Virtue & Mischief: Through the powdered milk back door


My children are 15, 13, and 12 years old, respectively. Let me assure you that my day-to-day reality is just as terrifying as those stark numbers might suggest to you.

When all three were in diapers at the same time, when they were running, crawling, breaking things, whining in three-part harmony, and terrorizing the dog in sundry and innocent ways, I remember thinking “If we can just get through this stage…,” proving once more that my stupidity and naiveté are boundless. In a few months they will be 15, 14, and 13. Three teenagers, born within 34 months of each other. Cue an Edvard Munch-inspired image and slasher-movie scream here.

Occasionally, the current state of my relationship with one or the other keeps me up at night. If I could get them to open up to me about what’s truly on their minds, what would they divulge? What are they thinking? (Interestingly, my query “What are you THINKING?!?!??” almost never elicits a genuine or sensible response). What do they dream about? What worries them, grieves them, brings them joy? Am I crowding them or giving them too much space?

I try my best to keep the channels of communication open because I want to know what’s going on in their heads. Usually. But there must be some sort of seminar or online class or something that adolescents take and master, because almost all of them in my experience are difficult to break. On a local level, I think it’s held in a secret location in Greenville after school—under the pedestrian bridge over the Greenville Creek, maybe, or in some hidden room on the third floor of the Palace building downtown. I hypothesize that the older teenagers mentor the newbies on how to be cool, distant, mildly dismissive and monosyllabic.

“So, like, if your parents ask you how your day was, we’ve come up with some battle-tested verbal responses and nonverbal techniques to get them off your back….” The newbies nod, take copious notes, and role-play until they reach a certain level of competency in brusqueness.

With all this and other considerations in mind, I hectored Luke (our youngest) yesterday afternoon into shooting baskets and playing catch with a baseball with me. Luke is a bright and complex young man, going through a particularly confusing and potentially unsettling period of life. Keeping my finger on his psychological pulse strikes me as especially important at the moment.

As we gathered our gloves and a ball, I began my initial parry: “So, Luke, how are you doing? Whatcha been thinking about lately?”

“I dunno. Nothin.’ Fine.” He takes the baseball from me and thwack-thwack-thwacks in his glove as we walk down our driveway toward the street where we typically play catch.

“How’s school? What class do you like the most right now? How are your friends?” This rapid-fire, multiple-question-asking technique is precisely the WRONG approach to adopt, but I was so curious and desperate that I couldn’t tamp down my inquisitive impulses.

“Fine. They’re all okay, I guess. Quit asking so many questions!”

“Sorry. Which is ‘okay’—your classes or your friends?”

“Both! Let’s just play catch. Sheesh.” He’s learned his “How to be a brusque teen” lessons well. No surprise there, really. He’s always done well in school.

“Okay. Sorry. I just want to, you know, kinda keep tabs on how you’re doing and what you’re thinking and stuff.”

“Okay.” He throws the ball to me. I throw it back. He throws it again and then motions for me to give him a pop up. He catches it easily and throws me one. As I prepare to give him a baseball-flaying, Avenue E ground ball, an unexpected opening appears.



“Do you remember telling me about that powdered milk stuff you had to drink when you were a boy?”

“Oh, sure. I can still see the red and white cardboard carton it came in and smell it. Totally gross. What about it?”

“Well, I was just wondering. Did you have to use it every time you had a bowl of cereal?”

I stand and stare at him, stunned. I’m trying to find out about his friends, his classes, his inner turmoil and I get this? An inquisition on my powdered milk consumption 50 years ago? But maybe this is a back door….

“Yes, I did. It was like eating my Cap’n Crunch in translucent, watered down milk. I can’t quite describe how disgusting it was. But, you know, I think the statute of limitations for turning my parents in for that particular brand of child abuse has probably passed.” After a moment I added, “I’m joking, by the way.”

“Oh. It hasn’t passed?”

“No, I’m joking about it being child abuse.”

“Oh. Why did you guys get that stuff? And how did they make it? I mean…how can milk be powdered? I don’t get it.”

From this bizarre beginning emerged a very telling and splendid conversation about a host of genuinely important and timely topics, a conversation that will (and should) remain private, a conversation whose genesis somehow emerged through an unlikely backdoor—a boy’s understandable curiosity over instant, nonfat, powdered milk.

After it was over I made a mental note to myself. “1. Send parents thank you email for making me drink odious powdered milk as a boy; 2. Search third floor of Palace building for hidden chamber and/or discuss with Daniel possibility of employing him as mole.”

By Tim Swensen

Virtue & Mischief

Timothy Swensen is the author of the weekly column series Virtue and Mischief that is published every Tuesday in The Daily Advocate. He can be reached at [email protected]. Viewpoints expressed in the article are the work of the author. The Daily Advocate does not endorse these viewpoints or the independent activities of the author.

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