Our present home is one that was built in 1997, and we purchased out of logistical necessity in late 2007.  What I subsequently found out was that we’re actually the fourth family to live in the house so that three families lived in it over the previous ten year period, for an average of three years and four months residency per family…in other words, it was flipped multiple times during the realty bubble of late ’90s to 2007.  On the one hand, it’s got a nice layout and meets our needs but we’ve been encountering the flippers’ mentality for the past few months – make it look good, but don’t do shit otherwise.  Fundamental work has been ignored and I’m running into previous jury-rig repairs that are creating issues when other repairs have to occur; when we first purchased the house – and it’s only a house until we make it a home, regardless of what the realtors say – I found to my amazement that the gas furnace had never been serviced since installation.  When the gas fireplace in the family room died two years later, I found the same issue as we paid to get it operational again.  So now multiple issues are occurring simultaneously and the repairs are potentially costly.  So do we pay someone to come in or do I suck it up and manage as much of it as possible?  And what does this have to do with the kids?

In a nation in which both the median family income and median wealth has declined in the better part of the last decade, the family budget really isn’t able to absorb the stray hits from home and auto repair that it could say, two decades ago (or even longer if you consider the way that the use of debt hid the real effect on living standards).  We’re reaching a point akin to every ninth episode of Star Trek: Next Generation, in which Picard orders all power to the life support systems because he spent too much time reasoning with the unreasonable while they reduced his ship to wreckage.  I swear to God, Picard could have worked for the SEC or the CFTC.  Anyway, if families are now having to figure out more about helping the kids with education and taking on a greater burden in healthcare insurance and costs, let alone set aside for their dotage, there simply isn’t the amount to be paid out for every last little repair around the house.  What this has to do with the kids is that they see Dad and Mom taking up the work and figuring things out.

Being a do-it-yourselfer requires not just a certain facility with working with your hands, but also a mindset that you’re able to both figure it out and adapt when the first approach doesn’t work.  We’ve become a nation of specialists, with colleges graduating young adults with very specific skill sets and oriented towards the intellectual over the manual.  Mike Rowe of Dirty Jobs fame is probably the first person in a long time to take a crack at dispelling the notion that manual and physical jobs were beneath many Americans.  That seems to have taken root and in tandem with the realization the money isn’t there, networks like HGTV and DIY have offered more and more shows to educate people on what has to be done.  What I’ve seen in my own household is a growing interest in Pinterest for ideas on projects and links to sites that teach how to do them.  This particular site has led to at least one handmade Christmas present and an ongoing effort to create glassware from old alcohol bottles that leaves my garage resembling a bootlegger’s storage unit.  But while it’s frustrating on one hand to know that a section of the garage is given over to that particular project, understanding that an effort is being made to try something different makes the frustration infinitely more bearable.

We live in a culture of instant gratification and that mindset bleeds through to almost everything.  Because I’m a decent writer – just saying – I’ve had parents ask me to help their kids with certain essays, as well as reading some of my own kids’ efforts.  What is universal amongst the youngsters is the notion that their first effort is the one to be turned in and the universal response to my typical comment that the work was a decent first draft was a consistent disbelief that it wasn’t finished and presentable.  Many youngsters don’t grasp the concept that something isn’t going to succeed on the first try and that they might have to re-group and try it a second, third and possibly fourth time and the same process holds true for many Do-It-Yourself household projects in which the person has little or no experience.  If the kids are going to learn this, then as parents we might have to put ourselves out there and model that behavior; study plan schematics, go back a second or third time to attempt a repair, and give a serious effort to complete the job before we finally cave in and hire out to get the job done.  There’s value in failing and learning how to try again.  There’s value in demonstrating how to use the internet to study videos on how to accomplish a task that might have previously been subbed out to a repairman.  There’s value in keeping track of the savings so that you can share it with the kids and put it in terms of the opportunity cost of how that money might otherwise be used.  We undertook and finished a DIY backyard fishpond refurbishment – at Eldest’s insistence and assistance – that saved approximately $4000 off a professional’s quote, savings that are worth approximately a semester’s tuition at the local state university.

There are always kids who instinctively understand what has to be done in certain projects and how to use their hands.  But for many, that understanding isn’t going to come if they spend six hours daily in front of a screen and it won’t come if they consistently see the parents picking up the phone for an estimate and appointment.  When I began this article several days ago, I was looking at multiple repairs split between the house and the car.  The first was on Eldest’s car and that’s one that the two of us handled together instead of farming out to a garage.  The second will require a repairman to finish a job that I started simply because it’s in a summer heat attic and my middle-aged body gave up the ghost after more than four hours of effort, but at least the project is moved along far enough to save some of the labor costs.  The third is one that I’m simply setting up for a professional since all of the separate literature that I read routinely mentions the prospect of significant bodily injury if performed improperly and y’know, that one’s just not worth it.  It’s an imperfect process, but at least the kids are seeing that the effort is being made to keep the costs under control and that’s a lesson that they’re going to have to take to heart going forward.

A PracticalDad Look at Concussions

Guns don’t kill people, 90 mph free kicks kill people.

  Poster on door of Middle’s bedroom

It was during the second half of a mid-season Division II college soccer game with the ball rolling free in the visiting team’s penalty box.  Both Diane,a forward, and a defending fullback raced from opposite directions towards the ball and the defender reached it in stride about two steps ahead of Diane.  The fullback cleared the ball with a strong kick and it traveled perhaps five feet before it collided solidly with Diane’s face, connecting squarely in the forehead.  Diane dropped flat onto her back, propelled torso backwards by an object kicked with sufficient force that it instantly – violently – eliminated all of her own forward momentum.  According to her teammates, the coach was on the field and running towards her as soon as she hit the turf; after several minutes on her back – conscious the entire time – Diane left for both the remainder of the game and the season.  The subsequent diagnosis from the university’s medical staff was that Diane suffered a major concussion.

While it isn’t a certainty that it will occur, there’s a respectable chance that any active kid will suffer a concussion either through organized sports or the simple *boom* of an accident from hard play.  But what exactly is a concussion and what should you expect to see if your child suffers one?  And as a full disclosure, the PracticalDad household has had first-hand experience with the injury.

A concussion is the common term for a brain trauma, a sudden event in which the brain is jarred or shaken severely enough that there’s an acute injury to it.  The design of a person’s head is – like the rest of the human body – a wonderful bit of engineering.  This crucial organ is housed within the helmet-like skull, but there’s actually no contact between the brain and the skull.  Between the brain and the skull is a thin layer of fluid which cushions it from the movements and shocks of everyday activity.  But a concussion can occur when the body undergoes a physical that overwhelms the cushioning capacity of the fluid and the brain is severely shaken or actually comes into contact with the skull itself.  In Diane’s case, getting pounded by a 430 gram ball kicked around 60 mph is clearly beyond the body’s natural absorption capacity.

We used to call a concussion getting your bell rung and the old treatment was taking a few minutes to clear your head before returning to the practice or game.  But the bright light of publicity that began years ago with the tragedy of former long-time Steelers center Mike Webster and progressing most recently to San Diego’s Junior Seau have brought greater awareness to the insidious damage to the brain caused by concussions, especially if they’re repetitive.  The long-term toll of concussions is now being given greater attention so that there are improvements both in terms of treatment as well as prevention.  What the medical community is now aware of is that the risk of long-term brain damage rises with a person’s number of concussions.

Concussion Rates: Who and How Often?

For all of the attention being focused on football, a male sport, the reality is that females will suffer a significant number of concussions as well.  At the high school level, girls’ soccer players reported the next highest number of concussions for any sport after football and girl basketball players suffered concussions at almost the same rate as their male counterparts.  For soccer however, girl players suffered concussions at almost twice the same rate as their male counterparts; it’s unclear as to why but the prevailing opinion is that it’s primarily physiological as the female heads are lighter – lending credence to the many fathers’ thoughts that boys are boneheaded – and have weaker neck muscles to support the head when it’s hit.  The other thought is that culture plays a role as boys are taught to “suck it up” while girls are more likely to say when something is wrong.

For a chart of the concussion rates per common youth sports, by gender, see here.

Additional research has shown that the incidence rate for concussion is several times higher for those who have already had a concussion; the fact that there’s already been trauma creates a lower threshold for a concussion than if the individual had never had one in the first place.  In Diane’s case, this was her third concussion over a three year period.

There are two upshots here.  The first is that your daughter-athlete is as much at risk for a concussion as your son-athlete.  The second is that if your child has already suffered a concussion, there’s a lower threshold for suffering another from a head trauma than another child-athlete who has not yet had a concussion.

Concussion’s Symptoms and Diagnosis

What makes a concussion difficult to diagnose is that there can be interior damage to the brain even if there’s no actual sign of exterior damage to the body, such as a bruise or laceration.  This is compounded by the fact that the interior damage might not be immediately evident; while Diane was visibly groggy in the immediate aftermath of the injury, she never lost consciousness and two decades ago, might even have been allowed to re-enter the game if she appeared to have been able since there doesn’t have to be loss of consciousness with a serious concussion.

The symptoms that arise from a concussion can be classified into four different categories.


  • Inability to concentrate
  • Inability to retain new information
  • Inability to think clearly (“fuzziness”)
  • event amnesia, i.e. inability to remember what occurred for a period of time around the trauma
  • demonstrably slower thinking time
  • Physical

  • headache
  • impaired vision
  • nausea/vomiting
  • sensitivity to light and noise
  • issues with balance
  • dizziness
  • fatigue
  • Sleep

  • altered sleep pattern from usual
  • inability to fall asleep
  • Emotion and Mood

  • greater irritability and/or anxiety
  • periods of sadness
  • flat aspect to personality for period after the trauma
  • The takeaway for parents with active kids is this: if you child is struck in the head – by a ball or bat (been there on both), a hard impact with wall or ground (been there, too) – then there’s the prospect of a concussion.  Because there might not be an immediate sign, it’s best to begin the watch for these symptoms and that watch can last for days.  It’s not easy and the child’s age can make it more difficult, especially if they’re younger.  For small children – kindergarten or younger – take it as a sign of possible concussion if he or she is showing signs of a regression in skills that you might have considered already mastered beforehand.

    If you notice any of these, immediately contact your physician.  There are objective cognitive tests that can be performed and don’t be surprised if a scan is ordered to ascertain if there’s overt damage to the brain, such as bleeding inside the skull.  But even if there’s no overt sign on the scan, the cognitive tests can help ascertain if the child has been concussed.  The only objective examination that can help ascertain the severity of the concussion would be if the child had a pre-injury baseline impact test such as used by professional and college sports teams; it might sound far-fetched for a child – actually a teen – but more middle and high schools are having their student athletes undergo them prior to the season’s start.  The online test can be performed on youth as young as 11 years of age if they’re involved in sports and can be performed at the office of any medical professional which offers it.  In our case, Youngest – a baseball player – took an impact test a year ago at a physical therapy practice which offers the test and the results are now available to serve as a baseline for future reference.  After a concussion was suffered, periodic test re-takings would serve as waypoints on recovery when compared to the original baseline examination. 

    Treatment of Concussions

    There’s no overt treatment regimen – physical therapy, medication – for a concussion and the only help is what was once called the tincture of time.  That said, the tincture can be aided by a simple regimen of true rest; this is rest not only from strenuous activity or exercise which might continue to shake the brain, but also rest from the single activity that preoccupies the majority of the waking time of most adolescents, electronics.

    When the brain is concussed, the purpose of the recovery period is to avoid any physical stressors to the brain.  That certainly includes minimal physical activity and more sleep but what most don’t realize is that there are other stressors and these include light, noise and the constant input of watching the flickering of any kind of electronic screen.  When I spoke with Diane’s father, he commented that he was surprised to find that the treatment regimen for his daughter included as little screen time as possible as the flickering, combined with the constant eye movements, were stressors that aggravated the brain and actually lengthened the recovery period.  Other aspects of the treatment regimen included the wearing of sunglasses and a visored cap when outside to shade the eyes and the absolute minimum of traveling so that she couldn’t even attend away games with her team, if only to stand on the sideline.  In other words, she was to avoid any movement and sensory stimuli that typically cause the brain to work.  This treatment regimen was to continue for as long as she had symptoms and in Diane’s case, the symptoms continued for a full six weeks before she was finally cleared to return to play and by that point, the season was finished.

    The upshot for parents is this.  What provides the greatest entertainment for youth today – electronic media – is one of the activities that has to be minimized, if not completely avoided, if the kid is going to recover both the most fully and in the shortest time possible.  The small upside is that the kids at greatest risk of concussion are the athletes and are probably on the screens less that the six hour daily average.  Yet the kid will still have to avoid the screens as much as possible for the recovery and the stress in the household will be greatly elevated as parents have to take into account the mood and temperament of a child who not only suffers from concussion symptoms, but can’t even find respite in those activities which were previously entertaining.

    A concussion is a frustrating injury for parents.  It requires vigilance from parents to maintain the rest regimen for a full recovery but it cannot be easily judged as to how it’s progressing.  Likewise, the child should be kept away from the typical favorite pastimes and the stage will be set for potential conflict between child and parent.  The other issue for parents is that in their youthful sense of invincibility, the kids don’t always understand that they’re at an increased risk of reinjury when compared to their uninjured peers and many will balk at the notion that they might not be able to play their favorite sport again.

    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.

    Re-evaluating the Pets

    It’s interesting how things align since I’ve just asked Eldest to take the dog outside, on the heels of looking at past bills paid and learning that the BRICS are now forming a $100 Billion Development bank to rival the IMF .  So how do I bridge from the distant sound of dollar-decline to the family dog?  The leap is because within the next number of years, the money is probably not going to be there to manage the niceties to which many American families have become accustomed, such as family pets. 

    This is an animal-friendly family, not so much for political/fashion reasons as much as the simple fact that we just like animals.  What started as a single stray cat adopted two months after I married my wife – and I’m a dog guy, so you can see how that early power-struggle turned out – has now morphed into a present stable of four rescued cats, a rescued dog and a rescued snake.  Until two months ago, there was also a rescued hamster but he has since moved on to that great wheel in the sky.  Simply put, we take in animals and give them homes.  But how many resources should be spent on all of these animals, given the ongoing winnowing of the middle class?

    We’re no different than millions of other Americans who spent more than $56 billion dollars in 2013 on their various and sundry pets.  The cost goes beyond food to veterinary bills, toys, corollary products and even pet medications and pet health insurance and God knows that we’ve covered several of those categories.  Our intent has always been to take in strays and rescues since (a) they’re there, and (b) they’re relatively cheap, at least in comparison to the cost of a purebred puppy or kitten.  But it was within the past year that the sense of restraint blew straight through to hell because of three separate animals.

    The first animal was a temporary addition to the household, a cat who Eldest found in an animal shelter.  Although we were at the full complement of alloted animals, an allotment agreed upon because I simply can’t handle any more, a dispensation was made because the shelter assured her that this cat was terminally ill and that they simply wanted him adopted out so that he could die in comfort.  One of my concerns to Eldest was financial – how much extra medical was going to be required and for how much would we be on the hook?  Assured that the death was likely within weeks, I agreed and “McGee” joined the family although he was restricted to the basement so that the potential upset with four other cats was minimized.  Unfortunately, what should have been a cat hospice morphed into a long-term care facility as McGee rebounded with comfortable new surroundings and attention and a very few weeks of life extended into months.  There were a few vet visits with labwork, expensive enough, and then McGee finally began a decline that signaled the approaching end.  The unfortunate part of this decline was a loss of physical control that utterly ruined Pergo flooring and required my efforts to replace an approximately 60 square foot section with the unused flooring left over from installation years ago.  Had I not kept the unused flooring for use in piecing together repair, the upshot would have been several thousand dollars in new flooring.  We subsequently had him put down because his health had finally declined both precipitously and disastrously, for him and for us.

    The second animal was our elderly Golden Retriever, who we took in as a pup from a local family because she was picked on and badgered by their older dog, for whom they had purchased her as a companion animal (because every pet needs a pet, right?).  This lovable spastic girl, had she been human, would have been on meds for ADHD and was periodically frustrating in her goofiness.  The costs for Cassie were what you’d expect for a responsible dog-owner with vet and food bills; as she aged however, we did shift the care during vacations and other absences from a kennel to a responsible known-quantity teen who could housesit for us in our absence.  The thought process in this shift was two-fold since we’d have to have someone come in to monitor the cats anyways and it could also allow the dollars spent to go even more locally, to a teen who could apply it to college. 

    The financial hole came late one evening last year, the night before we were to leave for a week’s vacation, when Cassie stepped on a glass shard from a jar that had broken when it was dropped by one of the kids the day before.  Although the kid had done a presumably thorough job in cleaning up the mess, he didn’t account for the fact that shards could travel into the next room and lodge themselves into the carpet.  I had just finished an article and when I stepped away from the computer, found the retriever licking furiously at her paw to stem the prodigious blood flow from the wound; the shard had done far enough into the paw to sever the artery and the blood was flowing freely into the carpet.  Because this was a late night, the option was to get her to the emergency vet center and that’s what happened to my night-before-late morning departure while my wife and older kids went to work on the blood in the family room carpet.

    This veterinary center has a policy that after initially addressing the immediate problem, the manager will speak with the pet owner and provide an estimate as to the cost of actual treatment for the injury or illness.  My situation, according to the manager, was a deep puncture wound with a severed artery – and she would’ve bled to death if you hadn’t found her – that required full-blown surgery to repair, including general anesthesia, to the tune of more than $1100.  I blanched at the cost and texted with my wife, but it didn’t occur to either of us not to proceed, and I was frankly surprised that the manager was actually happy and relieved that we’d do so.  This was my first inkling that the middle-class winnowing has hit the pet business since the manager’s experience was that many owners would simply have cut their losses at the visit and opted for euthanasia.  The upshot is that I returned home in the early morning with a thoroughly groggy and miserable dog, who required considerably more care from Eldest’s housesitting friend during the coming week, including a followup appointment with our regular vet. 

    It was around the time of the dog’s injury that my wife’s beloved older cat, Bear, became notably off in his behavior.  As with the other animals, Bear was adopted as a stray, but this was a cat who was as much a gentleman as any male of any species that I’ve ever seen.  He was lovingly attentive to his person – my wife – and actually helped maintain order amongst the other animals in the household, including the retriever.  When we adopted two male kitten siblings years ago, I witnessed this cat physically corner the two little ones after a rambunctious period and discipline them, laying down the law to them in whatever language that the felines use with one another; it was honestly one of the more amazing things that I’ve seen in my years.  When the listlessness and mewing continued for a few days, we took him to our regular vet, who diagnosed him with bladder cancer.  Because there were actually surgical options, we opted for that route but after several months with some improvement, Bear declined dramatically and we were forced to put him down to save him further pain.

    And several weeks later, I had to return to the emergency vet one evening when the retriever suddenly couldn’t walk.  The girl was suffering from a liver tumor that had ruptured and was now bleeding out internally, a situation that was simply untreatable and within 90 minutes of arrival at the vet center, she was put down.  It was honestly a relief to know that it was untreatable since I was mentally tallying the costs that we’d incurred in the previous three months and it spared me from having to make an unpleasant choice of euthanasia or further treatment costs.  For a guy who prides himself on a straight-forward and logical approach to things, I was torn by multiple thorns: sadness that this sweet, goofy girl was leaving; anger at myself that I could have missed any early warning signs that might have prevented this sudden trainwreck; concern over the amount of money that I might wind up spending; and a strange wish to show the center staff that I was indeed a good guy and not a cheapskate who wouldn’t spring for treatment.  The reality was that I really didn’t have a choice but that still hasn’t salved the lingering irritation.

    The financial upshot of these incidents cost us in the thousands of dollars over a three month period, money that I had simply had no idea would be incurred and far beyond the usual monthly costs that we incur for our animals.  After a recent visit to the vet for another animal, the office manager commented that I might want to consider purchasing health insurance for the animals; an expenditure that I simply find objectionable given the human need that we face in America.  But the events and my responses also demonstrate that the new generations of American parents are going to have to be willing and able to steel themselves for the instances when the cost of pet ownership momentarily spirals out of control, to simply say no and cut the losses when they occur.

    Economists understand that there’s a principle called opportunity cost, meaning that the money spent now could instead be spent in another way or saved for a different priority.  The consumerist mindset of having it all has combined with the easy credit availability to lull people into thinking that choices don’t have to be made when you can do both, paying for at least one over time.  But one of the recurring thoughts during that period was the realization that the money was finite and there were uses for that money elsewhere; in at least one of three animal situations, emotions took over the thought process.  My philosophy is now changing to recognize that there is indeed opportunity cost for my family, especially now that another kid is looking at college.  What will happen now is the admission that we simply can’t afford the extended care and recognizing that in providing a loving home for these cast-offs, they’re still far better off than they might have been otherwise.

    PracticalDad Price Index July 2014:  Eating Hamburgers for Fiber

    It’s a less than delicious irony that on the day that I gathered the prices for the July 2014 PracticalDad Price Index, I stopped at a local Burger King for a Whopper and fries.  Later that evening, I read that Burger King is one of a number of fast-food chains that are extending beef supplies – and padding profits – by using MCC (Microcrystalline Cellulose), aka wood pulp in their burgers.  The irony is that for all of the Burger King concern about rising meat prices, the cost of a pound of 80% lean ground beef was unchanged in July from the previous month.  The less than delicious part was the taste in my mouth when I realized that I not only have to now concern myself with cavities, but also splinters.

    As to the PracticalDad Price Index, the Total Index of the 47 item market basket actually declined slightly to 110.2 from June’s 110.53 (November 2010 = 100) so that the total price of the market basket of grocery and related items was 10.2% higher than in November 2010.  When the ten non-food items (soap, aluminum foil, etc) are removed so that 37 core food items remain, that 37 item Food-Only Index actually rose to 113.22 from June’s 112.65 (November 2010 = 100) so that the cumulative price of the 37 items has risen 13.22% since November 2010. 

    The big movers in previous months – meat and dairy – were essentially flat with only a minor rise in the cost of a pound of hot dogs and pound of chicken with the cost of ground beef unchanged.  The big increases this month were in wheat based products – specifically hot dog rolls and spaghetti – as one of the three grocery retailers jacked prices on those items by 29% from the previous month.  Note that this retailer, which has had some profitability issues, unilaterally cut prices on specific core items as part of a program to show their customers that they were passing along savings; this was not a one or two week sale, or even a two month sale but instead a program that actually changed the unit price labelling on the shelves for an extended period of time.  Well, that program ended and the prices for some of these items are now rejoining their brethren amongst the other stores.

    The point to take from this is not that one retailer was masking the issue, but instead that the issue of inflation is a conflict between monetary policy (commodity prices such as sugar, aluminum and et cetera), supply-demand issues (dairy and meat) and actual deflation due to the economic weakness of the end consumer, who is watching his/her income continually decline.  This particular retailer has had issues related to profitability and has had to take measures to shore up the customer base and provide competition based upon price instead of other factors.

    The story about Burger King is one more brick in the mental wall that I’m building against corporations.  The ostensible line is that they’re just trying to keep prices down for the end-consumer but the real question for me is when the addition of the cellulose extender began, because the recent rise in meat prices is relatively recent and probably post-dates the cellulose usage.

    And here’s the update for July and previous months.


    PracticalDad Price Index – July 2014
    Month Total Index Food-Only Index Spread
    4/14 110.28 113.59 3.31
    5/14 109.85 111.54 1.69
    6/14 110.53 112.65 2.12
    7/14 110.20 113.22 3.02