Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Whidbey Island Part 1

We live in a townhouse complex. Those communal affairs that are not quite apartments and not quite duplexes but most people there have some sort of familial unit that requires more space and the general population is not crammed with young professionals who's idea of Keeping It Down mean keeping the 500 watt amps inside their unit and for whom Going To Sleep At A Reasonable Hour is something not far from incomprehensible.

It means communities where quiet, somewhat fuddy, somewhat duddy hobbies are embraced as appropriate and even Alright now that everyone is of a certain age never mind that its the sort of thing I did even when I was youthful and supposedly full of vim and vigour (perhaps the first clue I've been  more on the bookworm side is I would use the term 'vim' without thinking it might be as modern day appropriate as blunderbuss, Black Lung, or consumption (dying of, not mass)).

And its through these activities that an alarmingly large number of families have bonded together.
The men, by playing european board games about, amongst other things, power distribution in a large German city, battling monsters for control of Tokyo, and winning the favour of the marriagable princess in 16th century Normandy (we cast a wide net).

The women, by having a wine drinking club that occasionally discusses books. It might not be applicable to all book clubs, or all women book clubs, but it certainly pertains to this one, that the books they choose make some of the drearier Russian novelists look like auditioning members of Menudo. Dire subjects, plot lines more dire by far that involve this relationship falling in dissolution, that childhood trauma being revealed, and everyone in the end being shipped to a leper penal colony.

This may explain the wine, actually.

On top of that you have kids who more or less get along. The older ones tolerating the younger ones, as the case often is, the younger in a state of endless hero worship. Or at least unquestioning attachment. All the kids invariably jockeying for position to play with the kid that's older. Sometimes, it's magic, where they all find some imaginary game where they can all, more or less, participate in. Or at the very least, the younger ones are not aware they are being excluded. That's some parenting nirvana right there. Kids at free-play learning how to socialize and the like, parental duties involve doing absolutely nothing except listening for wailing or complete, unbroken silence.
It's great that everyone gets along, pretty shocking, actually. So in an effort tempt fate we decided, all 17 of us, to pack off to Whidby Island and hang out at a beach house together. My brain immediately thought of a G-rated Big Chill, minus Kevin Costner in a coffin, obviously.

We all made it there in various cars and vans, down through the border which I'm always worried will involve a grumpy border guard and various breaches of the Geneva Convention. But they never do because a young family driving a 11 year old hatchback gets a pass, generally.

After the hubub of travel with the nauseau and the cliched questions about 'there' and the state of 'yet'ness and always lurking, the not entirely irrational fear that a gunfight will break out as soon as we see speed limits posted in seemingly sedate MPH, its was relief to make it to the farmhouse.  An place where we can all live in even closer quarters and do the things we generally do anyway but a few hundred miles away and with a beach close by. Our communal living arrangement made more communal.

Monday, September 09, 2013


We went to the Seattle zoo. I hadn't been to a zoo for pretty close on 30 years and expected it to be much as it was in the third grade. Soviet-era cement bunkers locking down the whimpering remains of once proud animals. Each going through their own hellish version of One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest minus the good friend who's handy with a smothering pillow; plus various attempts to get them to mate with other animals, who, while the same species, are complete strangers.

I don't know if I looked forward to this overmuch. Although there is some magic in seeing an elephant in the flesh; even with the hollowed out stare of someone long past wishing for death, I'm not sure there is enough magic to keep me excited for the 3 hour drive. Mind you, these are all memories added onto my memories as a child. Who knows what I thought back then, now through the tinted glasses of a purportedly sane, responsible, socially conscious adult.

The Seattle Zoo, however, is not the cement zoological gulag I remember of my youth. It's all made exceedingly natural, so where there was once concrete bunkers there's now rolling hills and hidden pools and, quite frankly, far more land than there is animal. It's like a Where's Waldo featuring charismatic megafauna. You get to experience the joy of birding (uncertain identification, natural surroundings, sporadic somewhat embarrassing excitement) and the joy of public events (overpriced concession, the click of numerous SLRs all firing at the same moment, cleverly hidden washrooms) rolled into one!

The various staff and plaques announce the animals are quite happy. Their objectivity isn't to be relied upon, I'd imagine. However, regular feedings without the alarming ritual of predators thinning your herd or poachers trying to provide material for a 3000 year old recipe for Viagra has to be somewhat better? The kids seemed to enjoy it. The animals didn't seem scarringly depressed? I'm not sure.

There didn't seem to be a whole lot of rhyme and reason to which animals they liked. Terrified of giraffes, not at all put out by panthers. A panther that could kill them and then carry their lifeless corpse in its mouth while it cleared a 6 foot fence not that, as a father, I'm hyper aware of every single danger that may or may not happen to my children no matter how slight the chance. Not so scared of tiny green Amazonian frogs which could kill our entire family with a sneeze. Scared of an unidentified sharply coloured jungle snake that... ok, well, that made sense.

There were some exotic things that I was sure were just urban legends perpetuated by a recurring misprint in a reference edition of the Encylopedia Britannica (Tapirs, I mean, really), and then not so exotic things (wolves (which they put on the same field as elks? was this just to keep both of them on their toes? Do elks live more healthy lives when harried by endless anxiety? Are they the Woody Allens of the temperate herbivores?)).

There was even a bear. A great massive hulking bear. Bears, actually. And they were gigantic like what you imagine they'd be if you were three and just saw Omaha's Wild Kingdom, on an IMAX. Volkswagen sized. So massive that the idea of them opening up a mini-van at Yellowstone because someone left a bucket of KFC in there takes no imagination whatsoever.

The zoo designers had a bit of a ball with the bear enclosure. First you see it from a great way off and think, 'Huh, big bear'. Then there's another viewing part, this time under a rock, and it's a bit closer, and you can see the mini-van crushing teeth turning a whole salmon into a pink slurry. And then finally there's a viewing area that's right up against the water where the bear is eating. Close enough that my mind started doing faulty arithmetic and laughably misinformed load bearing calculations with regard to mini-van destroying omnivores and whatever plexiglass grade they use to build the enclosure.

It's a strange thing to trust your life to the whims of an engineer who may or may not have thought of everything when creating a barrier between your family and thousands of pounds of muscle that would eat you as an afterthought on the way to getting a snack.

Are there zoo engineers? Is it terribly rigourous? Do they, at the last second, move the bears to the flamingo sanctuary and the pythons to the duckling alcove because of some marketing head's idea?

I have no idea. There is some charm, it might be said, for concrete gulags.


Wednesday, September 04, 2013

Owlet is Metal

 For the most part, Owlet is as you would expect any seven year girl to be. Deeply involved in cartoons and their subsequent merchandise. Anthropomorphized animals of various magical qualities; fairies, both the Disney sanctioned and the not so sanctioned; princesses of every sort. She has endless small sets of tiny plastic figurines which don other, much smaller plastic clothes or accessories or some kind of domestic contrivance. She sets them up and plays with them, chatting about what's happening and why and how some discord or other comes about.

It's enough to make any Mattel executive ( pre-teen girls division, TV-tie-in portfolio) get all misty and sentimental.

It's also strange how she expects me to somehow be into this, and to know the various backstories of characters, their names, their likes, their failings. If I was at all interested in memorizing names and arcane stats about things which have, at best, imaginary importance I'd get into spectator sports. (Not that Owl Jr. is any better, no I do not know the episode of Rescue Bots where Bumblebee makes a brief, and apparently memorable, appearance).

In any case, we went to a street fair in June. One of those torrid affairs which is far too well funded by the local merchants to have that charm that only hand tossed patchouli and questionable crafts can bring. Lots of engaging of brands going on down that 4 or 5 block stretch. They did let some, I'd assume, smaller and more independent retailers sell their wares. Balloon animals and mini-donuts and other things that seem so very much worth their over-inflated price at the time.

We told her she can get one necklace.She chose a stall which honestly looked like it just knocked over a Hello Kitty bead factory. Lots of bright colours. I wasn't sure how she'd ever pick one, there being so much choice. Was she going to pick the pink and yellow sunshine thing.. happy.. type bauble, or the aqua-marine doo-dad which had either a mermaid or a trout with a penchant for wigs. There was always the rainbow option. So many rainbows.

Instead, she chose a skull, and crossbones. On a black necklace.

There are layers there already, I see. I was delighted, but try to stay neutral as to whatever choice she makes. But delighted I was. I mean, it was kind of a cute skull and crossbones, but it was still the universal symbol for death or for piracy. That was pretty metal.

She confirmed this underlying current of PURE METAL a few weeks later. She was going through the detailed history of a My Little Pony, Princess Luna, blah blah 'saves the world' something or other 'moon' something something, and then, "but she turned bad, and was called Nightmare Moon, so I like to call her Nightmare Moon. It sounds cooler".

That'll leave the Mattel executives scratching their head, I"m sure.

Tuesday, September 03, 2013

Marketing On Ice

It's funny the things you save up for the massive, magnanimous gifts or tickets you hem and haw over and finally  bite the bullet and get them for your kids. And then they invariably give you a blank look, and, depending on how old they are, give you a smile that may or may not be convincing. Nothing gives you a glimpse better into the moment when your kids send you to a retirement home more than your child trying hard not to hurt your feelings. The vast chasm of  your own frailty/humanity set against the invincibility of youth.

Anyways, so we tell Owlet we are going to "Disney On Ice", and she gives us a 'oh good' smile which is more bewildered than blank, but I think she gets that she's supposed to be excited, so she attempts a small clap or something.

My parents were 1st generation immigrants, and they were... Well. I went to IceCapades as a kid, and I swear to god the concession workers who sold wares at my seat level look suspiciously like Himalayan sherpas. Indistinguishable dots moving in pretty patterns with a flutter of detail which may or may not have been a reference to Star Wars figure in my memory. This is also, more or less, my memory of any sporting event we were taken to.

What I'm saying is goddamn those tickets were pricey and I can understand why my parents might have gotten the seats at the treeline and damned  be the altitude sickness. And with these hefty tickets in our wallets you can imagine my chagrin at being treated with a 6-year-old's version of a polite shrug as a response.

But that's all understandable because how is she to know wtf a "Disney On Ice" actually is? We tell Owl Jr. but good luck if any of that even remotely registers. He doesn't even give us a polite smile.

We get there and it's just a phalanax of marketing. Over-priced dolls and programs and commemorative plastic cups (apparently the plastic cups with a drink in them were 12 bucks. Jaw. Dropping.), and  keychains and my god it just goes on forever. This is on top of the mindless spinning glowy things that are really going to be amusing for exactly as long as the show if not shorter. It's like a Fast Track To Global Warming By Using Quickly Disposable Petroleum Products, while we show you an show that's ironically ON ICE.

Even over loud speaker they are pimping out their wares. Duplo + Disney + Another Faceless Multi-national + Child Development Advantage == sales, I think. The wording is pretty slick 'Something something Disney something is now being offered!'. Or some equally egregious weasel word which is better than "COME BUY OUR STUFF, OUR SHAREHOLDERS DEMAND MORE VALUE!" . So there's the audio, and the stalls, and the fact that Owlet and a bunch of girls her age are all dressed as some sort of Disney Princess and long story short both our kids have some outrageously overpriced plushies now.

Disney on Ice is really about Princesses on Ice. When you look at how everything is structured, that's what it's aimed at. Owlet got a choice of five or six different princesses(she chose Belle), and Owl Jr. got to pick Flounder or The Beast (he chose Flounder (although I did make it clear to him that he could pick a princess if he wanted)). I'm just glad they have newer princesses, with better values. The Princess and Frog had a line about 'I got this curse because I wished upon a star instead of relying on hard work', which was pretty great.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Rejected Colours for Sherman-Williams 2013 "Colour Your Dreams" Catalogue

-Gulag Archipelego Mauve
-Sudanese Child Soldier Taupe
-Xe Dark Grey
-Silent Scream of Existential Angst Eggshell (matte)
-Surprisingly Racist Highschool Facebook Friend Blue
-Stand Your Ground Red
-Euthanasia Purple (waterproof)
-Stress Position Primer (industrial)

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Ice Skating

One of the things we forget as we get older, is how terrifying childhood is. Or at the very least, reasonably uncomfortable. Case in point, lessons, about anything: swimming, reading, soccer, or in this case, ice skating.

I never took ice skating lessons as a kid, I think at one point my dad may have given me a pointers over a span of about 15 seconds. As he was an immigrant from a country where humidity meets monsoons, that was the entirety of his knowledge on the subject.

We have Owlet in classes, all that 'give your child the opportunities you never had' thing coming into play there. Thinking back, the only reason I didn't have this opportunity is that my parents were busy signing me up in all sorts of other activities to feel awkward and self-conscious about.To my everlasting regret, there was never a summer camp for 'sitting quietly in a corner, reading books while taking breaks to watch cartoons'.

So anyways, yes, it's difficult, this thing we call childhood. We adults are supposedly much more self-confident, assured, and generally stable in most ways of the world. And yet we put the children in situations where they have to show how clumsy and awkward they are to their peers, "what doesn't kill you will only emotionally scar you", I guess. It's a huge burden to put upon developing minds, I think. They don't know what they want to become or how to act or what to do in pretty much every situation and yet, here we go, new activity, fall down in front of your peers.

Which is one of the many reasons I decided to take skating lessons myself. The frequency with which I, all adult with a full-time job and a mortgage and life insurance and such and such am required to do anything remotely as uncomfortable as lessons I can count on the hand I use to count the number of times I'm required to get feminine products for Mrs. Owl. Which is vanishingly, and thankfully, small.

I go to the Owlet's lessons, I give all the encouragement any dad can reasonably offer without repeating himself or falling into Al Pacino "Any Given Sunday" territory, but I think it'll really help me if I put myself in the same situation.

It's much less rigid, adult lessons. They crammed the intermediate with the beginner. I'm somewhere in between, so that's fine. I can skate forwards and stop  after a fashion. If the zombie apocalypse were to happen along a an improbably frozen river I think I'd do OK. If there was a social situation where the family were to skate I'd come off less well, though. I can't skate backwards, nor stop without losing a fair bit of dignity.

We all just mill about, trying things, and two to three instructors wander about giving us pointers and things to work on. I had my choice between a fairly cheerful woman who was impressively vague in her instruction or another young woman who's dourness denoted a lifetime in a war-torn country, a feeling that all this instructing stuff was a bit beneath her, or all the above.  The dour one was actually pretty instructive but had the brusqueness of someone who, if they do not pencil in their eyebrows now, soon will and abhor anyone who goes above, say, 1100 calories per day.

The first lesson was excruciating because apparently rental skates vary widely in their fit. The ones I had had a previous life as the genocidal ruler of a country filled with compliant people, a non-existant embezzlement regulatory body, and a complete blind eye with regard to disappearing political dissidents. I want to say it tortured me, but there is something professional about that word that doesn't quite capture the enjoyment I imagine said skates extracted from my suffering.

My second lesson I happened upon a pair of skates whose sole purpose is not to inflict maximum, gleeful suffering from my body. It has other duties, like one skate being sharper than the other. It's better, much better actually, asking for a piece of wood to bite on while I skated was awkward for all involved. Still doesn't beat going on home and catching up on Transformers, though.

Saturday, February 09, 2013


Owl Jr. is still very much into Thomas the Tank Engine. Periodically he'll ask me to read him the toy catalog, which I'll staunchly refuse the first 97 times.

But he has taken up Hotwheels to some extent. It does seem all hopelessly gender stereotypical but I suppose I'm just too old-fashioned, lazy, and cheap to get him the Mother Jones approved Green Nurture Truck from the Gaia Solar Empowered Rescue Team (made from carbon neutral renewable Fair Trade non-invasive species bamboo). Also, it means I can hand him down my Hotwheels. Likely made from lead-paint, cast from asbestos casts and formed from depleted uranium with a special DEET-infused glass for the windshield.

It's a bit of a trip to see him play with the milk truck tanker which I pretended to be a tanker with mini-laser turrets where the tank caps are. Or the grey funny car which quite EMPHATICALLY belonged to my brother. Or the 007 Aston Martin which even MORE emphatically belonged to my other brother.  Or the Starsky and Hutch car before it was made into a ironic poorly made retro-movie callback.

He generally doesn't play with them all at once, or even many at once. He'll ask what they are called (the old, 'gotta read the bottom to find out what it's called' trick). And then he'll loyally haul that around for days and days. One of them was featured in a unabashedly toy tie-in book in which Hotwheels cars race while dinosaurs methodically take them all out. The blue car wins, which we, completely by luck, we happen to have. It's name is Tantrum, since it's not a real car, but some special weird made up car where they just let the Hotwheel's designers go nuts because I'm sure that's cheaper than licensing names.

Invariably, as ny 4 year old who hauls around one toy for days and days, he'll lose it. And then, for many more days than we'd have thought possible he'll wander around, like a Dickensian ghost, repeating "Where's Tantrum? I lost Tantrum... where's Tantrum?". It's a little unnerving bordering on aggravating. But it's matched by a nameless joy when he finally finds the damn car.

The naming cars things is understandable, but some of the cars don't actually have the name on the bottom, which is a minor sin, I think, and why Owl Jr. calls the generic stock car 'Thailand'. Others have convoluted names, like the full designation, wth all the X'es and numbers and dashes. I prefer something in between. 'Charger', is fine, "Charger XJ-29 2012 Limited Edition Nascar PRO wheel", is a bit much.

It's at this point thinking about cars that I kinda pine for the simple trains, with their names that were popular for British children's in the 40's:  Thomas, Ferdinand, Percy. Even if they are featured in a product catalog masquerading, poorly, as a storybook.