Friday, June 27, 2014

Talking about Death and Asking for Help

In a few hours, my wife and I are meeting with a lawyer to sign the final version of the living will we set up for our kids. A couple weeks ago, we sat down in a comfy law office and hashed out the details of who would take care of our kids, our medical decisions, and our stuff in the case of some kind of tragedy. There's nothing like talking about all of the different possible combinations of deaths in the family, and what will become of your children in each different scenario, to force you to confront your own mortality. Like a lot of our peers, we dragged our feet on this important matter because of the ickyness of discussing our worst fears. As a people, we're kind of superstitious about discussing death. It's a topic that has a power over us, and a stigma, despite its absolute universality.

After the first meeting with the lawyer, I felt a sense of relief for having prepared for almost any existential eventuality. This was partially because my friend Oren Miller was on my mind. I met Oren first through dad blogging, and then in real life. He's smart and funny, an excellent writer, and a dedicated stay-at-home dad to two young kids. He also started up and moderates what has become a huge community of dad bloggers--a facebook group that's nearly 800 strong. It has become my--and many others'--main online forum for celebrating, griping, sharing, brainstorming, crowdsourcing, and dick jokes. Oren is the guy who has to rein in this bunch of opinionated, verbose dudes when the conversations get heated, and he does so gently but definitively. He's a mensch.

Last month, Oren went to the hospital with back pain, and came out with a crushing diagnosis of Stage 4 lung cancer that had spread to other organs. The prognosis is brutal: maybe a year left to spend with his family. He wrote beautifully about his situation here. I won't try to summarize what he had to say--you should read it--except to mention that, in addition to my heart breaking for his family, my head was nodding in agreement that once you have kids, the significance of your own mortality is less about how scary it is personally, and more about how it affects others.

In addition to observing the stigma associated with talking about death, we also tend to be ashamed and reluctant to ask for help. This is probably something we should get over. Oren has been stoic throughout this ordeal, but at the end of his post about his diagnosis, he asks anyone in contact with his family to help him out by treating his survivors in the ways that will encourage them to move toward happiness. This strikes me as one of the wisest and most selfless ways to establish one's legacy.

But without having asked for it, Oren's family has also been receiving financial help thanks in part to his brothers in the dad blogging community. One of our members, Brent Almond, set up a fund through Give Forward, with the modest goal of raising a few thousand dollars to send Oren and his family on a vacation. After receiving some attention in the blogosphere and mainstream media, however, the fund has far exceeded the original goal, and is closing in on $30,000, a sum that could help with medical expenses, and even become the seed money for a college fund for his kids.

So here's me asking for help. Please read Oren's story and keep his family in your thoughts. And if you have a couple bucks to spare, consider donating them to Oren's Give Forward fund. Here's the url again:


Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Good Morning, Five-Year-Olds

My mom still calls my sisters and me on the eves of our respective birthdays to say, "Goodnight, x-year-old." Then the next day, she calls again and says, "Good morning x+1-year-old!" She's been doing that since before I was born, I think. But she didn't call us when we were kids. She mostly, you know, said it in person.

Yesterday, I made the terrible mistake of trying to work from home a little bit while taking care of the girls, which made me wonder whether it was worse for kids to get yelled at by a parent all day than it is for them to stare at a TV. Often, they will play make-believe quietly for hours on end. Other times they go on wild rampages, leaving carnage in their wake. Yesterday was a rampage day. They snarled at one another, pestered me with accusations about how the other one had committed some unspeakable crime against them, and sometimes just ran screeching through the house. I could have fixed this by taking them to the park. But I really just had to make a couple phone calls. I could have plopped them in front of a movie and they would have zombied out for an hour and a half. But they were going to watch a movie at a benefit event we were to attend that evening, and too much screen-time is no good. So they got scream-time instead.


They essentially shrugged in response.

Shortly after going off on them, I started rushing them around so they would be ready to ride their bikes to this fundraising thing for the kindergarten they will be going to in September. KINDERGARTEN! IN A COUPLE MONTHS!

They jumped on their bikes (from which I'm hoping to remove the training wheels before they go to big-kid school), and I on my skateboard, and we headed to the brew pub that has partnered up with our school foundation.* (Mom had to stay home and work.) We took the same route that we will take to get to school in the fall. In fact, we cut through the playground to get to the pub.

Between our house and the school is a pretty big hill: probably a hundred feet of elevation gain in two blocks. It gets my heart rate up when I ride it on my bike. A few weeks ago, I would have had to push both of the kids on their bikes the entire way up. Last night, Maddy put the hammer down and charged almost all the way to the summit, her sturdy little legs relentlessly pushing that one big gear. Livvy made it about two-thirds of the way up with no help, requiring just a couple shoves to make it to the top.

At the event, the kids hung out with their friends, watched some of the movie in the special room we had reserved, but then asked if they could go to the designated kids' area of the main restaurant where they were showing a different video. They held hands as they navigated by themselves through the forest of grownups' legs, and settled in some bean bag chairs in the play space, while I chatted with other parents.

We rode home with their friend and her parents, cruising through the twilit neighborhood. Maddy and Livvy encouraged their younger friend, who was being a little timid on the bike, to hop curbs and not ride the brakes on the descents. I could barely keep up on my skateboard, and nearly bit it a couple times.

When my wife and I tucked them in, still a little wired from the exhilarating ride, I said, "Good night, four-year-olds."

As always, after they were asleep, I felt lucky and proud and profoundly in love.

I used to hold grudges against people. I guess I still do. Or, more accurately, I write people off. Shut them out if they get to be too much trouble. But these two, no matter how awful they get--or I get--every morning starts fresh. The days we spend together are full of peaks and valleys, and very soon, we're not going to sharing nearly as many of them. They'll be at school full time. I'll be at work. I can't say I'm stoked about that. Even the not-so-great days go too fast.

Fifth birthday AND pajama day at school: win-win

*If you wonder why I've been involved in the school foundation before my kids even go there, you can read this thing I wrote for NY Times last year. A lot has changed since then--all for the better.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

The Mother's Day Father's Day Birthday Post.

There is so much stuff I've meant to write here, but I just can't seem to get around to it. I've been doing quite a bit of freelancing, and carpentry, and parenting, and volunteer stuff for the school where the girls will go to kindergarten next year. And I'm just not into staying up all night anymore. So the blog languishes.

One of the reasons I started this blog was to have a record of what the girls have been doing, and I'm sucking at that. I mean, they learned to ski, for crying out loud! I could have written volumes about that, especially because it was my parents who really taught them. It just seems weird to write about it now that it's pretty much summer time.

Love the shirt. Hate selfies.
Anyway, I mostly just wanted to publish an email I got from my mom (with her permission, of course), since its one of those stories I've heard for most of my life, and it's really best told by her.  The setup was that my parents gave me a cool shirt for my birthday, and I posted a selfie of me wearing it on facebook, which prompted the email from my mom.

Also, this story pretty much covers a) my birthday, which was on May 30, b) Mother's Day (because this shows how awesome my mom is) and c) Father's Day, because it's partly a story about my dad and there's a picture of the two of us, and d) our cabin in Montana, where I'm taking the girls next month, and knowing my track record of late, I probably will neglect to share that here.

Hi, Andy -
Your comment about your cool birthday shirt made me think about your 3rd birthday. Do you remember it?
We lived in Missoula, and your Dad was in Viet Nam. I had discovered and bought the Flathead lake property early that spring. We were excited about spending some time there, and I bought a little camper trailer. I got a trailer hitch for the ‘66 GTO coupe (triple deuce, I’m told), hooked up the camper, and took off for the cabin site with you, your sisters, and Granny Goose. At that time, I didn’t even KNOW that I didn’t know how to back up a trailer! So we drove over the hilly, narrow dirt road and found a flat place at the top of our new property. We played around the shore, explored the mountainside and finally had a birthday cake in our new camper, talking about spending the night in it for the first time. Your present was a blue shirt, which you loved. You called it your birthday shirt.
May 30 was really a time to celebrate! It was your birthday and your Dad was due to come home the next evening after a year (his second tour) in Viet Nam. We were having a great party, as we always did with Granny Goose. Then I started thinking about what time I needed to leave the lake the next day to get to the Missoula airport in time to meet the plane from San Francisco.  Suddenly I remembered that we were dealing with the international dateline. Dad was coming home, not tomorrow, but TONIGHT. Needless to say, we abandoned camp and hurried home.
Well, I got to the airport and met my returning hero. Drove him home to the Dickinson house, and after lots of hugs and catching up with a year’s worth of kid stories, what he really wanted was a shower. After all, he had been traveling for more than 24 hours. He always has to add to this story that the shower backed up on him and he had to start out his post-war life with a plumbing problem.

Dad and me at the lake, shortly after my 3rd birthday
Here's the most recent thing I wrote for The Daily Beast. It's Father's Day related. 

Friday, March 21, 2014

Remember Four and Three Quarters

We're having good days these days; some of them back-to-back.
It's a jinx to mention this, I know;
But a curse to forget

We've had self-control,
Backed away from the bitter brink,
Negotiated like neighborly nation states.

It's a sweet spot.
Even the dog is onto it.
The two sisters play for hours and days, with ponies and pirates;
push and pull and patch it up. They hardly need me.

They hug hard.
Hug Mom ten times before she goes to work.
Hug hundreds of times, as much as I can handle, crashing and climbing,
Hanging, cantilevering, daredevil upside-down hugs.
Collapsed, deadweight, sleep-sweat hugs.

They're long in my arms when I see us reflected in a window,
One a bag of pythons, the other a barrel of birds.

Half a year from big-kid school,
They're so small when they reach up.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Just in case you thought I was dead

Hi! I'm not dead! I've been really busy building stuff and doing kid stuff, and doing some writing, but not so much in this space. Life is full and rich and interesting and dizzying.

This just occurred to me: Kids, like grownups, are sometimes inconsistent in their thinking. For instance, the other day, after watching a movie, walking around a fun part of town, stopping for hot chocolate, getting a treat from Ye Olde Candye Shoppe, pizza from our favorite joint, receiving an unexpected boon of awesome toys from an almost-stranger, playing with said toys for hours on end, one of my kids announced, "This was the most boring day ever!"  I asked her what a good day would be, and she answered, "A good day is when there are no parents and we can do whatever we want."

Today--about an hour ago--that same kid was crying at preschool drop-off (which hasn't been problematic in over a year, until recently), and said, "I don't like going to school because I miss Mommy and Daddy all day." Go figure.

Look! I (micro) posted on the blog!  Read on for something I wrote in San Diego Uptown News.  Following that, there's a teaser and a link to something I wrote recently for the Atlantic that I thought was pretty funny and a lot of people didn't get. Whatevz.


 What a Clown Taught Me about Work-Life Balance

There aren’t very many things that I’m really, really good at, but I’ve always felt like I’m kind of a master at the “work-life balance” that eludes so many of us—especially, it seems, those of us with kids.  Of course, I usually err on the side of “life,” and have bailed on a couple of careers that interfered with it too much.  And thankfully, I have been able to spend the past four years (since my twin girls were born) scheduling my work around my kids, which has tilted the scale way over to the “life” side.  Next year, my kids will be in kindergarten, which will leave me more time to work.  The balance shifts back and forth with time, and I hear that careers can be very fulfilling, but most of us hope to have more memories of quality time with friends and family than of punching the clock.

Last weekend, however, I met a dad who made me look like an amateur work-life balancer. 

To hear Jon and Laura Weiss tell it, they never planned for the life they have now.  They met in high school, married some years later, and started a family with whom they now spend almost all of their hours, on the job and off.  According to them, it all just kind of fell into place.  But it’s hard to imagine that the line of work Jon, Laura, and now all three of their kids are in doesn’t require an extraordinary, innate sense of balance.  The Weisses are circus folk.

I got the opportunity to meet Jon and Laura and their kids when my family and I went to see Circus Vargas at Mission Bay Park.  (They have moved on from that location, but will be in Mira Mesa until March 3rd, after which they set up in Temecula, so you can still catch them pretty close to home.)  I think I must have been expecting them to be shifty-eyed vagabonds or something, because I was very pleasantly surprised to find that they were some of the most open, friendly, laid-back people I’ve met.  Jon introduced us to his two teenaged boys who were manning concession stands and acting like teenaged boys; i.e., rolling their eyes at Dad’s jokes and exuding the impression that they knew much more about the circus biz than the old man did.

When we were done embarrassing the boys, we went to the “back lot” behind the big-top, to see where the circus families live.  According to Jon, Circus Vargas is definitely a family affair.  Many, if not most, of the performers and crew travel with their families.  There is a trailer that, when not on the road hauling equipment, functions as a school for the dozen or so kids who are enrolled this year.  Many of the kids will go into the circus business—some of the performers’ families have been in it for several generations—and some won’t.  Laura and Jon’s eldest daughter, whom we met briefly while she was on her way to get into costume and makeup, is continuing the family tradition.

Jon and Laura invited us into their home for the brief time before the performance was to begin.  While the interior was tasteful and neat, I have to say that the landscaping (dust and woodchips) left something to be desired.  Of course, every few weeks, they hook their home up to the back of a dually pickup truck and join the caravan to the next performance location.  I sometimes feel hemmed-in by our narrow, 1200-square foot cottage; but all five Weisses (and their tiny dog) live in a 43-foot fifth wheel trailer.  My kids were fascinated by this house-on-wheels, especially the big-screen TV tuned to the Disney Channel. 

As we lounged around in their kitchen, the Weisses explained how they ended up as a circus family.  Jon graduated from clown college in 1981 and planned on performing for a year or so, while he figured out what he was really going to do with his life.  Laura joined him at Ringling Brothers a couple years later, and they ended up staying with that organization for 26 years before moving on to Circus Vargas.  It turns out we had a lot in common with the Weisses, between moving from the East Coast to California (Circus Vargas mostly stays in the Golden State), traveling, raising kids, being shot from cannons…oh, wait—I never actually did that.  The point is, they seemed like the kind of people who had figured out how to live in a way that made them happy, and those are the kind of people I really like hanging out with.

The circus itself is very kid-centric.  There’s a pre-show (don’t miss this if you have kids!), hosted by Jon and Laura, where the children come out to the ring and learn tricks like hula-hooping, juggling scarves, and balancing peacock feathers.  If you don’t find this adorable, you are dead inside.

Once the pros take over, it goes from cute to mind-blowing pretty quickly.  I have to admit that my opinion of the performance may have been colored by seeing my four-year-olds literally agape and applauding wildly for most of the show.  It was a classic circus performance—thrilling, silly, amazing, cheesy, and just a lot of fun.  It also has the benefit of not having any animal acts, so we didn’t have to feel terrible about our complicity in the degradation of noble jungle beasts. 

There are very few things more engaging than seeing your small children losing their minds with excitement; and yet I still found myself reflecting, as I watched Jon Weiss balance progressively bigger things on his nose and chin—a dollar bill, a shoe, a hat, a folding table, a Costco-sized shopping cart, a 12-foot stepladder:  they’ve got a pretty good thing going, these circus families. 

As usual, I grilled the kids afterwards to see what their impressions of the show were.  They loved it all, especially the parts where some fire turned into a lady, and the guys jumped on the trampoline, and the lady changed her clothes a lot, and Mr. Jon balanced a shopping cart, and…and…and.
“So, what do you want to be when you grow up,” I asked.

“Circus girls,” they both said.

I hope they take me with them.     


Your Workout Looks Ridiculous 

Have you ever seen people riding those two-wheeled elliptical trainer contraptions? It looks like they just tore free of their moorings at the gym and started cruising down the street. Are they supposed to be scooters, NordicTracks, bikes, or what? They should decide whether they want to run or ride a bike or cross-country ski. They look ridiculous.

Of course, so does most exercise. We humans face an inherent conflict: Our bodies are meant to subsist on only the foods we can hunt down, scavenge, or coax from the earth by endless sowing, tending, and reaping. But our actual lifestyles consist of sitting on soft chairs and eating unlimited, delicious, and inexpensive calories. As a result, we engage in outlandish activities that are, when considered objectively, completely preposterous.
While less jarring than the sight of someone riding a piece of cardio equipment from the gym down the street, cyclists are a bit of an eyesore themselves, what with their loud, matching Lycra shorts and jerseys emblazoned with logos of Italian bikes that cost more than most of the cars I’ve owned.

By the looks of these Spandex harlequins, they’re more obsessed with their outfits, shiny components, and carbon-fiber frames than with the actual riding of their bikes, which, by the way, is accepted by much of the world as a means of transportation for people who wish they had cars.

Runners, on the other hand, with their minimalist equipment and dedication to doing only the most primitive and laborious of human physical activities, are the ascetic monks of exercise. It looks like a penance as they chug grimly along in whatever unpleasant conditions nature throws at them. Their faces weather-beaten and haunted, and their dead eyes fixed on the horizon, they seem just steps ahead of their personal demons, usually nursing a half-dozen or so repetitive-stress injuries.

I'm only allowed to post a teaser here, so please read the rest at The Atlantic...

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

The Time I Took My Daughters to Hooters

I had hoped I would be able to swing by my house before going to Hooters.  I had been building cabinets all day and didn't really want to show up in grungy work clothes, my face and arms smeared with a paste of sweat and sawdust.  But traffic was bad between the Valley of Gated Subdivisions and the Valley of the Malls, so there was no time for a side trip to my home on the Mesa of Partial Gentrification.

I parked my pickup and jogged to the entrance, not wanting to squander the goodwill of the corporation, which had graciously offered to host my family at the House of Owl, by showing up late.  The young (like, really young) hostess at the front desk greeted me, and I tried to explain myself.  I gave her my name, told her that I was supposed to ask for the manager, that she was expecting me...did any of this ring a bell?

"Oh, yes, of course...we have a table waiting for you [something something unintelligible] you're from corporate?"

My hearing is pretty bad (guitars and Skilsaws), and there was quite a bit of ambient noise happening.  Also, the hostess spoke a version of Flirtatious Teenage Southern Californian that was very unfamiliar to my ear.  I moved to San Diego at age 36, so while I've heard this dialect in movies all my life, it's sometimes harder to parse on the ground.

"Yes.  No.  Wait.  I don't know if I understood you.  I was supposed to ask for Sandy?  Somebody from PR made arrangements?"

She didn't seem to understand my Boring Grownup accent, but nodded and led me to a booth with a big "RESERVED" sign taped to the table.  She never stopped smiling for a second during the exchange.  I could see the ghost of recently removed braces on her teeth.  She wore...well, you know what she wore: a tight tank-top with the Hooters logo on the chest, silky orange high-waisted shorts, nylons, scrunchy socks, and white sneakers.  That's what all the ladies wore, except for the manager, who came over to welcome me as I took my seat.  The manager was allowed to wear jeans and a shirt with sleeves.  Which probably gave her a great sense of authority over the wait staff.

Because let's be honest.  The Hooters outfit projects nothing if not vulnerability.  At least that's what I thought as I scanned my surroundings.  The shirts seem pretty easy to pull off  [honestly unintentional double entendre--I caught it while proofreading and am leaving it] for a woman who is reasonably fit, especially given the advances in bra technology over the past few decades.  But those shorts?  Who ever thought those were a good idea?  And then pantyhose?  Look, I'm not usually one to cast aspersions on anyone's sexual or aesthetic predilections; but whoever continues to enforce the bottom half of the Hooters uniform is a sick bastard.  There were a bunch of attractive young ladies working in that restaurant, all of whom would have looked fifty times better in anything other than those shorts.  Remember the Seinfeld episode about "Bad Naked"?  That's what this scene reminded me of.  Women who probably looked lovely in their street clothes, hunching over to wipe tables, straining under trays full of fried chicken parts, singing their special song to the diners who raised their hands when an announcement asked anyone who was celebrating something to identify themselves, all wearing what looked like the product of a sadistic PE teacher's twisted fantasy.  The uniforms may have worked in the context of beach volleyball or cheerleading; but when combined with food service drudgery, there was nothing sexy about them.  The visual effect wasn't exactly horrifying or anything; it's just that the flimsy little outfits invited examination of every flaw in posture and proportion.  I mean, the whole ethos of the restaurant invites the customer to feast his or her eyes on the "Hooters Girls."  And to feast is to judge the fare.  I was trying not to be a snooty, socially conscious killjoy about this experience--just soaking it all in in the spirit in which it was offered--and yet it all made me immediately uncomfortable.  Because I couldn't imagine that these women were comfortable, knowing they were being scrutinized by assholes like me while they wore outfits that amplified every imperfection in their bodies.

But maybe I'm projecting.  Maybe I'm getting it completely wrong.  Maybe they love going to work every day, and their outfits give them the confidence of a feminist superhero: "I am Hooter Girl--hear me roar!  I have a real body that's not photoshopped and you'd better just eat your fried pickles and get used to what women look like in giant orange panties and tank tops!  Death to the Patriarchy!  Free wings with the purchase of a Hooters Girl Bikini Calendar!"

I sat for less than a minute before another young lady slid into the booth with me, told me her name, and said, "I'll be your Hooters Girl tonight."  Not "I'll be your server," or "I'll be taking care of you."  No.  "I'll be your Hooters Girl tonight."  My discomfort must have been palpable.

She walked me through the beer list, which started with Bud and Bud Light, and, to the franchisee's credit, eventually got around to a local craft brew, which I ordered with something close to desperation in my voice.

"Would you like that in a Hooters Girl size or a Man size?" she asked.

"What the..."  I sputtered.  "That's a really dirty trick.  Does any guy ever order a Hooters Girl sized drink?"

"Not very often," she answered.  "But you can.  Some guys do.  Or so I hear.  Do you want a Hooters Girl sized beer?"

"Of course not!" I said, all my gender-norm-challenging pretensions dissolving as this gauntlet was thrown down.  "I'll have the Man size!  Unless there's something bigger available."  I was quickly able to rationalize this capitulation by reminding myself that I would have opted for the larger beer regardless of the sexist labels.

I had sat awkwardly alone at the booth for no more than five minutes before my wife and four-year-old twin girls walked in, but I don't know when I have been happier to see them.  My wife looked particularly radiant to me in her stylish yet modest work clothes, and my children looked like models from a Tea Collection catalog.  It wasn't their contrast to the other customers that was so striking--the crowd wasn't particularly seedy, and in fact there were other couples with young kids there.  I think it had something to do with how much better my family makes me feel about myself.  I was no longer self-conscious about being a grubby middle-aged dude in a place where people go to leer at waitresses.

Was I overthinking this?  Of course.  That's what I do, in general; and Hooters had been on my mind for a while.  I wasn't taking my family to dinner at Hooters on a lark, exactly.  You see, I had written an article for The Daily Beast a few weeks earlier, wherein I recounted an incident in which an acquaintance had taken his adolescent son to Hooters in what seemed to me like a (probably unintentional) rite of passage into the time-honored tradition of objectifying women.  In the article, I mentioned that I had never actually set foot in a Hooters myself, and that my impression of the institution was from reading about it and perusing its website. 

Days after the article was published, I got an email from a PR person who wanted to give me a chance to see how awesome and not-gross Hooters really is.  I parlayed the offer of a meal on the house for me to free dinner for my whole family, and so there we were.

It may seem hypocritical that I would censure another parent for taking his 12-year-old boy to Hooters and then turn around and take my own children there a couple weeks later.  I can totally see that.  But my kids are four.  The subtleties of gender relations are a bit beyond their ken.  The following is a breakdown of the observations they made that night:

Regarding the atmosphere: "There are a lot of TVs in here."

Regarding our Hooters Girl: "She says 'awesome' a lot."

Regarding another Hooters Girl who checked on our table: "I can see her belly button."

As for my and my wife's impressions, we both thought the shorts were terrible, the food was just as mediocre as we had expected (although the crab legs, which I was shocked that my wife ordered, were surprisingly good), and we didn't understand why anyone who wasn't interested in scantily-clad waitresses would ever go there.  The service was great (but tinged with sexual weirdness if you can't get yourself to forget that you're eating in a restaurant whose very name reduces women to pairs of boobs), and oh my God do they have a lot of complicated special offers and calendars and swag and free wings on certain days and other cost-saving schemes to inspire you to become regular customers.  I was so impressed that our Hooters Girl could remember all that stuff that I almost forgot about her breasts for a minute there.

And believe me, if you've never been in a Hooters, they make it difficult for you to not think about breasts for more than a couple seconds.  There's the name of course:  Hooters.  The franchise has been around for so long and become such a part of the cultural landscape by now that it may not even register that "hooters" is (or was) one of the most common vernacular/crude/offensive-to-some terms for breasts; and they didn't name the restaurant "Hooters" because they sell owl meat, despite what the logo may suggest.  And then there are the outfits.  The breast theme continues on their menu too, where there are little jokes like "Double-D" and "More than a mouthful" worked into the names of dishes. 

So there you are, being bombarded with reminders that boobs are awesome and there for your pleasure, and then your server, who is half your age, wiggles up to take your order, and tries to get you to buy the Hooters Girl calendar, in case you want to stare at pictures of young ladies in bikinis during the times when you can't be at Hooters.  AND YOUR WIFE IS SITTING RIGHT THERE.  MAYBE SHE WOULD LIKE A CALENDER FOR HER OFFICE AS WELL.  W.T.FUCK?  I can see this being no big deal if it were a bunch of guys out together, or even a group of men and women where it was all for a risqué chuckle; but as a family outing, I found it to be just about the strangest dynamic possible, mainly because we were supposed to pretend that there was nothing odd about being all together in a place that encouraged Daddy to ogle and fantasize about the nice ladies who brought the food while Mommy and the kids colored the placemats.  It would be a little odd if a waitress in a neighborhood restaurant flirted with me in front of my wife; but I would just figure she was angling for a good tip.  But this is a place that says, "Come on in! Look at our tits!  And our weird orange shorts, if you're into that kind of thing!  Bring your family!  It's all good clean fun!"

I'm not a prude, and I don't hate myself for finding women's bodies attractive.  I really don't.  But I just don't get Hooters.  I tried to approach this with an open mind and leave my snobbery and self-righteous progressive values in the cab of my dirty pickup, but the fact that a boob-themed restaurant is a mainstream, strip-mall thing where people sometimes chose to go with their spouses and kids...I just don't get it.          



Friday, January 3, 2014

That's Not Fair: Teaching Kids to Share

This was first published in San Diego Uptown News


This tearful, gasping lament regularly resounds through our house.

The counteraccusation--“LIVVY’S STEALING MY STUFF!”--inevitably follows.
My four-year old twins have had a sense of ownership since they were babies; but now they have much more sophisticated ways to express their feelings about the inanimate objects that surround them.  Whereas they used to cut right to the chase, these days, thanks to their parents, Wonder Pets, and the gospel of the preschool social contract, they are able to first spend several minutes hurling indictments at each other before the conversation devolves into screams of “MINE! MINE! MINE!” and mutual whacks on the head.

Children are notoriously bad at taking the long view.  This is what makes imparting the concept of sharing so difficult.  Here’s how one of my attempts played out, after I broke up a full-contact kickboxing bout:
Livvy: [hysterical] Maddy’s...*sob*...not...sharing!

Me: Well, sweetie, you can’t just go up and take something out of her hands while she’s playing with it.  That’s not sharing--that’s just taking whatever you want, without thinking about what the other person wants.
Livvy: But I waaaaaant it!

Me: I know.  But so does Maddy.  So you have to wait until she’s ready to share.  Just think if you had something Maddy wanted.  You wouldn’t want her to come up and grab it, would you?  If you take something from Maddy without permission, that’s just not fair.

Livvy:  It’s fair for me.

When we tell children why sharing is important, we usually emphasize the goodwill that it creates, and the warm feeling you get when you make someone else happy; but it’s the rare preschooler who can relate to these lofty notions.  I’ve found some success in resolving conflicts of ownership by lecturing about what the world would be like if no one shared.  I’ll go on until the child can’t stand it anymore and drops the toy just to get me to stop talking.  Failing that, I resort to the basic elements of parenting preschoolers: bribes and threats.

According to psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg’s classic research regarding the stages of moral development, as we grow up, we have different motivations for “being good.”  In the first (“pre-conventional”) level, we simply want to avoid getting in trouble, and take advantage of whatever benefits accrue from doing what we are told.  As we mature, our morals are influenced by societal norms and laws (the “conventional” level).  Eventually, we can hope to develop our own personal set of principles (the “post-conventional” level), which are more supple than laws and other conventions, and can be thoughtfully applied to complex dilemmas.

But let’s face it: few of us ever get beyond the “what’s-in-it-for-me” pre-conventional stage when it comes to sharing our toys.

Sure, we’ll share a piece of gym equipment with a stranger, and maybe even a table at a restaurant, just so we won’t be perceived as jerks, and only insofar as it doesn’t actually inconvenience us.  If someone--even a spouse or loved one--asked for half of your sandwich, though, or the iPad you were watching “Breaking Bad” on, you would be like, “Have you lost your mind?”

I can identify with children’s reluctance to share things they care about; but the problem is that they care too much about stupid stuff.  They don’t differentiate between the mundane and the truly valuable.  A broken crayon or a specific fork is just as crucial to their happiness as is their most cherished lovey; and the attractiveness of a worthless object multiplies exponentially if anyone else expresses any desire for it.  Which they inevitably do, because an object, no matter how useless, shimmers with desirability when another child is holding it.  I’m pretty sure that I’m not the only parent of siblings who knows the frustration of having to broker peace over a crumpled magazine subscription form scavenged from the recycling bin.

While preschoolers can be sweet and adorable, they are, at their core, covetous, materialistic, self-serving mercenaries who would throw their siblings under a bus for an 89-cent party favor.  When my kids are at school, they (mostly) follow rules and repeat the mantras of good behavior their teachers feed them as part of the socialization process.  And for that I am thankful in the extreme.  But when it’s just the two of them, they use those words to justify tormenting each other.  “I need space!” one of them will shout, while stiff-arming the other.  “She’s not listening to my words!” becomes a perfectly valid reason to pinch an arm or throw an awkward punch to the midsection.  Likewise, “She’s not sharing” means “I WILL have that broken slinky, if I have to disembowel her first!”

Like the teachers at my kids’ preschool, I preach the abstract foundations for “good behavior,” and hope that they will internalize them, and maybe, unlike many adults, someday come to understand and believe them.  But when passions are high, it’s all about sticks and carrots.  Well, sticks mostly:

“If you don’t give your sister that--what is that, anyway?  A refrigerator magnet with a picture of a mortgage broker on it?--anyway, if you don’t give that back right now, I’m putting your Cinderella’s shoes in time out.”

“That’s not faaaaaiiir...”

“It’s fair for me.”


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