The Mind-Altering Effects of Facebook

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family-generation-tablet-social-network

If you’ve read the news lately, you know that Facebook has been accused of manipulating the content it puts in front of 1.6 billion users, instead of providing them with a healthy, balanced diet of objective, well-researched information.

Facebook, some people argue, is cynically skewing the way we see the world, as if the social network bears the responsibility of some sort of public service instead just being a free, digital place where you can write “happy birthday!” and share photos of your adorable children and pets.

The company I work for sometimes buys Facebook ads that appear on the newsfeeds of people we think might want to use our services. One of these people sent us an angry message recently, telling us to “stop spreading spam!!!

“I didn’t like you,” he wrote. “Get off my page!”

Lucifer in the flesh? No, wait--that's Ted Cruz.

Lucifer in the flesh? No, wait–that’s Ted Cruz.

It’s not really your page, I wanted to tell him. You don’t own it or pay for it. The page, and everything on it, belongs to Facebook. But instead of getting into an argument about privacy rights with an upset truck driver from Thief River Falls, Minnesota, I gently instructed him on how to disable our ad with just a couple of clicks in his account settings.

Regardless of what Facebook’s role is or isn’t, any organization with 1.6 billion members has enormous influence. In an effort to test this power, I spent a full week using Facebook as my only source of news and information, just to see what it would do to me.

Here are the 11 most important things I learned from my week on Facebook:

  • That no one posts about the presidential election anymore, either because they’re sick of hearing about it or too depressed to comment on it.
  • That Winston Churchill was famous for uttering the phrase, “You’ve got to fight for the right to party.”
  • That a pooped puppy and a tired police officer fall asleep at an animal shelter, and you won’t believe what happens next!
  • That my friend’s wife likes to paint her toenails aqua before going on a trip to Cozumel.
  • That when you scroll across a link promising photos of serial killers when they were children, you cannot help but to open it.
  • That because you once listed To Kill a Mockingbird as a favorite book, Facebook thought you might be like to buy a To Kill a Mockingbird T-shirt or perhaps an Atticus Finch beer koozie.
  • That a photo that captures someone in the crowd holding up a smartphone at a Mike Tyson fight proves, finally, that time travel exists.
  • That you feel kind of dumb for commenting—again—on a post that a friend re-posted from three years ago.
  • That you really want to tell Hillary Clinton, “Get off my page! I didn’t like you!”
  • That when you scroll across a link promising embarrassing pet photos, you have no choice but to open it.
  • That most people want to just post pictures of their kid graduating high school or a good-looking sunset, or they want to wish someone happy birthday—which is what Facebook was designed for in the first place.

A Lazy Stroll with Digby Willers

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This month marks two years since my first novel, A Plot for Pridemore, was published by Mercer University Press. I have a hard time believing it has been that long since the first copies arrived on my doorstep, and I held in my hands the product I had spent so many years working on. It seems like only yesterday.

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I recently completed a second work of fiction, and I hope to tell you more about it in the near future. In the meantime, I’d like to share an excerpt from Pridemore that introduces Digby Willers, a character who plays a decisive role in the scheme to bring notoriety to the small town of Pridemore, Missouri:

A few blocks away, Digby Willers kicked an old soda can and whooped with delight as it bounced across Main Street and clanked against a curb.

He had kicked the can through most of the downtown business strip, from Saynor Circle to the blinking stoplight at Dunbar Street. The can left scuff marks on his new pair of Dingos, but Digby didn’t mind. The marks, he thought, gave the boots a real-life cowboy look.

Pang! He kicked the can into the street near the faded centerlines. It was an unseasonably hot, breezeless afternoon in late May that left the courthouse flags sagging and stray dogs sprawled and panting in the shade of a few parked cars along Pridemore’s main drag. Digby kicked his can against the stucco walls of The Lizard Lounge, which closed after Willie Larson shot Alan Carr in the thigh over some girl they were both seeing. Digby kept on kicking past the abandoned Westbrook Feed & Seed and he playfully range the big brass bell outside Truman’s Malt Shop, which no one answered because the shop’s owner, Ernie Tate, was in Farley getting an alternator for his Monte Carlo.

Anyone who strayed out into the 90-degree heat at that particular moment (and most locals had more sense than to do something like that) couldn’t have missed the 6-foot-3-inch, 280-pound man-child zigzagging his way up Main Street. Digby wore army fatigue cut-offs, an orange T-shirt smeared with peanut butter and jelly, and a Cub Scout cap that sat on the back of his head like a navy blue beanie. He had a round face with cheeks that turned crimson at the first sign of embarrassment and thick lips that curled into a slow, open-mouthed smile. His hair, yellow as lemon custard, rolled over his ears in long bangs that gave him a Prince Valiant look. Digby cared very little about that. He just knew that he hated getting haircuts.

Today, the hair was matted around his brow like a helmet. His sweaty hands clutched a brand-new five-dollar bill, as well as a perfectly smooth stone that would be great for skipping if there were a lake nearby and someone to teach him how to do it.

Several other stones scraped each other in Digby’s fatigues as he hopped the curb and stepped inside Sanderson’s Hardware, a jingling bell on the door announcing his arrival. He basked in the air conditioning and wiped his face with his shirt. The clerk, a skinny kid in a bright red apron, studied him a moment, then shook his head and walked to the back of the store.

“Hiya, Digby,” Red Sanderson called out from behind his old iron cash register. “Come to get your hot rod, I suppose?”

“Yessir.”

“Well, let’s have us a look.”

Sanderson led Digby down Aisle B, where the Pinewood Derby kits were stacked on a shelf about waist high. He watched Digby pick up one kit, examine it closely, then pick up another. Aside from the clerk, he and Digby were the only ones in the store.

The Pinewood Derby for the Cub Scouts’ Yellow Jacket District was more than two months away. But for Digby, who’d won the race nine of the past 10 years, that was barely enough time to make a serviceable racing car from a scrawny block of pine. Each May, he bought his kit the first week Sanderson’s had them in stock. He spent June and July in his mom’s garage, carving the block into an aerodynamic form and sanding it to a smooth finish. He even sanded the plastic wheels because he thought it made them faster. He topped it off by painting the car blue with white numbers and red stripes. One year he painted his car green and gold, which looked pretty cool, but he lost the final heat to Timmy Thurson.

Digby returned to the blue-and-red color scheme and hadn’t lost since. That was seven years ago. Competing against a field of mostly 10- and 11-year-olds, he was the Dale Earnhardt of Pinewood Derby racing in Pridemore.

Naturally, parents complained. The scouting committee hemmed and hawed for years on the issue, briefly making Digby an “honorary” racer, meaning whoever finished behind him could get a trophy, too. This pleased absolutely no one, and the grumbling intensified. When it came to racing little blocks of pine down a 30-foot ramp, Digby Willers was as polarizing as Rush Limbaugh or the Dixie Chicks. You loved him or hated him. There was no middle ground.

Sanderson watched for several minutes as Digby sat cross-legged on the floor, staring at seven or eight kits spread before him. Sanderson was exceedingly patient, something he honed after taking on a grenade in North Korea and spending a year in a VA hospital as they put him back together again. He could spend hours playing with his grandkids or needle-pointing a landscape of his lake house. Or he could sit behind his register, read an old paperback and wait to hear that bell on the double doors. Sometimes hours would pass between the rings.

“You gonna pick one out? They’re all the same, you know,” he said with a wink as Digby arranged more kits on the floor.

Digby stared at Sanderson as if the old man couldn’t possibly be serious, then returned to studying the kits. After a few minutes of pondering, he chose a favorite, helped Sanderson return the other kits to the shelf and followed the old man to the cash register.

“You give ‘em hell this year, Digby,” he said, ringing up the kit and putting it in a paper sack. “You hold on to that trophy.”

Digby nodded and grinned. He waved to Sanderson and the skinny clerk as he skipped out the door. The soda can was right where he left it, so he gave it a nice, swift kick.

“That’s a good boy right there,” Sanderson said. “Wish there were more like him.”

“That boy is 22 years old going on two,” the clerk said with a snicker. “What do they call it – water on the brain?”

The old man glared at the clerk before tossing him a plunger from Aisle C.

“Clean the toilet, smart guy,” Sanderson said.

To read more of A Plot for Pridemore, visit Amazon.com or Mercer University Press.

I am NOT a Granddad!

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NOT a photo of me and my child.

NOT a photo of me and my child.

It’s only happened a few times, but I remember each one vividly and painfully, the way you might recall a bee sting or getting a really bad spanking when you were a kid.

The first time happened when my son was just a few weeks old. It was a warm, spring evening and I was pushing him around the neighborhood in his new stroller when we passed a plump, platinum-haired lady who lived across the street from us and whom we knew slightly. In fact, my wife had just purchased a photo print from the lady at her garage sale a few days earlier.

The lady stood before us, stooped toward the stroller to inspect my child, and cooed, “Oh, what a beautiful little grandson you have!”

My mouth dropped open. This batty old bird lived a hundred feet from our home. Surely she knew we had just had a baby. At the very least, she must have noticed the cardboard stork and blue balloons in our yard.

“What the hell are you talking about?” I stammered before pulling the canopy over my son and hurrying back home, frightened and ashamed.

The second time happened just a few months later. I was at home awaiting a service appointment, and I answered the door with the baby in my arms.

“Sorry I’m late, Mr. Roth,” said the handyman with the ripped Dale Earnhardt Jr. T-shirt and the slight stench of marijuana smoke. “Oh, hey, nice grandkid!”

“He’s my son,” I said tersely.

“Wow! My bad! I guess I just—”

“—That’s okay,” I replied. It really wasn’t, though. I felt a strange panic invade my body. Being a new dad in my late 30s, I expected to be the oldest person at my child’s Gymboree music circle and at all the daycare holiday parties. But did people really think I was a grandfather? Was this how it was going to be for me throughout my son’s growing-up years?

“It’s because you’re bald,” one of our less-tactful friends advised, giving me a pitying little pat on the shoulder.

Thankfully, several years passed before another well-meaning stranger mistook my perch in the family tree.

My son wasn’t even with me a few days ago when I purchased a little something for my wife for Mother’s Day.

“What a cool gift,” said, the chatty, 20-something clerk with onyx studs the size of nickels in both of his ears. “Somebody is going to have a very nice Grandmother’s Day!”

My first thought when I heard this comment was to say, “My grandmother is dead.” Then, it dawned on me that he wasn’t talking about my grandma. The clerk was implying that my wife was a grandmother—and I was a granddad.

I just smiled and nodded, anxious to complete the transaction and return to my office, where I will likely toil for 20 more years before reaching the age when most granddads can retire.

This case of mistaken identity is probably going to happen more frequently as I continue to age. Hopefully, at least, people will perceive me as one of the cool grandpas, like the Dos Equis’ “Most Interesting Man in the World,” or one of those grey-haired guys in a Cialis ad, driving his classic Camaro home and always finding that the light is on in the upstairs bedroom window.

10 Signs That You Have a Really Annoying Cube-Mate

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Closeup portrait of handsome business man using laptop while looking at you

In this world, you don’t get to pick your family—and you almost never get to choose which co-worker sits next to you in the office.

Here are some clear warning signs that you and your assigned cube-mate—the individual who spends more time with you each week than anyone else—may not be compatible:

  • Your cube-mate is in sales, and his “phone voice” is about two decibels louder than the drunk who sat behind you that one time at the hockey game.
  • Your cube-mate likes to slurp reheated Lo Mein and cackle at YouTube videos during the lunch hour.
  • “You got a second?” is the verbal cue that your cube-mate is about to ask you for some marriage advice.
  • Your cube-mate is an accomplished whistler of 1970s light-rock hits.
  • When you ask your cube-mate to stop whistling, he switches to humming—usually “Can We Still Be Friends?” by Todd Rundgren.
  • You never want to borrow your cube-mate’s pens, because those are what he uses to dig the excess wax from his ears.
  • Your cube-mate checks his 401(k) balance daily, and loudly threatens to sell that crappy international fund they’ve got him in.
  • Your cube-mate’s love for every episode of Seinfeld is second only to his love for the New England Patriots.
  • It is well-known throughout the office that your cube-mate does not wash his hands after using the bathroom.
  • After checking Donald Trump’s poll numbers for the day, your cube-mate taunts you by asking “Are you worried yet? Are you worried yet?”

The Moral Bucket List

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Moral Bucket List

This article by New York Times columnist David Brooks is more than a year old, but it is a powerful essay about people we all know who are able to see beyond themselves, and achieve a certain grace and contentment through good works. It’s about those folks who live their lives for a greater purpose than just career success or personal happiness, and how we might all become more like them. If you can carve out a few minutes, “The Moral Bucket List” is well worth reading and reflecting on.

At my age, it’s easy to get wrapped up in career, family life and the ever-growing number of tasks that must be crossed off my to-do list. Life sometimes seems like a series of obligations that need to be met and goals that need to be reached. However, I believe it’s important to take a step back every once in a while to think about my place in the world, my impact on others, and what it truly means to be living a fulfilling, grateful, meaningful life.

In my son’s Kindergarten class, his teacher will sometimes ask the students if what they are doing on a particular assignment is their “best work.” It’s a good question for every stage in life, I think. Is your life today your best work—not only for yourself, but for the people and world around you as well?

Memories of a Young Prince

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Purple-Rain
I bought my first LP with my own money in August 1984 at the Turtle Records in Atlanta’s Lenox Square Mall. The record I bought was Purple Rain. It came with a full-sized poster that showed Prince and his band, The Revolution, wearing pouting expressions. Two Revolution members, Wendy and Lisa, stood tightly together in a way that, back then, suggested scandalous female intimacy.

Over the past two days, countless TV and social media tributes have paid respects to a man who transformed popular music over the span of more than 35 years. The news of Prince’s death was shocking not only because he was only 57 years old, but because so many people my age vividly recall when Prince epitomized everything that was forbidden and dangerous and exciting and new about music. We think of Prince as a restless prodigy in his early 20s, not the guy who released Hit n Run Phase One late last year.

Back in 1984, Prince was not only the most popular recording artist of the day, he was Middle America’s Worst Nightmare, oozing sexuality with a decadent blend of 1970s funk and 1980s rock. He wore eyeliner and lacy outfits, and spent a portion of his concerts thrusting himself on a massive brass bed. It was rumored that Prince sometimes had sex with one of his female cohorts onstage, though nobody in my eighth grade class had any proof during this pre-YouTube dinosaur age.

In 1980s Georgia, where there was no such thing as sex education in public schools and the closest thing to pornography for most boys was the annual Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, you could learn an awful lot by playing “Darling Nikki” over and over on the turntable, which is exactly what we did one night at a friend’s dance party. This was the Purple Rain song that described Nikki “in a hotel lobby masturbating with a magazine,” easily the most shocking thing any of us had ever heard on vinyl. We were careful to turn the volume down low as we played the song again and again in my friend’s garage, junior high boys and girls nodding to the beat and grinning shyly while our parents drank cocktails and talked about who-knows-what inside the house.

When I bought my first record in 1984, it was more out of a wish to keep up with my peers than because I was a huge Prince fan. I listened to the record many times, captivated by some tracks (“Purple Rain,” “Let’s Go Crazy,” “Take Me With U”) bored by one (“When  Doves Cry”), and confused by others (What did it mean when Lisa asked Wendy if the water was warm? Were they going swimming?).

Years later, I gained a much greater appreciation for Prince’s musical artistry and lyrical prowess (is there any better description of anxious, teenage lust than “The place where your horses run free?”). I don’t have a lot of his music, I’m a casual fan at best, but the news of his death—whatever the cause—is still sad and shocking. For me and other people my age, we not only lost a another great artist to the After World, we got a reminder that Purple Rain was a mighty long time ago.

The 2016 Liebster Award!

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Liebster Award

First, I want to thank my friend Kara for nominating me to receive the coveted 2016 Liebster Award. Please check out her entertaining and insightful blog at https://gratefulandauthentic.com.

So, what is the Liebster Award, anyway? Well, it exists only on the Internet, and is essentially a “pay-it-forward” award given to bloggers from other bloggers. The Liebster has been around since at least 2011, and it’s an effective, free way of helping to raise a little awareness about bloggers you enjoy and admire.

The rules for the Liebster Award are pretty simple:

1. Thank and link the person who nominated you.
2. Answer the 11 questions given to you by the nominator.
3. Nominate up to 11 other bloggers who have 1,000 or fewer follows on their blogs.
4. Create 11 new questions for your nominees to answer.
5. Let the nominees know that your blog post is up.

My Responses to Kara’s Questions:

Why did you decide to start a blog?

I started the blog because I needed a vehicle to build an online audience and to help promote my first book, A Plot for Pridemore, which was published in 2014.

What inspired your blog’s name?

A George Carlin routine from the 1980s, which was titled A Place for My Stuff. I thought that “A Place for My Stuff” would be an apt name for my blog since I did not intend on giving it a narrow theme or focus. I have always envisioned my blog as a repository for whatever I feel like writing at the time. It’s about anything and everything, but mostly about Stephen.

How long have you been blogging?

More than three years, since January 2013.

What is the best piece of advice that you’ve ever received?

This question almost begs for a glib response, because it’s really hard for me to sort through all of the wise, caring advice I’ve received in my life. I’ll go with this: when I got my first credit card, my parents directed me to always pay the full balance every month. I actually listened to them, and that practical advice has helped me manage my money and avoid financial stress.

If you could have any super power, what would it be?

I wish I had the power to protect all children from abuse, hunger or an early death.

What has surprised you most about adulthood?

That you never seem to reach that hilltop where you can relax, take a breath and look back on what you have accomplished. There’s always something steeper than must be climbed, immediately.

What advice would you give your 18-year-old self?

“Most of what you’re doing is fine, but quit being so self-conscious around girls.”

What is your favorite book?

Catch-22, by Joseph Heller. Hilarious, painfully true and one of the first books that made me think, “I wish I could write something like that.”

What is your greatest blessing?

Being born into a situation that allowed me to learn, grow and build the kind of life that I thank God for every day.

What is your favorite television show?

Currently, it is Madmen. The series finale left me with a bittersweet wish that the story could continue, the way you sometimes feel after reading a really terrific novel.

What is your favorite quote?

I am having a hard time with this one, but the quote that comes to mind is, “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.”

Here are the Blogs I’m Nominating:

http://trailheadproductions.com/palette/blog/
http://www.kennethwbarber.com/#!blog/c1bbq
http://karenzach.com/
http://mustlistentoallthemusic.blogspot.com/
http://www.fowllanguagecomics.com/
http://devinestudios.com/blog/
http://www.instaprincess.net/blog/

Here are My 11 Questions for the Nominees:

What is the most valuable thing you have learned from blogging?

If I could read only one post on your blog, which one should it be?

What is the last thing that made you laugh really hard?

Why do you feel the need to blog?

You have to make an eight-hour drive through Kansas. What famous, living person would you most enjoy taking along with you, and why?

What famous, living person would you least want to take with you on the drive through Kansas, and why?

Describe an instance in your life when you really thought that you might die.

Almost everyone has a “happy place.” Describe yours.

When you were seven, what did you want to be when you grew up?

Name a movie that you just can’t stop watching whenever you see it on TV.

Name a time when you took a big risk, and it really paid off.

 

I Got a Name

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Croce

August 2006,
driving home for lunch,
a long-dead folk singer warbling
that sentimental tune about
staking a path in life,
which clutches your throat
as you consider
your 11-week-old child
and the dreams
that will call his own name.

You won’t hear the song again
until the following Father’s Day,
when its familiar chords drift
from the PA speakers
while you sit by the swimming pool,
holding a paperback dampened
by the splashing
of kids in the shallow end.

You, no longer a father,
smile at the dewy musings
the song once inspired,
just minutes before
they called you with the news
that changed everything.

I ought to be hating this,
you think as you sit by the pool,
but part of you wants to believe
that the song’s return
actually means something.

In memory of Maxwell Arthur Roth
May 31-August 14, 2006

Revisionist History: Trump in Gettysburg

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TRUMP-LINCOLN

On the afternoon of November 19, 1863, Donald Trump stepped off the train in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, to deliver what would become one of the best-known speeches in American history. There to dedicate the Soldier’s National Cemetery just a few months after Union armies defeated Confederate forces in the nation’s bloodiest battle, the President approached the podium, unbuttoned his grey overcoat and removed an iPad mini, on which he had jotted a few “appropriate words” to honor the fallen.

Here is what the president said:

“This is really beautiful, really fantastic… What a crowd! What a crowd!

Eighty-some-odd years ago—I’m thinking 85, but it might have been longer than that. Anyway, a long, long time ago, some very great men got together and they formed the most powerful nation ever known in the history of the world. This nation was so great, nobody had ever seen anything like it. And you know what made it so great? Top-notch people, for one thing. The very best and brightest. Just fabulous, first-rate people. Also, freedom and this idea that everyone was equal. Even the lowliest street sweeper—some filthy guy who probably made in six weeks what I spent on my last haircut—was every bit as important as a very successful businessman with a huge, diversified real estate portfolio. This was the kind of thinking that made this nation so, so great.

Anyway, now we’re in a civil war, right? And not just any war, but the biggest, bloodiest war ever known to man, because this is the American Civil War. And, as you know, Americans don’t do anything half-assed. I wasn’t here back in July, but I understand this place was a real mess. Bunch of bombs going off, mutilated bodies all over place. Just a major, major battle. A real hell-hole, they tell me. That’s why I’m here today—to honor the dead and, you know, thank them for their service.

You know, I was thinking on the train how, even though these men lost their lives, they’re actually winners. Real winners. Because what they did here at Gettysburg really set the tone. We’ve had so many good things happen in the last few months, it’s been actually amazing. Did you see what Grant did to them at Vicksburg? Did you see that? We’ve got full control of the Mississippi now, which is huge. And we’ve got some plans for those Confederates next year. I don’t wanna to give too much away, but let’s just say it’s gonna be a very hot summer next year in Georgia. A very long, hot summer.

Look, I gotta go. You people have been outstanding. Southern Pennsylvania is a fabulous place. Let me just close by saying these lives were not lost in vain. We’re gonna take Richmond next year. W’re gonna take our country back, folks. We’re gonna remind them why government of the people, by the people, is the best way to do things. Because it’s the American way. Thank you, and God bless.”

Spiders! In the bathtub!

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spider

According to several articles I’ve read on the Internet, it is fairly common for Kindergarten-aged children to develop intense fears that have no basis in reality. Our six-year-old son has a couple of these.

One fear is being left alone in a room in our house, particularly the basement. Our son loves playing in the basement, where we keep most of his toys, but is deathly afraid of being abandoned down there by himself. Sometimes we will be able to talk him into taking the dog downstairs with him, but he usually insists on human companionship. A typical after-dinner conversation goes like this:

“Daddy, can you go downstairs with me?”

“Not right now. I’m doing the dishes.”

“Can we go after you finish doing the dishes?”

“We can,” I say. “Or, you can go downstairs now and I can join you in a little while.”

My son nods as if giving this some thought. “That’s okay,” he decides, heading to the living room couch. “I’ll wait for you.”

Our son’s fear of the basement is nothing new. He has never felt comfortable being alone in most rooms, even when surrounded by stuffed animals and other toys. I am told he will gradually grow out of this. My wife and I pray this to be true.

A newer development is our son’s fear of spiders—specially, spiders in the bathtub. This started a few weeks ago, when our normally mild-mannered son broke into a screaming fit and emphatically refused to take a bath in the tub he has been using since he was one week old. When pressed on the issue, he explained that he was afraid of spiders in the tub, even though he admitted to never having seen a spider anywhere inside our house. He had, however, seen a picture book about tarantulas at school. What could be more terrifying, really, than to be relaxing in your tub and to open your eyes to find a palm-sized, hairy spider swimming toward you? Do spiders even swim? Well, it doesn’t matter. The image alone is just horrible.

All the child-help literature instructs us to sympathize with—not belittle—our child’s fear, no matter how insanely irrational it might seem. We tried a few different tactics to get our six-year-old to wash himself. We let him use our shower. We let him use the “big” tub in our master bathroom. One of us took a bath with him to ease him into using his own tub again. We made a big deal about how cool his bath toys were, and now much they seemed to miss him.

After a few nights, our child seemed to conquer his fear of spiders in the bathtub. A washcloth under his rump seemed to help, for some reason. Bath nights were, if not exactly fun, at least tolerable again.

Then, a few nights ago, it started all over again. Our son, who used to love splashing around in the warm water of his tub, again refused to set foot inside its fiberglass shell. “I’m scared of the spiders!” he sobbed.

We know enough other parents who have kids our son’s age to understand that every child has his or her own quirks. This fear of spiders, and other bugs, confounds me, though. Like any other overprotective parent versed in the trendy psycho-babble of the day, I wonder what our son’s unprovoked fear of arachnids really means?

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