Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Play It School

If he wasn’t practicing math, he was reading. If he wasn’t reading, he was writing. If he wasn’t writing, he was organizing school supplies. And if he had spare time, he slept -- but only if the “School Success Stories” CD was playing softly in his ear.

Fifth grade is a giant leap for an elementary school student, and my 10-year-old son had to be ready. The opposition this year would be fierce.

I’d originally planned a rigorous training schedule for my son’s entire summer vacation, but somehow the break got away from us. The two days before school began would have to suffice.

“I’ll be fine,” my son said when I shouted it was time to hit the books.

The kid always assumes everything will be fine. And just because it usually is, it doesn’t mean he shouldn’t be an over-worrier like me.

I shot a math problem at him. He failed.

OK, maybe 1,027 multiplied by 165 is a little difficult without a pencil and paper. But it made the kid realize he had work to do. He’d also have to pick up the intensity.

Right away, my son and my program didn’t get along.

“This work is too bossy,” he complained. “It always wants to know what I just read or what the chances are of getting a red marble in a bag of forty red marbles, thirty blue marbles and ten green marbles.”

Yup, fifth grade was going to be rough on my boy.

I purchased several cases of Gatorade to provide hydration for my son while he exercised his mind.

“But Daddy, Gatorade doesn’t hydrate,” he said when I threw him a bottle as he transitioned from the study of Mayan culture to the examination of earthquakes and tsunamis as they affect ocean life.

“Gatorade does so hydrate,” I replied. “I refueled with it when I played football.”

“No,” he said, “it gives you electrolytes, but it’s full of sugar and bad chemicals and very little water content. It’s better to just drink water.”

“How do you know?” I asked him. “You don’t even know the entire periodic table of elements.”

“Actually, Mommy and I did an extensive study of the elements when you were at work one day. As for the accusation that Gatorade doesn’t hydrate, I learned about that from Mommy’s ‘Health Tip Diva’ podcast.”

After exchanging the Gatorade for bottled water, I devised a new strategy: Mommy could help the kid prepare. After all, she’s a teacher. And she has those really helpful podcasts.

Go! Fight! Win!

Mommy had trouble from the beginning. Her pupil kept getting up -- getting water, getting the phone, getting restless, getting nothing done. Even my wife, who educates middle school children in a rough neighborhood, couldn’t get our son on track.

On the evening before the first day of school, I tested our boy to see what he’d accomplished. I made the problems more difficult than they should’ve been. I also invited some kids over and had them run around the room to simulate a typical classroom environment. And guess what? Our boy didn’t pass.

At dinner, no one talked. We barely ate. And then it hit me: “I guess it’s up to the teacher now.”

“No, Daddy,” our son said. “It’s up to me.”

After we finished eating, the kid went to his room. He sharpened his pencils, laid out his clothes, set his alarm clock, packed enough water in his backpack to stay hydrated for the day.

“I’m ready to learn,” he finally announced with new focus and determination.

The next day, we tried to kiss him goodbye (unsuccessfully, because that would be embarrassing to a 10-year-old) and we wished him luck. He was off to dominate fifth grade.

My wife and I smiled. It was going to be OK after all.

Until the yard duty busted him for running.

It’s gonna be a rough year.

-August 2013

Monday, March 16, 2015

Shark Week

People don’t watch TV communally anymore.

Remember the “Charlie Brown” animated holiday specials? Everyone tuned in . . . at the same time. And it was all people would talk about the next day. Now we watch programs at any time, no matter when the shows air, thanks to our DVRs, DVDs and that cloud over our heads. And we do it alone.

People say going to the movies is still a communal experience. But is it? Most of the time the audience is texting, video gaming, Facebook updating -- we’re in our own worlds. In an age when technology has made communication so simple, communication is at its worst.

What we need is something to bring us together again.

I suggest the upcoming “Shark Week” on Discovery Channel, celebrating and investigating a creature that’s been on Earth more than 350 million years.

My wife said our 10-year-old son wouldn’t be interested in educational programming. The kid said Mommy wouldn’t be interested in something so scary.

“You’re both wrong,” I responded. “Everyone’s gonna love it.”

I decorated for the occasion two weeks in advance. Come Aug. 4, the house would be ready for shark TV 24/7.

I crafted a Shark Week door hanger for the front door, hung a shark flag out front. The table I use for the manger scene at Christmastime was perfect for the shark habitat I created using my son’s collection of toy shark figures, complete with miniature great white sharks, tiger sharks, hammerhead sharks and even Bruce the shark from the movie “Finding Nemo.”

Do you think a tree with shark ornaments is too much? My wife thought so. She felt I was treating Shark Week like it was a holiday.

It is a holiday, a most wonderful time of the year, a time for family and friends to come together and pay tribute to a beast whose bite offers up to 132 pounds of pure force per tooth. With as many as 3,000 teeth, though typically only a few dozen, that’s a heck of a bite.

“Shark Week isn’t just another one of my wacky obsessions,” I told my wife. “It’s the last remaining communal event on TV, where we can come together and enjoy quality shark content and share our responses to what we saw with the rest of the world tuning in.”

She told me that the same communal phenomenon is true for the Oscars, “Survivor,” championship ball games and Southern California police pursuits.

She was right. Boy, was I wrong.

So that gave my wife and son their out.

As I sat alone on the living room couch, surrounded by massive amounts of shark d├ęcor, I let the fact that I’d be spending Shark Week unaccompanied sink in.

Fine, I thought. I’ll keep the joy of Shark Week to myself. But I got news for them -- no one else is gonna eat one piece of my shark-shaped cheesecake. And when Sharka Jaws comes down the chimney with his big bag of toys, there’ll be nothing for anyone but me.

My wife had news for me -- she also has access to the checking account. She and our son would do something fun on their own. And they’d get their own gifts.

It wasn’t long before they had a whole trip planned for the seven days of Shark Week. And we’d be spending the week apart, which was totally against my original intentions.

So I decided to add myself to their plans. And I’d just record all of Shark Week on our DVR to watch when we return.

Hey, sharks have been here since before the dinosaurs. They’ll be here when we get back.

-August 2013

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

The Man Who Didn't Hear Too Much

I have an odd sensitivity to low sounds. But I can’t hear anything else.

It’s not a problem. It’s been this way for years. I’ve managed. I’ll continue to manage.

Sometimes I ask people to repeat what they say. And I regularly run the TV loud and play my music at full volume. But that’s out of a desire to hear sound detail. I love a good sound mix.

I hate the slightest bit of noise when I’m trying to sleep. I hear everything -- each breath my wife takes as she sleeps, the house settling even when it’s still, flying insects buzzing around . . . outside . . . at the other end of town. And because I hear so well, I haven’t had anyone check out my hearing.

“You don’t hear so well,” my wife finally said to me the other day.

But wives are always accusing their husbands of not hearing so well. They just want us to listen.

Then my boss said I don’t listen. That’s when I wondered if maybe I don’t hear so well.

No, that wasn’t it. I figured the world was simply plotting against me. So I wasn’t going to call in some fancy hearing specialist. He’d be in on the plot against me. I needed truth not lies.

I went online. I love the Internet. I found my answer instantly. I read about a guy in Tacoma, WA, who could hear low tones really well, but for the life of him couldn’t hear loud sounds. He said his wife complained about his poor hearing. Just like my wife did. He said his boss criticized him for not listening. Just like my boss had done. He said his boss finally fired him.

I hate the Internet. Lies. All lies. My boss wasn’t going to fire me for a little hearing issue. 
Ridiculous. I vented my frustrations with a stranger in line at the grocery store. The stranger was -- get this -- a hearing specialist. He said he’d have to run a hearing test on me to be able to define my condition.

My condition? What condition? The plot was thickening. And I was beginning to believe I had an actual problem. Before this “specialist” could assault me with his business card and more lies, I got his number and told him I’d call. Fat chance.

At home my wife asked if I’d looked into my “problem” yet.

“Yeah,” I said. “I talked to a specialist. He said there wasn’t a problem.”

After that, life went back to normal -- people complained about my hearing. And while none of this was new, there was something different about it all. In the back of my mind was the possibility that something was, in fact, wrong. I began overanalyzing everything I was hearing or not hearing.

“Cby yjd tkkj ote trd tgksw?” my wife asked me.

No, those aren’t typos up there. That’s what I actually heard my wife say. Normally I’d think she wasn’t speaking clearly. But with my hearing in question, I worried the problem was mine.

That night in bed, I could still hear every sound under the moon. The king of sounds that evening was the refrigerator making a buzzing noise. My wife said she couldn’t hear it. As I tried to sleep, the sound got louder and more annoying. Earplugs couldn’t hide it. Then my wife’s breathing started up.

I grabbed the hearing protection I use at drag races, but still, I could hear every breath my wife took. And I could swear I heard the refrigerator making that buzzing noise.

“There’s something not right with my hearing!” I shouted.

I scared my snoozing wife into her end table. While cleaning up the broken lamp, I told my wife how I talked to a hearing specialist in line at the store for a couple of seconds, not in his office for a couple hours as I said I’d done.

She wasn’t even mad at me for lying to her. All she cared about was finding something wrong with my hearing.

The next day she brought me in for a test. The guy said I had no problems with my hearing.

“Maybe it’s a focus issue,” my wife suggested. “Maybe you’re not focusing when you’re accused of not listening, and maybe you’re focusing too much when you’re overhearing.”

Just when I thought I was out, they pulled me back in. Now they were trying to say I had Attention Deficit Disorder or something like that. I needed truth not lies.

I went online. I found a test I could take on my computer that would determine if I had these so-called focus issues.

Later, my wife asked if I’d looked into my new problem.

“Yeah,” I said. “I took a test online. It said there was nothing wrong with me.”

I really took the test. But I didn’t check the results. You see, this is all just another plot against me.

-July 2013


Bad things happen. And outsiders say, “It could be worse.”

Those are terrible words of encouragement. Nobody ever gets up off the floor after being told what he or she just went through isn’t the worst it could be.

I always think the worst. When I board a plane, I scrutinize the passengers, hoping we’re worthy of surviving the flight. Babies and do-gooders won’t be on a plane destined to crash. Angry, destructive people, however, worry me.

I’m at my best when I fly. I’ll give up my choice aisle seat and perform other acts of kindness if it means I can live. The lack thereof could mean we crash.

And while crashing is bad, it could be worse, right? We could crash and I could survive. I could pass for dead and be buried alive.

I hear burning is miserable. This came to mind when a fire recently broke out in the state of Colorado (my aunt and uncle live there), and I thought the worst: What if they can’t escape?

Luckily, they had time to evacuate. Except my uncle wanted to fight the blaze with a pressure washer. His home isn’t just a structure with things inside. It’s his and my aunt’s life—33 years of memories, mementos from trips representing life-changing experiences, generations of heirlooms.

And while firefighters couldn’t control the flames with trucks and planes, he felt the pressure washer could do the job.

Eventually, my uncle dropped the wand in mid-spray, and he and my aunt fled.

“Possessions don’t define you,” people told them. “It could be worse—you could be stuck there.”

My aunt called me for comfort, as she wasn’t getting it elsewhere. I took pleasure in knowing I could help. I wouldn’t tell her it could be worse. I’d be her rock, her guiding light, her Grand Comforter.

She asked for my wife.

Not only did my wife help my aunt feel better, she helped me feel better as I listened in on the other line. I spent a lot of time in my aunt and uncle’s house, the woods on their property my childhood playground in the summer and a snowy wonderland in the winter.

They were going to be OK. I was going to be OK. By the time we hung up, we all knew the house and the surrounding woods were going to be OK.

“Pray for us,” my aunt cried into the phone. “Our neighbor’s house just burned to the ground.”

The very next morning, my aunt called us again. She was hysterical. The only barrier between my aunt and uncle’s home and their neighbor’s place was about 30 trees and a dirt road. But we still had hope. The dividing foliage might go up, but maybe the fire would tiptoe around the house. After all, my uncle had sprayed the structure down with the pressure washer a day earlier.

With the right amount of hope, we could save . . .

The sheriff’s report concluded that my aunt and uncle’s residence was a total loss. A day later the fire passed, and my aunt and uncle were able to go onto their property to assess the damage and retrieve any items, if any. My aunt sounded good. I spoke a few powerful lines that, undoubtedly, put her at total ease.

“If you need anything,” I reminded her, “please call.”

She said she’d call my wife.


At least I think that’s what she cried when she called back. Everything, she said, was gone, remnants of nothing but the truck they left in the driveway, now just a twisted piece of metal. The house and everything in it was gone. The surrounding forest was gone. Just soot and black sticks.

My time had come to really say something meaningful, helpful. But I had nothing to say. Nothing. And for what felt like 10 minutes, I listened to my aunt cry.

All I could think was, It could’ve been worse—they could’ve gone down with their house.

Members of the family asked what they could do to help. But there was nothing to be done.

In the days to follow, my aunt and uncle did all they could do—they tried to move on. They’d rebuild in the future, they said, but far away from the forest they’d called home for 33 years.

“It can only get better,” I told my aunt.

Terrible words of encouragement. For once I can say it could not get any worse than that. So I did what was best for my aunt—I put my wife on the phone.

-June 2013

Monday, September 16, 2013

Happy Father's Dismay

The world is against me.

My son is approaching his teenage years -- he’ll be 10 next month -- and his friends are pushing me out of the center of his universe. It’s not fair -- 10 years went too fast.

With Father’s Day upon us, I wondered if this year would be my final great year to bond. Worse, maybe last year’s tribute to Dad was the end.

But my son is really a good soul -- so caring. Even if he were losing interest in his parents, he’d hide all that to make us happy. He’d be miserable if it meant pleasing Dad.

Or not. His friends invited him over for a fun day of video games -- the Kid Gathering of the Century -- on Father’s Day of all days. And he wanted to go. How could he forget his obligation to be miserable in the name of Dad this Sunday?

“That’ll be a great time with your friends,” I told him. “Maybe I’ll hang out with your friends’ dads.”

“Oh no,” he said. “Sunday’s Father’s Day, isn’t it? I can’t play video games.”

So now he was going to be a martyr.

Meet my other self -- I tend to read into my conversations with people. While my son was showing enthusiasm to be with me instead of his friends, I knew what he truly meant.

“I can’t wait to have a day with you, Dad,” he said. “What do you wanna do?” (How about you drop me off at my friend’s house so I can play video games with people who aren’t from Dullsville?)

“You wanna go swimming?” I asked.

“That’s a good idea,” he said. (A better idea would be dropping me off at my friend’s house.)

Before going to work the other day, I made a list of things my son and I could do together on Father’s Day. During my lunch break, I called home to see what he thought.

“I haven’t looked at the list yet, Dad,” he said. (Ooops, was I supposed to read that silly thing? I hope Mom didn’t take the trash out yet.)

I could tell my son couldn’t care less. The good times with him were most definitely over.

When I got off work, it was late. I phoned my wife to tell her I was on my way home. She brought up Father’s Day, proposed a day to myself. Our son could play with his friends, she said, and she could get a facial or do something fun while I was at home by myself. That sounded amazing.

“Yeah,” I said. “That’ll work.”

Nobody wanted to be with me.

I hung up the phone and drove the dark, lonely freeway home. When are the freeways ever empty in L.A.? Where was the traffic? Where was the stranded motorist on the side of the road I could spot and wonder what happened? Yes, I was alone. The world, I tell you, is against me.

When I got home, my wife and son were asleep. A note on the counter indicated that my dinner was in the refrigerator, and there were pictures that my son had drawn of the dinner in case the word “dinner” was unclear.

I could smile about that. I did.

The next day my son received word that the big video game event with his friends had been cancelled.

“Mommy told me that you were gonna have a day to relax,” he said, “but would you rather spend time with me?”

“Aaaab-soooo-lutely!” I said. (What’s Mommy paying you? Do I have to double it?)

The earlier list of things my son and I could do was mere child’s play. I planned much bigger, better stuff -- a bike ride, camping, fishing, s’mores . . . a back rub for Daddy.

And while my boy seemed excited about our plans this Sunday, I wondered if deep down all he could think about was the cancellation of his video game get-together with his friends.

“It’s not cancelled,” my wife told me later. “He just told you that because he didn’t want you to send him to his friend’s house to play. He wanted to spend the day with you.”

“Really?” I asked, considering what that meant.

OK, so maybe the world isn’t against me. Not this time anyway.

-June 2013

Sunday, May 26, 2013

The Great Flag Debate

My son is no dummy.

So I have no problem attempting to explain complex things to him, like the large-scale electronic structure theory and the manner in which it can provide potential energy surfaces and force fields for simulating intricate chemical processes important to technology and biological chemistry.

“Don’t you think that’s a little too advanced and time-consuming for a 1-year-old?” my wife asked when I set out to convey such a complicated dissertation to our baby.

“Maybe,” I said. “But I’m not telling him he’s too young to understand. That’s belittling.”

As Memorial Day drew near, my now 9-year-old son has been talking about what the last Monday in May means. In particular, he spoke of proper American flag etiquette. He thought flying our flag upside down was only a sign of disrespect. He also thought that burning our flag only meant hatred for our country.

My son’s well-being is my sworn duty, and I shall not rest, I promised at his birth, if he is ill-informed. My mission: To answer his 3 million flag questions, even though I might not have the answers.

“No, no, no,” my wife said to me. She knew we all were in for pain if I submitted to this dialogue. Or she just had a honey-do list she wanted me to work on instead.

A honey-do list it was. It seemed like an easy enough list to finish.

Who was I kidding? The two-day American flag discourse was much easier.

“So,” I said to my son, “you want to know more about Old Glory, eh?”

“What’s Old Glory?” he asked.

“The name of our flag, coined in 1831 by Capt. William Driver, a shipmaster from Salem, MA.”

And just like that, we were on our way.

After a brief, 4-hour origin story about Old Glory, my son went in for easier questions like: Can the flag be flown at night? (Only if it has satisfactory illumination.) What if you don’t have satisfactory illumination? (Raise the flag at sunrise and take it down at sunset.)

Then, to set the kid straight on a few things he learned in school, I told him the flag could, in fact, be burned, but only during proper flag-burning procedures as a means to retire a weather-beaten or otherwise tattered Stars and Stripes. The flag could also be flown upside, but only as a distress signal.

My son was no dummy. He had no problems understanding what I was saying.

“What’s distress?” he asked.

The more difficult questions were yet to come. But I rose to the occasion. With great oratory skill, I made my son understand the importance of the American flag.

“I don’t get the importance of the American flag,” he said.

We were getting nowhere. How do you explain that type of symbolism to a 9-year-old? How do you explain why service men and women have chosen to die for that symbolism?

I didn’t have the courage to continue. My wife, you see, was giving me dirty looks, her list not anywhere closer to being finished, the day much closer to being over.

I thought about what Mark Twain once said: “It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the dog.” Then there was George S. Patton: “Better to fight for something than to live for nothing.” And finally there was Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto of the Japanese Navy, who said during his Pearl Harbor attack, “I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve.”

That’s right, I thought. I’m a citizen of that sleeping giant. I have something to fight for. There’s a heck of a fight in this dog. My wife and her list will have to wait. I have a son to explain something to.

I walked the kid down the street to talk to Mr. Anderson, who’d served in WWII. He’d explain.

Mr. Anderson’s explanations were way over my son’s head.

“Mr. Anderson,” my son finally said, “I assure you that when me and my daddy display our American flag, we will do so ceremoniously in honor of those who died for this great nation and our American way of life. And we’ll lower the flag at sundown, for we do not have satisfactory illumination.”

Back home, as I did the chores from my wife’s honey-do list, my son asked what we were doing on Memorial Day, besides raising the flag. After Mr. Anderson’s patriotic sermon on the flag and Memorial Day, I couldn’t possibly suggest cheapening that message with swimming, barbecuing and the Indy 500.

“How about,” the boy suggested, “we go swimming, have a barbecue and watch the Indy 500 like we did last year . . . in honor of those who died for this great nation and our fun, American way of life.”

Yup, my son is no dummy.

-May 2013

Competition is a Lose-Lose

Everything with my son is a competition.

“Which is better?” “Who do you like most?” “Do you think I’ll win?” “I got more points.”

That, I suppose, is America. Americans love winners. Our heroes show us that winning is the big picture.

Former Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis used to say, “Just win, baby.” 

U.S. Army General George Patton once said, “Americans play to win at all times.” 

Look at the shirts out there: “Love to win.” “Won and done.” “Play. Win. Lunch.” And my favorite: “Every time you make a typo, the errorists win.”

But if there’s a winner, there has to be a loser. And nobody wants to be that loser.

Competition, without a doubt, causes loss and pain, stress to not make losing happen again. Even winners don’t really win in the end. As a result, life might bear little enjoyment.

So when my 9-year-old son asked which of his two drawings I liked best, I decided not to choose. I decided to shut down the competition. This time I wouldn’t give in. This time I’d win.

“If you had to choose one, though, which one would you pick as the winner?” my son insisted.

“I still wouldn’t be able to choose,” I said, “because I like both drawings exactly equally.”

“Why not do an eenie-meenie-miney-moe to choose which one wins?”

“Because I don’t want one to win. I want them both to just be.”

“Well,” he kept trying, “which one did you notice first?”

“I noticed them both at exactly the same time.”

“Which one,” he wouldn’t give up, “has the best idea?”

“They’re both great ideas.”

“But which one was executed best?”

“They’re both executed evenly well.”

My son finally stopped. Then he cried out, “If it was life or death . . .”

Clearly I won.

Critics assert that competition has negative influences on student achievement.

Alfie Kohn, an American author and lecturer on matters related to education, parenting and human behavior, says that competition turns all of us into losers. British labor economist Richard Layard adds that competition forces people to feel that their main objective in life is to do better than other people.

That’s Bad.

But I felt great about doing better than my son in our little debate. Experts say that America’s national education system tries to make each generation go beyond the last. Well, the experts are wrong in this case. Daddy was clearly king on this day.

Then my son turned away, defeated. I wasn’t a winner after all. To really win, I’d have to choose.

“Well, if it was life or death,” I gave in, “and I had to choose, I’d pick that one.”

“This one?” he asked. “Why this one?”

“You wanted me to choose,” I said. “I chose. What’s the difference which one I choose?”

“Because the one you chose isn’t mine. It’s my friend’s from school.”

I couldn’t backtrack and say I made a mistake. My son was too smart for that.

“Your friend drew this one?” I asked, grabbing the drawing I clearly didn’t choose as my favorite.

“No, this is my drawing,” he said, showing me the one in his hand. “But you chose that one.”

“No I didn’t.”

Darn that education system -- the kid knew better.

“Look,” I said. “Did you have fun making your picture?”


“Well that’s what matters. Look at your friend’s drawing. The lines are too perfect. That means he wasn’t having fun because he was working too hard. He probably takes one of those strict art classes that makes drawing more of a chore. Your picture looks like you had fun. Look at those messy, joyful lines.”

My son agreed with me. He said drawing is never work, never a chore. He said drawing is always fun and always a joy.

Pheee-ew. That was a good save.

“So,” my son said when it was all over, “if you had to choose the artist who had the most fun -- me or my friend -- who would you pick as the winner?

-May 2013