Saturday, December 22, 2012

My First Half (Marathon)

On December 2nd, 2012 I ran my first half marathon.  The experience was everything I hoped it would be--exciting and challenging!

The race was the Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon and Half Marathon here in Las Vegas.  Entering the race came with a variety of pros and cons.  I knew several people who ran the Las Vegas event last year and most of the feedback (from half and full marathon runners) was negative.  In addition to the weather being squirrelly, the race wasn’t set up well and there were a number of issues related to the start, logistics for the aid stations, and the point in the course where the half and full marathon runners merged.

Weather problems can happen anywhere and it’s not the fault of the race organizers, so that didn’t bother me.  And since I’m not wired to race against other runners, I wasn’t necessarily concerned with the dynamics of how the course was constructed unless it caused safety issues.  My only goal, certainly for a first half-marathon, was to start and finish the race, without injury and preferably without walking: it’s me against the finish line, not the clock.  The issue of the merge caught my attention since I had heard the bottleneck caused racers to walk for quite a distance since the street where the merge happened couldn’t accommodate the volume of runners.  That troubled me a bit since I had heard there were injuries that resulted from the problem (runners tripping on other runners, etc.).  But between 2011 and this year’s event two things happened: Competitor bought the Rock ‘n’ Roll series and the folks from the Rock ‘n’ Roll series (corporate and local) made it clear they’d taken the negative feedback seriously and made a number of real changes in order to prevent the same problems from happening again.  They published the course for this year well in advance so folks could see the changes, it looked fine, and so I entered without any real concerns.

Not having run a half marathon before, I did what I presume many others have done:  I sought out a training plan from a credible source.  In my case I took one from a copy of Runner’s World magazine and set out to follow it.  Pretty straight forward: execute the plan and run the race.  Along the way I lost a full week of training, but pressed on, assuming this happens with everyone.  I adjusted the lengths slightly of some of my runs the next several weeks and trusted the plan.

Other than finishing, I didn’t really have expectations since I had never run this distance before.  This goes back to trusting my training plan.  Thousands of others finish half marathons all the time, so I wasn’t even nervous.  I was excited.  I didn’t know what else to expect: whether the race would be easy or hard, what my body would feel like, or even what my time would be.  My only goals were to finish and have fun and so off I went to run the race--me and tens of thousands of others!  The weather was perfect with the exception of gusty wind right at the start.   The route, the music, and the crowds along the route cheering and  encouraging all of us on were fantastic.  Water and Gatorade aid stations were plentiful and distributed by a cast of cheerful, smiling folks.   Also, this is one of only two times Las Vegas actually closes The Strip completely to traffic.  To get to run up, then down this famous (no, “fabulous”) iconic Las Vegas boulevard and see all the sights and sounds (rather than doing it in a car) was very cool!

So what’s next?  In addition to the usual bunch of 5 and 10Ks, I want to run at least two half marathons and hope to run a full marathon in 2013.  The full marathon will probably be the Rock ‘n’ Roll event here in Las Vegas again.  I had such a good time running the half, and it’s close.  Then, unless my body makes me do otherwise, I hope to train for and run a 50k for in 2014 to celebrate my 50th birthday.

By the way, as my son has watched me head out the door to run over the years, he’s started asking me if he can run with me.  This makes me happy and I’ll strive to only encourage him as he gives it a try.  We’ll run together, short distances at first, father and son.  And if it interests him, whether he continues to run or not, maybe he can come with me to my races and cheer me on.

It’s great to be a dad!

Tuesday, November 27, 2012


Somehow without being able to identify a specific place, date or time, I got hooked on running.  I’m not new to the sport at all, and while I’ve always run I can’t claim it’s been an integral part of my life from early on.  As with hiking (I posted about it a while back), there’s no doubt running is good for the body, but for me it’s also good for the soul.  Here’s what seems to have happened.

I ran track in high school one year.  I hated it but couldn’t explain why until later.  My dad lettered in track all four years he was in high school, but he never pushed me to participate in track.  He remained an avid runner for over half his life though, he and I would run 5 and 10K races together during my junior high and high school years.  Those were always fun and it never seemed like a competition with the other racers, or with dad.  It was just great dad ‘n’ lad time shared through something we both could do.  So I guess it made some sense that I said hello to the track team!  It seemed to be something I’d enjoy but within a year I moved on to something else.  The track team just wasn’t for me.

Then in college I joined the intramural cross country team.  I’m not sure why, but it seemed (again) to be something I’d like.  It was a better experience for me than high school track, and I learned a few things.  I liked running longer distances and experienced some of the same enjoyment I did when I ran with my dad.  I also learned I didn’t like high school track because the events I participated in were fast and short distances.  Cross country was definitely physically and mentally more fun.  We raced across changing terrain rather than around an oval and while speed still mattered, race strategy seemed to matter more when you needed to keep running longer.

There was something else I was discovering about myself too:  I get bored easily.  Running through changing scenery minimized the boredom of the oval track.  It was therapeutic in that it ensured I had dedicated time outdoors and outside of the sterile classroom.  I wasn’t fast, I never won a race, but I did well and I was a happier guy for it.

Life after college has been a 26+ year journey as an Air Force officer.  Fitness is an integral part of military life and running is a part of our fitness test--a short distance within a specified amount of time.  Not hard to do, and because of how I’m wired, not very fun.  But I’ve kept running, not to pass a fitness test, but for the same therapeutic benefits I mentioned before.  Trade sterile classrooms for sterile offices full of multiple computers and phones, and the appeal to get outside and move around increases.  Fresh air, strenuous physical work and the lack of office machines combine to do a lot to help reset and refocus mentally.  Time on the road or trail has become coveted time to listen to books, music, or sometimes nothing other than nature, and it’s always time to think without interruption.  No doubt the physical benefits are there even though I’m older and slower, but I tell people all the time that I value the mental/emotional benefits more.  It’s true.

I run more often now than ever before and while I’ve never been a long distance runner as some define “long distance,” how far I run has increased over time too.  So has my tolerance for running in most conditions: sun or rain, hot or cold, day or night.  And somewhere along the way the hobby has become something more akin to a passion.  Now I regularly run 5Ks and 10Ks, and next week I’ll run my first half marathon.

Everything else aside, I’m also doing my best to stay healthy for my son.  What’s even cooler about that: he watches me and has taken a real interest in my running.  He’s started asking me if he can run with me.  I used to push him along in a jogging stroller when he was an infant and toddler and I only stopped when he seemed to be bored with it.  Now he sees me running and wants to go along.  He knows when this Spring comes we’re going to start running together--no more stroller and no more waiting at home for dad to return.  He’s excited and that makes me happy!  We’ll start short and slow and he can decide if this is his cup of tea.  I don’t know if he’ll enjoy it or if he’ll stay interested over time, but I’m hopeful that as he grows we’ll have one more thing we can share, and it’s something that’ll contribute to his ability to develop and live a healthy lifestyle.

Life is funny:  I’m middle-aged and my body says I’m running like I probably should have been when I was younger.  But hey, I like it more now than I did before.  As long as my knees (and other middle-aged body parts) don’t rebel, I hope to run my first marathon sometime next year, and maybe a 50K in 2014:  50K for my 50th birthday.  In the years to come, maybe my son will run by my side, certainly casually and even in a few races.  Let’s see what happens.

It’s great to be a dad!

Saturday, November 10, 2012

First Sleep-Over

Paul slept at his friend’s house last night.  This was his first time sleeping outside of our house without us.  Pretty cool!  This was a big night for him.  We talked with him about what it would be like and know he heard , and as Steph dropped him off he was fully focused on a good time playing with his friend.  There was a bit of uncertainty for us though.  Would he wake up in the middle of the night and get scared because he wasn’t in his own house, or call out for one of us only to find we weren’t there?  There’s only one way to know and he wanted to “camp out” with his friend.  And so he went.

For me: I’m excited as a dad to see my son doing something new, and for a five year old, something potentially brave.  As many of you know though, I miss him when he’s sleeping in the next room so last night was not only exciting for me but also a bit...I don’t know.  Not nervous; not scared; different, I guess.  I don’t have a good word but suspect other moms and dads out there know what I’m trying to describe.

The best single part of this experience for me though was probably what my son said to the dog before he left the house.  He took a serious and gentle tone and called to the dog, finally getting her to stop in front of him.  Then he bent down and very gently told her, “dream of me, and walk with me in your dreams.”  Wow.  I don’t know where that came from but I was floored and almost emotional.  Not because of the sleep over, but because something that big and serious came from his five year old heart.  And then off he went.

Now it’s the next morning and the phone didn’t ring last night.  He must have done well!  I know I slept well in spite of the uncertainty in my heart.  Maybe that’s the word I was looking for earlier--uncertainty.  The house was very quiet: more than usual.  Some of that was mental I’m sure, but it was also truly quieter.  I am a very light sleeper and routinely peek in on Paul at night.  No sleeping boy equals no sleeping boy sounds.  But it was nice in it’s own way.

I’m proud of my son for this little life accomplishment.  After all, I’ve known other kids, and have had friends who didn’t sleep outside their own house and away from mom and dad until they went to college.  I love my awesome son!

It’s great to be a dad!

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Book Review: "Sundae: One Bear's Epic Crusade Through Childhood"

I purchased the Kindle version of the novella "Sundae: One Bear's Epic Crusade Through Childhood" by Matt Wallace a while ago, and it recently came to the top of my list.  I read it first sitting in an airport, and again almost immediately.  Within a week I read it to my five year old son.  Sundae is an amazing story.  While parts were a bit heavy for my son, he understood the story and definitely identified with several of the characters, especially the protective bear named Sundae.

Sundae is the story of a bear--a stuffed animal--whose purpose is to protect children from the dangers that exist within the unseen world of the imagination.  We follow Sundae from creation through his life, defending children and at times finding himself tucked away quietly in storage.

What I love most about this book is that it gives form to the shapeless and often nameless things that frighten children.  Things known and “seen” are often much less scary than things unseen and therefore less understood.  In the story we see the threats to the children with form and therefore we see Sundae’s battles as a child would see them.

My son loved the story, as did I, and he still talks about it.  He also has a small bear in his room he’s now renamed “Sundae”.  The bear is never far away and he sleeps well.

If you’re already familiar with Matt Wallace’s other works and didn’t realize he’s written a children’s story, don’t look past Sundae.  Even if you don’t have kids, read this.  I’m sure you’ll enjoy it, it’ll bring back some lost memories of childhood, and you just might know a child you can pass it to who would benefit from hearing this awesome story of adventure and courage.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Fall Soccer & Smelly Feet

The Fall AYSO soccer season kicked off here in Las Vegas a couple weeks ago.  My son played last Spring and was eager all Summer for the Fall season to start.  Well, the season began but there’s something other than a new uniform happening now:  smelly feet.

After getting home from his first game we took his shoes and socks off and our noses detected trouble, our eyes watered and the dog fled the room.  He’s always been very active and while we knew this day would come, we hadn’t really given it any thought.  The result was surprise and some small amount of alarm when he climbed onto my lap and the smell of sweaty feet overwhelmed punched me in the nose.

I wouldn’t trade this for anything in the world.  The good news is a bath quickly followed and the problem was solved.  The best news of all: my son is a healthy, growing boy!

It’s great to be a dad!

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Losing Dad

This may be the most difficult thing I’ve ever written.  Just a few weeks ago my son surprised my wife and I when he suddenly looked sad and said, “Dad, when I’m big like you and I have a son like you do, I’m going to miss you.”  I asked him, “Why will you miss me?”  He explained that when he’s big I’ll “be in my skel” and he won’t be able to see me anymore.  When he says something is a skel, he’s referring to it being a skeleton--being dead.  My young son was now somehow aware of death and the loss it brings.

On the 18th of August my wife, son and I boarded a plane in some haste and flew to Madison, Mississippi to be with my dad.  His was in the hospital and his health was failing quickly.  We were all able to see him.  I spent all day on the 19th sitting and talking with him, and to the best of my ability, comforting him as he was in and out of sleep.  Just a few days later, he passed away.  My mom and I were with him and it was the most heartbreaking and tender of moments.  We had both shared our thoughts and words of encouragement with him, ensuring he knew we were there and okay, and that we loved him.  Mom was sitting by his side holding his hand and I was standing over him from the other side.  I had just finished quietly speaking into his ear, I kissed his forehead, and he left us.  His departure was quiet and graceful.  It was honorable and dignified.

What made that moment most special to me as his son were those final words I shared with him.  They weren’t private or new to his ears, and were words I’ve said to him and to others about him before.  I quietly and humbly told my father this:

“Dad, I’m proud of you and all that you’ve done in life.  I’m so proud that you’re my dad and I’m your son.  I love you.”

Just seconds after I said these words, he died with my hand on his shoulder and his hand in mom’s.

As we made the trip to Mississippi, we told our son his grandpa (who he called “G”) was very sick.  Once we were there, I took time on several occasions to help him understand that he wouldn’t get to see G again, including one brief but significant father and son walk.  Steph and I didn’t want to hide this from him, nor did we want to make death some sort of fiction, and we struggled with how to best do this, knowing there isn’t a “right way.”  We were confident that our son was mature enough to see his grandfather as sick as he was, to grasp the basic truth of the reality of death (especially after his earlier statement), and to learn that the death of the body is as much a part of life as birth and everything in between.  He was with us during the visitation and memorial service, handled everything very well, and touched our hearts dearly when he solemnly snuggled Steph and told her sadly, “I’m going to miss G.”

As a son having just lost his dad, I was able to draw very real strength from having my son with me through it all.  It was special that we could share it, with me carrying the heaviest emotional weight of the loss for him, and as a dad experiencing the very real love and tangible support from my own son.  I also had the privilege of giving the eulogy at dad’s memorial service--truly the hardest thing I have ever had to do.  I can’t imagine anyone else having done it and while it felt like I was speaking without any oxygen in the air, it was also medicine for my own soul.  In the end, during the trip my son was able to see his grandfather purposefully for a last time, see the sorrow in my heart at the loss of my father, and hear the words I offered in a meager attempt to honor him--his grandfather--in front of his gathered friends and family.

We will bury dad at Arlington National Cemetery sometime later this year, and we will be there with him--father and son--to give dad one final goodbye as our country lays him to rest with full military honors.  I know I’m biased, but I think it’s the best thing my grateful family can do for this amazing and quiet man who gave everything he had to us, to his country, and to his community.  He served us all well, with honor, integrity and humility, and it showed to anyone who looked.  I certainly learned from his example and trust my son has too.  Among everything else, my job now as a father is to do my best to ensure my son continues to learn the same lessons of honor, integrity, humility and service, hopefully through my words and deeds.  It’s not easy, but what an awesome task.  And there’s no better way I can think of to continue to honor my father than by raising my son--his grandson--well.

It’s great to be a dad!


Here are the links to my father's official military biography and his obituary.  His obituary captures his career after his retirement from the military.

Friday, July 27, 2012

What Is A Young Adult?

I just recently became aware of the NPR list of Best Young Adult Fiction.  I came across this list because of a small controversy resulting from a book they excluded:  Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card.  The controversy isn’t about Ender’s Game specifically, but about why it was excluded balanced against what made the list.
While I’m definitely a fan of Ender’s Game, and the saga this book begins, this post isn’t about arguing why Ender’s Game should or should not be on a list of acceptable YA novels.  Instead, it seems one of two things is happening at NPR:  1) giving NPR the benefit of the doubt, they’ve confused what it seems should be the obvious difference between a young adult and a child, or 2) NPR has an agenda and has excluded Ender’s Game based on either a bias against the book (unrelated to the discussion about age-appropriateness) or the author.  While the latter is possible, the more important issue is about how we as parents decide to put appropriate material in front of our kids: books, movies, etc.
NPR says they excluded Ender’s Game (as well as at least one other book) from the final list because “while Ender himself is young, the book’s violence isn’t appropriate for young readers.”  Even so, they still included other books like Lord of the Flies and Dune on the final list, both of which contain stunning depictions of violence.  This exposes two problems.  NPR acknowledges the first: “no reader’s poll will ever be truly objective.”  If for no other reason, a panel of judges can’t and won’t ever apply a rigid standard to a body of diverse literary works, each of which is unique.  The best we’ll ever get is an organized mess.  The second problem revolves around what they asked for: recommendations for a list of the Best Young Adult Fiction.
When I see “young adult” I take the words at face value and acknowledge the phrase very obviously includes the word adult.  While 13 seems to be a generally agreed upon age for differentiating child from young adult, there isn’t a clear line.  Why? To state the obvious again: like every adult in the world, every child is an individual with a complex set of reasons why they are who they are.  At a specific age, some kids excel at certain things while others don’t.  Some fear things that others don’t.  They each deal with all the aspects of life presented to them differently and this is true for violence.  My problem with what NPR has done trying to compile a YA list of books is that they showed us they don’t have the ability to differentiate between children who aren’t yet young adults, and those who are.
I suggest there’s really only one body, one committee, one panel of judges that can form such a list of movies, literature, songs and other wonderful manifestations of art: each child’s parents.  For each child, the panel of judges is as large as the parents responsible for that little person.  (NPR: the number tends to be one or two, unless you include extended family.)  Mom and Dad, are you familiar with what your kids are reading?  Have you read the material yourself?  Hopefully, to the best of your ability, the answer is “yes” to both questions.  No one knows your child better than you do, or no one should.  Other parents, friends, teachers: they’re all an incredible part of the cultural cloud that we and our kids operate in and draw support from, but your child is your child, not theirs.  With all due respect to those who advocate the position that “it takes a village” what that village contributes is and should always be limited.  My wife and I had our son.  He is the human product of our love for each other.  Sorry village, but you weren’t there; the door was locked and the blinds were drawn, on purpose.  And now our son first and foremost is our responsibility to raise.  Village, and NPR, you are the supporting cast.
Are lists like the one NPR created valuable?  They sure are, but often, they end up being only interesting.  Regardless of who creates a list like this, I hope parents don’t use it as a suitable substitute for exercising their own judgment.  I remember several of the books on the NPR list.  There are many I’ve never read and some I’ve never heard of.  In the end, my wife and I will focus our son on the books we know are proven based on our own reading, then on the recommendations of people we know and trust.  For unknown books, we’ll probably read them first, at least until we know our son is old enough to make determinations on his own about the value of what he can take away from any piece of literature.  We’re also aware this is constant work since that list will change constantly, with his age and experience.
So what is a young adult?  Well, I suspect it’s similar to art: I can’t give you a rigid answer but you’ll know it when you see it.  NPR, I think you bit off more than you could ever chew and I’m not sure your list really matters.  It’s too long and you can’t lock down what you meant when you said “young adult.”  I know my own son though and will continuously put good books in his hands as a child, into his young adult years once he’s there, and even when he’s indisputably an adult.  And yes, he’ll definitely read Ender’s Game when he’s old enough, probably when he’s a “young adult.”
This parenting stuff is hard, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything else in the world!

You can find my review of the original four Ender's Saga books (Ender's Game, Speaker for the Dead, Xenocide and Children of the Mind) under my profile on Goodreads.  

It’s great to be a dad!
Here are links to the original article and NPR posts that caught my attention:

Monday, July 23, 2012

The Great Ice Cube Incident

Just last week my son put an ice cube down the back of my pants.  He worked incredibly hard to ensure he could sneak up on me and had my wife help him by distracting me during the prank.  It was awesome!

I love my son’s sense of humor even though right now it isn’t much different than any other five year old boy.  But this was the first time I can remember that he stepped away from funny sounding words and bathroom humor and crafted a plan to actually do something he decided was funny.  What made it even cooler was that he’s never seen Stephanie or I put ice down anyone’s pants.  He either heard other kids talking about this at school, saw it on TV, or he connected the dots himself and thought it would be funny to put something cold where it doesn’t usually belong.  After asking him about it, it seems it’s the latter, and that makes me happy.
While I was busy, he went over to the freezer and grabbed a cube...

Then he walked up behind me with all the boldness of a veteran ice cuber...

And committed the act.

With a 43 year difference in our ages, I hope I never squelch his developing sense of humor and continue to enjoy watching my son’s young and strong mind figure out what’s funny to him, and what he hopes is funny to others around him.  I’m sure there’ll be goofs and miscalculations along the way, but I think they’ll be worth it based on the great ice cube incident.  I'm so proud of my little man.  Oh, did I mention my wife was involved in this?  It's okay; I’m all smiles!
It’s great to be a dad!

Monday, July 16, 2012

Hiking & Fitness

Recently a friend of ours and I took our sons on a hike.  Paul and I have hiked before, but most of those “adventures” involved fairly short distances, or longer trips with the support of a jogging stroller in case he got tired.  This was his first real hike that included climbing in some nearby hills.  With water and snacks loaded in my backpack, we set off to Red Rock Canyon to hike the Lost Creek Trail.

I may not be the model of fitness but as I tell my son, I do my best to stay healthy so I can play with him and earn the milk money.  I also want him to grow up seeing fitness as an integrated part of life: not overkill, not a fad or trend, just a regular part of living.  I’ve been a hiker and jogger most of my adult life and used to take Paul with me in a jogging stroller.  That continued until he grew bored with it.  

I think the day will come soon when he might be interested in jogging, but for now, when the weather permits, we’ll hike.  Some of the hikes we’ve already taken are “adventures” following local trails through public parks.  This hike was through an unimproved area: uneven and dissimilar surfaces, hills, bugs, sticks, cacti, etc.  Every turn presented something visually and physically new.  We even found a stream shrouded within an area with some reasonably substantial brush.  He loved it!

As a father I can only hope that my son grows up willing to exercise himself in a manner that links a genuine desire for a lifestyle of physical fitness to a love of exploring and enjoying the outdoors.
It’s great to be a dad!

Saturday, June 23, 2012

The Circus!

The Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus came to town and last weekend we took Paul to experience his first real circus.  He loved it, and honestly I did too.

I can’t say where my childhood memories of the circus come from.  I can’t remember if my parents ever took me to one, but I think they did.  If not an actual circus, they must have taken me to a carnival or something similar.  Regardless, what I remembered wasn’t pleasant.  I didn’t like it at all: the sights, the smells, everything about it, and I was fairly reluctant to take my son to “enjoy” the same thing.
This was different: it was very well done and it was fun!  The theme was dragons, which added a little something unique to the usual things found at the circus.  The usuals were there though, acrobats, lions and tigers (but no bears), elephants, trick dogs and cats, many motorcycles driving around inside a small, spherical steel cage, but everything had the mystery of dragons running through it, drawing from various cultures from around the globe.  Very cool.

Before the show the actors/athletes were on the floor, rings assembled, rehearsing various aspects of the main performance and we were allowed onto to floor to see them up close, meet the actors, and even have them sign our program.  This was a nice touch.  Paul even ended up getting picked to participate in one of the rings!

We made our way to our seats, the show began and everything about it was fantastic.  Multiple acts, multiple rings, and a build up to the emergence of a very well done, full sized dragon at the end.  My only criticism is over the length of the show.  Even with an intermission, it was long.  The performance began at 11:30 a.m. and didn’t end until almost 2:00 p.m.  Paul started getting fidgety about the time time intermission came, and even with the break, he was a little restless for the rest of the show.  That said, we got what we paid for and didn’t feel short changed at all.  There is no way anyone can see this show and complain about the quality or quantity of the experience.

Would I go again?  Absolutely yes, and so would my son.  Well done, Ringling Brothers!
It’s great to be a dad!

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Some Favorite iOS Apps for Kids

I haven’t conducted a survey or assessment of the significant mass of iOS apps out there for our kids, but there are a few that have passed muster and find a home on my iOS devices: most on my iPad and a few on my iPhone.  I’ll talk about them and tell you why I’ve liked them.  More importantly, these are the ones that are not just “parent approved” but also approved by my son.  I lump all of these into one of two categories:  educational and games.  In several cases, the games also have some developmental or educational value.  Here we go:

abc PocketPhonics + First Words (by Apps in My Pocket).  This is a great little app that teaches letter recognition, writing and sounds.  It also progresses toward reading, writing and speaking first words.  Kids learn by seeing and hearing, then the app guides them through writing the same letters they see and hear.
Osmos for iPad (by Hemisphere Games).  Technically a game.  If your child likes this, they’ll also learn a little physics as they play.  The game is visually stunning and the music is soothing.

The Elements (by Element Collection).  This is a high-end periodic table of the elements.  Your kids will love its interactive nature and the superior photos that accompany each element.  Everything else will be over their heads, but I’m pretty sure they’ll fall in love with with the table and set the stage for the future when they actually learn about the elements.
Star Walk for iPad (by Vito Technology)  An interactive astronomy guide.  This app is amazing.  Making use of your mobile device’s location awareness and accelerometer, you simply point the device at the sky and it shows you in real time what you’re looking at.  It also shows you stellar objects you can’t see with the naked eye.  The database includes stars, planets, constellations, and many of the satellites in Earth’s orbit, to include the International Space Station.  You can even see what’s below the horizon so you know what’s coming into view soon.  Want to know more?  Just touch the object you’re interested in and additional information appears.  My son loves this app and we spend quite a bit of time with it when we’re outside at night.
Super Why! (by PBS Kids)
Gears (by Crescent Moon Games).  Use your finger to guide a ball through a series levels of spinning gears.  Fun to look at and challenging enough to hold attention.
Star Wars Pit Droids (by LucasArts).  I downloaded this because my son wanted “a Star Wars game.”  Frankly it looked too hard for a five year old, but I grabbed it anyway.  Based on the pit droids from Star Wars: Episode 1, the object is to place directional guides to direct the droids around obstacles and into a hatch.  The levels run from a single stream of droids and a single destination up through multiple streams of different colored droids needing to negotiate around obstacles and each other to their own similarly colored hatches.  While he struggles with several of the levels, I was surprised how quickly he learned how to win.
Angry Birds (by Chillingo).  There are four versions of this game out there; get them all.  They’re addictive and will also teach your child a little about physics when it comes to aiming the various birds.  They’ll also learn how different birds have different effects depending on what they strike.  Be ready to regularly lose control of your mobile device.
Cut the Rope (by Chillingo).  A “little cutie guy” as my son says, and a piece of candy.  It’s simple:  cut the rope suspending a piece of candy so that it drops into the cutie guy’s mouth.  Throw in some bubbles and a few spiders to frustrate your good intent and you have hours of fun. 
Flight Control (by Firemint Pty).  Levels range from simple to complex.  The goal is to land a variety of aircraft on their appropriate runways or helipads.  As levels progress, the sky gets pretty full.  Different aircraft fly at different speeds.  Direct their flight paths with your finger and don’t let them collide.  Simple, right?
Labyrinth 2 (by Illusion Labs).  Another game with a simple underlying concept:  Move a little metal ball through a maze to a target and avoid falling in holes, and the unwanted effects of fans and magnets along the way.  Add in buttons you need to trigger to open pathways, and things get challenging quickly.  Played on an iPad, your child holds it flat like a table and tilts it to roll the ball.  Great for hand-eye coordination!
Tilt to Live (by One Man Left).  Speaking of games that require tilting to maneuver, this simple game with simple graphics has you maneuvering a ship shaped like a pointer.  Objects come in from the sides and your child will have to move around to keep from letting them touch your ship.  As time and levels progress, it gets harder.  Another great game that entertains and teaches hand-eye coordination.
Feed Me Oil (by Chillingo).  In this one, oil comes out of a spigot and needs to end up in a reservoir.  The player has to place spinning paddle wheels in the right places to make it happen without spilling too much along the way.
Plants vs. Zombies (by PopCap).  Teaches a little person a little strategy.  Cartoon zombies try to make it across the screen to the player’s house.  A variety of plant obstacles are available for placement along the paths to the house to frustrate and eliminate the zombies.  As levels advance, the player ends up not only with a variety of plants but also a variety of zombies, including dancing zombies!
Tiny Wings (by Andreas Illiger).  Harder than it looks: a tiny bird with tiny wings moves across hilly terrain, picking up flowers and suns along the way.  Meanwhile the sun is setting and the game ends once the sun goes below the horizon.  The goal is to pick up enough flowers and suns to speed the bird along.  But there’s more!  The player has to use the hills to launch our little bird friend into the air.  This is done by touching the screen at the right time.  Touching the screen pulls the bird down and needs to be timed with the downward slopes on the hills, then released to let the bird race up the hills and fly.  An awesome hand-eye coordination game!
Cannon Cat (by Loqheart).  A cat saving birds trapped in little bubbles.  That’s right, saving, not eating!  The player launches the cat from cannon to cannon to fly across the trapped birds.  When timed right, the bubbles burst and the birds are free.  To show their thanks they usually rally around the cat when he sits in a cannon.  Sometimes the cannons move and sometimes they change where they’re pointed.  The player has to pay attention and time when to launch the cat.  Each level is finite and ends with the cat soaring through a portal.  Feedback is gentle if all the birds aren’t freed and the player gets another chance to try again.  When there’s success, the next level is available (similar to Angry Birds).
Give some (or all of these) a try and if you’ve found other educational or game apps for your young one, feel free to post them here in the comments.
It’s great to be a dad!

Monday, March 26, 2012

Movie Review: John Carter of Mars

I recently saw John Carter of Mars and I'm glad I didn't listen to the critical reviews.  It's much better than I would have thought if I only based on those write-ups.  Here's my rundown including the pros and cons for the movie: 
The Good and a Little Bad:
At 132 minutes, the movie is a little long and compared to most action/adventure & SciFi, the pacing is slow.  I'm OK with that though, given the source material.  They did a very good job of setting the story up for anyone who hasn't read the first book ("A Princess of Mars"), or the entire John Carter series.  (Interestingly, it's the final book in the 11 volume set that's titled "John Carter of Mars".)  I asked my wife when we were on our way home what she would have cut out of the movie if she had to make it a 90-110 minutes.  She said she really couldn't think of what to cut out.  I can't either.
We saw it in glorious 2D (yep, skipped out on the extra cost for 3D) and the effects were fantastic.  The viewer definitely gets what the studio paid for in terms of quality CGI.  I can only assume the 3D version of the film is equally good for those who are 3D fans. 
Taylor Kitsch did fine as John Carter.  Seems most of the negative reviews about him are unwarranted.  I'm not familiar with all the baggage that many reviewers seem to attribute to him and suspect it clouded their view.  I don't really know who the guy is and thought he was believable (and for me, unknown) enough not to distract from the story.  I went in cautiously about whether or not Lynn Collins could be Dejah Thoris.  She did great.  Again, completely believable.  (Honestly, based on her description as written by ERB, there isn't an actress alive who could probably play her based on the required beauty.  Lynn rocked the part.)

The movie had the Disney touch in that there were little glimpses of humor sprinkled throughout and violence was very rarely graphic.  The battle scenes were a blast and not over the top.  Most violent scenes happened off camera but in a manner that you knew exactly what was happening.  The most graphic scene was when John Carter defeats a second Great White Ape in an arena.  I won't spoil the scene though by saying what happens.
The ships were cool and made me want to see more and know more about how they work.
We rolled the dice since the babysitter fell through and took our son.  Normally we don't let him see things that are PG or PG-13 unless we've seen them first.  No surprise: he was bored with parts of the movie, loved the battle scenes and the scenes when John Carter jumps around.  On the way out he told me there were a few scary parts, but he was never scared, and he was bouncing around like a boy who just saw a man who could leap like a superhero.  He loved the calot (the "dog") in the movie.  My dog is now paying the price as my son won't stop trying to get her to follow him around, lick him, etc.  And best of all, driving home he told my wife and I, "I want to live on Mars so I can marry Dejah Thoris."  (That's my boy!)
The Ugly:
So what went wrong?  Several things that contributed to the John Carter the box office flop.  First, Disney completely messed this up and is now paying the price (literally).  All the advertisements, with the exception of a few that came late in the game, make this movie look more like a science fiction victorian drama rather than an action/adventure.  From what I saw, it seemed once they began highlighting the movie as an action/adventure story, chatter seemed to move a bit toward the positive, but it seemed to be too late.  Oddly, very late in the game, Disney decided to release the first 10 minutes of the movie in an apparent attempt to generate interest.  Regardless of why they actually did it, it looked desperate, and it made things worse.  The first 10 minutes of the movie reinforce the perception that the movie was a victorian drama first, and only had elements of action or adventure woven into the story.  I think Disney corporately didn’t appreciate the story, and their marketing department had no idea how to present it to the paying public.
For all the reasons many of us like Disney, they were the wrong studio to make this movie.  The original story is violent, depicting a world at war.  Probably because of the time is was written, I think fits in the young adult bucket by today’s standards.  That said, Burroughs left the most graphic violence to the reader’s imagination, as well as the most passionate of love scenes.  But the story is very violent, and it’s fairly dark, making the heroic and passionate scenes seem so much brighter and hopeful.
My last thought about what went wrong has to do with social commentary.  One thing that always seems to be present in great science fiction stories is commentary about things in society that aren’t being openly discussed.  Within the space opera slice of the genre, just consider the amazingly strong statements made through the original Star Trek series and the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica.  The collective John Carter story captured in the Martian Tales of Edgar Rice Burroughs is replete with commentary about lots tough issues: honor, where to place loyalty, patriotism and identity, and perhaps most significantly: race and racial relations.  For the most part, all this was absent or only hinted at.  Not to be overly critical though, there’s only so much depth a studio can establish in a single film, but this element was key to what Burroughs did as he told John Carter’s story.
RECOMMENDATION:  I definitely recommend this movie to SciFi fans.  If you have the spare cash, it's a great flick to see on a theater-sized screen, but not a movie I'd put in the "must see in a theater" category.  Do the 2D or 3D thing based on personal preference.  Just keep in mind, if you're not an Edgar Rice Burroughs fan, you probably won't like the movie.  If you're not familiar with the original story but are intrigued by what you’ve seen and heard, understand that you're walking into a reasonably well done 2012 movie version of a story written in 1917.  Still gun-shy about seeing it in a theater?   Don’t worry about it and wait to rent it when it comes to DVD and BlueRay.
As for the original series of books, they’re collectively in my top five and helped establish and shape my love for the science fiction genre.  I have the whole set, published by Del Rey and each is somewhere between 150-250 pages.  They're quick and entertaining reads.  Even if the movie isn't for you, the paperbacks are inexpensive.  Grab 'em and  enjoy an amazing story and a piece of classic SciFi! 
It’s great to be a dad!

Monday, March 12, 2012

Movie Review: Act of Valor

A week ago my wife and I went to see the movie Act of Valor.

“An unprecedented blend of real-life heroism and original filmmaking, Act of Valor stars a group of active-duty U.S. Navy SEALs in a film like no other in Hollywood’s history.  A fictionalized account of real life Navy SEAL operations, Act of Valor features a gripping story that takes audiences on an adrenaline-fueled, edge-of-their-seat journey.” (From the official website.)

Enthusiasts outside the military hoping to see secret tactics revealed by the film will be disappointed.  The film reinforces professional and competent tactics many have already seen, or imagined, only this time with the support of real SEALs themselves rather than actors.  Refreshingly, in Act of Valor we get to see real warriors doing their jobs in a realistic way, without falling victim to an overblown, uninformed and overactive Hollywood imagination.  Even so, it’s still an action story that’s well put together.  Plot holes?  Sure.  Accelerated timelines?  Yes.  But what you end up seeing is a story rooted in the real-world, accelerated to allow us to experience it in a short 110 minutes.
So it’s clear up front: I liked the movie.  While not a documentary, the movie unfolds without a political bias or agenda.  It’s about SEALs doing the work they do, regardless of who sits in the Commander in Chief’s seat.  This is refreshing.  As a military officer I serve at the pleasure of the President and am bound by my oath to follow his lawful orders, regardless of political party.  Interestingly, the oath our U.S. military professionals take is an oath swearing to support and defend the Constitution, not any specific personality or political party.  This is quietly communicated well.
Act of Valor is rated R for strong language and violence.  While not excessively graphic, the rating is definitely warranted.  If my son was older, I would have taken him back to see it.  It’s definitely a movie I’ll add to my library at home due to the positive messages of honor, sacrifice and manhood it communicates.  We’ll watch it together when the day comes.  Here are the themes that resonated with me and I intend to reinforce with my son:
  • Service before self and serving something bigger than yourself
  • Sacrifice
  • Strength and humility vs. arrogance
  • Family: actual (e.g. husbands, wives, kids) and extended (in this case, military)
  • Living bravely and dealing with fear
The movie uses a story to honor our troops.  Will it serve as a recruiting device?  Sure, but it’s clear this isn’t the primary reason the movie was made.  What the film does well is cause the audience to identify with real warriors, individuals who we get to know and get to watch do things that are difficult and demanding.  These aren’t just a few military men and their families we read or hear about in the news.  The impact is visceral.
Finally, before I saw the film several friends told me when they went to see it, the audience applauded at the end.  I know why.  Interestingly, when my wife and I saw it, the response was dramatically different: absolute silence.  It verged on reverence and was almost overwhelming.  The movie ended and people quietly and respectfully stood and left the theater.  I was stunned in the best of ways.
Visit the official site for more info ( or better yet, go see the film.  I think you’ll enjoy it, and if you have older kids, take them too.
It’s great to be a dad!

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Five Years

My son turned five yesterday.  I can’t believe how much has happened during his first five years, I almost can't remember a time without him, and yet I can’t believe how fast time has passed.  This little note is for him.

Paul, I’m proud you’re my son, every single day, and I truly miss you anytime we’re not in the same room together.  Sometimes I think your mom thinks I’m silly when I say, “I miss boy” when you’re just asleep in the other room.  There are so many amazing things your mom and I have enjoyed seeing you learn and do as we’ve watched you grow.  The world you’re growing up in is small and awesome, and you’re truly an international child.  Although you were born in the US, we moved to Germany when you were only one year old.  Before your fifth birthday you’ve already crossed the Atlantic Ocean 12 times!  You started kindergarden  in a German school when you were just three years old and was speaking German better than your mother and I ever could.  You’re thriving in school today in the US and are learning Spanish.
You have a wild and unfocused imagination--your world is airplanes, stars, spaceships, sailing ships, pirates and animals.  This isn’t just good, it’s a gift, and I hope I never discourage or limit your adventure through life.  There’s almost nothing you fear and I rarely have to push you to try anything.  You’re everybody’s friend, you’re always willing to share everything you have with others, and have the biggest heart I’ve ever seen in a child.  You have a very quick wit and an awesome sense of humor that already spans well beyond the usual potty humor of a young boy.  And you already have a strong sense of right and wrong and are willing to gently point out wrong when you see it.  You remind your mom and I when we forget to “say the Amen” at dinner or bedtime.  You’re an example to everyone, young and old, and there just aren’t words to say how proud I am of you.
The world you’re growing up in is amazing.  While some things are the same, many things are dramatically different.  There are aspects of the world you’re growing up in that would have been unrecognizable when I was your age.  Some day you’ll read this and hopefully laugh at how different some of these things are.  I turned five in 1969.  Some of these you’ll appreciate, some you’ll understand later and some you’ll wonder what the big deal was.  When I turned five:
- Only life itself was in high definition, not movies or TV shows.  In fact, most TVs were still black and white with small screens.  Color televisions were just starting to sell widely.
- There was no cable TV.
- There were no XBoxes or other video games.
- There were no iPads, iPods or iPhones.  There weren’t even any cell phones.  There was one phone and only one phone number for the whole house.
- There were no home computers.
But look at what was happening when I was five.  You’ll probably have to look some of these up some day:
- Sesame Street debuted on PBS.
- “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” was a popular movie (following its December 1968 release).
- Neil Armstrong became the first man to set foot on Earth’s Moon.
- The Woodstock Music Festival was held in New York.
- The Dow Jones Industrial Average closed for the year at 800. (On your birthday this year it sat at 12,862.)
- The US Air Force closed Project Blue Book.  (Your great uncle worked on this project.)
- The first ATM was installed in the US.
- UNIX is developed at Bell Labs.
- The microprocessor in invented.
- ARPANET, the predecessor to the Internet was created.
- Bell-bottom jeans and tie-dye shirts became popular. (They’ll come back again, don’t worry.)
- Pontiac introduced the Firebird Trans Am “muscle car”.  I’ll show you one some day, along with other cool cars from those days.
Happy birthday, son.  The world is waiting for you and all the talent and gifts you bring to it.  I love you Paul!
It’s great to be a dad!