Saturday, December 29, 2007

Fourteen Trips Around the Sun

Last night's birthday celebration combined with Shabbat went very well.
I have never been the Chuck-E-Cheese birthday party mother, anyway.
N. was never thrilled about the noise and confusion of those kind of birthday parties to begin with, and when he attended such celebrations for other kids, he usually wanted to be taken home early.
Anyway, my home-made lasagna beats pizza parlor cooking hands down.
And leftovers are a beautiful thing.

So I spent the afternoon cooking, and since N. invited MLC's boyfriend, and A. was still with us, we had a full table.

My Challah was a hit!

We don't cut the Challah with a knife on Shabbat. Rather, everyone holds the Challah while the blessing is said, and then we become "holy tearers." (The picture is the second go-around on the Challah. I was flattered).

The reward of an afternoon cooking--I enjoyed many compliments on my cooking. The greatest compliment of all, though, was that almost everyone wanted seconds.

Then it was time for the cake.

We cheat a little, and have the cake complete with candles, even on Shabbat. Fourteen candles makes quite a blaze!

We are hopelessly old fashioned. We go for the full number of candles, instead of the candle-numbers. If the birthday kid is under 18, we include "one to grow on!"

He moved when I snapped this one, but look at the smoke from all those candles.

N. was really into celebrating fourteen trips around the sun. He has now experienced fourteen examples of each season. And he has seen some other cool things--like comets, meteor showers, and lunar eclipses.

I am having a hard time believing that my bouncing baby boy is becoming a young man. Yikes--as my friend Steph said.

Of course, there were presents.

Two that N. specifically requested were a Taekwondo headband and a dragon necklace.

Here, his helpful older sister tied the knot.

He also got two books, a T-shirt, and a bookstore gift certificate. And MLC's boyfriend gave him a bag of sweets and treats.

It was a very good birthday celebration. Last year, his birthday was overshadowed by his Bar Mitzvah. This year, we were back to our usual mode of celebration. It's probably a bit tame for some tastes. It is not the birthday extravaganza to outdo the Jones.

This kind of birthday works for us, though. I think N. gets more of what he wants: adult attention, fun conversation, and good food that he likes. And the atmosphere does not over-tax his senses.

We don't know the Jones anyway.

Friday, December 28, 2007

N.'s Archery and Challah-day Birthday

Yesterday, MLC and I went into town to "get a few things." N, who was preoccupied with entertaining his friend A., whose dad came home from the hospital yesterday, did not act as if he had the slightest suspicion about the nature of these errands.

Fourteen years ago today, at this time, I was checking into the hospital. We had planned a homebirth, but I had been confined to bed with pre-eclampsia and I was having early labor pains. At 4 PM, the doctor broke the waters, and real labor quickly ensued. N. was born at 9:07 PM, after a very short, very intense labor.

For this Shabbat birthday, N. has requested an Oreo Cake, my home-make Challah, and his favorite meal, lasagna. Oh, and chicken soup with matzah balls. I told him that three out of four on the home-made list was a pretty good deal. MLC and I purchased a cake and a few presents in town, yesterday.

This morning, I started on the Challah.
It is quite a production because I use a high-altitude recipe (even the usual modifications for 3500 feet and above do not work at 7000 feet) and I use the food processor to knead the dough. This means that I am constantly working between two books.
And I have to divide the ingredients amounts into two, because the food processor cannot handle nearly seven cups of flour at once.

Today, after forgetting the sugar in the first half--I hadn't had my cup of coffee yet--I swore that I am going to type up the altered recipe in a more organized fashion, on one sheet of paper as I do it! And I will, right after I post this blog entry...

The Challah came out well, despite the chaos of baking and serving breakfast to the whole family in two shifts.

Actually, I made the boys some breakfast drink and gave them bowls and spoons. They got out the cereal and milk. I am not a Better Homes and Gardens poster child!

While the dough balls were on the first rising, I ate some breakfast and drank some coffee with Bruce and MLC.
During the second rising, I cleaned up the mess and washed the dishes. During the third rising of the braided loaves, I pre-heated the oven, mixed matzah-ball dough, and started some chicken soup.

While I was monitoring the bakings, N. was working his arm on his new compound bow.
MLC's boyfriend had gotten N. this bow for late Hannukah. It has a 50 pound draw, and N. is drawing it 10 times, three times a day, to strengthen his arm.

It was kind of cool when N. received the bow. He looked it over, in an excited way, and then inspected the arrows. He talked about the workings of the compound bow, the fringe that makes the draw and snap silent for hunting, and the type of arrow points.
MLC's boyfriend was impressed.
"Where did you learn that?" he asked.
"Unschooling," N. replied. "I have two books and a magazine about it."

Every now and then, I am brought up short by the stuff this kid has learned without my expert guidance.

A. has entered a different world.
When he came over, I explained that we limit TV here.
He announced rather dramatically, "I can't live without TV!"
MLC said to him, "Wow, you don't have much of a life, then."
N. said, "You don't need TV to tell you what to think."

As it stands, the boys have been so busy that they have only watched one movie this entire week. Right now, they are working on how to calculate distances using the sights on the compound bow.
A. doesn't know that he has entered the world of unschooling, as he does math uncousciously, for his own ends!

Soon, I must get the lasagna set up and ready for baking. I have to form the matzah balls and get the soup warming. We will have Shabbat dinner with birthday dinner tonight. Oh, and just in case I did not get enough present-wrapping in a few weeks ago, I need to wrap a few today.

Fourteen years ago, I was explaining to the labor nurse that, no, we would not have a circumcision in the hospital. It would take place in eight days at home, with a mohel. Now I am smelling the wonderul aroma of fresh baked bread, and getting ready to do a little cooking.

Fourteen years ago, I cradled my nine pound baby boy, and he fit into the crook of one arm. Today, he is almost as tall as I am, and he recently hit 100 pounds. He knows things that I don't--like the parts of a compound bow and how to use the sights by distance--and he has interests that I never imagined. He is all boy, and I like who he is becoming!

Thursday, December 27, 2007

A Little Closer to the Brink...

Pakistani leader Benasir Bhutto was assassinated by terrorists today. The wanna-be dictator, Musharrif can only gain from her death.

She was the leader of the opposition party in the upcoming elections in Pakistan, a nuclear power.

Regardless of the politics surrounding her, her party was the only opposition to the increasing stranglehold on politics in Pakistan by Musharrif.

Whenever an assassin's bullet stops people from having a voice in the leadership of their country, freedom is lost.

And the world comes a little closer to the brink of tyranny and terror.

Ernie, over at Deliberate Wanderer says what I am thinking better than I can put it right now.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Nitty-Gritty Encounter with an Angry Yekke

Movies and Chinese at the synagogue was a nice time.
The food was good. The movie was Operation Thunderbolt, the Israeli film version of the raid on Entebbe. We have all seen the movie, with the exception of A., but we enjoyed it again. A. did not know much about the raid on Entebbe and enjoyed it the first time.

After the movie and after eating, we let the kids socialize while we talked with some adults around us. And as I was talking to a couple of pretty good friends, I had one of those nitty-gritty moments in which my parenting, for lack of a better term, was called into question.

Mrs. K., a woman that I know only slightly came marching up while I was talking. I finished kibbitzing with the people around me, and they moved off. The conversation went something like this:
Me: Hi, (first name).
Mrs. K.: How old is N.?
Me: (not grokking the context) Oh, he'll be fourteen this coming Friday.
Mrs. K.: Well! Ever since I've known him, and I used to help out at (name of school), N. has been making messes and wandering off!
(I always get nervous when people start talking in exclamation points. I was further non-plussed here by the reference to N.'s second grade year. It's been seven years since then. I decided to stay calm and see what transpired).
Me: And...?
Mrs. K.: N. made a mess with some fortune-cookie wrappers. I told him to pick them up, but he didn't. (She seemed more angry than the situation warranted. I was wondering what else happened).
Me: Where did this happen? (I hadn't noticed any commotion in the room).
Mrs. K. (pointing to the foyer): There. Finally, I had to tell my son to pick them up!
Me (wondering about the intensity of her feeling): Was N. rude to you?
Mrs. K: No. He ignored me.

Now there was a lot I could have asked at this point. I was wondering if she got N.'s attention before she spoke to him, because N. has AS and is often oblivious to what is going on around him. I also wondered why she was so emotional about the situation. It sounded like a fairly straightforward encounter in which she could have pressed her advantage as the adult and gotten N. to do what he was told fairly easily. And why was she so angry if N. had not said anything rude?

I was also feeling a little defensive. I was thinking back to N.'s second-grade year at the school she mentioned. I had never heard that there were any problems of that sort back then, had I? No other person has ever mentioned these sorts of problems with N. that year. Why hadn't someone brought it up with me then? Have I been oblivious to this obvious imperfection in my child for the past seven years? Wow. I must not be a very good parent.

And what is this about N.'s age? As the mother of a child with neurological impairments, I was instantly thrown back to the days when, as I struggled to pull my overwhelmed sensory-sensitive five year old out from under a table where he took refuge from chaos, people would tell me that I should "give him something real to cry about." I would hear comments about how no child "his age" should act that way. If they were the parent, they would see to it that he behaved, by god! And I would bitterly think that if they were the parent, they'd probably be jailed for child abuse before they would get a child with autism to "behave" given their ignorance of the child and the situation.

Inside the woman that I have become, the mother of a child with ASD, the professional with expertise on autism, still lives the new mother who wanted to avoid going out in public in order to protect a fragile sense of worth from such judgement by asses--you know, those who assume expertise without knowledge. Those who know best because they are ignorant of the complexities of other lives. Inside of me during the present encounter anger was building, as I imagined the gossip that had gone on about me and N. among some of these ignoramuses seven years ago. And so I did what my mother told me to do when encountering anger. I counted to ten. It has taken me nearly fifty years to become consistent at taking my mom's advice.

Anything I said to this woman about N.'s disability would just be perceived as excuses. Besides, she was carrying bad feelings from years ago, and probably had gossiped about over the years, nurturing her image of my son into a foil against which to measure her parenting as much better than mine. The problem was really more hers than mine. When dealing with any child, not just one with AS, it is a good idea to get his attention and talk calmly to him one-on-one to get the desired results. That's just good communication. Maybe N.'s reaction was because he had not even noticed the situation. He is, by definition, oblivious to the social situations happening around him. Maybe her anger made him shut down. He does not understand strong emotions in others and is often frightened by them. And maybe he was just acting like a young teenager. That would actually be improvement for him! I didn't know. So I decided that the best course of action was to mollify this woman and see what was going on with N.

Me: Oh, I'm sorry, Mrs. K. I was momentarily distracted and I didn't realize what was happening. I will speak to N. straight away. That's him, over there. Would you please excuse me?

I pulled N. from a scrum of children reaching for chocolate cake, and brought him to the lounge where it was quiet. I asked him what had transpired.

Me: Honey, did something happen with Mrs. K.?
N: Mrs. K.?
Me: Did you notice Mrs. K. in the foyer a while ago?
N: Oh, yeah. She was yelling at I. (her son) to pick up something from the floor. She was mad, so I left."

He had noticed her, but was totally oblivious to his part in the encounter. He was afraid of her strong emotions, and he had cleared out. He did ignore her, but for different reasons than she assumed. He missed the social context completely. It was understandable to anyone who knows something about AS. At the same time, it was a teachable moment for me and my son.

Me: Boychick, Mrs. K. had a different idea about what happened out there. Listen and I'll explain.

I told him what her point of view was and why it was important. I told him that when adults come to talk to kids, it's best to pay attention. We practiced the proper way to respond politely to an angry adult. Then I took him over to apologize to Mrs. K. for not picking up the wrappers. I explained to N. that I understood that he had not deliberately been rude to her, but that sometimes, for "social reasons," apologizing is the best response.

We have talked many times about the different needs of neurotypicals, and that sometimes it's best to mollify them and get on with life. It makes things go more easily in future encounters. This is what we mean when we say "social reasons."

Later N said: Mom, is Mrs. K. a Yekke?"

"Yekke" is the Israeli appellation for a German Jew. Someone obsessed with order and orders. Someone who always wears a jacket (yekke) and tie, even when the temperature climbs above 100 degrees during the hamsim. Someone who has all their cups lined up in order in the cupboard, and has the same standards for the rest of the world. Someone who is not comfortable unless they are getting the sabras (native Israelis) up to snuff.

Me: I don't know, darling. But remember, our congregation is a yekke congregation. Rabbi S.'s congregation is more relaxed. The rules are different in each place.

This is true. Reform Judaism has a certain formalistic cobb up its collective butt. That's why we do the fun holidays like Purim at Chabad. There, people are too busy kibbitzing and dancing to notice a few messes. A round of schnapps, and the world looks pretty good just as it is. The place is always in a state of incipient disorder anyway. And nobody cares. We all pitch in to pick up later.

Each congregation has its own, endearing and sometimes, exasperating qualities.

But different rules for different places are hard for Aspies to grasp. We are working on it.
And I think that the learning we did yesterday was good learning.
But I have no illusions that N. will consolidate this learning and act perfectly according to yekke standards in his next encounter with Mrs. K. In fact, I counseled him to avoid run-ins with her.

Why should we become further grist for the congregational yekke gossip mill?

Heat and the Geek

Nearly Wordless Wednesday

Living with an engineer is an interesting experience.
We heat part of our home with a pellet stove.
It provides efficient (very important to geeks), radiant warmth appreciated by all members of the family.
For the past few weeks, the pellet stove has been cranky, and did not ignite readily when the thermostat--of course it is hooked up to a thermostat--called for it. We had to fiddle with it. On Sunday, it refused to ignite at all, no matter how much I fiddled with it.
My husband, the engineer to the rescue.

First, we tried trouble-shooting using the list of common problems in the owner's manual.

Apparently, our problem was not described precisely in the owner's manual. That yielded a geek-complaint.
Engineers do not want simplistic explanations.
They want schematics that show them exactly how something works.
So today, the Geek took over the breakfast nook.
His office is--well--chaos is too mild of a word.

After several phone calls to the dealer and the manufacturer, as well as some more grousing about inefficient instructions... was time for the specialized tool set to be brought out.

Another phone call yielded grousing about the costs of parts.

The ignitor element was removed and carbon build up was brushed off with a wire brush.

A ceramic screw was thoroughly cleaned to insure proper contact between the wires and the ignitor.

Careful updates were made to the instruction booklet so that "any idiot" could repeat this repair.

A phone call to the manufacturer was made in order to give helpful instructions for future editing of the owner's manual.

Wild waa-hoo's from the dining room served to gather the family so that the, Engineer could demonstrate exactly how the pellet stove worked and how he had saved us money and a trip to town by two simple repairs.

As the stove was lit once more, the family got a demonstration on how the thorough cleaning and proper repair had made the pellet stove even more efficient than before. We had been operating at less than optimal efficiency! This information drew a collective gasp from the geeks of the family.

Armed with his newfound knowledge from the repair of the stove, Our Hero went whistling off to see if he could get the gas fireplace to operate more efficiently, too.

Efficiency. It's a beautiful thing.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Snow on the Mountain

"Blessed are You, Eternal, our G-d, Master of the Universe,
who has sent a white Christmas for those to whom it matters."
Sidney Steinberg, December 25, 1999

The sun is shining, the evergreen trees are green, and the snow is clinging to the ground here in the mountains. And we are under a wintery weather advisory for another snowstorm scheduled to hit the north central mountains and the eastern plains later to day. So Sid's blessing applies.

We are celebrating A Movie and Chinese Dinner today just as we did last year. Yesterday we got a phone call from the mother of one of our Machon car-pool boys. She had taken her husband to the hospital on Saturday morning at 4 AM with terrible pain in the upper abdomen. He is still in hospital with pancreatitis. A. was home alone and she was wondering...

In ten minutes we were in the car on our way to pick up A. He was waiting with an overnight bag. It's a good thing I had put a roast in the crock pot yesterday. So a day that is usually kind of boring for N. turned out to be fun. A.'s mom came for dinner before going home last night, but A. stayed overnight. In honor of A.'s being here, Bruce made Juevos Rancheros for breakfast. I put a kugel in the oven this morning because MLC will be home from the Caribbean tonight, and she and a few friends will be over for dinner. Even though it's not a holiday for us, it is shaping up to be a big eating day. Bruce and I don't need to stuff ourselves, but the growing boys here will be a joy to feed.

So it will be a different kind of busy day here in Sedillo.

We send our greetings and best wishes for

a peaceful, joyful holiday, filled with good food, family,

and good friends...

for those to whom it matters!

Sunday, December 23, 2007

December Diversity, Not December Dilemma

Ah, the wonderful month of December!

Winter has begun in earnest, with snowstorms, days to snuggle in front of the fire, and time off to spend with family.

And the inevitable questions.
"What are your plans for Christmas?"

And every year, the synagogue puts on a program for the kids about the December Dilemma, which is the current catch-phrase for how to deal with Jewish identity when the whole world around you is going crazy with Christmas.

Years ago, after attending a few of these programs, MLC, now 22, asked us if she could opt out. She said that she didn't feel any sense of dilemma at all in December.

Oh, we had read the requisite Jewish kid's book for the season, There's No Such Thing as a Hannukah Bush, Sandy Goldstein! We dealt with an unauthorized public school visit to Santa Claus disguised as a field trip to the Children's Museum, and we had THE DISCUSSION with teachers about the "C" holiday.

But overall, we decided to adopt a reasonable view of the season. After all, one simply cannot pretend that nothing is happening as most of the world celebrates a major holiday on December 25th. So, as a non-participating family, we decided on two policies about Christmas.

First, we decided to emphasize our Jewish identity all year 'round. For us, this meant living the Jewish calendar as well as living in the secular calendar. We celebrate all of the Jewish holidays with special meals, rituals and customs. Both of the kids have experienced the rich and varied round of the Jewish year, complete with observance of Shabbat every week. We decorate with colored lights--at Sukkot. We bring greenery into the house--at Shavuot. The kids grew up in a Jewish home, repleat with Jewish ritual and custom and traditions.

Perhaps this is why, when I suggested to our rabbi that perhaps the "December Dilemma" programming in the synagogue every year was maybe just a teensy bit overdone, he replied:
"MLC is growing up in a Jewish home and has the richness of numerous Jewish experiences. That is why she does not feel particularly deprived in December. Unfortunately, that is not true for the majority of the kids in our religious school." And he excused her from the program from that point on.

Our second strategy was to educate our kids about the Christmas holiday on an "as needed" basis. We answered questions and we indulged their natural curiosity without defensiveness.
Why be defensive when our kids weren't being deprived?

Sometimes, this meant giving the kids clear rules like, "I know we don't believe in Santa Claus, but it is very rude and unkind to tell other little children that he doesn't exist."

At other times, this meant allowing the children to bake Christmas cookies with their friends, or help decorate a Christmas tree. We also invited their friends to participate in some of our celebrations, such as lighting the Hannukah menorah, eating the Seder, or having havdalah with us. In this way, we emphasized the richness of the human experience, by teaching our kids to respect and appreciate that everyone has holy days, holidays, and ways of marking the passing of the seasons.

We have also enjoyed some of the unique aspects of the Christmas holiday as it is celebrated here in New Mexico. We go down to Old Town on the evening of December 24, to see the luminarias that line the sidewalks. We have taken the kids to Barelas to enjoy Las Posadas, the nine days of processions of Mary and Joseph that are part of the New Mexican and Spanish religious observance of Christmas. Through these activities, we want our children to understand that Christmas is not a secular buying frenzy, but a religious celebration for Christians. It is not our holiday, but it is somebody's holy day, and although it is not right for us to co-opt it for our own ends, neither should it offend us that people are celebrating it.

Our bottom line: It is important for us to observe our own holidays and maintain our Jewish identity. We do not celebrate Christmas just because "everybody is doing it." At the same time, if we are strong in our own identity then we can appreciate and enjoy the celebrations by others. It will not be offensive to us that Old Town is filled with luminarias, that wreaths decorate ABQ Uptown, and that Maria and Jose travel the streets of Barelas. The world would be so much poorer if there were no differences between us.

For us, then, December is a time to enjoy the snow, to walk the dogs, to celebrate Hannukah. And it is also a time to appreciate time off to be with each other because much of the rest of the country is celebrating a major holiday.

I think that our choices were good ones for strengthening our own children's Jewish identities and for teaching them to appreciate the color, the richness, and the fun of living in a world in which people have amazing differences.

We don't experience a December Dilemma. We experience the joy, light and color that come from many different traditions here in the southwest. And we are richer for enjoying the diverse ways people celebrate the turning of the seasons.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Ring Out, Solstice Bells by Jethro Tull

The Solstice of the Year

A Nearly Wordless Special Edition

Now is the Solstice of the Year!

Winter is the glad song that you hear.

Seven maids move in seven time,
have the lads up ready in a line.

Join together 'neath the mistletoe!

By the Holy Oak where-on it grows.
Seven druids dance in seven time.
Sing the song the bells call, loudly chiming.

Praise be to the distant sister sun!

Joyful as the silver planets run.
Seven maids move in seven time.
Sing the song the bells call, loudly chiming:
Ring out those bells!
Ring out, ring, Solstice bells!
Ring Solstice bells!

May the increasing light bring us light in the darkness of winter.

The poem is song lyrics, Ring Out, Solstice Bells by Jethro Tull. A You-Tube Version is embedded above.

Pictures Credit: All taken by Elisheva Levin, on a Sony Cybershot.

#1: Snow on the windowpane at dusk. December 21, 2007

#2: Snowing by the Aspen. December 21, 2007.

#3: The Solstice Elf's Handiwork Mysteriously Appeared. December 22, 2007.

#4: Snowy Scrub Oak and Pinyon Glade. December 22, 2007.

#5: Solstice Sunrise on Los Pecos Loop Ridge. December 22, 2007

#6: Solstice Sunset Over Cedro. December 20, 2007.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Storm Warning Solstice

Tonight at 23:08 MST (06:08 UT), the earth will be at the point of the Winter Solstice for the northern hemisphere. So today is the Solstice for us, although for those of you east of us, the Solstice is tomorrow very early in the morning.

I took the picture to the right last night, December 20, at approximately 4:41PM. I got out to get a shot of the sunset from a fixed point on my back porch last night, because we already had a winter storm warning posted for today. This is so close to the southernmost point of sunset on the western horizon, that I doubt there would be much difference even if I could take the picture tonight. And I can't, as we shall see.

Here is the best picture I could get of the sunrise this morning. Sunlight can be seen through the thinning in the clouds just above the tree at right center of the picture.
The weather front was already moving in.

Astronomically, the winter Solstice is the time at which the hemisphere experiencing winter is at maximum tilt away from the sun, so that the sun sets directly overhead 23 degrees 27 minutes away from the equator. In our case, winter in the northern hemisphere, the sun sets directly overhead tonight on the Tropic of Capricorn, 23 degrees 27 minutes south of the equator.

I took this picture this morning as we returned from our walk with the dogs. The lowering clouds just over the roof of the house mark the back of the warm air mass bringing moisture from the Pacific. The edge of the clouds just over the mountains represent a cold front swinging down from the northwest. When these two air masses mix over the mountains later today, we will get snow. We are expecting a white solstice, just like last year.

In the modern calendar, the winter solstice is marked as the beginning of astronomical winter. Meteorological winter began on December 1. In the old calendar, the winter solstice is marked as a celebration of midwinter or Yule, because the beginning of winter comes at the fall cross-quarter day, near the beginning of November. The Romans celebrated this day as Dies Natalis Invicti Solis--the Birthday of the Unconquerable Sun. Christmas was set at this time in the 3rd century CE. There are many, many holidays in the northern hemisphere that in one way or another, celebrate the birth of light in the midst of darkness. Tonight is the longest night of the year, and today is the shortest day. After tonight, the daylight time will become longer each day. This will happen slowly and unnoticibly at first, but as we come past the spring cross-quarter day, we will notice the difference. This is why, now, in the long dark night of winter, we celebrate in many different ways, the birth of light.

There is no Jewish Holiday that specifically marks the Solstice, however, Hannukah, the Festival of Light, always comes at the dark of the moon that comes before of on the Solstice.

This picture was taken about 20 minutes after the snow began falling this afternoon. N. and I headed into town at about 10:30 this morning. At that time, the sun was shining in a partly cloudy sky and the temperature at the house was 39 degrees. We had several errands in town, to get dogfood, to stop at a big box store to get a new storage container for dogfood, then the bookstore for my favorite holiday blend coffee, and then to pick up some Challah for Shabbat tonight.

This picture was taken about 15 minutes after the picture above. In Albuquerque at noon, it was sunny and 50 degrees. But by the time we got to the bookstore, the Sandia front was swathed in clouds. N. and I made an executive decision to go to the natural food store next to the booksstore to get our Challah. It was very crowded in the food store, and it took us about a half-hour there. It was 2:25 by the time we were driving in rain on Tramway Road, heading for the canyon and home. It started to snow as we left Tijeras, heading uphill for Zuxax. At Sedillo hill, the flakes were smaller and falling faster. The temperature when we got home was 35 degrees. By the time we got the truck unloaded, it was blizzard conditions, and since the start of the storm (1.5 hours ago), we have gotten about 2.5 inches of snow. The wind is wild. We can expect from 5 to 7 inches of snow overnight, and more tomorrow morning. The temperature here is now about 28 degrees and falling.

We are getting ready to light the candles for Shabbat, and I will light an extra one in honor of the longest night of the year. We are snowbound this Solstice, which seems right for Midwinter's Night.

Happy Solstice! Happy New Year!
May the growing light be reflected in your homes!

Happy Yule! May the coming holidays be ones of warmth and joy for all.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Winding Down

We're enjoying a sunset of the shortening days tonight.
The light is weak and the shadows dark.

It's so strange. Last week at this time, I was just finishing up my semester.
We had a Shiva (house of mourning) call to make in the evening, and Bruce informed me that he'd have to work the next day, Friday, because he was hard-pressed to finish a report for DOE New Orleans. Bruce works a 9/80 schedule, which means that he works 80 hours in 9 days, and then takes every other Friday off. So he worked last Friday, which was his "9/80" day off. He then had to take the day off by Thursday this week, or lose it.

We were pretty frantic, sad, and tired at the end of last week. We didn't consider how really well putting off Bruce's 9/80 day would work out. Sandia takes a week of "energy conservation" shut-down for all non-essential personnel during the week between Christmas and the secular New Year. They combine all of the normal Monday holidays throughout the year to get this week off, taking the official Christmas and New Years holiday. That shut-down occurs next week.

Bruce took today off as his 9/80 day, and is taking tomorrow as a vacation day.
The report is finished, reviewed and submitted. I am done with papers, presentations and finals.

We are winding down.

I had my husband home all day today.
I cleaned and polished the floors.
Yeah, I know. It's work. But for me, after weeks of neglecting taking care of my house due to grad-school work, it's a form of winding down.

Bruce read.
Lily was overjoyed to sit in Bruce's lap and listen to him read Origins: Fourteen Billion Years of Cosmic Evolution aloud to her. She's a Geek-dog.

Before we were supposed to go to Taekwando, I took a walk around the house to take some pictures of the sunset.

As I turned to get the sun-glare out of my eyes for a minute, I noticed that my shadow was dark on the bay-window west wall of the house.
So I snapped a picture of it.

I thought that was kind of cool, my shadow taking a picture of my shadow taking a picture...
It's nice to play around a little in a winding down sort of way.

N. is winding down, too.

When I came in to tell him to get ready for Taekwando, he asked it we could stay home tonight.
He was cleaning his room.
He was really into it.
He was rearranging furniture. Putting up his milk-crate shelves.
Even the dogs got involved.

Nes gadol hoveh po. A great miracle is happening here.

Naturally, we stayed home tonight.


The bed is made.
The furniture is 'undusted.'
The night table has wood showing.
The carpet was vacuumed.
And there is actual carpet visible.

This is very good.
I have to get up early tomorrow and get to town in the morning. We need to stock up.

As I write, my Weather Cricket on my computer screen is chirping urgently.
There is a winter storm warning posted for tomorrow afternoon through Saturday evening.

It's a good thing we went to the library yesterday.
Looks like we'll get some more down time tomorrow.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

The Coming of the Winter

Nearly Wordless Wednesday

The coming of winter--our second in the mountains--reminds me of a little poem:

"When winter first begins to bite

And stones crack in the frosty night,

When pools are black and trees are bare,

'Tis evil in the Wild to fare."

JRR Tolkien
The Fellowship of the Ring

Doesn't that picture above remind you of the snowstorm coming across "Cruel Caradhas?"

Of course, we have a cozy house, complete with a fireplace and pellet stove to keep us warm.

We "fare" in the wilds only by choice.

And so it is beautiful, rather than evil, for us.

But I recite the poem at the coming of every winter.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Becoming A Reader: The Politics and the Reality

Every Tuesday The Albuquerque Journal, our local independent newspaper, features a "Schools" section on the front of Section B. One of the regular features is a syndicated column called A+ Advice for Parents, in which the columnist, Leanna Landsmann, dispenses advice to parents about various educational issues in response to questions posed by readers.

Being somewhat cynical about public education, I sometimes wonder if the questions are staged, but whether or not they are, the advice dispensed is definitely inside the envelope of educational culture. Parents are cast as the problem, and the educational experts know exactly how to solve them.

Today's column was no exception to educational politics as usual. The question, supposedly posed by a teacher, reads thus:

"Our children are falling behind in reading, and many parents are clueless...A mother asked me what kind of video game to buy her son for Christmas that would help him read better, I suggested she buy him books. Her response? 'But he doesn't like to read.' Parents need to get smarter about this crisis..."

The columnist addresses the question by citing a recently released study by The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA--not the teacher's union), called To Read or Not to Read: A Question of National Consequences. The findings discussed in A+ Advice for Parents in the paper include the following:

  • less than 50% of children under 5 are read to by family members (actual number not given)
  • the number of books in the home is a "significant predictor of academic achievement
  • Children and teens who read for pleasure daily or weekly score higher on reading tests

My reaction to reading these extremely original findings was something along the lines of "Well, duh!" In science we call these 'No Sh-- Sherlock' finding. The findings are not what intrigued me about the article. They are predictable, as are quotes from the NEA spokeswoman who, when she wasn't moaning "ain't it aweful" was busy telling us what parents "should" do. To wit:

"Our study points out several alarming national trends, yet we hope it makes a strong case for why parents should make reading for pleasure part of a family's life."

Well, duh.

What interested me about the article and the study was what they didn't address. In the question at the beginning of the article, we are told that teacher says that a parent says that a student "doesn't like to read."

The obvious question is, 'Why don't kids like to read?'

Neither the columnist nor the NEA study address that question. Oh, the usual culprits are trotted out and blamed: Television, video games, iPhones, computers. And yet to use most of this technology, a person has to be able to read. And of course, parents are targeted. School people would have you believe that it is all the parent's fault. They do it to their kids and then the poor schools have to pick up the pieces.

But let's ask some questions that take us beyond educational finger-pointing as usual.

What is it that makes people "readers", anyway? Here the study gives us information that has been known for a long time. The answer does partly lie in the home. Kids who grow up with parents who read, and who read to them, in homes with a plethora of books, are kids who grow up to be readers.

But this information just begs the question: Why aren't the parents readers? Why don't they read to their kids? Why are there fewer books in American homes?

Could it be that the parents don't like to read either? If this is so, we are merely pushing the question back a generation.

I do not have study results on this question of why people who can read don't like to read. But I have a suggestion. Love of reading comes from the experience of pleasure in reading and the pleasure in finding things out. Yes, it's circular to some extent. It's one of those maddening 'which came first, the chicken or the egg' type of questions.

As John Taylor Gotto points out in an essay in A Different Kind of Teacher, the people of the United States once were "readers." Even during colonial times, when a hefty percentage of the people were indentured servants, the literacy rate was high, and books were eagerly passed from hand to hand. And these books were not Dr. Seuss (no insult intended). They were hefty books with complex language. Books like the King James Bible, Shakespeare's plays and sonnets, John Bunyan's A Pilgrim's Progress. Hard books. Books that have long sentences with subordinate clauses, flowery verbal imagery, and impressive vocabulary. The average American was a "reader." As DeToqueville pointed out in Democracy in America, (published in the first half of the 19th century), the average American farmer or worker, read more than most members of the European landed gentry.

So what happened? Why do schoolchildren today, and their parents, forgo the pleasure of reading? Why don't they like to read?

I have an hypothesis. I think that school has become the problem. And that the problem is two-fold with origins in reading instruction and in the creeping conquest of family life due to school policy.

When I say that reading instruction is a problem, I am not talking about the reading wars. I refuse to fight the phonics v. whole language reading instruction battle. Both are needed, and both are important. To read well, a child needs to be exposed to the rich and imaginative use of the English language (for more on this see E.D. Hirsch's explanation of 'the Matthew effect' in The Schools we Need or check it our here--just scroll down to number 3, Education). Most kids also need some instruction in phonics. However, if reading instruction never gets beyond phonics worksheets and inane copy, if it never acquaints the child with good books, the child will not enjoy reading. For many kids, as Hirsch points out, "reading" means being forced to fill out endless vocabulary lists, spelling tests, and book reports while good books remain on the shelves at the periphery of the classroom. As I have said before, it is like making a kid who wants to learn to ride a bike fill out worksheets detailing the parts of the bike, giving them spelling tests to see if they can spell "pedal" and "brake" correctly, and having them memorize all three hundred and fifty-two separate steps that go into riding a bike (just kidding--I don't know how many steps there are), but never once getting the kid on the bike and running along side them!

If a person learns to love reading by getting pleasure out of reading, this reductionist methodology is never going to make "readers." And yet, this has become the methodology for kids who may not be reading "on schedule." They are deprived of recess, the fun stuff about reading, and dragged off the "drill and kill" remediation.

The other problem, and in my mind, perhaps far more important is the school policy take-over of family life after school hours. There has been numerous, well-designed studies done over the past 100 years that demonstrate that busy work assignments (read homework) do not appear to improve educational outcomes over the years of a child's education. What is it that actually improves outcomes? Number one: time spend conversing with parents. Remember all those studies that show that family dinners are important? Number two: time spent reading with parents. They mean actually reading, here, not making a diorama out of shoebox about reading. But what has happened? Students receive more and more thoughtless and useless busy-work assignments as homework, because the schools are preoccupied with testing, and shunt actual instruction to the parents for after-school hours. And there goes time for reading for pleasure at home.

My guess is that the parents of young children today do not like to read for the same reasons that their kids don't like to read. And the answer isn't to shake a finger at these parents and tell them that when their kids are done with 3-4 hours of homework a night, then they should read with them. Replace the busy-work with...nothing. Let the parents determine how they will spend time with their kids. Return the power to the family.

Of course, I am preaching to the choir here. Homeschoolers have not waited for the schools to return power to the family. They have taken their power back.

And I have yet to meet homeschooled kids who do not like to read. They may learn to read early or late. But all of them appear to like books and like the idea of reading.

What's that, N? Oh, gotta go! The Dangerous Book for Boys is calling.