Santa is real.

This year I took the kids shopping with me on Christmas Eve. I gave them $60 each: A twenty to buy a present for their mom, a twenty to buy a present for their sibling, and a twenty to buy some stocking stuffers for the other three members of the family. “You’re going to help play Santa this year,” I told them.

The fifteen year old went off and got a single stocking stuffer for each of us, a nice pair of pie pans for her mom, and two big bags of taffy for her brother. Done! And everyone was happy.

The ten year old spent an hour combing Cost Plus for a huge pile of stocking stuffers, and went slightly over his limit. (I bailed him out.) He got some nice mittens for his sister and a Downton Abbey calendar for mom. Also good.

On Christmas, after we’d opened all our presents, the 10 year old started talking about how he learned the truth about Santa. “C told me that Santa isn’t real two years ago. I like to pretend that he is real, but I know he’s not.”

“Whoa, whoa,” I said. “Santa’s not real? What about your mom over there? Do you think she’s not your real mom?”

“No,” he said. He knows that he has a birth mother and an adoptive mother, just like he has a birth father and an adoptive father. But we’re not “unreal” … we actually do the work of taking care of him, feeding him, buying him clothes, driving him to soccer practice. We’re pretty real, I reminded him.

“And guess what,” I added. “Santa is real, too. Who do you think Santa really is?”

“You guys?” he said, pointing at me and KJ.

“And you,” I said, pointing right at him. “You helped buy all those stocking stuffers, and you put them in the stockings. So you were Santa, too.”

His eyes lit up. “Yeah!” he said. Then, in a very deep, Santa voice, while posing like a bodybuilder: “I’m Santa Claus! I’m Santa Claus!”

Photo: One of the not entirely appropriate stocking stuffers the little dude got me.

Santa is real.

Better yet, Ledecky!

So the 9 year old, who loves to wear soccer jerseys with the names and numbers of his heroes (Ronaldo, Neymar) said this morning he wanted a Team USA Olympics swim cap that said Phelps on it. “Or better yet, Ledecky!” he added. Definitely Ledecky, he said later, because she wins by larger amounts.

Do swimmers do that? Are such things available?

As it turns out, the answers are: No, and yes. Swimmers don’t typically sport swim caps with names other than their own.

The Dude is undeterred: He still wants to wear the swim caps of his heroes.

Better yet, Ledecky!

Bigos

“In the pots warmed the bigos; mere words cannot tell
Of its wondrous taste, colour and marvellous smell.
One can hear the words buzz, and the rhymes ebb and flow,
But its content no city digestion can know.
To appreciate the Lithuanian folksong and folk food,
You need health, [to] live on land, and be back from the wood.

Without these, still a dish of no mediocre worth
Is bigos, made from legumes, best grown in the earth;
Pickled cabbage comes foremost, and properly chopped,
Which itself, is the saying, will in ones mouth hop;
In the boiler enclosed, with its moist bosom shields
Choicest morsels of meat raised on greenest of fields;
Then it simmers, till fire has extracted each drop
Of live juice, and the liquid boils over the top,
And the heady aroma wafts gently afar.”

Adam Mickiewicz, the nineteenth century national poet of Poland.

I don’t know any recipe for bigos that calls for legumes, but otherwise it seems like Mickiewicz got it right. This is a traditional Christmas Eve dish in my family, with a recipe that my mother (who is not Polish) got from my great-grandmother (her grandmother-in-law) who emigrated from Poland in 1920 or so. Great-grandma Viola made the dish without a written recipe or without measuring anything, but my mother watched her and took notes. My brother and I now make it nearly every year.

A coworker who is Polish tells me that it’s not traditional for Christmas Eve, but often eaten on the second day of Christmas — as well as other times, outside the holiday season. I got the impression that he didn’t consider it anything special. It’s basically a simple stew of sauerkraut, meats, mushrooms, and kielbasa. Bay leaves, allspice, and perhaps juniper berries are the essential seasonings. It doesn’t look very pretty, so I’m not posting a photo. But after a day or two of stewing it gets really, really tasty. It’s especially good with rye bread.

Quote

Normalcy is overrated

I was briefly walking behind a mother and daughter in downtown San Francisco last week about midday. They were both very nicely turned out: The mother in her thirties, the daughter probably 8 or 9, in matching brown coats and matching mid-length haircuts. A pretty picture. The daughter was talking to her mother about something, and it was one of those conversations? Where one person says everything? And the phrases all end in question marks?

I thought of my own daughter, and how she and her brother and Karen and I all look so different, and dress differently, and how she likes to meow at me and paw at me as if she was a cat, sometimes even when we are out in public, even though she is already 12. It’s a habit that has annoyed me for too long, even though I know what it means: She’s showing affection, and she wants a hug, and her love of cats helps her express an emotional need she can’t express directly. But it’s unique, and it’s her, and I love her for it, annoying as it can sometimes be. Plus, she doesn’t speak with question marks at the end of every phrase.

And then it hit me, right there, with the force of a long-forgotten memory, that normalcy is overrated. That’s how I felt growing up, and it’s how I feel now. At some point along the way I had forgotten how boring conformity can be. Thankfully, my daughter came along to help remind me.

I went home that evening and gave my kids big hugs. “Meow,” my daughter said, looking up into my face and smiling her squinty-happy-cat smile.

Normalcy is overrated

A toast to Chris and Leila.

One of the things about having a younger brother, if you are a scientifically-minded child, is that you have a guinea pig for many of your experiments. And Chris was a willing or unwilling guinea pig many times.

Let me tell you about one of those times. One day, we were down in the basement of the Nortons’ house, and Thane and I noticed that you got a little shock when you touched the knob of their TV. It was an old, black and white TV and there was something wrong with its circuits. You had to use a pair of vise grips to change the channel, actually, because the knob was gone. We thought, well, if you get a jolt touching it with your body, what would happen if you grounded the connection?

Fortunately, the furnace was right next to the TV. And for a conductor, we found a metal vacuum cleaner tube.

So we had a power source, a ground, and a connector. All we needed was someone to make the connection. Of course, neither Thane nor I were willing to do that. So we talked Chris into doing it. All he needed to do was to touch one end of the metal tube to the tuning knob and the other end to the furnace.

When Chris did that, there was a loud popping sound, a shower of blue sparks, and the picture on the TV dwindled down to a point. It never worked again.

Fortunately, Chris survived that experiment. (And for those of you who are small children: Don’t try this!)

It is  possible that this experience contributed to his later lack of judgement. For example, a difficulty distinguishing between penguins and dolphins. And he did have some wild years in his youth.

After awhile, Chris wised up enough to stop being my guinea pig. Instead, he let me go first. I went to St. John’s for high school, and when that worked out, he did too. Then I went to Williams for college, and he did too. He even followed me into a useless major in Religion — although he added a far more practical Philosophy major to that. And he watched as I got married and had kids before he did.

Eventually, Leila came along. She was (and is) a woman of great beauty, excellent cooking skills, and sufficiently iron will that she was able to straighten Chris out.

Now I am very happy that Chris and Leila are getting married and looking forward to a child of their own. And I just want to say that, although there may be some sparks and loud popping sounds, it’ll be just fine and you’ll survive.

To Chris and Leila!

A toast to Chris and Leila.

The past decade

Ten years ago today, I was in the middle of trying to get a content syndication startup off the ground.

I’d just left InfoWorld, where I had a cushy gig as a columnist and content development editor. In six months, the startup would be dead and I’d be back to journalism, this time as a columnist for eCompany Now, which later became Business 2.0.

In the past 10 years, I spent four and a half years working as a freelance writer and sometimes as a content consultant.

I contemplated going to library school. For awhile, I worked at RLG (now part of OCLC) and moonlighted by shelving books at the local public library.

I spent two years launching and helping to run a tech magazine, Mobile PC (later known as just Mobile).

I spent a year running online events and webcasts for PC Magazine, with Ziff.

And I’ve spent the past three years at Wired, first as a business and gadgets editor, then gadgets and science, and for the past two years as simply the gadgets editor.

I got laid off only once. I’ve been lucky.

My wife and I adopted two children. We are now the parents of an 8 year old and a 3 year old.

For the second adoption we started as foster parents.

We went through at least three almost-adoptions that didn’t work out.

We rebuilt our house, tearing off the roof and replacing it with a second storey, nearly doubling our square footage (and our mortgage payments) while keeping monthly utility bills just about even. Yay insulation!

Most of our closest friends moved out of the Bay Area and away.

I started tinywords, a daily haiku magazine, and ran it for eight and a half years. I let it lie fallow for almost a year and a half, and restarted it last month.

We didn’t travel nearly as much as I’d have liked. I didn’t discover running until late in the decade, missing many good years. I had to abandon my dreams of cooking my way through Julia Child’s cookbooks.

The past decade

My daughter’s on PBS!

My daughter and I will be on TV this week, 8pm local time Wednesday night (Nov. 14) on most PBS stations. That’s when our “GeekDad” segment will air, sometime during that night’s Wired Science program.

Wired Science is a collaboration between Wired (my employer) and KCET (a PBS station in LA). I’m not really involved, except that one day a video crew came to our house and filmed stuff as Clara helped me build a UFO-shaped hovercraft out of plywood, a piece of tarp, a leaf blower, and of course lots of duct tape. I also did two other episodes, except with some local high school students instead of Clara. I hear those episodes may be appearing on the Wired Science website, but not on TV.

Here’s a link to the Geekdad: UFO segment (just a preview now, but may have the full segment after Wednesday).

So my daughter’s a star! If you like her performance, send fanmail to wiredscience@kcet.org and ask them to bring her back next season!

UPDATE: Here’s the GeekDad: UFO page on the PBS website, with the video and comments from viewers.

Geekdad UFO promo image

My daughter’s on PBS!

Help! My daughter wants a UFO.

Thanks to repeated viewings of Jimmy Neutron, Clifford the Big Red Dog, and Scooby Doo, Clara is now obsessed with the idea of building a super-duper clubhouse that contains, among other things, trap doors, secret pools, a waterfall, and levers that make things happen (like pop people into the air). But most of all, she wants it to have a flying saucer — that really flies.

KJ and I really want to encourage this obsession but it’s getting hard to figure out what to do with it that will be a) practical and b) satisfying to Clara, and maybe even c) educational and inspirational for her. With KJ’s help she’s made spec lists and has started drawing plans.

I posed my problem to Chris Anderson, who edits the Geekdad blog (oh yeah, and Wired mag too). He was nice enough to pose my question to his readers — many of which have some great suggestions here:

Ask Geekdad: My daughter wants a UFO

Help! My daughter wants a UFO.

I did it in my head!

Last night Clara was working on her homework, part of which involved math problems — simple addition. (Math homework! In kindergarten! But that’s another post.) 2+2, 2+3, 6+0, etc. Karen set her up with a handful of clementines on the table and her homework folder. For 2+3, Clara put two clementines on one side of the folder, and three on the other. Then she “smooshed them together” and counted the total, which she wrote down on the homework sheet. Once she got the hang of it she was pretty self sufficient, although she needed some help re-locating each sum on the sheet after doing the clementines, since the sheet had about 20 different problems. Towards the end, she had a problem, 2+0, and wrote the correct answer without using the clementines. How did you figure out the right answer, Clara? “I did it in my head!” She proceeded to add a couple more sums the same way, but she checked her answers with the clementines this time.

Clara, after dinner: “Mommy, can I do some more homework now?”

I did it in my head!

Freedom from training wheels.

Jean helps Clara break free of her training wheels!At the start of JFK Drive in Golden Gate Park, near the McLaren Lodge at Fell and Stanyan, the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition holds a monthly “Freedom from Training Wheels” event to help kids learn to ride their bikes without training wheels. On Sundays the drive is closed to car traffic, except for the occasional police car or fire engine, so kids have the added bonus of being able to ride in the middle of the street. On Sunday we met Jean, a volunteer trainer and SF Bike board member. Jean is a great trainer, with lots of experience helping kids learn to ride and with a simple, straightforward approach and an easygoing confidence that quickly won Clara’s trust. The fact that she’s not the parent helps a lot too.

So, I removed the training wheels from Clara’s bike and lowered the seat as far down as it would go so her feet could rest comfortably on the ground and support her. Then Jean helped Clara get started, holding on to the back of her seat to push and stabilize her as she got going.

Inside of a minute Clara was yelling to Jean “let go! let go!,” and after a couple of minutes Jean finally complied. (“I’ve never had a kid tell me that before,” she confided later.) Clara’s bike wobbled, then straightened, as she took off on her own for the first time. “Pedal, Clara, pedal!” We shouted. “You’re doing it!” We all started whooping and shouting as Clara, grinning broadly, cruised right down the yellow line in the middle of the road.

Clara went on to make many more successful rides that morning, up and down the low, shallow rise in the road, and one time she rode up the hill, turned around at the top, and rode back down. She fell down a couple times, but recovered well each time and got right back on the back, even when she scraped herself once. By the end of the hour we were yelling at Clara to open her eyes and put her feet on the pedals, because she’d been closing her eyes and lifting her feet up to make the ride more exciting.

As a bonus, in between successful training wheel-free rides, Clara got to take a few rides on the bake of Jean’s bike, which has been extended so it has extra carrying capacity — she might be able to fit six bags of groceries on the supersized rack, and tells us she’s carried as many as four kids on it at one time. “It’s my sport utility bicycle,” Jean said, though it was surprisingly light and stable.

When the hour was up, Clara asked to have her training wheels put back on — to make it easier to ride to lunch. There’s riding for fun, and then there’s practical transportation.

Freedom from training wheels.