Nov 21 2013

Hungry teenager a menace to kitchen

“Because I Said So” column for The Commercial Appeal

Nov. 21, 2013

Hungry teenager a menace to kitchen

There are nights when I lie in bed and hear the scurrying through the walls, a scrabbling down hallways and into the kitchen. The refrigerator opens, cabinets close, and there is the faint beeping of a microwave.

This is no mouse, no roof rat; we’ve seen those before. There is no singing and dancing, anthropomorphic Disney rodent hunting a wedge of cheese. It’s a teenager, the most troubling of vermin, and he is in search of a nighttime snack. It will be his eighth meal of the day.

It takes a lot of energy to become 16 years old, the same way it takes a lot of fuel to push an SUV across town or electricity to cool your home during a Memphis summer. If MLGW had a meter smart enough to measure for such energy, I think we would be surprised by the consumption necessary to power a student through a day at White Station High School.

I’m usually not threatened by Calvin’s random meals, as our tastes rarely overlap. The leftover chili dog he eats at 10 a.m. is not a problem, and I know my chicken curry is safe at noon; the days-old Garibaldi’s pizza with everything on it under the sun is safe from this son at 8 p.m. But that midnight microwave was full of my spaghetti and meatballs, and that’s where I draw the line.

There have been times when I’m in the kitchen cooking dinner for the family and he’ll come in to ask how much longer until we eat. “About 30 minutes,” I say. He then pours himself a bowl of cereal that would choke Jethro Bodine.

“Are you going to eat dinner?”

He doesn’t answer because his mouth is full of cornflakes. I’m not so much worried about him ruining his appetite — I know he’ll eat dinner in 30 minutes, and he’ll eat it again in 2 hours and 30 minutes — as I am jealous that I can’t eat a meal just before eating another meal. Not anymore. Not at my age.

And when I hear the patter of size 11’s in the kitchen late at night, and the clumsy clunking of bowls and silverware, more than wanting to get out of bed and tell him to keep it down or that it’s too late for ice cream with a warmed-over brownie, I want to join him. But I can no more get out of bed than I should be eating dairy at that hour.

Vermin have been known to stow away, and sometimes I wonder what he does at friends’ houses. I have this image of him rifling through unfamiliar cabinets in the wee hours. Is he eating someone else’s chicken leg or a slab of meatloaf found in the back of the fridge? Should I tell him not to eat what he finds, or should I suggest he scurry over to the neighbor’s for that midnight snack from now on and keep his growing paws off my leftovers?

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Nov 7 2013

Just call this dad appointment secretary

“Because I Said So” column for The Commercial Appeal

Nov. 7, 2013

How can we help our kids learn to enjoy the moment?

It’s a weekend morning and my kids are waking up. My weekend is over. The first words out of my daughter’s mouth: “What are we doing today?”

She needs her itinerary dictated to her as though she were a head of state. In some ways she is, though more dictator than elected official.

I tell her that we’re going to eat breakfast and drink coffee, read for a while, have some lunch and maybe lie around some more after that. It’s been a long week full of work, appointments, after-school activities and going, going, going. A bit of rest is well-deserved.

This isn’t going to fly. Things need to happen, playdates are to be arranged, a trip to the zoo, perhaps a little money spent on a movie. You could clean your room, I offer. Or the living room or kitchen. The conversation is momentarily halted due to laughter.

It wouldn’t be so bad, I don’t mind activity, it’s just that these kids need their out-of-school days mapped out for them. I punched “Saturday” into the Google Maps app on my phone for a little technological advice and one of the first options the search returned was “Saturday Night Live, 30 Rockefeller Center.”

I suppose that will work. “We’ll have breakfast, then watch SNL in 14 hours,” I tell her. She is not amused. Not even a 7-year-old finds “Saturday Night Live” amusing any more.

My other suggestion, that she run outside on a beautiful fall morning and see where the day leads, is met with just as much skepticism. When I was a kid (my daughter may spend the rest of the day rolling her eyes), we made up games, explored the neighborhood, rode our bikes and knocked on friends’ doors.

Nobody knocks on doors these days. We text or Facebook or make a phone call. All to plan a specific amount of play at an appointed time in a predetermined location for our children.

The other problem — I’ve planned my own day around complaining about this, so bear with me — is that as soon as they’re involved in an activity, they want to know what we’re doing next. It’s a lose-lose situation for parents. Just enjoy what we’re doing now, I implore them. “But you’re just drinking coffee and reading a book,” they say. Let’s just enjoy that.

Living in the moment is what it’s all about. It’s something to be taught at an early age. But how? It’s an idea more than a lesson plan. It’s something you learn by doing rather than as a classroom course. There is no textbook, but scattershot notes left in the margins of favorite books.

What are we going to do today? We’re going to seize the day. We’ll explore, we’ll wander, we’ll end up wherever the wind takes us and do whatever it is the natives there do.

“But what are we going to do next?”

They never appreciate that answer. That answer will always involve cleaning their rooms, washing dishes, picking up the living room or putting away laundry. Me? I’m going to seize a cup of coffee and a good book.

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Oct 24 2013

Technology retreat is what this vacation offered

“Because I Said So” column for The Commercial Appeal

Oct. 23, 2013

It’s survival of fittest in technology vacuum

When I was a boy, I was drawn to stories such as “Robinson Crusoe,” “The Swiss Family Robinson” and “Tarzan.” Later, it would be the real-life adventure of Thor Heyerdahl and his oceanic voyage on the homemade Kon-Tiki, and Sir Ernest Shackleton’s exploration of the Antarctic. These are tales of being alone and cut off from the world. I am gripped by stories of adventurers at the mercy of the elements, relying only upon their strength and wits.

Why, then, was I at my wits’ end during our recent fall break spent in Mountain View, Ark., with no Wi-Fi or cell phone reception?

We drove there without knowing we were entering a technological vacuum. What far-flung locale, what Bermuda Triangle of a vacation home doesn’t have an Internet connection? A cabin at the top of a mountain doesn’t.

It appeared from the get-go that we’d driven three hours just so the children could argue with each other in a different state. It turned out to be some sort of withdrawal they were experiencing, though. A sort of cyber detox we were all going through as even the adults every so often pulled phones from our pockets to tap on their unresponsive faces.

It didn’t take long before conversation led to how we might survive if civilization ended while we were in that vacuum. And how me might find out. It became obvious that, unlike the Swiss Family Robinson and Crusoe, once our food ran out, we would perish. There was a brief discussion of that other tale of survival, the Donner Party, and who among us might pair best with s’mores. I slept with one eye open the rest of the trip.

Soon enough, though, we all acclimated and noticed there were trees and birds and a friendly toad. There was the White River below and a beautiful sunset above. The one thing more entertaining than a Kindle Fire was an actual fire. The only thing more awe-inspiring than a large-screen television were the larger-than-life constellations in the inky night sky.

For three days, we were unaware of the world beyond the Ozarks. The only evidence that the government was still shut down was that Blanchard Springs Caverns was closed. We paid no mind as we had ice cream from Woods Pharmacy & Soda Fountain in town and we shopped at the Army-Navy store. We flew down the mountainside on a zip line and listened to bluegrass music around the town square. We read books — actual books.

Like a science-fiction movie, we’d been thrust into the past. Mountain View is only three hours from our house in Memphis, yet it might as well have been a half-century removed.

We tuned in an old knob-and-dial radio for any information on how civilization was faring, but we could only pick up a station playing the hits from decades ago. It was the perfect soundtrack as we sat in front of a fire playing a card game in which the loser, if it came down to it, would meet his fate on a bed of graham crackers.

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Oct 10 2013

New normal sometimes doesn’t seem so normal

“Because I Said So” column for The Commercial Appeal

Oct. 10, 2013

New normal sometimes doesn’t seem so normal

I was driving around town on a pristine fall day with the windows down and the wind blowing through what hair I have left. My arm rested on the door, and the sun warmed my face. I was just a guy enjoying the day, listening to the radio and pretending like there wasn’t a minivan full of children behind me.

When a Van Halen song came on, I did what anyone who came of age during the 1980s would do: I clicked that little volume button on the steering wheel until Eddie Van Halen’s guitar screamed from the three speakers that still work.

But wait: In the ’80s we would have twisted a knob on the radio to get such distortion. I miss that, and it’s something my kids may never know. There’s something immensely satisfying about turning that knob up to 11. My kids don’t even know that there is an 11; they have yet to see “This Is Spinal Tap.”

What else won’t they know? The anxiety over leaving the house and missing an urgent phone call, the thrill of seeing a movie in the theater knowing that it may be the one and only time, or that happy moment of dialing in a radio station and hearing a favorite song. Their movies and music are on demand these days, all right on their telephones.

But what in their day-to-day lives did I never experience growing up? The other morning there was some confusion at the school’s doors, students and parents pooling up outside as though negotiating a traffic jam. It was metal detector day. That’s something I never knew as a child. It was a seemingly random morning and, as they filed in, every fifth child or so was singled out to have a wand waved from head to toe.

This isn’t the school’s fault. and it isn’t the district’s fault; they’re charged with keeping our kids safe, and this is how it’s done in the 21st century. Still, it’s unnerving to see your second-grader stand there while someone checks to see if she packed a weapon along with her lizard diorama and lunchbox.

This is the age we live in. Already this school year, there has been a gun brought to school by a kindergartner, and at my own kids’ middle school, one student was turned in by another for having a knife.

Those were things I didn’t even consider growing up, but it was a scene last week handled with such nonchalance by the students involved — “Oh, it’s metal detector day” — that it’s evident it’s become the norm.

In my day, the only metal detected was heavy, and it was from Van Halen, Mötley Crüe and Def Leppard. The duo of Smith & Wesson was as removed from my imagination as a minivan. And while I do envy some of the things our kids have access to these days — movies, television and music at will via computers and smartphones — I do not envy them, at their age, the access to 24-hour news, early morning searches or the very real possibility of an assault on more than just their eardrums.

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Sep 26 2013

Math problems have other solutions, but what about other problems?

“Because I Said So” column for The Commercial Appeal

Sept. 26, 2013

Mathematical meltdowns pose problem with no good solution

Three-fourths of my children do pretty well in math. One-fourth is having trouble with the subject. If I recall my sixth-grade math correctly, that adds up to only one kid. So the problem to be solved is why is there so much noise in this house?

Nightly math homework for one-fourth of these kids has become an exercise more philosophic than algebraic. Instead of solving for a product or quotient, she wants to solve for why math exists at all, what it all means for her and for all of us in the grand scheme of her texting and television watching.

The reasons why she shouldn’t have to do homework multiply exponentially: She’s hungry, she’s thirsty, she’s tired, her pencil isn’t sharp, bad weather is looming.

Lately, the problem has been with multiplying fractions. Not my problem, of course, but hers. It has led us nightly into spasms of fits and wailing and gnashing of teeth. It’s also upset my daughter.

Time passes interminably as she stalls. The autumn sun angles lower, its light slanting in at a 45-degree angle. As this geometric event drags, I begin to wonder myself: Why? Especially in this age of computers and Google and telephones that can tell you exactly how fast that train from Portland must be traveling to meet the other train from New York.

I’ve traveled by train from Memphis to New Orleans and Chicago, and was never asked to prove a math theorem. So when one-fourth of my children plaintively asks when she’ll need to halve and integer as an adult, I can answer with certitude: “Not on a train.”

Of course, I know math is important, and that understanding the basic concepts at an early age helps to build the foundation one needs to grasp the more complex equations later on. And I know that without math we wouldn’t have these computers or Google or futuristic telephones. Nor would we have cake or television or banks that are too big too fail until they do, a result of amoral math.

Question: If an 11-year-old’s bedtime is in 30 minutes and she’s put off the 20 math problems for homework until just now, how long will the meltdown last? Answer: I’ve left the house, so I have no idea.

I’ve sat down with her to walk her through the homework, and I have to say that I’m not very good at it, either. And I don’t think this is because it’s “new math.” They look like the same numbers I used in the sixth grade.

These kids, all of them, are smart and curious and willing (mostly) to do the work. But they’re swimming upstream; they’re running into the wind because, unfortunately for them, they are the sum of the parts of their parents, and neither of us was all that good with math to begin.

To answer her question truthfully, neither of us uses math that much as an adult, aside from some basic accounting necessary to run a household and our nightly homework session. Other than that, I’m just trying to figure out how fast and how far a train pulling out of Central Station in Downtown Memphis will get me from this mathematical meltdown.

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Sep 12 2013

Tooth fairy charging arm, leg too

“Because I Said So” column for The Commercial Appeal

Sept. 12, 2013

Tooth fairy charging arm, leg too

My youngest lost another tooth. A particularly tenacious tooth, it clung to her upper gum like a barnacle refusing to be scraped from the bow of a ship. With another growing in behind it, it had taken on the angle and proportions of a tusk, and everyone who saw it longed to grab hold and yank. Teachers, friends, family, strangers — we all wanted to be the one to pull that eyetooth Excalibur from her head.

How odd is it that our children’s ages and milestones are measured by the parts that fall from their body? Umbilical cord stump, first haircut, lost teeth.

Genevieve finally lost that tooth last week when, she said, “I bit Joshua’s leg, and it came out!” Thanks to her brother’s bony shin, we no longer have to pretend we’re not a little freaked out by the looks of this saber-toothed sibling.

The Associated Press recently ran a story on the economics of today’s tooth fairy, reporting that “kids this year are getting an average of $3.70 per lost tooth.” A quick glance at the U.S. Department of Labor’s website tells me that the federal minimum wage in the 1980s was $3.35 per hour. This was when I got my first part-time job making just about that amount. In those days, I would have rather pulled a tooth and taken the next 59 minutes off work for the same money.

Like a family member who visits and refuses to leave, Genevieve’s tooth was special and stubborn. And though it was special, I still wish that this new 21st century tooth fairy had consulted with me before making the outrageous pillow payout of 5 dollars.

Back when I was a kid and lost a tooth, I got a quarter. That’s right, I’m one of those fathers. We got a quarter, and we were happy about it because I was looking at an interest rate of 9 percent on a 30-year fixed mortgage in 1977, and the cost of a gallon of gas pushed up over 50 cents for the first time ever. Now, I didn’t own a house, of course. Nor was I responsible for the Ford Pinto sitting in the driveway. I was 7. But I did want to see “Star Wars” in the theater again and again, and a movie ticket would run me more than eight quarters. That was almost half my teeth.

Many of those teeth were pulled and all of my orthodontia needs were handled by Dr. Sadler. In my memory, Sadler was short on mercy, yet long on attractive hygienists. I was a confused 13-year-old.

I remember him as a cowboy dentist, rough and familiar with pain, and I can still feel the sole of his dusty boot against my forehead when the time came for extraction. He would have had Genevieve’s tooth out in seconds. In his arsenal were a pair of rusty pliers, a rasp, needles, a ball peen hammer and an ice pick. On the walls, if memory serves, were displayed the bleached-white jaws of former patients.

His office, at the corner of Poplar Avenue and Perkins Extended, is no longer there. That space is now filled by a Chili’s restaurant, where an order of loaded potato skins will set you back 28 teeth from 1977, or 1½ at the current rate.

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Aug 29 2013

Only kids get away with ‘I don’t know’

“Because I Said So” column for The Commercial Appeal

Aug. 29, 2013

Only kids get away with ‘I don’t know’

Throughout their young lives, our children will come to us with questions. Some of them are astute and keen questions meant to further their knowledge and understanding of how the world works. Most, though, are inane and meant to draw our attention away from what we’d rather be doing — watching television or updating Facebook.

But there are no bad questions, right? We are told that all questions, good or bad, are an opportunity for learning. Whatever, I’ve been a parent far too long to still believe that.

Regardless of the merit of the question, we, as parents, must have the answer. We were the first Google. We are the bearded guru atop the mountain, the wise old sage wrapped in a head scarf and peering into a crystal ball. I am the blind Master Po giving guidance and awaiting a young Kwai Chang Caine to snatch that pebble from my palm.

I had to Google “Kung Fu” to find all of that information on the 1972 television show.

It’s exhausting, isn’t it? The questions, the answers, the skeptical looks from a 10-year-old who is beginning to doubt your wisdom. Wouldn’t it be easier to just say what we’re thinking, to give voice to the indifference we feel toward a 7-year-old who needs to know right now, at bedtime, what kind of cake she can have for her upcoming birthday party in eight months?

Wouldn’t it be perfect to just say: “I don’t know.”

But we can’t. In a world where there are no rhetorical questions, it’s our job to have the answers. Yet they can say it. “I don’t know.” It’s been heard more around this house lately than I don’t know what.

Who left this backpack on the table? “I don’t know.” Who spilled the milk in the living room? “I don’t know.” Why haven’t you done your homework? “I don’t know.”

It’s such an elegant sentence, isn’t it? It must be so freeing to be so absent of any responsibility whatsoever, to have those three little words absolve you of any and all obligation with the ease of a vocal shrug.

Could we, as adults, try it just for a day?

Sir, do you know how fast you were driving? “I don’t know.” Very good, be on your way.

Credit or debit? “I don’t know.” You know what, just take it.

I would be happy to use it solely on my children. Instead of all of the typical answers I have to have — it’s in the bathroom she’ll be home in one hour meatloaf the other one is your left foot David Carradine — I could just answer them all with a simple “I don’t know.” Followed quickly, of course, with “Your mother doesn’t know either!”

Will we ever be left in peace? Will our children ever become accountable for their own homework, feedings and bedtime routines? Couldn’t I just spend one weekend on top of that mountain without interruption?

I think we all know the answer to these questions.

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Aug 15 2013

Nap time good for baby, good for dad

“Because I Said So” column for The Commercial Appeal

Aug. 15, 2013

Nap time good for baby, good for dad

When we were new parents and the baby would fall asleep in the car, I’d carry him and his car seat inside the house, careful not to jostle him, careful not to slam the door, careful not to wake him at any cost — and I’d place him on the clothes dryer and turn it on.

Full or not, I’d turn it on regardless of the energy cost just to keep that slight movement and sound, some semblance of a still-moving car.

We lived in Midtown then, and if you live in Midtown you know that there is a train rolling within five blocks of any house at any time. We had a crossing half a block away and when that whistle would blow I’d stand in front of the baby in his seat on the dryer with my arms outstretched as though my body could absorb the sound of the whistle and keep it from entering his tiny, precious, sleeping ears.

And that’s how I would spend most nap times, trying desperately to keep him from waking up.

As an older and somewhat wiser parent, I know that there is still no better time than nap time; my own nap time.

I never understood why babies need all the naps anyway, they don’t do anything. They wake up and have food put in their faces, then they just lie around. They don’t even have to get up and go to the bathroom. Yet their big, curious eyes are as tired in the middle of the day as my 43-year-old eyes are now.

As an adult, I don’t call it a nap. My mother called it “resting her eyes.” What a wonderful euphemism. I always thought it had a genteel, almost Southern sensibility about it like “putting on airs” or “bless her heart” or “losing one’s religion.” We all know what it means, there’s no need to admit to it.

I try to rest my eyes every afternoon. I find that if I can just lie down on the couch in my office and close my eyes for just 10 minutes, then it makes the rest of the day —and me — more pleasant. My children will attest to that.

These eyes are tired. They spend all day looking. I look at books and magazines and documents. I look at the Internet on a laptop, tablet and phone. Last week, much of my time was spent looking at forms and packets my kids brought home to be signed for the new school year. And the kids, they want me to look at whatever they’re doing any time they’re around.

So I’m tired and I only want to rest my eyes, there’s no shame in that. There is shame, however, in falling asleep in your mashed potatoes at the dinner table.

Look, you’re tired, I know that. It’s why I recommend to all you new parents that you use your child’s nap time as an opportunity, not to do the dishes or laundry, not to watch television or Facebook, but to rest your eyes.

Just try it and you’ll see what I mean.

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Aug 1 2013

2 little girls not afraid to dream big

“Because I Said So” column for The Commercial Appeal

Aug. 1, 2013

2 little girls not afraid to dream big

I am 20 feet tall and can outrun a gazelle. I can step over houses and fly when necessary. I can remove a set of training wheels from a bicycle and a splinter from the thumb, inflate soccer balls, squash bugs, vanquish bad dreams, find lost socks and cook toast. I cannot braid hair; it is my white whale.

I am the father of two little girls.

While I do what I can for my daughters, I know they are growing and learning, and will eventually surpass me one day in all the things I can do. And those that I only pretend I can do.

Last week, this house wrapped up its annual daily viewings of the Tour de France, and each of my daughters, at some point during the three-week race, asked me if there are girls in it. There are not. I told them that perhaps they could help change that in the future, that there is a movement already under way to do so. Even better, I said, maybe one day you’ll be part of a women-only Tour, one that is longer and more grueling than the current race.

They might well do so because women are stronger than men. I’ve witnessed four births; you guys who have seen what I’ve seen know what I’m talking about. I would rather ride my bike 2,115 miles over the French Alps four times than have to go through labor once.

I was in the room with my youngest when her heartbeat was gone for a few seconds, and it was the nurse who remained calm and told me what to do. I helped unhook the bed from the wall so she could maneuver it better, and then I stood back, as ordered, while she applied an oxygen mask and monitors, and did what she needed to do with a remarkable swiftness. My wife continued the heavy lifting of labor, and I could only stand to the side and look on. My daughter, newly born, newly blue, eventually let out a defiant shriek that began somewhere around the knob of umbilical cord and has filled our ears ever since.

Not long after our Tour de France talk, we learned that Helen Thomas had died. The longtime journalist set a bar in the White House press room, not only for women, but for all reporters. My daughter asked me who that was, and I told her that she was a successful reporter, and that if it had been a race, Helen Thomas surely would have won. I told her that she could very well be on the front row asking questions of the president one day if she chooses. Or she could be the president.

My daughters will be able to do anything they want because they come from a line of strong women. If they don’t one day win awards on the field of physical competition, then perhaps they will win in the battle for understanding, equality and professionalism.

My girls are 20 feet tall. They can swim far, jump high and argue their points. I’ll give them what I have, and mend what I’m able, but one day, on their own, they will soar higher than I could ever imagine.

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Jul 18 2013

If son’s still driving in 30 years, he passed test

“Because I Said So” column for The Commercial Appeal

July 18, 2013

If son’s still driving in 30 years, he passed test

I recently drove my 15-year-old son to a wide open parking lot, parked the car and handed him the keys. It was his first time behind the wheel of a car and my first time in the passenger seat with a teenager behind the wheel of a car since I was a teenager myself. I dialed 911 and let my thumb hover over the send button.

He did pretty well, though, narrowly avoiding the few obstacles, and I only barked “Brake!” once or twice.

I learned how to drive through a combined effort of my father and his midlife Camaro Z28 and Memphis City Schools. Despite your experiences on the streets of Memphis, many of us drivers had lessons. And how many Memphians my age were taught to drive by Mr. Rafael?

After a three-week course of textbook and on-the-road tutelage, Mr. Rafael administered our final exam, a grueling, hourslong written and multiple choice test as I recall, only to tell us when we were finished to hold on to that test and if we were alive to read it in 30 years, then we passed.

I’ve passed. And here I am trying to pass that knowledge on to my own son. Imploring him to check his mirrors, mind the blind spots and pump the brake pedal.

When he was 6, I drove him to a wide open field at Tobey Park to teach him to ride a bicycle. It took only about 15 minutes before we were out of patience with each other and I loaded up the bike in the back of my truck and we drove home in silence. It wasn’t long after that when I was down the block talking to a neighbor, and here came Calvin, riding his bike as though he’d been doing so for years — self-taught.

How much simpler would it be if they were able to teach themselves to drive a car? How much better would it be for our nerves if we could just send our teenagers away and have them return as safe and responsible drivers?

I told him that day a couple of weeks ago, as we made circle after circle in the vacant lot, that it amazes me that just anyone can drive. That we allow anybody who is of age and able to pass a fairly simple test the opportunity to wrap himself in metal and hurl himself down the interstate at 65 mph. And then I told him to “Brake!”

He’s a good kid, and I have faith that he’ll be a good, conscientious driver. I’m not sure how I’ll be as the parent of a driver, though. I don’t think there are any lessons for that, none that Mr. Rafael imparted anyway.

I can’t imagine that first time I’ll stand on the porch and wave my son away as he backs out on his own and heads into traffic. I’ll wish him well. And I’ll wish I could give him just one last word of advice: “Brake!”

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