Rotbart’s Rules of Order

by Harley Rotbart
Originally Published: 

I dedicate this to Jill and Lou.

Jill is Jill Smokler, a.k.a. Scary Mommy, who has again kindly given me space on her website to embarrass myself. Her Confessions of a Scary Mommy is the inspiration, of course, for the title of this post, but also for the deeply introspective and courageous piece of writing that follows.

Lou was my grandfather, the most obsessive person I’ve ever known. I’ve always suspected someday my kids, or their kids, or all of them will say the same about me. I’m not sure how I feel about that. Here’s an example of Lou’s thinking. When I was a third year medical student living in Manhattan, the phone in our apartment rang at 4 a.m., waking me and my roommates. It was Lou calling to see if I was okay. Did I mention it was 4 a.m.? Seems he had been listening to his transistor radio, unable to sleep again because of his lifelong sense of foreboding. He heard the Staten Island Ferry had crashed into another boat in choppy waters and two passengers were missing. He was just calling to make sure I wasn’t one of them.

As our kids were born, I gradually came to appreciate Lou’s perspective; children are really anxiety-provoking. So much can go wrong! The world is a frightening place for kids and for those at home listening to transistor radios. Our kids are now grown and in various stages of independence. As I was laughing my way through Jill’s book one recent evening, I thought it might be time for a bit of personal confession and disclosure. So I asked our kids if they remember any “Staten Island Ferry” moments during their childhoods, or since. OMG! What was I thinking?

Perhaps the best way to summarize the torrent of laughter, yea ridicule (loving ridicule?), that poured forth from my kids is to present what they and their friends have fondly come to call, Rotbart’s Rules of Order:

The “5 chip limit” rule. Ok, I’m starting with this rule because, in retrospect, even I think it may have been a little over the top. But, there’s no question that tortilla chips are unhealthy, right? And they fill you up. At a Mexican restaurant, or on taco nights at home, the kids were allowed 5 chips each before the meal. Because, let me say in further defense, there were many nights before the rule was enacted when the kids ate so many chips they were too full to eat the burritos and fajitas when they finally arrived! In retrospect, I’m thinking maybe I should have allowed 10 chips. You live and you learn.

The “4 minute hot tub” rule. Did you know that prolonged exposure to heat during male testicular development can reduce sperm counts. We’re talking about my future grandchildren here! This important scientific information appears to have been lost among the parents of all our sons’ friends, who allowed their soon-to-be-eunuch boys to happily keep their groins below water in the hot tub indefinitely. Indefinitely! Our boys, on the other hand, bobbed in and out of the water every 4 minutes like whac-a-moles to allow their testicles to cool off for at least 4 minutes before re-submerging. Of course, in fairness to our sons, I made my daughter bob in and out at 4 minute intervals, too, even though the anatomic risk to her was admittedly lower. I’m an equal-opportunity oppressive obsessive.

The “laptops are not for your lap” rule. This rule has similar foundations to the hot tub rule. There are well-reported stories of cops who became infertile or developed testicular cancer because they kept their radar guns turned on, resting in their laps, while manning speed traps. Really, you can Google it. Now, while it’s true that laptop computers are not radar guns, they do heat up and I’m sure I read a story once about potential risks of groin exposure to prolonged lap laptop use. You could probably look that up, too.

The “3 foot computer monitor” rule. Remember when we were kids and our parents wouldn’t let us sit too close to the TV because of the intuitively high risk associated with being too close to the TV? Okay, maybe that was just in my house. I’m thinking the TV screen precaution was probably intended to protect our eyes, right? Well, computer monitors are today’s TVs (TVs are today’s TVs, too, but they are so big that no one wants to sit close anymore). So, we designed our kids’ desks such that the computer monitors were placed at the back and the keyboard strategically fixed in place to provide 3 feet between monitor and eyes (and brains – in case the electron waves cause brain damage, too). Yes, there may have been some eyestrain caused by the monitor being so far away. But better eye strain than eye irradiation, right? Work with me here.

The “cell phone headset” rule. I didn’t realize until recently that my kids email each other with snide comments every time I send them another newspaper story about the risk of cell phones causing brain cancer. I think the truth of their collusion ultimately came out when I began including our daughter-in-law-to-be on the listserv. I couldn’t believe her parents weren’t emailing her with these cell phone horror stories (and her father’s a doctor!), so I felt I had to. Yes, it’s true there are occasional stories disputing the cell-phone brain cancer association that I may forget to send the kids, but that’s beside the point. Enough people are worried about what cell phones do to brains, especially to formative brains, that I’m not the soloist in this concert. I may just be the loudest voice. “No headset, no cell phones. Period!” That’s the way I typically close my email notes to the kids about cell phone headsets. So sue me.

The “wires are safer than wireless” rule. As everyone in the world, and everyone in our neighborhood, went wireless, we went hardwire. In the invisible cloud hovering in wireless homes, schools, airports and Starbucks, waves of bits and bytes are bathing us with radiation. You don’t need to stand too close to a microwave to get irradiated in your own home anymore if you have wireless connectivity (this foreshadows the “5 feet from the microwave rule” which I won’t have space to more fully describe).

The “Volvo” rule. This one needs no further explanation than to refer you to the “Volvo saved my life” Club page on the car manufacturer’s website. Bookmark that page. I know I did. Our kids drive Volvos. Old, used, sputtering Volvos with broken air conditioners, broken radios and leaking radiators. And, if we could have afforded Humvees…

The “8 hours sleep or you don’t drive” rule. Inadequate sleep works just like driving under the influence, slowing your reflexes and dulling your senses behind the wheel. It says so right in the drivers-ed manual. If our kids didn’t sleep 8 hours, they didn’t drive a car that day. Admittedly, there were some inherent problems with this rule, not the least of which is it often meant their friends would drive – and who knows how long their friends had slept? Or whether their friends drove a Volvo? Still, the point was made. I think.

The “even though it’s only a 15 minute drive to school, if you don’t leave 40 minutes before school starts you can’t drive” rule. Speed kills. That is not open to debate. If you’re running late, you’re more likely to speed. If you’re early, there’s no need to speed. If our kids didn’t leave the house 25 minutes earlier than the time it took to get somewhere, we drove them and picked them up afterwards. Which, for a teen spewing independence hormones from every pore, is very embarrassing. So our kids were always early and if they were driving their friends, their friends were always early. I’ve since learned that most of their slow and leisurely drives were spent dissing dad.

The “family dinner” rule. Family dinners together were mandatory, except when impossible. And they were rarely impossible. When our kids were teens, this often meant meeting up with friends at the movie theatre after the friends had already gone out to dinner together. The friends knew the rule. I believe it was their fault for putting our kids in this awkward social position.

The “weed killer” rule. To her great credit, and with my ever-lasting gratitude, my wife has put up with most of Rotbart’s Rules of Order. But this one really drives her nuts, even today. Sorry, honey, I really am. Our house has more weeds than any of the others in the neighborhood. By now, you may have an inkling as to why. I’m a pediatrician. I have cared for kids with bad diseases. I’m pretty sure weed kiilers kill weeds by mutating their DNA. And just how are the weed killers supposed to know which DNA is weed DNA, and which DNA is kid DNA? Well, not in my yard. We pick the weeds by hand when we can, but mostly we just cut the lawn often enough that the neighbors don’t complain too much.

The 2 ½ hour airport rule. Long before September 11, 2001, when everyone else in the world was naively arriving at the airport an hour ahead of flight time, our family got to the airport two hours ahead. Since 9/11, we get there 2 ½ hours early. I’ll never forget the one time it paid off. There was a security breach and everyone who had already cleared security and boarded trains for their gates had to come back and be rescreened. Most missed their flights, but not us. This rule is similar to the “Get to the movie theatre 30 minutes before the movie starts so you won’t have to sit in the front row” rule. If you don’t believe that’s an important rule, see the “3 foot computer monitor rule” above.

And there were more rules. Many more. Our kids laugh about them now; belly laugh, in fact. When they were young, they would occasionally complain about the rules, usually when their friends made it clear they were bound by no similar chains. But once in a while we got wind of outside approval. One of our daughter’s friends confided that when she asked her parents for permission to do something they weren’t too sure about, they asked, WWHD. What would Harley do? Sometimes friends’ parents would actually call us for advice on a situation. And our kids’ friends’ parents preferred their kids ride in our kids’ car.

Deep in the recesses of my brain, I like to think my kids still don’t fill-up on chips, sit far from the computer monitor, and get to the airport early. I hope they’re still sleeping 8 hours a night (they tell me they do), keeping a pillow between their laptops and their groins, and using cell phone headsets.

I hope to be around to see the rules in our kids’ homes when they have their own kids someday. Those grandkids may even hear some advice or get a late night call from me once in a while.

Especially if there’s a problem on the Staten Island Ferry.

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