Thursday, September 30, 2010

Eff'd up nursery rhymes from around the world #1: Vietnam

Well, the stupid internet ruined my introduction to this post by providing more sources debunking than supporting my favorite theories about the creepy origins of the nursery rhymes most English speakers grow up with.  For instance, it turns out that "Ring Around the Rosie" is most likely not a coded reference to the horrors of the Black Plague but simply the meaningless ditty it appears to be.

Still, you have to admit that a lot of the things we chant at our children are tinged with violence, or are at the very least completely absurd.  Sometimes you can kind of find a lesson in these whimsical jingles, but other times it's best not to think about them too much.  Jack and Jill is basic tragedy in two stanzas for the under-five set,  Rock-a-bye Baby prepares children for the precarious nature of existence and the inevitability of death.  And  Goosey, Goosey, Gander?  Who the fuck knows?

But the English language does not hold a copyright on disturbing/perplexing nursery rhymes.  Here are a couple from the Vietnamese tradition, as performed by my wife and enjoyed by Butterbean and Cobra, or as they are known in Vietnamese, Bơ đậu and Rắn hổ mang.

Clap Your Hands if You Know What's Good for You

Clap your hands
Grandma gives you cookie
If you don't clap your hands
Grandma hits you on the head till it hurts

This is pretty self-explanatory.  It's meant to be sung by a grandma.  In the complicated Vietnamese pronoun system, a woman who is roughly the right age to be your grandmother would call herself "grandma" when talking to you, and you would call her the same thing.  The song just doesn't work as well if you substitute the pronoun for someone roughly the age of your mom or dad; so Grandma is always the vessel of both hope and fear.  Anyway, the kids chose not to clap when I turned the camera on.  They will have to answer to Grandma next time she's in town.

I Don't Even Know What to Call this One


(The first line, which sounds like "Chee-chee, chang-chang" is just nonsense)
This nail breathes fire
This horse is dead
Three drunken kings
Not yet this, not yet that

I just love every single line of this!  It reminds me of both a mother-of-pearl wall-hanging depicting the mythical heroes of Vietnam, and the lyrics of a Tom Waits song.  Each line is worthy of being tattooed on the neck of a Vietnamese gangsta.

I'm sure it has some basis in Vietnamese history, and my grandfather-in-law could talk about it for an hour and come up with something just as compelling as the Ring Around the Black Death theory.  But I'm happy just to savor the images, and develop my own story to explain it to the kids when the time comes.

What's your favorite disturbing nursery rhyme?

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

RTT: Mini-vans, punk rock, naps, and book clubs


This is guaranteed to be totally random.  If you can find a theme here, you can be president of my imaginary book club.  About which more later.  Or not.  Who knows?  In any case, make sure you click on the pretty picture above after reading, and go visit the Un Mom and her random friends.

The twins are still taking two naps a day.  They turned 15 months old a couple days ago, and according to some science-y book my wife reads and summarizes for me, 83% of kids are down to one nap per day by that age.  We've dabbled a bit with the one-nap schedule, but most of the time Daddy the girls really need their four hours of down time per day.

Our friends are taking their toddlers to all kinds of classes and events and I'm like, "Well, we would love to go, but that's during nap time" and they're all, "how about..." and I'm, "Yeah, that's also nap time."  I have tried to feel conflicted about denying them hours of potentially enriching consciousness, but it won't stick.

People always say, when officiously spewing platitudes about life, "No one looks back on their life and says, 'gee, I wish I would have spent more time at the office.'"  But do people look back on their lives and say, "Gee, I wish I would have spent more time napping"?  I think you know the answer.*

Development on the mini-van front

We've been test-driving mini-vans and talking about them and researching them for a while.  I wrote more about the existential implications of mini-van ownership here, and will probably do so ad nauseum in the future.  Anyway, we had toyed with the idea of getting the "sport" version (19" rims, sport suspension, a bunch of cosmetic gimmickry) for a little while.  The stiffer suspension actually does make a difference--it's much more sure-footed and car-like.  The rest...meh.

I asked my facebook friends if it was worth an extra c-note per month to get the sport package.  Most sensible people said, "All you need are power side doors--the rest is bullshit."  But my buddy from high school (and singer in my punk band), a true motorhead with Octane Boost flowing through his veins, said I should get the base model and trick it out with aftermarket suspension parts and wheels.  Then his dad (also my fb friend) chimed in and was all, "yeah, and you might want to get it stroked and bored and throw some headers and wheelie bars on it."  To that I responded, in my milquetoast-iest voice, "Erm...I think that might violate the terms of the lease."

But all that is probably irrelevant because my in-laws are now insisting on giving us the mini-van they bought a few years ago to haul furniture for their refinishing business, but don't really use.  They are a bundle of paradoxes, my in-laws.  Frugal to a fault in day-to-day business (rationing paper towels and water, driving all over town to get the best price on lettuce, buying used mismatched tires), they are highly capricious about big ticket items like houses and cars.  But they are always generous (sometimes to a fault: "here, take these blankets from the swap meet and this colander...I picked up this indoor/outdoor carpet for you at Costco...")  The only people as generous are my parents.  As usual, I'm embarrassed by our good fortune.

So now the conversation about the van is more like, "Should we get the LE or the SE?"  
"Or the free one?"
"The SE drives best..."
"The payment terms on the free one are very attractive..."
"The LE is almost as good as the SE, but it's much cheaper..."
"Mom's van is free for nuthin'..."
"But Mom's van doesn't have power doors..."
"We don't even have power windows currently. Or keyless entry. And the key only works in one of the doors..." 
"Hmm...true...but that SE was such a nice ride..."
"Free ninety-nine..."

Someone dared me to post a photo of myself when I was in a punk band back in the day.  Here's a picture of the band c.1987, in our singer's and drummer's dad's garage.  It's from a photo shoot for a D.C. zine that did a profile on us.  (For you youngsters, a "zine" is like a blog with staples.)  I wish I could say I was the guy sitting on the tires with the leather pants (not that I would want be him, but he looks really cool, right?) but he was our bass player.   I'm in the back, holding a cigarette, as I was wont to do in those days.

Book Club

Does anyone want to be in an online book club?  Or does everybody just read blogs 'n' stuff.  I've never been in a book club, much less run one.  Except for in college, which was pretty much one big book club.  And teaching, which was like conducting a book club in which very few people are there of their own volition.

I really want to read David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest, which I have been warned not to attempt alone.   I know that would be a crazy selection for the first book.  What do you think?  Please leave comments or email me at betadad(at)gmail(dot)com.  Don't write it all out like that for cryin' out loud.  That's called protecting myself from spammers.  Because I'm tech savvy.

Random cute video

Because I know why you are really here

*A: Hells Yeah

Monday, September 27, 2010

Ghost story and video

Yesterday, while Dr. Mom took the kids to an apparently awesome indoor playground, I used my alone time to write a short story and submit it to NPR's Three Minute Fiction contest.  The rules were that you had to start and finish the story with lines provided by the contest's judge, the critically acclaimed and widely admired Michael Cunningham (whose work I've never read), and the story could be no longer than 600 words (which is a great exercise in self-discipline for me).  I've never tried to write a spooky story, but based on my wife's reaction ("Mmm-hmm, it's pretty good") I'm pretty sure I'm destined to be the next M. Knight Shammalammadingdong.


“Some people swore that the house was haunted,” Rodney said, “but I didn’t give a rat’s ass.”

“But now…”

Rodney interrupted him.  “I don’t know.” 

The two men were old, with barky faces and rough hands. Rodney had iron-colored hair and a mustache the same yellow-brown as his fingers.  His eyes were wet and baggy, and his eyebrows looked like thunderclouds.

His friend wore a stiff baseball hat with a picture of a crane on it.  I hadn’t heard Rodney talk to anyone in years. 

“I don’t know.”  Rodney got quieter now.  “There was something about that place.  I just couldn’t do anything with it.  Nobody could.” He swirled the whiskey in its short, heavy glass and then swallowed it like that was his job.

“I know,” his friend said.  “I heard the stories.”  He drank his whiskey.  “Seems like every sub you had on that job lost his ass.  Nice-lookin’ house too.”

“Should have been a money-maker.  Now it’s settin’ there rottin’.”   Rodney filled his beer glass.  “Like me.”

“So, what’s…I mean…what’s the ‘real story’ you were talking about on the phone?”

“Aw, hell” Rodney said.  “You know about…” He pulled his sleeve up to show a ragged white scar across the inside of his wrist.

“Yeah, you told me…” He grabbed Rodney’s hand and whistled softly.  “Your saw kicked back on you, right?”

“Well yeah, that’s what I say.  But it didn’t…it wasn’t just a freak accident, like I told everybody.”  He took a drink of beer.  “Sure wish I could smoke in here.”

“So…what was it then?”

“Well, I was working nights by myself ‘cause I was losing my ass on that house.” His friend nodded.  “I’d drink some beers…do other stuff too…just to keep goin’.  And I saw some things.  A couple times.  But I just thought, you know, stress or whatever.

“So I’m in this little nook upstairs.  All cluttered.  No room to work.  It’s like a kid’s…like a playroom or something.  Wasted space.  And I’m cuttin’ a two-by-eight--a twelve-footer--for a header.  I’m gonna make it into a closet. 

 “And I see somethin' out of the corner of my eye, on this old trunk.  Just like I have before.  Except this time, it don’t disappear when I look over there.  This time it stays.

“And it’s a little kid, man.  A little girl with curly blonde hair, settin’ on that trunk, swingin’ her legs and thumpin’ her feet on it.” 

His friend swore quietly.

“I’m freaked out, you know?  Panicking.  But I’m halfway through the cut and my saw’s bindin' up.  I can’t let off the trigger ‘cause then it’ll kick back for sure, you know what I mean?”  His friend nodded.

“And I’m lookin' at this little girl, and she just stares right at me.

I could tell that the other man thought Rodney was crazy or drunk by now.  He was caught up in the story, but I could tell, just like everyone else, he thought it was all Rodney’s fault.

“And then I swear…I swear it, man.  She reaches out and grabs the other end of the board and bounces it up and down.”

Sometimes I feel sad for Rodney, even though it really was his fault for being greedy.

“And that’s when the saw kicks out.”  He raised his right hand up high and brought it down on his left wrist.

I had tried to warn him.

“And the saw damn near cut my hand off…”

He should have stayed out of my room.

“...and nothing was ever the same again after that.”

If that wasn't scary enough for you, check out this video of Butterbean and Cobra haunting our bedroom while playing with enchanted breastpump parts.  The spectral (if somewhat mechanical) music in the background is Dad playing "Capricho Arabe."

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Dog Week Finale: Greta and the Grief Stalker

This is a story about human behavior in the guise of a story about my favorite dead dog.  That's her above, at age nine or so.   As you can probably tell, she was one of those ferocious Rottweilers, or "Rockwilders" as they are often identified by people whose next question is, "Does he bite?"

I don't want to get sidetracked here on my way to the whole point about how weird humans are about grief, but I can't resist first pointing out how stupid a lot of people are about dogs.  When Greta--that was her name--was a puppy, many people in my white-trash-with-glimmers-of-gentrification neighborhood in Charlottesville, VA, and many of the guys I worked with on the construction sites where Greta spent her days, gave me unsolicited advice about how to "make her mean."  The top two suggestions were to tie weights around her neck (to make her bulk up while at the same time annoying her, I guess), and to feed her gunpowder (I assume to give her aggravating ulcers.)  This didn't come up just once or twice.  It was an almost daily conversation.

But to the bemusement of my colleagues and neighbors, I chose to "make her nice" instead.  I trained her on my own, took her to three levels of obedience classes, and helped her earn her "Canine Good Citizen" certificate.  All that training did not keep people from walking across the street to avoid her, but it made me feel like I was a genius.  She was a sweet, friendly, well-mannered, confident dog and I chose to take as much credit for those traits as I shirk responsibility for the shortcomings of my current lovable (sometimes) basket-case of a pet.  I probably had fifty ridiculous nicknames for Greta, and an entire repertoire of songs I had made up about her virtues.  Many of my friends would report to me that they had been behind me at a stop light and seen me either serenading the beast or having earnest discussions with her as she sat next to me in the front seat of my mint-green Suburban.

I'm going to try not to spend all day talking about how much I loved that damn dog, but here's an illustration.  I was sub-contracting at the snootiest gated community in Charlottesville, and a number of residents had complained because one of the rednecks building houses in the neighborhood (me) kept a Rottweiler on a long tie-out, and sometimes walked it off lead at lunchtime, and it was surely going to kill some neighborhood children and Lhasa Apsos, and couldn't the builder he worked for forbid him from bringing this killer into our community?  The foreman from the company called to tell me about the complaints, but he didn't wait for my response, instead saying preemptively, "So I reckon y'all will just find someplace else to work if you can't carry the pooch to the job."  He was correct, and that's what I did.

And one more: I was obsessed with mountain biking in those days, and Greta was my companion on rides as well as work.  I would take her on 8-10 mile rides several times a week, and as long as the trails were technically demanding enough to keep my speed down (not that I was very fast), she had no trouble keeping up, crashing straight through the forest as I wended my way up and down the switchbacks. 

One time we found ourselves on a ride in an unfamiliar location in the George Washington National Forest on a sticky hot afternoon, with only some crappy directions and no map, and waning sunlight.  I'm spontaneous like that.  I took a wrong turn, which added miles to the ride, and never found the trail I was looking for.  Greta was exhausted and overheated, and lay down in the river when we got to the bottom of the mountain.  She cooled off, but was too beat to walk.  So we sat by the river with no trail in sight as the sun went down.  We had already gone 15 miles. 

I knew we had to go back upstream to get to where my truck was, but the undergrowth was too thick to ride or even walk through, and Greta still could barely stand up.  So I stashed my beloved bike behind some rocks and trudged up the middle of the river, carrying the 100+lb. dog,  sometimes half-swimming, until I found a trail.  I continued to carry Greta for the first mile on the trail, stopping to rest every fifty yards or so, until she finally had the strength to walk again; and then we picked our way back the last mile to the truck by the dim light of my otherwise useless brick-sized cell phone.  I had to drive back to the trailhead the next morning and hike in to retrieve my bike.  Greta was tired for about a day after that, but otherwise fine. 

Come to think of it, the above is more of a story of animal endangerment than love for a pet.  Anyway, the point is that we had been through some shit together by the time she got her diagnosis of inoperable cancer that had metastasized to her lungs.

She was twelve when she got the diagnosis, and that's old for a Rottie.  She had the courtesy to make it clear when it was time to put her down.  When her second cancer-riddled rear leg stopped working one morning, I called and made an appointment with the vet for the next day.

When I had to drag her out of the bed of my truck and carry her into the vet clinic, I lost my shit like I haven't done since I was in grade school, if even then.  I was a blubbering, snotty mess, and I didn't think I would be able to carry her.  I finally got myself together enough to bring her into the clinic, and then--this is embarrassingly sentimental--I grabbed my guitar so I could play some music while the drugs kicked in.  I'm pretty sure I was playing a melancholy number called Capricho Arabe when Greta farted one last time, peed buckets all over the operating table and floor, and then stopped breathing.  Somehow the peeing and farting seemed like a perfect gesture--her proverbial last words--and it made me laugh until the tears and snot started flowing once more.

So the weird part--the part that I have wanted to write about since it happened about four years ago--was the lady in the park.  On the morning of the day that I took Greta in to be euthanized, we made one last trip to the park we had been visiting since moving to our current home.  The back end of Greta's body no longer worked, so I had slung a towel underneath her belly that I could use as a handle to hold her up while she walked with her front legs.

As we passed by the tennis courts, a lady with a small, fluffy dog--maybe a Shitzu--approached me and asked what was wrong with Greta.  I wasn't rude, but I told her flat out that Greta would no longer be with us in a matter of an hour or so.  I didn't feel like having a long conversation. 

I guess I expected the woman to reply with a subdued expression of condolence, and respect for our need for privacy. 

But instead, she gasped and cried out that this was the most horrible thing ever and that I must be devastated.  Wasn't I devastated?  She fired off one question after another about the depths of my misery.  It was one of the many times that people have reacted in a way so far removed from what I would have considered appropriate that I had to question my own perception as much as theirs:  surely I just don't know what a normal response should look like.  But she was clearly a "dog person," (like me) so all bets concerning her social skills were off.

Eventually the Shitzu Lady went on her way and Greta and I staggered around a bit more.  We found a shady spot and lay down.  I tried to help Greta roll in the grass like she used to, but her eyes were dull and her breathing was labored.  She was clearly in pain.

After a few moments, I saw, or sensed, some movement in the next shady spot in the field. I turned to see Shitzu Lady, now with a friend--Dachshund Lady--whispering in the shadows as they gawked at the spectacle of my dying dog and me.  To her credit, Dachshund Lady came over and, after asking permission, quietly petted Greta for a minute, with tears streaming down her face, and then moved on.  This was a woman who had never met Greta or me.  Shitzu Lady lingered for a bit and then disappeared.

With just a few minutes before Greta's appointment with the hereafter, I tried to steer her back to the truck.  I had not realized that it's nigh-impossible to steer a dog from the back end when she is controlling the front and has different ideas about where she should go.  Greta just kept plodding farther away from the parking lot as I tried to swing her big butt in front of her nose.  I gave up on that tactic, picked her up and walked toward the truck. 

As I loaded her into the truck, I happened to glance over my shoulder and see Shitzu Lady peeking from behind the pro-shop, holding her dog in her arms and looking distraught.

Sure, I was somewhat peeved that this woman had essentially stalked us around the park during what I had hoped would be a time of quiet reflection.  But it wasn't like she ruined the whole thing.  And I had been quietly reflecting about my ailing pet for months anyway. 

Mostly, being stalked by Shitzu Lady drew my attention to the spectacle--the performance if you will--of grief.  Which is not to say that the way people act when grieving is necessarily artificial in any way.  But it is probably, at least in public, self-aware (probably much, much less so for people who are less self-absorbed than I).  I know I was very self-aware when I had the audience of the two dog ladies, and even when I completely lost it on the tailgate of my truck before taking Greta into the clinic.  And my self-awareness made me even sadder in a strange, kind of funny way: I thought about what a pathetic figure I cut, collapsed over a dog on the back of a pickup, sobbing and gasping like a child or...or like someone who has experienced a tragedy of epic proportions--like you see in some god-forsaken country on the news.  If I had seen something like what I was performing at that moment in a movie, it would have been hard not to get choked up.  In fact, I was getting choked up at the scene even as I was performing it.  So in all, I felt sad not just for Greta, and for me, and for my wife; but also for anyone who might stumble upon my heartbreaking performance.

A bit of a disclaimer: The experience I over-analyzed above was really about grief light.  Greta was a dog after all, not a human family member, and she had lived a very full life.  Thankfully, I have not had much experience with losing really close human friends and family.  I've had some, but in almost every case, I froze up and didn't allow myself to feel much, for whatever multitude of reasons a lot of people (men especially, supposedly) do that.  I remember reading that men are much more comfortable showing affection to their dogs than to their wives and kids, so maybe that's true with grief as well.  I am plenty comfortable with showing affection to my wife and (especially) kids.  I hope to never find out about showing grief.  Obviously.


Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Yer dawg's on fahr!


I guess it's dog week or something here at Beta Dad.  While griping about my current dog, I sometimes think of other dogs I have had in the past, maybe to remind myself that you have to take the bad with the good when you choose to have these adorable beasts in your life.  So here's my random shaggy dog story for Random Tuesday Thoughts, sponsored, as always, by Keely the Un Mom (and secret Canadian.)

I got Mac when I was fourteen years old, in 1982.  We had moved to the outer suburbs of Washington D.C., and the promise of a puppy was meant to assuage any misgivings I had about moving away from my friends on the other side of the county.  I had had one dog before, when we lived in a ninth floor apartment in Moscow, but that had not gone very well--we had to leave the little maniac with a nice Russian guy out in the country when we moved back to the States.

So we got Mac--an Old English Sheepdog--from a backyard breeder, based on a whim shared between my dad and me: something like, Let's get one of those big old shaggy dogs that look like they don't have any eyes.

Mac as a pup

Mac lived to the ripe (and by "ripe" I mean "smelling like death and decay") old age of fourteen.  He was a good boy, and he never complained about the considerable discomfort he had to experience during much of his life.  He was nothing if not stoic.  By the time I finally decided to put him down, he had been struck by lightning (we're pretty sure), had kidney failure, a stroke, got stuck in quicksand, drunk poisonous pool chemicals; and was mostly deaf, blind, and incontinent.  During the last months, our morning routine included me carrying him down the stairs of my second-floor apartment, propping him up in the backyard and (if he hadn't already deposited some dried-up turds during his sleep), tickling his bunghole with a stick to get him to do some business.  That, my friends, is devotion. 

He was deathly afraid of thunderstorms, and giving him the sedative our vet prescribed only made things worse: he would drunkenly reel around the house, trying to cram himself into tiny spaces like between the fridge and the wall, one time memorably leaving a stripe of stress-induced diarrhea all the way around the kitchen like a high-water mark.

He was also aggressive toward other male dogs, which led to at least one ticket from the sheriff's office and several vet bills.  He always bit first and asked questions after he had bitten a couple more times.  This was our fault, of course.  The book my uncle had given me about training dogs emphasized coercive training techniques--for instance, discouraging your dog from eating food off the ground by sticking leads from a car battery into a tempting piece of meat--but never mentioned the concept of "socialization."  This aggression hurt Mac more than his perceived enemies during his years hanging out on construction sites with me though, as when he leaped off of a second-story deck I was building in pursuit of a Cocker Spaniel in the distance, or when he hung himself by a long rope that tethered him to a stud in a house I was framing.

As I said, he was mostly a good boy and a great companion.  He lived with me in a party house full of guys during college and for a few years afterward, and spent the rest of his life as a (mostly) beloved mascot on construction sites.  There were tender moments--sure--but I'm not going to get all Marley and Me on you.  The best stories about Mac always involve poop, dimwittedness, or danger.  What follows is one of the most illustrative stories of Mac in his dotage. 

My buddy and I had a little construction business in Charlottesville, VA, where I went to college and lingered for a long time after graduating.  A lot of what we did was subcontracting from a big local builder.  We specialized in hanging siding, installing exterior trim, and building decks--all the "pretty" carpentry on the outside of the house.  I'm quite sure that my partner and I were the only college graduates among all the dozens of subcontractors that worked for this builder in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, so we were kind of considered the weirdos on the job, since we often conducted important and passionate philosophical discussions while we worked, about stuff like whether robots are inherently evil.  And we talked like Yankees. 

We were working one weekend in the dead of winter, trying to beat a deadline, and one other sub--a grizzled, toothless, old (probably 45, really) drywall finisher we called "Snuffy" behind his back even though everyone else called him Bernard Blue--was doing the same.  Bernard (pronounced "BURN-urd") had brought his grandson to work with him that morning, and the five-year-old boy was huddled near the propane heater in the garage trying to keep warm as his grandpa walked around the garage on stilts, spreading drywall compound ("mud") over the seams in the ceiling.

I was on a scaffold about ten feet up, installing some crown moulding under the eaves, and my partner was cutting for me down on the ground.  Mac lay in the garage near the heater.

Not long after we had gotten started, I caught a whiff of something acrid in the air, like someone was burning plastic.  Or...

"His hahr's on fahr!  His hahr's on fahr!!" I heard a desperate, frightened little voice call from inside the garage.

I squatted down on the scaffold so I could peek into the garage door and--sure enough--his hair was on fucking fire!  Mac was engulfed in flames.

I unclasped my tool belt, allowing nails and tools to shower off the scaffold, and jumped off, landing hard on the frozen dirt.

I thumped the blazing sheepdog's side with my gloved hands until the fire was out.

"Jeesus Christ, Mac!" I yelled at the staggering apparition, now hairless on one side save for a few singed inches of matted fur.  "What the hell were you doing?"

"He was tryin' to git my sammich," said Bernard's little grandson.  He stood near the propane heater with his peanut butter and jelly sandwich in his hand, right at the level of Mac's fetid maw.

And in fact, Mac, seemingly untroubled by his recent immolation, recommenced his palsied pursuit of the boy's lunch.  Mac was thirteen at this point, shaking and shambling when he walked as a result of his recent stroke; and he wobbled after that sandwich for all that he was worth, brushing against the heater, which was really just a big propane burner partially enclosed by a cylinder of sheet metal.  The flames inside regularly lapped out of the top of the cylinder.

"What the fuck, Mac?"  I grumbled as I pulled him to the far corner of the garage.  "Are you out of your tiny little mind?"  "Stay!" I hollered into his charred ear.  Then I yelled it a couple more times, just in case.

I had just barely climbed onto the scaffold and gotten my tools back into order in their respective pouches on my belt when I heard the boys plaintive voice once more.

"His hahr's on fahr again!  His hahr's on fahr again!"  he bellowed.

Again I hopped off the scaffold, this time carefully removing my nailbags first, and again I patted out the flames.

"All right, Mac" I said.  "I think you're going to spend the rest of the day in the truck."

You may wonder why I continued to bring this geriatric dog onto the jobsite with me, when he was clearly a liability; and you might reasonably assume that I stopped bringing him along after that episode.  But in fact, I continued to carry him from the house and lay him in the backseat of my Forest-Service-green Suburban almost every morning until the one on which I took him to the SCPA whence he continued on to doggy heaven or whatever.  It was months after the fire incident that he got stuck in quicksand, but I still toted him around after that.  The practical explanation is that I didn't want to leave him in the house, emptying his bowels and bladder on our seventies-era shag carpet.  But more than that, I guess, I was just used to having him around.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Video: Babies in the dog wagon

I complain a lot about my dog (e.g., here).  Also, I make fun of her (here, for instance.)  I don't feel great about that.  I'm sure she picks up on my frustration with her, and that doesn't help with her terrible anxiety and lack of confidence, which in turn makes me more frustrated with her. 

But there's one thing that she's really good at, and somehow it makes up for a multitude of sins.  I'm pretty proud of her on days like today.


The twins' first ride in the Radio Flyer

Monday, September 13, 2010

RTT: Emasculation by mini-van, a new era of win, swimming babies


I'm trying to be the first one to play Keely's Random Tuesday thing as part of my new strategy of winning everything in life, which you will read about below, before clicking the graphic above.

A while ago, I was bragging about not needing no stinking mini-van.  My parents, their parents before them, and millions of people in Southeast Asia, have shunned them for less elaborate--albeit less safe and commodious--modes of transportation.

So guess what we went to look at yesterday.  Yeah--one of these.  As usual, I have proven myself a hypocrite.  I really don't have any qualms about owning one of these rigs.  At least maybe not the kinds of qualms a lot of dudes do--mostly I feel a little weird about driving something brand new, which neither I nor my wife have done in a decade.  I'm sure that, once we have purchased (or more likely leased) this convenience-pod, I'll write at length about my intensely conflicted feelings toward it.

But for now, I just wanted to explain the new era of win.  This will probably jinx my run of good luck, but whatever.

The reason we feel like we can afford to lease a shiny new motorized adultery-prevention device is that after getting very creative about financing the massive addition I built on the house over the last year and a half, it looks like the sweat equity is going to pay off.  Having convinced the authorities to sign off on my final inspection despite a pretty clear violation of a ridiculous municipal code, we got the house appraised, and it looks like we will be able to refinance it in such a way that it will free up the money we need for the emasculation-mobile.  I feel a little like a dick, bragging that our house has ended up being a good investment while so many people have been sinking under the weight of theirs.  But on the other hand, it's not very often that I get to feel like I have contributed to my family's financial well-being, so I'm relishing it while it lasts.

I'm hoping that my winning streak will continue as I wait to hear the results of the essay contest I just entered, in which the "best" (i.e., most maudlin) essay is awarded a bunch of credits in the weird time-share scam program we use.  Holy shit.  I just realized that we have a time-share AND we may soon have a mini-van.  I really need to get myself some giant nostril-jewelry or a neck tattoo.  Anyway, the essay I submitted (97% fictional) made my wife throw up in her mouth a little bit, so I've got a lot of faith in its effectiveness.

And if you needed more proof that I'm on a roll, I won--WON--a making-up-the-caption contest at the wicked awesome and wildly popular blog, Wait in the Van.  Now, for my prize/humiliation, a link to my blog featuring a cheesy headshot of yours truly disgraces the upper right corner of its otherwise tasteful homepage.  Thanks for the kickass prize, Kristine; and if you are visiting from Wait In the Van, welcome.  Set a spell.  Take your shoes off.  Etc.

Swimming Babies

Here's the cute stuff, which I know is the only reason anyone visits here anyway.  We've been lucky enough to get invited to pool parties for the last three weekends in a row.  The girls are getting to be regular little mermaids (not "Little Mermaid"s, because branded princess-ish characters are banned from this family).  One of the parties was an Asian Mommies event that we showed up to, home-made spring rolls in hand, just as everyone else was leaving.  This was due to our kids still being on a two-nap schedule, and our refusal to violate the sanctity of naptime.  We hung around the posh swim and tennis club for a few hours anyway.

Cobra lurves to splash

Butterbean wading


Cobra over the falls

Friday, September 10, 2010

Butterbean and Cobra in "The Shiny": an animated heist

Cobra is fascinated by the dishwasher.  Butterbean is too, but to a lesser extent.  When I open it around Cobra, she climbs onto the lowered door and tries to get at the silverware inside.

Both of the girls are now cruising around on the battery-operated ATV that their grandparents inflicted first on  my sister-in-law's family, and then transfered to ours once the twins' cousins outgrew the infernal machine.  They are experts at clambering onboard the thing and plowing over whatever is in its path (including each other), but they have not yet figured out steering.  So they crash full-throttle into walls and furniture, holding down the "go" button until someone comes to winch them out of the ruts they have dug in the hardwood (*cough* laminate *cough*) floor.

The other day, Cobra rammed the quad into the dishwasher and stood on the seat with the motor whining and wheels spinning, pounding on the appliance with the toy squirt bottle of mustard that she currently carries around the house most of her waking hours.

From this little moment of mayhem, I figured out what the twins had really been babbling about earlier that day.  I lovingly created this animated film, frame-by-frame*, based on that conversation.

Please enjoy:

*by "created frame-by-frame" I mean that I typed the dialogue into some boxes on the website

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Pandora is chafing my ass

If you are reading this on a computer or other electronic device rather than a papyrus scroll, chances are you are familiar with the "internet radio" website, Pandora.  The premise of this site is that you type in a number of your favorite musical artists or songs, and then the secret algorithm of its "Music Genome Project" pinpoints the commonalities of those artists or songs and finds others that share similar elements, creating a playlist that is scientifically formulated to blow your mind.

I messed around with Pandora a little bit when it first came out, but I only really started taking advantage of it once we had kids.  Friends had given us some CD's of kids' music--some of it was okay, and some of it was vomit-inducing.  To me anyway.  The kids may have loved it.  Who knows.  They were pretty much rag-dolls at that point anyway.

But I read an article in Time a while ago about bands that play kid music that's tolerable for parents, and I typed some of their names into Pandora's musical matchmaking machine.  The results were quite pleasing.  Most of the music has enough hooky, funky, and crunchy sounds to entice my ear, and enough adult-directed irony to suppress my gag reflex.  And if a song pops up whose lyrics are too sincere, or whose vocals are too pitch-perfect, I can hit the "I don't like this song" button, and Pandora apologizes and promises to never play that song again.  This is important to me, since I currently listen to way more kids' music than adult music.  And it's very gratifying on a visceral level: "Fuck off and die, Chipmunks! [or Elmo, Celine Dion, Disney Princess du jour]," I hiss as I throw the killswitch.

I started compiling a list of kids' music artists that I like, thinking that I would buy (or otherwise procure) their albums so the girls and I could listen to them in their entirety; but I soon realized that simply listening to them professionally shuffled on Pandora, gratis save for the occasional commercial interruption, was perfectly acceptable.  After all, when I play grownup music on my iPod, I put it on shuffle mode more often than not.

Nonetheless, as a public service, I have included a list of some bitchin' kids' rock artists you might want to type into your own Pandora station, or listen to in some other, more primitive, way.  You're welcome.

Cool kids' music artists (in no particular order):
The Recess Monkeys
The Sippy Cups
Peter Himmelman
The Great Lakes Swimmers
Imagination Movers
Groovy Ruby
Andy Mason
Van Oodles
Mr. Mocos

Artists with grown-up cred (more or less) who make kids' music, presumably because they have kids.  Or because they saw a way to make a quick buck, for which I can't really blame them:
They Might Be Giants
Barenaked Ladies [guilty pleasure as adult rock, guilt-free when it's "for the kids"]
Jack Johnson [see above bracketed qualification]
Jonathan Richman [brilliantly angsty American proto-punk poet, and pretty okay kid rocker]
Farmer Jason [a.k.a Jason Ringenberg, of Jason and the Scorchers, beloved by me and maybe 250 other people during the period of 1984-1986, during which time we were convinced that "cowpunk," a hybrid of country and punk, was the wave of the future.]


Okay.  So Pandora is pretty kickass for kids' rock.  But how is it for grownup music?  That's where it gets complicated.

If, like me, you are old as hell, you have probably enjoyed many different musical artists at different times in your life.  You may not have loved every phase of these artists' careers, but rather have obsessed over them in the context of an era or moment of your own life experience.  Bruce Springsteen is one of those artists for me.  And Queen.  Also Pink Floyd, Led Zepplin, Aerosmith, Lou Reed, Prince, David Bowie, Iggy Pop, etc., etc.  You can make reasonable arguments for the or against the oeuvre of these artists over the span of their careers, but there is no denying in retrospect that they all had some embarrassingly bad moments.      

By the same token, you may have loved a particular song or album that was an icon of an era--because it happened to be great despite its mainstream appeal--even though every other artifact of that era or moment makes you want to hurl.  The Fine Young Cannibals' She Drives me Crazy, for example.  Joan Jett's I Love Rock 'n' Roll.  Prince's Purple Rain (album, movie, and tour).  You know what I mean. 

I had great hope, when I started entering a diverse sampling of musical acts I love, that the "Music Genome Project" would hook me up with exciting new music to explore.  Instead, it seemed to select obvious records based on artists from the same era or (*open air-quotes*) genre (*close air-quotes*).  I had hoped that the super-secret algorithm would cross-reference tempos, melodies, instrumentation, modalities, vocal timbre, lyrical themes, personnel, and so forth.  But instead, it assumed I would like artists with similar haircuts who were in heavy rotation on the radio at the same time.

Just because I like The Cars and Adam and the Ants, Pandora, does not mean that I love all kitschy eighties one-hit-wonders.  So enough already with The Fixx, Asia, Tommy Tutone, and The Hooters.

Just because I like Squirrel Nut Zippers doesn't mean I like every cheesy swing revival act like Bill Wyman's Boring Old Geezer Band or whatever it's called.

And Pandora doesn't really seem to know what to do with stuff like Iggy and the Stooges, Velvet Underground, and T-Rex, except for play exactly those artists.  The influence of those bands has resounded across the decades--across generations!  C'mon, Pandora, get with it!  Play some stuff by the guys who grew up listening to The Stooges!  I've already heard everything Iggy's done.

Of course it does play a lot of music that I like.  Unfortunately, most of it is stuff I already have--stuff I already know I like.  I entered "Cake," and Pandora started playing a lot of Beck and Weezer.  I know I like them, Pandora--give me something that I haven't heard.

So I entered some newer bands that young hipsters are listening to these days (I know this from hearing about them on NPR), like Arcade Fire and The Hold Steady.  And I guess it is on those artists that I can place the blame for the sets of noodling dirges and rehashed synth-pop Pandora proffers me.

Maybe I'm just being too demanding.  Maybe I should be more open-minded.  Maybe I should trust the technology to tell me what music I like.

Maybe I should listen to the adult music Pandora recommends with the same fresh ears I listen to the kids' music with.  I don't immediately hate "Captain Bogg and Salty" just because pirate rock for kids is so cliched; so why can't I judge songs by Re-Flex and Scandal (or those new kids with their skinny jeans) solely on the basis of their musical merit?

I'm afraid that the answer is that, to some extent, I am a curmudgeon who can't let go of the bitterness of the past, or embrace the musical present.  I spent so much time and energy between the ages of eleven and twenty-eight telling people why the crap they listened to on the radio sucked that I can't allow myself to enjoy anything that I felt was overrated and overplayed back in the day; and I'm suspicious of new music that either a), sounds a lot like stuff I liked in 1987 (Damn kids ripping off The Buzzcocks!); or b), doesn't sound like anything I have ever liked before (That's weird, therefore it sucks).

I have to admit though, that part of my resistance has to do with Pandora making me question my own taste.  I find myself reaching for the "skip" button when a Third Eye Blind song comes on, thinking, "Really, Pandora?  My carefully selected musical parameters leave room for a flash-in-the-pan pop band from the nineties?  Is that really what you came up with when you divided the square root of David Bowie by the sum of Elvis Costello and The Pixies, and multiplied it by Beck?  Because I think my highly developed musical palate demands something a little more substantial."

However, I can't quite bring myself to click the button.  Because my toe is tapping, and I'm humming along.  I look around as if some elder statesman of the eighties D.C. punk scene is lurking in the kitchen, just waiting for me to start rocking out to some pop trash, so he can quietly scoff as I redden with shame.

But there's no one in the kitchen but some babies who really like songs about shoes.  




Friday, September 3, 2010

Stinky Pinky and my materialistic daughter

After the twins were born, or maybe it was for the baby shower, a friend of ours gave us some chenille blankets as a gift.  They joined the other bits of soft, silky, fuzzy, and fleecy material that cycled through the girls' crib as they figured out their sleep routines.

Cobra took to a silky blanket with tabs on it.  When she goes down for a nap, she holds it like a bandit mask, covering her nose and mouth.  If you peek underneath her makeshift disguise, you will see that her tongue is darting out and not quite licking, but rather rhythmically poking, the blanket. 

Sure--Cobra loves her silky and has trouble getting to sleep if it's not around for some reason; but her attachment is nothing like the overwhelming passion Butterbean has for her blankie.

Butterbean fell under the spell of one of the blankets I mentioned above, a luxuriously soft pink 14"x14" square of long-nap chenille with a silky border, sporting a cute tag that says "Little Giraffe."  This quickly became her one and only security device, and God help her parents if for some reason they can't provide it at sleep time.

When Butterbean gets tucked in, she instantly thrashes around until she finds her blanket, clutching it with her arms and legs, and latching her mouth onto it.  She chews and sucks on the blanket until she falls asleep and buries her face in it for the rest of the night.

The problem is that all the chewing and sucking leaves the blanket soggy and, after it dries, crusty and malodeorous: thus its name, "Stinky Pinky."  After a washing, Stinky Pinky is inoffensive for about two days.  After that, you can smell it as soon as you walk into the nursery.

I'm sure you are thinking that we are horrible parents to let our child sleep with a filthy, bacteria-laden rag, and you may be right.  But it is nigh-impossible to wash this thing regularly, because Butterbean--still on a two-nap schedule--can not be without it for more than two or three hours at a time.  This does not leave enough time to hand wash and dry it, and I can't in good conscience run a load of laundry just for Stinky Pinky while our region is in perpetual draught.  We have tried tricking her with a similar blanket, also made by Little Giraffe, while we wash and dry Stinky Pinky by hand, but it just won't do.

So the obvious solution was to buy a replacement.  An exact replica.

We started to shop online.

So, how much do you think a 14"x14" swatch of fabric would run?  Ten, fifteen bucks, tops?  Wrong.  TRY 40-60 DOLLARS!!

We kept waiting for the blankets to go on sale, but the lowest price we could find was about forty dollars.  So we sucked it up, used the Amazon gift card we got from dumping all our accrued change into the Coinstar machine, and bought a Stinky Pinky replica.

And here's the perfectly predictable part:  Butterbean tossed it aside with bitter disdain.  "Take it from my sight!" her incredulous sneer said.

We even tried, as awful as this sounds, to rub some of the stench from the original Stinky Pinky onto the replacement.  No dice.   

We've been trying to break her of the Stinky Pinky habit since yesterday.  So far, this had engendered twenty minute bouts of crying before sleep.  Not terrible, but a little hard to bear since she has been a great sleeper since she was four months old. 

And just moments ago, while Butterbean was supposed to be napping but was wailing with anguish instead, I went to the laundry basket where the original Stinky Pinky is waiting for the next load of wash to go in the machine, and pulled out the pestilent rag with my pincer-grip, keeping it as far from my face as possible.  I almost walked up the stairs and tossed it into the crib. 

But I resolved to stay strong, for the sake of the kid.  The inconsolably grieving kid.



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