Camping, Jumping, Feeding, Hugging

When I told a friend I was taking the kids camping, he said he “can’t wait to read about it in the papers.”  This sort of  “are you crazy?” comment was the average response from whoever I told of my planned trip to Myakka River State Park near Sarasota. It started as a thought about how neat it would be to corral the kids together in a tent, with smores and sleeping bags and a flashlight, how they’re too young to figure out how to unzip the tent door and young enough that they still conveniently relieve themselves in diapers, avoiding a trek to some far-off latrine with spiders dangling over the toilets and rusting faucets producing nothing better than a trickle of cold water. As these doubting comments accumulated as the departure day neared, I started to question what I was getting myself into. From my first narrow focus on a cozy tent, I wondered what I would do if it rained, the kids didn’t like any of the food, couldn’t or wouldn’t sleep, saw raccoons and jackals and crazed bears lurking in the dark, and wouldn’t let me set up or take down the tent. I had a vision of moving the tent gear into place and the kids running in opposite directions through other campsites and still-smoldering campfires, or winding up face first in black widow cobwebs or in the opposite sex’s restrooms. And of them getting so bored they’d start fires quicker than an Eagle scout in Arizona, or getting so mad for me dragging them from the comforts of cribs and carpets they’d get in the van and drive away, while I, in a panicked chase, would trip over a tent stake and faceplant in the cooler.

None of that happened. It did rain, so the kids were unable to torch the forest. We did see an armadillo but it was only partially crazed, and NL were rather fond of the experience. They did sleep, at a right angle to their sleeping bags and to me. When the rain ended, we hiked and climbed up a wooden tower and over a suspension bridge through the tops of enormous live oaks. The climb down the stairs must’ve exhausted their last fuel as they politely asked to be carried back to the car.

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NL have been participating in twice weekly gymnastics classes. These consist of 45-minute sessions of basic skills, like trampoline, rings, and tumbling. Each day concludes with unrestrained tomfoolery in a giant “marshmallow pit.” This is like a pool, filled to the brim with beige and blue foam cubes and a child from the previous week’s class lacking the skills to climb out. Noelle takes our financial outlay seriously, obeying most instructions and showing a good degree of enthusiasm for the sport. Lucas thinks he’s at a Chuckie Cheese and prefers to dash away from the class towards whatever equipment in whatever corner of the building he fancies at the moment. I will say that he excels in the marshmallows and occasionally agrees to stop jumping in when the class ends.

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In May we jetted to Nassau, allowing us to show off the kids’ round-faced passport photos. For the first time, NL were strapped into their own seats. This only slightly deterred their movements about the cabin;  gratefully the flight was only one hour. At the resort, we rented a sea bike, a contraption with three huge plastic yellow wheels which two riders pedal through the waves. NL clung to our laps and withheld even a small sign of enjoyment. We also swung in a hammock, toured a pitiful botanical garden, and had Noelle’s hair braided with pink and white beads. The kids befriended a pigeon and dubbed him or her Bert. Each morning Bert waited outside the balcony, and then Noelle and Lucas threw him bits of Poptarts and graham crackers. Bert power-walked up to each sugary treat and pecked away. When there were no more, he flew away, likely to retch and then look for worms.

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A touching moment at a cancer fundraiser event staged in the parking lot of the community rec center: a group of costumed superheroes posed for photos with any wide-eyed kid who walked up to them. Lucas, lately having been exposed to a few of the masked fantasy villains, whispered in my ear that he wished to hug Spiderman. Marlene walked the boy over to his hero and repeated Lucas’s request. Spiderman bent down and embraced Lucas, to an “awww” from Wonder Woman.

More from the Buffet Table

We’ve rounded the corner into 2011 with nary a sight of the Wielecki Twins. They’re still with us, as fetching as ever, yet this year with a larger proportion of “sassy.” Unusually for  2.5-year-olds, they don’t care to be controlled.

Reflections since the last entry:

  • I’m gradually becoming aware that “Buddy” appears nowhere on Lucas’s birth certificate. Like many other dads, I’ve been calling my son the B word since he was a baby buddy. Perhaps unlike many others, I consider it unoriginal and a habit worth breaking. Still, creativity is in short supply; so far I thought only of “young man” and “my friend” as suitable alternatives. I suppose I could just dispense with nicknames and consider calling him Lucas.
  • Buddy Lucas has passed the first round of qualification for the 2024 summer Olympics, successfully demonstrating his ability to escape from his crib with a smooth leg-over-and-fling-down maneuver. He alone sees this feat as hilarious, particularly when he repeats it right after being warned not to repeat it.
  • At the end of the kids’ bath a month ago, Noelle, in her sweet toddler voice, announced “Oh, sh*t!” I froze in the midst of squeezing out their wash poof. I nicely asked her to repeat herself, and only after the third or fourth transgression realized she was saying “All set!” I take full blame for the near-miss, as I do use that phrase to signal the end of many trivial tasks.
  • Playing catch with Lucas is one part sheer joy and one part anxiety. When it’s his turn to throw, his big heart wants to ensure you get the object back. So, apparently not trusting his aim and strength, he walks up to you, rearing back with his arm as he approaches. Then, only inches away, he braces, studies his target, considers the best technique, and delivers. From this distance, his aim is much better than my ability to catch or to duck.
  • Noelle is most certainly interested in exploring the bounds of her abilities. She insists on opening doors, velcro-ing her shoes, and assembling groceries on the conveyor belt on their ride to the scanner. Lucas hasn’t quite the same independent spirit; he’s content letting me apply sock 1 and sock 2 and push a frog’s butt with a stick to make the hopper hop.

A Smorgasbord of Feats

To prevent the reports of NL’s achievements from growing stale, I’ll use this entry to unload an aging list of last month’s “First Experiences”:

  • NL dabbled with horticulture on one of our nightly walks which took us past a solitary grapefruit tree. As a few weeks ago “twas the season” for harvesting, it was laden with yellow globes of citrus. Some were turning slightly patchy brown, a sure indicator of a ripe fruit. However, some mischievous goblin had beaten us to the treasure, picking all the droopers. The only remaining grapefruit hung a good two feet beyond my stretched fingertips. So, resorting to desperate and irresponsible tactics, I held “my” first born above my head and implored her to stretch her tiny fingers to the heavens. Keeping her 32-lbs. steadily elevated for 25 seconds pushed the limits of my endurance, but it was a success: she reached the prize, snatching it with a satisfied smile.
  • MarMa has tried to ingrain the kids with an observance of the principles of safety. Before crossing the street, Noelle says “left, right, left,” but not once have I seen her actually follow her own instructions: as she announces them, she looks straight ahead and proceeds to cross. Lucas throws the little caution he does have into the wind and canters heedlessly from one curb to the other.
  • ‘Tis the season not only for citrus, but also for song. NL’s school marms Turner and Oxendine have done a spectacular job of teaching the kids Jingle Bells and Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. Noelle especially has taken a liking to the Christmas tune, and to the phrase “No, Daddy!”; she rejects all my efforts to join in. Lucas saves the bedtime song for bath time, and, bless his heart, welcomes a duet.
  • Last week, Lucas bemoaned his empty container of diluted apple juice with “Uh oh, my juice is all gone!” I add this purely to benefit posterity, not in solicitation of sympathy (the boy had enough juice already). This was, to my ears, his longest sentence yet (and scores higher than parroting a lullaby).
  • I took NL to a carnival, set up in an overflow parking lot behind the nearby movie theater. A couple of firsts for all of us: we slowly spun around on a ferris wheel, as high as 125 ft. from the safety of the hard pavement, and smeared our fingers and faces with a gooey chocolatey funnel cake.

Green Eggs and M&Ms

Some months ago I made a note to write about NL’s penchant for calling everything green. No matter the object’s actual color, and no matter the ambient light in the room, this was green, that was green, and the other thing was green. Though they’d mastered the names and sounds of  a dozen animals, most of the alphabet, and expertly differentiated between Dora and flora, they were somehow stuck on the color wheel. I’d say “Kids, look at Big Bird. Big Bird is yellow. What color is Big Bird?” “Green!” They weren’t really trying. They exclaimed each “green” with a devious grin, as if they knew perfectly well the nasal feathered monster was yellow. And precisely sun yellow; not mustard yellow or egg yolk yellow or the yellow of the corn kernels laying on the floor next to their booster seats. With great glee on their part, and hopeless defeat on mine, everything became green: stop signs, the full moon, raspberries, and my jogging shorts (not green.) Within the last three weeks either a light bulb finally turned on or NL tired of screwing with us: a banana finally ripened to yellow, Elmo acquired red, and our dog Hana—white with flecks of brown and black in selected areas—was called what she truly is. We’ve lately heard pronouncements of pink and brown but we’ll let their preschool teachers wrestle with the nuances (or be the butts of their jokes).

The Polish version of NL’s grandparents—ElMa and TadPa—visited us in early November. As is the case with the FedEx guy and the grocery check-out chick, NL met them with cautious reserve. It took two days to re-acquaint themselves after a six-month leave. And did they ever; Noelle grew so attached to my parents that she began gaily throwing food at them during dinner, and Lucas, bursting with love, twice took my dad’s fork. During ET’s week-long stay, each child patiently sat through a haircut, we all sat patiently on a drive to Palm Beach, and NL explored their first and likely last corn maze, in Mt. Dora. I’d have liked to report that the kids’ Polish vocabulary grew by leaps over the week, but this was not the case. Pre-visit, NL knew only “babcia” and “dziadek” (grandma and grandpa), and this is the extent of their proficiency today.

I end with tales from the toilette: Noelle peed in the potty on November 27th, 2010. (You may have seen the news in the fine print of the Nov. 28th USA Today classifieds). We rewarded her with two M&Ms. (I maintained some level of authority by selecting the colors.) Lucas does sit on the potty, earning him one “m” candy, but has yet to have a verified sighting of “p.”

After Squirrels and Better Coffee

Six months ago, Lucas’s first conscious agglomeration of two proper English words was “open door.” He was referring not to the central tenet of free trade policy, but was requesting passage through a screen door that stood between his bare feet and the soft grass of the backyard. Three weeks ago, he doubled his single-breath record with “Hana like chase squirrels.” Such control of subject, verb, and fuzzy rodent earns top points, but not extra credit: Lucas made a profound understatement, as Hana would leap right over a raw filet if one was thrown at her paws in the midst of a hot squirrel pursuit.

Noelle also gets accolades for her own wily performance. When she falls—sometimes intentionally, drawing inspiration from World Cup soccer—she needs only to reach up with her arm and call “oocas, elp!” Her brother turns towards her, considers a second, and does a straight-leg power walk to render aid. Half the time, though, he doesn’t quite pull her up. As soon as they link hands she just gets up on her own.

The prolifically perceptive Kelly Oxford once tweeted “kids make terrible coffee.” In my case, the kids just make an audience of me making terrible coffee. The ritual is our weekly celebration of the weekend Dad Is Home holiday. I perch each child on the countertop on either side of the coffee maker. Their gaze follows the filter and water’s travel into the machine. Then, NL count as I scoop in the grinds. There haven’t been two occasions with the same sequence of digits. They either skip past “five,” dwell on “one,”  or call out a number both when I dump the contents of the scoop and when I refill it. I summon enough focus for my own internal count, so the coffee comes out roughly with the taste intended by its makers. Still, whether the beans came from the Blue Mountains or Dollar General, they’re all terrible to me.

In Central Florida, the dog days of summer stretch from black nose to tail-tip, with only an inch before the next wet black sniffer. A cheap survival tool is the backyard slip-and-slide. An even cheaper method is unfolding the blue hurricane tarp waiting in your garage for the next Andrew, stretching it out on the rear lawn, setting your garden hose on one end, and hurling yourself across the slippery plastic as fast as your personal physique and physics allow. After I flung each toddler in the same manner, Noelle kept repeating “again” while Lucas returned to his trike.

I started with squirrels and conclude with more flea-bitten creatures: NL visited a petting farm two weeks ago. We hopped onto a hayride, at the start of which Lucas requested a seatbelt. This was my first hayride as well, and am glad he saved my embarrassment by asking for it first. The kids sat in an antique fire truck, rode a pony, poked a goose, and shook paws with a guinea pig. (The hand sanitizer flowed freely after each encounter.) They missed out on an intimate acquaintance with cow udders, but did squeeze in a romp through a pumpkin patch.  There seemed to be half a thousand orange gourds of identical size, as if made from a mold. I carved one last week and discovered that fruit flies can’t wait for Halloween.

At the Zoo and a Bag for Poo

A quick recap of Dad Week, Day Three: NL and I trekked deep into the heart of the animal kingdom. Not the Animal Kingdom, but its humbler edition, the Central Florida Zoo. The kids, not bratty enough to wish I’d just drop them off and leave, welcomed my chaperoning presence: I pushed the stroller, gave out juice, identified the sexes of the kangaroos (not by hand, mind you), and washed four hands after NL’s intimate encounter with the slimy blue tongue of a zebu (aka brahmin cattle). The youths met two lifetimes’ share of snakes, a sunning alligator who might have been dead, and a pigeon-sized green parrot with a piercing shriek that instantly ruined their good mood.

Day Four and Five saw NL back in their backpacks as they returned to school. I imagined NL recounting tales of their exploits to a circle of their awed classmates, Lucas mimicking the grunt of an emu and Noelle arranging her playdough into a picnic blanket.

I’ve since returned to our standard work-week routine. One highlight of my evenings with the kids is our Tour of Oviedo bike-trailer ride, with leashed Hana trotting on my left. Just as Hana finishes responding to nature’s call, Noelle reaches behind her into the trailer’s trunk and says “bag!” as she hands me the desired article. If only Hana would eat less fiber.

A few quick-hitters I’ve been slacking on:

  • Lucas’s pacifiers seem to be laden with tobacco. The boy is addicted. He chain-sucks for three-quarters of his waking hours and presumably twelve-twelfths of sleepy-time. With “binks” in mouth, the boy adores life: blocks stack straighter, the ball bounces higher, and his toy zebra, cleanly swiped off the coffee table, skips with precision across the livingroom rug. But dare you remove sucker from pucker, and the boy shakes, stomps, jerks tears and curses as best he can the day his dad’s parents met. Editor’s Note: since writing the above, I gladly report that Lucas has been showing progress in kicking the habit. If you ask him sweetly, and use “please”, he hands over the binks for temporary sake-keeping in your pocket.
  • I spotted NL playing catch with a mini basketball. I referreed from a good enough distance to avoid distracting them but close enough to dive in and call a foul on any cheap hits below the diaper strap. Noelle bounced the ball in the general direction of Lucas. He ran after it, turned around, and bounced it back, though more in the direction of his former position than Noelle’s current. She repeated, but one-hopped the ball into L’s shoulder. He responded with a gleeful volley at her feet. It was truly a precious moment, both in its innocent playfulness and in its resemblance to the basketball pick-up game in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
  • Deserving eternal licks from the hottest flames of Hades, I taught the kids Pacino’s “Hoo-ah!” from Scent of a Woman. And I keep saying it. And they keep saying it.
  • I also introduced them to the SlimJim guy’s shout “Oh yeah!” For that, I’ll accept purgatory at worst.

Getting to Know Each Other Better

None Other Than Stay At-home Dad (NOTSAD) finally has a moment to recline and relate his high-octane adventures. Kel reluctantly dived back into the labor pool, ignoring the sign cautioning “No Diving.” MarMa went on holiday. Third-best choice of babysitters was me. So, here I am, at home, communicating with two-year-old children instead of co-workers, and finding satisfaction just the same.

On Day 1, KNL sent up a gaseous trail of carbons along a 38-mile route to Cape Canaveral’s Playalinda Beach. Admission $3;  the ticket booth was the last opportunity to spend money. This place is WILD. As in, nature from the left corner of your left eye to the far right end. No flip-flop shops, no hotels, no neon lights. Heck, no lights at all, and barely a road. Between the end of the bridge over the intracoastal stretch two paved lanes for a good 10 miles, forced through palm brush, lagoons, and short scorched trees from which an occasional egret takes flight. I turned off the Thomas the Train DVD so the kids could peer out the windows and take note of the world around them. I kept promising that we’re almost there, even though they weren’t directly asking the question.

I parked in the first available turn-off (out of the ten or so that you eventually pass once the road turns parallel to the shore). Between us and the waves crashing in the distance were 30-foot dunes covered with sharp grasses,  splotched here and there with yellow flowers. Before we maneuvered the steps and boardwalk over the dunes, I massaged 70 SPF sunscreen on all bodies. Though, I stopped short of asking NL to get that spot between my shoulder blades that our maker never intended us to reach.

NL’s first glimpse of the ocean on the horizon, as we came to the top of the stairs on the far side of the dunes, was one to have gotten on film. I kept telling them all the previous day and that morning that we’re going to the beach to see the ocean. “Ocean,” “ocean,” “ocean”. I must’ve said it forty-five times. They were probably starting to dismiss me as looney. Rightly so, possibly. But then they finally saw what I had been yammering about. They paused and stared for a few seconds, wider-eyed than normal. “I told you!” I thought. “Yeeehp, you sure did,” they probably thought.

So to arrive at a concluding paragraph…. The waves were rather rough, especially if you’re two feet tall. Lucas, though, ever the stuntman, rushed right in while Noelle clung to me like a barnacle. Mostly we just sat at the edge of the shore and let the dissipating waves cool us off and send sand right up our shorts. Noelle and her one-piece were spared. We saw no fish, no pelicans, no sailboats, and only one shell and two sandpipers. That’s not a necessarily a complaint, but it would’ve been nice to be able to point things out to NL other than “look, here’s a shell!” and five minutes later “here’s that shell again!”

Today was Day 2. In a nutshell (no, we didn’t go foraging for nuts; that might be tomorrow, if we can’t get into the zoo), we had a picnic on the grounds of the art museum near downtown Orlando. Along came the big blanket that may have still harbored a few grains of yesterday’s sand, and assorted snacks. We saw a snake this time, and you can bet NL got a zoology lesson.