Sadists Invented Science Fair

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Joe and his 4th grade science fair project

It’s Science Fair time again. How the hell did we get back here again so quickly? I swear I just put last year’s science fair boards into the recycle bin. Am I in a time warp?

This year, Joe wanted to do his science fair project on how today’s supermarket bread doesn’t grow mold because of preservatives. He thought it would be interesting to see how long it takes organic bread to mold compared to conventional bread. We talk a lot in this house about our food, about food transparency, and about how we deserve to know what is in our food before we ingest it. We try to be healthy with our eating habits. I prepare whole foods, buy organic most of the time, and watch their sugar intake when I can. I do allow splurges because I’m not going to be Diet Hitler and slap bad foods from my sons’ hands before it reaches their mouths. (Although it sure would be helpful if someone would do that for me.) Food is something Joe thinks about. So he wanted to investigate preservatives more fully and designed his science fair proposal so he could do just that. His idea was rejected, however, along with the ideas of many classmates, because the experiment part was not deemed difficult enough.

Now, I love science. I do. I find it fascinating, and I understand the importance of getting children involved in it with hands-on discovery. But, I thought the main impetus for science fair projects was to foster genuine interest in science. These kids aren’t inventing the wheel. They’re showing how an alkaline interacts with a base (hello, baking soda volcano) or how plants grow better with healthier soil. The science experiments at this age aren’t meant to solve a world dilemma. I’m sure there are national contests that turn toward higher level concepts, but this is not what is going on at the boys’ school. Last year, the science fair winner at their school was an experiment about whether mood rings work on cats. As creative as that project was, I’m pretty sure no one won a Nobel Prize with it. Still…it got a darling little girl (and potential future crazy cat lady) interested in hypothesis and experiment, and I applaud that.

After Joe broke his disappointing news to me at pick up, I got cranky. Science fair makes me cranky to begin with. Multiply it by two school-challenged kids doing science fair projects simultaneously, and I border on downright hostile. Then, tell me that the idea that engaged Joe’s curiosity and interest in research wasn’t good enough, and I bear teeth like a grizzly. I poured a glass of wine early and got busy investigating back up ideas with him. As we were researching (and I was quietly muttering about voodoo dolls and black magic curses), we discovered something interesting. On every web site geared toward middle school science fair projects that we checked, the moldy bread experiment was mentioned. Curious.

Joe and I discussed two options: he can take the research in to show his teacher and fight for his perfectly appropriate project or he can come up with a new idea. One idea we’ve bantered around (in keeping with the same food/preservatives theme) is determining if food coloring can lead to increased pulse rates and hyperactivity. We suspect it does based on how his brother Luke reacts to food-colored candy, like Skittles, versus non-food colored candy, like chocolate, and how his mother feels her heart race when she eats Hot Tamales. We believe Red #40 and Yellow #5 are responsible for most of the insanity in our home. And Joe likes the idea of using his brother and mother as a human lab rats. I think that’s a middle school dream come true.

No matter what happens with Joe’s science fair project, I’ve determined one thing to be true. Joe’s teacher is a sadist conducting her own science experiment. She’s trying to see how many parents she can send over the edge.

Bunny Bifocals

The best things in life are free.
The best things in life are free.

Simple things can be extraordinary to the bunny who chooses to see them.

As part of our training for the Inca Trail, we took a family hike today in advance of the changing weather tomorrow. I wasn’t all that excited about going, but I knew I wasn’t getting out of it. When hubby sets his mind to a plan for exercise, there’s no stopping him. I tried stalling by nursing my latte and spending most of my morning tucked in bed playing on my laptop. But when he came back upstairs at 10:30, fully dressed, and carrying his backpack, I knew I was doomed. I sucked it up, pulled on shorts, a t-shirt, and the hiking boots I need to break in, and made peace with the situation.

We planned a 6.5 mile hike at a nearby state park but had to regroup when we got there and were turned away because it was “full.” On a gorgeous, spring day in Colorado, this wasn’t surprising but it was disappointing. We fell to our back up and headed toward another hike approximately three miles due west of our home. We told our boys we’d do the 3-mile hike we usually do at this spot, but when we got there I decided on a trail we hadn’t taken before that would take us a bit farther.

Along the way on our new sojourn, we enjoyed colorful wildflowers, numerous birds, and the gurgling of spring run-off filling what is usually an empty creek bed. Small spiders scurried across the path underfoot. Squirrels barked their warnings at us from the trees. In one particularly breezy spot, I watched a fuzzy caterpillar alternate between creeping along under his own power and tumbling along windswept. I hoped the wind was carrying him in the direction he was trying to go. A small insect landed on Joe’s shirt. It was something akin to a box elder bug. It had a simple and perfectly symmetrical criss-cross pattern on its back in red and black. I examined it for a minute, sharing its magic with the boys before it flew away. For such a seemingly insignificant creature, he was impeccably adorned. The diversity of creatures on this planet and the spectacular ways they are put together are nothing short of miraculous.

I so often rush through life without looking around and noticing the simple things. A hike is an ideal opportunity to acknowledge the intricacies of our planet and to appreciate the wonder around us. Even when I am forced to drag my reluctant and sorry butt out of bed on a sunny, Saturday morning, I inevitably find awe in and gratitude for what I have seen outside. Being in nature reminds me that I am part of a much larger picture, no greater or lesser than any other creature, just a part of the grand scheme. I like that thought. It puts my life and my struggles into perspective. I mean, it’s a little humbling when a small, flying insect has a cooler outfit than I do.

Looking out our eyes day and in and day out, it can be an epic challenge to remember that we are not the center of the universe. When we are open to things outside ourselves, however, we can discover through the countless natural miracles around us that the things that vex us are unimportant. The only way to take ourselves less seriously is to realize how many smaller things are truly great. To get the best view, sometimes you have to take the focus off the immediate and look around you at the bigger picture.

My Very Blonde Moment

“I’m not offended by all the dumb blonde jokes because I know I’m not dumb…and I also know I’m not blonde.”  ~Dolly Parton

A very obedient bull snake prepares to use our doormat.
An obedient bull snake prepares to use our doormat. Reptiles can breathe and read.

I have been busily working to prepare for a garage sale this weekend. I despise garage sales. The only thing I loathe more than having a garage sale is having a house filled with stuff I am dying to get rid of. And this is how I’ve gotten myself into the predicament of needing to be involved in a garage sale in the first place. For about a month now I’ve been taking a good, long look at our closets, cupboards, cabinets, closets, and drawers. I’ve boxed up books, dishes, toys, and crafting supplies and hauled it out to our staging area on one side of the garage. This week it was finally time to involve the boys. Together we attacked their bedrooms and their playroom, spending hours finding lost game pieces, reuniting action figure collectibles, and tossing out random things none of us could explain.

As we were down in the basement playroom today, I pulled open the blind to let more light in. When I did, I noticed in the window well a small garter snake lifting its head up and checking me out. Spiders I can’t stand but snakes fascinate me, and this one was downright cute (if a snake can be cute). I quickly called Joe to come check him out. We stood at the window staring at the little guy until he spooked, probably because of all our gawking and pointing, and slithered his way down into the hole under the rocks where he resides. When he was out of sight, a thought popped into my head and before I could stop to evaluate it fully I opened my mouth and it spilled out.

“Do reptiles breathe air?” I asked my biology-enthusiast son.

The minute I heard my words I realized how truly asinine I sounded. But alas…it was too late. It was already out there and there were no take backs. My son was staring at me as if I had seven heads.

“Ummm…Mom? Every living creature on this planet breathes air,” he said just before erupting with laughter. Nice kid.

“Well…” I stammered, searching for an explanation as to what had caused my temporary lack of common sense and my absent third-grade science skills. “I’m TIRED” was all I could come up with.

“What? Do you think reptiles are aliens? All we’ve got is oxygen, Mom. It’s kind of necessary for life. That’s pretty basic science.”

“I know. I know,” I said, trying to recover. “I just wanted to see if you knew the answer. I was testing you,” I answered, hoping to cover my tracks.

“You think your son who was obsessed with dinosaurs for years doesn’t know that reptiles breathe air?” he asked. “I know a thing or two about reptiles, Mom.”

He then ran upstairs to tell his brother what I had said because there’s nothing better than pointing out to your sibling what a boob your mother is. The minute he left I looked back out the window. The snake had reappeared, its small head held high up in the air in indignation. I swear I saw him roll his black-slitted eyes at me.

As the two boys spent the afternoon having random laughs at my expense, I tried to be self-effacing and calm about the flub so as not to fuel the fire any further. Throughout the day I texted them random comments about air, and I joked along with them and laughed too. I mean, my question was pretty ridiculous. There was no denying it. And having a mini-meltdown about their hysterical laughter was not going to make the case against me any less damning. So I rolled with it. I had no other options. But, man oh man, admitting and accepting my own idiocy is a lot of work.

It’s humbling when my brain takes a quick vacation. And it is happening to me more frequently as I age. I walk into a room and stand there trying to determine why I am there in the first place. I start one task and then like a Labrador Retriever chasing a squirrel I’m off in another direction only to realize hours later that I never finished that first task. Today’s brainless statement was likely induced by a lack of sleep coupled with deficient nutrition after ingesting a greasy burger and fries for lunch. Or at least that’s what I’m telling myself because, honestly, my mind is not usually that vacuous, and I refuse to think I’m losing it this young. I mean, I do know that there is no life without breath. Guess today I needed a reminder that sometimes life is a bit more worth living when you’re laughing so hard at yourself that you can’t breathe.

How Do You Like Them Apples?

Joe and Luke playing astronaut at the museum six years ago
Joe and Luke playing astronaut at the museum six years ago at nearly 4 and 6.

I have always loved the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, which was known in my childhood as Denver Museum of Natural History. I remember my school field trips there on creaky, uncomfortable yellow buses back when a trip from the suburbs to downtown felt like a trip to the moon. In college friends and I would trek down from Boulder for a welcome study break and a chance to picnic in City Park. When we had our sons, I could not wait to share it with them. And I did. Most visits consisted of me hurriedly following them as they raced through the exhibits, unable to read and only patient enough to stand still for a moment. On those visits we spent more time commuting to and from the museum than we actually spent in the museum. Still, we’d always have to stop in the space exhibit so they could try on astronaut suits and attempt to dock the Space Shuttle. One time my super speedy, two-year-old Luke beat me up the ramp out of the Mars exhibit and was immediately lost in the crowd. I found him a few minutes later, two floors up, crouched in a weepy ball on the third floor staircase and surrounded by concerned parents who wondered where his negligent mother was. (He’s been more diligent about staying near me ever since.) Most visits ended in the gift shop where often, although not always, they were treated to a small souvenir.

The boys are bigger but they look small next to that mammoth.
The boys are much bigger now but they still look pretty small next to that mammoth.

Today we took the boys as promised back to the museum, our first trip there this year. Joe, ever enthralled by natural history, has been pestering us to take him to the Mammoths and Mastodons exhibit since it opened in February. I carefully plotted to take him closer to the end of the exhibit’s run so we wouldn’t have to share the exhibit with half the city. With a couple visits to this museum every year since the boys were 4 and 2, we now have the rigamarole down to our own science. Today we arrived a few minutes before opening at 9 so we could beat the crowds. We got into the exhibit itself at 9:15, which gave us a full hour to explore before heading down one floor to catch the IMAX movie called Titans of the Ice Age, featuring (you guessed it) more mammoths and mastodons. Afterward, Joe wanted to run through the dinosaur exhibit and the space exhibit before ducking into the gift shop. By that time we were starving but we acquiesced. When Steve and I paused to enjoy the museum’s fantastic view of City Park and the Denver skyline, the boys took off without giving notice. Because they’re older now, there was no panic at their disappearance as there would have been in years past. We simply walked back to the main corridor and looked around. After a minute we spied them on the first floor near the gift shop glancing around nervously. When they saw us approaching, they looked momentarily relieved and then bolted for the gift shop. Some things never change.

Spring in Denver
Spring in Denver

On the way home (without gift shop souvenirs and the subsequent tantrums that used to follow that sad situation) the four of us excitedly discussed what we’d learned. We each had favorite revelations and discoveries. I was interested to learn that elephants are not descendants of either mammoths or mastodons as I had imagined. All three proboscideans are descendants of one common ancestor, which makes them more like cousins. Mammoths lived in colder climes and ate grasses, while mastodons lived in slightly less icy environs and munched on trees and shrubs. The more we listened to our sons talking about their visit, the better we felt about our decision to set our alarm for 7 a.m. on a Saturday morning. More than once Joe interrupted his non-stop recounting of myriad factoids about late Pleistocene mammals to thank us for taking him to the museum. Tickets to mammoth exhibit for a family of four: $26. IMAX 3D tickets for more mammoth fun: $20. Gratitude from my preteen son for an educational experience…priceless.

My kids were never quiet or still enough for story time at the library. (We were kicked out more than once.) They’ve never been great at sitting still at the dinner table or a table in a restaurant. Despite the plethora of professional sporting events we’ve taken them to, they’ve only ever one time made it through an entire game. These things used to bother me. They don’t anymore. So what if they’re not quiet readers or princes of table manners or sports fanatics? They are curious learners who get all geeked out over dinosaurs, early mammals, space, rocks, animals, health, and history and who would rather conduct intellectually fueled Google searches and build elaborate virtual worlds than play soccer or baseball or lacrosse or football. Yep. They’re nerdy just like their parents. As the old saying goes, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Turns out that’s exactly how I wanted my apples to land after all.