Thursday, April 28, 2016

Getting a handle on boxes

Some boxes and bags are easier to carry than others.  In particular, it's a lot easier to carry a box or basket that has handles than something without handles.

Handles have several great features.  The most obvious is that there's something easy to grab with your hand, providing of course you have hands.  (Miser Dog is totally jealous of you there).

But there are more subtle advantages, too:  if you carry a box from the bottom, then the center of mass of the box is above your hands, so you not only have to carry the box; you also have to balance it.  Carrying a box with handles means the weight is below your hands -- so you do less work balancing, and you don't have to worry about spillage as much.  (I'm think of my young kids carrying boxes of legos across toy-infested living rooms as I write this: handles saved us many a catastrophe!  Likewise, when carrying a glass of water, you spill less when you hold the glass near the top than near the bottom.)

And finally, when you have something too heavy to lift easily (like the trunk above, filled with wooden train tracks), a handle makes the box easier to drag behind you.  Meaning, not only "dragging" (which is physically easier than pushing), but also "behind you" (meaning you're in front to spot obstacles, like your brothers' finger or the cup of coffee someone left on the floor.

Which is why I'll just say that I love cutting holes in boxes.  If you care to try this yourself, I find a hole about 4 inches wide and one inch high works well.  I use a combination of exacto knives and scissors to create the sides and bottoms of the hole.

On the inside of the box, I like to score the cardboard gently along the top of the hole so that nothing falls off, but the cut creates a flap that folds out.  That makes the handle a bit fatter, so more comfortable on the hands.

This particular handle is about midway down the box, so that the lid still fits on top.  Now if I have books or clothes or bulky objects, it's easier for me and my family to carry the box around.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Buy me a helicopter, please.

The problem with raising my children to be autonomous, self-sufficient, capable, and responsible is that they're not actually autonomous, self-sufficient, capable, or responsible (yet).  And when they mess up, it's just so hard not to swoop in and fix things myself.

The boys have been at the Quaker Local School for about a year-and-a-half, largely so we could remove them from a particularly Lord-of-the-Flies middle school scene.  The new school wins awards from us on the social side; on the academic support side, the school is a bit more meh than our public schools, mostly because my boys need more-than-the-usual amount of academic support.

For a year and a half, then, we've been yo-yo-ing through missed assignments and make-up work.  We remind the boys of the importance of keeping track.  We work with them on developing planning and paper-tracking systems.  We check with teachers, but only after we suspect the boys are far more behind than they actually say they are (and we're almost always right, alas).  We describe natural consequences ("If you don't want to work hard in this school, we don't want to work hard to pay for you to go there.")

For some of our older kids, the fear of academic failure or parental approval kicked in when their grades dropped to A- or B.  (My husband used to offer to pay one of my particularly driven step-daughters $50 for every D she brought home; of course he never needed to shell out that money). But my sons are content to be scholarly submariners, sailing along below C level.  For example:
Me to J-son:  How are your classes going?
J-son:  Fine.
Me:  What does "fine" mean?  What are your grades like so far?
J-son:  They're good.  Well, I'm failing two classes, but that's only because I did badly on the exams.
N-son, it turns out, is doing even worse.  His teachers tell us that he has missed major assignments in almost all of his classes, while he was telling us he was on top of things.  Sigh.  What's a parent to do?

I know that the path between total parental control and total child autonomy has many steps.  At first, we constantly remind the child, "Say 'thank you'!".  Then we step back to "And what do you say?"; then we retreat to meaningful pauses with pointed glances, until our children are masters of gratitude.  But what happens if they grab the present and run?

I want my Blackhawk so I can be that helicopter parent.  I want to make a list of assignments, strap my kids to the chair in front of their homework, and ply them with sharp pencils and sheaves of blank paper until their work is done.  I want to threaten, to bribe, to shine like a golden example of organization and conscientiousness that any teenage boy could not help but admire and want to emulate.

But instead.

Instead, first, there are indeed natural consequences.  N-son in particular, because of his multiply-missed assignments, has lost the chance to go on a desired field trip.  Even more consequentially, we've told him that next year, he'll be out of the Quaker Local School and back in the public school -- which, as I said before, I actually think might be better for him academically.  J-son has been told he's on probation: he's shown a lot of improvement in turning in his assignments, but if he can't figure out a plan for more effective studying (in other words, any studying at all), he too will have to leave the friends he's made these past 18 months.

Second, we still want to help our kids get onto that path of completed work.  I'm trying so hard to not confuse the short-term ("get caught up") with the long-term skills ("keep track of and then fulfill your own obligations"), but the short term calls.  I made a list of all the work that N-son has to do.  And then I stuck it in my drawer.

In The Upside of Irrationality, Dan Ariely writes about what makes people like an idea or a task, and he explains that experiments show that who describes the idea is more significant than what the idea is.  In particular,
Regardless of what we create--a toy box, a new source of electricity, a new mathematical theorem--much of what really matters to us is that it is our creation. As long as we create it, we tend to feel rather certain that it's more useful and important than similar ideas that other people come up with.
So I spent a half-hour or more on Friday morning, working with N-son to develop his own task list for the weekend.  He wrote "Chores.  Homework.  Drums.  Voice."  I encouraged him on the good start, and suggested that being more specific might help: what chores? what homework?  He fleshed out the homework area:  "Bible.  Band.  Gym."   (I bit my tongue and screamed inside, "What about HISTORY AND BIOLOGY AND MATH!!!????) .  Out-loud I asked, "And anything else?"  Slowly, he added bit-by-bit to the list.  Eventually, he came up with four different pages of tasks for this long, four-day weekend.

We color-coded the list (things that need the computer get a blue tick; things that need parental help get a yellow tick; things that he likes to do that could be a reward get a red tick; etc).  He numbered the first 8 tasks he ought to get to.  He got to work.
N-son doing schoolwork, with my proxy helicopter by his side.

He's gotten distracted off and on, but right now he's working hard on his overdue history assignment, and just asked his dad to proofread it.  He's already crossed off the first 6 items on his list so far.  I *think* he feels like he owns the list and the tasks it lays out for him.

As for me, my tongue still has tooth marks, and that helicopter store beckons.  But I'll wait a little while longer before I pull out my credit card.  

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Cherry Pits from my teeth to my toes

Many, many years ago, my sister bought be a bag of cherry pits.  The bag is made of cloth (so, like a beanbag) and decorated with cows, which is a family joke/tradition.  A cloth bag full of cherry pits makes a good heating pad, she told me:  toss it in the microwave for a bit, pull it out, and cuddle up with it.  With our current microwave, the "popcorn" (2 minute) setting seems to be about perfect.

Here's a brief diversion comparing cherry pits to hot water bottles, ecologically:

  • The cherry pit bag was made by a local artisan near my sister's home; I don't know which companies and factories make water bottles.
  • Heating up a cherry pit bag takes less energy and time than heating up water for a hot water bottle.
  • When the cherry pit bag breaks (for example, gets a rip), it's a simple matter to sew up the hole.  When the water bottle springs a leak, it's beyond fixing, as far as I know.
  • When the cherry pit bag is finally beyond repair someday, it's all compostable.  The hot water bag isn't.
Baby A loves playing with it as a beanbag.  My sons yell for it when they come in from a chilly bike ride with frozen hands.  So for a bunch of reasons, I've become sort of fond of this object.  

But I had no idea until recently that my cherry pit bag would be good for my teeth.

This requires a bit of explanation, starting with my toes, which are highly susceptible to cold.  (How susceptible?  So susceptible that I actually spent more than $10 for a pair of warm running shoes a few years ago---that's how uncomfortable my toes can get).   Earlier this winter, I decided that I had an easier time getting to sleep if the transition to bed included a toe-warming-component.  So I started heating up the cherry pit bag just before bed time, and then tossing it under the covers where the warmth could do my toes some good.  (Better than a metal pan filled with hot coals, which is what people used to use in the days before central heating!)

But what to do in those two minutes while the cherry pits were warming up?  I brushed my teeth.  I know people are supposed to brush for at least two minutes, but it's hard to know just how long two minutes actually is.  If I tossed the bag in the microwave and then brushed until I heard the microwave ping, time seemed to stretch forever . . . I guess that means I hadn't been brushing that long beforehand.

At any rate, my dentist has always complimented my on my dental hygiene.  (Three gold stars for me?).  But this last time I went, she said, "You've been doing something different.  There's like, almost no plaque!"  So I told her about the cherry pit timer technique.  Apparently, they're good for my teeth as well as for my toes.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Yard saling by the book

We had a three-generation yard-sale foray on Saturday; K-daughter brought her daughter, and N-son gamely tagged along.  We scored some good reading material -- in particular, the book that N-son bought is holographic and 3-d, and it absorbed his attention for hours.  Not bad for a 50¢ purchase!  Baby-A was the recipient of a few books herself, but she'll have to get a bit older to really appreciate them.

Me, I snagged a half-dozen books for 50¢ a pop.  I'll store them in my suitcase to take on airplanes with me; I read them on the plane and then leave them on top of a trash can at the next airport, hoping that some other traveller will pick them up and take them further.  As I travel, shedding my load of books as I go, I get lighter and lighter.  For me, bringing along these cheap-o reading materials wards off the crazy multiple $8.99 (or worse) purchases that used to plague me when I was bored to the point of paying to not be bored in some far-away airport.

When I'm at home, I tend to read library books instead.  I bring home a large pile, because I never know if the books I choose are going to be any good.  Right now I'm getting ready to return a stack of six books I got last week; I skimmed through the first five of these, disagreeing vehemently with the authors.  (You think you know frugality?  Or time management?  Hah!)  The sixth book kept my attention better, in spite of my granddaughter's best efforts to distract me.

And so imagine how strange it seems to me to be at yard sales, looking at vast collections of books that the people who are selling once purchased new. I can't quite wrap my head around the expense of buying and then storing so many books that you read only once and then sell.  At one house we visited, the woman had two tables full of pristine books --- almost all of them by Danielle Steele.  (Did that woman actually write that many books?  I guess so).  There were hundreds of books -- many hardback, all in excellent shape.  They weren't like my own dearly loved poetry books, thumbed through many times and tagged with multiple post-it notes, or like my copy of the Tightwad Gazette, purchased used and stained with coffee and food from readers who couldn't put the book down, not even while they were eating.  No, her books were beautiful and barely read.  Now they were selling (or, actually, not selling) for 50¢ for paperbacks, $1 for hardbacks.  Those two tables held thousands of dollars of money spent long ago, depreciated to tens of dollars, maybe hundreds of dollars, if lucky.

It is one of the amazing thing about yard sales -- not only that I can buy things for super cheap (ooh, man, I got a second apple-peeler-corer for only $1!), but also that yard sales inoculate me against a life of frivolous waste.  When fancy clothes cost $1 at a yard sale, stores that advertise $5 t-shirts become objects of scorn, not temptation.  Seeing wine glasses routinely offered for 10¢ made it easy for me to decide I can get rid of the ones I never used, because they'll be easily and cheaply replaceable if I ever change my mind.  And of course, airport bookstores have become like no-touch museums for me, a place to wander through where I can get ideas for my next library search -- but not where I get the actual books.

So the summer's season of yard sales has begun.  My favorite "store" has reopened for the year, and with it, the annual educational lessons on the taxonomy of excess and clutter.  The experience couldn't be more perfect if it came holographic and in 3-d.   (And sometimes, in fact, it does.)

Saturday, April 16, 2016


Well, Happy Tax Day, one and all!  (Is it happy for you?  In our family, we'll celebrate anything, even filling out forms.  After all, filling out forms is how we got most of our kids, so even tax season is sort of sexy to us, in its own way.)

As usual, we celebrated with a special dinner.  You know how in art class, long ago, you learned how to transfer a little comic panel to a poster-sized picture by using grids?  Well, I put my applied art knowledge to good use for this dinner.  First I covered the table with newspaper, so the permanent marker wouldn't stain it.  (Although I missed a spot -- dang).
Then I covered the table with a fitted green sheet and drew a . . . dollar . . . on it.  Well, sort of a dollar.

I had fun with adding little details.   Like where the US dollar has the signature of the treasurer and a serial number, my tablecloth has a signature of the "treasurer and exhorter", plus a familiar number.

And where the US dollar says, "this note is legal tender for all debts, public and private", our table cloth says,  "this meal is pretty yummy for all diners, public and private".

We decorated the table with money (chocolate coins, coins from around the world, and dearly-remembered Mommy Dollars).

Ooh, and I found some money-themed fabric and made napkins: here they are, stacked between our green plates.

And of course the meal featured sausage coins and bringin'-home-the-bacon (both from one of our favorite stands at Market, the Turkey Lady):

Plus pretzel dollars, and one pretzel cents for the grandchild, and also lettuce.

And N-son put himself in charge of this dish, which he named himself:  the quesadollars.

So happy Tax Day, one and all!

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Help from a one-year-old

I am reading a book about concentrated work, while spending a few days with my one-year-old granddaughter.  The author of the book assumes that our main distraction from "deep" work is the internet; the author doesn't much talk about family distractions.

Well, the irony is not lost on me.  Distractions abound.  I remember from my early days of child-rearing those amazing blessings of nap-time, and I get to re-live those blessings with my granddaughter.  Naptime is when I diligently packed some good math work into my day.  Reading I can do with interruptions, even when the book is about avoiding distractions.

Still, I took time away from the book to put the kiddo to work in the garden with me.  (This reminded me of my dad once exclaiming about my nephew, "No fair!  Andrew helped me yesterday, too!)

But our host daughter, Y, who is studying for the MCATs, did indeed click with Baby-A.  Y explained what she knew about alpha decay, beta decay, and gamma decay to a rapt and dedicated audience.

Y tells me it's nice to have an audience with intent focus; when she tries to explain chemistry to Miser Dog, Miser Dog doesn't make eye contact and babble back.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Peach Blossom Bionicles

When we adopted J-son, the judge had to ask us:  "Does he have any assets to his name?"  (I guess the state needed to know we weren't adopting him just to get at his money.)  My husband explained that J-son owned more than his share of bionicles, which led to a playful conversation between the judge and J-son when it was my son's turn to be sworn in at the stand. And J-son still, at age 17, finds time to assemble and create intricate battles with his creatures.  They are a constant decoration on our windowsills and fire place mantels.  We didn't adopt him just to acquire his bionicles, but they are indeed a constant presence in our home now.

And then, on a completely different topic . . . A few years back, I bought and planted a few fruit trees to make friends with the pear tree in our back yard.  The fig tree struggled valiantly before dying, but the peach tree, cherry tree, and apple trees have surprised me with their hardiness and . . . appropriately . . . with their fruitfulness.  As in, there's actually fruit on the trees come July, August, September.  Go figure!  And not all of it gets eaten by the squirrels.

But perhaps one of the best accidents of geography is that the sunny spot I chose for the peach tree is right outside our living room window.  The green leaves, in the summer, help to shade the window from the worst of the sun.  The bare branches, in the winter, let the sun right through to make pools of warmth that Miser Dog follows throughout the day.   And perhaps best of all is now, early spring.  Because as A.E. Housman wrote,
Loveliest of trees, the cherry [or peach] now
Is hung with bloom along the bough,
And stands along the woodland ride [or the living-room side],
Wearing white [or pink] for Eastertide.

And so the view out my living room window is peach blossom bionicle joy.