Give it the old middle school try

There’s an old American phrase: “Give it the old college try.” If you are not American and old, you may not have heard it. To give it the old college try means to lend a task your best effort, even if you believe the challenge may go beyond your abilities.

Saturday morning, we woke up to six inches of new fallen snow. I went out to shovel. Buster was planning on coming out to help, but when I told him he had to wear his snow pants, he decided he’d rather stay inside and whine about how much he hated wearing snow pants.

The snow was wet and heavy – the kind they refer to as Heart Attack Snow, because it takes down so many older gentlemen like me through overexertion. I didn’t experience any coronary events, but it was slow going through the heavy snow.

When I was half way through our driveway, Big Brother came outside, wearing snow pants and not whining about it, which made him my favorite kid for the moment. I asked him to grab a shovel and begin on the neighbor’s driveway. Our neighbor does helpful things for us, and I’m trying to teach the boys to be neighborly.

Big Brother went to work on the neighbor’s driveway and kept up a good pace for all of three minutes. Then he came back, complaining of tightness in his shoulders. I told him that’s what hard work feels like and if he did it a little more often the tightness wouldn’t come around so quickly.

I said he could take a break, which he understood to mean he should go inside. He did reassure me that he might come back out after a while.

A good day’s work – when you are 11 and disinterested in work.

There was no sign of him when I finished our driveway and sidewalks. I walked to the neighbor’s driveway to see what Big Brother had accomplished before his shoulders gave out on him. He’d cleared a fine-looking rectangle with sharp right angles. His work was an ode to geometry – a very small ode. Seeing the extent of his industry inspired me to think of the old college try.

I don’t know why it made me think of the old college try, because there was no evidence of it here. I’m calling what he had given “the old middle school try.” The old middle school try is what happens when your dad asks you to do something and it turns out to be harder than you thought, so you come up with excuses to give up after a few minutes.

I couldn’t leave the driveway in that condition, so I finished shoveling the snow. Thanks to the old middle school try, nearly 10% of it was already done for me. By the time I was finished, my shoulders and forearms were sore. It’s right that I should have more sore spots than the kid, since I’ve had the benefit of college and he’s only been to middle school.

 

Drive-through chaos

When I was childless, I dreaded getting stuck behind a minivan in a fast food drive-through. It took fast right out of the equation. It still does. Now I am the slug driving the minivan. I still hate the combination of minivans and drive-throughs.

It’s better to be stuck behind the minivan than stuck in it. You stew quietly in your own impatience and breath oaths at the roadblock ahead of you. Inside the minivan, it’s nobody’s fault but yours and your fertile loins’ that you can’t make any progress. Thanks to your fertile loins, there is no quiet surrounding your impatience.

None of my boys can tolerate a fast-food burger the way it comes. It must be altered to suit their whims. Just ketchup; just ketchup and mustard; just ketchup, but add bacon. And those little, minced onions you don’t even notice? My kids notice them. Every kid notices every minute onion fiber.

Then, factor in chicken strips.

Kids like chicken strips almost as much as they like burgers, sometimes more – sometimes exactly equally as much. Chicken strips are a logistical nightmare. You can never get them in the quantity you need, especially when dividing them up among children who need a taste of chicken to wash down their burgers. Chicken strips are a wedge to intra-minivan cohesion whose only rival for spreading chaos is fries.

When they said French Fries could contribute to a heart attack, I thought they meant after you ate them.

I understand not liking a pickle on your burger, and I would be fine with all the special orders if those in the back would condescend to voicing their desires before we are stopped at the speaker. Nobody can focus on what they’d like to eat while the wheels are turning. Only when the little voice from behind the pin-holed metal asks for our order, does the chorus of answers spew forth. It’s an episode of Family Feud, except with more feud.

After the order is finally given, our strife-inspired pokiness continues. At the pickup window there is more gnashing of teeth. Enter the fries tumult:

Child 1: You didn’t get me any fries!

Dad: You didn’t order fries.

Child 1: Yeah! Because you didn’t ask me if I wanted fries!

Dad: You heard other people ordering fries. Why didn’t you say something then?

Child 1: Because you never asked me if I wanted fries.

Child 2: I didn’t get fries either!

Dad: You said you didn’t want fries.

Child 2: But now I do!

Mom: Order them fries before we drive away.

Dad: No! This isn’t the ordering window. Besides, they need to learn to order what they want.

Mom: [Getting that Carol Burnett twitch in her eye] Just order them fries so I don’t have to hear the whining all night!

“Order. Them. Fries.” (Image: CBS Television)

Dad: [Taking deep breaths and wondering how many families are wrecked by French Fries.] Excuse me. Could we get two more orders of fries?

Child 3: There’s a piece of onion on my burger. Can you get me a new one?

 

I’m sorry, young, single people waiting behind the minivan. Enjoy your quiet fuming while you can.

 

 

The burden of helpful children

If you live among deciduous trees, you know dry leaves are much easier to clean up than wet leaves are. If you live with an 11-year-old, you know this is the sort of fact he must learn the hard way.

There are many, many things an 11-year-old has not learned yet. He has learned it’s not nearly as fun to help Dad with yard work as it seems like it should be. Hence, he doesn’t offer to help as much as he did when he was young and callow about such things.

Occasionally, Big Brother will be overcome with the nostalgic temptation to help out. If he were older and better disciplined, he might be strong enough to overcome this temptation. But he’s not older, so everyone will pay the price of his weakness.

During the prime season to clear leaves from our lawn, it rained, and rained some more. Then we got a snow storm. Most November snow melts within a day or two. This snow covered the ground for a week.

Even after the snow melted, the nights were cold, leaving a thick layer of frost on everything. If the sun warmed the day, this frost melted into another soaking for our lawn of leaves.

The back yard leaves, undisturbed by overzealous children, wait for the unlikely combination of dry weather and a weekend.

Saturday morning there was an ample frost. When I went out to clean the gutters and found the leaves collected there were frozen in place, I determined it was not the right time to mess around with the leaves on the ground. Big Brother didn’t get the memo.

While I found other chores, Big Brother came outside and decided it was his morning to be helpful. He grabbed a rake an made a pile of wet leaves on the front lawn.

When it gets to be late November, even thinly spread leaves need a little luck to dry. A pile of leaves is nature’s permanent wet sock. This was the wet sock Big Brother saddled us with, only it was in the middle of our front lawn, so we couldn’t let it be permanent.

There were two options: spread the leaves back out over the lawn like some ass-backward fools, or go ahead and bag the soggy mess. We chose to charge ahead, though I think Big Brother would have preferred a plan of action that involved going inside and letting the pile shift for itself.

It took a lot longer to clean up that pile than it should have, with those wet clumps clogging up my leaf vacuum every 30 seconds or so, but it gave me a good chance to teach Big Brother a few lessons. Aside from the difference between wet leaves and dry leaves, he learned that when you start a job, you don’t leave it half done because it’s taking longer than you expected.

Probably, the lesson he took nearest to heart was to put up a better fight against that rare and unexplainable impulse to make himself helpful to Dad.

When you wish upon a chicken bone

A couple of Sundays ago we smoked a whole chicken. After all the meat was cut off, I showed Buster and Big Man the wishbone. I explained that if two people tugged at the wishbone, the person who got the bigger piece when it broke could make a wish. Buster was lukewarm to this chicken bone voodoo, but Big Man was intrigued.

Big Man wanted to give the wishbone a good yank right then, but I insisted we wait a day until it dried out. I put it behind the sink to dry and Big Man only asked three more times that night if it were ready to break.

The next morning, before school, he asked me again. He came home from school asking about the wishbone. It was dry by then so I let him pull it with me. Using all the structural physics he has learned up to Kindergarten, he deftly twisted his end upward so the greater stress applied to my side. My end broke, leaving him in possession of the larger part, and the right to a wish.

Winner! Winner! A day after the chicken dinner!

“I wish for a tower of candy!” he announced without hesitation.

I had hardly disposed of my losing sliver of bone before he began asking when his candy would appear.

“I don’t know,” I told him. “That’s the thing about wishes; sometimes they come true and sometimes they don’t.”

He furrowed his brow. “What good is a wish if it doesn’t come true?”

“If all wishes came true, you could have everything you ever wanted,” replied the man without a handy tower of candy. “And we know that isn’t the way it goes, don’t we?”

Reluctantly, “Yes.”

“We’ll just have to see if this wish comes true. But you have to be patient. Even wishes that come true can take a long time.”

He inquired about his tower of candy for a few days, then moved on to other concerns. I almost forgot about too, once he quit reminding me every 20 minutes.

At the store, some days later, I recalled the wish. For about $5 and a few pieces of tape, a modest tower of candy was assembled and left where he would find it.

Not quite the Swiss Colony tower of chocolate, but for the price of a broken chicken bone, not bad.

I expected him to be disappointed at its size. I imagined him envisioning a tower taller than himself. He said not a single word of complaint. He was happy to have the candy, but he was thrilled that his wish had come true.

It wasn’t about candy; it was about magic.

I made sure to remind him that although this wish came true, it doesn’t happen all the time. Soon enough he will be wishing for a car, and I can’t patch that together with tape.

Seeing his wish come true was a precious moment, but it didn’t stop us from switching to smoked pork ribs. We need to steer clear of animals with wishbones before I’m overcome by wishes.