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.

It’s a training issue

Yesterday morning, I was working remotely from the back room of our house. Big Man, who should have been in virtual school by then, came in. “Mama needs more training on how to be a mom,” he told me.

My eyes widened at this strange, unsolicited assessment. “Oh, does she?”

“Yes. Buster is in school, but he’s got the TV on, and Mama isn’t even shutting it off.”

His mother was working from a different part of the house, where she could hardly know about the status of the TV.

I told him to use his energy to go shut the TV off and get back to school, instead of ratting out family members. I assume he carried out my instructions. My training on how to be a dad didn’t cover follow-up.

Mom isn’t the only one with training issues. My job has changed drastically in the past year. I’ve had to learn an entirely new, complex, and vastly more bureaucratic financial system at a time when all the training session were canceled due to Covid. Consequently, I’ve had to make some educated, and even more uneducated, guesses. A lot of time gets eaten up fixing mistakes.

I’ve also been trying to learn to be a baseball coach for 7th and 8th graders. It’s probably not the best year to begin a baseball coaching career. Our state finds it expedient to blame kids for Covid outbreaks this year. You wouldn’t want to blame people who can vote, after all. New, random rules are issued periodically that either pause youth sports outright or make it difficult to keep sports going. Even non-contact, outdoor sports like baseball are hindered by these edicts. It seems as if our state is serious about protecting our children from fresh air and Vitamin D.

It’s remarkable how much non-baseball information I’ve had to process to coach baseball. Occasionally there’s time left to teach the game.

No one in the world social distances like a bored right fielder.

Mom and Dad aren’t the only ones facing training issues these days. Big Brother’s class has stumbled into algebra. He comes to me regularly for help with math homework. After one toilsome tutoring session he asked the inevitable question: “Will I ever use this in real life?”

“You’d be surprised,” I answered. “Every so often, I use it at work to help solve a problem it would otherwise take much longer to solve.”

“I don’t think I’ll have the same kind of job as you,” he said. “Will I use it for anything else?”

“Lots of times,” I assured him. “Mostly when your kids come to you for help on their math homework.”

“Oh,” he said. I think that decided him never to have children.

So, if you’ve wondered why I haven’t posted in months (I hope you’ve got better things to wonder about), it’s a training issue. And I haven’t even mentioned the updated WordPress editor yet.