It’s all relative

The 33 trapped Chilean miners have been above ground for less than 48 hours, and already I’ve found myself responding to my daughter’s everyday complaints like this: “You think doing your homework is bad? Try spending 69 days in a collapsed mine.”

As inspired as I was yesterday by each miner’s emergence from the rescue shaft (a scene oddly reminiscent of my banking materials popping up from the pneumatic tube at the drive-up teller), I have to think that at some point—maybe not right away, but definitely at some time—the miners will use the “trapped in a mine” card to trump, nay, crush whatever complaints come their way. Hot? Try spending 69 days underground at a constant, stuffy, 86 degrees surrounded by 2 ½ dozen guys and a shortage of clean clothes. Hungry? Meatloaf again sure beats 2 spoonfuls of tuna fish every 48 hours. Long line at the grocery store? Even a never-ending price check on Yoo-hoo ain’t like waiting 21 hours behind 32 other guys just so you can climb into a sardine can and finally see the sun.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe the miners are as noble as they appeared coming out of the mine. Maybe “trapped in a mine” will never become their version of walking uphill both ways. I have to say, though, that in the very black and white world that is my emotional center, where on the worst of days I categorize all things as either a bonus or a disappointment, I’m going to try to keep the miners’ predicament in mind. Really, compared to being trapped for 10 weeks underground, what do I have to complain about? What reason do I have to be impatient? What, for me, is so terrible—ever?

And, as I can’t resist sharing, my poor kids are likely to hear the “trapped in a mine” refrain more than once. Don’t want to practice the trumpet? It’s a walk in the park compared to being trapped in a mine. If you were trapped in a mine for 69 days, you’d be so bored that you’d give your right arm to practice your trumpet. For that matter, if you happened to have your trumpet with you when the mine collapsed, much in the way guys in prison movies do (despite their incarceration), you could keep the men going! You could be the hero! One day, when you’re rescued, the men will credit you with the retention of their sanity, telling the worldwide press, “If it weren’t for Aztec Fire, Surfin’ USA, and the theme from Two and a Half Men, I’d have scooped my shift boss’s eyes out with a plastic spoon!”

Then again, I’m thinking that my child’s band director, having listened to the kids playing Aztec Fire and only Aztec Fire for the past 2 months, might appreciate a bit of a break. Not necessarily a 69-day break trapped in a collapsed mine, but, hey, you gotta start somewhere.

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Stepping into the uncanny valley

Two weeks ago on our (can you spell ‘a-w-e-s-o-m-e’?) bus trip to NYC, Hayley and I visited American Girl Place on 5th Avenue. There, girls (that is, girls with means) can find mini-me versions of themselves (called Felicity, Elizabeth, or Lanie!), purchase matching outfits (School wear! Lounge wear! Swim wear! Camp wear!), accessorize for an infinite number of interests (Skating! Basketball! Baking! Cello!) and even bring their dolls to the salon for a new hairdo or a big girl ear piercing.

Nothing on the website yet about the availability of just-for-dolls exotic piercing or tattoo artistry to suit the interests of girls who are more in the Wednesday Addams vein. With the corner on the market of all things customizable, though, I’m sure that a Goth Girls outlet is just below the American Girl horizon.

The store was a hit, mainly because it’s just a lot of fun to see the miniature reproductions of everything in a girl’s life. The dolls were cute, the tiny clothes were cuter, and there’s something downright fun about watching real live hair stylists standing next to little pink salon chairs, combing, cutting, shovering and balloonifying little dolly heads of hair (at $10-20 a pop), while giddy girls on the verge of growing out of the doll phase look on. Things also got pretty exciting when I started to worry that we’d get kicked out of A.G. Place as Hayley and her friend whizzed mini-double strollers at top speed around the Bitty Baby boutique.

Little did I know as I admired the dolly & me Revolutionary War pajama dresses, that the dolly creep factor was about to get seriously cranked up. In fact, just this past Monday, I received my very first (and, I hope, last) My Twinn catalog. As if the double-n in ‘Twinn’ isn’t creepy enough, My Twinn is like the American Girl doll that Steven King would give to his granddaughter. You wouldn’t think it would be a problem, but the trouble is that the dolls are super-lifelike. Lifelike as in you send in a picture of your daughter and they reproduce her appearance. Lifelike as in when you place your order, you color in a facial diagram to show where your daughter’s freckles and moles are. Lifelike as in the dolls in the catalog look, um, life-threatening and the actual girls standing with them look they want to get the (blank) out of there.

Forget ‘Felicity’ and ‘Lanie.’ Think ‘Carrie’ and ‘Rosemary’s Baby.’

The eerie overtones of the My Twinn catalog reminded me of a useful concept I’ve come across called the uncanny valley. According to a recent NPR report, roboticist (whatever that is) Masahiro Mori theorized something like this: a robot that looks kinda human is neat, fun, even cool. If the robot looks really human, that’s even better. But if a robot looks almost completely human, then—whoa, we’ve got a problem. Writer Lawrence Weschler put it this way, “…a 95 percent lifelike robot is a robot that’s incredibly lifelike. A 96 percent lifelike robot is a human being with something wrong.” Wrong, as in, something like a corpse or zombie (see the following diagram).

http://www.architecture.uwaterloo.ca/fac 1

I have to say, I like cartoonish toy robots. I appreciate cute stuffed animals. I was a little creeped out by the borderline uncanny characters in The Polar Express. But when it comes to the My Twinn dolls, I would say the valley’s more than uncanny—it’s more like the valley of the shadow of death at the hands of a freaky little doll that looks just like me!!!!

And, I ask you, what would tell your daughter “I love you” quite like that?

Homework…HELP!

OK, I’ll admit it. Yesterday, I made Hayley cry.

She asked me to read through an essay she’d written for school, and I asked her before I did it, “Do you want me to just make corrections or can we also talk about the content? If you don’t want to hear suggestions about improvements, then I’ll stick to capitalizing and punctuation.” I’m not sure if she knew what she was getting into—not sure if she knew that I still pride myself on an award-winning writing from second grade, not sure if she knew that my typical approach is to provide three details (at least) for every point made, not sure if she knew that “Can you help me with my homework?” sessions with my Dad always ended in conflict and crying—but she agreed to the content review, and off we went.

Things went fine until we got to the following sentence fragment: “Not just with the problem I mentioned, but with all the kinds of problems that are destroying nature.” Yes, I told Hayley, there is a capital letter in the beginning of the sentence. And, yes, there is a period at the end. And, while ‘I’ is a noun and ‘mentioned’ is a verb, this is only part of a sentence and not a complete thought. How, I wondered, as she looked at me with an expression similar to the one she’d have if her balloon had just been ripped from her hand and released by her evil, uncaring excuse for a mother, who then shot down said floating balloon with a rocket-propelled grenade—how could I explain independent vs. dependent clauses to a 5th grader who was just trying to write a simple essay?

And even if I could get the clause concept across, how could I mandate that she write a complete sentence when this, her writer-mother’s blog, is probably riddled with fragments intended to ring snarky and hip? Let me tell you—I couldn’t. At least not with much authority. (See, there. A sentence fragment.) (Oops, that was another one.)

Well, as the tears rolled down Hayley’s cheeks and she said, “Dad said it was fine last night, and now you’re making all these changes,” as I saw the train lean dangerously close to the edge of the tracks, I said, “Dad was right! Your essay was fine last night! It’s still fine! And making some minor changes will make it even better! But if you want to leave it the way it is, that’s OK with me.” Then I told her, gently, that I wouldn’t be able to help her if she was crying, not because I thought she was stubborn or baby-ish, but because I felt uncomfortable helping her if it made her feel so bad that it drove her to tears.

At this point in the homework drama, I have to give Hayley credit. She left the room, wiped her eyes, and came back ready to work. We added 150 words worth of quality content to her essay (her words, not mine), and at the bus stop this morning she even volunteered to read her essay to a friend.

She learned a valuable lesson about writing that I didn’t learn until about a year ago: no matter how good you may think it is, a first draft is just that; the second draft is where the magic happens. Aside from that, Hayley may not know what a dependent clause or a sentence fragment is, but that’s OK. At least for now.

See? There I go again.

“I don’t want to, but I will.”

This is my son’s new catchphrase. I ask him, “Can you empty the dishwasher?” and he answers, “I don’t want to, but I will.” I ask him, “Can you pick up the towels from the bathroom floor?” and he says, “I don’t want to, but I will.” I pose a variety of questions, asking him to practice his trumpet/clean his room/walk the dog/brush his teeth/put away his pile of clean clothes, and I get the same answer: “I don’t want to, but I will.”

Part of me appreciates the kid’s honesty. I mean, who really does want to do chores? People who are not lazy, TV-watching slugs like me, who hope against hope that house cleaning fairies really do exist and are about to make themselves known, that’s who.

Even so I wonder, is this the kind of honesty that borders on flip disrespect? I ask myself, would Mayberry’s Aunt Bea accept such an answer from Opie? Would she, as I do, just give a laugh and say, “Oh, you kid, get outta here and get it done!” or would she double Opie’s workload and take away his shoo-fly pie for a week as a consequence for his lippy sass? I haven’t consulted the Nick at Nite archives, but I’m pretty sure that we may never know.

Again, I find I have an opportunity for parenting self-reflection. Did I want to practice the viola as a kid? Um, that would be “no.” Did I do it when my parents asked me to? Again, “no.” Sure, I’m at a point now where I get nerdily excited about new music coming in the mail, and I’m choosing enriching, Alzheimer’s-busting musical practice over my usual diet of mind-numbing reality TV reruns. I’m at the “I want to, and I will” point. That’s still a far cry from “I don’t want to, but I will,” and I think it may take a bigger person to still do what he or she doesn’t want to do.

I guess it’s like drinking chocolate milk. If a kid doesn’t like white milk, it’s better for him to drink chocolate milk than no milk at all. In the same way, I’ll take the doing without the wanting to do, confident in the fact that practice at doing is likely to make future doing less painful.

Although now that I think about it, Jake may do things he doesn’t want to do, but he sure doesn’t drink milk—white, chocolate, or otherwise.

I guess I’ll take what I can get.

Thankful Thursday: End of Summer Vacation edition

I’m thankful today for a great summer vacation, in which my children…

  1. Learned that their not-so-comfortable-with-heights mother is not above (below?) flying head first down the Patriot’s Plunge waterslide with nothing but a swimsuit, some water, and a 2-inch thick foam mat separating her from certain death
  2. Stood three feet away from me with their jaws on the floor as my hairdresser unwrapped the highlighting foils from my hair and revealed for the first time anywhere a younger-looking, partially blond version of “me” (imagine if I made the switch to contact lenses—the kids might spontaneously combust!)
  3. Finally realized that when I say, “Do you want to go and take a shower/practice your trumpet/clean up your room?” I really mean, “Your world will self-destruct in 5 seconds if you don’t get your behind moving and do what I asked you to do.”
  4. Repeated back to me some of the things that I say, thus highlighting my utter ridiculousness (case in point, Hayley says, “Mom, when you say ‘cute’ do you mean ‘cute-cute’ or ‘cute juvenile’?” then looks at Craig, after which the two of them point at me and laugh her heads off)
  5. Showed me—and themselves—that while practice may not at first make perfect, it certainly makes progress…and that’s not nothing

Back to the lonely school year for me. Miss you, guys.

Pleasant surprises

The kids are just back to school after Spring Break, and, looking back, I’m astonished at the number of pleasant surprises that can happen in one week off.

First, the weather—temperatures in the ’80s for Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday of last week. Just when I finally got both of my children outfitted in pants that fit, here comes the sweltering spring sunshine that makes you want to drag out your shorts. No matter. With our late winter wet down, the heat was a welcome change for me, and for my growing grass.

That’s another pleasant surprise—the growing, growing, growing. Growing kids are quite amazing. They report over 2 cm each, since Christmas!! No wonder they needed new clothes. Then there’s the growing flora all over my yard—it’s a joy! The bushes at the corner of my driveway have merged into one fuzzy, tentacled muppet of a thing—so crazy and enchanting! And another pleasant spring break surprise—the church I grew up in, where I visited yesterday, has grown to an astonishing size. What a pleasant surprise to be there with old faces and new, a new pastor, a fresh outlook, a super cool antique of a building with a new coat of paint. It wasn’t at all what I was expecting, but, again, I’ll take it.

Another surprise—the green of spring! And as I mowed down the new growth, inspiring yet more, I noticed that the once one square foot of ground cover under the bushes in my backyard has expanded to take up the entire end-to-end span of the back of my house, about 75 square feet! Perennial progress—a pleasant surprise! And as I surveyed the yard, I wondered, how many shades of green are there in nature? I count at least 2 in my yard, 3 on my bushes, and 3 or 4 more in the lawnscape outside where I’m writing. As I mowed the grass yesterday I noticed darks and light, color variations from new growth, my favorite blue greens to set off the tried and true forest greens.

Speaking of forest green, I was pleasantly surprised on my Spring Break excursion to my parents’ home in New Jersey, as I drove my husband and children to my high school alma mater, the school colors of which were (brace yourself) forest green and gold (Ugh!). All of us were bowled over by the amazing natural setting that I appreciated pretty much not at all back when I was a teenager. As we drove up the hill to approach the school, there were only trees all around, just budding with the first inkling of leaves. And my son said, “I want to go camping here!” I was retroactively thrilled to have had the opportunity to traverse such a beautiful space every day for so long. A long forgotten memory, pleasantly recalled.

On that NJ trip we made more pleasant discoveries—the crazy Fort Nonsense, built atop a steep hill as a fortification for the Continental Army; Jockey Hollow, home to some of George Washington’s troops, who slept 12 men to a cabin, through the worst winter of the 18th century; Ralston Park, a can’t miss community playground that Hayley spotted from the road, and wouldn’t let us forget until we stopped so she could play there.

There were other pleasant surprises last week: a clearing in my schedule that allowed me to make a long-desired visit to a sick friend; a quick stop at the Borders bookstore by the hospital where the $4 bargain bestsellers were practically throwing themselves into my handbag; clear breathing for the asthmatics in the group in a place that usually wheezes them out.

But the best surprise of all, the one we couldn’t have predicted in a million Spring Breaks, was the one that I must swear you to keep secret from my sister, Linda, whose birthday is coming up on May 1st. Linda, if you’re reading, stop now…or else I won’t give you the cupcake that we got for you from Carlo’s Bakery in Hoboken, NJ, home of TV’s Cake Boss, Buddy Valastro. Yes, we road tripped it to Hoboken, expecting to buy a cake at the bakery, and happened on the entire extended Valastro family selling half-price cupcakes out on the sidewalk. We had no idea it was the 1st Annual Cupcake Day at Carlo’s. We ended up on film. We signed release forms. We shook Buddy’s hand. My poor father held a cupcake in his kung-fu grip for almost an hour on the ride home. Let me tell you, though, it was the highlight to end all highlights.

Unless you count the guy that we saw getting arrested on our way into town. Now that was totally awesome.

Thankful for the me I see in them

from penguingeek.files.wordpress.com

Question: By what fractional part does four fourths exceed three fourths?

Answer: Ouch, can I have an aspirin for my aching brain?

Here in Delaware, the schoolchildren are plowing through state testing this week, with yesterday and today dedicated to math. It’s funny that such testing should coincide with Jake’s discovery (under his bed) of a little book from my childhood called How Many 3-cent Stamps in a Dozen (or How Logical Are You?). In the spirit of Martin Gardner, this gem contains questions designed to stump your friends, bug your teachers, and allow your grandparents to show off their vast and insightful knowledge of tricky little classics that they’ve already heard a million times over.

Take, for example, the straightforward “When you take two apples from three apples, what do you have?” Let’s say it all at once now, “TWO APPLES!” Or how about this one—”How many times can you subtract 2 from 21?” That would be once, because after that you’re subtracting 2 from 19, then 17, then saying “Darn you, you smart aleck kids for asking me questions way too fast that are meant to trip me up and make me look like I didn’t actually ace AP Calculus in high school. Yup, thanks a lot!”

Interesting, though, that as annoying as I’m finding these questions that the children keep asking and asking and asking, I can still remember, most vividly, buying this very book back in like 1980. I was 11 and on vacation “down the shore” with my aunt and grandparents. We had walked (as we always and everywhere walked) to the hardware/sundries/things to keep your bored kids from clawing their eyes out store, and that’s where I got the very book that my kids are so hooked on now.

Relatives have told me that Hayley is a little version of me, and I know that is true for appearance, but I wonder too if there’s a personality resemblance as well. If there is, then I can only imagine how the patience of Job was demonstrated that week in the bungalow after I shelled out the $1.50 for that book. “How many cubic feet of earth are in a hole that is 2 feet wide by 8 feet long by 3 feet deep?” “In which book of the Bible can you read about Abel slaying Cain?” “Would it be cheaper for you to take 2 friends to the movies at the same time or one at a time?” Come on, Grandma. Think fast!!!

So as Jake and Hayley are reading the book, memorizing the answers, and delivering the gotchas to Craig, me, and all their friends, I’m thankful that, once again, my children are giving me a little window into myself. They, like I, enjoy a little clever twist. They, like I, like all of us, want to know all the answers.

Speaking of answers, four fourths exceeds three fourths by one third. You were just about to say that, weren’t you?

The not-uptight parenting award of the year goes to…

…Randy and Theresa Mariner of Dover, Delaware, who had ten preteen boys (including mine) at their house for a sleepover last night, even though they are moving to Virginia TODAY!!!

I know it’s early in the year to award this annual prize, but when it comes to being calm under pressure, gluttons for punishment Randy and Theresa have this competition sewn up. Call them crazy, but they figured that the last minute farewell party would give their two boys a last hurrah with their friends, with the added benefit of providing lots of mouths to eat up all the remaining tater tots, chicken nuggets, and soda in the house. Who better to eat the whole thing than two basketball teams worth of Wii playing pre-adolescents? Yup, while Randy and Theresa dismantled furniture and packed up all their worldly goods, the boys hung out, ate up, played on, and said goodbye in the way that only boys can.

In a million years I never would have predicted that this going away party would be a sleepover—when Theresa said I should pick Jake up at noon I nearly dropped the phone. She and her husband must be two cool, yet authoritative, customers.

With Randy and Theresa’s example, though, Craig and I are wondering whether we have the worldwide high score on the uptight-o-meter. Ten boys would be a major stretch for us under normal circumstances, let alone in a packing and moving environment. Sometimes one boy is too much for us. Sometimes getting up in the morning is too much for us.

We are such weaklings.

Another day…

…another snowstorm. True to the phrase, “Everyone always talks about the weather, but nobody ever does anything about it,” we here in DE are bracing for another 8-12 inches (more? less? who knows!) of snow. Bread aisle shelves are emptying. Killer icicles are forming. Businesses are shoveling off their roofs at a furious pace.

In fact, as I drove yesterday I even saw a man shoveling off his porch roof; clever boy had a rope tied to his waist in case, I presume, of slippage. Not sure what I would tie the other end to (a doorknob? a mahogany bedframe? barbells?), but from the street the guy looked like he knew what he was doing.

Needless to say, we’ve got the whole gang home today. School is closed. Craig’s office is even closed. We’ve got plenty of milk for cocoa, a couple of movies saved up, and a brand new board game that, after three aborted attempts, we just figured out how to play yesterday. Oh, and we’ve got Girl Scout cookies—lots and lots of Girl Scout cookies. And yes, if you’ve already ordered with us, you’ll have ample opportunity to reorder in case your original order is “misplaced” during the storm.

Surprisingly, this latest round of white stuff is not accompanied by the usual thrill and anticipation. If anything, the family seems to be getting a little tired of it. Hayley, for one, said that she wants to be able to walk on the green, green grass, instead of trudging up to her knees in snow. Craig, while on the eve of a day off, seemed actually to be a little down last night. I, on the other hand, am so excited that I can hardly contain myself.

Maybe it’s my slightly northerly origins. Maybe it’s great memories of tobogganing with my Dad. Maybe it’s just my freakish never-too-much-of-a-good-thing attitude. We’re all set for the snow, and I am psyched up. I love the excuse to hunker down, read books, bake cookies, watch the snowfall, and listen to the stillness and silence that almost never happens. I enjoy the change of scenery—not a change from last week, I know, but a change from the usual. I love thinking about the phenomenon of snow—how can so many tiny flakes add up to so darn much? It’s kind of amazing, don’t you think?

I’m thinking that whatever your snow-titude, you’ll be better off making peace with it, because this side of high tech weather manipulation, there just isn’t much you can do about it. Instead of bugging the kids about wearing their coats while they’re sledding, let ’em strip down, then slide down with ’em. Instead of standing in front of the truck that’s about to plow in the end of your driveway, give the poor driver a cup of cocoa. Instead of gunning to get back to work at the office, in the driveway, at the taxes, or in the basement, take a barefoot polar bear run across the lawn.

And instead of taking a shower when you’re finished shoveling, take a bath. Go ahead, drop a couple of snowballs in the water with you. You know you want to.

The Cooler

While the snow was falling on Saturday night, Craig, Jake, and I took in the classic movie The Great Escape. I had programmed it into our Tivo simply to bank up some watchable quality programs for the blizzard, but I soon realized that, considering our snowbound conditions, the movie’s emphasis on digging and tunneling was quite apropos.

If you haven’t seen it, The Great Escape is based on the true story of a group of Allied soldiers as they plan and execute their escape from a Nazi prison camp. With escape organizer “Big X” (a pre-Jurassic Park Richard Attenborough) in charge, the group worked tirelessly to tunnel under the camp compound, with hopes of escaping into the trees and disappearing altogether, fulfilling what I suspect to be every boy’s dream (except maybe without the Nazi element, that is).

The hunky hook of the group is Captain Hilts, played by Steve McQueen, who, within 20 minutes of his arrival at the camp, ends up in “the cooler” for, well, tossing his baseball where it doesn’t belong. The cooler, made possibly even more famous to my generation by Colonel Hogan, Colonel Klink, and the rest of the wacky (and strangely inappropriate, I think) prisoner of war peanut gallery, probably looked better in the movie than it did in real life, though I suspect it was as realistic as handing gardening tools to a couple hundred escape artist prisoners.

Again, though, I find myself gleaning real life application from cinematic story-telling. Just this morning, as my children broke into a chorus of “Give it back!” immediately after their father exited the front door, I invited them upstairs and meted out their punishment: 10 minutes in the cooler. That would be 10 minutes in solitary confinement in their rooms…which, I know, are equipped with iPods, reading and writing material, and, indeed, plenty of carving equipment. But it’s the thought that counts.

I’m not sure of the origins of the name, but for me the cooler (the room, the step, whatever) is a place to separate oneself from whatever “the problem” is in order to settle down, cool off, and get oneself back into a socially/morally/emotionally acceptable framework. For us, this morning, it worked. For Steve McQueen in the movie, not so much.

Then again, with a guy whose white slacks, leather jacket, and blue sweatshirt had little more than a few barbed wire holes by the end of the war, all I can say is this: the rules sure didn’t apply to him.

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