Student Spaceflight Experiments Program

A few weeks ago, my son came home from school asking if he could work on an after school project that would potentially let him send a science experiment to space. He and a couple of other kids had been selected to participate in a program wherein students from fifth grade up through high school design experiments to be performed on the International Space Station. The finalists actually get to send their experiment up to the ISS to be performed. Of course we said yes!

I attended the first after-school meeting, and one of the kids already had a long list of ideas for what kinds of experiments they might perform. My son proposed something having to do with snake venom and blood coagulation in microgravity, but I think his interests lay more in the appeal of snake venom than in scientific inquiry. It was clear to me from that meeting that his teacher was going to guide but not take over the project. This would be a student project. My son’s experiment would not likely find its way to the ISS (and, lest this come off as a build up to some neat announcement, I’ll go ahead and say: his group didn’t win).

The experiment design is very constrained because it’s expensive to send stuff up into space. Winning projects get a special sort of tube subdivided into three compartments with little gates that can be opened to expose items in the different compartments to one another. So you could put snake venom in one end, blood in the other, and instruct the astronauts to open the gates to join the two, and then observe the impact of microgravity on coagulation compared to what happens in a control setup back home. So you have to design your experiment around these physical constraints and with the understanding that pretty much all the astronauts will do is follow simple instructions and set the tube aside. They won’t take measurements or do other formal observations, and your experiment design has to factor this in.

My son and his team met one or two other times after school and came together to work on the project over lunch a few times. They wound up settling on seeing if microgravity affects the behavior in fire ants that causes them to clump together when they find themselves in water. They tested the clumping behavior locally and devised a plan for testing it in space. They wrote and submitted their experiment design and made a tri-fold display for presentation at an event one night this week. It was charmingly clear from their display that the teacher had let the kids do most of the work. There was a classic elementary school bulletin board border (with the wavy edges) around the edges of the tri-fold display, and sheets of paper were glued to the board without utmost tidiness. Other groups had much fancier (or at least much tidier) displays. It was clear that some of the other elementary school teacher sponsors had had a much bigger hand in the development of the experiments.

A fifth grade team won, beating out a high school team composed partially of some of my wife’s past brilliant students who were basically testing out like a cure for cancer. I don’t remember what the winning experiment was, but even its title sounded advanced far beyond what one tends to cover in pre-college science. Part of me was inclined to sneer about the teacher basically doing all the work for them, which was unfair to e.g. the high school teams who submitted work with a lot less teacher involvement. I imagine the winning students still learned a lot, though, and that, in the end, is what’s important about this kind of activity. It was tempting to wish that my son had had a better opportunity here with a teacher who’d set them up better for success, but I actually wound up feeling really glad that she let them do their own thing. There’s value in learning really sophisticated stuff with heavier involvement from an instructor, but I think there’s also a lot of value in being given some loose constraints and freedom to succeed or fail on your own, and where I’ve landed is that I’d rather my son have the sort of experience he had, with more ownership of the project, than that he win with the project more firmly directed by the teacher.

My son was really excited at the prospect of winning and getting to send an experiment up into space, but he also took the loss in stride (I was worried his hopes were too high), and I was proud of him.

She threw up her hands

For the last 11 or 12 years, I’ve read aloud to some portion of my family pretty nearly every day, except when things like travel or houseguests or illness have gotten in the way. It sounds silly, but this is one of the things I’m proudest of as a parent (my kids are big readers, which I feel great about). We’re in book three of the Wheel of Time series now (an old favorite of my wife’s that I had never read and that both the kids are old enough now to follow along with), and I’ve noted that people throw up their hands a lot in these books.

I’m an inveterate punster, and I notice and relish things like potential Spoonerisms, weird usage, unintentionally funny phrases, and of course opportunities to crack Dad jokes. These books have instilled in me a new habit of stopping to say “well if she hadn’t eaten her hands in the first place, resorting to auto-cannibalism wouldn’t have made her sick and she wouldn’t have had to throw them up” and similar (usually simplified) variants. For a while, these pauses got eye-rolls and groans out of my family, but then they stopped responding at all to my interjections, which of course makes me want to escalate (because I am a troll).

Oddly, the escalation in this case turned into almost more of a de-escalation, since instead of shouting or being more dramatic and doing the verbal equivalent of an elaborate elbow-nudge or pratfall, I started just folding the observation into the prose itself as a subordinate clause (e.g. “she threw up her hands, which she shouldn’t have eaten in the first place, but Bocephus continued to smirk”) without so much as a raised eyebrow. Thankfully, the family noticed and fed me with eye-rolls and groans and commentary about how fiendish it was to adapt in this manner, which was gratifying.

I Scream

A few weeks ago, I went outside to shake my fist at the neighborhood children who had taken to trampling my newly seeded lawn, when I noticed my son and a couple of the younger kids (he’s 10, they’re a little younger, and the neighborhood range of miscreants who run together goes from 5 or 6 to 16ish — which is to say that it’s basically Lord of the Flies, and my son was hanging with the littluns) sort of hunkered down behind the car, which was parked in the driveway. One of the littluns looked over at me sort of guiltily and murmured to my son something like “tell him,” which interrupted my fist shaking. I looked at my son, who had gone kind of a shade of gray.

I should here back up and report that just a few minutes before, my wife and I, both recently finished with work for the day, had been occupying separate water closets. My preferred water closet is a tiny room inside the master bathroom, which is itself buried in the master bedroom (the door of which was closed lest the dog come in and befoul the boudoir), which is upstairs. When I am spending a little time in the old W.C., I am not well prepared to respond to inquiries from downstairs. Yell helpfully as I might, I simply am unable to best the acoustics of our home and make myself heard. So when I heard my son’s plaintive and repetitive cries first of “Mom” and then of “Dad,” all I could do was yell repeatedly (a vein in my forehead no doubt throbbing with the exertion and frustration of it) “I’m finally taking a dump, leave me alone.” And when he kept calling upstairs, I could do little but try to explain my situation more stridently, and perhaps in increasingly colorful language.

I am not a horrible father. My son’s cry was not one of pain. It had much more of the routine “come prevent the dog from trying to escape as I for the 25th time in as many minutes enter and then exit the house again to trample your precious newly germinated grass” pitch. Had the cry been bloodcurdling or one indicating pain or clear emotional distress, I would assuredly have quickly set the affairs of my toilette in order and gone downstairs. I imagine my wife was in similar straits. Eventually, my son stopped calling out.

Let us return to the driveway. A littlun has implicated my son in something. I have ceased to shake my fist at the neighborhood children. My son with trembling lip approaches me and says “I threw a toy at the ice cream truck.”

IMG_20170611_232617The neighborhood children leave things in my paper box. I am no Boo Radley. They aren’t making little gifts for the neighborhood recluse (though a recluse of sorts I am). They just leave shit in my yard and in its structures. Sometimes I find cell phones or scooters or balls. More frequently I find trash. One child left a small plastic doll in the paper box, and this my son decided for some reason to hurl at the ice cream truck as it drove by.

I should disclose that I have many times declined to give my son money to purchase frozen corn syrup from the ice cream truck driver. For one, I find the truck’s noise offensive. Ours plays an obnoxious song and then pauses after about every maybe 6 phrases of common measure to broadcast a sardonic recorded “Hello?” For another, I can’t imagine the ice cream is actually any good. I am personally an ice cream fiend. I am well known within my nuclear family for eating all of the ice cream. Often enough of a summer evening, my poor impoverished children will put aside their ribeyes and their caviar and virgin champagne and ask if there’s dessert, and my wife will say something like “beloved progeny, I have procured ice cream for our family’s enjoyment” and I will have to kind of sheepishly confess that I have since selfishly spooned all the ice cream from the carton while nobody was looking, whereupon the rest of the family will rend their garments and roll in ashes (from a mound of burned cardboard ice cream containers) while I wipe ice cream from my moustache. Which is all to say that I am in no way opposed to ice cream. But I am sort of opposed to ice cream driven around in an obnoxious van. I just read a book in which the author proposes a brilliant ice cream truck prophylactic strategy wherein the parents tell the children that the truck plays music only when it is out of ice cream, and I approve of the strategy.

So, my son is starved for ice cream while I am growing fat from Tennessee’s finest chocolate and rocky road cows. He has many times (the very afternoon in question, even) been denied ice cream from a truck. Naturally then as the truck drove by on its way out of the neighborhood, he picked up one of the trinkets that had been left in our paper box and chucked it at the passing truck. Why not do this, in his position?

My wife and I meanwhile were shackled to our separate toilets.

The driver stopped. Whether she emerged from the truck or whether she squrrrrched the truck to a halt and backed up or whether at the time of impact she was simply already in a good position to berate my son I do not know, but the misc en scène aside, she gave him what for. She threatened to call the police. She said that his behavior was the fault of his wretched parents. She sent him in to fetch one of his parents — who were both legitimately just trying to have a quiet dump at the end of the workday as he called dutifully up the stairs so that they might come down and negotiate with the ice cream truck driver to mete out a fitting punishment. He made a good faith effort, but his parents, thrall to their bowels, failed him. Apparently the ice cream truck driver bought it, or was more concerned with terrorizing more neighborhoods with her terrible siren call than with exacting justice.

My gray-faced son confessed all to me. I told him how foolish the behavior was, but told him I had done something similar when I was about his age — but that my missiles had been rocks (if I’m being honest, when I was older, they were occasionally smoke bombs and sparking fireworks) and the road a highway, which had been much more dangerous. He had an opportunity to learn from not only his own folly but from his venerable father’s. I sent him in for the day and let him know that he’d probably lost all chance of ambulatory ice cream for the summer, since the driver wasn’t likely any time soon to forget the long-haired boy who had flung a toy at her truck and raised her ire, and then I continued to shake my mighty fist at the rest of the neighborhood children and to harry them off of my lawn.

Now, when we hear the ice cream truck’s blasted anthem, we also see my son squirt inside pretty quickly lest he be taken to account by a driver who’d be understandably skeptical that both parents were on the toilet at the precise time of the cataclysm I describe. I laugh every time and sometimes give him a wink and perhaps a comment about natural consequences and the likelihood that he’ll ever do anything quite like that again.


wpid-wp-1440170713928.jpgWhen my daughter was very young, she liked to grab my ears. I wasn’t able easily to locate the photo, but there’s a nice picture of the two of us from years back in which we’re walking around at the zoo. Well, I’m walking, and she’s on my shoulders, holding on by my ears. At about that time, she developed the occasional habit of rubbing my earlobes, which I suppose are soft.

I am a man who has little trouble growing hair, and my eyebrows can grow to be quite impressive if I don’t keep them in check. A few years ago, my wife let it be known that she preferred when I kept them a bit shorter, so I started getting them trimmed when I got a haircut. I sort of like when they grow a bit longer because it’s silly, but my wife is the one who most often has to look at my face, so I’ve happily deferred to her preference.

My daughter’s fondness for my ears has in recent years been joined by a fondness for my big spidery eyebrows. It started when she began getting allergy shots. For kids new to allergy shots, parents are encouraged to sort of kneel down in front of the kid for some reason, and the kid is encouraged to exhale while the injection is occurring. This arrangement gave my daughter a recurring opportunity to take note of my eyebrows, which I’ll confess I may have waggled at her a few times for comic effect to try to help take her mind off the odious shots. After a time or two of this, she began pinching my eyebrows a bit, and a new weird habit was born.

My wife and daughter have now expressed opposite preferences with respect to my eyebrows, which puts me in a bit of a tough spot. When I go for a haircut, whose preference do I honor? That of my wife who has to look at me or that of my poor daughter who I force to get bi-weekly injections and whose chief solace is this weird eyebrow ritual?

A few months ago, I made a deal with them. If the person cutting my hair mentions my eyebrows and asks if I want them trimmed, I say yes. If the he or she does not mention my eyebrows, I don’t mention them either, and they continue to grow. It’s been a couple of months since my last haircut, and my eyebrows are becoming very impressive (they’d be more so if they weren’t so light), the longest hairs an inch-and-a-half or so by my quick informal measurement. Just the other day, my daughter conceded that they had probably grown very nearly enough and added that once she could stretch them down to touch the tip of my nose, it’d probably be time to give them a bit of a trim.

Finn: A Lexicon

Finn says lots of things that nobody else can understand without help. Here are a few that I enjoy:

  • Agackle: motorcycle, most often said while inviting me to lie down on my side and provide my arm as a handlebar or while riding me when I’ve agreed to strike that pose. He can say motor and cycle independently and with chronological proximity, but he never puts the two together.
  • Dursh: Fish.
  • Garp: Grape. This is a new one. He first calls them berries, and then when I tell him they’re grapes, he says garp sort of from the back of his mouth. Maybe he’s just a fan of John Irving’s fiction.
  • Abbey: Sometimes his aunt’s name, sometimes his cousin’s name, sometimes “up please.”
  • Dooce: Juice.
  • Holmp. Help.
  • Shoon. Shoes.
  • Atide: Outside.
  • At: Hat.
  • Ath: Ice.
  • Mao mao: This is the sound a cat makes, often substituted for the word cat.
  • Beebow: Baseball. Lately, instead of a snuggly furry animal or blankie, he sleeps with a baseball glove complete with grass-stained old ball from my childhood.
  • Annie: Andy (as in his uncle)
  • Uh Lah Doo: I love you (copycatting).
  • Adone: All done.
  • Nennie: Lennie.
  • Ulla: Ella, or sometimes just “somebody else.”
  • Yedldlow: Yellow, sort of shouted, usually in response to having it sort of yelled out to provoke him to say it. The “dldl” part is a general rattling around of his tongue in his mouth and takes different forms at different times.
  • Bone. Phone.

Little Bo Cheeses

Although I am an atheist, there’s a whole lot of religious music I really really like, from holy music to old time spirituals to the Statler Brothers (select songs) to Christmas songs. I don’t think I sing a whole lot normally, but get a soaring rendition of O Holy Night going and I find it really hard not to ruin it with my own caterwauling. Lennie got a little kid’s karaoke machine type thing from her granddaddy for our early Christmas gathering, and in anticipation of this, M had been practicing Christmas songs with her in the week or two preceding our visit. On the drive to Dad’s, we had the music going, and everybody was enjoying it (Finn even does a pretty good Deck the Halls Fa la la la la). At a break after Away in a Manger, Lennie piped up and asked who Little Bo Cheeses was. It was really hard not to laugh (in a “that’s so precious” way), but it also kind of hit me in the face with the fact that she’s getting old enough to begin to be exposed to this whole side of our culture — a very dominant part of it, no less — that we haven’t introduced her to overtly before. We’re not interested in teaching her that the stories in the Bible (and particularly the ones that we take to be supernatural) are all true, but it would be a real disservice to her not to provide at least a fair history and culture lesson.

This turns out to be tricky when you’re trying to do the following things:

  • Provide an unbiased report of what most people in our culture believe to be true
  • Not do too good a sales job when telling her about it (she can figure out what she really thinks when she’s a bit older)
  • Explain why we don’t believe this stuff when, for example, her granddaddy does, without being patronizing or painting Granddaddy in anything but a positive light
  • Accomplish all of this using language and concepts that a four-year-old can understand

So, who’s this Little Bo Cheeses guy and why are people always singing about him? Here’s more or less how we handled it (given in something resembling a monologue).

The name is actually Jesus, and he was this baby that a lot of people believe was very special. Well, not just special, because all babies are kind of special, but it’s almost like he was a magical baby. (Here I get a little uncomfortable because this could very well be construed by an adult as our making sort of a mockery of what people believe about Jesus, when we’re really honestly just trying to find a way to explain it that a little kid can grok.) And so people think this baby is so cool and special and almost magical (really, we didn’t want Lennie to show up at her granddaddy’s asking what’s up with this magical Bo Cheeses because that could really come off as if we’ve been denigrating the belief, and that’s no good way to kick off your Christmas gathering), so they think about him a lot and even write songs about him. Now, we don’t believe the baby Jesus was magical or anything. We think he was just a regular baby, special like all the others. But we grew up with the stories and songs, and the songs are very pretty, so we like to sing them. It’s sort of like the stories we read. Do you think Liza Lou (a story from M’s childhood that we still read from time to time) is 100% true? But we still enjoy reading it, right?

At some point, I think Lennie asked why Granddaddy believed the stories when we didn’t, and I think we said that it was just the way he’d grown up and that we simply developed different opinions as we got older.

She seemed to sort of understand it, and I think and hope we were pretty sensitive all around (to friends and relatives who are religious, to our own desire not to indoctrinate our kid into religion, to our desire to maintain Lennie’s innocence and openness).

When we got to Dad’s, she pretty quickly found a nativity scene and announced that the baby was Little Bo Cheeses. Over the course of the evening, M taught her the names of the other figures, and it wasn’t at all traumatic for anybody. She hasn’t recounted the tale to me yet, but I understand she knows the basics of the whole Christmas story now.

It’s kind of a hard line to walk. I do want her to understand the culture she’s rooted in. I don’t want her to get saved or whatever at a young friend’s church before she can really understand what it means. And I’m in fact very iffy on the notion of letting her go to any church while she’s young. But on the other hand, I don’t want to stunt her intellectual and social growth by refusing to expose her to the stories even at a young, impressionable age.

I think for the moment we’ve done well.  I understand that people I value whose beliefs are at odds with mine may recoil at some of what I’ve said here and will think we’ve done anything but well, surely having consigned our daughter to the fires of Hell. Within my own context (which I know those folk would say is irrelevant, for the only context is God’s; which I call out here not in order to argue against or anything but merely to acknowledge that I understand the schism between worldviews and that providing my own context isn’t useful to all), I’ve done what I wanted: I was fair to a belief system I don’t buy; I exposed my daughter to something of a pillar of our culture; I didn’t compromise my own beliefs in any way; and I believe I explained things in a way that was sensitive to the fact that most people around Lennie do believe the Bible to be at least largely true and often literal.

Marshmallow Basagna

basagna.jpgSometimes your kid says something so cute that even though it’s incorrect in a couple of ways, you can’t bear to correct her. Lennie is a big big fan of sweet potato casserole. I knew she would be the moment I saw her cramming marshmallows into her mouth when helping to layer them in on top of the sweet potato puree. This seemed to her rather lasagna-like, and she has for a long time called lasagna basagna. It’s not that she can’t make the ell sound. It’s simply that this is how she heard it at some point, and it’s how it stuck. On its own, it’s kind of cute and harmless, but when said with glee and repetitively and with “marshmallow” as a prefix, it’s just the best. When she’s 30 and learns that this stuff isn’t actually called marshmallow basagna, I guess she’ll hate me, but it’s a risk that for now I’m willing to take.