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

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Can't Have Trust and Eat It, Too

Our 9-year-old is a good kid. He doesn’t lie. He doesn’t sneak.

I couldn’t trust him at all. Things were going too well. And so came the whole looking-up-poop-on-the-school-computer-and-lying-about-it incident. Our son’s teacher sent home a letter detailing the matter. My wife and I asked the kid to come clean, said we wouldn’t get mad. We knew how to get the truth.

The kid said he didn’t do it.

That lie turned into another lie about his classmate actually doing it. And that lie led to our letter to the teacher, which led to our son trashing the letter, which led to our son lying about trashing the letter.

After my wife and I caved, unable to get the truth we knew how to get, the kid confessed. 

Then he asked if everything was better.

“No,” I said, standing firm as the boss here. “It’s not better. I can’t trust you. And that’s not good.”

The kid’s head fell.

“What if I make a chart?” he suggested.

My son loves visual tools to chart his progress. He recently charted the number of chores he accomplished leading up to the number of chores he needed to earn a video game. We’ve found that charting works with our kid.

“Charting our trust won’t work,” I said, still standing firm, still the boss here. “You just have to prove that we can trust you.”

He tried the head-fall thing again. Pathetic. Like I’d fall for tha—

“Fine,” I told him. “You can make a chart.”

For each lie the kid had told, my wife and I charged him one week to prove his trustworthiness. We charted out a month. Every day he proved to be trustworthy, we’d check off a box. After the kid had 31 boxes checked off, we’d trust him again. That was the deal.

I wasn’t worried about me. I’d make my son earn those days of trustworthiness. I was worried about my wife. She was the pushover -- she’d just hand over the days. I had to be the firm one, the boss.

The first day, I told my son he could mark off three boxes for his good behavior at school.

“Three boxes?” my wife exclaimed. “I thought he could only earn one box a day.”

“Give the kid a break,” I said, standing firm as the boss.

The next day, our son admitted to goofing off in class. He knows better than to goof around like that.

“I’m proud of your honesty,” I said, giving him a high-five. “Mark off five boxes on the chart.”

“Hey, Daddy,” my son said. “So really, all I have to do is do bad things and confess, and I can earn back your trust in, like, five days.”

I could see what he was doing, trying to get the best of me. I wasn’t falling for that.

Before I could fall for that, my wife overheard the conversation and intervened.

“We don’t reward bad conduct,” she said, “even if you confess. You’re supposed to confess.”

“Yeah,” I agreed, standing firm as the real boss here. “You have to still be good. From now on, if you’re bad and you come clean, we’ll only mark off two boxes.”

I was getting pretty good at this. My wife was good, too. She wasn’t the pushover I thought she was.

The next day, our boy finished his chart. He’d earned our complete trust back.

And then we caught him in a lie -- he’d falsified his trust chart, marking off more days than we allowed. Then he lied about doing so. Our kid was treating this like a game, and that stupid chart wasn’t helping.

“Can I make a new chart to earn your trust back?” the kid asked.

“No,” I said. “I can’t trust you. And that’s not good. No chart is gonna fix that.”

I didn’t know what to do. My wife and I talked it over. We decided to trust our instincts. No chart could dictate whether or not we could believe our son. We had to just trust him. And I didn’t.

It’s now been a month. My wife and I have been on our son like CSI, checking his every move, even when he stirs in his sleep. He’s not told one lie. He’s not been sneaky. He’s even been good in school.

“Have I earned your trust back yet?” my son asked.

I was firm, the boss here, and wasn’t going to give in like before.

“Heck yeah,” I said.

My son smiled. Then he ran off to his room to draw. I smiled. Then I shot over to the secret surveillance video bank in the office closet to see what the kid was really up to.

-May 2013

What's in the Basket?

I couldn’t figure out what to put in my 9-year-old son’s Easter basket this year. What I mean is -- the Easter Bunny fills up his basket with goodies, but my wife and I like to put something in there from us.

But what? It had to be good, but nothing to spoil the kid. After all, Easter isn’t about gifts. Not huge ones, anyway.

I remember the year I learned about greed. I was about my son’s age. My mom said she’d found the ultimate Easter gift for me, one that I’d particularly love.

I was intrigued. A gift I specifically would appreciate? My mom talked about it for weeks. I remember thinking it couldn’t have been all that good.

It wasn’t. It was a light-up skeleton pen. I think I let out an “Ahhhhh, what the—” when I saw it in my basket on Easter morning, even though I loved to draw and I adored anything to do with monsters, skeletons and ghouls. Maybe my mom’s set-up led me to believe it’d be something like a new wing in the house just for me, with an indoor swimming pool and a skate park.

It took me a full minute after seeing the pen before I could fake excitement. I hoped my mom didn’t catch my initial disappointment. She was so eager for me to get that gift. My plan was to never let her find out what I really thought.

“This is the best gift ever,” I lied. “I love it more than Christmas.”

I reminded her daily how highly I thought of the pen, went out of my way to use it in front of her.

After spring break, when I went back to school, one of my friends, Joey, bragged about the motorcycle he got for Easter.

“You got a pen?” Joey asked as if I were kidding. “You gotta tell your parents who’s boss.”

He put me through a “here’s how you get good things” boot camp. I learned to ask for fast-food money instead of sitting down with my family for meals. I learned to leave my room so messy that my mom would have no choice but to clean it up for me. I learned that saying thank you was as bad as telling my parents I didn’t need anything else from them.

I went along with Joey, but I’d never treat my parents with such disrespect. However, at Joey’s house, I watched how his tactics pleased his parents. Joey got what he wanted, and his mom and dad were thrilled to spoil him. His parents were happy like my mom was happy to give me that skeleton pen.

Maybe I could please my parents by telling them to get me a motorcycle. I’d be happy.

I found my mom in the kitchen. Joey tagged along to witness my metamorphosis.

“Hey, Mom,” I began. “Um . . . Do you remember where you got that pen? Joey wants one, too.”

I just couldn’t do it. I tried. I really tried. But I couldn’t be greedier than I already felt. Joey punched me in the arm, reminding me to stick to the plan. I couldn’t. So Joey did it for me, telling my mom she owed me a motorcycle after insulting me with that lame pen.

I was going kill Joey. But first I ran up to my room to hide.

After my mom sent Joey home, she came up to talk to me. I hoped my bedcovers, having shielded me from many night monsters in the past, would surely save me from facing a disappointed, hurt mother.

Could you believe it? The covers didn’t protect me. My mom talked right through the sheets. I begged for forgiveness, promised I’d never be greedy again.

My mom forgave me.

And this year, as I loaded up on stuff for my son’s Easter basket, I thought about that promise. I was acting greedy all over again. I put all the stuff back on the shelf, save a few items.

On Easter day, my son’s tiny, almost empty basket looked great. It did. There was plenty in there. Well, it wasn’t about quantity. It was about quality. By quality, I mean it was the thought that counted.

Evidently, it was the thought that counted. My son couldn’t have been happier if we got a new wing in the house just for him, with an indoor swimming pool and a skate park. He only wanted us to hide more eggs for him to find.

We did egg hunts all day. That night, my son finally confessed.

“Daddy,” he said, “I have to admit -- I was hoping the Easter Bunny would’ve hid my basket a little better. I’m nine years old now and I can—”

“You’re a great kid,” I interrupted. “If I could get you a motorcycle for Easter, I would.”

My son assured me that he didn’t need a motorcycle.

“That’s a relief,” I said. “Because the second you feel we owe you a motorcycle, you get nothing.”

-April 2013

Coffee Head

I had nothing to worry about. The caffeine in that coffee I drank before bedtime wouldn’t keep me awake. I’d get to sleep in good time and be well rested before a very busy day of work to follow.

As I loaded that single-serving K-Cup canister into the coffee machine, my wife insisted the caffeine would not only keep me awake, but that I’d keep her awake. She had work the next day, too.

“You have nothing to worry about,” I assured her, “If I can’t sleep, I’ll give you one of my famous head rubs.”

For your information, I’m going to patent my head rubs. It’s not your everyday method. It’s the world’s only head rub that offers subtle, yet complete relaxation for a tired, yet stressed-out wife of mine in an era of over-produced head rubs.

That’s my pitch for the patent board. Too wordy?

My wife knows my process is one of a kind. That’s why she gave me the okay and turned in.

She was asleep before I began. Even the thought of my head rubs put her out. However, I was wide-awake. But it wasn’t the coffee. It was everything on my plate the next day that made me anxious.

I had to get my son to school in the morning. I had writing deadlines to meet before going into work. I was stressed, had many mysteries to solve like, Where the heck have I seen that actor from that TV show tonight?

My brain was drowning. I wasn’t going to sleep any time soon. But I had nothing to worry about.

I thought about watching a movie. Or maybe finishing that book I was reading. Maybe I could work on meeting those writing deadlines -- that’d be the smartest way to use my time and energy.

I got out of bed without waking my wife, made my way down the hall toward the office. Then I ignored the office and went to the TV to watch that movie. That’d help me sleep. See, I had the power here.

Watching the movie only stimulated my mind. It was this thing about zombie robots from another dominion. Don’t judge it. It had a very relevant social commentary. In fact, I found uncanny similarities in this book I was reading about the Dust Bowl of 1930s Middle America. Did you know that heavy winds carried dust all the way to the East Coast?

It wasn’t long before I’d switched from the robot movie to the Dust Bowl book. But then the book reminded me of that Dust Bowl documentary I’d recorded on my DVR that I hadn’t seen yet. So I set the book down, returned to my TV and cued up the doc. I couldn’t stick to one activity. I was wasting time.

I had nothing to worry about. I had the power. I decided not to waste more time. I’d work on meeting those writing deadlines.

I went into my home office and fired up the computer. First things first -- I checked my e-mail. I came across some funny videos. Has it occurred to anyone else that people don’t really tell jokes anymore? Current events used to bring out the best joke tellers. Now we just send a link to a funny video.

I turned my efforts to an Internet search for breaking news about the decline of good old-fashioned joke telling in America due to the advent of viral videos. Before I could peruse my Google results, I realized again I was wasting time and, more importantly, not getting sleep. I had to get my son to school in the morning. I had those deadlines to meet before going to work. I had to figure out where the heck I’d seen that actor from that TV show I’d watched earlier that night. Was that guy in the new Bond movie?

Why’d I drink that coffee? What an idiot. I don’t even drink coffee. Not often, anyway. I’d lost the power to sleep. I woke my wife and told her my problem. She wasn’t happy, did the whole told-you-so thing, but said she’d give me a head rub to help me fall asleep.

It only helped her fall asleep. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t sleep.

And then I fell asleep. And then my alarm screamed at me to take in the morning. And I couldn’t wake up.

Everything between my ears throbbed. My mind was in a fog. My wife was up and out the door, which meant I had to get going, too. I had that kid to get to school, those deadlines to meet, that job to work. If I could just get myself out of bed, my feet would do the rest.

I had nothing to worry about.

Two jammed toes later, I found the kitchen. I opened the cupboard and searched for the coffee. But my head hurt so much I couldn’t see. I let my hand do the rest of the work. Please, no mousetraps.

And there it was -- the K-Cup coffee box. And also the answer I desperately needed -- that actor was in a stupid cereal commercial! My mind could finally rest.

But I couldn’t rest, not until I found what I needed. I dug into that K-Cup coffee box for the antidote to my sleepless night . . .

I’d consumed the last cup of coffee last night.

I really had nothing to worry about.

-March 2013


I’m not one of those competitive parents whose kid has to win at everything. I’m the parent who just doesn’t want his kid to lose.

So when my 9-year-old boy was playing handball with friends and losing royally, I wanted to step in and save him, call “cheating” on the other side, help him play better by playing for him.

But I couldn’t intervene. Instead, I ended the handball session, telling my son we had to run a family errand. Then I took him to the store and bought him a handball.

At home, we worked on his handball game. I set up a rigorous practice schedule to follow -- a two-hour session, six days a week for three straight months. Next time he played, he wouldn’t suffer a loss.

Problem: After the first day of practice, we never got around to practicing again.

Last weekend, some of my son’s friends asked if he wanted to play basketball. My kid begged to play. I told him we had family errands to run.

My son was all frowns. After his friends left for the park, he asked what was so important that we had to do. I explained that we didn’t have to do anything and that I just made up an excuse to save him from humiliation.

“Why did you do that?” he asked.

“Son, are you even good at basketball?”

“Yeah. I play at school all the time. And I really wanted to play with my friends.”

He was hurt.

We caught up with his friends at the park just in time to play. The kids picked teams and decided that the first team to reach 20 points would win. I chomped on my nails as the players took to the court. I thought about turning away so I wouldn’t have to see my son lose. But I couldn’t help it. I watched.

He was actually pretty good. He even sank a jaw-dropping three-pointer. I didn’t think he could throw the ball that far, let alone make the shot. Then he made more amazing shots. It was “Ripley’s Believe It or Not” right before my very eyes. I called for a time-out, pulled my son aside.

“What’s going on, why are you so good?” I asked as if there was some trick he was pulling.

“I play at school every day, Daddy,” he answered.

I told him to keep it up. He was great. He even played great defense—blocking shots, grabbing rebounds. My son’s team was destroying the competition.

And then, in less than a few minutes, the competition struck back. A 13-4 lead became a meager 13-12 lead. My son was missing easy shots. He practically dusted off the ball, scrubbed it clean and handed it to the defenders.

The other team took the lead, 14-13, and talked some serious trash. They stole the ball from my son, laughed in his face. One player pushed my kid to the ground. Ouch! That really hurt. The other team ran off with the ball and scored the winning shot.

My son had scraped his knee and was in serious pain. He tried to be tough for his friends and walked it off. I so wanted to step in, but I didn’t want to embarrass him more by coddling him. At least the game was over and we could go home before any more damage occurred.

But then the kids wanted to play hide-and-seek. I didn’t get a chance to say no. The kids chose my son to be it. That made matters worse for him, limping around the park, all his friends hiding from him.

It continued to get worse. We somehow ended up at our house for video games. We were short one controller. The kids decided that my son would have to sit out. And my son just let it happen. I couldn’t let him suffer any longer. I was going to intervene this time, whether right or wrong.

Instead, my wife ended the misery, telling the kids it was time for them to go, that we had family errands to run. Wow, those kids must’ve thought, that family sure runs a lot of family errands.

I thanked my wife for rescuing our child, for saving him from more losing, more pain.

“I didn’t do it for him,” she said to me. “You looked like a wreck over there. I couldn’t take it.”

“Daddy, I’m okay,” my son added. “I don’t care if I lose. I let them win because they get mad when they don’t. And I don’t care about not playing video games either. I can play whenever I want.”

Then he told me he’d missed those shots on purpose and that he was happy to be it in hide-and-seek so someone else wouldn’t have to do it. I was proud to have such a thoughtful kid.

We played a video game together. He killed me. Evidently, he was through with charity work.

-March 2013

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Val-ANT-ine's Day

I’m guilty -- I haven’t done anything really thoughtful for my wife in a long time.

On the Sunday before Valentine’s Day, she woke up from another nightmare.  She said that in her bad dreams I’m usually there, not doing anything really thoughtful for her.

“What?” I exclaimed. “I do really thoughtful things for you all the time.”

I couldn’t let her think I wasn’t husbandly anymore. I went to my desk and listed a bunch of thoughtful things I could do for her, to be appropriately executed on Valentine’s Day.

Meanwhile, my wife went to the kitchen to surprise our 9-year-old son and me with breakfast.

“Ant!” she shouted from the kitchen as she prepared the meal.

“What?” I asked. “We don’t have an ant. Not in over 10 years of living in this house.”

“Well, it’s here,” my wife replied. “And here are another two . . . three . . . more.”

I went to the kitchen to check it out. She was right. We had ants.

And even though we never had a reason to own ant spray, I kept some handy under the sink . . . for close encounters. I grabbed the can, sprayed the line of the pests.

“That looks like all of them,” I said.

“That’s not all,” my wife said. “Because if we have a few, then we have more. And if we have more, then that will be all. This breakfast I’m making and all our food -- you can kiss it goodbye.”

Our son heard the commotion, came in, saw the ants, freaked out. He grabbed a bottle of glass cleaner. “Let’s rock!” he shouted, and then he lit up a line of crawlers near the toaster.

“No!” I yelled. “That glass cleaner’s expensive. It’s the kind that doesn’t streak. Besides, we can’t just keep wasting spray on surface ants. We gotta get poison, get them to bring it back to their nest.”

“And how long’s that gonna take, Daddy?” my son asked.

“I don’t know,” I admitted. “No more than seventeen minutes.”

“Seventeen minutes?” he exclaimed. “This kitchen isn’t gonna last seventeen seconds.”

He was right. I went back to spraying the ants with my ant spray. When the can was empty, I used the expensive glass cleaner. At least it didn’t streak. Eventually, I ran out of that, too. And ants kept coming.

“That’s it, game over,” my son cried. “Game over.”

“Are you finished?” I asked him.

“Maybe you’re not up with current events,” he sulked, “but we’re getting killed here, pal.”

The ants were now crawling on my wife and kid. My wife said I needed to think about her and our son, not just the kitchen.

Fine. I pulled my family out.

In the front yard, I discovered where the attackers were getting in. And I found what looked to be their nest and took it down with a few kicks.

“Someone’s gonna have to go back in there and get the rest,” my wife said.

“Oh yeah, sure, with those things running around?” my son bellyached. “You can count me out.”

I volunteered. My wife looked at me in awe of my heroics.

“Look,” she said, “We appreciate this. Now, I know we’re all a little strung out of shape, but we just can’t afford to let one of those things in our bedroom. I have enough problems sleeping as it is.”

“Yeah, Daddy,” our boy said, “I guess I was a little obnoxious. Thanks for being so brave.”

As I turned my attention toward our dwelling, my wife told me to wait. She wanted to go with me.

“No, you’re staying here,” I said.

She gave me a kiss, said she loved me. I said I loved her, too.

Then I took her to the garage for some ant-killing gear: weed remover and wasp repellant, duct tape for body pick-up, paint masks to protect us from airborne poison. Before entering our house, I told my wife, “Remember: short, controlled bursts.”

Our son kicked the door open for us. We went in with spray cans blazing. When I got to the wasp repellant, my wife’s mask couldn’t protect her. I gave her my mask then got back to killing crawlers.

I pulled apart the cabinets, got to the crawlers in the walls. When I looked back at my wife, she was struggling to get my mask on over hers. I helped. Her girlish grin was unmistakable.

In the end, we won. At night, my wife was still smiling. I asked, “You gonna be okay to dream?”

“Oh yeah,” she said. I seemed to have proven my thoughtfulness for her. Yes!

Unfortunately, that didn’t mean I was free from doing something really thoughtful for her on Valentine’s Day. So I tucked her into bed. And I got back to that list of thoughtful things to do for her.

-February 2013

Eye Love You

Living with boys will drive you crazy. My wife knows -- she’s got our 9-year-old son, our 3-year-old male beagle and, last but certainly not least, me.

We don’t try to make her crazy.

“You’re all so loud,” she said one day. “Between the sound effects and the made-up words to songs and the howling and the barking. That doesn’t even include the noise from the dog.”

“I thought you were a huge fan of my song work,” I said.

“You know it drives me nuts,” she responded.

“But I love you,” I told her.

“And that’s what I hate most,” she said. “You never take responsibility.”

Okay, so I could see we were driving her slightly mad. I decided to give her a break. I told her I’d take the kid to his eye exam that afternoon so she could stay home for some peace and quiet.

“Is that bad that I’m not going, too?” she asked.

“It’s just an eye exam,” I said. “It’s really no big deal.”

But it was a big deal to our son. He didn’t want to go. He feared eye appointments.

Great, now I’d have to deal with this all by myself. I had to be persuasive with the kid, make him feel comfortable, convince him that an eye exam is really no big deal.

“Get in the car,” I said. “We’re going.”

At first glance, the eye exam machines looked like something out the “Terminator” movies, and my son didn’t feel any better about what the doctor was going to do to him.

“It’ll really be okay,” I said. “It’s really no big deal.”

The eye doctor put my son at ease -- initially, anyway.

Then the kid got silly. When the doctor asked him to look left, right, up and then down, my son became a comedy act.

“I roll my eyes at my parents all year long just to practice for this,” he joked.

The doctor did that puff-of-air test in the eye.

“Did you spit on me?” my son asked with a giggle.

While waiting for the test results, the doctor showed us a computer-generated eyeball.

“Is this thing like Google Earth?” my son asked as the doctor explored deeper into the eyeball like he was looking for a destination on our planet. My son’s awesome humor kept coming.

At the end of the check-up, we learned that my son’s eyes were in great health. And that was that.

“See,” I said when we got in the car to go home. “It’s really no big deal. Easy.”

But then at home, my wife asked, “When was the last time you had your eyes checked?”

“Me?” I asked. “I already went. I’m good.”

“You may be good, but when did you go?”

“I went only four years ago. My eyes feel fine. It’s really no big deal.”

“Again,” she said, “not taking responsibility, like usual.”

“But I love you,” I said.

I knew what was coming next -- she’d claim I was setting a bad example for our son. And then my son would turn my “It’s really no big deal” words against me to get me to go to the stupid eye doctor.

“They’re your eyes,” my wife said. “Do what you want.”

“At least my eyes are perfect,” my son added.

What was this? They could care less about my health.

I called the eye doctor for an appointment. He’d care about me.

He didn’t have any openings -- not for a while, anyway. But I set a date. My wife and kid were happy for me. I was actually happy, too.

“When’s the appointment?” my wife asked.

“June,” I said.

“That’s four months away!”

“Not this June,” I told her. “The June after.”

“June of 2014!”

“But I love you,” I said.

I wasn’t lying.

-January 2013

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Zombies, End of the World, New Year

First there was the threat of Y2K, where the world as we knew it was going to end because all computers, which controlled the planet, weren’t going to rollover from ’99 to ’00. Then there was Dec. 21, 2012, the last day of the Mayan calendar and thus, doomsday. And finally, there was the Zombie Apocalypse on Dec. 22, 2012, the doomsayers’ way of killing us off if we survived the end.

Well, it’s 2013. We made it.

It all came upon us so quickly. When the end is that near, life seems so short. I had put the End of the World in my calendar. I didn’t want to miss it. I wasn’t sure, though, if I should categorize it as “personal,” “home” or “work” since the end of the world really applies to all categories.

I set it as an “all-day” event. My 9-year-old son asked me to skip work that day so he could be with his parents for the End of the World. As luck would have it, I had no more sick leave or vacation days.

On the day, I hoped the End of the World would at least hit before I had to go to work so I wouldn’t have to work another shift. A friend told me the world would most likely end right as I clocked out. That made sense.

My son kept his mom and me close that Friday morning of Dec. 21. It was a somber time.

But the end of the world came and went. Life continued.

Next up -- the Zombie Apocalypse, and this, unlike the End of the World, wasn’t going to be as easy to dodge. That Saturday morning, my son informed me that no one was out front. Apocalypse!

“No one is ever out front,” I reminded him. “They’re in front of a computer or TV screen.”

Then I announced that the kid and I had Christmas shopping to finish. My son was against going out among the zombies but assured me, with a st- st- stutter, that he wasn’t af-f-f-fraid. He said it was better if we stayed in. He repeated that he wasn’t sc-c-cared. It was just too cold outside, he said.

And then he put on his Davy Crockett hat.

“Alright, Daddy,” he gave in, “let’s go do some zombie battle.”

Zombies were everywhere.

I was wrong: Those people were just mindlessly glued to their iPhones like me.

But as the day wore on, those mindless people looked more and more mindless. And they were asking for our minds. Rather, they chased us, repeating “Brains!” I just assumed we were near Comic-Con.

I’d taught my kid all about Davy Crockett, how he killed a bear when he was only 3, how he and his rifle, Ol’ Bess, never backed down from a fight. And while the kid had his own Davy Crockett coonskin cap, he didn’t have any sort of Ol’ Bess to take on brain eaters. The best we could do was . . . “Run for it!” I yelled.

We took cover at, what my son called the World Famous Diane Camper Christmas Party. For those who haven’t yet experienced a Diane Camper Christmas party, they are, according to my kid, “more world famous than our parties because more people fit in Diane’s house than in ours.”

It was the perfect place and time to live life like it was 1999. Diane and her husband, Bones -- a doctor, not a magician -- offered food, activities, “Star Trek” impersonations and occasional medical attention if injured in a party game. Zombie-bite treatment, however, was questionable, according to Bones.

The place was so packed my son thought the world was actually all there in Diane’s living room. Someone opened the back door to let in some fresh air. They let in some zombies instead. Diane got bit.

“Bones!” I yelled.

“Brains!” he yelled back. He became one of Them. And They were everywhere.

The problem with trying to live life to the fullest when you’re being pursued by zombies is that it’s hard to have fun when you’re on the run, ducking tons of clawing bloody hands and teeth. In hindsight, I suppose we could’ve had a little more fun with the chase. But when isn’t there regret in hindsight?

Oh, there’s no place like home for the holidays. And hearing the song with those words reminded my son and me that Mommy was home alone. It’s amazing what I boy will do to save his Mommy -- my son got us home in one piece, with our brains and all. And Mommy was fine.

When I woke the next morning, I realized, No, it wasn’t a dream. It wasn’t a scary story either.

No, according to my son’s journal, we’d actually lived this crazy adventure. We apparently fought off the zombies using “potty words,” a 9-year-old’s defense in every tight spot. And now we can finally live every moment like we’re at a World Famous Diane Camper Christmas Party, and enjoy it this time.

Wouldn’t you know it? A new end of the world is already upon us. The Big Asteroid deflected off some space junk and is headed our way within the year. This time it’s all doom and gloom.

-January 2013

The Big Christ-miss Wish

Why can’t my 9-year-old son ask for something simple this Christmas, like a Ferrari or a jet boat?

There are dads like me all over suburbia, I guess. I’m the kind who wants to get his kid the best Christmas gift ever. So when my son came to me and asked for a miracle, I told him no problem.

My wife was watching Oprah when my son and I walked into the room. The guy talking to Oprah on the show said he’d died, seen Heaven, and come back to life to tell the story. It was utter ridiculousness.

My son ate it up. And he wanted leftovers -- he wanted his grandma to come back to life, too.

“Well,” I told him, “that guy was dead for only a few minutes at best. Grandma’s been gone for over a year.”

“But that guy went all the way up to Heaven,” the kid retorted. “Grandma’s in Heaven. So she can just leave and come back down to Earth like he did, right?”

“Well,” I began to say, “he—”

“I’ll write Santa,” my son cut in. “He always comes through.” And lucky for me that he does.

The kid got out a piece of canvas card stock (some really nice stuff for a letter) and laid down some of his nicest prose. His penmanship was remarkable, something his schoolwork missed. All the while my wife and I were trying to convince him to ask for something Santa could actually deliver.

“It’s only one thing I’m asking for,” the kid said. “Santa won’t think I’m greedy.”

“But not even Santa can bring a person back to life,” I said.

“Daddy,” the kid responded with little patience for my petty opinions, “come on. If he can make 300- to 500-pound reindeers fly through the air, and cover 197 million square miles of the Earth’s surface in one night in a sleigh, and live forever like he’s currently doing, then he should have no problem doing the one simple little thing I’m asking for -- bring Grandma back to life.”

“Well,” I said, “it isn’t a . . . Wait, how do you know how much reindeer weigh? And how do you know the square mileage of the Earth’s surface? Are those numbers accurate?”

As I steered my phone into Internet mode, my son said, “Go ahead, look it up. But I’m right.”

“Well,” I said, discovering that he was, in fact, right, “you’re not right. And you’re wrong about Santa, too. He can’t bring Grandma back. I know this because if he could, everyone would ask for loved ones to come back and there’d be all these people coming back to life.”

I was sorry to disappoint the kid, but it had to happen sooner or later.

“People are coming back to life, Daddy,” he said. “Zombies, and the guy on Mommy’s TV show.”

As my son shared his Christmas wish with the whole world, his smile began to turn . . . into an even bigger smile. No one supported him, but he still believed in the power of his wish.

But then some of his friends tried to tell him that Santa doesn’t exist. That’s what did it.

“Maybe Grandma can’t come back after all,” he finally said. “With no Santa, there’s no hope.”

The kid slumped into a chair.

Then, with a renewed energy, “New plan, Daddy!” he said. “We’re gonna trap Santa to prove he’s real, then we’ll just make him bring Grandma back if he wants me to protect his rep at my school!”

“Well,” I said, “I’m thinking this is going too far. I’m gonna have to stop this right now. Son, I have to tell you something -- Santa is, well, just too darn big and jolly to trap.”

Now, we’d made some killer leprechaun traps and even better Easter Bunny traps over the years, though we never caught our marks. But catch St. Nick? He’s a saint. How do you catch a saint?

Using ribbon and garland, a light-up camel from our outdoor manger scene, placebo Christmas gifts, candy cane candles, cookies and milk as bait, and a stuffed snowman to break Santa’s fall (it’s too complicated to fully explain), we tested the Santa Trap 2900 (patent pending) . . . on Mommy.

It didn’t work. Mommy just got annoyed.

For a dad who likes to get his kid the best Christmas gift of all time, I was succeeding in making it his most disappointing Christmas to date. The trap failure was a real blow to the kid’s confidence.

“Maybe you’re doing something wrong, Daddy,” he said. “Or maybe . . . Ah, maybe next year.”

“Exactly,” I said. “Next year we’ll bring Grandma back to life.” I’d worry about “the how” later.

“No, Daddy, we can’t bring Grandma back to life ever. I think that guy on Mommy’s show was just scamming us. We’ll just have to visit Grandma at the cemetery for Christmas. How’s that?”

And with that, he wrote another letter to Santa, this time asking for a Ferrari and a jet boat instead.

-December 2012

Distaste Test

There’s a problem in my marriage. My wife demands that I taste her food when we go out to eat. It’s like she’s Al Qaeda launching a war on my meal enjoyment.

Why can’t we each just eat what we chose to order? If I wanted what she ordered, I would’ve ordered it.

With my decision to get a particular meal comes a taste palette I expect to savor. I can’t simply add other flavors to the mix. The entire dining experience is ruined.

So maybe I’m a little hard on my wife when she pushes her food on me.

“Sure,” I say, “I’ll try it.”

Maybe I’m not hard enough.

The other day, my wife suggested we try a new restaurant. That meant one thing: She’d want to sample. Wait, there’s a second thing: She’d want me to sample, too. I hate that. When I set out to eat a meal, I budget the entire plate. I never eat over my budget (not often, anyway), and I require everything I’ve set out to eat. Giving even one bite of my meal away throws the whole calculation off balance.

I wasn’t going to give in and go to this place to put up with the kind of meal blasphemy I’ve come to expect. I’d just have to tell my wife no, demand that we go to a familiar place, a place with no new dishes to try because we’ve had them all. I’d just have to be hard on her.

“Sure,” I said, “I’ll try it.”

I marched into the new restaurant determined to eat only what I ordered. And I was going to eat all of my meal, too -- share none of it.

I hated the place at first sight . . . and smell. It was seafood. Even though both sides of my family come from Palermo, Sicily, a seafood town, and even though my last name, I’m told, has something to do with a fisher boat, I take offense to all things fishy. I can’t even eat tuna fish. I knew I wouldn’t want to try my wife’s food. Heck, I wouldn’t even want to try my own.

We sat down and I investigated the menu for anything edible. It was more like an interrogation.

I found one dish. Beef teriyaki. I could eat that.

Now, my wife knows I despise seafood, and that I’ve tried enough of it to know for sure that it’s not for me. You name it, I’ve tried it -- crab, lobster, sushi, salmon, shrimp. And I’ve had it prepared many different ways, even the way you make it. Sorry if I offend anyone, but it all stinks. With that in mind, it should’ve been easy to convince my wife to drop the whole taste test thing.

“You wanna taste mine?” she asked.

“No,” I said. “My palate is set up for beef teriyaki.”

I hoped she wouldn’t ask for a taste of mine because the servings were pathetic. If price had anything to do with portions, I should’ve had a month’s worth of leftovers.

“Can I try some of yours?” my wife asked.

I couldn’t tell her no even though I was planning on eating the exact amount of food on my plate. I couldn’t be that hard on her. She’s my love. I had to let her try some of my skimpy servings.

“Sure,” I said. “You can try it.”

I believe the word you’re looking for is spineless.

I cut a small piece of my food for her to taste. The sample could’ve passed as a crumb. She asked for more. I gave her more -- two crumbs. And I watched her cut a piece of her seafood for me to try. I wish she gave me crumbs. Instead, the portion she slid over looked more like a beached whale on my plate.

She delivered the whole “It doesn’t have that fishy taste” speech that all fish pushers shamelessly apply to attract followers. Then she left me on my own and tried the sample I gave her. I jealously watched those morsels go down, morsels I’d budgeted for my personal intake.

My eyes fell back down to the fish on my plate. I took a bite. More like a lick. I swear I made contact.

Let’s just say I inhaled my soda and all the water at the table in hopes of pushing that fishy taste it didn’t have down into the pit of my stomach. Then I finished my micro meal and asked for the hefty check.

My wife suggested dessert. Enough was enough.

“Sure,” I said, “I can try dessert.”

Dessert was different, though. I could do the whole “trying thing” with dessert.

I tried everyone’s dessert until all of it was gone. I guess it wasn’t a terrible eating outing.

-December 2012