Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Dog Days of Fall

What could possibly possess a man to drive down the road on a freezing morning with his windshield covered in frost and his head hanging out the driver’s side window?  How could he not have enough time to let the van's defrost setting warm up and do its jobs? Or enough sense to drag a scraper across the frozen surface to create at least a peephole?

This may read like a rant against a dumb driver I saw this morning.  It’s not.  And I know what affliction can cause such behavior:  Children.   More precisely, Children who’ve missed the bus and are late for school -- again. 

For, this morning, I was that dumb driver.

The first reaction is likely, this sounds dangerous.  Normally, I’d agree.  But our trip to school is along all neighborhood streets, of which I had an unobstructed and clear view.  The only things in any danger were my eyebrows and any squirrels who didn’t hear us coming.  I also didn’t go faster than 15 miles per hour, being quiet roads, and seeing that my icy brow couldn’t take much more. 

I’m a bit of a safety nut.  So I can assure you it was safe, though certainly on the stupid side. 

Sometimes, I wish I had a layer of fur.
Still, why not let the defrost work before departing, or at least scrape the damn windows?  Answer: time and circumstance.  

This morning was the first deep frost of the fall, leaving a layer of white on everything in sight, including the cars.  I first noticed it when we came barreling out of the house in a mad dash to school.  As we scrambled into the van without a second to spare, I turned the defrost on full-blast and used the windshield wiper spray button – loaded with negative 15 de-icer -- to take off the layer of frost.  It appeared to work, and we departed.  

Yet, with the cold air moving across the outside of the front window and the semi-warm air blowing on its inside, the frost came back with a vengeance. 

The clock ticked on.  Our 7-year-old was almost certainly going to be late for church school, which she attends before elementary school one day a week.  It’s her first communion year.  Last week she was 15 minutes late for church school, which might be a mortal sin; I'll have to check my Catholic handbook.   Our 10-year-old, on the other had, had less than three minutes before the late bell rang out at the middle school.  Luckily, that's not a sin.  Still, both were late far too recently for another incident. 

Frankly, at this point the 7-year-old can be classified as a chronic offender, continuing her life-long challenge with making the bus and promptly arriving at school.  I remember a report card she got after one quarter back in 1st Grade.  She read it, saying, “I got one 5 …”  Which, under the newfangled grading system, would put her off the charts.  Then she finished reading, “… but it’s for Tardy.”

You’d think waking them up an hour and a half before school starts would be enough.  That’s assuming they actually listen to instructions, like wake up, get dressed, brush your teeth, and eat breakfast.  It seems so easy when broken down into these four simple steps, but it never is.  

Clearly, as the frost overtook the window seconds into our desperate trip, I had few choices.  I could park the car and let the defrost blowing out of the AC unit catch up: estimated time, 3 to 4 minutes.  I could stop, get out, find the scraper I haven’t used since March, and see if this sort of frost is the type that can be scraped off: estimated time, 2 to 3 minutes, with a 50 percent chance success rate.  Or I could roll down the window, stick my head clear out into the cold morning air, and trudge onward to the two school drop points.

So, that’s what I did.  

I’m not proud.

Luckily, the window cleared before the first stop; my eyebrows defrosted by the second.  And both kids arrived at their destination safe and sound.  Only one was tardy, but she’s always late.    

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

One Fish, Two Fish, Dead Fish, New Fish

“Dad?  My one fish looks different.”

“How so?”

“Well, he looks kind of bigger...”

“So he’s growing.”

“And, he used to have a black tail. Now he has an orange tail.”

“Oh. That.”

Among other things, this simple exchange extinguished any delusions I had that I could get away with an actual crime, like a casino heist. Not to say I'd try; but, I’ve occasionally wondered if I could. Yet, clearly, I can’t even pull off a common fish switcheroo.

Every parent with fish-owning children knows the drill, often involving a late-night run to the 24-hour Fish Emporium looking for just the right shade of pink Beta, or goldfish, or some other tropical variety. We’ve all done it.  

Earlier in the day, I stood in front of the fish wall at Pet Smart staring at three tanks filled with Sunburst Platies -- in various hues of yellow, orange and red, some with black tipped fins, others with just dark orange fins -- trying to recall the exact color of my daughter’s recently departed Sunburst Platy, who went by the name of Sunny. 

Meet the new and improved, Sunny
the fish.  A bit larger, more orange,
and he still swims.  Yeah, Dad!  
I found Sunny this morning lying on the bottom of the tank motionless, the other fish swimming around acting like nothing was wrong. I figured, dead fish float, right? So I got the net and tried to see if I could get him to move. Nothing. And this is why my wife objected to the idea of getting the kids fish from the start, because of the certain eventuality of dead fish. It skeeves her out.

This isn’t our first attempt at fish. 

A few years ago we had the misfortune of winning a few goldfish at the state fair. We didn’t actually win, it was just one of the last nights of the fair’s annual run and the carney working the fish booth decided my kids deserved a few fish, even though they couldn’t get a ping pong ball to land in an empty fishbowl to save their lives. We left that god-forsaken booth with three fish -- one for each of the girls. It was a long ride home.

The next day I read about goldfish, and somehow wound up at the pet store buying sixty dollars’ worth of aquarium and aquarium accoutrements to keep the free fish alive. It didn’t work.    

Over the next three months I went to Pet Smart as often as Norm went to Cheers. The staff would greet me with, “Want the usual?” I became a master of the fish switcheroo.

Then one day, I decided to give up my hobby of replacing dead goldfish with live ones, and to use the whole goldfish experience to teach my kids a bit about life – and death. The next time a goldfish died, I sat the kids down one at a time and told them that it died. I expected waterworks. And at least one of the kids did cry. But I remember then 5-year-old Chloe’s reaction most of all. I told her the fish died; she looked at me and said, “Can we get a kitten?”

Within another two months all the replacement goldfish were dead, and the empty aquarium and accoutrements were stowed on a shelf in the basement.

This summer, when 10-year-old Maisie declared she wanted to get the old aquarium going again and set it up in her room, I anxiously agreed, with one condition: no goldfish. We read up on tropical fish and decided on Platies, and a few other hearty varieties. It’s been a few months, and everything has gone swimmingly. That is, until Sunny stopped swimming.

And, then I did what parents do. Yet I'm not sure why we work so hard to shield our kids from the death of a fish. As deaths go, it's an easy one to take. Maybe we just don’t want them to be hurt at all by any loss? Maybe we just want to protect them from all the harsh realities of the world? Or maybe we’re afraid they will get too used to those realities at too young an age? What happens when the cat dies, will they want a pony?

In reality, most kids take the death of a fish better than parents do, even if they’re not quite sure why it happened. It’s sad, but they move on. I’ve seen it. So, I’ve decided today’s failed switcheroo was my last.

Before she went to bed tonight, Maisie and I discussed what happened, and she pointed out to me the differences between Sunny and Sunny II. And, it’s true, Sunny II is a bit bigger. He doesn’t have the same gradient of yellow orange as Sunny, nor the black tips on his tail and fins.

She ended our little talk with a piece of advice:

“Dad,” she said as I began to close the door. “Next time, just tell me.”

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Damn You, Soccer Socks. Damn You Straight to Hell.

If it’s a Saturday in Autumn, you can be certain of at least one thing: at some point in the day our house will be host to a desperate, frantic, tear-filled search for a clean pair of soccer socks.

I adore soccer. Yet I have grown to truly hate soccer socks. Maybe I shouldn’t say hate. As a rule we discourage casual use of the word “hate” in our family. So, let’s just say I detest soccer socks. Better yet, I loathe soccer socks.

Again, I really like soccer. I played all while growing up, and into high school. And, I’ve always been one of those soccer snobs who thinks following international play makes me a superior person. You know the type.  

I have a favorite premier league team: the Gunners, of course. And I have a strong opinion about who is the best midfielder in the world. And it’s not Xavi, or even Ronaldo, who’s more of a striker in my eyes. As you can see, my self-proclaimed affinity for soccer borders on the obnoxious. 

So when our kids became of soccer playing age, we did like most American families and signed them up. These days we have two kids playing, and I happen to be the coach for one of their teams and the assistant coach for the other. Luckily, my kids love soccer, too.

But do they love soccer enough to just put on any pair of soccer socks and play? No.

Our younger soccer player, in particular, refuses to wear just any pair of soccer socks, of which we have quite a few. And each Saturday in Fall (and Sundays now too, with both of them playing) the same scene unfolds, usually about an hour before game time.
“Do you have your soccer socks?” I ask, to blank stares from said child. And so it begins. 

“Let’s find them!” I order, as the anxiety of being late for a game I’m coaching gets the better of my tone, and we set off in search of the missing socks. 

Behold, I have seen the enemy. 
And, it has four pink stripes
and is made of cotton.
We start by searching for my wife, who often displays encyclopedic knowledge of the whereabouts of every piece of clothing in the house, to ask if she knows where said socks may be.

“Honey!”  I’ll call, either up the stairs or down the stairs, or in the general direction of where the mother of my children is at that moment. “Have you seen her soccer socks?!”

The answer goes something like this, emanating from whichever floor my wife is on at the time:  “One pair is in the basket upstairs! There's another in her sock drawer! And a third just finished up in the washer!”

You’d think knowing the approximate whereabouts of three pairs of soccer socks at this point would make finding and putting on a pair easy. But it doesn’t.
Invariably, the pair in the drawer doesn’t fit right and they never have, I’m informed. And, it turns out there’s only one sock in the basket, all alone, a state many socks tend to find themselves at the end of the laundry cycle. It was the wrong pair anyway. Because, you can almost guarantee, that the preferred pair of socks -- the ones with the four pink stripes – are almost certainly wet and in the washing machine. 

There are, of course, many other pairs of clean soccer socks in the house, a small army of seldom used stockings amassed over several years of our finicky kids playing soccer. But none of those others ones will suffice. This particular soccer player needs the pink-striped pair.  

Doesn't she know that once you're running around, you won't notice what socks you're wearing? She should, because I tell her this every time. She refuses to believe it. Doesn't she know that some kids in the world play soccer barefoot, on fields made of dirt? And that she should just feel lucky to have any socks at all, and a ball not made of duct tape? None of these logical arguments move her off the pressing need for this particular pair of socks.  

In all my years playing soccer, I don’t remember once caring about which socks I wore. Cleats mattered. Shin-guards mattered. But socks?

Yet, as our family goes through our weekly pregame ritual, the passion about socks becomes evident. There’s often screaming. A few tears. Occasionally, there are threats of never signing them up for soccer ever again, or of making them play barefoot, depending on which parent makes the threat. 

Then somehow, almost miraculously, the damned pair of pink striped soccer socks are dry and on the feet.

And, we finally get to go play and coach and watch soccer. Which, we do adore.    

By the way, if you're  wondering who is the best midfielder in the world. Clearly, it's Cesc Fabregas.

Like the article?  Here's others you may enjoy: Vegas, Baby!, Dog Responds to "Mystery Poo" False Accusations, and Tip of the Hat to Single Parents, and Thanks to My Backup,

Friday, October 4, 2013

Government Shutdown Edition - A Fox Leading the Hen House

[Warning: This one's on politics.]

In psychology, they call it the self-fulfilling prophecy: to believe something so completely that it becomes true through your own actions.  And, it’s at the heart of the political crisis playing out before our eyes.   

For decades, we’ve witnessed the constant assailing of our federal government by a vocal corner of our political spectrum. Their refrain that this government of ours is wasteful and inefficient; that it’s hampering our economy; and that it’s even a threat to our freedom and our American way of life.

We all buy it on some level, because nobody supports waste, economic failure or threats to our freedom.

When we do so we ignore that most of us support the fundamental goals at the heart of our government spending:  a strong and capable defense; the education of our kids; safety in our homes; an environment free of pollutants and toxins; a safe and reliable food supply; reasonable access to higher education; Social Security for older Americans; a safety net that prevents our most destitute from starving in their homes or dying on the streets; and, now we can include access to affordable health coverage.  We want to do it as efficiently as possible, but we support these goals.

We often forget that, buying into how much our government sucks, because sometimes it really does.  When we see the cost of a hammer at the Pentagon, or we hear about federal employees partying-up in Vegas on our dime, we all get pissed off. 

You know what else should piss us off?  When some among us root against our democratically-elected government, hoping that it fails.  Because, that’s what is happening today. 

The evidence is all around us.  Just look how excited some were that government websites went down on the first day of the Affordable Care Act.  Proof again, in their eyes, that our democratically-elected government can’t do a thing right.  How can we ignore that these sites went down because of too much traffic, caused by a  mass of Americans desperately looking for an affordable answer to their healthcare needs.  

Here's one idea: make the shutdown permanent. 
Why didn't we think of that before. Thanks, Fox News.
While this occurred, House leaders were digging in on the federal government shutdown – indicating they won’t relent until their demands are met.  They refuse to wait until the next election, or until the people actually side with them in this epic battle over how we, as a nation and as individuals, provide for our health in an affordable way.  They’d sooner shut down our federal government than let this law try to solve a long-standing problem.

It's frustrating to watch.  But what’s more frustrating is why they are doing this.  

The shutdown is described by many as a battle over the Affordable Care Act.  And it is that.  But it’s also much more. 

Sure, these House members don’t like the ACA.  But it is just a hill on which to make their stand – one battle in a wider war against everything our federal government and our nation has become, pretty much since the Great Depression.

If you’ve visited the Fox News website since the shutdown began – which I have, just to see what the color of the sky is in that alternate universe – you’ve likely seen proof of this wider war in one blaring headline asking one simple question:

"Budget Battle, Partial Shutdown Raises the Question:  Can We Do Without It?"

Without it?  The federal governments' body is still warm, and they want to kill it more.  

The news site goes on, in much smaller text, to list as sub-heads a few departments and agencies, such as HUD, Education Department, NASA, and of course, the punching bag that is the IRS.   (Sure,  I could live without the IRS.  But I don’t know if our country could).

So there it is.  In criminal law it’s called “Mens Rae.”  Guilt of the mind.   And it shows the real motive for the shutdown.  They want the federal government to fail.  They think it’s failure would be a good thing – and what they’d get to do next would be good for them and for their bank accounts.

In psychology, it’s called a self-fulfilling prophecy.   In America, we can just call it the conservative agenda: 

We want to cut our federal government because we think it sucks.  Now we’re making sure it sucks.  And then, we’re going to try and cut it some more.

The truth is, its easy to hate Washington.  To forget all our democratic government does and all our nation stands for.  It reminds me of a scene from Monty Python's Life of Brian, where the PFJ is sitting around a room hating on the Romans.  John Cleese's characters asks the group:  "What have the Romans ever done for us?" 

The answers are not what he expected, ending when he has to ask the question one last time: "All right, but apart from the sanitation, medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh water system and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?"  

Fox News asked their own version of this question, what could we do without?  But I think this budget battle raises a different question.

Today, we are a nation that feeds its poor, educates its young, defends its borders, protects its environment, keeps promises to its seniors, promotes fair play, and does what it can to foster opportunity.   And here's the question:  Which of those should we stop doing?

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Actual Conversations with Kids: The Sphinx and Its Nose.

The setup:  Near the end of Dr. Seuss’s Daisy-Head Mayzie book, there’s an image of a news anchor saying Daisy-Head Fever is gripping the nation.  The anchor sits in front of an array of images from around the world, including one of the Sphinx with a daisy on its head.  Reading it to my 5-year-old and 7-year-old the other day,  I was privy to the following actual conversation.

Otherwise historically accurate, this image shows
a nose on the Sphinx.  Can you believe it? 
As I read the words on this particular page, Sadie, age 5, stopped me.  Pointing to the image of the Sphinx, which in this artist’s rendition had a small, but distinct bump of a nose, she said, “Wait, the Sphinx lost his nose, didn’t he?” 
Clearly, she was confused by this image – though, apparently unfazed by the flower growing out of the main characters’ head on the cover of a Time magazine.  
“Yes, it’s gone,” I responded, wondering how the heck she knew what a sphinx was, or that the famous one in Giza, Egypt, didn’t have a nose.  (Phineas and Ferb, most likely).   
“Oh,” she replied, clearly dismayed the image was wrong, and that the actual Sphinx was still nose-less. 
Then she added, as sincere as only a five-year-old can be, “I sure hope somebody finds it.”

Laughing inside, I didn’t know what to say.  Luckily, her big sister,  7-year-old Chloe, did.  Sighing at her younger sister, she replied with typical big sister wisdom and superiority, “Sadie, if they found the nose, it would be in the newspaper.”

Duh.  C’mon Sadie.  Clearly, that would be a front page story.  Not just reported via an old drawing in a Dr. Seuss book.   And so the global search for the missing Sphinx nose goes on -- at least in the minds of my children.

In writing, they say it's important to have believable dialogue.  Thankfully, in life, the same rules don't apply.