Friday, August 14, 2009

Metaphor for the next few years

Well, looks like we have survived the summer quite well. I am not even exactly looking forward to school starting next week—even as I AM looking forward to it—the kids are so happy! They are loving their unstructured time and actually making pretty good use of it, doing that serious work of being kids.

I was worried, though.

Rees is at an age (11) where it seems that playing with a pile of blocks or Legos just doesn't really cut it anymore. He and his friends need more excitement, something slightly risky and new. I know this is normal—and a big part of growing up comes from experimenting and trial and error—but I'm not sure I'm up for the excitement myself. I was wondering just how many edgy kinds of activities I could take.

Last spring, when Rees had a friend over and they were getting antsy, I sent them out back with hedge clippers to have a go at the Russian Olive tree. I knew they wouldn't kill the tree (you get an award around here if you manage to kill a Russian Olive—considered an exotic invasive), and they would get to use sharp tools. In no time, I noticed, they had also found and commandeered the machete. A good tool for the task…no? They were having a great time, and they did a good job. Okay, not so good with the clean up of the branches, but they did manage to trim off all the new growth and put the tools away, and no blood was drawn. That's one successful morning.

A few days later they wanted to play with candles and some matches. It was a cold, rainy Sunday, so I told them they could do it out in the driveway. Needless to say, this dampened their fun, but hey, it was safe, clean-up was minimal, and they were amused.

Then there was the math class project where they needed to construct a robot of geometric solids. They constructed "Arnold" from boxes and plastic jars and asked if they could spray paint him. So I got out some tarps, they helped me cover the drive, and they chose some colors to finish off their masterpiece. At some point in there, in between coats, I had to go get Kadin. 10 minutes max, but leaving two 'tween boys in the drive with spray paint in hand??

Came back to find they had also spray painted the pogo stick and a large mullein weed bright blue. "You just couldn't resist?" I asked. "You were just going to pull it up anyway, right?" said Rees quite logically and accurately. Right. They did great. I mean, they picked the best possible thing to paint. No harm done, if you don't count leaving your mother on edge and the specter of destruction lurking in the shadows...

A couple of days after that, it was hot and sunny again. We were all out for a hike and Rees and a friend were bored and wanted to go home. Okay, we said, we'll meet you at home in about an hour, and they trotted off.

Came home to find more wax drips in the driveway, strange chemicals (like my $80/pint stone sealer) uncapped and off the shelves, and a half-hearted attempt at putting away matches and candles. Hmmm. Also found some small potato chip bags around the house. Hmmm.

First I told Rees that it was not okay to randomly play with fire and unknown garage chemicals without asking. Then I asked where the chip bags came from. "Oh, we stopped at Ben's house on the way home and he gave us some chips." So Ben was here too? Three 'tweens, hot, sunny, dry, fire, and no adults. A combustible combination!

The funny thing is, if they had been organized enough to completely cover their tracks and completely clean up and put away all evidence of playing with fire, I think perhaps that would show they were thoughtful and together enough to keep from harm. And we've all done it. We've all enjoyed playing with fire.

But boy was I glad when the next weekend Rees had a field trip with his school band to the local amusement park. Perfect: fast rides, the allure of danger, but all in all, a pretty safe environment. I finally understood and appreciated the true function of the thrill ride.

So it was with some trepidation that I saw the summer (and the next few years) looming ahead of me. I'm crossing out of the golden age where the kids are old enough to pretty much take care of themselves but young enough to not get into serious mischief. Breathe, breathe.

But so far, it has turned out fine, I'm still enjoying the golden moment. We discussed the concept of group psychology where it is okay to be home alone, but not with a group. If I need to go out, I send the bunch off to someone else's house. And I have cultivated a strategy of being welcoming but clueless when other parents call, "Oh, your son is here? Are you sure? Okay...let me check." If other parents think I don't really know what is going on, I figure that's a good thing. I also try to be a little bit boring with the kids: make them get their own food and ask them to clean up and put things away, etc. I'm not trying to win any popularity contests, and it's working.

Instead of burning down the neighborhood, they have gotten into a card game at Dakota's called "Magic," enjoy playing "Halo" at Dustin's house, and at our house they have made up endless, imaginative games and variations involving the hose and the trampoline. [Okay, full disclosure: my rule HAS changed from "no jumping off the swingset onto the trampoline," to "no doing flips off the swingset onto the trampoline."] They seem inclusive and able to work through occasional conflicts and everyone is having a good time. And I really don't mind if they play with fire—it's something they have to do, it's how they learn—I just want it to be at someone ELSE's house. Ideally, with some wise adult who is interested and engaged. But if they do it on their own and somehow manage to be wise and thoughtful enough to cover their tracks? That's okay too.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

The phone, the phone, the phone

I had just gotten home from Kadin’s very fun 2nd grade “Australia Day,” when the phone rang. Unfortunately, I was in the bathroom and I thought, “Well, I could have gotten home five minutes from now, so why kill myself to answer? They can leave a message.” And then I heard a small, thin voice coming through the machine saying, “Mom?… Mom?….” Oh dang it, I should have answered.

It was Rees. But where? He should be at school. There’s no way to call him back. He’ll probably try my cell next, but I’ll just call the school in case. So I call the school and sure enough, while it is ringing at the school my cell rings. I hang up the land line, pick up the cell, and it is Rees. Apparently the school has been evacuated due to some sort of leak and I need to go pick him up at the High School.

Sure, that throws a wrench into my afternoon plans where I had much to accomplish, but no worries, he had wanted a snow day, and this would be like a snow day but without the snow.

It turns out that Rees is no problem at all. Quite happy to amuse himself. But every time I sit down, get my focus, and try to get something done, the phone rings. A robot voice: “There is an important communication for you. Please press any numeric key to receive this message.”

What is this? Some kind of a prank? Is it from the school? The city? If so, why didn’t they identify themselves? Is it from a telemarketer who will say that because I pressed a numeric key I agreed to something? I hang up.

About twenty minutes later, again the phone. Same deal. If it is someone official, they would identify themselves, I think. If it is a marketing ploy they might not. If it was a marketing ploy that identified themselves as someone official, at least they could be accused of misleading the recipient. As it is, it’s similar to an email that says, “For important information, click this link.” I’m not going for that.

A few minutes later, again the phone rings. I don’t answer. No message. Then my cell rings. This is the first clue I have that this call really is for me personally. My two numbers dialed in quick succession. The robot voice is now on my cell. This time I press a “numeric key.” I guess this is so they can be sure an actual person is getting the message, not a machine, the toddler, or the cat. I am instructed to listen to the entire message and then press 2. Okay. So there is a long message about the school evacuation and where to pick up my kid. I listen. I have picked up my kid over an hour ago. At the end, I press 2.

The phone rings again. Of course I have to answer, it might be one of the kids. It is a teacher from Rees’s school, the one who is coaching their soccer team. He tells me their afternoon game is still on as planned, but I’ll need to bring Rees to the venue myself. Fine.

A few minutes later, again the phone rings. Robot voice again asking for a numeric key. I thought I’d pressed 2 already! I can’t bear to listen to the long message again, so hang up.

I am not getting very much done in the end. Evacuation this, evacuation that. I have also received several emails each from the school, the district, and something called nxt, informing me of the situation.

Then the phone again. I answer. It is Greg: “I just got a call about an evacuation at Rees’s school.” Yes, yes, yes, I KNOW! But of course Greg has to check in with me. So I tell him Rees is fine, I have picked him up, he is now at the skate park with Dakota.

And that’s about it. It’s time to take Rees to his afterschool soccer game. The sum total accomplished in my afternoon! I did enjoy the next couple of hours watching Rees play soccer, however. It was a beautiful day and he really puts his all into it.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Skiing with kids (sic)

Call me crazy, but in my mind, if you take a day to go skiing, you should, well, go skiing. But I have to pat myself on the back for not getting too wrapped up in that narrow definition when we went for our first ski outing of the season last December.

Rees has a discounted pass to the Colorado resorts (the ski industry gives these passes to 5th and 6th graders precisely for this purpose: it gets their families out with them and gets them addicted to skiing) so we picked a place we’d never been, Breckenridge, rented equipment for Kadin, and set off the next morning. This was for the kids, I reminded myself, not for me. My ski season started in January when the kids were back in school. I’d save my skiing for then.

We didn’t leave late, but we didn’t leave super early either. The woman at the ski rental store suggested leaving at 5am. We opted for about 7, and a little over 2 hrs later we were at the resort. We parked, got dressed for the cold, and headed toward the kiosk. Halfway there I realized in my haste I had left my big gloves on top of the car. I went back, got the gloves, and double checked we had what we wanted with us. I would hate to have to come back to the car again. We got our passes (a fair piece of change, I might add) and headed up the gondola to the lifts. On the gondola we learned there were several stops and several mountains. The first mountain was all intermediate and advanced slopes. So we stayed in and went to the end of the line.

The kids were enjoying the gondola ride and talking it up a bit about how they wanted to ski blue and black runs (intermediate and advanced). Yeah, right. I have learned that as soon as we do a blue slope, it’s the last slope of the day. Rees has only been snowboarding a half-a-dozen times and Kadin had only been on the slopes twice, the last time over 9 months before. We needed to take it easy our first time out this season. Slow and steady and all that…

I checked my trail map and headed toward the lift that looked like it led to the nice, long, green (beginners) run the woman on the gondola had recommended. Once we got to the top, however, I realized that we had, disastrously, taken the wrong chair. Our only options to the bottom were blacks and blues. It was going to be a long run, and not in a good way…

The kids, complementary in personality, are also complementary in skiing style, but not in the way you might think. Rees on his snowboard is all about technique and form, quite cautious and in control. Kadin, on the other hand, is on skis and pretty much just goes down, come hell or high water. Kadin helps Rees go faster and Rees helps reign Kadin in.

Rees knows how to get down difficult terrain, so he was doing okay. Not as well as he wanted to be doing, but under control. Kadin, on the other hand, was hopeless. I could get myself down just fine, but am not skilled enough to do that and carry a 7-year-old as well. I don’t ski backwards, and I wasn’t sure I could hold him and guide him either.

Skiing for kids is just super different than skiing for adults. Some things that adults find hard, kids find easy, and vice versa. My strategy for getting down a slope that feels too steep for me is to (1) ski down in big zig zags or (2) side slip. Snow plow is something the kids learn, and they seem to be good at following leaders, so I told Kadin to snow plow and follow me and started out on a big zig across the slope. No dice. He followed gravity and started heading down and had his first fall. We tried a zag and another zig, but no joy. The tears started. So I tried plan B and showed him how to side slip. This was just completely incomprehensible to him. At this rate, a very long run was ahead of us indeed.

Salvation soon came when a ski patrol guy, “Tony,” came by and asked if we needed help. Boy did we ever. “Don’t worry,” he said, “I’ll get you down the mountain.” My hero!

He introduced himself to Kadin and I went on ahead to find Rees. Rees was having a bit of a hard time, but coping pretty well. Tony showed us the easiest way down and Rees and I went ahead, then stopped and waited. Tony tried a bunch of different techniques, then handed his poles to me so he could carry Kadin, and Rees and I went ahead again.

We started having a really nice run. Rees found his groove and it was sunny and the slopes nearly empty. Ideal, really. After a good bit, we stopped and waited for Tony and Kadin to appear. We waited and waited…

Finally Tony appeared, but no Kadin. He had called in the toboggan, feeling that progress had just been too slow. Sure enough, a few minutes later, a ski patrol guy guiding a toboggan with Kadin riding on top, came down. Kadin was smiling and having a grand old time, so that at least was good. We got to the bottom, thanked Tony and friend profusely, and they directed us to the lift we should have taken.

Once on the green slopes, Kadin did fantastic. Though at almost every moment he looked like he was about to fall, he had not a fall for the rest of the day. His style is both terrifying and hilarious to watch. We did a green run, then Rees said he thought it was time for lunch. Already? I thought. He reasoned that the lift lines were longer now, and they’d be shorter if we ate early and came back when everyone else was at lunch. Couldn’t argue with that.

They love cafeteria food, but for myself, I had brown bagged it. They were having a great time. Kadin even said, “Thanks for a great day, Mom.” A great day? I felt like all we’d done was get to the slope, do one run, and eat bad food. But I realized to them, it was all a much bigger experience. Riding the lifts, riding the gondola, eating soup in a bread bowl, it was all good. To me, these were impediments. But I reminded myself, it was not about me.

After lunch, Rees said he wanted to go back to the car to get his hat. Go back to the car? That was at least half-an-hour and two gondola trips away. Yes, he wanted to go back to the car. It’s not about me, so we went back to the gondola, took it back down, and walked back to the car. By this point, we were quite warm, so we took off some of our outerwear, got Rees’s hat, and went back up the mountain.

Finally, back at the lift, waiting in line again, I suddenly realized a serious problem. “Kadin? Did you leave your coat in the car?” “Yes.” “Was your lift ticket on your coat?” “Oh, I guess it was.”

There was nothing for it but to go back to the car—again—and get it. Two more gondola rides and what felt like another mile of walking in ski boots later, we were back at the lift. Hours had passed.

Had a good run again—finally!—and suddenly the kids were ready to go home. Go home? Already? I still felt as if we had just gotten started. But it was not about me. I talked them into one more run and that was it for the day. Done. Finito. Back to the gondola and back to the car. They sure loved that gondola, I had to remember that!

We stopped at Starbucks on the way home, got stuck in traffic despite leaving early (I blame the long line at Starbucks), and the kids conked out in the car. So for them it was a big day. Was it worth it? I’m not sure. We didn’t do all that much skiing, but in the end they had a great time. There would have been little point in pushing them past their limit. I gave myself a little pat on the back for not getting too wound up about it, reminding myself: it’s not about me. And, oh yeah, I had a great time skiing with friends in January.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Mood magnet

Went hiking with Rees and Kadin yesterday, which may have been a mistake, as the hike ended up a bit less light-hearted with them along. But, I did come away with a helpful new perspective! One exciting new option around here—that, alas, we didn't take advantage of—is they are fine if we leave them home alone. Well, mostly Kadin is fine with being left alone. He really craves/thrives on his alone time. Rees, not so much.

But, a big breakthrough last Thursday. Greg and the boys were supposed to go to Kung Fu and I had planned to go to a meeting. Then Rees came home after soccer and announced he had a big homework project due the next day, so he couldn't go to Kung Fu. I called a couple of his friends to see if he could hang with them and do his project, but no one else was home. We spelled out the options for him: stay home alone and do it, take it to Kung Fu and do it there, go to Kung Fu and do the homework later in the evening and again in the morning. Rees’s response to these options? None of the above. His ideas included: Greg take Kadin to Kung Fu and then come home and stay with him and then rush back to pick up Kadin, or, I cancel my plans and stay with him. Basically the gist of his ideas: everyone else rearrange their schedule to accommodate me.

He had some historical research he needed to do and then he had to prepare a two-minute speech, type it out, practice it, and time it. He had known about it for two days. He could have planned ahead better, but not too much. So we reluctantly left him home alone—this child who doesn’t like to be alone and has trouble concentrating—to do a multi-part project from start to finish. What were the chances? I figured either way, it would be a learning experience. Miracle of miracles, it was fine! When Greg and Kadin got home, Rees had it all typed out, practiced, and in his backpack. Milestone! He rose to the challenge! Yea!

So back to the hiking. It was a beautiful day and we wanted to go for a short hike. Thought the kids would like to get out in the woods. Rees kind of wanted to go, Kadin really did not. I could tell Kadin wanted to have some alone time, but at home Rees kept pestering him to play soccer, have a nerf-gun war, etc. Rees, in true form, said he would only go hiking if Kadin went as it would be boring without him. Nice that he wants to be with his brother—and they really do get along well—but too bad his brother is an introvert and he is not! If Kadin didn’t go, Rees said he’d stay home too. Thinking a change of scene would do everyone good, we insisted Kadin come along and offered a post-hike lunch at Chipotle as a consolation.

They did okay—Kadin going a bit slow at times, and being incredibly negative and anti- everything as can be his way—but they went along. (And, as is also typical, today, the day after, Kadin recalls it as a fun hike! We have learned not to take his negativity to heart.) At one point, Rees and I were ahead and Rees was complaining that “Kadin’s laziness” had infected him, and it was Kadin’s fault that he couldn’t go faster. Since we had been climbing steadily uphill for quite a while, I thought that was a likely reason Rees felt slow. But he didn’t see it that way at all. “Kadin’s mood has infected me, it’s all his fault!”

I hate it when Rees does this. I find it incredibly annoying and almost pathological that Rees often blames other people for his moods. I wasn’t going to play the blame game, so I just repeated Rees’s statement back to him: “You feel that Kadin’s mood has infected you, and you don’t like it.”

“Yeah, it makes me feel bad.”

“You feel bad. You don’t like this mood.”

And then it hit me. Maybe instead of a pathological blaming of others and lack of healthy responsibility, maybe Rees was right. Maybe Kadin’s mood really HAD “infected” him. I call Rees our resident mood magnet. He is very sensitive and empathetic and quite easily takes on other’s moods. Sometimes this serves him well. It’s what makes him so great at interacting with and engaging people whom others find difficult to engage with. Sometimes, though, it makes a stressful situation doubly or triply stressful. It’s what makes life around here so interesting!

He is very perceptive and can take in a lot of detail, but one of the reasons he often has difficulty concentrating is that he doesn’t know how to filter all this input. He sees it all equally. He attends to it all. It could very well be that he was absorbing Kadin’s mood because he didn’t know how to shield or filter. Seeing it this way made me less angry. He doesn’t yet realize he can choose which moods to pay attention to. I was excited about this new approach so talked with him a while about how, whether he knew it or not, he could choose which moods to absorb. It’s something I myself have only recently been experimenting with. What power! What potential!

Of course, he poo-pooed it all and didn’t share my enthusiasm. And, as we were engrossed in the conversation, we forgot to wait for Greg and Kadin at a critical fork and didn’t realize they didn’t know where to go until much later… But, as with a lot of parenting, it is mostly planting the seed. And then just as his mood was lifting and we were reaching our beautiful, climactic destination, we realized our mistake at the fork. Oh calamity! Confusion! We'd arrived, but we're torn. Should we stay or should we go back? Will we ever find them? This could take hours... As we're debating, who do we see coming up the path? Greg and Kadin! They found it! There’s hope!

Friday, March 06, 2009

Serial remodeler (sometime in 2007, about a year after our remodel was finished)

I want to do another remodel. I miss the whole creative process and project.

I dreamt about redoing a gazebo I found in the backyard. How come I had never noticed it there before?

Dark wood. 159 years old?

Lots of ideas. Lots of fun planning. The architect and I bounce ideas off each other.

Lots of nice old wood and thoughts about how to reuse it.

Then the cost: $150,000. The dream dies.

Then I dreamt about a perfect apartment where we had everything done and painted just so. It was the perfect location. For some reason we moved out. Too small? But it was perfect. Visited the person who had moved in and envied how perfect they had it. They just needed to order one more piece of furniture for the west wall, then it would be truly done.

Another friend (Anushe?) had bought the lot next door and planned to build a house there. It seemed the perfect plan. But instead she was going to sell it and move elsewhere. Why?

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Caribbean color

It's that time of year when we could all use a little more color. Here's a photo collage from our Caribbean trip, the first days of 2007:

Friday, February 20, 2009

Cruise Diary II: on the ship (don’t say “boat”!)

(First days of 2007)

About the ship, I don’t have as much to say, except that it was just great. Really, really nice. Everything was easy and accommodating. We were treated like royalty. We lived in luxury. We have many food options available 24hrs a day. It was so perfect I have little to report. One nice thing was that the crew was incredibly international. From just about every country you could name. They were young and seemed ambitious. They worked hard, but it seemed that they could really use this job as a stepping stone to see the world, meet others from all over the world, and get paid a decent wage. It felt like a giant melting pot with all these 20-somethings from so many countries. It felt like it really could contribute to more international harmony in it’s own small, grass-roots way.

One day, while eating at a window by myself in one of the dining rooms I hear the person next to me say:

“The ocean has a very unique beauty. Very, very beautiful.”

Is he talking to me?

“You could really loose yourself out here.”

He is talking to me. It seems so poetic and clich├ęd. Is this a pick up line? Just to be social, I nod, or acknowledge agreement in some way. He continues:

“There are no skyscrapers or landmarks. So it is hard to get oriented.”

Okay, so we’re being very literal. I point out some flying fish, my contribution to the beauty of the scene.

"I bet they taste good," he says.

Okay, so very, very literal.

This guy is in his twenties, and I’m beginning to understand that he is developmentally delayed. The cruise is a perfect place for a vacation for someone with disabilities. It is easy and safe with lots to see and do, all nearby. It can easily accommodate our large group with diverse ages (ranging from 2 to 84), interests, and abilities. The kids are happy, the teenagers are happy, the senior citizens are happy, the baby is happy, I am happy.

So I ask this guy next to me how many cruises he had been on. Six or so, it seems. Perfect for him and his family. Then he tells me that the big event that he is looking forward to is the upcoming release of the Transformers movie. He asks if I like the Transformers. It’s not that I don’t like the Transformers, but to be honest, I tell him that I have difficulty making sense of them, that I haven’t really paid attention. Well, he is going to help me with that. So he explains the backstory to his long-held interest. There are the Autobots who are good and the Deceptron who are bad. The Deceptron are trying to get the Autobots’ resources, their oil and energy sources. There is something about worlds colliding and getting caught in suspended animation for 1000 years. It’s definitely an insight into a new world for me!

Another night, we stay up to see some of the onboard entertainment. It is a sort of Broadway Musical smorgasbord/medley of songs. It was so serious and so intently done, that it was almost comedic. Felicity asked if one of the songs was from Spinal Tap. If only! But no, I'm afraid "sex bomb" was deadly serious.

Did help me to appreciate Queen more, though.

Small island, very Caribbean looking. Brightly colored side gallery houses. Poor too. Almost desperate seeming. Ursula got us two cabs to airport for our rented car. Aeropuerto is closed. No rental cars available anywhere. Avis is quiet. Not a soul. Ursula bargains and bargains with taxi drivers arranges for them to take us to beach and back for $40 per car. We do this.

Take a drive around the island. See lots of desperate poverty. Cabinetmakers too. The people were not starving, but their dogs were. A small island, very rocky and hilly, with little room for cultivation. What do you do? Where do things come from? Where do they go? That is probably why they invested in the huge Cruise Ship dock. An influx of money from outside. Corruption? Desperation. Beautiful beaches. Pollution. How do they survive?

Nice black and white pottery from Honduras. Looks very fragile. Take only pictures.

Costa Maya
I like the newspapers they used to wrap up the stuff. I like the bent wire frames covered with colorful plastic tubing that they used to display their T-shirts and dresses, I like the colorful and striped plastic bags they put purchases in. All the stuff, the mall feeling, I am less into.

Belize City
Belize City is actually a city and I am reminded that in this part of the world that means crowded living conditions and, in former British colonies, open sewers. My big find is the hardware store Simon Quan and Co., "You name it, we have it!" and a good selection of tablecloth material. Buy that and dustpan and rags. Cool. But know I am a wimp and that that is about all the cultural immersion I can handle. Return to tourist area tout suite.

People friendly, no hostility here.

Much more development here, but still a lot of shabby (i.e. real) underside. The bluest water ever. So beautiful. Visit a church, a supermarket, a bookstore, and Los Cinco Soles.

All these places are great to visit, but they also make me so happy to live where I do. Great for the kids to see other places, though, even in this highly artificial way.

My skin is doing its tropics thing. Yuk.

Sad there are only two more days on the ship…

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Cruise diary I: getting to the boat (last days of 2006)

We change our flight to avoid the coming blizzard. Really don’t want to miss the boat (a wonderful family trip that is a gift from Greg's father)! Rushing to get everything done 24hrs earlier than planned. Tension over "list" and what needs to get done. Table Mesa park-and-ride is full. We drive on to Broomfield park-and-ride. Hope our car won't be buried when we get back! Arrive at airport many, many hours in advance. Hang out near shops. Buy jibbitz, see Crocs boots and "hiking boots." Eat sandwiches. Was pleased to use up most of the perishables in fridge in sandwiches.

Kids enjoy playing on escalators and moving sidewalks. Board flight without incident. Flight takes off just as flakes begin to fall…

Tampa airport area
Baggage claim 12 at Tampa airport. I call La Quinta and they say to go to the door labeled Red One and catch a white van with lettering on the side that says The Blue One. We did. Watched the weather channel to see shots of Denver's blizzard. Walk across the “street” (read: huge, pedestrian-unfriendly, complicated, multi-lane intersection) to the "International Plaza." Rees says, "I hate plazas, I hate everything about them." Discovered the field we thought we were walking through turned into a lake. It was warm. The grass was green. I remember: we're in Florida. Hmmm. Might there be alligators in the water? Sure enough, we stumble across a sign: Warning, alligators may be present. Yes, we're not in Colorado anymore…

Find a food court. Kids are starving. I had eaten the last sandwich while waiting for the shuttle. Rees eats two 6" Subway sandwiches. Kadin eats his own sandwich then half of Greg's teriyaki chicken and sesame green beans.

Sleep well. Wake to have the hotel breakfast (avoiding some of the scary stuff and having a hard boiled egg, a banana, and an orange, which last me pretty well). Then back to the mall for haircuts and some sort of herbal concoction to stave off the cold Greg thinks he's getting. His plan: to work for the day at Starbucks. My plan: to amuse myself and the kids for the day. While waiting for the haircut place to open, we surf the web and find our originally scheduled plane had been canceled due to the storm. Phew! We are warm and happy, only a few miles from the boat that departs tomorrow. I look for info on public buses online. Find one site that says: the only people who take public transport in Tampa are those who have no choice. Hmmm.

Can't find an easy way to the Dali Museum across the bay in St. Petersburg, so instead, take the bus into town. We do okay, and even though the bus comes only once every half an hour, we only need to wait ten or fifteen minutes. I ask a girl who came to wait at the stop how much the bus costs. She snarls at me, almost like she couldn't believe I wasn't abusing her. I ask again, and she answers guardedly. It was clear she didn't want to talk to me or to any stranger.

We get a similarly harsh response from the driver and then we find out that for the kids to get the kid’s rate, they need ID. Kids? ID? And I just took their passports out of my purse this morning… So whatever, I pay the full rate for all of us and buy three day passes so we can take public transit at will. A man on the bus sees that we are here for the day and suggests that once we get into town, we take a trolley to Ybor city and walk around. That sounds like it would be suitably fun for the day. We transfer at the next mall to get the bus downtown.

We pass fast food restaurants and bail bond places and other marginal establishments. There is something called "The People's Church" where a bunch of people get on. Another guy asks some other passengers how to get to the Salvation Army. Then he launches into his story of his DUI conviction and how he had only had one beer. Everyone at the football game was drinking. Yes, he had refused the breathalyzer test, but that was because cops made him nervous and he didn't want to do what they said. He said it was about $700 to get his car back. Other passengers contributed their opinions, for example, that DUI was serious. That that was bad. Another woman, who I think got on at the church, told the guy that the only way for him to kick his addiction was through love of Jesus. Yes, that was the only way.

Downtown Tampa turns out to be a typical downtown: skyscrapers, office workers, luncheon places. I could see there was not going to be much to interest the kids. So we find one of the yellow trolleys and inquire. As luck (not) would have it, this particular trolley (there are 3 trolley lines and 1 streetcar line that are separate from the busses) was the “Hooters Express,” a free service from downtown to Hooters at lunchtime. Hooters in Tampa was just about the last place I wanted to go, but it was free. I perused the trolley brochure on board, and discovered that there were other places to eat near Hooters as it was in a complex called the Channelside development.

Channelside was near the aquarium and the pier our boat would leave from AND the streetcar that went to Ybor City. In the end, it seemed a fine place to go.

When we got to Channelside, it was past lunchtime. I had promised the boys we could eat at McDs or Burger King and amazingly, though we had passed several on the bus, we could find not a one anywhere near downtown Tampa. A good thing, really, but at this moment, for once, I wouldn't have minded.

We settled instead for a large, noisy Bennigan's. The food was not any better than McD's but about twice as expensive. The up side was that we got to sit with a nice view of the harbor and the docks.

After Bennigans, I thought we'd take the streetcar into Ybor City, have an ice cream, then return to the hotel. The kids had had enough and wanted to go back to the hotel right away. I was still thinking it was time to find IT, the cool part of Tampa. But even ice cream would not sway them. Just before we hopped back on the Hooters shuttle (ughh!) Kadin got a blister and stopped being able to walk. I remembered a CVS near the bus stop. We bought bandaids and sunscreen and waited for the bus back.

Some more interesting characters were in the park waiting for the bus. The wait this time was longer. The highlight came when we discovered there are tons of lizards in Florida, running in the grass, the bushes, and up trees. Salvation!

A person who wore a shirt with a restaurant logo—The Office—and JESUS tattooed on his arm was also waiting for the bus. He told me when he thought it would come. A couple walked by in full Penn State regalia and she even had blue and white painted fingernails. It was then I began to realize something was truly up, there didn't just happen to be more than a few Penn State fans in Tampa. The guy at the bus stop told me they were playing Tennessee that weekend in the Outback Bowl in town.

Ride back was relatively uneventful. One bus this time.

Get back to find note from Greg that he is at mall (plaza) with EET LT DST J and E. Wow! They're all here already!

I try to nap to Cartoon Network. Jack comes by. We go swimming. Greg comes back. We plan transportation to the ship the next day. We hear that Fe and Dan got on a plane from Denver to Chicago. It is good, but getting late. Where to eat? I check out the hole in the fence at the back of the hotel. Ruth Chris Steakhouse on the other side of hole looks formal and pricey. Figuring we'll have plenty of good food and fancy meals on the boat, we decide instead on a light meal ordered in from a local Italian place.

Next morning, Saturday, I had read about an open market in Ybor City. I want to try again. It is not far from the pier where the boat departs. I decide to go on my own and meet Greg and the boys at the pier.

Saturday, the buses only come once an hour. I walk from stop to stop, thinking I'd rather be walking than waiting. I hear the Penn State (or maybe Tennessee) marching band playing in a nearby hotel parking lot. I finally get to a bus stop that has a schedule and find that the next bus doesn't come for almost twenty minutes. When the time gets near, I find a stop and wait. As has been typical, a couple people show up just as the bus is supposed to arrive. This guy and his friend (brother?) are very drunk and suntanned/burned. It is only 11am. They ask me what time the bus comes and where it goes in town. I tell them they are lucky as the bus only comes once an hour and they hit it right on. I tell them it doesn't go to gaslight park in this direction because Kennedy is one-way there, but they could get off just across the bridge into town at Ashley. It's almost as if I really know what I am talking about. They are really out of it. I am counting the minutes until the bus comes. They keep talking about how stupid they are. Sad as it is, I have to agree (silently). One shows me his scar from the first Gulf War. He had been in the Marines. They seem so rudderless.

We get on the bus and after a little bit, it again stops near the People's Church, or Church of the People or some such. One of the women who gets on looks weather beaten but also strangely young and beautiful. She says hello to the guys from the bus stop. I gather that they recognize each other from where they were all sleeping at some underpass. "I had to leave when you guys started drinking" I hear her say. One of the guys says something about how, yes, he does recognize her and she had lent him two dollars. She starts talking about Jesus and how she was on the straight and narrow path now. It is all very interesting.

I get off the bus in town to transfer to the streetcar. Not sure it is faster, but it is more scenic and it runs just as often on Saturday. The streetcar is not part of the regular bus system, but much more tourist oriented.

Ybor City has some charm and the architecture is more interesting, but it doesn’t feel alive. It feels like a smaller, less happening version of the French Quarter. I think what bugs me about Tampa is that nothing seems really genuine. Things that are “nice” are sort of done up and revamped and “revitalized,” but there doesn’t seem to be any deep roots, any heart. Ybor city comes close, but it seems a has-been and it too had an attempted “restoration.” The Iguana bar was the one place that looked traditional and genuine. It had a bunch of oversized bikers out front in serious leather.

I meet up with everyone (including Dan and Fe who made it out of Denver!) at the pier and we “check in” in a massive hall, get our boat IDs, have our passports checked, and walk the long gangway to the gigantic cruise ship. We made it and all 17 of us are together. So glad we didn't miss the boat.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Wind and marshmallows

(Early Summer, 2005, 4 years ago)

Kadin, who is usually very calm and stable and seems to have a sort of steady, internal rudder, is irrationally afraid of the wind. I say irrationally, because he is afraid that "everything" is going to blow away. And the more you reassure him and tell him calmly not to worry about it, the more he thinks he has to take on all the responsibility and worry about it for everyone.

If there is a piece of garbage that is about to blow away, he just has to run after it and retrieve it and put it in the garbage. And cleaning up litter is admirable, not something I really want to discourage, but we (that would be myself and a screaming, terrified child) have cleaned up the school playground several times now. Why does it always seem especially windy on Fridays when the teachers send home all the papers? And he will run out of the house, terrified, to catch flying plastic bags and such. I do not know how to save him from this internal burden he carries to keep things from blowing away. I have tried talking to him about the wind as the earth’s way of breathing. How is it refreshing and freeing. How it will come and it will go. How the wind helps birds soar and dandelion seeds disperse. And even if garbage does blow away, it may not be pretty, but it is really not that much of a tragedy. But he is clearly unconvinced of it’s positive merits.

And so when he came running home the other night terrified and in tears and it wasn't windy, I wondered what was up. He had gone over to the neighbors’ with Rees to make s'mores. S'mores are one of those American things that my kids have yet to be exposed to.

These are the same neighbors who reported back to me that Kadin refused an Oreo. They thought he was deprived. Okay, so I don't buy Oreos, but I could use the excuse that they don't have them in England. Then, when they mentioned that these were orange and black Halloween Oreos, it all sort of made sense. I mean, if they looked like poison and all... So when the kids had asked if they could make s’mores, I said sure!

I find s'mores sickeningly sweet and messy and always not quite perfect. But they bring back fond memories. Not just of camps and campfires. When we first moved to England some friends sent us a care package for the Fourth of July. It had silly stars-and-stripes hats, graham crackers, hershey bars, and marshmallows. We dutifully indulged. S'mores are cozy and comfy and silly and half the fun of them is that they don’t really make sense.

So when Kadin came running home, crying and terrified, I couldn’t think what the problem was. "Mom!" he cried through red and angry eyes, "they're taking marshmallows and…putting them in the fire!" As far as he was concerned this was just a horrifying thing to do. These gentle white fluffy balls and you stick them in an inferno! Injustice! So I went over to see what all the fuss was about. Sure enough, there were all these little devils sitting around a gas fire, blithely roasting innocent marshmallows and in the process waving flames around. They were actually HAVING A GOOD TIME! The nerve! Kadin was beside himself with vigilance. A little four-year-old alerting people to overly-brown marshmallows and commenting on and redirecting every wayward flame. Once again, it seemed it was his burden and his burden alone to police the event. Everyone else was so calm and relaxed! Insanity! He would have to redouble his efforts to keep the world safe and orderly. Poor, poor marshmallows...

It took some doing, but eventually, when his head wasn’t buried under my arm, he started to relax a little. [Many a campout later, I can report that he is now able to see the fun in s’mores. It took a bit longer (like several years) for him to finally come to terms with his wind phobia, but what a relief that’s been!]

Monday, February 16, 2009

Making do and the underdog (2006)

Wanted to share two small houses from our trip last summer (now almost three summers ago, 2006!) to Norway. The red one is a 20th century house from a small village that is now in one of Norway's outdoor museums. The yellow one is the guardhouse at the palace. I like them both. Which one is more authentic? Which one is more classic? Which house is more artistic? Which house deserves more attention? Which house is more alive? Which house should be preserved? Okay, enough with the art history questions that I ALWAYS get wrong! For some reason, I think I am supposed to like the yellow house more. I think it would be called the "better" house. The yellow one was likely designed and built by professionals and, this being part of the palace, money was not a major limiting factor. The red one was probably designed and built with limited funds by the self-taught. The yellow one is well-maintained, the red one is not. I would guess that both buildings were probably built around the same time. Both are charming, but I am in love with the little red one. I will choose folk over elegant every time. Why? I love that the red house is so funky and expressive and built with love on limited resources. I love it's faded color. It has a story to tell. It has personality.

On our more recent trip to the Caribbean, there was all this hype and publicity about shopping, and where to buy the best diamonds and tanzanite and how to collect fine art. This did not appeal to me at all. When I ventured out to the tourist shopping areas I liked the newspapers they used to wrap up the stuff. I liked the bent wire frames covered with colorful plastic tubing they used to display their T-shirts and dresses. I liked the colorful and striped plastic bags that they put purchases in. And I realized that I liked the "make do" stuff, the creative ways that people used what they had on hand. To me, that was where the life was. I enjoyed most my trip to the supermarket in Cozumel, the bookstore, the little shrines in the church we happened upon. I loved the cheap variety store in Belize City with the motto, "You name it, we sell it!" That was where I bought bright cleaning rags, a red tin dustpan, and tacky vinyl oil cloth printed with red and green fruit and gingham. No diamonds for me, please. Forget the palace. I like whittled wood and brightly painted houses, country music, and wine in a tin cup. I am rooting for the underdog. For whatever reason, I am happiest when I am making do. When things are too easy, something vital is lost.

Monday, February 09, 2009


(From probably about two years ago…)

One of Rees' friends gave him a handheld Tetris game for his birthday. I have co-opted it and am a bit addicted. Again (after a serious addiction in the '80s). I don't know what it is I love about the game but there is something so elegant about the five kinds of shapes that are made of four squares and trying to fit them together in the most efficient way. Efficiency, I love it! (See post Open, press, scoop, stir for more on this topic.) Or maybe it is addicting because the way the game is set up: you go along fine for a long time and then at the end usually everything goes haywire all of a sudden, so of course you have to try again. I don't know what the best strategy is, but I do have some thoughts about the game I'd like to share. Actually, I have specific feelings about each piece and specific purposes for each one. This is just a tad too nerdly to share face to face, but that is why this blog is so freeing.

The line
This has just got to be everybody’s favorite piece. Made of four squares in a line, there is never a time when you can't fit it anywhere. It will almost always be used vertically to fill in a hole, but I see it as a good sign when I can use it horizontally and I’m not desperate to use it to fill a hole. In fact, I try not to have too many deep holes to fill while waiting for those all-too-rare lines. Prevention is better than cure. Avoid the deep pits. Opportunities are made this way. If you depend on the line, you will be forsaken. But if you do fill a pit with one, it is the only shape that can get you four lines in one fell swoop. That sure feels good.

In games where you try to complete as many lines as possible in two minutes, it is definitely a waste to use the line vertically. In these games, I strive to keep things low and horizontal.

The T
To me, this is the next most friendly shape. It is bilaterally symmetrical and has one friendly square coming off of three sides. The final side is nice and flat and three squares wide. You can almost always find a nice place to slot in your T. If you don't have any steps, then you likely have nice flat space where three in a row will fit nicely. Symmetry, simple steps, a nice broad flat side, these are good qualities in a shape.

The Z's
The Z's can be a really friendly shape. Their good quality is that they also have just one square jutting out so usually there is an easy fit. But there are two bad qualities to the Z's. First, they are not symmetrical, so there are two different Z's. Because there are two, it is sometimes difficult to determine that a Z will fit and you don't always get the Z you need. The second difficult aspect of Z's is that they have no flat side. If you don't have any steps to sit them on, then you are forced to leave a gap. This is not usually a big crisis, but it can be frustrating.

I have found a really good use for Z's, though, and that is in helping to fill in the deep holes. I used to try to wait for a line, or barring that, use the long side of an L, but it turns out that Z's are even better. If you use an L to fill in a deep hole, its cap will almost always be left on top, blocking the gaps underneath. But, if the rest of your game is “tight” (no gaps), and you can put a Z into a deep hole, only the bottom half needs to disappear to keep the gaps below exposed. If you do this, your hole gets shorter, doesn’t get capped, and stays open so it can still be filled or “Z-ed” down to oblivion.

The L
The L I find slightly annoying. Like the Z’s, there are two different versions, which can be confusing and frustrating. Also, it has this long tail that can be great for filling in shallow holes, but can also really get in the way. Still, it does have a nice, short, flat side that’s two square wide, and a longer flat side three squares wide. These can be used to bridge gaps to complete a line, especially if the nose/tail does not get in the way and block gaps underneath. Also, the little nose is a nice one step that can often fit into spaces on flat surfaces. But when I have trouble is when the L's just keep coming. It can be hard to find place after place for an L. It has its purpose, but is best in small quantities. Not as friendly as the line, the T, or even the Z’s.

The box
The box is a tight little bundle of four squares, completely symmetrical all around. It is easy to comprehend and easy to place, if you have a place for it, that is. When you do have a double space, it is a great way to fill it in quickly and compactly, but if you don't have a double space, only steps, it can be trouble. It can also be a real problem when one box comes quickly after another. The temptation then is to build the dreaded tower. So, it is good to keep a double space ready at all times for the box. You will be glad you did and you will be able to quickly fill it in when the box arrives.

So here are some of my key strategies:

1) Don't create deep holes. Two squares is plenty deep.

2) If you do get a deep hole, try to fill it in with a shape that will disappear immediately, even if it doesn't completely fill the hole. This beats waiting for a line.

3) Leave a double-wide space whenever possible. This keeps your options open.

4) Don't build towers. This limits your options.

5) Don't panic.

While I prefer to have a “tight” pattern with few holes, I am currently investigating ways to use pieces to complete lines even when they leave a gap. It is often a better investment to have the piece disappear in a completed line and be rid of it than to fit it in somewhere that has no gaps but leaves a tower or a hole. I am trying to get out of my compulsion to “fit.”

If you found this readable (and perhaps even interesting) and have thoughts/strategies of your own to share, let me know, I am all ears! What is your favorite Tetris piece? What is your best Tetris strategy???? Together, we are stronger...