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Posts from the ‘That blasted iPhone’ Category

Angry Birds Star Wars: O evil marketing geniuses!

Birds, Pigs and the mediator (Asi Cohen) posed...

Birds, Pigs and the mediator posed for a photo shortly before talks broke down. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Several months ago, I wrote a blog post about my decision to stop letting my four (now five) year-old son, C, play Angry Birds. It’s been about seven months, and all has been fairly well: keeping him away from the addictive game has diminished how much he fights about relinquishing the iPad when his time is up. It’s allowed me one small parenting victory (just one is all I ask!): he has become much more understanding of the fact that the iPad is a “sometimes” toy, rather than an all-encompassing center of the universe. And with no Angry Birds, he is much more interested in playing games directed towards children, built to be more like open-ended toys, like the Toca Boca games, or straight-up educational games. Lately he’s been playing this Montessori game which repeatedly drills him on the geography of North and Central America with no discernable end or even pretend achievements like stickers to keep him going. He probably thinks, “I can’t play anything fun, so I might as well learn where Belize is.” Is this something to be proud of? I’m not sure, but I’ll go with yes. Come on!

Can any of YOU pick Belize out on a map? Didn’t think so.

So the Great Experiment worked: he’s dropping out of kindergarten in the New Year to head to Yale on a bassoon/Geography/handball scholarship. Well, no. But I do think he got something out of it.

Until now. We are sitting at the dining room table on a Sunday, as little brother naps, doing crossword puzzles and coloring and computing, all while eating bacon: a collection of fortifying family activities for a brisk fall day, all in aid of our goal of leaf-raking avoidance. C just achieved a bevy of points in a reading game on the iPad. How does his father reward him?

I see him swiping at the screen. Swiper, no swiping!

Oh man! After months of keeping the birds at bay, turning sharp corners in the supermarket to avoid the Angry Birds gummy candy displays, and not commenting on the fact that his kindergarten teachers dressed as Angry Birds for Halloween, we are back at the trough. Angry Birds Star Wars has proved too much to resist. C’s Dad looks at me sheepishly as he hits BUY in the App Store.

Those Finnish geniuses. They know you might be able to resist plain old Angry Birds. But if you are Star Wars fans? Like this father and son duo I’m looking at right here, pondering how to chuck a Luke Skywalker bird at some Storm Trooper pigs? The force is too great. It can’t be escaped, just as Han Solo is trapped by the carbonite. They’ve pulled us into a Sarlacc pit in a nexus of perfect marketing synergy. I am trying to think of more Star Wars metaphors, but I’ve run out. Like I’ve written before, I’m not much of a Star Wars fan myself.

I suppose I am OK with C returning to the game. Maybe it’s because I have never gotten over my mother denying us certain toys when we were kids, practicing something, what’s that called again? Oh, restraint. Play-doh? Play don’t. Easy Bake Oven? Ask my sister how that request was handled. I respect that tactic now, but at the time it was a bummer. So though I am trying to teach my kids that a trip to into town is not cause to treat yourself, I can’t resist sometimes, when I see something I know they will really like.

Which is all the time. Those things that I know my kids will really like know how place themselves right in front of my face. Are my spending habits so easy to peg, O marketing gods? I am constantly confronted with versions of Angry Birds Star Wars every time I shop, those perfect combinations of favorite things: Spider-Man Matchbox cars? Synergy! Must-have! Bubble Guppies iPad game? Do it. Lego Star Wars, Lego Dinos, Lego Fire Trucks? Say no more. Candy that looks like Legos, gummies that look like Dinos? Yes. Switch and Go Dinos? It’s a car, it’s a dino, it’s a car, it’s a dino…it’s on Santa’s list.

It goes for me as well: how does Target know that I will totally buy them out of Orla Kiely-themed Method cleaning products? That seemed kind of specific, but apparently I am not the only one who so clearly fits into that Anglophile, green-clean loving, bargain shopping demographic.

Anyone who knows me, including the marketing elves that clearly follow me around, knows I bought a ton of these.

So I sympathize with Swiper McGee over here, although we will have to see what the consequences will be. There will be a lot of talk, as there is at this very moment, of the powers of the various bird-shaped Star Wars good guys, and we will have to listen. And if the fighting over the iPad returns, Angry Birds Star Wars is going back to its galaxy far, far away.

Christmas is coming, and my boys are still a bit young to come at me with an Excel spreadsheet of their demands – they don’t really have a lot of expectations for what they will receive, and it’s my job to keep it that way. And maybe because, throughout the year, they are gifted with things they didn’t even know they wanted, it keeps the pressure off Christmas to be a gift-fest. I hope.

Instead of charging into stores with long lists, we can focus on all of the other things about the season that we really enjoy: driving around looking at Christmas lights, decorating the tree, watching A Charlie Brown Christmas, making gingerbread houses. Do they make Star Wars Millenium Falcon gingerbread house kits? I’ll have to look into that.

Hope in Curiosity

The Moon and Mars

The Moon and Mars (Photo credit: Tolka Rover)

Last night, instead of reading the continuing saga of Captain Underpants and the Perilous Plot of Professor Poopypants (O hilarity! Thou dost ensue!) to our little son, C , at bedtime, we took out the iPad and watched, on NASA’s app, the robot rover Curiosity’s successful landing on Mars.

“What I would have given to have had this as a kid!” my science-mad husband said. He’s right; it’s incredible that we have this device that can show our son the world – and beyond – at bedtime. (But don’t get any fancy ideas, C: there will be no eight o’clock rounds of Toca Boca Monster Kitchen. This was a special occasion.)

In awe, we watched what really happened, yonder: something approximating a vehicle from one of C’s Lego sets gingerly landed on the surface of the red planet. Then, surrounded by quilts and teddy bears, as night fell outside, we saw images transmitted from another world.

For all of us, it was a wonder. But what I enjoyed most, even more than the landing itself, was the elation on the faces of the engineers at NASA, on desk’s edge in powder-blue shirts. This moment was something probably all of them had dreamed of as children, looking out bedroom windows at the moon from under the covers. And then they turned their hopes into study, hard work, and determination, and now we all benefit (and their mothers must be so proud!).

This morning, the boys still had visions of Mars in their heads. C was on the floor building a robot out of wooden blocks that could keep taking pictures of Mars while Curiosity was turned off. As it must be from time to time. And their dad was sighing into his coffee. “I still want to go into space. I guess that will never happen now.”

“Have a little hope,” I said.

Maybe their dad isn’t an astronaut. But he started as a young boy who loved science, all of it, and now, it’s his job every day. And probably my greatest hope for my two sons, aside from their general health and happiness, is that someday, they will uncover something to aspire to, to work toward, that brings them such joy. That means something to them. All I can do now is show them the possibilities, on the screen or out in the world, encourage their curiosity, and wait for that light to go on, maybe as they lie in bed at night. It could be anything. And there’s probably an app for it. Sweet dreams, boys.

I’m happy to be participating in Melanie Crutchfield’s Blog Relay for Hope, inspired by the Olympics! Thank you to the excellent writer, Mom in the Muddle for inviting me to join in. Both of these blogs are great and worth checking out.

I’ve been complaining, er, blogging about the Olympics here for the past week, so as someone like Melanie who hates exercising, it feels good to participate in some way! And who knows, maybe all this Olympics-watching I’ve been doing will inspire the boys to athletic greatness some day. I’ve already chosen events for them that suit their personalities. For C, the Modern Pentathlon. A combination of pistol shooting, swimming, horse jumping, running, and fencing sounds like superhero training. And also very tiring. And for little T? Shot put. We already know he can throw food, and Matchbox cars.

I know we are getting close to the anchor leg of this blog relay, and there’s not much time left, so (no pressure) I’d like to pass the baton over to my husband over at drcraigcanapari.com to see if he’s got anything to say about hope. (He does! Read it here!) I know in his line of work he comes across it every day. I would also like to reach out to another blog I enjoy reading, scienceofmom.com. If you would like to join, be sure to link back here and to Melanie Crutchfield. USA!

To read the Closing Ceremonies of the Blog Relay for Hope, click…here!

This should just about cover it: my rant on NBC’s Olympic coverage

English: Usain Bolt at the World Championship ...

Usain Bolt in Berlin, 2009. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As we enjoy the second, and final, week of the Olympics, I thought I’d get a jump on my wrap-up. Frankly, my enthusiasm for the Olympics is beginning to wane. Why? Before I get to my planned Olympic tribute: The Greenspan Awards: Candidates for Future Segments for Bud Greenspan’s Firmament of Olympic Glory (which I may or may not get to, let’s be real here), here’s one long, slightly unhinged rant on NBC’s Olympic coverage.

It’s Sunday night. Clearly I don’t have tickets for the Olympics. Husband and I are at home, stateside, listening to the static coming from two baby monitors. We’re in primetime Olympic coverage. It’s nine o’clock. We all know Usain Bolt is running the 100 Meters tonight, probably because my Olympics iPhone apps have been dinging in my ear all day. I have nine apps. I thought all of a sudden I was really popular and getting tons of texts, but no. Usain Bolt!

So never mind that these apps (and NPR!) spoiled me for the result several times over. As they did for Bradley Wiggins’ Time Trial win. (Do I learn? No.) AND never mind I am holding off on watching Breaking Bad for this. I want to watch Bolt win. I am ready. We know it’s already happened, so obviously NBC is going to show it as the centerpiece of the evening’s coverage, right? They can show it whenever they want. Nine o’clock passes…

YET MORE beach volleyball. How much of this sport am I going to have to fast-forward before the end of the Olympics? It’s not even a final, or semi-final. It’s one of about – as far as I can tell, I can’t be bothered to check my app(s) to find out – a hundred million qualifying rounds May/Walsh have played. I feel like I’ve seen about nineteen Olympics worth of THEM ALONE playing beach volleyball, and they keep getting the primest of the primetime spots. Meanwhile, Usain Bolt, running probably the signature event of the entire games, is relegated to the eleven-o’clock hour – that’s practically late night! Why? Is it because Misty and Kristy, or whatever they are called, are American, and he is not? Because there is certainly a bias toward only showing events that the USA is contesting. I was shocked yesterday to tune into a Track Cycling final between France and Team GB (and that’s another thing, addressed to my DVR: if you say you’ve recorded Track Cycling, SHOW THAT. Not more volleyball!). Again, why? Don’t say it’s about the bikinis, because a) insulting and b) too cold for bikinis in London.

To sum up, even with all of the options that NBC claims are available to us for watching any Olympic event, I am pretty much bound to watch whatever they decide to prioritize in primetime. Because really, I don’t have all day and night to watch the Olympics, bouncing back and forth from the computer, to the phone, to the iPad, to whatever live coverage they can show. I really can just pick and choose a few things from the daytime coverage, and hope the DVR records what the guide proclaims (ahem, Track Cycling). And then watch the primetime coverage. Which has turned out to be all-American, all the time, with a huge bolus of beach volleyball stuck in the middle. And if you are watching primetime TV, they force you to the beach volleyball (men and women’s) by not even showing any alternate events on the NBC Sports Network – they’ve been showing poker in primetime! Poker!!! I thought that was the whole point of having a second network; to double your options. But no, Bob Costas needs us to see his taut face, directing us to hang on for more hyperbolic purple prose after commercial breaks. And by the way, Costas, you can chill with the flights of poetic fancy. You are no Greenspan. You are from Commack, you get me? Islander to Islander?

I appreciate that, by and large, people are going to be watching the Olympics to root for Team USA. But the Olympics is an opportunity to let the world into our homes. To appreciate the human, not just the American, spirit. So, in that spirit, O media gods, please, let me watch Mark Cavendish comment on the Track Cycling! I would be willing to pay for BBC coverage of the Olympics just to see this. And anyway, isn’t me funneling more money into media conglomerates also very much in the spirit of the Games? Let us, in the spirit of international fellowship, break down those firewalls!

So, hopefully, tune in soon for these Greenspan Awards I keep threatening you with, highlighting my favorite moments and people from London 2012. Spoiler Alert: Oscar Pistorius is definitely getting a Greenspan. I mean, come on!

English: Oscar Pistorius during 2011 World cha...

Guess who? during the 2011 World Athletics Championships in Daegu (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The world is waiting…for my thoughts on the Olympics so far

London -- View from Tate Modern

London — View from Tate Modern (Photo credit: Nietnagel)

You might have noticed I lit up the internet with some live tweets of the Opening Ceremony. I feel like I should go along with peer pressure and say that it was brilliant and totally out-of-the-box, but I thought it was a bit uneven, and a waste of Kenneth Branagh.

I mean, how did they come to spend so much time, given everything that is great about Great Britain, on “the kids” pretend-Tweeting each other? What is this, From Justin to Kelly? I get that the kids today love social media, but young’uns looking at phones and writing jolly messages has become a very un-dynamic shorthand for reaching out to youth culture. All those incredible songs in the background, wasted, while people walk/dance around in weird costumes. And in the presence of all these amazing young athletes, we’re spending a good quarter of the Opening Ceremony on people and their ubiquitous phones.

And again, the National Health Service section: out of everything Danny Boyle and crew could have chosen to represent Britain, why this? I’m just wondering. I think that health care for children is incredibly important, I really do, but given the big swath of screen and stadium you have to fill, why fill it with children faffing around on beds? Visually, it’s just not that interesting.

I did like the opening film about the course of the river Thames, and the Tube, though that marker at the beginning looked like a gravestone. I also liked the pastoral scene, even though the choreography as it progressed felt like one overly-long set change, rather anything composed to look at. And I obviously loved the Rowan Atkinson/Chariots of Fire bit. That was hilarious, and to me, showcased British wit and personality so well. If it were me, and I am fending off phone calls from Sochi as I write this, I would have maybe used Branagh as a narrator, ala Our Town, throughout the ceremony, bringing him back periodically to spout off some appropriate lines of Shakespeare, as he does so well. I think that would have helped tie everything together, instead of these uneven blocks of action. And here’s my other big idea: I liked how the grass gave way to a floor that looked like city streets. How about running a river, mimicking that distinctive bend in the Thames (cue Eastenders theme song), through the stadium? I think that incredible river is a perfect emblem for London and the Games. OK, Sochi, I’ll do it.

***

Michael Phelps’s sister, you seem very nice. I even stomached that interview with you, the other sister, and your mother with that insufferable Ryan Seacrest because I thought you seemed so nice. But, as a pretend friend, I’m telling you: move on from that necklace you’re always wearing. The big huge red one. (Check out this London 2012 fashion rundown for a photo) I like the necklace in and of itself, but I feel that for the past six million years, every time I’ve seen you cheering for baby bro somewhere, you have been wearing it. It’s a statement necklace: you make the statement, then you get rid of it and make another statement. It’s not a string of pearls. People are going to remember that you keep wearing it. You’re not Kate Middleton; you have nothing to prove by rewearing your looks. Even your mother switches up her chunky jewelry.

So, sis, unless it is some kind of good luck charm and he loses if you don’t wear it (which we now know is not the case), how about you retire it, auction it off for charity or something, and let your fancy brother buy you a new one, like from Erickson Beamon, or J. Crew? Or, f*** it, Chanel? He can afford it.

***

Finally, my favorite win so far? The Great Britain Mens’ Gymnastics Team! I know I am supposed to be rooting for Team USA, but that was a great win, even though the Japanese team killed the buzz a bit at the end there…still, if someone picks up Bud’s mantle and makes a London 2012: Tales of Olympic Delight or somesuch, I smell a Greenspan! A Greenspan being my new term for excellent, documentary segment-suitable stories of Olympic glory. Stay tuned for a complete list of Greenspans (TM) as the Games progress! No, Ryan Seacrest, you are not eligible…

***

And FINALLY finally, one last Allez Wiggo. Click on the link to see the perfect backdrop to cap the end of an inspiring season.

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Does Zara Phillips have to do everything, people of England? No, never mind, Bradley Wiggins will take care of it. And he’s got his priorities straight.

More importantly, Nancy Hogshead: I thought you were amazing in 1984, and I still think you are amazing.

Some slapdash notes on cycling sideburns and ferry menaces while I have five…you know

“There are 104 days to summer vacation,” Gawd help us, and it’s been harder than usual to fit in time to write, what with all the no school for C and having to take the kids outside to do stuff, rather than just have them watch Phineas and Ferb dream up fun summer activities on TV. Never mind the fact that I’ve been spending any free time I have watching the Tour de France (Allez Jens! Allez Chava!). Hold on, I just need to go and examine some Droids fashioned from Duplo. [...] I’m back. They were nice.

T is sleeping, and C is busy playing “Cowboy Lasso,” a game he “downloaded to his brain” (AKA, is playing using actual, not electronic, toys while running around screaming). Actually, I stand corrected: he tells me it’s actually “Cowboy and Cowgirl Lasso.” Very good. That media training I bought him for his fourth birthday was totally worth it.

I just finished watching Stage 11 of the Tour on my phone whilst tidying up the kitchen, so here are a few notes on that and other things to keep my blog going while I am trying to find time to devise some more thoughtful posts. Which I’m afraid won’t come until camp starts again, and the cycling ends, and before the Olympics begin. So basically never. Priorities.

Tour Coiffures. I am no expert on professional cycling, and while there is a lot to say about this incredible Tour, I hardly feel qualified to say much at all online. But I am qualified to make smart-a*s remarks. So. Bradley Wiggins. Much respect. Allez Wiggo and all that. Every time I’ve seen him mount a bike this season my first thought is, “this guy is not kidding around, is he?” I really admire his intense determination to win; you can see all of the hard graft and careful preparation in his riding, and in Team Sky’s riding. Which brings me to my point. I know Wiggins makes every effort to be as aerodynamic as possible. The right gear, the right bike – every move he makes is calculated to the last detail to ensure he doesn’t lose a millisecond to his rivals. He, I assume, like all of the other riders, shaves his legs, just to get that last extra push through the breeze.

Bradley Wiggins leads the Tour de France

Bradley Wiggins leads the Tour de France, sideburns intact. (Photo credit: robkingcameraman)

So why, Bradley, pray tell, don’t you shave those enormous sideburns you have been rocking. I kid, but not really. If you’re planning to duke it out with Vince Noir for the title of King of the Mods, I respect that. But those things on your face must, somehow, cost you a soupcon of time. Right now you’re doing all right, but as you head up the Pyrenees and into the last Time Trial you might want to rethink those face wings. They don’t help you fly. There, I’m done.

Candy Omaha. Here’s another bone I have to pick. We spent last week on vacation down in the Hamptons, on Long Island, and to get there we take a car ferry from New London, CT, to Orient Point, NY. Where, as we drive off the boat onto my native island, it is my prerogative to play a Billy Joel song as we celebrate my summer homecoming. Usually “The Downeaster Alexa.” That is, if the Spotify works, and it usually doesn’t. There ain’t no Island left for Islanders like me, indeed.

The Cross Sound Ferry runs a tight ship, as it were, and it is always fun to spend part of our journey on a ferry rather than in a car. And our favorite boat in their fleet is the Cape Henlopen. Mainly because it has an arcade where C and T can pretend that they are really awesome at Pac Man and some driving games.

The other reason that I like the Cape Henlopen is that it was built as a World War II landing craft, and participated in the D-Day invasion at Normandy, ferrying GIs to Omaha Beach. And now, in its dotage, it schlepps folks to more peaceful beaches, and Mohegan Sun. It was built for battle, not for the level of comfort of a pleasure cruise. There is some seating inside, and just a limited number of banquettes that seat at least six around a table. They’re big.

So why, lady traveling alone, and there are people like this on every passage, do you need an entire booth to yourself? So you can prop your Reeboked foot on the seat while you listen to your off-brand MP3 player (probably to Billy Joel’s Greatest Hits, I’m just guessing)? So you can stare smugly out the window, avoiding the glares of groups of four (or more) who are trying to eat lunch on chairs opposite you? You didn’t even eat! You weren’t even using the table to prop up your copy of Fifty Shades of Gray! You just looked over my head as I picked PB&J (and T) repeatedly up off the floor.

I know what you might say, lady (or gentleman, similarly accused). You’d say you got there first, so tough luck to me. That you deserve to sit there just as much as anyone else. That there is no rule against taking up seating for six for yourself. And this is the only complaint I have against an otherwise excellently-run ferry service. There should be a rule. Even two people in a booth, I can understand. But one? There were lots of comfortable single seats that could have accomodated her; it was just selfishness. And the downfall of Western Civilization.

And “Piano Man” was probably playing too loudly in her ear to hear my remark, accompanied by a gesture in her general direction, “I hope you’re enjoying your giant booth.” But the lady in the booth behind her did hear me, and she looked up from her little game of Uno she was playing with her husband and grown son. Which seems a perfectly reasonable use for a booth. Sorry, I didn’t mean you. Hope you didn’t fall victim to any Draw Fours.

Toward the end of the trip, the booth next to this woman freed up, and I slid T in so he could stand up against the window and eat this enormous lollipop, the long, twisting, rainbow kind stuck on a wooden dowel. I had saved that pop for this long, last leg of the journey. T had already won every video game, said hello to every human and dog on this ship, and said “bye” to every boat that passed. So I can call it only karma that while this woman was on her phone worrying about her lunch plans at the top of her lungs, T whipped that pop straight at her so hard that it rained down in shards all around her, and her special booth (it didn’t actually hit her, thankfully). It was as if the ghosts of GIs lost to Normandy long ago arose from deep within the ship to let the Cape Henlopen see battle once again, reenacting Omaha Beach in rainbow sugar.

To her credit, she wasn’t mad when I came over to apologize, but when I tried to go into her booth to clean up the wreckage she waved me away, saying, “Leave it, the crew will get it.” Well, la-di-da to you, lady. T just fired a warning shot across your bow; hopefully next time you’ll heed his warning. Draw four.

I can hear T stirring so it’s time to call a cease fire in the war against cyclists’ sideburns and single seat snobs. We’re headed out to the swimming hole. There are still six hours to fill with summer fun before bedtime, a glass of wine, and the Tour recap show.

Leave your Father’s Day message at the beep

For Mother’s Day, I wrote a post comparing mothers to Siri, the at-your-service, voice-activated concierge on the iPhone 4. Yes, perhaps there was a touch of the martyr in it, but it was Mother’s Day, I was celebrating myself. And now I’d like to celebrate the Dads.

If Siri is Mom, I thought, then which gadget is dear old Dad? I think he’s a beeper. Or maybe a really old-model cell phone.

English: Mobile phone evolution Русский: Эволю...

Mobile phone evolution. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s a Saturday morning at our house. There’s yours truly, dashing around like a nut, breaking up fights while I’m brushing my teeth, cleaning up spills, chucking fresh sippy cups of milk at people. Doesn’t matter who. Old Siri’s a bit frazzled; she may lose it. She might drop her signal. These newfangled devices, they tend to go on the fritz every now and again. Where’s Dad?

Dad? He’s around here somewhere. Page him. Da-ad! Dad? Dad? Have you taken out the recycling? It’s full. Siri has detected a broken screen as a potential safety hazard for the past 14 weeks. Have you fixed the screen? Not yet.

There he is. He’s pottering around. No doubt he’s doing something important. He’ll be here in a minute. As with a beeper, you call in your message, he hears the harried ping! and when he’s ready, he’ll get back to you. It may take him a while. He may have some other stuff to Google, er, get around to first, but he will respond to the beep.

Eventually, the screen gets fixed. The recycling gets taken out. The CDs that you asked him to organize in 2004? They may or may not get sorted out. But today, Dad, that’s all right. Because though we – I – might stomp, and fuss, and get annoyed in the middle of those hectic moments that constitute life with small children, we know – I know – you will always answer our calls.

Household tasks are ephemera. To-do lists get torn up, or deleted from our screens, as we constantly move on to the next thing. But for every moment that matters, Dad is there. For teaching C to ride a bike. For reading to T. For family dinners, for Easter egg hunts, to dry tears, to end tantrums. To take rambunctious children to the playground and bring sleepy ones home again. To find a binky in the middle of the night, to carry a sick child to bed.

Maybe beepers are not built to immediately respond to your every need, like an iPhone. Maybe old cell phones can’t book doctor’s appointments while looking up the capital of Belgium and a recipe for Swiss chard pie. But old-model beepers and phones, like Dads, are indestructable. You can drop them on concrete, in the toilet, or down in disgust, but they always revive themselves, don’t they? Dads like ours may get as frazzled as Siri in the fray, but they always come out at the end smiling, grateful for their families, unshaken in their devotion to them. I feel sometimes like I might shatter if someone throws one more meatball at the wall. But I can’t count how many hectic days have started with cold coffee and ended with hair askew, a glass of wine, and C and T’s Dad reminding me how lucky we are to have those boys.

Happy Father’s Day. To my Dad, to C and T’s uncles, my father-in-law, and to my friends who are Dads. To all Dads. But above all, to my husband, who I thank for his patience and resilience. You are a great Dad. But here is one final message to you: if you think you can pull out this post the next time I ask you to organize those CDs, you are incorrect, sir!

Bringing a tired boy home.

A cure for bird flu: good-bye, Angry Birds

Angry Bird Fist

This kid looks like a smart aleck, even blurry (Photo credit: lincolnblues)

Previously, I wrote a post about my preschooler’s obsession with Angry Birds. His dad and I were struggling to find a way to manage his maddening, all-encompassing devotion to this game, and after a few weeks more of playing (and fighting about playing), C developed what I can only call Bird Flu, and a decision was made. The game, and all of its permutations, has been removed from all devices. No more Angry Birds.

Understandably, he freaked. “But if you delete it,” he wailed, “I will lose all of my levels and when you put it back on someday I’ll have to start over from the beginning!” We, (particularly his dad, who, after reading my Angry Birds post, said, “I can’t believe you exposed me as a gamer!” Busted!) did feel badly about this – C did put in time and effort to achieve a certain level of profiency, which I suppose is an accomplishment. But then I thought, wait. He accomplished flinging birds at pigs. The game is not going back on.

We grasped at a lot of straws before we sorted out a way to deal with the Bird Flu. Since we feel that C needs to learn moderation when it comes to, well, almost anything, we let him play, but with time limits. But as he got further into the game, he got more and more upset when the timer went off. We tried treating it as a privilege and would only let him play video games when he behaved. If he did something untoward, I’d write an X on a calendar, which meant no video games that day. This was a mistake; it infuriated him. He climbed up to the calendar with a paper towel to try to wipe away the ink. And this put an undue amount of value on the game; it gave it even more power over him. By this past weekend, he could think of nothing else but when he would be allowed to play Angry Birds again. There was a lot of arguing. It was distressing. It made me sad to think of a little boy turning his back on his trucks and cars because he was so focused on reaching the next level of a video game.

I talked to friends about how they handle it with their children – because most of the kids I know do play video games, and many do play Angry Birds. One of them said something that struck me. He said that to him, it doesn’t matter if his son plays with video games, or with toys – who’s to say pushing a car around is a better use of time than interacting with a video game – as long as he treated people with respect.

Another friend noted in the comment section of my Angry Birds post that maybe it’s just a matter of aesthetic, that it seems “crass” to be so into video games. Maybe we have not yet adjusted to their being a more accepted part of our pop culture; I’m sure many people used to think TV was crass too. Time will tell, I suppose. But it is a relatively new problem; when I was your age, young man, we didn’t even have a computer! Then we got an IBM PCJr and it didn’t even do anything, except beep out classical tunes! We had none of these newfangled devices like so-called “answering machines” or “VCRs” that the kids love so much these days! When I was in elementary school, video games became popular – Pac-Man was huge, for example, but it was relegated to the arcade. We had an arcade at Nathan’s Hot Dogs in Oceanside, Long Island, and my mother wouldn’t let me near that den of filth, blast her! Or maybe you had an Atari or similar, but not everyone did. We didn’t. And if you did have one, you obviously couldn’t carry it around and follow your mother across the green earth incessantly asking her to give it you on line at the supermarket or on a playdate.

Indeed, who is to say that video games are better or worse for children than other kinds of playthings? The video games of today are far more clever and intricate than the simple games of yore in which you’d eat up dots or knock a dot back and forth between two lines. Even Angry Birds requires a certain amount of reasoning and problem solving. So maybe they’re not all bad. And kids can incorporate video games into their real-world play. Have you seen Caine’s Arcade? This nine-year-old spent a summer without video games, and built an entire arcade in his father’s shop. Which is amazing. I will be contributing to his college fund. Caine’s arcade is tremendously creative, resourceful, and it’s about video games! This kid couldn’t play video games over a summer, so what did he do? He built his own! That’s how pervasive they are.  Even C will go to preschool and play live-action Angry Birds with his wee friends. I have no idea what that entails – I’m sure there is some sort of catapulting involved and it has probably come to blows. But it’s creative. So how come I think it’s odd and obsessive that he does this, but cute when he reenacts Star Wars, say?  Or firefighting? Or car racing?

Wait. I am not going to argue myself back into putting Angry Birds on my phone. I’ll leave that to my son, Johnny Cochran. Look. All I knew was that C’s drive to play Angry Birds, and Angry Birds in particular, was causing him to get upset, a tad belligerent, and to treat me with disrespect. This behavior is certainly not wholly due to the game; I think much of it is something that many preschoolers go through, as they try to assert their independence and understand their power and place in the family and in the world. But the game certainly exacerbated it, and gave him another outlet for it.

I thought back to the time before he played Angry Birds (this whole ordeal has only taken up a month or so), when he only played video games that were specifically made for children. I’ve mentioned them before: Monkey Preschool, Toca Boca. We would play checkers together on one app, or he played math and reading games. Things were different, way back when; he would play many games, and was able to peacefully part with them.  The obsessive aspect of playing video games began with Angry Birds. And it’s no wonder, I realized – ADULTS get obsessed with it. Just recently, Angry Birds reached it’s BILLIONTH download. How is a four (and-a-half!) year old supposed to deal with it? No, I thought. It’s got to go. And his dad agreed.

So we told him (this happened on Mother’s Day, following a major meltdown HAPPY MOTHER’S DAY, ME) that the calendar X system was gone; he could play video games again, if he liked, but no more Angry Birds. “When can I have it back?” he asked. You can’t have it back, we told him. And though it was difficult for him to accept at first, I think it helped to be very clear and finite, with no mythical future date when he’d be allowed to play Angry Birds again. Maybe when he’s older – like 25 or 38 – we can revisit this, but for now, the answer is no. And no is a difficult, but necessary, thing to hear sometimes.

It’s only been a few days, but so far things have been better. I’m not saying he’s been spending his days doing algebra with his Legos and setting the table while reciting Wordsworth, but there haven’t been any avian tantrums that necessitate the baby go up to his big brother and kiss him on the head, saying, “Shhh..shhh.” He’s been doing more playing, and less fighting. So far, I repeat.

I feel badly that we’ve had to stumble so much to get to this point. As you can probably tell, I’m STILL trying to figure the whole thing out. But I think it’s been a good idea to set the birds free. Leave the grown-up games to the grown-ups. Someday, son, you’ll be mature enough to play Battlefield 3 with your dad. That’s right! I busted you again!

Siri, wish me a happy Mother’s Day

Often, from when I get up in the morning, I feel like Siri, the talking assistant on the iPhone. I don’t have a Siri myself, but I know what she is like from those commercials in which celebrities playfully bark orders at her, and she ruefully complies. I like to think I hear a bit of exasperation in her voice (Really, Zooey Deschanel? You have to order out for tomato soup? But now you have to dance around while your apartment is a disaster?).

In my role as family Siri, I am called upon to provide immediate answers to an endless stream questions and requests. For example, from my husband: “What is the weather going to be today?” (Answer: Let me check my phone while muttering, “Who am I, Al Roker?”). “Can you remind me to do such-and-such?” (Answer: a Nagging Alarm has been set for 3pm today). From the preschooler: “Can you play me my favorite song?” I comply, queuing up “Game of Pricks” by Guided by Voices (I know – and yes, I checked, Robert Pollard is not referring to THAT kind of prick – that’s part of my responsibilities as Siri). “Can you play it again? And again?” Yes, at least it’s not some annoying song from Wow Wow Wubbzy or whatever. “How many miles away is the moon?” (Dunno. It’s far. I’ll check.) I am a 3D Siri so I can also locate shoes and lost toys, get food, drop off at school…yes, I’m saying that being a mom is not unlike being Siri. You don’t need a Siri to tell you that.

Sometimes, especially before I’ve had enough coffee, I get a little miffed at my Siri status. You know, stuff like, “Can I finish chewing/dressing/ANYTHING AT ALL before I attend to your pressing requests?” These boys – my two sons and their dear old dad – need a lot from me, and right away. It’s a sprint from one end of the day to the other, and it’s often hard to find time to do anything but help them and care for them. And when you clean up crumbs, say, only for another mess to be made a minute later, or when you end one time-out just to start another, for exactly the same reason, you can feel a bit like Sisyphus, pushing a huge rock up a hill, only to watch it roll back down again.

But, mostly, I remember that the sisyphean aspects of motherhood are only such in the short-term: long days of going back and forth on swings, back and forth to a messy kitchen, to the supermarket, to a rumpled bed, to a grumpy child, add up, in the long term, to a life of happiness. A growing family, a widening circle of friends, vivid new experiences, dozens of new memories daily. And it passes by so fast.

I got an early Mother’s Day present from C yesterday, that he brought home from preschool – it was a really cute little necklace (pictured), with turquoise beads, which he knows I like. One of the beads is a little star. “I put the star on there,” he said, “because it’s a lucky star. Because I am lucky to have you and you are lucky to have me.”

So, always, I am grateful that these lovely boys, all three of them, trust me and love me enough to let me be their Siri, their Sirius, their lucky star, their guide to their everyday lives. And I want them to know, on Mother’s Day weekend, that I love them for it. C, C, and T, you are all my lucky stars. Even though sometimes I might pretend not to hear you when you are asking for something really random. Sometimes you’ve got let old Siri have a bit of space.

Happy Mother’s Day to all mothers, and mother figures, everywhere!

Space travel uphill in the snow both ways

Last week, my New York relatives looked out their windows to see the space shuttle Enterprise take a farewell flight past the Manhattan skyline. It was headed for its new home (or final resting place) at the Intrepid Sea, Air, and Space Museum. They all declared it awesome, and I looked out my window in Greater Boston at some commuter cyclists and a dazed possum and was jealous.

C loves playing astronaut – I often find him loafing about dressed in a NASA shuttle commander’s uniform, mumbling something about rocket boosters. He also has a whole collection of space shuttles and rocket ship models he likes to zoom around the house. But it struck me –  every toy, every notion C has of the space program is now a thing of the past. Space was the promise of the future when I was young, now, it’s become nostalgia.

While C watched the farewell flight of the space shuttle on the evening news, I realized I was only a little older than he is when the first shuttle was launched in 1981. The whole enormous effort is gone and done in less than a lifetime. In that short time, it demonstrated to all of us, especially children, both elation and despair. In 1986, the Challenger disaster became a set-piece of memory – I can still smell the bleach they used to wipe cafeteria tables as I think back to when my friend came to tell us about it as lunch was ending. And I can remember the sick feeling I had as I looked in the newspaper at the plumes of smoke in the sky, and the faces of the astronauts that died. I still remember their names. Then there’s the poem I wrote to commemorate the event: “The very first teacher to go up in space/Many teachers wished they were in Christa’s place….” Thank you. It’s a gift.

Now, how does C connect to space, and its possibilities for greatness? Besides the fact that if you pass Level 20 of Angry Birds: Space (Yes! He did it, dear readers!), it provides you with a link to the NASA website if you want to learn more about space travel, beyond just how to kill a green pig with a purple bird at 3 g’s.

I know space is still a source of awe and fascination for him. There is a brand-new planetarium at the Museum of Science in Boston, and he, though offered admission on a weekly basis, refuses to go in and see the show. I think he thinks he’s really going to blast off, and he feels he hasn’t taken the proper astronomy classes to prepare. And there aren’t even as many planets to worry about as there used to be.

One of my favorite things to do with C, when we visit the ancestral home down in Long Island, is go to the Cradle of Aviation Museum. The museum is located in a row of former airplane hangars at Mitchel Field, in Garden City. Mitchel Field was a military training center going back to the American Revolution, and is adjacent to Roosevelt Field, an airfield used by Amelia Earhart, as well as Charles Lindbergh for his solo transatlantic flight in 1927. Roosevelt Field is now a mall.

The Cradle of Aviation Museum in Garden City, ...

The Cradle of Aviation Museum in Garden City, New York. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Also in the row of hangars is the Nassau County Firefighters Museum (love it), the Long Island Children’s Museum (which we haven’t even made it to yet because we love the fire trucks and the airplanes so much), and the fulcrum of my childhood nostalgia, the old Nunley’s Amusement Park carousel, bedecked with images of old-timey, sea-breezy Long Island, and removed from its former site in Baldwin which is now a Pep Boys.

We go to the museum mainly to sit in the cockpits of old war planes and helicopters and play with the controls, which look more like typewriters than instruments to help you guide a flying machine across enemy lines. While C battles his imaginary Red Baron, I look at the exhibits, with yet more nostalgia: Long Island, home to the Grumman Corporation that built the F-14 Tomcat (featured so prominently in Top Gun) has an incredible history in aviation that, like the space shuttle, is gone. In addition to the F-14, Grumman built several World-War II Navy fighters, the common mail truck, and the Apollo Lunar Module.  You can see one, up close, at the museum, and many of the volunteer guides that work there were former engineers for Grumman. You ask them where the bathroom is and then they’re like, “It’s over there. Oh, by the way, I built that.” When my boys are a bit older, we are going to sit up and listen as these guides recall this Long Island, and this future, that has, for now, like the space shuttle on its way to the Intrepid, passed us by. Because Grumman is now called Northrup -Grumman, and is located in Virginia. In a mall. Next to a Pep Boys.

Angry Mama Bird

Angry Birds

Angry Birds (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Who are the evil geniuses that came up with Angry Birds and what have they done with my son?

As a “four-and-a-half” boy, C has racked up a few obsessions by now: fire trucks, Star Wars, volcanoes, the stock market. But nothing has arrested him and held him captive like this video game, and I’m not sure how I feel about it.

It’s not that I am against his playing video games. I think they have become a part of our culture, like television, books, movies, and music, and C enjoys all of those. What I want is to teach him moderation: to watch TV, but know when to shut it off and do other things. To put down that damn dog-eared copy of War and Peace and play with trains for a little while, please kid!

So why is this so much harder with Angry Birds than with his other occupations? He reacts to the game in a unique, and maddening, way. It makes him elated and angry in quick turns. If I didn’t stop him, I think he would play it forever. He clearly thinks about it all the time. He will come out of the gate at school, and say, “Mommy, can I tell you something?” And then launches into a barrage of Angry-Birds commentary – stuff about pigs, and the function of different colored birds. The other day, we went to the playground with his friends, and he engaged his friend, let’s call him “Nuh,” as C did before he could say his full name, in an extended conversation about how he’s stuck on level 20 of Angry Birds: Space, and he can’t figure out how to shoot the birds over the moon and bounce off something, or whatever, and I thought Nuh was just going to smile, nod, and move on, like he did when C launched into a monologue about his alarm clock that turns green when it’s time to get up in the morning.

But to my surprise, Nuh nodded knowingly and said that he had done the whole game with his dad, and here’s how you get through the level, yada yada yada. Which C repeated back to me later, but, he’s still on level 20. It’s his Everest. And he won’t rest until he’s sticks a flag in the top of Mount Angry Birds.

Maybe that’s how I deal with this obsession, I thought, after hearing this conversation. Instead of letting him play Angry Birds on his own for X minutes a day (I set a timer – and he explodes with frustration when it’s time to hand back the device – but hand it back he must, in the name of this confounded “moderation.”), maybe I play it with him. So it’s something we do together. Just like last week, it was a beautiful spring afternoon, his little brother was napping, and I said, “C, why don’t you come sit outside with me for a spell, yonder? Let’s sit together and talk, you and me?” Isn’t that nice? Mother/son conversation, about hopes and fears, why is the sky blue and all that, like a Charlie Brown special or some equally wholesome piece of Americana? And then: a half-hour lecture on Angry Birds. But, to his credit, when it was over, he did say, “Thank you so much for listening to me talk about Angry Birds.”

So I thought maybe I would try to help him with this blasted level 20. I went on YouTube to find some sort of instructional video. This worked the week before when he had a new Lego set we built together that came with a “flick-fire” missile, which neither of us could operate, so we searched for “Lego flick-fire missile” and we were connected with a young boy in the Netherlands (Hello, Legodude4444!), who showed us how to use it. It was amazing – through the power of technology, a kid thousands of miles away was teaching us something. We’ve gone back to the oeuvre of Legodude4444 since, and found his voice has changed since he started recording his weekly updates on Star Wars Lego sets. Bless!

Anyway. I found a “walkthrough” of level 20, and it was recorded by grown-ups who used about ten F-words in about five seconds, so that was a bust. And anyway, Angry Birds, I have to admit, is another thing, like a television show, that I use to get through my day – to find five uninterrupted minutes (See how I worked that in? Writing!) to do something – anything – other than the immediate, demanding work of caring for children. To chew some food, for example. To work, to write, to cook, to clean the floor. To play my own Angry Birds game on another device (no, not really). But is it my own Faustian bargain? Do I let my child do something I suspect may – not harm him, exactly – but frustrate him in a perplexing, unproductive way, so that I can steal some time for myself?

But maybe I’m the one who is frustrated, not him. I am not a video game player myself, so I have trouble viewing them as just another toy, which maybe is what they are. Maybe playing Angry Birds is no different than playing with trains, or blocks – he gets upset sometimes with those things as well. “I don’t think Angry Birds is so bad,” my husband, a major gamer, said. “The slingshot motion in the game teaches him about physics.” (Repressing desire to scoff)

I guess, but I can think of video games, made for children, that are also fun and much more educational. Like Monkey Preschool. Like the Toca Boca games (on their website, they even describe their games as “digital toys.” There’s also Happy Action Theatre for the Kinect, which gets him up and running around, and we can all play together as a family. He likes to play those games too, and I never have a problem with them. He treats them more like his other toys. He plays for a while, has fun, then puts them away and moves on to other things. No stress.

If you are looking now for the lesson I’ve learned from all of this, you won’t find it. I am still not sure how to deal with Angry Birds (like I am still not sure how to deal with a lot of things – it’s the nature of parenting). Do I treat it like any other toy, as a “digital toy”? Do I continue to let him have his X minutes a day and just manage the frustration that will come up sometimes? Do I ban it entirely (I’ll have to steel myself for that one)? I don’t know. Most likely, he will play his heart out, and eventually move on to something else. But in the meantime, if anyone has any F-word-free tips on how to get through level 20 of Angry Birds: Space, could you leave them in the comments? I’ll read them later – right now, the timer’s gone off. Ding.

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