Boys R Us, or, Getting Back Whatcha Give

Christmas shopping with bots can be as unpredictable as setting out to make marshmallow snowmen with them.

Christmas shopping with bots can be as unpredictable as setting out to make marshmallow snowmen with them.

I experimented this year: I took each bot to the toy store by himself, to buy a present for his brother. I realized that, with a four and a half-year-old and a three-year-old, my optimism might have been slopping over into the idealistic. But I just had to try. I figured Gbot might be fairly easy to persuade into picking out what I thought he should pick out. I thought Mbot might throw a small sputterfuss about one or several things before we settled on a compromise.

Since Gbot had the sniffles and I couldn’t foist him off on anyone, he went first. At the toy store that I hate but that is the only one within about ten miles of us, he bounced from Legos (me: “they’re for bigger boys”) to a FurReal bunny that made chewing noises and moved its hind legs when you rubbed its back (“let’s keep looking”) to bubble machines (“it’s too cold outside for that”) to the toy guns (“no”) to a giant, spherical, plush, hot pink, butt-ugly cat pillow (“let’s look at the other stuffed animals.”)

At long last, he settled, at my urging, on an enormous fluffy stuffed doggie that looks like it could be Junepbear’s half-brother. It was not stitched by a fair-trade artisan out of organic cotton. In fact, it was so affordable that I see much seam-repair in my future. But Mbot, whose favorite word at the age of sixteen months was “fwuffy,” and who continues to seek out fwuffy experiences, will be thrilled.

Gbot lugged the thing, which is as big as he is, up to the front of the store, happily talking nonstop about how Mbot would love his new doggie. It was fun to see him so happy about something for his brother. That was two days ago, and he hasn’t yet spilled the beans, in spite of the fact that this morning, we wrapped it (but only after he ran to get a blanket to spread in the bottom of the box).

Yesterday I took Mbot. As I’d predicted, it was more of a challenge. I hadn’t considered the fact that, after walking in and within fifteen seconds identifying a cool Thomas the Train quarry complete with crank elevator and roundtable, that would have been perfect and was on sale, no less–he could happily spend three days examining every item on every shelf within reach in every aisle of the eight billion acre store. Or that he would want to get his brother the six hundred-dollar four-wheeler (“that’s way too dangerous”) or the fifty-dollar plastic bat-cave that I know would provide a great seven minutes of uninterrupted fun before boredom set in and they never looked at it again. Or the remote control helicopter (“that’s for bigger boys.)”

Gbot might hurt his finger on this, too....

Gbot might hurt his finger on this, too…. (amazon.com)

What I didn’t foresee was how either protective he would be or how eager to assert that Gbot is a baby–every time I’d point to something that looked like a possibility, Mbot would find a health reason to boycott it. “Gbot would choke on those pieces.” “Gbot might break that and hurt himself.” “Gbot might cut his fingers on that part.”

“How about a stuffed animal?” then, I asked, because one of the ways I’d lured Gbot out of the store the day before was to tell him that maybe Mbot would buy him one, too. “Noooo!” howled Mbot. “how about we go back to the fun aisle.” And now of course I must entertain the possibility that he won’t like Junep’s giant half-bro. But distanced from the overwhelming profusion of crap, I’m quite sure he will.

What I also didn’t foresee was how I would hear myself mimicked back to me. Every few minutes, if I was lingering in an aisle with appropriate items, I’d here, “Mah-ah-ahhm. Don’t diddle-dawdle.”

“Okay, I’m coming,” I’d say, in a reversal of roles.

If he’d vanish around a corner and I didn’t follow, he’d backtrack and admonish me to stay close.

And once, as we were perusing the remote control aisle, I must have been lagging, because he suddenly said, “Come-come,” using exactly the same word in exactly the same sing-song tone I use to call the antique cat.

Finally, I enacted a “choose one of these two things,” rule, and a time-limit of two minutes. He chose. The Thomas the Train Quarry won out.

So: success. Except that now Gbot keeps talking about a remote control stuffed doggie and Mbot keeps wondering what toy Gbot got him.

One reason I even let the boys do this, in addition to the “Christmas is about giving” angle, and instead of making something or visiting the dollar store–is that the bots don’t get piles of toys for Christmas. I see them playing more happily with the Trios, or with pipecleaners, or with their small bin of Legos, or their stuffed animals or blankets for forts or plastic bin lids for television screens–than I ever see them play with actual plastic toys.

And it was a good reminder to me, hearing Mbot repeat back to me my own words, that lots of times, you get what you give.

Woman Encounters Obstacle While Following Rainbow to End

Really, I am in better shape than this. But sometimes it takes a glass of wine to realize it.

I just walked out the door holding two of Husbot’s shirts, folded. I am not on the way to the dry cleaner, nor does Husbot own shirts that require poisons to cleanse them; if they reach that state, they get thrown out.

I was headed to the coffee bar, which in addition to coffee, happens to serve a bracing New Zealand sauvignon blanc by the glass. Getting into the car with an armful of shirts by mistake just illustrates how dire my quest was: I am in a state that requires poison to cleanse me.

Yes, it is only 3:29. This is my first and will probably be my last drink of the day, if you’re not counting an oversized homemade iced decaf mocha and not enough water.

It hasn’t been a bad day. In fact, it’s been a good day. It just feels like it’s been about three days, since 6 a.m. Probably because I’m trying to steer us all to a successful Halloween.

I should have gone to bed earlier last night; instead, I sat up practicing face painting. Which I scheduled myself to do for two hours tomorrow morning at Mbot’s preschool. Not only did I offer to repeat last year’s effort, which was valiant if not entirely successful (read about it here!), but to paint a panel of sample designs so that the woman who will take over for me during the afternoon Spookfest will avoid the embarrassment of instantaneously forgetting what a frog looks like when called upon to conjure one onto a four-year-old’s cheek.

Facepainting is kind of like regular painting, except really fast on a moving target. So even Picasso might have messed it up. Of course, chances are, you wouldn’t be able to tell if he did.

I find, while I sit here with my glass of Infamous Goose, I need to list the day’s triumphs:

Harry Potter gown hemmed (with black duct tape) and ironed.

Harry Potter broom padded at the dangerous end with black fleece. Extra glue added between handle and bristles to preempt mid-trick-or-treat meltdown due to falling-apart broom.

Chipless Dale costume examined and sighed over. Projected chance that Gbot will actually wear it without a fuss: 60%.

Chances that I’ll mess up the face painting required to produce a smile and two buck teeth on Gbot’s lower face tomorrow: an even 50%.

Dinner made.

Garbage taken out.

Laundry done.

Car washed. (Really. Needed. To Be. Done.)

Doggie poop cleaned up off living room floor.

Gbot’s nose wiped (twenty times. Tail end of cold.)

Hands washed between doggie poop pick-up and nose-wiping.

A still-coldy Gbot cuddled extra and listened to while wailing over 1. missing his chance to count down for Mbot before he launched out the door to the playground. 2. missing his chance to strap himself into car because he was wailing about missing his chance to count down for Mbot.

Husbot pissed off at wife’s attitude when he came home from work at 2:45 to spell me ’til 5. Excuse wife for not breaking out her first date smile when he threatens to lull them to sleep at 4 pm, which means she’ll be up ’til 9 p.m. putting them to sleep again.

The good news: I am almost ready for Halloween! And my friends and relatives on the Eastern seaboard are safe.

Last but not least, about the photo: I took this two weeks ago in Idaho’s Wood River Valley. Every year, my parents’ neighbor, architect and spare-time-hilarious-actor-in-local-productions, Steve Pruitt, put this witch up at the corner. Steve passed last fall, having lost a long battle with a rare kind of cancer. I never actually met him in person, but many years ago, I saw him in Don Quixote, and I still remember how hard I laughed. Other neighbors have taken up the Halloween witch-in-trouble ritual. And one morning in mid-October, we found her at the end of the rainbow.

Introducing the Love Child of Picasso, Euclid, and Martha Stewart

Dot-to-Dot: The love child of Picasso, Euclid, and Martha Stewart!

Yes, it’s an old-fashioned connect-the-dots game, brought into the twenty-first century by Husbot with an unmistakeable you-can-do-this-at-home! vibe.

I mentioned to him last night that I’d like to see Mbot trying to focus more on the shapes of numbers and letters, and so this morning he Mbot on his lap and drew some impromptu pictures, just faintly dotted outlines with numbers (in order, of course) at strategic points around the periphery.

And this perhaps is an alphabet-outlined sea-monster (C monster?) that’s been caught on a fishing line. Abdominal spikes added by Mbot.

I thought Husbot, although neither Picasso nor Euclid nor Martha, was pretty ingenius. Husbot asked Mbot to say the numbers or letters aloud as the tip of his colored pencil reached them. And you know, it kind of worked. But the big lesson for me was that customizing a silly connect-the-dots game makes it more interesting for the weebots, which means they actively engage, which means they learn more.

It was perfect for just-turned-four year-old Mbot–not so engaging for Gbot, not yet three. When I drew him a hamster (not shown, in order to retain my dignity), he claimed that hamsters do NOT have whiskers, and when I wrote the number 1 on top of his head, Gbot was so upset that I covered it up with a fire hat. “Let’s pretend he’s a Wonder Pet!” I cried, but it was in vain.

“I do not WANT a hamster in a fire hat!” cried Gbot back.

So, as with everything in parenting, even great ideas, there are potholes, and you will fall into them. But at least we’ll all go down counting.

Buck-toothed shark. Will he get you? It’s a number’s game.

Bad Guys Don’t Have Birthdays, and Mbot Ate Mommy

This little guy, eat me? It beats the alternative…. (Mbot. Photo credit: Solveig Haugland)

The weekend out of town with old friends was as wonderful as I’d hoped, and I returned home (extremely tired, but that’s part of the game) to about what I expected: requests I’d made had been ignored but everyone was alive. Husbot reported that on Sunday morning, Gbot awoke early, as usual, and announced, “Mbot ate Mama.” Then he added sadly, “Mama was our friend.”

His explanation for my absence made me want to laugh and cry at the same time. And up until a couple of weeks ago I might have just left it at “oh, how cute.” But I have been reading a book called “Bad Guys Don’t Have Birthdays: Fantasy Play at Four” (The University of Chicago Press, 1988) It was written by Vivan Gussin Paley nearly twenty-five years ago, won the 1990 James N. Britton Award, and should be required reading for anyone who’s ever walked into Party City and purchased a candle in the shape of the number 4.

At the time she wrote this slim volume, Ms. Paley had been a preschool teacher for two decades. In order to understand the complex systems of play she witnessed daily among three- and four-year-olds, she began recording conversations and transcribing them each evening, documenting the children’s play and interaction, discerning patterns, connecting the play to events occurring in each child’s life, examining the interpersonal dynamics and excavating the “rules” of play. The book follows a group of four-year-olds through a school year, acting out such complications as a new baby in the family, parents working, the appearance of an older relative’s boyfriend.

“In fantasy play” writes Paley, “you sidestep that which cannot be controlled and devise scenes in which fears are resolved.”

Discovering this book was like unearthing the Rosetta Stone to Mbot’s play and conversation, or, for fans of Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, like having a Babblefish on my shoulder: I suddenly and, it felt, magically, am beginning to understand the language he and Gbot use to describe the world they create daily–or rather create, change, destroy, and re-create–so richly inhabited by good guys and bad guys, Good Luke (Skywalker) and Bad Luke, Good Spiderman and Bad Cockroach Spiderman, Wonder Woman and Cinderella and Ree-punzel and dragons and four-headed monsters and bullet guns and laser beams and dy-no-mite.

What is all this violent talk and bam-bam-bam! with a Trio “gun”, I often wondered, when Mbot has trouble watching any movie–from Ratatouille to Babe–without running with a yelp into the kitchen while I fastforward through the parts where anyone is talking or acting in a hurtful way?

In part, here’s what this talk is: he is acting out his fears and overcoming them–just like Paley’s students do:

“A master of disguises, Fredrick will conjure up new dangers and, with a flick of his cape, be the instrument of rescue. In so doing it is he who is saved.”

He is taking control of his world. In Paley’s words, “Any unknown, it seems, can be made into a bad guy.”  And in play, “I pretend, therefore I am. I pretend, therefore I know.”

If Mbot ate me, Mbot’s the bad guy, and my absence in much less threatening than if I had left on purpose. And in the bots’ world, it is a fact–reinforced in everything from Burt Dow, Deep Water Man to Your Body Battles a Stomachache–that what has been eaten can be rescued, regurgitated, or resurrected. And my return Monday morning showed him he was right.

Maximizing the Cuteness Factor

Gbot displays a high CF at the beach last summer.  (Coordinating color of football a happy coincidence.)

Although I am biologically programmed to accept as a law of the universe–or at least a corallary to The (as yet undiscovered) Unifying Theory–that my offspring are the cutest offspring ever to spring off the geneology charts of anyone, anywhere, in any solar system and in any dimension, there are always things that can make them even cuter.

However, as each of my offspring possesses a Y chromosome–which in the current American social code translates into the dismal fact that 99% of the clothing manufactured for them is navy, brown, grey, or combinations thereof, adorned with unimaginative and often ugly designs involving sports, automobiles, movies that they are not yet old enough to see, or dumb sayings–it is a challenge to maximize their cuteness beyond avoiding the mohawk and keeping the whining to a minimum (vocal output directly affects the Cuteness Factor).

But I am up to the challenge. Thanks to occasional sales at miniBoden, like the one that is going on NOW, my malebots now and again rise above the dull color palettes of mainstream American boy preschooler apparel. I love the bright colors and color combinations: oranges, aquas, yellow, minty green. My sister, who has nearly-nine-year-olds, warns me that my time choosing what they wear will soon be up, and so, today, I choose cute.)

I bring this up because a new sale just started, and we are about to go to the beach again for a few days. I’m thrilled that last year’s cuteness enhancers still fit, and, after probably close to fifty washings, so far, only one zipper in twelve has broken, and then, just the cloth pull tab.) (Some styles have two zippered pockets–yes, overkill, but SO CUTE!) I’m thrilled they fit and have lasted, because some of the cuteness enhancers weren’t on sale. It was the first time I’d ordered there, and here is the trick to shopping at miniBoden if you don’t hit the sale: just buy one thing first. Then, a week later, you will begin to receive catalogs in the mail and fabulous offers online, with anything from 15% to 50% off either a whole order or one item, and maybe free shipping, too.

Mbot upping the CF bar by actually wearing the hood.

And voila, although you, as the mother of another, are calibrated to register your own weebot as orders of magnitude cuter than mine, I can narrow that gap significantly with strategic clothing choices, and you can do the same. Now if only there were a cute shirt with ears that would eliminate the whining, the whole universe would be a cuter place.

Up to a certain age–say, 30, ears always increase the CF, especially if the earbearer is younger than you are. Definitely a maternal trigger. Im not sure they’re still making these one-piece snappy suits, though. (miniBoden towelling hoodies)

T – 8 Days: Ironman, the Needy Pinata Boyfriend

He’s got legs! And he is controlling my life.

Pardon the poor picture quality, but some of you will remember that Mbot’s last photo shoot ended when the camera stopped working, and because I haven’t gotten as far as purchasing the right pieces of equipment to download photos off the Nikon or my not-very-smart phone, I had to use my webcam via Skype. I’m sure there is an easier way, like there is an easier way to provide entertainment at your four year-old’s birthday party other than building a 63″-tall pinata. Yes, the math you have just done in your head is, unfortunately correct. Ironman stands–or hangs, rather–5’3″ tall.

Husbot took the bots on adventures yesterday morning and this morning and I stayed home up to my elbows in balloons and flour paste, and so I just may achieve my goal of having the damned thing ready to paint by tomorrow.

His arms are drying. Here they are:

Foreground: left hand. Background: right arm.

The photo quality is so remarkably poor that it’s hard to tell what’s going on. For example, the fact that the left arm is standing in a metal sieve (balanced by threading a pipecleaner through the paper mache and then through those handy holes in the bottom of the sieve–sieves should be sold in the crafts aisle!) and that the sieve is, in turn, stabilized by another pipecleaner wrapped around a drawer pull on the table.

To get these brawny hands, I bought a pair of Atlas Thermafit gloves (“comfortable and warm!”) in XL at Ace Hardware for $7.99, stuffed them with newspaper, pulled them on over the wrist stumps, affixed temporarily with duct tape, then covered with Press ‘n’ Seal, which is kind of disturbingly sticky, and applied the paper mache over that. After a few layers, I’ll pull them off the ends of the arm, remove as much of the glove and newspaper as I can, and reattach them. More work than I’d planned on doing, but I’m sure burning up the hours until I can be an expert!

As soon as I transfer photos (which I’ve been taking, but which are trapped inside my other cameras), I will post an entire Ironman photo sequence.

The post title comes from my realization a few days ago that Ironman is taking over my life. My relationship with him has become WAY bigger than I’d planned. I’d wanted him to just be The Other Man, whom I could go to now and then for excitement and fulfillment. But he’s become all needy on me. He’s all like, “I want my legs! I want my arms!” And so I’m spending more time with him than I’m spending with Husbot. And Husbot is beginning to notice.

Today he accused me of having fallen into the trap of The Birthday Party Competition. Which is so utterly untrue that I’m afraid I laughed at him. If I were getting on The Birthday Party Competition boat, I certainly wouldn’t be whacking a homemade pinata and playing Pin The Angry Bird on The Pig and eating a homemade monster cake (I’ll get back to you on that one).

Instead, we’d be gathering thirty of Mbot’s closest friends and their parents for three hours at Pump It Up, Chuck E. Cheese, or Imagination Avenue. We’d rent a bounce house, a teenager to play Belle who paints faces and makes dogs and swords out of balloons, and a photographer at a costume booth. We’d have a three-tiered cake AND cupcakes AND a pinata. (Not that that last birthday party wasn’t really fun, and I adore the mother who threw it–she didn’t know what to do, so she just did everything!)

I’m still figuring out where to hang it to be destroyed. Our home offers no obvious place. But at this point, I’m pretty sure I want it beaten to smithereens.

 

I Hereby Relinquish Control: Teacher Appreciation Week, in Retrospect

Please accept these mushrooms as a token of my appreciation. (www.denny.co.za)

Not that I have a strong opinion one way or the other, but whoever came up with the idea of Intelligent Design is an unqualified, certified, card-carrying moron. In three hundred years, people will look back at us, the founders of that stupid idea, like we look at the preCopernican world. Because it’s basically the equivalent of believing the sun and all the other planets revolve around the earth. Which was actually worked out, mathematically, but according to Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow in The Grand Design, the equation was a solution neither simple nor elegant. When they did the math for all the planets, including (gasp!) the earth, rotating around the sun, the equation was both.

I bring this up, obviously, because this is Teacher Appreciation Week. Sure, teachers get a whole week and mothers only get one day, but I do not begrudge the teachers their week. We love Mrs. Pursell, Mrs. Doll, and everyone at Montessori, and they work their butts off. And so we happily went along with the protocol: a cupcake from the whole class on Monday. A thank you note from each child on Tuesday. A flower from each child on Wednesday. A vegetable or a piece of fruit from each child on Thursday. And, as parent-teacher liaison, I collected small monetary donations for a spa certificate to be presented today.

The stress began on Tuesday. Mbot, who is normally most content when left with pencils and paper, wanted to make rockets out of his Trio set instead. Then he wanted to draw a picture for his friend Ybot. Then for his brother. After three hours of on-and-off trying, we had three pictures (the Spanish teacher needed one, too). But there was something wrong with the amount of stress I felt during this exercise.

Wednesday, on the way to music class, we stopped at Safeway for two flowers. I told Mbot he could pick them out. I gave him choices of the least expensive varieties. He chose the sunflowers. Since they were only $3 for three, we got two bunches. He held one. Gbot held one. The flowers were dragged along the floor. They were swung through the air. They were carried over their shoulders like hobo sticks. By the time they got to music class, I’m sure several days had been taken from their already truncated lives. By the time Mbot had carried them in this fashion down the path to school, through the lobby, into the courtyard and into the hands of the teachers, I had decided that, when gifts are requested from little people, you have to take into consideration the fact that we, as adults, are pressing our standards and expectations and values onto people who have not yet been on earth long enough to learn our ways.

And so, by Thursday, when we went to school via the Safeway produce department, I found myself saying “yes” to the yellow bell pepper for Mrs. Doll ($1 apiece!). And to the carton of sliced mushrooms for Mrs. Pursell. The teachers were just lucky that, on the way to the checkout counter, we passed a display of very attractive strawberries at $1.28 per carton. Mbot agreed that they would be good, too. But if he hadn’t, Mrs. Pursell would have gotten the mushrooms. And I would have been perfectly okay with that. She could eat mushroom soup while admiring her world-weary sunflower and begrudgingly drawn picture of the antique cat.

It has been a week of lessons in weighing value, struggling for perspective, and drawing boundaries. I crawl out the end of it educated and exhausted.

They say that the behavior of three year-olds breaks us in for the behavior of teenagers. We get twelve years of practice before the big stuff starts. I believe it. The whole process has been magnificently designed. By The Laws of Nature. By Evolution. Give it up, all you Intelligent Designers. Relinquish control. If the universe had been designed by a humanlike mind–a truly intelligent female one, at least–there would have been a weekly spa visit included.