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In which I nag you to buy life insurance

No pressure!

No pressure!

I really hate it when people say, “You have no business having children if you don’t have life insurance!” or “How can you claim you love your family if you don’t have life insurance?” Hey, things happen. Life doesn’t always work out in a sensible order. Lots of non-horrible people don’t have life insurance. Just consider this your reminder, you loving parents, to take a look at your budget and see what you can do.

Read the rest at the Register. 

And by the way, my agent is Daniel Finn with New York Life.  If you are looking for a friendly, Catholic guy who will patiently explain things over and over until you understand it, and who will work with you until you find a policy that fits where you are right now, I recommend getting in touch.  860-298-1060 or dtfinn@ft.newyorklife.com

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In which I nag you to buy life insurance

Nag, nag!

No pressure!

I really hate it when people say, “You have no business having children if you don’t have life insurance!” or “How can you claim you love your family if you don’t have life insurance?” Hey, things happen. Life doesn’t always work out in a sensible order. Lots of non-horrible people don’t have life insurance. Just consider this your reminder, you loving parents, to take a look at your budget and see what you can do.

Read the rest at the Register.

And by the way, my agent is Daniel Finn with New York Life.  If you are looking for a friendly, Catholic guy who will patiently explain things over and over until you understand it, and who will work with you until you find a policy that fits where you are right now, I recommend getting in touch.  860-298-1060 or dtfinn@ft.newyorklife.com

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My Dear Graduates

Akademische_Feier_accadis_Bad_Homburg

For some reason, nobody ever asks me to give the commencement address at their local high school or college. This despite the fact that I promised to wear pantyhose and everything, and to leave the bottle at home. Bunch of anti-Semites.

Anyway, I’m not one to be bitter. I’m not going to let this snubbing gnaw away at me. I’m just going to go ahead and write that speech anyway, and print out several copies of it, and keep them in the diaper bag in the car, next to the Luger PO8 and the farewell note. Because you never, never know!

Here’s what I have to say. Graduates, as I look out over your bright, eager faces, my heart wells with emotion and a single phrase springs into my mind: Better you than me.

Gee, I would give anything to not be you right now. What a horrible time this is for you. I mean, think about it: You’re on the verge of starting a new life. The possibilities are endless—what the future holds is bounded only by the limits of your imagination. You can be anything you want to be, if you only believe in yourself. You can shoot for the stars!

I’m so, so sorry.

Because that’s what people have been telling you, right? Isn’t that what your guidance counselor said—that there are no limits to what you can achieve?

You know that’s crazy talk, right?

I mean that literally: Only people with a mental illness would truly believe that you can achieve anything. People who actually get things done are the people who look at themselves and say, “Okey-doke. There are some things I’m good at, and many thousands more things that I am and always will be utterly unqualified to do. Starting tomorrow, my job is do the least amount of thrashing around and wasting of my parent’s tuition money as possible, while I figure out the difference between my very few strengths and my billions of weaknesses.

“Then, I need to figure out if there’s any possible way I can do what it turns out I’m good at, and also be a decent human being. If possible, it would be wonderful if the things I’m good at, and which allow me to be decent, are also things which will earn me a salary.”

And after you have that conversation with yourself, and preferably after you come up with a better plan than scrawling “FIX LIFE” on your memo pad, then you can go out drinking with your buddies.

Because here’s the deal, you poor deluded masses of inchoate ambition: Freedom is for something. Freedom is so that you can get something done. Yes, it’s valuable and precious in itself—but it’s not a resting place. Having potential is like being hungry: You want to resolve that in some definite way. All the best things in life come when you tie yourself down in one way or another, when you accept some limitations.

Think about all the things that make life worth living—all the things that people you admire are proud of. A huge project achieved? They neglected other things—fun things!—to get it done.  A happy marriage? They forsook all others to remain faithful. A vocation of any kind? Saying Yes to one thing always means saying No to a dozen more. It doesn’t mean that all the rejected opportunities are bad. It just means that you’re only one person, and are here to do one person’s work.

This doesn’t mean you have to rush into it. There’s nothing especially admirable about going whole hog for the wrong thing (just ask the guy with the Betty Boop tattoo on his forehead). So take your time, look around, and don’t be rash. But for the love of mike, remember that this stage of your life is supposed to come to an end some day. Even if you never end up with a career at all, you will eventually have some huge choices to make.

Or you know what? You might not even get to make a choice: You might find yourself faced with some horrible situation, and guess who’s the only one who can fix it? That’s right, the guy in the mirror, the one who fell asleep in a trash can and his friend drew cat whiskers on his face with permanent markers. The lives of others may someday depend on you, Mr. Fluffy. Try to make at least some of your current behavior reflect that fact.

So congratulations, graduates! You did it. Some of you worked moderately hard to be here today, and I applaud you. Now go forth, act decent, call your mother from time to time. And remember, nobody’s life ever got better after drinking a rum and Coke.

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(This post originally ran in the National Catholic Register in 2011.)

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Carve Out Time for These Few Essentials

AS0000019F08 Pregnancy, pregnant mother with child

You’ll also find regular exercise gives you more energy to do something that is absolutely essential: putting in some one-on-one time with your other kids. It’s all too easy for them to feel displaced and neglected when the new baby comes, so it is essential to carve out some special time to connect with them, consistently and intentionally, academically, emotionally, spiritually, and just for some plain old silly old mommy-and-me fun, or else they will grow up to be crack whores.

Read the rest at the Register. 

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So you want to start a blog?

This isn't a picture of a blog, but it is a picture! Always have a picture.

This isn’t a picture of a blog, but it is a picture! Always have a picture.

 

Every so often, someone asks me for tips on launching a new blog. Here is some general advice for the typical popular blog. I don’t take all this advice myself, but it’s still all good practice.

Experienced bloggers, what would you add?

 

To increase your audience:

-Always include a picture. People are much more likely to read and share a post that has an illustration of some kind.*

 

-Post everything on Facebook, Twitter, and Google Plus once or twice, and make good use of keywords and hashtags. Also consider using Instagram, Tumblr, and Pinterest.-Post regularly. Aim for three times a week, if not every day.

 

-Make post titles short, snappy and searchable. Questions make good titles (but not for every post). Intriguing trumps descriptive.

 

-Before you try to get any big traffic, do a “soft launch” by having about 5-6 posts already published. If you intend to have a comment box (which is not necessary), find a few friendly people to leave comments in those first posts, to give it a “live” feeling.

 

-Don’t be afraid to introduce yourself to bigger bloggers who have an audience that might be interested in your writing. Don’t expect to hear back from everyone, of course, but many bloggers are happy to do a quick, general “Here’s something new, might be interesting” post on social media, so cast a wide net.

 

-Put a link to your blog allllll over the place: in the signature of your email, in comments that you leave on other blogs, in the heading of whatever social media you use, etc.

 

-Include the option to subscribe to your blog via feeds and email.

 

-Link to other bloggers on your blog, either within the content or at the end of the post in a “related reads” list. Share other bloggers’ work on social media.

 

*Bloggers, even tiny little ones, are getting sued more and more often for using copyrighted pictures! Make sure that you only use images you have permission to use — either your own photos, or images from sources like Wikimedia Commons, Wellcome Images, Pond5, or other sources of royalty-free images. Make sure you attribute them correctly (the sites will give you directions for how to attribute).

 

For the writing itself:

 

-Write about things that you really know about, rather than Things People Really Ought to Know. People really like to get snapshots of worlds that aren’t anything like their own, OR snapshots of worlds that they know all too well, and wish other people understood. Dialogue, vivid description, thoughts that popped into your head – these are all much more captivating than explanations or analysis.

 

-Let your unique voice come through. A consistent, authentic voice that becomes familiar is what will keep people coming back. It’s okay to assume a persona that’s not exactly you, as long as it’s consistent.

 

-It’s fine to be dramatic and punchy; it’s not fine to be sensationalistic. People are very, very tired of the breathless “You’ll never believe what happens next!” kind of stuff that’s everywhere, and they resent being tricked into reading a story. Let the writing and subject matter be compelling on its own.

 

-It’s fine to be controversial or critical; it’s not fine to be nasty or to get personal. If you’re angry, be angry, but be other things, too.

 

-There is nothing wrong with latching onto a hot topic, news story, or celebrity name and using it as a hook to talk about something that you have insight or experience about, but don’t let every post be like this.

 

-Keep posts short, under 1,000 words. This isn’t applicable for every type of blog; but the typical reader has a pretty short attention span. And for crying out loud, use paragraphs. Too many bloggers offer a solid brick of writing, and I, for one, refuse to read bricks.

 

 

For the blog:

 

-Seems like common sense, but search around to make sure no one else is already using whatever name you choose. You don’t want to be constantly explaining, “No no, I’m Musings of a Random Guy, not Random Guy’s Musings.”

 

-Have a picture of yourself somewhere on the blog, and make sure there’s an “about me” or “what we do here” page.

 

-Include contact information. It’s a good idea to have a separate email just for you blog, so your inbox doesn’t get too cluttered with blog stuff.

 

-Remember that you don’t owe anyone a platform. People are free to start their own blogs, if they have something to say! If you do decide to have a comment box, consider moderating comments before they get published. It’s nice to have a lively comment box that feels like a community, but if the jerks feel too free to say whatever they want, then decent, sensible people won’t bother getting involved, and you’ll just have a cesspool.

 

-Use tags; have archives on your sidebar; and once you get going, consider having a “my favorite posts” or “most popular posts” list on the sidebar, to keep people browsing around.

 

-Keep it as uncluttered as possible. Avoid pop-ups and autoplay ads.

 

-For the love of mike, don’t use a dark background and light print, and don’t use any kind of gimmicky font.  Make it as readable as possible or . . . dun dun dun . . . people won’t read it.

 

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I refuse to worry about what my kids eat for dinner.

boy eating beet for some reason

If you were a better mom, this would be your kid.

Today, I’m making Zuppa Toscana. When I share recipes I’m trying, people often ask, “Will your kids really eat that?” The answer is: some of them, yeah. Some of them, no way. A few of them, maybe. And I am fine with that. I have two goals when I serve a meal: at least half the family should eat it, and mealtimes should be reasonably pleasant.

My policy is: I decide what to cook, and they decide whether or not to eat it.

We don’t have food battles (or food cold wars). We don’t save plates of untasted food and keep serving them, meal after meal, until the child consents to take just one bite. I know that other parents have done some variation of this, in hopes that a child will eventually begin to develop a taste for some nutritious or delicious food. But I’ve found that learning to eat new foods is a lot like learning to read or learning to use the toilet: you can either teach the kid when he’s ready, or you can teach and teach and teach and teach a kid until he’s ready — but either way, it ain’t gonna happen if he’s not ready.

I guess it’s possible that an especially serene parent would be able to patiently, consistently insist that a child try some despised food ten thousand times; but I do not possess that serenity, and things would get ugly fast. I’m already warping my kids enough over other issues. I don’t need to add “But WHY don’t you like kale?” to the list. The table is no place for guilt trips or power struggles.

So, I bring a dish to the table, and I ask each kid individually if he wants some. They have to say either “yes, please” or “no, thank you” — no retching noises or horrible faces allowed. If they want it, great. If they don’t want it, I just move along. With this approach, and with the passive peer pressure of older kids visibly enjoying different foods, I’ve had kids refuse a dish fifty times, and then gradually develop a taste for it, with no prodding or nagging from me.

If they don’t want what I’m serving, they are allowed to fill up on side dishes or fix themselves toast, eggs, a sandwich, cereal, or leftovers.  A child as young as four or five can get himself a simple meal.

Wait, wait! Don’t I want them to be healthy? And don’t I want to avoid wasting time and money on cooking foods that no one will eat?  Sure. This is why I aim for meals that at least some of them will eat. But I don’t worry about each kid having a balanced meal three times a day. I don’t even worry about having a balanced diet each day. I take the week-long view: as long as they have a reasonably nourishing, balanced diet over the course of the week, that is good enough.

And sometimes kids will just eat one food for a long, long time. This is common, and it is fine. Just keep offering a variety of foods and not making a big deal out of it. Give your kids daily vitamins to make up whatever deficits are in their diet, and don’t keep a lot of complete crap in the house for them to fill up on.  They will survive, and there will be peace in your house. As long as your kids have energy and are growing normally, there is nothing to worry about.

There is (probably) something beyond picky eating called Selective Eating Disorder, where adults not only won’t but can’t get themselves to eat more than a few, bland, nutritionally questionable foods; but I’m 99% sure your kid is not developing this disorder. Keep this in mind: the eating disorder researcher in the article says “Kids are at greater risk of becoming picky adults ‘anytime the food environment is coercive or tense.’” So avoiding that situation should be your first focus if your child is a picky eater.

To sum up: offer variety. Don’t cater to them too much. Don’t make a big stinking deal out of it. Take the nutritional long view. And if they don’t like the tasty soup you made? More for you!

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Welcome, baby! 12 gifts that new moms want the most

baby sleeping

The greatest gift of all: a nap.

New baby gifts! Fun to receive, fun to give, almost impossible to get wrong.

The only truly unwelcome baby present I’ve ever gotten was tucked into the bottom of a “welcome, new baby!” basket from my church: it was a pamphlet titled something like, “So, Hear Me Out, Now. There’s This Thing Called NFP That You Might Maybe Want to Try. . . “. And yes, this was after I had literally written the book on NFP.

I really can’t complain, though. I’m horrible about giving baby gifts, myself. I almost always just bring a fuzzy wuzzy outfit or an adorable bonnet, because it’s fun to shop for those things. But I’ve been on the receiving end of dozens of much more thoughtful, memorable gifts over the years. Here are some of my favorite ideas, which new moms seem to universally appreciate:

1.The tried and true meal. I never manage to prepare freezer meals ahead of time, and I always think, “Oh, we can get by with chicken nuggets and pasta for a while.” But nothing beats having the whole thing taken care of by someone else — whether it’s something elaborate and gourmet, or just a bunch of sandwiches ready to eat.

Best practice is to contact the new mom first, find out when the best time would be to drop by, and don’t plan to stay long — or, if you’re friends and know this would work out, offer to come over with groceries and cook a meal at the new mom’s house (and do the dishes afterwards!). Always ask if there are any allergies or preferences in the family.

And be specific.”What would you guys like to eat?” is great; but to a fuzzy-minded postpartum zombie, even better is “Would you rather have Specific Meal X, Y, or Z?” If you are feeling super helpful, include disposable plates and utensils, and don’t put the food in containers that you need back.

A variation: a gift card for take-out delivery. No matter how well a day starts out, things are guaranteed to look pretty bleak by dinner time. It’s a happy mom who knows that all she’ll have to do at 6 PM is open the door, open a pizza box, and call it a day.

2.The gift from the heart: cash (or gift cards). Not every family needs money, of course, but paternity leave is rare and many moms are losing income while they recover. There are always extra expenses when a baby is born, and nothing eases stress and speeds recovery like knowing, “Oh, I can pay for that.”

Also welcome are gift cards for Amazon or other stores where the family can pick out what they really need, whether it’s a frilly newborn dress, diapers and wipes, toilet paper and dog food, or a treat for the rest of the family when everyone’s stressed out. A friend once gave me thirty dollars, and I still remember how fabulous it felt to go out and splurge on a de-frumping postpartum haircut.

3.The favor that lightens the load. At our school, there is a monthly lottery for “Rock Star Parking” right next to the door.  I will never, ever win this, because you get entered by being on time all month. But my punctual friend Angy did win, and she donated the spot to me (as did another friend, Patrick, last time I had a baby). It may not sound like much, but when it’s icy and muddy and I’m lugging a baby in her seat and dragging an unwilling toddler in snow boots and an Elsa dress, a good parking spot makes my life significantly easier five times a week. Score!

Other possibilities in this category: an offer to pick up and drop off other kids at school, or an offer to do the weekly shopping — or maybe an offer to be a shopping companion, on those first difficult trips out with a baby. Think back to when you had a new baby in the house. What did you really struggle with? Is there any way you can lighten that load for a new mom and dad?

4. Treats for other young kids. The non-newborn kids can feel a little lost and overlooked in the first weeks. How nice for them (and for an over-extended mom) to find a few little (non-messy!!!) activities to keep them busy. Sidewalk chalk, new crayons, coloring books, picture books, small stuffed animals or dolls, or a DVD (something you know the mom approves of) can cheer up siblings and give mom a needed respite.

5. Treats for mom (or dad). No matter how happy we are to welcome a new baby (and not be insanely pregnant anymore), it’s a bit of a shock to suddenly stop being the pampered patient, and suddenly start being the round-the-clock caretaker. Most moms appreciate a thoughtful little token present to make them feel pretty or cared-for. A bottle of wine or a box of tea, some fancy chocolates, or something pretty for her hair or skin — or maybe a gift certificate for a manicure or massage — is a nice gesture that says, “You’re more than a diaper-changing machine.”

Something nice for the new dad would probably be welcome, too. They’re often nearly as worn out as their wives, but nobody’s fussing over them.

6. Sincere, specific offers for cleaning, babysitting, or other practical help. “Let me know if there’s anything I can do!” is a pleasant thing to hear, but a thousand times better is, “I would like to donate my teenagers for a couple of hours, if you need help with laundry or cleaning the bathrooms and kitchen, or if you’d like me to take your other kids to the library so you can nap. We are available on the following dates, so let me know if you’re interested.” Or even, “I would love to offer you a couple of weeks of housecleaning service. Would that be helpful to you, or would that be weird?” (Some families are too private for this kind of gift.) Lawn care, snow shoveling, or some credit with a diaper service might also be welcome.

7.Handmade, personalized, or heirloom items (with no strings attached). Hands down, handmade gifts are my favorite in the long run, and older kids love knowing that someone made them just for them, back when they were just a baby. A few that stand out: two blankets made by my sister (one crocheted with intertwined trees and a lovely shell pattern, cherished by the now three-year-old, and one quilted with upcycled denim and flannel, complete with pockets that delighted my son when he got older), and a life-changing co-sleeper built by my brother-in-law and sweetly painted with dancing dandelions. We also love the patron saint icons and medals that various godparents have sent.

Just remember, even if you spent a lot of time and thought on a gift, the new parents are not obligated to display it on their wall or dress the baby in it at Easter time. A gift is a gift, so give it with love and then let it go!

8.Photography session. If you are good with a camera, a newborn or family photography session could make a lovely gift. Just be clear that it’s just an offer, and you won’t be offended if the new mom isn’t up to getting everyone brushed and dressed right away.

9.Used or new baby clothes or equipment IF the mom confirms she really needs and wants them. Mothers of big families may have more baby stuff than they know what to do with, so another bag to sort through may or may not be helpful. On the other hand, mothers of big families have often completely lost track of their stash, or rashly given it all away, so don’t assume that she already has what she needs! The key is to ask.  And be clear whether you’re offering a loan or a gift, and if you’d like any unwanted items back, or if she should just dispose of them however she likes.

Baby equipment I’ve found most useful, besides a carseat and stroller: a Boppy pillow,useful for nursing, for propping up a baby’s chest, and for supporting a wobbly baby who is learning to sit; a Bumbo floor seat is a clever, portable, washable seat that we’ve found to be very handy. An extra-large and soft receiving blanket is also very useful for swaddling, as a sun cover, or for some privacy while nursing.

10.Prayer and words of encouragement. A Mass card or enrollment makes a nice keepsake, but Catholic moms also appreciate prayers of any kind. “We’ll offer Mass for you this week” or “We’ll remember you in our family rosary” is a gift that anyone can offer. If you’re not a pray-er, words of encouragement or admiration can also make a huge difference in those first exhausting, sometimes isolating weeks.

11.Gift certificate for a restaurant or hotel — with no expiration date. Some couples are dying to get away, but some would rather hunker down at home until baby’s much older; but most parents like to know they at least have the option to do some non-infant-related activity together at some point.

12.And you don’t have to wait for the baby to arrive. For some women, the last few weeks or months of pregnancy are physically and emotionally harder than the postpartum time, so any of the ideas above would probably be gratefully welcomed by an exhausted preggo who is starting to feel like her baby will never, ever come.

What’s missing from this list? What’s the best baby gift you’ve ever gotten?