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Financial Fitness and your Health – What the Heck is this thing called Taxes?

time for taxes

Well, as I promised, we are going to start taking a hard look at the reality of money and financial fitness. Again, this has a direct impact on your health because the more stressed out you are about money, the harder you work, the less time you have to recover, the less time you have to enjoy even the little things in life, the more your health will suffer. So, pull up a chair, grab your kids, and read this series together so you can learn something. Maybe you know it, maybe you do not, but read it all the way through. Or not. Frankly, it is your life and trust me when I say that when I am old and retired and balling big time because I have money and you are eating cat food, I will not think twice about it because I tried to help.

IMPORTANT NOTE: Protect your Social Security Number. This is not a joke. Do not carry that card around with you. EVER! Lock it up in a safe deposit box. Put it in a little safe at home that is fireproof. Do not let that number loose. Do not put it down for anything. Not at medical offices. Not at any place that seems sketch. Places like car dealerships, banks, and credit card applications will need it. And, prospective employers once they hire you. Otherwise, do not share it for any reason. EVER!!!! Identity theft is a real bitch and once you go down that rabbit-hole, there is no getting out!!!!

Taxes and You

So, do you remember your first job? I do. Man, I was so excited. It was H-E-B in Weslaco, TX. HEB is a grocery chain and one of the places where a lot of kids in Texas get their first job. I think I made like 5 bucks an hour back in 1989-90. It was not a lot. But, it was work. I humped carts. Carried out groceries. Cleaned floors. Whatever was needed.

I recall looking at my first paycheck. I cannot remember how many hours exactly, but let’s say for the sake of argument it was 20. So, here I am counting that paycheck. I worked 20 hours at 5 bucks an hour. Woohooo….I am going to get 100 bucks. And then I look at the check and I see all these words and numbers. FICA, OASDI, and this other stuff and I was thinking…ok…but where is the line with my 100 bucks. I get to the bottom of the paystub and there is no 100.00 amount there. What what?

Whoa Whoa Whoa HR lady…what the hell? Where is my money? Come on now, where is my proper pay? She raised an eyebrow and looked at me and then realized…it’s this kid’s first job. And he is an idiot. Perhaps my mother had said something about taxes at some point, but that shit was for old people. Not for me. But nope….nope….it was for me too. It was for everyone. And thus was the start of a very real lesson I learned – we pay taxes!!

Fast forward 28 years and not much has changed. I still pay taxes. But, and here is the funny thing, as much as we have advanced. As much as we know. As far as we have come, there are a metric shit ton of kids that do not have clue one about this concept. Schools are failing us because they are not teaching people what they need to know (sorry for this brief tangent). But seriously, I do not need to know U.S. History when it comes to reading my paycheck. Teach a class on that shit….please. But, back to my financial stuff.

So, rude awakening. I did not get my 100 bucks. Instead, I got like 85 bucks. Maybe a bit less. That was three whole hours of work. Maybe a Monday evening shift. I basically gave HEB a free day of work. Right!? That is what it felt like. But nope, no….they took nothing from me. I paid into a system designed to keep our country running. Although some will argue that it is a bunch of horseshit. By the way, those people are fucking morons. I really try not to cuss on here. Truly…but seriously…anyone that does not want to pay taxes is a FUCKING MORON. And if this is you, friend or random reader, then you too are a FUCKING MORON.

Now, I am not saying the tax code is perfect. Indeed, we in the US have one of the most complicated tax systems of the 34 countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) (https://taxfoundation.org/2015-international-tax-competitiveness-index). Imagine, out of 34 balling countries, we are listed at number 32. Now, full disclosure, I have worked for the Internal Revenue Service for 20 years. And, for the record – I AM NOT SPEAKING AS A REPRESENTATIVE OF THE IRS. But, that does not mean I can completely remove myself from the knowledge, experiences, and observations I have made about that organization.

But, back to the 100 bucks. I was pretty steamed. And then when I left home and worked in the military, I started seeing all these deductions off my check. And I just resigned myself to the fact that this was how it was going to be. But, they added a wrinkle. I had to not only pay taxes, but then do this thing once a year called federal taxes. Wait, didn’t I pay them already? Now I have to send them paperwork? What is this infernal curse from hell???!!!! Worse yet, if you are from certain states, you also have to pay a state tax!!!! What the shit??!!!

Damn man. This sucks. Then, to add insult to injury, I go to the store to buy something and I get him with more crap. Sales tax? What the shit man? What!? Listen bro, I wanted those Nike’s that cost 50 bucks. I had exactly 35 left over. I am taking my girlfriend to Sonic for dinner and that is 12 bucks. I need gas in my car and that is 8 bucks. Then we are watching a movie which is 10 bucks. And I have enough for soda and a popcorn which is 5 bucks. But, you want an extra 4 bucks for these shoes. What the heck? Now I cannot have the soda and popcorn or I have to put less gas in my car. Or, I need to work more hours, but I do not get more hours. Taxes. Taxes. Taxes……

Remember those days? I do. And they sucked. So, my mom was good. She understood money. Why was it that I did not? Oh yeah….I did not listen to her. She is my mom, so of course that must mean that she does not get it. Perhaps your kids are way smarter than I was at that age, but based on observations I have made and conversations I have had over the years, kids are still surprisingly stupid about this stuff. And thus this series…financial literacy and fitness. Healthy choices, mentally, physically, and fiscally will make your life happier.

Taxes – Their Real Purpose

So, let’s start off with taxes. We will break these down and talk about what they mean and why. This may be stuff you know, but it is also done to be educational.

What in holy hell is a W-4?

When you get that first job (or any job), one of the first things you will do is fill out a W-4. This form is used to tell your employer how much tax to withhold. Now, You can see below, the format is pretty simple. Name. Address. Social Security Number (yes, used on federal tax forms).  You check if you are single or married (and tip, if you can do it, always check single, even if you are married). And then the number of exemptions you are claiming (tip – always claim zero). Sign. Forget about it.

w-4

So, quick explanation about withholding. Single zero means you are withholding the highest amount of taxes possible. But Rod, you work for the IRS you asshole. I know what you are doing. Jerk. But hey, let me help you understand this. Taxes are what makes our country go. You like roads? You like knowing the military is out there (whether you agree with them or not)? Then taxes pay for that and so much more. Taxes keep us from living in mud huts and driving donkey carts. So get over the tax issue.

Single zero means the government keeps the most amount of money possible. They keep it until you file your tax return and when you calculate what you should have paid and what you did pay, this turns into a refund or a balance due.

If you withheld 5000.00 in tax, but at the end of the year you should have only paid 2500.00, then you get a nice big check for 2500.00 back as a tax refund. Cool beans. But, you gave the government an interest free loan of 2500.00. Live with it. It helps our country.

Now, let’s say you are like screw the government. And you say Married Five (even if you are single). Now, you withhold 50.00 all year. But, you calculate your taxes at the end of the year and you owe the same 2500.00. Now, you need to send the IRS a check for 2450.00. Right…like you have it! Sure you do. Then you start to owe the government money. I cannot tell you how many people do this dumb shit. Oh, but I cannot afford to live. Hey, take that up with corporate America and your politician’s desires to not raise minimum wage. This is about finance.

Some people balance this out very carefully so they give the government as precise an amount as possible, let’s say 2498.00 and they owe 2500.00. A $2 bill is easy to pay. Write a check. Send in some stamps. Done. But, most people do not do this. You see, when the money comes in the form of a paycheck, people tend to spend it. No one thinks to put money aside for taxes. They just never do. So, end of the year comes, big tax bill due, and all of a sudden you are in debt to the government. Payment plans. Debt due. The government can garnish your wages. It is a real clusterfuck.

But, if you condition yourself to just go Single Zero, you will be okay 95% of the time. Sure, you have less to live on. But, learn to do it. Believe me, when you get a 2500.00 check on your refund, it is nice to pay off that credit card (which we will discuss in an upcoming chapter). But, if you get 100.00 per check extra, you spend it and at the end of the year, you have nothing to show for it.

This is from 20 years of working for the IRS that I make this observation. Do what you want, but I am trying to give you some sound advice.

Special Note: States with income tax requirements have their own version of this form you need to fill out. It differs for each state. I am from Texas, so never had to fill one out. But, be aware if you have a state income tax and ask questions when you go into your HR office.

What is FICA? And how much is the FICA Tax? (thebalance.com, 2017)

First off, your FICA is automatically calculated if you get paid on a W-2. This is your wage and earnings document. You will see your wages/earning. You will see your withholding. You can see social security wages. Medicare wages. Misc items withheld. You see who your employer is. They will identify you. Be sure your SSN is correct! Be sure you clearly read their employer identification number.

2011_W2

FICA Tax – “FICA” is short for the Federal Insurance Contributions Act. The Act was introduced in the 1930s to pay for Social Security. Medicare was added later (thebalance.com, 2017) <– (By the way, notice this thing here….when you quote someone, even loosely, cite them! Learn this early. Prevents plagiarism).

How much is the FICA Tax? (thebalance.com, 2017)

The total FICA tax is 15.3%. That percentage is applied to the employee’s gross pay. The employer and employee each pays 7.65%.

Here is the breakdown of these taxes:

  • Within that 7.65%, the OASDI (Old Age, Survivors, and Disability program, AKA, Social Security) portion is 6.2%, up to the annual maximum wages subject to Social Security.
  • The Medicare portion is 1.45% for each employee, on all employee earnings.

The Social Security portion is capped each year at a set amount; the Medicare portion is not capped.

So, funny thing, as you can see above, some pretty chill folks have already written a lot about this stuff. Teaching it is no harder than saying go here, read this, and ask questions.

Now some employees are exempt from taxes. But, you should follow the flow chart in IRS Publication 505 for that. I will not even try to explain it. Generally though, if you make a very small amount of money and you would not owe taxes at the end of the year, you may possibly be exempt. But, the trick is to condition yourself to pay taxes. So, just pay them. Learn to live with it. This way, it will not be a shock later on in life.

See, pretty easy to read. This is what you get at the end of the year. Now, if an employer is small and says he takes care of this but gives you a handwritten W-2, be careful!!

I have seen these small employers give their employees these great documents and you pay tax and claim a refund and think all is well only to later find out that your small employer did not actually pay his or her tax (but still gave you a nice W-2). Guess what, you are on the hook for it! Sure, you can report your employer. Good luck with that. You pay until it gets sorted out. Bottom line. Crappy deal. So, smaller businesses (not all, but some) need to be watched carefully. Big boys like retailers, Amazon, and all other manner of big companies usually take care of this for you really well. I am not saying all small employers or handwritten W-2s are bad, but be on point with your money. Seriously.

Self Employed Contributions Act – SECA

Or, as I like to say, yes…you still have to pay taxes.

So, this one is the one that gets people all the time. And I do mean all the time. How does one explain this? You get paid one of two ways when you work. Your employer pays taxes and does part of the work for you (filing forms and such with IRS and submitting payroll tax) and you get a W-2 at the end of the year. This will clearly say W-2. Or, they just say this is too much work and we will give you a 1099. The 1099 then becomes your problem. Hope you know what to do. Good luck.

So, I am attaching a picture of a 1099 for you all to see.

1099-1

 

As you can see, some basic info on this form. Payer’s name and address (this is the company that hired you). Recipient’s name and address (this would be you). Payer’s Federal ID. This needs to be correct. Also, your Identification number is your SSN. Make sure it is right. Few other sections. Pretty much irrelevant. What you want to look for is Box 3 – other income. If you have income here, you need to report it. Especially if you worked for someone. However, they probably put it in the wrong box. It should be on Line 7 – Nonemployee Compensation. This is what happens when you are a contract employee.

But Rod, I work there. I have worked there. Yes. Yes, you do work there. But, for taxation purposes, you are a contract employee. It is a term. Just accept the reality.

Box 4 – federal income tax withheld. This one is tricky. You can ask them to withhold tax. It would be cool if they did. However, most places pay on a 1099 because they do not want to deal with the hassle of paying anything for you to the IRS. So, this will most likely be blank. It would be awesome if they did, but be mindful of it being zero.

NOTE: Ask clearly and concisely if they plan to pay you on a 1099 and if they will withhold taxes.

If they say 1099 and we will not withhold taxes, then you are now in the twilight zone. Read this next part carefully!! Depending on how much money you make, you will need to make estimated tax payments. What the shit Rod? What do you mean by that? What the hell is that? So, if you are filing by yourself and you made next to nothing, then you will not need to send money in. However, let’s say you are a car salesman. You are strictly commission and they say you are paid on a 1099. Weird, but it happens. Great. You are projected to make 60,000.00 this year. You earn $5,000.00 per month. When you get that check, you immediately take out a percentage of your income, say 15 to 25% and set it aside. That could be anywhere from $750 to $1250.00. Put it in an account. Do that every month. Every three months, you will write the IRS a check called an estimated tax payment. You will use Form 1040-ES. Payments are made in April, June, Sept, and Jan. Failure to do so could result in an Estimated Tax Payment Penalty. Basically, you do not follow the rules, you get a penalty. Hey, do you like to light money on fire? I hope so, because you might as well do that.

So, make estimated tax payments. The range varies based on the amount and the form has instructions for you to calculate your payment. But, you better do it. If you do not, not only will you owe a tax bill at the end of the year, you will have a penalty to boot. Don’t be a dumbass.

I bet you never heard that in high school economics or home economics class. Hmmm? If I am wrong, good. They taught you. If I am right, then seriously pay attention to this shit. Learn to do things right. I shit you not, two things you cannot avoid in this life: Death and Taxes.

But why do I have to pay this. Call it self-paid FICA. Everyone that works pays it. Including self-employed and contract employees.

You could get paid under the table. Sure. Spend your whole life doing this. I am not saying you should. In fact, it is illegal. But I hope you invest wisely, because you will not get any social security benefit without it.

Are we learning anything yet? I hope so. Because seriously….this is a lot of damned writing for people to ignore.

How Long Must I Do This?

Great question. As long as you work. Simple section. Cool, right?

Why are you telling me all this?

Listen, ignore it. Seriously. Ask me if I care. Also, this is filtered through my experiences and observations. So, when any of you have 20 years of experience working for the IRS and seeing the things I have seen, feel free to tell me what you know is better than what I know.

But here is what I have seen….people that have no clue about this stuff. And it gets them into trouble. Then, they stay up late and night worrying about the huge tax bill they owe. Hey man, I did not realize I had to pay taxes. Hey man, my buddy told me I did not have to pay as much. Hey man, I am super stressed out about this. Hey man, why do I have to pay all that interest on what they say I owe? Blah blah. Because that is how it is. I wish I could give you a better answer. But, being ignorant of the rules does not mean you are exempt from following them or being penalized for not knowing them.

Learn how to do your taxes. Get the basics down. Have a clue of how the numbers work. Understand that you need to do this, year after year. Forever. Keep those papers safe. Protect your social security number. I will do an actual section on filling out taxes soon. This posting was just about knowing what taxes are. Understanding how your money is affected. Getting a clue about what to do and why we do it.

But hey, blow it off. Disregard it. Do not listen. My stuff is on point. You can be the one staying up late with collection notices from the IRS. You are the one that could wake up and find everything but $1 in your bank account because of a tax levy. You could call one of those settle your taxes for pennies on the dollar scams and pay them more money than you owe in taxes to “settle” your debt.

But it is stressful. You are always worried. And, you live beyond your means and do not meet your tax obligation.

I remember one person calling and getting mad and saying you cannot tell me how to spend my money. You are right…when you owe nothing. But, if you owe the government money, guess what….they can and do tell you how you can spend your money. And…they can enforce it.

Your choice. But, you cannot escape it. Well, actually you can. Hope you like foreign countries. Maybe Yemen. How about Iran? But if you like living here in the United States, then you pay the price. So, hope you all learned something. Share this with your kids. Trust me…make them read it.

 

Obesity and Fitness – A Clashing of Differing Realities

Obesity-and-standing-desks

So, this is a personal posting because I generally do not like to talk about my son. But, I felt that this was important because of the nature of the topic here. And once again, it deals with obesity.

Obesity is an epidemic. There is just no question about it. I have found that my life has significantly changed to the “food is fuel” mentality. But, we have become accustomed to the food must be great and taste good mentality. We want variety. We want beer. We want chips. We want this and that. It has to be delicious. It has to be great. I see it on the cooking shows. I see these recipes online and they load food with cheese, with bread, with noodles, with all these things and it looks delish.

So, as I look around, I am seeing something disturbing. FAT kids. And listen, please….please……please understand. I am not fat shaming. I get that some will be offended by this posting, but the fact remains, that none of us were born overweight. With few exceptions, most children are born weighing 6 to 10 pounds. So, no fat kids are born. Obesity is a choice that is made consciously. It can be an obsessive type thing. It can be done to mask personal pain. It can be done for psychological comfort. Or it can simply be complete and utter carelessness with your physical self. I am not here to understand why a person is obese. I am here to deal with the reality of that.

Back to my son. He is relating a story from the perspective of an obese person getting on a plane. My compassionate side feels empathy for this person. I cannot imagine what the gauntlet of walking down a plane aisle is like knowing that everyone is staring and quietly thinking “please do not let that person sit next to me”. That must be emotionally brutal. And I can appreciate being tough and having a thick skin, but that still sucks. Worse yet, on airlines like Southwest, if you are obese and get stuck in the wrong boarding group, you will get a middle seat. Great….perfect. And then, adding insult to injury, people can be downright rude. It is emotionally devastating. This person wrote how they did not travel for a year because of that. And, that the person that complained stated that they would not do that to a person in a wheelchair or someone that was pregnant (by that I mean complain about the obese person and demand a seat switch).

This person stated they sit quietly. Keep their arms folded. Try to make themselves as small as possible. Ask for nothing. Have to deal with the indignity of flight attendants offering free meals (on longer haul flights) to the others in the row for having to deal with the situation. Worse yet, said person said they are required to purchase two seats. But here is the kicker, they pay for two seats, but the airline does not leave the seat empty. They fill it. WTF! If I want to pay for three seats in a row, they damn well better be empty as I fly. But no, airlines will fill them.

It was heartbreaking to hear because I picked up on a certain tone in his voice that I did not like. But here is the rub, I cannot completely dismiss his concerns either. He said he did not like fat people. However, there are plenty of people we know that are obese and he loves them. So, this must mean other obese people. Fine, he is entitled to his opinion. He added that he would never say anything mean or disrespectful to them, but he has a certain disdain for them. Why should he have to suffer in close quarters for what other people do? I cannot argue that point. I can say that the “suffering” is just limited to a plane flight or a movie theater. As a paying customer he is entitled to get what he pays for without it being encroached on by others regardless of how society feels about his opinion.

So, there is a real challenge here. Empathy and compassion versus the need to not have shifting societal norms be forced on you. You see, fitness is a real challenge for people. We recently were at Sea World (yes, hold the disdain) and noticed while walking around that a great many people were, to put it nicely, not in the best shape. You do not have to have a six-pack and be rocking a muscular body. I am not saying you need to make people’s eyes pop out when you wear a bikini. But as we have moved forward, I have noticed that obesity is becoming more widely accepted. While fat shaming is a terrible thing and I would never condone mocking people for their size, I think it is reasonable to wonder how it happens and why more proactive steps are not being taken to stay healthy. As a new instagrammer, I can tell you that some very obese people put pictures of themselves up where they weighed maybe 400 pounds and dropped to 250 pounds. They get nothing but love from people on there for making the effort to change. It takes courage to say I have a problem that I need to deal with. It takes courage to face it. What is easy to do is say this is just how I am and I am not going to bother changing. It is not wrong, but it is easy enough to do. It takes no work. It is a convenient truth we sell ourselves. And we continue doing what we do.

Listen, I am the first to admit that my diet is boring. Brown rice. Some fruit. Chicken or fish. Protein shakes. My idea of a candy bar is a Gatorade Protein Bar. Literally. Rinse and repeat. Day after day. After day. Yes, you see the rock have a 10,000 calorie cheat meal…but this guy works out like 25 hours a week. It is his job. He has to be the Rock. Who here saw the original Thor movie a few years back? Chris Hemsworth looked jacked….I mean really jacked. When he was done, he was quoted somewhere as saying he would be happy if he never ate chicken again. It was high protein, low fat, and repetition. Rinse and repeat. He ate for fuel.

So, for the average person, you have to find a balance of eating for fuel and eating what you like. But people have to start somewhere. Cutting out junk is first. Counting calories is second. Counting macros is third. Even without the gym, doing this and the weight drops off. So, then why are more people not doing it? Well, you carry weight around long enough, you lose skin elasticity. You drop a ton of weight. Awesome. But, your nipples are sitting one foot down your chest because of loose skin. The thought is daunting. Truly scary. Instagram is full of people who had surgery to remove excess skin. It looks painful. It looks hard. And it is expensive. So, obese people face real challenges. Boo hoo to the skinny people and their first world problems. But, most developed countries seem to have a problem with obese people. Certainly not all, but a great many do. Fit people, while popular, take a back seat. We are marginalized. At Planet Fitness, we are called Lunkheads. WTF. I am a lunkhead because I work out hard and leave it all on the gym floor? No, I do not accept that. How would you all feel if we put up signs in Gold’s Gym that said no fatasses? Not cool.

But getting back to Josh. I told him to be mindful of the slippery slope he was on. We do not know every story of every person with weight. We have to be compassionate and kind. We have to be supportive and help folks who want the help achieve their goals. We must face our personal biases. And we must be sure that our beliefs are not so transparent as to hurt others. I am not making excuses for obese people. They have to decide to change themselves. It is a deeply personal thing. But, we must also be encouraging and supportive. And however annoying it may be to be stuck in a plane or movie seat next to someone, we must be grateful that we are not having to face that issue. As uncomfortable as it is for us for those few hours, whether those people will publicly admit it or not, it is probably uncomfortable for them a great deal more.

Flying in the Danger Zone – Social Media and Mental Fitness

newsevents-social-media-sidebox-img

I have been a bit silent lately because of some interesting events in my life, but I wanted to address this topic because I have

  • Seen postings about it on my feed
  • Thought about this at length and want to address it.

A big part of my philosophy is having good to great mental health. This is so critical to overall fitness. Fitness is not just your ability to lift weight, ride a bike, swim a lap, or run some miles. Fitness is so much more. It is proper eating habits. It is getting enough sleep. It is understanding yourself. And, above all else it is having a great and stable mindset.

So, the challenge we have here is the mindset. Honestly, people fail at fitness and wellness because they lack the mental fortitude to succeed. Now, a pretty talented guy by the name of Scott Peck wrote a book called The Road Less Traveled where he dives into a few more things than I want to address right here, but the critical takeaways for me were his notions of discipline. These are the things I openly advocate and discuss. Remember, very few ideas are new anymore. They are simply subtle remixes of past ideas and framed in new ways to help people understand things. So, the concept of the discipline, according to Peck is laid out in the following steps:

  • Delaying gratification: Sacrificing present comfort for future gains.
  • Acceptance of responsibility: Accepting responsibility for one’s own decisions.
  • Dedication to truth: Honesty, both in word and deed.
  • Balancing: Handling conflicting requirements.

The basic premise is that life is difficult. We all probably realize this by now, especially those of us in our 40s. However, it is made much more difficult by the introduction of this new and very dangerous animal called social media. So, for the purposes of this posting, I want to focus on social media and the impact it has on us as individuals.

Social Media, Media, and the Long Lasting Effects on People

When we think of the negative influence of media, we tend to think about things like Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and all these other instant media tools that expose us to the world. As parents and friends, we do our best to help those around us, but because life is difficult, we sometimes tend to let certain things slip (which is mostly unintentional). We strive to provide our children with the tools they need to be successful. In this day and age, that is the smartphone, the tablet, a computer, and other technological wonders.

But, we should remember that long before we had social media, we all were prisoners of the role that media played (and continues to play) in our lives. It is pretty easy when you think about it. How many times do you gaze at a magazine cover? When you watch those infomercials online, ever notice it is fit or attractive people? Department stores have increasingly smaller and bustier or larger and more muscular mannequins to display clothes? Everything is geared towards this mindset of attractive and fit and beautiful. We are constantly flooded with images, both direct and indirect, of these things – fit, slim, beautiful, handsome, etc. I promise you, there are companies out there that sit around for hours a day figuring out how to try to influence your thinking. They are trying to hack your subconscious so that you can feel shame and remorse about the choices you make if they do not align with the product they are selling. So, the After-Boomers and Generation X-ers have all grown up with this. We, as Gen X-ers, also dealt with the advent of technology. I still recall being in that transitional phase switching from typewriters to computer based word-processing. We witnessed the birth of the mainstream information age and now we are knee deep in this technology.

Enter our children. They are children of the technology age. We jokingly lament that they will never know a rotary phone. That they will never see the bag cellular phone. That they only know things like smartphones. That they bury their heads in those same smartphones and pay more attention to that universe than the universe around them. Well, this is pretty accurate. Now, technology is a tool. Much like a framer uses a hammer to hit a nail, technology is a tool to solve problems. But, the hammer was a passive tool. It was simply used to execute a task. Technology is an active tool. It can solve problems, but it can also create problems. It can send messages to people and we often cannot control them.

We have seen the effects of this over time. We see the stories of people being radicalized through online websites and forums. We have seen stories of children and young adults joining organizations that are dangerous to them and to others. We have seen people prey on others. We even created a term for this called “catfishing” and we have seen evidence of how dangerous this is. I can most definitely say that there are long term effects to technology and media use.

Social Media in Theory and Practice

So, a theory about social media is that it was designed to bring people together. But, if you look at the original concept of Facebook, it was designed to allow students in Ivy League schools to judge each other in a hot or not type situation. Sure, it has turned into a social media powerhouse, but that was its initial intention. A system built to judge. As we try to find the good in things, we want to argue that system like this build community and bring people closer together. It allows people to share their lives with friends so people can stay connected across great distances. We talk about socially sourced learning. We learn from others and social media allows us to do this. So, there are good intentions there. But, there is a saying “the road to hell is paved with good intentions”.

What social media has become is something more than a method to establish community. There is a terribly dark underside to this technology. It has created sites where fiction is held out to be fact. It has resulted in the incessant bullying and teasing of people. It has been used to shame and humiliate people through the spread of false stories, true stories, and worst of all, unflattering or embarrassing images. People have taken their lives because of this. It is scary for a parent to have to deal with this. But therein lies the rub, a parent is re-actively dealing with this. REACTIVE. This is the critical word.

I can only use my own experiences as a parent. So, I will. I have an adult son, who happened to be a teen during this blowup of social media. I spent many an hour talking to him in detail about social media and the challenges and pitfalls of this system. More importantly, I explained to him that social media was irrelevant to his life. Thanks Rod….great. You make it sound so easy. Social media is irrelevant to my kid’s life. Done. Thanks. Jackass.

But seriously, let’s think about this. If you take the time to start to show your kids from the beginning the dangers and the benefits of social media, then perhaps, just perhaps, they will not be enslaved by it. My first thought – why do you let your children even get on social media? Of course, I gave my son a choice and he chose not to engage in the system. He had a profile, but really, he just avoided it. But, let’s just say your kids really want to be a part of the social media movement and you agree to it. Well, now you have to do your due diligence as a parent. You have to explain the rules. You have to show them the consequences. You have to have those tough talks with them. I find that a lot of parents are reluctant to do that. They are reluctant to think that their kids can fall prey to these systems.

Let’s take the most common element. The selfie. Oy….the selfie is the bane of the existence of many a parent. The selfie has moved from the basic selfie of a person doing something silly to the scandalous selfie of a person doing something scandalous. Kids have no concept of the dangers of selfies. As a parent, you are also reluctant to talk to your angel about sending pictures of their privates to others. I would ask you to leave comments, but I will not…but how many of you have shown your kids images of “leaked” selfies? Hmm??? Any of you? Any of you show your kids pictures of that guy showing off his penis? Or that girl showing a very revealing look at her vagina? Probably not. Let’s just get past the legal thing here because if your child is underage, that constitutes child pornography and could get your kids into serious trouble, both as the sender and receiver of the images. Let’s assume they are of legal age. No laws being broken. Let’s assume your sweet little girl is deeply in love with that boy. She sends a picture of her breasts to him with a big smile on her face and blowing him a kiss. Six weeks later they break up in a bad way and all of a sudden that very private picture of her breasts is now flooding a private Facebook group or being texted around with some very unflattering comments about your daughter. Her friends either think her breasts are too perfect or really crappy…either way, they unleash the hate. They then send it out to even more people. Next thing you know, your little girl is getting all these jeers and sneers in school. Worse, they may have shared her cell phone number and she is getting lewd and obscene messages. However, you never took the time to talk to her about this possibility. Before you know it, her grades are suffering, she is withdrawn and sullen, and you have no clue what is going on.

This is why so many young women have hurt themselves. Or gone into hiding. Or been humiliated online. The same can be said for boys. Trust me, it is pretty traumatic for a kid who is navigating the journey of self-discovery to get told he has a small penis. Everyone says it. Or says it looks weird. Your son has no way to compare it with anyone else. He will certainly not look up facts to realize that the average penis size in the country is probably about 5.1 inches in length…hardly the record breaking length one would hope for (Journal of Urology, 1996). So, all of a sudden your son is beside himself because everyone thinks he has a small penis…and they say so in the most hurtful ways. Again, not like you try to prepare your kids for this. Who would? What parent is comfortable showing their child these images? Hence, if this ever happens, you are in a terribly reactive position trying to console your child. Right…that works so well.

Of course, those are images. What about words? Rabbi Joseph Telushkin has written extensively on the concept of words that hurt and words that heal. He details how words can be devastating. Or they can be uplifting. Let’s take something very simple….like missing the game winning shot. Imagine you take that shot, since no one else has the courage to do so (or you simply got stuck with it) and you miss. People around you have two choices – uplift you or tear you down. Sure, we want to win and hitting that shot would be great. But, does missing it end the world? Is it that bad in the grander scheme of things? No. But in that moment, the choice will be made to say “you effing suck, loser” or “it’s okay, you did your best and we are proud of you, we will get them next time”. Yes, you still smart that you missed the shot, but you are not torn down by your peers. It makes a world of difference to know you are still supported and cared for even if you fail. Words can have a healing effect. Or they can be brutal.

As a parent, we have to teach our kids to tune out those words. But, what if we ourselves do not know how. We are slaves to words. We give them such power over us. So, in turn, we use them back in the most hurtful of ways. We will say demeaning things about others in retaliation for things said about us. We will use equally hurtful words to hurt others as we feel we have been hurt, or wronged. And the cycle continues. I myself have been guilty of this and still, on occasion, find my mind going to this place. It is hard to be the bigger person. To turn the proverbial cheek.

We are stuck in this endless and vicious cycle and we seem to be always living in this world.

How Do We Stop?

This is the most difficult question to answer. First off, it starts with us as adults and we have to pass it on to our children. It is about educating ourselves and focusing on that mental fitness so we can have better overall health.

We have to understand that words can be brutal, but that they are only brutal if we give them power. The more we empower them, feed them, the more powerful they become. So, you have to take that power back. Words are just that…words. They can be mean. They can be hurtful. They can sting. But, in the end, they are just words. And they can be ignored. We must learn to report these issues to a parent and to a person with authority. As parents, we must follow-up and document interactions with persons of authority. We must remember to warn our children of the dangers in words. We must work to build their self-esteem. We cannot all look fit and ripped. We come in all shapes and sizes. We have challenges to our lives. Words cannot define us. They cannot break us. They are simply that…words. The sooner you begin teaching kids this, the better. The more your children react to words, the more power they have. We have to teach ourselves and our children to remain calm and show little emotion to words.

How about images? Well, that one is way trickier. Oh man…that is a loaded gun. No joke. Kids especially are so self-conscious about themselves. Acne. Puberty. Growth spurts. Voice changing. Hair in weird places. You name it. It is difficult. Then, to top it all off, you have a revealing image of yourself circulating around the world on the internet now. Ouch. That hurts. It really does and you as a parent feel helpless. More importantly, you may even react angrily to the fact that the image exists. Or you make a futile attempt to contain it, which just confirms its existence and fuels its sharing even more. Reactive. Proactive. Establish rules.

  • Tell your children if they do something like this, keep it neck down.
  • Do not put your face in it.
  • Don’t have your favorite teddy bear/personal item in the picture.
  • Do not make it obvious it is you.

But, you must clearly explain to them and show them what happens when it is out there. You must show them proof that many before them have sent out these images and they end up online. You have to show them that if they want to play a dangerous game, there are dangerous consequences and they must be prepared mentally for the blow back that may occur. That silly old saying, “if you can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen” holds dangerously true.

This is the most difficult talk of all. You have to explain that taking one’s life is a permanent solution to a temporary problem. You have to impress upon your children that it is okay to talk to you. That there will be no recrimination or anger. That they are beautiful and handsome regardless of their appearance and that you could care less about these words or images and that they should chalk it up to a painful exercise in trust and move on with their lives. No, it will not be easy. And honestly, saying “I don’t give a fuck” doesn’t work. They will care. You will care. It will be tough. But, again…temporary. Fleeting. And one dumb action will not define a life of potential achievements. You have to show them that the media does not control them. They control themselves. The more unrelenting the pressure becomes, the more they need to remember that it is fleeting. That there are people in the world with real problems. That they life they would potentially sacrifice for something so silly is the life that a child dying of cancer would gladly like to have. Trust me, I bet a teen or young adult dying of cancer would gladly post a 1000 naked pictures online if it meant they got to live life….marry….have children…love….and laugh.

What we cannot do as adults is give in to the fear. We cannot stoop to the level of anger and frustration that we so often do. We have to remember that kids and people that do these things were just not taught better. And, if your kids do these things, then we have failed them in teaching that lesson. But, we do not have to compound that failure by making it worse. We have to start over. We have to teach self-love and confidence. It is not about how we look, but how we perceive ourselves.

See, this is a critical part of mental health. And mental health is a critical part of fitness. And fitness is not just lifting weights or being strong physically. It is about understanding yourself and your place in the world and loving yourself as you are. You change yourself for you, not for society. Not for someone else. Social media and technology is a tool. Nothing else. Tools can harm. But only if you let them. Education is critical. Self-love is so important. Grace and compassion from you as a parent is absolutely needed. And at the end of the day, just laughing it off is good advice. Sure, you may have to change schools. Home school. Or just change the paradigm, but again…so temporary. Life goes on. It is hard. But it is worth living.

 

Losing my S!*% at Luby’s Cafeteria

So, I have been relatively quiet these last two weeks or so. It has been a busy time with South by Southwest in town. I will write more about that soon, as I have some really great stories to tell about my experiences this year. However, this story is about something much more personal to me.

Many of you may think this is ridiculous. Some of you may wonder why I even choose to eat at this restaurant. I have heard a ton of stories about it being a dinosaur from a bygone era. But, it was a dinosaur that I was familiar with. My mother would often take me to the theater in Harlingen, Texas and right after or before, we would stop to get a bite to eat at Luby’s Cafeteria.

To this day, my mother loves Luby’s. That is until yesterday. So, I relay this warning to you all as a courtesy. And before you go lambasting me about I get what I deserve for going there, please remember that a large number of people use Luby’s – especially the elderly who grew up with that food as a generational thing. This is why my story is so disturbing.

Yesterday, March 17th, I decided to join my mother and son at Luby’s. Was it my ideal choice? No. I prefer other food. However, in a pinch, it beats a burger. Now, the last time I went there, my food was mostly cold. I chalked it up to a bad day. The manager dealt with the issue and got me hot food. Bravo for him. But yesterday was a totally different story. Truly.

We get in line to get our food. My son went to sit with his little brother in a booth. As I am standing in line looking at what I want to eat, I glance over to the back kitchen area. I see a large, probably 6’2″, heavy-set guy with reasonably sized (and hairy arms) elbows deep in a huge vat of macaroni and cheese.I was immediately revolted. I pointed it out to the assistant manager. He looked back and turned to me and said that he was wearing gloves. Gloves! Ok, well, that was still gross, but gloves would make it better I thought. Then the guy stops mixing the macaroni and turns to wash his hands. No GLOVES!!!!

SO, I complain again. The manager (the same gentleman I met before in the hot food incident) explains to me that the guy washed his hands before and then mixes the macaroni and then washes his hands again. It was safe.

I am not going to lie. I was dumbfounded. I did not want to make a scene or embarrass my mother. So I told the assistant manager that if they were going to do something so disgusting, to do it behind the scenes and out of the view of the public.

I ended up not being able to eat my food. The thought of this guy elbows deep in the macaroni really grossed me out. I got a full refund on my meal and called corporate to complain. Corporate was dumbfounded. This was not our operating procedure they told me. They would report it to the area manager. Great. I did my part. About 20 minutes later I get a call from the manager at the Luby’s telling me how grateful he was for my feedback and that it would start a conversation about hand cleaning procedures. He also told me how gloves were not going to really make a difference and it was about hand cleaning. He then went on to list other things Luby’s made by hand and that they were proud of making things by hand. I seriously wanted to puke and I tried to explain to him that it was unsanitary. I explained my position that you can wash your hands and still have gunk under your finger nails. He simply said they would have a conversation about better hand washing.

I get it. I do not work in the food service industry. I was not trained in their specifics. But here is my inexperienced and non-food service educated response to them. HELL NO!!!

How about this? Let me really wash my feet well. Then let me mix up the macaroni and cheese with my feet. How about that? Pretty arbitrary? Right? No? I would probably be told by them that is ridiculous. And they would be right. Just as ridiculous as a guy elbows deep in a vat of macaroni!!! I am not sure if I am more grossed out by what I saw or what I heard. Rather than say we made a mistake and that vat was thrown away and that is not how we make our food, he actually told me they make a ton of food that way, they are proud of their hand made tradition, and they will improve their hand washing techniques.

Here you go Luby’s (some thoughtful feedback):

  • hand washing never quite cleans our skin because the water can never be hot enough to truly kill bacteria
  • to truly kill bacteria on our skin, medical specialists use betadyne (that red stuff) instead of alcohol or anything else – this is done to ensure a truly clean surface
  • how does hand washing prevent arm hair from falling off
  • is there truly a way to ensure that someone follows an exact protocol to wash hands
  • if a guy goes almost elbows deep in food, you would expect him to wash up to his biceps (did not happen in this case)
  • by being elbows deep in food, he had to bend over it, which means sweat, drool, dandruff, or anything else can fall into the food
  • how expensive is it to buy a large wooden or metal spoon (and that does not invalidate the made by hand mantra)

I mean, WTF. You see, the problem with this experience is it got me to thinking about the food we eat. It really grossed me out. I know that perfectly sanitary conditions can never be truly achieved. I am not foolish. But this blatant violation of my trust put that fact in my face. It slapped me around a bit with it and eroded my trust that restaurants make safe food (thanks to Chipotle and now Luby’s). It left me feeling very uncomfortable about what I saw and how my food is prepared at any restaurant. Generally, food is prepared out of our line of sight for this very reason. I am sure if we saw how horrible it looked, we would never eat out again. Yesterday was so difficult because Luby’s threw in my face those deep seeded fears that food is probably not prepared as well as I would hope it is. And while the manager was nice and thankful for the feedback, the poor dude did not realize that he simply made it worse by telling me that gloves were no solution and they would basically keep doing what they were doing.

My 76-year-old mother was grossed out too. She stated she would never eat there again. I am grossed out. I will never eat there again. My 18-year-old son is grossed out. He will never eat there again. My 3 month old son will never touch their food. Four generations of diners lost in one 30 minute period. And, I say to all of you, if you eat there…please stop. It will be fine until it is not fine. You may feel sick one day after eating there. All the equipment will be clean. All the food prep stations will be clean. Hand cleaner stocked up at all the washing stations. All inspections passed. History is great with sanitation. But just remember, somewhere…some guy is elbows deep in your food.

Gross…………………

 

 

What it takes to be a Good Man

This morning, my mother took a trip to California. As I was driving her to the airport, she mentioned my godfather was in the hospital.

Me – “Will he make it out?”
Her – “Yes, he will be fine.”
Me – “When the time comes, will I be expected to go to the funeral?”
Her – “No, we all know you don’t consider them family.”

So, some quick background and why this posting is deeply personal for me. I am an only child. I grew up alone, with only friends and my godparents looking out for me. It pains me to be distanced from my godparents. But I will explain why I am. My godparents had three daughters and a son. All of their children are good people, but Marta was the one I felt most connected to, as she and I were a lot alike. Marta was brilliant and funny and a character. She was head strong and stubborn and not afraid to take risks and live life on her terms. If her family was a band, she was Bono. She was a rock star.

Marta had many opportunities in life. Men loved her. She was beautiful and carried herself in the most ladylike of ways. Just classy. So, when she finally picked the one, we were all happy for her and her chosen love. His name was Steve Harding. Now, our Mexican culture is such that bonds run deep. Steve was white. His culture and upbringing different from our own. Marta, as progressive as she was, was very much in tune with her culture – she valued family and close friendships. Through a strange twist of fate, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. It was a brutal thing to have happen to someone so amazing. She handled it with grace and threw herself into her recovery while maintaining excellent scores in her work to become a Physicians Assistant. Steve could have ended the relationship right then and there, but he persevered. I remember being at their wedding as she stood there in her gown giving her vows while she was most likely sickened from the chemo treatments she was receiving. The chemo port was tactfully hidden from view, but we could all tell she was weak and we were so incredibly happy for her and Steve. He truly manned up in that moment.

While not quite remission, we thought her treatments were going well. However, the cancer would not be abated. You cannot reason with aggressive cancer. It is indiscriminate. Despite her tireless work and effort, it came back. She even completed her medical boards to become a PA as the cancer ravaged her body and mind. In fact, she so impressed her professors and faculty, that the Martha Zuniga Harding Memorial Scholarship was created at UTSA in her memory. Marta was truly inspirational. I still recall the weekend she went to Houston to find out about experimental treatments. I was optimistic that she would find a medical trial that would turn back the cancer for good. Little did I know that she would take a turn for the absolute worst and would pass away that weekend. Her family was in shock. I was stunned. And Steve Harding became a widower. Here is a brief thought from one of her friends: The Three Musketeers.

So, you may ask, “what does this have to do with your godparents?” Well, I am getting to that. But before I go further, I want to share a bit more about Marta. She was brilliant. And she expected no less from the person that she was with. Steve was brilliant too. Marta would not have been with him otherwise. He was highly educated, with an MBA from UTSA and he was in construction – home building. He worked for Pulte Homes and last I heard had some pretty high level position with Meritage Homes. This guy was smart and capable and seemed like a good and honorable man.

I loved Marta and by extension considered Steve family. So, when Joshua was born in 1997, I asked her and Steve to be his godparents. They were at the hospital when he was born. Steve and Marta held my son before I did! She was so excited to be a godmother to Joshua. I figured Steve felt the same way. Because of her treatment, I believe she was unable to have children of her own. I think they were preparing to adopt a child, as they both wanted children. So, she relished the role of being a godmother. But when she died, perhaps a part of Steve died with her. Perhaps the part that made him a man was extinguished when her light was extinguished.

Joshua is now 18 years old. In 17 and a half years, I can tell you that Steve has not seen Joshua once. Not one card. Not one phone call. Not one happy birthday. Nothing. He even lived in the same town as we did, but nothing. My godparents defended him. He was a good man. Blah blah. After a while I became bitter with my godparents. They had family. They had other children. Their grandchildren had aunts and an uncle. I had no one. Joshua had no aunts and no uncles on my side of the family and limited contact on his mother’s side. So Steve being a godfather mattered to me. It was important.

If you look up the term godfather, it has its roots in Christian traditions. Now, some may say that I am not religious. This is a true statement. I am not. But this is not about me, this was about Steve. While I never asked him if he was religious, I can say that he stood in that church and accepted the role of godfather to my son. Think about this, it is not merely a title, but it was a role that was meant to support, nurture, encourage, and guide my son. And, in the event of our untimely deaths, we had even asked them to raise him as their own. This was the level of trust I had in Steve and Marta.

But nothing. No words of encouragement. No contact. No support. Nothing. Luckily, I did not die. But, I did become bitter. So, what does it take to be a good man? You keep your word. Steve never talked to us again. He might say that he was not religious, so he is not bound to religious promises he made just for Marta. Fair enough. I hope he has not found God then because he turned his back on a very important role in Christian tradition. But fair enough, maybe he was not a god-fearing man. How about this one? He gave his word. He stood there not necessarily as a Christian, but as a man. He swore he would do right by my son. He did not. So, when I think of Steve Harding, I think of a person with no honor. A person who made a commitment before God in St. Ignacious Church to be there for my son. He broke that promise. A man who gave his word to do right by someone. He broke that promise. I do not care what title he carries. I do not care if he is wealthy or powerful now. When I think of him, I think of the lowest common denominator of a person. Truthfully, I cannot bring myself to even consider him manly.

So, my godfather is ill. And while I should be better than this, I cannot in good conscience forgive the fact that for 17 years, they have never once acknowledged the fact that this happened. They have never once said they were sorry for the choice he made. I heard how they defended him. I heard how the family had to keep reaching out to him to stay in contact until they probably lost contact….or whatever happened. Who knows? Who cares? But at the end of the day, they all let my son get screwed. As a godson, I should be grateful to my godfather for what he did for me. As a parent, I am less forgiving of what was done to my son.

So prospective parents, when you raise your children, be it boy or girl, and it comes that time to teach them those valuable lessons they should learn, remember to teach them the most important one: honor your commitment as a man or woman. See it through, regardless of the adversity that you face. And if you make a promise to a child, keep it. It feels good to get that out. It has been a long time coming.

And to Steve Harding. Go fuck yourself. There was a time when your perspective and knowledge might have been useful. You could have supported the child you made a promise to support. Not monetarily, but in all the ways a good man supports someone. You can wear suits. You can make big decisions. You can have fancy titles. But at the end of the day, you failed a child you promised to support and that is something I do not forgive.

The Sacrifice of Parenthood – Disabilities and Children

Parenthood is a very challenging experience. For so long in our lives, we truly only responsible for ourselves. Certainly, we understand the concept of love. We love our family and friends, but it is different from the love we end up having for a partner. We then have a relationship (sometimes several) where we discover an external love for someone not family. We fall so deeply and so passionately in love that we decide that we want to have a child with this person. You start the journey of pregnancy with some visits to the doctor and you get some ultrasounds. These scans tell you whether everything is good with your baby. Now, back when Josh was born, I recall the scan being sooner rather than later and I recall my relief when I heard the technician say that we had a healthy baby boy on the way.

But…and this is a big but, what if the technician had been silent? What is he or she had said the doctor will need to speak with you? What if the doctor had said that she saw some problems with Luke when he was in utero? I think about these things as I look at all the babies out there that are abandoned. You may say that babies are not abandoned, but I recently spent time looking through a listing of the children available for adoption and my heart broke at what I saw. Most of the children seeking a forever home had profound disabilities – physical, cognitive, or emotional. Of that group, the most noticeable were those with profound physical and cognitive disabilities. One child had the need for 24/7 nursing care, needed to be close to a hospital at all times, and needed a parent to be home with him almost all the time.

Now, when I started this blog, I said I would always speak honestly and openly. So, I would ask those of you that might read this – is that a gift from God or a prison sentence? Life is precious, I know, but we throw it away in this world of ours so frequently for people with no challenges. I am very lucky in that Luke was born healthy and without any issues. But what if he had not? Would I be able to give so selflessly? And if people think children are such miracles, why then are so many children in the state foster and adoption system children with profound disabilities? I am lucky to never have to be faced with giving up my child, but I see so many parents that do. I do not see these children being adopted readily. This is not to say that they do not find homes eventually. But, what if they do not?

So, this brings me to the topic. Medical termination of a pregnancy when you know that your child may have a profound disability. Some parents decide to have their child anyway, which I completely respect. Some lose their child soon thereafter and take with them memories of their little loved one….a love unlike that of a family member or your partner. It is a powerful love that can overwhelm every part of you. Those parents take with them to their dying day those memories. Other parents do not lose their children. Instead, they raise them. These children lead a long life. I recently saw a couple at a restaurant with a child that had down syndrome. This child was not highly functioning, but still high enough to behave quietly. The catch – the couple had to be in their 70s or 80s and the child looked to be in his early 40s. Somehow, I felt like this was their life.

I read an article about a mother with a child that had a disability. She was so grateful for an iPad because it distracted him. Her thought was that as a small boy, he was fine and so sweet and gentle. But, now, as a grown man standing about 6’4″, she was deathly afraid of him losing it in public. She had been at her daughter’s recital and her son started to lose his cool. How would she control a 6’4″ 300 pound child without it being a safety concern? Luckily, the iPad calmed him down and she was grateful for that, but she said this would be the rest of her life.

So, at once they are a gift, but they can also be a prison sentence. We, as  a society, cringe at the thought of medical termination. Make no mistake, I am not saying this for a child missing a hand or limb. We are talking higher level stuff here. These are questions you need to answer before you jump into parenthood. As you look at your spouse and you two decide to take this road, you have to ask yourself what are you willing to sacrifice for it? Are you willing to give up your independence? Are you willing to sacrifice your time? Your future? Are you willing to give so selflessly that you put others to shame with your sacrifice?

I know we were not. We discussed it and we decided that we could not do that. To some, we might be monsters, but we knew the limits of what we could reasonably do. You have to find your limits. You have to have that talk. One couple I heard about had a child they knew was going to be disabled, but then got upset that they did not get more government support. These people knew they would not get support based on their income, but then got mad that they did not. Rather than pay for it themselves, they just stopped working so much so they could qualify. I am not saying that will be any of you, but what will you expect? Who will shoulder the burden if you decide to proceed with the miracle of life? More importantly, what if you do all this and then decide you cannot do it any longer. Remember, most of the kids in foster and state care have these profound disabilities. I wonder how many of those people thought a child was a miracle and would not entertain the idea of a medical termination.

This is a hard topic and to those parents that do this…that made those sacrifices. I have nothing but respect for you and your sacrifices. Truly. I am simply stating that prospective parents have to think about these things. These are issues that impact you and your lives for the rest of your lives. Give this real thought. Yes, life is a miracle and perhaps you would be out of favor with your god, but you will spend a lifetime doing what you have to for a child. Just give it some thought…real though. Have a conversation with your spouse. Know what you plan to do if the situation presents itself. I certainly hope it never does. Good luck out there…..

Parenthood and Psychological Warfare

I was in the military many years ago. I recall hearing about this thing called psychological warfare. Then if you fast forward about twenty years, you will possibly recall the issues the U.S. had with Abu Ghraib. I remember reading the things that they did in that prison setting. Now, I am not getting political, but I am going to explain what I am getting at here.

Parenthood is a lot like psychological warfare. Let me explain this perspective for a minute. At 42, I want some peace and quiet in my life. I like things to be ordered and flow in a natural progression that makes sense. However, children are not like this. I can live with that. But, when you get into infant territory, you are in what I like to call “holy shitsville”.

Luke is an amazing child, but he brings the pain. See, every time that he wakes up, he is screaming bloody murder. It is his thing. He does not like waking up and he lets you know it. He will randomly just start going ballistic. Once again, no rhyme or reason, just a small, screaming machine. He will do this at various times throughout the night, causing sleep deprivation. Just as you start to drowse off, a blood curdling scream is let loose into the bedroom and you are pulled from that comforting envelope known as sleep into a dark and depressing place.

So, we are starting to get into the psy ops stuff here. Sleep deprivation. That is a biggie. Then, he will want to be held while you stand. Not sitting, but you must stand and follow a specific pattern. I have flashbacks to seeing a poor prisoner standing on a box holding his hands up to his side. I am standing and holding this child in a position that will hopefully keep him calm and prevent him from crying. It sometimes works. Most often, I move incorrectly and cause him to start the screaming cycle again.

Then we get into the crazy stuff. Poop and pee. Seriously, this kid should be a sharpshooter with the aim that he has. And what the hell? Where does a two and a half month old get that much pee? He is a peeing machine and if you give him just a second, he will put you on blast. Poop….goodness. It is scary when he cries havoc and slips the dogs of war. He becomes the perfect machine to torture you. Now, I have it easy, but my poor wife is stuck with this way more than I am.

You may be thinking that I am crazy to make this comparison. But keep in mind, there are some significant parallels in the actions here. Intent is a different story and actual torture is a malicious act that I would not make light of. However, a child does much the same to a parent but because we love our little bundles of joy, we just quietly accept it. My wife often states that she did not read that part in any of her parenting blogs. I tell her that no one wants to talk about the hard side of parenting….the long nights with a screaming baby. Poop and pee parties that really leave you questioning your sanity. Walking laps in your living room because your child is going ballistic.

The reality is that parenting is hard work. It is not for the weak-willed. It takes courage and commitment. So many people have children then do not live up to the responsibility associated with being a parent. Kids and babies will push the limits of what you can reasonably handle, and then they will do it again. If you ever read those stories where a parent hurts a child, you will notice it is because the child is screaming and the parent loses his or her cool. This in no way condones any hurtful action towards a child, but it makes sense that a person could lose his or her cool if they did not know how to handle a small child.

Parenthood is scary. It is scary because there are a lot of unknowns. The scariest unknown is yourself. What will you do when you are stressed out and your child is screaming bloody murder? What will you do when you are tapped out and your child will not stop? What will you do when you cannot give another inch and your child needs a mile?

This leads into another topic I want to discuss soon enough….but I am trying to figure out how to word it. Stay tuned for that one…..it will be a tough one to discuss.

Bad Kids or Bad Adults

I have been pretty quiet for the last two weeks. Work and life got in the way. It happens. However, I am back with a much lighter load. I still do not know if anyone reads this, but this posting is something I take very personally. So here it goes….

Much is made about children acting up in public. This posting right here illustrates the problem. I was not there and the owner could have handled it a bit differently, but the point that the owner makes is accurate – the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few or the one. If you are not interested in reading the article, I will sum it up. Family in restaurant. Kid starts screaming. Owner screams back. Kid is quiet. Family is outraged. Morality police scream bloody murder. Restaurant owner says all my other patrons bothered, and I did what I had to do.

I get this. Last night, we were having dinner at Dan’s, a local burger joint. Luke was chilling in his car seat and we were trying to enjoy a meal. Not necessarily quiet, as the din of the restaurant was clearly present, but it was just families having dinner with their kids. However, one family came in and turned it all around. They had several small children. Again, I was not too worried because they seemed to have it under control. Then it started. A little girl of about 3 or 4 just lost it. She went nuclear over something ridiculous. The first minute was understandable, as I can give some people time to deal with a child and try to calm them. But this went on for about 5 minutes. The mother just kept reading on her smartphone. The aunt, I think, started trying to talk above the screaming child. This brought her voice up to a yell – in a crowded restaurant. The child was not in pain or being done wrong in any way. The child was simply throwing a tantrum.

The mother finally stands up and asks the child if she needs to be taken outside. Finally….some common sense and respect for others. But that was it. It was an empty threat. I noticed the look of relief on faces when she said this and then the look of disappointment when she sat back down to look at her phone. Meanwhile, the aunt?, just kept raising her voice. The child just kept screaming. They kept acting like nothing was going on. This went on for a good 15 minutes. Then, once the child quieted down, the aunt kept her barnyard voice and kept hollering how she was an excellent referee and kept the calm. At this point, two women sat in the booth between us and them and I waved at them and told them to move. They had no idea why and I explained to them how loud those people were. They started to get up and sure enough, the kid starts up again and the aunt starts calling the cows to come back to the barn. The lady looks at me and thanks me. Sure, there was only two booths separating them, but I guess it is better than point blank range. At this point, we had had enough and left.

So, what is this – bad kids or bad adults? I call it both, but the real culprit here is the adults. They were to blame for allowing this to continue. Screaming kids should be removed from an establishment. Bottom line. Now, when you hear someone say this, the natural response is outrage because whoever says it must not know what it is like to have kids. Wrong! I do know. And I still say taking the screaming kids out. You see, we all work hard for our money. Very hard. When we go out, we want a reasonable experience. It may not always be pleasant, but it should at least be decent. A screaming child, or children, is not acceptable. While the parents of the screaming child also work hard for their money, at the point of a screaming child, they are not enjoying their meal. So, rather than be the only ones miserable with their screaming child, they decide to make everyone miserable. That makes sense. Real sense of respect for others around you. Hell no. Take that screaming kid out.

Restaurants are in a pickle. Most chains do not say anything. They fear the court of public opinion. Plus, there is the danger of overreacting too quickly. So, when is it a good time. I would think some common sense would prevail here. A few minutes without abatement would generate a “sir (or ma’am), would you please take your child outside for a few minutes so he (or she) settles down? Here is a kids cup soda to give to your little one” or something along those lines. But no, they do not. I am not saying to kick them out, but ask them to deal with the situation.

Wait, but you would not take your kid out. You are just saying this. Hell yes I would take my child out. In a heartbeat. I prefer a quiet meal. I do not want to hear any screaming kid. And if it is mine, then out I go with him. I will not let him ruin a meal for anyone but me. That is the nature of the beast. Certainly, special situations are different. Perhaps you have a special needs child. I can live with some measure of sound, especially with special needs kids. But at the end of the day, they can lose it too and you as a parent have to know the difference between them being happy and a little noisy and ballistic and over the top noisy. Same rule then applies, take your kid out. Admittedly, it is much tougher with a special needs child and I can empathize with that plight, but the collective should not be subjected to that beyond a certain point.

Oh yes, and for the love of all that is holy….do not take a baby or a small child to a movie theater. I mean, seriously, there is a special place in hell for people that do that. I know when Luke wakes up from a nap, he is full on ballistic. Sure, he might nap through part of a movie, but once he wakes up, it is fight time. So, why do that? I do not. You should not either. Common sense.

At the end of the day, I can only come to one realization – BAD ADULTS.

So don’t be a bad adult. Be a respectful one.

 

Little Voices = Bad Choices

So, I was looking at my car about 15 months ago. My son was not yet a thought in my head. However, the idea of not having a fun car was. This little voice in my head chimed in and said “Get a new car!” so off I went to the dealerships to look at options. What to get? What would be fun and reasonable?

But before I begin, I should note that I am 6’8″ and car shopping is in interesting exercise in finding fit, form, and function that works for me. Add to that the possibility of a future child and you have some interesting things happening.

My choices at the time:

Nissan 370Z – Yeah…no. Great car. But, no. First off, it is pretty expensive and it is downright claustrophobic. Despite being a great looking car with performance to boot, I just could not justify this car to myself.

Ford Mustang – Sweet ride. Had been recently redesigned and looked amazing. Problems at the time – dealers were not letting you test drive them. They were too hot an item. Strike one. Sitting in the thing, it is small. Very cool, but small. The back seat could be used for a puppy. Not a baby, but a puppy. A small one. Strike two. Inflated prices. They were marked up the wazoo and I was not interested in buying an expensive car with a new and untested design. Strike three.

Hyundai Genesis Coupe– The Genesis is a nice car. Make no mistake. It was nice. I thought this was a serious contender. But again, for a guy my size it was really small. I was concerned that I would not be comfortable. Just not something that I was going to enjoy in the long run. But, if you are shorter and want a lot of car for your money, then the Genesis coupe is an awesome deal.

Mercedes C or E Class Coupe – I had owned a CLK once. It was a great car. Awesome for a guy my size with room to spare. I will say that I miss that car. However, the challenge of being a Mercedes owner is the cost of insurance and repair on a luxury car. Plus, it is a sitting target for thieves. No, I do not think roving bands of thieves run around town seeking out a random Mercedes coupe to vandalize. But of all the cars I have owned, it is the only one I ever had vandalized, so my perspective is biased here. A new or slightly used one was still hella expensive and not something I wanted to drop all my money into.

BMW – Nope. Just nope. Never liked Beemers. Not to say they are bad cars, just not my cup of tea. Why? I am not fond of their interior. So, ruled out quickly. The interior had not changed much from what I remembered. So, not a good fit.

Audi Coupe – Great car. But really pricey. Not as comfortable as I had hoped. So, not a good fit. Again, I am sure people shorter than me would love it. But it was not my thing.

Dodge Challenger – Ding ding ding. The winner by a wide margin. But, it was a Dodge and I was not sure if I would enjoy it. Still, old school American muscle. It looked great. More importantly, it was big and comfy. It had all the perks I would possibly want. They loaded these things. Great deal too. Of course, the little voice said this is the car….this is the one. Buy it. A more calm and collected voice, my wife, was telling me that I should really get a four door. But no, I was getting old and this was my last hurrah. I wanted the Challenger. Hellcat? SRT? Shaker? Nope. Just the V-6. Rode great and had plenty of power. Awesome choice. I even convinced myself it would be easy to get a baby in and out of the backseat.

 

Dodge Challenger

My mid-life crisis car.

So, fast forward about a year. The car was great. I loved every minute of having it. For a V-6, it was more than enough car. However, enter a small child. A baby. Ok, now I want to murder that little voice that said get this car. Why? Because that little voice is insane. I shall never listen to that little voice again. So men out there, do not listen to that little voice. Tune it out. Put on headphones. Do whatever you have to do so it does not win out.

Having a carseat in a car like this is torture. You literally have to be an Olympic gymnast to get into the back seat to put a child in. Honestly, it would be easier to teach my 8 week old to hop in the car and strap himself in than getting in and out of the car. It was a painful lesson in practicality. I share this with you all because I hope that no one makes the same foolish mistake I did. Sure, I loved that car. But it was not practical at all.

So, what was my solution. Well, here I go again to find a new car. Fun times. What to get? Well, SUVs are not my thing. I still did not want a fuddy-duddy car. So, I had to find something that would be cool and fun and large enough to accommodate my family. Yeah, this was going to be fun. Where would I find a car like that? Hmm? Where? What? And yes, I realize these are first world problems, but I am sharing my experiences with you, good and bad.

So, I found this other car – a Dodge Charger. Imagine that. A what? Charger? The same car I could have had 15 months ago and saved myself a few thousand dollars in stupidity tax. Yeah. That car. Well, stupid people should pay a stupidity tax and I am no exception. One new car later and I have the space and comfort that I should have been thinking about from the start. Luckily, I am in a position to absorb this hit without it killing me. But I know many people are not. I hope that this post helps someone. I also hope that I made the right choice. It feels right though, so I am lucky. But yes, my more improved four door experience. And I stress this – four doors are important with a baby!! if you take nothing else away from this…get four doors!!!

Dodge Charger

My second mid-life crisis car.

 

 

Emotional Sorcercy and your Kiddo

It has been over 15 years since I last dealt with a newborn/infant/toddler. There are things I remember and things that got buried. Only as the days go by do the things that got buried start to come back to me. This is one of those things. But, more importantly, I have some anecdotal data to back it up. Most academics dismiss anecdotal data by saying there is not enough of it and it proves nothing. I call BS. Anecdotal data is critically important to the person experiencing it. Trust me when I say, reading an article that says some experts are dismissing my experiences as not real is hogwash. So, do not fall for it. Your experiences are real. Most likely no one has bothered to take the time to find others and quantify it. But, your experiences are real!

So, emotional sorcery. What the heck is that? In my job, we work with technology. When we listen to people that ask dumbfounded questions about technology and do not understand our explanations no matter how simple we make them, we do this funny little thing – we wave our hands around like those Vegas magicians and state loudly “Sorcery” followed by the ever popular “Magic”. It is our way of finding the humor in humorless situations where people are failing to understand how to use technology. That which we do not understand is basically magical.

So, babies. Yes, I get long winded, but I still hope you are reading. Babies are like emotional sponges. They absorb emotion coming from the parent. Empath is a good word. According to Wikipedia:

Being an empath is when you are affected by other people’s energies, and have an innate ability to intuitively feel and perceive others.

I have come to realize that babies are natural empaths. So, the real challenge for a baby is not being soothed. It is not being held. It is you! Let me explain by personality types…

  • Type A  –  competitive, over achiever, things done on time.

    I am a Type A kind of guy. I am competitive by nature. I strive to be good at all I do. I want things done on time and done right. I am a project manager. I see everything as mini projects to be handled. Whether it is cleaning the house, doing a chore, going to the gym, doing my work, etc. As I engage with my son now, I realize that despite my best intent, I have expectations. If I hold him this long, follow these motions, and do these things, then he will soothe and stop crying. So, I will start taking these actions. After a set period of time and with my actions failing, I can feel my intensity rising. Interestingly, I see a direct correlation between this and my son becoming more agitated. If anything, he cries even more. He becomes even more frustrated. I have noticed that about the only time I can regularly calm him is when I am sleeping. Even now, when I was awake and in bed, I was agitated because he was being crazy in his crib (which is in our bedroom). I left the room to come write this post and he calmed down. Not one peep. Coincidence? Maybe. You decide.

  • Type B  –  calm, relaxed, laid back, flexible, analytical.

    This is my son, Joshua. He is an extreme Type B kinda guy. Anymore Type B and you would have to check him for a pulse. He is an amazing kid and I love him, but he is an under achiever. However, he is amazing with animals and with kids. He has a calming effect on them. I have seen this repeatedly. Animals love him. So do small children. Naturally, with Luke, he helps as one would expect a big brother to do. What is truly amazing is that he can pick Luke up and sit him in his lap. Hours later, Luke will just be laying in his lap cooing and chilling. He is not agitated or upset. He just lays there, wide awake, kicking a little and taking in the world around him while Josh casually watches YouTube videos and occasionally talks to him. He has this amazing calming effect on Luke. Once again, coincidence? I am starting to think not.

  • Type C  –  detail oriented, not assertive, suppress wants, needs and desires.

    I have a Type C person in my life. It is an in-law. This does not mean that this person is bad or less successful. As a matter of fact, this person is frighteningly successful. Soon to be medical doctor. Very detailed oriented. Excellent student. All the bells and whistles. When interacting with Luke, he just generally chills. Not nearly as much as with Josh, but enough that he has a good time and will not get worked up. This Type C is not around enough to do more research, but so far, Type C seems to be good with kids too.

  • Type D  –  negative outlook on life, fear of rejection, prone to depression.

    I have a Type D in my life. I will not mention who exactly, but suffice to say, it is clearly Type D. While dealing with Luke, he stays calm. See, Type D people remind of of that character Sadness from Inside Out. With him, this person is very mellow and because he has no concept of sadness yet, he just relaxes. Although, he will occasionally get frustrated, he can calm himself down because the Type D does not get easily agitated. So, this type also is not bad with a baby or an infant.

Within these personality types also exists levels of intensity. By that I mean, some people can turn it up and down as necessary. Some people can turn it off totally for a bit. Me, I am forever stuck in Type A full steam ahead. When your life saying is “live by the sword, die by the sword”, well, you get the idea.

So if you are a new dad or starting over again and have changed a great deal since your last run, take a moment to do a self-inventory and ask yourself, what kind of personality are you? What makes you tick? And then remember, your baby is an emotional radar dish picking up on your signals. They may not always have this ability, but for a good while, they will. They will sense and feel everything you project. Be mindful of that as your raise and interact with your child. As always…good luck.

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