Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The Play-Dating Scene

581-3398.  That was my best friend's phone number when I was ten.  I'd call Mary Beth up, and then I'd walk over to her house and we'd play for the afternoon.  No parents were consulted.

I knew Mary Beth's dog before I knew Mary Beth.  His name was Chummy and he was a Black Lab, more or less.  Like my 145-pound St. Bernard, Susie, and everybody else's dog, Chummy just wandered around the neighborhood, saying hello to whomever he pleased and pooping wherever he wanted.

Fast forward to 2013.  Before we moved to this farm, Josh could walk out the door and usually find a neighborhood friend.  But, as the kids on the block acquired X-Boxes and Play Station, finding someone to play required knocking on doors and either joining in or prying someone away from their game.

If Josh couldn't find anyone to play with, he'd ask me to call a friend's mom.

Can you ask Joe's mom if I can come over?

I can't invite you over to his house, but you can invite him over to our house.

Joe doesn't want to come over.  He's playing on his X-Box.

Well then, I don't know what to tell ya.

I used to invite myself over to Mary Beth's house every day. My dad and I used to stop off at his friends' houses unannounced every week and stay for hours.  I'd play with their kids and he'd hang out with the parents.

My one single regret about moving to the farm is that I have to pursue play-dates for Josh, because it's totally my fault that we no longer live in a neighborhood filled with kids.

Many parents are used to making play dates, but I find it daunting.

First of all, you have to establish a rapport with the other kid's mom.  You have to get her cell-phone number.  That closes the deal.  No number, no deal.

Sometimes, this means loitering around after school lets out.  As the unwitting target picks up her child, you make your move.

Hi, my name is Jess!, I'm Josh's mom.

Oh, hi!  I'm Nancy, Mickey's mom.

Josh was hoping that he and Mickey might get together for a play-date sometime.

(Don't say "sometime."  "Sometime" is weak.)

I wait for the pained expression to wash over her face.  How many kids does she have?  Two?  Four?  If she doesn't have a calendar on her phone, she has absolutely no idea when Mickey could possibly squeeze in a play-date.

If Mickey plays ice hockey--forget it.  Your kid is never getting a play-date.  Between out-of-town games and practices, Mickey needs a play date like feet need warts.

Unlike your only child, who is not into sports, Mickey is doing just fine.

For the first play-date, and maybe all of them, Mickey's mom prefers to have the play-date at her home, rather than let him go to some stranger's home, where he might be tempted to play Call of Duty for four solid hours while eating Halloween candy and drinking Mt. Dew.

And then there's the allergies thing.

One of Josh's friends has a hard time breathing in our house, due to cat allergies.

Most parents want their child to breathe.

You hate to ask, as you load the prized date into your mini-van, Did he pack his epi pen?

When I pick Josh up at the end of the play-date, (can I just call it a date?  would that be weird?), Mickey's mom gives me a full report.

They had fun outside bouncing around on the trampoline for half an hour. Then I gave them a healthy snack and they played Legos for two hours.

Then, inevitably, wait for it...

Always with the same pained confessional expression, she inhales and admits that my child has spent the last hour and (she looks at her watch) ten minutes playing Mine Craft.

I never know what to say at such moments.

To tell her, I'm on a need-to-know basis, seems cold.

To scowl, with imperious contempt, seems inappropriate.

So, I screw up my mouth into what I hope is a reassuring and good-humored smile.  It is a smile that is meant to say, your secret is safe with me! 

But, the fact that I don't appear to be at all concerned, while it may give Mickey's mom some immediate relief of conscience, it does not bode at all well for Josh ever having Mickey over to our house for a play-date.

And of course, you can't invite yourself over to Mickey's house.  He's had you over several times already. So there we are.

But we did get a play-date with Mickey (not his real name) at our house!

And so, to avoid Josh and Mickey becoming sedentary from the moment they entered our house, I dropped them off at the edge of the neighboring field, which had been recently harvested, suggesting they walk the one-quarter mile to our house.

Mickey was thrilled by the prospect of adventure.

I could see them from the road as I drove home.

I patted myself on the back for giving them the illusion of  independence, even though they were always visible to me, and our barn was always visible to them.

But I had let them out on the road to the town park, but not near the parking lot that sometimes featured high school kids in cars shooting up heroin.  

That turned out to be an indigestible detail for Mickey's mom, who could not wait to drive away from my house with her son so she could check his arms for track marks at the very first stop sign.

At such times, I miss our old neighbors, who probably thought that I was the most overweening and conventional mom on the street, because Josh is not allowed to play first-person slaughter games.

Except for Skyrim.  Josh is allowed to play Skyrim, but only with play-dates who can answer the following question correctly:

What is the empire waiting for as it hangs in the balance?

(Correct answer:  The empire is waiting for the coming of the prophesied Dragonborn.)

Why did I buy Skyrim?  Four words:  Really Good Critical Reviews.  I'm a sucker for RGCR.

I know that the things we choose to let our children watch or read or play can ruin their life.  Because when I was in eighth grade, I announced to my Republican, Irish-Catholic, South Braintree, Massachusetts cohorts that I was an atheist.

Of course, I was merely parroting my Atheist-Judeo-Unitarian (and later, Islamic) parents.  I was not really in possession of any kind of spiritual or religious identity of my own--pro, con, or otherwise. But, for a tinderbox, it would do.

Rather than feeding Josh a constant strain of pablum, I choose to warn him that he might want to not mention the title of his bed-time book, GOD IS DISAPPOINTED IN YOU, which, I hasten to point out, received Really Good Critical Reviews.

I wasn't planning to buy it.  Even I could see that it was unnecessarily inflammatory.  But, the owner of the comic book store praised my selection of books, and assured me that I really needed to have GOD IS DISAPPOINTED IN YOU, and that not only should my ten-year-old read it, but I should certainly read it as well.   

It's brilliant.  The critics adore it.  

So I bought it, putting out of my mind the inevitable loss of play-dates with the Hillcrest Bible set.  

Don't bring this up in recess, I warned Josh.  Or, if you do, maybe don't mention the title.

What can I say?, he asks.

And I want to answer, Very little, if you want to play it safe.

When Josh read Art Spiegleman's MAUS,  I did some advance damage control.  To put the whole German thing into perspective, I reminded him that we lived in a part of the United States where you couldn't swing a cat (at least not in town) without hitting a person of German ancestry.  And, I reminded him that he himself, as well as I, was of German extraction, on my father's side.

I will admit, I'm not always spot-on when assessing developmentally appropriate material for my kid.

When Josh was thirteen months old, if he showed no interest in a particular toy, I'd give it away.  And then, maybe two years later, he would play with that same toy at someone else's house.  And I'd remind him,  That used to be your toy, but you didn't like it.  So I gave it away.

Yes.  So often, it really is better to say nothing.

Flash back to yesteryear.  By the time I was Josh's age, 10, I'd already seen The Godfather at the Drive-In with my parents. In particular, I saw the scene with the horse in the bed.  You know the one.  Don't make me say it.  I haven't slept well in 38 years.

So, to recap, Josh doesn't watch The Godfather.  He doesn't play Call of Duty.  He does play Skyrim.  I am determined not to buy Assassin's Creed.  He goes to church sometimes, but he may insist that he doesn't believe in God.  (I assure you, on that point, he has no idea what he's talking about.)

If we moved a few miles north to Madison, I think we'd get more play-dates. I could even see myself getting a little impatient with those raw-food folks up there, who feed their babies strips of kelp.  But, I would still go out to Blain's Farm & Fleet to buy packs of kelp, so when their little sea urchin came over to our house for a play-date, he'd have something to nibble on while Josh drank his Mt. Dew, ate Halloween candy, and played Assassin's Creed.

Friday, November 15, 2013

The Fourth Graders' Champion

I know it's time to change the subject when my mother calls to remind me, having read my post, that she, too, found menopause confusing and difficult.  I thanked her for her concern and reassured her that, although I may be writing like a deranged person,  I do not yet have menopause as an excuse.  I am still two years younger than she was when she was hit with that hormonal tsunami which altered her personality to such a degree that I was in the process of arranging an exorcism when her proverbial barge began to turn with tugboat haste away from the imminent berg.

Blame it on the moon--the full moon, not my moon.  That moon won't set for two more years, so I still have that year of dementia to look forward to.  If you happen to wish me a happy birthday in 2015, you might remind me, also, to take a year-long sabbatical from publishing my blog.

With that disclaimer aside, let's go ahead and launch into a new diatribe.

I would like to make a modest proposal.

My son's fourth-grade class just finished taking the WKCE test.

If you're unfamiliar with this exam, [ http://oea.dpi.wi.gov/oea_wkce_home ] suffice to say, it falls somewhere on the exam ordeal spectrum between the MCAT and the New York State Bar Exam.

Obviously, that's an exaggeration which applies only to the fourth, eighth, and tenth grades, which are tested in all subjects, not just reading and math, but also science, language arts, writing, organic chemistry, comparative literature, and microeconomics.

All of the other grades are only tested in reading and math, which is akin to sitting for the bar in some statutory backwash where they make the law up as they go along.

Fourth graders, of course, are awesome at sitting for exams.

Most of us old folks would be bored, but fourth graders can keep it interesting.

One girl drew faces in all of the little bubbles on her worksheet.  Some she  made into flowers.

I thought that was very clever.

The teachers,  not wanting to identify with the Spanish Inquisition, encourage the kids to chew gum, suck on Jolly Ranchers, and take bathroom breaks as needed.

Unfortunately, Joshua swallowed his gum.

I've discouraged Josh from swallowing his gum as a general practice.  One shouldn't, don't you agree?, swallow one's gum; one should wad it up in something handy and dispose of it properly.

Who knows what happens to that indigestible stuff when it enters the alimentary canal?  Does anyone know? Has anyone ever survived to tell us about it?

The WKCE minutes ticked by as Josh pondered that question.

Finally, he raised his hand and ushered the teacher to his desk, where his answer bubbles were neither decorated, animated, or, (dreary choice!), penciled in.

I swallowed my gum.

That's okay, Josh.  I think you're alright.

Are you sure?


Should I go to the nurse?

I really don't think it's necessary.  You'll be okay.  I promise.  

Thoughtful silence.

Can you go back to focusing on your test, do ya think?

I guess so.

Okay. Good man.  Want a Jolly Rancher?

Yes, please.

So here is what I would propose, given what excellent test-takers fourth graders are:

They should elect  a Champion to take the test for the whole class.

Some fourth graders, three or four maybe, are really good at taking tests.

I've identified one such child in Josh's math class.  He always finishes his worksheet first, after cheerfully whipping through it, and his score is nearly always perfect.

He's the kid who puts his pencil down smartly, looks up with a smile, and recognizes once again that he is the true test-taking champion of the classroom.  He tries not to be smug.

That's not my child.  My child doesn't do well with time.  Given all of the time in the world, he would probably complete that worksheet by Saturday.  And the answers would be 99% correct.

But the clock doesn't stop for my son, in the same way that it doesn't stop for me.  Time is a kind of tyranny for people like us.

Not so for the Champion.  He's always got extra time; time when he has to be quiet and busy himself somehow while everyone else in the classroom continues to slog through the test, mired as they are in daydreaming, cartooning, gum swallowing, fidgeting, fatigue, and brain-freezing anxiety.

It's good to have a big, huge, all-consuming, enervating test to measure whether or not the school system is educating our kids.

But don't tell me that my kid's score on this timed test reflects his  aptitude or academic accomplishments.

His reading score was sub-par on the test, but according to his teacher, he is among the top readers in his class.

His fluency score was average, but he is extraordinarily articulate.  Ask anyone who knows him.   Josh has his issues, but being so-so in the brains department is not among them.

Clearly, the WKCE doesn't accurately measure what my kid knows.

The academic accomplishments of the creative young lady who decorated her answer bubbles were not accurately measured by the WKCE.

She and Josh should not be the school's test-taking Champion.

Let that boy whose head is up and pencil is down first--the one who hums happily while taking a test, and who emerges triumphant every time, with a smile on his face--I say, let him take the damn test.

I nominate him to be the school's WKCE Champion.  He's not home-schooled.  He's learning the same stuff the other kids are learning--he just is better able to perform well on a long test.  It's a gift.  Outside of academia, it's not especially valuable, but inside the institution, it sets him apart as being one of the only children, if test scores are to be taken seriously, (and you cannot convince me of that), who is learning anything.  

So, if the state needs to know what Prairie View Elementary is teaching our children, let our Champion test takers fight that battle.  Let the two or three fourth graders who are truly gifted at taking long arduous endurance tests do what they do best, and let them represent the school.

And then we won't have to undersell ALL of the other kids for not being so great at taking tests.

The state bureaucrats, if they're even paying attention, will discover what the school is teaching.

Our kids won't have to be unnecessarily tortured and stigmatized.

And our kids' teachers can take back those long, lost weeks, days and hours of test-preparation and testing back and use them productively--for teaching.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Does this Post Make Me Look Like An Elitist Schmuck?

Did my last post make me look like an elitist schmuck?

Did I suggest that one ought to spend money on horses, good beer, and fine cheese, rather than fritter it away at Kohl's or Shopko, like the woman in my portrait of consumer's remorse?


That wasn't what I meant, though it may be what I wrote.

What I've been thinking about over the past many weeks, and what I've been trying to write about and examine in my own life, is the habit of throwing money at unhappiness and ennui and you-name-the-problem.
I have often used money instead of creativity, or the resources at hand, to address a host of dilemmas and sour moods.

I did not mean to point a finger in judgment at some beleaguered every-woman leaving a department store, as if to say, Look how pathetic she is.  She ought to be spending money on a gym club membership.  She ought to get out there and jog every morning before the kids wake up.

What I meant was that I am that woman and I have been that woman, and I don't want to be that woman anymore.

That is what I look like when I leave a department store after having drifted around it in a trance for far too long, looking for that elusive thing that will boost my morale and give me the confidence I need to face another day.

It is that thing that I think I cannot live without that I cannot find.

What should I do, instead?  Should I meditate?  Should I jog?  Should I pursue a pinterest?  

Is it a class issue?

Are the things that can make a real difference to one's happiness intrinsically expensive?

Or just intrinsically elusive?

Or just not at Kohls or Shopko?

To be continued.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Bingeing on Cheese

How is the money diet going, you ask?  Pretty good...  I don't know.  I guess I've fallen off the wagon, if that means not spending more than $10 a day, forever.

Yesterday, Josh and I went shopping.  He needed sneakers and pajamas.  We bought sneakers and pajamas.  I bought nothing for myself, a detail which did not escape my notice.

We had some time to kill before picking up his dad, so we went to the Dollar Store.  

I have to confess, I did get a little euphoric, idly perusing the aisles.

I bought butterfly stickers, autocollants geants, in French (it's right here on the package).  You stick them on your walls.

I bought doggy waste bags (50 count), and automatic night lights, (you can never have enough of those).

Ah!, the piece de resistance!   Les petit ordures sacs (it's on the label, it's all French).  Translation? Vanilla-scented plastic bags for kitty poop.  Genius!  They smell so good!

I can't say I harbor any regrets about that $28 shopping spree.  It was indulgent, but it passed the time in a pleasant way, and my office smells like vanilla instead of cat poop.  I look forward to passing more time putting butterfly stickers on my walls one day.

Last weekend, I took my foodie friends from the West Coast to a fancy cheese shop in Madison, Fromagination.

I'm pretty sure they sprinkle crack cocaine on their cheese samples.  You've never tasted such drop-dead delicious cheese in all your life.  And it's priced along the same lines as crack cocaine, too, or so I've read.

One has to be careful in this town, so let me be perfectly clear on this point: I do not now smoke, nor have I ever smoked, crack cocaine.

I spent $20 on cheese, though.  As I walked off with my little, very light-weight package, I thought about what it meant to have spent so much on so little cheese.

I told myself, it was a rare treat.

But I have to admit, I don't really care about cheese nearly as much my friends from California do.  I wasn't quite as thrilled about possessing this cheese as they were.  My friends talked about the cheese with the cheese scholars behind the counter for twenty minutes before making their purchases.

Once I got home with my cheese, I had to remind myself that it was there, in the fridge, demanding to be savored.

I knew I should eat it without distractions, preferably on water crackers, so as not to interfere with the integrity of the fancy-cheese flavor.

Ultimately, I concluded, this was a bit burdensome.

I had enjoyed the cheese more when it was served up in tiny little pieces as a tantalizing sample sprinkled with contraband in the heady and redolent store that is Fromagination.

My husband spends indulgently on good beer. Really good beer, usually IPA.  He also brews beer at home sometimes, and people who know beer say that his beer is as good as any micro-brew they've ever tasted.  He brings passion to beer making and to beer tasting.

That's not a bad way to spend time and money, in my opinion.  It enriches his life, and, who knows?, maybe some day he'll brew and market his beer and that will mark a whole new chapter in our life together.

I spend money and time on my horse, as anybody who has a horse does.  I have no regrets about that. (Don't worry! I won't turn this into a horse essay.  I know those aren't as good for you as they are for me.)

I saw a woman coming out of the department store yesterday who had a familiar look on her face.

It was the look of disappointment, probably because shopping hadn't made her feel better, and maybe it had even made her feel a little bit worse.

Maybe nothing flattered her figure quite enough to compensate for a lack of fresh air and exercise.

Maybe now she had even less time to get home and make dinner, and maybe she was feeling a little bit ashamed that she wasn't spending more time with a child or a loved one.

Maybe she was ashamed that she wouldn't be spending her evening with anybody.

That look, when we discover that what we thought was an oasis turned out to be a mirage, and that the thirst that is so intense is now even less bearable than before.

Oh, that was a happy ending, wasn't it!  Neigh.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Thoughts of a Person of Interest

It was a lousy, rainy, and prematurely dark afternoon in November. I had been home for ten minutes when the police pulled up to the house.

A lot of things run through your mind when the police come to your house, wearing a bullet-proof vest.  My son claims to have noticed a taser gun suspended from a holster.

I figured it had something to do with the fender bender I'd had at the sandwich shop not twenty minutes before.

It was raining, as I said, and dark. The other car was gray, straddling two spaces that were legal, but ill-conceived.   That said, I took full responsibility for what happened next.

I backed my mini-van into the other car's front passenger door.

I got out, apologized profusely, claimed all responsibility, and immediately called the number on my insurance card,which was tucked inside the glove compartment with the car manual and vehicle registration.

Flustered, I relied on the counsel of my insurance provider, careful to communicate every detail of that dialogue with the driver of the other car.

The police would take no interest in a parking lot fender bender, the insurance rep said.

The police take no interest in accidents on private property, the driver of the other car said.

So we did not call the police.

We exchanged information.  I apologized again.  And again.  The driver (of the other car) was understanding--a mom, like me.

I said good-bye, and left to pick up my son from after-school daycare.

When the police come to your door, and your loved ones are all accounted for, and you have reason to suspect that you are their person of interest, it's Judgement Day.

In a way, I had been preparing for this moment for my entire life.

Earlier that afternoon, I had found my friend's expensive chocolate bar in the cupboard.  She had forgotten to take it with her back to California.

I had spent my entire morning making an inventory of Property Law topics, for an hourly wage.  Personal property, trespass, trover, replevin, "first in time"; and, of course, chocolate bar.

The thought of returning the chocolate to its rightful owner--my beloved friend, who loves chocolate more than I love chocolate--did not for a second enter my mind.

Unlike that marvelous character in Game of Thrones, my confessions are not wicked or bawdy.  They are trivial and petty.  Yet they dog me, like my basset-lab, baying and barking constantly, out of jealousy or greed or desperate and proprietary love.

And so, when the police man came to the door, accusing me of leaving the scene..., I was prepared. I had taken inventory, and I did not count fleeing the scene of that accident among my sins.

We went round and round on this point, the officer and I.   At some point, I said, One has to leave sometime, right?

Except for the chocolate bar, I had been trying hard that week to be a good person--particularly, in the parenting department.  As a result, I hadn't been writing, and I was beginning to wonder when I'd get the chance again.  That's the sort of thing that gets pushed to the bottom of the list, sometimes, when you're trying to live a diligent life.

Try as you may, accidents happen.

Disasters happen.  This was not a disaster.

I'd like to state for the record, I did not flee.

I ate the chocolate bar.