Punctual (as she usually is), Mrs. Random arrived at the Little House in the Medium-Sized City soon enough that Random Granddaughter did not have to go to pre-school.

Mama (Random Daughter) asked Grandma to return a book to the library and provided a card so RG could check out some books for RG. She also indicated they could stop at the bakery on the way for a snack. Mrs. Random wanted to buy a loaf of bread, though she now bakes most of the bread we use, so she was happy to stop at the bakery.

When they got to the bakery, Random Granddaughter said, “I want a BAGEL. I want a bagel with POPPY SEEDS and cream cheese on the side.” RG was very definite about exactly what she wanted.

Mrs. Random detests bagels. As a person with strong opinions of these matters, Mrs. Random has often expressed to me and others the belief that no one can possibly want to eat bagels. In her usual jazz riff method of expressing her displeasure and contempt, she can elaborate with great detail and flair the evils and contemptibility of bagels. “They are very hard and don’t have much taste,” she begins. She can go on at some length on this theme.

People have often said to my wife, “You haven’t had real good bagels from [whomever they think sell REAL bagels.]” When someone makes such a comment to my wife, her jazz riff then turns into an entire symphonic suite worthy of Duke Ellington at his finest.

Mrs. Random said nothing about her opinion of bagels to RG. Although she does not think so, she is an excellent Grandma. Mrs. Random ordered a poppy-seed bagel and a side of cream cheese for RG and a scone for herself. RG, gazing in wonder at the display case, asked for a scone as well. Grandma said, “No, you have to make up your mind. Either you get a bagel or you get a scone, but not both today.”

RG, realizing she was in the presence of a force of nature, did not argue the point.

Grandma asked, “Do you want a knife to spread the cream cheese on the bagel?”

No, RG was not interested in a knife. She wanted a spoon.

RG began to eat the cream cheese with her spoon with evident delight.

“Don’t you want some bagel?” Grandma asked.

RG gave Grandma a What’s your Problem? look. RG began to pull bits of the inside of the bagel out and eat them. All the poppy seeds were on the outside of the bagel. RG carefully avoided the poppy seeds she had asked for so definitely. Perhaps RG loves the appearance of poppy seeds. Perhaps RG loves the Platonic essence of poppy seeds. Mrs. Random perhaps finds the ways of four year olds as mysterious as four-year-olds find the ways of adults.

They continued to the library. As is her usual practice, RG picked some books at Random (so to speak) for no reason any adult can decipher. In fact, when she gets home with the books RG usually does not seem to know why she picked the books. One of the books had some poetry. When Mrs. Random started to read the book to RG, RG said, with considerable contempt, “That’s a poem book. I don’t like it.”

We are in an age that doesn’t much like poetry. Just as RG realized at the age of two that she hates slugs and hates spiders, she realizes at the age of four that she hates poetry.

When RG woke from her nap she called for Mommy (birth mom). She did not seem pleased to see Grandma instead of Mommy. Evidently during her hap she had forgotten that Mommy was not home with her. However, RG did not have a melt-down, and pretty soon settled down to putting up with Grandma for the afternoon. They went outside and she took a long ride on her bicycle with training wheels. Sylvie came outside as well and behaved pretty well, and did not try to run away outside the yard.

“We had a pretty good day,” said Grandma, but I could tell she felt a little restless and disappointed. She didn’t feel that RG was all that excited to have Grandma take care of her.

I said, “It is a sign that RG is so loved and surrounded by people who love her that she doesn’t feel a need to let us know how much she appreciates us; that in fact she mostly takes us for granted.”

“Hmph,” said Grandma.


May 29, 2008

I called the babysitting house. Random Granddaughter answered the phone. After I identified myself, there was silence. (I suspect she was hoping from a call from a mommy.)

I asked, “Was Grandma good to you?”

She answered with a firm “Yes.”

I asked, “Were you good to Grandma?

Another firm “Yes.”

I spoke with Grandma.

Grandma said the day went well, but while demonstrating how she can turn a somersault RG had a little bit of a trauma, but she recovered.

They went outside to play. Little cat Sylvie went out and played with them in the yard for a long time. When they came back in, Sylvie stood by the front door and whined.

Grandma’s Turn

May 28, 2008

This morning at 6 am Grandma Random headed for the city in her little truck to babysit Random Granddaughter for the day. GR will be at the tender mercies of RG. RG will be at the tender mercies of GR.

I’ll see if Sylvie, my daughter’s little cat, will provide me the inside scoop of what really happens.

When I arrived to pick up Random Granddaughter from her pre-school for my second day of rescue/babysitting (a week after the first) I was told that RG was having lunch. The teacher who admitted me invited me to join RG for lunch. “She will have to share her lunch with you,” she told me.In the classroom, RG was sitting at a small table with three other children. There were groups of children at several tables. I have no idea whether the children choose their own lunch groups or not or whether the groups represent different status groups or pecking orders (although the children seemed to be eating their lunches in a normal way rather than by pecking their food, even in an orderly way).

I sat on a very small chair, as did all the teachers having lunch with the children. RG was eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. I asked her (using “please” politely) if I might have bite of her sandwich. RG immediately tore her sandwich in half and generously offered me an entire half.

I introduced myself to the children and asked their names. The boy in the group introduced himself as Leo. Leo asked me why I was taking RG away with me. I explained I needed her to babysit me.

The children accepted this explanation as reasonable. As I had taken RG away previously and let her return again the next week, the children seemed more relaxed about the situation.

Cassidy, one of the two other girls at the table, told me she wasn’t eating a sandwich. Indeed, she seemed to be eating small pieces of chicken out of a plastic bowl. “I am going to be a vegetarian, but my father thinks I need to eat some meat,” she explained.

Mira, the other girl at the table, told me that she didn’t eat peanut butter.

“Are you allergic to peanuts?” I asked.

“No, I just think some nuts are better than others,” she explained.

RG said, “Mia [her best friend who lives across the street] is allergic to peanut butter.” I looked around the room and saw Mia sitting at another table. It was a much larger table with many children sitting in long rows. Perhaps Mia was far enough away from RG to be safe from RG’s peanut butter.

The conversation seemed very adult to me.

As we walked home, RG and I didn’t talk much but we held hands in a companionable manner. After we got home, RG immediately handed me two birthday presents. One was for me; the other was for Grandma.

My daughter had forgotten to get us birthday presents back in January (mine) and Februrary (my wife’s). I had been a little surprised but didn’t say anything. Random Daughter has been very busy with getting ready for returning to graduate school and preparing to leave her job, so she had a lot on her mind. A week ago she had emailed me asking for suggestions for a present for her mother. “Don’t worry about your present; it’s taken care of,” she told me in the email.

In the barely extended family, we are not big on giving presents. We don’t exchange presents at Christmas. At birthdays, we typically ask each other what we want rather than trying to surprise each other. An anthropologist would no doubt conclude that our culture handles gift giving at an extremely primitive level, but we do the best we can in our rudimentary society.

I opened my present in front of RG. My daughter had remembered I had requested an “Arrogant Worms” album, but she had purchased two albums for me instead of just one, perhaps to make up for being late with the present. I explained to RG that I would save the other present so Grandma could open it herself.

(When Grandma later opened her present she found a Donovan album and an Ian and Sylvia album. She had these albums on phonograph records, but a) we put our turntable away and b) she had played these albums so many times the records were worn out. CDs wear out eventually, but I don’t know if they expire from the laser wearing out the CD as a phonograph needle wears out an LP. In any case, Grandma was very pleased with her presents. I was very pleased also as I had promised to buy these albums for her long ago, and now my daughter had done the task for me. We have a wonderful daughter.

RG decided to hear her story and take her nap immediately. I assumed we would go to the playground again after she woke from her nap.

After RG awoke a couple of hours later, she came downstairs. However, she didn’t seem quite awake yet. She lay down on the couch and covered herself with a blanket. She took turns putting the blanket over herself and putting it over me. Playing hide and seek and making people disappear and reappear continues to provide her with a great deal of amusement. For all I know, when she becomes an adult and marries she will play hide and seek with a spouse. Some games seem to have long-term entertainment value.

“I don’t want to go to the playground,” she said. As I was still operating on the principle that she was in charge as long as she didn’t do anything dangerous, I immediately agreed. The rings at the playground did not seem to be in any danger from her absence.

RG seemed a little bored. One of Mrs. Random’s worries is that RG will be bored when Mrs. Random takes care of her. I decided to let her be bored for a few minutes and see what happened. After a few minutes she began playing with a group of six small animal dolls quite intently, doing various tasks involving putting on clothes and taking off clothes. I asked her if she needed any help. “No,” she answered as she attended to the dolls.

I came to the conclusion that RG is at least as capable as the average adult of amusing herself and working out of being bored. I later told my wife, “Don’t worry so much about amusing or entertaining RG if she seems bored for a little bit. She has a considerable capacity for amusing herself if you leave her alone.”

Eventually, she asked me to tie to strings together on a smock for a little fox doll. Perhaps she was worried Grandpa was bored, so she found something for me to do.

Earlier, I had asked RG if she wanted to work a jigsaw puzzle. I pulled a puzzle off a shelf. She did not seem interested in the puzzle, so I left it on a table. After playing with her dolls, she went into the library and returned with a different jigsaw puzzle and began putting it together on the floor. Although she was having some success putting some of the pieces together, she also seemed a little stuck.

I approached cautiously to see if I could help without annoying her. Generally, adults put puzzles together by attaching the outside pieces first. They identify the outside pieces by one side being straight. I noticed RG often tried to put pieces with a straight edge into the middle of the puzzle.

I tried to explain to her about putting the pieces with straight edges together, but she didn’t seem quite ready for this level of the “Theory of Putting Jigsaw puzzles together.” However, she eventually got the entire puzzle together with a little help from me. She didn’t seem to mind my participation.

As the afternoon passed, about every half hour she asked when Mommy (my daughter’s out of law partner and RG’s birth mother) would be home. However, she seemed relaxed on the topic when I said I didn’t know. She seemed satisfied just to remind herself (and me) that Mommy would be coming home.

Eventually, Mommy did arrive. After a bit she decided to call Mama, (my daughter, who rides the bus home from her job) on Mama’s cell phone to see when she was getting home. I had told Mommy that I was not staying for dinner, but would wait a little bit to see my daughter if it didn’t take her too long to arrive. As Mommy began to dial, Mama walked in the door. (I think this is called magic.)

I thanked Random Daughter for my birthday present, kissed RG goodbye, and headed for the ferry.

Rings and Swings

May 17, 2008

When I picked up Random Granddaughter at her preschool she seemed very happy to see me and dashed to collect her things. Her fellow students were perturbed that she was leaving and asked me probing questions about why I was taking her away. One student in particular emerged from another classroom and started giving me a severe third degree interrogation. A teacher led the child back into the classroom, but after a minute he popped out again and started questioning me even more severely.

(Later, I mentioned the incident to the mommies. They knew the child in question and told me he has severe problems, one of several such children at the pre-school, whose parents are complacent about their distressing behavior. )

On the way home, we saw a large crowd of about a dozen adults congregated at a bus stop. RG steered me down a side street to avoid going through the crowd. RG’s tip of the day for pre-schoolers: Do not try to push your way through a large crowd of adults.

When we got home, I said to RG: “Here are the rules for today. Please do not do anything dangerous and please do not cause trouble. As long as you follow these rules, you will be in charge and I will do what you say. If you break these rules I will act like a mean mommy.”

She seemed to regard these as reasonable rules.

Then I asked, “What is the best way for me to get you to take your nap?”

She replied, “Take me upstairs, read me a story, and then I will take a nap.”

I said, “Before you take your nap, let’s have lunch.”

Mommy had packed a lunch. Before RG looked at the prepared lunch, she pulled a large plastic container of strawberries from the refrigerator and helped herself to a large quantity. She then suggested I take some strawberries as well. As the day progressed, RG frequently turned to the strawberries as a life-saving nutrient.

She picked her way through various parts of her lunch. There was a bowl of noodles which did not generate enthusiasm. I suggested she eat two noodles. RG was in a “placate adults” mood. She ate two noodles without argument and pushed the bowl away in a decisive manner.

We went upstairs. She picked a book about dogs. It was a clever beginning reader book with many easy words, most of which she recognized. After the story, she hugged and kissed me and promptly lay down.

I felt as if I were on the grandparent all star team.

After her nap we got ready to go to the playground. I said, “Do you want to bring some snacks?”

RG said, “No, I don’t feel hungry.”

Realizing I would be traveling in the company of a snack monster, I brought her bag of snacks anyway.

I had been told that she had made great advances in her playground skills. However, the truth was more complicated.

RG has been working on swinging from rings. She can hang from the rings, but she hasn’t quite grasped the technique of vigorously wriggling and twisting her body to get enough momentum to move her from one ring to another. Several other children (some smaller in physical size than RG) were traveling from ring to ring with considerable success. I could see RG watching the other children with irritation and frustration. She used the rings for a bit; stopped using the rings for a bit and engaged in other activities; at times went back to the rings.

After a while she decided to consume some snacks to build her strength. After devouring some strawberries, she went to work on a bowl of popcorn with single-minded enthusiasm.

A small child about 1-3/4 years of age with a mom in tow approached RG as she ate popcorn. The tiny toddler stood staring at RG in fascination and envy. It was obvious tyke considered eating a bowl of popcorn the ultimate in adult sophistication. Mom explained to tyke, “You aren’t ready for that type of food yet.” Tyke’s face expressed considerable irritation. RG looked complacent as she munched on popcorn with a look of adult sophistication on her face.

Strength restored, RG decided to return to swinging on swings, more familiar territory than swinging on rings.

After we got home, I could tell she was moody about her inability to master swinging on the rings. We sat on the porch and she began to untie my shoes. She told me to keep my feet still in a very bossy manner.

After untying my shoes, she pulled them off my feet and threw them on the grass, and looked at me with a What are you going to do about it? expression.

I thought. The situation of being without shoes didn’t seem very dangerous to me. The grass seemed fairly calm and placid, so I couldn’t really say that the shoes were causing trouble.

“I’m going inside,” I told RG. While she hadn’t caused trouble yet, I didn’t want to provoke her into pushing the limits. She is a little girl with a lot of imagination.

Shortly after we went inside, I pointed out the window. “I think Mommy just drove up,” I said. RG rushed outside to greet her Mommy, saved just in the nick of time from any more painful experiences with Grandpa’s babysitting.

When she came in, Mommy said, “I brought your shoes in.”

“She was being very bossy with me,” I explained.

“She gets very bossy with Mama and me as well,” replied Mommy. “Don’t take it too personally.”

Things were in a bit of a commotion at the mommies’ house. Their house needs a lot of repairs. A plumber is doing a lot of work on pipes under the house. The washer is sulking. For some reason the spare bedroom is full of boxes and furniture moved out of the way of other activities.

[A trap door in a closet provides entry to the crawl space under the house. Little cat Sylvie crawled down after the plumber to help him. He thought she had come back up when he came back up. However, the next day, my daughter heard the faintest of meows and finally discovered a trapped, very dirty cat in the crawl space.]

As I got ready for bed, they apologized. I said, “Don’t worry about it.” (I am a messy, untidy person, so other people’s messes only make me feel less guilty about my own flaws in this regard.)

I asked, “Do you have some towels I can use?” They are very good hostesses, and usually leave extra towels out for guests, but had forgotten. “I’m sorry,” said Mommy, and pulled some towels out of a closet. “They don’t all match in color,” she said, “but Mrs. Random isn’t here, so it will probably be all right.”

My antennae quivered.

As I was leaving the next day, Mommy pointed at a package of linens. “Tell Mrs. Random we have new sheets and new pillow cases for the guest bedroom,” she said.

I said, “Perhaps that will keep my wife’s inner Martha Stewart from rising to the surface.”

Mommy said, “It doesn’t have to rise very far.”

My wife has a very strong value system that when guests arrive, our house must look immaculate and very presentable. Before any guests arrive, including mommies and Random Granddaughter, my wife goes into a frenzied flurry of cleaning and arranging. If I have left anything obviously messy and amiss, I attend to it rapidly before my life ends prematurely; then I stay well out of my wife’s way until guests have arrived and it is clear they are not going to storm off in disgust. At that point my wife relaxes, and becomes not only a gracious hostess but a relaxed and friendly person.

This is a good value; it is much better than my male slovenliness. At the same time, I realized that when we visit the mommies, they feel they are under the eye of a critical and professional house keeper. They are not messy or unclean, but they are two very busy women with an active and imaginative four year old daughter who is into many busy projects at any given time. Compulsive tidiness is sometimes the second fiddle in the mix.

I mulled how to tactfully convey this to the mother out of law. I am thinking of suggesting she put out guest towels that don’t match in color.

Watching Manners

May 9, 2008

I had an interesting day taking care of Random Granddaughter. I will write more about it later, but for now a exchange from this morning.

RG was having a “trouble with good manners” morning. Mommy asked her three times to fetch some spoons for everybody at the breakfast table so everyone could eat their cereal. RG ignored her, though eventually enough gentle pressure was exerted that she fetched spoons. Each person received two spoons. I admired RG’s very subtle dig.

“How are the manners at pre-school?” I asked.

RG said, “Pretty good…but the boys don’t have very good manners,” she said.

I started laughing so hard, RG looked alarmed.

Mommy said, reassuringly, “Granddpa is not laughing at you. He just thought you were pointing out something that is true at other places.”

If I can get there in time, I may go watch RG at her swimming lesson tonight.

Weather the Terror

May 9, 2008

Perturbed by the massive number of deaths in the country formerly known as Burma, President Bonzai, triumphant in his “War on Terror,” today announced a “War on Weather.”

However, he made a distinction between our Allies in the War on Weather, such as hurricanes (clearly native American weather fronts) and alien weather using names such as “cyclones.”

“Now ‘Hurrican Katrina’ was clearly an ally in the ‘War on Weather,'” the President said. “Many of the victims were clearly related to what’s his face…’Obama I bin a Candidate for President.’ What could be more American than that?” he continued.

“On the other hand, the Cyclops in Mummadar is called ‘Nargis.'” He went on, “Does that sound like a Weatherist in the Axles of Evil or what?”

The President also said that he would invade Mummadar and force the government to let him give the people Aids or something.

At that point, the President’s wife told him that she had some nice hot chocolate grown in Texas waiting for him and that she would tell him a nice bedtime story as she tucked him in just as he had told the American people their bedtime story.

Someone was heard humming “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” Perhaps I was just hearing things.


Ways to help.

More info.

1) As I’ve mentioned previously, Random Granddaughter’s mommies (Random Daughter and her Out of Law partner, aka Mama and Mommy) are phasing her out of pre-school #3. This is not her fault.The mommies have asked Grandma and Grandpa to take care of RG at her house. Tomorrow (Thursday) is my first day of being a substitute pre-school.

I emailed my daughter and told her that I would not be at their house when RG leaves for preschool. I asked her to inform the pre-school that it is acceptable to let the strange man take RG out of school. RG is a little girl with a developing imagination. It is entirely possible for her to start screaming, “Help! Help! I don’t know this man! His name is Fritzl! I am being kidnapped! Call the Amber Alert line now! Call Sylvie on her batty cat emergency line!”

My daughter said my suggestion is a good tip and she will send a note to pre-school with RG. I hope it gets there.

2) Actually, I figure RG is very excited about the idea of having Grandpa take care of her for a day. After about half an hour or so, the disappointment will set in. She will look at me and say, “Is this it? Is this all there is? Please take me back to pre-school.”

Actually, negative fantasy #2 is really Mrs. Random’s. Mrs. Random is a woman who seeks perfection much of the time. She feels an obligation to be a perfect Grandma. She doesn’t know how a perfect Grandma behaves, but she knows there is a Platonic ideal of Grandmotherhood and she doesn’t live in that hood.

I will tell RG to say to Grandma, when it is Grandma’s turn, “It is OK Grandma. I love you even if you are not the Platonic ideal of Grandmas. Grandpa read a story by Plato before my nap. It put me right to sleep, but Sylvie liked it. Grandpa said that Sylvie is a Platonic idea of family cats.”

The Amstetten Project

May 3, 2008

About 30 years ago, I was teaching high school in Oregon. One of my students, a quiet, well-behaved young woman, seemed bothered by something, and her (average-level) school work seemed to be suffering. Her boyfriend, a pleasant, quiet young man asked me if they could have a conversation with me. I don’t remember the names; I’ll call her Lisa and I’ll call him Chad.

We sat in an empty classroom and talked. I asked her if something was bothering her.

“No,” she said. I talked with her a few more minutes, though the conversation seemed to be going nowhere. I was getting peculiar vibes, but I didn’t know what to do with them.

Suddenly, she blurted out, “My stepfather is raping me.”

I gasped in shock, but tried to keep my composure in front of Lisa and Chad (who obviously knew about the situation).

It general, it was my tendency to maintain confidentiality with what students told me, but in a situation such as this, school employees were required by law to report incidents of child abuse and sexual molestation and my conscience also told me that I had to take action.

Lisa told me that her stepfather had also raped her older sister, who had eventually run away from home. She would not have told me about the situation, except that she had a younger brother and she feared he would be next.

I asked Lisa about her mother. She said that mom probably knew, but was pretending not to. My heart pounded with some anxiety, but as I continued to try and speak very calmly and reassuringly. Lisa was reluctant and fearful about calling the police, but there was no other choice; it had to be done.

I decided to pass the buck. I said I would like to bring the school nurse into the conversation.

Lisa reluctantly agreed, close to tears.

The nurse did call the sheriff’s office. A detective who specialized in such cases eventually called me and explained the procedure they had followed in their police work. The procedure horrified me, but made ghastly sense.

They prearranged to have an unmarked police car stake out her house. The next time her stepfather raped her, she sneaked out of the house after her stepfather fell asleep. The police drove her to a hospital to collect sperm from her vagina.

Eventually, they filed charges. A week before the case began, Lisa ran away from home. She called me from Los Angeles; she told me she could not bring herself to go through the trauma of testifying in a trial.

Without her testimony, even with the hospital evidence, there was no case. The stepfather was released. Chad told me that Lisa had joined her sister (the previous runaway). The stepfather, the mother, and the younger son quickly moved out of the county.

I felt sick to my stomach.

I appreciate the fact that Austria has severe privacy protections, but there is an argument for studying the case of Josef Fritzl as intensively and thoroughly and publicly as possible. I don’t even know if there is any point in “punishing” this 73-year old retired electrician with a prison sentence.

I will offer a shocking, unethical, and misguided alternative. It will be something like Guantanamo Bay, only handled a little more gently and skillfully. I don’t think waterboarding will help in this situation.

 I would suggest having the best psychotherapists and anthropologists in the world study Josef Fritzl as best as they can. All their sessions with him should be videotaped. Investigators should also study, as well as they can after all this time, all that can be determined about his family and life history. Once the world operated the “Manhattan project.” We can call this the Amstetten Project

Eventually, all the recordings of the investigation should be skillfully edited down and broadcast internationally as a “reality television” show, with subtitles for most major languages.

It’s easy for me to describe Josef Fritzl as the strongest example of pure evil as one may find, but realistically one can probably find equally undeserving examples of the “banality of evil” in any day’s news.

I won’t resist the cliché of mentioning the country where this took place–Austria–but we all know such an incident could as easily take place in any country on earth. Austria as the location is just a coincidence.

Even though I would support the perhaps smaller evil of my cold-blooded and pathologically curious forensic investigation, in the end we would know no more about what caused Josef Fritzl to be Josef the good dad then we know about why a cockroach is a cockroach, though cockroaches probably are less disgusting than Josef.

We don’t keep any pets in our house in the woods, and I haven’t noticed any cockroaches running around our yard, but if I see one, I may adopt it as a pet. I’m not sure how I will explain its presence to my wife, who usually squashes bugs in the house without much ado.