Monday, January 9, 2017

The Island of Sodor

Thomas the Tank Engine

I watch a lot of children’s television. I’m pretty sure that makes me a bad parent, because it means that instead of reading “Curious George goes to the Costume Party” or “That’s not my Panda” for the 30th time today, I’ve turned on Dinotrux. We could do other activities, like cut up perfectly good paper with toddler sized scissors (at least until we cut up the table cloth, and the scissor travel to timeout). I have a secret, I really dislike cleaning up tiny pieces of paper. I blame theater, where glitter and confetti look like great fun, but my goodness does the clean up suck.

Maybe I’m wrong in discouraging activities based on the perceived clean up time. Maybe I’m wounding my children’s creative spirit by not allowing them to mangle defenseless paper every single time they request the scissors. Perhaps I’m stunting their fine motor skills by restricting their access to the scissors.  However, I suspect that the real joy in using the scissors comes from the mess it makes.  Besides, denied papercide the kids bounce to the next opportunity to make a mess in three heartbeats. The house is a constant mess being eternally cleaned up, like Sisyphus rolling his rock to the top of the hill, only to have it come crashing back down. It could be worse, I could be forced to read this awful book called “Knew You Could” over and over again which is as painful as Prometheus continually having his liver eaten by eagles, only to have it grow back nightly.  Seriously, that book sucks.

So the routine is that after naptime we watch TV. Screen time. The ancient evil that knows no name. If they made a kid’s show about Cthulhu, Thing #1 would probably love it, demand it on endless repeat, quote it, and tell complete strangers all about its characters.  How do I know he would do this?  Because he does this with every TV show we watch.  For my own sanity I try to introduce a new show every few weeks.  When the new show is turned on, first he’ll complain and ask on a loop for old show A.  After five minutes show B will become the more important thing in his life.  Then he will ask for show B on a constant loop until Dada has exhausted his patience with it and tries to sneak in show C.  Sometime we swing back to older shows.  Sometimes it’ll be a movie.  At this moment he is watching “How to Train Your Dragon” to tatters.

Another coping mechanism for me is to try and figure out the meta-story of a given show.  For example, Thomas the Train makes complete sense if you set the series in the far future.  In this future AI is a thing.  The various AIs that run the world are not created out of whole cloth, but rather are born and trained, much like human minds.  Just like you wouldn’t want to put a toddler in charge of a nuclear power plant, you can’t just plug in an untrained AI.  So the world needed a place to safely train up these AIs, hence the island of Sodor was created.

On this island the various AIs would be given tasks and trained not only in how to be really useful, but also allowed to make decisions and face the various consequences.  This is why the creep drivers always seem to do a engines bidding, when common sense would dictate otherwise.  Failure is allowed, indeed encouraged to teach these AI that their actions have consequences.   They are also cleverly constrained.  They feel that they have complete freedom, when in truth they are only allowed to go where there are rails to take them.  Meanwhile they are carefully indoctrinated to recognize humans as their masters.  Sir Topemhat owns each engine’s allegiance completely.  The worst thing that can happen to a engine is a scolding from Mr. Hat Man.

Once an engine has matured enough to make the jump to more important duties, it is moved to the mainland and into a new role.  Sodor is important mostly because its isolated.  That way all the inputs can be completely controlled, allowing the AIs to be shaped exactly to specification. 

I suppose that this is exactly the role that my living room fulfills.  It’s a basically safe place where all the inputs are mostly controlled; where I can try and turn out solid minds. Mistakes are allowed, even if they involve cutting up the table cloth with small scissors.  Action leads to consequence and to remorse and often laughter.   Often the process is exhausting, and so sometimes the TV is turned on and a movie is queued up. The screen time sometimes involves some educational value. Now I just have to find the time to pen the scripts for “Cthulhu’s Kids”, the wacky adventures of pint-sized cultists trying to summon the nameless ones.  I’m sure Thing #1 would love it.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The Bad Days

Some days are harder than others.  Like today.  Today has really sucked.

It's not really Robin's fault.  He's 20 months old and can't explain why he's so upset, but he can beg for a bar, then throw it to the dog.  He can whine and pout and point emphatically at the apples.  He can say app and make the sign for apple, then take a single bite and sweep the rest of the slices off the plate with a swift gesture of disdain.

The day hasn't been bad for the dog.  She's getting a half ration for dinner.

It's like his emotions are connected to a light switch.  Flick, happy; flick, super tantrum; flick, giggling; flick, screaming at the gate to the kitchen.

He hasn't been sleeping super well at night.  He's had a bit of a cold.  He got an early morning dose of screen time yesterday because it was the easiest thing to do at 3:30am.  The Muppet's Christmas Carol is pretty harmless, if out of season.

How does one survive a whiny, crying kiddo with a potential for the super tantrum?  I have no idea.  I clean up the apple slices not pounced on by the dog.  I pick him and and rub his back, even though his main form of stress relief is yanking my glasses off my face and throwing them on the ground.  He doesn't want to be consoled.  He wants to be consoled.  He doesn't know what's wrong and he can't tell me.

So he gets a little quiet time in his crib.  Quiet should be in quotes.  And I turn to the internet.  It's probably teething.  It's probably gastric issues.  It's probably cancer.  The internet sucks for finding things out.

There are seven police cars one block up the street.  The Google has no info.  Twitter does.  Shots fire two blocks away.  No other info.  Great.  Maybe the fancy new gunfire microphone system heard Robin slamming his heel into the floor.  Great choice kiddo.

It's snowing again.  Harder than predicted for this time of day.  If Denver gets 5 more inches this weekend, it will officially be the snowiest February on record.  How can than be possible?  It was 70 degrees for most of the month.

It just went weirdly quiet upstairs.  Maybe he's napping.  Well, we have an appointment with a daycare in half an hour.  I'm traveling and designing two shows in three venues for the first few weeks of March. Finding temp child care is hard.  I've been working on it for months.

The quiet was a lie.  So it's time to head upstairs and see if there is anything I can do to console the consolable.

He is a good kid.  He's just having a rough day.  Some days are harder than others.  That's why we get paid the big bucks.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Oh the Mess You Can Make

Oh What a Mess You Can Make.

It’s six AM, you’re wide awake.
Time to start your day once more.
Well, that would be true,
If you hadn’t awoke up at four.

Your dada needs some coffee now,
Why don’t you sit here for a bit.
Yeah, that drawer was kinda full,
And those spoons definitely didn’t fit.

You’re right, the oatmeal tastes pretty good
With apple sauce mixed in with care.
I’m sure it will taste even better,
Once you’ve dumped it on your hair.

Let’s wash our hands using soap,
And slap the sink with a splash.
We can change that sodden shirt,
With an extra from our stash.

We’ve got the Legos back in the basket.
Sure, you can dump them back on the floor.
Your toys once fit in the toy chest,
‘Til Grandma brought you more.

Dinner is a fun affair,
With spaghetti sauce and noodles.
The red splotches on the wall
Go well with your crayon doodles.

It’s getting late, and time to bathe.
Let’s scrub your soft backside.
The sudsy water is a lot of fun
When you bail it over the side.

Bedtime now, and time to sleep.
For three books you stay awake.
But sleep now, and dream of tomorrow,
And of the many messes you can make.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

The Law of Unintended Consequences

It's cold here.  Not that anybody should be surprised, because it's cold everywhere today.  The Wednesday dad meetup at the Zoo was changed to the Museum of Science and Nature, but I'm pretty sure nobody actually went.  It's too cold.

I think people here and kinda in shock.  We all know generally in the back of our minds that it gets cold in Denver, sometimes.  And the cold here is generally fairly pleasant.  A nice dry cold that chaps the lips and cracks the cuticles, but nothing like the cold that settles in around the great lakes.   That cold grips you through the heaviest wold coat and shakes you.  Here the cold just lightly touches on you, and if you can stay out of the wind, makes you think its not so bad.  Winter here isn't a penance we have to live through to enjoy the rest of the seasons, but brings its own special beauty.  But the first cold snap of the season is always a surprise.  Maybe the fact that it was a balmy 75 degrees on Sunday has something to do with it.

I traded pleasantries about the weather with the checker at Trader Joe's last night.  I had run out for some bananas.  The kiddo's digestion need them...don't ask.  The drive over was a little slippery.  We discussed how much we liked the change.  75 in November is not right, but might be the new normal.  It's good for the gas bill, but bad for the planet.  The cold snap reminded us that we live in a pace with winter.

This is really where the story starts.  This morning the house was cold. I turned the heat up.

The kiddo's feet were cold.  After breakfast I dressed him in a warm onesie, fleece lined pants and a long sleeved shirt made from the same material as lumberjack long underwear.  I put socks on him.  I was out of socks with the little rubber nubs.  The result is that I turned all the hardwood into an ice rink.  Think Bambi on a frozen pond.  He wasn't put off, but each sprint across the house usually ended with a thump that rattled the dishes in the cabinet.

So I put on a pair of shoes on him.  Well made sneakers from Carter's with big rubber soles.  Now instead of each lap around the house ending with one big thump, we now had a whole lot more little thumps.  The patter of little feet.  This is fine.  As long as I hear the feet, I know were doing something safe.

However now we came to a different problem.  As we ran each lap, his fine hair started to fly away from his head in fluffy halo.  I'm sure the fleece lined pants played some role.  The first time he approached the table with the metal frame came as quite a surprise.  Zap!  Then it became a game.

The new skill of the month is climbing higher and higher.  First it was the padded ottoman, with help from the drum/stool.  Then it was onto the couches.  Then it was on to the side tables and dining room chairs.  Places that used to be safe from the biddo are no longer safe.  His penultimate goal now to climb atop the chair near my laptop to bang on the keyboard before dad can get to him.

I went into the bedroom to look for something and left my chair pushed out.  Normally he follows me into the bedroom, where he might have the opportunity to push the buttons on the Fax/Printer, or stand on the bathroom scale, or open a drawer in the closet and manically toss all the clothes on the floor.  This time he did not, and since I was vaguely distracted I did not notice that the patter of little feet had gone coldly quiet.

I emerged from the bedroom to the sight of Robin standing on a dining room chair happily emptying the contents of the salt shaker onto my keyboard.  On the screen there was a message about deleting the last restore point.  He gave me the merriest grin.  It was the grandest thing he had every done, that grin said.

Here is where I usually try to tie it all together.  I never knew, before being a parent, that it was possible to feel so many things at once.  A touch of anger at the mess, chagrin that it was pretty much my fault, pride that he was able to do it, terror he'd fall, and gratefulness that he hadn't chosen the cup of coffee in easy reach instead of the salt.  I'm sure there were loads more.  But it all really winds itself into one emotion, like individual threads twisted around themselves into a rope.  I have no name for that emotion, I just know that I feel it and it ties me securely to my kid.  I suspect all parents feel it to some extent.  Without it, I doubt any child would survive to age three, what with their willingness to just step off the table they just climbed up onto with no regard for the hardness of the floor.

Friday, October 31, 2014


A short post.  Just a remembrance of Halloweens past.
When I taught tech theater at San Mateo High School, I used to take Halloween off from teaching. Instead I would turn off all the lights in the theater but the ghost light, get all the kids to sit down house left and tell them ghost stories. Some of the stories I remembered from stories my dad told around the campfire. I usually made up a ghost story or two about the theater itself.
 One story I refined over the years was of Phil the construction worker who was working on the grid late one Friday night. The rest of the crew left the theater, and Phil miss stepped and fell into one of the cable slots and got stuck. Being a large man, he didn't fall through, but was stuck for three days. where he hopelessly banged on the grid with his hammer calling for help. Help didn't arrive until too late. Now, when the theater is dark, you can hear him bang his hammer.
After my first year of telling this story, I would recruit a student who'd already taken the class to sneak off and get a hammer. At the end of the tale, they would bang the hammer on something in the back of the theater. It was awesome watching the reaction of some of the kids. I can be a pretty good storyteller.
There was another story of a little girl who got left in the theater and ended up locked in the booth. How she died varied on the year, but sometime when you turned off the booth lights you could catch a glimpse of her face reflecting in the glass.  Especially when you print out and paste a little girls face on the back wall of the booth.
Man I miss messing with young minds.
For a long time there was this full size cutout of a guy we called Chuck.  I've no idea what show he was from, but Chuck always ended up in the darkest places, where you would turn a corner and he'd be there.  It was kind of a fun game, trying to scare folks with Chuck.  He often landed in the booth bathroom. 
My dad's favorite scary story was about some kids exploring an old haunted house.  In the last room the saw an eerie coffin floating toward them.  Not to be deterred, the kids whipped out some Vic's vapor rub and stopped that coffin. 
Happy Halloween.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Chivalry is Dead? Good.

Empty bus seats.

Last week one of my wife's cousins posted on facebook that chivalry is dead because all the men on the bus to the rental car place didn't jump up to offer her a seat.  She is two - three months pregnant and was actively resisting the urge to throw out her stomach and yell, "Is chivalry dead in Denver?"  It was a humorous post, meant in jest, but I took real offence to it for a couple of reasons.   My wife just rolled her eyes at my offense.

Let's start with the lessor of the reasons for taking this post amiss.  Please don't throw aspersions on my City based on the actions of people on a bus from the airport to the car rental building.  The only person on bus from Denver was probably the driver, and I doubt you'd want him to give up his seat for you.  I have pride in my city, which is generally considered pretty polite.  Last Friday Alice Louise and I went to the aquarium lounge (which is awesomely cheap) for happy hour and met another couple with two children.  Conversation was stuck and at the end they commented that they'd never felt as welcome in a city as they did in Denver.  Conversation striking is apparently my new hobby.

I want to explore this idea of dead chivalry.  My first response to her post was to say that it's rude to assume someone is pregnant.  Her response was, "I  am a women."  And that's when we got to the meat of the matter.  The next comment, from someone I don't know was, "Men, you always, always give up your seat to a woman.  Always!"  My response to that was "I always give up my seat to someone who needs it.  Last time I saw you [cousin's name] you were a robust woman in the prime of life.  Why should I give up my seat to you?  I'm curious, what entitles you to that seat?"  I actually meant it in a conversational way.  And I am curious as to why being a woman means men have to give up their seats, especially from a woman's point of view.  But the nuance of language is lost on the internet, and the comment probably came across as more heated that I intended.   The next commenter called me rude, actually called me "RUUUUDDDDDEEEE!" so I let it drop.

Since then I've been thinking a lot about chivalry a lot.  I open door for people if I get to the door before them, without regard for gender or age.  Sometimes I get stuck in a door holding eddy, where I hold a door for a whole train of people pouring in or out of a building.  Almost everyone says thank you, and occasionally someone tries to take the door from me, thus rescuing me from the eddy.  But I don't consider that chivalrous, just polite.  Chivalrous is something darker, something less than polite.

Let's get a little historical perceptive here.  Bear with me, some of this knowledge I'm dredging up from my Chaucer class in College

Lamia by John William Waterhouse, 1905.

Chivalry actually got its start during the medieval period best characterized by the tales of King Arthur and his knights.  Chivalry was a code of conduct for knights.  The root of the word is actually horsemanship and a lot of  the code was dedicated to how worship god to make war on the infidel.  But it also encouraged knights to seek the favor of ladies, often the ladies of their liege lords.  Of course being polite to your liege lord's lady was important for keeping your own head.  It is important to note that these relationships were not based on sexual desire, but a more romantic ideal.  Doing deeds for the favor of a lady gained you esteem among the other knights.

This system evolved out of a real political necessity.  Knights were mostly powerful landless men on horses in full armor.  There was a real problem that when these men got bored, they would ride through the country side cutting down the common folk, folk who were vitally important to growing the food for the kingdom.  But you couldn't send these men away or they would return with some rival lord and take your land.  So a real effort was put on creating a code of conduct.  Part of that was connecting these men to a higher power.  The church did some of this work and a lot of christian morality was infused into the stories of the knights and ladies (hence the focus on the chaste relationship between knight and lady).  There were also many stories about the chaos that ensued when the boundary between idealized love crossed over to carnal love.  Here look to the story of Lancelot and  Guinevere whose physical love basically destroyed Camelot.  The lord could order you to battle, but the lady could inspire you to win.  Just don't expect to see her naked.

So Chivalry was really a system designed by men to control other men using women.

Pre-Raphaelite Painting
Lamia by John William Waterhouse, 1905.

In the more modern era, Chivalry sort of became the booby prize awarded to women for their unequal position in society.  It's like "Sorry women, you can't own property, or vote, or drive, but let me tip my hat to you, hold the door for you, or give up my seat."  Instead of actually giving women an equal stake, society gives them empty gestures and expects them to be sated.  The more chivalrous the treatment of women, the more unequal the genders.

However, as we move toward a more equal society, the less chivalrous the relationship between the genders become.  This is a good thing.  There is something cheap and fake about chivalry.  Its application almost always seems condescending, and self-serving.  Look at me.  I'm giving up my seat for a the weaker than me woman.  What I good man I am.

Now, I'm not advocating jettisoning politeness.  Give up your seat for someone who really needs it.  Hold the door open for people.  And say thank you to the guy or girl holding the door open for you.  Just don't do it because you want to be chivalrous.  And Ladies, when all the men around you don't jump up to give you their seat, don't be offended, be excited that you live in a society moving closer to equality.  The men around you think you're strong enough to stand, if they are even thinking of you at all after their long flight from Debuque.    

Thursday, September 25, 2014

A Spoonful of Heroin

Screen capture from the iconic 1984 Apple commercial.

This post is inspired by a post I read over at Raven's Writing Desk about turning chores into games, a post I read at DadCamp about malls replacing play areas with walls of Ipads, and a post at DadRites about kids and video games.  In my brain it all starts as discussion about boredom.

I think about boredom and how to manage boredom a lot. Sometimes I defeat boredom but thinking about boredom.  Mostly I wonder how I'll manage Robin's boredom in this day and age of instant gratification and screens.

My kiddo is only 15 months, so the concept of boredom hasn't yet kicked in, other than the restlessness at being in a parked stroller for more than a few minutes, or that third hour in the car seat on the way to grandma’s house. But it is an issue I think about all the time. My fear is that I have zero basis to build an understanding of boredom in the age of screens. Computers used to be huge clunky things that you couldn't lug around. Video games at the dinner table were kinda of an absurd thought.  Sure I was often took to get off the computer and come to dinner, but they were separate events and needed occupied their distinct spaces. But now we go to dinner with my sister and her almost 3 year old, and he’d rather watch Jungle Book videos than interact with the rest of the table.  If you take the screen away he fusses until you have two options: give in or go home.  This is not a critique of my sister's parenting style.  She kept him away from screens until he was almost two.  She used to angle for the table at the restaurant with no visual access to screens.  But screens found a way in anyway.  Some days you just want a quiet meal with out a fight.  I totally get and support that.

From the Disney Movie "The Jungle Book" based on the book by Rudyard Kipling
Screens are addictive.  They are the glowing embers of the primordial camp fire that mesmerized our ancestors.  Staring into that fire is built into our DNA.  Screens short circuit the brain's reward system.  Instead of feeling good for accomplishing real things in the real world, we now feel rewarded for achieving things in the screen world, like watching videos about Baloo.   The real world can't compete.  How else can we explain the emergence of games that reward people for activities they should enjoy just on the merits of the activity.   

I'm a prime example.  I've had a Fitbit for over 2 years.  That alone got me walking more.  But when you introduce Ingress to the mix, my step count skyrockets.  Ingress is a game played in the "real" world on your phone.  You have to walk places and interact with portals.  You get points and experience for linking portals and you can only link portals if you have physically visited them and gotten a portal key.  I'm doing pretty well.  I'm level 7 in two weeks.  To achieve level 7 I walked almost 100 miles in two weeks, most of that pushing Robin around in a stroller in City Park.

I am a Proud Frog.

This is both good and bad.  The pragmatist in me thinks: "This is the way the world is now, therefore games that exploit this new reality and get people moving in the real world are good." Maybe attaching "Achievements" to learning math will encourage kids to put in the work to really understand it.  The cynic wonders how sustainable is a society built on people living only to score virtual points. (Two possible answers are Cory Doctorow's Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom available here for free, and this epic Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal).   It seems a little too close to the "gold star" problem this generation already suffers. The crazy homeless conspiracy theorist in me wonders if its all a plan by the Illuminati to hook us all on games so we don't notice the slow erosion of wages, rights, and intellectualism.  Panem et circenses.

If I'm susceptible as a kid who grew up mostly interacting with the outside world, how is Robin to cope? 

I try not to take my phone out at dinner (unless it's to resolve a bet, or check the weather, or check what time the zoo opens, or ...).  But when my wife and I relax in front of the TV after the kiddo is in bed, I usually have my ipad on my lap. I’m on facebook more than I should be when the kiddo's awake and terrorizing the dog.  But some days being alone with a toddler is excruciatingly boring. I’m usually very good about not being bored. I can find something interesting in anything set before me. But that skill is sorely tested sometimes being around a being whose greatest joy is grabbing your coffee off the table when you look away.  I know I should turn off the ipad, or shut down the facebook.

The answer I think is to induce boredom.  Let's make defeating boredom without a screen a game.  How?  I have no real answers, but I do have a few ideas.  

  1. Be up front about the dangers of too much screen time with your kids. I happen to think kids are pretty smart.  They can smell BS, but they can also sense truth.  Tell them that too much screen time leads to lower academic achievement, lower social IQ and less tolerance for delayed gratification.
  2. Make certain times of the day and certain days of the week screen-less time.  For everybody.  We're toying with the idea of no screens once dinner starts until bedtime.  There are loads of studies that show that this could be a good thing from helping kids (and adults) sleep better to improved family relations.  I'm just not sure how this will apply to the adult time after the kids are in bed, since its the only time we have to watch TV, or play Destiny.
  3. Get lots of analog toys, without "prebuilt" sets (modern Lego, I'm looking at you), and put them in a room where the kids can play with almost complete freedom.  Creative play leads to creative adults.  Let them take their things apart.  Just consider it part of the cost of doing business.
  4. Let kids play.  DadnCharge said this better than I ever could on his blog about banishing the play date.
  5. Let kids be bored.  Boredom isn't the worst thing.  The brain hates being unused.  This is why the writing exercise where you just start writing "I don't know what to write." over and over usually leads into a story idea.  The brain wants to be engaged.       
My parents thought being bored was the key to unlocking the imagination. And I think they were right. I don’t remember being bored as a kid, but I do remember the incredible adventures I’d have as Ghost of the Galaxy (or if I was powered up Ghost of the Universe), in the backyard, or running about the neighborhood. We had plenty of toys, most of which I completely disassembled within a week, never to be reassembled, or reconfigured into other toy monstrosities.  This served me well.  In school I was always able to find the fun take on assignments. And I learned those skills by turning boredom into something else, like an alchemist turns lead into gold.  Sometimes my teachers would get annoyed, like Mrs. Whinery when I wrote a compare/contrast essay on different colors of blue.  But it worked for me.

The ability to see boredom as an opportunity to achieve is something I will strive hard to get Robin to understand.  Understanding that getting the school work, or any work, out of the way before turning on the video game or surfing the web will vastly improve the value of those activities.  Learning to take pleasure in a job well done will be important.  Besides, everyone knows that feeling then the procrastination is full on.  The specter of work avoided hanging over every click of the mouse on Buzzfeed. My truth, learned from years and years, is that the hardest part is just starting.  Get over that initial voice saying it'll be boring, or hard, and you will usually find yourself immersed in the project.  Some tasks are boring, sure.  But when you're finished you can indulge yourself guilt free.

Julie Andrew's as Mary Poppins in Disney's "Mary Poppins".
As Mary Poppins sings, “A spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down.” My fear is that screens will turn that sugar into heroin and this generation will just skip the medicine entirely and never get out of rehab.