What I learned from our first family road trip

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I have a bucket list goal to visit all 50 state capitols–that is, the buildings, not just the cities. When we moved back to the US after living abroad for five years, I realized I’d visited more countries than US states, and after touring the Annapolis capitol building (led by an elderly German woman with a thick accent), I thought seeing all 50 would be a fun way to tip the scales.

At the beginning of the year, when Mike and I were thinking about 2018 goals, I noted that it had been a year or two since I’d checked any capitols off my list, and suggested we try to hit a couple this year. He enthusiastically agreed, saying he’d been thinking about going on our first road trip this year.

Thus, the scheming began. We have friends in Nashville to plan the road trip around. Frankfort and Columbus were the only two capitals as yet unvisited that would fit into a feasible route. We decided to drive first to Columbus, then on to Nashville, and back home through Frankfort. Mike even found out that the Nats were playing in Cincinnati for the Reds’ season home opener, so we considered stopping for game to break up the leg back home.

We checked out books and printed activity sheets about the states we’d be traveling through–Maryland, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, and West Virginia–packed the kids’ most car-friendly toys (and purchased a few more), portioned healthy and at-least-not-unhealthy snacks, downloaded podcasts, and booked accomodations for the two nights we wouldn’t be staying with friends and friends-of-friends. We figured we were set. Boy did we have a lot to learn.

Lesson 1: My kids are the same kids in the car as they are in the house.
I was determined that this road trip would not turn into a marathon session of screen time or indulgence in junk food. Teddy loves flying across the country to visit his grandparents because he knows he’s in for five hours of games on his kindle and unlimited juice and cookies. Anything to keep kids quiet on a flight, amirite? But in the car, there would be no one for the kids to annoy but us, so I wanted to limit the screen time (not forbid it entirely; I’m not crazy) and provide the kids with fun educational activities, and keep to our usual healthy and healthy-ish snack habits. What didn’t occur to me was that the kids would rather do nothing and eat nothing than submit to the options available. After about 30 hours in the car, approximately 3 pages of the dozens Mike had printed out were completed. A few months previous, I’d subscribed to Highlights magazine, thinking Teddy would enjoy the activities and short stories. He never showed interest, so I packed all the issues we’d received, thinking, surely, without screen time as an option, he’ll flip through them and finally realize how entertaining they are. At the end of the week, they remained unopened. And the baby carrots I’d packed? Well,  enjoyed them. What the kids did enjoy were the Circle Round podcasts (folktales narrated by actors) I’d downloaded and the Hamilton soundtrack. So in the unlikely event we ever do this again, I’ll bring more audio options. No idea what my plan for snacks will be.

Lesson 2: With young kids, it’s important to build in time for multiple stops.
The first day, we were driving all the way to Dayton, Ohio, to stay with friends-of-friends. We hoped to arrive in time for dinner so we could have a decent evening with them before bedtime. However, that meant a lot of rushing along the way, no time to stop except for lunch (Mike had found a fun eatery and I couldn’t even properly enjoy it because service took longer than we’d planned for), and a lot of anxiety when there were multiple calls from the back seat for potty stops. We did end up getting there in good time, but at the expense of actually enjoying that first leg. In hindsight, this particular road trip–with destinations so far apart–would probably have been better suited for when the kids were a few years older.

Lesson 3: Trips rarely go exactly as planned.
Mike and I have traveled a lot. We should know by now that no matter how carefully you figure out the details of a trip, you’ll have to adapt along the way as factors outside your control take the wheel. We thought we’d figured out everything we needed to. We had accommodations, tickets to the game and plans to visit two capitol buildings. Pretty straightforward. Until the game was postponed due to forecast inclement weather and we learned too late that the Frankfort capitol was closed by noon on Good Friday, when we’d intended to tour it that afternoon. Together, these developments totally derailed the second half of our trip. However, Mike and I are both great at making lemonade out of lemons. We salvaged our second three days by extending our stay with our friends in Nashville (we experienced amazing hospitality on this trip!) and touring Mammoth Cave in Kentucky, which the whole family thought was fascinating. In fact, the drive home across Kentucky–not the original plan–introduced us to all that Kentucky has to offer: the bourbon trail! The Castle Hotel at Versailles! The Dinosaur Park! The zoo! Mammoth Cave (we did only the half-mile self-guided tour; so much more is available)! We decided this was a state we’d want to return to and explore more. Besides, we still have a capitol to tour.

At the end of the day, I’m glad we went. It was a great family experience, we saw friends, and we learned a lot. Mike and I love to see new places and meet new people, and we hope to instill in our kids the desire to do the same, and this was one step in that direction. That said, while we’re adding Kentucky to our list of places to visit as a family, next time, we’ll probably fly there.

 

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White privilege and kids’ books

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I love to read. I read so much as a kid running errands with my mom that when I was old enough to drive myself to the mall…I couldn’t. Didn’t know where the mall was. Had never paid enough attention while mom was driving. To this day I have a terrible sense of direction. I have to drive someplace three or four times before I can get there without GPS. And if I’m only going once a year? I’ll depend on Google maps every time. But I digress.

I love to read. And I love to read to my kids. And I want my kids to love to read. So I spend a great deal of time looking for books I think they’ll enjoy. I go to the library once a week and just browse the picture books on display. I seek out book suggestions for my kids’ ages and interests. Lydia is easy. She loves whatever I bring home. She does have her favorites, but she’ll happily sit on my lap while I read her a dozen books.

Teddy…doesn’t love to read. Or rather, he hates transitioning to reading time. He enjoys the books I’ve brought home for him once he’s actually reading them, but he fights his required nightly 20 minutes of nose in book time. My goal is to find books he likes so he looks forward to reading time, maybe even wants to keep reading. We came close with the Magic Bone (Nancy Krulik) series. But there are only eleven books in the series and he finished all of them. Magic Treehouse showed potential for a while, but it’s been some time since one in that series has been his book of choice. More recently, he’s been enjoying Encyclopedia Brown, which I’m positively giddy about since the junior Sherlock was a favorite of mine when I was a kid. (I’ve read a few chapters since introducing the series to Teddy and have been dismayed to learn I still can’t solve most of the mysteries…)

Anyway, I was perusing titles in the library the other day and it dawned on me: the vast majority of characters featured on the book covers are white. You might think, eh, what’s the big deal? It’s not like those books have a lot of pictures anyway and he’s not looking at the cover while he’s reading. But I say, that’s a rationalization made from a point of privilege. If my child never sees himself represented in books…well…maybe that’s a subconscious factor in his lack of enthusiasm for reading.

This has not been such a glaring problem with picture books. The vast majority are still dominated by white characters, but I’ve been able to find many good books featuring non white (and non animal) characters. It also helps that I live in a predominantly African American city, so local librarians make every effort to ensure the children’s book collection reflects the demographic of the people they serve. A few of our favorites are Last Stop on Market Street, I Am A Kenyan Child, Grace for President, and everything by Rachel Isadora.

But evidently it’s harder with middle grade fiction. Because in my local library, where I can easily find dozens of picture books featuring black characters, I could find only one book appropriate for Teddy. I asked a friend with a son Teddy’s age about it, after seeking suggestions for book titles, and she in turn asked her son if he knew of any. “His eyes got big,” she said, “and he said, ‘wow! None of them!'”

As I’m struggling to find books my son can see himself in, a sponsored post from Just Like Me comes up in my Instagram feed. (They can read my mind!) It’s a subscription service for kids that curates books featuring black characters. On the website, the founders claim that the lack of diversity in kids books is not due to availability but because of a lack of marketing. These books are out there; they just don’t get the attention.

The service offers books for 0-3, 4-8, and 9-12. I immediately wanted to sign up for both kids…until I saw the price. Since the books selected are good for boys and girls, I decided to go with the box for 4-8 and hope there’s something in it for each kid. I hope this helps diversify our home library and provides reading material my 6-year-old can get excited about.

White privilege and my daughter’s birthday

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When my son was around 2, my mom got him some bathtub paints to play with during a visit. I showed them to him and told him excitedly that he’d be able to paint on himself in the bath. We turned on the water, plopped in some toys, and then opened the package. He took a crayon and tried drawing on his arm. And immediately we were both disappointed. Because bathtub paints were clearly not designed with dark skin in mind. The colors were barely visible against his brown skin. Thankfully he was too young to care, and I simply wiped away the marks and threw the package away.

Over the past six years of parenting black children, I have come to realize how pervasive white privilege is. I like to think I’m more aware of it now than I was when my son was a toddler. We make sure to seek out books with black characters and about black history; we get black dolls for our daughter; we try to incorporate the kids’ heritage into the decor of our home; I’m trying to read more books by black authors. But we’re not perfect. We just finished celebrating my daughter’s third birthday, and it showed up again without me realizing it until it was in my house.

I was searching on Amazon for gift ideas for extended family, and I found a dress-up shoe collection, packaged in a box conveniently designed with shoe shelves. My daughter LOVES playing dress-up with hand-me-down shoes that are yet too big for her, so I figured she’d be over the moon about proper dress-up shoes. (Spoiler: She was.) My mom generously bought them for her and last weekend, she opened the package along with her numerous other presents. It wasn’t until I was looking at the packaging, trying to figure out how to release the shoes without destroying the box since it was obviously designed for storage, that I realized the little girl modeling the shoes and accompanying jewelry was white.

No big deal, right? The little girl was darling and my daughter didn’t even notice. The problem is, white is the default. I wasn’t specifically looking to make sure the package design represented my little girl. It didn’t occur to me that I needed to be. And since I wasn’t intentional, the default is what showed up in my search.

A foster mom I follow on Instragram, @wespillthebeans, put it really well recently. She was making leprechaun fairies for her kids and made several before realizing that they were all white; that is, the directions had called for white wood balls for the fairies’ heads. She commented: “I know this is a tiny little thing. But it’s a thing. And I don’t want my baby girl growing up with a million tiny little things that disregard the whole of who she is. Part of which is her blackness.”

Individually these things don’t seem worth calling out. Bathtub paints that don’t show up on black skin? Who cares? He can just play with something else. A little white girl modeling princess bling? The shoes and earrings are just as beautiful on dark-toned skin. (maybe I won’t keep that convenient storage case after all, though…) But these little things accumulate without us realizing it and suddenly my kids have grown up surrounded by white.

It’s a lot of work making sure my kids see themselves as much as white kids do. (Even typing that feels like white privilege.) And in this case, I went back to look harder and couldn’t find packaging that featured non white princesses. (There were a couple packages decorated solely with flowers.) Now, even if I had searched the first time and come up empty, I still would’ve purchased that shoe set. The advertising isn’t inherently wrong. It’s just another example of privilege that I need to be aware of. And it’s a reminder to do my due diligence every time so white doesn’t dominate our home. It’s like our practice with bathing the kids: they take a shower/bath every night so when we have to skip a night, it’s not a big deal.

I’ve never had to work hard to see myself represented. And difficult though it may be to do this work on behalf of my kids, it’s absolutely worth it so they feel like they belong at the very least in the environment I’m creating for them.

I did Whole30 on my own and learned a few things

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A year ago, after reading about it for more than a year, I finally did Whole30, the elimination diet that requires you forego most foods most Americans consider staples, for 30 days. I had planned to give up sugar for lent, and when I told a friend about this, she encouraged me to give Whole30 a try, since we’d talked about it many times. The prohibition on sugar had always seemed like the hardest part for me, so if I was going to take that on for lent, might as well do the whole nine yards. I’ve suffered a lack of energy for years, and I’d read Whole30 helps with that, eliminating the 2pm dip. So I decided to give it a try. I’d do Whole30 for the required 30 days and then I’d continue with just no refined sugar for the remaining 10 days of lent.

The biggest challenge was doing it by myself: I didn’t foist this diet on the rest of my family. Whole30 is hard when you’re an adventurous eater like I am. It requires tons of planning and prep. I couldn’t imagine the effort it would take to do Whole30 as a family when there was approximately three vegetables the whole crew would eat–broccoli, cauliflower, carrots. (We’re actually down to one, now: broccoli. My daughter has decided even carrots are too much :/) Also, my kids eat oatmeal with homemade granola and honey drizzled over the top every.single.morning. If I dragged them into this, I’d have to figure out what to feed my son, who doesn’t like eggs, for breakfast.

I had intended to plan for the whole month in advance, knowing that would make my life a lot easier. And if I had, it would’ve. But I didn’t. I think I planned for one week, and then kinda winged it the rest of the month. If you care about your grocery spending at all, you should not wing Whole30. The only way to keep a reasonable budget is to do what I’m finally doing now, meal planning and watching sales. But I didn’t, and my spending was through the roof that month. Because non refined foods are more expensive than refined ones. A couple of the bigger expenses: almond butter, coconut oil, and coconut aminos (used in place of soy sauce because soy is a no-no on Whole30). Also, I ended up eating a lot of sweet potato toast and pistachio nuts, two foods that don’t require much work. Fortunately I love both those foods and didn’t end the month sick of them.

I enjoy most vegetables, and I cook fairly healthy to begin with, so Whole30 wasn’t as difficult as it could have been. A lot of times I made one meal for the whole family and I just didn’t eat the accompanying grain or didn’t add cheese to my portion. But sometimes I ended up eating something entirely different from Mike and the kids. For example, Fridays we alternate between our family favorite meal, carbonara, which is pasta with parmesan and bacon, and pizza–neither of which are compliant. So I just made myself a salad or something.

Snacks were one of the hardest aspects of Whole30. The vast majority of my go-to snacks were not compliant (I’m better now). So I had to completely rethink my options, which is where pistachio nuts came in. When I didn’t have a plan, I ended up grabbing a handful of nuts and raisins and that sufficed. Apple slices with almond butter became another go-to.

There’s never a perfect time to do Whole30, but it’s a bit easier if you pick a month that’s fairly routine, when you’re mostly at home. In this regard, I picked the worst month of the year to do it. Our family has three birthdays in March (including my own!) and I went on two retreats that month, one with the small group we’re part of through our church, and one with a bunch of girlfriends. For the retreats, I had to pack all my own meals. And for the birthdays, I was baking treats that I couldn’t consume. However, I did learn something important about myself that month regarding sweets. I’ve always had a sweet tooth and I’ve forever struggled to pacify it without going overboard. I discovered that It’s easier for me to say no completely for a defined period of time than try to moderate myself. I had no problem passing on everything I made and everything available because I’d already committed to the Whole30 rules for the month. Unfortunately, this is not sustainable. Total abstinence of sweets is simply not an option for me. I want to enjoy life.

Something I’ve been trying to do since Whole30 is restricting myself to sweets one day a week. But that generally works for one week. Since I don’t always know what I’ll be offered in a given week, I don’t know what will be worth waiting for and what I should pass on. I learned that in general, my body does not react well to sugar, but I haven’t yet figured out how to accommodate my sweet tooth in relation to this. Also, that month, my mid-afternoon slump disappeared. Between the ease of saying no to sugar and the rise in energy, I vowed to be one of those people who keeps 85 percent of Whole30 rules post Whole30. I have no idea how others do with this, but I’ve failed miserably. In the year since doing Whole30, I’ve struggled mightily to figure out how to enjoy the benefits of Whole30 without actually adhering to the regime. To address exactly this, you’re supposed to go through a gradual period of “reintroduction” post Whole30, so you can determine exactly what foods don’t work for you. Next time, I’ll be more intentional about that.

And I think there will be a next time. It’s a great way to reset after a particularly unhealthy season, and I now know I operate well with strict rules for a short period of time. Maybe I’ll even drag my family along.

Our transracial family is finally at home at our church

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In pre-adoption training, for one activity, we were instructed to consider the demographic of our various social circles — work, church, interest groups, etc– and fill little plastic cups representing those circles with either white or colored beads, depending on diversity: you could only add colored beads to your cup if non-white people made up a plurality of the demographic of a given group. Since there was a good possibility most of the people in the room would be adopting a child of another race, the intent of the exercise was to open our eyes to the color of our communities and consider how well a child of another race would fit in. Our cups, along with most of those in the room, had all white beads. Our social circles, we realized, were sadly lacking in people of color.

MLK Jr once said, “It is appalling that the most segregated hour in America is 11 o’clock on a Sunday morning.” When we first brought Teddy home, that was definitely the case for us, albeit at 9am. Our church was made up of mostly people of Western European descent. Therefore, we determined to attend a black church a few times a year. A former colleague-turned-friend attended an AME church in the District, so I asked if we could join her one Sunday. We trekked out to Congress Heights — and experienced being in the minority for the second time in our lives. (The first time was when we attended MLK Jr’s church in Atlanta…and held hands with our neighbors to sing We Shall Overcome, possibly the most awkward moment of my life.) The service was awesome. I love the call and response of black preachers’ sermons and the enthusiasm and energy of the singing. Dancing in the aisles is expected. And while we were initially concerned that the church didn’t offer a nursery, we quickly realized that this service was not quiet, and Teddy’s contributions were as welcome as anyone else’s. (Also, in hindsight, the whole point of going was to expose Teddy to his culture, so it would’ve defeated the purpose if we’d sequestered him away from the main event.)

Unfortunately, after a couple visits, our enthusiasm for attending waned. It was a long way away, it’s always hard being the new people at a church — and we didn’t plan to attend often enough to truly get to know people — and when we did go, we missed our church. We ended up attending only twice that first year, and once each the next couple years. I’d feel periodically guilty about this, but not guilty enough to pick a Sunday to return.

Sometime last year, I was mulling over this as I sat in service. I was looking around, marveling at the diversity of those surrounding me. The campus pastor had just informed us that 70 nations are represented here. Somehow, over the course of the last six years, people from dozens of cultures have found their home here. And I realized that maybe I didn’t need to feel so guilty about failing our goal of getting our kids to a black church regularly. Ours wasn’t a predominantly African American church, but there were plenty of people of color all around me. My kids saw people that looked like them worshipping with them, on stage, and in their classes. A black man leads the band, and a black man fills in as campus pastor as needed. And other cultures are regularly celebrated. In fact, this Lenten season, our campus pastor had someone from a different language group read the Lord’s prayer in that language each Sunday. The first Sunday was Spanish; the second was Wollof, a language of the Gambia; the third, Korean.

Looks like I can finally add colored beads to that cup representing my church family. I realize there’s more culture for my kids to be exposed to at an all-black church, but for now, I don’t feel the urgency for that exposure quite so keenly.

 

I can do anything for 10 minutes

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Late last fall, when the weather was starting to turn and the mornings were staying dark, and I found it harder to get out for a run, I got a new DVD workout that consisted of six 10-minute workouts. I already had one DVD by the same fitness person (Michelle Dozois–she’s awesome), but it was a full hour, and it turns out 60 minutes is too long for me to do consistently. I figured 10 minutes was more feasible, and once I was actually dressed and exercising, I might even do at least two of them, rather than stop after one. This has worked rather well for me. I mean, really, I can do anything for 10 minutes, right?

Recently, I thought to apply this philosophy to playing with my kids. Several years ago, an acquaintance shared the best advice she’d ever received: take 10 minutes to get down on the floor and play with your kids, really engage with them, entering their make-believe world, doing what they’re doing. At the time, that advice didn’t seem necessary: I got down on the floor with Teddy all the time. I enjoyed engaging with him on his level, playing blocks trains with him, reading to him, helping him sort shapes. Fast forward six years, and I now I find it much more difficult to participate fully in whatever activity my kids dream up. My mind wanders; I get bored. I’m not good with imaginative games. Play cars? One race across the playroom floor and I’m done. Spaceship wars with Bristle Blocks? One crash and I’m discreetly checking my phone while Teddy is zooming his spaceship through the air. And I’m especially not good with more sporty activities. Playroom baseball? So repetitive. And ridiculous. Teddy’s so tall, it’s about three paces between “bases”. Also, he throws really fast, so I can’t hit his pitches. Zombie tag? Sigh…once I threw a blanket over my head and walked blindly around the room, arms outstretched, which the kids loved, so now I have to do that every time. Not my favorite thing. I can enjoy board games because, fortunately, Teddy can handle the more mentally stimulating ones, so bring on Sequence States and Capitals or Forbidden Island (I threw away Chutes and Ladders partly because it was falling apart, but mostly because I just couldn’t handle it anymore. Although I probably could handle 10 minutes of it…), but I generally leave the indoor soccer, baseball, zombie tag, etc to Mike. When Teddy suggests something like that to me after school, I’ll usually counter with something else. I’ll suggest we read books — something I can do all afternoon — or I’ll pull out the watercolors or scramble for some other craft.

But recently, Mike was out of town for the weekend, so I had to play daddy AND mommy. And daddy plays games. Teddy has a new one called Stick Man Soccer, named for a kindle game where stick figures kick the ball around. IRL, you do a silly dance every time you score a goal. The first time he suggested it while I was solo, I was tempted, again, to counter with something else. But I resisted the urge and thought, you know what, I can do anything for 10 minutes. I even played it out, knowing that once we’d done 10 minutes of soccer, he’d be ready with another idea that I probably wouldn’t be thrilled with. But I love variety, so I realized I could probably spend an hour or more playing with him different activities in 10-minute increments. So I said, sure, I’ll play Stick Man Soccer — for 10 minutes. I thought he’d push back, but he dutifully walked over to the playroom echo dot and commanded Alexa to set a timer for 10 minutes.

So we kicked the ball around for 10 minutes and laughed at each other’s silly dances. And when the time was up, he suggested baseball, which is probably my least favorite playroom activity, but — I can do anything for 10 minutes. Next up was zombie tag. And then basketball. And so on. Ninety minutes passed that way, and then we had to get ready for a late afternoon outing. I didn’t love the activities, but in 10 minute increments, I could enjoy them. And I was grateful for the time of connection with my son.

I’ve also been applying this exercise to writing. I’m trying to get back into a regular routine, but the idea of setting aside an hour every day–common advice for aspiring writers — has always seemed impossible, especially when so often I end up just staring at a blank screen. So I started mentally dialing back: What amount of time would be doable? And I came back to 10 minutes. It’s not a lot, but it’s something I can show up for enthusiastically. And often, as with the workouts, after 10 minutes is over, I keep going, and sometimes I end up with a full blog post. I don’t always. Many times, it’s just about showing up and I only get down three or four sentences. But three or four sentences every day for a week practically is a full blog post.

I can do anything for 10 minutes.

Alexa taught my son to say his name

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We are an Alexa household. Mike loves the idea of a “smart” house, and Alexa was our first step toward that. I’m a…later adopter…so I didn’t take full advantage of her offerings right away. Still don’t, actually. I mostly use her to play music and set timers, despite her numerous other abilities. But Teddy was right there with his dad. He learned early on the hilarity of asking Alexa to play “nothing”. Evidently there is a song called “Nothing”. But he also loved having Alexa play his favorites. Through his own profile, Mike set up a playlist called “Teddy”, full of songs Teddy loves that he could listen to as he fell asleep each night. Once he realized Alexa’s capabilities, he eagerly commanded her to play his eponymous playlist during the afternoons as well.

Except, until the arrival of this fairy godmother of music, Teddy had always had difficulty saying his name. He isn’t the most articulate communicator anyway, but with his name, he consistently dropped the “d”, making his name sound like Tey. So he excitedly commanded, “Alexa, play Tey playlist.” Alexa is a computer. She responds only to commands that exactly match her programming. And nothing in her database matched “Tey playlist”. So she was silent. And Teddy was frustrated. He would repeat himself several times, but always dropping those difficult d’s. And I would try not to laugh in the kitchen as I pointed out his error.

Teddy does not like to be corrected. But he does like his music. So with great consternation, for the fifth time, he would cry out, “Alexa, play Teh-dee playlist.” Ahh, finally something the poor woman could understand. And Johnny Cash’s croon  or Rolling in the Deep would fill the ground floor.

Unfortunately, this lesson was not learned in one episode. For weeks, Teddy would forget how fastidious Alexa was and lazily ask for “Tey’s playlist”. And Alexa would ignore him until with exasperation he would enunciate his name.

But he did learn. And we now credit Alexa for his ability to say his name intelligibly the first time. Too bad Alexa can’t teach confidence. Or decibel level. But we’ll get there. I’ve heard suggested that Alexa should have a child mode that only responds to requests that are made with the proper niceties, please and thank you. I also wish she would have some respect for herself and not respond when the kids yell at her. But since she’s just a computer, that irritates only me.