Family Man Recommends: Quick Picks for January 2014

Reviewed by Gregory Keer

The beginning of the year in family music offers a trickle of reviewable discs (lots more starting next month), but there are a couple of nifty educational children’s music albums worth an earful. The first is by the “First Lady of Children’s Music,” Ella Jenkins, whose latest release if 123s and ABCs.

The other pick for this month is by actress-singer-songwriter Helen Slater (you might recall her from City Slickers and Supergirl). Slater, who once played Supergirl on the big screen, sings and tells stories about some of the heroes from mythology on Myths of Ancient Greece.

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Great Expectations

By Gregory Keer

great_expectationsI always think I’m going to enjoy the holidays more than I do. I imagine the days off as time that will allow me to reduce my stress, live in the moment, and enjoy family and friends. Oh, those carefree hours to play basketball in the yard with the kids, go to a few movies together, laugh, eat and share stories around the holiday table.

Yeah. Right.

Instead, stress seems to escalate — mostly because of all these hopes. My kids don’t like playing basketball (not with me, and certainly not together). My adolescent boys see all the good movies with their friends. And meals are spent with Wendy and me running around serving people, asking the kids not to talk over each other, and usually ending with someone crying or yelling or pouting.

Often, that someone is me.

Whereas most people like to reference A Christmas Carol around the holidays, I relate more, at least in terms of the title, to Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations. I set my bar impossibly high, imagining all my thirst for the joys of family life will be quenched in a mere two-week period.

This year, I aim to change all that. I’m planning to clear up all my holiday problems in one fell swoop. A lot to expect? Perhaps. So, let me rephrase — I’m going to make the winter festival season a little better by lowering my expectations.

First, I need more me-time. One of my mistakes as a parent, especially during the holidays, is believing that I have to be engaged with the children at every possible moment. When they were little, I needed to be guiding them and playing with them. Now, they don’t want to spend that much time with me, not because they don’t love me, but because they are individuating and hanging out with people who are helping define them beyond my reach. And, to a large degree, that’s the way it should be.

So, instead of licking my wounds about being irrelevant, I need to take more private hours to read one of those neglected novels, sleep in or take naps, and go to the good movies with my wife or even by my lonesome if no one will go to the cineplex with me. These are gifts I will give to myself, but they will also teach my sons that we are all better people to our loved ones when we are first good to ourselves.

Second, I need to play sports differently. So what if my kids don’t like basketball and won’t play sports together as I always envisioned they would? I’ll hit the field or court with them separately for whatever sport they wish — even if it’s just for 10 minutes each, one time each over the entire course of the two weeks. When they say they’re done playing, I’ll stop and consider the session a success. Usually, I run into problems because I nag them to play a little longer so I can teach them a few things. I have this grand idea they will learn a couple of tips from the old man. Not during these holidays, not this time. The point will just be to have fun.

Third, I will not try to turn meals into some version of The Waltons’ holiday dinners with everyone politely sitting ‘round the table, delighting in their togetherness. My children don’t even know who The Waltons were, which may be part of the problem. In fact, I kind of hate The Waltons now because they corrupted my sense of what holiday meals are supposed to be. Instead, I will allow our dinners to be as chaotic as my kids want since that’s my family’s way. In my house, the kids eat turkey stuffing with their fingers, my younger ones jump up from the table at random to sing Bruno Mars tunes, and my eldest goes on philosophical political rants with his unsuspecting grandparents. I will just sit back and enjoy the always-delicious food, restraining myself from trying to control the situation, and realizing that I’m lucky enough to have family to share the mayhem.

Honestly, I’m not entirely sure this will work out, but I have to try. After 15 years of expecting my holidays to be as perfect as the ending to It’s a Wonderful Life, it’s time to prepare a bit more for the unexpected and just bask in it.

It may be that, upon stepping back from my role as a wannabe winter-season patriarch, my kids will take up the reigns and drive the sleigh of fun and togetherness activities. Perhaps they’ll look at me and say, “Dad, we love how hard you work at family holidays so we’re going to reward you with family basketball and a dinner of toasts to the greatness of you and mom.”

But that’s a hope, not an expectation.

Posted in Columns by Family Man, Holidays, Perspective, Work-Family Balance | 1 Comment

Family Man Recommends: Best Children’s Music of 2013

Reviewed by Gregory Keer

I’m joining the Top Ten fray with my annual list of the Best Children’s Music albums of the year. For 2013, the entries had to be released between Nov. 1, 2012 through Sept. 30, 2013. The links below go to the FMR review or directly to the artist Web page if there is no applicable review. Some reviews are in the QuickPicks, so read through for the appropriate title.

  1. Justin Roberts - Recess
  2. Heidi Swedberg - My Cup of Tea
  3. Shine and the Moonbeams - Shine Your Shine
  4. Frances England - Blink of An Eye
  5. Dan Zanes & Elizabeth Mitchell - Turn Turn Turn
  6. Alastair Moock - Singing Our Way Through
  7. Lucky Diaz y La Familia Musica - !Fantastico!
  8. Paul Spring - Home of Song
  9. Lori Henriques - The World is a Curious Place to Live
  10. Recess Monkey - Deep Sea Diver

Honorable Mentions: Dean Jones – When the World Was New, Joanie Leeds - Bandwagon, Ratboy Jr. – Champions of the Universe, Milkshake – Got a Minute?, The Not-Its, KidQuake!, Francie Kelley – Where Do You Want to Go Today?, Julianna Bright – Cat Doorman Songbook, Caspar Babypants – Baby Beatles, Lloyd H. Miller – S.S. Brooklyn, Trout Fishing in America – Rubber Baby Buggy Bumpers, Key Wilde & Mr. Clark – Pleased to Meet You, Bill Harley & Keith Munslow – It’s Not Fair to Me, Bob McGrath - Bob’s Favorite Sing Along Songs

Posted in Blog, Children's Music Reviews, Family Man Recommends, Family Music, Family Music Reviews, Music, Top Ten Lists | Leave a comment

Family Man Recommends: Quick Picks for December

Reviewed by Gregory Keer

The Dream Gates of the UnderworldHeading the year-end recommendations is Lisa Sniderman’s What Are Dreams Made Of? A wildly creative brew of story and song by the San Francisco-based 2012 finalist for the John Lennon Songwriting Award, among other honors, Sniderman provides a sequel to Is Love a Fairy Tale?, which follows the adventures of Aoede the Muse and her adventures in Wonderhaven. What Are Dream Made Of? is an imagination-inspiring, sometimes trippy journey through the “land of darkness and light” that sounds like something Pink Floyd, Regina Spektor, and J.R.R. Tolkien might dream up if they were aiming for elementary-school age kids.

Gift for SophieIf you’re looking for more story-and-music blends that appeal to the preschool on up crowd, sample the wares from The Secret Mountainwhich releases a range of projects that travel across diverse cultures. Available in book-CD or e-book packages are W is for Wapiti: An Alphabet Songbook and Songs from a Journey with a Parrot – Lullabies and Nursery Rhymes from Brazil and Portugal. A Gift for Sophie, one of The Secret Mountain’s newest productions from Canadian singer-songwriter Gilles Vigneault and illustrator Stéphane Jorisch, offers insight into the power of gift giving in the tale about two friends. Musical guests include Martha Wainwright, Thomas Hellman, Paul Campagne and Jessica Vigneault.

Posted in Books, Children's Music Reviews, Creativity, Family Man Recommends, Family Music, Family Music Reviews, Music | Leave a comment

Family Man Recommends: Quick Picks for November

Reviewed by Gregory Keer

This month’s FMR: Quick Picks include some holiday-oriented goodies and a couple of other tasty morsels. One of my favorite music people, Debbie Cavalier, releases her third Debbie and Friends album, Variety Show. The album features more of her brightly colored story-based songs (“Cinderella” and “Pinocchio”), along with original tunes (such as the holiday-themed “Santa and Baby (Santa’s Little Helper)”. With the rare confluence of Thanksgiving and Chanukah (known popularly as Thanksgivukkah) comes Mami Doni and The Acoustic Jewish Holiday Collection CD/DVD. Because this upbeat and diverse collection of everything from dance music to bluegrass covers three holidays (including Chanukah, Passover, and Shabbat), it’s the winter gift for all seasons.

The luminous Elizabeth Mitchell offers her elegant The Sounding Joy: Christmas Songs in and out of the Ruth Crawford Seeger Songbook in time for the festive season. On the 24 songs, Mitchell — whose gentle voice and warm instrumentation are enough on their own — benefits from guest artists like Peggy Seeger, Natalie Merchant, Dan Zanes, and Joan Osborn. Finally, we have the surprising treat of Pacha’s Pajamas: A Story Written By Naturewhich is about magical PJs that transport a young girl into a jungle festival hosted by animals. The featured artist, tween rap star Bentley Green, is joined by an all-star cast, including Mos Def, Cheech Marin, and Les Nubians.

Posted in Children's Music Reviews, Family Man Recommends, Family Music, Holidays, Music, Video | 1 Comment

Teens Provide Hope on Thanksgiving

As Thanksgiving comes upon us, I am deeply grateful for my wife, sons, extended family, and friends who love me, even when I’m not at my best. I am also thankful for the high school students I get to work with as their teacher and grade-level dean. This month, I’ve watched students (including my eldest) rapidly respond to the victims of Typhoon Haiyan with not one but two fundraisers to help needy families in the Philippines. Then, with little fanfare, one group of students organized a book drive that brought in more than 500 books for those who have little to read, another of the student clubs I supervise delivered 300 pounds worth of frozen turkeys to an underserved local community, and yet another made an informative and moving video to teach teens about World AIDS Day. Sure, these students still obsess over their iPhones and complain about homework, but they also give of themselves generously. Lots of reason to be thankful about a future with these kids in it.

Posted in Holidays, School, Teens | 1 Comment

O Brother, Where Art Thou?

By Gregory Keer

Thanksgiving has long been my favorite holiday, for every reason from the marvelous meal to the four-day block of time to just be with family. Nine years ago, the festival took on extra meaning as my third child, Ari, was born just in time to celebrate at our table. And like Thanksgiving dinner, he’s been a third helping – sometimes the source of extra happiness and sometimes the wellspring of additional gastrointestinal discomfort.

A lot of my discomfort is self-imposed because I worry that, as my “third helping” of fatherhood, Ari has gotten less attention from me than my older kids received at the same age. Benjamin had 100% of me till he was three-and-a-half and Jacob got at least 50% of me for three years of his own. Ari has simply had to share my wife and me since the moment he was born.

I do try to compensate. Ari needs more of a push to do his homework than Benjamin or Jacob did. So, following a recent stretch of watching him whine (“You have no idea how hard third grade is, Dad!”) and seeing him bring home a bounty of red marker ink on his papers, I now help him kickstart the assignments. Ari also didn’t get any athletics coaching from me until last year, when I took on three sports like only a guilt-driven father can.

No matter how hard I try to give Ari more time, I still can’t make it to enough field trips or go to as many museums as I did for my first two boys. My wife struggles similarly with her allocation of hours, so we sat in bed one night during the holidays of last year and wondered aloud, “Shouldn’t Ari be getting more from his brothers to help fill in our gaps of attention?”

With six-and-a-half years between him and Ari, Benjamin has little in common with his little bro’ other than genetics. At 15, my eldest is seldom home and, when he does grace the house with his presence, he keeps the door shut like a moat-encircled drawbridge. For years, Ari tried politely knocking on the door to get Benjamin to play Legos or handball with him to minimal avail. More recently, Ari has busted into his brother’s privacy to annoy Benjamin’s buddies or steal the hidden candy Benjamin keeps in his desk. Most of their interactions end in tears – sometimes the tears are Ari’s.

Three years separate Jacob and Ari, which has helped them to connect more. Ari enjoyed three years on the same elementary-school campus with Jacob and benefited from his older brother’s tips about running for student council and participating with the school orchestra. Yet, their chronological proximity has also brought titanic wrestling matches, bone-chilling screams, and art supply thefts that go endlessly back and forth. Worse, Jacob’s burgeoning adolescence has led him to teach his brother bad language and a premature habit of commenting on lady parts.

I imagine it’s most parents’ wish that their children get along well enough to call each other best friends. While the minimal hope is that they’ll coordinate elder care for us when we became frail, we really want them to be there for each other. It’s especially valuable for Ari, who could learn so much from the siblings who have suffered through Mom and Dad the longest.

Despite the fights he gets into with the brothers and the jealousy he burns with every night they get to stay out late or receive a larger allowance, Ari’s plight as the “forgotten little man” has seen improvement over this last year. After lectures and chastisement from my wife and me, Benjamin is showing more compassion for Ari, who just wants more attention from him. When Benjamin babysits, he now doesn’t just badger Ari to get to bed, he reads books with him and helps him with math (two passions they’ve discovered they share). For his part, Jacob talks to Ari more than any of us, engaging him in conversations about friends, school, and TV shows they frequently watch together. Jacob also laughs a lot with his little brother, often because of crazy pranks they pull on Wendy and me.

As this Thanksgiving rolls up, I’m planning to do a little less worrying about Ari and a lot more admiring of the three brothers my wife and I have thrown together. Because of them, I don’t have to be the only one to fill my youngest child’s plate.

Posted in Columns by Family Man, Holidays, Parenting Stress, Siblings | 1 Comment

Evil Dad

By Gregory Keer

Following is a Halloween column that scared up some laughs a few years back. It’s back to haunt you intrepid readers, once again. 

I don’t enjoy seeing car wrecks, reading about celebrity break-ups, or learning of the latest politician caught doing something illegal. But I do like witnessing other children behaving badly. I know it’s sinful, a little evil, even. That doesn’t stop the twisted inflation of my ego resulting from other parents having a similar or worse time than I usually have. Honestly, I do not wish misfortune on any parent — I just want to be there when it happens.

I didn’t always know I had this character flaw. For most of my fatherhood tenure, I’ve been too preoccupied to notice it while my own kids went through phases of throwing breakable items in grocery stores and telling friends that Santa Claus doesn’t really exist. My youngest boy, Ari, may be my biggest troublemaker. At an amusement park, the other day, he thought it was hilarious to randomly swat other grown-ups while I carried him through the crowd. I’m pretty sure he would have laughed harder should I have been punched in the nose by one of his surprised victims.

Although I know that all children misbehave at times – and that pushing boundaries can be healthy, especially when the stakes are low at the younger ages — I worry about the judgments of others who might see me as an ineffective parent. I sometimes fantasize about turning into a Dickens character, pulling my kids by the collar, and growling at them in a cockney accent, “Mind your manners, my urchins. It’s not wise to make your father look poorly.” (Actually, I did that once and my kids laughed at me).

But a recent conversation has allowed me to embrace my vampire-like desire to feed off other parents’ misery. During a basketball game for my oldest son, I watched a father on the sidelines, trying to give advice to his eight-year-old kid, who responded with, “Why should I listen to you, Daddy? You stink at shooting!”

Then, my friend Adam, a master of the witty aside, leaned toward me and said, “There’s a column for you. Write about how much fun it is to see other parents suffer.” We spent the rest of the game recounting tales from the parenting dark side. When once, as younger men, we might have shot the breeze about girlfriends, pro sports, and bad job experiences, we were now reduced to cackling gossips.

I told the story of the panicked mom who scoured a zoo in search of her missing son. When she finally found him in the dimly lit reptile center, in which she had looked twice before, she screamed, “Why did you go in here alone?” The child responded with the classic, “I don’t know.” As Mom launched the rest of her tirade, I tried to conceal my grin as other people escaped the house of snakes and the nearby baboons screamed along with the poor mother.

We talked about the father who leaped out of the stands to accuse the opposing coach of letting his players hit baseballs at his son on the pitcher’s mound. The agitated dad was just trying to be protective, but the tantrum stood out during a tee-ball game among five-year-olds who could barely tap a stationary ball. We took glee in the pain of the dad who, after overhearing his child refuse to share any of his toys, announced, “We’re really nice people. Please don’t judge us by our son.” And, in one of the more ugly examples, I noted the wicked thrill of seeing another parent get chewed out because his son bit my son, and not the other way around.

I am not proud of my primal need to feel better about my own failures by recalling the difficulties of others, but it does remind me of how absurd it is to try living up to the expectations of calm and wisdom most of us place upon ourselves. As this Halloween approaches, I won’t need a costume or candy. I’ll be the Evil Dad, feasting on the treats supplied by parents trying in vain to keep their kids in line in the dark of the night.

Posted in Columns by Family Man, Halloween, Humor, Parenting Stress | 1 Comment

Family Man Recommends: Children’s Music Reviews – October 2013

Reviewed by Gregory Keer

LuckyDiazLishyLuJust because October is one of those months where time has been short for me doesn’t mean that I don’t have a few moments to tell you about some of the new music well worth your listening hours. Lucky Diaz and the Family Jam Band continue their dazzling run of releases with the retro variety-show styled Lishy Lou and Lucky TooWith their second album of the year, Recess Monkey’s 10th studio project is the laid-back Desert Island DiscNew Jersey-based musician Erik Simonsen’s new disc is E is for Erik, a family-music debut that comes with a coloring book inspired by songs such as “Dr. Seuss We Love You” and “If You Miss Me at the Back of the Bus.” Two other noteworthy CDs are Mister G’s bilingual ABC Fiesta and Josh & the Jamtones eclectic Bear Hunt!

Posted in Children's Music Reviews, Family Man Recommends, Family Music, Family Music Reviews | 1 Comment

Fids and Kamily Award Winners for 2013

2013FidsNow in its 8th year, the Fids and Kamily poll has announced its award winners for 2013. Justin Roberts and his Recess album took the top prize, followed by the latest work by Frances England and Alastair Moock. Once again, I was honored to join the group of children’s music reviewers whose votes were counted to make the list. One of the cool additions to this year’s poll is a rundown of first-time family music makers, including Cat Doorman Thank you, Stefan Shepherd of Zooglobble for having me along for this musical ride.

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