Monday, September 08, 2008

Nothing Went As It Was Supposed To, and Everything Was Perfect.

For those of you out there who aren't as experienced or capable as I am, let me give you a simple rule to follow: 99% of life boils down to proving your kids don't like the things they say they like.

I devised that rule this last weekend, when I finally won my nearly two-year-old battle with The Boy about whether he likes pepperoni pizza or not. He doesn't like it; I know that, and he knows that but won't admit it. I know he doesn't like pepperoni pizza because nobody over the age of 12 likes pepperoni pizza; pepperoni pizza exists solely for little kids, who eat it because it looks like polka dotted pizza and little kids like polka dots. Grown-ups and big kids don't eat pepperoni pizza because it doesn't taste good.

I proved this weekend that The Boy does not actually like pepperoni pizza, despite his insistence that he does actually like pepperoni pizza. I don't know why he's clinging to it like a security blanket, but he is, and it's been my mission in life to prove to him that he doesn't like it so he can move on to the next phase of his life, a phase that hopefully will include cleaning up his room, or at least will include not actively messing up his room.

This past weekend was the Babies! second birthday. We celebrated it the way we celebrate every major event in our lives, which is to make plans to do things, and then not do any of the things we actually planned to do, and also by running errands.

The actual birthday was Friday, September 5, a day that was supposed to be for taking the Babies! to one of their two favorite activities, either swimming or the park, depending on the weather. They love to go swimming in the deep pool, where Sweetie and I carry them around and help them put their faces under water; and they love to go to the park and swing for hours on end, just back-and-forth and back-and-forth.

But we didn't get to either of those activities in the morning, because we were too busy showing them the slide we'd gotten them for their birthday, a four-foot-tall plastic slide that met both my and Sweetie's criteria for a birthday present. Sweetie wanted to get them a slide because she thought they'd like it and because it would give them an additional toy to play with in the coming months. I wanted to get them anything that was both big and could be used in potentially dangerous ways.

Mr F and Mr Bunches didn't let me down, either -- they'd been on the slide for about 3 minutes before they began trying to climb up it the wrong way, and then after another two minutes, they started a game of having one slide down it while the other tried to climb up it.

We wasted enough time sliding that we had to skip the park in the morning because we were running short on time to do the critical "special event errand." All special events in my family have to be marked with an errand -- and more than one, if possible. This is a family tradition that dates all the way back to when I was a teenager and Mom sent my brother Matt and I out on Christmas Eve for a last-minute present. We were told to go pick up a mall gift certificate for our grandparents. The mall was about 20 miles away, and it was snowing heavily.

You could, under those circumstances, simply give the grandparents cash for a present; or, you could have in the months and days leading up to the holiday realized that the grandparents would need a present for Christmas and purchased it then. Neither of those options were suitable, though, because both would mean that nobody would have to run an errand on the holiday, and what kind of holiday is that? It's just not Christmas, or Thanksgiving, or a birthday party, or a wedding, if someone isn't hastily throwing on their coat, and a pair of shoes without socks on (no time for socks!) and heading out to get a butter lamb, or a gift certificate, or milk, or have tires put on their car.

That latter is an actual errand run on Christmas Eve by my actual older brother. I told you he was insane.

So on that Christmas Eve long ago, Matt and I bravely set out for the mall, and fulfilled our family duties by getting the gift certificate, and then driving home in a blinding snowstorm along a two-lane highway that had one lane covered entirely in snow, and one lane only 99.8% covered in snow. We ended up behind another car -- I can't believe there were two people out in a blizzard at 4 p.m. on Christmas Eve; it must have been a relative of ours -- and were faced with a decision: follow this person the few miles to our exit, or pass this person and get home roughly 30 seconds faster than we would if we followed the person to our exit.

I didn't even have to think about it; I pulled out into the left lane, into what must have been 18 inches of fresh snow, and hit the accelerator to pass the car, at which point I felt the car fishtail around and swerve crazily. I put into effect everything I could remember from drivers' education, which I'd had only about a year before, but everything I could remember from drivers' education boiled down to this: pick a driving simulator in the back of the classroom so that Mr. Wood can't tell if you're paying attention.

That didn't seem helpful in this instance, so I opted to spin the wheel crazily around while yelling at Matt. That worked perfectly, if "perfectly" can be interpreted to mean "spinning us around twice and then sliding us off into a ditch."

We ended up about 15 feet off the road, in a pile of snow, way down from the road, about five miles from our exit.

Matt was still clutching the gift certificate.

This was before cell phones, and our options were limited in that the car we had been trying to pass had just kept on driving and was now gone. We did what we could: we tried to push the car out. We tried to shovel the car out with our hands. We blamed each other. We tried to figure out what lie we'd tell Mom.

That killed the time until a Christmas miracle happened and a tow-truck driver came along and towed us out! It was just like in an ABC Special: He came lumbering out of the blizzard, saw us, asked if we needed help, we explained the predicament we were in, he offered to tow us out, we thanked him, he said "Hey, it's Christmas Eve, it's the least I can do." Then he charged us $75, and we had to give him the credit card Mom had sent with us to get the gift certificate.

On the twins' birthday, the errand was much simpler -- we just had to go grocery shopping and get their birthday cakes, and we did that without much trouble.

It's a mark of just how far my life has come that I can say a trip is done "without much trouble" when it involves getting two two-year-olds dressed, then undressing them to change their diapers, then putting their shoes on again, then loading them into the car with their milk and their snack and their plastic construction worker guy and the stick from the window that we use to keep the window from opening all the way so that if there's a burglar trying to get in, he can't quite make it through the window but we still get to open the window and let in some fresh air, the stick that Mr Bunches likes to play with and take along on car rides, so it's not really effective as an anti-burglary tool, unless the burglar was trying to break into not our house but Mr Bunches' car seat, and then strap them in and then drive to the grocery store and then take two carts, one for each kid, and then have to put everything into my cart with Mr Bunches because Mr F keeps turning around and picking the stuff up and throwing it and the last time he did that he threw two jars of salsa, so we've got to be careful what goes in his cart, and then try to keep them entertained during the checkout process, too, and then end up with three carts of groceries we end up with because the baggers for some reason can only put one item per paper bag, and then we have to try to load all those into the back of the car but the stroller takes up a lot of room and the boys are getting crabby...

... but it did go out "without much trouble," although maybe I was just in a good mood because not only had I taken a day off from work but also there were actual pizza samples in the store, and I was able to get two because I got mine and then I dispatched Sweetie to get hers knowing that she'd give it to me because Sweetie doesn't eat the pizza samples, so "without much trouble" also means "with two slices of pizza for free."

By the time we got all that done, I couldn't take the Babies! to the park because it was what we call their "nap time," that three hours per day when they will stand in their cribs and jump up and down ceaselessly while babbling and humming, before finally dropping off to sleep about 4 p.m., just prior to the time when we go wake them up. I could free America from its dependence on oil by hooking the Babies! up to a generator to harness the power they use jumping up and down in their cribs each day.

After their nap, the trip to the park was out because The Boy and his friend got home from school and had only forty-five minutes before they had to go back to school to report for the football game; they're both on the varsity team, so they had to be there at 4:30. They'd come home in hopes of getting some of the birthday dinner; they for some reason thought that the birthday dinner would be ready and waiting for them at 3:45 in the afternoon.

We had planned to have Whoppers for the birthday dinner. This was chosen as the ideal dinner for two-year-olds using the exacting criteria of "They won't eat it anyway, and we all like it." It truly didn't matter what we had for dinner, since Mr F eats only cookies, and Mr Bunches eats, as far as I can tell, nothing. I saw him try a piece of french fry one day (in our house, "french fries" are the vegetable course) but he spit it out and looked upset.

So The Boy and his friend wanted Whoppers, which left me two choices: Go get them Whoppers, and get ours, too, even though we weren't eating until 6 p.m. when Oldest arrived, so ours would be cold, or go get them Whoppers and then go back out later to get the rest of us some Whoppers.

On most days, I would have had a third choice, that of saying Maybe you should just eat a sandwich that you make for yourself, and shouldn't plan on having dinner at 3:45 p.m. and also shouldn't plan on having your friend over for that dinner, but I was still riding high from my double-pizza-sample morning, so I opted for the previously-hidden fourth choice, that of going to get The Boy and his friend a couple of $8.00 hamburgers that were as big as my head; I offered to go to Hardees, a restaurant that was closer than Burger King, thinking that would be easier for me. I didn't know that Hardees made an $8.00 hamburger. I didn't know that anyone made an $8.00 hamburger. And I would have questioned whether any hamburger was worth $8.00, except that the burgers I got The Boy and his friend were clearly worth it just based on weight alone. We got a couple of pounds of meat per burger, and they ate that in 1.3 seconds, after which I took them back to the school and dropped them off for their football game, then came home to find that the Babies! had taken their nap in the 10 minutes that comes between "Jumping Up and Down" and "Pooping." They were now up and ready to start being crabby because they hadn't had a long enough nap.

So instead of the park, Sweetie and I tried to distract them by having them go down the slide some more and by not noticing when they threw heavy stuff at the TV, but it didn't work, so I loaded them into the car and headed out to get the rest of our dinners. Once in the car, they calmed down enough to where they were only throwing their shoes at me as I drove, leaving me free to concentrate on ordering at the drive-through, with the unnervingly long pauses and my fear that if I don't say everything exactly right, I'll mess it up.

That's one of the many secret fears I have behind the brave facade I put on for the world: that I'll accidentally order something wrong. I don't know what goes on things at restaurants, and I don't know the conventions for ordering things through a speaker, and I get nervous. As a result, I tend to be bullied by servers, and to over-order.

Here's how I get bullied: There's a little fast-food restaurant that we used to go to where they serve Peanut Butter flavored shakes and malts. The first time I went there, I was unsophisticated and didn't know that there was a difference between a "shake" and a "malt." As a result, like a country rube who fell off the turnip truck yesterday, I tried to order a "Peanut Butter Malt."

"Are you sure you want that?" the skeptical counter guy asked. Suddenly, I wasn't.

"Um," I said.

"Because the malted milk overpowers the peanut butter so you don't really taste it," the counter guy said.

"Um," I said, trying to figure out what the heck he was talking about.

"I'll just get you a shake," he said, adding "That doesn't have malted milk in it, like a malt."

I've been to that restaurant about six times in the years since, and each time, I really want to order a "Peanut Butter Malt," just to see if it's not better, or if the guy was right -- because how could the malted milk "overpower" peanut butter, but not any other flavor? Or would the guy talk everyone out of ordering a malt instead of a shake, arguing that the malt would overpower every flavor. Did they even have malts?

But each time, I cave and order the "Peanut Butter Shake," and try to console myself by noting that the peanut butter flavor is not overpowered.

Other times, I overorder, because of what happened once when I told The Boy to get us sub sandwiches from a restaurant. I wanted a turkey sub with bacon on it, and told him so. When I got the subs, mine had bread, and turkey, and bacon. That's it. No lettuce, tomato, mayo, cheese... I asked for, and got, a turkey sub with bacon on it. Since the people that work in fast food restaurants are The Boy's peers, I get nervous and end up saying things like "Give me a hamburger with everything on it that ordinarily comes on it... all the regular stuff, ketchup and mustard and, you know, and nothing weird, but just, you know, the regular stuff, and fries, but make sure that the fries are cooked" because I'm not sure how specific I have to be.

Dinner, once I ordered it, didn't end until about 7:30 p.m., with the presents and the cake and all the other stuff that the Babies! were kind of bewildered by; you could see the amazement and curiosity in their eyes when we sang "Happy Birthday" to them -- amazement that we were singing, and curiosity as to what a "Birthday" is-- and you could see the boredom in their eyes when we opened up their presents for them; all they wanted to do was get out of their high chairs, get the anti-burglar stick, and start running around.

Which was what they did for the rest of the night, until at 9:00 they were put in their cribs to jump themselves to sleep.

The next day was the day of the birthday party, with grandparents and cousins and pizza, so the park and the pool were out then, too. Everyone began arriving at 11 a.m., which was when I was first getting around to inflating the "jump castle" for the party. It was also when I learned that when you store a "jump castle" for three months, you should make sure that you store it away from the place where the cats' litterboxes are kept, because a jump castle has the ability to absorb an odor and multiply it by about 10,000; I was inflating the jump castle in the backyard, and I didn't want to stand too close to it.

The fresh air seemed to help, and pretty soon all the kids were happily jumping in it, except for Mr F and Mr Bunches, who preferred to sit on the patio and make occasional attempts to dart towards the front yard and the road. It seems that jumping is only a thrill if done in lieu of sleeping, because I couldn't interest them in staying in the jump castle, but I couldn't spend all day doing that, either, because I had to go get the pizzas for the lunch for the party (every special event has an errand!), so I left the Babies! with the crowd of relatives that were sitting downstairs watching the Badger game on TV, and headed off to get a giant stack of pizzas -- seven total-- for lunch.

That took me only about thirty minutes, during which Mr Bunches fell asleep and Mr F got more wild, so the rest of the day was a whirl of Mr F wandering around randomly throwing objects, opening up presents for the Babies!, a lot of pizza and even more cake, and occasionally one of the kids jumping in the castle coming in to report that they'd somehow, in the course of jumping in an enclosed castle, landed on their head on a rock on the other side of the yard. I responded to those reports the way any good dad/uncle/homeowner does: I said "You're tough, right? You're okay." while I thought "Please don't sue us."

It all wound down around 4 p.m.; the lunch was done, the jump castle was deflated, the Badger game had ended, the relatives had gone, we had cleaned up and the Babies!, in their cribs for the past two hours, had slowed down their jumping a little bit.

That's when I realized I was about to win my ongoing argument. I was packing away all the leftover pizza and noted that we had nearly two full pepperoni pizzas left -- and I'd only bought two in the first place. The Boy had been at the party, and based on that, I was able to deduce that the pepperoni pizzas had not been the primary choice.

I packed the pizzas away, stacking the boxes in our refrigerator, and I did a little trick: I put the pepperoni pizzas on top of the stack.
I did that because over time, I've learned that unless the food is immediately accessible and at roughly eye level, it generally will not be eaten. We put all of our snacks and junk food into one set of cupboards, and there's two shelves it can go on. I noticed, one time, that the food on the first shelf, the lower one, got eaten more quickly than the food higher up, and I guessed that it was because the food on the first shelf was easier to reach. So I began putting the stuff the kids liked better -- remember, these are teenagers -- on the second shelf. And it still held up: the first shelf food went faster, even though the better stuff was maybe four inches above it.

I then tested the theory by taking a package of candy bars and putting them on the third shelf -- a full 18" above the first shelf, and a shelf that would require a teenager to actually first raise his or her head to see the candy bars, and then lift an arm all the way up above that head to bring them down.

Those candy bars were not touched all week -- until I got them down and put them on the counter, at which point they disappeared over night.

So by putting the pepperoni pizza on top, I was actually weighting the scale in favor of pepperoni pizzas; I was making it more likely that The Boy would eat those, because otherwise he'd have to go through all the stress and trauma and work of taking a pizza box out, and then putting it back.

That night, and the next morning, I kept track as the pizza slowly disappeared. The Boy is a 16-year-old varsity football player; he needs 16 meals per day just to keep moving. The day before, when he'd eaten several pounds of burger before the game, he and his friend went out to eat after the game -- then he came home and ate some cake.

The sausage pizza disappeared almost instantly. The pepperoni pizza lingered longer, being eaten just slightly ahead of the cheese pizza ... but just slightly.

The Boy doesn't know yet that I've proven, using actual science in the form of that carefully-crafted experiment, that he doesn't like pepperoni pizza. I haven't broken the news to him because I'm saving it for when I really, really need it. In any parent-child relationship, there are going to be disputes that arise from time-to-time, and a good parent knows how to manage those disputes in a healthy, emotionally-balanced, psychologically sensitive manner -- and a good parent knows that managing those disputes in a a healthy, emotionally-balanced, psychologically sensitive manner is generally best done by surprising the child with the shocking news that he actually doesn't like pepperoni pizza, that you can prove it because of an experiment you did on the day of his little brothers' birthday party, and that the point is not that you as a parent are deranged because of your focus on proving to him that he doesn't like pizza, the point is that you as a parent were right and he as a child was wrong, so there!

That's about 0.5% of life. So remember, A perfect life = 99% proving that kids don't like pepperoni pizza, and 0.5% "so there."

The final 0.5% is making sure you marry someone who will help you double your pizza samples.

Clouds Rule:

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Shame On America Sunday: Cindy McCain Edition

I came to a realization this morning, a realization that cemented my resolve to, every Sunday, highlight one way in which America is letting us down -- allowing some people to live selfish lives at the expense of others, when there is more than enough wealth in America to allow everyone to live a decent life.

The realization was this: I subscribe to Newsweek magazine, and read it pretty much cover to cover every week. Despite that, and despite reading our daily paper, and despite listening to news-talk all day at work and watching CNN Headline News while I get ready for work, I had no idea what Barack Obama's health plan was when I wrote the first Shame On America Sunday a few weeks ago.

Not through a lack of trying -- like I said, I keep up with the news pretty well. But the news isn't keeping up with the news. The news is focused on things like (from a recent Newsweek) stories about how often Joe Biden says "literally" in his speeches.

That's why Shame on America Sunday is necessary: because the media no longer covers "the news."

Instead, they cover things that aren't news and that somehow, unbelievably, also aren't the cause of a revolution. They cover things like what Cindy McCain is wearing, and the story becomes, somehow, "Isn't she becoming a classier broad," when the story should be "How are Americans of the 21st century more immune to decadence being shoved in their faces than the French of the 18th century?"

Actually, there are any number of stories that could have been spawned by Cindy McCain's outfits at the Republican convention. The headlines for those stories include, but are not limited to "Cindy McCain hates poor people and wants them to know it," or the similar "John McCain will not do anything to help anyone who isn't already rich."

We didn't get those headlines. We got, instead, this:

Cindy McCain sets tone for GOP fashion.

That is an Associated Press headline. The Associated Press -- not "People" or "US" or "Women's Wear Daily," but the Associated Press is reporting on Cindy McCain's fashion choices.

And what do they report? They report this:

"Vanity Fair editors estimated that [Cindy] McCain's fierce saffron shirt dress with the popped collar, diamond earrings, four-strand pearl necklace, white Chanel watch and strappy shoes totaled up to $313,100."

(Source.) Leave aside, for the moment, that Associated Press is simply reporting what others are reporting, and focus on how it is that any portion of the story out of the Republican Convention is what Cindy McCain is wearing.

Then focus on the fact that if we're going to hear about what Cindy McCain is wearing, it has to be in the form of a fawning, sycophantic article that froths at the mouth with love for Cindy McCain -- who is the very epitome of what Tom Wolfe called a "social x-ray" in The Bonfire of the Vanities-- froths at the mouth with love for her, instead of frothing at the mouth with vitriol over the fact that while the government is taking over two large mortgage lenders and more and more are losing their houses, Cindy McCain is wearing an outfit that costs six times more than the median annual salary in America.

Why were there exactly no stories (until this one) pointing out Cindy McCain'
s obvious disdain for people in the United States, based upon her decision to wear an outfit that costs six times what the average household income is? (Source.) Why were there exactly no stories (until this one) pointing out that either John McCain agrees with his social x-ray wife that it is appropriate to wear a $313,000+ outfit while people are losing their houses and at a time when one in 10 Americans earns less than $20,000 per year, (Source) or, if he doesn't agree, then he's simply oblivious to the facts?

Oblivious or disdainful of poor people: which is it, John McCain?

Cindy McCain's gall in wearing that outfit is even more shameful after you read this:

That is a letter written by a beneficiary of "Back-to-School Clothes For Kids," a website you can get to by clicking this link. "Back-to-School Clothes for Kids" does what it says (unlike the GOP and John McCain): they provide clothing for kids whose families can't otherwise afford to get a new back-to-school outfit or two. You know, those kids whose families come from the people who don't wear $313,000 dresses to a giant party where their husband will lie about whether he actually intends to help anyone's life get better if, God forbid, he is elected.

They buy clothes for younger kids; for older kids, they have "S.W.A.T. Nights" -- Shopping With A Teen nights -- where volunteers give teens a budget and help them pick out nice clothes to go back to school in.

Why do we live in a country where a social x-ray can wear a $313,000 dress for one night -- while young kids have to hope that someone, somewhere, will donate $20 so that they can get a new pair of blue jeans to wear to school?

Why do we put up with that?

Why isn't Cindy McCain being forced to hang her head in shame?

Do you think that Cindy McCain was as grateful for her $313,000 dress as Shawn was for the new outfit? As grateful as the kids shown in these pictures (all are from Back-to-School Clothes For Kids' website) are for theirs?

No, I don't, either.

Some people have said that Shame On America Sunday doesn't fix anything, it just complains. So to remedy that, I will for each article provide not one, but
two solutions.

The Fix: There should be a federal consumption tax that kicks in at $500 for any consumer item other than food, cars and houses (which I'll deal with separately.) The consumption tax should be equal to 50% of the price of the consumer item. Maybe if her outfit had cost her $469,500, Cindy McCain would have thought twice about purchasing it. I doubt that, since social x-rays (and the McCains) have no conscience, but at least our society would have gotten $156,750 in extra tax revenue.

That tax revenue should be earmarked specifically for poverty-relief efforts, including a new national project, like Americorps only better, to provide good-paying jobs to people by employing them to help replace and upgrade our aging telephone and data network and extend that network to rural areas.

What You Can Do Until It's Fixed: Send money to "Back-to-School Clothes for Kids," P.O. Box 304, White Plains, NY 10605. For more information, call (914) 576-6053, or email Many local Salvation Army posts hold back-to-school clothing drives, too -- check their website out here.

Then, to make sure your message gets across, when you make your donation, send an email saying that "Rather Than Support Rich People Getting Richer, I gave money to help poor people buy clothes" to Cindy McCain c/o her husband's failed presidential campaign at "" (If you like to mail things, then write it on a postcard to Cindy McCain, /co John McCain 2008, P.O. Box 16118, Arlington, VA 22215.)

The Trouble With Roy firmly believes that no adult should be allowed to earn more than $200,000 per year; that health care is a basic right, and that America can do better. Lots better.