Monday, January 31, 2011

Party Pooped

I sweat the details. More precisely, I sweat completely arbitrary details. The most recent example of honing in on the most inconsequential of particulars, while ignoring the bigger picture, occurred quite recently. It was my daughter's birthday party. Not her actual birthday, mind you. That had occurred weeks before. Though this year not as many weeks before as last year. Let me explain: My daughter's birthday is in January. January is after December. December is the month where my control freaking revs into high gear. I have concocted an extremely intricate system for selecting, wrapping and distributing holiday gifts. It is, in fact, so complicated that I cannot even explain it to my husband. Microsoft has yet to develop software that could come close to depicting the gift-giving flow chart I keep track of in my head. For much of the month of December, if my husband slips and forgets to refer to Santa, I shoot him glares across the table meant to change the subject. This year I was off my game for several hours and inadvertently wrapped one set of personalized gifts in the "Santa" wrapping paper, and another set in the "Mommy and Daddy gift" wrapping paper. Boy, was I nervous wreck Christmas morning hoping no one was the wiser for this gaffe. Fortunately, part of my complete obsessiveness means that I am very thorough in covering all my children's gift needs (and even some wants), so there are ample presents for them to unwrap. Truthfully, I think one would have to be a veteran police detective to find a hole in my system.

From August until mid December, I am squirreling away presents, packages, wrapping paper. I skulk around to ensure that there is not even a suspicion by anyone under 40 that this is being done. I buy and return items several times over. I compare prices and features, even once the item has already been purchased  and socked away. There is no "final sale" for me. Even if I find an imagined fault with an item (the box is ripped, the stuffed unicorn's right eye is slightly askew), and the receipt has been long lost, the item will be readied for charity donation or, most likely, stuck in a bag at the bottom of the closet until we next move.

After months of meticulous planning, by mid December I am Done. And I don't mean done with shopping and planning, I mean I am physically and emotionally spent. By the time Christmas morning comes around, I am ready to huddle in the corner in a fetal position until next year. And with my son's and husband's spring birthdays, I used to have a good three months to recuperate. By mid-March, I was ready to shop and plan parties again. And since I am such an over-shopper, I usually had piles of extra ungiven presents from Christmas that were ready to present for birthdays. The flow from holiday to holiday was just about perfect.

However, with the arrival of my daughter in January 2006, the natural ebb and flow of my holiday planning got all out of whack. Now I had pressure to keep the adrenaline of the holiday celebrations going through the next month. My son's birthday weekend often coincides with Easter or Passover, so I learned early on to let my party perfectionism go a little and not feel compelled to throw his parties on the weekend that was mathematically closest to the date of his actual birthday. Trust me, this took some soul searching. The bigger problem with my son was that, purely by chance (or so I like to think), he ended up being sick for something like the first four out of seven birthday parties. Pink eye caught from a neighbor child, stomach flu, fever. By the second incident, we learned to just prop him up and encourage him not to eat or drink until after the guests left. There are only so many times one can reschedule a party, especially when the enormous $75 custom cake has already been purchased and picked up and sitting on the kitchen counter.

The thought of having to decide on a party venue and theme in advance of my daughter's January birthday was just too overwhelming to deal with. In order to be ready to send the evites out in time for her mid-January birthday, I would have to have made all the major decisions by mid-December, when my attentions are focused elsewhere. Because the invitation process alone is a multistep one that requires spreadsheets and follow-up. Evites go out approximately one month before the event. If another child in the class has a birthday in the same month, either coordinating discussions need to be had to ensure the parties are not on the same day, or you have to be quick enough with your evites to trump the other party. However, with the abundance of spam and the distractibility of parents, there is no sure-fire way to know if parents received the evite or are ignoring the email. So follow-up emails, from my familiar email address, go out, under the auspices of "updating" some information, or out of concern that the evite system might have malfunctioned. Then hard copies of the invitation need to be left in preschool cubbies, positioned in a way where they cannot be missed by parents, but also not made into paper airplanes by children. Finally, there is no choice but to hover at preschool pick-up and hope for a chance encounter with the last few parents. By the way, I also have a full-time job.

In order to plan for a party within a reasonable window of my daughter's actual birthday, I would have to overcome both my emotional burnout and the possibility that parents, in mid-December, might not yet have their new calendar in order to post the date of my daughter's party. So I pick a date where I can be fairly certain some semblance of my pre-holiday functioning will have returned. That date tends to be so far after my daughter's actual birthday it has even stretched into the next month. Each year my poor daughter struggles to understand why it takes so long to turn the next age. Last year, she refused to acknowledge she was four until after her actual party (three weeks later). This year, she knew when she turned five, but after so much time had passed (12 days) until her actual party, she told some parents at the party that she thought she was turning six that day.

Each year, there is at least one completely inconsequential issue that I harp on. In past years, this detail has included hours of searching to find 3-inch Backyardigan figurines, rather than 5-inch; a blue Power Ranger pinata that had the most up-to-date emblem on its chest; and princess napkins that featured Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty more prominently than Ariel and Jasmine. This year, it was personalized coloring books. As a parting gift, each invited child received a coloring book with his or her name featured on it. And these books were not ordered on a whim. I clicked and re-clicked on sample books and studied the pages to determine which coloring books were age-appropriate. I cannot tell you how long I spent on the coloring book company's website deliberating over which kid should get the "fairy" book versus the "princess" book. When the cheerful books arrived, I bemoaned the fact that the font on the fairy coloring books was not as readable as it had appeared on the website. I considered it a personal victory over my obsessiveness that I did not send back the fairy books with a description of how the company could alter its fairy font. After the party, each child received a coloring book and a push out the door. I only worried for a minute that siblings of kids whose parents did not even RSVP seemed to expect a personalized book (hey, these were ordered weeks in advance). One child was crying as she left, but I attributed that to the post-party energy crash. The next day, however, with no prompting at all, the same girl informed me that she had been crying because she had wanted a princess book, not the fairy one that she had received. That was, as they say, Too Much Information. I had actually gone back and forth several dozen times on whether to get this particular girl a fairy or princess book (she swings both ways), and obviously made the wrong choice. Darn! I debated taking her aside and showing her the Excel coloring book choice lists, cross referenced with the evite replies. But I didn't. Because I couldn't remember where I had put them.

Alas, biggest downside of having my daughter's party so long after her actual birthday is it gives me less time to plan my son's birthday party. Sixty days and counting....

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Six Stitches in Time Save a Digit

My husband makes a great paella. He has a recipe from the Wall Street Journal and even has a special paella pan. I got the pan for him for the holidays. For $40, it is a flimsy piece of aluminum with no useful handle that is impossible to clean, but it seems to do the trick. He goes to Whole Foods and buys all the ingredients the day he makes it, even if we already have the ingredients at home. And there are many ingredients. My only role in the paella-making process is to puree three ingredients: parsley, garlic and almonds. Seems like a pretty good deal in exchange for several helpings of the final dish.

Along with the special paella pan, I also got my husband a hand blender for the holidays. He is not as big a fan of gadgets as I am, but likes them in theory. The espresso maker from Christmas 2009 remains in pristine condition, as does the iPod touch he got when he bought a MacBook. Although I sensed he wouldn't use the blender, I knew it would help me fulfill my paella sous chef duty. My previous attempts at pureeing the three magic ingredients proved to be cumbersome in the regular blender, so the hand-held food processor was part of a package deal with the paella pan.

So, you can imagine my excitement on a recent Sunday when my husband had all the paella ingredients laid out on the kitchen counter and I knew my opportunity to use the shiny, red vintagey-looking hand blender was just moments away. Mind you, I had broken in the lovely appliance on a banana smoothie, and marveled as it pummeled and liquified the fruit with just a few hits of the blender. So, as soon as my husband had the trio of ingredients in the mixing bowl, prepared to be technologically pulverized by the Cuisinart goodie, I was ready.

Now, pureeing three dry ingredients is not as easy it as it sounds. And mixing a small amount of items can also be a bit tricky, since most of the ingredients end up stuck in the blender. So I blended and added droplets of liquid to the puree to get it to just the right consistency. I was so pleased with the progress of the puree that I did one final swipe of the appliance to get every last atom of parsley-garlic-almond paste from the blade with my left index finger. And simultaneously pressed the power button with my right index finger. Whoops.

"Mommy has a boo boo," I called to the next room to give a head's up to any minors in the house who might wander into the kitchen and be alarmed by the sight of blood spurting from their parent's limb. Good thing those Bounty paper towels are as absorbent as the ads claim (truth in advertising--who knew?), because I am descended from a medical family, which means we have no first aid supplies of any kind in the house. But I buy paper towels by the case at Target, so I was set.

"You know, this might need a stitch or two," I told my husband, who had not witnessed the incident. He offered to pack the kids in the car and go, en famille, to the ER about a mile away. Even though my left index finger is, literally, my driving finger, I figured I could make do steering with an alternate digit, and was thinking that a stint in the ER with my texting fingers intact might not be all bad, as long as my Blackberry was juiced up.

So I declined the offer and drove over to our local hospital. The hospital looks more like an enormous, modern condominium campus than a place where medical manipulations occur. The Emergency Room entrance is off a side street, sort of like if you were driving to the building that houses the Community Room at a Senior Citizens' complex. There is even valet parking. The fact that I rarely carry cash and ER valets don't tend to take credit cards was an issue that would consume me for most of my four-hour ER wait. Wading deep into a bottomless purse with a bloody hand, looking for six wadded-up ones is more of a challenge that you might think. After only coming up with five, I considered asking the woman next to me for a loaner one, but she was shivering and had her head wrapped in gauze, so I continued feeling around for some coins.

Of course, a trip to the ER means a stack of the requisite official documents to fill out. I am a stickler for filling out such forms, but tend to vascillate between providing too much and not enough information. I was given a middle name at birth, but do not use it on official forms, which I'm sure confuses both the IRS and the State Department. I will provide an estimated weight and hair color on a whim. When it comes to providing emergency information, I have been known to go into far too much detail explaining "relation to subject," but think that a future employer might be interested in the fact that in an emergency they can contact the trusted neighbor down the street because of the time she picked up our mail when we were on vacation. I try to limit the snarky comments I make on official forms, although I do not regret a cheeky post-script (on the check) I included with the payment for a traffic ticket I did not deserve. So when I came to a section of the intake form that sought a yes/no response to "Advanced Care Directive," I was truly stumped. I believe in nuance, and do not do well with either-or questions. And there weren't any hyphens or colons to give me a little more clarity. What was I being asked to yea-or-nay? Did I want care in advance of my infirmity? Did I want it directed, rather than implied? Did I want care or to be ignored? I was going to make some notes in the form's margins to explain my dilemma in answering this prompt, but I was distracted by the flashing of my Blackberry and lost interest.

Even though I could tell I was low-sickie-on-the-totem-pole and that it would be a long wait, I was still reluctant to go to the bathroom or step away in case my name were called. That meant a long four hours of sitting on a hard plastic chair, dodging uncovered flu-laden coughs, and grimacing as ambulatory children ran amok as large families descended upon the ER for an apparent Sunday family outing. One women gossiped with a relative as she attempted to clean and/or dislodge something from her daughter's ear. Every time she sent the girl back to the reception desk for more alcohol pads, the on-duty nurse had to re-screen the mother to ensure the swab was not mean to treat the illness that was awaiting ER attention. Half a soccer team came in to support a fallen teammate's ankle injury. A husband and wife arrived after an outing to the Huntington Library and Gardens, their membership stickers still affixed to their shirts. According to their loud conversation, the wife was diabetic. To amuse herself during the wait, she had brought along a book of Chinese Proverbs, apparently selected at the Huntington's gift shop prior to dropping by the ER. The pair sat in different areas of the waiting room and had a protracted debate over the very same Advanced Care Directive question that I had pondered. After surveying the crowd, the wife remembered she had a granola bar in the car that would even out her blood sugar, and they left.

When my name was called to be screened, the nurse asked me to rate my level of pain on a scale of 1 to 10. While this query gave me more wiggle room than the Advanced Care Directive one, it still required some thought. I asked the poor nurse to clarify the question, for example, what context should I consider before I provided an answer? The pain did not compare to labor for Child #1 (whose arrival did not coincide with the epidural as well as I had hoped), but the pain for Birth #2 was not as bad as I had anticipated. Perhaps I had developed a higher threshold for pain? Perhaps I was better able to cope with discomfort? I was clearly getting off topic. The nurse explained that I should rate the current pain I was in from 1 to 10. Even without an historical context, I felt compelled to offer the disclaimer that since I do appear to have a high tolerance for pain, I would probably rate the level of discomfort lower than someone else would, but by rating it lower, I also increase my chances of having to wait longer to be seen. Just because I might react less than someone else to my injury does not mean that the level of injury is any less than it would be for someone else. The nurse wearily looked at me and awaited my answer. Six, I said. He sent me back to the waiting room, telling me if the blood soaked the bandage I had, to let him know and he would provide me with a clean one.

Somewhere betwen hours three and four, I was escorted through numerous double doors to be seen. I shared the finger-in-the-Cuisinart story several more times, and was asked to remove my sticky bandage myself. I was given several shots to numb my finger, with a warning that the shots would hurt. And yes they did. The number of stitches needed (6) to close the wound on my digit was not only the very same digit (6) that I had cited to describe my level of distress, but also the number of dollars (6) needed to retrieve my car from the valet.

When I got home, warm paella and wine were waiting for me.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

All Politics is Loco

I love politics. Being a competitive, statistics-loving person who mocks egregiously misinformed statements and ridicules abject displays of idiocy, what's not to like? My husband is also a fan of the political process, so it used to be that every two years (don't forget mid-term elections) we would have a bevy of things to talk about. We lived in Washington, DC, at the time, to make it even more fun. Early into our marriage, Newt and Monica made their dramatic cameo appearances, and life--and small-talk--has never been the same.

We now live in Los Angeles, but never warmed up to the actor-celebrity thing. Recently, Matt Damon and Scarlett Johansson were filming a movie not 50 yards from our house. We liked this very much, not because Matt and Scarlett were roaming the street, but because a perk of living in Los Angeles is that the studios pay homeowners handsomely whenever filming is done in your neighborhood. I think it is to compensate for any parking spaces the studio trucks take up, but I secretly suspect it is to pay off residents so they don't complain if a production flunkie accidentally flicks a cigarette butt on a street corner and it isn't cleaned up within the limits of the five-second rule.

Although I am indifferent to brushes with movie folk, I will admit to breathlessly calling my husband after a chance encounter with the late Howard Metzenbaum (D-Ohio) outside of our place in Washington in the late 1990s. And years later, when Carl Levin (D-Michigan) gave my six-year-old son the evil eye when my son sneezed in the US Senate elevator, I was beside myself with excitement. Maybe Levin will describe the incident on the floor of the Senate and introduce some anti-snot legislation, and my son will be immortalized in the Senatorial record!

My enthrallment with political figures wasn't always so ardent. As a baby, I apparently met then-Massachusetts-Governor Francis W. Sargent at a lobster restaurant on Cape Cod, but I am guessing the oyster crackers received more of my attention than the politician. In 1980, after the US Olympic Hockey Team won a gold medal, I attended a reception at the State House (my mother had an in) where I undoubtedly offended Governor Edward J. King (whose term was sandwiched between two Dukakis gubernatorial turns) by asking him not to autograph the program I was handing him, but to pass it along to the handsome locally grown team member, Jim Craig. And for years, a personally autographed (to my brother) glossy of Dukakis remained one of our family's favorite mementos for its kitsch value. Really, who would have thought he would be a future presidential candidate? The signed photo still has kitsch value only.

While others were keeping tally of the social lives of New Kids on the Block, I was completely on top of identifying the senior and junior from every state. I have found politics to be a terrific spectator sport (I am a fan of any sport that requires no physical exertion). I worked for a number of candidates running for Congressional seats and probably learned more than I needed to know about the inner workings of the political process. One of my more benign memories involved driving with fellow campaign workers in my enormous red two-door Chevy Malibu from Boston to the outskirts of Maryland to work for our candidate's sister (from a famous political family), also running for office.  We of the snotty New England prep school scene were advised to local-up our privileged patter to appeal to the voters of Towson, Maryland's congressional district. One lesson that perhaps all should be aware of is even the most popular politicians bring busloads of supporters with hundreds of pre-printed signs to any event where there might be a camera within 10 miles. When you see political events on TV with maniacally waving signs supporting the appearing candidate, be very wary.

Now, being both a parent and political observer, I am amused to see how similar the behavior is of politicians and young children. The not-so-bright school kids who are so confident in their parent-fed opinions are likely to be reps-in-training. The kiss-ass who Eddie Haskells his way through middle school has public servant written all over him.  The tantrumming kid is, of course, a future filibusterer. And I don't mean the awesome Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) kind, if you know what I mean. The two-party system smacks of elementary school cliques--boys versus girls, and don't make them be partners on a field trip. Ahh, the name-calling--does calling someone "Poopy Face" differ from a meanspirited cry of "Socialist"?? And the legislative process is so reminiscent of a preschooler's focus on inconsequential details to the detriment of the big picture--"I will not get in the car without my pink headband." All age-appropriate in 5 year olds, not so much in adults. No offense to my children's wonderful schoolmates, but the antics of a classroom of first-graders reminds me of the cast of characters in Congress, with the same possible outcome: It's all in good fun until someone gets hurt.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Speeding Tickets (i.e. PerANciL yeRTmeRy)

When I ponder the qualities needed to be a good spectator of a cultural event, I tend to think of an interest in the event, a tolerance for being in close quarters with people not previously known to you, and an ability to be in said large crowds without emitting significant odor. However, the cultural community, being somewhat elitist by nature, has even more stringent criteria than I do: They require us not only to be sweet-smelling, non-claustrophobic, interested patrons, but ones who also possess a ticket for the event in question.

However, it is not enough to merely possess a ticket to attend a cultural event. If it were so easy, any well-adjusted deoderized bumpkin could attend. No, obtaining the ticket has become such a complex process, requiring previously unexpected levels of dexterity, hand-eye coordination, and reflexes. Not to mention riches.

Remember how all Charlie had to do was consume Willy Wonka chocolate bars to get his Golden Ticket? In today's society, poor Charlie wouldn't even score an SRO for a Florida Marlins home game.  

If you wanted to obtain event tickets back in the day--not quite as far back as Charlie's draconian ticket-acquisition methods--it was actually an advantage not to be skilled at anything at all. In fact, it was the unemployed among us who scored front-row seats to U2 and REM concerts in those pre-Internet days, because all it took to get prime tickets was the ability to stay in a line for a long period of time. It was considered a mark of pride to be able to credibly claim that you waited in line for hours, even days, for an event. Extra points were earned for documented inclement weather conditions. More credit if the police were involved in calming the crowds waiting for event tickets. And an A+ if you were interviewed on the local news, waving your tickets for the camera, detailing the new friends you made and challenges finding a bathroom. That was Reality TV at its finest.

I cannot claim to have ever endured such harsh conditions for tickets. Having been a savvy adolescent, I used my father's company letterhead to open a corporate account at Out of Town Tickets in Harvard Square, and was able to reserve tickets in advance of them going on sale. They didn't seem to care that a 14 year old was purporting to run a corporation in need of client tickets. Nor was it considered a red flag years before when a 7 year old ordered 14 Donny & Marie albums to join the Columbia Record Club. When there is money to be made, corporations are blissfully nonjudgemental.

Sadly, the wily conniving of a smart-ass kid is no longer an advantage in today's ticket-buying society. In order to procure tickets to nearly any event, you need to learn the inner-workings of a secret society of sorts. There are pre-sale codes, which seem to be reserved for the types of people who like to be on a lot of listserves. I know this because I am on two listserves and the only way I have ever heard of these pre-sales was from people posting codes from other listserves on the the listserve I am on. I think there may be entire listserves devoted to identifying listserves that provide pre-sale codes.

For those less fortunate, like me, who have not reserved tickets before the masses, there is the dreaded "Tickets Go On Sale At..." moment. In the era of pre-school applications and Ebay, I suppose we should all be accustomed to having to be ruthlessly competitive for virtually everything, or else how would we measure its value? So we clear schedules, synchronize watches, refill coffee mugs, and breathlessly wait until the 59th minute and 59th second of the previous hour have expired. That is when the frenzy begins. Do not make the mistake of attempting to purchase tickets online seconds before the appointed moment--you will get an error code and have to go back to square one. The website you are on will invariably link you to the evil Ticketmaster, whose shocking monopoly on ticket sales and brazenly exorbitant fees have managed to evade the Sherman Antitrust Act. You have very little say in selecting your seats, instead relying on the company's computer program to identify the "Best Seats Available" in a 50,000-seat venue. If you would compromise a closer row for an aisle seat, for example, you are out of luck in communicating that.

Once you select the number of seats you are seeking, the fun really begins. In order to verify that the potential ticket-buyer is not a "Bot" intent on filling all the seats in the stadium, the site requires that you pass a "security check" of mangled text so distorted that a sober mind could not possible discern the majority of the characters. In a recent attempt to secure tickets to, of all things, a Milwaukee Brewers-Colorado Rockies Spring Training game, I attempted to key in the following phrases: "PerANciL yeRTmeRy," "illoVoyA cortHers,""diSbUn SubLyvst,"and "FranKilkE penCharn." Why four phrases? Because, despite opting to "choose another" because I couldn't identify half the characters of my given phrase, I mis-keyed the next three before finally getting one right. Perhaps not coincidentally, by the time I had my code accepted, there were only second-tier seats available. After the whole ordeal, I was happy to have any seats, let alone bad ones, and appreciated the respite available during Ticketmaster's ensuing two-minute warning before my seats would be given to someone else.

While making small-talk with a Luddite co-worker, I mentioned my frustration at not being able to hand-select a block of seven seats for a baseball game I knew there were many available seats for. My coworker was not familiar with the Ticketmaster computer system, and, as it turns out, was also not a big patron of the arts. That, however, did not prevent her from suggesting I go to a Ticketmaster office and buy the tickets in person; she had once done this and was impressed with the various charts and seating plans the salesperson displayed. Once the look of horror faded from my face, I decided to give it a try. The Ticketmaster was located at a major department store, so I could always shop too. I found the office, waited for the sales person to finish flailing seating charts (that looked remarkably similar to the seating charts available online) at the person he was helping. When it was my turn, I explained what I was looking for to the sales person who, in turn, logged onto the very same Ticketmaster website that I had access to in the comfort of my own home.  

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Baby vs. Bathwater

I can only think of one friend I have ever had who was from Arizona. Her family was not originally from there, but they had moved when her father's company relocated. We went to school in New York together, and she was intent on proving her non-Arizona-ness. I visited her family during a school break and was bewildered by the lemon trees growing on every front lawn in the tract housing neighborhood. It had never occurred to me that fruit trees grew outside of orchards in Florida, where their specific purpose was to produce citrus products. There were very few other plantings, just a lawn and the tree. We spent much of the visit smirking at the locals in a way that snarky, self-assured college students do. Her family subsequently moved to Portland, Oregon, which, I suppose, is about as anti-Arizona as you can get.

I know there are lovely areas of Arizona, such as Bisbee and Sedona, and I have not made it a mission to snub Arizonians. I have no particular theory as to why I have friends and family members from all corners of the world, but none from a state that borders my very own. Since I apparently have no friends to offend in the Grand Canyon State, I will unequivocally state that I continue to be horrified by acts that are committed in that sunny state, nearly all of them stemming from a political and value system that I find abhorrent. Of course, I am fully cognizant that these views do not represent all Arizonians, and clearly many have spoken out against the rhetoric, politics, and actions that have transpired in the past several years and have gotten progressively more hateful.

However, my family has a relatively new tradition of going to baseball Spring Training every year. Since we live on the West Coast and it is not practical to see our beloved Red Sox at the Grapefruit League in Florida, we trek to Arizona to see pre-season games in the Cactus League. Shortly after our trip last year, SB 1070, which mandated residents show their residency "papers" to law enforcement, became law. The obvious bigotry and unfairness of that law as it was originally conceived gave me significant pause as to whether we would return to Arizona under those conditions. The law was subsequently modified somewhat, so it was with mixed feelings that we booked this year's trip to Spring Training. More recent events again give me pause.

Boycotting based on high-profile events is something that equally gives me pause. I remember being in school in the 1980s when there was awareness about Apartheid and students protesting the university's stock holdings in companies that had holdings in companies in South Africa. I understood why they were taking this stand, but also thought about how many other corporations do business in ways and places that are loathsome. While I supported the protests, I wondered if there were any companies that presented no moral conflicts, or at least none that conflicted with my worldview. Life is complicated. This issue comes up over and over as knee-jerk boycotts are suggested on listserves and viral emails based on anecdotal interpretations of policies. A friend boycotts a book chain because she heard the store wouldn't deliver books to a friend whose relative was in prison. As someone who works in the justice system, I see how important access to books are for people who are incarcerated, so I see her point. For many reasons, I personally refuse to ever step foot in a Denny's or Wal Mart. But her information was fourth hand, anecdotal and not verified, but she takes the stand anyway. I applaud her convictions, but prefer to understand policies and decisions in a broader context before making my own decisions.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Those Who Can, Don't Teach

My personal credo is: "Why take something at face value when it can be overanalyzed to the point of unrecognizability?"

I apply this belief to all aspects of my life. And, truthfully, there are very few facets of every day living that couldn't benefit from a thorough and methodical rethinking of its basic tenets.

Except when it comes to elementary school.

Let me back up. I come from an era where I don't think we were actually taught to do very much. I have no memory of anything academic ever being "explained" to me. Either teachers were lazy or just assumed we could figure it out eventually. For my early grammar school years, I attended a very 1970s progressive school where grades were mixed together and we "learned at our own pace." I recall sitting at my desk with stacks of index cards with various lessons on them, and flipping them over to see whether I got the answer right. I usually did. I was one of those kids who always liked school and, for a variety of reasons, attended quite a few different schools, so I have some basis for comparison. If you got the answer right, it was a good thing. I don't know what happened if you didn't because, frankly, I almost always got the answer right. I aced elementary school.

In school, I loved math. I liked to do calculations in my head and got a big kick out of numbers in every day life. I always loved baseball at the beginning of the season to see how a batter's average would go from 1.000 to .250 in the course of one game. A bummer for him, but awesome for me. This love of statistics was thwarted during graduate school, however, when the manipulation of digits stopped representing anything interesting or useful.

So when I became a parent to a school-aged child who also had an affinity for numbers, I assumed that I would be the best homework-helping mom ever. What I may lack as a moral compass or role model for my child I can make up for as an adjunct math helper. My role as parent would be redeemed through long division.

First and second grade were a piece of cake, cementing, in my mind, my reputation as a leader among tutoring moms. I demonstrated unparalleled excellence in quizzing my son on his addition tables. He was a natural, of course. Subtraction. No problem. Multiplication tables? Score! My son, the offspring of two Ph.D.s, clearly had the math gene.

Things took a precarious turn in third grade. Not for my son, but for me. He continued to solve long-division and other equations. But there was a new wrinkle added to the mix by the public school system: Students had to show how they got their answers. My son proved adept at getting the correct answers, but was not as great at showing his work. We are a family of head-calculators. I can quickly tabulate the tip on a 5-course meal in my head, but frankly would be lost if I had to note how I came up with the answer. When the task fell to me to model for him how to show the process, my answer was always: "I don't know how to explain why that is the answer. It just is." Tragically, elementary school teachers are not big fans of this explanation.

The situation further deteriorated with word problems. As a psychologist (and avowed over-thinker), I try to take the context into account when solving such problems: Why is Beth selling seven cupcakes at the school bake sale? Did she make 12, but ate five of them? What is the school raising money for? Did Charles make the oatmeal cookies or did his parent buy them at the supermarket? So perhaps you can understand why my poor son has resorted to slogging through these problems solo.

This inability to conceptualize grade school work is not limited to just math. Although I love math, I was actually an English major and if there is anything I am more obsessive about than numbers it is deconstructing sentences. One day my son came home with a reading comprehension passage for which he had missed one of the answers. There were four options, and he chose "B." So that left A,C,D. To me, the passage did not provide an adequate foundation from which to make any of the selected assumptions. However, being a veteran of many, many standardized tests, I dumbed down my thought process and selected "C." My husband, also a master of analysis, looked at the passage and selected "D."  We then spent a good 15 minutes justifying our answers to each other, but we all remained unconvinced not only about the others' selections, but about our own. This was the one instance where I put aside my "no providing homework excuses" policy to pen a note to the teacher that I apologize, but three intelligent minds, including a savvy 8-year-old, two Ph.D.s and an Ivy League English major could not come to a meeting of the minds.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Jet Set

My children have been on more than their share of airplanes. My son was just a few weeks old when he took his first cross-country flight. Both kids' passports sport chubby babyfaces, even though their mugs subsequently morphed into chiseled cheekbones before the documents needed to be renewed. Although they balk at a 20-minute car ride, they take an 11-hour transatlantic flight in stride.

Growing up, I never understood people who did not love to fly. As kids, we were treated like royalty: stewardesses gave us pilot wing pins (made of metal, not the cheap plastic stick-on ones they have today), replica planes, coloring books, and decks of cards. My brothers and I played hours of Casino, Whist, Slap Jack, and Spades with our trusty Pan Am deck of cards, which never stuck together, no matter how many 7-Ups we spilled on our seatback trays. And if a seven of hearts were to fall out of reach under our seats, no worry, we would just press the call button and another deck would be presented to us on a tray. 

Planes are microcosms of daily life, sort of what I imagine an ant farm would be like if I were so inclined to ever learn about what goes on in ant farms. Each person on the flight is representative of some sort of archetype somewhere. The thrill of finding that your seatmate is from the same midwestern state as your freshman roommate--what a coincidence! The man in the aisle seat has those Bose noise-minimizing headphones--cool! Maybe the couple in the exit row is on their honeymoon--will it last? Isn't it a little early for the woman in the window seat to be ordering a Bloody Mary mix? And, just as in real life, there are neighborhoods that are strictly off-limits to to the not-so-well-heeled: the "gated communities" of the First and Business classes. And they say we have no caste system in America. 

I have always loved not only airplanes, but airports. Just like the most vibrant cities, major metropolitan airports are jumping all the time, with restaurants, shops, bathrooms, buses, and people from literally all over the world. There are even enclaves for those who are too fancy for the rest of us--those awesome airport lounges--and mini chapels, for those who don't think getting 35,000 miles closer to the heavens is going to be good enough. Prior to September 11, airports felt safe and fun--I occasionally thought it would be fun to live in one, sort of like being in the Truman Show. Or Sesame Street. Everyone there had a role to play and a purpose. Elmo and Big Bird might have Hooper's Store, but JFK has an awesome Duty Free shop! And if I lived there, I would have time to decide whether I wanted to choose as my souvenir a snow globe of the Statue of Liberty or a box of peanut brittle with a NY logo. I remember being slightly freaked out by the Hare Krishnas and elderly nuns soliciting in the terminals, but that part of the show just gave us something to giggle about as we waited at the gate.

My son, born in 2001, does not see the fun in flying that I do. Although he does not know this, when he was barely five months old, he was a passenger on one of the planes that ultimately hit the World Trade Center just hours after we disembarked. I can still hear his inconsolable shrieks while we waited in baggage claim in Logan Airport, late in the evening on September 10. The cries did not dissipate even when we made our way to the comfort of his grandparents' place. He had never had communicated such unmitigated terror before, and he has not since, 10 years later. It saddens me to think my children are growing up seeing the act of travel as a burden rather than one of the best parts of the journey.