Friday, November 30, 2007

Book club tonight

I think tonight will be the first ever meeting of the book club that Lesley is missing. That's an amazing record, and she's the only one to hold it. She's also the one that started this book club, something that we all thank her for. We're down to four members now, which is very comfortable for people who have lots of ideas about books to read (me! me!) but a little scary when you think that people move all the time (Jennifer, Michelle, Tony -- we still miss you) and that a book club with only two or three people is hardly a book club at all.

Tonight will also be our second interview night. That is what we do when we just want to talk about ourselves, rather than talk about ourselves in the context of a book. So everyone will bring a question (Lesley could put one in the comments if she wanted) and the conversation will take off from there. Zelda and I have scheduled a 7PM beginning, but of course the meeting won't really begin till Vivian gets here. And I say here because it's at my house tonight.

It's a very strange thing not to feel rushed and semi-hysterical that people are coming over. I am not pretending that my house is in the stratosphere inhabited by Lesley (I bet that even in the middle of a remodel her house is cleaner than mine) but it is so 100% acceptable by my low standards that I can actually have a normal day today, and have so far not given much thought to the fact that people are coming over tonight. It's probably time to start planning refreshments ...


Thursday, November 29, 2007

Rasmus and the Vagabond

by Astrid Lindgren

Is there anyone in the world who hasn't heard of Pippi Longstocking? I know some people aren't familiar with the books. If all you know of her is the obnoxious movies that have been made based on those books, you can be forgiven for not loving Astrid Lindgren. Otherwise, you have no excuse. The Pippi Longstocking books are wonderful, and that's all there is to it, and Astrid Lindgren is one of the best children's authors there is.

Her other books are wonderful, too. Rasmus and the Vagabond is one I found only recently, and it is charming. The story is about a young orphan who runs away from an orphanage and finds shelter and adventures with a tramp wandering the roads.

I wonder if the term magic realism can be used for children's books. There is usually some element of the fantastic in the books of Astrid Lindgren that I have read so far. Here it is understated, but the way that Rasmus comes through so many perilous situations unscathed has a vague unreality, like a movie where the little kid is resourceful and clever and outwits all the adults. This didn't lessen the pleasure I found in this book in any way, though. The surprise ending is a happy one, a fitting end to a book that is full of joy in the world of nature and unpredictable human relationships.

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Wednesday, November 28, 2007

More about my house

I bet you're just dying to hear how our day of chores went. Well, it was actually never supposed to be more than an hour of chores; the main thing was deciding to do them on a specific day and then following through.

Well, today was not the best day. It was one of those days where everything took longer than I expected it to, leaving playdates in the dust and children disgruntled, finally making us late for Maya's 4PM chorus class. That's bad, when you can't get someplace by 4.

The cleaning part wasn't bad, though. Right now we're just doing the middle level of our split-level house. Best-case scenario will be that we incorporate cleaning the lower level, too. Middle ground is where we just maintain the middle level, worst-case (sadly, still all too likely in my opinion) sees us abandoning the whole project. I keep telling myself that if we can keep it clean for a month we'll be changed people. I only hope it's true.

So, anyway, a measly hour and a half or so of cleaning this afternoon and I feel comfortable saying that our countdown (or is it a countup?) has reached day 5.


Tuesday, November 27, 2007


Saturday, Sunday, Monday, Tuesday: 4 days clean

I have co-opted* enlisted the kids with the housekeeping effort – we have promised ourselves lavish rewards if we can keep the house clean until New Years. The question that continues to haunt me, though, is, "Is the house actually clean?" I don't want to start lying to myself so early in the game, but neither do I want to throw up my hands in despair after less than a week. I believe it serves the greater good to count the house as clean and keep on trying, but still, I wonder -- is it OK to have the sweater I'm starting out on the coffee table? Are the newspapers on the kitchen table permissible? I guess it actually helps to keep the bar pretty low, and not let ourselves off the hook.

Our first chore day falls tomorrow -- I wrote a little schedule that we will rotate through, each person taking a different job from one week to the next. It will be interesting to see how these days go. My expectation is that our enthusiasm will diminish over time, and that we'll gradually abandon these tasks, but who knows? Maybe we'll find a way to keep it going and still get some school work done as well. Ziad is working for some Legos, Maya a Bitty Baby, and I have promised myself a Hanne Falkenberg kit from eBay. I am playing around with a system of bonus points for completing tasks with acceptable quality in a minimum amount of time. Obviously we can't expect this level of reward on an ongoing basis, but maybe after a while it will become second nature. Or perhaps the feeling of a job well done, or the enjoyment of a house where you can actually find things, will become our reward. It's a whole new world out there. I hope we can find our way to it.



Monday, November 26, 2007

What fun!

Here is a meme from Zelda's blog. Unfortunately, despite my pleas for assistance, no one will tell me how to do strike out text. So for the ones I would have crossed out, I'm just going to put XXX in front of them. Herewith the instructions:

Bold the ones you’ve read
italicize the ones you want to read
cross out the ones you won’t touch with a 10 foot pole
+ put a cross in front of the ones on your book shelf
* the ones you’ve never heard of
(put parenthesis around the book if undecided)

1. XXXThe Da Vinci Code (Dan Brown)
2. +Pride and Prejudice (Jane Austen)
3. +To Kill A Mockingbird (Harper Lee)
4. Gone With The Wind (Margaret Mitchell)
5. + The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King (Tolkien)
6. + The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring (Tolkien)
7. + The Lord of the Rings: Two Towers (Tolkien)
8. + Anne of Green Gables (L.M. Montgomery)
9. (Outlander) (Diana Gabaldon)
10. A Fine Balance (Rohinton Mistry)*
11. + Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (Rowling)
12. XXXAngels and Demons (Dan Brown)*
13. + Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (Rowling))
14. + A Prayer for Owen Meany (John Irving)
15. (Memoirs of a Geisha) (Arthur Golden)
16. + Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (Rowling)
17. Fall on Your Knees (Ann-Marie MacDonald)*
18. XXXThe Stand (Stephen King)*
19. + Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban(Rowling)
20. + Jane Eyre (Charlotte Bronte)
21. + The Hobbit (Tolkien)
22. The Catcher in the Rye (J.D. Salinger)
23. Little Women (Louisa May Alcott)
24. The Lovely Bones (Alice Sebold)*
25. Life of Pi (Yann Martel)
26. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (Douglas Adams)
27. Wuthering Heights (Emily Bronte)
28. + The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe (C. S. Lewis)
29. + East of Eden (John Steinbeck)
30. (Tuesdays with Morrie) (Mitch Albom)
31. + Dune (Frank Herbert)
32. (The Notebook) (Nicholas Sparks)
33. XXX Atlas Shrugged (Ayn Rand)
34. 1984 (Orwell)
35. (The Mists of Avalon) (Marion Zimmer Bradley)
36. The Pillars of the Earth (Ken Follett)
37. The Power of One (Bryce Courtenay)*
38. I Know This Much is True (Wally Lamb)
39. The Red Tent (Anita Diamant)
40. The Alchemist (Paulo Coelho)
41. XXXThe Clan of the Cave Bear (Jean M. Auel)
42. The Kite Runner (Khaled Hosseini)
43. (Confessions of a Shopaholic) (Sophie Kinsella)
44. XXX The Five People You Meet In Heaven (Mitch Albom)
45. +Bible
46. Anna Karenina (Tolstoy)
47. The Count of Monte Cristo (Alexandre Dumas)
48. Angela’s Ashes (Frank McCourt)
49. + The Grapes of Wrath (John Steinbeck)
50. She’s Come Undone (Wally Lamb)
51. The Poisonwood Bible (Barbara Kingsolver)
52. A Tale of Two Cities (Dickens)
53. Ender’s Game (Orson Scott Card)*
54. + Great Expectations (Dickens)
55. The Great Gatsby (Fitzgerald)
56. The Stone Angel (Margaret Laurence)*
57. + Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (Rowling)
58. XXX The Thorn Birds (Colleen McCullough)
59. XXX The Handmaid’s Tale (Margaret Atwood)
60. The Time Traveller’s Wife (Audrew Niffenegger)*
61. Crime and Punishment (Fyodor Dostoyevsky)
62. XXX The Fountainhead (Ayn Rand)
63. War and Peace (Tolstoy)
64. XXX Interview With The Vampire (Anne Rice)
65. Fifth Business (Robertson Davis)*
66. One Hundred Years Of Solitude (Gabriel Garcia Marquez)
67. The Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants (Ann Brashares)
68. +Catch-22 (Joseph Heller)
69. Les Miserables (Hugo)
70. + The Little Prince (Antoine de Saint-Exupery)
71. (Bridget Jones’ Diary) (Fielding)
72. Love in the Time of Cholera (Marquez)
73. Shogun (James Clavell)
74. (The English Patient) (Michael Ondaatje)
75. +The Secret Garden (Frances Hodgson Burnett)
76. The Summer Tree (Guy Gavriel Kay)*
77. (A Tree Grows in Brooklyn) (Betty Smith)
78. (The World According To Garp) (John Irving)
79. The Diviners (Margaret Laurence)*
80. + Charlotte’s Web (E.B. White)
81. Not Wanted On The Voyage (Timothy Findley)*
82. Of Mice And Men (Steinbeck)
83. Rebecca (Daphne DuMaurier)
84. Wizard’s First Rule (Terry Goodkind)*
85. Emma (Jane Austen)
86. Watership Down (Richard Adams)
87. XXX Brave New World (Aldous Huxley)
88. The Stone Diaries (Carol Shields)*
89. Blindness (Jose Saramago)
90. Kane and Abel (Jeffrey Archer)*
91. In The Skin Of A Lion (Ondaatje)*
92. Lord of the Flies (Golding)
93. (The Good Earth) (Pearl S. Buck)
94. The Secret Life of Bees (Sue Monk Kidd)
95. XXX The Bourne Identity (Robert Ludlum)
96. The Outsiders (S.E. Hinton)*
97. White Oleander (Janet Fitch)
98. A Woman of Substance (Barbara Taylor Bradford)*
99. XXX The Celestine Prophecy (James Redfield)
100. Ulysses (James Joyce)

Although, you know, now that I've gone through the list, I think the criteria are somewhat crude. How do you signify that you read it, but you wish you hadn't (Legend of Owen Meany)? What about something you would read if you were stuck at the beach and someone had left it lying in the sand, but that you wouldn't really expend any energy to get hold of (The English Patient)? What about something you have absolutely no opinion about at all, although you've heard of it, all right (A Tree Grows in Brooklyn)? What about books you think you may have read ten or fifteen years ago but you're not 100% sure (Lord of the Flies)? What about the ones you got halfway through but then life demanded your attention and you never finished them (Ulysses)?

Plus, who came up with the list anyway? And how did they decide what to put on it? Seems pretty darn idiosyncratic to me.

So, you know what? Leave me a note if you got this from here, and link to your blog so I can see what you're reading.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Clean House Countdown

Well, as I was under the impression that the house was more or less clean (I was wrong, by the way), I thought, why not invite Nabil's family over for Ziad's birthday? Well, we made the invitation, and they made their counter invitation (no, we're not available for dinner, how about lunch?) and the race was on. Approximately 12 hours of frantic housecleaning, involving the entire family, ensued. And now the house really is clean. At least the downstairs part.

Now, I've had the downstairs clean before. And once it gets like that, I always think, OK, the hard part is over, now it never needs to get messy again. And yet, alas, it always does. Why? I don't really know. My hope is that now that the children are older, they can more actively participate in avoiding the mess (i.e., both pick up after themselves and do some cleaning). Sad experience has left me skeptical, I have to say, but hope springs eternal. Maybe this time!

I kind of think we're a flighty bunch (Nabil excepted) who tend to chase our enthusiasms, butterfly-like, without noticing that the chaos is encroaching. Can a regular cleaning schedule come to our aid? Probably not, since I don't even seem to be able to get them to make their beds when they get up in the morning. (How hard should that be?)

Anyway, in an effort to understand, and maybe fix, this problem, I am hereby instituting the clean house countdown: 1 day clean.

Maybe, if the house is still clean downstairs by the end of the week, we could actually get their rooms clean at the same time. Except I think if that happened the universe might explode.


Saturday, November 24, 2007

The contrary homeschooler

Ah, I bet you thought I meant my kids. Nope, it's me. I can remember one time my great-aunt telling me that my parents would disagree just for the sake of it, and being very offended that she would speak of my parents that way. I remember it often, though, because I frequently find myself saying no just because somebody else said yes. Even if I would have said yes originally.

I was talking to a friend at the park on Tuesday. We were comparing notes on French, since we're using the same program.

"Well, we started at the beginning of the school year, and we're just about up to lesson seven," she said.

"Hmm," I said, "We started last Thursday and we're up to lesson 4. How much do you do at one time?" I thought maybe we were doing something wrong.

"We listen to every lesson two times, maybe three."

"So do we."

"We do French two or three times a week, when we get to it."

Aha! We do French two or three times a day, seven days a week. We also do guitar and piano every day. Every single day, all year, every year. Which is more than most people even do their math. And WAY more than we do our math, because we do the math when we get to it. Every day for a few weeks, and then not at all for a while, then lots and lots and lots and then none.

And I remember reading in The Well Trained Mind something about how music and arts can wait but you must always make sure the math and reading get done. Once again, where other people zig, I zag. And I'm not sorry either. Because to me it seems just the opposite. My kids can figure a lot of stuff out, but music is a skill that you develop over time. There's no substitute for daily practice, and no faking it when you haven't done it. I know for a fact that they would not be as advanced musically if they had not worked as hard as they have. And I know that it's hard to learn a language without soaking up as much of it as you can. Reading though? Spelling? Eventually these skills get learned. Math? We can get up to speed when we need to.

And in the meantime, our lives are filled with music.


Friday, November 23, 2007

Içi on parle Français

Thanks to my friend Katherine, we found a French language program we really like. I was amazed. Both my budding mathematician and my humanities-major-to-be are having a blast. In fact, to my surprise, I would have to give a slight edge to the mathematician, in terms of catching on quickly and turning it into actual speech. (The humanities major has a better accent, though.) I guess his interest in runes and coding should have tipped me off.

Happily, they find humor in the most elementary kind of sentences. One particular favorite of theirs is "The egg is on the bowl." This is accompanied by a picture of a bowl turned upside down, with a bowl balanced on top, and it has them rolling on the floor every time. They like to make up their own, too, like "The airplane is on the table." So when we're listening to the French CD, I often have to admonish them to stop giggling so much -- not the kind of discipline I was concerned about. I was anticipating having to rope them in and sit them down, but in fact, they are willing participants in our little language sessions.

The thing is, they like making regular sentences, too, and at dinner will frequently observe "The boy is eating bread," or "The mother is eating meat." All this after a week of lessons. I found a bunch of French language CDs on Netflix that are now topping my queue, and am shopping around for some easy French reading. At this rate, we'll be needing a field trip to Paris soon.


Thursday, November 22, 2007

Happy Thanksgiving

The world is so full of a number of things
I'm sure we should all be as happy as kings

-- Robert Louis Stevenson

Today, I am. I hope you are too. Happy holidays to you all!

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Flanders and Swann

Flanders and Swann were a musical comedy duo, popular when I was young. They are sadly underrepresented on YouTube. There is, however, their charming Hippopotamus song:

And the immortal "The Gasman Cometh" which is so extremely British. How could you not love it?

Apparently the muppets were fans, too:

And I will close by stealing a quote:

Architecture, said Hegel, is frozen music, as you'll remember; Donald Swann's music is often being compared with defrosted architecture.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Catherine the Great

by Virginia Rounding

Roughly the contemporary of Marie Antoinette, Catherine was also the object of vicious slander, both during her lifetime and after. Unlike Marie, Catherine was a powerful, capable ruler who seized the throne from her husband in a coup and was subsequently implicated in his murder, at least indirectly. She then proceeded to take a series of lovers -- they seemed to be always be in their 20s, so as she aged, the gap in ages steadily widened -- in the most matter-of-fact, out-in-the-open way that it's not really too surprising that people enjoyed gossiping about her. She furthermore maintained close ties to her first three objects of affection: one who eventually became the King of Poland, another one of her finest generals, the third her lifelong advisor.

An interesting woman, obviously way ahead of her time.


Monday, November 19, 2007

'Twas Brillig

Twas brillig and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe
All mimsy were the borogroves
And the mome raths outgrabe

--from Through the Looking Glass, by Lewis Carroll

It turns out that 'gyre' is not just a nonsense word any more. It's a word used by marine scientists to describe a current pattern that creates a vortex in the ocean. Here is an animation that illustrates the concept beautifully. So why should this esoteric concept be of interest? Because of what's floating around in there. A floating patch of plastic trash currently estimated to be twice as big as the state of Texas. Why should you care? Well, for one thing, it's killing sea animals who mistake it for food, eat it, and then die of malnourishment. But perhaps you don't care about that.

So why else should you care? Because that plastic is breaking down into little pieces. Not biodegrading entirely, just getting small enough to look like food to plenty of organisms at the bottom of the food chain. And when something enters the bottom of the food chain, who ends up eating it? You, me, and everyone we care about. It's just naive to think that we can ingest plastic indefinitely without any ill-effects to our health. This article, written in 2003, is worth reading. I wonder, does anyone even remotely imagine that things have improved since then?

And if the article isn't your thing, here's a video:

Food for thought.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Lost in Space

We tried to go to family night and NASA-Ames last night. We actually physically got there, all four of us for a change, and it was just a mob scene. The exhibits were spread out all over the NASA campus, so far from each other that they had a shuttle running to take people from one to the next. It was kind of cool seeing how many people had turned out for this geek-fest (I guess my son is not the only person whose TV of choice is the NASA channel) but the flip side of these crowds was the basic impossibility of getting very close to anything interesting. The line of people waiting to get into the Visitor's Center was positively Disney-esque. No Way.

I heard about this evening from a friend who teaches astronomy. She was pretty excited about it, because she had heard that the theme was going to be the upcoming lunar expeditions that NASA-Ames will be participating in. Apparently they are also going to be trying to get backyard astronomers involved, because the rockets that orbit the moon will be clearly visible with binoculars or telescopes at certain points in their orbit.

It all sounds really wonderful, and for all I know there was some place, somewhere in the middle of it all, where you could get actual information, but all I know is I never found it.

We did manage to catch a cool robotics display, with a robot made by some Girl Scouts (all right! "We're Girl Scouts and we come to NASA to build our robots.") It scooted around at dizzying speeds, and picked up a pool tube without puncturing it. That was fun, but I'm not sure it justified the drive and the parking and the overall fatigue that the rest of the evening generated.

Maybe I'll try another one in two years or so.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

I hope it's just a phase

For two weeks in a row now, we've had issues at guitar class.

"And I'm paying for this because ....." I'm thinking.

What's amazing to me is that Ziad will not even countenance the idea of a) quitting or b) switching teachers. At the same time, he doesn't seem to want to make the mental shift to a frame of mind that would make his lessons go more smoothly. What's a mother to do? I'm strongly tempted just to pull him out of the lessons, but we've already paid non-refundable tuition through January (crafty, crafty, guitar teacher). Miraculously, these periods of bumpy obstinacy in class seem always to happen right AFTER I've plunked down a huge chunk of cash, never right before.

To top it all off, he's definitely made a lot of progress. When he wants to put his mind to it, he plays beautifully. It seems a shame to call it all to a halt, but I'm really tired of that broken-record feeling -- his teacher feels disrespected, Ziad feels disregarded, both of them are getting frustrated and the clock is ticking as no music gets learned. I partly feel that it's not his teacher's place to teach him life lessons about manners; I also feel Ziad needs to treat people better. I mostly feel stuck in the middle, since when we're actually in guitar class, I can't stop the clock to give him the standard lecture on why he should not be doing this if he's the one who wants guitar lessons. The one he's heard at least a hundred times. Let's see, minimum of once a week for five years? That makes it more like 250 times. Enough. More than enough. Especially since we go through periods when it's more like (more than) once a day.

Then I see his face when he's really absorbed in playing a song that he loves and I know I could never make him quit as long as he wants to keep going.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Clawstone Castle, Castle in the Air; Castles, Castles Everywhere

The Beasts of Clawstone Castle
by Eva Ibbotson

This is a lovely book. It is afflicted somewhat with the cartoon characters I complained about previously, but it has other-worldly snow-white snows to compensate. I share Ibbotson's evident dislike of developers, and love of old ramshackle buildings, so this book was a joy in many ways.

Castle in the Air
by Diana Wynne Jones

This book just kept on surprising me. Although at one point I'm sure I noticed the magic carpet and flying djinn of the cover artwork, when I started reading about Abdullah the carpet merchant in the bazaar, the strong feeling of deja vu in reading this so soon after Carlo Chuchio was startling. Then, as the book neared its conclusion, the somewhat unexpected morphing of many characters into familiar friends from Howl's Moving Castle threw me for a loop. Well, kind of. I was wondering, what with the connection in the titles, whether there was going to be some kind of overlap.

Like Howl's Moving Castle, this book presents many things that are not what they seem, and plot twists that are amusing and inventive. I enjoyed it a lot.


Thursday, November 15, 2007

Lloyd Alexander

When I finished reading The Golden Dream of Carlo Chuchio, I was impressed by the large bibliography of Alexander's books listed at the beginning of the book. The first books of his I ever read were the first volumes in the Chronicles of Prydain -- The Black Cauldron, I think, is the first one I read. I can still remember the library I checked them out from. It was not my normal library. I have no idea now which town that library was in, how I happened to have a library card from there, or what I was doing there at all. I remember the shelves, and the look of the books, and not much else.

Now that I'm raising two fantasy buffs, both of whom love Tolkien, revisiting those books made sense. Tolkein's work is grounded in European mythology, the Chronicles in Welsh mythology; both deal in an epic way with the struggle between good and evil. Interestingly, the books we got out of the library seem to have been the same editions I checked out so many years ago. Published in the early sixties, they mark the beginning of Alexander's successful career as a writer for children. Forty years later, it's not really surprising that he's written a lot since then, but when I saw the list it was a nice feeling. Something that has existed only as a memory, feeling fixed and static, is in fact a living, growing thing. His body of work is a living bridge between the present and my past.

"It's great," I thought, "that a writer I remember from my childhood can be part of my life now. It's cool to know that he's still writing."

So I started looking for the publication date. Which is when I noticed that the book had been published by his estate. And that the little author bio found on the back flap of the dust cover has two years in parentheses next to his name, as in (1924-2007). Apparently he died in May.

So the discovery of his many books that remain for our family to explore is a sad one, too, because now that list really is fixed, written in stone as much as any monument to his memory.

I was surprised to learn that he is an American writer. Given the double l in his first name, and the Welsh underpinnings to his best-known works, I had jumped to the conclusion that he was British. Nope. Born in Pennsylvania, and living there when he died. It also somehow surprised me that he's written several award-winning books that I've never even heard of. There is a list of them here, which I plan to work my way through. I just wish I had gotten to it sooner.


Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Reading List

The following list of books is organized by the date I returned them to the library. There is overlap between the two children, obviously, since they both tend to read most of what we check out. Maya says she has actually read all the bird books, which makes her much more of an authority on bird care than I can claim to be. Ziad's attention has been largely focused on Harry Potter lately, which explains why the number of library books he's read as dropped off dramatically. So really this is just a partial reading list, but I think it demonstrates adequately that even though they are homeschooled, they are literate (and at or above grade level).

Ziad’s reading list:

October 24
Parrots and Parakeets as Pets
Keeping Unusual Pets: Cockatiels
Growing Up With Science (Illustrated Encyclopedia of Invention) v.2
Angelina’s Halloween (Angelina Ballerina series)
Arty Facts: Animals and Art activities
The Unicorn’s Secret 8: The Journey Home

October 30
Fire and Wings: Dragon Tales from East and West
Young Cam Jansen and the Substitute Mystery (Level 2)
Space Emergency: Astronauts in Danger
My Parakeet

November 6
Secrets of Droon: Under the Serpent Sea

Maya’s reading list:

October 24
American Humane Pet Care Library: Birds
A New True Book: Talking Birds
My Parakeet
Parrots and Parakeets as Pets
Keeping Unusual Pets: Cockatiels
Henry and Beezus
Angelina’s Halloween (Angelina Ballerina series)
Arty Facts: Animals and Art activities
Young Cam Jansen and the Substitute Mystery (Level 2)
Best of Friends (Puppy Patrol #17)
Mystery of the Dark Lighthouse (Mystic Lighthouse Mysteries)
The Unicorn’s Secret 8: The Journey Home

October 30
Animal Ark: Kitten in the Cold
Animal Ark: Horse in the House
Animal Ark: Foals in the Field
Fire and Wings: Dragon Tales from East and West
Eyewitness Books: Dance

November 6
Secrets of Droon: Under the Serpent Sea
ASPCA Pet Care Guides for Kids: Birds
Unicorns of Balinor: By Fire, By Moonlight
Island of the Aunts
Not Just a Witch
Little Women
School Trouble for Andy Russell


Tuesday, November 13, 2007

The Golden Dream of Carlo Chuchio

by Lloyd Alexander

This book raises a lot of questions for me. While I was reading it, I found the story very gripping. It reminded me a lot of the Coelho book we read a while back, The Alchemist, because of its quasi-middle-Eastern setting and fantastic elements. The characters were also pretty 0ne-dimensional. This is definitely a fairy tale, and there's nothing wrong with that.

The issues I have deal partly with subject matter. A key plot element is the kidnap and escape of a young girl. It is clear from the context that she is meant to be sold into slavery as a prostitute or concubine. This introduces themes of sexual enslavement and rape even though the text glosses over it. How explicit would this have to be before I say that I think this is inappropriate for young children? To what degree is it OK for my children to skim over these depths without noticing too much (which is surely what would happen if they read this book)? I can't help feeling that the subtext here is like a time bomb that can go off inappropriately -- that stories where girls are vulnerable in this way conveys a message they don't need to get in their psyches, however subliminally.

Then there are issues of style. What is up with these semi-Arabic names and turns of phrase? Why does the fawning servant with the Arabic name speak in a flowery style that is basically satirical? Why is his name (Baksheesh) a real word (it means cash or tip in Arabic) when everybody else has made-up names? Why does the leader of the horse caravan speak an obvious pidgin English and why is his adherence to tribal honor and customs lampooned so predictably? Have the PC thought police wormed their way into my brain so that I have lost all sense of humor, or is this just light-hearted fun and I should ease up already? I swear, I can't tell any more.

I honestly can't decide what I think about this. For myself, I liked the book, I thought it was funny and interesting, and it had some cool plot twists. But I think I'm going to be taking it back to the library without giving it to my kids.


Monday, November 12, 2007

NEA against children

Please sign this petition protesting the National Education Association's resolution against homeschooling. Please send this link to all your friends and ask them to sign it, too. If you want to know why I think you should do this, please read the rest of this post.

The National Education Association has made it their official policy that they oppose homeschooling.

Now, if you look at their website, there's really nothing there that would make you suspect that they would be irrational on the subject. They're strong advocates for public schooling. That's good. I'm sure we'd all like to see public schools as the shining beacons of enlightenment and education that they have the potential to be.

Would we, however, advocate for improving schools by forbidding private schools? I think not. That would be crazy. So why is it OK to attack what is, in essence, the most private of schools, the homeschool? (In fact, legally, there is no homeschooling in California. Here, students are either enrolled in a very small private school, such as the Aquitaine Academy, or they are doing private home study through a charter school, such as Ocean Grove.) It's clear, however, that the institution of children being educated in the home by their parents is what the NEA's resolution opposes:

Instruction should be by persons who are licensed by the appropriate state education licensure agency, and a curriculum approved by the state department of education should be used.

This statement about licensure really gets me, because with all due respect to the many fine teachers out there, my perception of the licensure process is that it filters out all the individuals who are too intelligent to jump through its many hoops in order to make a lousy salary at a job that has been reduced to enforcing discipline in oversized classes while force-feeding children information to be regurgitated later on tests. Or, to put it another way, I've known plenty of teachers who were both a) not very bright, b) not well educated, or c) both. Especially about math. Don't get me started about math education in elementary schools.

Here's another problematic sentence:

Home schooling should be limited to the children of the immediate family, with all expenses being borne by the parents/guardians.

Goodbye, homeschool coops! Yet coops are one of the best ways for homeschool children to work together (socialization, anyone?). They are an extremely effective piece of the puzzle for many homeschooling families.


The Association also believes that home-schooled students should not
participate in any extracurricular activities in the public schools.

This just seems flat-out mean. Homeschooling parents pay taxes, just like anyone, they are doing the best they can for their kids, just like anyone. To me it makes no sense to say they should be shut out completely, just because their families feel that they would do best academically in the home rather than the classroom environment. If public schools are so all-fired great, shouldn't we be trying to get them involved there, to the degree that we can, for their own good?

Tellingly, if you examine the pdf document of their 2007-08 resolutions, the section on homeschooling is under the heading:


Which goes, I think, to the heart of their objection to homeschooling. It has little to do with the welfare of homeschooled children. Any objective look at homeschooling will reveal that homeschooled children are as non-homogeneous a population as you would expect any group to be. Some thrive, some don't. Some excel academically, others don't. Is there some reason that homeschoolers should be required to outperform public school students?

So if it's not about the welfare of children, what's it about? Funding. Homeschooled children take funding away from public schools when they don't park their little behinds down in a classroom. Theoretically, this should be a zero-sum situation. They don't bring in money, but schools aren't spending anything on them either. Apparently, though, it doesn't work that way. According to the NEA, homeschooled children are a threat to public school funding.

Which lead us to resolution B-75, Homeschooling, right after B-74, Classroom use of Animals. These people have a policy for everything. And this huge, unwieldy document that contains their resolutions also serves to illustrate my huge problem with their organization, and with public schools in general. Way too many people, so weighted down by their collective concerns that life becomes unliveable. People going to school, becoming experts, paying lip service to my role in my child's life while telling me that they really know best.

To reiterate:

My children would NOT be better off in public school.

I did not bring them into the world in order to funnel tax dollars into the public schools.

I categorically reject the notion that state licensure of teachers creates individuals who know more about what's best for my children than I do.

I support the right of all children to public education, and I just as firmly support the right of my children to the private education that I am willing and able to provide to them.

Here is the link again.

Please sign.


Sunday, November 11, 2007

IMAX on Netflix

We just re-joined Netflix for the educational videos (and the back catalog of cable TV shows that I haven't seen in their entirety. ROME, Season 1! Monk!). Is IMAX educational? Well, sort of, I guess.

The first one we watched was Hidden Hawaii. It has a fair number of shots of volcanoes, as well as some interesting footage of underwater vents. We have two more IMAX films with semi-volcanic themes on tap, so you could say we're getting some geology study in.

Watching IMAX on TV at home, though, I noticed a few things about their format that hadn't caught my attention in the theater. Firstly, these movies are actually very short. Less than 45 minutes. That's actually good, in my book, if you just want to while away the brief period between dinner and bedtime with some TV.

Second, and more egregious, is the disjointedness of their screenplays. IMAX is all about creating sensation with their fancy projection. Fighting off motion sickness induced by their swooping camera segues, it's easy to forget that there is really no continuity between one scene and the next. In the theater, that is. At home, where our tiny TV screen is unable to give us that feeling of vertigo, the abrupt transitions are all too obvious. We're under the water looking at thermal vents; no, we're at the top of an enormous cliff pollinating rare plants by hand; no wait, we're skimming over a molten lava flow.

And lastly, I honestly had no idea how many IMAX movies were out there. I have ten in my queue right now, and there are plenty more where those came from.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

The Bitter Homeschooler

This list has been making the rounds of homeschooling e-mail lists. I think it's pretty funny. It's getting a lot of good responses -- most homeschoolers seem to agree this is pretty right-on.

My personal favorite is number 16:
16. Don't ask my kid if she wouldn't rather go to school unless you don't mind if I ask your kid if he wouldn't rather stay home and get some sleep now and then.

Secular Homeschooling Magazine


Friday, November 09, 2007

Why is Sex Fun?

by Jared Diamond

The key to understanding human sexuality is to recognize that it is a problem in evolutionary biology.
-- from the preface

This is a great book. Diamond's tone reminds me somewhat of Bill Bryson. He's a scientist, though, not a travel writer, and as a scientist, he certainly asks some interesting questions about topics people generally take for granted. For example:

p. 42: Among seahorses it's the male rather than the female that becomes pregnant; why is that not also true for humans?

p. 65: Why don't women give clear ovulatory signals, like most other female animals, so that we can restrict sex to moments when it could do us some good?*

p. 89: What are men good for?

p. 104: (regarding human menopause) How could natural selection possibly result in every female member of a species carrying genes that throttle her ability to leave more descendants?

p. 142 (comparing male human endowment to that of the apes) Are those extra couple of inches of the human penis a functionally unnecessary luxury?

These are good questions. They get even better answers. He manages to poke holes in some of our most basic assumptions about human behavior while simultaneously using these assumptions as a source of humor. So the reader is laughing and looking at things in a new light all at the same time, an edifying and enjoyable experience.

Also, unlike several biographies I could mention, this book is quite short.

*Charmingly, he prefaces his discussion of the question as follows:

By now, you may have decided that I'm the prime example of an ivory tower scientist searching unnecessarily for problems to explain. I can hear several billion of the world's people protesting, "There's no problem to explain, except why Jared Diamond is such an idiot. You don't understand why we have sex all the time? Because its fun, of course!"

Unfortunately, that answer doesn't satisfy scientists.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

My Firstborn

Today is Jennifer's birthday.

She hasn't lived at home for a long time. Day-to-day concerns are so pressing for me that she's not always at the forefront of my thoughts, but she's close, so close, to my heart. I was young when she was born, not just because I was 23, but because I was still immature, unformed in many ways. We kind of grew up together. My life was unhurried and uncluttered when she was little (like a child still living with its parents, really) so we spent a lot of time together just playing, or hanging out at the park.

Who is she now?

Her own person, someone I love to talk to because she thinks in the same kind of way I do, but along totally different lines. So she can take a position that would normally be completely foreign to me and show me some merit in it.

Someone who becomes more responsible and caring every year. We've put the difficult teen years so far behind us now. This should give hope to every mother of a teenage girl, because our rocky period was REALLY rocky. She calls, she remembers birthdays, she makes time for her siblings.

She's a beautiful person, both inside and out. Talented and creative, smart and funny, able to navigate social situations that would leave me completely at a loss, I'm so glad I'm related to her. She's opened up doors in my life that I would otherwise have passed by without noticing.

Many happy returns of the day, sweetheart.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Das Rheingold

We are continuing our foray into the world of opera. San Francisco Opera is performing Das Rheingold later this year, and I realized all of a sudden that the storyline, rooted as it is in the Norse myths and legends that Ziad has already studied, would be a good fit for our family. Unfortunately it is a three hour opera that is performed without intermissions. I don't even think I could stay focused and enjoy the music for that long without a break. So we're watching it on DVD, a half hour or forty-five minutes at a time. After watching the first scene, I was really enjoying it, but I wasn't too sure about the kids. The next night, though, to my surprise, Ziad asked "Can we watch some more of that opera tonight?" Apparently, the story really has caught his attention. Of course, it also has obvious connections to Tolkien's Ring trilogy, which he loves.

So while Ziad struggled to stay awake and read the subtitles, Maya and I listened and chatted about the music. I've never listened to the whole thing before, but I've read many times about Wagner's use of leitmotif. (Leitmotif is a musical theme associated with a character or idea -- think of the Imperial March in Star Wars. Don't you always hear that music when you think of Darth Vader?) It's amazing how beautifully the different themes blend together and shimmer in and out of the music. One of my favorite theatrical devices is the scrim, which is like a backdrop when lit from the front, but becomes transparent when lit from the back. Scenes shown behind a backlit scrim are often used to depict dreams or memories of the characters in front; somehow the way the musical themes gently surface in the music has that same quality of an almost subconscious reminder.

Music from this opera has made it into movies, most recently "Nosferatu" and "The New World." So maybe you've been enjoying it, too.

Darth Vader's theme:

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Eva Ibbotson

Two books of hers I have read recently:

Not Just a Witch
Island of the Aunts

She came highly recommended by a homeschooler I know, so I looked forward to reading them. And now that I have, I am beginning to wonder -- what is it about British writers that they are so focused on some of the nastier aspects of human behavior? Bullying is an especially prevalent theme, but petty-minded selfishness comes in a lot as well. Diana Wynne-Jones, J.K. Rowling, Raold Dahl, Jenny Nimmo, and yes, Eva Ibbotson all seem to spend a lot of ink on characters that are unpleasant in very specific and similar ways. It's not just that they are selfish and mean, but they're also shallow and one-dimensional, a kind of cartoon villainy that seems flat and predictable to me.

In J.K. Rowling's books, I have always felt that her scenes with the muggle family who take Harry in are her very weakest. In fact, when I read her first book for the first time, the first chapter was almost enough to make me close the book in disgust. (I'm glad I kept reading.) With Island of the Aunts, my feeling was that my kids didn't really need to be exposed to this ugliness. The thing is, that with all these authors, there is a lot of other stuff as well, all of it interesting and fun to read. Which way do the scales tip? Overall good, or not worth it?

So I decided just to keep out of it and let Maya read it for herself. She loved it. And when I asked her about the characters I hadn't liked, she said they made her sad but there was so much else in the book that she loved. And since I'm probably way over sensitive about things like this, I bet most everybody else would like them, too.

Island of the Aunts is about three sisters (who have a fourth sister, who has children, thus making them genuine aunts) who care for the injured wildlife, somesupernatural, that appears on the shore of their island. Realizing that they're not getting any younger, they take a unique approach to finding someone to carry on after they're gone. Not Just a Witch is about two witches actually, both idealistic and longing to make the world a better place.

For those of you that haven't read Eva Ibbotson's books, I think they're worth checking out. Definitely well-written, imaginative and quirky, and awarded with Maya's seal of approval.


Monday, November 05, 2007

One-track mind in action

I had the following odd conversation with Maya while we were warming ourselves in front of a wood-burning stove with a glass door that showed the flames inside. She said to me, "I bet it would hurt to catch on fire."

That got my attention. "Yes," I said, wondering how far to take this. I didn't get a chance to follow-up, though, because she beat me to it.

"Did you ever catch on fire?"

OK, well now I was really not sure how to respond, so I just said, "No."

"Ever know somebody that caught on fire?"

(!!!!! ) "No ....."

"If I ever caught on fire I would stop, drop, and roll really quickly."

"That's good."

"I think the best time to catch fire would be in the morning when the sprinklers --"

"Can we please stop talking about this now?" OMG!

I still don't quite know what to make of it.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Marie Antoinette

by Antonia Fraser

Do history professors hate Antonia Fraser? Are they green with jealousy?

The reason I ask is that many professors I have known basically regarding teaching as the price they have to pay for being able to make a living while doing research. Yet here is Antonia Frasier, born, it seems, with a silver spoon in her mouth, writing blockbuster biographies supported by the most meticulous research with nary a student to pester her and no exams to grade. She gets to waltz through Europe, gaining access to all sorts of primary documents, without, as far as I can tell, even having earned an advanced degree. She has time to read every work ever published in her field of interest. What a life! I'm not even a historian, and I'm envious.

The Teen Queen: Marie Antoinette I really loved this biography of Marie Antoinette. All this time, I had no idea that I was a victim of propaganda more than two centuries old in my uninformed opinions about her. The effect of this propaganda on the people of her time, and the massive substitution of emotion for rational thought in the political climate of this time are both very relevant to conditions today. There's much food for thought there, as well as the always interesting portrait of life in another time and place. I certainly appreciated the way this book lets Marie Antoinette speak for herself, in quotes from her letters, and conversations remembered and recorded by people who knew her.

This book is interesting, informative, and well-written. What more could you ask? It even has way more pictures than the average non-fiction book, something that I really enjoyed. At approximately 450 pages, this book might be a little long for casual reading, but I nonetheless recommend it highly.

I'm also including a few Marie Antoinette links for anyone who might be interested.

This page was created in conjunction with a PBS show about her. It has some interesting interactive features.

This page has a gallery of portraits of Marie Antoinette, all painted by Elisabeth Vigee LeBrun. So it's interesting to see the work of a woman painter in a time where painters were generally men, and also to see the variety of ways she painted Marie Antoinette.


Saturday, November 03, 2007


Fire is scary. When the wildfire was burning in the county park across the hills from us, we came home one night to see flames on the ridge shooting up into the dark sky. Even though those hills are miles away from us, across the valley, Ziad and Maya were upset. Even apart from our sorrow at the destruction the fire was causing, we were just freaked out. I was hiking with Maya one time in a park where the rangers were conducting a controlled burn. Even though we never got anywhere near the blaze, little bits of ash were carried by the wind, landing on the ground in front of us. The sky was darkened by the smoke, and the sun turned orange in the haze. It was incredibly spooky, and my reaction was just to get the hell out of those woods as fast as we could.

This video about wildfires and wildlife management, sent out by a friend on an e-mail list, seems timely.

There's more information on the show's web page.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Disturbing Day

We were in Santa Cruz on Thursday, and after some discussion, we decided to head over to Natural Bridges for a brief visit. At first Ziad and Maya were playing on the small stone cliffs that overlook a large pool of water, well inland from the shore. Eventually, Ziad moved over to dig in the sand. Maya went up to the top of the cliff. After a while I decided to go check on her, but she was nowhere in sight. This was extremely scary, because I was at the highest point in the vicinity, and I had a good view all around me. I couldn't see her anywhere. I started calling her, loud enough so that the few people below me on the beach started looking at me and waving, but Maya herself did not respond. I panicked. Ziad was getting upset, too. I didn't know where to look, or where to go, so I kind of helplessly starting walking in circles, calling her name as loud as I could (which, really, is pretty loud, although the noise of the surf was louder). No answer, none. It seemed like this went on forever, and I wondered what to do. Finally, I saw her, walking back along the shelf of rock where people like to wander looking at tidepools. When I asked her later, she said she hadn't heard me calling at all, but had just decided to turn around and come back. Which means she had gone pretty far along that shelf of rock, far enough away from me not to be safe. I kept thinking, what if she had fallen into the water? The currents are rough there. Teenagers drown there every year. It can happen.

As soon as she got close enough, we all headed for the car. Maya got to hear an extremely long and emotional lecture about the many reasons why she should never, never, get out of earshot. What if she needed help? What if I did? As of last evening, I was still too upset to really talk to her normally. As of this morning, I'm still replaying the scene in my mind.

I think part of me is really worried that Maya is just too good to be true, and that something is going to happen to take her away. I worry about all my children, and love them all, too, but this fear I have about Maya goes above and beyond that. I never realized how superstitious I am until I looked at this side of myself, the side that believes all too easily that treasuring something puts it at risk.

And the thing is that I don't know what to do about this. I already watch her pretty closely. I can't see that hovering even more would be a good thing, but then, I never thought she would wander so far away from me anywhere, let alone along a rocky cliff next to strong ocean currents. I don't think that refusing to ever go anywhere near the ocean in the absence of a 1-1 parent-child ratio is really a good response either. But I sure as hell don't want a repeat of this episode. (And don't even bother telling me to chill. That is just not in the cards when it comes to my children.)

Well, Maya is OK. Realistically, she was not in much danger (but what about sneaker waves?) and I'm OK too, although I feel about five years older than I did Wednesday. Time to count our blessings, I think.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Hidden Villa Haunted Trail

Before the Halloween memories fade entirely, I want to post about the Haunted Trail we visited. I'm of two minds about this event. On the one hand, really imaginative, gentle characters giving treats is a nice antidote to the blood-and-guts horrorshow that so many people seem to enjoy at Halloween. As the guide stressed repeatedly, "Is anyone going to jump out at you? Is there going to be anything really scary? NO!" On the other hand, kind of lame.

We saw the mad scientist in the barn, the accordion-playing troll under the bridge, the witch in the haunted house, the long stretch of trail festooned with spiderwebs, Queen Nefertiti who asked us a riddle, a ghost picnic, the pirate stranded by the creek, the elf in the tree, the oversized chick.

We had hot cider and homemade treats, then listened to a spooky story nicely told by a woman in a witch costume. We were cold, so had to miss the do-it-yourself opera that was being staged next.

It was a beautiful night. The moon was full, and the clouds in the sky were glowing in a suitably eerie way. Hidden Villa is beautiful at night. The entry is a large meadow framed by steep wooded hills that make a wonderful silhouette in the night sky. It's very dark, and the hills seem to shut out all the glow from the valley. Walking into the woods was nice, too.

We were in a small group, with a young volunteer as a guide, and I want to close by asking if I'm the only one who finds her costume borderline inappropriate. She was a brick house. The costume itself consisted of a tunic with a brick pattern, ending just below the hips with a small ruffle. The cloth was patterned with bricks, naturally. She had two windows, with open shutters and paned glass, one over each breast, and there was a little doorway situated over her crotch. Of course one little girl wanted to know what was behind the door, but the guide was somewhat coy about this and told her to wait till the end of the walk. It turned out there was a cat behind the door. Perhaps I've spent too much time watching British comedy with an excessive number of bad jokes turning on the cat/pussy double entendre; of course no eight year old or even ten year old is going to pick up on this, especially since using pussy for cat is becoming an outdated usage. Still I felt it struck a discordant note for a children's event. So what do you think?