The Case of the Disappearing Trail

Where we live here in Mid-Michigan there are a lot of hiking trails in the many parks run by the township and the county. With our youngest child now three and very active, I’ve made it my mission this summer to explore these trails. Walking the trails is fun. Walking the trails is interesting for the kids. It’s also a great way to get a little exercise for ourselves. That is, as long as there is an actual trail to follow.

Once each week we take a hike, trying a new and different trail. Nothing too long, because hiking with a three-year-old means I will end up carrying her for part of the hike, giving me an extra workout because kids don’t get lighter with age.

The other day we tried a new trail, one in our township’s very own “Central Park.” The kids were excited, racing across the parking lot toward the entrance to the trail in the woods as soon as they got out of the car. I had a map that I had printed out from the township website and we were all set. Even though the morning was on the cool side, I sprayed the kids and myself with bug spray just to be extra careful.

The trail started out like this,

Then became like this,

And then it disappeared altogether. Seriously. There were no signs. No well-worn or even vaguely-worn path.

According to the map, the trail should have gone north and then turned eastward to follow along next to the creek. Except nothing that even resembled a trail could be found. So I told the kids that we should head in the direction of the creek and see if we could pick up the trail again.

This involved carefully stepping our way through some tall grass and over dry marshland. This was not easy and I wondered if we should just turn back. But according to the map a trail was there. We worked our way slowly. When we finally reached the creek there was no trail to be discerned from the wild landscape.

“According to the map, the trail should be right here next to the creek,” I said.

Neither of my kids could see the creek because the grass was so tall next to it. So I lifted each one up and let them see the narrow, slow-flowing creek without a trail next to it.

“This is disappointing,” said my son.

“I know,” I said. “I’m disappointed, too.”

I also wanted to say a whole lot of other things. In my mind was a stream of invective longer, wider, and faster-moving than that creek. But then my impressionable young children would no doubt repeat all those things, things that other adults disapprove of small children saying.

This is a very real concern of mine. My daughter is currently going through a phase of shouting “darnit!” whenever she doesn’t get her way or saying “poopy” repeatedly in the service of her own silliness. The latter she often says with variations like “poop” or “poop-poop” or “poop-poopy,” adding a laugh. She says these “poop”-variations in the bathroom, in the living room, at the grocery store, and even at the dinner table with the frequency of those seagulls in Finding Nemo shouting “mine!”

So instead I said, “Things like this happen sometimes. Since we can’t find the trail, we’ll just have to go back the way we came.”

At which point my daughter asked for a snack. And I told her we would get a snack when we got back to the car.

Why are there no pictures of the non-trail? Because it’s impossible to take pictures with a camera phone while holding the hand of your three-year-old daughter, and using your other hand to help balance yourself and your daughter as you tread carefully over dry marshland. That means trying not to trip over downed branches hidden by dead grass and reeds. (At least I think they were reeds. I’m not biologist. They were yellow-ish brown, long and laying flat over most of the land.) Oh, and turning your head to check on the progress the six-year-old is making over the same terrain you’re having a difficult time navigating. He fell once but only got a tiny boo-boo.

Afterwards, I took the kids to the mall, where they played in the children’s play area, and then I bought them French fries and smoothies. They were great. Neither threw a tantrum over the trail that disappeared. They accepted it for what it was. Today we might try a different trail in that park. We’ll see.

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What Is Facebook Good For?

There was an essay last November by Zadie Smith in the New York Review of Books about the movie The Social Network and the book You Are Not a Gadget. It still gets a lot of traction regarding Facebook’s flaws, especially for this,

Or maybe the whole Internet will simply become like Facebook: falsely jolly, fake-friendly, self-promoting, slickly disingenuous. For all these reasons I quit Facebook about two months after I’d joined it.

and this,

When a human being becomes a set of data on a website like Facebook, he or she is reduced. Everything shrinks. Individual character. Friendships. Language. Sensibility. In a way it’s a transcendent experience: we lose our bodies, our messy feelings, our desires, our fears.

When I read the essay at the time, I disagreed with her perspective on Facebook but I could not fully articulate why.

Now I can.

This is why.

In a 48-hour period during the past week, I’ve seen a flame war over New York legalizing Gay Marriage end in a de-friending, a discussion over whether women prefer “speed” or “stamina,” a number of people talking about their dogs, a plea to pass the DREAM act via someone whose Twitter feed is automatically posted on Facebook, a number of joyful comments about Blago being convicted, pictures of my niece on her third birthday, demands that everyone post the Pledge of Allegiance to demonstrate their patriotism, my sister pledging to run a 5K for charity (while pregnant), someone’s new headshot, a funny cartoon showing the difference between LCD TV and LSD TV, numerous comments about and even a video from the U2 concert here on Sunday, a picture of one of my nephews making “tri-colored wood peg stew,” someone asking where to find sumac or za’atar, someone wishing their mom and dad a happy anniversary, numerous condolences for a couple that had a miscarriage, and been invited to a meeting about recalling a Republican State Senator (I can’t attend).

I think that’s a pretty broad spectrum. I don’t think my Facebook news feed is anything unusual. None of that includes the variety of links shared, from news articles to essays to music videos to reviews to offbeat websites. I know many of these people offline, which means these short bursts of self don’t seem “reduced” to me. If anything, it tells me that, overall, the people to whom I am linked on Facebook perform and suffer the whole range of human behavior and have not lost their feelings, desires, or fears. Facebook doesn’t let you transcend anything other than, maybe, space with its ability to allow a certain kind of communication over the Internet.

If there’s one thing people should know by now, after thousands of years of recorded human history, it’s that technology doesn’t change what is essentially human. Virtues and vices have not changed. If anything, Facebook reinforces that on a daily basis, just as the news does. (There are websites dedicated to showing the strange, crazy, and embarrassing things people share about themselves on Facebook. How did I find such sites? On Facebook, where else?)

So what do I use Facebook for? Keeping in touch with family and friends. It’s easy to upload a photo of my kids on a hiking trail straight from my phone than it is to assemble a whole bunch of digital photos and burn it to a disc and mail it to interested family members. I also post links to my blog posts. WordPress makes it easy to do that, doing it automatically for me. That’s really about it…and the usual time-wasting I do just viewing status updates and comments and following links…

(Okay, there was that one time, just to be silly, when I spent an entire day Vaguebooking on purpose, even using some of the very same statuses I’d seen by others in my feed. Most people were not amused.)

One thing I rarely do is post anything political, since A) most people know my liberal politics and don’t need it reinforced, B) a number of my FB friends reside on a different part of the political spectrum and I don’t feel like arguing with them; as a semi-retired political blogger, I know plenty of place where I can go on the Internet for a political argument 🙂 , and C) I use Facebook to keep in touch with family and friends, not start arguments.

Maybe my perspective differs from Zadie Smith and others critical of social networks, because I used to work in the IT industry. When you’ve spent a dozen years documenting how to use all kinds of technology it’s difficult to look at a piece of software, no matter how powerful, like Facebook as anything but a tool. Tools do certain things well, based on their design and purpose.

I find Facebook to be great for sharing links and photos, and having short interactions with people about those things, and just generally seeing what people are up to. Yes, it is telling what people choose to disclose and hide on Facebook, which in itself is also very human behavior. But we make decisions about what to disclose and hide about ourselves when we meet people for the first time or 101st time, depending on circumstance and our relationships with such people.

Facebook can’t replace a face-to-face conversation anymore than a recording of a band can replace the experience of being at one of that band’s live concerts. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go waste some time on Facebook.

Ten Things I’ve Learned While Being a Stay-at-Home Dad

I’ve been a stay-at-home dad for almost five years now. Sometimes I find it hard to believe that I’ve been doing this for so long. It’s been fun, aggravating, teeth-gnashing, illuminating, and above all, interesting. I’ve learned a lot these past few years. Here are ten things I’ve learned, sometimes easily, sometimes painfully.

10) You can never repeat yourself enough times. Children, in the immortal words of Bill Cosby, have brain damage. That’s why you have to repeat the same directions/commands over and over and over and over. In the time spent repeating yourself, the child could have done the required action a dozen times. Even explaining this irony will not make the child listen on the first, second, or thirteenth time you repeat the command on the next occasion action by them is required.

9) The Electric Company airing on the local PBS station at 5:30pm is perfect timing. This makes it possible for me to make dinner every night. The kids sit on the couch in the living room and are perfectly happy watching PBS. I can work in the kitchen to get dinner ready by 6pm.

To all you TV Puritans who say that I’m turning my kids’ brains to Jell-O: TV makes it possible for me to get housework done. Have you ever tried to fold laundry, balance the checkbook, wash dishes, clean the litter box, or sweep the kitchen floor with a child demanding to play Chutes & Ladders, draw with crayons, refill their sippy cup, or eat a snack, not to mention refereeing a dispute between two children? I rest my case. TV soothes the antic child.

8 ) To Cook. I’ve gone from using Rachel Ray’s 30-Minute Meals to baking whole chickens and trying recipes by Rick Bayless and Raghavan Iyer (Mexican Everyday and 660 Curries, respectively, have fantastic recipes if you like Mexican or Indian food). Now I can even bake fruit pies from scratch, making my own crust…Yeah, I like to bake. What’s it to yuh?

7) It is possible to grocery shop while a toddler is having a melt-down. Why is the toddler having a melt-down? It’s irrelevant. A toddler can have a melt-down over forgetting their favorite toy in the car, being out of juice or milk, or you refusing to buy them X, where X is some cheap toy or grossly unhealthy snack like Skittles. (For the record, I personally love those beautiful, teeth-rotting, rainbow-colored hits of sugar known as Skittles. I just don’t eat them very often. I downed a bag of them with a Pepsi before taking the ACT in high school. I’m sure they helped my score.) I ignore the shouting and screaming and calmly push the cart down the aisle as I gather things and check them off my grocery list. Only once in five years of grocery shopping with small children have I had to abandon my half-filled cart and physically carry a kicking and screaming child (my son) out of the store.

6) Patience. By nature I’m an impatient bastard. Children need to be herded, cajoled, nurtured, disciplined, calmed, complimented, scolded, fed, bathed, and so much much more, all the things that are necessary when loving them. None can be done without a healthy dose of patience on my part. My patience has grown with each passing year of fatherhood.

5) Where there are children there are no such things as “peace,” “quiet,” and “cleanliness.” I am told that some day, when the kids have grown and are gone, that my wife and I will miss all this ruckus. I don’t believe them.

4) Laundry is never destroyed. It is only created. A central law of Physics is that matter can neither be created nor destroyed. Laundry breaks this law. There is ALWAYS laundry. Empty hampers do not, nor will they ever, exist as long as there are children around.

3) It usually takes three or four good scrubbings to get the smell of shit out of your hands. How do I know this? The first couple of times I rinsed out my potty-training son’s underwear after he did NOT do Number Two in the toilet, I washed my hands. Moments later I went to itch my nose and received a whiff of shit. I returned to the bathroom to wash my hands again. I smelled my fingers. The smell of shit was still on them. So I washed again and again until the smell was no longer there, replaced by the disinfectant scent of the anti-bacterial soap. This repetitive washing has continued with potty-training our daughter, who pees without problems in the toilet but still only does Number Two in the toilet about a quarter of the time.

2) Dry Erase Markers and children do not mix. Dry erase markers are evil. They are not useful when it comes to small children. Any art-supply type item that can not be washed out of clothes, carpet, and furniture should not be allowed within 50 yards of children under 10. That is all.

1) Joy is contagious, children’s joy that is. It’s cliché, I know. But there are few things that fill the heart with happiness as watching your own child have a good time, like watching seahorses in a tank at an aquarium, chasing bubbles in the driveway or backyard, playing with water at a children’s museum, laughing with their grandparents, or painting with watercolors. It’s this joy that (cliché alert) does make it all worth it.

Once Again Katie Roiphe Gets It Wrong

In a craptastic piece of analysis courtesy of Slate magazine, whose official motto is “We’re Taking Contrarian to Idiotic Lows,” Katie Roiphe reads Freud, Proust, helicopter parenting, liberal yuppies, and all kinds of angry parental resentments toward children into the the success of Adam Mansbach’s Go the Fuck to Sleep.

It couldn’t be the universal appeal, could it? No, not at all. It could most certainly not appeal to any parent who, at the end of the day, is often very tired themself and has done battle with their children to get them to go to sleep at a reasonable hour.

Few small children go to bed willingly. Don’t take it from this American Mutt.

Take it from that yuppie Samuel L. Jackson, who does a sublime reading of the book over at Audible.com.

A New Kind of Egg Chair

The classic 70’s era egg chair has gotten a big update, according to Wired magazine. They are now wired for sound.

The interior is coated with sound-isolating open cell acoustic foam. Climb in, crank it up, and you’ve got your own personal capsule for watching movies, playing games or just plain spacing out.

They are called Sound Egg Chairs. They are customizable (choose your own colors for the outside and inside) and they are not cheap, starting at $1450.

As a music and movie fan, I see the cool appeal of this chair.

As a bookworm, I think it would be a comfortable chair in which to read.

As a parent, I imagine my small children jumping in and out of it, trying to climb on top of it, yanking out pieces of the soundproof lining, pounding on the buttons, and tipping the whole thing over. Thus ends the dream of owning such a chair.

Reading Roundup for Early June

Here’s what I read during the first half of this month.

The Feast of the Goat by Mario Vargas Llosa. It’s a big ambitious work of fictional history that weaves three narratives: the lives of the assassins of Rafael Trujillo and how they came to their task, the last day in Rafael Trujillo’s life as dictator of the Dominican Republic (DR), and the story of Urania Cabral’s return to DR after a 35 year absence. I knew close to nothing about Trujillo and the DR before I read this novel. Trujillo is one of those many SOBs who happened to be “our” (meaning the United States’) SOB. We trained him, helped him, and then eventually his terrifying leadership was so heinous that the CIA assisted in a coup against him. Recommended for People With Strong Stomachs Who Like History.

City of Glass by Paul Auster, adapted by Paul Karasik and David Mazzucchelli. This graphic novel is an adaption of Auster’s novel. It’s a detective story unlike any detective story I’ve seen. If I say that it’s one of those where the case is not what it seems and calls into question everything you and the detective think you know, it’s doing it a disservice. It is that, but that’s not because there’s some double-cross or engineered plot twist. The detective’s very hold on reality is questioned. Recommended for People Who Like Very Unusual Detective Stories.

Moving Pictures by Kathryn & Stuart Immonen. The Immonens, wife and husband, have crafted a beautiful, gripping, terse story about the efforts to catalog and hide art in Nazi-occupied Paris. It’s subtlety has befuddled more than a few reviewers. Too bad for them. I found this graphic novel to be a graceful grim account of one woman’s struggle to survive the occupation and the forced “choices” she has to make. Recommended for People Who Like Deceptively Simple Stories.

Days of Delay

Life as a stay-at-home dad is one of constant delay due to interruption. When my wife comes home from work and asks me how my day was, I often say it was good but then I have a difficult time remembering what it was I/we did all day. It’s because my day sometimes feels like a series of lurches and delays of self-assigned then forgotten and then remembered tasks with the occasional moment for myself.

For example, yesterday I finished folding the laundry (which I did after putting my daughter down for a nap), which I managed to do undisturbed, and was about to sit down and read a few pages of the book I checked out of the library that morning when my son decided that was the precise moment he needed to show me his latest Lego creation.

I was annoyed but I could not show that to him.

These are the moments, as tiny as they are, that mean so much to him. He doesn’t know what I’ve been doing, all I’ve been trying to accomplish throughout the day. He only knows that he has spent the last half-hour or hour working on this thing he has created, this Lego pirate ship made from Legos not from a pirate-type Lego set. He tells me it has escape pods in case the ship catches on fire, and he points them out. It’s inventive. It’s wonderful. It’s unique. He’s excited about this thing he’s just made.

As necessary as the many tedious daily things are like doing laundry and cleaning the dishes, they are, on some level, less important than my son’s desire and need for recognition. He wants to share something important to him with me. I know when he hits puberty he’s going to have a part of himself and his life that he is going to be indifferent, or even possibly hostile, about sharing with me. Until then, I want to enjoy the time I have with him, since eventually he’s going to (as he should) stake out a life of his own with plenty that I’ll no longer be privy to know. Hard to believe after feeding him with a bottle and wiping his butt years ago, that he will be independent of me, but that’s the goal; to raise an independent, confident, and self-sufficient person.

If I add up a series of these small moments and deny him that recognition, eventually he’ll become a disheartened apathetic kid. Which is the last thing I want to do to him, so as tired and even annoyed as I was, I told him that he had made something that is inventive and cool, and that he might want to know that big ships really do have escape pods, only they call them “life boats.” He looked happy and was fascinated by that little fact…Then he suddenly became hungry, needing a snack, and the rest of the afternoon disappeared…

Of course, I still wanted to read the book I checked out from the library (Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter by Mario Vargas Llosa). But I thought it would have to wait until at least after dinner. I told myself I’d read it after the PBS News Hour. But then I was checking the onscreen guide for Dish network and saw that Andrew Zimmern had an episode of his show Bizarre Foods dedicated to Chicago, my hometown and I said to myself, “I can’t miss that.” I didn’t regret it as Zimmern visited with chefs like Grant Achatz and Rick Bayless, the Viena Beef hot dog factory, and Uncle John’s Barbecue joint on the South Side.

It’s after the show is over that I went up to the study and started typing what would become this blog post. My wife had just put our three-year-old daughter to bed and our son was getting ready. Around 9:30pm, with my wife reading our son stories in his room, my daughter could be heard going “da-da-da-da” along with one of those annoying Baby Einstein music-playing books. Her notes were a little different than the notes being played but that didn’t stop her cute spirited attempts to do the melody…Go the Fuck to Sleep, indeed.)

Then it was time for me to sleep and I was so tired I didn’t even bother to read in bed for a bit. The book would have to wait.