That Eclipse Thing

So, you might have heard about this big solar eclipse thingamajig. A once in a lifetime event, an epic phenomenon of nature! And according to the Oregon Department of Transportation, the “biggest traffic event in Oregon history.” Which is something to keep in mind if you have any plans on the several days on either side of August 21, 2017.

As you know, we in the Willamette Valley are extremely fortunate to be living right in the very heavy-metal-band-sounding Path of Totality. All we have to do is go outside! If you have groceries or gas to buy that weekend, I suggest you do it early. If you are of an entrepreneurial bent, maybe you can pay for them with the profit you make for selling parking spots and/or campsites. It’s up to you. Just be aware.

I don’t, like, watch TV, so I don’t know how widely knowledge of how widely education about the eclipse has been disseminated in public. I have been seeing more and more eclipse glasses for sale in grocery stores (and in one case, from a table run by a very nice young boy).

But unless your kids’ teachers planned ahead and did a unit on the eclipse before school got out for Summer, they may not be as up on it as they should be. Who knows, maybe your kids are the ones who told you about it. In which case, smart kids, and you can stop reading.

I would argue that they should bring a good basic understanding with them on that day, and here’s why: the eclipse is going to be extremely freaky. I’m talking day becomes night, the temperature drops, the bats come out, the dark void swallows the source of light and life, dogs and cats living together. Mass hysteria!

Here’s an easy way to explain the eclipse to your kids, if they need a model.

Get a flashlight and turn it on. That’s the sun. Shine the sun on an orange, or a baseball or whatever, which will represent the Earth. The spot where the sun is shining is Oregon. Now find a different round object, a mango, say. Move it slowly into place between the sun and the Earth. Voila! Eclipse.

Now go out with your family and have fun! It’s not the end of the world.

 

 

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Girls, Boys and Books

“It is a good rule after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between.”

::C.S. Lewis

I had a friend whose grandmother was a bit of an icon in the early Feminist movement. She used to make frequent book recommendations for her granddaughter, who was a voracious and curious reader. Among them were a number of science fiction novels by the likes of John Wyndham (including Day of the Triffids, about a doomsday invasion of intelligent alien plants. It was a movie; knock yourself out). Reporting back to her grandmother, my friend asked how she could stand the way women were regarded in these novels, with their hoary gender roles and casual misogyny. Mostly, she wanted to know what to make of the absence of women as protagonists or characters with agency. Her grandmother replied with genuine surprise: she said she had never noticed, because she just identified with the male characters.

I have always kept that in mind as my daughters begin to read widely across genres. The fact is, books written in the past reflect the political and cultural limitations in which they were written (and for some reason science fiction, supposedly dealing with the future and the perfection of human societies, tends to be the worst offender). There’s no way around it, really.

Driving around today, we were listening to an audiobook my wife had selected because it was Fourth of July-themed: a recent book about a girl growing up in the era of the American Revolution. In the book, our young heroine neglects her studies, her housework and her etiquette and her baking–in fact, all the markers of femininity in the 18th Century–in favor of more “boyish” pursuits (namely, mud and horses). Which is fine, because surely there were tomboys in every age. But this is a marker of contemporary historical fiction written for girls and young women: in order for modern readers to identify with the protagonist, the assumption goes, she will have to escape or reject the gender roles we now regard as confining (in some cases literally: these women don’t wear corsets). But as my wife pointed out, there were many ways for girls and women to be strong in the lives and times in which they lived. It is unfortunate that today’s writers and publishers don’t trust that we can go there.

And let me be clear that there is nothing wrong with swashbuckling heroines. My daughters will meet Katniss soon enough, and I am sure they will get along. But in new fiction for young people they are crowding out all the regular girls.

One solution in the interest of widening the experience of girlhood in literature is to go backwards. Books about girls written a century or more ago–including heavy hitters Anne of Green Gables, Little Women, the Little House books, and as they get a bit older, invincible O.G. Jane Austen–are about girls who live as girls, and grow up to live as women, within the circumstances of their time and place. There is much of value to be gained from this.

What else are they reading, as long as we are rummaging about in the past for entertainment? Robinson Crusoe! The Three Musketeers. Around the World in 80 Days. These stories have hardly a girl among them, but it’s okay. Like my friend’s grandmother, they see themselves. After all, they’re only human.

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Crossing the Threshold

The other morning I was doing what I usually do for the first hour of my waking existence (or at least what’s left of the hour after making coffee and preparing breakfast), which was to read on the sofa. As my four daughters emerge one by one, they generally grab a book from the shelves and sit next to me, until we’re a wire full of birds.

The other morning, though, it was just me and the eight year-old. She was sitting silently by my side with one of the lesser known works of Dr. Seuss: the title escapes me, but it was something he had written under sub-pseudonym Theo LeSieg. At some point she turned to me and said “Daddy” (she puts the emphasis on the second syllable, which just kills me).

When she had my attention, she said, “I think I’m reading now?”

She proceeded to demonstrate. Yup, no doubt. She was reading.

This has been a frustrating process for her, especially since she knew perfectly well that her two older sisters were both younger when they started. She had asked me one night after she got into bed: “Daddy? Do you think I’ll be able to read when I’m a grownup?”

Like most things we learn, the final hurdle is one of confidence. And she’s not quite there yet. The elder girls, by contrast, took to reading like a leap out of a plane. It was as if they had finally found the key to the handcuffs. This one is taking it slow.

I try not to imagine my kids in future professions, but occasionally the mind does drift. Of the four, it’s the eight year-old I can see becoming a writer. Not because of her reading, but because of her drawing; the way she renders people in her pictures–in their gestures, expressions, positions, hair, clothing, orientation to one another–casts each of them as utterly distinct and alive. They are characters as realized as any in a novel. Of course, she could be an artist and that would be okay too.

But not a pirate. And that’s final.

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You Don’t Have to Go to College

That’s right. I said it. Just ask Animal Collective.

We were talking to our twelve year-old about this today. We were roasting hot dogs at McDowell Creek Falls (because having Mondays off is awesome) and having one of those conversations about what she wanted to do when she grew up. This used to be a fun but pretty low-stakes exercise, but as time appears to be accelerating at a frightening rate, it is becoming a little more urgent. Yes, she has a few years to figure these things out. But she’s twelve. Seriously, when did that happen?

Her parents both went to college, and were basically the first in our respective families to do so. I remember my grandmother telling me the same thing she had told my mom, that it was just not worth the undertaking. Nevertheless, I did so straight out of high school, applying for the first college that appeared alphabetically in the catalogue for Colorado (Adams State College, now a University) and getting accepted. So I went. Ten years later, I received my Masters degree at the University of New Mexico. By this time I had been in college so long I didn’t really know how to do anything else. I had no plans. But my education shaped me as a person, and I can’t imagine having done anything else. Maybe that was part of the problem.

I believe that anyone who wants to get a college education can and should do so. But I also believe, from having seen the struggles of many friends and acquaintances, that those who don’t want to be there probably shouldn’t be.

As parents, we have made education for our children a central concern. We have put literacy and the love of literature, art, history, nature and theology at the center of our family culture. We have made some sacrifices toward this goal, including the determination to homeschool our four daughters on my single income. And boy, this is hard. Even for someone with a graduate degree.

But college is not something we are pushing. We want our kids to be happy, fulfilled, well-rounded adults. And while a college degree can be a great, enriching, enjoyable thing (it certainly was for me), and a great number of well-paying careers require one, we want them to know that it’s not the only path.

Following our conversation today, I looked online for some good alternatives to traditional higher education. As usual, some of the best information can be found at The Art of Manliness, home of pro tips on bare-knuckle boxing, beard care, and marriage maintenance. Some of these options came up with my daughter: she had seriously considered joining the Coast Guard, which I have to say was a surprise. Otherwise, they can be put into a few general categories:

  • Other educational avenues. Rather than enrolling in a four-year college, with its time commitment and almost inevitable debt load (and, as the article points out, rising costs have far outstripped a rise in wages for most college-fed jobs), there are other ways. Community college, for one. Online classes. Trade schools. Apprenticeships. There are many ways to learn skills and gain knowledge in a more targeted and cost-effective way.
  • Starting a business. I don’t have an entrepreneurial bone in my body, but I have no beef with those who do, especially my aforementioned daughter who has been selling her homemade salves to my wife’s Instagram followers. Good on you!
  • Volunteering. While Peace Corps is still largely recruiting college grads, other organizations such as Americorps and Vista are more flexible around this.
  • Art! Our extremely talented girls can bring their rapidly developing skills in drawing, painting, sculpture, writing, and performance to the world in myriad ways. It is easier now than ever for art to find an appreciative (and ideally paying) audience.

What if they want to go to college after all? That’s just fine. The next conversation will be about not taking out student loans. I have some cautionary tales about that.

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Parenting, Mortality and Stuff

A number of events came together this week into a sticky ball of parenting anxiety.

First, while ill-advisedly biting into a chocolate bunny (turns out it was solid, the real deal), I broke a crown that constituted most of one of my top front teeth. I can’t blame years of dental neglect, starting in college and continuing up to last week, on age or mortality. But I thought, nevertheless, about how I am going to die. And because I am a parent, I thought about how my children might deal with that.

The second event is that I began reading Joan Didion’s Blue Nights, a slim but potent book-length essay on the death of her adopted daughter and her doubts about the stolidity of her own body and mind. As Didion writes in the first chapter,

“When we talk about mortality we are talking about our children.”

Exactly. In Didion’s case, she has experienced what she considers the reverse of the “appropriate” sequence of events: the child should not die before the parent. Reading this, I thought about the many ways in which I have shirked my responsibility to ensure a long and healthy life, so that I can continue to be there for my children.

Didion has more to say about this shirking of responsibility, and I am going to quote her at length, largely because she is my favorite writer and can do prose like no one else.

“I do not know many people who think they have succeeded as parents. Those who do tend to cite the markers that indicate (their own) status in the world: the Stanford degree, the Harvard MBA, the summer with the white-shoe law firm. Those of us less inclined to compliment ourselves on our parenting skills, in other words most of us, recite rosaries of our failures, our neglects, our derelictions and delinquencies. The very definition of success as a parent has undergone a telling transformation: we used to define success as the ability to encourage the child to grow into independent (which is to say into adult) life, to ‘raise’ the child, to let the child go.”

The third event is that the two oldest girls got the results for their benchmark exams (3rd and 5th grade). As they are not public school attenders, we arranged for them to take the test with a professional proctor in Salem. The results were encouraging but not surprising: they are reading at the level of 10th grade and college, respectively. Guess what is important to our family?

This should not be grounds for further anxiety or thoughts of mortality, but leave it to me. Literacy is one thing we have managed to consciously and deliberately imprint on them. That’s one. Mostly it makes me think of all the unintended, or even unknowable, other things that are imprinted alongside it.

As I have said before, there are particular mistakes I am determined not to make as a parent. It’s going to be different ones that come back to haunt me.

Goes with being mortal, I guess?

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Stir it Up

This week’s post includes a recipe by guest contributor Jessica Sager. We hope you find it useful and look forward to future posts by Jessica.

One should never underestimate the power of activities when interacting with children. They want to feel a connection with us, and making them the focus of our time and attention, even for a short period, has lasting value.

Jessica Sager shares a favorite activity for use in the classroom, on home visits, and for families to use on their own. It is quick and simple and the process of making it can be as fun as working with it afterward. I can also attest that gluten free flour works just as well.

***

1 Cup Flour
1/2 Cup Salt
2 Teaspoon Cream of Tartar
1 Cup Water
2 Tablespoons Vegetable Oil
Cook over medium heat until thickened. Add a few drops of food coloring. Stir, cool slightly, then knead and have fun. Cookie cutters and rolling pins make play-dough more enjoyable!
Jessica Sager is a Family Support Specialist in the East Linn Toddler classroom at Family Tree Relief Nursery. 
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In Defense of Screenless Media

I have written on various occasions, including recently, about screen time for children and exactly how much we should freak out about it. As much as I’d like all our kids to be able to spend their days in the outdoors, collecting songbird feathers and building hideouts out of sticks and moss, the fact is that we mostly live indoors, and inside those places we need to cook dinner and study for online classes and stuff. And while we’re doing those things, it can be VERY USEFUL for our children to be occupied with a movie/video game/computerized learning opportunity.

What if, like Morpheus, I told you that there is a third way. A screenless form of media that can be engaging, educational AND leave you with time to collect your thoughts, do chores, and/or catch up on important parenting-related social media discussions.

They call it…an audiobook.

Yes, audiobooks have been around for a while. Prior to their digital incarnation on platforms like Audible, they used to be called (depending on how far back you want to go) “books on tape,” “radio plays,” or “a person telling a story to some other people.”

We use audiobooks heavily in our already book-crammed household. We started the same way I would recommend you starting out, which was to check out CDs from the public library. I believe we started with The Chronicles of Narnia and never looked back.

There continues to be a fierce debate over the value of audiobooks versus the paper kind (and that’s without even pulling ebooks into it). The jury is out over whether listening to a book “counts” as reading it: and this is grown adults arguing about these things. I would certainly expect to hear the objection that children are missing out on crucial literacy skills if they can’t see the words on the page. And I get that. I think children should have real books as well. Tons of them.

Excellent. So let’s move on. Here are some advantages to be found in audiobook listening.

  • Vocabulary expansion. Case in point: last night my six year-old told her sister, “I hope you can overcome the ominousness of going potty,” before giggling at length to herself. Audiobooks.
  • Storytelling is at the heart of literacy. We have words in order to tell each other stories (as well as to warn about sabertooth tigers, I’m sure). We can practice many crucial prereading skills using audiobooks, such as oral language, phonological awareness and listening comprehension. Kids will also learn the structure of stories and the many arcs of meaning embedded in how language is put together.
  • Listening to a story leaves room in the brain (my scientific term) to engage in other activities. My kids like to draw, build with blocks or work with modeling clay while an audiobook is on.
  • Accents. I’m not sure if this is more advantage than warning. Many of the books we listen to are read by British performers, and I’m afraid this has left its mark on the kids’ verbal development. I can tell when my ten year-old is upset about something when she starts to mumble in a posh English accent. And they can all do a passable Irish brogue, a thing I cannot claim for myself.

Finally, while your children are absorbed in an audiobook, you may be able to go in the bathroom by yourself. Have I sold it?

 

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Field Trip

A funny thing happened on the way to having Mondays off. With my wife in Portland this weekend, I was asked to take over the privilege of accompanying the girls to a homeschooling field trip at the Willamette Heritage Center. Knowing nothing about the event or the place, I of course agreed. I am agreeable.

I arrived with my family half an hour early and after a not inconsiderable interlude in the restroom (there were five of us) we returned to the car to finish our audiobook. When we returned, soaked with rain, to the lobby, it was full of moms and their kids, many of the latter of whom had the foresight to be wearing bonnets and other items of period clothing. This was the real deal, a group reservation and a guided tour with a docent (what a situation-specific word). I didn’t know what to expect, but one thing I didn’t expect was for a childhood of school field trips to come roaring back at me.

Roaring? That would be the tyrannosaurus rex skeleton at the Natural History Museum in Denver, home of what I attest are some of the best wildlife dioramas in the world. And I will never forget the debut of the Ramses II exhibit, seen on a different trip. Then there was the Colorado School of Mines Geology Museum, which was way more fascinating than it had any right to be, and those plays that came at strategic times in my development that lead me to be a Theater Major, and…of course. The farm I visited in Kindergarten with the pig that I’m still convinced tried to eat me.

Field trips are special. I had forgotten their particular associative power. I went to the zoo several times with my family, but those school trips were somehow more exciting, even as they were more “educational.” As my daughters are more than a little enthusiastic about the workings of a water-powered woolen mill–or anything to do with history–I’m sure it will work out well for them too.

Thank goodness I packed a lunch. Sheesh.

 

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On Chores, Revisited

A couple years ago I wrote about our first attempt to institute chores for the family. In that article, I described how my wife and I had decided to approach chores and how they aligned with the values of our family. I wrote, “In my house chores are presented simply as expectations: they are what need to happen in order for the home to run smoothly. There is a place for everyone to chip in, and we emphasize the importance of each chore in our day-to-day home life.”

Reading back on this, I see that this theory still holds up. In the article, I also detailed the chores chart I had made, with chores listed on a whiteboard and movable magnets for each child, to be rotated according to age level and need. This means that each child would have different chores from day to day. I can only imagine, when designing this system, what I was thinking: that the variety would keep them from being bored, or the novelty would be exciting, or something.

Well, that just didn’t work.

It wasn’t a disaster or anything. It was just too complicated for the kids (the little ones especially), and too much homework for the adults (ie: me). We gave it a go. But soon the kids were complaining about their own assigned chores or coveting those of their sisters (or just refusing to participate in my rigged game). At the same time, the magnets started falling apart and wouldn’t, you know, magnetize anymore. So after a few weeks, my brilliant chores chart fell by the wayside. Okay, it actually just fell off.

I don’t remember how much time went by in the interim, but eventually my wife struck upon a way to make the chores list work within the structure of her homeschooling day. Instead of rotating chores, each child now had their own laminated sheet with a list of duties. They could mark them off as they went with a pen, or draw pictures around them, or pull them down and lose them under the sofa. Their choice!

Anyway, having a stable and routine set of chores turned out to be just the ticket. My wife divided them into two sections: morning, before school, and after lunch, before “rest time” (that period of one to two hours where the kids can have downtime with an audiobook, a DVD, or some reading). It took a while to get it going, but by now it is almost in their muscle memory. They know the expectations and, though they sometimes just don’t want to do it (who doesn’t), it had made chores into what we intended: they’re just what we do to help the household work.

My favorite part is that the list makes it easy to succeed: “wake up” is an item; as is “eat breakfast.” Amazing how the points add up.

 

 

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Transitions

A couple of recent changes have come to our house. One is that my wife, in addition to her full-time homeschooling duties, has been leaving town every other weekend to help her sister. The other is that I have rearranged my schedule in order to have an extra day off. The upshot, for purposes of our family, is that I have been parenting solo quite a bit. Now that this is a more or less regular thing, I find that it is…complicated.

I have written on several occasions that being the dad in our particular household means that I figure out what the routines are and carry them out. In other words, their mother writes the script (and revises, and stages, and restages it) and I simply try to follow it.

So, I’m pretty good at making bedtime happen, and I have enough of a repertoire built up to make food for all three meals (and mostly different food, at that! Or at least, in different combinations). I carry out the housekeeping and repairs for which there is no time in the course of a homeschooling day. And as long as I don’t have to improvise too much, it’s fine. As long as nothing unexpected or unusual happens. Nothing different. No worries, right?

One way I know that this is the new normal is that, for my daughters, it has lost all novelty. This weekend I have been told numerous times that I’m not doing things right, and that “they wouldn’t behave like that if Mom was home.” I can only agree.

This experience has brought home the different ways that men and women nurture. And simply how different people do it. Try as I might, I can’t duplicate what their mother does that works. I’m lenient in some areas and strikingly uptight in others. Surely it has always been this way, but for some reason the repetition brings it out. “Wait, I have, like, a thing that I do?”

I’m not feeling terribly successful these days, as the transition continues apace. But I’m trying to be comfortable with that. It’s the nature of transitions.

Now if you’ll excuse us, we’re going to watch an old Popeye cartoon before dinner. Don’t tell Mom.

 

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