Monday, February 1, 2010

Richard Dean Anderson - Call Me!

They say if you want to avoid losing an important item, you should immediately put it away in a safe place. Of course, if you are like me, you will immediately forget where your safe place is. I do have a personal safebox, which one might think would be the safest place to put important, valuable items. But I'm kind of lazy and often find myself defining "safe" as "any location within arms reach of where I am currently sitting or standing." I actually have, in a pinch, deemed the crevice between the sofa cushions an adequate-though-preferably-only-temporary safe place.

The list of safe places in my house has inevitably grown over time and now includes: the junk drawer in the kitchen, the junk drawer in the hallway table, the junk drawer in my bathroom, the junk drawer in my nightstand, and the junk drawers in my desk. Not many realize that there is a general hierarchy to my junk drawers. And the middle desk drawer is definitely the penultimate safe place, besides the actual safe. It's my go-to safe place. I spend a lot of time on my computer at the desk and I barely have to move my chair back to slide open the drawer and slip in a very important bill, receipt, note from school, cute drawing by one of the kids, Xmas card, pencil, change, hair elastic....

Alas, things had begun to disappear from my safest of safe places. I hesitated to call foul play. Some items, like my spa gift certificates, were indeed valuable and easily transferable. But would anyone really want to steal my frequent buyer card for hamster food? There's a big picture of a hamster on it - no one could mistake it for a Starbucks gift card.

Some people tell whimsical stories about a family of little people (no, not local Chinese!) live under the floorboards of old houses and "borrow" items from big people. Personally, I'd give more credit to the idea of cockroaches stealing my stuff. I wouldn't be surprised to see a group of them crawling by one night, all wearing my lost hair elastics like gang colors.

You may have seen my Facebook status update suggesting that Ellington might have accidentally shredded one of my spa certificates. Of course, that's just saying it's my fault. The placement of a paper shredder directly below a safe place for paper documents is really just tempting fate and 5 year old boys.

Then I lost another gift certificate over the weekend. This was for a 110 minute massage, manicure and pedicure and other services at the Landmark Mandarin Oriental Spa, and I was not willing to give it up for lost. So I spent hours going through every single safe place/junk drawer. I went through my lingerie drawer, because you never know. I tore my desk apart, metaphorically speaking.

And then I had an epiphany. My mistake was stopping with metaphors. I had to literally tear my desk apart. I pulled the side drawers out and dumped the contents on the ground. Nothing. Then I tried to pull the middle desk drawer out. But I couldn't. It was originally designed as a pullout keyboard tray, so I would have had to unscrew the drawer from the rails in order to pull it out. So I tossed all the contents onto the floor. Again, nothing.

In frustration, I stared at the empty drawer, peering uselessly into the empty darkness. And then I saw it. A little bit of light reflecting off a corner of piece of paper at the back of the drawer. No, behind the drawer. It turned out that the back of my keyboard tray was just half the height of the space for the drawer, and things had been pushed over the edge of the tray into the dark abyss, the heart of darkness. The back of my desk. My arm couldn't fit over the back edge of the keyboard tray. I could see everything, but just couldn't reach them.

By this time, all three kids were gathered in my room, enjoying the show. Watch Mommy lose it! She's made a crazy mess on the floor of her room and now she's cursing at her desk for no apparent reason. So I decided if they wanted entertainment, I'd give them an interactive episode of MacGyver. All it took was:
  • One roll of duct tape
  • One pair of scissors
  • Two Rock Band drumsticks
  • One plastic ruler
  • One small flashlight
  • Three willing kids
We fixed the duct tape to the ends of the Rock Band drumsticks and managed to stick them to the papers behind the drawer at the back of the desk. Then we dragged them close enough to swipe them out from under the drawer with the plastic ruler.

Within 10 minutes, we had retrieved, from the belly of the beast, countless receipts, takeout menus, plastic spoons(?), and over HK$11,700 (US$1500) worth of goods that included spa gift certificates (yes, including the one I falsely accused Ellington of shredding), filled hong baos, unused Webkinz tags, and a TAG Heuer watch that I hadn't even realized I had misplaced.

I'm hoping the kids' takeaway was not Mommy is an idiot. I remain positive and am sure that as they were running up the stairs to test the codes on those Webkinz tags, they were thinking, "Look at what we did with duct tape and a couple common household goods - I think I want to major in mechanical engineering when I grow up, or at least star in the remake of MacGyver!"

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Twists and Turns in the Game of Life

They say life imitates the arts, but what about board games?  I spent an enjoyable afternoon playing The Game of Life with the kids.  While I do feel quite a bit of nostalgia for the old school car with the pink and blue peg people, I have to say that the new and improved game is pretty darn cool.  Each player gets a "credit card" which you enter into a little machine that keeps track of everyone's accumulated net worth and life points.  So much cooler than fake money!

The board is broken into 4 different life areas:  Learn It, Earn It, Love It, and Live It.  We all decided that we should go through Learn It to get an education, which would maximize our potential salaries later on.  All good, and a great real life lesson I thought.  

But then, Guinness accidentally took a short cut through Learn It, didn't get a college degree, won the lottery, was on the cover of a magazine, doubled his $100,000 investment in a business venture, bought a sports car and mansion, got married, and had twins.  We laughed him for skipping college (he kept saying he was going to go back to Learning and get a college degree - until he won the lottery), but he ended up winning the game with 4 times as many points as the rest of us.

Cayman and Ellington, both frivolously spent their money on expensive sports cars, but at least they got their college educations!   And they came in second and third, respectively.  And I, cursed with rolling ones, basically took the equivalent of 7 years to graduate.  Because we had set a limit of 10 turns, I never made it through the Earn It section to get any promotions in order to reap the benefits of my education!  I took a risky gamble on a business venture and lost.  So I ended up dead last, severely in debt.

What type of life lessons is Milton Bradley trying to teach us!?!?

Well, not much from the content of the game, but great lessons about sportsmanship and empathy from the playing of the game itself.  Guinness and Cayman were so patient with Ellington, helping him to read the cards and telling him how to enter amounts into the machine.  And Ellington felt so bad about me being left behind in Learn It while everyone else moved on in Life that he kept crawling into my lap to give me hugs, promising to come back and "save me".

I really hope life doesn't imitate The Game of Life - at least this particular round.  But I suppose better that than any round of Clue:  yes, I can see my kids trapped in a spooky mansion trying to track down Colonel Mustard killing Miss Scarlett in the billiard room with a candlestick.  

Come to think of it, that's a pretty fun game!  I think a trip to the toy store is in order....

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Halloween Done Right

They say Halloween trick-or-treating ranks among the top ten favorite childhood memories for American adults.  It is certainly one of mine.  As with most memories from childhood, the good and the bad blend into one glowing feeling of warm comfort, brushed hazy from nostalgia.  

Back in the day, the Halloween season usually started at the beginning of October for me, my brother and my cousins, when a large box of home-made costumes would arrive from one of our aunts.  One year I was a medieval princess, complete with a conical hat and scepter.  One year, we received a box full of different colored capes, so we supplemented them with store-bought vinyl superhero costumes.  Forget what Edna Mode told Mr. Incredible; any superhero costume can only be enhanced by a brightly hued cape.  Didn't you know that Wonder Woman had an optional hot pink cape?  The color may have clashed with the red bustier and boots, but it worked for me!

This year, with Halloween falling at the end of the school's mid-term break, I decided to take the kids back to the US for a proper Halloween trick-or-treating experience.  Yes, the expats celebrate it in Hong Kong.  But it's either a party at the American Club or you hit a handful of houses in your small neighborhood.  And yes, they did it before we moved to Hong Kong, but they weren't old enough to really get it.  To enjoy the cheap thrills of scary decorations, to curse the cold clamminess of condensation on your cheap plastic mask, to get caught up in the greediness of collecting and hoarding as much candy as possible (maybe stealing some from your unsuspecting younger siblings or cousins), to give in to the gluttony of stuffing as much candy as possible in your mouth before your mother can stop you.  Was your Halloween not like this?  Not that I'm encouraging this type of behavior, but it's just one of those classic childhood experiences that everyone should have.

And what an experience it was!  My brother, Yung, lives in one of those densely packed suburban neighborhoods where you can hit 100 homes in one and a half hours.  They close some of the streets down to traffic so the kids can safely run around like sugar-crazed maniacs.  And the neighbors go all out with the decorations.  Taped up Halloween posters and jack o'lanterns?  You'd be pegged as the new neighbors who just don't know yet.  Fog machines and spooky music played out the windows were de rigeur.  One neighbor had the motion-detector coffin that popped out a vampire at just the right moment to startle out delighted shrieks from our merry little band.  Another neighbor made a mini-maze out of hanging black tarp with Halloween decorations at every turn.  Cayman got so distracted that she walked right by the old crone/neighbor handing out the candy at the end of the maze.  One neighbor, I kid you not, covered their driveway with a truckload of mulch and recreated a graveyard with crooked old tombstones and body parts sticking out of the ground!

But the highlight of the evening was the house with a child-size figure of the grim reaper with the skeletal face and scythe.  It was strategically positioned at the corner of the front walkway and slowly turned back and forth tracking the people walking up to the front door.  It looked and moved so realistic that Yung called me over from the end of the driveway to check it.  As we were waiting for our kids' turn to ring the doorbell, we stood there marveling over this realistic figure.  Was it plugged in?  It even makes sounds.  Right as we were about the touch it, the kids in front of us cleared out of the doorway, and the little grim reaper silently turned and walked off with his group!  Probably thinking to himself, "those old folks sure are clueless!"

Monday, September 14, 2009

Scratch, Scratch. Does Your Head Feel Itchy Too?

They say it never rains but it pours.  So true of Hong Kong.  And I'm not talking about the driving rain and howling winds from Typhoon Koppu.  I'm not talking about the fact that our driver has been out sick with flu-like symptoms, leaving me trying to find and hail empty taxis from the school pick-up line (very rare) in the pouring rain (near impossible).  Nor, am I talking about the fact that a typhoon signal 8 was recently hoisted.  (For those of you Stateside, this means that school will be cancelled tomorrow.)  Exactly what we need after a week of school closure due to the swine flu.  If I receive a notification for Virtual School tomorrow, I may have to have words with someone.  I don't know who that someone is, but words I will have.

I am talking about a type of school notification that is, if you can believe it, so much worse than another Virtual School announcement.  Oh, some schools send home notices on pretty pink paper, as if the cheerful pastel color will lessen the horror.  Sometimes the school nurse calls, as if the human touch will lessen the pain.  And sometimes you just notice the head-scratching yourself.

Yes, I am talking about the H-bomb.  Head lice.  

Ever since Guinness started preschool six years ago, we've received the classroom notice at least twice a year.  So far, we've been like Muhammad Ali, miraculously ducking and weaving to avoid the lice threat.   But every time we get the notice, the reaction is always the same.  I find it not unlike the stages of grief: 
Denial.  It's probably just a birthday invitation, right?  Come on!  It's on pink paper....
Anger.  What!  But we just got a notice 3 months ago!  I'll bet they didn't even clean the classroom!
Bargaining. Just let us escape it one more time, and I promise I will stop being lazy about bringing the kids in for regular haircuts....
Depression. Who cares?  I'm not going to do anything.  We're just going to get another notice again anyway.
Acceptance. My head feels itchy.

So, no, we were not able to dodge it this time.  I got the notice about head lice in the class while I was still at school.  The nurse hadn't had time to check the rest of the students before the end of the day.  Of course, my head immediately started feeling itchy, so Idecided to take the little one down to the nurse's office to get it checked out.  And with an expert diagnosis in hand, I quickly realized that there is a fine line to tread between making sure your kids don't feel self-conscious about anything and teaching them a little discretion.  Because, to take a line from our lice shampoo pamplet, "head lice are ... generally considered to be socially unacceptable."  This I am thinking as Ellington cheerfully tells three different teachers about the bugs on his head, and how he got them from one of his friends, but now Mommy is going to wash his hair with medicine to kill them.  And as he and Cayman cheerfully and loudly chat about it on the public bus going to the local pharmacy (since I never was able to hail down a taxi from the school pick-up line, in the pouring rain, with children with headlice).

Hey guys.  You know how it's okay to like your zoo animals underwear, but you shouldn't show it to everyone?  Well, let's not talk about the bugs right now.  Okay?

And nonononono!  Seriously.  Get your head away from me!

And so the fun begins.  It took 2 hours to get everyone's hair washed, treated, combed, dried, and re-combed.  We had to strip everyone's beds.  We had to rewash all our towels.  All our stuffed animals and throw pillows are sealed in garbage bags.  Everyone is forbidden from sitting on our couches until we can vacuum them tomorrow.  Perhaps I am overreacting.  But as you know, I have issues with bugs, whether they be microscopic ones crawling around inside my pillow, sesame size ones crawling around my child's head, or tropical size ones crawling around my house.  

I've gone through my hair with a fine tooth comb three times and didn't find a thing.  But, I swear!  Does anyone else's head feel itchy too?

Monday, September 7, 2009

The Virtues (or Lack Thereof) of Virtual School

They say homeschoolers are a different breed of parent.  I completely agree.  In fact, I would go so far as to call them certifiably insane parents.  Yes, I said that, and you can take that to the bank.

The kids' school was closed by Hong Kong's Centre for Health Protection for 7 days in response to "an upward trend of in student absences due to flu-like symptoms."  Don't even get me started on over-reactions, or this will be whole different kind of post.  We were notified of the school closure around 7:50 pm last Monday evening and a collective groan swept across American households in Hong Kong.  On Tuesday morning, we were notified of the start of the "Virtual School" program where teachers would email assignments to the kids to complete each day at home, and a collective shriek of horror swept across American households in Hong Kong.  No, we don't want our kids to lose an entire week of school.  But NO! we don't want to teach our kids ourselves.  That's why we enrolled our kids in school - because we aren't certifiably insane homeschoolers.

Because this is what "Virtual School" means.

Each day, Guinness, now in third grade, had to read 20-30 minutes and keep a reading log.  Easy peasy.  Then he had to play a couple math games on the computer.  Even easier peasier.  By this point, he was usually starting to get a little restless, so I let him take a snack break.  Luckily the games are on the computer so it didn't take long for me to talk him back into work.  And then each day he had a different specialist assignment like a science crossword puzzle or a pattern project.  Still easy peasy.  Except by then, Ellington was usually done with his homework and had moved onto computer games or was watching tv, and Guinness would decide that now is the perfect time to tell me just how unfair life is.  Every day.  

And then each day, he had to write a minimum two paragraphs about some special time that he has spent with his family or friends, or about a special place.  Which should be easy peasy.  But of course by then, he was so irritated with me and with life in general that nothing could be considered special, so he had NOTHING to write about!  Every day!  On a good day, we would sit there staring at each other until he caved and started writing.  On bad days, we would start to yell at each other until he caved and started writing.  And I won't even mention the Chinese homework, because the bad attitude (on both our parts) involved in getting that done is not unique to Virtual School.

Cayman, now in 2nd grade, had to read 20-30 minutes every day and keep a reading log.  Except her teachers decided against providing a simple reading log form and let the students be creative in making their own.  Anyone who knows Cayman also knows that her creativity knows no bounds.  So just making her reading log took 30 minutes, after which she needed a break before she even began the actual reading.  

Then she had a writing assignment.  We were given the choice of doing something simple like writing a list of words or doing something more challenging like writing about a special moment.  This is where I made a critical Virtual School rookie mistake.  I chose the challenging option, thinking that over the course of 7 days, I could help her brainstorm and write about catching frogs over the summer.  Do normal homeschooled kids go storming to their room in tears over a writing assignment?  Because Cayman did.  Every day.

And math games.  Call me a bad parent, certainly a horrible homeschooling parent, but I just cannot take playing Top It (like War with playing cards, but adding two cards together to determine the winner) over and over.  Every day.

Even Ellington had homework.  I had to read to him for 10-15 minutes every day.  We have an entire library of children's books in our house, so this should not have been a problem.  Except Ellington loves dinosaurs.  And we had to read the same two dinosaur library books over and over.  And he asked the same question over and over.  

Why did the diplodocus have spikes on their back?  Well, like I told you yesterday and the day before yesterday, it was probably to protect him from the dinosaurs who wanted to eat him. Why did they want to eat him? Remember from yesterday, and the day before?  Because some dinosaurs are meat eaters.  Why are they meat eaters? I already told you yesterday.  And the day before.  That's the way they were born.  They have to eat meat.  Just like you.  Let's move on....

Ellington also had writing work to do.  And even there, my little spirited child gave me pause.  I found a website that would allow you to choose the words and it would create D'Nealian style handwriting sheets.  The first day, I let him practice his name.  The second day he chose to work on his teachers' names.  The next day, he choise random words like vitamins and trees.  Today he decided to move onto more interesting words.  Bum bum, pee pee. No potty words.  Penis?  No.  Toilet. Oh fine!

And some day,  my kids will post on Facebook about how they always help their kids with schoolwork and how I never helped them with theirs, and how awesome they must have been to have done everything on their own.  And I'll just refer them back to this post and refresh their memory.  It was all good until Virtual School.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Flies, Honey, Vinegar, and Opium

They say you can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.  I've been trying to teach this concept to the kids for years now.  At first, it seemed like a useless cause.  Forget about the behavioral lesson, I had to stop to teach them what idioms and metaphors are.  

Why would you want to catch flies?  I thought flies were bad.

No one is really trying to catch flies.  It's a metaphor.  I'm using an example to show that you'll get better results if you ask nicely than if you demand things in a rude way.

What's vinegar?

That smelly sauce that I like to dip dumplings in.

I don't like vinegar.

Well, neither do flies.  So if you wanted to catch them, you're better off using honey.  So in this case...

I thought we didn't want to catch flies.

No, not really.  Remember what I said about metaphors?

Do you have to use honey?  Could you use sugar instead?

I guess you could use anything sweet.  Basically, all I'm trying to say is to ask for things nicely.

I like honey.  Can I have some honey on my cereal?

It's been a lesson in patience for me.  It must be the Chinese in me to try to use an idiom rather than to just come straight out and say "you'll get better results if you ask nicely."  I remember my dad always prefacing things with "you know the Chinese have a saying..." and then spouting off a whole bunch of nonsense, like "swallowing raw and skinning alive" (which I think ultimately refers to plagiarism) or "pricking your thigh with an awl" (which refers to studying hard).  Thanks Dad, that made things a lot more clear.  

BTW, I'd like the record to state that my dad was not trying to teach me to study harder and stop plagiarizing....

Anyway, I've been trying to teach the kids that throwing temper tantrums won't get what they want.  Hitting each other, or me for that matter, won't help.  Ask nicely, with a "please."  And if I say "no", temper tantrums and fits won't make me change my mind, they will just make me angry and I'll probably end up putting them or their treasured items, or both, in the penalty box for a while.

So, over the past couple months, Ellington started picking up a bad habit of pinching me to get my attention.  At the dinner table, he would interrupt conversations, and if I didn't immediately answer, he would pinch me.  Hard!  To teach him that this was unacceptable, I would make him wait 5 minutes after the pinch before talking to him, and if he threw a tantrum, I would add more time to the wait.  

It took a couple weeks, but the lesson finally came to fruition today!  During dinner, Ellington started to interrupt a conversation I was having with Guinness.  When I didn't respond, he picked up my arm and started kissing it up and down like a little Cassanova.  Talk about high grade honey!  How can you resist that?  I broke off mid-sentence, looked down to find him staring at me soulfully through his long eyelashes, and exclaimed "what a nice way to let me know you have something to say!  What did you want to tell me?"

Guinness meanwhile started squawking (rightly so) since I hadn't finished my conversation with him.  Sorry!  There must be some Chinese idiom or proverb to cover this.  I think it goes "honey may attract attention, but opium keeps it."  Good luck finding a drug more potent than Ellington's juicy kisses!

Thursday, August 6, 2009

The. Best. Summer. Ever.

They say childhood is wasted on children.  I'm not so sure.  Regardless, I did my best to give the kids an idyllic summer vacation and am hoping that, as adults, they'll look back and remember this fondly as "the. best. summer. ever."  I think I did a pretty good job, if I may say so myself.

I could tell you about the countless hours I spent researching and selecting the perfect summer camps for them this year:  Stanford soccer, baseball, and even video game camp for Guinness; Stanford gymnastics camp for Cayman; science and art Camp Galileo (highly, highly recommended for anyone in the Bay Area - ask me about it!) for Ellington; Brooks Summer Camp for all three in Boston....  I could tell you how patiently I've been applying and been waitlisted for the Stanford Sierra Camp for 7 years and finally got a spot this year.  Or how I took the kids to a Jason Mraz concert and sat just 14 rows from the stage!  Every kid should be so lucky.  Despite all the planning, or perhaps because of the planning?, the kids probably enjoyed the unscripted moments the best.

My own summer vacation was pretty good too.  In fact, I would be hard pressed to say who truly had the. best. summer. ever.  Me or the kids:

I had a two-hour massage plus body wrap plus facial at the Qua Spa at Caesars Palace.  And while I was caked in mud and wrapped in Saran Wrap, my therapist gave me the best foot massage ever.

We got to swim in the neighbors' pool, and their dog Marley got to jump in and swim with us!

I got to canoe on a beautiful Tahoe lake, whose natural peace and serenity was only broken by Danielle's and my laughter as we paddled ourselves in continuous circles (compulsories, if you will) while unsuccessfully trying to figure out to navigate the damn thing.

We got to go on a catamaran boat cruise, where we pushed our counselors into the lake, where they met a mermaid who gave them a pack of Skittles that magically stayed dry in the water!

I spent a kid-free week in Hilton Head with my college roommate, Nicki, going on daily 7 am sunrise beach walks and enjoying healthy, chicken nugget/pizza-free meals.

We spent a mom-free week with Puo Puo and Ah Yei and got to watch Transformers 2, even though it's rated PG-13!

I went to my friend Albertine's wedding in Minnesota, danced up a storm, and hung out with all my college roommates en masse for the first time in 2 years.

We went to New Hampshire with Yeh Yeh and Nai Nai and hiked the Lost River Gorge where Yeh Yeh got stuck in the Lemon Squeeze and lost his cell phone!

I went for 10 mile walks in the Minute Man National Park.

We went frog hunting in the creek in Yeh Yeh and Nai Nai's back yard and, in one day, caught 35 frogs that we kept in the neighbors' kiddie pool.

I had dinner at Osaka, my favorite sushi place in Las Vegas, with my friend David and had the best uni in my life - it tasted as sweet as ice cream and virtually melted in my mouth.

We had dessert at Richardson's Farm in Middleton, MA, where we got to see baby cows and had home-made, cotton candy flavored ice cream that literally melted in our mouths. (16% butterfat!)

We may never agree who had the most fun.  But we do agree to thank Michael, who slaved
away to fund our vacation.  Although who knows?  With two kid- and wife-free months in Hong Kong, it may actually have been Michael who had the best. summer. ever.