Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Put Down the Barbeque Fork

It’s a good thing the kids all went back to school today because I was getting very close to poking each one of them with a barbeque fork and yelling, “For God’s sake, get out of the house for an hour; you’re sucking up all my AIR!” Between snow days, sick days, and holidays, I haven’t had an instant alone for over a week, and that makes me twitchy.

It’s been hard enough adjusting to having Spawn around at all the wrong times – home in the morning and gone at night, what with his college and work hours – but having the other two wheezing, sneezing, watching lame TV shows, and drinking up all the orange juice has been a little jarring. It’s a lot easier to feel generously loving when they’re regularly gone for a little while – it puts a dab of healing time over the scratch of annoying quirks, probably on both sides.

I know there are lots of people who need to be with other people, even in crowds or public areas where they don’t know anyone, or they feel lonely or uneasy. I’m not that way. I’ve always liked silence and time alone. Loneliness is not an inevitable result of being without company for me, and sufficient time alone is something I’ve missed since I got married.

When I first got married, it seemed like the universe had increased in volume overnight; like there was some strange white noise machine that was suddenly amplified just beyond my tolerance level, and I couldn’t focus or concentrate as well any more. Part of it was simply due to living with another human being who expected attention and had his own personal noises of existence during my previous quiet hours, and part of it was the effect that sharing a life had on my inner ability to cultivate silence and contemplation.

It took a while for me to consciously zero in on what was causing me to feel fractured and what I should do about it, and it took more time for me to get the point across to my husband that I was not being hostile, I just needed some time to be alone. I don’t think that he really gets it now, as he is one of those people who needs constant company, but he seems to accept that I need privacy occasionally.

Babies, toddlers, and small children don’t get it either. I think it has to do with the whole egocentric universe they inhabit -- if they want company, their company is wanted in their minds, and any other choice is aberrant and hurtful and wrong. It was really hard to give up the enormous load of self-disgust and maternal guilt that I larded onto myself for wanting to get away from my children, and it took longer than it should have for me, but I’m glad I did it. I found that doing so was yet another lesson my kids needed to learn and have made good use of.

Teenagers, though, understand it, possibly because they want to be independent of their families and spending their social time with peers, not parents. So, they understand going into a room and closing the door, and they feel fully justified in sounding resentful and annoyed when someone interrupts their private time. They rarely feel guilty for wanting to be apart from family members, a lesson I understand differently from this side of that teenager’s door.

When I have time alone, I can rest emotionally, drift a little, and begin to listen to the sounds of my own existence. I know that we are never really alone, but we can be without the intrusions of others, or the possibility of intrusion by others, and that’s pretty much the same. As I sit here now, pausing between sentences, I can think about what my own life sounds like.

I hear clocks ticking, and that makes me want to watch dust motes traveling on sunbeams. My parrot is thoughtfully picking through his seed dish and clicking his beak, almost the way someone would sigh or hum or tap a finger on a tabletop. I can hear the computer drive giving an occasional rumble, which is eerily like the sounds of digestion, auditory symbolism; there’s a sound of thermal change, contraction or expansion in some metal work near the windows, pinging. My fingernails chime on my coffee cup when I put it down after taking a sip. I can hear the sighing breath of melting snow, half in relief, half in annoyance, as if the phase change is slightly unwelcome but understood to be fated. This is my flotsam time, when I drift on the tide and don’t ask why or where.

I know that in the next moment, I’ll start driving my life again, in stages. Maybe I’ll start by thinking some soothing philosophical thought which is not necessarily deep or profound, but has a possibility of an answer, and that will change to thinking about my family members and myself, and then to time, and then to chores, and the noise and needs of the business of living will reoccupy my thoughts and cancel out the sounds from merely being in the moment.

Which is OK, too, because I’ve just realized I have TWO barbeque forks, just in case.

Oddball Word of the Day

ubiety (yoo-BUY-ih-tea) n. the state of being in a definite place

(from the MMMW, edited by Laurence Urdang)

Friday, February 16, 2007

Five Types of Parents…

…Of Kids I Tutor

I’ve been tutoring off and on over the last 34 years. Since I’m 47, that may seem a little odd, but I was a peer and near peer tutor in school, too. When I went on to college, I tutored for pocket money, and since college, I’ve tutored for pocket money, out of pity, out of a sense of public duty, to further good relations with schools, and sometimes out of boredom. I’ll even admit to a couple of rounds of tutoring due to morbid fascination and/or sheer cussed determination.

There are all kinds of students who need tutoring – some don’t have the hardware, so to speak, to do the work they’re asked to do. The teachers know it, the kid knows it, and sometimes the parent knows it, but the system requires it. Other kids have the hardware, but their software got corrupted somewhere, and other kids have spent so much time sliding by or not caring that it has finally caught up to them and they are seriously in the soup. Sometimes really questionable teaching has derailed them. There are lots of reasons why kids may need an academic helping hand.

More consistent are types of parents. I probably haven’t really listed all of the ones I know here, but it’s time for Friday Fives, and it’s my blog. (snort)

1. Uninvolved and Don’t Care: These are usually the parents of the kids I get referred to me by the school system and teachers. The parents are usually unable to help their child due to circumstances of a pretty wide variety, and they never contact me. The kids never mention that their parents ask about their school day, how the tutoring is going, the parent never enters into the equation unless they have been abusive, which will cause problems for the kid academically, and it shows when I meet with them. These kids tend to confide in me, particularly if I’ve been working with them for a while, and that puts me in a sticky spot. Teachers don’t hear from the parents either.

2. Clueless But Proactive: These parents call me for private tutoring. It’s almost always for math, and the problem is not just that they don’t understand the new curricula or new theories, it’s that they didn’t get the whole concept the first time around when THEY were in school, so they are unable to help their own kids. They are usually earnestly apologetic, very fluttery and worried, and sometimes they will hover around to make sure that I know what I’m doing.

They’re kind of cute sometimes, too – I can spot them eavesdropping, and after the session, they’ll say something like, “Holy cow! If someone had explained it to ME like that, I might not be so dumb in math!” I always offer to have them sit in and learn along with their child, but they never do. I have had some call me on the QT and ask for math lessons for things like getting a real estate license or other certification that requires basic math, but we always do it sort of secretively, so that no one knows they needed help. These are very sweet people, and they’re usually very loving, caring parents.

3. Enablers: Kids will try to get away with just as much laziness as they can, and these parents let them do it. These folks always have some excuse for why Freddy or Sally is having so much trouble – he has too many sports activities, he’s upset over the move, over the divorce, we just stopped home schooling him last year, and it turns out he’s YEARS behind (no surprise there!), he’s afraid of his teacher, he doesn’t like riding the bus so we’re letting him study at home this year, etc., etc., etc.

What it really boils down to is that the kid is has more will power than the parent – the kid whines and wails and rolls in the floor in a great show of helplessness and despair worthy of an Oscar, and Mom (it’s almost always Mom) falls for it. The kid is usually perfectly capable of learning the material, and would do so easily if put back in school and given a suitable environment at home in which to study. That’s where the problem really is – in the home; the homes are invariably chaotic and disorganized, characterized by noise, interruptions, petty questioning, lack of patience, and interference. It’s not the kid who has the problem, it’s the parent. These situations rarely work out – the kid exerts more guilt power, or the parent doesn’t like having the door to the study room shut for an hour and keeps interrupting, and when no magical osmotic learning occurs during their short attention durations, they all give up.

I have no problem taking these people’s money. I have no problem answering the school district’s questions honestly when the parents try to use me as a referral without consulting me, either.

4. Stress Monkey Overachievers: The parent, usually a professional and a father, calls me up, absolutely on the edge of an angry breakdown of some sort. “My kid is in XXX private academy, and he’s never had problems in XXX before, but he’s getting a B in it now! Can you help? He HAS to have an A or he won’t get into (insert Ivy League college name)! He has a test next Tuesday, can you have him up to speed by then?” I usually refuse these jobs unless the kid himself convinces me that HE wants to be tutored, and I’m easy-going enough to tutor the kid who wants to get Dad off his back, too, I just won’t help Dad railroad some perfectly OK kid who missed a decimal point on his last quiz.

It usually takes three sessions – one to put the kid at ease and solve whatever small problem is at issue, one to build the kid’s confidence in asking for help in school from the teacher and other pupils (they’ve usually been so crushed under Dad’s ego needs that they’re afraid asking for help is going to make Dad go into a rage over the kid’s incompetence), and a third one with kid and both parents to calm Dad down and get his approval (in front of the kid) for the sane course of getting help at school. I always leave the door open for them to call me back if there’s another need, and there has only been one callback in all these years.

5. Hostile: The parent calls me because someone else told them they really needed a tutor for their kid. They spend the first call explaining to me why I’m unnecessary, how put upon they are, that the kid just won’t try, that the kid won’t listen to the parent or the kid wouldn’t need tutoring, and what incredible buttinskis grandparents, spouses, neighbors and parents of kid’s friends are. Sometimes the kid has himself, prodded and poked and asked the parent to call for a tutor.

Whatever the case, the parent is hostile towards me and really wants their money’s worth – they want a kid who doesn’t get fractions to be doing differential equations by the end of the second session, or they’ll call it quits in a huge huff of consumer dissatisfaction. Sometimes they call me names. They do that once, and promptly see my large, strudely ass heading out the door. I do not return until we have established some rules of conduct and boundaries, after which we all get along great.

You know that the parent was just hugely embarrassed that they couldn’t help the kid and that the problem got big enough to be noticed, and that they took out their frustration on me. I know it, too, and I know it going in. Sometimes, if the parent is having a humble moment, I can slide a few sympathetic words into our conversation and divert them from getting their knickers in a knot. Sometimes not and it plays out like a cheap novel. I usually spot an LD in about 40% of these cases, recommend a screening, and everyone is a seriously happy camper as a result. The parents then think I walk on water.

I know these parents well, and I’m sympathetic with all of them because I’ve walked in their shoes -- I’ve been too busy to be as involved as I wish, I’ve been clueless, I’ve been guilty of letting a kid slough off when they really should have knuckled down, I’ve even been an occasional stress monkey. And, two of my kids have ADHD, and I was pretty hostile myself until they were diagnosed. I’d be happy to sit down and commiserate with them over coffee and cinnamon buns, but that’s not why they called me.

Mostly, I think about the kids – having a rough time of it, not wanting to be the center of negative attention at home or at school, wanting to succeed or at least get by, hoping to learn a few study and coping strategies in addition to just the material at hand. I get my goodies from seeing them smile, feel more confident, or being excited and proud of themselves and bragging to me about their good test grades.

Anyone can tutor, and public schools are generally thrilled to find someone who will step up to the plate and help out. I hope that anyone reading this, if you have a little time during the day, maybe you’re retired or work a different shift, will call a school and see what you can do – elementary schools have kids who need to be read to and practice reading aloud; lots of schools really just need a “body double”, someone to be present and encouraging and keep a child focused while they do their homework, someone to show them how to use a glossary and index. And, of course, if you can help them with math or other subjects, that’s great, too.

It’s a good use of time for everyone.

Oddball Word of the Day

inchoate (in-KOH-it) adj. just begun; incomplete, imperfect

(from the MMMW edited by Laurence Urdang)

German Idiom for Friday

die Zeit totschlagen: to kill time

zB: Mein Zug faehrt erst in zwei Stunden ab. Um die Zeit totzuschlagen, lese ich mein Buch.

auf Englisch: My train doesn't leave for another two hours. In order to kill time, I'll read my book.

(from the Guide to German Idioms, by JP Lupson)

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Yarn Quandary

My sister sent me this yarn for Christmas. You can probably tell she has a real artist’s eye for color (well, she does do that sort of thing for a living), but I don’t. I do OK with managing to not dress myself like an optical illusion, but I have no skill at doing the complex blending of patterns, etc. that always looks so utterly cool.

So, here we have three yarns I would never buy, which is no comment on my sister, she can’t wear or touch animal fibers, and she was going for color. I generally don’t knit with eyelash yarn, or fun fur, and I’ve really been trying to give up buying any more Red Heart for the time being. It looks like it ought to be one of those festive, kicky afghans or throws. I have no clue to as how to arrange it in order to do so. If you have any ideas as to doing that, I’d appreciate it. Diagrams would be nice, too. Even a picture of something similar!

Anyway, 2 skeins of the variegated Red Heart, 5 eyelash in red, and 5 in variegated, er, fake mohair-like acrylic…???


Oddball Word of the Day

pelagic (pehl-AHJ-ik) adj. relating to the open sea or ocean

(from the MMMW, edited by Laurence Urdang)

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Nerdliness Further…

It’s a snowy day, of the type that used to be typical for our area – school’s been called off because we’re expecting several inches of snow, the wind is treacherous, and drifting makes driving extremely hazardous. Temperatures are expected to drop into the sub-zero range tonight. Good thing I knit!

I am, therefore, at home with a full complement of nerd offspring, namely, my own kids. I didn’t set out to make them smart, I didn’t do anything in particular other than love them and read to them and talk to them and play with them and holler at them and drag them to the park. I gave them books of their own and let them read mine, too, and all that other Mom stuff.

But, nevertheless, they turned out smart. Go figure.

I suppose the reason I’m revisiting my own past is because my children are going through similar situations to those in my history. All three of them are having issues from being gifted, some good and some bad. That sends me scouting back through my memory to see what I can dredge up to help, assist, use for advice, find to investigate further to deal with their situations, and so forth.

I know they have it easier on the home front – this is an unabashedly intellectual household. You’ll trip over books, not footballs, in our rooms, and visiting adults have been stunned speechless when one of my kids wanders through with a polysyllabic question on literature or science or mathematics. I didn’t have that kind of a household as a kid – no books, but at least there was no scorn for being bright.

Schools are different. I grew up on the east coast, where intellectualism is tolerated and even celebrated to a greater degree. Possibly the most significant time of my teen years was when I attended the precursor to what is now known as the Thomas Jefferson School for Science and Technology. Back then, in the mid-seventies, it was a school for the gifted within a regular school. We were segregated out with separate teachers; separate gifted only classes, a separate lunch hour, a separate locker area, and so on. We could, if we wanted to, participate in sports, theater, various clubs, and classes which were not on the gifted curriculum.

The director, a fantastic man who “gets it” had rounded up gifted teens from a variety of feeder schools, and, along with the kids who were being bused for racial integration purposes, the gifted kids were being sent to the same school, regardless of home school district. It was a brilliant maneuver, and timed well for public acceptance. It worked out well for me, too.

I remember my interview with him. He sat behind a large, scarred wooden desk, and I slouched unhappily in my chair. I’d just been through a series of years where there was some light for smart kids, which dimmed over time, then thrown back into the soup with other students who were actively hostile towards anyone who showed a glimmer of above-average intelligence. I was told I was in honors classes, and I was bored shitless in them. The teachers couldn’t keep up with my questions and asked me to tone it down again. I got spat on for acing tests, shoved into lockers for getting fed up and shooting verbal insults at bullies, and socially shunned for “making others look bad” by knowing the answers in class or turning in work that I was happy with, which, incidentally turned out to be used as examples by teachers in several classes.

There is no way to tell the above without it sounding like bragging to someone who hasn’t been through it. Let me assure you, it is not bragging. I’m not proud, nor am I pleased, nor do I feel superior to the other kids I went to school with. I just wanted to be myself without my performance being taken as a hostile act towards others. I am who I am because it is what I am and it has nothing to do with anyone else unless they choose to read hostility or aggression into it.

I also, as an aside, have always loathed the implication that I am openly smart in order to shame or humiliate someone else. I am openly smart because it is who I am and there is no reason to hide, mask, or cover it up. I’m not cruising through life looking for people to run over. It is insecure people who waste their time hating gifted folks. I did not become gifted at someone else’s expense.

So, I was cynical. I figured he was going to try to sell me another line of “you’ll be challenged in OUR honors classes” which is always a huge lie. I assumed that at some point one of the school counselors was going to do what they always do, and try to take charge of my gift and tell me what to do with it, and then chide and deride me when I expressed other opinions about what ought to be done with the matter between my ears.

His opening line was predictable, “This is a new program for gifted students here, and it is not going to be like any program you’ve been in before,” he said. What followed was very, very different and got my attention. He told me that I would be challenged, and he said, “possibly for the first time since you started school.” He said that I would no longer have to put up with a day filled with wasted time, bad teachers, abusive fellow students, or stupid assignments. He literally said, “stupid” assignments.

I looked at him and said, “No more ‘What I Did On My Summer Vacation’ essays?” He smiled, a wide, charming grin and said, “No. Not under any circumstances.” And then he won my conditional trust by leaning across the desk, stabbing it emphatically with his finger as he said, “And if one of my teachers does give you a stupid assignment, I want you to come and tell me about it. Don’t be afraid to speak up and tell me. I need to know because I will NOT have it. Will you do that?” I said “OK” and he looked me in the eye and asked me if I was willing to join his gifted program.

I asked again, “No stupid assignments?” “No,” he said, “none. Tell me if you think you’ve been given one. You may still have to do that one until I can come up with an alternative, but I will make sure that there are no more.” I liked that he was realistic and honest. Still not believing what I’d heard, I asked, “No more wasted time?” And he looked at me, with compassion and understanding and stern resolution, as someone who understands what purgatory it is to the heart and soul of a gifted child who has spent 6.3 of every 7 hours in school for 10 straight years, waiting for others to catch up, and he said, “No. I will not waste your time. No one here will waste your time ever again.” I took a deep breath and said, “OK, I’d like to do it.” He smiled and said, “Good. Be ready to work hard on the first day.” And we smiled at each other like co-conspirators.

He did get it. He really, really got it. It was, in fact, a school for gifted teens. Everyone else in my classes was smart as hell, and those who had gotten there on high-achievement or because of pushy parents soon chose to move to a different series of classes. We worked hard, we laughed together, we were our own community, we didn’t care what the rest of the school thought because for the first time in a long time, there were plenty of us, all in one place at one time, with one purpose – to learn what we wanted to learn as fast as we wanted to learn it.

It was a new experience for the teachers, too, having a full day of gifted students and having to develop lesson plans that outstripped several years of teaching mainstream students. We found out that we weren’t each going to continue being the best student in all our classes, and rather than that being cause for upset, it was a huge relief. Finally, there was someone better than each of us at something, someone to ask questions of, a worthy study buddy, a peer to admire and respect for accomplishments that deserved it.

We had some hitches, and I had to make good on my promise to the director. Our English teacher assigned us “My Favorite Holiday” as an essay preparatory to a debate contest. Every other assignment in that class had been deep, serious, clever, interesting, but this one was just not right. I protested in class and several of the other students joined in, a wonderfully unique experience in and of itself, agreeing that they were told they wouldn’t get any of these types of assignments either. The teacher was flustered and told us to do it anyway. We did, and I left a message for the director, who was out of town.

I did mine in protest, choosing the dumbest, most ludicrous holiday I could think of, Groundhog Day. I knew all about Punxsutawney Phil before he hit the big time. I got a B because even I, digging through the library, couldn’t find enough information or create enough verbiage to stretch a Groundhog Day essay to three pages.

The director came back after the assignment had been handed in, graded, and handed back. (In those days, that was the remainder of the week.) I took my paper down to show him. I walked into his office and handed it to him, without saying a word. He asked me if I was upset about the grade. I said that I was not, and I asked him to look at the title. I could see his face change as he read each word – at “My” he sat forward in his chair, at “Favorite” his jaw tightened and he started to grimace, and at “Holiday” he stood up and said, in a very angry voice, “I don’t BELIEVE it!” He was shaking, and either he was a hell of an actor, or he was truly angry. He took a couple of deep breaths, and said, “I’ll take care of this. Thank you for coming and letting me know.” I left, feeling like I had finally found a school official I could trust.

He followed, through, too. The teacher tried to read me the riot act and I stood right in the hallway and gave it back. I told her I didn’t care about the grade, I just didn’t want to waste my time on any more dumb assignments, that I would do whatever work she expected as long it I was learning something of value from it. And I reminded her that I was promised no more stupid work. She was purple with anger, but she said “FINE” and stomped off. Some of my classmates bought me lunch and thanked me. No one blew me any shit.

And we all relaxed and learned to trust again because we were finally home. This was were we could take off the blinders, stretch out our necks and run like we’d always wanted to run because now there were people clearing the track in front of us to make sure we neither stumbled nor crushed anyone inadvertently, nor ran off the track. It was a blissful, rewarding, unique, and wonderful period.

I did have to leave before graduating high school. My home situation became dangerous again, and leaving was possibly the hardest decision of my life. I didn’t want to leave the school that I had waited for all my life; I cried and cried and cried. I had to go though, or there was a significant chance I wouldn’t see graduation day at any school, so I did.

I moved to Chicago, and life has rolled on. But I have gifted children, and I know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that it is not weird, or wrong, or a hostile act to be gifted. I know that the problems gifted children have socializing tend to evaporate overnight when they are with their intellectual peers, that there is a very large body of crap pop psychology and pabulum that states that “everyone is gifted” and that G & T programs are elitist and that gifted kids are always snobby and arrogant and act superior. I have heard it all, I have lived a serious majority of it, and I can smell the crap of it from a mile away.

The public school system has no collective idea of how to deal with educating gifted children. Individual teachers may, magnet schools may and often do, but by and large, gifted children are still waiting for others to catch up, and dreading that they will spend the rest of their lives waiting, too.

I have never wanted that for my children. I have asked them every year if they want to be home schooled, if they’d like me to seek out a gifted school where they might need to live away from home, if they’d like me to do anything in particular to make their educational experience better. Most of the time, we have worked around the problems, or they have learned to deal with them, or they have chosen to deal with them. I’ve tried to show them the options, and above all, I have let them know that there is nothing wrong with them. I have offered them the hope of college classrooms, which is where most gifted children are finally able to be the rest of themselves without shame or embarrassment or threats.

And, most of all, I have worked to make sure they have a home where is it safe, and where it is normal to be as smart as you want to be, all the time. Gifted children need to be able to come all the way home, too.

Oddball Word of the Day

virosis (vie-ROH-sis) n. any infection caused by a virus

(from the MMMW, edited by Laurence Urdang)

Friday, February 09, 2007

Five Things My Husband Never Expected...

...When He Married a Smart Chick

1. Books Everywhere: Lots of them. Lots of alternate reading materials, too. There is not one single room in the house without a stack of books. This includes bathrooms, the basement, the laundry room, the garage, the kitchen, and a few other places I have hidden books out of sheer embarrassment after realizing I have TOO MANY books. If I’m going to come clean, I may as well come really clean and admit that I have not yet succeeded in paring the sheer quantity of books down to where I can store all of them in the usual places, as opposed to just everywhere.

I know that some people, when they hear “lots of books” think of old English libraries with leather bindings and comfy chairs. That would not describe my books. I read in bed, on the couch, in the bathroom, while waiting for the washer to fill, while knitting, while cooking, and while decompressing after driving somewhere. I read when I brush my teeth and as much as possible when exercising. They are paperbacks, softbacks, hard cover, truly ratty ones of each type, and the occasional overgrown pamphlet. They are in all types of condition, most with covers and some with the cover worn completely off. I don’t really care, since I don’t “collect” them, I read them. If all the words are there, then they’re just fine to me.

Hubs is not a big reader, and at first he really couldn’t understand why I wound up with so many books. I don’t know if he understands it yet, but he accepts it at least.

2. Really Smart Kids: I’m not really sure what kind of kids my husband expected. Probably kids who were more like he was as a child – gear heads, constantly playing pranks that were sometimes dangerous or ill-advised, kids who ran all over the neighborhood playing kickball and trying to paste things on pets or something. A very snarky part of me is thinking that if he wanted that kind of kid, he should have spent more time with them when they were little. Instead, he got mini BoS kids. They have enormous vocabularies and aren’t shy about sharing.

When Bunny was a tiny, tiny tot and came into our bedroom during a thunderstorm, she woke us up by saying “WAKE UP! I’m frightened!” I replied, groggily, “huhn?” She whacked me with her stuffed rainbow trout pillow and said, “FRIGHTENED. You know, it means ‘scared’.” I’m pretty sure my husband slapped his hand to his forehead and groaned out, “Oh, God, not another one,” before going back to sleep.

Then there was the dinner incident with Spawn, several months before he started kindergarten. He had taught himself to read with those wonderful Disney books on tape and lots of being read to by Mom, and there he sat at the dinner table while Bunny threw chicken skin to the dog. His legs were swinging to and fro, far above the floor, and he was loading corn onto his plate like there would never be any more. He looked at his Dad and asked, “What’s a chalice?” Hubs stopped with a mouthful of chicken and looked at him in astonishment. “A what?” he asked. “A chalice,” replied Spawn, waiting for an answer. They both looked at me. “A goblet type drinking vessel,” I replied. “Oh, OK, thanks,” said Spawn and went back to packing his maw with corn.

Hubs gave me the look. The “I can’t believe these are children, and how the hell did you know that, and why does he want to know???” look.

I answered the look, “He’s been reading the Grimm’s Unabridged Fairy Tales book,” I said, “How far have you gotten, Spawn?” “I’m done. I just wasn’t sure what a chalice was,” he replied.

3. Strange Food: I am adventurous with food and have been for as long as I can remember. When we first got married, my husband liked things from boxes, bags and cans, and anything that needed to be sectioned, stewed, or didn’t have some component with a copyright label on it was not actually edible in his opinion. I think this might really have been due to the fact that his parents were the same way, but he blames my food adventures it on my curious mind.

I admit, I’ve made some mistakes. The raisin and rice stuffing was a disaster, especially when the turkey had not completely defrosted. I had a few mutant cakes until I got a stand mixer. Some of my homemade candy attempts were questionable, however, I’ve always been pretty good at soup. Hubs does not believe that soup from something other than a can really counts as soup.

For example, early in our marriage, I found out that hubs likes Scotch Broth. He wanted it from a can. I’d never had it before, so I tried it and liked it. Naturally, to me, that meant I read the ingredients label, eliminated everything of the preservative nature, and tried to replicate it. The first night was lamb stew, which was kind of heavy and hubs only ate a dab of it. The next night, it was thick lamb soup, and by the third night, it tasted just like (insert famous canned soup maker name) Scotch Broth to me. He said the lamb chunks were too big and there were too many vegetables.

So, next time it looked like soup weather, I made chili. Nope, no good, not from a can. Also not acceptable were the homemade chicken noodle, the homemade chicken and rice, the homemade minestrone, the homemade oyster stew (which also got a thumbs down because it had FISH stuff in it), and clam chowder got ruled out before I even had a chance to make it.

We duked it out, sort of, compromising with the occasional foray into stuff I can’t stand intermingled with stuff he can’t stand. Then we had kids, and they liked the stuff I cooked. He knew he needed to set a good example, so he would, manfully and with good cheer, eat chicken stew with home made dumplings, and broccoli. He has tried curried chicken, but he draws the line at things in aspic and frou-frou girly salads. He even tried bouillabaisse, didn’t like it, but decided to try it. He has found out that his friends envy him his homemade dinners and tasty, fresh foods. They complain about only getting stuff from boxes and bags and cans.

4. Really Smart Kids – Part Two: When smart kids take standardized tests, they get outstanding scores. I never truly realized that there are few students who routinely score in the 99th percentile until my kids started bringing high scores home, and hubs reacted to them. He wanted to celebrate, to give them things for doing such a great job. I pointed out to him that they didn’t do anything out of the ordinary, they were just themselves. I think he felt like I had taken the wind out of his sails. I told him to be as happy for them as he wanted to be, but to understand that this is part of the way they are, and that making too big a deal out of it might spook them or cause them to be smug or arrogant.

When Spawn’s ACT and PSAT results came in, hubs sat down in the living room, mouth agape and said, “I’ve never heard of anyone getting a score like this before.” I took a couple of deep breaths and replied, “I did,” and just looked at him. “These are going to open a lot of doors for him,” he said. “Yes,” I said. Hubs looked at me for a very long moment. “Thank you,” he said. “You’re welcome,” I answered.

5. The Yarn Thing Run Amok: I have to try everything. My curiosity is a rampaging, ravaging beast, and that extends to yarn stuff. I have probably got at least one of every size knitting needle made, and one skein each of a significant percentage of the yarn obtainable in the US today.

It took a few years before my yarn monster showed up – I was working and didn’t have much time to knit, and it wasn’t in vogue, and sometimes I just get tired of explaining why I like the things I like. Hubs was a little surprised when he found out I knew how to knit and crochet. He was really surprised when he found out how well and how quickly I could knit and crochet. He was even more surprised when I started buying yarn in afghan-sized lots.

I don’t think hubs expected to find half-finished projects in every major room in the house. He does like the extra-long afghans to cover his feet while he’s watching TV, and he loves his balaclava and wool socks for when he’s using the snow blower.

He’s actually been pretty nice about the whole knitting thing – he likes seeing the kids in hand made sweaters, hats, mittens, etc., and he thinks they were extra cute when they were little, rolling around in the snow in a rainbow of colors. I don’t think he expected so very much yarn and so very many knitted things, though.

German Idiom for Friday

eine Gaensehaut bekommen: to get goose pimples/bumps

z.B.: Als er an seine bevorstehende Pruefung dachte, bekam der Student eine Gaensehaut.

auf Englisch: When he thought of his approaching exam the student got goose pimples.

(from the Guide to German Idioms by JP Lupson)

Oddball Word of the Day

This is one of my favorites.

parsimony (PAR-seh-moh-nee) n. excessive carefulness in using money, food, etc., stinginess

(from the MMMW, edited by Laurence Urdang)

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Coming Out of the Nerd Closet

I have been a nerd since at least age 12, possibly longer, but that’s all I can swear to for certain. I was that annoying kid with the spring-loaded arm who always knew the answer to everything any teacher ever asked, ever thought about asking, or ever heard asked by someone else. I made the other nerds in my honors classes feel ashamed of their inferior brand of nerdliness, except occasionally in Calculus, when I did get out-nerded a few times. It only made me study harder.

I’ve worn glasses since I was 10 years old, and I wish I had had them sooner. Finding out that trees had leaves from a distance, too, instead of being fuzzy green blobs, made the whole world brand new (!) in an especially doofy and nerdly way. And, as the universe knows no humor bounds, I am pretty uncoordinated when it comes to gross motor skills, and I consequently suck at sports. I especially suck at projectile sports, which also has to do with being a glasses-wearer back when kids got one pair, and no matter how broken they got, you wore them and the surgical or electrical tape that was holding them together to school (and church, and shopping, and playing with friends) until the optometrist said you needed new lenses.

I liked learning the way shipwrecked castaways like hot baths, cooked food, cold drinks, and fluffy beds. There was never enough; I could never learn enough about anything; I always had more questions; there was always something new to learn, read about, study up on, do exercises or problems on, and experts in the topic to be contacted and consulted. I had, and still have, a bottomless cup of curiosity, a voracious appetite for learning, reading, studying, collecting information.

I didn’t realize how peculiar this made me in the world at large until I was in about 7th grade. Prior to that, back in the haze of my childhood, I had the luxury of having mostly outstanding teachers. Yes, I had a few duds, and I remember them, but even the duds didn’t make me feel like a weirdo, they just made me dislike them.

Anyway, it wasn’t until I was in junior high school that I realized most other kids were not like me. They were just warming seats and learning the least they had to to keep their parents and their teachers off their backs. They didn’t show up with a sense of excitement and anticipation to school, they showed up to bitch and moan with other like types about how “boring” it all was (like they were going to be rock stars at age 13 if they weren’t forced to be in school or something) and how much of a waste of their time it was.

It happened when I was interrogating a teacher ruthlessly about a book where the class was reading chapter by chapter, and I had, as was my habit, already read the book twice and written pencil answers (as opposed to the all-important PEN answers for handing in!) to all the accompanying questions. She got fed up and said, with force and irritation, “WE’RE NOT THERE YET, and you’re going to have to WAIT for the rest of the class to catch up.” From the far side of the classroom came an anonymous voice, “Yeah, do you have to be such a total dork?” which made the rest of the class laugh.

And, suddenly, I was all alone; and for the first time in my public school life, I knew it, really knew it, and I felt under attack, desolated, shamed, demeaned, and abandoned. I had, by the force of my enthusiasm, vast curiosity, and personal drive, made myself a laughingstock, an outsider. I had been rejected by my society and my treasured authority figures on a deeply personal level. Publicly. I was marooned a thousand miles away from everyone else in that classroom, and they were glad I was gone.

It was very hard not to cry. But I didn’t. I just shut down. I closed my book, I put away my papers quietly, and I did as I had been told to do. I waited for the rest of them to catch up. In the rest of my classes that day, I waited for the rest of them to catch up; silently, in shame and embarrassment, I waited for them to catch up.

I waited for someone else to answer questions in science class, my favorite class, and I kept my hands on my desk and my head down and tried not to cry. When the teacher finally got fed up with waiting for someone to answer her question, she called on me, and I whispered out the answer. I made it as short as possible, so as not to give the other students any ammunition to shoot me with again. That was so out of character that my science teacher asked me if I was OK, I nodded and looked down at my desk again and kept my eyes on my desktop. Before the end of class, she came over and asked me if anything was wrong. I just peeked at her quickly and shook my head. She was not convinced.

I don’t know how many days I stayed silent and withdrawn in school, or how many nights I quietly cried while I did my homework. It had stopped being fun, it had stopped being interesting, and instead of being somewhere I liked to go, school became somewhere I tried to not get insulted and beat up on. And I waited for everyone else to catch up, hour after hour, day after day, over and over and over and over and over. I could have slept until I got called on and still have gotten the right answer. I could have written the test answers with my pen in my mouth and one eye glued shut and still have smoked the rest of the class. Sometimes, it wasn’t worth getting out of bed for, and I didn’t.

The only teachers who worried were my math and science teachers. To all the rest of them, I had stopped being a problem with my questions and my curiosity and my hyper-accelerated performance, and everything was “just fine” as I sat there dying inside, wishing with all my heart that there was somewhere in the world for kids like me – kids who worked hard because they liked it, who learned and studied and found it rewarding and fun and endlessly exciting… Somewhere where being like me was normal.

I didn’t go to school for 2 weeks at one point, and a truant officer showed up at my house. When my mom got home from work, I had to tell her about it because she had to sign a paper. She just looked at me, signed the paper, and asked me what was going on. I told her the kids had made fun of me for being smart. She was speechless, literally speechless. I went up to my room and stared out the window, wishing I were dead, or missing, or living in Algeria, or a frog, or anything other than myself. Mom made dinner.

I knew she’d want to talk to me after dinner, and she did. I knew what her first question would be, and I was right. She asked, “Didn’t the teacher do anything?” I told her that the teacher was the one who started it, and repeated the events to her. I saw the shock waves go through her, I saw the rage go ballistic within her, and for the first time in our mutual history, I was not afraid of her rage because I could tell it was not directed at me. She became very terse and brisk. “Go to bed,” she said, “and get your clothes ready to go back to school tomorrow.”

My mom and I have always had and always will have a difficult history together. The dynamics changed shortly after my twelfth birthday, and, maybe someday I’ll talk about it here. In the year and a half between then and our discussion, we had spent most of our time staying out of each other’s way. But, for once, my mother came through for me.

The next morning, I got dressed, waited for the bus and went to school. I got the usual pointless and inapplicable warnings about having fallen “very far behind” in my first class, looked over the assignment list and realized I could do it in an evening and resigned myself to an endless series of days of waiting for everyone else to catch up.

As I headed to my second class, I saw every teacher I had hustling down the hallway towards the office like there was a fire drill without the bell. That got my attention for a moment. It took a while for a teacher to show up for my second class, and it wound up being a regular teacher who was going between our room and her own room, just to keep order. It was the same way during my third class. Something was up, and even my classmates were wondering aloud what it might be. I didn’t care that much. I figured there was going to be a teacher strike or something political was happening. Then it was lunchtime, and I got to see some of my friends, who had been worried about me, and I cheered up a little.

Fourth class was Home Ec. Our regular teacher was there, and she had an announcement. She fixed the worst slackers in the class in the eye and said, “I want each and every one of you to know that there will be no more picking on smart kids. There is nothing wrong with being smart, there is nothing wrong with asking questions, there is nothing wrong with working ahead, and the first one of you who pulls that kind of a stunt in MY class room is going to go right past suspension and be expelled. Is that clear?”

My head shot up, and my mouth fell open. I looked at my Home Ec. teacher in astonishment, and while the other students were complaining and sneaking glances at me, she and I made definite eye contact. I quirked an eyebrow, and she gave a tiny nod and an even tinier quick smile. Then she brought the class to order and we did whatever we were supposed to be doing. I don’t remember; I was in shock. I thanked her as I left class at the end of the period. She patted me on the shoulder and said, “don’t worry anymore.”

For each of my remaining classes, every teacher made the same or a similar announcement. Some of them were pretty fired up and emotional themselves, some were clearly resentful at having been called on the carpet, and some of them were mad as hell on my behalf, and, presumably on behalf of all the other kids who were living in silent desperation as well. Some of them openly looked at me and told me to tell them if I had so much as a single complaint about being picked on; that they weren’t going to stand for bullying for a minute.

My science teacher just about boiled the paint right off the walls, she was so mad. She really let loose at the bullies and the slackers and told them they needed to emulate smart kids, not bully them, that they were going to be raking leaves and washing the cars of the smart kids if they didn’t get their heads in gear and get in the game, and so on. It was a rant of quite magnificent scope and duration, at the end of which she said to me, “don’t ever stop asking questions, don’t ever stop wanting to know more, don’t let anyone make you ashamed of being smart ever again!” I burst into grateful tears, and so did a tiny little, wispy blond girl with coke-bottle glasses, buckteeth and braces who sat two seats behind me. She and I looked at each other and smiled through our tears. We both said, very loudly, “Thank you!” (We eventually became best friends.)

It continued the next day with the first three teachers, too. One of them was the teacher who had told me I’d have to “wait”, and she was red-eyed and pissed off at me, but she made the same announcement. She quit teaching at my school at the end of that year.

By the end of the week, I wasn’t the only nerd feeling safe and protected and appreciated in the school. There were quite a few of us meeting, talking, and getting to know each other in the lunch room, in the front seats of classrooms, in the library, dragging our enormous loads of books from class to class. Instead of drooping along in the hallways, trying our best to be invisible, we took over the main pathways and acted like we finally belonged.

My mother hadn’t said a thing until Friday night after dinner. She asked me how things were going at school. I said, with a very big smile, that they were very different now, and I told her what had happened. She looked at me, nodded, and said, “good.” I thanked her.

I’d like to tell you that my junior high school became a renowned nerd haven, but it didn’t. It did become a lot more conducive to academic competitiveness and good-natured, high-speed learning, which is more than most schools do. My nerd friends and I were excited by the change, happy to feel safe, and able to enjoy being ourselves again. It was a good thing.

There is more to my nerd tale, but this seems like enough for today.

Oddball Word of the Day

indurate (IN-dou-rate): v. to harden; to make stubborn

(from the MMMW, edited by Laurence Urdang)

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Complimentary Stimulation

I got kind of a surprise the other day. So did my kids. I had ordered some stuff online, drugstore type stuff, that our local, small-town drugstore doesn’t carry – toner for my middle-aged skin, cotton pads that I know I like, some girly liquid soap, and a back scrubber. I got some perfume, too.

I was a little worried about what condition it would show up in, since for the last week, we’ve had single digit temperatures, with frequent ventures into sub-zero temps. Most of the stuff I order online comes via UPS, so it’s exposed to the elements for the entire time it’s in transit.

Anyway, yesterday I had a full day – appointments in the morning, tutoring in the afternoon, and the package showed up just as I was leaving to go tutor, so I didn’t have a chance to open it before I left. When I got home, the kids were all home from school, just barely, and seated around the dining room table. We drank water and juice, and the kids were eating sandwiches and snack foods and telling me about their days.

I realized my package was still sitting there, unopened, so while my daughter was telling us about her Home Ec. class, I sliced open the tape and pulled out the packing list. Everything I had ordered was on it, so I started checking the items, one by one. The perfume was there – no damage, same with the cotton pads, the back scrubber, and the toner. The girly soap had frozen a little, and when I opened the bottle, it kind of squirted a half an inch or so of really cold soap on my hand, so I closed it up and went and washed my hands. They smelled really nice afterwards, too!

So, I was pretty happy with my purchases, and as I started putting them away, I noticed there was something extra in the box, at the very bottom. I reached in and pulled it out, as my kids were sitting there, chewing and talking and laughing, and, because I have no restraint whatsoever, I gave a surprised shout when I saw what it was and said, quite loudly and clearly, “Oh, my God, they’ve sent me a VIBRATOR!”

There was a second of silence around the table, and then every last one of us burst into hysterical laughter. I, embarrassed, shoved the vibrator back into the box and checked the packing slip again, wondering if I had accidentally clicked on a button while ordering and inadvertently purchased myself a sex toy. Nope, no vibrator was listed.

I stuck my head into the box, I suppose out of curiosity, and noticed that they had not sent me just any old vibrator, nosireebob! They sent me a complimentary Mr. Chubby, G-Spot Intensive, Waterproof Vibrator in screaming neon pink! (Batteries not included.) I was still snorting with laughter and embarrassment, and I checked the packing slip again – still no vibrator listed.

My daughter was pounding the table, howling and crying with laughter as she looked at my astonished face. She grew redder and redder, and I started laughing again and managed to whisper to her the name of the vibrator, which sent both of us into huge peals of laughter all over again. The boys, a little baffled, but still amused, had wandered off by now, and I looked at my daughter, and my packing slip, and my actual purchases, and I said, “I wonder if some clerk in the packing department looked at my stuff and decided that I must be a middle-aged lady in need of more excitement than just a good, long bath, so they added some Spice to my box??? Damn!”

We laughed and laughed, and finally calmed down enough to watch Dr. Phil together. During the commercials, I silently pondered what to do about Mr. Chubby. I would be hard pressed to send him back with no backup packing slip documentation, and I didn’t order it, I really didn’t want to splurge on postage, so I decided to think about it tomorrow.

Over coffee, after dinner, I did tell my husband that a new someone had come into my life unexpectedly. He gave me a disgruntled look until I whispered Mr. Chubby’s name into his ear and told him the, er, provenance thereof. Then he chuckled for a bit and squinted his eye at me and said, “HA! I’m holding the batteries hostage from now on!”

I have to admit to a little carnal curiosity. I also have to admit that I’m a little embarrassed that I know so little about Mr. Chubby’s ilk. I thought I was reasonably up-to-date – I have been to sex toy parties, and I thought I comported myself like an adult, even though the thought of something named “Santa and the Bear” still gives me the heebie-jeebies, and the most I ever bought was some fruit-flavored nipple cream (not all that tasty, even if the packaging was pretty good).

But yesterday proved that a little bit of the nervous teenage girl still lurks within this middle-aged body. So, maybe I’ll just put my new Mister away for a rainy day. With batteries.

Oddball Word of the Day

soubrette (sooo-BRET) n. a vivacious, pert, or coquettish young woman

(from the MMMW, edited by Laurence Urdang)

Monday, February 05, 2007


I apologize for not having posted for the last several days. I’ve just been beat to death with the physical therapy and then stomach flu and decided to play it calm and not strain myself more than I had to to get by. I’ve graduated from PT now (hurray!) and am doing much better on that front. Also, the icky flu is definitely gone.

A week ago Sunday, we took the Doodle up to IMSA (the Illinois Math and Science Academy) for a preview day. IMSA serves 10th-12th graders who are talented in math and science and who have gone through a fairly rigorous screening process. They only take about 250 new sophomores per year, they have an excellent retention rate, and 99% of the graduates go on to college, most with significant scholarship money, and many to Ivy League schools. They’ve been operating for 20 years now, have an excellent reputation, and lots of their graduates have gone on to do some wonderful, sometimes extremely profitable things.

We were there about 5 hours, and I have to say I was not bored hardly at all. Lots of shark-like predatory parents with cowed and compliant, over-achieving children, but also plenty of parents like me and kids like Doodle. He has had the idea and a vague wish to go there for a couple of years now, and for the last year, I’ve been providing him with more and more information. I want to see if he’s serious enough about going to put more dedication into his endeavors, and to bring them up to a standard that is closer to being commensurate with his abilities. There is no question about his possessing the intellectual hardware to qualify.

I figured that taking him there for a preview a year in advance of when we’d be submitting his application would give him something more tangible and concrete to hang on to and solidify the goal for him. There’s certainly no guarantee that he’d be accepted anyway, but I’m not going to deny him a chance to chase his dream; I just want to make sure it really is his dream, and not just something he thought about once and forgot. He hasn’t forgotten.

I could go on and on about it, but it’s probably better if you visit the website for IMSA and check out the virtual tour. And, if you’re unemployed, they are looking for a new president.

Oddball Word of the Day

weal (WEEL) n. well-being, welfare, as the public weal

(from the MMMW, edited by Laurence Urdang)