Thursday, 31 January 2013


“Winter Is Coming”: The Stark Family Motto

I’ve been watching Game of Thrones – and not just because of the omnipresent sex and violence. OK, they might have something to do with it. However, people like me really watch because of the gripping interpersonal dynamics. The various lead characters must figure out the right way to live in a world of chaos – this struggle is often informed by the expectations their fathers have of them. Everyone in this series has daddy issues.

Game of Thrones takes place during a war of succession involving a large cast of diverse protagonists. It shows a heartless disregard for its characters, killing them off with relish and regularity. The kings in question are generally deeply flawed and their children are the warped results. These offspring are quickly left to their own devices to sort out how to behave. This is generally a good thing, as their dads are a bunch of murderous conniving psychos. The one exceptional King Dad is Ned Stark and he is killed basically for being honourable.

But Ned Stark is a good dad because he models honour, self-reliance and responsibility. It might stem from his family motto which essentially means – “It’s going to get hard; everything is going to die; so, prepare accordingly”. It doesn’t always protect his children from harm. It does, however, aid the Starks in times of crisis to have a family code of honour guiding them on who they are. Other characters, like the dwarf Tyrion, reject their despicable father’s way of life and must forge a new identity on their own. Some believe fathers are unnecessary, but I’d argue having a good one sure helps, like a hidden dagger in your boot.

I hope to arm my kids with a strong family identity, one that helps them navigate the world when I can’t protect them. That means I must strive to be a better person myself. Sigh. I’m not very successful at that but it gives me something to aim for. Is it too much to ask to be called Sire in return?
Pop Culture is also a regular coluimn in Village Living Magazine. A version of this article appears in the February/March 2013 issue.

Thursday, 17 January 2013

Tactical Strikes

We recently went through a  kinda sorta teachers' strike last Friday. The teachers weren't allowed to strike so they called it a one day protest and everyone across the province scrambled to figure out what to do with their kids for that day. As a home-based dad, I had it covered though it meant I would get nothing done that day and planned accordingly. I have found that one of my most effective parenting strategies is low expectations. I assume I won't get anything done when my kids are around and as a result I don't try to - thus avoiding the frustration of trying and failing. I also try and raise my kids in having low expectations of me as a parent which, though socially disapproved of, means I rarely disappoint and even occasionally impress.

Then after all the brouhaha, the Labour Relations Board told the teachers that they could call what they were doing Chicken Noodle Soup if they wanted but it was clearly an illegal strike and they had to get their butts back to work. I mean, come on, this is a group of people who daily get "the dog ate my homework" stories - did they think anyone else would be fooled by their lame relabelling exercise? As well, in two weeks they had a PA day scheduled - they couldn't protest on this day? Please.

Anyway. We of course only found this out on Friday morning as my kids and I settled down for a morning of cartoons. They were devastated to find out that they'd have to go to school. Yet again I have to question the unions' strategy through this process - they are alienating their core support group (parents) and by removing their support of after school and club activities they lessen their role and importance in kids and parents' lives. I would also guess it makes their jobs less fun. It would be too much to expect kids to be happy to go to school, I suppose, but when you threaten to remove your services and most of your "clientele" is ecstatic you maybe have an image problem you need to manage.

After I thought about it for a minute, I realized that getting them all to their various schools at that point would be very difficult. I also could exploit my low-expectations strategy and cash in for some easy "Good Dad" points. Time for a Tactical Strike of my own. I told them they could stay home but at the first hint of trouble I would take them all to school. Joy. Christmas in July. Found money. Etc. My oldest even hugged me and said, "Thank you, Dad." That felt really good even though it was not clearly a good parenting moment - in fact it was arguably the rough parenting equivalent to eating an entire bag of potato chips and drinking a gallon of root beer for dinner or (in my single days) cheap and meaningless sex with a stranger. Bad for you but, not only did it feel good at the time, it left you strangely elated and feeling pleased with yourself at random moments for days after. I am, sadly, basing that more on my experiences with potato chips than with willing and wanton women. Sigh.

I know from experience that a completely unstructured day with the three of them in the house was a recipe for infanticide, fratricide or at least me standing on a window ledge being "talked down" by a crisis negotiator. So we watched cartoons together and then played a engrossing game of the Settlers of Catan (so much so that I burned the pot of Kraft Dinner - spawning "Chris' Smokey Campfire Style KD". I have to confess to that being a parenting 'fail' - ruining Kraft Dinner (who thought it possible?) - but it did help re-establish those low standards I mentioned earlier.) After lunch, we walked to the library. Moan. Groan. Outside time for boys, however, is non-negotiable. Without it, life is just not worth it.

Sadly, winter also elected to go on an unexpected strike that day, so the piles of snow I could have counted on to entertain the kids were rapidly melting into the gutters in the light rain and warm weather. We were able to however have a mother of a snowball fight on the way to the library and which we continued on the way home. A friend of mine driving by actually witnessed me being attacked by all three at once in a barrage of snowballs. He expressed concern later that it seemed unfair - though I note he simply locked the cars doors and sped off rather than offer assistance. No worries though, I schooled my boys in a variety of lessons. Ones that they certainly won't learn in school these days, which forbids such dangerous objects as snowballs. Such lessons as using street furniture as shields, always having at least one snowball in hand and of course, the importance of tactical strikes.

We came home very wet, well exercised and in extremely good moods. You hear a lot about the important work teachers do, and how it is difficult and how most people wouldn't want to be stuck with a bunch of kids all day long. This is all true and I deeply respect good teachers but something is left out of the discussion about spending the day with kids - it can be a hell of a lot of fun.

Tuesday, 8 January 2013

New Year Reflections and Resolutions

Whew. They're back at school (and in my wife's case, work). Now my holiday begins. Ha ha. Right. I now scramble madly to get back on top of home based stuff as well as dust off my computer and get back to writing tasks that took a serious back seat to family holiday stuff. I was joking with other parents that there were a lot of long faces in my house Sunday afternoon and Monday morning - except for mine. No. Really. Joking I was.

It WAS actually a great holiday for us this year and I can honestly say that I was less happy to have them all leave me yesterday morning than usual after a long school break. I told my wife this in a rare show of tenderness and sharing. Huh. Well, now I know why men don't share their tender thoughts and sharing much. It did not get the reaction I thought it would - AT ALL. What made it such a good holiday and start of a New Year? Below I outline some discoveries, reflections and resolutions.

I am even more upset by global warming because of the reminder this holiday about how awesome snow is and how someday we might not have it. Not only is it pretty and reflect the low light levels of our northern winters and provides important hydration and protection for plant life, it makes a great place to stick a kid. Nothing kills the holiday spirit like kids dragging themselves around the house moaning that they're bored and nagging me to play on the computer/Wii/watch TV etc. Toss them in their snow gear and even a normally lame city backyard presents endless amounts of entertainment. There is groaning and complaining while you push them out the door with a snow shovel but minutes later they are happily throwing snow at each other, themselves or a squirrel. They come back in pink cheeked, all their yayas worked out, in much better moods and they sleep well. Even better if you go out with them you can throw snowballs at them yourself and toss them into snowbanks all in the name of good clean fun and working out some of your own frustrations. RESOLUTIONS: Contribute to Environmental Advocacy groups, invest in snow making equipment and keep the kids outside as much as possible in all kinds of weather.

I think that once I'm done this dad gig I might hie myself over to the Mideast and sort those numbskulls out. We've have some very fierce negotiations around here - mostly about how much electronic "screen time" each is entitled to, and when, and on what device... essentially about the shared use of scarce resources or territory. I have to say we worked out some very successful strategies that were mutually acceptable. I am not one normally inclined to such an approach. I am more of the tactical strike type but, hat tip to my lovely wife and consigliere, who just happens to be the daughter of a diplomat, I have seen the benefits of the negotiated settlement. That said, a strategic "wardrobe malfunction" accidentally displaying my arsenal helps focus the minds of the disputants and speed a solution.

On the road again. Sedan packed to the roof with toboggans (sleds to my US friends), presents and a gross of homemade Christmas cookies, we did the annual (5 hour minimum) migration to Ottawa AKA "The Land of Ice and Snow and In-Laws". As my friend Jason recently dubbed it, we did a "Full Griswold". These trips can be fraught affairs, especially if you run into holiday traffic or snowstorms. They were something I used to dread and would make me crabby but, a couple of summers of multiple road trips have turned them into an important and (sometimes, mostly) enjoyable experience. One of the big benefits is my wife and I actually get to talk to each other for hours at a time - when the kids are asleep or watching a movie - which is something I enjoy but is rare these days.

These road trips also employ the standard dramatic device of putting a bunch of people in a confined space and forcing them to interact. The results obviously can be unpleasant but lately we've found a pretty good balance. Families only get stronger if they spend time and do things together. In the "regular season" parents and kids are often so busy they can't do this and often the kids do not even want to spend time with their siblings. The "boiler room" experience changes this.

Many parents' strategy is putting on the DVD as soon as they put the car in gear. We've done it but this results in extremely snappy and brain-shrunken children unable to deal with each other in any way other than violence and rudeness when the player is off. We hold the DVD player in reserve, dependant on good behaviour, which includes participation in old fashioned road trip games. These build the family relationships leading to various in-jokes that come up every time we go on the road trips. Even the eventual DVD watching can be relationship building as we insist the kids negotiate which shows they will watch and in what order. They then all watch the same show which results in them sharing other experiences and having other references and in-jokes. RESOLUTION: Watch more DVDs with the kid to understand what they are talking about and find ways to replicate this experience in the "regular season" i.e. family games night.

I am a prime offender at this. It's a slippery slope from terms of endearment and teasing and joking to nastier stuff. This was brought home during a game of Catchphrase with the in-laws after the kids went to bed when in one interaction I said, "This is what I call my kids" (meaning "Knuckleheads") when my wife chirped in, "Idiots?". Er. Hmm. Yeah. Knuckleheads to me sounds OK, like Nitwits, or Goofballs but once you start on that it doesn't end well. Part of this has to do with the fact I can never remember their actual names in moments of kid-induced crisis. Having a loving short-form nickname like Numbskull comes in handy.

Spending a lot of time together ultimately results in friction. But when the kids refer to each other in those insulting terms, how can I take the moral high ground when they do? And, believe me, I love the Moral High Ground. I might build a retirement home there; the view is fantastic. So we've instituted a new no name calling policy at our house for the kids or NC for short. This is grouped with a no Acts of Violence policy (AV), no Deliberate Provocation (DP), no Personal Remarks (PR) policy with a subgroup of that we call no Personal Insults (PI). I came up with that one after my youngest called me fat and my wife chided him saying that it was a PR. "Wait a minute," I said, "PR implies something that is true but mean to say and the real problem is he called me fat. Which I am not and so we need to have a subgroup called PI because I'm not fat. Right?" Everyone went very quiet after that which I am taking as agreement not an adoption of the PR policy.

Of course I've broken most of those rules myself already but I'm trying to improve. RESOLUTION: Call them by their proper names and stop eating Christmas cookies.

I really like my kids. And the holiday reminded me of this in many ways and we had a lot of fun. But I am glad they are back at school.