Are you sicker than a 5th grader?

This school year is off to a fine start. In four weeks, I’ve missed a combined five days of work nursing sick kids. That’s 1.25 days missed per week, and it’s still warm out. I can’t wait to see what January looks like. Maybe I’ll be lucky and get fired by then, so I can open up my in-home hospital ward full time. It’s too bad nurses don’t wear the traditional white uniform with the Red Cross cap anymore. I bet I would rock that outfit. Scrubs do nothing for my figure.

I used to tell my wife I would happily become the at-home parent once all the kids were in school. I should be careful what I joke about. Now that all the kids are in school, I am being sucked into at-home parenthood whether I like it or not. This is not our best case scenario, as we’re a family that needs two incomes more than ever. Furthermore, we will continue to need two incomes until forever.

The snot and puke season normally starts around New Year’s Day and runs through the next New Year’s Eve, but it’s typically heaviest in the winter months. This year, we’ll be heading into those heavy months with a viral momentum. We’re really going to hit the ground puking.

I can’t decide between the casual, shirt sleeve frock (right), or the full, formal dress uniform (left) for my new school day outfit.

Aside from the normal viruses, we have in the past year contracted Hand Foot and Mouth Disease and Impetigo. At first, I suspected the doctor was just making up these names, as I’d not heard of them before they came home from school. But it turns out they’re real diseases kids get in the 21st century.

I grew up in a little ranch house, crowded with seven siblings, in the 1970s. If you had to pick one decade to be especially disease infested, wouldn’t you guess the ‘70s? But I don’t remember any of us getting diseases like this. We got the pukes for a day, then went back to school the next. Or we caught a cold and went to school anyway. Nobody caught anything you had to actually ask a doctor about. Our only spots were chicken pox.

I can’t remember any of us being down with the Flu. We might have had a cow with Hoof and Mouth Disease, but she kept that to herself. We once heard rumors of a kid, two towns over, getting Strep, but we couldn’t verify it since we rarely went more than one town over in our travels. It sounded bad though. Strep seemed like the Black Death to us. Now, my kids celebrate the Vernal Equinox with a case of Strep each year.

Is my memory bad or are kids sick more often now than we were 40+ years ago? If so, why? Is it all the anti-bacterial soap? Should we go back to washing their mouths out with good old fashioned lye soap?

Maybe instead of going to the pharmacy so often, we need to spend more time reaching under cows.

Hi, I’m Grumpy, and this is my brother, Sleepy – and this is my other brother, Sleepy

I know it’s going to be a difficult morning when I go to wake Buster. Buster is the closest kid we have to a morning person. After one week of school, I’ve formed the habit of getting him up first. I start off easy and work my way up to the hard cases.

It’s Tuesday morning, after the long Labor Day weekend. Last week went all right, but now they’ve had a four-day weekend to consider things and realize they dislike school just as much as they ever did. The new year hasn’t changed the fact that “The Man” is still holding them down with classroom rules and homework.

They’ve gone for the gusto over these four days off, trying to relive the entire summer in a long weekend. It’s time to pay the piper.

Buster (2nd grade) doesn’t sit up when I put my hand on his covers. I try to rub him awake. “I can’t,” he groans. “I’m too tired.” I pull the covers off him. He pulls them back on.

I move three feet below to the lower bunk. I don’t have high hopes for waking Big Man. Big Man (Kindergarten) is sleeping upside down. This isn’t a good sign he’s well-rested and ready to face a new day. He does not respond to any of my gentle attempts to rouse him. The lower bunk is like a bear cave. I contort myself to squeeze under the upper bunk without banging my head (which I’ve already done twice in 3.5 days of school). I grab the cub’s toe and drag him out of his hole.

Leaving Big Man in the bathroom to brush his teeth, at least the front ones, I return to Buster. All the tumult in the bunk below has made it impossible for him to get any rest. His spirit is broken and he allows me to carry him to the bathroom.

It’s now time to tackle the biggest Billy goat. At least Big Brother (6th grade) doesn’t have a bunk bed, so I won’t bruise myself waking him. He is larger though, so I have to pull by booth feet to drag him from the bed.

Downstairs, I offer the little boys breakfast. Buster answers all my overtures with grunts. Big Man says he isn’t hungry, but I don’t want to send them off with empty bellies. Big Man finally condescends to accept some bread and butter. I’ve got to get these kids off and get myself to work, so I don’t have time to negotiate him into a heartier meal.

I give Buster and pad and pen. I tell him to write what he wants to eat. He doesn’t know how to sound out grunts, so he writes Nothing. It’s spelled right.

I hate to send him to school like this, but he might learn a lesson from a hungry morning. Plus, he spelled Nothing right. It’s too early in the morning not to accept the victories these kids hand me.

This one’s all ready to go. Good work, Dad!

The best disappointing loss we ever had

In the small frame, this post is about basketball. In the bigger picture, it’s about learning life. I’ll try not to go into the weeds of basketball getting to the larger point.

Our university’s basketball team advanced to the NCAA Final Four this year. We’ve been spoiled by going to the Final Four eight times in the past 20 years. However, our team has brought home the National Championship only once in those eight trips. This means we’ve had seven instances of build-up and high hopes, followed by bitter disappointment.

Our last Final Four was four years ago, when Big Brother was six years old. He was just becoming conscious of the game called basketball, and wasn’t interested in it as television viewing. The words “Final Four” meant nothing to him.

Since then, he began playing organized basketball. This past winter, his 5th grade team had a challenging season, but turned their fortunes around at the end by winning their league tournament. Not only did Big Brother learn how much effort and determination it took to win such a tournament, it stirred his interest in our university’s team.

He began watching the NCAA tournament games with increased interest. For me, this was a long-awaited perk of fatherhood: watching sports with a child who cared about the game.

It’s a double-edged perk.

Even in 5th grade, it takes long hours of practice.

On Saturday, we watched the National Semi-final together. The game went back and forth, until the opposing team pulled ahead. Then our team came back and got within one point, but the momentum switched again and the other team held on to win.

It was another case of high hopes leading to disappointment. I’d been there before, but it was a new experience for Big Brother. The final buzzer left him lying face down on the couch. I rolled him over to find tears in his eyes.

At that moment I felt proud, which seems a little odd, but I was glad he could develop a passion for something beyond his own person. I also felt a tinge of guilt at my role in turning him into a sports fan. Sports leads to disappointment more often than not. Even the good seasons mostly end with a loss. Nobody likes to see their children disappointed.

But we have to see them disappointed. The character moments are born of disappointment. I talked to Big Brother about keeping perspective. There are so many things in his life, more important than basketball, to be happy about. We talked about disappointment, and how you have to move past it, get on with life, and be ready for what comes your way next.

I didn’t cheer him up much that night. He’ll have to see it for himself. Life is back to normal, with more pressing things that need attention (e.g. school assignments). If my words can just hang out in the background until the next disappointment life hands him, perhaps they can help him see it’s probably not the end of the world.

I would have preferred a victory, but as far as disappointing losses go, this one may have been the most useful.

Thumbs up for thumbs out

His preschool classmates know him as a mild-mannered boy. They would describe our Big Man as a happy, friendly kid. They would be shocked to discover he has a demon.

Big Man’s demon descends upon him when he is tired or worried, when the stresses of a four-year-old assail him. His demon presents itself through the opposable digit on his left hand. Big Man has an addiction. It resides in his thumb, which he can’t keep out of his mouth in time of stress.

As an infant, Big Man used the combination of thumb-sucking and hair-twirling to earn renown as our best self-soother. To this day, he recovers quickest from upset and is far less likely than his older brothers to become a career criminal out of pure stubbornness or chronic opposition to authority.

We haven’t made concerted attempts to end the thumb-sucking before because we wanted to let him work it out by himself. Besides, he looks so relaxed and contented with his thumb in his mouth, I’m tempted to take up the habit myself. I always carry a couple thumbs with me; if I could turn just one of them into an instant Chill Pill, the work day would pass much more pleasantly.

But thumb-sucking is not a good look for Kindergarten, which is only a handful of months away. Kids can be cruel about perceived babyish habits. Even though his brothers have burned the midnight oil attempting to harden him to the mockery cast at the thumb-sucker, it’s getting time for an intervention.

Yes, it’s a tasty treat, but it’s also very useful for making gestures.

Mommy offered him a reward if he didn’t suck his thumb for a whole day. He was more than equal to the task through the daylight hours. Even his hawking brothers couldn’t catch him with his thumb in his mouth.

Everything difficult to endure is more difficult to endure at night. You know this if you’ve ever listened to the Blues or endured something difficult past sundown. At bedtime, Big Man asked me, “Did Mommy say I couldn’t have my thumb at going-to-sleep time?”

Mommy was out, and I didn’t know the details of their contract, but I’m always wary of backsliding. “I think she doesn’t want you to use your thumb at all,” I told him.

His eyes fell. Tears came. Going to sleep without that calming thumb was the ultimate challenge. “I don’t know how to do it!” he cried.

I hugged him and gave him encouragement. “Put your hands under your pillow,” I advised. He got angry. “I told you I don’t know how to do it!”

He went through all the stages of grief and a good many symptoms of withdrawal before I got him quiet in the bed.

He woke up his old, happy self in the morning. I don’t know if he had to take a quick dose of thumb to fall asleep. It didn’t matter. His bedtime tears told us he was giving it his best shot, and that’s all we needed to know.