The Last Post

Last PostIt’s been over a year since I posted, and this post will be the last. I’ve had a lot of fun here and learnt a great deal from all the people I’ve come into contact with through blogging, but since my very first post in 2011 I’ve also struggled with a number of recurring reservations and dilemmas that have never been resolved to my own satisfaction.

It seems to me that in the blogosphere, the pressures of finding weekly topics, of building and engaging with an audience, of being ‘PR friendly’ and of having a shot at that most holiest of grails – the viral post – results in blogs tending to cluster around a number of familiar styles within any given ‘genre’.

In the case of expat blogs there are those that enthuse with florid prose adorned with diligently attributed photos, and those that emote with self-deprecation and dark humour, and those that proffer coping strategies, reinforced with panaceas of positivity and a self-published ebook on Amazon. This list isn’t intended to be exhaustive, of course, but I’d be surprised if 90% of expat blogs couldn’t be listed in around half a dozen categories such as these.

A pattern has emerged among parent blogs too, featuring, for example, the sassy and irreverent (usually moms), or the quirky & ‘random’ (usually dads), not to mention the wholesome and didactic, best delivered, in my view, by a spousal joint venture in association with Jesus.

I don’t mean to be dismissive. The best of each type are very high quality, extremely popular, lucrative and almost certainly of great benefit to their readers. And there are still bloggers who break through with a new angle from time to time, although they will inevitably attract their own emulating cluster too.

I never found any new angles, but even if I had, the often conflicting requirements of authenticity, entertainment and discretion that made the writing process problematic for me would have remained. Should I name my children? Or refer to them by pet pseudonyms, which might arguably be more embarrassing to their futures selves? Should I be writing about something that I ought really to stop dwelling on, just because it might be a popular post? Is exaggeration for comic or rhetorical effect dishonest, or is it necessary and justified for the sake of impact?

In the end I realised that I was never going to be entirely comfortable with what I’d started, so I stopped and (eventually) started something new. That something new is a movie review blog aimed at the more discerning of Netflix Instant subscribers. You can take a look at it here if you like. It’s more review than blog, in that I only talk about myself in the context of what a good movie means to me, but it is still a personal record of sorts. So far it’s been even more fun for me and (if early twitter activity is anything to by) of more interest to others than this, so I’m going to stick with it and see where it takes me.

So long and thanks for all the page views!

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Gender Stereotyping: Princesses are the Least of My Worries

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“I’m the princess and you’re the prince. So we have to get married.”

It is of no concern to Carla that her favorite tennis coach is already married and six times her age, but it is apparent to me and everyone else on court that her small talk needs some work. More urgently, though, it’s a reminder that there’s an elephant in the room and it’s one I’ve been surreptitiously feeding for years with princess-themed DVDs, books and merchandise.

I talk and write about gender politics as little as possible, because fundamental disputes about where the battle lines are drawn and which side everyone is really on render discussions about sexism more hazardous than most. If you’re not staking out a position that deliberately baits the liberal feminists, the radical feminists, the eco-feminists, the cultural feminists or the increasingly vocal proponents of the Men’s Rights Movement, then you’ve most likely discovered a sweet spot that will earn you a simultaneous kicking from all of them.

A simple example in this context: you might seek to counterbalance the pink passivity that’s foisted upon girls from birth by encouraging your daughter to wear blue and play with boys’ toys instead. But how do you do that without devaluing what is perceived to be feminine and implying that it’s better to be male? For a dozen intellectually robust yet contradictory solutions to this dilemma (and many others), I refer you to the feminism discussion board on Reddit, with the caveat that if you intend to actually participate then be sure to first become well-versed in its recommended ‘introductory’ list of  studies, histories and classic works on feminism.

Rather than get into all that myself, however, I remained in a state of comfortable denial about it, or at least I did until a particularly incisive post about Disney merchandise from the always-entertaining The Kraken Wakes (warning – content and language are ‘parental advisory’ in every sense of the phrase) moved me to give this some proper attention and decide where I stand.

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“Unless you’re shagged and shod you’re nothing”

The first thing to bear in mind is that we live in South Florida, and my experience of our niche of South Florida is that attitudes to gender roles are generally about 30 years behind some other places we’ve lived. And when it comes to how these attitudes apply to children, you could possibly push that back another couple of decades. Of course there are exceptions, and there are many wonderful aspects to the values and way of life here, but the fact remains that the extreme conformity to media-driven aesthetics is as evident in the girls as it is in the moms, and to a lesser extent in the boys and dads too.

We live in a place where I have good reason to believe that some otherwise ‘socially liberal’ moms would cast judgement about a weight issue and short haircut on a girl, for example, or non-conformist choices of clothing and activities by a boy, and take precautionary measures to protect their own from such deviant influences. The consequences of straying too far from accepted norms could be very real for my kids, and I would never sacrifice their social opportunities on the altar of political correctness, or any other altar for that matter. Frankly, a stay-at-home-dad below retirement age brings enough narrow-eyed suspicion on the family as it is.

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The second major consideration is that Carla really loves this stuff. Even if it is an imposed gender construct, it makes her very happy. Recently, I had to decide how much the tooth fairy was going to pay out for a first tooth. I opted to go low partly to limit the amount of new hair accessories and lip gloss that would be scattered around the house as a result. Carla is also beside herself with excitement about being invited to a Princess Spa Party and I probably would have organized one for her if I’d thought of it first. I might draw the line at hosting one at the Barbie Dreamhouse on the grounds of taste alone, but I wouldn’t have a problem with her attending one there either.

So what about the long term damage that all this will do to Carla’s self-image and aspirations? The short answer is that managed properly, I don’t think there will be any. I don’t dispute any of the criticisms leveled against gender-specific toys or deny any of the flaws in Disney stories or characters. I am, however, reliably informed by those with daughters older than mine that the color pink is suddenly rejected by many girls around the first grade, and I’m sure most other childish attachments can be just as freely cast aside as part of growing up too.

If anything, Disney facilitates the process by distilling these delusional ideals into easily-disposable caricatures and bundling them with fantastical anachronisms such as transmogrifying horse-drawn carriages and talking candelabras, to the point that they are completely divorced from any association with real life anyway. Between that and having a live-in female role model that works full time who has never been reliant on a prince or fairy godmother, I think Carla can enjoy these things as much as she likes now while paying little or no price for them later.

For my part, it won’t serve Carla if I censor or cast judgement on the prevailing values that she is immersed in every day, even if they do lead to a fixation with princess stories or accessorizing. What I can do is help her become aware of the arbitrary and potentially limiting nature of gender stereotypes as her ability to understand such things develops, together with the risks of non-conformance so that she can make her own choices and be responsible for her own destiny.

When it comes to improving her small talk, however, she’s on her own.

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Summer Break Day 1

Carla, my five year old, decides to do something to herself that’s going to take another five years to put right. She offers no explanation.

P1030521This is going to be a long summer.

 

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Allowances: Studies vs Common Sense

The words ‘studies show’ almost never bode well in any online discussion. Rarely supported by references to actual studies, it’s a phrase invariably deployed by anonymous, self-professed ‘experts’ to stifle healthy debate. Even in a well written article, ‘studies show’ frequently precedes either a statement of the tediously obvious, or a dubious and contrary assertion that happens to suit whoever commissioned the research in the first place.

From the start, then, I took the views of Lewis Mandell with a big pinch of salt, despite his claim that studies show that young people who have received no allowance score the highest on financial literacy tests. It seems like an attention-seeking distraction from the mainstream debate, which is about whether or not you should link an allowance to chores. The ‘common sense’ view, by which I mean the apparently reasonable opinions held by most people, appears to be broadly split into two camps. There are those that argue that an allowance should be dependent on good behavior or the completion of tasks because that reflects the working life of an adult. Others suggest that this will merely erode the internal motivation to carry out such duties, and the main purpose of an allowance should be to provide practice in making choices and saving up for stuff. What the two camps have in common is the belief that paying an allowance is the best way to teach children about money.

I recently abandoned an experiment in giving my kids an allowance that was unconnected to chores, not because it was entirely unsuccessful, but because I didn’t feel the ongoing benefits were worth the effort involved or the potential downsides to that particular approach. Since then I’ve been looking into alternatives that might help my children learn about finances as well as steer a course between the money-grubbing devil that demands payment for every act of cooperation, and the deep blue sea of entitlement without responsibility.

Some parents keep it simple by plumping for one strategy and either informing their offspring that some day they’ll have to earn their own money, or making it clear that attempts to game the system will not be tolerated. To me this seems at best optimistic and at worst, well…a bit lazy: “Here’s some cash, now stop pestering me for stuff / put your plate in the dishwasher / excel academically” [delete as appropriate].

At the other extreme, there are parents that design and evolve systems that, in attempting to avoid all pitfalls, become impressively – some might say ridiculously – elaborate. In fact there is a growing sector of online services that cater for this instinct. Now, with the help of the Internet and smartphones, parents can:

  • Create personalized chore lists
  • Manage weekly or even daily allowances
  • Assess how well their kids manage their allowances
  • Charge interest and track repayments on loans to their children
  • Reward good behaviors (e.g. ‘no yelling’, or ‘eat fruit’) with the tap of a phone
  • Approve or reject a child’s purchases in seconds ‘via a controlled shopping experience’
  • Gain insights about their kids from weekly emails generated by invest and save games

And if you think that sounds like fun, wait until you hear what kids and teenagers get to do:

  • Enjoy their chores
  • Earn badges, virtual currency or real money through ‘fun’ challenges
  • Donate to charity
  • Distinguish between wants and needs
  • Create SMART goals
  • Receive cash gifts from relatives
  • Jointly save with the rest of the family for big ticket items

Now, I’m no Luddite. At the time of writing, I have completed 7,409 tasks across 18 prioritized RTM Todo lists since January 31 2009. I personally maintain eight color-coded Gmail calendars and subscribe to a further five public ones. I can also tell you that I have exactly 2,456 digital photographs of my daughter and 3,071 of my son (searchable by time and location) and anything else I need to function as a human being is contained in Evernote. All this is available to me anywhere, any time, any place and is backed up both locally and in the cloud. Should all those back-ups fail, my plan is to have myself admitted to a psychiatric ward and remain there until someone gets my data back. But no matter how naturally I am drawn to web-enabled electronic systems to organize my life, I believe that these well-intentioned piggy bank applications pave a short road to hell.

Individuals are notoriously bad at designing artificial economies and incentive schemes that work. Even if I do define a perfect system that evolves in harmony with my children’s changing needs and circumstances, at what point will I choose to ease off on the degree of control and intrusion in my children’s affairs? I have similar questions when it comes to monitoring the communication and access to online content by children, but within the scope of this post, it’s one thing to have absolute control over the income and expenditure of a six or eight year old, but when should you grant them a degree of privacy and personal choice? When they’re 10? 14? 16? When they demand it? When they finally break free and leave home? Or perhaps when you discover that they found a way to circumvent your precious controls years ago?

While considering all of this, I’ve been making up rules ad hoc for specific situations. During a short break to Disney a couple of weeks ago, for example, it occurs to me that I’m likely to spend $50 per child on merchandise over the course of the visit so, in lieu of the allowance I don’t pay them any more, I give them that budget. By the end of the trip my daughter has had to make comparative choices to most effectively upgrade and modernize her arsenal of fairy wands and princess bling, while I find myself in the odd situation of thumbing out a couple of $20 bills to my abstinent, cash-obsessed son before going home. They’re at different points on the learning curve as reflects their age and personalities, and next time I’ll tweak the rules and accompanying chat accordingly. Over time I’ll also look for ways to talk about shopping around, loyalty schemes, interest on loans, spending on products vs experiences, generosity, charity, longer term investments and so on whenever I spot opportunities to do so.

As for chores, they’re simply expected to do whatever they can reasonably do as a member of the family. I’m sure there will be additional tasks or objectives that they can complete for cash or other rewards along the way, but I don’t see what a regular allowance has to offer the process. On the contrary, regular payments with arbitrary rules attached lead to unnecessary constraints on how I want to teach my kids about money, and are likely to present a distorted view of the world in any case. There may come a time when they are much older and it makes sense to provide an income to cover regular expenses as an intermediate stage towards financial independence. I’ll look out for those opportunities too when the time comes. In the meantime, however, I’m increasingly convinced by what Mr Mandell’s studies show and, having explored the options, I believe that on this issue the contrarian view has the edge over ‘common sense’.

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Why I Stopped my Kids’ Allowance

We need to teach our children about money and how it works, partly to curb their short term demands on us, but mainly for their own long term benefit. When I was growing up, the usual parental tactic was to periodically rant about how they weren’t ‘made of money’ and how it didn’t ‘grow on trees’, but there’s nothing in these revelations to discourage a child from adopting an unhealthy disregard or regard for the coin, and going on to develop irrationally spendthrift or miserly tendencies.

A few months ago, while searching for a more sophisticated approach, I was won over by this article that advocates paying an allowance divided unequally into four pots: spending money, short term savings, long term savings and charity. I even found piggy banks that are specifically designed for it, so it must be a sound strategy, right?

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A bad investment

My first piece of advice for anyone trying this is not to buy these piggy banks. They are insanely frustrating to extract money from, often resulting in torn banknotes. Given the change required to distribute funds in the correct proportions every week, this is a major flaw, so I resort to labelled jam jars after only a couple of weeks.

The other lesson that I learn very quickly is that for this to have any impact at all, you have to stop buying things for your children. Obvious, I know, but it’s a harder habit to break than I think it’s going to be.

Once I get into my stride with the new regime, however, it doesn’t take the kids very long to grasp the fundamentals that everything costs, money is finite and choices have to be made. In theory ‘spend’ money is for treats and low value ephemera while ‘save’ money is for something special that will take time to accumulate. In practice the distinction is harder to maintain because Stanley will conservatively transfer all his spend money into his save pot, whereas Carla declares any desirable item caught in her field of vision to be ‘something special’. When warned that a coveted headband will cost about 6 weeks of her spend and save money combined, Carla’s eyes ignite and the headband promptly goes from a ‘want’ to a ‘must have’.

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The $16 headband…a Veblen good in CarlaWorld™

Still, providing certain pitfalls can be avoided, I see the value of short term spend and save budgets, which is more than I can say for the allocation of ‘longer term savings’. These are supposedly for college or a car, but the recommended one or two dollars put aside per week is by any realistic projection unlikely to amount to a hill of beans compared to the many thousands of dollars (or bitcoins?) that will no doubt be required to pay for such things circa 2025 – and what conclusion would a young adult draw from that?

Then there is charitable giving. It’s more common in America than in the UK for people to give a percentage of their income to charity and encourage their children to do the same. To what extent this is down to differences in religious faith, taxes, welfare policies or other factors is a subject for another post (on another blog), but under this system 10% of the weekly allowance goes into the charity jar. This can be for sponsorship, raffle tickets, or maybe those charity collection funnels that make coins spiral interminably down a vortex of infantile fascination before rattling into an anticlimactic void. It’s a laudable principle, but does nothing in itself to help educate kids about – or engender empathy for – those less fortunate than themselves. To them it’s just money that can only be spent in a certain way.

Now that I’ve tried it, the overall concern I have about this system is that it promotes a sense of entitlement by guaranteeing an income while encouraging the notion that there are different ‘kinds’ of money, which is a disastrous combination. It’s one thing to earmark funds to ensure progress towards a goal, but the most profligate people I’ve met are those who consider their weekend ‘spend’ budget sacrosanct or who would never consider paying off nasty, boring debt with something as fun and exciting as birthday money, a bonus or that ultimate manna from heaven: the tax rebate (woohoo!). Affordable spending decisions come from a solid understanding that the numbers on pay checks, credit card statements, bar tabs, price tags, rental leases, grocery receipts etc all refer to the same stuff. Allocating income according to a set of rules, on the other hand, is a remedial measure more appropriate for helping people who (quite possibly through no fault of their own) have accumulated debt and need to start paying it off.

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Carla scrutinizes her finances (what’s left of them)

Having demonstrated to myself that the Four Pots Allowance isn’t going to achieve what I want for my kids, then, the question of what I am going to do instead remains. I’m currently looking at how other parents link allowances to chores or grades, and checking out online services that can facilitate more complex systems. I’m also giving due consideration to a contrary view that you shouldn’t give kids an allowance at all. I’ll post my conclusions here when I reach them, but in the meantime I’d be grateful for any opinions or experiences anyone would like to share on the subject.

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Tips up at the Keystone Resort, Colorado

First Time Skiing for all the Family

I’m not sure what just happened, but this feels like a good time to pause for reflection and appreciate the view. A swathe of pines, sharply defined in monochrome, separates the distant haze of white mountains on white sky from the ski-lacerated slopes on which I am now lying and on which, until a moment ago, I had been focusing exclusively. That, as Jason calls back to me, is where I keep going wrong. I need to look towards where I want to go, then relax, turn my upper body and allow the rest to follow. It must be an instinct with which we are born but lose some time between the ages of 8 and 41, because my kids are sweeping effortlessly this way and that all the way down to the ski lift with Jason the instructor now in hot pursuit.

It’s our second day at Keystone, and even as I battle to right myself with a technique involving a great deal more effort than grace, I’m very happy with the way it’s going. Stanley’s thrill aversion at theme parks is perhaps rooted in the lack of control inherent in being a passenger on a ride, because there’s no sign of it here. This is as much of a relief as finding padded clothing so shockingly pink that Carla agrees to wear it.

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Everyone told us the children would progress much quicker than we would, and everyone was right. It’s clear that Jenni and I are holding the children back in the family lesson already, so as of tomorrow they will go into ski school while we catch up, or at least try to stay in the game, with Jason’s instruction.

Altitude sickness had been another concern, especially coming from sea level. We definitely feel traces of it (lightheadedness, headache, shortness of breath and nausea) and are glad of the precautions we take so that it doesn’t become a problem.  Constant hydration and alcohol-avoidance to begin with no doubt plays its part, but waiting until the second day before taking our first ski lesson also pays off.

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We mostly spend our first day tubing either singly or in pairs on a choice of five collision-proof lanes, assisted by cheery helpers who send us down any way we want (straight, spinning, fast or slow) and, crucially, by a ‘magic carpet’ conveyor belt to bring us back up to the top. The first time is daunting, but from then on it feels so safe that it’s a great way of calming the nerves we’ve brought with us and of building confidence on the mountain.

2013 02 11_7983_edited-1Then there’s Keystone’s famous snow fort where kids find out how long their parents are prepared to hang around in temperatures around 25°F while they run riot on its drawbridge, lookout tower, ice throne and snow slide. We manage about 40 minutes, which I reckon is pretty damn good.

By the end of the week Stanley and Carla are fully confident on the blue slopes and want the vacation to go on forever. Jenni and I, however, remain hazardous to ourselves and others on the green slopes and are ready to return to the Florida sunshine. And ski lifts are definitely optimised for children; there’s a lot more to successful disembarkation than ‘tips up’ for anyone over four feet two inches tall!

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We shall never be true skiers, but the kids will, and it’s still one of the best vacations we’ve had. With so much physical exertion, eating like horses is a requirement rather than an indulgence, and by mid-afternoon we’re all happy to slow the pace right down and spend time at the lodge in each other’s company. It’s also heartening to see three generations of many families enjoying themselves at the resort. Perhaps this is something we’ll be able to do as a family long after the kids have a choice of how to spend their vacations. There will definitely be more ski trips.

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Two to Do in Boston

This year we decide to spend Thanksgiving in Boston. The Floridians don’t react to this idea with the same incredulity that they did to Thanksgiving in Houston or going to Arizona in July, but we are warned that, in contrast to the fine weather in Florida, it will be cold at this time of year. The chilly fresh air, however, together with the autumnal colours in the parks and the historic landmarks of the city, invoke fond memories of London (*sigh*). We visit many of the main tourist destinations, such as Faneuil Hall, the Boston Tea Party Ship and the hugely undersold Museum of Fine Art, but for us the highlights of the trip are the Mapparium and the Blue Man Group.

Mapparium

Hidden in the Mary Baker Eddy Library at The Christian Science Plaza, the Mapparium is an  illuminated, stained glass globe 30ft in diameter that you can walk through via an elevated bridge. You enter through the Indian Ocean and exit through the South Pacific:

MappariumBuilt in 1935 to celebrate the success of the Christian Science Monitor and intended to outdo the gigantic spinning globe of the New York Daily News, it’s one of those vanity projects that it’s hard to imagine being approved these days.

There are three striking aspects to this exhibit. The first is the geographical perspective. It’s widely known that world maps give a distorted view of the relative size and position of countries. It’s also commonly assumed that a globe solves this problem, but when viewed from the outside, different parts of the globe are at different distances from the eye and so are distorted by perspective. From the centre of the globe, however, the eye is the same distance from every point of the map. It can therefore be argued that this is the only place in the Universe where you can look at the surface of the world without distortion. Of course if you were actually in the middle of the Earth and able look out, you’d see a concave reversal of this image because you’d be looking from underneath the land masses, but let’s not complicate matters.

What I see very much reminds me of (and perhaps vindicates) the controversial Peters Projection world map that is area-accurate. Most land is north of the Equator, Africa is much bigger than you think it is, and North America, Europe and Asia cluster around the North Pole.

Then there is the historical and political perspective of a world map designed in 1935. The USSR looms large, and while you’ll find Siam, French Indochina and Italian East Africa, there is no Indonesia, Vietnam or Israel.

Finally, the acoustics are the most unsettling I’ve ever experienced, reportedly taking even the designers by surprise. As a child I was never convinced by the so-called ‘Whispering Gallery’ at St Paul’s Cathedral, but because this is a full sphere of glass which doesn’t absorb sound at all, the effect is extraordinarily clear. If you stand in the middle of the bridge and speak, you hear your own voice in surround sound. If two people whisper from opposite ends of the bridge, they hear each other as if they are muttering directly in each other’s ears. We’re part of a group and the various snippets of disembodied voices are as fleeting as they are startling. I feel like I’m being buzzed by invisible, supernatural entities, albeit ones that only wish to make inoffensive chitchat about our surroundings. So all the fun of auditory hallucinations then, with none of the distressing psychosis that usually accompanies them; that has to be worth the $6 entry fee alone. Oh, and the whole experience lasts less than half an hour, which is ideal for those of us lacking in time or attention span.

Blue Man Group

This is a show that markets itself as ‘modern vaudeville’, with its projected animation, LED screens, old-fashioned comedy and 90s music, presented by a trio of muted, bald performance artists painted a gooey blue.

2969560739_c3e55cbda5_zI have only been obliquely aware of this show before now, but since its inception in 1997 it quickly became an established commercial success in Las Vegas, further expanding to employ 700 people and playing to a cumulative audience in excess of 12 million people, with ongoing shows in nine cities, including Boston’s Charles Playhouse.

There is quite a bit of pseudo-intellectual nonsense in online editorials about how profound and relevant the show is to the information and communication age, which I think is ultimately responsible for the swathe of mixed reviews from disappointed theatre-goers who were expecting some kind of life-changing enlightenment from the evening. We went in with no such expectation and found it to be an hour and 45 minutes of very family-friendly entertainment. With no spoken lines, there’s plenty of silly slaptstick to delight the kids, with enough clever observations about modern technology to keep the adults amused. I don’t want to give away much more about the show to anyone that hasn’t seen it yet, but suffice to say that earplugs are available on your way in and plastic ponchos are handed out to those in the first few rows.

Flickr Image credits
Mapparium: Jassy-50;
Blue Man Group: qnibert00
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