Table Tennis

image

Last year for Father’s Day or my birthday, the kids got me a little portable table tennis set. You just clamp the net posts to an available flat surface and — boom — you’re ready to play table tennis. We don’t use our formal dining room very much for dining. In fact, the table is often covered with things that get dumped on it rather than put away in their proper places. We needed the seating for Thanksgiving, so we had to clear the table off, which meant that the time was ripe for playing some table tennis. The table’s a bit smaller than a regulation table, but it’s still fun to hit with the kids.

The kit came with two paddles and a little sack made of netting to store the three balls in, and my son and I both delight in asking one another to go grab the ball sack so we can play some table tennis. (Yet another instance of why I should win Father of the Year.)

My daughter, who hasn’t typically been the most physical or coordinated of children, is actually pretty good at getting a little volley going, and I really enjoy hitting with her. My son tends to play on the table top itself a bit less consistently than she does, and we wind up banking off of walls and the floor or just smacking the ball hard at each other, which is also fun, if differently so.

Scratch

image

This weekend my son came home after having been outside for a little bit. He had clearly been crying, and he was holding his glasses in his hand. Reportedly, he had gone up the hill (where he’s not really supposed to go without asking) to fetch a friend, and the friend’s dog had gotten out the door, leaped on him, and absconded with his glasses. I maybe 70% believe that that’s precisely what happened. The glasses look more like he tried to use them as a skateboard.

He’s had these new glasses for just a month or two, and the left lens is irreparably scratched, with gouges deep enough that the whole “the dog ate my glasses” story seems a little fishy to me. He had been crying not because he was hurt but because he was afraid he’d be in trouble, which even if I find the specifics of his story a little suspect, he wasn’t, and I feel bad that that’s what he was worried about. I tend to think I’m pretty easygoing as a parent, but really I’m probably sort of a hard-ass, if one with a mostly very gentle and (I think/hope) understanding temperament. I reassured him that though the damage was unfortunate, he wasn’t in trouble over it, and mostly I was just glad he wasn’t hurt, and new glasses could be acquired.

I resisted the brief urge to tell him that I guessed we knew what Santa would be bringing him for Christmas this year.

Poirot and Holmes

For the whole of my kids’ lives, my wife and I have read aloud to them. They’re about 3 years apart, so for a few years, we split the kids up and read littler kid stuff to my son and bigger kid stuff to my daughter. I’ve tended to prefer to read things at a level above what I’d expect my kids to understand on their own, and I explain and we talk things through as needed. This is fun sometimes, like when you’re reading the Bobbsey Twins to your 4 or 5 year old and are confronted with explaining not only things like what Obsidional coins are, but also what veiled racism and unfortunate parody of stereotypes and entrenched classism are.

As my son got a little older, we were able to read more together as a family rather than splitting up. We’ve read things like the Harry Potter series, The Lord of the Rings, the Prydain Chronicles, and lots of other stuff. It’s a family activity that we all look forward to, and reading aloud to my kids is one of my very favorite things to do.

A couple of years ago, when we had exhausted a lot of the books I was willing to read and were looking for something classic, I decided to try some Sherlock Holmes. We got a collection of Doyle’s stories and novels and dug in. My son was less interested than my daughter, though he hung on through a couple of novels and a number of stories, but eventually my daughter and I split the Sherlock stories off and read those together separately from the family reading.

They’re kind of a mixed bag. Some of the stories are really neat, but others you read and feel just kind of meh about. As with the Bobbsey Twins books, there are some anachronisms that need explaining, and there’s the occasional drug use (Holmes liked cocaine) to talk about, not to mention lots of murder. Mostly we’ve enjoyed the experience of reading about Sherlock, though.

Having exhausted most of those, we this year decided to give Agatha Christie’s Poirot stories a try. I had never read anything at all by Christie. We were struck right away by how similar the Poirot/Hastings and Holmes/Watson setup and dynamic are. The stories are darned near interchangeable if you just swap the character names out and substitute in some of Sherlock’s stock phrases for some of Poirot’s French phrases. In one of the stories we read last night, Christie makes a direct reference to Holmes, which was kind of neat to encounter. We’ve read a half dozen or so of the Poirot stories, and on the whole, I think I’ve enjoyed the Sherlock stories more, but there’s plenty more Poirot to read, and there’s been plenty to enjoy in what we’ve read of Poirot (I especially liked “Wasp’s Nest,” which we read last night).

It did my heart good that last night, I offered to turn on a Doctor Who episode we haven’t watched yet, and my son cried out for a Poirot instead. I’d still like to watch the Doctor Who, and so would the kids, but I’ll favor falling into a book over staring at a screen 100% of the time.

Youth Orchestra

 

Until this summer, I had no idea that my daughter would have the opportunity to play a string instrument in a school orchestra. She is fairly small in stature and so naturally she chose the cello (I suppose she could have chosen the bass). It turns out that there’s a vibrant extracurricular youth orchestra scene in our area, and the other night, I took the kids to a concert.

There were five orchestras at varying skill levels and with varying instrumentation (the most advanced had full percussion and some brass and woodwinds too). It was remarkable how good the kids were. Even the beginners were passable, and the most advanced group played some stuff that seemed really difficult, and they played it astonishingly well.

Some of the song selections included pretty predictable classics, and with the concert running right up until bedtime, the kids were a little sleepy through some of the well-played but kind of lulling songs. The jury’s out on whether we’ll go to another concert.

I really enjoy live music, how it fills your chest and turns into an almost tactile experience rather than merely an aural one. I love the richness of tone you can hear when the musicians are right there in front of you. I like watching the conductor dance around, and when there are several orchestras with several conductors, as was the case here, I enjoy observing differences in how the conductors interact with their musicians and express the music physically.

One thing that really struck me, as we listened to a few songs I wasn’t familiar with, was what an amazing act of creativity the composition of music is. A person just makes up all these layered sounds with their harmonies and dissonances and counterpoints, with their changes in rhythm and volume and brightness. An orchestral composition seems just a dazzlingly complex thing, and it springs out of a person’s imagination. I suppose visual arts and writing can also be extraordinarily layered and complex, but whereas (having written by now millions of words in my lifetime) I can sort of vaguely imagine constructing something complex from words, this idea of turning silence into beautiful music as an act of creative will boggles my mind.

I was in the middle of a sentence

A couple of times recently, my daughter, when her younger brother has interrupted her, has rudely spat out the sentence (interrupting him right back) “I was in the middle of a sentence.” Her tone when she’s done it has been horrible — hateful and curt and unforgiving.

She learned it from me. For a while, my kids both had a habit of interrupting me, and it began to annoy me something ferocious. So I got in the habit of interrupting them back and saying this sentence in what I now realize, hearing it reflected in my daughter’s voice, was a really awful tone. The first couple of times I heard this echo of myself in her, I didn’t say anything about it, but last night I did.

What I said was “I’m sorry.” Although I think I’m mostly a reasonably good parent, I’ve certainly done some things, or said some things, I’ve regretted. This has been one of my more shameful things in recent years. I started using this phrase at a time when I had begun introducing sarcasm as a way of providing feedback, and my introduction of sarcasm for this purpose is another of the parenting failures of which I’m really ashamed. I suppose I started this at a time during which I was frustrated and was sort of venting, and it was a really unhealthy way to parent my children and a crummy way to treat a human being in general. This year I made an effort to scrub sarcasm from my repertoire when giving the kids feedback about their behavior (sarcasm in general is still in bounds if offered humorously and with something like a wink), and I think I’m pretty well broken of the habit.

So, I apologized to my daughter last night for treating her (and my son) so rudely. I told her it was no way to treat a human being and that, as with the sarcasm, I was going to work on scrubbing this awful sentence from my repertoire. I said I hoped she’d join me.

There are certainly worse behaviors I could have modeled, and this at least is one that we can both learn from and use to improve how we treat other people, but I still feel like a pretty big dud over it.

Cello

wpid-wp-1447420142385.jpg

My son makes things out of paper. He once made a moderately convincing machine gun, and he’s recently made a cube and a pair of scissors that actually scissored like a pair of scissors. Perhaps his greatest triumph to date has been this cello, which he modeled loosely on the cello his older sister now plays in middle school orchestra.

The little holes on the front, which sort of look like headless body builders because he misjudged the cut to make, are on a real cello called F holes, but when I was first acquainting myself with the instrument to help my daughter get started, I learned that the concave curves on the side are called the C bouts, had read that there were F holes, and managed to think briefly that the F holes were called the A holes, so that now occasionally I’ll do this schtick in which I name the other lettered bits of cello anatomy and express surprise that I never can find the A hole. I’m still waiting for my Father of the Year award.

Riordan vs. Luhrmann

My daughter has read all (or perhaps all but the very latest) of Rick Riordan’s books that’re based loosely on various popular mythologies, and my son has by now read most of them. Among these are the books popularized in recent years in the form of movies pertaining to the central Percy Jackson character.

I’ve avoided reading more than brief snippets of the books, but my son’s 3rd-grade teacher recently asked if I’d be willing to give a Riordan mythology book a read to determine whether or not it’d be suitable to lend to 3rd-graders. Since this one — titled Percy Jackson’s Greek Gods — purports to be a more faithful retelling of the myths, she was worried that some of the content might be a little mature.

I cheerfully agreed to give it a try. It’s not a small book, and I got through about 100 pages before crying uncle. It’s about what I expected in terms of whether or not it’s appropriate for 3rd graders. There are some mature-ish topics mostly sort of danced around in a way that’s probably better for tweens than for the younger set but that I wouldn’t personally object to my son’s reading.

More troubling to me than these topics, which Riordan mostly handles in a reasonably oblique way, are instances of sexist language and attitudes. Of course, we’re reading about ancient Greek mythology here, and Zeus for example wasn’t exactly leading the march for women’s rights, so I don’t suppose I expected a feminist presentation of the old material. But Riordan has Percy as narrator use phrases like “chick magnet” and “had to get with her” and “screaming like little girls” and (with respect to women, though here inhabiting some god or another’s voice if I recall correctly) “take what you want,” and I feel like he could have offered the story in a voice like Percy’s without falling back to these sorts attitudes and language. In the summary I wrote for the teacher, I acknowledged that I was much more bothered by these slips than by Uranus jokes (which I find funny) and references to sex, murder, incest, etc.

I also just really hated the voice. The gimmick of the book is that Percy has been asked to tell what he knows about the old myths, so Riordan retells the myths in an annoying, sort of too-cool teenager voice that strikes me as not merely annoying but also inauthentic. I think it’s a condescending approach. Here’s an excerpt of what I wrote to the teacher about it:

My main objection to the book honestly is that it foregrounds Percy’s frankly sort of annoying voice and all but resorts to the use of text speak and emoji to strike a tone that ultimately deflates the richness of the stories being told. I wouldn’t forbid my kids to read this, but I’d probably give them a disclaimer that it’s a pretty low-calorie read and try to offset it with something more enriching and less condescending.

As I characterize the book in that way, I find myself thinking of Baz Luhrmann’s old Romeo and Juliet movie from the ’90s. It did something similar, providing a more modern and stylized take on the original play so that it was more thrilling and accessible than, say, the old Zeffirelli movie of the play or the text itself. And, well, I actually liked Luhrmann’s version a lot (I’m sure it had nothing to do with sort of a crush I had on Claire Danes at the time). So what’s the difference between what Luhrmann did then and what Riordan has done here? I’m not really sure. Luhrmann at least preserved most of the original text of the play, I suppose, so that the foregrounding of his stylistic choices was at least more firmly rooted in some of the original aesthetics and story structure. Maybe it’s that for all that Luhrmann modernized and stylized the play, he didn’t dumb it down, and I feel like Riordan dumbs things down a lot and sort of makes the dumbing down almost the primary focus. I’m not a fan of condescending to kids, and while I think it’s fair to help ease them into difficult things, I think there are better ways to do so than what Riordan does. Or maybe it’s that Luhrmann added actual beauty to the original whereas Riordan here adds only personality (and personality that I find annoying), so that it is strictly derivative and not meaningfully additive.

Later, I felt like my assessment had come off as kind of snobbish and had sort of missed the point, since the teacher was probably looking more for an assessment of appropriateness than for a more formal aesthetic or literary critique, so I talked to my kids about Riordan’s books and sent along another email, excerpted as follows:

As I reread my last note, I cringe at the realization of how pompous it comes off. I thought I’d back down from my snobbish attitude about it and see what my kids thought about Riordan compared to some other books like the Harry Potter series and books by Kate DiCamillo (e.g. Despereaux).

My daughter (11 years old) reports that Harry Potter is on a tier well above what Riordan writes, though she likes Riordan quite a lot because she finds him funny and finds the characters relatable (which is after all what Riordan’s going for, especially in this book).

Finn says that Riordan’s books are super mega awesome and that the Harry Potter series is super mega awesome and a half, which to him means just a little better (his grasp of fractions being apparently tenuous). Finn’s down on DiCamillo, though he forgets that he liked several of her books quite a lot when we read them to him a couple of years ago (my daughter rates DiCamillo’s books somewhat closer to Rowling’s books than to Riordan’s).

So, the children have spoken. Riordan’s aim seems to be to make mythology relatable to children, and it seems that he’s a success. I find what I’ve read of the books (bits and pieces mostly) annoying in the way, I suppose, that old people often find the younger set’s things annoying. Get off my lawn, etc.

Confronted with a child choosing between Rowling and Riordan, I would surely point the child toward Rowling, who I think writes in a less condescending and more sophisticated way, but I’d like to back away from my earlier assessment that I’d urge Riordan only to a child who otherwise wouldn’t read anything.