Wednesday, July 29, 2009

"Princess" Syndrome

I think I've already expressed my vast contempt for the school of thought, arising mostly from deeply wrong-headed garble-science of the 70s, which says that little boys and little girls raised in an identical fashion will show no discernible forms of gender bias. But if I haven't please allow me to wax eloquent about the pinheaded buffoonery of this position... at least, as based on the mighty population sample presented by my children (and those of a whole bunch of other long-suffering parents I know.)

Most of the parent-types of my cohort have absorbed at least basic ideas of gender equality. We're not out there buying pink for girls, blue for boys. We tend to think Barbie is a particularly nasty form of consumer manipulation, and we're well aware that a large cardboard box is probably the finest plaything any child can ever have. In short, we don't pander to the old stereotypes about kids, but we're too lazy (and possibly well-informed, having ourselves been children in an experimental era) to go all rigidly PC on our kids either.

Mostly, the kids get to choose their own path. We just try to make sure they've got lots of interesting choices available to them.

Now, for my two boys, the path-choosing thing led to both of them building guns out of lego before they could actually talk. Seriously. The first thing Elder Son ever built, when we got him his own bucket of that clunky, over-sized toddler-lego stuff, was a stack of eight short blocks, with one long block sticking over the top. He ran around the house pointing it at everybody, making pssk-chew! and pyew! pyew! noises, and there was no bloody mistaking the fact that we were being blown to bitty pieces by his ray-gun, or whatever weapon it was meant to be.

I quite liked that. Particularly because Natalie had been solidly adamant on her "no toy guns" rule. I did tell her that I thought it was a waste of time, but she didn't believe me... right up until the kid who could barely say "mum" and "dad" shot her full of imaginary death-beams with his Lego blaster. After that, she kinda caved in. And a good thing too, or I couldn't now indulge in the supreme joy of massacreing my offspring with a super-sized waterblaster every summer...

In other words, the boys did Boy Things. Sure, they also played with all kinds of 'dolls' (including wine corks, cutlery, pieces of food...) They both like music, and both spent a lot of time dancing happily when they were small. The Younger Son quite likes to get involved with the cooking. But fundamentally, they did Boy stuff.

The Mau-Mau... well, we had a houseful of leftover toddler toys for her. And heaps of toddler clothing. All of it was for boys, more or less, insofar as toddler stuff is ever differentiated... but we didn't figure that mattered at all. And so, in her early days, the Mau-Mau wore -- pretty much what the boys wore. And she played with the things the boys used to play with, yep.

But... the way she played was different. And her first word - it wasn't "Mum," or "Dad". It was "shoe". Followed very quickly by the plural, "shoes". And as soon as she got old enough to express a preference, she wanted pink stuff. Lots and lots of pink stuff.

She's nearly four now, and the trend has not abated. In fact, it's reaching something of an ugly crisis point. The Mau-Mau is a cute little creature, but she's smaller than her brothers, and being unable to use force to get her own way, she's resorting to emotional manipulation.

This is extremely unpleasant. The boys both went through brief stages of crap like "I'm not your friend any more", and the Younger Son has delivered the inevitable "I hate you!" line in a fit of temper. Elder Son had massive tanties from age two through to age four.

But in both cases, it's been unsubtle, and not particularly well orchestrated or planned, and with patience and firmness and solid boundaries, we got through it all. The boys are open about what they want. If they don't get it, they might grizzle, but that's about it. And if/when they get angry - fine, they get angry. If they overdo it, they get sent away to cool off. Then they come back. So much for that.

The Mau-Mau... yeah.

Neither Natalie nor myself likes emotional manipulation. And to see it becoming a mainstream approach from the daughter is disquieting. To an extent, I'm sure it's being reinforced through her interactions at daycare with other little ones. But how is it becoming her go-to position?

The slightest bump or injury... sometimes they're nothing at all, as it should be. But if she's in the mood, that tiny bump can become a gigantic trauma, with the full range of tears and horrors and wails. Any perceived slight from a brother becomes the greatest outrage of all time, and she performs to the peak of her ability in the hopes that someone will visit punishments upon the brother in question. Natalie and I are now literally at the point where first instinct, when the Mau-Mau howls, is to disregard it completely. (Fortunately, the parental ear is a finely tuned thing. If she really had cause to howl, we'd hear it and know.)

A performance of "but I don't WANT to eat my dinner and your cruelty in insisting that I must is only matched by the viciousness of the Spanish Inquisition, you heartless filth!" includes streams of very real tears, and howls, subsiding quickly into a very prolonged wordless whimpering -- the sort of thing you'd expect from a beaten dog, licking its wounds -- and accusing stares that can last anywhere up to half an hour. That is, unless either parent loses patience and sends her off to calm down, which is the usual result.

And that's the thing, isn't it? We're not reinforcing this shit. It gets ignored as long as humanly possible, and at best, it results in temporary banishment. It doesn't get her out of anything. It doesn't gain her anything.

It isn't as though she doesn't get positive reinforcement elsewhere. She gets her cuddles, and her quality time. She gets books read to her, and we make things together, and do all kinds of stuff. When her behaviour is good, she gets rewarded immediately and clearly.

And yet the awful, manipulative stuff continues.

Then there's the clothing thing. We've tried exposing her to the positive girl image stuff. She's got Dora the Explorer. She's got all kinds of gender-neutral Doctor Seuss. But you know what sticks with her? The fucking princess bullshit, of course.

She has one 'princess' Wii game. She has one pink 'magic mirror' that says princessy stuff when you press a button. There are some pink foofy dresses, yes. And I suspect she's seen some princessy crap here and there at daycare, and at other houses, etc. But the magic word 'princess' is astonishingly powerful, and the clothing...

... I hurried her dressing the other morning. Looked into her room, found her shimmying into a feather-weight pink summer dress with thin shoulder straps. Outside, it was 2C. (That's about 36F). So I told her she needed leggings, and a warm jumper.

The Mau-Mau instantly burst into tears. "But I want to be beautiful," she howled, clutching her totally inappropriate non-winter frock.

Fuck me. Where did that come from?

Naturally, I told her she was beautiful no matter what she wore. (And if there's a man alive who doesn't recognize where this situation is leading to the grown-up version of the Mau-Mau, then he's gayer than Tom Cruise and more clueless than Stephen Conroy) And I pointed out how cold it was, etc... but the damage was done.

When did she decide "beautiful" was something to aspire to? She's not even four years old yet, for fuck's sake. Who told her that "beautiful" had any fucking relationship to the clothing she wears? Half her gear is still hand-me-down rough-and-tumble toddler-wear!

I'm unspeakably furious about this, and I'm not sure I should be. I can accept that girls and boys differ on a fundamental level. I accept that they think differently. And yet this seems to me such an invasive, unpleasant piece of mind-control: someone, somehow has convinced my tiny, lovely daughter that she needs to be 'beautiful'. and that in order to be 'beautiful' she has to wear very specific kinds of clothing.

If that's true -- if there's been some kind of social act, some sort of indoctrination, inculcation and conditioning, then I genuinely want to go postal.

But what if it's not that? I trust the daycare situation. The woman who runs it is amazing, wonderful, fabulous. She's looked after both boys, and now the girl, and all three of them idolize her. I'm sure, of course, that like Natalie and I she's prone to using the word 'beautiful' when the Mau-Mau primps and poses, yes. But I'm equally sure that she would never permit or encourage this fetishizing of the concept of 'beautiful', nor imprint on any of her charges the idea that 'beautiful' came from the clothing they wear. And obviously, as I trust the daycare situation, the home situation is even more free of this stuff. I mean, for fuck's sake: I'm the dad who's proud of his Godzilla-loving daughter, right?

So... what if it isn't socialisation at all? What if this is down deeper, closer to the genetic stuff? What if my response to this sort of thing from my daughter is as ridiculous as Natalie's feelings towards the boys and their toy guns?

There's heresy for you. Naomi Wolf created a huge stir with The Beauty Myth, which (in its early versions) came nearly paranoid-close to positing an outright conspiracy among men to foster the 'myth of beauty', and to use it as a means of controlling women. (She modified some of the more paranoiac lines from the introduction in later editions; I know this because I got into a load of trouble quoting from the introduction to the 2nd edition - the copy I own - in an argument with a bunch of True Believer Feministas from the US.) Wolf offered nearly three hundred pages to argue that the whole concept of beauty was a social construct, and a deliberate imposition.

And while I didn't accept the 'conspiracy' thesis, I did accept the idea that beauty is socially constructed, and the effect of that construction on women is disempowering, and negative.

So now what? I mean, really -- now what?

This morning, I lost patience as we walked out to the car. The Mau-Mau had suffered some imaginary slight in the process of getting ready to leave, and she'd begun the Great Whimper, complete with tears and bottom lip and foot-dragging. I didn't have time for it, so as I passed her, I said: "Princesses don't cry, do they?"

There was a pause. I stopped, and caught her eye.

She slowly shook her head.

"Good," I said. "If princesses don't cry, what are you doing?"

She straightened up, and climbed into the car without another word.

I think I hate myself.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The "Nigger Problem"... definitely NOT what you might think!

No, it's actually a fascinating insight into the persistence of memes. You see, the Mau-Mau has been in two separate day-care spots now. And at one of them, somehow, she's picked up an old, old rhyme. I'm sure you know it:

Eenie meanie minie mo
Catch a nigger by the toe
If he squeals let him go
Eenie meanie minie mo

The first time Natalie and I heard that from the Mau-Mau, we both nearly choked. First, of course, neither of us uses the word 'nigger'. But second... it's really not part of the Australian vocabulary to any real extent. We've got plenty of racist terms of our own: "coon", "boong", "abo", "road-patch"... dozens more. 'Nigger' is a very rare part of the vernacular here, and it's never had the same pejorative qualities, the same explosive power that it does in the US. You can go a damned long time without seeing or hearing it here.

So... where the blazes did the Mau-Mau get it?

Of course, that wasn't our first thought. The first reaction was: how can we get her to change that without making a big fuss? She's three years old. She doesn't have any ability to understand the sort of thing she's saying, so innocently. But she's a cranky, rebellious three - and if we make a big to-do out of the word, she will save it up and start using it when she's angry, and wants to insult someone... and that's exactly what we don't want.

We've been gently urging her towards the "tiger" version of the rhyme -- simply interrupting her when she says "nigger", and telling her she got it wrong. Of course, she's been trying to tell us that we've got it wrong, and that her friend Xxxxxx who taught it to her (and who happens to be about six years old) definitely said "nigger". So we're telling her that Xxxxxx and the others have got it wrong too... and we'll keep on with that tactic until the Mau-Mau is old enough to understand concepts like racism.

But in the meantime... isn't it amazing that a thing like this rhyme lives on? It's not a rhyme adults teach their kids. It's a thing that goes from kid to kid to kid, sidling between generations a year at a time in schoolyards and kindergartens and playgroups. I've heard both my sons bring home from school stupid little rhymes that I recall from my childhood, and it continues to amaze and surprise me. The implication is that there's this... culture of childhood, this collection of verbal and somatic artifacts that travels between children, and pretty much only children, and it can persist more or less unchanged for decades. Maybe even longer.

Nat and I will eventually convince the Mau-Mau that there's no good in using the word "nigger" in her little rhyme. But by that time, more kids will have heard it, and memorised it, and passed it on to still more... and I suppose there will probably be small children trying to "catch a nigger by the toe" long after I'm dead.

Which is a weird thought.

Now... if you've noticed that posts around here are a bit infrequent these days, just take it that I'm flat out. Because it's true. I'm stealing time right now... should be cleaning, laundering, working with the boys, reading to the Mau-Mau, prepping dinner, practicing sword technique... Oh, yes, that last one: I've been upgraded to a live sword now. No more iaito work for me. I'm practising with a full length, full-weight, viciously sharp battlefield-style sword. Scary, but good fun as long as I stay well away from the kids and the dog. Zombies, beware!

Where was I? Oh yes. Sword practice. Writing -- half a dozen projects on the boil. And other stuff. Exercise. Paperwork. Endless. No time for much of anything. So I post here when I can.

In other news? Admire this cute image:

Note the hyper-trendy footwear. I found some cheap-ass dinosaur slippers at the local crapola store. Bought 'em, brought 'em home, told the Mau-Mau they were her new Godzilla Slippers. Instant response = one superdelighted child. She's been stomping around, roaring and destroying Tokyo ever since. Best four or five bucks I've spent in months...

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Day On The Town

Finally! The first free Saturday (mostly) for the family in what seems like six months. Probably no more than eight to ten weeks, really, but it feels longer.

It wasn't entirely free, of course. Had a bloke deliver a load of firewood in the morning, so we had to be home for that. I simply can't keep up, using the chainsaw -- it's so rare to get any time without children underfoot, and I find that children + chainsaw is a really poor mix. Particularly as I'm careful to wear hearing protection, so I have exactly zero chance of monitoring the little bastards while I'm trying to disassemble a deadfall for the family firewood heap...

And since we had to stick around for Firewood Guy, I ducked down to Scottsdale to get some cash, and remembered we were out of bread and milk. Oh, and when I got home it was time to run the pump. And feed the chickens, which meant tying up the dog, which was good because he was still tied up when Firewood Guy arrived, so he didn't try to 'help' us unload the firewood... stupid dog. You'd think after the first five-kilo lump of seasoned eucalypt bounced off his scone he'd figure out that trying to catch flying billets of firewood is a mug's game. Stupid dog.

Anyway, after that we launched the Mighty Earth King, loaded the whole family aboard, and headed for the bright lights of Launceston. By the way: that's pronounced "Laun-cess-ton", for those of you with enough Brit culture to think it might be "launston". And in any case, the point is moot because Tasmanians are just like mainlanders in terms of nicknaming things: it's "Lonnie".

...and in short order, we stopped. Threw Elder Son out of the car. Made him wait on the roadside in the rain until I conferred with Younger Son to ascertain exactly what it was Elder Son was doing that made him repeatedly scream "STOP IT!" Sent Younger Son into the very back seat of the Earth King (an option Younger Son loves) so that Elder Son could be isolated on an edge seat in the middle, out of reach of any siblings.

Fuck, I hate that shit. What is it about being a kid that makes it necessary to find ways to piss off the sibling next to you? I should take to carrying shoes in the front of the car just so I can heave them over my shoulder at appropriate intervals.

Anyway. We made it to Lonnie. Rainy, cold, dark day -- and the legendary "Launceston Mist" was in place. Launceston is at the bottom of the Tamar River Valley, and in winter, for whatever reason, air quality plummets. When you come over the crest of the hills around the town, you can see this long, low cloud lying upon the place. Sometimes it's largely fog. Yesterday, from the bluish tint, there was a metric shitload of woodsmoke in it. The Council is perpetually trying to battle winter wood-heaters: with smoke inspectors, and wood-stove buybacks, and plans to cushion the cost of installing electric stuff, and rules about insulation and so forth. Meanwhile, the wood heater afficionados point the finger at Forestry Tasmania and various burn-offs around the place.

Whoever is to blame: in winter, you can just about cut the air around Launceston with a cheese fork.

Big day in town:
  • new fiddle for the Younger Son, much to his delight. He's been putting in the hard yards in practise, and he's done a little growing, so he's earned an upgrade and an upsize. Must say, the new fiddle sounds much nicer.
  • Visit to the secondhand bookstore. Why am I constitutionally incapable of just handing old books over to the Salvos? I don't need more books, do I? Ahhh, who am I kidding? I always need more books.
  • Groceries
  • Obscure batteries for a range of offbeat devices, including the dog-collar and its remote.
  • minor odds and sods of clothing...
  • new music for me -- something from Marrakech that looked interesting
  • new Wii game for Nat: Wii Music, which seems to fit her recent gameplay
...and the great treat of the day: Ice Age 3. In 3d.

Oh, lucky me.

Actually, it wasn't as dire as I expected, even though the theatre was packed with families and munchkins. (Something to do with the rain and the cold, I expect.) I admit, I'd thought that the Potterflick would siphon away some of that action, but I guess I was wrong. It wasn't too awful, anyhow. Simon Pegg's "Buck Weasel" character was good for a few laughs, and it was interesting seeing this new 3d process up close and personal.

Truth? I don't really give a f__k about the 3d thing. It doesn't add anything significant to my filmgoing experience. I don't much like wearing the stoopid glasses (and they kept falling off the Mau-Mau's button nose) and the novelty of a sense of depth on the screen doesn't really keep my interest for very long. I can't see a reason why this wave of 3d mania should last any longer than the previous ones... but then, I'm an appalling judge of what people will like, especially when it comes to fundamentally stupid memes, fads and crazes. Who knows? Maybe we'll be stuck seeing everything through Clark Kent-ish 3d specs from now on.

So, we finished our marvelous movie experience, and shambled off through the rain to the Mighty Earth King. This time I just separated the kids from the outset, and we made it home just fine.

Rain, wood fire... new books to read... new game for Nat... tired kids... sometimes winter evenings are cosy. This one wasn't bad. I made gourmet burgers for dinner, with spinach and rocket and ripe tomatoes and cheese, and seasoned mince burgers and bacon (and a chili/lime/salt marinated chicken fillet for Natalie) on toasted hunks of ciabatta... all good. Then the kids went off to bed, and Natalie and I opened a bottle of wine and sat down to watch the rest of the new Torchwood mini-series thing.

I've had worse days.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Small Steps

Right. Well, I've had the meeting with the psychologist who carried out Elder Son's 'Formal Assessment' at the behest of the school and the Ed Dept. No great surprises: he's very high in verbal, in abstract reasoning, perceptual stuff, not quite so high in other aspects - and a little slow in what they call 'processing speed'. I'm assured that's not uncommon in kids at the sharp end: essentially, he's a deep thinker, not a fast thinker. That would reflect his mother more than me; I've met people who are faster thinkers than I am, definitely, but not every day.

So the prognosis is that yes, he's a clever cookie and yes, the Ed Dept and the school have to start thinking of ways to work with him on that basis. And that's a good thing, sure.

But -- it's not like the school is overloaded with resources and available people. So whatever we work out, it's unlikely to take a whole lot of workload off my shoulders.

I must say, the assessing officer was a piece of work. She's very smart, highly articulate, and extremely passionate about what she does. It was a genuine relief to talk with her. I never wanted to be the kind of 'in-your-face' parent who insists the kid is a little genius and demands special consideration... but it was heartbreaking watching the boy's face drop every morning at school time, and it was depressing to see the books he brought home as assigned reading.

There was one morning... we'd been reading Tennyson, I think. Just to enjoy it this time. But he turned to me with this puzzled look in his eyes and said "Why do you think they're still teaching about the 'magic E that makes the vowel say its name?"

I said: "Well, because it's useful to help people read."

And he said, without any kind of rancour or condescension: "Yes, but they've been teaching it to us for three years now. Don't they realise we know?"

And at that point, I had to scratch around for a diplomatic way of saying that no, not every kid in your class has worked it out yet, nor will.

I settled for a sports analogy: reminded him that he's not the fastest runner nor the best football kicker in his class. Told him how some kids are better at some things than others, and it didn't make them better or worse as people. And I was lucky: he didn't point out that the fast kids are allowed to run just as fast as they want, and he didn't point out that the sporting kids are allowed to join teams and play games with the bigger kids... he just accepted the idea and left it there.

But obviously, I didn't forget.

Primary schooling for me was a miserable exercise in painful fucking time-wasting. So, for that matter, was most of secondary school. Natalie had much the same experience. Worse: even though they noticed and knew that I was good -- really, really good -- with language, nobody really paid attention to that until I was in year twelve, and even then...

Schools have inched forward since then. When I was eight, the Qld dept of education assessed my reading and verbal comprehension as being off their charts. (The charts went to 'reading age 18'. There was nothing higher.) Then they sent me back to my Year 3 classroom to read picture-books in a circle. Now, even though it's taken over a year to get there -- at least there is a formal assessment system in place, and a recognition of the obligation of the school system to kids at the high end of the curve as well as the middle and the low.

The talk with the psychologist was a huge relief, a weight off my shoulders. I've felt bad about pushing the school. I know how undersupplied and underfunded schools are, and I know how damned hard teachers work. The last thing they need is an irritating parent demanding some kind of special treatment. But at least with this piece of paper in hand, the school now has the ammunition to ask the ed dept for help -- and I have a tangible justification for my attitude.

It's already improving. I've had the Elder Son learning to type here at home, and when he passed 20 words a minute, I decided he might as well do al his English and his writing that way. The school has been really good: he's been allowed to type there, too. Better still, the assessing officer tells me it's an excellent approach, allowing him to utilise his thinking skills instead of frustrating him with the trials of penmanship. (We're still going to work him through cursive script, of course. But for actual work, he can type. And that makes him happy, and produces more work which is also more accurate, detailed and thoughtful.)

There will be more. I have to meet with the school people again, and we have to try to construct some kind of effective programme for him on school time and school resources. This isn't going to be easy, or simple. But my kids are not going to spend their childhoods hating every day they have to set foot in school, bored beyond belief.

That is not going to happen.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Minor Miscalculation

Women and birthdays. Just... putting the two together like that is enough to make grown men shudder, if they have any sense at all.

Natalie has never been particularly sensitive about her age. But neither has she made much fuss of birthdays, and she's been kind of snarky about the big fuss made over things like 21sts and 30ths and so forth. In general, I arrange for the kids to find cards and presents for her, and she gets a bit of a lie-in and something nice for tea, and a bit of free time and a cake, and everybody goes away happy.

So. Natalie turned 40 in February. Very nicely, I might add. She still fits her wedding dress of fourteen years ago. Both of us have lines we didn't back then, and streaks of silver here and there, but on the other hand, as I mentioned quite forcefully to a friend just a few day ago, we have three children. Silver is a thing you can earn.

Anyway, I took a look at that whole '40' thing, and I thought long and hard. And in the end, I made a judgement call, and kept it all very low key indeed. Because I figured -- you know, she's not such a one for birthdays anyway, and if ever a birthday was going to give a woman pause, it would be the 40th.

Unfortunately, the judgement call was out. By quite a lot. Remember that Harmison first ball in the last Ashes series? Yeah, it was that far out. Second slip. Apparently, what I should have done was organise a large and thronging crowd for cocktails, music, barbecue, and roistering.

There's a thing, right there. As anybody who knows my wife will point out, cocktails and roistering, noise and crowds are not on the list of things she's likely to sing about when confronted by a family of Austrians trying to escape the Nazis. In fact, she rather goes out of her way to avoid such shenanigans. (And escaping Austrians - as does any sensible person.)

Thus it was that I have to profess myself extraordinarily grateful to Uphill Neighbour Mad Mike the Historian and his marvellous wife Eddy. They just sort of... decided... that there Would Be A Party. And be damned if it was July.

See, I could never have done that. If I'd tried, it would simply have been 'too late', as it is for every husband who gets the signals mixed up like that. And it would have been 'too late' for the next ten years or so, I reckon. But Mike is a man of Certain Energies, and so invitations were made, and food was prepared, and the very fine House Uphill was made ready...

... actually, it was a pretty decent party. Mike cooked his not inconsiderable arse off, providing a range of tasty Greek main courses. Anna the Wondermum brought her brood, and also provided the most amazingly beautiful Trad Swedish gingerbread house, complete with Trad Swedish M&M decorations, and there were desserts and lemon squares and kids underfoot and wine and bubbly, and all manner of good things. Of course, the weather was shabby which kept the Launceston musical contingent in check... but that just meant there was more tasty stuff to go around.

And yours truly prepared a remarkable array of toothsome hors d'ouevres, and has therefore hopefully redeemed himself to a degree.

Therein endeth the lesson, gentlemen: if you've screwed the pooch and missed a birthday you should have feted, best hope you have an emphatic, energetic Greek-cooking comrade to bail you out...

Friday, July 10, 2009

Domestic Observations:

Stuff I Cannot Teach My Wife To Do, Even Though She's Old Enough To Know Better
  • Rinse her breakfast cereal bowls so I don't have to chisel the organic concrete she calls 'muesli' out of them later
  • Stop abandoning her dressing gowns on top of the couch.
  • Oh, and when she wants to find her dressing gown later, to LOOK ON TOP OF THE COUCH WHERE IT'S ALWAYS LYING!
  • Take the time necessary to push the hi-tech super-groovy aeropress coffeemaker I got her all the way to the bottom and eject the nasty puck of coffee grounds, rather than leave the entire device sitting in the sink. Does coffee really taste that bad after an extra five seconds?
  • occasionally remove some of her arsenal of jumpers, cardigans and jackets from the hanging spaces in the bathroom because there's no room left for towels and kids's gear.
  • remember to look in the bathroom when she runs out of jumpers, cardigans and jackets.
Things My Wife Would Really Like The Kids To Learn
  • Hang up their clothes on the hanging spaces in the bathroom when they climb in the bath.
  • Not to abandon their pyjamas all over the lounge when they get dressed in the morning
  • Remember to look for various toys, pyjamas and books in the last place they were summarily abandoned before calling in a statewide aerial search
  • Put their used dishes on the sink, and maybe scrape them into the compost bucket
My Chances Of Subtly Pointing Out That Leading By Example Is A Great Way To Teach
  • Buckley's
  • None
  • Have you seen the state of my study?


A good day of home ed. yesterday. Elder Son's class at school have been looking at the concept of 'classification', and it kinda fits in with what we've been doing here at home... a bit of work on evolution, origin of species, and the wide, wide range of living organisms. Anyway, I found a rather good biological/taxonomic key on the web, and promptly snarfed it.

For those of you not of scientific bent, a Taxonomic Key is nothing more than a carefully constructed series of questions designed to help you identify some kind of living organism. You start at the beginning, and obey the instructions that follow your answer to each question, and eventually, you wind up with a name for your creature, or plant, or whatever.

Low-level taxonomy is a right bastard. Distinguishing between two closely related species of insect, for example, isn't just a job for experts... for some insects, it's a job for experts and a scanning electron microscope. I can manage a lot of stuff here at home, but sadly, I haven't managed to convince Natalie yet of our need for an electron microscope.

Anyway, this particular Taxonomic Key is nice. It's very broad: you can apply it to any living thing. Logically, therefore, it doesn't go very deep -- you get down as far as Order mostly. And with some organisms, not even that far. (The lowest taxon for anything fungal is "Kingdom Fungi". )

The lack of depth is no issue. For a beginner, it's perfect. All the biological differences that this particular Taxonomic Key relies on are very visual indeed, and pretty intuitive. Certainly, Elder Son had no trouble with it at all. A garden snail, for example: he made it all the way down to 'gastropoda' in no time flat, with no prompting from me whatsoever.

In fact, my only complaint is that whoever designed this key is clearly NOT an Australian. Why do I say this? It's simple: when you get to 'Class Mammalia', the next question is about hooves, or no-hooves. No questions about egg-laying. No questions about pouches. According to this particular taxo-key, echidnas are actually 'order insectivora', not 'order monotremata', as they should be.

What we call a glaring, stupid mistake that one. Anyway, I'll get around to rewriting the thing (it's only two pages of PDF) and I'll correct that little piece of stupidity. It's easy enough to alert the boy to it anyhow.

Point is, though, he absolutely loved the concept, and loved using it. I was going to get him to key out twenty different living things, but instead of just writing down his results, he was lovingly annotating every step of the classification process, so I stopped him at ten. He got all of them absolutely right, and enjoyed himself tremendously taking photos of his various creatures, etc.

I guess I'd forgotten how potent the act of naming can be. For a youngster, names are knowledge and power. Being able to provide scientific names for the cat, the dog, the rats - being able to investigate their relationship to other living creatures - really caught his interest, and as far as I'm concerned, that makes for an exceptionally powerful learning experience.

Of course, the other thing about this broad Taxonomic Key is that it necessarily focuses on some of the most important elements of structural biology. The questions are designed to divide up living organisms along taxonomic lines, and in general, those taxonomic features are also vital evolutionary and biological features. So in the process of messing with these two sheets of paper, Elder Son has learned to understand the distinction between autotrophs and heterotrophs, consumers and decomposers, backbone/no backbone, radial symmetry vs bilateral symmetry, etc. Fantastic day's work, really.

The Spanish has started to come along nicely too. We've been hampered in the past by the fact that Younger Son wasn't much on reading -- but he's in year 1 now, and his reading has (like his brothers at much the same age) leapt exponentially forward. So now, we're not limited to trying our halting conversational stuff -- we can actually read, and write, and since both boys are, like me, primarily visual learners, it's really coming along nicely.

We've found ourselves a nice little progressive text, in which we're learning all about Enrique Pereda and his friend Maria Jackson, and their monumentally dull lives at high school. But dull or not, we're moving along nicely. It's very cool watching the boys read and translate grade-school Spanish at a rate that equals or betters what you'd expect most kids their age to show on their English -- and I'm enjoying learning along with them. I think the time has come to start ordering a few kids' books in Spanish... wonder if there's an 'El Amazon' out there somewhere?

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

And Now, Illustrations.

Here are some photos. It took me a hella long time to get them into this stupid blog. You'd better appreciate them...

Here's the lads, immediately before the Great Orchestra Debacle (otherwise known as The Mau-Mau's Symphony in Ass Flat Minor) As you can see, the dignity and seriousness of the event have deeply affected Younger Son.

Anyway. This is meant to be mostly about the weekend that just passed. Yes, I know it's Wednesday. Monday was a pupil-free day at school, so we had Elder Son's long-awaited ninth birthday party. And yesterday? Oh, shit, I was good for nothing yesterday. Not a damned thing.

Here's a quick vision of the major hassle of the weekend:

Wish I'd thought to take photos of the initial goddam mountain of flatpacks. This is just a tiny, tiny fraction, although you can see the crawling chaos beginning to spread...

A disaster zone of cardboard, polystyrene, bits of timber, stray tools, children, cats, glue, and laundry. How did we get so far behind on the laundry?

More from Planet Flatpack... the Mau-Mau helps Natalie with a chest of drawers, while Younger Son stuffs YET MORE F___KING POLYSTYRENE into a garbage bag. You will note that Flatpack Hell has pretty much consumed the living space...

Sunday Afternoon was the first Kid's Party Event. Natalie being on call, I got the short straw. Naturally.
Naturally, the Saturday Kid's party was Fancy Dress. From right to left -- Elder Son is The Mad Scientist. He has gelled "crazy hair", a pair of welding goggles (the groovy flip-up kind), black vinyl gloves and an old white shirt belonging to his mother.

The Mau-Mau is wearing one of her favourite pink dresses, and an old cloak. She announced she was the Nightcrawler Wizard, but I believe that later morphed into some kind of princess. And of course, Younger Son was delighted when we found an old Wizard costume his brother had outgrown. That's a chopstick serving as a magic wand, there...

The party was mayhem. There were more than twenty kids, and it was brutally cold outside. Fortunately, Saturday Kid's Mum was organized -- she had 'em playing games in the rumpus room for an hour and a half. Then it was picnic food, sausages, lollies, and finally, The Birthday Cake and Awaaaaayyyyyy...
That's the birthday cake at the Saturday Kid Party. You see what I have to compete with? Poor Elder Son only got a plain chocolate mud cake... Good thing I planned a Tardis Pinata, eh?

Aaand back on Planet Flatpack...

For a wonder Natalie didn't get called out too often, and she plugged away at Flatpack Hell. Here's the boys' room with two assembled beds. No shelves, chests of drawers or cupboards in place yet, but getting there.

The final count? I did two beds, a two desks and a chest of drawers, but I also did the extra kid's party, and the prep for the 4th July party, plus extra kid-wrangling. Natalie did a bed, two chests of drawers, a desk and three bookshelves, and did a grand reduction of toys and clothes and crap.

I don't think either of us did a lot of sleeping.

Elder Son was pretty happy to climb into the newly assembled outcome of Flatpack Hell. It elicited approval from the cats, too -- they can jump up to mattress level, and being cats, they quite like having a bit of height to look down from.

Elder Son's official Doctor Who birthday party was really pretty much the last gasp... Nat and I spent the whole morning frantically racing around cleaning up the remnants of Flatpack Hell, distributing furnishings, collecting laundry, cleaning, prepping birthday cakes and party bags, and organising games, etc. Goddam nightmare. Somehow, by mid-day, we were ready to go.

Parenting Tip: to anybody with a little bit of space -- the Single Greatest Party Game Ever is without doubt the Scavenger Hunt. The list I handed to the two teams included a hazelnut, a walnut, a slater, a rubber tyre, something made of plastic, a feather, a piece of ripe fruit, and sundry other obscurities. It took 'em twenty whole glorious minutes of racing around outside, charging from location to location, shouting to each other, heaving at tyres, arguing over bugs (we got two millipedes and an earthworm before anybody actually managed to get a slater!). It was goddam fantastic -- a dozen kids outside, desperately engrossed, while exhausted parents got twenty minutes to themselves. Score!

Two Cybermen and a Dalek demonstrating what an "Axis of Evil" really looks like. Cop that, George Dubya!

"Oh, hey -- look at that bloke with the hat and the scarf and the coat... should we be doing something about him?"

The Doctor even came with jelly-babies. The cyberman is about to accept a peace overture...

"Doctor! The Tardis is under attack by some kind of gigantic blindfolded alien with a stick!"

"Not to worry, Rose. The idiot who built this pinata made it so goddam tough that there's no way any kid is going to get through with a stick."

Which was correct. The Tardis was built out of cardboard -- wonder where I got that from? -- and gaffer tape, and by Gallifrey it stood up to some serious thwacking. They annihilated two cheap walking-sticks in the process, and in the end, we had to lower the Tardis so they could jump on it, mob it, and disembowel it en masse.... it was spooky.

Yours truly, "The Master". (I took off my black gloves to deal with the Great Tardis Pinata)

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

The Marathon Coming

Here's a portrait of my weekend as it stands:

Friday afternoon -- immediately after school collect all children and drive hell-for-leather to Launceston. Boys have orchestra practice for an hour; use that hour (keeping the Mau-Mau out of the orchestra zone) to find a present for Wild Uncolonial Boy (see entry for Sunday.) Collect boys. Eat in town. Drive home ASAP (about forty minutes) to put tired and shirty children through the bedtime routine.

Saturday -- Natalie's on call. Prepare for local 4th of July party (produce epic quantities Flinthart Finest Potato Salad; ensure children are appropriately prepared and packed. ) Make preparations for Doctor Who party (see entry for Monday.) July 4th party is late afternoon/evening: stay until children become dysfunctional. Return home, put tired and shirty children through bedtime routine.

Sunday -- Natalie still on call. Prep children for Wild Uncolonial Boy's birthday party. (A family of recent Brit immigrants... lovely people. Their daughter has become a very effective and determined student of ju-jitsu, but their son, who is about to turn six, I think, is one of those super-energetic unstoppable little balls of excess. He's a great kid; just that little bit more over the top than it's feasible for parents to handle. Hence his nick - Wild Uncolonial Boy.) Party occurs in the mid-day-ish range, yay. That gives us time to get back home, so I can run through the dinner routine, make further preparation for the Doctor Who party (yes, see Monday) and try to catch up on various house chores.

Monday -- Elder Son's birthday party is today, with a Doctor Who theme. Elder Son loves his SF and Fantasy and Superherodom, but he has come to the sad realisation that most of his friends don't know what the pus he's talking about when he starts to enthuse about his favourites. Hence the Doctor Who thing: even if the kids don't know much about The Doctor, their parents surely will, and it won't be too difficult to cobble together some bits and pieces. I believe my sons want to be Cybermen... it will fall to me to organise outfits, of course. Not exactly sure when I'll do that. Probably Sunday afternoon, with silver spray paint and sheets of plastic cut into masks, and old ear-muffs that can be sprayed silver and later discarded... Anyway, the Doctor Who party runs for a few hours in the middle of the day, and once it's over

... well, if I'm not done with cooking and the rest of the shite, at least I'm not running from one party to the next.



Oh, fantastic. Natalie's furniture order arrives tomorrow. Three "middie" beds -- like bunk beds for kids, except it's top bunk only, and the underneath is full of cupboards and drawers, and shelves and desks. Um. Yes. They arrive as flatpacks. Not three, but multiple flatpacks per bed, because all the shelves and nonsense have to be independently assembled.

So. That's me and an Allen key developing a deep and meaningful relationship in between kids' parties this weekend.

Somebody shoot me.