Tagged with " children"

Game On: Reverb Gamers 2012 #3, 4, & 5

Ironically, catching up with work at Atlas Games has put me behind on Atlas Games’ blog project, Reverb Gamers. But it’s a quiet afternoon at work, with no big restocking orders today and my bosses home with sick twins, I’m taking a moment to get up to date.

REVERB GAMERS 2012, #3: What kind of gamer are you? Rules Lawyer, Munchkin/Power Gamer, Lurker, Storyteller/Method Actor, or something else? (Search “types of gamer” for more ideas!) How does this affect the kinds of games you play? For example, maybe you prefer crunchy rules-heavy systems to more theatrical rules-light ones.

This question refers to basic archetypes offered by game designer extraordinaire Robin Laws. If you’re not familiar these terms, he says most players fall into one of five categories, as summarized in an excellent blog post:

  • The Power Gamer: Get more powers and use them often and efficiently.
  • The Butt-Kicker: Enjoys combat and pwning NPCs!
  • The Tactician: Like to beat complex situations through thought and planning.
  • The Specialist: The one who plays a <insert character type here>. Ninjas and Drizzt clones are popular.
  • The Method Actor: Likes total immersion in a character’s assumed persona, whatever the costs!
  • The Storyteller: Enjoys exploring a story unfold around a character’s actions and choices.
  • The Casual Gamer: Shows up to be with friends and share the social energies of the group.

(These are also the character types in the fantastically entertaining movie The Gamers: Dorkness Rising.)  Of those, I’m clearly The Storyteller: I love telling stories with my friends around characters. I explained this more fully a little earlier.

But I’m quite taken at the moment with a different set of classifications, offered by my dear friend Rob Donoghue:

  • The Connector: Plays for story; rules are of negligible importance.
  • The Evil Muppet: Creative, whimsical, engaged, and in it for a specific kind of interaction: he wants the GM to bring the pain.
  • The Swooshy Giant Brain: Super-smart, but mostly just wants to stab things for fun.
  • The Rookie: Enthusiastic, rules savvy, in it for fun, but with not as much experience to draw on.
  • The Wildcard: Somehow both the most inspiring and most maddening player at the table, with a creative, twisted mind and enough rules know-how to take the whole game offroad.

These categories don’t make some of the assumptions that Robin’s do, the most problematic of which being the incompatibility of technical and creative emphases. Rob’s archetypes are patterned after mutual friends, which makes it personally fun, but they’re also more easily combined to reach a personal description.

In this system, I’m about 70% Connector, but at least 30% Wildcard; these proportions vary depending on my mood. It’s still all about the story for me, but some of my choices have been known to derail entire chunks of planned adventure. What can I say? It’s a gift.

REVERB GAMERS 2012, #4: Are you a “closet gamer?” Have you ever hidden the fact that you’re a gamer from your co-workers, friends, family, or significant other? Why or why not? How did they react if they found out?

I was surprised at how negatively some respondents took this question, so let me clarify. It’s pointing to the fact that some people feel that they have to hide their gaming, not suggesting that anyone should feel that they have to. And sure, if you’re writing a public response to this prompt, you’re probably not closeted anymore, but many kids had to dissemble with parents and teachers about what, precisely, they were doing with friends, so it’s not as alien a notion as it seems.

I’ve been incredibly fortunate in a number of ways that have prevented it from ever being necessary to hide my love of gaming. While very devout Christians, my family is the liberal, Methodist, God-is-love kind of Christian, not the kind that’s threatened by imagining worlds where other powers are possible. To their minds, we were kids who were reading, doing math, telling stories, and not committing crimes–what’s not to love? My work never made an issue of it, either. College is all about exploration, and I was only a lowly TA or adjunct, so nobody cared enough to be upset about my hobbies. And now my hobby is my work, at least for the time being.

All this being said, I know at least two good friends who do not want a word of their participation in gaming breathed outside the confines of the houses where the games take place. Both of them feel strongly that being “outed” as a gamer would be a liability to their careers, and I’m inclined to agree with them. Yes, it’s unfair, yes it’s silly, and yes, attitudes are changing. But they haven’t changed all the way, and some fields are more conservative in their expectations and acceptances.

So it’s still very possible to know these people. You may even game with them. Just something to be aware of when you go naming names in the posts about your weekly game. They’re not just being silly, and it’s nobody’s decision but theirs to let those around them know what they do for fun.

Me playing Gloom with some kids at the Student Council Game Day last May

REVERB GAMERS 2012, #5: Have you ever introduced a child to gaming, or played a game with a young person? How is gaming with kids different than gaming with adults?

The short answer is yes. I used to pack my copy of Kill Doctor Lucky when I went to substitute teaching assignments, and at some schools, kids would come up to me in the hall and ask whether they could sign into my study halls to play whatever I’d brought that day (yes, they asked a sub. Take a moment to absorb that.)

Now I have my own kids, and they’re finally at the ages (9.5 and 5.75, as of this moment) where I can enjoy playing organized games with them. I’ve also been doing this more for other people’s kids over the last year: I helped the Student Council at my boys’ school organize a Game Day, and I taught games at last fall’s Youth Pride Festival in Anoka, MN.

I’m not a particularly patient teacher of game rules, though, and I’m married to Cam Banks, a vastly more experienced GM with the skills and creativity to roll with whatever wacky plans the kids come up with, so I’m usually only in charge of teaching board and card games. That being said, it’s been unexpectedly fun, just over the last few months, to try out new finds and old favorites on my sons. They’ve really arrived at what I consider the earliest optimal age for games. Yes, I know they can play at much earlier ages; you don’t need to convince me. I just have this aversion to one particular feature of gaming with kids (or anyone): the complete devolution into silliness.

I love joking and kidding and having fun at the game table as much as the next person, but both the mom and the Aspergian in me absolutely lose it when kids start making the pawn figures knock each other around the table, and going up chutes and down ladders, and stealing money from the bank, and drawing cards until you get the one you want. Yes, I need to relax, and yes, more play teaches them play etiquette faster. I’ll be the first to say that my reaction is more a matter of me being annoyed than them being annoying. But it’s a barrier to enjoying games, and it leads to the urge to knee-jerk refuse requests to play something.

These things aren’t as much of a problem with RPGs, but sitting down to roleplay with kids requires a level of attention,energy, and uninterrupted time that isn’t always available in the day-to-day chaos. I really enjoy roleplaying with kids sometimes; we had friends’ pre-teen son at our games for several years, and it was just fine.

Gaming with my own pre-teen son is an astonishing experience. He thinks in storyboards, and he’s had an amazing grasp of narrative since he was two (no lie), so his capacity for character-driven drama and decisionmaking is far beyond his years. He’s also got that kid-gift for lateral thinking, which makes him a real Wildcard (see earlier) sometimes.

His Asperger’s brings its own blessings and challenges to the gaming table. His volume control goes away when he’s excited, which is most of the time when he’s having fun. He’s happiest when he’s the center of attention, so he’s not good with extended cut-away scenes that don’t involve his character (Cam does an awesome job of managing game flow to minimize this). And he gets really frustrated when the rules or chance won’t let him do what he’s picturing in his head; he takes it very personally when he can’t bring those visions to fruition. But his attention to detail, steel-trap memory, and typical Aspie fixations mean that, once he’s decided to master a system or if we’re playing in a world he knows and loves, he brings a level of sophistication that is frankly astonishing.

There’s nothing like gaming with kids to blast apart all the stodgy, preconceived notions experienced gamers bring to the table. As with everything else, they’re seeing it for the first time, and their perspective shatters the jaded accretions we’ve picked up over time. It’s good to be reminded of the wonderment we all experienced the first time we discovered the power to build worlds.

Dec 11, 2011 - Domestic Engineering    1 Comment

The Agony & The Ecstasy: Reverb Broads 2011, #10

Griffin as Thor (left) and Connor as the 11th Doctor (right). Did I mention they're geeks?

Reverb Broads 2011, December 10: What is the best and/or worst thing about your life right now? (courtesy of my dear friend Dana, who got me into all this, at http://simply-walking.com)

That’s easy:

MY KIDS.

But that’s just one, you say? Pish-posh, I reply. They are both the best and the worst thing in my life.

Here’s how they’re awesome:

They’re healthy. They’re smart. They’re funny. They’re adorable. They’re wonderfully geeky. They’re getting along better than ever before since Griffin started kindergarten this fall. Re that: they’re both in full-day school, which is an especially wonderful awesome thing. They love their school, and so do we. They lived to see another birthday, despite their best efforts. They ask interesting questions. They can take care of themselves a little more every day. They’re getting to be just the right ages (5 and 9) for me to introduce them to all the books and movies I’ve been waiting to show them. They have no allergies that interfere with daily life. They seem to be remarkably injury-resistant (knock wood). They’re adventurous and outgoing. They make friends quickly. They test well. Connor’s progress on his Asperger’s Syndrome moves forward by leaps and bounds every year. They still get excited, not embarrassed, when I show up to do things at their school. And they still like to cuddle, even though Connor doesn’t really fit on my lap anymore and I expect him to be too dignified to do that any day now.

And here’s how they’re not:

Connor’s progress with his Asperger’s isn’t even close to “done,” and the meltdowns and arguments continue. It drives me crazy and breaks my heart to see him making some of the same mistakes, and suffering the consequences, that I had to learn the hard way. Griffin is apparently “not school-ready” (in behavior, not in learning aptitude) and we just finished a HELL of a week, filled with calls from the principal and bus referrals for stupid shit. They’re functionally deaf, despite hearing tests to the contrary. They’re stubborn. They’re obnoxious whiners. They’re demanding. They can beat video games and dismantle electronics, but cannot apparently pour themselves a glass of water. They fit their pants and shoes for approximately 45 seconds after purchase. They still need to be reminded to change their damn underwear every day. They watch the Disney Channel and The Simpsons incessantly. They have no volume control. They can’t apparently pick up or find a single damn thing without parental supervision. They want the Next New Thing about 10 minutes after they get the thing they’ve been bugging us for. They have to be reminded that hitting doesn’t solve anything. They have to be told to wipe, flush, and wash Every Single Time, I swear.

And yes, I realize that both lists are nothing unusual. And I know it’s all par for the course, and that in the long run, the good stuff outweighs the bad. But on a two-Xanax day, when I haven’t had a moment to spare to take care of myself (even when I know that taking better care of myself would help me have more for taking care of everyone else), the tunnel vision distorts the view.

Do I want to strangle them them regularly? You bet. Would I take a bullet for them without a second thought? Damn straight.

I guess kids are all about extremes. And mine are the freaking X Games.

I Can Read With My Eyes Shut: Reverb Broads 2011 #9

On my pilgrimage to the Seuss Landing at Universal Islands of Adventure

Reverb Broads 2011, December 9: What was your favorite children’s book? (courtesy of Niki at http://nikirudolph.com)

Pick a single favorite children’s book? What, are you people trying to kill me? No, I see it all now: you want me to do your holiday shopping for you…

I’m bad at the favorites game, no matter the medium. That whole “Ten CDs/Books/Movies/Games/Wombats On A Desert Island” meme is completely beyond me; in fact, the only thing I can do every time I say that, as soon as I post the list, I’m going to think of at least three I would have to change. So this is going to be more of a whirlwind tour than a deep reminiscence.

I literally can’t remember a time when I couldn’t read; I had maybe a hundred sight words by the time I was two. When they tested me for kindergarten, I was at a fourth-grade level. Pretty much anything I ever wanted to read, I just picked up and gobbled down. This doesn’t mean I didn’t love children’s literature. I did — I do.

So I’ll start in the place everyone who knows me would expect me to start: Doctor Seuss.

Yes, I spelled that correctly; please absorb that bit of knowledge and carry it forth into the world. And I know, I know you love him too. Who doesn’t? His stuff never gets old. But much like the Muppets, I just never let Dr. Seuss go as I aged. I memorized and did a dramatic recitation of Thidwick the Big-Hearted Moose for Forensics in high school; I went to State on that story. And when I got to college, the first club I joined was the KU Dr. Seuss Club. I was its president my sophomore and junior years. We used to go into Lawrence’s elementary schools and read to kids, to validate our weekly meetings and impressive membership. I was even featured in a story about the club that hit the Knight-Ridder newswire (FYI: my maiden name was Perinchief).

But when I was the age when most kids are enamored of Dr. Seuss and other picture books, I was all about the nonfiction, too. I had several phonebook-sized collections of weird facts that I recited to anyone and everyone (this particular sin is being revisited upon me even as we speak). And there was a biography of Dolley Madison that I checked out almost every time I was at the library, and must have read a hundred times. My grandparents took me to the Wisconsin State Capitol when I was four, and I argued with the tour guide that Madison was obviously named for Dolley, because she saved the White House and what had her runty little lump of a husband ever done. This was not the first, nor the last, time in my life I’ve been stared at like a freakshow.

As I got older, my tastes evolved pretty quickly — I was a rabid Sherlock Holmes fan by the time I was in sixth grade — but some children’s lit still stands out in my memory. I adored The Westing Game, and I’m so happy to still see it on regular middle school reading lists. And The Phantom Tollbooth is as fresh today as it was 25 years ago; I’ve been loving all the anniversary celebrations this year. I still read A Little Princess from time to time, just to relive the delight and wonder of that story, and the movie is a little-known gem. Sure, I read my share of Judy Blume, Beverly Cleary, Babysitters Club, and Sweet Valley High, too. I was truly ravenous, and I could chew through one of those “age-appropriate” books in under two hours. But my parents never restricted me to the short-shelved section of the library, for which I remain grateful.

And now I have new favorites, but they’re my favorites from reading to my own kids. Books like Oh My Oh My Oh Dinosaurs and Barnyard Dance by Sandra Boynton, the Charlie and Lola books by Lauren Child, and the Skippyjon Jones series by Judy Schachner are a riot and a joy to read aloud. In fact, there’s a thing called the E. B. White Read-Aloud Awards that’s been going for just a few years now that makes a great place to start finding those books you’ll never get tired of reciting at bedtime. And achingly sweet books like I Love You, Little One by Nancy Tafuri, God Bless the Gargoyles by Dav Pilkey (this one is NOTHING like Captain Underpants, trust me), and Polar Bear Night by Lauren Thompson still get me choked up, especially when my sweet boys fall asleep while I’m still reading quietly at their bedsides.

I read in my kids’ classrooms every few weeks, so I’m having to expand my repertoire to find short, funny stories that fourth-graders like. The Wayside School stories by Louis Sachar have been very well-received, but I’m always looking for new suggestions.

I figure, by the time I’m done reading aloud to my kids, their kids should be just old enough for some Doctor Seuss. And they’ll know right where to find Grandma’s copies.

Dec 3, 2011 - Psychology, Uncategorized    1 Comment

Straight On ‘Til Morning: Reverb Broads 2011 #3

Art by Roy Best

Reverb Broads 2011, December 3:

How did you become more of a grown-up this year? Or did you pull a Peter Pan and stubbornly remain childlike? (courtesy of Bethany at http://bethanyactually.com/)

I did two pretty adult things this year, though no one who knows me would ever respond in a lightning round with the word “grown-up.” The first may not seem like much to all you gorgeous fellow wage slaves out there, but I’ve actually held down a real, non-academic job for the last 12 months.

I’ve been doing that since I was 15, you scoff? No big deal, you say?

Perhaps it is no big deal. Perhaps you think I’m a spoiled ivory tower wimp who’s never done an honest day’s work in her life. I think you’d be less likely to say that if you’d ever graded 75 blue book essay exams in 36 hours, or written a 2.5 hour multimedia-enhanced lecture in an afternoon, while bouncing a baby basket with your foot.

Academia, with a side of substitute teaching in two school districts, has been all I could manage in the years of fibromyalgia plus non-school-age children minus child care subsidies. I’m not complaining — teaching has allowed me to be there more for my boys (all three of them) than I ever dreamed I’d be able to. And, simply put, teaching is my vocation, in the old, spiritual-calling sense of the word.

But I really, deeply, truly adore the job I have at Atlas Games these days, and both my responsibilities and my hours have expanded since I started last November. I started out just handling customer service requests from the website, and managing the packing and shipping of orders to our distributors. I still have these duties, and I enjoy them, but I’ve been entrusted with the first pass of edits on our RPGs, and I’ve done art direction for the last two books, both of which really make the most of that part of my skill set.

All this is made both possible by my fabulous bosses, John and Michelle Nephew. I respect the hell out of both of them for their many talents, but more than that, they’re good people and good friends. They let me keep flexible hours, so I can be Connor and Griffin’s Mom (my other job title) and do fun things like chaperoning field trips, and so I can take it easier on the days when the spirit is willing but the flesh is weakweakweak. I’m bemused to find myself in the same industry as my Darling Husband, but I couldn’t be happier in a non-teaching job than I am right now.

The second grown-up thing I’ve done this year is starting to take care of myself. I’m still not any good at putting myself first, but all the fabulous coaching from the excellent folks at Fairview Pain Management Center has taught me many reasons and many ways to look after myself better than I have in the past. So now, when I recognize that I’m on sensory overload, I don’t hesitate to just step out for a few minutes. I take mini-breaks, even if only for five mindful breaths, throughout the day, which helps me better evaluate the messages my body is sending. I’ve adjusted the way I do my jobs as worker, wife, and mother to incorporate body mechanics that keep me able to work longer and smarter. And at the end of this year, I’m managing my pain with 25-50% less medication, the least I’ve been on in almost nine years.

So that’s how I’ve matured this year. Everything else? Peter Pan all the way, baby.

Gamerography, vol. 1: Early Adopter

This is the first installment in an ongoing series about my history with games: what I’ve played, when I’ve played, who and with whom I’ve played. As such, if all this prompts a question, please ask — it’ll help me figure out what to say in later episodes!

I’m a gamer girl. I have been for my whole life, in one way or another. And even on the nights when I’m home with the kids while my Darling Husband is gaming with his group, or working at a convention like Origins or Gen Con, I am decidedly NOT a gamer widow.

But things get complicated almost immediately after that statement of basic identity.

For one thing, I don’t play video games. I really don’t like them. Sure, they’re clever and shiny and all sorts of other great things, but similarly to my problem with Boo, video games give me all sorts of nervous system problems. I can’t play any game for more than about two minutes before my anxiety levels start rapidly ramping up, and before long, every muscle from my scalp to my waist is wound tight as a bowstring, and my stomach is churning out acid like the mother in Alien. No matter how good your game is, it just ain’t worth it for me.

But my gamer credentials run deep, starting with my mom and grandparents, whose favorite way to pass an evening was over a game board or a deck of cards. Aggravation, Yahtzee, and Uno were staples of my upbringing, but our real speciality were speed card games. To this day, we’ve got a strict “no rings and watches” policy around the card table, because we play so fast and furiously that people get cut. Trust me — it’s hardcore.

Part of why I’m such a fanatic for using games in the classroom is because I really started my adult gaming journey with my fifth and sixth grade teachers. Mr. Boisvert was a brilliant teacher, truly dedicated to the craft and vocation of teaching. His walls were covered with colorful, detailed maps for the games he employed as teaching tools. Wizard was a fantasy land through which you moved by doing spelling homework and tests, and each day brought a new Fate Card (beware the dreaded Booga Booga!). The Social Studies year was divided by three different roleplaying games: Discovery, in which you were a colonist trying to survive those first difficult months on the American continent; Pioneer, in which you were a homesteader headed for Oregon with your wagon train; and a cross-country car race game whose name escapes me entirely at the moment.

Sure, these games drove us to complete more work, more creatively, and work more cooperatively than you can imagine 10 year olds doing on their own, and that has had a huge influence on me as a teacher and a parent. But, for all that, what’s most remarkable is that I still know my pioneer character’s name and everything that happened to her. She was Sarah Hoskins, and her 11 year old daughter died of scarlet fever in Colorado. She tripped and fell into a campfire, burning her hand (I had to wear a sling for three class days). And when her wagon train got snowed into a mountain pass when winter came early, it was one miraculous shot with a whiffle ball — into a trash can at the front of the room, with my back against the chalkboard at the back of the room — that saved her life and let her cross into the Oregonian valley where she and her husband settled.

That, my friends, is what every game designer is trying to achieve — game immortality.

Mr. Held, my sixth grade teacher, deepened both my experience and love of gaming. He set up his copy of 221B Baker Street, a mystery-solving board game based on the adventures of Sherlock Holmes, when the high reading group finished its first unit, and we took to it with such passion that the space between those flimsy paperback readers grew longer and longer as we played more rounds of the game, then watched the Jeremy Brett episodes with a rapt attention 11 year olds don’t usually lavish on Victorian literature.

World History was punctuated with games, too. For Ancient Rome, we watched the chariot race in Ben-Hur, then played Circus Maximus — first for speed, followed by the mandatory heavy chariot round dubbed the “Hamburger Rally” for our gleeful overuse of the wheel spikes. For World War I, it was dogfighting airplanes over France with Fight In The Skies (later, Dawn Patrol). How many sixth graders do you know who can identify the silhouette of a Sopwith Camel, and know why pilots were more likely to have a brick in the cockpit than a parachute? Yeah, me neither.

By the time the guys in my church youth group invited me to join them on Sunday afternoons for AD&D, I was already a dedicated gamer. Sure, the only roleplaying I did for most of my teenage years was defending my female characters from unwanted sexual advances. But I was well-equipped for the future with the clear and certain knowledge of what games could do and be — a source for characters and stories to rival anything literature had to offer. The real revelation was finding those things in my own mind.

Oct 22, 2011 - Domestic Engineering    4 Comments

Letting the Terrorists Win

I’m used to pressure. In fact, I’m one of those freakish people who actually operate better under a fair amount of it than I do when everything’s going just swimmingly. In high school, I acquired my only-partly-facetious nickname “Emergency Lass” for jumping into musical ensembles and yearbook deadlines and graduation preparations and a whole host of other situations, and not just filling the gap adequately, but kicking a fair amount of ass at the required tasks. My last semester of college ended up comprising 22 credit hours, plus 3 for choir, my wedding, grad school applications, a car accident, and a half-time job. I got the best GPA I’d ever had stateside.

Naturally, I was angry. I mean, come on! When you do well and almost die doing it, it makes people think you can handle that level of activity and pressure all the time, and you’re left yelling at their backs, “But no! Didn’t you see me almost dying!? That wasn’t normal!”

I thought I understood pressure. But that was before.

Before Real Life.

Before I was a mom.

Before I’d lived through an NPR membership drive.

I’ve been thinking a lot about extortion lately. Our kids know summer is the lean season, typically, and they tend to be a lot better about not asking for things, always a bit of a paradox, since you’d think they’d be more desperate for distraction in the depths of those long, school-less days. But for some reason, the switch has flipped, and they are really laying on the hard sell every time we turn around. If we ask what they’re hungry for, they name a restaurant. If we say we have to go to the store, they present a list of demands. I’m surprised fuel and a plane to Cuba aren’t among them, some days.

The fact that the answer is no, has consistently been no, deters them not at all. You’ve got to admire that kind of persistence, and maybe I would if I weren’t so exhausted by the constant struggle. Because their response to “no” is as consistent as my delivery: shocked outrage, followed by whining and temper, general intractability, creative retribution, sullen slouching-about. Pick one from Column A, two from Column B.

This is not, however, the much-vaunted “culture of entitlement” you read about in the news. I get really angry about this, when people say how spoiled kids are when they ask for things they want so readily. My kids feel no more entitled to Stuff than any other kid out there, and I want them to feel comfortable asking whatever question passes through their little prefrontal corteces, so when the important ones come along, there’s no hesitation there from the time I screamed at them over a stupid Happy Meal.

They’re freaking kids. Part of the psychological profile of elementary-school-age kids is that they’re little egomaniacs — their world is SUPPOSED to revolve around their own needs and wants at that age. What about human infant rearing doesn’t encourage this way of thinking? We don’t leave bottles and dry diapers at strategic posts throughout the house, on the floor where the kid can reach them if they work hard enough to roll over there. We go to them as soon as their breathing alters; why wait until they’re cranked up to a full-on wail? Let’s be totally honest here: this is as much for our own ease and peace as it is for theirs

If you’re a bad parent, if you’re actually spoiling them, they think that’s normal at any age. But at this age? It’s normal. All I figure I can do for them is be consistent in my responses, and hand them increasingly complex rhetorical tools with which to build their appeals, so they can argue well by the time they need to make the arguments that really matter.

I joked about the MPR membership drive as the model of extortion, but if the kids were really paying attention to how to get the job done, they’d listen to those masters of soul erosion. Those same familiar voices that bring us the news and entertainment I bathe my eardrums in as I putter around the warehouse or navigate the roadways turn their earnest midwestern accents toward a singular appeal for eight days. They change up the pitch, the rhythm, the variance of pathetic and logical appeals like a championship boxer, looking for your tender spots. They dangle colorful lures in a landscape suddenly dark in the artificially imposed news blackout — of course you want a chili red diner mug that reassures you, every time you feel low, that “YOU make MPR happen.”

Even the language of membership appeals to us at our basest needs: “Become a Sustainer.” Who doesn’t want to be a sustainer to something or someone? Clearly, my kids don’t think I’m sustaining them — I say no all the time! But if I say yes to MPR, just this once, I’m a Sustainer. I sustain.” My boss thinks a better name would be “Enabler.” I think she’s probably right. At least we’d be closer to the right sentiment if, after crawling into the broom closet at work and surreptitiously dialing the number to pledge a measly $5 a month, thus obtaining the prized Chico bag with MPR logo, and confessing our breathless addiction to the infectious laughter of the Car Talk guys, we had to mutter the phrase, “I wanna be an Enabler.”

You think you can torture me? Bring it. Waterboarding is so 2006. Stress positions are nothing next to carrying all the groceries in from the car in one trip. Electrocution? Who do you think you are, Jack Bauer? Kids, pay attention. Terrorists, both foreign and domestic, take note. If you want to break people down, really get everything they’ve got and leave them begging to give you more, you don’t need to beat them, bomb them, or bankrupt them. You just need to give them a nice coffee mug and tell them you really need and appreciate them. Don’t believe me? Just ask any of the 13,500 poor slobs who fell for it in the last eight days.

Oct 10, 2011 - Domestic Engineering    12 Comments

The Walking Wounded

My kids are Those Kids. Not the ones who talk through concerts or scream in movies, thank all the gods and little fishes. But the ones who throw tantrums for toys in Target? Or run down the aisles in the grocery stores? Or carry on conversations in restaurants loudly enough for every other diner to clearly hear over their own?

Yeah, those are my kids.

I get that everyone is tired of Those Kids, especially people with no kids of their own. I’ve seen how quickly articles with titles like “Curb Your Brats” get shared on Facebook, and how much gleeful support has rallied around business owners who decide to bar children from their premises.

Kids aren’t useful and quiet, inconvenient to an allergic few, like service animals. They’re unpredictable in every way: unannounced bodily processes, loud inappropriate emotional outbursts, irregular and unapproved repositioning of their messy selves. And parents and children alike think everyone should be willing to accept their shrugs and smiles and apologies just because everyone once was one. Ludicrous.

There’s no question that some children are much better behaved than others. Some children just seem calmer, sweeter, neater, and their parents receive that rarest of praise: “I hardly even noticed s/he was there!” A lot of that is just disposition, but I don’t mean to detract from what must be very calm, loving parenting in a steady environment. I’m so happy for those families, and what they’re able to achieve.

That just isn’t an option for us. My oldest son Connor has Asperger’s, but even without that, he, like his younger brother Griffin, is an Active Child. This is a category that is itself in flux; author Mary Sheedy Kurcinka has written several books about “spirited children” that propose some interesting theories advancing the discussion. What does this mean? They are incredibly smart, lightning fast, hair trigger, and non-freaking-stop from the second they wake to the second they relent and fall asleep.

And whatever mitigating influence my husband and I could offer our kids by giving them a stable home, continuous medical care, and high-quality restricted diet since birth — all of which we’ve had recommended by various well-meaning friends and teachers — are beyond are reach, mostly for economic reasons. We cannot buy a home. We are dependent on state health care, which comes with restrictions. Organic food and what’s left once one eliminates gluten, dairy, or all sugars, are foods that we cannot afford in the volume it takes to feed a family of four on our income.

As much as we try to shield them from those realities, we carry that stress, and we know it affects our interactions with them. My physical and mental health also affect my interactions with them, an unavoidable truth for which I carry a staggering amount of guilt that probably contributes to those self-same conditions (vicious spiral, that).

So what do you do with kids like these, or any kids, when they’ve got you at the end of your rope? The quick and dirty — and very satisfying and least efficient — option is to lose your shit. Scream back at them, burst out crying, spank, make exotic threats, bring down the Hammer of God. The child sure as hell regrets his actions immediately, but you sure as hell regret them later.

Are there times when this is all you can do? Yes, I really believe there are. Every parent’s got their buttons that makes the Red Haze rise. Griffin’s got a doozy: I tell him to stop doing something. He doesn’t. I say, “Stop doing that, or I’ll take away X for the rest of the day.” He says, “Oh yeah? I’m going to keep doing it more and worse until we leave/you buy this thing/I get my way/you take that back.” BOOM — instant fury. I was in a store the other day with him, and he wouldn’t stop touching fragile things on the shelves. I said, “Give me both your hands. I don’t want you touching things anymore.” His response: “I can still touch them with my feet.” I leaned down and growled at him, “I will tie your hands and feet together and wear you like a handbag.” He stopped long enough at least to assess the odds of me having rope in my purse. I’m not always that creative, and some of you may find that threat horrific to make at all, let alone in public, but I regularly reach that point with him these days.

The next option is to find your inner Buddha and appeal to their inner humanity. You take a moment to evaluate the environment, and what’s affecting the kid, then you sit down with him and help unravel the tangledy ball of emotions that’s making him act like a colossal jerk. Sometimes, this really works, and you have a truly insightful conversation that makes him aware of some new tripwire that we can work together to avoid or minimize in the future. But most of the time, this is a boring torture worse than pain of death to the child, and/or devolves into the Airing of the Grievances in which everything you and everyone else have ever done is screamed out through tears of rage before doors are slammed and Xanax is taken.

Finally, as with every good and human endeavor, there’s the middle path. And like every good middle path, it’s got angry yelling and compassionate insight, with a healthy dose of deep breathing and a sense of humor. You admire the passion and energy that drive these little engines of discovery and innovation; you give points for perseverance and rhetorical style; and you acknowledge that yelling at a kid after the fourth time you’ve asked him politely to pick up the damn plate in the middle of the floor is not going to squish his special little snowflakeness.

The single best thing other parents can do for one another is to be gentle with one another, especially those who don’t have Active Kids toward those who do. Face it: parents just aren’t going to get the support or sympathy we’d like or deserve from childless adults, or even adults who’ve already done their childrearing and want to be done with the screamy droolmonsters. But the shit parents give one another is absolutely unforgiveable. There’s this hypocritical cult about motherhood today: it’s the single most important job a woman can do, but you’re expected to do it in absolute seclusion, and if you’re not doing it “exactly right,” you deserve to be publicly flayed. And you wonder why antidepressants and wine are essential motherhood equipment?

Nobody knows the story behind that screaming kid in the store or restaurant. The vast majority of special needs, both juvenile and adult, are invisible, as are personal struggles. You walked in in the middle of the movie. Philo wrote, “Be kind to one another, for everyone you meet is fighting a difficult battle.” Parenthood is one of the rare battles that many of us have the scars from. The least we can do is give each other credit for serving the best we can.

Oct 7, 2011 - Literature    3 Comments

Time Enough At Last

Our house looks like a bomb went off. A small truck bomb, packed with multiplication flash cards, Star Wars guys, broken crayons, clothes, and empty cups.

And let’s not forget the printed material. There could’ve been a simultaneous CIA leafleting-from-the-skies campaign over every inch of our house, dropping readable matter like Minnesota snow. Fantasy books, romance books, picture books, chapter books, RPG books, video game guides, coloring books, workbooks, catalogs, newspapers, magazines, comics, junk mail, recipes, assembly instructions, maps, notes, drafts, calendars, phone messages, receipts, grocery lists, homework. Wobbly stacks, sliding drifts, impenetrable walls of paper.

Maddening as it is — like, “I’d like to drop a match in it before my mom visits for Thanksgiving” maddening — this is more or less how I grew up, always with something to read no further than my elbow. And if it’s there, I can’t not read it, if you know what I mean. The words go in as fast as I see them, so as I gaze around, I’m constantly bombarded by info; I’m not conscious of the time it takes to scan text. The inability to glance past things without absorbing them might be overstimulating for some people. Hell, it might be overstimulating for me, I don’t know; I’ve always been like this, so I don’t know any differently.

In fact, I can’t remember a time when I couldn’t read. I was spelling and mastering simple sight words at 18 months, and I tested at a fourth-grade reading level when they tried to figure out what to do with me in kindergarten testing. I was lucky to have parents and grandparents who were pretty relaxed about letting me chow through reading material far beyond my age level, and I satisfied my voracious appetite for it by simply keeping as many books going at once as I could. Even now, I’m rarely reading fewer than three or four separate titles at once.

Now I’m going to ask you to do something. Take all of what I’ve just described — in my home, in my youth — and erase it. Just use that little Photoshop tool and scrub every last piece of reading material out of the picture, like a neutron text bomb. Imagine a house messy with toys and clothes and dishes, but no books or magazines or newspapers or homework. Imagine a young child, hungry to learn, curious about the world, stuck gazing out a window or watching TV or sitting on a stoop. Try, just try, to imagine a setting with absolutely nothing to read.

To me, this is the purest science fiction. It’s the Twilight Zone. I can wrap my head around time travel, and quantum physics, and non-humanoid aliens, and a billion other things, but I literally can’t conjure the image of a home without books. I shudder to imagine growing up in one, and it is pure horror to imagine raising my kids in one.

I’ve been trying to imagine this all week, since I heard a statistic from a 2006 study publicized by the United Way. The study found that, in middle-income homes, the ratio of books per child is 13 books for each child, which is itself a ludicrously low number compared with the bounty to which I am accustomed. That won’t even fill a single shelf — they’ll keep falling over.

But in low-income neighborhoods, that number flips and sinks like the Poseidon. The ratio becomes only one book for every THREE HUNDRED CHILDREN. Let me rephrase: one poor child gets one book, and 299 poor children get none. No books. Zero. Inconceivable.

My kids’ school has about 450 children. If this statistic extended into that setting, the school in that low-income neighborhood would have two books. But at least in a school, those two books would get passed around. Households don’t usually do that, so that one book doesn’t make its way around among the 300 kids. The other 299 just do without.

My first impulse, of course, is to go directly into the boys’ bedroom with a trash bag and sweep up every single book they haven’t read in the last two weeks, and drive down to the poor neighborhoods and just start handing out books. I know that’s not practical, and I know there are groups designed to put books into exactly the hands that need them most. You can bet your backside I’ve been doing research into exactly which groups can use exactly which books, and how to make those donations — if I find anything beyond United Way that’s available on a national level, I’ll post it in comments.

Ever seen that episode of The Twilight Zone with Burgess Meredith as the harried bank teller who just wants time to read his book without his boss or his wife interrupting him? That episode’s what I named this post after. Eventually, he gets the time and the books, along with a cruel, ironic twist. But imagine if you had the time, and the desire to read, but no books. That episode’s playing all day, every day.

****

NB — Another point worth making: lack of access to books means lack of access to ideas that empower people to change their circumstances. Often, the ideas that motivate people to change their lives are found in banned books, which are even harder to access if you depend on schools and libraries, rather than your own purchasing power.

The Uprise Books Project aims to change that by putting free copies of banned books in the hands of impoverished and at-risk youth, exposing them to radical, perspective-shifting ideas. You can learn more and support the project here: http://www.uprisebooks.org/about/.

Sep 27, 2011 - Domestic Engineering    1 Comment

Picture Day

Picture Day is an act of faith. I mean, even more than the usual act of faith that is bundling your children out into the world, delivering them into the hands of strangers to have their minds and bodies nourished in the company of their peers. But there’s a certain divine grace about Picture Day.

Maybe it’s in the frantic warnings of the parents, different than every other morning, as the kids clatter toward the door. There are the usual questions — “Do you have your homework? Your lunch money?” And of course, there are admonitions — “Be good. Don’t cause trouble at the bus stop. No swordfighting with your recorder in music today, okay?” But today, there are pleas, urgings, prayers almost — “Look, just try to stay tidy until your picture. Please make sure your breakfast goes in your mouth. No splashing in the sinks. Whatever you do, don’t play in the dirt until afternoon recess.” They stop, nod more solemnly than they usually do; none of the usual eye rolling. Your kids understand, for one rare moment, that your happiness rises and falls on their ability to follow directions, once they’re beyond your control.

Or maybe it’s in the lines of kids standing against the gymnasium walls, nervously awaiting their turn before the camera. They’re not in their Sunday best, usually — that would be too conservative — though a few boys are buttoned and knotted into miniature Brooks Brothers shirts and ties, oddly serious as if rehearsing some stifling notion of adulthood. No, most kids are in their peacock finery: their brightest, trendiest clothes, little hipsters who will leave not only the stamp of “THIS IS ME” on their pictures, but a clear declaration of “THIS IS NOW.” The girls, especially, no matter how young, have special permission today to embrace the sparkly, the dangly, the poofy. Hair is teased and curled, contraband lip gloss gleams in the fluorescent light. They, too, are rehearsing for adulthood, but it’s not stifling. It’s exciting, and they are lined up, clutching their picture orders like tickets to get on the biggest, best ferris wheel in the world.

It might be in the careful eyes and hands of the adults who guide the process. They’re intercessories for every parent who can’t be there in person: the teachers, even more so today than every other day; the PTO volunteers standing by with tissues and combs; and the photographers themselves. They stand guard to avert disaster in those last critical moments. They advise on questions of monumental importance: top button buttoned? hair over the shoulder? glasses on or off? They tame cowlicks and smudges with beneficent hands. It is holy work, to make a child feel beautiful, to want to smile.

Ultimately, that’s what makes Picture Day an act of faith. Each child, exactly as they are — that day, that moment — sits, smiles, and is recorded. Whether they buy photos or not, they are worth the dignity of a photo, so they will be in the class picture. For that one second, no matter what awaits them back in the classroom, or back at home, they have something to smile for. It’s a message to their friends, and their future selves. It says, “Remember me, just like this.” And if you look at them that way, no class picture can be anything but beautiful.

What are your Picture Day memories?

Give until you geek

The next installment in my Speak Out with your Geek Out blog posts is going to seem a little weird, and perhaps the premise will seem strange, or even a little self-aggrandizing (there’s a nice geeky term for you; it means that it might seem like I’m congratulating myself for this quality, if you haven’t come across it recently). That’s not at all what I’m going for, and it’s certainly not why I do this. Here goes…

I am a philanthropy geek.

I get ridiculously excited over plans to do good things for other people. I’m wildly enthusiastic about charities, foundations, organizations, grants, volunteers, fundraisers, relief efforts, drives, collections and goodwill offerings. I’ve even been known to put money in the occasional shaken can, so long as it’s being held by someone who doesn’t look completely indifferent and can’t be troubled to stop talking on the phone long enough to thank me for my donation.

I want shoes on every kid, mosquito nets on every bed, full backpacks on every kindergartner, roofs over every family, dignified suits on every interviewee, music in every school, accessible play features in every park, books in every hand, freedom in every heart, bluebirds on every shoulder…

<deep breath>

And I get unbearably, wriggling-in-my-seat excited about new and brilliant ideas for delivering services and solutions in the simplest, most effective, creative, inclusive ways possible. Kiva still gives me chills, every time I log on — pure genius. So are lots of the Gates Foundation initiatives. Nothing But Nets, the brainchild of Sports Illustrated columnist Rick Reilly, is the model of catchy simplicity (not to mention the fact that his initial pitch stands as a monument to gorgeous rhetorical writing, which makes it a geeky itch-scratch two-fer for me).

Now, unlike a lot of geeks I know, I’m not out there looking to make converts to my favorite things — proselytizing generally leaves a bad taste in my mouth. If you’re already curious, and looking for a little guidance, well now, that’s a horse of a different color entirely, and I’ll pour as much info into your brain box as I can. But I don’t want to impose my passions on anyone else, for the most part.

My philanthropy geek is the single and very large exception to this rule. I think philanthropy should be a part of school curriculum — public school, because generosity and compassion are human morals, and need to be reclaimed from religion for the good of society RIGHT NOW — from the first day of kindergarten until the day you move that tassel on your college mortarboard. Every single person needs to learn that the problems of the world are not insurmountable. They can be broken down into manageable parts on realistic timelines; evaluated for creative, efficient, and cost-effective solutions; and projects parceled out to participants of every age and skill level to maximize inclusion, successful accomplishment, and the pride and joy of seeing the positive change you’ve effected in the world.

The cruelest irony of my philanthropy geek is that my family is poor. I’m not looking for sympathy, and I’m not going into specifics, because it’s not a contest. Put it this way: my husband works full-time in the game industry, and between health, parenting, and the economy, I can only work part time. We benefit from the social safety net. We get by. But I am almost never in the position to give much of anything to any of the dozen awesome initiatives I hear about as I indulge my geek every week. If I could do a kickstarter for people to give me money to do awesome philanthropic projects with, I’d be all over that, but I’m guessing that’s against some rule somewhere. So my love goes financially unrequited, and I struggle to balance the urge to give my time and talents generously in compensation, and not knowing when to say “no.”

I stumbled into an outlet, though it’s perhaps the least likely, most absurd one you can imagine for a pink-haired, minority-in-all-but-race geek mom. At my very first PTO meeting ever, which I attended in an effort to learn more about Connor’s new school in our new city last year, they started talking about getting the languishing student council effort going. Student leadership, responsibility, growth, blah blah blah. I tentatively raised my hand, and asked, “What about philanthropy?” 20 pairs of eyes fixed on me with laser intensity. My geek fixation had turned on me. By the end of the meeting, I was the advisor to the new student council. But I had 18 smart, enthusiastic elementary-school kids to organize for my nefarious, do-gooder purposes.

And do good we did. So much so, I got myself volunteered to be PTO president. “Never in my wildest dreams” doesn’t begin to cover it. But the chances for more good are bigger I’ve never been able to envision before. So if I bug you for money for some cause, or to buy overpriced wrapping paper, feel free to say no — I totally understand, because I would have to say no, too. But if you say yes, you’re not just helping a charity. You’re helping me get my geek on.

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