Archive for the ‘Observations’ Category

The Rule With No Exceptions

It’s 1:30 am, and I’m awakened from a deep sleep by an incessant beeping to have an important conversation.

It starts with one thought in my mind.

There is no cure for death. It is the rule with no exceptions.

My 1:30 am call typically goes like this: I receive a call from the night nurse on call for our practice. These nurses are incredibly knowledgeable, and try not to wake up the physicians unless they really need to. So, when they call, I know things have gotten serious with a patient’s condition, and they are looking for help. The typical patient is a geriatric patient in a nursing home, likely with dementia, who may have been declining for some time. Often, family members have taken care of the patient for years before having to place them in a nursing home. The family may have decided, after multiple hospital and emergency department visits, to focus on comfort care. Meaning, we will do everything we can to make someone comfortable in their familiar surroundings, and, if a natural death does occur, we will not interfere to bring the person back into this world.

Family members of these patients have often watched their mothers and fathers suffer from months of pain, endure care that can be humiliating (such as wearing diapers), and forget all of their family members, one by one. In the daylight, these decisions seem easier.

“Mom would not have wanted this,” they tell me. “She would have never wanted to end up this way.”

Or, “Dad was clear in his living will that he didn’t want any heroic measures.”

But at 1:30 am, it can be a different story. After I’ve spoken to the nurse at the facility about the patient’s condition, and confirmed that the patient may be “transitioning” (meaning, passing from this world), I call and speak directly with the family member who has been tasked with making decisions for this patient. Since I am the physician on call, they typically don’t know me, and I don’t know them. But we’re about to have one of the most intimate conversations two people can have at this hour.

I explain that their loved one has had a change in condition, and make sure they are comfortable if our comfort care results in the patient dying tonight. I don’t skirt around the issue, since the alternative is to call an ambulance and send them to the hospital for evaluation. I want to make sure we are clear about the decisions we are making at this very moment. I certainly can’t say for sure if their mother or father will die this evening, while I am on call. But, given the circumstances, they might.

It is said that a person’s life flashes before their eyes while they are dying. The same can be said of the family member at this hour. Every touch, every encouraging word, every disagreement, every smile, every experience with the patient is relived in that moment of the family member making the decision. The patient has either lived a life worth living, or they haven’t.  Regardless, all of that may be gone tonight, and there’s no going back from this one.

And yet, the patient must move forward at some point, too. We discuss that even if we cheat death for their mother tonight at the hospital, the true reality of mother’s life will remain,  and we will likely be back here soon, staring down the grim reaper as he waits to take this soul to places unknown.

There is no cure for death. It is the rule with no exceptions.

In the end, many of the family members opt to continue on the path that they decided on in the daylight: continue comfort care. They get up in the middle of the night and drive to the nursing home to sit by their father’s side, soaking in each last moment of his time on earth. Others are not ready, and opt to send their mother to the hospital, hoping to prolong the event for when everyone is more ready.  They understand that day is coming, but not tonight.

When my day eventually comes – hopefully when I’m old and gray – I don’t want my kids to try to hold on for too long because the time we spent together was too short. So, once I’m off the phone, I creep silently into their rooms, hug and kiss them again, and then snuggle up to my husband for the night. Enjoying each hour as it comes, no exceptions needed.

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Evidence-Based Education

Many people are not aware that as a physician, I make hundred of evidence-based decisions during my workday.  The practice of medicine is founded on treating patients in a manner consistent with what has been proven to work. The aim of evidence-based medicine is simple: “the conscientious, explicit and judicious use of current best evidence in making decisions about the care of individual patients (Sackett, 1996).” There are entire databases and electronic medical record support systems of information dedicated to helping physicians sort through an unbelievable amount of data as they make decisions in real-time. My patient has health-care associated pneumonia with a penicillin allergy? I am a few clicks away – using Up To Date online – from information about the latest evidence on treatment of this condition, with modifications and options for treating my particular patient. If I want to research more in-depth about a medical condition I see frequently, I can go to the Cochrane database and find a systematic review of the available evidence. I can also find and read any number of meta-analyses (studies which aggregate data and findings from multiple smaller studies) on the topic.

Medicine is able to accomplish this because we receive funding for research – to test theories in the lab, or enroll patients in clinical trials. The gold standard for internal medicine is the independently funded (not by the pharmaceutical company) double-blinded (no one who is treating the patient knows what they are receiving), placebo-controlled (some folks receive the drug, others receive an inert pill), randomized controlled trial (patient are assigned randomly to each treatment.) A large, well-designed trial such as this can change the practice of medicine within the course of a year after being published. For instance, when I was a medical student, we routinely placed women on estrogen after they had a heart attack, because the best available evidence at the time showed that we should do this to improve their heart health. After I finished residency, a large trial was published showing that not only were we not preventing heart attacks with estrogen therapy, but that we were potentially causing harm. Over the course of the next few years, the practice of medicine changed, and nowadays essentially no one would start estrogen on a woman after she’s had a heart attack.

However, this data was years in the making. It takes several years -sometimes ten or more – to design, get funding for, administer, synthesize, and disseminate information from a clinical trial. The wait is usually worth it, because we then have good, evidenced-based data on what to do as physicians in treating our patients. New technologies are generally adapted only after they have been proven to work, this protecting the patients from potential harm. If a patient has a time-sensitive condition – such as an aggressive cancer – they are able to be enrolled in clinical trials as new medicines become available.

With the above in mind, it has frustrated me ever since my children entered the school system that education is not more progressive and evidence-based. My child is highly gifted with dyscalculia? I initially spent my time looking for a database of studies, the systematic review with the computer-based decision support to guide her teacher on how to teach her most effectively. What I found were websites and expert opinion articles, but very little evidence-based data. What about the new iPad apps that seem to come out every week to help kids learn math? Should I use the Dragon Box app to teach her algebraic concepts – and algebra? And if I can use it to learn algebra in 42 minutes, why isn’t our school testing and using it right now?

As I searched, I did uncover information regarding evidence-based education. The Best Evidence Encyclopedia  and The Center for Evidence-Based Education have some great information on available evidence, but many of the listed materials on both websites have not been updated in a year or more.  The Ted talks are a great way to disseminate information about current educational practices, but the short talks make it difficult to assess the evidence; the TedEd website shows definite promise in sharing lessons. Dr. Ben Goldacre wrote the a more recent article in March of 2013 entitled “Building Evidence into Education”, and he points out the “need for a coherent ‘information architecture’ that supports evidence based practice.”

My realization over the last few years – driving part of the decision to homeschool our kids – is that education will never be as evidence-based as medicine for my children. I’m not willing, as a parent, to wait while my child sits as part of a study, possibly getting the intervention or not, while she gets older every year. In ten years she’ll be long gone from K-12 education, and while enrolling her in a study would be paying it forward to other students with her condition, it won’t help her now, while she grows and struggles and learns. Plus, there would be countless more iPad apps, technologies, and teaching innovations while the study was underway, so any study would potentially be out-of-date even before it was published.

I do hope that education is able to move in the direction of medicine, with an easily accessible infrastructure that can be utilized from any classroom or household by anyone educating a child. Not so many years ago, colleagues of mine were convincing others in medicine to embrace evidence-based care, and now we can’t imaging practicing any other way. I will watch from a distance as these developments move through education, but in the meantime, I’ve got children to teach.

n/51

Marty Jones and NAMB's AV conference room equipment.

There is a palpable sense of relief in the room when the company CEO loosens his tie. There’s a moment of respect paid around the conference table, and then top shirt buttons are gratefully tugged open and ties pulled into cockeyed Ys. It can’t be more than 78 degrees in the room, and once it was clear that the air conditioning had well and fully failed, fans were hastily procured and brought in. But it’s still hot.

I keep my tie securely fastened. I’m the vendor in the room.

The next slide comes up, and the narration continues. The corner of this slide reads 11/51. I’ve already read the first eleven, in depth, in my office, and I’ve read the next forty, too. But the CEO wants to deliver them, so I’m listening.

Sort of.

What percentage of me is in this room? Sixty, seventy percent. I’m not necessarily feigning interest; that’s too harsh a term. But, seventeen years into a career of consulting, I can put on a studious expression at will. My soul is twenty-one miles west down I-70, hefting my giggling son in the air for another toss into the deep end of the pool. I can already feel my rotator cuff stinging from the effort, but I don’t mind. My last memory of him, and his sisters, before I left this afternoon was one of pure presence and mindfulness. They are truly themselves in the summer; there’s no artifice of school personas, no submerged intensity. They reach a perfect symmetry of their inner and outer selves, all in balance, all present without shame or conformity. They are the children they are. It’s beautiful.

They’re looking at my tie at this point, and I think about loosening it for a moment, and then – perhaps in honor of that memory – I just don’t. “Can we run that back?” I ask. “Are those assumptions base case or bear case?” More discussion.

I’m not always required to be present in these moments, suit-and-tied in client offices. Most days, when I’m not selling new engagements or reading out existing ones, I can work alongside their summers, shorts and Keens all around as they sprawl about the house with new books or invent new plots involving the TARDIS tent in the basement or add on to the ever-expanding world they’re building in Minecraft. But when I am present in the corporate environment, I’m conscious of how I’m holding it in, toeing the line, obeying the norms –

Speaking of, they’re still looking at my tie. Right; when in Rome. I unfasten the top button my shirt, too, and give my tie a tug. It’s all part of the ritual, the dance…the ojigi.

They’ve done this in school all this time, holding their intensities at bay to be like the others, laughing when the peerage wants it and not laughing when the teacher’s had enough, and otherwise obeying the ojigi of public-school life. They’re not necessarily themselves when they’ve done so, and the contrast between the children I taught for the year and those I see daily over the summer is dramatic.

I know why I do what I do. I enjoy it, first off; it’s mentally engaging for me to help clients tackle thorny issues. I like the people I encounter (mostly) and the compensation I receive for work done (mostly), but that’s all been of my own design. My children trust in me that their school days are spent in equally directed and efficient endeavors. Otherwise, why would you bother? Why not exist in this perfect symmetry at every moment? Why contend with any of the bullshit ojigi at all?

Why not be the people we are all the time?

We don’t get to, of course. There are Important Tasks to Attend To in the Adult World®.  I’m fortunate in that my time-to-be-a-grownup moments are fairly few and far between, but even I have to pretend to be 43 from time to time. But I can see my own purpose for doing so. Even as the slide deck drips languorously over to 12/51, I can contemplate what this engagement means: it’s money in the bank for homeschooling tech, or a fistful of day trips this fall, or in their 529 accounts, or the rainy-day fund. My reward for time spent in ojigi is linear; I know why I’m here, what the pros and cons of my involvement in this moment are. I’m aware of the decision I’m making, and it is made of my own free will.

Theirs isn’t. Education is a long-term investment of their time and effort. Maybe that time and effort docks with the work environment of their future, and it was time well-spent. Maybe it doesn’t, and I’m just burning their childhood hours, these perfect symmetric hours, for nothing. When I do get the chance to remember who they are, skin darkening with each passing day in the sun, laughter a little more organic and less self-conscious as the months roll on, I want nothing more than to preserve the conditions under which they freed themselves to be these people. There are endless days of ties and slides and ojigi ahead of them, but every day I can keep them from that is a day they’ll remember well later. Even when they find their passions and go to them, that’s still not quite the same – and I feel that I will, in some sense, owe them a reckoning of I how I chose to spend these moments on their behalf.

As we roll on to 13/51, comfortably aware of my own motivations in this moment, I look out the window. There’s plenty of sun left in the day.

Matsaaruti

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The fantastic Gifted Problems Tumblr posted this exchange last week, and it stopped me in my tracks. It’s really rare that someone takes a descriptive challenge that has approximated nailing custard to a wall for decades and says, “here, let me pop that in the freezer for an hour, and put it in a frame. By the way, here’s a pair of picture hangers and a tack hammer.” But, indirectly, that’s just what this exchange did: neatly hang a problem that haunts many gifted kids (and adults). When you do something right, it’s because of your ‘giftedness’ – as if it were one of Allie Brosh’s Alots, a beast that sits apart from you and does amazing things. When you do something wrong, however…well, that’s entirely on you.

That, in turn, has a lot to do with how we perceive failure – and gifted individuals deal with a great deal of failure in a lifetime, regardless of what the popular belief might be. We fail at large goals and small, otherwordly attempts and mundane tasks. We fail over and over again. But if we allow kids even a hint of owning the schism that’s hinted at in the Gifted Problems exchange – that credit for our triumphs is due our ‘condition,’ while blame for our failures is due ‘ourselves,’ we’re pointing them down the wrong road. Triumph and failure belong to our fully integrated selves: I own both, for better or worse.

There’s more of the ‘better’ in that last sentence than you might initially think. Failure’s important for everyone in life, and GT kids (and adults) are no exception. Failure can do so much more for us, in many ways, than success can: it can teach, it can provoke, it can inquire, it can test. Failing at anything will tell you everything you need to know about your relationship with that activity. Specifically, how failure feels in each of its instances provides us with deep and rich insight into our passion level for trying again.

And that feeling is unique to each specific failure. There are a million flavors of failure for GT kids (and adults). In much the same way that the Inuit have a dizzying array of words for snow,  I like to think of failures in very specific and individual ways; not every failure is a garden-variety one. Here’s just a few of my favorite varieties.

  • Fehlure: failing at something you’re expected to be good at, simply because you couldn’t care less about it.
  • Fauxlure: actually pretending to be terrible at something just so people will stop asking you to do it for them.
  • Frailure: a stunning-upset failure at something you’re normally good at, simply because you’ve been stretched thin doing everything else.
  • Flailure: being tossed into something you’ve never done before and being expected to do well at it, despite having no experience at all.
  • Foelure: a bitter draught, this one involves failing at something high-profile in the presence of your sworn nemesis or arch-enemy.
  • Foolure: a close cousin to fauxlure, but in this case, you’re hiding some genuine skills you’ll pull out at the eleventh hour.
  • Feelure: another close cousin to fauxlure; this time, you’re not going to do it because normally you’d be paid to do it.
  • Feylure: expectations aside, nothing short of being able to do actual magic would have saved this one from being a disaster.
  • Feralure: you’ve abandoned any pretense of trying to pull this one out with skill and intellect, and now you’re just going at it with brute force
  • Freelure: the end state of fauxlure, when you’re finally left alone from being asked to do whatever it is.

My favorite, however, is fillure. Fillure is a failure that immediately floods you with confidence, inspiration, and excitement; that’s not how it’s done, fillure quietly informs, but you’re on the right track. Fillure pulls you to your feet and sends you back to the keyboard or the kitchen, the rink or the research, with renewed vigor. When you’ve found fillure in your life, you’ve probably found your passion – or at least one of them. And over time, as you say it aloud, it really does start to sound a lot less like failure…and a whole lot more like its own condition.

To my own kids, and to all GT kids (and, really,everyone), then, I would say: know your snow. Not every snowfall is a travail, and not every failure is a disaster. For the Inuit, auniq (“ice that is filled with holes, like Swiss cheese”) is a danger; matsaaruti (“‘wet snow that can be used to ice a sleigh’s runners”) is a tool. Failure will present itself over and over again, sometimes as a trap, sometimes as a test, sometimes as a teacher, and sometimes as a tool. Greet it on your own terms, name it in the moment for the role it possesses in that moment – and know that this meeting will not be the last.

Resolute

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I spent yesterday morning holding the hand of Resiliency in a darkened auditorium. There were tough moments – many of them, in fact – but Resiliency got through them with quiet grace, as she always does. She broke down later, in the car, and got up again; broke down again later, in the restaurant, and got up again. Resiliency knows that these moments are coming, and she’s gotten better about them over the years, and I love her for doing so.

It’s not easy, I’ve learned by watching from afar, to be a twin. Even when the word itself is meaningless, as it is in our family – they’re fraternal, not identical – it’s impossible to shake. They have been described as twins since birth, given the label over and over again, and been acknowledged as such on every sports team, in the getting-to-know-you round of every first day of school, ever. They have been fed this concept of sameness, of mirrored existence, since they left the hospital.

They are not twins to me. They never have been. They are two children born on the same day that share loving parents and a two-story suburban home. They both like black olives, and they both like pedicures, and they both like Doctor Who and Muse and sea salt-caramel gelato and pandas and footrubs. But they are not twins and never will be, and I know that, and they know that. They are as different as night as day, and they each have their own challenges and burdens to bear. Yesterday, I spent the day celebrating the triumphs of one, and supporting the emotions of the other.

H is our 2e daughter. She is our empath, and our joy fountain, and the canary in the emotional coalmine of day-to-day existence. She struggles with dyscalculia and task sequencing every day. Things we take for granted, like glancing at an analog clock, are work for her. Some days numbers don’t come easily for her, and other days they don’t come at all. She must contend every day with this concept of being a ‘twin’ to someone who does not share her challenges. So when she takes her seat next to me in the auditorium, and E walks tentatively to the stage, still learning to navigate open-toed heels, to accept her high-score certificate for the Colorado state EXPLORE test in science, I squeeze her hand.

She squeezes back. It’s not the iron grip of civility under tension. It’s a reassuring squeeze; Dad, I’m OK. 

For many gifted kids, resiliency is bouncing back from a bad game in chess club, or a robotics assignment that refuses to compile, or a crushing snub for the school poetry annual. H’s is a different type of resiliency. She rises every day knowing that math will be no easier today than it was for her yesterday, that it might make sense but probably will not, but that she must try anyway. Dyscalculia never goes away. Superhuman effort grinds it down to the status of an impediment rather than a disability. It is not a condition that rewards such effort, but merely offers a grudging nod of oppositional approval before retreating to its cave for the night. A level of exertion that, for most of us, would produce growth and confidence merely means a day without tears and frustration. As a society, we tend to view resiliency in terms of its role in enabling forward progress in our lives. The narrative of resiliency in our country is that of rising above our challenges, enduring the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune only to surmount them in the olive wreaths of victory. For H, resiliency is fighting numbers and clocks and money – inexhaustible and omnipresent – to a draw, every day, only to rise and try again tomorrow.

I don’t know what that’s like. What I do know is that I have watched her fall over and over again, and I have watched with hope and pride and love as she has risen each time. It is not a resiliency that many gifted parents know, but for those with 2e children, it is every bit as vital and inspirational as any other flavor.

As she stared resolutely forward, genuinely happy for E, I squeezed back – because I love her for her calm resolve, and because she is the bravest person I know.

Omega

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Since the golden era of arena rock, guitarists have played tube amps – monstrous, fire-breathing multi-hundred-watt heads with vacuum tubes glowing red-hot beneath grills that bore names like Marshall. Orange. Mesa. There has never been anything quite like them; nothing has put out the unique sound of a tube, and nothing has offered the interplay between a guitarist’s fingers and the tone coming forth from the cabinets supporting those heads. Solid-state amps, behind a surge of marketing money, briefly took a foothold in the amp market during the 1970s and 1980s, until guitarists realized a simple but terrible truth: the new tech was nowhere near as good as the old tech. And so tube amps continued on, Jurassic technology that somehow managed to fend off the incursions of electronic advancement for decade after decade.

And then a German scientist realized something: namely, that what made a tube amp a tube amp was pretty simple, from the physics perspective. A tube amp applies a variable modification to an input waveform, based on the volume and sonic envelope of that input waveform, and then outputs the resulting modified waveform to a speaker. Capture the delta between the input and the output waveform – in all of its complexity – and you can truly put a tube amp into the digital environment.  That’s it. And, just like that, the entire amp industry changed, overnight – some artists adopting Kemper tech, others using its competitor and close cousin, the Fractal Axe-FX. It’s a technology that has been nothing short of transformational. Don’t get me wrong; there are still plenty of tube amps being sold, just like there are plenty of gas-powered cars and plenty of Windows 8 laptops  being sold today. But, just like those products, guitarists have started to get the sense that maybe, just maybe, we’re looking at the beginning of the end.

Why do I bring this up? Because I’m writing this between sessions checking E’s algebra homework. She’s working on equations involving radicals and roots, and it’s a topic that’s got her complete attention. I can actually see the content spinning up the Big Engine to full speed. That’s rare anymore; it’s nice to see. But what’s got my attention is the fact that she’s meticulously solving these equations by hand over the course of minutes, and I’m checking them with Wolfram Alpha in mere seconds. Things have changed, fundamentally, once more.

Thirty years ago, algebra teachers wrote and checked homework problems by hand, just like we did. Why? Because absolutely nothing like Wolfram Alpha existed. For them, it would have been impossible to conceive of a world in which algebra should be taught with solving technology when there wasn’t any such thing. We’ve always had some sort of solving tech for arithmetic; slide rules have been around since the 1600s (fact!) and cheap four-function calculators have been around since the early 1970s. Most of us reading this blog grew up with slightly bemused and befuddled math teachers who told us that calculators weren’t allowed. Today, there’s been some grudging acceptance of calculators for sixth-grade math and beyond (apparently, five years of hand calculation is sufficient penance in 2013). But if you rolled into a high-school algebra class today with Wolfram Alpha running on an iPad, it would be considered heresy.

Yet this is the age we live in: applications and services and technologies are coming forth that fundamentally change our lives overnight. Five years ago, unless you owned a copy of Wolfram Mathematica, there was no such thing as opening an app and typing:

Capture22

Not only does Alpha solve that, its cheery OCD nature also checks for complex roots, graphs the result in a handful of different, potentially-useful ways, and even offers a step-by-step solution to the problem (in case you’ve, ahem, grown rusty in your manual formula evaluation skills). It is, quite simply, revolutionary, and at some level, I sincerely hope it changes how algebra is taught in this country.

Before you get out your I-walked-to-school-uphill-both-ways pitchforks and torches, let me set your minds at ease: I don’t think Alpha is a substitute for learning the theory of algebra and developing skills in solving equations manually. I think it’s important to see the results come together under your pencil – for some period of time. But at a certain point in elementary-school math, we now allow kids to use calculators. Why?  Because given better tools, we’ve elected to raise the bar for what can be done with them. The questions are harder, so we allow some computational support in getting to the right answer. Computation is no longer the important part of the problem; setting up the problem is.

Now we need to do the same in algebra. Algebra chapters in 2013 focus on much the same end goal as they did in 1981: solve this equation. Sure, story problems get a bit more difficult, but there’s nothing in E’s copyright-2013  Algebra I book that would have looked out of place in my 1981 copy. We need to acknowledge the existence of solving tech by asking more of algebra students. Specifically, we need to begin to emphasize those tasks that only a creative human mind can perform: namely, setting up complex equations and systems of equations, with multi-step problem solving.  Solving them, over time, should begin take on that you-can-use-a-calculator mindset: go ahead and use it – you still have to do the most important work. 

From the longer-term view, though, we need to start adopting a mindset that accommodates, embraces, and – eventually – goes looking for disruptive tech. Alpha is, ironically, an omega technology; it brings to an end a particular era of doing things in one way and one way only. It breaks the paths of mental endeavor into new forks and branches, and asks a fundamental question of us: do I keep doing manually what this new technology will do for me, or do add the tech to my toolkit and push myself to do more complex, more intricate, more beautiful, more inspired work with it? After all, I can now carry a warehouse full of multi-thousand-dollar tube-amp heads around with me in a gig bag. Should I feel threatened by that, or empowered  to make more interesting music?

Redstone Willow

willow

Minecraft stole into my house with the grace of a cat burglar.

It began as a topic of discussion among the kids in the car; who was playing, who was not playing (I can take a hint as well as the next parent), and what untold delights awaited those LUCKY CHILDREN (ahem) who had access to their OWN SERVER. Over time, as these discussions got more frequent, I began to give them a rear-view mirror smile, the patented Dad grin that says “I hear every word you’re saying, and right now, I’m working out how to rig this to parental advantage.” The hints stepped up further over time, and the wide-eyed stories of the glories of Minecraft grew more evangelical after every Mojang-centric playdate, until the fervor reached a pitch I couldn’t ignore much longer. The timing worked out, actually. They’d grown weary of Wizard 101, and Free Realms, and I was looking around for something that could replace both – and, ideally, add more creativity to the gaming equation. But, like all modern parents, the choice presented itself when it comes to the new end-all, be-all video game: am I a willow or an oak?

Quick aside: I grew up in a no-video-games household. My parents’ reaction to the September 1977 U.S. launch of the Atari 2600 was truly something to behold, a cross between John Lithgow in Footloose and Jason Miller in The Exorcist. I genuinely felt bad for them in retrospect; I’m not sure how I would have handled the arrival of an entirely new childhood time-wasting technology, either. What I do know, from raising three kids myself, is that if you demonize anything, that thing instantly becomes a must-have. (We really should put salmon filets and homework up in a high cabinet and declare them off-limits.) I’m a case study in that. I lived eighteen videogame-free years in my home growing up, sneaking time on Yar’s Revenge and Pitfall at my friends’ houses; when I went off to college, I promptly blew my first retail-store paycheck on a Sega Genesis.

That was the oak route, one I got a good firsthand look at. So we’ve opted to be willows, submitting to the wind but not breaking. Here’s the thing: like most things in life, your kids are going to play videogames. Don’t try and deny it. It’s going to happen. Getting in front of that train ends just like you’d think getting in front of a train would. Are you the we-don’t-have-a-TV family? They’ll be playing on a laptop. No laptop? It’ll be an iPad. No iPad? No iPhone? They’ll be That Kid at sleepovers. “I know it’s three-thirty in the morning, but CAN’T WE PLAY MARIO KART AGAIN?”

The trick is not to outlaw videogames, but to manage them, and I’ll be honest: as management tasks go, Minecraft is pretty benign. If I judged it strictly by its presentation, I’d actually be pretty surprised that they’re into it: the graphics look like two crappy 80s arcade games had a goat-child, the sound is just as bad, and the server-side mods can be wonky (think NetWare 3.12 wonky). But by God, they take to the gameplay like it was a triple-fudge Oreo dusted with fairy glitter. There’s something about the possibility of unlimited creation that engages them at some very primal level, and they’d probably play it six hours a day if I let them. Maybe that’s what concerns parents about Minecraft – that it does seem so obsession-prone in its nature, and that their kids, left alone, will want to play it six hours a day. How’s that going to be managed? What’s the answer to that request?

Well, every once in a while, the answer should probably be yes. One of my favorite phrases around our house is “everything in moderation, including moderation.” Once in a great while, if it would truly balm your soul to eat a carton of ice cream, or take a three-hour nap in the sun, or sample every chocolate milk stout on the market in one afternoon – or play six hours of Minecraft – I think you should do it. Not every day; it’s not a round table, and Moderation sits at the head of it. But every once in a while, especially if they’ve truly rocked the other aspects of their growth and development that week, I’ll let them go to town. Once in a great while, mind you. Because if ‘a great while’ got to be too often…

…well, that’s a slippery slope. Buffalo Mama wrote a post a while back entitled “But What If All The Kid Wants to Do is Play Video Games?” It’s a core question in unschooling: what if something becomes everything? Well, I’m not sure I would let anything become my children’s everything, no matter what it was. Everythings, in general, are bad in a house of intensities, because if something is an everything, everything else gets squeezed out completely. It’s one reason we do Adventure Lunches over the summer, and try out Indian and Greek and Korean and Moroccan food, chasing sushi with rice-paper ice cream balls and vegetable korma with gulab jamun: because left alone, humans fall into ruts. For kids, that’s doubly true, and for intense kids, even moreso. It’s easy to let them become chicken tender-eating, sidewalk-Razoring, Mario Kart-driving, Phineas and Ferb-watching automatons, so we continuously break that ice as it emerges with baba ganoush and indoor skydiving and Portal and Doctor Who and a zillion other life variations that keep them evolving.

What I have learned on the videogame front is to bend like a willow, rather than break like an oak, and thus it came to be that they became LUCKY KIDS with their OWN SERVER. And you know what? Their intellectual and creative development hasn’t faltered in the slightest; if anything, it’s grown, and given them a new means of socialization as well. I’ve seen how this game can bring kids together; operating a Minecraft server has been the 2013 equivalent of owning a trampoline or a swimming pool in the 1970s. The other kids come around to play – virtually, in this case – and there’s something to be said for watching how other kids approach the tasks of resource collection and construction. They build together, and they build apart, but there’s a line of companionship and shared passion that runs through all of it.

It’s not everything for them, but it’s a something that I’m cool with, and I haven’t seen their interest in other somethings diminish. Oh, and we get to talk about other stuff in the car now. Win/win.