Monday, March 31, 2008

The Brothers Lionheart

by Astrid Lindgren

As I read this book, I wondered what I could possibly say about it. It was very difficult for me to read, but as I read, I realized that the difficulty reflected the degree to which the book had drawn me in, causing me to care and feel for the main character. There's a quote from Lloyd Alexander on the back cover:
The Brothers Lionheart is a remarkable book. Astrid Lindgren surely gains new stature in probing a world far removed from that of the admirable Pippi Longstocking -- this one is far deeper, and more demanding of courage, than any of Lindgren's previous works. Even on a surface level, the story must be her most unusual and unexpected; but what sticks in the mind are the endlessly fascinating questions she raises. Lindgren is speculating not only on the human situation but on the very nature of what may or may not lie very darkly beyond it. It may be unsettling, but that's exactly as it should be.

I guess I would really seize on "demanding of courage" (I had to put the book down several times) and "unsettling," but I would have to add "beautiful." Flashes of joy in the midst of sorrow and danger streak through this book, making it difficult to fully describe or characterize.

Would I recommend it to my children? I'm not sure. Would I stop them from reading it? Definitely not. Any family that reads this book together is certainly going to have a lot to talk about.

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Sunday, March 30, 2008

Danger Will Robinson, Danger!

Because I am not good at the HTML, or maybe because I am just lazy, I cannot steal these amusing computer error messages. So I just have to send you over to Tan Lucy Pez to read them for yourselves.

Happy Sunday!

Saturday, March 29, 2008

How green is my garden?

I love plants. Unfortunately for me, and even more unfortunately for my plants, I'm a terrible gardener. That is because my gardening, like my housekeeping, tends to be sporadic. And unlike the laundry, which will still be there for me to fold when I get around to it, plants can not wait to be watered. They will die, and many have, while I was off at museums and zoos and what have you. I've tried to get around this by making the watering someone else's job (the children's, of course), but then I just have to remember to tell them to actually do it. There's some improvement here from the plant's point of view, but not a whole lot.

But I still have gardening tips to share with you!

1) Perhaps this will strike you as gross. It works well for me, though. I keep a jug on the counter in the kitchen. Whenever I have some water I would normally empty into the sink, for example from cooking pasta, or water left in drinking glasses I am getting ready to wash, or whatever, I pour it into the jug. Then I water plants with that water. That way I save water and actually water plants! Killing two birds with one stone. Hmm, not perhaps the best metaphor for a tree-hugging save-the-planet kind of post. Whatever.

2) Coffee grounds and tea leaves. Excellent fertilizer, and way easier than composting. You can actually put them right on the dirt around the plants' roots. This idea is not original with me -- a family I used to know used this technique on everything, even their house plants. Which were lush.

3) Crushed egg shells. They're supposed to be a slug-deterrant, which is why I started strewing them on the ground in my garden, but I'm noticing a lot of shiny leaves and new growth where the egg shells have gone. You can cover them up with coffee grounds if the white from the egg shells (or rainbow colors, at this particular time of year) bothers you.

What do all three of these things have in common? The fact that they force me to do something for my plants at more or less regular intervals. I cannot have unlimited piles of egg shells and coffee grounds on the counter. The jug gets full and I need to empty it. The normal rhythm of my kitchen life begins to encompass the garden as well, which means that it becomes much less of the wasteland it had been formerly. I even pulled some weeds when I was out there watering this morning. Imagine!

The interesting thing to me is that practically every plant in my garden has responded well to these methods. I know there are specially formulated fertilizers for all different kinds of plants, so this one-size-fits-all approach is probably not for advanced gardeners. For a rank and clumsy amateur like myself, though, it's a revelation.


Thursday, March 27, 2008

Continuing News

From my e-mail:

This just in...

A state appeals court has agreed to reconsider its decision last month that barred homeschooling by parents who lack teaching credentials, raising the possibility that the judges will change a decision that has infuriated homeschool advocates nationwide.

[Here's a link]

Diane Flynn Keith
Editor, Homefires
Author, Carschooling
Founder, Universal Preschool


Wednesday, March 26, 2008

OK, this bothers me

Does anyone see the problem with this paragraph from an e-mail the Obama campaign sent me?

In February alone, more than 94% of our donors gave in amounts of $200 or less. Meanwhile, campaign finance reports show that donations of $200 or less make up just 13% of Senator McCain's total campaign funds, and only 26% of Senator Clinton's.

I didn't catch it right away myself. The fact is, they are comparing apples to oranges. It may be that 94% of their donors gave relatively small amounts, but nowhere do they mention what percentage of their campaign funds that added up to. They make it look like Obama has 94% popular support compared to Hillary's 26% and McCain's 13%. Who knows what the real numbers would look like, if they actually compared percentage of funds for all three? I'm guessing not so flattering for Obama, although conceivably he would still look best.

I just really dislike this kind of sloppy and disingenuous argumentation, and I can't believe for a minute it isn't done deliberately.

On the other hand, Hillary's current invitation for me to donate and win a ticket to an Elton John concert doesn't do much for me either.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Island of the Aunts

by Eva Ibbitson

Maya says:

Island of the Aunts seems to be a half magic book. It has mermaids and creatures I've never heard of, like a booberie and the great kraken, but they really are just animals that you don't see every day.

All the animals on the island have problems. For example, the mermaids have oil on their tails. The booberies' (it's a bird) eggs won't come out. The stoorworm is like a huge white worm. He worries about his thoughts not going all the way down his body, and wants plastic surgery.

The Aunts couldn't fix all these problems by themselves, so they chose some children to help them. Two of the children worked out well, but one used his cell phone to call for help. His father brought a boat and threatened to put all the animals in zoos to make money. Finally, the great kraken came and hummed. His hum made a huge storm. All the good animals escaped. The children escaped with the animals. At the end, the Aunts return to the island and leave it to the children in their so that there will always be someone to regard the island as a sacred treasure, the way that they do.

I think this is a good book. It teaches you to take care of things, and not just try to make money out of them.

Sarah says:

I already wrote about this book here.

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Sunday, March 23, 2008

Geepers, Peepers!

Peeps aplenty --

in Chicago

in Denver

and, best of all,

in Washington.

Lastly, my favorite Peeps pun:


Thursday, March 20, 2008

State Representatives

If you live in my neck of the woods, here is the info for contacting your state representatives:

Assembly Member Ira Ruskin

Capitol Address
State Capitol
Room 3123
Sacramento, CA 94249-0021
(916) 319-2021

District Address
5050 El Camino Real Suite 117
Los Altos, CA 94022
(650) 691-2121

Senate (Dist. 15 - Rep)

Senator Abel Maldonado

Capitol Address
State Capitol
Room 4082
Sacramento, CA 94248-0001
(916) 651-4015

District Address
1356 Marsh Street
San Luis Obispo, CA 93401
(805) 549-3784

So if you want to give them a call and tell them what a good idea it would be for homeschooling in this state to continue on EXACTLY as it has so far, have at it! You could even mention ACR 115, a resolution (not legislation) currently under consideration, which proposes just that.

HSC has even provided talking points, if you're interested:

1. Homeschooling is chosen by a wide spectrum of the California
public, including liberal and non-religious people.

2. Homeschooling is growing in popularity all over; homeschoolers are
included among that member's constituents. The parents who choose this
option have strong reasons for doing so, and they will continue

3. Homeschooling was working well before the current appellate court
decision; it wasn't broken and it doesn't need to be fixed.

4. Every child deserves to receive the best education for his or her
specific needs. For many children, learning at home provides the best
chance at receiving a quality education, and parents are in the best
position to make that determination. For the "what if" cases (abuse,
neglect), we have laws in place to deal with those things.

5. ACR 115 asks the legislature to recognize that homeschooling is an
option for CA children and that the recent court decision was
overbroad, both of which are true. The author is willing to consider
changes to garner more/broader support. He currently understands that
the call for "reversal" is problematic since "reversal" could mean one
of several things, and he may agree to amend to just make it clearer
that the decision needs to be greatly limited or depublished.

6. Supporting ACR 115 and homeschooling will NOT cause new public
school teachers NOT to be hired. It also does not hurt the teachers'

a. It is a fallacy to think that these children are going to be
forced to return to school. Families in every other state have a
right to teach at home and there would be constitutional issues with
California attempting to claim that children can only learn in
institutional school.

b. Even if families choose to put their formerly homeschooled
children into school, they still have the right to choose private
school (not public, and no teacher credentials required).

c. Every dollar spent on educating a formerly homeschooled child
takes that same dollar away from existing public school students.
Supporting ACR 115 is consistent with supporting quality public
education and the teachers who are in those schools.

BTW, if you don't live in my neighborhood, you can find your state representatives here. Just look on the left-hand side of the page, click on the blue box that says "Find my district" and fill out the form in the little pop-up window. Voila! Now you can easily express yourself to your representative on any and all issues that concern you, with just a phone call. Make your voice heard!


Saturday, March 15, 2008

Tiger by the tail

I've been trying not to spend too much time on the computer lately, and e-mail has been consuming most of my extra time. Why e-mail? Because every homeschooling list I subscribe to has been sending out voluminous correspondence about the recent court decision that can be construed as declaring many popular forms of homeschooling illegal.

Of course, there really is no legal homeschooling in California. Children are enrolled in school independent study programs, state charter schools, private charter schools, or extremely small private schools. This ruling, however, would seem to limit the first three options to a set of very narrowly defined circumstances, and call into question the small private school option. People are still debating what it all means.

If anyone asked me how they could help, I would refer them to HSC -- The Homeschool Association of California. They have a Yahoo group here, and their website is here. They are based in California, unlike the Homeschool Legal Defense Association (Virginia), and are nondenominational and inclusive. Donations to their legal fund will help them defray the court costs associated with their attempts to get this ruling depublished, which is probably the simplest and best way to get this all to go away. Depublishing means that the findings in this ruling will be limited to the particular case that was ruled on, and will not set precedent for rulings in the future.

As all this plays out, there has been an onslaught of media coverage that took me by surprise (who knew so many people cared?) and of course, a slew of e-mail and blogging. I've read pages and pages of point and counterpoint, so this post, by Alice Bradley on Alpha Mom brought a welcome moment of comic relief. An excerpt:

Most of all, I feel pity for Judge Croskey. You poor man. Of all the people to take on, you had to choose homeschoolers. Around 200,000 children are currently homeschooled in California. That means there are many many homeschooling parents angry with you right now, Judge Closkey, and you are making the wrong people mad. These parents have powers you couldn't even fathom. Most average humans can't teach their kids to operate a zipper, and these people are preparing their kids for college. The average parent falls to pieces at the end of a long weekend with the kids, yet these homeschooling super-beings have the intestinal fortitude to spend all day, every day with their (often numerous) children. And they're organized. They have, like, associations, and leagues, and whatnot. Think they won't start a letter-writing campaign? That's their idea of recreation. You messed with the wrong people.

And don't get me started on those homeschooled kids. You think the parents are trouble? The kids, they're self-motivated. And they will get you. They will make the biggest marshmallow catapult you could imagine, and launch it right at your office. They will construct a Rube Goldberg device that can boil noodles, overturn your court decision, and give you an unflattering haircut before you even know what hit you. They will compose devastating Spenserian sonnets about your nonsensical ruling. Then they will construct a new court made entirely of popsicle sticks! And, hmm, insert another thing here that I imagine homeschoolers do!

We are homeschoolers, hear us roar!


Saturday, March 08, 2008

The Birchbark House

by Louise Erdrich

This story of Omakayas, a young Ojibwa girl, is set in 1847, on an island in Lake Superior. It describes the family's life over the course of a year: the abundance of food in the summer, the near starvation of an unusually harsh winter, the loss of loved ones to smallpox. The prose is elegant, but unsparing. Descriptions of the family's work as the seasons unfold are detailed and interesting. Laura Ingalls Wilder said that she began her Little House series to describe a way of life that was vanishing. This book stands in valuable counterpoint to her presentation of the white settler's perspective with its portrait of Ojibwa life during the same period.

Even without the historical perspective, though, this book would be a worthwhile story of a young girl growing up. Omakayas is an intriguing character in her own right. The hardships she suffers and the maturity she eventually gains are written with deep empathy that never sentimentalizes or trivializes her experience.

I learned from the dust jacket that Louise Erdrich is herself a member of an Ojibwa tribe, and that the book was written as she researched her family's history with her mother. This doubtless accounts for the way this book rings true on every page. I recommend it highly.


Wednesday, March 05, 2008

The Vatican Rag

Zelda's post about Los Idiotas has got this song playing in my head:

Say what you will about the lyrics, he sure can play the piano.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

The Hawks

Yesterday, we had gorgeous weather. The sky was blue, the temperature was cool and comfortable, the sun was shining. And we had magic -- the hawks who live in the woods nearby must have been feeling the spring, too, because four or five of them were flying and calling together in the sky over our house. As high as they were, I think my husband and son scared them off with their noisy electronics as they tried to take pictures, because they left soon after we started watching them, but then came back, and stayed flying nearby as I watched them from the shade of our roof overhang. Later, one perched in a tall pine across the street, and sat there watching the neighborhood for a long time. She was still there when we left to do some errands, but gone when we got back.

So watching hawks took up some of my time yesterday. I also spent a long time in the evening looking at the town report of the town next to the one I grew up in. It made me so homesick for the East Coast, where they still have Town Meetings where everybody who wants to can have their voice heard. Maybe it's only workable where the communities are relatively small, I don't know, but it still seems like such a good system.

So, apart from those two worthwhile activities, what did I do yesterday? Why did I go to bed feeling that I had accomplished little of any value? When I woke up this morning, I thought it over. I baked bread, I made yogurt, I baked a turkey breast for dinner and bread pudding for desert, I made lunch for my husband; breakfast, lunch, and dinner for my children; cooked special food for my husband to eat after work since he doesn't like turkey; went to the library and the hardware store; reorganized some bookshelves -- how does all that translate into feeling so lazy? It's not in the high-energy league of Jennifer and Lesley, but it's hardly nothing. (Sharp-eyed observers will notice that there's no formal schooling in there, which may be part of the problem.)

I think that's one of the worst things about staying home with kids. Somehow, it's easy to devalue what gets done, and only see what doesn't. If my husband had come home and made some remark about lolling on the couch eating bon-bons (or whatever) (not that he would do that), I would have been indignant, but also speechless and secretly wondering to myself whether my day really had been worthwhile.

And it's odd how I can be home with my kids all day and still feel that I haven't really spent enough time with them. Today, when we'll be out and about pretty much from now on, I guess that won't be a problem. I'll be able to account for my schedule -- guitar class, lunch, writing test, grocery store, park day, dinner -- in a way I couldn't yesterday. We'll talk in the car. Maybe we really need our down time and personal space at home. I don't know.

I just know that I think it's odd how I can be busy enough to be tired at night, to have no time to exercise or read for pleasure, and yet still feel that I haven't done anything and that I'm really going to have to try harder.

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Monday, March 03, 2008

Longer than Frasier

is how long I think I will be fuming over Monsanto. Zelda is right, it's really unfair to single Hillary Clinton out for criticism because of her involvement with this juggernaut of a company.

This article from Chicago describes a sweetheart deal Monsanto has with the government -- farmers get a break on Federal crop insurance premiums if they buy Monsanto's seed.

If I wanted to be paranoid, I would say that Monsanto is just waiting for their genetic material to contaminate every growing thing in the United States, at which point they will declare that they own it all and everybody has to pay them.

But that would just be crazy.

Maybe even crazier than wishing a Green Party candidate could actually get elected.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Speaking of truth in labeling ...

As it happens, the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service is considering a new label, "naturally raised," for meat. To quote from Elanor over at Ethicurean:

Their proposal: livestock must have been raised without growth promotants, antibiotics, or mammalian or avian byproducts in their feed.

Grass? Nah.

Access to the outdoors? Nah.

Natural breeding instead of artificial insemination? Nah.

Treating animals humanely? Nah.

Making sure that the operation doesn’t spew toxic gases into the air or leach manure into rivers, streams, or groundwater? Nah.

If the USDA’s proposal goes through, consumers looking to do the right thing at the grocery store will see a label that tells them the meat they’re buying has been raised naturally. But in the words of Inigo Montoya from the Princess Bride, "I do not think that means what you think it means."

A weak "natural" label will also undermine other more meaningful labels like organic and grassfed by making consumers think that they’re buying something comparable when they buy "naturally raised." Wouldn’t a "no hormones or antibiotics used" label be more clear and more honest?

Taking the natural step

We can do something about this, but we have to do it quickly. The USDA is taking comments on their proposal through Monday, March 3. So this weekend, please take a few minutes to let them know that consumers deserve labels that are clear and meaningful. It’s easy to submit comments online. And in case you were worried, it does make a difference: in 1997, the USDA floated a proposal for an Organic label that allowed irradiation, GMOs, and sewage sludge in organic production. The agency received more than 275,000 public comments and reversed its stance on all three issues.

Here's the information:

Please submit comments opposing USDA’s proposal by Monday, March 3rd, 2008.

You can submit comments two ways:

1. Electronically – submit your comments online at the following link: main=SubmitComment&o=09000064803b3e50.

2. Via fax to 202-720-1112.

Important: All comments must reference "Docket No. AMS-LS-07-0131".

Also: Be sure to include your name, address, and if appropriate, affiliation(s) and/or interest(s) in the issue.

Remember: The public comment deadline is March 3, 2008.

This sounds like a worthwhile activity to me. I hope you all agree.

More on Monsanto

Just in case you're not totally sick of me going on about this, and in case it is not crystal clear why I feel comfortable stating categorically that Monsanto is blatantly opposing freedom of speech in this country, I want complain about it some more. Because I think it is truly outrageous.

I personally would prefer to stay far, far away from genetically modified foods. Not everyone feels this way. I'm fine with that. Monsanto, however, does not want me to be able to exercise my right to choose, because they aggressively pursue legislation designed to prevent truth in labeling.

If Monsanto was arguing that labeling to warn consumers of the presence of genetically modified ingredients was burdensome, I would have to think it over. But when they argue that labeling that tells people a product is FREE of genetically modified materials is inaccurate (For the love of all that is holy! INACCURATE?????? How can being precise about something's content be inaccurate?) then (obviously) my blood starts to boil.

The point Monsant's lawyers continually argue is that if companies are allowed to label their food as free of GMOs, or any of Monsanto's synthetic hormones, then consumers are apt to get the mistaken idea that those substances are harmful. Well, pardon me, Monsanto, but it is impossible to prove that something is not harmful. All you can ever prove is that you haven't found evidence that it is. Some nasty little fluke of circumstances can always be lurking around the corner to wreak havoc and misery, and if that happens, what good is your pathetic "Oops!" or even worse "No, that wasn't our fault. We could not have foreseen that," or "No, really, that was somebody else's fault." I don't want to hear it.

Furthermore, if farmers or food processors are producing crops and products that are GMO-free, for a market of consumers who want their food to be GMO-free, then denying producers the right to inform people of the fact that their produce (or product) is GMO-free is a clear violation of their right to free speech. The same argument applies, of course, for those who produce and prefer hormone-free milk and milk products.


Monsanto not only pursues legislation to weaken standards for organic food, allowing GMO ingredients to be included in food that is certified organic, but they have actually sued dairy farmers who have merely stated that their milk was free of hormones. I know there are people who think Starbucks is obnoxious. I think Monsanto is evil.

Saturday, March 01, 2008

But wait, there's more

I don't have Zelda's mad Google skills, so I'm not so swift with gathering information. Interestingly, though, Googling john mccain monsanto yields plenty of articles about -- guess what? -- Hillary Clinton and Monsanto. Like this one.

And this one, which is not about Monsanto's Washington ties, but is interesting to me nonetheless.

This article demonstrates some of the problems with Monsanto's tactics. A field of genetically modified corn is next to a field of regular corn. Cross-pollination occurs naturally. Now the regular corn contains genetically modified material. Monsanto says the farmer is not entitled to replant seed from this corn. Now, whether or not this farmer is required to pay damages to Monsanto, he is unable to follow his normal farming practices. Why is the farmer responsible for this seed drift? Why isn't Monsanto responsible for keeping their genes to themselves? And if consumers prefer not to buy genetically modified corn, then this farmer's crop is now reduced in value. How is this not Monsanto's fault? Although how this article relates to John McCain, I could not say.

This article on Monsanto's herbicide Roundup and family farming is also interesting. If you read the article on corn linked above, you know that genetic material can move from one crop field to another. To me, this increases the feasibility of the idea that the Roundup-resistant gene can move from corn to weeds. This, of course, being apart from the fact that weeds can develop Roundup resistance on their own. These are the kinds of unintended consequences that studies are usually unable to pinpoint, and the reason that I do not buy the argument that genetically modified crops have been scientifically tested and found not to be harmful. Again, no relation to John McCain, although I am still browsing through the results of that search.

OK, ten pages in and I'm done. Daily life is calling.

Don't read this, Lesley

Having finished A Thousand Splendid Suns well in advance of our book club meeting, I thought it might be a good idea if I wrote down some of my thoughts now, since we all know I'm going to forget them otherwise. Then we'll all be sitting down to discuss the book, and I'll be reduced to, "Well, I know I did read it ..."

So here's my first reaction. This book made me feel terrible. I've certainly read graphic descriptions of violence before (in The Kite Runner, for example), but these scenes of women trapped by so many levels of oppression that escape is virtually impossible were more horrific to me than almost anything I've read before. I guess when you're reading about a guy in prison, there's always the thought that this could turn into an adventure story where he miraculously escapes. For these women, there's no place to escape to. Their whole physical landscape is reduced to a prison, where any women out in public is at risk, where there are no good samaritans. Run away from your abusive husband? Get turned in and sent back, all in less than a day. No escape. I think only an Afghan could have written this book, because otherwise the accusations of stereotyping Afghanis would be flying thick and fast.

My second reaction? It seems to me that the most complex and compelling character in this book is the villain. The two main women? More or less saintly. They both display human flaws in places, but mainly they are innocent victims whose main function seems to be demonstrating the many ways women get the shaft in Afghan society. The abusive husband? Not straightforward at all. He is clearly a monster, but loves his son dearly, and is able to have a relationship with this child where his love is returned. He has moments of kindness, he begins relationships with good behavior. It never lasts. His underlying view of women is despicable. But he's not just bad through and through all the time, and his flashes of humanity make him the most three-dimensional character in the book.

These are the observations that have stayed with me in the few days since I finished reading. I guess I should go look up some book club questions so I'll have answers ready for Lesley when we meet.