Work Smarter, Not Harder

I was a big fan of Disney’s Duck Tales and Uncle Scrooge’s life philosophy of, “Work smarter, not harder.” Sure, that advice is not exclusive to that particular cartoon, but it was repeated enough on it that I associate the quote with Scrooge. I try to take that approach in raising my kids – particularly when it comes to playing with them. You see, I’m getting older and don’t have their energy level when it comes to play time. So I decided, if I can sit and still participate in playtime and the bonding that comes with it, that is precisely what I shall do.

Case in point – my 6-year-old came up with a game in which she pretends to be reading when I come home from work. I’ll be sitting in the recliner, she’ll hold a book or piece of paper in front of her. Then, she lowers the reading material, looks at me, gets a great big smile on her face, then runs to give me a hug. An easy game to play with little to no effort. At first. You see, as she gets more and more into this game, that run and hug turns into a run and jump on Daddy. Problem is, she likes to lead with her left knee on those jumps. So, the first time I played this game I regretted not wearing a cup.

“Mommy, why is Daddy crying?”

Needless to say, I’ve learned my lesson and sit in a more protective position when playing this game.

Although my name is not Jim I’ve often become the jungle gym of my little ones. This is a pretty easy game as I just sit in the recliner and let the 2-year-old climb over me and slide down repeatedly. The other night we had our typical jungle gym Daddy groove on. She would climb up the side of the recliner, flop onto my lap, slide down my legs, run to the couch, jump and flop on the couch then repeat the whole thing again. I was in no danger in my positioning and her landing – all was good. But, I’m assuming she got a little tired towards the end.

Keep in mind that I was wearing sweat pants. Sweat pants, for those of you who don’t know, do not offer ideal testicular protection. On her last round she must’ve needed some extra leverage to make it over the side of the recliner. She reached out and grabbed onto anything which would give her such leverage. Now, imagine the length of a 2-year-old’s arm and the average width of a recliner. Next, imagine where Daddy’s manhood would be in relation to a tiny, but strong, grasping hand…

Yeah, not fun. But she was having a ball – and I hope she returns them as I’m not finished with them, yet.

In essence, playtime is never safe for fathers unless they wear the proper protective gear. Perhaps I’ll head to the sporting goods store to stock up on such equipment…after all, we have a Dick’s in town!

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Epitome of Random – Vol 14

-Honesty is the best policy; but in Washington it’s neither our Domestic nor Foreign Policy.

-Overheard at work, from a female co-worker, “They’re not plastic, they’re beautiful!”

-I came into some money once. I was rolling around naked in it.

-My boss: “Do you have any smocks in your department? The uniform guy is here.”
Me: “What, is he perfectly proportioned?”

-We have a fairly large teddy bear named Wager (pronounced like Roger but with a “W” sound to start). The 2-year-old was hugging him and swinging him around. The 6-year-old was getting nervous about this. “Be careful with Wager, he has a rip in his vagina!” Either she doesn’t know her male/female anatomy too well, teddy bear anatomy is different from human anatomy, or Wager is a hermaphrodite! Not sure which.

-This week’s investment advice: buy stocks on tissue makers; the teen and the tween are very upset about Zayn Malik leaving One Direction. As Daddy, I’m upset for them; but in reality I couldn’t care less.

Brotherly Reminders

Two things happened recently which reminded me of my second oldest brother, who I will refer to as Big Dog in the remainder of this post. (He’s the biggest of us and I don’t like using people’s real names, other than popular cultural figures.)

My two-year-old didn’t take an early nap today; in fact, she’s often been skipping her nap and we’ve been struggling to keep her up long enough so she doesn’t wake up in the middle of the night thinking it was just a late nap she had. Today, I got home from work just after 5. She hadn’t napped today. Well, as my wife was getting ready to take the 11-year-old to her rehearsal shortly after my return the little one put her head down on the rug in the hallway and fell asleep. Yup, she looked like a little meatloaf with the side of her faced pressed into the rug and her butt up in the air. I just let her sleep there for a little while.

Kind of like when we would fall asleep on the floor growing up – mom would just throw a blanket over top us on many occasions. I do believe it was the Big Dog who fell prey to variable circadian rhythms whilst playing and hence crashed out wherever he was at the time. I know it also happened to me plenty of times, but when I hear the stories I am most reminded of the Big Dog.

The other reminder came from my wife. Our 6-year-old is very good at sneaking into our bed sometime in the very early morning hours without waking us up. She’ll just plop between us and won’t be discovered until I wake up for work or her little sister wakes us up fussing. This morning was one of those times. About 3:45am the little one fussed and tried to climb onto our bed from her toddler bed, which sits at the foot of ours. The wife picked her up and asked me to move her sister back to her own bed. I did so and came back to form the second wall around the toddler. Two hours later I woke up to go to work – yeah, nothing like sleeping in! I set up some extra pillows as a barrier between the toddler and the fall to the floor. The wife said it was our older daughter in bed with us. I said no, it was the toddler. She couldn’t remember bringing the 2-year-old into bed with us even though she seemed to be having an entirely lucid conversation with me while doing it.

How does this remind me of the Big Dog? Let me tell you.

Stories of the Big Dog waking up without fully being awake are the stuff of legend in our family. Many a time did my dad or mom tell him to go back to bed around midnight or shortly thereafter when he was fully dressed for school and milling around upstairs. The following morning he’d have no recollection of the eventĀ  – but the rest of us sure did. This, although not daily, weekly, or even monthly, was a frequent enough occurrence to stick in our collective family memory.

But my favorite occurred his junior year in high school. Both my older brothers were involved in the Spring musical, Cinderella. (Big Dog and the other tall guy in drama were cast as the ugly stepsisters. That was pure comic genius!) There’s a scene when the invitations are sent to all eligible maidens to attend the prince’s ball (in order to find a bride to attend to the prince’s…never mind). The song in that scene is appropriately titled, “The Prince is Giving a Ball.” Our high school put on pretty darn good theatre productions – a product of extensive rehearsals. About two weeks prior to the opening I had to wake up Big Dog for dinner. He sat up in his bed and mumbled something at me. “What?” I asked. More mumbling. “What?” Then, very loudly, “Did they do ‘The Prince is Giving a Ball’ yet?”

“Go back to bed.”

So, two weeks later, as Big Dog came down the stairs and was getting ready to head out with our oldest brother for opening night, I said, “Now they’re doing ‘The Prince is Giving a Ball.'”

“What?” he asked. Because, of course, he had no recollection of that previous conversation.

Epitome of Random – Vol 13

-My co-worker was singing “Shake your blues away,” the other day. As a guy, I’m thinking if you’re blue, you don’t want to be doing any shaking!

-I saw a video of a cat whose owner put tape on the floor around where the cat was sitting. The cat refused to cross the tape to leave. Today we had a small line of ants moving across the border of our play room and kitchen. My 6-year-old, much like that cat, refused to cross that line. She didn’t get to play with toys today as a result.

-A customer asked us if we carried nut breads without nuts. Umm, you mean breads?

-My 6-year-old put a ball up her shirt and pretended to be pregnant. Her 11-year-old sister said, “You can’t be pregnant with balls!” Yup, that one’s doing just fine in biology.

-Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson! Anyone with the last name Johnson is asking for mockery with the nickname “The Rock.”

-I just realized my brackets are more busted than the waistband on my underwear.

-Give kids options A, B or C for a snack, meal, or drink and they will invariably come up with an option D. Mom, Dad – I now know how you felt all those years!

What We Have Here Is a Failure to Communicate

Communication breakdowns, if I remember my college professors correctly, can happen at any of three moments in the delivery of a message. At one end is the sender, at the other the receiver and in between is interference. Lots of things can happen which cause a breakdown. On one hand, the sender may send an unclear message; or the receiver will interpret the message in a way unintended by the sender; or some form of interference in between caused the message to get distorted. Such examples are evident when you have young children.

Take, for example, our 2-year-old! Almost all the girls (2-year-old included) and the wife needed some kind of new shoe or shoes. We went shopping on Thursday to fulfill that need. The toddler needed sneakers/play shoes and possibly church shoes. (We decided the church shoes could wait a little while longer after spending far too much time already in Shoe Show!) However, the toddler wouldn’t cooperate. After many loud “no’s”, which echoed across the entire building, and some wailing the wife finally got to settle her down.

“But, honey, if you want to go to the playground you’ll need new sneakers.” The communication breakdown began with the sender!

You see, 2-year-old’s are hit-or-miss when it comes to generalized statements. Even though she immediately agreed to settle down and try on new sneaks (Doc McStuffins were selected, FYI), she concluded that meant a trip to the playground. That very day. In the rain. At 42 degrees.

One might surmise that the breakdown occurred at the reception. However, as she is our fourth beautiful daughter, we should’ve known that upon hearing the word “playground” she would assume a trip to said fun-zone as our next journey. By we should’ve known, I mean my wife should’ve known. Yup, I’m throwing my better half under the bus this time as I wasn’t the one to make the suggestion, nor was I in the vicinity of the toddler when this dialogue occurred. I was busy helping our much more cooperative 6-year-old pick out both church shoes and sneakers!

Speaking of the 6-year-old, she is an example of the breakdown occurring at reception. Tonight I took her and her 11-year-old sister to Tetelekai – a musical performance of Jesus’ passion and resurrection – at our church. It was announced that there would be two acts with a 15-minute intermission. Clearly stated, couldn’t ask for much more.

The problem was the receiver – she is not yet aware of the definition of intermission.

After Act One, when the audience applauded and the lights went up, she looks me straight in the eye and says (with a hint of sadness and disappointment), “I want to come back tomorrow night to watch the rest.” All parents must be teachers, and this was one of my teachable moments. I informed her that an intermission is just a break you take in the middle of a play or movie – sort of like Mommy and Daddy make her do with her videos to come eat lunch or say hi to a relative on the phone. Hopefully there wasn’t too much interference to prevent her from acquiring this new vocabulary word.

Speaking of interference, there’s A LOT of that in a house with 4 kids – wild and rowdy kids at that! One such moment occurred last week when the 11-year-old had the 6-year-old lay down on the floor. She told the 15-year-old she was going to levitate her little sister. Before she could perform her trick, the 6-year-old let one rip! She immediately started to laugh; because to a 6-year-old gas is, well, a gas! This is, once again, one of those teachable moments for a parent. My wife was telling her not to laugh but to say, “Excuse me,” when passing gas.

But there was interference.

In the name of Daddy!

I don’t think any of our kids heard my wife’s lesson on etiquette as I shouted from half-way up the steps, “Sweetie, you’ll have to fart a lot bigger than that if you want to levitate!”

I didn’t have to make eye contact with my lovely, beautiful, unfortunate wife to feel her look at that particular moment. No sir, there was no interference in that look – sender’s message was clear and receiver knew precisely what it meant. Now, whether or not the receiver heeds that particular message, that’s another story!

Priorities

I’ve never been one to set goals for myself. It explains my professional past – and general lack of a professional future. I kind of wandered into an English degree and wandered into all these years of retail management. Perhaps, had I been more goal-oriented, I would have a more fulfilling career. Don’t get me wrong, I’m very happy with my life in general, but I have decided to start setting some goals. But in order to set goals you first need priorities!

My faith is my priority. I’m a little behind this month on exactly where I want to be in growing my faith, but that can easily be remedied. And be remedied it will.

My family is my priority. I love my wife and children. I’m not ignoring my own parents, brothers, in-laws or those close friends I consider family; it’s just that providing for the physical, material, emotional and spiritual needs of my wife and four beautiful daughters is THE family priority. (Four daughters? Clearly my own sanity is not a priority!)

Becoming a better writer is a priority. That’s why I post as frequently as I am able on this blog. It’s also why this blog has no theme (the epitome of random), because I want to exercise my ability to write about anything. This is my warm-up exercise for the big game, which is the writing I do offline in hopes of getting published in the not-too-distant future.

My health is a priority. Okay, this hadn’t been high enough on my list a fair share of my life. But as I feel the effects of a sedentary lifestyle on my post-forty body I recognize the need for change. We recently invested in a treadmill and are working towards increasing our cardiovascular health. I’m also trying not to snack on the yummy cookies at work. I’m slowly achieving this lifestyle change; but progress is definitely being made.

With those priorities in mind I’ve been able to set four main goals. Some may consider them to be more than four goals, but I wrote them out on four large index cards so I’m counting them as four. (After all, twenty-one goals would require indecent exposure to count them.) Like I said, I’m happy with my life, but perhaps I can find more fulfillment when focused on my priority-oriented goals.

This post could’ve been published a few hours earlier, but I had to get my NCAA Tournament Brackets into Yahoo! before the deadline. After all, I have my priorities straight!

There Goes the Neighborhood

I mentioned two blogs ago that I’m a fan of New Urbanism. Unfortunately there are a lot of critics claiming it to be a failure, or at least not nearly as successful as hoped by its adherents. I’d like to offer my own critique, but first a very brief overview on the topic.

New Urbanism is the movement towards re-envisioning our built environment as integrated, walkable communities not unlike those before the suburban explosion of the Post-WWII era. It focuses on more compact and dense neighborhoods throughout small towns and big cities. It is an attempt to curb pollution and global warming by reducing dependency on cars; an attempt to reduce crime by keeping more eyes on the street through mixed uses, personal investment and involvement in the neighborhood and the fostering of a sense of community; an attempt to offer a range of housing types for all incomes; and an attempt to liberate children, the elderly and others without automobile access. Many also prefer the aesthetics of the traditional town – like Savannah, GA; Georgetown, D.C.; Chestnut Hill (Philadelphia, PA); and Beacon Hill (Boston, MA) to name a few.

This is being followed in three primary forms – redevelopment, in-fill development and new towns. Redevelopment is the re-use of existing buildings in our cities and towns which are no longer being used for their primary purpose or have become derelict. I’m sure you’ve seen plenty of these projects no matter what part of the country you live in. Old warehouses being turned into studios, lofts or luxury apartments with retail and/or office space on the ground level. Old department stores have found the same use, among other structures. In-fill development occurs in those empty spaces between developed parcels. Perhaps there’s a gap between an existing downtown and a nearby hospital. That vacant land may become another mixed-use development with apartments over offices and shops. Then there are new towns, designed and zoned to allow similar mixed-use properties surrounded by small-lot, single-family housing.

The most visible are often the new towns. They really tend not to be towns at all, but “town centers” set amid largely suburbanized areas that have no real center, downtown or main street. These are the ones targeted by critics as evidence of the failure of new urbanism. Such critics are half correct in their assessment. These new towns are trying to grow communities by fiat which had been grown organically generations ago. Before mixed-use, traditional town models were outlawed by most zoning codes, the towns which new urbanists try to mimic developed naturally over time due to the needs of the community as a whole. By trying to force the rapid development of something which does not grow rapidly in nature, these town centers are often viewed as artistic experiments in hippie town planning. However, what the detractors fail to notice is that there is a very real interest in such places. Usually a small group of people move to these centers and open up shop. In suburbia – not the natural habitat of people who prefer towns – that’s a success, albeit a small one.

In-fill development is perhaps the least visible of the three. We’ve all passed by a vacant lot (enormous or tiny) between existing development for years and then quickly glance at the construction crews that break ground on some new project. If it’s a large project – like a new school, civic center, or any other large project – it doesn’t really fall into the category of new urbanism. Once again we come to the requirement of mixed use. In my own city there’s an empty area just up the street from the large area hospital which is finishing up stage one of it’s mixed use project. High-end apartments (1 to 3 bedrooms) above shops and offices. Starbucks is already open there, waiting for the tenants to move in and buy their wake-up juice. I’ve noticed in a few metropolitan regions that these apartments tend to get rented out relatively quickly. The shops and offices take a little more time, but I’ve been noticing fairly rapid movement. They may be small businesses, boutiques and artsy-fartsy shops, and the apartments tend to be expensive so critics have railed against that as a failure to achieve new urbanism’s stated goal of a variety of housing types for all incomes. I’ll get back to that later.

Then there are the redevelopment projects. Once again, in the realm of new urbanism this should focus on pedestrian-friendly, mixed-use redevelopment. Older warehouses, department stores, hotels, etc being converted to apartments or apartments and offices/shops nearby and within walking distance of older neighborhoods are becoming common across this great country of ours. Because these buildings may hold identities in the collective memories of the citizens they are more noticeable than the in-fill development mentioned above. Once again, these tend to be on the higher end of the affordability spectrum. Once again critics rail against it as a failure. More on that to come.

In-fill and redevelopment sometimes aren’t considered new urbanism. Perhaps a more accurate term would be urban husbandry – the care of the urban fabric. (The term was coined by Roberta Brandes Gratz.) But a lot of these urban husbandry projects have come to fruition due to the new urbanism movement. Although new urbanism focuses on the discipline of urban planning and architecture whereas urban husbandry focuses on community advocacy, they really are partners with the same end goal – livable communities.

One of the biggest arguments of the critics is that suburbia is the choice of the people – they’ve selected it with their wallets over new urbanism. I beg to differ. Mixed-use development had been outlawed for so long that any new community built had to be in the familiar suburban model since the 1950s. And one of the reasons these new urbanist properties are expensive is due to a limited supply trying to accommodate a larger DEMAND! If there were no demand, the prices would drop significantly. And as the stronger example of success in new urbanism comes from redevelopment and in-fill projects, precisely where the existing urban fabric from generations ago already exists, I believe that the movement has much stronger legs than its detractors claim. But, much like the walkable, pedestrian-friendly cities and towns it tries to follow, new urbanism must be allowed to grow organically. The movement is only twenty years old, give or take. The suburban expansion had gone unchecked for over seventy years before municipalities began to allow mixed-use zoning once again. It will take time to see what the new urbanism can achieve.

I for one am happy to be a proponent of new urbanism. However, I don’t think it should be forced upon anyone. Zoning should allow for mixed-use development at higher densities which would support mass transit; it shouldn’t mandate it as the only option. More options mean more freedom! Plus, even though I’m an anti-social, moody son of a bitch, I like living in a neighborhood with plenty of people, on a bus line to get me almost anywhere I need to go in this fine city. I feel connected to a larger community living where I live, loner that I am. Who knows what our cities and towns will look like in the future – but who’s to say they shouldn’t be allowed to look and feel like they did back in the day.

Recommended Reading

Suburban Nation by Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk and Jeff Speck
This gives a great history of suburbia and the new urbanism movement trying to offer an alternative. Duany and Plater-Zyberk are two of the leading urban planners and founders of the movement.

The Next American Metropolis by Peter Calthorpe
If you’re feeling nerdy and want to see something a little more technical (but still readable) on the topic, this is the book for you.

Save Our Land, Save Our Towns: A Plan for Pennsylvania by Thomas Hylton
This is the one that started me on my new urbanism path. It’s beautifully written and photographed. Even though Hylton is focused on Pennsylvania, it can be applied to any state.

Cities Back From the Edge by Roberta Brandes Gratz
This is a great book about the philosophy of urban husbandry. You can see clearly how well it correlates with the new urbanism.

The New Urbansim by Peter Katz
A great coffee table book with lots of pictures of new urbanism projects in America and Canada. Also a good conversation starter.