Our Spooky Town

Only a few days after we moved into our new home last January, we were driving on the main highway, and we passed by a hideous warehouse-type store that was painted a dull, cheap shade of orange.

“What’s that?” Sutton asked.

“Um… that’s Spookytown.”

That’s what the sign out front said, though instead of o’s in the word “Spooky”, there were two fiery red demon eyes.  If I thought the name might scare my kids, I was dead wrong.

“Oooh, can we go there?” Sutton pleaded.

“No, it’s only open around Halloween.”

She brought up Spookytown constantly — whenever we passed by it, whenever the subject of Halloween came up, and sometimes completely unprompted.  “Next Halloween, we’ll go to Spookytown!” she announced.  “I won’t be scared, because it’s just pretend.”

She was simultaneously horrified and fascinated.  At two years old and change, scary is supposed to be simple.  If something’s scary, you stay away from it.  But here, there was this store that sold nothing but scary stuff, and people went there ON PURPOSE.  My curious little girl was dying to learn more.

As someone who’s never much liked Halloween, it’s taken me some adjustment having a daughter who’s obsessed with it.  She brings it up every single day, all year round — more than Christmas, more than her birthday.  The topics range from what her costume will be to the character traits of different types of monsters like vampires, ghosts and wolfmen to, of course, Spookytown.

We drove past that deserted eyesore for months, and every time, it launched a conversation.  Then one day, it was gone.  Spookytown disappeared, and overnight, a tile store moved in.  They slapped on a fresh coat of paint, installed a new sign and dismantled the demon eyes.

Sutton was crushed — and Halloween was only getting closer.  “We’ll find another Spookytown,” we assured her.

For months, she lived with the uncertainty of not knowing where her October scares would come from.  Drew and I know that Halloween stores are the bad pennies of retail.  You can always count on one showing up again.  Sutton was forced to take our word for it.

Then, in late September, there it was, a quarter of a mile up the road from the old Spookytown.  New Spookytown.  The second we saw it, Drew jerked the steering wheel toward the parking lot and the tires screeched cartoonishly as we skidded up to the entrance.

It was, as expected, a shithole.

There were cheap packaged costumes, cheap overpriced decorations, and a display of animatronic ghouls in a decorative graveyard.  Even though the store had just opened, only half of them seemed to moan on cue.

The kids loved it.

The way they ran from the Smurf costumes to the zombie makeup rack, shrieking at full dog-whistle pitch, it was like they were in Disneyland.

Neither of them could make up their minds what costumes they wanted to wear, so we bought them each three different ones over the last month.  I know, we’re suckers, but we’ve gotten plenty of use out of them with all the costume parades we’ve had up and down the hallway of our house.

As we counted down the days to Halloween, reports started coming in of an unprecedented storm headed directly for us.  Drew and I gathered candles and filled the bathtub with water, while the kids played quietly with their toys and talked about candy.

“Why did you take down the pumpkin in the front yard?” Bennett asked.

“Because the Frankenstorm is coming,” I said.

It seemed like a joke, like the kind of twisted boogeyman parents make up to scare kids.  A Frankenstorm.  But this wasn’t something out of Spookytown.  It was real, and Drew and I were genuinely scared.

Somehow, the storm that tore apart most of our geographic area left us untouched.  The lights flickered a few times, but we never lost power.  By Halloween morning, everything seemed normal.  I put the kids in their costumes and herded them to the car.

“Who wants to go to Spookytown?” I asked.  They went nuts.

It seemed like a simple plan.  We’d been to Spookytown half a dozen times over the last few weeks.  Why not now?  I made a right turn off our street and almost immediately had to hit the brakes.  Up ahead, the road was blocked by a giant tree.

It was just sitting there.  No one was even trying to remove it.  I turned down a different street, and I soon realized why that fallen tree wasn’t a priority.  There were downed trees everywhere, practically one every block.  I saw one that had landed on the roof of a house, but mostly they were in the streets.  It was like driving in a maze, constantly having to turn around and find a different path.

The ten minute drive to Spookytown took forty-five minutes, even with almost no traffic on the roads.  When we pulled into the parking lot, it was eerily empty.  A man at the door told us that the store had no power.  It was their biggest day of the year — in fact, the only day that really mattered — and they weren’t sure if they’d even be able to open.

I took the kids instead to the supermarket.  It was open, but barely functional.  The shelves had yet to be restocked from the pre-storm hysteria.  The freezers were cordoned off with police tape, and what remained in the refrigerated cases was marked “Not for sale”.  Employees whose job was to fill up the shelves were instead spending the morning throwing things away.  Clearly, they had lost power at one point, and all the perishables had perished.

So this was our Halloween.  One thing was for sure: it delivered on spookiness.

The only bright side was that my kids didn’t have many past Halloweens to compare this to.  For all they knew, this was a kick-ass All Hallow’s Eve.  We decided that our afternoon would be spent watching Halloween specials on TV and having a pizza party.  You know, typical Halloween stuff.

Then, the doorbell rang.  It was Cinderella.  She had tiny glass slippers and a school jacket draped over her light blue ball gown.  Her tiny arms spread open the mouth of a shopping bag full of fun sized candies.

In my 17 years in Los Angeles, living in apartments and condos with security codes, I’d never had a single trick-or-treater come to my door.  This was the first time I’d given candy to a little kid in a costume since I was a kid myself.

I thought Halloween had been canceled, but when I looked up and down my block, I saw more of them.  Harry Potters and Spider-Men and, for some weird reason, a lot of Crayola crayons.  (Seriously, what the hell?  Is there a factory nearby?)

“Drew!” I shouted.  “Trick-or-treaters!  Tons of them!”

It was like the sappy final reel of a Christmas movie, where the protagonist loses his last bit of holiday spirit only to glance out the window and see snow falling or Scrooge hoisting a roast goose.

A Halloween miracle.

We turned off Dora’s Halloween episode and raced the kids to the door.  “You guys want to go trick-or-treating?” we asked.

“YEAH!!!!”

It was the best Halloween ever.

newyorkercover

It’s a Mommy’s World – Exposing Dadscrimination

Nice try, New Yorker cover.  Hey, can you tell me where to find that park where there are so many cool dads that moms feel left out, because I have a feeling you need to live in a cartoon in order to get there.  I’ve been doing the stay-home dad thing for going on three years now, and I still feel like Marisa Tomei at Hillman College, if you know what I mean.

According to the 2010 census, there are 154,000 stay-home dads in the U.S.

154,000?  That’s not even a lot of people in Delaware.  Isn’t that exactly the number of Wayans brothers?  We couldn’t take over Lichtenstein with those numbers.  You really think we’re taking over parks?

Look, I’m not one to cry “oppression”.  I’m a middle-class white male, after all.  My kind have had it pretty good for the last few millennia or so.  Yes, I’m also gay, but let’s put that aside for a minute.  Other than that, I’m fairly demographically charmed.

Still, I’m in a minority group because of what I do for a living, and as a result I face a particular kind of prejudice on a daily basis.

That’s right.  I’m talking about “Dadscrimination”.  There may be more of us than there used to be, but in a lot of ways, the world still doesn’t get us.  We’re second-class parents, a joke or an afterthought.  Yo, it’s hard out here for a Daddy.

From the serious to the semantic, here are just a few of the ways dads get the shaft:

- The Mommification of Everything Parent-Related

You never see “Men at Work” signs anymore.  It’s always “Crew Working In Trees”.  We don’t call them “Policemen” or “Mailmen”, they’re “Officers” and “Postal workers.”  But when it comes to parenting, everything’s “Mommy”.  “Mommy movies”, “Mommy & Me” classes, “Mommy wars”, “Mommy Zumba”.  It’s as if the M-word is synonymous with “parent”.  No matter what barriers we break down in terms of gender inequality, inclusiveness goes out the window once you have kids.

I’ll admit I’ve never been to a Mommy movie, mostly because neither my kids nor I are interested in a film whose title is preceded by the words “Katherine Heigl in…”.

I did take a Mommy & Me class when my kids were young, although I think the kids and I all snuck in through the “Me” loophole.  Some parenting groups won’t even allow men.  I get it.  Ladies want to talk about breastfeeding (and do it) in privacy.  But until there are enough stay-home dads to sustain a decent-sized get-together, we don’t have a lot of places to turn for information.  I’m going to vouch for straight dads, too.  They’re not trying to look at your boobs.  We’re all just doing it for our kids, so please let us crash your party.

- The Boob Tube.

My only role model

If you’ve ever turned on TV between when school starts and the work day ends, you know it’s slim pickins for anyone with a moderate amount of testosterone in their system.  Good thing we have Tivo, On Demand and Netflix Instant or we’d be stuck with nothing but endless infotainment featuring doctors, judges and chattering coffee-sippers sitting on stools.  You know what I’m talking about .  The “The” shows.  “The View”, “The Talk”, “The Chew.”  Yes, there’s really a show called “The Chew”, and if I didn’t love my kids so much, that alone would be reason enough to go back to work and throw them in day care.

And what about choosy dads? I’m all ears, Madison Avenue!

Of course, no one is blinder to the existence of stay-home dads than advertisers.  Check the commercial breaks during those aforementioned shows, and you’ll see what I mean.  Look, I buy the Lemon Pledge in my family.  Would it kill you to show a dude dusting his fine wooden surfaces now and then?

- The Great Potty Disparity.

Nowhere is the disparity between dads and moms more obvious or extreme than in public restrooms.  I’ve already written about one bad experience I had at a children’s play center, but it’s an ongoing concern.  Too many businesses only put changing tables in the women’s bathrooms, which is not just dadscrimination but sexist, too.  Who says wiping poopy tushies is just a woman’s job?  If dads aren’t changing their kids, they should be.

Photo courtesy of JustBathroomSigns.com

There’ve been times I’ve had to wait outside a women’s bathroom until the coast was clear so I could go in and change a diaper.  Other times, I’ve had to lay my kid down on a scummy men’s room floor in the shadow of a urinal or take them back to my car just to get the job done.

Nothing makes me happier than seeing a Family Bathroom, because I know it’s well-equipped and Dad-friendly.  I know a lot of small businesses don’t have the funds or the square footage to add a third bathroom, let alone one with curtain-shielded rocking chairs for discreet feeding.  But at any public establishment that welcomes families, Koala Kares in the men’s room are a must, or personally, I’m going to find somewhere else to pump my kids full of chicken fingers.

- Perv stares at the park.

I don’t hover over my kids at the park, but I’m always watching them closely from afar, for two very important reasons: 1, so they don’t get seriously hurt and 2, so they’re not snatched up by a perv.

We all know public recreation areas are pedophile smorgasbords, but here’s the irony: While I’m standing there by myself, eyes narrowly focused on a child who’s frolicking far off, then turning occasionally in a different direction to eyeball my other kid, what do I look like?  That’s right…

A LOUSY, STINKING PERV.

Ask any dad, and he’ll tell you: In a Mommy’s world, you are assumed creepy until proven otherwise.

Stay-home dads often fit the perv profile — middle-aged guys who look tired and unshaven, wearing yesterday’s Spaghetti-O-stained t-shirt and seeming as if they didn’t have time to take a shower that morning.  We spend a lot of time at playgrounds and toy stores.  And if you catch us in a moment when our kids aren’t eagerly tugging at our pant legs and begging us for some Dora the Explorer fruit snacks, we might look like we’re just there to case the joint.

In researching this piece, I came across this post from Daddy Dialectic, who faced the ultimate indignity.  Someone actually asked him to leave a park because she assumed he was a predator.  He did a survey and found out it was more common than he thought.  Having read that, I consider myself lucky that that’s never happened to me.

When I get a perv stare, I’m always quick to establish contact with my kids, just to prove my credibility.  Of course, that only works when your kids back you up.  One time, while my daughter was throwing a tantrum at Target, she yelled out, “Where’s my Mommy?”  That’s the only time that’s ever happened, but if the wrong person had been listening, I could’ve ended up in a one-on-one with store security.  Thanks, kid.

- Mommy cliquishness.

I thought my days of feeling hopelessly uncool ended with high school, but that was before I tried striking up conversations with stay-home moms.  Anywhere moms gather, dads are outcasts.

At least this is one area where gay dads have an edge.  Once I out myself, moms tend to get friendlier.  Maybe their real fear is that I’ll be some suave male homewrecker like Patrick Wilson in Little Children.

I suspect it’s something deeper and darker.  Most women just don’t respect men who stay home with their kids.  They see other women raising kids and think, sure, she’s a traditionalist or a post-modern feminist proving she doesn’t need a career to be a strong woman.  Go, sister!

When they see a man raising kids, they think he’s lazy.  They can’t help imagining his poor wife busting her ass trying to make partner while he stays home wearing flip-flops and eating Fritos on the couch.

- The presumption of cluelessness. 

When Drew and I were exploring our parenting options, we saw a counselor to help us sort things out.  She was smart, supportive and extremely helpful.  She quickly became one of my favorite people I’ve ever met.

Then, after the kids were born, I lamented how hard it was sometimes to soothe them when they were crying.  Our counselor just shrugged and said, “Well, you’re a dude.”

I was stunned, but I’ve since realized that’s how a lot of people think.  “That poor guy, alone with his kids.  He must be in over his head.”

Thanks, I’m doing fine, and you can spare me your advice, strangers.  I prefer to screw my kids up my way, not yours.

OK, fair enough.  Moms get unsolicited advice, too, and they hate it just as much.  Maybe this is one area where dads are catching up to moms faster than we’d like.

I know dadscrimination isn’t the worst form of bias.  Nobody’s making us sit in the back of any buses or denying us the right to vote.  I won’t be leading any marches on Washington or trying to become daddyhood’s Malcolm X.  Mostly, I just wanted a chance to vent.

Aren’t dads allowed to complain once in a while, too?

OK, gotta go.  My kids are waking up.

Donald Trump Announces Scottish Golf course Plans

What If My Kids Are A**holes?

What would you say about someone who exhibited the following behaviors:

  • Demanding things over and over, without even giving you time to respond?
  • Letting every minor inconvenience or frustration spur a complete screaming, crying meltdown?
  • Ordering you around without ever saying “please” or “thank you” unless specifically requested to do so every single time?
  • Dismissing your well-intentioned efforts with a loud “No!” and a contemptuous swipe of their hand?
  • Being completely unmoved by rational arguments?
  • Responding to disappointment merely by increasing the volume and intensity of their demand?
  • Cutting you off with an insincere “Sorry!” when you’re upset in hopes of avoiding a lecture?

Sounds like a real a-hole, right?  But what if they had a face like this:

Only a real douchebag would call them a-holes, right?

And yet… that’s exactly how I would describe that kind of behavior in anyone else.  When I encounter an adult who acts the way my kids do, I distance myself from them as quickly and thoroughly as possible.  I’ve ended friendships over that kind of behavior.  I’ve quit jobs.  I’ve asked to speak to the store manager.

But because they’re my kids, I’m stuck dealing with it.  Even worse, I’m expected to correct their obsessive, petty selfishness and turn them into decent human beings.  Geez, no pressure or anything.

I know this is supposedly a phase that all kids go through, but it’s hard not to worry that what I’m seeing now is something darker, the first true glimpse of my children’s souls.

What if my kids are… just jerks?

What if I’m not dealing with the terrible twos… but with terrible people?

Every short-fused, condescending egotist in the world was 2 years old once.  How do you tell the difference between them and the ones who are just going through a healthy stage of human psychological development?

Can you?

Bennett’s such a happy kid, always laughing.  But sometimes I wonder if he’s laughing at me.  Tell him not to drop his bowl of yogurt on the floor, and he won’t… until your back is turned.  Then you’ll hear a thud, accompanied by a precious little cackle.  He’s a prankster, but what if it’s not just some innocent boundary-testing that he’s doing?  What if he’s a budding Bernie Madoff?

Sutton’s verbal abilities are superior to those of most grown-ups I know.  Drew and I are stunned how quickly she learns and how well she remembers.  It’s gotten to the point where we don’t even have to quiz her on new concepts anymore.  She’ll ask and answer her own questions.  “What does ‘busy’ mean?  It means you have a lot to do!  Who’s that?  Dora’s friend Tico!  What does an elephant say?  [insert trumpeting sound accompanied by upward arm motion]”  It’s impressive and adorable, until we start wondering… are we nourishing a young Cliff Clavin?

Face it.  What’s cute at 2 isn’t going to stay cute much longer.  By 5, it’ll be unbearable.  By 10, it’ll seem downright pathological.  And yet, some kids are undoubtedly headed down that very path.  The world has a long history of a-holes.

I’m sure it was positively adorable when toddler Dick Cheney spat a mouthful of strained peas in his dad’s face.  But spraying his friend’s face with buckshot during a duck hunt?  Not so cute.

What about Donald Trump?  I’ll bet the first full sentence he ever uttered was something along the lines of “I am without question the most admired baby who’s ever lived.”  When he said it, everyone probably went, “Awww!”  Then look what happened.

I try to steer my kids in the right direction.  I give time outs when they’re being particularly prickish.  I reward those increasingly rare occasions when they’re actually nice to their fellow man.  Then they turn around and misbehave again, and I feel like a chump.  Am I painstakingly shaping their malleable little psyches… or fighting a losing battle against their inner nature?

I mean, if one of my kids is the next Newt Gingrich or Shannen Doherty, they’re still my kid, right?  I’m not saying I’d vote for them or cast them in a serialized drama, but I’d set a place for them at Thanksgiving.

So I’ll keep trying… for now.  But at some point, I’m just going to give in and embrace who they are.  It’s not so bad, I guess.  After all, you can get pretty far in life behaving like a 2-year-old.

English: Newt Gingrich

The Birthday Party Pact

spongebob bounce houseWhen Drew and I were deciding whether to have kids, #1 in the “CON” column was birthday parties.  We imagined the next two decades would be full of the overindulgent, insufferable celebrations of our kids’ friends (and friends’ kids) every damn milestone, every damn weekend.  Ultimately, building a family together, adding love to our home and all that other crap won out, so we went for it.

Now, every Saturday and Sunday, we pay the price.

Truth be told, it’s not that bad.  Yes, we have a lot of parties to go to, but it turns out I actually like my kids’ friends and my friends’ kids – for now, at least.

Still, there are a few things that bug me about these parties, and they’re always the parents’ fault.

I know, the only thing worse than going to a kids’ birthday party is throwing one for your own kid.  It costs a fortune, it takes weeks of planning and it’s over in 30 seconds.

But we’re in this together, parents.  Birthday parties are a necessary evil, so let’s try to make them as painless as possible.  I’d like to lay out a few ground rules that I think will make this better for everyone involved.  Well, for the grownups, at least.  That’s what matters, right?

I hereby present the Birthday Party Pact:

1. Grownups get to eat, too.  Seriously, guys.  I like pizza.  I like cake.  Am I just supposed to stand there like an idiot and watch my kids stuff their faces with your wonderful junk food, then pick at their leftovers as I take their Elmo plates to the trash?  I’m starving!  I know it costs more to feed the grownups, but tough.  How ’bout this: I’m a guest at Timmy’s party, too, so if you didn’t order enough Little Caesars for everyone, then I get to raid your refrigerator. I’m not too proud to do it!

2.  Let’s keep things quick.  Two hours is more than enough festivity to expect of your guests.  When you see grown-ups looking bored or starting to pack their diaper bags, it’s time to bust out the cake.  If I don’t see frosting in the first 90 minutes, I’m dying inside.  The cake is what we’re waiting for, so don’t hold out on us. It’s torture.  Every conversation Drew and I have after the one hour mark is about how much longer it’s going to be until the cake comes and whether we should try to sneak out before then.  If I have to leave before you’ve served me cake, then your party was too long, and I’m probably going to stop at Frosted Cupcakery on the way home to get my sugar fix.  Happy?

Pinata graveyard

Image by Horace S. Patoot via Flickr

3. Gift bags?  Pfft!  I’m always impressed at some of the things my kids receive in gift bags.  People really go overboard.  It’s very nice, but totally unnecessary.  You spent enough money feeding my kids and entertaining them for the last no-more-than-two hours.  They don’t need parting gifts.  I mean, it’s not their birthday.  Save your money on the gift bags and get a better cake instead.  Speaking of which, chocolate is the universal flavor.  It’s your kid’s birthday.  Let them live a little.

4. Thanks, but no thank yous.  Don’t get me wrong.  I love thank yous.  They’re the perfect way to make our kids feel guilty about getting so much stuff.  But until they’re old enough to write their own, I hope you don’t expect me to do it on their behalf.  I’m not going to play with the Crayola Magic Color Explosion Super Mega Wheel, so why should I be punished?  Don’t worry.  You’re off the hook, too.  When I get a card that some sad grown-up felt compelled to write to me in their kid’s “voice”, I just laugh at them.  “I really love the thoughtful whatever-piece-of-crap you picked up at Target on the way to the party.  I play with it all the time.”  Really, it was nothing.  Trust me.

5.  Let your kid have some gifts.  When I’m throwing myself a party, I add a polite “no gifts” to the invitation.  I’m a grown man.  Taking gifts from friends feels tacky.  But kids are different.  Kids love getting stuff.  I know they don’t need it.  I know you’ve personally contributed about ten tons of perfectly good toys to the local dump because you simply didn’t have enough space for them all.  But let your kids walk into their birthday party and see a mountain of boxes in Dora The Explorer wrapping paper, all for them.  It’s priceless.  Personally, I was dreading the toy tsunami that would follow my kids’ party, but I have to say, our friends got them the nicest, most thoughtful gifts.  Educational toys, toys their own kids loved, toys I’d never heard of but that my kids went crazy for.  Just take them.  And if you don’t need something, regift it.  I’ll understand.

6.  Beer.  I’m always stunned when I go to a kid’s birthday party and there are two coolers.  One inevitably has Capri Sun or Juicy Juice or something, the other Michelob.  Seriously?  It’s 10am!  And we’re at Harriet the Hen’s Happy Shack.  But sure enough, I’ll see plenty of moms and dads pounding brewskies while their kids beat the juice out of a piñata.  All right, if that’s what you want, fine.  I’ll supply beer at my kids’ parties, too, and I’ll try my hardest not to judge you for drinking it.  Now how ’bout a Pepsi for those of us who want something in between a Cherry Cooler and a Mike’s Hard Lemonade?  Thanks.

7. Face Paint?  Color me pissed!  Am I the only one who thinks kids look creeeeeepy with face paint?  Or that it’s a secret plot by the tattoo industry to condition our children extra young?  (Wouldn’t they just love it if they created a whole generation of Mike Tysons willing to ink their faces?) I know I’m not the only one who hates cleaning that crap off my kids’ cheeks when we get home (or fighting with them to let me do it).  (Full disclosure – my kids haven’t actually had their faces painted yet, but I know someday it’s a fight I’ll lose.)  I think the only reason people hire face painters for kids’ parties is that kids demand it.  And why do they demand it?  Because of that one schmuck parent who thought it was cute back when the whole craze started.  Well, I say stop the madness.  If we all resist the face paint, it’ll go away forever!

There you go.  A few simple guidelines that will make the birthday party circuit more bearable for all of us.  And if you have something you want to add to the Birthday Party Pact, leave me a comment below.  Let’s finalize this thing and distribute it, OK?

Oh, and happy birthday, kid.  Wow, you’re getting so big.