Thursday, May 31, 2007

Teens can't live without the internet

Howard posted a link to this article about how a panel of teens said they can't live without the internet and mobile devices.

"One kid, the most outspoken and rebellious of the bunch, said he had lost two phones in the last month — one left on the top of his car, and the second broken when he leaned on it while playing pool. Of course, later, when asked what piece of technology he couldn’t live without, he said he would die if he lost his cell phone."

I often think about the perception my daughters have of what computers and the internet are all about. To them, it's like TV, I guess...something that's always been a part of life and someday they are going to learn more about. They can't imagine life without it. But I have to laugh about a kid saying he'd die without his cell. True, if he was lost in the wild and had no phone, yeah, he might die. But frankly, I don't think I've ever said that about any piece of technology I own (no, not even the TiVo). Yes, there are many things I could not do without computers or the internet, but then again there are many things I DON'T DO BECAUSE OF the internet. Like read books. Like go outside more. Like clean the bathroom more often. Like play with my kids more.

Last winter, we had a power failure (very rare in our neighborhood) right at dinner time. My wife was not home at the time, so the kids and I went into campout mode. We dug out every Shabbat candle and votive we could find, ate a lukewarm dinner, and set up a campsite in the master bedroom. We told stories, talked about past power failures and past campouts before they were born, and had a great old time despite the fact that the room was dropping to a brisk temperature rapidly. The kids often ask me when we can do that again.

I'm thinking of shutting the power off to the whole house once a month.

Kromofons: The future of the Alphabet (or not)

Here's an article about some wackjob (or perhaps genius?/) who invented a new alphabet years ago based not on written text but on colors. Quite simply, each color represents a letter of the alphabet. He invented this years ago, but only now felt it was ready for the world due to the ubiquity of color monitors. Frankly, I see a whole new market for little code puzzles on kids' place mats at the local Olive Garden, but beyond that, I don't see it.

The website is an enjoyable, if not completely useless and time consuming, toy for about ten minutes, but it contains many of the inventor's complex word and sentence creations with little to no explanation of practical application. Basically, the guy must have had a little too much free time in his bedroom as a kid.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

The EPIC program

The other day we attended our first official parent/teacher conference. Natalie's Kindergarten teacher had all good things to say about our little shining star, and in fact confirmed what we already know: that she's smarter than either one of us. We discussed enrolling her in the "gifted program" soon. This got me to reminiscing about my own experience with the gifted program back in my elementary school days.

There are only four things I remember from my years in elementary school:

1. Getting hit in the eye by a rogue snowball.
2. Witnessing my dog, Dusty, get pummeled by a car on the day of the science fair
3. The event at the school dance that caused every boy at Northeast Elementary to enter puberty simultaneously.
4. The EPIC program.

Okay, let's take these one by one. First, the snowball. to this day I don't know if it was intended for me, but I ended up with a scratched cornea and bad vision in my right eye to this day. If you, the thrower, are out there reading this, thanks a whole lot, buttwipe.

Second, the death of Dusty. It was my first encounter with death. Dusty hated kids. He repeatedly tried to eat me. But seeing him lying under that Michelin, tongue hanging out, eyes stoned cold, will be forever cemented in my head far more than the schematic of the inside of the Space Shuttle that I threw together for the fair.

Next, the dance. In a classic tale, a plain, homely, barely-noticed girl named Tina (I think) managed to get a makeover of Hollywood proportions in preparation for that night, showed up for the 8th grade dance, and caused every boy in the room to simultaneously grab the nearest helium balloon and position it strategically in front of his belt buckle.

And now, to the EPIC program. The only educational part of elementary school that I actually remember. I think I remember it so vividly because it was so traumatic. Several students were taken from class on Wednesday and bussed to a different school in town (Ivy Drive, the "school where bullies were made") for a day of advanced learning. I believe part of this was learning to cope with the repeated tormenting we encountered whenever we showed got off the short bus at the school parking lot.

But I have to admit, I actually learned a few things in the EPIC program. EPIC, by the way, stood for "Enrichment Program for Intellectually gifted Children". These were the kids that were bored in the normal classroom, showed an obvious tendency for advanced learning, or (like me) displayed absolutely no skill whatsoever in gym class. Each Wednesday, once we escaped the bonds of the typical social studies curriculum and made it through the gauntlet of the Ivy Drive Bullies, we were able to think freely, command respect from our peers, and screw around with a cutting edge Radio Shack TRS-80 computer all day.

I hope that Natalie's experience is as fulfilling.

A Memorial Day Weekend to forget

Okay, I'm back. The weather has been nice, and there have been way too many projects to do around the house to even consider sitting down in front of the computer for any length of time and ramble on about the wonders of my life. But today I've got time, as I'm in the midst of recuperation.

Today is the first day back after the 4-day Memorial Day weekend. And this one's going to be quite a memory.

It started Thursday night, at Thing#2's preschool picnic. Thing#1 wasn't feeling too well, so we left early and later discovered she had a fever of around 101. She was pretty miserable that night. But that was nothing compared to Friday night, when she managed to almost break her nose watching TV. I'm still not quite sure what happened, but somehow the coffee table encountered her face, causing her to spurt blood out of her nostrils and her parents to rush her to the hospital and explain to the authorities that we weren't child beaters. In the end the x-ray was negative for a break, but she spent the weekend looking like a raccoon.

Saturday was spent preparing to host some neighbors in a "break in the new deck" party. The instant the first guest rang the doorbell, the skies opened up and it rained for the rest of the night. During the (now indoor) party, I started to notice that I wasn't feeling too great. Plus, I realized I'd been totally bitten up by something outside.

Sunday, whatever hit me came out full force. I had a full fledged cold virus with all the trimmings, AND what I thought were insect bites turned out to be some sort of rash. I thought perhaps it was a reaction to cold medication, but later I'd be proven wrong....

On Monday, the illness and itching continued, and I spent most of the day sitting around in misery. My loving wife planned ahead for a night of being kept awake by my coughing and decided to set up camp in the guest room, but that didn't help any. Because late Monday night Thing#2 decided to wake up screaming every half hour from 11pm to 4am. Either she wanted a drink, or she was missing her stuffed bunny, or her leg was uncovered, or the night light was too bright. By 4am we were just about ready to have to explain ourselves to the authorities once more.

Today, I went to the doctor to see about this rash. It turns out it isn't a drug reaction after all, but poison ivy. I'm not quite sure how I managed to contract poison ivy, but my theory is this. Our township collects leaves each fall, mulches them and leaves the mulch pile in a public for any resident to take for gardening. I decided to take advantage of it this year and grabbed a few buckets of it. My guess is that’s where it came from. This is what’s known as “no free lunch”.

So as I sit here, squinting through my swollen eyelids, I think it's high time to get back to blogging. So there ya go.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

The Best Movie In The World

My daughters have recently discovered the best movie in the world. At least, that is what they tell me. I believe it has something to do with Barbie, and the title of this movie escapes me. I just know the DVD is always in the player and the box is always lying open on the coffee table or wedged between couch cushions.
The movie is on constantly, whether I'm home or at work. Yet I have no idea what it's about. I've never looked up the screen or acknowledged it's script. I do know that Steven Right does the voice of one character. It's hard to miss him even in the background, and at any moment I expect him to ask why we drive on a parkway and park on a driveway.

Recently I learned a bit more about the plot of this cinematographic wonder, as the girls have taken to acting out key scenes from it in the back yard. Best I can tell, here's how it goes:

Natalie plays Odette, the female (Barbie)character. Jessica plays Derek, the handsome prince. Odette lies on top of a faraway mountain, dramatically performed by the tarp-covered pile of gravel destined for the underside of the new deck. Derek lies upon the top of another distant mountain, skillfully acted out by the pile of sand for the walkway. The script is as follows:

Odette: "Derek!!"
Derek: "Odette!"
Odette: "Derek!!"
Derek: "Odette!"
Odette: "Derek!!"
Derek: "Odette!"
Odette: "Derek!!"
Derek: "Odette!"

This goes on for a half hour or until one of the actresses decides she needs a snack and retires to her trailer.

I really need to get that walkway done.

Monday, May 14, 2007

You have got to be kidding me

Teachers stage fake gunman attack on sixth graders.

I'm beyond words. I don’t even know what to say here. Whatever idiots thought this was good judgment should be hung by their toenails and beaten senseless.

Happy Fathers Day

Yesterday of course was Mothers Day, and as luck would have it while attempting to provide my wife with a day of bliss I think I stumbled upon the ultimate Fathers Day.

The morning started off with me cooking a nice brunch with all the trimmings. Works for me. I love to cook. Then, to give the wife some "me" time I took the kids out in the back yard to play. They ran around while I awaited a delivery of gravel for the landscaping under the new deck. Yes, I actually had the balls to schedule a gravel delivery on Mothers Day. While I waited, I dug out the area for our new walkway. Rarely does one handle a pickax on Mothers Day.

After the gravel delivery. It was off to Lowes. What? Lowes, you say? Yes, my lovely wife was reminiscing about the lilac trees in her back yard during childhood, so I suggested we check out the garden center at Lowes. While there, I loaded up on about a hundred square feet of pavers for the walkway along with two lilac bushes and some other items. after a stop at Cold Stone Creamery to harden our arteries, we came back and spent the afternoon landscaping.

Side note, during my wife's morning "me" time she went for a walk and passed by the neighbors' house. They swapped stories about Mothers Day events and, when she told them about going to Lowes later the husband replied with, "you're going to Lowes on Mothers Day??? Wow, you're a rockin' wife!"

Had it not been for the fact that we were out of beer, this would have been a perfect Fathers Day. As I often say to my wife (okay okay, not nearly often enough), how'd I get so lucky?

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Failing to deliver

I'm very disappointed with myself.

I stopped in at the hospital this afternoon to visit my mother-in-law. As I was leaving, I got in the elevator just as a man pushing a hospital gurney came out. On the gurney was resting not a patient, but a six-foot step ladder.

At the time the best I could come up with to say to the guy was, "looks like you'd better step up his treatment." I got a polite chuckle out of that. But I KNOW there's a better one out there and it bugged me the rest of the day. I'm worried this is a sign of old age, not being able to hit folks with smartass comments on a timely basis.

If you can come up with better, feel free to share.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Buy your kid this toy or he will fester

NPR had a story about how the toy industry plays on parental anxiety by convincing new parents that without expensive and shiny toys and gadgets to stimulate a child's brain, the little squirt will aspire no higher in life than to enter the janitorial service industry (not that janitorial service isn't a highly respected profession in its own right).

The story included an interview with Susan Gregory Thomas, author of Buy, Buy Baby: How Consumer Culture Manipulates Parents and Harms Young Minds. She points out how products are being marketed to stimulate certain sides of the brain and to help them develop certain cognitive skills, and to further explain that there's absolutely no science to back up the claims. She also points out that toy companies are interested in "cradle-to-grave" brand loyalty, which is why you see Dora The Explorer on everything from videos, to underpants, to notebooks, to sneakers, to computer games. I'm sure the marketers behind Dora are working on cell phones, checkbook cases, purple automobiles, and Depend Undergarments in an effort to complete the cradle-to-grave cycle as those Dora fans mature to old age.

We have a basement full of shiny, bleepy crap, most of which was given as gifts, that were supposed to somehow stimulate our childrens' development. And believe me, it's all crap. 90% of the battery-operated toys we own have long since had their batteries die, never to be replaced again. The tried-and-true winner toys are those that have nothing to do with this marketing insanity. They are:

Crayons and paper. Lots and lots of paper
wooden blocks
flash cards
Magna Doodle
Various little animals in a pretend farm/zoo set
Dress up clothes

Notice a trend here? No batteries. No branding. Total creativity allowed. And most of these items have been around for a hundred years.

There's one exception that I can think of to the flashy bleepy thing, which is the Leapster. My kids love this toy. And it's secretly educational.

My wife and I don't need to read a book to know the other crap will rot our kids' brains.

Now if I could just do something about those Disney Princesses.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Grease without the Hotpants

If you have a daughter between the ages of 3 and, say, 16, you have probably heard of - nay, been bombarded by - High School Musical. Or as I refer to it, "Grease for today's younger generation, without the hotpants."

High School Musical is yet another gear in the massive engine that powers the DisMAY (Disney Marketing around Youth) Machine. It's a movie about two beautifully perfect high school students. She is a scholar, an academic master. He is a sports star, captain of the basketball team and wanted by every girl in school because, like, omigod, he's got those dreamy eyes. During a New Years' karaoke party the two are forced to come on stage together, having never met before, only to discover they just happen to lipsynch pop music together like angels. They spend the rest of the movie trying to figure out how they can audition for a duet in this year's high school musical without his buddies mocking him, her science geek cohorts ostracizing her, or the two of them accidentally touching lips together in an act of unbridled (and inappropriate for Disney) passion.

The music is light. It's fluffy. It's meaningless. And it's unbelievably catchy. I will be the first to admit that the songs are far better than anything Barney, the Wiggles, or Christina/Jessica/Baldy could ever hope to spout from their headsets, and you'd be hard-pressed to keep your foot from tapping or your head from bobbing if I were to play it for you right now. But after hearing the soundtrack for the nineteen-hundred and twenty-fourth time in the minivan it still makes you want to stick a car key into your temporal lobe.

My daughters love the movie. Jessica, my three-year-old, knows the words to every song and will sing "Start of Something New" to herself all day long without even realizing she's doing it. Every day, as soon as they get into the car, they demand to hear the soundtrack.

The engine powering this Disney conglomerate is just awesome. It has rocketed the stars, Whatshisname and Whatserface, to an absolute pinnacle of Disney branding. There is a float in the Disneyworld parade. They have their own section in the theme park. There's HSM parties. Clothing lines. A traveling Broadway show. Every high school is doing the show this year. Heck, there's even an article in Wikipedia.

Recently my wife heard the news that the traveling show was hitting Pittsburgh. When I heard how much the tickets were, I cringed. Four tickets (that would be for the girls, my wife, and their grandmother) would cost close to $200. Of course after the Circus fiasco, I realized that $200 really meant twice that after t-shirts were bought, autographs were obtained, and twirly High School Musical light-up doohickeys were purchased. So I decided it was time to place my foot firmly in the down position.

Luckily, I never got the chance to do so. Our daughters have moved on to Barbie Fairytopia. Oh...there's a story for another time.....

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Stacking the Deck

So, where have I been?

It's been an exhausting week. Mom and dad came in, and we built the deck. This was the last major step in the renovation; our house is complete now. All we have left to do is replace the grass, do general landscaping, make some built-in furniture, redo the dining room, the kids' bathroom, the front porch, the guest room, the office, finish the mud room, get a new oven, new washer and know, just the little stuff.

The deck project was fun. Decks are really the ultimate guy projects. It of course involves lots of wood and power tools, there's lots of lifting of heavy stuff, and there's math and beer. Math, you say? When you can impress your friends by telling them how you calculated the rise and run of the stair risers and used lasers to determine if the deck would be level, well, that's a good guy project.

Building it took good portion of a week. I'd already dug the footers a couple of weeks ago, so Tuesday was spent doing most of the structure. On Wednesday I had to work (at my real job) for much of the day, so Dad busied himself with planning out the flooring and the stairs. All day Thursday was flooring, Friday more flooring, Saturday...flooring and stairs. On Sunday we finished the railing just in time for happy hour, which was my goal. The crowning moment was rolling the gas grill off the front porch (through the kitchen and family room), bringing a much overdue end to a year of neighbors yelling, "hey, what's for dinner??" every time I grilled in the front yard.

Finding the materials was an adventure. We went with "Trex-like" stuff for the floor, choosing Home Depot's cheapest offering. Luckily I was itching to get this project going for a long time and ordered the stuff over a month ago, because it took close to four weeks to arrive. The pressure treated lumber was ordered from an 84 Lumber store that closed down the day before delivery. The railing is made of aluminum tube balusters from Deckorators, bought at Lowes. The adventure there was being able to get all the tubes we needed at the Lowes in Cranberry, but finding out that the little plastic doohickeys that attach the tubes to the railing were only available at the OTHER Lowes, 20 miles away. And lastly, the top of the railing is made of (ridiculously expensive) cedar, bought at an 84 Lumber that DIDN'T close down, and strapped to the roof of the minivan in the pouring rain.

And then there were the screws.

Since the deck floor is made of composite, we needed to buy special screws. The lumber comes in gray, brown, tan, or red (we got red), and Home Depot sells special color-matched screws designed just for this purpose. Well, that is, they are color matched as long as you bought the gray or brown composite. Even though the rack at HD clearly states "red screws", there were none to be had. At any HD in Pittsburgh. Or in Connecticut, for that matter. Or Elizabeth, New Jersey. Yet when we asked a guy about special ordering them, he told us he couldn't because they are a regularly stocked item. This stupidity lasted about three weeks until I broke down and bought the brown screws. And, as it turns out, the brown screws match the red composite perfectly. Sigh. Why they couldn't have just told me to buy the brown to begin with....

By the way, some of you folks of the handy ilk might be wondering why we didn't choose one of those fancy "hidden fastener" systems that screw in from the bottom. Well, two reasons. First, it would have cost us about $800 extra. Second, every dealer we talked to said they suck. There ya have it.

So after an exhausting, muddy, wet week of non-stop work, we have a place to have a relaxing dinner or a drink.

Well, we did, until the bees found us.