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a short hike

maura @ 6:58 pm

So many things were supposed to be different over the past year, big and small, and it’s hard to argue that the schedule and procedure for my kid learning how to drive isn’t on the very very small side of annoyances caused by the pandemic. But it’s different, for sure.

The original plan was that he’d learn last summer while home from college. And while he was certainly home from college, with the lockdown the DMVs were closed, with no appointments to be had for the learners permit test for much of last year. As the lockdown started to gradually lift, permit tests reappeared slowly at some though not all DMV offices. There was an online system to book appointments for tests and it was predictably awful. Appointments kept seeming to be there but then disappearing, and I kept wondering whether it would be better to just drive a few hours north to have him take the test at a DMV outside the city. But I am a rules-follower and the website said you’re supposed to take the test in your own county.

Eventually we got him an appointment at one of the DMV offices in Queens (not our own county, but close enough?). I think we made the appointment in August, and the earliest appointment we could find was for the end of October. Soon after that the Governor (ugh) said in his nightly covid update email that the state would pilot an online learners permit test. I was frustrated that there didn’t seem to be a way to register specifically for the online test, and then relieved a couple of weeks later the kid got an email with a link to sign up to take the test online. Which he did, and then at the appointment in Queens got his picture taken and learners permit issued.

Next up in learning to drive in NY is to take the 5 hour course, basically a drivers ed class.* Because pandemic those were all online, too, so he signed up for that in late November. That seemed like lots of death on the highway-style videos and rules of the road kind of stuff, also driving under the influence warnings. Not sure if they focus as much on seatbelts as they did when I took drivers ed in high school — doesn’t everyone just automatically wear seatbelts now, since we’re long past the days of bouncing around in the way back of the car?

* While high schools do offer drivers ed in NYC, because the driving age is 18 it doesn’t seem like many kids take it,** even though it’s possible to get a learners permit at 16.

** Also, not everyone has a car, and driving in the city is such a pain, who would even want to do it if they didn’t have to?

Then, finally, he was ready to take some driving lessons. Except…pandemic. The holiday caseload surge was well underway, and it was cold enough that it would have been unpleasant to be in a car with windows open.

And that, dear readers, is how I came to teach my child how to drive. Wow this was not at all what I planned — I may still be carrying some baggage from when my dad taught me how to drive a stick shift when I was 15. But it’s actually been fine! We started out in the Lowe’s and Ikea parking lots, then driving around the neighborhood where Ikea is located, and now we drive around our own and adjacent neighborhoods. A couple of weeks ago we went for a day trip to see my family and he drove between two rest stops on the highway, a bit teeth-clenching but fine, we all made it through okay.

There’ve been a few jokes about Mario Kart and Grand Theft Auto, but he’s taking it all pretty seriously. It’s occurred to me that age is probably part of the reason it’s gone so well, too. With almost two decades on this planet I think he has a much more realistic understanding of the gravity of navigating a huge hunk of metal through the streets. And learning to drive in the city is definitely hard mode, as he pointed out. Talking him through it really makes it clear just how much there is to pay attention to when driving down city streets — cars and pedestrians and bikes and wow, it’s a lot.

Last weekend we tried parallel parking, mimicking what I’ve seen a drivers ed car do: using the fire hydrant space as a practice spot. Yes, our car has power steering and a backup camera, two things I did not have as a new driver. But he blew me away with his parking skills, picked it up after only a few tries. My own parallel parking skills have kind of deteriorated lately, and it occurred to me that maybe we could come up with a practice I could use, too, aligning the lines in the backup camera with the curb to find the best spot to cut the wheel. And it worked!

With the warmer weather we decided to get him one lesson with a driving school, just to see if they have any suggestions. And he’s signed up for the road test in a little over a month, fingers crossed.

les tags: , ,

like one of those sappy hallmark movies

maura @ 9:39 pm

Today we went to Brooklyn Bridge Park to walk around and see the new stuff that’s been added over the past couple of years, parky stuff and arty stuff and foody stuff. We took the train to Brooklyn Heights then walked to river under the Manhattan Bridge, near the stoney beach where the kid used to love to throw rocks in the river. Then we walked the park all the way down to Atlantic Ave., ogling Manhattan and the bridges and the river and the barges and the tugboats as we went. We saw some new art in the form of lots of climbable and sittable neon orange benches, as well as a neat maze-like arrangement of vertical mirrors about 6 inches wide and varying heights (kid and adult-sized). We saw the pop-up pool, and the enormous new condo construction everyone’s angry about (I like to think of them as “first to flood!” Thank you, wealthy future residents, for taking the next storm surge for the borough). We saw the new pier with all the sports and noticed that they moved the kayaks from where we once did the free Saturday morning kayak a few years ago. We ended up at a restaurant on the pier near Atlantic that’s not the same as the old restaurant, right near the water playground and slide playground and swing playground that the kid used to love when it first opened.

It’s taken me a while to realize this but I am not quite ready to be finished with doing the stuff that parents of littler kids do. I love my teenager, really I do, even despite the teen spirit. But on the weekends I still want to do the elementary school stuff. I want to go to the natural history museum and the science museum and the transit museum and the aquarium and the many zoos, esp. the Queens Zoo, which we unfortunately neglected until a few years ago (and which has the adorable little deer-like animal called the pudu!). I want to go see the new Pixar movie.

I know that adults can do all of those things, and in the abstract I’m fine with doing all of those things. I’m not embarrassed to want to see the new Pixar movie — Amy Poehler is flat out awesome. But unless the kid has something else to do it feels weird to go do this stuff without him, weird to think of him at home while we’re at a non-exclusively-adults thing.

So, in conclusion, growing up is weird, and parenting gives you all the feels. #statingtheobvious

les tags: ,

not just tea at the airport

maura @ 2:21 pm

Fair warning: this post will be extremely boring to most humans. It may perhaps be slightly interesting to folks who are parents of children under the age of 18 and/or live in NYC, but YMMV.

The kid is in 8th grade this year, which means that we as a family are thoroughly immersed in the high school application process. Recently I’ve been surprised at how much less stressful I’m finding this process than I expected, especially based on our middle school application experience. But I also feel like it’s taken up lots of headspace, room that I can’t really afford to allot to it right now. So this post is the HS purge, writing it out to free up those braincycles.

Over the course of I don’t know how long because I wasn’t really paying attention since it didn’t really affect me — maybe 10 years? — the NYC public high schools have transformed from (I think?) mostly zoned, mostly biggish, neighborhood schools into schools that are more or less available for any NYC kid to apply to and range in size from 300 to 5000 students. There are definitely some advantages to this. Some of the schools are truly excellent, some have a specific curricular focus for the non-required courses, and some have pretty small class sizes (20-25 students). On the other hand, applying to a small focused school is essentially asking a 13 yr old to decide what they want to be when they grow up, which for many kids is much much too early. On the third hand, going to a science-focused high school doesn’t mean that you can’t go to an arts-focused college, or the reverse, so lighten up! (I tell myself.)

Applying to public high school in NYC can be complex and labor-intensive. The numbers give you a sense of it: across the 5 boroughs there are 400 high schools, with 700 programs (some schools have several different curricular programs and you apply to the program rather than the school), and each program uses one of 8 (eight!) different admissions processes. The book that I call the Giant Book of High Schools that got sent home at the end of last year is 3″ thick:


Like with middle schools, students and parents are encouraged to go to the open house or tour for each school they’re interested in. For us that is shaping up to be 9 schools, maybe 10. We are not considering anything that’s more than a 45-ish minute commute, which keeps us in Brooklyn and Manhattan.

The biggest division is what are called the specialized high schools — there are 8 of them spread throughout the city, and admission is via one standardized test called the SHSAT. High-stakes testing is stinky, though I admit it makes the process more straightforward. Basically any kid who wants to go to a specialized school takes the test, which is held on one weekend in the fall, chooses which of the 8 schools they’re willing to go to and lists them on the test form. The kid with the highest score gets matched with the school she ranked #1, the kid with the second highest score with her #1 choice, and so on down the list until all of the seats in each of the 8 schools are filled. We’re touring 2 of these schools, and have also signed the kid up for the test prep afterschool course at his middle school. I’m not a big fan of test prep, but a combination of factors wore me down: most kids seem to take it, the SHSAT is a strange, one-off test that’s not like any tests the kids have taken before or will take again, and the course (which is really just doing practice tests with a teacher) seems like it’ll reduce anxiety about the process.

The rest (and vast majority) of the schools are the “unspecialized” schools, and they use any one of the remaining 7 admissions methods. Some of them have geographic preferences, and will take kids in the school’s neighborhood or borough first. Some have grade or standardized test score requirements. Some require their own test, or an interview, or a portfolio, or an essay, or a letter of recommendation from a teacher. The schools with performing arts programs often require an audition (that’s not for us). Whatever the admissions method, the end result is the same: there’s a form that comes home from middle school that we fill out by ranking *all* of the schools he’d be willing to go to, then we send the form back in and the DOE feeds it all into a special machine which spits out the high school matches. There are 12 slots on the form, and it’s recommended that you list no less than 6 schools because while there is a round 2, it’s much more challenging to get into schools during round 2 as most of the schools have already filled their seats.

We’re looking at 8 unspecialized schools. Three are easy: take the tour, rank the school on the form (because the kid meets their admissions requirements, which are published in the Giant Book, and the school can look at the DOE system to see his grades and test scores). Two each require you to bring your 7th grade report card and take a specific test for just that school, and one of those also requires an interview (if your test score is high enough). One requires an “admissions activity” — we don’t know what it entails because it isn’t live on the school’s website yet. One requires a short essay as well as a copy of your 7th grade report card. One requires a portfolio of work from 7th grade and an interview. (Is that all 8? I think so.)

I fully acknowledge the advantage that our privilege affords us in this process. We are fortunate enough to have the time and energy to devote to researching schools, booking tours and tests (some of which fill up almost as soon as they’re listed on the schools’ websites), paying for a SHSAT prep course, and schlepping around to all of this stuff, most of which happens between 8am and 5pm on weekdays. It’s true that there are many schools that don’t require anything other than listing the school as one of the 12 schools on the form, provided that your child meets the grade/test score requirements. But the system definitely privileges those families with both the resources to spend on the admissions process as well as those with children in high-performing elementary and middle schools (which, of course, is another privilege).

While I can’t say I’m in love with this system, it’s the system we have. For us we’re using a google doc and calendar to keep track of things, and since my brain likes learning about and keeping track of minutia I’ll admit to a certain amount of satisfaction that we have gotten everything scheduled for the fall. But I will still be happy when it’s all over. And wow, that’s over 1,100 words — hope that works to clear out my brain!

les tags: , ,


maura @ 4:20 pm

When the kid is away, the parents will play. Or eat food that the kid doesn’t like, anyway, and watch old person movies and go shopping for new glasses and other boring, grownup stuff.

In this case the kid was away for a full week, and the adults saw Snowpiercer,* and bought glasses and fancy shoes, and picniced at the gardens, and watched the original Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory** on a humongous outdoor screen.

* Which was good, though perhaps we should have seen it sooner and/or not read so many extremely positive reviews, because it didn’t quite live up to the hype.***

** Okay, the kid would have liked that last one, I’ll admit.

*** Though I was proud of us that we held firm on not letting the kid see it, because yes, very violent!

We also ate food, so much amazing food. Handpulled Chinese noodles with spicy sour pork in the East Village; tuna, caper, and tapenade sandwiches at the gardens; Indian food in Murray Hill including lemon rice, this amazing cubed pumpkin and garlic dish, curried goat, and lentil donut with various saucy accompaniments; and finally an avocado, black bean, and queso fresco torta with cafe con leche at Cafe Habana, just down the block from our very first apartment ever in NYC.

It was delicious, all of it. But also strangely tiring being out and about doing leisurish things three evenings and one daytime within a seven-day timespan.

SO glad the kid’s back now and we can hide behind him as a reason to stay in and eat sparely and go to bed by 11.

les tags: , , ,

you may cajole

maura @ 8:49 pm

The thing about adolescence is you go through it and it kind of sucks, sometimes more, sometimes less. Then the suckiness fades and you go through your 20s thinking “wow, that was intermittently sucky!” and then you get even older and think “man, I’m glad I never have to do that again.” Then maybe you have a kid, and if so you’re probably pretty excited about that, and also probably sleep-deprived. Probably so excited and sleep-deprived that you completely forget that at some point in the future you’ll have to go through adolescence again, except this time from the other side.

This is not a post about my kid becoming an adolescent. As he gets older I feel less and less comfortable blagging about him, and I’ve started to ask before I tweet something funny that he said or a photo. It seems like the right time to do that, to start letting him decide how much or how little of his life is online. And really, his adolescence so far has been nothing out of the ordinary.

Instead, this is a post about my adolescence. Even the ordinary with proto-teens can sometimes be trying, and I’ve been working to remember what it felt like on that side now that I’m on this side.

We lived in and around Philadelphia when I was little — both my parents were from around there, and we had some family nearby when I was growing up. From what I remember I was a pretty shy kid and didn’t like talking to new people for most of my childhood, though I was more vocal at home. For a variety of reasons we moved houses and schools a bunch during elementary school, and it was challenging to have to meet new kids when I moved schools. Still, by the end of elementary school we’d lived in the same house for a few years in a suburb with walkable access to parks, stores, and a movie theater. I knew the neighborhood kids as well as had some close school friends despite having gone to different schools in 4th, 5th, and 6th grades.

And then during the summer between 6th and 7th grades we moved to Columbia, Missouri, for my dad’s job. It was starkly, starkly different: we lived on a cul-de-sac at the bottom of a big hill in a development that I remember being sort of on the outskirts of town. There was nowhere to walk or ride bikes to, and my parents had to drive us everywhere. My junior high was huge: I spent most lunchtimes in 7th grade in the library after eating in the cafeteria as quickly as I could. I got glasses, my hair got curly, my parents wouldn’t buy me the izod shirts that all the cool kids had. We got cable for the first time when we moved which coincided with the debut of MTV, and I watched lots and lots of cable. It took me a long, long time to make friends, though I did end up making a few friends that I missed terribly after we moved to Delaware after 8th grade.

High school was hard in the beginning — repeat moving, meeting new people, needing to be driven everywhere — but it got easier as time went on and I made friends and learned how to drive. The older you get, the less it matters what other people think, and that helped too.

It wasn’t universally awful, so few things ever are. I have fond memories of playing Tempest at the arcade and buying jelly bellies at the candy store, or seeing Raiders at the movie theater in the mall. But I also remember that for much of adolescence I was angry. Angry that we moved, angry not to have friends, angry that there wasn’t anything to do. Pretty typical stuff, but thinking back on it now I realize I was probably pretty horrible to be around at home, probably pretty mean to my parents and siblings. And I remember the crazy emotions, sometimes flying off the handle for something seemingly minor even while a little glimmer of reason meant that I kind of understood that I was freaking out needlessly, but being unable to pull out of it. It felt like I had lots and lots of reasons to be angry, really good reasons, but now that I’m a grown lady it’s clear that my parents were not actually trying to ruin my life, as much as it might have seemed so at the time.

Damn, I’m glad that’s over. The thing about getting older is that so much gets easier — I’m still more on the introvert than extrovert side of the world, but I’m much much closer to the middle than I once was (and being an introvert is perhaps somewhat easier in academia and librarianship than in other professions). And I’m old enough that there’s no way I’m even a little bit cool, anyway, so that’s a huge relief.

les tags: ,

through the curtains

maura @ 10:29 pm

Last weekend we went to see the Indie Essentials videogame exhibit at the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, Queens. It was a great exhibit — I played lots of games I’ve been curious about as well as lots that were new to me. It’s open for another month or so and if you’re in/around NYC it’s *totally* worth a trip.

At some point I’m going to write up a review for the CUNY Games Network blog, so I don’t want to talk too much about the overall exhibit right now. What I do want to think on is what happened with my spawn and his pal. They were drawn immediately and inextricably to a cabinet multiplayer game called Killer Queen Arcade, and once they were sucked in they were hooked for the practically the entire two hours we were there. It’s a five-on-five team-based game that looks and plays a bit like the 80s classic Joust. There are three win conditions and several different kinds of characters to play, each with different actions and weapons. It’s loud, fast, and busy.

I know that’s a pretty weak and colorless description of the game — in truth I didn’t actually play for very long. I have to admit that I kind of hated Joust. I wasn’t very good at it, no matter how hard I tried, and back in the day it could represent a significant investment in quarters to get good at a game you naturally kind of sucked at, which I didn’t really have the patience for. I was much more awesome at Tempest and Centipede so those machines got my quarters. I did try to play Killer Queen with Gus and his pal, but I just couldn’t muster the reaction time to make a significant contribution in the time we had.

Though jeez, the boy loved it. LOVED. It was a great example of flow, because OMG the time we had available to spend there just flew by. I think the three different win conditions kept the game fresh and interesting; that many ways to win allowed players to try different strategies for each game and not simply try to memorize the patterns or game space. Since this was a museum gallery there were folks coming in and out of the game as they walked through the exhibit, which also added novelty and kept things from getting stale.

But I was also struck by the way in which a game that was at its core a team-based competition was actually *not* super-competitive. Yes, the game ends when one team wins, pretty much the basic requirement for competition. But the game doesn’t keep track of points either in each contest or cumulatively. And that seems to have created gameplay in which the players cheered their wins and moaned their losses, but only for an instant, really, because then it was on to the next game. The ways that cooperation and competition meshed in the game were fascinating, and I’m sure that’s a huge part of why folks found gameplay so compelling.

Wish we’d had Killer Queen back when I had the reaction time of a 12 yr old.

les tags: ,

if you’re an a you will see

maura @ 10:31 pm

We’ve recently come back to the land of pork in our house, and it’s a happy, happy land. Sometime last year the sprog decided not to eat pork. A friend of his was adhering to (and, truth be told, promoting) the same restrictions, because “pigs are friends, not food.”

Look, I like pigs as much as the next person. I mean, look at this little guy! He’s irresistable! And pigs are smart, and they have almost-uncannily-human-like teeth (except for those giant canines). I once had to identify practically an entire pig from a dig I worked on in Ireland and by the end of it I was a porcine skeletal expert, I tell ya.

But also, the pork, so delicious! It was really, really sad when Gus swore off piggies. We had just, *just* gotten him to eat port chops, yet another small step on the road of everyone eating the same dinner. So we cut down on (but didn’t swear off of) pork. We bought him turkey bacon and occasionally duck bacon too, which is delicious but super pricey. But it’s just not the same. We’d go to visit my dad and stepmother in Vermont and he’d miss out on all of the amazing sausages, fresh from the farm, some mapley! Mmmm, maple-flavored pork.

Then suddenly, last week he decided to eat pork again! It wasn’t quite as stark as waking up one weekend morning and saying, “Dad, please cook me some REAL bacon,” but it was almost like that. Jonathan went hog wild (sorry! couldn’t resist!) at the Coop the next day and bought every conceivable pork product imaginable, stuffing our freezer full. We had pork, like, 10 times last week.

I’m not complaining.

les tags: , ,

so brace yourself for a big surprise

maura @ 11:14 am

So this past week was curriculum night at Gus’s new (middle) school. We filed into the auditorium first and while we were waiting for the principal to get started I tried to catch up on Twitter. Then things got started and I couldn’t help myself from livetweeting. So here you go:

6th grade curriculum night is “fast-paced.” The principal will ring a bell to send us to the next class. Wish I had a glass of wine.

Talking about testing, progress reports, standards, scores. Mixed feelings. #6thgradecurriculumnight

Up with book sales! Down with candy sales! #6thgradecurriculumnight

We’re giving you 10 minutes to get to your homeroom. #6thgradecurriculumnight

Parents, you have 3 minutes to get to your next class. #6thgradecurriculumnight

“Let them get it wrong, let them see how they got it wrong.” Sage advice from the math teacher. #6thgradecurriculumnight

Bonjour! Kid has the most francais French teacher, complete wih mustard cardigan and fleur de lis scarf. Tres bien! #6thgradecurriculumnight

The band teacher is totally Tobias Funke, I kid you not. #6thgradecurriculumnight

Last period. Science. Respect for the miles my kid travels each day. #6thgradecurriculumnight

It was pretty eye-opening to see all the changes 6th graders have to deal with each day, so very different from elementary school. Things are smoother here now than they were last week — we are all more settled in, phew. Homework seems to be under control, more or less, for everyone, too: Gus is almost finished this weekend’s reading already, and I seem to have finished with the sample chapter we plan to send with the book proposal. Saturday morning FTW!

les tags: , ,

way out in the water see it swimming

maura @ 8:00 pm

After a morning that included not only a metric ton of laundry but also me watching the Hunger Games trailer a couple of times (and unsuccessfully looking around online to see if another trailer had been released yet, which it hasn’t), it’s only fitting that we should go to the movies this afternoon.

The movies! We don’t see many movies in the theater these days though suddenly there are tons to see, many of them kid-friendly: the Muppets and there’s a Studio Ghibli retrospective coming up at the IFC soon, to name a few. The possibility of seeing so many Miyazaki movies on the big screen makes me giddy, though I think we’ll restrict ourselves to 2 or 3.

Today, however, we saw Hugo, the movie based on the the Caldecott-winning book from a few years ago called The Invention of Hugo Cabret. It was fantastic — beautifully filmed and fairly true to the story. Which is good cos it’s a great story: a mystery about an orphaned boy, an automaton, and the (real) history of filmmaker Georges Méliès. The book caused a bit of a stir when it won the Caldecott because that’s an award for picture books, and while it is a story told in words and drawings it clocks (ha!) in at 500+ pages. But I think the award was well-deserved.

The movie had lots of snow which made us feel cold, and steam and secret passageways which made us feel warm. Hugo is a clockworker and machines, gears, clocks, and mechanical things figure prominently. There were lovely fantastic touches, too — it had the feel of a Stephen Millhauser children’s movie, in many ways, which I guess it sort of is: magical realism for kids. Go see it if you can — I highly recommend it.

les tags: ,

fishy thoughts

maura @ 10:35 pm

Today we went to the aquarium, because it was beautiful outside and that’s what Gus chose to do. It was actually a perfect day for it, not even very crowded. Weirdly, many of the animals were kind of hyperactive! Maybe it was the warm weather? The aquarium’s only partially outdoors, though.

First up was the moray eel. When we got to the coral reef exhibit the moray was just sitting there on top of the reef as fish swam by incessantly, typical eel stuff. But then it suddenly took off and started swimming around. It swam all the way down to the end of the tank, then looped around and came all the way back and stuffed itself into a hole. They’re so weird-looking when they swim, all snakey and slithery.

We also passed by the penguins. Usually they’re standing on the rocks just sort of staring at you, which often prompts me to wonder who, exactly, is in the exhibit? But today we were walking by the underwater viewing area and they were in the water swimming like crazy! They sped in circles around the tank, jumping out of the water and looping around below. It was as if someone had challenged them to prove that penguins are good swimmers. Or given them coffee. Or something.

But most impressive was the octopus. Gus is a huge fan of cephalopods and, having spent the morning researching colossal squid on the internet, was primed to ogle the octopus for a spell. Its tank is rather small and usually the octopus is squeezed up into the corner of the tank, all smushed together and rather difficult to see. But today was different! When we got there the octopus was lying vertically alongside of the front of the tank and we had a great view of its head and body. Then, suddenly, it stretched out to practically its full width, unfurled all of its tentacles, and moved slowly to the middle of the glass, changing color from milky white to reddish-brown as it moved. It settled in on the front of the glass, all splayed out with the tentacles suctioning right on the glass, and turned back to white again. It hung out there for a while and *then* moved to the opposite side of the tank to resume the vertical arrangement it started with. I finally dragged Gus away after about 40 minutes.

I realize that this doesn’t sound so impressive as I type it, but it was truly a big deal. Seriously, I think this is more than we’ve *ever* seen it move in the 9 or so years we’ve been going to the aquarium, maybe even more than all of those other times combined! I think somebody gave the octopus coffee, too.

les tags: , ,