27 April 2009

spring break part 2

This turned out to be the most successful school vacation we've ever had. I wrote about the first part of the week a few days ago, but the last few days of vacation were even more fun.

We spent a morning at the fun library, one that has lots of toys and computer games as well as a big playground outside, but which is a lot further from our house so a trip there is something of a special occasion. James used his own library card for the first time in months, and I was pretty sure one kid wouldn't be able to read the massive pile of Pokemon books he checked out, but he's proving me wrong already.

We spent an afternoon mini-golfing with friends. James had a good time hanging out with some of our adult friends who he looks up to, and I got to spend a little time with a friend visiting from out of town. I think Evan managed to avoid any full-blown tantrums, although he came close a few times. He spent most of his time sulking, pouting, and not playing, but then told me a couple of days later that putt-putt was so! much! fun!

Saturday was totally gorgeous, so we went for a hike, then to the beach for some ice cream. I stole these photos from my friend Leslye who was smart enough to remember to bring her camera and its memory card, unlike a certain scatterbrained blogger.

It was still a bit cold for the beach, but it was nice to be out in the sun and the breeze, sunburns notwithstanding.

I think this is the first vacation we've had where I was actually a little sad to see James go back to school. Not that I don't love spending time with him, but having an extra kid at home for five extra days is usually not much of a vacation for a stay-at-home parent -- just more work. But my kids are old enough and helpful enough now that we can all enjoy ourselves. This is making me hopeful for summer vacation!


23 April 2009


Hayao Miyazaki is one of my favorite filmmakers. He makes beautiful, rich animated Japanese children's movies, but I'd watch them even if I didn't have kids, they're so wonderful. One of my favorites of his films is Nausicaa, the story of a young princess who is a warrior, pilot, pacifist, environmentalist heroine. The futuristic world she lives in is one where a toxic jungle flourishes, and enormous insects roam the earth, and Nausicaa attempts to bring harmony between people and their surroundings while trying to prevent a war in her peaceful valley. It's one of my favorite movies of all time (and one of Evan's favorites too).

A few years ago I loaned our DVD to a friend of mine to share with her children, as an alternative to the standard princess movies made in the US. She returned it after a week or two, and told me she thought it was okay, but she thought the environmental messages felt like propaganda and that really bothered her. I always thought the messages were obvious but not over-the-top -- they fit in with the context of the story and the passion of the main character. I wouldn't call them propaganda at all. (Bear in mind that I'm a dirty tree-hugger, though.)

But it occurred to me today that that's how I feel about most mainstream children's movies: propaganda, of the gendered variety. Most kids' movies completely reinforce traditional gender roles, and the narrative of Boy Saves Girl and Boys Have Adventures and Girls Want Romance. And most people, I think, don't question this at all.

Example: My kids and I recently watched Madagascar 2. Not the worst kids' movie I've ever seen -- it was mostly entertaining, not too gross or inappropriate, not objectionable in most ways. Even funny at times, and I don't usually find kids' movies very funny. (Those penguins, though! And the chimps!)

Of the four main characters in the Madagascar movies, there are three males and one female (That ratio is my first problem). The three male characters' storylines involved 1) a zebra's quest for individuality, 2) a lion's quest to prove himself to his father, and 3) a giraffe's quest to become a witch doctor. The female character's storyline? Dating. That's it. It's true that in the end (spoilers!) the female hippo ends up with the male giraffe after he confesses his love and attempts to sacrifice himself to save the other animals, so there is a male with a romance storyline -- but the romance is only a part of his storyline, whereas with the female hippo, it's basically all she gets.

There are so many children's movies where the only female characters function as love interests for the males without really contributing anything of substance to the plot, and it really is starting to seem like propaganda to me. Cultural propaganda that serves to convince little girls (and boys) that girls are there for decoration, ornaments, instead of being actual people who can solve problems and rescue people.

Luckily in the age of the internet it's pretty easy to find films that don't conform to this mold, and there are the occasional big-studio children's films that don't either -- the Pixar movies are generally pretty good about gender, and the recent film Coraline was completely wonderful (as is the book it's based on). And we're currently watching on DVD a television series that's the best kids' media I've ever seen in terms of gender stereotypes and roles (which I'm planning to write about in its own post once we're through the whole series).

It's hard to avoid the propaganda altogether, but I feel like my eyes have been opened to a new way of contradicting those messages now that I've identified them as a form of propaganda.


22 April 2009

spring break

James has his spring break from school this week, and seeing as we have no spare time or money for a real vacation, we are having what trendy people refer to as a "stay-cation" which, if I understand correctly, is a stupid name for staying home and doing special things on a small scale. In the spirit of staycation, I have made my children pancakes on a weekday morning (unheard of!), I let them stay up late watching nature shows, and we took a visit to the children's museum.

I've posted bits and pieces about our children's museum before, but it really is an amazing place. We spent almost six hours there yesterday and Evan did not have a single tantrum, or even any whining, that's how magical it is. No whining! I wish that could have lasted forever.

The last time we were there, winter break, the place was insanely crowded and I nearly lost each of the children at least once in those fast-paced, waist-high crowds. It was completely overwhelming, for me anyway. The kids still loved it. This time I prepared myself for the worst, and gave the kids a strict lecture in the car on the way there about the importance of staying close together and never leaving my sight unless they want to live in their bedroom until college. All of which was totally unnecessary, because for no reason I can think of, the place was practically empty. I think the kids were even more well-behaved with fewer other children there. I still can't get over how good they were.

Some of yesterday's highlights include the carousel:

Evan is scared of the carousel horses that actually move, so he rode a miniature stationary horse who he named Fluffy.

There's a pretend TV studio at the museum, where James gave us the world news:

And then Evan filmed James' new cooking show:

And of course, the Lego table, where the boys spent at least an hour constructing various things, because they obviously don't spend enough time doing that at home.

In honor of Earth Day, the museum had some Earth-related events going on. We watched a play called Basura (Spanish for garbage) starring a woman whose overacting reminded me of Shirley Temple, and a puppet made out of trash. Together they taught us all about recycling, and even sang a recycling song to the tune of John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt, leaving us with that charming melody embedded in our brains for the rest of the day.

After the show we were invited to make our very own trash projects. And this is where I lost my patience. I'm fine with plays and songs, even those that indoctrinate my children (if the indoctrination is of a type I agree with, of course), as long as my kids are enjoying themselves. And I am a big advocate of recycling and reusing anything and everything we can. But I can not get behind the idea of reusing old materials to create extra junk that's going to sit around my house. That's not reusing anything, that's just reconfiguring the garbage and moving it from the recycling bins into my kids' bedroom.

Naturally my kids were on board with the plan to use someone else's garbage to clutter up our house, and I do have to admit that they came up with some pretty interesting little creatures, as much as I dislike the whole concept of the thing.

James made Big Mouth:

And Evan made Froglet:

Very creative, and almost cute, for something made out of garbage, but honestly I'm just wondering how soon I can smuggle these creatures into the actual trash and recycling bins.

Still, despite that little quibble, the museum was a really fun way to spend a day of vacation -- so fun I wish we had time to go again this week -- and I'm hoping the rest of the week will be as easy as yesterday was.


17 April 2009

friday photos: corbett's glen edition

We recently learned about a local park we'd never been to or even heard of. It's called Corbett's Glen and it's a really unusual little park, full of hills and trails, with a stream running through it, bounded on one side by a railroad track (I think three trains came by in the couple of hours we were there) and almost completely surrounded by the suburbs, to the point that you're occasionally walking alongside people's backyards. There are even a couple of houses entirely within the glen. It has a lot of interesting features, and while we were there last weekend I managed to take a lot of photos.

One of the coolest things about the glen is that one of the entrances to the park takes you through a stone tunnel, under the railroad bridge and beside the stream:

And there's a little waterfall on the other side of the tunnel:

If you ask James and Evan, one of the best possible things to do in this park, or any park really, is to throw rocks in the water.

We found a strange vine structure, which will probably be even cooler looking once we get some green around here:

We climbed a huge hill overlooking the stream. For a city that's so flat, it was surprising to find a large, steep hill perched over the water:

There's some pretty cool terrain in the middle of the park. The path takes you along a sharp dip between two hills:

And there's a long section of the path that splits between the ground, and a long narrow ridge that rises maybe six to eight feet or so above the path:

It's not fully spring yet -- things were still mostly brown -- but we did see some promising signs:

And some cheerful graffiti:

Once we had hiked from one end of the park to the other we stopped for a rest and some playing and goofing around:

And on our way back, along a different, more remote trail, we saw a large, abandoned, rusted machine of some kind. I love finding random things in the woods:


10 April 2009

friday photos: scratch-paper-comix edition

I've been wondering about the quality of James' art education all year, as he brings home one construction paper collage after another, but this week really topped them all. I know that kids love to draw on scratch paper, but this is something Evan regularly does in his preschooler art class. Are public school budgets for art classes really so low that first-graders are limited to construction paper and scratch paper projects?

Despite the questionable usefulness of public school art class, my first-grader has a lot of interesting things going on in his head, and he manages to produce some hilarious stuff. This week's scratch paper drawing is actually one of my favorite things he's made at school.

This is Part 1 of a comic-style story in which several of his favorite characters team up against one formidable foe. Read the full story below the fold.

First, Cyclops was tearing down the city. He smashed a building in half in New York City:

But then Luke Skywalker came and stabbed Cyclops in the foot with a lightsaber:

Then, Cyclops got angry:

He smashed the Empire State Building in half:

Then Indiana Jones came and whipped him in the leg and Luke said, "Thanks for coming to help me!":

Then Curious George stabbed Cyclops in the eye with a banana while he was hanging from a giant tree:

Then Spongebob pulled out one of Cyclops' teeth and made him swallow it:

Then Plankton came and wanted to make friends with Cyclops, but Cyclops burped the tooth out onto Plankton's face:

Then Plankton zapped Cyclops with electricity out of his remote control. Then R2D2 came and zapped Cyclops in the face:

Cyclops smashed everyone except Gary the snail, who had a lightsaber:

Then Gary stabbed Cyclops in the face with a lightsaber and he died:

You may have noticed the "Part 2 Come Soon" at the bottom of the page. If Part 2 does indeed come soon and is as fantastic as Part 1, I may post it as well.

Evan, by the way, thinks this is just about the greatest story ever, and while I'm not entirely on board with all the stabbing, I do think a giant Cyclops destroying New York would need to be stopped, even using violence if necessary.

Let me know if you're interested in seeing more of my kids' artwork, or if this is one of those blind parent moments in which I'm forcing everyone to look at something I think is brilliant and you're all dreading the prospect of having to look at more children's scrawling excuses for art.


08 April 2009

evan news

So the news lately is that we have a preschooler in the house. Evan is officially enrolled in preschool for next year, and we're all excited about it. Well, actually, I don't think James cares much, but the rest of us are excited. Evan's excitement comes mostly from the fact that the new school has a matchbox-type car that resembles the Batmobile, and mine comes mostly from the fact that I will be getting over 7 hours a week all to myself come fall. I'm not sure what Greg is excited about, since he's not getting any extra free time or Batmobile-like cars out of this preschool deal, but he seems happy about it. Maybe he's actually thinking of the social and academic benefits our son will be getting, who knows.

The school is very similar to the preschool James went to, but cheaper, and closer to our house. It's also a cooperative school, where parents serve on the board and volunteer in the classroom, and actually, the physical layout of the school, the varieties of toys in the classroom, and the fact that it's located in a church make for some rather eerie similarities. The teacher seems very friendly and capable, though my first impression of her is that she won't be nearly as awesome as James' teacher was, but that would be hard to do. Still, I think she'll be more than fine.

Evan and I are still going to some community play classes, where he keeps the teacher endlessly amused with his antics and his chattering. He's finally getting to the point where I can sit and watch him play without hovering, without fearing that he will kill himself or someone else by recklessly diving off of something. If he ever stops throwing tantrums, I might be ready to believe he's growing up a little.