The Poundstone Report: Educating Madam Justice

I think I was in the fifth grade when I asked my mother if I could marry the dog. Instead of explaining that marriage included a sexual bond and therefore we traditionally tie the knot with one of our own species, she said, "Oh, now, Paula, don't be silly." There was a lot of important stuff she didn't explain to me. We never discussed politics or citizenship, either.

As a foster parent, I am working hard at doing things differently from my mother. I talk to my daughter about politics all of the time. I call her "Madam Justice," because after she serves two terms as president, I'm certain she will graciously accept a lifetime appointment as a Supreme Court justice.

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Of course, she doesn't understand everything I talk to her about, because I don't either, but I can tell she has great concern about the decline of the left and the unfair doctrines of the right. Just this morning she had a screaming fit at breakfast. I assume it was the toast, which brought to mind wheat, which made her think of Kansas, which led her to thoughts of Bob Dole, which sent her over the edge. It's a lot for a 1-year-old to handle.

Sometimes I get overwhelmed by our political chats, too. But I believe they are important. Recently, a lot has been discovered about an infant's amazing ability to learn, even in the womb. (By routinely counting out loud throughout the gestation period, a pregnant woman can actually give birth to a small accountant or bookkeeperanot yet certified, of course.)

I'm learning a lot about children. I'm required to take 12 hours of continuing education in order to maintain my foster parent certification. The last lecture I attended was by Dr. Charlotte Reznick, a child and educational psychologist. She said there had been some study that followed mothers with 2-year-olds for a day and recorded the number of negative and positive comments the mothers made. Not surprisingly, with all the things there are to tell a 2-year-old no about, the negative comments outweighed the positive. What's startling is that they outweighed them 13 to 1. Dr. Reznick explained that many of the same basic messages can be communicated in a more positive way. Instead of "Don't pull the cat's tail," she said I could try, "Let's pet the kitty." All six of my cats and I are very interested in the success of this technique. Especially my cat Balou, who, since the arrival of my foster daughter, has licked all the fur off her belly.

The fact is, if I say stuff to her in a negative way, my daughter responds in a negative, combative way. It doesn't seem like such a big deal now, but as I was explaining to her today (while blocking her body punches to my cat Scout), even the little bit of progressive gun legislation we have now is threatened, and if we don't teach our children rational, peaceful ways to interact, in a few years I'll have to say to my kids, "Honey, I know it's frustrating to wait your turn. But if you shoot little Billy you won't have anyone to play with. Let's use words instead."

Throughout Madam Justice's lunch today, as I picked up the rice she kept throwing, I explained to her that the right wing is already proposing to eliminate environmental safeguards on the earth's resources, which are not all renewableaand that she could throw her rice if she wanted to, but there wasn't any more where that came from, either.

My daughter and I like to go for a walk after lunch. I think it's important for her to know the neighbors, because Newt Gingrich and his faithful would like to deny women the right to choose an abortion. Soon, instead of just parental consent laws, there'll be neighborhood consent laws. A young girl will have to go door-to-door with a petition.

Hi, I'm Tiffany. I live two doors down. I'm only 17 and I'm pregnant and I don't want to bring a child into the world that I'm not prepared to care for. I was hoping you could help me out with a signature todayaAlso, would you like to buy a candy bar to support my school lunch program?

Madam Justice seemed a little fussy after our walk. Come to think of it, she's been on edge a lot lately. After watching Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.) carrying the "Don't Feed the Alligators" sign as a visual aid to his anti-welfare speech on MacNeil/Lehrer, she walked over to me holding an electrical outlet safety cover, as if to say, "I am not only going to electrocute myself, I'm also going to block my windpipe with this safety thing to make sure the job's done right."

Of course, I used my new positive feedback technique. Instead of just grabbing the safety gizmo and saying no, I calmly took it away and said, "Honey, I'd rather you go into politics."

Letters to Paula

Donna Meyer, Houston, Texas: What's the big deal with baking soda? We used to just keep it in our refrigerators. Now it's in my toothpaste, cleansers, and mouthwash. Why?

A: Donna, I share your confusion about baking soda. You remember when it was simply used to keep the fridge fresh. I'm so old I remember when we baked with it. The side of my Arm & Hammer box boasts that baking soda is an antacid, and can be used on insect bites, stings, sunburn, windburn, prickly heat, poison ivy, poison oak, poison sumac, laundry, sinks, counters, microwaves, pots and pans, refrigerators, cutting boards, coffeepots, teapots, silverware, food containers, garbage pails, diaper pails, litter boxes, carpets, dishwashers (between loads), disposals and drains, tubs, showers, toilets, and tile. You can also relax in a bath of it at the end of a busy day or after sports.

I called an 800 number on the side of the box. A guy named Alan said he was not really allowed to talk about this and told me I had to call the public affairs office. So what's the 1-800-Alan number on the side of the box for?

Public affairs was almost no help at all, either. They just kept saying baking soda was "one of nature's building blocks." I drove to UCLA to find a chemist, but I got intimidated before I got to the chemistry building, so I drove back home and called David Allen, the Grand Pooh-Bah of the chemical engineering department. He said that many bad-smell compounds are actually sulfur compounds, which are somewhat acidic, and sodium bicarbonate (baking soda) is a basic compound that absorbs acid.

I did not get the sense that he knew it cleaned pans.

Bob Karski, Northborough, Mass.: Why is it that one's image in a mirror has the top and bottom orientation correct (that is, top is up and bottom is down), but the left and right orientation is wrong (the image's left side is really the person's right side, and vice versa)?

A: Bob, I'm tired of going to expert sources to answer MoJo questions. I keep thinking that I've been around the block a couple of times so there must be some questions I can field on my own. I was so happy to receive your letter.

I was in Mr. Scott's physics class in my freshman high school year. He wore a skinny tie, a crew cut, and horn-rimmed glasses--this was in the mid-'70s. He was either very behind or slightly ahead of Elvis Costello. I don't think he's teaching anymore. Maybe he's put together a band.

Although I flunked his class, the one concept I thought I understood was about mirror images. (Naturally, I never dreamed this would ever come up again.)

Each point that is reflected in a mirror is equidistant from the mirror to the image. If you could draw a 1-foot line from the tip of your nose to the mirror, a line from the tip of your reflected image nose would also be a foot and those two lines connected would be one straight 2-foot line.

As I tried, repeatedly, to apply this small vestige of my formal education to your question, my brow furrowed, my head tilted to the side like the RCA dog's, and soon I had a terrific headache.

The mirror doesn't know about left and right. The image is simply facing you.

Ow, it still hurts to think about it.