Proper Prior Planning Prevents Piss Poor Performance: A Blog Post Not Really About Parenting

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So my mom recently sent me an email in which a family friend praised my stepfather for his devotion to superior craftsmanship, and mentioned to me that she thought this might give me an alternative perspective from which to view the man. I wrote back that I was well aware that my stepdad was a perfectionist, and that his consistent pursuit of quality didn’t give him free license to be a buttface in his personal life.

There is a lot to be admired about someone who refuses to half-ass something. It’s just that you don’t have to be an asshole to whole-ass. There are a lot of people I know — my wife, for example — who refuse to give in to mediocrity while still managing to be sensitive toward other people and the worth economy.

That’s kind of a tangent, though. The point here is that I kind of tried to think about my life and my stepdad, and see if there was anything that I got out of living with him that I valued. I came to a startling realization that has affected the way I think somewhat.

My mom and I used to joke to ourselves that my stepdad’s bad attitude was “an example to push against” — in other words, I could use his grumpiness not as an indicator of how I should act, but as an indicator of how I shouldn’t act. And while I know that I can be a grumpy little buttface myself from time to time, by and large, I do my best to check myself every time I recognize that I’ve fallen into his example.

But then I realized that there were some things that my stepdad said and did that I was pushing against…that were actually pretty valuable, all things considered. For example, my mother was a very seat-of-her-pants kind of gal. We had all kinds of silly spontaneous adventures, and we treasured that level of off-the-cuffness. My stepfather lived by the mantra: “Proper prior planning prevents poor performance.”

I realized as I meditated upon my life with him, that I’ve largely been pushing against that example. I’ve kind of deliberately tried NOT to plan things out, neither in the long-term, five-year-plan kind of way, nor in the immediate, day-to-day sense. I feel like I thrive on spontaneity, like the flexibility of not being locked into a given route is freedom, and like planning takes too much time and mental energy for the value it gives.

Needless to say, I realized that that’s some pretty stupid shit.

Let me give you an example: for the past few months, we’ve been tracking our grocery bills. Some months, we sit down and plan out some or all of our meals a week or two in advance. Others, we make whatever comes to mind on a meal-by-meal basis.

During the months that we don’t plan ahead, two things happen. First, we actually eat a lower quality of food (and a lesser variety of food!). Second, we spend $200 more per month on the lower quality food that we eat, because we go out and buy things at the last minute and in small amounts, instead of buying them when they’re on sale and in bulk.

For people who live as hand-to-mouth as we do, $200 is HUGE!

And yet, every time we get to the meal planning part of our first-week-of-the-month, I rebel. I mean, I participate, but it’s difficult. I usually end up playing a game on my computer while we plan — it’s like my brain just hates to sit down and think hard about the future.

And yet, my stepfather’s words ring true: I know from experience that proper prior planning does in fact prevent piss poor performance. I just haven’t been acknowledging that. I’ve been pushing against his example in the wrong way; failing to take the good part of his lessons into account, and throwing the baby out with the metaphorical bathwater.

This, of course, affects my wife and child as well as myself. There are days, because of my lack of planning, that my son ends up wearing a pair of pants to school that he’s already worn. Sure, I’ll wash pants, but I do it spontaneously! Sometimes, I wash pants that are too small, too big, torn, whatever might be wrong — because I don’t plan his outfits ahead of time.

Fortunately, as I’ve previously mentioned, I’ve read this book by T. Harv Ecker, who tells us not just that we can examine our past to find the source of the beliefs we hold that are holding us back — but he also points out that we don’t have to fight those beliefs. A lot of times, you hear people — especially the neurotic types — talking about how their childhoods are holding them back or whatever. But the truth is that you can totally Zen that shit and just let it go. This is water. This is water.

I’m letting go, right here today, of the belief that planning is associated with bring a grumpy, forcing-everyone-around-you-to-walk-on-eggshells, people-are-unwelcome-interruptions buttface. After all, I have plenty of contrary examples. My mother-in-law. My wife. My stepbrother, my cousin, my former Bishop…the list is long, and the fact that I’ve never questioned this ingrained assumption before baffles me.

So: No longer do I believe that planning ahead is going to turn me into a Randian Objectivist butt. Instead, I’m letting that go and accepting the fact that proper prior planning does in fact prevent poor performance. Of course, that also means you have to stick to the plan, and follow it…which I’m clearly still working on, seeing as I haven’t posted to this nice weekly blog in what…16 days now?

Ah, well. Past sins behind, moving forward — and planning my steps this time. Maybe if I can get this AND the ‘not a dick to my kid’ thing going at the same time, I can keep him from ‘learning’ the same lesson I did from my stepfather. That’s a goal worth striving for.

That’s Me In the Corner

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So, my wife and I quit Church over the weekend. Not that we’ve stopped believing in salvation or redemption or following the Commandments or any of that…it’s that we’ve stopped believing in the LDS Church in particular. If you want the whole, detailed story, you can email me and I’ll share.

So the question that we’re having is: what about our son? Giovanni doesn’t particularly care about going to Church. He won’t miss it, but he never really objected to going, either. It was a thing. We don’t want him to grow up without having some sort of idea that religion is a thing that deserves a couple of hours of dedicated God-time every so often, but we’re not particularly happy with any of our options right now.

So, we’ve been chatting about going to the Unitarian Universalist church, which is pretty big here in Olympia. Like, ‘it has just built itself a new parking lot’ kind of big.

And Now for Something Completely Different
But what we’re doing next religion-wise isn’t really the point — it’s what got us here that’s been plaguing me. Because I’m starting to see a pattern happening in my life. I’ve noticed that basically everything that I dislike in my life boils down to one single thing: how people dehumanize one another.

The problem that I’m having with the LDS Church is that the upper levels are dehumanizing the rank and file, essentially treating them as tithing machines. The problem that I’m having with the school is that they’re trying to dehumanize my child and reduce him to a diagnosis that they can solve with a pill. My problem with the Republican party is that they’re trying to dehumanize women, soldiers, poor people, and minorities so that they can protect their money. My problem with the Democratic party is that they’re trying to dehumanize rich people, white people, male people, and religious people so that they can protect their money. My problem with the Libertarian party is that they’re trying to dehumanize society as a whole…so that they can protect their money.

To quote a Cracked article that absolutely everyone should read, “there are intelligent, well-thought-out arguments on both sides of (almost) every issue.” What they imply but don’t outright say is that there are ten times more ridiculously lame arguments on both sides of every issue, and those lame arguments inevitably involve declaring some group of people to be somehow unfit to continue taking up society’s collective energy.

That’s annoying enough — but it’s something that we can (almost) cope with. What we can’t cope with is when an institution gains enough power that it’s able to define a certain category of people as being less than human. Even if they don’t explicitly say so, you can clearly see it by the way they treat that group. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, for example, treats rank-and-file members with a very clear agenda: get you paying a regular tithe at all costs. To quote the regular Church magazine, The Ensign, from December 2012:

“If paying tithing means that you can’t pay for water or electricity, pay tithing. If paying tithing means that you can’t pay your rent, pay tithing. Even if paying tithing means that you don’t have enough money to feed your family, pay tithing.”

That is completely insane. And directly contrary to the Bible: “But if any provide not for his own, and specially for those of his own house, he hath denied the faith, and is worse than an infidel.” — 1 Timothy 5.

Rehumanization and the Worth Economy
My wife’s vision of the worth economy is intended from the ground up to introduce rehumanization into our vocabulary. We’re trying our hardest to make sure that we don’t casually dehumanize anyone. We struggle with this, naturally, but we’re doing our best.

If we can remember the lessons of the worth economy and use them to teach our son that dehumanizing people is the closest thing to Real Evil that exists in the world, we can show him that when we do things like distance ourselves from the church, it’s for a good reason.

Story Time
So on Thursday, my son’s teacher called us at close to the end of school, and told us that Giovanni was literally out of control. I drove there, and when I got there, his classroom was empty except for four teachers and my son, and it was a disaster. My son had thrown every single pencil, colored pencil, marker, and crayon onto the floor — as well as every single sheet of at least three different stacks of paper. When I got there, he was breakdancing on top of the papers.

It turns out that in Washington State, it’s actually illegal for the teachers to touch a child (except for high fives and pats on the back — not even hugs are allowed) unless they are physically harming another person at the time. My son is smart enough to have figured out that they cannot stop him if he decides to throw a fit.

I got there, and of course he knows damn well that I’ll crack down on his ass if he gives me any shit. The instant he heard my voice, he was on his feet, looking embarrassed, and immediately got his butt to work cleaning up his mess.

As I drove home, I had a talk with him. We talked about stories, and heroes and villains — and I told him that in this story, he was the ‘bad guy’. His little fit had ruined school for not just his teachers, but all of his friends who had to be escorted out of the classroom while the teachers called me and I drove to the school. I left that message percolating in his brain and we drove in silence for a few minutes until we got home.

At home, my wife and I decided that the correct course of action was to have my son write a letter apologizing to the class. We emailed the teacher and made sure that she had him read the apology out loud in front of the class — because until you really drill home the fact that you hurt someone, you don’t understand how bad your actions are.

We essentially just humanized our son’s classmates — made him realize how his actions completely disregarded all of them as people, and he couldn’t do that.

In a way, this whole process of becoming a father started when I realized — because of my wife’s intervention — that I was dehumanizing my own son. I’m almost entirely over that, Alhamdulillah, and my wife is much better than I am. Now it’s time to make sure that my son learns the same lesson. And also, along the way, that he doesn’t have to take that crap from anyone else…which is exactly why we left the Church.

Ha. See? Took that shit full circle on ya. You like that? I thought so.

The Easy Way vs. The Right Way

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So my son has had a lot of problems in school. Academically (as far as that word has meaning in kindergarten) he’s at the head of his class in most subjects. He loves math, he reads like a champion, he can use a map almost better than I can, and even his handwriting is better now than mine was in third grade.

The problem is that he has a tendency to — whenever the teachers assign him a task that he is intimidated by or plain doesn’t like — go completely berserk. “Crab-walking around the classroom at 90 miles per hour,” one teacher put it. “Poling himself around the classroom while sitting in the garbage can.” Those kinds of things.

The teachers are so frustrated with this that they seem to have simply given up on him. They let him go berserk, because it’s actually illegal for them to touch him — and he knows it. We’re frustrated, because this straight-up doesn’t happen at home. At all. When it’s work time at home, our son puts his head down and works his butt off. Then, when it’s play time, he goes and bounces up and down on his head on the sofa. Literally.

So, the teachers really want to get him a prescription for some form of ADHD drug. But ADHD has a wrinkle to it: it’s only ADHD if it occurs in multiple areas of the person’s life. Because our son is able and willing to focus and not be a spastic monkey at home, the doctor won’t diagnose him with ADHD. So the school is upset.

(Actually, even without that, the teachers have filled out the questionnaires, and he gets close — but even just taking into account his behavior at school, he doesn’t quite qualify.)

There are a few ways we could go about handling this. If we asked the doctor to label our son ADHD, she would, and we could get him on Mythawtsafailin or whatever. Or, we could simply inform the school that we’re going to home-school him for the rest of the year and hope that we can get him to break the “school expects me to misbehave, so I will” mentality over the next six months.

Or, we can keep him in school, keep annoying the teachers, and keep working to figure out what’s going on in our kid’s head. It’s the choice that requires the most work, aggravates the most people, and is generally the hardest all around. But we believe it’s best for our son, so we’re cramming him down the teachers’ throats.

It’s not like we’re sitting idle while we do this. We’ve been carefully examining our son. We noticed that he didn’t drink enough, so we’ve been trying to get him to drink more — and sweet tea seems to be doing the trick. That seemed like it was working for about a week, then his behavior slid back down again.

Then, we researched ADHD and what is actually does inside the brain. Current theories are that your dopamine, norepinephrine, or choline levels are out of whack — all three of which are vial neurotransmitters that help your brain communicate with your body.

So now, we’re supplementing him with amino acids that your body uses to create dopamine and norepinephrine, and an adrenal gland booster that will help the dopamine production as well as quell any stress responses that come from the fight-or-flight reflex.

The research that it took to get to this point was something that we as parents had to execute on our own. Fortunately, I’m a freelance writer who is often asked to write health information with citations and whatnot, so I know how to use the ncbi.nlm.nih.gov website.

My wife is also a supergenius and a master researchinatrix — I don’t even know how she does it, but I can ask her any factual question in the universe, no matter how obscure, and she’ll come up with something perfectly reasonable as an answer and the links to back it up within the hour. I’ve tried this. It works. Every time. It baffles me.

But the point is that this isn’t the easy way. In fact, it’s just about the least easy way I can think of. It involves my wife and I, as parents, taking personal responsibility for our son’s actions, reactions, and state of being. Not just responsibility as in ‘cleaning up after the mess’, but responsibility in the active sense of taking it upon ourselves to find out what’s wrong and fix it rather than passing the buck to the school, his doctors, or whomever.

I don’t know, realistically, how common of an attitude that is, but I get the feeling that it’s pretty rare, and I’m very proud of my wife for making me do it. 😛

This whole ‘being a father’ thing is a lot more work than I suspected, even after I had gotten a taste of it. Loving someone enough to take responsibility for their long-term happiness…I never even really did that for my wife. I loved her, and I always did everything I could in the immediate sense to help her through the tough times, but I always counted on her to guide herself to her own happiness in the grand sense. I can’t do that with my son — he has no idea what he’s doing. He thinks that watching Minecraft videos on YouTube for four hours straight while piling down a bag of Trader Joe’s gumdrops (that we didn’t know he had found and opened) is the pinnacle of success.

Of course he needs me. I can’t even imagine what life must have been like for my mother, trying to raise me and help me reach happiness without a legitimate father figure in my life. Or what it must be like for a single parent of either gender to try to tackle a child that isn’t as smart, self-motivated, or deeply loving as mine.

It’s no wonder I have the impression that a lot of parents take the easy way — this shit’s hard…but it’s so very worth it.

Success: A Blog Post Not About Parenting

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It’s a good thing my son puked this morning. It got all over my lap, the couch, his legs — I only barely got the plate out of the way. Curried chicken salad. As I grabbed him and hauled him to the shower, my wife called the school so they knew he’d be a little late. As I grabbed the Simple Solution and sprayed the couch down, my wife turned to me with a smile and said, “Guess what? Today was Late Start anyway. We’ve got nothing to worry about.”

If it weren’t for that puke, we would have driven him to school and no one would have been ready for him. The vomit might have been inconvenient — and gross — but we’re old hands at puke by now, and it was well worth it to not have wasted the time driving to school, and back, and back again.

And it connected, in my mind, with an epiphany I had a few days ago. But explaining that epiphany is going to take a little more storytime.

A few years ago, in our ongoing quest to solve the riddle of our ongoing poverty, my wife and I got this book called “The Millionaire Mind” by a gentleman named T. Harv Ecker. Among other things, T. Harv said that the reason most people have trouble with money is that they have stupid thoughts about money that they acquired in childhood and never paused to reconsider.

That’s definitely true of me. I’m a firm believer, because I watched my mother work herself to the bone in order to pay for everything, in the primacy of family, community, and love over money. I firmly believe that money can’t buy happiness, and that the classic ’90s movie villain (the Corporate Scumbag) is a very real thing. The thing is, I read Ecker’s book, and I realized that money wasn’t important enough to me to make me give up those thoughts.

Fast forward to last weekend. I was depressed — in a minor slump, because my house is a mess and the clients that I had lined up all had tasks that I wasn’t looking forward to. There are quite a few of my clients that I love to write for — they ask me to write about things I love, like kung fu, and search engine optimization tactics, and new gadgets like the Kindle Paperlight. These were not those. These were long, fairly mundane articles about plastic surgery, and dumpster rental, and corporate event venues. My wife was unhappy because I was unhappy, and she told me that I wasn’t in control of my emotions, and I wasn’t in control of my momentum, and there was no way I could be in control of my future if I wasn’t able to get a grip on the simple act of working.

And for some reason, that idea — the idea of not being in control of what was going on in my own head — bounced into the idea from T. Harv Ecker of being enslaved to your beliefs. Before I could finish the thought, however, my wife asked me what I thought about success — what it meant, how I could accomplish it. And I immediately replied, “Yeah. I want to teach my son, and give him the tools he needs to be successful.”

She looked at me and said, “Why him? Why not you?”

I didn’t have a good answer for that. I’m like, some years old already. I missed my chance, didn’t I? I didn’t need to say that out loud to know how stupid it was — but it really was a thought that was in my head. I had, in my own head, without my conscious realization, the thought that I’d somehow used up my chance to be awesome — that it had passed me by, and…

First Stupid Belief That Leads to Failure: Opportunity Only Knocks Once

Wow. Whoever made up that statement and taught it to the people around him was a shitty person. I’ve decided that every time I catch myself thinking that, I’m going to replace it. Because the truth is that Opportunity lurks within every obstacle. If you run into a problem, it’s never JUST a problem — every problem represents an opportunity if you understand it well enough to flip it on its side…just like my son’s morning barf opened up a whole extra forty-five minutes worth of time to watch Phineas and Ferb. It’s rarely that obvious and easy, but it can be. And we all know how common problems are — if opportunity only knocked once, life would be a hell of a lot easier, because there would be significantly fewer obstacles in our paths.

So my wife tells me, because she’s the wisest person in the world (and yes, I’m looking at you, Dalai Lama) that if I really want to change the way I’m thinking, I can’t just think in my own head. Thoughts are too easy to set aside and forget about. I have to talk to myself — or, more accurately, because I’m a writer by trade, I have to write to myself.

After a moment’s consideration and a flashback to a wonderful essay my friend Nicholas Anderson once wrote about feminism in post-apocalyptic Burma (love ‘ya, Nik!), I sat down and wrote out a four-page conversation with myself in the Socratic format: Q&A.

Along the way, this came out:

Work doesn’t make people happy.

Bullshit. YOUR work doesn’t make YOU happy, but that’s because you let yourself do work that you think sucks. Do work that makes you happy, and your work will make you happy.

I don’t know how to do that.

Pick work that makes you feel like you’re accomplishing something of value — something that you can be proud of.

I don’t know how to feel proud of my work.

Bullshit. You’re proud of the work you put into being a father. You’re proud of the work that you put into making your wife feel supported and stable and loved. You’re proud of the effort that you put into things like your epic Dungeons of Dremor mod and your 153-page file of Dungeons and Dragons stuff. You’re proud of your son, your mom, your other mom, your wife, and your fiction. Why can’t you be proud of your work?

And the next line stunned me…

Second Stupid Belief That Leads to Failure: Work is that which a body is obliged to do. Fun is that which a body is not obliged to do.

I can’t even tell you how deeply ingrained in my psyche this concept is. It was uttered by Mark Twain, one of my personal heroes. Man was a literary and comic genius, but holy bleepity bleep bleep, did he get this one epically wrong. Because the moment you define work as “anything you are forced by outside circumstances to do,” it basically becomes “fate slavery.” There is literally no way that you can look on work as a positive thing when you predefine it as “that shit I have to do.”

But thanks to the insight from T. Harv Ecker, I realized that this was just a belief I had, not a law of nature. It was a belief I’ve held since middle school, and it’s played a crucial role in how I perceive the very act of choosing to work (as a ‘sacrifice’ that has to be made to ‘earn’ the time you get to spend not working.)

My holy hell, what a destructive idea. So I chose to redefine work — to give up Twain’s crap and choose a new definition of work for myself that better fits the actualities of the world. Work is your way of showing the world that you are worthy of their time, attention, and money.

That’s all. If you do something — anything — that shows off your unique skill set and creates, that’s your work. It doesn’t have to be for money (though it helps). It just has to be something that other people can’t do as well as you can, and it has to be something that’s intended to make other people’s lives better somehow.

No one starts their life thinking “I’m going to grow up and be an insurance coder for a major medical facility!” That’s not a dream that anyone has. People do stuff like that because they don’t spend time developing a skill that they love, that benefits other people. And when they land in those roles, they either wash out, or they get good enough at it that they become valuable because of the skill they’ve learned.

I didn’t intend to become a professional SEO content writer, small business blogger, and website copy producer. I fell into this job because what I really wanted to do is write, and everyone has always told me…

Third Stupid Belief That Leads to Failure: Artists are Starving; the chances of making it creating art — be it paintings, fiction stories, carvings, or macramé owls (looking at you, Caroline) — is almost zero.

The truth is that ‘making it’ is a very strange beast. I’ve always defined ‘making it’ as ‘generating enough income that I wouldn’t have to work.’ But if you define work as “that which a body is obliged to do,” there’s no such thing as ‘not having to work,’ because the moment that you do anything to pay your bills, you become obliged to keep doing it. And if you define work as “that which you do to show the world that you have value,” well, why would you ever have the goal of not working in the first place?

So worrying about ‘making it’ or not is stupid and lame and destructive and stupid. Instead, I’m going to choose to replace that belief with the notion that a life lived for art is never a life wasted. (looking at you, Macklemore.)

As such, starting today, I’m starting a second blog. A blog that I’m going to post in whenever I can — at least once a week — and I’m going to write a story, one entry at a time. I’ll link it up on the home page here and in my next post. My goal is simple and finite (looking at you, Elle Woods): Every day, clean one thing you didn’t use*, make $5 you didn’t expect to make, and add one thing to the world that shows everyone your true passion and your deepest skill set.

(*And everything you did, natch.)

If I can do that, every day for just one year, I will be a success, and no one will be able to tell me otherwise.

The Race to Victimization

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Dick CheneyThis is not going to be to the post you expect it to be. With a title like ‘the race to victimization,’ you’re probably expecting some sort of politicized rant about how such and such a group of people are claiming to be victimized by something.

Nope. This is a daddy blog, not a politics blog — no matter how much I sometimes wish otherwise. So today, we’re going to talk about the benefits of playing the victim. (Also, this post is pretty short, in part because my computer died and I’m working from my laptop, which sucks to work on.)

We had a meeting with Giovanni’s teachers last Friday, because Giovanni — as I’ve mentioned — is a completely different person at school than he is at home. We talked about a bunch of different options for trying to get his attention and keep him under control, and one of the things I mentioned that works well at home is pouting at him.

The teacher was stunned, and I suddenly found myself saying something that I had been thinking for a while now, but never put into words — something that my struggles with my innate reaction of yelling at my son has taught me. “The thing about getting angry at him,” I said, “Is that it makes him the victim. If you get sad at him, it makes you the victim.”

The power of that simple switch is amazing. My wife has been experimenting lately with addressing my son’s bad moments by hugging him and telling him that he’s OK (based on the theory that his behavior is anxiety-based). I’ve been getting more and more into this whole pouting thing, because of the victimization insight.

Both seem to be working in their own way. But it’s obvious to me that the ‘standard’ response of “NO!” is accomplishing one significant, unintended side effect that I think is remarkably commonplace world-wide: it makes the aggressor look like an ass, and the victim…well, a victim. Everyone, including victims, feels bad for victims (which is why it’s such a popular thing to do).

However, if you pre-empt the kid’s feelings of being victimized by turning yourself into the victim (‘It hurts my feelings when you that.’) they can’t turn it back around. They don’t have the skill set to respond other than to say ‘sorry’ — and once they’ve apologized, if they don’t stop the behavior, it only reinforces the idea that they’re abusing you.

It’s manipulative and devious and insanely effective. Less so against adults, who can and will look at you like you’re nuts and inform you that you’re an idiot if you think you’re the victim here. (Though it does work wonders when you’re talking to customer service.) At least for five-year-olds, when you’re upset by something they’re doing, it pays to remember that ‘upset’ doesn’t have to mean ‘angry.‘ Racing to victimization and getting there before they do is a tool that every parent should have in their toolbox.

A hammer.Unfortunately, I’ve already taken the anger tool and put it in the back of the toolbox because I over-used it. When everything looks like a nail, you reach the point where you’ve done literally everything a hammer can do, and you have to pick another tool or be useless and frustrated. Now, I just have to be careful not to over-use the victim card or I’ll end up in the same place a year later. At least this time I’m ready for it.

Anxiety, Approval, and Attitude

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Perhaps the best day-to-day tactic for helping children avoid anxiety is to be positive and upbeat, even when faced with your child’s shortcomings. Whether it’s a poor grade in school or something as simple as spilled milk, a parent’s reaction can make or break a young person’s self-image. Harsh responses can lead over time to depression, less occupational success, difficulty accepting failures, lack of motivation and reluctance to try something new.

If, on the other hand, a parent encourages a child to look at the positive angle of a bad situation and try hard to do better next time, the effect can be spectacular. By modeling a positive outlook, you can lead your child to fly high and succeed in later life.

So my son didn’t want to go back to school this morning after a few weeks off, which was weird, because he loves school. There’s nothing more valuable to him than playing with other children. But this morning, we had to sit him down and have a talk with him.

It started because he didn’t get his full 12 hours of sleep, and every time we send him to school on not enough sleep, he turns into an insane clown possum and interrupts basically every activity with, as one teacher put it, ‘crab walking around the classroom at 90 miles per hour.’ So, we put him back to sleep for an extra 45 minutes, made sure he had a good breakfast (curried chicken salad, thank you very much, Daddy) and got him off to school.

But before he went back to bed, he sat and talked to both of us and told us he’d rather stay home today — which was weird. He’s never said that before, and when we asked him why, he essentially said, “Because some things at school are hard. Like scissors work. Cutting curves is too hard for me.”

Now, we already have an appointment to talk to the doctor about this, because his teachers suspected that it may be the case, but this was the first time that it came out so obviously at home.

I started looking up anxiety in children, and I found the big quote above. When I saw it, I realized that his anxiety issues may very well be my fault. I had this memory: when I was five or six or so, I spent all of one afternoon making a pop-up book out of a couple pieces of paper. I worked really hard at it, making it so that pulling tabs moved little boats and I was super-duper proud of myself.

When I showed it to my mom, she said, “Wow…you really need to work on your handwriting. I can’t understand this at all!”

I was crushed. If I recall correctly, I basically just sat down on the spot and started crying. Here I had put all this effort in, and it was basically pissed on. I’m not telling this story to villianize my mom, but because it was the earliest memory I have of thinking, “But what about all of the stuff that I did right? What happened to all of the approval I was supposed to get for that part?”

…and I realized that I was basically doing the same thing to my son. I might have stopped yelling at him, and he knows that I’m working hard on that — but that doesn’t mean that my basic attitude of only interacting with my son when there’s something wrong isn’t still there.

It’s funny, because you read all of these stories about people seeking approval from their loved ones, and I know I sure do it — but somehow, it’s surprisingly difficult to turn that around and realize that you have a duty to look for things to approve of in the people around you.

It goes back to the worth economy. You can go through life looking at the things that seem to demand your attention — they’re all the things that are annoying and stupid and petty and crap. Or you can go through life deliberately looking for things that deserve your attention — and they’re all of the things that are awesome and wonderful and beautiful and whatever the opposite of crap is.

My son has anxiety issues, and there’s at least one school of experts out there who would readily point to my behavior as a proximate cause of that anxiety. If I want my son to do better in school — and, all told, in life — I have to get off my butt and start deliberately looking for and talking to him about all of the things that he does right.

Handwriting be damned.

Feelings Suck (When Other People Have Them)

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So I’ve ranted a little bit recently about how to talk to a woman, and I noted in that rant that women have these things called ‘feelings,’ and dealing with them can be hard for a guy. What I failed to really note there was that everyone apparently has these ‘feelings,’ and that ‘feelings’ actually form about 95% of our motivations for doing things…anything.

Back when I was determined to be an insurance salesman, I learned a lot about the art of selling. One of the things that they taught you was “people buy things based on the way they feel, and then back up those decisions with logic.” That meant that your goal as a salesman was to make the product feel right, and then give the customer the logical backup they needed to convince themselves that their intuitive decision to buy was the right one.

Unfortunately, feelings have this problem: they don’t respond to logic. It’s not that feelings are illogical, necessarily — most feelings can be explained with logic if the feeler gives it a shot — but they don’t respond to logic.

You can’t ever look at someone who is feeling a feeling and say “you shouldn’t be feeling that, and here’s my logical proof that presents you with unassailable reasoning as to why not.” Or rather, you can, but it won’t work. Feelings respond to empathy, not logic.

The Thanksgiving Thing
So, for example, I wrote a few weeks ago about how I was all upset about the Thanksgiving leftovers. My wife, who understood the situation entirely differently than I did because she saw her mother’s point of view (“Mikie’s gonna eat ALL THE THINGS!”) as well as mine (“We bought the food! We brought the food! We made the food! Why don’t we get to EAT THE FOOD?!?”), had to try to convince me that her mother’s perspective had some validity. The problem was, my feelings were hurt, and no amount of logical display on her part was going to make those feelings respond.

If it had been me, trying to explain to her what was going on, that conversation would STILL BE HAPPENING TODAY, because I no explain feelings good, and at least between my wife and I, conversations don’t end until everyone understands. But because it was my wife at the helm, she was able to pet me and say ‘Mikie, it’s OK that you feel upset about that. I feel upset about it too; I really wanted some of those leftovers.’

That got my feelings mollified, and once she told me that my feelings were OK and that she shared them, then I was ready to listen to all of the reasoning that explained why my MIL’s feelings were just as OK as mine were and where those feelings came from.

Connecting With Spazzmo
So I know first-hand the power of empathizing first and then trying to apply reasoning. And because I have this five-year-old running around, I also know how important it is to him that I acknowledge his feelings before trying to apply reasoning, too.

This is very different from doing it to an adult, for a couple of reasons. First of all, his feelings quite frequently amount to “OMG SPAZZMO!” which is five-year-old for “I’m just a little hyper right now and I’m really enjoying sprinting across the room screaming ‘buh-kaw!’ and slamming headfirst into the couch hard enough to make it rock backwards and thump into the wall while my feet fly into the air. Then doing it again…and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and ag–GURK!”

That last sound, if you can’t see it in your head, is me grabbing my son out of mid-sprint and hauling him up and over my head and into my lap so I can try to talk him out of yet another three dozen repetitions. The problem is that, again, feelings. You can’t logic a little boy out of OMG SPAZZMO… at least not without connecting with him first.

And ‘connecting’ with OMG SPAZZMO means becoming OMG SPAZZMO, at least for a tiny moment, so that you can feel it and empathize for real. It means getting in a tickle fight, or making a funny face, or somehow bringing your level to his level so that you’re operating on the same plane…only then can you bring the level of activity to another place where you can get some actual communication done.

This can be really, insanely difficult to do if, for example, you’re right in the middle of busting out sixteen thousand words on how to get perfect six-pack abs (yes, that’s my actual job I’m working on right now.) You have to get out of business mode and into to OMG SPAZZMODE and then back again…and what you really want to do is shout “JUST STOP IT!!!”…which doesn’t work for crap.

My Son Understands This Naturally…Why Don’t I?
The amazing thing is, my son has this incredible knack for approaching people on their level. Or at least my wife and I. However we’re doing, he’ll come up and be as quiet and reserved as we are, or as boisterous and loud as we are, or as grim and poised as we are, and he’ll say “I love you!” and give you a hug. He might not be able to vocalize his empathy terribly well, but he obviously feels it.

At least, when he’s not OMG SPAZZMO!

I somehow seem to have missed out on this ability, however. I can look over at my wife right now and I know that she’s feeling like crap. Tired, nausea (we’ve been sick all week), feeling mildly useless on an existential level…Christmas was awesome, but post-Christmas has been a little bit of a drag because we’re all tired and sick. And the thing is, I actually know how she’s feeling — empathy shouldn’t even be a problem here, because I literally feel the same way — and yet, for some reason, it’s really hard for me to start a conversation, because the only thing I can think of is “what can I do for you, hon?”

And as we all remember from the ‘talking to a woman’ post, that’s problem-solving speak — exactly what she’s NOT looking for. But something in my man-brain makes walking up and being all like “Wow…life sure sucks right now, huh?” feel intensely stupid.

My son, on the other hand, just walks up to her and gives her a hug and climbs in her lap and snuggles up all cute with his thumb in his mouth, and she hugs him back…and smiles the most beautiful smile I’ve seen from her all week. Because sometimes, it’s not actually about talking at all, and feeling like someone loves you really is the most important thing.

I have a lot to learn for my son…but I also have a lot to learn from my son, apparently. Time to get schooled. 🙂

The Best Christmas Present Ever (and the Power of Thoughtful Giving)

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My wife has been depressed since about Halloween, and it’s because Christmas this year is going to not be the usual hectic, fun-filled superparty that it has been for the last dozen plus years. Every year, my wife’s mom has invited upwards of 70 people to come enjoy a Christmas dinner at her house, and then cooked for 3 or 4 days beforehand and spent absurd amounts of money on candy and food and decorations, and then partied from 6ish until whenever everyone decided to go home.

This year, she’s not throwing that party, and my wife has been just glum. As she told me more than once, “My Christmas faerie has died.”

Then, we went to Thanksgiving at the MIL’s house — and it was everything that was best about Christmas. We cooked all day, ate a hell of a delicious meal with her brother and his fiancée (and the MIL, naturally), and by surprise, we got to open a couple of Christmas presents early. One of which was the best Christmas present ever*.

Sipes Hunt
My sister-in-law, who I cannot bring myself to call anything but ‘Roo’, in an incredible bit of empathy and understanding, foresaw my wife’s gloom and put together a book: the 12 Days of Christmas. In this book, she noted that we were going to miss the Christmas party this year and decided to instead make sure that we felt the Christmas spirit by leading us on a guided tour of Christmas awesomeness.

She researched a bunch of Christmas-related events that were happening in our area — even buying us tickets to see the local production of The Nutcracker. She invented a bunch of Christmas-themed activities that we could do with our son, including providing a pile of Christmas movies and putting the popcorn right there in the book. She even took into account that we don’t own a microwave, so the popcorn doesn’t need one.

I’ve never seen my wife cry like that. OK, maybe the night we got married. And the morning our son was born. But that’s the level we’re working on here. My sister-in-law not only defibrillated my wife’s Christmas faerie, she gave it a makeover and bought it a tiara and a gown, too. And a new wand.

A picture of my sister-in-law
Did I mention that tiaras and gowns are kind of her thing? Yeah, she was Miss Washington a few years back.

So now that I’ve totally distracted all of the guys reading this, on to the part of the post where I have a big revelation and decide to change my life for the better.

I’ve been lucky enough to participate not just in my wife’s family’s Christmas Eve ritual for the past many years, but their Christmas Morning ritual as well. This involves everyone claiming dozens of square feet in the enormous living room and then literally hundreds of presents being brought out for everyone to open. The thing about this ritual that took me years to understand, though, was why everyone was always clamoring to have the presents that they gave opened first.

I mean, I get the whole ’tis better to give than to receive’ thing — I totally do. But this was a level beyond just “I’m a great person because I gave the people I love stuff they wanted.” I didn’t really get it until I understood that it wasn’t about the gifts themselves — it was about finding the gifts. It was about the fact that every October-December (and for my mother-in-law, it’s frequently February-December), this family will stumble upon something, think “Wow, my sister would love this,” and then buy that thing — not because it was necessarily on a Christmas list (though that never hurt), but because they knew each other well enough to know what would work and what wouldn’t. The reward for their success was the delight and surprise and happiness of the person opening the gift — and delighting someone you love really is better than being delighted by someone you love. It’s that whole worth economy thing again.

They also loved each other enough to get things that were random and awesome just because they were random and awesome. I can literally look around my house and see awesome stuff that they acquired for me just sitting around, being awesome. Chinese hook swords, sets of rare Magic: the Gathering cards — heck, half of my wardrobe is Christmas stuff that was just random and awesome, and so it had to be mine.

I realized, looking at Roo’s gift to my family — literally, the gift of Christmas spirit — that there was actually no greater gift that it was possible to give my wife. Christmas is such an intensely vital part of my wife’s composition that it was actually tearing her up inside to be unable to spend it with her family, and her family knew it and saw it and made it better in the most amazing possible way.

I want my son to experience that kind of feeling towards Christmas. I can tell you that my son loves Santa Claus like he was family, and that he knows deep within his heart of hearts that Santa really is going to bring him a pogo stick this year, because he knows that Santa just loves him that much. When he finally does figure out that Santa Claus is Mommy and Nonna and Daddy and Uncle Cody and Aunt Roo, I hope it doesn’t change how he feels about Christmas one bit — because I hope he understands that we really all DO love him that much.

In order to do that, i have to master the art of thoughtful giving — which means mastering the ability to think about what another person wants and needs and how they feel. I’m not very good at that; I’m the onliest child I’ve ever met. But with the constant good examples of my wife’s family and a steadfast Capricornian determination to succeed, I’ll pull it off. Maybe even by next Christmas.

* Along with all of the other Best Christmas Presents Ever we’ve received over the years. 😛

The Worth Economy Is Not a Zero-Sum Game

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Thomas the Tank EngineI couple of weeks ago, I wrote about the Island of Sodor, but what I was really writing about was something my wife and I have taken to calling the ‘worth economy.’ It’s kind of like the dollar economy: your actions and words give — or take — worth away from other people. But the dollar economy is, more or less, a zero-sum game. There are only a limited amount of dollars in the world, and unless you’re the Federal Reserve, your only option for making money is to take it from someone else.

The worth economy is different, however, because you can create worth in other people without taking it from yourself. Similarly, you can destroy worth in other people without giving any to yourself. One of the most common mistakes humans make is believing that putting other people down makes the put-downer somehow better. That’s false. What’s true, and this is one of the most profound things I’ve ever encountered, is that making other people feel more worthy adds to your own worth.

The Problem
Unfortunately, it’s very easy to put other people down, and it’s very hard to add to other people’s self-worth. Here’s an example.

I’ve been talking a lot on my blog about my father-in-law and my step-mother-in-law. They haven’t talked to us for a few weeks, but we got another email from the SMIL today entitled “Blog The Truth.” She accused me of stretching the truth in order to look more put-upon than I really am, and of taking more pleasure in criticizing people than I do in being grateful.

This led to probably one of the longest and most difficult discussions I’ve ever had with my wife. She’s really heavily into this ‘worth economy’ thing, and honestly I’m still trying to figure it out. But she told me that my SMIL was right — that specifically as regards her, the way I’ve been writing in this blog makes her (and to a lesser degree my FIL) look like a villain. She told me that I’d better figure out how to empathize with her and explain why her feelings were hurt, or I was going to end up ruining my relationship with both of them.

Here’s the thing — I suck at empathizing. I think I’ve mentioned that before, but just in case I haven’t, it’s true. I’m combative, and I’m focused on the short-term, quickest solution to a given situation. When someone is acting in a way you can’t understand, the short-term, quickest solution is to tell them that the way they’re acting is wrong and to stop it.

Suffice it to say, that doesn’t work. Like, ever.

Empathize, right now. Go!
So, I have this challenge in front of me: empathize with a woman who has really upset me and made me feel worth less, and figure out why she’s upset. It took me a long, long time to get to the point where I was able to, and I was only able to at all because my wife helped me figure out that I’m the one who started this whole thing.

It was right here:

I personally feel the pressure every time I visit my father-in-law’s house for a holiday — he sits down and talks to me about how my job as freelance Internet writer is going. It’s like he’s compelled by some inner drive for ‘success’ to find some piece of advice he can offer about something that I could be doing better at my job. (He’s never offered the slightest bit of advice about being a father.)

And this, highly paraphrased, is what I told my wife:

“At some point, my SMIL read that blog post, and when she did, she realized that we don’t necessarily see them (the FIL and SMIL) as ‘good’. And because she read this just after we were already exchanging emails about my discomfort coming over to their house, that realization probably made her sick to her stomach.

“So, she responded in basically the same way I did when I thought that my mother saw me as the ‘bad guy’: she went on the offensive. She sent that email about the big boy pants, not because she was attacking me, but because she was defending her husband. Because she saw us painting him as a villain.

“And when I mentioned her on a few other occasions in my blog, it was always to point out something that she did or said that made me feel less worthwhile as a person — which, again, made it seem like she was a villain and like I didn’t approve of her or appreciate her. It’s no wonder that at this point, she’s really upset about the things I’ve said.”

Because, you see, I have been unintentionally casting my SMIL as someone who doesn’t add worth to the lives of the people around her — at least not my life. And that’s simply not true at all. I actually get a lot of value out of my time with both of them. I can count on three things every time we visit their house:

  • Excellent food
  • Playing video games with my…uhh…step-sister-in-law’s son? That would be my…nephew?
  • Fascinating conversations about current events both local and national.

And since the food is always unlike any we would make, and I don’t get much time to play video games at home, and the conversations I have at home are with someone that agrees with me on almost everything, well, that’s actually a whole lot of value that they add to my life. It’s certainly not anything that I would ever want to lose. But that’s not the lesson here.

The Moral Of The Story
I’m sure you get the lesson already, but I’ll spell it out for you just in case. The worth economy is not necessarily a zero-sum game: it’s possible for everyone to win. But when you do what I did — when you use your platform to cut other people down and make them feel worthless — you make it worse than just zero-sum. You make it lose-lose. That’s not what I want, and I’m sorry that I did it.

I’m not going to claim that I understand the worth economy concept as well as my wife does — it was her epiphany, after all, and I’m busy having insights of my own over here — but I’m starting to wrap my mind around the concept. It starts, simply enough, by looking at what you’re doing and how it adds or subtracts from the worth of the people around you. Then, you find the things that do the subtracting, and you do less of them. Then, you find ways to do more adding.

And because of that silly little miracle of feeling better about yourself when you make others feel better about themselves, everybody wins. Oi Oi.

I Have a Food Problem.

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Some background for today’s story: We did Thanksgiving dinner a couple of days late this year, with my mother-and-law and her family. My brother-in-law called us and basically said, “We’re bringing the turkey, you guys bring everything else and cook it all.”

We were cool with that. We had fun — it was the best Thanksgiving pretty much ever. But the morning after, this weird thing happened. I was trying to make breakfast for my wife and son and myself, and also we needed to make a packable lunch to bring with us because we had a Christmas tree lighting to go to (as part of the best Christmas present ever, which I will cover in a separate post.)

As I started making food, my mother-in-law went to talk to my wife, and pointedly remarked that she was concerned about my using all of the turkey. On its face, this was ridiculous — we had an 18-pound turkey, and we had eaten less than half of it. I couldn’t have used up all the turkey if someone had put a gun to my head and told me to eat it all.

Furthermore, this concern apparently extended to all of the other leftovers as well, because despite the fact that we used money we didn’t have to buy the food, despite the fact that we brought more than half of the food, and despite the fact that we cooked all of the food, the only leftovers we walked away with were the four really simple (turkey, mustard, and salad greens) sandwiches I made. My brother-in-law and his fiancée took home most of the leftovers.

So suffice it to say, as we drove home, I was more than a little bit miffed. We literally at this moment have one meal’s worth of protein in the house, all of our money has to go to the rent, and we won’t be able to get any more food for a few more days. That money we spent on Thanksgiving dinner would have been a really good thing to have right now. But when I mentioned all of this to my wife, she told me something that really completely changed my perspective on a lot of things.

Stealing and Counter-Stealing
When you go to a buffet, and there’s only a relatively small amount left of something you like, you naturally pile it all on your plate, even if you can’t actually eat all of it. The fact that there’s a ‘threat’ of losing it altogether naturally makes you inclined to take more than you actually want or need. This is perfectly normal, and I get that.

What I didn’t understand is that my food habits make other people around me feel like whatever food is sitting around is constantly under ‘threat’. I tend to eat whatever happens to be there, because I don’t eat to live; I eat for enjoyment. And I don’t really think much about other people when I do that — it doesn’t really occur to me that someone else might want that food. So effectively, I ‘steal’ food. Pretty regularly.

And that makes other people do exactly the same thing that happens at the buffet table — they ‘counter-steal’. They take the food before I can take it, and they naturally take more than they want or can eat. If they don’t, it might not last, and they all know it.

That was a truly thunderous revelation to me, and doubly so because I’ve seen my son do the exact same thing to me. He’ll be eating his dinner, and have to go to the bathroom, and he’ll tell me, “Daddy, I’m going potty. Don’t eat mine food, OK?”

I’ve probably heard that a few dozen times, but it never occurred to me to wonder why he said that. It wasn’t until I realized (because of my wife telling me over and over again across a hundred miles of highway) that my in-laws all really want to say the same thing to me that I recognized that I really do treat food quite disrespectfully.

(I probably should have had this revelation sometime around two Christmases ago when my brother-in-law invented the term “Secret Fatty Stash” in regard to my plate of leftover mostly-desserts that I left on top of the fridge — which has subsequently been picked up by the entire family to reference any food hidden on one’s person. But I’m not the most self-aware person in the world, which is one reason why I have to blog out all of my stupid self-discovery — if I don’t write about it, I won’t really think about it, and I won’t actually change.)

So here’s my public commitment: I’m going to rethink the way I treat food, and I’m going to be more respectful of other people’s food along the way. I don’t want people to have to be afraid for their ‘fare share’ when I’m around. (Har, har, I’m clever.) That sucks for them in the short-term, and it sucks for me in the long-term as well. So, more counting the future, less immediate gratification. Hopefully my son won’t pick up my bad habit along the way.

Lord, give me the fortitude to eat the food I should, the strength to leave the food I shouldn’t, and the wisdom to know the difference.