Tag Archives: children

The Wages of Chronic Distraction

An astute friend of ours is visiting, and over coffee, the conversation turned to the challenges of raising our respective 13-year-olds. Wonderful kids, they are, who give us very little real trouble. But like many kids their age, they are pulled from either end by ambitions toward adulthood and the comforts and habits of childhood. It’s hard to instill, the kind of organization that fosters discipline and would leave them more time to do the things they want, even when you argue convincingly that there will be more goof-off time if only they will put work before play a little more often. Reason alone is not enough with some people, especially young teens, especially when it emanates from the mouth of a parent.

“I can come around the corner into his room,” I lament, “and he’ll be mid-video-game while there’s still science or social studies pending.” Our friend commiserates. My wife adds that even if the gaming interlude was a short jaunt away from work while looking up a legitimate homework question, this extra electronic time adds up. Sleep suffers, ours and his.

It often comes back to the electronics, doesn’t it? My son doesn’t even have a Facebook page, yet he is active on Skype, gaming and chatting with his friends. He is a big looker-up of things on the way to looking up other things, a good sign of a smart kid. I don’t want to restrict access to his computer and iPad in a ham-handed way; I’d rather he slowly build a lasting discipline on his own. Parental pipe dream? Maybe. But taking the blinky things away completely has to be a last resort, to my way of thinking.mommy_texting

Our friend has observed a more serious electronic wedge being driven into child life, though, this one by people who are beyond the disciplinary direction of others. She has seen parents like the one pictured, wheeling a stroller down the street and completely engrossed in the on-screen goings-on of their smartphones. The baby in the stroller is pretty much on her own.

Take away any safety concerns (not watching for cars, etc.) and you still have serious cause for discomfort that perhaps only a mother would divine. Before handheld computers, a Mom walking her child in a stroller would likely be singing a little song, remarking how lovely a day it is, pointing and saying, “See that bird, honey? It’s blue!” In a word, engagement: the basis of language, observation, interest, a mental foothold on the world and the path to enlightened alertness. It’s also a special brand of love.

I wouldn’t suggest that every moment in the presence of a baby needs to be filled with speech. (My wife and I still joke about a friend who had a baby about our son’s age. That little girl learned to talk way early because her mother had a habit of narrating her entire day like a sportscaster on caffeine. By the time she was 14 months, that kid had heard everything.) But the sound of a parent’s voice, the little facts, rhythms, and affections it conveys — these are the bricks and mortar of a well-grounded mind. The fact that parent and child enjoy such interactions makes them all the more precious.

But silently locked into smartphone torpor? It doesn’t work. Of course, the baby doesn’t know enough to be as upset as I am at the thought, the image of a child waiting for interaction, but just sort of…left out there to drift.

We all love the convenience and “neatness” of our smartphones, sure. No harm in that. But moderation in all things, right? Well…except in what’s good for our children.


© 2014 Adam Barr

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When God Closes a Door, He Opens for Lunch

I was upset when the Golf Channel dismissed me after more than 12 years, a formative time in the network’s history when my efforts enriched a great many people out of all proportion to what I was being paid. So it goes. But I also liked the job, and in the months after it was clear that my contract would not be renewed, it was hard not to feel negative. So it also goes.

In the throes of perceived loss, no one likes to hear that old saw about a setback being an opportunity or a blessing in some odd get-up. Doesn’t make it any less true, though, even if you believe for awhile that when God closes a door, he opens a window, and it’s -10ºF and windy out.

I have since moved into a much better situation, which has a lot of benefits. Not just the payroll deduction kind: I mean the lifestyle stuff. My company is in Japan, with a North American headquarters in Vancouver. In the age of airplanes, email, and Skype, it hasn’t been necessary to move. So I have stayed in the Orlando, Florida area, and I work out of an office in my home with only occasional travel.

I was out of soba noodles, but we did have this really good leftover sticky Japanese Nishiki rice. Oishi desu!

I was out of soba noodles, but we did have this really good leftover sticky Japanese Nishiki rice. Oishi desu! (Tofu upper left with sriracha; steamed bok choy)

This enables me to be much more involved in the life of my family, especially my son, an only child who is 13. It’s always important to be there for your children, but as a former boy myself, this seems to me to be a crucial stage. As he learns to be a man, surely his mother is a big influence. But I have my role too: Example Man. I’m glad to do it. I went a lot of exciting places around the world when Joseph was young, but I also missed a lot. Augusta National was all well and good, but I would have liked to have seen him roll over that first time.

There are little things, too. As we know, they have a habit of adding up to big things. One is lunch. I meet friends for lunch occasionally, but the best restaurant I know is still right downstairs. And I’m the chef.  When I do travel, it’s often to Asia, where I have been fortunate to discover whole new universes of taste and texture.

As a result, on any given weekday, lunch may be soba noodles, braised tofu, and steamed bok choy, all topped off with Thai fish sauce, a squeeze of lime, and a healthy shot of sriracha-sauce heat. We have bamboo steamers from the Asian grocery, inexpensive workhorses of the kitchen which, when placed over boiling water in a wok, transform all manner of vegetables and leftover rice into hot-and-happy entrées. I’ve gotten so good at this that my wife will call from wherever she is and tell me she’ll be home for lunch. Throw on some extra udon.

As we found when we started making homemade pasta after an Italy trip, what once seemed arduous is really no big deal. Here’s a sample step-by-step:

1. Get a block of extra-firm tofu. In the morning or the night before, unpack it, drain it, put it in a baking pan, salt it, and bake it for an hour at 350º. Let it cool.
2. At lunchtime, wash and chop a bunch of bok choy. Put it in the bamboo steamer. Get water boiling in the wok. Plunk that bamboo badboy on there. Count five minutes.
3. Carefully remove the steamer (very hot) and throw three ounces of soba noodles into the water in the wok. Count four minutes.
4. Put a teaspoon of sesame oil and a shot of sriracha sauce in a bowl. Slice half the tofu into chunks; save the rest for later, unless your wife is coming home for lunch.
5. Drain the finished noodles; toss ’em in the bowl that has the oil/sriracha combination. Swirl ’em up.
6. Put the bok choy on top of the noodles and the tofu on top of that. Sprinkle with fish sauce or soy sauce, and squeeze a lime all over it.
7. Dig in. You’re about to eat around 500 calories of delicious stuff, chocked with protein, and you will be full.

Kinda all came together, didn’t it? Lost a job, gained a new one, learned some Asian cuisine, and I get to enjoy it. And share it with my family.

The next loss, whenever it comes, will likely smart. So it goes.

But I’ll make sure to have noodles and sriracha sauce around. So that goes.

© 2014 Adam Barr

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Travel: Being Adult About Children

Nearly every flight to Orlando, where I live, is full. Disney and other destinations attract families by the thousands. And when you put children in an aluminum tube for hours with nothing much to do, there is going to be noise.

The voices of children can be very sweet and encouraging. But I don’t think anyone really enjoys the sound of a yowling child or irritated baby at close quarters. It is not inhuman or mean to admit this. (I always figured that annoyed children, who are generally more forthright than guarded adults, are simply saying something about the experience of commercial air travel that all of us are thinking.)

Oh sweetie, I know. I didn't get an upgrade either.

Oh sweetie, I know. I didn’t get an upgrade either.

What is inhuman, and mean, is to react to a noisy child on an airplane or in an airport. Sure, there are bad parents out there, those whose idea of supervision is to make sure the child stays within the same state most of the time. There are other parents who are tired, outnumbered, or unlucky. But face it: kids can be hard to control. Allowances need to be made.

I get angry with passengers who glare at crying babies and their parents. The baby doesn’t understand that the funny (maybe painful) sensation in their head is their ears popping. The parents saved a bottle to get the child sucking as the plane descends (a well-known cure for ear-popping), but wouldn’t you know, little Caleb refuses to eat. Back in 34E, Jessica, age 5, has just plain had enough of planes, and she is going to TELL DADDY THIS MANY TIMES, LOUDLY SO HE WILL UNDERSTAND AND WHEN WILL I SEE MICKEEEEYYYYYY!!!

I get angry because despite the wisdom of the old book/cover dichotomy, one thing I know for sure: every person on this plane was a child. Every such person had no filter, got cranky, misbehaved, spilled juice, said no to be obstinate, beat their sister with her own Barbie, and said “Fart!” 671 times in a row.

So back off, huh?

I’ve been flying into and out of Orlando so long that I can essentially tune out the unpleasant noises some children may sometimes make. I get annoyed sometimes, but I never react. Once a child kicked me as I was walking down the concourse (I wasn’t even wearing a Steelers jersey); his parents fell all over themselves apologizing. I was unhurt, so of course I didn’t make a big thing about it. I have seen other aggrieved adults launch into long lectures on parenting over such events, further terrorizing the hapless parents into wishing the earth would swallow them up.

I know, not everyone likes children. I do. They’re people, I’ve found. Delightful ones. Oh, they have their moments. We all do. So when a traveling child, any child, annoys you, take a breath. Set an example. Be an adult.♦

© 2013 Adam Barr

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Brainies du Jour: Courageous Child Driver, Golf Lesson, NBC’s London Blitz

> In a situation so emotionally wrenching that it’s hard to imagine, a 12-year-old New Jersey girl piloted a speeding pickup truck to safety after the driver, her grandfather, died at the wheel. (Here’s the AP story.) Miranda Bowman kept her cool when her 63-year-old grandfather’s head hit the passenger window, going immediately for the brake and trying to figure out a solution, even though her grandfather’s foot was still pressing down on the accelerator.

Turns out Miranda has been an observant child, learning the ways of automobiles by watching her parents drive, and also learning from things she saw on TV. The emotions of the complex challenge caught up with her afterwards, but in the crisis moment, she was able to manage herself better than many adults would have done.

This is one of the rare stories of childhood accomplishment that broke through the poor modern record of what we congratulate kids for. Miranda surely had serious help from a natural self-preservation instinct, but she still deserves credit for mature judgment. Had the worst happened, nobody would have figured the child failed in her duty of judgment and action: we simply don’t expect 12-year-olds to perform like this. Man dies in the next seat in a speeding car, and most of us expect a child — maybe anyone — to be so distraught that they can’t marshal their abilities to solve the problem.

That’s why I like seeing her congratulated for her good sense and courage. Too often, I only see kids lauded on the field of play — great strikeout, Billy (usually yelled obnoxiously). Way to spike it in her FACE, Karen. What I seldom hear, or hear about, is “That math test — that looked hard. You should be proud of yourself for doing so well on that.” Or, “You prepared very well, and the clarinet recital went great.” Or, “Y’know, if you keep working on those extra chemistry projects, you’re going to hit on a very good idea one of these days.”

Sometimes it seems as if the kids who don’t play sports are in society’s eddies, where less scintillating (but no less important) achievements such as the chem projects simply don’t draw enough eyeballs, as the marketing people like to say. I trust that after her family has buried her beloved Pop-Pop, Miranda’s parents will sit her down and tell her how extraordinary she is, and how much they love her for it.

Careful. Hogan knew what he was doing…most other players, not so much.

> Took a golf lesson this morning, a good one. My teacher, a young assistant pro at our club, is a plain speaker. “Don’t worry about angles and swing planes and stuff like that,” he said. “That’s good for some players, but most people playing for fun, I whip out swing planes on them and they’re gonna start scratching their heads like a monkey doing a math problem.”

Last of the real-news anchors: NBC’s Brian Williams

> Good story tonight on NBC Nightly News about how London’s East End, the site of most of the Olympic venues, rose from the rubble of Hitler’s bombs and survived economic struggles in the decades since. (Search “Blitz” on the NBC Nightly News page if the video gets updated away from the front of this section.) While no economic expansion is perfect, London’s eastern revival seems worth noting. According to the story, voiced by the incomparable Brian Williams, the East End now features new apartments, hip neighborhoods, and plenty of big-city buzz.

Williams’ mark on a story is always welcome. Unless Bob Schieffer is filling in on the desk at CBS, Williams is the last of the great anchors.

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Things That Are Impossible, and Would Be a Sin Even If They Weren’t

Sometimes we berate ourselves for doing certain things, or failing to restrain ourselves from doing others. But as we mature and grow in wisdom, we often find that there was no reason for such harsh self-criticism. Indeed, the seasoned, critical mind reveals that some deeds, once thought laudable or advisable, simply can’t be done. Herewith, a user’s guide:

1. Adhering to dietary standards in New Orleans, or anywhere in Louisiana. Repeated efforts have yielded no success. So why keep trying?

The magical beignets at Cafe du Monde in New Orleans

The food in New Orleans is just too good to pass up. If you have dietary issues that are truly harmful — say, diabetes — just don’t go. (That’s sad, and I’m very sorry.) If you simply like to eat hyper-carefully, you should probably also not go. It’s not nice to waste beignets. The delicacy you half-enjoy could be fully savored by someone who can free it up for a weekend.

Boudin, etouffee, jambalaya and crawfish are all there for a reason. The reason is unalloyed joy. Dive in.

2. Becoming, or remaining, annoyed at the laughter or singing of a child. Small children, geniuses that they are, laugh as much as they can at whatever they think is funny. There is no “heh” for a small child. There is only hysterics. That’s because laughing feels so good, and they want to do it as often as they can for as long as they can. Same with singing. It feels very good, so when they find a musical phrase they like, they tend to sing it over and over, like the proverbial broken record.

This can wear on adults, who may find the noise and repetition interferes with their worrying about the mortgage, Syria, and whether they’ll gain a lot of weight next week in New Orleans.

Poor benighted adults. If only they could remember what it was like. Anyway, once you remove the things being interfered with (at least for a little while), you will find that there is no sweeter music than the laughter and singing of children. If you can have a few dumb jokes or Mozart recordings on hand to encourage these activities, so much the better.

3. Going to an art museum and coming out worse than when you went in. Occasionally I will have pre-flight time to kill in a city I’m visiting, and I will spend an hour in a museum, gallery, or public garden. In the museums especially, I may see some works that are shocking, obtuse, or at first glance, just plain bad.

Yet this time is never wasted. Often I’ll see something good, and if I don’t, whatever I see will get me thinking about something else I saw some other time, which will remind me of a friend I was with, and how the coffee at the place around the corner tasted that day, and how the burnt orange shade in a Vermeer was kind of like a very good sunset….

4. Failing to lock in memories of simple moments. This must be done occasionally so that you remember that seemingly mundane moments aren’t. One late afternoon on the beach near Fort Myers, Florida, my wife and three-year-old son trotted along the waterline, hand in hand, in perfect silhouette — her shapely form, his curly hair bobbing and his chubby little legs pumping along, all gilded by a setting sun. I think about this every day.

The Andromeda Galaxy, which is just visible to the naked eye, is about 2.5 million light years from Earth.

5. Resisting making friends with a friendly dog. It hurts you both. The dog was put in your path for a reason. What he or she is saying with that smile is, “Yes, yes; I know it’s not easy being human. I even have some whoo-ee days as a dog! Just pat me on the head, and things will be a little better. Sure! Any time! I’m here most mornings.” (If you’re allergic, you get a pass.)

6. Being endlessly fascinated by the stars. I mean…seriously…c’mon. The light that is reaching you from some of them left the surface of the stars millions of years ago. Get your mind around that.

And pass those beignets.

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Putting Sport (Back) In Its Place

Einstein admitted that his early attempts at the theory of relativity suffered from a serious defect: himself. Well, not Albert specifically, but the scientist as observer. The accuracy of any observation of motion depended on the point of view or the motion of the observer. Even if he were standing still, the earth he was standing on was moving him through the universe, and that necessarily changed his perspective and the observation.

Still, he forged ahead, and so will I. As I age, it’s hard to figure whether my distaste for certain current events arises from each generation’s natural tsk-ing at the next, or from the fact that things really are screwed up. I will leave that judgment, and my curmudgeon status, to whatever theory of generational relativity you subscribe to.

The latest sneer-inducing potato peel of pop culture to come my way was a promotional announcement on the local cable network’s sports channel. The breathless set of clichés that passed for a script labored at getting our hearts going for 15 seconds…over a high school no-hitter. Some local kid had thrown his seventh no-no in a recent baseball game.

“You saw it on Bright House…history…being made…”. Umpire calls strike three, kids pile on the pitcher. Euphoria, the peak of life (at 17!), a moment not to be missed! Ah!

History? The Challenger explosion, the 2000 election, the Civil War…that’s history. The no-hitter kid has about as much chance of making it in the Major Leagues as…me. High-school no-hitters are much more common than the pro variety. What’s the huge deal? It’s certainly not history, even if no one has done it before. I could eat 15 burritos, and it may be temporarily remarkable, but it’s not history.

Instead, it would be a digestive debacle not far removed from the discomfort I feel at seeing sports turned completely upside-down. In less than a half century, we have seen the business of sports, with its inevitable promotion, all but erase the recreational aspect of physical games.

“But…but…you’re in the sports industry!” I hear you say. “How can you bite the golf-gloved hand that feeds you?” It’s easy. It’s not the sporting goods industry that’s to blame. All we have been doing is trying to provide implements to make recreational games more satisfying. We can’t help it if not enough of you play.

Well, why aren’t more people (read: kids) playing? The clues are on the athletic fields — specifically, in what’s not happening on them. I notice fields as I pass by. From Toronto to Tallahassee, Savannah to San Diego, I see more empty fields on weekends than I did 10 or 20 years ago.

Where are the pickup games? Remember those? Pick teams, play. Baseball, softball, football (one of my old friends used to put packing foam under the sleeves of his jersey and encourage us to play helmetless tackle), soccer, anything. We tried, huffed, sweated, disputed, settled it, learned fair play — in short, discovered the joy in recreation, all without an adult in sight.

Ah, the adults. The mentors, the presiders, the organizers. How, oh how, did we ever have sports without them? The practices, the carefully worked-out schedules of which moms brought snacks when, the regimented hierarchy of flow-charted achievement. Oh dear. Must catch my under-aerobically-fit breath.

O.K., I’ll be fair. There are a lot of excellent, well-intentioned youth sports coaches out there. (One humorless fellow I know overcame his reticent personality and not only coached, but volunteered to maintain the local Little League fields, a huge job.) But it seems as if for every one of those, there are 10 big-bellied badasses, fuckheads with fungoes, scaring the crap out of a gaggle of 7-year-olds who are just trying to remember to get their gloves down and beat the natural aversion to projectiles bouncing toward them at high speeds.

“Y’all got tuh git dose, er Ahmo fine some-un who will.” I have heard coaches speak to children like this. And we’re surprised that Call of Duty and a bag of chips is a more comfortable option?

It is, of course, the finely honed American desire to win every single time that leads to this attitude — the willing acceptance that victory in recreational sports is as important as in the theater-business of pro sports, that effort alone is the province of field-fillers, losers, and sissies.

Even in sports without a discernible finish line, we have inserted absurd markers for “victory.” Competitive fishing? I don’t think even Einstein could have wrapped his mind around that. I know I can’t. And physical fitness: working out now is so goal-oriented (lose weight, lift x pounds, get washboard abs, you name it) that the idea of a lifetime of habitual fitness gets funny looks. (And it’s everywhere. Lifetime runners can’t understand why someone would train for a marathon, run it, and then quit running. Yet it happens a lot in modern times. Why? Yep, people just want to say at cocktail parties that they ran a marathon. Or worse yet, put a 26.2 sticker on the back of their cars.)

The real bacterium that’s eating into our consciousness about sports can easily be isolated. Ask any kid, even adult, who is heavily involved in a sport this one question: No matter what happens in your sport, are you most of the time having fun? They will answer. You will know if they are lying.

Ask what they want to achieve, and in many cases, they’ll start their answer before you finish the question. Scholarship. Pro career. Win. Beat. Dominate. Humiliate. And in their eyes, you may see the saddest answer: Please Dad. Mom. Set another benchmark. Let’s do something together.

Pro career? About as likely as a hole-in-one, and a scholarship isn’t much more likely than that. And once they get there, if they do — what will be their recreation? Do they get any?

Perhaps that’s the ultimate revenge of the nerds. Those whose ambitions leaned toward, say, a career in medicine instead of a six years as a middle linebacker, those who the travel-team coaches ignored because they couldn’t make the cut, may have managed to find games to play for the best reason.

Because when you’re working on something worthwhile for a long time, it’s good to get out and have some fun.

You know. Recreation. –Adam Barr

Copyright 2012 Adam Barr

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Math Word Problems We Can Use

My 11-year-old son’s homework got me thinking about it.

“A seal swims 30 miles per hour. A sea lion, 25. If they both swim for five hours, how much further will the seal have gone?” he said.

“Figure it out,” I said, bending to slide a dish between the tines of the dishwasher tray. “Focus on the units for a sec, not the numbers.”

He puzzled momentarily, elbows on the counter on either side of his math book. Under the glow of a hanging halogen spotlight, he looked stark and studious.

“Twenty-five miles,” he said, and wrote the answer on a worksheet. “What will he do there? Won’t he be lonely without the sea lion to talk to?”

I chuckled; he shrugged and got on to the next problem. Trains, runners, blue widgets, red widgets, whatever. I clinked around the silverware as I organized it in the tray.

If Husband One loads the dishwasher seven times in a week, and there is no Husband Two (as far as Husband One knows), but Wife One washes the sheets and puts them back on without being asked, how many Marriage Points net does each accrue by week’s end?

I snorted quietly.

“What?” my son said, looking up, pencil poised between figures.

“Nothing. Do you need help with another one?”

“No; I’m fine.”

Father A uses sixteen thinky-watts of energy per hour wondering about the future of Son One. If Son One goes to College X, Father A will have to save how much to help Son One? Hint: Answer may be an imaginary number. Extra credit: Why is Father A called Father A? Is he a priest? If so, why does he have Son One?

If Man eats two extra graham crackers every day, derive his per-calorie happiness, adjusted for coming swimsuit embarrassment. Round to the nearest belly.

Calculate the area of the yearning heart on a chart where the Y axis is stress and the X axis is Lucca, Italy.

Using Man as a constant, describe the unreasonable — or all too reasonable — fears that wake him in the night. Solve to the fourth decimal.

Demystify love. Show your work.

By this time, I was standing at the counter, where I had soundlessly closed the door of the dishwasher. I was staring into space.

“Done!” my son said, slapping down his pencil. “Wanna go play basketball?”

“Yes.” –Adam Barr


Copyright 2012 Adam Barr

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