Saturday, June 28, 2008

Swim, swim, swim for your life!

Some people swim to Antarctica or across the English Channel.

I swim to a different dimension….

Never mind that the entire time I am swimming I am traversing a space of water that is 25 meters long and 2.5 meters wide, over and over again, to my heart’s content, in a lap lane at my local YMCA.

Granted, I do not do this for hours on end; thirty minutes of continuous swimming is about enough for me. I get a good workout, I retreat from the real world, and I have imaginary in-depth conversations with all sorts of people both real and imaginary. Yes, I am a forty-five year old woman with imaginary friends. What can I say?

Although, really, ultimately, it is probably all those made up conversations I have with real people that require more imagination. I mean, I have to figure out what that real person, whom I know, is going to say, how he or she is going to respond to what I say or do not say. Because, conceivably, someone could respond any number of ways to something I might say. Thus, there are a lot of possible permutations to the same basic conversations. And I can play out a lot of them in thirty minutes.

I have many amazing, intense discussions as I am swimming. Sometimes I am cussing out some boneheaded asshole about his or her egregious error of thought, word, or deed. Other times I am debating someone about the war in Iraq, the merits of the IB program at my children’s high school, or whether parking should be free from eight to ten in the morning so people can run in and out of Starbucks or the dry cleaners or the bank or all three without having to pay a quarter. Or I could be flirting or chatting up some possible – or impossible! – beau. Discussing politics, religion, the meaning of life, the plot of a book or recent film, or just kvetching about daily life. Sometimes I worry about my children or making ends meet. Or the state of my health or love life (or lack thereof).

I worry about a lot of things.

Just the other morning I was fretting about what would happen if I were attacked by a black bear. According to the news, the black bear population in Pennsylvania is on the rise. The recent flurry of black bear sightings in surrounding populated areas is disconcerting. I am already worried enough about cars running red lights and deer leaping out of the woods right into my car. I don’t need to add black bears into that mix. I am not sure how I would react, really, if I came face to face with a black bear in my day to day existence in the Pittsburgh area. I came very close to a black bear last summer up in Georgian Bay, Canada, but that is kind of in the wilderness. Sort of. I mean, relatively speaking. It is still vivid in my mind. First the bear lumbered across the beach of a nearby island, then later it paraded right outside our cabin, and ultimately a few hours later swam right in front of our kayaks and up onto the shore of the next island over. I was sure from that moment on that I was going to run into a black bear every time I went back and forth between the main cabin and my sleeping cabin. I would brace myself and set out with a purpose and run like the dickens and then quickly open and shut the door behind me. Whew! Made it.

I am not even sure what you are supposed to do if you run into a black bear. I don’t think they are carnivorous, or aggressive hunters. I think they eat berries and grubs and stuff. Well, OK, maybe they are carnivorous. I think they eat grubs and maybe fish and probably just about anything they find – cornflakes, beer, leftover meatloaf, cornstarch. But I don’t think they go out of their way to kill people and eat them. Although they might attack people if provoked. Or startled by some insane woman running between two cabins in the middle of the night.

Are you supposed to stand still? Curl up into a little ball and play dead? Jump up and down and make a lot of noise? Beat on pots and pans that you just happen to be carrying with you? Or run like hell in the complete opposite direction? Climb a tree? I have no idea. I am pretty sure I know what I would do. I would probably either faint dead away or run screaming pell mell in the complete opposite direction.

I don’t want to be mauled by a black bear.

I have seen that documentary Grizzly Man.

Thinking about black bears makes me swim faster. Yet I have seen a black bear swim, and they can swim really fast. I was amazed. I am sure a black bear could swim faster than me. I am but one of a legion of middle aged people at the Y trying to swim away in relative vain from middle aged flab and the effects of gravity.

I turn my thoughts to the film I watched the night before. Daughters of the Sun. It was a foreign film I stumbled across at my local public library. With my children away for the summer, it is time for me to watch all those chick flicks, foreign films, independent films, and documentaries at the bottom of my Netflix queue. For six weeks, my films can rise to the top and not be usurped by the likes of 300, Beowulf, The Longest Yard, Full Metal Alchemist, Saw IV, and Cowboy Bebop. While I was awaiting that first crop of grown up movies to arrive, I decided to pick out a movie from the library and splurge, watching a DVD on my laptop computer, in bed, in the dark.

Daughters of the Sun caught my eye because it said it was a big hit at the Sundance Film Festival and was the “Iranian version of Boys Don’t Cry.” Well, it was an Iranian film all right, but it was nothing like Boys Don’t Cry. Yes, granted, the protagonist of the film was a girl trying to pass as a boy, but that is where all comparison stops. The film opens with the heroine getting her head shaved by her father and then being sent out into the world dressed as a boy to go become an apprentice at some Persian rug-making sweat shop so she/he could then send all of her paltry earnings home to support her large, impoverished family. I suppose her father thought being a boy meant she was going to be treated better or something, I am not sure. She/he is the only boy in the sweat shop, a boy who can weave ornate Persian rugs better than any of the other girls (and wouldn’t that raise your suspicions just a little?), but she/he is a prisoner in the hovel factory and is constantly getting beaten by the cruel, sadistic Persian rug master who does no work and has a broken arm and a beautiful horse that runs free through the marshlands of Iran. I wasn’t quite sure how the horse fit into the plot. Foreign films are often harder to follow than Hollywood fair, aside from the fact that they are in a foreign language and you have to read the subtitles which takes more effort than I sometimes have late at night after a long day at work. Maybe the horse was a symbol. For freedom or something. Anyway, a girl dressed as a boy in a factory full of oppressed girls. You can easily imagine what is going to happen next. One of the girls falls in love with the “boy.” She/he does not reciprocate the affection of the poor clueless girl but rather breaks her heart by saying “he” cannot marry her. The girl is crushed, of course, because this means she must now marry an evil 60 year old man who is her cousin. She/he (who maintains her shaved head throughout the film and apparently never changes out of her boy clothes or bathes or pees or has her period) dances around at night in somebody’s skirt, all alone in the abandoned Persian rug hovel factory where she is imprisoned. At the end of the film, after a rather severe and unwarranted beating from the evil man whose arm is still broken, she/he sets the rug factory ablaze in a burst of rebellion and dances off into the purple and pink Iranian sunrise with a skirt and shaved head, going Lord knows where, but at least she is free.

Me. I didn’t see how this was anything like Boys Don’t Cry. For one thing, the girl did not want to be a boy like Brandon Teena did. She was forced to be a boy so she could go work at a Persian rug sweat shop and make more money than a girl and send it home to her starving family and sick mother, who dies eventually anyway. Brandon Teena wanted to be a boy. For all intents and purposes, Brandon Teena was a boy. There were no issues about sexuality or gender identity in Daughters of the Sun. This film was more about the oppression of women in Iran. And the amazing level of poverty. I don’t think I could ever in good conscience buy a Persian rug, knowing that it might have been made in a Persian rug sweatshop hovel factory by girls and boys who work ungodly hours weaving, weaving, weaving and being beaten and hardly making any money at all and the money that is made goes to cruel, evil men who do no work and beat their workers.

I squint up at the clock on the wall, through my fogged up swim goggles. Oh, my goodness, it is eight o’clock already! Where did that time go? I must get out and shower and change and get my little booty butt to work.

My swim to another dimension is done for the day….

Monday, June 23, 2008

You can't spell "gray" without "gay"

One of my pet peeves is when my kids use the word “gay” in a derogatory way. Many teens – and even preteens -- do this, I know, but it bothers me. My kids tell me they are not being homophobic, rather they are using the third definition of the word “gay.”

My older son informed me that gay has three meanings: Gay as in “happy”; gay as in “homosexual”; and gay as in “stupid.”

I tried to tell them that there was no third definition. That by giving “gay” a definition of “stupid,” they were, in fact, turning “gay” (or homosexual) into a pejorative word -- as in, if someone is gay, he or she must be stupid.

My children vehemently disagreed with me. They said they knew which meaning they were using and they were not against people being gay. And everyone knew what meaning they meant.


But how did this so-called third meaning originate? Surely, it was meant in a pejorative way when people started using it that way. I think that is what bothers me. Plus, it seems thoughtless, or at least spoken without any thought.

My children probably are not associating the word “gay” with “homosexual,” when they are saying things like, “That is so gay!” They are probably using the word in this way because they hear others around them using it, and they feel it is just another way of saying “stupid” or “lame.” And so many things are stupid, lame, retarded, and… gay to teenagers.

At the same time, I have to wonder how their friends (who might be gay – and I am sure there are some) or their teachers (who might be gay – and again, I am sure there are some) feel when they hear others so casually toss around this word in a negative way. “Gay” did not used to mean homosexual either. But now it does. In fact, I have a feeling that the word “gay” is embraced by the gay community far more than “homosexual” is.

I realize that language changes over time; that is part of the nature of language.

But when we use words carelessly and without any thought to how they might make others feel, I find that troublesome. I am sure that using the word “retarded” might offend people who know someone who happens to be retarded or have Down’s syndrome. And the word “lame” might be hurtful to people who are physically disabled. Where do we draw the line?

The other day my son called someone a “faggot” because that person didn’t like physics, a class my son had recently signed up for and was looking forward to.

I said, “I really don’t think someone not liking physics makes him homosexual.”

“No,” my son sighed, “I mean ‘faggot’ like a stupid or retarded person.”

“Well, he can still dislike physics and not be retarded.”

“No. He is a faggot. Period. And I am not saying he is gay.”

“Yeah, but when you use words like that, it is being demeaning to gay people.”

“No, it’s not. I am using the third definition of ‘gay’ that you find in the Oxley Dictionary.”


“What’s the Oxley Dictionary…?” I asked.

“I dunno.” He shrugged. “I just made it up.”

I told my younger son about this, and he said, “Wow! That was clever. Mixing the Oxford Dictionary with the Quigley Dictionary.”

My older son and I looked at him. “What’s the Quigley Dictionary?”

“I dunno.” My son looked puzzled. “Isn’t that the name of a famous dictionary?”

“God, you are so gay!” his older brother said.

Well, there is no Quigley Dictionary, that I know of. There is, however, an Oxford Dictionary, the Oxford English Dictionary, to be precise.

And, believe it or not, the OED does include the “third” definition of gay that my older son so earnestly suggested:

slang (chiefly U.S.) (sometimes considered offensive). Foolish, stupid, socially inappropriate or disapproved of; ‘lame’.

The OED, in fact, lists eight different definitions for the adjective “gay,” with multiple sub-definitions -- not just three. But it does include gay as in “happy” and gay as in “homosexual.”

I was surprised to see the contemporary, slang version included in a dictionary as venerable as the OED. Although the definition does say (in parentheses, at least): “sometimes considered offensive.”

It does not say that it is sometimes considered offensive because another meaning of the word “gay” is homosexual, and gay people might take umbrage with being called foolish, stupid, socially inappropriate or disapproved of just because they are homosexual. Even if that is not what people “mean.”

What do people mean? And are they truly not being mean?

Perhaps we should be more conscious in general of the terms we use and why we use them. I know that I use the word “retarded” to mean stupid, and that is probably rather thoughtless of me.

I do not use “gay” to mean stupid or lame. But that is probably because it has a different meaning for me.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

"Baby, you can drive my car"

My 16 year old got his learner’s permit on Friday.

He had his requisite physical on Thursday, and I had him do a couple of online DMV practice tests on Thursday night.

Make no mistake. He had the driver’s manual (which he had gotten on his sixteenth birthday back in March), and he said that he had read it and “memorized” it.

I told him that sometimes it is the format of a test that is trickier than the actual content of the questions and that sometimes tests have quirky questions.

I watched him do part of one of the online practice tests. It was on the DMV site and was supposed to be “cool” for teenagers. It had avatar-esque teens with names like Ramon, Shemika, and Jake, and each had his or her own tale of young driver woe to share. After much too much clicking and folderol, eventually you would get to the real questions of the practice test.

It was rather a gauntlet.

Even I, curmudgeonly old mom that I am, found it rather dodgy. I can only imagine how doofy real teens find it. My son didn’t really say anything negative about it, but I could tell he thought it was stupid. Basically, you had to ignore the dumbness of the site in order to take the practice test.

While teens might like cool graphics and visuals and interactive games, just give them the freaking questions all right already! Not everything in life has to be a video game.

I was glad he did the practice test, though, because some of the questions were tricky. I mean, using common sense and thirty years of driving experience, I would have gotten several questions wrong. For example, one question wanted to know the leading cause of teen driving accidents. The choices were a) inexperience, b) speed, c) distraction, and d) something else. I would have picked inexperience. The answer was speed.

Now, I would argue that speed is often a result of inexperience, but….

These questions were multiple choice, not essays. And I figured many of them were based on real life statistics, at least for the state of Pennsylvania.

We drove down to the nearest DMV on Friday morning and took a number. There were two lines and two number sources; one was for driver tests and one was for photos and driver’s licenses. Surprisingly, there was no line for driver tests. Our number was the first one called. We submitted all the requisite paperwork and my son’s original birth certificate with the raised seal and original Social Security card (not laminated!), and the DMV lady stamped and marked and Xeroxed all sorts of things.

My son didn’t have any problem with the vision test, especially after the woman made the rest of the line appear for him to read off aloud. He then was sent to a computer terminal to take the written test, and I was sent back out into the waiting room. There was a sign next to the computer terminals that said: “You may not use your cell phone while taking the written test.”

I wasn’t sure how many questions were on the test, or how many you could miss and still pass. But I figured it couldn’t really be all that hard. I mean, look at all the nimrods that are out driving the roads of Pennsylvania!

A while later, my son came out into the waiting room. I couldn’t tell from his nonchalant teen expression whether he had passed or not. So I asked him. He said yes, he had gotten 15 out of 18 correct and that was passing. Thank God!

I had to write a check and sign a form and then we had to go back out in the waiting room until they called his name again, so he could get the actual permit.

He called his dad on the way home to let him know he had passed. His dad wanted to know if I had let M drive home. I said, absolutely not! He had never driven a car before, as far as I knew (although I knew his dad and uncles had let him drive around a driveway or back out of a garage a few times), and I was certainly not going to let him drive home on a busy highway! What kind of a mother would I be?

While I knew that M would probably get some driving time and experience with his dad over the summer, I also thought he should get a chance to drive on the day he got his learner’s permit. I mean, it is kind of a rite of passage.

And the rules are different now. When I was growing up, you could get your learner’s permit and then take the actual driver’s test, if not on the same day then at least very soon afterwards. Now you have to wait a minimum of six months after you get your permit, and you have to log at least 50 hours of driving time with your parent or other adult who is over the age of 21.

And we had driver’s ed in high school. And everyone took it. There was a classroom portion and a driving portion. They don’t offer that any more. Something to do with insurance or liability costs or some stupid excuse. A friend of mine living in Virginia, though, told me her daughter had driver’s ed as a health class. Makes sense to me! What could have more to do with your child’s health and well being as a teenager than being properly taught how to drive a car?

Anyway, my son could take driver’s ed at a local community college, for a rather large fee. But how would he get there when he can’t drive and I am at work? And it conflicts with other activities?

I wanted to give M his first driving lesson, but I wasn’t really sure what a safe place might be. I couldn’t think of any nearby abandoned parking lots. As I was walking around the cemetery that afternoon thinking about all of this, I realized I could bring him to the cemetery! It has real roads and turns and stop signs but no through traffic. In fact, most of the time, no cars at all.

Now, you might think it somehow morbid or bizarre to take someone to a cemetery to learn how to drive. But we live near this cemetery and go walking around it all the time. It is up on the side of the hill overlooking the town where we live and the river. It is quiet and peaceful and beautiful. And virtually traffic free.

I drove M up to the cemetery, parked on a flat stretch, turned off the engine, pushed back my seat, and handed the car keys to him. “Now, it’s your turn,” I said. We switched places.

The first thing he did, after adjusting his seat some more, was to put on his seat belt. Good job! Then I told him how to adjust all the mirrors. He wanted to know where the lights were. I showed him, but told him I was more concerned at the moment that he know where the turning signals were and how to use them.

He knew where the gas and brake pedals were. I showed him the rest of the panels and gauges. He then started up the car, put it into drive, and took off the parking brake. We were off!

At about ten miles per hour. Which was fine with me. Since he had never really driven a car before. I told him each car was different, and some had more sensitive gas and brake pedals than others. And you just had to practice and get used to them. He said it was almost like driving a golf cart. (Which he has driven maybe once before in his life!)

He had no problem going straight, but then we had to make a turn. I had him practice putting on his turning signal first before each turn. He said, “Oh, that’s going to be a hard thing for me to remember.” And we drove all around the cemetery.

Up and down hills, around bends and curves. Stops. Left and right turns. Parking. Et cetera. It was a great first lesson. I remained remarkably calm, even when he seemed to be way too far on the right side of the road. I asked him questions about what he thought he should do next. I kept giving him choices: “OK. We are coming to an intersection. You can either go straight or turn left. What do you want to do?” I think that helped because it gave him more control about where he wanted to go and what skill he wanted to try next.

I thought the lesson lasted about an hour, but it was really only about fifteen minutes! We did not see any other cars. Which was probably a good thing. M did fine. If anything, he was driving too slowly. But that’s OK. I would rather see him be a bit overly cautious as he is first learning to drive than the other way around. Plus, the speed limit was only 20 miles per hour anyway.

I am not sure what M thought about his first time driving, but I personally found it a very moving, life altering experience.

To be in a car, teaching my son, who is almost a man but who was just a little baby not so very long ago, to drive a car.


Beep beep'm beep beep yeah....

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Summertime and the livin' is easy....

It is Summer Break.

That means I have one child I can’t keep in the house, and another child I can’t get to leave the house.

Oh, OK… so I exaggerate. A tad.

But my children are as different as night and day.

Which is fine.

It just means I have to be more creative when motivating them to do something or not do something. What works for one is obviously not going to work for the other.

It gets tricky when they are both in the same room, and you are trying to motivate one to do the complete opposite of the other!

My children are not really children any more, though. They are teenagers, manchildz.

This makes motivation even dicier. Telling people who are now bigger than you to do something because you said so and you are the mom often meets with smirks, if not downright laughter.

Needless-to-say, my inveterate sarcasm and smart assedness get thrown back at me in a heart beat. (As does my Army cussing, much to my chagrin.) I guess my kids learned by example as far as those habits are concerned!

Interesting how they don’t seem to pay that same attention to detail when it comes to making their beds, brushing their teeth, or keeping their rooms clean….

My philosophy of parenting is to lead by example. Follow me! This includes sharing less appealing chores or at least doing them together. If that doesn’t work, nagging and yelling are always options. Although neither of them is very effective, truth be told. Bribery or money for chores sometimes works.

I wear a bike helmet when my kids aren’t even with me! Now that is a sign of leading by example for sure. Or being a creature of habit.

The last time I went for a bike ride with my younger son, the only way I could get him to wear a helmet was for me to wear his super cool motorcycle-style helmet and for him to wear my bike helmet. Don’t ask me why! I tried to convince him how “kool” his helmet was, but he would have nothing to do with it. He said the only way he would wear a helmet was if he got to wear mine.



I couldn’t help pointing out to him that that meant he was wearing a LADIES’ helmet. I mean, it wasn’t pink or anything, but it was smaller and more streamlined than the man’s version. He didn’t care, he said.

Fine. Then I didn’t either.

He could wear a ladies’ bike helmet as we cruised the streets of our hometown (possibly passing girls he knew from school), while I donned the super kool motorcycle style helmet. No skin off my ass!

At least he will still ride bikes with me.

My older son would not be caught dead riding bikes with me. Or riding bikes period. He tries not to be caught out in public with me at all too much any more. (Although he has no problem with my being his free taxi service!)

We used to do family bike rides all the time. But then he decided that was no fun. He used to go swimming with me, too; he liked to race me doing laps. Or we would go for long walks where he would regale me in minute detail about his latest favorite video game. Now he doesn’t even want to do that anymore. To be honest, I think it has less to do with me, than with his strong aversion to physical exercise.

He came into my room the other day and plopped down on my (neatly made!) bed with a sigh.

“I’m bored!”

Usually I reply to that excuse with “Sounds like a personal problem to me.” But instead I said, “The Y’s only five minutes away. Why don’t you go swimming?”

“I don’t wanna go swimming.”

“Well, then go for a walk. It’s a beautiful day out. Take your iPod with you and walk and listen to music.”

He grunted like I was a retarded Maria von Trapp suggesting he go sing “Do Re Mi” whilst skipping through the outskirts of Salzburg.

“You need fresh air!” I exclaimed. (Which was a euphemism for “You need to get off your fat ass and go outside and get some exercise!”)

“I hate fresh air.” (Which was a euphemism for “I hate exercise.”)

“When was the last time you went outdoors?” I gave him a suspicious, sideways glance (the kind that was normally reserved for, “When was the last time you brushed your teeth?”).

“I dunno.” He shrugged. “I don’t keep track of that sort of thing.”

“Don’t you want to get some exercise?” I gave up all pretensions of subtlety.

“Not really. Exercise is boring.”



“A walk?”


“Surely there must be some form of exercise you will do!”

“Martial arts,” he replied tentatively.

“Great!” I clapped my hands with glee. “Go out in the back yard and practice your martial arts.”

“I don’t know how to do martial arts.”

“Well, just twirl around and kick your leg up above your head and make weird noises! You’ve seen The Matrix.”

Although I was thinking more along the lines of Kung Fu Panda.

“When are you going to be done with the computer?” My son changed the topic.

My younger son can’t seem to get enough exercise or outdoorsness. I have a hard time keeping track of him. He could be out for a run, riding his bike, down at the Y shooting hoops, over at the Middle School field playing touch football, swimming, lifting weights, hiking through the woods, or jumping on a friend’s trampoline. He needs one of those electronic ankle bracelets like Martha Stewart had to wear. He constantly needs to be busy. And he is Mr. Social. He wants to be around other people all the time. He is always going over to other friends’ houses, or they are coming over to ours, like swarms of ravenous locusts.

This week my younger son is busy with high school football. They pretty much practice all year long, although during the off-season it is limited to weight training. Now they are weight training and doing some sorts of drills or practices. “Real” football camp is in August.

My older son has Mini Band Camp all week. So at least I know he will leave the house for three hours each day. He is a leader in the band now as a rising junior. He is in charge of the tenor saxophone section. Although he is the only one who plays tenor sax. They are teaching the new freshmen how to march and play the high school alma mater and so forth. I like it when they march on the football field. Because that means my son is getting both fresh air and exercise. And he likes band. Although, personally, I would find marching in weird patterns around a football field whilst playing music for hours on end excruciating. But whatever. “Real” band camp is in August.

This Saturday my kids will leave to go visit their dad for the summer. They won’t be back until the first week in August when they have those respective “real” camps. This means I won’t have to nag, cajole, feed, clothe, chauffeur, bribe, encourage, hug, or lead by example for six whole weeks!

Let’s get this party started.

God, I am bored already…..