Sunday, August 30, 2009

We have moths!

All of our silk worms have now gone into cocoon. Yesterday our first moth broke through. Three more came out at dawn today. We have 30 more to go.

The moths secrete an enzyme that eats a hole through the cocoon, creating the escape hatch. Unfortunately, that damages the silk. We're debating whether or not to bake a couple of the cocoons; that would kill the larvae, so that we can unwind the silk. That might reduce the number of eggs we end up with, too (a factor to consider, since each female could lay up to 300 eggs!) But we all think we'd feel bad about killing off our pals.

If you're in the neighborhood and want to adopt some silkworm eggs, let me know. You can probably get a full cycle in before the mulberry trees drop their leaves this fall. For inspiration, check this great site with silkworm info and lots of photos. They're not smelly or messy, they don't need to be walked, and they stay in one place.


Yesterday while proofing something I discovered that the person who'd collated the information had made some major mistakes. We're only days from going to print, so there was no way to hand it back to be re-done.

As I headed out the door to fix the problem (a process that involved a 90-minute walk), I found to my surprise that I wasn't irritated. It was a Saturday, Andrew was home to mind the kids, and there was nothing else on my agenda. I didn't have to figure out how to handle competing demands on my time. Amazing.

Like most people, I'm rarely at my best when priorities collide. If I'm on a business call and my offspring have a meltdown -- ugh. If I'm trying to focus on the Sunday sermon and one of my kids has a sudden, inexplicable need for attention -- ugh. If I'm having a heart-to-heart with a distraught child and another child walks in repeatedly -- ugh. It's true that mothers are natural multi-taskers (hey, we can even grow another human being inside ourselves while living our own lives!), but there are certain things that can't be done well simultaneously. Learning to prioritize is as basic a survival skill for a mom as learning to say no.

A few years back I figured that one way to lower the combustibility factor in my life was to be very clear about my priorities. Here are my top three:
1. Faith
2. Family
3. Community
To me these seemed pretty obvious, and not particularly original. However, once I began to check regularly to see how my life aligned with what I said was important, I found I wasn't doing as good a job as I'd thought. It's easy to let #2 overwhelm #1, or #3 overwhelm #2. It's okay if there are occasions when that happens, but a systemic mismatch is a major problem.

I don't try to prioritize beyond the top three. Where's work? Probably a subset of family, since the main reason I work these days is to make ends meet. I like what I do, but I have less interest in building a career than in building lives.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

"Is that a toy?"

This is one of my most-used lines with my five year old. Today it's been used with:
  • the bathroom plunger
  • the extension tube of the vacuum cleaner
  • a sticky note pad
  • packing peanuts
  • the colander
  • a knitting needle
  • a box of envelopes
From a child's perspective everything is a toy. I appreciate inventiveness (a good thing, if you know Little GUy!), and given a choice between self-entertained kids and mess, I'll opt for creative chaos every time. However, I do like to know where the measuring spoons are. We're working on it.

Friday, August 28, 2009

The news

Our next-door neighbors are away this week, so we've been picking up their copy of the newspaper. We don't get the paper ourselves, nor do we watch the news on TV. Call me pathetic, but I find it hard to stay focused on what's important in life even without the distraction of knowing about every crisis on the planet. My brain (and maybe my heart) isn't big enough to absorb all the news that's out there. Hence my current events strategy is to scan the front page of the NY Times web site each morning.

Still, it's kind of nice to have a one-week interlude of reading the paper. One reads things differently on the printed page. It's a savoring, absorbing activity. (When was the last time you savored anything online?) Ask me what Tuesday's headlines were, though, and I don't have a clue. Is that my weakness? Or is that simply because most of what passes for news is unmemorable?

Taking responsibility for your learning, part 2

I took Eldest out to dinner at a French bistro-style restaurant last night. She had steak au poivre, I had skate. It was good! We rarely eat out, and never eat out in anything approximating style, but she'd earned this.

My musings in the prior post about taking responsibility for what you need or want to learn had precedent. Last year Eldest took AP French. Before school started I looked up her school's AP score distribution on language exams, and compared them to the national scores. Then I told Eldest that if she wanted to do well on the exam, she'd have to do some work independently.

Eldest nodded, and designed her own supplemental curriculum. Most of it consisted of reading the Harry Potter books in French. The known advantage to this was that she was already familiar with the stories, so she could figure out the vocab by context. The hidden advantage (which she only realized later) was that the books contain a lot of colloquial conversation. All the other books she read in French were written in the literary tense, which didn't teach her the colloquialisms she needed for the exam.

We also had a good time watching French movies together, like Au Revoir les Enfants, Manon of the Spring, and Jules et Jim. Eldest used the DVD programming options to dub Star Wars and other movies she knew into French, too. It was all very low-stress and fun. Eldest ended up doing well on the AP exam.

I can say croissant and chardonnay, but am otherwise ignorant of French. This is proof that I'm not a teacher, just an educational facilitator. Prior to going to high school, Eldest used French in Action from Yale as her curriculum. I highly recommend it: it's phenomenally thorough, and uses enjoyable videos (free online at the Annenberg site) and expensive listening CDs (yes, you really do need to buy them), along with texts and workbooks (get the books used).

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Writing, school, and developing the mind

Eldest and I had a conversation last night about writing. She was concerned about not knowing how to write college essays, which are different from school essays. After some thought, Eldest decided that college essays require tone. I agree with this: school essays are descriptive, college essays need to be evocative, drawing the reader into the story. My husband the editor would say it's the difference between writing, "She cried," and making the reader cry.

Eldest wondered why her school doesn't teach students how to develop tone. Perhaps because the skills needed to succeed in school are generally not the same as the skills needed to be a writer. I've had a couple of interns this summer; most of them have good basic skills, but they write as if they are producing term papers. I realize that they've spent years honing this particular skill, but now they have to unlearn it and focus on writing for an audience.

As my conversation with my daughter morphed into a general discussion of schooling, I opined that while schools are good at divulging information, what very few do well is nurture passion. Passion is left up to the individual. Eldest immediately protested, "But why don't they tell you that up front?!" Good question. It might not be a bad thing for a teacher to begin the year with a talk something like this:

"This year we'll be learning about [topic X]. I can promise you that you will learn a lot, and you will work hard. I can promise you that I will prepare you for [whatever], and that if you do all of the assignments, you will grow in knowledge and understanding. However, I also know that along the way there are likely to be topics you find particularly interesting, or questions we won't be addressing in class. These are the seeds of intellectual passion, and whether they grow or not is ultimately your responsibility. If you come to me and say, "Ms. X, I really like this topic. Can you suggest other materials?" I will bend over backward to help you find resources to feed your curiosity. There is nothing I like better than a hungry mind. But there's a difference between giving someone food and teaching him to grow his own. In the long run, you're the one who needs to be able to nourish your intellectual passions. Take responsibility for it now."

Although Eldest is generally self-motivated, I think this kind of prelude would have given her permission to think bigger, take more initiative. It would have sent the message that wanting to know more is normal. And it would have acknowledged that even in the best schools, it's not all up to the teacher.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009


Many years ago, during the first Bush administration (George, not GW), there was a lot of press about the importance of 'family values'.

A good friend who grew up in a large family responded to the rhetoric by saying, "When I was a kid we could never find any Scotch tape in the house. So one of our family values was Scotch tape."

By that standard, the family values around here are sharp pencils, missing shoes, hair holders, and computer time.

However, we also value honest and generous hearts, cooperation, intellectual curiosity, effort in the face of difficulty, kindness, initiative, and the ability to find alternative solutions if Plan A doesn't work. Housekeeping is way down the list; thoughtfulness is near the top.

Thoughtfulness is my love language. Which is why I am absolutely bowled over by this:
Yes, an entire gallon of real maple syrup! My dear friend Liz was away on vacation, saw the sweet stuff, and remembered that I love (and generally can't afford) real maple syrup. She promptly bought more than I ever dreamed of having.

How delicious to have a good and thoughtful friend!

Sunday, August 23, 2009


This is Little Guy in his "parachute suit". You can't see the additional plastic grocery bag that drapes down his back. That's the one that provided the parachute when he jumped off the top bunk tonight. Or so he said.

He wanted to try it another time to prove that he wouldn't break a leg. I said it was time for bed.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Good Guys vs. Bad Guys

My kids read comics from the 1940's and 50's and 60's. One of the things I like about old Superman is that there's a clear distinction between the Bad Guys and the Good Guys. It's hard for kids to deal with gray areas if they don't grasp the basics of dark and light first.

A year ago Big Guy brought a modern superhero comic home from school. Curious, I read it. When I was done my son asked what I thought. "Unless I knew ahead of time who was a Bad Guy and who was a Good Guy, I wouldn't have been able to figure it out," I replied, "They all behaved the same way." I didn't like that: if the only difference between good and evil is the label we attach to ourselves, we're in trouble.

But after a while I got to thinking. Real life isn't like it is in Superman. Although we tend to think of evil in Bad Guy terms (Hitler and Stalin and Jeffrey Dahmer), most of what we're likely to encounter in our everyday lives isn't going to show up in that form. At times it can be genuinely hard to tell the difference between the Good Guys and the Bad Guys. That's partly because we're all a mixed bag of pluses and minuses, but it's also because we're not always adept at recognizing what we see.

I learned this the hard way in my twenties, working in the money management industry. My boss was young, smart, attractive, successful, and reasonably gracious. She was not a backstabber, nor was she Machiavellian. I'm sure she thought of herself as a Good Gal and a champion for women in the world of finance. Yet she stepped on people constantly. She did this without noticing, because you only came into her field of vision if she perceived you as helping her succeed, or as threatening her ascent. Otherwise, you didn't really exist. It's easy to step on something without thinking you're causing harm.

The devastation this woman's self-centeredness wreaked was jaw-dropping. Because I had a vague idea that Bad Guys usually acted with some sort of intention to hurt, it took me months to figure out that I was in the presence of evil. I know that sounds strong, but this woman's unthinkingness caused a lot of suffering. Evil finds room to snake in whenever one of us puts personal desire ahead of the humanity of others. I see it happen regularly in my own life, when I am fixated on getting the kids out the door on time; I'm thinking of my goal, not them, and the results aren't pretty.

Which brings me back to old Superman. One thing that made him a Good Guy was that he consistently thought in terms of something bigger than his desires. His goal was for the common good, not his personal satisfation. I'm guessing that served him well in his everyday life as a mild-mannered reporter, too.

Star Wars does Nutcracker

It's happening now in my living room.

(Did you notice that Anakin is en pointe?)

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Changing Gears

Back in the days when I was homeschooling all my kids, people would ask, "How do you do it all?" The implication was that I was somehow superhuman. My standard reply was that I gained a lot of time by having only one focus; switching gears between working and being a parent uses up a lot of energy.

In recent years, as I've been working part-time from home, I've discovered there is more truth to this than I imagined.

When I am working, I am not really focused on being a mom. My children must sense this, since that's when they do things like make a (working) roller coaster in the living room, invent magic potions with my more-expensive spices, and use the vacuum as a bumper car. As Little Guy was cleaning up the blocks this evening he was telling me about the great aqueduct he built today in the living room. After a few moments I asked timidly, "Did you use real water in it?" He replied with big-boy confidence, "Well, I wiped it up!"

When I am in Mom mode and Little Guy gets a great idea like this, he is miffed if it's not allowed. Suddenly Mom seems unfair, restrictive, even bossy. My kids don't get away with murder when I'm working (they are allowed to interrupt me if blood is flowing down the hall), but they certainly have more freedom when I'm focused elsewhere. I'm beginning to realize that parental inconsistency is part of the cost of switching gears.

The main cost I normally recognize, though, lies in the amount of effort it takes to reacclimate each time I switch from work mode into Mom mode. It's like coming out of a dark room into bright light. Life is momentarily confusing, and it takes energy to refocus.

Or to put it another way, the door on the phone booth that I step into for my quick-change between being a writer and being a mom sometimes gets stuck.

On the faith end of things, the inefficiency of switching back and forth between various modes of 'who I am' helps me to understand a number of things, like why it's important to live out our faith. We're too inconsistent if we gear-shift between 'real life' and 'what we believe'. Not to mention that we use up an awful lot of energy by the end of the day that could have been used in a much more productive way.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Our silkworms are spinning!

About two weeks ago some homeschooling friends offered to give us some of their silkworms. What we (and they) thought were about ten silkworms turned out to be about 30. They were cute little things. Fortunately there are a number of mulberry trees in the neighborhood, because these guys EAT! Early in the morning you can hear them munching from across the room.

Yesterday we noticed that one of the worms had spun its cocoon. We have two kinds of worms: the white ones spin white silk, and the striped ones spin yellow. You can see a yellow cocoon inside the TP tube (they like to have a circular space for spinning).

I was a bit concerned about the flying insect factor once the moths hatch, but I've been reassured that the moths are so domesticated that they are unable to do more than flutter around the bottom of their box. We'll have to refrigerate the eggs during the winter (they last up to five years in the fridge), until the mulberry trees start growing leaves in the spring.

Meanwhile, I'm surprisingly happy to have these little guys in our house. Even Andrew, who is not usually fond of crawly things, seems to be a bit fond of them.