PracticalDad and Christmas

Guys, be sure to thank your mate for everything they’re doing to prepare for the Christmas holiday.  If you’re taking a major role, good for you since you have a good idea of what’s involved in making things happen.

Because of job constraints – a major increase in patient care responsibilities – my wife has had minimal time to do what she would like to do and PracticalDad has picked up the slack.  That means that there have been no posts for over a week and a full day is planned here, consisting of:

  • Preparing a Chili dinner for pre-Christmas Eve services (done);
  • Making a final grocery run for the forgotten celery for stuffing (done);
  • Wrapping final Christmas gifts (to do);
  • Making a final run for a restaurant gift certificate (to do);
  • Pre-cutting celery and onion for tomorrow’s braising for stuffing (to do);
  • Grating sweet potatoes for tomorrow’s casserole (to do, and gee, do I have enough butter?);
  • Prepping the turkey for roasting (to do);
  • Having a beer as the kids spend the day with the grandparents.

If you’ve ever noticed your mother or mate getting a bit high-strung the day before, this stuff is the reason why.  But the kids frequently don’t notice the angst and what they’ll remember as they age is the sense of home, family and whatever traditions that you’ve chosen to make part of the family life. 

I hope that you have a wonderful Holiday season and despite the hoopla, remember that it really is about family.


PracticalDad’s College Humor

As they’ve grown, Eldest and Middle have learned that I’ve got a particularly dark sense of humor.  I don’t trot it out often, and certainly not in front of Youngest. 

But an opportuntiy came about several months ago as Eldest was looking at a college scholarship website.  These sites are designed as databases for the thousands of scholarships available and the questionaire asks a wide variety to elicit enough information to best match the student to the available scholarships.  The questions however, are not only about the children but also about the parents.  Did either parent serve in the Armed Services?  Does either belong to the Masons/Lions/Professional Circus Geeks?  Then the questions take a darker turn.  Is one or both parents dead?  Has either of the parents suffered a job loss?  Is either parent blind?  These are valuable and understandable questions, helping to allocate a finite pool of funds to young people who might be in a tighter spot because of personal family difficulty.

I’m not proud to admit it, but reading the list of various questions led to the dark side.  I remarked to Eldest that perhaps one of the hopes would be that I have a recurrence of cancer within the next year or that the best would be a tragedy trifecta of being hit by a bus while crossing the street with my seeing eye dog enroute to my chemo treatments.  It did generate a solid laugh but it’s not one that I try for very often.

The point is twofold.  First, concerns about how to meet the college funding challenge can cause a more emotional response than you expect.  These are your children and the hunt is on for a piece of the large – but still finite – scholarship pie.  Second, the criteria go beyond mere grades and merit.  Don’t be surprised at the nature of the questions and try to keep perspective on the rationale behind them.

And for the record, I really, really, really don’t want to hit the trifecta.



Learning the Hard Way:  PracticalDad Guidelines

Raising kids becomes more interesting as they age since they want to assert their independence with decisions and actions that can border on the insane.  The question is, when to permit their efforts at independence and when to pick your battle and reassert your authority?

Adolescence is that period between childhood and adulthood when the body undergoes puberty and grows, changing dramatically.  Even after the body has ceased growing however, the brain is continuing to change and won’t stop until later.  Several years ago, scientists revised the upper bound age of adolescence to twenty-five years to reflect that there are portions of the brain that are continuing to change until then.  Unfortunately, the last part of the brain to develop into maturity is that segment that controls risk assessment and judgment.

The choice is simple when they’re young.  Your working assumption is that they haven’t got a clue and are going to have to do as you say.  But they grow and you have to decide when you think that they do have a clue and that alters the assumption accordingly.  You’d think after several years of school that they’d understand the meaning of cold weather or the danger of trying to learn unicycle-riding on a brick retaining wall.  But they don’t.

So what are my guidelines on deciding when to let them learn on their own, versus gearing up for an argument?

  • Is there a reasonable chance of injury to themselves or others, such as tossing a lead pipe as a baton or riding on said retaining wall?  And by this, I mean significant injury beyond a cut or scrape.  There’s a reason that kids aren’t supposed to jump off at the swing’s apogee or playing with fireworks.
  • Is the child going to do something that goes beyond embarrassing and make a royal ass of  himself – or you?  A little embarrassment can be a good objective lesson, but humiliation is something different and it’s your responsibility to try to ascertain the difference.
  • Is there a risk of causing property damage, such as chucking rocks at a spot next to the car parked next door.

It’s with these criteria that I entered the pre-Christmas weekend.  After purchasing the past two trees from a local fire company, we traveled with friends to a Christmas Tree Farm to cut our own again.  It was snowing when we left and while the kids made good decisions on footwear – I now know that Youngest had a spurt and needs another size snowboot – they argued on coats.  Tony Hawk jackets and hoodies are now cool for kids and despite having heavier coats that could be worn, one opted not to wear it.  This was the time that we found that another had lost the heavy winter coat.  We decided not to force the coat issue and let the child wear the Autumn weight Hawk jacket to the farm as we chose and cut the Frasier Fir.  The one who lost the coat would have to deal with it until it could be replaced.

Why?  There was no likelihood that wearing a too-light jacket would violate any of the above criteria.  Yes, the kids could become cold but they had the option of getting back in the minivan if that happened.  And this was supposed to be a family event that they’d remember and carry with them.  And with two inches down and more falling, it was memorable; why ruin that because they were making a bad choice?  As it was, they all stayed outside for the selection and cutting of the tree but at least one remarked that next year, they’d have to wear a heavier coat.



PracticalDad:  Buying A House or Buying A Home?

‘You are fettered,’ said Scrooge, trembling.  ‘Tell me why?’

‘I wear the chain I forged in life,’ replied the Ghost.  ‘I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it.  Is its pattern strange to you?’

– Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol

It’s ironic and sad that, in this Christmas season, many Americans are bound by the legal chains of a mortgage.  They girded it on of their own free will, before their house’s equity fell to a level less than the loan’s value or before they lost the income that paid for said loan.

A common thread of many cases is that people believed the advertising which touted that you can buy your own home, implying that a residence can’t be a home unless it’s purchased.  Even though the average American lives for six years in a residence that they bought, purchase implies permanence, adulthood and financial success.  Commercials created for the National Association of Realtors in this housing downturn state that it’s never been a better time to buy your own home.  Go to any residential builders’ website – Ryan, Keystone, Lennar, Gemcraft, Ryland – and you’ll find multiple references to the word home, but almost never the word house.

While there are good reasons to own a house, thinking that purchase automatically makes it a home isn’t one of them.  In a society that prizes time management and quick gratification, we’ve forgotten that a home isn’t a physical thing or place.  A home is a sense, a belief and a feeling.  It arises from our cumulative actions and attitudes instead of the workmanship of the carpenters and plumbers that completed the structure.  They simply provide the physical structure from the elements but we take that structure and create a home in which to raise our children.  Homes are made, not built.

Our country prizes property ownership, and rightfully so.  But we’ve now staked our economy on how many own houses and the collective value of those houses.  The government and FIRE industries – Finance, Insurance, Real Estate – are promoting sales in order to keep the collective value of housing from falling further.  Further drops mean larger holes in the balance sheets of financial institutions that need to be plugged.  This recession and credit crisis are directly linked to the value of housing and programs such as the First Time Home Buyer Tax Credit are a clear effort to support the value of housing and save the financial system.  Their concern is the system and not the family; the family is your concern.

So here is my point.  If you’re a father and you and your mate are looking to buy a house, make sure that you think and aren’t manipulated by the media.  Consider neighborhoods and schools.  Evaluate commuting distance and whatever other factors matter to you.  But all else being equal, don’t think that a purchase agreement is automatically superior to a lease.  There are landlords who love a good tenant – we’ve had them – and will work with them as situations change and you only have to ask.  And if it doesn’t work out, the costs are far less than having to contend with trying to sell a house and being stuck with the mortgage.

Because being chained to a house can destroy the home that you’re trying to create.

PracticalDad Systemic Failure:  Family Calendar

For a guy who lives and dies by the calendar, December has been a mess.

The next year is approaching and I have to start listing the 2010 events on it, but the problem is dropping the December events.  With all of the Christmas hoopla, I’ve not kept up with it and have been burned twice due to non-listing of events.  Damage?  Just some embarrassment.  So the job tomorrow is to get the 2010 calendar and then cull through December notes and get the present calendar updated.

The upshot is that I have to get back to weekly reviews of the calendar to assure that this doesn’t happen again.

PracticalDad:  What’s Appropriate with the Kids?

Most fathers understand that they have to have behavioral boundaries with the children.  We understand that the kids will mimic us and learn the cues for what is and isn’t appropriate behavior.  It’s simpler when they’re young:  No cussing or sexual humor; minimal or no violence on television; decent treatment of other people; good self-control, especially in terms of tobacco and alcohol, and absolutely no drugs.  But as they age, the lines blur and I have to reconsider what’s appropriate versus still inappropriate.

This weekend was a case in point.  I’ve watched Saturday Night Live since it’s inception, although I can go for long periods without if the cast is poor.  The cast for the past several seasons has been decent so I watch regularly.  Now that Eldest is in high school, she’s beginning to watch with me and it can provoke decent conversation.  But I have to reconsider what’s appropriate when the skit pertains to an ESPN women’s sporting event sponsored by Vagisil.  So, do I turn it off or let it play through to the next skit and Weekend Update?  What is my criteria for appropriateness in the future?

  • Is it a behavior or activity that in any way causes a sense of emotional or mental discomfort?  I’ll still wrestle with the boys, but ceased doing so years ago with my daughter because it made me distinctly uncomfortable as her body was developing.  That also means that I have to listen and look for such signs from the kids, who might be uncomfortable saying something.
  • Does it promote an activity or lifestyle that I find unwholesome, unhealthy or immoral?  Wholesome is a word that’s nowadays derided as hypocritical or, at best, incredibly naive.  But the definition connotes something that helps to complete – or makes whole – a person.  Old Cheech and Chong skits were funny when I was younger but I can’t bring myself to watch them now.
  • Does it blur the parental line so that I’m not so much father as peer?  My children need to remember that I’m still their father and my concern is that behaving too much as a peer undermines that authority.  Kids are good at playing Moral Battleship and blowing holes in the ships by pointing out inconsistencies in your own words and behavior.  Why make it easier for them?
  • Does it condone illegal behavior?  Things are illegal for a reason and I’ve been frank that I won’t permit them to own games such as Grand Theft Auto as it makes such a life appear acceptable and exciting.  This is also why I made Middle turn off a youtube video of A Bag of Weed from Family Guy.  My statement to his argument was that it promotes what is a gateway drug; he doesn’t know that I knew people who made more effort scoring a bag than a job.
  • Will it demean people?  This is precisely why I won’t watch many reality shows, which place people in situations that cause them to have to lower themselves to win.

Every circumstance isn’t always clear and will require conscious evaluation.  But perhaps now I understand why my own father opted to go to bed instead of watching SNL with me when I was a teenager.

Planning the Meal:  Shopping the Stores

A large part of saving money by cooking at home comes from controlling the food costs, and that is largely a function of smart grocery shopping.  Walking into the store with a list and good intentions isn’t smart shopping.

What is smart food shopping?

  • Remembering that the food menu on which you decide drives the shopping choices and not vice-versa.  Many families develop a stable of proven recipes, supplemented by the periodic I thought that I’d try something different, so here goes meal.  This stable is based upon the food preferences, dietary requirements and ease of preparation.  You might think that it’s cheaper to purchase only the sales items, but this is more likely to lead to impulse sales and the need for repeated visits to obtain the supplemental items that you might not have when it’s time to prepare the meal.
  • Knowing that stores aren’t created equal and different stores have their own strengths and specialties.  One store might be great for meats but have a poor selection of produce.  Others are affiliated with a generic store brand that you find superior to other store brands.  You have to decide if the trade-off between money saved and shopping time is worth the additional activity.
  • Know the various stores’ hours and whether their sales cycles run during the same period of time.  For example, two of the major local grocery stores run sales from Sunday to Saturday while two other decent stores run their sales from Wednesday to Tuesday.  If you really want to maximize the cost savings and are willing to go to different stores, you need to look at all of the sales circulars when they’re in effect.  In my case, I have to review them when they’re all effective, which would be Wednesday.  If time is an issue, then you have to decide whether the potential savings are worth the time invested.
  • Review the circulars against the coupons that you have available.
  • Work from your script.  Remember that the product placement in a grocery store is a work of marketing art designed to separate you from your dollar.  They will push for the impulse dollar and you have to steel yourself to stick with the shopping list, developed from the family menu.

Much of this finally comes down to preparation, both in planning and in cooking.  The savings are out there but they aren’t just going to happen.



PracticalDad and Teens:  Gritting Teeth

I have three kids.  Several years ago, I was talking to another parent whose three kids were several years older than mine and I remarked that it must be nice to have kids that were older and didn’t require the supervision needed by younger children.  Her response?  That pressure’s gone but it’s been replaced by a different kind of pressure now.

Now I get it.

The teenage years are ones in which the teen body resembles Dick Van Dyke playing a one-man band in Mary Poppins.  There’s frenetic activity galore as the drums boom, cymbals crash, horns toot, elbows and knees plunge in random directions and the brain rewires itself.  And estrogen and testosterone bubble as frothily as a recently tapped keg.  With such a panoply of random energy and activity, the result is sometimes brutal as kids knock into one anothers’ bodies and emotions, eliciting sarcastic, catty and nasty remarks.  And when I speak up, the sarcasm and attitude are pointed in my direction.  So I respond.  Because for me, gritting the teeth simply means that I don’t bite them, not that I don’t call them for the mouth.

Then I remember that I have as many teen years ahead of me as I had toddler years.

Planning the Family Meals:  Activities and Time

You can always save money by cooking at home, but the best results come from taking the time to plan what you’ll prepare.  And as the kids grow, you’ll have to account for the multiple activities that consume the afternoons and evenings.  This is especially important if you want to preserve some time for a family meal where everyone can connect and recount the day.

Where to start?  As always, with the family calendar.  Make it a habit to review it routinely when you plan the meals so that you have a handle on an evening’s window of opportunity for eating; as you accumulate children, you also accumulate the activities that come with them.  You might want to consider choosing a Friday evening/Saturday morning if you prepare and refrigerate meals over the weekend so that you can get to the store for the food that you’ll require for the cooking.  

Another factor to consider when you plan is the length of time required to pull the meal together on any particular night.  Even if there are no activities that evening, the demand of small children after a long day will cut into your available time.  Is this something that is microwaveable in a few minutes or will it take a bit longer in the oven for reheating?  If you truly only have twenty minutes – and with three kids, we’ve had as little as fifteen minutes on the rare night – then consider using the crockpot so that you can just ladle the contents quickly and move on.  The crockpot is advantageous in that larger sizes can hold sufficient contents for further nights; and experienced cooks will attest to the improved flavor as the various ingredients further meld together over the ensuing night.  Crockpot meals – are you seeing a trend here? – also allow the freedom to prepare the ingredients an evening ahead so they can simply be added the following morning.  The dirty preparation dishes and utensils can be put into the dishwasher before you walk out the door.

The important things about a family meal aren’t the quantity or presentation on the table.  What’s important are the discussions with the children, the teaching of the table manners necessary for the larger world and the food’s nutrition.  The differences between the PracticalDad evening dinner table and that of Happy Days’ Cunningham family are that mine isn’t typically as elaborate and I look lousy in a skirt.  It’s okay to serve soup and a sandwich with vegetables if that’s what is necessary to make things work in the alloted time.