Wednesday, September 26, 2012

When Good Grandmas Go Bad

We took a road trip recently, and brought my mother-in-law along. Actually, I should probably say, “she came with us.” She’s not really old enough yet to be “brought along.” I think that phrasing changes as soon as the person stops being able to help drive. Or when they start to drool on themselves. Anyway, she piled into the Ford Expedition with my wife and me and the three boys, and we headed north for Portland, OR, a mere ten hours away. We left early, and had our first stop for gas two hours into the drive, at 8:00 A.M.

It was at this stop, inside the Shell station's convenience store, that I realized she is going crazy.

When the gas pump had finished draining my checking account balance into the tank, I went inside the store to buy a drink with my leftover change. There stood my seven-year-old, holding a king-sized Kit Kat bar the size of his head, asking if he could have it.

"Of course not.”

“Well, if he can't have that, can he have a donut?" inquired his grandma, on his behalf.

 "Absolutely not." I replied, slightly bewildered that I was having this conversation with either of them, but especially with the adult.

"Well, why not?" she asked.

 "Yeah, why not?" my son chimed in.


"Well, what does that matter?" she asked. "It's a road trip."

She had obviously gone completely off her rocker. Why does it matter? Well, for starters, we don’t normally feed the children 18,000 mg of processed sugar for breakfast. We usually shoot for actual food. On top of that, we try to avoid feeding them enough sugar to power a small city when we are going to be cooped up in the same car with them for EIGHT MORE HOURS!!!

I jokingly say she had gone crazy, but that was obviously not the case. She was able to carry on a perfectly coherent conversation, despite the fact that she wanted to feed the children hyperactive fit-inducing amounts of sugar. Since she was lucid in all other areas, I pondered why an otherwise sane woman would want to lock herself in a confined space with three sugar-crazed Tasmanian Devils.

Only one answer makes any sense. She’s trying to earn points with them. You see, us parents usually have no concerns over being the favorite. The kids get one mom and one dad, and that’s it. You're stuck with us kid. Too bad. Grandmas, on the other hand, usually have some competition. Now, our boys’ two grandmas get along great. They love each other to death, but I am now sure that they are secretly at war for favorite grandma status. And sugar, in one form or another, seems to be the main weapon in their arsenals.

When my mother-in-law comes to visit at our house, she gets up early each morning to walk to the nearby gas station to get the newspaper because my wife and I don't subscribe. I would like to sound hip and say that’s because we get all our news electronically, but the real reason is that the paper is expensive and always filled with depressing news. Why would I want to pay to be depressed?

Anyway, she always comes back with the morning paper, and some form of Hostess brand sugar for the kids. She does this so often that our kids refer to Chevron stations as “the donut store.”

The first morning we were in Portland, she took the boys and walked from the hotel down to the grocery store a few blocks away and came back with the morning edition of the Oregonian, a gallon of milk, and two boxes of cereal.

Cocoa Puffs and Trix.

Really, grandma? Was there no cereal with a higher sugar content?

Our kids have never even seen or tasted those cereals in real life, but they have apparently been waiting for the right time to try and get their hands on some after seeing them on commercials. They are smart enough to know who to ask, because grandma’s explanation for the purchase was the ever-popular, “They asked me if we could buy them.”

Oh, well, then I understand. There’s no getting out of that trap once they ask nicely and all.

She followed that up with, “Don’t worry, we decided they only get one bowl per day.”

Oh, good. I was afraid it would take less than a week for them to develop diabetes.

I was raised on healthy food with no traces of processed sugar. I would almost go so far as to say my mom was a health food nut before it was cool. She put wheat germ on our cereal and yeast in our orange juice. It was special. Today, as a grandma, she still can’t seem to bring herself to give junk food to a child, so she has taken a different route. She vies for favorite grandma status by providing them with their favorite fruits. Since she is competing with pure, refined sugar, she has to go out of her way to find exotic fruits that my wife and I would never think of buying. It started with simple pears and pineapples, but it has ratcheted up as the years have progressed.

“Nana is here, and she brought us kiwis, papayas, mangos, passion fruit, and something called a cape gooseberry!”

I guess the sugar from the fruit is a little better for them than the junk food, but the “healthy” treats are not without side effects. I’m not sure which I like less: Dealing with the emotionally un-wound child who ate too many Ho Hos, or the digestively un-bound child who ate too much pineapple. Can I see what’s behind door number three, please?

As I reflect a little more on my own childhood, I realize the grandma/sugar conundrum is nothing new. My sisters and I only had one grandma, so she wasn’t even competing, and she still gave us “syrup in every square” on our Eggo waffles at her house. My mom would cringe when we told her, and we thought that was endlessly funny, just like my boys do today.

All the same, I wish the grandmas would compete with each other by buying the boys shoes or underwear instead. Those we can use!

See you soon,


Copyright © 2012 Marc Schmatjen

Have kids? Have grandkids? Need a great gift?
Go to today and get your copy of My Giraffe Makes Me Laugh, Marc’s exciting new children’s book. Get ready for a wild rhyming adventure!

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Tooth Loss

Son Number Two lost his first tooth the other night. He is six and a half years old, and he had been wiggling one of his lower front teeth for over a month trying to get it loose enough to come out, because the way he figured it, he was behind. His older brother started losing his teeth at age five, and being a naturally competitive middle child, it was not sitting well with Number Two that none of his had fallen out yet.

I pulled Son Number One’s first loose tooth out of his mouth with my fingers, and all three boys thought that was pretty cool, so ever since then, that has been the only acceptable way to lose teeth in our family. Other kids wait until they fall out in an apple or a sandwich, but not my kids. Number One pulled two of his own teeth out at school while sitting in class. My kids are kind of weird.

I knew Son Number Two’s first tooth was getting really close to coming out, because he could bend it back and forth almost 90 degrees. He was sitting in the back seat of the car attempting to pull it out of his head as we were driving to his soccer team pictures, so I had to beg him not to mess with it until later that night, or at least until after the team photo was taken. Luckily, he listened to me and I won’t have to have this future conversation:
“Great team photo. Which one is your kid?”
“The one with the missing tooth and the blood dripping down his chin. It was a rough league.”

After he had brushed his teeth that night, he was continuing to play with the very wiggly central incisor, so I reached in there and wrenched it from his jaw. This is one of the things that I just don’t get about kids and losing teeth. I ripped the tooth out of his mouth, and handed it to him. Instead of being upset about that, like any normal adult would be, he was beaming with pride and joy. He was smiling a newly-toothless grin from ear to ear, holding his own tooth in his hand, bleeding profusely all over the bathroom counter and sink, and joyously admiring his gruesome countenance in the mirror. He exclaimed, in a cheerful and blood-spattered voice, "I've been waiting for this for six and a half years!" Like I said, my kids are kind of weird.

Because Son Number One began losing his baby teeth when he was five, I have been thinking about this subject for a while now. My January, 2011 column, “The Tooth Fairy,” asked many questions that still go unanswered today. Namely, why don’t kids ask more questions about the Tooth Fairy and his or her motives? I also discussed the need for a universally adopted fee schedule, as well as solicited advice for what to do with all the teeth I am collecting.

While no one had any good advice for my wife and me on these pressing issues, one of our good friends did give us a book entitled Throw Your Tooth on the Roof. It’s about all the different tooth traditions around the world. While it was interesting and funny, all it really served to do was add to the list of questions I have about kids losing teeth.

Apparently, saving your kid’s baby teeth and doing weird things with them is not a uniquely American phenomenon. We even stole the Tooth Fairy from another culture. Why? Why would we have done that??? Why? Couldn’t the early Americans see that the end result of parents having to be the Tooth Fairy would be very, very annoying and expensive? They were visionaries in so many respects. How could they have been so short-sighted on this issue?

Were there just not enough good opportunities to give your kids money in the olden days, so they decided to pay them for their teeth? Why did we feel the need to complicate childhood tooth loss? At the very least, couldn’t we have adopted one of the other tooth-related traditions?

As the title of the book would suggest, a lot of cultures feel that throwing the baby teeth up on the roof is the way to go. The mythical end result varies from country to country, but basically, the overriding theme is good luck. I like it because no money is involved, and there is no need to remember to make the money/tooth switch at the hopelessly inconvenient drop location of directly under the sleeping child’s head.

Besides having an imaginary flying nymph pay for them, or throwing them into the rain gutters, the next most popular tradition was planting them in the garden. Again, I like it from the standpoint of no money and no time-critical, potentially emotionally devastating situation where the child wakes up to find his or her tooth still under the pillow, caused by tired parents going to sleep on the job. What I didn’t really understand is what is supposed to be accomplished. Since losing teeth seems like a really big event in any kid’s life, I would expect the planting them in the garden thing to backfire more often than not. I know if that was our family’s tradition, our kids would be at the garden every day, examining the exact spot where the tooth was planted, waiting for the magic beanstalk.

Maybe the parents sneak out to the garden after the planting, and replace the tooth with an actual seed. If that’s the case, I am less excited about that one, because based on my lack of green thumb, my children would be convinced that they had a mouthful of defective teeth.

The book outlined all the crazy tooth traditions around the world, but never answered the one burning question: Why? Why do we do anything with kids’ teeth? Why don’t we just high-five the kid and throw the tooth in the trash? Doesn’t that seem simpler to everyone?

And why do the kids get so excited about it? Why is it such a universally anticipated event for the world’s children? Things are falling out of your mouth! Trust me, kid, that is not a good thing when you get older.

See you soon,


Copyright © 2012 Marc Schmatjen

Have kids? Have grandkids? Need a great gift?
Go to today and get your copy of My Giraffe Makes Me Laugh, Marc’s exciting new children’s book. Get ready for a wild rhyming adventure!

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Swimming Upstream

Can someone please tell me what is so difficult to understand about “kick from your hips, not your knees?”

Pivot your legs from your hips. Don’t bend your knees. Well, bend your knees a little, but just a little and only on the down stroke. Keep them straight coming up. And you’ve got to keep your toes pointed. Point them straight back away from you, not down toward the bottom of the pool.

What is hard about that?

Apparently, a lot, because my boys cannot seem to figure it out.

A few nights ago was my oldest boy’s very first swim practice. I think we paid just under $47,000 to have him and his younger brother, Number Two, join the youth swim club for the two-month “Fall Program” this year. If we want them to keep swimming after October, we can make that happen for another $300,000 or so.

I was a swimmer and a water polo player in my youth, and I have visions of all three of my boys excelling in the pool and becoming Olympic water polo players. I was not tall enough -- or anywhere close to good enough, for that matter – to be Olympic-caliber. They just need to practice a lot, and beat the odds and end up over 6’-4” tall. I plan to feed them a lot and hang them by their ankles whenever possible.

So, given my dreams for their aquatic success, I was very excited about Son Number One’s first practice. I was so excited that I didn’t even bother to question where the practice might be taking place, and drove him to the wrong pool complex. Once I realized my mistake, I drove across town at 96 miles per hour, hoping to still make it on time and preserve our first impression with his coach. Instead of that, I was the parent that brought his kid to the first practice seven minutes late. Great.

OK, we’ll try to move past that, and just wow him with your superior swimming skills. No problem.

The first few swim practices of the year involve a lot of kick boards. There were a lot of kids in the pool, but since they are still small at six and seven years old, they had them three to a lane. (After getting a rough count of the number of kids and doing some quick math based on registration fees, I estimated that it must cost about three trillion dollars to run a kids swim program. That seems like a lot.)

Off they went across the pool, holding their kick boards out in front of them and churning up the water behind them with their little legs kicking like mad. All of them except my son. He quickly fell behind the group. There was no churning of water going on behind him. An occasional foot could be seen rising above the water near his butt, but that was about it. I could see his legs under water moving like mad, but he didn’t seem to be making any progress. At one point, I’m positive that he actually went backward for a little while.

To give you a good idea of how slow he was compared to every other kid in the pool, here is an example. At one point the coach was sending the kids in each lane one at a time down the pool, spaced out at reasonable time intervals to avoid having them too close together on their way down the pool. Son Number One was the first to be sent in his group of three. The second kid to be sent passed my son almost immediately, and when the third kid in the group had traversed the entire length of the pool and made it to the opposite wall, Son Number One was just approaching the middle of the pool. He had gone an astonishing five feet in the time it took the third kid to go 25 yards.

The coach was working with him as much as possible. “Kick with your whole leg, not your knees. Keep your legs straight and move them from your hips. Point your toes.” The coach didn’t have a lot of time for one-on-one instruction, though, since he was in charge of 65 other kids, presumably to justify his estimated 45 million dollar annual salary.

The practices are only a half-hour long, so it seemed to be over almost before it had really started.  OK, buddy, we’ll come back tomorrow night and work on kicking some more.

The next night, Son Number Two got to come to swim practice also. He had missed the first one due to a conflicting soccer practice. Don’t even get me started on that. Anyway, into the pool they went. They are a year and a half apart in age, but they ended up in the same group, which was slightly surprising based on what happened the week before at try-outs. They both did pretty well, but when Son Number Two was asked to show the coach his backstroke, I’m fairly sure it was the first time he had even heard the term, let alone attempted the stroke. He resembled someone who had been lying on their back in the grass, and suddenly realized that they were covered from head to toe with ants. It was not pretty.

Off they went across the pool, kick boards in front, little legs working like mad behind them. There goes the group, across the pool, and there are both my boys, still five feet from the starting wall, kicking like crazy and not going anywhere at all. It seems Son Number Two was born with the same inherent kicking deficiency as Number One, exclusive apparently, only to our family.

“Kick with your whole leg, not just your knees. Point your toes.”

Hmm… I’d better start working with Son Number Three right now.

Maybe they’ll do better when it comes time to start using their arms and breathing to the side. Or, maybe there will be some openings in the Olympic water polo team’s equipment management department.

See you soon,


Copyright © 2012 Marc Schmatjen

Have kids? Have grandkids? Need a great gift?
Go to today and get your copy of My Giraffe Makes Me Laugh, Marc’s exciting new children’s book. Get ready for a wild rhyming adventure!

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Computer Illiterate

Computers are funny. Short of perhaps, toilets, we rely on computers more than any other device today. Actually, I take that back. We could live without toilets if we had to. I mean, we all have backyards, right? Computers on the other hand, have become essential, yet almost no one knows how they work. If you look at our population as a whole, only a minute fraction of us actually know why and how computers work. The rest of us just use them.

Compared to my mom, I am an IT professional. And compared to most people over 80 years old, I’m Bill Gates. But that does not mean that I really know anything at all about computers, and chances are, neither do you. You may think you’re computer literate, but are you really? Can you look at the registry and spot an error? Do you really know what BIOS is? You might know what it stands for, but do you really know what it is? Do you have any idea what the company Oracle even does? I didn’t think so. Neither do I.

I would be willing to bet that even the most un-mechanical person knows more about the inner workings of their car than they do about their computer. I happen to know a lot about cars and how they work, but here’s what an auto-related problem would look like if my car expertise was as sub-par as my computer expertise:

Car stops driving correctly all of a sudden with a loud bang.
Pull over on the side of the road.
Turn it off and turn it back on.
Pull back out onto the road.
Same problem.
Pull over again.
Turn it off and turn it back on.
Try to drive again.
Same problem.
Pull over and get out.
Stand right next to the blown and shredded driver’s side front tire, oblivious to what the problem is.
Call someone to come and fix my unknown problem for me. “Car won’t go. Don’t know why.”

The thing that got me thinking about all this was a familiar pop-up message the other day, from the lower right corner of my computer screen.

“Adobe Flash Player needs to be updated. Click here to continue.”

I, of course, click on the message and say, OK. I feel like I have to, because the message didn’t say “would like to update,” it said “needs to be updated.” I take them at their word.

The update begins, which takes up my time. I am forced to answer inane questions like, “Is this the destination folder you would like?” What am I going to say? No? If that is the destination folder that you guys who wrote this software think this update should go, then who am I to argue?

Downloading commences, and the familiar status bar begins to fill from left to right, giving me something to do while I wait. Look, we’re over 50% complete! Yippee!

When it has finished downloading, it immediately begins installation. One hundred percent-filled status bar later, it tells me the installation was successful. Then it shares some other news with me.

Not only did it apparently update the Adobe Flash Player like it said it needed to do, but it also went ahead and installed Google Toolbar on my Microsoft Internet Explorer without asking me if that was OK. It also tried to install Google Chrome without asking, but it failed to do so, because I already had it installed.

Imagine if this computer was my car:

I hop into my Ford Expedition and open up the garage door. I start the car and am about to back down the driveway when I notice a Ford mechanic standing at my window.
He says he needs to change my fan belt right away.
I turn off the engine and let him get to work.
An hour later he knocks on the front door and says he changed the fan belt, and also replaced the rear cargo door on my Expedition with one from a Chevy Suburban. He tried to replace the steering wheel with one from a Suburban, too, but couldn’t get the bolts loose, so he put spinners on my rims instead.

Why is that scenario OK when it comes to computers?

Amazingly, at the end of my Adobe Flash Player update experience, I received this query:

Please pick 1 thru 5 stars to rate your experience with this update. Did this update accomplish everything you wanted it to? Yes/No

Well, let’s see. You told me you needed to update an Adobe product and then you installed two Google products onto my computer. I have no idea why I needed an update to the flash player, if you actually updated it, or even what the flash player does, so I guess I have to answer this way:

I don’t know what the update was supposed to accomplish in the first place. I didn’t want it, and I don’t know if I needed it. If this update miraculously kept my computer from crashing behind the scenes, then my answer to your question is yes.

On the other hand, if the “update” to the flash player was simply to change the name from 4.0 to 4.1 and the real reason for this exercise was that Google paid you a lot of money to install their products on my computer without my permission, then my answer is no.

I wish I knew enough to know if I should be mad or not.

See you soon,


Copyright © 2012 Marc Schmatjen

Have kids? Have grandkids? Need a great gift?
Go to today and get your copy of My Giraffe Makes Me Laugh, Marc’s exciting new children’s book. Get ready for a wild rhyming adventure!