Jason and the Baby Elmo Book

Yesterday after picking up Jason, Juliette decided to stop in at Babies 'R Us to pick up a few things. When she got there, she realized that we still had some money left on a gift card that we'd gotten for Jason's birthday. "Jason picked out a couple of things he wanted," she told me, recounting the story to me when I got home.

Now, I wasn't sure quite what to make of that statement at first, since, after all, Jason can hardly talk and while he certainly does have desires and ways of making them known, he's never actually picked anything out for himself. But it turns out it really was true, as Juliette explained to me. When they were walking through the aisles looking at the toys and books, Jason actually looked things over and saw some things that caught his fancy: a two-pack of spiky rubber balls (one large, about 7 or 8 inches in diameter, the other small, about 3 inches), and a book that had Elmo on the cover.

The rest of the way through the store, he clutched his new prizes to his chest, both at the same time. When they got out to the car and Juliette opened the package of balls, he took both of them and the book and tried to hold onto all three all the way home. He could hardly get his arms around all of it, but he was clearly delighted. Then when he got home, he marched all over the living room and kitchen with his arms full, proclaiming "Ball, ball. Ball, ball." Occasionally he'd drop one and have to stop to pick it up, no mean feat for someone whose wingspan is only about two feet. It was apparently very cute, and I'm sorry to have missed it. Fortunately, Juliette did turn the camera on while she and Jason read the new book, so I got to see that. And so do you:

Children's Music That Doesn't Suck

Since I last wrote about music a few weeks ago, Juliette and I have been exploring the world of children's music and what we've found--or, at least, what I've found--is that there is a whole lot of really bad kid's music out there. For example, about three-quarters of what Time Warner plays on their kid's music cable channel is awful. I feel like there is this horde of would-be musicians out there who couldn't hack it with adult audiences and figured that kids can't tell the difference between good music and half-assed music. Like some guy is out there thinking, "Well, I'm not a very good singer and I can't play any instruments and I don't really know how to write a song, but if I just throw together some dumb lyrics and put some synthesized harp and bells behind it, kids should like that, right?"

As is probably unsurprising, I have, at times, become somewhat enraged by this sort of sloppiness.

Really, I don't know what people are thinking when they make crappy music, and maybe it's overly cynical for me to be seeing dollar signs in their eyes. Maybe they really are producing this stuff out of a genuine love of music and children. It's still not something I want to listen to, though.

But! I am delighted to report that the genre of children's music is not a wasteland. There is actually a fair amount that's tolerable, and here and there you will find some real gems. Music that's obviously been made with love and passion, by people who understand that "simple" is not the same as "stupid." Here are a few that we've come to know.

First off, I should probably eat a little bit of crow regarding Raffi. I'm not really sure what informed my previous opinion, but Juliette's purchase of two of his albums has led me to discover that there's more to his music than just silliness. Songs like "Like Me and You" have a nice message of tolerance, and I love the imagery in "Morningtown Ride." Of course, that one is a cover, but the simplicity of his arrangement and vocal style complements the lyrics really well. He even managed to make me smile at a pun--no mean feat--in "Joshua Giraffe."

Another singer I've come to really enjoy is Elizabeth Mitchell. (Same name as the actress on Lost, but not the same person.) One of Juliette's cousins sent us her album You Are My Little Bird when Jason was born, which for some reason I didn't really listen to at the time. But Juliette and I turned out to like it so much that we went out and got another of her albums, You Are My Sunshine. Mitchell tends to favor simple, sparse arrangements with one or two singers and a single guitar, which works great with the purity of her voice. Her music is very folk-influenced and a number of the songs on both albums are traditional, but she has a very distinctive style that makes the music very much her own.

Finally, there's Dan Zanes and Friends, whose album Catch That Train has been in high rotation for us in the past few weeks.. I think that this album may have come to us from the same cousin that sent us the Elizabeth Mitchell album, in which case I have to compliment her taste. I remember the first time we put the CD in Juliette's car stereo, I turned to her in the middle of the title track and said, "You know, I would listen to this song for myself. This is a good song." If I hadn't already known that it was a children's album, I very well might not have been able to tell, and I love that. It's music for children rather than children's music--real, organic music that hasn't had the soul squeezed out of it by making it too squeaky clean. Zanes, like a lot of children's singers, leans strongly toward folk, but he also brings roots rock and blues into the mix, and even a little reggae here and there.

So that's where we are with kid's music right now. If you happen to have any recommendations, feel free to let me know. In the mean time, I'll keep digging for those hidden gems.

The Long Price Quartet

By Daniel Abraham

The word of mouth I'd gotten about this series had been so overwhelmingly positive that I was really excited to experience it for myself. It took me two weeks to get through all four volumes--over 1500 pages--and the only reason it took that long is because of all of those pesky "responsibility" things that keep getting in the way of my reading time. Now, I can't honestly say that it lived up to all of the most hyperbolically superlative instances of hype that I heard, but it was one of the best thought-out and most enjoyable fantasy series I've read in a long time.

What really grabbed me about this series was how well the author managed to come up with a fresh, unique setting. It's not often that you find a fantasy novel where the setting doesn't feel familiar--the genre tropes are pretty firmly entrenched at this point. Abraham's Khaiem, though, felt new and exotic to me to a degree I can't remember last encountering. That might sound a little inaccessible, but it wasn't at all, because even though the customs and structures of the culture of the Khaiem were new, the characters are still recognizably human and very relatable.

But even more than just being fresh, I loved that Abraham took the time to really think through the implications of the world he'd created. He invented a new and interesting system of magic and then created a setting in which only a small number of people in one country in the whole world have access to that magic. What would such a world look like? How would life be affected for both the people inside and outside that country? Abraham addresses these questions in ways that I found interesting and the conclusions were immensely satisfying.

The series has four volumes: A Shadow in Summer, A Betrayal in Winter, An Autumn War, and The Price of Spring. Each one is self-contained, with a beginning, middle, and satisfying conclusion--no cliffhangers here. I'm so used to fantasy series that are really one long novel split into parts that I often refuse to even start a series until it's been completed. (It's for that exact reason that Patrick Rothfuss's The Name of the Wind is still sitting on my nightstand, despite the excellent reviews my friends have given it.) So being presented with a series in which each volume feels complete (or nearly complete) in itself while still contributing to a whole that's greater than the sum of its parts--well, I appreciated it.

If you're at all interested in epic fantasy, you should definitely check this one out. It's well worth your time.

Started: 9/15/2009 | Finished: 9/29/2009

Purchase from Amazon

Another First

Today at about a quarter after four I found myself driving to the pediatrician's office to meet Juliette and Jason, he having injured himself falling face-first off of the toddlers' outdoor play structure at his daycare a bit under an hour beforehand. Juliette had already called me a couple of times by this point--the first time she hadn't seen him yet and the description of the accident she'd gotten over the phone had made it sound like he might have bitten through his lip and would need stitches. The second, it sounded like he had completely knocked out one of his front teeth. As I got onto the freeway, feeling disconcerted and vaguely panicked, it actually started raining. We've been in a heat wave for weeks and a drought for months--if I were the superstitious type it would be hard not to take this as some sort of sign.

By the time I got to the doctor's office, the receptionist there was already on the phone with the pediatric dentist next door, getting us an appointment. Jason was sitting pretty quietly on Juliette's lap. His lips were intact, and his tooth hadn't been knocked out, but only barely--it had folded almost all the way back against the roof of his mouth as well as jamming back into his gum a bit. All things considered, he seemed in a pretty good mood, though he did seem a little dazed. He didn't cry at all while we waited to see the dentist, and only fussed when we kept him away from the waiting room toys. (He has a tendency to put things in his mouth, and we wanted neither to get blood on the toys, nor for him to bite down on one and hurt his tooth even more.)

We didn't have to wait too long to see the doctor. We actually ended up seeing the orthodontist, the pediatric dental specialist being out of town. He took an x-ray--which Jason actually sat still for--then consulted with the dentist over the phone. When he came back in to talk to us, the news was relatively good: the root didn't look damaged, so they were going to try just pushing the tooth back in place. It would still be a little iffy after that--he said there was about a 50-50 chance that the tooth would survive, but that was actually much better that either Juliette or I had expected. By the time we got into the dentist's waiting room we were pretty much convinced that Jason would be looking like a jack-o-lantern just in time for Halloween. Which is funny, I guess, but we made the joke more than half to keep ourselves from crying.

I had to hold Jason while the doctor pushed the tooth back into place. The technician instructed me to face him toward me on my lap and then lean him back with his head resting on my knees. He was pretty calm at first, but when I leaned him back he became unsettled and started to squirm a bit. I smoothed his hair and then held his hands and told him everything was OK, and when he calmed down I felt like a liar. And, sure enough, Jason did finally start to panic a bit when the doctor put his fingers in his mouth, and when he started pushing, Jason screamed. I have heard Jason scream in anger just as loudly any number of mornings, but knowing that he was screaming from pain and fear this time just about broke my heart. People talk about time seeming to slow down in intense moments. Well, I wouldn't say that time slowed down for me--I was completely aware that only a few seconds were passing. But still, the amount of things that happened in those seconds seems like more than should have been able to happen, the amount of detail was more than I should have been able to notice. Like the exact moment when the tears rolled out of Jason's eyes, or the color of the blood that welled out of his tooth socket when the doctor pushed. When it was over, I picked Jason back up and held him to my chest. He clung to me, and his breath smelled like blood. I only just stopped myself from crying. Remembering it now is almost as hard.

Afterwards, he struggled a lot when I put him into his seat in Juliette's car. Juliette said he screamed all the way home, though he was quiet when I got him out of the car. As I was driving home there was a really bright rainbow directly in front of me. It almost seemed like the universe was trying to apologize. For some reason, the idea of a rainbow as some sort of consolation prize made me angry. And then I realized I was angry at a rainbow and couldn't help but see how ridiculous it was.

The rest of Jason's evening went pretty smoothly--he sat very nicely with us and let us feed him without making a mess, and he laughed when we played with him after and enjoyed his bath even though we took out all of his bath toys. Right now he's sleeping peacefully. Except for the bit of swelling under his lip it could be any other night. We have a follow-up appointment in a couple of weeks, when we should be able to find out whether or not the tooth will survive. Until then, I'm just going to have to keep reminding myself that everything is OK. I expect Jason will be getting a fair amount of treats in the coming days.