Oh, look: a bird!

Yesterday was Parent-Teacher Conference day in our house. We had a total of six conferences for our three boys, all of them on Zoom. The meetings went fine, but they were sometimes awkward. This is not surprising because teacher conferences are often awkward and Zoom always is.

I don’t know how it is for parents of girls, but parents of boys can be confident the teacher will, at some point in the discussion, say a sentence like: “He’s a smart kid, but he sometimes gets distracted and loses focus on the task at hand.”

Yes. We know. We’re the ones who have to tell him to put on his shoes 18 times every morning.

It would save a lot of time if we could just assume this truth for every boy at every conference. You can still tell us he’s a smart kid if you want, but the rest is just repetitious ceremony at this point.

We had conferences with four of Big Brother’s middle school teachers. It was a tie. Two of them claimed he was quiet and low-key; two said he was too chatty in class. Past experience gave the credibility edge to the chatty votes, but it bore further investigation.

“It depends on if I have friends in the class,” Big Brother explained. “In Language Arts I sit next to a kid who hasn’t said three words all year.”

My poor boy is having his chattiness stunted by introverts.

“Why don’t you use your Superpower for talking in class to bring him out of his shell?” I asked.

Big Brother shook his head. We both knew if we made talking into a purposeful task, he’d get distracted and lose focus.

The two elementary school boys got good reports from their teachers. Big Man’s 2nd grade teacher raved about what a helpful and cooperative boy he was. She has never had to chase the barefooted Boy Wonder with a pair of socks. This boy would go barefoot at the North Pole. You’d think a pair of socks was a straitjacket on his soul. Yes, he’s cooperative, until his toes once again taste the sweet breeze of freedom.

Big Man’s dream: a barefoot school, concerned with what’s going on outside.

Buster is a good 4th grade citizen, but don’t expect him to volunteer any answers unless he’s specifically called upon to do so. No teacher has ever said Buster was chatty in the classroom. They don’t realize it, but he’s chatting up a storm. Inside his own head, he’s making up jokes, singing songs, and doing a few silent thought experiments. He knows the answers; he’s just waiting for the right questions.

I was going to write more on this topic, but I’m still a boy at heart, and if you could talk to my teacher I’m sure you would hear that I sometimes get distracted and lose focus on my task. No word yet on whether I’m a smart kid.

If you keep asking me to lie for you, how are you ever going to learn to do it for yourself?

Buster came home from 4th grade with a job application. This labor shortage must be getting pretty bad, I thought, if they’re recruiting workers in elementary school. On the bright side, if it were an application to work in a restaurant, maybe he’d get a gig as bartender and I could score some free drinks.

It turned out it was only an application for one of the classroom chores listed on the back of the paper. There are classroom tasks for the kids to do, and they must choose which one they’d prefer and apply for it. This strikes me as a creative exercise for the students, but I’m still a little disappointed at the lost dream of free drinks.

Buster was not as appreciative of the exercise as I was. First, he couldn’t decide which job he wanted. He asked me to choose for him, but I refused. I wasn’t going to spend the school year hearing him whine that I had picked out a lousy career for him. Besides, it wasn’t my choice to make.

Take care choosing your 4th grade job; you could be doing it a long time.

At last, he decided to apply to be the class “Substitute.” This is the kid who does the job of any of the more ambitious kids when they call in sick. The choice didn’t exactly scream “initiative” at me, but it was his choice.

Next he had to explain why he wanted this job. This was a huge hurdle for the boy. He fretted and pouted and whined, begging me to answer this for him.

I told him I couldn’t explain his choice. He was the only person who could do that. “Just write down why you chose that job,” I told him.

“I don’t know why,” he whined. “I just picked it randomly.”

“Then write that down,” I replied. I knew he didn’t feel like that was as adequate answer. Also, I had a feeling it wasn’t 100% true.

“I can’t say that!” he protested.

“Is that why you picked it?”

“Kind of.”

“And?”

“And you don’t have to do much.”

Aha! The truth comes out! Imagine a nine-year-old boy wanting to avoid doing chores! Scandalous!

“But I can’t put that down as my reason,” he said. “Can you tell me what to write?”

“No. I can’t. This is where you have to think for yourself. If you don’t want to tell the real reason, you have to think of something else that makes sense.”

“Can you just tell me?” he pleaded.

“No. This is why you go to school. To learn how to think, so you can lie plausibly.”

After more pouting, he settled upon the explanation that he liked to do a variety of jobs, which I thought was as credible as it was disingenuous.

Some people work hard at useful tasks, and some people work hard at excusing themselves from such tasks. Sometimes the excuses end up being more burdensome than the original tasks. I wonder if, in all his application angst, that truth ever occurred to Buster.

Our statistics aren’t feeling well

The boys have been back to in-person schooling for more than a month now, and the world hasn’t ended. To hear them complain about having to change out of their pajamas in the morning, you might think it has, but not really.

They’ve had some kids in their classes test positive for COVID. The affected kids stay out for a week or so, then come back, and life goes on. It seems like a normal school year, except that all the students look like they’re about to rob a train.

With everything going along so near normal, you might be surprised to learn that our schools have suffered multiple outbreaks of COVID. That’s because, up until last week, our state defined an outbreak as two positive cases.

Little did I know that my family has been suffering outbreaks of all sorts of childhood diseases for the past 10 years. I always thought of it as just a couple of kids with the pukes, but according to the state health department, it was an outbreak of vomit. It was probably even newsworthy, had I known to call the papers.

There’s probably a vomit heat map buried within the health department web site, with a big, red circle centered over my house.

“There’s puke everywhere!”

I’m tempted to write a biological thriller, titled Outbreak, in which a total of two people come down with a mysterious illness. I haven’t settled on the catalyst for this spine-tingling plot, but I’m leaning toward the sharing of an expired carton of potato salad.

Now, the state has announced a change in this criterion of an outbreak to three positive cases. I give them credit for reducing the ridiculousness of their definition by a whopping 50%. That kind of swift improvement is difficult to achieve in government work.

The reasons for this change are murky, but the obvious conclusion is that outbreaks have become less politically useful to the state than they used to be. In the US, COVID statistics have become an interstate competition. Perhaps, our outbreak totals began to look awkward in comparison to our competitor states, until someone at the big meeting raised his hand and said, “Maybe we should find a way to have fewer outbreaks.” Give that man a raise.

So now we’ll have fewer school outbreaks. As a parent, that’s a huge relief to me. I’m proud to live in a state that is taking such strong measures to defeat this pandemic.

But as I was saying, the kids are back at school. The younger ones complain, but I think there is a secret part inside them that is happy to be back among their friends, despite the school lunches, which are reported to have taken a turn for the worse.

The older one doesn’t complain. He’s in 8th grade now, and girls are starting to become important. And as every schoolboy (who has spent a year of schooling online) knows, girls are much more intriguing in person than they are on Zoom.

It’s suddenly Smokey all through the house

We didn’t seek a cat.

For the last five years, our only pets have been a pair of aquatic turtles, and except for sharing our home with a pair of turtles, I’ve been fine with that.

I didn’t need a new pet.

The universe thought differently.

The cat belonged to the neighbors. When they couldn’t keep him, the universe, with a little coaxing from our children, sent him across the street to us.

At first, it was easy to accept the will of the universe. The cat preferred to be outdoors. He slept, ate, and conducted all his other animal business outside. This was his main selling point. Imagine having a pet—a mammalian pet at that—without the sheen of hair on the furniture, without the odors, without the mess! My wife imagined it with gusto, and the picture her mind painted was a heavenly masterpiece of hygienic pet ownership.

With all the angels singing above our heads, how could I object?

Alexa, the electronic matron who watches our every move and tells us what to do and which products we should order right now from Amazon.com, told us to name him Smokey. We obediently named him that, because we didn’t want the CIA, or the even more powerful Amazon.com, to put us on the naughty list.

Giving us our order for the day

I don’t know for sure if it were Smokey or the universe that pulled the old bait and switch. Possibly, it was my wife.

It must have been the universe that sent the Yellow Jacket to investigate Smokey’s outdoor food bowl. It was definitely my wife who immediately insisted that Smokey’s food bowl be moved inside the house, where nasty insects couldn’t tamper with his kibble.

And then Smokey came regularly inside the house. The next time I saw him, he was resting on a chair in the back room.

The dominoes had begun to fall. With Taliban-like speed, he conquered the rest of the house. The master bedroom fell to him within days. I found him curled up beside my wife one night. I gently explained to him that it was only a two-person bed. He gave me that indifferent cat blink that says things like: “Yes. And there are already two people in it.”

The goalposts have been moved on me. The enticements about having an outdoor cat are long gone. My wife no longer goes to bed without calling Smokey inside. He has made a habit of sleeping with us, despite the balmy outdoor nights he once claimed to adore.

My wife now puts a cat sheet over the comforter. Smokey begins his naps on this, but in the midst of his air-conditioned sleepy raptures, he often stretches himself onto the bare comforter. You can tell by the sheen of cat hair.

He’s a nice cat though, and he still does his dirty work outside. Everyone’s happy about that, except Alexa, who’s burning up with the knowledge of where we can scoop up great deals on litter accessories.