Taking a Five-Year-Old to Paris

Ruby and I returned yesterday from a 12-day trip to Paris (with a dogleg to London). The vacation was amazing: Ruby is an energetic, enthusiastic, resilient and amiable travel partner.

Me, Ruby, Sparkly Tower

Planning a trip like this with Ruby was a little daunting. I was excited to take her away to a foreign culture and experience it through her eyes. The Eiffel tower! Walks along the Seine! Stepping into a tiny shop, sampling the wares, exploring the bits and pieces of life that make that somewhere else so exciting … but I was also nervous: how would she handle the two long plane rides there and back? Would we find a way to meet in the middle of how a child experiences a foreign place and how an adult does?

Well, the answers are mixed.

The Plane Rides

I was so nervous about the plane ride — just she and I for 10 hours trapped in tiny seats — that I splurged on an iPad 2 and loaded it up with movies and games. The iPad turned out to be a great travel computer anyway, but on the long international flights it mostly supplemented the in-flight movies. Ruby watched the Yogi Bear movie 3 times in a row on the flight out of Paris, and only turned to the iPad between showings. Still, it was the perfect distraction and Ruby could explore whatever movies and games she wanted at her pace, leaving me to nap and read. A few minor inconveniences (and inevitable exhaustion) aside, the flights were painless.

Attitude

I’m still in awe at Ruby’s attitude and energy. She was, for the most part, a non-stop bundle of go-go-go. Whatever we suggested, wherever we wanted to go, she was up for it. The movement of travel appealed to her; riding the metro and tube and train and plane were all exciting. It was a simple joy to hold her hand and just walk the streets of these big, crowded foreign cities. At times we both wore down, of course, and got too hot or tired or crabby. But in general, this trip really did reinforce what a special kid Ruby is: she can take something like a 15-hour travel day totally in stride and still be perfectly pleasant and social at our first bistro dinner in Paris. Damn, I’m one lucky Papa.

Travel and Play

Headstands in the Park

Even though Ruby loved the trains and planes and (to a lesser extent) just walking, the destinations didn’t really impress her quite as much.Travel is so much about context that it’s really hard to appreciate why we should go out of our way to see the Most Famous Painting In The World when it looks just like all these other ones. Our trip up the Eiffel Tower was terrible; it was hot and crowded and the lines took forever. As soon as we were at the top, Ruby wanted to descend again. “But,” I said, “this is the Eiffel Tower! It’s … it’s the Eiffel Tower!” And the same happened for the Mona Lisa, and the Venus de Milo, and Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain”, and Buckingham Palace, and the Crown Jewels and a score of other destinations. We’d get there and I’d try to explain the significance and context and why it’s so cool that we are currently at This Important Thing, but a five-year-old can’t relate.

A five-year-old wants to play.

So we did: Ruby spent a lot of time each day at a playground, running from slide to swing to bouncy thing, just being a kid. It’s hard to be a kid when you’re in a strange city and your parent has an iron grip on your hand so that you don’t get dragged under a bus or smear snotty fingers on the Picasso. It’s hard to understand why this tiny butcher’s shop is any different than the meat case back at our local Safeway. But a swing and a slide: now that’s something Ruby understands.

Independently Traveling

My parents and sister met up with us in Paris and they took Ruby to parks and gardens and playgrounds as

Eiffel Tower with Nana

well, leaving me free to explore Paris’s museums and cafes and tiny shops and just walk and sit and go at my own personal, grown-up pace. There really is a difference between how a kid and an adult relate to being somewhere new; and making sure we each had room to take care of our needs really made the trip worthwhile. I couldn’t really explore the modern art of the Pompidou with Ruby by my side; I wanted to do the audio tour and read every placard and really absorb as much of it as I could. Dragging Ruby through the museum for several hours would have been a terrible experience for both of us. And meanwhile Ruby really needed to run around with other kids at a playground, but several hours each day watching her climb the exact same equipment we’d find in Seattle would have made me regret the $2000 plane tickets. Getting some time apart was necessary.

If It’s Important, Be It

It’s an inevitable attitude of parenting: you want to do something special with your child, but you want to make sure he or she is old enough to “really appreciate it”. It’s an easy trap to fall into, and it’s something you need to fight against. If something is important to you — if an activity espouses the values you hold dear — then do it. And then do it again. It doesn’t have to be Paris every time, but if you want to raise a traveler, you need to be a traveler. If you want to raise a hiker or camper, you need to get out in the woods. Don’t wait to read her your favorite novel; read it to her every few years.

The question of whether Ruby would remember this trip often came up when discussing it with friends. I think that’s a bit of a red herring; 33 years later, I remember just a few tiny snatches from a Disney world trip I took with my grandparents when I was five. But to me the question isn’t whether she’s going to remember this trip in 30 years: it’s how it’s going to color her life next week, next month, and next year. She’ll carry the confidence of having traveled well. She’ll have the context of knowing what a real-life Paris looks and sounds and smells like.

And, most importantly, we’ll both appreciate and cherish the bond she and I reinforced every day we spent together, holding hands, walking the crowded streets of Paris.

The Mona Lisa!

Who We Are

Ruby and I stand on the warm sand beside the ocean, the sweet swells breaking mildly before us. I crouch before her, get her attention, and tell her this:

When you enter the water, walk straight out. As that first wave swirls around your knees reach down and grab a handful of that foamy stuff and press it to your heart.

The ocean is bigger than us.

* * *

Ruby and I stand on the mountain, hot summer sun and sweat. Around us is air and clouds and wind, below us is dirt and forest and rock. I give her a high-five, then crouch before her, get her attention and tell her this:

When you climb a mountain, find the highest point. Then pick up a rock — any rock, it doesn’t matter — and place it there on the highest point of the peak. Thank the mountain by making it that much taller. We are not conquerors.

The mountain is bigger than us.

How To Explain DADT to a 4-year-old

This morning, in response to a story on NPR, Ruby asked me what “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” means. Never one to shy away from an opportunity to explain extraordinarily complicated issues to a young child, I dove right in…

First I started by explaining that the people in the army and navy don’t have as many rights as we do. For example, if I wanted to quit my job, I could do that any time I wanted. But people in the military aren’t allowed to quit. And if my boss told me that I had to move to Kansas, I could just say no. But in the military, if your boss tells you to move to Kansas, you have to do it. Ruby asked why people weren’t allowed to quit, and I said it’s because sometimes people in the military have to do really difficult things, and that too many people would want to quit. “Couldn’t they let just one person quit?” she asked.

Okay, now that we’ve established that people in the military have fewer rights I started explaining about love. I said there are some people who love other people who are the same sex as them. I said my friend Justin at work is married to a man and he only loves men. And I told her that I only love women. I asked her what kind of people she thought she would love, and she said she’d want to marry a man — not surprising given her age, gender, and that I was in the car with her. 🙂

Then I gave her some examples of people she knows who love both men and women — maybe that’s the kind of person she is? And she immediately said that *that* is how she is. She loves both.

Note that through all of this I wasn’t using any labels: no “gay”, “straight”, “bisexual”, “homosexual”. Those are shortcuts that are handy when talking with adults, but I think they’re too rigid to use when introducing this kind of a concept to a child — especially when I’m framing the conversation in terms of the individuals you love.

Okay, next step was to talk about where love comes from. I told Ruby: “love isn’t something you choose. It comes from deep inside you and it just makes you love someone. Do you think you could choose to not love Mama?” She said no, of course. “And do you remember when you started to love Mama? No, it was just there and it happened without you thinking about it. You didn’t choose it — it just happened”.

Moving on, I told her that some people don’t like it when a man loves a man or a woman loves a woman. I told her it makes them feel weird or uncomfortable or angry, or that it isn’t something they’re used to. And I told her that older people are more likely to feel this way, and that people in charge of the military are older and so they think a man loving a man is strange and don’t like it.

Finally, tying everything together, I explained that “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” means that if you’re in the military, it’s okay for a man to love a man or a woman to love a woman, as long as it’s a secret. But if they find out about it, then they’ll fire you. And that’s bad because the people who are getting fired really love their jobs.

I told Ruby that all of my friends and just about everybody I know thinks that it’s okay for a man to love a man or a woman to love a woman, and that we think “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is a bad idea. But there are people in other parts of the country who disagree, and sometimes it takes a long time for the country to change. I said sometimes, this country changes too slowly.

“But Papa,” she said, “it just changed to fall yesterday!”

Offbeat Papa

Welcome, Offbeat Mama readers!

Today I was the featured DILF at OffbeatMama.com: http://offbeatmama.com/2010/09/single-dads-are-extra-dilfy.

Maybe with all the attention I’ll get around to adding some new entries to this here little blog.

Papa Tips #3: Asterisk Mode

Okay, your new child is two days old.  You’ve been camped in your bedroom for the past 36 hours, wrapped up in all things baby.  But you’ve run out of bread and milk and coffee and so it’s time to go to the grocery store.

So you leave your partner with the child, throw on some sweats, and head to the store. You wander the aisles, checking off your list, humming along, and in your head you’re thinking to yourself, “Wow.  It’s so nice to be doing something normal again.”

But in your heart all you want to do is race down to checkstand 3 and grab the microphone from the cashier and yell, “WHY ARE YOU PEOPLE ACTING SO NORMAL?  CAN’T YOU SEE — I JUST HAD A BABY!”

You could swear it’s obvious, like there’s a big asterisk stamped right on your forehead.  All your normal routine little things — things you used to do automatically, reflexively, suddenly have this grandiose context wrapped around them.  It’s no longer “getting coffee”; now it’s “getting coffee/just had a baby”. “Paying the bills/just had a baby”.

Of course, nobody can see this asterisk —  but that doesn’t mean it’s not real.  And don’t worry, eventually it goes away.  Well, actually, it doesn’t: instead that asterisk becomes the new normal, and you wonder how you ever managed to pay the bills without it there to keep you company.

Papa Tips #2: Take Time Off

This one is probably obvious to most people, although the reasoning behind it might be a surprise. The days after your baby are born are amazing, energetic, frantic, sleepy, exhausting, exhilarating times. You don’t want to miss a second of it. It’s a no-brainer that you’ll want to take a week or so off work to be there for the first days of your child’s life.

But don’t stop at one week!  You need to take all the vacation, sick leave, and paternity leave that you can.  Because after a week or so, things start to settle down a bit.  Life starts to feel a little bit normal.  But when that “normal” returns, it isn’t the same normal as before.  There are new rhythms and details and unspoken little habits that emerge and become part of your own private culture of parenting.  If you’re not there to understand and help shape those details, then you’ll be playing catch-up for the next 12 months.

Two weeks’ leave is a minimum.  Four weeks should get you well on your way.  The optimum is 6 weeks (best described as “42 nights”).  Or, you can do what I did and make stay-at-home fatherhood your full-time vocation.  Whatever you choose, rest assured that time spent at home in the first few weeks is time well invested.

Papa Tips #1: Be There For The Birth

Now is a great time to become a father.  Never before has our culture granted men such leniency in defining the role they wish to play as parents.  You can be more engaged in all aspects of your children’s live.  And there’s no better place to start than at the birth.

Among many little joys and terrors, two things about the birth really stand out to me.

The first is the gift of being beside your partner as she undertakes an incredibly difficult and inspiring journey.  You’ll see her experience physical and emotional stresses unlike anything either of you have experienced before.  Just to watch, let alone participate as a birth partner, is wonderful.

Ruby’s birth was quick, intense and went fairly smoothly except for one complication: the umbilical cord was wrapped around her neck.  This was a dangerous situation; paramedics were called to the birth center as a precaution.  Kate was giving birth naturally and drug free, and she was barely lucid from hyperventilation and the intensity of her pain.  As things became more critical with Ruby’s condition, we had to make some important decisions about how the birth was to progress.  We were about to go down a less-than-desirable course when Kate took matters into her own hands.  She was exhausted and weak from labor, but she told us to wait.  She gathered her energy, focused, and in three quick contractions Ruby was born.  It was an incredible moment of determination and focus and resolve.  In terms of scale, it was unlike anything I’d witnessed before.  It was an honor to be there with her and watch her plumb the depths of her own strength.

The second gift is to be there when your child takes her first quick breath, tastes the sweaty, musty world we live in — and announces herself.  I’m not much for metaphysical spirituality, but when I heard that noise, of Ruby telling us she had arrived, I lost touch with this world.  I wept.  For the duration of that cry, I floated in the sound.  During those moments a piece of my soul was removed and placed into her, and I felt it happen.  It was a moment of pure, sweet joy to match the intensity of everything we’d experienced in the preceeding hours.

You can’t have one gift without the other — they’re a matching set, with the intensity of labour setting you up for the sweet release of a new life.  Be there, and you get them both.

Papa Tips

Maybe it’s just the age we are, or the age of our generation, but it seems like everywhere I look, people I know are having babies.  There are four babies due in 2009 just at work, and another handful scattered among my social network.  Since most of these parents are first timers, I thought I’d put together some tips to help see them through the next few years of their lives.  And although many will work for both parents, I’ll mostly be writing with the new fathers in mind.

Pea-wrapped Grilled Shrimp

Pea-wrapped Grilled Shrimp

If you’re staring longingly at your half-grown peas, wishing you could be enjoying that fresh spring taste right now, then I’ve got a great recipe for you!

You might not know it, but the entire pea plant — shoots, leaves, flowers and pods — is edible, and all of it taste like peas.  I often grab a random pea leaf to munch on when I’m strolling in the garden.  They also stand up to grilling, and the flavor is a great match with freshly grilled shrimp.  Here’s how you do it:

  • Turn the grill on high.
  • Peel and clean your shrimp, then sprinkle with salt, lemon, and any other seasonings you might have (I didn’t use dill, but it would probably be fantastic).
  • Remove the seeds from a sweet pepper and chop it into skewerable squares.
  • Head over to your pea plants and pick a leaf or two off each plant.  The bigger and older, the better.  You’ll need one leaf for each shrimp.
  • Grab one shrimp, wrap it in a leaf, skewer it, then stick on a piece of sweet pepper.  Repeat until done.
  • Add a bit of oil to protect while cooking.  I gave the skewers a quick spritz of cooking spray; alternately you could toss or brush with oil.
  • Throw ’em on the grill!  With  high heat, they need just a few minutes on each side.
  • Enjoy!

Pea-wrapped Shrimp

The pea leaves help to protect the shrimp from drying out in the high heat of the grill, and they provide a nice, subtle hint of pea flavor that goes well with the light sweetness of the shrimp.  We enjoyed ours with some other springtime favorites: grilled asparagus and sweet Walla Walla onions.  Add some simply dressed lemon-parsley noodles and a glass of wine and you’ve got a great spring meal!