Monthly Archives: January 2015

Floor Me

Until I had children, I was under the impression that there were only a few different options when it came to floor coverings. There was carpeting, of course, which is what I and most of my friends grew up with (what a dying breed we are, those of us who can remember when chores included “raking” the shag carpet), wood, tile, and, for those who lived in castles or monasteries, stone. Sure, I knew that there were (and still are) entire stores dedicated to floor coverings, and that there are many more different and even exotic ways to cover your floor, but none of them ever seemed too different to me. I mean, with the possible exception of the hills and valleys that developed in shag carpeting (hence the rake), they all shared a certain, well, flatness. I mean, that’s kind of the point of a floor, isn’t it? To be flat?

Like I said, that’s what I used to think. And then I had children.

I now realize that the list of apparently suitable objects to use as floor coverings include such exotic items as plates, fast food wrappers, empty 2 liter Mountain Dew bottles, and, of course, clothes (both clean and dirty, with the most popular look being clean and dirty expertly woven together).

When they were younger this list would have also included items such as legos, puzzle pieces and crayons, but all of those items were banned from my house in the Great Toy Purge of 2009. Unfortunately, I haven’t quite yet found a way to ban food and clothing from the house (although the presence of Taco Bell bags and the aforementioned Mountain Dew bottles makes it obvious that my children have a very loose grasp of what is considered “food”), and so the daily “floor treatment” continues on unabated. What can I say? Apparently you can take away an artist’s palette one color art a time, and yet a true artist will still create art.

Because that’s what their floors must be. Art. Strange, uncomfortable, annoying art.

Here’s the thing, though: usually the artist at least will be able to tell the difference between their own creations and those of another artist. Put them in a room with one of their installations and twenty other similarly organized “piles of garbage” and the artist will be able to pick theirs out every time. This is because the artist, unlike other people people, can tell the difference between real chaos and the illusion of chaos that they have created. Which is what makes me think, sometimes, that what is happening in my children’s rooms is not exactly art.

Would a real artist rip apart one of their pieces simply because they needed to wear a white shirt? Or because their math homework was due? Would they destroy their creation for something as frivolous as the desire to wear matching shoes? Of course not: a real artist would wear one flip flop and one hiking boot and receive an “F” for their daily math score,before they would ever move one single piece of their “Pizza in Revolt” masterpiece. (Or was that “Revolting Pizza”? I can never remember.)

Unless, of course, the dismantling is part of the installation. Is that it? Are they carefully layering objects on their floors just so that they (and whoever they can rope into helping) can then pull it all apart like time lapse archeologists?

Dear God, I hadn’t considered that possibility. I was so caught up in the idea that they were simply slobs, or worse yet, artists, that I hadn’t considered that they might actually be something much, much worse.

No. It can’t be true. I’ll kill them myself before I see them grow up to become performance artists.

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Math Fun

To begin with, I am not one of those people who will tell you that there is absolutely no use for algebra in the “real” world: in fact, I have had to “solve for x” often in my daily life, even for something as mundane as doubling a recipe. So yeah, I get that algebra is a valuable “real world” skill that should be taught in our schools. I don’t have a problem with algebra, per se. What I have a problem with, however, is four years of nothing else.

Oh sure, they toss in some geometry, and maybe even trigonometry and calculus, but really, those classes have more in common with algebra than arithmetic. In a sense you could argue that they are, in fact, just different branches of the algebra tree. The big, flowery, obnoxious, “thinks-it’s-better-than-you” algebra tree.

Meanwhile, the cheerful little “consumer math” bush is growing contentedly in the tree’s shadow, despite the neglect it currently suffers.

I’m sorry: was that confusing? Liberal Arts major here—I tend to devolve into metaphor. Which is kind of my point. Not everyone is going to pursue a career that involves four years (or more, if you count college algebra) of higher math. Not everyone needs to know how to graph a function. But everyone does need to know how compound interest works.

And that’s my problem with the four year math requirement. Not that it requires students to take four years of math, but that it requires them to take four years of progressively more “difficult” math, while ignoring the simple (but necessary) math skills.

This was brought home to me the other day as I watched my daughter struggle with her pre-calculus homework just hours after I had explained to her what an adjustable rate mortgage was. She is in her last year of high school. At this point, there is no chance that she will ever take a “consumer math” class. There is no chance that she will ever be lectured about compound interest, usury and “easy credit” scams designed to trick poor people out of what little money they have. At least, she won’t be lectured about this at school. Which is a shame.

We make kids take American Government class so that they will understand how the branches of our government work, but we don’t require them to take classes that would show the most gullible among them why a payday loan is always a bad idea. The very fact that there are still places where you can “rent to own” a microwave tells me that there are people out there who don’t have the foggiest clue as to how interest works. (The last time I looked closely at one of these offers the interest was such that in the end the microwave would end up costing the “buyer” over two thousand dollars. How did I figure that out? I used math).

Math also helps me to know (and explain to Clementine) that an adjustable rate mortgage is almost always a bad idea, as are loans on your car title, pawn shops, buying lunch on credit and not starting a retirement account until you’re fifty. There’s something simple that separates the sharks from the chum in the financial world, and that thing is math. The sharks understand it; the chum just floats through it, oblivious.

Although, conceivably, at some point in their life they were able to tell you how to solve a quadratic equation.

Look: I am not against math of any kind, and I am well aware that learning advanced math skills helps grow pathways in your brain that will help you in a multitude of ways for the rest of your life. I just wish that there was room enough for both.

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No Joke

I once wrote a column that was so offensive (to someone) that they ended up calling my house to tell me how upset about it they were. Luckily for both the caller and myself, my husband was the one who answered the phone, and his response, after listening to a long rant about how “inappropriate,” “offensive,” and “thoroughly unpleasant” I was was a heartfelt “Yeah? Try living with her, pal,” followed by hanging up. And that was the end of it. Of course, this story could have had a very different ending: I’m sure that the offended caller could just as easily have found my address as they did my phone number.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not so conceited as to compare what I do with political satirists like the artists and writers at Charlie Hebdo, but as a fellow humorist and satirist I couldn’t help but experience a frisson of sympathetic fear upon hearing about the attack that left twelve people dead at the offices of the Paris publication.

All because of a joke.

Predictably, as time has passed people have started to water down their shock and outrage over the incident with qualifiers, typically expressed as “I’m not saying anybody deserves to die, but…” (This might be most familiar to fans of the “I’m not saying she was asking for it, but what was she doing wearing that skirt, anyway?” trope.) These qualifiers completely miss the point. The point is not whether or not Charlie Hebdo is offensive (Is it? Maybe. Probably. At least to some people—obviously), but whether or not it is the role of the satirist to offend.

I am of the firm belief that it is the role of the satirist to point out the flaws in our deeply held beliefs so that we may re-examine them with new eyes. In fact, satire is one of the most powerful forms of social commentary I know, because using the guise of humor allows the speaker to say things that go much further than ever would be tolerated in a simple op-ed piece. We’ve known this to be true since medieval times—the jester wasn’t there to entertain, he was there to speak the truths no one else could. Even when those truths were offensive.

Here’s the thing about humor: jokes don’t work when they’re watered down. There’s a reason people stop telling knock-knock jokes past the age of eight: the older we get, the more it takes to make us laugh. Which is why a good humorist always tries to get as close to the edge as possible. And, as anyone who likes to live life on the edge can tell you, every now and then you are going to fall off.

I don’t remember what I had written about that was offensive enough to make someone call my house. But I don’t dispute that it probably was offensive. It was, at the very least, close to the edge of offensive, if not not a few toes over it. And while my husband and I appreciated the laugh we shared over the phone call, a better way for the reader to get her point across would have been to simply stop reading. Because that is what really tells us when we have gone too far.

I read a recent interview with Chris Rock where he talked about how necessary it was for comedians to be able to try out new material in front of an audience, because the only way a comic knows if something is working if it makes people laugh. There is no other gauge. He also spoke about how when comics find the jokes that don’t work—that instead offend the audience—they take them out. Every time. Because if no one is laughing, it isn’t a joke.

Isn’t that funny?

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Eavesdropper Academy

Although they say that eavesdroppers seldom hear anything pleasant, my experience with being an eavesdropper has been nothing but delightful. Well, except for the times when the people I am eavesdropping on start to talk about me, but even that’s not altogether unpleasant. After all, love me or hate me it’s still an obsession, right? And think about all of the juicy bits you get to hear in those brief moments when they are not talking about you. All those lovely moments when you suddenly find yourself in possession of this season’s “it” piece of gossip.

Here’s the question: are you one of those people who still experiences schadenfreude when you look through the unhappy Facebook pages of people you couldn’t stand in high school? And more importantly, are you not one of those people who reacts to every surprise with a loud gasp or a squeal? (In other words, do people avoid sitting next to you at the movies?) If the answers to the above questions are yes (except for the movie one, of course), then eavesdropping might just be the perfect hobby for you.

Yes, I must say that I would recommend a lifetime of eavesdropping to anyone. It livens up those boring solo meals, helps you find out what is going on in the world without having to actually engage with other people, and, occasionally, puts you in possession of the season’s “must have” bit of gossip. It’s awesome. Which is why I’m so very sad that my children have ended up being so very bad at it.

Just like the first rule of fight club is never to talk about fight club, the first rule of eavesdropping is to never let the people you are eavesdropping on know that you are, in fact, listening to them. This might mean pretending to read your menu over and over while you are listening to the couple at the table next to you redefine the parameters of their relationship (and looking like you really are the type of person who would snort and giggle at the burger descriptions), or snoring convincingly while the person next to you on the train discusses their symptoms with their doctor (hopefully they’re discussing them with their doctor—they sound kind of serious). Regardless of the situation, being a good eavesdropper means never alerting your target to the fact that you are listening to them, either by expressing shock, amusement, or confusion. This is a lesson my children just can’t seem to learn. Especially the part about confusion.

Without fail I will be in the middle of hearing a juicy bit of gossip, when halfway through the story one of my kids will poke their heads around the corner to ask for a clarification. “How many times did she cheat on him?” or some such question, causing the gossip well to dry up so fast it was hard to tell it was ever there in the first place. They will even do this at the expense of a bit of gossip that could benefit them: I could be just about to find out a damning tidbit about one of their mortal enemies, and right as the speaker is about to provide me with the good part (read: the blackmail worthy part) one of my children will interrupt to ask for some minor clarification that causes the tale to be put off with a knowing “I’ll tell you later.”

I’d like to think that this self-sabotage is being done because my children are better people than I am, and are trying to avoid hearing anything unpleasant about anyone, but the truth is that while they are somewhat better than I am, they aren’t that much better. Although, now that I think about it, they do probably tend to hear much better things about themselves.

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No Lie

I know that this is something I’ve complained about before in this space, but it bears repeating: my kids are really, really bad at lying. But here’s the thing: yours are bad at it, too. This is the conclusion I have come to after some very unscientific research conducted with me, a few of my fellow parents, and several bottles of wine. In other words, we were all sitting around kvetching about our children, and the grand conclusion we all arrived at was this: kids these days just don’t know how to lie.

I mean, don’t get me wrong: they try. They’re just so bad at it that it would probably be better for all concerned if they just gave up and actually did the thing they were trying to get out of in the first place. Take brushing your teeth, for example. Back in my day we went to the effort of wetting the toothbrush, squeezing a little toothpaste out into the trashcan and then spending a few minutes standing around in the bathroom with the water running, all to create a good illusion. (The fact that all that effort could have just as easily been spent actually brushing our teeth is not lost on me.) But kids these days don’t even bother going into the bathroom—for all they know you could have wrapped their toothbrush in twenty dollar bills as a test. (I actually had a friend who used a version of that trick—he hid a ten dollar bill under the keyboard cover on their piano to test out his theory that no one was really practicing at all. He was kind of sad when at the end of the week he got his ten dollars back.)

The final straw in the “kids these days just can’t lie” pile came when I was talking to a friend about her son’s band grade: it seems that he was getting a “B” because he wasn’t turning in his weekly practice logs. The reason that he wasn’t turning them in wasn’t because he wasn’t practicing. And it wasn’t because he was losing them in the fifteen minutes between home and school every Monday (this is what happened with my kids.) No, he wasn’t turning them in because he wasn’t filling them out. At all. The gravity of the situation gave me immediate pause—this was about so much more than a simple practice log.

“Wait a minute,” I asked. “Do you mean to tell me that he actually believes he needs to fill out his practice logs with the truth?”

“Yep,” she replied. I stared at her in amazement, because it isn’t like her son is planning on entering the priesthood any time soon, or finishing off his final requirements for his Eagle Scout badge. He’s a normal sneaky kid. Just like mine. And yet, he has somehow overlooked this opportunity to tell an easy lie.

It’s not integrity. (See: Boy Scout, not one, above). It’s a lack of real world lying experience. Back in my day (here I go again) I would have grabbed 26 copies of the practice log sheets and filled them all out the first week of school, making sure to vary the practices times just enough so that there was no discernible pattern. Then I would have put them all in my backpack and pulled a fresh one out every Monday morning. This would have freed up enough time for me learn how to write really small notes on my wrists and knees for use during math finals, and other important school-avoiding related activities.

Dishonest? Absolutely. Realistic? Even more so. And, unfortunately, almost completely beyond your average high-schooler these days. It’s enough to make me wonder who this generation plans on using for lawyers and politicians at all.

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