Oct 17 2009

Dishwasher Dilemma

Sometimes De-facto and I work together, professionally.

I’m wary about this because living, loving, and parenting together are hard enough. Adding the vocational dimension is tricky; it could put us over the 24/7 edge. He always rolls his eyes when I say this, but I think it’s important: We each need our own time and place in the sun. And honestly, we’d drive each other crazy if our careers were absolutely inextricable.

But on those occasions when we do get to team up, we do pretty well. We pass the baton back and forth and mix things up a little with our different styles. My favorite part is when he gives his little spiel about patterned thinking. It starts out something like this:

“Humans are actually hard-wired to locate, create, and sustain patterns. It’s part of our survival. The brain is a pattern-making machine.”

He goes on to support this with a little bit of scientific research, a few diagrams of the human brain and a little exercise that people always flub up because they get too caught in a pattern they think they see but isn’t really there. It’s a good set-up for raising awareness about the assumptions we make on a day-to-day basis, in order to free them up to break patterns and try to be a bit more creative. While he’s making his case for breaking patterns, he reminds us why we have them to begin with:

“The human brain uses patterns, structures or routines – cognitive scientists call these mental models – to make us more effective and efficient.”

This is the part where I usually have to leave the room or look down at the floor so I don’t laugh out loud what I’m thinking in that moment which is, “You mean all human brains except for yours.”

Ours is a relatively egalitarian household. We share chores, more or less in equal measure. We never actually sat down and divided the jobs, they just ended up falling into the hands of the one who seemed to care the most or had the aptitude for a particular task. I deal with the administration and paperwork. He is Vice-President of renting-a-car. Most mornings I get the kids up and dressed and fed. He makes the morning walk with them to school. I load the dishwasher, and he unloads it. I manage the laundry, because I’m particular about which clothes go in the dryer and which don’t. He does the grocery shopping, because he hates to waste money and prefers to buy in bulk from the The Ed, the cheap grocery store that I find too exasperating to even enter. He enjoys negotiating the best deal for produce in at the street market. While I find open markets a romantic place to look and stroll, my experience of shopping at them is agonizing.

Not that our assignments are written in indelible ink. Sometimes I pick up groceries or walk the girls to school. Sometimes he does a piece of household admin or loads the dishwasher with dirty dishes.
dishwasher
The loading of this appliance, I’ve found, can be satisfying. I relish getting in as many dishes as possible, whilst maintaining optimum cleaning capacity. This equilibrium is essential. Too few dishes haphazardly placed on the racks, and you run an inefficient wash, wasting money and energy. Too many dishes and they don’t get really clean, you have to leave them in for a second wash or do them by hand. You have to strike the right balance.

It’s not rocket science. Plates down below, from the side to center, big dinner and then smaller luncheon plates, followed by saucers. Coffee pot and tall glasses on the tall spokes. Pots and pans or big bowls strategically placed around these mainstays. On the top rack, café-au-lait bowls tucked under the fold-down flap on the side, allowing for shallower accessory bowls and short glasses to rest on top of them. Cups, mugs and other glasses filling up the rest of the upper rack. And in all cases, load from back to front.

Listen, I’m no neatnik. Open my closets and things fall out. I have photo albums from 2003 that haven’t been assembled. My life is filled with colorful piles and partially-finished, imaginative messes; I like a certain amount of organized disarray around me. But when it comes to the dishwasher, well, I figure my strategy saves money and helps the environment. (Honestly, I’ve reconfigured one of his loads and cleared half the space, putting off a dishwasher run for 24-hours.) But when De-facto loads the dishwasher, it makes no sense whatsoever. He has a pattern, I suppose, but it’s a rather pathetic one.

Well, you may say, his job isn’t to load the dishes, it’s to unload. But wouldn’t you think that after years of unloading a dishwasher that’s so precisely arranged, he might notice some kind of a pattern? We’ve lived together for nearly ten years. He’s probably unloaded that dishwasher at least 2,000 but probably more like 3,000 times. Wouldn’t your pattern-recognition machine pick up something?


Aug 3 2009

Random Evolution

It’s hard to believe, sometimes, that my two daughters came out of the same womb. At first glance, their blue eyes and blonde heads – and their complete familiarity with each other – make it obvious that they’re sisters. But spend some time with them, and you’d find they might as well have crawled out of
Shortpants_listtwo entirely different gene pools. It’s a real case for nature over nurture.

Short-pants says things like, “When you’re old, I promise to take care of you.” She even wrote, voluntarily, a list of things to do when Mama and Papa are too old which includes the tasks of making breakfast, buying what we need, earning money and doing everything we ask her to do. It’s enough to actually make you look forward to getting old.

Buddy-roo, on the other hand, approaches aging differently. She asks the question, “When you die, can I have that necklace?”

I don’t mean to paint Buddy-roo as jewelry-grubbing hound. Except she is a material girl and she’s very aware of the material world. Not that she is unkind or impolite; on the contrary, she is lovely and funny and sweet. Her requests are innocent. She’s just a wee bit demanding, especially when it has to do with things and having them. No amount of parental re-programming seems to have been able to counter this innate trait of hers. She is the poster child for the economy of obsolescence.

The other day I stopped in front of a store to admire a dress, a sequined little number that glistened in the window. “Do you like it mama?” she asked. “Yes,” I said, “It’s pretty wow, isn’t it?” “Why don’t you buy it?” she asked. “I don’t have to buy it,” I answered, spotting a opportunity for a teaching moment, “I can just admire it and appreciate how beautiful it is every time I pass the store window.” Short-pants chimed in, “It’s true, we don’t have to have things to enjoy them.”

“But why don’t you buy it, mama?” I tried to explain again, but she persisted. “You should buy it now, mama. It will look too beautiful on you.” She found it incomprehensible that my attraction to the dress didn’t include an immediate aspiration to purchase it.

Does this come from me? It certainly doesn’t come from De-facto, who hasn’t bought himself a new piece of clothing since the late ‘90s. All I could think to do was stare at her.

“And when you’re tired of wearing that dress,” she said, “you can give it to me.”

Last week I was sequestered, more or less, with a gang of mathematicians and scientists who were charged with generating ideas for research projects under the subject heading Maths of Life. (As a passport-carrying American, I’m more inclined to say math, but being on this side of the Atlantic, I went with the European usage.) This particular workshop brought together the domains of maths and biology, asking a collected brain trust to think about the application of mathematics (oh, it is plural after all) to better understand – or even to accelerate – evolution. They were throwing about words like genes and genomes and genotypes and phenotypes. And stochastic. This was a word I heard a lot. Stochastic means, according to one of the maths experts, the incorporation of randomness.
helix_model
Oh but don’t I witness this at home! How much of whom my little creatures have become is simply the incorporation of a random combination of genetic codes? The strange splitting and mixing of De-facto’s chromosomes with mine, the seemingly random and yet stunningly deliberate mix of our DNA creates a humbling little piece of evolution. In this case, the continuation of a surname, born out in two very distinguished pathways.

When we returned home after being away for a week, Short-pants complained about our absence. I reminded her that sometimes her Papa and I have to go away to work, to earn money to keep our household going, to have food to eat, clothes to wear, so we can do cool things like take music and theater classes and travel to interesting places.

“But why don’t we just sell some of the things we own?” she asked, “Then you wouldn’t have to go to work and we could all stay home together, all the time.”

Buddy-roo, on the other hand, greeted us with a different sentiment than her sister. She poked through my suitcase, pretending to help me unpack. And then, when she couldn’t stand it anymore:

“Didn’t you bring me home a present?”


Mar 12 2009

The Assignment II

As I write this post, Short-pants is probably standing in front of her class, side-by-side with her two little colleagues, transmitting her recently honed expertise on the history of Paris. Yes, today is the exposé.

A few readers have actually inquired about the status of this assignment, which I chronicled here, so I suppose an update is in order.

Last weekend the triumvirate was assembled; Short-pants and the two boys she’s been teamed with got together to hammer out the details of their presentation. This project has had more than a few hiccups. We made no progress during the winter break. It was an arduous task to find a time when all three students and mothers could coordinate a meeting. This pushed us to the last minute. On top of that, further dialogue with the teacher revealed that the topic was not exactly the history of Paris, as we’d thought, but the gargoylehistory of Paris’ quartiers. I’m not sure what that means: how Paris came to have its little neighborhoods? Or how the nautilus of arrondissements spiraled out into what it is today? That all three mothers failed to notice this distinction in the original assignment is another satisfying indicator that I am not alone in my failings. The other mothers didn’t think it was a problem to ignore this little detail, since the kids had already bought into the idea of telling Paris’ history through famous monuments. A part of me thinks we should have readjusted; we hadn’t made much progress down the other track. But another part of me just wanted to be done with this thing. You can guess which part won that debate.

Assembled around the table, we became a study in contrasts. Edgar had already written up a 3-page report on the Eiffel Tower. Even I was intimidated by his even, deliberate handwriting on the pages of feuille quadrillée (graph paper). He’d also underlined the headings with different colored felt-tip pens. Impressive. Lucas and his mother brought a variety of colorful cards on weighty paper stock and a roll of light-brown craft paper, with an idea for the visual component of the presentation. Short-pants, well, let’s just say she’d had a lesson in Wikipedia.

Going to a French public library was just too much for me to fathom. I’m no stranger to French bureaucratic services; I’ve done my time waiting in line at the préfecture. But it’s been a cold, bleak, winter. I just couldn’t face another functionnaire.

Besides, I’m not convinced that honing the children’s library skills isn’t a bit like teaching them to speak a dead language. Sure it’s nice to know, but will they use it? I can still picture the card catalogue in my high school library, a boxy wooden piece of furniture. And those little labels, typed on the secretary’s Corona and inserted into the tiny square frame on the front of each of its long drawers. You’d flip through the index cards, worn and dirty from years of fingering by semi-curious students, all the while repeating, like a mantra, the title or author you were actually looking for, half the time forgetting and having to start over. All this to find one book, so you could look at its bibliography in order to do it all over again to get another book.
arc_de_triopmhe
I’m not saying that knowing how to research in a library isn’t important. Or maybe I am. If Short-pants becomes a serious scholar in need of original historical texts, no doubt she’ll be forced to develop her library skills. But even that’s not certain: a friend doing PhD level research at the Bibliotèque Nationale told me he wasn’t allowed in the stacks. He was pointed to a computer connected to the library system and told to write down the titles he wanted. This list was then handed to a smug librarian, who disappeared, returning 20 minutes later with his requested books.

If you have time (an hour), it’s really worth watching the video of this lecture, A Portal to Media Literacy, by Michael Wesch. He’s an Assistant Professor of Cultural Anthropology and Digital Ethnographer at Kansas State University and the same guy who produced the famous (and much shorter) video about Web 2.0, The Machine is Us/ing Us. Wesch wants us to test the assumptions we make about teaching students in today’s digitally powered world. Our education system was invented in a different century; it might be obsolete. This is why I believe developing a skill-set for researching on the internet is important.

Or maybe I was just too lazy to take Short-pants to the library.
notre_dame
Prior to this meeting of the troika, we spent about an hour Googling her monuments. She seemed to like Wikipedia the best. I explained the whole Wiki phenomenon. “Really?” she said, “Anybody can add whatever they know about Notre Dame?” That didn’t sit right with her. “Yeah,” I said, “that’s why you always have to double check the facts.” I’m sure I’ll be having this conversation with her again a few hundred times during her scholastic life.

We printed out a several pages of information for each monument. We read through them together and then I asked her what she thought were the key points to put in her report. She wasn’t sure. We read them again. She shrugged. “Well, let’s not get too far ahead before we meet with the others,” I said, sliding the printed pages in a folder. Then I had a beer.

Later I asked De-facto if he thought Short-pants ought to be able to read a few paragraphs and then summarize, or if I was expecting too much. “In my experience,” he said, “7-year olds usually plagiarize.”

The craft-paper is being put to use to create a large map of Paris, with its quartiers (aha!) outlined in dark ink. We used the colored cards to draw a notre_dame_pinkpicture of each monument (six in total), to be tacked on this map at the start of each oral report. Each child has composed his or her own texts to read. The teacher wrote in the initial assignment, “you may help them research, but do not do the work in their place.” That’s a tall order. I spent every evening this week nudging and prodding her along. I did my best not to help.

This morning, Short-pants was giddy. I asked her if she wanted to practice her presentation or just wing it. She wanted to test it out on us. Standing tall and straight, she held her notes in one hand, waving the other for emphasis. De-facto, who goes to Toastmasters, coached her a little about remembering to look at the audience, about timing, and how and when to pass out the photographs (downloaded from Google Images). She was receptive to his suggestions.

At the door, I buttoned her coat, and gave her a big good-luck hug.
“I’m excited,” she said, “and a little nervous.”
“Nervous is okay,” I said, repeating some advice my father gave me more than once, “it means you respect your audience.”
“Oh, I do,” she said.
Then she turned and headed down the stairs.


Feb 28 2009

Ordered to Read

“Pick-up!” This was one of the mantras my mother was forced to repeat throughout my childhood. She spent a fair amount of her valuable time and breath telling us to put things away. It seemed ridiculous to me, when clearly it was just going to get messy again. Tomorrow toys would be pulled off of their shelves, shoes pulled from the closet, blankets unfolded and draped over the TV-trays to recreate the same cave I’d played in today. But she was insistent.

On Fridays, when the cleaning woman came, I found this request to be especially futile. Why would we hire someone to clean our house, and then clean it ourselves before she comes? When I shared this rationale with my mother, she dished out some mumbo-jumbo about how picking up is different than cleaning. Two tasks that, to me, seemed indistinguishable from each other. I did as she asked, but not without shrugging, grumbling, and promising myself I would never terrorize my children with this prodding to pick up all the time.
mess

This promise I have broken, again and again, since my children could understand the spoken word. Not only do I ask them to pick up, I use the exact same language as my mother. Yesterday, before our cleaning guy arrived, I found a big mess upstairs. Then I heard these words coming out of my very own mouth: “I pay him to clean the house, not to pick up after you.”

Oh, fate laughs so cruelly at me.

But, it turns out, as much as I may be annoying my children (and planting seeds for the further annoyance of their children), all this business about picking up could be helping them learn to read! Researchers at Columbia University Teacher’s College and Ohio State University conducted a study to measure the associations between household chaos and early childhood reading skills. (Who thought this up?) The results are noted in an article called “Order in the House!”

If you think that once my house is all picked up I spend my spare time reading academic journals, guess again. I stumbled upon this via Slate columnist Emily Bazelon, who does a nice job of condensing the results of the research in her recent article, “Messy House, Messy Minds.”

The researchers created two groups based on the mothers’ reading skills: above-average and average. The participants in each group were asked about their reading habits with their children, and then the mothers were also asked about how ordered things are at home, probing for responses to statements like “It’s a real zoo in our home,” “The children have a regular bedtime routine,” and “We are usually able to stay on top of things.”

Bazelon notes:

A shout-out to all my endearingly, creatively messy friends (but not to my husband, who still shouldn’t leave his shoes in the middle of the front hall): It’s clear that by an “ordered home,” [the researchers] do not mean a spotlessly neat and clean one.

I appreciate her important clarification, and I second the comment (are you reading, De-facto?) about leaving shoes in the middle of the hall.

The take-away from this research:

Results suggest that the degree of household order is significantly and positively associated with early reading skills among children whose mothers are of above-average reading ability. These results suggest the potential for new approaches to encouraging literacy development in the home.

Aha! A point for merging the desired aesthetics of my adult life with the vigorous imagination of my children. Now I’ve got a new angle. The longer I can keep the new couch in clean condition, the more they’ll read, and the better their chances of going to Harvard Brown.

Short-pants and Buddy-roo, reading at Shakespeare & Company last summer

Short-pants and Buddy-roo, reading at Shakespeare & Company last summer


Jan 25 2009

Theory and Practice

welcome_to_your_brain
This is a book I can’t wait to delve into: Welcome to Your Brain: Why You Lose Your Car Keys but Never Forget How to Drive and Other Puzzles of Everyday Life. The two neuroscientists who authored it claim it’s a “user’s guide for brain owners.”

I haven’t read the book yet, it’s on De-facto’s side of the bed. He’s a relentless reader; even if he’s not enjoying the book he’ll slog through it until it’s done. I’m waiting for him to finish.

Last night he read a passage to me, about researching happiness. The authors explain that with most psychological research, the answer you get depends on the question you ask.

“When women were asked to list the activities that they particularly enjoyed overall, ‘spending time with my kids’ topped the list. In contrast, when other researchers asked women to describe how they felt during each of their activities the previous day, the average positive rating given to interacting with children indicated that this activity is roughly as rewarding as doing housework or answering e-mail. This finding suggests that women find their children more rewarding in theory than in practice, at least on a moment-to-moment basis.”

This is it. No matter how much you try to be the ideal, engaged parent, taking the kids to the science museum, devising creative projects with the construction paper and empty egg cartons, spontaneously suggesting fun (“hey, who wants to jump on the bed?”), the truth is that an inordinate amount of our time – most of it – is spent nudging and cajoling these small uncooperative creatures along. We’re constantly asking them to do something that they aren’t inclined to do. Please get dressed, finish your zucchini, do your homework, pick-up, wash, flush, and brush. It’s one long string of requests and commands after another. It wears you down and makes it hard to be happy about hanging out with them.

When it comes to enjoying time with your kids, you have to be proactive or else get sucked into the vortex of being a nag or a grump.

De-facto’s really smart about this. He actively seeks out activities that both he and the kids like to do. The city constructed a free ice-rink in front of the Hotel de Ville; he’s all over that. (Actually, I’m not sure if it’s because he loves to skate or because it’s free.) He gets the kids out of the house, he makes it fun for them, and he has fun himself.

I, too, try to do the things I like to do and invite my girls to appreciate the them with me. This is why one of my daughters had added “barfly” to her lengthy list of middle names. It’s also why the whole family had such a great afternoon participating my favorite winter activity: eating oysters. Check it out:

Casks at the Baron Rouge

Wine casks at the Baron Rouge

The oyster feast

The oyster feast


Buddy_roo considers trying one.

Buddy-Roo considers trying one


After oysters

After oysters