Average Dad

Schooldays – Part Deux

by Dave Bittle. 0 Comments

For all those parents out there who, like me, were NOT lock, stock and barrel academic shining stars, who found school, with all its restrictive restrictions, strenuous expectancies, and wordy books altogether off-putting, you now have a second chance to gain anew a different perspective on the institution that trounced, all those years ago, all over your wobbly self-esteem. A second chance to redress your sullied record of callow deeds and scant achievement.

This opportunity comes to you, the parent, in the form of a steady-stream of tedious writing assignments, enigmatic mathematics drills, chafing diversity awareness projects and ruthless science fair challenges, collectively providing the modern day parent a sort of schooldays do-over. An opportunity to achieve – both directly and vicariously — like you never have before. Yes, it seems our kid’s school experience is now ours, too, like it or not, furnishing an out of the blue opportunity to sink or swim once again. Ugh!

Unfortunately, I don’t really want a second chance. Been there, done that. In fact, I’ll unambiguously concede to being an utterly wayward student. To my mind, school never held much charm — class of 82, slacker division, first round pick. Early on I reached the flawed conclusion that school was an obstacle to, and not a vessel for, eventual success. Therefore I wanted none of it. Its walls made me feel trapped and claustrophobic, prompting reckless compulsions to run, again and again, with wild abandon.

Yet, there I paradoxically hunker, night after night, hour upon teary hour, spell checking, report writing, journal keeping, and mathing—wrestling with the very same long-division, algebra and geometry with which I wrestled thirty-eight years ago, with scant success, then as now. (In the spirit of full disclosure my wife does most of the heavy lifting here, though I am called on to assist often)

This quirk of fate, I’m sure, is not lost on my parents (or my teachers if only they could see me) either. That I, hater of all things homework and repressed scholarship would be undertaking homework assignments to excess with my young daughters is something to behold no doubt.

Indeed, the sheer magnitude of homework the kidos are allocated these days is overwhelming. Youngsters of all ages stagger back to the homestead with rucksacks full of the vulgar stuff. Meanwhile, it seems they can neither begin nor finish the punch list of teacher-requisitioned drills and exercises without steadfast oversight from, and supervision by, moms and dads who are by this time already ensnarled in various domiciliary oughts.

Prompting many parents to ask just what exactly are the children doing in school all day anyway? And to further ask, might the elimination of the umpteen get-nothing-done half-days, state school assessment days, “Teacher Professional Development Days” and “Staff Work Days” make available more time to load up on astuteness in the classroom, where it’s supposed to be cast forth in abundant quantities during the six hours they’re in the custody of the county?

And might the elimination of the many watched movies, pointless assemblies, pajama, spirit, and crazy hair days give way to more time for classroom scholarship? Thus eliminating the need to bring home all that vile busywork, in those overstuffed book-bags, for parents to supervise, audit and become familiar with?

Perhaps. But we endure the homework we’re given, not the homework we’d like. So shine we strive as parents this second time around. Not only making sure the dreadful homework assignments are complete, correct and on time, but impressive — just one look at the varied, and accomplished science fair projects (comprised of mini particle accelerators and not-so-mini home-grown DNA genome projects) reveals the comprehensive extent to which parents, ever eager to make the best of their second chance, are involved in their kids various homework assignments.

Yes, during this second chance occasion we are nearly everything we weren’t the first time around — bookish, absorbed and unrebellious. Just as important as redeeming our own dreadful academic performance, is making sure our kids learn the essential skills necessary to get a job and ultimately provision themselves, too. These days too many kids are moving back home, disenfranchised, unable to find jobs and freeloading off their parents — we don’t want that, no siree. Someday we’d like our house back, and our lives, too.

So as the school year draws to a close we have many things to be thankful for, not the least of which is an intermission from the enormous and unrelenting quantities of homework and attendant fatigue. So go play. Enjoy the pool, the day-trips, and the beach. Have fun with your kids, spouse and friends. Because in my county summer vacation is only nine weeks long, and when it’s over – sigh – it’s back to school and the resumption of all those wretched homework onuses. Ugh!

Out of order

by Dave Bittle. 0 Comments

Early on in life we all come to have certain expectations about the way things are supposed to be. There is an order to things. This we know. We learn this through observation, generally, and experience too. The sun rises in the east. Ace trumps king. Easter comes after Christmas. Chromium (Cr) comes before iridium (Ir) on the periodic table, and tomorrow is another day. All these things we know.

We also discover, in good time, that in life there are many surprises—the vast wisdom of our parents, our children’s stage-3 narcissism, marriage after kids, grown-ups do not enjoy neither the freedom, nor the liberty, the average child imagines we do—that catch us flatfooted, that make us rethink our positions. These things take time to learn, but we learn them nonetheless.

Still, we tackle our days with a mutual confidence, by and large, that events in life will unfold just as we imagine they ought to, just as they’re supposed to, for each of our family members and our friends—with auspicious outcomes. This prejudice is only natural, because it is human nature, after all, to live if as if things will end well. Imagine the alternative.

Likewise we take for granted that all in the family will be hale and hearty, together again, for the next holiday wingding. To greet, hug, and share in the next episode of nearest and dearest merrymaking.

Sadly, however, life does not always move forward as it should, as we would like it to. And though life is a delight in many respects, it’s suffering too, and tons of it. This we know, and we needn’t look far to see evidence of it.

And so it is with my family these days. Suffering that is. My youngest sister, Amy, 42, died last month, unexpectedly, and in a hail of confusion and disbelief—leaving behind a drove of punch-drunk relatives and one confused eight-year-old son. Wait what? There was still much for her to do, not the least of which was to adore, care for, and fret over her son, Adam, to rear him up, into a man—that he was owed. That he deserved. In the end our loss is great…but his loss is enormous.

Her death smarts in numerous ways, but mostly it just challenges my understanding of the order of things. It’s events like this that tend to give one extended thought to the very purpose of it all. Thus my assumptions and expectations, my understanding and beliefs, have all been turned upside down by this grim event. Losing your baby sister can do this you see, and it has. So, little makes sense at the moment.

And never in life will I have an experience that contains such earnest sobriety as the one in which I observed my sister take her last breath, a wilted cessation, and pass—gone forever. That was big. That is something I shall never forget. Because it is only in death that we discover the supreme finale, it is, after all, irrevocable.

And though my sister is not the first loss my family has experienced, regrettably, as the youngest and the most buoyant, she was indeed the most unlikely. Had I know her time here was to be so brief, or that our time together was to be so limited, I surely would have made more of it. I would have taken her to lunch, or for coffee, at least once this past year. I didn’t. Had I known all of this I’d have spent more time valuing her many qualities, enjoying her eccentricities. I didn’t.

So yes, there is and order to things. This we know. But in this case my sister died out of order…before her parents, before her older siblings. This is not the way it is supposed to be. My youngest sister, Amy, was supposed kiss us goodbye, to cry for our loss, to make our final arrangements…not the other way around.

And so while we’re planning away, as we do, making assumptions aplenty about how our own time in this life, and that of our loved ones, will play out, we’d all do well to chew on the gravelly assurance that circumstances can change in a jiffy.

Love The One You’re With

by Dave Bittle. 0 Comments

Today we observe a somber anniversary. Three months ago this day we changed, foolishly and audaciously, cable TV providers, switching from a well-known satellite-based television megacorp, to a global media and entertainment conglomerate, home telephone, broadband internet, and cable television provider. 

For anyone contemplating such a move, let me just say, it is not for the faint of heart. What may look at first glance to be a safe and sound undertaking, in truth, is more like a New River Gorge buggy-jump with sketchy equipment and a questionable outcome. That is to say, if you don’t already suffer with angina or similar infirmities, you may well smart from one by the time it’s all over. So proceed with caution.

Since I’m generally not one to swerve into oncoming traffic or march into fixed bayonets, it’s unclear to me how this cock-up happened, exactly. Except that, looking back, I reason it’s most likely because we naively wanted a more affable dance partner—the old one having let herself go, and was always smelling of Vicks. 

So, I suppose we heard what we wanted to hear from the salesman that day, with his Lance Armstrong-like hornswoggling, supplying us with promises galore about a better multimedia tomorrow—bundling the services that include phone, internet, and cable. The word alone, “bundling”, at the time, appealed to my manish appreciation for efficiency. And all this with great customer service, abundant on-demand content and cheaper prices—we were spellbound. We had finally found our new dance partner, and she was stunning.  

And so with no test-drive or foretaste, and stoned on notions of vastly improved service and significantly lower monthly fees, we pulled the trigger, signing the agreement without fully understanding the various knotty glitches so often inherent in transactions such as these. 

But, bit by maddening bit, we came to lament our opting. 

The first red-flag appeared on day-one, during the setup and installation. The curiously awkward, mouth-breathing “technician” arrived early, nearly two hours so—no eye contact. This is strange I thought. He was a contractor, this he told me—my experience being that cable contractors often reek of work-release programs. Quick, hide the valuables.  Oh wait, we don’t have any.  Alright then, hide the semi-valuables, like my extensive collection (spanning five proud years) of umbilicus fuzz, stockpiled in jars by shade and tinsel-strength. Or my daughter’s ever expanding and highly semi-valuable candy wrapper collection—she aspires to one day be recognized by the authority in all things bizarre and unusual, the Guinness Book of World Records, for having the largest assemblage ever. How could a father not be proud of that? Really.    

A mixed-media crackerjack our technician was not. Turning out to be, well, less cracker and more jack, demonstrating only a cursory understanding the product, the customer service experience and who’s focus seemed more on vamoosing than installing, finished or not. This is no-doubt why he arrived early to our house in the first place; having departed his previous assignment hastily, perhaps abandoning it while still in progress—fleeing even—just as he was preparing to do to us.

Next red flag, the on-screen user-interface guide. All I can say after trying to pilot the thing is wow!  And so I will hazard the following radical suggestion: Assemble a small posse of gamers and freshmen computer-science majors in a basement furnished with a dozen laptops, a pallet of Mountain Dew, and regularly scheduled provisions of Domino’s pizzas. And within a few weeks they would more likely than not emerge triumphantly with something worthier and superior, possibly Siriesque, whereby the user could simply and effortlessly command their device to “Change to Honey boo boo” or “Record Doomsday Preppers”, thus making obsolete the existing hodge-podge mangled mess currently in operation today.   

Red flag number three. Although there are a reported 200 plus channels, I can’t seem to steer the remote near any of my favorite programs, or for that matter, find anything worth watching (unless you’re so inclined to suffer through masterpieces like “Flashdance” circa 1983, “Roadhouse” circa 1989, or the more recent epic “The Three Stooges” circa dreadful).  

Yet, in an odd twist of serendipitous fate aimed at my wife, our bedroom TV seems steadily fixed on her preferred network, HGTV. All attempts to adjust or change it have been unsuccessful—it’s HGTV and more HGTV. Which compels me to wonder aloud if it’s possible that my wife—tiring of our spirited tussles for command of the remote, and wanting to stake her claim promptly and aggressively—could have slipped the jackleg a few extra bucks, or worse, a semi-valuable, when I wasn’t looking?  Of course, this situation presents an enormous problem because no straight man, given the choice, would opt to watch HGTV of his own free will, even for one minute, resolving instead to be mulled by grizzly bears or gored by running Pamplona bulls—anything but HGTV. Anything.  

All is not lost, however, as this hapless debacle has had the unintended consequence of driving the kids—also flummoxed by the inability to track down suitable programming—to more industrious pursuits like fort building, couch jumping and coloring placards for each other with inspirational messages that read “Keep Out, Stay Out, and NEVER come in. That Means You Mackenzie.” and “Keep Out. Emma is not allowed. NEVER EVER!!!!!!!!!” to display in billboard fashion on their respective bedroom doors. 

So in all fairness, maybe our old dance partner wasn’t so bad after all. Sure she had her faults, but nobody’s perfect.  Looking back, her dowdy appearance and peculiar aroma now seem more endearing than annoying, which, when you think about it, could be a soft metaphor for marriage. The partners we choose aren’t perfect either. And, like cable TV providers, it’s basically too hard and complicated to swap them out for another. 

So, for now anyway, I think I’ll be groveling back to my old cable TV provider, and minding my wife too. Because while they both have their own unique set of maddening idiosyncrasies and various peculiarities, there is comfort after all in the familiar and the mundane. My new motto: Love the one you’re with!   

In Sickness and In Health

by Dave Bittle. 0 Comments

 The following public service announcement is being brought to you by the American Man-Flu Society.  

With cold and flu season upon us it’s a good time to remind everyone, but especially men, about the hazards and sufferings of Man-Flu , that insidious and frequently disparaged malady that each year emasculates and handicaps millions of otherwise vigorous and formidable full-grown men the world over.  Man flu, as its very name suggests, is a virus that attacks the immune systems of full-grown men only. Not to be confused with the flu, that which infects women and children, man-flu (quasi-scientifically termed influenza-y) is an aggressive contagion that makes the flu seem, relatively speaking, like child’s play.    

Wives, girlfriends, mothers and daughters gather around. Please, discontinue those incensed sneers, those arched eyebrows, those annoyed eye-rolls and looks of foregone conclusion when on that rare occasion your man tells you he has contracted a bad case of the man-flu. Your husband, boyfriend, or father is sick with a precocious strain of influenza for God’s sake, and he needs your love and kindness—plus a good measure of your tender sympathy—, not judgment and ridicule, during his hour of need, to nurse him through this vile illness, and to rescue him from deaths door. 

Don’t allow the skeptics, with their facts and statistics, to wheedle you into believing that man-flu, with its manifold banes, is anything less than the next world pandemic—we’re talking serious stuff here. Man-flu, the belligerent, drunken, bat wielding stepfather of the flu, is infinitely more dangerous, significantly more problematic, and lethal unto its self—a vastly mutated and wicked virus with many insidious properties. Yes, it is round, but it can also be elongated or irregularly shaped, yes, it has the same eight segments of single strand RNA just like the flu, and, as expected, it shares two different varieties of protein spikes, (HA) and (NA), just like its petite stepchild , the flu. 

But, unlike the bush-league influenza–a and-b strains, man-flu, with its hyper-cyclical antigenic shifting, presents a cornucopia of exotic and cruel post-secondary symptoms including: near complete incapacitation, men can scarcely walk or even change the channel—here is where the woman of the house will need to set aside her own needs, this one time, and provide assistance, support, and love. 

Likewise, man-flu causes acute moaning and groaning in its sufferers.  For example, sniveling weeps such as, “OMG, I'm gonna diiiiiiieeeee!” or “God have mercy on me!”  Here, too, as his wife or girlfriend, this is your opportunity to rally round your man, to nudge him, as best you can, towards a positive outcome. Rub his back or his feet, get him what he asks for, and offer up various maxims designed to ease his pain like, “To truly laugh, you must be able to take your pain, and play with it!”—Charlie Chaplin.  

Other symptoms of man-flu include: foul moods (patients is a virtue), vastly diminished coping skills (have a heart), soggy pleas to send for his mother (pay no attention this, he knows not what he says), priests (use your best judgment), requests for bourbon (get the man a drink already, it could be his last), incoherent lamentations concerning the black plague, bubonic plague or tuberculosis (he should be so lucky), and finally, hallucinations (“Is that you Grandma?”).  Ugh, misery and more misery.

In contrast, when women are off-color with the flu, it’s only the flu, not man-flu, and so they remain, lucky for them, quite capable of driving, cooking, cleaning house, doing laundry, taking care of the kidos, packing lunches and virtually all the other day-to-day responsibilities including most, if not all, of her man’s chores too. The flu, that inconsequential influenza-a-or-b virus, is the viral equivalent of a bee sting; one that men laugh in the face of, and should be so fortunate to be septic with.

So men, whatever you do, don’t let your wife or girlfriend tell you they have “man-flu”, they don’t, they can’t, as that would be impossible unless they acknowledge having a twenty-third chromosome that looks more like this (Y) then this (X), which would fundamentally disqualify them as wives or girlfriends anyway—but that’s public service announcement for another day. 

And so remember, while man flu may be the price we men pay for living in a civilized society, what with all those hand-shakes, high-fives, fist-bumps, and various other microbe-exchanging salutations, it needn’t be our undoing. Wash frequently men, use hand sanitizers, and when the dreaded man-flu does plague you, let your devoted and obedient wife nurse you back to health—because no self-respecting woman want’s her man to suffer alone silently, stoically, and without hope.  

Great Expectations

by Dave Bittle. 0 Comments

 At long last the holiday jollification is over, with modest bits of decorative wrappings strewn about the four corners of the asylum, the esteemed kith and beloved kin long since departed, and a refrigerator weighed down with assorted Christmas pudding oddments, we enthusiastically look forward to the New Year—and someone, anyone, to gather up and stow the now bland Christmas garland and trimmings until next year.  We’ve grown tired of eyeing it all.

But wait, what would the New Year be without promises in great quantities, some big, several bold, a good number realistic yet somehow improbable, of rehabilitated self and a better you?  In fact, this is the time of year when jillions of hopefuls, plump, unorganized, or overdue, ready their oaths to improve mind, body and soul with abundant declarations of transformed and enhanced ways. 

There is a 2007 study by University of Bristol professor Richard Wisemen that showed 88% of those who made a New Year’s resolution bombed—this despite the fact that 52% of the study's participants had been confident of success (fleshy as they were) at the launch of said study.  At the root of those who did succeed, 22% of the men did so by applying a strategy of goal setting—a system where small measurable goals were set; such as, a pound a week or one fewer Twinkie per day.  This, set against what had previously been a strategy of resting comfortably in Wellington II Barcaloungers whilst beckoning someone to, “Bring me another Bud Light!”—the new system proved more efficacious, astonishingly. 

Of the woman who succeeded, 10% did so by utilizing a strategy of making their goals more public, thus receiving support from friends and family.  Women embracing this strategy enjoyed considerable success in reducing overall weight, improving blood pressure and lowering levels of bad cholesterol. In a separate study, this one pairing women with their respective mother-in-laws as special “New Year’s resolution weight-loss counselors”, the results were less encouraging—increased weight gain, blood pressure, and  higher levels of bad cholesterol were found to exist along with greater incidents of divorce, alcoholism and domestic violence—and the study, still in its early stages, was stopped. 

With results such as these, realizing ones goals by way of the much overcooked and disappointing New Year’s resolution, therefore, is especially unlikely.   Still, this New Year will find no shortage of aspirers churning them out.  Among the more popular resolutions year after year; taming the overhang and getting more fit.  With nearly two-thirds of U.S. citizens overweight and one-third obese, this laudable goal comes as no surprise.  With brave promises to self, many will focus on eating less (tubs of fried chicken, cartons of Kellogg’s Honey Smacks, stacks of super-giant sized fries, casks of soda, and, at 470 calories, venti cups of Starbucks peppermint mochas) and healthier (apparently, a little broccoli won’t kill you, or so I’m told) in one sort or another. 

Others, aspiring to gain vigor, will, at great expense, join fitness centers (you actually have to go), hire personal trainers, and buy home-fitness equipment—my favorite, the vibrating-belt weight-loss machines of the fifties, if only it worked.  Even so, some people, opting to go low-tech and at-home, will purchase do-it-yourself videos to achieve their modest fitness objectives—good luck with that. 

Many folks, just as high-principled and well intentioned, will faithfully deliver pledges to: spend more time with family, work less, quit smoking, read at least one book (easy there…a whole book?), quit drinking (no-doubt childless), payoff credit cards, or simply “be less neurotic” (your family thanks you). 

A handful others will undertake to stop posting to their Facebook pages during in-progress events and actually, rather than virtually, experience the events first person.  While a small number of others, struggling with rudimentary protocols and everyday manners, will promise a half-hearted “try”, to at least once per day, discontinue texting and petting their iPhones long enough to look up, make eye contact, and say hello to the human being standing before them, especially when it’s their own child. All valiant goals to be sure—lest the pain of discipline is worse than the pain of regret.

Yet, I say, isn’t life hard enough? Why make life more punishing than it need be? As adults, and especially for those of us who are parents, are we not coping with enough stress and drama as it is? Craft your goals of improved self in consideration of realizing them more easily, making certain they’re within comfortable reach.  This way, you’re assured to remove entirely, any possible risk of regret, guilt, disappointment, and most importantly, the substantial effort required to achieve idealistic aims—leave that to the twenty-something crusaders and activists crowd, they have tons more oomph than we do.  What’s more, by setting realistic (read easy) targets and successively accomplishing them, you can be sure to renovate your ever dwindling self-esteem too—a true win-win for all. 

That said, this year I resolve to take in generous portions of super-giant sized fries and attendant Big Macs, drink numerous venti Starbucks peppermint mochas, read zero books, smoke extra-large malodorous cigars, begin, a great deal earlier in the day, appreciating Manhattans, and text and pet my phone all the day long, because kids get plenty of eye contact in school these days anyway, and life’s too short to be shackled to unworkable cul-de-sacs of self-transformation.  

Cue the music. Should old acquaintance be forgot…

Have a Holly Jolly Christmas

by Dave Bittle. 0 Comments

 The Christmas season is a time when billions of people across the globe faithfully celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ our savior the arrival of Santa Clause and eight tiny reindeer. A time when families, many traveling vast distances, assemble to share the holiday in the tender embrace of their magnanimous families—wring hands, gritting teeth, and resurrecting erstwhile quarrels about who got Grammy’s good silver or Grandpa’s treasured pocket watch.  So, too, it’s a time when assorted come-callers and well-wishers descend upon your hacienda and your holiday merriment, presumptuous and open-mouthed, to eat up all your plum pudding and mincemeat pie. Ah yes, what a wonderful time of the year.

But, even more so, for the children, it’s a time when their imaginations are fired by thoughts of sleighs, elves, toys, and magic. A time when their promising frontal lobes are smack-dab with daydreams of Christmas cheer and holiday spirits. So jolly are the wee-ones this yuletide season as they dash about, hither and thither, nattering on about playthings aplenty, that they’re hardly able to contemplate much else. Indeed, it is something to behold, watching the kidos as they work themselves into such a frothy readiness, again, this Christmas season.  

On the other hand, the grown-ups, itching to be so enthused, are a bit green-eyed.  As these days we seem to have little to get keen about—distracted as we are by our essential pursuits, dull obligations, the wholly wretched legislative body in Washington D.C., and of course, the demise of the Hostess Twinkie. Alas, life as a grown-up hasn’t spawned the freedom or yielded the mirth this one-time adolescent foolishly assumed it might. Still, I do thank my Maker for two robust daughters (though I wish they wouldn’t bicker so much), the occasional good night’s sleep and a mostly glad colon—these are the things adults get excited about. Who knew?   

And so, for this reason, Christmastime takes on a special significance—a time when the hearts of adults, otherwise weary, heavy and cantankerous, are buoyed by the breathless anticipation of the little people closest them. 

Yet, this year is different. Unlike the mysteries surrounding crop circles or who ate the last piece of Grandma’s succulent pumpkin pie last Thanksgiving, the question of how the Razor scooters, the Hula Hoops and the Tinker Toys make their way from the Pole up north to a place resting beneath our tree, henceforth, is no longer a secret to my oldest daughter, Emma, 10. She cracked the code on the puzzle surrounding Santa Clause just this past year. And, though she now understands Santa is a tall tale told, she still gets entirely tickled at the sight of him. My wife says she has one foot stuck on both sides of the fantasy: those of the believers, like her younger sister, where she has spent most of her life, and those living in the belly of the beast—like the adults, skeptical, circumspect, enduring the shopping malls, shucking the cash, and generally suffering the grotesque commercialization of the entire holiday season—who make it all happen.  

Sadly though, now that she’s happened upon the cheerless knowledge that Santa is utter folklore, her mother and I are suddenly accountable where we hadn’t been before. Until now, it had always been Santa’s fault she hadn’t taken delivery of those uniquely special gifts, not ours. “Maybe he just forgot your super-duper, double-cute, quadruple-sparkly, uranium-driven, extra-cool, cost-prohibitive thingamajig,” I’d declare, “write to him and complain…I would.” No longer can her mother and I hide behind the fat man in the red suit; she knows who is to blame. 

So, this season, armed with this new set of truths, employing a sort of shock-and-awe persistence, she began harassing us daily and depositing mountains of post-it notes, all reading more or less the same thing: “Emma needs a phone!”, high and low, far and wide, all over the hacienda, each one designed to flag our attention and to secure the foremost thing on her list, a phone. 

Only problem is, unfortunately for her, she won’t be getting one. Following a cost benefit review, her mother and I both agree, for our purposes the costs are much greater than the benefit. With the rest of her life ahead of her, she’ll have ample time to use her own phone, to stride around, heads-down, bumping into walls, generally ignoring others while she fixates on her cellphone, there’s no need to hasten that process along. We make this decision knowing full well it will undoubtedly downgrade our child-rearing approval ranking to that of a “three decker sour kraut and toad stool sandwich with arsenic sauce.”  

Even so, you needn’t worry, as she’ll be unwrapping many terrific gifts this Christmas season including socks, underwear, pencils, erasures, DVDs, fingernail polish, and my personal favorite, the crown jewel of her 2012 Christmas gifts, an 80 page hardcover entitled “Master Geometry during your next summer break.”     

As for my youngest, Mackenzie, 7, her feet are planted right where they should be, a confident believer who still asks questions like, “Dad, why does everyone get me Christmas presents except for you and mom?” and “Why didn’t the Elf on the Shelf move last night?” All she wants this year is a Furby—and so she shall have one since it doesn’t dial, text, chime or ring. 

Yes, it’s the little people that make the holiday special, that give it meaning, as we celebrate the arrival of Santa Clause and his eight tiny reindeer.

Deck The Halls

by Dave Bittle. 0 Comments

 Still woozy from the tryptophan and a bit drained after the Thanksgiving Day work-fest, I nevertheless hopped to it cockcrow early, the morning after, to begin garnishing our address in full Christmas gaiety. Egged on by recent tradition, two little girls all agog, and a friend in an adjacent neighborhood who by then had already decorated his house in award winning fashion, my wife and I schlepped the overstuffed boxes and Rubbermaid bins, some 15 in number, up from the corners of the basement, spreading them about the living room in no particular order.    

First the trees, they’re similarly artificial and so must be assembled, we have two. I think the second tree was my idea though I regret it now for the additional toil it creates. A few years back I got tangled up in the tumult of my daughters’ holiday trimming zeal—Santa hats donned, Jingle Bells a blaring, eggnog a flowing—and the next thing I know, I’m walking out of Home Depot the satisfied customer and proud owner of counterfeit Christmas tree number two.  Another non-problem solved.  

All this is rather surprising since I have always held it a crime to own a fake Christmas tree. As a kid, I recall several instances where I stridently objected to my own mother’s suggestion that, for the sake of lessening the Christmas trimming hardship, we procure a faux one. That would be sacrilegious I remember declaring. Indeed, a real Christmas tree standing in the living room is a sight and smell to behold.  And for as long as I can remember, the once yearly quest for the ultimate Christmas tree was a look-forward experience. My discerning eye could always be trusted to find just the right one, not too portly or petite, not too immense or bony.  

Such is no longer the case, however. Having tussled with many a tree-trunk too big combined with a tree stand too small, and where the two shall meet nearly sawing off a finger or two, I finally saw the wisdom of the tree in a box approach. As you grow up, gain more experience, you tend to abandon the idealism that burdens most young people in favor of a pragmatism that only life experience can teach. 

In the same way, initial plans to affix exterior lighting to the roof-line had to be revised after fully appreciating just how high my ladder—with me perched atop it—would need to reach. As an acrophobic I realized early on that the greatness of my Christmas decorations, especially exterior lighting, would forever be constrained—it’s just something those of us with a fear of heights must learn to live with. 

Still, much can be achieved with creative ground based illumination. Though over the years I’ve grown weary of the many strings of lights that are put away functional, thoughtfully, and with great care, but that are retrieved a tangled jumble with nearly half the bulbs burnt-out, no longer operational—what does happen to all those lights during the eleven months they spend in that Rubbermaid container, safeguarded, doing nothing, in the basement?    

But hanging the ornaments is without a doubt one of my favorite parts, mostly because my wife insists on doing it herself. Apparently, I don’t do it right—I know this because she’s told me so, many, many times. So, just as any loving husband would, I offer valuable critiques free of charge all while resting comfortably on the couch, sipping cheap eggnog. 

For their part, the girls help decorate too. Though their high statistical average for breaking their mothers sentimental ornaments, combined with their tendency to want to roll, toss, bounce, or swing nearly everything they touch, especially shinny objects, often means taking one step backwards for every two steps forward. But that’s just the way kids are.   

So in the long run, just as I have come to see the wisdom of a tree that comes from a box, I now see the wisdom of leaving your Christmas decorations, less the inflatables, observable and skyward all the yearlong. No more lugging containers up from the basement, no more assembling trees or wrapping garland, no more tangled jumbles of lights or mysteriously malfunctioning light bulbs, and no more putting away all that stuff after the holidays. No, enough of that—leave it up all year. Besides, it’ll be Thanksgiving again before you know it.

The Pumpkin Patch

by Dave Bittle. 0 Comments

Of all the images of autumn—colorful trees, leaves piled high, shocks of corn, parents and children wrangling and wrestling over the need to wear a coat while Trick-or-Treating—none are so fitting, so compatible with fall, as those of the pumpkin. Yes, the simple yet handsome pumpkin. Large, medium or small. Carved, painted, or decorated with Mr. Potato-Head like adornments. The pumpkin has taken on a seasonal holiday significance that even Charles Schulz, of Great Pumpkin fame, would never have thought possible.

In recent years, however, getting to the highly regarded pumpkin has become a great deal more complex than when I was a kid. To get to the pumpkin these days, families must pass through a multi-million dollar agritainment industry all too eager to offer kids everything from jumping pillows to hayrides, corn cannons to duck races, zip lines to pig races, rope mazes to pedal go-carts, and so much more—Walt Disney himself surely would have been in high spirits with entrepreneurial admiration for the modern day farmer. 

The fair if depressing takeaway from this is, when I was a kid, these same farmers actually farmed. Nowadays though, farmers, struggling as they do to make a living and retain ownership of the family farmstead, grow corn not to feed animals, or God forbid, people, but rather, they grow corn so they can turn their cornfields into circuitous mazes where whole families flock en masse for the opportunity to bravely trek, for a fee, of course, from curious beginning to puzzling end—in some rare cases never to be heard from again. 

This year’s corn maze experience suffered a close brush with an uncertain outcome for my family and me. Nearly an hour after entering the maze and moving ever deeper into the tangle, I was struggling to find the way out—it was getting late and we hadn’t seen anyone for a while. My mounting sense of claustrophobic anxiety was becoming increasingly difficult to conceal as my daughters relentlessly queried and badgered me as to which path to take, “Which way dad?  Which way?  Should we take this path? How about that one? Dad? Daaaad? ”

“Uhh… well… let’s see.” I stammered. Using a stick as a makeshift pointer I bent down and began to scratch a series of lines into the pathway on which we stood, mostly for show, as if hatching a plan—but I was just stalling. Unsure of our exact position I grew more and more uneasy, and they could sense it. 

Fortunately for us though, my wife, who detected as much, and who consistently excels in moments just such as this, put to use her calm ways and puzzle-cracking acumen to guide us from the ambiguity post-haste. This, just as I was about to takeoff running—and screaming—directly through the ten-foot-tall cornstalks, arms thrashing about vigorously, in the direction of west, which I smartly discerned by the location of the sun on the horizon, and in which the car had last been seen. “That was a close one,” I say, “let’s pick our pumpkins and go home.”  My daughters agree, they too are thankful to be back on the wagon, though their mother just rolls her eyes—she’s probably tired I reason.

And just as you could break a branch off your neighbor’s white pine or blue spruce and call it a Christmas tree.  So too could you go to the local Safeway and pickup two pumpkins for $4 bucks, or the local nursery for $6—sadly though, this style of rearing does scarcely little to nudge the kidos’ happy meters in the direction of happy. 

Instead, do consider pointing the family truckster in the direction of what used to be your local area farm, but that which is now a well-oiled agritainment apparatus, and purchase those same two pumpkins for roughly $20 bucks, plus a handful of ancillary fees? Like the face painting fee. That’s $5 bucks. Or the stick-on tattoo fee—that’s $5 bucks also. Corn maze? That’s $5 bucks as well.   Lest we not forgot the trebushay gourd lunching fee—unironically, that too costs $5 bucks. Though this activity strangely seems worth the $5.00. As dads and children alike share the joy of watching things fly or explode, and in the course of this activity we receive the benefit of, and bear witness to, both—truly a great fall activity for dad and the kids.

But the one fee I found the most vexing. The fee that was without a doubt the most blatant money grab I’ve ever seen, was the $5.00, one-loop, less-than-sixty-second, hardly-call-it-a-ride-at-all, pony ride fee. But that an event conceived to give families and kids a fun experience should be so stingy with their otherwise unused ponies—there was no one else in line at the time and the ponies didn’t look the least bit tired, actually, they looked a little bored to me—is especially disconcerting. 

Though I’m happy to report there’s currently no fee for the petting zoo, as of yet. “Hey, don’t pet those animals.” I say to all the kids, “Haven’t you heard the Swine Flu is big this year.” Brooding, our two girls ask for just one more pony ride. “No,” I say, “we’ve had enough fun for one day. We gotta go.” 

For my family, going to the local pumpkin patch has become something of seasonal expectation—akin to putting up the Christmas tree. We’ve been doing it since they were born. Yet, doing so is not an experience one can expect to have without spending a few extra dollars. So bring your wallet, and your GPS.  Because everything has a fee, and a cornfield is probably not a fun place to spend the night, especially in October. 

Civics and Political Discourse—A Primer for All Ages

by Dave Bittle. 0 Comments

 

 

 

Turns out adults aren’t the only ones talking about the upcoming presidential election. According to my oldest daughter, Emma, 10, there has been considerable back and forth on the school bus as to whom, Obama or Romney, our next president should be. Naturally, the kids with opinions were merely aping the political views espoused at home, by their parents. 

Our prejudices, conjectures and beliefs, though altogether different than the double helix, get passed on to our kidos even so, just as eye color and temperament do. Never mind if these precepts are mistakenly formed by misinformation, special circumstances, or even idiocy, our children will nevertheless proudly cling to them as their own—for better or for worse.

Grasping this truth, I thought it wise, shrewd even, to begin my party’s cherished indoctrination process straightaway. Besides, what kind of parent would I be if I allowed reasonable discussion and thoughtful review of facts to influence my daughter’s manner of reasoning about public policy when I, her father, am perfectly capable of influencing her with my very own brand of asymmetric reasoning, partisan distortion, and cynical propaganda?   From the sound of the school bus rhetoric, however, I’m getting a late start—other parents have obviously gained an early advantage. 

Let us begin. First, I tell her to not be a critical thinker, as critical thinking is for losers—plus there’s no time for such nonsense. We’re all too busy scurrying about, this way and that, to look at each issue individually; dealing with politics on the party level is clearly the most efficient and sound way to protect her interests as a U.S. citizen. “Don’t look at the issues” I sermonize, “Vote party…my party…your party!” 

Like healthcare with its rising costs (nearly ten-times since 1980), or education with its overall failing grades (and 25% dropout rate). These issues are best left to party sages in Washington D.C., who are, by and large, really smart lawyers who are infinitely more knowledgeable (much more so than common provincials like her and me) about the complex matters of public health and intuitional learning, or anything for that matter. We’re just worker-bees I inform her. She frowns a frown only a newly disenfranchised U.S. citizen can.

On $16 trillion (or $47,000 per person) in U.S. debt, I tell her don’t worry about it—it will all work out. Just keep listening to my party, her party, our party, and keep watching our favorite 24 hour news channel, they’ll tell us how to think and feel about this most important of national security issues. If we stay devotees of our party, extol their distinctive ideology, it will all work out—they’re going to fix things.  “Trust them,” I advise her “the good days lie ahead. Just be patient”   

Regarding the tri-puzzles of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid entitlements (currently more than 40% of federal budget and projected to surpass 50% by 2020), and the ten thousand people who each day turn sixty-five, I advise her not to nuisance herself trying to formulate her own ideas and opinions about how best to solve these most complex of arithmetical riddles. Let my, her, our, selfless and dedicated party elders sort it out, they represent our country’s best and brightest, they know what is most advantageous for our country, for our family. 

And if knowledge of all this weren’t enough to send her cartwheeling for we-the-people joy, news of the collateral efforts made by the lobbying industry surely would. “The lobbying industry” I emote, “from which great charity springs forth, influence (in the best possible sense of the word) our diligent politicians to ‘donate’ tax dollars to organizations in chronic need, like the farmers ($2 billion each year to not farm) and big oil ($2.8 billion in tax breaks.)” 

“The lobbying industry” I tell her “is our inside-the-beltway sway, they protect our interests, promote our values, and tell us where to spend our money.”

Still frowning, she asks to go play. "Sure," I say "go play. But don’t forget to promote our party’s dogma, our party’s candidate, your party’s righteousness to all your friends on the school bus, and their parents whenever possible." 

So there, my job is done. Politics for pubescents, from pillar to post—and we’re all better for it I think. 

Fielding Complaints

by Dave Bittle. 0 Comments

As a recovering side-line shouter I admit to being at a fragile point in my recovery—I’m prone to sudden verbal outbursts when watching my kids play sports. Not entirely different from a Tourette's sufferer, I too struggle to overcome autonomic proclivities to yelp, bellow and bark unsolicited, unwanted and unhelpful tics from the side-lines of athletic games for which my daughters play a part.  For this reason I was asked, nay forced, to take part in a painstaking three-step program for well-intentioned but annoying side-line parent boosters. And though unpleasant for all, it was thought to be necessary according to my straight-talking daughters, who, unbeknownst to me, had decided that my vociferous side-line hullabaloo and rabble rousing had reached critical excess.  Step 1: The intervention—tuff love I think they call it. Cornering me as I shuffled from kitchen to family room, still heavy-eyed, cup of coffee in one hand, bear-claw in the other, I was defenseless. “We have a problem” they say. “The way you cheer during our games embarrasses us.”  “Wait what?” I say. “Please move, I just want to sit down and read my paper.” Blocking access to both, I had little choice but to stand there while they persisted, going on about how my shouting had made them uneasy. “You yell too much during our games.” They said. And on...my thunderous cheers of support were, in fact, not supportive at all, but rather, embarrassing. Huh?  And on...my pleas from the margins of the fields, parks and courts to discontinue twirling lacrosse sticks, braiding teammate’s hair, and holding playmate’s hands, though well-intentioned, often made them cringe. My motto then and now: Run fast, go-long, and score often, but save the twirling, braiding, and hand-holding for after the game. And on…they just wanted to hide behind the nearest bleacher, goal net, or opposing team member each and every time they heard me holler my special kind of encouragement.  And on, and on, and on…taking great care to provide many examples of their dad’s overzealous nature.  “Man, you two must have woken up on the wrong side of the bed.” I say. Step 2: The counter attack—admit nothing, deny everything and make counter accusations. With no time to prepare, I was beginning to feel shut in, a little stressed even. Still, wanting to be taken seriously, I thought is wise to remove the mass of bear-claw frosted sugar from my cheek. With both hands full, I used my only free wiping part, my under-forearm.  Regrettably, while doing so, I unwittingly smeared still more of the wonderfully tasty, industrial strength, bear-claw frosting all up in my hair. No time to clean it now. ”Yeah…well…mom cheers too!” I say.  “We’ve already talked to mom.” they counter. They’ve prepared—it’s obvious. The little bits of bear-claw icing now falling like confetti from my frosted dome gets them to giggling…I must look silly.   Sensing a shift away from the conversation, a shift away from me and my “problem,” they gathered themselves, refocused. Stopped giggling. “Seriously dad. You embarrass us when you yell our names like you do.” It was clear a more aggressive defense was needed. I reminded them that, comparatively speaking, my side-line shows of support had been mild. To my mind, several events amongst many stand out as good examples. Like the dad who (I’m not making this up) chased his tired and crying nine-year-old daughter around the cross-country course, with bull-horn in hand, blasting “Katy, if you don’t run I’ll embarrass you!” Now that guy was embarrassing—though he was too foolish to know it. Yes, that guy was a real piece of work.  Or the dad who bellowed—much to his daughter’s dismay—“Don’t tarnish my family name.” during her lacrosse game. Though in his case he may have been kidding…not sure…I hope.   And who could forget the dad who, no-so-affectionately, and repeatedly, kept calling his son “Forrest,” as in Forrest Gump, every time the poor boy got near the ball—this unfortunate kid will no doubt spend an eternity trying to please an unpleaseable father. Now he was embarrassing. And an idiot.  But me? I’m not embarrassing, I don’t make fun of them, I just encourage, “GO GIRLS, GO” I shout, using my coffee cup and bear-claw as mock pom-poms. Unimpressed, they just glare. Note to self, comparing yourself to the most egregious offenders in the room, so as to make your behavior seem less repugnant, is not an effective rebuttal strategy. Apparently their baseline for acceptable parental conduct is a considerably less animated, more laid back, still and calm individual.  Step 3: The capitulation—never easy. Dismissed out of hand were all explanations intended to illustrate my simple desire to show them my support and encouragement—knowledge of these truths was of little comfort to either of them. Threatening to ban me from all future sporting events, they both made me promise I’d put a sock in it. “No more ‘Cheering’” they said, using their quoting fingers for added effect. Like I said, not fun.  In the end the girls no doubt want me to continue to pay the registration fees for all their various lacrosse, basketball, soccer and cross-country activities. And naturally they’re asking that I continue to pony-up for all necessary equipment and clothing expenses. Here too, they’d surly like me to continue to Sherpa all essential lawn chairs, coolers, water bottles and team snacks from the car to the game and back again. But rest assured, they don’t want any more enthusiastic spectating, especially using their real names. In other words, show-up, but shut-up!