Category Archives: family

on screentime

I was going to write an entire post on how the flattening of time is impacting us all right now, but instead, I think I’ll write about screentime. I just wrote an entire rant as a comment on the Forever35 parenting group because I cannot handle seeing people beat themselves up about their kids’ screentime right now. Everyone is allowing their kids about 3000% more screentime right now because our children have nothing else to do, but us parents have plenty to do, especially those of us who have been blessed and lucky enough to still have our full time jobs in the wake of all this nightmare of an economic disaster. We’re struggling to manage domestic and professional spheres of existence at once and it is metaphorically juggling every action all day long. If we can turn on Dolphin Tale 2 and buy an hour of quiet when we can put one of those balls down, then we should take it. It may be the only way we can keep ourselves from burning out, and we should never shame ourselves for doing so.

In recent years though, I have begun to truly resent the screentime issue. Screentime has always been part of the Great Shaming of the Mommy Wars, but in more recent years, has become an issue firmly tied to economic class (which is often also tied to race). Shaming parents for screentime, or making them afraid that screentime is going to break their kids’ brains, is yet one more facet of the American Merit Myth. We have now added “screen free childhood” as a contributing factor to future success, and we have added it into our class hierarchy accordingly. At best, we see the absence of screentime as one more element in the idealized environment we’re supposed to build for our children so they can go on to live great lives with full potential. In reality, screen access is one more place where privileged parents can point at other parents and say that their children’s economic circumstances are their own fault because the parents of the “failing” children didn’t institute screen limits. It’s the child rearing equivalent of broken windows theory

These kind of discussions are also nauseatingly terrifying because our society has been taken over completely by screens – and the people who invent them will not allow their own children to use the devices. The wealthiest Americans are paying for the privilege of having humans interact with their children instead of screens. Like all parts of the American merit myth, a low-screen environment has become one of the components of an educational system that is used to perpetuate the success of the same group of privileged families generation after generation. It isn’t realistic for less funded schools to have the staff required to manage a classroom of 32 kids without using screens. It is also unrealistic for people who do not have a dedicated stay at home parent (or a dedicated caregiver) to avoid the use of screens as a way to keep their children wholly occupied so they require less supervision. Even before the pandemic, with more people working more hours for lower pay, with radical economic inequality driving those hours, parents rely on screens so they can manage the household with the minimal time and energy they have left. Having a screen free kid is a status symbol because we all live basically in a Black Mirror uber-capitalist tech dystopia at this point, and that is why it angers me so very much to hear parents beat themselves up over screentime when it isn’t realistic to cling to an ideal that is more achievable by the wealthy.

As much as I resent the issue and debate and shaming associated with screen time though, I have a definitive stance on the appropriate use of screens for children. I limit screentime for my own child because there is an unnatural aspect to the way that screens are all consuming, which is why we have yet to truly understand the impact of screens on our squishy human brains. “Unnatural” becomes “frightening” when it comes to how compelled our children are to watch those screens. Screen based entertainment, be it TV or video games, educational or not, is always going to have a higher engagement quotient than other activities. It’s a constant flood of entertainment and avoidance of boredom, with very little input or down time.

I also see screen based entertainment as the equivalent of the enchanted Turkish Delight in the Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe. There’s a point where Edmund chooses not to eat his fish and potatoes at the Beavers’ house, because the memory of bad enchanted food drives out his appetite for real, nutritious food. I’ve seen my own child sit in front of a TV waiting for his allocated screentime because the ease of screen based entertainment makes “real” life unappetizing. Screen time is enchanted Turkish Delight: it makes all other activities seem unappetizing by comparison, even when those activities offer more mental nourishment than the screens.

Years of being a more avid reader than a TV or movie watcher has given me a theory: I see screen based entertainment as lazy story consumption. Screens are capable of pumping an entire story, complete with imagery and sound, into your brain. It’s kind of magical in that it requires your brain to do very little work, but rather, hands you the entire story complete with a visual context. Your brain gets all the reward and engagement of a narrative without having to do the heavy lifting of visualizing and imagining the story. It satisfies our love of stories and our love of experiences and occupies our brains completely with the sensory overload of sound and light in the process of doing so. No child should develop a sense that storied do not require imagination.

The other factor we all contend with are smartphones, those dopamine slot machines, evolved over time for the highest usage possible, and that is just the devices. That’s not even considering the games. I see toddlers playing basic smartphone games, poking at the screen with their pudgy little fingers while sitting in their strollers and it makes me a little afraid, because every single phone based game seems to be a derivative of that game in Star Trek TNG that everyone got super addicted to after Riker picked it up like an STD he got on leave:

And that’s not even going into the more “sophisticated” smartphone games, that are are now creatively designed to be more addictive than gambling:

(I am not even getting into social media here because that’s not a factor for kids under 12. Okay, maybe Instagram but I promise he’s using it as a creative outlet)

I’ve struggled with this as a parent for a decade and finally, I realized the only realistic answer for our family was for me to accept the screens where they were useful, and help my child be able to identify why screens are detrimental. I have to teach him to see the mental, emotional and spiritual nourishment in activities that are not screen based. I have to remind him that he will feel better overall from working on his own comedy than he will from watching SNL on YouTube. I have to remind him that he does take just as much happiness from playing board games online with a friend as he does playing Fortnite. Ben has to learn to take true happiness and joy from activities with sustenance, and has to teach himself that screen based entertainment is the mental equivalent of an enchanted sugar gel cube. Otherwise, once Ben gets past the point where I can control his every move, then he will promptly gorge on Fortnite and video games at every opportunity and will risk wasting hours, weeks, years of his life when he could be working on his art, or his sports, or spending time with friends and family.

Maybe if I had raised Ben without any of these screens, then he would only know how to get joy from non-screen activities. Raising him without screens, however, wasn’t realistic for a two-parent working household with an elementary school aged child. Now, it’s not realistic for a middle school student to not be able to engage with his friends through screens…or for him to be not be able to watch Netflix while his mother works during the long hours of this pandemic. I have to juggle the real with my own ideals, and decide not only what I want as a balance for my son, but what I want him to learn for himself as he grows up into an adult who will unfortunately be able to make all kinds of stupid decisions without his mother nagging him to work on his monologue.

So here’s what I actually posted to the thread in question:

For everyone on this thread, PLEASE do not shame yourselves. Please stop thinking you are bad parents for leaning on screens as a way for your children to engage with the world right now. You have the rest of your offspring’s childhood to teach them how to take joy in things that are NOT screen based, and you can do that when you are no longer trying to work full time from home while raising your children with no care support or relief. When we all get through this, teach your children where they can find happiness and flow and joy in their existences without screens. Teach them there are other things to love in this world WHEN YOU CAN, like board games and puzzles, musical instruments, books and writing, time with friends. Take them to parks, or to the forest. Teach them to love and engage with animals. Sign them up for a gender-equal Scouting organization or other wilderness group if they love the outdoors and you want them to do a screen free activity (I hear the Baden-Powell Service Association is great!) Whatever their jam is outside of screens, teach them to explore that just so they know what it feels like to have that that kind of real space happiness. But FOR THE LOVE OF ALL THAT IS HOLY DON’T PUT THAT PRESSURE ON YOURSELF EVERY SECOND OF EVERY DAY. It is FINE to allow your child to watch as much TV as they – and you – need to so that you ALL can live your lives as a FAMILY without throwing a kid out a window.

Also, to the OP, I firmly believe that a few months of extra PBS shows is NOT going to brain damage your child. I gave myself guilt over this for YEARS because I let my son watch Sesame Street when he was less than a year old, and I would like to save you all the agony by telling you that so long as you teach balance and how to live life outside of screens as well as how to use them responsibly, your kiddos will be FINE. Also they will likely learn the alphabet early and probably pick up some lessons about diversity because Sesame Street remains a bastion of literacy AND kindness. I salute you for your good taste in children’s programming ūüôā

(PS. I let my son watch Sesame Street from 6 months on, plus his beloved Mr Wodgers, plus Dinosaur Train and Thomas and the whole PBS gang and aside from constantly trying to play Fortnite more than his allotted hour a day, he’s fine. Then again, those video games are designed to be as addictive as a Vegas casino, so I don’t think skipping PBS shows in 2009 would have helped us with our Fortnite addiction issues in 2020. Separate post.)

I did not add, “screen time is an economic issue” or “screen time is part of the rapidly escalating class war”, because that’s a separate topic and what I wanted to say was for parents to give themselves some fucking compassion at this time. Still, all these things are tied up together: the screen time, our kids brains, their emotions, their addictions, and the way capitalism will take advantage of all those factors now and in the years to come. The cynical dystopia is already here, and is the reason we are even having to engage in this conversation in parent groups. A tech dystopia has no space for compassion. But that is also a post for an entirely separate day.

underestimating parenting problems in an age of inequality

Every day of this pandemic, I feel as if I am accountable to bear witness to the impact the coronavirus has on other New Yorkers. At first, it was the economic impact, as the service jobs disappeared quite literally overnight, back in March. Then it was disproportionate impact COVID-19 has on the less affluent neighborhoods of New York, the food deserts impacted with high air pollution, where the conditions of the neighborhood make the residents more prone to the effects of the virus. Now it is knowing that an essential workforce goes out there every single day to take care of other New Yorkers.

Credited to Bruno Iyda Saggese

The COVID-19 quarantine is also terrifying in the impact it has on children and their education. In New York City alone, thousands of students have city issued devices, but no wi-fi with which to access the school curriculum online. I would imagine even more students have access but do not have parents who are able to support them in the transition to online learning, due to tech literacy or language barriers. This is an issue across the country, but has been in high focus in New York due to the massive gaps in access in such a small geographic area.

And it isn’t only school where children, my son’s classmates and peers, are impacted. Yesterday, I was reading an article on how this summer will be bleak for children and especially for those children in New York City who are already impacted harder than Ben has been due to coronavirus. The lack of city programs, from a combination of budget cuts and quarantine precautions, will have a massive impact on children throughout this city.

Knowing all this, witnessing all this, we have of course been budgeting to send extra money to CAMBA for wifi in shelters or to CHIPS for food bank assistance. Our donations, however, are only a drop in the bucket of what’s needed. Millions of dollars would be a Band-Aid on the effects of inequality on New York kids just like my son, as they struggle to learn and keep up, as the gaps in access and privilege are made even wider by the pandemic. And so, my mental landscape has been shaped by our privilege and good fortune, our middle class comfort, my son’s ability to transition to remote learning with far more ease than a lot of his peers due to his age and materials for learning and his parents’ ability to support him.

It wasn’t until this week that I realized I had been underestimating Ben’s quarantine related sense of loss, as it fell into the peripheral vision of how very much we do have as a family. I had focused on how easy it was for Ben to transition to online learning, using the tech skills he’s developed over the years, combined with my own decades of white-collar organization. Paul and I saw him sitting down and working every day, looking at his schoolwork on Google Classroom, connecting through Zoom to his extracurricular activities and his friends. We thought that because we were able to support him in replicating his life on digital platforms, that he had adapted and everything was fine.

We dramatically underestimated the impact of social distancing on our kid, as his entire life has been yanked out from under him. Ben lost less than many New York kids due to the resources he still has at home, but he still lost a lot when the social distancing went into effect six weeks ago. Ben lost his freedom and his independence, his ability to take the subway or go for lunch at Chipotle. He lost engaging with his friends every day in their school habitat. He lost baseball, which is one of his passions, as Mr Sportball loves the sports. He lost all his in-person contact in every single activity, and I cannot expect him to get the same emotional value out of a digital equivalent. He can’t even go out and shoot hoops with a neighbor kid right now as playdates are even unsafe. So much of what was important to my son, all these things he has been discovering are part of who he is and who he is growing up to be, are completely absent from his life right now.

We discovered this week that this had manifested in some serious behavior issues, which I will not go into at the request of Ben, who has asked me to please not tell everyone what he did because he is very ashamed of himself and is very sorry. And as my son becomes a teen and a tween, I’m trying not to reveal his life as an extension of mine, but rather, accept that he is a separate person from me and that I can only write or talk about him as part of my own story and the impact being his mom has on me. For the intents and purposes of what I am struggling with today, what Ben did isn’t actually that relevant. What is relevant is that I assumed he was okay because we, as a family, have been so fortunate, and it was a mistake to do so. Of course Ben is not okay; of course he needs more support from his parents as he’s dealing with a situation that is scary and weird and most of all, lonely.

That is what I am now trying to deal with. My baby is mostly okay, but in some very deep ways, he is not. Nor should he be. No one is okay in all this. Even the most fortunate of us are not okay. I had assumed that because I am one of the 30% of Americans who easily transitioned to working from home, we would be more okay than most, and perhaps we are. But I cannot view okay-ness on a relative scale and reduce my son’s mental health to a binary: just because he has more then a lot of other kids does not mean his life will feel whole at this time. He is still struggling and he is still lonely and cooped up and miserable, and until this week, we had not given him permission to not be okay.

I tend to view my life through a lens of class privilege. That lens, however, doesn’t allow for a lot of recognition of my own problems when they are made relative to the much greater issues of the wider world. I would prefer my son to feel comfortable with his own problems, to feel like he is allowed to have those problems, and not like his problems are completely negated by his own middle class situation. Ben’s lack of happiness should not be diminished or made irrelevant due to the context of inequality the pandemic has brought into sharp relief around us. He should not be blinded to how fortunate he is, but also should not be made to feel as if he has to reduce his own emotions as to not seem ungrateful.

I’m going to have to carefully balance this, as I work out how to ensure my son remains aware of everything he does have, without feeling as if his material security and access to education cancel out his right to feel and express negative emotions. Parenting, even for the most privileged of us, is extra hard and extra complicated and extra fraught right now, and I am now much more aware of that than I was last week.

the non-milestone birthday, continued

I generally try to keep my birthdays somewhat low key these days. While they used to be long-weekend all-singing-and-dancing productions, these days, they are more like me trying to hide from what I think is unmerited attention

After all, shouldn’t my mother be getting the credit for my birthday? I mean, it’s HER birthday tomorrow, and she likes to say I was her early birthday present, but honestly, she did the work to build me and should therefore get the celebration. (Ditto my son. Why am I not the one being celebrated every June?)

I thought I was getting away with a quiet birthday this year, with the celebration focus on my mother. On Saturday we all celebrated Mom’s birthday at the Oak Bay Marina restaurant, aka The Place We Have Gone On Fancy Occasions Since 1982. The big difference now, however, is that the kids meals are composed plates representing miniature versions of the adult meals, and not the dry hamburger I was so excited to get as a kid.

Ben and my niece Tate with their “kids” meals. I did check to be sure that was a kid sized fish and chips Ben is stabbing.

At the end of this delightful meal, we sang happy birthday to Mom, with only my son and nieces chiming in “AND YOU”, meaning me, at the end of each line. The focus remained on my mother and her milestone birthday!

I was also very quiet in my birthday party this year: I invited less than ten friends to just come get a drink at Bearded Lady around the corner. We had a really lovely time too: the conversation flowed well and the cocktails were exceptionally well crafted to match. But in my haste to get out of the office in time for said happy hour, I mentioned to my two group directors (with whom I form a triumvirate) that I was leaving early for my birthday. They asked why I didn’t say anything, and I grinned, and just explained that every year on a new job, I always manage to fly under the radar for my birthday. It was on Monday, but I thought I was safe!

Then today, I was dragged into what I thought was a Client Innovation Day planning meeting, only to be joyfully surprised by MY ENTIRE TEAM singing Happy Birthday…complete with Melissa’s Gluten Free Cupcakes and a birthday card and drawing:

I am sorry to say I was so surprised that I did tell the guys they were the worst for tattling on me, but I said it smiling. I really need to be more gracious when people throw me a surprise party. I did let them know I was teasing and then sent a separate thank you email telling them how grateful I was not only for today, but for every day. I do actually really love this team a lot – it’s a HUGE operation with no end of craziness but it’s really become a work family over the last few months.

So while I am no longer throwing crazy house parties, or taking a whole crew of people to Bats Day, I am still #blessed enough to have people who want to celebrate me even as I try to hide.

EDIT: I would have had this up half an hour ago, but I got distracted looking for Bats Day photos and ended up organizing Google photos instead for ten minutes, and then I clicked over to Facebook and ended up reading THAT aimlessly for twenty minutes. ALL THESE SITES ARE BAD NEWS.

mama-ben adventure day!

Many years ago, I came up with the model for Mama-Ben adventure days.¬† These were days in which we would pick one or two activities to do together, usually in Manhattan, hence the “adventure” part because you¬†never know¬†what kind of adventure would await those who brave the weekend subway! With Ben’s sports schedule though, it’s been a while since we’ve been able to do a solid Saturday adventure together.¬† So yesterday, we decided that we would spend the day exploring and seeing things a little further from home, both in Manhattan and the Bronx.

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Ben is actually in the Bronx!

We started our day at the Harry Potter: A History of Magic exhibit, at the New York Historical Society on the Upper West side.  This was a literal history of magic as seen through a Harry Potter lens: historical artifacts from magical practices over the last five centuries, intermixed with illustrations and notes from the books.  A friend and I bought tickets for this in April for our Pottermaniac children to see the exhibit together.

Harry Potter exhibit at British Library
This made the exhibit a smidge drier than expected, even for my self-identified Ravenclaw.  While he had mild curiosity around alchemy as the forerunner of chemistry, and enjoyed the interactive elements (projections of Tarot cards were an especial favorite), not even the Natalie Dormer narrated audio tour could make this magical enough.  Individuals more into the magical aspects of the Harry Potter series, as opposed to the action elements, will get more out of this exhibit.  The exhibit was beautifully done, of course, with each room carefully crafted and designed to reflect the studies covered within.  I wish photography had been allowed.
We moved on from there to an impromptu lunch at Shake Shack: having run into another friend at the end of the exhibit with her two sons (the younger of which is also buddies with Ben), we decided to all get lunch together.  Believe it or not this was our first trip to Shake Shack!  Ben declared it the best burger ever.  We plan to test drive the method at home ASAP.
We headed from the Upper West Side to Orchard Beach after lunch, a half-hour drive across the Bronx and through the also unvisited Pelham Bay Park.¬† For the seven years we’ve lived here, we’ve clearly not prioritized visiting all the parks as we should.¬† Pelham Bay was lovely and¬†huge, with an extensive shoreline that was austerely beautiful in the winter cold and grey.
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This reminds me of beaches in Victoria: it looks cold even in the photo
We had traveled out for seal watching with the NYC Park Rangers.  I am so grateful for the park rangers in this city: every single one of them has been amazing in their kindness, knowledge and in the joy they take sharing their love of nature and their parks.  For the seal watching, they had set up two high powered telescopes so we could see the dozen or so harbour seals lounging on the rocks just off the beach
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Ben is very fond of harbour seals: he bonded with the ones that live off the Oak Bay marina when he was just a toddler:

It was therefore meaningful for us to visit those seals’ New York cousins, even though I’m pretty sure that these Bronx seals were all WHAT’RE YOU LOOKING AT, PUNK.¬† Ben still enjoyed seeing them, and I appreciated the opportunity to show him seals that are not dependent on humans for food.¬† Ben is¬†very concerned about the Victoria seals since the “no feeding” rules were enforced; these seals proved that even metro area harbour seals can survive without handouts.

From the seals, we stayed in Pelham Bay Park and went to the Turtle Cove golf center for mini-golf.¬† I was underwhelmed by the mini-golf course, which I suppose could be described as “minimalist”.¬† I suspect the positive reviews of the location are for the driving range, which looked quite nice.¬† However, we were the only people playing mini golf¬†and they had a heater in the women’s bathroom so the experience was redeemed.¬† Also, Ben’s attitude towards mini golf is what most people say about pizza: even when it’s bad, it’s still just fine.¬† It was hard for me to say no to a second round, even in the ocean-adjacent chill. Fortunately, that was when one of Ben’s buddies mom’s texted, asking if Ben could come see¬†Ralph Breaks the Internet with her son, and I was able to leverage that as a reason to skip Round Two. Also, Ben only wanted a round two because I had beat him, 49 strokes to his 63, and he is very competitive about his mini-golf.

It was, chilliness aside, a lovely adventure day.¬† Ben is getting larger every day, and needs me less and less all the time.¬† I’m grateful when he genuinely¬†wants to spend time with me, when in-city adventures with Mama are more important than playdates.¬† I’m even more grateful when I can find an activity that is special to both of us, like going out to see the seals.¬† I do not wish to appropriate the phrase “spirit animal”, but in my British Isles heritage, there is the myth of the selkie instead, which both Ben and I insist we are when there is a plate of raw fish involved.¬† However, we are coming up on teen years, and I’m running out of days when Ben will want to acknowledge the significance of marina mammals in our family narrative.¬† Some day, I will just get an eye roll and a muttered “seals are so lame, Mom.” from him.¬† Until that day comes, I need to better prioritize the time I do have him for adventures like this.

we built this city on inside jokes

I was chatting on Google Hangouts a few¬† weeks ago with my two best friends and revisiting last month’s BBQ birthday party.¬† It’s not often I have people in the same space from all my¬† social worlds.¬† I have my “non-parent” friends, the friends that I made a decade and a half ago when I moved to L.A., and then I have my “parent friends”, the friends I’ve made since moving to Brooklyn.¬† Of those two sources, the latter are overwhelmingly “Scout people”: the community built through what was original “5th Brooklyn Scouts” and is now the “718 Rovers”.¬† My two besties, who pre-date¬†all my parent status, therefore find some amusement in watching me interact with the other Rovers, because they knew me¬†before this round of Scout nerdiness entered my life.

It was in recanting this Hangouts anecdote that I quoted the use of inside jokes as part of this new village we’ve built in Brooklyn.¬† There are a lot of inside jokes with the rest of the Rovers; you don’t work together for five years without building up a lot of shared references.¬† At my birthday event, I was describing my experience volunteering at the Bed-Stuy YMCA and how the most popular skit I taught was Invisible Bench, and everyone yelled “INVISIBLE BENCH!” and immediately attempted to call their kids over to demonstrate it even though we were laughing too hard to call effectively.¬† “Invisible Bench” is a running gag in our group, along with a couple other popular skits, just for being the skit that our kids irrationally love to perform every single camp.¬† It’s one of many inside jokes, but it was one of the strongest moments of nerdy hilarity I remember from the party.

Realizing that we have these kind of shared references, inside jokes and a common language of anecdote though made me suddenly see my Scout people community in a way I hadn’t before.¬† In college, I was part of the Arts Undergrad Society, the council of students that volunteered to run the Faculty of Arts.¬† It was where I made my friends.¬† It was where I spent my time.¬† It was how I identified myself,¬†I am part of the AUS.¬† We ran not only the Faculty but also spent the year building up to Arts County Fair, the end of year charity one-day music festival, which, by the time I graduated, was a 16,000 attendee event with two stages, rock and dance.¬† Because we spent so much time working together on ACF, we all shared a set of inside jokes and references in addition to our common working goals and status as students at UBC.¬† (In fact, as I recall, we¬†documented those inside jokes in a running list of quotes throughout the school year.)

It was the phrase “inside jokes” that made me suddenly see the parallels between my college community and my Brooklyn one.¬† In both cases, it is a community of overachievers who have wholeheartedly committed to a goal in a way that is very pure of heart.¬† In both cases, these are communities of people who simply wish to do good, while also prioritizing the building of friendships and a social experience in the process.¬† In both cases, there are a lot of liberal arts nerds involved.

Basically, I identify strongly with anything where a montage set to “We Built This City (On Rock And Roll)” can be created, whether that’s an ACF setup or the 2018 Moot.¬† If there’s several hours of literally¬†building something with actual labour to be done, then it needs a montage like the Muppets:

I feel it’s important for me to realize this.¬† I gravitate to communities of nerdy overachievers!¬† These are my people!¬† This is also who I am!¬† I am an over-committed do-gooder at heart, but I am happiest to do so if I can throw in a certain amount of goofiness with my earnestness.¬† It is a very¬†Muppet¬†approach, but it also means I approach my work and my effort in Scouting with a certain amount of open-heartedness that keeps it joyful.

i has a tween!

I find it exceptionally hard to believe two things:

  1. ten years have already gone by
  2. the 4’8″ 67lb creature that just tornadoed through the house in search of pants is the same entity who used to be this little angry meatloaf here:

Granted, we do actually have a photo record of him getting larger.

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Also, I’m pretty sure he wasn’t swapped out anywhere along the line because at this point, he literally looks like my face on Paul’s body.

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It is, however, slightly disturbing to think that I HAVE A TWEEN.  This creature is literally a tween.  He is ten.  He is his own person, although that person seems to be a class clown.

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Thankfully, these two awards (received yesterday, 6/18/18) balance each other out.

It’s a weird thing being a parent.¬† The best description I ever read of it was that it feels like your heart is walking around outside your body. This is my¬†son.¬† This is the being who is the most important thing in the world to me, whom I would literally do anything I could to protect.¬† And here he is becoming his own person who is able to walk around in the world¬†without any oversight or protection from me.¬† Worse, he’s becoming a totally¬†different person all the time as he grows up and becomes whoever he truly is in there.

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Still.  I have a tween now, a boy who is halfway to being a man, a creature who will spend the second decade of his life building the foundation of the person he is meant to be.  My job is to support him as he becomes that person, and then boot him out into the world, because he is a terrible roomate (underwear everywhere, eats all the cereal, leaves dishes out).  It is strange to think that I have been doing that job without any formal training, because helping to create and then raise another human seems almost meta in its vast responsibility.  And yet, we have been doing that job, and we have, so far, produced a fairly decent human being.

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We have a¬†tween.¬† Ten years ago, when they handed me my son in a bundle at Cedars-Sinai, I could not have imagined getting to this point.¬† I’m sure I’ll feel the same way when I look back at Mister Class Clown here from his junior year of college.

london calling (the third)

I’m taking my son to London this summer!

Of course I have been to London twice before: once in 2006 when I went and explored it on my own and once in 2010 when Paul and I went on our “honeymoon” (and spent a day at the Tower):

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This is me at the White Tower in 2010.  Paul and I had not yet learned to take selfies.

This is the first time Ben will go to London though.¬† He’s been to Paris and Verona and Venice, to Basel and Zurich, but the closest he’s been to the British Isles is either visiting Victoria or the British pavilion at Disneyworld (both are equally fake-English – I actually felt quite at home in a fake Tudor cottage sweet shop in EPCOT)

I had been holding off on the UK because it’s¬†easy to visit.¬† I like my world traveling to be more exploring and challenging.¬† Visiting Britain (or any of the British Isles) doesn’t require any language or cultural effort.¬† It’s actually¬†comforting for me to visit Britain because it’s so much like home: growing up with an English parent, in a former colony, in a borough that boasted two separate tea rooms and an invisible “Tweed Curtain” separating it from the rest of Victoria, means that I¬†totally get shows like Very British Problems.¬† I may have gone all-in on my mother’s family heritage of Brooklyn Jewish, but I also have British citizenship by descent, and I grew up in a country that was still governed by the British constitution until I was four.

But now, we’re going to Eurocamp!¬† A handful of us will be representing Brooklyn – and the USA based B-PSA groups – at the camp in Newbury.¬† And on the way back, we’re going to stop in London, see the city, stay at Pax Lodge,¬†¬†and see two of Ben’s three namesakes: Big Ben and the Tate Museum (Unfortunately, while there is a PAUL chain of patisseries, there is no major “Boothe” attraction to check off Ben’s full name).

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PAUL cubed.

We’ll go swimming at the ponds on Hampstead Heath.¬† We’ll ride the Eye.¬† We will go to the Museum of the City of London, and to the Tower and the Bridge; we’ll go to the War Rooms.¬† I will drag my son with me to shop at Camden Market ¬†(Actually, I may leave him in the hostel room for that.) We will see what we can in the two and a half days we have, from Saturday afternoon to Tuesday morning.¬† It isn’t a lot of time, but I’m still excited to have it.

So we’re going to London.¬† And it’s a Mama-Ben adventure, like our trip to Switzerland, because Paul doesn’t have the days off to go with us.¬† I still look forward to it, even if I have to miss my husband (and Ben has to miss his father).¬† It will be a great adventure.¬† And while Ben is not as excited about it as I am, at least, after listening to¬†Neverwhere, and getting over his suspicion of China Mieville to read Un Lun Dun, he’s somewhat interested in visiting the city that has inspired many, many fantasy versions of itself.¬† Or he could just be interested in riding the London Eye.¬† Who knows what goes on in the brain of an almost ten year old?

 

 

back to a somewhat less magical existence

And we’re back from Disney World!¬† That was indeed a world, more than a land.¬† We were thoroughly Disney Park’d out by the time we got back, although you would never know it by the enthusiasm Ben showed on Friday morning while hanging out with his visiting cousin from Savannah (shown here in Pandora: The World of Avatar in Animal Kingdom, floating mountains in background):

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Six days is a LOT of Disney time, but it turned out to be what we needed to cover all four parks.  Two days each in Magic Kingdom and Animal Kingdom, one day in Epcot and a half day in Hollywood Studios was indeed the right mix for our plans.  We were able to hit all the high points on Day One in the parks, and then take it a little more slowly while spending time with my visiting family on Thursday and Friday.  Despite my initial skepticism, this was indeed the right family vacation for us this year, especially since Ben and his second cousin Oliver are JUST the right age to be let loose to complete a pirate quest in Adventureland:

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So now we’re back in Brooklyn, which is still magical to me, even if no one here is going to tell me to “have a magical day” as part of their mandated job scripts.¬† Ben has also made his list of Top Ten Favorite WDW Attractions:

    1. Star Tours.¬† We weren’t sure about this, since Ben had a panic attack after riding¬†Flight of the Na’vi in Avatarland, and this was another simulator ride with some drops and a lot of movement.¬† Ben went on it with great trepidation, but by the end, was grinning broadly from the thrill of flying through the¬†Star Wars universe, and asked to go on it three more times during the day.
    2. Kali River Rapids.¬† Identical to the Russian River Rapids in California Adventure, only with a different surrounding story of river rafting in India.¬† We all got drenched on this one, to Ben’s joy and delight.

 

  1. Haunted Mansion.¬† THAT’S MY BABY.
  2. Mission Space (Orange).¬† Again, it was the right level of movement and simulator for Ben’s anxiety and dislike of thrill rides.¬† Also, it is awesome.
  3. Soarin’.¬† I disagree with this and think it should be first since¬†Soarin’ over California was my favorite thing at California Adventure and¬†Soarin’ Over the World is an upgraded version, but I suppose my nine year old son is prioritizing the space rides as he should.
  4. Pirates of the Caribbean.¬† The movies are literal nightmare fuel, leading to a BEN WHY ARE YOU IN OUR ROOM IT’S 2AM incident the night before we left, but the ride remains a classic.
  5. Toy Story Midway Mania.  It combined the joy of fairground skill games with a movie Ben loved Рof course it was a favorite.
  6. Buzz Lightyear Laser Blasters.  No surprise here either.
  7. Big Thunder Railway.¬† This¬†was a surprise since Ben was extremely nervous about riding a roller coaster.¬† However, after riding¬†Flight of the Na’vi, he decided it was actually awesome in that it was well balanced in its thrills.
  8. Kilimanjaro Safaris.  This is basically a big zoo, so we had to balance our appreciation for seeing the animals with our innate dislike of keeping animals in captivity.  It was a well done experience Рa Jeep ride through recreated habitats for African animals Рbut still, not a Disney unique ride.

Ben’s top 5 WDW experiences:

  1. Rampaging Adventureland with his cousin on¬†A Pirate’s Adventure
  2. Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom, which combined Magic: The Gathering with a Disney scavenger hunt
  3. Dinner at Sanaa in Animal Kingdom Lodge, where we ate gluten free naan while watching giraffes outside
  4. The Jeweled Dragon Acrobats at the EPCOT China pavilion.
  5. The Big Thunder Railroad Shutdown, when we got to¬†evacuate the train when the ride stopped with us on it¬† – and got to see the inside of the cave with the lights on (it’s apparently the one part of Disney World that isn’t cleaned,¬†ever)

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I think we can call this another Successful Family Vacation.  It was a much more exhausting experience than Disneyland, but totally worth the energy, money and time to make that many happy family memories.

The author my son and husband BOTH dislike

Image result for perdido street stationOne of my favorite fantasy series is China Mieville’s “New Crobuzon” trilogy: Perdido Street Station, The Scar and Iron Council.¬† This is the steampunk and magic laced world with a corrupt capitalist government, where social, racial and cultural differences are exploited for the political and fiscal gain of the corrupt upper echelons of the city (a familiar story).¬† The city of New Crobuzon itself is an alternate existence of London, dense with neighborhoods that spiral out over time from a central point on its Thames, the Gross Tar.¬† Each neighborhood has a history, each neighborhood has its races and cultures, each one is distinct.¬† New Crobuzon, as a world, is as much about urban history and urban geography and urban sociology as it is a fantasy realm.

I love cities.  I love the stories of cities, how they grow, how neighborhoods are built and change over time.  Therefore, I threw myself wholeheartedly into Perdido Street Station.  I saw, in my imagination, the descriptions of each neighborhood, from the scientific quarter of Brock Marsh, to the abandoned projects of Dog Fenn.  I understood the backstories of how neighborhoods came to be occupied by specific immigrant groups.  I especially loved reading about some neighborhoods went from mansions to slums and back again, keeping tenements as museums to past poverty in their midst (we have one of those!).  And I especially appreciated that, as in all great cities, New Crobuzon grew along its trains, its El, the trains the commuters still take each day, the million ordinary people of a fantasy world, traveling to and from work in a universe full of monsters and magic, between their version of the Outer Boroughs and their white-collar jobs.

Paul was not as much a fan of this concept.¬† He’s fine with world building – he has slugged through King’s¬†Dark Tower series, which I don’t have patience for – but not an urban studies textbook disguised as a steampunk fantasy.¬† ¬†His response was that Mieville spent too much time city building and writing a¬†Lonely Planet: New Crobuzon and not enough time actually developing characters or plot.¬† I pointed out that the character development is¬†great in New Crobuzon, it’s just that each character also has to function as a representation of their class, race and culture almost as much as they are a separate being in their own right.¬† Each character has to also either exemplify their people, or illustrate their community through their outcast or outsider status.¬† Nothing tells us about a people and their culture like those they choose to exile among them.

Therefore, I should not have been surprised when Ben flat out refused to engage with the children’s version of New Crobuzon: Un Lun Dun.¬† We’re attempting to read this right now as the nightly bedtime story, and I’m just not getting anywhere with it. There’s a lot of eye rolling, especially when I have to explain the English language:

Image result for un lun dunME:¬†Binja!¬† Get it?¬† Bin…ja?¬† They’re¬†bin ninjas?
BEN: They’re garbage cans with legs and nunchuks
ME: English people call a trash can a bin.
BEN: *eye roll*

I also love¬†Un Lun Dun.¬† It’s not the flip side of London that¬†Kraken is, but it is a travelogue through a London’s dreams, a city built of London’s cast offs, both material and thought, a city of random buildings and people, traditions and creatures.¬† There’s ghosts and monsters, creatures of all¬† shapes and sizes.¬† There’s houses made from¬†M.O.I.L. – Mildly Obsolete In London – which means typewriters and cassette tapes.¬† There’s even a November Tree, a tree made of solid light from Guy Fawkes fireworks.¬† And my favorite part of Un Lun Dun is how it flips the heroine’s journey around, changing how we think of destiny in these kind of children’s stories.¬† Perhaps it is time that the world gets saved by the “funny one”, not by the chosen one.

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The ab-city, with its houses and dwellings made of everything, in every shape.

Ben, however, is not nearly as charmed and interested in visualizing the ab-city.  I therefore blame Paul for this.  My husband is less into world building that I am.  I want all my books to come with an expansive geography.  I own a copy of the Dictionary of Imaginary Places.  I love maps, I love places, I love cities,  and I love imaginary worlds that come complete with entire sociological histories..  Paul, however, would like his books to be less of an atlas of a mythological land and more of an actual plot and character driven tome.  I suspect our son has taken after his father because attempts to pull Ben into the fantasy books with the best, most memorable and detailed worlds have been met with resistance.  According to Ben, Narnia is boring.  Earthsea was really boring.  (Middle-Earth we are still working on).

I’ll keep working on this.¬† I want my son to have that sense of expansive imagination, to be able to imagine other worlds, with their own history and mythology, their own rules of physics and magic.¬† We’re going to flip into¬†Neverwhere on audiobook over the¬† break.¬† I’ve got twenty-plus hours to fill with Gaiman and Tolkein and Lewis…and we are going to get through the rest of¬†Un Lun Dun if it kills me.¬† I just have to figure out how to get my son excited about exploring these imaginary worlds with his mama.

 

the nightmare before christmas, live in brooklyn!

Last Wednesday, I took the boys to see the Nightmare before Christmas РLive to Film. It was the projected film, with live music and vocals by the original cast voices. That meant Danny Elfman, in person, belting out the part of Jack Skellington, in front of a full two hundred piece orchestra and backing vocal chorus, below the projected film. It was amazing.
Featuring famous Canadian Catherine O’Hara!
Nightmare, along with Edward Scissorhands and Beetlejuice, are part of¬†the goth canon for my generation. Burton’s early work is what fits with the whimsical, dark faeryland aesthetic of second generation goth, both due to the constant reference of death¬†in imagery, and the elongated lines, dark curlicues, and stark contrast stripes. That is the the Tim Burton aesthetic, and Nightmare, with its horror theme, Halloween imagery and Danny Elfman soundtrack, is a pinnacle of goth entertainment.
It’s also worth noting here that, while¬†Oingo Boingo are considered goth adjacent, I do not believe they are considered goth canon. Except for “Dead Man’s Party“, and that I heard more as the Last Dance cover at Bar Sinister.¬†Paul, however, enjoys Oingo Boingo quite a bit,¬†and, as he remarked to me at the end of the movie, this was the closest we would get to an Oingo Boingo concert for a long time. The fact that it wasn’t an Oingo Boingo concert though did not stop us from occasionally quiet-yelling “PLAY DEAD MAN’S PARTY” or “ONLY A LAD!”
Ben is not yet a fan of Oingo Boingo (Paul is working on it), but he loves Nightmare and even asks to watch it in off season (That’s my baby.). He likes the movie so much that he even took a second¬†run at watching its cousin film, the recent adaptation of Gaimans Coraline. (Still too scary.) This event appealed so much to our family that I invested in the mid-range seats at the Barclays Center so we could actually see the performers.
We walked in to find genius product placement: Hot Topic ads featuring Jack Skellington. I dislike the appropriation of Jack Skellington as this sort of bad boy symbol in general, and I squarely blame Hot Topic. Still. Genius product placement.  Then again, Nightmare does inspire some things that sound like a Hot Topic imploded into a quasar of overkill.

Marilyn Manson is also NOT GOTH.
I read retroactively that “Barclay’s Center will become Halloweentown!” and that costumes were encouraged, but I didn’t see anything themed or otherwise.¬† I did see a handful of outfits and Jack Skellington T-shirts, but no effort on the part of the venue was visible as we walked halfway around it to get to our seats.
We sat down just in time for the warm up: Disney’s Silly Skeletons, with a live score performed by the orchestra. I forget how deeply disturbing some of these early cartoons are. Multiple points in this were nightmare fuel:
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I SERIOUSLY CAN’T EVEN IMAGINE WHAT THIS IS.
The next piece was a medley of the score, with what I assume were Tim Burton’s original pencil crayon drawings. Ben was very impressed at the drawings and asked if Tim Burton was also an artist.¬† We had just finished explaining that yes, he was, but he was best known for directing movies, like the original 1987 Batman and Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure but by then the movie had started.
Overture with drawings, which someone kindly posted on YouTube
Right away for the opening number, five cast members filed onto stage, whom we assume were all original score, launching right into “This is Halloween”.¬† It wasn’t until Jack’s first song that Danny Elfman came out, singing “Jack’s Lament” with an incredible intensity.¬† I haven’t seen Elfman sing live before, so therefore I was amazed by his depth of sound.¬† Also, like everyone else on stage, he was clearly having a freaking blast.¬† Despite singing a lament despairing of the sameness of every day in Halloween Town, Danny Elfman was still downright joyful.
That would prove to be the theme for the evening.¬† I have rarely seen a performer enjoy themselves as much as this cast was.¬† Ken Page, singing the Oogie Boogie song, was delighted to be there, and was having so much fun with his performance that it took all the fear out of that most nightmarish of characters.¬† Catherine O’Hara came out and sang “Sally’s Song”, perfectly note for note as she did a quarter century ago, emoting Sally’s tragic longing while still having a good time being on stage.¬† There is something to being at a show where the performers have that contagious joy at being there.
I was just so impressed with this production.¬† I can’t even begin to imagine the work to take the score and sound layers apart and put them back together to sync up to the orchestra and singers.¬† To do so, the original creators of the idea must have had to determine where the live music and voices would cut in, and give direction to sound engineers to specifically take track layers out at those moments.¬† It must have been incredibly detailed work that would require stress-testing with performers.
For that matter, I can’t imagine being in an orchestra performing an entire score all at once.¬† That’s¬†insane, two hours of performing a score straight through without more than the intermission break, plus the opening cartoon and overture.¬† How would you have the entire score on your stand and manage to turn the pages and keep up and play flawlessly for that long?¬† I am blown away with the caliber of musicians that performed this soundtrack, beginning to end.
LIVE FULL ORCHESTRA.
For all these reasons – for the concept of seeing a live-to-film movie perfectly edited, for the joy of the performers singing on stage, for the quality of the musicians who performed, I was so glad we were able to go.¬† It’s our way of celebrating the holiday season: by watching a movie where Halloween nightmares try to reproduce Christmas and end up terrifying everyone.¬† Every family has its traditions.¬† This was a particularly special way for us to celebrate ours.