Saturday, March 30, 2013

I am wishing you a happy Easter.

I'm probably jinxing it by telling you, but if he does it again tonight, T-Rex will have slept through the night seven nights in a row.

A full week of full nights of sleep?

I am a new woman. All of the things are clean. ALL OF THE THINGS.

I was going to write something lovely and meditational for Maundy Thursday and/or Good Friday and/or Easter, but. I didn't. Oh well.

I will say that Pope Francis seems like a pretty cool dude. I don't know if you're supposed to call the Pope "dude," but I'm not Catholic, so it's probably okay.

I'm not Catholic, but five years ago, I was in Rome for Holy Weekend (if that's not what it's called, it should be). We went to mass in St. Peter's for Good Friday, then out to the Coliseum for the stations of the cross. On our way out of St. Peter's we bought a loaf of bread and some cheese at a corner store, and all my pictures of us at the stations of the cross involve this GIANT loaf of bread. I think we named it Tony.

On Saturday, we went back to St. Peter's for the Holy Saturday vigil mass thing (I didn't know, prior to that, that Catholics had to go to mass on Holy Saturday, but apparently they do). The line to waiting to be let in to St. Peter's was forever long. We were in line behind a group of nuns from...I want to say Morocco, but I could be wrong there.

Anyway, these nuns were hilarious and very friendly. We shared snacks while waiting (probably the remains of Tony, honestly), and we managed to convince the nuns that it's an American tradition to toast with your food. You know how you clink beer or wine glasses together before drinking? We were doing that with bread.

Then our Catholic friend felt guilty about lying to nuns and told them that wasn't really how the Americans did it, but I insisted that yes, it really was, and continued to toast my food for the rest of the time we were in Italy, because I am good at nothing if not beating a joke to death.

We finally got in to the mass, where I got in trouble with my Catholic friend for talking and spilling candle wax on my pants.

I'm not sure why she was mad at me for spilling wax on MY pants, but there you are.

Rereading this, I wonder that my Catholic friend put up with me at all. I was being obnoxious. Which is weird, because I was actually very excited to have mass in St. Peter's and see the Pope up close and in person (well, I think I was the fourth person in from the aisle when he passed by; that counts). It was all very solemn and ceremonious and moving, but I was trying to explain things to our Non-Liturgical Christian friend and I'm clumsy and I swear I wasn't trying to act like a five-year-old, but not all of us have preternatural sitting-still abilities.

Ok, so we didn't get out of that mass until about one or two in the morning. The trains had long since stopped running, so we and about twenty thousand other people needed to catch taxis home. This was an adventure that perhaps deserves its own post sometime, but it ended with us driving the wrong way down a one-way street, backwards, because every stereotype you have ever encountered about Italian drivers is absolutely, one hundred percent true.

Catholic Friend exacted her revenge on Non-Liturgical Christian Friend and me the next morning. Though we hadn't arrived home until well after three, we had to be back at the Basilica at some ungodly hour, seven or eight a.m., all packed and checked out of our hostel. I'm not entirely sure how we did it, and without coffee, but Catholic Friend did it with a smile on her face.

Non-Liturgical Friend did it grousing like a champion grouse, but she also found us coffee and pastries while Catholic Friend and I saved us seats. Between Catholic Friends manic single-minded slave drivering and Non-Liturgical Friend's liberal provisions of our drug of choice (caffeine), I made it there.

But. It was...I can't even describe how beautiful and perfect that morning was. Sunny and warm, the most perfect, clear spring-morning light. The crowds of tired/happy people in their fancy dress clothes. The sound of myriad languages being spoken. The gleaming white of St. Peter's. The third Latin mass in a row; we were starting to catch on to it a bit. The cardinals and the Pope decked out in red and white and gold.

It was...I'm not Catholic, but it was an experience I'll never forget. For the first time I actually felt the globalness of the faith, the ancientness of it. The bigness of it.  

The joy of Easter was tangible in that moment.

Pope Benedict XVI, good ol' Ratzinger, speaks Latin and Italian with a German accent. My linguist ear loved listening to his papal address, though I have no idea what he said. I didn't need to. I'm a very rational, analytical type of person and do not entirely approve of touchy-feely church experiences, but that day, the emotional experience was enough. "Things from the heart don't have an explanation."

I've always loved Easter, the transformation from the darkness and black of Good Friday to the brightness and white of Sunday morning. The return of the Hallelujahs, said over and over and over again because they've been gone so long and you just can't get enough.

Three masses in a row in Latin and Italian and I didn't understand any of it, except those Hallelujahs. Over and over again. Hallelujah. Christ is risen. He is risen indeed! Hallelujah.

Happy Easter, friends.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

A Parental Courtship

My parents' anniversary is this week, so I thought I would tell you their story to celebrate.

In 1981, my mom was working in New York City (where she grew up) as an English as a Second Language teacher, teaching college students English and How to Live in America.

There was a young man Mom and her best friend had known in college who was somewhat obsessed with the BFF. He had tried to date her in college, but he was annoying and somewhat creepy. Anyway, he was in town on leave from the Navy for Christmas and wanted to get together with the BFF for a date. BFF finally agreed, on the condition that he bring along a friend for Mom and they make it a double date.

The plan, of course, was for the girls to band together, get a nice free meal from Dude and his surely-just-as-obnoxious friend, then bail together and call it an early night. They set the date for the day after Christmas.

Dude and his friend came to pick the girls up in Friend's car. As Mom was getting in, she noticed some linguistics textbooks in the front seat. She had her Master's in linguistics, so struck up a conversation on the subject with Friend who, it turned out, also had a Master's in linguistics.

According to BFF, that was The End right there. Mom and Friend (who, of course, is actually Dad) spent the whole evening completely engrossed in conversation with each other, abandoning BFF to the mercies of Dude and failing to pick up her increasingly unsubtle distress signals. As BFF put it, "It's a good thing you ended up marrying him, or I'd still be mad at you."

Mom and Dad continued to see each other whenever Dad could get away from his duty station. At some point, they traveled to Michigan together to meet Dad's parents and siblings.

As they were sitting with Dad's parents one evening after dinner, Dad asked, "So, when should we have the wedding?"

"What wedding?" asked Mom. "You haven't asked me to marry me."

"I guess not," Dad said. "I just assumed. Will you marry me?"

Clearly she said yes. They bought rings from a jeweler congregant of Grandpa's (Grandpa is a pastor) and headed back to New York, where Mom proceeded to organize a whirlwind wedding in about a month. BFF and another friend went to the mall and managed to agree on a dress to wear as bridesmaids. They were married in mid-March, 1982, in a ceremony at BFF's church*, and Mom's parents hosted the reception in their Long Island apartment, just two and a half months after Mom and Dad met.

The parents took a quick honeymoon in San Antonio, accompanied by a trip to the Austin area to meet Dad's extended family. When Great-Grandma met Mom, she looked at her and said to Dad, "So, this is that damn Yankee you married." See, to GG, "damnYankee" was all one word and just what you called anyone from north of the Mason-Dixon Line. No one thought this was strange except Mom.

Another fun honeymoon story: While driving across the Texas countryside, Mom suddenly gasped and grabbed Dad's arm. Dad, who thought she had seen a small child run out on the highway or something, panicked. "What is it??"

"Look, Dad--COWS."

Dad looked out the window at the cattle grazing a little way from the highway, as cattle are wont to do in Texas. "No shit, Mom," he said. (Ok, this story loses something when using Mom and Dad instead of their real names....)

"You mean they just let them wander around loose like that?" Mom was shocked. She had never seen an animal other than a dog, cat, or pigeon outside of a zoo. The Central Park Zoo has cows in the Petting Zoo area. That was her only experience with cattle. Dad spent summers on his grandparents' ranch in Texas. Maybe there was some truth to GG's "damnYankee" label....


They returned to NYC, where they packed up their possessions and shipped them off to Dad's next duty station: La Maddalena, a little town on the island of Sardegna in Italy.

They lived on Sardegna for two years, first in a hotel in La Maddalena, then in a house the Navy found them in a nearby town, on the edge of a cliff overlooking the Mediterranean:

Yeah. Here. This was their first house.
They got to know their neighbors. They became regulars at local restaurants and were invited to dine with the owners. They attended local weddings and festivals celebrating the locals' divine deliverance from some army or another during World War II (I think they were hiding from being conscripted by the Italian/Axis army, not from being invaded by the American/Allied army, but I'm not entirely sure). They adopted a dog and a cat adopted them. They experienced firsthand the mania that accompanied Italy's 1982 World Cup victory. And every leave Dad got, they took off for other parts of Europe: Germany (but only the west part), France, Ireland, England, mainland Italy.

After two years, the Navy moved them back to the States (to California wine country, which I'm pretty sure can only be a disappointing place to live if you're coming from Italy). Two years after that, I was born, and then my brother and then my sister.

Thirty-one years later, the Naval officer and the New York City girl live in Albuquerque--the desert, and a "big city" to Dad but a "small town" to Mom. But it works. And they're happy.

Happy Anniversary, Parental Unit! May you have many more.

*Mom was reared Catholic; Dad's dad is a Lutheran pastor. They decided Mom would become Lutheran rather than Dad becoming Catholic or splitting religions. The BFF also happened to be Lutheran, so they used her church. Then they spent the next two years celebrating Catholic Mass in Italy. Life is funny.

Friday, March 8, 2013

An Ode to Doing Laundry

I love laundry. Perhaps I won't be saying that in a few years when I have the clothes of multiple and older children added to my loads, but for now, I really do.

There's a comfortable rhythm to it, the familiar cycles, the meditative act of folding.

I love figuring out the most efficient way to run the loads, the best settings for each kind of cloth.  Diapers on hot, towels on warm, clothing on cold. Balancing hot water against dishwashers and showers, following a bleached load with a load of something that won't be harmed if there's bleach residue left in the tub. Which loads get soap nuts, which get my homemade detergent, which run on Bulk or Delicate or Regular.

I love the loose predictability of my laundry schedule: Diapers on Sunday, adult clothes on Monday, baby clothes Tuesday, diapers again Wednesday, special/extra items on Thursday, towels on Friday, swimsuits on Saturday, and back to diapers again. Every day its load to wash, dry, fold, put away.

I love sorting, separating the differences and joining the samenesses. Collating. Keeping fuzzy socks away from the DDH's work shirts because he hates getting fuzz on them.

I love warm fluffy anything from the dryer (in this, at least, I'm sure I'm not alone).

I love watching Jayne examine every basket of clean laundry for possible stowaway tennis balls (I use them in the dryer instead of dryer sheets; one of these days I'll invest in actual wool dryer balls but for now tennis balls suffice.)

I love the Tetris puzzle that is hanging clothes and diaper covers to dry on the drying racks, packing the racks full with every item laid out just right.

I love folding most of all. The matching memory game of socks. The neat piles growing, the unfolded chaos shrinking. The sorting and stacking. It's peaceful. It's meditative, a mind-clearing action my muscles have memorized.

It's worship, this daily blotting out of stains, this offering of fresh starts, this service given in love. However else I might fail, as a mother, as a wife, as a person, this I can do. The clothes are made clean again; my soul is, too.

I'm not a hater of chores. I don't mind vacuuming, though I refuse to mop. I take a certain pleasure in dusting. I grit my teeth and clean the bathroom because it must be done.

But laundry. Laundry I love.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Smart Phones and Dumb People

Ok, kids, change of pace.
A friend of mine posted this story about smart technology on Facebook a couple weeks ago. 
It's interesting reading, and I think the author makes a good distinction between technologies that enable you to overcome problems/be informed vs. those that try to force you to behave a certain way or share all your information with others. One size fits all, doesn't. Anything that tries to conform people to the same mold and limit individual liberty--including the liberty to make mistakes and do stupid things--worries me. We don't really have a paradigm for dealing with these types of problems yet and deciding how far is too far. 
However, from the headline of the piece ("Are Smart Gadgets Making Us Dumb?"), I thought the article was going to be about something somewhat different, as did my friend, so we ended up discussing what we thought the article was about rather than what it actually discussed.

My friend said, "I think there are 'smart' things that are making us dumb, or less able to think on our own, but the article doesn't cover that much. Math teachers having been arguing for years that calculators are encouraging students to never learn basic math."
Yes, yes they have. But that leads me to one of my pet rants. I thought I would post it here and see what you guys think. ^_^
Smart gadgets are not necessarily making us less smart so much as changing our intelligence. 
The same thing happened when we switched from being an oral culture to a literate one. Smart stopped meaning memorizing lots of things and started meaning knowing how to read well. We no longer memorize and recite The Odyssey, we read it in a book.
Now being smart means knowing how to use machines to help you get answers that were once found in books, and which before that had to be memorized.

So it's not necessarily less smart, but differently smart. In all cases it matters not so much what you know or know how to do, it's what you do with that knowledge. 

Lots of people can remember things in an oral culture, but only a few create that which is worth remembering. Lots of people read in a literate culture, but only a a few write what's worth reading or read what others have written about discoveries and use it to make new discoveries. Lots of people use calculators and smart phones and computers, but only some use them to expand mathematics or create art or cure diseases.

So, yes, relying on a calculator makes you less able to do basic math in your head, but that only matters if you think doing math in your head is of some intrinsic importance and that being able to do it makes you smart. Because a calculator also makes it possible for you to perform longer and more complicated equations. Remember in Tom Stoppard's Arcadia, one of the characters in the nineteenth-century timeline discovered some important mathematical concept, but it couldn't be proved until computers were invented. The character filled page after page with hand calculations, but an entire lifetime was not long enough to make all the calculations necessary, calculations that a computer could do in a few minutes.

Many great mathematicians and scientists are terrible at doing basic math in their heads, but that doesn't make them stupid. In a way it's intelligent to not allocate brain space to remembering basics if it means you then have brain space available for advanced thought.

Machines are, or historically have been, tools. You still have to know how to use them. The problem is, we're starting to enter territory where we no longer have to know even that, because the tools tell you how to use them and what to do. 

This loops back to the actual topic of the article and the importance of being allowed space to make mistakes. It's one thing to ask a calculator to calculate twenty divided by five for you and learn it's four, and another for the calculator to tell you that the number you want is four because that's the number all your friends wanted you to know.

I don't necessarily disagree that technology often atrophies brain functions that I, at least, consider important. But I don't think the changes it makes to our brains are always and only a bad thing any more than they are always and only a good thing.
After all, you can use smart phones to say "omg c u l8r" and watch Jersey Shore, and you can use them to read The Wall Street Journal and discuss the impact of technological changes on human intelligence (I tapped out the entirety of my side of this conversation on my smart phone while nursing T-Rex). The phone you use doesn't make you more or less smart. It's a tool you can use to exercise your brain as well as one that can let your brain be lazy.

My friend then pointed out, "I just see kids learning ways to 'cheat' and not understand what division is by relying on their calculator so much, instead of just using it as a tool to not have memorized all the division tables.

"Most common example is the need for parenthesis in using the calculator where they were 'understood' when written on paper. For the students who never understood exactly what was written, they were using their machine incorrectly for the problem and getting the wrong answer. It frustrated me to explain it over and over when they just wanted a quick fix 'so just tell me when I need them, ok mrs friend's name?'"

I agree that you still need to learn those basics in your head when you're young. That's part of understanding how to use the machines for other purposes once you're older. So I'm actually in favor of forbidding calculators until maybe high school or late middle school math classes (my younger self would NOT have agreed; I'm terrible at math! Also, it's only now that I'm older that I understand why my dad (who's a physicist) would check my math homework with a calculator but wouldn't let me use one to do it in the first place).

Then, there's also the fact that a lot of technologies change and affect our brains in ways we don't yet understand. Staring at screens has been shown to make itharder for you to sleep because the artificial lights stimulate the brain, and I do think the screens have given us rather shorter attention spans, which is a problem. So I mean. I'm pretty ambivalent about a lot of it, personally. But I suppose change always comes with costs as well as benefits, and we need to learn how to manage those costs, not stop the changes.

I'm definitely addicted to my smartphone, and am making a conscious effort to distance myself from it a bit. I can tell it's shortening my attention span, and I'm trying to negate that effect by making sure to read non-fiction in book form. But I don't think I would argue it's making me or anyone else less smart. 

What do you think? Are smart gadgets making us dumber, smarter, neither, both? 
What do you think about the actual topic of the article?
More importantly, what are you supposed to do with kids in this gadget-saturated world?