The Grand Tour, Part 2: My Louvre for Greyson

So… that metaphorical museum I was bending your ear about 6 months ago. I’d really like to get back to that.

My apologies for the half-year delay since I posted Part 1. I’d like to say it was due to being consumed all day, every day, with curating the aforementioned museum for my son. But I’ve also been curating my fantasy football team. And curating my Twitter feed. And watching the Philadelphia Eagles curate their best 10-game stretch of football in franchise history. (All men were created equal, but as it turns out, the worthiness of all their curatorial pursuits were not.)

Before I delve into Part 2, let’s review the broad strokes of what I’ll call my Smithsonian Theory of Parenting.

What I envision is a colossal, customized museum that each parent conjures up for their children. Each respective museum is filled with exhibits that are designed and curated specifically for the child that museum was designed to benefit. Even within the same family, a different museum is designed for each child, based around what the parent believes that particular child needs to see and learn and experience in order to meaningfully understand the world.

From time to time, the child will visit other museums, featuring exhibits curated by other parents (and other adults in general). The frequency of these visits will gradually increase as the child grows up. But the primary source of substantive knowledge and moral fabric is his own parents, the curators of his vast and very own museum.

The quality of each museum’s floor plan will lay the groundwork, for better and for worse, for the child’s emotional and intellectual development. The more careful attention and heart that parents pour into designing their child’s museum layout — mapping out a variety of hand-selected exhibits; avoiding demoralizing or chaotic subject matter that the child is not yet prepared to understand  — the more well-equipped the child will be to craft his own meaningful narrative as his nascent soul begins to take shape.

In short: We must curate well, because our children deserve the grandest museum tour we are able to design for them.

With this refresher out of the way, I’d like to plunge into the more vivid details of the kind of intentional parenting I’m envisioning. Hopefully I can pull this out of the realm of pure abstraction and demonstrate the nuts and bolts (after all, every building needs those!) of what I have in mind.

So what exactly are the museum exhibits that we curate for our children? The possibilities are as vast and varied as the personalities of the children we’ve been given to parent. But let’s look at some of the most straightforward examples.

I’ll start with a simple but often unexamined one: movies.

Every single movie we carefully hand-select (or half-heartedly pick from the Netflix menu) for our children to watch will function as its own small exhibit in the museum. This is because every single movie we show our kids is a vehicle that conveys truths — or inanities, or falsehoods — to their pliable and inquisitive minds. Every viewing experience we give our children carries with it some emotional or moral significance. That’s how art functions. Even crass or commercial art that doesn’t aspire to any moral weight ends up, despite itself, articulating some kind of worldview. The worst thing we can do is underestimate our children’s sponge-like ability to absorb these ideas.

As a new-ish father, I’ve been casually compiling a list I will call “Greyson’s Canon” — or “Canon in G” if I’m feeling a bit playful. It contains the movies I plan to screen for our son as he gets older. Earnest, old-fashioned adventure stories like Iron Will and The Journey of Natty Gann. Animated gems like The Iron Giant and Toy Story. Works of singular imagination like Babe and Spirited Away. Movies that teach crucial childhood lessons like Charlotte’s Web and The Fox and the Hound. And of course, the mother (or should I say, the widowed father) of all moving message movies — To Kill a Mockingbird.

Each of these lovingly selected films will depict images, sentiments, and life lessons for Greyson that will help reinforce the values that his mama and I will spend the next 17 (to 55) years conveying to him through our words and actions. As such, each film is a distinct stop on our son’s grand museum tour, offering cinematic memories that he may well remember for years or even decades to come.

I vividly recall the effect many of these movies had on me as a young boy. Some of them made me feel, others made me think; a handful of them molded me for life. Danielle and I are right on the same page in wanting to do all we can to impart similarly potent, morally freighted (and yes, fun!) movie experiences to our son.

Another exhibit in the museum is conveyed via the eardrums, without sight or touch. It’s music — another area that is crucial but often overlooked because it’s viewed by many as merely a casual, insignificant pastime.

This is an area where I have not yet been particularly rigorous. When Greyson was conceived, I conceived of a grand plan to play music for him in utero on a daily basis, laying a sonic groundwork for the development of his brain waves at the earliest possible age. But I only sporadically followed through on this plan.

I do have one vivid memory (or I should say, Danielle does) of Greyson kicking energetically in the womb while we listened to the Harrisburg Symphony perform a particularly stunning Rachmaninoff piece. We immediately assumed — rightly, if I do say so myself — that our son was not only musically inclined, but also a pre-natal prodigy.

While I haven’t yet played much music for Greyson at home (though I fully intend to), I do make a point of selecting music for our car rides that is clear-eyed, full-hearted, and buoyant — or at least underscored by notes of hope. I try to play no music within earshot of my son that is driven by angst or other murky emotions that his budding mind isn’t yet able to grasp.

I’ve long believed that a person’s headspace is the function of, among other things, all the music she hears over the course of a day (or a lifetime). And I want every aural addition to Greyson’s grey matter to bolster his sense that the world is a place where he fully belongs… that meaning is woven into the fabric of everything… that love is not only possible, but well within his grasp.

Of course, this is not what he hears. He’s 16 months old. He hears an odd cacophany of sounds that he has no discernible context for. He hears gibberish.

But I play the songs in all their gibberish-y glory for my son anyway. I play “Boy Lilikoi” by Jonsi and “Your Song” by Ellie Goulding and “Calling Out Your Name” by Rich Mullins and “Gracie” by Ben Folds (which we’ve cleverly transposed Greyson’s name into) and “Rise and Shine” by Andrew Peterson and “Lover of the Light” by Mumford & Sons and “Sycamore” by Caspian. I do what I can to tuck beautiful bits of noise into his tiny eardrums.

He’ll eventually figure out the rest. All in due time.

One final — for now — type of museum exhibit is one I’ve already deeply delved into with Greyson: outdoor adventures(Or at least outdoor walks. But there’s no harm in calling a simple walk an adventure!)

To me, the act of outdoor exploration is the purest distillation of the Smithsonian Theory of Parenting. While carefully curated movies and music (and TV shows and books) offer a child an aspirational glimpse of humanity, only nature itself offers the chance to see the world itself as it truly is.

I take Greyson on morning walks every chance I get. Even with the post-Thanksgiving temperatures dropping, there is rarely a workday morning that I don’t bundle him up and take him outside, for as little as 5 minutes (but often for 30), and show him every grandiose and tiny thing — the sky! a caterpillar! — that I spy with my big eye on behalf of his little eye. When weather and daylight allow, we embark on family walks as well. And Danielle often takes Greyson out while I’m at work, giving him two fully distinct but equally impassioned nature guides who showcase the wonders of the world to his eager eyes.

I’ve been continually struck — probably because it’s so striking — by how hyper-aware Greyson is during our outdoor jaunts. He always appears to be wondering while we’re wandering. As I’ve said numerous times in various venues, I can count on one hand (no exaggeration) the number of times my son has been fussy or agitated while outside. Nature is like a cup of chamomile tea for him. Or a stirring symphony. It calms him, it focuses him, and it pries his eyes wide open.

The more I witness this phenomenon in my son, the more my commitment grows to offer him all the outdoor adventures his mama and I can conjure up for him as the years go by. There may be no value I am more adamant to impart to him as he grows than to see the earth in its true form — unobstructed and uncorrupted — and in doing so, to begin to sense both his humbling smallness and his ennobling significance in the grand scheme of the universe.

I want to impart to Greyson something my parents lovingly imparted to me — a wide-eyed wonder at the wide, wild world.


So there you have three examples — movies, music, and outdoor adventures — of the exhibits Danielle and I are actively curating (or planning to curate) for Greyson as he begins his slow ascent to adolescence and beyond.

The rest will have to wait until Part 3. I have a self-imposed deadline to meet.

(And a Sunday full of museum exploration on the docket.)

The Dizzying Joy, The Abject Terror

[Full disclosure: The first portion of this post was written back in mid-August.]

I have never scaled the heights of dizzying joy like I have since I became a father 13 months ago.

I have also never descended into the murky depths of abject, bone-rattling, gut-clenching, heart-quickening, mind-smothering, dark-night-of-the-soul terror.

To be fair, the terror part is decidedly less frequent. In 13 months of being a father, I can think of only 2 experiences I would describe as terror-inducing. But both instances were unsettling enough — to very different degrees — to put the fear of God (and death) in my newly paternal heart.

The first of those 2 instances was exponentially more intense, and is too complex to lay out here. I fully intend to write about that experience one day, but today is not that day.

The second instance happened recently and is markedly less dramatic, especially in hindsight. But in the moment, both Danielle and I experienced something akin to genuine terror. And in a way, the hyperbole of our emotional response makes it even more illustrative of the panic-inducing power of parenting.

We were in LAX with my parents, waiting for our flight back to the East coast. After a week in California celebrating my brother’s wedding, we were 5 hours deep in an extended travel day that would include 3+ hours in airports, 5+ hours in an airplane, and 7+ hours in assorted shuttles and minivans.

There is a specific kind of anxiety inherent in boarding an airplane with a small child in the company of 150 people. You might as well be holding a…

[Fast-forward 10 weeks from the day in August when I wrote the preceding paragraphs and then stopped dead in my tracks, ever-consumed with life and ever-distracted by social media as I always seem to be. Now it’s early November, and I will proceed with my thoughts in earnest. But I must say, I have no idea what metaphor I was about to employ in the previous sentence. A jack-in-the-box? A ticking bomb? Let your imagination run wild on that one!]

So as I was saying, there is a specific kind of anxiety inherent in boarding an airplane with a small child in the company of 150 complete strangers. All the careful planning, snack-packing, and nap-delaying techniques you employ in the lead-up to your flight guarantees you precisely nothing by way of your tiny child’s peace of mind. After all, a steel cylinder is about to mysteriously lift him into stratospheric oblivion while air pressure instantaneously shifts around him and — even more unsettling — he gradually learns that he will not be allowed to move independently or even stand on his own two feet for the next 5 hours.

Air travel is not for the faint of heart, but it’s also not for the fidgety of body. And our son can wriggle with the best of ’em.

So it was with some trepidation that we entered the LAX terminal during the 5th hour of our travel day and steeled ourselves for the long flight home. Greyson had not slept well all week and we had kept him on a wall-to-wall schedule of family gatherings and wedding revelry, so we didn’t know what to expect from him on this long, final day of our trek.

As we settled in for a few hours at the gate, we followed our little guy around as he scoped out the lay of the land. He had been cooped up in a car seat for the bulk of the morning, so he needed to stretch his tiny muscles. He played with his toy trucks. He did some people-watching and some airplane-gawking. He ate some Cheerios.

Then, as our tiny boy ambled along near the huge glass windows, he took a tiny tumble — perhaps due to sheer awe at the enormous flying beasts outside — and somehow his tiny teeth collided with a metal ledge. Wailing and tears ensued, and Danielle did her best to soothe her spooked cub the way only a mama bear can. The three of us removed ourselves to a family bathroom and used toilet paper to soak up the blood from his gums. We sang him songs. We wiped away his hot tears. We cupped his head in our hands and told him in hushed tones that everything would be okay.

Once the blood stopped flowing and Greyson returned to a state of relative equilibrium, we assessed the damage. His top front two teeth were both chipped. The chips were moderate, not significant, but we also didn’t wiggle the teeth around to see if they were loose because, with boarding time approaching soon, we wanted to keep our little passenger as calm as possible.

A little while later, exhausted from his minor emergency, Greyson zonked out in his mama’s arms. We breathed a momentary sign of relief and shifted our concern to whether his sleep would be interrupted by the act of boarding the plane, thus throwing him for another loop. But we were grateful for a quiet moment to think.

At some point, Greyson’s sleepy head rolled back and his mouth gaped open, giving Danielle a view of his gums. What she saw furrowed her brow, and the dark clouds that formed in her eyes as she abruptly glanced over at me made me wince. “His gums are still bleeding, babe,” she probably said. “Oh no oh no oh no oh no,” I probably thought. I peered in and saw ominous red lines streaking down the roof of his mouth. I’m not sure we even knew if it was dried or fresh blood, but our minds both instantly assumed the worst.

Now, at this point in the story it’s important to point something out: With the benefit of hindsight, I totally understand that this does not sound like a grave emergency. The blood was likely dry, right? And even if it wasn’t, people don’t bleed to death through their gums, right? And it’s crazy not to access calm, rational, factual statements like this in a moment of anxiety, right?

Well, call me crazy. Both of us, in fact. Me and the calmest, coolest, most rational person I’ve ever known and loved — Danielle Wingert, who has talked me down off more ledges than a hostage negotiator with tenure.

We both panicked. We both thought it might be a bad idea to board that plane. We both (scratch that: I alone) envisioned a worst-case scenario in which we got on the plane, lifted into the sky, and subsequently realized that Greyson was bleeding out his mouth and the flow couldn’t be stanched.

Let me be perfectly clear: Within minutes of Danielle showing me the blood in Greyson’s mouth, I vividly and agonizingly pictured our sweet little boy dying from blood loss on that God-forsaken plane.

told you to call me crazy.

Fortunately, I happen to know an orthodontist and his family quite well. So I called his wife, who was something of a secondary mom to me growing up. I breathlessly conveyed our story, and she immediately said the thing that everyone in the world who is panicking needs to hear before anything else: “First of all, breathe. Everything will be okay.” Then she calmly explained why that was indeed true.

At this point I’ll cut to the chase, because in the end this story isn’t a harrowing dodging-a-bullet tale or a heroic saving-the-day saga. It’s just an anecdote about a relatively minor shock that translated in our still-fairly-new parental minds into a hallucinatory vision of mortal fear.

So here’s the (anti)climax of the story. From the terminal, I called and lined up an appointment with a pediatric dentist back in Pennsylvania for the next day. A little later, we boarded the plane. Greyson woke up at some point and proceeded to be his sweet, silly self for virtually the entire flight. He played with trucks, he chewed on plastic animals, and he listened quietly as we read him a dozen books (several times each). The day, which turned into a late night, went off without a hitch. Everyone lived happily ever after.

But that’s the thing about parenting — or at least first-time parenting. You don’t have to experience an actual near-death event to experience an event that gives you the actual fear of your child being near death. You just have to wait around a few months for your child to choke on a piece of food, or fall down some stairs, or contract his first flu, or, I don’t know, maybe chip his teeth and get his mouth filled with blood.

Then, for the first time, you’ll get that bitter taste of death — hypothetical but no less chilling — in your mouth. And you will know in that moment that your life will never be the same.

You now carry on your shoulders in a new and deeper way the heavy, sacred burden of existence. And not your own existence, except to the extent that you need to remain alive for the sake of your child.

The burden you now carry with you until the end of your days is the heavy, exquisite weight of your child’s existence. This mostly-helpless child you willingly and joyously brought into the world. Your mission, should you choose to accept it (which you already have and couldn’t do otherwise even if you tried), is to keep your child alive at all costs.

Such is the burden that — beyond logic, beyond rational diagnosis — weighed down our furrowed brows in the LAX terminal where Greyson chipped his teeth and punctured his gums for the very first time.

Such is the burden that now inextricably unites me with my son. Greyson’s peril is my peril. Greyson’s bloody gums are my bloody gums. Greyson’s life is my life. I could no sooner step out of my own skin than I could remove myself from the bones of this truth.

Such is the burden — the joyous and occasionally terrifying burden — that I will bear on my shoulders as long as my lungs carry breath, and as long as my veins carry blood.