Customs of Busy Parents

I’ve just come up with a new idea for a book. It’s inspired by August Valentine Kautz, a general in the Union army in the American Civil War who had also served with the 1st Ohio infantry in the Mexican-American War, and with the 4th U. S. infantry in the Rogue River Wars and the Puget Sound War with the Native Americans of the Pacific Northwest in 1855 and 1856.

This man knew his way around a form. August V. Kautz by Mathew Benjamin Brady, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

As you can probably imagine, with all that military experience comes a big stack of paperwork. It turns out that August Kautz was particularly good at paperwork, but in the earliest days of his service in the Civil War in 1861 Kratz discovered, much to his dismay, that a lot of his fellow servicemen were not.

It wasn’t until a year or so later that he received an assignment in the 2nd Ohio cavalry division and managed to do something about it. That’s when he began distributing a series of circulars designed to instruct company clerks how to properly fill out their paperwork. This sounds to me like a good way to make people kind of want to punch you in the face, but Kautz found that most of his peers appreciated the guidance.

By 1863 he had found himself a publisher that churned out eight thousand copies of his 142-page paperwork instruction manual he called The Company Clerk: Showing How And When To Make Out All The Returns, Reports, Rolls, And Other Papers, And What To Do With Them. Despite the cumbersome title, of which this is only a part, and which could have used a bit of workshopping, the book sold out in the first year of publication because obviously it was a thrilling read.

Kautz then went on to write Customs of Service for Non-Commissioned Officers and Soldiers in 1864 and Customs of Service for Officers for the Army in 1866, because he said “We have numerous handbooks for military service that tell us what to do, but few, if any, that tell us how to do it….” He explained that most military clerks probably only got the job because they happened to have legible handwriting and were otherwise not up to it. But he sure was.

The average modern teenager probably couldn’t read it, but the guy did have some pretty good handwriting. August Kautz, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

All three of his books, which don’t sound like must-read bestsellers to me, remained in print well into the 1880s, because apparently there was a need for them. Kautz found the sweet spot in the book market and wrote just what his audience wanted at the moment they wanted it.

And this is where my book idea comes in. Because paperwork can get long and confusing and tedious, especially, I have long known and recently rediscovered, at the beginning of the school year.

Actually, I would like to point out that we are not yet at the beginning of a new school year. My children don’t go back to school for another month, but the onslaught has already begun and I’m discovering that now that I have a senior, it’s even worse than usual.

Of course I’m not really going to write this. That would require way too much paperwork. But I would probably read it.

This morning I sat down to write and thought perhaps I would first take a few minutes to review any emails that I’d received from the kids’ schools in the past couple of days and knock out a few of the tasks they required.

Three hours later I had filled out numerous online forms, made (and changed) several appointments, signed and scanned registrations, placed an equipment order, renewed a membership, hunted down records, contacted an administrator, emailed a school counselor and a school nurse, RSVP’d to a parent meeting, and rearranged the family schedule to accommodate upcoming non-rearrangeable school events.

All this before I had time to discover August Valentine Kautz and his books, and think, you know, I bet the modern parent could use some help with all of this nonsense. I don’t have a full book proposal fleshed out just yet, but I’m thinking of calling it something like, Customs of Busy Parents: How to Get Through the Paperwork Without Punching Someone in the Face & Other Survival Tips.

I admit the title could still use some workshopping. But I think it would sell.

Bordering on the Ridiculous

It was in 1984 when Danish Minister for Greenland Tom Høyem grabbed a bottle of schnapps, chartered a helicopter, and headed for a barren, rocky island to start a war. Smack dab in the middle of the Nares Strait, which connects the Atlantic Ocean with the Arctic and separates Greenland and Canada, the troublesome Hans Island measures a mere 1.3 square km (or about half a square mile). It has no trees, little soil, no known natural resources of any value, and is approximately 123 miles from any inhabited location.

Um, guys? You know it’s basically just a rock, right? Per Starklint, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org
/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

It also contains quite a few bottles of liquor, numerous discarded Danish and Canadian flags, and disregarded signs welcoming visitors to the sovereign land of each country, placed there as a kind of snarky signal to the other that the friendliest border war in history had not yet been settled.

This tiny island was first mapped in the 1920s by Danish explorers, which led the Permanent Court of International Justice (a part of the League of Nations) to declare in 1933 that the island belonged to Denmark. Of course, since the League of Nations was dissolved, its Court of International Justice also proved less permanent than its title implied. It was replaced by the much more creatively named International Court of Justice of the United Nations, which apparently had more important things to not do.

The trouble is that Hans Island falls within the 12 miles of territorial extension from land for both Greenland (Denmark) and Canada, making it tricky to determine which country can claim it.

Weapon of war. Image by 8249023 from Pixabay

In the early 1970s, the nations decided to resolve the conflict themselves and came away from negotiations with a maritime border agreement to the north and south of the island, but didn’t manage to sort out the ownership of Hans Island itself. And so, in 1984 what the press dubbed the “Whiskey War” began.

The whole thing reminds me of when my children were small. I have two sons, two-and-a-half years apart in age. They’re teenagers now who are mostly into their own things and more or less get along most of the time. When they don’t, I’m happy to report they now have the sense to give one another some space. That was not always the case.

I remember one day, at least a decade ago, they had such a hard time leaving one another alone that my husband came home from work to find that I had put painters’ tape on the floor and literally divided the house in two. Each had access to a bathroom and his own bedroom and was not allowed, under any circumstances, to cross even a toe into the other’s territory.

An exhausted, fed-up mom could have solved this problem much faster.

By the time their dad walked through the door, the boys were kind of desperate to resume playing together in a more cooperative manner, and I was ready for a bottle of schnapps.

It took Denmark and Canada until 2005 to decide that some kind of painters’ tape solution might work, and another seventeen years after that to hammer out the details. I’m happy to be able to report that just a few weeks ago, they finally did it. On June 13 of this year, foreign ministers of each country exchanged bottles of whiskey and signed an agreement that will divide Hans Island in two.

The solution comes now, according to Canadian Minister of Foreign Affairs Mélanie Joly, as an example to Russian President Vladimir Putin that border disputes don’t have to be violent. Maybe. Or maybe it says that given a decade or four, most arguments can be resolved with a roll of painters’ tape and plenty of schnapps. But I am glad Canada and Denmark finally got it figured out.

Like a Bat Out of Hell

Clara Ford was at home one day in 1919, I assume doing whatever it is that Clara Ford typically did at home, when she was informed by police that her husband Henry had gotten into trouble with his car. Evidently, he’d been driving “like a bat out of hell,” as one does, I suppose, when one essentially invents the modern auto industry and is probably showing off for one’s grandson who is also in the car.

And worse, he’d been doing so without a driver’s license.

The charming story about Henry Ford and his run-in with the police is shared by the Henry Ford Museum, where you can also see Ford’s first driver’s license, which obviously the above image does not show. Image by mohamed Hassan from Pixabay

That in itself is not as terribly shocking as it first sounds because Michigan only started issuing licenses that year. And after his run-in with the police Henry Ford, at the age of 56, went ahead and got one.

At the age of 56 I think it’s fair to expect that a person is wise enough and cautious enough to be trusted with such power. In fact, that probably happens well before the age of 56. I for one am pretty responsible behind the wheel at a mere 43 years of age. I can’t say I’ve never been pulled over, but it’s been a rare occurrence in my life as a driver. And though I’ve had my license since the tender age of 16, I don’t believe I’ve ever driven like a bat out of hell.

Still, in the last few weeks, 16 has been striking me as incredibly young for the responsibility of driving. Because my oldest son recently hit that milestone.   

A lot of young’uns aren’t pushing so hard these days to get their driver’s license the moment they can. In 2018 there were approximately 227 million licensed drivers on the road in the United States, but only about 25% of sixteen-year-olds were among them. That was down from nearly half in the mid-1980s. I have no idea why so many of the kids aren’t as anxious to get behind the wheel these days, but that was not the case for my son.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that 227 million people were actually on the road at the same time. Can you imagine the traffic jam?
photo credit: Shawn | Shiyang Huang Traffic jam @ Beijing via photopin (license)

He wanted to drive. Actually, I think he’s been wanting to drive since he was four years old, strapped into a car seat in the back, and asking me remarkably intelligent questions about the rules of the road. True story.  

It wasn’t exactly a shock that when he turned fifteen and was old enough to take the written driving test and receive a learner’s permit in our state, he was pretty excited to do it. And he’d been studying since the age of four, so it also wasn’t shocking that he pretty easily passed.

In that year of learning, first in an empty parking lot, then back roads, busier streets with traffic circles and stoplights, lonely highways, and eventually busy interstates where he merged like a pro and stayed nicely centered in his lane, he became a fairly competent driver.

Then he turned sixteen and he wanted to take his driving test so he could get his license. He passed with no trouble. And then on the very day I celebrated the sixteenth anniversary of the first time I ever held my squirming, squishy-faced baby boy, I watched that same kid back out of the driveway and disappear down the street in a car that he was driving all by himself to his martial arts class.

Still what I see.
photo credit: Frank Hemme Hacer camino. via photopin (license)

It was the most anxious moment of my life.

My husband, also anxious, quickly decided he needed to run an errand and followed him. I was grateful, because until that moment, I was pretty sure I might also have an errand to run, and I was relieved when I received a text a little bit later letting me know the car was safely parked at the school.

My son really is a good driver and I become more comfortable each time he returns home safely. I can’t guarantee that he doesn’t drive like a bat out of hell, but I know he never did in his year of permit driving and so far, the police haven’t indicated that that has changed.

I don’t know if these bats are flying out of Hell, but they do seem to be in a reckless kind of hurry. photo credit: USFWS Headquarters Mexican free-tailed bats exiting Bracken Bat Cave via photopin (license)

At least he had to pass a test. Henry Ford didn’t. Michigan only began driver testing in 1931. That is better than the Great State of Missouri, which was actually one of the first to issue licenses for drivers, in 1903. It was another 49 years before the state began testing.

But despite what I sometimes suggest when I am not-so-silently judging the other drivers on the road from the privacy of my own car, they seem to do a pretty good job of it now.

So maybe, depending on the kid, 16 isn’t such a bad age to issue a driver’s license? I don’t know. But I suppose I’d probably worry about him at any age. Maybe even if he were 56.

Four Wheels and a Hint of Danger

In the wee hours of the morning on July 4, 1896, Henry Ford smashed the brick side of his shed with an axe. That might sound a little extreme, but after months of work the inventor and future business superstar was finally ready to test drive a new creation he called the Quadricycle. The trouble was it didn’t fit through the door.

Ford_quadricycle_crop
If I saw this coming down the road I’d probably get out of the way. Ford’s Quadricycle. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

With the exception of a brief breakdown due to a faulty spring, the rest of the test drive was more or less a success. Ford’s friend and assistant James Bishop rode ahead on his bicycle to warn carriages and pedestrians to get out of the way. Ford fired up his four-horse-powered gasoline engine and tootled along behind in a 500-pound frame with four bicycle tires, no breaks, little steering ability, and a “horn” made from a doorbell.

Thankfully, he improved on the design a little through the years.

Can’t you just picture that first test run? I can imagine the look on Henry Ford’s face as he raced through the streets of Detroit at a whopping twenty miles per hour. It must have been a mix of elation at the beginning of a dream coming true and the terror of barely controlling something powerful enough to kill you and everyone in your way. It’s probably the same expression I wore many years ago the first time I got behind the wheel of a car and it actually started moving.

permit driver
Our version of a crier on a bicycle. Trouble is you don’t see it until he’s already driven past.

My oldest son recently got to have that experience. He turned fifteen at the end of last year and in the state of Missouri that means he became eligible to test for his driving learner’s permit. Because his birthday falls so late in the year, we decided it would be wise to get the permit as soon as possible so he had a better chance of gaining plenty of experience on icy winter roads before the state considers granting him a real license at age sixteen.

But because we didn’t have anyone on a bicycle to warn everyone to get out of the way, we decided to start in a large, empty parking lot on a dry, sunny day.

I’m not sure what expression I wore when I handed him the keys that first time and took my place in the passenger seat. I’d like to think I conveyed calm reassurance. We took a little time for him to get familiar with dashboard controls, mirrors, break, and accelerator. Then he turned the key for that first time, put the car in gear, and took his foot off the brake.

_MG_2365
How I see my teenager when he sits behind the wheel. photo credit: Alex E. Proimos Learning to Drive via photopin (license)

As Henry Ford probably was more than a century ago and as surely every new driver has been since, my son was nervous and a little unsure, but also really excited to discover the sensation of wielding so much power.

That afternoon he drove us around and around the parking lot, practicing turning, breaking, and parking. Then I made him work on backing up, another thing Henry Ford’s original Quadricycle couldn’t do.

When we were both a little more comfortable, we took the lesson to a few quiet back roads. He even drove us home and parked in the garage without incident and with very little cringing or pretend break stomping from me.

My son is still a little uncertain behind the wheel. He’s got more to learn and will need a lot more practice to gain the confidence required to be a really good driver, but he’s attentive and teachable and determined. I’ve no doubt he’ll get there. I just hope he never feels the need to take an axe to the side of the garage.

SmokeFrontCover
Coming soon!

And . . .These days, when I’m not teaching my son how to drive, I’m preparing to launch a new book, coming February 4th. Follow this link to get a peek!

School’s Out. Time for Dessert!

Finally, the last day of school is almost here. Originally students in our district would have been finished tomorrow afternoon, after a few fairly useless hours of turning in textbooks, cleaning out lockers, and signing yearbooks. They might also have watched a movie while teachers scrambled to input final grades.

fritz's
Worth the wait.

By shortly after noon, the streets of my town would have been overtaken by roving bands of celebrating adolescents, joining in the chorus of Alice Cooper’s School’s Out as it blares from the overtaxed speakers in the dented cars driven by their older and luckier classmates. And it would have taken upwards of an hour to get through the line at the local frozen custard stand.

Thanks to long forgotten snow days, all that joyful chaos will have to wait until next week, but my kids are ready. Their teachers are ready. And even this mama, facing a long summer of chronically bored children itching for a fight, is ready.

Because sometimes when you’ve been stuck for a long time having to meet high expectations, follow stuffy rules, and continually set aside the things you want to do for the things you have to do in order to demonstrate all that you can do, you find yourself exhausted and it’s nice to just cut loose for a little while.

amelia and eleanor
Kindred spirits Amelia Earhart and Eleanor Roosevelt, a little underdressed here for a spontaneous night flight to Baltimore. By Harris & Ewing – Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt found that to be true. Never exactly the conventional wife of a president, taking a far more active role in politics than did her predecessors, Mrs. Roosevelt spent much of her life fighting to break from the expectations placed on her by others and demonstrating through tireless effort all that she and, by extension, all women could be capable of. I’m sure it was an exhausting job. And I’m sure sometimes she just wanted to have a little fun.

During a formal White House dinner party she hosted on the evening of April 20, 1933, she seized an opportunity to do just that. In attendance was her relatively new friend Amelia Earhart, another woman accustomed to breaking through societal expectations. As the two talked that evening, they decided that rather than eating dessert, they’d very much like to take a night flight to Baltimore and back.

The two of them, attired in their fanciest duds, rallied the other dinner guests and the whole party made its way to Hoover Field where they borrowed a plane for their flight of fancy. Because really, who is going to tell evening gown-clad Amelia Earhart and Eleanor Roosevelt they can’t borrow an airplane?

The flight, covered in detail by the Baltimore Sun, was a success. All the dinner guests made it safely back to the ground, and yes, after the surprise adventure they did return to the White House for dessert. I imagine the atmosphere was looser and the conversation lighter.

I hope our summer break can be as rejuvenating and spontaneous. Maybe we’ll blast a little Alice Cooper and hop a flight to Baltimore wearing our fanciest duds. One thing I know for sure is that we will not be skipping dessert, even if it means waiting an hour in line at the local frozen custard stand.

On a related side note, this mostly once a week blog will become a mostly every other week blog for the summertime. As the pace of motherhood picks up for the season and as I work toward a novel polishing goal, I’m not sure I can maintain a weekly blog schedule. Also, this mama could do with a little summertime fun.

That Thing I Just Had

The other day, I stumbled across an article posted by Smithsonian Magazine about an Ancient Egyptian sock. This toddler-size, striped sock has been a part of the collection of the British Museum for more than a century, but recently it has resurfaced as an object of interest for researchers.

The sock was originally discovered in 1913 or 14 by Englishman John de Monins Johnson during an excavation in the ancient city of Antinopolis on the east bank of the Nile. Described in the article as a papyrologist, Johnson was most likely hoping to find examples of ancient writing that he could spend years poring over. He wasn’t looking for a sock.

single sock
I also can’t stop wondering what happened to the other sock.

But if Johnson was a parent, I can imagine he wasn’t terribly surprised by the discovery. There’s no way I could count the number of times I’ve been looking for that thing I just had* and found instead a kid’s carelessly discarded sock(s).

I have great kids. I really do. My boys are now eleven and thirteen and they both work hard at school, and are kind and generous and respectful. At this point in their young lives they can claim quite a few life skills, too. They are capable of doing laundry, preparing a few recipes, or mowing the lawn.

socks
These are not my keys.

But they are both guilty of constantly kicking off their socks and leaving them for their exasperated mother to find. Their stinky socks are crammed in between the couch cushions, left under the kitchen table, wedged under mattresses, and crumpled on the floorboard of the car. Occasionally I even find them in the back yard. It’s enough to drive any mama completely mad.

Please don’t tell me if I’m wrong, but I suspect this source of aggravation is universal. The Egyptian mama whose little kiddo lost her stripy toe sock (that was probably worn with sandals, which presumably also got lost), was surely exasperated that for the three hundred and eighty-third time that day, little Ahhotep had kicked off her booty.

toes
When your toes are this cute, socks are optional. photo credit: light2shine Feets via photopin (license)

Of course, no parent wants to leave a trail of socks wherever they go, but when kids are little, it’s also kind of cute to see them wiggle and struggle until those adorable chubby toes are exposed for all the world to enjoy. When they’re tween/teenagers, it’s less cute.

So when I read what should really be a fascinating article about researchers using a noninvasive scanning technique to learn about the types of dyes used in the manufacturing of Ancient Egyptian clothing, all I could think about was that stupid lone sock, stuffed into the couch cushions at the British Museum for the last hundred years.

It’s possible I lost the point. I’m pretty sure I just had it and then set it down somewhere. I’ll have another look at the article and see if I can pick it up again. But I’ll probably just find that same cast-aside sock.
*This could be (but is certainly not limited to): keys, book, purse, pen, phone, remote control, scissors, shoe, grocery list, my marbles