Month: August 2012

Space is Becoming Cool Again

A year ago I wrote an article talking about the lack of child-aimed science fiction. It was based on a blog post I wrote in 2009 about an experience with Patch where we deliberately sought out information on the space program. At the time, both times, I expressed concern that my children would not experience the sense of wonder about space that I felt as a child. If people don’t feel that wonder, then funding for space programs will disappear, and that would be sad for all of us.

This month NASA landed another rover on Mars, an event my teenage daughter was excited to watch. Today I picked up a copy of a National Geographic entitled “Exploring Space” As soon as it was spied on the counter, a child snatched it and ran off to read it. Also today, I saw a commercial for Nook Color in which a little girl and her mother read Curious George and then the little girl played space exploration by pretending to be an astronaut. Many congrats to Nook for portraying a little girl aspiring to be something other than a princess or a fairy. It pleases me greatly that the advertising folks at Nook think that space exploration is cool enough to entice people to buy a Nook Color to share with their kids.

I think we might just inspire that next generation of scientists, engineers, and astronauts after all.

Blind Spot

Howard sent me a link to a game called Petit Computer with a note that it might be a good choice for Link’s upcoming birthday. I watched the video and it was like being transported back to all the computer avoidance of my childhood. My father was a computer programmer beginning in the days when that meant racks of punch cards. My three brothers and two of my sisters were all interested in the possibilities of programming. For me, programming was something to escape from rather than enjoyable. My response to Howard was that I was not a good judge of whether the game would appeal, because it looked hard and boring to me. I was just self-aware enough to know that not everyone shares my opinion of programming. My family members certainly didn’t. Many of my current friends are excited by the thought of putting together code which turns a pile of organized metal and plastic into a magic generator of games and productivity. I just want to turn on the computer and use it.

I think I was in elementary school the first time I located the blind spots in my eyes. Every eye has them. They are the spot on the retina where the optic nerve attaches. This means that no visual data is collected there. We don’t notice them because our brains fill in the gap with what ever is surrounding that spot. If you put something small enough into exactly the right visual space, it vanishes. I remember holding an optical illusions book close to my nose and moving it back and forth to watch a printed dot disappear into my blind spot and come back again. As long as the dot sat in my blind spot, it was as if it did not exist.

As kids hit their teenage years, they start needing a focus. They need something around which to form an adult identity and a direction to be heading. Children are happy to just be, teens want to be going somewhere. Link struggled last year because he knew that he needed a direction for his life, but the only thing he is really passionate about is video games. I keep trying to introduce him to things ancillary to video games in the hope that something would ignite the same passion. I gave him tools for making videos and video editing. We took him to GenCon. I kept casting around for something, anything, that would help Link find a focus. I never even considered teaching him to program a computer. Programming sat in my blind spot, because I didn’t like it and didn’t know how to make it sound exciting. It did not occur to me that to the right person, programming is exciting all by itself.

“Mom! I want to buy this game.” It was a familiar refrain, one I’ve been hearing all summer. Link has spent most of his lawn mowing money buying games on his 3DS. He researches the games himself, plays demos, and then comes to me for help when he’s ready to buy. The game he had found this time was Petit Computer.
“You really want this one?” I asked.
“Yeah! I can use it to write my own games!” Link’s eyes were bright and excited in the way that he is when he is truly engaged. When Link is talking about something he loves, he meets my eyes and speaks at length. His enthusiasm causes him to forget that words don’t always come easy. At all other times he uses as few words as possible. We bought the game. More than that, we made an appointment with one of his uncles, someone who loves programming, to sit down with Link and teach him enough BASIC to make the game do fun things.

It is like I turned my head and realized that a wonderful possibility was sitting right there in my blind spot. Among the things that Link will be getting for his birthday is a copy of Hello World! Computer Programming for Kids. It is possible that Link will not fall in love with programming, and that is fine. He needs something he is passionate about, not something his mom thinks he should do.

I never wanted to be the parent who tried to push kids into things I wish I could have done. Yet over and over I discover my own interests and biases leaking into their lives. All I can do is make adjustments when I catch myself doing it.

Eradicating a Buried Hornet’s Nest

The entrance to the nest was dug under a railroad tie. I could see the hornets going in and out pretty regularly. My first attempt was to wait until dark and then spray the entrance with one of those wasp killers that shoot 20 feet. I tried to spray right down the hole. Unfortunately the next day proved that the nest was not dead. There were fewer hornets, but they were still coming in and out. Tonight it rained, which I hoped would be additionally calming to the stinging bugs. I scraped everything away from the entrance. Then I used a foaming wasp killer which is supposed to coat a nest. I’d spray the entrance until it was buried in foam, then use a shovel to dig it out a bit. The force of the spray was sufficient to loosen up the dirt quite a bit. I repeated as often as I dared, which was until I’d almost emptied the can. I definitely dug into a hollow space underneath the wood, but I’m still not sure I got a clear shot at the nest. This is particularly true if the nest us up into the wood rather than even or below the entrance. I didn’t see any bugs, which I’d expect if I killed the heart of it. I’ll see if there is activity tomorrow. If there is, I’ll repeat this process. The location of the activity will help me know where to focus the next spray and dig attack.

The whole thing was pretty nerve wracking. I do not like to dig where I think there might be a hundred angry stinging insects. On the other hand, they would have had to wade through poisonous foam to get to me, so I was pretty safe. I will exterminate this nest. It just may take a few days.

Flowers in My Garden

Sometimes things are serendipitous. In June Gleek found a tiny basil sprout and tried to replant it. This led to me buying basil seeds and planting them. While we were at it, we scattered a mix of wild flower seeds. They grew.

This is what I see outside my kitchen window and it makes me happy.

Now I just need to pull out some of the weeds surrounding them.

Cabbage Farming is More Adventurous Than Intended

(Warning: this adventure contains hornets, a moment of panic, but no serious injuries. If I ever have serious injuries to report, I’ll not begin that story by talking about cabbage.)

Near the end of third grade, local kids are each given a cabbage sprout and a challenge to grow it over the summer. In theory they will bring their grown cabbages to the school next fall to win prizes. I’ve never seen that part come to pass, but the cabbages come home because they’re provided free by a plant company. Patch proudly brought his cabbage home and we plunked it into the weed bed which has been a vegetable garden in years past. I expected it to die of neglect the way that Gleek’s had. Instead it thrived and over the summer months developed into a giant plant. This past week I’ve been staring out the window at the thing and realizing why that myth about babies and cabbage patches might seem believable. The cabbage head looked like an alien life pod. I knew that harvest time had to be near, so I consulted the internet for instructions and recipes.

Around 4 pm today I went to Patch to tell him that I planned to harvest his cabbage for dinner. His reaction was electric. He instantly jumped up from his game “We’re going to harvest it? Now?” Then he ran outside. I paused to collect a knife and my camera.

There he is contemplating his cabbage. Unfortunately the harvesting became more adventurous than intended. Right underneath the wood on which Patch was standing was a sizable hornet’s nest. Patch jumped up and down in excitement. Then moved in to a better photography position.

We got the above photo just moments before Gleek, who had come to watch the excitement, said “Wow. There are a lot of bees.” That was the last clear moment before my memories become a fog of shrieking Patch, Gleek yelling instructions, Patch freezing instead of running, me trying to swat a hornet off of Patch while not stabbing anyone with the knife nor dropping it where a panicked person might step on it. Oh, and I was barefoot, as I often am in summer. I wish I’d thought to put on shoes before heading outside. All of that in sixty seconds. Then we came indoors because there was a stinger to remove from Patch, Gleek discovered that one hornet had gotten inside her shirt and there was even more panic while that bug was slain.

The final sting count was three. Two on Patch, one on Gleek. We immediately administered antihistamines and daubed baking soda onto the sting sites. Then I prescribed a medicinal dose of funny animal videos for the next couple of hours. Within fifteen minutes all was restored to quiet. It was quiet outdoors as well. The hornets had returned to normal behavior. I noted where their entrance was hiding and vowed to return after dark with chemical weaponry.

So instead of having a fun family moment harvesting the cabbage, with photography. I went out by myself and cut it.

Patch grew a really good cabbage. It weighed five and a half pounds. I used about a third of it in soup for dinner. The other two thirds are in my fridge awaiting tomorrow’s recipes. The soup itself got mixed reviews. I loved it, as did Kiki. Link did not like it at all. Gleek and Patch both ate a reasonable portion, determined to eat the food they earned with pain, but finished up dinner by eating other foods.

The stump of the cabbage is still outside.

The internet tells me that it will sprout leaves that we can cook and eat. I’m curious to see what they will look like.

Once the world got dark, I went outside to spray the entry to the hornet’s nest. I don’t think I eradicated it yet, but I have other tools to employ on a different evening. I do feel a little bad, because the hornets were only defending their home. I actually find the tenaciousness of these huge nests kind of admirable. Unfortunately this is the second nest of 200+ stinging bugs that has taken up residence in a location that clashes with the safety of my kids. It has to go. As soon as the world freezes, sending all stinging insects into hibernation, I will recruit a crew to help me removed the wood under which these hornets are nesting. I’m tired of providing habitat for stinging bugs right next to my garden beds.

By bedtime the stings had faded to near invisibility. Patch and Gleek say they still hurt some, but they both completely forgot the stings for several hours this evening. Then they fell asleep without difficulty. I suspect another day will heal everything up again.

So: Growing cabbages = really cool and surprisingly tasty. I may repeat that. Housing hornets near my cabbage plant = bad idea, not to be repeated.

Life Begins to Settle

Something important happened last night and I almost missed noticing it. Howard and I were both pretty stressed about packing him for WorldCon, so I summoned pizza for dinner. The kids descended like locusts once the magical circles of goodness appeared. They were all right there, so I did a quick survey of each child, asking about homework.

Kiki didn’t tell me details, just enough to let me know she had it handled. “I got this mom.”

Link had only one math paper “I did most of it at school. It is pretty easy.”

Gleek had several assignments, but she knew exactly what they all were. She negotiated to do some of it that night and the rest in the morning. I said yes because I didn’t have energy to enforce anything else.

Patch also had several assignments. He told me what they are and laid out a plan to do some that evening and the rest in the hour before school. Again, I didn’t argue with the plan.

The pizza vanished, and so did the kids. They went and did their school work. Then they played until bedtime. This morning both Patch and Gleek completed their work, without drama, in plenty of time to play before school.

Last night and this morning my kids demonstrated that they are settled and happy in their new routines. They’ve got the right amount of work and are getting it done. I know not every night will go this smoothly, but it gives me hope that this year we all may reap some benefit from the groundwork laid last year.

On the Eve of Howard’s ChiCon Departure

Today was Chicon prep day. Everything proceeded according to schedule, including both Howard and I feeling stressed about random preparatory things. The bags are packed. We have confirmation that the packages all arrived. The pieces are in place and the adventure begins tomorrow. For tonight, Howard and I are trying not to think about it too much. Instead I’m over on Amazon re-reading all the product reviews on the new line of bic pens “For Her.” After that I’ll find a happy TV show to watch.

Brief Update

This day had a lot of free space in it. Then all the spaces filled up with children. We ended up with nine extra kids from three different families. It was mostly peaceful, but that is a lot of extra bodies. The good news is that it did not drive me crazy because the advent of school has me on schedule with work things and stocked up on solitude. I even pulled out my picture book project Strength of Wild Horses. The draft was three quarters done when I realized that I was structuring it wrong. So I’ve re-structured and I’m back to about halfway done with the draft. None of the work flowed, but at least I did some writer work today. Now I need to do some resting. ChiCon work is going to completely consume my Monday.

Responsibility Fatigue

I stayed up too late last night because I ran out of responsibility. All yesterday, indeed all week, I have been the organizer of schedule. In theory, the job should not be onerous because we are merely reinstating a slight variation of a long-familiar schedule. No one is rebelling, everyone is glad to fall into a routine, yet I ended up sitting on the couch at 10:30 pm with tears leaking out of my eyes. None of my responsibilities were hard: nudge kids awake, remind them of homework, check to make sure gym clothes were cleaned, post-convention accounting, pick kids up from school, provide snacks, defend quiet space for work, declare time to make dinner, assist in making dinner, oversee homework. None of it was herculean considered alone, but anyone who has exercised with low weights and high repetitions can attest to the increasing difficulty of each lift. The fatigue builds incrementally, particularly when one is out of practice. Thus I ended a day, which had run very smoothly, feeling like I’d failed and was doomed to fail forever.

When I began remodeling my office, I realized that I wanted to take the process slow. I wanted to change something, like taking out the wall, and then consider how to proceed from there. It was very instructive to notice that making one change would open up new avenues of possibility. Dwelling in the changed space let me see which step was obviously next. I haven’t reached the “obviously next” part of this new schedule. I can see what is working; morning schedule, chores, homework times. I’ve identified what isn’t; something needs to be done to give me time off. Yet, I’m still wandering around in this space waiting for my back brain to mull it all over and show me what needs to be changed.

One of the things that absorbed my thoughts last night was thinking ahead to the writer’s retreat I’m attending at the end of September. I always thought it would fall into the category of dream come true, instead I appear to be approaching it like a fearful chore, something that needs to be done because it will force us all to grow. Truthfully, the primary value of the retreat may be that having it loom in my future is forcing me to be conscious of how I set the family patterns during this transition period. Instead of excusing kids from chores, I’m insisting on them. Instead of solving problems by assigning them to me, I’m stopping to think to whom the problems really belong. Instead of setting up a system that is like spinning thirty plates on sticks and I have to run around to make sure nothing falls down, I’m trying to create a functioning engine that only needs some oversight and a little grease in spots. Even if the retreat produces nothing else, the system it is encouraging will give me more creative space all year long. Hopefully between now and the end of September that increased creative space will allow me to remember why I dreamed of going to a writers retreat in the first place.

Words are probably the answer to what comes next. Writing gives me more than it takes from me. I’ve even begun to open up writer thoughts, which is also an effect of the scheduled retreat. I can’t waste the opportunity to focus on writing without doing some preparatory work. I’m slowing reading and processing a book about rhetoric and writing construction. I’m not racing through because I want to absorb and incorporate rather than cause my writing brain to seize up trying to do it all at once. I suppose I’m renovating my writing using the same method as I used for my office. Change a little and wait for it to settle. Unfortunately I keep battling waves of worry that my words are simply not as good as they ought to be. “I can do better than this,” is a frequent thought in my mind while hitting publish on yet another blog post which I know could use more polish if only I were not so tired. Or lazy. It is very human to simultaneously want to create something glorious and at the same time to not want to work too hard at it. I need to take more time to work at writing, trusting that the focused practice will make my work better even if it does not seem any better to me. Even if the words are not better, writing them makes me happier. I need to remember that.

I finally dragged myself off the couch and proceeded to stay up too late. I knew that my responsibility was to go straight to bed so that I could rise on time and launch the next day properly. That last responsible act was too heavy, too depressing. It felt as though all year would be an unrelenting onslaught of “I must be responsible.” Instead I fixed myself a frozen pizza and watched a tv show for an hour. At the end of it I felt much better. I’d taken time to do something just because I felt like it and the process restored my ability to hope again. I’m short on sleep today, but the morning went smoothly anyway, because the patterns don’t all depend on me to keep them running. This morning I’m writing first instead of trying to discipline my brain into doing accounting. I’ll do the accounting next, because it is important, but this morning writing was obviously next. After a work out it is important to rest. A study of weigh training makes clear that rest is when the muscles actually form, making the next lifting session easier. I think that this evening will be better.

Exactly the Same, Only Different

Day two of the school schedule and it is all beginning to feel familiar. My brain is unearthing the habits which lay fallow for three months. I’m remembering to watch for school pick up times and what times of day are parenting heavy because all the kid needs get squished into the same few hours. The kids are all in the same schools as last year, so no one is adapting to a big cultural shift. We are beginning to fall into the patterns of last spring. Even the afternoon carpooling schedule is the same. Except Kiki has a before school class that requires us to get up earlier every other day. Last year Gleek and Patch had teachers with very regular and regimented homework schedules. I can tell already this year is going to be different. I think this will be the year that Gleek seizes control of her homework and I’ll need to keep my hands off. It feels like I’m going to be able to continue to require chores instead of having to excuse kids because they’re overwhelmed. This year we might even be able to make the weekly activities for the kids. Things are looking good, so naturally I’m holding my breath waiting for crisis to erupt. Surely there has to be a crisis, some big emotional event or huge homework slog to be got through. Yet when I try to sense it, anticipate the shape of it, I can’t. Maybe that means there won’t be one for awhile. Maybe we can just have small daily crankiness and stress instead of big worry and diagnostic processes. At least for a month or two. By November the shapes of the strains will begin to emerge.

For now, we’re back to school and it feels the same, only different.