Engage with Grace – Things to Be Grateful For This Thanksgiving

For three years running now, many of us bloggers have participated in what we’ve called a “blog rally” to promote Engage With Grace [www.engagewithgrace.org] – a movement aimed at making sure all of us understand, communicate, and have honored our end-of-life wishes.

The rally is timed to coincide with a weekend when most of us are with the very people with whom we should be having these unbelievably important conversations – our closest friends and family.

The One Slide

At the heart of Engage With Grace are five questions designed to get the conversation about end-of-life started. We’ve included them at the end of this post.  They’re not easy questions, but they are important – and believe it or not, most people find they actually enjoy discussing their answers with loved ones.  The key is having the conversation before it’s too late.

This past year has done so much to support our mission to get more and more people talking about their end-of-life wishes. We’ve heard stories with happy endings … and stories with endings that could’ve (and should’ve) been better. We’ve stared down political opposition.  We’ve supported each other’s efforts.  And we’ve helped make this a topic of national importance.

So in the spirit of the upcoming Thanksgiving weekend, we’d like to highlight some things for which we’re grateful.

Thank you to Atul Gawande for writing such a fiercely intelligent and compelling piece on “letting go” [http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2010/08/02/100802fa_fact_gawande]– it is a work of art, and a must read.

Thank you to whomever perpetuated the myth of “death panels” for putting a fine point on all the things we don’t stand for, and in the process,  shining a light on the right we all have to live our lives with intent – right through to the end.

Thank you to TEDMED [http://www.thehealthcareblog.com/the_health_care_blog/2010/10/engage-with-grace.html] for letting us share our story and our vision.

And of course, thank you to everyone who has taken this topic so seriously, and to all who have  done so much to spread the word, including sharing The One Slide.


The Dog

Since I started this blog back in December, I haven’t written much about our dog.  Seems to me like a very glaring omission, no?  I mean, he is a member of our family.  Really.  Keep reading.

Our dog is named Lucky.  Actually, his name is Lucky Ace, because apparently dogs have to have two names when they are registered.

Our Dog Lucky

He’s a cockapoo, which means his mom is a cocker spaniel and his dad is a poodle.  He’s the color of a cocker spaniel, but three feet long and about a foot off the ground.  He had his tail removed as a puppy (common with cockapoos), so his butt shakes when he is happy.

When we decided to get a dog five years ago, I was the last holdout.  I really wasn’t sure that I wanted a smelly, drooly “thing” running around our house, chewing up things and creating havoc.  Now I can’t imagine being without him.  In fact, a lot is going on that I wouldn’t have imagined and some that may make you say “ewwwwww:”

  • We refer to ourselves as Lucky’s mom, dad, brother and sister.
  • Every year, Lucky is on our holiday cards.
  • Every year, each of us receives a birthday card from Lucky.  (Well, they aren’t really from Lucky.  Oh.  You figured that out.)
  • Every year, we celebrate Lucky’s birthday, sometimes with neighborhood dogs as guests.
  • Lucky is a licker.  He loves to lick our faces incessantly and will lick sweat as well after we work out.  (Yes – he licks that too.  Get your mind out of the gutter.)
  • Lucky sleeps at the end of our bed every night without fail.  No crate.

Lucky is awfully lazy.  He barks at the door, even when he knows who is there.  Lucky is sometimes too licky, not knowing when to stop, and sometimes he limits my space on the bed, by plopping himself down in the right/wrong spot.

Lucky is a mama’s boy, and follows Mrs. Spidey around when she’s home.  In fact, often he pays no attention to anyone until Mrs. Spidey comes home.

Lucky stands by my son’s chair at most meals, knowing that is the place from which food is most likely to fall.  He loves fish, eggs, and popcorn.

So now you know about the fifth member of the Spidey family.  I never thought I would admit that I have a dog as a  “son,” but here I am.  I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Taking Stock of Life on My Birthday

A few years back, I called my Dad (who will be 69 in December) on his birthday.  I asked him if he was having a good day.  He responded, more philosophically than normal, “Any day that your feet hit the floor is a good day.”

Even though no one, no matter how old, ever wants to admit that their parents are right about anything, I’ll grant my Dad this one.  His thought helps to put the difficulties of everyday life into perspective.  Since then, I have responded with his answer when people ask me how my day is going.

As I turn 44 today, as I do on each birthday, I’m taking stock of my life as it stands today.  I passed my Dad’s hurdle at 4:45am this morning when I got out of bed to hit the treadmill.  That makes today a good day.

So – let’s start with positives:   Loving wife.  Two great kids.  Everyone is healthy.  Best dog ever.  A good job.  Money in the bank.  Saving for college (a ways to go!).  Saving for retirement (more than a ways to go!).  Awesome vacations and global travel.  A home theater to watch my Capitals, Yankees and Redskins (love that DirecTV!).

On the downside:  Way too much stress at work that has, from time to time, bled into our home.  Can’t stop biting my nails.  Need to lose 10 to 20 pounds.  Spend too much money than I would like, but can’t seem to stop.  House is 8 years old, and things are beginning to go.  Wish I could see my sisters and parents and nieces and nephews more often.  Wish I was more involved in some community activities.  Wish I could help my wife out more at home.  Wish I could cook like the men and women on Top Chef.

That was easy and leads to an easy conclusion:  I think I’ll take my life.  Doing this puts everything into clear perspective.  The little picture may be dire from time to time, but the big picture is fantastic.

I can only hope the next 56 years are just as good.  And by the way, 56 more years is just a minimum, not a maximum.

A Parent’s Review of Halo: Reach

One week ago, Microsoft released its sixth game in the Halo series, Halo: Reach.  This game is a prequel to the previous five Halo games.  The gist of Halo: Reach, according to my 15-year-old son, is that humans 500 years in the future battle a band of various alien species on Reach for control of “relics,” which are really weapons.  If you want to learn more about the plot, Wikipedia appears to have a good summary.

I Give It 9 out of 10 on the Gaming Family Impact Scale

From a parent’s perspective, I give Halo: Reach a strong 9 out of 10 on our Family Impact Scale, with 10 being the highest impact.

I base my rating not on graphics or story or game play.  You can get ratings based on those factors from GameSpot, from IGN, from PlanetXBox360 and many, many other locations.

I base my rating on a number of other factors:

  • Number of empty soda cans and water bottles left in our basement after game play and number of repeat requests to throw them away = 7 out of 10.
  • Pairs of socks left stranded in the basement after game play and number of repeat requests to remove them = 10 out of 10.
  • Level of protest game play is limited for child’s homework, piano practice, drum practice, etc. = 9 out of 10.
  • Ability of child to lie about homework or about finishing homework in order to play = 9 out of 10.
  • Impact of parents threatening a punishment that includes no game play = 9 out of 10.
  • Ability of child to play in the middle of the annual Yom Kippur fast = 10 out of 10.
  • Length of time multiple teenage boys stand over parent wondering when parent will give up the television so they can play = 7 out of 10.
  • Comfort level that when child says he’s “playing” the game, he really is = 10 out of 10.

In each of these instances, Halo: Reach has achieved levels at or higher than nearly all previous games.  The Call of Duty series games have come close, but didn’t have the same impact.

Mrs. Spidey and I thought taking away the iPhone was the best possible punishment until last Tuesday, when Halo: Reach came into our lives.  For that, I thank Microsoft and stand by my 9 out of 10 rating on the Family Impact Scale.

Kids – I think you should go buy it.

Parents – I think you should be prepared.

No Electronics for You!

As a parent of a 15-year-old and a 12-year-old, I can attest to the validity of an article in The Washington Post yesterday about new punishment techniques.

Donna St. George’s article is headlined “A new-age twist on the age-old parenting technique of grounding.”  She talks about a range of punishments from no cell phone, to no Facebook, to no Xbox.  She cites a study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project that says 62% of parents have taken away their child’s cell phone as punishment.  Mrs. Spidey and I are part of the 62%.

In our household, we have an escalating scale of punishments related to electronics.  Typically, these are doled out due to lack of focus on schoolwork.  Sometimes, however, as St. George reveals in one anecdote in the article, we punish for “lapse in good judgment.”  The scale is roughly as follows:

The Ultimate Punishment

  • No computer for the rest of the day
  • No computer or television for the rest of the day
  • No electronics for the rest of the day
  • No electronics for an extended period
  • Changing the password log-in on the computer
  • Removal and hiding of the power cords to the computer, Xbox, television
  • Taking away the iPod and/or phone

Note the progression.  When banning isn’t enough, parents have to prevent children from accessing electronics, whether by changing passwords or taking the power cords.

The worst, however, is taking away a child’s music and telephone.  This means no texting, no walking around with headphones in, and no mobile Facebook.  In sum, this means social isolation, which is really the intent of grounding.

Unfortunately, taking away a child’s phone is also a punishment to the parents.  When children don’t have a phone, they can’t call to be picked up, and they generally can’t be found.

As the article describes, old-fashioned grounding just doesn’t work any more.  To make children feel the impact of their educational failures or “lapses in good judgment,” parents have to hit children where it hurts – smack in the middle of their electronics.

Teaching Our Son to Drive – Part One

In mid-August, our 15-year-old son got his learner’s permit.  So, between then and next July, it is Mrs. Spidey’s and my responsibility to teach him drive.

I remembered my brave mother, who took me for my license on my birthday and, that very day, allowed me to drive to school.  So, wanting to be similarly brave, we took him out to practice without hesitation within days of getting his permit.  Here’s what we’ve learned so far:

  1. Pressing the imaginary brake in the passenger’s seat doesn’t slow the car down.
  2. It is necessary to repeat instructions not once, not twice, but three times – your voice increasing in volume each time.
  3. The radio is a massive distraction, especially when you can read the songs in the windshield through GMC’s “heads-up display.”

To be fair, our son has done well in the amount of time he’s been behind the wheel.  I think that the difficulties he’s facing are normal for someone driving for the first time.  The hardest thing is understanding how hard or soft he needs to push on the brake or the gas to achieve the desired result.  This means he accelerates too slow and stops too slow.  I reference point #2 above.  If there was a tape of discussion in the car, it would show my tendency to say “Stop.  Stop!!  STOP!!!” with some regularity.

He has tended to put himself and not the car in the middle of the lane, resulting in some near misses with the mailboxes in our neighborhood.  He has tended to accelerate into turns, despite us reminding him to decelerate into turns and accelerate out of them.  He also doesn’t turn the wheel until the last minute on turns.  All of this, of course, is correctable.

For me, the most humorous moment was when I noticed that the radio station was changing very fast.  In our car, the driver can change the station on the steering wheel.  So, I figured that our son accidentally had his hand on the button.  I asked, “Did you know you are changing the radio station?”  He said, “Yes, I’m trying to find something good.”  ARGGGGH.  “Focus on driving!!” I said with some emphasis.  Instead of focusing on the road and other cars, he was reading the songs on a display we have in the windshield which should be used as a speedometer.

Mrs. Spidey had the pleasure of letting our son drive with her parents in the back seat.  Do I need to say more?  “I didn’t sign up for this,” said my father-in-law.  “You wanted a ride,” said my wife.

More to come on a semi-regular basis here.  It’s already an experience and no doubt will continue to be so.

Dropping Me Off at College 26 Years Ago

In life we all have moments that we’d like to take back and do over.

I’m not thinking about redoing a missed free throw at the end of a basketball game or retaking a test you should have aced.  I’m thinking about doing over a moment where you made a poor decision.  Maybe you yelled at someone when a softer approach would do.  Maybe you were late to an event where someone counted on you to attend.  Maybe you took things too fast or too slow on a date, ending a relationship that could have been something.

This week, as a few of my colleagues left to drive their children to college to begin their freshman year, I was reminded of a moment in my life I’d like to take back.  It occurred just about 26 years ago, give or take a few weeks.

Now that I have a 15-year-old, I can see this drop-off day coming for me.  Three years from now, God willing, Mrs. Spidey and I will be delivering our oldest to his first year of college.  I now know something I didn’t know back in 1984, when my parents took me to Williams College for my freshman year.

I now know that this delivery or visit or drop-off or whatever you call it is more significant for the parents, more emotional for the parents, more trying for the parents that it is for the child.

My Freshman Dorm at Williams. My room is first floor, 4th window from the far right.

Back in 1984, I didn’t realize that, and I’d like a do-over.  I’d like a do-over, because after my parents and I found my dorm room in the freshman quad, after we unloaded the car, after we picked up my linens (those were the days!), I basically pushed my parents back into the car to go home.  My mother wanted to help me set up my room.  She wanted to help me make my bed.  I assume, because I am her oldest and was the first going away to college, that she wanted to make sure that I was comfortable and had what I needed.  Unfortunately, I all but yelled at her to stop making the bed.  I wanted to do it myself and move on with my life.

I’m not going to claim I know exactly what happened after that, but I’m sure it involved my parents leaving and me moving on with my life.  I now know that it also involved my parents moving on with their life, but from a much different perspective.

There’s no preachy ending to this post, no admonishment to the incoming frosh and no words of preparation for their parents.  This is just a reflection on a moment 26 years ago for which I want a do-over and a note to myself on how to prepare for August 2013, when I’ll be the one my oldest dropping-off.

First Day of School – A Tale of Two Kids

Today is the first day of the 2010-2011 school year for my kids.  Back when I was their age, we didn’t start school until the Tuesday after Labor Day.  Then again, we didn’t get out until the middle of June.  My kids are normally done just before or just after Memorial Day.

Although both believe that summer vacation is entirely too short, my children took very different approaches as the first day of school neared.

One child got on Facebook to compare schedules with friends to see who is in which classes.  The other didn’t look at their schedule in detail until just yesterday and only grudgingly admitted knowing a few people who were in the same classes.

One child did extensive shopping with my wife to find the perfect backpack and the perfect school supplies.  The other was dragged to look for a backpack and then poked through a pile of school supplies on the kitchen counter before pronouncing that what was needed was there.

One child packed their backpack early yesterday evening without being asked to make sure they had everything ready to go.  The other child was prompted to pack their backpack after 10:00pm last night, gave us a blank stare, and then threw a few things in.

One child tried on multiple first-day-of-school outfits last night, asking both me and my wife which looked better, only to change to a different outfit this morning.  The other didn’t consider what to wear until they got out of the shower and then grabbed whatever was clean (or at least what looked clean to us).

One child popped out of bed this morning, got dressed early and waited for the bus.  The other got up on time but then lay down on the couch to get as much sleep as possible until the last possible minute they could leave for marching band practice.

One child is starting 7th grade.  The other is starting 10th grade.

One child is a girl, and the other child is a boy.

Both are excellent students and get good grades with many outside-of-school activities.  This stereotypical (yet true!) tale of two kids proves there is more than one way to get the same results.

Best wishes to parents and students for a successful school year.

Welcome Home, Kids. See You Later.

Last Friday, my two kids came back from four weeks at sleep-away camp.  We picked them up around lunch time, went out for a quick bite at Moe’s, and then headed home.  It was probably around 2:00pm when we got back to the house.

By 2:30pm, the house was back to its pre-camp rhythms.  Both kids were on Facebook.  My son was simultaneously configuring iTunes to sync up his iPhone for the first time in a month.  Text messages were flying back and forth between them and their friends, and plans were being made for that evening.  Indeed, despite just a few hours sleep the night before, my son went out with his friends to see The Other Guys that night.

In reality, as other parents know, the Facebook and the texting started long before they got home.  My son received his iPhone back as the bus left camp to return to St. Louis and had been on Facebook ever since.  My daughter got her phone back at the bus, courtesy of my wife.  There had been little conversation with the kids during the ride from Moe’s to home, as their heads were buried in their phones.

Common Scene at Our House. But That's O.K.

(The only thing that seemed odd to me is that they were texting and communicating on Facebook with the very kids they were with the previous four weeks.  There are some things I won’t understand as a parent.)

Our family had quickly settled right back to where we were on July 11, the night before the kids left for camp.  It’s as if all was right back in place.  That meant that we had to say goodbye to our kids once again.

We say goodbye as they go off with their friends.  We say goodbye as their friends come over to our house, and they huddle in the basement playing video games (boys) or in the bathroom trying out make-up (girls).  We say goodbye as they head off to marching band practice, to ice hockey practice and to cheerleading practice, all of which have started before classes.  Next week, we will say goodbye as they head to school, and we head to work.

As parents, we want to say goodbye.  We know that being online, participating in activities and socializing are what being 12 and being 15 is about.  We know that family activities will happen more rarely as time goes on.  We know we need to plan those activities and family dinners well in advance.

So, as we move towards the start of another school year our kids are back, and they are gone.  Life is as it should be.

Lamenting the Disappearance of Kids’ Summer Vacation

Am I the only one, or has everyone else noticed that many kids’ summer vacations have disappeared?

I’m not referring to the trimester system that lacks a summer vacation at all.  I’m referring to the fact that between academics and extra-curricular activities occurring year-round, kids no longer get any time off.  And, if they do take time-off, they can be punished.

I got to thinking about this while reading about the conflict between the Washington Redskins and defensive lineman Albert Haynesworth, the Redskins’ highest-paid player.  Haynesworth is not allowed to take part in team training camp practices until he passes a fitness test.  He must pass the fitness test because he did not participate in the Redskins’ off-season conditioning program.   He was, in fact, the only Redskin that did not participate in this program.  Interestingly, the program is not mandatory; it’s voluntary.  Nonetheless Haynesworth is being singled out for not attending.

Haynesworth’s plight (for which I have no sympathy as he pocketed a $21 million bonus check on April 1) is, unfortunately, not dissimilar from situations encountered by school age kids today.  The difference is that Haynesworth is paid to focus on football year-round.  Kids in school are not paid, but can still suffer similar consequences if they decide not to participate in off-season activities.

It used to be that summer school was populated by those that failed courses in the prior year.  It used to be that the football team would start practicing a few weeks before school started, and the marching band would go to band camp for a week in August.  It used to be that only outstanding athletes would play their sports year-round.  Not any more.

And it’s a shame.

Instead of going to summer camp or hanging at the pool or getting a job, more and more kids are giving up their vacations to get ahead in academics or get ahead in sports.  Many times, like Haynesworth, they seem to have a choice, but really don’t.

If Only Today's Kids Experienced What Calvin Did

In our school district, if students want to take advanced electives junior and senior year to have on their resumé for college applications, they must first take the intro courses.  To find room for the intro courses, they have to complete required courses.  When do they complete those required courses?  In summer school.  If they don’t do this and don’t take more advanced courses, they’ve reduced their chances of getting into top schools.

The competitiveness and complexity of sports have driven many schools to have summer practices or camps.  Like the Redskins, these camps are “voluntary.”  Like the Redskins, players can be “punished” for not attending, in that they’ll be well behind the rest of the team.  Unlike the Redskins, however, many of these practices or camps charge a fee to attend because they are off-season.  What a double-whammy for kids and parents!

Kids and parents are then forced to make difficult choices.

What are the implications for not attending those mandatory voluntary hockey practices in July to go on a family vacation to celebrate your grandparents’ 50th wedding anniversary?  Will the player fall behind, get demoted to JV, or get banished from the team entirely?

What if your daughter skips the 2nd week of cheerleading practice to attend summer camp with the same girls she has for the past 8 summers?  Will the coach really kick her off the squad?

I understand the coaches’ desire to win.  I understand, therefore, why varsity basketball teams play in summer leagues together, why cheerleading teams have eight-hour choreography sessions in mid-July, and why football teams are on the field all summer.  It’s a zero-sum game.  Once one team does it, they all do.

I also know times are different.  Back in the day, all pro athletes has off-season jobs.  Yogi Berra was once the head waiter at an Italian restaurant here in St. Louis.  Mickey Mantle spent a summer in the mines near his home of Commerce, Oklahoma.  Football star Jim Brown was once a marketing rep for Pepsi.  Now, athletes are paid to focus on their sport all year.

Of course, kids are not paid to focus on their sport or on academics all year.  In fact, they aren’t paid at all.

Let’s give them their summer vacations back and let them enjoy the peaceful summers like we did.  They’ll join the rat race soon enough.  Why push them there now?