Apr 22, 2016

A kid inventor and 'The Cleaner'

We were spending a lazy summer weekend at our neighbors 'camp' on the shores of a New Hampshire lake when my friend Anu's FB tag showed up. It was the ALS Ice-bucket challenge that was swamping everyone's news-feed, inciting equal parts amusement and annoyance. I've done my share of ranting over armchair activism that breeds complacent indifference but jumped happily at this one.

That afternoon on the O'Connors' dock by the glassy, peaceful lake our friend Michele filmed as my 7 year old son Oyon dumped a bowl of ice water on my head and we made our appeal for research funding to cure this awful disease. 

Amidst the usual din of comments on the video I posted on FB was one from my friend Nandita in California. She was sympathetic to the ALS cause but indignant at the irresponsible waste of water. California was severely drought-struck so her ire was understandable. Also, the scale at which the ice bucket challenge was playing out meant that the cumulative volume of water wastage was substantial, no matter how well-intentioned.  

Nandita had a point.

Since it's never as much fun to concede to reason as it is to rant, I took the low road - not thinking that Oyon, who was within earshot, would pay any attention to my words. Heaven knows, he usually doesn't. I grumbled that Nandita was missing the point: the average ALS challenge probably only a gallon or two but raises awareness and funds. I muttered to myself that a daily shower surely uses more than that and without helping fight ALS.

Little ears pricked up at that: "How much water do we use in the shower Mamma?"
 Dr. Google answered: 50 gallons in 10 minutes 
(source: http://water.usgs.gov/edu/qa-home-percapita.html)

"Is 50 gallons a lot?" he asked, trying to understand the horrified expression on my face.

"The milk jug in our fridge is 2 gallons. Now imagine 25 of them gurgling down the drain." I answered distractedly, my insides twisting with guilt at the 20 minute showers that were my routine.

Oyon shrugged and walked away to resume playing (and not-listening to me). I didn't think more about it. Then, a few weeks (maybe months?) later, Oyon stepped out of his bedtime shower with a particularly thoughtful look on his face. 

"Know what? When I grow up, I'm building a shower that only uses 3 gallons of water." he announced, his hair dripping water into eyes that sparkled with excitement.
"And how will it do that?" I humored him.
"The dirty water won't go into the sewer. It'll go into a special tank where there's a sponge, a bar of soap and a scrubbing brush! It'll get CLEANED!"
"Hmmm. Then?" I said, only half-listening. 

With Oyon, crazy ideas and fantastical stories come in a steady flow that I try my best to listen to, so they'll keep coming. In addition to the entertainment value and bonding potential, it seems like a good way to help my child grow an imagination. a vivid imagination has to be the foremost goal of childhood and I've fed his every way I know. If for nothing else, than an imagination helps you to deal in abstracts... so important for developing skills ranging from empathy and compassion (for which you need to imagine the feelings of others who may be unlike yourself) through science (dealing often, with invisible ideas). So that day too, I tried to lend him my ear. Or at least part of it.

"And then......" his legs were planted apart in brace position and he had jazz hands going as if for a big reveal.....
"the clean water goes back up to the shower so you can use it AGAIN!"
"Hey!" I said, looking up from tidying the counter, "That's actually a good idea!"
"'Course it is! It uses 3 gallons instead of 50!" he said with an eye-roll, "But....You will have to add a little every month to the water tank." he added thoughtfully.
"Why? I thought all 3 gallons are getting cleaned and re-used." I asked as he towelled his hair.
"Yeah but there's evaporation while you're showering. Also, lots of drops get trapped in our hair and never make it to the drain." he said, tugging on his clothes.
As his head hit the pillow that night, he sleepily announced "I'm calling it 'The Cleaner' "
"Sounds good!" I answered before turning off the lights.

That was that. For then.

He moved on to other fanciful creations over the next two years: The Listener (translates animal sounds to human), special boots to walk on Lava, fighter planes that fling rotten food instead of bullets and bombs (to make wars peaceful), a new airplane wing design that will shorten runway length and many others I no longer remember.

But he kept coming back to The Cleaner. He really had the bit between his teeth. Last year (age 8), he even came up with a pricing scheme: low at first so everyone could afford it - those who wanted to help the Earth AND those who wanted to save money because they didn't have much to spare. Then when it got popular (because so many people had bought it already), he'd hike the price. Now...the rich people would buy it even at high prices because their friends had it and it was cool. Everyone’s happy!

One look at my stricken expression and he rushed to explain:
"Mamma...it's ok! I become a millionaire BUT poor people save money, rich people get more cool stuff and EVERYBODY helps save the planet!" 
But he had misunderstood me.
I wasn't disappointed in him (and his capitalist inclinations). 

I was taken aback at how well he'd intuited his parents' worldviews, sensing that we valued compassion over materialism and were queasy about the idea of great amounts of amassed wealth. Plus, he'd not only understood the basics of modern day market forces but harnessed them for his own ends! I suspect his generation is hardwired to these senses but its still a little scary to me.

So there he was. An invention nestled in his brain (with an accompanying marketing package), but nowhere to put it. So, this year when he became eligible as a 3rd grader to enter the Fitzgerald Elementary School science fair, we jumped at the opportunity to give his dream an airing. He and his friend Mateo decided to test the filtration part of The Cleaner: it had now evolved from a sponge-piston chamber to an actual filter and was closer to reality than the cartoons in Oyon's 7 year old head. They had great fun applying science, worked hard and offered a beautiful presentation to the judges.

Blow number one:
Mateo's research revealed the existence of a recycling shower, though it's still a niche product that's not easily obtained. They soldiered on as we whispered solace into Oyon ears that this was only proof that he was thinking along the right lines. 

Blow number two:
A Silver medal, not Gold, at the science fair. EVERYONE got a medal so the Silver really was only average in his eyes. Now we were whispering solace into his ears about how almost all the gold medals were won by 5th graders so it was a tough contest. Most of all though, the winning projects were so very impressive that the outcomes were just. There will always be people better than him no matter how good he is: that's a source of inspiration and admiration, not dismay and envy. He liked some of the projects SO much that he this rationale actually seemed to get some traction.

It didn't totally quell his sadness though: the wind had visibly gone from Oyons sails. He's fairly buttoned up about his emotions so it was only the occasional comment that gave him away.
"It was a dumb idea"....."what’s the point anyway, someone already made it"...."I don't want to be an inventor anymore. I'm going to test Minecraft code instead"
To be fair, he also was a little bored of this idea by then and had moved on to others.

So when Camp Invention, his favorite summer camp, put out a call for entries into a nationwide invention-centric contest, it seemed a providential chance for his Big Idea to try and get out again. But Oyon would not budge in his determination to call an end to the sordid episode of The Cleaner.

Now we don't usually force things on Oyon, though we insist he honor his commitments so this was pretty much the first time I brought my foot down - and with an almighty crash - to tell him that he was GOING to enter the contest because….we said so!

SO liberating to use those 3 words, given the democratic parenting we default to in these times of mindful child-rearing. My husband was travelling for work and unable to referee as usual so I tried to behave myself with this project of enforced labor. Oyon agreed to spend 20 minutes on 2 Saturdays to create his invention prototype and the 4 minute video submission for the contest. He was draconian about the terms and conditions too, using the kitchen timer to drop the project at the determined time. We’ve made many toys from trash in the past though so 40 minutes (and my help cutting plastics with sharp tools) were enough for him to put together a prototype. We’ve also made short films before so it took a few minutes in Windows Movie maker to edit for length, add music, credits etc.

This was the final product that he submitted to the nation-wide Camp Invention ‘Mighty Minds’ contest:


As I emailed the link on his behalf I added a note about how this idea came into being, a disclaimer that we found out only recently that it’s already been invented. I added a request for some words of encouragement from the judges because I knew he had little chance of winning. All I had wanted was to garner some support for him and teach him to keep faith in himself, to know that the path to success is paved with failure.

A few weeks later, we learnt he'd won the grand prize.

Our lives are terrible exciting right now, and Oyon's, tinged with a little glamour. He's soon to travel to DC, be part of a prestigious ceremony (with Mo Rocca and some of the brightest minds of our age), get his invention incorporated in a museum etc. It's a fair bet that I'll blog about these things at some point but the best outcome of all.... is that a nascent idea he had of a Solar powered robot team to clear up space trash....is now bubbling, brewing and coalescing into another invention idea. 

This kid might literally reach for the stars.

Oyon-ism (9)
Chit-chatting about his day in school, Oyon announces that they talked about 'hormones' in 3rd grade today. How they can confuse you. When pressed for details...
Oyon: You know, like the blues?
Me: Ms. N told you hormones can make people sad and blue?
This is my first experience with American public school education but I could've sworn that sex education waiting until 5th/6th grade.

Oyon: What? No, Mamma! 
Dipping back into the Harry Potter book he was reading....
Oyon: Not to be rude but please can I read now?

I was signing his homework agenda later that evening and reading the weekly word list printed on the side when he gleefully pointed to the words 'blue' and 'blew' and chuckled loooong and hard.

Oyon: See the hormones Mamma? The 'blues' sound the same but don't mean the same. Isn't it confusing? GREAT for tricks though.

Darn Homophones. Really SO confusing.

Apr 20, 2016

Other mothers, 2015

(Written May 2015 but published April 2016) 
We had just finished up at Oyons doctor yesterday afternoon. On his way out, Dr. Biller paused in the doorway, twinkled briefly and said "Happy Mothers Day!". As we drove home, the car radio burbled its support too for this sentimental occasion: WBUR's alliance with Winston flowers, please your mom and support public radio.

Like last year, my thoughts wandered from the fanfare around this holiday to those who are deprived of it:
- Mother's who have lost their children
- Mothers whose children cannot (or will not) come celebrate like in years past
- Single mothers whose kids may not have father figures to orchestrate the celebrations that young kids cannot wing on their own 
- People who are struggling to care for and celebrate their mothers
- Women who wanted to, be could not become mothers 

Jan 22, 2016

Empty threats

As I collected my 9 year old from school, he excitedly whispered in my ear...."The dog ate my biscuit!"

The bright little face turned up towards me was expectant. The problem was, as with most of Oyons non-sequiturs, I had no idea what he was talking about! 

Dec 17, 2015

Santa: out of the Chimney, into the fire

"M told me the truth about Santa, you know." he mumbled from atop his bunk bed. I only caught the glint of wet eyes because he was above my eye level.

"What Truth about Santa?" I asked, nimbly skirting accidental disclosure.

"His mom said she bought the Santa gifts. And Baba said yes too in the car when I told him…I knew it!!!" he said in a voice wobbling with indignation and grief.

My little human's despair has never before taken my breath away like this. I should have expected it though. In the two years since his suspicions about the Tooth Fairy were confirmed (at age 7), he's been stewing over the Santa Question. 

Oct 7, 2015

Tom, who feels fortunate

Last night a friend was bemoaning the poor state of her focus that prevented her reading "100 years of solitude". It just took too much thought for her current mood for amusement and escape.

Books that require the exercise of emotion in addition to thought, can take more than they give sometimes. They are eventually the books most worth reading, though what they bring to the reader is less easily identified than the sobs triggered by a tragedy or the sighs from a steamy romance.

Oct 5, 2015

Tooth Fairy in a tutu

Just before Christmas, the Gingerbread man shaped box had called out "Stocking stuffer!" from the grocery store end-cap and slipped into my grocery cart. It then proceeded to lounge idly at the bottom of the kitchen drawer and mock me for months after. It had after all, only space to hold about 3 Jelly Beans. Find me a kid who'll settle for that few and I'll give you mine in exchange. The kid, not the box.

Sep 24, 2015

Of demons & monst-ahs

Early this morning, a horrible nightmare that had wound itself around my sleep receded quickly as consciousness dawned. Something about a baby, I think, though it's too dim now to know for sure. I've been on pretty strong drugs for a while (for a terrible cough) and am convinced they are taking a toll.

Headed towards oblivion, but in clearer focus was another bad dream from a separate portion of the night.

Sep 11, 2015

Not remembering

On this anniversary of the 9/11 terror attack on NYC, I am able to neither respond nor subscribe to the requests to 'Never forget'.  Like every year, I wonder 'why?'

Sep 3, 2015

"...ageing pages, a slower time"

Pia of http://peppercornsinmypocket.blogspot.com/ recently wrote of an area of Calcutta from her past where "secondhand bookshops created a strip that smelled of ageing pages, a slower time". Her piece was luminous, as usual and ended with a prod to the readers to share their memories.

I'm certain that every Calcuttan can name their own personal favorite from the time before cable TV and internet broke-up the long and innately Bengali marriage of reading and 'adda'. The picture that flashed before MY eyes was of the boulevard between Gol Park and Gariahat in South Calcutta. The once grassy median trapped between bi-directional traffic on arterial Gariahat road, used to be crowded with rickety stores selling everything from second hand books to clothes.

Aug 9, 2015

Smart can be dumb but dumb can't ever be smart.

Oyon's imagination recently got ignited by internet previews of Jurassic World. We allow him those in lieu of the real (PG) movie currently in theaters. Some of this fascination, I imagine, is displaced passion for Harry Potter - since I won't allow him to read book 4 until he's older. The rest of it is undoubtedly an 8 year old's wonder at genetically engineered super-dinosaurs terrorizing and outwitting smug humans, not to mention the explosions and cool chases.

Jul 24, 2015

"Oh the times, they are a-changing"

My 8 year old was ensconced in my lap (I was trying to help him with 'bar models') when I caught a faint but unmistakable whiff from the region of his shoulder.

Jul 2, 2015

Silver and black

I walked to the waters edge when the moon was full.
It seemed like the thing to do.

The surf was loud and the breeze, sharp.
A silver swathe cut the water in two.

There was no Peace there.
Just pieces.

If asked, I shall probably say it was 'lovely'.
No one will believe the cold.

Jun 30, 2015

"Yer a wizard, Harry!"

When I found my 8 year old reading 'The Half-blood Prince' over my shoulder one night, my instinct was to immediately slam it shut. In the angst ridden tale of Harry Potters life, this book explores a particularly troubling part where the villain is demystified, humanized. Oyon has demonstrated an ability to handle ambiguity but understanding the genesis of Evil is a tall order.

As I wrangled with weighty judgments, a soft chuckle interrupted my thoughts. I froze so as to not disrupt him and snuck a peak at the lines his eyes were tracking. It was the part about celebrity-loving, superficial, farcical Professor Slughorn. I let him finish the page and asked if he enjoyed it.

He had.

Jun 10, 2015

A billowing shirt

My brothers headache had gotten exponentially worse within the space of a few hours that hot afternoon in 1986. Things were not going well.