(The following is an article I was asked to write for Relate magazine.)
When my son was thirteen he was invited on a beach vacation with his best friend’s family. His friend’s mom (we will call her Doris) took my son and hers to the mall to shop for beachwear. They were in the market for a pair of flip-flops. Doris walked into Pac Sun, the boys close behind.
“Can you help me?” Doris tapped one of the teenage sales clerks on the shoulder.
“Yeah, what do you need?” he grunted.
“I’m looking for boys’ thongs” she declared.
Doris’ son tried to slip away unnoticed while my son and the clerk did a poor job stifling their laughter. After a few seconds of mortified silence, Doris persisted:
“My gosh, you act as though you’ve never even heard of thongs for little boys.”
Just before they left for the trip, Doris came by and spoke of the difficulties of raising a young man.
“He hardly even speaks to me. It’s like he’s embarrassed to be associated with me.”
I just smiled. What I wanted to say is: “You’re doing it wrong.”
Lord knows, I’m no expert. I’ve had more than my share of cringe worthy attempts at navigating the teenage discourse dynamic. But I have been able to decipher some hard and fast rules when trying to converse with kids. Here are a few:
Rule number one: Don’t use outdated cultural references or phrases. Noone “talks to the hand.” Nothing you want to discuss is “bitchin’” or “gnarly” or “rad.” Fo-shizzle.
Rule number two: Don’t join their conversations unless you’re invited. I was driving my daughter and three of her friends to an eighth grade dance. They were giggling and whispering about some of the boys in their class when I decided to chime in. Bad idea. They don’t want my opinion about whether a certain classmate is a “sweet kid.”
Rule number three: Don’t interrupt or argue. That is not a conversation. It’s a lecture.
Rule number four: No nicknames. Even if your son’s friend is named Tony, don’t refer to him as “T-bone.” Your daughter’s friend is “Elizabeth” not “Lizard.”
Rule number five: Try to have a functional understanding of (and ability to pronounce) things that are important to them. For example, don’t keep referring to twitter as “tweeter” or Instagram as “Instant grams.”
Rule number six: Conversations are not teaching moments. So don’t make them one. Don’t criticize them or tell them how you would have handled a situation differently. If your child says something that bothers you, hold that thought. You will have time to circle back to it later.
Rule number 7: Don’t dismiss their thoughts as “silly” or “stupid.” My daughter once told me about a difficult day at school. She was in a fight with one of her best friends. It was a silly argument and I told her so. Big mistake. She would come to the same conclusion on her own a few days later. I didn’t need to speed it up for her. I just needed to listen.
Rule number 8: Don’t rely on your kids to fulfill your need for conversation. Develop your own interests, your own “cool” independent of your kids. Show them that you have a life outside of whatever they are doing. They will engage you on it. Trust me.
Rule number 9: Do not use any of the following phrases in conversation:
“When I was your age…” or “If I were you…” or “pull my finger.” Just stop.
Rule number 10: Don’t gossip. There is nothing more pathetic than an adult who gossips with kids. And adults who gossip with kids about other kids? They should be marched straight through the gates of hell….in boy’s thongs.
I had a $2500 bonus burning a hole in my pocket. Thank goodness because the house needed to be painted; our red Windstar minivan was burning oil like a Bourbon Street palm reader; and the dishwasher sounded like a dub step remix of mating calls from the Bronx zoo.
My wife and I sat at the kitchen table to discuss our newfound, soon to be squandered, largesse.
“I think we should go to Disney World,” I declared.
“No way,” said my wife. “There are too many other things right now. We really need to paint the house. I’m getting bids next week.”
I knew I had to act quickly and decisively.
“Let’s ask the kids,” I said.
Before my wife could object we were all gathered together- my son Stephen was thirteen and my daughters Sophie and Hallie were eleven and seven. They knew something important was about to go down. I went right to work.
“Kids, daddy earned some extra money by doing such a great job at work. It’s really daddy’s money but daddy wants to share it with the whole family.”
“Even mommy?” asked Hallie.
“Yes sweetheart. Even Mommy.” My wife rolled her eyes because she knew it was probably over but she wasn’t going down without a fight.
She started in: “We need to be responsible with our money. Let’s list our priorities and learn a lesson in spending wisely.”
“Great idea. The first priority for any family is to bond and grow closer. There’s no better place to bond than vacation. How about a trip to….I don’t know…..DISNEY WORLD?!?”
“Yayyy,” screamed the kids.
“The commercial says it’s the happiest place on earth,” said Sophie.
My wife continued to put her spin on things.
“If we want a bonding trip I think we should take the kids somewhere completely different. A place where we will encounter strangers who speak an unfamiliar language. An odd place where our instincts of survival will be challenged.”
“Oh okay. That’s a good idea too. So let’s vote. Kids we can either go to Home Depot….or….Disney World!!!”
“Dis-ney World! Dis-ney World!” they chanted in unison.
A few weeks later we were loaded and ready to drive the 1093.2 miles from our front door to the gates of the Magic Kingdom. The first 240 miles were a breeze. But when I tried to start the van after filling up with gas in Minden, Louisiana, there was an ominous grinding noise. It was the unmistakeable sound of disaster. We weren’t going anywhere for awhile.
We had the minivan towed to a nearby mechanic who promptly identified the problem as a blown transmission. He could have it fixed and ready to roll in three days and for $700.
So much for the happiest place on earth. Exhausted and exasperated, we decided to do something a little different. We let the kids take over. We gave them a list of nearby attractions (a Civil War graveyard and a putt putt golf course) and restaurants and they made the plans. We swam in the motel pool, played games, watched movies, ordered strange things for each other off the menu, and scared one another with some novelty rattlesnake eggs.
The car was ready on Tuesday as promised. Determined to finish the trip, we found ourselves at the entrance to Main Street USA on Thursday. Funny but it bore a striking resemblance to Main Street Minden USA.
It turned out to be the same Disney experience that millions of people have had, with the notable exception that a bird pooped on my head as I waited in line for Space Mountain. To this very day, all of my kids have two vivid memories of the entire trip and my $2500 bonus- rattlesnake eggs and bird droppings.
Of course, that’s the point. The best bonding trips are improvised and unplanned. And the happiest place on earth? It’s not a place.
(The above post was written for New York Parents Magazine in connection with the release of “50 Rules for Sons.”)
“I learned something rather shocking today,” said my wife a few months back.
Since my wife has no governor on her meaning of the adjective “shocking,” I knew this could be anything from finding peaches on sale at Central Market for only one dollar per pound to the discovery that our yard man is Osama bin Laden’s twin brother.
“What’s that?” I asked……reluctantly.
“Andy Griffith is gay.”
“I don’t think you’re correct.”
“I just heard it on the news. He made an announcement about it today.”
“Well that’s a rather stunning deathbed confession….since he also died today.”
“Oh my gosh, he did? That’s awful.” Still not realizing her mistake she added, “He probably couldn’t handle the horrible comments he knew people would be making about him.”
Oftentimes I’ll let this go on awhile but since Andy Griffith was one of my heroes, I had to intervene.
“Andy Griffith was a happily married man who died today at the age of 86. You must be thinking of someone else.”
Later I was able to determine that she had blurred the news of Andy Griffith’s death with the coming out announcement that same day from CNN anchor Anderson Cooper. But by the time I was ready to help her see her error, she had already moved on to other inscrutable events of the day.
With apologies to my wife I have to confess that I do it too. It’s getting more and more difficult to keep straight this constant barrage of bullshit. News, information, entertainment, info-tainment, advertisements, editorials, advertorials, commercials, info-mercials, tutorials, announcements, bulletins, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, YouTube, Vine. Holy shit, this stuff never ends.
I’m not talking about just hearing things wrong, like the time my daughter announced that her school was going to welcome a foreign exchange student. I cautioned my daughter to try to accept this person for who they are and not be judgmental. She shot me her best “whatever” look and I later realized I thought she had said “sex change” student.
No, this does not stem from my inability to listen which I wrote about here. This is far more sinister. There are over 500 channels on TV. Seventy two hours of video are uploaded on YouTube every single minute. Four billion hours of YouTube videos are watched every month. There are 750 tweets per second, 175 million tweets per day. Children born today will spend 25 percent of their lives looking at a screen. If I’m any indication, that number seems low.
The very real possibility of early onset Alzheimer’s notwithstanding, it has turned my mind to mush. My brain is like the security camera in a Wal-Mart parking lot- it erases itself every 30 minutes. Information goes in and it is gone in an instant. I can’t keep up with it all. In fact, once an item disappears from my Twitter timeline, I can’t be certain it ever existed to begin with.
It has completely ruined my priority filter. My brain now gives just as many cells to the lyrics of a song by the Rolling Stones as it does my kids’ birth dates, which means I’m not adept at remembering either one.
Everything is either “breaking news” or “best ever.” As a result I am unable to discriminate between the stuff that really matters and the stuff that doesn’t.
Is it fair to give a skateboarding bulldog the same attention as the conflict in Syria? I’ll spend 2 minutes watching a hamster eat a pretzel, but don’t bother me with understanding the sequester.
This can be dangerous, costly and embarrassing. Truly important information gets lost in the haze. Just the other day I tried to finance a 4 hour erection with a low interest, no money down loan. I watched 6 episodes of Hoarders and 12 hours of QVC and now I have 3000 “Buns of Steel” DVD’s and 490 Snuggie blankets in my garage. I’m about to begin a 21 day cleanse consuming only tomato juice and Cialis which means I won’t have time to help the Nigerian businessman move millions into his US bank account. I can’t remember the name of the Headmaster at my kids school so I just call him Duck Commander.
I indiscriminately jump from item to item without warning. So I’m sure you’ll forgive me if I cut this short. I have some breaking news to attend to. My wife just told me that Pope Benedict disappeared. Apparently he was swallowed by a sinkhole in Florida.
I’m a rather accomplished bearer of the double standard. If you’re driving too slow and in my way, you’re a doddering fool. If you’re driving too fast and you pass me on the right, you’re a maniac. If my wife wants new kitchen countertops, she’s a profligate. If I need 15 season tickets to TCU football games, it’s a good investment. This is a trait I have carefully cultivated over the years.
It is particularly useful at sporting events. When I root for my team, I’m the picture of comportment. I only criticize the officiating when absolutely warranted. I have irreproachable discernment in matters of pass interference, out of bounds and personal fouls. Unfortunately fans of opposing teams typically don’t know shit about the rules or sportsmanship. Just the other night at my daughter’s 8th grade basketball game I had to demonstrate for a fan of the other team when it was appropriate to clang one’s cowbell. To make certain the lesson had the proper adhesive I held my friend’s bell next to the other fan’s ear each time our team scored. I think he got the lesson.
I once had a case against an apartment complex. The owner of the complex was an arrogant jerk who didn’t give a damn about his tenants. We settled the case after three days of trial. Several months later that same owner called and asked me to represent him in a dispute with a neighboring landowner. He showed up with a nice retainer and it turns out he wasn’t such a bad guy after all.
I often eat alone. I like to gather my thoughts..or read…or write. I don’t think its because I’m anti-social. But when I see others eating alone I immediately think to myself: “That poor loser must not have any friends.”
Judges who rule against me are dipshits. Judges who rule in my favor are merely following the law. I can criticize my kids, my church, my penmanship, my fat fingers….but if you do it, you’re crossing the line.
When the lady in front of me in the check out line at the store decides to use a book of coupons, I give a mild yet entirely appropriate eye roll. When I fumble through my pockets for some loose change as I reach the register I am appalled at the impatience of some people.
My body odors are as fragrant as lilacs and lavender. Yours smell like vinegar and rotten fish. Your friends are…well….odd. My friends are just a little quirky.
Warning labels do not apply to me. I’m dexterous enough to handle a chainsaw in a driving rain without the safety cover. You, on the other hand, should probably wear safety goggles when using a letter opener.
These double standards likely appear contradictory to you. Not to me. Just because they’re different, doesn’t mean they aren’t true.
My friend Bentley came to visit last fall. We went to high school together and have remained close. He brought two of his daughters who really hit it off with my two girls. Things were going well until someone pulled out our old high school yearbook. I’m not usually keen on revisiting photographs from the past. I’d rather rely on my memory.
But the girls were having fun. One of the first things they noticed were the “Senior Superlatives.” It’s the section that shows who was chosen as “Most Likely to Succeed” or “Best School Spirit.” Bentley’s daughters proudly discovered that Bentley had been voted “Best All Around.” Thumbing through the pages, the girls learned that Bentley was also the star of the basketball team…and on Student Council…and in National Honor Society.
I have a vague recollection that I probably finished second to Brian McCaffrey in the category of “Best Looking” but they didn’t publish the photographs of the runners-up.
I sensed that my girls were feeling the competition and getting a little nervous.
“Dad weren’t you a cheerleader?” asked my youngest.
“Um, not exactly.” There were several pictures of me in a female cheerleading outfit taken when we were doing a spoof at an assembly. I look like a 12 year old girl so it was an innocent misunderstanding.
One of the kids asked whether I was in Boy Scouts.
“Me? Boy Scouts? Ha, too gay for me,” I scoffed.
My daughter deadpanned: “Yeah. He did musical theater instead.”
It’s true. I was in all of the musicals and I played trumpet in the band. But back then it was the cool thing to do.
At least that’s the way I remember it. And therein lays the problem.
High school happens to coincide with the age when our pre-frontal cortex is crafting our identity. Our still developing brains are bombarded with images and perceptions of ourselves and our place in society. Most sociologists agree that we have a psychological immune system that protects us from a negative view of ourselves. We all think we are more handsome, funnier, smarter, and better all-around than we really are. The self image we begin to develop in high school-right or wrong-transcends all our years.
And the passage of time allows us to craft an even rosier memory of ourselves. Some, like Bentley, don’t have to rely on a faulty memory. He’s forever tagged as “Best All Around.” Another friend, Tony, will always be known as “Most Likely to Succeed.” History will accurately recall Mike as “Friendliest-Bishop McGuinness High School, Class of 1981.”
What do I have? I have such a kaleidoscopic self-image I can’t even recall whether my memories are even mine. Did I make out with Karen Munsell in the club room of the Normandy Apartments my sophomore year while “Dancing in the Moonlight” by King Harvest played in the background? Or did Dan or Blake tell that story and I misappropriated it as my own? It was probably me since I was so irresistible.
These false self-images continue in real time even as we age. Thank goodness. Believe me when I tell you that a strong psycho-immune system will serve you well over the course of your lifetime. Otherwise how could I have spent three years driving around the streets of Fort Worth in a bright red Ford Windstar minivan while wearing jeans with silver buttons on the back pockets?
It has been written that the only reality is the one contained within us. I’m fine with that, faulty memory and all. I’m comfortable with who I think I was….and who I think I am.
I was not some band dork or theater queer. No sir. In fact I was one of the cool ones. Probably not runner up to “Best Looking” but pretty damn handsome nonetheless. At least that’s how I remember it. Just don’t ask to see the yearbook.
My Mom cringed at my last blog post and apologized in a Facebook comment to everyone for my bad language. So here is a fair warning to my Mom (and the rest of you who are easily offended.) The following post contains colorful language not appropriate for some. Since my own kids never read anything I post here, I think I’m safe with them.
This post started when I was recently caught in a contradiction. In my “50 Rules for Daughters” I instruct them to avoid cursing. Then toward the end of the list I advise them that there are rare occasions when they will have to act like a bitch. A commenter asked me to clarify these seemingly inconsistent admonitions. I can’t.
When it comes to cussing I have enjoyed a fair amount of duplicity. It began with my Dad.
My Dad has always been an extraordinary cusser. Until age 7, I thought the name of the craft store near our house was actually called “Hobby Fuckin’ Lobby.”
His legendary expletives hit me full force years later when I had to help him in a legal matter. He was owed a large sum of money on a job. We sued and the attorney for the deadbeat wanted to take my Dad’s deposition. It started a little rough.
Opposing lawyer: Isn’t it true that you called my client a no good so and so?
Lawyer: So are you testifying that you did not call my client an inappropriate name?
Here we go.
Lawyer: My client will testify that you called him a…and I am quoting here…no good son of a bitch. Is that true?
Dad: That’s true.
Lawyer: I thought you just testified that you did not call him any inappropriate names.
Dad (smiling and winking at me): I didn’t.
Lawyer (finally realizing but not smiling or winking at me): Did you call him anything else?
Dad: Let’s see. I called him a no good sonofabitch, a sack of shit, a first class prick…there were more, do you want me to go on?
And it sort of went downhill from there.
That’s one hell of a cusser’s pedigree.
My Dad’s cussing avocation was passed down first to my sister. When her oldest son was about six she was going through a bitter divorce. One day my Mom went over to visit. She found Luke at home alone.
Mom: Luke where is your Mom?
Luke: I don’t know.
Mom: What about your Dad? Where is he?
Luke: (looking up) I don’t know but that asshole is in real trouble.
Knowing this is part of my gene pool I tried to exercise restraint around my kids. It wasn’t always easy. Unfortunately, certain occasions scream for just the perfect cuss word.
They say that animals can sense impending natural disasters before a human has any idea what is about to hit. So could my kids. Whenever I started a home improvement project they immediately stopped whatever they happened to be doing and started to watch me. I am a bit of a fumble-f*#*. And, without fail, my DIY always resulted in a CF. So my kids have had some exposure to colorful language. But not as much as they could have.
One of my friends has a great story about the time he was caught in a bit of hypocrisy. He was careful to avoid bad language around his kids. Or so he thought. Then one day he was at the dinner table with his family and his in-laws when one of his four sons asked: “Daddy, what does ‘fun king’ mean?”
Gulp. “Um…I’m not really sure what you mean.” Nervous laughter. “Do you mean ‘funco’ like those little plastic baseball bats we use.”
“No. Not that. Fun-king.”
“Oh I get it now. You mean ‘Fun King’ like Daddy is the king of having fun?”
“No. I mean like ‘Shut the funking door!’”
But truth be told there is nothing more effective than the use of a rare, well placed cuss word.
At work I have a “Tough Shit” pile. It is mostly reserved for files that have a jerk lawyer on the other side. It takes a lot to land in the “Tough Shit” but rest assured that files in that pile get treated much differently.
Cussing is an art form. Not everyone can pull it off. A cuss word has to have just the right inflection and emphasis. I once worked for a man who prided himself on his own ability to tell someone to go to hell,and “make them believe they were going to enjoy the trip.” What is the use in that?
I have a mentor who has been extremely successful in business. He has some beautiful aphorisms about how to succeed and they all involve a well-placed cuss word. Recently I was telling him with frustration about a project I was working on that was being met with unwarranted resistance.
He said: “Timmy my boy. Always remember there will be no shortage of stupid motherfuckers who will tell you something can’t be done.” I felt better instantly. He branded the resistors with an appropriate moniker and endorsed my plan at the same time. It was perfect and I daresay the cuss word added just the right note.
Of course, to have maximum effect, one still needs to exercise restraint. Noone likes an “over-cusser.” They can be so f***ing annoying.
I know what you’re thinking. “Here comes some know-it-all dipshit with some empty platitudes about how I should live my life.” Well you’re probably half right. And after you read my post, you can tell me which half.
I will try to refrain from the worn out aphorisms like “Live, Laugh, Love” or “Keep Calm and Carry On.” But be warned. You are in for a small serving of cheese. Feel free to add your own as you see fit.
- Be grateful.
Virginia Tate died of ovarian cancer in September. She was 53. I ran three red lights and dog-cussed 7 fellow drivers on the way to her funeral. I hustled into the pew and checked the program. I wondered whether I would still have enough time to make it to my 4:30 appointment. But when Virginia’s husband Wally walked in, time seemed to stand still. There was just something different about Virginia.
“There are some people who, by the way they live, teach us about the Divine,” said her Minister. Virginia’s favorite saying was: “You take what you get and you say ‘thank you.’”
For ovarian cancer? After years of quiet devotion to a husband and 2 sons? After teaching scores of Kindergartners? Not me. I usually look at what I get and try to send it back. Or bitch about it. Or compare it to what others got. But as I grow older I realize that random, unexplainable, often unfair events will largely dictate the lives we lead. So what do you plan to do about these things you can’t do a friggin’ thing about? I plan to try to accept them and be grateful for the things in life that are blessings, and if possible, the hardships as well.
2. Think big.
My late uncle, Jack Clements, worked as a salesman for Hogan Office Supply for 40 years. Every day he would put on a suit and tie, drive downtown to his office, walk past the door of a boss he loathed and push paper..and pens…and pencils. Sound like Willy Loman? You would think he was miserable and you would be wrong.
He was as happy a man as I have ever known. He was in the business of enjoying people. He loved his customers. He knew about their lives and he cared. He would give lunch money to a hassled secretary, or always remember a customer’s birthday. And this wasn’t some contrivance. He wasn’t ingratiating himself as a means to a loftier position. This was how he lived. But he always seemed to want more for me.
One night about a month ago I was having a particularly fitful night of sleep. I got up, took a few Advil, and moved to the couch where I had the most vivid dream. I was walking through my garage when the kitchen door opened and Uncle Jack walked out to meet me. I was excited to see him but he only stayed a few seconds…..long enough to tell me this is the only life I’ll ever have so I’d better be bold.
I’m cynical about messages that are imparted in dreams. Hell, if I listened to my dreams I’d probably be raising Llamas in a nudist colony in New Zealand. With an ageless Farrah Fawcett. But this dream had a useful message from a trusted soul. So I’m going to try and heed his advice.
3. Don’t take it personally.
Most people don’t give two shits about you or what you do on a daily basis. It’s not that they are mean or vindictive. They just don’t have time to consider much outside their own sphere. So what. Someone hurt your feelings? Big deal. Someone not treat you the way you expect to be treated? Lower your expectations. Your life will be immensely more happy. And you will be more grateful (see 1 above).
4. Appreciate others out loud.
Think about the last time you said something nice to someone. Think about how it made you feel. Consider how it made them feel. It’s such a simple gesture. There are so many people I admire, so many people I enjoy, so many people I take for granted. I’m going to work on that this year. And I’ll start with you. If you are reading this, thank you. I know you have a million and one distractions. I’m grateful that you allow me the opportunity to be one more.