Friday, August 31, 2007

Jokes on You!

Justin and I painted our room a couple weekends ago. We cleared out the clutter and rearranged the furniture. It was looking organized. Peaceful. Simple.

Seeing this, the boys said, "Hey, this would be the perfect place to have a club!"

Johnny dragged in all his prized possessions and lined them up against the wall: his piggybank, Pokemon action figures, stuffed dinosaur and plastic lizard, a "book" that secretly opens, hiding $1.31, his chess trophy, a seashell, a whoopie cushion, and a small bottle of Elmer's glue.

As far as I can tell, this club is dedicated to rearranging the club. Sometimes, the whoopie cushion is stacked on top of the fake book and the money is lined up on the lizard's back, for instance.

One day, I heard Johnny yell, "J.J. is stealing my money," and I looked up to see J.J. running through the house, clutching a dollar bill and laughing.

I don't know if it's fair to say he was "stealing money." In his mind he was, "Making Johnny mad by taking the little green paper."

The "secret" location of the club was compromised, so Johnny moved it to behind his desk and finally, upstairs.

Besides rearranging the club, there is one other activity Johnny and Richie do as members: pranks from their "Jokes on You!" kit. They ask me if I want a piece of gum, and when I reach for it, a little trap snaps on my finger. They pull this joke on me 70 times a day, proving that children think grownups are idiots. (I wonder where they get that idea.)

Their favorite is the whoopie cushion, though.

"Daddy, stand up," Richie says, laughing hysterically. "Now sit back down."

When it works (or even when it doesn't,) Richie claps and says, "Ah, yeah, babay!"

The boys think the whoopie cushion is invisible.

"Shake my hand," Johnny says, holding the whoopie cushion.

As I reach out and say, "How are you doing?" my hand farts.

"Yes," Johnny says. "That was the best prank ever!"

The boys' aunt and uncle gave them the kit for their birthday.

I remember having the same kit as a kid. When I'd do the gum trick on grownups in my family they'd throw their head back and say, "You got me again!" Sometimes, they would fake cry and say, "I really wanted a piece of gum!"

When they'd sit on the whoopie cushion, they'd cover their mouths and say, "Well, how embarrassing."

It never occured to me that they were humoring me. I just thought it was a really good kit.

Kids take a belief and wrap reality around it like play dough.

If the toothfairy comes in the summer, she must be tiny enough to fit through the window screen. In the winter, she comes through the chimney, like Santa. If you don't have a fireplace, well, she must have snuck into the house by riding on the dog.

Even if some kids in your class say there is no tooth fairy, there's an explanation: they're dumb. And frankly, you feel sorry for them.

Grown ups will believe in fantastic things to an extent. Aliens visiting Roswell, for instance. But unlike children, they're willing to change their minds when confronted with evidence (unless it goes against their religion. For some people, aliens are a religion.)

Kids don't do this. They take the evidence against their belief and turn it in their favor. A kid can wake up to see his dad putting a quarter under his pillow and taking the tooth.

These will be the kids' possible explanations:

1. Dad is checking to see if the tooth fairy came yet.

2. The tooth fairy left a quarter but forgot my tooth, so dad is going to put it outside for her so she doesn't have to squeeze through the screen again.

or 3. Dad works for the tooth fairy.

The other tool in the prank kit is "invisible ink." You squeeze it on someone's shirt and they have a big blue stain. Or do they? Soon, the spot disappears.

Johnny squeezed this on Richie the other day.

Richie stared at his shirt for a long time.

Finally he asked me, "Is my shirt really going to turn invisible?"

"It's invisible already," I said.

"Really?" he asked.

"Really," I said. And I could see the wheels turning in his head to make it true.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Reading Rainbow

J.J. quit the binkie. One night, Justin and I couldn't find any under the couch cushions and were too tired to go to the store. Besides, at some point in his life, J.J. is going to have to talk, not communicate by pointing and grunting. Perhaps without the silencer in his mouth, he'll learn how to do that.

Since he is still practically a mute, we act like we don't know what he means when he drags us over to the cupboard where the binkies used to be and growls.

"You want a straw? Jar lids? Olive oil? What?" we say. "No ablo caveman."

It is working. He sits down with his little books and reads: "Now now now now now. Now now now now now."

I guess that's what we sound like to him. Talkers like mommy and daddy.

"J.J., now the now in the now after the now now now. Now nee now. Now now."

No wonder he doesn't see what the big deal is about talking.

If there is a girl in the book, he says, "Mama," even if she is the same age as the boys in the book. Sort of like how he calls Johnny "other dada," I guess because he is the second tallest boy in the house.

Meanwhile, Richie is reading Bob books that his cousins gave him. In the first book, Mat sits on Sam and vice versa. Mat is sad. Sam is sad.

"If they didn't be bad, they wouldn't be sad," Richie comments, raising his eyebrows.

The most rewarding thing about reading a book is passing judgement on the foolish characters. I'm glad Richie understands that at such a young age.

He also likes to pick favorites. He loves Mat, who is round. But Sam, who is shaped like a triangle, really bugs him. So when Mat sits on Sam, he thinks its funny. But when Sam does the same's just annoying.

I asked him today if he still wanted to go to school more than two days a week.

"No," he said. "We have rest time, and that's pretty dumb. But I do like hanging my backpack on the hook."

Still, I figured I needed ramp up my education efforts while he is at home. I know he learns a lot at school. But perhaps, on his days home, he shouldn't watch T.V. during J.J.'s entire three hour nap. So we're reading the Bob books. Then, when Johnny gets home from school, they watch T.V. for three hours.

You know what I can't understand...experts who tell you to watch T.V. with your kids. What would the point of that be? Who would sweep the house, meanwhile, the smart aleck cartoon characters? No. Their job is to babysit the kids.

As for Johnny, his shyness lasted two days. Then it was replaced by his traditional bossiness (I wonder where he gets that from.)

He had a friend over the other day--the sweetest, quietest boy you ever saw. Johnny told him he could watch T.V. after he completed his first level of Ninja training. (Which is basically moving your arms really fast and saying, "Ch. Ch. Ch." I know because I already am a second-tier ninja.)

At one point, Johnny wanted to play in the living room, but his friend was looking at the toys in the boys' room.

So Johnny said, "Here we go," and carried his friend into the living room like he was J.J.

Well, that's the news in Waldo. Thank you for reading and for all your nice comments lately.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

It's Raining Typewriters

When you start out as a writer, you get rejections and acceptances. Mostly rejections.

I started submitting work to magazines in high school. At that time, I was dabbling in bad poetry. With every rejection, I was devastated. Soon, I gave up. It was destined to happen. I mean, I don't even like poems.

Unless they're so easy even a caveman can read them. Then I usually hang them on desk. Like this one:

Better go down upon your marrow-bones
And scrub a kitchen pavement or break stones
Like an old pauper, in all kinds of weather,
For to articulate sweet sounds together
Is to work harder than all these and yet
Be thought an idler by the noisy set
Of bankers, schoolmasters and clergymen
The martyrs call the world

This was written by either a. George Bernard Shaw, b. W.B. Yeats, c. James Joyce, or d. Frank O'Connor.

I clipped it out of a newspaper quiz, and dumbly, didn't cut out the answer.

Personally, I don't work harder than paupers, but all the good writers say it is difficult, so I'm hoping to feel this way someday, too.

There was a montage during the Oscars of writers in movies. They were screaming, crying, throwing their typewriters out the window...but for me, I just click clack at the keys, as the piano theme from Murder She Wrote cheerfully dances across my mind.

You see, I like writing. I like it as much as Tijuana Taxis from Planet Sub, which I eat at every opportunity. So when I see people throw their typewriters out the window, it's like watching someone throw a sandwich out the window. It just doesn't make sense.

But because I've heard writing is excrutiating for the best authors, I do hope to throw a typewriter out the window some day. (I use a computer, so breaking a typewriter would not stop me from writing, which I love, anyway.)

The best writers are good revisers. They revise and revise. That's what I'm trying to get better at.

But there's a point where I know a story could be better, but I don't know how. Because I wrote it, you know.

It's like drawing. I always have a picture in my mind, but when I draw it, it looks like a two-year-old did it. However, just because I realize I drew a stick figure doesn't mean my second attempt is going to be any better.

Writing is time-consuming, and getting published, even more so.

After college, I pitched magazine stories. Some local publications bit. The national ones didn't. I got enough local work that I stopped querying, which is time consuming.

Now, I send out columns sometimes. I've gotten enough rejections that they don't hurt my feelings anymore. Since I'm not boo-hooing about it, I can analyze the rejection.

There are good ones and bad ones.

Like a jury deciding somebody is guilty, bad rejections come back fast. You realize that you missed the mark. You either sent it to the wrong publication or you wrote something really dumb. Probably, it's the second option.

But good rejections come back later. Sometimes, they have a little note: "It's not you, it's me. Hugs and Kisses, the editor."

Well, not really.

But they might say, "We considered this carefully," or "Your query was lovely." And I just swoon, really. It feels like a victory instead of a defeat, which it is.

This recently happened with my Pottery Barn catalog column. At my brother's recommendation, I tried to sell it to an airline magazine. And I got a very nice rejection from them.

So maybe I can sell it to somebody else.

Another thing that changes after you've been writing for a few years: you want people to criticize your story. I used to go to critique groups and hope that people said, "Gosh, I don't have any suggestions because I love it just the way it is." But now, I'm like, "Here: this is all wrong. Tell me why."

You see, those rejections sink in. And it's not a bad thing. They make you want to be a better writer.

Admittedly, I don't know how to bring that dream to fruition. But the first step to becoming a better writer is admitting that your stories have a problem. Probably thousands.

Now fixing them...that's another matter. I think you start by throwing your typewriter out the window.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Back to School

As we walked into the swimming pool Wednesday, the d.j. on the radio was saying, "It's 102 degrees, but it feels like 105."

What it felt like to me was an out of body experience. It was like floating above myself and my children, watching us melt into the sidewalk like butter on a pancake.

When it's this hot, they should just say, "It's 102 degrees, but it feels like a raging inferno...It's cement that you're walking on, but it feels like burning coals...It's a swimming pool, but it feels like a hot bath you're sharing with 200 sweaty, sunscreen lathered people."

Just when it couldn't get any hotter, school started. The boys, with fresh new haircuts, traded in their swimtrunks and superhero T-shirts for blue shorts and white or red shirts.

Richie wore a full uniform even though, being in Pre-K, he doesn't have to. He walked into his classroom like he owned the place.

"Can I use the computer?" he announced to no one in particular.

When he followed the teacher to put away his lunch, I stayed put in case he needed to collapse on my shoulder in a fit of homesick tears.

Instead, he returned to the room and asked me, "When are you leaving?"

Meanwhile, a little boy was crying for his mother, who obviously had been nice to him this summer. She hadn't made him clean up his toys all the time. She hadn't yelled at him to, "Stop yelling in the car!!!"

My kids never cry when I bring them to school. They're like, "Hasta manana, bossy lady."

I made this same joke to friends sitting outside the school, where other moms were standing. Then I realized maybe I shouldn't imply that I'm a mean mom in front of strangers.

It's just that, at the end of the summer, the kids went nuts. Excited for school. Tired of freedom. At last, thier energy came together in a ball and exploded in the toy box. Then it flung itself at the boys and started a huge wrestling match. And then it just got really loud. So I might have dreamed, once or 5,000 times, of the day when I would take the kids to their classroom, tap the teacher on the shoulder and say, "Tag, you're it."

Now, that day is at hand.

After I picked up the boys, I asked them to tell me all about their day.

As you know, boys love confiding in their mothers about the little details of their lives. It's like a sewing circle. Except that they always have amnesia.

Richie said, "My teacher showed us her pet octopus. I mean slugs. Oh, I don't know what they were. That's all I remember. I can't answer anymore questions."

The important thing is, they both had a good day. In fact, Richie wailed when we told him he couldn't go today because we only signed him up for two days a week. And I felt really stupid telling him it was because full time preschool was too expensive.

"Sorry, honey, we bought you the discount education. You'll learn letters A-M and odd numbers. You'll learn how to care but not share. You'll be able to show but not tell."

I was very relieved to have the boys in school until today, when it hit me. We were walking Johnny to his classroom--which is a block away in the big building--and a group of boys from his class were playing together. They came over to say hi, and he was so shy! He barely looked up when he said hi back. I thought of him on the first day of school, sitting in his chair and staring straight ahead. I worried that he'd be too nervous to talk to anyone.

If we were at home, I would have said, "Look at them and be friendly" but I didn't want to embarrass him.

I just have to have faith that he'll figure it out. Still, I'll be sure to worry about it all day. In fact, I'm penciling it in on the calendar right now. "Mon.-Fri.: Obsess about social comfort level of oldest son."

Richie is right across the street. J.J. and I will probably even see him on the playground. Anyway, preschoolers all play together and don't worry too much. But Johnny, well, I know he has a nice teacher and classroom, but first grade is the big time. Who knows how things will go?

As parents, it's like we hold a spool of thread, and our kids are at the tip of the string. For each school year, we unloop the string one more time. They're further away, but they're still attached to us, tugging at our hearts.

Friday, August 10, 2007

The Metamorphosis

Today, after going to the dentist, Richie was sad. It was his last appointment to have cavities filled.

For him, a trip to the dentist is like Christmas and Halloween and cotton candy all rolled up in one.

"I could go to the dentist all day long!" he exclaimed on our way to his morning appointment.

What can I say? I do my best to arrange fun-filled activities for the boys. There's the dentist, the bank, and, well, I can't think of anything else.

To cheer Richie up and wear out the two hyperactive ones, we went to a Prairie Village park nearby.

Cicada shells were under every tree. Johnny collects these...and forgets them all over the place. My mom found a stash on a package she was mailing and it scared her half to death.

You might have gathered these bug shells as a kid, too. You a. used them to scare your brother, b. wore them as decorations on your shirt, c. dared people to eat them, or d., if you were bored (because of a shortage of trips to the dentist,) did all three.

In the Midwest, when it gets really hot, the buzzing of cicadas is so constant that we can't even hear them anymore.

When it grows especially deafening, news people say they're the rare 17-year cicadas. "This is quite a treat," they say. "Listen carefully; it won't happen again for quite some time."

They say this every year.

But as much as we hear these bugs, we rarely see them because they are masters of disguise. The young are covered in dirt from living underground. When they emerge, they're the color of bark, which is where they hang out until their metamorphosis. Then, emerging the color of new leaves, they crawl to the treetops.

Today, however, we got a peak at their life cycle:

Johnny was walking around, picking empty cicada shells off trees. He sat down on a bench to take a break.

"There's one, John," Richie said, holding a Cinnabun inches from his lips, waiting for his mouth to stop being numb from the filling.

Richie was pointing under the bench, where a shell lay...moving its legs?

"What!?" Johnny said, jumping up from his seat. "It's moving? What?! What?!"

He bent down to pick it up. As he held it, wriggling in his hand, he danced up and down and yelled, "It's aliiiive! It's aliiiiivewhoaja!"

He was so excited, he wasn't even making sense. It would be like if a stamp collector suddenly came across a stamp that was, well, alive.

Judging by the dirt caked on the cicada, it had just crawled out from underground, where, Johnny guessed, it had been attending college.

Not on an academic scholarship, though. This "college graduate" didn't know a tree from a slab of concrete. Or a shoe. It crawled from the ground to Johnny's sandles. Then his shirt, his arms, his face...Finally, Johnny put it on a tree.

The mother ship.

Within minutes, a green line appeared on the cicada's back. It widened and widened until, half an hour later, a head emerged from the shell. Then it took a break.

Johnny and Richie commented that the metamorphosis was taking for. ev. er.

"If I was a cicada, I would break out of the shell in, like, three seconds," Johnny said.

Would you now? I thought. I suppose you don't remember a little something called YOUR BIRTH. You were in no hurry for those nine going on ten months.

While we stood there, staring at the tree, several people walked their dogs or jogged by. They looked at us, as if wondering, "What are they staring at?" and moved on, as if to say, "Ah, yes. They are staring at the tree."

Johnny exclaimed, "These people walking by don't even see what's happening!"

Further up the tree, another cicada wriggled out of it's shell and crawled to the treetop, slowly at first, and then faster. We saw a trail of cicada shells leading up to the leaves and in them.

Higher up, the cicadas were chirping loudly--the males' mating call. It was like a big party up there. Only where were the broads? That's what the bugs were wondering, anyway.

Before the cicada we found got its wings out of its shell, the boys, who have gotten very impatient in their old age, said, "Let's go."

Later, we went back to the park to see if the cicada had emerged yet. But nothing was there. Not even an empty shell.

"Well, I guess it made it to the party," Richie said.

I guess that's the point for these creatures. They don't bite. They fly, but not quickly. They're not scared of people or animals. Camouflage is their only defense. They prefer to be heard, not seen. Unless you're looking for them, it's like they're not even there.

I hope that a dog or bird didn't eat it. I guess we'll never know. Except that, in the treetops, the cicada song sounded just a little bit louder.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Luxury is a Demand Teens Can't Afford

A recent Associated Press article said that kids are "demanding" luxury back-to-school clothes and accessories this year. And many parents are buying. The teens are more brand-conscious, the story said, because they see photos of movie stars carrying status bags and wearing designer bug-eye sunglasses.

I wonder why these teens are in a position to make demands. Have they taken hostages?

To me, demanding a movie star wardrobe is like wanting a corner office without actually having a job. After all, isn't the point of a status bag to show your status? A movie star, who is making millions of dollars, should perhaps carry a Balenciaga bag, whatever that is. Likewise for a businessperson. A high school student making little or no money, on the other hand, should wear...a backpack.

I have nothing against these luxury items. Personally, I think they're beautiful. And some teens, the article said, save up to buy them for themselves. So that's nice. (Although, I wish I had today all that babysitting money I blew on shopping as a teen. Money never goes out of style, ladies. Handbags do.)

Also, I can see splurging on (a knockoff) designer purse as a Christmas gift. But what about the parents who buy these things for their kids as if they're just another pack of markers?

Hasn't their child's school supply list already driven them to the brink of poverty? Ours has.

Hearing my kids' "demands" I might say something like, "Didn't I just buy you 84 pencils? Honestly, will nothing make you happy?"

Not surprisingly, parents with sizable incomes are more likely to buy luxury items for their children. Which make sense. I, too, love buying my kids gifts. I can only imagine what I would do if our liquid assets (hope and prayer) weren't wrapped up in the minivan.

But because spending too much money on my kids is the one parenting mistake I haven't made yet, I figured this would be the perfect opportunity to get on my high horse.

So I've compiled a list of things that all teens--even if they're rich--simply must have.

1. A job. Without one, they will think that money is free. Therefore, they will think that people without money are dumb. Why don't they get some cash? they'll wonder. It's free for the taking.

2. A car. That doesn't work. This builds character. And it keeps them in the driveway and off the road, which is dangerous.

3. A cell phone. Ha ha. Just kidding. I mean, do these gadgets give parents brain damage, or what? Every time I watch T.V., there's an ad showing moms and dads pulling their hair out. "Oh, God! Our kids are texting too much!" they cry. "It's costing us a fortune. Whatever will we do?"

Here's a thought: take the phone away.

Now, I can see where these are a good tool in case of emergency. So clarify that. Say: Here's a phone. Feel free to call me and/or the police.

4. Allowance. Tee hee. Kidding again. Allowance works like this: You pay your kids to eat you out of house and home, basically. And this teaches the children financial responsibility, according to experts.

Well, these experts must have been raised by the Hiltons, for whom allowance is a real-life scenario. When the middle class caught on to the trend, it didn't quite fit. When will their kids ever get paid for doing basic chores as grownups? I cook and clean all day, and believe me, there's no money involved.

Now, as a kid, I was luckier than most. My parents paid for school and sports and piano lessons and braces. Probably, they couldn't always afford to give us what they did.

Today, lots of parents stretch the limits to give their kids the best start. Knowing where the line is between providing for your kids and spending too much can be tough. But I think we can all agree that when your teen is carrying a bag that costs more than the textbooks inside, you've crossed it.

After all, it's what's inside that counts.

Friday, August 03, 2007

Column III

My third column appears this week.

They asked for one about school supplies to go along with a special back-to-school issue. (Can you believe it's that time already?)

Here is the link. Thanks for reading!

Earlier this year, I submitted the essay to a contest and lost (obviously. If I'd won, you'd still hear me shouting it from the mountain tops.) But the winning essays are hilarious...and less than 450 words. You can read them here: