Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Be a father to your a smallish chair

After the foolishness of bass ackwards day a few weeks ago, I welcomed the arrival of the semantically challenging Take a Father to School Day in the Pittsburgh Public Schools. I call it semantically challenging because in the three or four years I've been aware of this 13-year tradition, it's been called "Take your Father to School Day" and "Take a Significant Male Figure to School Day". That latter one trips off the tongue. The problem, of course, is that in a big urban district, there will definitely be children who don't have an involved father to take to school. This year's official title was "Take a Father/Significant Male to School Day". One of my son's teachers took to calling us "male role models" to cover the grandfathers, uncles, pastors and coaches who filled the role for the day.

So, it's a tricky subject. The good news is that the number of men showing up at my kid's school grows every year. I last went when I was a first grade dad, joining about 75 significant males. This year, 150-200 men attended, which rocks pretty hard in a school of about 380. We had a very hard time fitting everyone on the front steps for the group photo.
After some words from the principal and a dad and a video featuring Mike Tomlin (a Pittsburgh Public Schools parent) in the auditorium, we enjoyed some donuts and departed for our respective classrooms.

I appreciate the fact that my son's school doesn't turn TAFTSD into a carnival; some parents were talking about the field day that goes on at their school on this day. I prefer the chance to actually witness classroom activity, even though I know having a bunch of large men sitting in small chairs amidst the students changes the dynamic massively.
In my son's class, there were 9-10 dads to about 20 kids for the morning hours that I was there. I've known some of his classmates since he was in kindergarten, so it's easy to watch out for kids who did not have a "dad" with them and have them join our little group. We played some of the math games they play at stations. Frankly, I dominated at the "24" station. James and Eddy didn't stand a chance, although Charlie ended up tying me in the end. In art class, there wasn't much for the dads to do, although I did see a dad totally do the project for his daughter who couldn't quite get it.

Next year, I'll be one of those dad splitting time between two students in the same school. In addition to the crop of classmates who know me as "Charlie's dad", I'll get to become "Teddy's dad" to a bunch of kids with even smaller chairs.

Editor's note: the post title and video are an homage to my brother, who called me excitedly last week after meeting Ed OG for his work at the Kroc Center in Boston. As he reminded me, the song features transcendent lyrics like "after a skeeze, there's responsibilities".

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Wild Dogs

My boys love to stop in one little room at our local natural history museum that features a rather old-school nature video. The museum's famous dinosaur collection has interactive screens, some of which offer quite cool learning experiences. The nature video, though, captures their attention despite a little screen, stentorian old narration, strange little scrolling video notations and the really uncomfortable, sunken upholstery backless bench you sit on to watch it.

The video shows young animals of several different species play fighting: monkeys, wild dogs, big cats. Many of the scenarios depict young animals playing with their parents, pointing out that the play fighting helps the young learn tactics and test their physical limits. The video came to mind after a fierce wrestling match with the boys the other night. We were doing pretty much the same thing as the monkeys and dogs. There are lots of things that either mommy or daddy can do with kids, but this wrestling does seem to be the special provenance of daddies. With the four-year-old, I know that I can do certain things but he gets scared and can get hurt more easily than his eight-year-old brother. The eight-year-old holds nothing back, and I can be rougher with him. He still, though, lacks any real sound strategy to defeat me besides tickling, and I can neutralize that because I'm still relatively stronger enough to grab his wrists and redirect them wherever I like.

When I joined my wife's family, the vigor with which my father-in-law and brother-in-law wrestled alarmed me. It produced a certain cognitive dissonance to watch them bash around a living room whose decor that tended to the anglophile antiques. It was the nature video with a different species and in a very different habitat. I wrestled and punched and fought that way with my brother, but never with my dad. I'm not sure why. I do know that we tested our mettle against each other in an activity that was not an option for my FIL: sports. He's just not a sports guy, but he was willing to wrestle the heck out of his son right up to college. It definitely stopped before my BIL joined the Marine Corps, which was a good decision for my FIL's health and longevity.

Although my dad and I didn't engage in the wild dog training regimen as I said, my brother, he and I did have a venue in which to test limits: one on one basketball. My brother and I played a lot of one on one in the church gym while our parents were upstairs doing, you know, church stuff. By the time I was in middle school and early high school, the three of us played a lot of pickup basketball. My dad had a map in his head of every playground court within five miles of our house, and we would drive from court to court looking for "comp" (competition). If we couldn't find anyone else or at the end of the evening, when everyone else went home, we'd play one on one against each other. I still remember a cold fall night when I was 13, maybe just 14 when my dad and I played a series of games in which he wasn't holding anything back and he couldn't hold me off. Although I believe he won the best of 3 or 5 games, it was toe to toe. As we traded baskets and defensive stops, we both knew the transition point that we'd reached, and it both exhilarated and scared us a little.

When I wrestle with the boys, they still seem relieved that they can't lick me. They like perceiving me as a wall that they can hurl themselves at without really getting hurt. It makes them feel secure. I like it too, knowing that I can master these two ineffectual ninjas. There will come a day, of course, when they're pinning me down, and I'm crying uncle. I hope when that day arrives, we'll notice it and mark it and share the thrill.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Tell-a-Friend: Duh! Winning!

We have 2 winners! Dan told Karl, and Karl commented. Dan and Karl won crackers, drawn at random from among the referrers and new commenters during the contest.

Thanks to everyone who told a friend about Competent Parent during the contest. Thank you to those who commented for the first time. New readers, I hope you find yourself infotained and will stay around.

Finally, to close the contest, here's the recipe for crackers that I use all the time:

Jeff Forster’s Crackers
(adapted slightly from Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything)

Makes about 4 servings

Time: About 15 minutes

1 cups (about 4 ½ ounces) all-purpose flour, plus more as needed
½ teaspoon salt
2 Tablespoons butter
About ¼ cup water, plus more as needed

1. Preheat the oven to 400°F.

2. Place the flour, salt and butter together in a large bowl or in the container of a food processor fitted with the steel blade. Blend with a fork or pulse, until the flour and butter are combined. Add about ¼ cup of water and blend, then continue to add water in small amounts as necessary until the mixture holds together but is not sticky.

3. Roll out on a lightly floured surface until ¼ inch thick, or even less. Don’t worry about overhandling – add flour as needed, and keep rolling. Transfer to baking sheet or baking stone. Score lightly with a sharp knife or razor if you want to break these into nice squares or rectangles later on. Perforate uniformly with a fork to prevent bubbling. Bake until lightly browned about 10 minutes. Cool on a rack; serve warm or at room temperature, or store in a bag/tin.

· I often add toasted sesame seeds. I toast them myself in a skillet, watching them closely because they go from right to overdone in a second. I usually add 1-2 Tbsp per recipe. I throw them into the food processor before the water.
· The recipe is amenable to doubling, and the crackers go so fast that I almost always double it.
· You can also top the crackers with salt, sesame seeds or poppy seeds or work a tiny bit of garlic or herbs into the dough.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Sunday Haiku: In Defense of Bloggers

Why does the mainstream
media think all bloggers
post from their basements?

I write most posts on
the second floor of my house.
(Not my parents' house).

Friday, May 13, 2011

2 more days to Tell a Friend

Just 2 more days until the May 15 deadline to Tell a Friend about Competent Parent. The prize: homemade crackers for you and your friend. Get on it.

Contest rules:
-You tell someone about the blog. Someone posts a comment, saying they heard about CP from you. You and someone win homemade crackers.
-All of this telling and commenting has to happen by May 15.
-Crackers will be sent only within the continental US.

Do it.

A Window into the Child Care Day

We're supposed to be able to track important milestones in the Parent Report we get twice a year from Teddy's childcare center, but fortunately, the teacher who wrote his most recent one also has a great sense for the absurd things 4- & 5-year-olds say. The anecdotes section had lots of highlights.

A few excerpts:

Holden: Let me look in her eye
Teddy: Holden, maybe something is in her belly.
Holden: Let me check her eye.
Teddy: I already did. There's nothing there.
Holden. Okay.
Teddy: Now I need her blood pressure. Okay her legs. Okay. I'm gonna cut her hair.
Holden: You do that too?
Teddy: Yeah. I'm a hair cutter, dentist, doctor.

Teddy: Everybody got Tom & Jerry tissue packs from the Easter Bunny. My cousins, and my brother, and me, cause the Easter Bunny's dumb.

Teddy: Vietnam was really far. It took nine or ten minutes.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Late Mother's Day Post: My Competent Mother

Getting to a post I hoped to post before Mother's Day about the competence with which I was parented. I won't try to cover it all, but my mother's money management and instructions about it kept coming to mind at Mother's Day because my wife just found the Budget Envelopes binder my mother gave me at the end of high school. More on that later. My mother managed and manages all of the money in my parents' household. Although I believe my parents set financial policies together, where the rubber meets the road, my mom still gives my dad an allowance. Both of my parents come from skinflint Scottish stock; my paternal grandfather ushered in the invention of disposable diapers by collecting BOGO coupons and redeeming them to fill a closet with successive sizes for his first grandchild. At half price!

Anyway, the way my mom managed the household finances would make Dave
Ramsey quiver with glee. First of all, she budgeted by area - groceries, clothing, entertainment, savings (of course). Second, she withdrew cash and put cash in the aforementioned divided budget envelope binder thing. I don't know where she got them, but apparently when she found a time warp five and dime that sold them, she would snatch up several because the manila envelopes inside wear out with use. Mom would follow the budget pretty closely; when the envelope was empty, there wasn't money for that item until the next payday.

My parents started giving me an allowance when I was about 5. I would mostly save it for vacation spending money. That continued right up through high school, where it constituted walking-around money (not that I ever did much exciting walking around). I never held a regular, part-time job during the school year. I collected seasonal income mostly working at summer camps. In my last semester of high school, my mom calculated how much of the amounts in the budget envelopes would get spent on (or saved for) me and my brother. Then she took that sum and gave it to us with the caveat that we would now pay for everything but room and board. We'd cover our own entertainment and clothes and savings.

When she did that, she provided us each with our own budget envelopes. My wife discovered mine while cleaning out our clotted filing cabinet over the weekend. It still has the entries from the $55 I received from my parents every two weeks that last half of senior year. Here's the breakdown:
$25 - savings
$5 - Norway
$8 - clothing
$8 - tithe
$9 - miscellaneous

A few notes:
  • I - like most people - went to Norway with a brass band in May of my senior year of high school.
  • Just writing that out, I'm wondering if my parents instructed me that the money I received was after-tax or something like that because a tithe on $55 would be $5.50, not $8.00. I guess I was just precociously pious and generous.
  • Interestingly, my brother, who received the same allotment, set aside $16 per week for clothes. We all referred to him as a "clothes horse" in this period.
I'm grateful that my mom turned over the reins on this money to me at that point in my life. When I got to college and got a workstudy job, I made about $50 per week, which seemed like a big raise. The reality, of course, was that at that point, I really did have to cover all of my incidental expenses myself. The season at the end of my time at home having to make some hard choices about how much to spend and on what prepared me to make better decisions a few months later when the stakes were higher. While I haven't maintained the cash budgeting system into adulthood, I still admire my mother for her planning and discipline.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

HHHHHH: Free Universal Amplifiers

I like to listen to podcasts on my old phone in my old car. Without an aux input on my broken-down car radio, I can't run the podcasts through the car's speakers. I recently happened upon a way to amplify the volume from the little outboard speaker on the phone: put it in the cupholder, speaker side down. I'm no sound engineer, but it makes sense that the sound would resonate off the sides of the solid cupholder and be louder. This technique seems to work better with male voices than with female voices for some reason. The sound gets muffled slightly, but it's definitely amplified. It's at least loud enough that I can listen hands-free more like listening to the radio in the car. Depending on the audio levels of the podcast, it works everywhere but on noisy highways. Sample video below; sorry for the blurriness.

The same technique works in the kitchen with a bowl as amplifier. Who needs complicated docking or transmitter solutions when you have cupholders and bowls around?

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Sunday Haiku: Tell-a-Friend

Chances are really
good that the friend you refer
will win the crackers.

Details here.