Saturday, July 28, 2007

We're messy, but imaginative (and rarely bored)

Interesting discussions on housework (Bitch, Ph.D.) and mothering (Yarn Harlot).

Regarding housework, I can completely relate to a value system that ranks posting pictures of a messy house on the internet higher than actually cleaning the house (way higher, in fact). And yeah, my house looks that bad quite a bit of the time. Not all of the time, though, and we're working on it. I seem somehow to have gotten to the point where the only way to move forward on the housecleaning is to make my kids do it. So if I tidy, and they clean (or, as I put it to them, I do the work that needs to be done by me, and you guys do the work that can be done by just about anybody), we make progress. At least I hope we're making progress.

When I was thinking about the Bitch, Ph.D. post I remembered Jennifer's post about her son's room. And all of a sudden it struck me how this "OMG I'm such a bad housekeeper" theme, morphing into "No way, I'm a much worse housekeeper than you" in the comment thread, is sounding kind of like a variant on the "OMG I'm so stressed and my life is much worse than yours" contest I have encountered both in the academic and working worlds. This is the ultimate lose-lose situation. Because the only way to win these contests is to have the most stress and the worse life, and what's good about that? By contrast, when Jennifer posted pictures of her son's room, she seemed genuinely concerned about their awfulness (minimal, it seemed to me, and I say this to be clear that I'm not criticizing her or her son's room). Not kind of backwardly patting herself on the back for being so able to find something, anything to do, other than actually create a comfortable living environment for herself and her family.

Now, the marriage/living partner cleaning dynamic can be a difficult one. In my first marriage, it came to symbolize everything that was wrong about our relationship. In my current marriage, it's a little easier in that I'm primarily responsible for the house, but I can count on my husband to pitch in when he's available (unfortunately, not often). I'm further fortunate in that my husband can stand a good deal of clutter. But when there are different standards of cleanliness, and unclear division of labor, horrible stagnation resulting in awful messes can be the outcome.

Partly I wonder where some of the social norms come from. When I was growing up, I remember my friend's houses as being clean, and tidy, but not overly decorated. When I was in school, most of my friends had pretty messy houses. As bad as mine, or sometimes even worse. But once I had kids, I started to know people whose houses are, in the perplexed words of a mom I know "Like a Pottery Barn catalogue, all the time." What's a housekeeping-challenged mom to do?

I come from a long line of messy women, so I feel that my lack of skills goes beyond mere laziness. My grandmother on my mom's side had to be the boy of the family, since she grew up on a farm in an all-girl family, and SOMEBODY had to help with the chores. My mom always used to tell me that her dad had loved his wife's messiness. He had come from an extremely neat household, and was apparently sick of being nagged to pick up after himself. So my grandmother kept a messy house, my mother kept a messy house, and here I am. Doing my best, which, unfortunately is not all that great, and constantly trying to raise the bar.

Regarding television, we haven't really needed rules about it in our family. When Ziad was little, he actually refused to sit still and watch it. I remember one time when we were visiting family with his cousins, and one of the adults thought it would be a good idea for them to all watch cartoons (Scooby Doo in point of fact). Although I personally do not agree that this is a good way to keep children quiet, I would have gone along with it out of politeness, but Ziad was having no part of it. He decided instead to conduct a thorough investigation of the latch to the front gate, while I accompanied him. It was actually the Wiggles that finally induced him to sit and watch TV, which seems ironic because the only reason I showed him the first Wiggles video was so that he could do the dance moves with them. But no, he just sat there and watched them, although with clear enjoyment. In fact, he watched the video straight through twice.

Maya has more couch potato tendencies, but neither of them has such an unconstrained desire for TV that I need to regulate it. They pretty regularly go for weeks at a time without having it on. Then we'll take streaks of watching movies, or documentaries on DVD (God, we love David Attenborough), but most days it seems like we just don't have time for TV. This is one area where I think the homeschooling has worked out pretty well the way I wanted it to, because there's no one making them think that not watching TV is in any way odd or that they are somehow deprived. Most of their friends are in a pretty similar situation, TV-wise. And somehow, the ones who aren't still manage to find plenty of other things to talk to them about, so it all works out in the end.

So, even though we have plenty of other fights in our house, the TV fight is one we have avoided so far (knock on wood).

Sunday, July 22, 2007

The Astro Wizard

I bet you thought this would be more Harry Potter, right?

No, the Astro Wizard is a Bay Area scientist who finds time to serve as program director at Chabot Space and Science Center while entertaining at kid's birthday parties on the side. We saw him for the first time last year, at Hidden Villa's stargazing party, and the kids enjoyed it so much we decided to go again this year. We've seen science entertainment for kids a couple of other places, and the Astro Wizard is nowhere near as polished. What he lacks in showbiz, though, he makes up for with genuine enthusiasm for science and kids. "Isn't that cool?" is a favorite expression. And judging from the crowd of kids dogging his every footstep, they thought yes, indeed, that stuff was cool.

Which is funny, because a lot of his presentation consists of toys anybody could buy in a store or on the internet. And he'll tell you that too, not just where he got it but also why and how much it cost. Have you all seen the little black container that will project a hologram on the top of an object placed inside? An excellent illustration of parabolic mirrors. An odd contraption that sets a magnet to spinning so that it floats in the air? Magnetic fields and conservation of angular momentum. A device that shoots a string out into a loop and lights it with UV light? Well, that's just fun.

Some of his material is more spectacular, though -- the rocket fuel explosions are something I haven't seen anywhere else. And even though you can see the Mentos and Diet Coke fountains on the internet any time you want, it's still fun for everyone to see them live. He also burns magnesium and gun cotton in a pyrotechnic effect he calls the Big Bang.

Apparently he also has a portable planetarium, but of course it would have been silly to bring that along. When it was time to look at stars we just stepped outside, where he pointed out constellations, galaxies, and planets with his laser pointer. That was my favorite part.

There were telescopes set up out in the field, too, but very few of the kids wanted to tear themselves away from him to go look through them.

And even though it was getting late, he still had time to focus on each individual child to answer their questions and hear what they had to say ("I have a red flashlight!" "Cool!") and sing them little songs about astronomy, and explode some more rocket fuel for them. We were exhausted when we finally left.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Harry Potter is upon us

Decisions, decisions. Should we go to the library party on Friday night or the bookstore party in the morning? Well, the bookstore won out, since we had copies on reserve there.

So down we drove to the bookstore, seven o'clock in the morning, and found the party in full swing. Lots of games where the kids could win little stones, then trade them in for a prize from a grab bag. A scavenger hunt, book readings, trivia contests. Friends we hadn't seen in a while. It was a nice couple of hours, but I started to get hungry, plus really, it seemed like time to get reading.

And so now, it's over. Seven books and more than that many years of waiting. Reading this last installment, I was really impressed. I know I have spoken slightingly of the Harry Potter series in the past. This last book pulls it all together beautifully, though. As someone who has lost people I loved dearly, I feel this book touches eloquently on what death means to the ones who survive. I've never really thought these were appropriate as children's books, and this last one is certainly no exception. It's very intense, and difficult to read in places. Ziad is tackling it, but finding it tough going. I wonder if he'll re-read this series any time soon. I doubt I will. It feels funny, though, not to have another book in the offing.

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Friday, July 20, 2007

To Steal a Kingdom

This fascinating book, subtitled Probing Hawaiian History, details a non-standard, Hawaiian-based view of Hawaii's contact with outside influences. One of it's major theses is that Hawaiian history as it is written about and presented by various institutions, has been tightly controlled by members of one prominent family, a family whose wealth is based on land-grabbing and exploitation of Hawaiian people and resources. It's interesting, then, that this book was recommended to me by a guide at a museum run by the Hawaiian historical society, one of the institutions specifically mentioned by name

One easy reading of this book is that the Hawaiians were overwhelmed by the diseases, religions, and greed of white men who came to their shores. In my opinion, though, it's impossible not to see that various Hawaiian nobility attempted to use the white men for their own personal gain, and in so doing, sold out their people and their country. King Kamehameha, for example, widely known for gathering all the islands under his personal rule, used European military power in his conquest. This is not to say that the Hawaiians could, in any event, have maintained their independent sovereignty. The chain of events that led to Hawaii's annexation, however, seems to me to be a real-life tragedy on an epic scale, with the short-sightedness and selfishness of the nobility as only one factor among many. Certainly the greed of sugar manufacturers is appalling.

I have a friend who grew up on Maui (her parents are from Molokai), and she told me that in many respects, native Hawaiians are worse off than the native Americans. Before Europeans came to their shores, the Hawaiians had lived for thousands of years in a stable, prosperous culture. Today, their numbers have been reduced until their voices are drowned out in the land of their ancestors. Many live in poverty. There has been no compensation.

Given that so many of us love our Hawaiian vacations, I think this book is a good dose of reality; something to think about when we're admiring the enjoying a luau, wearing a lei, engaging in any of the thousand tourist activities the islands have on offer.


Thursday, July 19, 2007

It figures

I love to bake. To that end, I keep a fair amount of baking supplies in the cupboard.

We have a problem with moths. Naturally, my first thought was to clean out the baking supplies. So I hauled out the flour (pastry, whole wheat, organic). No moths. Looked at the sugar. Clean. Cocoa -- nada. Finally I got to the baker's chocolate, and I found what the moths had been getting into. Was it the Baker's chocolate? Was it the Guittard? Ghirardelli? No, they went straight for the Scharffen Berger. Yes, we are the family with the gourmet chocolate snob moths.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

OK, tell me what you really think

I think this (which I saw on Bitch, Ph.D.) is pretty amazing. I'm interested to hear what other people think, not just people who view it in the same light I do. (Although I like to hear from those people, too.) Which is to say that if this article strikes you as unmitigated tripe (or even mitigated tripe), I think I'm capable of hearing you out without feeling that we have come to a parting of the ways, or even having my friendly feelings for you wane in any way. And I hope that can be reciprocal.

Monday, July 16, 2007

People are Strange

"You're rude. Don't talk to me."

How could anyone say that to me? I was literally taken aback. I'm not rude, I'm nice. And my manners are generally quite acceptable. Looking back on it, I think I should have realized right then that the women in question was obviously demented, and definitely not worthy of any of my precious time or emotional energy. Unfortunately, in the moment, my heart started pounding and I got increasingly upset. I really could not just let it go.

So here's the backstory. The children and I had gone to the Hiller Aviation to see some paper airplane demonstrations. We got there right as the museum was opening, so that we could see all four scheduled talks. They were wonderful! We loved them! And we also loved the man who was talking --he is clearly both a gifted designer and a wonderful human being. His airplanes were beautifully folded and did wonderful tricks while interacting wonderfully with his audience. He taught people how to fold a plane, he signed books, he was great. He even showed Ziad how to get past a tricky point in a complicated fold that Ziad had been unable to master on his own.

The demonstration airplanes were laid out on a table behind the floor where the talk was held. During the first three talks everything was fine, but somehow between the third and the fourth, things got a little chaotic. People started walking up to the table and playing around with the planes. Every now and then a museum person would ask them to stop, but as often as not the museum people were occupied elsewhere, and of the course the airplane designer was completely surrounded by fans. After having seen three talks, I was as fond of these planes as their folder, and I had a pretty good idea that he preferred them to be handled gently. So finally, when I saw a woman pick up a complex plane, and start to walk off with it, I couldn't take it any more. I followed her, and said (I believe apologetically, because I felt a little odd), "Excuse me, but that plane is for the demo."

So she muttered something apologetic, and put the plane back, and I went back to the table where I had been sitting (from which she took a chair that we had been using, thank you very much, without so much as a by your leave). She kept looking over at me, though, and finally came up and asked, "Do you work here?"

To which I replied, "No, but people just kept messing around with the planes ...."

And she came back with, "Well, I think he should have been the one to tell me that" (Who exactly she meant being left unspecified. Not that it matters.)

Now, I admit that my "Sorry" had more of the vibe of "Whatever" and was not, strictly speaking polite. Because I felt like "What's it to you, anyway? You shouldn't have been messing with the planes. Who cares who lets you know?" All of this flashed through my head in the space of an instant, during which she came back with, "You're rude. Don't talk to me."

From my vantage point in time, I think, "Well, if I knew you were demented, I wouldn't have." But at the time, I was speechless. Speechless, but mad. And I flat out do not accept that people can get me all riled up like that and then tell me to be quiet. So I walked over to her and told her that I didn't think she had any right to talk to me like that, whereupon she said, "You're harassing me. Leave me alone or I'll call a guard." Which sounded like a threat to me, and I really do not take well to being threatened.

So my response was "Fine, OK, you want the guard, let's go talk to the guard."

So we walked over to the guard. Whereupon she basically told him that if he didn't call the authorities she was going to report him (to who? Oh my GOD!) and although I mostly just let her talk I did occasionally interject my version of reality, while the guard was giving me this look that seemed to me to say "Help!!! Crazy woman! Make her stop!" When she finally stopped talking, he just proposed that we stay away from each other and cool down, which we agreed to do, although I really wished he would have mentioned to her that yes, those airplanes on the table are for the demo.

So we did. Until she was finally leaving the museum, when she saw fit to walk past my table and say "Have a nice day" in the nastiest way possible. I had been more or less expecting this, however, so at that point I was ready to just let it go. No way that sanity was going to make a dent on this woman. I have to say that she was always really nice to her daughter, but I still feel that in the end being raised by a madwoman is probably not going to be beneficial.

The odd thing is that exchange poisoned my whole day, and I can STILL, more than week later, hear her voice ringing in my head. I honestly don't know why she got me so upset. When the plane designer left, he pulled out four large, shallow plastic containers, the kind you might store rolls of wrapping paper in. He carefully packed his planes away in them, all facing a certain way, only a single layer, space between them. I know he cared about those planes, and I don't think I was out of line in letting that woman know what she was doing. I also know that until she got on my case about it, I was not any pushier than it takes for someone to walk up to someone they don't know and tell them that they're blowing it. So why should I even care what she thought, or said?

I still haven't figured it out.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

A story

Very early on a winter morning, a young girl is walking up a hill. Twenty years old, and very young. A full moon is shining. She is going to watch a class, a martial arts class, that she is not yet skilled enough to participate in.

Watching class, she is inspired. The words of the teacher reach deep into her soul. The dojo seems filled with a golden light.

Later she learns that her presence in the dojo, so early every morning, watching so intently, has attracted attention. The teacher expresses an interest in her. Without meaning to, she is drawn into a relationship with someone who seems to exist on a higher level. When she inevitably discovers he is human after all, she feels betrayed. Her fury, scarcely contained, is poisonous.

She leaves to study another language in another state; while she is gone she looks back on her six months with this man. She sees his constancy. She knows she has found a stable center where she can be safe. When she returns, they marry.

Shortly after, they leave for Japan. They have known each other a year. Together they practice martial arts in a small village on the coast. They live in a house next to a mountain. There is no heat, no insulation, no hot water, no bathroom. For transportation, they have their feet and their bicycles. In the winter, the wind blows through the house. In the spring, termites swarm from the wall studs. In the summer, their clothes grow mold from the constant damp.

In the dojo, sometimes snow blows onto the mat from small windows near the floor. In the summer heat, she sometimes feels so sick she can barely train. At times she resents the relentless pace: every morning class from 6:30 to 7:30, every night class from 6:30 to 8. No absences, no excuses. In the end, she grows to love it. She never wants to leave. Leave they do, however, over the objections of the head teacher. It is not a good parting.

They return to the States, they run a school, they have a child, their marriage falls apart. Forced to look for a way out, she never finds a good one. Another bad parting. The business connection remains, for a while. Their child grows up and there is no point of contact left between them. Her life has changed, she has left the martial arts behind now the dojo is no longer her home.

Yet somehow the martial arts have not deserted her. A teacher, one she knew in Japan, comes to teach a farewell class. He is old, too old to travel to America again. Watching him teach, she is overwhelmed by his simplicity, his generosity, his honesty. Through all these years, he has remained dedicated. It is amazing.

Her heart has never lost its yearning for truth. Looking back, she can see herself young and in pain, a black emptiness in her soul she could never get past. It is small wonder she could never really fit in, never truly lose herself in practice, never completely give. Feeling old, she wonders. Is it her children that have made her whole? The man who gave her a connection so deep and loving it lifted her up and gave her new hope? Or is she just fooling herself to think that she has grown at all?

Standing apart, it is so easy to see clearly. In interactions, in words, in situations, clarity evaporates so easily -- what once seemed so simple gets lost somehow. Is there value in these insights? How can she remember, remember when it counts, how can she continue, how can she move forward?