TODAY, Februay 7, you can get the first two Green Ember books in Kindle format for FREE.   Enjoy!

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Posted by sursumcorda on Wednesday, February 7, 2018 at 3:11 pm | Edit
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It's the American way, and even more so the Japanese way, and apparently the Swiss way also: the professionalism of parenthood. School is no longer so much the place where one learns specialized skills that can't be picked up at home or on one's own, but a place expected to teach children nearly everything a society deems important. The Four R's: Reading, wRiting, aRithmetic ... and all the Rest. Because, well, you know, the professionals can do it so much better, and who has the time, anyway?

Society is beginning to take notice that our children are getting to the once-upon-a-time age of adulthood without many of the life skills we take for granted, skills that enable them to live independently and hold down a job. Employers have noticed this for years, but the rest of us are finally beginning to catch up, if only in our derisive sneers at "Millennials." Is it the job of public education to teach these skills? Of course not—though I agree with those who insist that any institution that takes away most of a child's life, practically from the cradle, should be expected to return a lot more benefit from such a huge cost. But when a social need is found, it's likely to get dumped on the schools.

Enter the Let Grow Project for Schools, created to address this need. This is actually something different from the norm, in that the schools are only the vehicle for spurring action by parents and children. It begins with this basic homework assignment: Go home and do something your parents did at your age. The suggested activities are shocking: cooking, cleaning, buying something from the store, playing outside unsupervised, riding a bike in the neighborhood, briefly watching a sibling, walking to school. Shocking, apparently, for parents who have been conditioned to believe that such activities are too dangerous to think about; shocking, definitely, for those of us who grew up doing them in a world statistically more dangerous than the one we live in today.

Parents aren't stupid. They want their children to grow up to be independent, competent people. But it's hard to live against the grain, when the media, friends and colleagues, and sometimes even the laws of the land are telling you that overprotecting, even coddling children is simply good parenting. What the schools are doing here is giving parents permission to take that first step.

My only concern is that some parents will approach the project without common sense; the best way to learn to swim is rarely to be thrown out of the boat into deep water. (I know someone who was taught to swim that way, but she doesn't recommend it.) If our grandchildren are extraordinarily competent—and they are—it's because they've been taking baby steps toward independence all their lives. A child at age 11 can go through the steps faster if he wants to, but it still takes time and training.

I haven't seen it mentioned in the literature on this subject, but my theory is that a major contributor to over-dependent children is the modern trend toward small families. When parents have only one or two children, it's all too easy to do for them things they should be doing for themselves. (Mea culpa.) Larger families simply cannot. Training children to do their own laundry, to wash dishes, to shovel snow, to cook meals, and to entertain themselves is a matter of survival. And it pays big dividends, for parents as well as children. As my daughter (mother of six) proclaimed, referring to her then thirteen-year-old son, It was worth all the work (and that work did include tears, it's not like I'm forgetting) in training him in the kitchen from a young age to be able to say now, "Please make dinner on Thursday night. Quiche would be nice."

There's no reason why this can't happen in smaller families, of course. But it's like exercise.  Once upon a time, people got plenty of good exercise without having to think about it, because their daily lives were so active; now, our sedentary lives mean that this essential element of health and happiness requires deliberate action.

May the Let Grow Project help more families find the "child competence exercise program" that fits them best.

Posted by sursumcorda on Thursday, January 25, 2018 at 7:55 am | Edit
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I've been waiting over a year for the next book in the S. D. Smith's Green Ember series. As I said at the end of my review of Ember Falls,

Bring on the next bookBring on the next Kickstarter appeal. I'll be there#RabbitsWithSwords

The time has come. Ember Rising is finally in the home stretch. The book is written, artwork done, cover chosen ... there's just that little matter of publication. Once again they are funding this through Kickstarter, which I see as a great way to support a good author and play a small part in getting these wonderful books out of his head and into the world. 

I'm now officially an S. D. Smith fan. I don't support projects for the sake of the rewards, any more than I donate blood for the t-shirts and gift cards. But they're still nice to have, and this time I chose a level with rewards that duplicate things I already have—such as Kindle versions of the books—because it also gets me physical copies of all the books published so far. I had some, from previous campaigns, but gave them away, because why take up bookshelf space when you have the Kindle versions? Unless, of course, you have decided that you really like the books, and you're a true bibliophile, and still love the feel of a real book in your hands. And want to be able to lend the books to friends, or attract the eye of a visiting grandchild. That sort of thing. You can read a Kindle book, but you can love a physical book, and some books deserve to be loved. Hence my extensive collection of George MacDonald, J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Dorothy Sayers, Arthur Ransome, Miss Read....

Anyway, here's the Kickstarter link and accompanying video, should you want to join this exciting project.

Posted by sursumcorda on Wednesday, January 17, 2018 at 8:50 am | Edit
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This is the third time I've used that handy title for a post. It may be recursive.

The inspiration for this occasion is a lament from Village Diary, by Miss Read (Dora Jessie Saint). What is remarkable is not the sentiment, but that it was written in 1957.

The child today, used as he is to much praise and encouragement, finds it much more difficult to keep going as his task gets progressively long. Helping children to face up to a certain amount of drudgery, cheerfully and energetically, is one of the biggest problems that teachers, in these days of ubiquitous entertainment, have to face in our schools.

Posted by sursumcorda on Thursday, November 30, 2017 at 6:56 am | Edit
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Math, art, travel, photography. What's not to like?

For some reason, probably all of the above, this photo of "Seventeen parallel flowlines running between Flow Station 2 and Drill Site 3, Drill Site 9, Drill Site 16, Drill Site 17 and Endicott at the Prudhoe Bay Oil Field" really struck me this morning when I read David July's Mount Sutro post, The Linear Perspective Orthogonals. (The photo is from the Mount Sutro Gallery. License agreement here.)

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Posted by sursumcorda on Friday, October 27, 2017 at 6:06 am | Edit
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Google frequently suggests, through my phone, articles that it thinks I might find interesting. Most of the time it's not even close: Really, I don't want to know what President Trump tweeted, any more than I wanted to hear what President Obama said on Saturday Night Live. I consider both to be inappropriate venues for a President. But recently Google was whang in the gold, with its suggestion of the video below from musician Rick Beato.

Not the whole video, actually. Mostly it's about acquiring the musical skill known as perfect (absolute) pitch, and why Beato believes it must occur during a child's first two years of life. He makes a good case, but it's a controversial point, and he apparently takes no account of recent studies demonstrating neuroplasticity in adult brains—something previously considered to be impossible. In any case, Beato himself doesn't mean adults can't develop really, really good relative pitch and get quite close to absolute pitch; after all, he has created several YouTube videos on how to do just that. But babies ... they're still something special.

The part of the video I find most intriguing is from the 6 minute point to about the 13 minute point.

One thing that surprised me, although in retrospect it should not have, is that Beato's son's acquired his ability to discern and remember pitches well before he knew any note names. But this post is not really about perfect pitch. It's also not about me feeling guilty for the opportunities lost with our children, and certainly not about making anyone else feel guilty for their own omissions. We do what we can with what we know at the time, and regrets are part of every parenthood contract. My concerns now are more general and philosophical.

What strikes me here—and it confirms what I've learned from other sources—is that our teaching habits are upside down.

Apparently, what helps babies learn is complexity. Materials with high information content. Unexpected twists and turns. So what do we do? We simplify everything for children. We give them baby talk, controlled-vocabulary books, and three-chord songs, when their brains are craving adult conversations, complex language, Bach, and jazz. Sure, they learn anyway: Babies are so desperate to learn they'll use whatever tools they can get their hands on. But despite the best of intentions, we are building cages where we should be opening doors.

Posted by sursumcorda on Sunday, October 15, 2017 at 6:23 am | Edit
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Warning: This is an unabashed Grandma-brag—but it has a generally-applicable point as well.

One of my recurrent themes here is the truth that children can do and be so much more than we usually expect of them, from toddlers to teenagers. While our thirteen-year-old grandson's accomplishment is not on a par with commanding a captured naval vessel at the age of 12, nor with captaining a trading ship at 19, I'm quite proud of him—and his parents.

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In his right hand is an oak board, similar to that from which he made the object in his left hand, which, when painted, will replace the barber-pole coat rack at a local barbershop.

When he approached the barber, who had advertised for someone to do the work, it took guts and skill to negotiate the commission, not to mention to persuade the barber that a young teen could do the job.

It was an ambitious project, and required working with some heavy-duty power tools—radial arm saw, lathe, planer, and jointer—knowing not only their operation, but proper safety equipment and procedures as well. It was a time-consuming job that required patience, persistence, and focus. That's pretty impressive at an age when many consider him too young to fly unaccompanied on a commercial airplane, to own a knife, or even to stay home alone.

He can cook full meals, too, and I don't mean just heating things up in the microwave.

Is he some sort of genius?  Of course he is, he's my grandchild!

But seriously, what distinguishes him the most from many young people is opportunity. His parents didn't just turn him loose among those dangerous tools, unprepared. He's been helping in the workshop (and the kitchen) since he was a toddler. So have his siblings. The kind of training that produces skills of this sort requires patience and persistence on the part of parents, too—and even more so, a willingness to stand up for the right of children to fly in a society determined to clip their wings.

Posted by sursumcorda on Friday, October 13, 2017 at 10:16 am | Edit
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The article may be a little heavy-going, but I know some of my readers will love it. It's not often number theory makes the headlines: Mathematicians Discover Prime Conspiracy. Maybe it's the idea of conspiracy—that always sells.

Two mathematicians have uncovered a simple, previously unnoticed property of prime numbers — those numbers that are divisible only by 1 and themselves. Prime numbers, it seems, have decided preferences about the final digits of the primes that immediately follow them.

Among the first billion prime numbers, for instance, a prime ending in 9 is almost 65 percent more likely to be followed by a prime ending in 1 than another prime ending in 9. In a paper posted online today, Kannan Soundararajan and Robert Lemke Oliver of Stanford University present both numerical and theoretical evidence that prime numbers repel other would-be primes that end in the same digit, and have varied predilections for being followed by primes ending in the other possible final digits.

The discovery is the exact opposite of what most mathematicians would have predicted... Most mathematicians would have assumed ... that a prime should have an equal chance of being followed by a prime ending in 1, 3, 7 or 9.

Soundararajan was drawn to study consecutive primes after hearing a lecture at Stanford by the mathematician Tadashi Tokieda, of the University of Cambridge, in which he mentioned a counterintuitive property of coin-tossing: If Alice tosses a coin until she sees a head followed by a tail, and Bob tosses a coin until he sees two heads in a row, then on average, Alice will require four tosses while Bob will require six tosses (try this at home!), even though head-tail and head-head have an equal chance of appearing after two coin tosses.

Soundararajan wondered if similarly strange phenomena appear in other contexts. Since he has studied the primes for decades, he turned to them — and found something even stranger than he had bargained for.

What does this mean for ordinary mortals? Who knows? It may mean nothing ... or it may lead to the next big break in cryptography. With math, anything's possible.

Posted by sursumcorda on Tuesday, October 10, 2017 at 10:04 am | Edit
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"These are your presents, and they are tools, not toys." With these words, Father Christmas hands the Pevensie children the weapons with which they will battle evil in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis.

The very best toys are indeed tools. Children use them to craft the adults they will become. Here's an article from three years ago that illustrates how favoring boys over girls with a particular type of toy/tool (computers) led directly to the "gender gap" among coders that developed in the mid-1980's.

A lot of computing pioneers — the people who programmed the first digital computers — were women. And for decades, the number of women studying computer science was growing faster than the number of men. But in 1984, something changed. The percentage of women in computer science flattened, and then plunged, even as the share of women in other technical and professional fields kept rising.

Early personal computers weren't much more than toys. You could play pong or simple shooting games, maybe do some word processing. And these toys were marketed almost entirely to men and boys. ... This idea that computers are for boys became a narrative. It became the story we told ourselves about the computing revolution.

In the 1990s, researcher Jane Margolis interviewed hundreds of computer science students at Carnegie Mellon University, which had one of the top programs in the country. She found that families were much more likely to buy computers for boys than for girls — even when their girls were really interested in computers.

This was a big deal when those kids got to college. As personal computers became more common, computer science professors increasingly assumed that their students had grown up playing with computers at home.

The girls had fallen behind before they even set foot on campus.

"I remember this one time I asked a question and the professor stopped and looked at me and said, 'You should know that by now,' " she recalls. "And I thought 'I am never going to excel.' "

Nor is the phenomenon limited to computing. Upon taking her first course in optical engineering at the University of Rochester, our daughter found herself at the head of the class in the mathematics, but woefully behind her male classmates when it came to practical electronics. Our other daughter marvelled at her husband's facility with bicycle repair ... and his total lack of fear when tackling a new matter of practical handiwork. He had grown up working on such projects.

Not all boys do, but there's definitely a gender bias, perhaps because fathers are more likely to teach such work to their sons. Probably, too, girls are more susceptible to the fear of doing something wrong: it has long been known that when something goes wrong, women are likely to blame themselves, while men generally assign responsibility to the inanimate object. "I'm so stupid; I broke the dish" versus "The stupid dish slipped and broke."

Whatever the reasons, what is perfectly clear is that how our children play shapes their futures. By  no means am I advocating that parents should take still further control over their children's "free" time, as if preschool, after-school activities, computer camps, and travel soccer weren't enough of an intrusion. But perhaps every family's education budget should include plenty of toys that are actually high-quality tools—from art equipment and musical instruments to construction tools and electronics.

Everyone has an education category in the family budget, right? If not, you should; in the meantime, clue in the grandparents when they ask for gift suggestions.

Perhaps even more important than useful tool/toys would be to give our children the gift of freedom from the fear of making a mistake. Let them "waste" the expensive paints and paper; be prepared to see many repair jobs end with parts all over the floor before they learn to put anything back together; let them know by word and your example that making mistakes is an important part of learning. Our young neighbor became the go-to computer resource for our school district well before he graduated, because in middle school he had fearlessly crashed his home computer system over and over again, turning repeatedly to my husband for rescue—until he surpassed his teacher.

I wish I had been better at this when our children were young. With age comes wisdom, and what we lack in opportunity to implement our theories, we gain in opportunities to promote them.

Posted by sursumcorda on Tuesday, September 26, 2017 at 9:16 am | Edit
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The Great Courses presented a contest this morning on Facebook: You're stuck on an island with the full Great Courses library and a way to enjoy them. Would you go with engineering/ homesteading to try to get off the island, or would you take advantage of the free time and enjoy your favorite subject?

I love this sort of challenge, and you all know how I try to get double duty out of my writing when I can, so I'm posting my answer here as well:

This is a fantasy, so I will dispense with all the worries about necessities, assuming that food, water, shelter, and whatever else might be needful—such as the equipment, power, and connection necessary for enjoying the Great Courses—will be readily at hand. I will assume that I am stranded, but not lost, and that I can anticipate rescue in a year. I will call this my Sabbatical Year—a time for learning and growing in preparation for living a more full and useful life upon my return.

Even with no distractions, a year is not long enough to experience all the Great Courses, nor even all that I would be interested in. But it would be sufficient for acquiring a great education, and one of the blessings of this fantasy would be not feeling the pressure I do now to make the most of limited time and money. I would not rule out any subject, but would attempt to sample broadly. Who visits a buffet and eats of only one food?

Perhaps I would start with astronomy, because this would be my best opportunity ever to gaze at a sky unburdened by light pollution. Then something from biology, geology, and oceanography, so as to understand my surroundings better. At that point, I would probably be in the mood for some health and exercise courses, to supplement my exploratory walks around the island. Those walks would also be a great opportunity for pondering the questions raised in the philosophy and religion courses. I would choose math and physics to keep my brain sharp, and music, art, and literature for my soul. Interspersed with all that I'd probably include a foreign language or two, and some lighter courses like cooking and travel.

Wait. Is this really a fantasy? In degree, yes, but not in kind. In real life, I do have to be concerned with food, shelter, power, and above all, time. Distractions abound. But the choice is still mine: the Great Courses are available, and I can take my Sabbatical Year one hour at a time. Learning and growing in preparation for living a more full and useful life can still be mine, even here, even now.

Posted by sursumcorda on Thursday, August 31, 2017 at 10:34 am | Edit
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— Glad I learned how to sing harmony. Thanks, Mom, for all those choruses of "Found a Peanut" in three parts when I was a kid!

— We had fun singing in the car, didn't we, sweetie? "Found a Peanut," "Make New Friends,"  "Thou Poor Bird" .... happy memories.

— Lots more than these, too ... dozens and dozens ... you would sing the harmony and I would sing the melody ... it trained my mind for hearing the parts and eventually we could switch.

This exchange between a professional backup singer friend and her choir director mother inspired me to write about a question that has been troubling me: Where do today's young children learn to sing in harmony?  They are surrounded by music (of a sort, anyway) in a way my generation never was, whether by choice on their phones or by chance in the shopping mall. But it's passive; where do they learn to sing?

Many of my elementary school classrooms had pianos. (And bless the teachers, we occasionally were allowed to fiddle on them before and after school.) Sometimes the music teacher came in and sang with us, and sometimes the teacher herself led us in singing. Later, but still in elementary school, we could choose to participate in a chorus, where we learned two- and three-part harmony. By the time we were in eighth grade, there were enough boys whose voices had changed to make that four-part.

Does that sound like a swanky private school to you?  It was actually four different public schools in a very small town in upstate New York. (Even back then districts were fond of moving students around.)

My own children had an absolutely fantastic music teacher in elementary school, and she gave them many experiences I never dreamed of. But when it comes to harmony, I had the better deal. They also had a far more amazing high school chorus experience than I did, but I'm talking about younger children: few high school students chose chorus as an option, fewer still if they had not had a great musical experience earlier on.

Our children also gained an incomparable musical education in church, thanks to a choir director who was both a great musician and a great teacher. But for congregational singing, I was much better off than children in most churches since then.

The church we attended when I was young was not, generally, an enlightening experience, and I was glad when we stopped going and I had my Sunday mornings free. But it, too, deserves a lot of credit in my musical education. We sang from the wonderful red Hymnbook published by a group of Reformed and Presbyterian denominations, a hymnbook complete with time and key signatures and four-part harmony for every hymn. Congregational singing was not as peaked in those days as it often is today, and that experience was foundational for my musical life.

Granted, I'm shy enough that I didn't feel at all secure in my singing until after many years of choir experience, and learning to improvise harmony came almost too late. I wish I'd learned more as a child. But I'm beginning to be convinced that, between school and church, I gained a better musical foundation in my tiny New York town than most children receive today.

What has been your musical experience?  Convince me that I'm wrong!

Posted by sursumcorda on Wednesday, July 26, 2017 at 6:38 am | Edit
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altThe Royal Road to Romance by Richard Halliburton (Garden City Publishing, 1925)

Richard Halliburton was the Rick Steves of the early 20th century—with a few minor differences, such as not travelling with a camera crew, constantly putting himself into physical danger, and showing a marked disdain for societal conventions such as paying train fares.

Halliburton graduated from Princeton in 1921, the year my father was born. Scorning a more conventional life, he and a friend signed on to a ship, as ordinary seamen, and worked their way to Europe. The Royal Road to Romance is an enjoyable narrative of Halliburton's adventures, with and without companions, tramping all over Europe; slogging through the jungles of Southeast Asia; venturing into forbidden Afghanistan; climbing Mt. Fuji, solo, in the dead of winter; supporting himself by great thrift, petty theft, and articles occasionally mailed home to magazines eager to appease the American appetite for travel stories.

This is travel, and this is adventure, but it's also chock-full of history and geography, made all the more interesting because it was written when the world's geography and politics were vastly different from today's. Imagine, too, a world in which Halliburton managed to pay homage to many of his favorite sites, now tourist meccas, from the fortifications on Gibraltar to the Taj Mahal to Angkor Wat to the Great Pyramid of Cheops—up close and personal, for hours, entirely in solitude.

The Royal Road to Romance came to my bookshelves from my father's library, along with two other Halliburton books, The Glorious Adventure and New Worlds to Conquer. I'm looking forward to more of his well-written and fascinating stories.

Halliburton's life is not one to be emulated—he died at 39 attempting to cross the Pacific in a Chinese junk—and his stories have a light-hearted amorality about them that can be a little disconcerting, as can the racial attitudes and language of the time. But understood in context, I think this would be a good book for older grandchildren—as long as they don't develop a taste for schwarzfahren.


The least commonplace of the routes [from Peking to Japan], in fact, the forbidden, abandoned route for tourists, was through northern Manchuria to Harbin, thence to Vladivostok by the Trans-Siberian and across the Japanese Sea. With my tiger's tooth no longer protecting me, with an arctic winter at hand, with a Chinese bandit army in control of one-half the railroad and the officious Bolsheviks the other, only a determined seeker after novelty would have cared to travel this route. Its disadvantages were so numerous, the possibility of being delayed and harassed so great, my enthusiasm was only half-hearted when I began to make practical investigation. However, when the American and Bolshevik authorities refused point-blank to give me a passport, my ardor for Siberia—heretofore a very negligible quantity—burst forth in a holy flame, and with a determination fired by hatred of this injustice I vowed that now I would go, and defied all the officials in Asia to stop me.

Posted by sursumcorda on Tuesday, June 6, 2017 at 9:50 am | Edit
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altJim Bridger: Mountain Man by Stanley Vestal (University of Nebraska Press, 1970; originally published 1946)

I read this book, not only because of my 95 by 65 project's goal of reading 26 existing, unread books from my bookshelves, but because I remembered Jim Bridger from Porter's stories of his 1973 vagabond trip across the United States. He was particularly interested in Yellowstone National Park, which Bridger was one of the first white men to explore, and "Jim Bridger stories" were an enjoyable part of his research.

Consequently, I read this book with an eye towards its possible use as an introduction for our homeschooled grandchildren to the history and geography of that part of the country. Although the book is more serious and adult than I was expecting, it still might serve that purpose. It certainly was enjoyable for me to read.

On the other hand, I'm having trouble figuring out what age group the author intended as his audience. The text switches, often with apparent randomness, between straight narration and narration in what I assume to be mid-19th century Mountain Man vernacular. After a while, I became accustomed to the language, but to me this attempt to add color to the story only made it feel as if it were intended for a young audience. On the other hand, the "adult" situations and language don't commend the book to children. While certainly not graphic by today's standards, one must wade through several "hells" and one "nigger" plus some unpleasant descriptions of carousing—and of atrocities. And if the term "Indians" offends you when used in referring to Native Americans, you will cringe every time at the Mountain Man talk, in which they are always "Injuns," more often than not "cussed Injuns."

On the other hand, that was the way of the Wild, Wild West, and you're not going to get a truthful history of the time and place without some of it. And truth is what impresses me most about this book. Written in 1946, the tales are blessedly free of the modern myth that Native Americans were innocent and righteous until the white men came and ruined everything. On the other hand, it is more than usually honest for the time about the stupidity and cruelty of the whites. In addition to being a well-researched biography of Jim Bridger, discerning the man in the mythos that grew up around him, the book appears to be a fair depiction of the complex clash of Indian, explorer, pioneer, and military cultures.

I think Jim Bridger: Mountain Man would be an excellent addition to any homeschool study of American history—but parents should read it first.

 


 

The Oregon Trail following up the Platte through the buffalo country had frightened the game away. And, when a hundred thousand forty-niners came swarming over that trail, heading for California goldfields, the Indians became thoroughly alarmed, suspicious, and resentful. Buffalo would not cross that broad beaten "medicine road" which cut the Plains in two. After 1850 there were two herds instead of one: the Buffalo North and the Buffalo South. The coming of the white man had turned that great pasture along the Platte into a barren desert.

Neither the passing white man nor the starving Indian saw anything to admire in the other. The whites passed through too quickly to discover how false their notion of the Plains Indian was—the notion which they had brought from the Dark and Bloody Ground, the notion that every Indian was a treacherous thief and murderer, thirsting for the blood of every stranger and delighting in torture of the helpless.

The Indian hunter, on the other hand, whose most necessary virtues were courage, generosity, and fortitude, could only despise the caution, thrift, and sharp practice of the Yankees as the meanest vices; each being in his eyes simply a species of cowardice.

Because of this dislike and misunderstanding on both sides, there was constant friction and increasing distrust. But the Plains Indian had no newspapers to state his case, and so, by 1851, had been given a thoroughly bad name in the States.

There was constant enmity between Jim Bridger and the Mormon settlers, particularly their leader, Brigham Young.  This excerpt also shows the integration of plain text and Mountain Man vernacular.

Some would have it that all the trouble between these two men originated in a woman's spite. These persons would have it that, after Bridger's Ute wife died in childbirth, July 4, 1849, Jim married a Mormon woman, that they fell out and parted, and that her spiteful, whispering tongue was the source of all the evil rumors about Bridger current among the Saints.

This story hardly fits Bridger's known circumstances, tastes, and habits. He had as much sense as any Mountain Man alive—and hardly any Mountain Man alive was fool enough to wed a fofurraw white gal from the settlements. Pale as a ghost, thin as a rail, and green as grass, a white gal was no good in camp or on the trail. Moreover, Mountain Men had lived so long among the pesky redskins that their idea of female beauty war an Injun idee, and you can lay to that. Bridger sincerely respected his Injun women, treated them as wives, and adored his halfbreed children. And in those days, even if he had wanted to wed a white gal—would she have had him?

Posted by sursumcorda on Saturday, June 3, 2017 at 7:58 am | Edit
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I went to the doctor for a physical the other day. To be clear, I like my doctor and think that we finally understand each other reasonably well. But as part of the preliminaries, a nurse came into the room and started asking questions.

Nurse: Are you feeling depressed?

Me: No, but if I were, I wouldn't tell YOU.

NurseHave you lost anything important to you in the past year?

Me: Well, I mislaid my cell phone for a few minutes, but I found it again.

NurseHave you....

Me (interrupting): Look, just take my vitals and let me see the doctorI came here for a physical, not a mental.

No, that's not what I said. I was meek and compliant, if somewhat confused by her sudden concern for my mental health. I make a point of not antagonizing someone who will later be jabbing a needle into my arm. But it's what I wish I could have said.

I like to think of the doctor-patient relationship as one in which I pay the doctor—with or without an insurance company proxy—to do for me what I cannot do for myself, because of his knowledge (medical school and experience), and his ability to access certain services which I cannot (medical tests, prescription drugs). More and more, however, I find the medical establishment taking on a paternal, authoritarian role, as well as poking and prodding into areas not part of the unspoken contract. For example:

  • Psychological questions such as the above. A simple, "Do you have any other concerns?" should cover anything he thinks a physical exam might miss.
  • Insisting that adolescent children be examined without a parent present. The only reason they want to do that is to ask the children questions they may not feel comfortable answering, and given the doctor's position of authority and respect, to my mind this borders on abuse. Schools do the same; I'll get to that later.
  • Asking a young child if anyone smokes in his house, as happened to my nephew. If the child has any breathing issues, this is a right and proper question to ask, but of the parent. Not of the child.

Doctors, nurses, and other medical personnel: I appreciate your knowledge, your experience, your respectful and friendly manner, and your willingness to work with me for the improvement of my family's health. I hope you appreciate my cooperation, respect, and knowledgeable concern about health matters. But I need a partner in health, not a nosy nanny.

That incident with the medical profession reminded me of my greater concern: education. I won't go into all my experiences with the educational system—as student, parent, aunt, friend, and volunteer—but I long ago came to the conclusion that the school system, especially but not exclusively the public schools, is an even greater nosy nanny than the medical establishment.

Teachers, principals, school psychologists, and others from the educational system: I appreciate your skills, your experience, and your often genuine concern for my children. I hope you appreciate my respect, volunteerism, and knowledgeable concern for my children's education. But my family needs a partner in education, not a nanny.

  • Teach my child important academic subjects. (This includes the arts, in case you think I mean only the 3R's.)
  • Do not ask about his private life or the lives of his family members.
  • Do not give him psychological or medical exams.
  • Do not try to teach him ethics or moral behavior. Teach the rules of proper classroom behavior, by all means, but leave questions like, "When do you think it's okay to lie?" to the family—and to philosophy classes. Demonstrate ethical behavior by your own example, please—but not as part of the curriculum.
  • Leave my child's feelings, emotions, and beliefs alone. They are his, and pressure on the part of an authority figure to reveal them is abusive.
  • Don't feed my child. I will feed him breakfast and dinner, and send a bag lunch to school with him. It's none of your business whether the bag contains sprouted wheat bread with organic carrots and hummus, or McDonald's drive-thru fare, or a fluffernutter sandwich and Doritos.
  • Don't be a babysitter. If my child is not actively learning, send him home. Contrary to what you apparently expect, I do not rejoice when the big yellow bus swallows him up in the morning, nor is my first thought when school vacation approaches, "What am I going to do with him under foot all day?"

If you've made it this far without giving up on me as hopelessly out of sync with modern society, let me assure you that I realize there are many families who welcome the school services I despise, and I can see why the public schools are considered a reasonable venue for providing them. But if we're going to do that, they really need to be provided on an opt-in, not an opt-out basis, just as you should be able to choose to receive special offers (known to many of us as junk mail) when you sign up for something, but the default situation avoids them.

By all means, offer before-school breakfast to students who need it, but don't make my child sit on the bus while waiting for the classroom doors to open. Stop using incentives and pressure to try to attain 100% participation in your school lunch program. Let an optometrist come in to the school and offer free eye exams, but get parental permission first. (I mean real, specific, informed permission, not a general release signed at the beginning of the year and without which the child can't attend school!) Make it very clear to the children that they do not have to answer questions that make them feel uncomfortable (math problems excepted); better yet, don't ask such questions in the first place. Provide counselling for individuals or groups if the parents assent, but stop the practice of sending whole classrooms to such sessions, especially without parental knowledge and informed consent.

I make it sound as if we had a terrible school experience, and that was not the case. Most teachers and administrators were helpful and respectful, even if they did consider us weird. But it took much knowledge, time, and attention than most parents are able to give, to craft a school experience remotely serving our family's needs. Even so, a lot slipped through our hands, either because we didn't know what was going on, or because we had to choose our battles.

All too often, "partnership in education/medicine" means that we are supposed to endorse and enforce whatever the teachers/doctors decree. That is no partnership, and it is unacceptable. As long as the medical and educational establishments expect such to be the case, they should not be surprised to find people—and mostly bright, thoughtful folks they should want to be part of the mainstream—turning more and more to alternatives.

Since money changes hands in the transaction, it's tempting to consider doctors and teachers as our servants, and I'm sure their specialized training tempts them to view themselves as our masters. In the long run, however, a good, working partnership can achieve much more.

Posted by sursumcorda on Friday, May 26, 2017 at 11:20 am | Edit
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When she was in fifth grade, Heather won her school's spelling bee. It was a significant accomplishment—the competition was stiff—and we were proud of her.

Imagine how Edith Fuller's parents feel. The homeschooled five-year-old from Oklahama won the regional championship spelling bee and on May 30 will be competing in Scripps National Spelling Bee in Washington, DC. The contest is for children through eighth grade. Here she is in action.

This Slate article takes a positive, if somewhat mocking tone, but asks, Why?

Spelling bees have a certain poignancy that, say, a science fair lacks. Being a good speller is like having beautiful handwriting or being an excellent seamstress: It’s impressive, but it’s almost totally unnecessary for most 21st-century adults. If STEM is the future, spelling feels like the past.

To which I must respond, Why basketball? Why golf? Why the Olympics? If the significance of spelling bees, and of spelling as a skill, are questioned "in the age of spell-check," what's the point of knowing knowing how to throw a javelin or to jump long and high in these days when we don't need to hunt for our food and escape cave bears?

It's possible to overdo anything, of course, and not everyone will find it worthwhile to attain Olympic or spelling bee champion status. But developing the mind and body is its own justification.

Posted by sursumcorda on Saturday, April 8, 2017 at 6:40 am | Edit
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