Halloween eight years ago marked one of my better costumes. Adam had spent all day in the basement putting together a robot costume for our then three year old eldest son. It had light up LEDs on the chestplate and wiggly arms. Grey wept bitter tears because he couldn’t put his arms down. (Oops.) He wore the prior year’s costume.
But my costume at that Halloween party with friends was an accessory. Specifically, a pumpkin I was carrying in my arms. The day Adam had been making Grey’s costume, I came home from the hospital with my wee Thane. He was a sweet child from the very start. He was little – just over six pounds. He had dark hair and dark eyes. And extremely large feet. He pretty much immediately stopped being little (he’s lurked between 70th – 90th percentiles for height), and dropped his dark brown hair for blond curls.
He still has gigantic feet. 8 years old – size four.
Thane has been a joy to parent. He’s joyful, loving, sweet and cuddly. My favorite part of the day is when I get to snuggle him to wake him up the morning. I’m really enjoying this year with him, because while he’s independent and capable he still has some of the sweet innocence of childhood to him (if you ignore the poop jokes).
My youngest has a personality that has two settings: calm focus and exuberant bouncing. He’s a kid who can’t walk because he’s skipping, jumping, hopping or dragging his feet because he’s soooooo tired. But when he sits to focus, he has an incredible ability to zero in on one thing and focus for hours – usually singing to himself while he plays. He also has a long history of being obsessed with one thing: puzzles, dinosaurs, Scooby-Doo (that one lasted literally years). His hyper focus is more spread out now. Current favorite things include Pokemon (he’s my Pokemon Go buddy) and a return to Legos.
This year was a breakout year for Thane with math. He showed early promise with his ability to do spacial reasoning problems (like puzzles). But first grade gave him enough of a math vocabulary to start tackling bigger problems. His mental arithmetic is about as fast as mine for the addition, subtraction and multiplication. (OK, he’s actually faster than me on some multiplication.) Division he can do, but has to think about it harder. He went to the Winchester branch of the Russian School of Math for the end of the year and a summer program, and in his first set of homework worked out the Fibonacci sequence (which I’m not sure I was *ever* actually taught). After the summer program he didn’t want to do it anymore because it wasn’t fun. I was disappointed but sympathetic. Forcing him to do it doesn’t seem like the right way to encourage him to love the subject, but I’m hoping that he finds his way back to pushing his knowledge of the subject.
Sunday, he wrapped up his fall soccer season. I’ve just started realizing that both boys have been playing for years – even if neither one has ever fallen in love with the sport. Thane was a major contributor on his team – especially as a defender who will challenge for and take away the ball. He has improved massively on the “randomly falling down” metric. He doesn’t love activity and exercising, but he’s done well by it.
Thane is a cheerful, resilient kid. He seems to not even feel pain. Sometimes it’s easy to forget that his joyfulness covers a very thoughtful mind and kind heart. He’s not a quiet kid by any stretch, but he’s undemanding in many ways. But don’t underestimate his strength, wisdom or insight.
Tonight Adam and I snuck in a run in the very last of the after-work light. About a mile in, my phone rang with an unknown number. It rang again. Then I saw a text. “Mom?” It said. I answered on the third ring. “Mom,” said a no-nonsense voice on the other end. “What oil do I use to grease a cake pan? Is it olive oil? I’m making you a cake for your birthday because I feel bad we didn’t do it earlier.”
I explained the wonders of Pam to him.
Half a mile later, I got a Google video call. “Mom” with the camera pointed to the mixer, “How do I hook up the beater to the mixer?”
When we got home, the batter was mixed (ok – he did use the bread hook instead of the beater). He followed the recipe from the Betty Crocker cookbook. All by himself. “I’m sorry for the mess. I am still learning how to do all this.” The best birthday gift a mom could ask for cools on the stove.
Tonight marks the last night when my son can answer the question “how old are you” with only his fingers. Of course, being a pre-teen, he’d be highly unlikely to answer that question using his fingers anyway. For us, this milestone birthday finds us starting Middle School. There’s homework (lots of it, and hard). There are after school clubs (Ultimate Frisbee and drama are his top two choices – with a conflict that means he can’t do extra band practice). There’s the independence that comes when your primary mode of transportation is your own two feet, and you’re on your own recognizance to get between all the places you go in a day. (I recently bought him a backpack cover, because he’s expected to walk in all weathers.) There is the beginning of making choices that are different than the ones your parents would make for you (see also: Ultimate Frisbee instead of band). We are entering a new stage of life together.
Grey is still incredibly fun to be a family with. He has a cunning wit, and keen sense of humor and wordplay. He reads comic books over and over compulsively (just like I did – he stole all of mine). He prefers realistic fiction in his reading materials, and is becoming entranced by manga. (I got a giant box of manga for him for his birthday. We might not see much of him this week.) Like so many boys of his generation his favorite things have screens on them (to my dismay). He loves watching these obnoxious Youtube videos, and playing those freemium games that are the bane of the internet. His birthday party includes a very small collection of friends – just enough to match the number of simultaneous Xbox players.
When forced to be away from his computer, Grey loves to be with people. He loves role playing games, both as a player at his father’s table and as a GM with his peers. There are wide-ranging neighborhood adventures, and a pack of children who move around together. He plays soccer (and is vastly improved), although he doesn’t love it. He’s a great lover of variety, in food and entertainment. Grey is a sucker for the cozy. He’s at his happiest curled up over the heating vent in PJs eating sunflower seeds (there are seeds EVERYWHERE in this house), listening to Simon and Garfunkel’s “Kathy’s Song” and reading a comic book while the rain falls outside. Grey adores things that are cute. Like cats. He loves cats. And little kids. He’s really good with the younger set, which is a good thing because as one of the oldest kids in the set, there are lots of little kids.
Of course, Grey’s not perfect. But over the decade plus I’ve known him, I’ve watched his faults diminish and his gifts flourish. I can only hope that trend continues unabated through (gulp) puberty and beyond.
I always get nostalgic around fall. If you search my archives, you’ll see many fall related posts. (Only about half of which reference Tolkien and how I wish I’d been born on the 22nd instead of the 23rd. I digress.) And these last few fall days have been glorious ones indeed. We went to King Richard’s Faire. The first of the drought-strained leaves are beginning to fall. After a squishy, humid summer the air is beginning to have a crisper bite to it.
But that’s not the season to which I refer.
For the last, um, seven or so years of my life, 8 am and 6 pm have found me at the old box factory between Gould and Pleasant Streets – the location of the Stoneham YMCA Child Care center. Daycare, then preschool, then summer camp, followed by afterschool. This awesome center has been a huge part of my life for years and years. They’ve always taken great care of my kids, and have loved them, even when they were perhaps not incredibly lovable. (See also: Thane at 4.) They took my kids to swimming lesson. They figured out a way to work in ski lessons (which was amazing). They got the kids outside every nice day, running off excess energy. I’ve always known my kids were safe and well taken care of.
But Grey is on the verge of aging out. He certainly doesn’t need the super high levels of supervision and rigor that the Y provides. And suddenly this year, the “pack” of kids has shifted from the Y to the very nice but much less hands-on other alternative in town. The kids really want to go where their friends go. And the fact that the other after school program is much less expensive is also nice.* So…. I finally worked out all the logistics to switch the kids. (Which, just putting out there, was not a simple thing to figure out.)
Grey is in middle school this year. He’s signed up for some afterschool clubs (Ultimate Frisbee & Drama – two clubs he’s excellently well suited for). He is beginning to own his own schedule after school. He walks to the afterschool, and walks home from the afterschool if he chooses to. This seems both natural and right, and absolutely astonishing.
It feels like there should be a ceremony. You should have to bake a cake for all the people who watched your children for so long. You should have to write a letter saying how much it’s meant to you. You should have another graduation, or something. It doesn’t quite seem right that one day they got on the bus like they have practically their whole life… and the next day they don’t. But there it is. I have expressed my extreme gratitude to the Y for their awesomeness. But it doesn’t seem quite enough.
I’ll miss the Y a ton. But I’m proud of the fine young men my sons are turning into!
*Being ambiguous for security reasons. If you want to know more about it, feel free to send me a message.
So. You might have heard about this “Pokémon” thing sweeping the world. It’s called Pokémon GO, and it’s an augmented reality game. Chances are good you already have an opinion about it – whether it’s “That’s so stupid, why would anyone waste their time on something like that?” or “I don’t understand these technology things” or possibly “GOOOO TEAM MYSTIC!”
I was a late adopter to the game. It came out on Wednesday, July 6. I didn’t install it until Friday, July 8.
That week was a grim week during a grim month. Coup attempt in Turkey. Bombings in the Middle East. Police shootings – on both sides of the gun – here at home. My Facebook page was full of heartache that week: both mine and others. And there came a point where I just started feeling numb and overwhelmed. My coping mechanisms just weren’t up for the drumbeat of sorrow this summer has brought.
And into that week came an augmented reality game built around walking through your community catching the Pokémon living among us. Is it any surprise that it overtook Twitter for active monthly users in the first week? That Friday, I stepped out into the long, late evening walking hand in hand with my sweet youngest son (whom I’ve dubbed the walking Pokédex). In this, I was the learner, and he the teacher. “That’s a flying type Pokémon.” “Oh, that’s a good one mom. Eevees can evolve into many different types!” We walked and walked through the weekend (I got a crick in my neck). And we weren’t alone. There were teenage boys as you would expect. But there were teenage girls, too. There were some older folks, walking in the identifiably Pokémon tempo, stopping to catch those Pidgies. And there were other parents like me, walking with children like mine. In fact, I’ve met at least three other parents of my sons’ classmates, out with their kids, while I was walking with mine.
I’ve had some great conversations. There was the big brother there with his three siblings. He was a young, black 20 something guy. I wouldn’t have known how to start that conversation in June. In July, I could just ask which team he was on, and get to know him. There was the epic, over-powered teenager who works two jobs and spends all the rest of his time walking around taking down gyms. I’ve offered tips to grandparents who are slightly embarrassed to be caught in pursuit of an Oddish. And I’ve become both conversant and interested in something my sons are passionate about. And I’ve done all this outside, in the soft summer evenings, walking for hours.
This isn’t my first augmented reality game. I played Ingress, the predecessor to this game. (Fun fact: all the Pokéstops and gyms were previously Ingress portals, but not every Ingress portal became a stop). I really enjoyed that game too, where you would battle between two teams to take control of portals and connect them. But everything that made that game less fun… well, the Niantic team should be incredibly proud. They really learned from their first experience, and blew it out of the water with this new game. (Of course, using one of video gaming’s most valuable franchises probably didn’t hurt.)
So, what is Pokémon GO, and what would you need to do if you wanted to play it?
Pokémon GO requires a relatively modern cellphone with both GPS and data coverage. While you can play a little with only wireless, it would be a frustrating and limiting experience. It did use a bit more data than my standard use, but much less than (say) streaming music. You can download it from either the Google or iTunes App Stores.
When you turn it on, you start by customizing your avatar (the digital representation of you) and picking a user name. Other users will see this name and picture when you do cool things, like defending gyms with your Pokémon.
Then you’ll get a chance to practice catching your first Pokémon. This took me a bit of time to figure out, but you basically fling the ball at the Pokémon with your finger. (No need to throw your phone or anything!!) Your first Pokémon you get infinite balls. After you catch your first, you get a bunch of gear. But every time you throw a Pokéball, you have used one of your collection.
So how do you get more gear? That’s what Pokéstops are for. Inside the game, you’ll see a map. That map represents where you actually are in the real world. (That’s why they call it augmented reality.) The Pokéstops look like lollipops scattered across a flat world. They’re most likely to be found in areas with interesting public art or attractions – like town squares or tourist locations. You get gear from a Pokéstop by clicking on it so it takes your whole screen, then spinning it sideways. The stop will “drop” gear. (You don’t have to click on each piece, you can just close the stop and it will all be added to your gear.)
In addition to Pokéstops, you may see multilayered, colored things (more rare the Pokéstops), with cool characters on top of them. Once you hit level five, you can start interacting with these gyms. At level 5, the first time you go to a gym you’ll be asked to pick a trainer. This is where you pick your team. There are three: Blue is Team Mystic, Yellow is Team Instinct, and Red is Team Valor. (You may soon start seeing people wearing clothes with weird logos – each team also has a logo! Adam just brought me home a Team Mystic t-shirt from Gencon…) You can’t really change your team after selection. Blue is the most common, Yellow the most rare.
With gyms, it depends on whether the gym is your gym, or an enemy gym. If it’s your color gym, you can train one Pokémon from your deck against the gym. It can be really hard to make it through more than one or two! But if you defeat your friendly Pokémon, you get XP (which helps you level up) and the gym gets stronger.
With an enemy gym, you pick a team of six Pokémon to fight. There’s some strategy here. For example, fire type Pokémon (like Magmar or Flareon) are vulnerable to water type Pokémon (like Gyarados or Vaporeon). It’s ok if you don’t know that at first – you’ll have a suggested set of Pokémon which are usually a pretty good choice. But it can be fun to argue with your kids about which order of Pokémon to attack with. The strength of the Pokémon are called “CP” (combat power). The higher, the better they are at attacking! They also have hit points, which indicates how much damage they can take before they faint. Pokémon who faint can be revived with the clearly named “revive” medicine. Wounded Pokémon can be healed with potions.
The last important bit is the eggs. Eggs hatch cool, powerful Pokémon. But you can only hatch eggs by putting them in your incubator (click on the egg to do that) and then walking. Eggs can be 2km, 5km or 10km. You only make progress on them if you move at a speed of under 10 miles an hour while you have the app open – so I mostly work on hatching them when I’m out and actively playing.
There’s quite a bit more in the finer points… how to attract wild Pokémon, how to encourage Pokémon to stay captured once you’ve thrown your Pokéball at them, etc. But the game is designed to teach you by playing – and to encourage you to share tips with the players you meet along the way.
No game can cure the ills of the world. It is just a game. But when I’m outside, walking with my son and meeting people in my community… I’m not fixed on the sorrows of the world. I can enjoy the things that are funny and silly and light, and remember that the world contains much more than sorrow.
PS – if you can’t figure something out on your Pokémon GO game, I’m happy to help!
I remember when Grey was about three months old. He’d just started smiling. I looked over his fuzzy head to my husband and said, “I wish I could just freeze him at this age. He’s just perfect.” I wished it again at a year, and at three years (each time thinking I’d been foolish the last time – he’d clearly only improved). Granted, there were a few times in the life of each boy I haven’t wished to freeze them in place (see also: Thane at 4, Grey at 6), but so far I’ve really enjoyed my sons.
This last week or so was a particularly great time to be their mom.
On Friday, I installed Pokemon Go. I mean, everyone ELSE in the office was playing, and I’d really enjoyed Ingress. It’s, um, a touch addictive, so I happened to mention to the boys. Which explains why I spent hours this week, walking around my town with my youngest son, consulting my living breathing encyclopedia of all knowledge Pokemon related. (Seriously, these kids are amazing. They can rattle of the evolution paths, types, relative rarity and stats on like hundreds of different Pokemon. This may seem like arcane information until they’re out of their minds excited because you caught an Eevee, which can evolve into any type!)
Thane and I walked along the waters of Spot Pond for two hours today, trying to catch water type Pokemon. We stood in the twilight, and listened to the wolves in Stone Zoo howl to the waning crescent moon, while catching yet another Ratatta.
Thane will have considerable time this next two weeks to display his astonishing expertise to me. This afternoon, on a cold and drizzly day, I dropped my eldest son off at Camp Wilmot, with four other good friends by his side. It was a very gray day, and a very long ride in the car. About an hour in, he said, “Mom, I appreciate you doing so much driving. I appreciate everything you do for me. Thank you.” Awwwww. I think he’s actually gotten more affectionate as he’s gotten older, and better sees what it is that his parents do for him. I’m going to miss his good company over the next two weeks, very much.
Even though he was more than ready for me to go, and invited me to depart _several_ times before I actually went. There’s loving your mom, and not wanting to look too much like you love your mom at dropoff time.
I’m under strict instructions to write regularly, and to send a care package with his father’s bread in it.
You can see pictures from our 4th of July Camping Trip, and this Camp Wilmot dropoff! Enjoy!
For the eight year in a row, as Memorial Day has come around, we turned the car northward to New Hampshire to go camping. I marvel every year that Thane has done this literally every year of his entire life.
Usually, the kids play on their screens on the car rides while we’re camping. Well, and in the mornings while mommy sleeps in. (Let’s talk about things I’m really, really bad at: mornings.) As their screen tastes have trended less towards DS games and more towards top 10 Youtube lists, Vines and those gawdawful addictive freemium games, the whining about the fact there’s no wifi in camping has ramped up a notch. In fact, I’ve been increasingly unimpressed with what they use their screenful time for. At least video games are problem solving. Watching other people play video games? Mmmmm…. And those freemium games are just click click click “Mom can I buy some gems with my allowance?” (Ugh. No.)
My children like to read, but it’s not their first choice activity. Their first choice activity is screen time. They only read when they don’t get to do screens. I wrestle with this. I love reading. Adam loves reading. The kids apparently read voraciously at school. But they don’t lose themselves in their rooms for hours working their way through novels. This makes me sad. I really don’t think watching other people play video games is as rich an experience as, say, reading Lord of the Rings was for me. (Which I read when I was Grey’s age.)
After a particularly whiny session in which the kids argued about who got which iPad and complained about the lack of wifi, I told the kids I was thinking about a screen free camping trip (I heretofore unheard of concept). And then we decided to do it. Better yet, our camp site was out of cell coverage, so Adam and I also put away our screens. And we all spent four days doing other things.
I prepared for this by making sure everyone had lots of books. A heavy stock-up trip to The Book Oasis was the bulk of the material, with a top-up trip to White Birch Books mid-trip. We also stopped at Toys-R-Us with an amount that the kids were to spend on toys that didn’t require screens. Thane got a Lego set. Grey got a Nerf Gun. Adam got a Nerf Gun with which to pelt Grey. I got a mocha at Starbucks.
I also prepared myself for the massive amounts of whining I expected. “I’m bored!” “There’s nothing to do!” “I hate this – I wish I had screens.” I practiced my lines in the mirror “Being bored builds character.” “Go read a book.” “If you don’t have anything to do, the dishes need doing.” “How can you be bored when you have this beautiful camp site to play at?”
You know what? I hardly needed those lines at all. Grey spent then weekend nose-deep in The Mysterious Benedict Society which is on the Stoneham Fifth Grade Reading List (which in an awesome small town moment was sent to me by the owner of the Book Oasis). I read it after him, and I have to admit it’s a very enjoyable read.
Thane dove into Tashi. I keep overestimating Thane’s reading level, and it’s been hard to find just the right books for him since he finished The Magic Treehouse series. He tried a few others, and did a great job of keeping count of the words he didn’t know to identify his just right reading level. But he loved Tashi, and I loved the fact that when he’s reading, he can hardly hear you talk.
In addition to time spent reading, we did a bunch of fun adventures. We did a great ropes course that Thane is now just tall enough to fully participate in. (I am also tall enough, but between my knee and my lack of upper body strength, I had less fun than the boys did.) The boys rode their bikes around the campground. We rented innertubes and as the mercury cracked 97 degrees we floated our way down the Saco, splashing together and really enjoying each other’s company. And yes, we did the rope swing pictured in the link above, but I didn’t bring a camera since I don’t (yet) have a waterproof one. We hiked to the top of a granite cliff (the course of the biggest screen free meltdown as Grey opined that we were completely wasting a day by hiking). The boys biked around the campground, and built a fort in the boulders behind us.
It was idyllic. I feel like the children grew a lot even in so brief a time.
Of course, now I’m caught on the horns of a dilemma. I never want to bring screens again – this was perfect. But I also don’t want to punish the kids for their great behavior. And they do see screen free time as a penury. So now I have to figure out how to talk them into doing it again for the 4th of July!
This weekend felt like the first time in WEEKS we’ve all been together. (I know it’s not true. It feels true.) I went to Seattle, then I went to California for nine long days. Then I went to Madrid. Then Adam went to Seattle. The busy times are tailing off, but not over. We have another weekend of apartness coming up. I have a customer coming onsite (which is very time consuming, if not as bad as traveling). But the light at the end of the tunnel is growing.
Big news this weekend came from the Russian Math department. Thane has shown a great passion for math, over several months. He LOVES to get a new concept and will go on at length about how much he loves math. The other day he calculated a fraction faster than either Unka Matt or I could. But he’s not so much into doing worksheets at school of the various concepts… so how to support him? It turns out there’s an advanced school about five miles from our house. (Maybe less.) I took Thane in for an evaluation on Thursday. The principal was very impressed with his acuity, and welcomed him into the advanced class with no prior tutoring needed. She’d like to see him in the competition team this summer, which sounds super fun, except for now I’m afraid that I’m becoming “that parent”. I just want to be the “that parent” who supports their child’s interests, not the one who demands genius ahead of joy. So we’ll give that a shot for a few weeks, and then decide about the summer.
Saturday was just lazy and lovely. It started with the annual neighbor egg hunt. (The moms had stuffed the eggs the night before.) The kids crawled all over the hill and the grownups clutched our coffee. Grey has grown two inches this year. (I last measured him on his birthday.) I watched the “big boys” (ten year olds), mine with the white and blue-checked Easter basket I bought him when he was born, and wondered how many years we have left of Easter Egg hunts. I tried to enjoy it extra, just in case.
In the afternoon, we went for a leisurely hike around the Winchester reservoir. I brought the foraging book with me for the first attempt of the year. It’s still very early for even the early early spring stuff. I thought I might see some wild garlic or ramps. We saw neither on our trip, but we did find a huge patch of wintergreen. We’d seen something earlier that I THOUGHT was wintergreen, but it didn’t have the identifying minty smell so we passed it by. My caution was vindicated because it wasn’t wintergreen, this stuff was! We carefully harvested a very small amount of a very large patch. Of course, I hate mint and it sounds like the most useful thing to do with wintergreen is infuse alcohol so… well… it was fun to gather. I have it soaking in water to see if we can make a weak sort of infusion. If I’d gathered more I could’ve made a jelly, but I didn’t.
The Easter celebrations in our church were good ones. We are still a little raw from loss, I think. This was our third pastor in as many Easters. But there were pancakes and music and children and cries of Alleluia! We had a superb dinner with friends afterwards, which was oh so good in both food and company. I learned a lot about Danish wedding customs!
How was your weekend? Did you enjoy the pascal celebrations?
I have pictures of the weekend which you can see here! If you’re particularly strong of stomach, I recommend the video of Grey reciting his “poem” with the classic refrain “I shall not pee. I shall not pee.”