Handled with (day)care

Derek loves daycare. I know this by the wide smile he flashes whenever we pull into the parking lot or that purposeful walk he takes each morning to his classroom.

Every time I drop him off, however, a tinge of guilt shoots up and down my spine. It lasts just for a second, like the initial pinch of a needle whenever a doctor needs to draw some of your blood. But it’s there, this feeling that I am leaving the most precious thing in my world in the hands of strangers when he should be living and learning in the familiar confines of his home.

Then I remind myself: Shut up. You’re crazy.

First off, daycare is a necessity considering Christina and I work. And I’m willing to wager 90 percent of the parents we know down here do the same thing we do each morning – wake the kid, dress the kid, strap him in the car seat and head off to daycare before getting on with the rest of the day.

Most importantly, daycare has been very good to Derek mainly because the school we chose is just that – a school rather than an 40-hour-a-week babysitting service. We arrived one morning and Derek’s classmates were seated in a semicircle, learning how to count to 20. Then they moved on to colors. We’ll pick Derek up in the evenings and he’ll be in the middle of an art project, doing so with so much vigor that sometimes he doesn’t want to come home.

Derek turkey

Chowing down during last year’s Thanksgiving lunch.

Derek has hopped on the daycare’s makeshift stage twice. The first was last spring when he starred as the letter ‘G’ during his class’s rendition of “Bingo.” Then last December he joined the chorus during “Jingle Bells.”

Daycare has introduced Derek to friends such as William and Jackson and Hannah and Brooklyn, the last of whom greets Derek each morning with a big hug. He’s around people all day, every day. He isn’t shy. Just ask the female servers he flirts whenever we go out to eat.

Derek is the flag holder each morning and has his eyes glued to a book whenever we pop in during storytime.He always says “please” and “thank you.” He knows he has to put his clean blankets and sheets in his cubby every Monday morning because his teachers know you learn by doing.

Some of the credit – OK, maybe most – for this goes to Christina and I and the lessons we impart on him at home and in public. But it never hurts to throw another voice of authority into the mix as long as it’s one you trust and respect.

We trust and respect the folks at Derek’s daycare.

(Now, I know we live in a super-sensitive world, so read the following disclaimer: This is no way an affront to stay-at-home moms and dads. I didn’t go to daycare and I turned out fine. This is all about what works best for your family.)

You hear the horror stories, too, about negligent daycare workers or sub-standard conditions. But we’re lucky. We found a good one, one with an open-door policy, celebrations for Mother’s and Father’s Day and a family lunch during the week of Thanksgiving. The playground is expansive and safe. The classrooms are spotless.

The tinge is still there each morning, especially when Derek stands at my feet, raises his arms and says, “Hug?” just before I walk out of his classroom.

But it doesn’t last nearly as long as it used to.

The power of a pet

Christina and I adopted Rosie long before we had Derek. It was the summer of 2010 when we decided to head out to the local animal shelter, pick out a dog and make it our own. We chose Rosie, a Shar-Pei mixed with a whole bunch of breeds, and I was attached to her in minutes. That’s a good thing, because I don’t know if there’s a dog out there better suited for a family than Rosie is for us.

Boy Dog

So my heart swells every time I see Derek and Rosie running around the living room or crashing into each other on the bed. Rosie play-growls the entire time, looking and sounding as if she would rather be somewhere else. But the second Derek stops or starts to walk away, Rosie follows right behind, suddenly wanting more. And two go at it again: Derek laughing hysterically while gripping tight to one of Rosie’s chew toys, Rosie ducking and dodging and diving at Derek’s feet.

I love dogs. I’m the guy who watches movies and roots for the good guy to die rather than the dog. And Marley and Me? Ouch.

As happy I am to have Rosie, I’m even happier that Derek has Rosie. For one, interacting with Rosie every day has completely nixed his fear of dogs – if that fear even existed in the first place. Whether we’re at a park or hanging out in the front yard, Derek’s eyes sparkle whenever a dog strolls by. I remember how happy he was the day a bunch of assistance dogs in training made an appearance at a local children’s museum. Derek bonded with a rambunctious puppy and immediately lost sight of all the cool exhibits.

Rosie is the ultimate family dog. Her temperament is incredible, barely making a peep whenever Derek grabs hold of her tail or runs away with her DentaStick. We call Derek out for such behavior, and little by little he is learning Rosie is a living thing and not the giant stuffed giraffe in his play room that he just can toss around like a baton.

Boy Dog 2And they love each other. Every night before bedtime, Rosie walks into Derek’s room lays by his crib while we read Derek a story. And if for some reason she doesn’t come in, Derek looks perplexed.

“Where RoRo go?”he asks, his big, moist eyes growing bigger with each word.

Rosie, who wrote the book on gentle, has become more protective since Derek was born. She barks and snipes whenever someone walks by the house or a strange car is parked outside. And if Rosie doesn’t know you, be prepared to hear some big-time growling when you walk into Derek’s room.

I hope Derek learns something from all of this, too, such as how to properly treat a pet and what goes into caring for one, and that dogs should be loved, not feared. And, as much as it pains me to say, Rosie is one day going to teach Derek about how painful it can be to say good-bye.

Right now, however, I’m having too much fun watching two of the most beloved beings in my life give and get back a whole ton of love to and from each other.

There is nothing like a boy and his dog, especially when you’re talking about Derek and Rosie.

 

What’s in a role model?

JeterYou can argue all you want about Derek Jeter’s  legacy, about how he handled a glove and where he fits in the Yankees’  crowded,  tradition-rich pantheon.

What’s indisputable is this – for my people my age,   Derek Jeter is our superstar,  our guy. Our dads told us all about Mickey Mantle. Grandfathers told us about DiMaggio. But for us fans born in the late 1970s or early 80s, we didn’t get a folk hero until  Jeter broke into the bigs during the summer of 1995.

(We almost had one before Don Mattingly’s back went out and took his offensive firepower with it.)

The next generation will hear all about The Flip, The Dive and Mr.November.  They’ll  know no one was named the MVP of the All-Star Game and World Series during the same season until Jeter did it in 2000. They’ll  know how his first-pitch home run in Game 4 shifted the tide of the Subway Series, that his 3,000th hit was a home run and his final hit inside Yankee Stadium was a walk-off.

Jeter’s  Hall-of-Fame induction will  be during the summer of 2020. Somehow,  someway I will get to Cooperstown.

Where I stop short of the Jeter praise, however, is calling him a role  model.  Or a hero. Those are heavy titles, and I know absolutely nothing about Jeter other than what I’ve read about over the last 20 years.

Of course, all reports are sparkling. Jeter never embarrassed himself or the Yankees by winding up on the wrong side of the New York Post. You never saw his name in the police blotter. You never heard about him roughing up women. He was never linked to any PED reports, and opponents as well  as teammates go hoarse from screaming his praise.

He is charitable with his time and money and still  tight with his parents, who were fixtures at Yankee Stadium, both old and new, while their son crafted a legendary career.

But picking a role model is one of the most important things a person can do. And it shouldn’t be someone who you know solely through the television and radio.

My role models are people I know very,  very well – immediate family and a few close friends. I know their stories, I know their flaws.   I know what they’ve been though, how they’ve handled success and how they’ve handled failure.

I love Jeter as a player. I read his story, written by Ian O’Connor,  in three days. Heck, he’s partially the reason our son is named Derek.

(I said it to Christina one day as a joke. A few  weeks  later, she said she actually liked it. Who am I  to  disagree?)

But I know nothing about him. I never spent the day with him.  Never had dinner with him. Never rode home with him after an 0-for-5 with three strikeouts.

I hope  our Derek’s heroes extend past the posters on  his wall or the pictures in books. I hope he bestows that title to Christina and I, because if he does, I know for sure we really did something right.

You need to go your own way in life and listen to your heart. But you also need to surround yourself with the right people, too.

I’ve made my share of errors  over the years, but I think the one thing I excelled at was listening to the right voices and choosing the right friends.  I have learned so   much from the people I hold close to  me.  Whether watching them act or hearing what they had to say, these interactions have made me a better person, husband and father.

If it’s Game 7 of the World Series, I want Derek Jeter leading off and playing short. That’s a no-brainer.

But that’s as far as the adulation goes.

Heroes are all around us. You just have to listen and look.

 

 

First Blood

CutSee that bad-ass cut under Derek’s  left eye? That’s kinda my fault – I was cleaning something off his face when Derek fell into  a corner  of a table. Every time I looked at that scrape,  and remembered how much he cried as Christina gently dabbed away the blood with a paper  towel,  my knees buckled a bit. The thought of Derek in pain makes my heart feel  as if it were dragged by a Mack truck through a parking lot full  of broken glass.

That makes me nervous.

Derek  is going to  feel pain because we all  do.  And I’m not talking the physical  kind.  Yeah,  some of that is coming down the pike, especially if he plays Little  League and takes his first grounder off a shin. To quote George Costanza, you’ll  see visions.

I’m talking about disappointment, about being one of the last kids picked for kickball or being turned down for a job or not getting invited to so-and-so’s  birthday bash. That stuff is going to happen.  And  as much as he has to learn to live with it,   I do, too.

I had a good childhood.  I was never really bullied.   I always had friends.  I always felt included. But even I had my dalliances with heartbreak and sorrow, and while I came through it all  OK, and perhaps became a better and tougher person for it, I  dread Derek going through the same thing. Why?  Simple – like Bad English said,  it’s  the price of love.

The love I have for Derek is infinite. I have never felt this way about anyone or anything. And I don’t  want anything negative to happen to him.   I want him to be happy every day. I want him to be liked by everyone. I  want him to  make every team he tries out for, land every part he auditions for and wins every science fair he enters.  I want him to ace every test. I  want the plague to avoid him  like the plague.   I never want him to get strep throat. I want him  invited to  every party and  every person he invites to   come to  his party.  I never want him to be in a bad mood. I want all his tears to be those of joy. As  much  as I want him to grow up and  forge a life of his own, I  want him to stay 20 months forever so he spends  most of his time under our roof and our care.

Tall order,  right?

None of this will  happen, of  course. And bitterness is a part of life. If you’re  lucky enough to  live a long one,  you’re going to have your good days and a bad days. The hope is the good far outweighs the bad, but the bad isn’t  always that…bad.  I’ve  made a countless number of mistakes and have done my best to learn from each of them.  I have failed. I have been leveled by a few haymakers of disappointment. And I’m OK. I’m here and I’m happy.

That cut on his face has healed.  You wouldn’t  know by looking at him that Derek ever had it.  He’s going to be fine.

He’s a tough kid.

Hopefully some of that rubs off on dad.

 

 

What’s an…album?

albumsI miss music stores. I miss hearing bands I had zero interest in being played way too loud over the store’s sound system. I miss waiting in line on cold Saturday mornings in front of the ones that housed a Ticketmaster.

I was such a regular denizen of music stores, be it Nobody Beats The Wiz or Tower Records or Sam Goody, that I developed a system: I’d do a lap and stack as many CDs as I could in one hand. Then I’d do another lap and put one back after another until I was down to the two or three I could afford.

There was something special about those days, about ripping through the stubborn wrapping, flipping through the booklet – or scanning the artwork if you bought the vinyl – and reading the new lyrics for the first time.

(Remember when CDs came in ridiculous cardboard boxes that were slightly longer than War and Peace and harder to get into the D train at rush hour? Kudos to the environmentalists for putting the kibosh on those. I do, however, wish Big Macs still came in  those yellow Styrofoam containers.)

Those days are over. Now buying an album means firing up your laptop, clicking the download button, grabbing a drink and voila! Music!

But for Derek, who spent early Wednesday morning at the doctor for his 18-month appointment (and earned yet another gold star), those days were never his to begin with. He’ll never have to walk into a store to buy his music. Or use a pencil to re-spool the new Poison tape before giving it back to a friend.

He’ll never have to scramble to the library just before closing because he forgot to write that three-page report on Peru due tomorrow. That’s why God invented Wikipedia, right?

He’ll never marvel at the existence of call waiting. My dad worked for the phone company, so we were one of the first to get it. I had to explain it to my friends whenever they called why I couldn’t talk.

“Hey, Robby. Can I call you back? I’m on the phone.”

Derek will never have to wait for film to be developed or sit at home so he doesn’t miss an important call, or remember to be kind and rewind before bringing a movie back to Blockbuster.

Were things better back then? I’d be lying if I said yes. Isn’t this what we always wanted – the ability to buy all sorts of stuff from the comfort of our home, away from the holiday crowds and the long lines that stretched to the back of the store?

This isn’t a case of an old man pounding his fists on the table and screaming about how better things were 20 years ago. It just amazes me all the stuff I experienced that Derek will never experience for himself. Same thing with me and my parents. I never knew what it was like to watch baseball on a black-and-white television or spend a summer without air conditioning or listen to an FM-free radio.

I’m really curious to see what’s next. How will Derek get his music? Will cell phones become even more advanced? Will any of us ever have to leave our house ever again?

Maybe iPads will become the turntables of their days – cool collector’s items you can get for real cheap at thrift stores and garage sales. Flat-screen TVs, too.

And Derek will experience things his kids will never get to experience, either. To paraphrase – and perhaps misrepresent – the words of Paul Simon, these are the days of miracle and wonder.

There are more of them on the way.

 

Can’t we all just get along?

shots 174

 

I am sorry I love my son. I am sorry I love being a parent. I am sorry if I post too many of his pictures on Facebook or clog your feeds with recaps on trips to museums, parks and aquariums.

See, parenting – or gloating about having a kid – has become susceptible to some sort of odd backlash. There are missives written and memes crafted on the joys of life without kids, and judging from how frequently I see them referenced to or linked to friends’ social media accounts, their popularity is quite expansive.

Maybe I’ve just noticed this in the last year and a half since Derek was born. Or it’s just the byproduct of living with 21st-century technology, where everyone’s opinion on everything is readily accessible, and people have felt this way for decades and I never knew.

I just don’t know why the battle lines have been drawn – people with kids vs. people who don’t.

I always wanted to be a parent, even when I was a single guy living in one one-bedroom apartment after another.  I never gnashed my teeth or rolled my eyes when friends shared pictures of their babies or sent Christmas cards plastered with family portraits. Instead, I was happy for them and hopeful that I could one day experience that joy, too.

Now that I have, I want to share it with everyone. I’m proud of my son and proud at the job Christina and I are doing raising him. I’ll take that cute pic I snapped of Derek on my phone, throw it on Instagram, link it to my Facebook page and tag Christina so that many more people can see it.

This isn’t me acting as a spokesman for parenthood or shaming anyone into having a baby of their own. Have a kid, don’t have a kid. I couldn’t care less. It’s between you and your partner and it is none of my business. I won’t say you’re missing out anything because you may not be. Parenting isn’t for everyone. It’s not that some people can’t cut it – it’s that some people simply don’t want to do it. Or in some cases, aren’t physically able to.

And you know what? That’s OK.

You know what else is OK? Being a parent. I don’t need to read long essays on how sensible it is to live without kids or how I’ve supplied the world with one more mouth you have to help feed.

This isn’t me quelling your free speech. Rather, it’s me telling you to lay down your sword because we aren’t at war. Do I throw verbal darts at CrossFitters because I don’t CrossFit? Do I question the sanity of marathoners because I don’t spend my mornings prepping for 26-mile runs? Do I mock people who make their own beer because the only equipment in my garage is a washer and dryer?

No. Their choice. My choice.

I understand people without kids often get pressured from parents and friends and have to deal with the obligatory “When-are-you-making-me-a-great(blank)?” questions during the holidays. We started hearing “When are you having another one?” before Derek was enrolled in daycare. Your annoyance with certain people is understood.

I just don’t see a reason to defend having a kid just as you shouldn’t defend a reason not to.

So get ready for more pictures and anecdotes and blog posts. They’re coming.

Parenthood isn’t for everyone. But it’s definitely for me. For that, I am not sorry at all.

 

 

 

 

My hometown

Haircut

Derek becoming the fourth generation of Lembos to get a haircut at Sam’s in Massapequa Park.

When Bruce Springsteen decided to leave California and return to his native New Jersey, he talked about how special it was for his children to walk the same streets and along the same sandy shores as he once did.

I know what he means.

We just got back from Long Island, where I was born and raised and is still home most of my family. What made this trip so special was it was our first trip north with Derek, who at 18 months, is becoming more and more like a little boy each day. He walks and talks and laughs, and the framework of a personality is starting to show more and more. He probably won’t remember our week-long stay at the Marriott Residence in Central Islip, just as he probably won’t remember sleeping inside his stroller while Christina and I rolled him around the observation deck of the Empire State Building.

But it was a big week for me.

It was a vacation in name only. We packed a lot of activity into our seven-day stay, which included two trips into the city, day-long stays at grandma and grandpa’s, an afternoon at The Long Island Children’s Museum and another at The Bronx Zoo. My favorite part was the day before we left, when the three of us hopped in our rented red Toyota Camry and cruised around Massapequa Park, my hometown. We drove by 454 Atlantic Avenue, my family’s old house. I hadn’t been there in years. Yet when I made the left on Broadway followed by the right on to Lake Shore Drive, the route back to that house came right back me, as if a GPS had been implanted in my brain. And that’s pretty impressive, considering I routinely get lost walking from our bathroom to the kitchen.

Next was a stop at East Lake Elementary School, where I attended first through sixth grade and developed a mad crush on blonde, blue-eyed Miss O’Brien, followed by a drive through downtown Massapequa Park, where some of the businesses lining Park Boulevard, such as the hardware store and soccer shop, looked exactly like I remembered them. Then came the best part of the whole trip – we went into Sam’s Barber Shop so Derek could get a haircut. I grew up going to Sam’s. My dad went there, too. And once while my dad’s parents were visiting, my grandfather got his hair cut at Sam’s. So when Derek sat in that chair and patiently sucked on his pacifier while snippets of his hair floated to the floor, he became the fourth generation of Lembos to visit Sam’s.

Sam’s son, John, used to cut my hair all the time. He was there Friday, and when I mentioned my name, his eyes lit up.

“Johnny Lembo…Jesus, you were just a kid…”

“And this is my kid,” I said, introducing Derek to John.

The tour came to a close at Brady Park, located right near the town’s stop on the Long Island Railroad. While Christina and Derek played on the swings, I stepped out on to the park’s empty Little League field and remembered how fun it was to play there. Ballgames were events at Brady Park, where the grass was always trim and the dirt was always smooth, the bases were hammered in and a big scoreboard stood over left field. Brady Park hosted the All-Star game each year, and for an 11-year-old kid, it was a killer rush. The bleachers were always packed and the players would line up on the baselines during pre-game introductions, just like the pros did. The concourse was full of vendors selling everything from chewing gum to baseball cards to used bats, and everyone seemed so…happy. It was a great time.

I loved growing up in Massapequa Park, home to trim lawns, nice homes and streets lined with oak trees. More than anything else, however, I loved giving Derek a small taste of it. This was where I was born, and in a way, where he was born, too. Everything I learned in that town, whether from my parents, friends, teachers or baseball coaches, I am now passing down to Derek. There will always be a small part of Massapequa Park in my son, and he will be a better person for it.

Just like I am.