Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Carnival! Rip your wig off!

It's the Carnival of Homeschooling, and my post about Zoo Tycoon is part of it. Welcome, carnival. As Penrod would say, "Pray pass out quietly and with as little jostling as possible."

I've written a post about Memorial Day which has nothing to do with remembering anything significant or meaningful, and everything to do with grilling when you live next to PETA activists. It's at my homeschooling blog on the Virginian Pilot web site.

My little boy is borrowing and carrying. It's ridiculous now how nerved up I was about introducing this, because he understands the concept of regrouping just fine. No problem. What's bizarre and mystifying is that while he can do the regrouping, he suddenly has all kinds of problems doing the arithmetic that goes with it. This is a child who can add and subtract three digit numbers in his head. I have seen him do it. But suddenly, he can't tell me what 12-8 is. It's like since we added the regrouping, he's completely lost his mind.

I have no idea what to do... he just sits there staring at the problem, and I have to say "What's 12-8 Benny? What's 12-8? Well, okay, what's 10-8? What's 10-8? What's 9-8? Okay, it's 1. So if 9-8 is 1 what's 10-8? What's 11-8? What's 12-8? Benny if I have 8 fingers and I want 12, how many do I have to add?" The only thing I can think of is to take a break from math for a while and see if it sorts itself out. He can do these complex computations in his head, but when he's looking at the page, and he's just borrowed 10 to make 12 instead of 2, he can't subtract 8 from it.

Time to go swimming. With all 12 of the fingers I wanted.


And in the "Please revoke my mothering license until further notice" file, we have this: As I was sliding into the pool I remembered that at that exact moment the children were supposed to be at the pediatrician having their well check-up. Woops. They were very well in the pool.

We're Normal. Thanks, Memorial Day.

Ever since we bought the grill, we feel different. Cleaner, better, more capable of heating meat.

We live next to some very serious PETA employees. Maybe this is why we haven't bought a grill, lo these many long years. Buying a grill and then using it to cook anything but, you know, peppers or something, would seem like a political statement. We're really not prepared to be political about something so incidental as dinner. So, we haven't bought one. Even though the neighbors on the other side have one. Even though our little deck seems empty and lonely without one. We exercised restraint. We're decent folk, and not prone to the aggressive and public preparation of food that might offend. After all, PETA people are good people, and why cause a fuss?

This year, however, the PETA people next door have been really bossy about our cat, who sometimes escapes into the world when I'm trying to get a basket of laundry out to the mud room. He always comes back in, having eaten a bird or engaged in some other atrocity, and he's been living cheerfully like this, with maybe a weekly walkabout, for 12 years. The vet says he's in perfect health, but the neighbors went so far as to promise (threaten) to take him to a shelter "where he can live indoors." While I understand about cats outside and whatnot, this seemed a bit thick.

So, we wondered, as Memorial Day dawned, and my husband felt the old familiar itch to spray liquid fuel all over a pile of rocks and then set them on fire, why are we being so sensitive?

Here's Dan opening the flammable rocks, after spending quite a long time putting the grill together:

And here are Dan and Benny standing over the grill, with a satisfactory little fire raging away inside:

Later, around the dinner table, we felt surprisingly little guilt. Benny, who is mostly a vegetarian anyway, by his own choice, preferred to eat a hamburger "without meat." As he lovingly chewed up his sesame seed bun, he said very encouragingly, "DAD! I love what you grilled!!! Except for the meat." And he's never even read a PETA flier. Imagine. :)

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Afr'Am Festival

Today's post is on my official homeschooling blog on the local paper's web site. It's about our trip to the Afr'Am Festival this year.

Af'ram Festival

We have gone to the Afr'Am Festival every year since we moved here, but we've never gone for the parade. This year we did, and it was extremely entertaining. Benny was thrilled by the high school marching bands we saw. We stood right near the walkway over Waterside Drive, where the bands were putting on their big final shows, and Benny and Ahno were sitting right on the curb.

Watching it made me get kind of choked up. If Benny and Sadie continue with homeschooling through high school, will they ever experience this? Will they get to complain to their friends about the hot uniforms, and shake their Sousaphones back and forth down the street, and will I get to walk behind dragging a cooler of Gatorade and taking pictures? Yes, there are homeschool bands and probably even homeschool marching bands around here. But will they feel that same feeling of pride and belonging that I saw on those kids' faces in that parade?

After that, we went in to the festival and immediately got the kids ice cream because it was already really hot. We bought crab cakes and sweet tea, roamed around, looked at some art. The opening processional began to make its way through the park, and here is Benny, dancing by himself to the drums that were marching at the lead.

He has no self consciousness in him, this child. Last month he was dancing by himself to Puttin' On The Ritz in the lobby of the Chrysler. This month to the djembe drums in Town Point Park. Later when we were watching the festivities officially open, he had no problem hollering ASHAE while they were pouring out the libation to the spirits, even though we were standing way back at the treeline, and no one around him was doing it, when the speaker asked us to. He just hollered it right out, and never thought about it. That's what I love about Benny. He does not edit himself based on what other people might think. Of course, sometimes it would be a blessing if he would do this, especially when he's thinking of discussing his gastric processes in Sunday School.

After that, we trotted around and looked at the vendors. Some had travelled long distances and brought amazing clothing and artwork. There were some real treasures mixed in with the usual blow-up Spidermans and Doras. Ahno found a really cool outfit, and we also saw these giraffes that the children really liked looking at:

Then we went home. It was getting really hot, and my redheaded children tend to melt in the midday sun. The festival continues today and tomorrow. You should go. Benny loved it, and you might too.

Friday, May 26, 2006

Zoo Tycoon University

My six year old son is firmly addicted to Zoo Tycoon. It is my policy to allow him almost unlimited access to the things that give him such deep satisfaction, as long as they aren’t made entirely of sugar, don’t involve physical danger to his sister, or come in the shape of a gun or sword. For example, when he was two, I let him repeat certain (cursed) episodes of Elmo, until he was satisfied. Psychologically positive for him. Psychologically damaging for me. But no matter. I was doomed anyway.

Lately, he’s not really into TV. Now it’s all about games. Crash Bandicoot 1, 2, 3, 4, 11, Crash Vs. Sonic, Crash Bandicoot Tricycle Racing, etc. When he is in the throes of obsession with a game, and is allowed to play it a lot, he achieves this kind of zenlike calm in the other aspects of his life. Now, zenlike calm for Benny is another’s child’s neurotic excitement, so it’s not like he’s actually calm, but it makes him a lot easier to deal with in general. In my understanding of it, it’s like giving his brain a hamster wheel to run on, so that he can get rid of all that extra intellectual energy. I could be completely wrong in the head. It’s just how we do things around here. We do actually learn things. Sometimes we even learn things from games. But first we have to become dangerously addicted.

I knew that the game had really taken hold when he was getting dressed and said to me, “Child one is having trouble with the buttons on his shirt.” Later I heard, “Child two is hungry, and can’t find anything to eat.” The game, you see, reports on the various animals in the zoo, and when they’re having trouble, or are unhappy, or have given birth, or something, it gives you a polite message. Now Benny gives me polite messages about his status, in a robotic voice. Useful actually.

Another useful feature is the hand signs he’s using to show me when he’s pleased or displeased. When you do something nice for an animal in your zoo, like giving it foliage from its native habitat or getting it a mate or something, a little green smiley face rises up from its head. If you do something that makes it irritated, like taking away the favored ratio of salt water to deciduous forest terrain, for example, or putting a carnivorous dinosaur in with it, a little red frown face goes up from its head. So now, when Benny is having an emotion, he pumps his arm up and down over his head with his hand cupped into a C – either pointing up in a smile, or pointing down in a frown. Useful. Hey, my child is hyperlexic. If he’s communicating an emotion, no matter how crazy it looks, that’s a plus for me.

Here are some more educational benefits that I’m using to justify… rationalize… explain… defend… my child’s infatuation with this game:

Reading: All the messages, animals, objects, and whatnot in the zoo have to be read, obviously. And this includes some serious words like coniferous and orangutan and sargassum.

Logic: If you want wildebeests and zebras to get along in the same exhibit, you have to balance their desires to create a habitat they can both agree on. If you want baby zebras, that is. And you do. Oh, how you do.

Botany: Which plants go with which terrain and which geographical location? It’s no good putting bamboo in the snow! There are little popup descriptions to help you figure out how to create your perfect exhibit. These contain some kind of scientific information, I’m sure.

Zoology: Obviously. What do the different animals eat, drink, play with, and require in terms of happiness? Where do they live? How do they interact with each other? How many babies do they have?

Multitasking: You have to make sure the guests have enough restrooms, the animals have enough caretakers, the zoo has enough garbage cans, the researching is ongoing, the exhibits are making money, and a million other things, all at once, to create a profitable zoo.

Decision making: The ice cream stand next to the chimps isn’t making money. Should you move it? Close it? Replace it with a hot dog stand? The Japanese Serow is unpopular. Should you get another one and hope they have a baby? Or replace with a moose?

Math: Increase and decrease the price of admission, food, souvenirs. Mess with the staff salaries. Spend more on marketing. Spend less on research. If you increase the admission, will you decrease the number of guests?

Psychology: What do the guests want when they come to the zoo? How can you keep your number of angry guests low? Lots of baby animals, enough rest rooms, no overflowing trash cans, and a well placed frozen yogurt stand… and benches!

There’s a whole lot more to the game, like designing your own marine animal shows, using scientists to hatch dinosaurs from eggs, planting decorative foliage around your zoo, raising and lowering the terrain. Building a playground. Organizing traffic flow. The complexities seem to be nearly endless.

If I were to present all this material to my six-year-old piece by piece, he would never ever grasp it. Nor would he want to. When he sits down to play this game, however, it’s all incidental. He wants the orcas to be happy so they’ll do their tricks, and he loves to see baby chimpanzees. He has been playing this game relentlessly for weeks. Will it get him into college? No. But just think – if he should happen to be put in charge of a hypothetical zoo where you pay everyone at your whim and you can cure a sick animal by waving a syringe around? He’d be so prepared!!!

Is this all one of those grand unschooly rationalizations for spending time playing games instead of slaving over math worksheets? Absolutely! And you know, I just like hearing him say, “Mommy, I made another well-suited rainforest exhibit! Come see!”

Trading Brothers Part 2

Today's experiment didn't go so well, due to small brother's refusal to be lumped in with the stinky baby. So we improvised.

We had it all figured out, all nice and tidy, swapping the brothers to make one group of six-year-olds and one group of two-or-three-year-olds, so everyone could enjoy tidy age-appropriate activities, and have such a tidy wonderful time. Except! Brother #2, of the three-year-old variety, rebelled. He is not charmed with being categorized in the younger group, and wants to be with the older kids. Not even the promise of a trip to the donut store, where any donut could be chosen, purchased, and consumed, would dissuade him. He is not a baby. Remember it. Write it down if necessary. Not a baby.

So, instead of swapping brothers, we did a realignment based on gender. I took the girls and went to the fabulous pet store. If you haven't been to Animal Jungle before, you should go. It's such a good pet store that schools take field trips there. There's a massive indoor koi pond, there are sharks, there are monkeys, there are three-foot-long iguanas, and kittens and rats and a giant blue macaw that hangs upside down, and just all kinds of crazy stuff. Here are the girls looking at chinchillas.

We were lucky (?) enough to see the Asian Water Monitor Lizard Creepy Giant Dragon of Scarification being transferred to one habitat to another. This iinvolved it skittering wildly across the floor, lashing its scaly tail and roaring through its cavernous toothy maw. Okay it just walked mildly across the floor with its mouth shut, and the rest was part of the sudden vision I had at that moment. You try taking a toddler through the reptile room, and see if nothing strange occurs to you! We also got to see the bird show. Apparently, the giant bird with the razor-sharp beak does not like children, and the demonstrated felt like that needed to be said repeatedly. More visions.

Eventually we rejoined the boys at Veronica's house for trampoline jumping, backyard playing, dog wrangling, and eating feta cheese that comes from a sheep. Here are the boys:

A good day. A fine social experiment. And a little improvisation. Next time we're going back to aligning based on age, so the mommies can go for a walk and have an uninterrupted conversation, and the kids take themselves to the aquarium to see an IMAX movie. Now that would be an interesting experiment.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Trading Brothers Part 1

I guess, if you've reached the astonishing age of six years old, you sometimes just want to kick back with other six-year-olds and reap the fruit of all your maturity. You want to take a day, here and there, when you don't have to give little siblings a turn, or modify games so toddlers can play, or wait for babies to catch up.

That's understandable.

We have very good friends with a little girl Benny's age and a little boy Sadie's age. We have been tossing around the idea of brother-swapping, so the big kids can have some play time together that doesn't involve the afore-mentioned atrocities. Today we gave it a shot. It was great!

We met up for swimming at the YMCA. The big kids went to swim with Veronica, and the little ones came with me to the grocery store. The six-year-olds got to go in the hot tub for the first time, since there were no underage siblings to accommodate, got to play Marco Polo with a parent unhindered by a toddler on the hip, and in general were free to play big kid games at their leisure. Spectacular.

The little ones sat charmingly next to each other in my grocery store cart, and got to pick out all their favorite foods to come home and make lunch for everyone when we all met up later.

Tomorrow we're going to try a further experiment, leaving the big kids to jump on Veronica's trampoline without having to be careful of little people for a while, and me taking the little kids on an outing. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

How to Play Badminton

How to play badminton with two small children, a Boston Terrier, and a piece of genuine blue school siding for a net.

Child #1 is on serve.

He serves to child #2 who is two years old and cannot play. She waves her racket around enthusiastically and the birdie lands on the ground.

The Boston Terrier steals the birdie.

Both the children chase the dog, screaming and laughing, as he streaks around the yard with his ears pinned back, completely mad.

Somebody retrieves the birdie. Mom promises to restrain the dog.

The game resumes.

Mom is distracted by something shiny and the dog slithers away. He steals the birdie again.

The children chase him down and after much screaming and laughing get their birdie back. It has had its red head chewed off. The rest of it is in the bushes somewhere, cannot be found. The other birdie is in the racket bag.

The game resumes. Mom promises to really totally pay attention and never let the dog get loose again. The toddler is now feeding him sticks which he earnestly chews into spitty shards. The boy serves again, and makes it over the "net."

What impresses me is their perseverence.

Monday, May 22, 2006

This Book is History

When the laundry pile in the basement is poking you in the chest and asking if you have a problem, it might be time to move to a new house and buy all new clothes. Or...

Today we went for a long walk/stroller ride/bike ride down to Colley Raleigh playground. And ended up staying out in the gorgeous weather for three hours. But we had a good reason.

One of my vague and insubstantiated goals for the "school year" was to finish this giant math book that we got at the homeschool book store. Well, this morning he finished it. The clouds parted, the trumpets sang, and the little baby head that lives in the sun smiled benevolently upon us.

Good things about this book:

1. Lots of practice on each skill. In fact the book takes you through all the skills, all the way through twice. Then again with a tiny review at the end. At the end of this book if you don't know how to add and subtract, you just haven't been paying attention. Sometimes in math you just have to slog through a bunch of reps, so it becomes automatic for you. Not something you bounce of out bed singing about, but a necessary irritation.

2. Lots of pages where you have to figure out the secret coded message. After the tenth one where the secret message was "You are great!" or "You're a star!" it kind of lost its punch, but Benny did enjoy those pages.

Bad things about this book:

1. The pages were all black and white. Seems like a superficial whine, but something about it got a little grim after a while, especially when his other books are more flashy.

2. It says it's for grades 1 and 2, but it doesn't get to borrowing and carrying, or multiplication, at all. Our other grade two book has carrying and borrowing and a preview of multiplying.

The best thing about this book is that it's over! Big black magic marker line through that theoretical entry on my imaginary to-do list. To celebrate, we went on a long bike ride around the neighborhood, got some ice cream at Taste Unlimited on Colley Ave, and went to the playground. A great homeschool kindergarten day: Very very small amount of school, and very large amount of fun.

Giant Step Ahead Math Workbook (Grades 1 - 2)

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Art and Joy at Stockley Gardens

First he likes art, and now he's using his violin to make music instead of to pick his nose, scratch his ankles, and dig little holes in the stage. Next he'll be eating his breakfast with a fork, and wearing his underpants on his butt. What kind of mixed-up crazy world am I living in? Is my child maturing at last? Or is this a phase, and we can go back to the old way next week? You know, the old way, where he played the wrong song at the wrong time and then wandered off the stage to pick a daisy or tell a stranger that he likes Hondas, while the other kids all played Twinkle.

Every time the Arts Festival takes over Stockley Gardens, the Suzuki students of STAHR take over the stage. They are, it cannot be denied, cute. The sight of all those little darlings, sawing away on their fractional violins, is guaranteed to make you smile, if not weep copiously, like I do. I juggle the phone camera and the video camera and the still camera, and the baby stroller, and people say, "When did he start playing?" and I say, "He was three," and they can't believe the violins come that small. Usually Benny gets up and plays his solo backward or falls off the stage or something. This year he was dramatically civilized.

I wish I could say I miss the old days, when other parents thumped me on the back sympathetically and said, "Well, he is very entertaining!" Of course, those days will probably be back. I can't dare to hope we have turned an actual corner. It must be a phase. I won't let myself believe otherwise.

You can't see the Suzuki kids tomorrow, because they already played. But you can go and see the art. Where else can you walk around on a sunny day and view interesting art while eating Ben and Jerry's, or even that difficult looking nightmare chicken part that I saw smoking half-cooked ona giant grill today? It's happening tomorrow until 6pm. It's free, it's fun, and it's probably safe to eat by now! You can bring your dog.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

What Small Boy Doesn't Love Art?

Last fall's trip to the Chrysler Museum climaxed in my son’s declaration that he was going to vomit. He usually claims total health, even in the face of crippling virus, so he won’t miss any of his stuff. He would soldier on, with his head on fire and his stomach exploding, to attend karate for example. I think he’d have to be actually decapitated, to give up on that one. On this occasion, however, he complained, and he was actually looking kind of green. I believe I went so far as to empty one of the baby’s cracker-filled ziplocs in case I needed to enlist its services. Not a good day. He said solemnly that it was caused by, “All the paintings.” Who can say?

Given the outcome of our last trip, I brought it up again with hesitation. But this time was different. I told him, Benny, we’re going to the art museum today, to see the impressionists. And he said, and I quote, “Oh boy! The art museum! Hooray!” It may have been a moment unique in history. It certainly was unique in my experience.

What a change six months can bring about! He sat and gazed at the pictures. He actually utilized those benches you’re supposed to sit on to make your gazing more serene. He pointed out things to me in the pictures, instead of the other way around, and he remembered his favorite painting, the big stripey one in the contemporary section. (Shabazz by Gene Davis) He is convinced he will find a pattern in it. Maybe he will.

To what can I attribute this transformation? Maybe just his age. Maybe he was just in a good mood. Or maybe familiarity breeds respect, and the past trips, taken at a brisk pace, with no pause to reflect or express any discontent, were actually serving a purpose. He recognizes his favorites. He notes new things he hasn't seen before. He looks up at that fabric in the atrium and kind of owns it. He knows it. And really, that makes sense. If he'll watch Wallace and Gromit 47 nights in a row, enjoying each repetition more heartily than the last, wouldn't he also enjoy repetitions of the old masters? Of course.

Here's Benny's copy of Emmanuel Lansyer's "Portrait of Gustave Godard." The Impressionists Gallery on the second floor has a drawing station where you can use crayons, colored pencils, and other tools, along with the paper and clip boards provided, to sit and copy one of the paintings you see. You can view him in the act in the picture at the top of the post. A gentleman we met in the museum had just copied Portrait of Lucy Lee-Robbins, and showed it to Benny, who was inspired.

The point of our trip this time was to say hello and goodbye to the impressionists on their way out, but we also got to see the Masterpieces from an English Country House. Next time, I’ll review that exhibition, and give you some tips for taking children through it, and of course prepping them beforehand so they can anticipate what they will see.