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.

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Looking Up.

Under Short Stack’s bed sit his large collection of earth moving equipment, gathering dust. Next to the forgotten dump trucks, excavators and front loaders are his personal, private sea going fleet. A car carrying ferry, two landing craft made especially for him in my workshop, and a small selection of tugs, barges and whatnot, carefully painted and ready for duty. If they were not made of wood, they would be rusting at their moorings.

I blame They Might Be Giants.

These toys that have kept him happy for hours on end for most of his imagination filled life have been swept aside for a new, all consuming passion.

Space.

The passion of a four year old.

It all started with the arrival of a gift from my blood brother, The Doctor. An educational DVD by the singing duo of John and John that is punchy, fun, well paced, highly factual and was more than an instant hit with our little resident red head. It was all he ever wanted to watch and he would sing the songs with glee. Some were better than others but one came out as the clear winner. The one about the Solar System.

He’d sing about it, ask questions about it, draw pictures of it and then sing about it all over again. For a treat, Action Girl and I took him to a planetarium a while back and I think that might have cemented it.

We didn’t do it on purpose, I swear!

The notion of space in general has totally overridden all his other interests now and no boat or bulldozer has the gravitational pull of a gas giant or the light of a solar flair. They just can’t compete.

At this very moment, my wife is upstairs with him, reading bedtime stories to him before lights out. He gets to pick the book and her words, drifting down the stairs, are as predictable as they could be.

“The Earth is ninety-three million miles away from the sun and completes a rotation on its axis in just one day. Mercury, on the other hand, rotates much, much slower and…”

Our little island library has a good set of kid’s books on the planets, the sun and other celestial bodies and we’ve been systematically going through the collection over the last few months. We’ve done the books on Mercury, Venus, the Sun, Stars and Jupiter. The biggest issue I have is convincing him that we shouldn’t take the whole lot of them out at once. It’s a tough sell.

I don’t know how many times Action Girl and I have read these little space-fact books to him but I’m willing to bet he knows the text by heart at this point. I’m also willing to bet that we could “read” them to him with our eyes closed. Hey, maybe he should be reading them to us!

Then there are the rockets. Ahhhh, rockets.

Belching flames, roaring noise and awaaaaaay they go! What’s not to love?

What little kid wouldn’t get cranked watching a video of that? The object of his purest enthusiasm is for the soon to be retire Space Shuttle. For Christmas this year, “Santa” got him a little, wooden Space Shuttle that came with two detachable rocket boosters and it was far and away the biggest hit of the day and now, though only a few months old, bears the scars of high action missions throughout the house. His only objection was that it was missing the big, orange external fuel tank. For whatever reason, the manufacturers had left it out, which bugged him to no end.

“But daddy, why didn’t Santa make the orange tank? Doesn’t he know?”

“Ummm. I guess he doesn’t Short Stack. Maybe the elves don’t know about the tank. What do you think?” A long pause as he considered this brought him to an unavoidable conclusion.

“I don’t think Santa knows as much about rockets as I do.”

This statement wasn’t said with the smug satisfaction you’d expect to hear from an adult, but rather with a pained, almost regretful edge to it. Santa was missing out. How sad.

Then, the buoyant solution that brought his smile back in a flash. “Maybe I could tell him about them!”

“I bet you could, Buddy.”

To remedy this egregious oversight on St. Nick’s part, he rummaged around in his play kitchen set and came out with a wooden carrot, which made a reasonable, if not vegetable substitute. The Space Shuttle made regular launches from our living room floor, carrot and all, for about a week before I couldn’t stand it any more. One afternoon when I could safely make a racket with a variety of power tools without waking any nappers or be remiss in my munchkin watching, I pounded down stairs with the mission of making a better fit for his space exploration vehicle. A few well placed screws and magnets, and his ship was complete and correct, thus making two detail nerds very happy indeed.

The solid rocket boosters aren’t correct, but it’s what it came with and honestly, he doesn’t seem to mind, so I’m letting this one go. For now, anyway.

Short Stack has always been interested in getting thing just right, and he wants to know everything he can. I’ve been quizzed on the details of the Apollo landings. I’ve had to scrape my personal memory banks in an effort to dredge up information on the Mercury missions. I’ve explained to the best of my ability how the Shuttle works and the work that is does, and Short Stack, he just wants more.

And more.

And more.

In the past, when the questions finally wore me down, I’d come back at him with a correct but highly detailed answer in the best science speak I could muster. Normally, he’d just stare at me for a few seconds with a look that said, “ I know that what you said answered my question, but I didn’t understand it” and then go wander off to ponder. With space, that strategy isn’t working. When I try my old method, he just stops, thinks about it… and then ask me to clarify.

Possibly five or six times.

I try not to start crying.

It’s been since some time back in November that space exploration took over our son and it shows no hint of releasing. His room, once a haven for heavy equipment and books about bunnies is now bent in devotion of the physical heavens. A picture of a rocket, painted by his own hand, hangs on a wall and just last week, a full set of three dimensional planets took their place, hung in order and radiating away from a suspended tennis ball playing the roll of “The Sun.” The books on the floor are almost universally devoted to objects in the sky.

He’s obsessed. He’s also deeply appreciative for what ever you can tell him about it. Anything. Just get it right.

That brings me to my master plan.

The Space Shuttle fleet is due to be retired permanently at the end of this year and since the latest budget proposal has come out, it looks like the end of NASA powered, manned space travel for a long, long time. Like it or hate it, it is most defiantly the end of an era.

Short Stack’s birthday is just around the corner and with my deeply indulgent wife’s nod; I have something special in mind. Tonight, this very night, the Space Shuttle Endeavor is to take off on what will be the last nighttime shuttle launch. I would love him to see that and considered flying to Florida with him so he could watch, but it’s scheduled for lift off just after Four in the morning. The prospect of getting him up at that hour is to horrible to consider. Waking a four year old at two am for a four AM launch? Do I look THAT nuts?

So, I’m shooting for second best.

Tentatively scheduled for the Eighteenth of March, the Shuttle Discovery will be blasting off at around One in the afternoon. That, Short Stack can swing and so, that’s what I’m planning. I’m just waiting for the launch time to firm up so I can buy the airline tickets.

I haven’t told him yet because I don’t want to disappoint if it doesn’t work out for what ever reason. Even once the two of us go, I’ll keep mum about the launch, lest it get scrubbed. I’ll build in a few extra days and see what happens. He’ll be bonkers about visiting the Kennedy Space Center and inspect each and every display with a multitude of questions, I’m sure.

He’ll want to KNOW.
I’ll try not to break down, begging for help after a few days of this.

It’s an ambitious move on my part. I’ll be solo with one of my children, far from home and without a net. He’s a great kid and I trust him to do well. Honestly, I wouldn’t even consider this adventure if that weren’t true. Still, you just never know how these things will play out until they do.

In the end, his contagious excitement is enough to make me want to do this. For him, it’s about the love of the thing. It’s what fills his dreams at night and powers his play all day long. It’s worth the risk. And someday, he’ll be able to tell his children or grand children, “You know, I saw the Space Shuttle launch when I was just a kid. My dad took me there to see it.”

With some luck, they’ll be interested to hear more.

With some real luck, they might even put down their toy trucks and boats and be impressed.

Wish me luck.

I’m nuts, aren’t I?

A sea of yellow.

I have said in the past that one of the things I was looking forward to the most was finding out what Short Stack’s passions would be. I know they change as we grow, but every kid seems to have one thing in particular that lights his or her fire. For me, it was airplanes, for Action Girl it was matchboxes (The little cars, not an actual box of matches, thank goodness). What would Short Stacks be? Dinosaurs? Space ships? Pirates? I’ll give you a hint… VROOOOOOOM! DUMP! SCOOP!

Actually, if you ask Short Stack, it’s pronounced “ROOOOOOM! DHOOMP! DOOOP!”

Action Girl and I were careful not to steer him in any particular direction and let him find his own passions. We got him toys of all types and with out any particular gender alignment. He has trains, tools, blocks, horses, dolls, and even a miniature stroller to push. Something in his blood though cried out for heavy equipment. He loves it. Loves it more than applesauce; and that my friend, is saying a LOT.

Over the last few months, we’ve been buying him truck toys of different types. Our favorites are by a company called Siku. It’s a German toy maker with an eye for detail, solid construction and actual lead-free paint. What a bonus! They’re a little more costly than most of the Chinese made stuff (I almost said US made, but we all know that’s a fantasy, these days) but it’s really a quality made toy. They have heft to them and are very realistic.
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The best part is that he knows what all the equipment is called. He will happily explain to anyone who will pause more than half a second what each truck is and what its exact function is. In his two year old voice he points out, “Dat’s an excabator. It doops! Excabator have a big dooper. Dat’s a front loader. It has wheels. DOOOOP! Dis is back hoe. Has a tiny dooper…” and so on. He’s very worried that you might be misinformed and wouldn’t want you to make an embarrassing faux pas and call the skid steer a bucket truck or something. He’s helpful that way.

So now that his second birthday has passed and since everyone who knows him, knows his passion, we are awash in a sea of miniature machinery. He’s a very, VERY happy boy. I can’t wait for the weather to warm up enough for me to open up his new sand box for him. It’s going to be a good summer in the sand. In the mean time, Short Stack forwent his usual plush jellyfish that accompanies him to dream land and instead, drifted off clutching his brand new CAT 430 back hoe. And yes, he’ll let you know it’s a 430. He knows the make and model. Just ask him.cat-430.jpg

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