Wednesday, April 17, 2013

5 Years of Saying So

In the spring of 2008, at a time when I was pulling my hair out over the willfulness of a 2-year-old and with running my own business, I was asked by Stacey Greenberg if I'd like to alternate Thursdays with her writing a column for The Commercial Appeal about what it's like to raise kids in Memphis. I had been writing about my kids on this very blog for two years already so I said, "Sure, why not."

The truth is I might have used an exclamation point or two in my answer. The truth is I never expected "Because I Said So" to last six months, such is the volatile nature of the newspaper industry and the tenuous grasp of any freelancer on any project. Yet here we are, five years later and I'm still given the opportunity to write it, still pulling my hair out over the willfulness of a now-6-year-old. Stacey has moved on so the opposite Thursdays are filled with . . . something, I don't really look at the paper on those days.

It's been a dream job, more than you can imagine. To be able to document the awesome responsibility of raising four children, the fun, the heartache, the fear. Those noises and smells. It's fun when we're stopped out at the grocery store or the bookstore by readers who ask, "Are these the children you write about?" And I answer, "Children? These aren't mine, I don't really have any kids." Oh, my children laugh at this every single time. It's the most minor celebrity anyone could ask for and the kids are always there to bring me back down to my proper level, and then some.

A lot has changed over these five years and hopefully some of it has produced interesting fodder for such a column. A lot more will happen over the next five and I hope I'm here tell you so in this column. We'll see. Thank you to everyone who helped make it possible, to my family for putting up with their foibles, faults and flatulence being spotlighted in the newspaper twice a month, and especially thanks to all of you who read regularly. Thank you for the comments, the letters and e-mails, the remarks in public. It means more to me than you will ever know.

On this fifth anniversary, here is the very first "Because I Said So" column that ran in The Commercial Appeal on April 17, 2008.

Real kids shrink notions of big family 
My grandparents, Bob and Shirley Fachini, raised seven children, a respectable number by anyone's standards. 
It was the 1950s and '60s, a much simpler era, I'm told. Families were larger then because this country needed as many citizens as possible to fight communism, go to Saturday movie matinees for a nickel and colonize the moon. 
They would later come to call these babies "boomers," because of how much noise that many children, at one time, in one place, will make. 
Their house was warm and loving and, sure, it was cramped, but they made do. Bob built a table large enough for everyone to eat around, and Shirley sewed dresses for the girls. 
It sounds like an idyllic time, and the stories of the antics of my aunts and uncles as kids have engaged me since I was a child. 
It was those stories that had me wanting a large family of my own. 
My wife, Kristy, and I have four children between the ages of 21 months and 10 years. And, as it turns out, we're done. 
That's right. I don't know what got into my grandparents' brains to make them think seven kids was a good idea, but I'm afraid something had to be a little off for two intelligent people to willingly welcome that many little people to live with them. 
By stopping now, we're not squashing my dream of raising a big family, because four is the new seven. 
When Kristy and I tell people, especially new parents with only one child, that we have four, the look we get is generally awe and amazement. 
Never envy. 
Maybe just a hint of pity. Yes, mostly pity, now that I think of it. 
The truth is, we weren't exactly sure at the beginning what we were doing. 
Kristy researched parenting styles, while I was content, and over my head, just keeping the kid alive and somewhat happy. Ten years, and three babies later, it's still all I can do. 
But our home now is full of love. Just as much with love, in fact, as it is with discarded Pop-Tart wrappers, broken and mismatched toys, half-emptied cups of milk and diapers, both clean and dirty. 
Parenthood is an easy enough club to enter, though staying in the good graces of the club's membership board -- your kids -- is tricky. 
Nothing was easy for my grandparents either, yet they signed on for seven kids and dealt with them as they showed up. And if they could handle seven, then four should be cake, right? Or at least a chocolate icing-smeared face smiling up at us. 
We're doing our best with our quartet, in the spirit and with the tenacity of my grandparents. 
We'll send them to the best schools we can, we will communicate openly with them and we'll raise them to be caring and informed citizens, who will one day, hopefully, grow up to colonize the moon.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Because I Said So: Keep 'Welcome Back' sign ready for empty nest

My nest may never empty, not even for a night. S spent the night with a friend last night, but GK had one sleep over here. At the last minute, C went to a friend's for the night, so there are only three kids in my house as I write this. Only two of them are mine. I should probably feed all of them anyway.

In this week's Because I Said So column, I write about my youngest daughter's trial run with a
sleepover at a friend's house. It lasted about four hours. Not bad. My first one, at her same age, didn't last much longer than that. That boy whose house I went to is grown now and an ophthalmologist in Midtown with an office not two miles from where he lived then. The house was one on Peabody just off Belvedere and it towered over me just as his siblings did. Brothers and sisters were everywhere, it seemed, and delighted in chasing him down and lifting him up to swing him around by his ankles. It scared the hell out of me. Was I next?

I went home early that evening instead of staying and I'm not sure when a sleepover actually stuck, when I was able to get through my anxieties and fear of the new and unknown to stay all night. I wish I could remember so I could tell GK. Maybe it was the next weekend, maybe it was the next year.

A trial run is good, for them and for us. Having the four kids sleep out overnight would give us a look into the future at what our nest might be like when it's full of peace and quiet. Until then, we'll keep ruffling some feathers and breaking some eggs, and we'll welcome any little birdies who don't mind a crowd.

Keep your 'Welcome Back' sign at the nest 
My youngest daughter found a bird’s nest on the ground the other day and collected it. I can see it from my office window where she left it on the front porch. It puts me in mind of the term “empty nest” as it pertains to a house whose children have left, flown off into the world to make their own lives in their own way. 
I wonder if that nest on the front porch would hold me and this computer. 
There must be a thrill that comes with standing at the door and waving your child goodbye, his car laden down with furniture and books and clean laundry on his way to college, or a second marriage, or for whatever reason it is that children leave home. Don’t get me wrong, I want them to visit, and often, but I wonder about that sensation of seeing them go and then turning back to your empty nest and breathing air that is all yours, tasting the food in the fridge that is all yours and knowing that if you turn off the television, it will stay off. Does Nickelodeon even exist if there are no children to watch it? 
We get a taste of such solitude early on. It’s called the sleepover, and it’s a rite of passage as meaningful as anything else — driver’s license, graduation, that first marriage. My youngest daughter, Genevieve, the nest collector, had her very first sleepover a couple of weekends ago. It did not go well. She was excited, of course; sleeping at a friend’s house is an adventure. It might as well be a trip to the moon with new foods and sounds, a different place to watch television and way of doing things. 
Somewhere around 10 p.m., though, there was a text followed shortly by a knock on the door and there was Genevieve, standing where that empty nest rests. Her friend’s parent was kind enough to bring her home, and kind enough to comfort her before that. Sometimes, these rites just don’t take the first time. 
I told her not to worry, that it happens to all of us. At least you made it past dark, I said. I was in the first grade as well for my first sleepover. The boy lived in a large home in Central Gardens and I couldn’t have been more excited about the chance to stay in such a grand palace overnight. I remember little of it, other than he had a dozen or so siblings if memory serves, and they were a rambunctious bunch who, I see now, loved their little brother. They chased him around and grabbed him up by his ankles, lifting him as high as they could. I might have been next and it terrified my 7-year-old self. My mother pulled back onto that tree-lined street before darkness fell. 
We give our children the things they’ll need in life — manners, confidence, a sense of right and wrong, a toothbrush wrapped in a baggie they’ll probably never use and then leave behind. After that, all we can do is stand on the porch beside whatever trash they decided at one time to collect and wave goodbye, knowing that, if things get rough, they will be back and they will be welcomed.

Tuesday, April 02, 2013

Because I Said So: Teach kids to enjoy city with family

The kids' spring break was a couple of weeks ago and I had big plans. I was going to get on a plane by myself and fly to Antigua where I would charter a sailboat and wend my way down through the Caribbean. Those plans didn't pan out - didn't even make it out of my head - so I opted for a "staycation" instead. I loathe that word, but there it is. I hate it almost as much as the word "blog," yet stay we did. And we cationed, I suppose. And now, I blog.

G & S dig Isaac Hayes' ride
My plan was to see the city, to introduce the kids to where they live, from what they are molded and what it is they should cherish. I wanted to see Sun Studio and the National Civil Rights Museum, the Memphis Botanic Gardens and the Mississippi River itself. I wanted to stroll around the grounds of the Dixon Gallery & Gardens and maybe watch the ducks march at the Peabody Hotel. I wanted soul food from the Four-Way Restaurant.

Fate, however, conspired against us. There was some sickness and days of rain and cold. And, all of these things are quite expensive to do, so we had to be choosey. We visited the Stax Museum of American Soul and had lunch at Dino's Grill, now celebrating their 40th year in business (congratulations!). There was a chalk festival at the Brooks Museum of Art, and some time at the Memphis Zoo.

It was a nice week without much structure as is our wont. And there was plenty to learn, and to relearn, about the city and all it has to offer, from music to food to friends and family. Everyone everywhere, given the chance, should get on a plane sometime and head to the islands and, if you can't do that, then get out in your city and explore. You never know what you might learn.

Last week's Because I Said So column:

Teach kids to enjoy city with family

The week before last, for about half a week, it was springtime in Memphis. Remember that? Temperatures in the 70s, sunshine, the
saucer magnolia in my front yard even dared to show its colors. Luckily for my kids, that was during their spring break, and we took full advantage of it.

The Memphis Brooks Museum of Art held a chalk art festival with folks creating their own works of art on the plaza in front of the museum. Kids got into the act as well and turned the concrete into a rainbow of butterflies, puppies, squiggly lines and shapes. It looked as if spring had fallen upon Midtown alone and blossomed in chalk dust.

From there, it’s only a hop and a skip to the Memphis Zoo. A short trip unless it’s 70, sunny and spring break. The line of cars waiting to get in snaked through the park and down Poplar. Everyone, it seemed, wanted to see the snakes. Or, more accurately, they wanted to touch a stingray. We never did make it into that exhibit; the lines there were too overwhelming for impatient children (and adults). We’ll make a special trip for the rays.

The highlight of the week for me was a visit to the Stax Museum of American Soul Music. The museum is a treasure trove of soul, blues, styles and grooves. My kids laughed at Isaac Hayes’ hats and boots; they dug his car with its fuzzy floor and gold detail. They swayed and strutted on the dancefloor in front of a floor-to-ceiling episode of “Soul Train,” and they marveled at the display of black Frisbees. “Those are records,” I explained.

My favorite part is the short film shown at the beginning of every visit. I’ve seen it before, and it never fails to bring a lump to the throat. Stax, in its heyday, rode a wave of hits, fame, funk and, most inspirational, family. Steve Cropper, legendary guitarist for Booker T. & the MG’s, says in the film that when you walked into Stax, you were family. Color did not matter. Until it did. When things turned after that tragic April 4 in 1968, a day we’ll commemorate next week, neither Stax nor the city of Memphis would ever be the same.

In the 10 years since the museum opened, though, that tide has turned again. I saw it two weeks ago in a museum where black and white, young and old, all studied the rise and fall of a great American sound. We laughed at the size of the collars, wiped a tear at the story of a plane crash and danced to the same beat. In a park across town on another day, my kids sidled up to others from throughout the city to revel in color. At our world-class zoo, where there was once a day of the week set aside for black-only visitors, multitudes of all ethnicities wandered.

Last week saw the official first day of spring, though the predicted snow the following day said otherwise. Either way, the long winter hibernation is over. It’s time to get out and visit your city, wherever you live; learn what it holds, its history good and bad, and enjoy time with family that you know, and that you have yet to meet.
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