The Re-boot

You should write a book.  

– PracticalDad’s  Better Half

It was a comment made years ago by my wife as the three kids were young and growing.  Eldest was then in middle school, Middle in the upper elementary grades and Youngest was only a preschooler.  I was then in the midst of managing a busy household and all that it entailed and the notion of being able to carve out hours each day to write seemed problematic.  But it was a good suggestion and a reasonable starting point appeared to be a website.  I could get into the swing of writing and the commitment tucked into the time constraints imposed by the household requirements of three kids and a working spouse.

And so in 2008, my alter-ego – PracticalDad – came into being.  Now please keep that year in mind.

Any relevant life-experience writing requires a thesis, an underlying premise that serves as a framework to tie together the wide variety of articles that could be written.  PracticalDad’s thesis was that fathers were capable of providing more for the than just the traditional paycheck; that despite the popular media, which often viewed fathers on the domestic scene as essentially idiots, men were capable of being highly competent and loving caregivers.  At the time, women faced glass-ceilings – and still do – but the incomes of women versus men were growing at a faster clip and the demographics showed that more women were by then entering college than men.  With this occurring, more time would be claimed and if family stability was to be maintained, then the father would have to pony up and shoulder a much greater load.  Most of the early PracticalDad articles were consequently based upon my own experiences as a stay-at-home father, from traveling with kids to what a father should understand about breast-feeding or communication.

But starting in late 2009 and into 2010, the thrust of the articles began to change as the effects of the 2008 financial crisis continued to ripple through the economy.  My response was to wonder this:  how does this affect my family and what I must do to help prepare them for the world?  The articles shifted from the prosaic family matters to questions of politics and economics and the tone became darker and in some instances, angrier.  It was an anger fueled by an early recognition that the adult world that my children would inhabit would be far more economically difficult than the world in which my generation – and the several preceding – lived.  This vein continued until early 2015 when the flow of articles slowed in response to the increasing demands of an elderly parent with Alzheimer’s, notably spliced with a strain of paranoid dementia.  Couple that with the onset of a new round of personal health issues in later 2016 and virtually all new writing ground to a halt.  PracticalDad, for all intents and purposes, slipped away.

The other situations were resolved, the parent dying in the late winter of 2017 amidst a series of my own surgeries to address issues.  The subsequent mental dust cleared with time and as I looked around, I considered the website.  It still existed and while there was almost nothing new written, I noted that the syndicated feed had continued to grow even in its dormancy.  The site platform was antiquated and creaky and the design, fresh in 2008, was tired and dated.  The technical questions were overwhelming to a non-technical guy like me.  How to move everything to a new platform and if the syndicated feed mattered, could that go along?  From a writing perspective, how did I start again after simply ceasing more than a year earlier?  Most importantly, was there even a thesis that would tie together to drive new writing?  The reality is that all of us are now a decade older and there are plenty of other information sources for young fathers.  The questions were significant enough that it was easier to just not consider it at all.

But serendipity exists and it was serendipitous that the original site designer and programmer contacted me to discuss shifting the site to a new platform so that he could close out the server on which the original site resided.  He kindly took the technical end in hand and in the past several months migrated the articles and feed to this new platform and set things up for me to move forward.  The kids, now older, have encouraged me to get back to it and it was Middle’s suggestion that if there are still people reading, then perhaps re-start by explaining the silence and moving on from there.

The final question still remained.  Was there a pertinent thesis that served to drive the writing moving forward?  I re-read everything that I’d written for the site as well as other notes and even draft chapters for an unsubmitted book proposal.  The final piece was to force myself to re-read the Journal that I kept during my mother’s three year sojourn through Alzheimer’s.  Were my – and my family’s – experiences, entirely novel or did they somehow fit into a larger narrative of what’s transpiring in our society?

The unfortunate answer is that there is a thesis and it is this:  the economic, social and political changes that have occurred since 2008 – there’s that year, again – are not cyclical but instead structural.  What we are witnessing is the real-time wrenching adaptation of a society that is reverting in fits and starts to a standard of living reminiscent not of our parents or even grandparents, but akin to at least three generations ago.  Along with the ongoing damage to the American Middle Class, we are watching several generations of growth in a national standard-of-living being washed away like so much dirt from a Mississippi River dike.  The pressure has built for decades but it was with the 2008 financial crisis and the policy responses that the erosion began in earnest.  It most certainly affects the American family and how child-rearing is managed, even whether or not children are born.  What will be different moving forward is a far-reaching shift in the family dynamic as the nuclear family concept is challenged by a return to the old multi-generational model with elders assisting, and being assisted by, their adult children.  The myriad changes that affect the family, and the potential responses to them, will be the thrust of writing as we move forward.

This is not an intellectual exercise for me.  It has been a periodic topic of conversation with the kids at one time or another over the past several years.  It is truly saddening to have these talks with the kids; to tell them that they are going to have fewer opportunities and choices than we and our parents did.  They will be far more constrained by greater financial demands of health care, higher education and retirement that have been shifted to the backs of individuals and families by corporations and the various levels of government.  What is heartening personally is that each of the three seems to get it and I see efforts by each to accommodate that new reality.

So let me take a moment and re-introduce the principal cast of characters from the 2008 version of PracticalDad.  First, there is my wife, BH; she is a physician with more professional certification letters after her name than I have in my entire given name (it’s true, I counted).  Then there are the kids.  At the website’s start, Eldest was just entering high school; she is now a college graduate and a married working mother.  Middle was in upper elementary school and he is now entering his senior year at a major urban university as a theatre major.  Finally, there is Youngest, who was in first grade at the outset.  He is now entering his junior year of high school, working part-time and deciding on higher education.  The family is now joined by in-laws Millie and Phil, who recently migrated north to be closer to their daughter and Hub, Eldest’s spouse.

I had two rules at the outset of this kitchen table project a decade ago.  The first is simple:  while I reference my family, I refuse to post anything that might be even remotely construed as embarrassing.  Multiple finished articles were ultimately deleted before posting because someone might have taken offense or been embarrassed.  The second is that there will be no daily posts because sometimes, there is just nothing worth saying and if you’re going to read, there should be something worth reading.

It’s nice to be back.  And thank you, John, for your kindness.  I hope that you can take something worthwhile from this for your own family.

 

 

 

 

A View From the Ridge, Part 9

As I’ve written before, raising a family is a “forest for the trees” experience.  Life moves frenetically in a whirl of appointments, practices, homework, projects and activities; it is such that you can run for lengthy periods without noting both where you are and how far you’ve come.  It’s as if you’re working through the trail’s underbrush and you don’t pause to survey the surroundings until you’ve reached a spot where the forest has thinned, such as a tree-line atop a ridge.  I’ve chronicled such personal moments back to 2008 and this past Labor Day was another such moment, where I found myself – and my Better Half – perched atop one of the highest ridges that we’ve encountered for many a mile. 

Eldest married. 

When I began writing this site, she was in middle school.  Only recently confirmed in our church and yet to drive, to date, to hold a job, to graduate, to leave for college and then, return.  And now, she is married.  If anything gives a man pause, it is giving his daughter’s hand in marriage at the altar.  Some might deride it as intensely old-fashioned and antiquated, but this signifies to any father not only the turning of a page but the end of an entire chapter.  After I took my seat, I watched this young woman and rolled through memories back to her infancy, back to the first one when she turned her head towards me in response to that sing-song name that I called out as she lay across the room in a maternity ward bassinet, the same name that I repeatedly sang to her while in utero.  It was the same as I watched my two sons, Middle – home from college and reading aloud a selected poem for the ceremony – and Youngest, only a freshly minted high school sophomore and yet towering above everyone else in the bridal party.  They grow and mature and we are left to wonder, when did this happen?

It was a high ridge upon which to perch. 

When things wound down and we’d returned home, I took the opportunity to look back at the terrain that we had crossed during the previous year.  It was a vista of twisted trees and thick, thorn-riddled underbrush that tore at clothing and skin alike.  Managing a mother suffering from years of degenerative paranoid dementia, culminating in her early morning death only months ago after a series of moves through multiple care levels in different facilities.  Disagreeing with a facility that refused to honor her final wishes, duly codified in writing and signed by a physician, further confirmed by her in a moment of coherence.  Managing increased personal debility arising from a long-ago encounter with lymphona, now sufficiently advanced to force a move to a new, less physically challenging house.  And culminating with a new medical episode that lasted for months.  How do you manage through all of this?  You jettison everything non-essential and spend your energies on the most immediate requirements of the circumstances.  You lean heavily upon family and friends; my blessing was a wonderful wife and stalwart friends, a helpful future son-in-law and a youngest son who shouldered the increased physical and emotional load with grace and maturity.  And writing?  It had already slowed as my mother degenerated and with the onset of the other issues, it stopped completely.  In the moment, what is there to say? 

But the house is brought both figuratively and literally back into order and you regain breathing room.  I now realize that there’s still much more to say about family and how what’s occurring in today’s world impacts our roles as parents.  More comments about educating the kids and setting them on the path to responsible adulthood; about kids and both politics and money; and how we as parents have to adapt our communications with our nascent-adult children.  Most importantly, there is much to be said about the other end of the age spectrum as we begin to look out for our own parents, who are now going to face new challenges for which many are ill-prepared.  This is perhaps the greatest stress for middle-aged parents, bearing responsibility for the generations that both succeed and precede them.  It isn’t easy and the challenges will only grow in a time when the family resources are further stretched. 

There will certainly be other aspects of parenthood and family to be addressed, because the kids grow and change.  As do the questions and challenges. 

A View From The Ridge, Part 7

I’ve said before that being an engaged father is akin to hiking a heavily forested area.  The life with kids and their activities is a forest for the trees experience as the rush from one place to the next fills your vision and planner and you don’t always have the opportunity to take a moment to reflect.  But then your wooded trail comes to a ridgeline and you can suddenly see for miles, backwards to where you’ve been as well as forward to what lies ahead and you sit for a moment and take it all in.  Such was the case this weekend as Eldest – who was in middle school when I first thought of this site – graduated from college.

The benefit of arriving early to grab seats for elderly relatives was that I could look in different directions from the ridgeline.  When I looked in one direction, considering the event in terms of this website, Eldest had progressed from middle-schooler to college graduate.  Middle, the elementary school kid at the site’s inception, had arrived the previous day with his grandparents, who picked him up at a nearby train station where he’d caught a morning train from the city where he himself is now in college.  Youngest, at the outset just entering kindergarten, was now himself in middle school and en route to becoming a truly stalwart adult of honestly surprising capabilities of observation and common sense.  When the doors finally opened and I found seats that worked, my Better Half ushered in her parents and the sons followed with Boyfriend, who had come along unannounced to surprise Eldest.

In another direction from the ridge was to see things in terms of the college experience and while one was now graduating college, the youngest was still a good two years away from beginning the pathway to higher education; it will probably be a college degree given his growing skill set and inclination, but the reality is that the cost of a degree is such that it can no longer be the de facto choice, the road taken simply because it’s what everybody is expected to do when high school is finished.  My wife and I have now lived through two rounds of college solicitations – and folks, it’s fascinating to see how different the college mailings are from one kid to the next – and prospect visits, completion of the dreaded FAFSA and the excitement of the acceptances and first moves away from home.  What also crossed my mind was that the funding of college was now a family affair.  This was, for Eldest, a communal family effort as her debt-free degree was in due to multiple parts: a decent scholarship that made the difference between this particular university and a local state university; four years of hard work through summer jobs to help pay for her annual contribution to the cause; years of savings and then input into the pot by us; and a lovely piece of generosity from another elderly relative.

In another direction was the view of my own age and mortality.  It’s now more than two decades since Eldest’s birth and as she has aged, so have I.  Some years ago, a now-deceased elderly friend commented to me that in his head, he was the same guy who once served as a Marine and a firefighter and I have come to appreciate his statement.  All three of the kids have grown up knowing that their father has a physical debility and each has adapted to it through the years.  But it’s fallen most upon Youngest to help pick up the slack caused by the issue and his siblings’ college absence.  It’s a most curious coincidence that he is now the largest and strongest of any of us within the household, most capable of picking up and covering for said slack and I go to lengths to avoid abusing him because of it.  I have to admit that there was conflict between personal pride and common sense during the wait, as I considered a lengthy drive behind the wheel of a 16′ box truck with no cruise control and it was only after acknowledging to myself that I’m no longer a thirty-something young father, that I agreed to let someone else handle that aspect of the move.  I plan to be around for Youngest’s event in less than a decade but there’s a point at which you realize that it’s time to adjust the speed downwards and go for distance instead of speed.

But doors open, crowds enter and the view fades and you are once again in the forest amidst the trees, waiting for that next moment when you reach the ridge.  Maybe I should make it a point to try for the ridgeline more often.

So, Who Do You Like?

The question about the upcoming presidential primaries for the 2016 nominees has arisen on both end of the spectrums, from one of the kids as well as from my mother, who popped it during a lunch the other day.  So, who do you like?

While it would be a beautiful thing to be able to spit out a response in favor of a singular candidate – because it’s just time for a woman president, that’s why – I find that it’s difficult.  The reality is that the issue overshadowing all else is the control that the uber-wealthy and corporations now have over the legislative and electoral process.  And by uber-wealthy, I mean those who have .01% of the nation’s wealth…welcome back to the age of the Robber Barons. 

So the question arose again the other night where two of the three kids were gathered with us awaiting Middle’s event.  Both my wife and I looked at one another and the statements were identical and concise:  It doesn’t matter.  Taxes will go up regardless of who’s in office and Sanders is the only one with the guts to acknowledge that that’s going to happen.  But if Trump makes his way into office, don’t be surprised if they increase there either since it’s a mathematical certainty that the revenue will only flow if the taxes go up…because God knows we can’t control our spending.  We both elaborated further, knowing that the problems are wholly systemic and metastasized throughout the governmental body.  If you want to know the truth, the ideal candidate is already resigned to the notion that it will be a single term presidency and he/she will lose, if even willing to run for a second term.  Because the system will have to be shaken to the core and if successful, that President will be hated and derided and probably for a generation.  To call it a sobering commentary would be an understatement.

Here’s the thing behind the commentary.  Twain wrote that while history doesn’t repeat itself, it does rhyme and we’re now in a literal nursery rhyme with Andrew Jackson’s clash with Nicholas Biddle’s Second Bank of the United States.  In that instance, Biddle put the screws to the country by betraying its role as the ostensible central bank and withholding funds from smaller banks in order to pressure the Congress to renew their original charter.  This resulted in multiple small bank runs with the resultant ruin of thousands of depositors who lost all of their savings; but it also dramatized the threat that one or a few exceptionally wealthy and powerful individuals could pose to the body politic.  In that instance, Jackson’s response – combative and populist – was to withdraw the government’s deposits from Biddle’s bank, which served as the capital base for all that that bank was supposed to do.  In essence, Jackson allowed the financial system to collapse in order to save the promise of the still very young Constitution.  To do otherwise would have been to allow a single individual to use the power of the pre-eminent financial institution to gain control over the mechanism of government.  If Jackson folded and Biddle won, what else would have happened – or not happened – if it displeased the banker.

And with the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision that effectively quashed any campaign finance reform, please feel free to explain to me how this is any different from 180 years ago?

Some years ago, I used to spend considerable time on a wonderful financial/economics site and in the course of an evening’s ongoing commentary with other members of that community, I commented this:  My hope is that when all of this is said and done, we come through everything with some semblance of an intact Constitution.  It sounds melodramatic, which I hate, but it’s not at all far-fetched.  The levers of power have been grabbed by the very wealthiest few and the corporations and they are actively solidifying their hold on said levers.  President Obama’s response in his first term should have been Jacksonian, moving to reform and re-institute meaningful regulation of the financial sector and he failed to do this.  That an Assistant Attorney General was canned and his then-Attorney General later acknowledged that the fear of financial damage to the economy affects decisions on prosecutions indicates the level of power of that sector and the fear that it engenders.  And now that the heads of JPM Chase and Goldman Sachs have both become certifiable billionaires under this arrangement, the financial sector is wholly part and parcel of the cabal.

The threat to the country is no longer economic but now, for all intents and purposes, both Constitutional and existential.  My thinking had been that the key factor to my choice of candidate would be what kind of person they’d likely nominate to the Supreme Court and how that individual would vote on such a decision as Citizens United.  That decision was reached by the narrowest margin of 5 – 4 and the dissenting opinion by Justice Stevens – eminently worthy of the read here – is a good distillation of the ultimate controversy:  with whom does the power reside?  I have become convinced that the trade and monetary policies of the past three decades have been purposefully passed with the understanding that they will ultimately benefit only a relative very few and that, at the cost of the great majority of Americans.  The hemorrhaging of the median family income isn’t a sudden event, but instead only the damage arising from the effects of three decades of cumulative muggings upon the American Middle Class.  Such is the effect of power moving to the control of a very self-interested few. 

My thinking about the candidate that I’d support went to the type of individual that would be nominated to the Supreme Court.  What would be the political persuasion and most importantly, their attitudes about the Constitution?  Strict constructionist?  Liberal?  It does matter because as much as I can appreciate the constructionist viewpoint, the reality is that we have issues today that would make our Founding Fathers’ eyes bleed.  Some things are the same, yet some are simply not.

At the end of the evening, we found out that Justice Antonin Scalia had passed away earlier that day and the narrow majority that ruled in favor of the Citizens United decision was now moot.  I was unaware of Scalia’s age and believed that the decision to nominate a new Supreme Court Justice would wait until the next president but that assumption is now moot.  It is the purview of any sitting President to nominate a person for the Supreme Court and for either side to cry for a delay is politics at its most venal.  But make no mistake, with the average age of the Supreme Court north of 70 years of age, it’s likely that the next President will also have the privilege of nominating a candidate.  If President Obama does nominate someone who would shift that 5 – 4 margin in the direction favorable to overturning the Citizens United decision, it would still be only a razor thin majority.  So that’s what I’m considering as both sides of the political spectrum continue to throw the middle finger at the political class.  Do I have a list of candidates for the Court should Trump, Sanders, Hillary or anybody else take office?  No.  But I’m not stupid either, and what they say – and how much money that they take – is a solid indication of where they’ll go.  And that’s likely to be where I’ll head, too.

Veterans Day

Scrolling through the feed on the Facebook timeline brings a litany of thank you for your service messages to all manner of Facebook friends and their family members.  It is a well-deserved custom that’s spawned from the disgust at how the Vietnam vets were treated when they returned home.  Yet we need to be careful that it doesn’t become a thoughtless, de rigeur statement that’s thrown off as easily as a meaningless compliment because many of us never served – a large percentage of the population hasn’t served – and we generally don’t have a solid grasp of history and the fights in which they’ve been involved.  It’s changed cinematically as many have now seen the early carnage of the seasonal replays of Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan or Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down, but there’s still a quantum leap between the family sofa and hunkering down behind a pile of rubble.  We say the right thing, but the great majority simply don’t get it.

While I think about my own father often, I always reflect more on Veteran’s Day and reading all of the thank yous made me even more thoughtful.  Dad’s been dead for almost 14 years.  We knew growing up only that he’d been in the service during the Korean War but it was something that he never – never – discussed.  I once asked him when I joined Boy Scouts if he’d come along camping with me and he demurred with a gruff I spent a year sleeping outside and I promised myself that I’d goddamned well never do it again so no, I won’t. But he’d say no more than that.  Since this was an old established troop with a strong tradition of outdoorsmanship, I caved in to my intimidation and quit.  When I later asked him – during middle school – about his experiences, he simple refused to discuss it and the matter was dropped.  It wasn’t until many years later, when he learned that my then-medical student wife was doing a rotation at the local VA, that he opened up one evening and began to talk and between that evening and the years afterwards, the stories flowed and so much that I couldn’t puzzle out in my youth became clear. 

Dad had been in Korea at the outset, a mere tech sergeant doing work near the 38th parallel when the North Koreans invaded; he and his squadmates were cut off and spent days – with the loss of several of his men – escaping before being found by American troops and receiving what he termed a battlefield transfer.  This receiving unit was the 27th Infantry Regiment, the Wolfhounds, and he spent almost the next year with them before finally rotating back stateside to finish his enlistment as a drill instructor.  He related incidents of leaving a makeshift bar in a shack in Pusan to literally cross the road to repel a massed North Korean attack in the blackest days of that conflict, of seeing his buddy so drained by the violence that he killed one of his own pilots in a barfight after warning him to stop badmouthing the infantry who were being pushed relentlessly backwards.  A few years before he died, I learned that whenever he was in the Midwest on business, he’d take an extra day and stop at Fort Leavenworth to visit this man.  Dad spoke of massed Chinese attacks after they entered the war and how the differential in sizes between the American bayonet and the outsized Chinese bayonet, aka the pigsticker, gave birth to decades of nightmares.  There were other stories but it was even later after his retirement in 1991, that more became evident.  Dad finally came to terms with his experience and contacted his congressman to help in obtaining the citations for which he knew that he’d been nominated but had opted to never touch before then; it required additional effort since the Veteran’s archive in which his records were kept was badly damaged in a fire decades before with the loss of an untold number of servicemen’s records.  When the congressman’s office finally finished helping him, we found that these included the Purple Heart and a Bronze Star for courage under fire.

I have no photos of my father in uniform, although I do recall seeing one photo of a young man wearing glasses and a helmet, kneeling in the dirt outside of Fort Bliss, Texas.  It wouldn’t surprise me if he handled them the way that he handled all of his camping and hunting equipment when he later returned home to the Laurel Highlands of Western Pennsylvania…he simply got rid of all of it and promised himself to never do them again.  His decorations and division and regimental insignia are safely put away although I do, on occasion, pull them out to look at them and think about the old man.  He certainly mellowed with age but the experience changed him forever.  I recall seeing him watch an Army recruitment commercial – Be all that you can be…– and just rolling his eyes while he shook his head.  When I discussed with him the idea of enrolling in ROTC during college, he argued against it and persuaded me to put the notion to rest and that there was no reason to feel guilt for not doing so. 

So would I tell my father thank you for your service, as insufficient as it might seem?  Now it would seem to be the least that I could do, although it absolutely isn’t enough and his response would be a typical if you feel that strongly about it, then get your head out of your ass and actually do something.  And that’s what we should do for these men and women who are serving.  Pay closer attention to the controversy occurring in the Veteran’s Administration and if you aren’t vocal, become moreso.  Learn about the service dogs that are increasingly taking an important role to provide an emotional anchor for returning vets and throw support to those who raise and train them; in a short attention span society, we forget that the effects of combat stress can last for decades and the canines won’t be a one-off effort.  Most important is this, however:  understand that we are now entering a time in which the promises made to all of the various constituencies in American society can no longer be supported by the resources available to us.  We can no longer run endless deficits without burning out the engine and at that time, we’re going to have to renegotiate the social contracts that have bound us together and it will be a truly ugly process.  It will be then that you’ll have to remember what many of the vets suffered through and advocate forcefully on their behalf and in that way, you can begin to repay the debt owed them and show that their service truly isn’t forgotten.

…and a child shall lead them

Part of me believes that I should sit down with my son and watch the first half hour of the Democratic debate tonight.  And then the other part of me remembers that the media (hint, CNN) is actively trying to get Biden to run and I realize that it’s a complete circus freak show.  Seriously, a week in advance and CNN is holding a debate podium for a guy who hadn’t declared?

I think that I’ll just wait for the Bad Lip Reading version and take bets on whether they give Hilary a man’s voice.

          –comment on personal Facebook page on day of first Democratic debate

I posted the above comment on my Facebook page late this afternoon as an expression of the intense frustration with our present political gridlock.  It’s ingrained that my principal job as a parent is to prepare my kids to take their place as productive and moral adults in the great wide world and part and parcel of that preparation is exposure to Civics and the political process.  Yet the frustration lies in the understanding that the political process is presently captive to the monied interests, much as it was during the days of the late 19th century Gilded Age.  Top it off with the knowledge that the corporate media isn’t just reporting the news but actively trying to massage it on both sides of the political spectrum – thank you, CNN and Fox – and I was sincere in my desire to blow off the entire thing in order to share a good action flick with Youngest, now in middle school.

With Mom out of town on business and his elder siblings off at college, he and I are doing the bachelor thing.  We opted to watch a recently released action film but as we paused periodically for one thing or another – typically involving snacks and fridge raids – I commented on the debate, which was scheduled to air in another half hour.  Understand that Youngest is living proof that the kids are capable of playing up, provided that you make it a habit of taking the time and effort to discuss the world and events with them.  He’s listened to conversation with his older siblings through the years and there have been instances when he’s returned to me for clarification on whatever he’s been privy to hear.  Youngest has known for years who Bernie Sanders is because I made it a point to have him and one of his siblings listen to a short clip of Sanders’ 2010 filibuster, made immortal by the common refrain …and they can’t afford diapers; it wasn’t a lengthy clip, but it did accompany an explanation of what a filibuster was and how rare it was anymore to actually hear one.  After a short break, I thought that even if I was frustrated, I should at least give him the choice of what he wanted to watch and my frank expectation was that he’d opt for the film.  It was a real surprise when he looked over at me from the sofa, took the lead and said no offense, Dad, but I’d kind of like to see a bit of it.  We can finish the film tomorrow.  It was an internally jarring moment as I realized that I was ditching my responsibility, one that I’d pursued regularly with his siblings, and that I was doing him a disservice.

At 8:29, we flipped off the movie and turned on the debate for the opening introduction through the question on gun control, at which time we turned off the television to start the bedtime routines.  During that interval, he and I would take turns making comments – surprisingly serious and not the usual snark – and there were multiple instances in which I commented that I’d be coming back to a particular point.  There are now multiple issues and comments written on a notepad in the kitchen for referral over the next several days and I’ll make it a point to periodically visit those points in short conversations.  And yes, the two predominant issues will be wealth/income inequality as well as gun control, those items covered in the first part that we watched.  As time passes and more is discussed, we’ll go into some of that as well.

So what’s the takeaway as I sit here on the sofa, writing?  The first, and probably most important, is that parenthood is a marathon instead of a sprint.  As your family grows and then begins to move out into the world, it’s easy to slack off a bit either because you think that you’ve got it all down pat or more importantly, just because you’re tired.  Trust me, teenagers can take it out of you and when you’re onto teen #3, the wear on the tire can be a bit much.  Tonight was a gentle smack in the figurative face that I was willing to forego what I absolutely wouldn’t have ten years ago and that it was a disservice to a child who deserves as much as his older siblings.  The second was the misconception that Youngest would be willing to skip the whole thing and stick to the movie instead of checking out the debate.  It’s a knock on his generation that they’re tuned out and while I do subscribe to that in the main, tonight makes me wonder whether it’s because they truly don’t care or whether we simply don’t give them the opportunity of playing up to adult issues.  It certainly was almost the latter in Youngest’s case tonight.  My role as a father and parent is changing in terms of the two older kids, now off to college, but it hasn’t changed with Youngest and it’s something about which I’m going to have to remind myself.  I will, however, have to also remind myself to not just rule out the current event conversations just because I don’t think that they’ll be interested.

A View From the Ridge,  Part 6

As I’ve said before, parenting is a forest for the trees experience.  Toddlers become children and grow, become active and engaged in the world around them, and the plethora of life can narrow your view to the immediate moments of this day and the next, akin to the trees in a thick wood.  But there are moments when the foliage opens and you recognize that you’re on a ridge with a view that spans for miles; you’re now allowed to get a glimpse of the wider vista and can see both forward and back.

Such a moment was the other night when Middle donned cap and gown to receive his high school diploma.  The event was held at a local college’s sporting complex to accommodate the graduates and their thousands of parents, family and friends.  Having to help with an elderly relative, Eldest was dispatched with her boyfriend to the venue as soon as doors opened in order to claim seats that would require minimal walking.  Middle went to the high school around dinnertime to join his peers on the school buses that would carry them to the ceremony and his girlfriend arrived shortly after that to join us for the graduation.  Youngest – decked out in suit and bow tie – was tasked with assisting his elders while I spent an undue amount of time finding parking after dropping everybody off at the site.

But once I was finally in and seated, able to cut across to my seat about 40 yards ahead of the processing seniors, I took a deep breath and in a few moments was able to enjoy the trailhead and distant scenery.  Turning around on the ridge, I looked behind to see how our family’s trail had narrowed somewhat when Eldest graduated and went off to college herself.  I could see how older trails were meandering along from a distance until they more closely paralleled ours and far closer, how Eldest’s trail had once again returned to ours for a short period.  When I swung my view forward, I could see the older trails still paralleling ours for the indeterminate period and how our own path was narrowing yet again as Middle left in one direction for college and Eldest returned to her own college.  These separate paths wouldn’t necessarily be far away but they would at times be hidden from our view and we could only hope that the kids were sufficiently well-raised and prepared that they’d successfully forge ahead without undue mishap.  As I surveyed our terrain ahead, the two parallel paths – ours and our elders – once again led into the woods although it’s certain that the forest isn’t as thick as it had been in the past twenty-one years.

The ceremony ended within two hours and another 264 adults-in-training took their place.  Apart from my own son’s appearance in cap and gown, what struck me was the ovation given to the 13 graduates who were moving on to military service.  I could only utter a silent prayer on their behalf as they took their place in the armed forces, serving where sent.  They entered for various reasons, ranging from the desire to travel, gain specialized education or just serve their country and yet my fear is that the civilian leadership is incapable of using them wisely and stretching them to a point at which they break, either individually or en masse.  Their own landscape will be more fraught with pitfalls and potentially darker than that of their peers.

We’re now back into the woods as the older kids come and go with jobs and friends while Youngest enjoys the final summers before he will also begin his journey into the work experience.  But take the opportunity to step back whenever you can to see where you are and what’s around you…the view can be magnificent.

Conversations with the Kids:  Corporations and Privacy

Serendipity reigns supreme.  Last week was the rather sudden purchase of a new, larger screen LED television to replace our smaller and older model and after bouncing back and forth among retailers, we purchased a Samsung that honestly does have a breathtaking picture; it’s impressive enough that the family pulled out the director’s cut of Lord of the Rings: Return of the King over the weekend to watch it again for the umpteenth time.  Yet several days after it’s purchase, I came across a Techcrunch article that took a different look at the new Samsung Smart TV.

The Techcrunch writer noted that someone with the Electronic Frontier Foundation actually took the time to read Samsung’s privacy policy for the new voice-command Smart Television and found the following passage within it:  In addition, Samsung may collect and your device may capture voice commands and associated texts so that we can provide you with Voice Recognition features and evaluate and improve the features.  Please be aware that if your spoken words include personal or other sensitive information, that information will be among the data captured and transmitted to a third party through your use of Voice Recognition. So the upshot is that if you program your television to use the voice commands, you’ll have to remember that what you’re saying is going to a third party; you’ll also have to censor yourself lest truly personal information – and as families will spend time in front of the television, truly personal information can be discussed – make it to an unknown third party entity, who will at the very least, add it to the mass of information already out there for data mining.

The article’s contents have already been discussed with the kids and my wife, who is likewise glad that we opted out of voice recognition.  The message to Middle and Youngest is that the loss of privacy now extends beyond the internet itself.  As society opts for the ease-of-use with a wider and wider range of inter-connected devices, aka the sensornet, it should expect that the insidious price for the ease factor is the ongoing and increasing loss of privacy as more and more personal information is mined and gathered to add to the data profile for each individual.  It’s an especially troublesome consideration for a generation that has grown up online, willing to share an amazing amount of personal information with a wide variety of people on an extended number of social network platforms.  So the kids had better become aware now, even if they don’t yet appreciate the potential for trouble that such an invasion of privacy could create.

The Messages From the Super Bowl

Just like the tens of millions of other American households, we had friends over last night to watch the game.  And like millions of other households whose teams were not in the contest, we were watching as much for the commercials as for the actual game.  Dinner?  check.  Snacks?  check.  Done and in front of the television by game time?  check.  The event over the years has almost become as much about watching the creativity of Madison Avenue ad firms as about running backs and linebackers and we were anticipating the latest from Doritos, Budweiser and GoDaddy.  But by the end of the first half, I was taken aback by the commercials because the tone of the ads wasn’t remotely close to the care-free beer, babes and goofiness of ads from previous years.  What gives?

It was a discordance from previous years that was noticed by others in the household, although I don’t know that they’d take a shot at figuring out why.  For the record, I believe that television commercials – and shows – are a great indicator of the national consciousness although I do wonder whether there’s a chicken/egg question here; do the shows and commercials initially set the tone and direct the consciousness or are they merely channeling what is permeating the nation’s consciousness?  I’m certain that some shows do try to direct but I don’t know whether they’re the small minority and the rest just channel and they’re jumping on the bandwagon.  The science fiction movies of the 1950s certainly played out our national fear about the effects of radiation and nuclear testing (Them, for example).  The movies of the early 1970s to the 1980s usually showed a distaste and opposition to the military as the country worked through the after-effects of the draining Vietnamese War.  Many television shows of the 1980s and onwards worked through dual issues of divorce and feminism by often – as in most of the time – portraying fathers as buffoons and well-intentioned idiots.  A bit broad perhaps, but the evidence is there.

But the commercials’ tone was vastly different last night.  I actually made notes as to topics and there were three separate commercials that played upon the important role that fathers play in the lives of their children.  More men do the laundry and cook than before, but the role is more amorphous than the typical mother’s role.  The most notable was the car commercial in which a boy – a la the Oscar-nominated Boyhood – is shown at points in his life without his father, who is apparently a well-known race car driver.  Mom is ever-present but it’s obvious that by the time that he’s a teen, he’s withdrawn from her and the relationship is problematic.  But Dad re-enters the picture at the end as he picks up the teen and somehow, magically, the two reconnect in a front-seat hug.  Would that it were that easy, but the point is obvious that when your attention is not upon the family but upon yourself, there’s a steep price to be paid.  These aren’t about mothers who are presumed to be present and engaged, but about fathers – us – with the message that we matter.  Even the Budweiser lost dog commercial is clearly carrying a message that it’s necessary to look after the little ones, who are likely to suffer if we aren’t present and in the game.  The most glaring example was the suicide-inducing Nationwide commercial about a kid who will never enjoy a prom or other activities because he died in a childhood accident.  It was a message so out of keeping with past Super Bowl ads that both and my eldest son and I immediately and vociferously remarked on it.  Whoa!  Did you see that?!  Holy shit!  Way to kill the buzz, Nationwide!

The other message of note pertained to overcoming obstacles.  There were two, from different corporations, that each featured real-life people overcoming the loss of legs and obviously on the national consciousness for all of the veterans who have lost limbs in the past fourteen years.  These people weren’t veterans – one was a female athlete and the other a small boy – but each was capable of overcoming such an obvious loss and taking on an active and vibrant life.  Another ad dealt with helping teenage girls overcome the self-image issues that plague them with the onset of puberty.  Each child or person was asked to run like a girl, throw a ball or punch like a girl and the result was predictably sexist.  These shots are then compared with the results when young girls are themselves asked and the results are not sexist in the least as the girls run, punch and throw an imaginary ball without any hint of obvious effeminacy.  The point of these ads is that what matters is what you think and not others so go ahead and don’t be discouraged.

The most notable difference however was in the GoDaddy commercial.  Previous years all played out around beautiful, sexy women and displayed a glitz and raciness that left people talking afterwards for days.  But the sole GoDaddy ad quietly showed a man working patiently at his desk with the surrounding windows portraying nighttime.  No wild music, no women and just the narrator stating that for all of the hard work that you, the small business owner, is putting in to get ahead, we’ll lift a dip-filled chip in salute to you.  The advertisers are obviously aware that in the present state of zombified-economy America, there are more businesses closing than opening and with much of their own business dependent upon domain registration and website management, it’s crucial that their clients buckle down and grind it out.

Whether Madison Avenue is the chicken that’s just passing along the gist of the national consciousness or it’s the egg that’s cluing in a mass audience that all really isn’t well, the message is there and clear.  Buckle down and get ready for the grind.  It’s going to be difficult with many obstacles, but it’s certainly not unconquerable.  And above all, look to your family – especially you men – and understand that despite what’s been televised for the past quarter-century or so, you have an important role in raising your children and preparing them for the world.  The gravity found in these commercials on what is typically such a light-hearted broadcast indicates that the consciousness is aware that exceedingly difficult times are ahead and is now formulating it for the mass consumption to the widest audience possible.  Get ready and gather the kids in.  Something wicked this way comes.

Per the Federal Reserve, We’re “Hoarding Money”

In a recent article discussing the dramatic decline in monetary velocity – the number of times that a dollar is turned over in the economy as a measure of economic activity – the author states that The answer lies in the private sector’s dramatic increase in their willingness to hoard money instead of spend it. To which I, as a member of the private sector, can only reply no shit, Sherlock.

This simple comment is clearly symptomatic of multiple issues facing American society today.

The first is the simple use of the term hoard, a word with clearly pejorative connotations.  To previous generations of Americans, the term was save and it was something that was done because the responsibility for the family future was overwhelmingly the responsibility of the family itself.  Saving was something done because there were responsibilities such as educating the kids and providing for retirement and it was considered unfortunate and unseemly and unwise to place yourself at the mercy of others.  But using the term hoard implies that we are both selfish for not spending and perhaps just a bit mentally ill; gathering everything around us irrationally in fear of the future, retreating to our own little worlds and ignoring the outside world.

The second is the sense that the mandarins at the Fed simply don’t see things as the rest of us.  Families now have greater uncertainty and competing demands upon their resources.  The median family wealth has fallen by a full third in the past decade, the median family income is lower than before and yet it’s becoming clear that the fiscal obligations facing the family are rising.  The passage of the Affordable Care Act – Obamacare – is hitting more families with higher medical insurance costs than before and as businesses cut out the benefits, then the medical bills themselves will rise as families take on higher and higher deductibles in order to afford even the smallest premiums.  The decline of the pension plan means that we’re now responsible for our own retirements and parents wonder how in God’s name they’re going to get the kids educated.

The third is the illustration of the extent to which our economy is now dependent upon consumption as an economic driver in lieu of everything else.  We’re supposed to ignore the flashing check engine light on our dashboard and continue spending; the point of how off-the-rails we’d become was driven home after 9/11 when the president commented that we shouldn’t let the terrorists take over our daily lives but should go shopping instead.  We’re now caught in an impossible position.  The realities facing the family are significant yet the mandarins view the impetus to drive the economy – to spend – as paramount because they don’t seem to realize that we’re now trapped, and the push to spend is all that they can offer.

In keeping with the present horror craze, many describe ours as a zombie economy.  There is no more life left in the consumer model as the family faces competing and frankly, more important, demands upon its resources.  Yet the system – and folks, the Fed is at the heart of the system – describes the common-sense response in the pejorative and implies that if we only freed ourselves from our delusions, all would be better.  Understand this: the old system is dying rapidly, if it’s not fully dead yet.  The system can only push what the system knows, even if it’s ultimately more harmful to our families.