Monday, November 14, 2011

Pre-Halloween Surprise

Halloween is all about surprises -- scares, tricks, treats. This year’s surprise was Disneyland.

My 8-year-old son had no choice -- at birth, he was forced into our family. He wouldn’t get the news of going to Disneyland in advance like his friends got. No, he was going to find out upon arrival after a long, drawn-out production of a lie.

But here was the problem: Today’s kids are no dummies. When I was young, my parents could rely on my gullibility to trick me into believing anything. My son is far too skeptical for that, and so my set-up for the Disneyland surprise had to be even more elaborate than I envisioned.

Earlier this month, my wife ordered the Disneyland tickets online. Meanwhile, I outlined a script that she and I would follow in order to trick our son into the surprise. My spouse had long ago given in to my madness. Like most everything else I do, she just went along.

“Let’s just tell him now,” she said full of her own excitement.

“Can’t you just go along with me this one time?” I asked. It was Halloween time, after all, and Disneyland had to be a surprise.

We kept the secret for over a week. On the day before we were to go, we told the kid that, the next day, we’d have to go down to Orange County (where Disneyland lives) to help Grandpa (he lives in Orange County, too) run some errands. This was believable because we’d done it in the past.

The kid went right along with the story.

When he fell asleep that night, my computer called me from the other room. It seemed to know we were going to Disneyland, and it begged me to go online and check out the cool stuff planned for the Disney Halloween spooktacular. My wife wrote off the whole computer calling me thing as if I was making it up. Whatever.

Online, I saw how Disney dressed up the Haunted Mansion to look like the movie “Nightmare Before Christmas.” Space Mountain became haunted with a ghost that chases roller coaster riders through space. There’d be pumpkin carvers, a Halloween Tree (from the classic Ray Bradbury book of the same name), jack-o’-lanterns galore and trick-or-treating. Forget my son’s excitement -- I couldn’t wait.

On the day of the big surprise, we woke -- rather I woke and shook my wife awake -- ran into the kid’s room and woke him up, yelling, “Hurry up, get up, it’s time help Grandpa with all his errands!”

In the car, my wife and I recited the lines of my surprise script, telling our kid how we were all going to have to be patient because we had “a lot of boring shopping to do with Grandpa.” I told the boy that if he behaved well, we’d check out the Halloween store in the mall.

“Wouldn’t it be great,” I asked, veering off the script I’d written, “if they had a ‘Nightmare Before Christmas’ costume?”

My wife shot me a look, assuming I’d given away the surprise. No way -- our son had no clue.

“Check out that Disneyland billboard,” I said to my son about halfway into the drive. “Oh wow, it looks like they decorate for Halloween. I sure wish we could go.”

Again, my wife glared at me. Really? I knew what I was doing, even with my ad-libbing. Our son had no idea what was in store for him.

When we neared Disneyland, I really got into character, and I showed the world -- well, everyone in the car anyway -- that Al Pacino isn’t the only one with acting chops.

“Is this right?” I said, tapping the electronic gas gauge on my dash. “It says we need gas. I think I’m going to pull off here. Let me know if anyone sees a gas station.”

The kid totally bought my act. I took the exit before Disneyland so he wouldn’t get suspicious. I’d take back streets to the park.

“There’s a gas station,” the kid said when he saw one.

“Not Shell,” I said. “See if you can find a Chevron. I wanna put gas with Techron into my tank.”

When we got to the Disneyland parking garage, I was turning in an Oscar-worthy performance.

“What the heck?” I said. “I must’ve made a wrong turn somewhere. Where the heck are we?”

My wife turned toward our child in the back seat so she wouldn’t miss his excitement when he finally discovered where we were.

“Daddy,” he said, “we’re at Disneyland.” Now I turned around so I wouldn’t miss his excitement. But he wasn’t excited. He was annoyed.

“You gotta turn around, Dad,” he said. “There’s no Chevron in the Disneyland parking lot.”

Yup, Halloween is all about surprises. The surprise that day, however, was on my wife and me. Even as we were boarding our doom buggy in the Haunted Mansion ride, our kid was asking, “So we’re not helping Grandpa run errands today?”

Happy Halloween. Here’s to your Halloween surprise -- or lack thereof.

-October 2011

My Kid the Salesman

My 8-year-old son is deep.

He said to his mother, who’s a middle school teacher, “Your students think eighth grade is next to ninth grade. I think third grade is next to college.”

He’s got something there. It’s quite profound. Or he just wants something from Mommy and knows his way to her teacherly heart.

Yup, our boy’s a salesman. Question is: Will he use his powers for good or evil?

My wife and I saw the full extent of the kid’s abilities when his teacher asked the class to sell magazine subscriptions to friends and family to raise funds for the school. My initial response: “I don’t want to ask anyone for money. No one we know has money right now, but they’ll feel guilty if we ask and they’ll fork over the cash, and I just don’t want that.”

Before I could finish saying my piece, my wife and son already had the address book out and phone in hand, eager to dial the family. I had to step up and lay down the law.

“Okay, who are we calling first?” I asked. Not much stepping up there. But I was able to at least lay down a few ground rules -- my wife and I came up with a list of family and friends our son could call. Everyone else in the address book was off limits.

The boy called my father-in-law first.

“Hello,” Grandpa said when he picked up.

“At my school,” the kid said without any greeting or introduction, “there’s this thing where you can buy subscriptions to magazines. Do you wanna buy one?”

One by one, family and friends came through. They were dropping their hard-earned cheese like it wasn’t all they had in their pockets to put food on the table. After a call to my brother, my son got back on the phone to other relatives, and my brother rang me up on my cell phone.

“I wish I could’ve done more,” he said, “but we just spent everything we have on the closing costs for this house.”

“You did plenty,” I said. “We appreciate it. And I know the school appreciates it, too.”

Boy, that school better appreciate it.

My wife got a similar call on her cell phone from a family friend. And so while she and I were thanking them graciously, our son was on our landline going through his list of contacts, selling subscriptions to each and every person he called.

My wife and I had only been away from our son for a minute -- two minutes tops. He had managed to go through the entire list of contacts, and then he dug into our address book and found other people he knew, people we told him were off limits, and he called them and made those sales as well.

“What are you doing?” I said when I caught him. “We told you to stick to the list.”

“But I just wanted to help the school more better,” he said.

“You should just wanna listen to Mommy and Daddy more better,” I told him. “Now you’re gonna have to call all those people who weren’t on the list and tell them the sale is canceled.”

My wife thought I was being a little harsh. But this time I actually got to lay down the law. The kid had gone too far.

So he called back those not on the list and canceled their orders.

Before going to school the next morning with his list of orders, our son told us, “If I made three more sales, I would’ve won a toy frog. But I don’t want you to think I’m addicted to prizes. I didn’t go into your address book so I could win the toy frog. I really just wanted the school to have more money.”

My wife and I weren’t buying. We sent the kid on his way.

When he returned home from school that afternoon, he told us how he handed over his orders and how the teacher congratulated him on a job well done.

“You did a great job,” I told him. “And I know you could’ve earned the toy frog if we kept your other sales, but more important is that rules are rules, and you have to obey the rules.”

“Oh, but I got the frog,” the kid said, pulling the toy frog out of his backpack.

“Did you steal that?” my wife and I asked when we saw the frog.

“No!” he said, hurt by the accusation. “I just asked for it nicely.”

The question, indeed: Will this kid use his powers for good or evil?

-September 2011

I Want a Reason

It was just a routine check-up.

I’d had a pacemaker in my chest for a little more than a year due to a slow heart rate and frequent blackouts. While the technician assessed me and my pacemaker, I noticed her eyes growing diameters bigger. Then she informed me that there was a problem with my heart.

She asked me to lay down, told me to calm down, relax . . . then she shot out of the room to get a doctor.

I checked my watch. I was late for a previous engagement. When the technician finally returned without the doctor, I was up and asking if this was really necessary -- I had a seat at Al Pacino’s AFI Life Achievement Award ceremony in Hollywood.

“We might have to check you into the ER,” the technician told me.

“You don’t understand,” I told her. “I have to go to this Pacino thing. My mother-in-law got these tickets, and she’s waiting for me.”

My always-punctual, very disciplined mother-in-law had received two tickets to this event from a business friend, and she invited me to go with her because she knew I was a huge movie lover.

Lucky for my insurance company, my heart didn’t cut out that day, and my mother-in-law and I made it to the event on time.

But things don’t always work out so nicely. I think it’s safe to say that life, in general, doesn’t work out so nicely, not even for those of us who get to see Al Pacino in person.

My mother-in-law’s recent passing was unexpected. I’d like to believe there’s a good reason for it.

Maybe she accomplished what she needed to accomplish in life, and so she was finished here. She started out in a tiny house in East L.A. next to gypsies. From there she built a very successful banking career and helped raise a very happy family, happy even with her strict business-like regimen, which included grocery store lists organized by the aisle and frequent calls from the second-story landing for her husband. “RRRRROSSSSSS!” she’d lovingly yell on a regular basis, needing his immediate assistance.

My mother-in-law was a daughter, a sister, a wife, a mother, a grandmother, a banker, an expert witness, a teacher, a consultant . . . a fellow “Godfather” movie lover. She most recently worked as chief of staff to the western director of the FDIC and, even when she was diagnosed with lung cancer earlier this year, was preparing for her job to end, firing up her resume to do more. She wouldn’t just give up. She couldn’t. She knew tomorrow the sun would rise and so would her family, the family she so loved. So she had to keep going. She had more to do.

No, I don’t think my mother-in-law accomplished what she needed to accomplish. I don’t think that’s the reason for her premature death.

But maybe she passed because she was needed in Heaven to watch over her family from a higher place. She did like being high up in the ranks, and the higher-ups always liked her.

So she gets to the pearly gates and St. Peter checks out her resume, gives her a heck of an interview. His job relies on whom he lets in, so he’s nervous. What if, he wonders, God likes the throw pillows where they are? And can you see God, looking over the world, and then, from some second-story cloud he hears, “GAWWWWWWD!” That’d be St. Peter’s job. So St. Peter asks for my mother-in-law’s intentions.

“If I get in,” she responds, “I’ll make sure my family is safe.” And she’s up there right now, looking over us, making sure we stay safe.

That sounds like a nice scenario. I’d like to believe that that’s the reason for my mother-in-law’s untimely death, that she left to be even closer to us all. I think the whole family would like to believe that that’s the reason. But I just don’t think she would have it that way. I think she could keep all of us safe and in line just fine from down here.

No, I think the truth lies in a passage I came across in The Bible. I haven’t read much of The Bible, but I picked it up and found the book of Ecclesiastes where it says, “There is a righteous man who perishes in his righteousness, and there is a wicked man who prolongs his life in his evildoing.” In other words, any of us can go at any time, and there’s no reason for why and when, whether we’re good or bad.

The book offers this: “There is nothing better for people than to be happy and to do good while they live, that each of them may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all their toil.”

My mother-in-law did just that. She loved her work. She loved her family. She loved her days on Earth. And she wanted the same for others. She really wanted the same for others. And I think that’s why she waited a few extra days to make her final exit last week -- to make sure she got what she wanted.

My father-in-law will tell you -- his wife always got what she wanted. She wouldn’t just give up. She couldn’t. Yup, when she left, she left on her own terms, satisfied, knowing that tomorrow the sun will rise.

And so will we.

-September 2011

How to Survive 'Back to School'

Summer goes by too fast. Worse, stores prematurely advertise sales for “back to school” halfway through summer break, making summer fly by that much faster.

As a kid, I hated those sales telling me my summer fun was coming to an end. As a parent, I still hate those sales, reminding me that my kid is one year closer to becoming a teenager who hates my guts.

But no matter how much you hate the fact that school is starting, and no matter how much you remember despising your parents for making you go back to school when you were a kid, you still have to send your children to school, whether they beg to work from home or not.

“Yippie,” my 8-year-old son hollered when my wife and I gave him his back-to-school date this year. “I can’t wait to go back.”

Who is this kid? Certainly not yours. Your children will most likely refuse to go. They’ll threaten your life with the pudding spoons you pack in their lunches. Remember that this is normal behavior, and that your kids won’t actually attempt to make good on their threats. Then send them on their crying way.

I still hate first days back to school. You must bravely navigate through ferocious hordes that slam you out of their way into playground equipment, that swing over your head from monkey bars to get in line for class before anyone else. These are the moms and dads. The kids are sometimes worse -- only sometimes, though.

Then there are crying kids who don’t want to leave moms and crying moms who don’t want their kids to leave. Don’t let these syrupy scenes deter you from getting to your child’s class on time. It’s survival of the fittest out there -- cut others down before they cut you down.

Once you survive finding your child’s class line, be prepared to deal with real life-and-death problems. Your child will complain that all his friends are in other classes. Parents whose children got the best teacher in school will tell you that your child’s new teacher is the “fun one,” which means they think your teacher can’t teach and that they’re lucky their child got a teacher who can.

Defuse such a problem by asking these parents what they did for summer break. When they tell you what they did, fabricate a vacation “you took” that makes their trip look like a Sunday outing. That’ll tick them off. Then go to the office and see if you can switch classes.

The office will most likely deny your request, and rightfully so. No teacher deserves oversized classes, not even the so-called best ones.

Better yet, skip the hassle of going to the office and instead tell other parents and your child that you heard the teacher your kid got is actually the best in the school. Make up a few wild statistics to prove it. Don’t worry, nobody’s gonna fact-check you, unless, of course, you’re speaking with a room mom -- room moms can and will find out everything about your school.

Picture taking on the first day of school is a must. I’m not a fan of school paparazzi, but my wife is. We’ve got two external hard drives full of pictures to prove it.

This year, I was sent alone to cover the first day of school. For those of you who find yourselves in the same predicament, use your cell phone’s camera to be more discreet. Infringe on poses other paparazzi parents set up with your kids and theirs, and snap away. Your absent spouse will revel in photos she thinks you set up. Accept this unjust praise.

Checking the backpacks after that first day of school is always painful. This year, my son brought home two reams of paper from his teacher. When this happens to you, don’t smile and assume you just received free printer paper. This is your homework -- you have to fill out that mountain of paperwork and return the next day.

Throughout that paperwork will be indicators that your children will be learning more this year than you learned in all of your grade school education. My son’s in third grade, and he’s going to be learning calculus and how to write a multi-source I-search paper. Don’t feel inferior to your kids. Just tell them they won’t need any of that useless knowledge when they get into the real world.

The bottom line is your kids are growing. You might tell yourselves that they’re still your babies. This reaction is normal. It just means you don’t want to be older. I call this, fittingly, the “I don’t want to be older” phenomenon.

My wife and I are in our mid to late 30s with one child, and we’re guilty of not wanting to be older. We don’t want time to fly. We don’t want our son to grow up and leave us for a life of his own. We want the baby we had when we were younger, the baby who needs us, who wants us.

And so there’s a solution: Have another kid and relive those grand days of youth.

Only problem is, in just a few years, summer break will be over and that baby will be going back to school.

-August 2011

Taking Ownership

What age are your children when you let them use your computer? How about your iPhone to play games? And the DVR to record programs on TV -- when should your kids be allowed to use that?

How old are your kids before you let them use these electronic items unsupervised?

My wife and I have an 8-year-old boy. He’s used the computer and our phones many times. But each time we’re hovering over his every move -- we don’t want him accidentally deleting something important or messing everything up.

My step-dad told me that my wife and I are typical only-child parents, that we suffocate our kid, give him no room to grow and mature.

“He has to take ownership of his mistakes,” he told me. “It’s key to character building.”

Later my son asked if he could play a game on my iPhone while I washed the car. My first thoughts: What if he drops the phone when I’m not looking? What if he deletes something? What if he scrambles up the placement of my apps? Those took me hours to organize.

I could hear my step-dad’s voice from earlier, warning me to give my son responsibility, to let him take ownership if he makes a mistake.

I gave my boy my phone and told him to be careful. And I turned my back.

When I got the phone back, it actually looked okay. My son even asked me if the phone looked like it did when I gave it to him. I told him it did. Wow, maybe this experience was really teaching the kid to be responsible.

“Can I use the computer next?” he asked. My first thoughts: The iPhone is one thing. The computer has so many things he can screw up when I’m not looking, more important things like system preferences, our checkbook, and the order I have applications placed on my dock.

But there was my step-dad’s voice again, telling me to let the kid take ownership.

I got the kid set up on the computer and told him to be careful. And I turned my back.

When he was finished an hour or so later, I checked out the machine. What the heck? Nothing was totally destroyed.

So I taught him how to use the DVR, gave him full reign of our electronics in the house. I’m gonna get an award for being the best parent, teaching my kid responsibility so early on.

And then came the problems. My wife found 20 new “Words With Friends” games started with unknown people on her phone. We got over $30 in receipts from iTunes showing purchases neither of us had made for applications like “Icee Maker,” “Cake Decorator” and some werewolf hunter game that made no sense.

The DVR had no more space available to record. But the memory wasn’t taken up by cartoons or other kids shows. It was full of game shows like “Jeopardy,” “Wheel of Fortune” and “Family Feud.” That’s our son.

Then I found the real problem. I checked the computer and discovered missing application icons on the dock. Worse, the icons that were there were in the incorrect order.

My wife and I discussed taking away the kid’s electronics privileges. Obviously he couldn’t be trusted.

“I’m so sorry I messed everything up,” our son said, taking full ownership. “I didn’t know I was starting new ‘Words With Friends’ games with people you don’t know. And when I was playing this game on your phone, this ‘Icee Maker’ window kept popping up and I just pressed okay to try to get rid of it.”

In his defense, some of those free apps do allow tricky pop-up windows that could easily lead to accidental purchases. Even I’ve almost done that. As for the missing application icons on the computer dock and the rearrangement of the present icons, my wife wrecks that stuff all the time.

When I was a kid, my step-dad taught me how to work on cars. He didn’t just show and tell. He told me how to do the work and I did it. While working on a carburetor one time, I actually broke something very costly. I feared for my life.

But my step-dad wasn’t upset. The cost to replace the broken part wasn’t as valuable as the experience he was giving me, and the ownership he was teaching me to take.

Likewise, my wife and I didn’t take our son’s electronics privileges away. We pointed out the mistakes he’d made and showed him how to avoid them in the future. And we told him we weren’t upset about his mistakes. We taught him to own up, that not owning up was far worse than making the mistake.

Last week, FedEx showed up at our door with one of those Roomba vacuuming robots. Our son wasn’t taking ownership of that one. But my wife and I sure did. It cost us over $200 plus shipping and handling to own that thing.

And that’s the story of how our carpets came to be vacuumed automatically on a daily basis.

-August 2011

The Girl, The Date, The Dilemma

It’d been a year since my son, now 8 years old, met The Girl. The Girl’s a year younger. This was their first play date since their first meeting.

“Do you remember her?” I asked my son.

“Yeah, Daddy,” he said in a show-offy tone. “Of course I remember her. Duh.”

“You met her last year,” I said. “At this park. Her dad and I went to school together in San Francisco.”

“I already know all that, Daddy,” my son said to me, annoyed that I was filling him in with details when he just told me he remembered her.

“Do you remember her name?” I asked.

“Yeah,” he said. “Duh.”

I waited for him to say her name. When it was clear he had no intention of responding, I said, “So, what’s her name?”

My son blew me off, ran to the playground. The Girl followed.

“Evidently,” I told my friend, “knowing each other’s name isn’t grounds for being friends in the kid world.”

I called for my son.

“It’s okay,” my friend said, probably embarrassed to be a part of this scene.

“No,” I said. “He remembers her name.”

“It’s okay if he doesn’t.”

“Yeah, but I asked him a question and he just blew me off. That’s not okay.”

I called for my son again, this time using that fatherly voice that meant business. He’d come to me if he heard that voice.

My son just kept playing. I called again -- because I couldn’t back down now. Luckily my son came over -- I had no alternate strategy to show I held the power otherwise.

“Yeah?” he asked, as if I was inconveniencing him by calling him over.

“I asked you a question and you just ran off. That’s rude.”

“What was the question again? I forgot.”

“I asked if you remembered her name.”

“It’s really okay if he forgot,” my friend said, trying to end this whole thing.

“Yeah, Daddy,” my son said with pure teenager in his voice. “I have to do stuff.” Then he turned and ran back to the playground, my friend’s daughter in tow.

I could’ve let the whole thing end there. But there were principles at stake. My son stepped over a line. So I stepped over that line after him. My friend followed, not because he was supporting me, but because he’d look kind of awkward standing on the outskirts of the playground alone.

I took my kid by the hand and walked him to a nearby park bench, sat him down.

“I asked you a question twice and you ignored me. And then you were rude. That’s rude.”

“Sorry, Daddy,” my son said, no longer putting on the tough guy persona.

“You’ve been doing this a lot lately. You repeatedly misbehave around other people to try and show off or something, and then you just want it all to be okay afterward because you say you’re sorry. It’s good to say you’re sorry, but you have to start thinking before you act. Then you won’t have to say sorry.”

“Okay, Daddy, I’m sorry.”

“Now what was that girl’s name?” I asked. “Do you remember it?”

“No,” he said.

“Then why’d you lie and say you did?”

“I don’t know. I’m sorry.”

“You’re not gonna get in trouble for forgetting someone’s name,” I said. I looked at my kid. He seemed to feel awful about the whole matter. So I dropped it. “Okay,” I said. “You can go play.”

My son rejoined The Girl at the playground. I rejoined my friend. We stood there, quiet for some time, watching our kids play. I finally said, “He was embarrassed that he forgot your daughter’s name. Silly, isn’t it?”

Then I asked, “What’s her name again?”

-July 2011