Thursday, May 28, 2015

The Virtues of Being the Middle Child

With a second child on the way Mrs. Blackwell and I have had preliminary discussions as to just how big we want this family of ours to get.

She wants four kids. I umm......well, let's just say I'm not so sure I want four. That's a lot.

That's a lot of diapers. That's a lot of day care. That's a lot of food. That's a lot of college tuition.

Jan Brady. Worst middle child ever? 
That's a lot of kids. What happens to one's parenting with each additional kid? One couldn't possibly find the time to give each of them equal treatment, could they?

I am the middle child of three boys.

One might picture me uttering those words while seated in a church basement as a circle of empathetic onlookers nods quietly, some biting their bottom lips while digesting the full gravity of this plight.

Yes, it's a sad, sad world for us middle children and certainly justification to give me pause as we consider creating a middle child.

We middle children are the great forgotten, or so conventional thinking goes.

After the oldest child first passes through the spotlight, soaking up all of the attention that comes with being the "first" at everything, we moped in and took whatever was left over like the sad sacks that we are.

Whoops. I forgot about him. 
Then came the baby, the family's last chance to partake in all the joys of childhood.

And so, this dynamic moves throughout our development and then into adulthood. The oldest child blazes trails, while the baby serves as the "baby" and enjoys all the coddling that comes with being the youngest.

Somewhere in there, the middle child just sort of hovers in purgatory.

My mother is a firm believer in birth order. She's read books and often references the role that being a first born has played in her life. It's one of the lenses through which she views the world.

In my case, she believes it's what led me to travel and move around more than my brothers. I was, according to conventional birth-order thinking, looking for my place in the world. This sounds perfectly logical but, with all apologies to the psychologists who advanced this view, the latest research says, "nope."

....and her. 
I've read enough about birth order to know that it has a prominent place in one's development, I just don't think it's played any more a role in my life than say age difference between siblings.

There's three and a half years between my older brother and I. That didn't exactly put me in competition with him for much of anything. He was always bigger, faster and four grades ahead of me in school. I learned early on that I'd have to wait to catch up.

Compare that to my younger brother who was 15 months younger than me and just one grade behind. One might think that because of that closeness there was a great deal of competition between us. There wasn't.

We fought like boys do but we grew out of it, in no small part because he could whoop my ass by the time he was old enough to walk. Regardless, neither of us were fighters and while we got along well, we didn't share many interests through which to compete.

One could wonder how this might have affected my older brother. Seeing his younger siblings so close in age, sharing so much of life at nearly the same time. Did my older brother ever feel alienated like say, a middle child is supposed to?

Probably not, but you get my point. There's a lot of variables here.
Thanks Bill. I was starting to think this was a lost cause.

Like, what if my older brother had been a sister? Ditto for my younger brother. How would being the only boy out of three kids have changed who I am?

I'm told that I'm just like my father. My dad is a quieter fellow and, I suppose I am too. How much of this is because I'm like dad or because I'm a middle child?

And what, if my folks hadn't moved around so much when I was a kid, would I have moved as much as I have?

Who knows about any of this?

So back to my original question — and outside of having a syndrome named after us — what does being a middle child mean for a kid's development?

After minimal reading, supplemented with a lifetime of experience, I can safely say it's up to some arbitrary cocktail of mom, dad, life experiences and location. My mom is off the hook as far as the whole middle child thing goes.

And with this conclusion, I'm running out of excuses not to have one.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Trust Me Son, the Fair Sucks

On the way home the other day, I noticed from behind my windshield that there was an amusement park set up in the parking lot of a local mall.

It was a jumble of neon from which I could discern only a Ferris wheel and what I assumed was a slew of other rides and attractions. Again, tough to tell with all the neon.

Never minding the particular rides involved, or the fact that it was a scaled-down version, the big point was: the fair was in town!!

As a kid, I remember hearing those words and knowing that fun on a grand scale was imminent.
Pictured: a spectacle masquerading as fun. Or, if you're
into the whole brevity thing: a charade. 

There was the Super Loops. The Sea Dragon. The Gravitron. Plus all the games in which enormous stuffed animals and other beautiful bobbles could be won.

Then there's the food. Funnel cake. Cotton candy. Corn dogs.

When you list it all out like this, it's abundantly clear why so many folks have such great memories of the fair.

It's also abundantly clear why so many of us do not. Funnel cake? Cotton candy? (I'll give you corn dogs — they remain fantastic.)

But what about those rides again?

The Super Loops? Yeah, I never made it on that one. Like the kid from Tom Hanks' "Big" I was too short for that ride.

The Gravitron had deep, padded vinyl seats that were always warm from the back of whomever used them before you. I'll let you decide if that's a good thing.

As far as the Sea Dragon goes, well I nearly fell out of that ride. My mother was seated beside me and, being the picture of rational, stoic restraint that she is, screamed at the top of her lungs to an unsympathetic carny to stop the ride because her boy was facing certain death.

The carny didn't stop the ride and I'm here today but, the scars persist.

The games weren't particularly fun and, as most folks now know, they're mostly rigged.

Another point about the fair was made by Mrs. Blackwell: why do fairs smell like zoos even when there's no animals? Why ponder the constellations when this question lingers?

With all this fun — the sheer and utter majesty of this spectacle — is it any wonder that fairs are cash only?

If I'd had my way, the boy would never have seen a fair, nevermind actually go to one.

Inside Toys R Us. The boy contemplating yet another toy
his selfish parents didn't buy him. 
But, because carnies are calculating, master-manipulators of the highest order, they planted their fair next to the Toys R Us. And, because the universe has a sick sense of humor, we had to go to the Toys R Us while the fair was camped out there.

So there was no avoiding this thing. I could have left the boy at home but, when the destination is Toys R Us, we felt compelled to bring him.

Our only hope was a quick entry inside Toys R Us before the boy noticed the fair. We achieved this, made it inside the store and for 45 glorious minutes we frolicked in the aisles. The boy played with toys, games and touch screens. We rode scooters, threw footballs and in general had a good time.

As we did, the sun was setting and with each passing second breathing more light and life into that mini neon jungle that awaited outside. When we finally left the store there, was no escaping it. The boy wanted to cross the parking lot for the fair, which was now brighter than ever in the darkening skies.

Once we got there, all the old memories came flooding back. As the boy clasped his mother's hand with his left hand and mine with his right, his excitement was palpable.

What better way to commemorate a totally forgettable trip to
the fair than by taking a picture in which you're not even
looking at the camera?
He was overloaded with decisions so, instead of making one he just pulled us along from one attraction to the next, smiling and giggling along the way. He was a little boy being tugged in a thousand different directions in a sea of enticement and sensory stimulation all aimed at kids.

It didn't matter that his curmudgeonly old man was having post-traumatic stress flashbacks. Nor did it matter that his mother was desperately seeking the nearest vat of hand sanitizer each time the boy touched something.

None of that mattered.

What mattered was that he was a little kid awash in a world meant for little kids. And it mattered that he had, quite literally, no worries in the world.

And what mattered more than all that was that his parents didn't bring cash.

So, to recap this adventure: we went to Toys R Us to return something and didn't buy anything new.

Then we followed this up by walking to a fair and, once there, bought nothing, rode nothing and played nothing.

Naturally the boy responded like any self-respecting three-year old should: he went limp and began crying. I told myself it was alright because the fair sucks.

Through no intent of my own, I'm sure the boy agrees.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Bye Mad Men. Now, What Are We Gonna Do?

Because the New Yorker, the Atlantic, the New York Times and the country's foremost Jesuit Priest didn't say it best, here are my thoughts on the "Mad Men" finale.

But, outside of encouraging you all to light a smoke and pour two fingers of Canadian Club neat, my thoughts have little to do with the actual show. No ma'am.

If you didn't like the show, didn't watch the show, or you were expecting Don Draper to commit suicide by jumping out of a window like the silhouette in the opening credits, this blog isn't for you.

No, this blog is for the millions of people like me and my wife, who now find ourselves lost, adrift in a sea of channels with nothing to watch — again.

For eight years our tumbler overflowed with awesomeness. Now we're the bearers of a cold, empty vacuum where a smoldering, smoky love once burned.
Where do we go from here?

In the months leading up to the show's conclusion, Mrs. Blackwell warned me — repeatedly — that she wasn't sure how she'd cope when it was all over.

"I don't know what I'm going to do," she cautioned.

Mrs. Blackwell doesn't do crazy so I wasn't worried about her falling off the deep end and embarking on a bizarre career producing "Mad Men" fan fiction.

That said, my wife is the only person I know more in love with the show than I.

For years now, "Mad Men" has occupied a prominent space in our lives. We've bonded over the show. It goes back almost as long as our marriage and before the birth of our son.

When the show is in the middle of a season, we talk through episodes, discuss characters, hypothesize possible meanings and potential outcomes.

And, when it's in between seasons, we spend a month or two in which we dust off our Blu Rays, re-watch the episodes and do the same thing all over again.

As a burgeoning academic, Mrs. Blackwell occasionally finds some interesting journal articles. One such study she told me of concluded that the end of a television show can be accompanied with a legitimate sense of grief amongst its viewers.

The paper she referenced was regarding a circle of friends that sprouted via a common love of "The Sopranos." Each week, they'd congregate, share food and their love of a great TV show. When "The Sopranos" faded to black, the circle of friends dissolved and, just months later, they no longer met.

How incredibly sad.

With that cryptic scenario in mind, we marched solemnly toward last Sunday's finale. As we did, our eager anticipation was imbued with one colossal question hanging over our heads like a guillotine: "What the hell were we going to do next?"

Like anyone who's followed the show closely, I found myself searching for the most positive interpretation of its ending. Of course the final episode doesn't define the previous eight years but this was goodbye so, naturally, one wanted it to be positive-ish.

It was.

Don did the Coke ad and Jon Hamm said as much (there's no wondering folks). Roger found a woman his own age. Peggy found a man. Joan found a career and Pete found his heart in the heartland after pledging to die in Manhattan. So, the show took care of itself in fine form, just as we fans expected.

The boy had a suggestion for replacement viewing. 
But, as for the guillotine question, well, Mrs. Blackwell and I still don't have an answer.

What the hell are we going to do next?

A friend of Mrs. Blackwell's recommended we start watching "The Americans" so we did.

That poor, poor show.

I'm sure it's good but, to be candid, it doesn't have a chance. It's the rebound show — the tawdry strumpet we picked up in a dumpy dive bar (or the FX network, whichever you prefer) after our old flame dumped us.

Once a knife fight broke out five minutes into the pilot, I knew it was going to be a long summer until football season arrived.

But even then, I don't share sports with Mrs. Blackwell — I watch; she tolerates.

Mrs. Blackwell isn't lamenting the Packers' use of the jet sweep when they should have run play action and she's not questioning the existence of a God because the Maple Leafs are, well, the Maple Leafs.

Unfortunately we still don't know what the hell we're going to do next and sometime during the second fist fight in "The Americans" this icy, harsh reality finally sunk in.

Thankfully, Mrs. Blackwell is nearly four months pregnant and soon, we'll have another shared diversion that'll take up plenty of time.

Until then, I have no doubt we'll be dusting off the Mad Men Blu Rays, at least one more time.