Don’t be a Puzzled Penguin

In the past six months, I’ve learned more about being a first grader than I have since I was a first grader. Part of each of my days is spent in first grade, learning to read and do addition and subtraction. Part of each day is spent in third grade as well, learning to read a little better and do multiplication and division.

There are a lot more parents, like me, in first grade this year than there were in the 1973-74 academic year. As I recall, it used to be mostly little kids, but now parents are having to figure out how to use all the many online tools that make the remote learning elementary school go. Fortunately, we all have a six or seven-year-old nearby to help us.

It’s kind of a vicious cycle, but in order that we don’t get too frustrated, we call it a symbiotic relationship: Big Man wants help with his homework; before I can begin to help him, he must teach me how to use the online platform that jealously guards this day’s homework inside its electronic labyrinth.

It can be taxing, but we’re getting through it together. Our two heads combined are enough to graduate one of us from first grade. I just hope it’s the one still full of potential.

Along the way, we’ve have had some adventures and met some characters. One of the noteworthy entities I’ve met in electronic first grade is the Puzzled Penguin. The Puzzled Penguin shows up occasionally on one of the arithmetic applications.

I first met the Puzzled Penguin when Big Man and I encountered a math problem that went something like this:

                The Puzzled Penguin thinks 7 + 5 = 10 + 3. Is he correct?

Before I had even finished reading the problem, Big Man announced with certainty: “Nope, he’s wrong!”

I was amazed at the speed of his calculation. “Wow! How’d you do that addition so fast?”

“I didn’t add anything.”

“Then how do you know he’s wrong.”

“Easy. The Puzzled Penguin’s always wrong.”

“But why is he wrong?”

Big Man shrugged. “Because he’s dumb?”

“I mean why is he wrong in this case?”

“Because he’s still dumb?”

I put the screen squarely in front of him. “Okay. Do the math and tell me why he’s wrong.”

He gave me an exasperated look. “I already told you the answer. Because the Puzzled Penguin is always wrong.”

As he was speaking, Buster entered the room. “Oh, the Puzzled Penguin,” Buster mused. “I remember him. That dumb bird is always wrong.”

The only thing we learned about arithmetic that day is that penguins are consistent.

Believe me, we’ve tried to help him.

It was supposed to be just a game

Getting all their schooling from a computer screen has not deterred our boys from their desires to play video games for the remainder of their waking hours. In an attempt to wean them from unnecessary screen time, we have tried to interest them in board games.

This strategy is fraught will peril. They are willing to play board games, but only if a parent participates. For some reason, they are too uncomfortable around these ancient relics to confidently manage them alone. They need someone who understands the old ways to guide them.

This is unfortunate. Though I spent many hours playing board games as a boy, I find I have almost no patience for them anymore. Also, sitting on the floor is not nearly as fun/manageable as it once was.

We have a Monopoly game in the closet, which I hope we never get desperate enough to open. I can’t imagine sitting through an entire game of Monopoly at my time of life. I’d have to resort to the trick my brother used to do when he was losing and “accidentally” overturn the board.

I have played my 1979 version of The Game of Life with the younger boys a few times. If you ignore the more tedious rules and aren’t too meticulous about every little monetary exchange, you can bang out a game in 30-45 minutes.

Look at those happy 70s parents. I wonder what they were trying to distract their children from.

This is the first time I’ve played Life since boyhood, and now I notice different things about the game. For example, even for 1979, the salaries were outdated: Doctor’s salary – $20,000.

The remarkable thing about the game could be a mere coincidence, or maybe Milton Bradly knew the score better than we give him credit:

Every player must get married, but the number of children each player accumulates is pure chance. In the games we’ve played so far, I have chanced to fill my little green car with children. In fact, I’ve collected more children than there are spaces in the car. Some of my children have had to sit on their older siblings’ laps, which they could do without being taken into foster care in 1979. I assume the newer versions have minivans and Child Protective Services.

In my car crammed with sardine children, I have never finished the game without ending up in the poorhouse. Buster, on the other hand, who the spinning wheel has never blessed with more than one child, has ended each game as a millionaire.

That’s my overloaded car in the Poorhouse parking lot.

This is an interesting lesson.

I wonder. If I had learned Milton Bradley’s one-child-limit lesson in 1979, instead of 2020, would I be able to contemplate a day when I could retire to someplace other than the poorhouse?

Oh well. In the game of life, children cost money. It’s too late to give them back now. Besides, I’ve come to adore them all too much to do anything but let them drive me up the wall and directly into poverty.

Grow tomatoes, they said

Back when we first moved into our house, and I was trying to build a garden that wouldn’t be raided by wildlife, people told me: “Plant tomatoes. The animals won’t touch them.” I didn’t plant tomatoes. I don’t like tomatoes. I like lots of things made from tomatoes: pizza sauce, tomato soup, marinara, but an actual tomato has just the right texture to make me flinch when I bite into it. I’m a freak, I know, but there’s just something about the feel of a tomato that makes my tongue want to retreat down my throat.

Instead, I spent lots of time fortifying my garden. The effort paid off. I made my garden impervious to rabbits and groundhogs, etc., just in time to abandon gardening in order to take up the hobby of raising children. Through all the years my garden lay fallow, I took pride in knowing herbivores could not get at the various weeds filling the space.

This year, my wife took an interest in gardening. Men familiar with wives will understand this means she did a lot of pointing while I did an equal amount of digging around in dirt. The pointing was crucial; without it, I may not have understood which dirt I was to play in.

In our refurbished garden, we kept it simple, planting only cucumbers and peas. The cucumbers went wild, overrunning the peas as well as the garden fence. It’s a good thing we didn’t plant tomatoes in there; they wouldn’t have stood a chance against the invading cucumber hordes.

Cucumber plants going over the wall to carry their conquest into the back yard proper.

My wife likes tomatoes. She likes them a lot. So, we planted some tomatoes in a pot on our deck. They prospered well, until the fruit started to turn red. Then we began to find bites taken out of them. The Internet cast the blame at squirrels. The Internet casts blame for a lot of things at squirrels. I’m sure some of it is justified, but I bet some of it is thrown at them based solely upon reputation. Squirrels have a PR problem.

I wrapped chicken wire (or as the chickens prefer: flightless bird wire) around the pot. The depredations continued unabated. A friend suggested it must be birds attacking our tomatoes, but I’ve seen the mouths on the birds around our place and I doubt they’d leave teeth marks.

One day I noticed movement inside the wire. As I came closer, the movement noticed me. Up the wire scampered a dirty little red-faced chip monk. He leapt from the wire to the deck railing and was gone before I could do more than stomp my foot and yell at him to get a job.

What a nice chap. He left half of the only ripe one for us.

We slid the pot away from the railing and removed the accommodating wire. The thievery continues unabated.

To date, the tomato arithmetic has worked itself to a ratio of one tomato for us, one tomato for Chip. I guess that makes us Nature’s perfect socialists.

Baked goods in the key of C: a musical prequel

Last post, I wrote about my son bouncing from instrument to instrument in his school’s music program. Since this seems to be a genetic condition, it’s fair I explain how he inherited his musical vagrancy.

In sixth grade, three friends and I decided to become drummers. The music teacher needed tuba players, but tubas weren’t how we wanted to make noise; we needed to bang on stuff. We began with borrowed sticks, playing on an old wooden table. Eventually, each bought a lesson book, sticks, and a little drum pad. At year’s end, the music teacher retired. I presume this retirement was planned before he met us.

Meanwhile, my mother put me in piano lessons. My sister was going to college and Mom didn’t want to lose my sister’s time slot with her highly regarded music teacher. The teacher’s reputation was a mystery to me. She was a hoarder. Her piano was an extension of her clutter. It gave me anxiety to sit at it.

She was a chain smoker. Her house reeked of stale tobacco. Between puffs, she instructed me. I recall an image of her swatting my fingers with a ruler when I messed up, but that must be an invention of embellished memory. Yet, I did frustrate her by messing up a lot, and there was certain to be a ruler somewhere among the old newspapers and cherub figurines.

I hated piano.

Our junior high and senior high were combined, so 7th grade put me in the high school band. The music teacher was new. On the first day, we sat on risers as he called out the various sections. Players of the called section stood and were directed to their places. Brass, woodwinds, percussion, etc., he went through them all. When he finished, four of us remained. He looked at us sideways. “Well, what are you then?” he asked.

We looked at each other. One of us marshaled the courage. “We’re drummers.”

The room exploded with laughter. The teacher shook his head and pointed toward the back, where the older percussionists stood in their places.

A group of Civil War percussionist boys preparing to percussion the troops into battle ranks.

We must have ruined that teacher’s day all year, because in 8th grade we had a new one. After enduring our playing for a while, he decided we should try other instruments, just in case. The school had one alto sax available, which two of us wanted. We held a competition for it. I made the least cringeworthy noise come out of it, so I won.

I was even worse at saxophone than piano. All I played were overtones, until I got winded and whatever tune I was playing shut down completely, at which, no one complained.

Spring brought marching season. I was still playing a snare in band. One scorching hot parade day, the bass drummer developed a problem walking and keeping a beat simultaneously. The band teacher asked me to carry the bass. I thought I was in a position to negotiate. I said I’d do it if he gave me an A in band. In my mind, he agreed.

Maybe I had a lot of balls, trying to bargain with my teacher, but I was fixed when I sweated them off under that tyrant drum. But I kept the beat.

I got a C+ in band.

The next year we had yet another new band teacher. I didn’t care. Stung by band teacher treachery, I took Home Economics instead. Our town sounded better, and I baked brownies. Things have a way of working out for the best.