Friday, January 27, 2012

Under the leaf canopy

M. has had this philosophy, probably forever although it only came to my irritated attention about two years ago, that a person is healthier in well-appointed surroundings. Okay, the term he uses is "less cluttered." Or sometimes "less crammed with useless stuff." But the solution always involves a purchase and several weekends of deep cleaning. So I tend to be a little...skeptical...when he proposes that the cure for a family member's problems is a trip to World Market or American Furniture or, now that the big blue-and-yellow box store has opened, IKEA.
However, I'll be damned if Helen wasn't stuffed up and whiny and feverish and snuffly for WEEKS (at least two) and then the evening we brought home the new American Furniture bed she started to improve and by the time we bought and installed the new desk, the shelves, and the (admittedly to-die-for adorable) leaf canopy thingie she got completely over whatever it is and is back to her usual cheerful self. So there. Apparently money can buy happiness, at least of the first grade sort.

Her room has ever been a design conundrum. It's the smallest room in the house except perhaps for the bathroom, and it has an unfortunate tunnel shape accentuated by the fact that the only practical place to locate the bed is along one wall. Add a bureau or a desk, and you have a cramped hallway to nowhere. Plus--how shall we put this--Helen has the property-amassing instinct of a monopoly addict. Or a found-object artist. Stuff accumulates. Clothes and dolls and furniture and books, as you might expect, plus art projects and other projects and boxes of which projects may someday be made; drawings by friends; drawings for friends; drawings by stuffed animals for the friends of stuffed animals. Bags with things. Boxes with things. Old forgotten backpacks of things once packed for a trip to the mountains or a trip to the zoo or a trip to nowhere. Stuff.

Which is why I was (and still am, some) skeptical that a few hundred dollars applied at the proper furniture retailers would really make a long-term difference.

Nevertheless, her room looks 100% less tunnellike and 80% more calming and it is a pleasure to poke my head in and watch her sleeping under her leaf canopy with her turtle star nightlight lamp lighting the ceiling.

Not that it wasn't one of my favorite ways to calm down before, looking in on her and her galumphing older brother (although he's such a late-to-bed-er that it's more of a thing to calm me in the morning, except most mornings it isn't calming at all--GET UP!!! The bus leaves in fifteen minutes!!!) as they sleep. Now it's that much more calming, in that it doesn't involve icky notes to self about reMINDing her to CLEAN HER ROOM tomorrow.

In other retail news, I finally took my laundry to the drycleaning and if that doesn't sound like news to you that's because you haven't moved that damn bag of three (3) drycleaning items from House 2 to House 3 through Construction Project 1 to Construction Project 2 to Asbestos Nightmare to Garage-in-Kitchen to Construction Project 3 and back again. And after all that, it cost $30 which is more than I'd pay for two of the three items new, so after this it will be tumble dry low until they attain shapelessness.

Next time: tunnel before and after.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Drinking the Spanish

You know what's so funny? When you're browsing for airline tickets on the web and you've got five different browser windows open and so when you think you're buying the one that departs your airport at 5:00 pm on the day you want to leave, which would be perfect, it actually turns out you bought the one that leaves your airport at 1:00. In the a.m. Hahahahahahahahahahaha kill me.

It's been that kind of a week so far.

What I was going to write about, before I got distracted by Horribly Bad Decisions, was learning, and learning styles, and subject matter, and how as doggedly and lovingly you may lead the horse to the fountain of, say, Spanish, you can't make it drink. Not even if you promise it 100 carrots for every semester it earns at least a B average in the class.

Once upon a time, Silas said, "WHY do I NEED to learn to ski?"
Which is another way of saying we got the middle school registration material last week and Silas has broken my heart by refusing to take a single semester of language, let alone the rigorous two-semester course that I have been holding in my head as the last best chance for him to learn Spanish. This has been been my dream since before he was born, that he (and my other as-yet unimagined children) would be given the gift of fluency in another language.

 I knew it would be tricky, since I am not fluent in another language myself, but I was optimistic in the way it's possible to be when you're pregnant and your child-to-be can be absolutely anything. And we began well: Silas had the great good luck (in the opinion of his parents) to go to kindergarten and first grade at a bilingual immersion school, and by the time we had to move (WEEPING), he had a pretty good understanding of spoken Spanish and an awesome accent. And, unfortunately, a lifelong distaste for the language itself and anything associated with it (even restaurants. For REAL. Oh my heart, you break again.)

Now he says, "What's the snow like?"
Nevertheless, I persisted in halfheartedly trying to Keep the Spanish Alive in his head, if not his heart. And I tried not to be too much of a pushy parent about it: he hated it. I got that. Nevertheless, you don't let a kid not learn to read just because it's hard and he doesn't like it, right? You keep at it. So I kept at it.

And here we are: his first chance since first grade to take a real Spanish class,  in which he might actually learn something, and LO. The forces of darkness have won out and he is opting for art/PE instead.

Unless the 100 carrots a semester move him (and they might. That's a pretty good deal for a kid who earns $5 for mowing the lawn).

Meanwhile, I have been forced to do a little parental soul searching. Back when Si was prekindergarten and we were on tenterhooks about the school lottery chances, I asked myself where I wanted him to go with this. I knew that teaching him a foreign language could easily have the consequence of raising a child who moves to Chile the first chance he gets and never comes back. Ouch. But I could live with that, I told myself, if he was fluent.

I also asked myself a harder question: if he, knock on wood, god forbid, nononono, did not live to be an adult, would I regret him not learning Spanish? And the answer to that was no. Not in the way I'd regret it if he never went camping or never read The Hobbit or never saw the Midwestern woods in spring. Spanish is a skill I want him to have as an adult--and now that I'm out of the fanaticism of pregnancy, I am able to admit that there are many ways to become fluent. Yeah, it's great if you learn it as a child. But I know plenty of fluent adults who did not learn the language(s) of their fluency until they were young adults (or even not-so-young adults). 

Which brings us to deeper parental soul searching. such as: what do we decide to teach our kids, anyway, and how important is it that they Follow the Plan?

For example, we teach kids to swim (even if they haaaate the water) so they don't drown. We teach them to read and do math so that they can earn a living. We teach them how to make baklava because it is delicious (if you like honey, that is. And nuts.). Learning Spanish falls somewhere between learning to read and learning to make baklava. And, I guess, it's like learning to swim, on the odd chance that you get kidnapped by Catalinian pirates and your only hope of survival is to overhear their whispered conversations about where the escape hatch is.

Yes, learning another language is an Important Part of a Good Education. Essential, even. And so often neglected. But...there is an element of personal taste (honey and nuts? what if you prefer lemon?), not to mention the ever so tiny issue that it's actually impossible to be really fluent without sufficient motivation to open your mouth and communicate with somebody else. (That was the beauty of the immersion school. The motivation was built in.)

So, for the unmotivated student (which we most certainly have)...what, really, is the best way to ensure he learns to speak?

I'm not sure--I'm thinking something along the lines of extensive travel/ living in another country, preferably by himself-- probably it isn't sitting in a class for 38 minutes a day learning hablo hablas habla.

Sigh. That's really hard for me to admit, especially since the chances of him going off to live in another country by himself anytime soon are slim to negative 15. And I still think that the chances of him becoming fluent in another language are greatly increased if he takes some actual Spanish classes. But--oh, ow, sadness--if he decides to not to, it is not the end of the world.

Science project. Involves projectiles, naturally. Too bad they don't offer Spanish PE.
The evening I came to this realization, with a heavy, heavy heart, I was reminded about how Silas does learn. It's not by memorizing verb endings--routine rote memorization, the backbone of my own educative process, is not really in his repertoire. No. He and M. were putting together our new IKEA shelves and he was talking through the process, noticing when where there needed to be screws or reinforcements, figuring out what each little piece did, and describing it all (and noticing immediately when something wasn't working or there was some minute piece missing or mis-set). He learns by doing, and he learns by solving problems to which he wants to know the answer. If learning Spanish were to enable him to solve a problem to which he wanted to know the answer, he'd learn it. He'd curl up on the couch moaning every 45 minutes or so, but he'd learn it.

So my mission, if I choose to accept it, is to devise a problem to which the answer is: learn Spanish.

Perhaps I can arrange for him to be kidnapped by Catalinian pirates.

Helen's latest photo series: the Rockies fans among us.
At the very least, I can try to cultivate in him a sense of his own adventurousness, so that when I casually say, his junior year in high school or so, that eh, he really probably wouldn't want to do a year in Costa Rica or anything, he can break in with an indignant, "Of COURSE I want to spend a year in Costa Rica! I'm adventurous!"

Adventurous like taking the overnight plane through Charlotte just because. It's an adventurrrrr.

Friday, January 13, 2012

The long-awaited TBR post

I'm fully aware that the only one who has long awaited this post is me, but too bad. It's my blog, I'll bore when I want to.

So! My personal TBR Pile Challenge! (The real TBR Pile Challenge from roofbeamreader can be found here.) A quick rundown of the rules:

1. The book must have been in my house at least one full year.

2. The book must be previously unread by me.

3. All books must be completed by December 31, 2012.

The real TBR Challenge involves 12 books, but requiring myself to read so many books at home crimps my library-borrowing style, and library borrowing is one of my few certain pleasures in life that doesn't cost money and doesn't involve the consumption of butter and flour -- so, six books.

So, without further ado, my TBR Pile Challenge Books for 2012 are:

1. The Journals of Lewis and Clark, edited by Bernard DeVoto
2. Undaunted Courage, Stephen Ambrose
3. The Ohio Frontier, R. Douglas Hurt
4. Democracy in America, Alexis de Toqueville, abridged and with an introduction by Thomas Bender
5. The Snow Leopard, Peter Matthiessen
6. Drosscape, Alan Berger

You may note a certain theme. A certain level of... chewiness. A possible, er, reason these all were abandoned not long after being started, or bought, or picked up off the departmental free table back when I was part of a department. Nevertheless: six. I can do six books squeezed in between reads that require less effort.

It actually helps that we have a theme going. I'm a themey kind of reader. I will forge my way through the falling-off cover and creatively abysmal spelling and maddening uncertainty about daily location of The Journals of Lewis and Clark, and invigorated and refreshed, I will stretch and hop to the next book, Undaunted Courage, which will feel like a candy-covered romp in comparison, plus I have faith it will have maps for dummies. Then I'll reach backward a little, explore the Ohio frontier, all the time wishing I could hop in the car and go search some of these places on foot (in lieu of that, there will be lists). Then I'll be fired up for de Toqueville (and chances are I'll read two and a half chapters and founder on the desire to read something with an actual plot and neglect the whole project until fall--still, I'll be halfway through at that point, so who cares?)

Anyhow. Happy reading. I love a good reading project.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Someone is seven

In all the hoopla over holidays and the New Year, someone's milestone got lost in the scrunchled up wrapping paper and discarded boxes.

I asked her not to look mad, for once. See, it's possible.
  Bloggily speaking, anyhow. In real life, the preparations for and recovery from the celebrations of sevenhood can be directly tied to several balls dropped this holiday season, including a) half the Christmas cards not leaving the house until too late to actually arrive before Christmas; b) several ungifted or subgifted members of the extended family; c) the singing Christmas decorations never managing to get paired with batteries (this one wasn't so bad, actually); d) probably something else that I am forgetting. Like baking. I meant to bake this year. It didn't happen.

We had 14 girls under the age of 8 in the house. Miraculously nothing got broken. Note: the soundtrack for this picture is all girls shouting in unison "Tramp-o-leen! Tramp-o-leen! Tramp-o-leen!" while they jump up and down. In unison.
A girl and her doll, united at last.

So. Seven. It's an amazing age, or at least the seven-year-old we have constantly amazes me. M. and I joke that what she really needs is a production studio. And a workshop. And a warehouse. And...a trained staff. At least once a week Helen comes to me and in between bouncing up and down on the couch or petting her favorite stuffed animal or brushing her hair with her exciting new brush she describes in great and casual detail how she's going to build a car for her American Girl Doll, or a bed, or a teepee, or a desk. Then she wants to get started right away, and when I stutter-- "Um, but, I'm actually making dinner right now," she bursts into angry tears. At any one time she is busy making sets for the stop-animation movie she's making, or a book about a girl in the city, or a box full of Kings Cibul (King's kibble) for her Pick-a-Pet store. Her half-done projects are all over the house. I may come back from a run and be commandeered to help sand teepee poles, or wield the hot glue gun, or listen to her new project, which is to get "my very own puppy," which, sadly for both us, turned out not to be My Very Own PuppyTM but an actual live puppy, "either a fox terrier or a chihuahua but not from a pet breeder place because those cost like $400."

"Ack! No! We are not getting a puppy!" I said, a veritable portrait of parental understanding and graciousness.

Tears, and a refusal to eat dinner until a puppy was promised and/or bought. After I'd gotten my shoes off and peed, and discussed the matter with M., I softened my tone a little (although just to be clear: we are *totally not* getting a puppy, for the love of god). Helen was not distracted and insisted we set a timeline. I refused, gently but firmly, to set a timeline. Tears.

It's unavoidable that many of her projects end in disappointment and despair, especially since we have neither a workshop nor a full-time trained staff. However, what is an amazement to equal her idea-generating brain is the fact that, actually, a lot of her projects do get completed. There's the Squirrel Stop game, sitting in its box under the counter. The book describing our trip to Yellowstone, which languished for months before finally being finished up in an afternoon. The doll bed. The doll desk. The million and one movies and stills featuring her stuffed animals in our digital camera's memory card. Most of these are just what you'd expect from a seven-year-old: cardboard and flimsy, with spidery writing and odd-shaped cutouts. She doesn't waste a lot of time laboring over the final product, in other words. But a few are actually really good, good enough that I find myself wishing that if I could grant her one fairy godmother wish it would be this: follow-through. (Actually, if I could grant myself one fairy godmother wish it would be follow-through.) Because when this girl harnesses her persistence to start a project to completing her vision of how the project ought to turn out, she's going to be a force of nature.

This photo kind of says it all.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

One of my resolutions should be to post more

And in honor of that, I'm gonna start with a classic post on January 1. Take that, procrastinatey gene! I'm using Sundry's meme, of course. Somewhat abbreviated, because...well, because of that procrastination gene (I have to accommodate somehow). Plus the long form feels a little too much like doing Turbo Tax.

1. What did you do in 2011 that you’d never done before?
 Buy a full-on family ski pass (dear GOD was that painful.) Buy skis and boots. Enroll a child in a private sports program. Have a close relative with stage four cancer (*kicks the wall angrily*). Visit my sister's place in St Louis. Probably a bunch of other things I've forgotten.

2. Did you keep your new year’s resolutions, and will you make more for next year?

 Last year's resolutions:

1. Take the kids out into nature at least once a month. 
I didn't keep a close enough record of this to be sure, but I think this was basically a pass.

2. Eat more wild food.

So long as we define "more" as "some juniper berries and a couple dandelion greens," we've got a pass.

3. Watch the moon rise at least once a month.

Yeah. FAIL.

4. Hike once a month.
Check! Here's the list, for anyone who cares (me):

  • January: Coyote Song/ Swallow Hill trails, 2 miles
  • February: Glendale Farm Open Space, app. 1 mile
  • March: Greenland Open Space, 4.5 miles
  • April: Lake Superior Waterfront, app. 4 miles; Kramer Woods trail, app. two miles; Briar Patch trail, app. 1 mile
  • May: Cherry Creek Ecological Park and Happy Canyon Trail, app. 1.5 miles; Glendale Farm Open Space trail, 1.5 miles
  • June: Lost Creek Wilderness, app. 1.5 miles.
  • July: Puma Hills, South Park, app. 0.5 miles; Mystic Falls trail, app. 4 miles
  • August: Glendale Farm Open Space, app. 1.5 mi., Cherry Creek Bike Path, 1 mi.
  • September: Kent Denver school property, app. 1 mi.
  • October: Castle, Parmalee and Tower trails, app. 4 mi
  • November: Frasier River Bike trail, app. 4 mi
  • December: Lee Lorraine Canyon, Bowen Canyon and Yetman trails, 3 mi; North Tenmile Trail, 3 miles
5. Meet my ToBeRead challenge (read at least 12 unread books from my personal collection). Here are the books I pledged to read:

1. Tender at the Bone, Ruth Reichl
2. At Home, Bill Bryson
3. Dr. Zhivago, Boris Pasternak, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky
4. Collected Short Stories of Raymond Carver
5. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Diaz
6. Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell
7. A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, David Foster Wallace
8. Slouching Toward Bethlehem, Joan Didion
9. Little Heathens, Mildred Armstrong Kalish
10. Aeneid, Virgil, translated by Robert Fagles
11. Of Wolves and Men, Barry Lopez
12. The Story Behind the Story (various)

Here are the books I read:

1. Tender at the Bone, Ruth Reichl
2. At Home, Bill Bryson
3. Dr. Zhivago, Boris Pasternak, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky
4. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Diaz
5. Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell
6. A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, David Foster Wallace (in progress)
7. Slouching Toward Bethlehem, Joan Didion
8. Aeneid, Virgil, translated by Robert Fagles (in progress)
9. Of Wolves and Men, Barry Lopez

Well, 9 out of 12. Seventy-five percent to pass!

As to resolutions for next year, I'm keeping it simple. I'm going to remember the in-laws' birthdays and send cards. I'm going to check my 401K balances quarterly, so whenever I get the urge to monitor my progress toward retirement, I will be able to answer myself with ringing authority: NOT VERY WELL, THANK YOU! I'm going to try to hike every month. I'm going to do a smaller scale TBR (to be elaborated later, because already this post is a monster). I'm going to print out more photos. And the challenge: I'm going to do more follow-through on writing projects.

3. Did anyone close to you give birth?

No. What's UP with that?

4. Did anyone close to you die?

5. What countries did you visit?
The great old U.S. of A. I don't even have a current passport.

6. What would you like to have in 2012 that you lacked in 2011?
(sadly) More time with friends and family. Less house hassle. Less debt (*not* something that was lacking in 2011).  More writing and more writing projects.

7. What dates from 2011 will remain etched upon your memory, and why?
None, really, although the fall of 2011 will go down as fretful and anxious and ultimately Bad.

8. What was your biggest achievement of the year?

Painting the front of the house. I wish I was joking.

9. What was your biggest failure?
Not connecting with people as much I'd like.

10. Did you suffer illness or injury?
Not really, although I suffered mental injury from the bill I got after taking Si to the emergency room for a sprained knee.

11. What was the best thing you bought?
The house & kitchen, although most of that was "bought" in 2010. Or now and for the next 30 years, take your pick.

12. Where did most of your money go?
The house, via mortage & the construction loan. Also baseball, skiing, and travel.

13. What did you get really excited about?
Hmm. I was excited about the finishing of the house and the return of its livability. Otherwise, though, "getting excited" is a state of mind I don't visit nearly enough.

14. Compared to this time last year, are you:

– happier or sadder? sadder, alas.
– thinner or fatter? the same to slightly fatter. Not so fat that I have to pay attention, though.
– richer or poorer? richer, although perhaps less in actual net worth than in the sense that the financial situation is under control.

15. What do you wish you’d done more of?

Made more connections; had more dinner parties; asked more people over; picked up the phone more. Wrote more.

16. What do you wish you’d done less of?

Fretting about the house. Working on the house. Moving parts of the house and its furnishings from one place to another.

17. How did you spend Christmas?
With the four of us, my parents and my sister at my sister's lovely little apartment in St Louis. We opened presents, ran in the park, and ate traditional Christmas food, including creamed onions and two pies.

19. What were your favorite books of the year?
Bossypants. Biographies of Abigail Adams and Queen Isabella.

20. What did you do on your birthday, and how old were you?
On my birthday I skied, then came back to a rented condo and celebrated with M, the kids, my sister in law and my nephew. Since this was my big four-oh, I was supposed to have celebrated with my parents and sister as well, but--well, crap happened. I did get to see Mom and Dad and my sister AND my aunt, though, on the weekend before, which made up for them not being there on the day (but not, of course, for the reason they weren't there).

21. What one thing would have made your year immeasurably more satisfying?
Satisfying? Well. Made some huge trip and/or gotten some wonderful job, I guess. I would have been plenty happy (even "satisfied") with simply a different diagnosis for my mom, though.

22. What kept you sane?
I'm not totally sure I was.

23. Tell us a valuable life lesson you learned in 2011.

Life is too damn short.