Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Bless this Mess and Other Clichés

For years I lamented the fact that I was living in a home meant for three people, but with six people's stuff in it. That was seven years ago when I had two fewer kids and lived 3,000 miles from where I am now. My mother had only been gone for two years and I had become the steward of all her possessions. Hers, and my brother's things she'd been storing and saving along with things my step father had left when he left. I hated the clutter and the expense, I still do.

It wasn't always this way. I used to be a young man, and as is the case with many young men, the state of my home didn't matter much to me. I don't know when that changed. Maybe it was when I found myself living in my mother's house, which had become my house, and losing an entire room and a storage unit to other people's things. These were things I couldn't get rid of. Not because I had any particular attachment to all of them, but because I was legally bound to keep them until they could be gone over and disseminated according to the terms of my mother's will. Nothing changed when I left that house and moved into my own. The things, the things that were not mine but that I held out of a sense of duty, moved with me.

When I left my home town for new opportunities much of the stuff came with me. The rest was left in storage, that I pay for. I'm paying almost $200 a month for things that I'm keeping for posterity. Things that aren't really mine, but might be important to someone some day. Sometimes I think that the biggest curse was finding my mom's old report cards and journals while cleaning out my grandmother's basement. They were a treasure trove, a window into my adolescent mother's mind and heart. The result for me is that I've kept every print copy of everything she wrote. On top of that I kept her files, and notes, and interview tapes. I've also kept as much of my old school work, and my brother's as she deemed worthy of keeping.

It wasn't until a couple Christmases ago that I gave the last box of my brother's things to him to store. It was his old school work and arts and crafts. Things that should be kept by a parent, but were left to me until he graduated college. I could have relinquished them earlier, but I felt duty bound to hold them until he was "more stable." The result is that he's burdened with them in his apartment instead of having them in storage back home.

That was all before we had a third child and moved to a house that had at least two fewer rooms than the one we left. This one is ours though, in as much as a house with 29.5 years left on the mortgage can be anyone's. Now I again find myself lamenting the clutter. We bought the smallest, oldest house on our block. Our neighbors are wonderful people. Our kids all play together, and a few of them have hosted us on multiple occasions. We've never had any of them over. At first it was because we were still moving in. Now, though it's hard to admit, it's because I'm nervous about the fact that my dining room table is always covered in mail and my living room is nearly impassable with crap that my family has dumped on their way from the car to their rooms.

The things is, we're not materialistic. We're just the wrong combination of sentimental and lazy. We've been blessed with a world of hand me downs. We can't get rid of too small clothes because we still have small people. I never used to care about washer/dryer combos and could never understand why the commercials for them were so effusive. Now I feel like I'm running the damn things 24/7 and I would kill for a dish washer to go with them. I felt like a slacker until I realized how many of my neighbors have paid help for cleaning and yard work.I'm not worried about having a perfect home, I just don't want look like an episode of hoarders.

But here's the thing, even though I sometimes feel like I'm at my wits end with clutter and dishes and laundry and gutters and raking a yard even though I have no trees, even though I sometimes want to scream or cry or throw all the crap in the living room in the trash, it's all worth it.

It's. All. Worth it.

Because every so often I look at the ballet shoes in the middle of the living room, or the pots and pans in the sink, or the toys strewn about, and I realize who it is making this mess with me. I have a wife who loves me and supports us. I have three beautiful, maddening, brilliant children who deserve better than I give them. I have the son I always wanted, and who I hope turns out less damaged than myself. I have a little girl who seems impervious and fragile all at once. I have a baby who surprises me with how much she can do each day. Each one of them is infuriating and precious depending on the moment. I couldn't imagine my life without them.

As I fight against the tide of clutter and my own bitterness at feeling like I'm the only one who cares about a tidy home, I remember that the house itself is only as important as the people who inhabit it. I remember to let go of my desire to be able to walk from one end to the other without tripping or having a frozen pea stick to my foot. I remember why I cook each meal, and wash each new set of dishes. It's because I'm exactly where I want be, with exactly who I want to be with.

I love our cluttered little house. I love my little bundles of frustrating joy. I love my wife. I love my life.

I don't claim to have a lot of wisdom to impart to you dear IDL readers. I don't have the answers. At best I hope you take something useful away from the thoughts I share here. But I'll say this, though you've no doubt heard it before: Take time every so often to look at your life and marvel at how far you've come. If you're reading this I'm confident that you've been on a journey from who you were to who you are, and you probably haven't given yourself enough credit for making it this far. So revel in what you've done. Embrace your mess. Love your family. Ignore the flaws and the rough edges of the people around you for just a moment and remember why you still have them near you. Love them all (or at least like them), and remember how lucky we all are to be here.

Happy New Year all.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Free Range Parent Update

Not a crime

Hi Everyone,

First, I'd like to thank everyone who read the post about the police being called when I let my daughter play in the front yard for a few minutes. Thanks to you and the folks at Life of Dad it's become my most read post ever.

I was surprised that with as many reads as it's had I've received very little negative feedback. In the back of my mind I wondered if someone would think I was overreacting in terms of my fears about how it could turn out. I wondered about it myself. Maybe I was being over the top.

Today I saw this article from Free-Range Kids. They report that the Every Student Succeeds Act, which will be signed into Federal law today, will include the following

“…nothing in this Act shall…prohibit a child from traveling to and from school on foot or by car, bus, or bike when the parents of the child have given permission; or  expose parents to civil or criminal charges for allowing their child to responsibly and safely travel to and from school by a means the parents believe is age appropriate.”
This is a good addition to the law, though it also includes a caveat that this provision will not supersede state or local laws regarding kids traveling alone.

The most interesting part of the article for me though was a link to a previous story about a family who were charged with criminal neglect and had their children removed from the home by CPS because their 11-year-old was left to play in the back yard alone for 90 minutes. In contrast to my situation, the parents weren't home. Still, the kid was 11 and playing basketball in his own yard. This was in Florida where there is no state law regarding when kids can be home alone. This kind of story is what sticks the minds of parents when the police show up.

A little more digging through the links uncovered this story from June, which details a new ruling from Maryland CPS. The new ruling states that children walking or playing outside is not enough of a reason to involve CPS. Knowing that is a relief, but only a little. We know that police officers aren't always aware of the law, and typically are granted a lot of leeway when faced what they perceive as a criminal situation. So I don't think my fears were unwarranted.

As exciting as today's signing and the ruling from Maryland CPS are, there's still risk involved for parents when the police are called. Please, if you see a child who you think is in danger, approach the child and talk to them. Knock on the door and check in. Be a neighbor. Be a friend. It will strengthen your community.


Sunday, December 6, 2015

Brush Your Teeth! (The Anthem)

It's interesting to think about where household anthems come from. Sometimes they come from expected places, like my kids loving this rap song about George Mead's horse Baldy from this kindie album. Other times they come from songs parents like and kids adopt, like when I find my a daughter playing alone and singing "wake me up when September ends."

Our most recent household anthem contender came from a much less likely source. If you watch sports online like I often do you may have come across a commercial for the Samsung Galaxy Wireless Charger. It features a song that seemed like something my twenty five-year-old brother might like. Or he might hate that his friends love it. It's hard to say.  Anyway, it's not a terrible song. It's catchy, which is probably why it's in a commercial. The thing is, as anyone who has watched a lot of programming online might know, the selection of commercials run during an online program are sparse so you see the same ones over and over. The Samsung commercial has been running on the online broadcast of Sunday Night Football and it's been driving my wife and I up a wall. It's become a running joke for us as a stand in for anything that seems annoying, anything we don't understand, or anything that makes us feel old.

Tonight I told her I was going to find the whole song and play it for her whenever she did something annoying. "It's not a real song," she retorted, "it's just a commercial." Yeah, bet. Hip tech commercials don't use jingles anymore. Apple crushed that with the iPod commercials. It's all real songs from hip artists these days, which why I don't know any of them. It turns out it's really easy to find things like this. But here's the surprise, it's a fun song, and the chorus is likely one that will be repeated around here for a while.

The song is Queen's Speech Ep. 4 by Lady Leshurr. Her style is interesting and her lyrics are fun and when they're not kid friendly they're at least obscure. One my favorite lines is, "I got a dark-skinned friend who looks like Rachel Dolezal/And I got a light-skinned friend who looks like Rachel Dolezal/Which one's which? Not sure." But the part that made it a new family favorite is the chorus, which involves repeating the phrase "Brush your teeth" ten times. Brush your teeth! Brush your teeth! Brush your teeth! How many times do we say that each week eh fellow parents? Having a song about it might help.

So I've come around on Lady Leshurr and her annoying Samsung ad. The ad isn't her fault and her lyrics are clever. Link to the song is below, enjoy it with or without your kids. Just remember to brush your teeth.

(I should have figured out how to get Samsung or Apple to pay me for this. Dang.)

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

I Guess I'm a Free Range Parent

An odd thing happened here at IDL HQ yesterday, the police brought my daughter home. It was particularly strange because she is four-years-old and was already home. It was roughly 2:00pm and we were getting ready to go to the store. It had been raining lightly for a couple days and Lou asked if she could muck about in some puddles in the front yard while I gathered the baby's things and loaded the car. "Sure honey, you can play in the puddles." My permission brought forth an unbidden promise from her that she would stay within our family boundaries for kids playing in the front of the house. "I won't go past Mr. Andy's, I won't go past the Sullivan's, and I won't go in the street." Good girl. She knows our expectations, and she's always stayed where she's supposed to be.

I was in the back yard letting the dogs pee before we left when I saw a police car drive slowly by. I figured he had seen Lou outside and was slowing down to check on her. I also figured he saw me at the side of the house at the end of the driveway because he kept going. I came into the house a couple minutes later and heard a loud knocking on the door. When I opened it there were two officers there with Lou. She looked, not scared, but shrinking, timid, like she was worried that she was in trouble. I was pretty worried, but I tried not to let it show. From experience I know that interactions with police can go any number of ways and have often gone poorly for me personally, though I've never been charged with a crime.

My first thought was to corral my dogs. The last thing I need is to end up in one of those Raw Story articles about a cop trying to shoot a harmless pup and shooting a kid instead. My dogs truly are harmless, both are chihuahua mixes with the biggest one being barely ten pounds. I stepped outside and instinctively closed the door behind me, something that had become a habit growing up when the police would show up to disperse my mother's birthday parties.

"Hi, is everything OK?" I asked.

"We got a call from one of your neighbors. They were worried that she was out here alone. Maybe she was locked out or something."

I explained that everything was fine. We were going to the store and she was playing while I got everything loaded up. They seemed unconvinced. They didn't say anything else, but they didn't leave either. We all stood there on the porch for what seemed like a long and awkward period of time. I don't know if they were waiting for me to volunteer something else, or if they felt they might have more to say. I'm guessing there was some kind of noncommittal goodbye, but I don't remember what it might have been. The officers turned around and left.

As they were getting into their cars I asked Lou where she was when they approached her. She was defensive at first and I had to reassure her that she wasn't in trouble. She kept telling me, "Daddy, all I was doing was drawing in the mud with a stick." It took a while to convince her that I understood that and that what she was doing wasn't the point, I wanted to know where she was. You might think the level of concern that caused the officers to march her up to the porch arose from finding her a couple houses down the block. In fact, she was squatting on the edge of the sidewalk playing with a mud puddle in our front lawn. She was in our yard. She hadn't wandered off. She wasn't a half mile away like the kids in Maryland who caused a stir earlier this year. No, someone had called the police because my daughter was in our yard for ten minutes.

I have mixed feelings about this. One thought is that I'm happy the neighbors are looking out for our kids. I am happy to know that if one day one of the kids really is locked out, that someone will notice and try to help. I'm not happy about the way they helped. We're neighbors, they know us. Why didn't they come over and talk? There are ten occupied houses on our block and we know and have good relationships with the people in nine of those houses. We thought the last one was unoccupied until it ended up being decorated for Halloween. I've still never seen anyone go in or out of it. Of those nine neighbors five have kids who have played with our children. We're not strangers. Every one of our neighbors has knocked on our door for some friendly reason in the past. So why not on this day? It bothers me because while it shows some concern it also shows some judgement or lack of trust. Why involve the police? Does this person not understand the potential consequences of that call?

Here's what I know from a combination of personal experience, working for Child Protective Services as a contractor, and reading a lot: this could have ended badly.

While I hope no cop in my town is stupid or cowardly enough to see my dogs as a threat, I do think it's possible for one to decide that my daughter playing in the yard constitutes neglect or child endangerment or some other overblown label. I could see CPS being called, and one or both of us being taken away. I don't envision this because it would be justified. I don't say it because I can see that as a valid take on the situation. It's not. I could see it happening because the Silver Spring kids live just one county over. I could see it happening because I have a Spanish last name and a tan complexion. I can see it happening because the kid they brought to my door wasn't my fair haired blue eyed son, but my mestiza looking daughter. Worse, as we know, and even if the chances are slim, I could have ended up beaten or dead. Depending on how they decide to see me, how they decide to interpret my words or actions, I could end up a name on a list of "Not one more."

Not all cops are bad. Not all cops are racist. I have friends who are police officers and they are great people. I do understand the odds. But as the saying goes, it only takes one. All it takes is for me to encounter the wrong officer at the wrong time, regardless my standing as a law abiding citizen. The rhetoric works both ways. The officers I know and the thin blue line crowd on social media are fond of pointing out that any traffic stop could be an officer's last. In a way I understand that sentiment, even though it's never been safer to be a cop in America than it is right now. The reality is, I know I am never ever a threat to a police officer, but there's always the potential that the officer is a threat to me. That's the reality that many of us live every day, and it's stressful. I wonder if my neighbor considered all this before calling the police instead of coming by the house.

Or was the whole neighbor story just a story? Maybe it was just a standard police statement, "Well we got a call from someone..." Could be. Though I don't know why the officer wouldn't just say, "I was driving by and I was concerned." That would be a legitimate action for a police officer to take. I'd really rather it be a patrolling officer showing concern than a neighbor.

I don't think I'm a free range parent. My kids don't wander the neighborhood. They have earned a little more freedom than the other neighborhood kids. They also have boundaries that I can see from my porch or my bedroom window. If they see the neighbor kids in the front yard they ask me if they can go over and say hello. They know 90% of our neighbors, and are known by them. They have a much smaller area of operations than I had at the same age. By the time I was six-years-old I was a latch key kid with a bike and the ability to be anywhere within a mile of the house. I don't want that for my kids. That would scare me. It was normal then, but not now. And I guess I'm learning that even having your kids play in the front yard is considered suspect, though I don't agree.

I don't know what I'm going to do in the future. My wife says we should fence the back and make the kids stay there. It could work, but it would be a fight. And why have that fight? It wouldn't be because I don't think the kids should be out front. It would be because I don't want to have people calling the cops on us. It would be because I was afraid, not for the kids, but for myself. I won't live in fear that way.

I'll close with this open letter to my community, and maybe yours as well:

Dear neighbors,

I am writing this to remind you of why we chose to move here. When we were looking for a new home we found this beautiful block in this quiet neighborhood. We fell in love with the tree lined street and the flat sidewalks that, unlike our previous neighborhood, were totally devoid of broken glass and dead cats. We saw the toys in your front yards and play structures in your back yards and hoped that our kids would find playmates. We thought about knowing all of you and hanging out at BBQs and peewee soccer. We thought we'd found a house that could provide not just a shelter, but a community.

We were right! All summer we got to know you little by little. Our kids played together. We shared beers and stories and resources. You became our emergency contacts and our in-person Yelp. We played touch football on the weekends and shared the gossip of our small town. As summer turned to fall our kids rode the school bus together and we all waited out on the corner with our coffee and stories of the weekend. You've seen our kids playing on the block. You know where they go, and where they don't go. You know us. We know you. We trust you.

So please, if you're concerned that one of our kids are alone or locked out of the house, come over and check. Ask the kid if they're OK. Knock on our door. You know us. We're not strangers. You have our phone numbers. Give us a call or a text. Just please, unless you really feel that someone is in imminent danger, please don't send the police. I know that you all likely don't have the same experiences that I do with the police. You've probably never been on the terror watch list, or been held for an hour in cuffs on the curb while they made totally sure you weren't an escaped convict. I know for sure that you don't face the same danger from them that we do. Please consider that when you call the police instead of talking to us you not only break down the good will of the neighborhood, you put my family in a position of facing real danger.

We know you. We like you. Come over.