What happens in Tennessee stays in the photo available in the gift shop at the end of the tour

Time flies when you’re not blogging. Last I checked, it was Christmastime, and now spring break has come and gone.

For spring break we piled into the minivan and headed south. We’d heard rumors of warmer weather and interesting attractions in Tennessee, and since it was within our spur-of-the-moment traveling range, why not?

Well, traffic for one thing. Every school district north of Kentucky had spring break the same week. I’ve never been in so many traffic jams in open country. I felt sorry for the families continuing to Florida during this temporary Midwestern diaspora.

Knoxville was a trip down a 30-year-old memory lane to the one semester I spent at the University of Tennessee before I became a graduate school dropout. UT does not seem to have suffered from our breakup. It remembered less of me than I did of it.

In Chattanooga, we played all over Lookout Mountain, taking the Incline Railway trolley up and down, then crisscrossing the mountain by car. We strayed momentarily into Georgia. Buster and Big Man had never been to Georgia, and since they didn’t leave the car, we debated if it counted. They never actually set foot there, but they did break the plane of Georgia, which counts in football. Since Georgia is a big football state, we’re counting it.

Pigeon Forge is an Appalachian Vegas, if you replace the casinos with moonshine and go-carts. We arrived with three intentions: Dollywood, Alpine Slide, and Titanic Museum (why there is an ocean disaster museum in the Smokey Mountains I’ll let you ponder). We did none of them. We got too distracted by other things, and the Alpine Slide was closed by high winds and a forest fire.

Still, we had fun discovering other adventures. We even spent hours visiting a bird sanctuary, which, Alfred Hitchcock notwithstanding, was not as horrible as it sounds. The boys loved it.

The kids decided they wanted to move to Tennessee. My wife was almost on board with them, but she didn’t see enough Target stores; when she drives too far without seeing Target, she starts to hear dueling banjos in her head. From there it’s a short mental leap to a Deliverance/The Hills Have Eyes situation.

It was not all fun and games. The minivan got progressively louder in the water pump area as the days passed. I grew apprehensive about the 500-mile trip home. During the drive back, I kept one eye on the road and one eye on the temperature gauge. She didn’t sound healthy, but our sick car soldiered through, delivering us safely, despite her nasty cough.

Now, $800 later, she’s sounds good as new, almost. Add that to the cost of vacation. It kind of makes me wish we didn’t buy a family photo at every ride and sideshow we visited. Oh well, those family photos will be a minute of pleasure when we stumble across them in basement shoe boxes every 15 years or so. So I guess that’s worth it.

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.