s numbers on a bar. What has that got to do with life? I’d rather be working outside or playing a sport.”

Boom. That’s pretty good. I’ve got to respect that.

Ever since that conversation, there are times when I’ve been in some commercial gym, air conditioned, surrounded by people going through the motions, and I think to myself: what the hell are we all DOING here? Are we a bunch of gerbils? Why not build a house? Why not learn a hand trade and acquire a usable skill that could also get us in motion in a more practical way? Isn’t this all very artificial?

It is… but I would argue its artificial nature is good. If we train in the right way for results, we are pushing to our physical limit and beyond. The “iron,” to reference the great personal essay on the subject by none other than Henry Rollins, gives us a way to measurably establish where that limit is and slowly push it higher. If you want the science for why this is good, google “progressive overload” for about 5 billion sources on this provably excellent effect on mind and body. “Real life” and recreational sport rarely offers this opportunity in a safe and consistent way. We don’t need to take advantage of that to get beneficial exercise, but it’s a part of what I like about it.

Then there are personal reasons for me. I like to get better every day, month, and year. I want to learn new skills, become a better dad, know more about the world– and I want to do it in a measurable way. Life can just slip by without any clear idea of how you are compared to how you were, or can present you with so many variables that it’s difficult to know what part you played in your own success or failure. When I learned to smoke meat, I wanted to see people go for seconds. When I taught history, I wanted to see my kids shred the state history test–without once teaching to the test itself! When I get my wife a birthday or Christmas gift, I want to see her face light up! I want the “wins!”

Training with iron weights allows me to go in and get a win every single day. With my long term program and some simple notations in a small pad, I can hit my prescribed targets for number of sets, repetitions, and with what amount of weight and over time, I can see how much stronger I am now than I was a week, month, or year ago. I enjoy that immensely, and with the kind of exercises I choose– the squat, deadlift, power clean, etc. I can be confident in plenty of real-world carry-over for that strength as well. When our extended family needs somebody to move a wheel-barrow full of heavy crap all day, or someone to take the bottom end of a huge hide-a-bed down a flight of stairs, I can confidently raise my hand and take the real-life pleasure of being useful in a way not many others can. To me, that’s worth occasionally feeling like a gerbil!

Ultimately people need to choose the exercise that works best for them, but for my people out there that have ever been under those too-bright lights and looked past the bro pulling his shirt up in front of the mirror— to the rack full of dumbbells— and thought: “Man, what IS the point?!”

Approach, lift, go to failure, and enjoy those endorphins with confidence!

To Blog Or Not to Blog

I like to write from time to time. The way things normally go is I’ll have a slow drip of thoughts about something for weeks at a time, then gradually I’ll put it all together and write a personal essay about it– my own substandard tribute to the great Victorian essayists like Matthew Arnold and Cardinal Newman. Five or six people read it and that’s ok. I write for myself mainly and there’s some long lead time for my brain to cook it up and then for me to sit down and execute it. Normally if any of those five or six people actually get something out of it, I think of it as bonus points.

But then I wonder: is that really worth the time? People who want to read about the stuff I think can dig up far sharper and more well-informed stuff on those subjects than what I put out. Maybe I could plan my writing a little better, do some more research, and get it up to the level of that other stuff, but to what purpose? I’m not a professional and I have a hard enough time putting the hours together to write about it in the first place. There are so many things I love to do, and that’s before we talk about the time I like to spend with my beautiful wife and little kid.

My wife suggests shorter, simpler blogs about my life. There are training, cooking, teaching, and adventure blogs out there that are basically online diaries for public view. It wasn’t clear to me until recently how many people enjoy blogs about training that include a little big-picture planning and consistent execution alongside an interesting life. That makes me think: “Shit, I’ve been training my ass off for years and I think I lead a pretty badass life. I’m thinking of training for a really tough endurance event over the next year alongside my teaching and BBQ plans. Should I write about that?”

But then I think: isn’t that banal? Training to me is automatic. I can’t imagine wanting to read about someone else’s training all the time. Why would anyone want to read about mine? Or my cooking? Or teaching? Or adventure? These are choices anyone can make with their time in this country. Isn’t writing a public journal sort of presuming you’re special? I went on an incredible hiking trip in the Tetons and Yellowstone: so have thousands of people before me. Literally everything I’ve done has been done millions of times over and written about, with great skill, thousands of times over. Maybe than rather than write about it, I should just continue doing it, because ultimately, who really cares?

Who even SHOULD care?

Maybe it’s just my post-modern education talking.

Art With Impact: Hurricane Katrina and “Over the Under”

With Harvey coming ashore, I’ve been thinking about this album a lot. Art can reflect life beautifully (even in sludge metal) and this album connected me with this band and the city of New Orleans in a way I couldn’t have imagined. Katrina hit these guys hard, and through their experience, I’ve come to think quite a bit about the people in the path of Harvey and its broken wake.

centurionvi

I love how art can connect us with something so much bigger than ourselves. It’s been ten years since Hurricane Katrina; I can vaguely remember following the news, especially in the aftermath, and feeling so disconnected from what the people of New Orleans were feeling and going through. I was in Austin at the time, in the middle of a scorching hot, dry summer, and had never been touched by natural disaster in any meaningful way. It was easy to sympathize, of course, but much harder to empathize, which I think is far more important.

One of my favorite bands changed that for me in a pretty unexpected way. Down started in 1995 as a bunch of dudes who had grown up around each other in New Orleans and now each had their own self-sustaining metal bands. Pepper Keenan had been the face and chief songwriter for Corrosion of Conformity…

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Football Thoughts: The Proven Loser

I tuned in to the Giants/Steelers preseason game last night and got treated to a microcosm of something I’ve observed in a big way over my years as a football fan. Geno Smith was under center for the Giants, and the game announcers were discussing how much more calm and in command of the offense he looked than their other backup, Josh Johnson. Up to that point, it was true. Then, to the surprise of no one who has watched Geno Smith play over the years, he rolled left under no great pressure and threw an inexplicably stupid interception that put the Steelers in scoring position. Any good work he had done was snuffed out in an instant.

Geno Smith is a talented guy and even though plenty of people knew the Jets had bungled yet another QB draft gamble and taken him too early in the draft as a rookie, plenty of people could also see promise in the kid. But what became clear pretty quickly and remains clear to this day is that Smith makes dumb decisions with the football. Most of the time, he looks better than  an awful lot of QBs in the league, but once every two or three games, he’s going to throw an interception like that– a game-changing, momentum-shifting, utterly horrible interception. He may win some ball games, but he also absolutely will LOSE some ballgames, practically by himself. Quarterback is one of the few positions on the field with that ability. Frankly, despite his obvious talent, I don’t understand why he has a job. He’s what I like to call a proven game-loser–“just good enough to get you beat.”

I don’t understand why anyone would want a proven loser on their roster, even if he does look better than the other guys most of the time. Smith isn’t alone: years ago, I started calling this phenomenon the “Rex Grossman effect.” Matt Schaub and Mark Sanchez are other good recent examples. Both of them have almost single-handedly destroyed seasons for their franchises with back-breaking turnovers. If a middling or mediocre QB struggles to move the offense and is only good for 10-14 points per game, there is at least a chance that the rest of the team can make up for the effort in some way: an opportunistic defense can force turnovers, running the ball can get you to a few field goals, etc. The game can remain close, especially in this age of league parity with free agency and the salary cap.

Given league parity, it’s far more difficult to overcome, say, a pick six. It’s not just that you’ve given the other team an easy six points and possibly altered the way the offensive game plan can now work. Momentum and morale matter a great deal, too. You can observe the psychological effect on an entire defense when a quarterback repeatedly puts them in a position of having to give up no ground at all to avoid surrendering points, or simply gives the other team touchdowns. It’s deflating. A star defensive end, by contrast, has more leverage to be “boom or bust.” Bruce Smith could badly miss on stuffing runs a few times a game, and the effect was rarely decisive. Matt Schaub throwing two pick sixes in one game as a Houston Texan was absolutely decisive. It destroyed the collective effort of the entire rest of the team over the entire rest of the game. Yet Matt Schaub made millions of additional dollars as a QB after that game.

Give me guys like Colt McCoy or Cody Kessler any day of the week over these players. Neither are impressive talents who can take over a game, but neither has repeatedly shown he’ll stick a dagger into his own team. Bring on Matt McGloin– a frequent sports news punchline. I also am reminded of how the Steelers use Landry Jones when they need him. These players will never take you to the Super Bowl without an absolutely dominant defense and other skill position guys, but they’re not going to derail a Super Bowl run, either. I’m no GM, but when those guys are taking snaps, I’m not wondering when they’re going to blow the game with two or three bad decisions. I was wondering that very thing as I watched Geno Smith– and you know what? He delivered. Doesn’t this count for something beyond the regular statistics? Proven losers need to find another job.