Stepping Up

One of the nicest compliments I’ve ever gotten from one of my kids was when my second son told me, “I haven’t learned anything at school that you didn’t already teach me.” Of course, that was in first grade and I’m pretty sure he’s moved on by now. I rarely do anything Pinterest-worthy with my kids, but I can have my Tiger Mom moments. Reading at age 3? No problem. Piano at age 4? Check. But teaching them to tie their shoes? It should be a basic parental duty, but just the thought of it makes me want to pull out all my eyelashes one by one.

I don’t even know how my oldest two learned to tie their shoes. My friend taught my third son while she babysat him. This fourth and final son is my last chance to redeem myself and I am determined to see it through, no matter how painful it may be (for me or for him).

This boy (we’ll call him Fritz) loves the book Countdown to Kindergarten. In April and May of this year, we probably read it to him 80 times. It is a clever book, but after the first 30 rounds, it lost its appeal. I asked him to choose a different book, ANY book, but he refused. My husband added silly parts to it just to break up the monotony, then Fritz insisted that I do them too. Sometimes I tried skipping spots but I never got away with it. He’d wait to tell me he noticed I’d skipped until I was all the way to the end, then he’d say, “You did it wrong. Now you have to read it all over again.” Relentless. And since a successful story reading leads to the pot of gold at the end of any day–namely, bedtime–we were often at his mercy.


The book is about a girl who dreads starting kindergarten because she heard it’s a rule that kindergarteners have to know how to tie their shoes by themselves. She freaks out, but instead of learning to tie, she and her cat come up with some funny and elaborate plans to hide her shoes the closer she gets to the first day of kindergarten.


Since Fritz started kindergarten this week, I decided we would have our own countdown to kindergarten to document his (hopefully) successful attempt to learn how to tie his shoes and my (oh please, oh please let this work) efforts to teach him. Please ignore my lack of artistic talent as we present to you Fritz’s Countdown to Kindergarten by Fritz Carraldo and Humdrum Stickinthemud.



Fritz chose these shoes because he thought they would make him super fast. I chose them because they only cost $5.


11 days before kindergarten, my neighbor posted this video on the school’s Facebook page. Perfect timing. Plus, it looked so simple. Maybe we could pull this off after all.


Lots of frustration.


Why did we come here again?


Sometimes you just need a little break.


Ok, break’s over. Back to work.


This happened to us more than once. He thought it was hilarious that we’d gone through all that work only to find out the shoe was on the wrong foot. I laughed along with him, but was crying on the inside. I’m not a very patient person.


Instead of cheering him on, they became Statler and Waldorf.


More frustration.


(We won’t mention how long the first shoe took.)


And he’s off to kidrgartin, laces and all. Go Fritz!!!


So we did it. I mean, he did it. There were some moments of frustration and some tears, but whenever that happened, I just hovered above him and reminded him in my whisperiest voice, “Don’t give up, you’re not beaten yet.”

Gorilla Warfare

If I did something this week I wouldn’t ordinarily want to do, but it was entirely accidental, can it still count? My husband and I were trying to fit a date into our busy weekend, and the only non-Transformers late night movie was Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. When I suggested it, my husband said, “I want to see it, but I don’t want to make you watch it.” I assured him that I could endure it. Several times, he asked, “Are you sure?” I thought it was because I don’t usually like action movies and CGI special effects make me feel like I’m watching a video game. But I thought of all the times I’ve dragged him to something I wanted to see and decided I should let him choose just this once.

Then the movie started. As soon as we got to the first ape scene, I gasped and said, “Oh! This is why you asked me if I could handle it!” I had somehow completely forgotten about that one time I was attacked by monkeys. (I’m not sure why – how could anyone forget something like that?) But I was brave – I stayed and watched the whole movie so I think I still deserve credit, even if it was an accident.

So, about that monkey attack… Two years ago, my husband and I traveled to Bali. While we were there, we visited the famous Monkey Forest in Ubud, a popular tourist attraction. This photo was taken before we went inside. Don’t I look happy? I have no idea what I’m in for.


This wasn’t my husband’s first time visiting, so we didn’t stop to read the warning sign that was just inside the entrance of the forest. Although we didn’t notice the warnings, we did buy a bunch of bananas from one of the sellers situated right next to the sign.


We went inside with all the other tourists and saw monkeys everywhere – hanging out on the sidewalk and people’s shoulders and accepting offerings of bananas (but not peanuts because healthy reason). My husband needed to use the restroom, so he handed me the bananas and left me alone with the monkeys. This little guy started hanging around, but for some reason would take the bananas I offered, look at them with disinterest and then just toss them on the ground. But he kept coming back for more, so I gave him some.


Suddenly, the monkey stood and reached up to the messenger bag I was holding, grabbing at the canvas with its claws. It made me a little nervous, but my husband came out and chased it away, stomping his foot and yelling. When we walked away, it followed us, this time with a couple of friends.

Here’s something everyone needs to understand. Monkeys, at least the long-tailed macaques who live in the Ubud Monkey Forest, are not cute. They have claws and fangs and they bare those fangs and hiss at you when they’re angry. (I had to google these pictures, because at this point, I was too busy defending myself to take any photos.)




Pretty soon there was a whole posse of hissing monkeys coming at me. I used my bag as a shield and pushed each monkey away as it attacked. My husband was stomping and waving them away, but they kept coming at me.

We managed to toss enough monkeys away so that we could run away from the crowd and we decided to go down a path that looked totally monkey-free (and eerily people-free). After we took a few steps in, we noticed that in a tree at the far end of the path, dozens of monkeys turned their heads in perfect unison and stared at us. We in turn did a swift 180 and walked away, my husband whispering, “Let’s get out of here. I’ve seen Tarzan.”


So we had no choice but to go back to the main pathway, straight into the line of fire. At this point, I was racking my brain to figure out what they wanted from me. I didn’t think I had any food in my bag, but then I remembered that I hadn’t finished all of my Cadbury Chocos from the night before, and there were two little chocolates still in my bag.

We needed to get rid of the Chocos, but the problem with just throwing them away is that monkeys get very excited when they see people opening bags because they know that’s where the good stuff is hidden. They also freak out when they hear the rustling of plastic shopping bags. So here I was, trying to reach into a very large bag filled with with plastic shopping bags (we’d been buying souvenirs) to fish around for THE plastic shopping bag we needed. This attracted even more monkeys, so I was surrounded by at least twenty of those monsters who were clawing and hissing and baring their fangs at me. And that attracted the park rangers who did nothing to help but just yelled at me to stop reaching in my bag.

Finally, I found the chocolate, my husband threw it in the garbage, and the monkeys left me alone. We were then free to wander the rest of the forest and visit the monkey temple without attracting a horde, but I was too traumatized by the whole experience, so we decided to leave. As we walked out and saw people letting their toddlers play with the monkeys, I wondered how anyone could bring children to this horrible place. A few days later, my husband thought it would be funny to make a claw-fang-hiss face at me and it set me off crying. For weeks afterwards, I was still seeing fangs and claws coming at me as I drifted off to sleep.

And that is why my husband was surprised that I was willing to see a movie about monkeys. Just so you know, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is very accurate in its portrayal of the hissing and the fangs. Spot on. I was uncomfortable in the first few ape scenes, but once they started talking, I just imagined I was watching a sequel to my most favorite talking monkey movie: Babe, Pig in the City. (Seriously, click on the link. I couldn’t embed the video here, but you should totally watch it.)

There are so many similarities between the two films:

monkey birth scenes,


family loyalty,

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accessorized chimpanzees,


and educated orangutans.


I had some trouble staying awake because, in an effort to really drive home the point that apes and humans aren’t so different, there were several moving (but slooow-moving) scenes emphasizing the whole home/family/future theme they had going on.

Overall, I enjoyed the movie, even if it was a bit derivative.

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But I didn’t buy what they were selling about monkeys and humans becoming friends. I mean, maybe I could get along with some super-intelligent genetically altered chimps, as long as they’re not wielding machine guns, but I will never, ever see the long-tailed macaques as anything other than the enemy. Like, if an army of long-tailed macaques ever came into my simian flu quarantine camp, accusicating and making demandments, and had all climbed to the top of a tower and I had the chance, like Gary Oldman, to set off C-4 to destroy them all to save the human race, who knows what I might be capable of.

What Lies Beneath

What I Did on My Summer Vacation

This week we had a family reunion in Santa Barbara, I turned 40, and I tried several new things.

I tried yak at a Tibetan restaurant (and loved it – it tasted like really tender roast beef),


I had my first (that I can remember) themed birthday party (an Annie singalong with super cool audience participation organized by my sister-in-law),

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complete with a Daddy Warbucks cake (made by my husband and brother-in-law),


and I confronted my Greatest Fear. (And no, my Greatest Fear is not that Daddy Warbucks cake.)


My husband likes to tease me about the time we were taking a marriage prep class and were assigned a “getting to know you” question and answer exercise for homework. He asked me what my greatest fear was and I answered, “Stingrays,” which apparently was funny. Except it’s not funny. At all.

In elementary school, I read The Black Pearl by Scott O’Dell, which is probably about something other than a giant, deadly manta ray, but I can’t remember any of the other details. I do remember that shortly after reading it, I had a very vivid nightmare in which a stingray killed my little sister.


My fear of stingrays extended to other fish as well. Once when I was at a lake with my grandpa, we were wading in the water and I felt a fish brush against my leg. It freaked me out so much that I tried to run away, but my feet were stuck in the muddy lake bottom, so only my top half moved and I landed face first in the water. That experience taught me two important lessons: 1) I am a klutz, and 2) underwater creatures are not to be trusted.

In high school, I visited Sea World and decided to touch the stingrays in the “petting zoo” they had there. I was so pleased with myself. I had done it! I was cured of my fear!


Or so I thought. Fast forward to 1993. I found myself in Tel Aviv with a music group from college. I was swimming in the Mediterranean Sea at sunset. It was magical, and I was so caught up in the moment that I just kept swimming out away from the rest of my group. When I finally looked back, I realized I was really far away from the shore, so I turned around to swim back. That’s when I brushed against something slimy and looked down to see black, and that was the moment I knew I was going to die right then and there. I swam faster, looked down and still saw the black beneath the water, felt its slick surface, and then swam faster still. It probably only took about 30 seconds, but I remember it as one of the longest and most frightening experiences of my life.

Finally, at one point, still far from the shore, my leg bumped something rough instead of slimy. I looked down again and realized that I had bumped against a rock. It finally dawned on me that I wasn’t being chased by a stingray.I had been swimming over a long bank of slimy black rock the whole time.

I was so relieved. I felt really stupid about it, but I was grateful to be alive. You would think that this experience would help me realize that my fears were a tad bit irrational, but it actually strengthened my resolve to stay far, far away from ocean creatures. Then the Crocodile Hunter, a man who managed to survived cobras and crocodiles, was killed by a stingray. And then I read Life of Pi and realized anything could be beneath that surface. I should just stay far, far away.


Even when I traveled all the way to Bali, I avoided all contact with those creepers. (“Gentle giants?” Puh-leeze. Don’t make me laugh…)


So I’m here near the beach for a week. I should be able to get over this very real, paralyzing fear, right? I hope you know, I only tried it because I am so dedicated to this blog.


Monday morning, we woke up extra early to visit a tide pool. I touched sea anemones and a starfish and saw a sea slug and crabs of various sizes. I watched seals sunning themselves and swimming. It was a lovely morning and my kids loved discovering so much cool stuff. In order to enjoy myself, I had to push away the thought that when it’s no longer low tide, these are the creatures I would be stepping on if I went into the ocean to swim.

And then a few days later, we went swimming at the beach. My sister-in-law is married to a surfer and lives in California, so I was surprised to learn that she hadn’t been in the ocean for at least eight years. She decided she would join me in my attempt to overcome my fear, so we ventured out together on some boogie boards. Her husband joined us and taught me the Stingray Shuffle. I think he was making fun of me, but he said it’s a real thing.



At first, we were mostly just grossed out because there was so much kelp wrapping itself around our legs. She was freaking out even more than I was. But we pressed on. We dared to go further out, and once I could just kick my legs as if I were in a swimming pool instead of having to feel the slimy rocks and who knows what else under my feet, I was just fine. My sister-in-law said, “I’ve got the stoke,” which apparently means she was really enjoying herself.


We hung out for a while waiting for waves that never really came and then I headed back to shore. Just as I got off my boogie board and was about to stand up to walk the rest of the way, a big wave knocked into me and I fell, scraping my elbow on the rocks. It was very graceful and my husband caught it on film. It will never be seen. But overall, we had a pleasant swim,  and my sister-in-law was quite convincing as she assured me that there were no stingrays at this beach.

Meanwhile, some other in-laws were taking a walk further up the beach. They returned just as we were drying off and feeling pretty pleased about our adventure. Guess what they saw on their walk? Some fishermen standing on the beach had just caught a 40 pound stingray and they saw it flopping around on the sand flicking its stinger.

This experience taught me two important lessons: 1) I am a klutz, and 2) in-laws are not to be trusted.

All Aboard


I was talking to an acquaintance who’s pursuing a graduate degree in social work and she mentioned a study she’d read about childhood memories. She said they found that the family activities children remember most are either a one-time event, like a family vacation, or things that happened outdoors.

The other day I was thinking about particularly memorable books I’ve read and I realized that with certain books, I can remember exactly where I was when I read them. I tried to pinpoint why I can’t remember where I was when I read one of my favorite books, Peace Like a River, but I remember with great detail the car I was riding in when I read The Secret Life of Bees (I know it was a popular book, but I didn’t really love it).

I realized that my memories fit exactly with that study – all the books I can remember where I was physically when I read them I read either on a trip or outdoors. I read These is My Words poolside, The Scholar of Moab in the back yard, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time on a bus to Chicago, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close in an airport, Never Let Me Go on a car trip to Yellowstone, and My Name is Asher Lev–not outside, exactly, but on the couch in a very sunny family room when I had to stay home from 8th grade with bronchitis.


I can’t be sure yet, but I suspect that when I look back on this summer, many of my memories will include Harry Potter. Before June, I had never read any of the Harry Potter books (and I still haven’t seen the movies). I was just never interested. When they first came out, my kids were too young to get into them. Then they became popular, which somehow was a turnoff for me. My boys read them and we own most of them, but I never felt the urge.

But this summer, I read them all – by the pool, in the woods, at the park – I never left the house without one. And now I have joined the rest of the world. I’m “in the know” now. Every time someone refers to muggles or dementors or Delores Umbridge, I know what they’re talking about! I knew there were lots of H.P. references I didn’t get, but once I started reading the books, I was more aware of just how often they pop up in daily conversation and on the internet. Very often. Like, maybe we should all pull back a little on the Harry Potter references to avoid oversaturation. Although I didn’t really mind being H.P.-illiterate, I’m pleased to say that I am now part of the club. (But not literally. I’m assuming there are probably many actual clubs, right?)


Here are my thoughts, not particularly in-depth and not including any spoilers: I liked the series. I never felt like I couldn’t put them down, but they didn’t feel like homework. Some books were harder to wade through than others, especially when they included extensive descriptions of Quidditch matches – apparently I’m just as disinterested in fictional sports as I am football. But overall, I enjoyed reading them and I felt satisfied with the way Rowling finished the series.

There were several times, especially in the first three books when I thought, “Well done, J.K. I didn’t see that coming.” But one of the big twists at the end I saw coming for like 1500 pages.


I liked that Harry talked through everything with his friends. I know I can’t feel like something really happened until I discuss it with my best friend and I think it was the same for Harry. I was glad that, surrounded by characters who betrayed or disappointed Harry, Hermione and Ron were constant and trustworthy. Throughout the series, I kept thinking that Hermione, with her vast knowledge and quick thinking, was very useful to have around, but what did Ron do? Most of the time, it seemed like he was there just to be a good friend – funny, but not necessarily one to depend on in a tricky situation. But in the final book, Ron came through like a champ. Maybe he was just a late bloomer.

When I read children’s books, I have a hard time leaving my mom-ness out of it. I keep wondering what messages my children are getting when they read it. Not that I want everything to have a clearly spelled out moral like a G.I. Joe episode.

But I hope they learn from Harry Potter the importance of treating everyone with kindness, even the weirdos and dorks. Characters like Luna, Dobby, Neville and Kreacher were beneath others’ notice and the object of ridicule. Hermione was particularly sensitive to the plight of the misunderstood, and even though Harry and Ron were sometimes slow to catch up with her, they did eventually come around. Each of those misfits surprised Harry in some way and each ended up playing pivotal parts in Harry’s success. I hope my own children are willing to show kindness to the weirdies as well. Or, more likely, (because have you met my kids?) I would hope others would be willing to show kindness to them.

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I also hope that when my children read these books, they internalize the underlying message about the power of choice. Dumbledore tells Harry early on, “It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.” I was glad that Harry was portrayed as fallible – some of his decisions were pretty stupid, and he was only able to survive when someone else stepped in to help. But he moved on, learned from his mistakes and, as a result, was better prepared for the bigger choices he faced later on. I found it interesting that Voldemort’s psych-out tactic when fighting Harry was to point out all of his failures, to get him to lose hope by listing off all of Harry’s mistakes. But by the end of the series, Harry realized he couldn’t do anything about his past choices. He could only control what he chose to do in the future.

We like to think that if we just teach our children well enough, they won’t make any stupid mistakes, but that’s obviously not going to happen. I think one of the most important things we can teach them is how to recover from their own dumb choices. I want them to know that it’s possible. And knowing is half the battle.