Battle of the CD Tower

In case you missed it, we’re moving. Much more on that later. For now, an excerpt from an actual conversation we had this morning.

We were cleaning out and packing our CDs. For those of you born after 1990, CDs are thin rounds of plastic, kind of like the records you collect, but much smaller. They play music similarly, but on a different device.

A note of context for those who do not know my husband: Randy is a sentimental guy. There are not many downsides to being married to a sensitive guy. But one is the tendency toward pack ratting, hording things with meaning.

And so begins the dialogue as we are packing CDs for our move.

Andrea: George Michael? We can get rid of this.

Randy: No! We keep it!

A: Are you serious? It’s mine. I’m pitching it.

R: No keeping.

A: Put it in and tell me we should keep it.

(Puts it in the CD player.)

R: I’m getting rid of this Smashing Pumpkins. 

A: Which?!

R: The dumb one. Not the other one.

A: Yeah. That was seminal for me. What’s it called? It was college.

R: I know. I was there. Oh! The Bo Deans!

A: Why? Oh are they Canadian or something?

R: No! They’re from Milwaukee.

A: No Portishead or Bach leaves this house. Are we really going to listen to all this big band music?

R: Keep it. There’s a Black Crows CD in the kitchen. Can I get rid of that?

(Pause while I compute Black Crows instead of Black Keys.)

A: That’s not mine.

R: It’s not mine. It’s yours.

A: Nope.

R: Yeah, your old boyfriend gave it to you. What was his name? Patrick?

A: Noooooo! Pat was the world music guy! He’d neeeever listen to this crap. Give away pile!

R: Etta James?

A: Keep. Hole. (Laughing.) We can get rid of this.

R: No! We’re keeping that.

A: Seriously? Like you’re ever gonna say “I want to listen to Hole now.”

R: No. This Norwegian writer I am reading alludes to these 90s bands in his novel. It makes me want to listen to them. Garbage too.

A: OK, but this George Michael sucks. He’s like a lounge singer. Can we give it away?

(Meanwhile Robin is dancing to it.)

R: Siamese Dream! That’s it! Here it is. And Jane’s Addiction too.

A: Ahhhh, college.

Robin: We need to buy more food guys. We’re running out. You know dat?


The Prison Industrial Complex by Lego


Lego startles me sometimes with its emphasis on law enforcement, crime, and weapons.


I recently cleaned out my son’s Lego collection and disarmed his figurines. An impressive haul it was! I would never buy him a toy gun, yet somehow all of these firearms have slipped into our household.

Not long ago, I stumbled upon a Lego advent calendar with a mini figure for each day of advent. My enthusiasm curdled when I realized that some of the figurines were criminals: prisoners in stripes or robbers in ski caps and stubble, holding crow bars. There was a police officer too, holding handcuffs, of course. Merry Christmas!

I love Legos. Really, I do. They engage my son so completely that he will fall silent for an hour in the living room in rapt concentration, following the “constructions” to build elaborate vehicles from smartly designed kits. Their designs are brilliant!

And beyond the sets, he free builds with startling creativity. He builds airports, toilets, stores, robots, toilets, rockets, houses, toilets, airplanes, and outhouses with toilets. I can hang out with him on the floor for an hour or more, snapping bricks together, creating worlds.

He loves Lego and we’ve encouraged him to save his money for kits. We’ve bought him plenty too. But there are certain cops and robbers sets we just won’t allow. Like the jail-break set, which includes a prison with graffiti in its cells. It’s beyond depressing.

Our corrections system is an inappropriate subject for play. It seems insensitive and glib to turn prisons into play kits.


Against my protests, we recently ordered a Lego phonics book series. My husband is hoping to leverage Robin’s Lego love to teach him to read. But the plots of the books revolve around cops (short O) and robbers (short O). There are lots of police chases and gritty criminals.


I cringe as we read our way through gold heists, swamp chases, diamond thefts, and bank robberies. There are Lego SWAT teams, confrontations, incarcerations.

Maybe I should count my blessings. At least the characters are beyond race, a uniform yellow. I guess it could be worse.

Am I a prude to be a uneasy about all of this?


Dental Detours

I haven’t read Dante. So can someone please tell me in which circle of hell you must floss another human being’s teeth?

Fitting penance for sins of the mouth flesh. A recent trip to the dentist has revealed three cavities! Our first ones. Ever.

The whole appointment starts badly. Busy office. Dental hygienist stops me at the door when I follow Robin in as I have for all 8 of his visits. “Just Robin. You wait here. We’ll call you.”

Not sure who is more uncomfortable, Robin or me. But there is no conversation.

Robin is a good and obedient patient. I’ve enjoyed our previous trips to the dentist. When told to take a turn with the brush once a day, I say no problem. I help him brush twice each day. On the tutelage of the pediatrician, I’ve done this his whole toothsome life. Robin hands me the toothbrush each time.

As he’s gotten old enough to argue or doddle, I give him choices. Passive aggressive ones. “Up to you. If you want cavities, that’s your choice. I don’t care if you brush.” He always chooses toothbrush.

What does he know of cavities? Only what I’ve told him: They’re bad. They hurt. They are expensive to fill, so if you get too many we won’t be able to afford vacation, kid. So brush up or you’ll never meet Mickey Mouse.

It’s enough. But there’s more. Let’s not forget the diet.

No gummy vitamins! No sticky or chewy candies! Limited sugar. In stores, Robin points to jelly beans and tells me they are bad for your teeth. On Halloween he hands over his Tootsie Rolls and Laffy Taffy before I even ask.

Our efforts have been affirmed on all previous dental visits. I chat up a friendly hygienist who inevitably comments on how great his teeth look. When the dentist tells me what a great job we’re doing, we high five. “Team work!”

So this time I am completely unprepared for the news.

After an eternal wait, I’m summoned by a grimacing hygienist. Robin is upright in the yellow pleather recliner of the back office, holding plastic prizes but not smiling.

There are x-rays on a lightboard. Apparently, not only is 5 the age when mom has to wait outside. It’s also the age when they take x-rays. I should have been informed.

Three cavities. “They’re small,” says the stern-faced dentist.

“So we don’t have to fill them?”

“You do. These baby teeth are very brittle and will rot quickly.” He shows me two other small spots that may be turning into cavities. He’ll watch those for next time.

(I am not a bad mother. I am not a bad mother. I am not a bad mother.)

All this in a mouth where teeth only touch in 6 places. A mouth that drinks juice once a week. That doesn’t know the cloying sweetness of Jelly Bellies, nor the jaw joy of chewing gum. That has never experienced the vivid flavors of a Jolly Rancher, nor the sweet fizz of soda. What gives?

“Floss,” the hygienist says quietly. “Be sure to floss. Just in the back. Those molars that touch. That’s where the problem is.”

Oh yeah. Floss. I forgot. So many details. And a silent reminder to check my smugness.

In the meantime I’ve lost some leverage with the threat of cavities. Been there. Done that. The truth is, they don’t hurt and won’t hurt to fill. Our plane tickets are already bought for summer.

The next day he bounds into his classroom on the heels of a spring break that included a visit from Granny and many movies, museums, restaurant lunches, and treats. What’s the first thing he excitedly tells teacher? “I have three cavities!”

A proud moment. A rite of passage for us both. Our fate is bound in dental floss.


Holding Back the News: protection from the media, if not the world…

lego man

I had not fully admitted to myself that my mom knew what had happened… I prayed she’d know I was OK. I prayed I could communicate through some cosmic reach of the universe to her.  
– James Foley, on his captivity in Libya

How do we protect our young kids from the news without shutting out the world?

Is it possible an NPR head like me can hold back the news? There are plenty of things that would rock my sensitive, highly perceptive 5 year old’s world, but I know the perils.

I limit not only screen time, but exposure of all kinds. I shush Randy when he mentions crime at dinner. I turn off the news when I pick Robin up from school. I even audit our language for violent expressions. We finish the ketchup now; we no longer kill it. But can I really hold it all back?

The other day we were swinging in our neighbor’s hammock, which doubles nicely as a pirate ship. Robin was in eye patch and black hat, hanging a net over the side to catch fish.

This middle-aged mom is all for imagination games that involve sitting or lying down to participate. Pirate ship is perhaps the best, as I am comfortably prone and cloud gazing as he hauls fish, spies land, and steers. I need only blurt out rude arrrrrrs and rock us periodically to simulate stormy seas.

It was a placid, temperate summer afternoon when he blurted it out.

“I am going to cut your head off, Mom!”

A week after captured freelance journalist James Foley was beheaded by ISIS militants in Syria.

Robin wielded a plastic sword we did not buy him. No one, in fact, bought it for him. I think it was left at our house by an adult, part of a Halloween or Renaissance Fair costume, long before Robin. At some point it migrated into his make believe kit.

I’d never buy him a toy gun. Swords, on the other hand, feel like folklore and fantasy, not front-page reality. At least, they did. I guess it is the end of innocence for us all.

Maybe I should have seen this coming. I am so shocked and horrified by these recent events, it is hard to keep perspective. If Robin had been around when Somali pirates hijacked the MV Maersk Alabama, would I have censored his pirate play altogether? After all, pirates are real.

I took the toy sword from him immediately. “Don’t ever say that again, honey. Okay?”

The sword is back in the basement now. I wonder if news coverage informed any of this. If the news of decapitation breached the protect-his-childhood force field, or if it was just an ill-timed blurt out.

(But then when is a good time to hear your only child threaten to decapitate you?)

“Did you know him?” Randy’s dad asked us. I’ve been so busy turning down the volume on the story, I didn’t even realize. James Foley did his undergrad at our university and graduated two years after I did.

I’ve wracked my brain and looked at photos online. Did he write for the off-campus news magazine I edited? The one that refused to be censored by the Jesuits? He’d seem the type. I don’t remember him.

In a piece in our alumni magazine, he wrote “With Marquette, I went on some volunteer trips to South Dakota and Mississippi and learned I was a sheltered kid and the world had real problems.”

I’ve been on the same eye-opening volunteer trips. How our paths diverged in the intervening years! I majored in journalism, while he studied English and history and went on to become a journalist later.

Now he’s part of history, and jihad. At least I hope he is part of history, not a name lost in a growing tide of extremist violence.

The waves of history rock this boat, though mine is only canvas and string, planted in a small patch of grass, a world away. Safe. Simulating stormy seas, my intentions are good, but my world is shrinking.

It is only appropriate to protect Robin from knowledge of the cruel realities of our perilous world. But I hope that as he gets older, I will know how and when to let in the world.

I love my boy. I want him to be safe.

I also want my son to grow up to do important things.

James Foley worked on development projects in Iraq. He reported from the front lines of conflict and reconstruction in Afghanistan and Iraq while embedded with US troops. He covered the uprising in Libya, and was detained and released by Gaddafi loyalists. He was in Syria tracking the civil war, the brutality of the Assad regime, and the rising menace of the Islamic State when he was captured. Before all of this, he spent years working in American inner cities with Teach for America.

While I swing in a hammock on a sunny day, fretting about how my sweet boy came to threaten me with his toy. The world is so much bigger than all of this.

Now, stop indulging me and go read the news instead.


How the Dinosaurs Got Dead

before and after

by guest blogger

Robin Francis

And then the dinosaurs was alive. And they growed taller than the clouds. And they pooped the biggest poop.

And then the big rock struck the earth so hard, and then it landed on the earth so hard it scared the dinosaurs. And dirt got in their eyes. And it hitted the dinosaurs in the head.

And the dirt, no the dust. It got in the dinosaurs’ ears and the dinosaurs’ mouth and they couldn’t eat.before after 2

And this time the dinosaurs got on the rock and they got dead. And the dinosaurs fell down and so did the plants. All the plants died and it changed the weather.

And then the earth settled down. And the sun started to shine again and then it was quite beautiful in the neighborhood. And then the sun shined, and then the plants came alive. And then the people came alive.

Robin Francis is an amateur paleontologist and a frequent contributor to conversation. His pieces have appeared in The Atlantic, Science Magazine, and the journal Nature. Follow him on Twitter.