Friday, September 23, 2016

French Horn

There should never be an open book policy in parenting. You need to cultivate your brand carefully with your children so they will view you as a strong, virile man who can play all sports well and knows Karate and is very possibly a spy when he leaves for work every day.

So I have taken great pains to hide my marching band past from Elijah and Luca. I was the poster child for “band nerd” from age 10-18. Undersized, acne prone, lugging around a silver mouthpiece in his mom’s velvet Chivas Regal bag. In our basement, I’ve buried a pile of Normal Illinois “Pantagraph” newspaper clippings featuring my feathered blonde hair under a  marching band helmet. I prefer my sons believe I played bass guitar for “Pavement” in the 1990’s.

Imagine my surprise when Eli suddenly and passionately took an interest in band at school. I arrived home late from a recent New York trip and was ambushed by Eli and Luca, literally screaming my name (Dad) from upstairs. I figured they had a new Lego set to show me or wanted me to marvel at the massive amount of mold our tile guy found in our bathroom.

When I climbed the steps, I was greeted by a wary looking Diana. “They’re really excited to see you,” she said with the enthusiasm of a mom whose son just discovered the French Horn. In fact, her son had just discovered the French Horn.

“Look! Look! Dad! I got a French Horn! Just like the one you used to play!”

First off, I did NOT play the French Horn. French Horns are for pale, skinny men who wear all black and are usually named Marcel. I played Baritone Horn. The beautiful love child of the Tuba and Trombone. Second, how in the world did he know I played in band? Yes, I do give off a certain “hiding a secret about band camp” vibe. But I was shocked he knew.

As Eli farted out a few notes and I instantly felt so, so sorry for my parents when I was growing up, Luca began to describe the instrument he wanted. “It’s long and gold and has those buttons and sounds like this…fert fert fert.”

“A trumpet?” I asked.


We decided then and there to start a little jazz trio and Diana started looking at Michigan cabin real estate listings.

Monday, September 12, 2016

The Actor

Elijah is a fantastic actor. The hysterics he falls into if Luca so much as brushes against him would make Brando quit the biz forever. And you have never seen a more convincing Monday morning illness in your life. That kid does the best "kind-of-flu, kind-of-cold, but maybe allergies, can I watch TV all morning-itis" ever

So Diana has been after him to get into acting. Diana, as we all know, famously starred as “Elbow” in the 1993 movie “Rudy.” She also starred in the cheese commercial where the office worker eats cheese after work clearly laid out for tomorrow’s big business meeting. 

She enrolled him in an after school acting club put on by the local theatre. He was game because he no other choice. But also because the alternative was sports. He seemed to like it. 

As it turns out, the club is also a feeder system for their plays and everyone is encouraged to try out. Diana was totally jazzed about it. Eli was neutral. I was neutral to negative. So it was off to the audition we went.

As we climbed the steps to the church that served as their audition space, I decided to cast myself in the role of “Super Enthusiastic Dad.” I told Eli it was going to be great and win, lose or draw this was going to be fun and cool and if they were making their decision based on handsomeness he would be a shoo-in.

They immediately scooped Eli up for auditions and I was left to sit on a lumpy, fetid couch. I cast myself as “Slightly Less Enthusiastic Dad.” There was an air of desperation among the budding stage moms/dads I found kind of gross. I also remembered feeling awful for every kid I ever auditioned in my old advertising days. There were also a couple teens running lines nearby in exaggerated, horrible British accents that I wanted to slap.

Our neighbor Chris plopped down next to me to wait for his daughters. He was clearly cast as “Unenthusiastic Dad.”

“I remember when I was a kid, we used to just play. We would leave in the morning and then if we didn’t come home by dinner our parents would become mildly concerned. We didn’t have any of these clubs or plays or whatever these things are.”

“Well,” I said, “We live in Evanston. If we don’t put our kids in clubs and plays they make us go live in Rogers Park.”

Eli emerged from the audition and I resumed my role as “Super Enthusiastic Dad.” I told him I was proud of him and I loved him. He seemed enthusiastic as well, and for the first time in his life seemed as though he might be into something. Not in a detached, ironic for a 9 year old way. Maybe acting would be his thing. Maybe he would follow in his mother’s footsteps and do cheese commercials and be an elbow in a movie and get hit on by Jon Favreau.

Of course he didn’t get the part.

It didn’t crush him or anything, but I could tell he was bummed and I felt strangely like a failure as a father. But he got over it and went back to his true passion: watching Youtube videos.

Yesterday, Diana told him she heard from the theatre that no 9 year olds ever get into those plays and if you keep doing the club, you have a much better chance of getting in next time.


“Great. We’ll sign you up again.”

“No. I meant, ‘okay that makes sense,’ not, ‘okay I am going to do acting club ever again.’”

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Chicken Tenders

We recently had a few friends over for a BBQ, where I made my soon to be famous “One Hundred Dollars Worth Of Meat” recipe. Eli, who was not interested in even fifty cents worth of the meat I was lovingly massaging with olive oil, salt and pepper, offered to make chicken tenders for the kids because, you know, kids.

This made me very happy. I find that as he spends more time on the computer and with his pals, he has less and less time for me. And I didn’t have the foresight to shove a sports team down his throat when he was little. So cooking is kind of our thing together.

I get to yell at him about washing his hands and give him tips for proper technique like, “The 90’s Station on Pandora is the only music you should ever listen to while cooking. No Consomme has ever been a success without Pearl Jam.”

Eli got his Mise en Place all ready, washed his hands until they were raw (as instructed) and started frying up little nugs. And you know what? They were great. Sure he followed directions, but he added a little of his personality, a little creativity to the dish. In the form of salt.

About 20 minutes before the guests arrived, I was in the weeds with my C-Note Meat. Everything was way behind and not coming together as well as I’d liked.

Eli decided this was the time to quit. “I’m bored and there is too much chicken and the oil keeps burning me.”

I didn’t want to ruin this thing we have, so I told him he could bail. If only because our neighbor Callie had just arrived and I knew I could force her to do my bidding. I put her on scalding oil duty.

Scalding duty was eventually transferred to Lexa, who like all good mothers did not want to see her daughter maimed over an appetizer. This was doubly nice of her since she is a vegetarian and we can all agree chicken is the grossest of the raw meats.

Eventually I got the money meat on the table and we had a grand old time.

At one point one of the dads in attendance casually showed me a chicken tender his son had given him. It had a bite out of it, revealing a gelatinous completely uncooked center.

I tossed it into the garbage disposal and told him I’m sure it was an isolated incident. I also reminded him it’s extremely difficult to win any damages in a Salmonella lawsuit.

I then taught Eli the most important lesson of any chef: If you cook, mommy has to clean.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Saved By The Bell

I know this is cheating, but here is another thing I wrote for The A.V. Club. You can see the whole thing with some other, much better writing here:

As my sons inch closer to the school year with the enthusiasm of cats being driven to a waterpark, they’ve become interested in what high school was like when I was young. Was I cool? Did I play sports? Was I a hit with the ladies?

Like all fathers faced with such questions, I lied my face off. I blurted out, “I was exactly like Zack Morris.”

Why should my boys know I was a 98-pound wimp who slept with a Grover stuffed animal when they can envision me as a beautiful rogue with great hair and an ability to stop time?

I sat them down for a viewing of “Saved By The Bell,” which I assured them was a completely accurate portrayal of my culturally diverse friends and me.
“SBTB” aired from 1989 through 1993. It was a retool of a Disney Channel series called “Good Morning, Miss Bliss” and followed the lighthearted exploits of nerd Samuel “Screech” Powers (Dustin Diamond), cheerleader Kelly Kapowski (Tiffany-Amber Thiessen) jock A.C. Slater (Mario Lopez) activist Jessie Spano (Elizabeth Berkley), rich girl Liza Turtle (Lark Voorhies) and my faux doppelganger Zack Morris (Mark-Paul Gosselaar). A few hapless adults like Principal Belding (Dennis Haskins) were thrown in to hand out advice and catch phrases.
The show was wildly popular among sheltered Midwesterners like me and spawned a few spin offs, a made for TV movie, a pop-up restaurant, mean-spirited book and even a potential felon.
The show was extremely safe and milquetoast and rarely delved into any realistic high school situation other than dipping a toe into drug use (caffeine pills!) and divorce. Exactly the kind of depiction I want my sons to believe in until puberty ruins them.
I chose the classic “Dancing to the Max” episode where Zack and Slater fight over Kelly as their dance partner for contest hosted by Casey Kasem. Crappy dancer Zack ends up with Jesse, Lisa ends up with Screech, we are all introduced to the winning dance called “the sprain” and everyone is in bed by 8:30.
The moment the black bars of the 4:3 aspect ratio appeared on our TV, we were doomed. Before the painfully 90’s intro was over, I had to physically restrain my 6 year old from escaping. My boys hated the awful dialogue, dayglow clothes and canned laughter.
I tried to steer the conversation to guy Zack Morris.  Wasn’t he cool? How about those straight teeth? Doesn’t he remind you of a certain dad?

They wondered aloud why I would ever want to be like someone with such bad hair. We then turned the TV to the far more accurate depiction of teens on current slate of The Disney Channel.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

First and Fourth

Last night, I scooped up Luca and sat him on my lap. “You know. It’s perfectly ok to be scared about going to school. Everyone gets scared. Your teacher is scared. Your principal is scared. I was scared every first day of school of my life.”

This did not have the comforting effect I had hoped.

Elijah shouted from the other room, “Not everyone is scared about school!” and I muttered a swear that would be repeated over and over again by the boys throughout the night.

I could not sleep. What is wrong with me? Why do I tie myself into knots about my kid’s first day of school? It’s not my first day of school. I would totally kill it as a first grader. I can write in cursive!

This morning, I channeled all of my anxiety into Grover the dog, who I was convinced was dying.

“If he dies, I am moving to New Mexico to live in the desert,” I proclaimed.

“Why New Mexico and are you planning for us to live with you?” Diana asked.

We made it to school, but not before blocking someone’s driveway with my car and almost slamming into an SUV while parallel parking.

It was raining, so the painful drop off was inside. Eli ejected himself from his family with shocking enthusiasm. But that was fine by me. I needed to concentrate all my efforts on freaking Luca out. “It’s ok. It’s ok. It’s ok,” I mumbled to him while squeezing his hand way too hard.

We made it to the gym where kids with emotionally stable parents were waving goodbye and joining their classes.  As we guided Luca to his line, he stopped short and said, “I’m scared.”

He then looked up at me while chocking back tears, looking for some kind of support. This was my chance to set him off on the right track. To give him a speech about manning up and facing your fears and that this will be the best year of his life.

I just stared back at him with my eyes also brimming with tears.

Diana swooped in and grabbed him by the hand. She comforted him in a way that only a normal human can. She also hailed the teacher over for a little chat about first day jitters. His teacher was great and peppy and got everyone out the door, but not before Luca looked back at me with an expression that could level a town.

We drove home in silence. I considered just going back to bed for the day, but I could tell Diana needed a little Rickless time.

After moping around the office for a few hours I got this email from Luca’s teacher, by way of Diana:

“He is doing just great!  He really jumped right in as we left the gym and he helped out a friend who couldn't find their locker.  He's been smiling and participating and looks like a different person than the one you said good-bye to.  

I hope that helps!  I'll keep an eye on him, too, for the rest of the day, and I hope you get a good report after school…”

I felt much better, happy with the knowledge I had a full year before having to go through this again.