Rich Dlin – Reader Beware

Husband, Father, Math Teacher, Weightlifter

So This Guy Has a Heart Attack

On Tuesday, August 26, 2014 I had a heart attack. I’m not the type of guy you would expect that to happen to. Shortly after it happened I wrote a long description of the events to share with friends. Some have told me that it may actually prove helpful for other people, so I am reposting it here on my blog.

First, as soon as it happened and as people found out, I received so many emails, texts, phone calls, and visits that I can’t even begin to count them. It’s like the support system of family, friends and colleagues is a big inflatable cushion that kind of hovers underneath as I move through life, inflating like an airbag in a crash when they are needed to carry me through. It’s overwhelming. Thank you.

I’ve gotten a lot of the same reaction from people when they find out.

“WTF? You’re so young and you exercise and eat right. How could this happen?” is a basic summary. Trust me, it summarizes my reaction as well. People have also asked more specific questions like how did I know it was happening and what did it feel like. I will answer with a narrative of events.

On Saturday August 23 I was doing cardio on the elliptical. Lately I’d been doing 45 minute sessions, 3 times a week. Towards the end of that session, I felt some pain in my chest which I thought was odd, but I chalked it up to asthma aggravated by the dust in the basement because we’ve had contractors in to finish the other side of the basement (my gym is the left side) for a couple of weeks. Once I got off the elliptical the pain went away, confirming my suspicion. It was not intense pain. Sunday, August 24 we went to Gravenhurst to spend the day at the cottage with my dad. It was a relaxing day where I didn’t do much, although my dad did buy a new barbecue and I carried it in from the car by myself, with no discomfort or trouble at all. The drive home took a lot longer than we thought because of traffic and I went straight to a rehearsal for the show I was supposed to be in. Rehearsal was fine and I went home and went to sleep. Monday, August 25 was the day I planned to start getting ready for the new school year. I had some boxes of vases from old parties and we are donating them to the school where I teach so I loaded them into the trunk of the car, along with a plastic bin full of empty binders. Got to school and brought the bin in and upstairs to the staff room. I was struggling quite a bit with it but attributed it to the heat. On my way up the stairs with the bin I had chest pains again and was sweating quite a bit, which I found very odd because the bin was not that heavy. At that point I was a little scared, but I sat down and recovered quickly. I went home, told my wife Marla what happened, and had a nap. Apparently Marla checked on me a few times during that nap to make sure I was breathing. I thought she was overreacting. Monday night we had rehearsal again and I went, and felt fine. Went home and went to sleep around 11, with slight pain in my chest but it felt a lot like heartburn, which I do suffer from regularly.

Tuesday morning I woke up at 4:00 and the chest pain was still there, only more intense. It still felt like heartburn and I wasn’t sure what to do. I was up for an hour, and Marla woke up around 4:45 or so asking if I was ok. I really wasn’t sure. I googled symptoms of heart attack and it’s a pretty wide range of things it can feel like actually, although chest pain that lasts for more than 5 minutes is not to be ignored. I also read that driving (or being driven) to the ER is not recommended, since if you call an ambulance you will be treated sooner (by the EMT’s) and also because the EMT’s can assess your condition and potentially take you to a different facility. At 5:00 am I decided to call 911. I was very upset at the thought of the kids waking up and finding emergency vehicles and people in the house. If the kids were not home I probably would have called earlier. I desperately didn’t want to scare them. It was bad enough I had already scared Marla. When you call an ambulance for chest pain they will also dispatch firefighters, because they can respond more quickly and are trained for first aid. While waiting I got dressed, brushed my teeth and sat down on the couch. The pain didn’t go away. Firefighters arrived and asked me a lot of questions about where the pain was and how intense. Shortly after that the EMT’s arrived and the firefighters filled them in as they hooked me up to an EKG monitor. The first readout showed something that concerned them a little, but two more readouts showed as normal. They asked me to rate the pain on a scale of 1-10, which I’ve always found odd since if I say 6 what does that mean to them? For all they know I would call a papercut a 10 (and now that I think about it I’ve had some pretty painful papercuts – every get one from cardboard? The worst). I said it was around a 3. They decided based on the first concerning readout not to take me to the closest hospital, which is Mackenzie Health, but to go a bit farther to Southlake, which is in Newmarket, because they have a cath lab there which is needed for angiograms and angioplasty. Score one for calling an ambulance instead of driving to the ER. We stopped at some point between my house and the hospital to meet another ambulance and a different EMT came in to attend to me. He’s the one who put the IV in and they gave me morphine for the pain (which was fluctuating between a 2 and a 7) and baby aspirin to thin my blood. At this point I still didn’t know if I was having a heart attack or they were just taking precautions. They called ahead to Southlake to have a team ready at the cath lab. We arrived and they wheeled me straight to the lab – do not pass Go, do not collect $200 – but there was no team there. Turns out they had accidentally called Sunnybrook, where there was certainly a team waiting for me, so they wheeled me to the cardiac care unit (CCU). This was around 6:30 am or so. The nurse in the CCU at Southlake called the team, which is always 20 minutes out. Meanwhile the cardiologist on duty came to see me. He looked at the EKG readout and was the first person to tell me with certainty that I was having a heart attack. In the meantime Marla had woken the kids and followed the ambulance up to the hospital, so they were already there. The kids were a little freaked out for sure, but I think the calm way everyone was dealing with it helped them a lot.

So anyway the cardiologist decided not to have the team come in since the morning shift was starting at 7 and they could do the procedure. He explained it to me and I had to sign some forms, and they wheeled me back in to the cath lab. They said the procedure would take about an hour. Nurses had shaved and washed my wrist and groin since those are the sites where they may insert the catheter. Once in the cath lab they must have put some good stuff into my IV because although I was conscious throughout the procedure it seemed to me to last about 15 minutes. It was actually an hour. The doctor decided to go through the wrist, and he explained everything as he did it. There was some pain from the freezing, and I could feel the catheter going up my arm. That sounds worse than it is – it’s really just a kind of pushing feeling. At one point my whole chest got warm. I said “My whole chest just got warm – is that you guys?” he said it was the dye the use for the angiogram. There’s a huge bank of screens that he watches as he does the procedure, and an x-ray device that moves back and forth over your chest as he works – it’s very cool. Kinda robotic. Anway I heard him asking the nurse for stents and I swear I could tell the moment he put them in because the chest pain went from about 5 to zero in an instant.

Once the procedure was done they wheeled me back to my room in CCU where Marla and the kids were waiting. There was a blue clamp bracelet on my wrist that was pretty damn tight (still bruised a month later) but otherwise I felt fine. My brother came and stayed for a while, then left and took the kids home. Marla stayed with me every second. The nurse came in often and was slowly releasing the clamp until he felt he could apply a pressure bandage instead, which he did. At that point I was overcome with nausea from the anesthetic and I vomited, which turned out to be bad for my wrist, which immediately swelled up and started bleeding (which it turns out is the reason I am still bruised). After applying pressure with his fingers for a while the nurse reapplied the blue clamp, leaving it on for much longer this time until he felt he could replace it with a pressure bandage.

In the meatime I was visitied by the cardiologist who performed the procedure. He told me I had one fully blocked artery and 3 partially blocked. He had stented the big one and two smaller ones but left one very small artery partially blocked and unstented, because it is very small and because it is not fully blocked and because too many stents at once is not the best thing for the body in any case. Additionally with a small artery like that one the body will create new arteries to replace it. I have before and after pictures of my arteries from the angiogram. They are spooky. That cardiologist also said that “most guys take at least a month of work” which shocked me as I felt ready to rock right then! I was also informed that I couldn’t stay at Southlake because I live closer to Mackenzie, and that as soon as there was a bed at Mackenzie I would be “repatriated”. Yes that is the word they used. I would have preferred extradited but it turns out there is no extradition treaty between Newmarket and Vaughan. A few hours later and they did have a bed at Mackenzie, so they called an ambulance to transport me there. I was sad to leave Southlake. It’s beautiful there, the nurses were superb, and I had a private room, but alas I am not a citizen of Newmarket.

At Mackenzie they wheeled me into a quad ward staffed with two dedicated nurses. The nurses there weren’t quite as attentive as the ones at Southlake, but then again I was somewhat out of the woods. They were very knowledgeable and answered all my questions patiently and thoroughly. Marla had followed the ambulance from Southlake to Mackenzie so she came right into the ward with me, and immediately got kicked out so that the nurses could apply about 763 new electrode pads to me (in addition to the 451 I already had), hook me up to a blood pressure cuff that automatically inflated every hour on the hour, and in general affix me to my bed with wires. Once that was done Marla came back in. She didn’t leave until long after visiting hours were over, and then only reluctantly. At Mackenzie I had a lot of visitors including my dad and his girlfriend, my two sisters, and my brother who came back.

Once everyone left and the night nurses settled in I tried to sleep but I had slept so much during the day that I could only drift in and out. Instead I answered texts and emails throughout the night. In the morning I saw the cardiologist at Mackenzie, who explained more specifically what had happened. I asked him what caused it. He said genetics – would have happened no matter what. He ordered some more tests, and left. The nurses told me that once he saw the results from the ECG I could most likely go home if I wanted to. ECG is an ultrasound on steroids, and shows the extent of damage caused by the heart attack. They wheeled me down to “nucular medicine” (I always laugh when people pronounce nuclear that way) and the lady there did the ECG. Marla was there too and got to watch. Said I might be pregnant. After that it was a short time before the cardiologist came back. He said that they rate hearts on a scale of 1-4, where 1 is a perfectly healthy heart and 4 is, well, not. Apparently there was damage done to the underside of my heart and I am at a 2. That’s good. He said that with a good rehab program getting to a 1 is possible, either by improving the damaged section or, if that’s not possible, by improving the parts that are not damaged to compensate. He put me on about 19 different drugs, gave me the prescription and sent me home. I didn’t have any clothes so Marla’s sister, who had driven in from out of town and was with the kids at our house, raided my wardrobe and brought some stuff for me. I was also visited by a good friend of ours who is a doctor – not my doctor but does rounds at Mackenzie – who was so nice to stop by and answer my stream of questions. Again the support from the community was overwhelming. I can’t even wrap my head around it.

When I saw the cardiologist again I asked him (I also our friend) if there was anything I did to bring this on. He said no. My blood cholesterol is normal, I have a low blood pressure, my heart rate is around 60 bpm, I am not diabetic, I exercise regularly, I don’t drink and I don’t smoke. He said it was hereditary. The good news to me is that arteries don’t block overnight so I imagine I’ll be feeling better than I have in a long time pretty soon. I am also on a drug regimen now that is designed to keep this from happening again. I certainly hope so! In retrospect it wasn’t that much fun.

If there’s a moral to this story, it is this:

DON’T IGNORE CHEST PAIN.

Follow up:

I have since been to a cardiac rehab orientation session that was chock full of information I already knew, have seen my family doctor and been to the cardiologist for follow-up. I’ve asked a lot of questions about why this happened. The answer is fully genetic. My arteries are bent a little too much in places. The bends cause turbulence as the blood flows awkwardly around them. The turbulence causes cholesterol to gather, which blocks the arteries. The stents prevent this from happening again, as does the regimen of drugs I am on now. The cardiologist did a cardiac stress test, which is basically a session on a treadmill where you are wired to machines that monitor your heart, and they slowly make the exercise more difficult. Since then I got the go ahead to resume exercise, so I have been lifting weights and doing cardio on the elliptical. I wasn’t significantly overweight before, but now that I am much more conscious of eating only heart-healthy meals I have lost about 12 lbs and am still losing fat. I am naturally concerned about a repeat episode, but the doctors assure me that with healthy living and the drugs, there is no reason to walk around worrying I might have another heart attack. So I do not.

Thanks for reading,

Rich

Customer Service Goodness

These days any time I have an encounter where I don’t receive crappy customer service I celebrate. Anyone I talk to generally agrees with this. Before entering teaching I worked in a software company, often supporting clients with questions or issues with our product. They would sometimes call feeling angry, frustrated and looking for someone’s head to rip off. Even though the problem was generally something they did, I always made sure to treat them with respect, absorb the negativity, and channel it into a solution. I never engaged in arguments or accusations, and I always made sure that if I said I was going to get something done for them I did, and right away. After all it wasn’t my reputation on the line but that of the company I worked for. But this attitude in customer service seems to be almost extinct.

Take Rogers for example (if you’re not from Eastern Canada, that’s one of the big telecommunications companies we have little choice but to deal with in these parts). Any time there is any issue we have to call about, my wife and I end up putting it off because we know, from experience, that it will be at least an hour on the phone, after which whatever we thought we had settled on would be incorrectly implemented and billed, so that upon receiving the next statement we would have another minimum one hour phone call to make.

So in the face of this dearth of good customer service, I decided to write today about a few extremely positive experiences I have had. People should definitely know about these, and hopefully bring their business to these companies. I also encourage you to share your own examples of excellent customer service in the comments. I’d love to read about them and reward them with my business when possible.

 

Example 1: Ontario Gas BBQ (http://www.bbqs.com)

A few years ago I had a Weber gas barbecue that I used all year round and I never covered it in the winter (so I wouldn’t have to clean ice and snow off a cover to use it). Because of this, the burners had quite a bit of rust on them, something for which I blamed nobody but myself. It got to the point where the flame was so uneven I couldn’t use the barbecue properly. So I figured I needed to buy new burners. To make sure I got the right ones, I took out the existing burners and brought them to Ontario Gas BBQ to buy replacements. The owner happened to serve me. He took my burners, went to the back and got the replacements and brought them to the cash. I had my credit card out ready to pay – it was about $120. Then he looked at the burners I had brought in and asked me why I was replacing them. I told him they were blocked and unusable from rust. He said

“Nonsense. They just need to be cleaned.” and then proceeded to clean them for me. Took him about 20 minutes. He charged me nothing. The man could have easily made a $120 sale and I would have been happy. He would not have lost my business because I love that place. I never would have known I’d wasted my money, but he would have. So that’s what he did. What I did was turn around and buy a $100 barbecue cover that I didn’t really intend to buy, because I wanted him to make some money from me that day.

(Epilogue: I used that cover but one day it blew off in a windstorm and I never found it. I suspect it is now being used as a tent in some Costa Rican honeymoon resort)

 

Example 2: Longo’s (http://www.longos.com/Home/Home.aspx)

Longo’s is a chain of grocery stores in my area. I don’t know how far out of the Greater Toronto Area they have stores, but if you have one near you, shop there. Longo’s has one of those loyalty programs that everyone seems to have these days. At the beginning, you could redeem earned points for merchandise from their website. My wife and I needed a new cookware set and they had one on their site that we really liked. Lagostina set, retails for about $320.

 

lagostina

Lagostina cookware set. Currently $320 at The Bay.

So we were saving our points for that. Then one day when I was cashing out at Longo’s the cashier told me that they were phasing out their merchandise rewards in favour of cash rewards in the store. I was sad about that, because we were still about 3000 points short for the set and we really wanted it. To earn 3000 points we’d need to spend another $1500 in groceries in a few weeks, which was obviously not going to happen. I emailed Longo’s and asked if there was any way to pay the difference between the points we had earned thus far and what we needed for the cookware set. If they had given me a dollar amount I needed to pay I would have been very happy with the service. Instead they immediately credited my points account with the 3000 extra points I needed (at no charge), and I ordered the set (it’s awesome, by the way). This was far beyond anything I had expected them to do, even in the best case.

 

Example 3: Mophie (http://www.mophie.com)

I have an iPhone 5 that I use intensely. I find that the battery life for me is only good for about 2/3 of a day. I decided I wanted a battery case for the phone and Mophie cases are a great (but expensive) choice. I had a case that I liked, the juice pack helium, but it only added about 80% more battery life to the phone and after about a year I decided to upgrade to the case that adds 120%. It’s the juice pack plus. That case also comes in red (part of the (Red) campaign), but it’s a little extra.

mophie_plus_red

Mophie juice pack plus, (Red)

For my birthday my brother and some good friends chipped in and bought me that case. With tax that’s about $150, which was certainly very nice of them. After a couple of months I started to suspect that there was something wrong with the battery in the case. It’s hard to be sure, but it seemed to me that I was consistently getting less battery life with the new case than I was with the old one, which makes no sense. The old one would take me from 20% battery to full charge and then some. The new case would often only get me to around 95%. I contacted Mophie through their website and explained the potential problem. Their response came the next morning, asking me to submit the serial number of the case and a scanned receipt. I responded telling them I had no receipt because it was a gift, but of course I did have the serial number. The next morning their response to that was to confirm my shipping address and they shipped me a new case, indicating that it was not necessary for me to return the old one. Wow. I received the new case 3 days later. When I plugged it in to charge it charged, but when I connected it to my phone the phone did not charge immediately, though it eventually did. I emailed them to let them know about that and their response was once again immediate. They shipped me another new one – no need to return the old one. In both cases I would have fully expected to have to return the old case, and not seen that as a problem. I received the second new one 3 days later. I posted about this excellent service on Facebook but the story doesn’t end there. A few days after receiving the second case I got an invoice from FedEx for customs charges for the first case. The phone cases were shipped from Michigan and I guess when they go through customs FedEx covers any charges at the border then bills the recipient. I figured I’d get a second bill from FedEx for the second case, which I did. Once I had both bills I contacted Mophie and without any argument (in fact, with an apology!) they asked me to send they scanned copies of the invoices so that they could pay them.

 

There you have it. These are three examples of beyond excellent customer service I have received. The sad part is that it’s the only three examples I can think of, but I know you have more. Please share your good ones in the comments section, so that more people can know about them, and please give your business to the three I’ve listed!

Thanks for reading,

Rich

Grief vs. Misery

During a conversation with a friend today I had occasion to think about the grief and misery I felt when my mother passed away almost five years ago, and also when the very young son of a close friend of mine passed away about two years before that. Grief. Misery. Two highly emotional words. I never really thought about them separately before, but they are quite different.

In both experiences the grief of the loss was immediate and profound. And in both cases the misery was painfully intense. In my conversation today I realized how separate these two emotions are when it comes to loss. Grief is a natural emotion stemming from losing someone you love. It’s that feeling of having something critical to your existence removed, violently and without your permission. It’s a feeling that combines powerlessness, loss and anger. It’s natural and even essential for continued survival. It paves the way for acceptance and growth.

When I think of my mother these days, I think of her beautiful soul, her love, and all that she gave me that makes me who I am now, and who I am now is someone I like. I owe her that, and my grief over her loss provided an intensification of my understanding of that.

When I think of my friend’s son, I remember how happy he was, how much joy he brought with him into a room, and the way he played with my kids when he visited from out of town, as if they’d been friends forever. I remember the way his passing brought so many people together – people who unquestioningly put aside any issues they may have had with each other so that they could be there to support the family and show that in times of extreme despair there is a community whose arms you can fall into when tragedy buckles your knees. To him I owe my ability to see past the petty sheen of casual interaction through to the deeper beauty of humanity. My grief over his loss brought me there.

Both losses still make me sad. That does not make me angry. I accept the sadness as part of my understanding of myself and others around me. The sadness is completely intertwined with my gratitude for having known them. When it surfaces, I feel the gratitude and joy right there with the sadness and I smile. The emotions coexist, as they should.

But then there’s misery. Misery doesn’t teach you anything and it doesn’t help you grow. Misery is a manifestation of your desire to punish yourself as a way of dealing with grief. When you lose someone, your helplessness can overwhelm you. It makes you want to hurt yourself as punishment, and misery is the device your brain will use to that purpose. When you let your grief bring misery, especially prolonged misery, what you are doing is enabling a self-induced torture to atone for your inability to recover the loss, and/or for your guilt at survival. Because you can neither bring a lost loved one back, nor justify emotionally your survival over theirs, you invoke misery as a way of evening the cosmic scale. But it’s a false need and it blocks your grief. Your loved one does not want you to suffer the misery. They want you to absorb their legacy and use it to be bigger and better than you were.

So accept your grief and let it wash over you, but resist the temptation to fall into misery. Nobody can control whether an emotion surfaces or not, but you can use your rational brain to evaluate the source. Experience the grief, and it will pass into something more. Reject the misery.

Thanks for reading,

Rich

Choose Your Memories

Short blog today based on a conversation I had recently.

I was talking to a graduating student about how he is going to choose a university. He has been accepted into his two top choices and he doesn’t know how he will decide which one to attend. One university is more widely recognized but would mean moving far from home, where none of his friends will go, and has a more difficult program. The other university is closer to home and has a slightly easier program. Both offer the same degree. After discussing that this was a nice problem to have, I gave him the advice I always give myself. Choose your memories.

Choose your memories

The simple truth is that all you are is your memories. The present is a fleeting instant, and the future is unknowable, so your whole life experience – and how you view yourself – is based on your memories of the past. In fact, there is an interesting perspective that points out that since it takes a small amount of time to process what your senses are perceiving, our “present” is in fact already past, which is pretty weird to think about. But that aside, too often people think about a choice like the one my student must make in terms of how the choice will affect their future. The truth is it’s much better to think about how it will affect your past. I asked him which memory he wants.

Which memory do you want?

He didn’t know what I meant by that. I said, picture yourself 10 years down the road. Right now I know that whichever university you attend you will finish the program. So 10 years from now, looking back at your decision, which one will you want to be glad you made? Who would you rather be? The dude with the memory of university A or the one with the memory of university B?

Choices are an opportunity to build the memory you want, which ultimately means to build the person you want. In this way they are very exciting. Every choice is your chance to be more awesome. Take control of your character and choose the memories you’ll be glad to have, so that you can be the person you want to be.

Thanks for reading,

Rich

Politicians Don’t Win Elections

Last night the Liberal party got elected to a majority government in the province of Ontario. This means Kathleen Wynne remains the Premier of Ontario. I am disgusted. To be fair, there was no outcome that would not have resulted in my disgust so no need for Liberal party freaks to go all ballistic on me – unless you think it will make you feel better in which case go ahead. It’s a free internet.

Anyway … today I’ve seen countless pictures of Wynne doing the fist pump victory pose.

 

Kathleen Wynne after being elected Premier in 2014

Kathleen Wynne after being elected Premier in 2014

 

Each time I see one of these photos I get more and more irritated, and I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about why that is. Contrary to the obvious reason, it is not because I wanted someone else to get elected, because I really don’t think anyone who was running was going to be worse than anyone else. It is also not because I feel let down in general, although I do.

No, I’ve come to realize that I am irritated by what it represents. It represents victory, and getting elected is not a victory. At least that’s not what it’s supposed to be. It’s supposed to be an assignment.

It is absolutely disgusting that politicians celebrate an election as though they won a lottery, or some kind of major sports championship. In sports, skill, long hours of practice, unwavering dedication to excellence and gritty determination in competition lead to victory. In sports you have to best your opponent and the championship is the reward for doing so. It is meaningful because it represents the culmination of all the work that went into winning, and it warrants celebration as a way of saying “Yes! Look at what we have accomplished!”

In politics getting elected does not mean you have accomplished anything of significance. It means you managed to convince a population that you are the right leader, who, in theory, intends to accomplish a great deal. These days that means you were the best liar with the most effective propaganda campaign, who most successfully demonized the other candidates, along with a mainstream media that shoveled your lies for you. How admirable.

 

Dalton McGuinty after being elected Premier in 2011

Dalton McGuinty after being elected Premier in 2011

The big celebrations politicians have make me wonder – really, deeply wonder – if they realize that what they have “won” is the burden to lead responsibly and to follow through on the promises to their constituents, as opposed to advancing their own personal goals of fame, power and money. It means they have been given a chance to accomplish great things. Getting elected to public office is the beginning of a long season. It is not a championship. But politicians sure act like it is. They prance around and accept the praise of the minions as though they have earned some great personal victory. As though they have WON.

See how victorious they are? See how they accept the love and praise of the crazed masses?

A political victory is not a trophy. It’s a gigantic group of people saying “You said you could make this world better for us. We believe you. we trust you. Please do it.”

I can hear the arguments now. People will say “They are celebrating the opportunity to follow through on campaign promises and to make positive change. They are celebrating with the constituents because they believe, more fervently than anyone else, that their getting elected is the best thing that could happen for the population and they only want what’s best.”

To those people I say “Do you really believe that? Do you really believe the celebration is not a great big self-congratulation on how awesome the person is?”

Our society and our politicians have forgotten what it means to elect a leader in a democracy. We’ve forgotten that it means we just hired someone to do an important job. That they work for us. What other job has the bosses throwing giant adoration parties for the new hire? It’s absurd. In any company a boss celebrates an employee only after they have made good on the promise they showed in the interview process. They don’t attend parties thrown by the new employee and cheer rabidly as the person they just hired raises their arms in victory.

If it were me having been elected I would not be celebrating. I would be scared to death in much the same way I was when my kids were born, or the first time I had to go into a classroom and be an educator and mentor to a room full of other people’s children. I would be looking forward to celebrating the successes of my tenure in much the same way I celebrate my kids’ successes as they grow, or my students’ successes as they learn. I would be standing in front of my constituents, humbled, acknowledging that I understand the burden of the trust they have placed in me, and then I would get to work. I would save celebrations for times when something was accomplished that made their lives better. I would not have a party to kick it all off, simply so political junkies could hoist me on a pedestal and proclaim my greatness. Maybe that’s a character flaw of mine, but I don’t think so.

And I would not pump my fists.

My fist pumps would come later. After I had actually accomplished something people could celebrate.

Thanks for reading,

Rich

Arithmophobia (Fear of Math): My Thoughts

I’ve been a high school math teacher for 11 years now, and I’ve also been tutoring students privately for even longer than that. Consequently I’ve seen the whole spectrum of math students. Everything from the freakishly gifted to the astonishingly weak, For the most part I think this is fine. Some people are wired for certain things and some are not. I am not wired to be a sprinter. I could train my butt off for years and still not qualify for a track team. I’ve made peace with that.

What I don’t think is fine however, is the growing number of math-phobic students I am seeing. Students whose deep fear of math is so intense that it is almost impossible to determine where their strengths and weaknesses in the subject are. To understand what I mean think of a person who suffers from stage fright so severely that every time they sing in front of even a small group of people their throat closes up and all they can manage is a pathetic croak. Anyone listening would conclude this person is a terrible singer. Yet it may not be true. The neurosis camouflages the talent and it’s impossible to know what the person’s singing ability really is. What makes it worse is that it is extremely difficult to evaluate the cause of poor performance. After all, some people just can’t sing.

In math these students whose fear interferes with their performance very often conclude that they have no ability in the subject, which further feeds the phobia. A seriously vicious cycle that is difficult to break, even after it’s been recognized. So my question as of late has been, what’s causing the increase in math-phobic students?

I don’t have research to back my conclusions. It’s all purely anecdotal. However these observations have been made from the trenches. I see these students every day, in a classroom setting and one-on-one, for over 11 years. Here are my thoughts.

Poor Evaluation Criteria
More and more I am becoming convinced that this may be one of the single biggest causes of arithmophobia. I am talking about the alarming tendency for students’ grades to not reflect their ability, due to poor evaluation criteria. I’ll give you an example.

A simple linear equation to solve.

A simple linear equation to solve.

here is one student’s work, graded:
A flawed solution to the simple equation.

A flawed solution to the simple equation.

and here is another student’s work, also graded:

The equation answered correctly but not traditionally.

The equation answered correctly but not traditionally.

The first student received a mark of 2/3, which rounds to 67%. What are we to take from this? Imagine the student coming home with a report card that says 67% in math. What would the parents conclude? What would an independent observer (like a university) conclude about a grade of 67% in math? The easiest and most likely answer is that this is a student who grasps roughly 67% of the concepts covered in math. With respect to this question and the topic it tests, it means the student grasps only 67% of the concept of solving linear equations. Now based on their work, do you believe that is a true assessment? What would we have this student believe? It’s disturbing to say the least.

But significantly more disturbing is the grade of 0/3 assigned to the second student. This student answered the question correctly, however the traditional approach is to assign one mark per step in the question, and since the student did not show any of the expected work, he lost all marks. Now he has 0%. What would that say to parents and universities? Most disturbingly, what does it say to the child?

Stop and ask yourself what it means to solve an equation. The above equation, translated to English, states that

“There is a number which is multiplied by 4 and then the product is reduced by 3, for a result of 29.”

The instruction “Solve for x” means

“Tell me what the number is.”

Student 2 has successfully done just that. Period. End of discussion. Not only has he correctly answered the question, but in doing so has demonstrated that he understands the question and has the higher level thinking skills to answer it without employing any traditional algorithms. And we work in an educational system which has evolved to tell this student that he is so bad at math he gets a zero. Shame on us. Shame on us all.

So what happens to this student? Well from my experience he either dismisses the subject as “a stupid bunch of rules” (and who can blame him? When the answer is so obvious what value is there in writing down a bunch of steps that do nothing more than add tedium?), or he “learns” that to be good at math you have to suppress your instincts and replace them with the all-important STEPS. And let me tell you something. By the time you get to senior math in high school, there are a lot of steps! There’s no way most of us – myself very much included – could memorize all those steps, know precisely when to apply them, and do so with complete accuracy and precision every time.

Enter fear.

Imagine for a second you are a dog. A puppy. You mean no harm to anyone and in fact are a bouncing bundle of happiness and joy. Unfortunately you have an owner who has anger issues. You’ve discovered that your owner hates it when there is pee on the carpet in the house. The reason you know this is because every time he discovers any he loses his temper and yells. So in order to help, you begin peeing in hiding places around the house. To a dog this makes a lot of sense and is very considerate. Unfortunately all this does is make your owner even more angry, to the point where he smacks you every time he discovers the hidden pee. Result? You are now afraid of the owner, and afraid of peeing. Nothing productive comes of this because despite your best efforts, and despite the fact that you are doing what you think is right, you are still getting in trouble. That is a recipe for fear. And that is what happens to students who do what they think/know is right, but get rewarded with marks like 0/3 for their efforts. How can a person continue with a positive attitude under those kinds of circumstances?

What also happens to a large number of students is that over the years, as they fail more and more to memorize the right “rules”, they become more and more disillusioned with themselves. The mathematics becomes totally obscured by the algorithms, to the point where students believe that the algorithms are the mathematics, and can hardly be convinced otherwise.

I tutor a student named Randy and she is in grade 7. Here is a question from a test she wrote recently.

Sam has answered the question “7 – 3 ½” with “4 ½”. Sam says this is because seven minus three is four, and then there’s an extra half to make four and a half. Is Sam correct? Explain.

Here is what Randy wrote:

Sam is not correct. To answer the question you have to convert 7 and 3 ½ to improper fractions, then subtract the numerators, then convert your answer back to a mixed number. This is what Sam should have done:
7 – 3 ½ = 14/2 – 7/2
= 7/2
= 3 ½
So the correct answer is 3 ½

For this answer Randy received a “2+” which is a mark out of 4, with these comments from the teacher: “What was wrong with Sam’s thinking? How could he modify his strategy so that it would work? Expand on your answer.”

Hmmmmmmm. My thoughts as a teacher were immediately “Those comments would have made good questions for students to answer on the test instead of criticisms of Randy’s answer”. In any case let’s have a look at how this result impacted Randy.

So marks out of 4 like this one can be roughly converted to percentages, which they ultimately will be for reporting purposes. A mark of “2+” converts to around 65%-70%. I implore you, dear reader, to tell me just exactly how Randy has shown her capabilities in subtracting mixed numbers from whole numbers to be 30% less than perfect. The message to Randy?

Because you were unable to extrapolate from the word “explain” that I, your teacher, was expecting you to delve into the mind of a person who, unlike yourself, can not subtract mixed numbers from whole numbers, I conclude that you, Randy are a mediocre math student, at best. Despite the fact that the question was in two parts (“Is Sam correct?” and “Explain”), and that you addressed both correctly, you should have known that what I was really looking for was for you to help Sam understand why his thinking was wrong, despite the fact that it did not say this anywhere in the question and despite the fact that Sam is a fictitious person. Please work harder from now on so that you may become a better math student.

Randy was in tears over her results. She said she was sure she understood the material going into the test but she’s just bad at math and she hates it and she is never going to be good at it. It took quite an effort on my part to show Randy that she completely and perfectly understands subtraction of mixed numbers from whole numbers and that the real flaw is the question. I’m not sure she is totally convinced and her grade in math will certainly not reflect what I know to be true so it will be a difficult pill for her to swallow. Randy is developing a serious case of arithmophobia based on experiences like this. She is not wired to “know what the teacher means”. She reads instructions and takes them literally, and then answers them as best she can, usually correctly. But since there is more wrapped up in the evaluation criteria than is revealed in the question itself, Randy is rewarded for her efforts with marks like “2+”. To her this makes math incomprehensible, and who can blame her? To her math is now a mysterious subject with weird expectations that you have to “just know”, and what hope does she have of being able to do that?

So what can we do? The answer is as simple to state as it is difficult to implement in today’s education environment:

Let’s start teaching MATH again. And when we grade a student’s work let’s stop comparing what they did to some sort of “template of perfection” and instead evaluate what the work we see says about the student’s fundamental understanding of the mathematical concepts. Solving an equation means finding the values of the variable that make the equation true. The fact that we have algorithms for solving equations is wonderful and essential for very difficult equations, but let’s not punish students who are able to understand and solve without the algorithm! Let’s celebrate those students because they are the ones who really get it. The algorithms can be introduced and reinforced later when the equations get harder, but it serves no purpose to tell a student like that they are bad at math, for they are truly not. And for students like Randy? Let’s throw away the rubrics and fancy words and assess what their work tells us about their abilities. If we want Randy to extend her knowledge to be able to help Sam modify his strategy so that it will work let’s help her with that, but there is very little value in tying her grade in math to that ability, unless that ability is very specifically what we are trying to teach and assess, in which case we need to ask ultimately how much is that worth and how should it be reflected in the grade that she will use to determine her performance?

Arithmophobia is real and it is getting worse each year. We must change what we are doing if we want to reverse the trend.

Thanks for reading,

Rich

What the Gym Has Done For Me

Growing up I had a lot of strengths for sure. I did pretty well in school, had a good sense of humour, a loving family and was always blessed with good close friends. But one thing was definitely not a strength: athletics. There was never a team sport where I didn’t get picked last and I certainly never cut that dashing athletic figure that some kids seemed to me to have been born with.

(BIG side note here – the large majority of adults you see that have that dashing athletic physique were NOT born with it … but I learned that little tidbit much later)

As a young child I was sick with asthma, and so I was always very thin. When I hit puberty and my body started demanding more food I began to fill out, but not in any good way. I just got fat. And as I got older it got worse. When my son was a baby in the late 90′s I couldn’t carry him upstairs to his change table to change his diaper without stopping to catch my breath. I have a vivid picture embedded in my mind of him lying on the change table in a dirty diaper and me standing over him huffing and waiting to catch my breath before I could change his diaper. All from carrying a 15 lb baby up a flight of stairs.

I won’t bore you with too many more details. I just wanted to paint a picture of who I was – a smart, funny, happy, fat guy. I experimented with different diets with varying degrees of success. One which I did fairly well with was The Zone diet, which took me from a size 40 waist to a size 32. And that was the beginning of my interest in the gym.

At first, my goals were all about looks. After losing all the weight on The Zone I found I was just skinny. I wanted pecs, shoulders, and abs. I joined a little gym near my house and applied the same dedication to working out that I had applied to adhering to the diet. The owner was a former competitive bodybuilder and a bodybuilding judge at the time. I knew nothing about working out and I was happy to let him design workouts for me. With his background he naturally designed workouts with bodybuilding in mind. Being a tech nerd I typed them into excel and shrank it down so I could tape it to the inside of my logbook. It’s still there though I’ve long since moved on to other plans.

These are the workouts the owner designed for me. I taped them to the inside of my journal so I'd know what to do.

These are the workouts the owner designed for me. I taped them to the inside of my journal so I’d know what to do.

I remember asking him how long it would take for me to actually see results. He said about 3-4 months. Great! I put my nose to the grindstone and did everything he said, and marked it on the calendar. I still have the log book I used when I started.

I did not see results after 3-4 months.

Now that’s not because the gym owner was lying. Most people should see results after that length of time. But I learned that my body is not “most people”. And that revelation may be the single most important thing the gym has done for me. I did not give up. I knew I was working hard and although maybe the mirror didn’t show much of anything, I was enjoying the workouts and loving the feeling of pushing myself past limits. Here are some entries from the very front of my logbook:

Here are some log entries from my first workouts. Back then I did not include the weight of the bar - I didn't know how much it weighed. Seriously!

Here are some log entries from my first workouts. Back then I did not include the weight of the bar – I didn’t know how much it weighed. Seriously!

If you’re having trouble deciphering my handwriting join the club. My students love it. Here’s what it says (I’ll add the weight of the bar in, now that I have that capability)

Deadlift: 95 X 5, 115 X 5, 135 X 5
Leg Press: 90 X 8, 180 X 8, 270 X 8, 320 X 6
Close Grip Bench Press: 65 X 8, 95 X 8, 95 X 7, 95 X 6
Squats: 115 X 12
Bench Press: 95 X 8, 115 X 6, 155 X 8
1-Arm Dumbbell Rows: 40 X 5, 40 X 5, 45 X 5

These were big lifts for me, although looking at other lifters I knew they weren’t big lifts. I had to make a choice pretty quickly: keep comparing myself to others, let the depression set in and give up, or compete with myself and celebrate my victories. It wasn’t an obvious choice, despite what all the self-help and life coaches will tell you. I had gotten through life to that point without being a lifter and I could certainly rejoin the masses and be happy and healthy. Maybe take up running.

But that was not the choice I made. I wanted to get better. I had to get better. Better and best are two very different words. Better is a journey. Best is a destination. And since living is a journey, I’ve always chosen better. I don’t need to be the best, though I can’t say I mind when it happens. But I always need to be better. I despise stagnation. So I accepted that my body is mine, and I kept at it. I also took lots of progress pics, for which I am very grateful. Here is a comparison of just before I started lifting to how I looked 3 years later:

The difference 3 years of dedicated lifting and good eating made to my physique.

The difference 3 years of dedicated lifting and good eating made to my physique.

There are changes, but they’re not drastic. If we are being honest most of the difference between the two pictures is how I’m standing and the fact that I shaved my little patch of fur. However there is some delt and tricep development noticeable, although it’s very slight.

I’ve been immersed in the lifting culture for 13 years now. I know that some the people reading this are thinking Dude, if that’s all 3 years got you then you were not doing it right. But here’s the thing, and you can take it or leave it. I was “doing it right”. I was lifting consistently 5 days a week, improving my lifts constantly, eating 5-7 meals a day, making sure to eat 1-1.5 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight, and all those other things one is “supposed” to do. And that’s what I got. Because that is my body. It resists change. But it changes.

Fast forward to today. I’ve had lots of victories and lots of defeats. I’ve been injured a few times, had my motivation ebb and flow, and of course I’m 13 years older. I’ve changed careers, pursued passions and experienced lots of joys and sadness. But this whole time I have been a lifter. And here are some lessons I’ve learned. I like lists so I’ll give you my thoughts in list form.

  • Compete with yourself
    In all areas of my life, I never compete with others anymore. I always compete with myself. When I do something I’ve done before, I always work my hardest to make sure I do it better. Whether it’s academics (I just completed a Masters degree), my career (every time I teach a lesson I use what I learned from previous ones to make it better), my singing, or pretty much anything. I don’t always beat the old me, but I always try to. And when I fail, I learn.
  • Think long term
    It’s very easy to get bogged down in daily routine and get stuck in status quo. But each day should be about advancing yourself in some small way. Make a plan. Stick to the plan. You may not see changes or progress from one day to the next but if your plan is solid you will see progress in the long run. Never forget your plan. When you suffer setbacks acknowledge them as setbacks. There are peaks and valleys but if you zoom out you will see the steady rise.
  • Don’t set artificial boundaries
    You can always decide that you are fated to remain a certain way. But what a shame that is. Always aim high. If you set boundaries on what you can do you’ll live within them. It’s not necessary.

All of these things are things I learned in the gym, and apply to my life. They are not the result of a seminar I went to (or a blog I read…), they are the result of my results in the gym, so I don’t have to convince myself to believe them because I live them. I am so grateful for this.

So now, although I certainly don’t complain about changes to my physique and I do want them, I don’t lift for looks. I stopped lifting for looks a very, very long time ago. I lift because of what it teaches me and how it affects my mindset in life.

Oh, I almost forgot (no I didn’t! ;)). Planning long-term and acting on that plan works. It’s the zoom-out that proves it. After 13 years of lifting, I can zoom out a bit. I have gotten results in my lifts and my physique! Incremental at the time, they sure do add up.

Here are some updated lifts from workouts over the last few months. For most I chose lifts I have video of:

Deadlift: 405 X 4 (here’s video)
Leg Press: 900 X 10 (I don’t have video of this)
Close Grip Bench Press: 265 X 5 (here’s video)
Squats: 365 X 4 (here’s video)
Bench Press: 295 X 4, 315 X 1 (here’s video of the 315 X 1, it’s a personal best)
1-Arm Dumbbell Rows: 140 X 5 (here’s video)

And here’s a progress comparison picture after 10 years of lifting:

What 10 years of lifting has done for my body.

What 10 years of lifting has done for my body.

Thanks for reading,

Rich

On Excellence

Yesterday I was having a conversation with a few of my graduating students about their post-secondary plans. It came up that many students are making choices about which schools to attend and which courses to take based on how easy they think it will be to get high grades, so that they have a better chance of getting into programs like medical school. This is not something I was surprised to hear, as I’ve heard it many times. There are schools in our province that have the reputation for being “hard” and those that are reputed to be easy. Go to an easy school, get high grades, then coast into med school.

My question has always been “Ok, and then what?”

The answer?

“Then I’ll be a doctor.”

That’s when I always want to know what kind of doctor they plan to be. I don’t mean what area of medicine – I mean what level of competence. Very very few students say they want to be mediocre. They all plan on being excellent. I can’t help but wonder how they intend to make that true. I have questions.

What is the path to true excellence? Is it an easy one? Is it possible to simply do whatever it takes to get there as easily and quickly as possible, and then once there reap the rewards? Many think so, but it’s not true.

The path to excellence does not exist. Excellence is not a place you go. Excellence is a mode of travel.

So while there may be no path to excellence, there is a path of excellence. There is also the easy path, and they are very much not the same journey. If you want to be excellent – if you want to live on that path, then you need to work at it. It’s hard, and there are way more people choosing the easy path, but excellence is the most rewarding path there is. Yet so many people spend so much effort trying to look excellent instead of actually working to be excellent. And this is a source of great stress. When everyone around you appears to be perfect, and you know you are not, it can make you crazy. So students do what they can to appear perfect. Taking easy courses, engaging in academic dishonesty (that’s modern speak for cheating for you old-fashioned folk out there) and essentially making diligence and discipline the last resort.

My students say, “But if I take harder courses I’ll get lower marks and I won’t get into med school.”

I say, ‘Not true! Take hard courses and get high marks! It can be done. There are people doing it. Be one of those people. Be the person everyone is afraid they have to compete with instead of the person taking easy courses to compete.”

If you choose to take the easy path to get where you want to go, then once you think you’ve made it you will discover that there’s no way to leap the chasm to the path of excellence. You will be a walking fraud.

On the other hand, if you dedicate every step to being excellent then when you become a doctor (or whatever else it is that you want to be), you will be an amazing one. Having dedicated yourself to the path of excellence you won’t have to pretend to be excellent, because you will be the paradigm of it.

My message is simple. If you want to look excellent, then be excellent. Maintaining a shell of excellence draped over a mediocre core will erode your spirit. Be bulletproof. Don’t look excellent. Be excellent. It’s way less stressful.

Thanks for reading,

Rich

The Death of the Mistake

(Disclaimer: NOT ALL PARENTS are guilty of what I describe in this blog, so please don’t take it personally. But many are. Far too many.)

I’ve made a lot of mistakes in my life. I imagine you have too. Some of mine are pretty indelible for me.

Like the time my friend and I were playing with fire (literally) and almost burned down a hotel. We were scared to death and actually grateful we got caught.

Like the time I decided I could get through that intersection before the car coming from the left got there. Result? One totaled car that wasn’t even mine. It was my girlfriend’s car.

Like the time I thought I could get away without studying for my final exam in STAT 331 and still scrape a credit in the course. I earned a 42. I asked the prof to remark the exam which he did. The mark went down.

I didn’t like any of these or the countless others when they happened. Actually they felt pretty miserable. Yet each one has had an impact on decisions I made later in life and each one of those failures thus resulted in bigger successes. This is not a revolutionary concept. The phrase “we learn from our mistakes” is not new. But have you ever considered exactly how true it is? We aren’t born with an abundance of knowledge. In fact we are born with almost none. We know how to do things like breathe and cry and fill diapers, but we can’t even control those actions much. At first, all the knowledge we accrue comes from our innate curiosity and willingness to take risks. What’s funny is that as babies we don’t even know we are risking anything. We’re just really curious. Watch all the stuff a baby is willing to put in his mouth. You’ll know exactly what I mean. So babies try things and sometimes the result is pleasant or satisfying and other times its not. Each experience whether success or failure goes into the data bank and both guides subsequent experiments and imbues us with confidence regarding our ability to reproduce successes. In this way it is completely correct to categorize both “success” and “failure” as positive outcomes. And yet we have attached so much negativity to the word failure that it has become a thing to be reviled and feared … avoided at all costs. Which is a true tragedy, because success in the absence of failure is yin without yang.

As time passes the culture we grow up in imposes a formalized education, mainly because there is value placed on certain nuggets of knowledge. This happens in the form of school. And that’s where I come in.

Sort of. I teach high school so I guess I come in about 10 years later. After 10 years of a system which has sadly killed the mistake. Kids are no longer encouraged or allowed to experiment. They have to “get it right” the first time. Many parents spend insane amounts of energy making sure their children never experience failure, defeat or mistakes. A friend of mine calls this phenomenon “the snowplow parenting” model. The parents walk ahead of the child, plowing all obstacles out of the way, frantically making sure that no failure is ever experienced. As the child grows and the potential obstacles increase, parents run themselves ragged continuing to pave a smooth way. The effect this has on the kids is incredibly frightening. The child grows up not ever really experiencing a failure, but watching parents become more and more neurotic making sure this “failure monster” never has a chance to get near their kid. It’s a doubly-bad edged sword. First, no failure is ever experienced so there is no chance for the best kind of learning and second, the children pick up on this deep fear of failure and when they find themselves faced with the potential for a mistake they freeze in terror at the possibility. In short, they are simply not equipped to deal with anything but a smooth road, and lack the understanding and confidence that comes from having failed.

So what I see in my math class is kids who are petrified of assessment. I have seen kids cry when they earn a mark in the 90′s on a test. Worse, I’ve seen kids with marks in the 90′s crying when they come in to write a test because of how afraid they are that they might make a mistake. And I’ve had to defend marks to parents who insist to me not that their child earned a higher mark, but that their child needs the higher mark. In grade 9. A grade that no university or college even remotely cares about. A grade for which no scholarships are awarded. Yet the child needs the higher mark. Lest they experience failure.

This phenomenon may actually be the single biggest threat to our culture. Thanks to Snowplow Parents we are raising a generation of kids who have never had a chance to experiment and fail. Never a chance to pursue curiosity, which is the spark for innovation. So what we get is anxiety-ridden underperformers with huge self-esteem issues, fostered by parents who have made it clear that the child is not capable of fending for themselves and thus needs the parents’ involvement every step of the way.

Parents, please. Take a step back. Watch them do it themselves. Watch them fail and celebrate the failure. Mistakes are critical for evolution. Let’s bring them back. Let’s start the Mistake Revival.

Thanks for reading,

Rich

Cell Phones and Independence

The other day my wife and I were doing some grocery shopping when her phone rang.

Side note: Before I continue with my post, I had to stop and read that first sentence over again. Read it again yourself. Now if you’re old enough, imagine it was 1988 and read it again. In 1988 language that sentence is pretty much a total non-sequitur. Today it is perfectly sensible. Funny how time-dependent the reasonableness of some assertions are.

Ok. So I was talking about my wife’s phone. She picked it up and saw that the call was coming from home. Conclusion – it’s one of the kids. She answered it of course. You don’t ignore calls from your kids who are home alone. Right? It was our 11-year old daughter on the phone. She was calling because our 15-year old son was on his computer Skyping (a verb that didn’t exist in 1988) with a friend and was unwilling to help her get something down from a tall shelf. He’s 6 feet tall, she’s 5’4 or so. In our house things on tall shelves are retrieved using my son or myself (I’m 5’11). In her mind, he was failing to uphold a sacred duty and as such, she was unable to continue with whatever plan she had that required the thing on the tall shelf. Crisis.

While my wife was dealing with the situation, I pulled out my phone to check Facebook. Naturally. I mean, you don’t just check Facebook while you’re on a grocery date with your wife but if she’s otherwise occupied go ahead, right? Of course. Everyone knows this. It’s smartphone etiquette 101 (try that one in 1988). So I pull out my phone and lo and behold, 2 missed calls from home. Guess I didn’t feel it vibrating over the hum of the freezer section while I was selecting a bag of frozen perogies (ok, that one works in 1988, but back up to 1903! Hmmm …). After my wife hung up, she noted 2 missed calls from home on her phone as well.

In case you’re wondering, the solution she offered was for my daughter to climb up on the counter and get the thing on the tall shelf, which is precisely what happened and everyone survived.

So my first instinct was to be mildly irritated that my daughter would need to bother us in the middle of a romantic stroll through the produce section with this issue. There was a simple solution and there’s really no reason why she should not have just done it without 5 phone calls. I had a plan to go home and have a chat with her about independence. She’s 11 and old enough to know better. I was laying the blame for this admittedly minor situation completely at my daughter’s feet. Then I realized what you may realize already. It’s not her fault. It’s ours. But maybe not in the way that you would think.

See, my kids have grown up with cell phones as a thing. When my wife and I go out we are always reachable. Now if we were home and some similar crisis were to arise, one of us would resolve it as parents tend to do. We resolve a million little things every day without really thinking about it: “I can’t find my shirt”, “There’s a spider on the wall in the bathroom”, “The dog threw up on the carpet”,  … the list goes on. It’s a natural knee-jerk reaction for a kid to notify/defer to a parent with these things. Then at some point we either realize the kid is old enough to handle it on their own and let them know, or preferably the kid realizes that on their own and we never even find out the crisis arose and was subsequently averted.

And you know what occurred to me? That as I was growing up, I most often realized it on my own. And you know what kind of situations made me realize it? Situations when there was no adult around. Situations that needed to be dealt with and my only option was to deal with them on my own. I didn’t always deal with them the same way my parents might have, and I didn’t always deal with them very well the first time around, but deal with them I did. Because if my parents were out of reach I had no other choice.

And that’s it right there. With cell phones we are a generation of parents that are never out of reach. Like never. So that same instinctive reaction to turn to a parent for help is easily satisfied even when the parent is not present. And as parents we don’t always think about it. It takes a second to say “climb up and get it yourself”. It seems like no crime has occurred. But it has. The child has been robbed of the opportunity to solve a problem independently. And those opportunities are critical. Critical.

I have lots of stories but I’ll tell you only one more. It happened a year ago during a parent-teacher interview. At the time the student was in the tenth grade. 15 years old. She was going downtown to meet someone to job shadow for the day since there was no school for her. During the interview with her parents she called twice. They took the call of course. How do you not take a call from your 15-year old daughter when you know she’s downtown alone? So what did she want? Well both times she wasn’t sure which direction to go. The first time was when she got off the subway and didn’t know which street exit to take. The second was when she got to the street and didn’t know which direction she wanted to go so she didn’t know which bus to wait for. She’s a very bright girl. I’ve taught her for two years in a row now. She could have figured it out. What’s more, if her dad had not answered the phone she would have figured it out. Because her only other choice would be to curl up in a fetal position on the subway platform and wait for doom. And I have to tell you, she would not have made that choice. The smart money is on her asking someone in the subway. Like someone who works there. Imagine such a thing.

So what am I saying? Throw away the cell phone? Stop taking calls from the kids? Buy a step-stool?

Actually, none of those things. Cell phones are good for a lot of things (and step-stools around my house just end up being something for me to bark my shin on). But like any tool they can be used for evil too. So here’s my proposition, and we’ve already told our kids about it. I don’t expect them (especially my daughter) to know right away which things they need to consult us on and which they don’t. Some are obvious. If a Mongolian horde is descending on the house then yeah, give us a call. If there’s no toilet paper in the bathroom then maybe that’s one they can field on their own. Somewhere between running to the laundry room (where we store the big Costco package of toilet paper) with your pants around your ankles and positioning soldiers on the parapets with cauldrons of hot oil lies a range of solutions, some of which need a consult and most of which do not. So I’ve told them to think before they call. If they’re not sure, call. But if my wife or I know they can handle it on their own our only response will be “Handle it on your own. Love you. See you later. The oil is under the sink.”

In this way I hope to speed up the independence-gaining process which really seems to have been delayed by years in the younger generations.

Thanks for reading,

Rich

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