Monthly Archives: April 2015

The biggest light show

The Johannesburg Planetarium is a place that for me will always be tied to school outings. I must have been taken there on school field trips a half a dozen times over the years. All of my visits there have been blended into my memory as a single fluid kaleidoscope of adventure inside a dome, under the stars.

It was always cold, for some reason we always went there in winter. That may have a been as a result of the city offering discounted or free visits for winter school groups. For me, it added to the charm of the place and wearing gloves and jerseys made the shows that much more exciting. There was always a little downside to those visits though in the form of the dreaded questionnaire you were given before you left the school. Pages and pages of asinine questions about the trip you were about to go on, including everything from when the structure was built to how that particular Zeiss projecter came to find its home in a leafy suburb of Johannesburg. 

The padded reclining chairs were always really cold and when you arrived, you immediately scampered about to find the perfect seat. Once you’d staked your claim, your first job was to warm the seat up so that your buttocks were at a comfortable temperature when the show started. There was always a buzz in the dome as chattering of excited teeth mingled with laughter and horseplay. Then suddenly the lights would fade and everything would be plunged into an inky blackness as a booming voice circled the room and millions of stars literally exploded into existence across the ‘night sky’. As the show progressed, the pages of questions you were ment to fill in, often found their way onto the floor and more often than not, stayed there.

Of course it looks much smaller today than it seemed to me then. It was a cavernous place, in reality though, not such a big building, even less so inside than out. But that phenomenon is true of everything we remember from our childhood, isn’t it? A single bed for instance was big enough for you to roll over twice in before falling off and it was twice as long as it needed to be for your short legs. The top shelf of your cupboard held mysterious clothes in it that you could never see and the garage was a big, drafty room where the car slept and where, right at the back in the dark, the stuff that nightmares are made from hid. Every house has that one place, right?

So, we took our boys to the planetarium for the first time today. The visit was inspired by the perpetual load shedding being implemented around the country at the moment, which has resulted in the fairly regular evening practice of shining torches with star field templates onto the ceiling of the little dudes room at bedtime. A scaled-down planetarium if you will, affectionately referred to in our home as a ‘light show’.

We got an early start and took the boys on a whistle stop tour of the museum adjacent to the Planetarium while we waited for the show to start. The dinosaur exhibit was closed which really meant the museum was not exactly as exciting as it might have been. The minutes ticked away and eventually we made our way down to the Planetarium which itself was oddly only accessible via a nondescript, single entrance doorway. Once I inside we picked a row of seats and then tried to get comfortable. A note to parents of small children; when visiting the Planetarium, take a dumbbell with you to weigh down the chair. Your children are not bulky enough to recline the seats all the way back on their own.

The lights dimmed and I watched my eldest, sitting next to me, get drawn into the sweet little story about a Dragon that wanted to know everything about the night sky. We learned about the solar system. About night and day. About gravity and the orbits of the planets around our sun, ‘Sol’. And ultimately being left with the message that whatever time of day it was, one could look up at the sky and always see at least one star (weather permitting). The little guy was also quite impressed by the show, but his attention span is not quite as long as a piece of spaghetti and as such, he was less inclined to stay in his seat as the show progressed, eventually bowing out of the event ten minutes before the end with his mom. The show wrapped up with the Dragon conceding ‘he needed a few more lessons about the night sky before he could call himself an expert’.

When the lights came back on and the patrons, including a troop of Cub Scouts, began to shuffle out of the dome, I found myself making a mental note to write about the day so that my boys one day might read this post and perhaps recall their first visit to the Planetarium with Mom and Dad.

I hope they remember it was huge…

  


The blocking thing

I thought I’d prattle on a little today about what appears to be, on the surface at least, a rather odd phenomenon in our cyberculture; the practice of blocking people. Let us consider for a moment what it means to block someone on a social media site.

On Facebook, it means that the person you’ve blocked can no longer see you or anything that you do. You will simply disappear from their reality as if you’ve been swallowed whole by the universe. From time to time, they may see you appear as the nameless, faceless, Facebook head because a comment made by you has been shared by a friend you have in common, or because you’ve stumbled upon a message trail you once had with them, but that’s about it. Similar kinds of things happen on Twitter. There, you are un-clickable, un-discoverable and un-tweetable but tantalizingly still visible to them in tweets made by other people referencing your handle.

It is, as far as I can see, a really odd thing to want to do to someone though. You effectively put that person in a caste lower than a complete stranger who is not your friend and can’t see anything you post anyway. In point of fact, Charles Manson could see more about you on Facebook than someone you’ve blocked can and that’s assuming he’s not already your friend. Let’s face it, what else does Manson have to do all day except send out friend requests to potential ‘Manson Family’ members.

My question here is this is; is it really necessary to block someone? Wouldn’t simply unfriending them be enough? Just turn them back into a perfect stranger like the billion or so other Facebook users out there? Perhaps not. You see that way, you might still have to face them at some point online and eventually some thorny questions could be asked or inferred in a public space. Imagine crickets chirping while your avatar and theirs stare at each other, loudly, across the gulf of cyberspace in complete, uncomfortable silence. It would be like an entire puberty of awkwardness rolled into a single excruciating moment. One can actually imagine rather being in a proctologist’s office watching them make ready for your exam, with gloves and lubrication.

On the plus side, I imagine there are support groups popping up online that help people deal with the rejection or abandonment issues they now face as a result of being blocked. So, there are some silver linings. And I suppose I can see the attraction here. Blocking is a far cleaner process than unfriending. It’s like the difference between a wipe with a wet wipe and a wipe with toilet paper. Parents will know exactly what I mean.

Actually, once you get on board with blocking, it’s easy to want to take it to another level. I think we need a way to replicate this behaviour in real life. Imagine if we were able to carve people out of our real lives as easily as clicking Block This User. Wouldn’t that be the best thing since Nutella? I can think of a couple of relationships I’d like to do that with…

The tax man and I, for instance, would immediately cease to have anything to do with one another. Even my tweets would flutter past him carrying my money in their beaks as a I became a complete non entity in his eyes. How much did I earn last year? Um, blocked. What investments do I have? Please stare at my blank avatar while you wait for that information until the end of all things.

Another group of people up for immediate blocking would be any and all traffic police. Seriously, was there ever a group of people more richly deserving of being blocked by every road user on the planet than this lot? Imagine coasting past a traffic camera at a speed just a smidgen faster than the posted speed limit. Just, just, just fast enough to set off the camera which would then snap a picture of a ghost. Perhaps even a ghost extending an ethereal and semi-transparent middle finger. Not to say that I would do that.

Finally, I think I speak for everyone when I say that we would all block Barney. Not just from our daily lives but entirely from this and every other universe, from our collective memory, past and present. I’d like to do this for no other reason than when that song gets into my head, it’s stuck there for days like an earwig.

Yes, we should block him, spitroast him, eat him, dump him and wipe with a wet wipe when we’re done.

  


The short teeth

The expression, long in the tooth is oftentimes used to denote someone of advancing years. When you get older it’s really quite easy to see why. Your teeth do get longer. Climbing out of your gums like some sort of Jack and the Beanstalk sprout heading for the clouds. In reality though, your gums simply recede as you get older. This gives your teeth, white as they may be, a distinct horsey appearance. Hence, long in the tooth.

This sort of thing goes on throughout your life where, as a teenager, the hem of your pants streak further and further away from your ankles each time you put them on. Sometimes it’s because your mother washed them in hot water, but most of the time it’s because you’ve cleaned out the pantry during a growth spurt.

Later still, the button on the front of your pants will steadily move horizontally away from the hole, two or three times a year and never go back the other way. This is a real mystery. No one seems to know what causes it. Ditto for the button on your shirt collar. If this starts happening to you, immediately find a job that doesn’t require shirts with collars as part of the dress code (and at the same time encourages sweat pants) or you’ll forever be sucking the hind teet in this space.

Another good example of this phenomenon is the slow and steady departure of your hairline from the shores of your eyebrows. Your brows are left waving goodbye to the ship that was your hair as it leaves on a journey, never to return. Insert reference to the end of the Lord of the Rings: The return of the King, where the elves head for the exit over here.

Children go through these changes with varying levels of buy-in. Some changes they will embrace, like getting tall enough to reach the light switch or indeed the door handle. They’ll test this sort of thing every single day and over a matter of weeks you’ll see their attempts begin to yield fruit and you’ll find yourself closing and opening doors ad nauseam. Ditto for light switches.

Other things they’ll reject outright, like changing from a toddler toothpaste (0 to 3 years) to a child’s toothpaste (5 years and over). Which brings me to the point of this post.

We have to now convince our little guys to move to the next level of toothpaste. The toddler stuff is all good and well and you can simply gulp it down when you’re done brushing with no annoying rinsing and spitting required at the end. It also tastes great, I know because I’ve used it several times when we’ve run out of the adult stuff. The obvious upside is that it has fewer chemicals in it, but the glaring downside is also that it has fewer chemicals in it. As such, it isn’t really up to the task of cleaning children’s teeth properly, especially given that at this age they do get tucked into a lot more sugary things than they did as toddlers.

So now the shiny, white, short little teeth in the mouths of my boys are at risk of developing cavities. No amount of coaxing and bribing seems to be able to convince them to take a leap and try the age appropriate brand of toothpaste. Even my wife merging the two varieties onto the toothbrush didn’t help – a stroke of genius I thought. And really, it’s not as if we can bribe them with chocolate, which by the way is how we end up getting through most of the objectionable events they boys have to go through in our house, like eating vegetables or cleaning up toys.

To compound the issue further, we can’t simply say, Brush your teeth properly with the big boy toothpaste or you will need to got to the dentist. All that will do is put a negative slant on a visit to the dentist and that really is the last thing anyone wants. Insert screaming child into dentist chair over here.

So, a conundrum to be sure. We might have to start brushing their teeth with a fluoride toothpaste while they sleep. My wife always says I need to think positively and see solutions, not problems, in all situations. So with that in mind, I am convinced that midnight tooth brushing will solve our problems.

Can’t see any downside to it at all really.

  


The piece of string

Have you heard the phrase ‘How long is a piece of string?’

Well the commonly held answer is that it is as long as it needs to be obviously, depending on the context it’s used in. We use it when we’re unsure how to answer open ended questions like how far do you have to run before your feet to get sore? Or how much Nutella can you eat before you feel ill? Or indeed how long can your child hold a number one or two before you reach the safety of the nearest rest room.

I just discovered another context for its use.

The aha moment started like this; I got home from work this evening to find my boys pitted against each other in a race to see who could get dressed in their pajamas first before they went to visit their grand parents up the road. They’d just finished their bath and my eldest looked sparkly and rosy cheeked as he was dressing himself in the lounge while my youngest was employing the services of his mother to help him dress in his room. Apparently the help that his mother provides balances out exactly the two year age gap between the boys.

As an aside, children absolutely love competitions. They’ll compete to see who can pick the biggest booger out of a nostril or who can gobble down their food the fastest (indigestion aside) or who can burp/fart the loudest or indeed burp/fart the most often. Literally anything can become a race against the clock. And test your gag reflex. 

When I walked in, I got a quick overview of what the competition was from the big guy as he was climbing into his striped pajama top. In a moment he was done and with a ruffled head of hair he darted to the room where his brother was being gift wrapped to declare victory – only to find that his brother was also ready. So it was a tied race, it was an amazing coincidence, they were both winners, everyone was happy. Or so it seemed.

At this pont I simply assumed the piece of string was at its maximum length, that is to say that the race was in fact over. So I suggested that the big guy take his slippers off and put socks on before he left the house to go visiting, being that the evenings are getting a little cooler now that winter is on its way.

And immediately, there was a problem.

The big guy lost his personality completely and began to chastise me for making him lose the race. There were of course tears and piteous little proclamations of how unfair it all was, complete with stamping of feet and running of snot over stuck out lip. I tried to backtrack and explain that the race had in fact been over when I suggested he put socks on – but it all fell on indignant, deaf little ears. There was simply no un-popping the cork. It all went pear-shaped after that and if I’m honest, I could probably have handled things a little better than I did. Things like stop crying and this is silly could easily have been replaced with why don’t we have another race?

Anyway, fifteen minutes and one very grumpy child later a number of things, that should actually have been completely obvious to me from the start, dawned on me:

  1. one needs to declare in detail what the conditions of the competition or race are and
  2. one needs to explicitly declare what constitutes a win or marks the end of said competition or race and
  3. arguably more importantly, this needs to be done upfront and
  4. of equal importance, the contestants must both understand and agree to points one, two and three above and
  5. ideally there should be a ceremony of some kind celebrating the end of the completion or race and
  6. then and only then – will the race be over

In short, you decide how long the piece of string is before you ask any questions about how long the piece of string is. Otherwise you may find yourself on the receiving end of the ire of a child.

 

  


The extra terrestrials

As winter slowly drifts towards the tip of Africa, I see the morning habits of my boys begin to change a little here and there. It is now commonplace, for instance, for them to ask for their little ‘blankies’ to be wrapped securely around them before they’ll go have breakfast. As they teeter around with the blankets draped over their heads, a little unsteady on their feet because they’re still half asleep, I watch them and marvel at how much they remind me of the quintessential children’s fantasy movie when I was growing up – E.T.

I’m particularly reminded of the scenes in the movie where the alien, waddling around on his stumpy legs, is cloaked in a blanket that makes him look, for all the world, like a child. I find it fitting that I, the biggest sci-fi fan that I know, now have two children that, at breakfast time, take me back more than thirty years to when I was a child and my favourite movie was a about a little alien that just wanted to go home.

The boys make their way down the passage, bumping off the walls like some sort of slow motion pinball parody and waddle a little awkwardly down the stairs into the kitchen whereupon they wait for me to pick them up onto their stools at our kitchen island. But my work doesn’t end there, I still need to help settle them into the chair with the blankies and make sure that the corners are sufficiently tucked in under them and that there are no gaps.

Then the real challenge starts

Eating porridge and having both arms cocooned inside the blanket at the same time is no mean feat. My youngest steadfastly believes it’s possible to do both. Also, there’s a spillage factor that comes into play when you try to feed yourself porridge while wrapped up like a burrito. Spillage usually results in a protest, one that requires immediate attention to resolve. The little guy often won’t carry on with anything else if there’s a blob of breakfast on him anywhere.

Oddly, it’s really only in the mornings that he is sensitive to mess, later in the day he really doesn’t care. I have a suspicion that he’s puppeteerring me in the mornings just to see how well his marionette follows instructions. A somewhat worrying thing if I’m honest. I’m not at all sure who’s going to be in charge between the two of us in the years to come.

Breakfast is usually dispensed with in about ten or fifteen minutes, unless of course we’re running late that morning, then it can take up to three quarters of an hour. Children have an uncanny ability to dilate, at will, the amount of time it takes to perform a routine task. They also manage to do this, without fail, when you are under time pressure. At these times, one begins to feel like a rabbit tied to a tortoise in a race where you have to cross the finish line together.

In a word, impatient.

No amount of coaxing, jumping up and down or flapping of arms will speed things up. The energy you expend here will be exactly what it is you require to get you from two to five pm that day at work.

Then, their spiderman and Lightning McQueen blankets in tow, they’ll make their way from breakfast to their rooms to start their day. This usually involves a little play with a favourite Lego creation or car or something of that ilk. Again, hovering impatiently around them to get moving only serves to move air around the room, nothing more.

I have a theory on this, which may explain what is going on. When we’re young, time has no meaning. So we’re often detached from the reality of how long something takes. A content child can stretch a moment out to an infinity and this is a problem (for those around them). When they’re expecting something like a birthday, Christmas, Easter, an outing, food etc. or are listless then a moment can stretch out to an infinity for them and this is a problem (for them).

So when you eventually grow up and have children of your own, you begin to learn the one lesson that your parents tried to teach you while you were growing up…

Patience.

  


The big race

My eldest boy and I recently spent an afternoon playing with his scale electric set. There were a few stumbling blocks to overcome first though, most notably the fact that the thing didn’t work.

That is not at all surprising though given that the set has been, for a considerable length of time, subject to the heavy handed attentions of my youngest boy who is car besotted and not exactly gentle on flimsy toys made in ‘the east’ intended for children twice his age. I had on occasion witnessed him driving the delicate little cars over obstacles like shoes, fireman helmets and the cat. All of which subtracted from the longevity of the toy.

The first stumbling block was the fact that the plugs that connect the controls and the power supply to the track had all been snapped off in situ. A notty problem to say the least. To resolve it, there was a tweezer operation followed by the splicing of wires, the installation of copper pins harvested from other toys and my trusty magic toolbox and the use of electrical tape and chewing gum mashed together to get power restored to the track and controls. I felt a little like MacGyver at the end if I’m honest.

The cars themselves had also seen better days but we managed to breathe new life into them too, though the red car I think is very nearly beyond its sell by date.

The track itself had several dead pieces which were, I can only assume, as a direct result of toddler drool. You know the kind I mean, where your child is so transfixed on something they’re playing with that they simply can’t keep their mouths closed and prevent drool from collecting in and tumbling from said mouth. The stuff looks a little like a mountaineers safety line anchored at the lip and touching the ground in a long strand, fastening itself at various points on its journey downwards against the toddlers shirt. Yes, some of that stuff was definitely a part of the problem and the rusty pieces of track were quarantined.

Finally though, we are ready to race and immediately there was a problem.

As slight as my boy is, he has a particularly heavy thumb. The car on the track in his lane was now operating at two polar opposite speeds; light speed and dead still immediately following a crash. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for traveling fast, but not at the expense of actually going somewhere. In a perfect world we would have had unlimited track (ala James May) and then we could definitely have used his age appropriate racing style. But on the carpet in his room with a small track cobbled together with perseverance, we needed a little restraint around the corners (all four of them).

Our race became a seemingly endless cycle of fixing the brushes under the car, placing the car on the track, watching it lurch forward and then immediately exit dramatically through the plastic barriers I had attached to each of the track corners to finally end up roof down on the carpet amid squeals of joy.

Repeat.

My boy was beaming. He was so happy he lit up the room and was falling over and doing joyful belly rolls when the crashes were particularly energetic. His enthusiasm was contagious and I found myself completely caught up in it. Eventually though, practicality won out and I put both cars on the same track and handed him the master control. The maximum speed of a single car on the track was now halved across the two slipstreaming cars and together they raced, gratefully, around the track attached front bumper to back with no accidents over a fifty thousand lap marathon. My boy was very well impressed with the newfound handling capabilities of the tandem cars and didn’t seem to miss the speed and calamity of our earlier races at all.

Then, as with anything else, his interest in the toy waned over time to nothing. I was eventually left staring at a track where one car was towing the other to nowhere and my boy was flicking through the children’s programs on the television.

As I left the room I heard the toy let out an audible sigh of relief.

 


The hidden treasures

I have countless memories growing up where I would hide from my parents in places I thought were pretty imaginative, like in my bed or in my cupboard. This was mostly in the mornings before school.

Obvious, I hear you say, but I was really clever about it. When in the bed, I’d dishevel the covers just enough to hide myself and when in the cupboard, I’d close the door. In both cases I’d remain perfectly still and silent. Sometimes I’d spend what felt like ages there because I would rely on the fact that at some point, someone would come looking for me to see how far along I was at getting ready. Somehow though, I was always found. I couldn’t account for it at the time but looking back now I realise I might not have chosen the best hiding places or indeed, might not have camouflaged myself as well as I thought in those hiding places.

History repeats itself.

We find ourselves having to ‘look’ for my eldest boy most mornings before school. His hiding place of choice is under the queen size bed covers on our bed. He’s quite a tall boy for his age and I see now what the problem was when I was younger, bed covers simply don’t camouflage people sufficiently, no matter how diminutive they are. You’d need double the amount to make it even remotely effective. Plus, he laughs the entire time, so there is a bit of an audio giveaway there too.

When we grab his foot or poke at him and say “I see you there…go get dressed”, he erupts out of hiding with a loud flourish and uncontrollable giggles and demands to know how we could possibly have known he was there. This is where we whip out the special parent superpowers card and tell him we’re able to see through walls and hear mouse farts in the garden so we always know what it is that they’re doing.

The same sort of scenario plays itself out we get home from work except he usually includes his younger brother in on the tomfoolery. They amost always pick the same hiding place too, in the laundry cupboard under the stairs. Here they manage to remain silent enough so that we can usually only hear them when we walk past. But much like those key rings that whistle back to you when you’re looking for them, all one has to do to ‘discover’ their location is play along a little with questions like, “I wonder where the boys are, has anyone seen them?”

Then the keys will immediately begin to respond back in giggles and thumps in the cupboard and, when you open the doors and act surprised to find them, there is honest to goodness, no breathing involved, belly laughter. Once the jig is up, they shut themselves back into the cupboard and natter conspiratorially to each other.

As an aside, sometimes there will be maps. Our eldest loves maps and will doodle a complex arrangement of objects on a page with an ‘X’ somewhere at the drop of a hat. I’ll usually be tactful when identifying objects on the map because it’s really quite easy to confuse a child’s idea of a rock with a child’s idea of a chubby rabbit with almost no feet and ears. One should begin with the obvious stuff first, like asking if you’re holding the map the right way up and then pointing in general areas and asking them to explain what they’ve drawn. Volunteer to identify objects by name, without asking, at your own peril. You will be schooled.

If I’m honest, I must say that it is tempting sometimes to go about our duties in the house and get admin done while they hide away from us, but the bounty for finding them is such a treat that we very rarely leave them in the cupboard for more than a minute or so before we play along.

Ok, so on occasion they spend some extended time in there while we watch our TV in bed and hide from them under the covers, but it’s not like they’ve been left in a hot car outside a casino with no open windows. They can find their way out and it’s usually no longer than a day.