Sunday, July 27, 2014

Speaking the language

I never thought of myself as bilingual until recently.

Ok, perhaps “bilingual” is pushing it a bit.

It's more as if I have acquired a comfortable fluency in certain variants of a branch of American English that pertains to certain visual representations and other manifestations of an always evolving platform of digital information, which is specifically contained in the electronic game, Minecraft.

I'm not sure what I said just now, but it sounded impressive. Kinda like when I sing a Mexican song my mother used to sing to me … and my children think I understand Spanish.

Honestly, Minecraft has been something of an immersion experience, and I still don't know what any of it means.

In a nutshell, players in this blocky realm can build, farm, experiment, battle and coexist in a variety of modes along the ether.

As my kids -- elbowing each other and seeding copious amounts of cracker crumbs into my laptop keyboard -- take turns creating intricate, imaginary worlds out of this deceptively simple game of breaking and placing pixilated blocks into a virtual landscape, I pickup little bits of what it is they're doing.

I know there is a Survival mode in which monsters attack.
I know there is a Creative mode where you can fly.
I know the difference between a Creeper and a Griefer.
I know that a Mob doesn't adhere to the same definition as Websters.
I know what mob spawners do. In theory.
I know that the nether is a texture, not unlike cobblestone and that Zombie-pigman are an abomination.

You probably know more about this than I do.

After all, more than 16 million folks have already purchased this game and are playing it morning, noon, and night.

A pair of them live in my house. And when they aren't herding dogs or training horses or making pumpkin snow creatures they are watching videos on YouTube of other people building in their own worlds.

“It's a phase,” said one of my friends. “They go down the rabbit hole for a while, but they'll come back.”

I must admit, I'm a bit skeptical.

Perhaps that was true when they were playing the game. Fighting Creepers, shearing sheep, and building impossible skyscrapers that require switches, circuits as well as and ladders to enter, but something has changed.

They discovered other worlds out there and have become virtual tourists.

Lately, when I come downstairs in the morning, a bright chipper voice with an English accent greets me over the rapt silence of the kids, who are hunkered down in front of my computer shoveling yogurt into their mouths as they watch a character called “Stampy Cat” show them around his world.

“What's this on the floor? … Oh, it's cake …. everywhere the eye can see. Cake!!! Woooooooo!!!”

Turns out this cat – a 23-year-old former bartender named Joseph Garrett – started playing Minecraft about 20 months ago, recording his play and uploading it to YouTube under the name Stampylonghead. When his channel started to become wildly popular (in part for its clean, good-natured humor as well as his playing tips) he quit his job to manage the channel full-time.

Now he's got nearly more than 3 million subscribers. Two of them live here and tune in daily to see his latest video and backtrack through the hundreds they've missed.

Their own Minecraft worlds have been laying fallow.

I'm not sure that's such a good thing.

Especially if my kids start using English accents.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

An epic in a fraction of a second

It always happens in a fraction of a second, or so they say. The bad things more than the good, or so it seems. A fraction of a second. No more.

I'm always holding my breath in those moments. Waiting. Seconds last longer than minutes as you wait, your mind playing out scenarios you hope aren't written in ink in this as yet unwritten script of life.

My husband is always telling me a person can't live in those moments. There's no room for anything else but worry. You have to move forward.

But he's not here. Directing.

It's just me … and my 10-year-old daughter. Ambling slowly, on our way to the park, behind a seven-year-old on a kick-scooter.

Anxiety hosts this particular party along our morning commute as I trudge along behind my son on the way to camp. I suppose I could drive the three blocks, but I don't want this specific fear to win.
The bridge between what my eyes see and what my mind imagines is always clogged with phantom traffic. But this traffic isn't invisible. A bottleneck of two-ton cars makes their way to the playground at the same time.

Inside every other one, a driver presses a cell phone against their ears, getting a jump on all the things they have to do in fewer than three hours their kids are in someone else's care. I have nowhere to be.
Tires screech somewhere in the distance. Not here, though. Not where I am slowly making my way back on this tree-lined, neighborhood street.

Traffic, that in my most panicked moments, always seems too fast for the road we are on.
My mind replays old moments, too. Like one from last summer, when the garbage truck took a swinging wide turn, clipping leaves of trees that would have been shading us only moments later.
It reminds me that anything could happen.

It didn't help that my son was kicking his scooter at least 200 yards past the break-nothing speed of my jog. Weaving like a drunken little imp on the sidewalk-less road between our house and camp.
I close my eyes. Washing away an image I don't want to see.

Only my voice – loud and panicked, and harshened by immediacy -- travels quickly through the space between us.

He stops to look at me but quickly swerves back to the sandy strip he was told to inhabit, between the lawns and the solid white line on asphalt.

I drew in enough breath to steady my swimming head.

Admonishments, now fully oxygenated, bubble up to my throat and catch there.
My daughter is faster than me, though.

“Don't do it,”  she whispers. “Don't yell at him now. People are watching.”

I close my mouth and touch her head. How is she so smart? How is she not the mother?
She is right.

The only control I have at this moment is over myself. Ranting about the dangers of the road, the limits of visibility and the risk of losing the privilege to scooter altogether is a close-range prospect. It is a rant that is best served calm and in person.

“Can I go now?” he hollers.


He stays where he is until I catch up.

It's only a fraction of a second.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Armchair investigations

All I wanted was an address. It was innocent, really.

I had to send a thank-you note but only had a phone number. For some reason that escapes me, I didn't want to call and let them know I needed their address.

As if the reason I wanted their mailing whereabouts could somehow be perceived as nefarious.

“Yes … you got me …

“After your son came to my son's birthday party and gave him a really thoughtful gift, I wanted to come to your house late at night and toilet paper your trees.”

No. Really. A part of my mind thinks that way.

And my husband – often called upon to be the voice (at least in telephone calls) of our social life – can attest to how ridiculously hobbling this can be to an otherwise normal human.

So it is with genuine (but as yet undiagnosed) insanity that instead of phoning and asking for a mailing address, I turned to the internets, determined to find it myself.

After all, there is a reason I've been tossing printed phonebooks into the recycling bin since the turn of the century -- Switchboard, the online phone book.

But it wasn't so simple this time.

The name I was seeking didn't show up the way I expected. It was there all right, sandwiched between other similarly spelled names in different localities, but when I clicked on it for more information it led to a site that promised to tell me everything about this person.

And I mean everything.

Every conceivable record from marriage, birth, death, arrest, debt, college aptitude, political affiliations, and whether they “Liked” Coldplay on Facebook.

All mine for the snooping.

Oh, right … and it was perfectly secure. The person I was spying on would NEVER, ever, ever, in a million years, know that I was diving into the digital dumpster of their lives.

Truth be told, I felt a little slimy. I knew what this was, but still I found my clicker finger pressing down on the “Continue” button.

I felt a twinge of guilt as bright green bars of light scrolled through a time clock, as if it were uploading data from police stations, divorce courts and skip tracers from all over the country for my perusal.
I cringed as each imaginary upload accompanied flickering words … “Searching … arrest records.”
“Searching … court judgements.”

I knew where this would end. It would end at a page that demanded I not use this information to coerce, harass, evict, determine employment or otherwise infringe on the privacy rights of the person I had plugged into a search engine. And of course, I needed to give them a credit card number and pay them $99 for the information.


Search over.

I was laughing, but it wasn't funny. Had it been free I would have been tempted to swim in these embarrassing waters.

“What are you laughing about?” Ittybit asked.

"All I wanted was an address, but in order to get it, I would have had to join NSA.”

“That doesn't sound good. Now what are you going to do?”

“I'm going to have your father to call and ask them for their address.”

Sunday, July 06, 2014

Short leash

The kids are gone for the morning. The house is quiet. The air outside isn't stifling just yet. It's just the dog and me puttering around. Mostly, she ignores me when the kids have left the building.

“Do you want to go for a walk?” I ask in her direction.

She sits down and drops one ear slightly. She seems perplexed by the word. Walk.

I feel a stab of guilt followed by relief. Ours is not an easy relationship.

I try not to use words in her presence that might trigger excitement.

I don't want to get her hopes up only to disappoint. It's hard to look at a hang-dog face.

That's not to say I don't take her places. I do. We go to the post office, and the bank, and for brief walks in the neighborhood. She's mostly respectable in public. Aside from a random squirrel that might trigger an exodus, she barely pulls against the leash.

That's not to say she's always easy ...

She looks at me with watery eyes, her nose wrinkles off to one side. A low growl escapes from her mouth though it's not really menacing.

“She's talking to me,” I think to myself with the conviction only a human possesses. “I suppose that's a yes for a walk.”

She lays down with a harumph, refusing to move until I say “Come on, Let's go” with a leash in my hand.

I don't think she trusts me. Or maybe trust is just another projection. I don't fully trust her.

Truth is, we haven't exactly figured each other out.

The kids and she, however, have reached an understanding.

As soon as the half-sized humans break through the silence of our misinterpretations, her face will lift and she will bound off in their direction. In fact, she will pain cry if they leave the house again without her. She needs to keep tabs on them while they're in her territory. She needs to chase their scooters and steal their tennis balls … at least until a varmint comes along that she has to vamoose.

She is the moon and they are the sun. She is relaxed around them in ways she is not around me.

In their absence, I feel as if we inhabit a black hole.

She wants to go to the office with me … but then she just barks when I talk to any one there.

I don't really know what it's about. She never barks at strangers. She only barks at me. And only when I talk to other people … or pet another dog.

I call her the “bad boyfriend” when she acts this way.

She doesn't take offense.

Coworkers laugh, because they know what I meant.

She only acts like this around me.

The insecure, commanding bark of a dog that doesn't let their human finish sentences in the presence of familiar people seems to draw a compelling parallel.

Of course it's not funny, though. The bad boyfriend isn't all that humorous in reality.

He isn't easily confined at home. You don't just give him a bone and lock him in a crate while you go out and live your life. He has thumbs, and, likely, a driver's license. And almost certainly a smart phone that, with the magic of modern technology, could be tracking some unsuspecting girlfriend's every move.

I'd be lying if I said having children – be they male or female -- didn't scare the bejeezus out of me, especially as they begin to orbit around puberty. I'd be kidding myself if I said every moment until they are happily ensconced in healthy relationships of their own, even in some distant future, didn't unnecessarily press upon my nerves.

I was a girl once. I know the ratio of bad boyfriends to good ones. I know the feeling of making the wrong choice … more than once.

Reading the news these days, makes me think the disparity has only risen.

No matter how irrational it seems, it's hard for me NOT to compare our beloved family dog with a potentially harmful suitor. … And the nagging fear that if harm does come it might very well be invited if not harbored.

But a part of me knows I can keep the dog on a short leash. I can't do that with the kids.

Not forever, anyway.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Not so foreign

I saw “Karate Kid” when it first came out in movie theaters. Since that evening in 1984 I've encountered countless children dressed in tiny white pajamas, and yet the experience of a class filled with little Ralph Macchios seemed entirely foreign to me.

There my son was draped in a suit of white muslin, one trouser cuff folded up, the other catching under his heel as he sidestepped across a room-sized mat. The white sash that held his tunic closed could have wrapped around his waist three times. Twice was traditional, and he had no intention of breaking with tradition.

The boy who stepped onto that mat, fist pressed against palm and bending into a deep bow, looked exactly like the kid who bounced into my car, charged over the seats with his muddy sneakers and had to be cajoled into sitting quietly and snapping his own seatbelt into place.

He looked exactly like the kid who threw his glove up in the air as he waited for the baseball to make its way into his section of the outfield. The boy who routinely sat criss-cross-applesauce during every other play. Coach can holler “baseball ready” all he wants, the term floats into the air and drifts away meaningless as he dances and stretches and plucks up grass by the blade. “I love baseball,” he insists. “I play great on the Wii.”

But this kid was different. Focused and alert. Watching every one's move and keeping in step. This was another sport entirely. And somehow he seemed to understand the language.

“Hey, buddy,” I yelled to get his attention. “Your sash is dragging on the floor. Let me help you retie it.”

Even my son recognized I seemed lost and in need of a translator.

“It's not a sash, mom. It's a belt. And I know how to tie it.”

Since he started taking a martial arts class I stand corrected. A lot.

The teacher isn't a master or a sensei, he's just “sir.”

It's not just a uniform or a gi, it's a dobok.

It's also not karate … or kung fu or Aikido … it's tae kwon do.

It comes from Korea, not Japan or China.

He riddles me with fact after fact, which I try to sort out with help from a careful comparison of dozens of Wikipedia entries. The variations, however, are lost on me.

What isn't lost on me is the stick-straight body of my normally fidgety son, in rapt silence, as he listens to the instructions of his new mentor.

As I watch from my place on the folding chairs, I am sure I couldn't duplicate the dance. Each step has a name I can't even pronounce.

It's all about the form. He moves through some basic stances. Foot plant. Foot plant. Swivel. Punch. Punch. Punch.

My son moves through this script fluidly and with confidence, needing only small corrections here and there. Leveling of shoulders, aligning of arms, position of feet. He finds the alignment on his own through repetition.

For an hour, twice a week, he seems like a different child. Focused and engaged. A little of this new stance even stays on him for a while after his dobok is in the laundry and he is swimming around in the tub.

He bows deeply, saying, “Yes, sir” and “No, sir” gently and unprompted.

Meditation in movement.

His teacher asks questions:
“Win or lose, does it matter?”

He and his classmates chime in unison:
“No, sir.”

“What matters is that you do your absolute best. It might not be 100 percent every day, but it's your best for that moment.”
“Yes, sir.”

And in that moment, it didn't seem foreign in the least.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Dawn til dusk

The day ended with ample time for a “family movie.”

We knew it would, whether the kids went off to dreamland on time or an hour late. That's how we roll on a Sunday night.

With darkness drifting in later and later, it becomes more and more difficult to convince the kids bedtime isn't connected to the light in the sky. They just think we're actively trying to pull the wool over their eyes by pulling the drapes over their windows.

The schedule is as much about nothing as it seems like everything:

Wake up. Breakfast. School. Lunch. School. Bike ride. Baseball. Dance. Dinner. Homework. Movie. Bed.

One activity morphing into the next as if it were a rope bridge over a raging river. Sure, it's dangerous but it's also a lifesaver.

Our kids can't seem to face that last week of school without powering down, and we can't face bedtime with sad-faced, belligerent children who feel robbed of their screen time.
Yes, I guess that means we are wimps. … We can admit it. School teachers wishing for a little more sanity as the 2013-14 academic year comes to a close are going to be sadly disappointed by us. We're not doing our part.

We're certainly not the parents we set out to be.

I'm sure we're not alone.

Children all over these United States trudge into school a few weeks shy of summer freedom with their zombie-like gazes or frenetic movements, and we parents should probably apologize.

Mea culpa.

It doesn't mean anything is going to change.

We know we can't do it all, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't try.

What else is there? The more we do the more we get done.

We juggle work and play; baseball and dance recitals, science projects and field trips; not to mention running 5Ks in the morning and 4H meetings in the afternoon. We abandon the old when we start new things.

It's not as if it's all fun and games, though. Life keeps happening. And just as you think you have the juggling act down … the medical ball might bump up against the school ball and knock the work ball out of the rotation. Schedules have to be rearranged. Plans changed.

I have to keep telling myself that the change part is always the hardest.

That moment when you are heading in one direction and suddenly you find yourself turned around.

The job you didn't get. That test result you didn't anticipate. Going forward while looking back.

Some people just go with it … barely seeming to notice. But most people, I think, need at least a little while to adjust. They may just keep going in the direction they were heading until they run out of road.

I never cease to marvel at how we all seem to travel through this life on a path we think no one else has mapped. Not that their directions would have helped us much, seeing as how we don't all witness the same scenery flying past the windows of our souls.

It is all new to us, after all.

Such is life.

We might all end up at the same place, but there's really no single way to get there. At least, that's what it looks like in this brighter light at the end of the day.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Aught Seven

Time has just flown by.

He was born, and now he's going to be seven.


Sprawled on the floor, surrounded by markers and dog-eared colored paper, he was charting a plan for what he expected to be The Best Birthday Party Ever.

It was going to be …

“Mom! How do you spell epic?”


It was also going to be a sleepover; he was going to invite no one we knew; and the stupid, inflatable water slide we stored in a garbage can in the garage would not make a single appearance at this soiree as it had at the other six.

So … it was also likely to be a disappointment.

“What did you say?”

“Nothing, dear. Just continue your planning. Pay no attention to me.”

He made it clear: He was not a baby anymore.

And he didn't want my help, except to bake the cake and remind everyone when it was time for presents. And possibly to keep the dog out of the pillow fort, which I could help build if I were not too busy making pajamas for all of his friends.

As I peered over his shoulder at the crowded page, I could see he was serious.

In three, neat columns he'd carefully (mis)spelled (in his best handwriting) out every detail of this party to end all parties:

“My party is going to be a sleepover. We are going to play video games and watch movies and eat popcorn that has real fake butter. ... You know, the kind you get in movie theaters that always looks yellow? That kind of popcorn.”

He had a guest list, an itinerary and a three-meal-menu that included all the basic food groups birthday parties typically deliver: pizza, popsicles, brownies, cake, cupcakes and popcorn. There would also be fruit leather, chips, pretzels and cheese curls. And what kid wouldn't want Lunchables for breakfast?

Token protein.

They would play Minecraft and watch movies and sleep on the couches (head to head, so no one got stuck smelling feet).

Every second was accounted for. Even my role as Chief Cook and Bottle Washer had been punched into a clock.

“Oh … and in the morning, could you make those little panda bears out of oranges that you made for Ittybit's friends on her birthday?”

It's good to feel needed, I consoled myself, especially now that I have been demoted from party planner to citrus fruit sculptor.

It's also good, I muse, that party planning has also given him the impetus to practice his soon-to-be-forgotten first-grade writing skills.

“How do you spell 'Fireworks'?”

“Um … let's see: 'N-O'.”

“But … ”


“What does that mean?”

“It means your mother would go to jail.”

“But … Amah has fireworks every year for Dad's birthday. She doesn't go to jail.”

“Amah lives in a state where fireworks are L-E-G-A-L.”

He shrugs his shoulders and starts to erase his misspelled sparklers and bottle rockets.

“Wait! I know how to fix this,” he says with a grin.

He scribbles with delight at his own brilliance.

“Moov to ware firewoks are leegle.”

No problem. We have three, whole weeks. That's plenty of time.