IKEA – It’s Just Not the Same

It was the worst heat wave of the summer and our new house had no air conditioning. The air was dense and humid. We had been wilting at home for days, trying to find excuses to head out to air conditioned stores. The slightest pretext was sufficient. “Oh it looks like someone ate our banana. Better head to the store and buy another one.” Or: “I think I’d like to go look at the bandsaws again, see if they have any new models since last Wednesday.” We’d all pile into the van, all six of us, and relish the cool air conditioned drive and the cool air conditioned store for whatever amount of time we could. Having done a number of these short-distance, brief-duration trips, we needed something more.

That is how we came upon the idea of going to that megalithic monument of the modern world, the pride of Sweden, that den of suspiciously inexpensive meatballs: IKEA.

Going to IKEA used to be a blast for families with a bunch of kids. But now their free kid daycare, Småland, is shut down indefinitely because of the pandemic. Our little Emma, now 5 years old, waited for years to be tall enough to be allowed in with her older brother and sister. She got to go just one time before the gates were shut. But has anyone thought about the serious repercussions of this policy? Where are our kids going to get their immune systems boosted by being exposed to every pathogen known to man? How now will they get to watch Kung Fu Panda 7 (by far the best of the series) standing slack-jawed and silent? When will they ever get to play in that giant pit filled with plastic balls and feel the excitement of being buried alive in them? By the time they reopen this magical land of germs and mediocre supervision, Emma will probably have children of her own! Maladjusted and melancholic children to be sure, what with a mother whose childhood was so bleak and miserable as to have only gone to Småland one time.

Yes, IKEA is a store that, more than any other, thinks intentionally about appealing to families with kids. I suspect that they may even have sat down a couple of such families and had them answer questions on a clipboard. How do I know this? Well for one thing they put complimentary diapers in the family washrooms in case you forget one or run out. Brilliant. By going there every day on my way home from work, I didn’t have to buy diapers for two years! (Just kidding – I only stopped once a week.)

Aside from the diapers, they always have little stools for the kids to use in the bathrooms so they can wash their hands for a change. Not only that, there are also specially-furnished, dimly-lit rooms for nursing mothers. Whether the mothers nurse their babies in there or just lay down for naps or play scrabble, who can know? But at least they have a room to do it in. The food is pretty affordable too. Eating out when you’re a crew of six can be a financially traumatic experience requiring months of free online therapy and DIY acupuncture. So an affordable family meal is always nice. Sure, it is more like eating at a strange cafeteria, and you often get that regret-filled indigestion first pioneered by McDonalds, but in the moment it is always a nice option to have.

Well all of that is gone, my friends. Chalk it up as another casualty of this pandemic we’ve all been stumbling through. IKEA – it’s just not the same.

To return to our ill-fated plan that very hot day, we parked the van in the closest available parking spot and stepped out into the angry blaze of the summer sun in all its fury. You know what it’s like when the humidity is 100% and the temperature is approaching the melting point of human flesh, it feels like as soon as you step out of the air conditioning someone drops a heavy wet towel on your head and points three hair dryers at you. If you have glasses, as I do, you get treated to instant fog on your lenses, adding temporary blindness to the experience. After an approximately 14-kilometer walk, we reach the front door, where we realize one of our children has forgotten their mask. That is a tough moment, when you realize you have no choice but to abandon your child to its cruel fate. Just kidding – I went back with the child and got the mask. After making that walk three times, that first blast of air conditioning on my skin was a rapturous experience, let me tell you.

But far from the joyous raucous scene that usually greets us when entering IKEA, with the little screams and squeals of children playing and chasing each other and sharing communicable diseases, we came upon a scene more reminiscent of your favorite post-apocalyptic zombie movie. This grim aura was maintained throughout our wandering, for that is what you do when you go to IKEA.

Aside from the few insiders and veterans who have memorized or learned to decipher the maps in that labyrinthian place, every poor soul who enters the front door will not be able to find the exit until they have walked a total of 17 kilometers. It is not unusual to see the older folks laying down for a nap in the bedding section or to see people with the soles of their shoes completely worn away desperately strapping pillows to their feet with hair elastics just to have a chance at reaching the exit. One time, a wide-eyed customer, weak with dehydration and leg cramps, offered me $500 and a Billy bookcase if I’d let him clamber into my cart and push him to the exit.

This is a real map.

And so we wander through the endless kitchens, living rooms, bedrooms and offices – hour upon hour, mile after mile. While the air conditioning is lovely, the fact that we have three masked children and a fussy baby catches up with us approximately 10% of the way through the maze. By the time we reach the checkout, everyone is on edge. If we don’t figure something out, this shopping trip might turn out as badly as that time we went to Target.

It seems like a good idea to get ice cream cones as we prepare to return to the inferno. My wife has the cart – yes that special IKEA cart with the four wheels that spin and is therefore about as easy to steer as an ocean liner – and I have two ice cream cones: mine and hers. Each child has one ice cream cone, with a thin napkin wrapped around the cone. You’ll see in a minute why I’m setting the scene so carefully here.

As we are about to head out the door, my daughter Emma announces that she needed to go potty. We quickly devise a plan: I will take her to the washroom while my wife and the two older kids set off for the van. This will give her a head start on starting the van and loading up our goods. What could go wrong? In fact, it does not escape my calculating mind that this will mean I have to eat a bit of my wife’s ice cream in order to keep it from dripping. Oh but if only I had known.

After Emma is done in the washroom, we step through the exterior doors, are hit by a furnace blast, and set out at a good clip towards the van. Approximately ten seconds after leaving the cool air, I feel what seems like a raindrop on my hand. I glance up but the sky is clear and blue and the sun is blazing. I glance down and see to my shock and dismay that rivulets of ice cream are pouring down over the cone and onto my hands. Even considering the heat, this is not normal ice cream behavior. It dawns on me in that instant that this is not actually ice cream — it is ice cream’s ugly step-brother frozen yogurt, which apparently can’t keep itself together nearly as well when the heat is on. With a cone in each hand, I start frantically licking the drips to try and avert a complete meltdown. I glance over at Emma and notice that her hand is covered in white rivers of frozen yogurt as drops freely fall to the pavement.

“Emma! Lick your ice cream!”

But she’s useless. I mean, I love her, but she’s useless. She makes every rookie mistake in the book: she licks one side while the other drips, or she licks the very top but the part below that, just above the cone, is collapsing and flowing right down over her hand. By this point the drips are coming so fast from her cone that an uninterrupted stream of frozen yogurt threatens to connect her cone to the pavement like a tornado about to touch down. Unable to watch this train wreck any longer, I hand her one of my cones and grab hers to give it a proper cleanup.

With all of this drama, I’ve lost track of my position in the parking lot, which is roughly the size of Rhode Island. I look around, trying to find my bearings. Suddenly I see in the distance a silver colored van like ours with the back open. It might be ours, or it might not be – how can I tell? If Emma and I walk all the way there and we end up being wrong, we could be lost for days. That is when – like the captain of a lost ship sighting the beacon of a lighthouse or the pilot of a stalled airplane spotting the bright runway lights below – I notice on the pavement two clear lines of wet liquid going from our very position to that silver van: the frozen yogurt road of hope. I feel a wave of relief wash over me: we’re going to make it.

A few minutes later, with everyone safely in the van and the air conditioning turned to ultra maximum, we pass out baby wipes for everyone to start wiping down their hands and forearms and elbows and legs. We all solemnly agree on three things:

1. We’ll wait for the pandemic to be over before making another family trip to IKEA.

2. We don’t like frozen yogurt.

3. We’re buying an air conditioner tomorrow.

And that’s exactly what we did.

A Baby’s Stare

Have you ever thought about the uniqueness of a baby’s stare? Since having our 4th child in November 2020, I have been thinking about this. Of all our children, this one is the stare-iest. She just loves to look; she’s glad to gaze and gape and gawk! Yes our little Lucy is simply obsessed with observing everyone and everything around her.

“I see you.”

I have spent many luxurious minutes returning her stare and wondering what might be going on in that adorable little head of hers. I realized that I could not exchange a stare like this with just anyone in the street. Could you imagine silently staring into the eyes of a stranger on the street for even 15 seconds? 30 seconds? An entire minute? Try it. Folks nowadays hardly make eye contact at all, never mind a sustained stare. “Do I know you? Is there a problem?” … “I’m calling the police.” Heck, even my other kids wouldn’t stand for that: “Dad, stop being weird.” Or my wife: “What are you doing? Do I have something on my face?!”

But with baby Lucy, there is no such reaction. Why is that? For one, she can’t talk. So while she’s staring at me, I can’t engage her with a question. If I try to stare at anyone verbal, they will inevitably engage me with words quite quickly along the lines described above. But if they know I can’t speak, they will intuitively put up with a much longer gaze. In the absence of words, we find other ways to communicate.

She’s especially expressionless soon after waking up, as seen here.

Still, it’s more than that. A non-verbal person of normal intelligence will use hand signals and facial expressions to communicate. But a baby can’t do even that. And this gets to the heart of the vulnerability and magic of babies. They come into the world with no ideas about how the world should be. A baby simply takes in the world as it is. And to do that, a baby stares. (Babies also put every single possible thing within their reach into their mouths like some kind of overzealous Roomba, but that’s not the topic of this particular reflection.)

So we have the situation that we embrace from infants what we would never accept from anyone of an older age – long silent stares. As you may know, babies don’t really make facial expressions in reaction to visual stimulus for the first few months. It’s hard work to get that baby to smile back at you. So the stare I’m talking about is wide-eyed, mouth slightly open, and expressionless. Which goes back to my previous point: a child simply takes in the world around it without making any value judgement on what it finds. It has nothing to compare to, no way to evaluate. The mother it has becomes the idea of Mother; the father it has becomes the idea of Father; the family and home it has likewise. I often imagined Lucy saying to herself, when she was in one of her gazing moods, “so this is what life is like.” This open-hearted receptiveness contributes to the weightiness of parenting; who is equal to this task?

So the next time a baby stares at you, don’t look away, don’t feel awkward, don’t laugh it off. Something momentous is happening. This child is taking in everything it can through the windows of the mind we call eyes. The open-hearted receptiveness you see on display will not survive the next two decades of various pains, disappointments, losses; no – it will give way to some level of guardedness and maybe even cynicism. While that may be inevitable, maybe this beautiful stare can remind you of a time when you were less guarded and cynical. And if you can, use that moment to let down your guard and stow your cynicism: that would make the world just a little better for this baby and for you.

My Big Beef with Car Culture

Ever since I can remember, I’ve loved cars.

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They’ve always been able to tug at my imagination, to capture my fascination, and I’m not sure why. Other people don’t seem to have this reaction at all when they encounter a motor vehicle. To them it really is just a collection of metal, rubber, and plastic. Perhaps the simplest way to describe what it means to be a car person is that a vehicle is more than the sum of its parts, and that it evokes something from within.

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A car, as a product of engineering and design, is not merely functional, but a work of art. It may be a poor work of art, or the art may be more in its functionality than anything else, but the shaping and moulding of panels, the calculating of proportions and angles and sight-lines, the tone and growl of the engine and exhaust, all require at least some measure of esthetic intentionality. It may look like a cross-eyed bullfrog but you know that someone somewhere presented that design to some decision makers who decided to make that hideous car.

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This is why we can begin to speak of a car’s personality, stance, face, rear-end, or ethos. Some cars exude power and aggression, others confidence and class, and still others just scream “I’m a Korean-made sub-compact from the mid-90’s and I’m utterly terrible.” Don’t get me wrong – I’ve got nothing against the Koreans – in fact they make some very fine cars now – but don’t ever buy a Daewoo, or a mid-90’s Hyundai. When you contact Daewoo to tell them that your driver’s seat fell through the floor of the car and the gear lever came off in your hand, they will simply laugh at you and say: “Hey! What you expect? You buy Daewoo!” Or that’s the rumor at least.

We all know that cars can be an endlessly fascinating subject of interest and conversation among men. The majority of those people who have an above-average interest in cars are indeed men. But like anything in which the majority of participants are men, there are some problems, and I’d like to talk about one of the major ones.

For a long time, I’ve wondered why it is the case that many magazines and websites which feature nice pictures of nice cars, will also contain sexualized pictures of women models. This is predominantly true of anything in the tuner culture, but is also more broadly applicable. If it isn’t outright portrayals of women in sensual poses, the same spirit is there in the sexist jokes and comments that presenters or writers make. Regardless of the form it takes, there is a pervasive attitude in much of this sub-culture that women, like cars, are pretty playthings that exist for men to enjoy.

This is done so casually and thoughtlessly, as if it’s the most natural thing in the world to have some woman in her underwear standing beside a car. As the father of a daughter, I feel very strongly that this is not a natural thing at all. Say what you will about the decisions and career choices that these women have made, but I wouldn’t wish for any woman to have to take off her clothes in front of leering men in order to make a living, or to have worth in people’s eyes. I want my daughter to be valued for her character, personality, and spirit. For a long time, I didn’t really understand why this association between cars and women was so ubiquitous in car culture.

Then one day it hit me.

Men like cars for many reasons but one of the main ones is that they are good looking objects. Well then it only makes sense to have another good looking object to go with it.

Never mind that this second ‘object’ is a really a human being with a heart and soul and is of precious worth far beyond that of any Ferrari of Bugatti.

Never mind that all the men leering at the pictures of these girls wouldn’t want their own sisters, wives, or daughters displayed like that for all to see.

It’s just one of a hundred thousand ways in which our world doesn’t see or portray women as full and complete human beings, worthy of dignity and respect. It’s not right, and it’s not okay.

I’ve always told myself that I would love whatever my kids love and not try to get them to be interested in my own interests. So I don’t know if I failed at that or if my son really came to love cars by himself, but anyways he really loves cars and trucks. He’s only two and a half, and already (with a bit of coaching from me) he can tell the difference in his toy car collection between the ‘Porsche Nine Elebben’, the GT-R, and the Audi, as well as between the Jaguar E-Type and the Toyota 2000GT, which look quite similar at 1:64 scale. I want to be able to take him to the annual Auto Show when he’s a bit older, but it makes me sad to think that I will have to explain to him why there are women dressed in really small, tight dresses standing around in the modified cars section.

We need to do a better job of guarding the honor and dignity of all human beings, especially those whose honor and dignity and humanity are so often dismissed.

And we also need to treat objects as objects. I did go to the car show this year, and although I really loved seeing all those gorgeous cars, pulling open the back door of a $500,000 Rolls Royce (I wasn’t supposed to, but how often do you get the chance?!), climbing into the trunk of a Toyota Echo to test out the emergency release cable they’ve installed in there in case of kidnapping, and pushing all the buttons and knobs in the Jaguars and Audis, I left the conference center feeling quite flat about the whole thing. At the end of the day, it really is just metal and rubber and really nice leather, and we would do well to remember it.

The sad reality is, for many people walking through that auto show, they had a far more human interaction with their dream cars than they did with the ladies who were put on display. They were far more conscious of the personality and soul of that new Audi than of the eternal value of each of those girls.

Dear car culture, you’ve humanized the object and objectified the human, and that is my big beef with you.

Just Keep Swimmin’

It’s been a few weeks of straight-piped no-foolin’ craziness around here. Kids and babies getting sick and spewing bodily fluids in every direction. Parents going down in tandem like tightrope walkers tied to each other with electrified bungee cords. Why gosh darn I tell you it’s a front-line field hospital that’s as messy as a school cafeteria after sloppy joe Wednesday and national food-fight day happened to be on the same day.

Just when you make it through one endless day and have some time to recalibrate your sanity-machine by injecting it with coffee and multi-syllabic ‘grown-up’ conversation, you realize you have less than seven hours before the one that can walk gets up and walks out of his room, demanding sustenance and entertainment. And those less-than-seven-hours are by no means guaranteed or uninterrupted – nooo – expect to be called upon more than once to get up, make a bottle, change a diaper, fill up a water glass, paint a picture, and wax the car. Well maybe not those last two. So with the prospect of not very much not very good sleep, here I am throwing an open-house pity party with free whine and cheese.

One does well in times like these to remember those words which alone can summon that superhuman level of commitment and perseverance:

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Alright I think I got it out of my system now. Some weeks are just like that, you know? We seem to be making a habit of taking about a month of winter around the January-February mark and just writing it off with a self-propagating cycle of sickness through mutual infection. We even took our little show on tour this year and went to Ontario and visited a whole bunch of our friends, making sure that they were left with something to remember us by such as laryngitis.

But although it’s been hectic, there have been many recurring evidences of profound blessing. Life is such that while you’re trying to tear your hair out you can also have your heart melted by the precious sweetness of family life. Love also shines a little brighter in dimmer circumstances: selflessness, service, hugs, life-giving words of affirmation, these things are that much more special when you really need them.

Friendship, too, is that much more meaningful in such times. I’ve had the words of author Tim Keller on the subject of spiritual friendship in my mind lately. He says that friendship blossoms out of commonalities, but that spiritual friendship in a Christian context can happen between any two believers. The strongest and most fulfilling friendships, however, are when those two aspects dovetail together so that not only is there a spiritual bond borne out of similar beliefs and experiences, but also that simply human connection that happens when personalities and passions agree. It is a rare gift but one that I have had the great fortune of experiencing repeatedly along our journey – foremost with my wife, who is my closest friend in all the world, but also with others. These kinds of friendships are worth nearly any amount of time or money required to keep them alive, and the dividends are not measurable in this life.

This post isn’t really about anything, so I’m having a hard time drawing any satisfying conclusions about it. But there you go, another life lesson: sometimes things just happen and the purpose is inscrutable.

That’s okay, some blog posts are like that too.

Of Interrupted Date Nights and Spiritual Pathologies

We had it all planned out:

A stay-at-home date.

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Put the kids to bed at 8pm sharp, dress up a little bit (as in something you could wear to an upscale mall but which would make you look only slightly overdressed at Wal-Mart), throw some product in the hair, get out the coffee and chocolates and curl up on the couch to watch a mutually favorite show; which, I don’t know about you, but that in itself is nearly a miracle – usually there is some measure of compromise from one party which will be leveraged later when the viewing options are discussed anew. In this case, we were watching the HBO Sports special series 24/7 NHL Road to the Winter Classic, the fourth and final episode. The reason we both love this show is that it happens to feature both our favorite teams: The Toronto Maple Leafs (hers) and the Detroit Red Wings (his).

Things were just lovely for the first while, and then we heard our 3-month old daughter crying continually for a few minutes. Finally Kaitlyn got up to go and get her, but as these things go, the girl quieted down at that very moment and my wife stood listening just outside the door and then we looked at each other and shrugged and she came back to sit down. About 37 seconds later our daughter was screaming again and Kaitlyn went to get her.

Sit. Rep.: Extraction successful, but child #2 still fully awake and witnessed the entire scene. Given the child’s current mental capacity for comprehension, logical inference, and imitation, we have only a few minutes before child #2 attempts a re-negotiation of bedtime terms.

We resumed watching the show and then about ten minutes later we heard the kids’ bedroom door open. I got up quickly to intercept child #2 before he could come out and decide for sure that he was going to join us, but as I thought about how ridiculous this date was already, I decided to throw in the towel and bring him out with us too, to watch the last few minutes of the show.

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We all had a good laugh and then after a while we chucked those kids back into bed. That’s when we shut off the TV and really started talking. What a thing. It really is remarkable how long the substance of life and relationships can be kept beneath the surface by the tag-team of responsibilities and distractions. Run around for most of the day caring for two kids with runny noses and dirty diapers and empty stomachs and then when the few spare moments come you turn to a book or a computer or a TV show to relax and before you know it it’s 11:30pm and the whole thing is slated to start again in less time than it takes to be rested enough to face it all. It’s enough to leave you out of breath and begging for more punctuation.

So that’s why it was remarkable to have long uninterrupted conversation with my wife on the couch. We talked about life, our goals for this coming year, and our feelings about where we’re at as a couple and as a family. We talked about faith and our relationships with God, the striking difference between the palpable intimacy we felt after our conversions and now. It was good, very good.

And then Kaitlyn said that she had read something yesterday on facebook that had been oppressing her ever since, and as she said this, tears came to her eyes. It was a quote from that venerable 19th century theologian, J.C. Ryle, that I had also read. It is basically a clarion call to fight against any spiritual apathy. It is an excellent quote from an excellent teacher and preacher of the Bible, but – and this is where I’ve been going with all of this – in my wife’s case it was being used to beat her down and condemn her. Here’s a woman who sacrificially loves and serves her children and husband from dawn til dusk and has a profound love for God and the Bible, but who is also seriously sleep-deprived, prone to processing things emotionally, has a tender conscience, and is still recovering from a severe burnout in ministry. All that to say, she is ripe for discouragement.

She shared with me that she had recently been enjoying a measure of peace, learning to rest in God’s grace, and that through this quote she felt she was being told that all that peace and grace she was enjoying was not rightfully hers because she wasn’t fighting enough. But as she told me this, she also realized that the voice was one of condemnation, not loving conviction. It was life-robbing accusation, not life-giving correction. And with that distinction clearly made, the source of it all was evident.

When I first became a believer, I devoured books, articles, and sermons like a Grizzly bear with a glandular problem devours salmon; or, apparently, like I devour White Cheddar Quaker Crispy Rice Cakes when I’m writing a blog post at midnight. I just could not get enough, and the more intense the better. My kindred spirit during this time was my cousin Joel, and we were always on the hunt for the next hammer-dropping, pride-shattering sermon to rock our worlds. After a while we came to see that there was an imbalance in our pursuit. He put a name to it and called it an addiction to conviction.

It was a pathology born out of a personal zeal for growth and a love for good teaching, especially reformed teaching which places a heavy emphasis on the holiness of God and conviction of sin (and rightly so, I might add, for these are the necessary preconditions for spiritual renewal). At that point in my life, one of the main ways that I felt assured of God’s working in me was when I felt convicted, guilty, and humbled. The problem was that I was exposing myself to so much conviction-inducing teaching that it was really impossible to even begin to process all of that truth, internalize it, and make the necessary course corrections in my heart and life. Make no mistake, that is hard work.

I can imagine that to many people this would seem like a strange problem to have, but from what I’ve seen it’s not as uncommon as we might think, especially among younger people.

There is something in the desire to have a teachable heart that can make us vulnerable to the evil one’s ministry of accusation and condemnation, especially if we have a lingering insecurity about God’s unconditional love for us.

Many a Christian has been brought low to a state of weakness and defeatedness that was neither born of the Spirit nor led to growth in grace because the whole thing wasn’t rooted in the gospel. If feeling convicted and guilty is a way to ingratiate ourselves to God, then there can be no fruit in it because in its essence it is works, it is meritorious, it is anti-gospel, and it calls for that searing insight from the apostle Paul: “if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!”

Let the seeds of conviction and zeal and sanctification be planted not in a dry bed of insecurity and doubt but in that fertile soil of a heart fully resting in the irrevocable forgiveness we have for all our sin and the unimpeachable righteousness which is counted as ours. 

The Straight Truth about Christmas for Two-Year Olds

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*not an actual picture of my child.

It’s getting to be about that time when I need to have a teaching moment with my son Jackson, who is two and a half. I call him over, and he puts down his tractor and comes running.

“Hey Jackson, what’s Christmas about?” I ask.

Jackson looks at me wide-eyed and stammers for a few seconds before blurting out, “Christmas about… Jesus!”

“That’s right,” I say, patting Jackson on the head and giving my wife a smug nodding smile that says we’re rocking this parenting thing, which she does not reciprocate, because she is not a nitwit. Then I remember the original point of this conversation and I get serious again.

“Hey Jackson, I want to talk to you about Santa Claus.”

Jackson says, “Jesus came as a baby!”

“Yes – that’s right,” I concede, and then redirect: “Remember when we saw Santa Claus? At the parade?”

“With FIRE TRUCKS! And HORSES!” he yells.

“Yes – there were fire trucks and horses too,” I nod, “Okay well everyone talks about Santa at Christmas but I want you to know that Santa is actually only pretend, but that Jesus is real.” I say this slowly, making sure he’s following my words.

Jackson gives me a blank look.

Now it’s me who is stammering. “What I mean is, people dress up as Santa and we all have fun with it but it’s all pretend – Santa is not really real.”

“He’s not real?” he says, looking a bit disappointed.

“Nooo… he’s not,” I say glumly, and then looking excited: “but Jesus is! – I want you to remember that. He really did come, as a baby, on Christmas day.”

Jackson seems satisfied with this state of affairs. I’m just about to congratulate myself on a nice recovery when I realize that I’ve led him astray.

“Actually he didn’t come right at Christmas, but Christmas is when we celebrate the fact that he did come, for real, at some point. But we’re not sure when. It was a long time ago.”

Jackson stares at me, looking more confused.

I say “Uh, yeah, so Jesus is real and Santa is pretend,” as an attempted conclusion. But then I stop and think for a second and realize that’s not quite true either. “Actually, even though Santa Claus is only pretend, there really was a saint Nicholas who lived a long time ago and gave gifts to children, but he didn’t live in the north pole or have reindeer. He probably did have a beard though. Do you understand?”

“Uh huh.”

Jackson takes a moment to think, then says,

“Santa’s a bit scary. But only pretend scary.”

And with that settled he plods over to play with his dump truck.

Our Trip to Target

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We decided to go to Target. We had a two year old toddler and a three-week old baby, and we decided to go to Target. And not just to pick up a couple of things. No, we were going to “do a bit of shopping,” and “look around.”

Now before you come to any premature conclusions, let me stress one simple but important fact: it seemed like a good idea at the time – which I think is the single best catch-all excuse mankind has ever devised. To me, it provides a satisfying answer to two of the most perplexing questions that all people eventually ask themselves; namely why we started World War 1, and why Cheez Whiz was invented. Nevertheless, there we were, climbing out of the car, unbuckling a myriad of buckles, snaps, zippers, and locks, and walking towards the glowing red store.

Before this all began, I had imagined a leisurely stroll through the store, coffee in hand, casually picking out some fantastic deals and putting them in the bright red cart that held a sleeping baby in the car seat and a smiling, obedient toddler. In this fantasy, my two-year old, Jackson, is humming Mozart’s 40th symphony and thinking about how content he is with all of his current toys, periodically tapping me on the forearm to let me know that he loves me and that I am a great father; my wife is happily shopping for clothes, those unicorn clothes that all womenfolk chase after, the ones that fit perfectly and always look amazing – she finds two of everything and they’re all half price.

This is roughly what I was picturing:

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In and out in 35 minutes, under a hundred dollars, and we’re laughing all the way home before the bleary-eyed herd of 9-to-5’ers kick off a couple hours of bumper-to-bumper traffic.

As you can tell, I have a rather loose grip on reality.

We had been in the store only five minutes and already the warning signs were everywhere. For one, our daughter Addilyn was wideawake. It’s been cold outside so she wears this fuzzy bear suit that leaves only about three square inches of exposed skin – you know, so that she can breathe – and wraps the rest of her little body tight like a hug. From behind, she looks just like a teddy bear, and whenever she is in it she sleeps like a rock. Or like a rock would sleep if rocks were alive and were heavy sleepers. The fact that she was awake did not bode well.

But as an eternal optimist, I held out hope that my fantasy shopping trip would come at least partially true. The breaking point, that moment when all pretense is finally and completely abandoned, happened about thirty-five minutes in, right around the time I had imagined we would be leaving. I was holding my screaming daughter with one hand while I pushed the cart with the other. My son had been helping me push the cart, but then he tripped and fell on his elbow, which set him off crying in a kind of call and response gospel moment with his sister. I wasn’t able to pick him up what with my arms full of screaming baby, so we set off down the interminably long and obnoxiously shiny aisle towards the women’s clothes section, towards our only hope: Mommy.

On that long walk, with shoppers and store clerks giving me a wide berth as if I was holding a couple of lit Molotov cocktails, I realized that it had been a bad idea to come here, and a very bad idea to think we could do anything more than run in and grab the bare essentials we needed to survive another week. Kind of like they do in those apocalyptic movies when the zombie infestation or tidal wave is coming; which, aside from the pushing of old ladies and the fear of imminent death, is my ideal way to shop.

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Devastation was everywhere. The coffee we had brought in was lost long ago, set down on some shelf somewhere while we wiped a nose or patted a bum, and instantly forgotten like an important paper from the government about your taxes. The cart was literally full, what with the massive car seat in the main section, laden with all of our coats, mittens and hats, and our few purchases crammed into the nooks and crannies and the top section.

Kailtyn had apparently heard the wailing duo (I hadn’t yet joined in to make it a trio but I was tempted) while trying on clothes in the change room. She came out and administered the love and pity I had been unable to provide for Jackson. Unfortunately, she hadn’t been faring much better, finding no clothes that fit well and feeling worse about herself for the effort. I pleaded for us to surrender and go home.

We needed an exfiltration plan, to cut our losses and live to fight another day. We decided on a course of action. Kaitlyn took Addie to the family washroom to change her diaper while I took Jackson with me to go pay for our stuff. Well over a hundred dollars later, with no clothes to show for it aside from six pairs of baby socks, Jackson and I went to the family washroom to check on the girls.

I heard a familiar shrill scream as I walked towards the washrooms, and realized that Addilyn was making her displeasure known in the loudest possible manner. Then the screaming stopped. I tried the door but it was locked. Kaitlyn opened it with her one free hand and pulled me in while she held Addie up with the other. She was feeding Addie milk, and I’m not talking about the kind that comes from cows. This was a clear departure from our plan; an unexpected delay. I couldn’t cope – I panicked. Kaitlyn was stressed, and in the chaos and confusion, we decided, for some reason – probably because it seemed like a good idea at the time – that I should run to the car to drop off our bags, leaving Jackson with Kait and baby Addie in the cramped, overly bright, and not overly clean bathroom.

I ran to the car, dumped the bags of stuff I wished I had never heard about in the first place, and ran back to the family washroom. As I rounded the corner towards the bathrooms, I heard crying again. But this time it was Jackson’s voice.

I knocked and Kaitlyn opened the door again. This time she looked quite exasperated, like someone forced to stay in a tiny room the size of a Dilbert cubicle with two children under the age of three. She explained to me how Jackson had been walking around touching everything, the way toddlers do, and accidentally set off the motion-activated high-velocity hand-dryer, which sounds not unlike a Boeing 747 during takeoff. The poor kid had been startled half to death and started crying. I entered the fray and distracted Jackson from his recent trauma by getting him to put on his coat, hat, and mittens.

Kaitlyn, realizing that her own coat was still in the cart immediately outside the bathroom door and therefore perilously exposed to theft and, even worse, uninvited alterations, said accusingly, “You left my coat out there?!” I was completely overwhelmed by this point, and my reply was heavy on bite and light on grace. We had a frank exchange of views on the subject at hand, as married couples do from time to time, and in order to spare the reader the uninteresting details of our conflict, and to leave room for some doubt as to who acted more childishly (I will give you a hint: it wasn’t Kaitlyn), I will close this scene and move on to the brief finale.

There was a silence, a heavy silence, which enveloped the car as we started home. In these kinds of situations, it always takes a bit of time for things to cool down and for wisdom and perspective to take their place. Lucky for me I had plenty of time to come around to such a place because we were stuck in the stinking armpit of rush hour traffic for over an hour, but at least the kids were asleep.

The Synergy of Responsibility

A close friend who has known me from childhood recently told me that it was impressive to him that I was already a father, that I was married and taking care of my family – day after day putting my family’s needs and wants before my own.

Well first of all I certainly find many opportunities to put myself first. But I know what he’s getting at. Yes – as a husband and a father I regularly, even daily, put my family first. But my first internal sense was that this was not necessarily a praiseworthy thing, because deciding to take responsibility forces you to take responsibility.

I came to embrace some profound beliefs about manhood and responsibility a few years ago, and I have allowed these convictions to guide my life decisions since. So I got married at 23 and became a father at 26. I made some BIG decisions early on that have fundamentally determined what the next few decades of my life are going to consist of. In making those decisions I embraced the responsibility of loving a wife and raising a child (or children, Lord willing).

But those decisions, in a way, have forced my hand. Short of being a completely delinquent father and husband, I have to be responsible day after day. I think that’s a good thing. At the very least, it’s a good thing for me. It has the effect of pulling me out of my insular selfishness in which I would otherwise happily wallow. I would never say that marriage and fatherhood are the only ways to get boys to grow up and take responsibility. Lots of guys do a fantastic job of shedding boyish behavior and embracing responsibilities without getting married or having children, but then again lots of other guys don’t. So even if it’s not the only way, it does usually help.

One last caveat: without a desire for and commitment to responsibility, marriage and fatherhood will not create a man but rather burden a wife and child with an irresponsible guy, so that’s not a good idea if anyone is considering it.