Monday, September 30, 2013

Blessed Boredom!

     I always wondered why even the most uplifting song, if listened to often enough, will eventually irritate me to antsy-ness.  Noticing this tendency, I intentionally avoid listening to favorites in order prolong their fresh appeal.
     My second child, as an infant, was a delight to watch.  I noticed how a simple thing such as sunbeams through the slats of her crib fascinated her for hours on end, even days.  Then her fingers held before her face held her attention before she redirected it elsewhere to the next curious thing.  No doubt she was displaying signs of boredom as first one thing, then another fell first in, then out of favor in not too long a time.
     Obviously what she was observing wasn't changing much from minute to minute, hour to hour, or day to day.  What changed was her perceptions of them from fascinating, interesting, captivating objects to boring, same-old same-old, nothing-much-happening-here leftovers.  And each time an external stimulus exhausted her curiosity, she sought something new to replace it—eventually us (her family), speech, and things further outside her crib, outside her room, and even outside our apartment—the outside world.
     This made me realize the benefit of boredom.  Had she not had this boredom proclivity, she might still, as a ten-year-old, be lying content on her back all day long absorbed in the marvels of the sunbeam and the interplay of shadow and light, or staring at her fingers.  What need for learning to crawl, walk, speak, or use the potty if all of life's necessities (food, water, diaper changes, etc.) are provided for and the simplest of things remain ever entertaining?  Nope, her boredom spurned her on to seek exciting new things, thank God.
     Furthermore, I believe that her antidote to boredom—curiosity—is the same antidote that we, too, can apply to our general feelings of ennui and disinterest.  For me that comes mainly from learning new things, or creative endeavors:  guitar playing, photography, writing, minor woodworking and around-the-house repairs, and reading.  Also talking to people I meet and learning about them, their views, and how they live.  Exercise, too, helps.  And observing and teaching my kids (and wife!--just kidding, Deanne.)  Everyone's different and what works for one may not work for another (Deanne enjoys cooking, reading, and socializing with friends) and let's not forget one of the best antidotes of all—meaningful, productive work.  Anything that makes life a little better for others or self including works of charity and faith are just great.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Roadside Gems

     Old furniture, placed roadside for bulky items pickup, are not always garbage.  Seven total pieces, all solid wood, destined for the landfill, instead grace our house, beautiful and functional.  Restoration costs totaled under thirty dollars.  Buying these new would have cost perhaps thousands.  Our finds include a pair of matching oriental display platforms, a child's table and mini-desk (a hobbyist's handiwork), a small oval table with magazine rack beneath, a steel twin size platform bed with four corner posts, and a chest of drawers.
     The oval table, which became my nightstand, was in the recycle area of our former apartment building.  All it needed was a bit of cleaning, polish, and sunning.
     The two children's pieces, discovered roadside, were not much to look at—paint stained, scarred, and dirty.  It became a family project to clean, sand, and finish with two coats of combo urethane/stain.  The wood grain (one mahogany, the other pine) showed beautifully after that, though pitted with minor imperfections.  The two older kids, having worked on them, love them for their displays and storage.
     The oriental pieces—after a bit of polish and sunlight—became stands for my youngest child's toy storage bin (one of three), plus a catch—all for all his other soft toys, knick-knacks, and play things.  He doesn't notice them much except as the boundaries within which his things must be stored during clean-up time.
     We had been looking for awhile for a replacement twin-size platform bed for our daughter, who'd been sleeping since our move to a house in a separate room from my sons—the oldest in a matching twin size platform bed (it and my daughter's stackable into a bunk) and the youngest, then age four, who slept on his crib mattress laid out on the floor (safe if he fell out at night).  As the latter was about to enter school, we wanted him to be in the lower level bunk to match his big boy status.  But months of looking produced only one reasonable platform bed option which was still overpriced and army-barracks ugly.
     Then, just up the street, a dusty disassembled black metal bed frame and four wooden posts—scarred and pitted—appeared a few months later.  I asked our daughter did she like it?  Her eyes lit up and she said yes, nodding.  An elderly man came out and said we could have it.  I asked if he had the nuts and bolts that went with it—I could find replacements, I was sure, but they'd look ugly (and be a hassle to shop for and modify, if necessary).  He said he'd ask his daughter, so I gave him my number.  Later that night, he called, my oldest son and I drove over, and his son passed on a baggie full of all the hardware.  We packed up, but the main platform didn't fit in our family sedan, so my son and I walked it down the street to our house.
     The four corner posts took the most work—sanding, staining, and varnishing as before, but the kids did much of the sanding (even the four year old).  The steel frames needed cleaning, lubricating, insecticide spraying, sealing of holes, and polishing—lots of elbow grease.  But the end product and seeing my daughter lying on it (using her same bed mattress) the first time, smiling, made it all worth it.  The country-style black metal head and footboards add character to her otherwise drab, white walled room.
     The creamy white, heavy construction chest of drawers, covered in scores of stickers, appeared curbside at the same neighbor's house a year later.  My oldest son and I borrowed a neighbor's hand trolley to haul it back.  Then everyone got involved in removing the stickers using rags, water, soap, detergent, fingernails, furniture polish, and tons of rubbing.  A drawer's bent guides needed replacing and additional wood supports—a fun project for me.  Perfect-sized replacement guides were available at the local hardware store.  Leftover white touch-up paint covered the more obvious outside scrapes and inside speckled stains.  It's still not perfect, but nonetheless a fine addition to my daughter's room to replace her old make-shift cabinet (a gutted and shelved RCA console) which went to my oldest son to supplement his stacks of second-hand plastic storage drawers and wire frame cubes.
     Since writing this piece a year ago, we've also acquired a solid wood foldable corner display shelves unit for the kitchen; three laminated particle board pieces including a desk organizer for my daughter's dresser, a CD storage tower, and a fold-down shoe storage cabinet; and an adult mountain bike that Braden requested we donate to his orchestra for its white elephant sale, but which, once I started fixing up and my daughter rode, she requested we keep.
     It required thirty dollars’ worth of brake parts, bolts, a shifter, and a tire repair kit; lots of cleaning and lubricating; disassembly, reassembly, and adjustment of brakes and derailers; and greasy fingers that all-too-often got pinched and cut, to finally get fully functional, but it was worth it showing the kids just how much fun doing dirty mechanical work can be.  So we'll donate Penelope's Sea Princess bike (that we purchased new and that she hardly rode, preferring big brother's old second-hand Mongoose bike after awhile) to the orchestra.
     I love that we gave second lives to these quality pieces otherwise destined for the landfill, that they were free and fun to work with without shopping hassles or outrageous retail prices, and that they all came with little stories and pleasant memories.  We even made a low puzzle table (for a two thousand piece Da Vinci's Last Supper jigsaw puzzle my mom gave us) from a large, round, outdoor plastic table top I recovered.  Spare one-by-four inch lumber (also found) cut to eight-inch lengths; sanded, stained and varnished; and bolted beneath serve as legs.  Light weight and durable, the unit now serves as Penelope's private study desk and slides neatly hidden beneath her bed when not in use.
     Caveat:  The key to successful roadside acquisitions are thorough inspections—especially for water or termite damage; prompt removal from the elements; a wipe-down and reinspection; a few hours of direct sunlight (to kill hidden bed bugs); a wait period in an outdoor covered area (carport/garage/patio) of at least three weeks—the approximate time it takes for minuscule hidden bed bug eggs to hatch (see related article “TV-less Bliss” for our family's experience with bed bugs); spot insecticide spraying; and furniture polish application before bringing indoors.  Frankly, I'd give the same advice for any used furniture purchase, whether from a garage or estate sale, or Goodwill or antique store.  By the way, our used furniture purchases have included a solid wood chest of drawers, a solid wood dining room set, stainless steel storage shelves, pressboard wood veneer book shelves, a designer leather-on-steel director's chair, and a multiple surface, movable, adjustable, personal reading table of solid wood-on-steel construction.  All were priced at ten to thirty percent the cost of buying new.  The pleasant, engaging owners, some of whom were neighbors, and the smooth, relaxed atmosphere attached their own feel-good memories to the articles purchased.  The amazing thing is it's been decades since I've gone out-of-the-way looking to buy used furniture.  All such recent acquisitions have been serendipitous—same's true with all our roadside finds, too.  We just happened to notice a posted sign, a garage sale in progress, or an abandoned item in passing, which made them all the more delightful.

Friday, September 20, 2013

In Memoriam: Aunt Susan

     My Aunt Susan (Auntie Sue to my siblings, cousins, and I) recently died at age eighty-three.  She was a wonderful woman (she really was, I'm not just saying that)—the closest thing to an angel come down from Heaven I have ever met.  Not that she was perfect—she once said a racist stereotype thing to me in passing that raised my eyebrows, but that was such an aberration that I dismissed it as a one-time lapse in judgment.  It never happened again.  She was the type that lived the mottos:  If you don't have anything nice to say, don't say it, and, treat others as you would have them treat you.  I have no idea how she did it so consistently.  As a retired secretary and devout Buddhist, she volunteered for twenty-five years at her temple, so her faith probably had a lot to do with it.  Her husband, my Uncle Rod, a humorous, jovial man with only mild human frailties, predeceased her by a year-and-a-half.  A part of me sensed that after his slow, undignified death, which included a brain tumor and surgery that seemed to extract much of his soul, she allowed her will to live to slowly ebb away.  Her already frail body weakened, she had to use a wheel chair and walker, and eventually endure placement in a care home.  A year later, she suffered a series of “mild” strokes that eventually did her in.
     Auntie Sue and Uncle Rod had been such a happy honeymooning couple all their adult lives, that life apart from him eventually became unendurable for her.  She just couldn't bear being apart from him any longer, so she let herself go—not prematurely, but on her own terms, when she was ready.  Everyone had ample chance to say their good-byes, I love yous, and thank-yous to her while she was still mentally hale and in good spirits.  Her dignity and repose throughout the entire ordeal were inspiring.  She spent individual time with each of us in my immediate family when we visited her at her care home, asking us questions, responding to queries, giving us gentle assurances, and tender smiles and praises, that always cheered us up.  She liked to grasp one of my hands within the two of hers, nod, smile, and pat the back of it as I told her my own health concerns (which have since largely stablized or resolved.)
     My daughter and I (the tender-hearted ones in our family) sobbed throughout what we knew would be our final visit with her.   She made eye contact and a few soft gurgling vocalizations.  I bent near to hear, but didn't really want to understand because I knew whatever she said would just make me sob all the more—not that I have anything against sobbing, but I didn't want her to feel badly because of my sorrows over her.
     She had previously made clear that she was content with her situation—no regrets, no feelings of being cheated or short-changed, just mostly gratitude for everything because she had lived a...good life.  The way she nodded and smiled, her face effortless and at ease, you just knew she meant every word she said.
     It was apparent that her comfort always came secondary to that of those around her.  She gave us some of the best moments in her final year and even honored Jaren, our youngest, with a seat on her lap throughout the first half of what was to be her last, large family reunion, thus honoring our entire immediate family by extension.
     Her death left a gaping hole in our lives and we miss her dearly.  But I told her eldest daughter Lilith it's good that we grieve 'cause it shows just how much we love her and how lovable she is.  If we weren't grieving at all that would be a different story.
     My immediate family were fine throughout the memorial service (a part of me had been dreading it).  It was at the brief inurnment ceremony at Punchbowl Cemetery (Uncle Rod had served active duty in the Korean War) that I lost it and wept openly.  I was fine at first, feeling comfortable and relaxed.  We weren't even asked to offer incense powder (versus at the memorial service when my immediate family went forward when called upon and stood silently for a moment before the burner before returning to our seats relieved after the awkward moment of non-conformance).  The open-air ceremony was so peaceful—puffy white clouds hung in the blue, balmy skies beyond the crater's rim, manicured lawns shimmered beneath flags and trees whose leaves fluttered in a lazy breeze.  Being surrounded by loved ones—always close on Mom's side of the family—devoid now of yet another elder, I soon sensed Auntie Sue's presence, at least in thought, manifest by her raspy voice in my ear, a soft, gentle touch on the back of my hand, and her honoring manners that validated my soul.  A sudden well of emotions flooded my throat, and though I knew it was safe, and it was okay to cry, I nonetheless resisted, concentrating on the gazebo's eaves, but to little avail.  Deanne squeezed my hand tight as I convulsed beside her, teary and snuffling.  It was the most beautiful funeral service I had ever been to.

Monday, September 16, 2013

NCLB Politics

     Everyday Math.  Many parents of school age children cringe at the term, though some must applaud it.  It's a new way of teaching math that's supposed to bring meaning and excitement to the sometimes tedious subject.  I call it teaching to the test.
     Due to America's fixation on standardized tests (NCLB and all that) and schools' slow improvements in scores, educators continue to search for a silver bullet that will cure all schools' ills.
     The system largely does away with tried and true methods of rudimentary addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division that earlier generations grew up with (times tables, “carry the four”, “borrow from the tens”, etc.) and replaces them with a plethora of test taking techniques (referred to as strategies).
     Granted, each child is different and some learn one way better than another and there is no sure-fire, one-size-fits-all best way—but the answer in my opinion is not to teach them three to five different techniques in rotation without giving them adequate opportunity to master any one of them.  When I instructed my lost son a few years ago, who struggled in vain to memorize and master the different techniques, to always use the same technique that he liked best, he told me that his teacher told him that he had to use the method listed.  Such insistence on variety probably did create marginally better standardized test takers (my son did fairly well on them), but did not instill greater overall subject matter mastery (his report cards and written tests weren’t so hot) or love of math (I think he often hated the subject).  It also, by its cursory coverage of each single technique, left a lot of the heavy lifting to parents and/or private tutors.
     My son's third grade teacher (one of his best, by the way) announced at open house that children should spend about one hour and forty-five minutes every night on homework.  When I told my dad (a retired elementary school principal) that, he said, “That's too much!”  When he told his retired middle school vice principal friend that, he said, “That's crazy!”
     When will it end?  NCLB is the worst single law passed in my lifetime and is designed solely to discredit virtually every public school in America with perhaps the hidden agenda of school vouchers implementation, which would be nothing more than tax breaks for the wealthy since a voucher alone will be virtually worthless to a typical family except at public schools.  For what decent, well-established private schools would set tuition at or below the voucher's value?  I bet virtually none (especially in Hawaii).
     Full disclosure:  I attended only public schools and so have my children.  The experience has been uniformly excellent and academically and socially rewarding.  My gripe is not with schools or teachers, public or private, but with NCLB and its politics.  Fingering educators as scape goats and “failing” students as victims will not help and neither will vouchers.  I look forward to the day I can finally celebrate its repeal.   Until then, children, chin up, do your best, and enjoy these, the happiest, best, carefree, innocent, play-filled, halcyon most important formative and all too often stressed-out days of your lives.

Friday, September 13, 2013

TV-less Bliss

     Some of the best, most exclusive hotels, resorts, and vacation rentals in the world are TV-less.  And they are pure bliss.  How do I, who've never been, know?  Because our home has been TV-less for the past five years and it's been one of the most blissful changes in our lives.
     It didn't used to always be that way.  We'd flip it on in the morning or when we got home and it'd stay on till we went to bed at night.  It was the hog that sucked our attentions, causing us to zero-out those around us.  “Shush.”  “Quiet, I'm watching,” we'd say with an urgent point toward the set.
     The beginning of the end started when my oldest child was in first grade.  One day, out of the blue, he said, “Why don't we not watch TV anymore?” the set blaring in the background.
     “O.K,” I said, already disillusioned by the blood-sucking, mind-numbing medium to which our lives had become captive.  And I switched the thing off.
     Then, the strangest thing happened.  A part of me revolted and silently screamed, “Turn it on!  Turn it on!”  I had never had such an urgent craving over such a ridiculous thing since who knows when.  But I put the remote down, somewhat disturbed by the odd craving, then picked up something to read, instead.  The craving immediately subsided, and the TV remained off that day, and part of the next.  Gradually over the coming weeks and months, TV resumed its presence in our lives, but much more selectively than before, perhaps down from forty-plus to twenty-something hours per week, my wife doing most of the viewing.
     Then, a year later came the bedbugs.  My daughter brought them home from her co-op type pre-school.  Our friends who had earlier had them said they were worse than the scourges of Egypt because at least you can see locusts, whereas bedbugs hide in credit-card thin cracks in furniture, carpeting, clothes, floorboards, etc.
     In response, we exercised the nuclear option.  We quarantined the bedroom, washed and bagged all clothes and bedding within the room, wiped down and sun-dried the mattress, sprayed with insecticide her and big brother's bunk bed frame and nearby wall crevices, petroleum jellied the legs of the room's wood furniture, and every evening for two months sometime between midnight and two a.m., crept into the eerie blacked-out room with flashlight to inspect for remnant nasty critters.
     My wife consulted an exterminator who warned they even crawled from one room to the next via shared power outlet receptacles.  I opened these, and finding a dead bed bug in one of them, sprayed them all down.
     The kids' room shared a common wall with our family room.  One of this wall's multi-room power outlet receptacles was that into which we had plugged our sole TV in the family room.  I asked my wife, “Is it OK if I tape over this wall outlet?  It'll mean no more TV, though.  It's up to you.” 
     She said, “Go ahead.”
     “Yes,” I silently rejoiced.
     My boy's grades instantly improved from C’s and B’s to B's and A's.  Our tempers flared far less frequently.  And we spent far more time reading and talking.
     During visits to relatives or stays at hotels, I sometimes flip through the plethora of channels, my heart rate accelerating in eager anticipation of seeing some of the good stuff I had been missing.  It doesn't take long for the mindless blather and hyper-kinetic images to create a dull, achey sensation toward the back of my head, my neck stiffening, me feel blah all over.
     Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed TV just as much as the next fella.  TV is not the root of all evil—it's just another communication devise like radio, internet, or print media.  But for me, at this stage in life, doing without has been pure bliss and I don't miss it a bit.
     For those intrigued, give it a try sometime, perhaps just as an experiment for a day or two.  Notice the before and after effects—they're sure to be stark.  And also notice the effects after switching it back on.
     And by the way, we had a milder case of bedbugs with no real recurrence after our first main spraying.  Talk about a blessing in disguise!


Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Fire the Tooth Fairy!

     Something's wrong with the Tooth Fairy. Twice she forgot to collect my daughter's tooth and both times she tried to make up for it the following night by leaving an apologetic note explaining her busy schedule, etc. and that that's why she's leaving twice the usual monetary amount. As if that makes up for Penelope's hurt feelings.
     The first time it happened, I felt just awful. There my daughter was, sitting up in her bed early in the morning, something clasped in her tiny fingers, her head bowed over with quiet resignation. The night before, she had gone to sleep all smiles, excited over the magical impending visit, knowing her tooth would be replaced by a reward—the first tooth she had ever lost, which had wiggled for weeks before falling out.
     My wife and I had enjoyed each other's company the night before. When I told her the next morning what had happened, she fisted her hands and mouthed, “Oh shit!” and I nodded and said, “I know.” But my daughter was resilient and happy enough when the Tooth Fairy came through the following night with the special note and reward.
     I learned about the Tooth Fairy the scientific way: I experimented. No one told me the truth about her, but I had my suspicions. The coins and hand written notes looked just too familiar. But there was that ounce of doubt, that delicious ounce, that made me believe and want to believe in magic, fairy tales, that all wishes and dreams come true and are real, alive, and active. So I did the big, cynical no-no. I lost a tooth, didn't tell anyone about it, and stuck it under my pillow. With a mixture of knowing smugness, yet hope beyond reason, I reached beneath my pillow the following morning and tooth. Three days in a row this happened, before I threw the incriminating evidence away.
     Throughout those days, I felt a confident triumph—I knew it! I knew it! I knew it!--tempered by quiet sadness—it was all just make believe after all, it was never really real—ground-shifting realizations for a naïve nine-year-old. In balance, though, I thought it a good thing—fun while it had lasted. And I saw my parents in a new light—creators of happy moments, going out of their way to do nice, secret things for me as I slept, to make life a little more exciting and enjoyable.
     In a confiding tone, I later told Mom about the unredeemd tooth. She looked at me, nodded, and said, “Well you know..” Then she stroked my back and walked away a little more bent than usual, which made me feel a bit guilty, yet proudly in-the-know.
     Just the other morning the Tooth Fairy had a close call with our youngest son Jaren. And it was only his second lost tooth, too. Good thing he slept in late.
     Then, two days after that (he lost four teeth in seven days)--she again neglected to collect a tooth! Jaren took it in stride, saying, “Now I'll get double the usual amount.” I told him, “We'll just have to wait and see.”
     The following morning he was sullen. I asked him did anything happen last night? He said the Tooth Fairy came and left him double the amount. I asked if she left anything else? He teared up and in a quavering voice said, “A note.”
     “Why are you crying?” I asked.
     He wiped his eyes on his collar and said, “I don't know.”
     “What did the note say?”
     “She wasn't feeling well.” Wailing sobs followed, unusual for him who mostly only cries from owies and time-outs.
     “You're sad because she was sick?”
     “What? I can't hear you.”
     I opened my arms and we embraced, which offered a quick remedy. “Go show Mom,” I said. He ran to show her to her great surprise. Mom, by coincidence, just happened to be sick, too.
     Later that day, during a clean-up battle, I ordered Jaren what to do to straighten up his play corner of the living room. After three tries, he finally got it right, except for a sole misplaced paper on his play table.
     “What's that?” I snapped, fed up with his constant need to be told everything.
     “My note,” he said in a low quivering voice.
     “What note?”
     “From the Tooth Fairy.” His sobs convulsed his tiny, but strong frame.
     “Put it away,” I said, still impatient.
     He cried and put it in an insecure play box on the table.
     “Don't you want to put it in your money box?”
     He nodded, settled down, and ran to put it away.
     I'm certain he was afraid I'd order him to throw it away, as I often do with innumerable of his useless pack-rat junk (such as wrappers, no longer needed instructions, stray unused game cards, etc.)


           As a kid, I never won a medal. Not in sports, academics, music, or anything. Not a certificate, even, least not any that I can recall. It's not that I was untalented, unskilled, or a poor student, it's just that I was never good enough to finish first, second, or third in any competition. And not a single trophy adorned our house, either, for my sister and brother hadn't fared any better.
     Times have changed. These days it seems all kids get certificates or medals for anything and everything. Kind of cheapens the honor of receiving one, they're so common. Missing are the wild tears of joy, spontaneous ovations, and upraised arms. I'd like to think people are more humble these days, but truth be told, they're just more blasé over the banality of it all. 
     So when we received notice last year that our oldest child Braden was to be awarded a middle school finalist certificate at an after-school ceremony for an essay he wrote, we took it with quiet aplomb, congratulating him on his achievement—sort of an off-set to our all-too-often grilling of him due to his subpar grades that he fails to follow-up on. (All Cs and below need to be redone and shown to the teacher to make sure he knows what to do next time to get a B or better). From the finalists, medalists would be announced to compete at the district level. At open house earlier last year, his English teacher shared that her past classes' winners had gone on to win several state-level awards.
     I guessed that there would be fifteen or so awardees from his grade but when we arrived at the cafeteria, the finalists' essays and poems displayed numbered over forty for his grade alone and over a hundred for the entire school. As I read Braden's aloud to our four-year-old, I chuckled at times due to some mundane comparisons (ocean surf that reminded him of fizzy cola in a cup) and improbable vocabulary (azure skies). One sentence that I liked, sounded like a teacher's assist: “Tingling all over with excitement, I peered out the window...” Most seventh graders don't start sentences that way, though in the past, he has surprised me with a gem or two.
     A poem of his classmate's was well done, describing the author dropping quiet, cold, and heavy to a lake bottom only to be uplifted by a hand—that of his father. Knowing Braden's essay didn't stand a chance (I handicapped it at 5%), I secretly rooted for this boy's poem.
     Long, boring speeches preceded the awards ceremony, then, in rapid fire, names were called, certificates were awarded, and photos were snapped. Another boring speech preceded the medal awards—eleven total for the entire school. When Braden's name was again called, I was so flabbergasted, I laughed, then, clapped cheerfully. It was a nice, engraved medal with ribbon, draped around his neck Olympic-style. I later learned that the boy's poem I liked hadn't been selected.
     In retrospect, one of Braden's poems from the year before (which earned him only a B+, critical teacher comments, and no certificate) was far superior and should have won in this essay's place—though we're plenty happy he got recognized last year.
     So much in life seems to happen this way: when we deserve it, we get diddly; and when we don't, we get pleasantly surprised. Maybe it balances out in the end. But I suspect luck and sometimes connections (or sympathy?) have a lot to do with it. Perseverance, too, may sometimes help. It's such a subjective thing, it's tough to gauge. Whether Braden's essay deserved it or not is not ours to decide. We're just happy the judges deemed it fit.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

The Facts of Life

     You don't have to do it, but it's something that you don't want to miss out on—like a father's witnessing the birth of his child. What I'm referring to is teaching your children the facts of life. I did it for our oldest son when he hit puberty and my wife recently did it for our daughter. She was apprehensive before doing it and months earlier had claimed to have done it, but when I recently read Penelope a book of facts that supposedly aren't true and the Immaculate Conception topic came up, I asked her while trying to decide whether it was age appropriate, “Mom taught you how babies are made, right?” and she said no.
     Deanne explained that she taught her only about menses and how it's useful to determine projected birth dates for pregnant women.
     I explained to her that it's time for Penelope to know, to learn from us first, because we had already signed the school's sex education consent form. By teaching her ourselves, it will be something she will never forget and will cause her to esteem us more in the future when she realizes, “That was pretty cool of her to tell me herself.” And in turn, she'll more likely open up to us when she falls in love, starts dating, gets a boyfriend, and goes through other major life events. By telling her too, it shows our love and respect for her—that we care enough to do it ourselves rather than slough off the responsibility on someone else.
     Sure, it was uncomfortable for us raised in conservative (and somewhat prudish) Asian cultures. Deanne said she learned when her parents gave her a pamphlet. Mine gave me one too, but it was designed for an early prepubescent and left out all the critical details. Same thing happened in fifth grade sex education class at school. I even asked the teacher who showed diagrams of the female internal organs explaining how sperm in the vagina swims up through the cervix into the uterus blah, blah, blah--, “But how does the sperm get into the vagina?”  
     She paused a moment and reiterated that the sperm swims up the vagina, through the cervix, into the uterus blah, blah, blah... and if you need further explanation, she concluded, then ask your parents. Hands shot up and Mrs. Lee said we have a lot to catch up on in Social Studies so get out your notebooks now.
     I asked my friend Harvey during recess, but how does the sperm get into the vagina? He just bunched up his lips and shrugged, apparently no further enlightened about it than I was.
     So I learned the scholarly way—I read our reference books at home. The children's encyclopedia didn't have it. It wasn't under the World Book Encyclopedia's heading “Sex,” either. I found it buried way down in the boring text under the heading “Reproduction.” My head throbbed along with my heart's thudding beat as I read that (the act) is generally very physiologically and psychologically pleasurable to both sexes. After looking up those words, I thought to myself, the man, sure, but the woman? Ever since then, I've had a rather scholarly attitude toward many other biological functions. Maybe if my parents had told me themselves, I would have a more social attitude toward them?
     Nonetheless, Deanne did it (well, almost). I told her prior to her second attempt that it's ridiculous that people are so squeamish about talking about it—it's as natural as breathing and eating. All animals (pretty much) do it. Virtually everyone on earth who has ever lived has done it or will do it. The main thing is to focus on loving Penelope and to bless her in the process. Tell her it's a beautiful thing for a loving couple—one of the most beautiful things there is. God could have made us like fish, I explained to Deanne—drop the eggs on the ground, fertilize it, that's it. Or like squid—bam! So long! But He didn't. He blessed us with this gift.
     I choked up when I explained certain parts to my son. My daughter choked up when my wife explained certain parts to her. My wife asked why are you crying, did something happen to you? She said no, she didn't know why. My wife was worried so she left off before reaching the critical part. She told me maybe she'll finish explaining a couple of years from now. I said we can't wait that long—weeks or a couple months, maybe, but no way years. So hopefully, she'll get around to it sometime soon. (I'll remind her as necessary.)

Friday, September 6, 2013


     About a year ago, it started with my nine-year-old daughter—the most social of our three kids, then spread to the other two. The way she said, “Yeah,” with that up and down wandering lilt and body language that suggested, “You're so dumb if you don't already know that.” Or the way my oldest son flipped his hands up and bunched up his shoulders as if I were the most nitpicky person on the planet to ask him for the third time in a row to pick up his bedroom floor it's still a mess. Or the way my youngest son shouted to the other two, “Get in the house right now!” when we asked him to call them in for dinner.
     We do our best, telling him, “Don't ever make that arrogant gesture at me again!” Or her, “Not yeaheaeaeaeaea...” in exaggerated imitation. Or him, “Say that respectfully.” And by doling out time-outs and other appropriate discipline. Thankfully, they now watch themselves a lot better—at least around me, who will not tolerate it, finding it all repugnant and unacceptable.
     Sassiness, I think, is a manifestation of confidence gone amok: cockiness. A high school classmate had an annoying habit of snorting disbelief whenever asked a question or upon hearing some dumb, lame comment. “That guy is massive,” a friend might say to which he'd respond, “Hegh, that's nothing. You should see...” At times, I catch myself snorting just like that, or my wife saying, “Yeah,” a bit too sassily, and wonder, mortified, how long has this been going on? Have they been picking up such bad habits at least in part from us?
     A learned habit that my kids had great difficulty breaking was starting sentences with the word so. “So, the other day in class...” “So, what time are we leaving?” “Not so...” I'd tell them, over and over again, annoyed. Until, one day, I caught myself saying, “So when I was at work today...” I couldn't believe it. How long had I been doing this? Had they learned it from me? Awhile later, I was talking on the phone with a buddy from college—we converse about every other month and he's my best, longest, and truest friend—and he started sentences so this and so that, left and right. So he’s the culprit, I thought. I blamed him for passing on his bad habit to me, that my kids picked up on, and that they use all the time in the most inappropriate ways. He got defensive and mock outraged but was careful not to use the word so for the remainder of our conversation.     You get a lot of these shameful moments as parents—recognition of our own guilt in our kids' behaviors, for, as the old adage says, behaviors are most often caught, not taught. And kids pick up on the most subtle, unconscious things that we do and say, then reflect them back at us, almost mockingly. If only they would do as we say, not as we do, life would be so much easier. But then again, if that ever happened, from whence would we learn and grow so much?
     One of the best things about fatherhood is its forced me to be a better man because I can't tolerate the thought that they'll grow up like me. My cussing, an incorrigible habit since high school, went out the door when my son was three. Sloppy eating habits, awhile later. And I seldom ever begin a sentence anymore with the word so.