November 29, 2006

Dolls for Boys

Nathaniel wholly embraces gender stereotypes. He won't drink out of a pink plastic cup or use the yellow token when he plays Sorry. He loves Concentration, but not the Disney Princess edition. He still plays with trucks, but never dress-up or “house.”

Fortunately he hasn't yet learned all the intricacies of machismo. He still holds my hand in public, and he still sings in the car. . . . well, pirate songs and Christmas songs anyway. Specifically Christmas songs that don't contain any girlish words like “love.”

You can imagine my surprise last night when I heard Jessica propose that they play dolls.

“Yeah,” said Nathaniel eagerly. “Let's play dolls.”

They sat down in front of the doll house, and Jessica began narrating with authority. “I'll be the Mommy and the Daddy and the Sister, and you be the Baby. It's time for lunch. What should we make for lunch today? Let's look in the refrigerator and see . . .”

Meanwhile, Nathaniel had picked up the baby doll and stuck it head first into the doll house's toilet. He quietly waited for Jessica to notice.

“ . . . we have chocolate cake and ice cream and pasta and – Hey, Baby! You're not supposed to play in the toilet!” In pretended indignation, she plucked the baby out of the toilet and hurled him violently back into his crib.

Then she fell on her back laughing, reliving her brother's wit: “Silly Baby! You don't play in the toilet!”

By the time she sat up, she had to pluck the baby from the refrigerator. Then he was on the bookshelf . . . driving the car . . . hanging upside down from a window. Each time Jessica fell over in belly laughs until Nathaniel would start to giggle too.

I suppose that's how real men play dolls.

November 28, 2006

Roof-Repair and Child-Rearing

Our new house sports a simple roof-line with only one tricky spot where the flow of rainwater could have been misdirected. Someone dutifully installed aluminum flashing where the porch roof meets the house, guiding any water down a twelve-foot channel. Then someone else, in a rash moment perhaps, sided over the bottom of the channel, dumping all that water into the wall. The water rots the wood, of course, and the rot attracts bugs to speed its decay.

In spite of all that careful flashing, we share our new house with carpenter ants.

I was happy to fix the flaw, because I enjoy roofing. I like imagining how water runs down a slope, nudging and guiding its flow. To the astonishment of my tech-savvy colleagues, I had spent one of my rare weeks of vacation roofing our house in Chicago.

I repaired our new roof with silicone caulk and a sheet of aluminum. My flashing was adequate, but not neat. A masonry bit allowed me to pin it in place with a three-inch screw, but still it bent away from the shingles.

Could a slanting rain form ice beneath it? How do you shape those stubborn bits of aluminum once they're in place?

In my impatience my first idea seemed like inspiration.

“Help me out here,” I called to Jessica. “Please take my drill, carefully, and put it back in the box.”

I was giving her another chance. Perhaps a little traumatized by our recent move, she had been misbehaving terribly. She had broken a toy intentionally and hid the evidence. She had rolled her eyes and sighed at each of the few duties of a six-year-old, then dealt her a brother a shove on the stairs when he ignored her teasing.

Just an hour earlier, while I was precariously caulking a fan vent from the top rung, Jessica had been talking to my aunt in Chicago on the cordless phone. Out of nowhere, I heard her say, “No, please Daddy, don't make me stop talking to Aunt Agnes. I miss her!” I looked down to see her, twenty-four feet below, holding the phone at arm's length and pretending to plead with me.

“I have to go,” she lamented into the phone. “Daddy won't let me talk to you.” Then she hung up on my aunt.

What strange, six-year-old subterfuge was this? I saw red but contained myself. Within two minutes I had climbed down, called Aunt Agnes, explained and apologized, and stood by while Jessica reluctantly came clean.

I had been searching for a way to shape her behavior, and I figured that entrusting my drill to her was a peace offering of sorts: I was giving her a chance to make amends.

“Help me out here. Please take my drill, carefully, and put it back in the box.”

A little too slowly, she approached.

I removed the bit so it wouldn't break. “Put this in the box, too.”

A little too nonchalantly, she reached for my new drill.

“Use two hands,” I added sternly.

She stepped indifferently onto the porch, held the drill at arm's length, and dropped it onto its case from a height of eight inches with practiced aloofness. I choked back a reprimand and looked away.

Now for my brilliant idea. I pulled out the 12-pound head of a sledgehammer that Nathaniel had found in the woods, hauled it onto the roof, squirted some silicone under my flashing, and positioned the heavy hammer on top with duct tape. The weight held the metal flush against the shingles while the silicone dried. Tomorrow I would remove the tape. How clever I was, thinking to force it into shape this way.

Cleaning up, I couldn't locate the masonry bit. Not in the drill, not under it, not in the lid of the case, not on the nearby windowsill, not on the porch.

I eyed the cracks in the porch. They were narrow. You could push a bit through there, but you would probably have to work at it.

“Jessica!” I hollered.

Eventually she sauntered onto the porch.

I questioned her, but she looked unconcerned. I accused her of losing the bit intentionally, and still she looked at me dumbly.

Suddenly she wasn't an uncomprehending child any more. Her silence was mockery.

I gave in to my anger and ticked off every offense she had lately committed, gaining volume as I went.

She started to cry. After her stubborn refusal to bend, I was gratified to see my effect on her. I was vaguely aware that my shouting might be carrying clear to the next house on the chill autumn air, and it even crossed my mind that a good bit runs only a few dollars. But I was also mad as hell, and if it was attention she wanted . . .

Camille came out. “Are you looking for this? I thought you might lose it, so I took it inside.”

Oh, no.

My conscience repaid me with fitful sleep, even after many apologies to my daughter. Then I awoke to a loud crash. At once a series of events took shape in my mind: the cold dew had loosened the tape, the hammer had slid down the shingles, but the length of tape hung on, and instead of dropping harmlessly to the ground, the hammer had careened into the side of the house. Me and my stupid ideas. What was I thinking, using a sledgehammer for a delicate job? Well, there would be no sleeping now.

The sun rises late this time of year, so at 4:00 am it was still richly dark, except for a radiant half-moon that silhouetted the pointed pine-tops on the ground. I discovered clumps of tiny stars that I had never seen in the city, and they surprised me next to the familiar constellations.

The night echoed with the bang of my ladder against the eave. Tape and flashing shone in the moonlight. The hammer was in place. The house was intact. I still don't know what caused the crash. Maybe something fell in the cellar. Maybe something fell in my imagination. I took down the hammer and went inside for some tea.

While the pot boiled, Jessica's door squeaked open. Curious as always, she questioned me. In bare feet and flannel pajamas she seemed more sleepy toddler than schoolgirl. I urged her back to bed, caressing her cheek and rediscovering the softness there.

In the morning it rained. My new flashing, still imperfectly shaped, carried the water in spite of me. May my children do the same.

November 22, 2006

Chewbacca Was a Fuzzy Little Bear

The children recently watched Star Wars again, and it brought me back to the first time they saw the DVD. Jessica was just five at the time. She couldn't begin to follow the plot, but the music entranced her.

Some recollections:

  • Whenever another character mentioned Leia, Jessica would cry out “Where's the princess?” “There!” Nathaniel would say, exasperated, when Princess Leia was on screen. But to Jessica, whose idea of a princess involved glittering ball gowns, long gloves, and flowing hair, Princess Leia was unrecognizable. “Where?” she would persist.

  • Remember Chewbacca, the towering, ape-like sidekick who cast aside pairs of stormtroopers effortlessly with the back of his huge arm? He talked in a strange, unearthly sound that must have seemed to Jessica like a cry of pain. Twice when he grunted, Jessica asked, “They didn't hurt the little fuzzy bear, did they?”

  • Jessica also had trouble following the cuts and scene changes. After having seen Darth Vader in one scene on the rebel spaceship and in another on his own bridge, she saw him in a third location. She threw up her hands and sighed dramatically. “Another Dark Vader? There are Dark Vaders everywhere!”

November 21, 2006

Brain Quest Trivia

Camille's mom recently sent Brain Quest quiz cards for the kids. Believing our kids are ahead of their peers, she bought the second and third grade editions.

I didn't think I'd like these, but I do. They're just booklets of questions—sort of a Trivial Pursuit for the grammar school set. The questions vary widely in difficulty and style, so a question like “What's the math term for 6 in this problem: 6+4=10?” (the “addend”) might be followed by “What kind of number is 67: odd or even?”

Camille pulls these out for oral quizzes while the kids eat lunch, and the uneven difficulty actually serves as a motivator. They know that if they're stumped by two hard ones in a row, there's still a chance that the next question will be easy. The topics include grammar and math, light history and geography, logic, and science.

We make no effort to have the children memorize the answers. Instead the Brain Quest cards:

  1. Reinforce and give the kids a chance to show off what they already know. Nathaniel proudly recalled how to add dimes by counting by ten, for example, and Jessica beamed when she remembered that it was Abraham Lincoln who ended slavery.

  2. Serve as springboards for discussion. After Jessica correctly answered that the wind causes waves in the ocean, I reminded the children that we had heard on the news about a tidal wave caused by an underwater earthquake. Soon we were onto plate tectonics.