The Second Third, Week 27: New Growth on the Family Tree

Blogger’s Note: In my last Second Third post, I dug into the roots of my family tree. Today, let’s examine the newest blossom – and how we got to this point!

When Jodi and I first got together, she wanted six children, just like the family in which she grew up. I, on the other hand, knew I wanted children, but thought one or two would suffice. I had learned in my anthropology classes that large families were irresponsible — that our planet could not support humanity’s continued exponential growth, and that America’s resource-intensive consumer culture would drain the Earth even more quickly that other, faster-growing nations.

So I told Jodi, “We’ll see.” I knew that, over time, things would change. And they have. Earlier this week my bride and I announced the best thing to happen to our December since Christmas: the anticipated arrival of a fifth Thorplet.

The kids are ecstatic. Trevor longs to be a big brother; Emma has wanted to roll the dice on a little sister for years; Gabe adores all babies (and has verbally agreed with Emma that “we could use another girl around here,” which, given his history of rabid anti-sisterism, demands the question, “Use her for what?”); and Bren – our eldest, who wants his own room and has complained that our house is too small – has been grinning for days now. He knows just enough, I think, that this new addition is equal parts miracle, mystery, and science project to him.

* * * * *

My evolution into a father of five (six, when you count Jude, whom we lost last fall) began early on, with the way in which Jodi’s quiet faith drew me like a magnet. There is a peace about my bride that, I recognize now, is not of this world. Most of the time she is unworried, unflappable, confident that the world is unfolding as it should, despite appearances to the contrary. She led me slowly, steadily, to conversion – first, back to the Catholic Church, then to a previously inconceivable closeness with God, then to the gradual realization that marriage and sexuality are meant to be more than the “sum of our parts.”

On top of this spiritual conversion came four important, practical realizations. First, although we had planned to wait until we were more “financially secure” to start having children, we became pregnant with Brendan only about six months into our marriage – demonstrating that A) there is only one fail-safe way to not get pregnant and B) you’ll never be more or less ready than you are right now. Second, we realized that once you have your first, you might as well have more if you want ’em – you’ve got the baby gear, the mindset, and (when you’re young) the energy, plus the sooner you bring them into the house, the sooner you get them out! (For the past several years I’ve taken great pleasure in reminding my friends who waited to have kids that I’ll have all four of mine graduated before I’m 50. C’est la vie, I guess…) So we forged ahead – and Gabriel was born.

Now, I realized right out the gate that I loved being a dad. So when Gabe was born – at the point at which pre-child/Ivy-grad me would’ve said, “That’s it; no more – it’s the responsible thing to do.” – my heart was whispering girl-baby, girl-baby, girl-baby.

I struggled against this urge for awhile and came to a few other practical conclusions. First, although I have concerns about the wider world, our decision to bring another child into it – a child who would be well loved and well supported – would have little bearing on the allocation of resources in the world, but had the potential to sow peace and charity in a world in sore need of both. (For the record, we discussed adoption, as we have many times since, but felt our own limited resources could do more good raising our own children here in our own community.) Second, the more I thought about the social pressures in this country (and regulations in others) to limit families, the more I saw them as questionable means to a questionable end: a society in which freedoms were relinquished and families were engineered (and parenting outsourced) for the “good of the state.” Finally, I began to notice an inverse relationship between family size and per capita resource consumption in the families around us – put simply, most of the childless and only-child families I knew spent more, used more, wasted more, and still wanted more, than the bigger families I knew. Hand-me-downs, left-overs, gardens, and shared bedrooms conserve resources, too!

As if in affirmation of our choice, we were promptly blessed with Emma Rose. Shortly thereafter, we moved to Minnesota. We talked about a fourth child, but faced two challenges, one financial (the cost of daycare for four kids in or around the Twin Cities) and one psychological (the fact that most of our first friends and colleagues here thought it was ludicrous to have three kids, much less four). Fortunately, we had unwittingly settled in a veritable hotbed of Catholicism and big families—so when we had Trevor, we found that we also had support. Ultimately the families we met through St. Michael Catholic Church – and our tremendous priests brought us to an even greater understanding of what a blessing each and every child is: if you believe in God – if you believe that the world is unfolding as it should, despite appearances to the contrary – a new life here, there, or anywhere, is a gift meant to serve a Greater Good.

* * * * *

I remember once, early in our relationship, using the phrase risk of a baby. I was aghast as soon as I heard my own words…but it’s typical of the world today. In Genesis, God tells Adam and Eve, “Be fruitful,” but today, that original blessing is often regarded as a burden that we must sterilize in the act, or “fix” permanently. It reminds me of Christ on his way to the cross, speaking to the mourning women:

“Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me; weep instead for yourselves and for your children, for indeed, the days are coming when people will say, ‘Blessed are the barren, the wombs that never bore and the breasts that never nursed.’” – Luke 23:28

So here we sit, in our Second Third of life, with number five on the way. No more thoughts of “a whole new life together” when we’re 50, but that’s okay – the life we have is pretty spectacular. And the good news is that it gets easier. Think about it: your first child is revolutionary; it completely changes everything you’ve known before. Number two is big – 100% increase over number one; double the trouble, etc. Number three? That’s only a 50% increase over what you have already; the biggest problem (if they’re small) is you only have two hands, so one parent can’t restrain them all at once. After that, number four’s a piece of cake.

And now, with a six-year gap between the baby and our youngest, the first four can raise number five. Y’know, folks in the Twin Cities this might be called ostentatious, unsustainable, even irresponsible – but in St. Michael and Albertville, it’s a comfortable starter family!

The Second Third, Week 24: Less TV Is Good TV

Fraggarackincarklefargis…

Remember when your parents told you TV would rot your brain? I think perhaps the most compelling evidence of the truth of this statement is what passes for TV today. Those who are passionate enough about television to choose to make it their career were likely exposed to it as children, and the fact that their brains were affected negatively is evidenced by what they produce.

For example: until I rented a Looney Tunes DVD, my kids didn’t know TV cartoons were meant to be laugh-out-loud funny. Everything they had seen up to that point either A) taught them Important Life Lessons and Thinking Skills, B) counteracted A with brainless humor and bodily functions, or C) was primarily meant to sell collectible cards and toys. Bugs Bunny, Yosemite Sam, Daffy Duck, and the Roadrunner were comic revelations (not to mention the music)! They laughed until they fell from the futon, laughed until tears fell from their eyes, laughed until they hurt and begged between great gasping breaths for more.*

Then we sent the DVD back, and they returned to Blue’s Clues, Dragon Tales, Yu-Gi-Oh!, and Sponge-Bob.

Earlier in our marriage, Jodi and I watched a handful of shows regularly. Most were sitcoms: Seinfeld and Friends, the short-lived Sports Night, Mad About You, Everybody Loves Raymond. We were hooked on Alias for a few years, and I used to love This Week (with Sam Donaldson, Cokie Roberts, and George Will) each Sunday morning, just to get the juices flowing.

I remember the Seinfeld finale: how the joke was on us; how it drove home that we had spent countless hours over the past countless years watching four awful people behaving like selfish children and hurting those around them. The friends on Friends were also whiny and self-centered, and Raymond made a career out of the miseries of married life. Don’t get me wrong: I laughed at these shows — but sometimes afterward I wondered why.

Today my bride and I watch two sitcoms: The Office and Community. We used to watch 30 Rock, but found the humor less and less to our liking. Community is now in the same tailspin for me. It’s still funny at times, but some of the jokes are beginning to clog my filters. Like 30 Rock this year, next year I suspect I won’t miss missing it. The Office edges into that territory from time to time, then redeems itself…we may stick with that one.

So this spring we found another show. They hooked our whole family with a free burrito at Chipotle. (Good bait.) We watched America’s Next Great Restaurant on NBC, a reality show in which people with ideas for a restaurant competed for the chance to partner with four chef/restauranteur/investors to open a new chain of restaurants in NYC, LA, and (yes!) Minneapolis. Aside from about 43-too-many jokes about the Joey’s original name for his meatball shop (Saucy Balls, which ultimately became Brooklyn Meatball Company after the 43-too-many jokes), the show was clean, the food was good, the winner had a great story: his father rescued him from a bad spot with his mother when he was little, and the soul food recipes that helped him win were his Dad’s. The winner was the favorite of all of us except Trevor (he was Trevor’s second pick); a great cheer went up in the Thorp house when he won; and Emma has asked that her belated birthday dinner be at the new Soul Daddy in Mall of America.

And now it’s over. We enjoy a few other shows that we watch online or on demand — History Channel’s American Pickers and Top Shot and Travel Channel’s Man v. Food, in particular. They are fun, interesting, educational…but they insist (in the case of Pickers and MvF) to edge toward adult humor at least once an episode, or (in the case of Top Shot), machismo and obscenities (bleeped and unbleeped). I used to watch Nature on PBS as a kid, which was narrated with a sense of wonder and mystery; the recent LIFE series on Discovery Channel (with Oprah narrating) seemed to relish describing the mating habits of the creatures they filmed as though both the subjects and audience were lusty teenagers.

I want a TV show in which I never have to say, “Okay, gang — what that guy just said? Never say that.” Or, “Yeah, you don’t need to worry about what she meant just yet.” Or, “Sorry, Trevvy, if he was your favorite character; nice people don’t act like that.”

Yeah, I know. I’m getting older, and older-fashioned. The good news is, in my Second Third, we watch way less TV than we used to. And I don’t miss it.

Now get off my lawn.

The Second Third, Week 22: Stay-At-Home Dad, Part 2

Last week’s Second Third post (posted just yesterday) touted the family-related advantages a new job that will enable me to telecommute. As the count currently stands, this new opportunity will give me a flexible schedule in which to complete some of my own writing, and will substantially cut down on time stuck in traffic and away from home so I can do more of the fun fatherly things I ought to do with my brood.

In this post (Part 2 of yesterday’s), I turn from my brood to my bride.

I’m not the perfect husband and father. (I know: shocker!) I generally think I’m right, I’m overly emotional, I change plans only with reluctance, and I like to be in charge. I can be diplomatic (with effort), but can also have a short fuse. And as I’ve said before, I’m also a bit of a navel-gazer — I know these things about myself because I spend a lot of time snooping around the corners of my mind. But I’ve been a bit near-sighted for a long time now, so I see things through my own lenses, and assume that others see and react to situations the same way I do. And I’ve never been quick, so when I make a cosmic leap — such as If I were in that situation, I’d be irritated, therefore, she said that because she’s irritated! — I usually realize 30 seconds too late that I’ve reacted wrongly, or at least prematurely.

Unfortunately, my current job demands extraordinary levels of restraint, consultation, and patience. Everyone has an opinion, and at a university, multiple opinions are given more or less equal weight and consideration. This can be a great strength, but it also exhausts the mind and saps the soul. I’ve trained myself to jump through hoops during my work day, with mane neatly combed and a domesticated grin. As a result, I come home with much roaring and gnashing of teeth. The best of me is spent on my colleagues and the issues of the day, and my bride gets the leftovers. Not pretty.

It’s not right that my very best friend takes the brunt of all my worst characteristics. It is a strangely beautiful thing that I feel comfortable enough, confident enough, loved enough to let down my guard and turn off my filters around her. But I should love her better than that.

So here’s the theory: if my work is at home, and my circle of colleagues is reduced, I will spend less on others and have more…tact? discretion? charity! to spend on Jodi. In my Second Third, God willing, I’ll treat at least as well as my co-workers…and hopefully even better.

The Second Third, Week 21: Stay-At-Home Dad, Part 1

First off, let me say that initially I committed to a Second Third post every Wednesday for a year. The “every Wednesday” part came unhitched when I remembered that I had also committed to teaching confirmation classes almost every Wednesday. For awhile, I started adding (Belated) to the titles when I posted after Wednesday. Now I’ll just be satisfied to hit 52 Second Third posts sometime around the second week of November.

Long story short: this is last week’s post.

Our dear friends Todd and Suzette and their kids were here last week. The weather was lovely, so we went to the park and even improvised soccer and kickball games in our too-small front yard. I tracked a high fly ball with such laser-like intensity and speed that I collided with the neighbor’s basketball pole, which rang like a bell, but left no mark. Classic Jim. I ran, jumped around, got myself winded and sweaty and sore. The kids are still talking about it. Everyone had a blast, and it was easy. It just requires me to be home a little more during the daylight hours.

So I mentioned in an earlier, different Second Third post that I was making a transition to a new position that would allow me a great deal more flexibility to write (and finish!) a book of my own. My new position also enables me to work from home more regularly, which means less time on the road. We’ll spend less on fuel and parking, and I’ll be home for Trevor’s baseball games, Emma’s soccer games, fishing, canoeing, gardening, swimming. I lose 10 to 15 hours a week in traffic; meanwhile, Gabe bought a knife with his birthday money, and it occurred to me that neither he nor Brendan have ever really whittled or scaled a bluegill. And Jodi and I have so little time alone together that a 20-minute lunch conversation over PB&J is a tremendous blessing. I need to be home more, and not just to finish a book!

In my Second Third, I have been blessed with the opportunity to work from home more often, and I don’t intend to squander this gift. Indeed, at this point I’m counting down the weeks.

The Second Third, Week 20: Good Shootin’

Blogger’s Note: Sorry about the ad in the clip above; I couldn’t find an ad-free clip online.

Emma Rose turned nine today. Nine years old already, and I have friends and family whose tween and teen daughters are noticing — and worse, being noticed by — boys. I was thinking about this past year, and Emma getting her ears pierced on her own dime, and cutting her hair to donate to Locks of Love. She’s growing up faster than I’d like.

I was thinking about what a beautiful, bright young girl she is — what a tremendous blessing she is to us, and how none of the boys in the area better get any ideas — and a variation on the old “cleaning the guns” scare tactic occurred to me. I’d like to invite the young man to the range with me — my treat — just to get to know him better. And in my Second Third, I hope to master both the shooting tricks shown in the clip above from A Fistful of Dollars. I have the weapons for the job.

Bet I wouldn’t have to say a word…