Friday, February 29, 2008

I'm Such a Rebel

Way back in September I lamented that we weren't permitted--per the owner's manual--to change the batteries on our cordless electric lawnmower, despite the fact that it would have been a trivial fix.

Well, today, I stuck it to the Man.

And our backyard looks much, much better than it has in a really long time. :-)

Fight the power!

Thursday, February 28, 2008

A Pair of Really Interesting Articles

Over at Wired Magazine, there are two articles I saw recently that I found absolutely fascinating. I thought I'd pass them along in case you'd like them.

The first one is entitled How Good People Turn Evil, From Stanford to Abu Ghraib. The article consists of an interview with psychologist Philip Zimbardo, about the social pressures that can turn normal people into moral monsters. Zimbardo is perhaps best known for the infamous Stanford Prison Study from 1971, in which the test subjects--ordinary students--were divided into "prisoners" and "guards" simulating a prison environment. The study had to be stopped after five days or so, when the "prisoners" started having emotional breakdowns, as the "guards" started forcing them to strip and perform indecent acts. The results of this study were a shock to everyone--including Zimbardo, who felt himself transforming into a monster along with all the other guards:
As principal [scientific] investigator [of the experiment], my job was to care about what happened to everybody because they were all under my experimental control. But once I switched to being the prison superintendent, I was a different person. It's hard to believe that, but I was transformed.
Several lessons were learned from this study--the most important being that people who are ordinary, moral people can turn into monsters if subjected to the right kinds of pressures. We shouldn't wonder about how it was that the German people could stoop to such horrible things during the Nazi reign; it wasn't that they were particularly evil, it was that the regime itself created a social environment not far different from the one in the Prison Study, and the people reacted in essentially the same way. There but for the grace of God go we.

Anyway, most of the interview is about what happened at Iraq's Abu Grahib prison--what the set of conditions was that allowed it to happen, how the breakdown in authority (and basic human decency) proceeded, and what must be done to prevent this in the future. But there was something interesting mentioned at the end of the interview that caught my eye. Zimbardo said:
If you can agree on a certain number of things that are morally wrong, then one way to counteract them is by training kids. There are some programs, starting in the fifth grade, which get kids to think about the heroic mentality, the heroic imagination.

To be a hero you have to take action on behalf of someone else or some principle and you have to be deviant in your society, because the group is always saying don't do it; don't step out of line. If you're an accountant at Arthur Andersen, everyone who is doing the defrauding is telling you, "Hey, be one of the team."

Heroes have to always, at the heroic decisive moment, break from the crowd and do something different. But a heroic act involves a risk. If you're a whistle-blower you're going to get fired, you're not going to get promoted, you're going to get ostracized. And you have to say it doesn't matter....

Emphasis added.

I find this a fascinating idea. It's true, of course: the hero is a social deviant. Everyone else keeps their heads down; the hero stands and fights. Everyone else tries to go along quietly; the hero speaks up, and often attracts the enmity of the powers that be.

And I also find it gratifying that he believes that the heroic imagination, the heroic mindset can be taught. I think Tolkien in particular would agree--in his view, the social function of Epic Literature (the such as Nordic sagas, Greek myths, fairy tales, and the like) was to give the inhabitants of these various civilizations a sense of who they were, of where they fit in their societies and in the universe, of what the virtues were that they would need to survive and thrive in their world, and of what these virtues looked like in practice. I suspect it's much easier for a person to recognize the need for a hero, and then step up and be the hero, when that person recognizes a similarity between his current situation and a scene in a work of Great Literature where the hero stepped up (or where he failed and caused a calamity).


The other article that I found interesting was entitled High Tech Cowboys of the Deep Seas: The Race to Save the Cougar Ace. This is a much longer article that tells the story of an outfit called Titan Salvage, whose purpose is to keep ships from sinking (or salvage them if they do sink). The guys from Titan Salvage--and it appears from the article that there are less than a dozen of them--fly out with some special equipment (custom pumps and tanks, demolition tools, the like) to the area where a ship is in distress, helicopter on board, and do what it takes to keep the ship from sinking.

The Wired article tells in pretty good detail the story of what happened back in June 2006, when a large transport ship carrying over 4000 Mazda cars heeled over onto its side. The problem had been caused by unbalanced ballast-water pumping. The Titan Salvage team managed to save the ship, but lost one of its team members in the operation.

The article reads very much like something that would have made a good episode of Mission: Impossible. It covers the entire story, starting with the ballast problem, to the identities of the team members who took part in the salvage operation, the investigation they made of the ship (which involved rappelling down inside the cargo compartment of the ship, which was listing at more than 60 degrees), the events causing the death of the team member, the plan to right the ship, struggling with weather conditions, and so on.

All in all, it was a fascinating adventure story, made all the more fascinating because it really happened.

If you've got the time, take a look.

A Couple of Days Old, But the Carnival of Homeschooling Is Up

The 113th Carnival of Homeschooling is up over at The Daily Planet. I neglected to post about it when it came out, so here it is now. My post about Noah Webster's Blue-Backed Speller is featured.

The post I found most interesting this time around is here. It presents some very well-reasoned arguments about how homeschooling affects socialization. There's a good debate in the comments, as well--lots of people commented, and the argument remained civil (and very informative).

One of the questions that comes up a lot when homeschooling parents think about socialization--and which is touched on in this post--involves defining what is normal. When people are socialized differently, they wind up with different priorities, different experiences, different vocabulary, different worldviews. If you pick up one person who was socialized in Group A and plunk that person down into the middle of Group B where they were all socialized differently, that person may well have a hard time fitting in. But the same would be true if one picked up someone from Group B and plunked him down in the middle of Group A. Just because someone doesn't fit in doesn't mean that he or she was socialized wrong; it just means he or she was socialized differently. Just because someone is in a minority doesn't mean that person is abnormal--and just because someone is in the majority doesn't mean that person is right.

The big questions are, How do we want our kids to turn out? and How to we get them to turn out that way? And there are many homeschoolers out there who chose their path precisely because they felt a need to swim against the cultural tide, for whatever reason. Yes, it's conceivable that their kids may have trouble fitting in; but that is often because they were raised with a different worldview than their age-peers, which was exactly the point.

Another point that was brought up in this post is the fact that many parents choose to homeschool only after discovering that the kids aren't fitting in to the schools anyway, to the point that the social demands of the school setting are interfering with the academic experience. This is often true of those who are naturally introverted, or who are "nerds", or those who are just naturally eccentric. Many kids on the Autism spectrum are homeschooled for precisely this reason--between the bustle and activity of a typical classroom (that many find confusing and overstimulating), and the fact that they are frequent targets of bullies, many make much better progress in home settings than in traditional classrooms.

Anyway, all of these points and many more are made--and debated--at the post I linked to above. Check it out.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Me? Sordid?

Well. I have been officially tagged by The McMullen Family for a game in which I get to reveal five sordid facts about myself. As she was tagging me, she said (emphasis added):
Who's next? I nominate... this homeschooling dad [me] because I wonder if there is anything sordid about him...
Um... I don't know what it is about me, but I seem to inspire this misconception in a lot of people.

See, this is a game that favors those who have lots of vices; they get to pick and choose which of their vices they don't want to reveal. If you have eight, you get to decide whether or not you want to reveal that little incident that involved the five pounds of butter, the hose, and the water buffalo; but if you only have five, you're out of luck.

Luckily for me, I have lots to choose from. My challenge is to winnow the list down to the five that are still sufficiently juicy to titillate my readership, while avoiding the ones that are either really embarrassing or really offensive. Or both. And, um... I do have several of those.

I'm reminded of all the jokes where people in job interviews are asked about their greatest flaw as an employee, and how everyone is tempted to say things like, "Sometimes I work too hard" or "Sometimes I just don't know when to quit." The net effect of such answers is to convince the interviewers that the applicant isn't actually very honest. I'm reminded of a similar question that happened at a recent Democratic debate, in which the candidates were asked what their biggest professional weaknesses were. Heavily edited, their answers basically boiled down to:
  • Clinton: Sometimes I work too hard.
  • Edwards: Sometimes I get so mad at injustice that I can't control my temper.
  • Obama: Sometimes I forget where I put things.
Without making any judgments as to the relative merits of these (or any other) candidates, is there any question that one of them came across as a little less abnormal than the others?

So anyway: we must first set the terms of the game. The above website defined sordid as: adj. wretchedly poor; filthy; morally degraded. And the rules are:
1. Link to your tagger, and post these rules.
2. Share five wild crazy facts about yourself.
3. Tag five people at the end of your post, and list their names, linking to them.
4. Let them know they've been tagged by leaving a comment at their blogs.
So: here are a few of my vices and things I've done that were wretchedly poor, filthy, and/or morally degraded:

1. I've become spoiled to the point of snobbery about the way that vegetables should be prepared. I learned to cook around Hawaiians and Asians, who did everything stir-fry style: the vegetables turn out fresh, hot, and crisp. Nothing better. I can tolerate canned vegetables, barely; I can't touch frozen.

The trouble is, my mother's family is from Arkansas--and my wife's family is from rural Kentucky and Northern Alabama, where they cook vegetables until they are dead. As a result, my vegetable-intake has declined precipitously since I've been married, since my stay-at-home wife's cooking habits find much more opportunity for expression than my own.

2. For several years when I was a kid, I didn't brush my teeth. I just decided I didn't want to do it, and I didn't. It went so far, to the point where I would lie to my parents about it. This lasted pretty much until early in my high school years, when the light finally dawned that you know, this is really disgusting. Thankfully, nearly all the places we lived had fluoridated water, so my teeth didn't suffer too badly.

On the bright side, there's no way my kids are going to be able to pull a fast one on me should they decide to stop brushing. I know all the tricks.

3. There's just something about being a father to three kids under six that has re-awakened my adolescent fascination with potty humor. My attitude is, anyone who doesn't like humor based on bodily functions, shouldn't become a parent. Such humor will keep you sane during the early years, especially while your kids are going through potty training.

I remember last year when the Pillowfight Fairy was starting to have some potty-time success. One day after coming home from work, I asked my wife to tell me how the potty times had gone that day: "Could you tell me the story of the potty time?" Well, my daughter thought I was asking her, so she started in with "Once Upon A Time..." and continued on to tell this long, involved story where all the animals, and all the bears, and all the dancers, all came in in turn and pooped all over everything....

And I was practically under the dinner table, I was so doubled over with laughter. I couldn't breathe... Everything was going dark... But the Fairy didn't notice, and just kept the story going on, and on, and on....

4. Oh yeah, there was the time where I was visiting a friend at his small, conservative Christian college up in Oregon. We were hanging out in the student union late at night, with a bunch of other conservative Christian students milling about... occasionally one would play something on his guitar; occasionally a bunch of us would join in and sing along.

Well, one of us conservative Christians started singing the first few lines to Monty Python's Lumberjack Song:
I'm a Lumberjack, and I'm OK!
I sleep all night and I work all day...

He's a Lumberjack, and he's OK!
He sleeps all night, and he works all day...
The whole group of them joyously joined in!

They didn't know what they were getting into. I knew all the verses. :)

The lyrics progressed to their foreordained doom:
I cut down trees, I wear high heels,
Suspenders and a bra.
I wish I was a girlie,
Just like my dear Mama.
Sung by yours truly, and a very small but hardy group of us conservative Christians, at the top of our lungs.

I noted a distinct lack of enthusiasm in the rest of the room during this final verse. But we thought it was a blast.

5. There was the time....

No. I'm not going to do that one.

5. As one might tell from the last item, I have developed a taste for off-color humor--especially the double-entendre. I'm not particularly proud of it, and it's gotten me in trouble on more than one occasion, but it's there nonetheless. And it occasionally comes out at the least expected times.

Our Happy Boy had his first birthday earlier this month. For his birthday, one of the things he got was a set of four differently-colored foursquare balls (of the sort that litter elementary school playgrounds). As we were opening the package, I said (without realizing it), "Oh, Look! [The Happy Boy] has four balls."

There was dead silence for about one second as I realized what I had said, then I collapsed to the ground in another fit of asphyxiating laughter, while my lovely bride looked on with a wry, disapproving smile, and just slowly shook her head....


Is that wretchedly poor, filthy, and/or morally degraded enough for you?

Ok, I get to tag five more people. I don't normally do this; I'm a bit of a spoilsport when it comes to internet games like this. Nevertheless, Enquiring Minds Want To Know. So without further ado, I'm going to tag:
Hm. Maybe it's an omen, but as I was writing Chris, my fingers slipped and it came out Christ. Just as I was hitting the delete key, I realized the enormity of the implications of tagging Christ to have him tell us the five ways in which he's sordid, and um... It gave me a good laugh, but it also sent a little shiver down my spine. So I think I'll stop at three.

If anyone else wants to participate in this little confessional, consider yourself invited. :)

Monday, February 25, 2008

Sunday, February 24, 2008

My Teachers Never Let Me Get Away With This

One of the exercises my wife has the Pillowfight Fairy do as part of her homeschooling involves composing sentences that incorporate words from a vocabulary list. I've posted examples of this work before (here is a good one).

Well, since time immemorial, students have been trying to get the maximum amount of schoolwork done with the minimum of effort. Think of it as a problem in optimization! And as a result, every generation of young scholars seems to discover the same kinds of tricks. One classic, used often in college, is to write one term paper that can be turned in to two classes.

Well, my five-year-old daughter has already started to hit upon some of these schemes.

When you have to compose sentences incorporating vocabulary words from a list, there are two old standbys that every generation discovers anew. The Pillowfight Fairy has suddenly incorporated both of them. See if you can spot them.

Item 1:

Item 2:

Item 3:

Item 4:

Hm. It would appear that the Fairy needs a little work on her commas and apostrophes. But cut her some slack, she's only five.

But here are the two tricks that the Fairy discovered.

One: If you have to write sentences incorporating a list of vocabulary words, it's less work if you can put several words in one sentence. I discovered in Junior High that if I could work four vocabulary words in per sentence, then I would only have to write--say--five sentences instead of twenty. That's a big deal! And it appears that the Fairy has this trick down cold.

Of course, the sentences I wrote were big, audacious, Rube-Goldberg-esque monstrosities of sentences that were designed to make people giggle as they went through the task of parsing out all the grammar necessary to decode them. That may be part of the reason I got away with it. I seem to remember trying on occasion to get all of the vocabulary words into one sentence, just to see if I could do it. Teachers actually rather like that sort of thing--it indicates spirit. :-)

But the Fairy has discovered the other trick as well, the one that teachers typically don't let slide. That is, it's much easier to write content-free sentences, than it is to write sentences that actually say something. There were always students out there who would respond to an assignment like:
Write the following words in sentences:
1. General
2. Underneath
3. Profound
4. Unfortunate
...with an offering like:
1. General is a word.
2. Underneath is a word.
3. Profound is a word.
4. Unfortunate is a word.
Every student who tried this thought he was being clever and original, not realizing that every other student out there had already tried it. Teachers typically did not like this trick, and assigned grades accordingly.

My wife hasn't actually worried too much about this fact yet. In a way she's already a step ahead of the Fairy, although the Fairy doesn't know it yet. You see, the thing that Tonya is
really getting after is the Fairy's writing--her letter formation. As long as the Fairy is filling the right number of pages each session with writing, she's practicing her letters just like mommy really wants--even if she thinks she's getting away with something sneaky.

Teaching the Fairy to read and write is a game of strategy, like chess--you have to think several moves ahead. ;-)

I Think My Wife Is Giving Me a Hint

So Tonya went to the grocery store yesterday, and saw a good deal on something. For under three dollars, she picked up this:

I think she's hinting that a change in career may be in my near future. I'd better pull my harp out and start getting back into practice....

An Explanation

Ok, so blogging has been pretty light lately.

The reasons are pretty straightforward, actually. For one thing, the Adrenaline Junkie has come down with a fairly nasty bug of some sort or another. She's had a fever for the last few days, and low appetite, and general gastrointestinal nastiness. This has taken away much of our extra energy and desire just to do stuff. By the time we get the kids down at night, we don't particularly want to write, we just want to vegetate.

(Incidentally, your kid is getting better--or possibly getting much worse--when you say, "How are you feeling, dearie?" and she responds, "Mooooo...")

Which brings us to the second reason: Tonya was thinking to herself the other day, "We haven't watched the Lord of the Rings DVDs in several years. I'd like to see them again." She casually mentioned this fact, and then I started thinking to myself: Hmmm... Not only that, but we haven't ever watched the trilogy end-to-end before. For each movie, we got the 4-disc Platinum Series Special Edition Extended Version With Optional Chrome Trim and Oak Leaf Clusters as soon as it came out on DVD, and we watched through them all with the documentaries and commentaries.... But we never went back and watched the movies together to get the whole arc of the story.

Of course, this is a huge undertaking. These movies were long enough in the movie theaters--I think the shortest of the bunch, The Fellowship of the Ring, clocked in at nearly three hours, and Return of the King was upwards of four. But with the added footage in the extended editions, each of these movies tacks on an additional half hour at least. So to watch all three of these movies in the editions we have, takes somewhere on the order thirteen hours or longer.

That's a whole lot of free time during which I'm not blogging. :-)

We finished Fellowship on Friday night, and The Two Towers last night. Both nights we put it on right after the girls went to bed, and both nights we went to bed around one in the morning. Tonight, that won't fly--the Special Extended edition of Return of the King goes nearly five hours. So we're going to try to watch the first disc tonight and the second tomorrow.

So blogging may continue light for the next few days.

So if you see us in the next few days going around spouting stuff like, "The earth is changing; I feel it in the air..." and "Forth Eorlingas! Fell deeds await!" and "She'll do it... Yessss, my preciousss...," You'll understand. And I may just throw in a "Hojotoho!" for the heck of it.

(Or maybe you won't understand. And if not, that's Ok.)

Friday, February 22, 2008

Environmentalist vs. Environmentalist

Dont' have time right now to do a real blog post, but I saw a news story lately that made me a little sad: Neighbors Battle In Court Over Redwood Trees That Shade Solar Panels.

The upshot of this is that someone installed some solar panels in 2001--shortly before their neighbor's fast-growing redwood trees grew to the point that they shadowed the panels. So the first party took the second to court, and just won a ruling that two of the redwood trees had to be cut down.

Even if the verdict is right on the merits of the law, there are so many things wrong with this case that I don't have time to count them right now. But I'll leave one observation.

Speaking as a Christian who tries to take his faith seriously, one thing you run into from time to time in churches are those people who are "holier than thou"--who are ostentatiously pious. They're never happier than when they're judging their neighbors for not living up to their standards. You also occasionally see similar phenomena in the homeschooling movement, and in many other aspects of civil life.

The environmental movement is no different.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Money, Entrepreneurialism, and Children

I didn't grow up in a very entrepreneurial family.

My Dad was an Air Force officer from well before the time I was born until just before I graduated from high school. My Mom wasn't the entrepreneurial type, either; I don't ever remember her trying to run a home business on the side. She would occasionally take short teaching jobs on or around the Air Force bases, but that was about it until more recently. (Some time ago she started making and selling crocheted blankets, and donating the money to church organizations and other worthy causes; but I don't remember her doing this when I was growing up.)

Basically, Dad would go off to work in the mornings (or evenings, or weekends, depending on his assignment), and my brothers and I would go off to school, and my Mom would do whatever it was she did at home the whole time. That was just the way it was.

Perhaps as a result of all this, the idea of going into business has always seemed a bit like voodoo to me. I have vague ideas about what might be involved; but I've never seen first-hand what a home business or what a owner-proprietor small business is like, or what it takes to run them.

Furthermore, I've never been of the particularly gregarious sort. I occasionally was required to sell candy or Christmas greens or whatnots for various high school and college functions; but even there, I wasn't in business for myself, I didn't get to keep any of the money, and I hated every moment of it. Even when I was in the San Jose State University Choraliers, and our big money-makers were the Rent-A-Carols we did every Christmas season (where people could rent a quartet or octet of really good singers for a half-hour gig), this kind of thing got really old after a while.

I've always been fascinated by those people who have the sheer gumption to start up a business of their own--especially those people for whom their business becomes their major (or their only) source of income. Talk about working without a net! It takes people who have the vision to see some unmet need in society around them. It takes people who have enough confidence in their abilities that they are willing to demand a price for their work. It often takes people who have the unmitigated gall to hit up friends, relations, acquaintances, and banks for seed capital. It takes people who are willing to work very, very hard, for many more hours than those of us who decided to enter the corporate work force. And they have to make sacrifices, too: my impression is that it's not always easy for entrepreneurs and small businessmen to acquire health insurance, for example.

But for those who choose this lifestyle, often they wouldn't have it any other way. There's just something more satisfying about answering directly to customers, than to a boss; there's just something more satisfying--and more daunting--about knowing that the buck stops with me, that I alone have the responsibility and the authority to fix this problem; the personal challenges are frequently greater, but the rewards--financial and otherwise--are often higher, for those who have the vision and the fortitude to make it work.

I never had the gumption to try, let alone the vision or the confidence. I took the route that increasingly is seen as normal in our society--I got a college degree to prepare me for a professional job, and then I got jobs in my chosen field. It's a comfortable life, no doubt, with a good salary and benefits. It's much less risky one than the life of an entrepreneur. Still, I often wonder about The Road Not Taken. What if, while I was in high school I'd had the vision to ask the church elder at my old congregation--the one who had his own stained-glass business--if he'd take on an apprentice? What if, instead of engineering, I'd decided to go into cabinetry instead, and then started my own business?

(Have you seen how much those guys make?)

Even to this day, I find myself thinking about taking up a hobby that could be used to pull in a little more income--like making and selling chainmail jewelry and armor, or stained glass. Or I'll start thinking, If I can just get a little more practice in on my harp, I'd be able to start doing paid gigs. Of course, if I ever decide to do these things for real, you'll be the first to know, because I'll have to stop blogging. :-(

(And I've run the numbers on making a living by playing harp. Let's just say my family would have to get used to eating lots and lots of ramen....)


But my wife and I have been thinking about how to go about teaching our kids the value of money and the value of work. It's not an easy thing. And ironically, it's harder in our case precisely because we don't have a TV (by choice--but that's a different post).

(One of the most effective ways to get kids to learn the value of money is to let them get their hearts set on some toy they've seen--often in an ad--and then make them earn the money to buy it themselves. That's right, leverage their greed! But with no TV in our house, there are no commercials; and with no commercials, our kids don't often start whining for toys they don't already have, because they aren't aware of what all is out there to be wanted. But we notice that when we visit someone else's house where the TV is on, "I Want That" becomes the mantra for just about every commercial that comes on. And this in turn validates our decision not to get a TV....)

So my wife and I were noting that the Pillowfight Fairy loves to do craft projects. Could this love become a home business some day? You bet. One common business plan is to craft pretty things--baskets, pottery, quilts, dresses, sweaters, costumes--and sell them on Ebay or on Amazon. (We ourselves picked up a couple of costume items that were marketed this way.) We can see Mommy and Fairy, in a few years or so, making and selling pretties for a little extra cash--and for the educational experience, which is more valuable than the cash.


Which brings us to something of interest I saw today, that I'd like to pass on to my readership. Check out this post over at Dr. Helen's site. It contains a link to a podcast (for those of you who aren't fully hip to this new-fangled internet thing, that's an "IPod Broadcast"--something like an online radio show recording) with an author of a book entitled Young Bucks: How to Raise a Future Millionaire. This book deals with the teaching of money skills to the young--not just how to save and manage the money, but how to see opportunities to make money. That is, if you're a kid who needs $100 to buy some electronic gadget, but you're completely out of funds, what kinds of things can you do to get the money? Among other things, the book has a long list of business ideas--everything from yardwork and cleaning, to the baking and selling of goodies, to the marketing of a skill like drawing or painting--that many kids are capable of. And it encourages people to always be on the lookout for other opportunities that just happen to wander by. The book also includes scripts for approaching potential customers, which can be helpful for kids (like I was) who aren't naturally gregarious and silver-tongued.

I found the podcast interview (about 30 minutes long) to be very interesting, and I have to admit I'm tempted to find a copy of the book. As I mentioned above, I want to instill something of that entrepreneurial spirit in my children, so that if they do develop a passion and a talent some area--even an unusual area--they can find a way to market that talent into a career or a calling.

And be sure to read through the comments at the end of the post, too, even if you don't have half an hour to listen to the interview. Some of them are quite wise, in my opinion.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

This Week's Carnival of Homeschooling

This week's Carnival of Homeschooling is up at the Homeschool Blog Awards site. I haven't had much time to go through it yet, but I did see this post there; it's like a real-life editorial cartoon....

Alas, I didn't have the chance to write anything for the Carnival this week. (My post on Webster's Blue-Backed Speller will be submitted to next week's Carnival.)

But on a completely different note, my wife posted about the gingerbread house she finished making yesterday. That's worth something!

Monday, February 18, 2008

Old Blue-Back

A few days back I was starting to get lonely.

My blog isn't a very high-traffic site, and the number of comments I get varies widely from post to post, or from week to week. I feel a little like a hunter-gatherer; sometimes there are lots of good, meaty columns; and sometimes I have to do without for days at a time.

So in desperation, I created a post with little more than a link to a clip from the Muppet Show, on the superstitious theory that Muppets bring me comments. Maybe, just maybe, those fuzzy little friends would work their magic for me again, as they had in the past?

Boy, howdy. That post immediately pulled down a couple of really long, really erudite comments by ElizabethB, who wanted to talk about Phonics, Sight Reading, and Webster's Blue Backed Speller. I certainly didn't expect that, any more than those Monty Python guys expected the Spanish Inquisition. :)

Well, she got me thinking, and so I thought I'd pull out relevant comments from the thread and put them here. Here's how she started things, slightly edited by me:

Don Potter sent me your post about phonics vs. sight reading, and I just had to comment on that.

I'm a "friend" of Don's and have, like him, taught a lot of remedial students harmed by sight words.

I thought you might be interested in my post, sight words: a root of all reading evil. While you know most of it from reading Don's website, some might be new, especially my explanation about how to teach 218 of the 220 words phonetically.

For your daughter, I would recommend Don Potter's excellent 1824 version of Webster's Speller. My 5 year old improved her spelling and reading abilities dramatically after working through Webster's Speller.

If she's still suffering guessing habits from all the sight words, I'd work with some nonsense words with her. I work with nonsense words with my daughter, we have fun laughing hysterically at the funnier ones.

Here's a short post I did on Webster's Speller...

and you should make sure you click the link to my page at my website showing how to teach it...

I'm going to write another post later tonight linking to your sight word post--hopefully a few less people will learn the sight word lesson the hard way after reading it.

Also, if you decide to use Webster, both Don and I would be interested to learn how it goes.

Oh, yes, here's a great game that makes nonsense words and real words...

Incidentally, the post of mine she's referring to is here. Anyway, I responded to her with the following:
See, I knew I would get some interesting comments if I just put up a link to the Muppet Show! Works every time.

Thanks for dropping by, and for your vote of confidence. I'm honored that you saw fit to present my post on your blog and expand on it, and I'm humbled that the post was recommended to you by Don Potter himself.

Just so you know, we do have some old copies of Webster's Speller around, although they are much later editions than the one from 1824. My wife is very interested in figuring out how to use it in our studies; but it's difficult to find adequate instructions on this.

For example, while the Trivium Pursuit site recommends Webster for spelling, grammar, handwriting, etc., it does not recommend the book for phonics--arguing that we pronounce things differently now, so his phonetical rules are a bit out-of-date. Also, they don't recommend using the book until the kid is 10 or so. Needless to say, your take on it is very different than the Bluedorns'!

And my wife--who does most of the day-to-day teaching--isn't as much of a theoretician as I am. I like getting into the whys and wherefores; she just wants to know what do I teach on lesson one, what do I teach on lesson two, etc. We liked Hazel Loring's approach because it was very clear on this point: here's the list of words, and this is what you do with them. Alas, we haven't yet found such a clear step-by-step prescription for using Webster in the teaching of phonics. We've seen a lot of good ideas, but nothing that could be described as a complete program that incorporates all these ideas. I suspect that such a program would look a lot like the Hazel Loring method, just starting with Webster's syllables instead of her word lists; but I haven't had the time or mental energy to figure out myself how to do it.

And it's no mere academic question: we have another three-year-old now who's learning her letters and sounds, so we need to figure out what we're doing here pretty soon--otherwise she'll start reading without us. ;)

Anyway, in the five months since I wrote that post, things have progressed reasonably well. Developments come quickly when the child is just five! The Pillowfight Fairy finished Spelling Workout Level A, and Tonya decided to shift to vocabulary building for a while, extracting words from the Spelling Workout book's glossary. It appears that the Fairy's decoding skills are a lot better than they used to be. So long as she concentrates, she can usually sound out two- and three-syllable words now without too much help. (Although it should be noted that she's frequently not in the mood to concentrate. She's only five, of course.) The other day she wanted to read a chapter from E.B. White's The Trumpet of the Swan--and she made it two-thirds of the way through the chapter before she got fatigued and pooped out! I did have to help with a lot of hard words, but it's clear that she's feeling a lot more confident than she did even a few months ago.

Anyway, we'd love to incorporate Webster's Speller into our children's education--and we're more likely to if we can find good resources that explain exactly how to do this. If you come across any, let us know. (The article from Trivium Pursuit is the closest thing we've found, except for the fact that it contra-indicates it before age ten.)

Thanks again for dropping by!

She responded again, with:
I have some instructions on how to actually teach Webster here...

Don also has a movie and mp3 of the syllabary if you're unclear on any of the syllable sounds.

My daughter actually already know a lot of phonics when we started Webster from a mix of good phonics programs (as a remedial phonics tutor since 1994, I have quite a collection!)

We worked on sounding out and spelling the syllabary first, then through the rest of the lessons in order. I never work longer than 10 minutes a day with her on formal Webster work. Sometimes she'll "play" Read, Write, and Type (recommended by Don!) for hours, however. She doesn't realize it's educational, and requests to play it like she would a movie or a website. I'm not sure if she's noticed yet that it's one request I always say yes to!

I did all of the syllabary, and review it periodically (and refer back to it when she's stuck with a syllable in a multi-syllabic word.) However, I don't teach her words that are too esoteric. I pick several from each lesson and have her either read them or spell them. We usually read around 20 words a day or spell 8 words a day. I point out spelling rules (you can learn them all from our online spelling lessons), but she seems impervious to them. She seems to just learn by the patterns. I point them out anyway. When she's mastered the spelling and reading of most of the words in a section, we move on to the next one. (Again, I don't teach her very obscure words, I teach a smaller percentage of the words as the words get longer. Eventually we'll go back and work through it again, adding in words that were omitted due to their irrelevance to a 5 year old.)

I talk about dividing words into syllables in explaining how to use Webster. You may be interested to see this link to excerpts from a 1851 First Reader that had ALL word of more than one syllable divided with a hypen...

Our daughter was not capable developmentally/wouldn't try/would balk for whatever reason (she wouldn't/couldn't explain) when faced with a word over 5 or 6 letters that was not divided into syllables. After several months of dividing up words for her, she can now divide words she hasn't seen before up in her head.

We were at the post office and she asked me, "Mom, what does incorrect mean?"

When she saw the word "wilderness" for the fist time, she said it correctly, then stated (very astutely for a 5 year old) "but it looks like it should be wild-erness (long i wild.)"

If your wife has any questions, she can e-mail me, liz91 at thephonicspage dot org. I'd love to see more people using Webster's, I've been so pleased with our results and would love to see more families benefit from all Don's hard work typing up the version of Webster's. (Although the print is actually too small for a 5 year old, and we use a whiteboard slate anyway for reasons explained in the first link.)

We have the exact same concentration problem, especially for math and handwriting, which don't come as easy to her as reading and spelling. I mandate movement between 5 to 10 minutes of concentrated work periods.
Now, Webster's Blue-Backed Speller is an institution. I seem to remember reading somewhere that Benjamin Franklin himself used an early edition of the book he called "Old Blue-Back" as a resource when teaching his own grandchildren to read. And I have sitting in front of me a copy of the 1908 reprinting of the 1880 edition, which my wife's great-grandmother won in a community spelling bee. Apparently Tonya's mother has memories of this copy being referred to from time to time when the great-grandmother needed to look things up.

And I have to admit a certain fascination when presented with the educational materials and theories of days gone by. I don't think there's any question that the educational arrangements existing in Colonial America were capable of producing people who were highly, highly literate. And it's impossible to read some of the political or personal correspondences from the early 1800's, up through the Civil War, and not come to a similar conclusion. So it makes me very curious: how did these people learn to read? How did they learn to write? How have things changed between then and now? In what ways have we progressed? In what ways have we regressed? What things do we do better? What things do we do worse?

I've certainly mused on this question before: here's my earlier post on the McGuffey Readers, originally written in the 1830's and used in some schools as late as the second half of the Twentieth Century. While these books exhibited very different sensibilities than today's educational materials do, there's no question that they expected students to achieve a very, very high degree of literacy.

So it's certainly a tempting thought that we can achieve good educational results using these older materials.


The trouble is that these books do not provide what we moderns refer to as lesson plans. My wife's theory is that educators of days gone by didn't need lesson plans to use these books, because they had themselves been trained on them (or similar texts) and just knew what needed to be done. This was not a time of vast innovation in educational theory--at least, not at the classroom level, and not in the great majority of the schools. People could expect to teach in the same way that they were taught, using the same tools; not a whole lot of training was necessary. You just did with the students the same things that your teachers did with you.

But if one of us is expecting instructions like Lesson 1, do this and this... Lesson 2, do that and the other... Well, it's just not there. It's expected that the text itself contains all the materials needed for the teacher to figure it out.

So what does a modern homeschooler do who wishes to use these texts? Well, we mostly cast about online looking for advice from other homeschoolers who've tried to use these texts; failing that, we improvise. For example, my wife figured out how to work the McGuffey Readers we have into our five-year-old's curriculum. Basically, she had our girl work on the new vocabulary from each lesson until she could do it on her own, then she would have her read the text passage; and this would repeat a few times on consecutive days until she could do the whole reading flawlessly. But notice--Tonya wasn't so much following a lesson plan, at least not formally; she was following a heuristic more than anything else. She had a notion of what she wanted to get done, and she just muddled through. The books themselves were not self-documenting curricula.

Old Blue-Back appears to be the same kind of text, in that it expects that people who use it already have a notion of how they want to use it; the trouble is it's a bit harder for a beginning homeschooler to pick it up, read through it, and develop that notion. It starts with pronunciation guides for all the letters and digraphs, followed by a syllabary--describing the pronunciation rules for entire syllables. This is not the way phonics is usually taught these days! My wife and I had never heard of this approach before becoming more acquainted with Old Blue-Back, even though it appears to have been the standard way of teaching phonics for a really, really long time in our history.

And truth be told, there's a lot of contradictory and confusing advice out there on how to use these resources. As I mentioned in my comment above, the Bluedorns (at Trivium Pursuit) don't recommend using Blue-Back for the teaching of phonics at all, as the phonetic rules have changed somewhat since the late 18th century; but they do recommend it for teaching grammar, spelling, and other stuff--but only starting at age 10. Don Potter, on the other hand, affirms its use for phonics instruction for everyone from kindergarteners on. But neither of these recommends the 1908 printing that was handed down to us from Tonya's great-grandmother, preferring a re-transcribed 1824 edition instead.

So, Tonya and I are strongly considering working out some kind of plan that incorporates Old Blue-Back, as the Adrenaline Junkie (now age 3) eventually becomes ready to start reading. But we're wondering: are there any others out there reading this, especially among the homeschooling community, who've taken a crack at teaching from this book? How did it work out for you? Any advice--things you'd recommend we do, things you'd recommend we avoid? Are you still using this book, or did you give up and start doing something else?

I realize that you'll just be throwing more contradictory and confusing data on the pile, but we're curious nonetheless. :-)

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Of Adolescent Fantasies

Ever look back on yourself as you were in high school, just to laugh at yourself the way you were? Ever think back about what you wanted to do with your life, and compare it to how it eventually turned out? Ever think back to the kinds people you found attractive back then, and compare them to who you eventually wound up marrying? Jeez, it can be embarrassing.

C'mon, I don't think I'm the only one here.

But a few weeks back I got a little into a nostalgic mood, and as I was thinking about it, I came to a realization that was a bit of a shock. And the really shocking thing--downright embarrassing, actually--is that it took me nearly twenty years to realize it. (Has it really been twenty years? Now that's really embarrassing. Geez.)

So I figured I'd blog about it on or about Valentine's Day, since it seemed an appropriate topic for the day. But of course when Valentine's Day actually comes along, you really really don't want to spend the evening blogging. So, consider this a slightly belated Valentine's Day post.


Ok, first I need to set the stage. Here's a music video for a song that was popular when I was in high school. The song is entitled These Dreams, performed by the band Heart.

In particular, concentrate on the lady with the black hair. She doesn't have a whole lot of screen time in this video, so you only get a few seconds of her here and there.

I was never much into popular music when I was in high school. I was the one who was always wandering between classes singing stuff from Gilbert and Sullivan to myself. (Loudly. The other students tended to give me a wide berth when they saw me coming.) So even then, I couldn't name most of the artists who were popular at the time.

But my older brother rather enjoyed watching music videos. I have many memories of coming home from school, and finding that my brother had turned on MTV's program of the top ten requested videos for that day. This song was near the top of the list for quite some time.

Quite to my own surprise, I found this particular song haunting. I wasn't sure why at the time. But I liked the fact that it actually had a couple of women in it who could sing, in harmony; that there was some depth to the lyrics, and that it engaged the imagination--the song (and the video) had a very mystical quality to it.

And the lady with the black hair? Well, I developed a serious, serious crush on her. I was rather bummed that she didn't have more screen time than that blonde, who did nothing for me. Not only did I think she was prettier, I thought her voice sounded a lot better, too.

Now, I wasn't particularly handy with the women when I was in high school. After all, I was the guy who was always singing I Am the Very Model to myself--or almost as bad, something in Latin--and girls in high school don't typically go for that sort of stuff. (College tends to be a little different, I can happily report.) So I found myself in high school wondering whether I was even cut out for the dating scene. My first real kiss didn't even happen until the night I graduated from high school. (She was a redhead, too! Ah, bliss.)

So what does a guy do who's so weird the women won't touch him? Well, he fantasizes. A lot. And (after being introduced to this music video) I tended to fantasize more and more about women with dark eyes, and long, dark hair, and a smoky, passionate gaze....


Incidentally, the women in the video are sisters: the blonde is Nancy Wilson, and the woman of my adolescent fantasies is Ann Wilson. Ironically, it's Ann Wilson who is usually the lead singer of the band. Nancy took lead on These Dreams while Ann took backup vocals, but it was usually the other way around. And the song itself was haunting and memorable for a reason: it was written as a tribute to a friend of Nancy Wilson who had recently died of Leukemia. Wikipedia writes:
This song was dedicated (on the album) to Nancy Wilson's good friend Sharon Hess who died of Leukemia shortly before the song was made. The lyrics of the song explore the dream world. The final verse seemingly suggests that, moments before awakening, what one desires the most is exactly that which is out of reach in a dream: "In a wood, full of princes, freedom is a kiss. But the prince hides his face, from dreams in the mist".
And apparently Nancy had a cold the day she recorded it, resulting in the raspy vocal sound in the video--so it's not entirely fair that I thought that Ann sounded better. But it should be noted that that raspy sound is quite popular in the pop/rock world, and it was considered somewhat unfortunate that Nancy could never quite duplicate in performance the sound she produced in the recording.


Of course, I knew none of this when I was in high school. All I knew is that this band had produced this haunting song, and that the backup singer was an absolute babe. And in my adolescent fantasies, I wanted a woman who looked just like her. Being woman-less for my entire high school career, and feeling somewhat embarrassed by this fact, I would pray half-serious prayers to God to "send a good woman into my life. And if it's not too much trouble, make her look like that."

Of course, all such adolescent fantasies come to an end. I graduated from high school and entered college. And I came to despise all the old fantasies, which were seeming increasingly immature. Furthermore, I was a bit more successful in college finding women willing to become romantically attached. College, for one thing, was much bigger than high school; and the women were for the most part more mature; and everyone was also more tolerant of eccentricity. Are you something of a weirdo in college? Hey, man, whatever floats your boat.

And I found that my impression of what makes a woman attractive started to change, too. First I discovered what most men ultimately do--that prettiness and sexiness have less to do with each other than one might think. There are plenty of women out there who possess something that makes men mad with desire, even though there's nothing at all remarkable about their appearances. But as far as the physical was concerned, even here my sense of what's attractive changed. I would decide, "Well, I really like redheads." Then I would meet redheads who were not particularly desirable; and I would meet blondes or brunettes who were very desirable. Then I would decide that I liked slender women--and the same thing would happen: I'd wind up madly in love with a young lady who would have been healthier (but not necessarily more attractive!) if she'd lost fifty pounds. Ultimately I gave up trying to decide in advance what I liked and what I didn't; my rule for deciding what was attractive was, "I know it when I see it."

(My wife just piped up: "Personally, I almost never liked blondes." Good thing I'm not one, then.)

The funny thing about all this was that during nearly all this time I was dating around in college, I knew the woman I would eventually marry. I met her at church when I was 19 and a college sophomore, and she was 23 and working on her Masters'. And we were at completely different life stages. She was out of my league, so I didn't pay all that much attention to her at the time. She was just one of those people one meets at church and exchanges weekly pleasantries with.

Of course, while the four-year gap between 19 and 23 is huge, the four-year gap between 29 and 33 is trivial. Eventually as both of us matured, we wound up in the same league; we were both single Christian professionals. So we eventually said "what the hey" and got married.

(There were a few more details in there, but nothing you'd be interested in.) ;-)


So what is it I realized after all these years, that made me slap my forehead in embarrassment?

Well, let's take a look at a few pictures. This is a picture of Ann and Nancy Wilson taken in the early '70's, with Ann on the left:
And here is my beloved's picture from Junior High Graduation, circa 1981:
How about something a little more recent? Here's a picture of Ann Wilson grabbed from the end of the video for These Dreams:
And here is a picture that Tonya had done for a church directory, circa 1991:
Aside from the fact that my bride smiles a whole lot more, they do look pretty similar, no?

Um, so... hm... Ever marry the woman of your wildest fantasy, and then fail to realize it for the better part of a decade? Yeah, me too. I hate it when that happens.

This should also be taken as a warning: remember all those silly things you prayed for when you were much, much younger? Well, let's just say that God's got a really, really good memory. Be very, very afraid.

Um, God, if you're listening: I really wasn't serious about wanting twins.

Well, I Guess That Does Explain It

So a little earlier this morning the Pillowfight Fairy (age 5) asked me this stumper:

"Daddy, do you know the difference between bats and spiders?"

Well, actually, I know quite a few, but probably not the one she's thinking about. So I respond, "Well, not really. What's the difference between bats and spiders?"

"The bats eat bugs without using webs. The spiders eat bugs without using echolocation."

Well, um. Yes, there is that, I suppose. Have I told you lately that I really like this girl?

Friday, February 15, 2008

The Never-Ending Backyard Project Just Ended!

In honor of the occasion, I propose a little song, sung to the tune of "MacTavish is Dead" (or, in other common variations, "O'Reilly is Dead" or "O'Leary is Dead" or "MacKinney is Dead". This little ditty seems to have more variations than most Praise songs....)
Ohhhhhhh, the money's all spent and my back is all spent
And my hands are all spent and my knees are all spent
And my weekends are spent and my patience is spent
And my tools are all spent and my shovel is bent.

Ohhhhhhh, the digging is done and the forming is done
And the mixing is done and the pouring is done
And the laying is done and the sealing is done
And the filling of expensive holes is all done!
Yup, after nearly a year and a half, I finished up the backfill this afternoon, so the project is officially done, done, done. Now, that doesn't mean it's pretty yet; the grass still needs to grow up to the edge of the walk, and all. And there will be future landscaping to be done, especially around the patio. And while I don't think there will be any drainage problems, we'll have to see what happens after the first really good rainfall.

But it's done.

Anyway, Here are some pictures I took today:

So, now that the walkway and patio are done, what am I going to do with myself?

Well, I'm going to do all the other stuff--much of which I've been ignoring for the last year and a half. For one thing, I want to have a nice lawn this year, and it's the time of year to put down the fertilizer with the crabgrass preventer. We still have a pomegranate tree that needs pruning. And then I need to till and level the garden for my wife. And I need to get the drip irrigation system fixed before the dry season hits us again. And a little later out, there are all kinds of bushes and vines that we want to plant around our new patio, so we can enjoy sitting out there.


Now if you ask any engineer, "Do you really have it the way you like it? Are you satisfied?" you'll typically get lots of equivocation. (Actually, you'll usually get, "well, that depends on how much we have left in the budget.") Truth be told, there is still lots of stuff that could be done. The repeated sprayings--to clean all that bird poop off, for example--have washed out some of the sand. And it really could use a couple more coats of sealant.

But, as far as I'm concerned right now, all that falls under the heading of "maintenance", and can be handled at later dates. There was time pressure to get the backfill done (as the dirt for the backfill was occupying the garden, which was thwarting my wife's schemes).

I can certainly relate to Leonardo da Vinci's dictum that "A great artist never truly completes a masterpiece, he merely abandons it." But, it's now time to abandon this project...

...and start another one. :-)

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Because Nothing Says Passion Like Animal On Drums

You know, given all the other worthwhile things to do, February 14th really isn't a good day to be doing a lot of blogging, so I'll keep this really short.

Here's a little something to get everyone in the mood.

Everyone say it with me now: "I've gotta fever..."

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

I've Noticed...

...that I haven't gotten a whole lot of comments lately. So in the hopes that it'll goose your creative juices, I present you a clip of Peter Sellers on the Muppet Show.

If that doesn't do it, I don't know what will.

110th Carnival of Homeschooling Is Up

It's over at The Voice of Experience. And I'm proud to announce that my quest for world domination continues according to plan: my own entry was the first one featured! Ha. I've got the agents of Al Paca on the run now....

Sunday, February 10, 2008

February Field Trip--Carding, Spinning, and Weaving

For the last year or so my wife and I have been trying to do at least one field trip each month--just to blast us out of our routines, and to give our kids educational and cultural experiences that they wouldn't otherwise have if we were just to go about our business. I posted on one such field trip back in August, in which we went to our local air museum. The museum was hosting an exhibit of devices designed by Leonardo da Vinci. We have to judge that field trip a great success, considering all the siege engines the Pillowfight Fairy started designing on paper starting immediately thereafter.

But we've had a tough time keeping up the field trip schedule. The last few months of the year are always very busy for us, what with all the birthdays and holidays, with the travel and shopping and parties and on and on... not to mention the funeral for my Grandmother that we did back in January.

But this month we were finally able to get back into the swing of things. Today we visited the Annual Show and Sale of the Sacramento Weavers' and Spinners Guild. Unfortunately we neglected to bring a camera along with us; otherwise this post would be loaded with some very, very beautiful pictures. But here's a brief description of what we saw and did there.

First, when we were in the parking lot approaching the building, someone had a trio of alpacas. (Somehow, every time I hear the word "alpaca", I think it sounds like the name of an Arabic wool-smuggling syndicate: Al-Paca. Hm...) I think we got there at just the right time; the woman with the alpacas was looking like she was about to leave. But she let my little girls come up and pet them. And boy, do they have soft wool. And the animals were friendly and well behaved. At first I mistook them for llamas, but apparently llamas are much larger--and not as friendly. These looked from a distance like slightly overgrown French poodles, except much more sedate.

(That one's for you, Auntie Jean.)

So we went inside and had a look around. There were spinning wheels everywhere--at least nine or ten of them--and most of them were manned by people who were using them to make really, really fine threads. I mean, every time you hear the word "homespun" in reference to clothing, you think of clothes with a lumpy, coarse weave or knit, right? And when you go to buy "homespun" yarn, you shell out a whole lot of money for this lumpy yarn, right? Well, the stuff these older ladies was making (most of them were ladies) was very fine, and extremely even. One woman mentioned that she used to make the coarse lumpy stuff, but then she actually got some experience and skill--and now she can't make that stuff anymore. And the man spinning next to her took first prize at the county fair for his first batch of lumpy homespun yarn he ever made, precisely because it was so lumpy and uneven. Crazy. The moment you get good at it, demand starts to drop off for the stuff you make. Weird world.

There were looms there of every shape and size, and many of these looms were being used. There was one woman there who was making a silk scarf with a very intricate two-tone pattern; there were several scarves and blankets being made of every combination of materials one can imagine; and (my favorite) there was a display of intricately woven Navajo blankets--and a couple of weavers were showing how it was done. Absolutely beautiful.

The girls were of course fascinated by all of this. So I was trying to explain to them what was going on around them, and especially what all these big treadle-powered machines were and how they worked. The girls are of course very cute, and were attracting all sorts of attention from the people working the machines, who were only too happy to explain to the wide-eyed little ones what they were doing. One lady told us how to craft a drop-spindle from a pair of AOL CDs, a grommet, and a quarter-inch wooden dowel; another let the girls turn the crank on her carding machine as she fed bits of lumpy wool in one end; the older grandfatherly-type man who was spinning explained to the Pillowfight Fairy about the sharp spindles that the spinning wheels used to have, like the one Sleeping Beauty pricked her finger on. ("You remember how Sleeping Beauty was awakened by a kiss from a handsome prince? Well, it's a good thing my spinning wheel doesn't have a spindle. If I pricked a finger, there probably wouldn't be a beautiful princess to kiss me and wake me up.")

There was an entire table filled with woven baskets, some of which were quite intricate. My favorite of the bunch was a very delicate-looking (yet surprisingly solid and sturdy) basket made from raffia and pine needles.

In the back room there was a craft table, and there were lots of kids making bowls, bookmarks, wall hangings, and the like. The Pillowfight Fairy loves crafts of course; so we decided to let her try something. (The Adrenaline Junkie was just beginning to enter a nap-deprived mania, and her three-year-old fingers don't quite have enough coordination to do these sorts of things anyway, so she and Mommy went out to enjoy the grounds about this point.) The Fairy decided to try a small wall hanging. So one of the helpers grabbed her, shoo'ed me away from the table, set the Fairy on her lap, and they started in on it. When I got back, the Fairy had managed to do about this much:

Note that she was using a paper clip as the shuttle, and a fork to tamp the yarn into straight lines. Of course, when she's done with the weaving, we'll snip a few of the anchor strings, and the finished craft will come off the cardboard background in one piece.

The helper told me that the Fairy was really good at this, and caught on very quickly--which neither Mommy nor I find surprising in the least. She's always been good at crafts like these. And every time she's introduced to one of them, she becomes hungry for more. There's a good chance the Fairy will grow up to be one of those people who designs and makes her own period Renaissance outfits.

We all had a good time today. But frighteningly (for me, at any rate), my lovely bride was the one who had the best time today. When my sister-in-law came over yesterday to show off the drop-spindle she used in her just-completed, spinning class, Tonya was intrigued; after today, she's obsessed. She has plans for the room in our house that currently houses our cats, who are--after all--coming up on fourteen years of age. I think she can visualize putting a spinning wheel in that corner, and a loom in that corner, and a cutting table over here with the sewing machine....

And for that matter, I think she's suspiciously eyeing the rich, thick, boldly colored fur of the cats themselves. After all, they are some of the plushest domestic longhairs I've ever seen. We have to give them Lion Clips once a year anyway to keep them from growing kitty dreads; why not make some use of the stuff?

Anyway, this has given us more ideas for future activities, as well. For one thing, there's the upcoming Conference of Northern California Handweavers, May 3 and 4, in Sacramento. This really isn't the kind of place one would take a gaggle of kids under the age of 6, though. But on the other hand, there will be a Spun Fiber and Handcrafted Show at the Sacramento County Fair over Memorial Day weekend. Among other things, there will be a "Sheep to Shawl Contest"--the name of which is enough to make me want to be there to watch.

And the girls will be there with bells on too. After being exposed to the book and movie Charlotte's Web--much of the action of which takes place at a county fair--the Pillowfight Fairy is itching to attend one. Partly that's because she wants to see all the cool stuff, but I think part of that comes from a desire to ride Ferris wheels and carousels and the like. The book and movie made fairs look like a lot of fun.


You know, I think that most of us guys, deep down, are closet survivalists. We enjoy knowing how things work because in the back of our minds, we're fantasizing about the fact that civilization is really fragile, and when the whole thing falls apart, I need to be prepared. While spinning and weaving aren't normally considered mannish things, having been to this kind of show still gooses the survivalist in me. After all, when the big one comes and we have to go to the hills, I now know just a wee little bit more of what I'll need to know to keep my family alive. All I have to do now is figure out how to chase down the wild alpaca, wrassle it to the ground, and shear it; but for the rest of the process, I'm down with that.

And all those treadle-powered machines were cool. Maybe not as cool as trebuchets, but nonetheless pretty close. (And they're a bit more practical on a day-to-day basis, too. You need to replace your clothes more frequently than you need to demolish city walls.)

My lovely wife blogged about her experiences today as well. Her take on it--along with the female side of what could be termed the "survivalist complex", is here.

Concerning Popcorn and Ducks

It's something of a multigenerational tradition in my family that Sunday night is popcorn night. I don't know why that is. Mom if you're reading this, care to weigh in?

At any rate, the Happy Boy has just turned one year old, and most of his first set of molars has come in. So we figured he's ready to be initiated into the cult. Now, we've been feeding him popcorn for a few weeks already; but up to this point we'd been breaking off bits of soft white stuff--without the hard yellow kernel shell--to give him to eat. But now, none of that mamby-pamby stuff any more! We put a few handfulls of popcorn directly onto his tray. And he did fine with it.

But... whichever one of us put him in his high-chair seat neglected to notice at the time the fact that he was concealing a small, squeaky-toy rubber ducky somewhere on his person. As I mentioned in a previous post (written shortly after we'd caught him smuggling a Cheerio in his belly button), he's a quick one; you have to keep an eye on him. But when we noticed the ducky (about the time we put popcorn on his tray), we figured, Hey, no harm. He'll probably just ignore the ducky until he's done with the popcorn, and then he'll try to cram the ducky in his mouth along with everything else.

Well, you'd think that. But much to my surprise, this twelve-month-old boy started trying to feed popcorn to the ducky. And I thought to myself: Amazing! That's imaginary play! That's pretending! And this kid is only twelve months old! Do twelve-month-olds do this? I don't remember seeing this kind of imaginary play at this age with my daughters, and I certainly don't remember reading in any child development book that pretending happens this young. This is amazing! We have a freaking genius here!

Mommy's theory was that this boy is, after all, the most social of our kids. He just likes being with other people and interacting with them. The Adrenaline Junkie, after all, is more social than the Pillowfight Fairy ever was, and also started pretend play at a younger age. Maybe these things go together? Hm. Interesting theory. But it could also be that she had a bigger sister that was modeling pretend play all over the place, so she picked it up at an earlier age. And the Happy Boy has two older sisters, so maybe he's just picking it up even earlier.

So while we were sitting there and marveling at our prodigy, the little genius then turned the ducky over, and tried to ram a piece of popcorn into the squeaky-hole on the bottom side. And since I'd been thinking up to this point, He's pretending that he's feeding the ducky, somehow I interpreted this new play as, well... as... um...

As something really disgusting. Ew....

But then the boy did something amazing: he whacked a piece of popcorn with the ducky. And the popcorn let out a squeak! The boy was astounded. So he whacked another piece of popcorn, and it squeaked too! So he happily started whacking all his pieces of popcorn with the ducky to see what they would do....

Squeak squeak squeak squeak...

That's my little genius. He makes me smile--a lot.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Ever Wonder What Happens When A Mermaid Craves Bacon?

If you're anything like me, the answer to the above question is, um... no.

However, nothing escapes the attention of a five-year-old! Except unmade beds and occasional bladder signals, of course.

Anyway the Pillowfight Fairy was busy making craft projects on her own today while her parents were off preparing for a belated birthday party for the Happy Boy. She mentioned offhand something about making "...a MerPig. The top half is a pig, and the bottom half is a fish."

Suddenly I discovered that whatever it was I was doing, could wait. I really had to see this one. I wasn't disappointed:



I started thinking about it. I started imagining these things swimming wild through the ocean; I started imagining these things being herded and corralled and bred and slopped and auctioned by the Mer-Folk. And apparently, Mermaids have a way of putting bows in their hair to make them look pretty.

And the more I thought about how important these things were in the diets and economics of the underwater realm, well, the more I found myself giggling at my own silliness for even considering such a thing.

I wonder if the Mer-Folk have figured out how to make underwater smokehouses yet.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Well, Maybe There's Another Explanation

I recently wrote this post that linked to an article by Kay Hymowitz in City Journal, about how societal changes are causing males to mature into men at later and later ages. The author specifically focused on marriage, and described the fact that men are choosing to get married later and later in life (if at all) as one of the signs of immaturity.

Boy, that article set off an absolute firestorm of protest, and I think the critics have some legitimate points--ones that we need to think about long and hard.

As part of the online response to Hymowitz, Dr. Helen Smith (whom I've linked to on several occasions before) wrote this column, in which she argues that one reason men aren't getting married as much--and the reason that they're pushing marriage off to later and later ages--is that our society has turned the institution of marriage into an absolutely lousy deal for men. She writes:
What Hymowitz misses is that men are on a marriage strike, not necessarily because they are perpetual adolescents or avoiding deep attachments to others but because the reward for being an adult in our society is so low, especially for men.

It’s really simple Psychology 101 (or Economics 101) — make something negative enough and people will avoid it, make it positive, and more people will engage in that particular behavior.

Nowadays, for many men, the negatives of marriage for men often outweigh the positives. Therefore, they engage in it less often. Not because they are bad, not because they are perpetual adolescents, but because they have weighed the pros and cons of marriage in a rational manner and found the institution to be lacking for them. It’s a sensible choice for some and the video games, magazines, and humor websites that Hymowitz disses are a way to fill one’s time with fun activities that don’t tell you that you suck, are an “unfinished person,” emotionally detached or on your way to jail for fake domestic violence charges. People used to treat men better than this.

Now, Atlas is shrugging...
Emphasis added by me.

This argument is followed by hundreds upon hundreds of comments, both at the linked article and at Dr. Helen's personal site. Reading these comments is quite eye-opening. In a very small nutshell, this is a summary of what many of them are saying:
  • Half of all marriages fail, and of the other half, you know that they're not all happy. The odds that a bride and groom at a randomly selected wedding will find long-term wedded bliss is less than half--perhaps significantly so.
  • Several of them cited statistics that 70% of all divorces are instituted by the women.
  • With the way family law and the family courts are constituted, men often wind up at the short end of any divorce proceeding. Kids go to the mother 90% of the time, even when the divorce happens because of her infidelity. Men also wind up paying alimony and child support quite frequently, at levels that literally reduce them to poverty.
  • Men are assigned the "irrefutable presumption of paternity" for any children born to their wives, even if the child was conceived by a different father. Even after a divorce--and even if the mother then marries the real father--the jilted husband winds up responsible for supporting the child up through adulthood.
  • If a woman makes a claim of abuse, the man will usually be required to stay away from her--and the house, kids, etc.--without any formal charges even being filed, let alone a trial held. Many commenters complained that this had happened to them or to close friends and relatives. They further claimed this has actually become a well-worn tactic by women to get extra leverage in the divorce courts.
  • Regarding the "immaturity" of (stereotypically) men's pastimes, the point was made that women's pastimes are often just as immature. After all, is watching TV for three hours a night any more mature than playing video games for three hours a night? At least with video games, the case can be made that they require some strategic thought. And they undeniably require more interaction than television.
  • And while one might make the case that scantily clad women, cyborgs, and exploding toilets are immature, a whole lot of the entertainment aimed at women--daytime TV, and women's magazines like Cosmopolitan, just to name a few--are every bit as immature. Scantily clad buxom women may fill the fantasies of men, but chick-flick dramas are filled with female fantasies about relationships that are no more realistic than men's fantasies. And in fact the female fantasies may be more damaging to relationships, since many women don't always realize that they are in fact unrealistic.
  • Women may say that they prefer sensitive, polite men--but the sensitive, polite men will tell you that they have a hard time getting women to notice them. Bad boys and jerks have no problem getting women to sleep with them; deferential, solicitous men get ignored. Several commenters mentioned that they intentionally turned themselves into jerks, treating women like dirt, so they could score--and that it worked.
  • Feminism holds as one of its core precepts that gender is purely a social construct--that males and females are psychologically the same at birth, and would remain the same were they to be raised in identical settings. The fact that men and women are different is seen as entirely due to environmental and social reasons. Furthermore, the traits normally associated with "maleness" are seen as defective and destructive abnormalities, rather than inherent (even beneficial) parts of men's personnae. This leads directly to the belief that men and maleness is bad, and men who like who they are are the worst of men; it also leads to women trying to remake men into something they aren't (and resenting it when their men won't change).
  • Men--especially husbands and fathers--are routinely lampooned in popular entertainment as being idiots, as being clueless, as being "emasculated" and unmanly. And this lampooning has seeped its way into popular culture. It is considered perfectly OK in some circles for women to run down men, in ways that would be considered chauvinistic or misogynistic if men were to do it to women.
  • The ways in which men relate to other men--which include, but are not limited to, sports and other shared struggles--are at best dismissed snarkily as "male bonding" by unsympathetic females, and at worst are derided as signs of residual immaturity that the men need to get over before the women will respect them as "grown ups". No thought is given to the possibility that men need this kind of interaction with each other, and that they benefit mightily from it.
  • Women change after marriage. Many commenters described how they married smart, principled, sexy, playful, libidinous, interesting young women who then turned utterly cold, shrewish, and cruel after a few years of marriage. These commenters concluded that it isn't really possible to determine how well a marriage will go by evaluating the dating period with one; even if a woman is good now, there's no guarantee she will be in ten years.
Now, at one level on can argue the truth of the above accusations. After all, Dr. Helen's commenters are obviously a self-selected group, and have a high percentage of people who've had some very bad experiences with women. They're not all objective. There may be some embellishment.

But regardless of whether the accusations are true (and for the record, I do think there's a good deal of truth on that list), it is important to note that a whole lot of men believe it. Many of the older commenters, citing the above list and giving the reasons that lead to their many divorces, declared that they are through looking for love. Women are just too much trouble. Many of the married ones said that they're doing OK, but that if something happened to their wives, they'd think long and hard before they started up again. Many of the younger men said that they had no problem dating women, but would consider it utterly foolish to wed one; that a woman as a whole might be fun now but the risks (especially the financial) were way too high to justify marrying.

There was just this resignation that men give up a whole lot of rights when they choose to marry, and they take on huge risks; that, given the dismal chances of the marriage succeeding, the theoretical benefits that might come from marriage simply aren't enough to justify it.

Thus, a marriage strike on the part of men. And from all accounts I've seen, this strike is growing pretty rapidly in our society.


Now, I'm a Christian who believes that God wanted for us to be celibate until marriage, and then faithful to our spouses until death. And I also believe that a healthy marriage is the best environment in which to raise children, which are of course a society's next generation. I believe that a society's mores regarding sex, marriage, and childrearing have a huge impact on the future trajectory of that society; and when a society gets these things wrong, it can self-destruct. This has happened periodically to other societies throughout history.

Given all this, I have two observations:
  • The marriage strike appears to me a rational response to a very unhealthy set of circumstances in our society.
  • If it's true, this is bad, bad news for American civilization. I don't think it's possible to read through the comments Dr. Helen got without becoming really concerned about the future our children will inherit.
I've got three kids; I want them to find good mates, should they desire that when they get to be the right age. I'm not sure those mates will be there. And the odd thing is, I'm at least as worried about the Happy Boy finding a good mate as I am about the girls--if not more so. In a few decades women may have a hard time finding good men; but I'm acutely aware of the fact that we men have a hard time judging the good character of a woman when our hormones are running amok. The most attractive women are not necessarily the ones that are best for us. A pretty face, a sweet smile, and a pleasant demeanor may make us think a girl is innocent and upright--even when her heart is utterly black. And if the Happy Boy grows up to be a handsome, self-confident young man in the time of a marriage strike, he's going to have lots of opportunities to make some very bad decisions.

Every day, I consider myself more and more thankful that God put Tonya in my life--and that I didn't marry some of the other beautiful young ladies I dated. Geez, it gives me a shudder just thinking about it. But I suspect that if something horrible were to happen to her, and I wound up alone or as a single father, I'd seriously consider keeping myself off the market--at least until the kids were grown. The chances of making a mistake are too high, and the consequences of such mistakes are too severe.