Thursday, April 28, 2016

Zoe vs. 10 Most Effective Responses to Prevent a Child from Telling You About Their Minecraft Game

Today's post will be brief. Zoe's home on spring break, and so I'm short on time and mental resources. What I do have, by the metric ton, are Minecraft updates. My brain is buckling under unintelligible reports from Zoe of her Minecraft adventures: where she's been, what she's building, how many chickens and horses she has trapped, stacked one on top of the other, in horrendous conditions, because she loves them.
I know other parents have dealt with this, the interminable, Look at this, Mommy, or, Watch me build yet another stone hut, Daddy, these essays on Minecraft play that never end.
Sure, you've tried generic polite responses, but the "That's great, honeys" don't get you out of hearing more than anyone should have to about an underground library filled with rosebushes. (How is it a library if there are no books?)
So no more saying "Wow" or "Whoa" or "What a Time to Be Alive" while hoping that will suffice to make your kid go away. You need to be ready with one of the following responses.
The best ones, delivered in just the right tone, will leave your child with the impression that you're encouraging and interested but are also so strange your child will be more than happy to go back to their game rather than engage a mommy who's "being weird again." Because just as you're over Minecraft, she's over your jokes.
So the next time Junior or Princess starts in on how he or she is building a mansion with a roller coaster running through it, have one of these handy:

10 Most Effective Responses 
to Prevent a Child from Telling You About Their Minecraft Game
1. Wow, honey, that sounds like a job for the super delegates.
2. Interesting. I bet the Illuminati had a hand in that. 
3. Minecraft giveth with one hand but taketh away with the other.
4. Did you know "may you live in interesting times" is a curse?
5. I wonder what Peter, Paul, and Mary would've done if they had a Minecraft hammer. 
6. Shh. Did you hear that? I thought I heard a bell. I'm listening for beer o'clock. 
7. You know how Mommy sometimes says she can't even? This is exactly why. 
8. I used to believe Falco and Taco were the same person but then I found out that was just an urban myth. 
9. There's no "i" in team. But there are four in itinerant irritant. 
10. The Lambada is the forbidden dance. 
Full disclosure: none of these have actually worked for me yet, and I'm writing this hiding in a closet, my body covered in flop sweat, but, hey, maybe they'll work for you. If they do, let me know? I'm starved for adult conversation.

Zoe: 133; Universe: 0

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Thursday, April 21, 2016

Zoe vs. The "Urban" Wasteland

April is National Poetry Month. And "April" appears in one of the most famous opening lines from a poem---"The Wasteland" by T. S. Eliot. I thought of titling this post "Zoe vs. T. S. Eliot," continuing my proud tradition of Headlines Least Likely to Grab the Casual Reader. But then I thought, What does a five-year-old girl from Brooklyn have in common with a modernist poet from the twentieth century?
It turns out, one main thing:
Like T. S. Eliot, Zoe eschews rhyme for obscure allusions that are either nonsense or so esoteric that they're beyond understanding.
Secondarily, there have been accusations of anti-Semitism leveled against her.
By me.
So, when I went to the park with Zoe the other day, to prevent my mind from going completely numb, I started rewriting "The Wasteland." Something about a playground in Brooklyn---on a spring day teeming with crowds of riotous children, on a winter night abandoned and empty---seemed rife for lampooning in a parody of "The Wasteland," an epic poem concerning death and destruction and a world devolving into chaos.
The day we were there the park was crowded, and there were some older kids, led by one girl in particular who was ordering the others around. A Zoe from the future. I didn't hear her name, but let's just call her April. . . .

The (Urban) Wasteland
Part I. The Burial of the Mother
April is the cruelest child, leading
other kids through zero-sum games, mixing
frustration and desire, stirring
fresh wounds with old pain.
Mothers gab on benches, covering
forgetful children in hoodies, feeding
toddlers cheddar goldfish.
Connor surprised us, coming backwards down the slide,
with a shower of pee; we stopped a few feet away
And went on in dryness; it was time for the swings.
Then to drink juice, and talk for an hour.
"My eyes shoot laser beams. I'm Queen Elsa. And I'm from outer space."
Remember in winter, the hills in snow
I went down on the biggest sled.
I was scared but said I wasn't. Mom said, Hold on. And down we went.
In the park, where I feel free
After, I'll be tired, but I'll keep Mom up most of the night and go to bed late.

What kind of tree is this? Can I play with this 
dangerous-looking branch? Child of mine,
One, I don't know, and, two, put it down,
you'll knock out your eye. I need some shade,
I burn so easily, and here, I need to put sunscreen on your face.
Hurry up, please, it's time.
Mommy, can I show you something?
Look at the worms under this rock. This one's dead.
Come, look, here's something else equally disgusting
I will show you fear in a handful of whatever a five-year-old can put in her hand.
Garbled speech in another language.
That's not any one I know.
Mommy, what am I? Half Italian and half Irish.
No! I'm not. I'm Spanish!
Bow nas, diaz! Uno! Quatro! Adios, abuela!

Part II. A Game of Hopscotch
I can't sleep tonight. Can you sleep with me?
No, on second thought, I want to sleep in your bed.
Taking up most of it.
Why did Daddy move to my bed?
I had a dream.
We were all in bed together.
You liked it.
What shall we do tomorrow?
How about the day after that? Can I skip school?
Is it time to get up yet?
Hurry up, please, it's time.
Ah, the violet hour, when the child gets everyone up, claiming she's hungry
But refuses to eat breakfast.

Part III. Death by Talking
Gives no quarter, does my daughter
I'd really like a scotch and water.

Part IV. What the Five-Year-Old Said
Who is this other grandpa you keep referring to?
Last I checked, there were only two I know of.
There he is, mother, he lives in that tree. And in that house.
And some other place I went to when I was two.
You weren't there. (Seems unlikely.)
There is always another grandpa walking beside us.
Only I can see him. He's very small.
Is he standing next to you right now?
Nothing again nothing.
What is that noise you're making now?
What infernal lamentation?
I looked at it, it's just a tiny cut. And, I told you, I don't have any Band-aids.
Who are those hordes in hoodies swarming
Over endless playground equipment, riding scooters over cracked rubber mats
Ringed by baseball diamonds and porta-johns?
What is the land across the river?
Staten Island, then New Jersey. Further north is Manhattan.
Where my grandpa lives
She says without smiling.

The girl hands me her ponytail holder, hair loose and tangled
Is that a twig in her hair?
Then spoke the five-year-old.
What had I promised? Dammit.
Three episodes of Paw Patrol before bed?
Damn. Dammit. Blood surges through my heart.
The awful price of a moment's surrender
Which an age of vigilance can never retract.
By TV, and TV only, we have existed
Which is not to be found in our Facebook updates
Or on Twitter heralded by an insidious bird
Or on Tumblr, or Instagram.
Or our abandoned MySpace profiles.

I have heard the incessant whining.
Is it possible to say no once and once only?
She thinks of Band-aids, each a negligible boo-boo
Thinking of the Band-aids, each confirms a bloody gaping wound.
Hurry up, please, it's time.

I sat upon the bench
Ignored. Phone in hand, children screaming around me.
Shall I at least write my grocery list? Dare I buy her a peach?
She's not going to eat it, I just know.

Child, we are going home, going home, going home.

Let's go home to Daddy.
"Dada. Dadyata. Daddy Daddy Fofaddy." (She's gone mad again.)
"Shantih shantih shama lama ding dong."
What does that mean? I ask.
"The peace which passeth understanding. Geez, Mommy,
I thought you studied this stuff in school."

Zoe: 132; Universe: 0

 For more of Zoe's hijinks, follow me on Facebook and on Twitter at @zoevsuniverse
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Thursday, April 14, 2016

Zoe vs. the Deep Funny

On Saturday I checked something off my personal bucket list, an item I'd placed there over a decade ago, and one I wasn't sure would ever get checked off, not for want of any action I could take.
On Saturday I went to see a play.

More than ten years before, when I had the idea that I was going to be a playwright, I used to go to this reading series/open mic night in the city on Tuesday evenings. The series was for writers who needed scenes work-shopped; we would put our names in a hat, and if chosen, we'd pick from among the actors present to perform our scenes.
I know it was more than ten years ago because my father was still alive at the time, and he died ten years ago. Anyway, I did this on Tuesday nights for about a year or so, was never picked, and at some point stopped going.
One night, however, the playwright Kenneth Lonergan (This Is Our Youth; You Can Count on Me) showed up. There was no question we'd all yield the stage to whatever he needed work-shopped, which turned out to be a scene about a successful country music singer who returns to the town where he grew up following his mother's death and decides he wants to renounce his high-rolling life and work at the local feed store instead.
In the scene, the singer tells his brother his plan, and his brother is, to put it mildly, incredulous.
At the surface level, the lines themselves were hilarious, but the humanity beneath, the wrongheaded ways we sometimes attempt to live but fail, made it deeply funny. 
All present that night---actors, writers, and directors; amateurs and professionals---felt we were in the presence of Art. This was so much more than the overwrought dialogue and small humor the rest of us had been trying to elevate. Lonergan's deeply funny scene turned a light on for me. This was what I wanted to do.
My previous relationship to comedy . . .
It started with my father, who was a fan of W. C. Fields, Woody Allen, and Rodney Dangerfield. Perhaps as result I was enamored of the lovable loser type. I never understood why the comedian wasn't the hero, why he never "got the girl."
I loved situation comedy, parodies, and farce. I always had a joke or sarcastic comment ready to fly. My dad called me a smart aleck as a kid. Eventually I graduated to smart ass.
I fell in love with writing and decided I'd be the next Erma Bombeck with a side of Anka Radakovich (look em up, kids!). 
Fast-forward twenty years and I'd finished my MFA in creative writing, having written a slew of short stories and one comedic play. I didn't do much with any of it until fifteen years ago when a close friend died suddenly. She was one of the funniest people I'd ever met and we used to joke about writing a comedy screenplay together.
When a contemporary dies, I suppose, like many people, I felt I had a responsibility to somehow make up for the future that had been denied her. So I started getting more serious about my writing, sending stories out to literary magazines and submitting my play. Eventually I got some stories published and my play was performed off-off-off-no-keep-going-Broadway, by which I mean Tulsa, Oklahoma. 
Over the years it also had several staged readings and won a contest or two. One of the directors I met said something that has stayed with me. He said that comedy doesn't get the same respect as tragedy even though he felt comedy was harder to do well, because comedy is what happens when you get to the other side of tragedy.
I always thought my father would one day see my play but then he died, ten years ago this past Sunday.
On Saturday I went to see Kenneth Lonergan's play, finally finished. Over ten years had passed since that Tuesday night when he'd work-shopped the scene from what would eventually become Hold on to Me Darling.
That scene was still there, with a lot of the same lines. My reaction was different, being older, but it was still deeply funny, in the way that had struck me years before. It ended with a poignant scene where the country singer meets the father who'd abandoned him as a child and finally understands both the limits and expanse of love, as well as fatherly pride. Overall the play was funny in its sadness, deeply human.
Deep funny is the funny I've felt many times since Zoe was born. It's what touches me when she's suffering from some mundane disappointment, and it's human nature, especially for a child, to give in to it. But I try to catch her before she gives herself over to whatever tragedy has befallen---the iPad has no charge; I won't let her take her tricycle to the park in the snow---and I'll shoot her a look, one of the ones in my arsenal---they have names: "comical surprise," "shrewd discernment," "mock horror"---and despite herself she starts to laugh instead of cry. It's a narrow passage between the two, after all.
It doesn't always work, but it works enough times to keep trying.

Zoe: 131; Universe: 0

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Thursday, March 24, 2016

Zoe vs. 1980's Video Games

Zoe has disappeared, years earlier than I thought she would, behind a screen. Playing video games. If it's not the iPad, it's her Kindle Fire, and if both are being charged, she either plants herself near the outlet so she can keep playing or asks to borrow my phone, repository of her first game.
It started innocently. We had a long wait one day so I downloaded a face-painting app to my phone for her to play. It was a simple game. Swipe paint on a little cartoon face then swipe it off, accompanied by such mellow music it made Bob Ross from The Joy of Painting seem like Dennis Hopper from Apocalypse Now.
But soon enough she graduated to more complicated games, games of dueling dragons and building houses and dressing up cute fluffy animals. Occasionally she'll ask me how to do something in one of these games but I can't figure it out either.
Games were so much less complicated in the eighties, that golden era of my youth. Pac-Man did not have to hire anyone to grow his power pellets and floating fruit. Frogger just wanted to get across the street without getting squashed. Simpler times.
So let's compare the video games of the eighties to what the kids are playing today.

Though I never thought of myself as much of a girly-girl, it's true that I gravitated toward the "cuter" games, like Tapper and Dig Dug, Pac-Man and Popeye. But today's cute is at a whole new level.
Big-eyed kittens and puppies. Wearing bows and tiaras. And lots of pink. It's a frolicking, cooing, toothache-inducing nightmare.
As Voltaire said, Cute is the enemy of good digestion.
Zoe has several of these aggressively adorable games. For instance, Palace Pets. The Palace Pets are the animal companions of the Disney princesses, and they live in Whisker Haven, an utterly nauseating place, where you can pamper Cinderella's puppy, Pumpkin, or Snow White's pony, Sweetie, with petting, baths, and playing dress up.  Within limits. Some accessories are only available for an added fee. 
Because as certain as death and taxes is downloading a game app for free but then being assaulted by pop-up ads or roadblocks requiring an additional 99 cents to unlock Whisker Haven's spa center or acquire a new ribbon for Coco Pony's tail. Dig Dug never even got a pimped-out air pump.
Games haven't just increased in the degree of cuteness but also may be even more addicting.
As Taco Ockerse said, Brain suction is the enemy of bath time.
It's a fight every night to get her to put the iPad down. Just one more marketplace to set up, one more library to build. I tell her if she can't put the game down when I ask, she can't play with it ever again. Threats are the only things that work.
I worry that playing all day is stunting her interpersonal skills. Though she does talk to her games. For instance, I'll hear, "No one can find me in my secret tunnel." "Give me your gold, my dear monster." "All the worlds are mine."
There are online games she can play with other people but we're not letting her do that. Even so, online play is a far cry from playing Pong on Atari while sipping Frescas in your best friend's basement rec room.
Do all these technological advances make for smarter players? I hope she's learning something. (Besides how to outwit the parental controls.)
But did we learn anything from Pong? I don't know. I suppose it taught hand-eye coordination. It almost certainly taught us meditation techniques. And how to bear up under ennui.
Zoe's games of building sustainable worlds are certainly interesting. First, there's all the crop growing. So I suppose Zoe's learning patience as she must wait several game cycles for her plants to grow so her cow can eat and so produce milk for her farmers so they can clear more land for farming. Delayed gratification was certainly not a feature of Space Invaders or Galaga.
A lot of her games require planning and strategy.
Or not.
One day, as I watched her play her Minecraft game, Zoe placed a fire too close to her apothecary, and as it started to burn down, she whimsically added more fires. Soon the conflagration was out of control and the apothecary was no more. I hope she learned something about the danger of fire from that---or perhaps how to work an insurance scam?---but, in any case, she rebuilt and moved on, and there's a lesson there.

Speaking of brain suction, this is a picture of me Zoe drew.
In my left hand is my phone. It also looks like a cheese grater.
Either interpretation is fair.

All the fighting and violence are also more realistic now than what we had in the eighties. One of my favorites was Popeye, and, as Jeff Spicoli said, Popeye is the enemy of Brutus. The object of the game was that Popeye had to catch the hearts Olive Oyl threw and then eat some spinach and knock out Brutus before Brutus could do the same to him.
And let's not forget Punch-Out!! This game was in every arcade in the eighties. Your boxer against the game's. Your ears ringing with the announcer's "Body Blow" and "Uppercut" till you hopefully KO'd Glass Joe.
In contrast, today my five-year-old's breeding hybrids of dragons and mutant gorillas for her monster fight club. She's got to feed them (more farms!), create habitats, a hatching and breeding center, and maintain a whole ecosystem.
I'd like to think today's games are at least teaching Zoe the value of money, what with the "gold" in the games and the fact that she's often blocked from reaching the next level for want of Mommy's credit card number, but I don't think so. She often insists pop-ups---covered in dollar signs, by the way---are offering freebies. It's not exactly subtle.
Every day I check my email with trepidation, expecting to see subject headers that say "Thank you for your order." I do get those emails, and usually they indicate new characters she unlocked "for free" through actual game play. "Treasure has joined her friends in Whisker Haven" (which sounds ominous, as if Treasure's shucked off her adorable mortal coil).
But in the larger two-player game of Mommy vs. Zoe, I know Zoe will eventually wear me down, and when one day I see she's purchased fifty bucks worth of gems for Dragon Island, I expect I'll have no reaction except to wonder if it's for the new hatchery, because I've heard the fire dragons Coatlicue and Peanut are expecting.
Full disclosure: As kids, when my sister and I went to the arcade we assumed an endless supply of quarters in Dad's pockets, and if by chance he ran out, we'd steer him toward that magical machine by the entrance, and explain: If you put twenties in this, it will give us quarters. At which point he'd hand us one final dollar, probably the most wrinkled one he had, and go looking for a bar.
That's when we learned a valuable lesson in perseverance, as we rubbed that dollar over and over on our jeans to smooth it out and kept feeding it into the slot until we finally hit pay dirt.
When I was about ten years old, I also started getting an allowance from doing chores in order to buy games and music. Presently Zoe "earns" upgrades through game play. Which is good and bad. After all, my dishes don't wash themselves.
Then again, I don't really mind washing dishes. It's meditative. Just like Pong.

Zoe: 130;  Universe: 0

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Thursday, March 17, 2016

Zoe vs. Worry

Motherhood and worry. They go together like peanut butter and jelly. Like three-year-olds and casual farting. Like Kim Kardashian and naked selfies.
Even before I became a mother, I was a champion worrier. My childhood was one long episode of the "what-ifs."
What if I never learned to tie my shoes? (I did.) To read? (I did.) Make friends? (Ditto.)
As I got older, the what-ifs have ranged from the normal: What if I choose the wrong career? What if I never meet my soul mate?
To the ridiculous: What if while I'm walking down the street my scarf gets snagged by a passing car and I'm dragged to my death?
To the sublimely ridiculous: What if I never get to go to Australia to hug a koala? What if I do go to Australia, but the hugging koala rejects me? And then bad-mouths me to all his koala friends so they won't hug me either?
Pop quiz, hotshot: Can you guess what female blogger whose blog you're currently reading has a history of migraines and stomachaches? Spoiler alert: Me!

The root of worry is fear and lack of control. And anyone who knows me knows, first of all, I'm terrible at covering my roots, but, more to the point, I'm a control freak and a perfectionist.
I'm an older mom, and part of why we waited so long was I wanted everything to be perfect in our life before bringing a child into it. When I reached my late thirties and perfection was still a no-show, the what-ifs hit me from the other side. What if we'd waited so long to have a child we couldn't anymore?
Then, after I did get pregnant, I spent eight months worried I'd done irrevocable damage to my baby's genetic makeup by drinking too much---and taking my prescription migraine meds to recover from the aforementioned drinking too much---during that first month before I realized I was pregnant.
Next came the worries over money, moving apartments, birth defects---unpreventable as well as those caused by carcinogenic household products, exposure to interstellar radiation, and soft cheese. Followed, inevitably, by the actual birth itself, where I used the time between contractions to brood over whether the baby should go to the college that offers her a full scholarship or if she should go into debt by attending an Ivy League school instead.
"Aren't you getting ahead of yourself?" my husband asked.
"Yes, you're right," I said. "I mean, what if she isn't as school smart as I'm assuming she'll be? I must revise the spreadsheet!"
After Zoe was born, I doubled down on worry by worrying whether Zoe would be a worrier, and from the signs, I would say that's a big yep.
As an infant, she soothed herself to sleep by punching herself in the head. As she got older she graduated from the punching to less violent hair-twirling. She still does the latter, but now she also bites her nails and picks at her cuticles till they bleed. Finally, for the piece de resistance, she grinds her teeth in her sleep.
I try not to fret over her fretting but, on the other hand, I was born for this.
Just as Zoe was born to teach me a lesson about what I can and cannot control---something all parents learn the first time they bear stoic witness to a string of consecutive diaper blowouts. But also because every fall, every cold and fever, every trip to the park or to a birthday party, things happen, good things and bad things, few within my control, and yet, for the most part, everything has this tendency to turn out fine. Maybe not perfect, but fine.
Besides, perfect is overrated. Perfect is sitting still in a white room hermetically sealed so that nothing can get in. No rain. But also no sunshine.
And (cliche alert!) sunshine's worth the rain.
As long as you apply the proper SPF. Let's not get crazy.

Which button turns this thing off?

Of course, I will always be a worrier. My main concern, now that Zoe's five, is how an anxious antisocial person like myself can best support her child as she starts to make her own friends. And so, even though the last thing I want to do is attend her school events, I force myself to go anyway.
Within reason.
For instance, I thought we'd skip last Friday's Trivia Night. But when I picked her up from the aftercare she insisted she wanted to go.
I said, "What if you don't know the answers to the questions? You might get upset."
Zoe said, "But you'll be on my team and you know the answers."*
I said, "What if I don't know them either?"
"Mommy," she said then, "you worry too much."
So I guess I don't need to worry after all. She's already smarter than I am. . . .
. . . .Though upon further reflection, that's worrisome too.

Zoe: 129; Universe: 0
*There were a lot of questions at Trivia Night that I didn't know the answers to, questions regarding kids' shows and Minecraft. But then they asked us to name either two of the characters or two of the actresses who starred in The Golden Girls, and I blew that one out of the water.

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