Category Archives: children

Road trip to totality

My kids both wanted to see the eclipse and I said “that sounds fun but it’s too far” and I kept thinking about it and thinking about it and finally, Saturday night, I looked inward and asked myself is there really a reason we can’t do this? And the answer was no.  Or rather the answer was “it might be the case that it’s totally impossible to find a place to sleep in the totality zone within 24 hours for a non-insane amount of money, and that would be a reason” so I said, if I can get a room, we’re going.  Hotel Tonight did the rest.  (Not the first time this last-minute hotel app has saved my bacon, by the way.  I don’t use it a lot, but when I need it, it gets the job done.)

Notes on the trip:

  • We got to St. Louis Sunday night; the only sight still open was my favorite one, the Gateway Arch.  The arch is one of those things whose size and physical strangeness a photo really doesn’t capture, like Mt. Rushmore.  It works for me in the same way a Richard Serra sculpture works; it cuts the sky up in a way that doesn’t quite make sense.
  • I thought I was doing this to be a good dad, but in fact the total eclipse was more spectacular than I’d imagined, worth it in its own right.  From the photos I imagined the whole sky going nighttime dark.  But no, it’s more like twilight. That makes it better.  A dark blue sky with a flaming hole in it.
  • Underrated aspect:  the communality of it all.  An experience now rare in everyday life.  You’re in a field with thousands of other people there for the same reason as you, watching the same thing you’re watching.  Like a baseball game!  No radio call can compare with the feeling of jumping up with the crowd for a home run.  You’re just one in an array of sensors, all focused on a sphere briefly suspended in the sky.
  • People thought it was going to be cloudy.  I never read so many weather blogs as I did Monday morning.  Our Hotel Tonight room was in O’Fallon, MO, right at the edge of the totality.  Our original plan was to meet Patrick LaVictoire in Hermann, west of where we were.  But the weather blogs said south, go south, as far as you can.  That was a problem, because at the end of the day we had to drive back north.  We got as far as Festus.  There were still three hours to totality and we thought it might be smart to drive further, maybe even all the way to southern Illinois.  But a guy outside the Comfort Inn with a telescope, who seemed to know what he was doing, told us not to bother, it was a crapshoot either way and we weren’t any better off there than here.  I always trust a man with a telescope.
  • Google Maps (or the Waze buried within Google Maps) not really adequate to handle the surge of traffic after a one-time event.  Its estimates for how long it would take us to traverse I-55 through southern Illinois were … unduly optimistic.  Google sent us off the highway onto back roads, but here’s the thing — it sent the same suggestion to everyone else, which meant that instead of being in a traffic jam on the interstate we were in a traffic jam on a gravel road in the middle of a cornfield.  When Google says “switch to this road, it’ll save you ten minutes,” does it take into account the effect of its own suggestion, broadcast to thousands of cars in the same jam?  My optimization friends tell me this kind of secondary prediction is really hard.  It would have been much better, in retrospect, for us to have chosen a back road at random; if everybody injected stochasticity that way, the traffic would have been better-distributed, you have to figure.  Should Google build that stochasticity into its route suggestions?
  • It became clear around Springfield we weren’t going to get home until well after midnight, so we stopped for the night in David Foster Wallace’s hometown, Normal, IL, fitting, considering we did a supposedly fun thing that turned out to be an actual fun thing which we will hardly ever have the chance to, and thus may never, do again.

 

 

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Robin laid a gun

OK here’s a weird piece of kid culture AB brought home:

Jingle bells, Batman smells

Robin laid a gun

Shot a tree and made it pee in 1981

This dates back at least to 2007 apparently.

It scans and rhymes very nicely but makes so sense at all.  What can it mean?

It seems like we are witnessing a kind of cultural hybrid; the “Jingle bells / Batman smells” of my childhood has here combined with a “Jingle bells / shotgun shells” tradition I was unaware of until now, which is actually older than the Batman version.  A lot of the “shotgun shells” versions found online involve Santa meeting his death in a hail of bullets, but “shot a tree and made it pee” is not uncommon.  I wonder how many utterly nonsensical kids rhymes we know are actually hybrids of different songs, each of which at some point sort of made sense?

 

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Double standards in baby names

People love to make fun of George Foreman because he named all his sons George Foreman.  But former Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger named all his sons Lawrence Eagleburger and nobody raises a peep!  There’s no justice.

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Math!

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I really like talking with AB about arithmetic and her strategies for doing problems.  All this Common Core stuff about breaking up into hundreds and tens and ones that people like to make fun of?  That’s how she does things.  She can describe her process a lot more articulately than most grownups can, because it’s less automatic for her.  I learn a lot about how to teach math by watching her learn math.

Farting princess

Not gonna lie, AB is into talking about farts.  She’s 5, she likes farts, that’s how it is.  We have a new thing where she is the “farting princess” and whenever she farts I say

Well done, your farting majesty!”

and if she farts again,

“All the farting kingdom is enjoying your royal fart!”

She also likes “The Monster Mash” so I wrote a fart-centered take on this song which she really enjoys.  Lyrics follow.

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“Losers often grow up to be writers”

My first cousin once removed Marilyn Sachs, on writing:

One final word of encouragement to those of you who are cowardly, cry babies, and liars, as I was. These are extremely promising qualities for future writers. If you are a coward, you will probably spend more time at the library than you would ordinarily, and if you tell lies, it just shows that you have an imagination even if others don’t always appreciate it. Cry babies tend to be sensitive, which is also a plus for writers. When I grew up, I found that I had become a great expert on bullies, and my books are full of them.

So, don’t feel you have to be smart, beautiful, brave and popular to become a writer. Or even to be a good speller. Losers often grow up to be writers, which means we have the final word.

Her books are mostly for kids.  Have you read them, parents?  Some of the classics:  Laura’s Luck (1965), my favorite alienated-kids-at-summer-camp book.  The Fat Girl (1984), a truly creepy YA novel about brutal psychosexual guerilla war in high school.  The Bear’s House (1972).  I remember almost nothing about this but just hearing the title makes me choke up so I know it was really sad.

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Those other parents

You know those other parents?  The ones who drive their kid the four blocks to school in their SUV?  The ones who sued the school district because their kid wasn’t labeled gifted?  The ones whose children are scheduled every minute of every day?  The ones who don’t let their kids watch Star Wars because they might find the violence upsetting?  The ones who insist that school snacks are free of gluten, genetically modified organisms, and genetically modified gluten?

How are their kids going to turn out?

As emotionally able, as complex, as kind, as outgoing, as open to experience as our kids.  That’s how.

 

Strawberries and Cream

I discovered yesterday, three nested directories down in my math department account, that I still had a bunch of files from my last desktop Mac, which retired in about 2003. And among those files were backups from my college Mac Plus, and among those files were backups from 3 1/4″ discs I used on the family IBM PC in the late 1980s. Which is to say I have readable text files of almost every piece of writing I produced from age 15 through about 25.

Very weird to encounter my prior self so directly. And surprising that so much of it is familiar to me, line by line. I can see, now, who I liked to rip off: Raymond Carver, a lot. Donald Barthelme. There’s one poem where I’m pretty sure I was going for “mid-80s Laurie Anderson lyrics.” Like everyone else back then I was really into worrying about nuclear war. I produced two issues of a very mild-mannered underground newspaper called “Ground Zero” with a big mushroom cloud on the front, for the purpose of which my pseudonym was “Bogus Librarian.” (I really liked Bill and Ted’s. Still do, actually.) Anyway, there’s a nuclear war story in this batch, which ends like this: “And the white fire came, and he wept no more.” Who is “he”? The President, natch.

But actually what I came here to include is the first thing I really remember writing, which is a play, called “Strawberries and Cream.”  I wrote it for Harold White’s 9th grade English class.  The first time I met Mr. White he said “Who’s your favorite author?” and I said “I don’t know, I don’t think I had one,” and he said, “Well, that’s terrible, everyone should have a favorite author,” and I probably should have felt bullied but instead felt rather adult and taken seriously.

A central element of his English class was writing imitations of writers, one in each genre.  So I wrote an imitation John Cheever story, and I think an imitation Edna St. Vincent Millay poem (I can’t find this one, tragically.) But the thing Mr. White asked me to read that really sang to me was The Bald Soprano.  Was it that obvious, from the outside, that it was mid-century Continental absurdism I was lacking?  Or was it just a lucky guess?

Anyway:  below the fold, please enjoy “Strawberries and Cream,” the imitation Eugene Ionesco play I wrote when I was 15.

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Bad lesson

From the New York Times, “Why You Should Tell Your Children How Much You Make”:

When Scott Parker wanted his six offspring to know more about the value of money, he decided to do something that many parents would consider radical: show them exactly what he earned.

One day, he stopped by his local Wells Fargo branch in Encinitas, Calif., and asked to withdraw his entire monthly salary in cash. In singles. It took 24 hours for the tellers to round up that many bills, so he returned the next day and took away the $100 stacks in a canvas bag.

His oldest son, Daniel, who was 15 at the time, remembers the moment his father walked into the house and dumped the $10,000 or so on a table. “It looked like he had robbed a bank,” he said.

Parker was trying to teach his kids a lesson about the value of money.  But the lesson I would learn from this is “If somebody, like a bank teller, works in a service job, and makes a lot less money than I do, I can make them spend a full day of their life carrying out an incredibly tedious task without thinking about whether this is a reasonable way for them to spend their time.”

 

 

 

 

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Death to the 529 / long live the 529

Obama flip-flops faster than I can blog!  Prezzo has already walked back his proposal to change the 529 college-saving tax break, but I have a post about it queued up, and by gum I’m gonna publish it.

Here’s the plan that just got shelved.  From now on, capital gains on contributions you stow in a 529 plan won’t be tax free anymore — they’ll just be tax-deferred, as with a retirement plan.  In essence, it takes away a tax break whose benefit flows predominantly to high-income families (some 529 money is held by middle-income parents, but under Obama’s plan the $500 or so they’d lose on their 529 was more than offset by an AOTC expansion.)

OK, this Congress is as likely to roll back a tax break for high earners as they are to rename Reagan National Airport after Pete Seeger, so this isn’t actually happening, but I’m just saying, that’s the plan.

People are mad, and feel like they’ve been bait-and-switched. My FB feed, populated by dutiful savers like me, is full of ire. Mark Kantrowitz, in the New York Times:

He went as far as saying that the proposal could be characterized as a broken promise. “People saved money in 529 plans because of the expectation that the favorable tax treatment would continue,” he said.

But why does the New York Times let Mark Kantrowitz say this when it’s plainly not true? I saved money in a 529 plan. And the favorable tax treatment for that money will continue. When I take it out, I won’t pay a dime on any capital gains.

For money I put in later, it’s another story. But so what? If something’s on sale today, nobody’s breaking a promise to me when it’s not on sale tomorrow. I guess it’s strictly true that the proposal “could be characterized as a broken promise.” But it would be better to say it “could be characterized as a broken promise by people who don’t mind characterizing things as different things.”

A broken promise would look more like a state government defaulting on money it owes the thousands of middle-class taxpayers whose pensions it mismanaged.

 

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