Friday, May 28, 2010

Literary Analysis: Animal Hide-and-Seek (with flaps)

The reading (aloud) public's unquenchable desire to connect children with their agricultural roots (or at least their culture's roots in pastoral literature) ensures that the market for children's farm life books will continue to thrive even as many generations of consumers' families have not seen livestock outside of a zoo or field-trip.  Animal Hide-and-Seek (with flaps), Jenny Tyler's bucolic odyssey published by Usborne's Touchy-Feely Farmyard Tales imprint, while a relative newcomer to the genre (2003), has garnered praise from critics and secured Tyler and illustrator Stephen Cartwright a place in the pantheon of children's touchy-feely literature.

Much ink has been spilled concerning this barnyard romp; however, most critics have focused on the book's tactile qualities, seemingly accepting the literary content as an innocuous backdrop for the seductive text features.  In Amazon Customer Review "Sensible Mac" MacLean calls it "super-cute" and "durable," while Michelle "Kevsmom" declares it "the best touchy feely one I've seen," and Patricia Young observes that "each page has several different textures as well as flaps."  The book does have its detractors though, including noted critic M. James "luvs2read", who argues that "the flaps are positioned in a way that makes it very easy to shut them in the book incorrectly." He goes on to claim, "I have to hold the flap down to turn the page safely."  These pundits, even those who have quibbles with the quality of the touchy and the feely, ignore the greater concerns of Animal Hide-and-Seek (with flaps) at their peril; for beneath the fuzz and shine and scratch lurks a menacing thread of existential terror.

At its heart, Animal Hide-and-Seek (with flaps) is a mystery.  Superficially, this mystery manifests as a rather easily solved series of conundra: "Where's Curly?"  "Where's Wooly?"  "Where's Clucky?"  And the answer, when the reader lifts the flap, is always the same: "She's [or He's] hiding!"  It is tempting to plow through this book's ten pages pausing only to delight in the satisfaction of having discovered all of the missing livestock.  However, we may find it discomfiting to face the deeper mystery that is not explicitly addressed in the text: "from what are Curly, Wooly, Clucky, et al. hiding?"

In our travels through this farmyard--which, judging by it's scale and diversity, operates for sustenance rather than profit--we see the barn, the pigsty, the pasture, and the hen-house.  But we are never allowed a glimpse of that which converts these lovable animals to consumable energy.  The family abattoir, which an operation of this type would certainly require, is conspicuously absent.  I submit that these furtive farm animals are hiding from nothing less than their own grisly demise, in the form of the friendly farmer who might at any moment lead them to slaughter.  They, like us, may have never seen the slaughterhouse; but they are aware, through rumor or intuition, of its existence.

When the hiding animals are revealed, their expressions do nothing to distinguish them from their brethren who graze in the open.  They are neither surprised nor frightened, ashamed nor sheepish (except possibly in the case of Wooly); but rather, their faces reveal only slight resignation or dumb acceptance of their lot.  They are aware of the futility of their attempts to cheat death, but compelled to continue trying nonetheless.

Reading the book from this perspective, Tyler's final scene becomes particularly jarring.  "You've found all the animals now," she writes.  "But where are Poppy and Sam?"  The names Poppy and Sam are arbitrary and lack strong connotations, which is all the more effective when we realize that these names belong to a human boy and girl who are hiding behind their flaps on the hay trailer and tractor, respectively.  Had Tyler given them generic names suggesting characteristics of their species--say, Fleshy and Thumbsy--we may not be as stricken by their humanity.  Likewise, the children answer the question themselves--"I'm hiding!"--unlike the animals who chew and peck as the narrator explains the action.  Poppy and Sam are individual young people, with names and voices, who despite their innocence, feel a need to hide.  And unlike their animal friends who mill around in the foreground of the concluding montage, Poppy and Sam smile and wave to the ones who have discovered them.

We follow the trusting gaze of Poppy and Sam, and find that it is we who are its object.  We are the ones that they, as well as the animals, have been hiding from.  We are the farmer, the farm visitor, the mysterious other who cares for the animals and children, yet holds the keys to the abattoir.  But are we not subject to the same fate as the characters in the book?  Are we not gamely hiding behind our own flaps as we graze and scratch in the dirt, knowing that in the end we too will be consumed?  And does it make a difference whether we greet the flap-lifter with a wave and a smile or blithely chew our cud?  Animal Hide-and-Seek (with flaps) is a book that would appear to answer all of the questions it poses; but it is the eschatological questions that it avoids--the questions that gnaw on the sage in the back forty of our consciousness--that haunt its reader.

The girls contemplating their mortality

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

RTT: Enjoy Babies in Sunglasses and Help Me Go on Vacation


Click the purple button.  Go ahead.  NOT NOW!!  After you read the stuff below.  Sheesh.

Random Baby News

Both the girls are crawling, but not fast enough that I can't chase them down.  Their favorite form of travel, however, is marching around the house with an adult hunched over them holding their little hands.  They even climb the stairs in that fashion.

Cobra climbed a couple stairs by herself when I wasn't paying attention.  I turned around and she was standing on the third step, smiling as she propped herself up against the wall with her hand, poised to fall backwards onto her melon.   I need to look into baby gates.

Cobra also likes to stand up by herself, get her balance on something, and then let go and lunge toward her mom with open arms.  This makes it very hard for Dr. Mom to leave for work, what with the heart melting and all.

Butterbean, who has up until now been the less materialistic twin, has become a "sike" artist.  As in, "Want this ball, Cobra?" *snatches hand away* "Sike!" (I always thought the word was "psych," as in "psych you out" but according to Urban dictionary, I am illiterate.)  Thankfully, Cobra doesn't really care about whatever item Butterbean teases her with (or, like her dad, pretends not to care about things she can't have), and turns her attention elsewhere.

I'm having to separate the girls at almost every nap time these days, since they tend to keep each other up.  They still sleep in the same crib at night though.  And we've come up with a solution for the fact that they are really too big to sleep in the same crib.  We figured out that we can fit two Pack 'n' Plays in the closet that we call the "nursery."  This way we don't have to move them into the "real nursery" downstairs, which is right next to the kitchen where we tend to cook and clean and make noise until midnight most nights.

The girls got their first sunglasses.  What do you think?

 It's pretty clear who Cobra's real father is:


I'm not sure about Butterbean though.  Any ideas?

I remember when I was a teenager living in the D.C. suburbs, there was this commercial or PSA on T.V. for some local organization and at the end of it all these happy kids say, "The future's so bright-we have to keep our sunglasses on!"  I was appalled because a) I thought Timbuck3 was a really cool band and hated that "The Future's So Bright" had become a novelty hit, and b) couldn't the idiots who made this commercial even get the lyrics right?  I'm still haunted by this.

Random Other Stuff

We have this time share deal that we kind of got roped into a number of years ago when Dr. Mom had been on call for 36 hours and the salesman and I talked her into it (see yesterday's post about how persuadable I am).  It turns out to be pretty useful, and I'm hoping it will be even more so now that we have all these chilluns that require even more tourism infrastructure than we do.  Anyway, the timeshare runs an essay and photo competition each year, based on some cheesy theme like "love," or "magic moments."  And every year, we read the magazine featuring the winners and vomit on the furniture because of how sappy and--well--just plain bad the stuff is.  

Two years ago, I finally got it together and wrote an essay (theme: "perspective").  I started out with a thoughtful meditation on the experience of a group of travelers who don't know one another but are moved by a shared moment of transcendence in nature from the deck of a cruise ship (I just threw up a little in my mouth).  Then I dumbed it down by about 45%, taking out all the big words and abstract ideas, and cheesed it up with some imagery like--I shit you not--a soaring bald eagle looking at the passengers on the mighty cruise ship.  I won third place behind an essay written from the perspective of a camera ("Hi, my name is Rebel!"), and a what-I-did-this-summer style story of a woman seeing her city through the perspective of a stay-cationer.  The editors at the magazine dumbed my essay down by another 20%.  The awesome photo we submitted (taken by my brother-in-law) used forced perspective to make it look like my wife and sis-in-law were tiny mermaids hanging off of my massive biceps as I flexed in ankle deep water (I would post the picture if I could find it.)  We got an honorable mention for the photo, which was supposed to translate into a 50 dollar gift certificate, but after hounding them for weeks and being unable to find anyone who knew anything about the contest, I gave up on it.  But we did collect on the 3rd place essay prize--enough points (the timeshare runs on a point system wherein you spend points to stay at their properties) to book a small condo in Maui for a week!  Theoretically.  We used the points to put my parents up in a local property while they visited after the babies were born but before the house was remodeled.

I told you all that so I could tell you this.  I  intend to win that damn contest outright this year.  There aren't really any rules against entering if you have won in the past, so I'm going to go for it.  But I need your help.  The theme is "Through A Child's Eye."  That's right.  Just one eye.  The only constraints are that it has to take place in or around, or have something to do with, a vacation in which the essayist stayed at one of the timeshare's properties.  Any generic seaside or mountaintop setting will do.  Or the Ozarks or Branson, MO.  Past winners almost always include a mortally sick older relative and adorable babies.  The tear-jerkier the better.

So hook it up.  Give me your ideas for a sappy story.  It should involve baby twins and maybe grandparents.  I'll let you crash on the floor at my condo in Aspen if I use your idea. 

And when you're done with that, go to Un Mom and random it up.

Monday, May 24, 2010

I Had to Kill the Dingo to Move the Mountain

I've always been susceptible to persuasion, even when I'm aware of the persuader's tactics and motives.  Because I am willing to entertain any perspective,  I give even the ideas of idiots and charlatans a fair shake.  I was explaining this to my dad on Wednesday after the guy I rented a tractor from came to pick it up because I had called him and told him that his piece of crap machine kept breaking down and was more trouble than it was worth but instead of hauling it away the guy convinced me to rent it for a second day.

It's like the time when I was nineteen and I worked framing houses for this guy named Keith--a self-described "Virginia Redneck" from Newport News (pronounced Nuper Nooz) who had ascended to power in a violent overthrow of the previous boss, suffering a "boxer's fracture" in the process and then cutting the cast off his hand with a skilsaw so he could swing his hammer.  I looked up to Keith not only as a professional mentor, but also as a personal role model.  So I hung on his every word as he told the crew about how he had dealt with the carny at the county fair who had tried to rip him off by luring him into the milk bottle toss scam: "That motherfucker tried to grab my hand and get me to throw that ball and I said don't you ever touch me boy, I will whoop your goddamn ass--I'm a grown goddamn man!"

Sure enough, when I took my girlfriend to the fair that night, first thing, some carny grabbed my hand and pulled me toward the milk bottle toss.  I said get your goddamn hands off me, boy, and the carny apologized profusely and told me, confidentially, that he hadn't been making much money and he needed somebody walking around with a big stuffed tiger to advertise his game.  Somebody like me.

So I paid for a turn, knocked down two out of three pyramids of milk bottles, and prepared to pick out a small prize.  But he offered me a double or nothing opportunity in which I could win back my initial investment and get a large prize for my lady if I knocked down all three.  Of course,  when I paid ten bucks for three more tries, I just couldn't knock over those damn bottles.  But the offer still stood, so I paid twenty bucks more to try and win back my money and a prize.  Again, the bottles would not fall.  He really made it sound like a good idea, now that I was in for thirty-five bucks, for me to go ahead and try again for forty bucks.  I had knocked those bottles down so easily the first couple times, right?

And that's how I spent all the cash in my pocket (75 dollars--and those were 1987 dollars) within five minutes of getting to the fair, and then had to mope around being pissy toward my girlfriend as she paid for the rest of our short visit to the place I suddenly least wanted to be in the world.  It's a good thing ATM's were not as ubiquitous in those days as they are now.

So it seems like I would have learned better by now than to trust the advice of someone who stands to make money off me.  But the rental guy made a pretty good case for me to pay another $225.00 to rent his Dingo--a little tractor like a Bobcat, but about the size of a rider mower--for another day, even though I had already pissed away half a day messing with the machine and had very little to show for it.

The reason I needed the Dingo in the first place was that I had a mountain of dirt, concrete, and rock in my backyard left over from the addition I built.  I had been avoiding dealing with it for almost a year because I just couldn't figure out a cheap way to get rid of it.  Because it was such a big pile and in an area accessible only through a four-foot wide gate, I couldn't find anyone to haul it away for less than $1300.00.  I found that the  cheapest way for me to do it would be to rent this mini-tractor and a dump trailer (like the bed of a dump truck, but you pull it with your pickup) and dump load after load of the debris in various locations.  And since my parents were visiting last week, they could help me with both childcare and hard labor.

 The mountain in its infancy (that's our detached garage in the background)

The mountain after the rains

So I went to the rental yard at 8:00 a.m. on Wednesday to pick up the machine.  It took almost three hours to get the machine on a trailer, hook the trailer up to my truck, drive home, unload the machine, return the trailer to the rental yard, pick up the other trailer (the dump trailer), and get it home.  Then the machine wouldn't start, so I called the yard, and the rental guy said to give it a jump start and avoid turning off the motor and keep a battery charger on it whenever it's not running.  An inconvenience, but not a huge problem.  Oh, and by the way, the spark plugs will probably foul if you use the machine for a long time, so you may have to take them out and clean them.  

Then I got the trailer about halfway full of dirt, and the Dingo threw one of it's tracks (it has tracks like a tank or a bulldozer instead of wheels) because I was trying to take really tight turns in my tiny backyard with the huge mountain in it.  I messed with the track for a while, but quickly became disgusted and called Rental Guy and told him about it.  I said it just wasn't working out and he should come get his piece of junk; that I'd pay him for part of the day and just keep the trailer and fill it by hand with wheelbarrows.  He sent over his sidekick to get the track back on and pick up the Dingo, and I drove to my friend's house, about twenty miles away, with the first load of clean dirt which she wanted to use to build a hill for her kids to play on.  When I got back--after a white-knuckle ride home on the Southern California freeways that are for some reason made not out of nice smooth asphalt like in civilized countries, but instead out of concrete with irregular, curving corduroy grooves and diagonal seams that set an empty trailer fishtailing and bouncing so much that it takes up three lanes and almost discourages tailgaters and impulsive lane-changers from encroaching on it and makes the truck that is pulling it rock like the Hesperus--the Dingo was still in the yard, blocking my gate so I couldn't even continue loading the trailer with a wheelbarrow.

Pretty soon, Rental Guy himself showed up and started messing with the track.  I tried to talk to him just to be polite, but he was in a huff because he blamed the mechanical problem on my incompetence--I wasn't supposed to make such tight turns--which was fair; but on the other hand, he had never given me any kind of instructions on how to operate the thing.

He got the machine going again by 3:00 p.m., and tried to convince me that I should just keep using it, although I was mostly sure I didn't want anything more to do with it.  He was dirty and sweaty and angry. 

Rental Guy: So you're just gonna give up?  It ain't none of my business, but I'm the tenacious type.  I keep at it until I figure shit out.

Me: Well I figured out that this isn't the right machine for what I need to do.

Rental Guy: You should be able to load that trailer in five minutes with this tractor.

Me: The problem is that I want to get at the clean dirt that's on the top of the pile, because I have a friend who wants it.  I don't want to deal with all the rocks and concrete on the bottom yet.  I haven't figured out where those are going.

Rental Guy: You can't just scoop the dirt off the top.  It won't work like that.

Me: Exactly.

Rental Guy: Why don't you just get rid of all this bullshit first and then move the dirt?

Me: I was just gonna pick away at the rock pile.  Take it out in my truck a little at a time.  I'm trying not to pay to dump it.

Rental Guy: But you got this machine right here now.  And you already got money in it.  Why not just get it done?

Me: Hmm...that's just not...the way I planned it.  Now I'm gonna have to deal with rush hour traffic.  I'll never get all this stuff moved by tomorrow morning.

Rental Guy: Fuck rush hour.  If it was me, I'd hit, shit, and git.  Look--let me just show you how to do this.  I mean, there's people who can do and people who can't.  I'm just trying to help you be one of the ones who can. 

Me:  Hmm...well, lemme call the landfill and see what it costs to dump rock...[goes inside to look up number]

[Rental Guy furiously loads the trailer with a couple tons of rock and debris]

Rental Guy: See.  I loaded that thing in the time it took you to make a phone call.  [all up in my grille, mockingly] You could have loaded it just as fast by hand.  Pssht.

Me:  Well, how about if you move your truck out of my way so I can get to the dump before it closes.

Rental Guy:  I knew you'd see it my way.  [gets in truck, continues pontificating] You just gotta think about your priorities...if you didn't do it my way, you would have wasted all that money...I always say work smart, not hard...

Me: Time's a-wastin,' Polonius.  I gotta get this stuff to the dump. 

Rental Guy: I drink Corona.  You owe me a twelve pack.  Corona.

Me: [drives off with a faux-friendly chuckle.]

I ended up keeping the equipment the next day so that I could get the whole mountain out of the back yard.  I had to jump start the Dingo a few more times, and when it started running rough, my dad broke a spark plug trying to pull it out to clean it, so he went ahead and put in new plugs while I was on a dump run.

There were a couple moments that made up for some of the hassle and defrayed a bit of the expense: the cashier at the landfill got distracted telling me about her parrot cage and charged me half what she was supposed to for one load of rock and 'crete, and the guys who are trying to flip the house that got foreclosed on across the alley needed some backfill in a porch they were pouring so I got rid of another couple yards of debris that way.

But as you may recall, one of my projects while my parents were here was to demonstrate that even though I'm only 42.99 years old, I am a competent adult who makes wise decisions.  I probably should have told Rental Guy to take his crappy machine--and his avuncular advice--and cram it, just out of principle.  I even joked (kind of) with my dad that I should have let him deal with Rental Guy so I wouldn't get pushed around.  I tried to imagine what Dad would have done in that situation, but I could only conclude that he wouldn't have gotten into it in the first place.  He probably wouldn't have chosen a sketchy rental operation simply because it was close to home, and when he saw the condition of the Dingo, he would have told Rental Guy to pound sand.  I'm pretty sure I know what my old boss Keith would have done, and it would have involved punching Rental Guy in the brain.

Despite feeling overcharged though, I am relieved to have gotten done with a job that's been hanging over my head for months.  It ended up taking two days and costing about $750.00 for rental and dump fees, which was cheap compared to the alternative.  And it was kind of fun to use the machinery when it worked properly.  And most importantly, I learned some valuable lessons about cutting my losses, swallowing my pride, and recovering from a downward spiral. 

Actually, the lesson thing is mostly bullshit.  The important part is the fate of the Dingo.  After I had dumped the last tractor load of rock into the neighbor's yard, I dug the bucket into a pile of dirt at the edge of my deck.  The Dingo was running pretty poorly by then, cutting out every 15 minutes and requiring a jump start to get going again.  When I plunged the bucket into the dirt, the motor made a horrific clattering noise and then stopped dead.  I turned the key and only got more clattering.

Dad: That doesn't sound good.

Me: Nope.

Dad: You ever check the oil on this thing?

Me: Nope.  You?

Dad: Nope.  Sounds like the pistons are swappin' holes.

Me:  He never told me to check the oil.

Dad: [pulls out dipstick] It's dry.

Me: I shouldn't have to add oil after just using it for a few hours, right?

Dad: I wouldn't think so.  Seems like he would have checked it before you took the thing.

Me: Think it threw a rod?

Dad: Reckon so.

Me: So he's probably gonna try to get me to pay for a new motor.

Dad:  I wouldn't be surprised.

Me: Wonder what I should tell him.

Dad: I'd tell him that he should convert his rental business to a junkyard.

Rental Guy tinkered with the Dingo for a while but couldn't get it to start.  He managed to drive/push it out of my yard by cranking the starter motor and getting some assistance that way, but once he got it into the alley, he had to drag it up onto his trailer with a come-along.  He wasn't so smug as he struggled with that, and he even made some small talk about my addition, asking me about the permit process and essentially acknowledging that I was able to do some stuff.  But mostly he kept repeating that he never had to winch a tractor away from a job before, and lamenting the eighteen grand he had spent on that machine.  I could have given him a lecture about maintaining his equipment and not renting out stuff that needed to be serviced or junked; but instead I took the high road and humored him as he told me how difficult his job was, all the while composing a Yelp review in my head.  He never mentioned the Coronas again.

Cobra and Dingo

After the mountain was moved




Tuesday, May 18, 2010

RTT: A Richness of Embarrassment

My parents drove all the way down here to SoCal from the Great Northwest to visit us (the grandbabies, really) this week, so I'll start with an embarrassing conversation I had with my mom.

Mom: Well, we don't want to keep you from doing your work or anything...


Mom: You know, if you want to work on the house or...

Me: Um...yeah, I might do some of that...

Mom: You need to write your blog, don't you?

Me: [embarrassed] Oh, God.  You know, that's just, like a little hobby thing...I don't really need to write anything while you're here...

Mom: But tomorrow is Random Tuesday Thoughts...

Me: Oh, geez...

So, yeah, it's Random Tuesday, sponsored by Keely; and again I just can't avoid finding a theme. 

My parents are staying with us for a week, and it's going really well.  I usually find all kinds of work for them while they're here, but this time we're mostly playing with babies.  Butterbean has already warmed up to Grandma and Grandpa, but Cobra is still pretty suspicious of them and tends to burst into geysers of tears, snot, drool, and noise when one of them violates the perimeter for more than a minute.  But she's embarrassing me a little less in that respect each day that the 'rents are here.

Grandma and Grandpa are very cool and supportive of our family arrangement (Dr. Mom bringing home the bacon, and me frying it up in a pan [and eating 80% of it]); but part of me is still trying to demonstrate that, at two weeks shy of age 43, I am indeed a grown-ass man with real responsibilities and accomplishments.  So it was gratifying to show them around the (almost) complete addition/renovation I did on the house.  They had been here and helped me with the addition in earlier phases, but had not seen the (mostly) finished product up till now.  Also, I felt like they were impressed with my ability to wrangle twins.

But it undermined my attempt at gravitas when my mom pointed out that I should get to work on my silly blog.  Of course, she didn't mean to cast any aspersions on my obsession  hobby. [I just violated another promise I made to myself, in addition to not "going meta": to never resort to the "strike-thru" gag.  My standards are in free-fall.]  In fact, my mom is probably my biggest fan and most most devoted reader.  And that's not embarrassing at all

So I started out hoping that my parents would be impressed with what a grownup I had become by virtue of my accomplishments in the so-called real world.  But I quickly abandoned that tactic and started introducing them to all my imaginary bloggy and facebook friends, because those are the other grownups I associate with, and I thought that might boost my credibility.  We were all embarrassed.

In other areas, I have moved beyond being embarrassed.  For instance, I seem to have a gynecological condition on my foot.  My wife, Dr. Mom, calls it Athlete's Foot, and gave me some prescription ointment she pulled from the vast pharmacopeia we call our medicine cabinet.  After I went through the tube and the condition worsened, the good doctor told me I could get the same stuff over the counter at the drugstore.  I didn't find any of the stuff in the foot remedies section of CVS, so the helpful pharmacist directed me to "feminine hygiene" to pick up the ointment, which also happens to be a treatment for yeast infections.  I went through checkout with a defiant look, daring anyone to say something about my feminine itching.  I stopped being embarrassed about picking up woman-things at the store after the fourteenth trip in a month to pick up off-brand XL maxi-pads when my dog was going through heat.

Speaking of Fancy Dog Stella, I'm a little chagrined, but mostly relieved, to announce that she is on anti-anxiety meds as of last week.  We wanted to get her on them months ago, but our vet had different ideas (read here for the back story).  I used to scoff at dog owners who put their pets on psych meds, suspecting that their problems were due to poor training and the owners' own anxiety rubbing off  on the animal.  This made me think for a while that I must have some serious underlying anxiety issues that Stella picked up and magnified a thousandfold.  But so far, the medicine (Clomipramine) has done wonders.  Stella is a little less energetic than before, but she no longer scrambles for the other side of the house when one of the girls drops a toy on the floor.  Turns out it's much less embarrassing to have a fancy dog on psych drugs than a 120-lb feral cat.

Now I have to get my mom to check over this post for grammar errors before I hit "publish."

Update: My mom just offered to feed the girls so that I could "play blog."

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Parenting Is Easy! Rating of Jobs Held on a Scale of Crap to Cake

If something seems familiar to you about this post, you probably read the first thing I ever wrote on this here blog lo those many months ago.  This is a variation on it that I'm re-posting for a little thing hosted by a super cool blog called ABDPBT.


The parenting-industrial complex and its minions in the mainstream blogosphere would have us believe that parenting is a thankless and grueling enterprise, fraught with danger and self-sacrifice, offering only fleeting but intensely gratifying payoffs.  However, a longitudinal study of the work life of one parent (me) complicates the notion that parenting is "hard."

The following is an evaluation of  jobs I have held in the past as well as my current position as a stay-at-home dad (and auto-ethnographer):

Job 1) Lifeguard (3 summers during high school)
Pros: easy as long as no rescues necessary, tanning opportunities, twirling whistle on lanyard, girls in bikinis
Cons: tedium, babysitting of ungrateful brats and antique pool filter systems, ignored by girls in bikinis, skin cancer later in life
Score: 7—angel food cake, no frosting

Job 2) Driveway Resurfacing (1st job after high school)
Pros: N/A (one of my colleagues told me that we would see many fine ladies in our travels, but this claim was vastly overstated)
Cons: many hours in Econoline van full of grumpy rednecks who smelled like asphalt, working on blacktop during summertime in D.C., smelling like asphalt
Score: 3—crap cake

Job 3) Carpenter (about 75% of the last 25 years)
Pros: sense of accomplishment, decent pay, a certain romantic cachet perceived by people outside of the trades, manliness cred, useful skills, bawdy humor encouraged, tanning opportunities
Cons: injuries, grumpy rednecks, non-tradespeople saying they “have always admired people who can work with their hands,” being called “handyman,” skin cancer
Score: 7—German chocolate cake with a dusting of poop flakes

Job 4) Ski Instructor (2 seasons)
Pros: free skiing, pro deals on equipment, wielding godlike (but benevolent) power over trembling college coeds taking skiing for P.E. credit
Cons: babysitting ungrateful brats, lining up in the cold with the rest of the instructors trying to solicit customers and hoping the manager would pimp me out to a wealthy tourist for a “private,” kicking myself for not thinking of getting this job while still single
Score: 8—Ice cream cake 

Job 5) High School English Teacher (3 years)
Pros: those 4 students who I really “reached,” that time the previous night’s Ambien had not yet worn off and I had the class recite The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock in rounds with a couple kids beatboxing and me reading some of the lines as Brando in Apocalypse Now, working with smart teachers
Cons: babysitting ungrateful brats, broken school system, loss of cognitive capacity from reading student essays, loss of self-esteem, loss of faith in humanity, loss of muscle tone, loss of weekends, threat to marriage, grumpy teachers
Score: 2-crap cake with turd filling and ¼ teaspoon of chocolate sprinkles

Job 6) Adjunct Professor (3 years)
Pros: students not hell-bent on keeping each other from learning anything, good conversations in the copy room
Cons: academic status and job security equivalent to day laborer in Home Depot parking lot, student essays almost as bad as high school
Score: 6—strawberry shortcake with fart glaze  

Job 7) Stay-at-home Dad of Twins (7 months)
Pros: new Cutest Thing Ever every day, baby laughter, license to act like a complete idiot, people thinking my job is really hard, decline in existential angst, babies’ 16 hr/day sleeping schedule allows time to get things done around the house (finishing 2-story addition, hanging siding, shingling roof, refenestrating old part of house, teaching online, etc.), excuse to never leave house
Cons: some gross fluids/solids, some crying/screaming, soundtrack from Fisher-Price toys permanently looping in brain, emasculation.
Score: 9—cakey cake

I don’t deny the possibility that other parents may have different experiences than I have had.  Many factors could contribute to less positive outcomes; for example, financial instability, lack of support from co-parent, or inherently fussy children.  But these problems can be attributed to poor spousal selection on the part of the parent or grandparents, and are beyond the scope of this study.


Tuesday, May 11, 2010

RTT: Things My Wife Hates


Once again, I'm doing the Random Tuesday Thoughts thing from Un Mom (click on that picture above and follow the damn instructions after you read this), and once again I am discovering that nothing is completely random. I have been collecting a bunch of tidbits all up in my brainpan, and I thought they were unconnected, but it turns out there is a fine, supple, silky thread that links them together: they are all things my wife hates. As the New York Dolls said, "Everything connects, and that ain't nowhere." (Actually, I always thought it was "that ENDS nowhere," or at least I thought that's what it *should* be. But anyway, check it out--that lyric is from a song called "Vietnamese Baby." And I have two half-Vietnamese babies, which equals one Vietnamese Baby, which pretty much proves my point. And that ain't nowhere.


Hate is such a strong word. And that's why it's the only word that accurately describes the way my wife, a strong, passionate woman of great conviction, feels about certain things. She doesn't hate people (except for Jennifer Love Hewitt, the very mention of whose name makes her gag for reasons unclear to me since I don't think I could pick her out of a lineup; and her transgressions, when brought to my attention, seem only mildly annoying) because that would be uncharitable and wrong. It's just objects and institutions, and things that some people do and say and like that provoke Dr. Mom's ire.

1. The Earth
If you love the earth, as I do, you are probably familiar with hypermiling, the practice of driving in such a way as to minimize fuel consumption. I have developed a similar system for saving water at home, called hyperdiapering.

We use cloth diapers because we decided that it was slightly better to do more laundry than to add to the overflowing landfill. Since we live in a drought-prone area, the environmental impact of cloth diapers is probably about the same as disposables; but the extra work involved in cloth diapers functions as an act of penance for sucking up resources by having children.

When we started using cloth, I followed my wife's orders, and we ended up doing 2-3 loads of diaper laundry per week. I found this incompatible with my environmentalist leanings; so I figured out how to get at least two uses out of each outer covering (we use a couple different systems, both of which involve a cover and an insert) and changing diapers only when absolutely necessary. This brought the number of diaper laundry loads down to one per week.

This is what happened when I demonstrated my earth-friendly achievement to Dr. Mom.

Me: [gestures toward washing machine] Check it out--all of the diapers in one load of wash. There's not one clean diaper left.

Dr. Mom: That's a really full load.

Me: Exactly.

Dr. Mom: I don't think they'll get as clean if the machine is overstuffed.

Me: Pssht...

[Hours pass. The dryer buzzer is heard]

Me: See, they're fine.

Dr. Mom: They still smell like pee.

Me: Why do you hate the earth?

Dr. Mom: Why do you want your children to smell like urine?

2. Bad Doctoring
Just as I am disgusted when I see shoddy workmanship in a house, my wife cannot abide a careless or clueless doctor. This sometimes puts me in an awkward position because I can't immediately spot a quack, and I tend to defer to their education and experience, blaming any befuddlement I experience during an interaction on my rudimentary understanding of medicine. When I report to Dr. Mom after a medical appointment, we often have conversations like this [note: medical jargon and implications thereof may not be completely accurate. Consult your physician.]

Dr Mom: What was your TSH?

Me: Um...ten? Or something? What's TSH again?

Dr. Mom: What? They still haven't gotten it down? She needs to titrate your meds.

Me: I know, right?

Dr. Mom: She should have been on top of that within six weeks.

Me: I think I'm taking them wrong. She explained some stuff and it kind of made sense. There were charts...

Dr. Mom: What was your blood pressure like?

Me: She said it was okay.

Dr. Mom: What's okay?

Me:, forty-five or something?

Dr. Mom: Forty-five what?

Me: PSI? Um...she thinks I should have a chemical peel on my face. Also, she said I'd be a good candidate for a hair transplant.

Dr. Mom: You need to get a different doctor.

3. When People Repeat Themselves
Since she remembers virtually everything that anyone has ever said to her, and everything she has ever said to anyone else, it vexes her when she hears the same story more than once. For some reason, she tolerates this in her father, my father, and me. I think she starts daydreaming about dragons when she hears the opening strains of one of our yarns.

4. When People Forget What She Has Already Told Them, Especially Things about Herself
To Dr. Mom, this is the height of rudeness and indicates self-absorbtion on the part of her interlocutor. She will patiently tell her life story over again, but I can see her jaw twitching and her tiny fists clenching because she knows she is once again wasting her breath. As in the case of item 3, I am given an exemption from her wrath when I do this.

5. When People Repeat Themselves
It vexes her.

6. Antiques
Like Dwight Yoakam's character in Sling Blade, she just doesn't want them around her. She doesn't hate people who like antiques; she just thinks they are wasting their time and money. Same goes for stuff from yard sales and swap meets. In fact, she has no use for any kind of used-up old dusty junk and considers it an eyesore and an affront to her aesthetics and practicality. There are, of course, a few exceptions: the traditional charm of our 100-year-old house, the reliability and economy of our 13-year-old car, and the classic lines of her vintage husband.

Random Video (Dr. Mom does not hate these)



Cobra Tango

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Mother's Day Fail and Brilliant Recovery

Forming and finishing concrete is truly an art form, and many of its practitioners are indeed eccentric artists.  The best concrete artist I ever knew was an old guy from Charlottesville known only as "Smitty," who, when asked what's up would reply with a loud and mostly unintelligible three minute rant that invariably included the aphoristic crux of his life's collected wisdom: "Jes' tho some dirt in the air an' walk under it so you look like you been doin' sumthin'.  We all jes' tryin' to git a sammich."

I once spent a year doing form work (basically building wooden molds for concrete) on commercial construction projects, including a seven-story building and an arched bridge/pedestrian underpass.  In the olden days, when carpenters used to do a little of everything, and construction companies didn't sub out every trade,  I also formed and poured a number of foundations, basements and garage slabs.  I built pools one summer during college, and poured concrete decks as part of the job.  In the past couple years, I've poured a new set of front steps at my own house, and a big slab under the back deck.  In terms of concrete work though, I'm still not fit to touch the hem of Smitty's garment.

Despite my limitations as a concrete guy, I thought that I would be able to successfully follow the instructions on a kit in which you pour concrete into a little form and make an impression of your kids' hands.  The kit was a very thoughtful Christmas gift from my sister, which I cleverly figured I could parlay into a Mother's Day gift to my wife 'from the twins.'  I would decorate the resulting--what? paving stone? paperweight? doorstop? whatever you want to call this hefty tschotshke--with glass mosaic tile leftover from the kitchen backsplash, and an inscription along the lines of "Happy First Mother's Day!" with the girls' names under it.   I expected no less than tears of joy in return.

Historically, I am known as a terrible gift-giver.  This is probably due to my feeling about most--well virtually all--gift-centric holidays: to wit, bah humbug!  I want to start a Christmas tradition wherein everyone writes "Merry Christmas" on a $100 bill and exchanges it with their friends for a similarly decorated c-note.  According to this tradition, throughout the season you would hug your friends and family, exchange cash, and everyone would come out even.  Other traditional occasions for gift-giving merit much less ceremony and forethought.

Back in the day, when my wife and I had separate bank accounts (and I had a job), I would buy her big ticket presents (clothes, shoes, ski boots).  When we combined our finances though, this became a pointless charade, so we simply started designating certain purchases as "gifts" if they fell near a holiday or birthday.  For example, because my wife's birthday happens to be on Christmas day, one year she got a washer and a dryer. 

But now and then, I will make something myself as a concrete (so to speak) gesture in commemoration of a holiday: a heart-shaped step stool one year for Valentine's Day, a heart-shaped meatloaf the next year; a poem for our fifth anniversary that made Dr. Mom cry in public.  It was in this spirit that I set out to make the handprint thingy for her very first Mother's Day.

Since I thought the actual work of making the concrete Mother's Day card would be so easy, I kept putting it off because I had bigger fish to fry (cooking, washing bottles, facebook, etc.).  Finally I got around to doing it yesterday, after mowing the lawn while the kids napped, and before Dr. Mom got home from her half-day at work.  But in my haste, I put too much water in the mix.  No big deal.   I left it out on the deck to set up a bit.

Then Dr. Mom came home earlier than expected.  I tried to sneak the kids out to the deck one by one to make the impressions with their hands, but by the time I did, the 'crete was too dry. 

In my defense, I have to say that there were some problems with the kit.  I found it nigh impossible to get a ten-month old to wear the Men's XL plastic gloves that come with the kit and push her hand firmly into the concrete as the instructions dictated, and I'm sure this would have been the case even if I had tried while the concrete was softer.   All  I ended up with was an angry baby with charcoal colored concrete on her face and what looked like a chunk of a prison-cell wall someone had tried to claw their way out of.  Anyway, isn't this kind of thing usually done in plaster of Paris?  It seems like a more forgiving medium.

So this one-square-foot concrete pour had kicked my ass.  And I'm not proud of the way I responded.  I don't fail gracefully, even though I've had plenty of experience.  I told my wife what had transpired, blaming it entirely on the ill-conceived kit, and she was very understanding.

"It would have been a nice surprise," she said, which should have made me feel better, but instead deepened and prolonged my petulant sulking.

By the morning of Mother's Day, I had mostly recovered from this devastating disappointment, and bravely suggested some activities with which to celebrate the day.

Me: Should we go to brunch?

Dr. Mom: Nah...everyplace will be too crowded.

Me: Do you want me to watch the kids so you can go see a movie about sexy vampires or something?

Dr. Mom: No.  I want to be with my kids today.

Me: How about a mani-pedi?

Dr. Mom: Phhht.  Fo' what?

Me: A massage?  There's that "Oriental Massage" place next to the head shop...

Dr. Mom: Nah...

Me: All right, look.  Just figure out something boring to do that only you will enjoy, and the rest of us will come along.  How's that?

Dr. Mom: That sounds perfect!

And thus Mother's Day was snatched from the jaws of doom!  We ended up going to the farmer's market in Fiercetown, and then the Asian Market (not the local one, but the big one on the other side of town where they have live carp and prawns and sometimes stuff like sheep's heads [dead]).  So although there is no concrete monument to the Mother's Day #1, we will always have the memories of the time we first bought pork belly as a family.  (Actually, that was the second time, but the first time at that market.  Whatever.  It was special.)

 Butterbean with Lobster

 The Squid and the Cobra

Just Squid

Fish Head

Dragon Fruit


Chicken Paws

Rice Bags

Shopping Cart

I realize that my wife is not my mom, and that I should be paying tribute to my own mother today.  But I'll wait for another time to embarrass her at length.  Suffice it to say (for now) that my mom grew up on a farm in Montana's "Hi-Line," a starkly beautiful tundra up by the Canadian border (Mom might not agree with "beautiful," but here are some pics--you can decide), went to college at University of Montana, and then traveled the world as an Army wife.  She taught high school English in the deep South in the fifties, was the secretary at my elementary school in Germany (which might explain why I got into slightly less trouble there than any other school I attended), was the Family Liaison Officer at the U.S. embassy in Moscow, worked for the State Department in D.C.,  and has worked as a fundraiser, grant writer and general ass-kicker for several non-profits, most recently Habitat for Humanity.  

When I was a kid, it was often necessary for me to help drive away would-be suitors who were so entranced by her beauty that they didn't notice my dad glaring at them.  One tipsy Bavarian who couldn't take his eyes off her as we ate at a lodge atop an Alp we had just summited tried to deflect attention from the fact that he was shamelessly hitting on her in front of Dad, me, and my two sisters by repeatedly saying, "You're father is the best in the world.  For sure.  No maybe.  For sure."  Another time, my friends and I tried to drive an admirer away as we skated on the frozen pathways of Gorky Park in Moscow by clamoring around her and crying, "Mama, mama, mama"--all fifteen of us.  The besotted Russian would not be deterred.  

I could go on about the withering comments and looks Mom could rain down on an unsuspecting anti-feminist, rendering him dumbstruck and emasculated; how she hauled logs down the mountain to build our cabin in Montana; or how she never gave up trying to get me to do the smart thing when I was hell-bent on playing the part of the screw-up.  But I'll stop here and just say that she was the best mom ever.  Although my wife might give her a run for her money based on her performance so far.   

Thursday, May 6, 2010

More Gay Stuff and Cute Videos

There is a special kind of glee most of us feel when hypocrites are exposed.  I especially love it when moralistic "family values" types turn out to be involved in tawdry shenanigans.  That's why I couldn't wait to find out all the salacious details about George Rekers, Family Research Council's resident expert on how to pray away the gay.  Apparently he dedicated his European vacation to exorcising the gay demons from his "traveling assistant," whom he found on a gay escort service website called   The story broke yesterday, so I won't try to add to the comedy that has ensued since (just hit the link above and follow your nose to Colbert's take on it.)

In some ways I'm ambivalent about Rekers.  I want to mock him and heap scorn on him, and I have and probably will continue to.  After all, he and his ilk have been largely responsible for untold numbers of gay kids growing up thinking there is something abominable about themselves and having that opinion reinforced by their parents and often their peers.  Parents are also gravely hurt by the religious right's rhetoric when they buy into the notion that, despite their parental instincts, they cannot accept their own children as they are.

But aren't Rekers, Larry "Wide Stance" Craig, and other anti-gay gay people victims of the same culture?  Should we feel compassion for them because the homophobia they were raised on caused such cognitive dissonance that they became crusaders against what they loathed about themselves?  Is it still okay to celebrate the revelation of hypocrisy when it's clearly pathological?

Here are some cute videos of babies!!!  


They're all over me!


Butterbean learning to stagger

This is a video about hipster dads in L.A. by my funny brother-in-law (wife's sister's husband), Sam Riegel, and his writing partner/traveling companion Rob Blatt.  Sam's almost famous (so's Rob, but we're not related).  Look him up on IMDB.  You've probably heard his voice in weird anime shows and video games, and seen him as Tiger Woods in this video.  They totally stole the idea for this video from my life.

At the Reservoir

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

RTT: Back In the Working World


I'm glad Keely thought of this Random Tuesday stuff.  It provides just the right amount of impetus for me to write something, but removes any pressure to write cohesively.  Click on the button above and see what other people are spewing, and then spew your own randomness.

This weekend represented a real watershed for me.  Maybe not a watershed.  A turning point?  Anyway, this weekend was just like a metaphor for doing something that I don't normally do.

You see, I worked outside the home for the first time in more than a year.

Well, maybe I've done a couple work-ish things after the kids were in bed, and I taught a class online while they were napping; but this has been the first time since they were born ten months ago that I spent entire days (three of them in a row) away from the twins.  During their first four months, before I took over baby-wrangling duties, I was working on the addition to our house for about twelve hours a day (this dropped to four hours a day--during naptime--when Dr. Mom went back to work).  But I would pop in to see the babies every hour or so.  I was not able to do that this weekend.

Getting out of the house into the world of work and grownups is probably something I should savor after all these months of being housebound.  But what did I think about the whole time I was working?  You guessed it.  My blog.

What would I write about in my next post?  Should I write a vivid description of the small remodeling project I'm working on?  That's something that would be foreign, vaguely romantic, and possibly interesting to my readers.  What tone to use?  Whatever angle I approached this writing task from, I would need to present myself as a seasoned vet who can do things to houses that the average person would not believe possible, and yet write in a way that is dismissive of my own expertise.  Oh, just a little project relocating a window in a Spanish style house from the twenties.  You know--cutting out the stucco and plaster and re-framing the opening so that the old window fits perfectly in the new hole, making sure to maintain the shear strength and other elements of the house's structural integrity, all the while being minimally invasive to keep the cost and disruption to my client as small as possible.  No big deal.  The sweat on my biceps?  Sure, I guess it was glistening.  I didn't really notice. 

Should I include an explanation of how I have weathered construction slowdowns over the past 20 years by catering to the gay community, which seems to be recession-proof?  How, when I was younger and hotter, I wouldn't mention my girlfriend/fiance/wife to my gay clients because I wanted them to keep coming up with more projects that would bring me to their house.  Or does that make me sound like a hooker?  How about the old music professor back in Charlottesville, whose house I filled with built-in bookcases in the evenings and weekends while I was working on new homes during the day; he of the tony New England accent and the "can I build you cocktail?" and "tell me what drinks you like so I can lay in a goodly supply," only to break his poor old heart by revealing that I was doing the work so I could buy an engagement ring for Dr. Mom?

Then I thought about how I was going to have to break a little vow I had made to myself when I started blogging way back in February.  I told myself that I would not blog about blogging.  At least not for a long time.  Not that I have anything against it when other people do it; but when I heard my own metacognitive voice saying, "boy, it's time-consuming and can be kind of stressful trying to write interesting stuff several times a week," I was annoyed at what sounded like whining about the pressures of dedication to self-indulgence.  Then I got excited when I was struck by what I thought was a clever term I had just coined: "metablognition"!  That could be the title of my next post!  I'll copyright it!  So I googled it when I got home and found that there were only 1450 results for that term, including the name of a blog.  So, yeah.  Kind of clever, I guess. 

But I didn't think only about my blog during my foray into the outside world.  I also thought about my imaginary friends on Facebook and in all the other blogs I follow.  Oh, and sure--I thought about my kids a little bit.  I may have called my wife a couple dozen times to make sure she remembered that they need to eat and sleep and have their diapers changed.

I also thought, as I was sawzalling out the old window header, that I might write about how wonderful it was to come home to my family after a hard day at work.  A poignant description of the hero's welcome I would receive when I got home, the babies clamoring all over me, etc.  But what really happened was I would get home, shed my grubby clothes, take a shower, let the dog out, grab some bottles, and by the time I sat down with the twins, they had already forgotten that I had been away.

But yesterday when I came out of the shower, the wife and kids were on the bed having recently finished the four o'clockish feeding.  The twins were happily chattering away, and as I emerged from the bathroom, Cobra, who has been crawling for a couple weeks while her sister is content to sit and cry until the object of her desire is delivered unto her, wobbled to her feet, stabilizing herself with her hands on the pillow in front of her.  We jabbered at one another, as we are wont to do, and Cobra raised her hands out to her sides, waving and squealing.  And she didn't fall down.  For about five seconds she stood on the bed without any help.  My wife's face looked pretty much the way I figured mine must have: frozen in shock and aww...(about 100,000 results for this term that I also thought I made up), and Cobra's looked similar albeit tinged with fear as well.

Then she plopped back down onto her butt and we marveled at how advanced our children are.  I actually suspect that it's no big deal for a 10-month old to stand by herself, but it sure seemed exceptional at the time.



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