Monday, January 30, 2012

Anne of Green Gables II: Smelly Fortnight

One of the pleasures of the Anne of Green Gables series, that the little Goofs and I are listening to, is the archaic language. For exmaple, the characters often refer to plans to be made in a “fortnight.”

“What’s a fortnight,” the little Goofs asked the first time they heard.

“Two weeks,” I explained, and then not wanting to leave it alone, I continued. “We should try to bring that back, the term fortnight sounds much more interesting then two weeks.”

Naturally the little Goofs ignored me. But every time someone in the books mentioned a fortnight I reiterated my proposal. Finally GoofBoy exploded, “I know dad. You want to wear a monocle. You want to sell the house buy a farm and ‘work the land.’ And we should all say fortnight. Enough already.”

So I dropped it. But occasionally we take Guillotine Buddy to school. He isn’t that interested in Prince Edward Island (not enough guillotines – although there are French people about, so you never know - maybe in one of the later books.) But he had to ask, “What’s a fortnight?”

“Oh no,” GoofBoy moaned. “It is two weeks, but now my dad is going to go on about it…”

“Well,” I began, hoping I’d found a new ally, “You have to admit it has a certain poetry to it?”

Guillotine Buddy, unsurprisingly, had his own take.

“I thought they said fart night. For me, every night is fart night!”

Anne of Green Gables I: A Review

During carpool the little Goofs and I have been listening to the Lucy Maude Montgomery classics beginning with Anne of Green Gables. They are great books and a nice change of pace from Percy Jackson and more adventurous fare. But they are nice to listen to, a window into a different time and place. The little Goofs cannot grasp that there was no TV or cars. Anne as a schoolteacher as a teenager is simply unbelievable. Rural life a hundred years ago is quite exotic to the suburban Goofs.

The writing can be funny – as when Anne accidentally gets her playmate drunk or breaks the slate board over Gilbert’s head for calling her “carrots.”

GoofBoy mutters a bit about it, because it isn’t action-packed. But he remembers each character and each plot turn. GoofGirl demands it the minute we get in the car. Certain tropes and characters have become jokes for us. In the first book, Anne obsessed over getting a dress with puffy sleeves. GoofGirl – no slouch at fashion – sighed in exasperations, “What is the big deal about the puffy sleeves. Get over it girl!”

We also laugh about the town busybody. But, and this credits the depth of the characters, the town busybody isn’t simply a one-dimensional joke. She is a real person. While her advice is often unwanted, it is almost always good. Sometimes she is awfully annoying, but sometimes she is a great friend – and that is how people actually are.

There are also wonderful, lush descriptions of a beautiful country that make us want to visit Prince Edward Island. Finally, there are the snide jokes about “the States,” which is a fount of crazy notions like women preachers and where honest Canadians are likely to be cheated of their hard-earned wages. At the same time, the glamorous millionaires that summer on the Island are from the States.

Worlds of wizards and magic are somehow easier to imagine, though far less real then life in the country a century ago. Anne of Green Gables is broadening in a way that Harry Potter and its ilk can never be.

Friday, January 27, 2012

GoofGirl's Secret Identity

"Daddy, I like my school but you know what would make it better?" GoofGirl asked me.

I am tempted to say, "If it were free?" But it isn't appropriate for our kids to know the scale of their tuition so I just reply, "Tell me and I'll call the principal and suggest it."

"Well, I wish we were also secret agents and had to go on missions to Japan to get bad guys."

"Why Japan?"

"Because then I could go to the Hello Kitty store as part of the mission."

"Do bad guys go to Hello Kitty stores?"

"No daddy, but we would be in disguise so we would have to act like regular kids."

"Okay, but only Japan? What if there were bad guys in Spain or Austalia."

"We could go there too. There would be an airplane under the school that could take us anywhere. And while we were on the plane there would be a snack machine that would give us whatever snacks we want - you just have to speak into it."

"Wow, would you do your homework on the plane?"

"Yes, but there would also be TVs with lots of channels."

"What kind of bad guys would you catch?"

"Oh, all kinds. Robbers, bullies, mean people, litterers."

It is a great comfort to me that her conception of bad guys is so limited and includes litterers.

"We would have special belts with all kinds of tools," GoofGirl continued, not noticing my reverie. "We wouldn't need guns because we would use karate, but we would have handcuffs. But we would have those guns that shoot ropes so we could go up walls and into buildings and jump on the bad guys. We would have to spend a lot of time practicing. School would be training in fighting and climbing and gymnastics."

"When would you do your math?"

"We would still do it so we could break into computers. Daddy, let me tell you the most important thing."

"What's that?"

"When we were on missions we would have to wear pony-tails so our hair didn't get in our eyes when we were fighting."

"That is pretty important."

"So Daddy?"


"Are you going to call the principal and ask if we can turn the school into a spy school and go on missions?"

"I don't know," I hedged, "There would be a lot of liability issues."

"What's that?"

"A boring grown-up thing that keeps you from doing anything fun."

"That's ok - we are already doing it," she lowered her voice to a whisper. "Everyday at recess we go on missions."

I feel safer already.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Up & Down Day for GoofBoy

Sunday was a tough day for GoofBoy. I made him go to a speech class at our synagogue. One of the reasons I send the little Goofs to Jewish day school is to spare them the experience of Hebrew school. I hated Hebrew school, it was more school (with homework and everything) after school. We would come home from school where I would hang with the other kids in the Hebrew school carpool for thirty-five minutes (which was usually just long enough for me to get a concussion playing dodgeball) before going back to school. This was the pre-ritalin era and in any random sample of boys there was at least one that really, really needed it. I usually sat next to him in the backseat of a sub-compact. I hate carpool now, but I hated it even more as kid.

But our synagogue offers a special class on public speaking for kids getting ready for their bar mitzvahs and I wanted GoofBoy to take it. I am big into public speaking - it is my only real talent (that and building with Legos) and I want my kids to master it.

GoofBoy didn't want to go, he says he is already learning it in school. I told him there was a surprise if he did it without complaint. Nonetheless, He really dug in his heels on this one. I don't do this often, but this time I laid on the guilt. I told him, "Buddy, I rarely insist you do anything."

"You make me go to school!"

"Going to school is the law, that one is out of my hands."

"You make me do stuff around the house."

I snorted, "What, what do you do around the house? Look, most of your activities are things you choose to do and I take you to them. When you get frustrated, I don't push you. So this is the one thing I am asking you to do. I am not going to drag you there. I'm not going to yell at you. But I am disappointed, that's all."

Five minutes later he was downstairs, not happy but ready to go.

When I picked him up, he reported it wasn't that bad, and the reward awaiting him made it even better. GoofBoy has no idea – but there are a lot more where that came from. A good friend of mine was just ordered to “grow-up” by his wife, so he shipped a couple cords of comics to GoofManor.

The day wasn't over. His beloved Ravens were facing the Patriots. As everyone in the universe now knows, they lost. But they lost in a gut wrenching way. There were reversals, surprises, and it all hinged on a botched field goal.

GoofBoy was inconsolable, hiding under the table begging not to be sent to school the next day. He was worried about the other kids, but he was really worried about the math teacher who is a Steelers fan. I tried to tell him not to worry about it (while also trying not to laugh.)

I had told him that after the game, maybe he could help me build my new weight bench. Suddenly, through his sobs, he looked up and said, “I don’t think I can help you with your weight bench.”

“Buddy, don’t worry about it. You’ve had a tough day.”

With such a long crazy day, that he even thought about helping me…

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Survey Straightman

This afternoon, I did a phone survey. For some reason I get a lot of these survey calls, and these aren’t normal survey calls about political issues. I’ve never gotten one of those. No, they are always strange, usually several sets of questions each on a separate and unrelated issue – often about whether or not I like a corporation.

I have no idea why we get these calls. I think, because MamaGoof has a serious grown-up job we perhaps appear to be in a significant demographic. At the same time, I work from home a lot, so if I’m not busy I will actually answer these calls – so they just keep calling back. As a graduate student in public policy I am curious what is behind these queries. As an extrovert who works alone, I am happy for the human contact. As a former comedian, I enjoy working with such an unwilling – virtually straightjacketed – straight man.

Years ago I took a call where the questioner was extremely interested in my thoughts on salmon. I told him I thought it was delicious, which is true but I wanted to be encouraging since the questioner’s job seems pretty tough (if not outright soul-crushing.) But that wasn’t what he wanted to know.

Salmon Council Mercenary: How would you respond to the statement that eating salmon makes you smarter?

Me: I think I’d have to be pretty stupid to think that eating salmon would make me smarter. First of all they are fish – what fish is smart, besides mermaids? Second, salmon are not even the smartest fish. They swim upstream to mate, how sharp can that be, by the time they get there they are all tired out and don’t look their best? Maybe that weeds out the weaker ones, but then if they were so smart, they’d evolve out of tasting so good. If I wanted to eat something that made me smarter I’d probably eat physicists.

SCM: Right, I’ll put that down as a negative response. Do you ever have trouble finding salmon at the supermarket?

Me: Nope, it is usually right there in the fish section. Well, there was one time I found it with nuts, which was pretty weird…

SCM: Great, thanks I think that’s all we will need.

This afternoon’s call was extra strange. First I was asked about America’s aging water infrastructure. I explained, “Truth is, I didn’t know we had an aging water infrastructure – although it doesn’t surprise me. Everything ages, I mean that’s inevitable. What would be interesting to me would be if our water infrastructure weren’t aging – then it would truly be a fountain of youth!”

Then he asked if I thought I was familiar enough with the issue to discuss it with my neighbor? Now here I was a little serious. As a public policy student, I know that very bright capable people spend a lot of time on water issues and that addressing them requires planning, data, and a broad range of analytical and managerial skills. Thus, I do not consider myself equipped to discuss this topic.

Then we talked about healthcare. They kept asking my opinion of hospitals in cities where I don’t live. Why would I have opinions about them? Presumably, there could be very nervous people that scout out the medical infrastructure of other cities on the off chance something happens to them when they travel there. But for me life is too short. So I offered no opinion about Case Western Health Care or Ceder-Sinai. I did give a thumbs up for the Mayo Clinic, because everything is better with mayo (I told the pollster this) and a thumbs down to U Penn Health Care because they are in Philly.

Then it got weird.

Pollster: Do you think advocating for changes in the healthcare system is an appropriate method of health care systems to improve healthcare?

Me: Huh?

The pollster repeated the question.

Me: Sure, ok.

Pollster: Do you think providing quality care is an appropriate method of health care systems to improve healthcare?

Me: Isn’t that what they do? I wouldn’t want them to provide lousy care, that wouldn’t improve the healthcare system at all.

Pollster: Do you think having meetings with stakeholders…

Me: Mmmm. Steakholders, gggggrrhh.

Pollster: Sir, do you think having meetings with stakeholders is an appropriate way for healthcare companies to improve the healthcare system?

Me: Absolutely not, no way. Never!

Pollster: And your reasons?

Me: I like to mix things up a bit.

Pollster: Our next set of questions is about Starbucks.

Me: Excellent, this is a topic on which I am well-informed. I was at two different Starbucks just yesterday. Hit me.

Pollster: Are you familiar with Starbucks’ corporate efforts to help the US economy.

Me: Their coffee gets everyone all jazzed up. I know I get great ideas when I’ve had their coffee. In fact the first time I went to a Starbucks….

Pollster: This is about a specific plan, Starbucks has a $5 million dollar program targeting unemployment that…

Me:Let’s see, there are about 15 million unemployed, so that comes to maybe 35 cents for each – that should really help.

Pollster: Sir, it is a grant. Then customers can purchase wristbands at Starbucks locations that fund local start-ups.

Me: So the Starbucks economic plan involves me buying cheap crap that I don’t need – sounds brilliant.

Pollster: Sir, does knowing about this plan make you more positive or more negative about Starbucks or does it not change your opinion.

Me: I mostly go to Starbucks for the coffee and they usually have coffee. I’m good with them and this plan doesn’t change anything.

Pollster: Our last set of questions is about natural gas. Do you believe that America should be more reliant on domestically produced natural gas?

Me: You are just setting me up now. Sure, especially after multiple visits to Starbucks.

Pollster: Thank you for your time sir.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Report Card Wisdom

The little Goofs’ report cards came at the end of 2011. They were fine. They aren’t on the ABCD scale but rather 1234. A 1 basically means they own that skill, 2 means they are fine, 3 means they could work on it, and four means they are behind. Mostly twos. Tough to imagine that this disqualifies them from the Ivys, right?

Except it probably does. They aren’t prodigies; they aren’t blowing the doors off of their educational institution. But, so what?

Father Goof has had some stuff going on over the past few years – I’ll get into it in another post. But the allure of achievement for its own sake has dimmed. I’m not giving up and becoming an ascetic. I’d still love it if this blog had tens of thousands of followers who loved it so much I was paid big bucks for speaking gigs. And I still plan to finish my PhD. But I guess that’s it, I only want to achieve things that make ME really happy and in which the process is satisfying.

Very, very few of us will, in the big picture, do much on the world historical scale. I’ve had a pretty strange (but interesting) career path. If I had done everything right, maybe I’d be an associate poli-sci or history professor at some modest university. I know enough to be pretty sure that while my work would have been credible, I wouldn’t have set the field on fire. I would not be a big star. And frankly, even if I had been – how many political scientists really change the world (and if so, how often do they do so for the better?) Maybe I’d have a bit more money and prestige – or maybe not. I can’t complain.

Much of the game of life, viewed from a thousand miles up, is pretty absurd. The key is to have fun playing.

So my kids aren’t geniuses. They are doing perfectly fine academically. They are smart enough and, within reason, should be successful at whatever they put their hearts into. I hope they choose wisely and enjoy whatever it is they choose. I hope they have fun, are joyful, and generally happy.

More importantly, they are kind and generally excited about trying new things. The little Goofs look for fun and usually find it. They aren’t Stepford Kids with pleasant grins plastered on their faces. They have moods, they push my buttons but underneath it all they pretty much enjoy what comes their way. It took me forty years to get a fraction of their wisdom.
I keep thinking of what Elwood said in in Harvey:
Years ago my mother used to say to me, she'd say, "In this world, Elwood, you must be" - she always called me Elwood - "In this world, Elwood, you must be oh so smart or oh so pleasant." Well, for years I was smart. I recommend pleasant. You may quote me.

I let the little Goofs look at their report cards and told them they were doing fine, but if there was something they thought they should work on I’d be happy to help. And that is enough.

Saturday, January 07, 2012

Hanukkah Round-up - Call to Arms

The little Goofs had a banner Hanukkah, getting awesome gifts.

GoofGirl has two primary interests in life, stuffed animals and crafts. And that is what she got. One gift was a stuffed animal that she can draw on, then wash it clean and draw on it again. She also got a stuffed animal she constructed herself - kind of a Mr. Potato Head, but textile oriented instead of a foodstuff. Speaking of which, she also got a long-coveted E-Z Bake Oven.

GoofBoy's dreams came true, he got a Nerf arsenal including a multi-shot Nerf dart gun - pretty cool - and a Nerf disc weapon - amazingly cool. These items rarely jam, they have easy load clips and serious range. They also have laser sights. I recently read an article discussing the "terrifying awesomeness" of Nerf weapons. The author said as a liberal, progressive dad he was caught between his PC, peace-loving values and being blown away by the sheer amazing coolness of the Nerf devices.

I suffer no such qualms, and not just because I am a right-wing fanatic. Life, and certainly childhood, is a fundamentally Hobbesian experience. Nerf guns are an equalizer. I played a lot of dodgeball as a kid. I hated dodgeball, because I inevitably ended up with recieving many blows to the head and broken glasses.

For the likes of me, Nerf guns are a vast improvement. In dodgeball the strongest, fastest kid always wins. Strategy just doesn't make a difference. In Nerf, the strongest and weakest kids will both shoot a Nerf disc about the same distance. Speed, coordination, and aim make a difference but strategy can actually play a role. It is a balancer - at least somewhat.

Best of all, suddenly glasses aren't a disadvantage - everyone has to wear them (Nerf weapons are pretty safe unless they hit you right in the eye.) The fact that I was already used to wearing glasses might, at least hypothetically, be to my advantage (or so I tell myself.)

Of course I quickly learned that strategy is pretty over-rated. When GoofBoy and I went out to play Nerf Wars all of my graduate study availed me not at all as GoofBoy plugged me over and over again. So Nerf weapons probably wouldn't have saved me much embarrassment as a kid, but at least I would have been spared the dodge-ball welts.

Mama Goof had an entirely different set of concerns about the Nerf weapons. She was sure we would quickly lose dozens of darts and disks in the backyard. I kind of hoped so, because then maybe the squirrels would find them, bury them and we'd get a tree that gave us Nerf toys as fruit.
However, GoofBoy also got a basic electronics set and a remote controlled helicopter. (They are both really cool as well.) I fear the coming of Nerf IEDs and Nerf-armed drones patrolling Goof Manor.

Thursday, January 05, 2012

Not Getting the Christmas Spirit

Attending a Jewish Day school, the little Goofs are shockingly ill informed about certain basics of other religions. I keep telling them that most people in America are Christian and celebrate Christmas, but the see it as an odd exotic thing. I have attempted to rectify this by exposing them to key aspects of the Christmas culture like the Charlie Brown special and by singing Christmas music (actually I do this year round regardless.) The little Goofs think this is blasphemous.

In fact the only Christmas specials they have taken to are the movie Elf which is in fact really funny and the unbelievably bad animated feature Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer which features this profoundly awful musical number. Clicking this may cause bleeding from the ears. Naturally, despite my best efforts, this has become the Christmas anthem for the little Goofs.

So, with this knowledge deficiency in mind, when we received an invitation to a Christmas party I dragged the little Goofs along. I told GoofGIrl - who really is horrified that exposure to other religions might eat away at her soul - that part of the party is decorating the Christmas tree. Crafts of all sorts are very much, her thing.

So we went and the little Goofs ate far too many cookies, were bored by adults standing around and talking, and thus got into the spirit of Christmas.

GoofGirl took a turn decorating the tree and she liked it, except for one thing. Christmas ornaments are apparently made from glass no more than one molecule thick. So when she inexpertly tried to hang an ornament and it fell from the tree - it shattered. This happened several times, I did my best to surreptitiously clean up and dispose of the ornament corpses. Since there was a pile of felt (and hence unbreakable) ornaments I suggested she switch to them. She dropped the glass ornament she was holding back in the bin - and it shattered.

We took the hint. GoofGirl was onto something, we shouldn't fear Christmas - but we shouldn't get too into it either. As Jews we have so many (too many?) holidays. We just spent a week celebrating because some guy found some quality olive oil 2300 years ago. We don’t need to get into anyone else’s holidays – we’re full, thank you.