Family Observations

Seeing our home through buyers' eyes

The reality of moving really set in when the realtor’s photographer arrived to photograph the house. It wasn’t so much that the listing would be online for the entire world to see that next day that brought home the reality of the move. It was the absence of so many things that let someone know that a family lives in that space.

The boy’s drawings and the girl’s report card were no longer affixed to the refrigerator with magnets. The kitchen counter was completely bare. Even the microwave had been moved out of the sight of the camera. Then, the photographer caught sight of the garbage can.

“Can we move that to another room?” she asked.

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Volume 9, Issue 1, Posted 10:11 AM, 01.10.2017

Getting there for the holidays

I’d like to meet the person who said, “Getting there is half the fun,” to ask him if he ever traveled with children. It’s that time of year when families will be setting out to visit grandparents in some faraway place.

Our last car trip started out well, until from the back seat I heard, “I don’t feel good.”

My wife turned around to see what was wrong. “What’s that right beside you?”

“This?” asked the boy.

I heard the crumple of plastic. “Did you eat the whole bag of chips already?” my wife inquired. “That was supposed to be for everyone for the whole day. It’s not even nine o’clock yet. No wonder you’re sick.”

“Do I need to pull over?” I asked, realizing the only thing worse than having to stop before we got to the Indiana state line might be not stopping before we got to the Indiana state line. Our hotel reservations were in Nebraska. This was shaping up to be a long day.

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Volume 8, Issue 23, Posted 9:35 AM, 11.29.2016

The curse of a focused mind

I have a very focused mind. This focus is helpful when I am writing sermons, or writing articles for the Observer. Sometimes this focus is not so helpful in daily life, because this focus means I can only process one thought at a time.

The other day, I was walking up the stairs from the basement to get a drink, and my wife asked, “Are you just going to leave that there?”

“Leave what where?” I asked.

She shook her head and pointed at a dirty dish sitting on the shelf next to the stairway, “That.”

“Oh, I didn’t notice it,” I said.

“You didn’t see the dish sitting right there as you walked by?” she inquired with some incredulity.

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Volume 8, Issue 22, Posted 9:42 AM, 11.15.2016

The importance of 'boy jobs'

There are certain tasks in our household that are known as “boy jobs.” When one of the girl’s friends heard my wife tell me something was a “boy job,” she asked if there were some vestiges of outdated gender roles in our family. This friend of the girl obviously did not know my wife very well.

My wife practiced law for a number of years. Woe be to the man who ever tries to suggest that "a lady should stay in her place." Typically, it would not be a good idea for me to compare a lawyer to a shark. In this case, I would say that any man who made such a suggestion would rather wish he had instead jumped in the middle of a school of bait fish surrounded by a dozen ravenous sharks.

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Volume 8, Issue 20, Posted 10:19 AM, 10.18.2016

Learning from experience

When I walked in the kitchen, the boy was breathing like he was practicing for a Lamaze class in a 1980s sitcom.

“What’s wrong with him?” I asked my wife.

“I tried to warn him,” she said, shaking her head. “But he had to try it.”

“Ice,” gasped the boy. “I need ice.”

Then I saw the problem. We grew habanero peppers this summer. My wife was using one in the dinner she was making. They boy wanted to try a bite. This is the same boy who thinks pickled jalapeño peppers are devilishly hot. Despite my wife’s warning he took a bite.

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Volume 8, Issue 19, Posted 8:58 AM, 10.04.2016

Defining the objective

Any military officer will tell you that defining the objective is essential to any operation. If you don’t define the objective, how do you know if you’ve completed the mission? How do you know if you’ve won or lost?

The same can be said of family chores. “Will you do a couple of loads of laundry?” sounds simple enough, however, that request is almost as vague as the command, “Go win the battle.”

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Volume 8, Issue 18, Posted 9:47 AM, 09.20.2016

Leaving the girl

When you take your daughter to college, there comes a moment when you have to leave. It’s not because you feel like you have said everything you want to say. Nor is it because you have the sense that she wants you to leave. It’s because you know if you stay too long, someone will call campus security and say, “There’s a creepy old guy hanging around.”

That moment came for me a couple weeks ago. I took the girl to college. We moved her stuff into the dorm. “You’re in luck,” I said. “Your roommates haven't arrived yet. You get to choose your bed. We can arrange the furniture any way you want it. If we do it right, you can have two thirds of the room, and your roommates can split whatever is left.”

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Volume 8, Issue 17, Posted 10:59 AM, 09.07.2016

Leaving her brother

The stack of stuff growing in the front room is a signal that the girl is about to leave for college. She does not appreciate how much life is about to change. She recently told a girl she has been babysitting for a few years that the relationship between brother and sister will always be the same. She believes that because she has not left home yet. She is wrong.

My sister and I had a very similar relationship to the one the boy and the girl have. The mere act of standing a foot outside of her door in the hallway could send my sister into a fit of screaming, which, if you were unfamiliar with the situation, might make you think I was standing outside her door ready to release a crate of cobras.

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Volume 8, Issue 16, Posted 9:39 AM, 08.16.2016

Mom strikes back

The girl was planning a trip to the beach with three of her friends. “Do you think your friends would mind if I come along?” asked my wife.

A look of terror mixed with confusion came over the girl’s face. My wife loves the beach, so it would be logical that she might want to go along. I could tell the girl was trying to figure out if this was just one more way in which her parents could torment her.

“I … I guess you could come along,” she said as her eyes shifted from side to side. “I mean, there’s probably enough room and all.”

I stifled a laugh.

“So your friends would be cool with me?” My wife continued the torture.

“Um … maybe … probably … I don’t know.”

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Volume 8, Issue 15, Posted 9:06 AM, 08.02.2016

Children's embarrassing words

“Mr. Johnson, your car is ready,” called the woman across the waiting room at the dealership.

I didn’t realize my leg had fallen asleep until I stood up. My knee buckled slightly with every step. Try as I might, I just could not walk normally. I made my way to the service counter, kind of dragging my right leg along, hoping I would not fall flat on my face. I leaned on the desk, unable to concentrate on what the woman was saying they had done to my car. All I could do was wonder if my leg would wake up before I had to take another step.

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Volume 8, Issue 13, Posted 9:22 AM, 07.06.2016

Doing my job

“How was class today?” I asked the boy.

“I hate you,” he growled.

This was a fair comment. I knew I was poking the bear when I asked. This was not just any class. This was summer school. Although it is not a punishment, many children view summer school as a violation of the Eighth Amendment which states that no “cruel or unusual” punishments shall be inflicted. The boy is most certainly of the opinion that summer school is a cruel and unusual punishment.

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Volume 8, Issue 12, Posted 9:34 AM, 06.21.2016

Six-Pack Abs

“Mrs. R. and I decided we’re having a competition to see who can lose the most weight over the next nine weeks,” announced my wife.

“I don’t think you need to lose weight,” I said.

“The husbands are included in this too,” she said.

“I don’t need to lose weight either,” I said, trying to hold my stomach in a little.

“Why are you standing like that?” she asked. She shook her head and then continued, “We’re doing this. We can get a free weekend of childcare out of this.”

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Volume 8, Issue 11, Posted 9:44 AM, 06.07.2016

Balls and Strikes

The difference between a ball and a strike is whatever the umpire says it is. I now know this firsthand.

The boy’s little league team was scrimmaging with another team, so there was no official umpire. Our coach asked one of his assistants if he would umpire. “I don’t think I can,” he said. “My son is on the mound.”

I saw the coach’s eyes shift towards me. I looked at the ground. “Maybe he won’t notice me sitting here,” I hoped.

“Can you call balls and strikes?” he queried.

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Volume 8, Issue 10, Posted 9:44 AM, 05.17.2016

There is hope

“Isn't it amazing that my children cannot find the large, open dishwasher rack for their dirty dishes – yet somehow manage to find their small mouths with their forks while eating?” I was nearly despondent when I saw this friend’s post on Facebook.

I wasn’t despondent because he was feeling frustrated. The feeling arose because I knew if he cannot get his children to find the “large, open dishwasher rack,” there is little hope that I will be able to have better luck with my own. His children are the kind of kids that your parents used to say, “Why can’t you be more like…” They are the epitome of responsible youth, the ones that you point to and say, “I have hope for the future.”

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Volume 8, Issue 9, Posted 9:44 AM, 05.03.2016

Launch Sequence

NASA has a launch sequence for rockets. The fuel mixture has to be right. The cloud cover has to be minimal. The winds have to be calm. The conditions are critical.

Every parent knows there is a morning launch sequence for their children. Each child has different launch requirements. For the girl, the primary launch requirement is to stay out of the way. Leave the kitchen while she pivots from the cereal box to the milk in the refrigerator. It is usually safe to say, “Good morning.” If she is in a particularly good mood, you will get a “Good morning” in reply. If the mood is less than optimal, you will get a grunt.

Either response means the launch is on schedule. The fuel mixture is correct. Just stay out of the way, and let the ignition sequence run normally.

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Volume 8, Issue 8, Posted 9:42 AM, 04.19.2016

Something to look forward to

“It’s going to be just the two of us,” I said to the boy. My wife was taking the girl to visit two college campuses over the weekend, so we were on our own.  

The boy thought for a moment, then asked, “What are we going to eat?”  

He was not asking this question out of a fear of starving because there would be no mother to cook for him. I cook often enough that he knows I am perfectly capable of preparing a meal. “What are we going to eat?” is one of his favorite questions. He will often ask, “What’s for supper?” before he leaves for school in the morning. Sometimes he will come in and ask the question before anyone but he is out of bed.

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Volume 8, Issue 6, Posted 9:58 AM, 03.15.2016

We have a project

“I have a project for school.” If you haven’t had a child in school, these words do not mean what you think they mean.

When adults say, “I have a project,” it means they have a project for which they are responsible. It is a project they will take responsibility to complete. When a student says, “I have a project for school,” it means, “Get ready, Mom and Dad. The way you thought your evening or weekend was going to look has just been blown out of the water.”

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Volume 8, Issue 5, Posted 9:30 AM, 03.01.2016

Making the right choice

It can be hard to make the right choice. Our family was at the bakery one recent morning. Everyone got to choose one item.

“We can choose anything we want?” asked the boy.

“Anything,” I replied.

“I can have one of those?” he said, pointing to a sheet cake that had a sign indicating you could have the bakery decorate it any way you wanted.

“Anything within reason,” I said.

They may pretend that they do no know what “within reason” means, but they do understand that a sheet cake is not “within reason” for a morning trip to the bakery.

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Volume 8, Issue 4, Posted 9:30 AM, 02.16.2016

The luxurious anxiety of choosing a career

“Find a job doing what you love to do.” That sounds like great advice. If you love to do something, and you can get paid for doing it, it’s hard to see a downside.

The girl will be going off to college next year and has some anxiety about a career choice. A couple years ago, my wife and I tried to talk her into going to school to study forestry. “Then you can get a job as a park ranger, or something like that,” we explained. “You love hiking and being in nature.”

Actually, it's my wife and I who love the outdoors. The girl doesn’t mind it, but the truth is she prefers city life to vast expanses of wilderness. So, yeah, we were projecting our ideas onto her a little, or maybe a lot.

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Volume 8, Issue 3, Posted 9:50 AM, 02.02.2016

Automatic work-avoidance system

“Where did the boy go?” That is a frequent question in our household when it is time for everyone to work. I understand how our son knows when the regular work times are coming. When everyone has finished supper, for example, everyone knows that they will need to take their dishes to the kitchen. It’s easy enough to figure out how he knows to disappear at those times, but he can sense work approaching when there is no apparent advanced warning.

Our boy can sense things like when I am about to ask him to help me refill the log rack for the fireplace. One moment we are all watching television together. He is sitting in the chair right next to mine. I say, “It’s time to get in some more wood for the fire,” only to see the chair next to me is empty. “Where did the boy go?”

It’s as if he has an invisibility cloak, or has learned the secret art of self teleportation. I doubt a ninja could sneak out of a room with as much stealth as the boy can.

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Volume 8, Issue 2, Posted 9:53 AM, 01.19.2016

Riding with a cowgirl fairy princess

Riding with your teenage driver can be a terrifying experience. One evening over the holidays, our family had a game night with another family at their home. “You can drive,” I said to my daughter as I passed the keys. “Your mother and I can sit in the back while you chauffeur us.”

“Ooh, that’ll be fun,” my wife said, “I always wanted a chauffeur.”

My daughter rolled her eyes as we got in the car. Before backing out of the driveway, she took a few seconds to adjust the mirrors and steering wheel. “Good,” I thought to myself, “she’s still a cautious driver.”

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Volume 8, Issue 1, Posted 9:52 AM, 01.05.2016

Pets and responsibility

Pets teach children responsibility. If I ever write a book, that may be part of the title. “Pets Teach Children Responsibility: And Fifty Other Lies People Tell.”

A friend recently stopped over with his two sons. The boys were enamored with our cat and dog. “We’ve been talking with the boys about getting either a cat or a dog,” he said.

“We’ll take care of it,” said the oldest boy.

We’ll take care of it. I know they believe those words when they say them. I remember thinking the same thing when I was growing up. My sister always wanted a horse. I grew up on five acres, so a horse just made sense to her. “I’ll take care of it,” she would say.

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Volume 7, Issue 24, Posted 9:36 AM, 12.15.2015

The question of sauce or cylinder

Cranberries – should they be in the form of a sauce, or should they be in the shape of a can and sliced in circular blobs of gel? This is largely a question of family culture that emerges around some tables and Thanksgiving. For some families, cranberry sauce is the way to go. After all, the pilgrims at Plymouth did not have canned cranberries. To this, the canned cranberry faction might point out that cranberry sauce was not mentioned as a sauce to serve with meat until 50 years later. 

As long as we are thinking about the first Thanksgiving, let’s remember that lobster was served at the first Thanksgiving feast. If you are a steadfast traditionalist for your Thanksgiving meal, please invite me next year. I love lobster, but can rarely afford to eat lobster. I will even forgive you the lack of cranberries as long as there is butter for the lobster.

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Volume 7, Issue 23, Posted 9:50 AM, 12.01.2015

Giving thanks for a computer game

“The kids want to pool their money to buy a computer game,” my wife informed me. “They’ve been very helpful lately.”

“Pool their money?” I thought to myself. “That means they will … share.”

Sharing does not come naturally to the human species. It comes even less naturally to siblings. Some will blame it on evolution. Others blame it on the fallen nature. I’ll blame it on both. Sharing holds a strong enough aversion for siblings that two sources are better than one.

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Volume 7, Issue 22, Posted 9:17 AM, 11.17.2015

The difficulty of a new phone

“Did daddy get a new phone?” asked my daughter as she looked at the new mobile phone sitting next to me on the kitchen breakfast bar. “It looks pretty snazzy.”

“My old phone died,” I said, trying to justify the purchase.

The first problem with my new phone was my concern that the children might think I purchased it to keep up with the current technology. My wife and I try to set the example that we purchase things when it is necessary. “This phone might send the wrong message,” I thought.

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Volume 7, Issue 21, Posted 10:08 AM, 11.03.2015

The problem with Christmas in October

The first Christmas catalogue of the year arrived in the mail a few days ago. On the cover were the company's gift ideas in the shape of a Christmas tree.

“Are you kidding?” I thought. “It’s not even Halloween yet, and they think people are buying Christmas gifts already.” 

There is absolutely no way I can start buying Christmas gifts yet. I don’t have a moral objection to purchasing Christmas gifts this early, it’s just that I cannot hold onto the gifts until Christmas. It’s hard enough when the gifts arrive two weeks before Christmas to stop myself from promptly distributing them to the people for whom I ordered them. The only thing that can stop me is if I immediately wrap them and put them under the tree.

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Volume 7, Issue 20, Posted 10:10 AM, 10.20.2015

A broken promise

When we got married, my wife and I made a couple promises in addition to the vows we took in the church. One was that we would never do home improvement projects ourselves. We firmly committed to hire experts to do everything except the routine maintenance. We both felt fully competent to change lightbulbs and filters in the furnace. Beyond that, it was time to call in people who knew what they were doing.

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Volume 7, Issue 19, Posted 8:59 AM, 10.06.2015

Shared memories of family vacations

Vacation is a great time to create family memories. This year we decided to take a hiking vacation in Granby, Colorado. Each day had its own hiking adventure. Because I grew up in Colorado, I knew how to vary our hikes so every hike had its own unique flavor.

The first couple of days consisted of short, relatively flat hikes while our bodies became acclimated to the thinner air at high altitude. The third day was the forced march.

The hike started at a trailhead at about 8,300 feet above sea level. The guidebooks all said the first mile was challenging. Over the first mile we gained 1,000 feet of elevation. This would be like getting on a treadmill and setting it at the highest incline, then putting rocks on the belt at random intervals. To complete the experience you would need to pump air out of the room, and continue pumping the air out as you ascended. Challenging might have been an understatement. “Lung burner” would have been a better description.

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Volume 7, Issue 16, Posted 9:37 AM, 08.18.2015

Squabbling has a purpose

“While squabbling is irritating, it has a purpose.” At least that’s what a number of my parenting books tell me.

I find it helpful to reread these parenting manuals occasionally. You might think that after millennia of raising children, parenting would be instinctive for the human race. If that’s what you think, you don’t have children.

The reality is that our instincts about parenting have been leading us to make a mess of families for millennia. Some of the earliest stories we have about family dynamics reveal this. If you want to see how to breed sibling rivalries, just read the book of Genesis. Isaac did a great job with Esau and Jacob if his goal was to create a sibling rivalry so deep that their descendants would be at war for centuries. Jacob bred such an intense sibling rivalry between Joseph and his brothers that they sold Joseph into slavery and told Jacob that Joseph had been killed by a wild animal. That’s what happens when we leave parenting up to following our instincts.

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Volume 7, Issue 15, Posted 9:46 AM, 08.04.2015

Enjoying a night home alone

“So, what do you want to do?”

When my wife asked me this question, the possibilities were greatly expanded for the next few days. The boy was at camp until the weekend, and the girl had left for two weeks in China that morning. We were home alone.

The night before the boy left, he asked, “Will you miss me?”

“Yes,” I assured him. “We will miss you.”

That answer was true. I am glad he did not ask, “Are you sad that I will be gone for the week?” The answer to that would have required much more nuance.

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Volume 7, Issue 14, Posted 9:13 AM, 07.21.2015

The practical lessons of summer

“On a scale of one to ten, how bad does it hurt?” the triage nurse at the emergency room asked my son.

“It’s about a five or six,” he responded.

I’ve learned that the subjective one-to-ten pain scale does not tell me much in the case of my son. If it’s a morning before school, hangnails are a nine or ten. During summer vacation broken bones are a five or six. The level of pain he reported was less significant than the fact that over the course of the preceding few hours, his hand had swollen to the point that it looked like an inflated latex glove.

After a few X-rays, we went to a treatment room where another nurse asked him how he hurt himself.

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Volume 7, Issue 13, Posted 9:53 AM, 07.07.2015

The gift of boredom

Summer vacation is not even a week old, but I am already bracing myself for that phrase every parent dreads to hear. At some point my son will come to me and say, “I’m bored.” I’m bored is really a shorter way of saying, “I think it is completely unreasonable for you to limit the number of hours I can watch television and play video games.”

If his mother and I would allow it, my son would become another piece of furniture in front of the television. We would just have to brush the cobwebs off him occasionally as he streamed endless episodes of cartoons. At first I tried to get him to watch documentaries. I could see some value in watching a show about a scientist who is trying to interpret whale songs so we can communicate with these gentle giants.

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Volume 7, Issue 12, Posted 9:29 AM, 06.16.2015

Taking advantage of nature

Last night, I watched our cat jump up to sit next to my wife as she was attempting to send a text. It’s hard to overestimate the challenge of typing on the screen of a smart phone with a cat rubbing its face against the side of the phone as it happily purrs at you.

If you want a cat to come to you, try to send a text, or type an article on a computer keyboard. Picking up a book and sitting down to read also has a powerful magnetic effect on cats. If you call them, their nature is to sit in place as they ponder whether it might be worth working up the energy to come. Usually, they decide it is not.

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Volume 7, Issue 11, Posted 9:28 AM, 06.02.2015

Somebody else's problem

I was introduced to the “Somebody Else’s Problem field” concept by Douglas Adams in his book, “Life, the Universe and Everything,” when I was in the eighth grade. At the time, I did not believe such a thing existed. My children, however, have provided irrefutable proof of the existence of this field.

The Somebody Else’s Problem field is something like a magnetic field. It utilizes a person’s natural tendency to ignore things they don’t easily accept and makes those things go unnoticed. It sounds fanciful, but my children have given me as much confidence in this field now as I have in the field of gravity.

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Volume 7, Issue 10, Posted 9:37 AM, 05.19.2015

The appeal of lesser-known celebrities

Last week I met Roy Underhill. If you are wondering “Who is Roy Underhill?” you are not alone. Before HGTV and the DIY Network, there was PBS. After outgrowing the Saturday morning cartoons, I watched the trifecta of do-it-yourself shows. First came "This Old House," followed by "The New Yankee Workshop," hosted by Norm Abrams. Finally there was "The Woodwright’s Shop," with Roy Underhill.

The "New Yankee Workshop" was interesting, but I assumed that the rest of the audience had an unlimited budget. Norm would say something like, “After you’ve run your boards through your jointer and thickness planer, cut slots with your biscuit jointer…” Not only did you need a budget for all of these exotic power tools, you had to have a building the size of The Q to house them.

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Volume 7, Issue 9, Posted 9:22 AM, 05.05.2015

IRS instructions for kitchen duty

Whose night is it to clean the kitchen? It’s a question we ask every night. One night my son does this chore. The next night it's my daughter's turn. You might think this would make the answer simple, but the reality looks more like the IRS instructions for the tax return you just completed. The process can be described as follows.

Line 1: What did we have for supper? If Dad grilled burgers and microwaved a package of frozen broccoli, proceed to Line 4 and check “my night.” All you have to do is put the dishes in the dishwasher, the condiments in the refrigerator, and wipe down the counters. This should take five minutes, and tomorrow night you’re off the hook.

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Volume 7, Issue 8, Posted 9:34 AM, 04.21.2015

Applying to College

My daughter shook her head in disbelief when I told her that I only applied to two colleges my senior year of high school. “Nobody does that,” she explained. “A lot of people apply to at least 10.” 

She was right. I read that one ambitious student applied to 86. The thought never crossed my mind that either school to which I applied might not accept me. In my high-school-senior mind, they would be lucky if I accepted them. Much has changed in the last quarter century. Mobile phones aren’t a symbol of vast wealth, and many high school seniors are filled with anxiety about getting into a good college.

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Volume 7, Issue 7, Posted 9:55 AM, 04.07.2015

The teenage years explained

There are biological reasons for teenage behavior, according to neuro-scientist Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor. If you have a child in adolescence, this should be very comforting. It means that the erratic behavior, the whiplash between despair and exuberance, and the apparent inability to comprehend how their actions might affect people around them are not your fault. There are “biological reasons.”

Once, when I was a chaperone for a junior high dance, one of the girls suddenly burst into tears. It was like watching a star go supernova. One moment everything was fine. The next moment emotions detonated, threatening to engulf anyone standing nearby.

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Volume 7, Issue 6, Posted 9:42 AM, 03.17.2015

Calamity Days

My cell phone rang. Seconds later, my wife’s rang. “This is really bad,” she said. When our phones ring in quick succession before seven o’clock in the morning on a school day, it can only mean one thing. School has been cancelled for a “calamity day.”

When I was growing up, they were called “snow days.” From a parent’s perspective, calamity day is a much better title. Snow day sounds lovely, even serene. As I imagine parents struggling to figure out what to do with their children while they are at work, or while they are trying to get things done around the house, I understand the term calamity days.

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Volume 7, Issue 5, Posted 9:39 AM, 03.03.2015

Coordinating ambitions and abilities

A barely controlled, continuous stumble might be the best description of my son’s exit from the house as he went to meet the school bus one recent morning. Somehow he managed to make the momentary adjustments to his center of gravity necessary to maintain an upright position.

The school bus passes our house, then turns around to come back and pick up the children. When the bus passes, he still has plenty of time to make it out to the street before the bus returns. The problem is when he feels hurried, most of the coordination leaves his body. When that happens, gravity is not his friend.

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Volume 7, Issue 4, Posted 9:09 AM, 02.17.2015