Lost Stars

E and I were lying on the bed in the master bedroom, reading. He always gets a book from school for his daily reading log, and often the book is leveled just right for reading with a parent: a few words he knows, enough short words that he can sound out, and a few words that he needs a lot of help with. Always a refrain of sorts, something easily remembered that he can just repeat.

Today’s book: My Dad and I.

We made it through the book, which was about all the things the narrator’s dad teaches him to do and all the things he teaches his dad to do, and E began teaching me about his star behavior system in school. Of course I knew all about it: I just had a conference with his teacher a few weeks ago, and we get a daily report about how many stars he ended the day with. But of course I let him explain it.

“We start with three stars, and if we do something wrong, we lose a star.” He paused, then added, “I haven’t lost a star yet this year.”

What will he do when he loses a star?

Afternoon Ride

We went back to a favorite park this afternoon — the kids and K went the short way in the car; I went a somewhat longer way by bike, just to see what the route was like.

I found myself out of suburbia and in the “country” in a matter of kilometers, and I got to thinking about taking a new way to work when I ride. It would double my current distance, but 90% of the ride was so much more pleasant.

This meant that everyone got a headstart on the walk/ride.

That meant I missed all the manhole climbing that inevitably takes place. Still, there are mysteries: did Clover jump up or was she placed? Certainly the latter.

I also missed all of L’s silly games. I don’t know if it’s just a little way to exert a bit of control over the Boy or if she’s actually enjoying it, but she sometimes proposes to E that they play something that place her clearly in a place of authority. Today, she had to check the bikes every time we reached one of the walking-only wooden bridges.

I finally caught up to them just as they were climbing off yet another manhole cover. The Boy was ready to leave the slow girls behind, but first we had to walk across yet another bridge.

And then we got the idea for the picture, one that’s instantly become one of my favorite portraits of the two of us.

His expression is just classic E: so serious, trying so hard to be such a grown up little boy.

During our ride, the Boy noticed a family riding the opposite direction.

“That’s really dangerous,” he said.

“What?”

“They weren’t wearing helmets!” This morning, coming home from Mass, E kept checking that I was going the speed limit. I’m pretty sure he’s going to grow up to be a safety engineer. I can see him coming home for a visit and with his new, more diplomatic communication skills, beginning many a conversation with, “Um, Dad, about X you did in the backyard…”

Once we all regrouped back at the car, I headed home another way. I knew the trail we’d been riding on continued a bit further, and my thinking was that I might ride that whole trail to its end next time I rode to work. It will indeed be a pleasant ride, but not for a week like this week, when I have hall duty in the morning and must be at my station at 7:45. The idea of leaving before 6:40 to make it there in time with enough time to change — not going to work.

I got home and checked my stats on Strava and had the same depressing reaction: my average power output for the ride was right at 150 watts. Some perspective: amateur riders are considered decent riders, able to start small-scale races, with consistent power outputs of 250 watts for about two hours. At 300 watts, you’re really a good rider. The pros? They are over 400 watts for a four- to five-hour, 180-230 kilometer race, with the ability to crank it up to 700 watts for twenty minutes or so. That’s so unreal that it’s like watching Tommy Emmanuel’s fingers on the fretboard: “How is that even humanly possible?” I ask myself.

Camping with the Scouts

Camping is almost synonymous with Boy Scouts. To think of one without the other seems almost impossible. Whenever we’ve gone camping, it seems we almost always see some scouting group or another pitching their tents. We encouraged the Boy to join Cub Scouts by, in part, telling him about camping trips.

This weekend we had our first trip, and as I might have expected, he was terribly excited about it until Friday. “I don’t want to go camping,” became the day’s refrain. In the evening, though, I sold it to him by suggesting we might just need to have a men’s weekend. That did it, and so we did.

We packed our gear, kissed the girls goodbye, and headed to our first scout camping trip.

At first, the Boy was hesitant, careful. Shy. He ventured onto a playground after lunch (we arrived just after lunch because of the soccer game — one goal this weekend) and played around a bit, but he seemed to be playing apart from the other boys despite being in their very midst. He kept coming back to check on where I was, to make sure I was still around, and then to ask me if we could go.

“No, we’ve committed ourselves. We’ll be staying till tomorrow.”

“Okay.” No fussing, just resignation.

By dinner time, he’d made friends and disappeared in the storm of boys that raged around the camp. When the evening came and the pack leader began the scout meeting, he was only vaguely aware or worried about where I was.

By the time the sun had set and the pack leader had transitioned into the flag retirement ceremony, he wasn’t even paying attention to where I was.

But he was paying attention to what was going on. Sort of.

The leader discussed the proper way to handle a flag, the proper way to show respect, and then explained how to retire a flag. It involves fire, which is ironic considering all the controversy over the years regarding burning flags. Yet the pack leader explained that the flag is first cut into four pieces, three pieces with stripes and the star field left whole to signify the unity of the country, and at that point, it is no longer a flag.

“We burn the cloth,” he concluded, “then respectfully gather and bury the ashes.”

During evening prayers, he suggested we pray for the flag.

“What do you mean?”

“So that they never burn it like that again.”

Apparently, he’d misunderstood what was going on, and I suppose he’d simply sat and watched, somewhat horrified, as his pack leader instructed scouts to burn flags. I explained what had happened, and he seemed okay with it, but still a little disturbed.

In the morning, he was ready for more running, yelling, and falling with the boys. It was as if he’d forgotten all about it. I suppose he has, but we’ll see next year when we go again.

Hat Trick

The Boy has spent this autumnal soccer season running around the edges of the action. Last week, before the game, he insisted that he was going to push his way in like I’d told him to do. “Just go in there and get the ball.” And he did. Sort of. But he was still mostly just running around the periphery.

Today, K and the Girl joined us — next week is the final game — and E assured me as we all got into the car, “Today, I’m going to get in there like you told me.

During the pre-game practice/warm-up, things were just as they always are: the Boy at times seemed lost in all the distractions of other teams getting read, still other teams playing, adults moving here and there, and there are times when he was intensely focused on what the Coach Kevin told them to do.

The game began, and it looked like it would be a tough game for the opposing team: every single child was smaller than most of our team. As a child, you just want to win, to obliterate the other team; as an adult, you want your kid’s team to do well, but you want to see the other team do well also. Today seemed like that would be tough, and indeed, it was.

The Boy from the start seemed a little different. He was more aware of what was going on, and he even made some defensive plays that were impressive. At one point, a player from the other team made a break-away and was heading down the field to a certain goal, but the Boy chased him down and kicked the ball away from him at the last moment.

And then the moment — the moment, I thought. The Boy managed to take the ball at the baseline of the opposing team’s side, and navigated toward the goal, seemingly unopposed. But someone knocked the ball out at the last minute, and as it shot out of the bunch of kids, I thought, “Well, there goes his chance of scoring this year.”

Yet a few minutes later, the same thing happened, and he scored — his first goal. He came running across the field to tell us. “Mommy! Daddy! I scored a goal!” High fives from the coach; high fives from the family. It was just a bit magical for the Boy. But he wasn’t done.

He took a break — the kids don’t play halves but quarters, and most kinds play alternating quarters — and explained some of the finer points of scoring, as if he were Robert Lewandowski, the Polish soccer player who, with a hat-trick this week, became the all-time leading scorer for the Polish national team.

But when he went back in, he backed up his explanations with another goal, a beautiful break-away that he ended burning up the back of the goal. (Never mind that this week, like last week, the teams decided to play without goalies. That’s just a technicality.) Shortly after his second goal, he managed another escape, only to shot wide to the left.

“Too bad,” I thought. “It would be nice to get a hat-trick like Lewandowski.” And just as I was thinking such silliness, the Boy managed his third goal.

On the way back to the car, the Boy summed up the day perfectly: “I really went hard on those guys today.”

Linguist

Coming home from soccer today (“I really tried to do what you told me!” the Boy declared when assessing his performance: he got into the fray of children running around the ball and pushed his way in. Didn’t go for the ball, just nudged people here and there.), the Boy asked, “Daddy, if the letter is ‘A’ why does it have an ‘E’ sound in it?” I said the letter aloud, noticing that it actually has a diphthong at the end: a long ‘E’ sound.

“I don’t know.”

“Why isn’t it just ‘a’?” he asked, making the short ‘A’ sound.

“I don’t know.”

Point of View

We’ve been taking Clover over to our neighbor’s fenced in backyard while we wait to have our fence complete. Our neighbors, who are absolutely the best neighbors one could have, told us to feel free any time to bring the dog over to let her have unfettered free play, and we take them up on that generous offer daily. They even set a plastic chair out for whoever — usually K — is there with the dog.

Right now, I sit in that chair, and I glance over at our house and see K leading E into the house. It’s not clear if he’s hurt or in trouble, or perhaps neither, but for a moment, I’m an outsider looking at my family as if I were the neighbor.

What do I know about that odd family that lives next door?

The wife is a sweet and hard working woman from Poland, who has a slightly noticeable but endearing accent and a penchant for phrasing things in an unusual way. She’s clearly devoted to her children, and spends a great deal of time with them, often down at the little corner recreation area the family has made in the far corner of the lot. She fusses at her children from time to time, but I’ve never heard her yell.

The daughter was such a little girl when they moved here, a regular princess. How she’s changed and how she’s stayed the same. She was always dancing and prancing about as a princess as a little girl, but now I see her out in the driveway sometimes, roller-skates on, improvising some dance routine with the seriousness of an accountant. And how tall she’s grown: she’ll soon be as tall as her mother, I think.

Then there’s the little boy, who is always so eager to help. Every time I’m out washing the car or the camper, there he is, eager to help.

That’s what I think — hope, believe — my neighbor thinks of my family. And what might my neighbor think of me? That I’m helpful, a good father and husband, a good neighbor — all the normal things, I guess.

Helping

The Boy was playing a computer game just before dinner. He decided he needed the Girl’s help. She eventually helped him.

That’s the short version of it.

The long version includes coaching the Boy about how to ask for help without being an annoying and intrusive presence and encouraging the Girl to take an active role in helping the Boy through difficult experiences.

Busy, Long Saturday

The Game

He runs around the pack of children that are kicking wildly for the ball, circling the periphery without ever penetrating. At one point, the ball comes right to him. He looks at it and then glances around, his expression saying, “Well, I’m not really sure if this is mine or not, and I don’t really want to take it from anyone unfairly.”

I’ve told him several times that he has to penetrate that group, force his way in, push people out of the way if necessary.

“I try,” he insists, but I’m not convinced he even realizes what he’s doing. I try to take a video of it, but the sun is shining right into the phone, making dark silhouettes of all the players.

Even in the best of conditions, I’m not sure he would see the issue. When he runs, he does so with such intensity, such ferocity — his arms pumping wildly as he runs as fast as he can — that you would be forgiven for thinking he’s running down a challenge of existential significance. He sprints towards the ball, then slows and resumes his position as an outsider, a virtual on-looker.

On the way back to the car, he shows once again that it’s all irrelevant, that there are more important things to be concerned with, both as a child and a parent. Particularly the latter. Holding his Gatorade that he got as an after-game snack — most parents just bring juice boxes, but someone went all out, I guess — he declared, “I’m only going to drink half of this. L likes Gatorade, too.”

Maintenance

I’ve never been good about tool maintenance. Other things are a different. The bike I ride to school looks and rides like it’s brand new. My chain is always glistening; my cables are always in tip-top shape; my bottom bracket spins like there’s no tomorrow.

But tools? I let perfectly good things wear out. Isn’t that what they’re supposed to do? But when we retired our lawn mower a few months ago and bought a new, shiny Honda after a fair amount of research, I decided things would change with that mower. I began hosing it off thoroughly after each job, even the underside of the mower deck. (Having a fuel shut-off valve helped a lot.) Today, I took it a step further: I dug out an old brush and actually brushed off the stains forming on the underside of the deck.

“If you could only get that way about our cars,” K is surely saying to herself.

The Walk

We usually are going counter-clockwise, Clover and I. When we reach the yard — that yard — we approach it blindly. I know it’s there, but a stand of trees hides that fact. Clover knows soon enough when we’ve reached that spot, though: the two dogs come tearing at her, barking madly, stopped only by the fence. She pulls and pulls the opposite way, but I pull her in close to me, pet her and reassure her.

“It’s okay, Clover. They won’t touch you.”

Eventually we make it past the house, but she’s positively terrified.

That’s been the reality for a while. Today, we went the opposite way. When we approached the road from up the street, she recognized the house almost immediately, hesitated, then walked on. The dogs came out; the dogs barked; Clover kept walking.

The Swings