Monday, October 29, 2012

Waiting for the Storm

The question now, as I write this on Sunday night, is not if we’ll lose power, but when it will go out. I had intended to write about other things this week, but it’s hard not to think almost exclusively of Sandy and what the next few days, or weeks, will bring.


I went to the store before the weekend and stocked up on water and bread. Anyone who read my post a few weeks ago knows that thanks to Amazon I have plenty of granola bars and batteries. But I woke up at 6am thinking of avocados and boxed milk and felt compelled to hit the grocery store one last time.

The parking lot at Shop Rite was not as empty as I had hoped and the feeling inside was more of an all-nighter than fresh sunrise. One worker I spoke with had red eyes, the result, I imagined, of my catching him at the end of a long shift. The rest of us pushed our carts around in a kind of delirium, looking through picked-over cans of nonperishables and at half-empty aisles of bottled water.

I found my avocados. Perhaps they were not tops on most people’s storm preparation list. But the boxed milk was sold out. So, I headed over to the soy milk area and found some flavored with vanilla.

At the check out, the man in front of me had three small jars of salsa and some pudding. We all have our comfort food, I suppose. The woman behind me had a variety of things but not what she needed most: D batteries. She’d already been to three stores and none were to be found. Only a day before my neighbor told me she’d been to a big box store. Everyone was buying batteries. She didn’t need any but tossed some in her cart, not wanting to be left out. Panic had generated real panic.

When Irene passed last fall, we had no power but the weather that followed was warm and sunny. Neighbors gathered in the street and shared stories about who had flooded and who hadn’t. They forecast we’ll be more homebound this time around. My oldest, inspired by Little House in the Big Woods, wants to do chores by candlelight. The youngest, no doubt, would rather eat PB& J and learn how to play Texas hold ‘em on my husband’s new poker set.

I feel fortunate I am not nine months pregnant right now or in urgent need to get somewhere. School has been canceled for Monday and Tuesday and we’ll see what Wednesday brings. I predict our roof will weather this storm better than our stash of Halloween candy.

I wish everyone well in the days to come.


Monday, October 22, 2012

How the Blank Did I Forget Today is a Half-Day? And Other Musings of Mid-October

A few days ago I pulled into the parking lot of my oldest daughter’s school and could not find a spot. Something was up, I said to myself, and then noticed a crowd of kids and their parents buzzing about the lawn. The kids had built an arcade of sorts, games made out of cardboard and ping pong balls, and everyone was playing and celebrating the accomplishment.




Everyone except me, the one mother in the universe who had forgotten the event was open to parents. Not a big deal, you might say, but it came on the heels of a messier near miss.

Only days before I’d bought ten tulip bulbs, packed them in a brown paper bag along with a spade, and told my husband he needed to accompany our second grader when she planted the bulbs at school. A great tradition, but one aimed at first graders.

It was my seven year old who cleared up the bulb confusion, but as I joined the arcade while others were leaving, I asked myself, “Am I losing my grip on this stuff?”

From what I’ve read on Facebook, I am not alone. It is a mid-October slump. We parents have been so good about getting through the back-to-school schedule of open houses and meetings, and we know holiday madness is around the corner. It makes sense to find ourselves at a low point. At least unlike a professional athlete, we can’t be traded to another team.

“How the F did I forget that today is a ½ day?”

So posted Jenine Lansing a few days ago and boy did it make me feel better. Not the thought of her daughter standing at the bus stop wondering where her mom was, but that someone else could miss the boat on communal information as thoroughly as I could.

My friend in Arizona, Libby Seiter Nelson, faced confusion not with days but with houses, when she engaged in the covert good-deed pranking of “Boo”.

She posted this on Facebook last week: “We just tried to "boo" some friends and I wrote down the right house number but not the right street. Had a sinking feeling we left our treats at the wrong house and by the time we verified it and drove back to try to make a switch, the "wrong" recipients had picked up their treasures. Ooops.”

My frustration with my recent round of “oops” is not that it reveals imperfection, I’ve given up on that, but that it could mean the system I’ve used to try to stay on top of things is not keeping up with the “things”. Does a mistake necessitate some self-compassion or a review of my method for keeping it all together? It can be hard say.

I teetered on the brink of an organization overhaul even before the tulip bulbs when a notice from the public library arrived saying we had six overdue books.

“This is impossible!” I said, looking over the list. “We just checked out three spooky stories about Halloween, we could not still have You Wouldn’t Want to Be a Samurai! I have a system.”

That system, I might mention, was developed after an unfortunate rental of the DVD “Barbie Princess Charm School” one November. It took me more than two weeks to hand deliver that disc to the checkout desk, the drop box not permitted, and that lesson in charm cost about $20 in fines. That was followed by $25 for returning books after a long vacation.

So I’d gotten strict about checkouts. No more DVD’s. No books before holidays. And, never, ever, no matter what, do we check out books if other library books are still in the house, even if they were not yet due.

That last rule was what I put my faith in.

“You, see,” I explained to a library volunteer over the phone, “I couldn’t possibly have You Wouldn’t Want to Be a Ninja Warrior, because I recently checked out The Witches Supermarket.” She said she’d check the shelves, but I never heard back. This was a job I needed to do in person.

“I have a system,” I said, a little less confidently, this time to the librarian on duty. She took pity and pulled up my account. Then she went to the shelves.

And sure enough she found book one. Then the next. And so forth. The Charm School Rules were not only in place but they were working. I had new hope that I’d bounce out of my mid-October slump and rally for the demands of November.

I will sync my calendars. I will read the emails from the class parent. I will remember that I am the class parent. And we’ll take those bulbs and plant them in our own yard. As long as we remember where they are.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Subscribe and Save Me

It all started about a year and a half ago when we ran out of dental floss. 

My husband asked if I could pick up some while I was out with the kids. Sure, I said. I went to Target and remembered to buy sunscreen. I went to Whole Foods and remembered to buy dal burgers. I went to Stop and Shop and remembered to buy paper towels. For two weeks I remembered to buy a lot of things but I never remembered dental floss.

One day my husband sat me down and said he wanted to show me something. It was a feature on Amazon called Subscribe and Save and he’d just signed us up for dental floss. My services in this department were no longer needed.

I mocked him when the shipment arrived. The box contained six packs of dental floss. Were we going into wholesale? We might have been. Soon after came more items from Amazon all sent in large quantities: tooth paste, toilette paper, shaving cream, batteries, light bulbs. If it was nonperishable and we used it on a regular basis, we were subscribed. The genius of the program was that it made everything simpler. How could I argue? 

You want a discount—you got it. You want it delivered—shipping is free! You want someone else to remember when you’re going to run out—that’s why you subscribe! You want to relish in the de facto tax-free nature of Internet shopping—of course!

I considered writing a note to our UPS man. “I am sorry,” it would have begun, “for the recent frenzy of large boxes. In case you are wondering, we are not doing anything illegal. We just needed a six week supply of granola.”

Yes, we’d moved onto food. Granola, granola bars, coffee, tea, instant oatmeal, boxed mac & cheese. We got the same brands we would have bought at other stores but now we had an inventory six weeks deep.

My trips to the supermarket were becoming less frequent. When I did go, I had no need to walk to the far end of the store or get lost in shelves of laundry detergent. “Bring your sweaters kids, we’re only hitting the dairy aisle.” I could linger on the parts of grocery shopping that were more interesting. “Who wants to sample freeze-dried kale?” I could say, instead of scooting by in a hurry.

But I became a true convert when my four year old came to me with her portable music player. It’s the kind that is buffered by a cushion so she could drop it down the steps and it’d still play Laurie Berkner songs. For some reason it no longer worked. “Of course, it needs to new batteries!” I said, diagnosing the problem and realizing a new one. It took four “C” batteries. To a parent, is there a more troublesome battery?

I opened the cabinet. “I don’t know how to say this,” I told my four year old, “but we have four “C” batteries here and I can fix your music player.”

There are downsides to having a healthy inventory. Space, of course, or how you use it, is one such consideration. When we got our semiannual supply of tissues this August, my husband placed them in different rooms around the house. After about a week I realized why they depressed me. “We don’t have the sniffles yet,” I said, taking a box off the dining room table. Gourds I could handle, but a centerpiece of Puffs made me think I was coming down with something.

There’s an environmental impact to all of our consumption and I read a bit about the debate between online and in-person shopping. I am glad Amazon has consolidated our things into one or two large boxes, but know it’d be better if the packages within those boxes were more efficient. Even better, say some on Terrapass would be to bike to a local store and consume less.

Last May, I read a story in The New York Times that signaled the end of an era for our Subscribe and Save heyday. Amazon had already sent me a survey about my usage. Did they want to improve the service, in which case I feared it was not popular enough to keep around, or take options away? In either case, I worried. But the story was about something I hadn’t seen coming.

 “They are building warehouses in New Jersey!” I said, putting my spoon in my bowl of Subscribe and Save cereal and standing up with astonishment.

My husband left his granola and came to my side. “It will be okay,” he said, “we still save 15 percent.”

He was right. And we still had dental floss. The convenience. The “C” batteries. Not standing in line at 5pm to get one box of raisin bran. But warehouses in our state of New Jersey meant we would no longer part of the Amazon tax-free euphoria. Fair enough. Our time had come. Subscribe and Save was about to become something else. Local.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Typing or Automaticity and the Italian Octopus


The manual Royal typewriter in my basement is in pretty good shape although it needs a new ribbon and some dusting off. It had sat in my late grandmother’s garage until last year, unused for the past thirty or possibly fifty years. It was last week that my seven year old took an interest in the typewriter. She pounded the keys, asked me how to load paper, and finally, after mastering the carriage return, turned to me and gasped, “Oh! This is not like a computer.”

Just wait until I show you an old Walkman, I thought.

I was a bridge to the technology of yesteryear.  Not only did I know how to work the old typewriter, I had memories of its not so distant cousins: the snazzy new electric typewriter my brother took to college and the oddly shaped word processor my freshmen year roommate brought with her from New Jersey, a machine I thought only “authors” had, whose black screen glowed with green type.

The one relative constant, generally speaking, and the reason my daughter felt a kinship to the typewriter if not an understanding of its mechanical use, is the QWERTY keyboard.

At school, she’s learning to type on a Mac, with the help of an online program out of England featuring a talking donkey and Italian octopus.

I surveyed a few dozen friends and blog readers and discovered that many of us didn’t learn to type until high school.

We learned on manual or “electric typewriters with blank keys.”  One reader had typing with “a weird little old lady who taught summer school. I kept fainting it was so hot.” Another with a teacher who “had the most monotone voice on the planet.” Some teachers had students take tests blindfolded. One person practiced at home with a tape recording his father made, “…. I sat at the dining room table and practiced on a typewriter while I listened.”

Nobody said learning to type was the most thrilling experience of his or her life, but many said it proved to be vitally important.  (There was one experience that contained some giddiness: the reader who took typing at Princeton High with some senior boys whose band, Blues Traveler, was about to become famous.)

Most respondents 17 to 25 took typing in elementary and middle school. Although they defined themselves as proficient at typing, when asked to describe how they use a keyboard all but a few selected the answer: I use my own method and do not have to look at the keys. Compare this with an almost unanimous  “I use the “home keys” and type without looking at the keys” from those over 30.

I did not survey five year olds. But moving to this age group, it is fair to say many are using computers and iPads at home and at school.  Will the majority have the opportunity to learn how to touch type?

It’s an important question, as Anne Trubek points out in a 2011 post, “Out of Touch with Typing” on MIT’s Technology Review.

“Does it matter how we type? Yes. Touch typing allows us to write without thinking about how we are writing, freeing us to focus on what we are writing, on our ideas. Touch typing is an example of cognitive automaticity, the ability to do things without conscious attention or awareness. Automaticity takes a burden off our working memory, allowing us more space for higher-order thinking. (Other forms of cognitive automaticity include driving a car, riding a bike and reading—you're not sounding out the letters as you scan this post, right?) When we type without looking at the keys, we are multi-tasking, our brains free to focus on ideas without having to waste mental resources trying to find the quotation mark key. We can write at the speed of thought.”

Trubek says some schools are dropping keyboard instruction because they believe kids arrive having already learned to type.  But knowing how to get around a keyboard doesn’t mean touch typing or typing with accuracy and speed.

I spoke with a parent of a sixth grader who said her son exemplified the self-taught typist who’d never had formal instruction at school.  She watched as he labored over typing a report. Finally, she said, she broke down and typed it for him.

She wouldn’t have helped, she told me, “If I didn’t know for a fact that ever other mother was doing the same thing.”

If you have a chance, Anne Trubek’s article and the comments after it on Technology Review is well worth reading. She mentions the “duel” in 1889 from which emerged the winning “home keys” system of typing. And the comments afterward propose fixes to what she calls the sacrifice of cognitive automaticity we’re making with our shifting keyboards and lack of instruction. Some suggest voice recognition; others say revamp the QWERTY keyboard. The roadblock to that? Those among us who spent hundreds of hours learning how to use it. 

Monday, October 1, 2012

Trendy Love


I don’t know if someone you love sends you articles from the newspaper, but when my mom does I usually spend a few minutes deciding which side of the clipping she wanted me to read.

Was it the story about a crackdown on frat parties or a look at different types of cheese? Both topics would be interesting but she’ll only ask me about one the next time we speak.

I was less confused a few weeks ago, however, when I opened her letter and found a glossy page torn from London’s Sunday Times Magazine. The headline read LOVE GAMES—can game theory and the art of strategy favoured by economists, save your marriage? An American Author claims it is the secret to wedded bliss. Shane Watson Investigates.

My marriage did not need to be saved by game theory it was living proof that it can survive its application even when only one party fully understands it.  So with my tenth wedding anniversary a few weeks away receiving the article from my mom had the subtext, “hey, maybe you’re not a fluke,” in the supportive way no greeting card could capture.

The story was about the book, It’s Not You, It’s the Dishes by Paula Szuchman and Jenny Anderson. Watson’s investigation is a positive take on the book’s premise, one that can be partially explained by the book’s original title: Spousonomics.

It’s Game Theory that Watson seizes on saying it “comes into play when two or more people have choices to make, preferences regarding the outcome, and awareness of the other’s choices and preferences.”

She says the authors liken marriage to a business rather than just a romance, and suggest people adopt strategies that keep the best interest of the marriage in mind. Doing so ultimately serves one’s individual interests as well.

I have found that this strategy requires two difficult things: thinking ahead or predicting the outcome of my actions and words and prioritizing a potentially good outcome achievable in the future over an immediate emotional release, i.e. fight.

It’s my husband who has the temperament and training to more naturally apply this type of thinking when I’m staring at an overflowing garbage can and holding a handful of eggshells. I think salmonella; he thinks about how much tension he really wants while eating breakfast together. Solution: he takes out the garbage. You see why I’m a convert.

And I really am.  But other couples probably choose or stumble upon their own unique strategies. So it’s not this marriage trend I am most happy to be a part of but another.

And that is that a lot of folks are celebrating their wedding anniversaries these days. Specifically, those of us in Generation X.

Although her article was about divorce, Susan Gregory Thomas summed up the state of marriage for those born between 1965 and 1980 in her article “The Divorce Generation” in The Wall Street Journal last year.

Divorce rates, which peaked around 1980, are now at their lowest level since 1970. In fact, the often-cited statistic that half of all marriages end in divorce was true only in the 1970s—in other words, our parents' marriages.
Not ours. According to U.S. Census data released this May, 77% of couples who married since 1990 have reached their 10-year anniversaries. We're also marrying later in life, if at all. The average marrying age in 1950 was 23 for men and 20 for women; in 2009, it was 28 for men and 26 for women.”

Is it too early in the marriages of Generation X to tell what this means? Maybe, but the Census Bureau reports that marriages are most vulnerable to divorce in the early years.

So, Happy Anniversary Gen X-ers, whether you are a game theorist or a lover of games. Longevity in marriage may not equal happiness, but let’s hope it can. Because unlike flannel and Jordache, this is a trend we might not regret.