Thursday, July 30, 2009

where are we now?

We just had the pleasure of a visit from old and dear friends, the dog family, who moved from San Francisco to Seattle a few years ago, and incidentally the stars of this wonderful blog

I have made lovely friends since having the kids, but find there is something extra special about those friendships that were forged in the fires of bars and clubs, over episodes of Melrose place, and washed down with more bottles of wine than people should ever consume, and yet have survived through our delayed path into adulthood, marriage, serious jobs and parenthood. Friends who when presented with my current haggard world weary self still see the hip sexy chick with the belly button piercing and multicoloured hair who threw up all over their carpet on her 27th birthday.

Maybe we all just need glasses, but when we get together I feel us all slipping back in time just a little and taking back our youthful glow. I feel proud of us too, we've all become such successful accomplished adults, and to be honest, if you been a fly on the wall some nights back when we all shared an apartment building, you might be surprised at how well we all turned out!

The icing on the cake is of course our children. The dog boys are such fun and lovely kids, getting smarter and more adorable every time I see them (which is not often enough). I take a special satisfaction from watching our kids get along so well with my friends children, and this past weekend the kids had a blast together. They also did a marvelous job of all being generally very well behaved and a credit to our clearly excellent parenting, but also being pleasantly rambunctious and occasionally getting overwhelmed, as young kids do. I should thank Little Dog for holding up his end of the three year old bargain, and having a couple of decent meltdowns, so that my Geekygirl was not the only one who had to sit for a while on the naughty chair.

I was, however, the only mother who managed to lose a child on our visit to the aquarium. Since geekyboy bobbles randomly about in crowds, following a Brownian motion pattern, I was keeping a closer eye on him than on Geekygirl who I had trusted would keep her eyes on us. But the crowds and undersea darkness meant that once a small person was more than five feet away, they vanished into the sea of denim legs. I had just strapped geekyboy into his stroller to take the elevator up to get lunch, turned around and could not see Geekygirl anywhere. The longest five minutes of my life flashed by in slow motion, running through the thronged, darkened maze of fish tanks shouting her name, until a kind attendant appeared with my distraught child holding her hand. She had just got over her "nemo" initiated fear of fish too, and was actually enjoying the aquarium experience up until this point.

The incident had rolled off her by the time we reached the restaurant though. The San Francisco aquarium has a very nice restaurant with a selection of delicious local ethnic foods, and though fish was not on the menu (do aquariums ever serve seafood?!), we did order a rack of asian marinaded ribs. My friend and I are vegetarians, but our kids are decidedly not. Geekygirl eyed the ribs with delight, and we sawed her off one. She chewed and chewed until her face was a giant joker smile of marinadde, and continued gnawing at the bone. "We suck the bones to get the flavour out" she informed me. I think I'm raising a cave child, and certainly not a natural vegetarian!

The weekend was filled with more delights than I have time to describe here, suffice to say that our house is sadly quiet now that the dog family have returned home.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

cyber kids

After a few weeks of lobbying on my part, I convinced Geekydaddy that we really needed to get ourselves iphones. Geekydaddy is a fully fledged silicon valley geek type (he designs microprocessors for a living) so we had, until the children came along, always been both early adopters of new technology and Mac users to boot, Geekdaddy even owned the prescient apple "Newton" personal organizer since he was on the design team of the chip inside it. Other demands on our finances recently had meant that we were slumming it, technologically speaking, making do with a 5 year old powerbook, plain old motorola slider phones, and the original 5G ipod. Then an incident involving a breastfeeding mother (me), the powerbook and a precariously balanced glass of water prompted an upgrade to a new mac laptop for my birthday last year, and last week we finally joined the iphone crowd. Now I too can take photos of my lunch and post them on facebook in real time! How did I live without it?!

Many reviews have been written of the iphone, so there is no need for me to give my version, except to say that we love these devices. So smooth and simple, such a sleek intuitive interface, and so many strange yet beguiling applications that can be downloaded onto it. Most of the miniature electronic devices on the market today from phones to cameras, are tiny computers, of course, but this really feels like one, a tiny little computer that lives in your pocket. Have a sudden idea for a blog post or an experiment while in the car? Quick, take a voice note. Drink a great yet cheap bottle of wine and want to remember the label? Snap a picture of it. In heavy traffic on the way to pick up the kids and want to call to say you will be a few minutes late? Use the voice activated dialing and say "call Daycare". If you have a British accent this apparently translates into iphone-glish as "Play Portishead loudly and refuse to turn off", thus negating the safety features of the voice dialing by causing the driver to scramble around for the volume control, but if spoken to with a forced American twang (I always end up sounding like I'm from Boston via Brooklyn when I speak fake American), the iphone behaves admirably.

As a tool for a busy Mother it has many advantages. I find the ability to keep my endless to do lists in one electronic spot very useful, and have fast discovered that the iphone is also great for amusing the kids. One great idea I got from a "how to amuse your kids with your iphone" blog was to keep a "favourite" list on 'you tube' as an application on the phone. I put a stock of Disney movie song clips on it, then called Geekygirl over to take a look. The sensible mother would never let her children find out what an entrancing device the iphone is, of course, if she ever wants to actually use it herself, but I felt rather like a kid with a new toy, and wanted to share my new found wonder with my daughter.

Geekygirl watched the tiny crisp figures of aladdin and jasmine fly across the screen and gasped. "Mummy, it is so cool!".

And that got me thinking. What is cool to a three year old anyway? To us grown ups, a tiny TV that can be held in your palm is somehow an emblem of the future, something promised by the science fiction of our youth (along with the personal rocket packs which never seemed to materialize). But to Geekygirl, only three years in the world, everything is cool, TV itself is still entrancing, a giraffe at the zoo, a bus ride, a swimming pool, the sight of a sliver of moon in daylight. The world is still full of so many things she has yet to experience, yet electronics seem to have a special draw.

I used the miraculous phone as an in flight entertainment system on our drive back from tahoe last weekend, holding it over my shoulder so both kids could watch the movies, but I wondered, will I be taking something away from them, their imagination and creativity, by exposing them to too much technology too early? Will I create monsters who have to be constantly stimulated and amused by expensive devices?

We live in a middle class part of San Francisco, and have a wonderful parent network connected through a yahoo group and by our interactions at local playgrounds and coffee shops. It is a generalization of course, but as a parent tribe here we are something of a cliche. We are left of mainstream America, wholesome and idealistic in our parenting. We eat organic, we recycle, we breastfeed our children for a year or two or three, we use clotn dipaers, or at the very worse environmentally friendly disposables, we strive to only wear natural fiber clothing that we hope wasn't made in a sweatshop, we don't let our kids watch much very TV, we feel that wooden puzzles, multicultural books and indigenous craft materials are "better" toys than plastic princesses and electronic talking Elmo telephones.

Well meaning folk email the group list links to  unverifiedstories about traces of plutonium found in mainstream brands of baby bubble bath, and lists of impossible to find sunscreens that cost more than their weight in gold but were made by local buddhist monks using sustainably mined zinc oxide and organic calendular oil. (I exaggerate, and don't mean to dismiss the very real concerns we should all have about pollutants in the environment). Something that always sums up our community philosophy to me is our annual Easter Spring egg hunt where the eggs are filled with organic whole wheat bunny crackers and stickers, and there is not a Cadbury's creme egg or a marshmallow peep in sight.

Despite this peer pressure I find it hard to buy into the 'technology is bad' argument. After all our kids will grow up into a technological world. Knowing ones way around a touch screen interface will probably be a useful skill in the future, possibly a more useful one than being able to thread beads on a string or do needlepoint (not to dismiss the pleasure many people take in the latter activities).

The genius of my iphone has brought home to me the great pace of technological change in our world. Thirteen short years ago i wrote my PhD thesis on an old mac classic and stored it on floppy discs. I "interviewed" for the position that brought me to the US with my brand new email account that I accessed through a Unix interface on a computer that I had to reserve time on. The work in that thesis, the cloning and molecular biology which took me over three years to complete could probably be done in six months or less now. The industry in which I work, biotechnology, was just a twinkle in Herb Boyer's eye back in 1970 when I was born.

The world is moving fast. We ask children "what do you want to be when you grow up?", a question that is in many ways unanswerable, because some of the jobs that will be available to them in twenty years will be things that we have not yet even conceived. For powerful evolutionary reasons the young people in a human societal group are drawn to playthings that resemble the tools their elders use, so it is no wonder our kids want to press buttons and peer into screens. Somehow they know that no one is going to stop the world, and they can't get off, so they had better keep up.

Tomorrow the Geekyfamily is taking a long daytime road trip to visit old and dear friends. In anticipation of this I thought about getting Geekygirl one of those leapster game devices, and emailed my parent group for opinions about them; evil brain cell destroying timewasters, must have educational tools, or parental survival necessities? I got mixed responses, one of which was from a practical mother of two older children, bright and well balanced kids, who said "My kids loved theirs. I feel that it was educational, and it was great for long car trips. I'll sell you ours with 15 games for $40.00". I said "deal".

And since i needed something for Geekyboy too, I picked up one of those programmable "Elmo knows your name" electronic phone toys. I was impressed to find that I was able to program it to say his rather unusual Scandinavian name. I would also have been able to program it to say "hello Bilbo". So very useful for those parents who decided to name their child after a Hobbit. Technology, isn't it wonderful?!

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

the sweetest thing

At about half past five this morning I was awoken by a small person creeping up from the foot of our bed. It was Geekygirl, and she might have been able to sneak in unnoticed, if she hadn't disturbed the cat.

She doesn't usually come in to bed with us on weekdays, in fact usually we wake up before she does. This morning, she snuggled back to sleep for the few minutes before our alarm, an insistent "birdsong" trill, that gets louder and louder as if a flock of angry songbirds is bearing down upon the room, woke us for the morning.

Wondering why she had woken so early and come in to us I asked her "did you have a bad dream?" "No". She answered. "Did you fall out of bed?", "Uh Uh" she said. So why did you come in to Mummy and Daddy's bed? I queried.

"Because I love you" She replied.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The law of the jungle

The Geekyfamily seems to have turned into a wolf pack. One night, Geekdaddy was reading to his small son from Sandra Boynton's wonderful "dogs: A counting and barking book". If you are familiar with this classic you will remember that when the reader get to the page "Nine dogs on a moonlight night" he howls a long "AAAROOOOOOO!"

Geekboy was quite enamoured of this noise, and immediately howled back, begining a conversation of howling that all of us joined (ironically, all of us except the actual dog, who just looked bemused).

Since then, when Geekdaddy arrives home in the evening, Geekyboy runs to the gate calling "Daddy, Daddy, AAAAARROOOOO!". He howls back in greeting, and then Geekygirl and I join in, creating a wolf chorus.

Howling, in wolf packs is thought to be like a glue that bonds the pack together, wolves love to howl, and will congregate over great distances to be part of a howling. It seems to foster a sense of reconnection in our family too, I highly recommend a good howl when your pack reconvenes for the evening.

Though your neighbours may think you are nuts.

Now this is the Law of the Jungle --
as old and as true as the sky;
And the Wolf that shall keep it may prosper,
but the Wolf that shall break it must die.

As the creeper that girdles the tree-trunk
the Law runneth forward and back --
For the strength of the Pack is the Wolf,
and the strength of the Wolf is the Pack.

Rudyard Kipling - the jungle book

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Two little princesses?

Where does it come from, the Disney Princess mania? Is it in the water at preschool, or just drifting everywhere in an inhalable pink miasma at three year old girl height? How did my daughter, without ever seeing a Disney movie, commercial or toy in our home, come back from preschool one day saying"Mummy, my favourite Princess is Aurora. There are six princesses, and they live in castles and marry princes", with the same confidence and enthusiasm that she tells me "Whales are mammals that live in the sea. They like to eat fish and play. Sharks are not mammals. They are fish that eat other fish". (I'm coaching her to come out with the second statement in intellectual company.). I guess peer influence becomes as important as teacher influence even at this early age.

I'm beginning to understand the lure of the "Waldorf" type preschools, where parents sign a commitment that their kids will not come to school wearing shirts bearing TV characters, or bring politically incorrect Disney merchandise for show and tell. Don't get me wrong, I love the Disney movies; the music, the storytelling, they are enchanting in many ways, but as female role models the princesses fall short. Too slender, too white, too submissive. I see my daughter grasping indiscriminately at every bit of information that comes her way, and fear the power of advertising and the media more than I ever have before. But I don't believe in living in a bubble. I just hope we can do our best as parents to help her filter the fluff from the relevant stuff.

But, as a mother I feel that I should show enthusiasm in the things my daughter likes, rather than tell her who she should be. I do fill her world largely with books and toys of my choosing (one of the bonuses of working motherhood is that I get to go to Target alone, on my lunch break) but I want her to find her own interests too. So we go to the aquarium to encourage her interest in ocean creatures. And I buy her Disney princess costumes to indulge her pink frilly fantasies. At least in her imaginary games she goes off to rescue other princesses (and then takes them to the ball to get married). Even before I got her the costume (a reward for 7 days of not hitting anyone at preschool. She had some challenges when she transitioned), she had already got into the endearing habit of coming home and putting on a new, prettier outfit. Now, every day, she comes straight home and gets into the Aurora costume.

The other day she found another costume, an old Halloween "Bumblebee fairy" one, and asked me to put it on her brother "Geekyboy wants to be a princess too, she said. He's Belle, because this has yellow". I hesitated for a split second about making a spectacle of my small son by dressing him in "baby drag", but decided that it would be rather fun. Geekyboy was game, like any small boy he wants to be just like his older sister. My younger brother (we are two girls and a boy spread over five years) often joined my sister and I in a game of dress up, and in fact for years he was wearing girls clothes when our milkman stopped by to collect the weeks money, so the poor man thought he was a girl, and was quite taken aback when one day my mother called out "Thomas" to the small child in the high heels and purple skirt.

Geekyboy has taken to this game of dress up, anything for attention from beloved big sis, and it has become an evening ritual. I'm not sure now what we will do when halloween comes around, though. If I let the children choose their own costumes I fear Geekyboy will pick something rather more frilly than is usually seen on a toddler boy. Well, I guess we do live in San Francisco, so it is never to early to perfect the drag queen look. Maybe I will even persuade Geekdaddy to break out the dress he used to wear to Halloween in the Castro and we can all be princesses.

My two princesses:

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Mayhem. Or "Lets have a nice family dinner"

Despite being a strong believer in the family dinner, we don't actually have one all that often.

Weekdays I get home first with the kids, who are hungry and ready for dinner. Most evenings they get some "wholesome organic" version of "kid food"; meatballs, hot dogs or fish fingers with veggies (frozen and microwaved), and mashed potatoes (ditto), or spaghetti hoops. If I have a bit of extra time they get quinoa or cous cous with steamed fresh broccoli. If I'm late and everyone is frantic they get toast and honey and scrambled eggs. I usually have the kids in the bath by the time geekydaddy gets home at 7.00, and they are both in bed by 8.00. We are rather British about bedtime and routine. It is the only way I know how to survive, and although I feel guilty that I'm glad to have them in bed, even though I only spend a few short evening and morning hours with them on weekdays, and guilty that we don't expose our kids to enough adult cuisine, I do relish our quiet dinners for two, catching up on our day over a glass of wine after the kids are in bed.

But on Saturdays we try to have a family dinner. Today I made shrimp tacos. The food was very well received, I love to hear my daugher exclaim how delicious the shrimp (cooked in lime and garlic) are, and to see her heartily devour a self assembled soft taco, beans dripping everywhere. Despite all sitting down at the table at approximately the same time, the occasion still never feels very cohesive. I find that Geekydaddy and I don't actually get to sit and eat our dinners until everyone else is done (I seem to recall my mum bouncing up and down in the same manner to meet our demands all through meals when we were growing up).

This evening, after popping up to prepare a second quesadilla for Geekyboy, who inhaled the first as if he had not received nourishment all day, then chopping extra shrimp up for Geekygirl, retrieving numerous bits of lost cutlery, and rescuing a burning accidentally left on pan, Geekygirl finished her dinner and was excused from the table. We finally sat down to our much anticipated food, when we heard "Mummy, I had an accident". Running to the bathroom I found my little girl standing in an unfeasably large puddle of pee, which had been released within just a few inches of the toilet. Maybe the food was so delicious and the company so riveting that she just forgot that she needed to go. Around this same time Geekyboy had started to protest about being restrained in his high chair so Geekydaddy released him. He of course made a bee line for the pee lake, and just before he started to splash in it in his socks, Geekdaddy swept in and got him.

With both adult humans distracted for a spilt second, the animals, who erroneously believe themselves to be emaciated, deprived street curs, decided it was their turn to get in on the act. Orangegeek, a cat who is so old and creaky he now claws instead of jumps his way onto a lap, can still summon a balletic leap of silent grace when shrimp is involved. Geekydog, who retains enough of her training not to jump onto tables to steal food, seems to believe that touching the table with her tongue doesn't count, and so will sneakily lap the table edge, hoping for morsels, if no one is looking. We turned around from the great pee cleanup and realized our dinners were about to be stolen from us by the animals, so we left the children and the bathroom in various states of uncleanliness and decided to finish our dinners.

It might be a while before we attempt the family dinner again.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Is my baby channelling the late "King of pop"?

One day last week I was stealing a moment at the computer while the kids played. Geekyboy was playing with the CD's. Outdated as they may be as a form of music storage, we still have a good few hundred of them in an attractive pottery barn "CD bookcase". (What a useless piece of furniture that will turn out to be in a few years, with its neat little 5" x 5" square shelves! Antique dealers of the future will be able to pinpoint in a second "Ah yes, a music storage shelf unit, circa 1995, from the shortlived "Compact disc" era). And I still vividly recall how futuristic they seemed when they first came out, watching the silvery disc spin so fast through the little sunroof in the lid of my boombox, not understanding how it produced the crisp sonic experience.

Geekyboy, tired of amusing himself by pulling CD's out of the shelves, toddled over and presented me with one. "Dants" he said to me, bouncing up and down by bending his chubby knees. (I think he means "Dance"). I took the proffered CD, then did a double take. He had handed me a copy of "Bad" by Michael Jackson. Now MJ's music has been playing on the radio since his death, but it had not occurred to me to put it on at home. I didn't realize that we actually owned any of his recordings. This CD must have been Geekdaddy's, probably purchased around the same time that he bought the "Billy Ocean's Greatest hits" CD, that lurks next to his Phish and Pearl Jam.

I'm not someone who believes in visitation from spirits of the dead, but it was eerie that of all the CD's in the rack, Geekyboy found this one, only a few days after Michael Jackson's death. According to Chinese custom, babies are not allowed at funerals, the thinking being that they are still close to the world beyond, and so can see the dead walking among us.

Skeptic that I am, I dismissed the idea that the spirit of the king of pop had visited our humble home, and put Geekyboy's selection down to a random chance event. But I decided to play the CD anyway, I'd forgotten how good a song "Smooth Criminal" is, and we danced together. Geekyboy showed off the dance moves he has started to develop. He pivots on one foot, bending his knees and stamping the other foot rhythmically on the ground while pumping his arms. Its cute. Thank goodness he didn't break into a moonwalk though. Then I would have really been spooked.

Monday, July 6, 2009

A serene weekend, then back down to earth with a bump. Or a splat.

We had the most idyllic fourth of July weekend. We are fortunate enough (or crazy enough, we vacillate between the two), to have a vacation home up on Donner Summit, near lake Tahoe. The abridged history of how we came to have this place starts with a bunch of friends and a ski lease. Common here in northern CA, friends get together and rent a cabin near the ski resorts for the ski season, from December to April. When I met Geekydaddy, he and his group of friends had been leasing a cabin in this manner for a couple of years. I joined in, and for six more years we spent every winter in this crumbling cabin in "Serene lakes", this aptly named mountain community. That seventh season, when it came time to renew the lease, the group finally fell apart; marriages and relationships with non skiers, dog ownership (ours) and much delayed adulthood took its toll, and ski cabin gang was no more.

So in a fit of craziness, and without any idea of how much our intended family was going to impact our finances, geekydaddy, geekydog, the cats and I became the proud owners of a bit of mountain real estate in this same community we had grown to love during our ski lease years.

In the five years since then we have come to love Serene lakes even more. What had been just a winter playground is now our summer destination too. The lakes, frozen in winter are warm in summer, the roads lined with wildflowers rather than snow banks, and the community maintains a little sandy beach where kids can play and swim in the sun. The smell of pine trees baking in the sun will always mean summer to me now.

Over the past years we have basked by the lake every summer. First just with Geekydog, watching other peoples children play, imagining at first, then hoping and longing for our own. I warmed my pregnant belly, un-selfconcious in my bikini amongst unpretentious neighbours. Geekygirl sat in the shallows, and ate sand her first summer, then grew to jump on sandcastles and brave the lake in water wings in her second, while I warmed another growing belly. Last year geekybaby learned to sit in the warm sand and winced with distaste as I attempted to nurse him with cold wet boobs, while Geekygirl made friends and traded shovels with other kids, and this year; how can it already be her fourth summer?, she pretends to be princess Ariel, dancing through the sand and water, and her brother tags along behind while I sit in the shallow water, scaring the other beach residents (but delighting my kids at least) with my rendition of "part of your world" from "the little mermaid".

This weekend we had the pleasure of the company of our dear friends Uncle S. and Auntie N. Single friends who love kids, they gave me the great luxury of a few moments of reading time, where I started to read an actual bona fide intellectual novel (Shalimar the Clown, by Salman Rushdie), having forgotten to purchase my trashy magazines. Time will tell whether I actually get to finish it! We broke out the glue and coloured paper and decorated our sunhats with stars and spangles, then headed to the beach for the celebration. The kids played, we drank corona and lime, the dogs basked in the sun (Auntie N. has a chihuahua mix, much adored by the kids for his compact size) . The simple pleasures of friends, family and sun were such a welcome break to our harried lives.

While walking to the beach we encountered many off leash romping dogs, so I, unwisely in retrospect, let geekydog off to play. Geekydog is mostly obedient. But does not always come back instantly when called. She is like a three year old child, if she could say "In a minute, Mum, I'm just coming" I'm sure she would. Being a non verbal canine child, she instead returns after five minutes of my yelling her name and working my way through my list of "emergency" recall commands, looking gleeful and guilty. This time she had an odd green slime on her muzzle and a funky smell about her. I hoped that whatever she had ingested was not too horrendous, and we carried on our day uneventfully with the miscreant safely back on leash.

We always stop for fast food on our way home on Sunday night. Geekygirl was eagerly anticipating her happy meal, but the thrills of the day overcame her and Geekyboy, and both kids succumbed to sleep within a few minutes of hitting the freeway. After a long drive, it seems that the entire population of California gets in their cars and heads from one side of the state to the other on these holiday weekends, we transfered the kids to their beds, unpacked the car and collapsed.

I was woken at 6am by a hysterical Geekgirl. She wanted her French fries, and was inconsolable for a good twenty minutes when she realized that it was morning, she was back in San Francsico, and she had slept through the fast food stop.

We got the day back on track eventually, afte she accepted that Cheerios were what was for breakfast, but we were all very, very tired when we came home this evening. As we climbed the stairs, my nose was assaulted by a strange, foul and rather swampy, or should I say lakey smell. Geekydog spends the day in our bedroom, and it was clear that this bedroom was the source of the fumes. I ordered the children to stand back and opened the door.

I'll spare you the details, but clearly whatever she had consumed at the lake had taken its revenge on her bowels. The poor beast was mortified by her loss of control, all pleading eyes and placating tail wag, and when released into the garden proceeded to assault the flowerbeds with more of the same dark evil explosiveness. And I had my very favourite job in the world to do, mopping up dog diarrhea, while surrounded by hungry exhausted children.

Even with one child out of diapers, sometimes I feel that there is way too much poop in my life.
Back to reality. Until the next time.