And *Boom*…

…went the summer as one of the kids suffered injuries that have ended his – and our – summer.  The accident resulted in a significant orthopedic injury that terminated any plans for baseball or scout camp, as well as any other physical activity.  But insult to injury was a concussion that meant that the mental activities that could relieve boredom – television, reading, computer – are also out the window as brain rest is required while the brain heals and sorts itself out. 

We are fortunate however, in that it could have been far, far worse.  So we’ll take the hit and give thanks for what we have, and I’ll go back to the role of nurse.

The Site…

Since this site started, I’ve managed to put out hundreds of articles at a fairly steady pace – although it has declined in the past several months due to family demands.  Life is going to again intrude on the writing and the site will be silent for a few weeks.  Still here since I’ve managed to renew the domain name without screwing that up, but the new articles will be quiet.

But things will flow again in a few weeks and I hope that you will continue reading.  Thanks for reading the articles and putting me on the RSS feed, which is about the only metric to which I pay attention.

It is greatly appreciated.

     – The PracticalDad

Surviving Jack:  Is There a New Fatherhood Meme Starting?

My wife and I were sitting in the family room watching the evening tube when Fox ran a commercial promoting a new show, Surviving Jack, with Christopher Meloni.  After watching Meloni’s character, Jack, in the promo, she looked over at me laughing and simply said you’re going to want to see that.  She was correct and when it finally aired about a week later, I did.

Meloni’s character, Jack, is happily married – insofar as that kind of guy experiences happiness – to the mother of his two teenage children in the halcyon days of the early 1990s.  He is a physician who steps up to take a larger role in raising the kids when his wife returns to law school, much to the fear and trepidation of his high school freshman son.  It is this character who is the present-day narrator of the story and is loosely based upon the upbringing of author and creator Justin Halpern; those who recall the name understand that Jack is also based loosely upon Halpern’s father, who Halpern made famous in his hilarious S*!t My Dad Says.  I’ve watched two episodes of the show and will continue because it’s funny and also because it’s frankly fascinating as to the points that can be made about fatherhood if one chooses to consider them.

The first point is that Jack doesn’t view being an active and engaged parent who’s now responsible for the daily care of teenagers with trepidation.  The popular media view of most fathers over the past twenty years has been that they are, at worst, idiots and at best, well-meaning but ineffective in their ability to parent the kids.  Granted, Jack’s kids are now teenagers and he’s through the stage where he’s changing diapers and managing the When You Give a Mouse a Cookie chaos of small children.  But teens present a wholly different challenge that is, as one mother described to me, far more mental and emotional than the physical of small kids.  Jack’s wife is hopeful that he’ll manage but concerned how her hard-nosed husband will handle the challenges; she has to let go of her own desire to micro-manage – and yes, mothers, many of you do tend to micromanage Dad – and trust him.  In an early instance of teen nonsense, he simply says don’t worry, I’ll handle this and proceeds to do so in a way that is foreign to most women but common to many men.  And to her relief and surprise, it works.

This leads to the second point, which is that women and men have a fundamentally different view of not only the role of parenting, but also the goal.  Jack’s wife talks to classically self-absorbed teen daughter and tells her that she wants her to avoid the same mistakes that she herself made and be happy.  Jack’s vision of what he has to do is prepare the kids to make their way in a world that is competitive and more than a little unfriendly.  Happiness is something that comes after a person has shown himself capable of managing what life throws at him and in Jack’s view, the objects thrown include everything up to and including the kitchen sink.  When his son is on the mound trying out for a place on the varsity baseball team, he has to pitch to his best friend, who desperately needs to get hits in order to make the team as well.  After lobbing a pineapple that goes for a hit, Jack actually interrupts the game and goes to the mound to tell his boy to stop half-assing and pitch the ball.  Son gets the message and proceeds to school his friend in the art of baseball.  While the circumstances have been different, the term half-assing is one that I’ve actually used with all of my own kids.  Son/Daughter/Whoever you are, I will support you in whatever you wish to participate.  But if you’re going to try it, then do your best and go all in.  Because if I even think that you’re half-assing in there and wasting my time, then that support goes away and you’ll be done.  Period.  And to the pleasure of my wife and I, each has gone all in and given their best effort.  It might not be the best out there, but soccer forwards are chased down, hits run through to first base and music practiced for the garage band to the point that it legitimately sounds good; and when a song sucks, it gets canned from the upcoming show’s playlist.

The third point is that Jack is actually respectful of the structure that his wife has created with the family and stays within it, showing that he’ll uphold his wife and maintain a solid front.  When his son, and buddies, come to him for help with their baseball skills, he takes up the challenge in comically over-the-top fashion.  He scares them and when his off-screen wife overhears him state that he’ll be picking them up at 5 AM and that they should expect to skip school in order to practice, she steps in and commands that school shall not be missed.  Jack’s response isn’t an argument with her, but a simple change of plans so that he respects her stance that school attendance is inviolable.  He might offer a different opinion of a situation to his daughter than one rendered by his wife, but again, he maintains a united front. 

Will this replacement show last?  I have no idea and frankly, my track record on calling the survival of television shows is spotty at best.  But despite the broad caricatures drawn by the creator and writers for comedic effect, the upshot of the show is that for all of the quirks, Jack is a blunt, old-school father who is actually an effective parent.  He refuses to accept the position of Bucky, the Sidekick Parent that’s taken by the large majority of on-screen fathers.  His perspective on fatherhood is to-the-point and survival oriented, as much as that of a father raising kids on the American frontier.  Men do have a different perspective on their role than women and it’s honestly time that it’s acknowledged to be as valid as that of the more tender-hearted mother.



A View From the Ridge, Part 4

Tonight was an evening that provided the periodic view from the ridge, an instance at which you move beyond the forest of everyday life and get a sense of where you’ve been, are and are going.

Eldest is home for Spring Break but leaving with her mother to interview in a distant city with someone about a field for which she’s preparing while in college.  The evening was spent however, at the local high school where Middle – a junior – sang the role of Zosar in Elton John’s Aida.  While Eldest’s intentions and plans are crystallizing, Middle’s are clarifying and he’s gaining a greater sense of what he’ll pursue both in and after college as he takes the lesson to heart: there’s very much a role for college but you’d better have a plan lest we needlessly waste funds.  Middle was present the other evening when we ran into one of Eldest’s high school classmates, a young man who is pursuing his Gen Ed credits at a local community college before enrolling in the local state university for a criminal justice degree.  This guy understands that his preferred career as a state trooper, while helped by a college degree, isn’t influenced one way or another by the choice or name of a particular institution.  And in about two months, Middle and I will travel to distant state university for his first interviews and the first of multiple overnight stays.

Time marches on.

And while still in elementary school, Youngest is himself changing.  He’s not yet a teen but has become concerned about his appearance and is, according to several teachers, already in the middle school mindset.  In some ways, he’s also older than his siblings were at his age and that’s partially due to the exposure to older siblings who’ve helped bring him along and partially due to his own personality, upon which one teacher gently noted that he already doesn’t take kindly to fools.  It ought to be interesting moving forward since there’s probably nothing more foolish on God’s green earth than a boy in his early teens.  Youngest still messes with his Legos but only when he and a buddy use them to make stop-motion animation during sleepovers, and the rest of the toys are increasingly consigned to the closet.  Even his choice of sports is changing as he’s planning to spend one more spring with baseball before shifting to another sport for middle school and beyond; while we haven’t talked, I suspect that he’s thinking ahead to college himself.

And as for me, things are also going to change.  While the elementary days are waning, my wife and I still believe that a parental presence and active involvement is crucial so long as the kids are at home and that’s especially in the summer months.  So we’ll see…

The Fed and My Family

December 2013 marked the 100th anniversary of the creation of the Federal Reserve System of the United States.  It has become the preeminent central bank in the world and its policies and practices ripple across the globe like a form of financial chaos theory.  The decision to taper the quantitative easing by a simple $10 billion each month leads to a liquidity crisis across the emerging economics as so much funding is withdrawn.  Much has been written about the Fed and it’s become a lightning rod with supporters and detractors on either side but with very few in the middle.  But for all of the gigabytes written about it, how does this institution affect family?  It can certainly impact the interest rate on the mortgage and car note, but how does it affect my core role as a parent, to raise the kids to make their way in the world as productive and moral adults?  It’s these two simple adjectives – productive and moral – that frame my perspective.

I’m afraid that the true impact isn’t good and it’s raising productive adults that is the first casualty of the Fed’s policies.  This isn’t a bug in the system, it’s the proverbial feature since our entire American economic model is now predicated upon consumption.  When you google kids materials for the Federal Reserve System, one of the first links is to Great Minds Think, an educational source published by the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland.  Glance through the table of contents and you’ll find that the section on saving is #8, well past the sections on earning and spending money.  The message to the user – intentional or not – is that we teach the kids to be good consumers before we teach them to be good savers.

While there don’t seem to be any overt commentaries by the Fed on the raising of kids, there is one particular speech by then-Chairman Ben Bernanke that provides an important clue about the attitude of both the Fed and the economic system towards the family unit.  Chairman Bernanke gave prepared remarks to a conference of high school economics teachers in August 2012 and while it’s boiler plate pap on the face, it’s fascinating in another way if you’re willing to parse it.  Bernanke praised the educators for their work – commenting that he himself was an educator, having been an economics professor – and noted the importance of children having a proper financial education.  But it bothered me and it took several readings over time to pinpoint the source of the discomfort.  The point of education is to prepare the youngsters to take their place in the adult world and he routinely referred to them as young people and students.  By my count, there were fifteen references to the youth throughout the talk.  What was different however, was in the references to the adults.  When speaking about adults in general, excluding the educators, there were eight references.  One reference used the term American and two others used the word people.  But the remaining five references consistently used the term consumer.  There is no other descriptive noun used.  Citizen?  No.  Adult?  No.  Even when the parent is mentioned, it’s in the context of working on exercises with the kids so that they too, can learn.  The upshot of the talk is that our role is to raise our children to take their adult economic place as consumers.

The problem with this philosophy is that the consumer-driven economic model is actively dying.

  • Since the start of the recession in late 2007, family incomes have dropped more than 6%, despite a rebound in the last two years.
  • Fully 75% of the jobs created as of the first half of 2013 were part-time, without benefits because of weak activity and corporate fears of teh effects of the coming Affordable Care ("Obamacare") Act.
  • The chaos of the ACA will significantly impact American family consumer spending as families are forced to spend more on their healthcare, either via higher premiums and deductibles or simply doing without insurance and paying their healthcare costs out -of-pocket.

The necessity then is to save more and to teach the kids to save instead of consume but again, the Federal Reserve has a policy regarding saving as well.  The imposition of artificially low interest rates makes it counterproductive to save and in a practical sense, punishes it by teaching the kids that they’re better off to spend their money instead of putting it away for later.  Such has been the lesson for the older kids when they realized that their passbook savings rates of .1% yielded nothing of value through the course of a year.  This was also the lesson that Youngest began to realize when he came home from school last week, announcing that I want to get a CD.  When I inquired what he meant by CD, he responded a Certificate of Deposit, Dad with a note of amused derision in his 6th grade voice.  He subsequently explained to me what it was and commented that the teacher’s example utilized a five year CD rate of .87%, which the teacher noted as a really good rate.  So Youngest now knows that his passbook rate is about .1% and can appreciate the relative eight-fold improvement between the savings and CD rates.  Dad, I might as well get something better for it since I’m not going to use it…  But for every kid who says that, how many are taking the opposite lesson that there’s no practical value in saving?  Dude, I can take all of that annualized extra interest and download me another Avenged Sevenfold EP – WOOT!!

So the kids can get a five year CD with an annualized return of .87%.  With a morbidly obese national debt requiring tender care, a wrecked fiscal policy via a broken Congress and a zombified real economy dependent upon these artificially low rates, I doubt that the Fed will willingly raise rates within the next five years.  The Fed can – will have to – keep these nominal rates low but the fact is that the rest of the world is not willing to continue purchasing our debt at such rates of return and the Fed itself has become the world’s largest buyer of US Treasury debt.  But the Fed cannot continue to purchase the notes indefinitely and the rates will have to rise in order for the rest of the world to accept the risk that comes with such an outsized debt.  This is why I look at the President’s new MyRA retirement savings program with such incredulity; it’s touted as a risk-free return in a low-return world but the entire program simply smacks of a means to gain access to the public savings that will be used to purchase the government bonds that the Fed is no longer capable of purchasing itself because of a bloated balance sheet.  And when we burn through that cache of cash because there’s no fiscal discipline, then the government bonds will indeed be risky as default lurks.  Greece, Spain and the peripheral nations on the southern edge of Europe are instructive examples.

These influences are part and parcel of raising a child to be a moral adult.  We as parents can do everything that we can to teach morality, but society’s influence is pervasive and short of going Amish, what occurs in the larger realm does filter down to the family level.  The policies of the Fed dovetail with the hands-off financial deregulation of the government to protect the financial sector, even when it engages in practices that are illegal, unethical and immoral, far beyond the purview of their original businesses of taking deposits and lending.  The young people learn that there is indeed a judicial double standard as financial malfeasance is unpunished while student debt collections become more overbearing and garden variety crimes receive increasingly severe punishments.  If you don’t believe that there’s a different standard for the financial wizards, consider this.  If a Wall Street establishment is fined an amount that is still far less than the offense and the institution gets to negotiate the amount of the fine, then there’s a different standard and the fine is, to the firm, just another cost of doing business with a budgetary line-item somewhere between labor costs and paper clips.

Along with the judicial impact is the fact that more than a handful of institutions are now considered  Too Big To Fail, a term which means that their bankruptcy would imperil the entire financial system.  To accommodate these firms. the Fed established a significant number of back room arrangements starting in 2007; so the firms were nursed through the crisis.  But then supports were continued with no effort at restraining the behavior so that the risks, particularly through the growth of derivatives, have grown even larger than they were in 2007.  This is the monetary equivalent of nursing your kid through self-inflicted auto accident injuries and then buying him a brand new car with no repercussions or discipline.  The need and ability to assess risk, to be judicious and prudent with the capital, is rendered irrelevant as the institutions understand that there is no real loss because they are hooked up to their sweet Sugar Feddy.  The are losing – some have arguably lost – the ability to make decisions that reflect an awareness that they have to stand on their own feet and could truly fail.  As I write about this aspect, it’s striking to consider the parallels of the present relationship between the Fed’s actions regarding their constituent banks and the actions of parents who hover over their children, not allowing them to take their place in the real world.  The continuation of this trend will lead to the training of a generation of financial decision-makers who are incapable of standing on their own two feet.  This analogy does however, not account for the reality that the Fed’s kids are borderline sociopathic kleptocrats.

This article isn’t an idle philosophic musing.  Raising a kid to take his or her place as an adult means that there are countless conversations that must occur; it isn’t enough to talk about the birds and the bees and discourage drug use, the conversations must also go to current events, politics, money and yes, morality.  The kids must learn that when the real capital becomes tight – not the dollars presently coursing through – the safety nets will fail or, at the least, fray.  There will not be a Sugar Feddy around to pick up after them as they have with the banks that have indeed captured them and usurped their function.  They are going to have to be able to make judgments and to produce.  And they’re going to have to understand the difference between right and wrong because that capital will be tight enough that the regulatory oversight will have returned with a resounding vengeance to protect it.  Parents can no longer be unaware of the policies of the Fed; they must begin to understand what’s occurring and amend their parenting to both account for it and counter it until acceptable policies have returned.

It was both unsurprising and disconcerting about two years ago when my middle child – then in middle school – asked why I should worry about being honest.  God knows many others were getting away with robbery.  There was little that I could say apart from the seemingly inane remark that somebody had to maintain some integrity and that there was value to being able to look at yourself in the mirror in the morning.

And that conversation, in a front seat en route home from yet another practice, has stayed with me since then.  Because he is a kid who listens and pays attention and you’d be surprised at how many of the kids, purportedly tuned out, are actually keeping an ear cocked to what’s going on. 

A central bank in and of itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  There is a systemic function to the fulfilled, one that was handled with some ability prior to the onset of the roaring 90s with its deregulation and concurrent unwilllingness by the Fed to allow failure.  Banks are aided by the ability to draw prudently upon a central source for funding in the event of true necessity but the term prudent dictates that this would be in the event of circumstances beyond their own control.  To permit them the unfettered access in the face of their own unbridled greed and foolishness simply teaches them that there are no consequences to poor decisions.  The resultant monstrous misallocation of capital means that we’ve spent our money on radioactive granite countertops instead of lathes and machine tools that help us compete in the adult world, the one that our kids will be entering. 

Marijuana and the Family

This article’s title is vastly different from the one originally planned, more sedate and less witty – at least as far as I was concerned – than its predecessor.  While I’ve written about the changes in marijuana law and policy before (here, here, and here), this article was prompted by the flurry of articles referencing the President’s comments on marijuana in his interview with David Remnick of The New Yorker; the gist of most was that the purported Stoner-in-Chief was ambivalent about the legalization of pot and ran with an undercurrent of right-wing law-and-order disapproval.  The original opening paragraph was likewise offended by the comments, but then I decided that I ought to first read the article – and it’s a tome – in entirety and to my frank surprise, found that his comments mirror what’s being said in this household to the kids.

The President was asked about the legalization of marijuana and his opinion reflected the changes that my own have undergone as well in the past several years, with one caveat.  I’m not in favor of it but see how it will become more acceptable, having heard the debate points at the family dinner table about how pot is really not harmful and certainly not affecting the judgment or reflexes like alcohol.  Seriously, Dad, have you ever heard of someone having an accident while stoned? Actually, yes…  I also understand the President’s comments about the prevalence of marijuana convictions in today’s penal system, especially with racial disparities between young African-American teens and others.  One of my growing bugaboos about the country today is that we’ve developed a multi-tier judicial system and that the elites are sheltered from serving time in a penal system that in some cases has a financial incentive for incarceration.  So if we’ve got to fill beds, let’s fill ’em with the potheads since they’re young, politically stupid and generally more controllable than others in society…  The President and I are similar in our ages and both came of age in the 1970s but while the President smoked dope, I demurred since I frankly thought that the feeling wasn’t worth the money or the risk of legal trouble.  We’re also alike in that we have children who are now out and about in the school system, coming into contact with a wide variety of kids whose upbringing and family opinions don’t jibe with our own.

There are similarities as well in our conversations with the kids about smoking dope, although my language has been a bit different.  While I agree that it’s a waste of time (and money) and a vice, I found his description of pot-smoking as a bad habit hilariously off the mark.  I shared this short segment of the entire article with the two sons and commented that cracking knuckles and chewing with your mouth open is a bad habit, but smoking dope is something else entirely…  The kids are also aware that while it’s now legal in Colorado and Washington, we still live in Pennsylvania and it’s clearly illegal here and the household rule is the same as that with which my wife and I were raised, i.e. if you’re old enough to get into legal trouble, you’re old enough to deal with the consequences   Until society finally decides one way or another, we’re going to follow the company line and even then, I’ll choose not to indulge.  One of the other arguments against when discussing it with the kids is that there are long-term health consequences to smoking weed.  In 2012, a UK study over a four decade period found that those who started and used marijuana regularly while younger – especially below 18 years of age – had an average IQ drop of 8 points in their adulthood.  This is especially important for the youngsters as we’re all going to be entering a period in which everyone’s going to be competing more than ever before for limited resources and opportunities. 

There is one aspect that the President left unsaid.  One of the key aspects in the referenda victories was the notion of taxation for revenues and it’s here that family conversation has revolved.  My recurrent phrase to the boys at home has been follow the money, a reminder from the Watergate informer, Deep Throat, that the answer to many questions lies at a trail involving money.  After the referenda victories out west, there was a wonderously eloquent silence from the federal government and if you listened closely, that cricket-like sound was actually the noise of distant adding machines in Washington, DC tabulating the potential revenue windfall should legalization go national.  It was literally weeks before there was any substantive comment from the President and it was the simple statement that budget issues being what they are, the Justice Department has bigger fish to fry than the wholesale prosecution of marijuana producers and users.  This was the comment that is setting the tone for the public policy regarding marijuana and it’s the basis for a later family conversation about not just marijuana but also the role of government.  The boys learned that when Pennsylvania was considering a state lottery in the 1970s, one of the questions raised was whether the government should be in the business of profiting from the legalization of what is arguably – as per our President – a vice; it’s a philosophic question that is still relevant as the various levels of government prepare to profit from present and future legalization.  If the government is going to take a long-held position and throw it into the trash heap, ask yourself why and whether it really is a reasonable change or one based upon cynical calculation.

Now that the first steps have been made towards the legalization – and taxation – of marijuana, parents are going to have to think long and hard about their own family stance on marijuana since this is coming back into the parental faces.  Take some time to look at the studies and then examine your own history, remembering that it’s okay to have a different opinion about it than when you yourself were a teenager…that’s the value of maturity and distance.  Then go to the hard work of talking with the kids and forming a family line on the issue, and preparing to come back to that line again, and again, and yet again.  Because while the President might have some grounds for moral suasion on any particular question, the reality is that your kids will often listen to you and your commentary.  Even when you think that they aren’t.

Privacy, Kids and the NSA

Every generation has it’s own fears and concerns for the future and this generation of parents isn’t any different in that regard.  A former pastor with two sons – the oldest of whom is now pushing 40 – once commented that when his wife was pregnant with their first in the mid-1970s, they wondered why they were even going to bring kids into that then-challenged world.  But there are new challenges facing our youngsters with which previous recent generations didn’t have to contend, threats which are almost existential given the youngsters’ electronic habits and tethers.  While I’ve actively talked with the three kids about economics and civics, the ongoing disclosures about the extent of the NSA surveillance apparatus appall me and send a literal shiver through my soul.  What do I teach the kids about this and how do I help them adjust to this new threat?

Because the vast extent of the NSA and intelligence apparatus poses a threat to the heart of a free society.  It is also a dagger that cuts through the heart and soul of this young, online generation.

There are always external threats.  In the first half of the 20th century, we were threatened by fascist dictatorships and after their defeat, the mantle passed with the Cold War’s onset to the communist threat.  The Soviet Bloc’s implosion in the late 20th century came hand-in-hand with the rise of militant Islam; while terrorism has existed for decades, the ability of radical muslims to kill thousands of Americans in a single stroke awakened us to yet another threat.  There is a threat out there…but then again, there’s always a threat out there.

The Presidential Oath requires him – and someday, her – to protect and defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic.  We’ve lost sight that there are also domestic enemies and not all of them wear white hoods or appear in such an obvious fashion.  My wife recently commented that everything seems to be building up and my response was that it’s because we never actually resolve anything.  The budget issues aren’t resolved and we kick the can down the road with continuous spending appropriations and new debt ceilings.  Trillions of dollars are generated to support an aberrant financial community but no restructuring or regulation is performed to assure that there’s no repeat of 2008 (and I live with the belief that it will, and in spades the next time around).  The news cycle simply adapts itself and the old controversies are outshouted by the new and improved controversies with no resolution.  I’ve concluded that the new domestic threats are those who wield the power to circumvent the common good, preventing critical regulatory oversight – remember that one of the legitimate roles of government is to regulate the worser angels of our nature – and pursuing policies that benefit corporations and legal entities but are detrimental to the individual; using money to purchase political access and votes that again, benefit the few and fictitious but are at best, neutral to the individual.  The refusal by the Obama Administration to grant a one-year delay to individuals but instead giving it to corporations is a massive check engine light.  

So we’ve created this pervasive, intrusive intelligence apparatus capable of giving American society a collective electronic colonoscopy.  The oversight has been minimal and as the bureaucrats push forward in their quest for security, those who question it or attempt to shed light on it are legally persecuted in the name of national security; it’s not for nothing that the Obama Administration has reached new heights – or lows, depending on your perspective – in pursuing whistleblowers so that examples are set to discourage others of conscience.  And at the same time, the monied few with the ears and pockets of the political class continue to garner greater influence as they help the career politicians in a mutually beneficial relationship.  At what point does this relationship become the cornerstone of a new fascism, a parasitic collusion of the corporate and political classes?

And I’m respectful of the arguments that support the notion that we’re already there.

So what do I do to help prepare the kids?  This great steaming pile of hot mess goes to the heart of their plugged-in collective consciousness, especially at a time of their lives when they’re unaware both of the consequences of what they say and the reality that this is being recorded en masse and held for whatever moment is best suited for use against them?  The answers are infinitely time-consuming, low-tech and prosaic.

  • Take every opportunity, from the earliest possible moment of their lives, to talk with them.  This sets the stage for the latter days of youth when you want to pull them aside for specific issues; they won’t be looking at you like a geriatric freakshow and you won’t be at an utter loss for words.
  • Take every opportunity to set an example of a non-wired life by putting down your own cell phone and removing your own ear buds.  In the past several months, I’ve noticed more parents – fathers and mothers – walking the kids while plugged into an iPod or cell phone.  The concept of the daily walk is more than just taking the kid outside to blow off the stink; the concept is to fire their synapses as they grow, showing them new things and interacting with them.  They’ll be more understanding of important cell phone calls when they’re older if they don’t see you on the damned things all of the time.  Likewise, when they’re older, they’ll be a bit more understanding if you ask them to remove their own.
  • Raise them as skeptics, not just chatting with them, but challenging them so that they don’t simply accept any party line.  I’ve had a lifelong habit of tossing out outlandish tidbits in conversation to see whether they’ll learn to challenge it as true; this isn’t a harmless exercise and encouraging skepticism can come back to bite when they’re older.  
  • Pull them aside to share news articles with them when they’re old enough.  There have been any number of times when I’ve pulled one or more kids aside to clue them in on something that I believe that they should know.  The occasional response is akin to a tilt of the head reminiscent of Laddie the Wonder Dog, but there also discussions that go places that I didn’t expect.  Inform yourself and then inform them.
  • Set – and live with – ground rules on the electronics.  Don’t be afraid to turn them off and don’t avoid the nastiness that comes with kids not getting their way.
  • Teach them about what’s private and what’s not.  Teach them about family business and also about personal business.  When one of the kids takes family business outside the family, send the child away from the table the next time something sensitive is discussed, even if the other siblings remain at the table.  Then follow it up with a conversation about the excusal and you’ll find it a potent lesson.
  • Take them to a website with old articles or comment threads and show them comments written several years ago to prove that it doesn’t go away.  
  • Keep tabs on their online activity and accounts.  Tell them if they’ve crossed a line and act upon it if necessary.
  • Teach them to NEVER place identifying personal information online, especially a public site with exposure to many.
  • Wake up yourself to the current events around you.  For this issue, follow the Electronic Frontier Foundation and read more of Glenn Greenwald in The Guardian; yeah, it’s an English paper but don’t look for heavy content in most domestic American papers. 

There’s more at stake here than just personal information for our youngsters.  It’s another part of the machine that’s slowly being built around us that can be used for far greater, more insidious control in the future.  I wouldn’t want it for myself and I certainly don’t want it for my children.

Youth and Political Apathy:  Can You Blame Them?

There are still some of us who – despite all of the unalloyed stupidity, graft and cynical machinations – still believe in this whole government of the people, by the people, and for the people schtick.  We want and try to raise our kids to pay attention to events, form educated opinions and engage in the political process, even if only to vote when they’re old enough.  But the chronic incompetence of recent sitting Presidents and Congress make it impossible to want to do so, let alone try.  The recent picture of Senator John McCain playing poker on his smartphone simply drives me over the edge of indifference; the Senator – who long ago and far away had my respect – was sitting in the Senate Committee hearing on the President’s proposed use of force in Syria and decided to take a little break by playing poker.

Seriously?  Seriously?  While my Youngest is still in elementary school, I’m old enough that some of Eldest’s peers now serve in the Armed Forces and any of them could be sent overseas because of this business.  Yet a senior Senator sits in the hearing regarding their future, playing electronic poker; the fact that this is the guy who spent years as a prisoner of war makes it mind-boggling in the extreme.  Being a parent means that at some level, the kids’ friends – who I’ve historically referred to as the Opies – become young adults with their own discernible dreams, hopes and wishes.  Some of them virtually become our own kids and their safety and welfare matters as much as that of our own offspring.  The fact that senior senators are sitting around during the hearings hoping to draw a flush is not only insensitive to those of us who give a damn, it’s insulting.

The great majority of adults reach an age at which they understand that there’s a difference between the ideal and the reality.  We know that money and power come into play but hope – with some sufficient pressure applied – that these elements are somehow offset by a sense of the public good and simple common sense.  Yet the survival of a democracy is based ultimately on optimism; not the saccharine Hallmark-card variety, but the elemental optimism which believes that the great majority of people are decent sorts, able to put aside their differences and live in some degree of peace with one another.  We can teach about our form of government in school – and that’s not going too well, either – but this core belief is one that, like so many other beliefs, is passed along as much through the quiet conversation and personal interaction that occurs daily in the home.  Contemporary American society is crass and cynical and I freely admit that I’m trying to raise my kids to be skeptics.  But such a deep-rooted optimism requires continual nurturing in the face of the crap that our politicians throw around like so many chimps with their feces, and the Senator’s hope for a flush crosses a boundary that is deeply offensive on a personal level.  Man, there’s actual use of chemical weapons and now there’s the prospect of sending them to the sandbox – again.  What’s the evidence for this and more importantly, do I trust a government that provided manipulated information for a previous trip to the sandbox?  I only hope that the leadership is paying atten…no, wait.  Nevermind.


Any good politician knows that politics is a fusion of substance and imagery and that the latter can trump the former.  The 1988 image of presidential nominee Michael Dukakis in a tank was as much a killer as the fictitious image of Abraham Lincoln splitting rails was a winner.  But the image of a senior senator playing smartphone poker like a high schooler in the back row of Civics class is damaging.  It not only portrays McCain in a poor light, but reinforces the notion amongst the public that the political leadership is not only cynical, but callous towards the ramifications of the actions that they are – or aren’t – about to take.  McCain acknowledged in a subsequent tweet that he was indeed playing poker “during a 3+ hour Senate hearing” yet the tweet is meant derisively: yeah, I did it but geez, it was three hours of bloviation and if you’d been there, you might have done it, too.  The Arizona Senator’s behavior during and after the hearing is a gross, immense action of unabashedly immature stupidity and when I’ve heard similar exculpatory flatulence come from the mouths of any of my three kids, I’ve dope-slapped them, Gibbs-style, across the back of their heads.  This isn’t rambling about the tax code, but a matter of the use of force and after previous administrations’ efforts in 2001 and even earlier, in 1964’s Gulf of Tonkin resolution – and that one led to the Vietnam War – the public deserves better.

Public upset over this will pass quickly since the American public has a short attention span and memory.  But while the exact instance will pass, there will be a corrosive after-effect.  The cost of running for, and gaining, office is now prohibitive to the average American and assumes dollar amounts that are not attainable for Joe and Jane Six-pack and there’s already a belief that to gain office requires more than a little duplicity to please the backers who pay the freight for their pet candidate.  One of the goals of the nascent Occupy movement was to grab the attention of the politicians via demonstration and sit-in and that did seem to work until the movement imploded.  But the corrosive element is not only that the political classes are no longer like us, but that they simply don’t care about the typical American’s needs.  That was the knock painted against the Republicans but it’s increasingly the same knock laid against Democrats, many of whom are also independently wealthy in their own right.  Lifetime pension?  check.  Lifetime healthcare?  check.  Access to inside information that can be used for personal gain?  ah yep, check.  It is this behavior that drives home the point that the government really doesn’t care about the public, and drives Americans away from the system.  The internal intelligence apparatus has grown to massive proportions and the reports about the extent of domestic electronic surveillance foster a sense of helplessness amongst the public, and Americans cocoon themselves in the hope that they’ll be left alone by this whatever-it-is that we’ve constructed.  It’s difficult enough fighting through the societal noise to raise kids that both understand and care about the political process; when the public behaviors are so stupidly callous that they discourage and dishearten the parents who are trying to wage this fight, then the Congress has only itself to blame for the image and we ourselves for the political results. 

There is true irony here.  John McCain’s persona is intimately tied to the tortures that he endured as an American prisoner-of-war in the Vietnam conflict.  That conflict was an undeclared war, but then-President Johnson was provided political cover by a Congress that passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in 1964 on what is now known to be questionable information.  Were the existant Congressmen of that year paying full attention to what was happening, or was their attention engaged elsewhere?  And what would then-Lieutenant McCain have thought – in Hanoi – had there been proof that the civilian leadership responsible for the Resolution’s passage spent their time in Chambers playing poker instead of attention?

The 4th of July and the Kids

On holidays – except for Christmas – I’m up earlier than everyone else and today’s 4th of July was no different.  But when all of the kids were up and gathered in the kitchen, I wished them a happy 4th of July and was taken aback when Middle responded that with all of the news coming out about both the extent of NSA surveillance and the Nixonian weaponization of the IRS, it was hard to find anything remotely happy about this particular 4th of July.  I stood there for a minute and said nothing and then finally had to agree with him, a high school junior.  After all, what future does he, his siblings and his peers have if we don’t bring this abuse to heel?

I’m enough of a history buff to understand that there are periodic abuses to power of one form or another and our history is littered with them.  But I don’t recall any point in our history when the government was so technologically and physically capable of muzzling free speech, let alone dissent and how we manage to remedy it leaves me at a loss.  Our young adults are stressed and who can blame them?  The bulk of the stress is laid at the feet of money and economics as they bought into the polemic that the road to the middle class was through higher education, only to finish with debt and a declining middle class that can’t offer them work to support both themselves and their debt.  If I laid out a bundle for World Series tickets and found that I’d wound up with a Class A preseason game ticket, I’d be stressed too.  What’s detestable about my generation – the Boomers – is that we’ve forgotten the generational compact that has threaded throughout our history; our forebears had a rudimentary knowledge of history and understood that there were moments when this Constitution they’d been given required protection and support so that it could be passed to the next generation.  This was the way of the Revolutionary and Civil War generations, and the "Greatest" generation of the Second World War.  It was even understood by the so-called "Silent" generation who stood up to Nixon’s predations and forced his resignation in a near-constitutional crisis.  But it was a Boomer who, when the Soviet Union fell, penned a book entitled The End of History, as though everything through history had come to fruition for that particular generation.  Unlike the preceding generations, the Boomers deemed themselves the recipients of this form of government instead of its custodians and guardians.  So we’re left in this creepy place in which most of our citizens have given up paying attention and our government responds to any perceived threat by dressing it up as a terrorist.

And there is sat for the next hour, until I came across a youtube video – hosted by Morgan Freeman – that culminates in a shared reading of the Declaration of Independence.  It’s an impressive piece and one that I’m showing to the kids, especially Middle.  I’m like many Americans who still believe in the premise of the nation; the trick will be to assure that this belief passes on to the Millenials and that will only happen if we first teach them and then act as guardians instead of recipients.

Happy Fourth of July, 2013.






Father(s) of the Year, 2013

With the recent announcement that Bill Clinton has been named as one of the recipients for the 2013 Father of the Year Award from the National Father’s Day Committee  I thought that it would be worthwhile to announce my own three winners.  It’s not necessarily that I dislike Bill Clinton – great politician, but like other great politicians, not someone you’d want to date your daughter – but the whole thing smells of an attempt to raise money for two charities and the bigger the names, the more the money.  The intent of the affair is to raise money for the American Diabetes Association as well as Save the Children and the efforts will raise millions of dollars for the charities, albeit by bestowing honors upon those who can deliver ticket sales and publicity; it’s just the way that the world works.

It’s honestly annoying and I know that everybody knows someone personally who’d be a great nominee.  So I’d like to nominate three men who I believe exemplify fatherhood in today’s fast-paced, economically stressed society.

Jeff is a former bank operations manager, stepfather of one son and father of two more.  When he lost his job – his bank was forced into a sale after major internal fraud – he returned to school to earn his teaching degree and proceeded to do so with all three boys still under the roof.  During that period, he worked multiple part-time and tutoring jobs to help keep food on the table and a roof over the heads and since earning that education degree, has joined the millions of college graduates in an ongoing search for permanent employment while working in temporary and substitute positions.  I’ve known him through this entire period and he’s been active in multiple volunteer roles, performed because he understands that the kids’ activities aren’t run with paid staff or by themselves and it’s not uncommon to see him at a son’s baseball game, grading student papers while he watches and cheers.

Rob is a small-town police detective with two children, a boy and a girl.  He’s been active in multiple activities apart from work and family, principally baseball, scouting and teaching Christian education at the elementary school level.  Rob’s like most fathers who are involved with the kids, running full tilt from work to activity and home, just to start up again early the next day, repeating the process.  What’s notable about the guy is that he’s fully aware that he serves as a role model, particularly for the boys, and is unceasing in his upbeat manner even when the kids’ antics might privately drive him to distraction or me to manslaughter.

Lou is a mechanic and divorced father of two boys, a guy who once told a major-league owner that his stable of pitches included a curve, a decent fastball and a beanball (if so requested).  He has custody of the boys and has to navigate the intricacies of parenting amidst divorce when ex-spouses might not see eye-to-eye.  Like the others, he stretches his time between work and activities, in this case acting as coach for both sons’ teams which might entail having to be in two places simultaneously or at the same location for the better part of an entire day as the boys share ball fields, if not teams.  Like his co-nominees, he recognizes that the events won’t occur by themselves and further acts as an umpire for other games so that the activities can move forward.

None of the three have President Clinton’s list of accomplishments, staff or peccadiloes and apart from the few who know them, none could be picked out by the masses of Americans were their photos tagged on bulletin boards.  What each does have in common – if not with the president – is an understanding that fatherhood is akin to a full contact sport that encompasses more than just putting a roof over the head and food on the table.  It requires persistence and energy, a willingness to engage the kids in more aspects of their lives than would have been thought of by fathers even two generations ago.  It is presence, conversation, education, encouragement, discipline, expectation, and yes, love.  They have family, but no paid staff, to help them and they understand that barring some weird quirk of fate, they will never gain such power or fame that their own kids will be able to rely on anything other than their own efforts to survive when they themselves become adults.  

So guys, Happy Father’s Day to you.  And to the millions of other men who quietly undertake a role that’s so much in transition from what their own fathers and grandfathers experienced, Happy Father’s Day to you as well.  There will be no audience recognition and any money for the charities will likely come from your own wallet.  But then again, raising children isn’t about ticket sales but instead, preparing them for the great wide world.