Ruby’s First Race

Last Sunday, Ruby ran in her very first race. We did the Top Pot Doughnut Dash 5k, with Ruby in the jogging stroller, and afterwards she did the Kids’ Dash 1k. We looked forward to ending the morning with a performance from Caspar Babypants, Ruby’s new most favorite band.

When I was in high school I competed in long-distance track and field. I remember one race in particular: it was 1500 meters, 4 laps of the track, and I just wasn’t feeling it that day. I started slow and dragged behind the pack. Eventually I was chugging along a good 50 yards behind the second-to-last runner. But I have a rule: never come in last. As the bell rang for my last lap of the track I turned it on. Hard. I had plenty in reserve so I easily passed Mr. Second-to-Last and even caught another runner in the final stretch. The crowd went crazy as I sprinted across the finish line. I climbed the bleachers afterwards, receiving congratulations from my classmates, and my coach gave me a stern look. “That was an interesting race,” was all he said.

Before her race I sat Ruby down to give her some advice. She was a kid; she could spend hours running around… but she’d never done a straight kilometer. I was worried about the distance that stretched ahead of her. Here’s what I told her:

  1. Have fun.
  2. You don’t have to run the whole way; you can walk if you want to. But it’s important to finish.
  3. Don’t come in last.

Ruby disappeared up to the start while I maneuvered the jogging stroller through the crowd of parents who had gathered behind the line. Eventually I ditched it and fought my way to the front. Ruby was there, foot on the line, a determined look in her eye.

 

Ruby is Ready to Run

I grew up running. I can remember thinking of myself as the fastest kid in my class (until another one definitively claimed the title in 6th grade). I was a member of the cross-country club and the track and field team. I kept running through junior high school, and picked it up again as an adult. My brother, sister and I have all done half-marathons or more. We’re not built like elite lean runners, but we get the job done.

The horn sounded and Ruby was off! Older kids quickly sprinted well ahead of her, and she lost herself in the pack of the race. The course looped around a big sports field, and I ran across the middle of it, keeping abreast of her, planning to cheer her on at the halfway point. She kept up a steady pace.

Ruby had told me, a few days before, that she thought she would win the race. I had responded that it was a great goal to have, but not very likely.

In my whole life I’ve won just one race. I can still remember what it was like: a Wednesday night. The race was the 600 meters. My father was there; he was helping to measure the shot-put competition when the gun went off.

I was a good runner, but not the best — but my prime competition had not shown up that night. We bolted from our starting positions and I was in first place. After 200 meters the lanes merged and I was still in front. 200 meters later, 200 to go, starting the final turn, and I was still leading.

Feet, I thought to myself, don’t fail me now.

It’s funny, nearly 30 years later, to think of it: I don’t remember crossing the finish line. But I remember that plea to my feet; that feeling of being carried away by this unstoppable force inside of me. I will always remember it. And I remember looking for my Dad in the aftermath. Did you see? I won! Did you see?

The path went up a slight incline towards the street and I saw Ruby start walking. That’s fine. She got to the top of the hill and started running again, then disappeared as the crowd turned toward me.

I was so proud of her. She was only five years old, running a kilometer by herself, surrounded by older kids and parents and doing just fine — she was running, just running, lost in the moment, and that’s what it’s all about.

I stood by the side of the path, waiting for her to come into view. Finally the crowd parted and I could see her running towards me.

She was in tears.

She reached me and I scooped her up, holding her. Kids and parents streamed past us. I whispered that she was doing great, that I was so proud of her. She said, I wanted to run with you, Papa.

I dropped her to the ground, back onto the running shoes I’d bought her just the day before, and I held her hand. We ran together. We had fun. We picked out people to beat, and we passed them, hand in hand. As the finish came up I let go of her and she sprinted across the line while I cheered, and then I gathered her up and carried her off to celebrate.

* * *

In retrospect, I think I know what happened.

Ruby thought she was going to win the race. She is five; competition of any real sort was still a novelty. As far as she was concerned, she was the smartest, strongest, most beautiful girl who ever lived. She really thought she was going to win.

In fourth grade I entered a lunch-time chess competition at my school. My first opponent was Dennis, an overweight classmate whose natural intellect was masked by awkwardness. In short order he had the advantage and put my King into Check. I couldn’t find the way out. My brother, three years older than me, finally pointed out the only option but by then I was forced to concede. I was devastated. I spent the remainder of the lunch hour sobbing into the librarian’s flowery polyester blouse.

As Ruby’s first race finally commenced, the reality of the situation came crashing down on her. She was not going to win. She had no real concept of the distance or the people who were running; all she knew was that an endless stream of runners were passing her as she walked up that hill. She was losing the race.

If I could do it again I’d hold her hand the whole way.


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.

The Transparent Parent

A few weeks ago, I was walking to lunch with a coworker who has a son about Ruby’s age. He mentioned that he and his wife have been trying to avoid using spelling or oblique references in their son’s presence. For example, if there’s a debate about whether to have ice cream for dessert, they won’t start spelling I-C-E C-R-E-A-M while they hash out the details.  Instead, they try to involve him in their conversations even if the subject might be one they’d rather avoid or where their decisions might not mesh with their child’s easily predictable desires.

The notion of transparent parenting stuck with me as an interesting ideal, and it’s something I’ve thought about a lot since then.  Part of it is giving Ruby an honest presentation of how the world works; before decisions are made there is a conversation that is a critical part of the process.  Exposing her to the complete process teaches her about compromise and empowers her by bringing her into the process.  Decisions don’t spring fully-formed from Papa’s forehead; instead there is back and forth where we talk about feelings, desires, how close it is to bedtime, and whether we should save the treat for a more special occasion.

But transparent parenting isn’t an absolute ideal.

Kate, Ruby and I were driving back from a camping trip and about an hour down the road we stopped in a little town to stretch our legs and explore.  As we were getting back in the car, with a three-hour stretch of driving ahead of us, Kate suddenly realized that we’d left Ruby’s water bottle back at the campsite — and stated as much.  Ruby’s favorite water bottle, the only water bottle she’d ever known her entire life, with the cute picture of the backpacking dog and handy protective cap, was now gone.

Ruby cried for an hour.   She’d compose herself, grow quiet, and then think about her lost water bottle and start wailing again.  If you’ve ever been cooped up with a crying toddler in a small car you’ll know what kind of a drive that was.  So yes, there are times when you want to withhold information from your young charges.

It’s certainly easier to be a less-than-transparent parent.  Involving a toddler in decisions can be frustrating, exhausting, or just plain cruel.  Three-year-olds in particular are just beginning to learn about their own independence, and their psyches can be frail as a result.  I know that mentioning the words “ice cream” or “playground” will immediately fix those conclusions in her head, even if they are just remote possibilties in mine.  There is a tricky line one needs to negotiate.  But as parents, I think we can lean towards the convenience of opacity a little too often.

We were sitting around the breakfast table this morning and Kate was telling us about her previous evening, when she’s spent some time with friends at a bar.  Apparently some of her friends had gotten pretty “drunk“.  That was just how Kate said it: whispered, under her breath, so Ruby wouldn’t hear.  But really, saying the word “drunk” around Ruby isn’t a bad thing — it’s exactly the kind of information about how the world works that we want her to have.

Transparent parenting isn’t a hard-and-fast philosophy, or even a general rule of thumb.  It’s just something to consider as your child matures and becomes more appreciate of the world of adults around her.  It adds a new challenging layer to parenting, for sure, so it is best applied judiciously.  But keep the idea in the back of your head; soon you’ll find yourself spelling less and dealing directly with your child more often.  After all, isn’t that what parenting is all about?

Ping Pong Soup

Here’s a great recipe that is perfect for those days when I come home from work with no ideas for dinner, some random ingredients in the fridge, and a Ruby who wants to spend time with Papa.

The recipe is simple: just put a carton off chicken broth in a pot, turn on the heat, and then take turns adding ingredients. Anything goes. Yes, anything.

The last time we played it turned out something like this:

Me: leftover chicken meat and bones.

Ruby: Blueberries!

Me: A handful of cooked rice

Ruby: Apple juice!

Me: Some chopped up onions

Ruby: Carrots!

Me: Chinese five-spice powder

Ruby: Cheerios!

You’ll notice that all of Ruby’s ingredients end in an exclamation mark, because she’s having tons of fun.  As a parent, it’s a good exercise of your ability to deal with the randomness of toddlerhood.  It’s actually hard to think of any ingredients I would veto — especially since, as the person who is dealing with the bubbling pot, I get to control the amount of each ingredient and when it is added.  So (for example) in our previous round, the Cheerios were sprinkled on top, as a garnish, after the soup had been served.

This recipe is also a good challenge to aspiring chefs to learn to roll with what’s available, and find common flavor threads to unite the random bits bubbling in the pot.

My advice if you try this (and I hope you do!):

  • Put healthy basics in at the beginning — stock, meat, rice, barley, potatoes, that kind of thing.
  • Save the spices for the end, when you know what kinds of flavors you’re dealing with.
  • Keep an open mind!

Princess Party Redux

The Princess Party has come and gone and Ruby is none the worse for wear.  Despite the omnipresent generic princess decor, Ruby has yet to ask to be saved from any dragons (although she does need rescuing from the occasional uncooperative button).

Pretty Passive Posing Princess Pastry<br>(yes, that's a cake)

Pretty Passive Posing Princess Pink Pastry (yes, that's a cake)

Ruby chose to dress in her bee costume (her other option was ladybug) and she was the only non-princess among the half-dozen girls.  But crinoline and satin bodices notwithstanding, it was about what you’d expect from a gather of three- and four-year-olds: chasing, screaming, stickers, face painting, and juice boxes.  Ruby made the most of being a bee among the lilies of the kingdom and spent her time chasing everyone around.  She didn’t seem to mind that she was the only non-princess among the girls.  The fact is, I really wasn’t worried so much what she would think — it was the parents I was worried about, and what they’d think of the dork who brought his kid in a bee costume to the princess party.

Which brings us to the best part of the whole experience: spending time with Ruby’s classmates and their parents.  I only get to make a very brief appearance at Ruby’s school once per week before rushing off to catch a bus, and so I don’t get much opportunity to chat with the parents or get to know them or their kids.  But Ruby is going to be spending lots of time around these people for the next few years, and she’ll be invited to more birthdays, playdates, and the like.  It was good for me to have some pleasant conversations with several of the parents and get to know them a bit better.

The Bee Gets A Bee

The Bee Gets A Bee

p.s. The decor (princess decals strewn about the house) and a Princess Pageant Castle Cake did confirm my earlier conception of the Princess meme (or at least the way it is marketed).  These ladies do nothing but stand around — can’t one of the them hop on a horse, pull out a book, or even, you know, walk somewhere?  Even a model’s strut would be a step up from the static subvervient pose these princesses present.

Pretty Pretty Papa Princess

It was bound to happy sooner or later. Try as we might to shield Ruby from the infectious outside world, we knew that eventually she’d be exposed.  Sending her to preschool only increased the odds, and now, finally, it has happened:  she’s been invited to a Disney Princess Birthday Party.

original by flickr user PinkMoose

original by flickr user PinkMoose

Kate and I both anti-princessification, for reasons I’ve mentioned before. Looking at the cheap invitation (printed at home, not Officially Licensed Merchandise) a whole new objection sprang to mind: they’re posers.  Literally — all they do is pose.  They’ve been stripped of their original, entertaining and worthwhile myths and stand inactive and vacant. Instead of watching their actions, you should just watch them…  as they do nothing.  Added to our original objections over the cultural appropriation, incessant marketing, pressure to conform, and rigid gender roles and segregation, and you can guess how we want to RSVP.

But ultimately, we decided she should go. These are friends she sees at school every day and it’s good for her to also see them outside of school.  And she’ll be exposed to the princess culture whether we like it or not, so at least one of us can go along and frame her experience in ways that we think are important.

Still, we’re not going down without a fight.  And so, gender roles and pretty princesses be damned, it is I who will be escorting Ruby to the Disney Princess Birthday Party. I won’t be surprised if I’m the only non-related adult male in attendance.

Actually, I’m kind of looking forward to it. Ruby is just starting to learn how to play with (instead of alongside) her peers and it’s a pleasure to watch her social skills develop. I don’t get many opportunities to watch her play with her schoolmates — complete strangers (to me) she’s developed complex personal relationships with. It’s fascinating to see her trying to flex her leadership muscles, or be polite and kind, or be totally socially oblivious.

I’m sure Ruby will have fun, and I’ll do my best around the grown-ups, and this little foray into the world of princesses will soon be forgotten amidst our summer of swimming and building and jumping and thinking.

Oh, and the invitation encourages children to wear costumes. Do you think Princess Ladybug will work?

Swimming Lessons

Ruby and I are spending every Tuesday this summer down at the Green Lake pool, taking a half-hour swim class. While Mama is off playing racquetball, we get to bob and bond among the splashing toddlers.

Ruby can’t swim, of course, but she’s getting more comfortable in the water.  She generally hangs onto me as we wander around the pool (Ruby occasionally shouting “Ride the Papa!”).  On the second day, though, something incredible happened: she let go!

She was hanging on to a water noodle at the time, her arms draped over the top for buoyancy. For just a second or two she panicked as she drifted away, kicking madly, but then she realized that she could do it by herself! A light went on and she broke out in a big grin. She was swimming by herself!  She spun around a few times, getting the hang of things, and then, legs thrashing under the water, started making some progress towards her destination.
I was incredibly proud and happy. Not just proud of the physical feat, but happy to have gotten a chance to see that moment of doubt turn into a moment of triumph.

During and after the swim class I told Ruby how proud I was.  It was also gratifying to see that she responded to my statements of pride as well — that she was happy to hear how proud I was.

Since then she’s continued to swim around on the noodle by herself. Every time she climbs on her legs start kicking wildly and she turns away from me to explore the pool on her own. Of course, she doesn’t get very far — she’s not very fast. We have also done a class with a lifejacket and had a similar, but better result: now, Ruby could use her hands as well as her legs to slowly thrash around the pool.

As an added bonus, now that she’s on the noodle I can use it to give her some gentle dunks in the water. I lift her up slightly, just a few inches, and her momentum then carries her down under the water. But she kicks her legs and hangs onto the noodle, and quickly comes bobbing to the surface, a big grin on her face.

Heave Ho

I’m starting off another work week with a sore back. It’s now been six months that I’ve had constant lower back pain. I’ve tried both resting and exercising, and neither has seemed to work — although I’m still working hard on the latter and have only recently started making decent progress towards some of my fitness goals.

It’s no coincidence that my back is worse on Monday — I spend all weekend carrying Ruby around. I do it because I love to hold her, whisper in her ear, nuzzle against her cheek, and see the world with her. But I think the sad truth is that as she’s gotten heavier, the strain on my back has gotten to be too much. I generally carry her just on one side, which doesn’t help things.

I’m going to try spending a week consciously avoiding carrying Ruby. It will be difficult, and I don’t know how many exceptions I’ll need to make to get through the week. And in the end, I’m not even sure if it’ll be worth it.

Missing Ruby

Work is ramping up for a big release next week, and so I’m working longer hours than usual. And that means I’ll be spending less time with Ruby.

Right now my work hours are shifted a little early than in the morning so that I can come home and have dinner with my family. That tends to not work so well during crunch time, though, as the principals tend to work into the evening and things can really get interesting at work around 5pm or 6pm. So, for this week I’m working into the evening and not getting home until around Ruby’s bedtime.

Ruby’s day is only about 12 hours long, and with the bus ride I can easily be away from home for all of it. Today I managed to catch her for a few minutes at each end of her day but I could, theoretically, go an entire day (or days) without seeing Ruby.

It seems particularly hard to spend significant amounts of time away from Ruby — harder than it is to be away from Kate. I’ll think about Ruby and Kate spending time together and feel like I’m falling behind. I want to be just as important a figure in Ruby’s life as Kate is, but of course in reality that’s impossible. One of us needs to work (and actually, I’m quite happy to be the one earning a paycheck right now).