Sunday, November 17, 2013

11 Photos That Show How Much My Son Loved His First Ireland Trip


There are lots of Seamuses in Ireland already. Tons. Probably hundreds of thousands.

But the moment I handed over my son Seamus's baby passport at the airport, and saw the immigration agent's face light up, it was clear that Ireland had room for one more Seamus.

Seamus was granted admittance to Ireland despite having a passport photo that makes him look like a little ruffian who's just been cuffed for causing trouble. It's basically impossible not to laugh at this photo. Here it is:

We spent a week in Ireland in September 2013, driving from Donegal in the north to Portumna in the center of the country. We visited two different branches of our family there and saw the sights. In every restaurant and pub we stopped at, people came by our table asking what our little boy's name was. When we told them Seamus, they were always surprised and delighted.

Seamus will not remember this trip, not even in the far corners of his little baby mind. He'll never remember staying in an English style manor house, or going to the northernmost part of Ireland, or seeing his first hurling match. But Seamus will have awesome photos from all of these experiences.

And Ireland, for all of its resident Seamuses, will probably never forget this one.

Here are 11 photos from the trip in which Seamus was in rare form, just basking in the experience of being a baby in a country that's crazy about them.

Here's mom and Seamus in the Connemara region of western Ireland, a place of green, craggy peaks obscured by fog and clouds. It looks like a visual depiction of the 'Led Zeppelin 4' album. Or some parts of 'Physical Graffiti'.

Here's Seamus with his friend Kerry the King Charles Spaniel at our cousin Pat's house. Kerry is a VERY friendly girl and was always by Seamus' side while we were there. She seemed to find Seamus irresistible. And they had a lot in common, being the same size and all.

We stayed at an very cool, very old English style manor house in Newport, a sleepy little town on the west coast of Ireland. I know it looks as if we've stumbled onto the set of Downton Abbey, but this is actually Seamus crawling across the sitting room carpet. As crawling surfaces go, Seamus seemed to find this one excellent for traction. This was the first time Seamus had ever crawled in an English manor house, and he seemed to enjoy the experience.
Here is Seamus trying to suppress a smile while watching his first hurling match. Our cousins, the Cannings, are hugely involved in this sport, which is like a mashup of rugby, field hockey and Gaelic football.

Cousin Joe is known throughout Ireland as one of the top hurlers in the country, and in this game he played for the Portumna team along with cousins Ollie and Ivan. Cousin Frank was the coach. It was a tight match, with Portumna defeating the Ardrahan side with a point deep in injury time. Seamus monitored the proceedings closely, pausing briefly here to permit himself to be photographed.

Here's Seamus with his grandma beside the road going over the Gap Of Mamore, a path that passes between dramatic mountains and takes you down to the sea at the northernmost part of Ireland. In the background are many sheep and cows grazing in green pastures.

You can't see it from this photo, but the Gap of Mamore looks like a set of Lord Of The Rings. It also has an interesting history: In 1811, inhabitants of the area were fined by the government for making Poteen (Irish moonshine), so they formed their own independent republic, which lasted for four years.

Our cousins Annemarie and Jim gave Seamus this leprechaun doll, and he was ecstatic when it was shown to him for the first time. He still goes crazy with giggling every time we bring it out. We keep it stashed away for time when he's not in the best of moods. It's been very effective so far.

Which isn't surprising, because let's face it, everyone loves leprechauns. They're prominent in Irish folklore, and they're always laying a smackdown on some greedy human who tries to force them into giving up their gold.

Here's mom and Seamus at Banba's Crown in Malin Head, the northernmost point of the Irish mainland. The farmland here goes right down to the edge of the sea. Normally this is a raw, windswept place, but on this day the weather was downright balmy, and Seamus appreciated that.

Here's dad and Seamus standing in a peat bog in Connemara, with fog enshrouded green mountains doing their thing in the distance. You can't see the tops, but these are some of the tallest mountains in Ireland.

Here's mom, dad and Seamus at a particularly scenic roadside spot in Donegal, with Lough Swilly in the background.

Here's dad and Seamus at Banba's Crown, Malin Head, with the wild North Atlantic in the background. Just offshore a couple of miles is Inishtrahull, an island which has Ireland's oldest rocks, known as gneiss in geologic terms. These rocks are nearly 1.8 billion years old.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

The Challenges (And Empowerment) Of One-Handed Parenting

After two months of parenthood, I can hardly be considered a font of child care wisdom. But one thing I’m getting really good at is one-handed parenting -- my term for a delicate dance that involves groping for light switches, reaching carefully to open doors, cabinets and dresser drawers, and picking things up and cleaning things up, all with the benefit of just a single hand, with a baby cradled in the other arm. 

I’m getting plenty of practice at one-handed parenting because my son demands it. He’s happiest when perched in the crook my of arm, where he can get a good view of everything that’s happening around him. He’s not a huge fan of being placed in his crib, and tends to start shrieking when I try, so I end up carrying him around with me quite a bit.

All of this is physically exhausting, of course. My advice to first-time parents would be to do everything in your day-to-day life with one hand -- while cradling a pumpkin or watermelon in the other -- for about 3 months prior to the baby’s arrival. Sure, you will look ridiculous, but this exercise will help you develop the dexterity and physical endurance you’ll be needing to perform vital parental functions.

Diaper changing, of course, is at the top of this list. You’ll be using both hands, but one will always be occupied with grabbing your child’s feet and lifting him or her up during the changing process. So you’ve got one free hand to do everything that needs doing. Which works fine as long as the baby is in a good mood. If not, you’ve only got one hand to handle the diaper changing AND the flailing of legs that is meant to thwart your attempts.

After a while, diaper changing starts to feel like a game -- a Jenga of delicate motions played with one hand. One false move, and someone (you) is going to have a mess to clean up.

Nighttime diaper changing missions have a higher degree of technical complexity. I often find myself scooping up my hungry, agitated baby and navigating groggily through the darkness to the changing table, all the while repeating ‘Do NOT fumble’ like a mantra in my head.

When I’m standing there half-asleep and my son starts screaming mid-change -- or when the velcro from the dirty diaper grabs onto the clean one while I’m pulling it off, leaving the changing table momentarily unprotected from disaster -- I feel like a zombie MacGyver trying to cobble together a hasty fix in the limited light.

In addition to changing diapers, I’m constantly gathering, sorting, arranging and fixing things with one hand. When my son is in a squirmy mood, and I need to hold him with both hands, I’ll use my elbows to perform basic tasks. The other night, I twisted open a door knob using my foot and toes, Karate Kid-style. Come to think of it, one-appendage parenting would be a more accurate description of what I do.

Cooking might not seem well suited for one-handed parenting, but I’ve found myself performing remarkably well in the kitchen. I started out opening cans of soup with one hand and have since graduated to making oatmeal cookies, obviously keeping my son away from the heat of the oven. Ultimately, my goal is to pull off a 5-course Chateaubriand dinner for six -- using one hand, naturally.

One-handed parenting is borne of necessity and is rooted in human beings’ innate ability to overcome difficulties and meet challenges. In many ways, new parents are like Chinese acrobats spinning plates on sticks, doing logistical parenting with one hand and emotionally supportive parenting with the other, maintaining balance all the while. Juggling all these things can be chaotic, and there are times when I can hear the dry, husky laugh of the universe, amused by my predicament.

But you know what? I've found one-handed parenting to be very empowering. Once you’ve been doing  it for a while, you look back with amazement at what you’ve managed to pull off with limited physical resources. You start gaining a deeper appreciation for the challenges people without the use of both arms go through every day. And you feel more capable of tackling other parenting challenges that lie down the road -- ones that will involve much more than just the use of your hands.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Five Things I Learned In My First Week Of Parenting

I knew that becoming a parent would be an intense, life-altering experience. How could it not be? What caught me off guard was how the cocktail of emotions associated with the event -- the combination of waiting, worrying, sleeplessness, joy and awe -- would leave me feeling like I'd been trampled by a herd of water buffalo.

Fortunately, it's a happy sort of fatigue. After an 18-hour labor, a C-section, and a subsequent four-day hospital stay, my wife and I are back home with our son, Seamus. He tipped the scales at 9 pounds, 4 ounces and was one of 22 babies to arrive Feb. 15 at California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco. Yes folks, the economy is getting better, and births at CMPC are up 26 percent compared to last February, according to one of our nurses.

Anyway, so far I've learned how to change a diaper -- and been reminded that little boys can spontaneously urinate surprisingly long distances. I've learned the difference between hungry crying and crying to be held. And I've felt the thrill of seeing my kid smile at me for the first time, then realized immediately after that he was probably just wincing from gas pain.

Obviously, there are tons more lessons coming. But what I've learned about parenthood so far has amazed me. Following are five examples of things I've learned in the early days of a never-ending journey.

1. Dogs Are Fascinated (And Freaked Out) By Babies IMG_7411

Babies have all sorts of wonderful smells. Which is why our 7-year old Golden Retriever, Natasha, was transfixed by Seamus from the moment we brought him home. While she seemed to understand Seamus' status as the newest member of our pack, and will no doubt protect him as she does us, Natasha sniffed and licked him in a way that suggested he was, to her at least, potentially quite delicious.

Once Seamus starts eating from the table, Natasha will no doubt be parked under his high chair waiting for the inevitable cascade of food scraps. And she'll probably blimp up as a result. Guess we'll have to keep an eye on that.

In the weeks before Seamus arrived, we tried to prepare Natasha for the experience by playing sound clips of a baby crying at full volume. She was spooked by the sound, and skulked around meekly with her ears flattened. Now that Seamus is here, Natasha is getting to experience those cries firsthand, not to mention the sleeplessness they bring. Now when we make coffee in the morning, we make an extra cup and pour it in her water bowl.

2. Big Babies Create Wardrobe Challenges


While we were delighted to have such a big, healthy baby, his sheer size meant that many of the outfits we'd received as gifts from friends and family were too small, sometimes comically so. Which sucks, since much of the fun of opening those gifts came from picturing what Seamus would look like wearing them. Especially the tie-dye.

Given the voracious appetite Seamus has shown so far, I imagine he'll outgrow his current lineup of outfits pretty soon.

3. Sleep Deprivation = Hell On Earth


Everyone knows that new parents don't sleep much, but I mistakenly thought this wouldn't be a big deal for me, since I'm now firmly into middle age and find I don't sleep as much as I used to. Boy was I wrong. What I didn't realize is that having a baby in your bedroom is like living next to a firehouse. The cries are like alarms waking you with a shock. For several long seconds after, you find yourself standing in darkness, trying to rediscover basic motor functioning.

What's ironic about this, of course, is that in the midst of this intense fog, you're often carrying your baby to a changing table, and sometimes, you're doing so in near-total darkness. You're holding the most important thing in your life in your hands, but you're essentially still asleep. What could possibly go wrong?

The good news is somehow, humans are programmed to handle sleep deprivation and perform their parental duties. That doesn't mean my shins aren't black and blue and scraped up all to hell from all the things I have run into during these nighttime diaper changing missions. It also doesn't mean I don't feel like a flesh-eating zombie for much of the day. Wait, when do babies start sleeping through the night again?

4. Ma Vie En Diapers


Well, one thing I was nervous about was whether I'd be good at changing diapers. It's not exactly the sort of thing you can practice at home before the baby is born. I'm happy to report that I've already changed about 100 diapers and am pretty good at it. I've also become acquainted with "blowouts" and have begun experimenting with different methods of sealing a diaper to minimize collateral damage.

What I didn't realize is how often diapers need to be changed, and how many of them I will change over the course of my kid's pre-potty training life. I mean, wow.

We're planning to switch to cloth diapers at some point, but for now, we're using the traditional kind. And the boxes full of new diapers keep arriving every day. In fact, in the time it took to write this blog post, three more boxes of diapers showed up from Amazon.

As a side note, we found a diaper pail that is frankly quite attractively designed. I find myself admiring it sometimes. It's clearly going to be a big part of our lives for the next couple of years, so I am happy we got one that fits with our decor.

5. Flameless Candles Are Awesome IMG_7442

Confession: I've always thought flameless candles were stupid, the kind of thing slack-jawed TV addicts purchase while watching Home Shopping Network and emptying of bag after bag of potato chips into their insatiable pie-holes.

Well, turns out I was wrong. Flameless candles are pretty cool. At a friend's suggestion, I bought a 6-pack of votive-sized ones and brought them to the hospital the night my wife went into labor.

I'm not exaggerating when I say that the candles helped us a LOT by bathing the room in a soft glow and helping to calm her down. Their flickering is so life-like that each new shift of nurses, upon entering the room, would primly announce that candles weren't allowed. Then I'd pick one up and smugly inform them that these weren't real candles. I derived no small amount of enjoyment from doing this.

We're planning to put the candles in Seamus' room so their soft, relaxing flickering will calm him down when he's worked up, and hopefully allow mom and dad to sleep.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Like Skydiving, Parenthood Is A Lot To Contemplate


I’ve only been skydiving once. The part I remember most isn’t the initial shock of falling, the wrenching tug of the parachute opening or the wonderful reunion with terra firma. It’s when my dive instructor, strapped to my back in accordance with the rules for first-timers, held me in doorway for several long seconds before we jumped. This gave me a chance to look down 14,000 feet at the dazzling patterns and colors of the farmland below, feel the freezing cold air, get incredibly nervous, and almost throw up.

“It’s minus-20 Fahrenheit at this altitude,” my dive instructor shouted helpfully in my ear just before we jumped, in an apparent attempt to calm me down.

I’m bringing up skydiving because I have a very similar feeling right now. I’m two weeks away from the birth of my first child, and just as I did in the doorway of that plane that day, I’m contemplating something I can’t fully grasp, no matter how hard I try, until I experience it for myself. But instead of jumping out of a plane, I’m going to be assuming the biggest responsibility there is in life. And it's almost here.

At 43, I am arriving late to parenthood. Most of my friends had kids years ago, and more than a few are looking at me now and saying, “Good, now Kevin will get a taste of the chaos and sleeplessness that comes with having kids.” The truth is, I’m not worried about the sleep deprivation aspect of having kids. I’m already in that mid-life stage where I don't sleep a lot anyway. Plus, I’m cranky no matter how much -- or how little -- I sleep. Just ask my wife.

I will confess to being more than a little nervous about becoming a parent. In the map I’ve built in my head about how this will play out, there is a lot of uncharted territory. You might say I’ve just got a case of butterflies, but to me it feels more like the panicked flapping of pterodactyl wings.

Millions of questions are swirling in my head. Will I be a good father? What if I don’t bond with the baby right away? How does one practice changing diapers? What happens when the kid asks for the car keys? What if I have a girl, and as a teenager, she ends up having some derelict boyfriend that I will have to beat the crap out of?

Here's a scenario that really freaks me out: At my kid's college graduation, will I be so tottering and arthritic that other parents will think I’m someone’s grandfather?

OK, deep breaths. Husbands need to take them too. My wife and I have been to the classes, we’ve read the books, and we’ve listened to wisdom from friends and family who’ve been there before. We’ve set up the crib and the changing table, organized shower gifts based on what age the baby will be using them. We’re “ready,” if such a description could ever be used to accurately describe what we’re facing as first-time parents.

Apparently, the baby is ready too, as evidenced by the non-stop mixed martial arts session of punches and kicks taking place in my wife’s abdomen. In a sense, all three of us are up there in that plane, getting ready for our first tandem skydive. We’re in the doorway looking down, thinking about what’s coming, and feeling a level of excitement that is almost too much to process.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

An Ode To Mr. Fischer, My Grade School French Teacher


Have you ever had a teacher with such a fiery temper that he would throw chalk and blackboard erasers at you if you weren’t paying attention? Ever failed a test and had a teacher scrawl the ‘F’ on the page with such force that it was warm to the touch when he handed it back to you? Ever witnessed a teacher make fun of the school principal in another language in front of students -- and parents?

Mr. Fischer, my grade school French teacher in the early 1980s, did all of these things. Which probably sounds unbelievable, since behavior like this today would earn a teacher a starring role in a trumped up CNN expose on 'Teachers Gone Wild', leaving viewers shaking their heads and fretting about the impact on the children.

Well, it’s true that Mr. Fischer did have an impact on his students -- but it was a positive one. He was youthful, dedicated, energetic, passionate, proud of his culture, and yes, a bit volatile. His teaching methods could best be described as unconventional. You never really knew what would happen in Mr. Fischer’s classroom, and that’s what made it so fun. When it came to teaching us about France, a faraway place we might never see with our own eyes, he had a creative approach that was extremely effective.

Mr. Fischer was probably in his early thirties when I knew him, thinly built and of average height, with hair that would get longish at times, giving him kind of a wild look. I’m pretty sure he was born in France, but he had lived long enough in the U.S. by that time not to have much of an accent. He also dressed differently than the other teachers at our school, preferring sweaters to button-down shirts. I never saw him wear a tie.

Mr. Fischer had a mischievous side that sometimes made him feel like a co-conspirator against authority. Like the one day when the school principal, Mr. Dunlap, stopped by Mr. Fischer’s class with a group of visiting parents.

We were in the middle of a grammar lesson when Mr. Dunlap strolled unannounced into the classroom, smiled patronizingly at us, and began explaining to the parents that this was where Mr. Fischer dispensed his daily wisdom on French language and culture. Mr. Dunlap inquired as to what we were learning that day, and then asked Mr. Fischer to say something in French for the benefit of the visiting parents.

Mr. Fischer never was a big fan of these sorts of interruptions, which happened regularly. The slightly wicked look on his face as he contemplated Mr. Dunlap’s request seemed to say, “Oh, you want to hear some French? Well, here you go!”

I recall feeling that something memorable was about to happen, and it did.

“Voici Mr. Dunlap. Il est un merde-tete,” Mr. Fischer said with a big, friendly smile.

With that, 25 students clenched their jaws as tightly as they could and fought to suppress their laughter, tears of strain running down their cheeks. Mr. Dunlap nodded to Mr. Fischer and herded the parents to the next classroom. Fortunately, neither he nor the parents understood French, so they had no idea that Mr. Fischer had just called the principal of the school a “shithead”. Once Mr. Dunlap was safely out of earshot, the students erupted.

Classrooms are usually drab, orderly places smelling of wood, old paper, and boredom. Walking into Mr. Fischer’s was an entirely different experience. It hit you right away: the posters of French cities and portraits of famous French people on the walls; the French stamps, coins, bumper stickers, and other paraphernalia laminated into the desktops. There was French music to listen to and French games to play during our free time. It was as if Mr. Fischer had airlifted a smoldering chunk of French culture over to the U.S. and dumped it into his classroom, where it could bathe us all in its glow.

It was here that Mr. Fischer guided his students through the contours of the French language, teaching us about the passé composé, the imparfait, the conditionnel, informal pronouns, dangling participles, and other grammatical nuances. Irregular French verb conjugation has an algebraic complexity to it, and some lessons felt like dentist appointments. Mr. Fischer never coddled his students, though. He had no patience for whining, and if he sensed you weren’t putting enough effort into your studies, you were going to hear about it.

Mr. Fischer graded all of his tests with the same red pen. If you got an ‘A’, he’d write “excellent travail” (great work) on the page, with a friendly penmanship. On the other hand, if you got an ‘F’, he would angrily scribble “Un Desastre!” (a disaster), and his disgust would emanate from the page with all the subtlety of a 20-pound hunk of Limburger cheese. When you did well, Mr. Fischer handed you back you test with a friendly smile; when you didn’t, he would toss it to you as if it had just been used to clean a bird cage.

Mr. Fischer’s teaching style could best be described as asymmetrical; he didn’t just stand in front of the class reading from a book, he would move about the room and present lessons in unique ways. He was like a guerrilla fighter on patrol, hiding in the hills and ducking behind trees, firing shots of learning at his students.

Sometimes, Mr. Fischer would fire actual projectiles at us. One time, he saw me passing a note to a classmate and nailed me directly in the nose with a blackboard eraser heavy with chalk dust. It didn’t hurt, but it was embarrassing, and my classmates sure thought it was funny. With a thick layer of chalk dust coating my face and nostrils, I looked like the Tony Montana in a 7th grade production of Scarface. It took hours for the taste to go away.


Mr. Fischer was a big fan of outside-the-box teaching methods. A couple times every year he would take us on a field trip to his house to cook crepes in the French style. One highlight of these trips was petting Zazzy, his chubby white beagle-mix, who would waddle over to the school grounds every afternoon to check things out.

Mr. Fischer let me bring Watson, my four year old Springer Spaniel, into class one day as part of a class assignment. I was to give a presentation, entirely in French, on how to care for a dog. It was harder than I’d expected, as it required me to speak entirely in French for about 10 minutes straight. But after initial butterflies, I settled in and got it done. Later, my classmates -- and Mr. Fischer himself -- roared in laughter when Watson dropped a deuce in the hallway.

Mr. Fischer never did anything halfway. This was apparent when he accompanied the eighth grade on our annual trip to Camp Susquehanna in the mountainous wilds of northeastern Pennsylvania. As organizer of the class scavenger hunt, Mr. Fischer brought an obvious enthusiasm to the hiding of items, placing them in locations no student would even think of looking. I bet some of the things he hid are still right where he put them.

Mr. Fischer was also really into telling ghost stories around the campfire. The guy could really spin a yarn, and enjoyed making his tales as terrifying as possible by making creative use of noises from the surrounding forest. Rustling leaves, he suggested, were the sounds of skeletons that had clawed their way out of a nearby graveyard to pay us a visit. Tree trunks creaking and groaning in the wind were moans of misery from undead souls lurking nearby.

By the time Mr. Fischer was done telling his tales, I was half-expecting to see a disembodied head floating around the campground. I probably slept about 17 minutes that night.

People that attack life’s challenges instead of shying away from them are usually at home on the ski slopes, and so it was with Mr. Fischer. He led many Saturday school trips to the Poconos, and he was with me the first time I strapped on skis. Just as he was in the classroom, Mr. Fischer had a way of motivating you on the slopes when you thought the going was getting too rough.

Later that day, which included several high-speed encounters between my face and the packed powder of the bunny slope, I was taking off my skis outside the lodge and Mr. Fischer skied up.

"What are you doing? There’s still a half-hour left!" he shouted at me through his ski mask.

Mr. Fischer pointed to the top of the mountain, barely visible through the fog and falling snow, at a tiny strip of white meandering down the side. “Let’s go, I’m taking you down an intermediate trail.”

I’d been hoping to quit while I was ahead. But Mr. Fischer wasn’t having any of that. He was always pushing his students to be better, inside and outside the classroom. To reach down within ourselves and get over whatever obstacle stood in our way. So I put my skis back on and skied that trail with him, and at the end I was glad I’d done it, even though I ended up collecting several more bruises along the way.

That was Mr. Fischer in a nutshell: He was all about getting his students over the hump. If he had to, he would've strapped us on his back and carried us over. But it never came to that, because he always insisted that we get through the difficulty on our own.

Mr. Fischer was all about challenging his students, laying down the tough love, and making us into smarter, stronger people than we were before we first ventured into his classroom. And on all of these counts, I'd say he was a success.