The House That Barney Built

If you’re a father, pay attention (obviously) to what you hear and find a meaningful tagline that you can come back to again and again with the kids in order to make a point.  It’s a recurrent phrase or short sentence that makes a point, a rhetorical bumper sticker that you can – with sufficient repetition – hopefully tack onto the kid’s mental bumper for further use as he or she goes through life.  Such a phrase that I’ve adopted for the past eight years is The house that Barney built.

The phrase is meaningless for anybody else out there and even for two of my own kids, but it’s a phrase that has significant meaning for Middle, who first heard it while in fourth grade and then shared it with me one evening after he heard it.  Middle is an arts person, an individual who finds greater meaning in e.e. cummings than in how to perform algebra.  He’s now en route to his freshman year in college to pursue a degree in the performing arts and our response, after a deep breath, is to encourage him and support him in this pursuit.  That said, it was clear years ago that he’d follow this kind of path and I subsequently made it a point to discuss the practical and monetary side of that kind of life to help clarify what issues and life he might encounter. 

The phrase The house that Barney built was something said to him in his first stage production.  After years of requests, we acquiesced in his fourth grade year to let him audition for a professional stage production of Oliver! and to our pleasure, he made the cast.  The role of Fagin was played by a professional actor named Barry Pearl, and he was – from everything we heard from Middle and others – a wonderful person with whom to work; he also portrayed a great Fagin.  But through the various evening practices, he’d find time to chat with the other cast members and impart some professional knowledge to the youngsters, many of whom were enthralled with the notion of performing on stage.  As Middle related to me later that evening on the way home from rehearsal, Pearl had engaged in a conversation on the practical aspects of acting, most especially the handling of money.  Earlier in his career, he’d been cast as a regular on Barney as Professor Tinkerputt and it gave him a steady income for a period of years.  It was during this stint that he took the money that he’d made and put it to paying for a house, a place that he’d be able to reside without having to worry about constantly having to handle a mortgage with what can be a problematic cashflow between acting gigs.  He described it to the group as the house that Barney built and it was a phrase that struck Middle enough that he related it to me verbatim that evening.  Since I’m always on the lookout for taglines that support the lessons that I’m trying to teach – and there are certain taglines for each – this was a wonderful turn of phrase that I immediately put away for future reference.

The phrase is a wonderfully curt response to the want/need confusion that’s been perfected through the past four or so decades by the Madison Avenue apostles.  Our children – hell, sometimes even us – have fallen to the notion that you can indeed have it all and that the want is sometimes as important as the need.  If you don’t necessarily have the assets available to get what you want, you can always borrow a bit more to get it and that way lies the path to debt servitude.  After all, the financial press noted some years ago in a moment of drink-the-kool-aid idiocy that credit is the new liquidity.  The reality is that’s akin to ignoring your own tap when you want a drink of water and instead spending your own money to purchase that water.  No, wait…never mind.  That’s how far along on the crazy train we’ve now come, something unrecognizable to our great-grandparents’ generation.

It’s a phrase that isn’t used often, but has been trotted out through the ensuing years as we’ve talked.  It was the other Saturday morning that it finally made it’s way out again as he and I sat in the living room with cups of coffee and talked money.  Recently, it seems as if that’s sometimes all I discuss and it’s unfortunate that it appears that way.  But my point in the discussion was that he was entering a profession that while it could be immensely fulfilling, it could also be financially insecure.  I believe that the present system – monetary and political – is insupportable and that the change will certainly occur in the next number of years.  I also believe that while the word change comes across on a page as a sterile, unexciting event, the reality will be far more fearful and problematic and that belief colors what I want the kids to learn; after all, my job is ultimately to prepare them to make their way in the world as productive and moral adults and that’s not necessarily what the general system seems to want to teach the kids.

Decide what the most important lessons that you want your children to learn.  Spend time in conversation with them as much as possible when they’re younger because once they begin to plug into the matrix, your window for discussion with them will narrow considerably.  Decide on your tagline, that rhetorical bumper-sticker that you return to again and again and if it’s from somebody or somewhere else that has an impact on them, then don’t worry about ownership but grab it and stuff in your bag-of-tricks for reference.  Because someday, that might be all that you need to say in a pinch to get a point across.

The Saint Paddy’s Pub Crawl (How Much Should a Father Reveal?)

There are opportunities for conversation and discussion at all corners, and the other morning was a prime example of such.  Middle had to attend a theatre audition at an urban university and we took the opportunity to take the train since, if he does attend there, it will be the standard mode of travel.  It was during the 70 minute trip that we encountered college students en route to Philadelphia for an early start to their long-awaited Saint Patrick’s Day Pub Crawl and their entry raised the parental question, how much do I reveal about my own youth?

The first indication of the Crawl was the entry of a half dozen people, a mixture of college and post-college adults.  One of them carried a bag and they sat quietly and in a moment, a young man picked up his backpack and entered the vacant restroom.  A moment later, the Kelly Green Power Ranger, replete with helmet, exited and returned to his seat amidst laughter from both his friends and other passengers.  We noted that there then appeared green cans of beer to be quietly passed around amongst the crew.  These were followed at the next station by another group of young adults, obviously in college.  The students, primarily young women, were carrying convenience store coffee cups but it was the *clink* of a canvas bag carried by one of them that clued us to the fact that the cups had long since been emptied of coffee, if they’d ever carried coffee in the first place.  The girls/women weren’t unduly loud but the next indication of the general condition came when the conductor stopped at the seats just ahead of us and asked the occupants for their tickets.  One of the two seated ahead asked, giggling, Is this the Polar Express?   The middle-aged conductor’s deadpan response was Would you like me to punch “believe” in your ticket? as he punched away.  A moment later, I glanced over at Middle as we chatted and elbowed him, nodding for him to also glance over to see the two women across the aisle refilling their cups with Miller and Landshark respectively.  At least one of them had a discriminating taste, although it wasn’t likely to mean squat in another six hours.  Welcome to college was my sotto voce remark in Middle’s ear.

The two of us chuckled and quietly chatted as the topic turned to drinking.  There’s no doubt that there’s going to be a serious amount of alcohol available, even more than is already available to high school students today, and all that I can do as a father is to find a consistent message and stay on it.  My message has been that you’re simply going to be in situations in which it’s available and I hope – and expect – that you’ll remember that there are consequences to poor decisions.  This was followed by two addendum:  the first addendum being that if he ever needed a bad guy upon which to place responsibility or blame with his friends, he should feel free to use my name as liberally as necessary.  The second addendum was that if he ever found himself in any situation, don’t be afraid to pick up the phone and call me immediately, and that included his friends as well.  Middle is aware that many universities are taking a hard line towards alcohol and imposing penalties towards students who are found drinking and/or drunk in the dorms and this reminder was again passed along as well.  One of his older buddies commented that he didn’t even make it through the first night on campus his freshman year before the campus police entered his dorm room and arrested the roommate for underaged drinking.

But it was in the next moment that Middle popped the question, Did you ever get drunk in college? and it’s a moment for which every father should be prepared as the kids grow.  I’m fortunate that I could honestly say No, buzzed several times but never out-and-out drunk.  I saw others drunk and hated the notion that if drunk, I was passing my judgment and responsibility for my own safety to others, who even if they weren’t drunk, might not necessarily be my friends and interested in my safety as much as their own entertainment.  Four years at a university known even then for hard-drinking and I’d been privy to enough debauchery to detest being at another’s mercy and whim.  As dangerous as that can be, it’s made worse decades later by the presence of smartphone cameras and social media, used to spread and memorialize the drunk’s embarrassment.

Drinking and drug usage are just later variants of the question, which is liable to cross your child’s lips even in preschool.  So decide early on, how much are you willing to share?  Do you prefer to downplay and distract them, if they’re young enough, with other topics (and that is certainly a possibility)?  Do you choose to acknowledge misbehaviors – and we all have them – in a general sense or do you explore them when they’re old enough?  Do you simply not respond and let the kids wonder?  This last was my own father’s approach and the company line was that he was always on the straight and narrow.  It was when I reached my own college years that he began to share stories from his own youth and I was flummoxed to find that there were periods when he couldn’t have followed the straight and narrow with a yardstick and a magnifying glass.  Christ, compared to this guy, I’m a friggin’ saint…where did I go right and how much fun did I miss?   When I asked him why he never revealed anything until I was in college, he grinned sheepishly and commented something to the effect that if I’d done some of his (mis)deeds, he probably would have killed me.  His job as a father, he said, was to be an example.

And he was correct, the disingenuous bastard.

One friend is also an older father and has been very open with his own kids about his early years, which were far hairier than my own.  But they also understand the ways in which things can go wrong by dint of Dad’s mistakes and he is secure enough to dissect his own situations with them, giving them a heads-up on their peers who don’t have the parental sharing.  The technology base might change, but the youthful errors remain the same. 

So take some time to think about how much of your own past you choose to share with the kids?  Do you handle it as a novelist, ascribing some of your own experiences to a fictitious buddy that the kids can never meet because he-was-such-a-great-guy-it’s-a-damned-shame-that-he’s-dead and use the experiences to teach and entertain?  Do you take my friend’s route and share the stories openly, using them as examples of how things can go wrong and what not to do?  Or do you take my father’s route and go silent, talking to them but trusting that nothing stupid is going to happen?  The questions will come and begin after the kids begin talking, so the sooner that you have your approach, the better off you’re going to be.  Because the kids can sniff out hypocrisy like a hound looking for his favorite bone.

PracticalDad Price Index – March 2015:  Cliff-Diving in the Supermarket

The pricing for the March 2015 version of the 47 item PracticalDad Price Index marketbasket was completed and the results were frankly surprising.  The Total Index of 47 items declined by 1.33 points to March’s level of 108.09 (November 2010 = 100) while the Food-Only Sub-Index of the 37 Foodstuff items dropped by 2.19 points (November 2010 = 100) to 109.89 from February.  This is the largest single monthly decline in the Food-Only Sub-Index since the inception of the project in November 2010 and is a 34% decline in that category since it’s peak at 115.13 only four months previously.

So where has this cratering occurred in the past four months?  Despite the understanding that there had been issues in the supply chain for dairy products and meats due to drought-related effects, these are apparently passing as the Meat and Dairy categories declined from the December 2014 peak by 7.43% and 7.41% respectively with most the change occurring during January and February.  Most of the declines occurred during those two months as the category changes showed much smaller declines in the one month period of February through March.  The four item Household Products category (bath soap, aluminum foil, kitchen trash bags and paper towels) declined by 7.15% since the December 2014 peak with the majority of the decline taking place in the one month period of February through March 2015. In the case of the Meat category, much of the change occurred as grocers found new suppliers for ham and chicken, driving the prices down since the peak by 24.3% and 14.3% respectively.  Eggs also declined by 17.5% over the four month period.  In the Dairy category, a gallon of 2% milk dropped by 14.9% and butter by 21.5% over the same four month period, although the changes were dispersed across all of the grocers instead of localized to one or another grocer as new suppliers were found.

So here are the Indices results for the past six months.


PracticalDad Price Index – March 2015
Month Total Index Food-Only Index Spread
10/14 111.11 114.45 3.34
11/14 111.15 113.87 2.72
12/14 111.18 115.13 3.95
1/15 111.32 114.00 2.68
2/15 109.42 112.08 2.66
3/15 108.09 109.89 1.80