RL285 - Praise Cannon

This week, Merlin and John talk about:

  • John having to write in pen in High School (Early Days)
  • Solo parenting (Children)
  • John's daughter setting the table (Children)
  • How to load silverware into the dishwasher (Attitude and Opinion)
  • John's daughter wanting some responsibilities (Children)
  • John's daughter empathizing with others (Children)
  • Bossing around at Ballard Locks (Children)
  • Karate-chopping boys vs bullying (Children)
  • Empathizing with his daughter the right way (Children)

The problem: Faces were not part of the deal, referring to John's daughter making a deal about eating her vegetables if John won't tease her anymore, but it was not part of the deal that she couldn't make faces.

The show title refers to John not directing the praise canon on his daughter when she did the obvious thing and helped set the table.

Bastic = Basket,
Breaskdast = Breakfast,
Bastic of ponadoes = Basket of potatoes

Draft version
The segments below are drafts that will be incorporated into the rest of the Wiki as time permits.

John having to write in pen in High School (RL285)

John got a failing grade in 7th grade Advanced English because in High-school they don’t use pencils and John was required to use pens, but he just never had a pen because he would lose them. He wanted to work in pencil! The teacher would no longer accept anything written in pencil and it would be an automatic zero. John continued to do his English assignments page after page in pencil, which she continued to mark with zero because she was preparing John for High School.

Solo parenting (RL285)

Merlin feels like a frog in a pot of water where someone is slowly turning up the heat. He needs John’s advice because it is one of these frantic weeks that will require some solo parenting for him. John’s daughter’s mother left this morning at 4am for a week-long business trip to San Francisco and Merlin will wave at her from his office in his 7-sided lighthouse made of dreams. John and Marlo are going to have a very fine week together. John’s mother is in town as well and she is very helpful, so John is very rarely looking at 5 days without any respite, although he often is the only parent of record for 4-5 days. Merlin periodically needs to air his failures and show his responsibilities about something that he would like to think he is good at, but he is not sure he is really that good at.

Merlin’s lady needs to do some business travel and Merlin needs to be the sole parent for 3 nights. Now he is in a fever pitch and almost wanted to reschedule the podcast, because there are the things you gotta do before you do the things you gonna do. Events take on a new kind of valiance, because they need to be done by a certain time and his life becomes an existential rally. Having his daughter for 3 nights involves some getting to school and some picking up and it involves making lunch, which is fraught. Merlin wants to know how John handles the long times with the child because he knows John is not a screen parent. He does not live in a tenement in Brooklyn where you can send your kid off to play stick ball, but you are going to have a helicopter over them.

For John, every spare minute is filled with some creamy vanilla pudding, which is not bad, but it is just full. Being a parent is to feel like you are failing all the time and Merlin thought that this feeling would eventually go away. He is constantly too late on things and he should have ordered turkey breast for sandwiches because there is a field trip on Wednesday morning that requires a packable lunch with nothing plastic. Merlin is playing a horrible Milton Bradley board game of many people’s design. His daughter needs to practice the ukulele, and she is getting extra homework now because she is in 5th grade, which is a real grade and they doubled the math and they doubled the reading log.

There is hot lunch available at Merlin’s daughter’s school, but their entire lunch period is only 20 minutes. They go staggered 2 grades at the time, the smallest kids first, and his daughter is in the third group. Going through that line cuts into your eating time and shuck-and-jive time, which sounds like a prison problem. Merlin can understand that there are resource-constraints at the school and when it comes to lunch it is partly about who is going to supervise them because law suits. His daughter also simply prefers the packed lunch which Merlin’s wonderful wife makes for her most mornings. She makes a nice little meal in a little bento box with Edamame, Raspberries or Carrots, and she has this internal barometer for how to make a dignified lunch.

John got the sense is that Merlin doesn’t like to disappoint his wife and daughter. She is accustomed to this kind of lunch and he wants maintain that consistence, whereas in John’s family he laid the groundwork right at the beginning that John was going to consistently disappoint everyone. He set an expectation that sometimes daddy shows up at school in his pajamas, sometimes daddy is missing a tooth on photo day, and sometimes your lunch is just 6 little boxes of raisins. Sometimes you will get hot lunch. If her response is ”I don’t like hot lunch”, then daddy says that he didn’t like the irony wars in the 1990s, but he still lived through them.

Not only does Merlin want to meet to skit somewhere near the bar of what his desperately competent wife is able to do, but he also likes it to be fun and worst of all he wants it to be not stressful. His daughter will be fine however the week goes, but she is also a little girl who likes an adventure and a plan. He can tell her that mommy is out of town and they need to really partner up on this, which is going to involve her helping daddy as much as it does daddy helping her. It is like a project and his daughter is his main partner. John made the mistake of calling certain things for chores, like cleaning up the room, and he gets these huge eye-rolls and these long sighs already at 7 years old. When he looks for her an hour later, she will be sitting cross-legged on the floor in the middle of her mess, reading an Archie, but where did she even get an Archie? John set it up as a negative thing, as a chore. It is right there in the name!

Merlin’s wife made a list of what he should make for lunch every day, isn’t that wonderful? Maybe he should just tear that list really slowly right down the middle in front of his daughter and go ”You and daddy, for the next three days, we are going to figure this out! Here is the plan: We are all going to die, that is the plan!" Part of her life is going to be helping daddy. He is trying to get her to do things that she can be proud of, like if she is helping make dinner, maybe she can do a crudités platter and make that really pretty. He can ask her to set the table and make the napkins fancy, something to have a little hook into.

Merlin doesn’t know where he blew it or how many times he has blown it, but everything that is not a fun thing is punishment these days. ”I have to clean up the glue gun?” - ”It is not punishment! You used the glue gun on the rug where we begged you not to use it” or ”Sweetie, you got yoghurt in your hair!” - ”Why do I have to do everything?” Merlin did the dishes 4 times today!

John is not trying to make his daughter be his assistant. She came into his room the other day with a piece of artwork she had done, she woke him up, and handed him a picture of a doorway and over the top of in big letters it says ”Wake up!” They both understand that daddy needs a little extra sleep compared to other grown-ups, but daddy was up late thinking deep thoughts about why nobody will play with him until 4:20am, but: Message received!

John's daughter setting the table (RL285)

Not long ago, John and her mom were preparing dinner and she was standing in the doorway watching them. John asked her to set the table and she was like ”ahhhhh, wow!” and John said ”You know what a table looks like when it is set and you know what it looks like now, so put all the things on the table that aren’t on it now!” and she was like ”Ahhhhhh” She walked around the kitchen wondering and opening drawers ”You mean like drinking glasses?” - ”Asked and answered!”, all while John was cooking and burning stuff. She put a combination of things on the table that were basically the things she could reach and the things she thought of. There were 3 pepper shakers, but she still managed to put some table-settings, with John over his shoulder going ”Everybody needs a spoon, not just you!” It was not even a case of her being proud because John didn’t over-praise, but he was just ”Good! Now we need napkins”, because he and her mom were also doing something. He didn’t turn the praise-canon on her like ”OMG! You didn’t end up putting chocolate on everything!”, almost like a first round of AI: ”You got it kind of right, that is not totally wrong!”

How to load silverware into the dishwasher (RL285)

The other day John was in the kitchen when the dishwasher beeped. His daughter asked what is supposed to happen now and John opened it up and told her to put the silverware away. Every single implement was a new puzzle, like ”Forks go here, but where does this fork go?” At the end when the dishwasher was empty, she asked if they could load it now. She started to load it with dirty silverware and sorted it by type, which is not how John does it and he did not coach her to do that. Some other influences in her life must have told her that, because just 3 minutes before she had emptied a silverware basket that was not organized this way.

This is a longstanding argument within the Jonathan Coulton / Christine Connor family. Christine believes that this is how the dishes should be done, but Jonathan argues that it gets the spoons to nest into each other and not get clean in between. John has been friends with that family a long time and you would be surprised how often this topic comes up sitting around the table or in the morning. When his daughter did it, John immediately texted them and said ”Guess who is on team Christine?” and it immediately precipitated a text argument between husband and wife. In John’s kitchen, there are no matching plates, cups or glasses. Every plate has to be a different plate. In John’s mom’s house everything had to match, but John can’t have it that way. If you broke a small plate at his mom's, the whole set of plates would go and a new set of plates would arrive. In John’s house everything is individual, partly because he likes to find things in thrift stores, but the idea of having even two plates match would be worse than all plates matching.

Christine says it makes it easier when the dishes are done to just grab them all and put them away, but Jonathan counters that you have to sort them at one point, either before or after. Those are two views of the world and now John’s own daughter has instinctively exhibited a preference. John cannot intervene, because his mom would tell him afterwards how we do it and she would redo it for him. John will in no way intervene with his daughter, because at least she is doing it! He can live with some slightly tarnished spoons if it means that she thinks that loading the dishwasher is her part of their group effort in their tribe.

John's daughter wanting some responsibilities (RL285)

A couple of weeks ago John’s mom and his daughter's mom were complaining about Marlo begin intransigent, passively fighting everything, and slow-walking it. In John’s family dynamic, all the grown-ups come to him and tell him that this has got to stop, but he is not the one who is seven. They sat down at the gas station mini mart that sells fried chicken and John asked her what was going on. She did all the little kid try-to-weasel-out-of-the-conversation moves and she even went as far as to say that she doesn’t want to talk about it, or ”Hey look, over there is a bikini girl!”, but none of that worked on him. Eventually they talked about it and she admitted that ever since she turned seven, everything is so hard. She doesn’t have any friends at school and she laid out this whole inner life that John recognized as being a seven-year-old who has a complicated emotional experience and doesn’t want to talk about it.

She went down the list of things that ever since she turned seven had gone sideways. It was all the normal things that make you realize that being alive is hard, but John neither wanted to say that it is normal or that it is weird, because it would establish some kind of relationship between them. If it is normal, then why are we talking? And if John gets down too much into the 7-year-old weeds, identifying too much emotionally with her, then what good is he? In the end, John didn’t do anything, but he just listened to her and now she talks to him in a way that she doesn’t talk to the other two, oddly enough, which is very good, but not necessarily normal. It is very difficult for John not to solve her problems or even give her some guidance, which is true for about 49% of the population, but he is not doing it. Part of it is founded in total confusing about what anybody would say. What do you say to a 7-year old girl who’s friends are playing with each other, but don’t want her to play?

Merlin's top-advice is not to try to talk someone out of how they feel right now. It is like telling somebody who is grieving to fuck up. Grieving and depression are two things that are not helped by somebody telling you to feel better. With a kid you don’t want to over-gesticulate about it, because that is weird. You don’t want to tell her that it is not real, and at a deeper level, you don’t want to find yourself explaining why this is. Merlin sometimes says something like ”Sometimes people are really terrible to each other and we don’t always know why!”, but he doesn’t want to do that either and he doesn’t want to fail as a parent. He will tear himself apart if he doesn’t get that right!

The dynamic John wants to establish is that his daughter's mother is extremely competent and has a business-life. She dresses business in the morning, she goes and manages people, she flies on business-trips and she is very competent in the world. Also, Nanna is very competent. If you gave her a case of LaCroix and a Swiss Army Knife, she could build a submarine. These are not the people we are measuring daddy’s success against, but we are measuring daddy’s success against different criteria, which is a) Are we on fire? No! Good! b) Is daddy on fire? No! Good! But what that has done with her is that daddy needs some help from her and in a way some protection from her.

The conversation they had in the chicken restaurant revealed that she was 7 now and she felt that everybody was dumping on her all the time. She was getting a bunch of praise canon stuff that everybody does with a kid, but in the main she was doing everything wrong. Nanna was mad at her in the morning because she didn’t get ready fast enough, and mom was mad at her at night because she didn’t get to bed fast enough. What if John got her a clock and taught her how to use it, so she could know when it was time for her to get up and go to bed? She said she would like a clock and they will get her one, but once she has a clock, she will be responsible for the time. She doesn’t get to have a clock as a lighting effect to improve her procrastination.

Part of their long conversation was that John's daughter wanted more responsibility. It is just innate! She didn’t know how to ask for that, but she was wondering why her life looked like she was getting nagged from place to place with all the stuff that she knows she has to do, but she just doesn’t feel like doing. She needed to learn how to set the table and how to empty the dishwasher. She wished she lived in a family where she never got teased, which was like handing John a lit stick of dynamite, because he is the only one teasing her. That was for him! Wouldn’t she like to live in a family where she got teased a little bit? No! She would rather not get teased at all. It is the only way John knows how to interact with people! He was really scrambling and asked if she would rather live in a family where she had to eat vegetables at every meal or where she would get teased every once in a while.

At that point she made an enormous blunder and said that she would rather live in a family where she would have to eat vegetables with every meal. They agreed that starting that night, if she will eat a salad, John will not tease her. She did not give a look of having been checkmated, but she gave a look of ”Huh…” and then she said ”Deal!”, Clint Eastwood style. John is not crazy and he was not going to put a big fucking bowl of salad with tongs in front of her, but he put a little portion of vegetable on her plate. She made it seem like she was Indiana Jones and every bite of this stuff was snakes. She sat there and ate her snakes, but John didn’t jump on her saying that she can’t make faces, because faces were not part of the deal. He didn’t say that she had to like it or be nice about it, but right at the other side of those vegetables is her getting teased about ”Bastic of ponadoes” and she had to decide which is more important.

She ate the freaking things and every day from that day forth she has eaten vegetables. The few times John said something even vaguely teasing, she turned 6 guns drawn and said ”We had a deal!” with the unspoken second half of that sentence being ”and I’m living up to my half of it!” and she is! All that was part of ”You are 7 now and you want people off your back? Then you have to get more responsibility, because that is how you get people off your back!” She doesn’t get to be 5 again where everybody runs around and picks up after her. People in the family had the expectation of her getting better at stuff and she has showed them that she can do it, but does she have to do it every day? Yes! And you don’t get rewards for it, either!

John doesn’t understand the relationship that teasing plays in other people’s lives, because he was relentlessly teased by his dad and it was a thing they bonded over. He doesn’t like to be tickled, but he loves to be teased. He loved to go down to the magic ship in Pike Place Market where somebody would give him a piece of gum with a fucking mouse trap on it. Her reaction to that stuff is indignant, and bastic of ponados is beyond her discourse. It is astonishing to John that, of all the things she could have laid out in her negotiation, she decided she didn't want to get teased. She didn’t say ”Stop tickling me!”

When Merlin was a teenager, girls were a hot mess. They were frail and constantly wondering how broken they were. He wonders if he weighs too much on the angle of wanting his daughter to be confident, and if he is piercing that confidence by going back and checking her math on that. He shouldn’t, because part of being strong is being able to improve! When it comes down to being dad alone for 3 days, there are all kinds of ways that can go sideways.

John's daughter empathizing with others (RL285)

John's daughter is very dramatic, which is not anything she was taught, although it is certainly reinforced.

The other day, John and his daughter were slowly riding their bikes down the road when she said that she is worried that every time she smiles, it makes something bad happen. Every time something good happens, something bad immediately happens, which makes her not want to smile. An example is that after recess you have to go back inside and go back to work. They are all really happy at recess, but nobody wants to go back inside. After snack, which is the best part of school, they have math. John’s Generation-X girls-and-math-tingle-hairs went up, but she said that math is fine, but all the boys complain about math and she hates when people are unhappy. It is a bummer that everybody is complaining about math. John had this Generation-X desire to socially engineer her, turn her into superwoman (STEM-girl!) and correct for every aspect of the patriarchy in her alone, his daughter, who was growing up eating Cheerios except it was multiplication tables.

Fortunately, John listened an extra step there. Had he done what is his generations’s impulse was as she said that after snack is math, he would have said ”Oh, math is amazing, don’t hate math, math is great! What is the matter with math?”, and the tone he would have used would have made her realize that it was some kind of jam-up. But John stayed out of it for that one extra step, because she doesn’t have any problem with math and he wanted to hear what she was going to say next. It is about the fact that all the little boys are making a bunch of noise about having to do math and she is like ”Why don’t they just do their math?” She is exhibiting a kind of emotional receptiveness that is both lovely but also totally dangerous. She is on-boarding everybody else’s feelings as part of her world of responsibility. She feels bad because everybody else feels bad? Merlin calls it unpaid emotional labor. She is empathizing! They continued to pedal along in silence while they both chewed on that.

John tries to resist his tendency to socially engineer in any direction, even in the opposite direction that he was socially engineered into, because every time you change one little thing, you change a cascading series of infinitely repeating, unpredictable result chains. John doesn’t currently have any fear that his daughter is going to be fragile.

Bossing around at Ballard Locks (RL285)

When John's daughter was in preschool, they went to the Ballard Locks in Seattle, a dynamic environment where boats are coming and going. The locks are run by the US Army Corps of Engineers who take that job pretty seriously. They have big burly people on either side yelling at the people in the boats that they are doing it wrong. It is a big, industrial scale operation. John and his daughter went there with her pre-school, there were twenty 3-year olds all running around and the teacher was barely keeping them together. John was one of the parents who went along for the ride. Marlo was maybe 4, standing there at the edge of the locks with hundreds of tourists all climbing it up, and she was commanding the other children and the teacher at the top of her lungs what they needed to do. She was even yelling at passers-by and had appointed herself as the mistress of the locks.

John told her to cold-check her mega-bossing for a second until they had all figured out how to get through this small aperture, and a very big man with a beard and a hat that said USACOE, who was in the process of yelling at a NOAA Icebreaker, turned around on his heel and told John that we don’t say bossing to young women and instead we encourage them for their authoritativeness. He turned around and went back to his job. John is not somebody anymore who is doling out lessons to everybody on the street. Being out there sheriffing everybody is not very effective and not very fun and nobody gets better. John has learned that by being on Twitter.

What this guy was doing was trying to make the world a better place, but he doesn’t know John’s daughter and he doesn’t know that she is a fucking bossy little nazi. If she could, she would literally run the world from her 3-year old understanding of how things need to be ordered. Anybody who spends any time around kids knows that little boys don’t do that. Little boys do not go bossing everybody around, but they are hitting each other. They are bonking and screaming and running and hitting. They are not standing there and ”you are here and you are the mamma and you are the corps of engineers guy and this is what your job is and here is where you stand”. John’s daughter is the queen of it! She is the ultimate orderer of things and people. She sees the plan of it and she sees the matrix. Meanwhile, in an empowered fashion, Marlo was ”Will you shut the fuck up for three minutes while we get through this door?”

Karate-chopping boys vs bullying (RL285)

John has been very engaged in his daughter's schools from the very beginning. Everybody says that having a daughter is easier when they are young, but it gets harder when they are older, while boys are harder when they are young, but it gets easier when they are a teenager. Watching it unfold, there are some profoundly sensitive little boys in her class. It is a modern school in a modern school district and none of the girls are being taught anything other than they are capable leaders, and not even subtly. Then you also got some Grahams who are sensitive, and that sensitivity is not being seen or being separated from the Theos who just want to karate chop. Theo is not dumb, he is a fine young man, but if you turn around, he is going to nunchuck you.

Graham has no interest in being nunchucked, because he has thoughts and feelings. He is non-binary and he is just a little kid like John was, who wants to dream and stare out the window. He really cares what people are feeling and the system doesn't have many accommodations for that. If Theo karate-chops Graham, the only way the schools can deal with that is to characterize that it as a bullying-incident, but it is not! Theo is not bullying Graham! Graham is not cowering around Theo, but Theo is just himself who is karate-chopping things and Graham doesn’t want to be karate-chopped. He doesn’t know how to say "No!" and get through life while not being karate-chopped but at the same time not being isolated.

It doesn’t help at all if that is characterized as bullying, Theo gets branded as a bully and Graham gets branded as a victim of a bully, because that is not the dynamic. Bullies are a very specific, small group of children and their behavior is a specific thing. Bullying is not some rampant epidemic that every kid is doing to one another. You can pick the bully out and he is expressing something that is going on in his or her family. To grab Theo by the shirt and tell him that you have a no-bullying policy, then Theo is ”Oh shit, I’m a bully?” and Graham is like ”Oh, I’m a victim?” That is not how you want Graham to see himself!

Empathizing with his daughter the right way (RL285)

John’s policy right now is to ride his bike along because he knows he cannot help her, which is a terrible admission. He can be there, but if her friends decide to ice her out of a thing on the playground, no amount of advice, not his own experience, not his own intelligence or hers can solve it. It is an endurance test and a day will come when she has friends again. It might be tomorrow, in fact! John thought he was being a wise parent by letting her know that there are bad people and people are terrible to each other and we try to be good to each other, or some version of that. It is not terrible, but it is also not comforting and it is not something that can really be communicated through words. She will learn it from experience!

John’s worry is that he is filling up the air between him and his daughter with words that mean little or nothing to her. It is something he has been confronted with in his recent adult relationships. John and Merlin had talked a lot about this, for instance that one of them recently had a millennial girlfriend. At the end of talking a lot about things it was still unclear where they were on those things and they had not talked them through and they were not solved. There was always another iteration! You don’t want to succumb to a feeling that no-one can ever change, because John doesn’t believe that, although people say it and it sounds wise. "No-one changes after they are 12 years old", signed Martin Luther King. That is not very hopeful and Jon likes to have a little bit of hope.

Merlin wondered many times when the last time was he changed because someone told him that he was doing it wrong. That is not how you change!

John is publicly a recovering alcoholic and people write him a lot, saying that they are at the front door of rehab for the third time and they ask him for advice on how to make it work. All he can ever say is that they will get sober when they are done, and if they are not done, they don’t want it enough to make it happen. They have to want it! Rehab doesn’t matter, their wife or parents or boyfriend being really concerned doesn’t matter, not even their health matters, because if they don’t want to stop, they are just going to fucking keep doing it and when they want to stop they will know. It is not that it will suddenly be easy, but it will be fucking hard and excruciating, but they will do it anyway! That is true of change of any kind. John’s unfolding feeling about what his relationship with his job as a dad is, is like: Is he just trying to comfort himself, just feeling up the space with words that mean less than nothing to her? You will figure it out and life is hard? Why not just pedal your bike!

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