Wednesday, March 31, 2010

In honor of my grandmother's 95th birthday

Her birthday was actually March 1, but it's the thought that counts, right? And...action!

The Japanese have a saying that reflects the importance of conformity and harmony in their society: “The nail that sticks out gets pounded down.” Don’t complain. Don’t make trouble. Don’t be too different. But this never stopped my grandmother, Miye Sakata. She was a troublemaker if ever there was one. “I’m a fighter,” she would say proudly. “If you want to be true to yourself in Japan, you have to stick up for yourself, because no one will stick up for you.”

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Ain't no party like a Jedi party...unless you're a girl?

And there was one there. Not only was she the only girl, but she didn't know anyone but TZ and one other boy--and both of them were too battle-crazed to pay much attention to her.

My wonderful "niece", HH, held her own in the "keep the balloon in the air" game, but respectfully declined to run the Jedi training obstacle course, which involved doing battle with Sith baddies on the way out and back. She rode her bike/starfighter through the slalom course in the street, but at the end of the party, as a Sith-Jedi battle raged around her, she sat and patiently worked out a coded message that was supposed to have warned the Jedi of the Sith attack (the Sith were miscued and came out to fight before the code was broken, much to my dismay and the Jedis' delight--they were getting bored with the code and starting to wander off).

I am not sure what her take on the whole thing was. I think she enjoyed herself. The other mothers-of-sons saw her during the final battle, smiled, and said, "They're just different, aren't they?"

On the other hand, once HH was done with the code, she and her sister took up their lightsabers and attacked their daddy with great zeal, so maybe it was just a matter of whom she knew.

Ain't no party like a Jedi party

Now I know why people have their children's birthday parties at places other than home.

Two hours of mayhem, with breaks for cake and one game which required kids to be silent. Because it was all outside, and because the only food we served was cake and juice, there wasn't much mess to clean up, but I was not prepared for the astronomical levels of frenzied energy that seven little boys with pool-noodle lightsabers can generate. After the party, I was (and continue to be) exhausted.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Birthday boy, birthday cake, and letting go.

TZ turned seven today. At this very moment seven years ago, I was at the hospital, begging to be allowed to push the little bugger out--having forgotten to call the midwife before we left the house, we had to wait at the hospital for her to arrive before I was allowed to push. I look at my growing-up baby now and I can hardly believe that he's the same being that was squished up in my uterus that night.

He's not, really. The fetus would not have gone with me to Baskin-Robbins today and ordered the awful spray-painted-blue-with-red-trim Star Wars ice cream cake featuring Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader figurines brandishing lightsabers at each other for his birthday party two days hence. The fetus, still subject to my own hopes and dreams, would have grown up into a boy who clapped his hands with delight when I offered to bake him a cake in the shape of an astronaut, or maybe his favorite vegetable.

Friday, March 19, 2010

More on testing, boys, and race

The Center on Education Policy published a report this week on standardized test score trends in every state from the early 2000's through the 2008 school year. Their big takeaway: an achievement gap between girls and boys (the girls being the winners). Anyone who's read recent boy-literature (Raising Cain; Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys, by Dan Kindlon and Michael Thompson; The Trouble With Boys; a Surprising Report Card on Our Sons, Their Problems at School, and What Parents and Educators Must Do, by Newsweek writer Peg Tyre, about which more later; and stacks of other similar books) knows about this somewhat unexpected, and yet somehow unsurprising trend. Everyone knows that boys hate school and girls, well, don't hate it.

What the CEP found was that across the board, boys are trailing girls in reading, and girls are catching up to boys in math. Oddly enough, they describe this as "good news for girls, but troubling news for boys."

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Testing, testing. And vegetables.

Yes, it's that time of year again. The CA Department of Ed is rolling out the CAHSEE (that's California High School Exit Exam, pronounced caysee) and teenagers across the state are sitting down with their number two pencils and their Scantron sheets and bubbling in their tickets out of high school. One of them, anyway.

The English/Language Arts is a big part of the exam, and I remember spending class time every year getting my sophomores ready to take the test. We'd go over sample questions, review test-taking strategies, respond to sample prompts. I hated it, and so did they.

Diane Ravitch, an education scholar who served both the Bush I and Clinton administrations, was once a vocal proponent of No Child Left Behind. The author of the recently published The Death and Life of the American School System: How Accountability and Choice are Undermining Education, Ravitch has since rejected NCLB’s testing-and-accountability model, saying that it “turned into a nightmare for American schools, producing graduates who were drilled regularly on the basic skills but were often ignorant about almost everything else.” I heartily agree.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Bike ride, anyone?

I had hoped to post a book review today, but I didn't have a large enough window of time.

So here, instead, is a great little organized, supported (as in, with rest/food stops) local bike ride to do with kids: The Challenge Bike Ride on May 2. It's an easy 25 mile ride through Sunnyvale, Mountain View, Los Altos, and Los Altos Hills, and you can drop in or out at any point along the route (which it seems they haven't finished planning). It's sponsored by the El Camino YMCA, from the looks of it, and there's also a festival/party from 12:00-3:00 at the YMCA itself.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Boy Fun

Yesterday, TZ and his across-the-street friend TM did a little Jedi training in the empty lot next to TM's house. There was something so 1950's about it--just substitute popguns or toy rifles for the light sabers, and there we'd be in Mayberry. The boys eventually abandoned their weapons for hockey sticks and began mining, I guess. Then TM slipped and fell into a huge mud puddle and went home (he hates getting dirty). TZ, left to his own devices, became Captain Rex/Anakin leading his men against an army of battle droids (see video).

Captain Rex asks for ice cream

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Boys and guns and all of that

Clone warrior with awesome blaster (cue TZ panting)

When TZ's mania for guns, war, and other unacceptable problem-solving tools becomes too distressing, I go to good ol' Google and poke around for something that will shed a little light on the issue. What I found this time was a great blog called Blogging 'Bout Boys and an article by Maya Gotz entitled Media and the Make Believe World of Boys and Girls.

The blog, as you might guess, is about boys--parenting boys, to be specific, and according to its author, ain't nothin' you can do 'bout that heat-packin' rapscallion, except to remember that he's also a sweet little boy. Which is the gist of what most Mothers of Older Boys have told me.

I keep thinking, "But you haven't seen my boy in action." Not that he's special, but he kind of is. He's not just interested in something--he's obsessed. It used to be firefighters--anyone else have a son who was a firefighter for Halloween for four years in a row? Granted, the final year (2008) was a transition year--he wanted to be Darth Vader, but I said no, so he went with his backup costume. In 2009, he begged for weeks to be allowed to have a clone trooper costume, and I finally relented.

But back to obsession. For years it was firefighters all day long--except for Rock Star, his other obsession (you play rock star by blasting blink-182 and playing air guitar or pillow drums.) And now it's Star Wars and Clone Wars. All the time. All the time. All...The...Time. Am I making myself quite clear?

Well, okay, sometimes it's United States Marines. With occasional breaks for fart and butt jokes.

TZ plays a hybrid character: part Clone Captain Rex (cool uniform and awesome blaster) and part Anakin (cool hair, mastery of the Force, and awesome light saber); he switches off in terms of which character's role he is actually taking. Combining attributes of power from different characters is typical boy play, according to Maya Gotz, the author of Media and the Make Believe, etc. Boys also tend to lift plots, characters, and setting wholesale from the media source, whereas girls modify their characters, plots, and settings to fit their fantasies. The princesses and fairies end up far more empowered in little-girl fantasy than in the original media. Which is encouraging if you're the mother of a girl, but what about me? I suppose it's nice to know that TZ is typical. Still, living in an imaginary battle zone drives me nuts sometimes.

Going Solar

Actually it happened last week, but today is the first day since then that we've had uninterrupted sunshine, and boy, are we crankin'. Because of all the trees, even the sunniest part of the roof only gets sun for part of the day, but even today, in early March, the system will offset the whole day's worth of electricity usage. Woo-hoo!

The website to which we are now connected has a piece which describes in imaginary concrete terms what impact the panels have each day: You planted a tree today. Or: You took x cars off the road today. Which is silly and technically false, but fun.

It wasn't cheap, but rebates and discounts took 40% off of the initial cost of buying and installing the system. Our current usage is so low that it will still take twenty years to pay for itself (maybe less, assuming the boys use more electricity as they grow older), but dollars, in the end, are less important than cool new technology--I mean, saving the earth--right?

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Toppings or no toppings?

The boys are downstairs blasting the Star Wars soundtrack and having sword fights with Daddy, hopped up on Girl Scout cookies. I had expressly forbidden RT to bring them into the house (the cookies, not the boys) because a) I don't like them, and b) I eat them anyway until I'm sick. But a group of enterprising girls set up shop outside the sanctuary at church, and RT bought a few boxes and told the boys they could have one of each kind when they got home. Which put me, as always, in the position of being the mean witch who spoils all the fun. I've been trying to loosen up, so I went with my Nice Mommy persona and let it go today. And had quite a few cookies myself. Blech.

The thing is, I don't want my little guys to feel entitled to all the extras all the time, be it sweets, television, toys, what have you. Whereas RT worries that they'll feel deprived if they don't get the extras. Same ol', same ol', same ol' story. Case in point: TZ had a tantrum the other night because I made an executive decision to go to Los Altos Creamery--new and wonderful and yummy. He wanted to go to Miyo for frozen yogurt because, he insisted, he liked frozen yogurt better. Which is such a crock. He likes Miyo because he gets way more creamy goodness (you get to serve yourself) and two toppings instead of zero. RT actually used to let him get four until I had a tantrum of my own.

I called TZ's bluff and he folded right away, and then demanded--demanded--that if we had to get ice cream, he be allowed to get toppings. See what I mean about feeling entitled to the extras? Maybe it's mean, but this is where I draw the line. Because what's wrong with ice cream without toppings? Since when is that not enough? Why should a kid think he deserves more?

In the car, after threatening to stay home and then caving, and having lost the topping battle, my little darling snarled, "If I don't get toppings, then I get to have a sprinkle cone." Again with the attitude. I can't stand that.

Of course, once we arrived at the Creamery (which stayed open extra late for us--that's how great they are) and TZ got a few licks of his cone, all was well again.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Harriet the Spy, Disneyfied.

Sigh. Nickelodeon's 1996 movie adaptation of one of my favorite books of all time was passable, with the absurd exception of Rosie O'Donnell as Ole Golly (what?). But Disney's Harriet the Spy: Blog Wars promises to be a travesty. Apparently Jennifer Stone (The Wizards of Waverly Place) spends the movie diving behind couches and wearing silly costumes on her mission to reveal "the biggest teen star"... "for who he really is" (in response to which said teen star cries out, "You don't me! You don't know anything!") so that she can win a blogging competition against "a popular girl". It's just so ludicrous, I don't know whether to laugh or cry. But see for yourself:

What's a Disney movie about a spunky girl without a potential (chaste, of course) hook-up with a hunky guy on the horizon?

The real Harriet would have been a) more sneaky, b) more snarky, and c) less likely to be obsessed with a boy, even as a professional. In addition to its subversive message, the book apparently has a lesbian subtext (Louise Fitzhugh was gay) and a pathos that, oddly enough, haven't made it into any tween movies I've ever seen. Not that I've seen many, but I think I'm on pretty solid ground, here.

I agree that the brainy, independent tomboy is not a huge departure from normal these days, and therefore not as exciting or exotic as she was in 1964. Even Disney's postmodern princesses are portrayed that way, despite their Barbie doll figures, long, luxurious hair, and dreamboat boyfriends. Maybe Disney thinks that the original cagey, prickly Harriet wouldn't appeal to their tween audience--she's certainly not cute or hip, or even nice. But I thought that was the point, and I'd like to think that girls today would get it.

Who knows, maybe the film doesn't end with romance in the wings. Maybe Stone's Harriet is just as much a prickly misfit as the original. I've only seen the trailer, after all, so maybe I'm not giving credit where credit's due.

But I doubt it.

Ms. Fitzhugh must be rolling over in her grave.

Harriet in 1964, 1996, and 2010--the only thing that hasn't changed is the notebook.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Once we find it, we never let go.

So said our pediatrician to a friend of mine regarding her three-year-old son's apparent obsession with his little penis.

Skip to our house, two nights ago, just as the boys had cleared the table and were sitting down to dessert. K was at his place and ready to dig in when TZ arrived in the kitchen, smirking. "Lookit!" he said, and pulled up his shirt to reveal his penis dangling over the waistband of his sagging pants. This is a trick that K discovered a few weeks ago, one day at the store as he waited for me to make a purchase. As a baby and a toddler, TZ never really used his, er, equipment as a plaything, but K is constantly finding new ways to enjoy his.

"Ah," said I, "Just like K," and indulged him with a half-laugh. "Now pull your pants up and sit down for your dessert."


Instead, TZ waddled into the dining room and showed a delighted K what he had done. Within seconds, K's penis was out, too, and the two of them were shrieking with laughter, and hootin' and hollerin' and carryin' on, as one of my Southern sister-in-law's Southern bridesmaids once said, like all get out.

Brainy, liberal, I-understand-my-boys me tried to let them have their fun, but a few seconds later, control-freak, why-can't-they-be-more-like-girls me could stand it no longer and started trying to get them to behave. Another few seconds of ineffectual admonishments, and I finally shouted, "Okay, that's enough. I'm coming to the table now, and if I see a penis, I'm going to eat your treats."

Even as I said it, I marveled at how absurd it sounded. They tucked themselves back into their pants in a hurry as I approached the table, and I half wondered what weird sexual lesson they would learn from this moment and reveal to their therapists in the future. But they kept giggling, and I had to join them. "You two are a couple of goofballs," I told them. No pun intended.

Monday, March 1, 2010

lands' end canvas...?

Lands' End, that trusty old purveyor of preppy clothing for conservative dressers and their children, has apparently launched a new line clearly aimed at a slightly younger, somewhat less married, far less child-ridden demographic than we two: Lands' End Canvas. I know. Huh? How "canvas" is supposed to signify urban casual hipness is beyond me. Canvas = casual? Or maybe canvas = art = loft = urban? The catalog's indoor scenes do suggest an artists' loft. And the inside back cover does prominently feature a pair of old-school canvas sneakers. My first thought was canvas = sailing, for some reason--that old Lands' End theme, I guess. Hmm. So maybe a good choice after all, with all those associations floating about. But still it seems a little awkward.

The catalog itself, which arrived in the mail today, is much better. It's more than a little reminiscent of early 1990's J. Crew catalogs (remember those? I miss them)--quite on purpose, surely. Check out the feature photo from the swimsuit collection--bandeau bikini top, cardi, playful soft hat, even the pose--is it not vintage 1990 J. Crew? Except that the Lands' End models appear to have been caught on a Saturday afternoon, tooling around their in-the-process-of-being-revitalized urban neighborhood, whereas the early J. Crew crew often looked as though they were vacationing in the Hamptons or perhaps Vermont. Maybe the Lands' End gang will go on vacation in their next catalog.

The catalog has got kind of an anthropologie hit to it, too, although the clothes are not nearly as precious--it's all those soft-focus, backlit photos of women with their hair in artful disarray. The online catalog is a lot like all the rest, with the models just modeling their clothes against a studio (canvas) backdrop.

The inventory is cuter than the "real" Lands' End, which I used to think only 40-somethings would wear until I myself became a 40-something. I haven't looked at the prices, but it has to be cheaper than J. Crew, my old go-to catalog store--but J. Crew has gone so upscale and thin that I simply cannot shop there anymore.