Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Story of Name That Book

Once upon a time ... well, actually today, Two went to his first Name That Book competition and, although his team took home 3rd prize and not 1st, a fantastic time was had by all. They missed being in the "sudden death showdown" for first place by one question, but still took home swanky medals and got to eat lunch out with the team, teachers and parents before heading back to school. Two is already making plans to try out for next year's team, which to me is the best news of all, because it means that he really did enjoy the whole experience. I didn't bring my camera for a few reasons, but hopefully I'll be able to update this post later when his teacher emails some pictures to me. He looked so cute in his (rarely worn) red school polo shirt!

Of course, I have something to say besides that. I always have something else to say (as you all know very well). My other somethings:

1. Our bracket was made up of, among other schools, TH Rogers, West U., and Condit elementaries - all some of the best schools in the district. The other brackets who competed earlier in the week and will tomorrow had 1, maybe 2 Exemplary schools in them. Not for us: this was a tough competition! I'm not sure if HISD planned it that way or, if they did, why they would, but at least we were up to the challenge.

2. I was surprised to learn that it takes five adults to run a two hour competition for 42 second grade children. This isn't counting the people who came with the teams - the librarians and teachers from each school who have been working with the kids to prepare for the competition. No: five administrators sat there for the entire time. One ran the clock (on, off, reset. on, off, reset), one announced "And the next question...", one asked the questions and kept score, and two were judges. They needed 2 judges so they could see all seven groups of children without moving (how could you ask someone to move while working? you obviously can't.) All these people had titles I have never heard of: Computer Library Technologist was one important-sounding one. But I have to ask: if they don't work with kids all day (or at any time, as I fear is the case), what do these people do when they aren't running a competition for 2nd graders? A competition, mind you, about which they spoke at length as having been so hard to put together, and for which they felt they had worked an unbelievable amount. Does anyone wonder why we have a budget crisis in HISD? Nope, me neither.

3. At the front of the stage sat a group of well-groomed, good looking, well-dressed children. They all happened to be African American. And they also happen to have teachers who need to be taken out and thrown in a lake (perhaps one with a few alligators). Why? Because those poor children sat there, quietly and with perfect manners, and didn't answer more than 8 questions out of 25 correctly. You could tell when a question was asked - unless it was an obvious one - that they had no idea. They sat quietly, then one of the children would put out a guess and they would go with it. Meanwhile, the top teams were debating and scrambling and whispering together, and when they picked their answer you could see the triumph in their faces: they'd worked hard and they were pretty darn sure they were right. But not these six. There they sat, a picture in miniature of what can go wrong with public schools. They'd been told they were smart (they probably are), they'd been told they were the best 2nd grade readers in the school (likely true, unfortunately), and yet when they left their school and went on a big stage with kids from other schools, they had no way to compete. Isn't that what's going to happen to them again and again in life? Yes, it is, unless they have teachers who step up and take responsibility for really and truly educating these kids in their care. By the end of the first round of questions I had tears standing in my eyes, as did some of those six children. I am sad and angry and I can't do a damn thing about it.

I wish I could end my once upon a time post happily ever after, but I can't, can I? I'm very, very happy for Two and the fun he has had through this entire process. I'm exceedingly grateful to his two wonderful teachers who gave up two afternoons a week for months to coach the kids on all 31 books. And I'm incredibly proud of the hard work my little monkey put into the competition, not only in taking his reading skills to a new level but in working to overcome his fear of being in the spotlight at the competition itself. But all the same, there are people out there right now who should feel nothing but shame for what they have done to children who deserved to have as good an experience today as Two did. Through this competition Two learned that perserverance and hard work mean something - they make a difference in how you perform and how you feel about yourself. All of those 42 children today could have - should have - learned the same lesson. But they didn't. That's wrong, folks; it's just plain wrong.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Just Don't Wanna Hear It

I've been offline all weekend due to no phone service, but I'm back now, and after a quick perusal of my favorite places on the internets I've already heard waaaay too much about how Texas is poised to make budget cuts to the public schools, cuts that will include layoffs. I've heard so much, I've just got to put this out there, close comments, and tell myself "there, you vented, now get back to work, ya bum."

As committed as Husband and I are to keeping the boys in public school, I am not at all adverse to cutting school budgets. Texas must balance its budget pursuant to its Constitution, and the money has to come from somewhere. We can't all run around crying "the children, the children" and demand that no amount of sacrifice come from the public schools. Let's face it: many, many of them don't work anyway. We in The Grass Widow household live in a protected bubble of good public schools, in a large urban district that has done better than many in delivering a decent education. But we all know that, overall, public schools are crapping out on a whole lot of kids, and that all the money in the world isn't going to change that. I could go into the whys and wherefores of that situation, but I'm not prepared to write a book this morning, thankyouverymuch.

So there has to be budget cuts, and people will get laid off. My ultimate response: meh. Why? Because out in the real world, we've all had to suffer and sacrifice over the years with the ups and downs of the economy - and it's about time that public employees should have to do the same. Some (very) personal statistics to help make my point:

  • Husband's company is running on 50% the number of people it had on the books 3 years ago. They're doing well, but they don't have that many open reqs out there, so it's unlikely that things will change soon.
  • From 2000 to today my company has gone from 8000 employees to 6000: we perform better financially now than we did back in 2000, and we've acquired approximately 20 companies and their employees and products in that time period. How do you go down in census while up in everything else? You lay people off multiple times, that's how. I can remember at least 7 times myself.
  • I was caught in one of those many company-wide layoffs in 2005; I was shown the door along with 900 of my closest friends - approximately 1/6 of the company's payroll went out the window around the world in one day.
  • I came back to my company in late 2008; the company that I left laid off 15,000 people just weeks after I switched jobs. One company, 15,000 people. Believe me, they haven't hired that many of them back.
  • I make less now in my current job than I did when I started at the same company in 2000. My salary is the same number, but we're talking about 2000 dollars as compared to 2011 dollars, so I'm definitely worse off financially. Additionally, my share of healthcare costs has increased every year I've worked (really, since 1992 - every year it has gone up): I pay somewhere between 1/3 and 1/2 the cost of my health insurance currently.

All that said, I like my current job, and I came back to the same company because I like it as well. I'm definitely not in the market for another one (assuming there was a job market for attorneys in Houston right now, which there is not). In my current position I can (much like a teacher) see my children at a decent hour every afternoon, and I can use my vacation days to take off with them on holidays like MLK Day. I even get days off like Memorial Day to spend with them. I do not, of course, get the summer off, nor may I take any days off between Christmas and New Year's or during their Spring Break. Our company closes quarters (and year end) at those times and I am needed at work. But 4 weeks paid vacation a year is a nice benefit; it certainly beats Husband's vacation allotment of 2 weeks. Yes, I said 2 weeks. That's a little less than the average teacher, don't you think?

So you see, life out here in non-public employee-land is at least as tough, if not more so. Right now the economy stinks, it has done so for a while, and we all need a little more sense of shared sacrifice and a little less whining about "I want mine" - especially when my tax dollars pay for the teachers to get what they do.

Soapbox put away. I'm done for now.

Friday, February 18, 2011

On Being Useful

When I look at my job, at my education, at all I’ve done with the professional side of my life, I realize more and more that I am, in the grand scheme of things, completely unnecessary. As an attorney, my job exists only at this particular time in history and only in this certain place. It exists only because of a complex and utterly manmade structure that did not exist in the past in its current form and is not guaranteed to exist for any part of the future. Without this fictional system, I have no professional usefulness at all. I cannot fix anything tangible (human or otherwise), I cannot create anything, I cannot go to another place or time and provide anything of value to anyone.

The more I think on these altogether unpleasant facts, the more I am committed to help the boys avoid ever being in this situation as adults. Yes, I want them to have a college degree; yes, I am fine with them being suited professionals scurrying off to an office every day. The critical difference is in what they do in that office: it has to be something that has universal applicability, that is creative in nature, and that provides a direct and tangible benefit to others. I want them to have skills that can survive any change in the fictional social system in which we currently live, that can transfer to any other environment and still be useful.

And as much as I want them to have a useful “educated” life. I also want the boys to be able to take care of things that most of my generation has lost the ability to take care of. They’re going to be men someday and as such they need to know how to shingle a roof, frame a house (I’d settle for a shed), plant a garden, and pour a sidewalk’s worth of concrete. For the most part our society has lost the knowledge that there is great value in skilled, creative work, and we need to change that, one person at a time. If my boys can grow up to see the great worth there is in working with their hands, we’re a small step down a long road to help people begin to respect such work again.

What of the boys in all this, you ask? What do they themselves gain in all my plans for them? Well, the fact that they will wake up at 40 and know that their work matters seems to be gain enough - at least it does to me. Additionally, they will have the satisfaction that comes with creating something yourself, helping someone in a tangible way, participating meaningfully in real life instead of in some fabricated facsimile thereof. If I can work as a parent to give them a fraction of that, then perhaps the usefulness of my personal life will somehow redeem the futility of my professional one. Please, may it be so.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Complicated Life of an Eight Year Old

I promised myself I would write about Two on his birthday and here it is three days later and I’m just now figuring out what I want to say.

He’s a complicated kid sometimes – made even more so by his perfectly cultivated surface appearance of “just a regular all-round good guy”. But there’s a whole lot going on below that surface that most people don’t see.

In contrast, with One you know from the start you’ve got someone to deal with. Who he is shines (or glowers) on the surface of every part of his being. He never dissembles, never wonders if he could put a little more effort into making himself a little more amenable to others. WYSIWYG: if One was ever allowed to get a tattoo that’s what it should be, placed somewhere everyone would notice it.

Two? He IS just a regular all-round good guy. He’s good with his friends, good at games, good at navigating the social sea of elementary school and making it look easy. I admire this trait in him immensely; it’s something he shares with his father but emphatically NOT with me. But beneath all that is a kid who has all sorts of stuff going on – good and not-so-good – and has as many things to work on and work through as his brother does, as any of us do. He’s still finding ways to adjust to his Sensory Processing Disorder, he’s still learning to love to work (or to do it anyway when he doesn’t love it), and he frequently wants to fight the world. Actually, it’s less the world, I’m coming to realize, but anyone who has authority over him. Husband and I have come in for the brunt of that over the years, and his teachers have taken their lumps as well. He’s gotten much better, but he still pushes against authority like no child I’ve ever seen. Our biggest job as his parents is and has always been to teach him when to fight and when to let go.

Two, what do I want to know now that you are eight? Keep fighting, but pick your battles better. Don’t stop being the best friend so many people know and love. Stay adventurous, creative, and just a little bit wild. Use that fight, friendship, and love of adventure to take on the world in a new, creative way that is like no one else. The world needs your passionate wild side, your love for others, and the unique way you look at things more than you will ever know. Most of all, know that we love you to the moon and back, and always will. We want to watch you become exactly who you were created to be; we’re pretty sure it’s going to be quite a show!

I love you, not-so-little Two.

Equal Opportunity Abusers

Simcha Fisher linked to this pathetic, sad post by an abused man named Doug who thinks he’s getting what he wants for Valentine’s Day. What happens? Well, for Valentine’s Day he goes to the grocery store with his wife – they even take some friends along to celebrate with them and – wait, wait for it – he gets to buy whatever he wants to eat:

“I picked up some really expensive jam. Rachel said, “Yum, that will be really great, Doug!”

In fact everything I picked up got the same response from her (or very close to it), and that was my present: I could choose anything I wanted, and she could only say how great everything was. What an awesome gift that was, a trip to the grocery store.

I have no idea what it cost Rachel to make that trip to the grocery store with me. It was simply one of my best gifts. Find a way to make your man feel accepted, now that’s a Valentine’s Day present.” [my emphasis]

Dr. Helen Smith writes a lot about how men in our society have become more marginalized, and how women can make comments about how ignorant, insensitive, violent, worthless and unnecessary men are and no one bats an eye, while if those same comments were made by men about women, an uproar would ensue. Think about it: how are men portrayed in places like commercials and network TV? They’re stupid, clueless, and a burden to bear (oh how dirty he gets things! I need this new washer from Sears to clean up after him!) And women? They’re nothing less than heroic, multi-tasking saviors who have all the answers and do all the work.

And so many men buy into it and let women treat them worse than the family dog. Just like Doug.

Hey Doug, if Rachel lets you read this, let me tell you something: she’s emotionally abusing you. Really, she is. You need to get some therapy, talk to some real men (email me and I'll give you my husband's number) – something, and fast. Better yet, take all of y’all’s savings you can get your hands on in the next 24 hours and Run. The. Hell. Away. When your life has gotten to the point that you’re grateful she lets you buy your own food one day a year, it’s probably too late for therapy anyway. You are better off living alone with a nice dog as a pet than with this controlling, evil narcissist.

Oh, and girls? If you think even one small part of Doug’s post was cute: go look in the mirror and think long and hard about who you think you are. Because if you’re treating your boyfriend or husband like a cute but messy Chihuahua that you constantly have to take care of – you need to cut that crap out as soon as possible, or you’ll turn into Rachel the Wicked Witch’s twin sister faster than you can say “and your little dog, too.”

This public service announcement is over. Have a nice day.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

The Birthday Party

We survived. That's about all I can say of Two's birthday sleepover bash, which started yesterday at 4 and went on until the wee hours of this morning. All in all he had maybe four hours of sleep, and I am dumbfounded that he made it through today as well as he did. Hopefully he'll get a good night's sleep tonight and be ready to jump into the crazy-busy he has ahead of him without much trouble. I want to write something about him and his eight-ness tomorrow, on his real birthday, but for now here's an image of him catching sight of his candle-lit cake.

May all your birthday wishes come true, little one.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Questions for Myself

Q: One is now eleven years old, right?

A: Yup

Q; And Two, he’s turning eight next week?

A: Uh, yup.

Q: And there aren’t any other children in the house, right?

A: Nope.

Q: Good to have that cleared up. In that case, I have one more question: WHY THE HE!! ARE THERE DRY CHEERIOS SPILLED ALL OVER THE BACK OF THE MINIVAN?????????

A: Please don’t ask me these difficult theoretical questions. I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed right now.


Q: You went to college, yes?

A: Uh-huh.

Q: And law school?

A: Um-mmmm.

Q: Did you do fairly well at both?

A: More or less.

Q: Then WHY do you ask me 10 times a day “where did I put my shoes?”

A: I can’t answer you right now. I’m looking for my car keys.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Worrying Professionally

I love helicopter parenting. I consider myself something of an expert on it, because I'm either doing it myself or chuckling at someone else's attempts to do so, while I sit back and enjoy the fact that this isn't my particular "issue" to care about.

Here are some things I've noticed lately that fall into the latter category: things I just can't get my head around wasting time worrying about. Not just parenting, but all kinds of things can keep you from getting your eight hours. Check it out.

The NY Times is worried about sleepovers. Apparently, they're full of hidden difficulties. I can't see it myself, since as an only child I spent every weekend from the age of 6 on either sleeping at someone else's house or having someone over to mine. But it's a big enough topic for the Grey Lady, so it must be important.

The Mommy Wars continue over at, where it’s announced that working moms can worry some more about obesity, since their children are more likely to be heavier than their stay-at-home counterparts’. After all that hype, what’s the weight difference? A pound. Well, that’s enough to keep me from eating at all, so I’m calling my boss now to tell her I resign. Or not.

Peggy Orenstein is convinced that letting your daughter wear her Belle costume to pre-school is causing the world to go to hell in a hand-basket. She’s so convinced she’s written an entire book exposing the evilness of pink. Obviously I can just laugh this one off (since none of my kids have ever asked me for a Cinderella costume), but seriously? My go-get-um nieces are in danger because their parents take them to Princess Breakfasts at Disney and let them wear pink soccer cleats? Okay ...

Thanks to Amy Chua, controlling mothers everywhere are searching for a metaphor that describes them best (and apparently no one wants to be the Rabbit Mom, even though this is the Year of the Rabbit). Dr. Yvonne Thornton tries to make sneering at your daughter when she gets her master’s degree from an Ivy League school more palatable by calling herself a “lioness” instead of a “tiger”.

Motherhood makes you poor! So says Ann Crittenden, who is more worried about what happens if you get divorced after that baby than any decent person should be. Just what every woman in the wealthiest country in the world should spend her spare time reading about, I’m sure.

And finally, the ever relevant Huffington Post discusses the horrible problem of divorced couples who keep sleeping with one another. It’s a question on everyone’s minds these days, dontcha know.

I know all these thorny problems will worry you just as much as they worry me. Have fun!

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Evening Inactivity

The first decent evening after a cold snap, a fire is an absolute necessity, isn't it?

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Wisdom on an Icy Cold Night

If I had a tattoo, it should probably be this, displayed somewhere I could see it easily:

"In general, Loquacity (rambling talk) opens the doors of the soul, and the devout warmth of the heart at once escapes. Empty talk does the same, but even more so... Empty talk is the door to criticism and slander, the spreader of false rumors and opinions, the sower of discord and strife. It stifles the taste for mental work and almost always serves as a cover for absence of sound knowledge..."

---Saint Theophan the Recluse

And what does St. Theophan have to do with icy cold nights? Well, he was Russian, of course. He has absolutely nothing to do with tattoos, at least as far as I'm aware.


Changing Education

Long but well worth watching, this the full lecture version of the Sir Ken Robinson video I referenced in this post. As he quotes in the end:

"All mankind is divided into three classes: those that are immovable, those that are movable, and those that move." --- Ben Franklin

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Thoughts on a Blustery Night

What makes you think people are smart? Adults, I mean – not kids, who are still in process, as it were. I’ve been trying to work this out, and I think the most important characteristic you can have that shouts out “smart” far and wide is intellectual curiosity. It’s not if you were a National Merit Finalist back in high school, it’s not that you went to Harvard for undergrad, or that you had a 4.0 coming out of law school. All in all, “smart” means that you are terminally curious about how things work and how to make things happen. Mind you, the 4.0 GPA, etc, can indicate that you were and are intellectually interested in life, or it can indicate that you were capable of absorbing exactly as much knowledge as was needed and then regurgitating it on test day for an A. We all know people who had great grades and were brilliant, and we all know the other kind of character as well. But that tells the whole story: credentials can’t tell you if someone if truly smart or not.

What does all of this say about our goals as parents? How do we educate our children to keep them as curious as they are at six, while also helping them gain the ability to check the boxes the world will want them to check to get ahead? How can we impress on them that the former and not the latter is what makes them who they truly are and what will always define true intelligence?

A few nights ago Husband showed the boys a fantastic video on the educational system. One and Husband watched it through several times and then began to discuss what was right and what was wrong in its assumptions. Two? There were no discussions for Two. He’d watched the real time, super-fast animation in the video and was captivated. Without saying a word he ran for the playroom, where I found him 45 minutes later, writing out his own real-time cartoon scripts and telling a story as he went along. The point? Each of them has a unique way of seeing the world and a unique way of engaging with it. As parents we need to strive above all else to keep that intact: upon being presented with an interesting hypothesis at forty years old, One needs to still want to engage in debate and discussion, and at the sight of an interesting and new style of art, forty year old Two needs to want to run off and try it out for himself. At the same time the two of them need to – sooner rather than later, I hope – master test-taking, following directions, collaborating with classmates (and later colleagues), working long after they’d like to be in bed, and all the other skills it takes to be successful in life. But we can’t let the creativity, curiosity and individuality be snuffed out in the rush to gain those skills. Because in the end, wanting to know how things work and how to make things happen – the critical skills for solving problems – are what will matter most of all.