Wednesday, July 01, 2015

Making it at the National Makers Faire

Since the Goofs are little makers, and the last day of school was only a half day, I took them to the National Maker Faire (Friday, June 12). I can’t say we had any idea of what to expect. Usually my adventures go pretty well - but I’ve had duds. I was upfront - you guys get to decide. If it stinks, we can leave. This placated them, since all they wanted to do was watch TV. (They go away to camp for four weeks about a week after school and will not see any TV - so the week between school and sleep-away camp is a sort of anything goes.)

I needn’t have worried.

The National Maker Faire is an event intended to showcase invention and tinkering. Held at the University of the District of Columbia, it sprawled across the campus. As soon as we got there we encountered the Pinbox 3000 from the Cardboard Teck Instantute who make pinball machines from recycled cardboard. With a little doing, one can make their own and equip it as they wish. The Goofs have encountered pinball before, but were ready to play all afternoon. They both play lots of video games, but there is something deeply satisfying playing a game where you manipulate actual objects in physical space. It is a crucial additional dimension. (I think that is part of the charm of paper books vs. eBooks.)

However, I urged them on.

One of the highlights was the enormous Lego display. One of the wonderful things about our time is that girls play with Legos. They always could of course, but don’t recall them being terribly interested (in fairness, girls weren’t that interested in yours truly so how would I have known?) But now, there are Lego sets oriented to girls and - more importantly - girls who simply don’t see Legos as “something for boys.”

The Lego section at the National Makers Faire was enormous. The United States was outlined in tape and children were encouraged to build things and place them where they belong in the U.S. They hope was at the end of the fair that the U.S. would be full. GoofGirl did her part, building pueblo for New Mexico, LAX for Los Angeles, and the camp where she is heading next week.

GoofBoy and I wandered around. There were lots of tchotchkes and toys (and what's wrong with that, fun is important!) But there is also a lot of serious stuff. All this making is important and can change lives. The vastly increased availability of small-scale manufacturing technology like 3-D printers means it is that much easier to build highly specialized equipment to solve all kinds of problems. We learned about NASA’s contest to develop a habitat on Mars, how NIST measures the effectiveness of sophisticated equipment, and how kids in Baltimore are using 3D printers to make inexpensive prosthetics. Pretty cool.

When we finally dragged GoofGirl away from the Legos we saw the wonderful chaos machine (which had the extra virtue of being indoors). We had to pass by about a million exhibits to beat traffic, but there was a wealth of great terrific stuff to see. GREAT THINGS ARE HAPPENING! I'm just scratching the surface - you can see a list of exhibitors here

Better, come by next year - we will!

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Fatherhood Grades without a Curve

I'm not just celebrating Father's Day this year. Really it is Father's Week. The little Goofs go to camp for four weeks and Mama Goof goes away for a week. I can eat when & what I want. I can sit around and smoke cigars (thanks to CigarCity for sending me some, they're yummy!) and watch stand-up comedy on Netflix till my eyes bleed.

But I'm also thinking about myself as a dad. I'm pretty good - I'll give myself a B. I’m not grading on a curve here, none of this you're great just for being there.

I am there, I am involved, and I listen and try to help. At the same time, I'm not a helicopter parent. You don't get an A for indulging your kids. They need time away from me, they also need time being bored. I think I’m the right level of engaged - overall. There’s been fails when I’ve pushed too much or not enough, but overall it’s been about right. Not the Golden Mean, but I can usually steer towards the lesser evil.

Now, what am I good at?

I'm really good at talking to them. Not perfect, I'm not the always wise parents of “Father Knows Best,” although really, who is? But I try to listen and relate. Laugh with them - a lot - but also resolve things that are just a little too big for them (albeit often tiny for an adult.)

I am one of the funniest dads there is. Maybe too much - but I don’t think the little Goofs mind. They want me to write them letters at camp every day, so they can read them to their friends.

I am really good at adventures and excursions. Museums, hikes, battlefields, just generally neat stuff are my thing. I push it when we travel and I push for it at home.

But where am I weak?

Excursions I may own, but projects are not my thing. Cooking together, fixing stuff together, art projects - I don’t like any of it. Don’t do it, don’t wanna do it. My kids will never beam, “My dad taught me to…” (Deliver a punchline maybe…but nothing involving objects in physical space.)

I’m good with excursions, but not so good with extracurriculars. GoofBoy plays sports, either at school or in leagues with friends. So I don’t have to do much thinking to get him involved. GoofGirl’s interests are more varied and the after school programs don’t meet her needs. So I have to find the stuff she’s interested in and get her involved. And I don’t. She never complains, but that stinks for her. I don’t want kids running from French horn to soccer to Future Non-Profit Executives of America to whatever. But she would like to be doing something - I should make it happen. This really bugs me.

Sometimes my mood gets the worst of me. I don’t yell much, but when I do…

Also, I kind of stink with technology and directions - two things that come up all too often. And my frustration results in temper. My mood gets me other ways - if I’m not happy about something, I have trouble shaking it and I miss some good stuff (like on last Father’s Day when GoofBoy took me to an Orioles game and I wasn’t really in the mood.)

But the biggest one is work. I’m not a workaholic, although I do like my work. But I seem to have a lot of trouble getting through it (I’m not the only one - academics complaining about writing is not an uncommon trope). There are some good reasons for this (like interruptions of life) but also some lousy reasons (my own deep disorganization.) The trouble is, there is always more to do and it sits with me and keeps me out of the moment. I skip kid stuff, or don’t do kid stuff because I have to work. But I don’t - not really - I have to work because I couldn’t keep myself on track.

That’s something to work on because more than my career is at stake.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Mind-Blowing CD (Yet Another Carpool Tale)

CD (he's the youngest member of Carpool Clan, I dubbed him CD for Carpool Destroyer because when he joined carpool we could no longer fit everyone in one car) does not quite know what to with me. We should be natural allies since he would, above all things, like to play with Legos and read - which is pretty much how I spent my child-hood. However, he is extremely literal and does not quite know what to make of my ahem, flights of fancy. Also, I used to bite him (in my defense, he is delicious.)

The other day in carpool he used the words rarely and occasionally interchangeably and when questioned said, "Well, they mean the same thing."

"Not quite," I replied, "Rare, when not referring to the optimal way to cook meat, is the opposite of often. So rarely quite specifically means that a phenomenon does not happen often. Occasionally means that the phenomenon happens on occasion. The occasion could be frequent, although usually not. So you are, for the most part, correct in saying they mean the same thing. But there is a subtle difference."

"How do you know so much about words?" CD asked, surprised.

"I'm a writer. I work with words for a living."

"Wait, really. I thought you were a crazy guy who just drove carpool."

"No, I've written three books, and I'm writing two more." Well technically two of them are co-authored, but still. I'm talking to an nine-year old.

"And dozens of articles!" Why I'm trying to impress him is beyond me.

"So people pay you to write?"

"Yeah, but not very much."

"So do you ever write anything cool?"

"NOOO! Don't ask him anything else! He only writes about Vice Presidents and terrorism!" GoofGirl and 3C yelled in unison.

Still, perhaps I've cultivated a much needed ally...

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Celebrity Crushes

Stand-up comic John Mulaney has a great bit about Ice-T on Law and Order SVU. Since MamaGoof is such a huge SVU fan, I thought I’d share it with her. It was after dinner, GoofGirl had gone to bed.

Much to my surprise, she knew a great deal about Ice-T. He apparently had a reality show and a new young wife. As MamaGoof told me this I realized, Ice-T is her celebrity crush (possibly along with Christopher Timothy who played James Herriot in BBC’s All Creatures Great and Small.) Mama Goof denied it of course, “I just watched Ice’s reality show for one episode. Of course her calling him “Ice” said it all.

She quickly turned the tables, “Who’s your celebrity crush?”

“I’ve got a bunch!"

GoofBoy chimed in, “Tina Fey, Tina Fey and Tina Fey!”

No denying it, I won’t even watch Jason Sudekis vehicles because he played her boyfriend on 30Rock. But there are others, plenty of others.

“Pebbles from the Flintstones was one of my first.”

“What dad? She was a baby and a cartoon! That's weird!"
“No the Pebbles from the later episodes when she was grown-up and dating Bam-Bam. Besides I was just a kid - I’m not that weird."

Let me just add, I was ten and if you look at this picture of grown-up Pebbles I don't think I was so crazy.

And then there was Robin.

"What was she in?"

"Not she. Robin Yount, the Brewers shortstop, you know, the signature in my baseball glove."

"Dad, this is kinda weird."

"OK, just to be clear, it isn't like I dreamed about him. Well, once. I dreamt I was at the game and he hit a home run and 'Your Wildest Deams' by the Moody Blues played over the stadium sound system. That's it."

MamaGoof's jaw hung open.

"Look, the man had 3000 hits, switched positions from shortstop to centerfield - won MVP at both - the only player to do this. I'm pretty comfortable with this."

"But, but," MamaGoof sputtered, "What about Eddie Murray and the Orioles?"

"Oh no, they were like gods to me. They were beyond crushes."

"You just liked the mustache," MamaGoof observed.

"Yea, but if it was just about the mustache I would've been into Rollie Fingers."

"Dad, please, please stop talking until I can get upstairs, into bed and smother myself with a pillow."

The next morning, sitting as I was getting my coffee I mentioned Pebbles to GoofBoy who begged me to forget everything. GoofGirl cried angrily, "I miss everything good!"

Her brother reassured her, "No, really, you didn't. It was horrible."

Friday, March 20, 2015

A Generational Table Manners Deficit

UPDATE: Before you read this. A lot of you are my friends. I like your kids! Sincerely, despite all the crazy stuff I say. They are great kids. As are mine. And I do not exclude my own kids here. So don't get mad at me or anything, please. When you think about it, we've overall done a great job with these kids - but we missed this one thing.


In a thousand ways, today's kids are wonderful - so much better than I remember my friends and I being at the same age. They are kinder, more thoughtful, and more considerate. Somehow though, we forgot to teach them table manners.

On a family trip we met with an old friend of mine from school. Our families met. His kids were wonderful and so very sweet. His son earnestly proposed that they build a second story on their house so we could move in with them. I also saw him fold a sausage patty and dip it, with his hands, into the little syrup pitcher.

I've seen kids, kids who really should know, kids with wonderful manners and very nice parents, eat spaghetti with their fingers.

The little Goofs are better - because I yell at them constantly. But still, using silverware isn't quite second nature. You can see they have to think about it at every turn. Too often, when they can't solve the food to face problem with silverware they resort to hands. Maybe placing food into their fork with their fingers or "forgetting" to use a fork. Large chunks of food are simply speared and eaten with pieces bitten off. When I remind them to use a knife they hack ineffectually as though I sent them out to job wood. I'm pretty sure by the time I was in my double digits I was cutting my own food on a regular basis.

Children who can perform complex operations on two electronic devices simultaneously cannot manage to use two pieces of silverware in conjunction.

Even when they are using the silverware it is awkward. Forks come to mouths along strange vectors that same likely to result in spillage. I believe they are trying to have accidents so I will recognize that hands are just so much more efficient than silverware. But I won't back down.

I really don't want to give the wrong impression. The kids I'm talking about aren't barbarous eaters, throwing food around. And their eating habits are excellent. The little Goofs insist on vegetables and most of their friends will eat a good helping of vegetables without complaint.

Maybe it is our fault. A diet heavy on chicken fingers, pizza, croissants, and carrot sticks lends itself to hands, not silverware.

And they are great kids. I guess it is a good trade-off - table manners for social manners. But was it a trade-off that had to be made?

Saturday, March 07, 2015

When I grow up...

My childhood dreams.
When I was little, people would ask me what I wanted to  be when I grew up. I told them I wanted to be a gaucho.

"What's that?" they'd ask.

"They ride around on horses with lassos and herd cows," I'd explain cheerfully.

"Oh, you want to be a cowboy!" which made sense, because that was the kind of thing little boys wanted to be.

"No a gaucho!" I'd insist.

They would sigh, wishing they hadn't started a conversation with a little boy that was taking too long and preventing them from re-filling their gin & tonic. As an adult I've learned that conversations with clever children are over-rated.

"What you said sounds like a cowboy. Is a gaucho a word you made up for cowboy?"

"No, it's an Argentine cowboy. They ride the pampas!"

At this point the adult would nod and wander off. If they asked why I wanted to be an Argentine cowboy,  I was ready with answers. (I liked the outfits and wanted to live somewhere in a place where water went the opposite way down the drain.) But they never asked.

Anyway, that dream died when I realized I'd have to learn Spanish and that seemed pretty hard. So I decided to be an archeologist. Playing in dirt and discovering treasure seemed like a good career (this was before Raiders of the Lost Ark.) But then I learned archaeologists have to go to school for a long-time and often have to spend their time in bug-infested environments - and rarely find treasures and get rich.

Now, 35 years later, I'm still at a loss for what I want to do when I grown up.