Thursday, March 31, 2011

Pigwidgeon's speech report

Yesterday I was ignoring noisy Pigwidgeon, our moronic young African grey parrot, who was in disgrace over a nipping incident, until she croaked out a rough, "Hel-lo?" Delighted I cooed back, "Hello! Hello! Hello! Hello, Piggle!"

"Meow? Mrrow! Myow! Meow?" retorted Pigwidgeon, following up these cat noises with some unnerving imitations of a child with a headcold snuffling up snot. The word "hello" was not heard again.

counting them down

Fifth grader Iris uber Alles has been irritated all year long by her math class. Last fall Iris brought up the subject of her math class and said unhappily that she must have done terribly on her standardized tests last year, because she'd been put into a math group that was too easy for her. We parents made inquiries and found out that, for reasons which remain completely inscrutable to us, the children's school doesn't do ability grouping in the fifth grade for math. Iris wasn't, as she thought, cut loose from the higher achieving girls' group; that group didn't exist any more.

The result has been that Iris has been severely underchallenged and bored all year. The Sober Husband, who is the self-designated Math Parent (and indeed he's overqualified for that job -- the man has a highly respectable Erdos number and has taught math at the college level), reached out as tactfully as he could a few times to the math teacher, hoping to get Iris harder work, but it hasn't panned out.

In theory mixed ability groups give the regular students the opportunity to see and learn from more advanced kids, but I doubt Iris's presence is inspirational to anyone. While some of the children are truly struggling with the material, they are confronted by a bored and sarcastic Iris, no doubt sighing and rolling her eyes.

Iris gleefully shared the other day that "we're doing fractions, and the teacher asked, 'I have five fifths and I take one away; what do I have?' and a girl said, "Umm, three sixths?'" Iris laughed heartily. I felt a twinge of sorrow for the child who drew Iris's scorn in her mathematical struggles (I have talked to Iris a few times about the need to be tactful and polite to others in these situations, but I don't think it sinks in).

I feel for her teacher. I can understand that presented with a group of students with a wide variation in abilities, a teacher naturally ends up focusing on the lower-performing end. Additionally, she needs to try to get these students interested in math and to believe that they can be good at it, and how can that be helped by having Iris huffing over the indignity of having to do the too-hard-for-them, too-easy-for-her work?

Yesterday Iris reported indignantly that her teacher taught them a rather time-consuming method for reducing fractions and gave them a big sheet of fractions to reduce. "Momdude, it took forever! Like ten minutes for each fraction to write all that out! So I raised my hand and said, 'I can do all these in my head, so do I have to do that method? Can I just write the answer instead?' and the teacher said no!" Iris was outraged.

"Well, you only have about two more months," I said.

"Nineteen more classes," she snapped back.

"Wait, you figured out how many more math classes?"

"No, the teacher did," Iris informed me. "When I complained, she told me there were only 19 more classes."

I laughed. "Oh, Iris, she probably has a calendar where she's crossing off how she's getting rid of you. Maybe on the last day, there's a smiley face. Or a little drawing of you she can scratch out." We both laughed. (Of course, I am sure the teacher is far too professional for that, but I'm also sure her life would be easier if Iris weren't in this class).

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

a house full of little dogs

Last weekend Pigwidgeon the idiotic African grey parrot was making a racket during my Warcraft raid. Although I was using a headset with its own microphone when I talked to the raid team, evidently they could hear Pig when I spoke. "Oh! You've got a little dog there!" said one of my team members. "What kind of dog is it?" I could hear the others laughing after I sheepishly said, "That's not a dog. It's a demented parrot."

Recently Iris, a huge fan of "Pearls Before Swine", called into a radio talk show and got to play Trivial Pursuit with cartoonist and fellow recovering lawyer, Stephan Pastis. Iris felt a bit shy and got me to help her, and little Lola shrieked uncontrollably with excitement. "I see you have a little dog there," said the affable Stephan Pastis. "Uh, no," I said. "It's a little girl." Lola shrieked all the louder with joy and amusement at being mistaken for a dog by a famous person.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

news, happy news for some which others can use to their advantage

So the big news around these parts is that eleven year-old Iris uber Alles was accepted to a school for gifted children down the Peninsula. When her acceptance packet came, it was filled with glitter, and Iris and I threw the glitter in the air as she shrieked and hopped about.

Iris has always had a staunch, unquestioning belief in her own personal superiority, and now she has had outside confirmation. I myself also had a staunch and persistent belief in my own brilliance as a child, but I was alone in that possibly mistaken belief. (One of my parents notably sneered at me, "You think you are so smart, but you're ordinary." Around that time I won a National Merit Scholarship, which would seem to support the idea that I wasn't exactly ordinary, but no one seemed convinced). I don't know what it would have been like as a kid to have people actually say to me, "You really do have a lot of potential, and we want to help you work to your best ability." Looking at Iris, you can see it looks pretty heady. She's drunk on her acceptance letter, and she's pouring over the school's website, agonizing over whether to switch from Mandarin to Japanese and pondering which of the many exciting activities she'll pursue.

The Sober Husband is less pleased. He doesn't see any need to send the child to a special school. He seems to think she should just do projects outside school hours, preferably projects in his areas of expertise: physics, math, and chess. The child herself prefers to knit in front of reality TV on her off hours, pointing out with great feeling that it is unfair to expect her to do extra math when she already puts in plenty of time at math classes during the week.

The Sober Husband keeps asking, "Are you suuuuure about this? You're going to have to take a bus, you know. A loooong bus ride!" Iris pointed out that lots of girls in South Africa used to spend over two hours on a bus to get to school before Oprah created a boarding school, and they were happy to do it because they want a good education. Like Oprah's students, Iris feels that a bus ride is a small price to pay for more challenging classes. I noted that as a child living in a rural area, I had very long bus rides to school, and at the end of my bus route was a crappy school. The Sober Husband rolled his eyes at me. "And it snowed, too! We were cold and wet on the bus!" I informed him. He rolled his eyes more.

But the Sober Husband is, if nothing else, resourceful, and he found a way to use this acceptance to further his own hobbyhorse, making the children do difficult math in their free time. "When Iris couldn't figure something out," he told me happily, "I said, 'I bet all those other children at the other school can do it.' And she wanted to use the iPhone calculator, but I said, 'I'm sure all those other kids can do it without an iPhone, and you'll need to be as good as them.' And then she did it! I'm going to use this all the time to pressure her."

Monday, March 21, 2011

going to the gym

The Sober Husband has taken a new job, which is a good thing. He needed a change and some new challenges, and his old company was sadly declining. Once that job had been a dream job, a job that fit him like a custom-made leather glove, and then it turned into a depressing set of hassles and annoyances.

Overall he's much perkier and happier, but no job comes without its hassles. At this job, the employees all work out together a couple of times a week. The Sober Husband despises organized exercise and complained to me, "They didn't tell me during the interviews that I was going to have to go to a gym!" On the days the office works out, he complains, "I have PE class today", rolling his eyes.

Today he had trouble finding the shorts he wanted to take "for PE class" in time for me to drive him to the train station, and that probably contributed to him not paying attention to which T-shirt he randomly pulled out of his drawer. It wasn't until it was too late that he realized he was working out in one of his weird Burning Man era T-shirts, a relic of the days when we were cutting-edge urban hipsters. This particular T-shirt blares, in huge block capitals, "SUBJUGATE THE GENETICALLY INFERIOR." As I was laughing heartily at his expense that evening, he reminded me that the gym his office goes to is part of a Jewish community center.

Friday, March 18, 2011

the language developments continue apace

Pigwidgeon the moronic African Grey parrot continues to fail to learn to speak. By this age, she should have a rich vocabulary, but she doesn't have a single word. On the other hand, recently she learned to meow and purr, which has been profoundly irritating. And as of yesterday, she has learned to imitate convincingly that horrible noise children with colds make when they are snuffling up their mucus in order to avoid blowing their noses. Evidently she was paying attention the last time the children had head colds.

I find this deeply unsettling. I keep looking at her when she does this, trying to make sure she herself doesn't have some kind of discharge which is going to cost me big money at the vet's.

Monday, March 14, 2011

the drunken housewife and her time consuming hobby

Several people (including my own Sober Husband) have requested that I write more about Warcraft. Evidently people, like my husband, who find Warcraft uninteresting and have no desire to play it and who may even make fun of me for playing it so much, cannot get enough of reading about it (probably this is so they can ridicule me all the more).

Over the last couple of months I've been playing Warcraft far too frigging much. Why, pray tell? Because I have entered the more elite ranks of players; I've become that glorious creature, a regular raider (for another point of view, substitute the word "obsessed" for "elite" and "pathetic" for "glorious"). "What the hell is that," you might wonder. Fear not, for I shall explain.

The World of Warcraft is a very large and flexible world. Millions of players around the world participate in it. We are housed on various servers, which are based upon our geographical region and our presumed language of choice. Servers also have distinct personalities: you can choose one where the players can attack each other at any time, or you can pick one where you can turn off the ability of other players to attack you until and unless you yourself make an aggressive move first. There are also "role playing" servers, including a very infamous one known for its cybersex, which I have not myself visited.

People play Warcraft in a number of different ways. You can just quest all the time, which is how I largely spent my first couple of years in Azeroth ("Azeroth" is the name for the virtual world in the game). You can join battlegrounds and fight it out with other players, which I love to do. And you can join with other players to enter dungeons, which we call "instances", to do more complicated and difficult fighting against harder monsters.

I never used to be able to run instances, because I was either not in a guild or in a "social guild" where we just yammered to each other all the time but never grouped up to do anything seriously. (I still miss my old Alliance guild from Drenden, where the wit was always sparkling and the conversation always extremely inappropriate). But then Blizzard brilliantly created a tool to enable players to join up with strangers, either for specific instances or for random ones. Servers are grouped together in "battle nets" or "battle groups", which means that when players join together in these random groups, they meet up with players from other servers whom they might not ever see again. (Random groups are called "pugs", an abbreviation for "pick up groups", and this morning I pugged with some lovely players from Chile, who adored me because I am that rare creature, an American WoW player who speaks Spanish and doesn't go off on a tirade if Spanish is the main language of the pug).

Before Blizzard created that tool, it was very hard for me to get a group together for an instance. I remember the day when FINALLY I was running Zul'Farrak with a decent group when our tank had to quit because his mother insisted he get off the damn computer and go outside to play. Now I run a random at least once a day (by running random dungeons, players earn points which can be amassed and used to trade for really good armor).

Even though I spent far too much time playing Warcraft, I was always what the other players call disparagingly "a casual player." For more serious players, there are two much more challenging ways to play Warcraft, both requiring players to form teams which regularly work together. First there are arenas, where teams of different sizes attack each other. There's a sexist saying in Warcraft, that "chicks quest and guys arena", and there's a lot of truth to that. I've never joined an arena team, although I have talked idly of forming one. Blizzard tries half-assedly to turn arenas into a true sport, with actual seasons and rankings and what-have-you, but so far, like a chick, I've sat it out.

Then there are raids. We call anything a raid which requires a lot of players and which is supposed to be hard to accomplish. Raids are usually either ten players or twenty-five players (although years ago Blizzard created several forty player raids, they seem to have given up on the idea of trying to make us herd 40 catlike players). They need to be well-equipped and to know what they are doing. And what do they do? Blizzard purposefully designed parts of the World of Warcraft to be so difficult that it would take a group of ten or twenty-five players several weeks to conquor them, slaying every monster and gleaning every bit of loot.

The places you go on a raid are beautiful and strange. The developers spent a lot of time and energy on them, and the graphics and ideas can be breathtaking, funny, disgusting, disturbing, or deeply moving. The level of difficulty can be huge: one person's fuckup will usually mean that everyone dies (and when you die, you have to run back as a ghost to your body, and your equipment is damaged. You'll be less powerful until you're able to pay for expensive repairs to your gear).

Currently I am on a ten man raid team. My raid team meets twice a week, from 9:00 to 11:30 p.m. my time (the players are scattered around the world). This is my second raid team, the first fell apart after a month or two, but thankfully one of the other players from that first group took the lead in organizing a second raid team for that time slot. I love playing with this group: the players are intelligent, adult, and respectful of one another. When I tried raiding on another server with another character, I got upset regularly as a couple of the other players, extremely experienced raiders, tended to lord it over the more casual players. I felt there was a healthy sprinkling of sexism in that, as well as arrogance which was often appropriate (these players were indeed strong and highly experienced with better equipment), but at times misguided. For example (and here I get more technical), another player was always trying to micromanage my paladin's buffs, despite the fact that he had no understanding of the paladin class mechanics. Every time he'd bitch me out for not giving raid buffs, when at that time paladin buffs were by class only. No matter how many times I explained that paladin buffs were class buffs, not raid buffs, he never learned that and continued to try to correct me. I felt my intelligence was always being insulted, and it was maddening coming from someone who never could be made to realize that he was making factual errors in his criticisms. But my current team is composed of only gracious players, who have nothing but politely worded encouragement and gentle constructive criticism.

Being on a raid team is like having a part-time job. You need to be on time and prepared. You should be logged in, fully repaired, with plenty of expensive elixirs and food (elixirs and top end food give your character heightened abilities for an hour). You should study the fight ahead of time (there are endless tutorials players create on Youtube). We talk to each other both by typing and by speaking; I bought an annoying headset with a microphone and headphones just for raiding. (My family members are united by a hatred of hearing my fellow raiders talk on the voice program we all call "vent", but they love hearing my isolated, out-of-context remarks. Their amused laughter often forms the background when I'm making cogent remarks into my microphone such as "he blew me right off the platform" or "I'm putting my mammoth up for repairs").

And you need to have the time blocked out, without interruptions. I could never have raided when the children were smaller. I remember trying group things in the past and having to have the Sober Husband explain to my group that I'd been called away for a child emergency. Now that they are older, I can shout directions at them while still manipulating my elemental shaman. I do still run into more trouble than the average raider, though. Often I have to ask, "Could you please repeat that? I have a lot of parrot aggro over here; I can't hear you over the birds." This past weekend during a particular intense moment, Pigwidgeon the idiotic African grey parrot decided to join me. I already had Al the moronic orange tabby kneading my chest and Frowst, our majestic trophy cat, leaning against my arm, and Pig divebombed us all, landing on my head. The cats flinched. Al dug his claws in my cleavage. Piggle squawked and awkwardly looked for footing around my head. Through it all I kept playing, not missing a beat as my shaman waged war against a massive air spirit with a rather threatening pelvic undulation. After all, a raider must maintain focus.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

the parrot, the hoarder, and the disrespectful mother

The other night Iris, Lola and I were all hanging out at the dining room table with Pigwidgeon, the African grey parrot. Lola asked my permission to give Piggle a pencil she'd found on the table. I hesitated. Recently I'd gotten into a mild dust-up with the Sober Husband over that exact same scenario, giving a perfectly good pencil to a parrot to destroy. I love pencils, and I want to keep a lot of them around the house, handy for my Sudoku puzzle or for writing down lists of ingredients. But as the Sober Husband pointed out, I also pay top dollar for parrot toys, and it would be cheaper to let the parrots chew on pencils (and they do want to gnaw on pencils; they find them irresistible).

Remembering that debate, I said it was okay for Lola to give Piggle the pencil. Pig immediately began destroying the pencil with great gusto, and Lola just as quickly became distraught. "Can we take it back?" she pleaded. "There's no point in taking it back now," I said.

I went into my stash in the kitchen and found a pencil covered with hearts. "Here, Lola," I said. "Have this one to cheer you up!" Lola took the pencil and curled up on the kitchen floor in a fetal position, cradling the second pencil and crying hysterically over the death of the first pencil.

"Lola! I just don't get this," I said. "It was YOUR IDEA to give the pencil to the parrot in the first place!"

Sobbing Lola said, "I just didn't realize how much I would love him."

"Him? Him?" murmured Iris in a low voice to me in the next room after I returned. "She is such a hoarder, Momdude. She is going to be a hoarder when she grows up." We both took a moment to remember "the Cupy family", a large group of used slushee cups Lola had insisted upon keeping in the dining room for years, which mysteriously vanished while I was in the hospital. Lola's wails continued as she mourned the fallen pencil, which by then was just a memory, a memory and a mess of tiny shards on the floor which I instructed Iris to sweep up. "Momdude! That is so unfair!" said Iris.

"Iris, I can't ask Lola to do it; it would be too upsetting," I explained.

Iris began a lengthy set of demands and negotiations aimed at requiring a huge amount of disgusting work to be performed by Lola in exchange for her cleaning up the pencil mess. Lola sobbed in the next room. Finding this situation so ridiculous, I found it hard to keep a straight face, and Iris was incensed. "Momdude! You are making this harder than it has to be! You are not very respectful!"

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

the parrots are talking, all right

Pigwidgeon the idiotic African Grey parrot taught herself how to meow convincingly, and it's crazy-making. Last night I was cooking furiously, trying to get a spinach lasagna done in time for the children to eat before bedtime, and I was continually interrupted by stressed-out, trapped cat-sounding meows. As a reasonably dutiful and doting cat owner, every time I heard one of those I'd automatically spring into action, looking for a cat in trouble, before realizing, "It's just the stupid bird again." Finally I called the children and made them take Pigwidgeon away upstairs so I could finish the lasagna in peace.

And then the Amazon parrot, the one who is not supposed to be a good talker, showed off with a new phrase. "Iris! Lola! Come here! Iris! Lola! Come here!" she shouted, mimicking me perfectly. The children, who refer to her as "the Evil Dinosaur", ignored her (unlike their poor stupid mother, they can tell when a sound is made by a parrot and then ignore it accordingly). I made them go to the living room and and acknowledge that she'd called them, to be polite.

Saturday, March 05, 2011

the parrot is talking... just not in English

Pigwidgeon, our moronic African grey parrot, has utterly failed to learn to talk so far. But! Over the last few days she has taken up meowing and purring. She sounds exactly like our cats.

This seems to be a linguistic development, just not the one we wanted.

Thursday, March 03, 2011

training up a child

Yesterday Iris uber Alles's fifth grade class spent the day touring three hospitals, courtesy of the numerous parents who are surgeons and physicians. At one point the girls were shown a machine designed to teach surgeons how to perform a particular operation, and they were encouraged to try it. Iris reported that she was the only one who could do it correctly.

"You were supposed to be moving these kinds of scissors, like you would in an operation where you have these things you're moving with remote controls [I understood this all too well, having once awakened during exactly this sort of surgery. It was like an alien abduction, mysterious gowned figures bent over huge machines]. No one else could do it, because your perspective was off. You were seeing it from above, kind of from on the side and above. But I have World of Warcraft fingers, and I could do it! It was just like playing World of Warcraft."

"Did they say you'd make a great surgeon?"

"Yes. Yes, they did. It was so easy, because I have World of Warcraft fingers! And I was the only one who did it right!"

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

another edifying conversation with Lola

Yesterday eight year-old Lola was feeling chatty as we headed to Iris's orthodontist. "Why don't cars get to go to spas, where they can be pampered?"

I said that cars do, and we call that a carwash. I was starting to explain "detailing" (a concept foreign to the children, as their parents are too cheap), but Lola cut me off. "No, I mean fancy, with special baths, elemental baths. When cars have hair, then they won't be denied!"

"What are elemental baths?" asked Iris with genuine curiosity.

"A bath where there is only one element. You know, different ones with different elements, just one element."

Iris very superiorly pointed out that water itself is composed of more than one element and went on a lengthy rant about the scientific impossibility of Lola's imagined spa, with its elemental baths, but I cut her off. "Iris, you're ignoring the most important part, that the cars have to grow hair first. Cars with hair? And does that mean that bald people can't go to the elemental baths? What does hair have to do with these elemental baths?"