Sunday, December 26, 2010


One thing I've learned this holiday weekend is that if you ask a two year old to duck, she'll start quacking. She might not even notice getting her head bonked. FYI, folks.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

A social network Christmas

This has been making the rounds if you haven't had a chance to see it.


Thursday, December 23, 2010

Virtual Tour of the Sistine Chapel

For those who may never visit Rome, here is a virtual tour of the Sistine Chapel that brings this creation a little closer.

All this art is still ours, even if we never see it. Knowing it is there, as a gift for all, is akin to the beauty I imagine out at the farthest reaches of the Universe, slowly spinning clouds of glowing stardust, icy frozen and translucent worlds, all beautiful and all a part of the greater gift. Even if I never see it, the universe is better because it is there.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Annual Scrooge

Jim Carrey as Scrooge
Scrooge is a verb in my house. It is the pre-Christmas cleaning out of the bounty of Christmas Past.  As a Catholic who holds her duty to others very dear (and as a mom who has to clean up the accumulations of daily life) I know that holding on to too much stuff is harmful in so many ways. Everyone knows intuitively, but must be reminded periodically that belongings beyond those that give us a certain level of comfort become a distinct discomfort as they pile up and create messes. More importantly if we have too much we create within us a poverty of charity while building up a wealth of selfishness. With that in mind, before the Christmas onslaught, each toy gets its worth measured: will it do more good to my children or will it do more good donated to someone else? This year there is an added incentive of living in less than 1000 square feet with a family of seven. I simply must make room.

Here's how it works, if you are interested in taking this on for yourself.

Find a good time to do it
We make it a part of the Christmas cleanup before the decorations go up. Before we dust or vacuum, we begin. It takes a total of 45 minutes to an hour, and yes, the kids help. Sort of. More on that later.

If this is too much to add to the preChristmas rush, perhaps it is something you can do around Thanksgiving. Maybe after shopping on Black Friday (or instead of), you can fit an hour in to accomplish this.

Don't be afraid of the mess
I take all the toys down and sort them into various piles: stuffed stuff, dollies, cars, puzzles, artsy, imaginative play, Legos, etc. The kids will help you put things away after you are done. Some items, like my daughter's dolly that she carries with her everywhere or my son's math manipulatives are going to be kept and are complete and need no sorting, so they don't go into the pile. They stay on the shelf.
Check yourself! If you have so much stuff that this task will create a bigger pile in any room than you have floorspace for, pick one room and sort the toys in that room alone. You may need to do what my husband and I had to: reasses how much stuff each child really needs. We found that we had (and still have) too many belongings and began repeating this process through the year. Lent is a great time (see my 40 Bags in 40 Days) to downsize a bit.
At each birthday, too, before the new toys go into the room, the honored child helps me count them and then goes and finds that number of toys he or she is willing to give to a poor child who has none. Even my most acquisitive child is happy to make such a trade while basking in the birthday bounty. Timing is everything.
This is the part that daunts a person. It shouldn't. Just get in there and do it. If you only donate one item and you've tossed out three broken items, fine. You've made some room. Kick back and celebrate. The process itself is good for the soul. Like any skill, with practice you get better at it. Eventually, you may even find yourself not buying an item before it ever becomes a part of your donate pile because you are in the habit of really thinking about how it is used.

  • All unfixable broken items get tossed immediately.
  • Sets get restored. 
  • Distract the kids: I pull a few toys out of the pile that are old favorites, they we are keeping, and that haven't been played with for awhile and send the children to their rooms to enjoy them while I take stock. Coloring in another room (unsupervised) works well, too, if you are a risk taker and plan on painting soon.
  • Put items to be donated directly into the trunk while the children are distracted. I make many trips out to the van in order to avoid making a pile that will, inevitably, be picked through and debated. If I feel bad about donating something, I just don't. If I'm doubtful, I'll ask the child. For the most part, it's my decision. I don't want to be all day at this. Just an hour or so.
Dusting and restoring
Everything is now ready to go back onto the shelves and into the bins. There should be less, even if there is a little less. About 10 minutes before you are finished, have the kids help by dusting off those empty shelves.

Next, I use bins and baskets. In the kids' rooms they have bins for toys. I put toys away that I want put away in a neat and sorted manner (like puzzles and games) The kids can dump things into the bins. Even the toddler can put toys away.

Here's a picture of my donation decision making process, if you'll find it helpful.

We have two shape sorting toys. They both provide the same learning experience. Since one makes noise, that's the one that's donated. I hate toys that play with themselves.

Not Donated:
We have two alphabet puzzles that I kept. One has a picture of the an animal that starts with the letter sound beneath the letter. The other has the lower case letter beneath the capital letter. They both are worked on a different skill. I use them for school. They both stay.


We have two dress-up toys. One is a little bear with outfits that fit together like a puzzle. One is a princess who has various outfits that are magnetized and stick on her. Puzzles win out over gizmos and since I am de-emphasizing the whole princess thing with my daughters, the bear stays.

Not donated:
The tea sets, Lincoln Logs, and dollies that made it safely through last year's sort. They are played with at least once a week.

By the way, my toy bins have lids. I find that when the bins are so stuffed that the bins no longer close, it is time to Scrooge again. Even if the calendar says it is July!

Too much of our wealth winds up here.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Victory from the jaws of judgement

When I went into town the other day, only two kids wanted to go: Simon and Anna. "Great," thought I, "a quick trip to the library and then Adoration!" How convenient to only have two to tango with, and it'll give me some time to treat them both super special.

 The next thing I know, I'm staring a meltdown in the squinty, tearfilled eye. I'm also staring up at a counter of disapproving librarians. It looked, remarkably, a bit like this...

Except there were three of them.

Can I tell you it was awful? How about if I share that I looked up at them and then broke out into a sweat of shame and guilt. I knew I had done everything right. I had set clear limits. I had rewarded the bits of good behavior he had displayed. I had put him in time out even. Despite my best efforts, everything had suddenly and completely failed. I had failed. Worse still, I had failed him. They were staring that way at my son.

In that instant, I wished for a T-shirt that said, "Don't look's Autism!" I was willing for them to dismiss and excuse my son with a handy label. Anything to get us out from under such hostility and the glare of their judgemental eyes! I wished for a brief second of silence so I could squeeze the words, "He's really never like this" into that space between the howls. (Really, he isn't.) I wanted so desperately to shield him from what I read on their faces. If only I could have left the library at the first sign of trouble! Shortly, he did quiet enough to stand up again, at my urging, and make his way out to the sanctuary of our van.

Later that evening, on my mind's instant replay, I would realize that he had responded to their glares. He went from blind howling to desperate sobbing at about the same instant that I broke out in my cold sweat. He actually felt the social pressure to conform and quieted a bit. Granted there was a ton of that pressure and also granted there is no way of knowing if he was responding to the librarians or to my reaction to the librarians. Either way, that was "good" news. It shed a light of victory over the incident. In fact, I wouldn't have had it happen any other way, and yes, I will return to that exact library again. If only to show them that we DO know how to act in public.

The bad news is that he was sick. Later the next day he started throwing up and the next day, the doctor diagnosed a strep infection. So I'm writing this in his defence, just in case anybody who witnessed his meltdown is listening. He wasn't being a bad boy. He wasn't even being Autistic. He was sick, feeling horrible, and had no other way to express it.

And like a miracle, he saw his actions were causing a reaction, so he modified his behavior. Good job, son!

Salvation by Catastophe--Accidental Insights

I'm sharing with you a blog post by a friend. You can start reading here or go directly to her blog.

We both have been reading and discussing the work of Flannery O'Conner lately, and that led to her insight into this tragedy.  

Salvation by Catastrophe

One morning this week when I threw my bag into the passenger seat and made sure my cell phone was turned on, I did not know that only 20 minutes later I'd be standing at the side of the freeway, my legs coated in salt-infused snow, staring down at the remains of a very violent wreck, wondering about the condition of the occupants.

It started as a normal morning, and the drive was uneventful, until something made me take note of a car rapidly accelerating behind me. (Now...when I say "rapidly", I mean: like a bat out of Hell!) There was an SUV behind me in the left lane, slowly creeping forward in a slow, steady pace, and I looked back again at the car behind both of us, it dawning on me in horror that the car wasn't slowing, wasn't braking...and apparently intended to pass me on the left in front of that SUV!!!

There wasn't enough real estate for passing!

I slowed and pulled to the right, still highway speed, onto the shoulder of the freeway just as the car DOVE between us, dodging from the right lane into the left, the SUV's lane, for the pass that ended catastrophically as the car collided loudly with the SUV's front end approximately at the point of my own left front fender (the front side panel of my car). The SUV went off into the ditch in an immediate explosion of white, the offending car went into a spin next to/in front of me and began to roll, giving me an intimate view of its underside anatomy while I braked hard and began to dodge left as the physics of the violent collision sent the car off to the right, rolling into the steep snow-laden ditch.

It was surreal as I passed, slow-motion in my memory, between the dual-whiteout-explosions on either side of me, narrowly missing all of the actions of the car that had caused this disaster.

In shock, I could see from my peripheral the SUV stopping, straight in the deep snow against the thin guardrail to my left as I could also see from my other peripheral the ongoing motion of the car, still flipping, evidenced by the spout of snow announcing, dramatically, the motion of the car and where it was headed, where it had been, where it was going.

Stunned, horrified, concerned, I carefully, not knowing what was going on behind me, stopped and pulled over to the side of the freeway, reaching for my phone, and called 911.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

With all due apologies to the snow bound

This is for the two spots in the country that aren't buried in snow. That would be Amarillo and San Diego. The rest of you can move along. Nothing to see here. Even listening could be hazardous to your sanity.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Cough Syrup--Just What the Doctor Ordered

For a cough that needs an extra wallop,
you can substitute the vinegar with whiskey.

I've been passing this along a lot the past few weeks, so it must be that most wonderful time of year: cold and flu season.

My mom has trouble with most cough medicines, so her doctor concocted this remedy. It works just fine. It's got a sour kick to it, but that's part of the charm. It goes down easier when it is hot.

Equal parts of honey, lemon, vinegar. Take 1 TBS. every hour or as needed.

So, if you think you'll be sipping on this all day, you might make it in this amount:
1/2 cup honey, 1/2 cup lemon, 1/2 cup vinegar (cider vinegar or white). Heat on the stove until just barely steaming. Stir before each dose as it tends to settle.

We just don't mess with all the chemicals in the store bought stuff. Besides, vinegar isn't addicting.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Aunt Christie's Beef Stew and a Homemade Onion Soup Mix

This is what we are having for dinner tonight. The instructions are for cooking this in a large pot on the stove. You can also make this in a crockpot by browning the meat and then cooking in the crock pot on low for 5 to 6 hours. If you have a roaster you can double or triple the batch and make it in there. I just found out from my friend Paula that she uses her roaster in lieu of her crockpot all the time. If you have a big family this comes in handy--no need to dirty two pots for one dish. If you have a smaller family, you can freeze the leftovers or call the Catholic Student Union and feed those poor waifs taking their exams.

Aunt Christie's Beef Stew
1 lb of stew meat, roast, or burger
5 potatoes, chunked
3 carrots, sliced
3 celery, sliced
1 large onion, diced
1 cup cooked corn (or 1 can)
1/2 cup barley
1 bay leaf
1 Tbs Italian Seasoning
2 tsp Coriander
1 package onion soup mix*
1 can gravy or 3 cubes of beef bouillon
water to cover ingredients
salt/pepper to taste
optional roux (1/2 cup of water with 3 Tbs cornstarch mixed thoroughly)

Brown the ground beef or stew meat. (If using roast, cut into bite sized cubes and brown.) Add to large stew pot, cover with spices and gravy and begin heating. Slice veggies and add to pot, adding enough water to cover the ingredients with each addition. Add remaining ingredients and bring to a boil. Simmer for 45 minutes or until potatoes and carrots are soft.

Serve with a coarse bread like cornbread, potato bread, or with sourdough rolls.

Homemade Onion Soup Mix
2 1/2 tablespoons dried minced onion

4 cubes (look for one without MSG) beef chicken, or vegetable, bouillon, crumbled
1 teaspoon onion powder
1/4 tsp paprika
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon ground black pepper

Mix and keep handy as a spice mix. Makes a great dip mixed with a small tub of sour cream and a block of cream cheese.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Math anxieties

I have been on the hunt for a decent math program for a little over a decade now (this includes my years as a public school teacher). My problem is that I am about 30 years too late. I am almost to the point of ripping up my current math book and stapling it back together in the right order.

Here's the deal
It seems like every stinking math program since the 60s is based on the idea that human beings learn in the following manner: we try something new, leave it, try something else, leave it, then review. Sounds very sensible until you put it into practice. It's called spiraling and even when a program swears it is unit based, it isn't. It just takes the spiral longer to unwind: spending a day or two on a skill as opposed to spending one or two problems a day on it. 

Here's how it looks in a math book for a 7 year old. This is how you regroup. Here are 15 problems of regrouping. Moving on! Here's how you tell time to the minute. Don't forget how to regroup. Moving on! Here's how you add columns of numbers. Don't forget that regrouping now. Or the time thing. Moving on! Remember subtraction? Here's some of that. Now back to that regrouping thing: can you regroup even bigger numbers? Try it. Moving on! Let's do shapes now! Back to the subtraction. Don't forget time. Moving on! Now to regroup columns of numbers! Test Monday!  

Sounds like a recipe for confusion doesn't it? What it turns out to be is the probable reason behind our continual slide down the worldwide comparisons of math comprehension. We used to teach math differently. We also used to excel in the world's arena of math and science. However, I am less interested at the moment in world-wide performances. What I'm more interested in is allowing my child to feel competent at any given math skill before Moving on! to the next one.

This compares math performances by state with the other countries. Sobering and interesting*.
(click for larger image).

*Please note that I said I was "less interested" not that I wasn't interested. Besides, I like graphs.

As a teacher and as a mom I've learned one thing about children's learning styles: for the most part, when children are working on a skill, they stick with it. They play the same game over and over, want that same book every night, try the same somersault again and again. Kids don't like dribbles and drabs of knowledge. They like to wrestle with a concept for a good long while.

Meanwhile, as it turns out, my math program is so hopelessly dribbly-drabbly that I can't repaginate and staple it back together because no two pages go together! Gah! That's what I get for thinking that since the first grade math program was structured fairly well, that the second grade would be, too. I'll never buy without a review again.

Meanwhile, I'm going to do some time traveling for third grade and teach like it's 1959!

Oh yes! Please, please, please if you know of a better homeschool program than Saxon, MCP, or Alpha Omega, let me know!