Monday, December 22, 2008


My niece and I were discussing the necessity for grades last night (along with the incentive they provide for cheating); at the time, I conceded that some kind of generally-accepted evaluation system was needed, and grades were one way to do it. But the more I think about it, the more I realize that I really don't believe in grades. Grades are more about competition than education. Grades assume that everyone has to be pushed through material at the same rate and then rewarded or penalized depending on how quickly they were able to absorb it; the race (and the A) goes to the swift.

But that's not how education should work. An alternative is teaching to mastery, where students are given the time they need to master the material and not allowed to move on until they have. Grades aren't needed to rank students, because they don't move up to the next level until they have all the material mastered; they can't flunk as long as they show up and try to learn (although they might stay in one stage a long time). Bright students who would do well under grading can move ahead quickly, covering more material in a given time; slower thinkers (who may be equally intelligent) can master the material at their own pace.

This is how young children learn, moving on to a new task when a prior one is mastered. In school settings where the technique has been tried, it has been so successful that it tends to anger the school organization (especially when the "dumb kids" are getting As in a class). If the goal is to get kids to learn the material, grading is a failure; it is only successful as a way of ranking kids based on how fast they learn, not how well.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Dark and Stormy

I found a promising drink recipe in the newspaper a while back, something called a Dark and Stormy that combined ginger beer and dark rum, and we tried it tonight. It is amazing that you can take two strong flavors like extra-strength ginger beer and dark rum and mix them together to get something that tastes like ginger ale, but that's what happened. When we added the lime and lots of extra ginger, it tasted like a weak rum punch - not bad, but not worth the effort. My theory is that Rachel Ray doesn't like either main ingredient and is delighted to have an inoffensive way to serve them. Regardless, I won't be rushing out to purchase her cookbooks.

Dark and Stormy (Source: Rachel Ray)
Ice cubes
1/2 lime
3 oz dark rum
Ginger beer
Fresh ginger sticks

Fill a pint glass three-quarters full of ice, squeeze in all the juice from the lime half, then drop the rind in the glass. Add the rum and fill with the ginger beer. Garnish with ginger sticks.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Why the World has Taken to Chilies

Excerpts from an article in The Economist, 12/18/2008:

Tasteless, colourless, odourless and painful, pure capsaicin is a curious substance. It does no lasting damage, but the body’s natural response to even a modest dose (such as that found in a chili pepper) is self-defence: sweat pours, the pulse quickens, the tongue flinches, tears may roll. But then something else kicks in: pain relief. The bloodstream floods with endorphins—the closest thing to morphine that the body produces. The result is a high. And the more capsaicin you ingest, the bigger and better it gets.

Which is why the diet in the rich world is heating up. Hot chilies, once the preserve of aficionados with exotic tastes for cuisine from places such as India, Thailand or Mexico, are now a staple ingredient in everything from ready meals to cocktails.

One reason is that globalisation has raised the rich world’s tolerance to capsaicin. What may seem unbearably hot to those reared on the bland diets of Europe or the Anglosphere half a century ago is just a pleasantly spicy dish to their children and grandchildren, whose student years were spent scoffing cheap curries or nacho chips with salsa. Recipes in the past used to call for a cautious pinch of cayenne pepper. For today’s guzzlers, even standard-strength Tabasco sauce, the world’s best-selling chili-based condiment, may be too mild. The Louisiana-based firm now produces an extra-hot version, based on habanero peppers, the fieriest of the commonly-consumed chilies.
For connoisseurs though, the macho hullabaloo about ever-hotter chilies is distasteful, even vulgar: rather like rating wine only according to its alcohol content. Steve Waters, who runs the South Devon Chili Farm, says even the idea that the spectrum runs on a simple one-dimensional axis between “hot” and “mild” is misleading. He prefers the more complex Mexican matrix, which categorises chilies both by heat, and whether they are fresh, dried, pickled, or smoked. Any of these can produce big changes in flavour: he highlights the Aji (pronounced ah-hee), a Peruvian chili, which “ripens to bright yellow, with a strong lemony taste when fresh, very zesty. When dried it picks up a banana flavour.”

From this point of view, the most interesting trend is not in ever-higher doses of capsaicin for the maniac market, but in the presence of chili in a range of foodstuffs that previous generations would have regarded as preposterous candidates for hotting up. Chili-flavoured chocolate, for example, has gone from being a novelty item to a popular mainstream product. Mr Waters sells “hot apple chili jelly” as a condiment for meat, and chili-infused olive oil.
The reason may be that capsaicin excites the trigeminal nerve, increasing the body’s receptiveness to the flavour of other foods. That is not just good news for gourmets. It is a useful feature in poor countries where the diet might otherwise be unbearably bland and stodgy. In a study in 1992 by the CSIRO’s Sensory Research Centre, scientists looked at the effect of capsaicin on the response to solutions containing either sugar or salt. The sample was 35 people who all ate spicy food regularly but not exclusively. Even a small quantity of capsaicin increased the perceived intensity of the solutions ingested. Among other things, that may give a scientific explanation for the habit, not formally researched, of snorting the “pink fix” (a mixture of cocaine and chili powder).

Friday, December 12, 2008

Full Moon

From the NASA website:

The full Moon of Dec. 12th is the biggest and brightest full Moon of the year. It's no illusion. Some full Moons are genuinely larger than others and this Friday's is a whopper. Why? The Moon's orbit is an ellipse with one side 50,000 km closer to Earth than the other. In the language of astronomy, the two extremes are called "apogee" (far away) and "perigee" (nearby). On Dec. 12th, the Moon becomes full a scant 4 hours after reaching perigee, making it 14% bigger and 30% brighter than lesser full Moons we've seen earlier in 2008.

A perigee Moon brings with it extra-high "perigean tides," but this is nothing to worry about, according to NOAA. In most places, lunar gravity at perigee pulls tide waters only a few centimeters (an inch or so) higher than usual. Local geography can amplify the effect to about 15 centimeters (six inches)--not exactly a great flood.

Okay, the Moon is 14% bigger, but can you actually tell the difference? It's tricky. There are no rulers floating in the sky to measure lunar diameters. Hanging high overhead with no reference points to provide a sense of scale, one full Moon looks much like any other.

The best time to look is when the Moon is near the horizon. That is when illusion mixes with reality to produce a truly stunning view. For reasons not fully understood by astronomers or psychologists, low-hanging Moons look unnaturally large when they beam through trees, buildings and other foreground objects. On Friday, why not let the "Moon illusion" amplify a full Moon that's extra-big to begin with? The swollen orb rising in the east at sunset may seem so nearby, you can almost reach out and touch it.

Thursday, December 11, 2008


An amphiboly (or amphibology) sounds like it should be some type of frog or other amphibian, but it is actually an ambiguity. (Which makes sense, since a frog is ambiguously terrestrial and aquatic.) In particular, it is a sentence which can be understood in more than one way.

The title of the book I am reading, Fools Crow, is a perfect example: Is it noun-verb (the fools are crowing) or verb-noun (he fools the Crow Indians)? In this case, it is the latter, but it took me a while to know. A friend pointed out that if you hear the title and can't see that there is no apostrophe, it could also be noun-noun (the crow belongs to the fool(s)).

More examples: I briefly stumped my kids recently when I said that I appreciated their presence. They weren't sure if I meant the fact that they were there, or the gifts that they had given me.

And from Wikipedia:
  • Teenagers shouldn't be allowed to drive. It's getting too dangerous on the streets. (Are the teenagers the threat or the threatened?)
  • I once shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got in my pajamas I'll never know. (Groucho Marx)
  • At a used-car lot: Why go elsewhere to be cheated? Come here first!
    At our drugstore, we dispense with accuracy!
  • Eat our curry, you won't get better!
  • Professor to student, on receiving a fifty-page term paper: I shall waste no time reading it. (Often attributed to Disraeli)
  • No food is better than our food.
  • Time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like a banana.

At least now I know a new way to describe what I do as an editor: I eliminate amphibolies.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Lambic Gimlet

I had a new type of vodka gimlet last night, although I'm not sure it really deserves the name gimlet, since it wasn't really made with any kind of lime juice. It was vodka with raspberry Lambic, with a lime slice floated on top. It was lighter than most gimlets, maybe because they used a top-shelf vodka instead of Absolut, and very tasty!

Monday, December 8, 2008

Fondue Combinations

We had fondue last night, frying chunks of beef and salmon in hot oil. As usual, I picked up whatever vegetables looked promising at the Co-op yesterday to accompany the meat, and we found some new favorites. The salmon was new to us, and worked beautifully in the oil. Chantrelle mushrooms have a nutty flavor that even my anti-mushroom son likes. But my favorite was a thick slice of pickled ginger with a round of beet - lucky for me, I didn't have much competition for the beets!

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Survey Questions

This is the kind of thing that makes you wonder about survey results: I just got a call for an "air quality survey" that asked, among other things, if I am full-time employed, retired, or a housewife. No other options. I am none of the above; I am a freelance writer (part-time employed) and a homeschooling mom. First he decided that I refused to answer the question because I said "none of the above". No, I answered the question. Then he threatened to put down retired. I finally gave up and chose the closest answer: full-time employed. That seemed to make him happy. But it makes me wonder about the validity of the final results for whatever his survey is really studying.

The refusal to include some kind of "other" category, to recognize that not everyone fits in the neat categories that fit the image of people working full-time for major companies until they retire, fits in with the push to tie health insurance to employment. That plan seriously penalizes all the people who don't work for companies - all the consultants and free-lancers and self-employed people who make up a large part of the workforce in smaller communities (and possibly larger communities, too). Policy- (and survey-) makers ignore the huge variety of working arrangements that exist in real life, possibly because they are used more often by women who are balancing work and family. Or maybe because it is simpler that way. Too bad real life is often messy!

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Good News for the Holidays

Q&A for Good Health (from one of the forwarded emails making the rounds):

Q: I've heard that cardiovascular exercise can prolong life; is this true?
A: Your heart is only good for so many beats, and that's it - don't waste them on exercise. Everything wears out eventually. Speeding up your heart will not make you live longer; that's like saying you can extend the life of your car by driving it faster. Want to live longer? Take a nap.

Q: Should I cut down on meat and eat more fruits and vegetables?
A: You must grasp logistical efficiencies. What does a cow eat? Hay and corn. And what are these? Vegetables. So a steak is nothing more than an efficient mechanism of delivering vegetables to your system. Need grain? Eat chicken. Beef is also a good source of field grass (green leafy vegetable). And a pork chop can give you 100% of your recommended daily allowance of vegetable products.

Q: Should I reduce my alcohol intake?
A: No, not at all. Wine is made from fruit. Brandy is distilled wine, that means they take the water out of the fruity bit so you get even more of the goodness that way. Beer is also made out of grain. Bottoms up!

Q: How can I calculate my body/fat ratio?
A: Well, if you have a body and you have fat, your ratio is one to one. If you have two bodies, your ratio is two to one, etc.

Q: What are some of the advantages of participating in a regular exercise program?
A: Can't think of a single one, sorry. My philosophy is: No Pain...Good!

Q: Aren't fried foods bad for you?
A: YOU'RE NOT LISTENING!!! .... Foods are fried these days in vegetable oil. In fact, they're permeated in it. How could getting more vegetables be bad for you?

Q: Will sit-ups help prevent me from getting a little soft around the middle?
A: Definitely not! When you exercise a muscle, it gets bigger. You should only be doing sit-ups if you want a bigger stomach.

Q: Is chocolate bad for me?
A: Are you crazy? HELLO Cocoa beans! Another vegetable!!! It's the best feel-good food around!

Q: Is swimming good for your figure?
A:If swimming is good for your figure, explain whales to me.

Q: Is getting in shape important for my lifestyle?
A: Hey! 'Round' is a shape!

Well, I hope this has cleared up any misconceptions you may have had about food and diets. And remember: "Life should NOT be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in an attractive and well preserved body, but rather to skid in sideways - Chardonnay in one hand - chocolate in the other - body thoroughly used up, totally worn out and screaming 'WOO HOO, What a Ride!"

AND...... For those of you who watch what you eat, here's the final word on nutrition and health. It's a relief to know the truth after all those conflicting nutritional studies.
1. The Japanese eat very little fat and suffer fewer heart attacks than Americans.
2. The Mexicans eat a lot of fat and suffer fewer heart attacks than Americans.
3. The Chinese drink very little red wine and suffer fewer heart attacks than Americans.
4. The Italians drink a lot of red wine and suffer fewer heart attacks than Americans.
5. The Germans drink a lot of beers and eat lots of sausages and fats and suffer fewer heart attacks than Americans.

CONCLUSION: Eat and drink what you like. Speaking English is apparently what kills you.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Morphing Martinis

I am amused to see that, at least on drink menus, a martini is no longer a slug of gin (or vodka, if you insist) with a very small amount of vermouth and possibly some odd garnishes. Apparently, a martini is now any mixed drink that is shaken over ice and poured into an "up" glass - a technique rather than a recipe. This includes martinis, gimlets, and all kinds of fruit-juice drinks made with gin or vodka. Last night, I tasted a "salt and pepper martini" that was made with vodka, grapefruit juice, and Cointreau (the name comes from the fact that the rim is salted and a skiff of pepper is floated over the top). It was very good, but it isn't a real martini by any stretch of the imagination.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

XBox Options

Why is it that game developers for XBox only seem to create cartoon games and violent games? I got tired of the war games my boys like to play, so I went to the store myself to find a reasonable game. Sigh. I have to admit that there really wasn't anything that might appeal to teenagers that wasn't either violent or more violent. I think it might be time to invest in a Wii or something else with a wider range of options.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Fried Spinach

The Naked Noodle has an interesting topping on their list: fried spinach, liberally salted. Odd as it sounded, I really liked it on my noodle dish, so when my son made fettuccine (from scratch) tonight, fried spinach was high on my list for toppings. I heated up some oil in a skillet and started tossing handfuls of spinach in - only to quickly realize that using a deep-fryer would be a lot better at containing the spattering oil. But the skillet fried the spinach pretty well, and with a generous sprinkling of salt, it made a great topping, along with Italian sausages, sun-dried tomatoes, and local mushrooms. Next time, I will try the deep-fryer so that clean-up is faster.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

BBQ Pork Bruschetta

Based on a photo in a magazine, I tried a new kind of bruschetta for dinner tonight (it's all I had for dinner). I topped thin slices of baguette with maybe a tablespoon of plain goat cheese, then toasted them for a few minutes. Then I topped each one with a forkful of shredded pork mixed with a tangy barbecue sauce. It was really tasty! and made a great dinner.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Homeschool Specialty

A friend who trying to put together some homeschooling panels recently asked what my "homeschooling specialty" is. That is an interesting question. What is it that I am particularly good at when it comes to homeschooling? I've gotten a kid into college, so she thought that might be something I could talk about, but I don't feel anywhere near an expert on doing it with any out-of-state colleges, especially competitive ones. So what am I really good at when it comes to homeschooling?

I think that what I am best at is fine-tuning assignments for each kid. I always start out with a grand plan for what I will teach in a given year, which includes different focuses for each child, depending on their interests. So a son who is interested in military history might have an emphasis on battles won and lost, while my daughter will have more emphasis on literature and another son will read about the great buildings of the period.

As the year goes on, I find myself drifting from my plan, in response to feedback from the kids. I reduce a too-heavy reading load for one child; switch emphasis from architecture to food for another; I shift the workload from history to science to accommodate an interest in astronomy; I add assignments for a teen who has just come out of the dreaded brain-dead stage or thin them for one who is entering it; I adjust for other commitments or travel; I re-arrange an assignment sheet so it is more congenial to its user. One child gets more structure, another moves closer to unschooling. It sounds crazy, but I find that when all my kids are happy with their school, when their assignments fit their abilities, interests, and time, life is simpler for all of us.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008


My cell-phone banner used to say "breathe", a gentle reminder to myself. My teen-age son got ahold of my cell phone the other day and changed the banner to say "Panic". Now, every time I see it, I laugh and remember what it used to say, so it is a better reminder to relax than I started with.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Rethinking His Rejection

My teenage son, who vehemently rejected my attempt to let him study subjects of his own choosing just last Friday, has figured out that maybe it is a good idea after all. We are currently studying the Age of Exploration and world geography for humanities, but he would really rather study World War II in depth, especially the political and military aspects. So he has talked me into switching his history assignments to something I am calling WWII: Causes and Consequences, and he is much happier with his school. I guess my efforts to loosen things up worked after all.

Monday, November 10, 2008

The Enchantress of Florence

The impression of Salman Rushdie's work that I have gotten over the years, based primarily on the controversy over The Satanic Verse, was that I wouldn't particularly enjoy reading it. But in the bookstore last month, The Enchantress of Florence called to me, with its rich cover, intriguing plot description, and (I admit) famous author, so I bought it. It turns out that I love Rushdie's use of language, his very-human characters, his historical settings, and his careful inclusion of subtle magic. But best of all was the plot - complex, well-paced, coherent - and the ending, which makes perfect sense but wasn't in the least predictable.

When I went looking for a link for this entry, I found that reviewers for the New York Times disdained this book as meandering, pious, and full of writerly self-congratulations; but then, the reviewer admits to finding "the marvelous tedious and the tedious... marvelous", so he probably shouldn't have been reviewing this book in the first place. On the other hand, Ursula K Le Guin thinks it is a wonderful book. Lucky for authors and publishers that there is such a diversity of opinions among readers.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Silver Linings

Of all the gifts my parents have given me over the years, the one I appreciate most right now is the ability to make the best of whatever situation I am in, to find silver linings in the storm clouds. I can't always control what happens in my life, but I can control how I respond and what I react to. Finding the positive aspects of change makes it easier to respond with gratitude, to stay open to new opportunities, to keep my stomach from tying itself in knots.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Taking My Own Advice

Over the last year or so, I have encouraged many frustrated homeschool parents to try less structure in their school assignments, to let their kids learn what they are interested in. After dealing with growing frustration over my kids' school, I finally decided to take my own advice and let go of my carefully plotted assignment schedule. So I printed out new assignment sheets, with only a few required items and lots of room for creativity on their parts, and presented them to my kids.

My daughter loved it immediately and spent several hours in the car talking to me about ways she could meet the flexible assignments. She is very excited to be able to spend more time studying the subjects she is most interested in, at her own pace. On the other hand, my two boys promptly rejected the new system. Neither of them gets excited about school, and they don't want to have to think about school enough to use the new system. They would rather go down my checklists and do what I tell them to, then be done to work on other things. I'm batting .333 - so much for my helpful advice!

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Costco Lunch

At least when you eat lunch at McDonald's, the surroundings pretend to be a restaurant, a pleasant place to linger while you eat. At Costco, even the pretense is missing. The "diners" sit at plastic tables on concrete floors in front of unpainted cinderblock walls, a grim setting more prison than restaurant. The spaces between the tables are clogged with shopping carts full of mass-produced, bulk-packaged goods - this is food consumption as mass consumption, with no interest in the quality of the food or the dining experience. There is no joy in a meal here.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Late Fall Starts

In my eight-season year, Indian summer runs from the fall equinox on September 21 to November 1; late fall starts November 2 and runs until the winter solstice on December 21. For the last six weeks, we have had beautiful Indian summer weather: little moisture, cool nights, and sunny days that require, at most, a light jacket. Today late fall started, right on schedule. It is cold and grey and drizzly, and the forecast is for more of the same – plus snow – all week.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Why a College Education is Overrated

A summary of an article by Marty Nemko, from The Chronicle of Higher Education, via The Week, Oct 31:

Americans now believe that every young person can benefit from going to college, said Marty Nemko. It's just not so. For students who graduate high school in the bottom 40 percent of their class, college is usually a waste of money: More than two-thirds of such students who enroll as freshman, research shows, fail to earn a college degree. Colleges, which are businesses first and foremost, gladly admit these ill-prepared students, cashing their tuition payments but doing little to prepare them for the real world. When they wind up dropping out, these failed students leave campus "with a mountains of debt and devastated self-esteem from their unsuccessful struggles." When high school students show no aptitude for or interest in academics, their parents do them no favors by insisting on college. Such young people are far better off earning a career-oriented associate degree at a community college, joining the military, or enrolling in job-training programs in a thriving small business. They may not get an expensive diploma to hang on the wall - but they will get the skills they need to hold good jobs and lead happy, productive lives.


Why don't mummies take vacations?
They're afraid they'll relax and unwind.

It's perfect for Halloween, but it also applies to a lot of mummies I know - if they relax too much, they might not be willing to take up the yoke again when the vacation is over...

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

October Black Cats

What is it about October that makes black cats sit out in fields? We have a black cat in our neighborhood that only shows up in October; then it sits on the lawn across the road and looks at our house. And today I saw a black cat sitting in a field; it was still there when I came home two hours later. I know mown fields make it easier to see cats and black cats are easier to see than other colors, but this is more than that. Luckily, it will be gone at the end of the week.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Why My Kids Like Homeschooling

My son avoided getting up this morning by taking an assigned book with him last night. That way, he and his dog could enjoy lying in bed past the usual start time, guilt-free and nag-free.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

A Good Acknowledgement Page

Author Acknowledgements are normally boring lists of everyone the author has ever worked with, with gushing thanks to the editor and spouse, and I skip over them quickly. But I enjoyed reading Raymond Loewy's acknowledgements in Never Leave Well Enough Alone, the "personal record of an industrial designer from lipsticks to locomotives" published in 1951.
My indebtedness to the Atlantic Ocean must be acknowledged first. In perverse conspiration with the S.S. Nieuw Amsterdam, it lengthened my crossing to Europe and compelled me to remain in my stateroom for the greater part of the journey. To this forced immobilization can be attributed the first sixty-two pages of this thing. For continued encouragement, I am deeply grateful to G.D. Searle and Company, makers of Dramamin, a new seasickness remedy.

Thanks are in order to the Pullman Company, whose new type of automatic folding toilets makes me appreciate the joys of staying home. To home, where a defective incinerator poisons my daily life, thanks for making me appreciate the joys of travel. For continual criticism of what I was thinking, doing, planning to do or write, thanks to my beloved wife, Viola, without whom this book might otherwise have been much longer. Selection of the text was greatly facilitated by my secretary, Miss Peters, whose well-timed loss of a particularly boring chapter in a New York taxicab led to its complete elimination, and my blissful relief. To the mosquitoes who made writing unbearable on the beach at Porquerolles, and chased me to Zermatt, I must credit a lovely month of June in the shadow of the Matterhorn.

To the makers of my ball point pens, may I extend the thanks of the dry cleaning industry, which has been kept busy removing spots from most of my bedsheets, pajamas, tablecloth, evening shirts, white poodles, upholstery, and Lanvin neckties during the genesis of this book. To the airlines, thanks are in order for the countless hours of leisurely waiting at airports and bus terminals, where many chapters have been written on empty popcorn boxes, travel folders to Mexico, and other deadly airline literature. Acknowledgements are in order to Ella, my cook, who reduced the printing cost of this book by conveniently dropping a saucerful of hollandaise on a batch of illustrations, thereby materially cutting down printing expenses.

Finally, my heartfelt thanks to my dear friend Peggy (Mrs. Howard) Cullman, who, after reading the first two parts of the ms., assured me that she had read much worse, thereby supplying the final dose of enthusiasm that I so badly needed to finish the job.

He got his revenge on the airline industry, at least, with a detailed description of a fiasco of a trip across the US.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Foggy Morning

The morning started out foggy but gradually cleared, leaving remnants in the valley.

Friday, October 17, 2008

I Wish You Enough

Sometimes the sappy emails making the rounds hit a nerve and are worth keeping. For me, this one is, with its acknowledgement that every life needs both sunshine and rain.

Recently I overheard a mother and daughter in their last moments together at the airport. They had announced the departure. Standing near the security gate, they hugged and the mother said, "I love you and I wish you enough." The daughter replied, "Mom, our life together has been more than enough. Your love is all I ever needed. I wish you enough, too, Mom." They kissed and the daughter left.

The mother walked over to the window where I was seated. Standing there I could see she wanted and needed to cry. I tried not to intrude on her privacy but she welcomed me in by asking, "Did you ever say good-bye to someone knowing it would be forever?"

"Yes, I have," I replied. "Forgive me for asking, but why is this a forever good-bye?"

"I am old and she lives so far away. I have challenges ahead and the reality is - the next trip back will be for my funeral," she said.

"When you were saying good-bye, I heard you say, 'I wish you enough'. May I ask what that means?"

She began to smile. "That's a wish that has been handed down from other generations. My parents used to say it to everyone." She paused a moment and looked up as if trying to remember it in detail and she smiled even more. "When we said , 'I wish you enough', we were wanting the other person to have a life filled with just enough good things to sustain them." Then turning toward me, she shared the following as if she were reciting it from memory.

"I wish you enough sun to keep your attitude bright no matter how gray the day may appear. I wish you enough rain to appreciate the sun even more. I wish you enough happiness to keep your spirit alive and everlasting. I wish you enough pain so that even the smallest of joys in life may appear bigger. I wish you enough gain to satisfy your wanting. I wish you enough loss to appreciate all that you possess. I wish you enough hellos to get you through the final good-bye."

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Sense of Style

My daughter has long had a much better sense of style than I do, somewhat to my frustration. She will sometimes get dressed three or four times before she is ready for the day, which baffled me until I learned that her clothes have to match her self-perception for her to be comfortable in them; so each day, she has to recalibrate her outfits to match her mood. I understand about needing your exterior to match your interior - for me it is spaces that matter - but I had never applied the idea to clothing. For me, clothes are just something to keep you decent and warm and show appropriate amounts of respect for others; once I take into account the weather and my schedule for the day, I get dressed and quit thinking about it. Clothes very seldom reflect who I perceive myself to be. Which may be why I lack any real sense of style. (Something my daughter is working hard to change!)

One advantage to her approach to clothing is that I can easily read her mood just by looking at what she is wearing. Another is that she always looks great.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Early Snow

The first snowstorm presaging winter usually comes in mid-October. It arrived this weekend, especially east of the Continental Divide. Bozeman got about 4" of snow Friday and Saturday nights, but most of it melted on Saturday, so we only saw about 2" at a time.

Billings got all the snow we missed:

Red Lodge, south of Billings, got 40" in 24 hours and schools were closed today (which is highly unusual in Montana). It's not so much the amount of snow that is unusual, but how early in the season it arrived - almost no one has their snow tires on their cars yet, and they really aren't ready for winter yet!

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Scorpions in Montana

Several years ago, my kids claimed that they had seen a scorpion in the bluffs north of Lewistown. Everyone knows that scorpions don't live in Montana, but the picture they drew was definitely a scorpion. And it turns out that the northern scorpion lives in eastern Montana, so they were right. It is a small nocturnal scorpion that glows under black light; it isn't fatal to humans, which is nice to know!

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Fleeting Fall Color

This morning, the yellow ash leaves and crimson chokecherry were perfectly set off by the green and blue background.
By noon, half the leaves on the ash tree were gone, and by late afternoon, there were about 8 leaves left on it. The forecast is for 4-6 inches of snow in the valley tonight.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008


"...marriage supplies a happy ending for the hapless sex." This nice turn of phrase by Stephanie Coontz suddenly made me wonder what the root hap- means. According to my handy dictionary, it is an archaic word for "Fortune, chance". That makes "happy" a synonym for "fortunate" and "hapless" a synonym of "unfortunate", which makes sense.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Teaching Literature

I was looking through a high school literature text yesterday and was stunned by the contents. In one year, the text whips through 25 short stories, 3 plays, 5 biographies, 12 essays, 48 poems, stories from 7 epics, and 2 novels; the content ranges from Annie Dillard to Sophocles to Basho to Shakespeare to Sundiata, in a whirlwind of centuries and continents. All that's missing is meaningful context. This is literature free-floating, untethered from the people and places and times that created it. The emphasis on strictly formal aspects is, I suppose, just a different way of looking at literature, and the best literature is still worth reading without context; but it seems to me that once stripped of the culture in which it was created, most literature loses much of its meaning and power.

I prefer to teach literature in context, so that the stories inform the study of history and culture, while the history clarifies and enriches the stories. Basho's haiku illustrate the medieval Japanese aesthetic, and the aesthetic explains the haiku; in a vacuum, the haiku is just pretty words. Plato's scheme to take children away from their parents and raise them communally makes sense now that I know that in his time, scheming parents maneuvering to position their children well were a major threat to the stability of Athens. Literature gains immensely in power when the context is known, even imperfectly.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Needed: Hands-on Experience

In the Sunday paper this week, there were two articles that are more interesting together. One article described a children's event connected with Hatchfest, in which kids built things with wood scraps and real tools; the man behind the event worked construction before he went into films and is concerned that kids aren't picking up trades the way they used to. Tradesmen are aging, and there won't be anyone to build things.

The second article was about large-animal veterinarians, especially those who work with cows, pigs, sheep, and other food animals. They are getting harder to find, apparently because kids aren't growing up on family farms and learning about the animals early. Without hands-on experience, kids don't have the interest or the background to follow the profession.

So thanks to our increasing emphasis on computers and urban living, we may be starving our construction and agricultural future. That is good news for the few people who do want to build things or take care of farm animals, but not for the rest of us.

Showy Milkweed

One of my favorite plants this time of year is the showy milkweed. Most of the year, it is just a rangy weed along the roads, but come fall, the seed pods are fabulous: The seeds gradually separate from the cone as the pod dries and opens, then the parachutes float the seeds on the wind for long distances. But for me, the magical part is the contrast of the tightly-packed brown seeds and the silky white filaments of the parachutes.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Porcupine Buffet

Throughout ponderosa forests, there are lots of trunks with areas of missing bark: The bark is eaten by porcupines, who have long claws to cling to the tree and strong teeth to pull the bark off with. They eat the inner bark (phloem) and needles in the late summer, fall, and winter when the green plants they eat in the spring and summer are no longer green and tender. When the porcupines eat the bark in a complete ring around the tree, it is girdled and nutrients can no longer flow from the roots to the needles and back, killing the tree. But most trees are left enough bark to stay alive and continue feeding more porcupines.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Go Ahead, Repress Yourself

This came out of a recent issue of The Week:
Conventional therapeutic wisdom would have us believe that a person who "bottles up" his feelings is setting himself up for explosive consequences down the road. But everyone deals with trauma in his or her own ways, says a new study by psychologists at the University of Buffalo. In fact, researchers found, people who never vocalized their feelings about the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks are happier today than those who sought catharsis. There's an "assumption in popular culture, and even in clinical practice, that people need to talk in order to overcome a collective trauma," researcher Mark Seery tells LiveScience. But those who prefer not to dwell on their pain, he says, should not be pressured to talk. "They can cope quite successfully and, according to our results, are likely to be better off than someone who does want to express his or her feelings."
This makes me feel better about the future mental health of my boys who don't like to talk about their feelings.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Ponderosa Needles

Needles on Ponderosa pine trees only live three years and they don't regrow; each spring, new needles grow at the tips of the branches and each fall, the three-year-old needles all turn brown and drop off. This is why older Ponderosas have tufts of needles on long, bare branches. The first time you see it, it is a little startling - it looks like the tree is dying from the inside out.
I think most pine trees loose needles over time, rather than all at once, so it is hardly noticeable.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Democracy in America

A couple years ago, I got tired of running across repeated references to books I hadn't read, references that indicated that these books were fundamental to understanding the topic, or at least to the discussion. So I started following up on the references and actually reading the "canon" for the subjects I read regularly: The Death and Life of Great American Cities, The Frontier in American History, The Feminine Mystique, and most recently, Democracy in America. Not all of these have been easy reading, but they are all interesting and thought-provoking (which is undoubtedly why they are referred to so often).

Democracy in America, Vol. 1, is the best book I've read for understanding how the US still works, even if it was written in 1833. The insights into the democracy of the period are interesting historically, but they are also helpful for understanding what has happened since then, both in the US and internationally. The US is still substantially the way Tocqueville describes it, and the changes are generally extensions of the characteristics he noted or predicted. I sometimes found it hard to follow the distinctions he makes between various forms of governing (legislative vs. executive; governors as magistrates) but trying was enlightening - I had never made the distinctions before.

The main difference between the 1830s and now is that the Federal government was weak and the individual states strong; people looked first to the state to exercise power while the Federal government mostly mediated between the states, and its influence on citizens was generally exercised via the states. Over time, as population mobility increased and local attachments faded, as interstate commerce expanded dramatically, the Federal government gained strength; it now controls a vastly greater portion of daily life than Tocqueville foresaw and is much stronger. Part of this may be a result of the Civil War, which Tocqueville predicted; but he felt that the union would disintegrate under the strong action of the states, rather than holding together and subduing them. For reasons that probably turn on leadership, the union didn't come apart, and the United States of America made the transition from a plural noun and idea ("The United States are...") to a singular one ("The United States is..."), from a federation of mostly sovereign states to a unified country. The Civil War wasn't just a sibling fight, it was a turning point in the evolving concept of the country.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Maple Leaves

The leaves on the maple tree out front are the first to start turning in the fall. The leaves turn slowly and in odd sequences from the bottom up, creating a mosiac of colors. Last Monday, green and yellow still dominated. Today, the green is mostly gone and orange dominates the bottom leaves; the upper leaves are mostly yellow.
In another week, the entire tree will be orange, a great accent for our grey house.

Black Ice

I learned today why black ice is so hard to predict: it isn't ice before you drive on it. When the temperature first falls below freezing, water on the road is supercooled - its temperature drops below its freezing point but it stays liquid because nothing provides the seed crystal to start ice forming or provides the energy for the water to change states. As soon as your tire hits the water, it shocks the water into instantly crystallizing into ice and you are sliding across the "wet" road. That's why you can't see black ice when you are driving; watching the thermometer is a better gauge of hazard than watching the road surface.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Utility Rant

Why is it that when I think I am articulately expressing my opinions, my kids think I am ranting? My opinions today had to do with utility boxes, the green and gray metal boxes that clutter up nearly every street corner in town. In the older parts of town, utilities are discretely (and properly) set in alleys, where they are out of the way. But in the newer areas of town, where developers have spent large amounts of money on the landscaping, with nice street trees and green turf, the metal boxes sit thoughtlessly on the edge of the sidewalk. They are unadorned, paint fading, more-or-less square in orientation, placed without thought for the context or surroundings; if there are two or more boxes, they aren't lined up or placed in any kind of a rhythm. Why can't these boxes be placed away from the front sidewalk, where they will be less noticeable (and less likely to be hit by an errant car)? Or at least placed with some concern for their design and context? I understand that the siting of the boxes is driven by engineering concerns, but the developers would never be allowed to use this rationale for any of their trash dumpsters or internal utilities. So why do the utility companies get away with plopping something down without any concern for design or aesthetics?

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Winter Market

Now that the farmers' markets are closed, the winter market has started up again. Each year it gets a little bigger; this year it has added salmon and coffee suppliers. Now you can easily make a full meal from the market: beef or salmon, maybe some pork, several kinds of goat cheese, milk, eggs, bread, potatoes, crackers, a wide variety of vegetables (although not much in the way of root vegetables yet - no celeriac, no sunchokes), and coffee to finish it off. All of it, except the salmon and coffee, are locally grown or made.

Monday, September 15, 2008

We Who Are More Than Magpies

We, who are more than magpies, feather our nests with bits of time.

(Robert Kaplan, The Nothing That Is)

This is a pretty good description of what I'm doing in this blog...

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Teaching Cursive

Over the years, I have taught my kids to be individuals, to find their own way of doing things instead of simply following the standard model. Now it's coming back to bite me: teaching them to write cursive properly is like herding cats! "Why do we have to do this? I don't want to write in cursive anyway. I like making an extra loop on my a's and o's; why do I have to change it?" Sigh. Sometimes having taught your children to question things is a pain in the neck.

Why I Love Owenhouse Hardware

I wanted to hang a peg of some sort by my front door, primarily for dry-cleaning deliveries but for hanging other light things on, too. I wanted something that looks nice, not a nail or a basic peg; a cupboard knob would be perfect, but the hardware for knobs assumes that they will be installed on a door that you can put a screw through. Which is a challenge when mounting the knob on a solid wall. I found a neat knob at Owenhouse, then tracked down Gary, my favorite staff guy, and asked him for help. It took 4 potential solutions, an 18-cent screw, and 20 minutes to solve the problem; in the end, he cut the head off the screw and turned the knob into a peg for me. I mounted it today and it works slick! It was the perfect solution: low-tech, simple, and inexpensive.

My new goal in life is to find a legitimate project that stumps Gary.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Short Growing Season

Talking to growers at the farmers' market tonight, the last one of the season, I confirmed that the growing season is late this summer, by an average of 20 days. Now that the two farmers' markets in town are finishing up, the growers are finally harvesting their summer vegetables - which is why I am having a hard time finding vegetables to preserve as I move into my fall putting-food-up-for-the-winter mode; those vegetables won't be along for another three weeks. To make matters worse, we are definitely into fall weather, with cool, cloudy days mixed in with warm, sunny days; the growing season is going to end up being a very short one this year. It is one of the less-cheerful aspects of trying to eat in tune with the seasons: the weather doesn't always co-operate. But even the shortage of "seasonal" vegetables reminds me of the unpredictable nature of the real world.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

How to Get Teens Up in the Morning

To be accurate, I should call it "How to get teens up at noon for a late breakfast". But it worked to get four 16-year-old boys up and out of bed in time for lunch today. All measurements are flexible. Unfortunately, you will probably have to soak the baking dish to get it clean.

Cheesy Bread Pudding (Or you can call it Breakfast Casserole, if that works in your household; it doesn't in mine.)

Start cooking 3/4 pound of bacon. I use the microwave because the tray drains off the fat, but a skillet will work fine. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

While the bacon cooks, cut up some slightly stale, chewy bread into 1" chunks, enough to loosely fill your baking dish; I used 2/3 of a sourdough baguette that had been languishing in the fridge for a week. Place in a large bowl. Add two small cans of diced green chilies and 1/2 pound of grated cheddar cheese. Dice the bacon and add it. Mix well and place in baking dish; you may need to smash it down a bit to make it all fit.

In a bowl, combine 6 eggs (ok, crack them first and add everything but the shell) and 50% more milk than eggs (maybe a cup). Add salt and pepper to taste. Blend well and pour over the bread mixture. Grate a little more cheddar on the top.

Cover with a lid or tinfoil and stick in the oven for about 45 minutes. Remove lid and let cook for another 10 minutes. Remove from oven and let sit for 5-10 minutes while everyone finishes waking up. Serve with orange juice.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Apple Packaging

I just bought my first computer from Apple, and it arrived this morning. I have no idea how well the computer will work, but I love Apple's packaging - someone with a good eye for design, both visual and practical, has really thought it through. Even the outer box is easy to figure out where to open; and when you cut that bit of tape and look inside, there is a handle waiting for you to pull it out. The handle is attached to a nice box of glossy white cardboard, and it opens easily to this:
This is seriously cool packaging! I love the pattern and the design of it. When you remove the top layer of foam and the computer and cords under it, this is the bottom layer of foam, echoing but not copying the upper design:
The silver package opens up like a gift to display a booklet (Everything Mac) and a package (Everything Else) with a monitor wipe, the re-install disks, and some additional information. Instead of being a utilitarian task (at best - more often an exercise in frustration!), getting the Mac out of its box is a delightful chain of packaging surprises, like opening Japanese packages.

Regardless of Apple's computer technology, they beat most US companies on packaging, hands down.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Mountains Beyond Mountains

Reading Mountains Beyond Mountains makes me feel the same way as reading about homeschooling families whose kids get perfect scores on the SATs and go to Harvard on full-ride music scholarships: completely incompetent as a human being. I am neither a genius nor so tolerant of discomfort that I can relate to Paul Farmer; he is completely out of my league, and therefore I don't find his accomplishments personally inspiring - laudable, certainly, but equally certainly not replicable in my world.

This is relevant because it was selected as the initial One Book One Bozeman read, with the idea of inspiring people to see what they can do to change the world. I dutifully read it, but to be honest, I mostly found it annoying because it makes me feel so...incompetent. Last year's big feel-good book, Three Cups of Tea, was much more inspiring because Greg Mortenson comes off as someone real (if unusually determined), someone I can relate to; I think that maybe I could do something like what he did, and so I am moved to try.

The only reason I made it through the Mountains is that is was well written; it is definitely better written than Three Cups of Tea, which can't decide if it should be in the first or third person. The narrator's voice is consistent and better at filling in background; and Tracy Kidder's early discomfort with Farmer helps blunt the hagiography. Actually, the only reason I made it through the book, when Kidder succumbs to Farmer's personality, is that I was too stubborn to quit so near the end. But Mountains Beyond Mountains definitely doesn't make my list of books I would recommend to anyone.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

We Who Are Your Closest Friends

This poem by Phillip Lopate is my new favorite poem:

We who are
your closest friends
feel the time
has come to tell you
that every Thursday
we have been meeting,
as a group,
to devise ways
to keep you
in perpetual uncertainty
discontent and
by neither loving you
as much as you want
nor cutting you adrift.
Your analyst is
in on it,
plus your boyfriend
and your ex-husband;
and we have pledged
to disappoint you
as long as you need us.
In announcing our
we realize we have
placed in your hands
a possible antidote
against uncertainty
indeed against ourselves.
But since our Thursday nights
have brought us
to a community
of purpose
rare in itself
with you as
the natural center,
we feel hopeful you
will continue to make unreasonable
demands for affection
if not as a consequence
of your disastrous personality
then for the good of the collective.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Good Fortune

My fortune cookie tonight said "You have a charming way with words. Write a letter this week." I love it! And I think I will write a letter to someone this week.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Begging the Question

The phrase "begging the question" is supposed to mean assuming what you are trying to prove (and it still means this in logic). An argument that begs the question has an assumption that hasn't been proven and therefore can't be assumed; this unproven assumption leads naturally to the conclusion, which is also unproven. More conversationally, it means to assume something not yet proven or done: "Shopping now for a wedding dress is really begging the question--she hasn't been proposed to yet."

Unfortunately, "begs the question" is now generally used to mean "raises the question"; it is used this way so often that a careful writer can no longer use it correctly. Which is too bad, because begging the question is still a useful concept that deserves a phrase - especially during the presidential elections. Luckily, it is very close to the concept of circular reasoning, in which two related assumptions are used to prove each other (simplistically: "The Bible says God exists. The Bible is the word of God, so it must be true. Therefore God exists."), so there is a useful term still available to unravel political arguments.

Come to think of it, it is really hard to find a good example of an argument that begs the question, so maybe it isn't too bad a phrase to lose. Now if journalists would just quit using it the wrong way.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Rough-Legged Hawks Return

In the last few days, I've seen a few hawks that just don't seem quite right for red-tails and they definitely aren't harriers, so I've been watching for confirmation that the rough-legged hawks were starting their winter migration to or through the area. Today I saw a hawk with a white underside and black wing-tips that has to be a rough-legged hawk (probably a juvenile), so I know they are starting to come back. It won't be long before the red-tails start moving south, leaving the fields to the rough-leggeds.

Monday, August 25, 2008

How to Mislead with Statistics

"A study comparing ten-year-olds in a small, walkable Vermont town and youngsters in a new Orange County suburb showed a marked difference. The Vermont children had three times the mobility, i.e., the distance and places they could get to on their own, while those in Orange County watched four times as much television." (Jane Holtz Kay, Asphalt Nation)

On the surface, this looks like a pretty strong argument that, as the author would have us conclude, places designed for cars are hurting or kids, and anecdotally it is interesting. But, without more details, it is nearly worthless as evidence. The quote itself raises questions: Did the Vermont kids actually walk more, or did they just have more potential mobility? How does TV watching correlate to mobility? Could the Vermont TV times be low because those kids spent more time on the computer (rather than walking)?

Then there is the nebulous study itself. Even if it was well-designed, how could it really control for all the non-car differences between a small town in Vermont and a suburb in California? Controlling for population density, economic status, and weather is pretty obvious, but what about parental attitudes? People who raise families in a small town in Vermont tend to have different values than people who move to California to raise kids, and those values extend to modes of transportation. It is conceivable that the California kids lived in a very walkable neighborhood but that their parents don't encourage (or want) them to walk places for status or convenience reasons (it is easier to monitor your kids when they are at home in front of a TV rather than outside on their own). There are several other possible explanations for the differences cited, too; the author's conclusions may be valid, but there is no way to know from this snippet of relevant-sounding information.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Late Season for Vegetables

I made dill beans today, after finding some at the farmers' market yesterday. I couldn't figure out what to do with the little bits that get cut off to make the beans fit in the jars; what was it I did last year? I finally remembered that last year, I made the snippets into a salad that I took to a family dinner - at the beginning of August. But this year, I couldn't make dill beans until nearly the beginning of September. Green beans just didn't show up in the markets until last week, and not in sufficient quantities to justify pickling them until this week. The entire local growing season has been nearly a month late due to a cold, wet spring and June snow, which means that much of the produce will come to market just as the farmers' markets are closing down. That's tough on both the growers and the eaters.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Morning Birds

About 8:00 this morning, I opened the blinds and discovered that the yard was full of birds. A flicker flew away from the house to the ponderosa pine, followed by a family of robins (the young ones have been flying into our windows again). Three or four doves flew over the yard and chickadees perched in the aspens near the kitchen. A family of small birds, probably juvenile meadowlarks based on the tail stripes, skipped across the air like rocks across a lake. It is the last flurry of reproductive growth before the colder weather sets in and all but the chickadees head south.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Other Outlets

When I started this blog a year ago, I had a brain full of words and ideas that needed an outlet, and it was easy to stay on top of entries. Now that my technical editing work is taking off, I find that I have less need of this outlet to stay sane; my drive to play with words is being met in other ways. I would have thought that there would be a bigger difference between writing and editing, but I guess I just want words to play with, and it doesn't matter if I generate them or someone else does.

The other reason I started it was to follow a year around the seasons with food and the ebb and flow of plants and animals. I'm doing less cooking now, so there is less excitement to share on the food front. And now that I've gone a full year, it is harder to record the changes again - even though they are a little different each year. On the other hand, I will be doing natural history with one of my kids this fall, so maybe I will have more things to note again.

I'm not abandoning the blog, but it will be interesting to see how it evolves over the next few months.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Amythest Initiative

Nearly 100 college presidents have signed a document, the Amethyst Initiative, calling for a national debate on the drinking age. Predictably, it has stirred up a lot of MADD charges that the presidents are trying to make their own lives easier and that lowering the drinking age will only increase binge drinking on campus. MADD might have a point (the latter) if the drinking age were changed without any discussion or accompanying changes in how we approach alcohol; if kids continue to learn that drinking is a forbidden adult activity, to be done quickly before you get caught, binge drinking might very well increase.

But the presidents didn't call directly for lowering the drinking age, they called for discussion. And that has a lot of potential for changing college drinking habits. Unfortunately, MADD and DARE have so poisoned the public discussion that it is difficult for reasonable parents to even discuss teaching their kids how to drink. Any parent who would even consider teaching their minor child how to drink responsibly must be irresponsible at best. We teach them about driving and safe sex; why is it that we can't teach them how to drink properly? An open discussion about the drinking age is a good thing, especially if it gives us a chance to deal with alcohol responsibly - but it is threatening to groups like MADD that have made their name (and money) by repressing it.

Well-meaning groups like MADD and DARE teach young kids that alcohol is evil and no one should ever drink (which went over like a lead balloon at our dinner table). Unfortunately, kids get older and figure out that adults do drink, hypocritically, and therefore the adults must be keeping something special, something grown-up, from kids. Forbidden fruit is all the sweeter - then we wonder why they drink so eagerly.

If kids learn that alcohol is a normal, reasonable part of life, to be enjoyed with food or friends, for the taste rather than the drunkenness, and are allowed to do it, then why would they binge drink? Of course, this requires adults to teach their children these things, which is challenging in the current MADD/DARE environment. Parents who understand kids and their penchant for forbidden fruit, adults who have a rational approach to alcohol consumption, can teach their children that, used in moderation, alcohol is an enjoyable part of a full life. But at the moment, that education had better occur quietly or you will be a bad parent.

In part, kids binge drink because, if they want to drink, there aren't many options, and none legal. One reasonable compromise would be a "learner's license" for drinking. Kids 18 (or 19, to keep alcohol out of high schools) to 20 would be allowed to drink wine and beer; at 21, they could drink anything. It is harder to get drunk (especially dangerously drunk) on wine and beer, so it would be safer than simply lowering the drinking age for all alcohol. In addition, wine and beer are generally drunk with food, so kids could start to learn, even if their parents didn't teach them, how alcohol can be used properly. This would give young adults a chance to drink, in a safe manner, and would probably decrease binge drinking (usually of hard liquor) quite a bit. It might even lead to a more rational approach to alcohol than the current "all or nothing" attitudes.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Competent Kids

One of my primary goals as a parent is nurture competent adults. So far, it seems to be working, which has me wondering what I have done right. I think the biggest thing is to assume that my kids are competent and set them tasks that stretch them a bit but are within their capabilities; then I give them the tools and support they need to accomplish the task more-or-less successfully. If I wait for them to demonstrate their competence before acting on it, they will never have a chance to develop it; if I give them tasks that are too hard or don't provide support, they will get discouraged. And if I just do things myself because it is easier (which it is), then they will never become competent, or even know that they should.

So I talk them through cleaning the bathroom or a shotgun, or encourage them to call their grandfather to find out how to wrap a pipe with insulation, or wait patiently while they figure out the best way to lay out a garden wall. I listen to them argue that they shouldn't have to do this chore, or that they can't do it. I make sure that my sons do household cleaning and my daughter helps with the cars. I let them make mistakes where it won't be catastrophic, and let them make the corrections or clean up the mess. Things take longer initially, but once they learn the task, they can repeat it in the future. They know they can learn how to do things, so they are willing to tackle another task. In short, they become competent (and make my life a little simpler in the process).

Once again, it is trust and verify: trust that they can do the job, then verify that they did it reasonably well.

Saturday, August 16, 2008


Raymond Loewy, an industrial designer who worked on everything from dishes and the classic Coke bottle to Greyhound buses and Air Force One, subscribed to the MAYA design philosophy: Most Advanced Yet Acceptable.
Our desire is naturally to give the buying public the most advanced product that research can develop and technology can produce. Unfortunately, it has been proved time and time again that such a product does not always sell well. There seems to be for each individual product (or service, or store, or package, etc.) a critical area at which the consumer's desire for novelty reaches what I might call the shock-zone. At that point the urge to buy reaches a plateau, and sometimes evolves into a resistance to buying. It is a sort of tug of war between attraction to the new and fear of the unfamiliar. The adult public's taste is not necessarily ready to accept the logical solutions to their requirements if this solution implies too vast a departure from what they have been conditioned into accepting as the norm. In other words, they will go only so far. Therefore, the smart industrial designer is the one who has a lucid understanding of where the shock-zone lies in each particular problem. At this point, a design has reached what I call the MAYA (Most Advanced Yet Acceptable) stage.
Raymond Loewy

Many designers seem to aim for Most Advanced, leading to objects that are simply baffling or ugly, or Acceptable, leading to boring objects; they seldom achieve the balance that makes an object both interesting and pleasant. The balance is so seldom in evidence that Target has created a nice niche for itself simply by designing thoroughly acceptable items that are somewhat advanced; these objects, although not perfect, are so clearly more interesting than most of what is on the market in household goods that I almost always start at Target when I want something for my kitchen or bathroom.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Oversimplifying the West

From The Etiquette of Gravel Roads, by Bryce Andrews:

A quarter mile up the road, two vehicles were raising clouds of dust. Although the road was wide enough, I pulled to the side and waited.

As they drew near I could make out two brand-new SUV’s, one tailgating the other. Both had out-of-state license plates, but I waved to them as I would a friend because we had found each other in gorgeous light on an empty gravel road. Assuming the drivers were homeowners or investors, I hoped they might stop and tolerate a few questions about what was happening higher up on Rock Creek.

I got a dust cloud for my trouble. The drivers stared dead ahead as they whizzed by. I don’t think they even saw me. The dust settled and I kicked my bike into gear.

Maybe it is a little thing, an insignificant one, to notice a man waving at the side of the road or miss him altogether. Maybe it was a fluke, or the drivers were just in a hurry. Still I cannot shake the feeling that they inhabited a different world, a strange Montana bearing little resemblance to the place where I work and live.

Their Montana did not require attending closely to the hooves of cattle, or to clouds building above the Pintlers. It had not taught them to study the condition of grass plants, or learn the etiquette of gravel roads.

I continued uphill across cattle guards that rattled the bike. New gravel was spread on some of the corners, so I took them slowly. As I rode, I pictured the dead-ahead stares of the drivers, and it worried me that the new owners of this place might reduce a complex ecological and social landscape to a house, a mountain view, and the road to get there.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Virginia Fried Chicken

My daughter wanted to make fried chicken tonight, but we had neither the bone-in pieces commonly used nor the time to do it right. So we faked it - and it worked. We started with the three boneless, skinless chicken breasts I had defrosted and a recipe from Martha Stewart, and improvised from there. She did most of the work and was gratified when her brothers told her it was good - unusual, but good. It is also a good way to stretch chicken a bit.

Virginia Fried Chicken
Start with boneless, skinless chicken breasts, 2 for every three people. Slice them into 4 pieces crosswise, then halve any that are quite thick; for a large breast, you should have about 6 pieces. Put the pieces in a bowl and cover with buttermilk and a little hot sauce of some type; we used chili oil, but any variety would work; don't add enough to make it hot, just enough to add a little flavor, maybe a tablespoon or less. If you don't have buttermilk, plain yogurt, stirred in, would work. Let sit while you get everything else ready.

In a wide bowl or deep plate, mix half flour and half cornmeal; add salt and pepper to taste. Pour a half-inch of oil into a heavy skillet and heat over medium-high until it pops when you toss in a droplet of water. Lay out some newspapers near the skillet for draining the oil off the chicken. One at a time, take a piece of chicken out of the buttermilk, dredge it in the flour/cornmeal, and add it gently to the oil. Depending on the size of the skillet, you will be able to cook 3-6 at a time; don't over-crowd them or they won't cook properly. Fry for 3-4 minute, until the edges of the chicken/coating are turning golden brown. Turn over and cook for the same time on the other side, then remove from oil and place on the newspapers to drain. Cut one piece open to make sure it is cooked through. Repeat until chicken is all cooked.

Serve with your favorite accompaniments. We used hot wing sauce, dipping sauce, and blue cheese dressing for the chicken, plus biscuits and a salad. These would be good in buffalo-wing wraps, too. Recycle the newspapers after dinner.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Family Dinners

My daughter stayed with friends for a couple weeks this month, which is always an interesting and enlightening experience. I was impressed to hear that they ate at home every night, and that every dinner was homemade; she said that the mom was a great cook. But as tasty as it was, it was all "stuff on rice or pasta", and after a while, my daughter missed steak and salad.

I think that what she missed even more was conversation. Our dinners aren't always homemade - or even at home - but they are usually full of conversation (except nights when we are all too tired to be pleasant) and often laughter. Nothing is off limits except rudeness. When we all make it home for dinner, the meal tends to take half an hour to an hour; it is a chance to be together, to catch up on the day or the week, to enjoy each other, to make each other laugh. But dinner at the friends' house was a chance to eat a meal, to refuel before the evening's activities; meals generally lasted about 15 minutes and had little in the way of conversation beyond logistics. I suspect that the lack of dinner conversation was harder on my talkative daughter than the unfamiliar style of meals.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Trust and Verify

Trust and verify is a pretty good guideline for working with other people, and it seems to be working pretty well for parenting, too. The trick is to realize that it is TRUST and verify, not pretend to trust and try to catch them out. It almost seems like to separate parts of me are involved: my heart trusts my kids completely, while my brain keeps working on reality checks - not to trap anyone, just to make sure that my trust is still warranted. The good news is that the verifying occurs when I make the effort to stay in touch with my kids. "What did you do last night? Sounds like fun. Who was with you? Oh, good, they're back in town; for how long?" It is just casual conversation (or should be, anyway), because I care about my kids and am interested in what they are up to and who they are hanging out with. But it has the advantage of helping me keep tabs on who they are hanging out with and what they are doing; it gives me a chance to look for discrepancies that might alert me to things I should check on or to places they might need some help or support. And it allows me to trust them because I know that I am checking reality regularly.

Having said that, it works because I really do trust my kids to be honest enough with me that I could catch any discrepancies. The technique breaks down if you have a kid who is determined to keep a secret and willing to lie convincingly and consistently.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Back to School

Denise Malloy had a great column in the Balance feature this week about how eager she is for school to start again because she is tired of listening to her kids bicker and complain about being bored. She has undoubtedly exaggerated for effect, and the effect is very funny; I'm sure she has lots of company this month.

I am also eager for school to start again, but not so I can get my days back; it is so I can get my kids back. They have been busy with camps and work and sleeping late all summer, and I miss spending time with them. I miss the companionship and the routine that comes with school. I am used to having my kids around most of the day, and I really like them; they are growing into people I want to spend time around (ok, not all the time, but most days). They are what may be the perfect age: still young enough to be an integral part of the household but old enough that I can leave them for lunch with a friend, or get some work done on my own while they work on their projects. I am looking forward to seeing more (not less) of them next month!

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Subway Maps

Subway maps are a distinctive subspecies of maps that sacrifice geographical accuracy for clarity. Here is a normal map of Washington DC:

And here is the Metro Map for the same area; note what happens to the river.

The Metro map is much more graphic, with all its bright colors and neat lines, but it only loosely reflects reality - just enough to be useful without being confusing. The challenge for the designers is to find the right balance between simplicity (so that riders can easily figure out routes) and context (so that they can figure out how to get somewhere once they get off the subway). An endemic problem with these maps is that it skews the apparent distance between stops, disguising trips that would be faster on foot.

The London Tube map was the first map to use stright lines instead of actual routes; it is generally considered a classic design, but one that doesn't always transfer well to other uses; some uses of the style are spectacularly unsuccessful. (For an interesting route map of the world, go nearly to the bottom of this page, to the Aug. 29, 2006 entry.)

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Chicken and Sausage

Chicken and sausage is one of my favorite meat combinations, so when I found two sausages and a chicken breast in my freezer, I knew I had to figure out some way to use them. Tonight, when I only had two kids to feed, I did - it was quick (about 20 minutes if you use left-over rice or starch), easy, and tasty.

Chicken and Sausage Quick Fry (for 2-3 people)
1 boneless, skinless chicken breast
2 spicy sausages, such as andouille, hot Italian, or chorizo
1 to 1.5 cups of frozen stir-fry peppers mix (red and green peppers, onions)
1/2 C sour cream
salt to taste
Cooked rice or pasta

Slice the chicken and sausages into bite-size pieces. Heat a large skillet over med-high heat and add the meat. Cook it fast and keep stirring; the meat should carmelize a little bit and the sausage juices should infiltrate the chicken. Add some salt , less than a teaspoon or to taste. When the meat is cooked through, move it to the outside of the skillet and add the frozen veggies; keep cooking and stirring until the moisture has evaporated and the veggies are warm. Turn the heat down to med-low and add the sour cream. Stir well; the sour cream and the sausage juices should form a thick sauce. Serve over rice or pasta, spooning the sauce over the meat and veggies.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Worse Things Than Being Wrong

"There are surely worse things than being wrong, and being dull and pedantic are surely among them."

This quote is from Mark Kac, a Polish mathematician who was born today in 1914 in a Russian part of Poland; he came to the United States in 1938, just in time to avoid the start of WWII and the persecutions that came with being a Jew. He liked to play with words as well as numbers: he once asked "Can you hear the shape of a drum?" as a way to think about spectral theory (no, you can't). And he made a useful distinction between an "ordinary genius" like Hans Bethe and a "magician" like Richard Feynman.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

How to Confuse a Cook

Order a garden burger with bacon. A friend of my son's does this regularly; he says it tastes good, but I think he mostly does it for the look on the server's face when they take the order for a vegetarian meal with meat.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Old vs New West - Again

Oh, yay - another national article about the collision between the new west and the old west. This time it was the Wall Street Journal jumping in with an article on how recent transplants from the West Coast are giving Obama a shot at being the third Democratic presidental candidates that Montana has ever voted for. That is all well and good, except that the journalist can't resist the cheap shots of espresso bars vs. cowboy hats (see below).

There are definitely people who have moved to Bozeman for the scenery and the chance to get outdoors regularly, who don't care about the local culture and are all for making changes to civilize Bozeman. There are also people, especially farming families, who have lived here for decades and feel displaced by the changes that are occurring. But there is a vast middle ground of people who don't fit these well-hammered stereotypes: recent transplants who value the local culture and work hard to fit in; people who have lived here for decades who appreciate the improved medical services, increased job opportunities for their children, and interesting cultural events; people who come here because they can have a microfarm, raise vegetables and eggs for the farmers' market, raise children in a safe community. The blending of all these people makes for a tolerant community that can accommodate most tastes and pocketbooks, from the $6.50 beef roast at the Western Cafe to the $9.95 panini at a nearby coffee shop or the $12 hamburger at Ted's Montana Grill; some locals patronize all of the above.

Many of the "new west" characteristics can't even be blamed on the newcomers: the local symphony has been playing for over 40 years, the opera for over 30. The farmers' market started in 1977. There has been an increase in coffee shops over the last decade, but that is a national trend, not one imported by West Coasters, and we probably don't have that many for a college town. On the other hand, new and old residents have worked together to keep downtown alive, build a wonderful new library, support a regional museum and 4-H, keep the county fairgrounds alive and healthy, and encourage a flourishing equestrian community. For most residents here, there is a blend that works sometimes and not others, rather than a clash of values. But a clash makes better press, I guess.

I was born in Bozeman, my father is a rancher, I shoot guns and go to the symphony, and I drive an Audi. What does that make me? I think it makes me a Montanan.

The editor in me can't resist picking on this paragraph: "At times, downtown Bozeman feels like it's inhabited by two different tribes. Main Street is lined with Audis and Subarus topped with mountain bikes and kayaks. Half an hour out of town, the polish on cowboy boots gives way to scuffs, and gun racks outnumber roof racks." How can a small downtown contain someplace half an hour out of town? That's a logical impossibility, as well as all the way to Three Forks, clear across the valley.

Raspberries Ripen

Although half our raspberry bushes took a beating when the well was being re-drilled last fall, the other half is doing fine and the first berries are ripening. I'm the only one who has figured this out yet, so I get the first harvest! Next year we will have more raspberries, since the trampled bushes from last year are putting out lots of canes this year (the second-year canes are the ones that bear fruit).

I saw the raspberries as I was hanging clothes out on the line this afternoon (which was only partially successful, since I left them on so long that the lawn sprinklers got them wetter than the washing machine did). That was also when I realized that the caragana pods are snapping in the hot sun; when the seed pods get dry enough, they twist and break apart at the seams, flinging seeds across the lawn. I love listening to the random snaps on a hot afternoon; I know high summer is here.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Sugar Does What?

Downtown this evening, I overheard a mom tell her daughter that she couldn't eat something because it had too much sugar... it might give her a cardiac arrest. What?!? That is a new one on me; I sincerely hope the mom was teasing her daughter (which could be, since I didn't hear the rest of the conversation). I'm all for minimizing the amount of sugar kids eat, but not with unfounded scare tactics.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Aristocrats vs. Populists

After years of seeing the book referred to, I am finally reading Democracy in America and finding it a fascinating (if challenging) read. Last night I read about Toqueville's analysis of the two strains of thought inherent in a democracy, one of which tends to increase the power of the people and the other to restrain it (Vol 1, Chapter X). The aristocratic faction tries to put boundaries on the extent to which the common people can affect government and to retain the power for elected legislators, while the populist factions tries to retain as much power for the common people as possible (as in referendums). The next thing I read was a description in The Fifties, by David Halberstam, about the division that beset the Republican Party after Roosevelt's reign as president left the Democratic Party firmly in power; the split was primarily between the aristocratic East Coast Establishment and the populist heartland. The modern Democratic party shows similar divisions, between the college-educated liberals who voted for Obama and the blue-color folks who voted for Clinton in the primaries. Toqueville's description of these trends, written over two centuries ago, still applies to American politics, and is still a useful tool in analyzing it.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Summer Heat

The summer heat has finally arrived, a couple weeks late: today was the first day the high temperature was above 90 degrees here. In a perverse way, I enjoy the heat for the contrast it provides with January - as long as it doesn't go on too long and the nights aren't too warm. But the heat can cause problems similer to winter's cold: "Even in far more temperate settings than the Middle East or Southeast Asia, an hour's exposure to temperatures over 90 degrees tends to impair physical performance, while two hours' worth interferes with difficult mental tasks. Not everyone responds to heat in this way, nor do all types of effort diminish equally, but generally, the more the temperature rises over 90 degrees, the faster these declines set in." (Winifred Gallagher, The Power of Place) So that's why I get sluggish when it gets hot - human bodies just aren't supposed to function in extreme temperatures.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Pickled Scapes Results

I pulled out the pickled garlic scapes tonight, to serve with a grilled beef roast, and they were a hit! The scapes were a nice combination of pickle and garlic, not too strong, and worked well with the beef. The entire jar disappeared by the end of dinner. Next, I think I'll chop some and add them to a steak salad with the rest of tonight's beef.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Sleep Deprivation

My two teenage boys are working summer jobs that require them to be at work by 8 a.m.; they make it on time, but their sleep cycles aren’t adjusting, no matter when they go to bed at night. So they come home at least once a week and crash on their beds for several hours, in addition to sleeping late on the weekends. This still isn’t enough sleep for them; I can tell because they are grumpier than usual, more often than usual.

Watching them, I wonder if most of “normal adolescent behavior” is actually caused by sleep deprivation. Teenagers are prone to shifted sleep cycles, so they literally can’t fall asleep at night between about 9 pm and midnight, which makes getting to school by 8:30 (or 7:30 if you have an early-morning class) difficult. Then they have school all day, sports and other after-school activities that often go until 9 or 10 at night, and then they have homework to do. When do they sleep? I don’t see how they can get even a normal eight hours of sleep a night, much less the nine or ten hours teens usually require.

I vividly recall sleep deprivation from when my kids were babies, and I know it is insidious and all-pervasive in its affects. Physical symptoms that threaten future health include a compromised immune system, heart disease, hypertension, and tremors; more immediate physical issues include slower reaction times, slurred speech, a tendency to eat too much or the wrong foods, and increased effectiveness of caffeine and alcohol. Emotional symptoms include grumpiness; poor judgment; aggressive or inappropriate behavior; an impaired ability to think, moderate emotions, and handle stress; lower concentration levels; poor memory; rigid thought patterns; and depression - all common teen characteristics. How much of that behavior would go away if the kids simply got a good night’s sleep on a regular basis?

I doubt we’ll find out any time soon, because that would require two major mental shifts in our culture. First we would have to set up school to accommodate teen sleep cycles rather than adult convenience; even shifting high-school hours an hour and a half later, 10:00 to 5:00, would help. Teachers could use the productive (for adults) morning time to prepare for classes instead of doing it late in the day when they are tired, and students would be more alert if they weren’t so tired.This change would force logistical changes in bus and parental schedules, but it could be done; it is no worse than the shifts to year-round school that many districts have already made.

The bigger challenge is for American culture to move away from glorifying activity for its own sake. We admire people who “get a lot done”, who are always busy; someone sitting quietly and thinking, staying in bed long enough to get a full night’s sleep, or even reading a book (unless it is work related or they are on vacation) is lazy and unproductive - possibly the American cardinal sin. This attitude is what keeps kids busy morning to night with band and speech team and booster clubs and who knows what else, all to make sure their college applications look “impressive”. We need to start valuing time to think, getting enough rest, doing a few things well rather than everything in a frenzy – for everyone, not just teenagers. Without this shift, activities will simply move to the morning hours before school and kids will still be short of sleep. With this shift, it would be easier for everyone to get enough sleep, to stay healthy, to enjoy life; and maybe adolescence would be easier to survive.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Colors of the Carnival

There is something about a carnival in the morning calm that appeals to me. Maybe it is because the colors are more noticeable without people moving around them, or that the shrieks and hurdy-gurdy sounds aren't there to distract me from the lines and shapes and colors. Whatever the reason, it was pleasant to wonder among the rides and tents with my camera this morning, capturing another rhythm of summer.