Sunday, March 23, 2008

March Madness

Well, it's March again, folks, which must mean it's time for us to take away a giant backyard toy because it is "dangerous" and replace it with something which may or may not be safer. Yes, the Simmons' own version of March Madness. If you recall, last years match-up was Evil Trampoline vs. Traditional Wooden Swingset. The Swingset was a sure bet. After all, it hearkened back to good, old-fashioned family values, you know, with kids using their imaginations and the whole thing being built out of wood, just like the pioneers build their kids' swingsets, not this new-fangled steel-and-rubber pain machine that you just know Laura Ingalls Wilder never would have tolerated. Plus, we had the added bonus of sacrificing real dollars for our kids' safety - the swingset was like $800, but there's nothing too good for our kids, right?

This year, the Traditional Wooden Swingset is going head-to-head with Sturdy Metal Swingset, and while the odds are about even, it looks like the Sturdy Metal Swingset might come out the winner. I honestly thought the Traditional Wooden Swingset would be the Champion For Life, like we'd have to retire the whole sport of Backyard Play Equipment due to its infalliability. I thought this would be the swingset our grandchildren would come over and swing on, and there would be a grown-up Brad and Noah telling the story to their kids about how originally they didn't want to see the trampoline go, but how they had come to love this swingset. Yes, there we'd be, sipping our lemonades on the porch while the boys recount their glory days on the ol' set while watching the young'uns swing on the very same swings they once did. It looks like the story is going to be a different one than I had hoped.

We knew there was a problem with the swingset pretty much as soon as it was finished, not only because on Day 1 the blood started flowing from various children's bodies after they proved the swingset-is-safer fallacy. No, the problem was that the whole contraption swayed from side to side when anyone swung on it. It made Ryan sick to his stomach to see just how not sturdy the thing he had spent 20 hours or more building was. But how do you return something like this? Do you take it apart, throw all the pieces in the back of the van, and haul it all back to Toys R Us? I suppose we had that option in the beginning, but it seemed ridiculous to do that.

It seems less ridiculous now, a year later, when the swaying problem didn't magically fix itself. I don't know what I was expecting, that a year out in the elements would toughen it up a little? Like once the swingset knew that weakness would not be tolerated here it would brace itself for the storm that is a neighborhood full of kids? Well, here's a news flash - if you ignore a problem for a year, the problem is just a year older, not a year better. It turns out that I am pretty good at ignoring problems, I think it comes with being an optimist. I'm not an extreme optimist, like my friend Kathy who could see the bright side of the sun imploding, but definitely try to look for the good in things. There are some problems that are minor enough that if you ignore them, it eventually doesn't bother you. Swingsets are not one of those things.

Now that the snow has melted and we are venturing out of our caves again, we see the swingset problem in full bloom. And it's worse. At last count, we've got four separate pieces that have broken off, one of which (a monkey bar) left a giant screw sticking out of it, which Noah cut himself on last fall. I called Toys R Us at the time to complain about the thing breaking, and they couldn't have cared less. I suppose if it had been made in China and dipped in lead, then we could have had a discussion, but simply falling apart is not nearly as bad. I tried to call the manufacturer, Adventure Playsets, but it was on a weekend, and by the time they were open again I had forgotten. And now, naturally, it's out of warranty (except for defects in the wood).

Ryan approached me today with his concerns. Well, "concerns" is putting it mildly - he has resented this $800 wooden intrusion into our lives since it first started wobbling. Today he very nicely asked me if he could take a sledgehammer and destroy the thing, and replace it with a metal swingset. No, I said, it's here and it's staying. I am not throwing away $800! He said that it had gotten worse, and I should take a look - we don't want it seriously hurting someone before we decide to get rid of it.

I wanted to blow him off about this, but after he left to go see his grandparents for their birthday (I stayed home with sick kids) I watched Brad swinging. And Ryan's right, as much as I hate to admit it. Something is going to go seriously wrong. Not only is the swaying worse, but one of the arms that holds a swing bows dangerously when Brad swings on it. Not just a little, either, it bows by several inches. I had to tell him not to swing on that side at all. Plus, two of the giant screws that hold the monkey bar assembly onto the playhouse structure have popped out.

So now the question is, what do we do? Do we call it an $800 loss and start over with something else? Do we rent a backhoe and level a piece of ground, and move the swingset? It's my opinion that the problems are caused (or at least, exacerbated) by the ground not being level, although Ryan is pinning the problems on cheap wood. Both are probably true. But do we toss this one, or try to salvage it? Are wooden swingsets really disposable? Or at least, recyclable?

It would be an easier decision if the original swingset hadn't been so stinkin' expensive. If it had been, say, a $300 swingset, this would be an easier decision. Ryan and I keep a mental list of the stupidest things we've ever wasted money on, the worst financial decisions, and so far $500 is the most we've blown at one time. When Brad was about 6 months old, we got suckered into a uniquely Los Angeles scam, where we paid $500 for the privilege of a company called FlashCast Kids to try to get Brad cast in a commercial or something. What can I say, he was awfully cute and they were awfully sure he could be successful. Dave Ramsey (a radio financial guy) calls this kind of thing, where you waste money, a "Stupid Tax." We still regret those $500 (and the stupid decision it represents.) Will this wooden swingset replace FlashCast Kids as the phrase that one of us utters to remind the other about how stupid we can be?

My current position, which I am only tenuously holding onto, is that I'd like to repair this swingset before we toss it completely. Ryan's position, which is substantially firmer than the swingset itself, is that the wood was too crappy to be salvaged, and as the one who built the whole thing with his bare hands, he has an intimate knowledge of the wood in question. Why waste the time and money on something that was substandard to begin with?

Ryan's vote in the Traditional Wooden Swingset vs. Sturdy Metal Swingset is the metal one. The boys spend almost all of their time swinging or sitting on top of the monkey bars - they rarely slide or play in the playhouse, so all they need are swings. Ryan also votes for getting the crew of Mythbusters in to blow the thing up, he thinks that would be a fitting end to the whole situation. Me, I'm still on the fence. Which is a safer place to be than on the swingset.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Parenting On Parade

I think something in the cosmos knows when I haven't blogged enough, and so throws an event in my path that the only way I can recover from it is to write it for the world to see.  I've been thinking recently that I just haven't had much to say, but yesterday solved that for me.

Parenting is hard enough in the privacy of your own home.  Going out in public with the kids is like putting your parenting skills on a leash and trotting them around the Westminster Kennel Show stage, with all of the judges marking each misstep on their clipboards.  On yesterday's trip to Costco, not only did I trip and drop the leash, but that puppy pooped all over the stage.  My parenting skills took a serious dive in the scoring, I believe.

It started innocently enough.  Brad and Noah had some allowance money burning a hole in their pocket, and I needed some milk and (in all honesty) a churro, so I loaded the four kids in the minivan and headed to Costco.  The two older boys headed for the candy aisle, while I pushed Zack and Darcey in the cart, loading up with groceries.  They were both sitting in the front seat, and Zack would randomly announce which thing he had to have as we walked past.  

We were heading to the dairy section when we walked past a large display.  "I want one of those!"  Zack said.  

"A kayak?  Where do you plan to use a kayak, the bathtub?  We're not exactly a kayaking family."  I said this as I rounded the corner and passed a sample lady, setting out her display.  She must have kids herself, because she caught my eye and we both smiled at each other.  Kids, right?

As our cart passed her down the dairy aisle, Zack, whose back had been to her, sees the sample lady and in his loudest outside voice said "Hey!  Look at that big guy!  That guy is really big!"  He's pointing straight at the sample lady.  I go into shush-overdrive as I try to get him to shut the heck up, but naturally, it just makes him talk all that much louder to be heard over my shushing.  "Look at that big guy, mom!  That's a really big guy!"

May I take this moment to remind you that she was, in fact, a woman.  

Alarm sirens in my head are wailing as I try to get this situation under control.  I want to run out of there as fast as possible, and I want to mitigate the damage as much as I can.  I am in mental torment.  I end up quickly walking down the aisle just to try to get Zack out of the woman's earshot, or at least give him the chance to be distracted by something else.  And then I pull over and give Zack The Lecture.

This is the same lecture I had to give Noah a couple of years ago, strangely enough, also at Costco.  He had been staring at a 5 year old boy with an eyepatch (not the piratey kind, the medical problem kind).  I tried to distract him but Noah wouldn't stop staring.  Finally, the kid started crying and told his mom, "That boy is staring at me!"  Which was completely true, of course.  I apologized and left before I could start crying myself.

This is also the same lecture that I had to give Brad 4 years ago, shortly after we moved to this neighborhood.  I was big and pregnant with Zack at the time and while we were outside chatting with a neighbor who happened to carry her extra weight around the middle.  I was hoping a hole in the earth would open up and swallow us all when he asked her "Do you have a baby in your tummy too?"

The lecture goes something like this:  Don't say someone is really big.  It hurts their feelings.  Okay?  Don't say someone is big, it's not nice to say it.  Okay?

Naturally, this lecture is completely adaptable to any embarrassing situation that a kid might put you in - Don't stare at the kid with one eye, Don't ask our 45 year old neighbor if she's pregnant, etc.  And the kids' responses are all pretty uniform too:  But she is really big!  He only has one eye!!!  But how do you teach tact to a 3 or 4 year old?  It starts here, with the lesson that not all truths need to be announced at the top of your lungs in a warehouse store.

I gave Zack The Lecture while we were in the same aisle as the woman, so that hopefully she saw that I was taking his comment seriously and trying to teach him some manners.  And then I had to get some milk from the case where we were standing.  But I only grabbed one instead of two to speed things up, and then I slunk out of there just as fast as I could slink.

I felt horrible.  I was so embarrassed.  Mortified.  The last thing in the whole world I wanted to do was make eye contact with that woman again.  So I stuck to the backs of the aisles as I walked through the store and found the older boys in the candy aisle.  They both had decided on gigantic bags of candy which on any other day I might have tried to bargain them out of, but not today.  No, today's goal was get the heck out of there as fast as possible.  

I left without confronting my shame, which I think is probably the natural response.  I harbor a microscopic hope that somehow she didn't hear his comment, or thought he was talking about some big "guy" which couldn't possibly have been her.  Or maybe she is good-hearted enough to keep the kids-say-the-darndest-things attitude that she showed about the kayak and apply it to something personal.  

Whatever the case, let me just throw out a blanket apology - I'm sorry, world, for all of the things that I haven't thought to forbid my children from saying.  Let me apologize for the future wrongs against society, too - for when my kids are teenagers and don't leave a tip for the waitress at Denny's, or think it's okay to talk to their friends in a movie theater, or make fun of the fat kid in the pee-wee football game, until the kid finishes the game and ends up sitting with his parents one row in front of them, who must have heard every word.  (True story, but not mine thank goodness.)  For picking flowers for their mom from someone's flower garden.  Kids are kids, they don't mean to hurt anyone's feelings - they are just now figuring out that other people have feelings.  And if we don't train them to be out in public, can you imagine the havoc they'd wreak when they are adults and haven't learned these things?  For now, though, maybe I'll keep a shorter leash on Zack.  And carry a pooper-scooper to Costco.