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31Mar/09Off

Week 270: Locks, Yelling, and Religion

So, we've learned a lesson this week: Mandy shall not be left unattended, even in the company of her sister. Last Saturday the two girls were playing upstairs while Ger and I ran down to the basement to do some stuff for a few minutes. When I came back up, I glanced at Mandy, who was standing in the kitchen. Right away I knew something was different about her, but my brain refused for the moment to identify exactly what change had happened in the last few minutes. It's like looking at one of those magic dot pictures, you KNOW something is supposed to be there, but all you can see are dots.

After a few seconds, though, my fear started to coalesce from the general to the specific. "Mandy," I said, "what happened to your hair?"

"She trimmed her own bangs!" Sam supplied cheerfully. "With my safety scissors!"

A few minutes later when Geralyn came up from the basement to see what the noise was all about, I was still yelling and both girls had fled underneath a desk. The refused for some time to come out.

Now, all things considered, Mandy actually didn't do a bad job for her first foray into self-inflicted cosmetology. And at least she limited her extreme makeover to her bangs and one small, random patch on the back of her head. But she hacked them pretty short and that part of her hair had just recently gotten so long and lovely. It just looks decidedly worse now, with her bangs making a jagged scar across her forehead at about a 30-degree angle. Alas.

Of course, the most amusing part of the whole story is that being the neatnick she was, she apparently took each newly liberated lock to the kitchen trash can and deposited it there, leaving not a single strand on the floor. At least she's consistent.

Sam also had her own escapades, though these were more of a theological nature. On Wednesday nights Geralyn and I have been attending a class hosted at a local church. I'm not sure what exact flavor Christianity the place is, other than it is not Catholic. At any rate, they offer childcare for the girls, with Mandy going in the nursery and Sam attending a class for "Daisies" which is --and I quote from the organizer-- "like a Christian version of the Girl Scouts." Which is good, because we all know the kind of loose morals that drive those foul Girl Scouts to their misdeeds.

At any rate, Sam loves going to The Daisies, presumably in no small part due to the cupcakes and the chance to bend new children to her will. But apparently that's not the only reason. The other day at dinner Sam asked, "Can I get baptised with the Daisies at the end of the class?"

This question apparently didn't make much sense at first to Geralyn, who was raised Catholic and has so far realized a similar plan for Sam. "Sammy," she said in the voice of someone who knows she's probably missing something, but doesn't quite see it yet, "you've already been baptized."

"No," Sam said, "I mean for real."

Having been raised Southern Baptist and thus more familiar with the Protestants' habit of dunking things in water, I was having a pretty good laugh at the other end of the table while Sister Amanda Francesca sat across from Sam and gave her a stern glare. What followed was an impromptu --and thoroughly clumsy-- attempt at explaining world religions to a five year old. Somewhere around Hinduism Sam broke in and told us that a) she had had enough of this nonsense, and b) she wanted a desert.

It remains to be seen if she will be held under any body of water.

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27Mar/09Off

Book Review: The Story of Edgar Sawtelle

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle

Here's an idea: Let's take William Shakespeare's Hamlet, right? And let's pull out all the key bits: an indecisive and tragic hero, a poisoned father, the ghost of that poisoned father, an accidental murder of a close friend, and an usurping uncle who marries the hero's mother. Oh, oh, and that whole "play within a play" scene where Hamlet tries to guilt his uncle into confessing murder. Don't forget that. NOW, let's retell THAT story, except instead of rotten Denmark let's place it in rural Wisconsin during the 1950s and instead of a kingdom let's make it a dog breeding business and let's replace Rosencrantz and Guildenstern with a couple of dogs. There. Now you've basically got The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski.

And you know, all smirk aside that's not necessarily a bad hook. Plenty of great books have used that trope of retelling well-known stories from religious texts, legends, Greek plays, and the like. My problem with this book actually lies completely in the writing. Specifically, the plot is agonizingly slow, meandering, and just plain boring. There's flashes of action and some neat character development, but it's completely buried under meandering prose where nothing happens for scores of pages at a time. I don't need all this detail on dog breeding and the letters Edgar's dad wrote to other dog breeders, for example. It's not necessary. Stop it.

Relatedly, Wroblewski has an annoying habit of introducing elements to the story that get a lot of attention, then just sort of sit there like a lump and eventually get left behind. This goes hand in hand with his habit of over reaching in his attempts at writing florid and poetic prose where he goes on and on about a scene or an internal monologue long after we've gotten the point or the appropriate impression. And for all that detail and introspection, the characters didn't even really feel that fleshed out or detailed. Claude and even Edgar himself are only given superficial motives for their actions.

And don't even get me started about anthropomorphizing the dogs in the story to the point where I can't believe they're actually dogs any more. Just ...no.

The end result is that the book feels mostly disjointed, meandering, and not quite sure where it's going. It needed some serious editing and reigning in. So I really recommend against this one. Hanging huge slabs of fatty meat on Hamlet's bones doesn't make for another masterpiece.

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25Mar/09Off

Movie Review: Bringing Up Baby (1938)

Swing Time

Note: This is #12 in my 52 Classic Movies in 52 Weeks challenge for 2009.

It's not like I'm particularly familiar with actors like Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn, but I can tell you that when I hear them I don't automatically think "screwball comedy." And yet here we have them in Bringing up Baby, which really couldn't possibly get any more screwball. It's the story of a paleontologist, a dog, a leopard, a ditzy socialite, another leopard, and an intercostal clavicle. It's also kind of funny.

Grant plays David Huxley, a fairly nerdy paleontologist trying to complete his brontosaurus skeleton, secure a $1 million grant for his museum, and figure out his dead fish of a fiance. Through random acts of silliness he get entangled with Hepburn's character of Susan Vance, who is three things: smitten with Huxley, completely scatterbrained, and in possession of a (partially) domesticated leopard named "Baby." Thanks to a cascade of accidents and Vance's unwavering infatuation with Huxley, the two end up taking Baby out to the country home of Vance's aunt, who just turns out to be key to Huxley's securing his $1 million museum grant. Hilarity ensues all along the way.

What makes this movie work is the interplay between Grant and Hepburn. While, despite his best efforts, Grant is too handsome and suave for me to quite fully accept him as a bumbling nerd, he gets close enough for Hepburn to work with. She really steals the show, giving us a frantic mix of ditzy energy, admirable stupidity, blind infatuation, and single minded boldness that keeps things moving. And move it does. The film is fast-paced, sometimes to the point of being spastic, with people talking over each other and multiple jokes flying at the same time.

What also struck me about the movie was how quotable it is. Here's a few examples of lines that made me laugh out loud:

[After Huxley discovers a leopard in Susan's apartment]
Huxley: Susan, you have to get out of this apartment!
Vance: I can't, I have a lease.

[Vance is reading a letter about the leopard Baby]
Vance: "He's three years old, gentle as a kitten, and likes dogs." I wonder whether Mark means that he eats dogs or is fond of them?

[After Vance loses a heel from one shoe and has to stand lop-sided]
Vance: I was born on the side of a hill!

[After Vance pretends to be a gangster and is still limping from the broken shoe heel]
Police Chief: Say, you've got a bad limp there. Did you get shot up in one of those bank robberies?
Vance: No, I just lost my heel.

Police Chief: [Glancing back at Huxley in his jail cell] Well, don't worry about him.

So it's actually pretty funny. It'll be interesting to contrast the other Grant and Hepburn performances I see during this 52-in-52 challenge. Trailer below.

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allowfullscreen="true" width="425" height="344">

As a kind of post-script to this review, it's interesting that out of the 12 "classic" movies I've watched so far for this little project, seven of them have been comedies. That number jumps to nine if you're more generous with your definition of "comedy" and allow It Happened One Night and Swing Time. But looking at the "great" films of the last few years, you'd be really hard pressed to find more than a handful of comedies. You have to go all the way back to 1977's Annie Hall to find any Academy Award Best Picture winner resembling a comedy --and that award SHOULD have gone to Star Wars that year anyway. And looking at my list of upcoming movies, it seems like Bringing Up Baby is one of the last comedies on the list.

Why is that? Why are so many comedies from the 20s and 30s considered classics while the comedies of the 80s, 90s, and 00s aren't?

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24Mar/09Off

Week 269: Books and Haircuts

Reading and haircuts this week! The book being read here is this GINORMOUS tome of Disney Princess stories. It weighs like 20 pounds. Sam had originally discovered it at the library, and she loved it so much I looked it up on Amazon.com. Surprisingly, it was like six bucks, which represents a really amazing price per pounds. You can't even get that good a price on chicken tenders during Double Coupon Wednesday, so I bought it. And let me tell you that while I often worry about spoiling the girls with too many pieces of injection-moulded plastic, Sam's reaction when I drove the forklift into her room and unloaded this book was absolutely unforgettable. And while I'm not particularly keen on the whole Disney Princess thing, I'm willing to go with it if it means her getting excited about reading long-form stories that sometimes go entire pages without even a picture.

Mandy and Sam got their hair cut this week, and while it wasn't technically Mandy's first haircut, it had been a while. She needed it, though I'm still determined to grow her hair out to look like mine back when I was in college. It's funny, because even at age 2, she's already developed that reflexive mannerism of swiping her fingers across her forehead and combing her bangs back over the tops of her ears. Probably something I'll recognize when I see her doing it 30 years from now. That and her screaming at the sight of hyenas.

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20Mar/09Off

Book Review: Old Man’s War

Old Man's War

When you get old and reach the winter of your life, you don't generally think about joining the military to go off and defend humanity against horrible alien threats. Well, you don't, but the characters in John Scalzi's Old Man's War do. This is mostly because they get to be young again, but that deal in exchange for never getting to return to Earth and braving pretty bad odds on survival. Space is a pretty brutal place, what with all the different alien races competing for a relatively small number of inhabital planets and trying to crowd each other out.

This is the hook upon which Scalzi hangs his space opera, and it's not a bad one. The main character, John Perry, is an 75-year old retiree when he enlists with the Colonial Defence Force at the beginning of the novel. Readers get to learn more about what he's gotten himself into at about the same pace he does, since the CDF keeps everything pretty close to the vest. The author does a pretty good job of keeping things at a brisk pace, revealing just enough at a time about this world and the terms of Perry's deal to keep us interested and turning the pages.

I don't read a lot of science fiction so maybe I'm just not jaded enough, but I also found Scalzi to be pretty creative. I liked how humanity's brand of technology used nanobots and genetic engineering to counter alien dangers and how their electronic BrainPals(tm) essentially made them telepaths and able to get e-mail in their head. That seems like a plausible course for future military tech to take, and indeed the implications for all this on space and terrestrial warfare is explored and played with in a pretty entertaining way. John Perry is sort of a bland character in and of himself, but like a lot of sci-fi, the world is the real main attraction and the protagonist is just there to give us someone to see it through.

So, I think it's safe to say I liked it, so much so that I've already started on the sequel, The Ghost Brigades.

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18Mar/09Off

Movie Review: Swing Time (1936)

Swing Time

Note: This is #11 in my 52 Classic Movies in 52 Weeks challenge for 2009.

I admit, I wasn't looking forward to this movie going in. I figured that if musical and dance movies were all but dead (or at best degraded to cheerleader and break dancing epics), there must be a reason for it. So I was quite surprised when I realized that I really enjoyed Swing Time.

First off, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers can really dance. I mean REALLY dance. They're almost superhumanly fleet footed, moving with grace, speed, and precision that's all the more impressive when you cue in to the fact that the movie doesn't make use of quick editing cuts or body doubles. The dance numbers are all wide angle, full body shots that show the couple moving as one unit in long, uninterrupted takes. It's really amazing and the dance numbers were easily my favorite parts of the movie.

That's not to say that the talky bits weren't without their charm, too. The plot follows your typical romantic comedy conventions, creating an unlikely pairing between two people out of circumstance. Astaire's character needs to raise a big chunk of money to impress his fiance's family, so he ends up going to New York City and partnering, almost accidentally, with Roberts's character to hit the gambling and dancing circuits. Along the way, they fall in love despite Astaire's amusingly quaint chastity and they have to make some decisions.

It's all light fluffy fun that's there to get to the dancing and singing, but it works. And I actually probably enjoyed the supporting characters of Pop and Mabel, who fill the roles of comedic relief and bumbling but loyal friends to the two headliners. Some of their lines are genuinely funny.

On a side note, I was more than a little shocked when Astaire got on stage and did a dance number called "Bojangles of Harlem" while wearing blackface. 1936 indeed. The number (mostly crazy good tap dancing and a famous sequence where Astaire dances with his shadows) actually didn't seem that mocking, though, and a little research on the 'net tells me that it was meant to be an homage to one of Astaire's own idols. Still, you'd never get away with that today.

So, surprisingly good film, and just the kind of sampling I had hoped for out of this 52-in-52 project. Would I ever have sat down to watch something like Swing Time? No, absolutely not. But I'm glad I did.

Trailer below.

Also this week: Jeremy reviews Rachel Getting Married.

Filed under: Movies 1 Comment
17Mar/09Off

Week 268: Boundaries, St. Patrick’s, and Fun

It definitely seems like Sam and Mandy are switching places again on the Aggrivation Index. For a while, Mandy was the sweet, compliant little one while Sam ran around trying to find every boundry to slam up against. Now, Sam has mellowed a bit and Mandy is acting like, well, a two-year old. I certainly don't hold it against her --it's her job in life right now-- but after the fifth time of her doing something you've told her not to just to see what your reaction is going to be this time ...well, you know.

As you may notice from the pictures, it we had our big St. Patrick's Day celebration at our church this weekend, and since my sister was in town we dragged her along. I think she was a bit unprepared for the sheer density of the screaming, green-clad throngs. I think if there had been just a few more kids and a couple more bales of cotton candy, it would have started to become of interest to astrophysicists.

Sam's Sunday school class had a little dance number that we quickly got into place to see, but the whole production was apparently put together with only the help of a $5 Radio Shack gift card, so we couldn't hear anything. The ragged line of children mumbled for about 90 seconds, shuffled their feet like a band of slightly drugged and thoroughly disinterested leprechauns doing an Irish jig, then bowed and scattered. As you can see here and here, though, Samantha once again occupied the space to the extreme right on the distribution curve on enthusiasm.

Later, Mandy ate a cupcake and I drank a beer in a church. It was a good time.

Filed under: Parenting 5 Comments
13Mar/09Off

Book Review: Buyology

Buyology

Well, here it is only March and we already have a strong contender for the worst book I'll read this year. Buyology: Truth and Lies About Why We Buy and the New Science of Desire is written by advertising mogul Martin Lindstrom and if you believe the dust jacket it aims to explore the emerging field of "neuromarketing," where advertisers and their consultants draw upon brain scanning technologies like fMRI to understand how brains react to advertising and how to to better market to them. The author claims to be the driving force behind three year's worth of this neuromarketing research, involving subjects from around the globe and Lord knows how many millions of dollars.

That's not a bad hook. The problem is that while the book is set up to be a scientific exploration of this new field or at least an exploration of the research couched in terms accessible to the interested layman, Lindstrom seizes that premise and twists it into marketing and advertising gobbledygook. It's clear from the offset that he's not a scientist or competent consumer of researcher by any stretch, yet he puts on a figurative lab coat and stomps around the territory making unsubstantiated and even nonsensical claims like "the statistical validity was as strong as could be." Words like those have very specific meanings in a scientific context, but the author here just slings them around like marketing jingles. He also stomps around knee-deep in other fallacies like confusing correlation with causation and changing the definition of his terms (such as "product placement") to suit his predetermined conclusions.

But as bad as all that is, it's not the worst thing about this bad book. That honor goes to how Lindstrom seems incapable or unwilling to turn off his marketing speak. The entire book reads like a breathless advertisement for the author himself and his super amazing totally MIND BLOWING NEW RESEARCH!! With each new topic and chapter, the author blathers on about how you're going to be totally amazed and shocked by what he has to tell you about the mysterious, murky happenings within the brain and how it forces you to buy a new iPod or bag of Doritos. The tone of the book is one of over the top zealotry and overselling the GEE WHIZ nature of research that in all likelihood a) wasn't done by him, and b) misinterpreted anyway. Perhaps most annoyingly Lindstrom implies or outright states that marketing and advertising literally force you to behave irrationally, a concept that any person with a brain worth scanning in the first place would tell you is exaggerated at best and hysterical at worst.

Ironically, the only redeeming quality of Buyology comes from the parts that have nothing to do with neuromarketing. While he obviously knows jack divided by squat about scientific research, Lindstrom DOES obviously know about advertising, marketing, and brand development. And when he talks about the novel and surprising ways that companies engage in those activities, it's often interesting. Learning how cigarette companies pay night clubs to decorate with certain colors and shapes in order to subtly advertise certain brands of cigarettes is fascinating, for example, as is hearing about how grocery stores pump in the fake scents of baking bread in order to trigger our appetites. That's really pretty cool if insidious stuff, and it has nothing to do with neuromarketing. I could have done with a lot more of that kind of stuff without the author's faux science veneer and frenzied trumpeting of his own horn.

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12Mar/09Off

Movie Review: Modern Times (1936)

Modern Times

Note: This is #10 in my 52 Classic Movies in 52 Weeks challenge for 2009.

This sorta silent comedy film by Charlie Chaplin features one of the last appearances of his Little Tramp character. I enjoyed it, though in a lot of ways it's less funny and MUCH more subversive and contains a lot more social satire than the the other two Chaplin movies I've seen. Modern Times tackles issues related to industrialization, dehumanization of workers, the joblessness of the Great Depression, crime, and worker rights. But in a satirical, funny way. You've got Chaplin being cute and charming and zany and all that, but you've also got some darker stuff like his having a nervous breakdown after being treated inhumanely by his factory job, taking (albeit accidentally) drugs, and inciting civil unrest (again, accidentally).

Still, it's warm and funny in places. My favorite bit was where Chaplin was volunteered to demonstrate an automatic feeding machine that would allow factory owners to eliminate the lunch break by force feeding them on the job. Of course, the contraption malfunctions with amusing results, and the Tramp literally takes it on the chin ("it" in this case being pie). I was also impressed by how prescient the movie was in regards to subjects like employee privacy rights and workplace monitoring --the factory owner watches over his employees via a very Orwellian surveillance system that was probably way ahead of its time.

The last thing I really have to say is that The Little Tramp really does belong in the same category as characters such as Tom and Jerry, the Pink Panther, and Wile E. Coyote --he shouldn't talk. Even when he's just singing faux French gibberish in the movie's final scene, it just didn't feel right. Still, the movie is amusing enough and it's fun to see how Chaplin dispels or otherwise deals with some pretty anxiety-producing topics.

Next week: Swing Time --a musical! Great.

Also this week: Jeremy reviews Jerimiah Johnson. And Paul reviews Annie Hall.

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10Mar/09Off

Week 267

Too busy to do much more than post a few pictures. Lots of stuff going on, and the girls are typically great.

I particularly like the picture of Sam doing her ferocious cat impression. She did her and Mandy's face painting during a few seconds when we weren't watching her closely enough. Fortunately the Duchess wasn't due for dinner for another hour.

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6Mar/09Off

Book Review: The Halo Effect

The Halo Effect

No, this isn't about the video game. The full title on this one is The Halo Effect ...and the Eight Other Business Delusions that Deceive Managers. In it, author Phil Rosenzweig sets out to take the business press and best sellers to task for a list of flaws in their thinking and chest thumping. Basically, it's a list of fallacies that you could compile from the chapter titles in most books on psychology, decision-making, and behavioral economics:

  1. The Halo Effect (inferring other traits on the basis of one trait, like performance)
  2. The Delusion of Correlation and Causality (assuming correlation means causation)
  3. The Delusion of Single Explanations (not realizing that it's all a rich tapestry; every outcome has multiple causes)
  4. The Delusion of Connecting the Winning Dots (a.k.a., selection bias; the habit of studying only successes)
  5. The Delusion of Rigorous Research (substituting research quantity for quality)
  6. The Delusion of Lasting Success (forgetting that the nature of business means very few successes are permanant or even long-lasting)
  7. The Delusion of Absolute Performance (not realizing that company performance is relative to your competition, not absolute)
  8. The Delusion fo the Wrong End of the Stick (attributing success for a trait that both successful and unsuccessful companies share)
  9. The Delusion of Organizational Physics (Failing to realize that human systems like the marketplace are too complex to predict perfectly)

I liked this book quite a bit, in part because I just like exploring these little kinks in human nature, but also because Rosenzweig fully committed himself to a no bullshit, no pulled punches critique of the silliness you see in the business press and best-selling books like Built to Last or Good to Great (which I thought was transparently terrible, too). His diatribes are replete with real-world examples, quotes, and data compilations, but also always cogent and centered around one of the delusions above (though sometimes they bleed together, as you might expect). He spends a fair amount of time splendidly savaging people like Jim Collins (of Good to Great fame and fortune), calling him on the carpet for making sure that facts, science, and sound methodology don't get in the way of telling an uplifting story. It's great to see someone with both the moxie to say stuff like this and the scientific training to substantiate his critiques. If the Journal of Applied Psychology were more like this, I'd read it cover to cover every issue.

My only substantial complaint about the book is that it's almost all criticism and has very little in the way of solutions beyond "don't fall into this faulty mode of thinking." The subtext of the book is that business performance is gosh-darn hard to measure and even harder to predict or influence. So what do you do? How DO you identify the qualities that make businesses better? Clearly, some are better than others. What are the methodologies by which we can evaluate things in the absence of truely scientific experiments? The Halo Effect isn't much help there. But at least the author criticizes the ways NOT to do it in an entertaining and enlightening way.

Filed under: Books 3 Comments
4Mar/09Off

Movie Review: A Night at the Opera (1935)

A Night at the Opera

Note: This is #9 in my 52 Classic Movies in 52 Weeks challenge for 2009.

Okay, so I'm going to back peddle a bit on my previous dissing of The Marx Brothers. Unlike Duck Soup, I kind of enjoyed A Night at the Opera.

The plot? It's mainly a setup for the jokes, but there is some plot there. Suffice to say that Groucho, Chico, and Harpo (no Zeppo by this time) fall in with an opera company on a trip to New York for the last performance of the season. When not causing general mayhem, they aim to help Riccardo, an unappreciated member of the company, pursue his love for Rosa, one of the show's headliners. This puts them all at odds with the show's other star, Lassparri, who is your typical blowhard jerk bent on seizing Rosa's affections himself. Hilarity ensues.

I think what I liked better about A Night at the Opera is that it was more focused and more directed. Instead of random insanity for the sake of a gag, there was a plot, a goal, and clear sets of people to root for, empathize with, and jeer at. The movie was still chock full of absurd jokes and gags, but they're integrated more into the plot and characters. It felt a lot more natural and flowing, where Duck Soup seemed forced and stilted in too many places.

Two of my favorite scenes were a lengthy contract negotiation between Groucho and Chico that culminated in a groaner of a pun about Santa Claus, and the great, protracted visual gag where the brothers cram person after person --cleaning ladies, manicurists, engineers, a random passenger looking to borrow a phone, four waiters, and several others-- into their tiny state room. The funniest part of the movie, though, is the titular night at the opera where the brothers cut loose and do every absurd thing they can think of to sabotage the pompous Lassparri so that they can shut the operation down and unite Rosa and Riccardo. The mayhem his genuinely funny, particularly the part where Harpo starts messing with the stage backdrops so that Lassparri is trying to perform scenes from Il Trovatore against continuously changing and increasingly incongruous backdrops. Sure, this explosion of insanity may lack the subtext of "war IS insane" that the climax of Duck Soup had, but it just worked better.

So, based on my extensive survey of two Marx Brothers films, if you had to pick one to see, I'd recommend A Night at the Opera.

Also this week, Jeremy reviewed Once.

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3Mar/09Off

Week 266: Yells, Closets, and Ham

We had another incident this week that furthers my belief that Mandy is more than capable of plotting a nice, cold dish of revenge. I was downstairs vacuuming while Mandy and Sam were playing upstairs. Upon turning off the vacuum I heard muffled yells coming from overhead. I ran upstairs to find Mandy standing sheepishly next to the closed linen closet door, which was screaming for help.

Upon opening the door, I found Sam. Curled up. In a tight ball. In the scant space beneath the bottom shelf. Apparently she had climbed in there (just, you know, because) and Mandy had walked over and closed the door on her. The good news is that in the future some therapist be able to pinpoint Sam's claustrophobia just by doing a Google search and finding this blog entry. Hello, future therapist! It's not all my fault!

I also love this picture because it so elegantly captures how Sam will refuse to pose for my camera for longer than 2 seconds, UNLESS I'm trying to take a picture of anyone else. THEN she has to be in every single shot.

Filed under: Parenting 2 Comments