Tuesday, April 12, 2011

A Day Out With the Engine of Uncertain Parentage

On Thursday or Friday of last week, Dez (our Director of Social Activities) told me that Thomas was coming to the Florida Railroad Museum in Parrish, Florida last weekend.  Mace, being a boy of a certain age, is a pretty big Thomas fan (though I still have issues with his parentage -- I mean, notwithstanding the railroading use of the term "coupling," I don't understand how steam engines reproduce?  What mad scientist on the Island of Sodor has figured out how to give life to steam engines?).  I logged on to the website, found that there were still tickets available for Sunday, purchased 5 of them and then made everyone swear not to tell the kids we were going to see Thomas -- I wanted to surprise Mace, so if Casey found out, he would let it slip because he absolutely cannot keep a secret.

So on Sunday morning (our tickets for Thomas were for 2:15), we all got up as usual and headed off to church.  After church, a group of 12 or 13 of us went to lunch together.  At lunch, Mace, who was sitting at the opposite end of the long table from me, told Grandma he needed to go to the bathroom.  When they got back, he looked kind of pale, so I asked him if he was okay. 

Grandma shook her head and mouthed, "He threw up."

Does any other phrase strike the same panic inside a mother's heart than those three words?  Spoken in a restaurant?  I immediately started plotting 1) an escape route from the restaurant; 2) a contingency plan regarding the lunch we'd already ordered; and 3) the amount of time it would take to get to a store where we could pick up plastic bags and towels to put in the back seat so that the car wouldn't smell like vomit for the next three years.  And then it hit me -- what about Thomas?  And more importantly, how could I fake not being upset about the $120 we were throwing down the drain by not going to see Thomas and thereby wasting the tickets?

So Mace and I went out into the parking lot and walked around while everyone else waited for their food.  While we were outside, he said, "I want to go home."  But it had been almost fifteen minutes since he'd thrown up.  In my (unfortunately) vast experience with children's stomach viruses,  I have come to learn that if it's a virus, your kid will throw up several times in the first half hour because he can't even keep saliva in his stomach.  And Mace was exhibiting other signs of the Fluke Throw-Up -- in spite of saying he wanted to go home, he was walking around the parking lot with me looking for ants instead of asking to be carried, and when I asked him how his tummy felt, he said it was better. 

Hmmm . . . what to do, what to do. 

On the one hand, he threw up. 

On the other hand, he threw up only once. 

How bad a parent would I be, I asked myself, if we just got through lunch and then, if he did not get sick again, headed on down to Parrish (an hour's drive away)? 

Mace steadily improved through lunch.  I tried to keep him from eating (no matter whether we drove down to Parrish or directly home, I didn't like the idea of anything else not staying in his stomach and reappearing in my car, which already stinks bad enough -- we've never fully expunged the odor of wet dog caused by the dogs sleeping in the car every night for that month a few years back), but he kept taking pieces of fried chicken off of Grandma's salad until he had eaten every bit of it.  I had to share my french dip sliders with Grandma, and then Mace, once he realized how great the bread on the sandwiches was (and I know Applebee's may not appreciate an endorsement for their food appearing in the same paragraph as my son's sick stomach, but the bread they use for the sliders are so, so good).  The more he ate, the better he seemed to feel.

So . . . we spent the "Day Out With Thomas:"

And to switch gears rather abruptly on you, I cannot add A Day Out With Thomas to the Flamingo Bucket List.  Upon stepping out of our car in the parking lot for the event, I saw immediately that we were destined to be disappointed.  Everyone coming back to their cars looked hot and let down.  As a preliminary matter, I realize that to basically bring Thomas to life for little kids is a tall order, but if you are going to charge $20 per ticket, you have to do better than just make an engine that looks like the real Thomas.  The idea behind these events is to bring a little Thomas-themed fair to local railroads like the Florida Railroad Museum (FRM) in Parrish.  The FRM has a line of its own track that is a few miles long and a few engines, passenger cars, and other railroad cars (that I cannot name, but Pop Pop certainly can).  The track is not in great shape and the ride is a bit rough, but the FRM is clearly doing its part to preserve some railroading history and I applaud them for that.  My beef is not with the FRM, it's with whoever designed the Day Out With Thomas events.  Thomas was coupled to the FRM's selection of passenger coaches, which include a couple of open-air cars:

And since it was blazing hot in Parrish on Sunday, the open-air car was really our only option.  But most importantly, none of the coaches were Annie or Clarabell and Thomas didn't talk.  Sir Topham Hat made a 20 minute appearance about once every hour in a huge costume.  He was scary.  Other than that, the event had a storytelling tent where a local teenager read out of a large Thomas picture book.  She did her best, but it was obvious she had not actually practiced reading the story aloud before her debut as a storyteller came around.  The other "stations" at the event were Imagination Station, a tent set up with 7 or 8 train tables so the kids could play with the same sets they had at home and the Gift Shop tent. 

If I had to pinpoint where the Thomas folks failed us on Sunday, I would say it was with the utter lack of connection they made with these kids.  I can guarantee you that for most of the kids who went to this event, Thomas the Tank Engine is their friend and they anticipated seeing their friend and thought ahead of time about what they would say to Thomas and how pleased Thomas would be to see them.  And I don't want to be too critical of the people who are making an outright killing on Thomas merchandising, but if you can't even manage to make the "real" Thomas' eyes move, you need to hire Disney to handle your live events. 

All of this is not to say that Mace did not have as good a time as one could expect in 90 degree weather with a slightly queasy stomach:

But you could also sense that he was a little confused -- he kept asking me if Thomas could talk.  We spent a couple of hours at the event, rode the train at our appointed time, and ate some ice cream.  But to be honest, I shouldn't have spent the money on taking all of us down there (Dave Ramsey would be disappointed in me, for sure).  I can promise you one thing, I will not be supporting the Thomas merchandising machine anymore

Thomas the Engine of Uncertain Parentage is dead to me. 

May he rest in peace.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Flamingo Bucket List (Tampa Edition): Free Festivals, Live Music

For some reason, over the last month or so, we've started attending carnivals and festivals on the weekends.  I can't explain this.  So long as it's free to get in and there will be live music, we show up.  Oh wait, I guess that explains it.  I don't know about the rest of our little crowd, but I have no interest whatsoever in paying money to get into a Blues Festival, for example, to not get to sit close enough to hear so-so bands. 

Two or three weekends ago, we went to Oldsmar Days two nights in a row and heard great music both nights.  And this weekend, we drove a little further down to St. Pete to the Sacred Heart Catholic Church's carnival.  We normally wouldn't have even known about the Sacred Heart Carnival, but Flamingo Joe works with a guy who helps run the music stages and last year, this same co-worker suggested one of the Christian bands that plays the festival to play at Coffeehouse for us.  The band he suggested, the Brian Pflieger Band, did in fact play at Coffeehouse for us and they were great.  So this year, when Joe's coworker said the festival was coming up, we checked online and sure enough, the Brian Pflieger Band was playing again.  So we drove down to St. Pete to Sacred Heart. 

Those Catholics sure know how to party.  Assuming I'm writing to an audience made up of 80% Southern Baptists, you might be surprised to learn that Catholics serve alcohol at their carnivals.  And they arrange a wide variety of musical acts to perform.  Here is Jelvis:

I don't want to offend anyone, but Floridian women of a certain age appeared to just eat Jelvis up.

Here's Brian Pflieger (they are a Christian band, but started their set with a couple of "covers"):

If you ever get a chance to see the Brian Pflieger Band, take it.  The video above definitely doesn't do them justice but hopefully gives you an idea of how great they are.  When they sang at Coffeehouse, they did a 15 minute hymn medley that brought the house down -- strange, but true.

While great live music (and lemonade-flavored cotton candy and deep-fried oreos) is a good reason to visit a local Florida carnival, another great reason to go is to get in touch with the real Florida, and by that I mean, of course, spending some time with some genuine Florida crackers.  It is sad, but if you try hard enough (by avoiding bait shops, liquor stores, and those spots on the causeways where you can back your pick-up right up to the water), you can live a life in Florida that is completely devoid of contact with genuine Florida crackers.  But at these local festivals and carnivals, you can't walk three feet in any direction without tripping over their flip-flops.  If you've never seen a genuine Florida Cracker, you should look for a man or woman with a tan that is soooo deep it has obviously been attained by being constantly outdoors on fishing piers and rusty bicycles.  Florida Crackers are typically chainsmokers and at festivals, heavy beer drinkers, so it is usually impossible to guess their exact age.  At the Sacred Heart Carnival, two Florida Cracker guys with no teeth and ZZ Top beards were running the Charlie's Seafood booth and they were just plain scary, but Joe said their Gator Tail was great. 

At Oldsmar Days, we saw a great example of a different class of Floridian altogether, the Garishly-Dressed Woman, wearing these:

Lauren said, "These boots are made for . . . something."   For some reason, Florida really brings out the sequins in some women.   

So as far as the Flamingo Bucket List (FBL) goes, this is an easy one to check off your list.  Just skim the paper or search for local events online and find a local carnival offering live music -- to truly meet the criteria as being worthy of the FBL, the event must be free except for food and rides and must offer a sampling of local vendors.  A word of caution regarding Catholic carnivals -- they like to use a food and drink ticket system whereby you buy tickets and pay the vendors with the tickets instead of cash.  Last night, Flamingo Joe thought we needed $40 worth of these tickets -- which is why we were still cruising the food vendors at 11:00 p.m. buying fried oreos and hot tamales.  We still left the carnival with $10 in tickets and no one in our after-church lunch group would let me leave carnival tickets as a tip today at Applebees.  I'm pretty sure Dave Ramsey would also disapprove -- I am going to email him and suggest he add an entire chapter to Total Money Makeover to address the pitfalls of Carnival Currency.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Curriculum Quandries

Keeping myself from blogging so that I would work on Dez's book has not really worked out like I expected it to. I was thinking that if I dangled the blog in front of me like a carrot, so that I could only post if I had already worked on the book, then I would be more creative in carving time out of my day to work on the book. As it turns out, the more you write, the more you write, so I just need to be writing and then I'll write more. Get it?

Also, when I wasn't blogging or working on Dez's book, I was watching way too much Biggest Loser and American Idol. But in just one week, both Courtney (BL) and Pia (AI) were voted off their shows and now I have zero interest in the rest of their respective seasons. So now it's back to the grindstone.

Biggest Loser and American Idol are only on TV three nights a week, though, so I'm sure you are curious to learn how I have filled up the other days and nights. Let me begin by saying that you will be glad to hear that of the 10 boxes of Thin Mints stocking our freezer at the beginning of March, there is only a box and a half left -- eating a sleeve of thin mints every time Biggest Loser and American Idol are on explains how I managed to gain 4 pounds in the last month, just do the math.

Other than eating Thin Mints and watching TV, I've been spending a huge amount of time researching homeschool curriculum. If you are a homeschooler, you understand the time-consuming nature of deciding between SonLight and Well-Trained Mind, for example. If you are not a homeschooler and hope to never become one, imagine if you will, that your child's entire future hangs on whether or not you choose something called Singapore Math over Saxon Math and you have no idea the real difference between the two -- then you will have an idea of what I've been dealing with for the last month.

Believe it or not, the amount of homeschooling curriculum out there these days is simply overwhelming -- apparently you can't just keep your kid home, let him watch Mythbusters and call it science, the History Channel and call it history or creative fiction writing (depending on the show), and SpongeBob and call it recess. You actually have this incredible variety of choices to make -- what subjects you even want to teach being one of them. I know you thought that was the simple part, and to a degree it is -- math, history, and writing/grammar are only the tip of the iceberg. You have to choose curriculums for each of those subjects plus any others that you think are "necessary." Casey loves science, so I have to find an appropriate science curriculum. He wants to learn Latin and Greek (don't be too impressed -- he reads a lot of Rick Riordan novels; I suspect he doesn't really understand what studying Latin and Greek will actually be like -- I sure don't). So we'll definitely do some Latin this year, but that means I have to find curriculum for it that comes with a very thorough teacher's manual.

For a few weeks immediately following our decision to homeschool, I fell asleep every night wracking my brain for what critical part of Casey's 3rd grade education was slipping my mind, only to wake up in the middle of the night having had a horrible nightmare about Casey getting to high school never having learned how to write in cursive.

And did you know that in the homeschooling world, how you teach history, i.e., in what order you teach it, is a really big deal? Most homeschooling history curriculum runs with the idea that history makes more sense to students if it's taught chronologically -- so you start at the beginning and work your way to the end. Preschoolers in homeschool don't start learning about their community and neighborhoods and then in successive grades move to their town, state, country, other countries. Homeschoolers subscribing to the chronological teaching of history will tell you that the traditional smallest to largest approach just makes a child think they are the center of the universe.

I could bore you with many other details about our homeschooling curriculum choices and how I'm sure we will regret some of them about halfway through the year. I am starting a "Curriculum Regrets" envelope in my Dave Ramsey envelope system now to save money for the curriculum I will need to buy halfway through the year when I discover that what I'm using for a subject just isn't working.

Once you decide to become a homeschooling family, you have to get back on decent terms with the local library. So after I paid my $50 library fine (that was $5 for 10 books that were overdue), we slunk back to the library and were relieved to discover that my picture was actually not hanging above the desk with a big red circle and slash over it. After browsing a while, we approached checkout with 16 books. I was afraid I was over the limit and asked the librarian how many books I could check out. She said "Fifty." I thought I had misheard her and said, "Fifteen?" and started trying to figure out which book I was going to put back. She said, "No, fifty."



I got all hot and my head started tingling. The English Major in me wanted to dance down the aisles singing "Fifty books! Fifty books!" and pulling classic literature off the shelves to put into a shopping cart.

But then the forgetful mommy side of me calculated the $5 fine on fifty overdue books. There's no envelope in the Dave Ramsey system for overdue books. We left with our 16 books and were grateful.