Friday, February 26, 2010

Normal Problems

Our homeschool co-op meets weekly. While the kids are in class (Dancer takes animation, writing, and biology; Snuggler does gym, physics, and writing; Little Guy has a sweet little group that does read-alouds with crafts), the moms chat for a while, then break out into smaller groups. I'm part of the book group. It is a fabulous collection of ladies: bright, compassionate, funny. We laugh a lot.

Before we start our book discussion, the group takes time to go around the circle to ask for prayer requests. I like this, and not only because there are times I need a crowd to clamor on my behalf. Half the benefit is that I hear a whole range of difficulties that people face. It drives home the reality that having problems is a normal part of life. I'm not the only one who sometimes struggles.

You might think I'm smart enough to know that, but no matter how well or how frequently the lesson is taught, it has about the same staying power with me that tutorials on table manners have with my kids. I ask myself why, and conjure up an whimsical MRI-like image of my brain with certain spots that are porous, others that are dense, and still others that are made of rubber. But there's some other explanation, I'm sure. It has to do with the nebulous crossover zone between the intellect and knowledge of the heart. There's probably a touch of self-absorption in the answer. Maybe there's a bit of self-protection, too, because our souls aren't big enough to carry the woes of the whole world. Half the time they aren't big enough to tote our own troubles without help.

One of the good things I've learned by hanging out with honest people is that perfection doesn't exist. Some families might seem flawless for a time -- there's always someone who messes up the curve -- but we all end up in tough spots eventually. We all face things we don't know how to handle. We've all blown it, blown up, and pretended to blow off stresses and griefs and worries.We're not perfect. Life's not perfect. That's okay.

Which brings me back to my book group. Whether this week's big problem belongs to me or to someone else, friendship, compassion and laughter are very good tools for getting through life. A big thank you to those of you who help me remember that.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010


Yesterday I had one of those I-can't-do-this days. We moms get'em every once in a while. Maybe they correlate to hormones (our own or those of our offspring), or to the weather, or the season, or how much exercise we (or our children) are getting, or to some grand pattern in the universe that's beyond our ken. For me, February is particularly bad.
When my mood heads south, it's time to learn something new. According to Wikipedia, this month gets its name comes from the Latin februum, which means purification. Maybe all the gloom and rain is purgatorial in some way? My forebears the Anglo-Saxons called it Sol-monath (mud month) and Kale-monath (after cabbage), which resonates more with my emotional experience. Though I do like cabbage. In moderation.

The Finns, for whom February is apparently better than other parts of winter, focus on the beauty of the month. They call it "month of the pearl", after the the frozen droplets of water that shine on the branches of trees.

The technical, linguistic term for why we don't pronounce both r's in February is dissimilation. This is different than dissimulation, which is deception. February dissimulates by getting you to believe it's not really possible to be a good mother, that your children are going to drive you nuts, that your job stinks, you made a huge mistake about ________, and it's never going to get any better.

But for years I've maintained that the surest proof that God exists -- and that He's merciful -- is that even the worst day comes to an end. I suppose this is true for months, too. We're almost there.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

A "likely letter"

A very thin envelope arrived for Eldest today. It was from the big college down the street. I opened it, thinking with a shock that perhaps we'd forgotten to submit some portion of the application; admissions decisions aren't due for more than a month.

But it was from the admissions office. It said that Eldest was a great candidate, and though she wasn't really admitted yet, if she doesn't mess up big time between now and March 31, she can expect to receive good news when admissions are announced.

Uh... oh... huh?! Hey, that's great!

I had to hunt around on College Confidential for a while to find out that this kind of psst!-we-want-you notice is called a Likely Letter. I never knew such a thing existed. Apparently Likely Letters are usually sent by schools where there's no official sports recruiting to let athletes know ahead of time that they're in. Athletics aren't Eldest's forte -- Andrew claims that on his side of the family the most rigorous sport ever was turning the pages of a book -- so we're a bit mystified by this piece of good news. But hey, it is good news!

Monday, February 22, 2010


I was a senior in high school, waiting at home for my boyfriend Bruce to arrive. He was uncharacteristically late. Snow was falling heavily. Vaguely uneasy thoughts began to swirl through my head. Was he okay? Had he been in an accident? I didn't know, and in an era long before cell phones, I had no way to find out. I told myself traffic was probably slow because of the weather. I reminded myself that maybe he'd gotten a late start. And of course, (I said inwardly) it would be better if he drove carefully than if he tried to get to my house quickly.

Reason worked well for a while, but as the clock ticked onward it became less effective. My stomach began to churn. I was restless, unfocused, uneasy. Finally, around 4:45 I thought, I've got to find another way to handle this worry. There are lots of possibilities about what's happened, and I don't even know what to worry about. So I'm going to wait until 5:30, which leaves him plenty of time to get here with delays, and then if he hasn't shown up I'll worry.

Bruce arrived at 5:20.

It's my first memory of real, pulsing anxiety. I didn't know then that the way I handled the situation -- acknowledging the worry, but setting aside a specific 'worry time' in which to indulge it -- is similar to an approach that's taught to people who suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Sometimes there are things to be upset about, or to worry about, or to fear. But we can't live if we let those things dominate our every thought and moment. Setting aside a specific time and place in which to allow yourself to be upset, e.g., 9-10pm on the sofa with a cup of tea, can free up the rest of the day for more productive and positive thoughts.

I'm not a worrier by nature. Perhaps that's due to disposition, or because I tend to be a rational thinker, or because I can generally talk myself down when I get wound up. I know anxiety from the outside in: I have one child with a severe anxiety disorder, and others with assorted anxiety issues. The anxiety I live with constantly is not my own.

I've learned over the years that anxiety rarely looks like anxiety from the outside. It shows up as irritability or anger, mimics ADHD, or manifests itself as rigid thinking. It causes some people to withdraw and grow silent, and makes others chatter non-stop. Few adults look worried when they are anxious. Few kids cower and cry. If you're looking at a pattern of otherwise inexplicable behavior, it's worthwhile to ask if anxiety could be causing it.

Here's another observation: anxiety is often seemingly inconsistent. It draws from a mix of the predictable and unexpected. A child who has trouble going to school every day may be fine flying cross-country alone. Someone who is paralyzed by asking for help may be perfectly comfortable on stage. A child may flourish one-on-one, and flounder in large groups. He may be able to give a speech in front of a class, but not know what to say in conversation. Or he may be able to give the speech one day but not another.

A third observation: There are techniques -- good techniques -- that can be taught to help people overcome anxiety. There is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which boasts truly impressive results. There is medication which can help (though as the saying goes, "The pill is not the skill"). But real progress can't be made by reason alone, because the opposite of fear isn't logic, but love. Which may be why kids in particular need a good hug when they're worried or upset.

Sunday, February 21, 2010


Little Guy burst into tears (and into my arms) as I walked in the door. Snuggler chanted, "I hate you! I hate you!", presumably because she was mad I'd been gone so long. Big Guy gave me a hug and told me he missed me. Andrew made coffee and bought half-and-half to celebrate. When Dancer got home, she gave me a big, long hug.

It was the longest I've ever been away: four days and three nights. It was the first time I'd been away with one of the kids. (The others missed Eldest badly.)

We all survived. The children were fed, and they all got where they needed to go. Whatever meltdowns occurred were not audible in Boston. The house was not a total disaster tonight (at least in the rooms I was permitted to see). Kudos to Andrew!

Tomorrow life will get back to normal. I'll be up at 5:30 to bake breakfast, and we'll have school as the main item on our agenda. Slowly I'll process my impressions of the trip, and figure out what it all means.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Gong Xi Fa Cai

Yesterday I took the kids to Chinatown, because a) it was something all ages could do together, b) the stores are fun, and c) this year there was a funky convergence of Lunar New Year and Mardi Gras that cried out for gorging on dumplings.

First we went to our favorite grocery store, where we admired the $395/pound dried shark's fin (didn't buy any) and speculated about the origins of various displays of dehydrated wrinkly stuff. We bought many good things: crystallized ginger and Haw flakes and frozen pork buns. And since we've been dropping dishes left and right lately, I also bought some attractive (and unbreakable) Chinese-pattern melamine plates for $2.25 each.

Then we took a long trek off the tourist trail to a little dumpling house a neighbor told us about. Once there, two of my offspring realized it wasn't at all like The Usual Place We Go. They didn't like the idea of ordering at the counter and squeezing in with noisy locals at a small portion of a table. Even the bargain price of four dumplings for a dollar didn't sway them.

Everyone was tired and hungry, warming up to the kind of crankiness that occurs when low blood sugar takes hold. So we left, and walked until we got to the first legitimate-looking restaurant. There were Chinese people eating inside; I figured the food must be reasonably good.

When the menus arrived we looked at the Chef's Specials, which began with jellyfish and included "Blood and chive pot" and a number of intestine dishes. Hmmmm. Authentic. The next challenge was that there were NO DUMPLINGS. Little Guy is my dumpling fanatic, and also my picky eater. Lately he's been the frontrunner for the Sarah Bernhardt award for Best Dramatic Performance When Disappointed, so I thought for sure we were in for a show. But he had the privilege of being seated right next to the fresh-fish tank, and the restaurant did offer sesame chicken (one of Little Guy's faves). So we lucked out.

We ate. We were full. We were happy. On the way home we stopped at a bakery and bought sesame balls (the glutinous rice kind with bean paste in the middle) and almond cookies to munch on the train. And since I'd stocked up on frozen potstickers at the Chinese grocery, we ate dumplings for dinner.

Today we're living off the accumulated calories, since it's Ash Wednesday. I'm feeling extremely penitential; I have a deadline today for a project that's nowhere near done. So here's a factoid for those of you who don't do Ash Wednesday: the ashes are made of the burned palms from last year's Palm Sunday celebration.

And now I'm off to grind away. I'm leaving in the a.m. to take Eldest on a college visit, so things will probably be silent here until Sunday. Gong Xi Fa Cai (Happy New Year), and Happy (?) Lent to you.

Did Little Guy write a book?

We walked past this book in a store yesterday, and Little Guy laughed out loud. We didn't stop to look and see what it's about, but wow -- what a great title!

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

What if...

Eldest snuggled up last night, and asked me a lot of what-ifs about college. Dozens and dozens of what-ifs: roommates and boyfriends and failing out and alcohol and you name it, it was on her mind. Some of the questions I answered, others I said, "'d figure that out." For that's partly what college is, no? Finding out how to solve life problems on your own; messing up, and figuring out how to recover. Discovering who you are when you're standing on your own. And realizing that the way out of worry involves thinking in terms of probability, not possibility.

Gosh, but I love that girl! What if I'd never had her? What if I hadn't been given the gift of raising this marvelous human being? What if I hadn't been challenged to grow into a better person by becoming a mom? How much smaller and grayer my life would have been!

Monday, February 15, 2010

When agendas collide

It dawned on me one morning that most parental-child friction occurs when agendas collide. Friction between adults usually has other sources, like different opinions or values. But with children an amazing amount of difficulty can be resolved if we stop and recognize our own agendas, and how they contribute to the problem.

This came to me as I stood on one side of the subway turnstile waiting for Snuggler, who couldn't find her transit pass. For once it didn't matter if we were late, so I was able to set aside my agenda (getting somewhere on time) and simply deal with hers. Being able to say, "Okay, I can wait" -- and then wait patiently while a train came and went -- put a spotlight on how often time limitations contribute to my handling of situations in a less than optimal way.

Getting kids out the door takes up a ridiculous amount of energy. It's particularly irritating because we parents have a mental list of 53 things to do before we leave, and all they have to do is find their shoes and put them on. But kids don't grasp the concept of time tradeoffs easily.

I made progress recently with Little Guy, who had been taking forever to do schoolwork and then bemoaning his lack of playtime, by using money as an analogy for time. "If you have a dollar and you spend it, it's gone. You have whatever you bought with it, and that might be something good, or it might be something worthless. But once it's gone, it's gone." It helped a lot to have something tangible to connect to an abstract idea. Now when I say, "Do you want to spend your time that way?" it has a different connection in his brain.

But the whole thing about having different agendas... well, it's a thing. It's not always possible to work around a kid's agenda, and it wouldn't be healthy, anyway. So perhaps the thing to do is to try to be more aware of our own agendas and tone them down a bit. Or else maybe back up our targeted departure time by five minutes, to provide a little more cushion.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Valentine's Day Dropout

I blame it on my parents. My mom gave birth to me in February, so Valentine's Day was always a lesser event than my birthday party.

Then my folks taught me the art of non-sentimental gift-giving. One year my father gave my non-gardening mom a wheelbarrow for Mother's Day. My mom rallied with a women's bicycle for Father's Day. The most memorable present, though, was a truckload of manure that Mom ordered one year. For Dad's garden, she said.

With romantic examples like that, roses just never took on the allure for me that they have for others. Still, on a whim I looked at Valentine's Day cards yesterday. After poking through syrup-saturated To My Husband poems and confused lust love messages, I decided not to spend $2.75 to have someone who doesn't know me say what I ought to say myself. Just to prove that I've got nothing against Valentine's Day, I might even tell Andrew today that I love him. He did, after all, give me Tupperware for my birthday. And new shower curtains. Gotta love a guy who knows what makes my heart go pit-a-pat!

Friday, February 12, 2010

People who've made a difference in my life

Ivy Edison

Ivy was a small woman with a big heart. She lived in a housing project in Bed-Stuy in Brooklyn, along with her 40+ year old son. Butchie had been injured at birth; when I knew him, his skull was still misshapen from what I assume was a botched use of forceps at delivery. Butchie couldn't walk, had limited physical abilities, spoke sparingly, and spent most of his time cheerfully watching his favorite TV shows.

Ivy also had a daughter. I never met Gwinette; she died of cancer at about age 40. I helped out at Gwinette's funeral, at which the pastor preached an amazing sermon about how when someone dies we feel as if we've been dismembered, and how Christ said, "Do this in remembrance of me" at the Last Supper, and hence in the eucharist we are re-membered in and through Him. We also sang "Jerusalem, My Happy Home", which is one of the songs I want sung at my own funeral. But I digress.

I was single and in my late 20's, working as an assistant VP at a money management firm when I met Ivy. She sat in the front right pew at church. Someone later told me that this was because when Ivy was a girl, St. Paul's was one of the few places where African Americans were allowed to sit up front. I don't know why Ivy took an interest in a yuppie white girl, but every Sunday she took the trouble to say hello and find something to talk to about. I enjoyed her no-nonsense style. It was refreshing, especially in light of my own self-centeredness.

Ivy was short and squat and she never complained about her life. She had things to be thankful for, things I had trouble fathoming, like that she'd never had to institutionalize Butchie, and that Gwinette had been able to have a decent career before she died. Ivy was also very proud of her home. One day Ivy mentioned in passing that her kitchen ceiling needed painting, and without thinking twice I offered to do it for her.

So one Saturday I climbed on a bus in downtown Brooklyn, and headed up to Bed-Stuy. Truth be told, I was kind of scared. I was going somewhere new, and that somewhere was smack in the heart of what was then one of the most scarred and drug-ridden neighborhoods in the city. I felt like I had a neon sign flashing over my head saying, "Victim here!" I sat on the bus feeling very white, so I thought about all the times when there had been only one African-American in one of my classes, and about Ivy riding the same bus every Sunday, and about how many other Ivy's were probably right around me whom I couldn't appreciate because I was scared. I tried very hard to look like I knew what I was doing and where I was going.

The bus let me off across the street from Ivy's building. It was the kind of high-rise project that makes the papers every now and then because of unworking elevators and robberies in hallways and gang activity. I had a hard time thinking of Ivy living there. Her apartment was on one of the upper floors. I  was infinitely thankful the elevator was functioning.

But once the door shut on the gray, ill-lit hallway, I forgot my fears. Ivy lived here. This was Ivy's home, cozy and cluttered, safe and solid. There was plastic on the good sofa and there were hand-crocheted doilies on the end tables. Ivy introduced me to Butchie with pride, then sat down and showed me family pictures. Only after an hour of getting to know Ivy better was I allowed to paint the ceiling.

It didn't take long, maybe a couple of hours. You'd think I'd swum the Atlantic to bring Ivy diamonds, she was so happy with the results.

Then Ivy made me lunch and showed me more pictures, and told more stories. Whoever Mr. Ivy was, he'd skeddadled long ago, when the kids were little. There wasn't a drop of self-pity in Ivy's voice as she told me about it. She was matter-of-fact about Butchie, too, and about friends who had died or gone astray.

I learned that day that Ivy's family was originally from the West Indies. Her birthday was September 8. When she'd moved into the housing project when it opened, it was the most beautiful place in the world. I discovered that Ivy was a talented seamstress. (Years later, she adjusted my mother's wedding gown so I could wear it at my own wedding.)

I went home on the bus, no longer afraid of Bed-Stuy. Whatever else it had, it had Ivy. Ivy was a strong woman. She was not afraid of life. She was thankful for what there was to be thankful for, and accepting of what needed to be accepted. I heard myself think When I grow up, I want to be like her! 

Thursday, February 11, 2010

City sledding

We have a big park right up the street, which has some glorious sledding hills. But in the middle of the day, when homeschool's done and mom has to work, the simple solution to outdoor time is to go down into the building's courtyard and sled down the steps.

It's a short ride, but nice and fast!

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The yardstick problem

Last night I was in the local pharmacy and ran into a dad I know. I asked after his kids, and he said one of them was sick. Then he picked up a made-in-China florescent green plastic ring from a display on the counter and mused, "I wonder if I should bring her a ring."

I replied, "Nah. Send the money to Haiti instead." He (and everyone else nearby) looked startled for a moment, then nodded. As the dad left he said, "I'll tell her that."

Can you tell Haiti's on my mind?

My mental back burner has been simmering for weeks now, trying to connect certain dots that don't want to form a coherent picture:

Dot #1: Children (and adults) in Haiti are suffering unimaginably, and are going to continue to suffer for a long time to come.

Dot #2:There's not really anything left in our family budget to cut. I can't give out of fat; if I'm going to give, it has to be out of flesh and bone.

Dot #3: My kids have certain needs that reflect their natural gifts (and natural weaknesses). I have an obligation to do my best for them.

A couple of things are gradually dawning on me. One is that when I think of what ingredients can go into a "solve the inequities of the world" pie, I don't include a substantive decrease in my family's standard of living as an option.

A related reality is that although I am not, by American standards, an ungenerous person (we do aim to give 10% of our income to charity), my ideas on what it means to be generous are limited by a large hazy zone between need and want. The other day I idly thought, "If I gave up drinking coffee, I could probably save a child's life with the money I saved over a year."  

Give up coffee?! My reaction to that thought slammed me up against the reality that, on some I-don't-want-to-go-there level, my morning coffee is more important to me than someone else's life.

I've long been aware that I suffer from what I call the Yardstick Problem. I have a tendency to assume that the yardstick of well-being begins about a half-inch below where I am, and extends upward to where everyone else seems to be. In the big city, where there are people who have a lot of money, this is absurd. I need to constantly recalibrate my thinking to remember that I live in the top two inches of the yardstick.

I recalibrate mainly by bringing to mind various stick-to-your-heart anecdotes that I've picked up over the years: the volunteer speaker from Food for the Poor who told of a boy who cried as hamburger patties were being handed out, because "It's my sister's turn to eat today"; a vignette from a book on Mother Theresa, which mentioned in passing a family that slept in shifts in their shack, because there wasn't room for everyone at once; the series of stories the NY Times ran in 2006 about easily preventable diseases like Guinea worm, blinding trachoma, measles and lymphatic filariasis, and how they cripple and destroy lives.

I tell my children that the first step in becoming a thoughtful person is to become an observant one. You can't help the old lady get into the shop with her walker if you don't notice her struggling. I can't do much to rectify the problems of the world if I don't notice how stuck I am in myself and my inch of yardstick. One place I'm stuck is in thinking I'm not among the rich, just because my budget doesn't flow as smoothly as it used to.

People can feel poor no matter where they are on the yardstick.Some people feel poor because they can't go on vacation one year, others because their life is dominated by a constant struggle to juggle bills and cash flow. I have a friend who confessed to scrounging change from the sofa cushions to buy pasta for dinner on night, and another who has foregone dental care for years so that she can pay for her kids' dentist. But these are all a far cry from being unable to treat a serious medical problem, or having your kids go hungry because you can't feed them. It's a long way from being homeless or in danger of dying from lack of food.

It's helpful to examine what we think is iconic of being poor, because it helps us to calibrate the richness of our lives relative to the rest of the world. It gives us a way to remember how blessed we are... and how much we have available to give to those who have less.

More on this another time...

It needs a name... maybe

This is the command center

This part moves up and down

Here's how it's attached


Ummm... yeah. I think we need to review the DTR (Duct Tape Rules). Ironically, after building this Little Guy watched Meet the Robinsons. Which I obviously didn't know anything about, because although I tend to encourage the inventing streak, I think we've just ramped up a couple of notches.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Improv Everywhere

I warn you that you will waste significant time if you go to the Improv Everywhere site. You will also laugh out loud, so don't do it at work. Very, very silly. I'd seen the "Human Mirror" video before, but hadn't realized there's a whole series of "missions" that this group has done. I particularly like the spontaneous musicals.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Last Night at the Proms

Just out of curiosity: does anyone else have a husband who introduces the kids to the Last Night at the Proms... and kids who then spend days researching and memorizing the lyrics to God Save the Queen, Rule Brittania,  (and other British favorites), making British flags for all their stuffed animals, and setting up a stuffed animal orchestra? It's been a bit curious around here.

Our Super Bowl party

We had our annual Super Bowl party last night. We don't have cable, and our regular TV reception is so poor it looks like a blizzard, so we didn't watch the game. But every year we honor the football fanatics of our nation on this important day by eating junk food for dinner. Last night's menu consisted of popcorn, dry roasted peanuts, tater tots, hummus with carrots and pita, potato chips, and seltzer. (Normally I make nachos, but the store was out of tortilla chips.) Eldest, who came shopping with me, was a bit concerned that perhaps not everything qualified as junk food. I assured her that next year we'll do better. Case in point: this year not only did I find out which teams were playing, I also made note of who won the game.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Call of the Wild (and other book musings)

Turned out that the book group was tonight instead of tomorrow (thank you, Rebecca, for the reminder!) It was a terrific discussion. Snuggler didn't go, but all five of the other girls enjoyed Call of the Wild and had a lot to say about it. We also learned that Jack London was a celebrity endorser of grape juice. Who knew? He was an oyster pirate, too, a term which prompted some rather funny mental visuals before we found out what it meant.

I was really quite surprised at the enthusiasm these 10- and 11-year old girls had for the rather raw and rough writing. I enjoy Jack London, but in small doses with ample time in between readings; like Hemingway, he's too masculine for me to take in big draughts.

As I grow older I tend to prefer non-fiction to fiction, anyway. I've wondered if that's because by now I've seen enough human frailty and folly in real life that I don't need more from books. I still appreciate subtlety, the truly tragic hero or heroine, the well-drawn humorous character, the ingenious plot twist. I get bored when I'm expected to wallow in prosaic psychological stresses and sexual interests and American greed/self-centeredness/middle-class angst. What I yearn for is beauty... characters who renew my sense of hope... insight into who I want to be when I grow up. I want fresh ways of looking at problems, and inspiration to do the right thing, and the motivation to get up and keep moving when I'm worn down. Right now it's easier to get that by reading non-fiction. But if you've read any good novels lately that meet some of my criteria, let me know. I'm always up for a good read.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Deconstructing Penguins

Our mother-daughter book club is meeting this Sunday, and the assignment is Call of the Wild. A bit strong for a group of 5th and 6th graders (and Snuggler, who is in 3rd). I'll be interested to see what the girls think. Last month we did Witch of Blackbird Pond, which was just about perfect for that age group.

No one would have dreamed of doing Call of the Wild, except it's given as an example in Deconstructing Penguins. If you have school-age kids and don't own Deconstructing Penguins, you need to buy it. It is the best, most insightful book there is on how to run a book group for kids and adults. (Not that I feel strongly about it, or anything.) Even if you don't want to have a book group, it's worth reading for ideas on how to talk about chapter books with children.

On a separate educational note, I've decided we can probably skip all the sections of Little Guy's math books that cover measurement. He has been toting a retractable measuring tape around for the past few days, measuring everything in both inches and centimeters, and trying to convert from inches to feet. It helps that the measuring tape is soft (rather than metal), so we haven't had any sliced fingers from that nifty zippy snap when the retraction button is pushed.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Sherlock Holmes and peanuts

Last night Snuggler had to do her physics homework. Her science class at Co-op is using the Real Science 4 Kids curriculum, which I find very solid and yet kid-friendly. The assignment for yesterday was on gravitational potential energy, and the homework was to drop a book from various heights onto a peanut, to see when it cracked open.

We rigged up a ruler between two blocks, so we could measure how high above the peanut we were starting. Then Snuggler hauled out The Complete Sherlock Holmes. (No, she hasn't been reading it; Big Guy and Eldest just finished.) Dontcha know that 1,122-page tome can crack open a peanut from a height of two inches? Go, Sherlock!

Then we decided to see what would happen if we used a less ponderous volume. We tried Voyages in English 3 (which we're not using this year), which is a tad more than 200 pages. That took a drop of 12" to crack a peanut. We don't have a scientific scale here, but weighed Sherlock on our regular bathroom scale, and it came out at 6.2 pounds.Voyages was too light to register on the scale. I tried to get Snuggler to figure out how much Voyages ought to weigh, based on what we knew about Sherlock and the weight and height needed to crack a peanut with it. Either that was too abstract or I worded the question poorly, because she had no idea what I was talking about. Then I made a table headed like this:

Book name          Height  * Weight =  gravitational potential energy

We filled in the info we had for each book, and lo and behold it suddenly looked like a math problem, where the only missing information was how much Voyages weighed.

 Needless to say, Little Guy was into smashing peanuts with books, too. Given the mess that was created, it was a good thing the prior lesson was on WORK.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010


I have no memory for other people's birthdays. There is an amazing array of useless stuff cluttering my gray matter, and a lacuna where the birthday info is supposed to be stored. Once I took one of my kids to the emergency room, and the clerk at check-in asked, "Child's date of birth?" I glared at him and said, "That's not fair." But I did eventually figure it out.

About three years ago (more than a dozen years into my marriage) I finally came up with a way to remember Andrew's birthday. That was exhilarating. But I still have to re-calculate the date every time I need to know it. I can get it to within one or two days pretty easily, but then it gets tough. This is true of my dad's birthday, too. I know it's either Feb 1 or Feb 2. I seem to recall it's not the same as Groundhog's Day, which would mean it was yesterday. Which means I missed it, because I can't remember when Groundhog's Day is, either, until it shows up in the news.

Happy birthday anyway, Dad. I love you.

Monday, February 1, 2010


There was much excitement here this afternoon, as both the new science kits and the K'nex MotoBots for Little Guy arrived. I must say, the MotoBots are pretty cool. It took Little Guy and Snuggler a solid 90 minutes to put the first one together, though we still have to add the arms.

Tonight Little Guy simply couldn't stand the idea that he'd have to wait until tomorrow to start his volcano kit. We've done the usual baking soda and vinegar explosions many times; this is a kit with far more detail about the different kinds of volcanoes, and it includes a plastic model with several imitations of real-life volcanoes (Mount St. Helens, Mauna Loa, Santorini, etc.). There's a page with suggestions of which colors to put where. Little Guy didn't like any of those ideas, and had his own. He didn't want greenery anywhere ("Why do I have to put in plant life?") and after fending off a few gentle ideas from Snuggler and me he put on a weary look and sighed, "Mom, I just want to stretch my creative expression!"

So... he's stretching away.

P.S. He later decided that greenery was a good idea after all. I noted, "You have many types of green here." He replied, "Hues, Mom. Hues."

I survived the FAFSA

A while back I went to a presentation at Eldest's school about college financial aid. The speaker directs fin aid at an Ivy League school. He said, "If there are only four words you remember from tonight, let them be these: NEVER MISS A DEADLINE." Amazingly, I remembered that.

I filed the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) last night. It's not difficult, but -- heads up -- you do need to have a pretty good idea of what your tax return is going to look like. Early. Very early. Keep track of your earnings info the year you're going to file.

The greater challenge is the CSS Profile, which requires far more information. (You want to supply more info about your expenses, since the Feds' formula is inanely simplistic and pretty much comes down to income and how many people are in your family.) I couldn't finish the Profile last night because apparently a bunch of colleges have Feb 1 deadlines for it, and the CSS system was catatonic. I was dumped and had to re-start a couple of times, which would have been stress-producing if I'd absolutely needed to file last night. So -- second heads up -- pretend your deadline's at least three days before it actually is, so that the empty spot in the nest next year isn't you (in jail for murder) instead of your college student. (Our deadline is Feb 15, so I'm waiting until Feb 2 to file the Profile.)

Eldest applied to three schools, two of which only require the FAFSA and the Profile. The third has its own form, which amounted to an "Is Your Parent Smart Enough for You to Go Here?" test. I think I passed, but only because it was open book and I was able to review my answers several times before submitting them. If your child plans to apply to a dozen colleges, check out how many financial aid forms you're going to have to complete before you approve her list.

Though I'm not really done with the Profile, I felt somewhat heroic last night. I can already see that this won't be as intimidating the second time through. I find it useful (though not enjoyable) to stagger through a completely new and unasked-for experience every now and then. I think that, as adults who have mostly mastered the little things in life, we forget how uncomfy new experiences can be for kids. I'm more sympathetic when I have a fresh memory of that AAAAAAck! feeling.