The Long Trail to Happiness

When Action Girl and I decided to have children, one of the things that I couldn’t wait for was to find out what their “thing” would be. Everybody’s got a “thing.” At least, every kid seems to. I think a lot of adults forget their passions when they get lost in adolescence and are forced to focus on areas of academia where minimal interest resides. That and peer pressure, of course. There is no cleanser more astringent than the scorn of your contemporaries. So many childhood passions are lost through these effects and I wanted to be a powerful force in the corner of my children’s imagination versus the rest of the world. The older I become, the more sure I am that a person’s true strength lies directly within the sphere of their passions.

Thomas Jefferson once said that a man who loves his work never works another day, and I think that’s about right. He also said that he was all about freedom and yet owned slaves, so I’ll grant you, you do have to keep an eye on TJ. Still though…

My son, Short Stack showed his cards early on. There was a brief flirtation with trucks, which is far from unusual for small children, but that had ended pretty abruptly the moment he saw his first rocket.

I believe he was two and a half.

He’s six now and has been focused like a laser on his own personal prize since the day he realized that that he could have something to do with them. Like any parent, I ask my kids every so often what they want to do for a job when they grow up, just to test the waters and see where the wind has shifted in the previous weeks. Last week, Short Stack’s answer was, “I want to build propulsion systems for new kinds of rockets.”

Oooooh kay.

My four year old daughter, Lulu Belle though, is a very, VERY different little critter. She want’s to be a cowgirl.

Or maybe a fairy.

Nope… a cowgirl.

Or princess.

Maybe a cowgirl princess?

But Pirates are good too!

Hey, dad. Did pirates ever play with cowboys?

Tell you what, dad. You be Dale Evans and I’ll be Roy Rogers.

YEE-HAW!

(I love the fact that I somehow wind up being Dale. Better than being assigned Pat Brady, I suppose.)

And that’s about how it goes. She loves playing dress-up from her considerable pile of costumes she’s amassed and they all get a work out, but the cowboy hat, vest, sheriff’s badge and pink handled six shooter get by far the heaviest work out.

The fact that we can not possibly live farther away from the Western Plains and still be within the boundaries of the contiguous United States only adds to the perplexity on how this all got started. To the best of my knowledge, I never pushed the cowboy lifestyle to my children, but Lulu Belle seems to have embraced it with a fervor previously reserved only for children born between 1940 and 1955. When it comes to requested video entertainment from my young daughter, it’s usually black and white episodes of the Lone Ranger or the much loved, Roy Rogers. She knows all the names of the characters, their horses, origin stories and will back them up with her own cap gun when things get tough.

Clayton Moore would be proud.

So now, I know. Lulu Belle wants to be a cowgirl. I’m not sure how this translates into a life for her, let alone an income stream, but we can deal with those details later. What I do know is that right now, it makes her the happiest. When her brother discovered his love of aerospace, I pandered like hell to it. His room is an homage to NASA, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the Shuttle program. When he was four, I took him to the Kennedy Space Center to watch the shuttle Discovery take off. I’ve tried as hard as I could to feed him what he craves the most in the hopes that it will allow him to be as happy as he can be.

Now it’s time for sister.

The trick is, since the 1960’s have long since ridden off into the sunset, finding good cowboy material has gotten substantially trickier. We watch the old shows on YouTube. We dress up in cowboy gear, though some of it has to be manufactured right here in our little house due to scarcity in the market. We talk in cowboy-ese and naturally, she has her very own Wonder Horse! You remember those, right? The giant plastic horse mounted on a frame by means of exceptionally squeaky springs.

If there is anything she loves more than pretending to be a cowgirl, it’s making up stories, (Can you guess what they tend to be about?) and this has now spilled over into bedtime. For the last little while now, once the bedtime books are all read and the light is out, she’s hit me with a request which I find hard to pass up. She wants a story, as she puts it, “You tell me. Not from a book.”

I’ve told her stories about me growing up. I’ve told her stories about things her Mom’s done. I’ve told her fables as best as I can recall my Aesop. The thing is, if you don’t have a theme, it’s hard to pull up a good story on the fly. That’s when she pointed out the elephant in the bedroom.

“Dad. Tell me a story about a cowgirl!”

It took a minute or two for me cook up the basics, and an additional night for us to ascribe names to the players, but we’ve gotten it worked out pretty well now.

In a valley in Wyoming, sits a small ranch. The road that runs in front of it will take you to town. The paths that lead away from the ranch will take you to the high pasture and then on to the aspen forest. Another path goes to the pond while a third leads to Big Rock, which has a breathtaking view of the valley below. To the West, the Rocky Mountains tower, capped in snow. The inhabitants of the ranch are a girl of unspecified age named Annie and her Horse, Thunder. Thunder, naturally, lives in the big red barn next to the corral. There’s also a shed where Annie keeps her tools.

Now all she needs is a friend. Enter some occupation diversity.

In our very first story, I also introduced Piper and Scout. Piper has short, red hair and lives in Colorado. Scout is her trusty, silver airplane with the big blue stripe that goes all the way down each side. They met when Piper got lost and had to land at the ranch for directions as the evening closed in. Naturally, Annie invited her to stay for dinner and the night and the two have been best friends ever since.

Sometimes the stories are just about Annie and Thunder. Sometimes they’re just about Piper and Scout, but her favorite stories include them all.

It’s still trick to come up with a believable and engaging story arc off the top of my head, but I must confess, I think I’m enjoying them just as much as she is. With each evening of me kneeling on the floor next to her bed in the darkened room, the world of Annie and Piper gets more and more vibrant. We now know about the fixed hole in the barn roof, how long it takes to ride to town and the tree Annie chopped down up in the aspen forest. Last night, I couldn’t help my self and after my little cowgirl was asleep, I sat down and wrote out that night’s story.

I’ll share it with you, if you’d like… But you have to wait for bedtime.

Range Day

“You should go to the range this week.”

These are words that will always get my attention. When they come from Action Girl, they can almost bring tears to my eyes. This is how I know she loves me.

Things are finally getting warmer here in Maine and the snow banks are slowly creeping back into the woods. All this makes me itch to get my rifles back out after a long winter’s hibernation and spend some quality time making loud noises and punching holes in pieces of paper. Hey… the paper had it coming.

The problem that I’ve encountered lately is defining the time that I should get to go and play. Since I’ve left the Monday through Friday, nine to five world and put most of my energy into caring for the kids and working on the house, it’s been really hard to set aside time to go and do the things that I love. Don’t get me wrong. I love being with my three year old and one year old every day. It’s something that is invaluable and immeasurable and I am unbelievably lucky to have the opportunity. It’s just… sometimes Dad needs some downtime… or rather, Dadtime.

Going off to play does make me feel a little guilty on some level though.

It makes me think of a public service announcement that ran on TV when I was a kid. The ad showed a father going away on yet another golf trip as he left his wife and kids alone and sad looking in the dooryard, one child asking him why he wouldn’t stay. The message was something like, “Did you ever think of having fun with your family instead of being selfish? Dick!” (I’m assuming here that his name was Richard)

I know that I’m hardly in the “absentee dad” category and that I do indeed, get to go have some fun sometimes but it does run through my mind when I’m going off to enjoy myself by myself. Just a few more years of this and maybe I’ll have a little companion who will want to come with me.

Target shooting, one of my very, VERY favorite things to do, has become exceedingly difficult to get around to for several reasons. The first thing that makes it tricky is the fact that I live on an island, and though blasting away with .22’s at the dump might have been perfectly fine a generation ago, those days are most defiantly gone for good. I need to get to the mainland if I’m going to justify owning firearms, and that takes time.

There is no such thing as a “quick trip” to town.

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Pack up your bag, walk to the dock, get on board, find a seat and wait. Dock, disembark, walk to the parking garage, find the car, toss everything in and NOW… you’re ready to start. It takes a long time just to get rolling and if you forgot something back home, say… your car keys, you get to use some very colorful language and toss all your plans out the metaphorical window.

When I worked on the mainland every day, I could decide to go shooting during lunch and simply bring a rifle along with me in the morning. Now if I want to go, it’s a special trip and I have to set aside a big block of time and these days, those are few and far between.

So, with taking care of the kids and desperately trying to get a few things done on the house, I just don’t get to go shooting much. That, and the small fact that winter in Maine will make just about anybody think twice about sitting at an out door bench for an hour while you try to feed frozen ammunition into your frozen rifle with your frozen fingers. Some how, frostbite always seems to suck the fun out of any occasion.

This morning, with the help of Action Girl handling the kid wrangling and the lovely spring weather if not full of the scent of tulips and daffodils, at least holding off the rain, I headed out with a bounce in my step. I’d done the right thing and called several friends to see if they wanted to come along, but being the middle of the week, all replied that they just couldn’t make it. I enjoy taking others out to shoot but this was just fine. Time alone at the shooting bench is a wonderful thing.

As I steamed into town working on the first of my two coffee thermoses, I chatted with a few friends and enjoyed the notion that I would have the whole morning off. A rare and blessed thing. The obligatory stop at the local doughnut shop to pick up provisions and I was ready to start the morning right.

The drive there is an easy one and if not exactly beautiful and pastoral, it is at least quick. By the time the first chocolate glazed was reduced to crumbs on my shirt and lap, I was pulling in and switching off the car. It was still early and all the ranges were silent, but not for long if I had anything to say about it.

I’ve been here many times before, alone and with friends, but it’s always more relaxed when I’m there on my own. No one to wait for when setting up targets. No botching a shot because you flinched when the person on the next bench fired just a half second before you. No worrying if you’re going to bean the guy to your right with a hot and freshly emptied shell casing when you pop the breach open with the enthusiasm that comes over you after a perfect shot. None of that for me today!

The last and best thing about shooting alone is music. I don’t know who invented the “ear bud,” but to them, I shall always be thankful. In addition to looking slick, cool and coiling up in your pocket, the little buggers also nestle beautifully under a set of ear protection, thus saving your hearing from the sudden concussion of rifle fire so you can crush it under the din of your favorite music.

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It was a Motown morning for me as Dianna Ross and Supremes joined me for a while during target practice.

After an hour and a half, I stood seventy-five yards away from a well holed paper target and just to the left of a sizable pile of empty brass. It was a great morning. Just as I was picking up, our range safety officer happened by to check on things. He’s a nice old gentleman and I’ve been privileged to chat with him on a few occasions. After our initial greeting his eye fell to the bench as his eyebrows arched. “So, what do we have here this morning?” I pulled the bolt open and handing it to him.

“It’s my Grandfather’s Mauser K98k. His brother brought it back from Europe for him and he had it sported into a deer rifle. I don’t usually care for sported combat rifles but this is a top notch job and obviously, it’s got the family history going for it. It’s actually my favorite rifle to shoot. I can’t wait until my kids can come with me to do this.”

He looked on approvingly as I cleaned it in preparation for its ride back home and we talked about shooting. He told me about how he used to go with his son when he was younger and how much fun it was. “He doesn’t like shooting any more though. It’s too bad. I have quite a collection to pass on but no one to pass it on to.”

“Oh…” I groped for a way to ask without being prying. What would cause that? He solved the problem for me and volunteered the answer.

“He joined the Navy and that was fine. He still liked to shoot and we had a lot of fun when he was home, but then he joined the Navy Seals and well… lost his taste for shooting after that.”

I can only imagine what might have happened to cause that change and to be honest, I’d rather not imagine too hard. I’ve never been in the situation where I had to shoot at another human being and I hope to God, I never will. I have the same hope and prayer for my children. I looked down at my rifle and thought about the young German soldier to whom it must have been issued. I wonder what happened to him? I wonder whom he shot at or if he ever even had the chance. Whatever his story, it was lost to time. The rifle was mine now and I was in charge of its use.

As I drove back to my island home and awaiting family, I thought about how enjoyable it was to have some time to practice a hobby that I enjoyed so much and then about my range-friend with his futureless collection. I truly do enjoy the sport but what he told me was sobering.

One of my Grandfathers taught me how to shoot and the other has supplied me with my two favorite guns to take out. I hope that someday I’ll get to take both my children out to enjoy days like this with me but if they don’t, I’ll hang on to my collection for as long as I can. Who knows? Maybe I’ll get the chance, years from now to sit down with a cup of coffee, my Grandfather’s .22 and my own grandchildren. I’ll explain how their Great-Great Grandfather got it for Christmas when he was just eight, and then I’ll show them how to use it. When they’re strong enough, I’ll get out the Mauser too.

Firearms are nothing to be taken lightly and I treat them with the respect they deserve, just like I was taught to. I feel that it’s an important lesson to pass along. Short Stack and Lulu Belle may not want to have anything to do with them, I know, but they will understand how to handle them. I hope they will at least humor their Dad at times and go with him to the range for a sunny morning of shooting.

It’s warm and bright this morning. The wind is barely perceptible and I still haven’t had breakfast. It’s just right for heading back to shoot some more. Not today though. It’s time to work; shooting can come later. Anyway, waiting for it makes it all the more special when I do go.

Maybe next week…

Be careful. Baby’s are catching.

A few very short and sleepless nights ago, Lulu Belle entered the world. Action Girl and I have been waiting anxiously for some time for this event and thank goodness, all has gone well. Both Mom and Lulu are in great shape and there were no worrying or unexpected events. The three of us were tired, happy and relaxing in the recovery room the evening after the happy event.

As it happens, a truly improbable number of our couple-friends are expecting babies of their own in the very near future. In total, we know four other couples who will be getting family additions of their own either in the next week or so or some time this summer. One of these friends is almost tied with action girl in respect to due dates. In fact, they were only one day apart. Because Action Girl had a C-section scheduled and since they set those up before your actual due date, she was going to beat our friend by about a week. It would have been fun to be all in the hospital at once, but hey, what were the chances that they would be so close in the first place? It was nice for Action Girl and our friend to be there to commiserate and shop with over the last few months, though.

The night after Lulu was born, our round and expecting friend came in to visit, bringing flowers and a small gift for our new baby. She got to hold Lulu and Action Girl got to tell her all about the experience and generally catch up and be buddies. I mainly sat in the background and nodded a lot. This was girl talk, after all. Our friend’s husband was supposed to come by as well but had begged off at the last moment after he came to the realization that he still had a ton of things to do before their own baby came into the world some time next week or so and he wanted to try to get through as much of it as he could that evening. Though robbed of “guy talk” that evening, I doubt I could have held a coherent conversation any way.

The reason for my more than normal dopiness was that the night before we were due to go to the hospital, Short Stack pulled an epic night of no sleep. After three nights in a row of sleeping right through, he managed to come down with a runny nose and stuffy head. What that meant was that he didn’t really get much sleep. What THAT meant was that I got less. Action Girl was in no condition to leap out of bed and help him, so that in conjunction with just being keyed up in general left me with something like three hours of real, good, deep sleep. Then, we went in the next morning and had a new baby girl by early afternoon which, though I was there mostly for moral support, took it out of me none the less. I was holding up alright but the visit that we were expecting from our very pregnant friend did run longer than I hoped. When the visiting hours expired at eight, the ladies were still yammering away while I was having trouble keeping from elegantly sliding off the chair and on to the inviting floor.

Finally, by twenty past, our friend was putting on her coat and giving out the good bye hugs. The last thing Action Girl said to our friend was that she should go home and just go into labor so they could be at the birthplace together. Our friends words were, (and I quote) “I’ll do my best”.

We turned in for the night and the three of us dropped off fairly quickly. For me, a folding cot, a pillow made from foam and a gauze thin blanket never felt so good. Lulu did have a few moments during the night. She needed a change of diaper once or twice and a new “urp-up” free shirt and pillow case, but nothing too bad. These were taken care of by me since Action Girl was down for the count after major abdominal surgery. Two AM rolls around and to my amazement, Action Girl’s bed starts moving up and down. It elevates, it goes down, changes shape, pauses and then starts squirming like an android caterpillar.

At first I thought she must be leaning against the controls in her sleep. No. She was playing. Then to my added horror, the light over the bed goes on and Action Girl starts asking me if the baby is keeping me up. What I quickly start to realize as she tries to drag me into conversation, is that all the pain killers that she’s on have her WIRED! She’s wide awake, hyper and bored. After about ten minutes of assuring her that Lulu isn’t keeping me up and that “no”, I’m perfectly comfortable, I finally inform her that the major impediment on my way to Sleepyville is in fact, Lulu’s mom. Through the haze of the percocet she slowly and sheepishly turns off the light tries to fiddle with the bed less an not ask me questions about… anything. Somewhere between nurse’s visits, Lulu whining and a woman giving birth in the next room, I manage to pull down… at least another two to three hours. WOOO!

The next morning I go to fill up the largest bowl shaped object I can find with what ever passes for coffee in the waiting room. On my way to scout caffeine possibilities I see a face I didn’t expect. It’s a buddy of mine and you guessed it, the husband of our very pregnant friend from the night before. He looks ALMOST as shell shocked as I do. Apparently, at 1:30 that night, her water broke and off to the Hospital they went. After a long labor, they have their own little boy and are moved into the room next door to ours. More mutual friends of our have come to visit since our happy family additions, one of whom is pregnant as well. We all cautioned her to touch nothing and stay away from the water, lest she join us.

It’s going to be interesting once we get home. No more nurses. No more coffee ready and waiting for me in the lounge. No more free laundry service with an unlimited supply of infant bedding. It’s going to be tough. But that’s okay. Once we’re home, I know that I don’t have to worry about our bed coming to life as Action Girl gets bored at two AM. And Lulu wouldn’t wake me up, right? Right?

Heh. It could happen.

All good…

We are all pooped out but all healthy and happy. I’ll add a fun, and coherent post here later when I’m running off more than four hours sleep in a 48 hour period.

Happy, healthy little girl! Happy Birthday Lulu Belle!

T minus one (day) and counting!

A short post this morning due to time constraints. I’m feverishly trying to get loose ends tied up, i’s dotted and t’s crossed before I have to set down my work life for a week or so. I’m shutting down my business for that time and need to get everything ready. I’ll probably miss a few things but hey, that’s inevitable. I’ll just do what I can.

Short Stack’s bag is packed and today my folks will be coming up to stay for a while. They’ll come and pick up our little guy and take care of him while Action Girl and I are gone. Tomorrow, the two of us will leave in the morning and before the noon hour is passed, we shall be three. I can’t wait!

What we know is that the baby is a girl and that everything looks good so far. The birth will be a cesarean section due to a number of factors but that’s okay because it means that we get to side step the whole “running around in a panic” thing. I won’t miss that!

So, please excuse me if I leave the funny travel stories genre for a few days. I’ll no doubt have stuff to relate here, but it will be more of the schmaltzy variety, most likely. Lulu Belle is on her way and the three of us become four. I can’t wait to hold her and tell her how much I love her. Long ago, I knew I was going to love being a Dad. I was just unprepared for how much I would.

Now, off to finish things up. I’m about to double my work load and I can’t wait!

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Brothers, Sisters and Animal Crackers

In just under two weeks, our son Short Stack’s life will never be the same. You see, on the 4th of April, his status as an “only” will change forever to “Big Brother”. On the 4th, Action Girl is scheduled to go in for a routine c-section and bring our daughter, Lulu Belle into the world. Her name won’t legally be Lulu Belle, but it’s what Action Girl and I have been referring to her as for months, so I’m betting that like it or not, that’s going to be her nick name. Here’s hoping she doesn’t mind.

It’s funny though. Action Girl and I both are feeling kind of guilty about turning our son’s life upside down. He’s been the center of our world for his entire life and the idea that the lime light will no longer be all his makes us feel a little mean. I mean, being an only isn’t just good… it’s awesome. I know. I am one. Action Girl isn’t but she’s the youngest by a good bit in her family, so she never knew the fun of having a little sibling driving her nuts.

My folks had decided to have only one child. Back then (gawd, don’t I sound old), it was fairly unusual to have just one child and they had to put up with a fair bit of questioning about their decision from their contemporaries and especially their elders. There’s that strange rarified position that old folks have (or at least believe they have) that makes them think they can say what ever the hell they want to because they “know” it to be true. If it hurts to hear it, well then, that’s just too bad. This is a symptom of what I call C.O.M.S. or Crazy Old Man Syndrome. One of these individuals suffering mightily from C.O.M.S. even told my parents that, “Three people wasn’t enough to be called a family”. Some people have just amazing quantities of nerve.

I can remember a time long, long ago when I was asked about a sister or brother. I must have been around four or five and my Mom and I were in a grocery store. My Mother had stopped to talk with some old woman she knew. I was mostly interested in a box of animal crackers I was about half way through. Suddenly, I was aware of the old woman bending down over me and asking me if “Wouldn’t I like a little brother or sister?” My Mother must have been mortified. She’s a very private person in a lot of ways and the idea of her bearing more children as a topic of conversation must have been hard to take.

So, here was this pushy old woman, trying to use me to convince my parents to have more kids; just about bludgeoning me with a big, leading smile. The correct answer was obvious, even to a half pint. I looked down at my half eaten box of animal crackers, thought for a minute and then looked her in the eye, arched an eyebrow and replied “No.”

If I was more eloquent at that age, I probably would have said “What on earth for? The crackers are all mine, my parents are all mine, the toys on the bedroom floor (which is also mine) will be right where I left them, waiting for me to get home a play with them again. Good Lord… No!”

Don’t get me wrong. I wasn’t a selfish kid. “Only” children get that reputation (rather undeservedly, I think) but I just didn’t see the logic in introducing a new variable into a very happy childhood. Things were good and why change that, possibly for the worse?

Well, as an adult things have begun to cut the other way. When I was a kid, having Mom and Dad all to my self was great. Now, I still have Mom and Dad all to my self, except it’s me trying to help them. They’re getting older and even though they are still both very capable, it will get harder and harder for them to manage daily life and I have no one to call for help. That’s the other side of being an “only”.

I hope that Short Stack won’t mind the new addition to our family too much and the good news is that since he’s only two, he’ll never remember a time before; back when it was only the three of us. We can’t wait to meet Lulu Belle. I hope that Short Stack likes her too. In time, anyway.

In the mean time, I promise that I’ll get you both your own box of animal crackers.

I promise!

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