Archive | August 2010

SET? No! SET? No! And other games with the family

I married into a family that plays games. And they like to play the games only late into the night, say, after 10:30, when we have put our kids to bed and my brain starts to rapidly shut down.

The setting for these games is usually at a family gathering, such as the beach house we rented this summer for a week at the Jersey Shore with 8 adults and 10 kids ranging from age 13 to my niece who just turned one, figured out how to walk while we vacationed,  and likes to scream – a lot.

More on that in another post. Maybe.

Have you ever played SET? This is a game that, according to the manufacturer works both sides of the brain: left brain logical skills and right brain spatial skills opening up pathways to creativity.  In plain English, you are dealt cards with squiggles and diamonds or ovals, red, purple or green, striped, outlined or filled in. There are one, two or three shapes to a card. When you find three cards with all the same characteristics, or all different, you have a SET.

That’s if you can get a SET before your daughter finds one, or your sister-in-law, a MIT and Columbia graduate, finds one. For me, I just stare at those cards until I can’t see straight. I just can’t compute fast enough.  My daughter is apparently *extremely* good at SET, she played it all the time at camp, as pictured above.  We talked as her pile of SETs nearly toppled over. I didn’t have a SET to my name.

“Who did you play SET with?” I ask her.

“Anyone who would play with me,” she replied.

Then, after a pause, she added, “but after a while, no one wanted to play with me anymore.”

Then there’s Boggle. Have you ever watched an episode of King of the Hill, where the mother enters the Texas all-state Boggle championship? Well, she couldn’t hold a candle to my husband’s sisters and parents Boggle skills.  This is cut-throat, take ’em to the ground no mercy Boggle, as most games are played in the family.

Last time we played Boggle was at a holiday gathering at my in-law’s house out in Long Island. The Boggle board is shaken, and someone runs over to the microwave to set the timer for 3 minutes, 10 seconds. That is because someone long ago lost the sand timer and the family on principle has not replaced it with a new one. So the 10 extra seconds allows time for that one player who has to set the microwave to run back to the chair at the kitchen table and pick up their pencil.  Ten seconds are up, then it’s time to GO!

My husband and his sisters write furiously, as a novelist would if he broke through writer’s block in a chapter of a novel.  My brothers-in-law and I, the folks who married into this clan, jot down a word or two and then  look up at each other for a second, shrug and give one another sympathetic looks.

My mother-in-law never really plays. She says she’s just going to knit or watch TV. Until we sense that she is standing over us, looking over our shoulders. After we go around and cancel each other’s HEES or HAWS, or PAWS, my mother in law finds the one eight-letter word on the board. Like SQUEALED.

My husband says that games are good healthy fun. But losing all the time is just no fun and that’s why when it is time for gametime with the in-laws, I’m going to start curling up with a BOOK.

What I hate about being Transplanted North

This post is for anyone who has been taken care of by a relative, or anyone who changed plans or dropped every other responsibility in one’s life to take care of a loved one. So, I guess you can say this post is for everyone.

A transplant never really cuts all roots from where it first sprouted. Tendrils and shoots wind and twist back over states, oceans and continents, especially if the bulk of the transplant’s family still lives where they were originally planted. And sometimes, the parent plant can pull on those roots pretty hard.

Last week, my family had its plans tremendously and suddenly altered. It was to be a perfect summer week spent in Western New York: my parents were coming up to visit! We were going to explore Canandaigua, hike some local trails, visit the Rochester Public Market, check out a museum. Then, my folks were to take my youngest son back with them to Staten Island for a week of fun in New York City.

The day before their planned arrival,  I worked at getting the upstairs room ready and poured through magazines looking for the perfect summer recipes.

You know that saying, Man makes plans, God laughs?

The day before the visit, I got the call from my dad from the emergency room. Through a weak signal, I could make out that my mom was having terrible pains in her abdomen, and that she needed emergency surgery. My mom was in pain and my dad sounded scared. And I, the transplant, was about 400 miles away.

If you have ever received a call like this, you know how your mind reels. What to do? Wait it out? Leave immediately? Fly? Drive? And what about kids? Do you take them along for the ride, and if you do, how can you be a help out a loved one in the hospital with kids in tow? No, that won’t work.

So calls have to be made, favors have to be asked to watch kids from people who never have to ask favors from us transplants. Why? Because of all their family – their support network –  lives in town.

Luckily, summer schedules found two of my kids still away at sleep-a-way camp and my youngest in day camp. Luckily, I have an amazing and supportive husband who booked me a flight to JFK, a friend here who drove me to the airport, a wonderful father-in-law who picked me up from the airport – with a packed lunch even  – drove me to the hospital and waited with my dad and brother while my mom had her operation.

And, most luckily, as scary as this whole ordeal was, this operation saved my mother’s life. And it taught me that people – family – manage to come together to make everything alright. Through the waiting, I spent time alone with my brother and dad in a way that I haven’t since I was 17 years old. No spouses, no kids, just the three of us, waiting and talking.

Through my mom’s recovery, I cooked meals and spent time with my sister-in-law.  And when the week turned into the weekend, I was reunited with my husband and Toby in Staten Island.  In my childhood bedroom, I read him a bedtime story, but not before bedtime was interrupted by a surprise fireworks show from a nearby beach that could be seen out my window.

People ask me how I can still consider myself a transplant after living in Rochester for ten years. After ten years of living “up here, you should be used to it,” they say.  But, ten years can still considered as being a pioneer in the woods compared to five generations of my family’s roots in New York City.

Why do I hate being a transplant?  This week, now that I’m home – or back- or wherever I am –  was a fine example of why.

Carrying In, Not Carrying Out – The Trashing of our Parks

can people not pick up after themselves? Even on a nature trail?

I was glad to see that there exists a blog category such as a rant. This blog should have been a rave, but I will woefully have to rant instead. 

I spent a beautiful day last weekend with my husband and our youngest child at Stony Brook State Park in New York, just north of Corning. If you have been to this park, you know what a treasure it is.  If you have ever been to Watkins Glen State Park, near Ithaca, you have had a similar experience. But, at Watkins Glen, there is absolutely no going in the water, as inviting as the water looks. It’s too rough. The current there would pound anyone to a pulp. 

But Stony Brook State Park features a gently sloped, rambling stream that invites you in to make your way through its swirls, try out its natural water slides,  stand under its gently cascading falls. All around you this brook over the centuries has carved out a ravine which is now lush with forest and ferns. And, there is also a parallel trail to the brook for those who want to stay dry. 

One would think that any visitor would hold a place like this, or any park, state or national, in high regard, to keep it clean and pristine. 

Not so. 

The first disgusting thing I found in Stony Brook was an empty pack of cigarettes floating in the water. Gross as it sounds, I snatched it up and put it in the pocket of my cargo shorts. Those pockets were meant to hold stuff, and if I could put them to use by carrying out some litter, all the better. 

Then, I passed a few water bottles, sitting empty on a slab of stone, abandoned by their consumers. I shoved them in my son’s backpack. I got a complaint from my husband when I added to my litter collection a crushed empty can of Coors Lite. 

After picking up this my next piece of trash out of the brook, that public service announcement came to mind, the one from the 1970’s when I was a kid, that Native American crying that one tear. He has to be long dead and gone, but he is most likely still crying in his grave by the looks of things. 

This item of litter did not please my husband. 

“Don’t do that, then our backpack will smell like beer! They have people to pick up….” 

“Really????” I snapped, annoyed that he was annoyed with me picking up litter rather than annoyed that someone broke the hiker’s rule of littering! 

The truth is, there are no people to pick up after us along the trail. You bring a water bottle on the trail, YOU bring it out of the park with you when you are finished! You need a cold one as you watch the waters bubble over the smooth stones, YOU don’t smash it and leave it there for someone to pick it up. 

The thing that bugged me also was the NUMBER of bottles and cans I saw in this beautiful place and the NUMBER of people I saw just walking past it. 

But the most disgusting bit of abandoned refuse, I must say, was the dirty diaper. Crammed into the crevice of a rock, a rock I almost used as a place to hold on to on a slippery stretch of brook. 

Well, I had to draw the line there. 

People, pick up after yourselves when you go hiking! Do you need a reminder of the hiker credo: Take nothing but photographs, leave nothing but footprints! 

And, if you are hiking, and you see something fouling up the surrounding natural beauty, PICK IT UP!! Imagine how much cleaner our nation’s parks would be if we picked up one or two pieces of trash along the way. 

Happy trails.

Traversing The Swiss Family Robinson – and use of the “A” Word – with my six-year-old

Time magazine’s July 22 cover story was “The case Against Summer Vacation,” an article that posed the argument that our romanticized notion of summer vacation can be blamed on Tom Sawyer and is merely the remnant of our vanished agrarian society. Kids had off in the summer hundreds of years ago because Ma and Pa needed them to work the fields. Now, enriched summer vacations are a privilege only bestowed to the middle and upper class, while inner-city kids run the risk of summer learning loss if they spend too much inside with TV and video games.  

I know how lucky we are that we can afford – barely – to send our kids to summer camp. It’s not just kids in lower economic brackets who tend to veg out before the plasma god in the summer. At the beginning of the summer, I feel it is my parental duty to program every art project, play date and forced nature hike. What happens if I take the laissez-faire approach?  Let’s just say I wish I had a quarter for every time I scream “TURN THE TV OFF!”

I know that kids can backslide during months of summer slacking. So I have really tried to get my kids into summer reading. I’ve enlisted them in our local library’s summer reading programs. I don’t know if my kids are reading while away at summer camp, but I know that my 11-year-old son voraciously plowed through four books before he packed up and left for sleep-a-way camp. My teen daughter? She put up a bit of resistance to reading this summer.  I will attempt to get her bit by the literacy bug before the summer is through.  Her school does have required reading book lists, after all, it’s not mom that wants her to read, it’s SCHOOL!

While the big kids are at their heavily-programmed, up-at-dawn sleep-a-way camp, my youngest child gets to be an only child for one solid month.  That means mom and dad are all his. With all this quality one-on-one bed-time reading time on our hands, I figured we would tackle a classic. No Captain Underpants for us! With visions of climbing that immense artificial treehouse at Disney World and bowls made of coconut shells dancing in my head, Toby and I cashed in a 10-month gift card at Barnes & Noble and bought The Swiss Family Robinson.

We get through a chapter each night. The language, let’s just say, was far more complex back then. I checked the year Swiss Family Robinson was written. 1812.

“I believe there was a war that year,” my husband jokingly said.

Yes. This book is almost 200 years old. And some of the sentences were as heavy as the sugar canes that Fritz and Father carried on their shoulders on their Voyage of Discovery in Chapter Three.

I’ll give you examples of how I offer my son modern interpretation as I read along.

“I awoke my wife, and we consulted together as to the occupations we should engage in.”

I woke up my wife, and we talked and made a to-do list of all the jobs we needed to get done for the day.

“When we had gone about two leagues…”

After walking two miles

“we entered a wood situated a little further from the sea…took out some provisions and refreshed ourselves.”

We went into a forest located further from the sea, got out some snacks and refreshments.

At one point, my son asked me to read the book exactly as it was written. Three sentences later, he again asked for my interpretation and complained, “mom, I have no idea what you are talking about!”

But, he urged me to read on. We got to the chapter about rescuing the animals off of the shipwreck, and the challenge faced by the father and the oldest son.

I read,”What a difficulty in making it! and how could we induce”

umm.. make

“a cow”

a cow

“a sow”

a pig

“and an ass”

…….ummm, a donkey

“either to get upon a raft, or when there , to remain motionless and quiet?”

At that point, my young son stopped me.

“Wait, Wait! Moooooom, you changed that word, the word for donkey!! You were going to say one word, but you said “donkey.” Does this book have — the A word — in it??” He had deliciously naughty grin on his face, both dimples showing. Reading a 200-year-old book cannot be all that boring if you might catch your mom saying the “A” word, after all.

Tonight, Chapter Seven: Second Journey of Discovery Performed by the Mother of the Family. I can’t wait.


Please don’t Bend the Truth – aka LIE – To Reporters

In the town where I live, I come across many active, vibrant senior citizens. We work out on the treadmill or the elliptical machines side by side. I peek in on their senior exercise classes and think, that’s how I want to be when – if – I reach that age.  I want to be able to still walk on my own, lift a medicine ball over my head on my own.

Many of the seniors that I met at a local senior center were indeed very active. They take classes like Zumba Gold.  Line Dancing.  I wrote a column about senior programming that was long overdue.  I stand guilty of concentrating a lot of my column on more youthful topics, like short-sided soccer and children’s theatre.

The seniors at this center who had just sat down for lunch were thrilled I was there and made me feel very welcome. Okay, they made me feel like a movie star. They were charming and friendly and had some interesting stories to share. One woman told me all about the trips she went on in Elderhostel and all the art she has seen the world over. Intrigued, I asked her more about her life. She said before she had children, she was a professor of fine arts at a local college.

Really? A lover of art, a former student of many art history classes, I was intrigued. I wanted to know more about this woman’s career. She had to be in her late seventies, so having such a profession in her time must have been ground breaking.  I sat and chatted a bit more with her friends at this one table, and parted happy and satisfied that I had my story.

A day later,  there was a message on my voice mail. It was the woman who I interviewed.  The fine arts professor. She said that she may have bent the truth a bit about being a fine arts professor, and she was up at night worrying that I may have printed it, and please don’t print it.

Honestly, at that point I had not even started to write the piece, but I was planning on making this woman a prominent part of my story. I may have even called her to do a separate profile. So, I went through my notes and put a red line through what were untruths.  I didn’t call her back.

Days later, she left another message. She was so sorry she had lied and was “worried to death” that I had printed what she said. Poor woman, I called her back to give her peace of mind.

Turns out she was a very sweet woman, she just lied. She said she had applied for an academic position at this college but was not given one. I guess that her feelings of resentment and rejection were long-lived.  I told her no worries, I had not quoted her in my story after her initial message.

There are many temptations in our lives to lie, especially if we look back on our lives and wish that it had been a bit more exciting, more successful.  How many times have we seen celebrities and politicians apologize for bending the truth to the media? How many times have we seen an author of a successful memoir later stand up and admit that they lied?

There has been much coverage about journalists losing sight of their ethical responsibility to report the truth.  As traditional journalism disintegrates into the blogosphere, the truth becomes even more muddled.  Last November, Arianna Huffington spoke at Ithaca College about the emerging crisis in mainstream media, about how the media does not cover what really happens in our communities but instead focuses on bogus stories to get ratings. She specifically referenced last fall’s “Balloon Boy” fiasco.

So here I am, writing for a traditional print newspaper, focusing my column about everyday people doing good in their towns. But if sweet little old ladies can lie to a lowly freelance reporter like me for a story about a senior citizen center, really, what hope is there for truth in journalism?

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