4/28/09

That Other Girl

I've been meaning to write this post for almost a year now, since we went with Chris's yearbook students to a 2-day workshop at the beach. The theme returned to me after observing my daughter at a Girl Scout event this weekend.

I noticed her right away: she was the one sitting by herself on the bus with her headphones on, the one who didn't offer an opinion as to which movie to put on the DVD player. When we got to the hotel and unloaded, she gathered her things and stood off to the side of the lobby, clutching her pillow and pretending not to listen to the chatter around her. She looked apprehensive when room keys were handed out; she didn't look surprised when the other girls crammed on the elevator together and told her their was no room for her. At mealtimes, she sat on a bench in the hallway, apparently very intent on her cellphone. The only conversational gambit thrown her way was when another girl said: "What do you have, anyway, a 4.0?" She immediately said, "No way!" but then added, "It's just a 3.9," to a collective groan. In the pool, another girl introduced herself and a friend to a group of boys, and this girl swam up and said, "Hey, you forgot to introduce me!" and was met with a withering look. She swam away.

I was that girl. I was the "smart" one, but also the "shy" one. I was the one who tried desperately to pretend that it didn't matter to me when no one paid attention to me. School, summer camp, college parties -- heck, PTO meetings and office luncheons -- I have never been one to put myself forward, to make a friend easily, to become one of the group.

I saw it with Mallory this weekend. She's so social, my daughter, in that she desperately craves friends and always wants to be with other girls. But she doesn't have the knack of inserting herself easily into a group of other kids. She hesitates, she holds back. She waits to be invited in, she thinks she has to be asked. And I'm afraid that's going to mean that she's going to be left by herself, lots of the time.

I was lucky; despite everything, I had a group of close friends in high school and, eventually, in college. I have one or two close adult friends now (and who has time for more)? I'm still probably a bit socially awkward but I'm old enough not to care so much. But I'm going to hate watching Mallory go through this. I don't think that making friends is a skill that can be taught; and I think it may matter to her even more than it mattered to me. I hope the world is kind to her. I hope she can find those one or two good friends to help her through as well.

4/23/09

A problem for the inchworm

Mallory: Mommy mommy, I brought an inchworm into the house, but it got lost in the couch.

Me: Well, that's a problem.

Mallory: Yeah...but I think it's mostly a problem for the inchworm.




We took the kids to see Monsters vs Aliens last week -- which was spring break -- and Mallory left the theatre in a bit of a sulk because she found the movie "too scary." She brightened when she saw the bank of vending machines -- the ones that vend cheap plastic treats, not candy -- at the theatre exit, and asked if she could get something. Chris gave her a quarter, and she spent many long minutes trying to decide if she wanted a flower tattoo or a teeny farm animal or a wee little monkey. She finally settled on the monkey; she put in her quarter, turned the dial, and out came...a flower ring. "This isn't right," she said. "Them's the breaks," Chris said, essentially. Phoebe also wanted a monkey, so she put her quarter in the same machine, and out came...an actual monkey. Mallory, of course, shouted, "That's not fair!" I scrounged around for another quarter and told her that she could have one more shot. In went the quarter, out came...another ring. Mallory was bereft. We refused to let her try again (reasons we gave: waste of money, monkey not that great of a prize anyway, monkey will get lost in ten minutes, you get what you get and you don't throw a fit). She remained in a foul mood about the monkey for about an hour.

It's hard for me, when things like this happen. Her little face was so sad, it was all I could do not to empty out my wallet so she could keep trying. I know how these little hurts stay with you and magnify in importance, so that in ten years the Loss of the Monkey will be one of the defining moments in her miserable childhood. My moment was at the ominously named Inn of the Mountain Gods, a resort in Ruidoso, New Mexico. We never stayed at this resort -- my grandparents had their own place in Ruidoso -- but for some reason, we stopped there for a visit one summer when I was four, five years old. Jana and I ran off to the playground while my parents did whatever they were doing (something golf-related, presumably). The playground had a huge, circular slide -- the kind my kids call a macaroni slide -- the likes of which I had never seen. At first, I was too afraid to try the slide -- it was so high! so curvy! Jana slid and said it was glorious. I still hung back. Finally, finally, I gathered up my courage. I went to the ladder. Another little boy was climbing up; I started up behind him. But when he got to the top, he freaked out. He started to cry; he wanted to get down. "Let me off!" he yelled at me. I backed down the ladder -- and as soon as I got to the bottom, I heard my dad calling me. It was time to go. "But I want to slide!" I shouted back. No, it was time to leave that instant.

I was crushed. I was angry at the little sissy boy who wrecked my chances, but mostly I was just so, so sad that I wasn't able to try out that slide. I'm sure I was in a fine sulk for an hour or two after that.

Hindsight tells me, of course, that if I'd had a little bit more gumption, I just would've climbed up and slid down and THEN explained to my dad -- who probably wouldn't have been too put out anyway -- that it was my first time on the slide, and then added about the little sissy boy, and I wouldn't have been punished for not obeying right away -- in fact, probably I was more mad at myself for my lack of courage than anything else. Additionally -- we probably did something tremendously fun after leaving that playground. We might have gone swimming, or rollerskating, or bumper-boat riding. But all I remember is what I didn't get to do.

I hope that Mallory remembers all the fun family time we spent on Spring Break of her first grade year. But she'll probably just remember that she didn't get a monkey.




A writer I like quite a lot, who is also a mother, described the secret to parenting thus: "Treat every moment with your child as though it is the only moment he or she will remember." When I read this, I was struck by how this advice is simultaneously precisely right and completely impossible. I try to treat my children, in every moment, with love and respect and good humor and patience and empathy. But I'm also human -- and I don't think it's wrong for my children to see that sometimes I lose my temper, I get frustrated, I need a break. And if my worst moments are what my kids remember when they get older -- well, all I can hope is that someday they'll have kids of their own, and then they'll understand.

4/20/09

Good Egg

Look at this Easter egg:



I mean, it's an egg with a crack and with some drippy dye...but it looks like a branch with blossoms on it. Doesn't it? I found it quite beautiful, all the more so because it was accidental.

Here are some more eggs:



The fancier ones are due to Chris's diligence; my children lost interest in egg-dying about halfway through. Typical.

Untypically, they both let me put their hair up for Easter sunday:



My kids are good eggs too. Mostly.

4/14/09

Two Coins

To sum up a long story, Mallory appropriated a ten-dollar bill from Phoebe's piggy bank a week or so ago, and then used that ten-dollar bill to buy a stuffed animal which cost $6.99. (She was concerned: "But I don't have a seven-dollar bill!" she said. I explained about change. "Will I only get the change if I'm really nice?" she asked.)

Once we realized where Mallory's money had come from -- although, I just realized, I should've known, because Phoebe did come to me and say: "Mallory was pretending to be Mr Krabs and took all me money!" but I thought she was joking -- she was reprimanded and then had to give all of her Easter money to Phoebe for restitution.

The best part about this story is that when we were discussing the incident, Phoebe said: "Mallory stole my dollars. Now I only have two coins left to clink."

4/13/09

Easter Bunny Notes

The night before Easter, Mallory asked if she should have written a note to the Easter Bunny, telling him what she wanted. I told her no, that the Bunny only brought a few treats anyway, not like Santa Claus. She said it was best to be surprised. Then she added, "But just in case you're listening, Easter Bunny? I'd like a Penguin Webkinz."

The night before Easter is also when I went out to buy Cadbury Creme Eggs for Mallory, since she loves them. It did not occur to me that every store in town might be sold out of Cadbury Creme Eggs. Luckily, Mallory seemed to enjoy the store bought "marshmallow nougat caramel eggs" just fine. Blargh. Thanks, Easter Bunny, bock bock!

Mallory ended up writing a note anyway, to thank the Easter Bunny for stopping by. It began: "Dear The Easter Bunny," which is one of those things that your kids do that is just so cute it kills you.

If you let your children eat a piece of Easter candy from their basket before breakfast on Easter Sunday, they will ask to eat a piece of Easter candy from their basket before breakfast the day after Easter, too. Just a warning.

Phoebe was delighted with everything in her basket, and with the egg hunt later that day. She is remarkably easy to please, mostly.

Pictures tomorrow, if my computer and camera will cooperate.

4/9/09

A Conversation

Phoebe: Mommy, will you still be my mommy when I'm all grown up?

Me: Yes, I'll always be your mommy.

Phoebe: And you can take care of my kids when I go to work!

Me: We'll see about that one. What kind of work do you think you'll be doing?

Phoebe: I'm going to have THREE kids!

Mallory: When you have kids, is it hard to decide what to name them?

Me: It can be, if you and your husband don't agree.

Mallory: Did you and Daddy agree?

Me: We compromised. I wanted to name you Briony --

Mallory: Yuck!

Chris: See!

Me: -- and Daddy wanted to name you Abigail.

Phoebe: What about me?

Me: I wanted to name you Emmeline, and Daddy wanted to name you Trixie.

Phoebe: My kids are going to be named Abby, Isabel and...and...Yak.

Me: Yak?

Phoebe: Maybe I'll just have two kids.

Mallory: Trixie? Then she'd be like Trix yogurt.

Me: Exactly.

Mallory: I really wish I could win the Trix yogurt money. See? It says you could win a million dollars if you get the lucky cup.

Me: Actually, it's ten thousand dollars, and you're never going to get the lucky cup.

Mallory: Why not?

Me: [reading package] Because the odds of winning are one in fifty-one million.

Mallory: What does that mean?

Chris: That means you're more likely to be struck by lightning that to win that money.

Me: It means that there are fifty-one million cups of Trix yogurt, and only one of them is the lucky cup.

Mallory: Whoa.

[Pause]

Mallory: How does the yogurt know that you were struck by lightning?

Me: What?

Mallory: Daddy said--

Chris: No, I didn't meant that you get struck by lightning and then you automatically win the money. It was just a comparison.

Mallory: Oh. Anyway, last year at art camp --

Chris: The art camp you attended for one day and dropped out of --

Mallory: Yeah, well, that one day, you gave me yogurt for my snack, and the lid said that I won the money. But I threw it away because I was confused.

Me: Huh. Really?

Mallory: Sorry about that, but I was only six.

Me: Well, I wish you would've kept it, because then you could've paid me back for the art camp that you refused to go to for the rest of the week.

Mallory: Or, I could've built a carnival in our backyard.

4/8/09

Games

On Date Night last weekend, Chris and I went out for pizza and then to a bookstore. Yes, the romance lives on, after all these years. It was actually the first time I'd been to a bookstore since receiving my Kindle for Christmas. In fact the one drawback to having a Kindle is that there isn't much of a need to visit a bookstore. I did browse through the fiction aisle, I and recorded titles of interest into my new "smartphone" (it was free with our contract extension and as for being smart, well, obviously it's smarter than me because I've had it for over a week and I still don't understand what it's doing half the time. It keeps beeping at odd intervals -- why?). But my greatest bookstore find, and something that couldn't easily be Kindle-ized, was this:



Games Magazine! I was thrilled to see it there amongst the word search puzzle books. My parents subscribed to Games, way back in the day. How I loved the EyeBender puzzles, and the Cryptograms, and trying to find the Fake Ad. I wasn't very good at the crosswords (especially the Cryptic ones, which honestly I still don't understand), but I adored the logic puzzles. You know -- Abe, Barry, Carol, Dan and Ethel went on a cruise. They stopped in Albania, Botswana, Canada, Denmark and Egypt and bought apples, bananas, coffee, dates, and eggs. Can you figure out who bought what where based on the clues below? Man, how I loved solving those things -- filling up the grid with "Y" or "N", the rush when I figured out that because Abe didn't buy bananas in Denmark, then Carol must have bought coffee in Albania. One summer Jana and I spent hours, and countless pages of graph paper, working on Games' Biggest Logic Puzzle ever, which had thirty or something variables. I don't even remember if we ever figured it out, but we certainly had fun trying.

Anyway, the Games of today is a bit diminished -- whether in reality, or just in comparison to my memories I do not know. It seems a bit thin and lacking in whimsy, and there was only one logic puzzle. Still, I have been hammering away at the crosswords -- and Mallory picked up the magazine yesterday and complained that there were none left for her to do. So I may subscribe, after all. I think it's a good thing to grow up with Games in the house.

4/3/09

Frozen

I spent an awful lot of time this winter reading books about the Franklin Expedition; it's no wonder I look back at the past few months as being gloomy and depressing. It's not a happy story: In 1845, Captain John Franklin, two British ships, and 127 officers and sailors entered the Arctic sea in a quest to complete the Northwest Passage. They vanished almost without a trace. Search and rescue efforts began in 1848, but it was almost a decade later before a few paltry clues were discovered: A few gravestones on one island; a cryptic note buried in a cairn of stones on another; a scattered trail of bones; silverware and buttons offered up by the Inuit, who also told tales of a company of starving white men marching towards Canada, dying along the way.

Franklin's ships -- the Erebus and the Terror -- were frozen in the ice off of King William Island in 1846. "Wintering over" was expected on these kinds of journeys; it was also expected, however, that the ice would thaw in the spring and allow the ships to continue on. This didn't happen in the spring of 1847 or 1848. In desperation, with more than 20 sailors, including Franklin himself, already dead, the men abandoned the ships in April 1848 and attempted an overland march towards the Canadian mainland -- hundreds of miles away. As the men had to know, this effort was doomed to failure. They were desperately low on provisions, and happened to have landed in a part of the Arctic were game was particularly hard to come by -- not that any of these British seamen would have been capable of downing a caribou, or waiting out a seal, anyway. They were all probably showing signs of scurvy, as it had been at least a year since they'd had any kind of fresh food (other than their daily dose of lemon juice, which had long since lost its effectiveness). And, although they may not have known the reason, they were also all probably suffering from botulism poisoning (from improperly preserved canned goods) and lead poisoning (from those same cans, and also from their stored water supply).

The journey -- their one hope of survival -- would have been grueling even had they been in top physical condition. In hopes of finding open water, and in expectation of having to navigate a large river before reaching the outpost, they had to bring along a number of the ship's lifeboats. These were heavy, heavy things, weighing close to a thousand pounds a piece, and they were tied onto heavy wooden sledges, and filled with provisions -- food, stoves, tents, utensils, and, strangely, books, papers, and furniture -- and with those who were too sick to walk. The men were strapped into harnesses and had to haul the sledges behind them across the ice and snow, maneuvering around crevasses and hoisting over pressure ridges as they went. It was summer, but it was still very cold; for protection, they wore wool sweaters and canvas coats, materials singularly unsuited for exertion in frigid temperatures. As the men sweat, their sweaters absorbed the moisture, which then turned into ice. Their very clothes probably weighed sixty pounds. They had a similar problem at night; they slept in wool sleeping bags, which absorbed the condensation from their breath and became completely waterlogged. The nights were probably worse than the days.

All that work was in vain. Not one man made it to Canada, much less one hundred men in boats. A handful of skeletal remains were found, some showing evidence of cannibalism. No written records, apart from the one letter noting Franklin's death and the abandoning of the ships in 1848, remain. Not even the ships themselves have been found. They were, apparently, finally crushed by the relentless ice and sank beneath the Arctic waters.

The decades-long search for survivors of the Franklin expedition led to extensive surveying and mapping of the Arctic coastline -- more geographical and scientific knowledge than the success of the expedition itself would have generated. The Northwest Passage was finally navigated by Roald Amundsen in 1906; however, due to the pack ice, it has never been the viable trade route the world hoped it would be.

Amundsen was also the first to reach the South Pole, in 1911 -- about a month before the Polar party led by Robert Falcon Scott. Amundsen used sled dogs, skis, and a native understanding of navigating the ice to accomplish his goal. Scott -- who, like Franklin, was one of the heroes of British polar expedition, which will give you a clue of how the story ends -- disliked sled dogs, and attempted to reach the Pole by motor sledge (the gasoline froze) and ponies (ill-suited for the job). Eventually, he and four other slogged to the Pole on foot, hauling their sledges behind them. To see the Norwegian flag planted there, and to read the note left by Amundsen, was disheartening indeed, and made the prospect of the journey back a grim one. They were beset by blizzards and incipient scurvy. One man suffered a head injury, collapsed in the snow, and died; another, Titus Oates, realized that his weakness was hindering his companions. "I am just going outside," he said one morning, "and may be some time," and he walked out into a raging blizzard, never to be seen again. The remaining three slogged on, but finally stopped a mere eleven miles from the food depot that would have saved them, and could go no further. Months later, a party of those left behind at base camp found their bodies frozen in their tent. They removed the journals and letters from the tent, zipped it up, and buried it in the snow. Then they went back to camp and waited for their relief ship to arrive, so they could leave Antarctica and inform the world what had happened to their polar heroes.

I'm not sure why these stories captivate me so much. Certainly it's not because they appeal to any kind of explorer spirit in me; I hate being cold, and I wouldn't last more than a few hours in a tent in my own backyard. Or maybe that's why, after all -- because it's so easy to see, with hindsight, the mistakes that led to the Franklin disaster, and the errors in judgment that led to Scott's party's demise -- but it's easy, too, to admire these men, who retreated to the ends of the earth, beyond any hope of rescue should crisis occur, and endured privation beyond imagination, all in the hope of a little bit of glory.

My favorite books on the subject: The Terror by Dan Simmons (a novel about Franklin's expedition, with a supernatural twist that sometimes feels unnecessary -- weren't things bad enough without introducing a demonic polar bear? but which also provides explanations for "what happened" more satisfactorily than any of the non-fiction books I read); The Worst Journey in the World by Apsley Cherry-Garrard (which ends with the bitter observation that "If you march your winter journeys you will have your reward, so long as all you want is a penguin's egg."); The Coldest March by Susan Solomon; Endurance by Caroline Alexander (I stopped before bringing up Shackleton, but his story, and the photos in this book, are amazing); A First Rate Tragedy by Diana Preston.

Although -- maybe you shouldn't dive in to these books just now. It is spring, after all.

4/2/09

Waiting for Wings

Mallory got a butterfly house for Christmas, and a few weeks ago we sent off for some caterpillars to hatch. A little jar arrived about ten days ago, filled with a layer of sticky goo and five tiny, fuzzy larva -- each less than a quarter-inch long.

According to the instructions, the larva would eat and grow for about a week, and then move to the lid of the jar and start to spin their cocoons. For some reason, I was skeptical. Perhaps I was remembering the disappointments of toys past -- the Moon Sand disaster, the Littlest Pet Shop Secret Password Diary debacle, the Crayola Cutter fiasco. We inspected the little larva a few times a day, and watched as the jar grew full of silk and "frass" (caterpillar poop, for those of you not in the know).

And yesterday, it actually happened. When we checked the jar after dinner, we saw that all five caterpillars had attached themselves to the lid and were partially cocooned. In a few days we'll be able to move them to the net house, and a few days after that, we'll have butterflies.

It strikes me that these tiny creatures are far better at knowing how to take care of themselves than many humans are. For all our brains, or maybe because of them, we lack, or have lost, something of efficiency, and elegance. I think Mallory was right after all.