When the doorbell rings, it's all I can do to pull myself out of the chair and walk to the front hall. Reaching for the Kleenex box has sapped all my energy, and now, holding my head upright is causing my sinuses to flood. By the time I reach the door, I have to sneeze the word "Hello" to Bert, my pest-control man.
"You're sick," he says, stating the obvious.
"Yeah, one of my kids brought a disease home from school," I explain.
Bert pumps his bug juicer a few times and then starts simultaneously spraying and talking. He hasn't been here in a month, so we have a lot of catching up to do.
"So, we both have high school seniors this year," I say. "How's your daughter doing so far?"
Bert and I often compare notes on rearing teenage girls. Usually he laments her choices of friends and activities.
"Well, she's not pregnant."
Yikes. This is just a Friday morning bug visit, and what with my plugged nasal passages and the cloud remaining in my brain from last night's antihistamines, I'm not too quick on the uptake.
"Um ... is that something you're concerned about?" When in doubt, ask a question.
Bert goes on to explain that three of his daughter's closest friends "turned up pregnant" over the summer, a development about which he's appalled. He has decided his measure of success for his daughter's senior year is to assure that the only tests she takes are in school and not in an obstetrical office.
"The thing that slays me is that these 17-year-old girls are happy and excited. They can't wait to be mommies." He shakes his head as he moves to the kitchen on a quest for pests.
Sadly, Bert has concluded he's the only parent in his daughter's social sphere who "has a clue." For example, last spring, he was the only one to object to a hotel room on prom night.
He's the only one who said "no" when his daughter asked to go on a spring-break cruise with a group of girls and one mom as a chaperone. ("How the heck is one mom going to supervise a dozen teenagers on a cruise ship?")
He was alone in his fight against his daughter's decision to have her nose pierced. Even Bert's wife threw up her hands on that one with the rationale, "At least it's not a tattoo."
According to Bert, teenage motherhood is the obvious result of the permissive and complacent parenting going on around him. He looks at me in confusion and says, "What are these people thinking?"
Most of the time, we work ourselves into a conversational lather as Bert tells me the latest episodes in his parenting saga, but today, I'm too sick to get my ire up the way I usually do.
"I guess we're just 'old school,'" I say, shaking my head in congested agreement as I shuffle back to the den to watch TV.
Picking up the remote, I begin my search for suitable sick-day entertainment, all the while thinking about the cultural shift that has permitted a measure of teenage success to become "She's not pregnant."
At about that moment, my channel surfing lands on Janet Jackson's new video. Seeing it surprises me for a couple of reasons.
First, I thought we had blocked all the music-video channels from our television, but apparently we missed one at the top of the dial, and second, Janet is revisiting the "wardrobe malfunction" she debuted at the Super Bowl a few years ago.
This time, though, there is no mistake. Janet's pornographic lyrics and coarse choreography are punctuated intentionally by flashes of her bare breasts.
I watch this "artistic" rendition of a song called "So Excited," and even in my foggy state of consciousness, it's obvious to me that Bert is up against a whole lot more than just the permissive parents at his daughter's high school.
He's up against the Janet Jacksons of the world the people who make lots of money selling sex to teens through music, movies, TV shows and magazines.
A dad with a strong set of values to pass along to his daughter is no match for the constant barrage of media messages about what constitutes desirable behavior, not to mention the inertia of adults who let the culture set their children's moral standards.
Then again, despite the odds that the culture will win the war, my money's on Bert (and not just because he has a successful track record against pests of all varieties).
The reason I think Bert will prevail and ultimately will help his daughter toward responsible adulthood is because he won't leave it alone.
He still talks to his daughter about her choices and doesn't shy away from the tough questions and unpleasant conversations.
He still gets mad when other parents throw up their hands and declare they can't control their teens.
He's still incredulous about the provocative way girls dress and the poor manners he sees in teenage boys.
He still expects his daughter to comply with his rules as long as she's living in his house.
In short, Bert is proof that "old school" dads are still out there.