Monday, June 20, 2011

An Open Letter to Our Youth

June 21, 2011

To all soon to be middle- and high schoolers (or more likely your parents, who will hopefully encourage you to read this!),

Please pardon the interruption of your summer vacation. I know many of you recently “graduated” from elementary or middle school and were not expecting to do any reading for the next few months, but this will only take a few minutes.

As I’m sure you know, your life is about to change.  And since life is about change, that’s a good thing - but I want to encourage you let those changes happen naturally. You need to stop being in such a rush to grow up.  Right now many of you can’t wait to be 16 so you can drive. But the 16-year olds out there want to be 18 so they can buy lottery tickets and maybe vote. And the 18 year olds are impatiently waiting to be 21 so they can legally drink.  After that, the next age to look forward to is retirement, and by that point, you’ll be wishing you were young again. So, while you’re still young, why not be young?

I know it’s no longer cool to be a kid – and practically impossible to dress like one - but there is a way to do it without ruining your rep.  You see, the way I figure, it’s society putting all the pressure on you to mature early - to look and act grown up so you’ll watch their shows and buy their products – but, as a teenager, it’s your job, your duty, your sole purpose in life to reject and rebel against everything society has to offer, so be a rebel and refuse to grow up before your time! Don’t play society’s game, just play.  Be a kid.  Have fun.  Ride your bike, roll down hills, run the bases.  Don’t be afraid to act your age.
The problem is, many of you have no idea what acting your age means anymore.  12-year old rappers and singers are making music and videos about things I didn’t do until I was 18.  When I was 12, I think I was still playing “House” (and I’m not ashamed to admit it.) I was probably 15 when I first kissed a girl for longer than 2 seconds. But that was normal. I was a kid. And kids then didn’t care much about clothes, hair, fashion, or each other.  Make-up and making out were not options.  We didn’t have (or want) magazines like CosmoGirl or Teen People telling us how we should look, act, or feel.  We looked twelve.  We acted silly.  And we felt great.

Nowadays, most of you look 19, act like your on Spring Break, and feel miserable…and for what? So you can get a head start on forming reputations, addictions, and ulcers? Michael Jackson claims he missed his childhood, and look what happened to him.  Do you want to end up like…

Sorry, I’m starting to lecture, which was not my intent.  I just think it’s important for you to take it slow.  You all want to bite right through that Tootsie Pop (they still have those, right?) and get straight to the candy center.  Don’t.  Take it easy.  Enjoy what you have now and stop going just for the “good stuff” because in all honesty, the “good stuff” isn’t all that good until you’re ready for it. And what you’re skipping and speeding through might be even better. So slow down, stay young as long as you can and realize that not only do good things come to those who wait, but that the waiting itself can be pretty good too.

Think of it as baking cookies – there are some people who are so impatient they eat the dough raw (which, by the way, was not allowed when I was a kid – now they put it in ice cream.) Others shove the cookies into their mouths as soon as they come out of the oven…and get burned. But the smart ones wait.  They enjoy the anticipation, the aroma, the act itself.  They let the cookies cool down (but not too much) before taking a bite. And that’s when they taste their best. (And for all you giggling right now, this is not just about sex. I’m talking about any time you feel pressured or stressed into doing something before you’re ready.)  As for knowing when you are ready, here’s a simple test: If you have to lie to your parents about where you are going or what you are doing, then you’re not ready. It’s that simple.
Unfortunately, not much else in life is that simple.  Like those previously mentioned cookies and lollipops, life can sometimes be crummy and sucky - but usually it’s pretty sweet and good. So live for the good times and deal with the others. And while you’re at it, be careful. Be smart.  Be true to yourself.  Don’t do anything you don’t want to do - but if you do, that doesn’t mean you have to do it again!  Experimenting is part of life, but it doesn’t have to be your entire life. Nor should it cost you your life. You may want to be the popular kid featured in the yearbook, but you don’t want to be the kid they dedicate it to.

 MAJOR POINT ALERT: Keep in mind, reputations are easy to get but hard to get rid of.  One mistake or bad decision can affect the rest of your life, but it doesn’t have to.  A lot of kids will mess up once or twice and wrongly take the attitude that, “Well, since everyone already thinks I’m a (fill in the blank) slut, druggie, etc.  I guess I might as well be one.”  Don’t fall into that trap.  Mistakes will happen.  You are going to screw up.  You will get in trouble. But what you do is not as important as what you do afterward.   You need to accept responsibility, deal with the consequences, and move on.  I’ve known too many kids who’ve felt so trapped and helpless after getting in trouble that they just kept digging themselves deeper and deeper into holes that wound up being their graves. Nothing is ever that bad - I don’t care if you accidentally burn your parent’s house down with your sweet granny inside – no matter how horrible you feel, someday, somewhere down the road, you will feel better, so stick it out.

And if you stuck with me this far, thank you.  I will let you get back to your summer break.  I wish you all the best for the future, just be sure to take your time getting there. Don’t miss out on some of life’s greatest gifts by ignoring the present.

                                                                                    Best of luck,

                                                                                                            Mike Wood

PS – For a more in-depth look at growing up and coming of age, check out my book, Alchemy, available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and fine bookstores everywhere!

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Coming Clean

Back when we were trying (and failing) to get pregnant - well, technically, my wife did most of the trying, I just went along for the ride – I secretly started to worry that maybe twenty years of nearly daily bike rides had taken their toll on my testes.  I had heard stories of avid cyclists who were basically sterilized by years of balancing (and bouncing) their boys on bicycle seats  - and was concerned that that might be our problem.

To be completely honest, I was more concerned with the possibility that I was the problem.  You see, since my wife already had a daughter from a previous marriage, I was fairly certain she was fully fertile. As for me…let’s just say I was an amateur in the world of procreation. And the idea that perhaps I was to blame really freaked me out.  It wasn’t so much the thought of not having a kid of my own that bothered me – I was perfectly happy and content with having a step-daughter to love and treat like my own – it was more that I was denying my wife something she really wanted for the both of us.

Being a typical guy, I was none too fond of doctors – and certainly not the ones who might call into question my manhood and virility – but I manned up and made an appointment with a urologist. Well, sort of manned up, as I didn’t tell my wife about it. She had her own list of reasons for why she wasn’t getting pregnant, and as far as I knew, I wasn’t one of them – and I wanted to keep it that way. So I went on my own, hoping to hear it wasn’t me, while privately plotting what I would do if it turned out I was the problem.

I’ll save the sample gathering story for another day, but let me just say that I have never felt so relieved as I did watching my active little swimmers under that microscope. The doctor assured me that my sperm count was high (“Higher than average?” I pushed, almost giddy with relief) and that I should have no problem holding up my end of the bargain.

I left the office with a zip in my step, happy to know our lack of conception wasn’t my fault. It wasn’t until I was halfway home that I realized that if it wasn’t me, there was only one other person to “blame” and my thoughts immediately turned to my wife.

Now what? I wondered, as I made my way home. Since she didn’t even know I went, I could just keep the info to myself and wait and see what happened.  I knew she wanted another kid for “us”  - and would feel like she let me down if she were incapable of getting pregnant. But I also knew she wanted another kid much more than I did. And even though we had already both agreed that if a baby didn’t come “in the natural way,” then it just wasn’t meant to be, and we would accept that, I also knew  my wife would want to renege on that deal. And if I held her to it, she would eventually grow to resent me for it.

I had a decision to make. Several actually. But they all hinged on this initial one. My future lay before me more clearly than the route I was driving on. Projecting down the road, I saw that our seemingly solid marriage would ultimately crumble, or at least shake itself into an empty shell, over this issue. I clearly saw the two ways for how it would all play out, and neither was a happy ending: I could try keeping it to myself, but knew it wouldn't be long before guilt set in. Or I could tell her, which I knew would start the snowball rolling down the slippery slope toward in vitro fertilization.

I had strong reservations about artificial insemination/IVF – nothing religious, mind you, as I had long ago stopped fearing the power God - but - I have always had a healthy respect for the power of Nature. Even as an 8-year old, hearing about the Titanic for the first time, I recognized that claiming the ship unsinkable was more to blame for the tragedy than the lack of lifeboats.  You just don’t mess with Nature. Nature always finds a way to win. And if Nature was making it impossible for us to have a baby, than so be it. I was fully convinced that any attempts by us to rectify our situation would end as tragically as the Titanic.

But if we didn’t try, our marriage would sink just as quickly. I knew every time we saw a baby, be it on TV or real life, there would be a pang of loss, regret, and, deep, deep, down, some bitter blame. If I held Sarah to our agreement, she would grow to resent me for it. Not that I thought she would be conscious of it, but I could foresee neverending arguments over trivial matters that were really about her wanting a baby and me not letting her.

I saw no other options. It was either accept Nature and be miserable, or use Science and be miserable, as I did not for a minute think IVF would work out - I was certain we would go through six failed attempts and end up back where we started, or have a baby with birth defects, or worse (Nature's way of saying, I told you so.) I never considered the third possibility that we could have a happy, healthy baby.

Resigned, I pulled into the driveway and told wife about my trip to the doctor and the "good" results I received. She was touched that I went and did such a thing, but other than that, things got very quiet for a couple weeks. She took to keeping a journal, while I just kept things to myself. I did not share my fears with her, as I didn't want to scare her into agreeing with me (even though I DID want her to agree with me) as I felt our only hope was if we both came to the same conclusion without any debating or discussion.

Over the next month or so, we nervously joked about the elephant in the room, but never really talked about it. Then one day Sarah handed me her journal, and while what was inside did not change my mind, it did change my heart. It made me realize that my fears about in vitro were really my own fears about being a father. The idea terrified me, and I was using my worries about IVF as an excuse not to take that scary journey. The thought of giving up my freedom, and free time, and nights sleep, as well as my money, my spare room, and my wife's undivided attention and affection were all causing me to question if having kids was really worth it. But reading Sarah's words made me realize that it might be.

So on Mother's Day, she came home to find a wooden statue of an elephant (pictured above) prominently displayed on our coffee table. We never talked about it, but she knew right away what it meant - and less than a year later, with only one try (and one egg - no way was I risking twins!) we had our boy. And now I know it was worth it.

I won't lie and say I don't miss certain aspects of my old, carefree life, but at the same time, having this little life to care for is far more rewarding than being free. So this Father's Day, I am grateful for my wife, who knew better than I.  I'm thankful for the doctors who helped bring Eli into our lives. And I'm hopeful that I can become half the father that my own father is to me. There are many downsides to being a dad, and even with my world (and living room) now turned upside down, there is nowhere else I'd rather be. And nothing else I'd rather be doing.

Well, most of the time!

Monday, June 6, 2011

Hot Fun in the Summertime

“End of the spring and here she comes back. Hi, hi, hi, hi there!
Them summer days, those summer days…
That's when I had most of my fun, back, high high, high, high there
Them summer days, those summer days…”

I'm glad blogs come with a “play” button, that way you can listen to the rest of “Hot Fun in the Summertime” by Sly and the Family Stone while you read this, and really get a feel for what I’m going to say in a way that the printed word alone can not convey. There is just something about summer…and no matter how I try, I know can’t quite explain what it is.  Maybe it’s the warm weather, or the long days, or the excitement of a sudden thunderstorm.  Or else it’s the smell of toasted marshmallows, or the feel of sand or grass between your toes, or the sound of a lawnmower. But whatever it is, it can be found in that song – and while you press “play” I’ll hit “rewind” and bring you back to them summer days, those summer days…

For me, summer will always be what it used to be: a kid’s paradise.  Long empty days waiting to be filled with imagination and ice cream.  Days spent stealing the wheels off my father’s lawnmower to build a go-cart.  Nights spent playing Kick the Can and catching fireflies in a jar. And hours (and dollars) spent chasing after the ice cream man. Now that I’m older, most of my summer is spent using the lawnmower for its intended purpose, the only cans I kick are the empties that fall out of the recycling bin, and my son is the one chasing those fireflies. But I’m still the first one out to meet the ice cream man! I guess summer-things never change.

And summers really are a time for change.  As kids we’d leave school in June and return in September entirely different people.  Somehow during those few months we became taller, wiser, more experienced. During the rest of the year, changes were gradual and harder to detect, but come summer, things would just pop! like buds on a tree.  And like the rings of a tree, each summer surrounded us, showing others how we had grown. And at the center of each ring was probably a picnic.

Picnics are summer’s equivalent of the growth chart. Each one brought new experiences and opportunities that let us know we were growing up. Our first few years were spent splashing around in the kiddie pool, surrounded by the old folks dipping their toes, while our swim-soaked diapers sagged down past our knees until someone finally decided to just take it off, leaving us giddily naked.  The next couple summers were spent whining and crying about how the big kids wouldn’t let us play with them…until, finally, we were the big kids, putting on skits and shows for the adults, while dutifully ignoring the little kids who wanted to play with us.  Several summers later, and we were behind the shed sharing sips off a stolen Schlitz or Schaefer (some uncle or other could always be counted on to show up with a six-pack of something cheap that no one would ever miss.) A year or two after that, and it’s back to being naked in the pool again, only now it’s called skinny-dipping.  The next picnic, we’re handed a beer, and we coolly try to play it off as no big deal, but it is, it is.  And the adults who used to shoo us away from the horseshoe pits so we wouldn’t get hurt are now picking us to be their partners.  A few more summers, and we began picking our partners, and bringing them to meet the family. And now people are coming to our picnics, and our parents are the old folks with their feet in the pool, stripping the soggy diapers off our kids.  And many picnics down the road, we’ll be there too, toes in the water, enjoying and remembering those summer days.

But let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves. Those summer days are stretched out before us once again, and while it’s too late for Memorial Day, here are a few tips for throwing the perfect picnic.

First of all, invite everybody! And encourage them to bring stuff: friends, food, folding chairs.  For your part, all you really need are a couple pasta/potato salads and the requisite hamburgers and hotdogs.  And lots of beer of course. Don’t bother splurging on steaks or seafood, for if all your guests can rave about is the food, then they are not having a good time. Picnics are about simplicity, so basic burgers and dogs are fine, so long as the hot dogs are Hummel’s, in their natural casings – accept no substitutes!

As far as beverages, it’s best to just stick to beer and wine.  Blender drinks are fun, but a lot of work, and mixed drinks tend to get people “mixed up” way too quickly.  Since beer and wine are more filling, it’s easier for your guests to pace themselves.  And if you’re worried about underage kids drinking, get a keg instead of cans or bottles, as it is much harder to sneak beers off a keg unnoticed than it is to run off with a couple cans. (Sorry kids, but I’m playing for the other team now!)

And speaking of playing, you will need some activities.  The women can take care of themselves (and the kids) but the men need something to do, and that means horseshoes and bocce.  Horseshoes and bocce make great picnic “sports” for many reasons, with the number one reason being you can play them one handed, so you’ll always have a free hand for your beer.  Also, since the object of both games is to just “come close” almost anyone, at any age, can play…and succeed, so Grandpa can still put a beating on his grandson.  Plus, the games are slow paced, almost sedentary, giving the guys a chance to bond and talk – and yes, guys do talk. Sure most of it involves boasting and taunting, but every so often someone will share a story or memory about the family that a newer member of the group will be hearing for the first time, and years later they will share it with the next generation.  And that’s how you truly “come close” in horseshoes.

So pick a date, pick up the phone, and plan a picnic. Make it a yearly event, that way you’ll have something to talk about years from now when you’re dipping your feet in the kiddie pool, reminiscing about all your hot fun in the summertime.