Friday, August 7, 2009

Looking for Doffmetter

It is a lovely thing when your baby learns to talk. Lovely, and profoundly moving when the inchoate life-force reaches out and makes contact. All first-time parents (and some well rested veterans) wait with hope for the first word and two months later its obvious to everyone else that "ga ga ga" means pony.

But while the baby books hype up the happiness of the first "Ma ma" they failed to prepare me for the conversational mishaps of my kids. Here they are, for your edification and compassion.


Lesson number 1: Don't rush a child's development. Don't read too many books. Once a kid starts talking its impossible to shut him up. It is ideal if the child starts to talk around the time they have something worthwhile to contribute.

Both my kids have been early and insistent talkers. Actually, that's not quite true. Neither Frost nor Wren started speaking much before 15 months but since they did they have both been insistently articulate. There is the infamous long distance trip I took (alone) with Frost to South Africa when he was 20 months old. He spent much of our 18 hour hop from Atlanta to Joburg running up and down the aisle singing the ABC song and chatting to the legs that had aisle seats. He was a bit of a celebrity. During the trip he amused everyone by commenting that avocados were "very TAsty." Just take it from someone that has sat by a toddler during 72 hours of international travel - toddlers that talk do not always talk about things that are INTERESTING.

Lesson #2: Children do not learn words for your gratification.

Wren: "Shannon, I would like some tea. "

Both boys called me Mama / Mummy in the beginning. Somewhere pre-3 Frost noticed that I was called Shannon by everyone else and started calling me that. I have been unable to shake it. Wren called me Mummy too but is now in the transition. "Shannon, Shannon" he calls. "Shannon, Mummy!" When I remind him that I am his Mummy he says "Mummy Shannon?" Fred says I should "just ignore him" calling me Shannon and only respond to Mummy but toddlers are missiles designed for the sole purpose of detonating the ignorer. If there is an ignorer versus toddler competition I am doomed by virture of motherhood. Just how much "Shannon, Shannon?.. make it tea. Now. NOW. PLEEEEAAAAASE SHANNON" can you take?

Lesson #3: Kids acquire the vocabulary the eldest child uses, not the vocabulary from Good Night Moon.

Wren: "That big digger carried dumpster and Frost said "whattaheck?" he said "whattaheck?"

I think I speak well. Whenever a Facebook ap prompts me to test my vocabulary or verbal IQ or the books I have read I feel secretly smug (a smugness I do not put to the test but..). However, it appears our family is in need of some similes for "dammit" "fudge" and "crap" which slip out in times of stress and drama (no, not many of those around here).

Frost learned from me and his friends and is free and easy with his "dammits" which have been classed as non-felonious swear words. "Crap" is considered only slightly unpleasant and OK in dire straits [such as when your Guy is killed when you are near the end of a level or the computer freezes up and you lose all your progress at the end of your screentime limit]. Still, while I can stomach some colloquial rudeness in my 8 year old I think it is quite unacceptable for Wren to say "DAMMIT" when his block tower falls over. Its just not right. Further, all those first time parents at the playground could not imagine their baby (progressing right along through the baby book) could say a bad word like that. They don't understand that while Wren looks like a 2 year old he is really a size-challenged 8 year old and runs with the gang. He doesn't want to be friends with their kids just because they have some temporal thing in common.

Lesson #4: If you can't understand your child ITS YOUR FAULT. Dumbhead. Its YOUR FAULT.

When talking with you, children use the word they remember they heard yesterday but, like broken down telephones, the word may not correlate with anything in the dictionary. In this case it is your responsibility to solve the riddle. During the solving you should never never say "I don't understand". That's rude. That's being a dumbhead and you should not be a rude dumbhead to your toddler. They are talking to you and your are the understander so understand already alright.

I'll give you an example.

Wren tells me he wants his doffmetter pants. "doffmetter?" I repeat, in case I am miss-hearing.

"Doffmetter," he affirms.

"Hrrmm, where did you see Doffmetter?" I struggle?

"Yesserday, I have doffmetter. The NEW one."

I try, but fail. "I don't understand, Wren."

"DOFFMETTER!!!!!" Wren is shouting and starting to speak high pitched. He is on the verge of a tantrum.

"Ok, where did you see it"

"Innalaundry!" he whines, supine.

"Ah, your new underpants?"

He hops up as I pull out all the 8 underpants hoping that one is doffmetter. We check all 8 and as I see him examining and rejecting them. Then we have a moment of insight.

Wren: "NO THOSE! Where is doff-meter-fighting-guy! "
"Fighting guy? OH OH....Darth vader? You want your Darth Vader underpants?"


"Wren, there were no pants with Darth Vader on."

I know I am right. They are all Cars and The Incredibles on the pants. Seeing him gathering himself to yell at my stupidity I rush to the laundry basket and gather all the other things we bought at Target. Wren scrabbles through them in excitement. We almost have reached communicative liftoff.

Wren says "It was there yesterday now it - is - not - there." [this is bad]

But all is not lost. Burrowing through dirty laundry Wren grabs at something blue. It is an Avengers T-shirt.

"THERE IT IS!" he is triumphant. "Hooraay."

We have found Doffmetter.

There are many other examples that are easy to see in retrospect or context but its very hard to make your mind leave the word you heard to find another. A few days ago Wren told me he had "lava" coming out his mouth (that was saliva) and you heard about Donna's Ark (Noah's to the biblical fundamentalists). We had "magnets" eating the dead seal on the beach and the T-doc on Greenlake is the "Greenlake DOCtor."

All of this is understandable as we acquire language without reading - I was the same learning spoken Indonesian - but it brings a great deal of stress to the conversational partner. The stakes are high and the volume loud. Its not like you or I learning to speak French over a cup of coffee. Its teaching someone else French when your student yells at you if you can't understand their guess at the word and they talk all the time about poop and cars and cookies and only learn the words that drive you crazy.

Now I am going to the dentist which means it will be quiet for an hour and I can drool lava from my mouth for a bit afterwards.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

The Wild Things

I grew up in Durban, South Africa, and was one of those kids who have a series of hobbies which consume them. One of these obsessions was bird watching. Durban has a very rich birdlife and once I set up a bird table in the tree outside my bedroom and stocked it with seed and bone meal I had an exciting range of birds to watch. I still recall the day I saw burchell's coucal on my bird table and there were always weavers and barbets as well as the ubiquitous indian mynahs which nested in the park nearby. Over the years my family took over the birdwatching habit and even now, whenever Mum and Dad visit me we end up bird watching and sharing binoculars. Even Wren knows that when you see a bird you shout "give me the binoculars!"

So it was utterly utterly frustrating to arrive at Cape Disappointment on Friday night and find the sea filled - from horizon to horizon - with tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands of birds. From horizon to horizon the birds were flocked over the ocean, diving and flying past.

A small section of the huge mixed flock on 7/31/09

Words cannot really convey what it was like. Photo's don't either. There was just SO MANY BIRDS out over the sea. They were constantly moving, weaving, plunging, some swaying in formation - long lines of 50 pelicans and 100 cormorants rising and falling in gentle parabolas. Flocks were out beyond the break diving and splashing into the sea while others were passing by like the flock of 70 pelicans I saw flying so close to the surface that I could see each bird reflected in the water beneath it. Further still, the horizon blurred with the sea and the small fishing fleet gathered in the fog marked the reach of the sea.

The beach was awash with feathers

On the beach the lines of yellow scum at the waterline were matted with small brown feathers. Ropes of kelp occasionally dragged dead birds - cormorant, small dark feathered things. Birds, birds, birds but no binoculars! Later, we stopped at the interpretive center and I asked their bird experts about what I had seen. Neither had seen the huge flocks I described but said that they had many schools of "bait fish" at this time of year - sardines, anchovies and another I could not catch the name of - and the birds follow the fish. This certainly conforms with my observations of the birds and you may see some of that if you enlarge the photo. They also mentioned that the fall migration begins in July for many species and it could be the beginning of this movement as the larger flocks gathered.

Wren learned the word "maggot" from a dead baby seal being consumed near the tide-line. "Want to see the magnets again!" he kept repeating. "See the magnets again." His new vocabulary saw more use at the dead whale.

Walking towards the bluff at the North end of the inlet, we found the tail of a whale, long dead. It had skin on it and smelt of rot from downwind. Some distance off, I saw bones protruding from the sand and dug about in sand to excavate a large vertebra (I had thought they were ribs). Liz, who is a naturopath and studied anatomy, was interested to understand the skeleton which was hard with so much buried.

I later googled whale beaching in the area and suspect it was the carcass of an immature Gray Whale which came to shore some months ago and was probably buried by the Parks Service to avoid a health hazard as it decomposed. The body was broken and parts may have been swept away. There was very little flesh remaining considering how large the whale must have been.

Wren was impressed by all the carnage on the shore and kept saying "saw a DEAD WHALE" and "see DEAD WHALE AGAIN?"

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Camping at Cape Disappointment

Last night we returned from a two night camping trip to Cape Disappointment. It had been extremely hot in Seattle in the past weeks but at the coast the weather was cool with banks of fog and light rain coming off the sea in the mornings. We wore fleece everyday and enjoyed the campfires, hot chocolate, smores and sleeping bags. However, some of our campmates were less sanguine about the weather and comments such as "we could have been in Seattle in bikinis" were heard in the prematurely dark evenings as the noise of the surf rolled across the dunes. This didn't bother me as geography and climate have nothing to do with my not wearing a bikini.

Wren enjoyed the first day but by Saturday afternoon he was going through withdrawals from Go Diego Go and was "sad and want to go to Mummy's home, not new home, now." Here he is after being told that he couldn't watch Diego because there was no television and we were a long way from our house.

What kind of minivan doesn't have a DVD player anyway?

Thankfully, potty training continued to go well. Wren felt very at home on his potty as you can see from this fireside potty seat. I have taken to driving around with the potty in the car and this afternoon, on the way home from the Aquarium, we pulled to the side of the road so Wren could use the potty. Frost, having been forced to pee in a bottle on a number of occasions, thinks this is an excellent plan and suggested we keep the potty in the car forever. I was careful to go around corners slowly so as to avoid generating too much centrifugal force.

Frost had the most fun. He chased (and was chased around) by London (5) and enjoyed playing with Francis (pug). He was barefooted for much of the weekend and came home grimed with black metallic dust that is in the sand around here. Piper had a My Little Pony with a magnet in its foot which became encrusted with a thick lump of metal dust much as Frost's feet. I have had to wash everything we took camping and have made a list of the Things That Would Make Camping More Comfortable. These include a dustpan to clean the tent after the kids have played in my bed all day and a larger tent so I can turn over at night. Our current tent is a 4 skinnyperson tent and was bought before Wren was born. I think I would enjoy having enough space to have some of our clothes IN the tent instead of collecting black dust outside.

Frost was also happy at the treat of having Lucky Charms for breakfast number 1, number 2 and number 3. Wren had some every day but didn't really eat them. Both boys enjoyed the fire and roasting marshmallows and Frost finished an entire volume of his Rick Riordan series. He is now on number 4 - something about Titans. His DS battery became flat on the trip down so we did not have to 'negotiate' about screentime.

However far we were from wi-fi, Wren still found endless joy in the iPod touch. He played 'guys' and peekaboo barn when he was allowed which was when I needed to eat and not worry he was about to fall into the fire.

Is camping supposed to be FUN?
When I called Mum after we arrived home on Sunday night and she asked if we "had fun". Apparently I sounded ambivalent about the camping side of things (but not about the dead whale and seabird lallapalooza). I recall at some point on Saturday night having a glass of wine and opining that we should not book cabins next year because camping is about the discomfit. That camping should not be too easy and plush, that it was The Experience. I have never had an air-mattress and as a child we only did back-country camping . In America, all our camping has been 'car camping' which is what they call it when you put the kitchen sink in the back of the car and unload it somewhere else. Around us, most people had some kind of RV as well as a flotilla of little tents spread out around the campsite. Now that I have had time to think about it, I think camping could be a little more comfortable. A trip to REI will be happening shortly.