Thursday, September 25, 2014

A Spoonful of Heroin

Screen capture from the iconic 1984 Apple commercial.

This post is inspired by a post I read over at Raven's Writing Desk about turning chores into games, a post I read at DadCamp about malls replacing play areas with walls of Ipads, and a post at DadRites about kids and video games.  In my brain it all starts as discussion about boredom.

I think about boredom and how to manage boredom a lot. Sometimes I defeat boredom but thinking about boredom.  Mostly I wonder how I'll manage Robin's boredom in this day and age of instant gratification and screens.

My kiddo is only 15 months, so the concept of boredom hasn't yet kicked in, other than the restlessness at being in a parked stroller for more than a few minutes, or that third hour in the car seat on the way to grandma’s house. But it is an issue I think about all the time. My fear is that I have zero basis to build an understanding of boredom in the age of screens. Computers used to be huge clunky things that you couldn't lug around. Video games at the dinner table were kinda of an absurd thought.  Sure I was often took to get off the computer and come to dinner, but they were separate events and needed occupied their distinct spaces. But now we go to dinner with my sister and her almost 3 year old, and he’d rather watch Jungle Book videos than interact with the rest of the table.  If you take the screen away he fusses until you have two options: give in or go home.  This is not a critique of my sister's parenting style.  She kept him away from screens until he was almost two.  She used to angle for the table at the restaurant with no visual access to screens.  But screens found a way in anyway.  Some days you just want a quiet meal with out a fight.  I totally get and support that.

From the Disney Movie "The Jungle Book" based on the book by Rudyard Kipling
Screens are addictive.  They are the glowing embers of the primordial camp fire that mesmerized our ancestors.  Staring into that fire is built into our DNA.  Screens short circuit the brain's reward system.  Instead of feeling good for accomplishing real things in the real world, we now feel rewarded for achieving things in the screen world, like watching videos about Baloo.   The real world can't compete.  How else can we explain the emergence of games that reward people for activities they should enjoy just on the merits of the activity.   

I'm a prime example.  I've had a Fitbit for over 2 years.  That alone got me walking more.  But when you introduce Ingress to the mix, my step count skyrockets.  Ingress is a game played in the "real" world on your phone.  You have to walk places and interact with portals.  You get points and experience for linking portals and you can only link portals if you have physically visited them and gotten a portal key.  I'm doing pretty well.  I'm level 7 in two weeks.  To achieve level 7 I walked almost 100 miles in two weeks, most of that pushing Robin around in a stroller in City Park.

I am a Proud Frog.

This is both good and bad.  The pragmatist in me thinks: "This is the way the world is now, therefore games that exploit this new reality and get people moving in the real world are good." Maybe attaching "Achievements" to learning math will encourage kids to put in the work to really understand it.  The cynic wonders how sustainable is a society built on people living only to score virtual points. (Two possible answers are Cory Doctorow's Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom available here for free, and this epic Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal).   It seems a little too close to the "gold star" problem this generation already suffers. The crazy homeless conspiracy theorist in me wonders if its all a plan by the Illuminati to hook us all on games so we don't notice the slow erosion of wages, rights, and intellectualism.  Panem et circenses.

If I'm susceptible as a kid who grew up mostly interacting with the outside world, how is Robin to cope? 

I try not to take my phone out at dinner (unless it's to resolve a bet, or check the weather, or check what time the zoo opens, or ...).  But when my wife and I relax in front of the TV after the kiddo is in bed, I usually have my ipad on my lap. I’m on facebook more than I should be when the kiddo's awake and terrorizing the dog.  But some days being alone with a toddler is excruciatingly boring. I’m usually very good about not being bored. I can find something interesting in anything set before me. But that skill is sorely tested sometimes being around a being whose greatest joy is grabbing your coffee off the table when you look away.  I know I should turn off the ipad, or shut down the facebook.

The answer I think is to induce boredom.  Let's make defeating boredom without a screen a game.  How?  I have no real answers, but I do have a few ideas.  

  1. Be up front about the dangers of too much screen time with your kids. I happen to think kids are pretty smart.  They can smell BS, but they can also sense truth.  Tell them that too much screen time leads to lower academic achievement, lower social IQ and less tolerance for delayed gratification.
  2. Make certain times of the day and certain days of the week screen-less time.  For everybody.  We're toying with the idea of no screens once dinner starts until bedtime.  There are loads of studies that show that this could be a good thing from helping kids (and adults) sleep better to improved family relations.  I'm just not sure how this will apply to the adult time after the kids are in bed, since its the only time we have to watch TV, or play Destiny.
  3. Get lots of analog toys, without "prebuilt" sets (modern Lego, I'm looking at you), and put them in a room where the kids can play with almost complete freedom.  Creative play leads to creative adults.  Let them take their things apart.  Just consider it part of the cost of doing business.
  4. Let kids play.  DadnCharge said this better than I ever could on his blog about banishing the play date.
  5. Let kids be bored.  Boredom isn't the worst thing.  The brain hates being unused.  This is why the writing exercise where you just start writing "I don't know what to write." over and over usually leads into a story idea.  The brain wants to be engaged.       
My parents thought being bored was the key to unlocking the imagination. And I think they were right. I don’t remember being bored as a kid, but I do remember the incredible adventures I’d have as Ghost of the Galaxy (or if I was powered up Ghost of the Universe), in the backyard, or running about the neighborhood. We had plenty of toys, most of which I completely disassembled within a week, never to be reassembled, or reconfigured into other toy monstrosities.  This served me well.  In school I was always able to find the fun take on assignments. And I learned those skills by turning boredom into something else, like an alchemist turns lead into gold.  Sometimes my teachers would get annoyed, like Mrs. Whinery when I wrote a compare/contrast essay on different colors of blue.  But it worked for me.

The ability to see boredom as an opportunity to achieve is something I will strive hard to get Robin to understand.  Understanding that getting the school work, or any work, out of the way before turning on the video game or surfing the web will vastly improve the value of those activities.  Learning to take pleasure in a job well done will be important.  Besides, everyone knows that feeling then the procrastination is full on.  The specter of work avoided hanging over every click of the mouse on Buzzfeed. My truth, learned from years and years, is that the hardest part is just starting.  Get over that initial voice saying it'll be boring, or hard, and you will usually find yourself immersed in the project.  Some tasks are boring, sure.  But when you're finished you can indulge yourself guilt free.

Julie Andrew's as Mary Poppins in Disney's "Mary Poppins".
As Mary Poppins sings, “A spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down.” My fear is that screens will turn that sugar into heroin and this generation will just skip the medicine entirely and never get out of rehab.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014


I actually made it out the door and met other dads last week.  The first big step was Toddler Tumble Time at the Jewish Community Center.  I arrived about 10 minutes early.  I'm unable to not be early or at least on time.  Too many theater calls I guess.  No one else showed up for about 15 minutes.  So Robin had the mats to himself.  When people did start to arrive it was like a flood gate opened and suddenly the room was full of kids and parents.  I did that awkward standing by wall at the middle school dance thing for a little while.  But luckily there were other dads from the Denver Dad Group there and they were more out-going that me and so after a few quick hand-shakes and name exchanges, I was suddenly part of a group.  A Denver dad.  That's a huge step.

It was supposed to be "lightly structured" activities,  but the instructor didn't show up, so it was just a toddler free for all.  Robin got saturated with the activity after about 40 minutes and kept running out the door into the lobby, so we packed up and headed home.

But my week wasn't done.  On Wednesday night I went to a meetup with the Britax public out reach rep, Sarah Tilton.  About 9 dads came, including a couple I'd met at the meetup.  I brought David along.  Sarah talked about an hour about car safety and gave some pretty interesting advice about when to move kids to different seats.  The coolest thing she talked about was this new type of car seat called the click tight.  Basically the whole seat of the car seat opens up, you thread the seat belt through and then close the seat and it cinches down the belt.  No need to pull the belt tight or anything.  Then she did a raffle to give away three free car seats.  David and I both won.  Pretty cool.  I selected the Britax Marathon clicktight seat.  In red and black to match our other seat.

Then on Thursday I walked over to Coor's Field to watch the Rockies.  Paige and David had decided to take Jack to a game.  But last weekend also happened to be the National Stay at Home Dad's convention in Denver.  The first night, the Denver Dad's Group hosted a meetup at the Rockies' game.  So I walked over and met Paige and David and their friend Ebony and her daughter Victoria.  They had seats along the third base line.  The stadium was pretty empty.  The Rockies haven't been good in a while, so David was able to take Jack and Victoria down to the front row, near the guy who retrieves the foul balls.  Usually he tosses them into the crowd, to kids.  Jack was chatting him up, so after the next foul ball the guy handed it to Jack.  Jack took it with a great grin, then tossed it back on to the field.  "Do it again?"  Hmm, no Jack.  David put the ball in his pocket.

After a couple of Innings, David and I headed to the rooftop.  Sometime in the last few years the stadium tore out the top tier of seats on the eastern side of the stadium and installed two floors of bars and restaurants.  It's standing room only and you can watch the game from the rail.  Any ticket can get you onto the rooftop, but you can also buy a rooftop ticket for like $14 which comes with a food voucher of $8.  It was a perfect place for the dad meet up.

Looking around when we arrived, we didn't see any folks that looked like a group of dads.  There were quite a few fit guys in work shirts who clearly work down town and quite a few woo girls.  We gave up on the first deck and headed up to the top deck.  A short walk from the stair we saw them.  A group of guys with t-shirts and pot bellies.  David and I nodded.  We'd found our people.

Again we sort of mingled awkwardly.  David was a good sport putting up with me dragging him to a group he doesn't really have any connection with.  I looked around and then in a burst of out-going-ness introduced myself to a couple of guys I recognized from the dad bloggers group on facebook.  After a couple of minutes of small talk David pointed some of the guys from the Denver Dad's group that we knew.  I met a guy named Marc that I hit it off with pretty easily.  He has a six month old and so we instantly had a lot to chat about.  At the end of the night we exchanged numbers.  When I have him my number he said "Bay area?"

"Yeah, I did my undergrad out there?"

He got kinda serious and asked, "Where?"


"Really?  What year were you there?"

Turns out he was at Stanford as a grad student at exactly the same time I was there.  Small world.

I am an introvert.  My ability to speak seems to melt away in a large group, unless I'm there in some sort of work situation.  But I do have sudden bursts of extroversion, when that inner voice is tamped down and I can get out in front of my shyness and meet folks.  I've been pushing myself hard to get out and meet people.  To do things with people.  I think it must be related to this current push to take care of myself.  I'm losing weight again and trying to walk more than 10k steps a day.  I'm pretty proud of myself for that.  The last two weeks I've walked over 100 miles. (198,000 steps).

But I know that this phase of exercise and extroversion is probably just a binge.  At some point it'll get too cold to take the kind of walks I've been taking, or Robin will stop being content to ride in the stroller.  But hopefully the guys I meet now will be enough to push back against the gravity of introversion and get me out more.  It'll be good for Robin.  It'll be good for me.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Granddad's Chicken

I like to cook.  I've enjoyed it since the time I stayed home sick from school and made potato soup with my mom.  She let me add the spices.  I added a fist full of garlic powder, more garlic powder than should be palatable.  It was the best soup ever.  I was probably 8 or 9.

My dad didn't care for my pancakes.  To be fair, I was experimenting with the ingredients and would often added too much baking powder.  I really thought pan cakes should be cakes.  Unfortunately the centers would rarely cook before the outsides were totally burned.  He had good reason to dislike them.

Sometime early high school/late middle school the grill became my responsibility.  It was a perfect fit.  Fire and I go way back.  I was very good at steak (back when I actually ate such things regularly).  The best steaks happened when I took a few pieces of the old fence wood piled in the back yard and added them to the side of the coals just before I put the grate on the grill.  They made for a smokiness that I've never been able to duplicate.  I'm sure true grillers are mortified.  I was always one to experiment.

My best dish on the grill is still my best.  I call it "Dad's Chicken" although I'll have to modify that soon to "Granddad's Chicken".  Robin will never get to know my dad, but he will know his grilled chicken.  For those of you playing at home the recipe is simplicity.   Buy chicken thighs with both bones and skin intact.  Melt equal portions of butter, soy sauce, and lemon juice in a sauce pan.  Heat the grill to medium and set it to indirect heat.  On gas, just light the outer burners.  On charcoal split the coals into to piles on either side of the grill.  Place the chicken down the middle of the grate and baste lavishly.  Put the lid on.  Turn and baste the chicken every 10 minutes for about an hour, then move the chicken, skin side down over the coals to crisp up the skin.  You can tell the chicken is cooked when the juices run clear.  Try not to over cook them.

My real transition to cook happened post college.  There were no real opportunities to cook in college, other than helping my friend Joe brew beer.  After college I met Wil, and Wil introduced me to Alton Brown's Good Eats.  Alton has probably made many a guy like me into a cook.  He has the same spirit of food that I do, and he's not afraid to try out crazy meals.

Now I am the primary food preparer the house.  Alice Louise is an awesome cook, but I have taken on the duty.  Generally I cook dinner every night and we eat the leftovers for breakfast and lunch. When a meal or recipe doesn't turn out as I'd hoped, Al is generally kind enough to eat it anyway.  She is a good measure of an experiments success.

I'm kinda righteously proud that we only ever opened two bottles of baby food for Robin, and that was more because we had them rather than any real need for them.  I'm fond of saying that one of the greatest hoaxes ever pulled on the people of the world is convincing us that babies need special food.  Robin eats what we eat and so far is a good eater.  Of course the other shoe of pickiness could drop anytime,  I'm also proud of the snacks I've made for him.  I'll post my recipe for fruit rollups at a later date.

I also like to bake bread.  Hoax number two of the food industry is that baking bread is hard.  It's not. It takes four ingredients.  Flour, water, salt, and yeast.  Try this.  Mix  500g of flour with 350g of water with 10g of yeast and let sit for 20 minutes.  Yeah, I like to weight my ingredients.  After 20 minutes mix in 10g of salt with another 25g of water. (1g ~ 1ml of water) and mix by squishing the dough through your hands.  If you're going to be around all day, turn the dough every 30-60 minutes by grabbing the bottom of the dough and folding it on top of itself.  Turn 1/4 a turn and do it again until you've done it 4 times.  After 4 hours the dough will be puffy and not so sticky.  Pour the dough out onto a baking pan lined with parchment and shape into the type of loaf you want.  Then cover with a moist tea towel and let it rise until your ready to bake it.  If you are not going to be around all day, after you add the salt, put the dough in the fridge.   An hour before you want to bake it, get it out of the fridge and put it on a baking sheet lined with parchment.  Fill a pie pan with water and place it on the bottom of the oven, then set the temp to 425.  The water creates a moist environment in the oven which keeps the crust from setting before the bread has expanded while baking.  Bake the loaf for 40 minutes, rotating 180 deg halfway through the process.  This will reward you with beautiful bread.

I love to cook.  As Alice Louise likes to tell people, it is my current creative outlet.  It's the activity that makes me most feel like I'm contributing to the well-being of the family.  My hope is that as Robin gets old I can interest him the joys of cooking, in the science of food and the artistry.  But mostly I want to instill in him a life long love of eating good healthy food.