Tuesday, September 30, 2008

A Room With A View

It is surprisingly difficult to give vision tests when you have a hard time seeing the chart yourself. This ought not to have been the surprise that it was. Nor should it have been surprising to realize that when you've got dozens of kids in a gym with no soft surfaces, and those kids are making all of the noise that kids will make while their peers are shyly trying to tell me what letter they see on the chart a hundred miles away, it would be hard to hear what they were saying. So even if I could see what they were looking at, I couldn't hear what they thought it was.

Volunteer labor. You get what you pay for.

Monday, September 29, 2008

A Rose By Any Other Name

You can't just invent nicknames. Like funky neighborhoods, prairies and literary culture, they have to grow on their own.

When Tabitha was little, I thought it would be fun for her to have a nickname - something that we could share, just us. I fiddled around with a couple of them for a while, but it never really worked. So Tabitha she remained. And then, without even realizing it, a nickname slowly appeared. To my knowledge, I'm the only one who calls her "Munchkin." I'm not really sure why I started doing that, since she has always been tall for her age - only recently has she dropped back under the 100th percentile in height (who knew you could be more than the 100th percentile?). I wondered what would happen when she saw The Wizard of Oz for the first time, but even when the light bulb went on, she didn't seem to mind. Besides, with the possible exception of the wizard himself, the munchkins are the best part of that movie. How can you not like the coroner ("...she's really most sincerely dead!") or the Lollipop Guild?

With Lauren, it was somewhat different. Now, I realize that this is pretty much a self-evident statement. With Lauren it is always different - she is resolutely her own person, in every conceivable way. It seems to make her happy, even if it does make our lives as parents a bit more complicated. When she was a little over a year, she decided that her name was Nooie, and she insisted we call her that. So we did. It was a cute name, and we liked it very much. We were never sure where it came from - the best we could figure, it was either her way of pronouncing Lauren at the time (though if you said "Lauren," she would correct you), or it derived somehow from "Laurenelly," Kim's conflation of "Lauren Eleanor" that she used to sing to Lauren.

Lauren in her "Nooie" days.

Now, the problem when a small child creates her own nickname for herself is that there is no real standard to judge how it ought to be spelled. For me, it was self-evidently "Nooie." For Kim, it was equally self-evidently "Nouie," presumably analogous to "Louie." Eventually, we accumulated quite a list of possible spellings:

  1. Nooie
  2. Nouie
  3. Nooey
  4. Nouey
  5. Newie
  6. Newy
  7. Newey
  8. Nui
  9. Nue
  10. Nuey (like Huey)
  11. Knooey

And so forth. Who could we ask for verification? Lauren wasn't telling. Eventually, after about 18 months, she went back to being Lauren, and the problem became moot. Though we still use the name sometimes - occasionally shortened to "Noo-noo." Tabitha has added her own twist to it, calling her such things as "Naboober" and "Noobraham Lincoln."

I wonder how Nooie would look spelled out on an office door. Probably just fine.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Old Man River, He Loves His Zucchini

Today was the Great Zucchini Boat Race, because you cannot have enough free-floating produce in your life. This was Kim's idea - she got it from one of those "family fun" magazines that I really ought to read more than I do, though every time I try all that happens is that I am overwhelmed with Martha Stewart Guilt that I am not doing enough to provide quality entertainment and educational opportunities to my children. That's how those magazines make their money, though, so I suppose they are effective at least. I suppose I shall just have to muddle on in my inefficient and bumbling way, though, as I find that reading those magazines tends to induce blinding migraines and really how entertaining and educational would I be then? I'll let Kim handle the magazines - they seem to have no ill effect on her.

Through the kindness of friends, Kim procured the two largest zucchini in the western hemisphere - vegetables large enough to use as FEMA trailers, and about as structurally sound - and gave them to the girls to turn into canoes. This was met with enthusiasm, to say the least. Stage one was Excavation, which also involved a great deal of Flinging About and not a little bit of Sticking To Everything. This was followed by a short period of Cleaning and an even shorter period of Amazement At Just How Much Material Exists Within A Zucchini.

Stage two was Painting and Decoration. Lauren's boat ended white, with two racing stripes running the length of the hull - one blue, the other red. I had a Hotwheels car back in the 70s with just this color scheme and arrangement, and I loved it dearly. It's still buried under the sod behind the old house, probably. Tabitha painted her boat with designs and words - "I (heart) Cats" and a picture of, not surprisingly, a cat, on one side, and "Tabby II" on the other side. Both girls made nice flags for their boats, and Tabby even put a couple of sailors in hers.

Tonight we took the girls and their boats down to the river and for Stage Three: the big race. It was a slow race, conducted at civilized speeds, and to be honest Tabby and I missed the end of it due to more urgent needs, but Lauren reported that it ended up in a tie so no harm done. After the race Kim retrieved the zucchini boats, now almost entirely denuded of paint (sorry fishies!) and we took them out to the water skiers' platform, where the girls dropped them off for their final trip downstream. Eventually they will reach New Orleans, where they will be used for gumbo.

Memories for Sale

If there is anything more disheartening than trying to sell once-precious things at a garage sale, it is the realization of just how few people want to buy any of them.

Every few years we scoop out the contents of the house, shake them gently so that the things that we no longer use or want fall to the bottom, and set those items out on the driveway to be injected back into the Small Item Jetstream that is the garage sale network. This can be an emotionally draining time, especially for me - things have strong attachments to memories, and sometimes it seems a sort of betrayal of those memories to get rid of the things they are attached to. This is especially true with books - I remember the time spent reading them, either by myself or, with children's books, to Tabitha and Lauren. Sometimes I can't give them away even if they are clearly no longer being read - Jamberry, for example, was something that Tabitha and I read together nearly every night for months when she was a toddler, and then Lauren and I read it after that. So that one I keep, along with a few others. Clothes, oddly enough, do not generally inspire such loyalty. I've got no problem getting rid of old clothes, even little outfits that the girls wore. Fortunately, the girls are pretty good about garage sales. They like the idea that the stuff they no longer use will go to children who might want it. Thus we spent a couple of evenings going through their books, piling them into "stay" or "go" categories.

The sale itself was uneventful. For one day of set-up and two days of sitting in a chair in the unseasonably warm September sun, we might have grossed $45 - though, admittedly, most of that was a quarter at a time. The girls actually made a fair amount of money themselves, selling fruit punch to passing motorists and occasional customers. We sold some big stuff that we had liberated from other garage sales years ago - a Little Tykes desk, a kitchen toy set, a pram, and so forth - and the kids books flew out.

My books did not fly out, unfortunately. I weeded my book collection early this summer, taking about six boxes of books down to the basement. These I dutifully placed out for sale, and seven books walked away. What is wrong with these people? These are quality history books! You might learn something! Well, I suppose that is the problem.

The last time we did this, the big category of things for sale was stuffed animals. People like to give stuffed animals to babies, and we had two babies' worth of stuffed animals around the house. I went through their rooms and took out the ones that, for one reason or another, had failed to make the grade - good, quality toys that never became favorites for the inscrutable reasons that kids have. We sold a bunch of them, but still had an entire yellow trash bag stuffed full of them when all was said and done. So I made a call, and then took the bag and both girls (because they should know where these things were going) over to the pediatric ward of our local hospital. The girls bravely told the nurse that they were giving their animals to help the sick children, and they dropped them off and left. It softened the blow a bit, to know that they were going to kids who would love them.

This time, I took the clothes to Goodwill, and I'm working on what to do with the rest of it. It's good stuff, really. Memories come free with every item.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Middle Earth and Life

Tabitha and I have made it through Moria, and are now resting in Lorien.

We started our tour through Middle-earth this summer, when her friend Taryn told her about the movies. The movies would be a bit much for Tabby, though, and we figured that if we started with the books the movies would be less, well, much. So we spent the summer cruising through The Hobbit, and then moved on to the Lord of the Rings in late August.

I have always loved the Lord of the Rings, ever since I first stumbled across it when I was in junior high (which was not middle school then, though it was by the time I graduated). I was at my grandparents' house when the 1970s animated version of the Fellowship of the Ring was on television, and I remember thinking, "This is a great story, but the book HAS to be better than this." So I hied me down to the local library and checked it out. And it was better, no doubt about it.

Eventually, I got around to reading The Hobbit, which was okay. And then I read the Silmarillion, which was just mind-blowing, and - in a preview of my future academic nerdhood - I began my odyssey through all of the subsequent volumes put together by Tolkien's son. I even worked out how to write in Tengwar, the elvish script. This is a useful party trick, and came in handy in 9th grade when The Worst Teacher Ever got snippy at me for the way I wrote my name. So I wrote it in Tengwar for the rest of the year, along with with various snippy comments of my own. Eventually I found out that his daughter took it as a challenge and figured out that the beautifully calligraphed writing at the bottom (hey - if you're going to Challenge The Man, at least do it with style) said snotty-teenage-boy things like "I hope your shorts creep up." TWTE and I had an odd relationship that way - he seemed to enjoy the Tengwar almost as much as the fact that when I would take his multiple choice exams (exams which he was proud to say that nobody had ever gotten an A on in however many years he had been teaching), I would flip coins to determine my answer. Sometimes the coins would hit the 15-foot ceiling of the classroom. "I see Dave's ready," TWTE said one exam day, "He's got his quarter out."

The Lord of the Rings even got me into the workforce. I decided that I wanted the fancy red-leather edition that came in the slipcase, the edition that cost $40 in 1980 (it goes for about double that now). My mother said, "Well, then you can earn the money for it," and so I did. I spent a summer working in the courthouse, helping my mother do title searches, and she paid me out of her own pocket. And when I had $43 saved up (must account for tax!) I rode off to the book store on my red bike and came home triumphant. And then disappeared for a week to read it - a ritual I completed annually until well into my 20s.

Nerdhood, yes, that's me.

So now I am infecting a new generation with the Tolkien bug. So far Tabitha's enjoying it, and she asks lots of questions about the backgrounds of the various characters. Nobody does backstory like Tolkien, so there's always lots to say about that. Eventually we'll try the movies.

I think a lot of why I ended up as a historian can be traced back to that cartoon I saw at my grandparents' house. It led me to Middle-earth, which led me to medieval history in general, which led me here. Not bad for a cartoon.

Rivers of Chocolate

Today we fired up the chocolate fountain, and made it rain. All over the kitchen, all over various garments, all over most of the central time zone - yea, verily, the animals lined up two by two to get their fill of delicious, delicious chocolate-dipped strawberries. And then there were sparkler-dances in the driveway. This, folks is art. Does the National Endowment for the Arts know about this? Well, they should.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

School Is Back In Session For Everyone

One of the benefits of unemployment is that it gives you a fair amount of extra time that you might otherwise have spent making money to support your eating habit and those of your family members. On the flip side, though, you can spend that time with said family members in ways that were previously not possible. So it's something of a toss-up, from that perspective.

Last Friday I spent most of the morning at Tabitha and Lauren's elementary school, helping out with school pictures. And lawsy what an experience that was. Not a bad experience, mind you - both girls were excited to have Dad there, and waved to and even hugged old Dad in front of their peers. It is nice to know that I am still acceptable that way, and that it will be a few years before I am Hopelessly Uncool And An Embarrassment. I have never been cool - not even when I was young and cared - and knowing that in about five years I will be even less cool than normal is rather daunting, but I intend to enjoy the time between now and then immensely.

No, picture day was fascinating because of the names. Kismet. Diamond. Treasure. Sabre. And don't forget Cameron, Camrin, Camryn, Cammeron, Cammrynne, Camnrinne, and Ethel (pronounced "Camryn"). What are these parents thinking? Someday these people are going to be adults, and I just cannot find it in my shriveled brain to picture an important business executive named Kismet. That poor child will end up selling organic tea to goat-herders, which, come to think of it, may not be all that bad a life, so I will shut up now.

I suppose I have no reason to complain - they're not my kids, and my own name is so blandly common as to be unmemorable even to close friends - but it does make your head spin a bit. Is Diamond a boy or a girl? What about any of the Camerons? That used to be a boy's name, but is now mostly a girl's name, though not entirely - it's like Jackie and Dana that way. Ah well.

But it went well, and at some point there will be Pictures! Pictures to send to Grandparents! Pictures to line the walls with! There are two things you can't have too many of in life - pictures and books. Which makes picture books just the neatest things on earth, I suppose. Everyone should have some!

I left school around lunchtime, and a couple hours later, there I was back again. School lets out at 3pm, and since I have the time (vide supra) I go pick them up and take them home. I have learned that if you want to get a parking spot anywhere near the school you have to be there by 2:40, otherwise it's easier to park in the garage and just walk down. The girls meet me "by the tree." This is somewhat problematic, as there are at least three trees in the general vicinity of where they want to meet me, each about 15 feet from the other two. There is one specific tree that I am supposed to be by, though for the life of me I cannot figure out which one it is and I don't want to be hopping about from tree to tree since two of them are on somebody's lawn and bouncing around between three trees right next to an elementary school will probably get me locked up as a child predator these days when really the most danger I represent is to the grass underfoot. But there I was, waiting by the one tree that isn't on someone's lawn, when Tabitha and Lauren came bouncing down the sidewalk, as happy to see me as they had been that morning. Life is good.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Speed Limits All Around

It must really be a drag to be a cop, driving around. Everyone slows down to the speed limit as soon as they see you, and it takes forever to get anywhere that way. You'd have to pretend to speed off to emergency calls every now and then just to preserve your sanity.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Confessions of a Former News Junkie

I listened to the news today on the radio.

Now, a couple of years ago, this would have been about as remarkable as saying, "I remained tethered to the planet by gravity this afternoon." At the time three of the six pre-set buttons on my old car radio were tuned to various NPR stations, fully half of the bookmarks on my browser were set to news feeds of one sort or another, and CNN was one of the four things I watched on television (the others being sports, weather, and an astonishing number of things that involved talking animals - and what all four of these things have in common is that you can watch them in 10-second increments, which is about all you get when you have two small children careening around the house).

Then one day I was driving home from work, turning left from one small state highway onto another one, and some flack for the current rogue regime in Washington was spinning one of the stories of the day this way and that - I think he was saying something negative about North Korea, one of the few unequivocally FUBAR'd countries on earth - and it suddenly hit me: I don't believe anything this man is saying. I simply do not believe what my government is telling me anymore, even when the subject is one that they have no rational need to lie about. For a lot of people, this ranks in the "tethered by gravity" category, but for me it was beyond disheartening. And I turned off the radio, and stopped listening to the news.

Oh I read the news - skimming through various newspapers in their on-line avatars, mostly - but I stopped listening to it, or watching it, or even, for a while, trying to follow it at all.

Listening to the radio in the car became a challenge. I was never cool even when I was young enough to care, so most music stations were out - and oldies stations just bother me in principle. That left country music (the awful result of inbreeding, moonshine and right-wing politics), religious extremist radio (for surely God loves nuclear weapons and hates people who are Not Like Us), or political extremist radio (see previous). Or, the very bottom of the intellectual pile - sports talk radio. And there I sat, for years, listening to the various Sports Knobs prattle on about football, baseball and basketball (never hockey, occasionally golf). Mike and Mike were my heroes. Colin Cowherd the voice I loved to belittle. And Jim Rome - the knob's knob. There was even the occasional NASCAR Minute.

As a side note - if you were going to create a radio network devoted to automobile racing, and you were rash enough to name it the Motor Racing Network, wouldn't you make it some sort of company policy that announcers were NEVER to abbreviate it? The first time I heard some good-old-boy wrap up his stock car report with the quickly-slurred phrase "this is MRN Radio," I almost ran off the road from laughing so hard.

But eventually the old ways come out, and NPR blared forth again in my car. Just in time for election season.

My timing stinks, as usual.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Time, Tide and Kindergarten

And so the first week of school has passed by, and there are two - count 'em, two - school-agers in our house now. Who would have ever thought? Tabitha started third grade on Tuesday, and Lauren is now a kindergartner. With Tabby, going to school has become old hat - she gathers up her stuff and moves on. But for Lauren, it was a big day. Not as perfect as she would have liked it to be, since she ended up with a different teacher than the one her sister had for kindergarten, but just fine nonetheless.

They go to a neatly-kept little school named for a president whose main achievement was that "he wasn't bad." Every morning they march away from us and toward their friends, their classmates and their future. And all I can do is watch, hope and remember. Every parent does this. Children exist, in parents' minds, in four dimensions - the three you see and the fourth, which is time. When parents look at kids, they see them across time - as the person they are, as the babies and toddlers they used to be, sometimes even as the adults they may become. It gets confusing sometimes, and it can be hard to address the correct kid - you pitch your remarks too young, too old; you forget that they are bigger now.

And they are bigger now. But not too big. Not yet.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Statement of Purpose

I find myself with more spare time than I am used to having, these days, and thus the creation of this blog. Like most blogs, this one has no particular purpose - which makes the title rather more ironic than is generally acceptable in modern America, but so it goes. It exists mostly for my own entertainment. For that reason, it will include a bit of everything - family news, books and movies, general musings, politics, and occasionally even things that might interest others outside my world. There is much in the world that is amusing, much more that is not, and even more that just begs to be commented upon or written about.

"History is not what you thought. It is what you can remember. All other history defeats itself."
-W. C. Sellar & R. J. Yeatman, 1066 and All That.

Here I write what I wish to remember, and if it is worth reading then so much the better.