Solid Modern Parenting

Today, while playing Words with Friends, I was startled when my son, Noah (age 7), hopped up and took off down the hall. While in transit, he groaned, "I'm about to have some massive butt issues!"

I immediately exited out of Words with Friends.

He shouted from the bathroom, "You're not putting that on Twitter, are you?"
"Of course I am," I yelled back.

"But Dad! It's about my butt!"
"And it was funny. You say funny stuff about your butt, it's going to end up on Twitter!"
"Fine! Then I'm not going to talk about my butt anymore!"
That, my friends, is solid parenting.

Short Story: "Painless Separation"

[This story was the Featured Friday Fiction on With Johanna Harness' permission, I thought I'd put it up here, too. Thanks to @johannaharness for giving me this chance!]

Painless Separation

A few weeks ago, our relationship started to get rocky. No, not rocky. It got wiggly. Anyway, I knew a break-up was inevitable.

Noah and I had been together for over six years. I wasn’t his first (I was his third), but we were both so young when we got together, we basically grew up at the same time.

I remember when Noah introduced me to his parents. They loved me immediately. They coo-ed over me. “So cute!” they told him. That felt good. I’ll miss them, too.

Mostly, our relationship was… well, you know how, when people ask about a how things are going and you say, “Great,” but you don’t really mean exceptional? You just mean that there’s nothing wrong. Noah was very stable; considerate but not particularly affectionate, dependable but not passionate.

I mean, I had my little issues. His diet, for one thing. Noah loves candy. That always bothered me. He wasn’t heavy. In fact, Noah’s a skinny guy. But he was always looking for the next gummy bear the way a less moral man might keep an eye out for floozies. It irritated me. It wasn’t a serious threat to the health of the relationship or anything. But it was the one way Noah was inconsiderate, and because his sensitivity was my favorite of his qualities, that unwillingness to think about my needs bothered me just a bit.

Still, over-all, Noah was great to me. He was protective, but not in some annoying, macho way. And tender. I liked that a lot. I guess I’d always known we wouldn’t go the distance. Relationships that start when you’re so young almost never do. But I fell into a rhythm, I got comfortable, and I guess I let myself be lulled into a false sense of security.

Then, a few weeks ago, I could tell he was just not holding on to me quite so tightly. I thought about it a lot, of course. I suspected there was someone else. I wondered if I was being pushed out. But there didn’t seem to be any evidence. I just started feeling like I was …I don’t know, dangling there, somehow.

And the more I thought about it, the worse it got. Pretty soon I was hanging by a thread. His parents, who’d been so supportive at first, turned on me so quickly it shocked me.

“I think it’s time,” they’d tell him. I was right there!

His dad was the worst. Noah’s mom would just leave the room whenever the topic of our relationship came up. Like she wanted to wash her hands of the whole thing. That stung. But his dad was really in his face, actively trying to pull us apart. I don’t think I’ll ever fully forgive his dad. And the way Noah just let his dad talk to him like that, and never stood up for me… I thought I’d never be able to forgive him, either. But then…

See, it all came to a head the earlier tonight when his dad was getting in his face again.

“But it hurts!” Noah said. See? That was the kind of sensitivity I depended on. But now it had all turned to selfishness. No concern for me whatsoever.

“We won’t do it if it hurts. It can wait a little while. Maybe tomorrow night.” His dad said this in a completely calm voice. Like postponing a breakup for a single day was some great mercy.

“Okay,” Noah said. I was in agony. He was just accepting this one day delay without a word of protest? I couldn’t believe it!

I should have been outraged. Such an obvious attack on my pride should have motivated me to break it off first. I know that now. But it just made me more desperate, more clingy. Pathetic, I know.

Then his dad said, “Oh, I have an idea!”

My hopes fell. Brainstorming about our break-up and he’d had a eureka moment. How could it get any worse?

“What?” Noah asked his dad. And there was an eagerness in his voice that shook me to the core.

“Hold on,” his dad said, and ran out of the room.

He came back a moment later holding an ice cube. Both of us were confused.

“Lean your head back,” his dad told him. Then he used the ice to numb Noah.

It’s strange, because the cold didn’t just prepare him for the breakup. It calmed me down, too. This was happening, I told myself, happening right now, but somehow it didn’t bother me as much anymore.

Then his dad took a piece of string and looped it next to me, then around behind me, and then back around to the front. He gently moved the string back and forth until it slid up above me. Maybe it was just because of the ice, but this reminded me of the tenderness his dad had shown back when I first appeared on the scene. Despite all his calls for our separation, his dad was acting like he cared again. I couldn’t feel much, but it felt good, in its own strange way. In fact, it almost tickled.
Then his dad twisted the string in front of Noah’s face and pulled the ends in opposite directions, first very gently to get his hands a few inches apart, then one quick tug.

And, just like that, we were through. There may have been a sound, but I was so surprised I honestly can’t remember if it was a pop or a bam or a squelching or just silence.

Next thing you know, I was in free fall. There’s always that moment, right after a breakup, when you’re just untethered, spinning and bewildered. For me, it was very brief.

I hit bottom fast. But, to my surprise, I felt whole. I was different, but the same. Complete, but separate. We had ended. I persisted. Frankly, I still can’t wrap my mind around it. Maybe I’m still grieving. I don’t know. But that wasn’t the end of the breakup.

His dad picked me up and set me down on the bathroom counter, right in front of Noah. It gave me a whole new perspective on him. Noah wasn’t sad, and that should have hurt me. A lot. But he looked shocked, and I could identify with that.

Then Noah smiled and examined the new gap between his teeth where I’d been just seconds before. His smile grew a little, and his eyes, already wide from the speed of the breakup, warmed up as though someone had stuck needles in them and injected them with pure joy.

“Oh my gosh!” he shouted, his voice cracking on the “oh,” with the “gosh” bursting out like an untied balloon filled with awe.

And he was so happy, so overjoyed, so beautiful that I couldn’t hold a grudge. I forgave him. I forgive him and I love him.

When the tooth fairy slips me out from under Noah’s pillow and flies me off to whatever’s next, I’ll go away happy.

Parenting, Halo: Reach, and Philosophy

Today I posted this picture of Noah and I on Facebook with the caption: My favorite video game buddy.

One of my favorite former students asked, "Is getting your Halo kill ratio up really exposing your son to the kind of philosophical depth that he'll need to think deeply and appreciate the finer aspects of life?"

I explained that, though it might not have a lot of philosophical depth, it will teach him a lot about how to behave in a philosophical debate. What philosophers should learn from Halo: Reach:

-If possible, go for the (figurative) backstab.

-If they see your argument coming, go for the (figurative) headshot.

-If those don't work, throw (rhetorical) grenades and hope to take the other guy down with you.

Noah will be fully prepared to major in philosophy like his parents. But we hope he majors in engineering or chemistry because, let's face it, we were philosophy majors and are counting on him for a comfortable retirement.

What does he want to do when he grows up? Wait for it... Wait for it... Design video games.

Noah's "Yes Day!"

A few weeks ago, my son, Noah, came home from school and wrote "Yes Day" on the calendar by the fridge. He'd read a book in the school library about the new holiday, and wanted to make sure we observed it. He explained it to me, and I thought it sounded like a great idea. In essence, kids are told "No" by their parents every day of the year. So what if there were a single day when Mom and Dad had to say "Yes" to every request? Conveniently, Noah had chosen a Saturday. We couldn't have pulled this off on a week day; we would not have had time for all his ideas in the afternoon, and he invariably would have asked me to skip work. That would have been tough to explain to my boss. "Sorry, but my son asked me to stay home today, and, well, you see, it's 'Yes Day' so..."

I decided use this as an opportunity to force him to practice his writing. He had to write all his requests down in advance. Not only would this give him time to think about what he really wanted, but it gave me a chance to vet his ideas and get some "No"s in before the big day arrived. My wife, Paige, and I explained to Noah that we reserved the right to say "No" to anything extraordinarily expensive or unsafe. Paige wanted to qualify the whole thing with "as long as it's within reason," but I felt like, since that has no real meaning to a six-year-old, we'd be giving ourselves too much flexibility. We needed to have our hands tied a bit in order for this to work.

Part of what made it possible is that six-year-olds (ours, at least) do not have particularly expensive or extravagant tastes. For example, Noah wanted to go to McDonald's for lunch. I can afford that. He also wanted to go to the park and play a whole bunch of variations on tag of his own design. I can afford that, too, though I did find myself saying, "Yes, as soon as I catch my breath." I made a few suggestions to help him out. By last evening you'd have thought it was Christmas Eve.

Here's something of a run-down of the day. Paige encouraged Noah to let me sleep in a bit later than he did so I would have energy for all his big ideas (bless her!). When I woke up, he asked me to play a particular video game with him which I don't really enjoy. I said, "Yes." After his normal allotted video game time, I reminded him that if he asked for more time he'd get it, so he chose a different game I don't like very much and asked to play that one with me. I said, "Yes."

We went to lunch at McDonald's. I don't like the food there, so I have no need to eat more than the bare minimum. I hinted that if he asked me to get a Happy Meal as well, he'd get two toys. He did ask. I said, "Yes."

After he played on the McDonald's play structure for a while, we went to Circle K and he got to pick out some candy. He picked Jujubees. I think they're gross, but those were the ones he wanted, so I said, "Yes."

Loaded up with our secret stash, we went to see Rio at the local cineplex. It's in 3-D, so it cost an arm and a leg. That's not a cliche. It's an understatement. It cost a lot more than one of my arms and one of my legs would be worth on the black market. My arms and legs are hairy, knobby, pale, and stringy. Hungry cannibals would refuse my arms and legs. On of your arms and one of your legs might have purchased three 3-D tickets.

I enjoyed the movie. It wasn't up to Paige's high standards for animated movies, and I have my quibbles with some of the choices, but Noah loved the physical comedy. It's set in Brazil, so there were lots of soccer balls kicked in faces and people being knocked down by equally round butt-cheeks. Noah would bark out big lung-fulls of laughs, and those are worth more than both my arms and legs.

We came home and Paige asked to be excused from the festivities to work on a project, so Noah and I went to the park. He has this amazing ability to tell a long narrative about the good guys and bad guys, their motivations, their preferred weapons, and a landscape of invisible obstacles, all while chasing me around. And he's asthmatic. I don't get it; how can he run around and talk constantly without taking a breath one day, then need an inhaler in order to sit on the couch and watch TV the next? Maybe, if he'd breathe while playing, he could store up some oxygen for more stressful video game sessions. Anyway, I'm not asthmatic, but he ran me ragged.

We came home and he reminded Paige about the dinner request he'd written down. Wait for it... Wait for it... Mac and Cheese. "Yes."

After dinner he seemed a bit unsure about what to ask for next, so I reminded him that I wouldn't be able to say no to a third round with the Xbox 360. We played another of his games I don't enjoy very much. It turns out that I'm not very good at it, either. Paige reminded him to be patient with his old man, and he graciously acquiesced.

When it was nearly his bedtime, he asked to watch a TV show. We'd already gone well beyond the amount of time I like to let him stare at any screen in a single day, but the book makes it clear that the kid gets to stay up really late on Yes Day, and I was raised to observe holidays in a traditional fashion. I whispered that he could choose a movie, get on his PJs, and fall asleep on the couch. We flipped through the Xbox's Netflix queue and Paige and I rediscovered Robinhood: Men in Tights. We tried to sell him on it, but it only reminded him of the Disney version, so we said, "Yes" to that.

He didn't fall asleep, of course. He never does fall asleep on the couch watching anything. He asked for some ice cream, and asked if he could help scoop it. We did that together without any serious mishaps. Now I know he can scoop me a bowl in the future.

Ultimately, Paige and I made the arbitrary decision that Yes Day ends at 10:00. The book doesn't say for sure, so Noah interpreted that to mean that it ends at dawn the following day. That's a reasonable assumption, but since it was after 10 o'clock, we were allowed to say, "No."

A few times over the course of the day, Noah asked me when it would be my Yes Day and what I would do. I told him that all the things I would want to do would be too expensive, so I don't get a Yes Day. That's not entirely true. Sure, I'd probably choose things like flying off to Europe on a private jet, only to have those vetoed on expense grounds, but I might also choose to sit in my recliner all day and watch NBA basketball. I get to do that anyway, which is precisely why kids deserve a Yes Day and grown-ups don't.

I don't even want to think about the things Noah will ask for as he gets older. Having experienced a six-year-old's Yes Day, I have no interest in a sixteen-year-old's. Considering what he chose today, I think we'll make these events the tradition. Next year, he'll resent not being able to choose new activities, but I think a day of movies, video games, and hanging in the park will go back to being cool just before he dicides it's un-cool by virtue of being spent with his dad. Still, he announced that today was the best day of his life. If I force him to relive that a dozen more times before he goes off to college, that doesn't make me a bad parent, does it?

Because it was one of the best days of my life, too.

How I Got Screwed By The Tooth Fairy

Noah needed some oral surgery. This fact alone made my wife, Paige, and me feel terribly guilty. What had we done wrong? Too many sugared snacks? Not enough brushing? A sign of some more fundamental flaw in our parenting? We met with our great surgeon and he confided that his own son had needed the same surgery when he’d been in dental school. That made us feel better. Still, the whole event felt deeply unfair in every way for everyone concerned (except for the dentist who’d be making a few grand from the surgery and the anesthesiologist who charged $600 an hour). The injustice of it all served as the launching point for what would turn into something of an emotional journey, and I think I wanted to stay there on the dock, only mildly irritated, rather than let myself sail off into genuine fear.

The night before Noah went in for his oral surgery, Paige and I realized that neither of us have ever been put under for any medical procedure. She didn't tell me she was worried, so I didn't tell her, for fear I'd cause her concern. That was ridiculous. Paige is a worrier. I should have assumed she was concerned. Instead, I stayed up long after both if them were asleep, wrestling with my fears alone. I kept myself occupied with my normal late night insomniac pastimes; reading the op-ed pages of a digital handful of newspapers, listening to podcasts, opening just one more can of caffeinated soda and expecting to curse myself for going to bed with it half full, then cursing myself for finishing it. When I finally lied down I went into full-freak-out mode, allowing the worst kind of fantasies to play themselves out as waking nightmares in the darkness.

The next morning, we brought Noah in to the oral surgeon’s, after a forty-five minute drive from our small town to the slightly larger town up the highway. We were escorted into a little room and Noah sat on my lap while the anesthesiologist deftly gave him a shot before he knew what was going on. I held him and asked him to read the names of cities on a map of the U.S. on the wall, but in less than a minute his eyes glazed and his head lolled. He looked amusingly confused, but wasn't quite asleep when I laid him on the chair and left for the waiting room.

I couldn't sit still there for long. I stepped outside to grab some air, and I called my mom. When I confessed that I was nervous, she told me that Paige had posted a status update about her nervousness on her Facebook page before we'd left the house that morning. In a way, that made me feel better. My anxiety was validated, but it also gave me a job. It's my roll to be the one who says, "I'm sure it will be fine." Paige handles the worrying. Now I could focus on actively feigning confidence. I'm not sure how better poker players view bluffing, but for me a large part of bluffing involves not turning my brain off (which might appear different) but really turning it on and using the focus to make sure I don't do anything out if the ordinary. I did tell Paige about the call, and that I knew about her nervousness. Part of me wanted to let her know just how much I shared the feeling, in order to let her know she wasn't alone, as I'd felt the night before. I split the difference, telling her I was also nervous, but betraying nothing more about my anxieties with my voice or gestures.

To pass the time, I tried to shift my nervous energy to anger and disdain for Reader's Digest. I noticed a cover article about "The 100 Reasons Why We Love America". I flipped to the article, expecting a piece of piss-poor journalism. List articles are notoriously lazy. Also, I thought the theme of the piece would dictate something either painfully schmatzy or infuriatingly jingoistic. It tended toward the former, but it didn't disappoint in the piss-poor journalism department. I took notes to rail about it later on my blog, but when I told Paige about it she said it just sounded cruel. Which it was. But I still stand by my disdain for Reader's Digest.

Unfortunately, with the air drained out of my anger balloon, and with all the gears whirring in my head, I found myself contemplating the most horrid possibilities, outcomes so terrible I can't bring myself to describe them fully here. I wouldn't go so far as to say this was some kind of preemptive grieving. Instead, I imagined my own inability to participate in that kind of grief. It was like an extended trailer for an epic film about catatonia.

Then, Noah had the gall to draw things out further. The surgeon came out to tell us all had gone well, but Noah was choosing to take his sweet time in waking up. He came out a few more times to give us updates on Noah's continued unconsciousness. At this point I'd stopped worrying, but my anxiousness to see my boy grew and grew. It reminded me of those nights before my family would go to Disneyland when I was a kid; I'd lie in bed and remind myself that I needed to sleep to maximize my fun the next day, but I'd also be aware that every passing second of consciousness brought me closer to that moment when I'd see the Matterhorn rising above the skyline of Anaheim. Noah, half awake and wanting to be held by his daddy: That was my Matterhorn now.

Eventually the surgeon told us that, though most kids take about twenty minutes to wake up, in some cases it could be much longer, and the anesthesiologist had even called a colleague who told her about a case where the kid slept for seven hours. Noah didn’t break any records, but he slept for 900 more dollars of the anesthesiologist’s time.

After putting four grand in his mouth, Paige and I now had to calculate how much the tooth fairy would leave under his pillow that night for the teeth we’d paid to have removed. My next task is going to be haggling with my dental and medical insurance companies to convince them that they should take on some of these costs. So far they’ve covered $1500 (the $4000 is beyond that) of the surgery and refused to touch the anesthesiologist’s bill, on the grounds that it was elective, as though a five year old would have sat still under local anesthetic while a couple of his teeth were removed. I think, in the name of justice, the insurance companies should not only pay for the surgery and anesthetic, but because of their initial refusal, the time it will take to argue with them, and the stress at having our savings entirely depleted, if and when they finally relent they should have to hire someone to break into my house in the night (with any costs of damage added to the total) and silently slip a check under my pillow. That would really be the only fair way for the story to end.

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