Eggnog Summer

Labor day was last week; it traditionally marks the end retail summer. Our summer goes on, but there is now no denying that the season is ending.

Summer began with eggnog. Oh, I suppose you could say that summer began back on May 9th: my agreement with Joshua and Matthew is to set up the pool as soon as possible after the first 90° day. This year, 2014, that was May 9th. So by the last day of school, June 4th, we were already slipping into our summer patterns: Home from school, a game, cool off in the pool, a snow cone, homework, dinner, reading, dessert, reading, videos, bed. But, really, summer began with the end of school, and with eggnog.

  • the pool, just filled:

We love eggnog. As the fall settles and it becomes too cold to swim and the short days and schoolwork keep us indoors, we look forward to the appearance of eggnog at Trader Joe’s. In 2012, they ran out early. In 2013, Matthew was determined to extend the experience and opted to freeze a quart until summer. We decided that we’d drink it after they got home from school on the their last day. We got to look forward to it for a long time. When June 4th rolled around, we got home early (it was a minimum day), experienced the delight of eggnog-in-June, and we began our summer in earnest.

  • eggnog in june!:

Matthew and Joshua wake up early on summer mornings, often before six AM. They love their computers, but the rule in the house is that computer use is supervised, so there’s no sleeping in for Dad. Nights are cool in Sacramento, so first thing in the morning we throw open our eight windows and three doors, invite the cool morning air into the house, and wake up the computers while Dad fixes some hot cocoa. (No packets or squeeze bottles: sieve the Peet’s cocoa powder into a saucepan with sugar and a touch of water, mix into a paste, stir in organic milk and heat over a gentle flame for five minutes. This is a different drink than Swiss Miss, and nutritionally far more interesting.)

Matthew usually begins the day by watching one or two “let’s play” videos of YouTube gaming celebs playing Minecraft. This year, it was mostly the Mindcrack team, some playing Crack Pack. Joshua’s tastes are more eclectic, but he started the year watching some Johnny Test or Kids Next Door ‘toons through Netflix on the big screen.

We don’t have a television, but we do have an assortment of computers, smartphones, game consoles, and tablets, many of which can be viewed on an 80” projector screen. All the fixed screens face toward the center of the room. Headphones are not allowed, and portable devices can’t go in the bedrooms, so we’re all in it together and no media consumption goes unmonitored. This might sound frighteningly chaotic. Remarkably — and this from someone who has lived most of his life writing fiction or coding software in blessed, quiet solitude — it is actually relaxing. Advertising is filtered to nonexistence. Content only plays when selected; it is never pushed as it is with broadcast television. Neither Josh nor Matthew have any interest in intrusive, in-your-face broadcasts such as television news or professional sports.

The effect is much more like a mixed-media museum exhibit. You know the kind: you walk around a black pillar and find yourself in a darkened room with various films flickering in nooks, their audio loud enough to focus on but quiet enough to ignore, various objet under tiny halogen spotlights, placards of sedate text narrating the stories. You can enjoy the milieu from the quiet center, or move outward and engage any of its parts.

Having one television on in a room is sufficient to distract me to the point where I cannot carry on conversations or write or read or contemplate, but such is the nature of our world that, while littered with displays, we can converse and shift in and out of engagement, plan our days and weeks, comment on the content, speculate on the meaning. I can answer the occasional urgent work email, work on maintenance of our server farm, study CME, read fiction, and even do some light coding.

Those cognitive tasks, though, only occupy a niche, for mine is a single parent life. So after chatting with Matthew and Josh a bit about their morning shows, I move back into the kitchen. I remodeled some years back so that the kitchen opens onto the living room. I needn’t actually leave their space, but my focus changes. Matthew’s favorite breakfast is biscuits and gravy with bacon and berries. No biscuits from a can or a mix will do, so it’s all from scratch. Bacon, crisp for Matthew and “fatty” for Joshua. Baking powder biscuits from organic part whole wheat flour and local organic butter. Freshly-made low fat gravy. Organic honey, often from Central Valley almond orchards. Strawberries or other fresh, organic fruit from Capay Valley farms. The occasional pasture-raised egg (a world apart from even the “free range” eggs found in supermarkets). It’s a project, but makes a fine, nutritious breakfast that we all enjoy.

The late morning is usually characterized by gaming. If your memories of video games includes names like “Atari,” or are populated with sensationalist mainstream media coverage of first-person shooters such as Doom or Grand Theft Auto, then you probably don’t know what modern gaming can be. If you think the term screen time is meaningful, you’ve probably been hoodwinked by mainstream media and should take a break and broaden your education.

Matthew and Joshua’s mother really got them started on video gaming by buying a Nintendo Wii in 2010. I had a brief stint as a game (mostly hardware) designer in the late 1980’s, and found that era’s games little more than a curiosity. Joshua insisted on bringing the Wii home one time, and (as we had no television) I set up an old video projector I’d used for giving lectures. I was impressed with the progress that the gaming industry had made in a couple of decades, and enjoyed watching Matthew and Joshua learn physical skills and develop puzzle-solving strategies, though I still found little in the games that might compel me to play.

That changed with Minecraft (watch the video). We started playing in early 2011. I’ve written elsewhere about this amazing game, and Minecraft and its indy-game brethren have transformed my view of gaming.

So late mornings and early afternoons are spent playing games. Not with the children staring zombie-eyed at a television screen, but as a family sitting around in the living room, sharing advice, admiring others’ work, learning to cooperate and hash out conflicts. We can play together in the same worlds, play with Matthew’s and Joshua’s friends, far and near, on the Twoprops servers, or sometimes just enjoy some relaxing solo game time, shoulder-to-shoulder with loving members of our family. Of course, I have to divide this time with washing dishes and folding endless laundry but that, too, happens in our shared playingroom.

In addition to games, they watch a few fascinating channels that seem to me to be (shhhhhh!) more education than entertainment:

Joshua is still more into cartoons, but over the course of the summer he moved up a step in maturity, and began watching Total Drama and 6Teen. Their early-adolescent themes are just advanced enough that I wouldn’t want him watching them by himself, but they provide excellent opportunities for us to discuss social development as he advances in age and watches his brother become a teen. Matthew flirted with watching some reality shows such as Man vs. Wild and Mythbusters.

Of course, lunch happens somewhere in there. We have a small variety, but usually it’s burritos made with home-cooked, organic, fat-free pinto beans, organic cheese, and fresh organic green salsa. There’s carrots with homemade ranch dressing or celery with organic almond butter when I can sneak it in. Oh, and this year there was poutine.

Confession: I sometimes wish that they’d like to go out for fast food, or eat a box of macaroni-and-cheeze or a frozen entree. Truly, I am delighted that they like my cooking so much, can dream of the occasional break? But, no, I wouldn’t have it any other way, except for those nights when I’m really tired. Three evenings this summer I coaxed them out in In-n-Out, Jimboys, and even Chipotle. We also have an every-other-Sunday routine of home-delivery pizza that I serve with homebrew root beer (our only real concession to soda pop).

One theme this summer has been preparing for videocasting. Joshua, and to a lesser extent Matthew, have been wondering what it would be like to be YouTube videocasters or speedrunners. If you’re not familiar, there are many folks who post regular videos on YouTube about their hobbies and professions. Many of them are about video games and feature play-throughs and demonstrations; some make a good full-time living at it. But one needs to get hooked up to be able to record their video game sessions and get something akin to studio-quality voice overs. For computer-based games, capturing the game play can be done with software and, if necessary, a web cam for a talking head. Joshua wants to videocast some of his Mario games, though, which involved finding and installing hardware to do video capture from the Wii U. For a variety of technical reasons, it’s been a long process of acquiring all the bits and pieces to enable him to get video from the Wii U playing area to his computer, which is at the most distant corner of our playingroom.

By now, it’s hot and late enough in the afternoon that we can get back into the pool. We usually don’t need air conditioning before 3:00, but by then it’s into the upper 90’s (or worse) outside and in the low 80’s inside. Aircon is indicated, but the UV peak has passed so we get wet instead of burning fossil fuel. The Bigger, Rounder Pool continues to serve us well, and with its automatic salt-water chlorinator and solar heater it is nearly hassle free. We eagerly jump in the warm, inviting water (uncomfortably warm, sometimes, if I don’t remove the solar cover early) and splash and play and splash and play and have water fights and squirt squirrels out of the fig tree and have sibling fights (almost completely free of blood or tears all summer!) and boat dumpings and whirlpools and underwater swimming contests and Dad as a “ride horsie!” and inner tube floating and ducking under hovering honeybees and splash, splash, splash.

An hour or two later, we’re physically spent, wet and cool, and we go back inside for snow cones. Matthew asked for a shave ice machine for his birthday a few years back. Since his birthday is in the fall, he asked for it while we were still in summer mode but it sat unused through the fall, winter, and spring. I thought it was dud gift, but come summer it became a favorite after-pool ritual. (Pro tip: use Torani syrups instead of the corn-based fluorescent colored stuff.)

After snow cones, it’s time for Dad to fix dinner: spaghetti, veggie burgers (Joshua gets beef, by request), home-made enchiladas, or artichokes and twice-baked potatoes all prepared from scratch with fresh, local, organic, seasonal ingredients. (Egad, I’ve turned foodie while I wasn’t paying attention!) Missing this year is food from our garden. With the drought, I didn’t plant, the berry brambles didn’t produce, and starving squirrels stole all our figs. Our mint was scraggly, and even our chives died. I’ll save the trees by deep watering when I drain the pool in the fall, but it’s been difficult for those of us who like to grow food but have taken California’s drought seriously.

Like breakfast, dinner is a sit-down-at-table affair. The conversations range far and wide. Afterwards, there’s a bit more game play and then Storytelling Time with Joshua.

Storytelling Time started out because Joshua’s mother wanted him to get a writing tutor for the summer. He did above average in writing, but his teacher commented that “Joshua needs to [work on his goal of] adding details to his writing.” I graduated summa cum laude in writing from the University of California, San Diego with departmental honors and I’m published worldwide, translated into French, Japanese, and Chinese. Kim has three University of California degrees. Yet the only solution she would accept for adding detail to Joshua’s writing was by hiring an outside tutor. I couldn’t figure it out, but accepted her invitation to participate. In the midst of setting up the tutoring, though, I found myself abruptly shut out. Apparently, Kim never actually thought I’d go along, or only wanted me in a passive role. At least that left me free to set up my own curriculum, and thus Storytelling Time with Joshua was born.

Each evening at 7:15 (and I’d get a glare from Josh if I was even a minute late), Joshua would narrate the events and thoughts of the day. I would coach him through the parts where I thought he might lose the reader, and he would revise. I found, interestingly, that I rarely needed to prompt him to add detail. The finished product of ten weeks of Storytelling Time is a collection I will always treasure.

While we tend to find plenty to do at home, their mother likes to schedule them up with away-from-home activities, so our lazy summer schedule was interrupted by a week of Camp Kindness for Joshua, a week of CSUS Aquatic Camp for both, and separate weeks of Minecraft game design camps for each of them. Between that and out-of-town trips (10 days each with Dad and then with Mom), the ten weeks of summer vacation went by pretty quickly, and there were actually only two weeks of that summer routine, but but it was so intense and fine that we were able to get lost in it and lament its passing as if it had become our life-long routine.

* aquatics camp:

The tendency of their mother to delegate things to third parties is troubling to me, as having to go to the outside events was obviously Josh and Matthew’s least favorite part of the summer. I know that most parents would long to not have to put their children in child care, yet Kim does so even when I am available (and legally entitled) to care for them during her custody hours. Most parents would love to have the expertise and resources to avoid trips to the doctor for routine colds and flu and other complaints, but Kim (herself a family doctor) has suggested doctor visits when Josh’s scalp itched (change shampoo!), when Matthew had an uncomplicated flu (rest! fluids!), and now wants to go to the doctor because “focusing and staying on tasks continue to be difficult for him,” per his teacher. Poor Joshua, otherwise perfectly healthy, had a 158 page medical chart by age 7.

Before vacation ended, though, we had our beach trip. We had decided to go back to the beach near Castroville. We stayed in a small townhouse on the beach.

  • at the beach:

There was rain. There was sunshine. Joshua played in the surf with sea otters. Matthew built sand castles, tunnels, and traps. They wanted, as much as possible, to continue the relaxing, stimulating, creative, interactive, educational, gastronomical wonderland at home so we packed a mountain of computer gear, various devices for getting internet access, and a week’s worth of ingredients for our favorite meals. We attached an Apple TV to the flatscreen in the beach house so we could continue our selective big-screen viewing (though we didn’t bring any game consoles). We sat by the fire. We played minecraft. We resumed our summer rhythms with a new twist: we’d share games and videos in the morning (featuring Total Drama Pahkitew Island). We’d go to the beach in the afternoon, and follow it up with a trip to the spa and swimming pool. We’d limp home for dinner, and even went to local restaurants a couple of times (once, at Phil’s Fish Market, we were surprised by a most awesome bluegrass band). We’d go home and read and watch and collapse into bed and get up the next morning and do it all again.

  • the beach house:
  • the view from our deck:

A word about Total Drama. In 2008, I was planning a trip with Matthew and Josh to Southern California where my parents lived. I was planning to stay at the Disneyland resort so we could spend maximum amounts of time in the parks. Kim changed her mind about the summer schedule, though, and we had to change our reservations. We ended up at the Disneyland Marriott, which required the hassle of a shuttle ride to get to the park. That meant, in the end, we spent a lot more time in the hotel room. Matthew immediately took to the television. He, oddly, knew the entire Cartoon Network schedule by heart. We didn’t have a TV at home, and his mother claimed to strictly limit him to one hour of “screen time” when he was there. Savant, I guess. At any rate, there were many promotional spots for a new show called Total Drama Island. I’d never seen Survivor but was exposed to the hype and the water cooler discussions about it. The title, alone, made me laugh and so we started watching it. Now it’s a summer vacation tradition to catch up on Total Drama series when we’re away on vacation and have a television.

Alas, our stay near Castroville, on a gorgeous and uninhabited beach, our body surfing, our castle building, our seaweed wrestling, our overconsumption of artichokes, and our Total Drama overload had to come to an end. We loaded out (Matthew and Joshua have become excellent helpers with the packing and unpacking), motored home, and enjoyed a few more days before our vacation time officially came to an end.

That Tuesday we went to the California State Fair. I’m not a lover of crowds, but we got lucky. The day I decided to go, it was raining in the morning. We got there (now sunny) and discovered that it was kids-get-in-free day. While we were waiting in line for my ticket, some folks came up to me and said they had free passes for four adults, but they were only three, so they let me use their fourth place. We got in free, then discovered that it was dollar ride day. The rides are usually $4-$6 per. So we got an awesome deal, Joshua got the yard of lemonade he’d been waiting all year for, and we had some good fun.

  • yards of lemonade at the fair:

We had one last week, with Joshua’s Minecraft camp, before they left with Kim for her vacation. The summer had been so brilliant thus far, that the ten days without Josh and Matthew were the hardest ever. I thought I’d relish the solitude, and to some degree I did, but mostly it was about loss. They came back home on Wednesday, but then started school on Thursday. Fortunately, they were here for that first weekend and Matthew declared it “still summer vacation” with just a two-day break for the start of school. They were also here for all of the three-day Labor Day weekend, it’s in the 90’s, the pools still up, so it still feels a lot like summer.

  • Matthew, first day of school:
  • Joshua, first day of school:

The task now is to get back into a school routine while planning for birthdays (this month), Halloween, Thanksgiving, then eggnog and Christmas… and to never forget the Eggnog Summer.


19October2014: We had unseasonably warm weather, so the pool stayed up a long time. I finally started draining it a week ago, and will put it away today, but in important ways we managed to stretch our summer activities to over five months. Let’s hope we do as well next year!

  • in the sand: