Baby Brain 3.0: The cognitive space between baby and baccalaureate

November 3, 2017

I’ve been on traveling way too much: Spokane, New York City, Atlanta, Birmingham, Oxford, Georgia and beautiful Lansing, Michigan. Each stop away from my family was an opportunity to remember how much I love them. But I have to admit that sleeping in a hotel bed without a three-year-old climbing under the covers at 4 AM was pretty nice. (If I look like I just rolled out of my bed for my CBS News interview in New York, it’s because I slept in to the last possible minute.) But upon each return, our daughter Cozy seemed like a completely new person.

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There are lots of moments when you realize that baby you swaddled is long gone. The other day Cozy climbed on the toilet all by herself, took a dump, and told us she didn’t need her kiddie potty anymore. (Yes, I wept.) A few weeks ago I was trying to get her to hurry up the steps of her preschool and she responded, “Whatever.”  She has numerous funny voices for different roles she plays. There’s her princess voice and her Hulk voice. We took her to Disney on Ice and she went as Elsa from Frozen and she was totally cool that there were a few thousand other Elsas there. Let it go. It was like she had found her tribe.

Childhood brain development is endlessly fascinating. Cozy seems to have sped through Freud’s anal phase and is almost a year early for the phallic phase. (More on that later.) In Jean Piaget’s stages of cognitive development, she is firmly in the Pre-operational Stage. She is still egocentric, but learning how to see things from others’ perspective. She wants to know why sometimes Abigail pushes her. She’s started using similes. “I can run like a cheetah.” Her language skills are rapidly expanding and she relates most things to yoga poses. Her pre-school had an earthquake drill and the teacher told the kids to climb under their desks and pretend they were turtles in their shells. “Oh, that’s turtle pose,” Cozy said. Her teacher told me that in the middle of an earthquake Cozy had all her classmates doing yoga.

When I look at the characteristics of young preschoolers (age 3-4), some of it seems like old news around her.

  1. Beginning to count objects. (“I want seven quesadillas.”)
  2. Noticing properties of objects and able to sort them. (“Daddy, I put your dirty socks in the garbage.”)
  3. Problem-solving skills like planning and baking. (“Let’s go get ice cream before dinnertime.”)
  4. Interest in their bodies and other living things. (“The cat’s butthole is funny.”)
  5. Understanding the order of events of their day. (“You have to read two stories before I go to bed, not one.”)
  6. Ability to take items apart and attempt to put them back together. (Mom’s make-up kit has been disassembled numerous times.)

On a daily basis I’ll have a “How do you know that?” moment. We were carving our Halloween pumpkin and I was trying to cut a circle in the top so we could scoop out the guts and she said, “Dad, that’s a hexagon.” Seriously, WTF? It’s like the Great Leap Forward of cognitive development. It’s more than a window into what College Freshman Cozy will be like. Her personality seems pretty complete, although I know we’ve still got some work to do. She’s just now started recognizing gender. Yesterday she told me that there are two girls and one boy in our family. I can’t tell what that means other than the boy in the family is not interested in make up, but the two girls are. Cozy and her lip gloss, lordy.

I have to think staying at home with her these three years has helped her brain development. There’s lots of stimulation, between our hikes in Forest Park and trips to the OMSI science center (and okay, the occasional binge on Nature Cat on PBS). Studies have shown that abused three-year olds have significantly less brain mass and fewer cognitive connections. A healthy environment this early will have lifelong benefits. There are still plenty of issues (Please eat what I made for dinner. Please?), but suddenly there’s this third person living in our house who has plenty of opinions and doesn’t need your kiddie potty anymore.

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There was a moment when we were trick or treating that Cozy confidently walked up to a stranger’s door and knocked. Now the reward for that courageous action was a handful of candy but still, I felt like she was already off on her own and was going to be just fine. Baby brain bye bye.

The purpose of this blog post is to document where we is vis-à-vis Cozy’s noggin.

Cozy turns 3 in Fantasyland

August 22, 2017

“I like road trips.”

I can’t tell you how happy I was to hear my daughter say those words before our 990 mile drive to Anaheim, California to seek an audience with Minnie Mouse. My fondest memories of my family are all about loading my brother and I into the station wagon and hitting the road, often to Disneyworld in Florida. Later my dad bought a van camper (with a CB radio) and we would head off to visit my cousins in Colorado. Much of my childhood was spent watching America go by a car window, with stops at Howard Johnsons for ice cream. Andrea and I both love to hit the road, so if Cozy didn’t have the wanderlust gene we were screwed.

The baby was turning three and she was very clear about her desire to go to Disneyland and find Mickey, and Minne, and Elsa, and maybe Doc McStuffins.  It’s a never ending source of amazement watching her evolve into a fully formed person with her own opinions on everything. She spits out gold like Rumpelstiltskin with a haystack. “I gave a good idea. Why don’t you get me some ice cream and I’ll watch Frozen.” (This routine is worth it as the sugar rush is sure to inspire her death metal version of “Let it Go.”) She’s ready for adventure and whatever surprises the open road brings. As long as I pack her potty that is.

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So we hit the road. With a car full of snacks, an iPad loaded with The Secret Life of Pets, and stories of what awaited in Disneyland (“I’m going to see all my friends,” she said.), we took off on our last day of owning a 2-year-old. The first day was a 12-hour ride that took us as far as Stockton, California. The reward for putting up with mom and dad’s music (and Fabcast podcasts) was a giant pancake at IHOP.  When we woke up the next morning in our bleach soaked room in the La Quinta Inn, the rising sun was in the right position to blast through the peephole in the door, creating a cool effect on the wall. “It’s a rainbow hole!” she exclaimed. Our girl was three.

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We got into LA in time to hit the hot tub in our Hollywood AirBNB and meet some friends for an impromptu birthday party at the Hollywood Hard Rock Cafe. One our friends, former radio maven and current Disney queen Delia Rae Saldivar, brought a giant “3” balloon as a present, and Cozy roamed the Hard Rock with it. There was a cover band playing and Cozy went right to the stage (with her balloon) to watch them set up. I caught myself thinking, “She better be planning her own band and not a life as a groupie.” During a break in their 80s glam metal set, the guitarist took a moment to wish Cozy a happy birthday. “I wish I was three again,” he said. Then he dedicated “Pour Some Sugar on Me,” to my daughter, commenting that the song was about putting sugar on your cereal. Thanks, dude.

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Disneyland, the birthplace of princesses, is such a strange place. I was last there, at the original park, in 1969, when I was five. It really hasn’t changed much. But I certainly have. Part of the experience was like being five all over again. (The Peter Pan ride is exactly the same as I remember it.) But now I see it through a much different lens. Do all these people dressed in cartoon costumes get a decent wage with health benefits? Where were those Mickey Mouse ears made and by whom?  Child labor? What’s it like to be 62 and work in an amusement park? Does the It’s a Small World ride promote a colonialist view of the world? We were floating through the Pirates of the Caribbean ride, past the “wench auction,” and one of the guys behind us said, “We’ll take two and take them home,” to another guy. Their wives sat next to them. We took a picture of Cozy beaming in front of the statue of Walt Disney and posted it on Facebook. One friend posted, “Famed anti-Semite Walt Disney” and another commented, “Tear down that statue!” You can’t win.

But I wasn’t there for me or my political agenda. In 1989, I smuggled a quart of oil into the Disney Epcot Center in Orlando and dumped it into the fountain in front of Exxon’s Universe of Energy ride to protest their “propaganda” after the Exxon Valdez oil spill. So I was good. This was about Cozy. Although, I’ll admit, after a stroll through Fantasyland and the faces of kids from across the world, I was closer to five in my head than fifty. And even by the parking deck, Cozy was shining with excitement. We parked in Mickey, 5-G. “There’s Mickey!!”

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What is this wonder? All things are new and magic is real. Her face was and endless expression of joy at every corner. This radiance. It’s intoxicating. And now she has the language skills to convey it. “I want to ride the tea cups and get dizzy!” We made our way to Mickey’s Toontown in search of her favorite mouse. The lines were pleasantly short so when she saw Minnie’s house, she knew we were close to pot of gold at the end of this thousand mile-long rainbow. When she finally entered Minnie’s living room and saw her in 3-D (instead of just on Mickey’s Road Racers), she about burst, immediately hugging the giant mouse like they were life-long friends. When we told “Minnie” that it was Cozy’s birthday, she got a big hug and kiss and Cozy was just pure bliss. There was even a birthday cake in Minnie’s oven that was surely for Cozy.

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Mickey’s house was right next door (begging the question about Mickey being a backdoor mouse). He was also quite wonderful to Cozy, who, after two-living legends embracing her, was ready to explode. All the nooks and crannies of the Magic Kingdom provided moments of happiness for her, especially the Enchanted Tiki Room. The day ended with the Main Street Electrical Parade. I saw the first parade at Disneyworld in 1972 and this was the parade’s final weekend. It hadn’t changed a lick. Same 70’s Moog soundtrack, Pete’s Dragon, and (my lost love – long story) Alice in Wonderland on a giant mushroom. Cozy’s face was aglow and when it was over, she cried. “All my friends are gone!” We’ll come back Cozy. I promise.

The following day, after some podcasting and lunch with a friend who animates at Dreamworks, we hit the road north, trying to beat the eclipse back to Portland. Cozy would wake up from naps, singing the Tiki Room song and saying, “I want to go back and see my friends!” The happiest place on earth.

Now we are home with our three-year-old who has lots to say about the world, but it’s a world where there is still magic and wonder. There are flying elephants and Cheshire Cats and submarines that will take you “down, down, down” to see Nemo. While she was too starstruck to talk to Moana, she hugged Pluto like he was her favorite pet And of course it’s a world where she is good friends with Minnie Mouse. I hope this world lasts for a while.

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August 22, 2016: I found a 2-year-old!

August 17, 2015: ¡Cozy turns uno! Happy first birthday to our daughter!

Note: A sincere thanks to the Saldivars, Chases, and Sullivans for helping to make Cozy’s birthday so wonderful. We’re lucky to have such good friends.

 

 

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The World of Wonder in the Backyard

July 20, 2017

When I was little, I know I could look at a three-inch space on the ground or on a brick wall and find a whole world to become enchanted with. My parents had a massive hifi console in our living room. I’d play their records and stare into the blue “On” light on the base and imagine it was the rabbit hole into Alice’s Wonderland. I would plop down in my mom’s rock garden and find magical realms in the cracks and under leafs. Being small gave me a microscopic view of the world I think the adults missed. They were busy thinking about taxes and war and hippies ruining the nation. I was happy staring endlessly at ladybugs and pretending a peanut shell in a puddle was a speedboat.

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Once Cozy started walking we began going on strolls in the neighborhood to “see what we could find.” There were lots of stops to smell flowers and look for honeybees. The wall at Little Big Burger she is particularly fond of. (She gives it a little big hug every time we pass it.) Every step is filled with a reason to be amazed. To make it one block it can take an hour. “Daddy, what’s this?”

“It’s a leaf, honey,” Now we include hikes in Forest Park which might as well be the jungles of the Yucatan (where we all were a year ago.) It’s more than father-daughter time. It’s a time to experience the sense of wonder in the mundane. The sacred in the profane. The awesome in the gross.

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This summer we’ve been spending a lot of time in our yard. There’s a spider who lives on one of her old boots that we made into a planter. Of course she’s the “Itsy Bitsy” spider of song and legend. There’s a good 30 minutes watching her and the crows on the telephone wire who might want to gobble her up. Our small backyard has a bounty of delicious raspberries, dancing white butterflies, and bees harvesting pollen from our dandelion forrest. “See their legs, Cozy? How yellow they are? They’re going to turn that into honey!”

“Yum, Daddy! Can I go with them?”

At her daycare they go on “nature walks.” It’s a gaggle of 2-year-olds strolling through the neighborhood blocks looking for adventure. St. Andrews church is a “castle” they pass by. I’m sure local front yard gardens offer a thousand lessons. It must require a certain abound of zen to get these kids all headed in the same direction. Every step offers an opportunity to freak out over something the rest of us see as insignificant.

When I was a pre-schooler, my parents felt perfectly fine turning me loose into the woods by myself. I would build damns and collect leaves until Mom rang the dinner bell. Times have changed, but Cozy really doesn’t have to leave my sight to find a magical world under a rock or inside a hole in the porch steps. The big world doesn’t have much bearing on the microcosmos for a toddler.

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She’s become fascinated with a Netflix show called Beat Bugs. It’s the adventures of five bugs built around Beatles songs. (Yes, they have a friend who is a blackbird.) Their whole world exists in the backyard of a little girl not much older than Cozy. It’s full of music and mystery. Their joyous theme song is “All You Need Is Love.” I have to think Cozy thinks the same plot lines are playing out behind our house. (We’ve certainly got at least one Walter the Slug who is probably singing “I am the Walrus” as we sit here.) I see the show as a way to turn her on to Beatle music, but I’m starting to think it’s her bonding with other tiny things. We’ve been calling her “Bug” for a few years now so it makes sense that she feels more kinship with the ants on our sidewalk than the G-20 Summit.

The world is so big. A one trillion-ton iceberg just broke off of Antarctica. The President is having secret meetings with a Russian dictator (who may or may not have serious dirt on him) with no Americans present. Your kid’s talking doll might be a spy for the FBI. (Or in Trump’s case, the Kremlin.) A new study just found plastic particles in most brands of Mac & Cheese. There’s just a great weight of it all. It makes sense to take some time and find a small crack in the ground, one you step over every day. It’s actually a massive canyon teaming with life. Maybe it’s the Beat Bugs, or maybe real bugs. Let your mind go just for a minute like you did when you were a kid. If the earth is just a dot in the infinite universe, that crack is as important as we are.

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Seeing the world through Cozy’s eyes puts the big picture into perspective. (This blog post didn’t need to be very big.)

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The Monsters Under the Bed

July 7, 2017

I’m learning all about the many stages of child development. For example, Cozy suddenly doesn’t want to stop wearing diapers. I figured she’s be ready to move to the next big thing, undies! It’s her connection to her safe dependency on her parents, perhaps; a security blanket she can pee on. I mean, once you start wearing underpants, what’s next? A 9 to 5 job? Days spent deleting spam emails and right-wing family members? Awkward conversations with canvassers on the front porch?

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We’re now in the monster stage. The monsters have arrived in our home. There’s a monster in her bedroom or, just one in the closet. She doesn’t want to sleep in her room or go downstairs and help me with the laundry. “There’s a monster down there!” I’m not sure where it comes from. Oh, yeah, I do. Scooby Doo, and Frozen and everything else that’s “kid friendly.”  She won’t even open Where the Wild Things Are yet.

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I know there are twisted parents that won’t think twice about exposing their kids to the most horrible images. (“C’mere baby. We’re gonna watch Aliens. It’ll be good for ya.”) I’m still suffering from watching Dark Shadows with my mom as a toddler. In 1999, I ran into a couple with their small child at a theater buying tickets to 8mm, the Nicolas Cage movie about snuff films. They were in line in front of me and I knelt down to the kid’s level and said, “Little girl, your parents are seriously fucked up people.” The mother looked like she was going to get another beating as dad glared at me. I should track that little girl down, probably in Coffee Creek Women’s Correctional Facility.

The point is, we’ve been trying to shield Cozy from the basic fact that there are truly monsters in the world. If only they were as manageable as Sasquatch or Marshmallow the Snow Giant. I don’t want her to know that there are people who would snatch her off a playground or murder her parents for a little bit of money. I’m old enough to remember stories of garment manufactures who cut corners on flame retardant pajamas, soaking them with chemicals that mutated kids’ DNA. (Explaining why they keep making X-Men movies.) Those creeps were monsters.

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In the most recent episode of my podcast, Recovering Asshole, I was talking to feminist educator Jen Moore about male privilege. There are so many monsters that I, as a male, can ignore. We discussed that, at some point, my wife and I will have to explain to our daughter that there are boys and men who will try to rape her and those monsters might appear to her as friends. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg of potential threats. Add drunk drivers and politicians that want to take away your health care (some of whom are surely drunk themselves) and more. When I was a kid, I thought the city-stomping line-up in 1968 Japanese film, Destroy All Monsters, was the worst possible thing humanity could face. And then Donald Trump pulled us out of the Paris Climate Accord.

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I was listening to a story on NPR about the horrific Grenfell Tower fire in London in which they are still counting the dead. The building designers seemed to forget sprinklers and adequate fire exits, but it was low income housing so why bother. There was a witness account of a woman who wrapped a baby in blankets and dropped the baby from a 9th story window. I had to pull over the car I was so consumed with sadness. I thought of the World Trade Center jumpers on 9/11 whose last choice was one form of death over another. Then I thought of a mother choosing to say goodbye to her little baby before she perished in flames, hoping that at least her child would survive. I thought the people responsible for those deaths are the real monsters under our beds.

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Cozy has taken to playing “Monster” this week. “Daddy, you be a monster and I’ll be a princess.” Or the more fun version, “Daddy, I’ll be a monster and you be a princess.” This monster prefers tickling to abduction or regulation violations. I think it’s her way of having some power over the feeling that something evil is lurking just out of view. When she was born I believed I could protect her from it, but now I know I can’t. Not truly. But let’s pretend, just a little longer.

Postscript: About 1 a.m. this morning, Andrea and I were still up. (I had a late-night job talk with someone in Ethiopia.) Cozy came in, sleepily carrying her Minnie Mouse doll, Pink (her favorite blanket), a Frozen kickball, and a green mylar balloon on a string. We were laughing so hard, we let her climb in bed with us. No monsters here.

 

A Dad Love Supreme

May 11, 2017

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There’s a scene in the 2016 film La La Land (Yes, I’ve seen it twice. Wanna make it three times?) where Seb (played by Feminist Ryan Gosling) is trying to explain jazz to Mia (played by Superbad Emma Stone). Mia, like many folks, thinks of jazz as the boring background music you hear in elevators and therapists’ offices. (Just think of the musical bowel movement that is Kenny G.) Seb wants her to know that real jazz is far from boring. In the scene, set in front of a bebop quintet, he explains that jazz is built on tension and conflict, as each musician struggles to express him or herself, to make a solo musical statement, then come back to the melody in a blissful synergy.

I grew up on jazz music. My mom played saxophone and hung out with Louis Armstrong when she was a teenager. Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five” is woven into my DNA. I could go on, but I’ll just say I saw Miles Davis play live twice and last year got to hang out at the Village Vanguard in Manhattan for a Christian McBride show. I deeply love jazz, so, say what you will about the honky-ness of La La Land, Feminist Ryan Gossling got it right.

Meditations on jazz have been common for the two and half years I’ve been home with Cozy. I’ve had time to think about that moment of soloing and then coming back in to the group right on the beat. There’s bliss in that moment. It’s some type of metaphor. The tenor sax is screaming and the bassist is waiting for the eternal return and suddenly the sum is greater than the parts. There’s some wisdom there for our little trio and the world.

There are lots of new emotions associated with parenthood. It’s genre where divas and rockstars are definitely not needed. I’ve written about the intense fear that is constant. (As I write this I realize I should make sure my daughter is still breathing.) There’s another emotion that is pure jazz bliss, the eternal return.

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Cozy has been in daycare for seven months now, two days a week, Thursdays and Fridays. Those two days each week I try to cram as much soloing in as I can. Some of it is “work” related, including some legislative work down in Salem,  Oregon’s capital. If I have some time, I’ll go to my favorite local bar and have a beer and commandeer the jukebox. Any stay-at-home parent will tell you that this time is vital. But our Cozy is never far from my mind. “I wonder what she’s doing right now? Painting? Napping? Having a secret meeting of the Minnie Mouse Club under the slide?”

So here’s the thing. I’ll pick her up at around 5 pm and the walk up to the daycare, an old church the Black Panthers occupied in the 1960s, is like waking up on Christmas morning every damn time. The anticipation feels like an endorphin rush as I approach the door. Sometimes I sneak in quietly. I don’t want to surprise her, I just want to watch her at play at the end of the day. And that moment she sees me, bam! Everything else stops.

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“Daddy!” she’ll scream. “You came back!” sometimes she’ll say. My own abandonment issues aside, I want her to know I will always come back. I will always come back just for this moment; the moment where there are only two people in the world, my daughter and I. It’s like we are suspended in a purple cloud of happiness. Sometimes I hang out for a little sociological observation. I’ll watch other parents in the same moment. Last week I saw a dad close to tears as his toddler threw herself into his arms.

This must be a universal truth, how parents feel when reunited with their children. It might even be true that Donald Trump could have actually felt that way about his children (before they were old enough to talk about how he would date them). Right-wing and left-wing, anarchists and cops, jazz fans and everyone else with a child has had that moment. As smooth jazz stylist Sting once, during the Cold War, sang, “I hope the Russians love their children too.”

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There’s another great movie scene, the opening sequence in Love Actually (2003). It’s a series of real life shots of people meeting their loved ones in an airport terminal. Boyfriends and girlfriends, grown children and their grandparents, long separated siblings. It’s one of the most powerful things ever captured on film. Actors could never recreate that emotion. Director Richard Curtis had his film crew at Heathrow Airport for a week capturing countless reunions. I remember the audience in tears and the movie hadn’t even really started yet. I know that when I see my dad after a year (or more) apart, in that instance there are no political divisions, just love.

We are so divided right now. We are soloing in our echo chambers. Some of it seems like avant garde shrieking, music to the maker, but baffling to others. (All love to Sun Ra and Pharaoh Sanders.) I wonder when we will get back to the melody, when the chorus of “A Love Supreme” returns to anchor us in our common place in the cosmos. I’ve been wondering if that parent-child reunion might be the lure. That moment. How do we bottle that moment for the world?

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Probably a better jazz film than La La Land is the recent John Coltrane documentary, Chasing Trane. Coltrane was on a spiritual quest through his music, continually pushing boundaries, trying to connect harmonically with God. Just before he died, at only age 40, in 1967 from liver cancer, he was soloing for hours, literally, trying to find transcendence, a musical offering of complete submission to an ultimate reality. His short quest still captivates the world. As I was driving home from the theater I realized what he was going for, that moment of pure love. I have it every Thursday and Friday around 5 pm.

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For the love of God, please eat your dinner

April 27, 2017

My kid could live on Mac and Cheese and chocolate ice cream. In fact, she’d prefer it. She’d happily go into diabetic shock, with some macaroni falling out her mouth while watching Mickey and the Roadster Racers. But she ain’t going out like that. Not if I can help it.

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We’ve entered a new phase where Cozy does not want to eat meals. At two-years and eight-months-old she’s asserting her independence by driving us crazy at dinner time. The other night we were trying to get her to eat some wholesome chicken soup and we got as far as getting a spoonful in her mouth but she refused to swallow it. In fact, she walked right into her time-out corner and stared at us, like Robert De Niro in Cape Fear, soup in mouth. “I can see you, parents.”

She’s programmed for maximum sugar intake. If we go through the bakery section at the grocery store, her eyes swell up like a muppet child. She’d sell her soul to Satan for chocolate pudding and turn her mother over to ICE for a lollipop. I feel like I should just hand her a two-pound bag of sugar and let her max-out. It doesn’t help that we live one block from the famous Salt & Straw Ice Cream shop. Anytime we walk out the front door the creamery GPS kicks in and she takes off for a scoop of fudge brownie. Remember when she couldn’t walk? Now I’m chasing her down the street.

I know she gets her sweet tooth from me. I was raised on pie and Now & Laters. My mom got me to eat my carrots by smothering them in brown sugar and my sweet potatoes by baking them with marshmallows. The healthy stuff I wasn’t interested in as a kid. I would sit at the dinner table for hours, staring at a my beets, acting like Gandhi on a hunger strike. (Now, I can’t get enough of yummy beets.) But I’d eat giant bowls of Apple Jacks and slurp down the orange milk afterwards. There’s something in the book of Genesis about the sins of the father being visited upon the children. Well, they got that one fucking right.

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Don’t get me wrong. Cozy likes some healthy foods. Baby carrots, (until recently) peaches, and, I’m sure there’s something else. Vanilla yogurt. She was into strawberries until they started making her itch (or she thinks that they do because we were talking about food allergies one day). I mean there are worse things than peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and quesadillas, right? (I just realized that queso + tortilla = quesadilla.) She takes her vitamins and pops a few grapes during the day so I don’t think she’s gonna need UNICEF to save her but it’s got mom and dad kinda concerned.

The online research helps. Apparently many toddlers have a dip in calorie intake after the explosion of growth their first two years. And they won’t starve to death, they’re more like grazing college kids than three-meal-a-day adults. But my daughter is pretty sophisticated otherwise, so is it wrong for me to want her to already have a favorite sushi roll instead of demanding another cheese stick and handful of goldfish crackers? I’d be happy if she just ate spaghetti. What kid doesn’t like spaghetti? Mine.

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I called my mom and asked for help. It seems that I wasn’t too different than Cozy at this age. Her solution was to cover the healthy food in pudding. (I don’t know why I’m not 3000 pounds.) I think Cozy would see right through that ruse. “Hey, man, why is there chicken in my chocolate pudding?”

Meal time is starting to become a struggle. “I don’t want apple sauce. I want a chocolate bunny!” I think that since she now acts like a little person, we expect her to eat what we’re eating. I get that this is a developmental phase but I’m ready for her to discover the joys of a nice omelette. This is Oregon, she better be woofing down the chanterelles and chinook salmon on wild rice by age three. At the moment, it’s time out with a spoonful of RiceARoni melting in her mouth.

But it’s getting better. We’re trying to be more laissez-faire at meal time instead of hovering over her. You know, we’re just chilling, eating some tacos. And Andrea got a great recipe for sopa de letras (alphabet soup) from her mom that Cozy’s been gobbling down. She’ll eat spaghetti if I tell her it’s worms and I had similar success getting her to (finally) eat turkey dogs by pretending they were fingers. (OK, our kid is weird.) Maybe a portobello burger is in her near future.

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The great thing about parenting is that nobody is the first to do it. There’s a whole bunch of experience floating around out there and good folks who are happy to share their wisdom of what works. So the point of this blog is to get some evidence-based practices that don’t involve coating each meal with chocolate frosting or bribing a child endlessly. (“How can you have your pudding if you don’t eat your meat?”) How do I go from the meal-time showdown to a happy family happily full of beans? Don’t panic, she won’t starve. Help me please.

An Interview with My Dad about Parenting and Gender

April 5, 2017

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Last week I took a Spring Break from this blog. My father was visiting us in Portland. He had just celebrated his 75th birthday in Hawaii and (for some reason) chose to leave a sunny beach for cold and rainy Oregon. I was happy because it had been over a year since we had seen him and Cozy really wanted to see her Grandpa. He took Cozy and I to see Moana (Cozy loved it, powering through the scary part, and I appreciated Disney utilizing a Goddess tale) and we had a belated birthday dinner at Portland City Grill. It was nice to catch up.

It’s an odd thing being around your parents when you’re a parent. You realize how like them you are, whether you want to be or not. I see so much of my dad in me. We even have similar mannerisms. It kinda freaks me out a bit. There are certainly qualities in this man I greatly admire, and a few I’ve worked to limit. How much like this person am I? I tend to think I turned out pretty good. I didn’t become a serial killer or a military contractor or a wife-beater or a guy who spends all his time playing fantasy football. I went to graduate school instead of Wall Street. Also, I like quiche. (There are a few kinks still to be worked out.) He did a pretty good job on the parenting front it seems.

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So I thought, while he was here, we’d sit down and I’d ask him what it was like to be a new father of a boy in the mid-1960s, when the world and gender roles were changing. What I got was a very honest conversation about his struggle to find balance between his home life and his work in sales that often took him away from home, a flash of insight into issues that led to my parents divorce when I was 17, and some useful wisdom about how to be a great parent to my daughter. We sat on the couch in my living room talking and I just wanted to ask good questions but as I transcribed our talk I got a greater appreciation for his own journey as a parent.

Randy: So I was born in February 1964. The world was a little different then. Did you know I was going to be a boy?

Dad: No. We talked about it before you were born, about whether we wanted a boy or a girl and we agreed it doesn’t matter the first time, especially the first child, as long as they’re healthy and have all the fingers and toes. It didn’t really matter to us. In fact, we decorated the nursery in yellow so that it didn’t matter whether it was a boy or girl. We changed the decor after it was born, but we were just happy to have a healthy child.

R: Would you have thought differently if I had been born a girl, knowing girls had fewer opportunities?

D: If it was a boy we would have raised it one way, and if it was a girl, we pretty much would have raised it the same way.

R: Did it help that mom had a job before she got pregnant? She didn’t really work after I was born.

D: She was woking in a business office and we agreed that when she was 6 months pregnant that she would stop working and stay home and make sure that she was healthy. We could live on one income and that’s what we did. The second income was nice but it wasn’t necessary. I was making enough money to take care of the family and I really didn’t want her to work. I wanted her to stay home with the baby. And she did.

R: Did she want to work?

D: Yeah, oh yeah. She was always wanting to help out and work and stay active but she found things to do at home and concentrating to getting to that baby to one year, at least.

R: The mid-60s was really the rise of the feminist movement and women discovering their life outside of the home. What did you think about “women’s lib”? Mom has said she was aware of it, but were you thinking it was a big change?

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D: I was open minded about it. If she wanted to work she could work. But we had to consider the babysitter situation. We had an elderly lady upstairs that was a good babysitter and she had some girlfriends that would come over and babysit after that year. But she stayed home for about a year before she went back to work. And she was really bored and anxious to get back to work. She wanted to do more than be just a mother.

R: What did you think about her going back to work then?

D: Back then I wanted her to stay at home and take care of the baby and make dinner and do the laundry and all the stuff that women did then. And I was happy just working and having her be the housewife. Now I think the mother should do whatever they feel comfortable doing. If they wanna work, they should work.

R: OK, lets talk about me. Or just raising a boy. I didn’t really turn out like a typical boy. I wasn’t too obsessed with violence or sports. I’d rather just read. When I was little, did you have a philosophy about how to raise a boy?

D: Like all couples with their first child we didn’t have a clue. We were flying by the seat of our pants. From a philosophy standpoint, we didn’t want you to be a soldier. We wanted you to have a happy childhood. That was really important to us. We tried to do things with you that you’d enjoy. We bought that canoe and we used to take you canoeing when you were little. We went on some camping trips and things like that. We involved you and let you see what the world was like but we didn’t have any ideas of the future of what you were going to be or were going to do. You were always such a good kid we didn’t have to go through the challenge of trying to raise you. You kind of took care of yourself.

R: Did you think boys should be raised differently that girls?

D: We just let you do your own thing. We would keep an eye on you and make sure you didn’t get into anything too violent. We moved from the rental home to a house in Parma Heights, a three bedroom ranch house and I can remember you had your own room. It was a fun place. The backyard was fenced in and it had a playground and swing and you used to go out there and have fun by yourself. We would kind of keep an eye from the house and make sure you were OK.

R: We like to think we’re not raising Cozy as a girl but as a person. She’s gonna have to know about the world and that there’s some inequality she’s going to have to wrestle with, but she’s a person first.

D: Even thought it was 50 years ago we did the same thing. We raised you the same way. We didn’t try to make you macho. You’re your own person. You have respect for both genders and that’s important and you still have that gentleness you had as a kid. You never lost that and that shows up in Cozy.

R: You traveled a lot when I was little. Do you think that impacted how I developed?

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D: I think I would have been able to more things with you and teach you more things. I tried when I was home to concentrate on teaching you the basic fundamentals and to get you involved in things, in sports, in life, in outdoors, and swimming. That was a big part of me. Then swim team. I tried to keep you involved. We started out with Indian Guides. You were Little Crow and I was Big Crow. We had a lot of fun with that. I tried to get you and your brother involved with things, but I tried to be there, included and supporting you. I think that created a problem with the marriage, actually, because when I was home I was so involved with you guys, I probably didn’t pay enough attention to Sandy (my mom). I think it created a lot of boredom on her part because a lot of the time she wasn’t working. She was at home taking care of you guys. There has to be a balance there and I didn’t recognize that balance. I was too intent on making as much money as I could so you guys could have a good life. You were always in neighborhoods and homes that were, um, “upscale.” You always had friends, it was safe, you could walk to church. I always tried to have the family in a place that was safe and fun.

R: OK, last question. What’s your general advice to being a parent to someone Cozy’s age.

D: You’ve gotta give them room to grow. Encourage them to do the right thing, of course. And push them in a direction they don’t want to go but pay attention and see what they enjoy and like to do and just kind of guide them in the direction to their future. They’ll tell you. They’ll let you know what they like. Cozy’s got a great start because she’s got an artist mom and a well-educated dad. You guys are in that period where you’re in a transition now. And when you find out what you want to do next it’s going to be good for you and good for the family. When you’re happy the rest of the family is happy.

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That’s certainly a good piece of truth. Talking to my dad reminded me of Betty Friedan’s book, The Feminine Mystique, and how my mom must have felt a bit stifled in that home in Parma Heights. Those were times when gender roles in middle class homes were really being re-examined. But it also made me think about how much free reign I had as a little boy, to explore the yard, the neighborhood streets, and the woods. That had to play a role in my sense of independence. And that’s what we’re doing with our daughter.  So my father will be a part of her independent spirit.

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Postscript: My mother just read this and thinks a lot of it is just wrong. She used words like “male chauvinist” and “doormat.” I’m gonna do a parallel interview with her about this period and get her side of the story. It’s funny how we (re) remember our own lives.

 

That Pig is a She! Normality of normative maleness

March 22, 2017

My daughter, Cozy, is now 2 years and 7 months old. (I will not say she’s “31 months old.” I won’t.) Seven months ago she had a few words, in English and Spanish. Now she’s having full conversations and saying things like, “Dad, I want the vanilla yogurt” and “Let’s go up Montjuïc!” (Montjuïc is a steep hill in Barcelona and my nickname for the ungodly steep hill on our street.) While I was writing this, she said, “Daddy, you have a booger on your pants. Oh, no. It’s Honey Bunches!” (her favorite cereal). Then she ate it. She is a linguistic sponge. “What’s this? What’s this?” She can’t learn words fast enough.

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The feminist sociologist in me is reminded how language shapes our perceptions of the world. When little boys are told, “Don’t cry like a girl,” there are a bunch of negative messages packed into one little phrase. When I announce the arrival of the “mailman,” it means a “mailwoman” is something odd. (About 40% of letter carriers are female. Ours is named Anthony.) A big issue in language is normative maleness, something I’ve already written about. Male as norm.

One of the most obvious ways this plays out is the language binary around jobs. Actor and actress. Waiter and waitress. Poet and poetress. The female as less. I’ve tried to banish these gendered terms from my vocabulary. Meryl Streep is an actor, Mr. Trump. She’s not an actress. Not in this house. Cozy will hear enough about the “female as less” outside our home. Here, let the message be clear. Now, Dad’s gotta do some laundry.

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This concept was pioneered by French existentialist Simone de Beauvoir in her groundbreaking 1949 book, The Second Sex. Our general discussion of “mankind” is gendered. When we discuss people, we mean “men” with women as the exception. “There is an absolute human type, the masculine… Thus humanity is male,” de Beauvoir wrote. In academics, when it’s time to talk about gender, that’s often code for female stuff, as if men don’t have gender. (There’s a gang of us that specialize on research on masculinity as gender performance.) This filters into our everyday language. If we don’t know for sure that someone (or something) is female, we just assume that they are male. If somebody reads this he’ll learn about normative maleness. (See what I did there?)

This goes all the way to animals. We assume dogs, birds, and squirrels are all male. “Look at that squirrel in the tree. He must be looking for his nuts.” I grew up around horses, so you kinda know the sex of that one, but don’t ask me to tell you whether that sewer rat is male or female. And we all do this. Even radical feminists like me. Normative maleness has been so wired into my brain, I blurt out “he’s” without even thinking about it. We had a mouse in our bedroom this winter. My wife said, “You gotta kill him!” I didn’t even think to say, “Maybe it’s a her!”

How is hearing all these “he’s” impacting my word-sponge daughter? Is she learning that male is the norm and female is “weird”? The thought stops me in my tracks. It’s not a little thing. IT IS NOT A LITTLE THING. There is a massive ripple effect of hearing this little thing over and over again. Think about how both boys and girls process this repeated message about devaluing the feminine. “He” is normal. “She” is not. Seriously, think about it.

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Cozy and I went to Oregon Zoo this week and I tried to be mindful of this messed-up norm. I made a point of using feminine pronouns more than male ones. “Look at that hippo and how big her teeth are.” “That penguin looks like she’s doing a dance.” “Don’t bother that cougar. I think she’s taking a nap.” (OK, the last one was a lady on a bench.) Her main goal of the day the day was to commune with the flamingos but my main goal of the day was to normalize the feminine. We were looking at a parrot and I asked her if she thought it (I almost said, “he”) was a boy or girl. And she said “boy.” When I asked why she said, “Because he’s silly.” So I don’t know if I achieved my goal or not. It was a pretty silly parrot.

I had a professor at Emory who would switch pronouns each term. Fall semester he would use male pronouns and Spring semester he would use female pronouns. Nobody said anything during the fall class (or noticed it), but the guys really got upset in the spring. It was a brilliant way to make an important point. What were those male students so angry about? That they are also co-eds?

There’s a 50/50 chance that animal your looking at or that person you don’t know is a female. If saying “he or she” seems like too much damn work, why not just say “she” to make up for all the years you’ve said, “he.”  I just hope that if someone reads this, she’ll think about the infinite power of language.

2016: End of a Rough Year

December 31, 2016

I don’t think I’ve ever seen people so angry at a year, a manmade block of twelve months, like it was some independent actor. “2016 kicked my ass!” Granted, 2016 was the year that took away Carrie Fisher and gave us President-Elect Donald “Pussy Grabber” Trump, but it’s not the damn year’s fault. We’re all glad it’s over, but there’s little hope that 2017 is gonna be any better as America suffers the results of the greatest con in history and deals with even more cultural icon deaths. (Can I get $20 on Hugh Hefner by Valentines Day?)

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On the home front, it was a wonderful year as I watched our daughter Cozy go from a toddling toddler to an articulate 2-year-old who is happy to argue that Mickey and Minnie Mouse are really the same person/mouse and knows the proper usage of no, nope, and “No way, Mommy.” She can also sing “Hey Jude” all the way through. (Well, at least the good bits.) It’s been an insane year watching her transition from “baby” to “person.” A highlight of each day has been picking up Andrea from her job at the law firm and relaying what amazing feat she’s accomplished that day. Yesterday she put on a dress by herself and then put a little Santa figure on a spinning turntable and screamed, “Help, Daddy!” over and over again. Poor Santa.

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This blog has been a great way to chart both her development and the development of the world she is growing up in. I’ve been able to bounce back from macro to micro on a weekly basis. From her potty training to the terrorist attack in Brussels, it’s all been here, warm and fuzzy moments and moments of shear horror. Of the 54 posts in 2016, the most popular  (over 9,200 reads) and discussed (30 comments) was one of my several pieces on rape culture, entitled Why we can’t have good things: Men and rape culture (June 2). My favorite piece was actually written by Andrea, a powerful guest essay on her border crossing, that was latter published in the collection, A Journey of Words.

Donald Trump’s name was in the title of seven blogposts but, in a way, his tiny fingers were in all of them as he is the figurehead of the cultural backlash that our Cozy must live in. If Russian Stooge Trump (or Crooked Trump, either works) makes it to the end of his first term, Cozy will be six-years-old and we’ll be hoping there will still be public schools to send her to. Let’s hope there’s still a United States, as well.

There has been plenty of commentary on Cozy’s gendered (or non-gendered) development, as well as commentary on shows we watched while she was asleep or at her abuela’s (The Walking Dead, The Good Wife, Stranger Things, etc.). A little bit about sports, Sigmund Freud, and maybe not enough about why saying “all lives matter” makes you sound racist.

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The blog has really helped me with my writing. The piece on Bowie’s passing was published in a magazine and two of my pieces on Trump, “Thugs, Bullies, and Donald J. Trump: The Perils of Wounded Masculinity” and “Who the hell is supporting Donald Trump?”, were published in Counterpunch. Three of my favorite pieces were written far from Portland. My piece on Patti Smith was written in a coffee shop in Greenwich Village, New York that she hangs out in, the post on the Orlando gay bar shooting was written in Washington, DC, and the piece about sexism in Cuba was written on a flight from Havana to Mexico. Like a rolling stone.

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Who knows were 2017 will take us. It feels like the Trump trolls, Trump billionaires, and Trump generals want to roll America back to a dark time where the freedom of anyone who wasn’t a straight white cis-gendered Christian male was just a far off dream. But I think they underestimate our will to defend what we’ve won and fight on every single front, including on-line. My sincere hope is that Donald will realize this job is a bit harder than he hoped and go back to his tacky gold castle after a few months of trying to understand how the Constitution actually works.

In the meantime, we will be raising our daughter to stand strong against the next generation of pussy grabbers that Trump has been fostering. We will travel, write, make art, and continue to rage against those in power who rage for the machine. And maybe dad will take a great job somewhere on earth to help move the wheels of justice in the right direction.

Here are the Watching the Wheels posts of 2016. Thank you for letting me share these thoughts with you.

The Kid’s First Trip to the ER: Anatomy of a Panic (January 4)

My Little New York Patti Smith Dream (January 9)

How David Bowie Bent My Gender (January 11)

I’m in charge of your butthole: The intimate world of parenting (January 20)

What does the Bundy militia really want? (January 25)

Violence is the answer: I’m over football. (February 2)

Pushing back against trolls (February 10)

A Valentines Poem for My Beloved Wife (February 14)

18 thoughts for Cozy’s 18-month birthday (February 17)

Ben Carson is not retarded: The language of marginalization (February 23)

A Coyote brought her to us – Cozy’s birth week (March 2)

Who the hell is supporting Donald Trump? (March 10)

Me and My Shadow: More baby brain fun (March 17)

Living in an age of terror: Brussels (March 22)

A Zombie Ate My Baby! Social anxiety and The Walking Dead (March 28)

A Year as a Penniless Writer (April 6)

The Feminine Mystique: Stay-at-Home Dad Edition (April 14)

We need a Rosa Parks of genitals: North Carolina and the need to pee (April 21)

Prince Died for Your Sins: Prophecy and Phallacy (April 28)

Farewell to my Good Wife (May 4)

Cinco de Mayo guest essay: A Conversation with the Serpent (May 5)

Saying “No” to Elmo: The Superego vs. the red monster (May 13)

The Millennial Effect: Here comes Generation Z (May 18)

Douchebags, Thugs, Bullies, and Donald J. Trump: The perils of wounded masculinity (May 25)

Why we can’t have nice things: MEN and rape culture (June 1)

Sometimes you really need a moment. (June 12)

Ode to a Gay Bar (June 15)

Gender – Nature vs. Nurture 6: Fierce fashionista for a fiercer world (June 22)

Dad Love 8 – I’m on drugs (June 30)

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The Man Way: The stupidity of fighting terrorism with more terrorism (July 6)

Here’s Why Saying “All Lives Matter” Makes You Sound Racist (July 12)

The Casual Sociologist: Causally watching race and races from Mexico (July 26)

Empathy and PTSD in Rape Culture: Maybe a veteran would understand (better than Trump) (August 3)

Dad Love 9: I Become Winona Ryder in Stranger Things (August 8)

Feministing in Havana (August 14)

I found a 2-year-old! (August 22)

My Unintended Gap Year: The humility of looking for work (September 1)

So I Married an Alien (September 8)

The Princess Problem (September 15)

Owning My White Privilege: Stories I won’t (have to) tell my children (September 21)

How Donald Trump makes me a better feminist (September 28)

The Dream Police Are Inside My Head (October 6)

Donald Trump for President of Rape Culture (October 10)

Can you lead an authentic life in this mortgaged world? (October 20)

What drugs go well with a toddler? (October 26)

My toddler has flown the nest and I don’t know what to do with my hands. (November 3)

11/8 > 9/11: Trump’s body count starts now (November 10)

Bring on the anal phase! (November 15)

Watching the Wheels turns 2 and can use the potty! (November 23)

Butterflies for the Children of Aleppo (December 1)

Delayed gratification and Santa’s Advent calendar (December 7)

Writing to Live: The birth of the “rock novel” (December 14)

Trump Lessons 1: Is this sexist? (December 22)

Father Randy’s Top 20 for 2016, Back to Vinyl (December 27)

Delayed gratification and Santa’s Advent calendar

December 7, 2016

Why wait? That was the question I got from a small group of teenage boys. I was leading my Thursday night discussion for a bunch of boys in a court-ordered residential facility in Northeast Portland. It was the late 1990s and these kids were on the verge of being locked up in juvie, but were the “at-risk” youth that still have a chance to not get sucked into the vortex of the criminal justice system. So a judge sent them to a group home and on Thursdays I was their counselor.

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I was trying to share with them the simple joy of Pez, something I cherished from my own youth. I was carefully loading the tiny candies into a Popeye Pez dispenser. Some were going sideways and others were falling back out.

“Why don’t you just eat the candy?” asked one kid.

“No, wait, it’s gonna be great. The candy comes out of Popeye’s larynx,” I said.

“Why wait?” asked another.

It was a valid question. I mean, it’s not the greatest payoff in the world. Why not just eat the damn candy without all the hassle? Suddenly the Pez dispenser became a metaphor for a fading American value – delayed gratification, symbolic of a grand cultural shift.  Sometimes the wait is part of the payoff, y’all. I know you want it now, but…

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I was reminded of this because I bought Advent calendar for my daughter for Christmas. I loved them as a kid and this is the year Cozy’s really getting into the holiday. (Although she freaked out a bit at meeting the Macy’s Santa.) I liked the day-to-day anticipation of the arrival of the big event. Each day you get to open a window and get little surprise, making it one day closer to Santa’s orgy of gifts. The initial Advent calendars were created by the German Lutherans in the 19th century but they’re probably now mass-produced in Chinese factories for the Western world. You can get them cheap pretty much anywhere. You don’t even have to be Lutheran.

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So I picked up a calendar called 24 Chocolate Days ’til Christmas (made in a gluten-free factory in Canada) to introduce Cozy to the tradition. When I pulled it out on December 1, she yelled, “Santa!” I explained to her that we open one door each day until Christmas and there’s a treat behind each flap. Day 1 was a little chocolate choo choo. She was thrilled. Then I told her we’d open the next door tomorrow. She was not thrilled about that. In fact she threw a screaming fit, laying on the floor, yelling, “No! No! No!” I mean, why wait?

I resisted the temptation to just give in. It would’ve been so easy. She’s a real heartbreaker when she’s sobbing. But I thought this would be a valuable lesson about delayed gratification. Now a week into it, she seems to be getting it. You’ve gotta pace yourself and spread the joy out.

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For years I assigned a book in my criminology class at Portland State called Crime and the American Dream by Stephen Messner and Richard Rosenfeld. It makes the case that the elevated crime rates in the U.S. are a product of our “by any means necessary” values. For example, it’s not how you got your wealth/car/college degree, it’s that you got it. So if you embezzled/car-jacked/cheated to get it, no big whoop. It’s having it that gets you the points. It reminded me of the unofficial American motto, “You can never be too rich or too thin,” (explaining a lot of white collar crime and eating disorders). Just think of Donald Trump ripping off the chumps at Trump University while Melania gulps the postpartum diet pills. Look where that got them!

We live in a culture of immediate gratification. I used to have to wait forever just to hear an album I wanted. Now I just pull anything and everything I might want up on Spotify. Remember taking your film to the drug store and waiting a week to see the pictures? How about waiting for a letter to come from your beloved? Please Mr. Postman! (When my grad school girlfriend was studying in Paris, I would torture my Atlanta letter carrier with that song.) Now if something takes more than 30 seconds to get we are convinced the wifi has been hacked by the Chinese.

If you celebrate Christmas, you know that by 3 pm on Christmas Day the letdown has arrived. Is that all there is? “Christmas” is the anticipation of Christmas, the build up. Much of life works that way. Sweet anticipation. Of Friday at 5 pm, or a first kiss, or Election Day. I want Cozy to enjoy the journey at least as much as the arrival. How you got there matters. One door, one piece of Canadian chocolate at a time.

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