Archive for August, 2008

Pushing My (Calculator) Buttons

Sunday, August 31st, 2008

Last week, I asked my 20-year-old son, Ethan, to try and find the graphing calculator we bought him when he took high school trigonometry four years ago. His younger sister has the same class this year and I was hoping to avoid shelling out $100 again for a new one. After Ethan completed his general ed math requirements a year or two ago, he hoped to be done with factoring and functions for the rest of his life, so I was sure the graphing calculator was languishing in the bottom of an old backpack someplace in his room.

But I wasn’t about to go into his room and look for it myself. I avoid going in his room on principal; I want to be respectful of his space and unless I want to precipitate his moving out”¦which I don’t”¦I had better not start rummaging around in his room. Plus being on the compulsive side of the neatnik scale, the post-tornado look of his room makes me a little crazy so I’m better off averting my eyes as I walk past it ““ not that his sister’s room across the hall looks any better.

So a day later, I checked in with Ethan about the whereabouts of the calculator. He said he couldn’t find it. “Did you look?” I asked, since a quick glance around the room showed that the patchwork of clothes, papers and textbooks covering the floor was in the same arrangement that they had been in for days. And the dust on the shelves above his computer covering the knickknacks, manuals, and game boxes was obviously undisturbed and still in a nice smooth layer.

“Yes, I looked, but I must have lost it,” was his reply. And he headed out the door to go to work.

Now what should I do. I really didn’t buy this answer because he’s always been very responsible about his stuff. He never lost his retainer, cell phone, or car keys so I doubted that he had lost it. The more likely explanation was that his search for the calculator was more cursory than intensive.

I was sure that with a pick axe and a shovel, that I could unearth the calculator from the strata of class schedules, receipts, pay stubs, college brochures, and notebooks that had been building up on the floor of his room since he started going to junior college two years ago.

But I knew that would not be the best plan of action. After all, he is an adult now and I didn’t want his last memory of living at home to be that of his mom using our German Shepherd to sniff out a calculator so I was prepared to drop the whole issue. I was just about to start my search on eBay for used graphing calculators when I filled Steve in on the situation. Steve went into Ethan’s room and about ten seconds later, emerged with the calculator in hand. He found it under the hand-me-down love seat that lives in Ethan’s room.

So when Ethan came home that day, of course we shared the good news that what was once lost, was now found. “What, you’re going in my room now?” was his response. But what else could he say, he knew he hadn’t looked for it very thoroughly.

As Steve explained to him, if we didn’t make the effort to find it, when he moves out in a year or so from now, we’re not going to be very happy that we’ve spent another $100 on a new calculator only to find his under the loveseat. “And no matter how smart you are, when your lack of organization starts costing you ““ or your parents ““ money, it’s time to start taking responsibility for organizing your life. And by the way, where is the copy of that scholarship application form? You’re going to need some proof you sent it in, if you want to have any hope of getting the funds.”

The issue of how much control we can exert over an adult child is pretty confusing. Yes, he’s of legal age, but he’s still in our house and it is obvious to us, that he still needs guidance in certain areas of his life. It was much clearer when he was younger and I could use my maternal authority to insist that he do things a certain way.

However, my insistence at a tidy room then is probably coming back to bite me now. I don’t think he consciously thinks, “I’m going to make my anal retentive parents crazy by purposefully keeping my room in a state of chaos,” but nonetheless, I’m sure he’s getting some enjoyment out of knowing he can push my buttons.

I’ve heard parents say that they just close the door of their teenage kids’ rooms and ignore the mess that’s inside. His landlord can do that when he moves away from home, right now, I’m still his mom.

Driven to Distraction

Sunday, August 24th, 2008

My 16-year-old daughter, Valerie, recently got her provisional driving permit. The next step in the process to becoming a fully licensed driver is for her to accrue 50 hours of behind the wheel time over the next six months. Of course having a license means freedom so she wants to make sure she is fully prepared to pass the driving test when she takes it on the earliest possible date, January 21, 2009. For her, every errand and outing is an opportunity to work on her driving skills. When we head out the door, she reaches for the keys from me and says, “I’ll drive”¦you can just sit back and relax.”

Hah! There are many words I would use to describe the way I feel when she’s the driver and I’m the passenger but relaxed is not one of them. Based on my previous experience while my son was learning to drive and chatting with other parents about what it was like for them when their teenager was behind the wheel, stomach knotted with sweaty-palms in a state of hyper-alertness is more like it.

I’m don’t think I’ve ever prayed more earnestly than when Valerie is driving. “Oh, Lord, by some miracle, may the force with which I am jamming my foot into the floor have some effect on the braking power of this car before we rear-end the stopped car in front of us!” Or another one I frequently find myself mouthing, “Dear God, please use your supernatural power to move that parked car in our path six inches closer to the curb!”

I guess my prayers are working, because she’s been driving for about a month, and she has had close encounters but not made contact with any garage doors, pedestrians, or other vehicles yet.

There are times that I’ll be riding with her and she’s doing such a good job navigating the roads that I’ll actually forget that I’m with an inexperienced driver and I start enjoying the scenery. Then she accidentally steps on the gas instead of the brakes or turns into the lane of oncoming traffic. I make a mental note: stock up on the hair color with improved gray coverage.

It’s a known fact that every ride in the car with your teenage driver is like dog years; you age by multiples of seven whenever they take the wheel. By the time my third child learns to drive, I fully expect to look about 110. Is it any surprise then, that in order to delay their own aging, baby-boom parents are postponing having their teenagers learn to drive?

According to a recent article in the newspaper, the rite of passage of getting your license on the day of your sixteenth birthday which was the norm for my generation is a fading trend. In just the last ten years, the national rate of licensed 16-year-old drivers dropped to about 30% from almost 44%.

The major reason that teenagers are getting their licenses later is because schools no longer offer driver’s education as part of the curriculum. In fact, the article stated that only about 20% of school systems make it available, whereas in the 1980’s, 90% of schools had a driver’s ed program. Schools are willing to teach kids about sex, drugs, AIDs and STDs, but teaching them to drive? That was just too scary.

Actually, the article pointed out that schools dropped their driver’s ed classes due to the cost. The potential liability was just too much for most schools so now the responsibility falls with the parents to find a private driving school. These days, it’s hard to imagine a school district owning a car for the purpose of kids learning to drive. Think about the lawsuits that would fly when a kid who had been trained to drive by the school got into an accident?

When I think back to when I took driver’s ed in high school my biggest memory is of my driver’s ed teacher; he was a 300 pound Hawaiian who always wore sunglasses. We spent the days in class watching Highway Patrol films of graphic car crashes and then once a week or so we piled into the school’s car to take turns driving. This teacher was kind of a strange guy”¦who wouldn’t be after spending five periods a day in a car with three teenager drivers”¦but he was unbelievably patient

Since I think parents don’t make very good coaches for their kids, if money was no object, I’d hire a professional for the 50 hours of behind the wheel experience that Valerie needs. As it is, I’ll have to go with the typical six hours of professional instruction for her. I’m scouring the internet looking for the Big Kahuna Driving School.

Junior High Anxiety

Sunday, August 17th, 2008

Last Friday, my daughter and I went to her seventh grade orientation at the junior high school. If you’ve ever stood in line waiting to get on the fastest, scariest, and most thrilling ride at an amusement park, then you’ll understand the feeling in the air on that day.

For the new junior high students, there was excitement about being in a much larger school, anticipation about classes and making new friends, and fear about fitting in. I could practically hear the butterflies flapping in the kids’ stomachs as we waited for yearbook pictures to be taken. I’ve got to believe that for most seventh graders, waiting in line to drop 13 stories on Medusa is probably less anxiety producing than trying to get your locker combination to work.

The parents had a look of subdued panic; the day represented the transition from parenting a child to parenting an adolescent. Even though I’ve been through this twice before, it is a little like getting on a roller coaster. The years in elementary school were just the ride to the top of the hill. Now I’m at the crest and I’m about to plunge headlong into the challenges of having a (soon-to-be) teenager in the house ““ whether or not I’m ready for it. Fasten your seatbelts; it could be a bumpy ride.

It was obvious from the very beginning that there were a lot of junior high jitters on Friday because the parents made sure that they got themselves and their child there early. This is also a technique I use when I’m anxious about going someplace. If I know I can easily find a place to park and figure out the system before the crowd arrives, it takes away a lot of the stress.

So when Jennifer and I arrived at the Junior High at 9:02, there was already a long line of parents and new seventh grade students waiting to get into the multi-purpose room for yearbook photos. The principal even commented on how this year’s group of parents had showed up at school very early. I couldn’t help but wonder if the school administration thought this boded well for the year because the parents were really on top of the schedule. Or perhaps they thought meant that it was going to be an especially difficult year because the entering class of seventh graders has a bunch of control freaks for parents.

As we waited in line, it gave me an opportunity to watch the kids and I had the same thought I always have whenever I have contact with junior high age kids, even contact as brief as driving past them on my way to pick-up at the high school, “Is there any age that a person feels less sure of themselves than seventh grade?” By the time they are in eighth grade, and certainly by the time they reach high school, the kids have sorted themselves out into groups. But most seventh graders seem so desperate for attention and approval from each other that I can’t help but feel a painful twinge when I watch their exaggerated interactions. I think you know what I mean, the really loud laughing, shrieking, and the literal pushing and pulling between the boys and the girls.

On Friday, I couldn’t help but notice a group of very slim and stylishly dressed girls flit back and forth across the courtyard giving air kisses and hugs to classmates they hadn’t seen since school ended. They made sure they were acknowledged by the surfer dude boys with the Jonas Brothers haircuts ““ the ones they had identified as not-dorky. I really don’t think these girls felt any more secure than the other 300 students; it’s just that rather than sit back and see if others accepted them, this group of girls was playing offense; they would decide who they accepted as cute.

Watching this kind of drama has made a special place in my heart for the teachers and school staff who work with junior high kids. After having two kids go through this school, I believe that they work very hard to keep the inevitable distractions at school to a minimum. They actually have a very specific dress code (no exposed underwear and tank top straps at least an inch and a half wide) and they do their best to stick with it. If the rules at the junior high feel a little rigid, I don’t mind. It makes it feel like a safe place.

After the yearbook photo, comments from the administration, and purchase of PE clothes, Jennifer finally had a chance to do what she had really come for: turn in her paperwork so she could get her class schedule and find her locker. The administration had done their best to keep all the nervous parents reassured and the students moving through the process but it was a long morning.

It’s the last junior high orientation I’ll ever go to”¦and I’m sort of sad about that. When Jennifer goes to high school orientation, there won’t be a parent in sight”¦but there will be a lot of bra straps showing.

A Swedish Fish Out of Water

Monday, August 11th, 2008

One of the goals we had for this summer was to get Valerie a new desk for her room. To the best of my recollection, we bought the desk she has been using when she was about six-years-old. It’s kind of a wood version of a Little Tikes table. The desk’s small size and matching mini-chair make it very cute to look at but don’t measure up now that she is a high school junior. I sat down at it recently and instantly felt like I was in first grade again.

So where to buy a desk for a ten-foot-by-eleven-foot bedroom that gives my daughter enough space for homework, artwork, and a computer, but isn’t so big that it has to double as a bed? And as she put it, “it also can’t be ugly or expensive.”

After typing in “small glass-top desk” in Google, and scrolling through pages of office furniture, we ended up on the Ikea website. There we found a simple rectangular glass top table with silver legs that was a snug fit for the room but met our other criteria. Yippee! Whip out the credit card and we’re done! Except that we quickly discovered that shipping was going to cost as much as the desk itself.

“Well no problem,” I said to Valerie. “There’s an Ikea store about 45 minutes away from us. I’ve driven past dozens of times but I’ve never been in. And even better, we’ll be driving right past it on the way home from our day of foraging at Nordstrom Rack. Swedish meatballs here we come!”

So on Friday, after our day of shopping in the South Bay, we headed north, inched our way through Raider fans on their way to McAfee Coliseum in Oakland, and got to Ikea well after 7pm. The blue and yellow fortress that is the Ikea store looks big from the freeway, but I was not prepared for the enormity of it close up. We kept joking that it must have its own zip code. Thankfully, “Entrance” was identified in letters about the size of a bus so even novice Ikea shoppers like us could find our way in.

Once we got inside, it was obvious a map was essential if we were ever going to track down the Vika Larssven Ingefisk Table (ok, I’m exaggerating, it’s just that all the items in Ikea have faux Swedish names) we had seen online. We grabbed a map and on the back of it was little schematic drawing of their shopping process ““ kind of like the assembly instructions that come with Happy Meal toys that are supposed to be able to be understood by three-year-olds who can’t read yet but actually they have been simplified so much that they don’t make sense.

The girls and I agreed that we should forget figuring out the map and hope that we could find someone to ask once we start shopping. From the entrance where we were standing, the only way that didn’t lead to a dead end was up the escalator. That took us to the “Showroom” level where there were arrows painted on the concrete path. It wasn’t exactly the Yellow Brick Road but we were pretty sure that we were supposed to follow it.

That’s when I realized that Ikea is the Swedish word for maze. And how thoughtful; they know that we’re not as smart as rats and so they gave us arrows to help us find our way through it. And if we never find your way out? That’s why there’s a restaurant there. We’ll be able to survive on smorbrot and lingonberry jam.

So how do you shop at Ikea? It took the agile brain power of my youngest daughter, Jennifer, to figure it out. The fundamental Ikea concept that I didn’t get is that the entrance is truly only an entrance. Once inside, you follow the arrows until you get spit out in the warehouse and checkout area. It is designed so you don’t see the full scope of the place unless you follow the complete path.

In retrospect, it doesn’t sound like it should have been that hard to figure out. However, just like I wouldn’t recommend a first-time visitor to Disneyland arrive there an hour before closing and try to find their way to the Indiana Jones ride, a newbie Ikea shopper like me probably shouldn’t have attempted an excursion there without an experienced guide ““ especially after an already action-packed day of shopping at Nordstrom Rack.

Did we actually get the desk that we went to Ikea for in the first place? We did indeed find it, and got a nice Ikea employee to load it on a flatbed cart. We were on our way to the self-service check out when we had second thoughts about its size. A phone call to Steve confirmed that it was too big for Valerie’s room. And it’s a good thing because the girls and I never would have been able to hoist 70 pounds of glass tabletop into the back of our car and have it still be in one piece.

At 15 minutes before closing, we broke the Ikea rules by going against the arrows and made a mad dash back up to the second floor showroom. Valerie hastily looked at two desks, said, “I like this one,” and we flew back downstairs to fling it ““ fortunately it only weighed 28 pounds ““ onto a cart. We made a photo finish to the check out line before the clock struck 9:00. Mission accomplished.


Sunday, August 3rd, 2008

As I mentioned in my blog a couple of weeks ago, at the beginning of summer my 16-year-old daughter, Valerie, made a list of places in the Bay Area that she wanted to visit before school starts in August. Most of the destinations on the list are shopping opportunities such as Nordstrom Rack, the bead store, and even the Dump where she wanted to scavenge for a funky shelf that she could repaint and use in her room. However, there was one place on her list of destinations that didn’t involve buying stuff but instead, culture and refinement: the Legion of Honor in San Francisco.

Valerie had gone to the Legion of Honor on a field trip with her English class last year and wanted to visit it again because the setting, the architecture, and the huge works of art there made her feel as if she had been transported to a European city. And with good reason; until I looked it up online, I didn’t realize that the Legion was a three-quarter scale adaptation of the Palais de la Legion d’Honneur in Paris. Quelle surprise!

If you’re lucky enough to go there on a sunny day when the Bay absolutely sparkles and San Francisco looks very charming because it is too far in the distance to know how congested and grubby it is, the Legion is a really spectacular place to visit.

The Legion of Honor offers a beautiful setting, a short drive, and a chance for the artists in my family to take their sketch books and literally draw inspiration from important works of art. Because we’ve opted to not really take a vacation in order keep the cost down, the Legion of Honor sounded like the ideal day-cation for us.

In addition to the museum, our daughters asked if we could put one other stop on our itinerary: since we were going to be in San Francisco, could we possibly make a quick stop at the Asian bookstore in Japantown? “Pretty please?” they said, followed by heavy batting of eyelashes. This bookstore in Japantown is the only place ““ including the internet ““ that sells the little boxes of plastic food imported from Japan that my daughters are crazy about. We had been there two weeks ago, and since then, they’ve been trying to figure out how they could feed their addiction to teeny-tiny food.

Let me pause here, to let you know that this story is not leading up to a punch line where the car breaks down, the museum is closed, we get lost and end up at home exhausted and wondering why we thought a trip into San Francisco was a good idea in the first place.

No, quite the opposite. Actually the day exceeded expectations. Steve knows the back-door and very scenic route to the Legion of Honor that took us past the multi-million dollar homes in the Sea Cliff area of San Francisco, it took us less than 40 minutes to get there, parking was a breeze, and most unbelievable of all, it was free.

The museum was busy but never felt like we were at Disneyland. And until we arrived there, we had forgotten that we had read in the newspaper that the Legion was hosting an exhibition of women impressionists. For someone like me who didn’t progress beyond Art History 101, I oftentimes struggle at a museum to understand what I should appreciate in a particular piece of art. I’m constantly thinking, “What is it I’m supposed to be seeing in this piece that makes it significant?”

However, the artwork of the woman impressionists was so lovely and peaceful that I could enjoy it just because they were such pretty pictures. And because these artists drew from every day life, they are also very easy to relate to. For instance, Mary Cassatt’s “Woman Preparing to Wash Her Sleepy Child,” well, there’s a situation I know something about.

Everyone we encountered at the museum was unusually friendly from the security guy who asked Steve if he could see his sketches and ended up swapping life stories with him to the guard who volunteered to let us out the “emergency only” side door when we mentioned that was the closest exit to our car.

When we left the Legion and made our way on Geary through the Avenues to Japantown, the girls got a kick out of the mishmash of ethnic restaurants that we passed. There was Chinese, Korean, Russian, Irish, Thai, Basque, Israeli, Eritrean (where the heck is that?), Vietnamese, Mexican, Japanese, and of course, American-style diners. And I’m sure we passed a vegetarian restaurant or two.

We ended the day eating sushi at a little restaurant in Japantown and treating the girls to a couple of boxes of miniature food ““ at $3.90 each ““ from the Asian bookstore.

I know we had a darn good day-cation because as Jennifer said on the way home, “I really feel like I went some where.”

Now, if I could only get that annoying Go-Gos song out of my head”¦