Book Review: A Walk in the Woods

It’s been a while since I did a book review, mainly because I actually started and then abandoned two works since the last one: The Death Gate Cycle by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman (boring, soulless) and Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austin (good grief, REALLY boring). So I decided to go back to Bill Bryson, one of my standbys.

The full title here is A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail. It’s Bryson doing more travel writing, which is probably my favorite kind of work from him. His science writing is great, but there’s nothing quite as entertaining as going along with Bryson for a walk through America/England/Australia/Wherever and listening to him tell you all about it. For sure he mixes in educational tidbits on flora, fauna, history, and science, but most of it is just him being wryly funny about everything he encounters while trying to walk the famous Appalachian Trail.

For those of you who don’t know, the Appalachian Trail is over 2,000 miles of hiking trails that stretch from Georgia to Maine. Seriously, from Georgia to Maine. People actually walk the whole thing, though Bryson set his sights slightly lower, taking a couple of long treks with his childhood friend Katz (a recovering alcoholic and drug fiend who is comically unsuited for such a grueling endeavor) and a series of smaller samplings of the trail in the form of day hikes. Bryson obviously loves this kind of stuff, and it shows. Screeds against inconsiderate fellow hikers and the Army Corps of Engineers are interrupted by usually (though not always) interesting discussions about the ecosystem surrounding the trail or the history of the locations it passes through.

Like most of Bryson’s stuff, you rarely have to wait long between the funny bits, and you learn something along the way. What’s not to like about that?

Week 178: Counting, Spelling, and Tumbling

Long time readers of this series of posts will know that I don’t sweat it too much when it comes to tracking milestones. Should Mandy be talking or driving a stick shift by now? I dunno. She seems happy, though, and things seem to be going fine so who cares? That doesn’t mean that I don’t try to encourage or teach my kids, though, so I do eventually notice a few things. For example Sam, in addition to an incredible memory and creative mind, seems perfectly capable of counting, identifying letters, and even doing some low-end addition or subtraction. When she wants to.

The other day she was out in the yard with me while I positioned some lawn sprinklers in an effort to keep things from turning a lovely shade of khaki out there. Sam immediately got the idea of running back and forth under the sprinkler, but she insisted on my going with her. So we did that for a while, running back and forth on the sidewalk and getting a bit wet as we passed under the arching water. But I eventually decided to mix things up by telling Sam to count in ever increasing numbers between each pass. I know Sam can count up to 20 –I’ve seen her do it. And so I got her to do it for a while, but eventually something clicked in her mood to where she flat out refused to play my game. I’d tell her to count to eleven and then we’d run under the sprinkler, but she’d crouch down on the ground (her body language for “screw you, you’re not in charge”) and tell me she can’t, and that I should do it.

This sort of thing extends to other mental gymnastics, like identifying letters. The other day I invented a game for her where I would write out a “Photography Scavenger Hunt” list, with words like “Cat” “Door” “Food” “Mommy” and “Hyena.” Sam would have to identify the letters in each word, then I’d tell her what they spelled, and she would take her toy camera and go hunting for the object so she could photograph it. I was really proud of myself for thinking this up, because it seemed like learning cloaked in a pretty crafty disguise made out of play. This is the kind of crap that the magazines tell me good parents are supposed to do! Well, this and bake cookies that look like things, but I hate that.

But regarding the photo scavenger hunt, Sam was enthusiastic for a few rounds, gleefully identifying each letter and asking what they spelled so that she could hunt the object down. Then again it’s like something clicked and she tried to tell me that, no, she didn’t have any idea what that letter was, and that I should tell her.

So it’s kind of an emerging pattern. Sam seems interested in learning, but resents being told what to do and decides to turn the situation into a passive aggressive struggle for control. As a result, most standardized tests would conclude that she is about as intelligent as a large dollip of sour cream. But in reality, I know she’s actually pretty smart and can demonstrate it on her terms when she’s interested.

And you know, this all reminds me of someone: ME. I remember even as early as kindergarden getting pissed off at the teachers for telling me what to do and making me do all kinds of dumb activities or recitations. Once in grade school when the teacher asked me to recite the 5s times table (5, 10, 15, 20, 25, etc.) I very clearly remember telling her that I couldn’t do it, even though I was doing it in my head while I professed my ignorance. I just wanted her to leave me alone and let me get back to daydreaming. This kind of pattern persisted all the way through High School, where I learned to do enough to pass, with the exception of a couple of As in classes that actually gripped me. Then when I got to college (because I had no better ideas) and into an environment that I actually liked, I turned into a straight A student within a year. And then I went on after that to get a Ph.D. in Psychology.

So yeah, while I’m a little frustrated with Sam’s behavior I’m not too worried. I’ve seen this before.

I should probably talk about Mandy this week, too, though there’s not too much to report. She’s still getting the hang of eating solids, and we’re looking forward to introducing her to the wonders of strained peas, which I assume are peas that didn’t stretch out before exercising. She’s still not sitting up, but she has really gotten the hang of rolling over, to the point where if we pet her on the play gym she will quickly roll out of it, across the floor, down the hall, and into the garage if we’re not careful. She’s like a human tumbleweed, except cuter and softer.

Week 177: Solids, Liquids, and Whys

For once, I actually have a significant milestone to report here. Mandy started “solid” food this week. I put “solid” in quotes because the rice cereal she was treated to is about as solid as water. She was dubious at first, but quickly figured things out and started slurping with enthusiasm. As with every other baby I’ve seen fed, Mandy exhibited the miraculous ability to have more food leak out the side of her mouth than actually goes in. Some contentious white washing of the story aside, I think this must be how Jesus did the fishes and loaves thing.

It’s also kind of sad, though. The accompanying changing out of a kitchen chair for the old high chair marked the passing of an era. Mandy is beginning the transition from baby to little girl, and when it’s over we (probably) won’t have a baby of our own any more. Also, my notes from the last time we moved a child to solid food say that we can expect the poops to change dramatically. For the worse.

This weekend was Father’s Day again, for which Geralyn let me buy a TiVo Series 3 DVR (glee!) and play World of Warcraft for the better part of the weekend. And then she threw in a bag full of The Simpsons themed office supplies from the Dollar Spot at Target. So this geeky dad is happy. We also went to a pool party at Ger’s cousin’s place, where Samantha once again displayed her wanton disregard for the dangers of water when gathered in large quantities. Fortunately we strapped many buoyant things to her little frame and she made it through the day unharmed.

Speaking of Sam (as I often do), her use of her favorite question of “why” is something I’ve mentioned before, but in recent weeks it’s really become obsessive. She asks “why” about everything, so brief declarative statements often turn into exercises in hair-pulling frustration. Like this:

“Okay, I’m going to drain the water, Sammy.”


“Because it’s time to get out of the bath.”


“Because it’s late.”


“Because time is traveling in a constnant, linear fashion.”


“Because you’re not traveling anywhere near the speed of light. Or maybe it’s because I’m not. I can never remember. I’m not a theoretical physicist.”


“Sammy! Get out of the freaking tub!”

To combat these kinds of pedantic Q&A sessions, we started implementing what I call a “One Why Rule.” Sam gets one honest and clear answer to her first “Why?” but then subsequent questions are answered by my clamping my hands over my ears and yelling “ONEWHYRULE! ONEWHYRULE!” at the ceiling. It has proven surprisingly effective.

Week 176: Crafts, Chores, and Grinds

It’s summer, which means hot weather and, for Samantha, summer school. She’s not going because she flunked some remedial subject in preschool, but rather because Geralyn enjoys having time to engage in such luxuries as purchasing groceries and doing laundry. Otherwise we’d just be sitting around in dirty clothes not eating. Sam also greatly enjoys going to school, though, so it’s a win-win. One thing that’s different about this summer school session is that every day they seem to have a different craft activity, which Sam enjoys showing to me when I get home each night. I think they need a bit more variety, though. I have so far been presented with a pencil holder made from a toilet roll tube, a squirrel made from a toilet roll tube, and a plain toilet roll tube made from a toilet roll tube. I have them all in the living room if you want to see them.

Even with three years between them and Mandy unable to speak a single sentence in English, I’m starting to see major differences between my kids. Mandy is definitely not Sammy Part II. For instance, we got another example of how weirdly mellow a baby Mandy is this weekend. Geralyn and I dropped Sam off at the grandparents while she, Mandy, and I drove out to The Farm to do some work on the place. While Geralyn sorted through the contents of the house (a process periodically punctuated by questions like “I don’t even know what this is, should I throw it away?” to which the answer was always “Yes,”) I was out on the deck obliterating the ancient paint on its surface with the help of a gas powered machine rented to me by a man with only two fingers.

The whole time Mandy just sat there in her bouncie seat and watched us, apart from the occasional nap and polite request to be fed. The WHOLE WEEKEND. She has such a low need for attention that it borders on bizarre, but if you do get down next to her and interact with her, she almost explodes with excitement and good cheer. In many ways, she is the perfect person –undemanding and unassuming when I’m otherwise preoccupied, but charming and effervescent when I get a moment for her. You, the rest of the world, should take notes on this and learn something.

When the big picture is examined, however, things aren’t quite so easy all the time. It’s not hard to find stories about how parenting (or “parentship” as I like to call it) is hard and tiring. Sometimes they talk about sleep deprivation brought about by nocturnal wailing, sometimes they talk about just trying to keep pace with energetic toddlers. That’s probably often true, but my experience has been a little different. For me this whole parentship thing has tired me out through a LONG and UNCEASING grind. It’s not staying up all night, it’s months of almost getting a full night’s sleep because you stay up later to have more time to yourself and because the kids get up at 6:00 a.m. seven days a week. It’s not having every second of your free time dominated by your resident toddler, it’s being able to fight and scrimp for just enough so that you have to make hard choices about how to spend it.

Like I said, it’s a long, hard grind. But somehow I’m still enjoying it. I guess I wouldn’t have that much fun stuff to take pictures of if I were just lying in bed or in front of the TV. And it’ll probably be over before I know it.

Week 175: shrieking, arguing, and running

I mentioned the other week that Many has taken to shrieking as a form of entertainment, but she’s recently been taking it to a whole new level. She’ll be lying there happy as can be, then she’ll start squealing and shrieking loud enough to wake the dead, a big grin on her face the whole time. It takes a bit of explaining to concerned onlookers in public before they’re convinced that this is her happy sound. Remember that scene in the Lord of the Rings movies where Frodo and Sam cower from the shrill screams of the Nazgûl Witch-King as he circles overhead? It’s like that, only more piercing and deafening.

And for those of you who just read that and are thinking “what a dork,” well, you’re just jealous that you don’t have a little Nazgûl baby.

Sam is also prone to shrieks lately, though they’re not quite as cute. Let us just say that Sam is hard at work exhibiting her growing independence, and that sometimes it’s very trying. It seems like every interaction with her is one in which I’m telling her not to do something, telling her to do something else, or she’s demanding that I not do something or do something else. Playing with Sam has continued to be less of a game and more of an opportunity to be bossed around by someone who changes her mind about what you should be doing every three seconds. Sam still usually demands that we play with her, but she feels the need to direct EVERY nuance of the game, often to the point where I can’t do ANYTHING on my own without her spazzing out. This strikes me as odd, since we’ve never been that way with her. Well, at least not with play. We do often insist that she not punch the cat, but exactly how she doesn’t punch him is left entirely up to her.

Still, we realize it’s a phase, and Sam retains the almost magical ability to make me forget it all just by looking at me, smiling, and saying “Hi, Daddy.” It’s amazing.

As an example of how things might move on past this, Sam is starting to make friends. There’s a little girl who lives across from our back yard, and the two have become quite chummy lately. It’s fun to watch them interact, mainly because it’s so striking how different they are in some ways. This little girl, who is almost exactly Sam’s age, has several older brothers and has apparently benefited from their instruction and example in doing all things physical. Sam still can’t swing herself, but this girl can not only do that, she can swing standing up and hang upside down from the jungle gym. I’m pretty sure that she could hang drywall if I asked her to.

The funniest thing, though, is watching them run. The neighbor girl runs like an Olympic champ, pumping her arms and springing her step. Sam, on the other hand, can most charitably be described as a flailing mass of arms, hair, knees, and exuberance. She gets from Point A to Point B, but it ain’t graceful. Still, Sam is tall and full of energy, so I’m sure she’ll grow into it in no time and totally stuff the little neighbor girl when she’s going for a layup. And then I’ll totally pump my fist and get all in that little girls’ face. It’ll be awesome.