Today | One More Thing
The Thoughts I Think When I Take My Kids to the Zoo
by Tyler Sjostrom
As a parent to two young boys, I have default responses to a multitude of potentially sticky situations. Older son is pouting? “Alexa, play ‘Blinding Lights’ by The Weeknd.” Younger son is fussy? “Here comes daddy to blow raspberries on your tummy!” Nothing to do on a Saturday morning? “Everyone in the car! We’re going to find the nearest collection of animals!”
But for as much as I enjoy going to zoos – and I do, even if they kinda seem like animal prisons – I have questions and thoughts.
1) Why did every parent within 100 miles decide to come here at the exact same time as me?
2) Why am I the only parent within 100 miles who knows how to park?
3) What animal would be the best at driving and parking an automobile? (I’d argue in favor of the three-toed sloth. He’s cautious, you see.)
4) Hey, did you know that Fair Haven, Vermont, has a dog for a mayor? Mayor Woodford seems to have a lot going for him, but his favorability would certainly improve if he were a canine.
5) Do zoo animals have their own political hierarchies, and if so, are their leaders more or less qualified than the mayor of Fair Haven, Vermont?
6) Assuming that zoo animals do indeed have political hierarchies, where does the world’s best animal – the penguin, duh – fall on the political spectrum?
7) Do penguins often find themselves saying, “I’m sorry, I thought you were someone else,” to other penguins?
8) The Penguin in “Batman” was diabolical. The penguins in “Madagascar” are conspiratorial and clever. The penguins in “Happy Feet” are fabulous. In the wild, penguins are more faithful to their mates than humans. Penguins fascinate me, and I’m not alone in saying so.
9) Oh, how much is it to ride the zoo train? Whether it is $2 or $200, I’m in.
10) A zoo without a zoo train is exactly half of a zoo. (Tractor rides are an acceptable substitute if we find ourselves on a farm.)
11) If my professional career peaks with “conductor of the zoo train,” there isn’t any way I could be happier. Unless this was just one of my several duties as mayor of Fair Haven, Vermont.
12) What animal would be best at conducting the zoo train, assuming the three-toed sloth is still parking the car?
13) I’ve never left the Monkey House and said anything other than, “Do monkeys always sit perfectly still and not do anything?”
14) I’ve never left the Bird House and said anything other than, “You know, that was so much more enjoyable than the Monkey House.”
15) I have been pooped on in a Bird House. I’ve found that this does very little to make the experience less enjoyable.
16) If the elephants/giraffes/lions/seals/otters don’t emerge during your visit, a full refund is appropriate.
17) When my son sees the lions at the zoo, he yells “Mufasa!” And when the daddy lion is being lazy, he says, “Mufasa sleeping.” The day he learns that Mufasa isn’t sleeping will be the day the zoo is ruined for eternity.
18) For a dad, the perfect intersection of “total emasculation” and “total cuteness” is sweating through the zoo with an infant strapped to your chest.
19) Getting out of the zoo is no easier than getting in. Hey, could we leave today, Sloth?!
20) The second-best part of leaving: when my son says, “Zoo again soon?” The best part about leaving: when he recaps every animal he saw, from the diabolical penguins to the do-nothing monkeys.
Going to the zoo with your kids is one of the many things that makes being a dad a great job. Not on par with zoo train conductor or dog mayor of Fair Haven, Vermont, of course, but a great job, nonetheless.
The Summer Job Syllabus
by Tyler Sjostrom
Whenever I visit a tourist town (which because I’m nothing if not predictably basic, is often), I always take stock of the individuals who are scooping my Moose Tracks, bagging my saltwater taffy, or applying a henna tattoo to my lower back. And in making small talk, I always offer some variation of, “Hey, this must be a fun summer job.”
I’m not always sincere in this assessment. Some summer jobs look, and probably are, miserable, and no amount of sunshine can make this untrue. But because the window of when a person can properly enjoy the sacrosanct “summer job” (roughly ages 15-23) is short and because I’ve enjoyed a few great ones myself (thanks for the memories, North Prairie Bison Ranch), I feel like I’ve got a decent read on what makes one summer job better than another. It also won’t be long before my own sons are looking for a little extra scratch, and they’ll overlook my long history of henna tattoos and seek out any wisdom I might offer.
The knowledge they will glean is found herein.
Work with your friends whenever possible. One summer I worked in a pizza shop in Oregon with a college friend who would later stand in my wedding. That summer, any time a pretty girl walked by, we’d say, “Could I get some kalamata olives?” Everyone within earshot knew what we meant. Ten years later, when my wife and I took our vows, he slapped me on the back and said, “Ty, your wife, she’s a real kalamata olive.” Jobs come and jobs go, so spend those hours with people you like.
A good summer job should be limited to the actual months of summer. Adults understand that, before long, even the coolest job just becomes “a job.” Furthermore, jobs that revolve around things that are distinct to the summer months — ice cream shops, scooter rentals, drive-in movies — don’t have the necessary calendar pages to become monotonous. So, by keeping a job only for the months when a sleeveless shirt is the only vital part of the uniform, you’ll still remember it fondly when you’re back in class after Labor Day.
Money is the root of all evil great, but lived experience is far greater. In high school, I remember a friend got a job transferring paper files to his accountant dad’s computer. “I’m getting 10 bucks an hour,” he bragged. That same summer, I worked at a yogurt shop where I never knew or cared if I was getting a paycheck. But I did get a girlfriend out of the deal, and I can’t imagine transferring tax documents made my friend ever fall in love. And when summer ended, so did the relationship, as the rules of summer romance dictate.
Get an outside job whenever possible. When you’re an adult, it’s very likely you will only work inside. During the workday, you will mostly see other people enjoying the outdoors only through windows. “It looks nice out,” you’ll say. And then you’ll draw the shades because sunlight makes your monitor tougher to see. So, by all means, get those outdoor jobs while you can: landscaping, lifeguarding, farming, coaching. You may get an uneven tan, but you’ll get a more balanced life experience overall.
Consider the “after hours” benefits. My hometown has a water park that I’ve only visited when it was technically closed. This is because the kids who worked there would let their friends join them for some non-sanctioned hijinks when that day’s screaming children were safe in their beds. It’s been two decades since those summer nights, but the kids who made their own rules after hours remain summer job royalty in my eyes.
Much like summer itself, the window for when a person can enjoy a summer job is brief and fleeting. The henna tattoo won’t last forever, young friends, but the memories just might.
Bless This Nest: Part Two
by Tyler Sjostrom
Longtime readers of this column (Hey, Mom!) might remember a piece from last year called “Bless This Nest.” For those who were busy with other things and missed it entirely (Hey, Dad!) below is an elevator synopsis, which my mother and her fellow Appleton Monthly devotees may skip.
This past spring, a family of finches made a nest on our porch and filled it with five blue eggs. My toddler son loved the nest, and I kinda did too, even though the finches wrecked my gutter leaf-guard building it. When a windstorm knocked down a few branches on our street and a similar nest was among the casualties — while ours remained safe — it became evident that our finches weren’t any better or worse than the nest that was claimed by the windstorm. They were just lucky. And that’s what we’ll tell our kid someday when he doesn’t understand why bad things happen to those who don’t deserve it.
In a year which saw civil unrest, a global pandemic, and not one but two new Taylor Swift albums, our nest of finches was among the brighter spots. So, imagine my delight when, a few days ago, I noticed a few more patches of my gutter guard strewn about the yard. My eyes lit up like Christmas morning. “Could it be?!” And yes, tucked beneath the awning of our house were our old finch friends, who we’ve named (obviously) Atticus and Jennie. These are like the friends who you’re always happy to have visit even though they don’t clean up after themselves.
In welcoming them back, I got to thinking about the place they’ve chosen to nest. As neighborhoods go, these finches picked a good one. And it’s not because our street is uniform in any demographic, be it age, race, or political affiliation.
From the same porch where Atticus, et. al., have staked their claim, I can see the house of the loveable, conservative gearhead who has helped with every mechanical issue I’ve had in the last five years. I can see the house of a couple who have built a life here over sixty years and whose staple gun I think I need to return. I can see the house of a couple our age, one of whom joined our quaint little enclave by way of Haiti, and who has a son the same age as ours. Birds of all feathers.
Most neighborhoods are this way; built of people who are generally welcoming and helpful when needed, and who can’t be painted with a broad brush as much as we’d like to try. Appleton is this way. Wisconsin is this way.
Much has been said in recent years about the so-called “death of the neighborhood.” This has been chalked up to myriad factors, from lives lived online to suspicion of “the other” to the effect of political signs on neighborly civility. But if neighborhoods are dying, it might not be because we’re all so different that they can’t be saved. It might be because we’ve been too willing to let them die.
My finch neighbors, Atticus and Jennie, aren’t perfect. They make a mess. They don’t respect our shared property as much as I might have liked. We have our differences.
But that doesn’t mean that the neighborhood isn’t big enough for all of us. The finches add more to the texture of our neighborhood than they take away. All of my neighbors — the gearhead, the young couple, the elder statesman who might be missing a staple gun, and now the finches — help to explain why we live in the nest we do.
A few more years of the finches sub-letting our porch and I’ll learn all the lessons a person could ever need.
Ode to an Aging Dog
by Tyler Sjostrom
Hey, buddy. Who’s a good boy? You’re a good boy.
The other day, we were watching Animal Planet — your favorite channel, naturally — and there was one of those giant tortoises on the screen. The narrator revealed that they can live to be something like 150 years old, and I looked at you, with your creaky joints and stinky breath. I patted your head, and you blinked your increasingly cloudy eyes. “Not fair,” I said.
Now, I know that there’s a strong likelihood that you’ll never read this, because you’re a dog. But before time marches onward with ageless joints toward our eventual farewell, I thought we should have a chat. An appreciation. A toast.
Like so many good boys and girls before you, the day you moved in was the day we became a family. Before the fateful journey where we returned with a crate-bound ankle biter, your mom and I were just a couple of kids figuring things out. Immediately, our relationship had unavoidable subtext: Are they serious? Well, they do have a dog together.
History has shown that getting a pet can make or break a couple; after all, if a person can’t love a dog, then what likelihood is there that they’d ever properly love another human? In much the same way that working in the service industry should be a prerequisite for any position of power, good luck to anyone whose first helpless roommate has a human face.
For your mom and me, you were just what we needed to prod us toward a more permanent future. We both loved you and loved taking care of you, and we loved doing that together. We could proudly take you everywhere, and we really did just that — on road trips, on boats, to restaurants. You always behaved, and we have never been anything but proud to show you off. Your valedictory graduation from puppy class was possibly the crowning achievement of my first 30 years.
From the start, and in all the years since, you followed me everywhere — towards new homes, new jobs, and new pets. And eventually, memorably, you followed me down the aisle when I married your mom. There has never been a friendlier ring bearer.
And that brings us to today.
In the last year or so, you’ve gone from being an uncertain, skeptical presence in our toddler son’s life to being the second thing he asks about every morning, right after Blippi. (Note to prospective parents: Never let your child discover Blippi.) Our infant son doesn’t really know you yet, but he will. And likely, you will be the first thing our boys truly love that they have to let go of.
But that day isn’t today, and that’s why I’m glad to make you a promise. In return for all the great years you’ve given us so far, I can promise you that your mom and I will make your remaining years as great as possible. You always have a spot on the bed and on the couch and by my feet when I’m working. We’ll do dog parks and pup cups and all the Chuck-it you can handle. You made us a family when we brought you home, and you’ll break our hearts when you leave us.
I can’t give you 150 years. I can’t even promise you five. But I can make your remaining years the best you’ve had yet.
Because who’s a good boy? You’re a good boy. A very good boy.
What’s in a Name?
by Tyler Sjostrom
Among the early memories of my school-age life are a few that stand out for no particular reason – bread bags in my snow boots, the rusty, red playground slide that would probably be nicknamed “The Lawsuit” today, and thinking the Mr. Men book series was the height of literary culture. But one takeaway from my time in Mrs. Lutz’s kindergarten class remains vivid only because it became a recurring theme for the rest of my youth – no one, not the parents, other kids, or even the teacher, had any success pronouncing my last name.
Suh-jo-strum. Suh-jah-strum. Frequently, just Tyler S.
And so began a tenuous relationship with my own last name, where I spent more time correcting or, more often, just shrugging and forgiving the all-too-common mispronunciations. But the mistakes were only half the battle; there were also the nicknames that seemed to flow like Ecto Cooler from those who could pronounce it but chose not to. Tie-your Shoe-string and Snowstorm were only mildly less popular than being called the male body part that only slightly rhymes with Sjostrom. (We’ll allow your minds to compute that one.)
By the time I arrived in high school and realized during my semi-illustrious athletic career that the PA announcers weren’t even going to try to pronounce it (“Tyler Sorenson on the reception…”), I’d pretty much reached the uncomfortable conclusion that I actively disliked my own last name. I didn’t like that it meant “ocean stream” in Swedish. I didn’t like that I was apparently a distant relative of a famous Swedish actor. I really didn’t like the “J” that tripped everyone up like an uneven sidewalk when they saw it.
As I graduated into adulthood, I cared less about the childish taunts and tantalizing rhyming potential of my surname. It was just part of me, not unlike my distaste for sitcoms or love of Jeopardy! But one event made me realize I’d been losing my name’s value amidst all the confusion.
When my first son was born, my dad let out a whoop and a howl: “The name lives on!” And then he reminded me what he meant: up to that point, all the Sjostrom men of my generation had only had daughters. And while there could potentially be more Sjostrom boys scattered in the future, there would be no doubt now that the name would continue. Dad’s sense of relief and joy was palpable.
And I, after all the hemming and hawing of my youth, suddenly saw things his way. The Sjostrom name had never been mine to debate or despise or dismiss – it was his, and his dad’s, and so on.
My dad grew up as a descendent of homesteaders in a town literally called Swede Township. They talked in Swedish around the dinner table and in their country schoolhouse. No one there had any trouble pronouncing it, you can be certain.
When I met my wife over a decade ago, she had no trouble pronouncing it either. She’d had a college roommate with the same “Sjo” to begin her name, and I was smitten from the minute she didn’t choke on that first syllable. Today, she teaches her students to pronounce her last name – “Go to a show. Strum a guitar” – in the same way we’ll teach our two young sons.
Our boys may also experience the same growing pains that I did. They may wish they could just have an easy-to-say name like their friends. But they’ll just have to help all they encounter to say it right.
Go to a show – stum a guitar. Like an ocean stream, the name lives on.