Friday, 13 December 2013

Christmas Wish List

My six year old's Christmas Wish List.

 If Santa brings all this stuff I can expect to be mercilessly attacked with snow and candy from an invisible opponent.

Tuesday, 3 December 2013


Pop Culture provides various takes on being a Modern Dad, inspired by pop culture references from movies, books, comics and TV shows.

When  I first saw the movie “The Royal Tenenbaums” I was disappointed. But I LOVED the ne’er-do-well patriarch Royal Tenenbaum. When his 11-year old daughter Margot put on a play which she wrote Royal said, “I didn’t find it believable,” and, “What characters? This is a bunch of little kids dressed up in animal costumes.” After Margot excused herself he said, “Well, sweetie, don't be mad at me. That's just one man's opinion.”

I laughed so hard at moments like these – he is brutal but hilarious. He doesn’t do what Dads are SUPPOSED to do. When I re-watched the movie recently two things were different – I liked the movie more than I remembered and I didn’t find Royal’s shenanigans nearly so funny. The main difference? I’m a Dad now.

Twenty years after this episode, Royal claims he is dying in order to worm his way back into his estranged wife’s home and heart. Royal is still an unredeemed jerk – selfish, dishonest and reckless with other people’s feelings - but something happens – he bonds with his grandsons, whom are under the thumb of their own overprotective father (Royal’s alienated son).

Royal takes them on wild adventures: crossing against the light, go-carting in the street, betting on dog fights, and sneaking rides on the back of garbage trucks. Eventually, his ruse is uncovered and, though he is in even greater disgrace, he ultimately realizes all he has lost out on by being an absent father. He is granted redemption when he rescues his grandsons from a car crash and so reconnects with his alienated son - to the point that they are together when Royal dies of a heart-attack later that same year.

So, what’s the moral? It’s never too late to try and get better as a father. You don’t have to become someone you’re not – just a better version of yourself. This is summed up by what Royal requests on his tombstone:  “Royal O’Reilly Tenenbaum (1932-2001) Died Tragically Rescuing His Family From The Remains Of A Destroyed Sinking Battleship”. Of course, the real rescue was of Royal by his family.

Christopher Sweeney is a chauffeur, short order cook, quartermaster, frontline medic and a laundryman – i.e. a Modern Dad. He is also a lawyer, University lecturer and writes award-winning graphic novels, screenplays, online games and other transmedia projects. Check out more Pop Culture pieces on his blog: You can also follow his ravings on Twitter @SweeneyWriter.
A version of this article appears in the recurring column Pop Culture in Village Living Magazine: West Village and Village Living: Mount Pleasant.


Wednesday, 20 November 2013

My comedy short, Parental Advisory, got bravoFACT funding. Woot! Woot!

Huzzah! My short comedy script, Parental Advisory, received the most recent bravoFACT funding:

"All projects awarded bravoFACT grants at the November 20, 2013 meeting are listed below. Thank you to everyone who applied. Applicants who received a grant will be contacted directly with information outlining the amount awarded and other important details. Below is a list of the award recipients from this round.Congratulations!

Congratulations to the following awardees:
Project: Parental Advisory: Disciplinary Measures"

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

But Can The Marriage Survive When Dad Is A Kept Man?

This is the bullshit subheading of Leah McLaren's cover story in the most recent Toronto Life magazine: Power Wives and Their House Husbands. This is typical of many Toronto Life stories - all sizzle, no steak. Beyond the lack of any real analysis, the article fails to deliver on its premise - that marriages are in trouble when Dad stays home to raise the kids. In fact, the entire article showcases families that are perfectly happy and well-functioning under this set up. So WTF Toronto Life and Leah McLaren? As usual in Toronto Life stories, it is gossip, opinion, narcissism and unsubstantiated claims masquerading as journalism. Hey, my blog can fall under those categories too but it makes no pretense at journalism and you don't have to pay to read it

What the article really is about is Leah McLaren trying to get her head around why ANYONE would choose to stay at home to raise their children if they had any choice whatsoever. The fact that she is a mother makes this difficulty a little concerning. Really? No conflict about leaving the raising of your children to other people? None? That, to me, is weird and maybe more of an interesting story. At least then the preening self-absorption is up front and not the subtext of a story claiming to report on external reality.

Admittedly, I did not go into reading this article with an open mind. It seemed like crap from the get-go but I was drawn to see what she had to report. The short answer - not a lot with substance.

I am not going to blow a lot of smoke about how fulfilling being a stay at home parent is because much of it is not. Much of it is repetitive drudgery and frustration. But it is important. It is worthwhile. Unlike a lot of jobs, like say, being a freelance journalist writing middlebrow articles for disposable magazines like Toronto Life. Being a stay at home parent doesn't usually pay very well but if your boss is a demanding megalomaniacal jerk it can be somewhat forgiven in that he is 5 years old not 45, unlike in a lot of jobs.

McLaren mentions the old paradigm of mothers having to stay at home because they had no other choices, power or education and gave up money, status and a larger role in the world. She wonders why anyone now would choose that, be it a man or a woman. The answer is built into the very question: choice. Choosing to do something makes all the difference. These are not "kept men" or "trophy husbands". The men in the article are all well educated and professionally successful who chose to put their careers on hold for a while to raise their kids. It's not like they are condemned to spending their lives doing it.

Yes, there will be professional consequences but they don't care. Maybe part of that is that they have learned that many jobs (and I'd venture to say most) or aspects of them are NOT fulfilling either. Most people work because they have to and they get paid to do it.  If you had a choice, why wouldn't you spend time with your children? You had them after all - they're expensive creatures. Why did you have them if not to spend time with them? That said, nothing made me happier than to go back to work after spending a long parental leave at home. That soon passed though. What I really liked was being able to choose (to some small degree) the shape of my life. I am happy I was not constrained by the small-minded attitudes of people who cannot conceive of deviating from the (new) traditional path. The real horror movies are ones like "The Piano", "Mansfield Park" and "The Age of Innocence" where people could not choose the path to their happiness because they could not escape the confines of their societies.

Mind you, I personally couldn't spend time at home with my kids if I didn't have other things going on in my life professionally or otherwise - I do need more stimulation and personal growth than spending all day with small children can give you. I like trying to strike that balance. This points out the false dichotomy in McLaren's article: you don't have to choose one or the other.

I would have liked to have seen some dads who did not have the choice and were resentful. There are probably a lot of them - victims of the man-cession a few years ago and the societal shift to shed old-style manufacturing jobs. There might be others whose wives make a lot of money and they didn't and so it didn't make financial sense to pay someone else to raise your kids. Rock paper scissors - you lose. Those guys may not be temperamentally suited to the gig or like the fact it was foisted on them. Maybe they come from a background which told them their entire identity came from the job they held and the amount of money they brought home to the family (wait a minute, that's all of us). Maybe it's easier for effete liberals like me though. This is tough - society never really held out being a stay at home dad  as a viable and respectable option and for some classes and cultures it would be shameful. This reminds me of women on the cusp of the last sexual revolution who stayed home to raise their kids and watched their younger sisters go off and have careers and despise them for not doing the same.

Or how about featuring some women who despised their husbands for being at home? At least justify the premise of the article. There are women out there, like McLaren apparently, who feel men who earn less than they do or are interested in a more nurturing role are lesser men and not attractive. Maybe this is the real idea behind the subtitle - that if she had a spouse who'd rather spend time at home than work she'd lose interest in him and hook up with some alpha male bond trader, seal hunter or MMA aspirant. I don't know. She perpetuates this stigma against men who choose (or have to accept) the modern reality of many parents. This attitude is what really pisses me off. Like the old canard about women who wanted careers who must be lesbians, or not able to get a man or are frigid bitches etc.

I don't get the motivation for this article. Maybe this ties into the last article McLaren wrote for Toronto Life about how she couldn't make her first marriage work because she was a child of divorce herself. It seemed that she hooked up with her current spouse while still married to her first husband. Nice.

Or maybe it has something to do with not always putting yourself first and doing the hard work of being a parent - especially if you don't have kids simply to add to the list of your "accomplishments".

Tuesday, 15 October 2013

Thanksgiving Decorations

A holiday snapshot from Pop Culture

For Thanksgiving (CDN) my wife puts out a glass vase full of small decorative white pumpkins on the dining room table. My six year old tears into the room and skids to a halt staring at them.


HIM: What is that?

HER: It's a decoration.

HIM: No, it's not. If you set it on fire then THAT would be a real decoration.

He tears off again making robot and machine gun sounds. He has a point.

Thursday, 10 October 2013

My Parental Failure Reposted on The Good Men Project

Working Out is Like Parenting: An Exercise in Failure


Being a good parent ain’t easy; it helps Christopher Sweeney to remember scenes from his own childhood

Every so often I wonder, am I any good at this? By ‘this’ I mean parenting. And by ‘every so often’ I mean like maybe once an hour. I can’t remember if I’ve used this analogy before in the blog but I compare parenting to a kind of approach to weight lifting I was introduced to in high school. It’s called working out to failure...

Follow the link to the full piece on The Good Men Project:

The original piece appeared in a slightly different form in Pop Culture here:

Tuesday, 8 October 2013

POP CULTURE: A Boy Named... Who?


I love the Johnny Cash song, “A Boy Named Sue”. You can sing it; it tells a story; and it’s funny as @#$%. It’s about a boy who was abandoned by his father, leaving him with nothing but the name “Sue”. This made for a hard life for young Sue, who had to learn to look after himself on account of his name. Sue swears that when he finds his father, he’ll kill him. Hilarious, right?

When Sue sees the “low down snake” playing stud in a saloon, he introduces himself and punches Dad between the eyes.  Down goes Dad but comes up with a knife and takes off part of Sue’s ear. Then commences a fight that sends them crashing through the wall out into “the mud and the blood and the beer”. In the end, Sue draws his gun first and Dad smiles. He tells Sue he knew he wouldn’t be around to raise Sue right, so he gave him a name which would kill him or made him stronger. Tearful reconciliation follows.

While Sue’s father’s methods were flawed, he wanted Sue to be able to take care of himself when he wasn’t around. All dads hope to teach our kids that - even though we may go about it in questionable ways, like my Freedom 16 Plan. My three boys are already measuring my throne with their eyes but, as I explained to one when we were playing FourSquare, I’ll always be the king. If they want to rule the roost, they better find their own. Because I love them, I have instituted the F16P: I raise them to be able to look after themselves should they, after 16, feel they cannot handle my kingly ways.

I WANT them to stick around longer than that (well, until their schooling is done) but, whenever they strike out on their own, it’ll be comforting to know that they, like Sue, can handle themselves. My lessons may be more about cooking, driving a car and succeeding in a job interview but there’ll be some back-alley fighting moves in there too.

Thursday, 3 October 2013

Pillow Talk

Another snapshot of life here at Pop Culture.

As we snuggle at bedtime at lights out, my six year leans over and confides in me.

“Daddy, I know God’s secrets.”

“Huh?!  Really? How do you know that?”

“I saw a wizard today and his shadow told me.”

I alternate between concern that he is totally insane and awe at how incredibly cool that is.

Thursday, 26 September 2013

La Vache Qui...

A small snapshot of life around Pop Culture.

6 year old son "toots" right in front of me. 

ME: Hey, don't you have something to say?

HIM: It wasn't me.

ME: Oh? Who was it then?

HIM: A cow.

ME: (trying not to laugh) A cow? How did I miss a cow in the bedroom?

HIM: It's invisible. And it went under the bed. And the cow is not me.

ME: (dissolving into laughter).

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Big Balls

I regularly get irritated at the junk masquerading as science in the media. I guess I could say just that I regularly get irritated. Or testy (this word choice will pay off later, you'll see)."Burning Man"? It could be my nickname. I regularly blow my stack, let off steam, whatever you want to call it.

I am confrontational. I come by it naturally - in my family, when two members get into an argument it's like a chemical cue is released, alerting all members to congregate and get in on the fight. Something akin to how sharks can sense a drop of blood in the water from miles away. I am cocky. I may in fact be described as a "macho" guy. I have what are colloquially known as "Big Balls".

Thus my testiness with the release of a recent "study" that links being a good dad to having smaller testicles. What a load of bollocks. Of course a stir has been created in the chattering classes by this publication (not to mention a run on codpieces). It is silly science, there are a number of problems with the study and the conclusions drawn. First of all, what makes a good dad? The researchers focus on diaper changing and the like rather than on coaching sports teams for example - both of which can involve dads in important ways in a child's life.

Also, what is the cause and what is the effect? Previous studies have shown men's testosterone drops after becoming fathers (and apparently many of those desirable mates had higher than normal testosterone to begin with). Researchers aren't sure that a similar physical change hasn't occurred below the belt.

Lastly there is a great deal of variation in the study which seems to point at a certain amount of choice by the men involved. Some men with big balls are good dads and some men with small balls are not. A study like this makes me shake my head anyway. What is the POINT exactly? Other than to get people all riled up?

I read a fascinating book recently, "How The Brain Changes Itself" by Dr. Norman Doidge, which discusses, among numerous other instances of brain plasticity, how when people fall in love their actual physical brains change. I think most of us who have had kids know what I'm talking about when I say you fall harder in love with your children than you can imagine. It proves the old adage that you can't wait to be ready before you become a parent, you become ready by becoming a parent - literally.

There is no doubt that I radically changed in the way I saw and related to the world when my guys were born. Talk about baby brain. I was totally messed up each time - thought I was going crazy. I would cry singing Molly Malone to them (it was so tragic how she died so young!) Now I kinda wonder what the hell was going on there. It makes sense to me that men change radically and physically when they have children - the science supports it. And this is a good thing, right? You need to change to become a good Dad (or Mum) It's called growing up.

So, ladies, you can put your calipers/scales away - no need to measure the heft of the coconuts before choosing a mate because,
while men may have smaller balls after they become involved fathers, one thing is clear:
they have BIGGER HEARTS.

Friday, 9 August 2013



We’re big Harry Potter fans in our house – the books, not the lousy movies. I have read them, my wife has read them and our oldest has reread them so many time I found myself involved in a ridiculous argument. It went something like: “You are rereading Harry Potter AGAIN?” “So? I want to read Harry Potter.” “This is ridiculous. You have to read something else. No more Potter!” “You can’t stop me from reading Harry Potter!” “I... You’re right. Forget it.” And I slunk the hell out of there – another parenting fiasco.

We love to read our kids the books. I read the first one to our middle son before my wife took the project over (even though my character voices are much superior). I was reminded how awesome the headmaster, Dumbledore, is. Harry, as an orphan, is looking for replacement parents throughout the books to help him grow into the man (wizard) he needs to be. Though his mother is central to his story (she sacrificed herself to allow him to live), Harry is searching primarily for a Father figure. By far the most important of these is Dumbledore.

Initially, I was amazed by Dumbledore’s willingness to permit  Harry to go on these risky adventures without interfering.  This is contrary to current hyper-involved bubble-wrapped parenting. Dumbledore knows Harry must undergo risks to BECOME the hero. He has to try and fail. Dumbledore doesn’t do Harry’s homework for him, he doesn’t micromanage or call from the sidelines about how to do things (something I am prone to).

Also, when Harry asks Dumbledore to tell him the truth, he gives a great answer:

“I shall answer your questions unless I have a very good reason not to... I shall not, of course, lie.”

He gives Harry what Harry can reasonably handle but doesn’t try and “protect” Harry from the world.

Lastly, Dumbledore regularly demonstrates the quality which makes all kids love him: a childlike curiosity and humour about life. At the end of the book, he tries one of Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Beans - even though he had a bad experience in his youth with a vomit-flavoured one. So, like Dumbledore, I try to give my kids permission to fail. Learning to deal with failure and to keep trying those beans (even though the next one might taste like earwax) is a very important lesson.

A version of this article appears in the August/September issues of Village Living Magazine: West Village and Village Living Magazine: Mt. Pleasant.

Saturday, 8 June 2013


I hate Jerry McGuire. It is a terrible romantic comedy.  So is Four Weddings and A Funeral.

This guy is slagging both 4W&F AND Jerry McGuire? Who does he think he is? While 4W&F is a funny movie, it is a terrible romantic comedy because the lead, Charles, (Hugh Grant) declares his love to the wrong character, Carrie (Andie McDowell). Carrie is beautiful but she and Charles have zero chemistry. Also, he has the far superior Fiona (Kristen Scott Thomas) panting for him. Me? I’d take the smart, sexy and accomplished woman over the personality-free trophy wife. But I digress. Or do I? Jerry McGuire has the same problem – he declares his love to the wrong person.

Likely everyone is familiar with the line “You complete me” that Jerry (Tom Cruise) utters to Dorothy (Renee Zellweger) in front of a roomful of hostile divorcees. Women swoon over that line. But the movie never demonstrates that she does complete him. It’s a cheat. So who should McGuire have declared his love to? Dorothy’s son, Ray.

A grown man declaring his love for a boy is a potential minefield. It sure doesn’t fit the classic romantic comedy model but it’s Ray who completes Jerry. Wait! You can’t have a movie where a man finds meaning in his father figure role! Not outside of a good relationship to that boy’s mother! Oh, wait, you can – it’s called About A Boy, a better Hugh Grant comedy that explores how being a “father” helps a man find himself.

It seems we have a long way to go for it to be OK for a man to show how he feels. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not talking about long teary discussions about your emotions. Boring. But long ago, my dad (a classic tough guy) showed me that being a real man means doing what’s right and not worrying about what society thinks. A real man can and should tell his own sons (and daughters) publicly that he loves them – that they “complete” him. So, hug it out, bros.
A version of this article appears in the June/July issues of Village Living Magazine: West Village and Village Living Magazine:Mount Pleasant.

Friday, 17 May 2013


Every so often I wonder, am I any good at this? By 'this' I mean parenting. And by 'every so often' I mean like maybe once an hour. I can't remember if I've used this analogy before in the blog but I compare parenting to a kind of approach to weight lifting I was introduced to in high school. It's called working out to failure.

By that it means you keep lifting weights in increasing amounts, repetitions etc. until your muscles literally "fail" and you can't do any more. This is supposed to cause your muscles to grow to magnificence. Now I'm not sure if this was a correct or advisable work out practice (I did after all around this time spend an inordinate amount of money for a piece of curved metal called "The Arm Blaster" that you hung around your neck by a strap in order to isolate your biceps when doing curls - so clearly I'm not sure I was in, let's say, a critical mode.) However, I have to say my arms did look pretty awesome and I should know because I spent a large amount of time looking at them in the mirror. Exercising is supposed to be about doing what's good for you but it is really often about just trying to be attractive to others then, after a while, your main admirer becomes yourself - the biggest thing that gets a workout is your vanity.

How does all this relate to parenting? Well, sometimes I think this is my parenting strategy: aiming at failure. I do more and more stuff, always increasing my goals, tasks and aspirations to be a better dad than ever - joining parent council; baking muffins in the morning to take in lunches; going online to research whether the latest issue of their favourite comic book is out etc. - until... I fail. And usually spectacularly: with yelling, ridiculous claims, stamping around and sulking (and I'm talking about Me here). This often has to do with me feeling unappreciated for what I do.

Eventually a large wave of shame overtakes me and sweeps me out to drown in remorse for a while: what a jerk. Let's be clear here, I am NOT appreciated but the point is that's not part of the job description. For example, yesterday my 5 year old stamped upstairs and declared with some asperity to my wife: "There's still no soap in the dispenser in the bathroom. Daddy PROMISED to do it yesterday." He walked off shaking his head in disgust at my flakiness.

Yeah, sorry, BOSS. Guess I missed doing that in among the laundry, cooking, and child ferrying to various activities. Please take it out of my salary. See, sometimes I can laugh at it. SOMETIMES. But not always and when I blow it it's like all the good stuff doesn't count. As Lyle Lovett sings:

"One bad move can turn your world upside down. It's such a shame because you've been so good... up to now"

It doesn't matter how often you get it right, if you screw up once - you're a chump. And if you lose it when they complain, it's double down time.

So this brings me to my latest attempt to be a "Good Dad". I've been bringing my kids' baseball gloves and a ball to school pick up time as a way to interact and play with them and also to improve the throwing of my oldest who's form is let's say less than optimal. But he won't play. Neither will my youngest. My middle one is keen and that's been fun. Also what's happened is a bunch of his friends have joined in and since the other two's gloves are unused they have been borrowing them. So it's not what I imagined but still pretty fun. And then yesterday my one who plays bails in the middle of the game and leaves me playing catch with a bunch of kids from his school - most of whom I actually don't know. But they're into it and it's actually fun but part of me is thinking, "Come on! None of my kids will play catch with me? What's wrong with them? With me?" And then I remembered Neilus.

When I was a kid, maybe 10 or 12 (possibly 8) I was throwing the football with my dad in the park when out of the bushes appeared Neilus. Neilus was a big slightly goofy slightly dangerous (in my mind, anyway)  older kid who went to my grade school. He had arrived out of nowhere (well, Newfoundland which back in the 70s seemed like nowhere - this was the days of Newfie jokes, remember? Though you wouldn't have cracked one to Neilus - he'd have ruined you). Anyway, he kind of barged in and asked to play. Slightly surprised, we agreed. Neilus was REALLY into it. So much so that I think I may have wandered off for a while and let my dad and Neilus play for a while. As we walked home, I complained to my Dad about Neilus taking over our game. I remember my Dad being kind of sharp with me and then seeming kind of sad and asking questions about Neilus. (I had no idea what the answers were) but I get (got) the sense that Neilus' dad wasn't around and it was kind of a sad story. It certainly affected my dad but not me so much. I forgot this story until about twenty years later.

I was walking down the street in my old neighbourhood visiting my parents. Approaching me was a big rough character. I needed to cross the street anyway but perhaps I crossed earlier than I needed to. And then this guy crossed too heading right for me. Uh-oh. But then he called me by my last name (that's how most refer to me). I was puzzled. And then he identified himself: he was Neilus. Life had been HARD for Neilus. He was missing teeth, his hands were rough, scarred, calloused. He'd spent a lot of time in the oil fields, up north (and I suspected other places I'm happy not to have ever had to go). But he was very friendly and was eager to talk to me about his adventures. Which surprised me because we hadn't really ever hung out. And then he asked about my Dad. He remembered that time in the park and my Dad's kindness and friendliness and just spending time throwing a ball with him. It clearly meant a lot to him - something I just took for granted. I walked away feeling pretty humbled and (as is often the case) kind of a jerk.

So maybe I don't know one of these kids I was playing ball with will take something from it that my own kids don't and it will make a difference to them. Maybe it's a good thing my kids take me for granted - the other options aren't maybe so nice. And like working out it's supposed to be about doing something healthy and not just to be admired or for my own vanity.

Now if I could just arrange for one of these kids to "accidentally" run into my kids in about 20 years and tell them how awesome I am maybe I'll get some respect then...

Tuesday, 16 April 2013


Pop Culture has been presenting surprising, though positive, images of Fathers in Pop Culture - there are many ways to be good dads. Now, however, it is time to showcase some bad dadding.

Exhibit A in the Pop Culture Gallery of Bad Dads: Bryan Ferry of Roxy Music. Last year, the 66 year old Mr. Ferry married the 24 year old ex-girlfriend of one of his sons. As my youngest used to say, “Ick, is yuck”. For all I know, Ferry pere et fils dash about the Riviera in a motorboat wearing matching monogrammed Speedos and toasting each other with Prosecco. But this poaching smacks of poisonous levels of male vanity. Ferry always struck me as a guy who spent a lot of time admiring himself in the mirror. I was raised in a home where, if you dawdled over your food, my dad would try to eat your dinner and you had to arm wrestle him if you wanted the extra cherry Danish.  So, I’m OK with cross-generational rivalry - within limits. When I finally beat my Dad for the Danish, he bore it with good grace and didn’t turn around and try and scoop my girlfriend in revenge.

Rule One of not being a Bad Dad: Don’t Sleep With, Date or Marry your children’s exes.

Who has to worry about this other than Eurotrash pop stars? Well, a woman I knew in university married her ex boyfriend’s father. “Dad, I’d like you to meet my girlfriend Electra”.Well, hello there.

Dads, if you want a young girlfriend, why not get out of your slippers and leave the house to look for one? Beyond this being a basic no-eating-your-kids’-leftovers rule, it is a metaphor:  Are you putting your kids’ happiness ahead of your own selfishness? Are you a slave to vanity?  Are you trying to hold onto your youth/potency at the cost of your kids?

I prefer just to challenge my sons to do better than I did in finding a wife. Good luck, punks. Maybe it’s not healthy... but at least it’s better than some of the alternatives.

Pop Culture is a humourous blog about being a Modern Dad. A version of this article appears in the April/May issues of Village Living Magazine: West Village and Village Living Magazine: Mt. Pleasant.

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Bedtime Routine

By now everyone is likely familiar with the hilarious children's story book Go The Fuck To Sleep. For some reason people who know me constantly direct me to the book and Samuel L Jackson's reading of the book. Hmm.

The reality is that by the end of the day of dealing with children you crave silence, solitude and some time without someone asking something of you. Beyond that, it might be nice to have an actual conversation with your spouse without being interrupted. Mind you, those conversations are usually tactical discussions about the children and managing their behaviours, menus, or schedules. Sometimes a discussion about something not related to your kids pops up - those are nice moments and you treasure them because they are so rare.

It's gotten pretty pathetic that much of my interaction/information sharing with my wife comes via cc'd emails or in awkward moments when a neighbour tells me something about what my wife (or even I am up to):

"So, that was a hilarious story Carolyn told me about being trapped on the elevator at work the other day."
"What are you talking about? Carolyn wasn't trapped on any elevator"
"Oh, sorry, not sure who I'm thinking about".

And then, about a week later, I mention to my wife in passing about the weird way gossip travels - for instance:

"Christina told me that you were trapped on an elevator at work. I mean, how did that get started?" "Oh. I was. Didn't I tell you that? I was sure I had."

We have a saying now, "We don't talk, we're married." It's funny because it's true. Ha ha.

There used to be a time (when we had fewer and younger children) when we would have a small life raft of time between their finally going to sleep and our bedtime. As we have grown increasingly exhausted (and our children older and more demanding), that time has shrunk to almost nothing. Our bedtime routines, begun in youthful and new parent enthusiasm and naivitee, are always in danger of consuming us.

For instance, in the giddy rapture of new fatherhood I made up a series of "special songs" for my eldest (and at the time, only child) which I would sing to him along with other songs I knew (which when I began mostly consisted of the Gilligan's Island and Mary Tyler Moore theme songs) after reading a score of storybooks. Equity demanded the same consideration for my second and third boys. What begins as a wonderful bonding time with your children can easily becomes more of a time of bondage (not in the 50 Shades of Grey meaning, sickos). As I now I have three boys, even divided by two parents, it breaks down to nearly a two hour bedtime routine with songs and stories and so much more (Polka Dot Door reference) for all three. I sometimes feel like a struggling singer songwriter facing a hostile crowd who reject my song choices and bark out demands. I have yet had to have to perform Freebird but it's only a matter of time.

I've had to scale back the bedtime performance time and again as it naturally tends to become more ornate, complicated and baroque. Sort of a Punk rock reaction to overblown Prog rock excesses. No more last minute requests for water allowed. No more trips to the toy box to get that critical stuffie. Only two songs. Only two books. No more pyrotechnic light shows complete with masks and props. Back to basics.

Even with extreme vigilance at keeping the time in check, there have been evenings when, exhausted and trying to get through the last story with the last kid, I enter into a waking dream state and start to read and say things which make no sense. Trippy stuff that confuses and exasperates my kids:

"There's no green rapping elephant in this book, Daddy!"

This usually ends with me passing out, drooling, beside them. Waking up with a start hours later, I stagger into the hall often to find my wife similarly blundering out of another bedroom where she had passed out.

All that said, it can be a great experience to introduce your kids to favourite books of yours as a kid and to discover new ones that you can share. Some of them lend a different meaning to the phrase Bedtime Routine in that you develop an almost classic vaudeville comedy routine with certain jokes and songs and books. Those are great moments.

As a dad who wonders often if this parent thing is a zero sum game designed solely to reveal my failings and weaknesses, I do hold onto those moments where I feel we've created something genuinely fun and cool together. One of the unexpected side-effects of being an involved and home-based dad that I enjoy most are those moments when I would be reading a picture book with one of my boys and, upon seeing a picture of what is supposed to be a mother animal and her cubs, my son points out excitedly:

"Look, it's a daddy and his babies".

That rocks me to sleep, I can tell you.

Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Sign of the Times

I was recently working with a friend on a project when he had to stop and take an email. He read it through and then snorted in disgust and started swearing.

"What's up? I asked.

"Ethan's snowboarding for this week is cancelled because of the rain," he answered.

"That's too bad. Piss you off?"

"No I was expecting that, given the weather."

"Why the swearing then?"

He handed over his phone with the email. "Have a look at that sign off and tell me if you can figure it out."

I had a look. The instructor listed his name, his contact details, his professional accreditations and then I saw it. On a line of its own. Right below the accreditations. It may have even been in all caps but I could be imagining that:


Oh, *#%& off, I thought and then laughed. "Father?" I hazarded.

"Yes! Am I right?" he asked. "What a wanker. I mean, piss off."

It was a funny reaction because neither of us are particularly old school dads. My friend is a very involved, divorced dad, with shared custody and was the first guy I know to take an extended paternity leave. He in fact was one of my inspirations to try it myself. He is a creative guy, a teacher and writer too. So, what was it about this sign off that pissed us both off?

I played Devil's Advocate (I know, unusual for me but, what the hell?) "Well, isn't it a greater accomplishment to be a father than to have your B.Ed.?"

"Oh, I don't know, I guess. Sure. You're supposed to say that. It's just so sucky. And self-congratulatory. And like it qualifies him somehow to be the instructor."

I also think it goes to the insecurity of what it means to be a father these days. It`s certainly in the news a great deal about how dads are an endangered species and how they may soon be irrelevant and unnecessary. First of all, my main response to that is: Crap.

Apparently kids raised by two lesbians are the happiest. This again strikes me as pop science glossy magazine 'reportage' based on and geared to an extremely small subset of people i.e. neurotic N. American bourgeois paralytically self-aware parents. I mean, COME ON, how can it possibly be a fair claim to say this - just how many lesbian parents are there in the world? Where do these kids come from - The stork? Men are involved in some fashion here and it`s certainly not realistically going to be affordable or all that common for IVF world wide EVER. I`m sure they`re all super happy and that`s just awesome but to go from this small sample to say that dads are unnecessary and of growing irrelevance is absurd. The fact it seems to be taken up by the media with solemn seriousness just makes it more infuriating.

So I see FATHER`s goad here to establish that he`s an involved dad who cares and is proud of that role. Great. Still it rankles.

Sure, some men are not pulling their weight - they are absent dads, never involved in their kids' lives and not providing any kind of support. In those cases the Mums have to make do on their own and in the men are irrelevant and unnecessary - and maybe they are all better off without the men. But I don`t think this is a fair representation of most dads out there either. Lots of us are flawed, not very good dads but we`re there putting in our share and doing our best - coaching, working long hours to help pay the bills, transporting kids to various play dates, schooling and sports also counts.

So maybe this is another problem with FATHER`s declaration. I mean, so what, that you`re a father?Any baby-daddy can make that claim. It is simply biology to father a child. My friend and I were joking you could instead insert other nouns: SPERM-DONOR. IMPREGNATOR. FERTILISER.

The title implies that FATHER is a good father and who's kidding who - he is tipping his hand to indicate he's a GREAT FATHER. And, just maybe, likely, better than YOU. So is it this level of Daddier-Than-Thou which is the most galling?

Sidebar - is it a bit rich that I am complaining about FATHER? After all, I write a blog and column about being a Dad. How am I different than he? Maybe I'm not. I hope no one is taking cues on how to do a good job from ME. Other than maybe a nod - oh yeah, I've done that. I've thought that. Or wow maybe I'm not so bad after all, reading about what THAT guy thinks and does. Still, does my criticism of FATHER mean that I think I'm a better Dad than he is? Hell no. He's likely way better at it than I am but seriously, so what? Keep it to yourself. It's so self-aggrandising.

And maybe that's a generational thing. For some reason I think that FATHER may be a lot younger than me and my friend. The generation who posts pictures of their dinners on Facebook or Tweets about the inconsequential details of their lives. Maybe what offends us is the implication that to be an involved Dad one must reject classic male/father attributes. FATHER's seeking validation, attention and praise for being a good father instead of demonstrating good ol' manly values like duty, responsibility, self-sacrifice, toughness, discipline, and hard work. And not asking for a gold star or a pat on the back afterwards.

My friend and I are likely older Grizzled Dads. And even though we're pretty different than our own dads in our involvement in child rearing, we carry forward those things our own fathers taught us about being men. Like that generation's idea of Actions Speak Louder than Words. Calling yourself a FATHER means nothing. It's what you DO and how your kid thinks of you at the end of the day - "Did my dad help me to be a better person?" It doesn't have anything to do with what some stranger thinks upon reading your email signature.

Thursday, 31 January 2013


“Winter Is Coming”: The Stark Family Motto

I’ve been watching Game of Thrones – and not just because of the omnipresent sex and violence. OK, they might have something to do with it. However, people like me really watch because of the gripping interpersonal dynamics. The various lead characters must figure out the right way to live in a world of chaos – this struggle is often informed by the expectations their fathers have of them. Everyone in this series has daddy issues.

Game of Thrones takes place during a war of succession involving a large cast of diverse protagonists. It shows a heartless disregard for its characters, killing them off with relish and regularity. The kings in question are generally deeply flawed and their children are the warped results. These offspring are quickly left to their own devices to sort out how to behave. This is generally a good thing, as their dads are a bunch of murderous conniving psychos. The one exceptional King Dad is Ned Stark and he is killed basically for being honourable.

But Ned Stark is a good dad because he models honour, self-reliance and responsibility. It might stem from his family motto which essentially means – “It’s going to get hard; everything is going to die; so, prepare accordingly”. It doesn’t always protect his children from harm. It does, however, aid the Starks in times of crisis to have a family code of honour guiding them on who they are. Other characters, like the dwarf Tyrion, reject their despicable father’s way of life and must forge a new identity on their own. Some believe fathers are unnecessary, but I’d argue having a good one sure helps, like a hidden dagger in your boot.

I hope to arm my kids with a strong family identity, one that helps them navigate the world when I can’t protect them. That means I must strive to be a better person myself. Sigh. I’m not very successful at that but it gives me something to aim for. Is it too much to ask to be called Sire in return?
Pop Culture is also a regular coluimn in Village Living Magazine. A version of this article appears in the February/March 2013 issue.

Thursday, 17 January 2013

Tactical Strikes

We recently went through a  kinda sorta teachers' strike last Friday. The teachers weren't allowed to strike so they called it a one day protest and everyone across the province scrambled to figure out what to do with their kids for that day. As a home-based dad, I had it covered though it meant I would get nothing done that day and planned accordingly. I have found that one of my most effective parenting strategies is low expectations. I assume I won't get anything done when my kids are around and as a result I don't try to - thus avoiding the frustration of trying and failing. I also try and raise my kids in having low expectations of me as a parent which, though socially disapproved of, means I rarely disappoint and even occasionally impress.

Then after all the brouhaha, the Labour Relations Board told the teachers that they could call what they were doing Chicken Noodle Soup if they wanted but it was clearly an illegal strike and they had to get their butts back to work. I mean, come on, this is a group of people who daily get "the dog ate my homework" stories - did they think anyone else would be fooled by their lame relabelling exercise? As well, in two weeks they had a PA day scheduled - they couldn't protest on this day? Please.

Anyway. We of course only found this out on Friday morning as my kids and I settled down for a morning of cartoons. They were devastated to find out that they'd have to go to school. Yet again I have to question the unions' strategy through this process - they are alienating their core support group (parents) and by removing their support of after school and club activities they lessen their role and importance in kids and parents' lives. I would also guess it makes their jobs less fun. It would be too much to expect kids to be happy to go to school, I suppose, but when you threaten to remove your services and most of your "clientele" is ecstatic you maybe have an image problem you need to manage.

After I thought about it for a minute, I realized that getting them all to their various schools at that point would be very difficult. I also could exploit my low-expectations strategy and cash in for some easy "Good Dad" points. Time for a Tactical Strike of my own. I told them they could stay home but at the first hint of trouble I would take them all to school. Joy. Christmas in July. Found money. Etc. My oldest even hugged me and said, "Thank you, Dad." That felt really good even though it was not clearly a good parenting moment - in fact it was arguably the rough parenting equivalent to eating an entire bag of potato chips and drinking a gallon of root beer for dinner or (in my single days) cheap and meaningless sex with a stranger. Bad for you but, not only did it feel good at the time, it left you strangely elated and feeling pleased with yourself at random moments for days after. I am, sadly, basing that more on my experiences with potato chips than with willing and wanton women. Sigh.

I know from experience that a completely unstructured day with the three of them in the house was a recipe for infanticide, fratricide or at least me standing on a window ledge being "talked down" by a crisis negotiator. So we watched cartoons together and then played a engrossing game of the Settlers of Catan (so much so that I burned the pot of Kraft Dinner - spawning "Chris' Smokey Campfire Style KD". I have to confess to that being a parenting 'fail' - ruining Kraft Dinner (who thought it possible?) - but it did help re-establish those low standards I mentioned earlier.) After lunch, we walked to the library. Moan. Groan. Outside time for boys, however, is non-negotiable. Without it, life is just not worth it.

Sadly, winter also elected to go on an unexpected strike that day, so the piles of snow I could have counted on to entertain the kids were rapidly melting into the gutters in the light rain and warm weather. We were able to however have a mother of a snowball fight on the way to the library and which we continued on the way home. A friend of mine driving by actually witnessed me being attacked by all three at once in a barrage of snowballs. He expressed concern later that it seemed unfair - though I note he simply locked the cars doors and sped off rather than offer assistance. No worries though, I schooled my boys in a variety of lessons. Ones that they certainly won't learn in school these days, which forbids such dangerous objects as snowballs. Such lessons as using street furniture as shields, always having at least one snowball in hand and of course, the importance of tactical strikes.

We came home very wet, well exercised and in extremely good moods. You hear a lot about the important work teachers do, and how it is difficult and how most people wouldn't want to be stuck with a bunch of kids all day long. This is all true and I deeply respect good teachers but something is left out of the discussion about spending the day with kids - it can be a hell of a lot of fun.

Tuesday, 8 January 2013

New Year Reflections and Resolutions

Whew. They're back at school (and in my wife's case, work). Now my holiday begins. Ha ha. Right. I now scramble madly to get back on top of home based stuff as well as dust off my computer and get back to writing tasks that took a serious back seat to family holiday stuff. I was joking with other parents that there were a lot of long faces in my house Sunday afternoon and Monday morning - except for mine. No. Really. Joking I was.

It WAS actually a great holiday for us this year and I can honestly say that I was less happy to have them all leave me yesterday morning than usual after a long school break. I told my wife this in a rare show of tenderness and sharing. Huh. Well, now I know why men don't share their tender thoughts and sharing much. It did not get the reaction I thought it would - AT ALL. What made it such a good holiday and start of a New Year? Below I outline some discoveries, reflections and resolutions.

I am even more upset by global warming because of the reminder this holiday about how awesome snow is and how someday we might not have it. Not only is it pretty and reflect the low light levels of our northern winters and provides important hydration and protection for plant life, it makes a great place to stick a kid. Nothing kills the holiday spirit like kids dragging themselves around the house moaning that they're bored and nagging me to play on the computer/Wii/watch TV etc. Toss them in their snow gear and even a normally lame city backyard presents endless amounts of entertainment. There is groaning and complaining while you push them out the door with a snow shovel but minutes later they are happily throwing snow at each other, themselves or a squirrel. They come back in pink cheeked, all their yayas worked out, in much better moods and they sleep well. Even better if you go out with them you can throw snowballs at them yourself and toss them into snowbanks all in the name of good clean fun and working out some of your own frustrations. RESOLUTIONS: Contribute to Environmental Advocacy groups, invest in snow making equipment and keep the kids outside as much as possible in all kinds of weather.

I think that once I'm done this dad gig I might hie myself over to the Mideast and sort those numbskulls out. We've have some very fierce negotiations around here - mostly about how much electronic "screen time" each is entitled to, and when, and on what device... essentially about the shared use of scarce resources or territory. I have to say we worked out some very successful strategies that were mutually acceptable. I am not one normally inclined to such an approach. I am more of the tactical strike type but, hat tip to my lovely wife and consigliere, who just happens to be the daughter of a diplomat, I have seen the benefits of the negotiated settlement. That said, a strategic "wardrobe malfunction" accidentally displaying my arsenal helps focus the minds of the disputants and speed a solution.

On the road again. Sedan packed to the roof with toboggans (sleds to my US friends), presents and a gross of homemade Christmas cookies, we did the annual (5 hour minimum) migration to Ottawa AKA "The Land of Ice and Snow and In-Laws". As my friend Jason recently dubbed it, we did a "Full Griswold". These trips can be fraught affairs, especially if you run into holiday traffic or snowstorms. They were something I used to dread and would make me crabby but, a couple of summers of multiple road trips have turned them into an important and (sometimes, mostly) enjoyable experience. One of the big benefits is my wife and I actually get to talk to each other for hours at a time - when the kids are asleep or watching a movie - which is something I enjoy but is rare these days.

These road trips also employ the standard dramatic device of putting a bunch of people in a confined space and forcing them to interact. The results obviously can be unpleasant but lately we've found a pretty good balance. Families only get stronger if they spend time and do things together. In the "regular season" parents and kids are often so busy they can't do this and often the kids do not even want to spend time with their siblings. The "boiler room" experience changes this.

Many parents' strategy is putting on the DVD as soon as they put the car in gear. We've done it but this results in extremely snappy and brain-shrunken children unable to deal with each other in any way other than violence and rudeness when the player is off. We hold the DVD player in reserve, dependant on good behaviour, which includes participation in old fashioned road trip games. These build the family relationships leading to various in-jokes that come up every time we go on the road trips. Even the eventual DVD watching can be relationship building as we insist the kids negotiate which shows they will watch and in what order. They then all watch the same show which results in them sharing other experiences and having other references and in-jokes. RESOLUTION: Watch more DVDs with the kid to understand what they are talking about and find ways to replicate this experience in the "regular season" i.e. family games night.

I am a prime offender at this. It's a slippery slope from terms of endearment and teasing and joking to nastier stuff. This was brought home during a game of Catchphrase with the in-laws after the kids went to bed when in one interaction I said, "This is what I call my kids" (meaning "Knuckleheads") when my wife chirped in, "Idiots?". Er. Hmm. Yeah. Knuckleheads to me sounds OK, like Nitwits, or Goofballs but once you start on that it doesn't end well. Part of this has to do with the fact I can never remember their actual names in moments of kid-induced crisis. Having a loving short-form nickname like Numbskull comes in handy.

Spending a lot of time together ultimately results in friction. But when the kids refer to each other in those insulting terms, how can I take the moral high ground when they do? And, believe me, I love the Moral High Ground. I might build a retirement home there; the view is fantastic. So we've instituted a new no name calling policy at our house for the kids or NC for short. This is grouped with a no Acts of Violence policy (AV), no Deliberate Provocation (DP), no Personal Remarks (PR) policy with a subgroup of that we call no Personal Insults (PI). I came up with that one after my youngest called me fat and my wife chided him saying that it was a PR. "Wait a minute," I said, "PR implies something that is true but mean to say and the real problem is he called me fat. Which I am not and so we need to have a subgroup called PI because I'm not fat. Right?" Everyone went very quiet after that which I am taking as agreement not an adoption of the PR policy.

Of course I've broken most of those rules myself already but I'm trying to improve. RESOLUTION: Call them by their proper names and stop eating Christmas cookies.

I really like my kids. And the holiday reminded me of this in many ways and we had a lot of fun. But I am glad they are back at school.