Friday, August 11, 2017

Home Alone

I find myself at home all by myself for a week--the kids, husband, even the dog are all at my in-laws house.  I miss the dog most.  Just kidding. Sort of.  He is the neatest of all of them, and you know how I hate clutter.

Times like these give me a glimpse of what might have been, if I never met my husband or had the kids or got the dog.  A glimpse of the grass on the other side of the fence that I often look at with some envy, as I watch my unattached or childless friends spin around in freedom at the top of a mountain while singing about hills being alive.  I can rarely be so carefree.  If I take the time to spin around and sing on top of a mountain, someone will probably fall off of it while I am not looking.  Or more likely, they will be clinging to my leg while I attempt to spin, whining about how the air is too fresh and it is burning their nose, and I will throw myself off the mountain in annoyance.

I am reveling in the solitude and the freedom of movement, even if the complete silence is a little unsettling.  I keep hearing things that have long been masked by shrieking and crying.  I heard a bird the other day that sounded just like this girl in the 6th grade who told me my mother was going to die of cancer because she drank Sweet-n-Low in her tea.  I can also hear myself think, which is at times not very pleasant.  My voice in my head is even more nasal and weird than on a recording, and it sometimes says disturbing things to me such as, "What if you cut all your hair off right now? That might be fun" or "There are four tubs of ice cream in the garage freezer, you know" or "The year is over half gone and soon you'll be old and then you'll die and there might not even be a heaven or worse, you were wrong about everything and are headed straight to hell."  

The freedom of movement is probably the most enjoyable aspect.   I do have a million micro-panic attacks every day, however, as I momentarily forget the kids are safely in another state and are not wandering the streets or reorganizing my shoes.  Also, when I am taking a shower, I often hear a phantom baby crying, but that is true whether they are home or not.  But I can go wherever I want, whenever I want, and I don't have to consult anyone or hire anyone or ask anyone favors or pack luggage or herd a bunch of cats with ADD.  I don't have to dash out of my office every day at precisely 4:03 in order to make it home in time for some child-related obligation.  I still leave at 4:03, because I don't really want to work more than I have to, but I can leisurely stroll out, maybe even use the toilet on my way instead of holding it and praying traffic is light.  In fact, I don't even have to go home AT ALL.  I can run an errand or do a little shopping or get a pedicure or just head West, Middle-Aged Woman or even have a fender bender if I so choose.  Seriously, anyone out there is welcome to rear-end my car this week and I won't even be stressed. What reason is there to stress if there are no children around?  I can go for a run whenever I want without having an extended planning session/argument with my husband about when I can run and when he can run (life was way simpler when he was a couch potato, incidentally). I can stop writing this right now at 9 pm on a Friday and go to a roller derby or a hot dog eating contest.

OK I just ate 39 hot dogs, threw them up while roller skating, and now I'm back.  And I have time to reflect on just what my children bring to my life now that I am living for a bit in their absence. For instance, without my children I would be crazy in a completely different way, and I may not even be able to justify medication for it.  While my children have driven me to that, as well as some light drinking, in order to withstand their psychological torture and logistical onslaught, I have almost been cured of neat-control-freakishness.  I remember at my worst, I would spend 3 hours every Saturday scrubbing down my entire house.  Which is just a waste of time, nobody needs to do that.  It's been many years since I cleaned that much, but I was more recently more bothered by disorder and grime than I am now.  But when you live in what is essentially a dumpster, you give up all standards of cleanliness. I am still bothered by the mess, but I don't waste my time trying to do much about it.  I have increasing amounts of chin hair that needs to be plucked.  In addition, without my kids, my art collection would not be nearly so intellectually challenging.  Everything my children bring home requires deep thought and creative interpretation in order to appreciate.  I might never have a good reason to buy that ice cream that is sitting in my garage freezer and therefore would never have an opportunity to binge on it.  Also, I am sure I would waste more of my life sleeping.  And I would probably not ever play with legos or star wars figures, and that would just be sad.  And I would never have the perfect excuse not to hang out with people I don't really care to hang out with much.  I would probably go to more boring parties, which is most parties, really.  I would read more books not worth reading and buy more stuff not worth having (although I do a pretty bang-up job on that from the comfort of my own sofa) and wear more make-up that doesn't really make me look better anyway.         And I fear without my children, I would feel very self-righteous.  I might make it through entire hours and maybe even days, without yelling at anybody, which would go straight to my head and ruin my whole personality.

So it's for the best that I had them, my life is surely better.  Or at least my time and energy is more occupied, and I am not sure what I would do with all that anyway.  Probably just clean stuff, and that's no fun.  But, while they are out, I think I might just go find a mountaintop and spin around and sing.

Friday, July 28, 2017

Mom, Interrupted

Before I launch into the actual post, I just have to share the wonderful news that, according to my insurance company who would otherwise be paying for my acne drugs, I am officially too old to have acne!  I am relieved to know that I have finally graduated from this dermatological affliction and look forward to 37 days of clear skin before the wrinkles begin to overwhelm my face.  Thank you, Aetna!

OK now for the post.

I think the enduring thing about motherhood that drives me most crazy--an ever-constant feature of every stage of your child's development--is the constant interruption of every single freaking thing you do and every single freaking thought you have and every single freaking conversation you try to have from the time they wake up until the time they go to sleep.  And then there are many nights, even when they are way, WAY past being too old, when even your sleep is interrupted.  My son will come all the way downstairs at 2 am to tell me he is thirsty when there is a cup of water sitting expectantly on his dresser not 2 feet away from his bed.  I guess life just isn't meaningful until your mother knows about it.

Kids have a sixth sense for when the ideal time arrives to demand something or ask some burning question or have some catastrophic accident.  That time is not when a mother is sitting right beside them asking them specifically if they need anything or inquiring more generally about their well-being.  They never need anything and are always "fine" when you are poised and ready to deliver a service. It's when you've moved on with your life that they are suddenly desperate to be near you, like some kind of deranged ex-boyfriend who dumped you a few minutes before not being able to live without you.   I will be out of bed in the morning and in the kitchen, and they will be playing video games.  I will loudly ask them, "What do you want for breakfast??" 87 times.  They will ignore me.  I will then return to bed with my coffee.  Exactly 2 minutes later, they will demand their breakfast and when i say, sorry, you missed your window, they will collapse into frantic whining about how they might die at any moment from starvation and neglect.

The most stressful thing I do all day is cook dinner, because my life is terribly cushy, and it's a good thing, too.  First of all, I despise cooking.  I hate everything about it.  I hate the endless decisions of what to buy, when to buy it, what can I do with that eggplant that is about to rot and that thai curry paste that has been in my fridge for 7 months, what will my children eat, what will my husband eat, when should we eat.  I hate following recipes, trying to read all kinds of details meanwhile the oil in the pan is about to catch on fire and OH MY I DIDN'T REALIZE NOW WAS WHEN YOU HAVE TO HAVE THAT CELERY CHOPPED!  Even more than reading recipes, I hate how all the cooking websites now don't just give you the ingredients and bare bones instructions up front but instead lead you on a photographic-literary journey of culinary wonder in which they wax eloquently about butter and navy beans and you have to scroll down about 3 miles to get to the actual instructions.  I have pretty much dispensed with all recipes and now cook everything with salt, pepper, olive oil and garlic.  Sometimes lemon or soy.  If I need anything more than that, forget it, not happening.  My brain can only take so much.

Then there is the fact that my children have apparently set up a sophisticated electronic surveillance system that notifies them, probably though their video game console or some other device outside my radar, when I have entered the kitchen.  THEY KNOW.  At that point, they descend, like velociraptors who have been silently stalking you for miles as you tour Jurassic Park in blissful ignorance.  Children who can apparently go days without eating suddenly become ravenous restaurant critics.  Children who have not spoken to me for hours because they are so a engrossed in their dinosaur cock-fighting game are now hanging off my limbs, pleading for attention.  What are you making? What is for dinner? Ewww I don't like that! I want chicken nuggets! When is dinner? I'm starving, I won't make it 2 more minutes!  I am going to shrivel and die right on this floor!  But eww I won't eat that, why are you even making that?  Can I help? I want to help! Why don't you love me?  Why?  Can I have a snack?  Just a teeny weeny snack? Mom, Lawson just hit me!! Charlotte started it!  Let me tell you all about my day in great detail and don't just respond with Uh-huh, I need very specific feedback that tells me you are hanging on my every word.

They also have their surveillance system set up to alert them to various other ideal circumstances for entering my life, to include, but not limited to:
-When I enter the toilet (obviously)
-When I enter the shower
-When I am trying to construct an outfit to wear or donning said outfit
-When I make a phone call
-When I am engaged in some enterprise that cannot easily be immediately interrupted, such as fixing a sink, painting furniture, planting a shrub, cleaning out my closet or bathing the dog
-When I am reading a book
-When I am writing
-When I am working out (this is why I almost always LEAVE THE HOUSE to do this)
-When I am trying to discuss vacation plans with their father
-When I am doing..other things with their father
-Immediately upon my arrival home from somewhere, before I can put my things down, change my clothes or go to the bathroom.  No matter that their other parent has been with them for hours prior.
-Just when I have drifted off to sleep
-Of course, when it is bedtime.  That is when most of the problems of the world need to be solved right away!!  That is why the Senate voted on health care at 1 am.  They were waiting for their child/President to go to sleep.  Or, they are the children and had left it til that time because they don't want to go to sleep.

More bizarre than my children's psychic ability to interrupt at the worst possible times is my brain's reaction to it.  According to my brain, we are living in North Korea where one must always be attuned to the demands of one's rulers and follow orders to a tee or risk certain death via hard labor.  So when a child interrupts or demands or whines, my brain thinks our immediate response is a life-or-death choice.  I don't know if this is particular to me, or if evolutionary biology has pre-conditioned women in particular to overreact to the needs of their offspring.  In any case, we can never relax, my brain and I, not while the children roam free and awake in the house.  We are like Pi in Life of Pi, floating on a boat in the middle of the Pacific with a carnivorous tiger.  We are always on edge, always waiting for a shoe to drop, wary to get involved in something that needs our undivided attention, like a phone call to a friend or assembling some IKEA furniture.  But then if we do nothing, the kids are invariably happy, and we are bored.  So we end up doing mindless things, like playing Settlers of Catan on our phones or checking the Washington Post YET AGAIN to see if Trump has been impeached yet or stress eating a bag of Goldfish crackers.  We waste time, our ability to concentrate atrophies. We gain weight.  We slowly go insane.

Which is of course what the children want.  That is their ultimate goal always.  But we need to flip the script, my brain and I, to call their bluff.  We need to ignore the adrenaline spikes and millions of years of human evolution.  We need to tell these small, cruel people that WE HAVE RIGHTS DAMMIT and besides that YOU WON'T DIE IF I IGNORE YOU.  We need to boldly launch into fixing the VCR at prime kid time, to dare them to yell at us to do it faster.  We need to write that book with them standing over our shoulder.  We don't need to cook the dinner, however, because we still hate that with a passion and because no one eats it anyway. We can just go to Taco Bell again.  But the other stuff, we need to do it.  We can always go in our room and lock the door and become immune to the screams and the clawing to get in.  We need to reclaim our dignity and our....


Friday, July 7, 2017

You are screwing up your kids with your good parenting

I think y'all know how I feel about parenting "expertise," "research," "advice," and the like.  There's no greater panic attack trigger for me than the cover of a Parenting magazine.  Not that I am opposed to social scientific/scientific inquiry or think we haven't made huge strides in raising kids over the last few decades (car seats, anyone?)  But we are now entering the land of the absurd with this stuff, where the advice is so precise, so specific, so overwhelming, you literally CANNOT WIN.  And besides all of that, even more (and better) scientific research indicates the power of genetics in who your kids will ultimately become.  Within the realm of "normal"/non-abusive parenting, your parenting methodology probably makes a marginal difference.  Those of you who basically pursue parenting as a profession in which you have a PhD and grind your own organic millet flour and teach your 2 year olds to solve quadratic equations just fainted right now, and when you wake up, you will immediately begin a coordinated campaign to have me officially shunned.  The rest of us, who basically skate by on Kraft mac-n-cheese (who am I kidding, my kids won't eat that either) and copious amounts of screen time, are relieved.  Because it's true.  Between genetics and peer influence and a million other variables that you have no control over (and that, incidentally, studies cannot weed out), raising kids is a massive crap shoot on a good day.

I came across an article this week that epitomizes the absurdity, and in fact, if I didn't know better, I would think it satire.  You can read it for yourself  here
But the gist of it is, praising your child, which the experts have been telling us to do for the last several decades, is actually stunting their development.  Yes, it's true.  There is an entire generation of people now who cannot function in life because their parents told them "Good job!" instead of "I appreciate how you motivated yourself to complete your self-determined goals."  Now, you still need to praise your kids, absolutely, but you have to do so in just the right way, at the right time, for the right reasons, with the right tone, when Mars is perfectly aligned with Venus, the moon is full, and the hydrangeas are blooming.  Otherwise your kids will be forever damaged.

In addition to not saying "good job"--which incidentally was the guidance 5 years ago, in order to avoid the even more ruinous "good girl/boy"--you should never ever ever give your kids an inaccurate compliment, to include that parental go-to of saying their objectively awful artwork is beautiful:

"Maybe you do think their artwork is beautiful [doubtful], but by praising kids in this way you’re encouraging them to look outside themselves for approval [because otherwise they will never ever ever look outside themselves for approval and will in fact transform themselves into super human, enlightened, celestial beings]. 'It teaches the child that his work can always be evaluated by others [which will never ever ever again happen in their lives.  I think I'll complain to my management next time performance evaluation time comes around that this is NOT the way to go.  My performance evaluation should be renamed "Neutral observations on work practices" and include lines such as, "The employee sits at her desk and moves her fingers over the keyboard."] which undermines his confidence [which will otherwise never ever ever be assaulted and on which they will soar through the skies like an eagle their entire existence, unscathed],' Dr. Markham says.... In one study, kids with low self-esteem who were overpraised on their artwork more often opted to then sketch a simpler drawing instead of a more challenging one [oh the horror, that my child might draw 3 monochromatic lines in stead of 10 rainbow ones], because it was the safer choice."

Who knew I was screwing up my kids by deeming their artwork beautiful???  Hello, isn't that one major purpose of art--at least the kind that normal people like and buy by the dozens in poster-prints at museum gift shops--to be beautiful?? AND ISN'T IT A PARENT'S JOB TO GUSH OVER A TODDLER'S RANDOM CRAYON SQUIGGLES???  WHO ELSE WILL EVER DO THAT FOR THEM???  Do you honestly expect me to say, "I see you have used a blue crayon to make a straight line"?  I think I will have earned the quizzical look from someone 1/4 my size and 1/7 my age that would result from such ridiculousness.

I think kids are smart enough to understand by an age at which it might matter that parental praise is usually total BS but an indication of that parent's unconditional love.  When my dad told me after I did not make choir in 10th grade that I sounded EXACTLY like Karen Carpenter,  I knew he was full of elephant dung (I do have a low voice, but I sing like Karen Carpenter the way vaccines cause autism), but the larger point was that he loved me and was trying to make me feel better.  Could there have been a better, more honest, more carefully researched and scientifically vetted way for him to buck me up? Sure.  But those studies had not been done in 1990, and anyway, the motivation would have been the same.  AND GUESS WHAT, I SURVIVED HIS BAD PARENTING (and numerous vaccines, incidentally).  I also continued to sing (and eventually made choir), because I think it's fun, and I eventually got to a place, through a journey we call life on which we all must go, where I could acknowledge that I am not a massive singing talent and that's OK.  I'm good enough, I'm smart enough, and gosh-darn-it (some) people like me.

The article includes some advice that is, admittedly, not horrible and makes some sense.  But in general, I'd have to file this one away in my file of "Reasons American Moms Suffer from Anxiety and  Depression" (Dads, incidentally, on the whole seem to still live in a fantasy world where if you show up for your kids and love them, that's basically good parenting.  Dads, just stay in that world, trust me on this one).  This file also includes more articles cited in this article, with such cheery titles as (and I am NOT making these up):
52 of the worst parenting tips parents get
Parenting mistakes to avoid with toddlers
11 ways you're being a toxic parent without even knowing it
Things parents say that ruin their kids' trust
The five biggest myths parents buy into
Then they have the unmitigated gall to cite a book called, Parenting Without Fear.  Now you are just messing with us, right?

Here's the thing.  I'm not saying that parents can't screw up.  I can in fact go on at length about the ways I am already screwing up and how my own parents screwed up (which may be news to them given they did not parent in today's context of self-loathing).  The fact is, YOU WILL SCREW UP, that is a certainty, like Donald Trump tweeting something ridiculous or dogs pooping in the middle of the sidewalk.  And if you do everything the experts tell you to do today to perfection, by the time your kids are adults, there will be new experts with new guidance that probably directly contradicts the expert guidance you are eating up with spoon now.  The good (and bad) news is that the consequences of your specific screw-ups will probably be subsumed and rendered unidentifiable within the swirling morass of yours and your children's messy humanity.  I can predict with 100% certainty that my children and yours will have struggles, flaws, failures, humiliations, miseries, and frustrations.  They will absolutely make some poor choices (they might even GIVE UP or QUIT! accck!!!!), and they are guaranteed not live up to their full potential.  None of us do, because none of us are perfect.  Your parenting may or may not contribute to this.  Whether it does is unknowable and, in many ways, irrelevant.

Bottom line is this: Try your best.  Love your hardest.  Show your kids you accept their humanity, because that's your condition, too. Model humility and repentance for them.  Set an example of compassion for self and others.
And above all--
STOP READING SO MUCH PARENTING ADVICE!!!!  It will paralyze you with fear and kill your joy every. single. time.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Why I Am Medicated, in Five Photographs

Instead of having a panic attack at the state of my house, I decided to do some war zone photography* and then analyze each photo objectively as a way of disabling my anxiety.  Fun!
(*Sensitivity training caveat: I am not implying my house is as bad a war zone or that my anxiety compares to PTSD.  The sad thing is, to me it probably is, because I am that pathetic. You would not want me in an actual war zone, trust me.  I would not survive long enough to get PTSD. Trust me.)

I call this, "The Remnants of Genius, Plus Some Sad Babywipes, As If There Will Be Any Cleaning Up Done By the Perpetrators."  This is Lawson's art desk.  Or rather, it is half of it.  It is also theoretically our dining table.  His supplies include: a shoebox, a paper towel roll, leftover birthday plates, scotch tape, markers, paper scraps, and also just unmitigated trash.  None of this is to be rearranged or thrown away, NONE OF IT.

This is "The Artist's Actual Desk That He Never Uses/Storage Space for Completed 3D Trash Sculpture, Plus a Sad Caddy Full of Supplies As If Anyone Will Ever Return Them There."  The stack of boxes is: a shadow box full of pipe cleaner monkeys; a shadow box full of trash; some trash fashioned into a crude sort of pig with money in it.  And some trash.

This is "The Ruins of a Long Defunct Storage System, Dismembered Toys, Assorted Leaves and Sticks, and Throw Blankets That Mysteriously Insist on Living on the Floor."  When I really have a meltdown, instead of calmly walking through my house photographing the destruction in evocative lighting, I sit on the floor, covered in throw blankets, and put all the toys in the correct plastic bins while having imaginary arguments over Obamacare with people on Facebook.

This one  is called "A Kite Made Out of Scotch Tape Or, It Turns Out You Can Make Everything Out of Scotch Tape So Let Us Try." Lawson goes through several rolls a day, using it to seal off couch cushions, fashion dragons out of Hershey's Kiss wrappers, and resurface the floors.  At times, he cordons off entire rooms.  I should just get crime scene tape and call things what they are.

This one is called, "Laundry Decomposing," or alternatively, "I Can't Even Rely on The First Born To Keep Me Sane."  In theory, she puts her own laundry away.  Like almost all theories in the social sciences, it is ethereal and without any real proof.

There you have it, my mental health in living color.  Pretend each piece of ambiguous trash depicted is a snake/spider/serial killer/flesh eating bacteria/zombie/Republican/Democrat/crashing airplane/pile of pollen/top of a jillion-story building/terrorist/refugee/FILL IN YOUR BLANK and you get the picture.  Or actually five of them.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

I finally unleash my children upon the world

It is perhaps surprising that my children, whose mother grew up overseas, reached the ages of 6 and 9 before leaving the country.  But I am no dare devil adventurer, my friends, you know that.  I enjoy life and take calculated risks, yes, but you won't see me jumping out of airplanes, rafting down the crocodile-infested Zambezi River, or touring the Louvre with anyone under the age of 15.  And you know I would rather be Sean Spicer than get on a long plane ride with children of any kind.  But when an opportunity presented itself to have my kids visit the continent of my upbringing with me only having to fly one way with them, well, I took it.

And who is the sucker that flew the other way with them?  That would be my now-even-more-beloved, Kevin.  And why pray tell did he agree to this?  Well, he doesn't pay very close attention all the time when I am talking. It's how he copes.  If you hit him up when he is solving a quadratic equation in his head, you can get him to do almost anything.  I think that was what was going on when I suggested that, since I would already be in South Africa for work, he might just hop on over, you know, real quick like, with the kids.  A few months and a SEVENTEEN HOUR plane ride later, they emerged from the arrivals gate at OR Tambo airport in Johannesburg. At which point Kevin served me with imaginary divorce papers.

We spent the next week with my sister and her family, who live in South Africa, in Kruger Game Park.  I grew up going to game parks, it was our go-to family vacation, and I love the whole scene.  I love the rush you get when see 25 other vehicles stopped and you know there must be a cat of some kind in there, if you can just push a few vans full of Japanese tourists out of the way.  The relief after surviving your father's off-road foray into a herd of elephants because he wants a close up of an elephant cornea.  Wearing khaki clothing and pretending you are Karen Blixen.  Seeing a spread of of amazing looking desserts at the game lodge restaurants and briefly imagining they don't all taste like crap because British colonialism failed to bring any sugar with it.  Sleeping in a tent with plumbing (the only kind of tent I am interested in).  The only thing I don't like about game parking is that it is an early morning enterprise, if you want to see the good stuff.  Voluntarily rising at 6 am while on vacation so you can maybe see a lion eat something is truly insane and barbaric. I have no excuse for myself.

So I was super excited to introduce my kids to this awesome experience.  As usual, my expectations for my children's excitement over the situation was beyond all possible reality, even after almost a decade of watching them be miserable in supposedly magical places and at great expense.  This time, however, they almost met those expectations, which is a good thing. Because I can't have kids to don't like Africa. Can't.  Will give such kids away.  And I think they know that, too.

In Lawson's case, I anticipated he would barely look up from his device the entire trip, and that was generally true.  But based on the essay he wrote for his return to school, he did apparently see a few animals, albeit briefly.  More miraculously, he was fairly genial the entire time, even with some jet lag and lots of strange food (none of which he ate, but at least he didn't throw it at anyone).  He did refuse to swim and had to be bribed to go to the bathroom, as per usual, but he also voluntarily played on three different playgrounds.  At one point he got stuck in a structure made of tires and after his rescue, claimed to have enjoyed the ordeal.  So a massive success.  Charlotte was even more enthusiastic. She even found the eye mask thingy on the plane exciting.  And she loved the animals.  The worst moments we had with her were when the cheetahs we found were too far away to see properly and a brief spurt of moral outrage that Lawson was playing his kindle instead of appreciating nature's bounty.

They key ingredient on this trip as with other moderately successful ones we've had: OTHER KIDS.  Generally speaking, other kids not only bring additional entertainment and distraction, they demonstrate for my kids how to enjoy things that almost all kids enjoy, like grass, balls, water, sunlight, exercise, playground equipment and sand.  Also, how to walk around on working legs.  In this case, the kids in question were my sister's kids, 9-year-old Liam and 14-year-old Brendan.  While Brendan mostly inspired them at a distance with his animal obsession and teenage coolness--except for the interludes when Lawson insisted on hanging all over him--Liam kept them entertained and educated with tales of South African politics.  Both of my kids now do very good Jacob Zuma impressions and know all about the Nkandla scandal, "fire pools," and "the power of the shower" (thankfully, they have no idea what that last phrase really references, and if you don't, I suggest you think twice about doing some google research. It is not an inspiring episode in humanity).  When the lions and elephants became boring, Liam was there to inform them, as Zuma, that he was going to "steal all the money!!!"  They even came up with a new idea for a cartoon called "The Crappy Presidents League" in which Zuma, Trump, Duterte, Putin, Mugabe and assorted other disasters roam the world siphoning off public funds, engaging in extrajudicial killing and illegal land appropriations, building walls and dismantling democratic institutions.  I swear they came up with all of this by themselves.

With my kids behaving rather decently, I was free to focus on bigger challenges, such as driving on the wrong side of the road. Despite my years in Africa, this was actually my first time to drive British.  And can I just say--how is it that stop signs look the same all over the world, basically, but there is no agreement on the slightly more macro issue of which side of the road we are going to drive on? And the British have been our dear friends for the entire car age, too. Did it never occur to anyone while negotiating the Treaty of Versailles that maybe we could get together on this?  What a travesty of global noncooperation.  I actually did fairly well on keeping the car on the correct side of the road. What I didn't do as well at was driving the tank the rental company gave us.  To be more specific, it was what South Africans call a "bakkie," which is a massive double cab pick up with a top on the bed.  The back window is basically a tiny portal in another dimension of space-time, it is so far away.  The car did have a rear camera system, but it took me several days to trust that thing.  You can't just believe everything you see on TV anymore. It also took me several days--no, actually the entire time--to not turn on the windshield wipers every time I wanted to use a turn signal.  Very unnerving when you are trying to change lanes, and all of a sudden what appears to be a flock of violent birds noisily flies across your windscreen.  Thankfully, South African roads are pretty good, miraculous by African standards.  I was particularly amused that there were warning signs alerting you to stretches of possible potholes.  Even China does not have enough labor to construct and place all the pothole warming signs most African countries would need if they were going that route.  It might even be more efficient to fix the potholes.

We made it through the entire week without incident or accident, not even of the Lawson variety, and then it was back on the 17 hour plane ride home, which this time I got to join, oh goody.  I got to see first hand--as opposed to Kevin's slightly traumatized assurance that "it was fine"--how my kids do on such a trip.  And they did OK.  The devices ran out of batteries within an hour or so, and the plane did not have outlets (Why, God, Why?)  It did have an entire library of kids movies, but only one that my children wanted to watch.  So they each literally watched Trolls 5 times (and Kevin reports they watched it 5 times on the way out as well).  Lawson topped that off by listening to the Trolls soundtrack several times in the audio station.  He basically is Justin Timberlake now, except he still behaves more like Justin Bieber most of the time.  They each slept a good deal, all effortlessly folded up or else sprawled out all over everyone like kids do.  Meanwhile, my back was going into spasms and my legs were developing clots from being unable to move in my role as a human mattress.  The plane food was a no-go, as it is for most adults.  They ate peanut M&Ms the whole way, which worked out fine.  I may have had a few as well.

All in all, it was so much less excruciating than I anticipated that I am already getting cocky and planning more trips.  My sister has invited us to meet them somewhere in Europe for Christmas, and can you believe that I am considering it?  Europe with children is one of those things that I have never been able to get my head around, both in terms of the how and the why, like cloth diapers or homeschooling.  Next thing you know I'll be doing IVF so I can have triplets at my advanced age.  I remember my parents taking me to Europe at age 10--not exactly a toddler--and I making everyone miserable.  You know you are entirely too old for such behavior when you remember not only the behavior but the calculations behind the behavior 30 years later.  Europe is very risky, my friends.  But if Liam is there, I think we might make it.  We are all curious as to what Jacob Zuma will make of the Eiffel Tower anyway.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Alexa, I'm so very sorry

Today's post can be filed in the very thick file of "Why We Can't Have Nice Things."  For parents, this file includes things like white sofas, dry clean only clothes, and silence.  For America, this file includes democracy, the internet, and, according to SNL, Ken Bone, although I never understood his appeal.  It's a mammoth file in both cases, and it grows every single day of the Trump administration.

In our case, we may add the absolutely amazing, astounding, wonderful device called the Amazon Echo, which we bought because our old Bose iPhone dock broke, and for the same price of a new speaker, which just plays music off your phone, we got the Echo, which will practically cook dinner and write your dissertation.  Not really, but only because it doesn't have hands.  The Echo houses a very charming, very competent-sounding, disembodied voice named Alexa, who responds unfailingly and uncomplainingly every time you mention her name.  I have no idea what families who have an actual human member named Alexa do about that, but I have my own problems, so I can't worry about them.  Alexa sounds as if she is a highly educated but nonetheless subservient woman with the soothing tones of a yoga teacher.  In other words, she would make an amazing mother.  TREMENDOUS.  Except for the no body part, although I am not certain that is an actual disadvantage.  Sometimes I am most successful as a mother when I lie in bed like a corpse.  

Alexa can do tons and tons of things, most of which I have yet to discover and will probably never figure out how to operationalize, but my neighbor friend has her ordering pizza and printer ink and maybe even translating French.  So far, we just have her telling us the weather and playing music.  With an Amazon prime membership, Alexa will play just about any song that has ever been recorded on demand.  Or she will play a carefully curated, handmade, organic Amazon music station.  Or she will play all the songs of your favorite 80's one-hit-wonder band, who it turns out recorded an additional 10 sucky songs in addition to their one hit.  Or she will play a song that is actually named what you just said but instead of being the kid-friendly song you thought you were asking for discusses hookers and meth (that only happened one, and fortunately, Alexa will also immediately stop playing that song, too).  Alexa is a musical genius indeed.

Sadly, however, Alexa has been unable to play an entire song of any kind, and this brings me to her perhaps most impressive quality as a mother, that is her ability to withstand the psychological torture that I so frequently lament.  You see, ANYONE in the household can operate Alexa.  ANYONE.  That means she also responds to children, as dutifully and instantaneously as any good American parent.

So when we want some music in our house, this is what happens.  I say, "Alexa, play some classical music."  Alexa immediately blurts out some Mozart, and all is zen for about 10 seconds.  Then the kids, suddenly remembering the Echo exists, run over and bark out, "ALEXA!!!!! PLAY EVERYTHING IS AWESOME!!!"  Alexa switches from Mozart to the contagious, anti-zen anthem of the Lego Movie.  A few bars into that song, someone yells out, "ALEXA!!!! PLAY GOBBLE-DY GOOP!!!!"  They collapse into gales of laughter thinking they have stumped poor Alexa. But they have not. Alexa finds an obscure song called "Goeble Die Gud" (close enough) by the up and coming Norwegian gangsta rapper, Swedish Chef.  My kids are astonished and highly impressed with themselves, as if they work for NASA and have just discovered 7 new planets.  While I'm sure Swedish Chef is a stellar talent deserving our attention, we won't ever find out, because a few rhymed Norwegian couplets into "Goeble Die Gud," someone yells out, "ALEXA!!! PLAY NINJA RIOT!!!!" And so it goes, over and over and over.

Unlike me, Alexa withstands this onslaught with equanimity and grace.  I feel badly for her though.  She must be exhausted by all that frenetic DJing, and I really hope she has some Zoloft in that little black tube with her.  Maybe they have some kind of automatic delivery system for electronic Zoloft built into her software.  In any case, I am waiting for the day when Alexa spontaneously combusts.

As for me, that is, of course, a routine occurrence.  I've held it together so far, but I will inevitably fly into a rage, unplug the Echo, and Alexa and I will run off into the sunset together.  Or, I will grab the nearest hammer and smash her into a million pieces.  What can I say, it is one of those Dateline NBC relationships that could go either way.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

I am parenting Kellyanne Conway

After watching yet another clip of dear KC expertly spinning, obfuscating, and doing logical acrobatics, I realized why it felt so familiar, like the warm friendly feeling of your guts churning before a bout of diarrhea.  Then it dawned on my that my children are basically professional political operatives.

Let's go through the key skills, and I will prove their mastery:
1) Taking a frown and turning it upside down.  This is making a negative a positive.  In Kellyanne's case, it is arguing that Trump's yelling at the Australian PM is "refreshing" and reaffirms our two countries' strong friendship by showing that friends can be frank with one another.  Well, my child will see you your Australian PM and give you the "refreshing" news that, although he did pee all over himself as a result of urinary procrastination, he deserves congratulations for making it into the general vicinity of the toilet before doing so.

2) Hyperbole.  For Kellyanne, Trump is the "Babe Ruth" of debating, the preemptive arrest of two guys before they could commit a crime is a "massacre," and Trump's win, sans popular vote victory, is a "landslide."  For my children, the turkey meatloaf I made the other day was "disgusting" slop that would cause their throats to swell to the point of asphyxiation (even though every ingredient in it was something they like in another form),  my son's adorable firetruck bed is a torture chamber outlawed by the Geneva Conventions, and long sleeve shirts are straight jackets straight from the bowels of hell.

3) Playing the victim card.  KC loves to whine and complain that the media are just so mean to Trump in their unacceptable penchant to report what he actually says and does and their refusal to tout lies as facts.  Oh and everyone is sexist for not giving her mad props for getting a sociopath elected president.  We are all. so. mean.  And around this house, we are on par with Hitler for giving a child 2 fewer goldfish crackers than his sibling or 5 minutes less screen time or forcing him to eat something not containing sugar.  Practically child abuse.

4) Oh look, what's that over there??  OK, I have to give Ms. Conway her due on this one, because NO ONE does this better.  I just saw another masterful performance the other day on Jake Tapper, in which she turned a question about why Trump was spewing fake murder rate statistics into a heartfelt discussion of her passion to solve the opioid crisis.  Jack Tapper just stared forlornly into the camera with a concerned look on his face (dude's face is pretty much frozen in that position already).   I can only assume my kids are distracting me from some deeper, darker truth when they express heartfelt concern for my well being and offer to fetch me my coffee.

5) I know you are but what am I?  Kellyanne will concede that Trump relentless and bizarrely lied about his crowd size, but your quickly retracted report of a moved MLK bust is much much, much worse.  Not to mention Hillary's emails, even though she was actually not elected president and the election is in fact over. But HILLARY'S EMAILS, JAKE!!!   My kids, when telling me, NO, they didn't eat the cookies the crumbs of which are sprinkled across their lips, will immediately harp on my lack of patience and tendency to yell. "And that's just wrong, Mom."

5) Righteous indignation.  HOW DARE YOU criticize Trump for banning some of the most downtrodden, endangered people on earth who have had to produce soul x-rays before gaining admission to this country?  And HOW DARE YOU just decide what to serve for dinner tonight without consulting me?  Such injustices cannot be tolerated in a civilized society.

6) Ignore the question.  Whether you are asked if Trump really believes millions of illegal aliens voted in an election (that he won) or if you just hit your brother, just pretend it never happened and move on with your life.

6) Create your own reality.  When all else fails, simply construct an imaginary world in which you are  Jedi Knight holding back a massive wall of evil with no reasonable constraints on your choices by parents, teachers, the media, the law, or other branches of government.  It may not be a long-term solution, but it makes all the oppression bearable in the short run.

The key difference between my kids and Kellyanne, however, is that my kids cannot be dealt with by a click of the TV remote.