A Father’s Wonder

Childhood is a time of wonder, but that childhood doesn’t have to be your own.  Fathers also have a sense of wonderment as they look at their children.

We wonder how many diapers we’ll have to change before our precious is finally potty-trained (for the record, I’ve done rough calculations and I’ve legitimately changed more than 10000 of ’em).

We wonder how our mates can be so involved in pre-baby planning items that leave us slackjawed and glassy-eyed.

We wonder how much stuff can fit in one small diaper.

We wonder how many times Junior can watch the same episode of Spongebob and still laugh.

We wonder how often we can seek out the source of a noise without having a minor stroke.

We wonder if there’s truth to the old saying that God protects small children, drunks and the United States.

We wonder if we can again figure out, let alone explain, the math that’s being presented to us for help by our children (I signed off on Eldest’s homework when she hit 10th grade).

We wonder how much food one boy can possibly eat in the course of a day, and we marvel at how sparse is the refrigerator at our own elderly parents house (assuming that income isn’t forcing them to choose between food and medicine).

We wonder about the source of these gifts that each child has (I was a lousy athlete and musician, unlike my own three).

We wonder, as we look at our babies, what they’ll look like at different ages and as adults (if you have an infant, make yourself a promise to purposefully look again at their sixteenth and eighteenth birthdays).

We wonder, as we look at our children, on their sixteenth and eighteenth birthdays, where the time went.

We wonder…





A Pox on the College Graduates

I wish somebody had told me I couldn’t get a job with a degree in Western Civ.

                   – Travis, American expatriate tour guide in Rome, 2011

A recent article on poor employment prospects of young college graduates in USA Today demonstrates the miserable situation in which the kids are finding themselves.  Fully 53% of the college graduates under 25 are either unemployed or underemployed and there are now more job prospects for retail than engineering and with the majority of graduates laboring under some degree of student debt, people are finally realizing the systemic pox that has been placed upon their house.

This isn’t the first time that the prospects have been dim for college graduates.  I graduated college in the early ’80s and had a drawer full of rejection letters in a fruitless quest for employment; my first real job – which permitted me the financial independence to set up my own household – didn’t come along for more than another year.  But, apart from a starry dream to begin mining asteroids, does our economy have the potential to create sustainable job prospects for all of these youngsters?  With children growing and already aware that some form of higher education is important for their long-term prospects, what should I keep in mind?

  • First, that kids will receive all manner of commentary and advice from the surrounding media – usually with a pricetag attached – so it’s important for me to keep talking.  The italicized comment was made to us by a young American expatriate working in Rome as a tour guide; he’d graduated from a California university about four years ago with a BA degree in Western Civilization and was unemployed here in the states.  He showed considerable courage and creativity by taking his show on the road to what he termed the cradle of western civilization and was building a life for himself.  It’s possible that his parents did tell him about the immediate employability of a Western Civ degree and he was too stubborn or zoned out to pay attention to it but I’ve seen multiple cases first hand in which the parents are saying nothing on the premise that the kid has reached adulthood and has to make his own decisions now.  The kid might now be an adult and responsible for her own decisions, but it’s still imperative that I at least provide some commentary so that it’s an informed decision and fully in her best interest.
  • Second, understand that what works for one child might not work for another.  Eldest’s strengths lend themselves to the academic route and there’s enough scholarship – with savings – to get her through without debt.  Middle has a radically different toolbox and isn’t equipped for that route, so perhaps the advice offered by economist Richard Freeman, If you’re not sure what you’re going to be doing, it probably bodes well to take some job, if you can get one, and get a sense first of what you want from college.  It’s several more years until he’s faced with the decision, but the route that he takes might not be the one taken by his sister.
  • Third, if there is a need to use debt to finance college, be sure that you’re part of the process and walk through the payment obligations with your kid.  As mindful of the college debt as I am, I try to remember that debt is as much of a tool as a hammer or a screwdriver.  One of the non-systemic issues is that with many people, they treat it as the only tool in the box so that they’re hammering when they should be trying a screwdriver instead.  If it truly takes some debt, then at least walk through the repayment obligations so that there’s an understanding of what the future bill is going to be.
  • Fourth, reinforce the lesson that the present system isn’t truly built to service humanity but the other way around.  You truly need an education and we’ll help you get it!  Don’t worry, your job prospects will increase and it won’t be a problem to repay it… The old axiom applies:  if you’re sitting at the table and don’t know who the sucker is, it’s you.

If this were a truly cyclical situation, then my response to Eldest would be to hunker down and it will work out in the end.  But I believe, as do many others, that this isn’t the typical job cycle and it’s incumbent upon my wife and I to pay close attention to her college choices so that she doesn’t wind up an expatriate in Rome or drilling for ores on some asteroid.



Stealth Inflation Continues…

Recent grocery trips continue to demonstrate how the purchasing power of the middle class is eaten away as prices remain constant while packaging changes.

My wife came home recently with a full grocery load and commented that she’d felt taken since the spaghetti that she’d bought on sale was actually now packaged in a 12 ounce box instead of the standard 16 ounce container.  The grocer and producer ostensibly held the sale to camoflage the price increase; most people don’t take the time to record prices and wouldn’t catch on that such a product change had been made.  The effect is that someone can look at something and swear that they’d paid less for it before, but couldn’t certify that that was indeed the case. 

A similar comment was made this week as brand name mayonnaise was purchased on sale with the subsequent realization that product came in a 30 ounce jar instead of the previous 32 ounce jar.  The sense now is that when we see products sold at strong sale prices, there’s a decent likelihood that the product will undergo a size decrease. 

Another factor that impacts the price is the quality and availability of the component ingredients, such as the "pink slime" that’s been added for years to ground meat.  With the recent controversy about the quality and safety of the meat byproduct, more grocers are announcing that they’ll no longer be including the substance in their ground beef product.  The same week that Supervalu and Safeway announced that they’d no longer include the byproduct, two regional chains that service our area also announced that their ground beef wouldn’t have the filler.  Note that these two chains are part of the three store price index that I’ve followed since November 2010.  A month prior to the announcement, in February 2012, these two stores showed significant increases in the price of their 80% lean ground beef and the local store didn’t have the 80% lean for sale at all.  The new, higher price is still in effect – duh – but the local store still doesn’t have the 80% lean on the shelf. 

The upshot is that another of the factors is the value upon which we place the quality of our food.  If we truly want safe food, then there’s going to be a premium that will have to be paid to ensure that the food is safe for consumption.

The Band, Elwood, The Band


The band, Elwood, the band!

                  – Jake Blues, the Blues Brothers

Children are not little adults, but as they become adults, they’ll find their own interests and tastes.  If my job is to support them – whether financially, logistically, emotionally and morally – then that means that I’m going to become familiar with topics and activities with which I’m familiar.  We fathers will be forced outside of our comfort zones as fathers who played baseball purchase The Idiot’s Guide to Soccer and hunters become conversant with music and theatre.  In my own case, Middle’s sudden entry into the world of garage bands means that I’m so far out of my own zone that I need a compass and Sherpa guide to find my way back.  What are some things that I’ve had to learn in this situation?

The first thing that I’ve had to realize is that a garage band involves not only the household, it involves the entire neighborhood.  Even with the garage door down, amps and speakers are loud enough that the sound is only muted as it rolls down the street.  Even at the outset, when we imposed curfews on practice times to spare neighbors with small children, the comments were such that we moved the band into the basement.  I was surprised that the boys actually listened as the situation developed and while the location is less than perfect for them, they’re just happy to have a regular place to practice.

What can be done to minimize the damage to the ears of practicing in an enclosed area?  Early rock-and-rollers are notoriously deaf and it’s our desire to see that this doesn’t happen here, so finding earplugs are a necessity; stressing that they be worn – which Middle hasn’t opposed thankfully – is also incumbent.  Fortunately, I haven’t had to threaten to interrupt practice to perform ear inspections to assure that they’re being worn.

What is the language being used?  Lyrics can be famously profane and it’s been made clear from one infraction that cursing won’t be allowed.  I’m fortunate in that their preference is punk and not "screamo", in which case I couldn’t tell the difference between the Catholic liturgy and a string of Howard Stern’s rants; to date, there’s only been one instance of having to say something for inappropriate language. 

How are the logistics being handled, especially in terms of moving equipment?  None of these kids have licenses and if there are gigs – and there are two already lined up – then the odds are that one or more of the fathers are going to add roadie to our job responsibilities.  Even if the equipment isn’t being moved, then how are kids getting home and are any of them staying for dinner?  Teens are notoriously horrendous planners and it’s reached the point that if I know that there’s going to be a practice, then I’m simply cooking for the band as well as the family.  These are the days that work best for crockpot meals.

When the kids "plan" these sessions, are they on days when there’s a certifiable adult in the household?  We’ve been adamant that either my wife or I be present and when Middle protested vigorously, quoting the teen battle cry of what could go wrong? I responded that with the presence of several teenage boys, I could return home to find a smoking crater where our house used to be.

These are only the first of the lessons that will arise from this new endeavor.  As one father commented to me last weekend, wait until they start bickering.




PracticalDad:  Staying for the Practice?

You’re pressed for time and the kid has a sports practice.  That’s at least an hour or more that you can use to run an errand or go home and clean up the kitchen, assuming that the practice is nearby.  Do you stay for the practice or do you leave the kid there and get the other stuff done?  What could go wrong?  That’s the question that I asked myself tonight and about a minute before I was going to leave to handle another item, Youngest caught a pitched baseball in his windpipe, providing me with about five solid seconds of pure terror as he struggled to regain his breath.  After a few minutes of gasping and gagging, he was able to return to the catcher’s position and finished the practice there and upon returning home, Mom the physician administered ibuprofen to control any swelling and had him on the sofa with ice on his throat for a full half-hour.

What could go wrong?

We want our kids to try different things and find something that they love, something that helps them to thrive and grow.  If the activity is a sport, then we outfit them with the necessary gear and haul them to the practices and games; we cheer for them or coach them, all the while understanding that a sport has some inherent risk of injury.  For many sports, it’s likely to involve bruises from incidental contact or some muscle injury and that’s simply a part of life.  Our household has witnessed balls to the face, significant bruising and more than one trip to the orthopedist for serious sprains and torn knee cartilage.  These however, are injuries that aren’t potentially life-threatening and when the kids are older at least, can be handled by the coach.  My choice – backed by my history – is to stay for the practices whenever possible and I’ll work the schedule accordingly to make it happen.  This night was one of the few that I figured would be okay to be gone.  So what have I considered and learned since the throat incident?

  • What’s the level of play for the sport in question and how old are the kids?  At the rec league level, the coaches are all volunteers whose own kids are involved in the sport.  While coaches, they have a parent’s perspective but are responsible for the entire group in addition to their own.  A child who’s suffered an injury is usually different from a teenager since there’s likely to be a strong emotional overlay caused by fear and that can fully engage an adult’s attention.  Toss in a serious injury and the rest of the kids on the team are liable to require greater attention as well and you can say goodbye to any actual practice.  If you’re at a scholastic level, then the kids are under the care of the school, which has protocols for injury.  At the scholastic level, the practices will be likely held at a time where you’re still at work.  Additionally, the kids are old enough that there’s sufficient maturity and experience to carry them through the initial situation without your presence.
  • What are the precise equipment needs?  After two years of request, we permitted the grandparents to purchase catcher’s equipment for Youngest and that equipment came in a single set.  I failed first in not knowing specifically what baseball catchers required for safety and secondly, in assuming that the set included everything necessary for the youngster.  At a certain level of play, boys do require a cup and athletic supporter but I didn’t realize that there was a throat guard for baseball catchers. 
  • Do I actually have my cell phone in the event that I have to leave and something goes wrong?  If I have to leave one of my kids at a practice and in the care of the coach, it’s my responsibility to at least be accessible.
  • Do my kids actually know any of the other parents there?  It’ll be easier for the hurt child if at least there’s another adult face that they know apart from the coach.

Tonight’s incident was a dodged bullet, and the bullet was a potential hollow-point for what might have happened.  The throat guard’s purchase will be an immediate fix, but I’ll think even harder next time I’m in the position of having to decide whether to miss a practice.