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John Engel: Children shine light on life’s basic lessons

December is stressful for families. The cold and flu season, hectic pace of school, work pressures, and protracted holiday season collide just when our mammalian energy contracts. On these colder, darker days even a mild irritation can trigger a melt down for kids, and parents.

On a recent family outing, I dropped off my wife, Lori, on Main Street to enjoy some solo holiday shopping. I headed to the public library with the kids, where they had a blast and I perused the movie section. It was a cold, wet day; I was preoccupied with work, not feeling well, a bit sleep deprived, and according to of my kids, acting like Mr. Grouchy Pants. So when it was time to meet Lori, instead of leaving the car at the library and strolling into town, I decided to gamble on finding a parking spot in the public garage.

Up we went, weaving our way round and round five floors, the kids hollering with excitement all the way to the top, where, along with five other disgruntled drivers, I learned that the garage was full. The kids were equally thrilled, I was not, as we drove down and around five floors, and out into the uncovered public lot.

As I searched for an open space, the kids started overheating in their puffy coats and boots, their tummies grumbled and I became increasingly irritated; staying in the library lot would have been easier. Finally scoring a spot, I parked, turned off the car, left the door open, sprinted half-way across the lot, plunked two quarters in the parking station and victoriously returned to the car, parking slip in hand.

Soon the whole family sat contentedly, stuffing our gobs with burritos, chips and guacamole. This lasted about 13 minutes. After lunch, as we strolled through the indoor market, I realized I had better make a hasty return to the car to avoid a parking ticket.

Reaching the car with 10-minutes to spare, I found a $15 ticket tucked under the wiper. I hustled to catch up with the parking attendant who was about to escape from the lot. Upon hearing my concern, she gracefully said: “Oh, maybe I misread your parking slip?” Taking the time to reexamine the slip, she calmly pointed to the expiration time, showing that, indeed, I had over-parked. Comparing the time on my phone against the time stamped on the slip, I was confused and increasingly irritated.

Within the course of our conversation I learned that while parking in the garage costs 50 cents per hour (the first hour free), the uncovered lot is 75 cents per hour and the lot across the street is 25 cents per hour. To help clarify all of this, the expiration time is conveniently printed on each parking slip, which, since I assumed all parking is 50 cents per hour, I did not take the time to read.

The attendant patiently listened to me explain how confusing a system this is and how it stands to reason that if 50 cents is good enough for an hour of garage parking it ought to be equally worthy of uncovered parking. I was just barely reasonable with her. In the end, I acknowledged that I had failed to read the parking slip, she was doing her job, and we parted ways.

Moments later, Lori and the kids arrived in festive moods, just in time for my temper to flare as I carried on about the idiotic parking system and the ticket that would cost us more than lunch, effectively putting a damper on everyone’s mood.

Before we could pull away, the attendant returned and cut me a break, which I clearly did not deserve, and in my sullen state, I failed to even thank her before she disappeared.

Later that same day, as we prepared to sit for dinner, I ask daughter Zoe to clean up the art supplies that were strewn across the kitchen. She offered a familiar reply, “I didn’t do that,” to which I calmly said, “Zoe, let’s remember to take responsibility for our actions.”

When I am stressed I often forget some of life’s basic lessons. Fortunately, my children have a way of illuminating these moments, which is a gift any time of year.

John Engel is an organizational development coach and consultant living in Florence. Engel can be reached through his website, www.fatherhoodjourney.com.

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