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When my brother was a small child, he had a tricycle he loved.  It was a navy blue Fisher Price tricycle made almost entirely out of plastic, with a lightning bolt on the side and a seat that hinged open for storing treasures.  On it, he was unstoppable.  Many kids will wear down the heels of their sneakers when they “brake” their tricycles.  My brother backpedaled until he’d skidded the front wheel into oblivion.  Since it was just hollow plastic, not solid rubber like better made trikes, he’d soon worn clear through the plastic.  My father, cheap and inventive, managed to rivet strips of fiberglass around the wheel until he had, in effect, given it new tread and a new life, like truckers do instead of replacing the entire tire.  My brother loved this tricycle to pieces.

A few weeks ago, Mr. Apron and I were at the new Philadelphia children’s museum, the “Please Touch Museum”.  It’s a wonderful place built instinctively from children’s imaginations.  It features an expansive water play area, an Alice in Wonderland-themed zone, an aerospace exploration exhibit, a “town” which included a grocery store, kitchen, shoe store, train station, city bus, car, and construction site.  The kids, especially my grown-up kid husband, especially enjoyed climbing all around the Scion xB they had staged.  In  addition, for adult interest, they put on display behind glass vintage toys, including real antique wooden toys with the paint loved off, and some toys from my childhood only a few years ago.  They themed the display toys so that they related to the actual exhibit – putting space age and flying toys with the wind tunnel and flight-themed exhibits; and Alice in Wonderland toys near that area.  Near all the wheeled goodies – the city bus, the Scion xB, the manhole cover puzzle, the fix-it shop, they had a case filled with wheeled toys.  There was a Big Wheel, an old-fashioned pedal car, and my brother’s tricycle, c. 1985. 

I snapped a photo, texted it to my brother, and, within minutes, received the following reply:

“omg, my trike!”

Little brother was born on Christmas, making his birthday a tricky thing to shop for.  He always gets shafted, with his birthday so close to Hanukkah, if not overlapping outright.  Growing up, he always was disappointed not to find the expensive electronica he’d asked for under the wrappings.  It wasn’t that he was hard to shop for, but video games and computer parts were expensive gifts in the early ‘90s.  Nowadays I’ve found a new area of gifting for him – nostalgic toys from his youth.  A few years ago I found on eBay an exact copy of a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles figurine he’d had.  It was a cheap talking toy.  When you pulled a plastic ripcord through the Turtle’s backpack, the toy would “read” the bumps on the strip and say some barely intelligible Turtles phrase.  He was overjoyed to open it, destroy its value as a collectible, and even say thanks. 

This year, though, I was brilliant.  I took the photo I’d snapped at the museum, dumped it in MS Word, converted it to black and white, printed it out, traced it onto freezer paper, cut out the negative space with an X-acto, ironed it onto a t-shirt, and stenciled his beloved trike onto the shirt.  Simple. 

Oh, and the caption I thought of: “Pimp my ride”.

I hastily wrapped it before presentation, and he opened it.  When the realization spread across his face, I knew I had a winner.  Mr. Apron explained that I had (painstakingly) made the shirt using the image from the museum, and his jaw dropped.

My brother and I have never gotten along, and lately he’s begun giving perfunctory hugs out of social grace.  I got one such hug and he exclaimed, “Whoa.  This is way better than anything I would have given you.”  Talk about the ultimate compliment.  And then, I got another hug.  Perhaps a real one?

I don’t often get these wonderful brainstorms for gifts, and I’m rarely compelled to give a gift so fitting and time-consuming to my little brother, who has for years been the antagonizing force in my life.  We’re so distant that, two years after my wedding, he didn’t even know I’d changed my name.  Yet these forces of family compel even disparate siblings to make an effort.  I came to a difficult realization a few years ago which has strangely liberated me in my feelings towards him:  I may have to love him, but I don’t have to like him. 

In small ways he’s become more “human” over the years.  Peer pressure finally kicked in and he wears regular clothing now instead of sweat shirts and track pants, even if he is wearing oversized sunglasses indoors like someone with dilated pupils.  He can now eat with his friends in a normal restaurant, as opposed to the half-dozen American fare fast-food joints that his picky diet restricted the family to, growing up.  He now sends almost regular birthday cards, cards I’m sure my mother has addressed, stamped, and given to him to sign and send.  Yet these little acts, acts we’re all making little efforts for, are gradually pushing us both towards, if not fraternal harmony, then civility at least.

I just ran over a dog.  A Cavalier King Charles Spaniel.  She darted out into the road as I was completing the final leg of my drive home from work.   A 12 mile trip which today took me over an hour and a half. 

Take one winter snowstorm, dumping 8 inches of snow, ice, and crud in a major urban area, add sunglare so severe I couldn’t read street signs as I weaved and darted my way home, throw in an accident during rush hour on the major artery that takes me from work to home, and let’s not forget it’s December 23rd, so we also have last-minute shoppers, kids getting out of school early, and the official beginning of that break from work for a holiday I don’t celebrate (but am grateful for the time off nonetheless).

Finally, after detours through frightening neighborhoods, in an effort to avoid the major road which was backed up, I got back on the congested boulevard, and creeped and crawled my way back to my own safe neighborhood.  As I was heading down the final stretch, at last able to open up my sporty little car towards the optimistic 35 mph speed limit, a little dog darted out from the iron gates of one of the villa-esque mansions and hopped across the road.  I slammed on my brakes, grateful it was 33 degrees today, or else the road would have been one giant skating rink, and I heard the grinding of anti-lock brakes.

I didn’t stop in time, or, at all.  I kept driving, lest I be hit by the car behind me, on this road that doesn’t have shoulders.  But as I glanced in my rear-view mirror, I expecting to see what I dreaded, I saw instead a happy little puppy bounding back across the road in front of the next car, which had managed to stop.  Somehow she either flew between my tires, or I was able to slow enough for her to make it across the road. 

When I was a little girl, I saw our dog, Amy, a fox terrier-whippet mix, get run over in a similar fashion.  She timed her crossing to coincide with the undercarriage of the car precisely, and she narrowly missed all four wheels. 

I wanted nothing more than to escape work a little early and run home so we could get back on the road and go visit my parents for the next few days.  Instead, I was treated to a trial of patience, determination, fear, and relief.  The last thing I want right now is to get back in that car and face the still bunged-up roadways with the persistent sunglare and asshole motorists.  Yet that’s precisely where I’m going.  As long as Mr. Apron is doing the driving, as long as that little dog is okay, I think I can bear it.  But a Xanax would help, too.

I have been very careful to keep Work out of the blog spotlight, lest I find myself among those numbers they quote when the talking heads discuss “new unemployment claims” and “jobs cut” each month.  I shall still attempt to be anonymous and generic and cull that self-preservation instinct which has been gradually developing since the days of my early 20s when I would often go for 4 mile walks by myself at twilight in the shoulders of not-quite-highways.  Mr. Apron has helped me see danger everywhere.  I even asked for a Club for my car when I had my first practicum in a North Philadelphia public school.  And used it, too.

But after last Friday’s events, I’ve been stewing and I have decided to spill, as I am able.  It all began back in August.  Cue the harp strings in arpeggiated descent.  We were at last hiring new staff members after being short critical members of our office.  And, as the new person would be in the office 4 days a week, to my 2 days, she would be getting my primo real estate desk.  The official story was that she would benefit from the comradeship of a woman in the same office who shared the same job title and could offer mentorship.  It seemed an open-and-shut case.  Her needs trumped mine, but I would be getting a brand-new desk and shelves (!!!) on which to store my crap.  Then, a week before the “move” I got an e-mail telling me to put my plans into a holding pattern, that something else was coming down the pipeline.  Seems someone else wanted my new desk.  She, having, I guess, seniority, and also being in the office 5 days a week, got my new spot, someone else took hers, and I was crammed into the vacated corner desk.  I went from 4 filing cabinet drawers to 1 plus a drawer for pens and post-its.  Menial stuff, right?  I could manage.  Right?  I settled in, telling myself all the above statements calmly, rationally, and tried to work. 

Two weeks later, I was informed I would be moved again, this time to accommodate a 5 day a week-er, another new addition to the staff.  The more, the merrier!  Finally we were full enough to serve the children, yet a little short on space.  Needless to say, she was given my desk, such as it was. 

The great part is, the situation was presented to me as a “What ought we to do?” conundrum, not as a done deal.  As if I had some say in the matter, that my creative brainstorming might lend me a greater outcome than some company mandate.  I tried to be rational again; I tried to think over the options.  In truth, I am only in that office 2 afternoons a week, for a total of 5 hours.  For 5 hours, I can be nomadic if need be.  Right?  For 5 hours I can do my paperwork on the conference/lunch table, and store my files in some filing cabinet shoved in a corner.  I’m only there 2 afternoons.  I don’t have any seniority, or any say in the matter anyway.  But it all looked like my choice when I suggested I hang my shingle on the small piece of counter in the back office.  Besides, the other “option” offered to me was to work on the extra rickety computer terminal “desk” that had been relegated to a corner of the conference room.  So I prepared to move yet again, to a space I affectionately refer to as “my slab”. 

 Again, it would seem as though I were handling it like a champ, telling everyone how okay I was with it all, being so flexible and accommodating and understanding of all these logical events.  Except that I was going through some intense personal/health issues back in September, and overreacted in line with crazy woman hormonal insanity. When I heard this (or, as it would seem, when I “decided” this), I immediately broke down into tears.   Because that’s a normal reaction for being told to move your desk.   

I miss the nice community I had in my space last year.  I miss those people I used to sit and kibbitz with.  I miss how we each talked to ourselves simultaneously.  And I miss that mentorship I had with the other speech therapist in that office, because learning from someone more experienced really is important.  I had prepared to develop something similar in my new office, except that two weeks later I was on the road again. 

It’s hard enough to be an itinerant speech therapist while seeing children.  It’s harder still to feel itinerant in the office.  I’ve been stationed at my slab now for 3 months and I still can’t work back there, in the darkest corner of the smallest, darkest space.  I bring my paperwork out to the conference room.  I almost physically can’t pull my chair out enough to sit at my slab without bumping into another coworker.  And it makes me sad.  I want to feel comfortable there, comfortable to bring in a picture of my husband and dog, comfortable to bring in my own tacky mug to hold pens, but there’s no physical space for those creature comforts.  

Last Friday, another “It’s your choice” moment was presented to me.  As if the office weren’t fairly bursting with new faces and improvised workspaces, yet another coworker has been added to our ranks.  Another speech therapist who will be there 2 afternoons a week, just like me.  And.  She.  Will.  Be.  Sharing. My.  Slab. 

Because we won’t be there on the same afternoons, wouldn’t it just make so much sense for me to share it?  My response to the “offer”: If she really wants to.  If she really wants to start a new job fresh out of school being relegated to sharing a small area of countertop and being given one measly file drawer (yup – lost the one for pens and post-its) with me, I would be more than happy to do so. 

I’m very happy to see so many faces in the office.  The overall workplace feeling is very supportive and productive during those couple of hours we’re all at “homebase”.  The kids we try to serve will finally be getting all the services they need, and we’ll be providing good therapy by knowledgeable clinicians.  I’m just feeling a little slighted, and a little tired of taking one for the team. 

Though I know it’s going to look great on my yearly performance review.  

I’m going to take a break from brooding about Christmas for a while.  I’ve finally seen some tasteful lawn decor — giant blue ornamental balls dangling from a barren deciduous tree, and not a blow-up character in sight — but I’m burning out on all the family time, holiday shopping, charity appeals, endless baking, and scheduled commitments.  I’m ready to bring you another installment in my “series” of favorite therapy toys/techniques. 

Actually, this one is more about the therapist/adult as the toy.  Surprisingly, I don’t mean this literally.  I’m well aware of the wonderful times that can be had swinging children upside-down from their toenails, flying them in circles, and flinging them onto resilient sofas.  I’ve wanted to fling many a hyperactive child, for the right and wrong reasons.  Hanen is a beautifully designed series of programs for parents helping their children to communicate.  In their program developed for children with autism-spectrum disorders or difficulty with the social aspects of communication, they advocate the human-as-toy approach, though I come at my ideas a little differently.

In Hanen, you, the adult, involve yourself as part of the play to make the play include a human aspect.  Instead of filling up a bucket with toys, you might use the bucket as a hat on your head, and let the child delight in seeing it fall off your head again and again.  You might build a train track that uses your legs as a tunnel, or hide toys in your hands.  Either way, you’re looking for opportunities for interaction and communication in play, and, truly, in a multitude of everyday activities. 

The reason I think of my ideas as using myself as part of the therapy is that I am often wearing the toy.  I am the toy.  I try to bring something irresistable (for a 3-5 year old) that impels them to communicate.  Though I may be every bit the bill-paying adult,  I often dress in a manner that is a combination of easy-maneuvering for work + machine-washable + kid-friendly that sometimes leaves me feeling a bit like I’m 12 years old.  The pigtails don’t help, I’m sure.  It’s nice not to be limited to dress pants, button-down shirts, blazers, and high-heels for work apparel.  I could very easily pull on scrubs, as many teachers and therapists who work with preschoolers are inexplicably doing these days.  I much prefer, however, to wear Snoopy skirts, striped tights, My Little Pony sweatshirts, and WALL-E barrettes.  Yes I do.  I made the Snoopy skirt out of an old bedsheet.  I made the WALL-E barrettes out of Shrinky-Dinks. 

In my personal life, I would much prefer to eschew commercialized products for children.  In my previous life teaching at a Quaker school, it was the school philosophy, and I grew to appreciate it very much.  Were I working solely with typically developing children, you’d be more likely to hear the following exchanges:

Timmy: “Look at my new light-up Disney Cars holographic supersonic animated licensed character sneakers!”

Me: “Are your shoes fast?”

Jojo: “Do you like my new Disney princess Cinderella Jasmine Ariel Belle lunchbox?  It has a matching Thermos”

Me:  “I like you!”

Now, however, I’ve found that kids who do not/will not talk about anything else, will come to life when they seem familiar characters.  Their faces will light up when they see my WALL-E barrettes.  “Why you got WALL-E in you hair?”  “Hey! Dat Robot in you hair!”  “Yook!  Wall-E!”  I remember the first time I observed this phenomenon.  A new school year has just begun, and a little girl who had a speech delay and wasn’t saying much more than 2 words at a time, even though she was almost 4, was shyly flitting around the classroom.  I tried to engage her in a conversation of some sort, and finally asked after her shoes, which looked new as they were still white.  She looked at them, she looked at me, and she burst out, “PONIES!”  We bonded over My Little Pony.

Though they don’t really recognize Snoopy anymore, and I haven’t gone all-out in Disney paraphernalia, I still marvel at the power of a familiar TV character to elicit a response in reluctant talkers.  

It is expressly for this purpose that I have kept somewhat up-to-date on my knowledge of current children’s TV programming and toys.  Well, maybe not exclusively.  I love PBS kids television shows.  I’ve been watching Arthur since high school.  I’m hooked on “Fetch” and “Cyberchase”, though those are a bit over my students’ age levels.  I know about Backyardigans and Caillou.  I can recognize Wubbzy.  I seek out Spongebob on On Demand.  Barney has always made me vomit, and I can’t sit through an episode of Blue’s Clues the way I can with Sesame Street, but I keep up.  And I think it pays off. 

The other gimmick I use in making myself the toy is nail polish.  I noticed that a particular child who otherwise would not say much voluntarily and would just sit there unnoticed in a corner of the classroom like a bump on a log took one look at my nails and launched into a dissertation on the colors and benefits of nail polish.  She counted the number of yellow-colored ones, compared it to the number of red-colored ones, and recited the alternating pattern that Mr. Apron had unwittingly created when he painted my nails in alternating hues.  She told me who paints her nails at home, and how she hopes to get them painted soon.  Even children who are non-verbal, or “communicate with their eyes” have been known to stop what they’re doing and focus on my nails.  They may rub them gently, examine their own, count them, or – gasp! – look up at me and make eye contact. 

My nail polish is my bling.  I don’t wear make-up. I don’t put much time into my hair.  I can’t wear much jewelry to work.  The one piece of jewelry I wear is my wristwatch.  No one seems to wear these anymore either, which of course immediately makes children focus on my wrist.  My watch is pretty special, too, since it’s a self-winding skeleton watch with a chunky orange band.  What does this mean?  It means that it has endless moving parts, and you can see through it to the winding mechanism in the back.  When you shake the watch, you can see the weight swing around and wind the watch.  You can see not only the hands ticking, but also all the gears moving.  It’s really cool.  And kids think so, too.  I’ve engaged a small class of children “timing” them as they run around the gym, exhausting themselves.  I’ve used it as a reward to keep kids focused for a few more minutes.  And I occasionally let them hold it (ah, only a few trustworthy kiddos) and shake it themselves. 

These little things – the familiar characters I can share, the nail polish Mr. Apron chooses, the wristwatch I use to make sure I’m giving them the right amount of therapy – make me more kid-friendly.  It doesn’t have to be Mickey Mouse scrubs, or a shirt with the entire alphabet on it.  They don’t care about how tall I am, how I wear my hair, what religion I observe, or how old I am.  They don’t care I can find acceptable gifts for my mother this year, or if I remembered to shut the dog gate this morning.  They only see what I can present to them.  Inadvertently, or by choice, I have found little gimmicks that can help me do my job by making communication with me a little more exciting, a little more rewarding, and, hopefully, for the hard-to-reach kiddos, irresistible.  

I’m Jewish and I hate Christmas.  There, I’ve said it.  Do you really need to read any more?

Yet somehow I’m going to muster my strength to tell you more.

I hate the commercialism as much as anybody.  I hate to see people who can’t afford to pushing around two shopping carts at Target or Walmart or Toys ‘R Us loaded with crappy plastic toys that have no scope for imagination.  They epitomize everything I hate about the way we thrust junk on our kids and throw money at foreign toy-makers with recognizable characters emblazoned on their products.  Why again do we need Dora cereal and ice cream?  Why is Spongebob on my backpack and my lunchbag?  Why does my step-nephew have a Disney “Cars” television set?  Why does a four-year-old need his own TV? How did I even get a step-nephew?

More than the overt commercialism, I hate the way Christmas is shoved down our throats en masse.  Whether it’s churches being “clever” with their signboards reminding us of the Reason for the Season or a timeless, heartwarming Santa bringing Coca-Cola to the polar bears population, it’s everywhere.  It’s in the tacky traffic signal colored lights our neighbors string up, the giant blow-up snowmen, reindeer, and snow globes that threaten to jump out at me from the tiny lawns.  It’s everywhere.  I can’t stand shopping during this “season” because of the infernal Christmas carols.  Jewish or not, I have not yet met one person who enjoys the retail nose pollution of the top 140 Christmas songs.  The B101 radio station actually plays this garbage non-stop throughout the month of December.  Can you imagine how much their listenership drops if you don’t count mall franchise stores? 

And don’t try telling me people choose to listen to B101, and choose to play Christmas music in their retail establishments.  Don’t tell me I can choose to avoid these things, because they’re everywhere.  Mr. Apron’s uncle couldn’t attend our play two weeks ago, because on Sunday, the one day a week his store is closed, he had to put up his Christmas display in the front window and decorate the store.  He is a Jewish man, as Jewish as they come, and he is not beholden to any franchise or chain mandate.  This is a Jewish man who owns his own business, and is compelled to deck his halls for fear of seeming heretical. 

Tonight Mr. Apron and I made the grievous mistake of venturing back down to West Chester, PA, where our beloved play was performed 2 weeks ago, to see our friends perform a 40-minute opera in the historic courthouse.  We didn’t know, or had conveniently forgotten, that it was part of the “Old Fashioned Christmas” (their quotes) in the historic downtown.  The drive down was the usual rush hour madness, but what was worse was trying to cram the 6 zillion cars into the 17 parking spots not marked “resident permit parking only, zone A”.  Finally, about ready to give up and drive back home, we found a spot scarcely longer than my little Honda Fit, and into which no other car (save a Smart car, a 3-door Yaris, or a Ford Fiesta) could have fit.  All while slurping down hot soup from Panera. 

I chose soup because we had little time to wait for food to be prepared, and the line was out the door.  (On a Friday night.  In West Chester.  Yes, it’s that kind of town…a town with a vibrant downtown full of acclaimed restaurants, where the populace chooses Panera, a subsidiary of McDonald’s.  But I digress.) I slurped it down while vainly trying to keep the soup off of my new red wool coat.  See how festive I can be?  I burned my tongue because the coat was more valuable to me in the moment, and the faster I inhaled my soup, the lower the liquid line went, as did my chances of spilling.  We rushed to the courthouse, past the sheriff’s deputies earning some pretty overtime, and sat down to a delightful opera. 

I did not sing along with the carols after the show.  I don’t know the lyrics, and even though they thoughtfully provided lyric cheat sheets for the goyim who don’t know the words either, I chose not to sing.  I used to sing.  In 3rd, 4th, and 5th grades, when I was in the chorus, I would sing along to the dozen Christmas songs, and one Chanukah song in the holiday program.  I don’t have to sing now because those aren’t my songs, and my parents aren’t in the audience forcing smiles.  They’re fine for other people, but I’m not singing about Christ and Saviors and Bethlehem and the inevitable talk of miracles that seems to pervade all religions this time of year.  They’re not my miracles.  And I’m certainly not singing about figgy pudding. 

If that makes me bitter, bitchy, hostile, or intolerant, so be it.  All my life I’ve been misunderstood by people who were ignorant or intolerant, because I’m Jewish.  I’m not trying to “fight back”.  I’m expressing my rights and my choices.  I went tonight to see and support my friends, who, by the way, did a fabulous job.  And I don’t think anyone noticed my mouth not moving, or missed my voice when they wished each other a Merry Christmas. 

So then we left, and had to fight our way through yet another anxiety-producing situation.  In the 45 minutes since we had entered the courthouse, approximately 42 thousand merry souls had descended upon the streets wearing Christmas sweaters, Santa Claus hats, and balaclavas.  And they were all, each and every one of them, blocking my speedy egress.  I held onto Mr. Apron’s hand tightly, and he steered us through the merriness.  We fought and clawed our way to the street corner, where the conveniently located opening in the police barricades was completely blocked off by people trying to get a good look at the impending parade. 

Yes, a parade.  At 8 o’clock on a Friday night in December.  To mark the “Old Fashioned Christmas”.  The only thing old-fashioned we saw was one strange man wearing a top hat.  I heard decidedly not-old-fashioned Christmas music being pumped into the streets by some definitely not-old-fashioned DJ setup.  I saw some decidedly not-old-fashioned commercialized festivities.  And I wanted out more than anything.  I hate huge crowds of people.  Being 5 feet tall, I cannot see over most people’s heads, and in trying to see where I’m going, I trip over small children and strollers.  Mr. Apron’s bony shoulders and 6 foot tall frame edged his way through some stubborn parade watchers, and he led me across the street, through another throng packed tightly at another “opening” and, finally, away from the madness, passing only disgruntled teenagers with pink hair, dressed in black, and smoking cigarettes.  I hated them, too. 

I tried, folks.  I wore my red coat, I persevered in finding a parking spot, I did not have a complete nervous breakdown in the middle of the street.  But it found me anyhow.  Somehow it came.  It came with small children, it came with police barricades.  It came without sparkles or snowdrops or grenades.  I hadn’t stopped Christmas from coming; it came.  Somehow or another it came just the same. 

And that’s just fine.  Just don’t shove it down my throat. 

I hope to be doing a haphazard series on toys that I love when working with preschoolers with speech and language delays, or for the 3-5 age group in general.  Since I have the opportunity to be in many different classrooms, I’m gathering a compilation of toys I prefer, and will definitely be buying for my own kids, whenever they come along!

I love toys that break.  I love toys with a million pieces.  I love taking them out, and I love putting them away.  Either I am a sick masochist, or I am a speech-language pathologist.  I’ll let you decide.

The great thing about toys with a million pieces is that I get the opportunity to present each piece as a communicative event.  For a child learning to request — verbally or with pictures — seeing a peg, or a bead, or a sticker staring them in the face, tantalizingly close, can spur communication.  Ooh, shiny.  Oooh, pretty.  Ooh, that mean lady only let me have one at a time.  I’ll show her.  I’ll ask for it again and again until she’s all out and I have them all!!!  Precisely.  Repetition helps solidfy these foundational skills. 

And guess what cleaning up is?  I love to use boxes with lids and make a terrific game out of cleaning up.  Kids working on articulation sounds might have to say a “magic word” (and no, it’s not “please”) for the lid to open.  That lid only allows one block in at a time, and it’s only triggered by the magic word of the day/moment.  Sneaky kids try to shove in as many pieces as they can before I shut the lid on their fingers  (oops, did I just admit that?).  With that element of a game, somehow, cleaning up just became fun. 

Another fantastic opporunity for repetition is in toys that break.  I don’t mean literally “break”; more accurately, I like toys that fall down, break apart, and require frequent “maintenance”.  Giant foam blocks are an easy one, especially for kids who just enjoy stacking.  If the tower is a little too sturdy, a gentle tap from a well meaning adult, will induce peals of laughter, a couple of “uh oh!”s and maybe some “it fell down”s.  I can’t tell you how many /f/ sounds I’ve elicited using toys that fall down.  I can’t tell you how many children who are autistic or otherwise introverted have been tempted by the allure of the perpetually falling tower.  Once they get past their initial frustration that this. stupid. thing. will. not. stay. up. they’re usually quite content to just keep on building.  Another toy in this genre I love is Unifix cubes.  While initially one might see only the limitations — they only connect linearly, and cannot be used to build in 3 dimensions, they’re more suitable for learning colors, sorting, and counting — I find them invaluable for their tendency to break apart at a certain length/height.  Precisely because they can only make lines, kids tend to either build up (making “towers”), or on the floor (making “snakes”).  And since I need my toys to have a million pieces, I use something like 200 Unifix cubes with one child, and the towers inevitably get too high.  The snakes invariably need to be moved to avoid furniture and people.  And in moving the snakes, they break apart.  In constructing towers taller than my munchkin clientele, they fall down. 

Repetition, repetition, repetition.  Kids are learning perseverence as they start all over again.  They’re learning problem-solving when they ask me to hold the base of the tower (never dreaming I’m the one behind the sabotage).  They’re measuring short and long, small and “big tall”.  They’re trying to make the snakes longer than me, the towers taller than they are.  And yes, they are sorting and labeling colors.  They are counting and occasionally making patterns.  And with my million pieces,  I also get opportunities for speech sounds or grammatical forms (“No, me do it!” is  popular refrain) as they earn pieces.  We also take turns as we put together towers and snakes.  We reinforce eye contact when I hold pieces in front of my face.  And you’d better believe it’s a big clean-up when we’re done.

Mr. Apron and I watch “Cops”, that never-to-be-cancelled Fox program that always opens with either, “Well, my dad was a cop, and my granddaddy, too, so I always figured I’d be a cop and give back to my community,”  or “You never know what’s going to happen; each day is different.” 

Each show is different, too, but with some comforting predictability and regularity.  The perps always complain when they get rough-housed.  They always deny wrong-doing and have flimsy excuses.  The battered spouses can never decide who threw the first blow.  And they always run “cuz I wuz scerred”. 

My family makes fun of us for watching Cops.  Judging from the targeted commercials for big trucks and the “repo” show, we’re probably not their typical audience, either.  But I will defend our choice to watch the show.  It was the first of its kind, and still holds its own among a vast field of other “ride along with the pros” shows.  We’ve tried others, and they just don’t measure up.  We watched “Jail” one night – the pacing was deadly and it was just depressing images of people crying as they sobered up in cinder block cells.  The only amusing part was when they put a helmet on some chick who kept banging her head against the walls. 

Supernanny is another reality show we sometimes watch.  While it’s great and all, Jojums always offers the same advice to the parents – the naughty chair/step/bench/corner/room – because they are usually hesitant to use any structure or discipline whatsoever.  The moms bond with their daughters, the dads throw a football with the sons, and she pulls away in the London Taxi just the same. 

Animal Planet has an “animal police” program, which just plain sucks.  We couldn’t make it through one episode.  It was geared more towards the animal-loving girlie-horsie cop-as-social-worker crowd.  And I’m a girlie, animal-loving vegetarian whose sister is going to be a social worker.  I couldn’t stand it. Just arrest the dumb bitch who starved her animals, haul the horses away, and cut to the high-speed chase already.

Then you’ve got your homeowner type shows, whose “real” characters (homeowners) are so painful they have to script each line of the program. 

“Why, hello, Mrs. S.  How can we help you today?”

(Awkwardly and rehearsed) “Hi, Bob.  We bought this house (insert #) years ago, and have just about finished renovating, but we still have some radiators which need to be repainted (or insert other unfinished project).” 

(With false enthusiasm) “Great, well why don’t we get started?”

(blandly) “Sure.  Let me show you the (insert room of home)”

Then there’s the show where they set up a false dichotomy of maximally opposed choices.  Pick your genre of show – House Hunters, Trading Spouses, Wife Swap, Blind Date, Meanest Parents, etc.  And who can forget the shows where they inject the same kinds of crisis each and every episode – Top Chef, Cake Boss, Say Yes to the Dress, etc.  Yes, they’re fun if you watch them sparingly, but we have cable now, folks!  These things are on all day long!!  I’ve seen them already, I have 99 other channels, and there still isn’t anything on TV!?

But the best reason to watch Cops is for the education.  I have learned, though careful analysis, what to do, and what not to do when stopped by the police.

  • Keep your hands where he/she can see them.
  • Do not try to climb out of the car until you are told.  There’s no quicker way to get a gun drawn in your direction.
  • Do not reach into your pockets.
  • If found with a gun, do not say some black guy just gave it to you 15 minutes ago.
  • A Puerto Rican named Ernie did not loan you the car.
  • If you manage to throw the drugs/paraphernalia/weapons from the car, they are still considered “on your person”.  Even if they’re not on you.  For real.  If you throw it from the car, or as you’re running, they’ll find it. 
  • If they find it in your car, it’s yours.  It’s not your grandma’s weed.  Even if it is, they won’t believe you.
  • Large amounts of cash arouse suspicion.  Take debit when dealing drugs, or set up mobile Paypal using your iPhone. 
  • If you’re hanging out in parking lots at 2am, no cop will believe you just got off work unless you’re in your uniform. 
  • If you’re prone to get sweaty when confronted by authority figures, wear performance clothing – Underarmor, Sweat it Out, Cool Max – and strong deodorant.  Cops can smell fear. 
  • Lines that do not work – “I ran because I was scared,” “I swear to God,” “I swear on my grandmother’s grave,” “I didn’t hear the sirens or see the lights,” “I’m being straight with you,” “I didn’t do nothing,” and, my favorite, “It’s not mine.” 
  • If you’re a female, they’re more likely not to handcuff you.  Stay calm, and you stand a good chance of going home.  Unless you’re an overweight female and you’re not wearing a bra. Or you’re an underweight bimbo in stilettos.
  • When they handcuff you “for your protection and ours,” chances are, you’ll get arrested, even if they tell you, “You’re not under arrest.” 
  • They cannot loosen the handcuffs for your comfort. 

And, finally,

  • No, repeat offenders will not learn from their mistakes, will not miraculously clean up their acts and stop boozing, stealing, abusing, streaking, slutting it up, or using.  That’s where the social workers come in. 

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December 2009