Take This With My Compliments

By Gregory Keer

My wife and I had modest ambitions about decorating our home before our children arrived. Given our overstuffed work lives, we wanted our home to have clean lines, an emphasis on negative space, and blues and greens to give a feeling of serenity.

By the time our third child reached elementary school, it was clear he had different design ideas. The clean lines have been replaced by shelves full of outsized Lego masterpieces, the negative spaces filled with craft materials and handy tools, and the blues and greens obscured by the wild patterns of fabrics employed in making countless handmade ski hats and movie-night blankets. Serenity? No, that went away in not having one tabletop, cabinet, or couch free of clutter.

“Unless you put some of this junk back in your room, I’m taking it all to the garage,” I said to my son one day in a fit of fastidiousness.

“I promise I’ll put it away tomorrow,” he replied, not looking up from the newly-assembled cardboard doghouse he was installing next to our couch.

As I stared at the giant canine box with an irritated look, my wife, who has developed a disturbingly higher tolerance for messiness, pulled me aside.

“It’s a pretty good piece of work, isn’t it?” she reasoned.

“It’s great,” I said sarcastically. “Let’s do the whole room in storage containers.”

Ari heard this, a tad hurt. “If you don’t like it, I can take it down — even though I worked on it all day.”

Feeling sheepish — which happens so often I might as well join a wooly herd in New Zealand — I walked over to inspect the structure. Indeed, it was surprisingly well designed. It had a geometrically balanced pitched roof, a circular window that used a clear plastic take-out top instead of glass, and an accurately measured opening perfect for our small dog. It was even painted with a cool blue that satisfied my color preference. Frankly, I was so impressed by my 12-year-old’s ingenuity, I forgot my stuffy intolerance to his messy creations.

“This is cool, kiddo.”

To this, my son nodded imperceptibly and walked away.

I turned to my wife, “What was that? I said I liked it.”

“Truthfully, after hearing you complain all the time, the compliment gets a little lost.”

So, I went to my son’s room to talk to him where he was already busy playing around with some string and an old climbing carabiner to create a pulley. He did something similar at sleepaway camp where he made a system connected to his top bunk to pick up dropped items below.

“Sorry, kiddo. I really do like the doghouse.”

“OK,” he said, still monotoned.

“I’m proud of all your clever stuff,” I continued, gesturing at the new pulley.

The kid shrugged. And I realized, this was more than just being immunized by my complaints. This was part of a pattern occurring in other instances. I would go to his orchestra concerts and praise his trombone work, only to get a mumbled “Thanks.” I would see his report card and remark on the improvement in math, followed by his “I should do better” response.

What I came to realize was that my son honestly did not know how to take a compliment. Moreover, neither did my two elder sons or, for that matter, most of the high-school students I taught.

While I haven’t delved too deeply into the psychological research that explains this phenomenon with today’s kids, I do have thoughts on why I am making a goal out of giving my sons a different kind of gift this holiday season. I want to teach them how to take a compliment.

Part one is something I refer to a lot regarding my parenting habits. That is, I have to be better about reducing my criticisms and targeting my constructive advice so that, when I do give a compliment, it is not drowned out by negativity.

Part two is giving a proper compliment. In a generation of parents who have given out more than our share of participation trophies and praise for doing basic human things like pooping and making a rudimentary finger-painting, I need to focus my positive feedback on achievements that require serious effort. This includes taking risks by trying difficult tasks, standing up for friends when others won’t, and hitting a tough high note on a really difficult instrument like a trombone. The key is specificity, citing a particular action, and not just saying, “You’re great!” Kids trust a compliment and actually know how to build off of it when they know exactly where they have gone right.

Part three is trickier and that involves coaching my kids to receive praise with grace and appreciation that someone is taking the time to notice them. We all crave validation, but if we don’t make eye contact with our complimenter and drink it in when it’s served to us, especially since it gets more rare as we get older, then we will self-inflict more ego suffering than we should.

Although I still plan to give my boys a couple of material gifts I hope they’ll like, my true hope is that I can help them accept the gift of a compliment and, most of all, teach them how to savor praise as a validation for the hard-working, unique people they are. If I can do this just a little, I can live with all the messiness my boys can wreak upon my living room.

© 2018 Gregory Keer. All rights reserved.

Posted in Blog, Columns by Family Man, Holidays, Perspective | Leave a comment

Halloween is for Kids, Right?

By Gregory Keer

A dozen years ago, when my sons were younger, I had a lesson to learn about All Hallow’s Eve. Up till then, I really thought I could construct the perfect trick-or-treat night. On that October 31st, I stepped into the night, ready to lead my brood through one of childhood’s greatest experiences – an evening of stockpiling candy and pretending to be a favorite character. For me, it was a chance to have as much fun as they did.

I even dressed up as Luke Skywalker, wearing a robe and carrying a toy lightsaber, though I didn’t look as adorable as my kids. Jacob (then 4 years old) dressed as Harry Potter. Benjamin (then 7) went for the medieval ‘dark warrior’ look. Ari (then 11 months) was stuffed in a puffy lion’s costume for his Halloween premiere.

As I watched my older sons ring doorbells and say thank you in voices as sweet as the treats they received, it was perfectly enchanting – for all of 15 minutes.

A car blaring bass-driven music slowed in front of us. A teenager in a Scream mask yelled out, “Happy Halloween!” then chucked an egg that smacked my pant leg.

My children thought it was hysterical.

“Daddy got hit with an egg! Can we go get some eggs, too?”

“No,” I shouted, before realizing I was cracking myself. “It’s only funny once.”

As we moved along, my wife commented, “The real Luke would’ve dodged that egg.”

I glared at her, then spied Jacob returning from a house, his mouth bulging with chocolate, ready to open a king-size Snickers.

“Only five candies while we walk,” I warned him.

That’s when my little Harry Potter quick-changed from British schoolboy to spoiled brat: “I don’t LIKE you!” he cried, dropping to the sidewalk.

I controlled my temper, firmly telling Jacob, “I can take you home right now.”

Apparently this worked because he hugged me, saying, “I’ll share some of the SweeTarts with you later, Daddy. I know you love them.”

With order restored, I pushed Ari along in the stroller, smiling as he pointed at the festive decorations of flying witches, fluttering ghosts – bloody body parts strewn over someone’s lawn.

Then, Benjamin whined, “I’m bored.”

I tried to ignore him, thinking, what could be better than going house-to-house with your family, collecting treats Charlie Brown only dreamed about?

“This is really boring,” Benjamin repeated.

“Look, guys, this house has a hundred cool pumpkins!” I said like a cheerleader. “This one is mean, this one is silly, and this one looks like Mommy without her makeup.”

Neither my wife nor my eldest son appreciated that one.

“Not funny, Daddy. I’m still bored,” Benjamin grumbled. “Can I go to Jeff’s haunted house to help scare people?”

I looked at my wife, dejectedly. “This is supposed to be a family night.”

“Let him go play,” my wife said.

Benjamin ran off and we visited more houses, but I kept feeling let down without him. Then I realized Jacob had slipped away, too. I ran up and down the block before spotting him hiding behind a bush, about to eat an unwrapped popcorn ball.

“Don’t — eat — that!” I shouted as I swatted away the sticky clump like it was some kind of grenade.

Jacob wailed in shock while I explained, “Didn’t we tell you not to eat anything that isn’t in a package?”

I leaned down to hug away his tears just as Ari, no longer content to be a live-action Simba the Lion King, pulled off his cloth mane for the seventh time and howled crankily.

“I’ll take him home,” Wendy said.

Seeing my perfect Halloween unravel, I sulked like one of my children, “But I want to trick-or-treat TOGETHER!”

My wife placed her hand on my cheek: “You need to grow up.”

Later, my family reconvened at home, munching on more candies and answering the door for other trick-or-treaters. My childish desire to be one of the kids slowly faded, especially in light of seeing Jacob handing out sweets to the visitors.

“Here’s one for you Cinderella, one for you Spider-Man,” he said before a much larger person came up, clearly an adult in a grotesque mask. Without a beat, Jacob said, “And here’s three candies for you, Scary-Face Man.”

Imagine, a grown-up trying to steal some of the fun on a kids’ night. Well, there’s always next year.

© 2017 Gregory Keer. All rights reserved.

Posted in Activities With Kids, Adulthood, Columns by Family Man, Halloween, Holidays | Leave a comment

Life is a Sandwich

SandwichGenBy Gregory Keer

If you ask my wife, I am forever trying to catch up with her. When we walk the dog together, she’s booking down the road like a New Yorker trying to catch a cab while I mosey behind like a movie cowboy after a giant breakfast. Speaking of eating, my children constantly complain of how deliberate I consume dinner. I eat the way a worm might chew on a peanut butter sandwich.

Yet, when it came to starting a family, I was not alone in my slowness. While I was taking a circuitous career path through various writing and teaching gigs, my wife was also wending her way through graduate school. Neither of us was ready to have kids in such uncertainty, particularly because we were making only enough money to get by.

By the time our first child entered the world, Wendy and I were into our 30s, a decade older than our parents were when they began having kids. But we had jobs, just enough money to buy a small house, and a surrounding family populated by our son’s grandparents, several great-grandparents, aunts, uncles, and plenty of friends. We had love and support and a constantly growing wave of positivity that built as Wendy and I developed meaningful careers while we grew our family with only rare cloudy days to darken a bounty of sunshine. Life ambled at a pace that felt just right.

As I hit the late-40s of my charmed existence, the speed of existence revved up. My father came down with a virulent strain of cancer and was gone within five months. It happened so fast, I’m not sure I had enough time to draw a full breath. Now, I feel as if it was merely yesterday that he was with us. I still imagine life with him around to applaud his grandchildren’s accomplishments and just to talk about baseball on a Sunday.

Within a year of my father’s passing, my father-in-law’s health began to deteriorate due to Lewy body dementia and Parkinson’s disease. Sheldon was always a rock of a guy, a man of few words, but enduring support of his family. Worse for me has been watching my wife struggle to help him, her mom, and her sisters cope with the kind of extra care he needs to merely live out his days in ever-dimming light.

I write all of this to gain perspective on being in what is commonly called a “sandwich,” of being some kind of mystery meat between the slice of life that is raising children and the slice that is caring for aging parents. Sure, I saw a number of our friends scrambling to pick up kids from carpool and aid them with their college applications while helping parents stricken by everything from illness to financial woes. But that wasn’t supposed to happen in my family. We were meant to get our children through university, first jobs, and maybe even marriage before our parents started to fade. We had plans for our parents to coach us through a few more trials with the kids and regaling us with the wisdom of experience so that we could just enjoy the highlights of success.

Instead, we are dealing with pediatricians and geriatricians, nurturing our children’s wills while reading our parents’ wills, cheering at soccer games and hoping our remaining parents will still be able to recall our names.

Clearly, living in the sandwich is no picnic, but — it is vital to turn the sandwich into a feast of thanksgiving. We really have so much to be grateful for in that we have had parents in our lives who have loved us, taught us, and guided us so that we can bring up our own kids. We must be thankful that these parents have cherished and rejoiced in their grandchildren, and that these grandchildren have been lucky enough to be spoiled and schooled by their grandparents for every year they have had with them.

We must also appreciate that we still have a gaggle of grandmothers, and one great-grandmother, who are full of life despite the losses they have undergone or are undergoing. These women constantly remind us that the road provides plenty of detours yet strength and a focus on love keeps us all on a path of good surprises.

This Thanksgiving will be nothing like I would have imagined. It will not have all the people we would have wanted to be there and the conversation might be more about medical procedures than report cards. However, it will be a table around which sit vibrant living people and wondrous spirits who help us slow down to savor the time we have with each other.

© 2016 Gregory Keer. All rights reserved.


Posted in Aging, Columns by Family Man, Grandparents, Holidays | Leave a comment

Adolescent Fears Strike Out

HalloweenSpiderBy Gregory Keer

During my tenure as a dad, I’ve weathered enough horrors to rival anything the architects of Halloween could imagine. The middle-of-the night variety of nightmares has been enough to keep my heart racing just recalling it. Nothing rattles you like being startled by a wife who says, “Go check on the baby, I don’t think he’s breathing” or having a five-year-old exhaling on your sleeping face like an ax-murderer before announcing, “Can I cuddle with you guys?” Then, there have been the screeching cats I’ve stepped on while stumbling for 3am baby bottles and the Exorcist-style upchuck projecting from otherwise angelic children at the stroke of midnight.

As I’ve grown as a parent, my boys’ travails have given me frights that chilled me to the bone. The first time I couldn’t get a return phone call or text from my eldest when he drove to a friends’ house sent images of mayhem and destruction I wouldn’t wish on anyone’s imagination. When my middle son’s face was mauled by a dog, I thought I was somehow the monster for not having been there to prevent it.

For all my horrors, they pale in comparison to the ones my children have endured themselves, especially because they lack the life experience to know how they will get through challenges that range from social pressure to emotional catastrophe. While they know they have my wife and me to support them, their quest for independence has often pushed us away. In most cases, it is best to let them suffer scares alone, since they have to develop inner resources, but heaven knows it pains me to see them in pain.

Recently, my youngest child started middle school. As our third, he has been “the baby,” the one we’ve trusted to stay young and carefree. However, sixth grade has changed that forever. He’s forsaken the hairstyles that kept his cotton-ball hair wild in favor of a close-cropped, edgier look so no one will tease him for appearing too young. Although that makes me sad since those curls had been part of his identity since he was born, Ari’s leap into the shark-infested waters of adolescent fashion has gone further.

One weekend, he and I weeded out shirts he no longer would wear. With conviction, he stuffed a bag full of too-small clothes and anything with superheroes or seemingly playful graphics.

“Wait, you won’t wear Spider-Man anymore?” I asked, thinking the Marvel hero had to be cool enough for sixth grade.

“No, Dad. I don’t like Spider-Man, anymore.”

I nodded and continued packing with him, yet stopped again when he tossed a tee with a Minecraft parody on it that I bought him just a few months ago. Had he changed his taste that quickly?

“This shirt is funny,” I insisted. “And Minecraft is for grown-ups, too.”

Ari grimaced, suddenly looking older than I am. “There are these bullies in the bathrooms who make fun of you if you wear childish clothes.”

Hearing this, my blood boiled.

“What? Do they threaten you?”

“No, Dad – don’t worry about it.”

“I do worry. Has anyone hurt you? Or your friends?”

“No. I just don’t go in the bathroom during nutrition or lunch.”

Visions of Mark Wahlberg taking revenge on teen punks flashed in my mind.

“That’s not right. I think I should let the school know.”

At this point, Ari looked at me with a mix of wisdom and steely resolve that he must have acquired overnight.

“It’s OK. I know how to handle this. I just can’t wear these kind of t-shirts.”

Something on my face clearly affected Ari as he held the shirt in his fist. He softened, and put it back in his drawer.

“I’ll wear it on weekends.”

It’s been a couple of weeks since that talk, but not a day has gone by without my thinking about what might be going on in the school bathroom or halls. What would I do if my child did get beaten up or merely intimidated into running away to hide? How does he really feel inside? Does he feel inferior to these jerks? What can I do to boost his pride and bravery?

The truth is that these are my fears, my visions of what middle-school horror is. On Ari’s part, he seems more interested in talking on the phone with his new “squad” (the word he uses) of friends and making sure his teachers see him working hard. I’ve asked him a couple of times about the bullies and he tells me to stop asking him about it.  So I’ve stopped inquiring, even though I still fret over might happen.

What seems to matter is that my youngest boy, much as my older two who seemed to have more influence than I do, has taken ownership of at least some of his fears. I have to let him conquer the demons on his own, barring a raising of the stakes, of course. In this way, he gets to be the hero who defeats the villains and monsters that might plague him.

As for me, I’m sure to have plenty of other nightmares, mostly the result of my own over-heated imagination. And while I miss some of the frights associated with having to be the savior for little kids, I take a bit of pride that my children both want to and are capable of feeling their own way through the dark.

Posted in Adolescence, Child Development, Columns by Family Man, Education, Halloween, Holidays | Leave a comment

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: 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

Family Man Recommends: Children’s Music Reviews for December 2012

Reviewed by Gregory Keer

I’m not always keen on holiday music, which makes me a kind of musical Scrooge, I guess. So, this year, I’m getting in the spirit because of some really good choices for the month’s children’s music reviews. One is Renee & Jeremy’s Sunny Christmas, a six-track EP from the fine and mellow duo whose A Little Love cover album brightened last Spring. The harmonizing pair once again put their warm, sometimes atmospheric spin on songs written by others, with a genuine affection for the tunes and the holidays. The title track, which was a seasonal hit last year, stands out amongst such chestnut as “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” and “Winter Wonderland.”

Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter Judy Pancoast takes Christmas on the road with performances at the home of regular folks around the country for her House on Christmas Street tour. She’s performing songs from her new album, Christmas With Mrs. Claus. Original pieces (such as “Where is Santa Claus?”) mix with storytelling and traditionals.

A couple of special Chanukah songs to light the way come from Billy Jonas, “Let There Be Light”,  and Laurie Berkner, “Candle Chase.” The ever-joyful and productive Berkner also has a full-length album, A Laurie Berkner Christmas, which includes a host of wonderfully rendered holiday classics.

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

The Power of Stories: Flying Books and Ticking Clocks

By Gregory Keer

I’m sitting on the couch at 7:30pm, unable to do anything but stare at the TV changer, which is two feet in front of me, yet seemingly miles away.

“Must reach remote,” I say to myself. “Workday done. Dishes washed. Kids occupied. Basketball game starting…”

I muster the energy to lean forward when my mop-topped eight year old explodes through the living-room door.

“Daddy, let’s read!” Ari demands.

“Aren’t you old enough to read on your own?” I implore.

“No, I want to read with you,” he says, jutting out his lower lip to make a face he thinks tugs at my heartstrings.

It does.

Glacially, I rise from the couch, as if every muscle has been in hibernation for a season.

“Hurry, Dad, it’s getting late!” he shouts as he dashes ahead of me. Where does he get his reserve energy?

I make it to Ari’s room, moving like I’m underwater. I climb onto his bunk bed, clumsily arranging my adult body between stuffed animals and errant toys to get comfortable.

Then, we read William Joyce’s The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore, about a writer whose library flies away in a hurricane. He is transported, Wizard of Oz-like to a world where he meets living books he comes to care for and that care for him as he grows old.

As grumpy as I was about having my me-time suspended, I generate some presence of mind to melt into the moment. It’s nice that my second grader, who loves devouring chapter books on his own, still wants his reading time with me.

When we finish, Ari asks, “Cuddle?”

Barely able to keep my eyes open, I agree, turn off the light, and proceed to fall asleep.

When I wake up, I’m as disoriented as a wayfarer who regains consciousness in a strange forest and curse myself for having lost 45 minutes of the evening.

I stumble from the bed, apologize to my wife — who’s working at the computer — for disappearing for so long. I check on my other sons, who are busy with homework and texting and my stomach churns over the fact that my plan to chat with them evaporated with my unexpected nap.

Bleary eyed, I break out the laptop to power through emails I just couldn’t finish during the day and don’t look up until I realize everyone in the house is asleep but me.

Lying down, I kiss my wife’s forehead, still bearing the frown of a complicated week and — can’t fall asleep. Knocked out of whack by the nap, I’m left with thoughts racing through my mind about everything I didn’t do and will likely be unable to do with so few hours in the day and so little energy in my aging body.

And then, I think about Morris Lessmore. Like Morris, I am often caught up in a hurricane of life. It carries away my days and, along with it, my ability to take stock in my children’s ascension to maturity. All too often, I find myself rushing my kids out in the morning and into bed at night just so I can get to – what? The end of the day, which will just bleed into another day of careening through responsibilities?

It’s a battle to leap from the cyclone, but it does happen for me, particularly when it comes to appreciating stories. It occurs in the moments I push myself past exhaustion to read a picture book with my youngest, watch and discuss a classic film with my oldest, and take in (with tears of pride) the short stories my middle child writes.

While not everyone is a writer, we all have the power to read books, watch movies and TV programs, and even to tell stories to our children, on everything from their days as infants to our own adventures through the years. Stories allow us to press the pause button on life and reveal our observations about what has happened and might come to be. While the whirlwind continues to whoosh around us, stories transport us to a quieter place of being together and acknowledging the tiny details that otherwise go unnoticed.

With the four days that Thanksgiving allows me with my family, I plan to do more cuddling with the kids — from the teenager to the second grader — to read, watch, and tell stories. Sweeter than any dessert, those moments will complete a holiday intended to help us all slow down and relish the most precious yet fleeting thing of all — time with those we love.

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