Monthly Archives: March 2011

A Little Rain

Image by Euromagic

“The best thing one can do when it’s raining is to let it rain.”  Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

The precipitation forecast map for the next 48 hours on weather.com shows better than half the country expecting rain.  (And a surprisingly large section of the continental US will see significant snow!)  So much for March going “out like a lamb.”  I’m OK with rain, for the most part.  I would like it a little more if the temperature was about 15 degrees warmer, but what can you do?  I would also be happier if we had a little more turf in the backyard and a lot less mud.  I can deal with wet paws on Uncommon Greyhound a lot better than muddy paws.  Again, what can you do?

On a rainy day, here’s what makes me happy:

Yep.  Rain boots.  I don’t know why I didn’t get a pair of these a long time ago.  These lovelies are about 2 years old, and I’m embarrassed to say I’m just now putting them to good use.  The British have been wearing rain boots for ages.  I spent a year over there, so I don’t know why I never adopted the habit.  Maybe it has something to do with not drawing attention to myself.  Regardless.  What a fool I’ve been, ruining perfectly good shoes or tiptoeing around puddles like I’m crossing a minefield.  Not anymore.  I can take a direct route right through the  parking lot in these babies.  The only free parking space is in a Lake Ontario size puddle?  No matter; I’ll take it.

You know those little kids that you see wearing rain boots all the time?  I think they are on to something.  My boots sort of empower me to take on the puddles, the sludge and mud, the general crappiness of rainy days.  What I need are rain boots for the rest of the time.  Not real rain boots, of course.  Maybe 3-inch heels or some really awesome, cute flats.  Something that will allow me to take on the malarkey that comes every day.  But they have to be comfortable and somewhat supportive.  I’m not a stick-thin 20-something, after all.  Any suggestions?

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“Coming Home”: Love It or Hate It?

If you have even seen the commercials for Lifetime TV’s new show “Coming Home,” you know a large box of tissues is mandatory for viewing.  It’s a reality program that documents surprise homecoming stories of deployed military members.  The show producers don’t just film the homecoming.  They stage an elaborate homecoming event that the service member’s family never saw coming.

If you go to the show’s website, you can read all the viewers’ gushing comments about how wonderful they think the series is.  As of today, there were over 300 comments about how heartwarming the show is and how it is a great tribute to what military members and their families go through.  A few people grumbled about there being too much of one service represented and not enough of another, although no one can seem to agree on which branch is being slighted.  Without exception, those who have commented mention the fact that they cry through every episode.  That’s entertainment??

So how could anyone find fault with such a laudable program?  Leave it to the Uncommonhousewife.

Full disclaimer:  I have not watched any episode in its entirety, though I did see a portion of the first episode.  I will be watching the episode set to air this coming Sunday because SuzyQ will appear in it ever-so-briefly.

When I saw the first commercials for “Coming Home,” I knew I wouldn’t watch or recommend the show.  I find it rather cruel.  As someone who has experienced a number of deployment homecomings, I can tell you that I have never wished that a camera crew would film the event in all of its HD glory for a national viewing audience.  And I would never agree to have the homecoming of their dad sprung on my kids like a surprise birthday party.  I can’t believe there are so many moms and dads who think keeping their other parent’s return date a secret after he or she has been gone for months on end is fair to the child.  Even worse, the same mom or dad then lets this huge drama play out in front of classmates and neighbors, and total strangers.  All I can say is, I hope the glamour of being on TV was worth it.

If you have never experienced the emotional roller coaster of a deployment, you have no idea what goes through a person’s mind about homecoming.  Everyone assumes a child will just be thrilled to see the parent that has been gone, but often there is a grab bag of feelings about the event.  Very young kids frequently get nervous when this person just reappears, and they will hide behind Mommy or even refuse to throw their arms around Daddy like everyone else.  Sometimes, they will be feeling poorly on the big day–tired, hungry, generally cranky– and will just want to get it over with and go home.  A child might be so overwhelmed with emotion at seeing that parent, she will just break down.  You actually see a lot of that on the show.  And that’s all true even when the kid knows about the homecoming in advance.

Now multiply all of that times 50 or so, and watch it all happen in front of the child’s teachers, classmates, fellow symphony-goers, spectators.  It’s definitely dramatic, if not fair to the child.

Imagine a wife or girlfriend in that same position.  She’s going along all unsuspecting.  She didn’t pick out the outfit that really makes her feel great about herself; didn’t color the gray out of her hair; didn’t move her stuff out of his closet.  She figures she has plenty of time to do this later.  Then all of a sudden, there he is.  So what’s the big deal; none of those things are really important, right?  The problem is that these little insignificant details are all part of the process of preparing yourself for your service member’s return.  There is so much more to it than the balloons and hugs of the moment.  What shows like “Coming Home” fail to mention is the anxiety and uncertainty that comes with being apart for 6, 12, 15 months.  People change and adapt to life without the loved one.  It’s not always easy just to go back to the way things were before the deployment.  That’s why there are all kinds of resources provided by the military, like Military One Source and Fleet and Family Services, that address exactly these issues.

I get it that a lot of people, especially military families, think that “Coming Home” will educate the rest of the world about the sacrifices and hardships that are part of military life.  Maybe, after watching the show, people will do more than pay lip service appreciation to the 1% of Americans who risks their lives in defense of the rest of us.  Jacey Eckhart’s latest great piece is about just that.  And I agree that the show does have the potential to give viewers a hint of the pain of separation and some realization of the mortal danger that these men and women repeatedly, and voluntarily, face. 

But I can’t get past the cheap thrill “Coming Home” offers its viewers at the expense of real people: sons, daughters, siblings, spouses, and parents who can’t contain their raw joy at seeing their loved one return alive.  Showing a homecoming in an airport or parade field is one thing.  Staging elaborate spectacles to spring a homecoming on an unsuspecting loved one is entirely different.  Is nothing sacred, private, or personal anymore?

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A New Look and March Madness

No, not that kind of March Madness.  While I have my share of talk about “brackets” between Darling Husband and Junior and their office pool, the March Madness I’m referring to has nothing to do with basketball.  I have always told the kids that spring is the season that can’t make up its mind.  Little did I know that the whole month of March would turn out to be pretty much schizophrenic with its little successes followed rapidly by fiascos.

Exhibit A:  Yeah!  The weather has turned somewhat decent on a fairly consistent basis!  That means the heat is running a lot less, and so the electric bill has hit an all-time low.  “And there was much rejoicing!”  Until the cell phone bill arrives.  Why is it so hard to get billing right on a wireless plan?  You choose the plan, stay within its parameters, and get the same bill every month.  When you need to make changes, you call, changes are made, billing changes to what you discussed.  After all, “calls are monitored for quality control,” so everyone should be on the same page.  Um.  No.  Apparently, it’s equal to brain surgery, and only a select few are capable of billing accuracy.

Exhibit B:  Soon (God willing) we won’t need to run the heat at all.  Better get the A-C checked out to make sure it’s ready to run.  That’s what responsible homeowners do, right?  We did it last year, and the system got a clean bill of health.  So how is it that 9 months later, we need to replace 4 capacitors?  Now, until this past Monday, I couldn’t have picked a capacitor out of a line-up, although I did know they had something to do with motors and involved electricity.

No, I don't mean the flux capacitor.

Last summer: all 4 good.  Now: all 4 bad.  Interesting.

Exhibit C:  What kind of animal comes out in the daytime, leaves no discernible tracks, and eats daffodil blooms?  Answer: small, hooligan children.  It’s exciting to see my daffodils come up each spring.  I seem to forget that they’re under there, especially after digging mammoth weeds out of the flower beds all summer.  But, sure enough, the brave green stems force their way through the mulch and then take their sweet time to reveal the creamy white double blooms.  These are no ordinary narcissus.  Imagine, then, my utter dismay to find that all of the blossoms are simply missing one afternoon.  No tattered remains left by a bird; no knocked-down stems or dug-up mulch.  This has all the makings of the group of small children who play across everyone’s yards helping themselves to the flowers by just grabbing them by the heads.  Well, someone in the neighborhood was a surprised Mommy when the kids came home with a handful of daffodil heads.

March has been loaded with these little ups and down.  I call it “malarkey.”  When it piles up, it annoys the crap out of me.

As an antidote to the malarkey, I decided to give the blog a make-over.  I was going for something a little cleaner, less cluttered.  Spring cleaning and all that.  I hope you like it.

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The College Board Blew It

It’s not bad enough that teens freak out at the mere mention of SATs.  Lots and lots of money gets spent on fancy test prep classes.  Practice books are purchased (sometimes many of them).  With any luck, hours of studying and practice test are completed.  After all of that, students take their seat at the test center stuffed to bursting with critical reasoning skills, and confront an essay question about—wait for it—reality TV!?!  What the…?

That’s how it went on March 12, 2011.  I first heard about this from SuzyQ, who took the test that day.  Little did I realize, this essay prompt would become big news.  The New York Times ran a story about the erupting controversy, and The Washington Post covered it as well.  And the discussion boards at College Confidential are loaded with questions from panicky teens wondering if they even came close to hitting the topic.  All of the fuss revolves around the issue of whether the prompt, in assuming that all students are familiar with reality TV, handicaps those who don’t watch it.  Here is the prompt:

“Reality television programs, which feature real people engaged in real activities rather than professional actors performing scripted scenes, are increasingly popular. These shows depict ordinary people competing in everything from singing and dancing to losing weight, or just living their everyday lives. Most people believe that the reality these shows portray is authentic, but they are being misled. How authentic can these shows be when producers design challenges for the participants and then editors alter filmed scenes?

“Do people benefit from forms of entertainment that show so-called reality, or are such forms of entertainment harmful?”

Now, the whole point of the essay section, which was added in 2005, is to test a student’ s ability to put forth a coherent argument in writing, not to ascertain whether he or she answers a particular essay question correctly.  I think we all get that.  Given the time constraints (25 minutes to plan, write, and proofread the essay), though, a student with little to no experience with the subject matter could certainly be at a disadvantage scrambling to come up with examples to illustrate his point. 

Most test prep guides and classes instruct students to prepare some examples from history or literature that can be used to illustrate several major themes: Churchill or Washington on leadership, Edison or da Vinci on creativity, Atticus Finch or Gandhi on justice.  So where do you go with the reality TV question?  If you read some of the discussion board posts, you find that kids were frantically trying to apply anything they had heard of in history classes (like yellow journalism in the Spanish-American War or propaganda in the World Wars), almost as though they couldn’t believe the question was really about the reality crap on television.  Other kids posted about wasting so much time trying to come up with any examples because they don’t watch much TV, what with all of the studying they do.

The comments from the College Board in defense of the prompt, went like this:

We found from our pretesting that the larger issues implicit in the prompt were wide-ranging enough to engage all students, even those who lacked familiarity with particular reality television programs.

“Larger issues”???  What larger issues?  The question asks students to analyze reality entertainment.  I would hardly call that a “larger issue” to begin with.  And if a kid doesn’t watch TV, what reality entertainment does that leave?  If you ask me, the key to this guy’s statement is, “engage all students” (emphasis mine).  This is just another example of the College Board dumbing down the entrance exam in an attempt to be “fair.”  Apparently it’s more fair to assume that all students will have seen some reality TV and have opinions about it, but not all will have any ideas about patience, integrity, ambition, progress, justice, etc.  Is it fair to assume that all of those TV watchers will make the best college students?  

So SuzyQ has had rather miniscule exposure to reality TV.  We shall see where that leaves her in terms of her score.  I guess it’s some consolation that most colleges basically disregard the essay score and require their own essay with their application.  I’m sure, though, that the SAT scorers are having all kinds of fun reading teenagers’ deep thoughts on American Idol and Jersey Shore.

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What Can You Do but Play Pictionary?

It was time to turn off the news.  All day, for 2 days, Fox News had been filling the living room with pictures of utter devastation in Japan.  We had come to the point of  “disaster saturation.”  What does it mean when you can tick off multiple cases of  “disaster saturation” in just one decade?  That I’m old, worldly, or what?  I can distinctly recall reaching a point at which I was compelled to call a news blackout after the 9/11 attacks, the December 2004 Indonesia tsunami, and Hurricane Katrina.  In the first 2 instances, the children were so young that I couldn’t bear for them to see the pictures of the tremendous death and destruction.  For Katrina and for the Japanese disaster, they were/are old enough to comprehend the enormity of the crises.  But that certainly doesn’t mean they are prepared to endure a non-stop news broadcast of the misery.  I know I’m not prepared.

The weird thing is that it’s hard to explain to the kids just how big, how menacing, the prospect of a nuclear disaster is.  As a child of the 80’s (I guess that makes me a Gen-Xer), I recall the threat of the Cold War.  I remember watching that made-for-TV movie, “The Day After,” about a nuclear strike on the United States.  Both of my kids were born after the Berlin Wall came down, and Communism fell apart.  The term “nuclear winter” doesn’t carry a lot of meaning for them.  The best I can do is try to explain the science.  Well, actually, I know nothing about the science and completely defer to Darling Husband on that.  I can also try to explain the sad irony of a potential nuclear nightmare in Japan, of all places, which already suffered through 2 nuclear nightmares over 60 years ago.

So what do you do to try to normalize the weekend a bit?  Pictionary.  As if the world coming apart at the seams (literally) wasn’t enough, our little household has been racing around from baseball to karate to the SAT!!! to Youth Group and beyond.  It seemed like a good night to stay home and play board games.  We have had Pictionary Junior for years.  It’s labelled ages 8-12, so recently I figured we had all outgrown it.  I bought original Pictionary, which is labelled simply for “Adults.”  I’ll just say that there is quite a leap between the age 12 level and the Adult level games. 

The makers of original Pictionary are evil.  There’s no other explanation.  It is just not possible to draw the expression “warm up.”  Start with a thermometer, I decide.  From that, we get to hot.  So far, so good.  But from there, we’re flailing out of control from hot to mercury to heat wave.  I didn’t even get the chance to draw “up.” 

And kids between the ages of 13 and around 17 have no business playing Pictionary.  Or so the evil minions who write the categories must have decided.  After all, what teenager is dorky enough to spend Saturday night at home playing board games?  I know this because there is no way on this earth that a teenager can come up with a way to draw–or interpret a drawing of– “corporate ladder” or “business card.”  And there’s something just plain sad about a kid trying to illustrate “ex-wife.”

Still, the evening was a success.  There was bellyaching laughter all around.  I spoke words to Junior about his interpretation of the clues that I thought would never apply to a teenage boy: “Son, you’re thinking too much.”  Dad and SuzyQ were high-fiving each other.  All was right with the world at least for a couple of hours in our living room.

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Are Teens Barbarians?

Vandals, Goths, Visigoths, Huns, flash mob.  Someone tell me I’m not the only one that gets a little nervous when a large group of teenagers approaches.  Certainly not ALL teens are dangerous, criminal, or scary.  But it seems that a whole lot of them are.  Statistics will show you that youth are no more violent today than they were 20-30 years ago.  (Check here.)  But we are certainly hearing a lot about violent teens in the news, maybe because the news networks have 24 hours a day to fill. 

So here I am feeling old and wondering what is to become of the nation when America’s teens grow up.  We have “flash mobs” appearing in cities around the country, wreaking havoc.  Apparently, these started around 2003 as a way to grab attention for a performance meant to be entertaining or sartorial.  Participants spread the word via social media about time and place.  These days, a flash mob is just as likely to be a group of teenage delinquents who suddenly descend upon a public place to vandalize, shoplift, or intimidate.  It has happened in Philadelphia, Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul, Minnesota, and Washington, DC.  Typically, a handful of kids will be arrested and charged.  For the rest, it’s an adrenaline rush to avoid the cops and be ready for the next time.

I have trouble following the kids’ logic.  First, you get a text or see the plan posted on Facebook to head to the mall “cause everyone’s gonna be there.”  Nothing wrong there.  It’s just hanging out at the mall.  But don’t they get even a little suspicious when they see 200 or so kids assembled?  When the looting and shoving starts, don’t they get even the slightest pangs of conscience telling them that this can’t possibly end well? 

Then I read a story about kids with criminal records playing football on the top 25 college teams.  According to the investigation done by Sports Illustrated and CBS news, about 7% of the football players on those teams had records of offenses ranging from drug and alcohol-related crimes to theft, burglary, sex crimes, domestic violence, and assault.  The figures released in the investigation don’t even include any juvenile offenses due to confidentiality of those records.  Huh.  It never occurred to the admissions boards at these schools to inquire about criminal history before offering a free-ride athletic scholarship??  The Common Application, used by over 400 colleges and universities, requires applicants to indicate whether they have been “found responsible for a disciplinary violation” at school beginning in 9th grade that resulted in even probation or suspension along with expulsion.  It also includes a question about being “adjudicated guilty or convicted of a misdemeanor, felony, or other crime.”  So how did these athletes get a free pass??  Even more troubling, did their high school coaches clam up about players’ criminal history with a wink and a nod?  How is it that the adults in the decision chain don’t think a criminal history should raise any eyebrows? 

What do we adults expect from teens?  I recently watched the Valentine’s Day episode of Glee (formerly a favorite show, but a huge disappointment this season), which featured yet another girl-on-girl fight.  Yeah, that’s entertainment fit for teens.  So is the daily tabloid TV report on celebrity dust-ups on Twitter.  Not exactly the behavior we want teens to model.   I wonder, too, where teens get their colorful vocabulary.  Do most parents give up on watching their own language around their kids when they turn a certain age, say, 10 or 12?  It’s pretty obvious that most parents have allowed teens to self-police their music, TV and movie viewing, and leisure activities (“Just call me when you need a ride, and have fun!!”) with predictable results.

I am sure there are a lot of great kids out there.  But I am afraid there are a lot of kids out there who think they are better human beings than they really are.  I blogged about it here.  I just can’t wrap my mind around the mob mentality or cyber-bullying or the allure of criminal activity.  And very few in authority in these kids’ lives– parents, school administrators, guidance counsellors, coaches–have the guts to stand up and say that what a lot of teens need is some tough love.  It’s a whole lot easier to go the psychologically challenged route or the economically disadvantaged route or use some other analyze-their-motives mumbo-jumbo instead of just saying, “The kid’s a bad apple who needs to feel some wrath and have his mouth washed out with soap.”

So, what happens when flash mob-ers grow up?  Do they contribute to the economy or the democratic process?  In the immortal words of the maitre-d’ in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, “I weep for the future.”

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Isn’t Spring Great?

I think it’s safe to say, we are in the throes of early spring where I live.  I suppose it’s possible that we could get another snowfall, but there is little danger of a snow-plowing, school-closing, major headache event at this late in the game.  It’s sort of a shame, seeing as how I just bought Junior a pair of boots about 6 weeks ago. 

I am not a lover of spring.  Out of all of the seasons, it is, in fact, my least favorite.  I guess that makes me like the spring version of the Grinch.  Don’t get me wrong.  As a gardener, I love to see things in bloom and to smell all the blossoms.  I love opening the windows to let in some fresh air.  But spring is complicated.  I used to tell my kids when they were little, “Spring can’t make up its mind.”   What could be wrong with spring, you say?

“Does anybody know what the weather’s supposed to be like today??”  Every day starts with this questions from one of us.  Monday’s high temperature: 73.  Thursday’s high: 45.  One day every window in the house is wide open; the next day the heat is running.  We even had the gas fireplace cranked up last night.  And Junior was so bundled up with long underwear and fake Under Armour that he could barely swing a bat at baseball practice.  Today, I think we’ll split the difference at about 57 degrees, so the heat will run and maybe I’ll fire up the oven in the evening.

What to wear, what to wear.  That brings me to the next point.  At least in this part of the country, there is no orderly seasonal migration of clothing.  I can’t just wash and pack up all the turtlenecks and sweaters and pack them away for next year.  Nope.  They have to stick around and make room for the short-sleeved shirts and capri pants because you never know from one day to the next what clothing will be called for.  Now, if I weren’t so Uncommon, I would just set a date and start wearing shorts.  This is what I see the kids at the bus stop doing.  No matter that it’s below freezing.  If the calendar says March, they’re wearing shorts.  Problem is, I’m always cold.  I don’t like being cold.  I’m gonna wear layers and sweaters rather than freeze.  My solution is to buy a wardrobe of spring-colored sweaters.  Cheery turquoise and pink and apple green distract from the fact that it’s fleece or wool.  Great plan, except for the fact that I don’t have enough drawer or closet space to keep this inter-seasonal wardrobe from spilling out all over the place.

“Mom, we’re out of tissues!”  The dead of winter may be the official cold and flu season, but somehow we do a lot more sniffling at this time of year.  Half of the family are allergy sufferers.  That means, the misery of high pollen count is just beginning.  But isn’t it interesting that every time we go to church, the pews around us are filled with people coughing up a lung, and my neighbors are lamenting on Facebook that their little ones are home from school with strep throat?  That fresh, springtime air does not seem terribly effective at blowing away the germs.

Speaking of blowing away…That whole “In like a lion” thing– it’s true.  I would love to put a nice spring wreath on my front door or some forsythia branches in an urn on the front steps.  Apparently, though, my front entrance is in some sort of wind tunnel.  A gentle breeze gets in there and swirls around like a cyclone, sending forsythia, flags, and even doormats sailing like Dorothy and Toto into the neighbor’s yard.  While I have to contend with this year-round, it seems that spring brings the really gusty stuff that sounds a lot like it’s ripping the siding off the house.

Gentle spring rain? Bah!  Yes, there’s nothing like a lovely “April shower” to bring a mud-splattered dog in the house along with the May flowers.  Quick tip: don’t bother getting carpets cleaned until the summer drought arrives.  Spring weather makes the dog feel like running.  He’s a greyhound; he runs fast.  I’ve resigned myself to muddy dogprints until about mid-June.  Oh, and the corollary: there’s no point in putting down grass seed.  It doesn’t stand a chance when fast-running dog meets soft, spring earth.

“What the…?  Who’s mowing their lawn already?!”  This is not Florida.  No one has any business cutting the grass when it’s still cold enough to wear gloves in the morning while scraping frost of the windshield.  My neighbor over-seeded his grass last fall.  That means he now has a lush, green lawn.  Mine, on the other hand, is still crispy, dead, brown dormant.  Once someone fires up the mower in the cul-de-sac, it’s only a matter of time before EVERYONE starts fertilizing and mulching and mowing.  That means, CRAP!   Weekends are for yard work again.  “What do you mean, the mower won’t start?!”

Target has no business putting bathing suits out front and center in early March.  Some of us spent the winter more or less hibernating.  Some of us were not motivated enough to go outside and power walk in sub-freezing temperatures, trying to get our iPod’s ear buds to fit right under earmuffs and a ski cap while wiping a running nose with gloved hands.  And some of us are so pasty pale that we are only prepared to show skin in increments in the privacy of the back yard until we are sufficiently healthy-glowing enough to bare arms or legs in public.  Besides, in this economy, who is really taking that tropical Spring Break jaunt anyway?

Ahh, spring.

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