Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Innovations (?)

It was her idea (not mine!) to embarass herself into action.


We had our homeschool co-op today, and since I was on assist-the-photo-class duty during first period, I came into the moms' group late. The topic of the day was discipline. There wasn't a whole lot of time for discussion, so I'm pondering out loud here.

First thought: Discipline comes from the same root as disciple, and relates more to teaching than to punishment. One good clue that a discipline method isn't effective is if the child isn't learning what you want. If it consistently doesn't work, it's time to try another mode of instruction.

Second thought: It takes a lot of self-discipline to implement a consistent system of discipline! Last night I hauled out Transforming the Difficult Child again, and it didn't take me long to figure out where I swerved off course yesterday. I am always amazed by how I think I've absorbed a lesson, only to find I've barely internalized 75% of it. This is so true across so many areas of my life that I ought to be more understanding when my children forget the basics. I mean, it's not as if I've even got the First Commandment completely down pat yet, and I've been working on it for years! But perhaps humility lies in the 25% of the lesson that I easily forget.

Third thought: We need to be careful not to focus on our kids' character issues without addressing our own. We all need discipline.

One of the mixed blessings of being a parent is that our kids bring out our weaknesses. We may moan about how they push our buttons, but the salient point is that our kids help us realize we have all those buttons. I daresay that each button my kids push is connected to a character weakness within myself. Having to face that regularly gives me insight into what I need to work on to become a better person.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The trials of parenting

When my kids were little, in the newborn/age2/age4 range, Andrew would arrive home at the end of the day and ask, "How'd it go?" On particularly bad days my standard reply was a wry, "We're all still on this side of the window."

Today was that kind of day. I was a Good Mommy for a long, long time today. [Insert pat on back here.] I was calm and patient and detached. I made it serenely but firmly through several public meltdowns by a child of mine, and didn't crack even when this child writhed around on a crowded sidewalk screaming about how horrible I was. But after 90 minutes or so my patience wore thin. Then I was not very nice. [Remove pat from back here, and wag an accusing finger.]

We recovered for a while, due in part to my offer to "hold you without saying anything". The peace lasted a short train ride. When the fussing started up again, I was at my wits' end. I desperately needed this child to be quiet so I didn't go insane, but cooperation with a request for silence was not in the cards. So I suggested praying aloud for the length of a long city block, using a prayer that the child knew by heart. While I'd love to say I thought of this because I'm a deeply spiritual person, the truth is I just wanted something to listen to that wasn't hysteria. The child protested tearfully, "I can't even say that prayer!" However, I was given permission to go ahead and pray by myself.

I put my arm around the child's shoulder, and we adjusted our pace so we could walk together in rhythm to the prayer. I said the words over and over, slowly and calmly. They slowly seeped into our stubborn hearts, and our focus shifted away from hurt feelings and disobedience to better things. By the end of the block, life was much, much better.

Now the child and I are both left with the bouncing back portion of the day (see post below).

Getting stuck

I was having a conversation with Eldest last night about life skills and heard myself say something like, "One of the most important skills you'll need in college is the ability to get un-stuck."

Maybe I'm getting inadvertently wise or something. Getting stuck actually is a big theme of adulthood. Sometimes we get stuck in a feeling, other times in a parenting situation we don't know how to handle, and other times we are mired down in life. Learning to unstick oneself is a skill most of us learn on the job.

When I read Learned Optimism by Martin Seligman years ago, I was struck by the connection between feelings of hopelessness (or 'stuckness') and depression. When people feel powerless to change a situation, they tend to give up and sink. Those who succeed find a different way to look at the problem and what caused it.

Research shows that people of my generation have a higher incidence of depression than people who grew up in the Great Depression or World War II. This seems odd. I wonder if part of the reason is that nowadays people expect life to be comfortable, whereas in prior generations people expected life to be hard. Expectations of how things should be affect our hopes, and from there, what causes us to feel hopeless.

There are many ways to get un-stuck: divergent thinking, prayer, resourcefulness, re-directing one's pattern of thought. I wish I could say I never get stuck any more, but life is life, and sometimes I get mired down. I'm not capable of being a perpetual optimist, so I focus on being resilient. What other choice do we have, really, but to bounce back?

Here's a thought: faith is the one thing in the modern world where there's a model for getting unstuck. We sin, we fall, we ask forgiveness, it's granted... and life goes on. We're to strive to be the best we can be, but it's considered normal to mess up. The other day Little Guy was naughty, and when he was caught he wailed, "I hate myself!" I raised an eyebrow, gave him an are you nuts? look and replied, "You don't have to hate yourself. You just have to say you're sorry."

Monday, September 28, 2009

Little Guy says...

after spilling laundry detergent on the wooden floor in the living room, and cleaning up almost all of it:

"Well, at least it will provide acceleration for my tricycle!"

Saturday, September 26, 2009

And the Nutcracker roles are...

Russian boy, battle scene, and gingerbread.

Dancer was kind of hoping she'd get to be a boy this year, since the bonus is getting to be in the battle scene. Her performances (for the party scene) will be on Saturday, Dec. 12 at 2 and 7, and possibly the matinee on Dec 13. We don't know yet when her gingerbread performances will be. There could be some overlap.

At least if we have to shlep all the way over to the studio, it's not for a one-hour rehearsal! More like... 3 or 4 hours?! Guess I'd better get my laptop fixed!

What we're working on

School has started, and in addition to academic subjects we have some skills we're building this year. Not in order of age:

One child is working on remembering to wear deodorant every day.

One child has a goal of figuring out how to relax and quickly recover when things don't go as planned.

One child is learning to do what is asked, even if it isn't something she likes to do.

One child is trying to remember to let sadness be sadness, instead of transforming it into anger.

One child is building social skills.

I continue to work on detachment, so that I can correct and guide the kids without getting so frustrated that I shout and yell. I would note that I fully expect my kids will meet their goals before I meet mine!

Friday, September 25, 2009


Today we have one aikido class, two play dates, one ballet technique and one pointe class, one birthday party, one Nutcracker rehearsal, and grocery shopping. Andrew has to take Big Guy somewhere this afternoon. Oh -- and Eldest is going to meet a friend in the afternoon, too. And we don't have a present for the party yet.

This would have driven me crazy a decade ago. What keeps me sane nowadays is that I finally understand that logistics are puzzles, not problems. Problems are things that involve life-changing decisions or events. Having a health issue is a problem. Being broke is a problem. Losing your job is a problem. How to get everyone to everywhere they need to go is a puzzle. No one's going to die because of scheduling challenges (unless I stress out and commit murder as a result!)


On the left: my kitchen wall. On the right: the bathroom wall that backs onto it. The plumber's words upon walking into the kitchen this morning were, "Wow, that's a lot of water!" Turns out the problem is a crumbling 2" pipe near the ceiling. To get to it from our apartment, they'd have to remove the entire cabinet unit in the kitchen, which is original (though resurfaced) from 1934. Instead, they've decided to take apart our upstairs neighbors' sink and dishwasher unit. Poor folks! Guess I'd better make supper for them.

The house smells AWFUL! Mildew, dust, mold... antihistamines are definitely in our plan for the day.

In happier news, today's schooling showed signs of progress. Stephen worked hard to earn his "cooperation candy". (Desperate times call for desperate measures: around here dark chocolate M&Ms stand for Mothers and Mental Health.)

Thursday, September 24, 2009


About ten years ago, a good thing happened: I tripped and took all the skin off one knee. It was spring, a few weeks before my kids would be getting into shorts and scraping elbows and knees as fast as I could bandage them. It had been decades since I'd had an injury anything like that. I was deeply impressed by how much it hurt (and for how long). Ever since, I've been much more sympathetic to the cries of those who accidentally leave their flesh impressed upon the pavement.

I've spent some time pondering the other day's anxiety in the same light. I am not by nature a worrier. I do occasionally discover that I forget to drop a college course (in my dreams), but the few times I've carried anxiety around for any length of time it felt as if I had contracted some horrific but unidentifiable disease. I know what anxiety is, but I don't know it the way some people (including some in my family) do.

With the knee incident, I replaced my usual reaction (Oh, c'mon, it's not that bad!) with a a new one (Ouch! That stings a lot!) Last night I tried, for quite some time, to confect a new reaction for when others are anxious.

It took an embarassingly long time to realize I don't have a typical reaction to replace. That's because most of the time we don't even realize that the reason someone is acting oddly is because they are anxious. Anxiety isn't a visible disability. If you don't recognize it, you don't develop a habitual response to it.

That eye-opener reminded me of a friend whose son has a severe hearing disorder. No matter how often she reminded her child's teacher of the mandated accomodations, the teacher forgot them. Eventually my friend came up with a brilliant solution: even though a hearing aid was useless for her son, she had him wear one. When the teacher looked at the boy she saw the aid, remembered the disability, and acted accordingly.

I'd love to find a visual trigger to let people know that someone is anxious. Despite my highly tuned antennae from years of working with Big Guy, I still sometimes miss the signs. For Big Guy, the heralds are irritability and sudden anger. I know many other people who withdraw, still others who become oversensitive, and only a few who get the deer-in-headlights look or do the high strung/jittery thing that people recognize as emblematic. With so many possible manifestations of anxiety, it's not surprising we don't always recognize it.

Here are the things I took away from my anxious day:
1. When you're anxious, an inordinate amount of energy goes toward holding yourself together.
2. Because there's less of you available for problem solving, normal frustrations can feel catastrophic.
3. No one can really make things better, but everyone's capable of making things worse.

From the perspective of trying to do a better job of helping others when they are anxious, it's helpful to me to distill the experience in this way.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

It's done.

I finally sent off the article I was writing, a mere seven minutes before 5pm (Central Time, thankfully). It wasn't completely finished, but it was the best I could do under the circumstances. Yesterday our kitchen flooded three times -- there's a pipe broken in the wall somewhere, but the super's on vacation -- and we had a complicated math-ballet schedule. Then last night Eldest and I went to an MIT information session. Around midnight I finished a project that was due this morning, and today we had homeschool co-op (which meant that although I worked on the article starting at 6am, for much of the day I couldn't do anything except breathe deeply to keep stress at bay).

The folks from MIT were very engaging, and had a healthy sense of humor. Among the slides last night was a photo of the great dome painted as R2D2, and there were several posed shots labelled "fake students". A while back the MIT admissions blog had a video clip of some kids playing mattress dominoes, which I found amusing. That kind of stuff appeals to my inner geek.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Pausing for a moment to say...

I really like my eldest. I'm sitting here thinking (instead of working on the article I have due tomorrow a.m.) about what a gift she is to me. I have grown so much in the past 15 years, thanks to her, almost entirely in ways I never could have imagined.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Miracle League

I tried to upload a video last night, but it didn't work, so I'll have to stick with photos.

On Saturday we went to see Cousin Hannah play baseball. Hannah plays in the Miracle League, which is a pretty amazing collection of kids with a pretty amazing set of disabilities. There were children on Hannah's team with cerebral palsy, with Down Syndrome, and with rare disorders. One girl is blind and plays with a 'beeper ball', but she wasn't there when we were.

In the Miracle League every child on the team gets a chance at bat. There are no outs; you swing until you hit the ball, then take one base. Everyone gets to run (or wheel their way) home. Everyone has a buddy to help out. There was a real announcer, and there were real baseball shirts and caps. The game's over after two innings.

It was a great game.

Afterwards, Dancer and her cousin did a victory dance (which was what was in the video I can't upload). The field in the background is covered with a carpet-like surface, specially designed to help the kids.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

We're back!

We arrived home late last night, tired but happy. The kids had a good time hauling water, grinding corn, and pretending to sail the Susan Constant, though their chore-averse attitude at home appears to have remained intact.

I had a nice time visiting with my sister and mom. One of the hallmarks of truly 'vacating' is not having to think about, plan, and cook all the meals. My sister Beth was a more-than-gracious hostess in that regard.

One nice thing about traveling with a less-than-full complement of kids was that it gave me time to see each child a little more clearly. I find that parenting is sometimes like Impressionist painting, with many dots mushed up together; it's good to step back a bit to see what the picture really looks like.

Big Guy, Eldest and Andrew survived their at-home Jamestown adventure (they didn't starve!) but appeared pleased that it was over.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Fixing things

Yesterday Little Guy had a meltdown at a playground. A couple of 18-month olds stepped on his carefully-constructed sand castle. He'd apparently asked them to stop, but their nannies felt the sand box was for babies, not for five year olds, and did not feel it necessary to redirect their charges to another part of the sandbox. One did ask Little Guy if he wanted help re-building his castle, but he was so upset he told her, "Stop annoying me!" I had to take him out of the sandbox and spend 15 minutes calming him down.

Thought #1 on fixing things: You have to let other people help you.
Thought #2: It's hard to fix anything when you're upset.

Moms want to fix a lot of things for their kids, and on days when there are loud and messy public scenes, we want to just plain fix our kids. Quick tempers, bad manners, inappropriate responses, over-sensitivities, moodiness, self-centeredness; we want to resolve whatever we see as our kids' obstacles to a happy and productive life.

It ain't easy. To some degree, it's not always even possible. I was talking to a neighbor the other day whose son has significant anxiety issues, but her husband has Stage Four cancer, and they don't have enough money (or free time) to get the kid to therapy. "He's just going to have to pay for therapy himself when he's 30," the woman said. Then she added, "Assuming he makes it that far."

I know that feeling.

It's beyond frustrating to know what needs to be done, yet to be unable to do it. On the other hand, we can become so fixated on fixing that we end up thinking we need to repair the cross rather than embrace it. Then we start to think of God as the Master Fixer, rather than the Master of the Universe. If I can't make it better, we reassure ourselves, that's okay -- God can. Certainly He can, but in His infinite wisdom He may choose to say no. Way too many prayers, including my own, are of the "make this trial go away" variety, as if the point of life (and proof of faith) is to be comfortable and stress-free.

There's nothing wrong with asking God to make a problem go away, so long as the Take this cup from me is followed with Not my will, but Thine, be done. Whatever responsibility we have to fix things has to be balanced with humility, and acceptance that what we want isn't the only factor being considered.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Heading out!

Tomorrow I leave with Dancer, Snuggler and Little Guy to visit my sister in Virginia. This is the first vacation other than family reunions that I've had in twelve years, so I'm pretty excited! So are the kids. We're going to Colonial Williamsburg and Jamestown, and we're staying with Dancer's favorite cousin, Hannah. My mom is coming, too.

The big kids are feeling a bit of trepidation, I think, knowing that for five days they'll have to fend for themselves. Andrew's here, of course, but there are a few minor issues (breakfast, lunch, and dinner) that weigh heavily on their minds. I'm sure it will be a growth experience for everyone.

We'll be back on Saturday.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Cerumen of the cerebellum

This morning at church I observed one of my children examining what his finger had retrieved from his ear and thought, "Looking at ear wax is more interesting to him than God!"

How depressing. However, a bit later I realized I had no idea what the sermon was about, because I had been so distracted thinking about my ill-mannered offspring. Ouch. Mental ear wax.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Growing Up

Little Guy, on a crowded subway:

"Mom, I can tell I'm getting bigger. I'm almost out of the forest of legs!"

Thursday, September 10, 2009


One of the things I do when I can't sleep is pray. I choose someone on my near-infinite list, then say a simple prayer, something like the Lord's Prayer. I don't attempt anything original when I'm tired, because I get too easily distracted. A simple prayer gives me a place to start again (repeatedly).

Usually, this is effective at combating insomnia. My suspicion is it's the devil's work: he'd rather have me sleeping than praying! But last night I had the unusual experience of making it to the end of my list of petitions and intercessions.

I prayed for my friend Judith, whose husband Terry had a brain injury a year ago. I prayed for their three children. I prayed for a friend/acquaintance who is going through a stressful arbitration proceeding. I prayed for someone I knew years ago, the mere mention of whose name still irritates me. I prayed for a friend whose son is going through difficult times. And so on.

Last week when I'd asked Little Guy what he wanted to do on his special day as a temporarily only child, he asked to do science experiments all day. Fortunately we're a couple of packets behind on his Young Scientist Club kits, so I didn't have to collect materials or think of what to do.

After a series of experiments on air, Little GUy disappeared for a while and came back with this idea for how to clean the floor...


Fifteen and 3/4 years ago, when I became pregnant with Eldest, I gave up caffeine. I still love a cup of coffee, but it's always decaf.

Last night at 3:54 a.m. I finally figured out that when I bought a new can of java after supper, I didn't look closely enough at the label. A few mugs of evening espresso will keep you up a loooooong time, especially if your body's not used to the buzz! But when the alarm rang at 5:45 a.m., I was able to prove that I truly can make muffins in my sleep!

The two big kids are off to school, Snuggler and Dancer have departed for their special trip with Mary's godmother, and Little Guy is asleep. Time for me to head back to bed, too.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Back to School

Today was the first day of school here, and Eldest and Big Guy both headed off. Eldest was worried they'd mess up her high school schedule (I assured her they would -- but it would be fixable), and looking forward to her first day at college. Big Guy was going to his first day of real classes at his new school.

Multiply the normal what-ifs that plague starting at a new school or job by about 50, and you have some idea of what it's like to be Big Guy. However, after the tumultuous build-up of the past week he came home happy, rating the day a 9 out of a possible 10. Whew! The bus ride was a bear, though.

Eldest, too, was reasonably chipper. Her schedule had only one blip, she knew kids in all her classes, and most of her teachers rate in the not-dull category. That highly refined Boredom Alarm she's developed did go into low-level alert when her genetics teacher said they 'wouldn't go into great depth', but she was consoled by the news that they will get to do fruit fly experiments. (Score one for school: those labs would never take place at my house!)

She made it to her college math course with time to spare. There were three high school students there from another school, plus a freshman she knew from the summer course she attended. This is a large lecture class of about 80 students. The professor scared her by saying, "This is a hard course!" several times, but then he talked about set theory and logic, both of which are topics Eldest has already covered in depth.

Gosh, it's so much easier to actually be started than get started!

Bat ears

I went shoe shopping today. As I tried on various pairs, my scavenger of a son snapped up the cardboard inserts, and quickly created a series of appendages and accoutrements: bat ears, a duck bill, a double tail, ear protectors for the subway, a bra, elbow shields.

Little Guy has an eagle eye for anything anyone has dropped or abandoned. No matter where we go, he comes home with pockets bulging with treasures only Tom Sawyer would appreciate. A bent nail and a bracelet charm have equal appeal; broken water balloons are just as important as whole rubber bands. Ticket stubs, hair holders, a cracked pail, a bent bobby pin -- he'll take it all.

Most of these pearls mysteriously disappear at night, when the Un-Packrat comes out of her lair and clears up the detritus of the day. Occasionally I will allow something fun (like the bat ears) to stick around for a few days to see what else becomes of them. Tonight Little Guy tried to make 'musical shoes' by whacking them with a stick. He safely stowed them in the shoe box ("Mom, I've always wanted a box like this, with the lid attached"), so that tomorrow they'll be ready to be re-made into something new.


For years I've maintained that I'm a lazy person. Those who hear me admit it protest, "But you do so much!" Yes, but one of my deep, dark secrets is that if I slow down I'll never get started again. September is a time I groan and get started again.

I don't thrive on schedules and organization. I would hate a Blackberry. I've never worn a watch. I do use a pocketbook calendar, but only because four years ago I finally faced facts: my life is too complex to manage in my head.

I am not naturally geared to chronos: clock time, demarcated time. When I'm boxed in by a schedule I have half my mind on the clock, so I don't absorb the here and now fully. Schedules threaten to overwhelm rather than help me. A year ago I tried using a month-at-a-glance calendar. It worked for the 15 minutes it took to write down a month's worth of events. Then I looked at all I had to do in four weeks and hyperventilated. My inner preschooler needs to break things down into small components to stay sane. Ask me to pick up the green blocks, and I can do it. When that's done I can move on to the red blocks. But look the whole mess in the face at once? Never.

The Greeks had a second word for time, to which I relate better: kairos. We know kairos through love or pain or beauty that transcends chronological time. When you're thinking about an event long ago that feels current and alive -- so real that it is of the present -- you are experiencing kairos. It is almost a time that we re-enter rather than a time that passes by. I've read that another way to look at it is that kairos is qualitative, while chronos is quantitative.

In theology, kairos means the time when God acts. That's an interesting idea to ponder, since it sheds a different light on my September schedule. God can act at any time. The main thing to consider is if I will be so wrapped up in chronos that I won't notice what He does.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

The President's address to schoolchildren

I think it's great that tomorrow the president is going to encourage kids to work hard at school, to persevere, to take responsibility for their learning. It's always good for children to hear things like that from someone who's not Mom!


To further encourage student engagement, the U.S. Department of Education is launching the "I Am What I Learn" video contest. On September 8, we will ask students to respond to the President's challenge by creating videos, up to two minutes in length, describing the steps they will take to improve their education and the role education will play in fulfilling their dreams...

Stop. "I Am What I Learn"?

What Little Guy learned last year was to count to 100, which sound each letter makes, that it's wrong to run in the hall, that (some) little girls tattle a lot, and "it's bad to be sad in school".

What Big Guy learned last year was that you can get beaten up on the Special Ed bus if the matron steps out for even a second. He was taught a wider range of curse words, figured out that adults don't always bother to listen to two sides of a story, and discovered that intellectual curiosity isn't always valued.

Eldest learned piles of European history, that physics teachers don't necessarily know calculus, and that having even one good math friend is a very nice thing.

"I am What I Learn" is an incredibly lousy slogan. At best it means nothing; at worst it's misleading. Education can dramatically change lives, and it can open long-shut doors, but it's not a panacea. It's an ingredient that goes into who each child grows up to be. Hopefully education is a quality ingredient that gets mixed with emotional health, a modicum of social skills, a smattering of initiative, a teaspoon of ingenuity, an honest understanding of one's strengths and weaknesses, some genuine depth in the soul, the ability to appreciate beauty, a dab of common sense, a lot of patience, and plenty of resilience.

No child should ever be limited to thinking he is what he learns. Human beings are much more complex and valuable than that!

I'm not even going to touch the YouTube aspect of this, except to say that next time perhaps the U.S. Dept of Education could come up with something as interesting as the Wired Science Video contest.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Tugboat festival

Together with some friends, Little Guy and Dancer and I headed down to the tugboat festival today. We toured two types of barges (a wooden Erie Canal-era one and a motorized cargo barge), a schooner, and then at the very last moment we scored the last two wait-list tickets for the 2pm tugboat ride. The people at the ticket table wrote 'admit two' on one of the tix when I said we had three people. Little Guy and his buddy Alex took the ride, along with Alex's mom. They're somewhere in the group of people in this picture.

Apparently the boys got to walk through the whole boat, spent some time up with the captain, and had a fun hour on the river.

This beautiful blue tug was supposed to be open for walk-through tours, but someone goofed: the pier was too high, so there wasn't a safe way to get on the boat.

It was a gorgeous day, surprisingly uncrowded on the pier. There was also a fun water playground, with steel pumps and dams and troughs. Our only regret is that we forgot to bring sunscreen. Ouch!

Friday, September 4, 2009


I've struggled a bit this summer with keeping my mouth shut, as my eldest appeared to do almost nothing (except her 3-week summer program titled Mathematics for Budding Particle Physicists, which she loved). Where did all that initiative go? I'm used to having her devour math books all summer. But there wasn't much of that in evidence this year.

The other day I gave myself a firm talking-to, and reviewed the evidence. As soon as school let out, Eldest picked up an enormous anthology of literature, and plowed through more than 1500 pages. Having discovered she liked Flannery O'Connor, she hauled out the Library of America collection of O'Connor's works, and read that. (She may have omitted a bit, after I told her I thought O'Connor was pretty intense, and best enjoyed over time.) Then she moved on to Willa Cather. Then she read Don Quixote in its entirety. That took a while. She also read a book of Chekov plays, and has mostly finished Tom Jones. Her summer reading assignment for school was The Joy Luck Club, which she enjoyed.

I don't know how many pages that amounts to in all, but it's enough that I think perhaps the issue isn't her lack of initiative, but my lack of perception.

At least I kept my mouth shut, so she won't know I was worried... until she reads this.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Things I heard today

"Mom, do you want to see the lock I made for the back bathroom? I made it using my handcuffs." (Little Guy, age 5)

"I'm making a flora and fauna necklace out of Shrinky Dinks." (Snuggler, age 8)

How to feed 10 people with a package of hot dogs

One of my tricks with meal planning is to keep a list of main dishes on my fridge, organized by cost. The categories are Everyday Meals, On-Sale Meals, and Once-in-a-While Meals. This is helpful, because when meal planning time rolls around I'm not always at my brainy best. If I have the grocery circular and my handy-dandy list, I can usually come up with four or five meals we haven't eaten recently. I aim for a total cost of about $6 for our family of seven for the main dish, with another $2 or so for veggies.

The Everyday Meals category includes pasta with pesto, homemade baked beans, latkes with applesauce, black bean soup, made-from-scratch mac 'n cheese, homemade pizza, channa masala, omelets, and hash.

The longer list is the On-Sale Meals, which require an ingredient I won't buy for full price. This week mozzarella cheese, English muffins, and good hot dogs were on sale. The other night the kids made 'Greek pizza' while I was out (brush English muffins with olive oil, sprinkle with chopped olives, cover with mozzarella and broil). Tonight we had a ridiculously easy meal that is our favorite for bringing to pot-luck suppers.

Hot Dog Cornbread (feeds about 10)
Make a double batch of your favorite cornbread recipe. I use the one in Joy of Cooking, using about 1/3 C. brown sugar. Mix in one box of thawed frozen corn, and one package of hot dogs sliced into 1/2" pieces. Bake at 425 for about 40 minutes. Eat hot, with catsup on the side.

This stuff vanishes. Total cost tonight: $2.99 for the hot dogs, roughly $1.50 for cornmeal/flour/eggs/milk, $1.59 for the corn. (Coulda made it with fresh corn from Tuesday's CSA share, but I didn't think of that!) You could make a single batch of cornbread and use half a pack of hot dogs, and half the corn. But then there wouldn't be any left for lunch the next day.


Boredom comes in two forms (that I know of):
1) Good boredom, the kind that consists of uneasy restlessness as one searches for what to do next?
2) Bad boredom, the kind that occurs when you're trapped in a deadly meeting or class and have to pay at least superficial attention, so your brain can't veer off on a productive tangent. This can make you crazy.

Both Andrew and I experienced a lot of bad boredom in our elementary school days, and both of us put our unchallenged minds to use by being difficult in middle school. (Yes, I filched a package of to-be-dissected worms and artfully arranged them on the English teacher's plate of spaghetti!) Good boredom, the kind that comes from unstructured time, kept me sane.

Kids come in many flavors, from the self-entertaining to the always-need-to-be-engaged. Based on my sample of n=5, I'd guess that the spectrum correlates roughly to the degree of introversion in the child. Then again, since I don't want a career in the entertainment industry, I tend to be very consistent about replying to any moan of "What can I dooooo?" with a cheerful, "You can clean the bathroom..."

Still, there are times when a child isn't able to use boredom well. We had an incident yesterday where one of my kids could only think of two things to do, neither of which was possible at the time. After a while this child came up with an alternate activity: tormenting siblings. That produced a rapid-fire series of entertaining responses, both from the siblings and from Mom.

Today Mom will expend some energy finding better forms of excitement.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

More on learning

I ran into an acquaintance on the subway yesterday, a local mom whose boys have been in some of the same plays as my girls. Turns out she's a dean at a big-name private school just north of here. We got to talking about education, and what leads to intellectual curiosity. (You know, one of my favorite topics.)

She described her upper-level school's emphasis on independent study and seminar-style classes. This is one thing I wish Eldest's public high school could offer, but budget pressures mean every class is filled to the max with 34 students, so it doesn't. I think it's hard for a teacher to elicit genuine interchange of ideas with that big a class.

This woman teaches English, and she said one of the tricks she uses to get students engaged is to assign two or three students the task of opening the class discussion. It's their homework, and the job rotates among all the students. Those 'on call' have to come prepared with questions to ask and observations to share about the reading. The reason for this is to side-step the teacher as the nexus, and help (okay, force) the students to interact with each other. I appreciate the wisdom of this.

Who does the questioning plays a big part in how kids learn to think. When they're four, they ask why all day long. Then they go to kindergarten, where it's the teacher who asks all the questions. The reward system is set up to promote getting the answer right, rather than to encourage good questioning and good finding-out skills in the student.

There's a lot of info that has to go into kids' brains in the early years. What concerns me is that kids need time and space for things to come out, too. Otherwise how do they become comfortable with their own thoughts? How do they generate original ideas? How do they learn that boredom can be a prelude to creativity, and isn't something to be video-gamed away? This is why my style of homeschooling is 'give me two hours a day, and then do what you want'.

I told my acquaintance that Eldest's biggest peeve about high school is its inefficiency. The woman laughed in surprise and said, "I never thought of it that way, but school is inefficient." It's a lot of time.