Debt Ceiling and Default:  Who’s Paid First

This isn’t the type of website that tracks closely to the news, but this reported leak by the Administration bears notice. 

A recent post was about some commentary that I’m hearing from people to the effect that a federal default might not be such a terrible thing and one of my own observations was that come the early August period, there would still be money to pay some bills.  The government would then be in the position of more than a few average Americans, who have to prioritize their bills and decide what gets paid first.  One of my great interests would be who gets paid with the available funds and who gets stiffed.

Bloomberg is now running a report by an unnamed Administration official that if the debt ceiling is not raised, then the Treasury Department would assure that the bondholders – frequently foreign creditors and the banking system via the Federal Reserve System – would receive payment ahead of others.  Honestly, I’m not certain whether there’s legislation that mandates that bond payments supersede other payments but the simple reality is that the US government will give precedence to creditors who own US bonds which mature during that period.  Frankly, it doesn’t matter even if such legislation exists because the government should never have reached this ridiculous state of affairs.  This might simply be a leak to ratchet up pressure upon the Congress, whose members will hopefully fear that the public will blame them for all manner of missed benefits.  But it points out two salient things:

  • The administration refused as recently as a month ago to specify any order of payments, which they apparently now think makes a major difference in whether some compromise – meaningful or not – is reached.
  • The US government has officially placed the American people on notice that bondholders and creditors will be given priority over the citizenry. 

So there it is.  If you want the government to give a damn, make sure that you lend them some money beyond your taxes.

A Public Service Announcement:  The Debt Ceiling Debate

If anybody is curious about the actual status of the Debt Ceiling debate, I’m enclosing a link to the site for the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget.  The site has been in existence since August 2010 and they help to parse out the briar thicket that is the federal budget for those of us in the general public.  The article is a brief synopsis of the similarities and differences between the plan promoted by House Speaker John Boehner (R – OH) and Senator Harry Reid (D – NV).  There’s nothing from the President since frankly, the guy’s got bupkis.

The topic is one that’s gotten some conversation in the house since the prospect of a federal default is increasing daily and it will most certainly be painful for the rest of us should it happen.

And now back to life.


Teens and Independence:  Balance

Kids grow and expand their circles and frankly, that’s what I want to see happen.  But letting them experience some independence is an area painted with a large swath of gray; there are still plenty of ways that things can go wrong and just because I’m letting them have some freedom doesn’t mean that I’ve stepped back completely.  How much information is a parent entitled to and is there any off-limits behaviors on the parents’ part?  What should my guidelines be?

Years ago, I spoke with a friend whose kids were already teens while mine were either in pull-ups or early elementary school.  Caught in the daily rush of providing physically intensive, high-touch care to three children, I told her that I envied her now that her kids were in middle and high school and able to take care of themselves.  I would love to not have that constant demand.  It would be a huge decrease in the daily pressure of small kids.  Her response was surprising since she actually missed those days; the pressure, she stated, is still there but now it’s just different and I worry more than I did before.  Our conversation veered on to other topics but the remark has stayed with me and as my kids are now further along in the age pipeline, I can appreciate what she’s saying.  Where are they at the particular moment, who are they with, what are they doing and are there any parents nearby to monitor what’s happening?

Spending my teen years in the 1970s – yes, I’m middle-aged! – meant that there wasn’t the Wild West of the internet and more likely than not, having a parent who was home and able to keep tabs on what was happening.  In the introduction to the reissue of his Summer of Night, author Dan Simmons writes about his perceived difference between the life of a 12 year old boy in 1961’s Elm Haven and such a life today.  He recalls a life of freedom from the post-breakfast hours to late afternoon as kids would hit the bikes and head out throughout their hometown; the contrast is with today and the fear that either something  bad will befall the boy or else he’s going to fall into a life of crime and delinquency without constant oversight and structure.  From my recollection, growing up in a rural Pennsylvania was akin to Simmons’ fictitious Elm Haven and to an extent, I agree with Simmons’ premise.

There was a major difference between the rural 1970s and today, however and that is the presence of a parent to keep tabs on the kids and activities.  I know that my mother knew – either personally or via phone – almost all of the parents whose kids were my friends and there were certainly phone calls back and forth just to apprise one another if the traveling circus was either moving or up to something.  There were friends whose parents both worked, but they still kept tabs via phone and these kids were also welcome at my home at any time and a few spent considerable time there.  There are far more parents working today than before, and many of these kids also come from single-parent families whose custodial parent is stretched thin to work and also oversee the activities.  It’s this badly frayed parental net that makes teen freedom more problematic, I believe, since the parents aren’t around to keep an eye on things and also aren’t familiar with the parents of their kids’ peers.

Summer childcare in my area is easier for the younger kids.  There are multiple daycamp programs through non-profit agencies as well as through the local municipal governments, who hire college students to keep an eye on elementary aged kids at the local parks and pavilions.  But when the children enter middle school, they no longer qualify for many of those programs and are left to their own devices – precisely the worst possible time in life to have that happen to a child.  The result is that more than a few young teens – impulsive, sexually curious, some not a little gender-confused, and frankly feeling a bit abandoned – spend their time unmonitored with their peers in a weird, whacked stew of testosterone, estogen and other various hormones.  It’s a recipe that makes me, as a parent, more than a little nauseated and causes the same worry that weighed on my friend years ago.

So what options are there to help handle this?  They need to be able to spend time apart and learn to handle independence, much as many learn to drive a car with lessons, practice and guidance before they actually slide behind the wheel; as Kurtwood Smith remarked in a radio ad for the Masonic Youth Organization, De Molay:  you can’t just lock them in their room.

  • Expect some conflict and pushback as the kids chafe at the perceived tethers, not knowing that you really do want to lock them in their room.  Apart from the aggravation, what they say will give you a sense of what’s going through their head and where it’s coming from.
  • Be explicit about return times so that there’s little chance of confusion that escalates into real unpleasantry.
  • As I’m finding out with two teens and an elementary schooler, consider actually writing the times on a calendar or handy notepad so that you can keep it straight yourself and not appear to be the senile, doddering fool.  Kids can blow through multiple plan permutations in a heartbeat and think that you’ve approved plan G when you’re really still at their plan C because of conversation with another child who’s calculating plan D on his own.
  • Be clear on expectations about notice.  I understand – I remember – the freedom to go with buddies to the store for a soda or a magazine and I want them to have some latitude as well.  But if you’re going to someone’s house and end up elsewhere, please contact me just to provide a heads-up.  You’re there?  Fine, thanks for letting me know.  If there’s a glitch in the plan that might cause delay, then contact me so that we can sort things out.
  • Try to have a sense of what adults are around and if necessary, take a moment to pick up the phone and call the parent(s) and introduce yourself.  They’re likely to be relieved to hear that their own kid is spending time with someone whose own parent appears to give a damn. 
  • Pick the moments on when to speak about stuff that you’re hearing.  Teens will do goofy things and it’s probably not much different from your own youth.  If the teens are scrawling the word kar on their t-shirts and piggybacking one another through the Wendy’s drive-thru to order a Frosty, then hell, what are they hurting? 
  • Occasionally check on where they are when they say that they’re somewhere.  I won’t just drive to a location and search for them, but I have altered my driving route if already out just to see if they’re around.  Then I can mentally cross-reference that with what I’m hearing later when they’re home.
  • Don’t be afraid to challenge them if something doesn’t appear right or as it was supposed to be.  If you were with Steve tonight, why did he call here looking for you?  It’s certainly uncomfortable and potentially nasty, but the kids learn that you are paying attention and frankly, I believe that more than a few are relieved that you actually are paying attention.
  • Try to remember to take a few moments to go over anybody else’s plans and activities.  Teens are notoriously egocentric – like politicians, except that most teens grow up – and will sometimes forget that younger sibling has a championship baseball game or that Grandma’s coming to visit.  That way, you can both hammer out a plan that satisfies them, younger brother and Grandma without creating needless angst.
  • Grab any opportunity available to have the friends over so that you can meet them and make the place available, if at all possible, for sleepovers and get-togethers.
  • Share your concerns with them about kids and situations and if at all possible, try to be as specific as possible.  That kid is trouble!  will probably engender feelings of loyalty from your own kid while specific circumstances and events, if you can enumerate them, helps your child delineate why that kid really is trouble.

This is going to be an ongoing exercise that will certainly test our – and our kids’ – patience as we work through what’s acceptable and find common ground.  There have already been tense moments and each side has had to apologize to the other for testiness, and I anticipate that there will be more until they are finally on their own two feet.

And honestly, the piggybacking at Wendy’s sounds like fun. 





“Part of Me Thinks That We Should Just Default…”

The title quote is from a college student that I’ve known since his elementary school years and encapsulates what I think that many are now starting to think.  Ron Paul just opined about the possibility and it’s making the rounds of the internet.  Just default and let’s get this over with.  Now.  But what precisely is meant by default on August 2?

Let’s consider this from a micro level, the level at which millions are operating when they have to decide whether to pay the mortgage, buy food, or continue to provide the electric and gas for the everyday life.  The United States Government is about to get a glimpse of life for the average Joe and Jane who are struggling to make ends meet since they had their jobs outsourced to China and India, and judging by the verbiage, they are terrified.

Good.  The members of the Congress and Executive Branch deserve to be scared.

First, there is still money flowing into the federal household but with the way that the bills and payments are hitting, there’s going to be a cash shortfall.  The federal household has a large amount of less-liquid assets – Rolexes, fine china and a monster set of exercise equipment – but there’s no longer any federal money market account on which to rely and the emergency fund is exhausted.  They could sell the assets but anybody who recognized the need would take it for too great a discount and besides, it would both take too long as well as look bad.  And if we got rid of all of the land that Great Uncle Teddy left us, it would be a tragedy.  The creditors have continued to provide credit since the payments have been made to date but come August 2, the minimum payment due will fall on the same day that the cash flow is negative and all of the other bills are due.  Barry and John have bickered and argued, yelling epithets at one another as they bang on the granite countertops and tossed the occasional cup of Starbucks at one another.  So if there’s still some money available but a raft of bills, what to do?

Make a priority list of what has to be paid and then work through the various permutations.  Let’s see, now.  The parents exhausted their savings on educating us and we’ve got to help them each month with a monthly stipend.  The kids have all of their various activities as well as the stuff that we have to provide for them, such as food, shelter and the medicine cabinet full of medications.  There are the multiple club memberships, dues and charities which we support and God knows that some good comes from that.  Don’t forget the security that we pay for since the neighborhood has gotten a bit rougher and seedier; we need to have access to strong security.  So how do we cut? 

In the real world of repo’d cars, terminated utilities and food stamps, people would at one time have considered missing some credit payments.  But the cash flow is so weak and the choices so stark, that more people are unwilling to let the credit go.  The business community has noted for the first time that folks will willingly let go of the mortgage while continuing to pay the monthly credit card bill and it’s recently reported by a Data collection agency that more of the monthly revolving credit – nearing 10% – to pay for necessities instead of discretionary items.  But like Frank Herbert’s Planet Arakis, the spice must flow and people now believe that credit must flow as well.  What does happen if we miss the revolving credit payment?

We’ll certainly get a nasty letter and probably a phone call from the bank since we missed.  The tone and content of the discussion will be ugly and it’s going to be embarrassing in the extreme.  The bank in turn depends on us for it’s own asset quality and dividends to large number of investors, but we’ve never missed a payment until now and besides, what else is out there in the world of credit quality?  No, we’re safe in our own house and the security devices and service will keep us from being evicted.  But what will happen is that our interest rates will go up appreciably since the bank is going to ratchet up the pressure on us; after all, it’s not like there are a lot of solid creditors around nowadays, either.  The value of our intangible assets will also take a massive hit so that our good name and reputation are sullied in the eyes of everyone else that could provide credit for us and with no new income streams – it’s not like royalties manufacture new income streams – our cost of borrowing there will also go up and do so significantly.  The impact upon our neighbors will also be considerable since everybody has depended upon our spending to keep themselves in relatively decent shape – the domestic help, the coffee shop and don’t forget the personal chef.  Net basis, we can get through but we’re going to finally have to make some decisions about how we allocate money to the creditors, our parents and the kids.  Otherwise, if we stiff the creditors again, they’ll truly cut off the funds and we’ll be screwed.  As ugly as it is, what else is there to force us to make the decisions that must be made?

That’s an idea of what goes on at the personal level and there’s acknowledgement that the Federal Reserve is working with the Treasury Department to likewise determine what the priorities are and whose check is honored when the default arrives.  But what interests me most is the order of priority and which payments are honored.  Do our servicemen receive their pay and will the elderly continue to receive their benefits?  Will our 45 million recipients of SNAP benefits be able to continue purchasing food?  Or will the foreign creditors be paid at the expense of the citizenry?  Talk is ultimately cheap and it’s these actions that will indicate what the politicians truly believe and hold most dear.  What do we owe each of our constituent groups – foreign and domestic?  What else will finally force us to make the choices?

When Middle child and I spoke of this earlier this evening, I remarked that no matter what happened, the sun would rise and set and we’d manage to continue having food upon the table.  What I didn’t say was that if we didn’t default and finally deal with the issues, we’d probably have food on the table but it was increasingly unlikely that he’d be able to put food on the table for his own unborn children.

Do Parents Belong at Rock Concerts?

One of the touted punk rock events is the annual Vans Warped Tour, which travels from city to city with a line up of dozens of bands.  While  I enjoyed the occasional show in my youth, it’s different when you bring the kids.  The music is stunningly loud and the crush in the pit up front tight enough that I’m content to sit in the back and actually enjoy some of the music while I read.  Or write, for that matter.  But does a middle aged man even have a place amongst this hip venue?  Exactly what the hell am I even doing here?

First, let me provide a background.  This particular event – tickets purchased almost a half year in advance – is a peace offering to Middle.  While I was gone for a weekend with Eldest and her peers, Middle entered an online radio station contest using my name, since I’m technically an adult.  He informed my wife, who approved, but neither actually informed me.  (Un)fortunately, he won the prizes and the station manager rapidly understood that it was a  minor’s entry when he called me days later to congratulate me on a win about which I was utterly baffled.  Whe he asked about the age of the actual entrant, I told him the truth. 

Two lessons for future use, son:  first, tell me if you ever use my name and ask permission first;  second, don’t expect me to lie for you.

I still felt terrible since he missed an opportunity to meet the members of ‘Avenged Sevenfold’ and receive an electric guitar signed by the band.  Even my wife was appalled at my inability to cope with the phone call and seize the prize.  Hence, the concert.

But shouldn’t teens go to concerts themselves?  Isn’t that part of the experience?  Frankly, no.

  • The event occurred across state lines in a city in which Eldest, who drove, has never been.  Middle doesn’t have the navigational skills yet and I saw no value in sending two teen minors through major metropolitan rush hour traffic enroute to a concert.  Eldest still drove, but I handled the navigational and color commentary duties and given the afternoon parking lot on the expressway, I’m glad that I went.
  • This is a full-blown rock concert and there are all manner of teens – and adults – there and not all of them give a rat’s ass about someone else.  We’ve tried to raise the kids with both the expectation of considering consequences as well as acting in a moral and civilized manner.  The unfortunate reality is that a substantial number of kids and young adults haven’t been taught the same thing and I’ve witnessed circumstances in which behavior regresses to a Lord of the Flies level.  If this is their first experience, then I want to at least be in the background to keep tabs on things. 
  • I’m continally curious about the teen/young adult scene and what’s occurring there.  The more information and experience that I have, the better that I’m able to assess what’s going on.
  • Stupidity is contagious and teens whose hormones and judgment are affected by ear-bleeding rock music are especially susceptible to catching it.  If you’re not certain, you can ask a kid who comes in one evening with green hair.  Hey, they said that they’d done it before.  What could go wrong?
  • Taking them isn’t the same as being with them the entire time.  They brought along a friend and I simply arranged to meet them at periodic intervals, letting them experience the music and event. 

Right.  ‘Nuff said.

Finally, some of the music is actually good and I’ve now got several tunes that I’ll be buying for the mp3 player.  It wouldn’t happen if I were still listening to the "Greatest Hits of My Life" format, so I’ll find my spot with the other parents in the back and sit back swilling the $3 bottled water. 

Middle Class: It’s NOT the Economy…

There’s been much written on the decline of the American Middle Class, facing it’s worst time perhaps since the Great Depression.  The statistics point out falling income, insufficient assets to support the classic American notion of ‘retirement’ and a significant number of people who owe more on their house – their largest asset – than it could ever possibly again be worth.  But while everyone is focusing on the economic aspects, as though the number of bedrooms is paramount, what’s being overlooked is that the true danger to the American middle class lies in the political realm.  It’s a misdirection that has to be corrected since we’ve long ago crossed from the purely economic into the political realm and I’m not certain that many realize that fact.  The protests in Greece and Spain demonstrate that there comes a point at which the consequences of ‘economic’ decisions are addressed in a purely political manner as the governments in power attempt to fend off the masses to continue in power.

One of the criticisms of the economics profession is that economists have tried to wrap a soft, inexact science in a hard science shell.  Economics is at its heart the determination of how resources are allocated and used to the best effect; this is itself a political question as perceptions and emotions come into play as much as pure numbers.  This packaging however, has carried over into today’s society in general as the news programs spend their time throwing numbers around, mesmerizing the audience with the sheer volume of information.  Certainly, if we can track this data and put it into neat numeric formats, then there must be a rational and easily obtainable answer, as though juggling the various economic variables were the same as adjusting recipe ingredients for Chef Ramsey.

Today’s American economy is notable by the disproportionate size of the financial sector and huge federal deficits, incurred to help the Too-Big-To-Fail financial institutions from their self-inflicted injuries.  These injuries didn’t arise from economic circumstances, but actually from political actions that backfired.

  • Excessive and unmonitored risks were taken by these commercial and investment banks because no one was paying attention to them.  No one paid attention to them because of a political action, the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act, which had successfully regulated the financial services industry after the last debacle of the Great Depression.
  • The repeal of Glass-Steagall was made possible by massive campaign contributions to Congress from the financial services industry, a political activity which hasn’t been satisfactorily regulated since God alone knows when.  What’s infuriating is that at this juncture, corporate campaign contributions can’t be successfully limited because the Supreme Court has ruled that it infringes upon their right to free speech.
  • Much of the job loss that’s plagued us is attributable to a blind, single-minded devotion to free trade regardless of the trade policies of the other nations, whose own policies might permit dumping, currency-pegging and inhumane working conditions.  This is mandated in political treaties which coincide with the economic theories that spawn them.
  • The economic response to the 2008 collapse of Lehman and the near collapse of the economic system was the passage of TARP, a purely political act.    This unpopular act occurred despite widespread civic opposition and with the additional input from the Treasury Secretary – a financial/economic personage – that failure to pass the legislation would probably result in widespread civil unrest and the imposition of martial law, a completely political act.
  • There has been significant evidence provided that the federal government and the Federal Reserve are involved to some extent in the actions of the equity markets, a purely political act to maintain a semblance of normalcy for the general public.

The effect of these, and other, political acts is to move the government from regulator for the common good to that of co-conspirator with a corrupted and self-serving minority and this is probably the greatest threat to the American Middle Class instead of falling wages and job losses.  The strength of the American Experience has arisen from a shared sense of common values, as laughable as that might seem to certain cynics.  These values include hard work, collective honesty and most importantly, a respect and belief in the rule of law.  For all of its flaws, there had been a common belief that the Constitution and Bill of Rights were the mainstay of the nation and that the laws were generally just and would ultimately win out to the benefit of the whole.

  • When corporations are found to have broken the law and the penalty is a mere fraction of the illegal proceeds with no other correction to the offenders, the common values are destroyed.
  • When banks are found to undermine ancient common law principles by wholesale forging of foreclosure documents, attesting to the veracity of information that they know to be wrong, the common values are destroyed.
  • When banks are found to further undermine the law by subverting the role of the notary public – having employees sign the signature of someone who’s dead – and with no meaningful legal response, the common values are destroyed.
  • When companies and firms betray their fiduciary interest, face-ripping clients and misdirecting innocents into needlessly risky investments, the common values are destroyed.
  • When the government is seen to act as enabler to these same companies and individuals, refusing to let them pay the penalty for their actions, the common values are destroyed.
  • When the President and Speaker of the House are seen to be playing golf while the government is mired in budgetary and debt morass, the common values are destroyed.
  • When two parents work multiple jobs to provide basics for their children while millions are paid out to corporate executives as the payoff for failed plans and lost jobs, the common values are destroyed.
  • When a father has to explain to his child why his refusal to do something just because everyone else is doing it isn’t dumb, the common values are destroyed.

I’ve resigned myself to the fact that this country is going to face economic turmoil, unseen since the days of the Great Depression.  I’ve worked to teach the kids real world lessons about money, credit and values to prepare them for their future in a world with much greater competition and fewer resources.  But I will not resign myself to the notion that my children – and all of their friends, classmates and peers – are condemned to live as second class citizens serving as debt serfs to the benefit of a privileged few.

That does not come as the result of economic actions, but political ones.  The work now will be to relearn what was once known amongst our forebears, but since forgotten.



Practicing Austerity at Home

With the news of political unrest and potential default in Greece swirling around our own trip to Greece, it was impossible to not have conversation some of the austerity measures being considered by their government.  According to an article in the International Herald Tribune, some of the measures being proposed include:

  • "Solidarity" tax of 1 – 5% on all households to help defray the debt payments;
  • Increased excise taxes on such items as gasoline, tobacco and alcohol;
  • Special levies on on high-value properties and high-income individuals;
  • Increased mandatory retirement age;
  • Decreased educational and healthcare spending;
  • Cutting of temporary contracts by government;
  • Sales of public infrastructure to the highest bidder, which you should read as foreign highest bidder.

Given our tendency to chat with the locals, we got an earful of what it actually entails to average Greeks and we made it a point of sharing that with the kids.  They have to have a sense of what’s coming down the pike since their generation will have to contend with the lion’s share of the clean-up work.

It’s also important to discuss austerity because we’re now having to practice some of our own to pay off the bills from the trip itself.  We’d saved for more than two years to pay for the trip and the airfare and most lodging was already paid off, but that didn’t count a fair amount of food and incidental spending and when I viewed the amount charged online, I winced.  While I intellectually understood the exchange rate of $1.42 to the Euro, it was a different prospect to see how that translated to actual dollars on the statement.  Likewise, I wasn’t prepared for the foreign transaction fee charged by the card company for each transaction that occurred overseas and the cumulative result was sobering.

We’ve now decided to practice austerity at home while the outstanding bills are brought back to earth and this has been made clear to the kids.  For instance:

  • Youngest is now playing a midsummer baseball tournament and instead of spending money on bottled water at the concession stand, we’re making sure that we take a half dozen bottles in a cooler;
  • Any requests for money by the kids are now met by the comment about Europe and the question of whether I’ve been repaid on the time that’s owed me for the backyard project and that’s managed to squelch several requests;
  • Greater attention is being paid to the home cooking and restaurant meals are now out of the picture.

The bills aren’t overwhelming, while shocking, and nobody’s going to lose their home over it.  But while my mother always repeated gotta pay the mortgage first during my childhood, now I can simply say Europe and the same message will be understood.

PracticalDad Price Index:  July’s Food Prices Up, But Moderating

After a torrid June increase in the cost of the grocery retail marketbasket, July’s survey continued to show an increase but the pace was less than the previous month.  The average cost of the 47 item marketbasket rose to $185.00 from June’s $184.07; the PracticalDad Index has risen to 103.71 and the three month moving average is now at 102.99.  In other words, the cost of the basket is 3.7% higher than the survey’s inception in November, 2010.

Unlike previous months, canola oil and coffee were unchanged and far fewer items underwent price increases than in June.  The principal increases were for hot dogs (5.1%), flour (5.2%) and potatoes (8.3%).  


Go figure, because I haven’t got a clue as to why, either. 

For the record, July’s survey was done one week later in the month than the other months due to travel.  The monthly index results, and the moving average are as follows:


PracticalDad Price Index Cumulative Monthly Results
Month $ Avg Index 3 M Moving Avg
Nov 2010 178.39 100  
Dec 2010 180.30 101.07  
Jan 2011 179.51 100.63 100.56
Feb 2011 179.50 100.63 100.78
Mar 2011 180.51 101.08 100.78
Apr 2011 181.91 101.97 101.56
May 2011 182.10 102.08 101.71
Jun 2011 184.07 103.18 102.38
Jul 2011 185.00 103.71 102.99












PracticalDad Price Index – July 2011

Item Size Category 5/11 6/11 7/11
hot dog rolls (ct) 8 bread 1.18 1.18 1.20
loaf, wht bread, store brand (oz) 20 bread 1.22 1.22 1.22
spaghetti, store brand (oz) 16 bread 1.21 1.21 1.21
child cereal, sugar flakes, store brand (oz) 17 cereal 2.90 2.90 2.90
cereal, rice chex, store brand (oz) 12.8 cereal 2.74 2.74 2.74
oatmeal, one minute, store brand (oz) 42 cereal 3.21 3.24 3.26
milk, 2% (gallon) 1 dairy 3.68 3.89 3.98
butter, unsalted, store brand (lb) 1 dairy 3.49 3.49 3.49
vanilla ice crea, store brand (qt) 1 dairy 2.01 2.01 2.01
grated parmesan cheese, store brand (oz) 8 dairy 3.08 3.08 3.08
American cheese, deli (lb) 1 dairy 5.52 5.52 5.52
peanut butter, store brand (oz) 28 grocery 2.96 2.96 2.96
grape jelly, store brand (oz) 32 grocery 1.82 1.92 1.92
kidney beans, dark, store brand (oz) 15.5 grocery .87 .87 .87
can green peas, store brand (oz) 15 grocery .92 .92 .94
can diced tomatoes, store brand (oz) 14.5 grocery .94 1.01 1.01
can cut green beans, store brand (oz) 14.5 grocery .91 .92 .94
can corn, store brand (oz) 15.25 grocery .92 .92 .94
spaghetti sauce, store brand (oz) 26 grocery 1.13 1.22 1.22
cola, store brand (L) 2 grocery .92 .96 .96
caffeinated coffee, store brand (oz) 13 grocery 4.15 4.15 4.15
diapers, store brand (ct) 100 hlth/bty 17.82 18.28 18.63
formula, Enfamil Premium, Lipil (oz) 23.4 hlth/bty 22.94 22.94 22.94
child ibuprofen, OS, store brand (oz) 4 hlth/bty 4.96 4.96 4.99
adult ibuprofen, caplet, store brand (ct) 100 hlth/bty 6.72 6.89 6.89
shampoo, Suave (oz) 22.5 hlth/bty 1.71 1.71 1.71
pads, long/maximum, Poise (ct) 42 hlth/bty 16.09 16.09 16.09
bath soap, Dial (ct) 8 hlth/bty 5.39 5.39 5.39
aluminum foil, store brand (sq ft) 75 hshld 2.97 2.97 2.97
kitchen trash bags, store brand (ct) 26 hshld 3.76 4.24  4.16 
paper towels, 2 ply, store brand (ct)  hshld  7.26  7.26  7.26 
hot dogs, meat franks, store brand (oz)  16  meat  2.56  2.56  2.69 
ground beef, 80% lean (lb)  meat  3.39  3.39  3.46 
eggs, large (doz)  meat  1.84  1.69  1.81 
lunchmeat, deli ham, chopped (lb)  meat  4.06  4.06  4.06 
chicken, roaster (lb)  meat  1.59  1.59  1.56 
fish sticks, Gortons (ct)  44  meat  7.86  7.86  7.66 
tuna, water packed, store brand (oz)  meat  .78  .81  .81 
bananas (lb)  produce  .59  .59  .59 
apples, Red Delicious, bag (lb)  produce  3.76  3.76  3.76 
carrots, bag (lb)  produce  2.39  2.39  2.39 
OJ, non-concentrate, store brand (oz)  64  produce  2.76  2.76  2.76 
potatoes, Russet (lb)  produce  3.99  3.99  4.32 
sugar, store brand (lb)  staple  3.22  3.22  3.22 
flour, All-Purpose, store brand (lb)  staple  1.99  2.09  2.20 
canola oil, store brand (oz)  48  staple  4.29  4.52  4.46 
rice, white, long-grain, store brand (lb)  staple  1.63  1.73  1.73 
                       Total      182.10  184.07  185.00 

































PracticalDad:  Syntagma Square – Weighing the Risks, Taking the Kids

When you’ve planned and saved for more than two years for a "once-in-a-lifetime" family vacation, you want everything to go off and it was no different for the recent vacation to Italy and Greece, aka The PIGS Tour.  But the latter part of the trip involved several days in Athens and it was while we were in Rome that global news caught and showed footage of the rioting in Athens’ Syntagma Square, outside of the Greek parliament and we were left wondering – well, me actually – at what point we pull the plug on the latter portion.  With two teens and a child, precisely when does it become unsafe to travel there?  Even if it’s physically safe, is it justifiable to take the kids to see a politically polarized site during what’s supposed to be a "get away from it all" experience?

If you’ve been out of town for awhile, the nightly protests in Syntagma Square are the public’s response to multiple factors, mostly the Parliament’s move to adopt painful austerity measures in order to obtain the next portion of the European bailout money to the tune of about 15 Billion Euros.  In this case, the Parliament voted to adopt the measures while we were in Italy and it was during this time that things spiraled out of control for an evening.  Although we left our computers and most of the cellphones at home, I still took a few moments on hotel computers to check the State Department website and find out if there was any travel warning, which there wasn’t.  Our tour guide, a multi-lingual German woman, called a colleague in Greece and passed along that any issues were localized solely to the Syntagma Square vicinity; the remainder of Athens and the rest of Greece weren’t experiencing unrest.  The final point was a review of our travel insurance policy.  We discovered that the policy doesn’t cover changes due to civil unrest and we would not be reimbursed for the prepaid costs of hotel/flight should we choose to dump any part of the Greek segment.  Fortunately for us however, it did reimburse us for the cost of emergency evacuation.  Great.  I’ll get back the 15000 Euros that I had to put on the credit card for the taxi to the airport evacuation site…Given all the factors, we were in for the trip and fortunately for us, things had calmed down by the time we were to leave for Athens.

The ride from the airport to our hotel took more than a half hour and we talked with our driver, an engaging middle-aged Greek gentleman, who explained some of the average Greek’s perspective of the economic difficulties.  The politicians from both parties have had 40 years to screw things up and they’ve succeeded.  The demonstrations are the work of the communists, damn them.  We’re screwed…When my wife inquired about finding a decent taverna where the locals eat, he directed us to a city section called Plaka, one of the earliest residential sections of modern Athens and located immediately at the base of the Acropolis plateau;  he stated that we could find any number of decent restaurants there without all of the tourist schtick.  After we checked in and unloaded our bags, we studied the map and found that Plaka was perhaps 1.5 km due west and immediately on the other side of…Syntagma Square.  Since it was still in the mid-afternoon, and the cabdrivers were on strike that day, we thought to hell with it and hoofed it westwards.

The square itself was anticlimactic at that hour of the day.  We walked west along Leoforos Vasilissis Sofia, a main thoroughfare notable by some museums, an embassy and attractive apartment buildings and we only became aware that the square was coming up by the increasing presence of one or two policemen, with another carrying a submachine gun another block ahead.  In the distance, a block away from the square was a dark blue school bus that had carried in the riot squads, who were clustered along the fence of the National Gardens as they kibbitzed and smoked.  At the corner with Leoforos Vasillis Amalias, on the left,  was the Parliament building with the Memorial to the Unknown Greek Soldier on the side facing Amalias.  Across Amalias from the tomb was Syntagma Square, notable by the number of banners and posters hanging up.  The great majority of these signs were in Cyrillic and a handful of early protestors milled around as though they were awaiting the opening gate for a concert, chatting and smoking as well.  When a handful sitting nearby did start a chant, a cellphone would ring and one of the chanters would answer it and sit down to chat with the chant dying away.  We continued through the square and as I started to doubt the big deal, we passed another building whose front window had been shattered, apparently by a brick.  Other buildings suffered minor damage such as graffiti and cracked windows, but these became fewer and farther between as we moved away from the square.  Our after-dinner return was much closer to when things began and it was at this point that we saw the street between the square and the Parliament cordoned off to traffic as the number of protestors had swelled.  Ahead of us was a shoulder-to-shoulder line of several dozen protestors, each of whom was wearing a plain mask, albeit not the Guy Fawkes mask from the movie V For Vendetta.  As it turned out, they were lined up for a photo op and when the photographer was finished, they removed their masks and dispersed in knots and it was then that I realized that some of the protestors were actually children, some younger than my youngest child. 

When we asked a protestor what was being yelled, the laconic response was they’re yelling against the government and he then simply walked away.  Two young policemen on the corner, dressed in simple outfits and leaning on plexiglass riot shields, were more talkative and explained some of what we were seeing.  The protestors began to arrive in greater numbers at about 6 PM and they would finally disperse around 5 AM and excepting the televised coverage, the crowds had been peaceful for the remainder of the nights.  As we spoke, they went on to say that while the riot troops were available in case of problems, they were generally out of eyesight so as to not provoke additional difficulties and their own job was to assure that some order was maintained.  Honestly, the cops were friendlier and more talkative than the protestors as we had further conversations with the riot police further up the block; one of them even joked with Youngest, who was a bit uncomfortable in the presence of real automatic weapons.  It was a very different proposition to see a fully operational submachine than the Nerf and virtual weapons wielded while playing online and with friends.  The remainder of the hike back was uneventful, apart from seeing a sandbag gun emplacement hidden behind the trees of the National Gardens, and when the next morning rolled around, there was no second thought about safety and we again returned to that vicinity. 

For all of the talk and news coverage, it really was a non-event and honestly something that I’m glad that the kids got to see.  There was serious discussion about what’s causing the unrest and I’m gratified that when we spoke with Greeks, all three listened.  One of my personal goals for the trip was to help the kids understand that there’s far more out there than what they see in smalltown America.  Likewise, they need to see that there is such a thing as non-violent protest as average people vent their anger at those in power when the standard channels become uselessly dysfunctional.  Because when push comes to shove, my fear is akin to the old saying:  As we once were, you are now.  As we are now, you will become. 



PracticalDad: Lessons Learned from Traveling Overseas

After more than two weeks of traveling throughout Italy and Greece – a long-planned and saved-for trip – we’re back and I’ve tallied some of the practical lessons that I learned from traveling overseas with kids.

  • Learn about the tipping culture in other countries.  We’re used to American wait staff working for pittance wages and making up the difference in tips and we consequently tip well so that the folks can hopefully make a decent wage.  What we didn’t learn until the third day in Italy was that European wait staff draws a regular wage and a tip is appreciated for very good service, but not expected, and about 10% is par for very good service.  With the cost of a meal in a decent European restaurant, three Italian waiters made their nut in one fell swoop and they are now lighting votive candles to the patron saint of wait staff in our honor.
  • Even if the kids are a bit older, and our youngest will be entering fourth grade, pay particular attention to where they are since the crowds can be simply overwhelming.  Take proactive measures, such as dressing the kids in identical brightly colored shirts or hats, wearing your own piece of distinctive clothing to stand out in a crowd, assuring that the kids know in what hotel they’re staying so that they can tell police, and having a rally point in the event they realize that they’re separated.  In our case, Youngest was separated three times – and honestly, none were due to his wandering – but in each instance, he used his head and stayed put instead of panicking and wandering.  Thank God that he’s the one with the strong streak of common sense.  Even when the kids are older, you have to maintain some vigilance since teens are insular and many aren’t used to paying attention to what’s occurring around them.
  • If the kids are old enough – and you can afford it – they’ll want their own room to share and that’s honestly a good thing since they will make you nuts.  However, they need to know that the “small sink in the bathroom” is actually called a bidet and isn’t used for washing feet.  Editorial note:  they weren’t my kids, thank God.
  • Even if you’re nervous, take the time to try the local life and that includes riding the local transportation.  Knowing how to figure out the local subway system is a good exercise in reading and deciphering maps, as is finding the local laundromat.  Spend time with the map and then do your best, sharing the mistakes with the kids as they occur.  It takes more time than just doing it yourself, but the kids need to learn and that’s simply a part of being a father.
  • If at all possible, have some ground rules on souvenir spending.  In our case, each kid decided what he or she wanted to spend and if any additional spending was needed after their funds were exhausted, then they could either pass on it or borrow the money and pay it off on the backyard project at $5/hour.  Two of the three kids now owe me hours and one steadfastly refused to spend anything as he’s saving for an electric guitar.  The second part of our souvenir spending is that the kid can buy anything with their own money, but if he has to borrow, then it has to be on something that is endemic to the place; I can always buy a fedora in the US but not something that’s italian or greek made.
  • Be ready for an extended period at breakfast. Young children and preteens will generally awaken earlier than teenagers and if there’s no press, then let the kids make their way down on their own.  That said, I will graze through breakfast like a hobbit, sitting down first with the younger one and then sitting down again for second breakfast at tensies with the teens.  While my own intake is less, it still makes for a pudgy hobbit-like father.

The last lesson for now is that it can take days for a youngster’s body clock to get back into synch.  I started the notes for this article at 4 AM this morning when I awoke and was then joined by Youngest at 615 AM.  It’s now going on 1030 at night and my own case of jet lag is kicking in viciously.  The day has been one of cleaning and unpacking, writing and riding herd on the occasionally cranky youngsters and it’s now time for the hobbit father to turn in for tomorrow’s tensies with the Eldest.