Wednesday, November 18, 2009

If You Do Nothing Else In Life...Sand the Wheel Axles of Your Pinewood Derby Car

In every job, there is one essential thing you must do:

Doctors: First do no harm.

Sales people: Establish relationships.

Writers: Tell a good story.

In the annual Cub Scout Pinewood Derby, it's: Sand the wheel axles.

If only we'd known...

At our first Pinewood Derby, my son John, like every other first grader, thought he was going to win the whole shebang. First of all, his car was a cheetah--orange with black dots. Everybody knows cheetahs are fast. Also, his dad is a carpenter. So they had all the tools for making a souped up miniature car.

Johnny was jumping up and down before the race even started. And then they were off. Well, most of them were...his car stalled on the track.

I cringed and looked his way. He was making every face contortion imaginable to keep from crying.

The boys around him were saying, "Whose car is that? What happened?"

My husband Justin was volunteering. He took the car off the track and put it back on the starting line with some other cars. When they took off, the Cheetah car again stalled.

I was horrified when I saw Justin put the Cheetah car on the track a third time. Were they going to keep sending it down until it made it across the finish line?

I motioned Justin over. "For Lord's sake, how many times are you going to send that God-forsaken car down the track?" I asked, ever the calm, cool, and collected mother.

"They all have to go four times," he said.

After his car stalled a third time and barely squeaked across the line the fourth, Johnny found a corner in the church basement and let a few tears fall...until some wrestling wolf scouts overtook his corner. Then he went back to his friends and choked back tears for the next hour.

Later, the scout leader interviewed some Webelos. He asked, "What advice do you give to younger Cub Scouts about the Pinewood Derby?"

By that time, Johnny and his friends were pile driving each other by the pizza buffet. I, however, was on the edge of my seat.

"Sand the wheel axles," a fourth grader said.

That was the missing piece. Justin and Johnny hadn't sanded the wheel axles. (If you have a new Cub Scout, I can't stress this enough. Poorly sanded wheel axles = tears running down your first grader's face. You must sand and sand and sand. If you are pressed for time and have to leave the car looking like a chunk of lumber, do so, but sand the axles.)

The next year, Justin had been working overtime and he and Johnny didn't start on their car until the night of the weigh-in. At 6 p.m., Justin had out all his power tools. Johnny wanted a Bat Mobile, so they were welding metal, cutting wood, and of course, sanding the wheel axles.

At 7:50 p.m., the scout leader called to remind us that cars had to be weighed in by 8 p.m.

"They're on their way," I said, trying to sound calm and cheery.

Meanwhile, all holy heck was breaking loose in our house. The bat wings kept falling off. The wheels kept falling off. The wet paint was coming off. Finally, Justin squeezed the whole thing together, like a guy smashing a can in his fist. He held the spray paint over his hand and spray painted the car and his hand. He carried the vehicle over to the church basement, with his whole hand painted Bat Mobile black.

My sister-in-law says life is all about managing expectations. So I told my son the night of the race, "You know, honey, not every car makes it across the finish line. You had a great time making the car with your dad. If it finishes the race, that's icing on the cake."

"Yeah," he said. "But we sanded the wheel axles this year."

Having seen the wheels fall off moments before Justin spray painted the car/his hand, I was skeptical.

Well, guess what happened? They won first place.

Afterwards, Johnny kept saying, "Mom, I can't believe you didn't think we were going to win."

Then he looked at his Dad as if to say, "What was she worried about? We sanded the axles: Problem solved."

This year, Richie and Johnny both had cars in the Pinewood Derby. They were model Cub Scouts and finished everything the night before the weigh-in.

I asked Justin if he'd give Richie the talk about how not all cars make it across the finish line.

"I don't need to," he said. "Richie's car is fast."

Apparently, I was the only one in the family scarred for life by the Unsanded Wheel Axle Incident.

Once again, the boys were right. Richie won his age group and got third overall, and Johnny got second.

Because of my reaction the first year, Justin thinks I'm a ultra-competitive Pinewood Derby mother who will settle for nothing less than first place.

Afterwards, he said. "First and second place. Are you happy, honey?"

"I'm just happy they made it across the finish line," I said.

"I know," he said. "But Richie came close to winning it all. And Johnny did, too." I could see the wheels in his head turning.

I may be happy with the cars crossing the finish line, thanks to the miracle of wheel axle sanding (and I'll admit that I don't even know what that means.) But the boys have left that worry in the dust. For them, the Pinewood Derby means crossing the finish line first. Sanding the wheel axles is only the beginning. They're talking about wedges, the right placement of weights, etc., etc.

They may be in it to win it, but I'll settle for their hearts not being broken. I guess for moms, that's the essential part of our jobs.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Book Fair: Market Research

I volunteered at the book fair at the boys' school this week. This is a fun job and also good research for my children's writing.

Here is what my research found:

Preschoolers--especially preschool girls--chose books based on their favorite T.V. show. I already knew this because J.J. threw a temper fit when I told him to choose a book for his book fair that wasn't on T.V. Then I realized the concept meant nothing to him. J.J. isn't a big T.V. viewer, especially now that Johnny and Richie have given up cartoons for ESPN (much to Justin's delight). So I could tell he was wondering, "When is this stuff on T.V.? All I ever see is sports." Finally I let him choose one T.V. book and one non-T.V. book.

My problem with T.V. books is not that they're terrible. There are a few good T.V. related books out there. (The Monster at the End of This Book is a great one.) And it's not that I don't understand the appeal of a familiar face. Growing up, one of my favorite books was a Walt Disney storybook that basically summarized my favorite movies.

Don't get me wrong. There are some terrible T.V. books out there.

I was reading a book to a three year old at the book fair. She was so excited about it because it was based on her favorite T.V. show. Obviously I wasn't going to kill the joy of buying a book--any book. But I was thinking, "Sweetheart, you don't have to buy this book. You could write it."

My problem with T.V. books is that there are so many great kids' picture books out there. (The boys' and my favorites right now are Scaredy Squirrel by Melanie Watt, and Spoon and Little Pea, both by Amy Krouse Rosenthal.) So it seems a shame to buy a story you've already seen on T.V.

There were some great picture books at the book fair. Watching the kids choose a T.V. book instead was like seeing them choose McDonald's orange drink over an actual orange. Or an adult pick up T.V. Guide instead of National Geographic. You feel like saying, "Are you kidding me? There's a Neanderthal on the cover. Have you no interest as to whether or not that's your grandfather?" And then I would go over to the rack and pick up People: Style Watch. (I've already read the Neanderthal issue.)

Oh, well. I guess a little orange drink never hurt anyone, as long as we get our Vitamin C, too.

I let my kids read whatever they can get their hands on. Because I don't want them to associate "reading" with "bossy mother." But then I "make them" listen to the great picture books out there. And they end up loving those more. I'm sure the kids at the book fair read good books at home and school, too.

Still, it touched my heart to see some of the preschoolers buy non-T.V. books...Where the Wild Things Are, one about Fire Engines... Well done, younguns. Congrats on not selling out to the man.

At the book fair, kids in second and third grade were past the T.V. book phase, for the most part. Now they're reading Diary of a Wimpy Kid. I love these books. Some moms told their kids they weren't allowed to buy them because they're inappropriate. They're also laugh-out-loud funny. Perhaps the two go hand-in-hand. It always makes me laugh when people say, "inappropriate humor." Isn't that a little reduntant?

Not that you have to be inappropriate to be funny, but it definitely helps. (I personally think Diary of a Wimpy Kid is pretty innocent, but if I did think they were inappropriate, I would still let my kids read them.) I'll admit, I'm pretty lenient when it comes to my kids and humor. I'll sacrifice wholesomeness for a good laugh any day. It's the best medicine, so it's really a matter of good family health.

Let's see...what else.

Sports, science, and monster books were big with the elementary boys. As a nonfiction writer, this was good news to me.

Ghost stories, fantasy, and pets/baby animals were popular with elementary girls.

Chick lit was popular with junior high girls.

Pokers were popular with junior high boys.

Pokers are sticks with little hands on the end, which allow children to poke each other from a distance. Very, very popular among junior high boys.

That concluded my market research. It was a small study group and I didn't exactly take copious notes, but career wise, I learned a lot. I learned that I should write a book based on a T.V. show that is based on a doll, or a book about pokers. "Poker: The Armpit Saga" would be a hot seller...if it came with a free poker, that is.