Sunday, November 28, 2010

Sunday Haiku: Trade Proposal

Willing to trade: two
adult male eyeteeth for a
pants hanger that works.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Reader Poll

Now that all four parts of My Worst Week Ever have been posted, I'm interested in reader feedback. Please take a second to answer the poll question in the upper right corner. It'll be up for about a week.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Sweet Celebration

When we were dating and it was clear that we would stay together, I regularly (neurotically) asked my now-wife if our children would be cute. She consistently reassured me that they would be. As it turned out, she was prescient; our kids are cute.

Now that we have kids (and they're not some vague, futuristic idea), I realize that I fixated on the wrong question. We're all wired to believe our own children are cute. This is very good news for the rare ugly baby that comes along. I should have asked a more important question: will our children be sweet? As it turns out, they're sweet, too.

Last week, we celebrated our 15th wedding anniversary (the crystal, glass and watches anniversary according to Although kids often make cards for their parents' birthdays or father's day or mother's day because one par
ent prompts the children to pitch in to the celebration for the other parent, anniversaries are different. We didn't expect our kids to do anything to recognize our day, even though it was important to us. Still, I mentioned it to Charlie, our eight-year-old, in the car that day and then thought nothing more of it. Later, after we'd gotten home, Charlie disappeared into the basement to his art table and returned with this picture:

He'd taken the initiative to celebrate our special day without anyone having to prompt him. Charlie does this kind of sweet, affectionate thing all the time, and it makes me so happy. I can't capture in any medium the lovey eyes that Charlie makes when he does or says something sweet for someone he loves. That's the most precious part.

The design here reminds me of '70s ski jackets. It's bold yet simple. The whole objet reminds me of things his aunt Lauren created for people in the family when she was a little girl.

I'm glad our boys are cute, but I wouldn't trade the sweetness for that attribute.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Friday, November 19, 2010

Young blog reader

I take this as evidence that Teddy reads Competent Parent.

He must have really liked this post. He posed this way for his mother and asked her to take the picture.

Also, even though the boys have bunk beds, they do like to hang out together in Charlie's top bunk, especially in the morning. The bunks, though, have seriously cut down on bedtime troubles with bothering and distracting each other from falling asleep.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

I'm not having dessert tonight

When Charlie was four, he would sometimes (often) sit down at the dinner table, look at his plate and say "I'm not having dessert tonight." He said that because he knows our family rule that you have to eat dinner or a designated portion of dinner in order to get dessert. If he didn't like what was on his plate, he would just write off dessert, and that was that. In his brother's fourth year, he tends to moan and twist his body away from his plate when he doesn't like what's for dinner. Oh and take the offending items off his plate and put them on the table (which is against the rules). The dinner/dessert rule applies to him too, and he more and more often gets himself together and eats the required portion. If he's like Charlie, he'll turn the corner soon and eat most everything without complaint or negotiation.

But this post actually isn't about meals and dessert. It's about rules. A couple with a teenager recently explained their curfew rule: if their daughter misses curfew, the next time around, curfew will be a half hour earlier. And if she misses that, it'll be a half hour earlier still. Their daughter has never missed curfew.

Hearing about that rule that we don't need yet but will try to remember for later made me reflect on the rules we enforce with our boys and their relationship to those rules. Obviously, we devise and enforce rules for several reasons: keeping our kids safe, teaching them manners, maintaining our own sanity, etc. Their reactions to the rules make life interesting.

At Teddy's age (4), he just pushes against rules all the time, trying to see if they stand. They do. Actually, he doesn't just push against rules; he also helps to enforce them. We have a rule that if a boy watched a DVD yesterday (or had some other significant screen time), he can't watch one today. We happened into that rule a long time ago, and it succeeds. They don't even end up with a screentime blitz as often as every other day either because the schedule doesn't allow or because they forget to ask on a day when they could. Recently, I let Teddy watch a few DVDs while I worked during the day. That evening, he went to his grandmother's house, and he told me that he would have to tell Popo (grandma) that he couldn't watch TV that night at her house because he'd watched a DVD during the day. Yes!

Charlie knows the rules, observes them nicely and loves to enforce them a little too much. We often have to tell him that a situation is between his parents and his brother and that he needs to butt out. I don't look forward to the day when a reminder to practice his trumpet or clean something up isn't met with quick compliance.

As we observe our kids, we clearly see that they are happy we make and keep the rules. Kids whose parents don't communicate clear rules or change them all the time or fail to enforce them look pretty miserable. They know that if the grownups aren't in charge, then they are. And they know they're too young to be in charge. It stresses them out.

The most interesting aspect of the rules regime is the creation of agency. Within the framework of "eat your dinner to get dessert", the child actually exercises a choice. Same with the curfew rule we heard about. For now, anyway, we can set rules with clear consequences and carry out those consequences and watch the lesson get learned. Foot stomping now resolves itself into "I don't want dessert tonight" eventually.
Moans today tend to turn to compliance in a few weeks or months. Knowing where the boundaries are helps the kids decide how they're going to behave within them.

Now go to bed!

Friday, November 12, 2010

Adding a T to the Three Rs

Our third-grader has an email account. We had to set up an email account in order for his iTunes account to work. Sigh. Password overload starts early.

Now that he has the account, though, he uses it to communicate (in a very third grade way) with far flung family. When he started sending emails, we couldn't bear to watch the slow, hunt and peck typing. We instituted a rule that he has to play x minutes of typing games before he can play email. There are a zillion of them out there in many themes. Charlie likes a boring one called Typing Tidepool. His cousin introduced him to the BBC's DanceMat Typing. Me, I'm fond of Spacebar Invaders, but Charlie doesn't seem very interested in that one.

We have already seen an increase in Charlie's typing speed, and he actually touch types from the home row. Typing is a skill he'll need to succeed, and it's so much better for him to learn it now while his brain is plastic enough to create the quick progress he's already made. I didn't learn to type the correct way until high school, and by that point, it was pretty tough to learn.

Because handheld devices will replace desktop and laptop devices, maybe we should also start him on thumb typing. He'll have an advantage over us sausage-fingered adults. His thumb pads are tiny!

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

My worst week ever: Part 4 - conclusion

I now conclude the story of my worst week ever picking up after I got dumped, watched my man lose his shot at the presidency and fell ill with a stabbing pain in my side.

After I got violated for medical purposes by my primary care physician, we drove into Oakland, Pittsburgh's university/major hospital district to get me checked out at Children's Hospital. There, they had to be sure the diagnosis was correct, so I dropped trow and laid on my side again while another doctor snapped on a rubber glove. Yup, no doubt about it. That appendix needed to come out. They would have moved me into surgery right then and there, but an appendectomy shuts down the intestines, and I'd foolishly eaten dinner. They'd have to wait several hours before they could cut me.

The pain, though, started right away. A woman that I can only guess was a second-stringer poked me, oh, 5 or 6 times to try to get the IV in. When she gave up on the traditional spot in my arm, she put the IV in the back of my left hand. Ouchie! Couldn't you just stick your finger...nevermind. At some point, maybe right then, someone cut a plastic cup in half lengthwise and taped it over the IV needle. Apparently, patients like me tend to claw at the painful, restrictive thing in their hand when under general anesthesia. Good thing they had that medical supply contract with the Solo corporation.

Actually, although I said my first inkling that this condition wasn't going to go away and leave me to enjoy my weekend was during the first rectal exam,
the pain of that needle going into my hand really brought the reality home. I started crying, but it wasn't really because of the pain; it was more the accumulation of the week's events and the disappointment of losing out on the weekend's festivities.

After the IV, I don't remember much for a while. It was about 11:30 before they could operate. There was the classic moment of the anesthesia mask coming over my face. Following the instruction to count down from 100, I don't think I made it past 93.

Next, I awoke in a semi-dark room in one of a row of beds with a tube up my nose and that pesky IV restricting where I could move my hand. It was the middle of the night. So many unpleasant discoveries in this process. The tube, an NG tube, had been inserted in order to aspirate the nasty stuff out of my intestines, which, as mentioned above, had gone on strike. Take off one little useless dead end near where the small and large intestine meet, and the whole intestinal neighborhood throws in the towel. As if waking up from general anesthesia weren't hard enough, the tube running up through my nose and down to the intestines made my throat raw, inhibited my breathing and just felt terrible.

When daylight came, they moved me from the recovery room to a regular hospital room. I complained about the tube hurting my throat. A resident (who maybe wasn't so familiar with appendectomy recovery) decided the tube could come out less than 12 hours after surgery. He asked for some paper towels and told me to be ready with them because I would "feel like I had to blow my nose". He untaped the tube, put his left hand over my face, and started pulling the tube out with his right hand. As far as I could tell, the tube was 31 feet long and burned every inch. One can never know exactly what another person feels, but if that feeling was this guy's definition of feeling like he had to blow his nose, in the immortal words of Mr. T, I pity the fool. It felt like a volcano erupted through my nostril.

At least the tube was out, and I could breathe and swallow normally. After a delay of about 20 minutes, the intestines on the picket lines started up their favorite chant of "Hey hey! Ho ho! Nasty stuff has got to go!" I'm guessing at the actual words because I don't speak intestinese. Translated into our language, this chant sounded liked, looked like and was violent retching. Absent a vacuum and 31 feet of tubing, my meals of the last few days exited much more quickly and grossly than they had been overnight. They gave me a kidney shaped plastic pan to throw up in (What, this doesn't come in appendix shape? Call the good people at Solo.) About an hour and 15 minutes later, it happened again. Then an hour after that and 50 minutes after that. I spent all day Friday heaving. By the evening, the frequency had increased to about every 15 minutes, and the heaves had turned dry. I learned on the Friday of this horrible week that bile wasn't just a metaphor. It started out yellowish and morphed to straight black.

When the resident went off the schedule and another doc came on, he inquired as to just what nincompoop authorized the removal of the tube. Then he said something dreadful: "It's going to have to go back in." Whaaaa?!? Although having the tube rub my throat raw through the night had been quite awful, I at least had no idea how it got there originally. It went in while I was under. Now, I had to abide watching the tube go into my nose and then feeling it slide down a throat that had been rubbed raw by bile all day. If you're wondering, it's nowhere near as smooth as threading a needle. The tube balks and stops and has to be backed out and pushed back in some more. And then, once you've endured that, you have an NG tube up your nose again. Sigh.

Up to this point, my family had taken shifts sitting by me and comforting me. My parents brought my brother in after school on Friday, and he fairly tiptoed into the room with a stricken look on his face. In the hospital gown and with the IV in my hand and my kidney trough in the bed, I made quite a sight. He brought me some school stuff, which I don't think I really touched over the weekend. I shuffled around the floor with him, my wheeled IV pole carrying its teetering cargo. I do hope that IV control units have gotten less cumbersome in the last two decades. His visit signaled the end of continuous family support; one of my parents drove him out to the retreat center, and they proceeded to enjoy the calm before the Christmas storm. I think my other parent stayed as long as he/she could, and then returned for some time on Saturday. The big party was Saturday night, though, and after a certain time Saturday afternoon, it was just me and my neglected school books and my tubes and the hospital TV.

The IV computer beeped on a regular basis, 24 hours a day. A hospital may be the least hospitable place to recover from surgery. Shift changes created traffic in my room. The hallways buzzed with activity. The lights never went off all the way. A brief overnight lull ended at about five in the morning.

I felt so lonely on Saturday evening. I knew my family and friends were having a great time at a once-a-year party. My great new outfit was going unworn. Meanwhile, I had a tube up my nose, a cup taped over the needle in my hand and 21 Jumpstreet on the TV, interrupted by the arrhythmic beeping of the IV.

Finally, on Sunday morning, the protesters cleared the bilious picket lines. The tube came out for good. By Sunday evening, they cleared me to taste a popsicle, the first food to pass my lips since Thursday's inconvenient dinner. When the popsicle stayed down, they brought me apple sauce. Slow and steady wins the first-food-in-days race. On Monday morning, they brought breakfast. It's popular to complain about hospital food, but the only meal I ate on that stay tasted delicious. The novelty of eating anything and not the menu - institutional scrambled eggs and English muffin - accounted for my two thumbs up review. By midday, they took out the IV and checked me out of the hospital.

When I returned to school on Wednesday (the earliest possible day the docs would let nerdy old me), I rocked my gray on gray outfit. I felt a lot older for having experienced everything I had experienced in the hospital over the weekend. The following spring and summer, I dated a great girl closer to my age (she was only a high school senior). She broke up with me just before Thanksgiving break of her freshman year of college. I cried with my mom about it. We're still friends, though, if facebook counts. Although I never worked on another political campaign, I did vote in the 1992 election, the first one for which I was old enough. After occasional voting in mid-term elections in college, voting is now non-negotiable, and I've put out a yard sign here and there. The only nights I've spent in hospitals since 1988 have seen my sons ushered into this world. I'll take a labor & delivery overnight over an appendectomy visit any day, but I've admittedly played the easier role in that process.

All things considered, I'm grateful for that week. The hospital stay taught me compassion for those who have to spend any amount of time in a hospital. Getting dumped for neither the first nor the last time taught me that I could survive something that feels really bad at the time and go on to even better relationships. Of course, the most lasting thing that I got out of the experience may be the best: a really great story.

Friday, November 5, 2010

My worst week ever - Part 3

This is the third installment of my long-form story of my worst week ever. Prior installments here and here, respectively.

If by Tuesday evening, my week looked dark, I at least had a nice weekend event coming up. Perhaps a reversal of fortune was in the offing.

As you may or may not know, I grew up the son of Salvation Army pastors. Many people know the Salvation Army best through the red kettles the organization uses to collect money during the Christmas season. What you may not know is that Salvation Army officers like my parents essentially have their workload doubled throughout the Christmas season. In addition to pastoring a church and running a robust social service operation, they also have to oversee a very physically demanding fundraising operation that depends heavily on the economy, the weather and a less-than-dependable workforce.

Because of the stresses of the Christmas season, the Salvation Army had started by the time I was a teenager holding retreats for officers and their families in November. Back then, I didn't think much of the timing. Now,I can see in it a message that the higher-ups knew a tough time was coming for these families, and it would be good for them to take a breath before life changed radically for the almost two months running right up to Christmas Eve (a very lucrative day to raise money via red kettles at stores in the days before e-commerce.) The retreat weekend featured a Chri
stmas party, which called for a new outfit.

After my mom picked me up from my election day door-knocking, we probably grabbed dinner at Wendy's or Napoli Pizza in Bridgeville, south of Pittsburgh. We shopped in Bridgeville because it had both a TJ Maxx and a Marshall's. What more does the thrify, fashion-conscious teenager need?

This was at the tail end of my gray phase. In about sixth grade, I'd decided that gray the safest clothing color for me. I especially liked gray pants. That night at Marshall's, I remember scoring a rugby shirt with wide black and white stripes that a) never fit me right but b) was inexpensive. Mainly, though, we were there for my brother and me to acquire outfits for the Christma
s party that coming weekend. I chose some gray pants with more than the traditional number of pockets and the gray sweater pictured here. Yes, I still own this sweater, though I honestly have no idea why. I would like to say that I knew that ugly sweater parties were going to become de rigeur ironic hipster fixtures of the new millennium, but I would be lying. It's closer to the truth to say that I'm a sentimental pack rat and this sweater is in my sacred bundle.

While I was pleased to have new clothes to show off on the weekend, I couldn't help but notice that as we were leaving Marshall's, I had an intense, tingly pain in my right leg. In fact, I didn't feel great in general. Having hiked through public housing all day for Dukakis, I attributed the leg pain to fatigue and the flu-like symptoms to the rhythm of November cold outside and blasting heat inside the apartment entryways.

When I awoke on Wednesday, the pain was still there and the flu symptoms were worse. I had a test in computer math that I decided I couldn't miss, so I went to school. My school bus route ran through hilly first-ring suburbs, and we traversed many of those hills on brick streets. I recall that the school buses already had their chains on the tires for winter. The bus bouncing on those brick streets plus the chains on the tires assaulted the pain that had moved from my right leg to settle in my right lower abdomen. That was the worst school bus ride ever in which I was not getting beat up (another story or series of stories).

Mercifully, my computer math class was second period, so I didn't have to endure too long before taking the test. The test passed in a blur of pain and nausea. Right after computer math, I reported my desperately sick state to someone and discovered that the school district doctor visited the high school on Wednesdays. He checked me out, palpated the right side of my abdomen and declared my symptoms viral. One of my parents picked me up, and I laid up at home.

Thursday, I awoke to find the flu symptoms gone but the pain persisting. It felt like a lot less to contend with, and the nerd in me (Who am I kidding? "Nerd" and "me" were synonyms.) hated to miss school. Back over the washboard streets to school. I don't remember much about that school day, but I do remember deciding I had to get more medical attention while bouncing over the brick streets on the way home. My mom called the doctor, and she could fit us in that evening. I had a quick dinner, and we went for a 6:00 appointment. The dinner would prove to be an agony-prolonging mistake.

As my wife and children can attest, I don't have the most air-tight memory. Certain events, though, heighten the senses and seal in the memories. That night at my regular doctor's office, my symptoms called for the first rectal exam of my life and - amazingly - not the only one that evening. I won't dwell, but suffice it to say that if I had thought this ailment was going to go away quietly and leave me to enjoy the weekend, this unwelcome turn of events disabused me of that notion.

As she snapped off the rubber glove, she explained that the exam confirmed her guess: appendicitis. Although my appendix had not ruptured, it was dangerously close. This called for an immediate departure to Children's Hospital.

This is not the end of the story. One more installment should wrap it up.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Metapost on my Schedule

I'm pretty allergic to metaposts on blogs. The most prevalent (and embarrassing) species of metapost follows a long absence of posts and recommits to posting regularly:

"Sorry, I've been busy/traveling/trapped under something heavy. I'm back now, though, and I'll post every day for the rest of your life."

A post like that is typically followed by more silence from the blogger.

When I came back from my moving hiatus this summer, I decided two things.

1. Not to create that kind of promise.
2. To adopt a schedule for the first time since I started this blog about two years ago. If you haven't noticed, I've been posting a minimum of Wednesday, Friday and a Sunday Haiku if I have one. That's the schedule I'm attempting to stick to.

It's good to have a schedule. In a wonderful interview with Terri Gross in a special episode of Fresh Air, Jon Stewart recently said that we think of structure as quelling creativity, but actually creativity thrives within structure. He's only the most recent person I've heard praise structure's contribution to creativity. Hopefully, this schedule will drive me to more creativity.

Since I adopted the schedule, I have found that it helps, except when it doesn't. I've been posting more faithfully, which also means I've been thinking and observing more carefully. Last Wednesday, though, I really mailed it in because I wanted to keep the schedule. I was on a deadline at work and didn't have the time or juice to do much more than that. But then my mother-in-law (probably my most frequent commenter) mentioned that post when we talked that week. Mostly, she liked the photo, which is what the whole mailed-in thing was about.

Finally, at the behest of a professional colleague I admire, I'll be posting some of my jokey charts on Mondays when I have them. I hope you like those, too.

Finally, finally, I wouldn't put up this metapost without putting up a real post today, too, so it's below this one.

School Bus Mysteries Solved

The experience of chaperoning my third-grader's school field trip last Friday solved two mysteries for me. When I mentioned this epiphany to my wife, she said "well, duh", and maybe you will, too. But maybe you're like me and had always wondered:

1. Why do school field trips leave the school at, like 9:30 and come back to the school at, say, 2:00, when the school day runs 9 am to 3:40?
2. Just what do school bus drivers do between the morning and afternoon runs?

It turns out the two mysteries and their solutions intertwine. Maybe this only applies in districts like ours that contract out every single bus trip; the district does not own buses. You've picked up on it, right? The buses can only be rented out for field trip runs at times that don't conflict with the morning and afternoon runs. So, to be safe, the bus company won't guarantee they can leave my son's school until 9:30, after their drivers have dropped off their morning kids and driven to the school from wherever. The buses that drove for the field trip are different and come from different companies than the buses that drive my son and his classmates to school.

Of course, solving one or two mysteries sometimes opens up many more. I'm still wondering:

a. where the buses/drivers go during the field trip time? other shorter field trips nested within the field trips?
b. what crossing guards do in the middle of the day?
c. why the field trips from my kid's school always leave the school 30 minutes later than they say they will? I walked into the museum on Friday and saw two parents waiting there. I heard one tell the other that she'd been there since 9:30, the time the kids were supposed to leave the school. I asked "first time chaperoning a field trip?" They sighed that it was. I shared my wisdom about not rushing to field trip locations and then proceeded to wait another 30 minutes with them until the buses rolled up.

Monday, November 1, 2010