The Gospel according to Saint Veruca

Last Saturday night was the silent auction fundraiser at the kids' school. It's their main fundraiser and is really a great cause. In the past two years, the school community has raised more than $20,000 --- money that has gone to build a new playground, get the building set with wireless and afford each teacher a laptop, and cover the cost of installing a new intercom and security system in the school.

Needless to say, we're not high rollers [see: college majors; see also: humanities and social sciences], but it is nice to be able to play some role (however small) in helping keep their school the truly wonderful place that it is. And it's nice to have a night out. [Full disclosure: It's also nice to have a beer in the multipurpose room of an Episcopal preschool and actually talk to the people you are usually running past during the morning drop-off.]

So these nights are themed, and this year's theme was 80s night.

Clearly the faculty had fun preparing for the event. Each class made a music video to an 80s tune --- Jane's class did "Safety Dance" and Sam's did "Wake Me Up Before You Go Go." Basically it was a minute and  a half of 3- and 5-year-olds, respectively, jumping up and down. The former group wore construction hats and caution tape while the latter were in their PJs. The videos were shown during the event, and it was fun to be able to see my kids completely in their element up there on the big screen.

Anyway, in keeping with the 80s theme, the teachers (more than a few of whom were born in the 80s) were coming in costume. Which meant, I learned only a few days before the event, that we were expected to do likewise.

Being good sports, Vicki and I obliged. Unfortunately, we have no pictures of ourselves because we forgot to bring the camera. [We don't get out on our own that often. We did have wipes and, inexplicably, a change of clothes. Plus a small bag of Pirate Booty.] Anyway, for her tribute to Molly Ringwald and Madonna, Vicki was voted "prom queen" of the evening and given a free copy of the video containing all the videos the classes had recorded. Alas, I did not win any awards for my outfit. Which was ok, but I have to admit I was surprised at how many people mistook my Nancy Reagan for Daniel Dee Snider. Truly the 80s are gone.

All of this, of course, leads me to the point of the story. The part of the evening that gets all the kids in the school excited is the raffle. Each class picks a theme for a basket and every member of the class signs up to bring something in. Jane's class was "fun in the sun," and we got to the sign-up sheet sort of late, so the only item left was sunblock. [Truth be told, I felt like that was a purchase I could make with some authority.]

Sam's class, despite having more girls than boys, put together an "Star Wars/superhero" basket. We contributed two little Star Wars lego sets and spent the next two weeks hearing about which toy Samson would play with first when we won the basket. His optimism was not without some grounding, as last year we won the "sports" basket that his class had put together. Which was fantastic: He woke the morning after the event to find a basket in the living room with lax sticks, roller skates, a basketball, a frisbee, and several other items for play outside.

Try as we could, however, we could not convince young Samson that it was best not to plan on winning again this year as the odds were pretty great against such a repeat. He was unmoved by our logic, and as we walked out the door that night he hugged me and whispered, "I love you. Don't forget to put all your tickets in the Star Wars basket."

And wouldn't you know it: When they called the name for the raffle, we won! So much for my knowledge of probability. We had spent $15 for raffle tickets, and I probably put 8 or 9 in for that basket and the rest in some of the others [we do have two children, you know]. But this was clearly the prize of the night as more than a few parents came up to tell me how jealous they were and how lucky Samson was.

Apparently, the father of one of Sam's classmates had not had the same "count on not winning" talk with his son, as he came over to congratulate me [I was standing holding a giant Rubbermaid tub of Lego, etc.]. We had not met, but I had seen him wandering around all evening, and he had bid on and won at least a third of all the items up for silent auction. I'm guessing the ironic humor inherent in an 80s night escaped him. I'm also guessing he was probably finished with college by the time the 80s happened and so was not quite sure what the big deal was. [Note: I base this last observation on the fact that he was wearing a tweed sportscoat, dress shirt but no tie, and dress pants. Perfect Saturday night out attire for a guy in his 50s. I digress.]

Anyway, he introduced himself, and I noted that our sons had been in class together the year before. We chatted for a minute or two, with him doing most of the talking, and it quickly became apparent that not only was this a guy with a lot of money [anybody who tells you not only what neighborhood they live in but what street they're on is looking to make sure you know he's a big deal], this was also a guy who was very used to getting his own way.

So he finally comes out with it: "I told my son he would get this. I can't go home now." At which point I smiled, and he said, "No, I'm not kidding. I don't know how you won it. I must have put like 90 tickets in that thing. I probably spent more than a hundred dollars on that stupid raffle. He told me not to come home without it."

And that's when it got weird. He began trying to trade all the other stuff he'd gotten for this basket. Vicki, who is much better at this stuff than I am [have I mentioned she's a counselor?], did well in the kind of verbal feinting/conversational redirects that one probably learns to employ when dealing with the insane. But this guy was dead serious. At one point, Vicki suggested we might just get the boys together for a playdate, to which he replied (and I'm still not sure if he was joking): "He'd probably come over and steal it."

Now mind you: The contents of the basket couldn't have amounted to more than $75 worth of toys. Fun stuff, for sure, and the next morning saw Samson not only thrilled but vindicated in his 5-year-old Panglossian worldview. However, it's not like any of the items were one of a kind. We're talking Star Wars Lego for chrissake.

So I went from being happy that Sam had won to being really happy that this guy had lost. Which, in the end, is what an 80s-themed fundraiser at a Christian preschool is all about, right?



Last night we were playing spelling bee with Sam and Jane. [OK, full disclosure: Vicki was playing spelling bee with them. I was near the bee but at the sink doing the dishes.]

The game is pretty straightforward: Vicki pulls a card with a picture on it from a deck. Each image has a word on the other side identifying what the picture is (car, cat, etc.). The kids take turns identifying what the picture is, and Samson gets to spell the word while Jane tries to use it in a sentence.

So far so good. We made it through "dog," "wig," and "mop" with no problem. Then we got to "fox," which Sam, for some reason, spelled F-U-X. And while I thought it was kind of funny, I managed to keep my inner Beavis in check and focus on loading the dishwasher.

Vicki told Sam he hadn't gotten it right and asked him to sound it out. On the second try, he spelled it correctly. To which Vicki cheerily added: "Very good. The short 'O' sound makes it FOX. If you used a 'U' that would be F______."

I'm not sure what that unit of time is called for the micro-fraction of a second that elapsed between Vicki's "teachable moment" and the realization that she'd just dropped the F-bomb --- albeit phonetically and unintentionally --- during the spelling bee.

I almost bit my tongue in half to keep from laughing. Vicki, the very vision of grace under pressure, channeled her royal (if not actual) namesake, smiled broadly, and continued on to the next word.

Which was "rug."


The sound of (awkward) silence

Scene: this morning, in the building, on the way to my office. I am running late from having to get blood drawn as a follow-up to a routine check up with my doctor.

Colleague: You look like you're running late this morning.

Me: Yeah, I got held up at LabCorp getting some blood drawn.

Colleague: Is everything ok?

Me: (cheerily) Oh yeah, monthly blood screens were a condition of my federal parole agreement.

Colleague: ____________

Me: (still smiling) I'm just kidding. There was no agreement when I was paroled.

Colleague: ____________

Me: (embarassed) Actually, it was just a cholesterol screening. I'll be fine, thanks.

Colleague: Oh.

Me: I'll, um, see you later.

Geography for the win

All the pre-K classes in Samson's school have been doing an extended unit on geography and world cultures for the past few weeks. It's a terrific idea: The kids each made passports, and every Wednesday they "travel" to their new destination and then spend a few days learning about the country and its people (what language they speak, what foods they eat, etc). Vicki's mom got Samson an atlas for Christmas, so he's really enjoyed being able to connect the book's content with what he's doing in school.

They started in the western hemisphere and visited Mexico and Brazil. The kids learned some Spanish and Portuguese words, talked about foods, and even had a Carnival parade with Brazilian style masks. So far, so good.

Next on the tour were Australia and Antarctica. Which I thought was a little weird, since only one of those places has full-time residents. But the stuff they learned was still pretty interesting, and visiting Australia gave Sam a chance to bring in my didgeridoo and let the kids hear what it sounds like.

After that, however, came Africa. The whole thing, apparently.

Not Kenya or Morocco, Senegal or Mozambique. Just Africa. So I was already a little skeptical about what they'd be learning. [Sidenote: I should point out that my in-country experiences in Africa total about three weeks in just two countries, so I'm hardly an old Africa hand who could credibly step in and offer some expert guidance. That said, it seems like it would have been fairly easy for the teachers to pick a country and do a quick Google search for a few odds and ends to pass along to their little globe trekkers.]

In any event, Jane's teacher made a special appearance to talk to the kids in the pre-K because in college she had gone on a mission trip with her church to 'Africa' [I never did find out where].

The results of this little guest spot were almost as predictable as they were sad. When Samson came home, I asked him what he learned, and he said: "People don't have shoes in Africa." Needless to say, I was a bit disappointed, and of course, no amount of protesting on my part could convince him that, indeed, quite a few people in the forty-odd nations there, do, in fact, have shoes. [I felt less bad when my next door neighbor --- who is from Ethiopia and with whom I spent a lot of quality time shoveling snow --- told me his four-year-old daughter said she didn't want to visit her grandparents there because of the hyenas.]

Anyway, Sam's class rounded out their world tour with a trip to China in time for the lunar New Year and a quick stop in Canada to begin the Olympics.

Then they got to create their own country. The class was asked to figure out where it would be, draw its shape, and give it a name. I haven't been given details on the first two yet, but the name tells me there was some kind of power struggle between the four boys and five girls in the class.

Ladies and gentlemen: I give you the sovereign nation of SpidermanKingUnicorn. No word yet on the footwear situation of its citizens....


Keyboard confessional

Some day my son will read this, and I know it will hurt his feelings. And for this, I apologize. But I need to clear my conscience on the matter, if only in the virtual confession box that is this blog. And what better day than Ash Wednesday for this cleansing?

Here goes: I hate Clone Wars.

The whole thing: the first three movies, the resultant cartoon series, and, perhaps most of all, the idea behind it. This may seem harsh (in an uber-nerdy sort of way), but hear me out:

I was five years old when Star Wars came out. If I close my eyes, I can still smell the popcorn and the Naugahyde seats of my parents Buick Skylark, in which I sat, at a drive-in near the Canadian border, watching with wide-eyed wonder. We were on vacation in way upstate New York, staying at a cabin on a lake. I'm sure I caught some fish and roasted some marshmallows, but what I really remember from that week was going to the movies. I hadn't been alive all that long, but what I saw on screen that night was like nothing I'd ever seen in my life. From the terrifying Tusken Raiders to the amazing powers of Jedi knights and their light sabers, I was hooked.

I know it's cool to claim Empire as your favorite from the trilogy --- and that movie certainly has a special place in my heart (not least because I earned the right to go see it by reading the book first). But for me, and I suspect many others, Star Wars was where it began.

Viewed through the cool distance of 30-odd years [I grow old, I grow old; I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled], it's not anything like a good movie. The acting is dreadful and the jokes are beyond corny. But the story, not just what is on screen but what is hinted at, remains powerful, elemental even in its sweep of good versus evil, technology versus spirituality, and other important versus(es).

As a kid I watched that movie with all the attentiveness of a Talmudic scholar, and so when Obi-Wan (still my favorite) made a passing reference to the "clone wars," my mind conjured images of faceless warriors locked in battle across the silent infinity of space. The sheer possibilities in such a phrase. I probably didn't even know what a clone was, but what I took as a hint of blankness was enough to strike a vague terror in me not unlike Ishmael's reckoning of the whiteness of the whale.

I may not have been precise in what I imagined all those years ago, but I can tell you it did not include guys with weird braids who looked Phish roadies, aliens in croptops, and a bunch of Boba Fett/Stormtrooper knock-offs with names that sounded like children's tv hosts and adult film stars. [I'm looking at you Commander Cody and Captain Lex.]

It was bad enough when the prequel movies came out and we got treated to an intergalactic Step'n Fetchit and were told the force was basically just a cool blood condition. Not to mention the actor who played Annakin had less range and fewer facial expressions than the guy who plays Jack on "Lost." [In case you're keeping track: Dr. Shephard has three: eyebrows up with smile; eyebrows down with no smile; squinty eyes with jaw set. Seriously.]

I don't begrudge George Lucas the right to make even more money from this franchise. But I like to think we were doing fine without the back story. It reminds me of a saying (possibly apocryphal) attributed to P.T. Barnum about the spectacles he put on. He said something along the lines of "If the people like one elephant, they'll love 10!" Kind of the whole "more is more" philosophy. But if anything, in this case, more is less. Way less.

Perhaps the most frightening thing about Darth Vader was that he simply appeared, fully formed in all his metallic fury. Knowing what he was like as a kid would have made him infinitely less frightening. If only because it explained him. And who wants their villains explained?

Think about it: If the Coen brothers had flashed you back to Anton Chigurh getting taunted on the playground for looking like Luis from Sesame Street, it might have diminished his apocalyptic menace just a little bit. Some things are best left untold, unseen. Left to our imaginations, however fevered or feeble they may be.

So why am I telling you all this? (assuming you're still with me at this point in the post.) Because Samson --- my boy, my pride and joy and heir to my name, my genes (insufferably recessive and sunburn-inducing though they be), and all my well preserved Star Wars swag --- is smitten with the Clone Wars. And so, of course, is Jane. [Last week Jane walked around the house for a good two hours in a clone trooper mask, pajamas, and ruby red slippers. There are days when our house looks like a cross between Mardi Gras, the Castro, and, well, Star Wars.]

Anyway, we don't let them watch the show as it's rather violent, but Sam has some of the Clone Wars figures, and he also has a few of the little Lego sets. And he just loves them. I mean really and truly loves them.

Loves their cool uniforms, their giant guns, the fact that they all look like Stormtroopers. Basically he loves them because he is five and doesn't carry the ludicrous film-geek baggage his dad lugs Jacob Marley-style through this life.

So for now, I'll play along. I'll nod approvingly as we discuss the awesomeness of battle droids and stifle my inner Beavis when the evil Count Dooku is mentioned.

But someday there will come a reckoning.

Or better yet, by the time Sam is in his 30s, Lucas will have made three more movies (ante-prequels? supersequels?) and Samson will be dealing with the angst inspired by his son's love of whatever variations on the theme are now in use.


The house always wins

Or at least, it won this time. And by the house, I mean me.

I'll explain. All this snow nearly obscured the fact that two weeks ago was the high holy day of football. Also, advertising.

And because I believe that all small children should be taught to gamble, Samson and I placed a friendly wager on the outcome of the game. He picked the Colts, and I chose the Saints. [Those of you wondering if I gave him points are wildly overestimating my abilities as both a gambler and someone with even a baseline ability to do math.]

At stake was this: Winner gets to choose a "victory" dinner; loser does laundry. Since Samson is always trying to direct the former, and I always do the latter anyway, he figured it was probably a safe bet to take.

He didn't make it past halftime, which was just as well, as I would have had a hard time explaining the deep look of sorrow that I had while watching the Who as dinner theater.

Anyway, the kid has class. When I woke him the next morning and gave him the news, he offered me a high five and congratulated me on winning the bet. And he was totally up for getting on a step stool and throwing in some laundry.

I'm still working on a victory dinner choice. His pick was milkshakes and brownies, which actually sounds kind of awesome, but we may need to sneak a vegetable in there somewhere...


The lemons to lemonade principle

In case you hadn't heard: It's snowing here in Maryland. Again.

And while the following recipe will do precious little to get rid of the 4 feet of snow that has piled up across the front and back yards, it is pretty delicious. Snow removal, 8 cups at a time.

Snow ice cream

8 cups snow

1 14-oz. can condensed milk

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Mix in bowl; enjoy.


C-5, Miss

With a bit more time inside than usual [see: snow; see also: lots], we've introduced the kids to a few classic board games. Vicki spent part of yesterday trying to teach Samson how to play checkers, and I introduced both kids to Stratego and Battleship.

For Jane, this meant the two of us taking out the pieces and then putting them back. She particularly enjoyed doing this with the little Stratego guys.

Of course, two years makes a big difference and Sam got the hang of Battleship pretty quickly. He was really excited to be playing a game listed for "Ages 7 to Adult."

The kids' school is closed until Thursday, and we're forecast for another 12-20 inches tomorrow.

By the time this is all done, Sam and Jane might well be chess grand masters.