Category Archives: Uncategorized

Firing On All Cylinders

cylindersWhy is it that on Thursdays, as a dad, I am firing on all cylinders?

I notice a distinct pattern that on Thursdays, I tend to make better parenting decisions and generally have an easier time of things with the kids.

To wit:

Before school and after school are the crush time in my world. There’s the a.m. nagging jag: get out of bed, make your beds, get dressed, eat breakfast, find your binder, look for your shoes and on and on and on. It’s getting better, however: they make their own lunches. I require some sort of protein plus bread (weekly peanut butter limit: 2 times), plus a choice of two from the available fruits and veggies, typically carrots, apples, bananas and grapes. They leave a mess, but they get it done. Afternoons involve more time, options and obligations, and that’s when things really start to go off the rails. Play with a friend or nag Dad for screen time? What’s for snack? What do you mean I can’t dump my backpack and shoes wherever I jolly well please? What’s for supper? Is there sports practice tonight? What complicated geopolitical questions can I pose while you drive through a traffic circle in a minivan with a bad right-side blind spot?

But today, as it does many Thursdays, it just went swimmingly. It helps that there’s no football practice for Eddie. (And after this weekend’s championship, no more three nights a week plus Saturday games.) Karla’s soccer ended a coupla weeks ago, and her ballet class is only on Saturdays. Nobody had any friends over, I knew what we were having for supper.

Somehow we had a decently healthy snack (crackers + grapes). Eddie hurried right to his math homework, and I managed to overlook that he left his snack bowl upside down on the living room floor. I even Eddie to read Karla her spelling words for the end-of-week pretest. (Why didn’t I think of conscripting him sooner?)

Then we had time to hit the library to stock up for the 700-mile-long car ride over the river and through the woods this weekend for Thanksgiving. Everybody had plenty of time to choose items to his heart’s content. (My rule: you can check out as much as you can carry. One time, Eddie checked out 44 books.) And they presented only mild protests when I kicked them off the stupid kiddie games on the library computers. It probably helped that instead of just shoving Karla toward the chapter books and sticking my nose back in the newspaper, I actually went with her to look and accepted a librarian’s offer to help find something she’d like.

I worried that I’d wreck things by staying at the library until 10 after 6, but the ace in my sleeve was that we were having leftover pizza from what we made on Tuesday. And I opted against squeezing in a bath — another day for that will do.

Toss in a glass of wine for Dad (conveniently already open and chilled), and it was just about a perfect day.

The thing I wonder is, why don’t more days turn out like this?

Why are there so many squabbles and so much mediation and punishment? Yelling and crying? Rushing and reminding 86 times until child x does task y. Sure, I had to tell Eddie three times to pour the milk and put it on the table, and Karla got sent away from the table twice for clowning around in favor of actually eating, but I managed not to lose my cool and actually hold on to some patience.

How is that?

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The Sub: Part 2

On my first day as a substitute teacher, one kid upset the whole class with loud raspberry sounds, one girl kept whining that her stomach hurt, kids’ names flew in and out of my head, and I kept wondering who was in charge when in the room with me was a math specialist, a full-time assistant and a student teacher.

Despite having absolutely zero teaching experience, I realized who was the boss: me.

Yikes.

I always imagined a linear career path: small paper, big paper, Pulitzer, book deal. My ladder turned out more like a jungle gym, however, as I went from dot-com drone to newspaper reporter, wire editor, graduate student and then freelance writer. It took me years to realize that journalistic glory means less to me than raising a family. And in nine years as an at-home dad, choices my Lovely Bride and I made allowed her to risk and soar professionally – and not worry about whether we’re out of milk.

After friends’ countless suggestions – and wringing my hands over it for months – I applied to become a substitute teacher in my local public schools . I know, who’s the number one person on whom people try to pull a fast one? The sub. (I flash back to 7th grade band class and switching seats and instruments. Or to poor Mr. Bradley, the middle school sub who would get so angry he would bend a yardstick over his head until it almost broke.) But I figure that if I return from the trenches wanting more – despite the difficulty of dropping into a different situation almost every time – then maybe I should look into the expense and schooling required for what I’m now old enough (awk) to call a midlife career change.

It turns out all you have to do to be a sub in Baltimore County is attend a two-hour orientation, have no criminal record and pass a fingerprint check. I’m in! They didn’t even ask if I speak English. A college degree or credit earns you higher pay, and you have to attend a 2-hour orientation session which mainly teaches you about the sophisticated “Sub-Finder Express” automated phone system.

It lets you can slice and dice your availability and choose from five zones in the county in which you’ll take assignments. Or you can opt for high school only or to teach only French. Then the computer will phone you with available jobs the night before – or the morning of – and you pick and choose on the spot. You can also comb online listings, which gives you the leisure of pondering a 7:30 start time at a school 30 minutes away.

Of the 8,000 public school teachers in Baltimore County, between 700 and 1,200 are absent each day because of illness or meetings or a variety of reasons, said the woman running the prospective sub orientation. In the course of a child’s 13 years in school, that adds up to one full year of not having a teacher. Sheesh. And you’re not the content expert, the orientation lady said. You’re there to keep the class on track with the curriculum so the permanent teacher doesn’t have to go back and repeat what you as the sub failed to complete.

And with 3 percent of substitute vacancies going unfilled each day, she said, there’s plenty of work to be had.

So with the Oscar-winning music playing in my head, and imagining the movie to be made about my life spent broadening young minds, I arrived at my first assignment having dressed for the part. With sportcoat, necktie and freshly-shined shoes, I looked like an administrator (a tip from orientation lady). I arrived early and was barely in the classroom five minutes when the teacher across the hall said her sub cancelled, and could I stay a few extra hours? They loved me already! But it was much harder than I expected to get a roomful of squirmy 3rd graders to calculate perimeter (it’s easy: add up the sides) when I don’t know what they do and don’t know.

The gig I stayed extra for that day might as well have been in a different school. It was a 5th grade gifted and talented reading class, run by a student teacher who led the perfectly orderly class through an hour-long discussion of The Hobbit (which I never read, because the 100-page introduction was too boring). She let them work in pairs, then together as a class, and she hardly had to raise her voice. I functioned as the extra adult in the room and tried out the principle of management by proximity (another tip from orientation lady) by wandering the room with my arms crossed and looking official.

I’ve had six or eight sub gigs since, and they’ve ranged from the most unruly first-graders ever who fought over pencils they snatched from each other to another class I had twice and remembered most kids’ names. Most recently, I fancied myself as Mr. Schuester from Glee when I subbed for a music teacher. She left a music-related crossword puzzle, which bored the kids and bored me, too.

At supper that night, naturally, I turned for advice to my own first-grader on the critical topic of exactly when students are allowed to sharpen pencils, which they seem to do almost as often as they want to go to the bathroom.

Carla: “Well, you’re supposed to start the day with four sharpened pencils, Dad.”

I have so much to learn.

Eddie Wants An E-Mail Address

emailMy kid has asked to get an e-mail address when he turns 10 next week. I’d prefer to wait until he’s older, like 35.

I’m strong enough withstand/ignore the argument that all his friends have them.

Because they don’t.

And I get the chicken-and-egg aspect – nobody to e-mail to because none of his pals have e-mail addresses. They just talk big. Like when they brag about their late bedtimes, which may or may not be true.

I don’t want Eddie to be the kid left behind, which is partially why we got a Wii a couple years ago. I wish the thing had never entered our house, because it often is just one more thing for Eddie and me to butt heads over.

Ditto the iPod Touch he got last fall. Bought the darn thing himself with money he had saved up for a year and a half. He thought we would keep with the house policy where Mom and Dad pay half, but I quickly hedged and said that only works but so far. Certainly not on a $200 piece of electronics I was convinced he would lose or break. So he nabbed a Black Friday deal and got a $40 Target gift card to boot. I’m proud that he achieved a goal, and my Lovely Bride (of exactly 15 years, today) suggested it function as one more tool in my carrot-and-stick arsenal.

I took to calling it “that thing,” and it quickly devolved into…

“Give me that thing and go do your homework.”

“Did you ask if you could play on that thing?”

“If you don’t turn that thing off right now, I’ll take it away for three days.”

“No, you can’t run all over the yard to make movies with that thing.”

“No, you can’t trust a 5-year-old to hold it while you run all over the yard to make movies with that thing.”

“No, you can’t play on that thing for an hour before you do your homework.”

“No, you can’t go check the weather because then you’ll get distracted when you need to get dressed, make your bed, brush your teeth and go to school.”

No no no no no.

Ugh with the no.

We ultimately fashioned a broader screen-time policy where homework assignments must be written in the school-provided planner, papers must be inside folders (not just jammed in the binder) and there must be no notes home from teachers for Eddie to get screen time each day. And for the record, not once has Eddie lost or broken that thing. I’m almost disappointed, but I suppose I’m really glad that he’s responsible enough to take care of it.

Aside from anticipated fatigue of no you can’t borrow my phone to check your e-mail every nine seconds, no you can’t check your e-mail until you do your homework, no you can’t check your e-mail because it’s a gorgeous day now go play outside, I really worry about Internet safety.

Sure, I could keep his password or copy all his e-mails to my account so I know his comings and goings. But it would be just one more thing for him to nag me about. And more butting heads. And really, I need to teach Eddie how to navigate the Internet and avoid predators on his own.

Oy.

Looks like Lovely and I have some discussing to do.

The Sub: Part 1

After puzzling for years ‘til my puzzler was sore over how to pursue gainful employment – without pawning my kids off on a patchwork of friends, neighbors and sitters and relegating the family to countless convenience meals – I’m thinking of becoming a teacher.

I do it with mixed feelings, wondering, wondering, wondering…

Will I be any good?

Will I get those Oscar-winning moments of illuminating young minds?

Will it be as family-friendly as I hope?

Will the household fall to pieces and our lives get infinitely more difficult if I go back to work full time?

I’ve struggled for years to figure out how to return to journalism. I heard once that if you can’t support yourself with something, then it’s a hobby. Considering that I’ve written a maximum of six or eight articles annually for the past nine years, making no more than $4,000 a year, that makes journalism a hobby in my world.

Ever since I wandered into the offices of my college newspaper more than 20 years ago, I have considered myself a newspaper reporter. Sure, I worked for a news website in the 90s and was a wire service copy editor for four years, but I’m a reporter. I gather and sift information. (When a reporter told me, as an editor, that I sounded like his 8th grade English teacher, I realized I’m probably a better editor than a reporter, but I don’t change gears easily. And whether I pursue editing versus reporting gets a little much for nonjournalists.) The most confusing part is that in the past decade, the journalism industry has crumbled and changed without me.

When we moved to Baltimore in 2004, and I became an at-home dad, I expected an eventual return to full-time newspapering. To keep my hand in, I wrote freelance articles for trade rags, newspapers, magazines, websites and whoever would pay me. A Baltimore Sun editor once told me that given my limited reporting experience (two years in the late 90s at New Jersey newspaper that’s now a shell of its former self), I would need to log a year or two at one of the newspapers an hour away from Baltimore.

She was right.

My weekly fantasy reading comes in the form of trolling for work on journalismjobs.com. But with the fantasy comes the cold reality – reporter hours stink, and editor hours are worse. (The pay isn’t so hot, either.) One copy editor job is 60 miles away, and the shift is from 4 p.m. to midnight. I’d never see my family, and the commute alone would kill me.

A neighborhood friend with kids the same ages as mine confirmed my fears when we had coffee a few weeks ago. She reported for The Sun for about four years before she became an at-home parent, about the same time I did. Now she’s returning as a features editor – they get a known quantity, and she gets a day shift. She and I agreed that the only path for me to get to where she is was to take the faraway job with the tough hours and enormous strain on the family.

"You think your becoming a teacher will put the nail in the coffin of newspaper journalism, kid? How many Pulitzers ya got, huh?"

“You think your becoming a teacher will put the nail in the coffin of journalism, kid? How many Pulitzers ya got, huh?”

Twenty-two years after I wrote my first news story, I’m starting to think that maybe I’m not, in fact, going to be a newspaper reporter forever. I want a healthy-happy family more. But I feel like I will personally be responsible for kicking the journalism industry into its death spiral – like in “A Christmas Story” when Santa boots Ralphie down the department-store slide. I feel like I’m giving up on journalism. And then there’s that nasty saying, “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.” I feel like it means I can’t cut it as a journalist, and my resume doesn’t even give me the street cred to teach journalism. Then again, I know more about journalism basics than a number of other people who might teach journalism to high schoolers.

One thing that points me toward teaching is that people I know keep telling me they think I’d be good at it.

WSB poster

Just because I laminate hand-drawn posters of a school bus with feet, that means I should be a teacher?

Even a stranger in Staples the other day when I was laminating a poster to help encourage walking to school in my neighborhood.  “Are you a teacher?” she asked.

Huh.

The biggest inspiration is that a number of my children’s elementary school teachers have either been knock-it-out-of-the-park outstanding or so disappointing that I’m sure I can do better.

When I had my annual quandary over what to do with my life a few months ago, my Lovely Bride gave me a pep talk about why she holds the job she does. She went to law school to learn to write international peace treaties. Instead, she matches up philanthropists with doctors and scientists doing groundbreaking research.

She (usually) likes the work because:

  1. It gives her a paycheck.
  2. It does more good than evil.
  3. It keeps her brain happy.

I talked it over one day with my daughter’s teacher – just before I helped her Chinese student who speaks hardly any English – and she said I wouldn’t be turning my back on an expensive education. I’d be applying it in different ways, given how important writing skills are. She trained as an ESOL teacher, and now she’s in a first-grade classroom. Things change in life, she said, so why not give it a try? Later that morning when I spread an arc of paper piles on the floor in the hall so I could collate a bunch of workbooks, one of my son’s teachers walked past and sing-songed “You look like a teacher…!” (That teacher, in fact, was an inspiring long-term substitute filling in for a woeful, sad sack of a teacher who has ruined science and social studies for the entire fourth grade at my kids’ school.)

I started thinking about this when I came up with Fun Camp two years ago. It was the last week of summer, and my children needed something for the dead part of the afternoon when there’s simply nothing to do. The kids are tired of the pool and the library, and it’s too hot to do anything else. So I threw together some ideas, and Fun Camp was born. I invited a dozen neighbor kids, and one day we had Laptop Lane. We borrowed a half-dozen laptops and tablets and drew websites out of a hat from a list of county schools-approved sites. Another day, we used a pile of giant sticks to construct whatever the kids wanted – space ships, sling shots, mouse houses, whatever. (This flopped; glue dries slooooowwwwwlyyyy.) We did science experiments, culminating in the diet-coke-and-mentos geyser in the back yard. And the fourth day, we chucked my plan to do home-made musical instruments (toilet-paper-roll-and-wax-paper-kazoo, anyone?) and went to a tiny amusement park.

At the end, my friend Sandra asked, “So, are you ready to get certified?”

“Oh wait, or might that make you certifiable?” she quipped.

So maybe I ought to dip my toe in the water by becoming a substitute teacher.

Stay tuned.

Venting About The Vacuum

A vacuum that does hardwoods and rugs AND will last longer than a Congressional term -- is that too much to ask?

A vacuum that will last longer than a Congressional term — is that too much to ask?

Dear Vacuum Cleaner makers,

I only want one thing from you: a vacuum that’s good at hardwoods AND carpet. Is that too much to ask?

Okay, I really want a second thing, too: make me a vacuum that won’t break in ways that leave the machine operable but irritating because of minor deficiencies. Make a vacuum with the cord rollup thingy that still works after more than two years. And one with that plastic door over the little accessories that (a) stays shut and (b) doesn’t break off and let the little accessories scatter to the four floors of my rowhouse. And if you can make one with a handle that stays up when it’s supposed to, well – you’ll have earned the undying gratitude of a lifetime customer.

As vacuums go, I’m a Kenmore man.

My mom always had a Kenmore, and my father bought me of my very own from Sears for my 25th birthday. I lived in Brooklyn, New York, and dutifully drove to New Jersey to pick it up. (Dad gave Mom a microwave oven for her birthday in 1980. She cried.)

Over the years, I’ve tried to branch out. Those Dysons look so zippy with that wind tunnel and the little roller ball that lets you get behind the sofa legs in one swift motion. But tell me it gets dog hair off the rug, and I’ll tell you there’s a bridge for sale in New York. And the Dyson costs about the same as the bridge. Or maybe I should change to an upright? How great would it be not to have to buy and change those stupid bags – which I only figure out are full after I vacuum the entire house and wonder why it still feels dirty. Not like I’m going to change the bag and then vacuum all over again.

I tried checking Consumer Reports, source of all impartial knowledge of consumer goods, but they gave Kenmores a so-so rating, so, ironically, I didn’t trust them.

A few years ago, I saw a friend’s new Kenmore that he swore up and down was good on rugs AND floors. Kinda like the feeling you get when some other guy’s new cell phone makes you want one, too, I got vacuum envy. Got a deal on the floor model at the Sears Scratch-n-Dent, and I was sold. I vacuumed my way to happiness until I ran out of bags and found that the stupid store doesn’t sell the type my machine takes – after I drove across town to get some. Plus, the bags they called for looked way too big to fit in the chamber, and the salesman couldn’t explain how that was in fact the right bag.  I resigned to ordering them online – but when my last bag is full and shipping takes a week, I resort to sticking my finger inside the full bag to fish out the unearthly mix of cat hair and dirt to make room for more.

Ick.

My current vacuum cleaner’s accessory panel door was last seen in the living room sometime in 2010. The cord hasn’t rolled up since October, and if I crack the thing open in an effort to fix it, it will never work properly again. And my old vacuum’s handle – which is supposed to stand on its own when the little thingy clicks – hacked me off so much that I replaced it, even though it sucks like crazy. Never mind that the damn thing was sized for a woman – with a handle built for someone only five feet tall.

Dear Dad, please don’t buy me a new vacuum cleaner.

And Dear Vacuum Makers, please make a machine that’s strong enough for a man and not made for a woman.

Menu Mix-N-Match

Back when my Lovely Bride and I were newlywed New Yorkers, we cooked together three nights each week, got held up at work two times and ate out twice. One decade and two children later, we dream of just randomly going out to dinner. We have to dream because we can’t remember actually doing so.

Wouldn’t you like to peruse the possibilities from this pleasant perch? Me: no. Lovely Bride: yes.

These days, Lovely combs cookbooks and plans menus for five nights a week, figuring leftovers or pizza the other two. It’s one of her ways of contributing to the care and nurturing of the children. She enjoys curling up in our yellow upholstered swivel rocking chair with a stack of cookbooks and a hot drink. I enjoy avoiding the agony of deciding. Like whether to have sweet-and-sour pork, pork with black bean sauce or grilled pork chops. I don’t a rip, as long as she tips me off when something needs to marinate before I open the fridge at 5:30. (Sometimes I don’t get the message, so spaghetti Bolognese turns into mac-and-cheese from a box.)

As Lovely moves into the annual Fall Crazy Time at work, it occasionally falls to me to pick the menu. She’s busy finding and hiring three people while doing the work of the ones who moved on, plus orchestrating six events in five weeks – oh and starting to plan for Winter Crazy Time at work – so I don’t mind flipping through the cookbook.

I don’t like deciding on the spur of the moment what to fix. I like a plan. Except then sometimes I have to figure out what to fix with what. Broccoli with fish? Tortellini with chicken? Ugh, somebody just tell me what to fix.

So this week, I threw it to the children.

I knew what we had in the freezer, and I know what they’ll eat. So I divided it into three columns: meat, vegetable, starch. Some Real Simple article about dealing with picky eaters mentioned letting the kids pick the menu for a night. I tried that once, but Eddie and Carla bickered about it instead.

This time I opted for multiple choice. Oughtta make for happy kids and happy control-freak Daddy.

The kids just looked at me.

And blinked.

“Kids, do you think your friends get to pick what’s for dinner?” I asked. They just sighed. So much for adding a little democracy to this family dictatorship.

“It’s simple,” I told them. “Just pick one from here and one from here and one from here. Except if you pick lemon chicken, then we have to have rice. And chicken and dumplings have to go together. That’s Mommy’s Law. Oh, and if we have corn, we don’t really need rice the same night. Too starchy.”

Great, now I’m sucking the joy out of a joyless activity by imposing all these conditions.

They started to squirm.

“Okay, let’s start with what kind of chicken – lemon or with dumplings?” I asked.

“Lemon chicken!” Eddie said.

“Okay, now pick a vegetable from this column…” And then it went okay from there. Except nobody wanted asparagus, so I’ll just fix it as a second vegetable one night.

Woo-hoo! Menu planned with only moderate pain.

Florence

August 26, 2012

Dear Eddie and Carla,

Tomorrow is a big day. Fourth and First Grade… Wow.

When I was a kid, there was a girl in my class named Florence.

Florence looked a little different, and she wore funny clothes. She walked funny. Florence didn’t smile much, and she was prone to emotional outbursts. Kids teased Florence a lot, which made her head hang low. I never told the other kids to stop.

I avoided Florence, and I tried not to talk to her. I never invited her to sit next to me at lunch, or to play with me at recess. It made my face feel hot with shame when she sat and played by herself. She must have been very lonely.

I still think about Florence. I wonder if Florence thinks of me?  Probably not fondly.

I think that God puts people in our lives as gifts to us. The children in your class this year, they are some of God’s gifts to you.

So please treat each one like a gift from God. Every single one.

Kiddo, if you see a child being left out, or hurt, or teased, a part of your heart will hurt a little. Your mom and I want you to trust that heartache. Your whole life, we want you to notice and trust your heartache. That heartache is called compassion, and it is God’s signal to you to do something. It is God saying, Eddie and Carla! Wake up! One of my babies is hurting! Do something to help! Whenever you feel compassion — be thrilled! It means God is speaking to you, and that is magic. It means he trusts you and needs you.

Sometimes the magic of compassion will make you step into the middle of a bad situation right away.

Compassion might lead you to tell a teaser to stop it and then ask the teased kid to play. You might invite a left-out kid to sit next to you at lunch. You might choose a kid for your team first who usually gets chosen last. These things will be hard to do, but you can do hard things.

Sometimes you will feel compassion but you won’t step in right away. That’s okay, too. You might choose instead to tell your teacher and then tell us. We are on your team — we are on your whole class’s team. Asking for help for someone who is hurting is not tattling, it is doing the right thing. If someone in your class needs help, please tell me, kiddo. We will make a plan to help together.

When God speaks to you by making your heart hurt for another, by giving you compassion, just do something. Please do not ignore God whispering to you. I so wish I had not ignored God when he spoke to me about Florence. I remember him trying, I remember feeling compassion, but I chose fear over compassion. I wish I hadn’t. Florence could have used a friend, and I could have, too.

Eddie and Carla, Mom and I do not care if you are the smartest or fastest or coolest or funniest. There will be lots of contests at school, and we don’t care if you win a single one of them. We don’t care if you get straight As. We don’t care if the girls or boys think you’re cute or whether you’re picked first or last for kickball at recess. We don’t care if you are your teacher’s favorite or not. We don’t care if you have the best clothes or most light sabers or coolest fairy dolls. We just don’t care.

We don’t send you to school to become the best at something. We already love you as much as we possibly could. You do not have to earn our love or pride and you can’t lose it. That’s done.

We send you to school to practice being brave and kind.

Kind people are brave people. Brave is not a feeling that you should wait for. It is a decision. It is a decision that compassion is more important than fear, than fitting in, than following the crowd.

Trust me, kiddo, it is. It is more important.

Take care of those classmates of yours, and your teacher, too. You Belong to Each Other. You are lucky kiddos… with all of these new gifts to unwrap this year.

I love you so much.

Enjoy and cherish your gifts.

And thank you for being my favorite gift of all time.

Love,
Dad

(Okay, so I borrowed heavily from some first-day-of-school letter to children that my Lovely Bride found floating around the internet. But Florence is real. She lives in a little apartment in Fredericksburg, Va, and she works part-time at Goodwill. After our 20th high school reunion last year, I gave her a ride home.)