Tipping the Sliding Scale

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What’s that Lassie? Daddy’s stuck in a 24” diameter 20-foot spiral durable thermoplastic tube slide? Sadly, it’s true, and before I lose all feeling in my extremities and depart on my vision quest, which should happen any moment now due to a combination of hunger, sleep-deprivation, cramped darkness, and because one of the rescue workers looks alarmingly like Matthew Modine, I should explain how I got myself into this predicament.

A few days ago (or has it been weeks? I’ve lost all sense of the passage of time in here) we brought Jack to a newly constructed playground a few towns over and we were still 7 miles out when its flagged spires and soaring cupolas first appeared from behind the tree line. Minutes later we pulled into the parking lot, stepped from the car and stared in speechless awe at the grandeur and excess of this tribute to modern architecture, infant intemperance and pre-school pleasure seeking. Before us rose a living and literal Tower of Babel sculpted from the finest plastics school and property taxes could buy and constructed to stimulate and captivate every child’s mind, body, spirit while challenging every parent’s vocal chords, nervous system and intestinal constitution. (“GET DOWN FROM THERE! Oh my God he’s going to break his neck. I just threw-up a little bit in my mouth.)

Soft synthetics, 100% post-consumer recycled high Density polyethylene (HDPE), internal fiberglass-reinforcing, textured slip-resistant deck surfaces and triple-coated rust-proof galvanized steel molded into colorful slides, climbing walls, balance beams, log rolls, stepping stones, staircases, cargo nets, alphabet boards, spinning letter blocks and a Baccarat table swarmed with hundreds of children like paparazzi outside a Paris Hilton court hearing. As Jack was assimilated by the impish horde a wee lass lost her balance on a spiral staircase that Eschered from the first to the third level. Before anyone could react she fell and plummeted to the ground where she bounced. Bounced! The ground in the parks I grew up playing on consisted of concrete, packed sand and medical waste, but this playground was built on a rubberized base. The only rubber we saw on playgrounds as kids were the used condoms left next to the teeter-totters by sexually active teenagers and occasionally George Michael. And with that memory, WHAM, I was lost in a flashback of nostalgic reverie for the beloved character-building tetanus shot requiring playground equipment of my youth.

The Slide (aka The Slippery Griddle) – Machine hammered sheet metal riveted to salvaged lead electrical conduit pipes at an 80 degree angle. Surface temperature in direct sunlight greater than that of space shuttle heat shield tiles upon re-entering earth’s atmosphere. Numerous substantiated accounts of exposed leg skin liquefying on contact.

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The Swing Set (aka The Fling) – Made from Cold War Soviet water pipes and anchor chains from retired NYC trash barges. The object was to 1) swing high enough to completely flip the swing over the support bar while still sitting in it or to 2) swing high enough to completely flip the swing over the support bar but at the last second leap from the seat at the pinnacle of the swing then plunge awkwardly to the ground shattering as many leg bones as possible.

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Jungle Gym (aka Vlad Tepes’ Goodtime Cage of Lunchtime Fun) – A dome of webbed steel erected with surplus rebar. Essentially it was a grouping of interconnected triangles which stood 15-20 feet off the ground at its peak. During its reign thousands of victims tumbled between the bars and impaled themselves on the rusty I-Beam rivets used to hold the configuration together.

Goodtime Cage

The Merry-Go-Round (aka The Centrifuge) – An octagonal platform set atop an axis and swiveling ball joint from Military Pilot G-Force Training Modules. The object for older students was to spin the apparatus with fast enough centripetal force to launch the younger students clinging to the framed railings bolted to the platform into orbit or at least into the teacher’s parking lot.

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Spring Riders (aka The Root Canal) – A Cast metal rotomolded animal, plane, insect, vehicle or sea creature set atop a suspension spring from a 1972 Chevy Blazer. Through a gentle rocking motion, the device would bend back and forth giving the rider a sense of rhythmic floating until he or she fell out of time with the ride and smashed their front teeth into the top of whatever object they were on.

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My son Jack motioning wildly to me from the entrance of a tube slide at the structure’s summit pulled me from my wistful trance and upon bartering a fair price with an indigenous Sherpa I was able to join him. Fearless he suddenly jumped into the mouth of the slide and was swallowed by the twisting gloom. Seconds later he reappeared at the bottom of the slide laughing and waving for me to follow him. Maybe it was the high altitude and the thin air or perhaps it was just my love for my son, but in a momentary lack of judgment I leapt feet first into the slide. Slaloming through the darkness I thought for a moment I might make it to the bottom, but my rigid 36-year old limbs betrayed me and I Augustus Glooped the first turn. And that brings me back to the beginning, where I am stuck in a 24” diameter 20-foot spiral durable thermoplastic tube slide.

Hold on a second something is happening outside …I can almost make out what the rescue workers are proposing…. Jaws of Life … Water Pressure …. High Colonic … Amputation …. Heimlich Maneuver …. Clogged Drain … Plunger … Liquid-Plumr…. Wait, what’s that beautiful ethereal music? It sounds like Madonna’s Crazy for You. It is! I must be starting my Vision Quest. Oh, hello there, are you my Totem Animal? But you’re just a gopher? What are you doing? Hey don’t touch that, this is my tunnel. I don’t care if you know Kenny Loggins. No, I won’t get you Matthew Modine’s autograph…

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Club Füt and a Boy Named Crawl

rammstein-flamethrowers.jpgHaving two children, it’s inevitable that comparisons will be drawn between them. For example, Jack was born with clubbed feet and was casted to the knee on both legs at only three days old. Though his left foot was corrected within a month, his right foot was so severely inverted that it required additional casting, two separate operations, physical therapy and a corrective splint worn at night after the casts were finally removed. When even those measures didn’t work, as a last resort we allowed the Orthopedic Surgeon to perform a radical and experimental cybernetic procedure in which Jack’s foot was replaced with a metal endoskeleton and then covered with living tissue. Though the operation was successful in correcting Jack’s foot, every couple of weeks it travels back in time to kill Sarah Conner.

We thought that having a surgically repaired time traveling cybernetic foot programmed to kill a woman in the past whose unborn son will lead the human race to victory in a bitter future war with a race of machines might cause Jack to be self-conscious or even slow him down, but to see him run, climb and play with his non-partially synthetic friends you wouldn’t know he was born with bi-lateral club feet. In fact, he has gone so far as to embrace the very physical limitation he had to overcome by opening an exclusive ultra-hip discothèque called Club Füt that plays only German Industrial Techno music and is slated for launch in October of this year. Jack tells me that Rammstein is headlining opening night with other bands from the Neue Deutsche Härte-scene and, fingers crossed, David Hasselhoff filling out the bill.

Despite the casts, the multiple surgeries, a doctor’s warning that he might be two years old before he walks and his Dysmelial association with Cyberdyne Systems’ revolutionary neural net-based artificial intelligence called Skynet Jack still took his first step when he was 14 months old. Based on what Jack had to overcome to walk months ahead of all medical and scientific predictions I calculated a timeline in which a perfectly healthy baby, without any physical limitations to prevent an accelerated foray on bipedalism, like say our second child Adam, could theoretically take his first steps within a week to 10 days of delivery. Unfortunately, even with several recalculations of the timeline and countless controlled experiments to test the validity of the algorithm, at 10 ½ months Adam has still not walked.

Many parents have given us their unsolicited opinions in this matter offering advice that provided little comfort or guidance for us, but allowed them the chance to extol the unparalleled brilliance of their Baby Einstein playing ambulatory wunderkinds (My Katie walked at 7 months, my Timmy ran at 6 months, my Emily did a back handspring out of my vagina) while silently pitying with a subtle head shake and muffled Tsk Tsk Tsk that poor wretched Gathen child who still gets around like a common house pet. The one gem though that gave me pause was the counsel that, “He’ll walk when he’s ready.” I took this to mean that Adam may already have the ability to walk, but is for some reason choosing not to. What if he’s never ready? What if he never sees the point in walking? What if David Hasselhoff can’t perform on opening night at Club Füt?

To date, Adam has several alternatives to walking. The most common form of travel he uses is the traditional crawl that regularly transitions into downward facing dog. Even though he demonstrates rapid acceleration (0 mph – 1 mph in 4.3 seconds) sustainable over long distances it always looks like he lost a contact lens in the middle of a yoga class.

He also has recently become quite adept at walking with help from his Little Tikes Shopping Cart, his baby walker, the upright vacuum, and his high chair, but what future can he expect if he can only move about with aid from wheeled objects? Homeless person, grocery store shopping cart attendant, in-flight beverage server, X-Games participant, NASCAR Driver?

One of his latest maneuvers is the cruising transfer move from table to chair, or couch to ottoman, or Little Tike Shopping Cart to my bottom lip, but he still refuses to let go, to take that first tentative step towards toddlerism. He’ll even lean against the kitchen wall in a spot on James Dean pose, but as we encourage him to walk towards us with beckoning hands he sinks slowly to the floor like Jimmy Stewart in Vertigo sporting a look on his face that says, “You want me so bad? You come pick my ass up.”

How cruel will the other kids be if Adam is never ready to walk? What collection of hurtful nicknames will they give a classmate who moves about on all fours, staggering around grasping at anything to help keep his balance before ultimately toppling face first to the ground? Crawl? Leaner? Stumbles? Lindsay Lohan?

Even as I write this post though, my fears of having a son who resists evolution are ebbing as he just spent an hour walking back and forth along the couch intermittently letting go to take brave yet hesitant steps towards the footrest. Perhaps I’m assigning too much importance to Adam’s physical accomplishments and should instead concentrate on nurturing his intellectual development, although now that I think about it he hasn’t said his first word yet either. (My Katie said her first word at 7 months, my Timmy said nursery rhymes at 6 months, my Emily recited Shakespeare out of my vagina) OK … Your kid is awesome and mine is a nattering quadruped… I get it. Keep it up and I’m going to have DJ LückyFin lay down a funky beat while my other son puts his bionic foot up your ass.

Catch BRS Early By Using S.H.U.T.U.P.

saltshaker_225.jpgOur oldest son, Jack, suffers from BRS (Broken Record Syndrome). If we were better parents we would have caught it sooner; all the early indicators were there, but we missed them. The constant uttering of the same statement, the continuous repetition of same phrase, the reiterating of the same question ad nauseum until I developed facial tics; all the signs pointed to BRS. It wasn’t until our trip to Maine earlier this month that we finally recognized the signs, but by then it was regrettably too late.

It all began on the drive out. We were still in Massachusetts about two hours from Maine when Jack triumphantly exclaimed from the back seat, “Daddy I can smell the salty air! Can you?” I told him that it was probably just the bag of pretzels on the seat next to him, but he insisted it was the ocean so we agreed and told him we could smell the salty air too which meant we were almost there. We arrived in Maine around 5:00pm and after unloading the car we drove immediately to the beach. With the back windows open Jack took a deep breath and said again, “Daddy I can smell the salty air! Can you?” I told him I could and with that he closed his eyes took in another deep meditative breath through his nose and was silent until we reached the beach.

When we exited the car and walked on to the beach:
Jack: “Daddy I can smell the salty air! Can you?”
What I said: “I sure can Jack. I sure can.”
What I thought: “I sure can Jack. I sure can.”

On the way to the back to the rental house:
Jack: “Daddy I can smell the salty air! Can you?”
What I said: “I can Jack. I can still smell it.”
What I thought: “I’ve smelled it for a few hours now Jack. I’m actually pretty sure I’m going to wake up tomorrow with a horse’s tongue in my left nostril.”

Playing mini-golf:
Jack: “Daddy I can smell the salty air! Can you?”
What I said: “A little bit Jack, but we’re kind of far from the shore right now. Hey, did you count that second shot?”
What I thought: “OK, at this point Jack my olfactory bulbs are essentially bouillon cubes and every time I sniff I taste consommé.”

Building a rock wall:
Jack: “Daddy I can smell the salty air! Can you?”
What I said: “It’s sort of strong so close to the water isn’t it?”
What I thought: “I just got a call from Jimmy Buffet. He says he wants to see me. Jack, we both knew this day would come, we couldn’t hide it from him forever.

Jumping waves:
Jack: “Daddy I can smell the salty air! Can you?”
What I said: “Give me a second here Jack; I just swallowed about a gallon of water.”
What I thought: “I actually plan to break the sound barrier on my mucus membranes later in my twin turbofan jet-powered car called The Snot Rocket.

Digging for crabs:
Jack: “Daddy I can smell the salty air! Can you?”
What I said: “Couldn’t I just buy you a crab?”
What I thought: “You know Jack, in the bible it is told that as they fled Sodom, Lot’s wife did not heed the angel’s words and upon looking back was turned into one of my nasal cavities.”

Walking home from the beach:
Jack: “Daddy I can smell the salty air! Can you?”
What I said: (Nothing. My eye started twitching)
What I thought: “Jack, this winter I’ll be able to tap the bridge of my nose to de-ice the driveway.”

Whereas I reacted to my son’s BRS by sarcastically mocking him under my breath, it’s not too late for me to help other parents who might have children suffering from this debilitating syndrome. Did you know that whereas every single child in history has suffered from BRS, most parents can’t identify a single symptom? Which is why I developed a catchy acronym that may help parents get their kids to S.H.U.T.U.P. Recognizing when your child has BRS and getting them to S.H.U.T.U.P. can significantly increase the chance of you, the child’s parents, retaining your sanity. Learning to recognize BRS is important and easy, just say S.H.U.T.U.P.

If your child displays one, some or all of the symptoms he or she may be suffering from BRS.

Says the same word/statement/phrase/question over and over again
Has been saying the same word/statement/phrase/question over and over again
Utters the same word/statement/phrase/question over and over again
Tendency to say the same word/statement/phrase/question over and over again
Uses the same word/statement/phrase/question over and over again
Pretty much just says the same damn word/statement/phrase/question over and over again

By using S.H.U.T.U.P. you can catch BRS early when treatment is still an option and your facial tics have yet to make you a social pariah. BRS is no laughing matter; unless you’re sarcastically mocking your child under your breath, then it’s actually pretty funny.

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“Daddy I can smell the salty air! Can you?”

My Lover Stands on Golden Sands: Now I Know Why.

chariots-of-fire.jpgAs a young boy grows and matures there are many significant firsts and important moments he will share with his father that will play a vital role in determining the type of man he will become. Like the first time a son helps his father fix the family car in the middle of winter and the father gets frustrated at his son because he can’t tell the difference between a 3/16 and a ¼ inch socket and then yells at him for handing him a Phillips head screwdriver every time he asks for a flathead then finally assigns his shivering son the impossible task of holding the flashlight steady so that the beam shines directly on the alternator without first identifying what the hell an alternator looks like.

Or the first time a father and son have a catch in the backyard and the father tells the boy to “quit cocking the ball from behind your ear, throw over your shoulder and point to where you want the ball to go” and the boy throws it over his shoulder and points at his father but the ball still sails 20 feet over and to the left of his father’s head and the father makes no attempt to retrieve it so the boy has to run after the errant throw and executes a wide arc around his father to avoid being kicked in the ass and this pattern continues for an hour until the boy’s mother yells off the back deck to “leave him alone and let him come inside”. However, the seminal bonding moment every father will share with his son is the day he puts his arm around the boy’s shoulder and says in a loving Atticus Finch manner, “I think it’s time you learn how to pee in the ocean.”

While we were in Maine earlier this month Jack and I had a chance to spend some quality father/son time together. We were all on the beach when Kathleen had to suddenly take Adam back to “The day care center with the unlocked bulkhead and the basement door that came out in the base of an activity table in the living room through which a serial killer was surely going to sneak through in the middle of the night and kill us all in our sleep according to my sister” AKA our Rental House because he kept trying to smuggle Pure Uncut Beach Sand (street name High Tide) off the beach by hiding it in his mouth, eyes, the lining of his diaper and in small balloons which he planned to swallow and poop out later. Jack and I decided to stay behind to jump a few more waves, dig a few more holes and smooth things over with the BATFBS (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Fire Arms and Beach Sand)

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My son the Mule (Dealer Handle – SandMan) sampling some High Tide

Once the threat of incarceration through association with a known Sand Runner was off the table I asked Jack if he wanted to collect shells or maybe build a sand castle to which he replied, “Daddy, I have to go potty.” The nearest public bathroom was up the beach about a quarter of a mile so we started running. A little known fact about the famous beach running scene in the film Chariots of Fire is that despite the apparent resolve of the runners and the inspirational power of the music (Dah Dah Dah Dah Dum Dum, Dah Dum Dah Dah Dum) they were merely sprinting towards the Port-A-Potties just off camera. We made it just in time and I lowered my bathroom defense readiness condition from DEFCON 1 to DEFCON 5; this was a decision that would later prove to be critically premature.

About 20 minutes later, after we had walked a half-mile or so down the beach to dig for crabs among a large rock formation, Jack stopped digging, looked at me and said “Daddy…” then paused for a moment. In my mind I finished the sentence for him “…this is the best time I’ve ever had.” or “…I Love You. You’re the best Daddy ever” alas he finished the sentence with “…I have to go potty.” Knowing the public restroom was not an option I quickly began formulating contingency plans. In the spritz bottle of the portly sunbather to our left? In the beach pail of the hyperactive toddler to our right? No, the answer was right in front of me. I reached down, held his hand then said to him, “Jack, I think it’s time you learn how to pee in the ocean.” And with that we waded into the late afternoon surf of the Atlantic.

When the water level reached his waist he started to pull down his bathing suit, but I stopped him. Skeptically he questioned me, “You want me to pee in my pants?” “Look around Jack,” I said motioning to the people in the water and on the beach, “If you pull down your bathing suit everyone will see what you’re doing, but if you walk into the water up to your waist and then go, the waves will wash it away and no one will ever know.” With that he stood there motionless for a few seconds. “Are you going?” I asked. He nodded his head. I whispered, “…and the waves will wash it away.” A few more seconds passed. “Are you done?” He smiled and said, “Almost…” I whispered “…and the waves will wash it away.” He then looked up at me and spoke with a sense of stealthy accomplishment, “Done!” I took his hand and whispered “…and the waves washed it away.”

And as we walked from the water it occurred to me, my boy was just like me; my boy was just like me.

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…and the waves will wash it away

Unnatural Selection: How I Failed to Inherit the Vacation Gene

genetics.jpgI can say with complete genetic certainty that I did not inherit the dominant Vacation allele from either of my parents. We just returned from a week in Maine with my parents Nana “Who Drank the Last of My Favorite Wine?” Gathen and Pops “Don’t Worry I Brought My Tools” Gathen and my sister Ish “Put It Back On CNN” Gathen and from Day One my parental vacationing inadequacies were at best glaring and at worst utterly disgraceful to the legacy and line of great vacationing parents who have preceded me.

Unlike my parents who are masters of the vacation car ride I am considered the Rosemary Kennedy of the family in this respect. Regardless of whether our annual destination was the Land of Christmas Tree Shops aka Cape Cod (3 Hour drive) or Home of the Overpriced Leather Moccasin aka Lake George (1 Hour drive) the pre-drive preparation was the same. My parents would pack the white and powder blue Suburban the night before in such a manner that with the back seats down a baby mattress would fit perfectly in the center. Before dawn my parents would then gently lift us from our beds, lay us down in the back of the truck and moments later we were on the road avoiding the traffic in the early morning darkness.

With no stringent seatbelt laws in the 1970’s coupled my father’s lead foot, my siblings and I were drowsy adolescent rockets in ideal launching position for when my father hit the brakes to avoid a raccoon or to pull into an All Night Christmas Tree Shop. If we chose to remain awake in the missile silo our options for entertainment were either reciting our Last Will and Testament to each other or a filling in a page or two of Mad Libs where inevitably my ass would ask someone’s boob to dance at the Prom or my brother would visit the Toilet Paper Exhibit at the Museum of Modern Burps. We always arrived at our destination before check-in time at the hotel or beach house; our hearts filled with love for our parents for taking us on vacation, our stomachs filled with butterflies in anticipation of the certain fun and excitement the upcoming week held for us all and our bladders bursting with the contents of countless juice boxes resulting from my father’s “let’s just push through” theory of travel.

In direct contradiction to my parent’s first cardinal rule of vacation travel we waited until the morning we were leaving to pack the car and that decision should have been a harbinger that our 5 hour car rides to and from The Place Where Even the Gas Stations Sell Lobster aka Maine were doomed. Moments before we left the house the power adapter for the portable DVD player fell into a half dozen pieces as I plugged it into the cigarette lighter. Calmly, I gathered up the pieces, brought them in the house and said to Kathleen, “What the Hell are we going to do? Seriously, what the hell are we going to do with Jack for 5 hours in the car without the DVD player? Game over man, Game over!” It was because I remained cool and collected and then donated my eternal soul plus $25 to Satan’s Annual Pledge Drive that I was able to fix the adapter. After astronaut strapping Jack and Adam into their respective car seats, putting in a movie for Jack on the DVD Player of the Damned and again reminding the clown we hired to make balloon animals for the boys that a Trouser Snake is not a legitimate balloon animal we were finally on the road. Adam slept most of the way, Jack watched the entire Roots miniseries and we abandoned the clown at the Exit 7 rest stop on the Mass turnpike for suggestively asking Kathleen if she wanted him to “make her an animal”. In our defense, how could we have known that Libido the Clown was going to turn out to be a lecherous perv? All in all, the drive to Maine went better than we hoped it would; unfortunately the same could not be said for the ride back.

In direct contradiction to my first cardinal rule of vacation travel my father, Pops “Does anyone want more pancakes?” Gathen took Adam for a walk minutes before we left and put him to sleep. Once in the car it took no longer than 10 minutes for Adam to start crying and straining against the seat belt straps like Jeff Gordon in a 7 car pile-up. For the next 5 and ½ hours we played a game with Adam where we would hand him a new object every 30 seconds (rattle, water bottle, balloon animal remnants, a book of Mad Libs) which was just long enough for him to think with each object, “Hey, this is interesting. What if I put it in my mouth? Hmmm. Nope, I’m still pissed off.” Interestingly, it was only a few days earlier, during a similar episode of backseat crying, that we discovered Adam is fascinated with the ring tones on my cell phone particularly one called “I Love Coconuts” and especially when I sing along with that it, so when we ran out of random objects to hand back to him I cued up “I Love Coconuts” and started crooning. Over the course of a few hours some impromptu lyrics were better than others, but Adam and Jack’s favorite seemed to be:

“Coconuts! Coconuts. I love coconuts, why don’t you give them a chance?
That’s right they’re coconuts! Yes Coconuts! I even put a couple in my underpants. Wah-Wah.”

My favorite on the other hand was:

“Coconuts! Coconuts. I love coconuts, but they are so hard to find.
That’s right they’re coconuts! Yes Coconuts! I really think I’m gonna lose my friggin’mind. Wah-Wah.”

Whether it was the dulcet tones of my interminable coconut song or the Benadryl pasties Kathleen wore before nursing him at the rest stop, Adam finally fell asleep three miles from the house. In retrospect, I suppose we should have hired Kama Sutra the Magician although I understand his signature illusion is the disappearing Trouser Snake which is cause for some concern.