Thursday, April 30, 2009

The Great Oatmeal Wars

I never knew there was an incorrect way to make oatmeal until I got married.

Whenever we make oatmeal for the girls, we always have to specify: Mom Style or Dad Style. I like mine made the Only True And Correct Way, which is to take the instant maple-brown-sugar oatmeal packet (pay no attention to the store displays – there are no other kinds), pour it into the bowl and add just enough water to keep it together. That way it retains its texture. I like my oatmeal al dente. Kim, on the other hand, regards this as little better than “a damp granola bar” and prefers to add vast quantities of water and then microwave it until it forms a soupy substance that I consider to be gruel, especially after she dumps milk onto it.

Spackle! says Kim about my oatmeal.

Oatmeal is not meant to be consumed through a straw! I counter.

The problem is that the Authorized Text, as printed on the side of the Quaker Oats box, supports both the Only True and Correct Way and the Clearly Abominable Way. This makes it difficult to persecute oatmeal heretics, though not impossible. Nothing is impossible for the true believer fired by righteous zeal.

The girls go back and forth in this debate. They were first introduced to oatmeal Dad Style, since I was the one making it and, well, that’s how it was done. Kim took pains to enlighten me that I was misinformed on that point, however, and for a while they did switch back to Mom Style oatmeal. While the oatmeal gods were clearly unhappy with this, it did have the advantage of getting milk into the girls along with the oats and the maple and, not least, the brown sugar. But now that they can make it themselves, they have switched back to Dad Style. It’s easier, and one should never underestimate the importance of “ease of use” when dealing with fundamental matters of principle. Both of them can reach the electric kettle to get the hot water, and both know where the bowls and maple-brown-sugar oatmeal packets are kept. They’re not hard to find. We buy our oatmeal by the pallet now.

Oh, eventually the bards will sing of the Great Oatmeal Wars, and there will be celebrations, and memorials, and testimonials, and commemorative chess sets, and mugs, and specially printed decks of cards with little Quakers where now there are kings, but until that day the struggle must continue against those with an inadequate grasp of oatmeal mechanics. And when that final day of glory comes and the Only True And Correct Way reigns triumphant, then may we move on to other, similarly important struggles, such as determining whose bellies have stars upon thars.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Making a Spectacle of Oneself

Lauren has decided that she needs glasses.

We have tried to tell her that this is not as much fun as it looks - that wearing glasses is not the carnival of laughs, thrills and delicious, delicious depravity that it might seem to be from the outside - but to no avail. Lauren is not someone who is easily dissuaded once an idea gets into her head, and she has clearly inherited the optimization gene from Kim. She's already told me that she wants to move to a new house, because this one is "boring."

So today I stopped by the local pharmacy and found a small pair of reading glasses for her. It was cheaper than moving.

Lauren just loves her new glasses. She raced around the house with them for hours when she got home from school, and I have no doubt that she will try to sneak them into her backpack tomorrow morning. We've been trying to discourage her from wearing them too much - they do have actual lenses in them, the weakest I could find, and eventually she will end up at minimum with headaches - but so far this has been about as successful as you would imagine.

I've worn glasses since I was in graduate school. I arrived in Pittsburgh with a load of books in one hand and a prescription in the other, and eventually it all got sorted out. I've gotten used to them in the years since then, but I can't really say that I find them as fascinating as Lauren does.

Of course, given her genes she might as well get used to wearing them now, while they are still fun.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Art for Art's Sake

It was Art Show Thursday down at Not Bad President Elementary last night, and anyone who was anyone was there. There are a surprising number of anyones in our town, apparently, and it was just packed. But that is all to the good. These kinds of events ought to be packed.

The first thing we did was report to the large green room that serves NBPE as its cafeteria, auditorium and main gym. It was full of juice, cookies, and small children rocketing around in more or less the manner you would expect they would after consuming large amounts of juice and cookies. Fortunately there wasn't a whole lot of empty space for them to get up much speed, so no major injuries were reported. The only injuries were a number of cases of Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, suffered by parents filling out raffle tickets.

For you see, every year at this time NBPE students gather large quantities gifties into laundry baskets, each basket with its own theme, and raffle them off, with the money going to pay for juice and cookies. Since we had managed to forget about a previous fundraiser some months ago, we bought a pile of raffle tickets, each of which had to be filled out with a student's name, homeroom and phone number on the off chance that their ticket was pulled. Given our track record, we figured this would count as a donation.

After the girls had placed their tickets into the boxes in front of whatever laundry baskets full of gifties that they were hoping to win, we set off on a 'round-the-school journey, gawking at the vast quantities of Art that were on display. And let me tell you, there was some mighty fine Art on display. I may not know Art, but I know what I like, and this was good stuff.

Tabitha and Lauren each had a couple of pieces on display, and we searched until we found them. We also kept an eye out for the artwork of friends. It was quite the visual feast.

Then we headed back into the large green room, where we had shouted conversations with friends while hordes of children pinballed through what empty spaces there were in the crowd, waiting for the raffle drawing.

And you know what? Much to everyone's surprise - especially her own - Tabitha actually won a laundry basket full of stamping supplies! It is amazing how happy a basket full of stickers, plastic sheets and rubber stamps can make someone.

Add in the ice cream we got on the way home, and you couldn't design a better evening.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

A Joyful Noise

I have always loved the sound of typewriters.

Clack. Clack. Clack.

Computer keyboards, with their muted taps, cannot compare to the staccato music of a manual typewriter. They’re more efficient and easier to use, granted, but they’re not nearly as satisfying.

A while back, Netflix served up Kit Kittridge, American Girl. It was basically Katherine Hepburn movie, only in color and starring children. Kit is a girl around Tabitha’s age, living in her family’s boarding house during the Great Depression, and her big goal is to be published in the newspaper. So there is an awful lot of skulking about, as nefarious events unfold (although not too nefarious – this is a movie named after an American Girls doll, after all), and there is an even more awful lot of the typing up of reports of said nefarious events.

Clack. Clack. Clack.

Eventually Kit’s derring do and persistence are rewarded, and she is given the chance to be a full-fledged member of a medium that had not yet begun to die off, the way that it is doing now.

Lauren just loved this movie. She watched it over and over, and when we finally had to throw it back into the Netflix jetstream she decided that she wanted to use a typewriter just like Kit. Not a computer keyboard – she already was using that – but a real, old-fashioned typewriter, one that went "clack" and could be carried about and did not need electricity.

Fortunately my old portable was still sitting in its case up in one of the kneewalls upstairs, so I dragged it out and prepared for glory. It’s a small typewriter, with a 1970s-style sans-serif Swedish typeface, but it served me well and I figured Lauren could handle it. Unfortunately, it refuses to advance when you type letters, so unless Lauren wanted to produce perfectly white documents with one small black square in the middle, it wasn’t going to do.

Do you know how hard it is to find someone to fix a typewriter these days?

There is one outfit here in town that claims they will do that, but when I took the typewriter over one day they practically threw me out on the street. Are you sure you want us to fix that thing? Really sure? Cross your heart and hope to die? Will you sign over your property, future income and first-born as a guarantee that you’ll come back and pick it up when we’re done? How sure are you? Really sure? No, really, how sure are you?

First of all, this was for my second-born, so I wasn’t about to sign over Tabitha for that. Lauren can be the collateral for her own projects, thank you very much. Second, even I can take a hint when it is applied with the back of a shovel like that.

So I spent several fruitless evenings over the next couple of months trying to take the typewriter apart – but not too far apart – to see if I could fix it. Given the troubled state of my relations with the material world, the answer to that question was fairly obvious from the get go, but I had to do the experiment anyway. My dad has since suggested that I simply dunk the thing in a vat of rust-cleaner for a day or two, on the theory that at this point there is nothing much to lose. I may yet try that.

But in the meantime, I remembered that one of the things I had inherited from my grandfather was his old typewriter.

This was from back in the days when typewriters were typewriters, by God. Through the magic of teh intarweebs, I have discovered that it is an Underwood Type 6, made sometime in late 1945 – apparently the same model that John F. Kennedy used in the White House. It is a big, black, steel box about a foot square and almost that tall. There is no “1” key, but it does have a couple of fractions. It easily outweighs Lauren. My guess is that it was originally designed to be a tank, but was repurposed after the war through the simple expedient of adding keys to the front. The ribbon was kept from dissolving mostly by inertia, so I tracked down an outfit in California that sells replacement ribbons (and a more cheerful group of people you will never meet - you could tell that they just love old typewriters too). It arrived Monday, and I got everything all set up.

Clack. Clack. Clack.

Lauren has just had the most wonderful time with this typewriter. She pounds away at it, working on her project. We’ve had to go over the concept of “carriage return,” a novelty for one raised in the computer age, but so far so good. Even Tabitha took a turn at it.

Right now the typewriter is sitting in Kim’s office, which is an improvement over the dining room floor but not by much. We’ll have to find a more permanent home for it. But the joyful noise of typing resounds through the house once more. I love that noise.

Clack. Clack. Clack.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

A New Home for Ashton

Ashton found a new home on Tuesday.

Tabitha’s best buddy is Taryn. They have been inseparable since Kindergarten, which is the main reason that they have not been in the same classroom since then. Not Bad President Elementary officials quickly learned that not much learning would take place under those conditions, and they have not repeated that experience. But the two girls get together at recess, and sometimes outside of school and over the summers. They fit well together, and we’re always happy when Taryn comes over.

Taryn’s cat Ashton passed on a while back, which was every bit the tragedy these things are. People who do not have pets never really understand this and they often say really brain-dead things about it – most of which contain the phrase “it was just a [insert type of animal here].” Those who say such things should be soundly thrashed with heavy objects until the urge to do so again is removed from their psyches.

Tabitha is not one of those people.

Last week she decided that what Taryn needed was something that would fit into the hole left by Ashton. So she checked out a book of cat-crafts from the library and found one she liked – a cat-shaped pillow that she could make herself. She found the fabric for it in the rag bin downstairs, sewed on the eyes and nose herself, and then did most of the blanket-stitching required to close it up. She even stuffed it herself.

It did take a few days before she was ready to give it up, but on Tuesday the new Ashton found its way into the hands of the old Ashton’s owner.

That was a very nice thing to do, Tabitha, and we’re proud of you.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Spaces Between Summers

Harry Kalas died today.

I never met the man, but I spent a good chunk of my childhood listening to him call Phillies games on radio and television. He had one of those deep sturdy voices that announcers have, though he often got excited by what he was watching. That I would take as a sign that I should pay attention, as baseball does have long spells where not much happens and I would get distracted by other things. That's one of the charms of the sport, I suppose.

When I was in college I had a friend who won a city-wide "Harry Kalas Sound-Alike" contest, and I have to say the resemblance was uncanny. Last I heard he went into radio too, which I guess was fitting.

There have been a number of tributes on the various web sites I frequent when avoiding work, and I've read through some of them. One thing that crops up a lot is the question of what your favorite call was. Most people choose either his calling the winning moments of the last World Series that the Phillies won, in 2008 (apparently local broadcasters were not allowed to call World Series in 1980, the other time the Phillies have won the Series since 1871), or his description of Mike Schmidt's 500th home run.

They were good moments.

But I think I rather prefer to remember the odd moments when he was just killing time between pitches. He'd slowly describe the count on the batter, the pitcher's motion, the crowd, or whatever. There would be spaces between the words. In my mind, there is also the low-level audio hiss of old television broadcasts underneath it all. It was surprisingly calm and peaceful, but you always knew that something exciting might be right around the next pitch.

That's what summers sounded like, when I was a kid. They haven't sounded like that in a long time, and I suppose now they won't again. Things change.

I think most of the important moments in life are like that - the odd moments that don't seem all that important until you look back on them. I find as I get older, having crested the midpoint of my three-score and ten some time ago and begun to coast down the other side, that more and more the moments I remember are not the big ones that were such a fuss at the time but rather the little ones, the ones with the faint hiss in the background that defined the day. Quiet moments spent not doing much, spent distracted from larger tasks, spent in the spaces between.

There is room for that, in the big busy world.

Cry Havoc and Release the Walruses of Easter

Every Easter the walruses come to our house.

This can be somewhat disconcerting for people who don't know the story. For some reason, they expect animals that are, well, fluffier. And we have those too! But we also have walruses.


I was trying to explain all this to a friend of mine Saturday morning while the girls were ice-skating. This is not easy to do, and requires some repetition, as you might imagine. Eventually I noticed that over in the corner of the warming room there was a lady listening to all this and clearly debating whether to call one or another authority figure to come and take me away (ha ha, ho ho, hee hee...). But there's an explanation! I said.

There always is.

I met Kim's family for the first time on Easter Sunday, 1994, shortly after we had begun dating. Kim was in charge of bringing the Easter bread, and being the new boyfriend I was helping out. As per the recipe, we saved out a bit of extra dough in order to make the chicks that sit on top. But you know, making chicks out of dough is not as easy as it sounds. It is not! They turned out a bit bloated, and "walruses" they have remained in family lore ever since.

This year it was the girls' turn to take up the family walrus tradition.

They did a good job, though:

Our Easter was fairly low-key, as they tend to be around here.

Kim got the girls to dye eggs on Thursday night, and now we have about two-dozen brilliantly-colored hard-boiled eggs sitting in the fridge, making it much more festive in contrast with the other stuff that's in there. Other than the occasional contribution from Lauren, Kim is pretty much the only person who eats them so we're hoping she's hungry.

We drove up to Grandma and Grandpa's on Saturday - the officially designated "Easter" this year - and settled in for a festive day of family and calories. On top of everything else, it was Grandma's birthday last week and Uncle Randall's birthday that day, so we had all sorts of goodies.

I will never pass a drug test. I married into a Ukrainian family, and they use poppy seeds like other people use bacon - as an all-purpose Food Improver. There is nothing that cannot be made better by the addition of poppy seeds. Now if we could figure out a way to have poppy-seed bacon, we'd be set.

I'd eat it.

We had a good time. And it was warm enough that the various kids could run around outside for a bit. After a night-cap game of Uno, in which, for the first time in weeks Lauren did not clean our clocks, we went back home, poured the girls into bed like day-old coffee, and waited for the Easter Walrus to come.

No, no, the Easter Bunny. Fluffy. Think fluffy.

I'm not sure we wouldn't be better off with the walrus. The Easter Bunny, you see, has a sense of humor when he comes to our house. He doesn't just leave the baskets somewhere obvious and hope for the best - oh, no! Instead, he hides them somewhere, and then takes yarn - a different color for each girl - and twines it around the house, hither, thither and yon (and let me tell you, we have a lot of hither and thither in this house - and don't even get me started on all the yon; we've got yon by the yard), until one end is tied to the basket and the other to the bed of the basket's owner.

Naturally, the cats look forward to this all year.

This morning the girls were up long before we were, tracked down their baskets, and then had a healthy breakfast of pure sugar - all before we managed to drag ourselves downstairs.

Well, once a year, so it goes.

Happy Easter!

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Almost But Not Quite Reality TV

It was Mythbusters night at our house last night.

The season premiere was on – TWO WHOLE HOURS of Mythbusters! – and as a special treat, since it is also Spring Break over at Not Bad President Elementary School, we let the girls stay up late to watch. Part of this was pure selfishness on our part, since that way we could watch the whole thing uninterrupted as well. And part of it was the fact that out of all the shows that are on television these days, we’re glad that the girls like this one.

If you’ve never seen Mythbusters, well, what is wrong with you? How can you not love a show that starts with the basic premise that when you are confronted with a story that sounds too good to be true, the proper response is neither slack-jawed acceptance nor reflexive dismissal, but instead to say, “Well, let’s see if that really works”? You should always be testing the things that people tell you, since most of those things are either pure unadulterated horse byproducts or tautologically obvious. You have to do the math, literally and figuratively, in this world, otherwise you find yourself believing just the oddest things – that guns don’t kill, that transferring wealth to the already rich helps the rest of us, that combining religion and politics is good for either of those things, or any number of other currently popular ideas that testify to the stunted critical thinking capabilities of our nation. Something that tells you to run a reality check once in a while can only help.

Plus, on the show, things blow up with pleasing regularity.

Tabitha remains fascinated by The Creamer Cannon Of Death, for example, an experiment that in essence amounted to a kiloton-yield dust explosion. I’m not entirely sure what urban myth that one was trying to resolve, but it was fun to watch. Sometimes the larger point doesn’t matter so much as the fact that you see people having fun while testing the things that they hear.

Lauren has decided that this is what she wants to do when she grows up. We tell her this would be just fine.

Last night was the automotive myths episode – or, rather, the “Let’s test some things that will involve cars being destroyed in creative and interesting ways” episode. Can a car crash through a fruit stand and still drive, the way they do in those old cop shows? Well, no – spectacularly no – it turns out. Can a car slide under a semi, get converted into a convertible without killing anyone inside and then drive away? Actually, yes, surprisingly enough.

My favorite bit was when they tested the old story of a compact car being crushed between two semis in a head-on collision and getting fused inside to the point where nobody knew it was there for days. They tested this one with actual semis and couldn’t get it to work, and then decided to go further: what would it take to get this to work?

Answer: rockets. Lots of rockets, plus a straight rail to put a rocket sled on, some inch-thick steel plates, and an earthen berm. And a desert to put it all in.

So it does work, but not under highway conditions. At least I hope not.

Science can be fun.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Frodo Lives!

Tabitha and I finished The Lord of the Rings on Saturday.

It was a long trip through Middle Earth, but well worth the time. I got to share one of my favorite books with Tabitha, who seemed to enjoy it every bit as much as I did. We'd steal bits of time here and there to read together, and talk about the characters and wonder what was going to happen to them, and then be amazed when it did. The other night she told me she wants a copy like mine as a graduation present. That's a long way off, though. We may have to work on compressing that time line.

One thing that you notice when you read this with someone who hasn't read it before is that it can be hard to keep track of where everyone is. When I first read it I kept flipping back and forth to the big fold-out map at the end, but this is the age of teh intarweebs, and maps of Middle Earth can be downloaded and printed out instantly. All the better to keep track of things.

Tabby eventually acquired quite a collection of markers, since each time the Company split up or changed membership it required a new color. I have to say that even I found the tracking process helpful.

One of the odd things about The Lord of the Rings (and there are many, including the fact that the title character is offstage for the vast majority of the time) is its ending. All of the plotlines lead up to the Big Moment and then there is the Celebration afterwards, and you think that it should end there but there are several more chapters yet to go - distances must be travelled, Shires must be scoured, and so on.

A lot of people don't like this part of the book and argue that it was a mistake to let it go on like that. I used to be one of them, but Tolkien himself always argued that these last couple of chapters were an integral part of the story, foreseen from the outset. And over the years I have come to value this little coda to the main story. You can't quite go home again, even if you are the hero and you succeed in your Quest. Homes change, you change, and quests never quite end so much as change focus. You have to enjoy them while you can, and give them up when you must.

I've also always loved the fact that after all the shouting has died down, just about the last words in the book are "Well, I'm back." Not home, really. Just back. Sometimes that's all you get, and sometimes that's enough.