Friday, February 29, 2008

oldie but goodie

Friends, I have discovered an excellent parenting book. I imagine many people have already discovered this book. (Actually, I don't have to imagine; I can figure it out from its publishing history.) This book has sold lots of copies since it was first published in the 70s, and spawned workshops, workbooks, and a whole generation of parenting books about various challenges(sibling rivalry, teenagers, etc.)

This is a great book, with lots of good advice that seems to boil down to one simple piece of guidance: Listen to your kids.

Really listen. Not just listen long enough to get them to listen to your point of view. Not just nod at them, all the while thinking about what you're going to make for dinner. But actually listen. Give them the eye contact they need to know you're really there, and listen. Keep listening. Let them keep talking until they're run out of things to say.

You can reflect back to them what they seem to be saying, if it seems to make sense, but mostly, just listen, and really pay attention. Really consider their point of view. Really consider that the way your kids are seeing things is absolutely vital, valid, and real to them. And know that they need you to hear them.

There's lots of other specific advice in there, going in all sorts of different directions, but it's the listening thing that I want to talk about here. The authors' other books seem to be much the same stuff, but with the specific scenarios geared to slightly different family situations. The basic method, or really, way of thinking about kids, is all here, in their first book.

Big One and I have been struggling some about how to respond to Little's ongoing negativity. Neither of us is happy about it, because we're both trying to see the positive in our life situation. Little doesn't care about our personal growth, of course, and he can really rain on a parade.

This morning, Little said something sort of negative (I don't remember what) and Big said,

"You're a tough customer this morning, aren't you?"


"Dontcha think so, Mama? Isn't he a tough customer this morning?"

And I guess I was feeling rather negative myself, because I said,

"I don't want to participate in talking trash about either of my sons."

Zoiks. How superior can I get. Insufferable. Big was really mad at me, and instead of just listening long enough so I could get my point across, I finally found a way to actually listen to his. We sat at the table and I just listened.

He started saying things like, "I know there's no point in telling you what I think, because I know you're not going to listen."

And that's when I knew I'd been going way off track. My impulse would be to say, "Of course I'm going to listen to you. I want to know what you think." Which is, of course, a tricky way of saying to him that I'm not listening at all, that I can't hear him talk about this difficult feeling he's just shared, that I don't listen, and I'm not going to listen.

So I sat there, and I listened, for a while, to all his feelings about me and Little and about how things are going, and we got to a better place. We got to a place where we understood each other again. He actually talked himself around to my point of view without me saying a word.

Much better. It's a good book, I'm telling you.

We're feeling peaceful again:

Here is the view from my office:
The ice is on the outer storm window, not the inside window but still, it's cold enough today that I may just have to break down and use this:
to cream together some butter and sugar for some of these:
That photo is from Cast Sugar, a gorgeous baking blog I just discovered. She takes great pictures.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

rip fest

I've been having this lovely email exchange with my cousin, in which she asked me what I like best to knit. Isn't that an interesting question? One you would think I would have well in hand, and yet it required some serious thought. I've been trying to branch out some, into cabled sweaters, and I've had to knit some mittens out of necessity... but when I stopped to think about it, I remembered that my most favorite things to knit are lace and socks.

Socks, I keep up with. I always have at least one pair going, and they're usually for me. But lace, not so much lately. And I love lace, I really do. I love how you can figure out where you are in the pattern by looking at the knitting, I love that gauge doesn't matter, and I love the way the yarn overs, k2togs and ssks flow and balance each other. There seems to be a rhythm to knitting lace.

So last night I tidied up my knitting area, which meant ripping out a bunch of projects that have been gathering dust because they're just not doing it for me.

I ripped out what was to be an easy and fun shawl in a bamboo yarn, but it proved to be just way too boring to knit. I like the idea of feather and fan, but I can hardly ever bring myself to knit all those rows, back and forth, back and forth, and so little going on. And I ripped out that cabled cardigan I started some weeks back, partly because it was turning out to be too small for me, and partly because I have decided to face facts and accept that I just don't like knitting cables very much. They make my joints hurt, and they're so fiddly and time-consuming. And there was a pair of mittens that wasn't working out for me, so they got put away...

And I cast on this shawl in this yarn, and I'm enjoying myself very much.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

behavior charts

Like any decent progressive educator, I have always had a healthy distrust of behaviorism. Children are not dogs, to be trained with carrots and sticks. I believed (and still do, for the most part) that the best way to get children to do what you want them to do is to make sure your expectations are in line with their capabilities, to show kindness to them and others, and always make sure they understand the reasons for your expectations. This philosophy worked well for me with most kids for quite a few years of teaching.

And then came Big One. Big was an angel of a baby, and his toddlerhood was similarly idyllic. We flowed through our days together, and he seldom misbehaved. He didn't have the dreaded Terrible Twos, and we joyfully thought we'd dodged a bullet.

And then came 4. Rather than the Terrible Twos, Big had the Terrible Fours, Fives, and Sixes. It was hellacious. We had an articulate, reasoning being who was completely unreasonable. His tantrums were loud, long, and impenetrable. He regularly hit other kids in his classroom. He kicked and thrashed his way across the floor, daring anyone to touch or soothe him. He regularly worked himself into such a tizzy that we stopped taking him places. It was awful, and we didn't know what to do. The skills I'd honed when he was a baby, of tuning in to him and anticipating his needs, of responding to him with love and understanding, were completely useless. Looking back on it now, I know I needed to tune in again and learn some new skills, fast, but that took time.

The shit finally hit the fan one day when Big was five, almost six. We had Big's best friend over, and things got way out of hand. Big peed on the floor of his closet, on purpose, in anger. It was time to get help.

We started seeing a highly-recommended child psychologist, and her prescription was for a behavior chart. She said to come up with five goals for each day, give him a check mark when he met the goal, and a reward at the end of the week if he improved. (Important note if you're thinking about trying this at home: three of the goals in a chart with five goals on it should be things that you know your child will be able to do, no matter what. The other two are the real goals. You want to set your child up for success. This doesn't seem like it would work, but it does. When s/he sees that s/he can do most of the goals, s/he'll try harder to meet the more challenging ones.)

Oh, how I resisted. I was annoyed with the psychologist, annoyed at my friend who'd recommended her, and just completely disbelieving that this was the right way to go about changing his behavior. How could this be right? It went against everything I'd believed about kids and behavior. I really thought that because I respected him, he should respect me, and therefore my wishes. I didn't want to do a chart. I was embarrassed about doing a chart. I thought it meant I'd done something wrong as a mother: that I hadn't explained enough. Or hadn't loved him enough.

But I was desperate for a change. It was getting hard to live with him, and I've always believed that our children should not be hard for us to live with, no matter what. I really believe that adults should not have to give over their quality of life completely to their children, that we parents have a right to expect to be comfortable and easy in our homes with our children.

So we tried the chart. And it worked, almost immediately.

I was shocked. And pleased, of course. It seemed to me that all our exhortations and explanations hadn't made one simple thing clear: that Big One's dreadful behavior had real effects, for him and for others, in the world outside himself. I think that seeing his progress laid out graphically helped him see that his behavior really did matter. We made major progress during that year, and by the time he was seven, he was a pleasure to live with again.

I went on to try this method a few times with a few children in my classroom. I used charts judiciously, carefully, and rarely. In the seven years I taught, I used a behavior chart with a grand total of maybe five children, most of them for a very short time. It became something I would use as a last resort, after I'd explained myself, created opportunities for the child to see the effects of his or her disruptive behavior, and invited him or her to make real decisions about how to construct the classroom routine around the behavior.

I still believe that the best way to get a kid on board with the educational agenda is to make it intrinsically meaningful for the kid. Most kids won't disrupt a class if they're interested in what's going on. I'm always amazed when I hear about a classroom teacher who is using a behavior chart for the entire class. I'm sure it doesn't work for most kids; what they really need it to be part of the process.

But every so often, I got a kid who needed this graphic representation of his or her behavior. A kid who needed to be able to see how the day was going, who needed me to keep score.

And now it seems that I have another one. Little has been a pain in the butt lately. He won't get ready to go out, he won't cooperate when it's time to clean up the Legos, he won't do his very simple daily chores. It's not because he can't do these things, I assure you. It's because he doesn't feel like it and is getting a lot of mileage out of refusing. He's figured out that he doesn't have to do anything if he doesn't want to, and he has a will of iron.

So two weeks ago we started a new kind of chart. Instead of five goals for each day, there is one goal: to do what he's told right away and without complaining. For each time he cooperates, he gets a check in the Yes column. If he doesn't, he gets a No check. At the end of the day, if he has more Yes checks than No checks, he gets an Oreo. That's it, couldn't be simpler. Nobody else gets Oreos for the duration of this behaviorist experiment, so that he knows they really are special, and a treat.

And it's working. He's picking up the Legos, getting his boots on when it's time to go places, picking up his room, getting dressed, making his bed, and so on. He's much easier to get along with these days.

Just one more piece of evidence that it's best not to believe in any one approach, any one philosophy, to the exclusion of all others. I've learned over and over with parenting how important it is to keep paying attention and keep trying new things.

Even when I think I already know the answer. Maybe especially then.

Monday, February 25, 2008

mittens for me

My mittens are finished, and I love them. They are made from Zitron Avanti, which turns out to be the same colorways as Trekking XXL sock yarn, but in a worsted weight. I really love this yarn, and I wish I had balls and balls of it, in many different colors. Alas, this is all I have left:
The red is what's leftover from my niece's mittens, which were knit from what was left over from a scarf I made for my mom several years ago. Although a quick online search reveals that this yarn is available in various places, I won't be buying any. Still knitting from the stash for a while. Maybe these ends will be the garter brim for a quick hat, along the lines of these.

Thanks to everyone who chipped in with ideas for my couch. I think I'll be shampooing and covering.

And now on with the day. Kids need feeding and schooling, the sun is shining, and I have a to-do list as long as my arm.

Friday, February 22, 2008


1. The hole is patched, spackled, and painted. I think we may now call it completely fixed.
2. The walls are painted.
(We decided not to fuss with the woodwork today. It can wait. It is waiting even now. Look, you can just sit right there and watch it wait for me to get paint on it. I have very patient woodwork.)

3. The car is fixed, and we are keeping it.

4. I got the job.

5. I have some very fine friends.
Thanks for your help, Colleen. And thanks to Nicky too, who wanted to come to the painting party, but had to stay home because the highway was closed due to snow.

And now, a quick survey. I know you saw that my couch up there is in need of some serious help. It is dirty. It is also very cute, and quite comfortable. If I had money to burn on home decorating, I'd have it reupholstered in a minute, but I don't. I need some ideas for making that beast look pretty in front of my pretty wall. They need to be cheap ideas.

Here's what I've thought of so far:

a. I could make a slipcover. If you vote for this plan, you have to say what color you think it should be. Colleen and I think burgundy.

b. I could rent one of those upholstery shampooers from the grocery store and shampoo the thing, which might work, but if it did work, I'd be left with a pink couch, which is not my favorite color for a couch or anything else.

c. After I've shampooed it, I could paint it with fabric paint. I don't have any experience with fabric paint, so I don't know if this is a good idea or a potential sticky mess. Fabric dye? Magic marker? Is there anything I could use to change the color of the couch while keeping the fabric?

d. Your idea here.

Please vote for your idea of the best option in the comments. Saying my couch is ugly and should go out on the curb is not one of your choices. Thank you.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

tempo, rhythm, and time

You will have noticed, I'm sure, that there is only so much time in a day. In my current incarnation as an at-home mother, this has been one of my biggest challenges. It seemed to me in the very beginning that we really ought to have time for every little thing, every activity, every project that came up. It also seemed to me that we could do all these things, every little thing, and also that I should keep an immaculate house.

It is surprising how long this misapprehension lasted, given the overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

I well remember our first week of homeschooling, when I thought we could do fabulous projects, meet our new playgroup, get outside to a park every day, all while I cleaned out our closets. Doesn't that sound like fun? The closets seemed incredibly pressing: for seven years of teaching school, I'd been shoving things into them, and I didn't have any idea what they contained. The closets were nightmarish, and I knew there was no way I could tolerate them if I were in the house most of the time. The closets got done, but little else that week did. We did what we could, and I soon learned I couldn't do every last thing, every single project and homeschool offering.

One of the most paradoxical surprises was that I actually have less time to knit. When I stopped going to a weekly faculty meeting, I lost several hours of knitting time. I also found that most of my knitting had happened when I was just too exhausted from teaching to do anything else but sit on the couch. Without the exhausting work, I didn't need to sit down quite so much. Reading has gone by the wayside for the same reason. Unbelievably, I now have to actually discipline myself to sit down and read a book, for what has to be the first time since I was about six years old.

Time has opened up in other ways, however, and these changes have been most welcome.

When Big One wrote his thank you notes this year after his birthday and Christmas, we found that it was a little bit difficult to get them done in a timely fashion. Before, when I worked and the kids went to school, we got them done over weekends, and that felt like a meaningful deadline. This year, there was no reason to do them on the weekend, because we could do them Monday. There was no reason to do them Monday, because we could do them on Tuesday. And so on.

By the time I figured out that this belief was what was keeping the notes undone, it was February. And so we settled into it... and I found that Big One's attitude about thank you notes had changed. He no longer was doing them just to get them done. He took his time, creating a drawing for each one, and taking the time to thank the giver for the gift, slowly.

His music practice is similar: in our previous lives, Big would practice five or six days a week, but on weekdays, he was worn out from school, so it was often a struggle to get him to practice, and those practices would be relatively short. He did his long practices and most of his improvising on weekends. Now that every day feels more like a weekend to him, his recorder practice can happen in the morning, every morning. He's tending to practice for longer and longer periods these days, and his music teacher is pleased. Music has become a sort of oasis in the middle of Big's day; he uses it to calm down from a conflict, to center himself when he's feeling out of sorts, and he almost never has to be leaned on to get down to it. Most of the time, he just does it without being reminded. Beautiful.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

the hole is (mostly) fixed

Patching a hole in my sheetrock wall turned out to be not so bad. I got guidance from my friend Dave, who described the method I used. It is probably standard practice, but it was new to me. It is also clever and elegant. I started by making the hole square. This was more challenging than it should have been, because I couldn't find my large utility knife, so I had to use a small x-acto knife.
Then I cut a piece of sheetrock slightly larger than the hole. About an inch all around is what you need, maybe a little more. Then you score it by making shallow cuts on the actual dimensions of the hole.

Bend the sheetrock along the scoring, and then pull the plaster away from the paper.
You're left with a flap of paper, which you use to stick the patch to the wall. At this point, I would have been ready to goop it in there, but as you can see, there's an outlet in my hole. I didn't know what to do about the outlet. I felt that the box should come from behind and then through the patch, but I would have had to disconnect the outlet pretty completely, and because my wiring is antique and I don't know what I'm doing, I decided not to start taking things apart. I did, however, take the precaution of pulling the fuse before I started messing around here.

So I did what any self-respecting novice would do. I called the expert, and Dave very generously came over to help me out. (See Little One just behind and to the left of Dave, gazing up with admiration? Little thinks Dave is very, very cool.)
Dave not only made this elegant little hole in about twenty seconds, he also shimmed and secured the outlet itself to the nearby stud. It had been sort of dangling in its hole, and I was hoping that my new patch would be sturdier so it would cease its dangling. Dave just did it right, with power tools.

Sweet! Now I got to do the fun part. I put spackle in a thick bead around the flap of paper.
Fitted it into the hole...
And then smushed the spackle around the edges to stick the patch to the wall. Next I'll put a few more thin layers of spackle around the edges of the patch, to ease the bumpy transition between the paper and the wall. I'll use a putty knife for that, to make it smoother. After it dries, I'll sand it and it will be ready to paint.
Overall, I'm pretty pleased with this project. It has been really bugging me for a long time, not just because it was a big ugly hole in my wall, but also because for a long time I thought it was something I had to get Joe to do. After I realized that's what I was thinking, I got over it, rationally, but it was still a long way from there to actually getting out the tools and doing it.

I might be just a little disappointed with myself that I called Dave for help. After I called and before he got here, I came up with a solution that would probably have worked, but because I am far less experienced, it would have taken me much longer. Dave did it quickly and well, and I learned a lot just by watching him and asking him about it as he was doing it.

This seems an important balance in education, at home or anywhere. I think I tend to to be very much in the 'work it out yourself, you'll learn more' camp, both with my teaching and my homeschooling. I'm realizing that there is a lot to be learned from experts. It can be satisfying to learn something on your own, of course, but there is much to be gained from talking to and learning from competent people doing complex things well.

Too much of this would be oppressive of course; kids need to try things out too. Kids sure don't need a bunch of super-competent people around all the time, showing them how much better at everything they are. That would be really bad for their willingness to try new things, and we all need to work things out on our own at times; it's good for our brains.

I guess I'm looking for a kind of balance here, both for myself and for my kids. There was a time when I never would have asked for help, but would have just kept working at that hole until I figured it out, even if it took all day. Instead, I gave myself an opportunity to learn a bunch of new tricks by asking for help.

Big One wants his photo credits. He took most, if not all, of the above pictures. He took some crazy wild motion shots too, and I'll put those up another day.

befuddled on four points

1. One of our cars is in the shop. It is very likely that it will cost so much to fix it that it will then be attractive to sell the car in order to pay the repair bill. We are seriously considering this, and if we did, we would not replace it. We may soon have only one car, people. This would mean ditching at least some of our weekly commitments/lessons, and also not going to the grocery store whenever we run out of apples. While it may be the most sensible thing to do, I am completely freaked out about it. Of course, it is not my car that's in the shop and in danger of being sold. No, of course not. Rather, it is Joe's old Subaru that may be laid off, and my beloved Civic would then be promoted to Joe's commuting car.

2. I interviewed for a job. I seemed to have gotten the job, but I expected to hear last week about my first assignment, and I haven't. Did I get the job? Do I want a job? Do I want this job? Do I call and remind them that I exist? Do I sit back and let them get in touch with me? Again, freaked out.

3. Cat Bordhi's book is, as I said, mind-blowing. In just a few days, it has jolted me out of my circular sock stupor, in which I produced many pairs of socks but learned virtually no new knitting techniques for well over a year.

I have learned two new methods of casting on, two new methods of constructing a sock, a new way to manage circular needles, three new methods of increasing, a better way to join the end of a standard bind off, a way to make a column of ssks flow more smoothly, like k2togs, and a better way to deal with wraps on short rows. (See? I told you this book was almost overwhelmingly technical. Cat does all of this in a really friendly way, though. It's almost like having a class with a really experienced knitter who shows you all her tricks.) Consider me de-stupefied.

These first tiny socks I've finished have required me to find a quiet place to knit in order to figure things out. That's how not on auto-pilot I am with these socks.

4. I have run out of excuses for this:

because I now have this:

as well as two fine friends who have decided that we are having a work party at my house on Friday. I now have a deadline, because I don't want to be fixing this hole on Friday. Oh, no! On Friday, I want to be painting this wall:

And these stringers and risers:

And these walls:

Did I mention that I'm freaking out?

Saturday, February 16, 2008

some finished objects, and a cautionary tale

Christmas knits!

Let me be very clear: these are gifts for Christmas 07. Unlike some knitting blogs, which are rolling out the Christmas gifts well after, sometimes months after, they were knit and after the recipient has received, here at Elsie and Joe Deluxe we are showcasing last year's holiday gifts as they are finished, and before they are gifted.

I had an over-ambitious list of gifts to make this year, and it turns out that while I appreciate a deadline when I'm writing, a knitting deadline seems to have a slowing-down effect. When it became clear that I just wasn't going to make it in time, I stopped trying. My parents and Joe each received a ball of sock yarn on Christmas day. I finished my brother's socks on Christmas day, which did him no good at all since he lives in Hawaii, and I still had to mail them.

Fortunately my family loves me anyway.

So here are the gifts for Joe's brother and his wife, who are well-loved, I assure you. I told them that Christmas was coming in March this year, and they didn't bat an eye. Since it is actually February and not March, can I say that I'm early with these? No? Didn't think so...

Here's a hat. Joe and his brother both have big heads (this is a feature of their anatomies, not of their egos) and I cast on 112 stitches for this hat. The yarn is an alpaca blend I got in a clearance room some years ago in a very large and wonderful knitting shop somewhere in New England. Isn't that helpful? I did a deep K1P1 border, then two rows of plain stockinette for a firm fold line, then switched to K2 P2 ribbing to the crown, where I did a four point decrease. I would show you more photos, but black is just as annoying to photograph as it is to knit.

Here are Rebecca's wristlets, which are based on Fetching, from Knitty. I didn't have any suitable bulky yarn, so I cast on 60 stitches instead of the prescribed 45, and made other changes as I went along to compensate for a much skinnier yarn (Rowan Cashsoft).

These were fiddly. I don't like knitting cables very much; they tend to make my right elbow ache, and I had to rip back the thumbs a few times to get them attached without holes. I think they're really cute, and I'd love to have some for myself, but I don't think it's going to happen. I'm glad these are done.

and now, my cautionary tale

My local yarn store has a monthly email newsletter. Each issue contains info about new yarns, patterns, and classes, plus a knitting tip, the sort of trick that is often learned through experience. Customers are free to submit a tip, and a $5 credit is offered if your tip is chosen. I submitted this tip:

None of us like to rip out our knitting, but sometimes it's necessary. For me the ripping is easy, and picking the stitches back up is a pain. I've found that it's much easier and more accurate if I use a much smaller needle to pick up after I've ripped back. I'm less likely to split a stitch, and it's easier to get the stitches mounted correctly. Insert the needle from behind the work when picking up, and they will be just right for knitting when you get to them.

After I've picked up the stitches on the smaller needle, I knit them right on to the needle I'm actually using for the project. Gauge isn't affected because it's the working (right hand) needle that determines the size of the stitches.

and I got a $5 credit. I was so excited! I have been on a serious yarn diet ever since my stash has outgrown its designated storage area, and since I stopped working. The rule is, I don't get to buy yarn. Period. I've been knitting from the stash only, and that's been an interesting creative exercise, as illustrated by the wristlets above.

So to get even a small amount of credit was great, and I knew just how I'd spend it: on the current issue of Interweave Knits. I'd just gotten another email, this time from Knitting Daily, the online version of IKnits, and I'd become enamored of this pattern, in a have-to-have-it kind of way. This did not violate the rule, because it wasn't yarn. Never mind that I have enough pattern books to last me several lifetimes, and there are enough patterns available free online to last several more, I really needed this particular pattern in this particular magazine.

So the kids and I jumped into the car a few days ago and made our way across town to my LYS. I got there and talked to the lady behind the desk, and it turned out that I'd missed the small print. It was a $5 credit on a $50 purchase. Rats, rats, rats, and rats. I said to myself that I wasn't going to make a $50 purchase to get a $5 credit, but then, well... I just decided to browse a little bit. I was motivated by the fact that they were almost sold out of the all-important IK issue. I didn't want to miss out.

A careful browsing of the shop revealed a few things other than the magazine that seemed, um, useful, if not essential. I got a ball of Zitron Trekking XXL, in this color. (I know, I know, it's yarn, but I really love these space-dyed colors, and they're not so easy to find around here.)

And I, um... well, I... I also found, and it turned out that I really needed... um....

Well, I also bought another sock book.
New Pathways for Sock Knitters, Book One, by Cat Bordhi

And what a sock book it is. I read the customer reviews on Amazon last night, and somebody said that you should try not to have anything on your needles when you order this book, because you're going to want to jump right in and try something. It's really true. This book is full of crazy-ass ways of constructing socks. There's not a single sock constructed in the usual way, but unlike some recent radical notions in sock construction, these are totally practical real-life wearable socks.

I'm so excited about these projects that I got the aforementioned fiddly wristlets done this morning just so I can get started on something new. Ordinarily I wouldn't let a project in process stop me from starting something, but the wristlets were on some of my favorite sock needles. My only complaint about the book is that its layout seems very confusing, and unnecessarily so. I want to cut the whole thing out of its binding and rearrange it. I find myself flipping back and forth, here and there, in an attempt to follow the process for a single pair from start to finish. I was hoping others felt the same, because that might result in a differently-organized second edition, and that's why I was checking the Amazon reviews. It seem that most others feel that this book is just fine the way it is, though, so I will get started on something with an open mind.

One review said that this isn't a good book for a beginning sock knitter, and I agree. It's pretty technical and detailed, and would be overwhelming for someone who hasn't already knit at least a few pairs using traditional methods. Or so I think, and I could be wrong. It is an intriguing book, to say the least.

And there are two more books coming in the series! I'll need to make room on my knitting book shelf, particularly the sock section.

On a completely different topic, I figured out why I'm so uncomfortable with acknowledging my so-called housekeeping skills. It's because having developed even a limited reputation as a someone who keeps a tidy house, I feel that I now have to keep up appearances. We have friends coming over for brunch tomorrow, and the house needs a wipe and a vacuum, but I don't feel like doing it at all. What I really want to do is sit down with my mind-blowing new sock book, yarn and needles, and work some things out. My friends won't care if I leave the dust bunnies and the grime where it is, of course, but we all know that housekeeping is rarely for other people, only for ourselves.

So I take it all back. I'm a complete slob. I love living in a messy house, and my house reflects that.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

teaching my kids to lie

A few weeks ago, a good family friend, Bev, offered to take Little to a local children's museum for the day. She came and got him shortly after breakfast, and they didn't get home until mid-afternoon.

When Bev dropped him off, she said,
"Thanks, Little, I had a great time today. It was really fun to play with you.

Guess what he said?
"I didn't have a good time. It wasn't fun at all."

Now, I know he had fun, because this place is really fun and he is at the perfect age to enjoy its zany pretend bounty, but he is, for some reason I've yet to grasp, interested in the reactions he gets when he says totally negative things. This is okay in the forgiving bosom of the family, most of the time, but I decided it just wasn't okay in this case. This is a good friend, someone we all really respect, who spent most of a day with my child just because she likes him. I was unhappy. With his behavior. It felt deliberately hurtful and disrespectful to me.

After she left, I sat down with Little and explained to him that he doesn't always have to have fun when he goes places that are supposed to be fun for kids, but that when he really doesn't enjoy himself, it is rude to say so. That is, I told him it would be okay to tell me about it after Bev went home, but that as long as she was there, he should thank her politely. To do otherwise, I said, would be to disregard the time and effort she'd expended, and could hurt her feelings.

Two weeks later, the boys and I had to make an unexpected trip to the Syracuse airport. Little was very excited about this, because (go figure) he's come to see air travel as a fun thing. This is not for lack of exposure to airports and airplanes: quite the contrary. He's been back and forth to the West Coast and Hawaii more than a few times. He just really likes airports.

Our trip did not require a visit to the actual airport; all we had to do was jump start Joe's car, on the top level of the parking garage. After the car was duly started and charged, we prepared to head home, much to Little's dismay. It became clear that he really wanted to run around in the airport, at least a little bit.

And so we did.

We discovered that the Syracuse airport has many unexpected charms. It turns out that there's a whole hands-on children's museum about the physics of flight in there, and we all ran around in it for about an hour. We even ate a few overpriced oatmeal raisin cookies, and Little got a chocolate milk, an almost unheard-of treat.

But then it was time to go home, and we had to carry Little out because he was having so much fun he didn't want to leave.

And then, guess what? He had a big huge tantrum in the car. Not because we had to leave, but because, according to him:

"That wasn't fun at all."

"That place was really stupid."

"That was a terrible place, Mama, just terrible."

And then, suddenly, it wasn't okay for him to be honest with me. Suddenly, I really wanted him to lie, and I began telling him exactly why and how. I told him that we didn't have to take him into the airport, that we could have just gone on home as planned, but we'd done it expressly because he'd wanted to. We did it for him, and he should be gracious about it. He should say thank you, not that it was really stupid.

Now, I'm pretty sure he wasn't telling the truth when he was telling me how awful it was; he was just squalling because... uh.... I don't really know why he's sometimes so furiously negative, but I can tell it's a stage and he has to go through it. I think he really did have a good time, and he was just expressing his frustration in an awkward (opposite) way. He can work on the finer points of communication when he gets a little older.

The interesting thing is how deeply uncomfortable I was, both with Bev and at the airport. I am just not happy when he expresses discontent, and I actually tried to teach him to lie about it, just because that's what's expected, socially.

This came up at homeschool playgroup recently. Another mom was talking about an article she'd read about how teaching our children to be polite and grease the wheels of social chit-chat actually teaches them to lie. It probably could have been a really interesting conversation, but there were too many kids running around in a small space, having consumed too much sugar, to allow the moms to discuss much of anything.

The reason for the sugar and the running around?

It was a Valentine's Day party, and the children had just exchanged valentines that said things like:

You're the apple of my eye!

Will U Be Mine?

You Rock! Be My Valentine

You Leave Me Shell Shocked

And so on. Young children exchanging cards expressing all sorts of nonsense they don't feel, for each other or anyone else. Lies lies lies.

When my kids were in school, only some of the children participated in this silly ritual, just the kids who really wanted to do it. We never even considered participating ourselves. It was a good feeling, to be teaching at a school where we could just not observe something like this, and know that there would be no stigma for my kids as a result.

Not so with homeschool playgroup. I felt that we should participate, because we're new to the group and my kids don't know everyone yet. It would be good for them to learn everyone's names and get a valentine in exchange for the ones they hand out. Since this is one of our few social outlets, we'd best participate fully in its rituals.

But I did so minimally. We spent no extra time on this project, either in the valentine preparation or in making a pretty mailbox for them. My children's valentines came home in a brown paper lunch bag with their names written in ball point ink.

And you know what? They haven't even asked about them. Wonder why.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

approximation is everything

I am feeling frustrated.

We got lots of snow last night, the local school kids got half of yesterday and all of today off, and there really should be a sledding or a skiing opportunity for us today. But the kids have been out in it all morning, and it is wet, heavy, and melting. They've come back in now, sopping wet. Too sticky for sliding around in any way. This is the kind of snow we've been getting lately.

If it's going to be cold and gray, we should at least get something out of it. This is NOT the kind of winter we had when I was a kid, and I think the scientists have now caught up with the anecdotal evidence on this one. I think everyone (except maybe the Bush administration; I try not to pay attention) now agrees that we are experiencing global warming.

These are daffodils, coming up through the snow. Let me just remind you that we live in upstate New York, and it is February. This is not normal, and it happened last year too. This freaks me out so much that I can't even think about it. I'm going to pull my binoculars off and take a look at a frustration much closer in. Unfortunately, I seem to be just as powerless to do anything about it.

When Big was little, back when he was an only child, we supported his every attempt, validated his every approximation. If he tried to say something and it didn't sound quite right, we responded (as do most parents of babies and toddlers) as if he'd spoken correctly. Same thing with reading, although I wouldn't have known to do this if I hadn't been working on an elementary education degree at the time. When he was looking through books, we called it reading. When he was able to guess at a word because of its context or its first letter, we called it reading. This meant that there was never a time when he didn't think he was a reader, and there was no resistance when the pieces started to fall together for him and he began to be able to decode unfamiliar words.

Fast forward five years.

That's the stage Little is at now. He looks at books, he recognizes a few words, he likes to do pretend writing (called 'driting' in the trade, for a cross between drawing and writing) and I would very much love to be able to tell you that he, too, sees himself as a reader.

Except that he doesn't. His big brother is oh so quick to point out to me that Little isn't really reading, and he's not a bit careful about doing this at a time when Little can't hear him. He's so quick to pin Little down with questions that make clear to Little that he can't really read yet. And as as result, Little is Resistant. When I try to sit him down and actually teach him a little bit about how words go together, he runs in the other direction.

Today was a rare and welcome exception. Little has decided that he prefers Vanilla soy milk to Original. I pointed out to him the word on the Original package, and asked him to go to the pantry and see if he could find one that said Vanilla in the same place. He did it! I was delighted. I asked him how he knew, and he said he knew because he found the one that begins with a V. Yippee skipppee yahoo!

But triumphs like these are few. I am a little over-eager for him to start reading, I think, because in my experience, life gets easier for Mama when kids start reading. I might even be eager enough to try to push him to do it a little early (horrors!) but the aformentioned Resistance makes this an unattractive option.

Grumble grumble. Grumble grumble grumble.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Gesundheit, readout fop!

I have a sister-in-law who's always sending me interesting stuff. Sometimes it's books, sometimes magazines, sometimes exquisite handmade soap. Sometime in the last year, she sent me this book, and I didn't look at it right away. It was in the midst of getting ready for something at school, or in the midst of getting ready for school to close, or some other generally overwhelming something, so I just didn't look at it.

The truth is, when I was teaching full-time, I didn't really have any time to do fun things with my own kids. It was all business: homework, dinner, pajamas, teeth, bed.

And while I might have used this book in my classroom, I pretty much knew what I was doing, and I was busy enough with what we were already doing that I wasn't looking around for new things to do with them.

But that's all changed, of course, and about a month ago, I opened it up and discovered a very intriguing fun thing just right for Big One and his emergent dictionary skills. And then last week, Big rebelled against the skill and drill math work we were doing, and I decided to give this book a comprehensive look-through to see what else might be in there.

This book is great! There is such a variety of fun and constructive (note to readers: when I say constructive, what I really mean is educational, but I don't want to be a dork about it) things to do with kids in here. Math things, reading things, outside things, nature things, small motor, large motor, you name it. The chapters are arranged roughly by topic, and by age-appropriateness within the chapters.

Many of the suggestions seem perfect for homeschooling families, and when I read about the author, I found out why. Di Hodges is an experienced teacher who "spent many years helping geographically isolated families teach their preschoolers at home" in Australia. There are certainly many excellent suggestions for preschoolers, but the age recommendations go up to 10 plus, and I found lots of things that are just right for Big One, too.

Just one example: the idea that originally caught my eye is a way to write a coded message to a child who is learning to look things up in a dictionary. You write out your message, and then look up each of the words in turn, writing down for your child the word that immediately preceeds the actual word for your message.

So one day last week, I wrote a message to Big that said:

Gesundheit readout fop amylase adventitious. Yosemite Valley nee Youngstown clip, Papete, penchant, ancillary Youngstown Jackdaw.
Louver, maltreat

You would need to have the exact dictionary we use for school to be able to translate this accurately, so I will do it for you:

Get ready for an adventure. You need your clipboard, paper, pencil, and your jacket.
Love, Mama.

He did this happily, although somewhat trepidatiously (he has learned to suspect that when I say "adventure," we're not going to Disney) and got a lot of dictionary practice in as well.

His adventure, by the way, was to go outside and create a map of our backyard, which will eventually develop into a map of our neighborhood, including the grocery store, two parks, and the place we go for his music lesson. This was a project I'd started to work on with my classroom last fall, but we didn't get to complete it because the school closed. Big One is often unsure of where we are, even when we're only a few blocks from home, and I'm hoping this project will help get him more grounded with an understanding of his surroundings.

Thanks for the book, Ipo!

Friday, February 08, 2008

happy friday

Here's a tiny corner of my house that doesn't require any work at the moment.

We're having a quiet day. Big One is working on the recorder composition he started yesterday. He's transcribing the notes he's playing onto a staff. Little One is lego-ing. I am about to cast on two new knitting projects.

It's cold, clear and snowing.

I have to go to the bank and the grocery store today, wish we could all just stay in.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

deep-seated WHAT?

Yesterday at homeschool playgroup, I was chatting with two friends, when suddenly the topic veered to housekeeping (I'll spare you the details). It became clear that these two friends see my housekeeping as, um, good. Maybe even very good. They think my house is neat, and clean, and generally pleasant to be in.

(Let's all pause here so that my mother can go get my father, read this to him, and then give him some space so he can pass out in shock without hurting himself. I was a bit of a slob when I was a kid.)

Perhaps because I still believe those voices in my head that tell me I'm a slob, I immediately started to protest:

"My house isn't perfect!"


"I have piles of stuff on my piano!"


"There is often kid stuff strewn around my living room."

and my favorite

"I have deep-seated psychological issues that make it difficult for me to be comfortable in a messy house."

Now I ask you. Why, oh why, do I need to excuse myself? Why can't I really own this? When I look around, I see that my house is pretty good, most of the time. I try not to drive my kids crazy with this (I don't always succeed) and I often give myself a day or two off from my cleaning routines. I really work at finding the right balance between having a house that looks comfortably lived-in and actually being comfortable living in it.

The truth is, whether I am letting it slide or keeping up with it, it is important to me to live in a house that is reasonably well cared-for. And the fact that I can't seem to be gracious about this when other people notice is a red flag that I am still believing those voices in my head rather than looking around me in this moment and seeing that I have become competent about taking care of my house.

On the other hand, I'm no paragon. Know what I did today instead of track down and deal with the mildewy smell in my bathroom? I lit an essential oil burner in there, and now my bathroom smells of cedar and eucalyptus.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

dr. seuss special

This morning, Little came out of his bedroom with a stack of books in his arms and asked, loudly: "Anybody want to do a Dr. Seuss special?"
I was pretty sure I knew what that was, so I asked, "Does that mean read all the Dr. Seuss books?"
"No, because there are some we don't have" was his response.
"Oh." I tried again. "Does it mean read all the ones we have in the house?"
"No," he replied, very patiently. "It just means all the ones I can find."
This turned out to be a formidable stack.
We read Dr Seuss's ABC, The Cat in the Hat, Green Eggs and Ham, There's a Wocket in my Pocket, Go Dog Go! (yes, I know, it's P. D. Eastman, but Little was looking at the picture of the Cat in the corner) The Cat in the Hat Comes Back, and One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish. This was a luxurious experience for Little One, akin to what spending the morning knitting in my pjs would be (ahem, is) for me. It is also the kind of experience that I would have thought we would be able to have all the time, whenever he asked, when I decided to be their mom and educator all day every day. I really thought we'd be able to do this sort of thing all the time, but even in a homeschool house, there is time for some things and not others. All too often I am too busy with something-or-other to sit down and read to him for such an extended time.

But this morning, that's just what we did, and it's got me thinking about the ways I read to a non-reader that support his developing literacy. These are the things that parents who love reading do naturally, because we want our kids to understand what we're reading.

With a book like Go Dog Go, we (you, me, all the parents I know) tend to point to the pictures in a way that helps our very young children understand the words, because a basic speaking vocabulary is one thing you need to learn to read. So for example, when we get to a page like this:
We naturally point to the little dog who is going in, and the three big dogs who are going out. This helps a child understand what those words mean, but perhaps more importantly to the literacy project, it lets the child know that these noises that we use to communicate (words) have a corresponding life in books. In other words, this helps a child construct a concept of written language, and how spoken language becomes written language. This is not rocket science, but rather what we naturally do to invite children into the world of books. It is the very beginning of teaching reading.

For a child a little further along, but not yet reading, I might follow along with a finger as I read a line of text. This is essential for a child to understand that text moves from left to right in written English, but it's best left out for a very young child who is really not ready or interested in this information. For a very young child, we just want to invite them into the book and make the reading as enjoyable and fluid as possible. But for an older child who knows his letters and that they make sounds, and is almost ready to read, I will move my finger along under the line as I read it. I want my reading to sound fluent and smooth, not choppy and word by word. It's important for kids to see and hear adults reading well.

With Little this morning, as I read The Cat in the Hat, I would sometimes get to the end of a line and leave the last word out, pausing expectantly for him to fill it in. I would do this only when the word made sense in context, and when there had been a word in a preceeding line that gave a clue about the rhyme. This is much simpler than it might sound. Here's an example:

We looked!
Then we saw him step in on the mat!
We looked!
And we saw him!
The Cat in the ___!

Kids with even a little bit of familiarity with the text will get this easily, and it really helps them start to see themselves as readers. I usually say something like, "That was really good reading" when we do this, and it really is reading, believe it or not.

At one point, Little said, "I just said the thing that made sense, I didn't really know the word." I told him that that's reading too, that a lot of times when we don't know a word, we can make a guess that makes sense for the story. You can tell a lot about what your child knows by the guesses he makes!

My point here is that we don't need to use curricula and worksheets and flash cards and whatnot to teach children to read. I would probably take the position that we don't need these things for teaching any subject, but that would be a digression. All we have to do is read to them, and experience the texts with them in ways that help them unlock the code.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

gender again, and dinner

Does this child look like a girl to you? Yes? No? Can't tell? It seems that when we are out and about, most people interpret Big One's long hair as a feminine feature. And by most, I mean 99% of the people we encounter who don't already know us think he is a girl. They're not even unsure of themselves. They freely, openly, and mistakenly refer to this child as a she, as her, as my daughter. Never mind the completely boyish clothes, never mind the absence of feminine embellishment, all they see is the hair. (As if I would allow my daughter to go around with such raggedy hair. The very idea.) His hair has caused some awkward moments in and around men's rooms, where he is often mistaken for a girl who has taken a wrong turn.

Big One is completely aware of this (it would be quite difficult to hide it from him, even if I wanted to) but it doesn't bother him a bit. He has been growing it out for the last several years, with a few minor detours when I prevailed on him to get it cut, but I must confess that these haircuts really only served to strengthen his resolve. He doesn't have a goal, he doesn't want it to get to his shoulders or his elbow (as a girl would) he just wants his hair to keep growing.

So be it. I can't stop him. I know, because I've tried. Anything I might possibly say about cultural norms and hair would ring false, because his father and I both have hair well past our shoulders. The only requirement I have is that he wash it once a week, and that he brush it every day.


I need some help.

I have mentioned that I used to have a job, and that Joe used to do the cooking. When I say Joe did the cooking, I mean he did all the cooking. The last time I cooked for myself on a regular basis was circa 1990, which was the last time I was single. This is a little ironic, because Joe and I met working in restaurant kitchens, and between us we've done just about every job there is to do in a restaurant, back of the house. Line cook, prep cook, dish, you name it. I even did a stint in a natural foods grocery where my back-of-the-house jobs were baking bread, granola, and pastries. But for the last 18 years, pretty much since we've been together, I didn't cook in my house at all.

Fast forward to last fall. Suddenly Joe gets a full time job, suddenly I have no job, I decide to stay home with the kids, and now I am responsible for making dinner. Joe's hours are long, his commute makes them longer, and it would be pretty lame if I couldn't manage to make food. For the first few weeks, my attempts were pretty lame. I have burned frozen squash, I have served cheese and crackers for dinner, I have told the kids to look through the fridge and see what they can find. In the beginning, it was a challenge for me to get spaghetti on the table at a reasonable time.

But then, things started to get in to a sort of groove. I'm no savant, but I can sort of do it now. I've learned that it helps to plan ahead, I've learned that it's smart to shop for the kinds of foods you like to cook and eat (this eluded me in the beginning), and I've learned that there are a few meals I can make with very little planning and still work out okay.

So far my super-easy meals are:

beans and rice
(make brown rice in the pressure cooker, open a can of refried beans, warm some tortillas if I'm feeling really ambitious.)

randomness soup
(saute some onions with some dried herbs, add this to some beans cooking in vegetable stock, throw in some celery, carrots, potatoes, whatever I have around) This is not quick, because it requires that I be around to monitor the soup, add water, adjust the flame, etc., but it is very easy, because once it's cooking, it just cooks, and I can go back to whatever it was I was doing before the necessity of dinner came along and bonked me on the head.

But I really want some more of these sorts of meals, and that's where you come in. Some of you make dinner all the time. I want to know what your super-easy, no planning required meals are. Please put them in the comments if you want to share, or else email them to me (new email address in my profile!) if you don't. No recipes required (I have lots of cookbooks and can figure things out) I'm really just looking for menu ideas here.

Thanks! And thanks for reading my blog.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

some finished objects, and a language lesson

These are socks for my niece, who wanted some new socks when she saw the pairs of socks I made for her Mama and Papa for Christmas. They are a simple K2 P2 rib, using the formulas and measurements from Charlene Schurch's books, and I knitted them on a pair of addi turbo circs, size 0. The yarn is Lorna's Laces Shepherd Sock, and the color is Watercolor. Although they've been finished since Thursday, I was prevented from getting them to the post office three times. On Thursday, I had to make an emergency trip an hour north on the interstate to jump start Joe's car, which was dead when he arrived back from a Florida business trip. Friday, we had an ice storm. Saturday, we were embroiled in a major project, details to follow.
And here are her mittens. I love these, love the yarn, love how they knitted up. I made them out of Avanti merino, quite firmly on anonymous double pointed needles from my vast collection, size 3. The yarn calls for a 5. Question: Why do I prefer to knit socks on two circs, but mittens on double points? Another question: where do you suppose my darling niece lives? She wanted wool socks, and specifically requested mittens from me, for her morning trip to school. She probably lives some place chilly, I imagine you're thinking.

Silly, silly you. She lives in, and on, Hawaii.

The island of Hawaii is a volcano, as are the other islands. You probably knew that. What you might not know is that the interior of the island is a mountain, and that it gets cold enough on the mountain to snow. The exterior of the island is, as everyone knows, a beach, and it's summer there, all year round. There is a main highway encircling the island, approximately equidistant from both the mountain and the beach. If you live on the mountain side of this road, you live mauka, or toward the mountain and inland. If you live on the beach side, you live makai, or toward the sea.

My niece and her family all live makai, but her school is mauka, and there is enough difference in altitude between these two locations that it is uncomfortably chilly for my sweet small niece to arrive with bare hands.

Hope you like them, sweetie!

Long overdue...
I've been a little long on the speechifying lately, and a little short on the projects, particularly house projects. So I am happy to report on a huge project, all but finished. We have lived in this house for four years, and for a series of uninteresting reasons, Little One's bedroom was the tiniest room in the house, a room scarcely deserving of the word, more of a closet, really, as well as the only route to the attic. We've been planning to move him to a larger room for some time, but we were sleeping in it. And the room we wanted for our bedroom has been our office/studio/storage space/catchall.

But this weekend we played musical rooms and put everyone where they belong. We were ably assisted by our friends Alison, who raised the tone of the whole project by mopping the floors, and AK, who made soup and salsa and hung out with the kids downstairs.

Here is my new office, Little One's former bedroom.

Here's Little's new bedroom, formerly ours.

And here is our bedroom, with some past projects on display. First there's the blanket on the bed, which you may recognize.

And then there's the lamp from this post, now rewired and with a shade, which has finally found a home befitting its loveliness.

And finally, here is my collection of knitting books, right next to the bed, right where they belong. I can't tell you how many times I have padded across the hallway in my pajamas to get one of these books for some project I'm planning while sitting up in bed. Most of my yarn stash found a home in this room too. I may never leave this room again.