Alex and Food

Alex has an interesting relationship with food.

Yucky vs Yummy

Like most toddlers, he’s neophobic. No, that doesn’t mean Keanu Reeves in a black trenchcoat appears in his nightmares. He just doesn’t like new foods.

He has a clear understanding that there are foods one likes (yummy foods) and foods one doesn’t (yucky foods). As we often discuss at the dinner table, “Mama say yum, broccoli. Dada and Alex say yuck, broccoli.” He was discussing the different kinds of food with me yesterday, revealing his understanding of jobs in the process.

“When I’m a little older, I have a new job and you have a new job and Dada have a new job and we make big monies and we buy all the yummy food and we buy all the yucky food and put it in the bin.”

Real Food

Also like most toddlers, Alex loves his sweets. We’ve been drilling it into him that you can’t have dessert until you’ve eaten some “real food” (amount to be determined by the Court of the Parents, from which there is no appeal). We first introduced this in a restaurant, where he was angling to have a chocolate sundae for dinner. We explained that he had to have some peas, fish and chips first, because that was real food.

So one day last week, he brought home a square of the cake they’d made in nursery. He didn’t eat it after dinner (can’t recall why), but the next day I packed it, along with some sandwiches and fruit, for lunch while we were out geocaching. We stopped for lunch and I opened the box. He looked inside, inventoried the contents, and gave me a testing glance. “Sandwiches are real food,” he said. Translation: I eat the sandwich and I can have some cake, right? I agreed that sandwiches were real food, and he tucked in with enthusiasm, keeping an eye on the cake as he ate.

Even funnier was the pantomime he went through yesterday. I had bought a new pair of boots, and had just taken them off in the living room. He put his feet into them (a comic sight) and declared he was off to the shops to get some sweeties. He was halfway across the floor toward the dining room table (the shop in this game) when a thought struck him.

He turned around quickly and rushed back to the living room. Kicking off the boots, he turned to the TV table. “Real food,” he said, and started picking up handfuls of air and stuffing them in his mouth. “Eat, eat, eat…” Then he put the boots on and went to the shop for sweeties.

Unlikely friends

I was mowing the lawn this morning when a survey-taker came by. He caught me at a good moment – just finished in front, but disappointed that the sun wasn’t well out in the back garden yet. Fiona was asleep in her Happy Chair in the porch, while Alex was zooming around and poking the gardening fork into the ground in random places. And I have sympathy for survey-takers who come by in person, having collected signatures for a political cause one summer long ago.

So the long and the short of it was that I was willing to have my brain picked for a quarter of an hour on telephone companies. The survey taker didn’t know by whom he was employed, but the nature of the questions causes me to think it was TalkTalk.

My favourite question: If telephone companies were people, how willing would you be to be friends with (insert phone company name from a list of five or six he was asking about)?

My answers were disappointing, I think – I wouldn’t particularly want to be friends with any of them. Not even the company we get our service from. But it made me wonder, in this era of corporate persons, whether we will ever be pals with companies rather than people? Then what? Could you marry a corporation?

Settle, Petals

Μηνιν αειδε, Θεα, Πηλιαδεω Αχιλος
Sing to me, Goddess, of the rage of Achilles, Pelias’ son.

Menin. Rage. Homer opens the Iliad as I’d like to open this blog entry, but smooth English grammar doesn’t permit it. But rage, anger, wrath, fury, is what I want to talk about here.

I’m American, but I’ve lived in the UK for over a decade. I’ve seen a way of conducting political (or religious, or philisophical) debate that most Americans don’t see, and that makes me worry about my native country.

My mother went to Speaker’s Corner in Hyde Park on her most recent visit over here. The speakers and their audience were all discussing religion, both Islam and Christianity. All of the debaters were passionate about their faiths, and varied widely in their views. But, my mother commented, “It was so good-natured. We could never have something like that in the States. Someone would get lynched.” And she’s right.

I’ve seen it in politcal debates online (witness the furore over entries on The Daily Kos and the thing with Kathryn Cramer, to name but two). I’ve seen it in the intensive partisanship that deadlocks Capitol Hill. I’ve seen it in media coverage, and media coverage of media coverage. I’ve seen it in real life, and I’ve felt it myself. There’s an undercurrent of eye-popping, vein-throbbing, fist-clenching and red-seeing anger in the way my fellow countrymen discuss important issues.

In British politics, I’ve seen Tories and Old Labour politicians, whose positions are further apart than anything you’ll see in the American mainstream, debate with humor and wit. I’ve also seen them sling insults and sarcasm at one another without losing the plot. An entire British political institution, Prime Minister’s Question Time, where the PM has to answer questions put by the opposition, in public, every week, with extra added heckling from the back benches, would not be possible in the US. Everyone would take it all too seriously and someone would burst a blood vessel.

No, not just seriously. Everyone would take it personally. The blogwars differ from the rest of US political debate not in nature but in degree, so an examination of them is useful. A typical blogwar starts with a provocative comment, followed by a reader of the opposite view losing his temper and posting some inflammatory trackback on his own site. Then a reader of the reader gets steamed and goes back to the original blog with an offer to wipe the grin off the writer’s face with a belt sander. Somewhere down the line someone took a political issue personally. US political debate usually takes more steps and ends well short of belt sander threats, but the transition from abstract to personal, from factual to furious, is the same. Read the editorials and letters of the SF Chron for a view of the polarity between the two sides. (Note that I don’t need to indicate a particular date’s opinion pages. It’s the same every day.)

This transatlantic difference leads to transatlantic misunderstandings. There is a perception in the US that the international media are “biased” against America. No doubt some media outlets are. But, at least in the UK, the media are “biased” against, in other words, critical of, pretty much everyone. Some of it’s a feeling that it is the duty of the Fourth Estate to question the powers that be. Some of it’s that conflict and scandal sell papers. Some of it is that the people who work in the media like that sort of conflict – that’s why they work in the media. Whatever the reason, the mainstream news sources over here use a harsher grade of investigative and invective sandpaper than their equivalents in the States. But because these things aren’t automatically personal, and aren’t taken as such, the system works.

Now, there is a valid argument that serious matters require serious discussion. Wars, death, money, politics – these are no laughing matter. Europeans, with a cynical smile for every issue, are preceived as being careless, ineffective, and effete. It’s like that little smile that Alex gets when he’s being really defiant and difficult. Taking things lightly like that is bad. We must be serious. That’s all very well until seriousness leads to over-seriousness and a personal identification with the cause under discussion. Then an attack on a position is an attack on the person holding the position, and we’re back to rage and thoughts of power tools.

What we’re not doing, when we get angry, is listening to the other side. And without listening, there can be no discussion, no cooperation, no compromise, no peace. So please, can we laugh a bit, and let go of the wrath?

Rockin’ on the Potty

It’s been over a week since Alex has made any significant mistakes, so I hereby declare him POTTY TRAINED.

If you, gentle reader, are the parent of a recently potty-trained child, you will know the mix of delight, amazement, and exhaustion I’m feeling right now. Delight, because I don’t have to change his nappies any more. Amazement, because I see now what a fundamentally unnatural thing Alex has achieved. And exhaustion because potty training is hard work for a parent as well as a child.

If you are the parent trying to, or contemplating trying to potty train, a child, I know how you feel too. Curious, right? I used to read potty training books and websites, looking for some magic formula that would make the effort easier. Well, sadly, there is no universal magic formula, but let me tell you how we did it.

If you’re not a parent, you’ll have to find your own motivation to read this.

So how did we do it?

For almost a year, we tried rewarding Alex’ use of the potty with little toy cars, stickers, any little titbit that might get him interested in the process. Although I felt at the time that this effort was wasted – his success was sporadic at best – I have realised that this long run-up laid the groundwork for the present success. First of all, it clued him into the fact that potty training was a fertile area for rewards, and secondly, it started him working on his bladder control.

It did not, however, convince him to be clean and dry. None of the trinkets on offer were worth the effort of managing his wastes himself instead of lying there while we did it. Not even the thrill of “big boy underwear”, just like Dada’s was enough. So we found two things that he loves best, and used them as levers.

First of all, Alex is a very social boy. He thrives on interpersonal interaction, and values approval very highly. (I’d worry more about how this will leave him prey to peer pressure if he weren’t also stubborn as a mule.) So when his grandparents Sutherland started in on how important potty training was on his first overnight visit to their house, he began to realise that people in general were keen on the endeavour. I think he felt Martin and I were eccentrically obsessed before then. This social awareness also allowed us to use praise as a reward, and mild shunning as a penalty for failure (particularly poo failure).

The second lever we had on him was gaming. Alex loves Playstation and GameCube games. Even PC games, or the Flash games on the CBeebies website, can captivate him for however long we allow him to play them. So we started changing the rules. First, he couldn’t play anything until he peed in the potty once in the day. Once he was reliably peeing first thing, then he could only play until he was wet or dirty, then they went off until he asked to go to the potty and produced somthing, then on until the next mistake, etc. Finally, they were off after a mistake, with no reprieve.

It all took a week or two from the visit to his grandparents’ to being always dry. But poo was still a consistent problem. Then his grandma Foley came over and reinforced the social leverage about stinky poo. So instead of messing his underwear, he clenched. Like a drug smuggler refusing to produce the evidence for the customs officer, he simply held it all in. And we held our breath – would he ask to go to the potty when the peristalsis was too strong to overcome? Or would he let it all out?

He asked to go to the potty. And there was much rejoicing.

Now I’m trying to roll back universal games access, since I don’t actually want him to turn into a couch potato, even one with excellent bladder and bowel control. But I’m also so proud of my boy that I’m rolling it back gently…

Good Customer Service!

Considering how much we complain about our bad experiences with companies, I feel I have to report my most recent corporate interaction. It was so good it was scary.

We have a fridge. It’s an Indesit, about seven years old. It’s so old (in British white goods terms) that the manufacturer has changed its logo since we got it.

A bit of history, as a digression: we got the fridge on the house insurance, after I stabbed our previous fridge in the back while defrosting it. This was in Prince Regent Street, when we lived at the top of four flights of steep concrete stairs. The delivery men were not happy. Then they saw that the fridge went in the back of a kitchen built into a dormer window, and that they had to remove the old fridge over the counters, install the new one the same way, and take the old one down all those stairs. And it was a hot day. And I couldn’t, obviously, offer them a cold drink for their troubles.

Back to the subject. This fridge, though fine in all other ways, had a plastic bottom shelf. This shelf had a little clear plastic window over the vegetable drawer. The little clear plastic window was structurally separate, meaning that the weight of everything on the shelf had to be carried by two narrow beams of the main bit where it went over the drawer. Inevitably, one of those beams began to crack and bend. I repaired it with electrical tape and chopsticks, but its time was clearly up.

With heavy heart and little trust, I Googled “Indesit refrigerator shelf replacement UK” and got lots of useless sites. I also emailed Indesit directly, asking if they by any chance sold spare shelves to the public.

They replied within a day, with a toll-free UK phone number. Now, I hate calling strangers on the phone. Revile it. I’d rather starve in a gutter than be a telemarketer or a phone survey taker. So it took me a couple of days to decide that I hated the fridge shelf situation more than I hated one call.

The spares line answered on the first ring. Wow. The voice was friendly and cheerful. Double wow. They could sell me the shelf, even of an obselete fridge. Would I like a plastic one or a metal one? I was agog. It would be £6.85 including VAT and delivery for the metal one I wanted. I nearly had my head between my knees, I was so close to fainting from shock.

Then the kicker. It was out of stock. Maybe in three weeks or so? They took my credit card number and I hung up, my sense of the order of the universe restored by the one setback.

That was last week. So when the parcel arrived on Monday, with the shelf – the correct shelf, well, I was astonished.

Still, in a bow to the true nature of the universe, it did at least come with a silly warning message.


My New Job (as explained by Alex)

We took Mom to Edinburgh Airport this morning. Martin dropped us all off, and Alex, Fiona and I then accompanied her to the security gate (via the exceedlingly long and slow British Airways check-in queue). Then the kids and I took a taxi back to Goose, where I left Alex behind and walked Fi home.

In the taxi, there were a couple of adverts for the manufacturer, Manganese Bronze. One of them showed a classic black cab in a shopping centre, which particularly interested Alex.

First, he explained that “naughty people” drive taxis in shopping centres, and “good people” don’t. When he was a little older, he continued, his new job* would be to tell them “NO” (said with The Admonitory Index Finger, heretofore to be referred to as the AIF, extended), and that I would stay at home.

Then he mentioned that there were sharks in shopping centres, which also needed application of the AIF and a good telling-off, and told me his new job would involve this as well. I pointed out that that was two jobs, and how would he find the time to do them both?

His solution was that I would do both jobs, presumably because as a Mom I have so much time on my hands. So I am now the Official Teller-Off of Sharks and Bad People Who Drive Taxis in Shopping Centres. Armed with my AIF, which I only have by marriage, I go from shopping centre to shopping centre, saying “NO” to large toothy fish and cabs.

The taxi driver was it stitches.

* Martin’s new job, according to Alex, is to fix robots. While being dropped off this morning at the airport, Alex was instructing his dad to fix two small robots first, in the secret area, before starting on the big robot. All this will come as a trememdous surprise to Intelligent Finance, which took Martin on as a contractor to help develop computer systems.